2009 - %3, July

Eco-news Roundup: Thursday July 9

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Blue Marblish stories from our other blogs you might have missed.

Healthcare Pitfalls: A public plan might mean cuts for those with severe health problems.

411 on G8: World leaders at G8 summit fail to agree on climate change goals.

Placebo Effect: There are lots of treatments for cancer, but not a lot of data on results.

Justice, Iranian Style: Torture and interrogations are now common, say sources.

You Can't Catch Black: Inner-city kids booted out of pool because white guests were scared.

Numerical Oddity: Today the clock will strike 12:34:56... on 7/8/9.

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Positive Feedback in the Amazon

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 10:31 PM PDT

One of the most alarming aspects of climate change is the existence of positive feedback loops.  For example, as polar ice melts, less sunlight is reflected back into space, thus heating up the ocean and causing more ice to melt.  Rinse and repeat.  Another one: warming causes the permafrost in the Siberian tundra to melt, releasing CO2 into the atmosphere, thus warming the earth and causing yet more tundra to melt.

Here's still another, from the latest issue of the Washington Monthly.  Oliver Phillips, a professor of geography at the University of Leeds, has studied a 2005 drought in the Amazon rainforest and come to a frightening conclusion:

In normal years the Amazon alone absorbs three billion tons of carbon....But during the 2005 drought, this process was reversed, and the Amazon gave off two billion tons of carbon instead, creating an additional five billion tons of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere. That’s more than the total annual emissions of Europe and Japan combined.

....Significantly, Phillips [] found that the 2005 drought was not the result of El Niño, the cause of previous smaller episodes, but of a regional rise in sea temperatures — one of the expected early signs of global warming. Taken together, these findings suggest that climate change could trigger the worst kind of vicious cycle, with climbing temperatures causing the rainforests to dry out and give off massive quantities of greenhouse gases, which in turn causes the planet to warm more rapidly — a dynamic with harrowing implications.

Read the whole thing for more.  The Monthly's entire special package on tropical deforestation is here.

Lying to Congress

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 10:14 PM PDT

Congressional Quarterly reports:

CIA Director Leon Panetta told the House Intelligence Committee [on June 24] that the agency had misled and “concealed significant actions from all members of Congress” dating back to 2001 and continuing until late June, according to a letter from seven Democrats on the panel.

Continuing until late June?  As in, two weeks ago?  As in, right up to the time that Panetta testified before the committee?

Wow.  You'd think even Republicans might be a wee bit upset about this.  But no.  You see, a couple of months ago Nancy Pelosi said the CIA misled her about waterboarding, and if Republicans admit the CIA has lied to Congress it might hinder their efforts to attack her:

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes , D-Texas, this week sent to the panel’s top Republican, Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, a letter saying new information led him to conclude that the CIA has misled and at least once “affirmatively lied to” the committee. Republicans disputed its contents and have said that the Democrats were trying to protect Pelosi.

....Republicans said it was true, as Reyes wrote in his letter, that the classified subject about which the committee was notified was a subject of bipartisan concern. But they did not endorse Reyes’ conclusions that the CIA had lied....[Hoekstra] said Democrats wanted to help validate Pelosi’s prior claims by establishing other occasions in which the CIA may have misled Congress.

....Reyes expressed surprise at the Republicans’ remarks about whether the controversy was legitimate and whether Democrats were trying to protect their leader, saying simply, “They know better.”

Sure, they know better.  But what's that compared to the opportunity to keep a minor partisan squabble alive?

More Human Rights Allegations Against Mexican Army

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 9:10 PM PDT

If you're a MoJo reader, you're already aware that the Mexican army is committing gross human-rights abuses under the guise of fighting the cartels. Chuck Bowden's amazing profile of a Mexican journalist forced to flee to the US and seek asylum put it best:

There are two Mexicos.

There is the one reported by the US press, a place where the Mexican president is fighting a valiant war on drugs, aided by the Mexican Army and the Mérida Initiative, the $1.4 billion in aid the United States has committed to the cause. This Mexico has newspapers, courts, laws, and is seen by the United States government as a sister republic.

It does not exist.

There is a second Mexico where the war is for drugs, where the police and the military fight for their share of drug profits, where the press is restrained by the murder of reporters and feasts on a steady diet of bribes, and where the line between the government and the drug world has never existed.

Today, Steve Fainaru and William Booth of the Washington Post have come out with a fine piece rounding up other stories of horrific treatment at the hands of the Mexican Army:

Giant Robot Update

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 3:37 PM PDT

Last week I went to see Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen.  I did this because the movie had gotten such mind-bogglingly bad reviews that I was curious to see if anything could really be that bad.  Unfortunately, the sound system in the theater kept cutting in and out, and after about 45 minutes I finally gave up and asked for my money back.  Sadly, the only thing I had learned up to that point was that I had no idea what was going on since I never saw the first Transformers movie.

No matter, though.  Via the WaPo's domestic and robot affairs blog, Rob Bricken's Transformers FAQ explains it all and is probably a lot more entertaining than the movie itself.  Also shorter and cheaper.

Quote of the Day

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 2:55 PM PDT

From Fox News anchor Jon Scott, flailing around trying to describe my employer:

There's a recent article in Mother Jones magazine, not exacty a....uh....magazine that is....what....how to put it?....against lightening up on marijuana laws....

Nice save, Jon!  This was just before quoting an excerpt from my marijuana piece — and needless to say, they chose practically the only paragraph in the entire story that had much of anything negative to say about marijuana legalization.  But I guess all PR is good PR as long they spell my name right, isn't it?  And they did spell my name right....

UPDATE: Hmmm.  Bad day for Fox anchors.  Apparently Brian Kilmeade is upset because in America "we keep marrying other species and other ethnics."

Other species?

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Old Forests Cool the World

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 2:48 PM PDT

The practice of reducing forest fuels to lessen the chances of catastrophic fire undercuts a more vital service performed by old woodlands: the sequestration of carbon to offset global warming.

According to a new study in Ecological Applications, even if forestry biofuels were used in an optimal manner to produce electricity or make cellulosic ethanol there would still be a net loss of carbon sequestration in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for at least 100 years—and probably much longer.

Here's what the study found: In a Coast Range forest, if you remove solid woody biofuels to reduce fire risks and then use them for fuel, you need 169 years before you reach a break-even point in carbon sequestration. If you use the same woody materials for the inefficient production of cellulosic ethanol, you need 339 years to break even.

Prior to this study, it was widely believed that using biofuels to produce energy would offset the carbon emissions from this process. But these data negate that hypothesis.

Instead, the authors conclude, we should forego fuel reduction treatments to enable forest ecosystems to provide maximal amelioration of atmospheric CO2 over the next 100 years.

The hypothetical benefits of fuel reduction went up in flames when the fossil fuel costs of transportation, fuel for thinning, and other energy expenditures, was factored in. With those calculations, forestry biofuels recovered only 60 to 65 percent of the energy they cost. Producing cellulosic ethanol recovered as little as 35 percent.

The bottom line: Transforming old existing forests into anything other than old existing forests produces a net loss in carbon sequestration.

Interesting note: Another study recently concluded that the forests of Oregon and northern California, if managed exclusively for carbon sequestration, could double or even triple the amount of sequestration in many areas.

Not considered in this study: How global warming might affect the increase of catastrophic fire. However, the authors write that fire severity in many forests may be more a function of severe weather rather than fuel accumulation. Therefore fuel reduction efforts may be of only limited effectiveness, even in a hotter future.

So what'll it be—more fuel or a more stable world?
 

Racist Outrage of the Day (Year?)

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 1:42 PM PDT

Blood, prepare to boil. According to the NBC affliate in Philadelphia, the Valley Swim Club booted a day camp of inner city kids—which had paid $1900 for summer swimming rights—after members refused to swim with black kids. Really.

"I heard this lady, she was like, 'Uh, what are all these black kids doing here?' She's like, 'I'm scared they might do something to my child,'" said camper Dymire Baylor....

"When the minority children got in the pool all of the Caucasian children immediately exited the pool," Horace Gibson, parent of a day camp child, wrote in an email. "The pool attendants came and told the black children that they did not allow minorities in the club and needed the children to leave immediately."

The next day the club told the camp director that the camp's membership was being suspended and their money would be refunded....


The explanation they got was either dishearteningly honest or poorly worded.
 
"There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club," John Duesler, President of The Valley Swim Club said in a statement.

In a statement! Wow. The mind reels. First at the racism. And then at the PR bungling. When I posted this to Facebook, a got a note from a (white) friend who grew up in Philly. It didn't surprise him, he said; racism in that 'burb is entrenched. Worth noting that the comments on the NBC site, many of which were horrifc a hour ago, have been disabled.

You can follow this link to let Valley know what you think.

 Update: Senator Arlen Specter has said he'll investigate. And the nice people at Girard College, "a private Philadelphia boarding school for children who live in low-income and single parent homes," have offered their pool. (H/T Tim Dickinson via FB)

The Dodd Squad Fires Back

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 1:42 PM PDT

The Chris-Dodd-is-no-K-Street-pawn campaign is ramping up. I just received an email from Colleen Flanagan, communications director for the Connecticut Democratic Party. She'd seen my blog item commenting on today's Roll Call story on the senator's recent efforts to "distance himself from K Street" and wanted to direct my attention to a press release the party issued earlier today defending Dodd's record.

It’s tough being a lobbyist in Washington these days, and Senator Chris Dodd isn’t making it any easier. Yet another story today in the DC press features unnamed lobbyists, who will speak only on the condition of anonymity, whining that they aren’t getting their way with the Banking Committee Chairman and Senator Kennedy’s top deputy on the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee.

The release goes on to list a series of quotes in which lobbyists whine that Dodd's shutting them out and ends with a quote from Flanagan:

“It speaks volumes that these industry insiders aren’t willing to be named, yet they continue to peddle their stories to anyone who will listen, trying to gain sympathy and a leg up on these critical legislative measures. The only sympathy these unnamed sources deserve to get is that they sound so silly in article after article complaining that Main Street has Dodd’s ear and not K Street.”

G-8 Summit: The Battle of East vs. West

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 1:38 PM PDT

As the world's most powerful leaders convene in L'Aquila, Italy for the largest G-8 summit ever, one wonders, will anything actually be accomplished?

The Associated Press reported that many of the leaders arrived to the summit in electric cars. (We presume that for security purposes, Obama arrived in a traditional American-made hyper-bulletproof gas guzzler.)

This begs the question, will America take the lead in initiating global change?

As Kevin Drum reported earlier:

The basic problem isn't the 80% reduction by 2050, which is supported by both Obama and congressional Democrats.  The problem is the 2020 goal.  Right now, the Waxman-Markey climate bill requires a 17% cut by 2020, but that's from a baseline of 2005.  Depending on how you crunch the numbers, that works out to a cut of only 0-4% from 1990 levels.
The Europeans, conversely, want to see a 20% cut from 1990 levels by 2020.  Obama, presumably, sees no chance at all of getting Congress to agree to that, and the Europeans aren't willing to compromise their more stringent goals.  So for now, no agreement.  And Copenhagen is only five months away.