Blue Marble - February 2007

Sumatran Ground Cuckoo Sighting!

| Wed Feb. 28, 2007 9:51 PM EST

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Orinthologists just got a hold of one of these iridescent green birds, received from a trapper in Indonesia. The foot-and-a-half long bird hurt its foot, and they are currently rehabilitating it until it is fit to be released into the wild.

The species was taken for extinct until 1997, when a single specimen was spotted. A camera trap snapped a pic of another bird in 2006. But even now, scientists classify the flashy avian as "critically endangered" and say it is at risk from human activity encroaching on its Indonesian jungle habitat.


While the bird was in captivity, biologists recorded its distinctive, high-pitched cry for the first time ever. The bird call—which sounds like a combo ofa rooster's cock-a-doodle-doo and someone getting stabbed—will help authorities find out just how many Sumatran ground cuckoos exist.

The shrieking call of the cuckoo might have another use: cell phone ring tone.

The Center for Biological Diversity offers bird calls and wolf howls as ring tones with hopes that people will want to help the creatures who produced them. The strange ring tones might also make some humans shriek, but not so nicely on the ears as the call of the Sumatran ground cuckoo.

—Jen Phillips


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Global Warming...Are You Ready?

| Wed Feb. 28, 2007 4:23 PM EST

Diesel shoppers surely are. I can't believe I missed this. Diesel's new ad campaign for their Spring/Summer '07 collection, is out, and my oh my, just wait until you see what they have in store. The campaign is based on the premise of whether or not you (their client) are ready (Read: Do you have the right clothing and accessories?) for the hot temps of global warming. Yes, this is for real. There is even a video which warns of the dangers associated with a warming climate, but urges fashion lovers not to distress, and instead take action (of course, in the form of bolstering your wardrobe with warm-weather essentials). You really have to see it for yourself.

Stick Your Head In The Box And Let It All Out

| Tue Feb. 27, 2007 9:53 PM EST

Last week, Californians in Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco and Santa Monica voluntarily stuck their heads in a white box to share their thoughts about healthcare.

The "chat boxes" are part of the "We (Shield) You" Campaign, which nonprofit Blue Shield designed to assess consumer dissatisfaction. People were invited to step up to a white box, put their head inside of a hole, and give their critique. Inside the box was a two-man film crew recording people's comments, which will get shipped back to Blue Shield for review.

It's about time we had a healthcare confessional.

A 2006 Harris Interactive poll, which found that consumers ranked health companies third lowest just above oil and tobacco, likely motivated the chat box campaign. One 50-year-old woman, Nancy, went to Union Square in downtown San Francisco Friday to stick her head in the box on her way to visit her Medicaid-recipient father at a nearby hospital, and arrived just in time to see the film crew tearing down about an hour before the stated 5 p.m. end time. "This is just like Blue Shield to tell you one thing and then do another," she said. While the film crew set everything back up to get her on film, Nancy told me, "What bothers me is all this business about pharmaceuticals. I mean, they make it impossible for average people to get medication. For somebody who makes $1,500 a month, I can't afford $200, $300 or $400 a month for healthcare."

A bike messenger from Chicago told the film crew Friday that she had been hit by a car three times and had to host fundraisers to come up with the cash she needed to cover costs. A 58-year-old massage therapist from New York said she and her husband have to pay $1,800 a month for a combined health plan, a fee based on their age, not physical health. A woman with a "compromised liver" said she wound up paying more than she should have for treatment because she was misdiagnosed by several doctors. Several people complained that Blue Shield had refused to cover them because of pre-existing health conditions.

Doug Biehn, the organization's vice president of corporate marketing, said Blue Shield will "cherry pick" the best interviews and post them on blueshieldchatbox.com by the end of this month. By "best," Biehn means funny and compelling stories that do not include swearing and do not defame Blue Shield or other health insurance brands. By that definition, Nancy's critique of Blue Shield would not likely get posted.

Coincidentally, a lawsuit was filed last week against Blue Shield for reportedly canceling 300 policies in the past two years of people who reportedly became ill. No word on whether those folks showed up to talk in the box.

—Gary Moskowitz

Victory Against New Coal Plants

| Sun Feb. 25, 2007 3:08 PM EST

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The Texas-based utility company TXU's plans to build 11 new coal plants, with funding from firms such as Merrill Lynch, have been scuttled. Two equity firms will buy TXU under terms that include trashing the controversial plans. The group Billionaires for Coal had staged protests outside Merrill Lynch offices last week. At about the same time, equity firms entered into negotiations with environmental heavyweights National Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, asking the groups what it would take for them to support the buyout. TXU will instead look to develop cleaner energy holdings. The New York Times is touting the deal as a beacon of what financial dealings may look like in "a regulatory and public-relations landscape in an era of climate change."

Minnesota Goes Green, Really Green

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 10:20 PM EST

Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota signed a law yesterday requiring that all state utility companies generate at least a quarter of their power from renewable sources by 2025. (One company, Xcel, which provides the state with half of its electricity, must meet 30% by 2020.) This plan is more ambitious than the state's previous 10% by 2015 objective.

Not ones to count on feds whose idea of an energy bill includes reversing decades of renewables wisdom and polluter protection waivers to solve the nation's energy problems, some two dozen states have adopted renewable energy goals. California, Hawaii, New York, Nevada, and New Jersey have all set their mark at 20% or more. "As states are catching up with us, we want to raise the bar," Pawlenty said.

Minnesota's law passed just days after EU energy ministers weakened a "20% renewable energy by 2020" plan by recommending that the target be made voluntary. Last year, China enacted a 15% by 2020 law, and Australia remains committed to producing enough renewable energy to power the homes of 4 million of its 20 million people by 2010.

Though New Hampshire and Colorado are considering stricter standards, Minnesota's initiative to more than triple its 8% renewable energy production in less than two decades prompted analysts to call it "the most aggressive in the country." If Pawlenty's bar-raising doesn't inspire other domestic and even international actions toward going greener, his Republican-governed Northern Great Plains state may become the most environmentally progressive place in the world.

--Nicole McClelland

Global Warming and Your Kids' Health

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 3:31 PM EST

LiveScience reports on a study from Australia published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research showing that a warming climate is bad for kids' health. Lawrence Lam, a pediatrics lecturer at Sydney University, compared emergency room visits for kids under age six to climate data, finding that higher temps outside correlated to more children with fevers and gastroenteritis visiting the ER.

The possible reason: Children's bodies can't cope with extreme changes in temperature as well as adults.

"The results from this study suggest a detrimental effect from climatic changes, particularly in terms of maximum temperature, on children's health," Lam said. "As global warming is becoming more apparent, there is an urgent need for more in-depth and thorough investigation of climatic factors on human health, especially in early childhood."

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Chimps Hunt with Spears and Birds Plan for the Future as Science Debunks Myths of Human Uniqueness

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 9:15 PM EST

Two cherished illusions fall by the wayside. These belong to the smug category of talents that "make us human." Guess what, turns out these human attributes belong to chimpanzees. And birds. And probably for longer than we've owned them.

First up, tools to hunt prey. This is pure Homo sapiens, et ancestors, isn't it? Wrong. And, whoa, sacrilege of the most holies. Females and immatures turn out to be better hunters than the big boys. Check this out from Current Biology.

Although tool use is known to occur in species ranging from naked mole rats to owls, chimpanzees are the most accomplished tool users. The modification and use of tools during hunting, however, is still considered to be a uniquely human trait among primates. Here, we report the first account of habitual tool use during vertebrate hunting by nonhumans. At the Fongoli site in Senegal, we observed ten different chimpanzees use tools to hunt prosimian prey in 22 bouts. This includes immature chimpanzees and females, members of age-sex classes not normally characterized by extensive hunting behavior. Chimpanzees made 26 different tools, and we were able to recover and analyze 12 of these. Tool construction entailed up to five steps, including trimming the tool tip to a point. Tools were used in the manner of a spear, rather than a probe or rousing tool. This new information on chimpanzee tool use has important implications for the evolution of tool use and construction for hunting in the earliest hominids, especially given our observations that females and immature chimpanzees exhibited this behavior more frequently than adult males.

Translated: chimps build tools we call spears and use them to hunt specific nocturnal prey (bushbabies) that would otherwise be impossible to catch with the chimps' diurnal lifestyle. Oh, and again, the girls and kids do most of it and may well have invented it.

If that isn't humbling enough, how about birds that plan for the future? That's a struggle for even the college-educated human. In fact, based on our inability to solve those niggling global sustainability problems, you might conclude we can't do it at all. This from the University of Cambridge, where forethought is rewarded with publications in the journal Nature.

Some birds recognise the idea of 'future' and plan accordingly, researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered. According to their findings… western scrub-jays will store food items they believe will be in short supply in the future.

Planning for the future is a complex skill that was previously believed to be unique to humans. Other animals were perceived to be incapable of dissociating themselves from the present and any current motivation. Sometimes animals may appear to recognize future needs, but they are only exhibiting behaviors that are either instinctual (e.g. nest building) or prompted by immediate needs like hunger (e.g. food hoarding).

In order to determine whether some animals plan for future food needs or are simply acting on instinct, Professor Nicky Clayton and her team at the Department of Experimental Psychology tested the western scrub-jay.

Every morning, eight scrub-jays either were allowed into the compartment with 'no breakfast' or the compartment with 'breakfast'. They were then allowed to eat for the rest of the day. After several days, the birds were then provided with pine nuts suitable for caching (hoarding) in the evening. In anticipation of a morning without breakfast, the scrub-jays consistently hid food in the 'no breakfast' compartment rather than the 'breakfast' compartment, demonstrating an understanding of future needs (rather than just their immediate needs).

In a similar experiment, the scrub-jays were given either dog food in one compartment or peanuts in a second compartment for breakfast. When they were allowed to cache either food where they liked in the evenings, they once again demonstrated an understanding of future needs and a desire for a varied diet by hoarding peanuts in the dog food compartment and dog kibble in the peanut compartment. If they were caching for current hunger, they would not have discriminated between the types of food or the location of the cache.

Professor Nicky Clayton said, "The western scrub-jays demonstrate behavior that shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximizing the variety of their diets in the future. It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future, and factor this into their planning."

Bird brains.

Billionaires Toast to Merrill Lynch's Investment in Coal-Fired Power Plants

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 8:20 PM EST

The Billionaires for Coal had a grand old time cavorting outside Merill Lynch in downtown San Francisco yesterday. Toasting with champagne glasses, tossing out one-liners, they sneered at a group of earnest, banner-waving protesters nearby. Just a few pairs of hipster sneakers and some scruffy facial hair poked out from under the Billionaires' suits, top hats, and cocktail dresses.

"Why travel to the tropics when we can bring the tropics to us?" asked Jodie van Horn. In real life she's an activist with Rainforest Action Network, but as a Billionaire she goes by Alata Monie. "We'll convert our winter properties to summer properties, and our summer properties to scuba properties."

"It's Darwinian: Survival of the Richest," said Levana Saxon, also known as Debbie Tont, wearing a jeweled barrette and strappy stilettos.

Across the courtyard, their fellow activists were staging a protest of Merrill Lynch's financing of 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas, a more than $10 billion project.

The Billionaires presumed to be ready for a cocktail party with executives. Unfortunately, Merrill Lynch had locked the glass doors and was routing all employees through a restaurant on the side of the building. Many of the businesspeople glanced over once as they walked past but quickly turned away.

"Seventy-eight billion tons of greenhouse gases," preached Brianna Cay Cotter.

"Huzzah!" cheered the Billionaires. "More warming, less species!"

One problem is that coal emits more carbon dioxide than any other fuel source, except peat and raw wood. And though a new technology called gasification could keep more carbon out of the air, TXU plans to stick to a cheaper, conventional method called pulverization, according to the New York Times.

The new plants will emit more greenhouse gasses than 21 states or several countries—as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of 14 million American cars, according to the Rainforest Action Network.

But the Billionaires just fired back witty barbs.

"Rainforest Action Network? We can have more rainforest right here in San Francisco!" said one. "My daughter could buy RAN with her allowance," said van Horn.

While RAN staged similar protests across the country, a panel of judges yesterday delayed hearings for six of the plants to the summer in order to grant opponents time to prepare their case.

As Marc Gunther of Fortune writes, "Merrill Lynch talks a good game when it comes to saving the earth," claiming in their online "Environmental Sustainability Policy," "We are committed to a policy of environmental excellence…. We hold an annual Renewable Energy Conference…. We have sought to reduce energy consumption and emissions by an average of 2% annually."

Light on the Arctic Horizon

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 6:55 PM EST

They may not officially constitute a tipping point, but the forests that line the Artic Circle hold massive potential to speed up or slow down global warming.

Nearly half of the greenhouse gas carbon that exists on land is contained in these forests, much of it in permafrost. If the permafrost melts, the peat and other plant matter trapped in it would decay, releasing carbon which would, in turn, speed the melting. The trees also store carbon.

Development, mining and logging account for a quarter of the carbon loss in forests, so new Canadian initiatives to give financial perks for preserving land in that country's so-called "boreal forests" could have some positive effect. Boreal forests in Canada and Scandinavia are likely to be better cared for than those in the U.S. and Russia, whose environmental records, frankly, suck. Canada is also exploring options to sequester carbon dioxide in these relatively pristine lands—a practice that seems questionable, but may be the best option—after reducing our carbon emissions—for keeping our feet out of nature's fire.

Kinky Climate

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 9:05 PM EST

Hey, why can't we have tv ads like this? Even the politicos might pay attention. Apparently Tony Blair got the message, though not loudly enough to do anything while actually in office with genuine power at his fingertips. Could we convince the Dommes of the world to flog some climate guilt into their Washington slaves?