Kiera Butler

Kiera Butler

Senior Editor

Kiera answers your green questions every week in her Econundrums column. She was a hypochondriac even before she started researching germ warfare.

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Kiera has written about the environment, arts and culture, and more for Columbia Journalism Review, Orion, Audubon, OnEarth, Plenty, and the Utne Reader. She lives in Berkeley and recently planted 30 onions in her backyard.

No Justice In Climate Change

| Thu Nov. 8, 2007 4:00 PM EST

Global-warming-maps_hi-res-sm.jpgWhen it comes to global warming, discussions tend to get real abstract, real fast. How will climbing temperatures actually affect you? Well, it depends where you live—and how rich you are (or aren't). According to a forthcoming study, climate change will disproportionately impact the world's poor.

Jonathan Patz, a professor of public health and the environment at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is one of the study's lead authors (and also an IPCC author). Patz says it's time for those of us in the gas-guzzling-est of countries to come to terms with the painful (and inconvenient) truth: Our lifestyle is bad news for the developing world—and we've got an ethical problem on our hands. In a UW-Madison press release, Patz says:

If energy demand drives up the price of corn, for example, this can inflict undue burden on poor or malnourished populations or shift agricultural areas away from other traditional food crops.

And then there are the health issues:

There are many serious diseases that are sensitive to climate, and as earth's climate changes, so too can the range and transmission of such diseases....Many of these climate-sensitive diseases, such as malaria, malnutrition, and diarrhea, affect children.

This isn't the first time someone has pointed out the unfairness of climate change. Among others, Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier has noted that her people's carbon output is a tiny fraction of the U.S.'s, yet global warming is already threatening the Inuit way of life. The IPCC has also predicted that poor people—particularly those in Africa—will be hardest hit by climate change.

To read the study, you'll have to wait till next week, when it will be published in the journal EcoHealth, but you can already check out these cool maps—one shows countries' relative carbon outputs, while the other shows their vulnerability to the effects of climate change.

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Wolf Controversy Resurfaces

| Wed Nov. 7, 2007 5:41 PM EST

wolvesnew.jpgA few years ago, a 22-year-old student was killed in the wilds of Saskatchewan, and evidence suggested that wild wolves were the culprits. The incident was widely reported in the media, since there had never before been a documented case of death-by-wolves in North America. Last week, the coroner's inquest finally finished, and the wolves were found guilty. But some wildlife experts still have their doubts. Goat, the blog over at High Country News, has a good summary of the controversy.

The debate about the Saskatchewan incident reminds us that we've never had an easy relationship with wolves in North America. They loom large in our mythology—both Native American and European—and they've come to represent a truly wild part of our landscape. We tend to romanticize this wildness, casting wolves either as mystical beasts or angry killers. (And some of us want them in our bedrooms—WTF?)

Amidst all the T-shirts, sheet sets, and other wolf propaganda, we tend to forget that wolves are, um, actual wild animals, too. During the westward expansion, we hunted so many gray wolves that the species was nearly extinct. But thanks to protection under the Endangered Species Act and a reintroduction program, these days, wolves have made a comeback. In 2004, gray wolf populations in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and parts of other states around the Great Lakes were officially removed from the federal list of endangered species. Sizable wolf populations in the Rocky Mountains have some people cheering and others up in arms, literally. Ranchers in the Rockies have trouble protecting their sheep, and a few hunters have reported that their dogs have been attacked, too. Right now, wolves in the Rockies are listed as "non-essential experimental populations," and the EPA is currently considering revising the wolf rules for these areas.

High Country News points out that the decision in the Saskatchewan case "bolsters those who continue to oppose wolves in the West." It'll be interesting to see how everyone reacts—the mystical wolf T-shirt crowd and the angry wolf T-shirt crowd alike.


Expect Less PVC at Target

| Tue Nov. 6, 2007 5:09 PM EST

target.jpgRetail giant Target has announced plans to reduce its use of PVC (polyvinyl chloride), particularly in goods geared toward children, like bibs and lunchboxes. PVC isn't good for anyone (the EPA says it can cause a whole mess of health problems, including cancer), but it's especially bad for kids, since it contains lead.

The company's goal is to offer PVC alternatives to most toys by fall of 2008. Wal-Mart has promised to completely eliminate PVC products by 2009.

This trend of mega-retailer self awareness is good news, especially considering the fact that Consumer Product Safety Commission officials are off gallivanting around the world on the toy industry's dime.

New Species in Aleutian Islands

| Mon Nov. 5, 2007 3:03 PM EST

anemone.jpg

Photo courtesy of Stephen Jewett, University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

Deep in the frigid waters of the Aleutian islands, scientists have discovered three new species—two kinds of sea anemones that drift along with ocean currents (other anemones tend to stay put in one place) and a ten-foot-long brown kelp that grows near ocean vents. Scientists believe that the new kelp might be part of a new seaweed genus or family. Check out a photo gallery of the newbies (and other Aleutian critters) here.

Stretching out about 1,200 miles between Alaska and the Kamchatka Peninsula, the Aleutian islands are among the most remote land masses in the world. Last year, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to ban the destructive practice of bottom trawling in more than 300,000 square miles off Alaska's coast, which is great news for the Aleutians. But the trawling ban doesn't solve the problem of pollution—researchers have found traces of industrial chemicals in the area, as well as unexploded ordinance leftover from WWII.

For an insider's perspective on conservation in this corner of the world, check out this interview with Erin McKittrick and Bretwood "Hig" Higman, a couple in the midst of a 4,000 mile hiking/rafting/skiing journey from Seattle up into the Aleutians.

Toxic FEMA Trailers

| Thu Nov. 1, 2007 1:22 PM EDT

fematrailerssmall.jpgTalk about adding insult to injury. It's been more than two years since Hurricane Katrina forced Gulf Coast residents out of their homes, and tens of thousands of them are still living in FEMA trailers today. As if that weren't bad enough, those trailers might be making people sick. FEMA trailer residents—especially kids—have been complaining of breathing problems, headaches, rashes, and allergies.

The EPA has tested trailers for formaldehyde—but strangely, only the empty ones. This led to a showdown between Rep. Henry Waxman (D-CA) and FEMA Director David Paulison at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee federal hearing last summer:

"Did you test any other occupied trailers?" Waxman asked Paulison.
"We did not test occupied trailers," Paulson replied. "We went along with the advice that we received from EPA and CDC that if we ventilated the trailers that would reduce the formaldehyde issue."
Waxman pressed on, asking Paulison if FEMA tested to see whether ventilating the trailers in fact reduced formaldehyde levels. Paulison said that it did reduce levels in the empty trailers.
But Waxman interrupted the response, repeating that FEMA tests were conducted only on empty trailers with blowing fans, open windows and constant air conditioning.

Since the summer, there's been an outcry about the formaldehyde problem. The press has picked up the story, and at least one blog about toxic trailers exists.

In its "For the Record" release about formaldehyde, FEMA recommends that residents "increase ventilation," "keep indoor temperatures cool," and "keep the humidity low." Easy as pie. Unless, of course, you happen to live in cramped quarters in a subtropical climate.

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