Blue Marble - January 2007

Saving the Planet a Real Bargain

| Mon Jan. 22, 2007 6:37 AM PST

With the Pelosi Congress blazing climate change denial is quickly going out of style, which makes sky-is-falling economics the next-best stalling tactic. The way ExxonMobil and its political stalwarts frame it, you'd think a cap-and-trade on greenhouse gasses is going to send us into the next great depression—one where we will look up wistfully at over-priced windmills with the downtrodden expression from a Dorothea Lange dust-bowl photograph.

Admittedly, averting climate change won't be cheap, but what is? (check out iconoclastic Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz' predictions on the final dollars and cents costs of our escapades in Iraq). The two proposed bills (the McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act and the much more timid proposal offered by Senator Jeff Bingaman (D-NM), which would only reduce carbon-intensity as a percentage of GDP, but would not necessarily reduce total emissions) are in fact more of a bargain that one may realize. As for content, neither bill calls for the kind of emission reductions likely necessary to avert the cataclysmic global warming tipping points Mother Jones contributing-writer Julia Whitty warns about, but an imperfect bill would be a good start towards showing the world that we don't have our head completely in the sand. (Pew knocks out a superb comparison of the two bills).

On whether a climate bill will break the bank, economists at the Federal Energy Information Administration--who have produced arguably the most objective bean counting on the subject—don't seem to think so. They project a shockingly small negative impact on the economy from either choice of legislation. Bingaman's proposal would put a 29 billion dollar dent in our inflation adjusted GDP by 2025. McCain's would hit the pocketbook a bit harder at $89 billion. Put that into perspective by checking out a clever recent New York Times' graphic showing war-time spending against some other possible uses for making our world a better place.

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Lawsuit Against Corcpork, Inc.'s Animal Cruelty Revived

| Fri Jan. 19, 2007 6:46 PM PST

Corcpork, Inc., a California company, confines breeding pigs in 2-foot cages for most of their lives. They cannot turn around, lie down, or stand on anything but slatted boards. They are constantly inseminated, and their lives are total torture and misery. Corcpork, not surprisingly, is in blatant violation of California's animal cruelty laws. However, a suit filed against Corcpork in 2004 by Farm Sanctuary was dismissed in 2005 because of California's Proposition 64, which substantially limits third-party lawsuits.

Despite the unfair restrictions of Proposition 64, there was nothing stopping the Attorney General of California (other than the obvious special interests) from going after Corcpork on his own. He did not, however, so Farm Sanctuary is arguing in court that unless it or a similar organization is allowed to speak on behalf of the animals, they have no protection from abuses of California law.

It has taken a long time, but Americans are slowing beginning to rebel against the extreme cruelty of factory farming, which is also an environmental threat. Both Florida and Arizona have gone after factory farms, and it is only a matter of time before other states do, and then, one hopes, Congress will act.

Carbon Offsets... Buyer Beware

| Fri Jan. 19, 2007 2:17 PM PST

Carbon offsets are in. Everybody's doing it. And Wall Street knows it, which is why here and abroad companies from London's Marks & Spencer to Dell Computers are clamoring to make you, too, "carbon neutral." A crowded field of for-profit offset providers have sprung up, promising to do everything from reforesting the California redwoods to building solar powered greenhouses in India.

But if Expedia can make that flight from LaGuardia to Heathrow guilt free for only ten extra bucks, how is one to know whether the offsets one has bought are really making that cross-Atlantic trip carbon even-steven? At the moment, it's pretty much a crapshoot (with carbon offset prices ranging from $3.56 to $30 a metric ton). But the UK hopes to change that before the Greenland ice sheet melts into their precious gulfstream. The country's Ministry of Environment announced yesterday that it would set standards for rating the new club of carbon merchants. That way would-be-offsetters can distinguish between quality outfits and those just full of hot air.

The standards will be based on the same "system used to certify credits from the established Kyoto market." Ideally, this will mean the credits have a "clear audit trail" and be linked to real emission reductions, but don't go back to building your carbon-neutral beachfront villas just yet.

Even long-established projects, endorsed by the World Bank and certified for cap-and-trade under Kyoto's rules, don't always deliver their promised bang for the buck. Last week, The Wall Street Journal ran a great piece on the chemical industry in China. A particularly dire snippet:

"Regulators worry that the carbon market is encouraging companies in the developing world to make more of the underlying refrigerant than they otherwise would—so they can produce more of the global warming gas, destroy it, and sell the credits."

Kudos to the UK for holding the carbon traders to a higher standard, as the EU has in regulating the toxics industry. Still, for now, and for us unregulated Americans, riding a bike may be your best bet.

The Toxic Body of Evidence

| Fri Jan. 12, 2007 10:59 AM PST

In exchange for 14 vials of blood, science writer David Ewing Duncan had his body tested for no fewer than 320 different chemicals. Duncan wrote about the experience and about the nature of trace chemicals in the body for article in National Geographic and is on a speaking tour sharing fascinating tidbits:

-As a kid in Kansas, he rode his bike through clouds of DDT. Surprise, surprise, he still has a high "body burden" of its byproduct DDE, about 40 years later.

-His level of one particularly toxic PBDE, a flame-retardant, is 10 times the American average and 200 times the Swedish average. He attributes that to flying 200,000 miles last year; planes are "drenched in the stuff."

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In his article and subsequent speeches Duncan has steered clear of regulatory issues, instead calling for more research. But research often comes long after the damage is done. Take the history of lead:

In 1921, General Motors invented lead additives to gas, paving the way for modern high-power engines. Leaded fuel earned a nickname fast—"loony gas." But it wasn't until the 70s that the EPA started regulating it. And over the next decade, through 1986, the EPA dropped the threshold for lead content in gas by 98%. Uranium, CFCs, DDT—same story.

Shockingly, only a quarter of the 82,000 chemicals in use in the U.S. have ever been tested for toxicity, according to Duncan. How long will it take for us to trace the cause of modern epidemics? From the early 1970s through the mid-1990s, one type of leukemia was up 62%, male birth defects doubled, and childhood brain cancer was up 40%, he writes.

Only in the past few years have we developed machines precise enough to test the presence of some of these chemicals in the body, in parts per million, per billion, and even per trillion. It's like detecting a teaspoon of dye in an Olympic swimming pool, Duncan said, and some of the machines that do it cost a million dollars. Usually as many tests as Duncan had would cost $30,000. (For only $25 you can send a lock of hair in for a mercury test.)

That makes it hard to broadly survey the dangers of chemicals. And nearly impossible to prove in court that they have caused any illness.

In Europe, on the other hand, a new law "radically revises how companies must evaluate potential dangers." From now on there, new chemicals will not be presumed safe until proven dangerous, but must be proved safe before sale. With the new Congress, can we follow their lead?

Bear Bears the Brunt of Global Warming

| Fri Jan. 5, 2007 4:34 PM PST

Most times, homeowners get scared and trigger-happy when a bear shows up on their porch. But not so with this befuddled bruin, which instead solicited sympathy from residents. blackbear.jpgThe bear--a mere 25-lb, orphan black bear cub--missed hibernation in October, and is instead scrounging for dog food, dead birds, anything it can find in Anchorage back yards.

Why is this "little guy" out and about, when he should be curled up into a ball of snoozing fuzz? It's possible that the cub didn't hibernate because he didn't have a mother to guide him, or because it was just too darn warm. It's not just polar bears whose habitats are being turned upside down by global warming. Now, the clime's climbing times may be disrupting bears' biological clocks, which rely on a combination of cold temperatures and scarce food to send them to their lairs. Says, the Alaska Zoo website "Bears will often wake up if disturbed or if temperatures become suddenly warmer. In some temperate areas where food remains available, bears may not even hibernate."

But naturalists are not giving up yet: this black bear cub will be taken to a more remote part of the state and introduced to a small, straw-lined shelter in hopes he will settle down for the ever-warmer winter.

—Jen Phillips