Broken heart time. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) has an environmental forum underway in Nairobi. Their Rapid Response report offers a bleak assessment of the future of our Asian cousins, the orangutans, or "people of the forest" in the local languages of Indonesia and Malaysia.

The report says that natural rainforests of Sumatra and Borneo are being cleared so rapidly that up to 98% may be destroyed by 2022 without urgent action. The rate of loss, which has accelerated in the past five years, outstrips a previous UNEP report released in 2002 at the World Summit for Sustainable Development (WSSD) Then, experts estimated that most of the suitable orangutan habitat would be lost by 2032.

The illegal logging, driven by global demands, accounts for tens of millions of cubic metres annually and an estimated more than 73% of all logging in Indonesia. Approximately 20% of the logs are smuggled directly out of Indonesia, the remaining is used to support an extensive international and local wood industry, and then exported to the international markets by well-organized, but elusive commercial networks.

New satellite imagery reveals that the illegal logging is now entering a new critical phase: As the demands grow, the industry and international market are running out of cheap illegal timber and are now entering the national parks where the only remaining timber available in commercial amounts is found.

Satellite images confirm, together with data from the Indonesian Government, that illegal logging is now taking place in 37 out of 41 national parks, and likely growing. "At current rates of intrusions, it is likely that some parks may become severely degraded in as little as three to five years, that is by 2012", says the new study "The last stand of the orangutan: State of emergency."

Overall the report is concluding that loss of orangutan habitat is happening at a rate up to 30% higher than previously thought.

Bornean and Sumatran orangutans are classed as Endangered and Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List, and are listed on Appendix 1 of the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). It doesn't get much worse than this. Orangutans also share their forests with other threatened and ecologically important species including the Sumatran tiger, Sumatran rhinoceros and Asian elephant.

The Orangutan Conservancy, headed by such luminaries as Jane Goodall, Suwanna B. Gauntlett, and Edward O. Wilson, describes orangutans as among our closest relatives, sharing 97 percent of our DNA, while embracing a different lifestyle.

Some might say orangutans have four hands instead of two hands and two feet. This makes them graceful and agile while climbing through the trees but it makes walking on the ground somewhat slow and awkward. That is why the orangutan is at a great disadvantage on the ground, and why the orangutan rarely comes down from the treetops. Their food is there, their home is there and they are safer there.

But the trees are disappearing, largely to support the Western demand for tropical hardwoods, tropical plywood, rayon, and palm-oil products. The Orangutan Conservancy suggests how we can help.

"Let us remember, always, that we are the consumers. By exercising free choice, by choosing what to buy, what not to buy, we have the power, collectively to change the ethics of business of industry. We have the potential to exert immense power for good–we each carry it with us, in our purses, checkbooks, and credit cards." —Jane Goodall, Reason for Hope

Many items sold today originating from Indonesia are made from materials that come from these vanishing rainforests or are related to the endangered species that are fast disappearing from these forests. As you shop, you can avoid these items by asking yourself:

* Do I really need that picture frame or piece of furniture crafted from tropical hardwood?

* Do I really need a suit made of rayon?

* Do I want to make palm oil a part of my diet?

* Is it really fair to keep an endangered animal such as a primate in captivity as a pet?

* Is there proof that this exotic wood product has come from well-managed forests by an accredited certifier of the Forest Stewardship Council?

The Sierra Club provides a list of thing of things you and I can do to make our consumption of forest products more sustainable.

* reduce consumption by using both sides of your paper, using email, and reading newspapers online

* reduce junk mail by writing to Mail Preference Service, c/o Direct Marketing Association, P.O. Box 9008, Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008

* complete the circle: purchase recycled and tree-free products

* buy only certified forest products and certified or salvaged wood for construction and furnishings

* avoid purchasing rayon viscose clothing

* purchase certified shade grown and organic coffee

In your local community

* ask local stores to carry tree free and recycled products

* support (or start) community recycling programs, for mixed paper as well as newspaper

* encourage local stores to stock sustainably certified, salvaged or recycled wood.

* request that office-supply stores stock recycled and tree-free paper.

* ask local building contractors to use certified wood products.

At work or school

* do not print unnecessary documents and proofread to reduce the need to re-print papers

* program photocopiers to default to two-sided copying

* begin a recycling program and provide bins for all departments and rooms

* purchase recycled, chlorine-free, and/or alternative fiber products

Public policy activism

* ban road building and logging in National Forests (McKinney-Leach bill)

* remove or reverse subsidies to timber harvesting

* ask elected officials to use only recycled or alternative fiber papers in their offices

Despite a seemingly robust support for alternative, environmentally-friendly fuels in his State of the Union address, President Bush is anything but green. The President's $2.9 trillion budget, submitted to Congress Monday, included the one-two punch of cutting conservation while increasing gas and coal-powered industries.

Here are just a few ways the President is trying "to promote energy independence for our country, while dramatically improving the environment."

Clean power:

  • $385 million for "clean" power derived from coal
  • Nearly $500 million for a nuclear waste dump
  • $114 million to expand the U.S.'s nuclear power facilities
  • $405 million for the U.S. to reprocess nuclear reactor fuel for sale to foreign nations
  • $5.8 million increase for the Bureau of Land Management's oil and gas operations
  • Doubles the capacity of the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve over 20 years.
  • $400 million cut from Amtrak's passenger services
  • Conservation:

  • $44 million cut from clean water initiatives
  • $9 million decrease for the National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences
  • $85 million cut from the Land and Water Conservation Fund
  • Proposes selling $800 million of National Forests
  • 950 million acres of public lands to be sold over 10 years
  • Wildlife:

  • $5.5 million cut from the endangered species recovery program
  • funding for private landowners to help conserve at-risk wildlife, cut entirely
  • Budget assumes the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge will be used for oil and gas drilling
  • National Wildlife Refuge System receives a small increase in funding, but still less than FY 2004 level
  • Bureau of Land Management's wildlife program, cut entirely
  • All this may sound dire, but not to worry. The President's budget also calls for a 10-year plan to get the National Parks rehabilitated in time for their 2016 centennial--by selling private companies the rights to name trails and facilities. An idea he cribbed from his buddy, Richard Pombo, who, after his November whuppin' is nonetheless probably quite pleased with this budget scenario.

    —Jen Phillips

    The BBC reports on the newest environmental plague to hit Siberia: smelly orange and (yes) yellow snow—but not the kind you're used to. Something way grosser.

    Oily yellow and orange snowflakes fell over an area of more than 1,500sq km (570sq miles) in the Omsk region on Wednesday [31 Jan], Russian officials said. Chemical tests were under way to determine the cause, they said. Residents have been advised not to use the snow for household tasks or let animals graze on it.

    "So far we cannot explain the snow, which is oily to the touch and has a pronounced rotten smell," said Omsk environmental prosecutor Anton German, quoted by the Russian news agency Itar-Tass on Thursday. "We are waiting for the results of a thorough test on samples."

    But Vladimir Gurzhey, an official with the civil defence ministry in Omsk, told the Russia TV channel that the snow had four times the normal levels of iron in it. The TV also reported that coloured snow had fallen in the neighbouring regions of Tomsk and Tyumen. Omsk, in western Siberia, is a centre of Russia's oil industry. About 27,000 people live in the areas affected by the snow, Russian officials said.

    1989. Seems like a long time ago. The other GW was the new guy in the White House. The first Gulf War was only a glimmer in his eye. The Soviet Union officially announced its troops had left Afghanistan. Pan Am flight 103 investigators announced the crash was caused by a bomb hidden inside a radio-cassette player (remember radio-cassette players?). The Exxon Valdez's drunken skipper contributed to running the tanker aground, dumping at least 11 million gallons into Alaska's once-pristine Prince William Sound.

    Well, all these years later and Jeffrey W. Short of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and colleagues, find that oil from that spill persists in an only slightly weathered form below the surface at beaches along the Gulf of Alaska—and may persist for decades more, ScienceDaily reports.

    Earlier research demonstrated that buried oil could retain toxic components for years if buried in anoxic (oxygen-depleted) sediments where little decomposition from weathering occurs. The new study identified a different mechanism in which oil can be preserved in sediments that do contain oxygen. The oil persists because it exists in a thick, emulsified form sometimes termed "oil mousse" that resists weathering.

    "Such persistence can pose a contact hazard to inter-tidally foraging sea otters, sea ducks, and shorebirds, create a chronic source of low-level contamination, discourage subsistence in a region where use is heavy and degrade the wilderness character of protected lands," the researchers conclude.

    Wikipedia notes the short- and medium-term effects of one the largest manmade environmental disasters ever to occur at sea:

    Thousands of animals died immediately; the best estimates include 250,000 - 500,000 sea birds, 2,800 - 5,000 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles, up to 22 orcas, and billions of salmon and herring eggs. Due to a thorough cleanup, little visual evidence of the event remained in areas frequented by humans just one year later, but the effects of the spill continue to be felt today. In the long term, reductions in population have been seen in various ocean animals, including stunted growth in pink salmon populations. Sea otters and ducks also showed higher death rates in following years, partly because they ingested contaminated creatures. The animals also were exposed to oil when they dug up their prey in dirty soil. Researchers said some shoreline habitats, such as contaminated mussel beds, could take up to 30 years to recover.

    Hasn't hurt Exxon, though. Profits are astronomical and durable, just like the oil mousse.

    Remember the Exxon Valdez when you shop for your electric scooter.

    In a ruling that could make it more difficult for the USDA to speed through permits for the testing of genetically engineered crops, a federal judge halted field trials of several controversial GMOs yesterday pending a more detailed review of their potential environmental hazards. It was the first time a field trial of a GE crop has been stopped by a U.S. court. Judge Harold Kennedy found the USDA should have required environmental impact statements before approving field trials of pesticide-resistant creeping bentgrass and Kentucky bluegrass in Oregon. Last year, pollen from the grasses escaped from the test area and fertilized plants several miles away in a national grassland.

    The ruling was a rebuke to a common practice at the USDA of approving GMO field trials under a "categorical exclusion"--basically, an argument that field trials are too environmentally insignificant to merit detailed oversight. Although the judicial pounding has by no means driven a nail in the coffin of GMOs, it's certainly a sign that the USDA is starting to face rebukes for years of lax policies on a very poorly understood area of science.

    Over the past month, the biggest threat to climate change legislation seems not to come from Exxon Mobil-sponsored think-tanks nor Texas Republicans; rather, it has been infighting between Democrats. Since becoming Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has done everything but challenge John Dingell to a bout of mud-wrestling in order to take control of climate change legislation away from the House Committee on Energy and Commerce the Michigan Democrat chairs.

    That's because Dingell is infamous for being in the pocket of the Auto Industry: He has long opposed tougher CAFE standards and his wife is currently a senior executive at GM. Many see him as an obstructionist to action on climate change. (See this interview with Grist, where Dingell expresses Inhofe-esque views on global warming.)

    Dingell has been outspoken in his opposition to a new committee, telling the AP in January: "We're just empowering a bunch of enthusiastic amateurs to go around and make speeches and make commitments that will be very difficult to honor."

    Bygones may not yet be bygones, but Pelosi and Dingell seem to have come to a compromise, clearing the way for the new committee--albeit a weaker one than Pelosi would probably have liked. In a letter sent to the Speaker yesterday, Dingell agreed not to challenge a new committee on climate change in exchange for Pelosi's concession that the new committee will not be granted legislative authority and will expire in October of 2008. U.S. Rep. Henry Waxman, chair of the Oversight and Government Reform committee, co-signed the letter, agreeing not to challenge the formation of the select committee. You're not alone if you're not sure whether to chalk this one up as a win or a defeat for the planet.

    --Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell

    Creationists might not like it, but a study reported on the AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) website details how cod in Canada's Gulf of St. Lawrence have evolved into smaller fish since overfishing in the 1960s selectively reduced their heftier ancestors.

    For Atlantic cod, overfishing is the bad gift that keeps on giving. Once a mainstay of fishing fleets, cod began to thin out in the 1960s. Today, their numbers--and the fish themselves--remain small, despite a moratorium on fishing established in 1993. Now, a study of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Canada might explain why. Researchers report that because the largest and fastest-growing fish were harvested, cod have evolved to grow slowly--an adaptation that haunts them to this day.

    The average size of young adult cod has decreased by about 20% in the last 3 decades. Lab experiments have shown that harvesting mainly large fish will cause average size to shrink. But in the wild, other factors can also influence size, such as temperature and population density.

    Big fish have been declining in number and size worldwide, as reported in "The Fate of the Ocean," (Mother Jones Mar/Apr 2006). Douglas Swain, fisheries biologist at the Gulf Fisheries Center in Moncton, Canada, and colleagues, examined the data on fishing intensity, cod population, fish size, and environmental variables from 1977 to 1997. They found that temperatures were warm and prey was abundant, variables that should have stimulated growth. Instead, the fish got smaller. The average length of 4-year-old cod correlated with the size selection exerted on their parents. The authors suggest that recent generations inherited their small size from small parents, because most of the larger fish were captured by human fishers.

    This makes sense, Swain says; slow-growing fish would have an advantage, as they have a greater chance of reproducing before they're caught in nets.

    Evolution is alive, well, crafty, and hopefully faster than us.

    In the quest to stave off cataclysmic climate change, the compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL) seems to be garnering messianic status. (Wal-Mart, for one, hopes to green its image by selling 100 million of the energy efficient, cost saving bulbs by the end of next year). Politicians are behind them too, and no state is doing more than California to encourage consumers to give up their old incandescent bulbs.

    California utility giant PG&E already heavily subsidizes CFLs, making them almost as cheap as incandescent, despite the fact they nip at the company's bottom line, using 2/3 less electricity. And last week, CFLs got some additional buzz as California Assemblyman, Lloyd Levine, promised legislation dubbed the "How Many Legislators Does it Take to Change A Light Bulb Act." If passed, it would ban the sale of conventional light bulbs in the state by 2012.

    Despite the prospect that the law would spur a booming black market in incandescent bulbs smuggled from neighboring, loose-lawed Nevada, it should help California meet its goal of cutting 25% of greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 (the typical CFL saves 640 pounds of CO2 emissions over its life cycle; California emits more than 380 million metric tons of carbon annually).

    But truth be told, CFLs are not all sunshine for the environment, especially in the hands of the wasteful. CFLs contain mercury, and, to date, there is no way to make them without using at least a small amount of the toxic substance. "If you are going to make a massive switch over to compact fluorescents, which would be good for energy conservation, it makes sense to accompany it with the appropriate take-back and recycling provisions," notes Elizabeth Grossman, author of High Tech Trash.

    Without a real commitment to recycling, mercury filled CFLs will end up with household garbage, land-filled and incinerated en mass. Which is a shame because assuming proper disposal, CFLs actually reduce the amount of mercury escaping into the environment. According to the EPA Energy Star program, "coal-fired power plants emit 13.6 milligrams of mercury to produce the electricity required to use an incandescent light bulb, compared to 3.3 milligrams for a CFL."

    Now that's a lightbulb worth changing.

    —Koshlan Mayer-Blackwell


    BP and the University of California Berkeley announced on Thursday a public-private partnership agreement to establish the Energy Biosciences Institute. The Institute will focus on developing biofuels.

    Besides just firming up BP's reputation as the most earth-friendly of the oil companies (an honor no greater than being the most Jew-friendly member of the SS) and Berkeley's reputation as a hotbed of liberalism, the announcement marked biofuels' entry into the mainstream.

    I should be dancing, but I'm not. First of all, public-private partnerships: Ick. Secondly, biofuels advocates keep missing the point. Prime example: Ethanol--at least the corn-based ethanol Bush is pushing--requires an absurd amount of fossil fuel to produce. The European Union recently made a similar gaffe when it required that biodiesel be used as an additive. The Houston Chronicle reported in September that production of soy in Argentina is so rapidly that environmental groups fear deforestation and anti-poverty groups fear the food supply will be jeopardized.

    Meanwhile, Craig Venter, formerly of Celera Genomics—the company that wanted to patent the human genome—is trying to manufacture, as in from scratch, an organism that would break down crops such as switchgrass that could provide ethanol more sustainably if they could be processed more efficiently.

    These approaches miss the forest for the trees. Nature has its own very functional system, of which we are but a part. We do not fully understand that system, or else we would have no more need for science. We have to learn how to respect it and stay out of its way.

    Finally the world is paying some attention to the IPCC reports. Finally there's a sort of awareness of global warming. May the global attention span stretch to meet the need.

    But guess what? Climate change is only one symptom of a greater disease scientists call global environmental change (GEC). Global warming is the rash. GEC is the bubonic plague. The other symptoms are equally deadly and still barely recognized outside science. The International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP) lists the following:

    • Half of Earth's land surface is now domesticated for direct human use.

    • 75 percent of the world's fisheries are fully or over-exploited .

    • The composition of today's atmosphere is well outside the range of natural variability the Earth has maintained over the last 650,000 years.

    • The Earth is now in the midst of its sixth great extinction event.

    This blogger first interviewed James Hansen, the father of global climate change science, in 1985. That's right. Twenty-two years ago, Hansen was trotting out his climate graphics and talking about sea level rise and carbon dioxide. Well, we don't have another 22 years to address the rest of the list. Homo sapiens rip-van-winkleus needs an infusion of Red Bull and reality.

    Kevin Noone, Executive Director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme, notes that the IPCC work establishes a template for the other systemic problems:

    The IPCC report, with its interdisciplinary approach to climate change, is a clear example of how the Earth needs to be considered as a coupled system in order to understand global environmental change… The study of the Earth as a system, looking not only at climate but also at changes in the oceans and on land, how those changes affect each other, and the role of humans as part of that system is a crucial approach to managing a sustainable planet.