Blue Marble - January 2007

Stem Cell Progress Left Up to the States

| Mon Jan. 29, 2007 12:30 PM EST

The House may have passed a bill calling for an end to the federal ban on new embryonic stem cell research lines, but we're still a long way from dollars coming down from the feds (assuming the bill survives a veto). Thus more and more states are continuing to take action, proposing millions to get the research moving, creating what is essentially de facto foundations for research that should be the domain of the National Institutes of Health. Currently, New Jersey, California, Maryland and Connecticut, Maryland and Illinois all mandate state spending to support ESCR (though to date only two, New Jersey and Illinois, have state-funded research in the works). We can now add three more states tp the list of those that could proactively fund this voter-supported research:

Iowa - On Thursday Gov. Chet Culver (D) called on the state Legislature to lift the state's five-year-old ban on a type of embryonic stem cell research called somatic nuclear transfer and proposed the construction of a $12.5 million Center for Regenerative Medicine.

Florida- On Tuesday state rep. Franklin Sands (D) filed a bill that would require the state to provide at least $20 million annually over the next 10 years for research using human embryonic stem cells, amniotic fluid-derived stem cells and adult stem cells.

New Mexico- Gov. (and presidential hopeful) Bill Richardson (D) submitted a state budget to his legislature earlier this month that proposes providing $10 million over three years on facilities, equipment, training and staffing for an adult and embryonic stem cell research center at the University of New Mexico Health Sciences Center.

Good. But considering how long it has taken to get these programs off the ground -- California's voter-approved $3 billion initiative passed in 2004 is still wrapped up in court -- it's a little like moving sand with a thimble while the shovel sits in Executive lockdown.

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Lower Breast Cancer Rates May Not Mean Less Cancer

| Fri Jan. 26, 2007 7:12 PM EST

According to a report released today by the CDC, fully 1.1 million fewer women aged 40 and over had mammograms last year than in 2000. This decline might explain, in part, the recent drop in breast cancer rates in the U.S., meaning rates might not actually be going down. Fewer diagnoses does not mean fewer cases, just fewer known cases. So, while we have seen detection rates decrease, deaths from breast cancer could increase, the report says.

The reason for the drop is unclear but the CDC researchers point to a couple of disturbing trends that move beyond the taking-it-for-granted explanation:

"One study has indicated that breast-imaging facilities face challenges such as shortages of key personnel, malpractice concerns and financial constraints."

"Because the number of U.S. women aged more than 40 years increased by more than 24 million during 1990 to 2000, the number of available facilities and trained breast specialists might not be sufficient to meet the needs of the population, whose overall median age continues to increase."

This feels wrong. Wrong, not in the incorrect sense, but wrong in the how can there not-be-enough-facilities-for-such-basic-needs sense. And let's get some more "breast specialists" trained, this is a must people.

The report did not look at mammography rates by age, geographic region or socioeconomic status though the researchers say they do plan on examining whether the decrease in mammography rates is concentrated among certain groups, such as the poor and uninsured.

Each year, more than 200,000 women in the U.S. are diagnosed with breast cancer and about 40,000 die from the disease. According to the report, screening might reduce breast cancer mortality by 20% to 35% among women ages 50 to 69 and by 20% among women ages 40 to 49.

-- Elizabeth Gettelman

The Thirteenth Tipping Point Begins

| Fri Jan. 26, 2007 2:43 PM EST

Climate change is in the air. And not just the warming kind. A fresh breeze blows from Washington DC as Congress finally declares an interest in global warming. The barometer climbs a notch as CEOs urge Bush to address the issues now. The heavy, foggy, dark, oppressive weather stagnating in place for the past six years is finally yielding to new air destined to dismantle the Big Low from the top down. We may see sunshine yet. By Independence Day, if Speaker Pelosi has her way.

Yet no matter what changes transpire in government or industry, you and I can't abrogate our responsibility. Only we can shift the human race from its doomsday course. My article in the November/December 2006 issue of Mother Jones, The Thirteenth Tipping Point, examined what science can tell us about our ability to change ourselves. The outlook is good, and the following op-ed, which ran in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere summarizes:

What if twelve meteors were on known collision courses with earth? What if we could alter their trajectories and save our planet by the cumulative effect of our individual efforts? What if science and history proved that we are fully capable of such heroism? What would it take to get us started?

John Schellnhuber, distinguished science advisor at the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research in the United Kingdom, has identified 12 global warming tipping points—from the deforestation of the Amazon Rainforest to the melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—any one of which, if triggered, will likely initiate sudden, meteoric changes across the planet.

President Bush: As Usual, Sending the Wrong Message on the Environment

| Wed Jan. 24, 2007 2:50 PM EST

According to most environmentalists, President Bush's message on the environment was weak. While Bush addressed the issue of global warming, the message he gave most clearly to Americans was to stay the course and these pesky ecological issues will go away.

In a statement released yesterday, The Sierra Club said: "Despite the warning from the President's economic advisor that the State of the Union would 'knock your socks off in terms of our commitment to energy independence,' so far we have heard no new evidence that this administration understands what it will really take to break our oil addiction or curb global warming. In fact, the President's proposals are more likely to make the problems worse."

In his plan, President Bush touts ethanol as the major catalyst towards an emissions-reduction solution, but he doesn't mention its possible detrimental effects. The President doesn't see any issue with drilling in Alaska either. And he doesn't seem to be rushed in imposing any sort of harsh standards on the automotive industries. The official White House plan states that the reduction in gasoline will be helped along by an assumed increase of fuel standards for light trucks and passenger cars by a very four per cent each year, starting in 2010. Sounds pretty wishy-washy.

This from the Sierra Club: "…[T]he President assumes that fuel economy will increase but fails to order an increase when a 40 mile per gallon standard is the single biggest step we could take to curb global warming and end oil dependence."

Yet, in reporting on the latest automotive models, some media outlets have chosen to call the 2010 fuel-efficiency standards "stringent."

Armed with this what-me-worry message, some Americans (as well as Canadians and Europeans) are just keeping on keeping on. This means driving hummers and other tank-like vehicles to invade the strip malls, taking private jets so to have a place to smoke at 30,000 feet, and buying instantly disposable goods to keep on top of fashion trends.

Hot Promises of Geothermal Energy

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 3:35 PM EST

A Massachusetts Institute of Technology-led study of geothermal energy within the US finds that mining the huge amounts of thermal energy stored in the Earth's rock crust could supply a substantial portion of the nation's electricity needs currently being generated by conventional fossil fuel, hydroelectric, and nuclear plants—at competitive prices and with minimal environmental impact. Go deep enough, and there's heat everywhere.

The study shows that drilling several wells to reach hot rock and connecting them to a fractured rock region that has been stimulated to let water flow through it creates a heat-exchanger that can produce large amounts of hot water or steam to run electric generators at the surface. Unlike conventional fossil-fuel power plants that burn coal, natural gas or oil, no fuel would be required. And unlike wind and solar systems, a geothermal plant works night and day, offering a non-interruptible source of electric power.

… "This environmental advantage is due to low emissions and the small overall footprint of the entire geothermal system, which results because energy capture and extraction is contained entirely underground, and the surface equipment needed for conversion to electricity is relatively compact," [Jefferson W.] Tester [the H. P. Meissner Professor of Chemical Engineering at MIT] said.

… Panel member Brian Anderson, an assistant professor at West Virginia University, noted that the drilling and reservoir technologies used to mine heat have many similarities to those used for extracting oil and gas. As a result, the geothermal industry today is well connected technically to two industry giants in the energy arena, oil and gas producers and electric power generators. With increasing demand for technology advances to produce oil and gas more effectively and to generate electricity with minimal carbon and other emissions, an opportunity exists to accelerate the development of EGS by increased investments by these two industries.

The study notes that government-funded research into geothermal was highly active in the 1970s and early 1980s, but that as oil prices declined, funding and geothermal research waned. Time to heat that up again.

Beware Emissions Trading, Airlines Stand to Make Billions

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 2:47 PM EST

The science journal Nature warns that a short-term effect of the European Commission's plan to include the airlines in the continent-wide market for greenhouse gas emissions will likely reap the industry billions, at least initially.

The world's airlines, including many firms who have lobbied aggressively against climate-change legislation, could make billions of euros from a planned emissions-reduction scheme, say economists studying the situation.

The resulting rise in cost to individual airline tickets will be too small to deter customers, they add, so the reduction in greenhouse gas emissions will be miniscule —at least in the short term.

…The windfall is a consequence of the way emissions trading works. Industries in the scheme are allocated carbon dioxide permits that are traded in as emissions are generated. The permits can be sold if a firm emits less than its allowance, or bought if they wish to exceed it. Because industries are initially given almost enough permits to cover their usual amount of emissions, they should be able to continue business much as usual.

But experience with other industries already in the scheme shows that they treat permits as assets — the permits are currently worth around US$5 per tonne of carbon. To compensate for having to lose the assets when accounting for their emissions, the firms charge extra for products. In the case of the electricity sector, this is estimated to have generated an extra $1.5 billion in annual profits for British firms between 2005 and 2007.

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More on Bush's SOTU Global Warming Plans

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 1:15 PM EST

The hot topic around here is what Bush will propose regarding climate change in his State of the Union. There have been rumors for weeks that Bush will announce something, possibly an increased commitment to the environmentally-dubious ethanol. I just wrote that with McCain an increasingly active supporter of action on global warming, the timing may be right to get a big push on the issue -- a big enough push might even give Bush something to salvage in his legacy.

CNN is now reporting that they have some details:

President Bush, in Tuesday's State of the Union address, will propose a plan to cut U.S. gasoline consumption by 20 percent while bolstering inventory in the Strategic Petroleum Reserve, Republican sources say.
The president's plan to cut gasoline use includes tightening fuel economy standards on automakers and relying on alternative energy sources, such as hybrid cars, the sources say.

Read more from CNN here.

McCain Partners With Environmental Defense in Support of Action on Global Warming

| Tue Jan. 23, 2007 1:01 PM EST

If, as expected, President Bush makes an announcement in tonight's State of the Union pushing for action on climate change, it's likely that he'll have John McCain's support.

That's if a letter I recently got in the mail is to be believed. In a plea for donations, Environmental Defense, a non-profit that advocates market-based solutions to environmental problems, included a letter from McCain that begins:

I'll give it to you straight:
We have a growing crisis on our hands... one that seldom gets the attention it deserves.
I'm speaking about global warming.

McCain explains that if global warming is "left unchecked, we can expect glaciers and polar ice caps to melt, severe storms to become more frequent, prolonged droughts to devastate agricultural lands, sea levels to rise and entire ecosystems to be thrown out of balance." It's almost like he's reading Mother Jones!

For a summary of the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship and Innovation Act, and a run-down of how it compares to competing bills in the Senate, see here.

PS - If McCain, king of the rightward shift, is embracing the idea of action on global warming, I think we can come close to saying the beast of global warming resistance has been slayed. There's more to be done of course, but with crazy old James Inhofe out as chairman of the Environment and Public Works Committee, presidential contender McCain positioning himself the way he is, Democrats pushing for action, and big business pressuring the president to act.... I'm just asking, if Bush comes out strong in favor of fighting climate change tonight, is it time to say, "Relax, celebrate victory"?

Chemotherapy by the Numbers

| Mon Jan. 22, 2007 4:10 PM EST

A University of Michigan study has found that women with lower levels of education and/or income tend to get lower levels of something else—chemotherapy. Due to concerns or assumptions over how they will handle the side effects, doctors are three times more likely to give women with less education a reduced dose of chemotherapy.

The study, based on U.S. Census Bureau statistics and individual interviews, also found that women with less household income received less chemotherapy. The lead author of the study, Jennifer Griggs, said that doctors may have concerns over less educated patients' possible misunderstanding the side effects of their treatments.

"It may be that negotiating side effects and continued doses of treatment is easier when there is more shared culture," Griggs continued in a press release.

Doctors calculate chemotherapy doses based on height to weight ratio. Adjustments to the doses based on income or education can jeopardize survival rates for those patients.

"Simply put, this evidence shows that doctors are likely to reduce the chemotherapy levels for these women, even though there is no solid medical basis to do it," said Gary Lyman, M.D., M.P.H., principal investigator and director of the ANC Study Group, a project that studies cancer patients starting chemotherapy that is funded by the pharmaceutical company Amgen.

CEOs Scold Bush on Global Warming

| Mon Jan. 22, 2007 3:44 PM EST

You know that Bush is lost in a wilderness of his own making when the CEO's of 10 major corporations set up homing beacons to call him back to reality. As the AP reports:

"We can and must take prompt action to establish a coordinated, economy-wide market-driven approach to climate protection," the executives from a broad range of industries said in a letter to the president.

Why are they doing it? We know these chieftains of major utilities, aluminum and chemical companies, and financial institutions aren't acting out of altruism. Apparently they've realized that even their own tony hides are on the line.

Members of the group, called the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, include chief executives of Alcoa Inc., BP America Inc., DuPont Co., Caterpillar Inc., General Electric Co., and Duke Energy Corp.

At a news conference, the executives said that mandatory reductions of heat-trapping emissions can be imposed without economic harm and would lead to economic opportunities if done economy-wide and with provisions to mitigate costs.

Many of the companies already have voluntarily moved to curb greenhouse pollution, they said. But the executives also said they do not believe voluntary efforts will suffice.

"It must be mandatory, so there is no doubt about our actions," said Jim Rogers, chairman of Duke Energy. "The science of global warming is clear. We know enough to act now. We must act now."

Bush is expected to address global warming in his State of the Union address tomorrow. Though it's doubtful he'll exercise any leadership on the matter, instead staying the course with more calls for voluntary cuts and increased energy independence. That will seal his legacy as the Neville Chamberlain of the 21st century: appeasing the dark side and setting the stage for a new version of global mayhem.