Blue Marble - March 2007

Plutonic Love

| Fri Mar. 9, 2007 9:07 PM EST

pluto.jpg

Evolutionary biology, sex ed, global warming …. Add astronomy to the list of sciences in which politicians are meddling. A lawmaker has proposed that New Mexico declare Pluto a planet:

"NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO that, as Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico's excellent night skies, it be declared a planet and that March 13, 2007 be declared "Pluto Planet Day" at the legislature."

The bill defies the International Astronomical Union's vote last summer to demote Pluto to "dwarf planet" status. Astronomers are baffled.

"Pluto was misclassified," writes astronomer Julianne Dalcanton. "States have rights, but I don't think this is one of them."


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Early Daylight Savings Equals Energy Savings of .05%

| Fri Mar. 9, 2007 7:00 PM EST

Early daylight savings time starts on Sunday, three weeks early, as dictated by Bush's 2005 Energy Policy Act. However, even as airlines and businesses struggle to adjust their computer and scheduling systems to accommodate the time change, turns out there's precious little evidence that the extra hour of daylight will save any significant amount of energy.

A study by the California Energy Commission, released last month, found that if people maintain their daily schedules then spring and fall daylight savings time extension would probably cause a 2 to 5% drop in the evening while morning electricity use would grow some, but probably not enough to offset evening savings. "The net effect is small and uncertain: a best guess of total net energy savings is on the order of ½ of 1%, but savings could just as well be zero."

In fact, the researchers go on to say there's a 25% chance that the early time change will actually increase electricity use, and that they're 95% confident that the energy savings range from a potential increase of 1.1% to a potential decrease of 2.2%.

Part of the reason for the low energy savings may be because of an increase early morning electricity use. Sunrise will move from about 6:15 a.m. to 7:15 a.m., meaning students and early-morning workers may need to use more lights while getting ready. Schools and coffee shops and other places that open in the early morning will also need more electric lights to function. As an example of how early daylight savings time can backfire, take the case of Australia: they instituted an early daylight savings time for the 2000 Olympics, and saw an immediate spike in early morning electricity use, resulting in an overall energy increase and higher electricity bills.

--Jen Phillips

Walking the Plank Over the Grand Canyon

| Thu Mar. 8, 2007 7:42 PM EST

grand_canyon.jpgLike most lefties, I believe in protecting/respecting the environment and giving Native Americans a leg-up in exchange for the genocide we graciously offered them in the past. But what to make of it when Native Americans try to pull themselves from poverty by destroying the few precious lands they have left?

That is the question this article in the Washington Post asks about the Hualapi Indians' new "skywalk" over the Grand Canyon. The article does a good job probing the issue, but let me just point to a few of the things that made me want to laugh and cry and roll my eyes and throw up and have my eyes pop out all at once.

The skywalk is an attempt to draw tourism to the pristine Hualapi lands, where only a fraction of the Grand Canyon's 4.4 million-plus annual visitors stop. The skywalk is a 30,000-square-foot glass projection over the canyon itself. The tribe's attempt at a casino failed because most visitors to Grand Canyon West come from Las Vegas. The tribe was then approached by a man who leads tours from Las Vegas, who wanted to find a quieter way for tourists to view the canyon than from a helicopter, and wanted to increase their angle of vision from 180 degrees in an aircraft "to 720 degrees in a skywalk." More! Better! Even the Grand Canyon from a helicopter is not enough! I wonder how much better a view the skywalk actually offers.

The 84-year-old tribal elder who led the ceremony celebrating the skywalk's completion said: "Like the car and buses. The white man made it, and it came out strong. We've got to give it a chance."

Public Environmental Art for Children, Oh My!

| Thu Mar. 8, 2007 7:08 PM EST

Today the Washington Post turned its arts coverage to two hot topics at once: the environment and children. Who can resist miniature environmentalists with purple paint smeared across their mouths who spout perfect sound-bites like little PR spokespeople?

Fifty people participated in a public art project called Vote for Art last Saturday in Takoma Park at which they painted over 2006 campaign signs with fresh slogans, largely environmental, to post in their yards on Arts Advocacy Day, next Tuesday. The Post's article quoted 6-year-old Sasha Schneer, who was completing a piece of anti-car publicity, as saying, "I'm trying to convince people to stop using the products that are polluting." It's not that I disbelieve his sincere conviction that pollution is bad. It's just that he is almost certainly regurgitating phrases he has heard his parents exchange in the recent past—and to the national media, no less!

When I was only a few years older than Schneer, destruction of the rainforest and the prospect of global warming used to keep me awake at night. So I am sure that he comprehends environmental degradation on some rudimentary level. And hey, at least the media is letting us know that some of the next generation cares about the state of the Earth—and that someone is giving them the language to let others know why it matters.

Arts organizations in other towns might take a bit of inspiration from this project. When I was a kid, I remember my classmates uttering phrases like "recycling is stupid" while throwing trash around the classroom. I could have used a little bit of Schneer's vocabulary to help me let my classmates know why there are a few smart reasons to recycle.

--Rose Miller

The Squid Is the Whale

| Thu Mar. 8, 2007 6:47 PM EST

If you enjoyed our report on the fate of the oceans, you might, like us, be both amazed and saddened by the tale of the colossal squid. One of these mysterious creatures was caught by accident—as are so many of its smaller and less exciting relatives—giving scientists a their first good look at the largest invertebrate.

For more on the startling revelation from the deep, read this Newsweek story. For more on how big a problem by-catch really is, click here.

Climate Change Will Affect Women More Severely Than Men

| Thu Mar. 8, 2007 3:29 PM EST

Today is International Women's Day. You'd hardly know it.

Though the IUCN (World Conservation Union) has celebrated by releasing a disturbing report on global warming predicting that the physical, economic, social, and cultural impacts of global warming will jeopardize women far more then men. Just as Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami disproportionately affected women far more then men.

The report, Gender and Climate Change (available here as a PDF), concludes that women are more severely affected by climate change and natural disasters because of their social roles and because of discrimination and poverty. To make matters worse, they're also underrepresented in decision-making about climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and, most critically, discussions and decisions about adaptation and mitigation. From the report:

For example, the 20,000 people who died in France during the extreme heat wave in Europe in 2003 included significantly more elderly women than men. In natural disasters that have occurred in recent years, both in developing and in developed countries, it is primarily the poor who have suffered—and all over the world, the majority of the poor are women, who at all levels earn less than men. In developing countries, women living in poverty bear a disproportionate burden of climate change consequences. Because of women's marginalized status and dependence on local natural resources, their domestic burdens are increased, including additional work to fetch water, or to collect fuel and fodder. In some areas, climate change generates resource shortages and unreliable job markets, which lead to increased male-out migration and more women left behind with additional agricultural and households duties. Poor women's lack of access to and control over natural resources, technologies and credit mean that they have fewer resources to cope with seasonal and episodic weather and natural disasters. Consequently traditional roles are reinforced, girls' education suffers, and women's ability to diversify their livelihoods (and therefore their capacity to access income-generating jobs) is diminished.

The report notes examples from other sources, including this:

An Oxfam Report (March 2005) on the impact of the 2004 Asia Tsunami on women raised alarms about gender imbalances since the majority of those killed and among those least able to recover were women. In Aceh, for example, more than 75 percent of those who died were women, resulting in a male-female ratio of 3:1 among the survivors. As so many mothers died, there have been major consequences with respect to infant mortality, early marriage of girls, neglect of girls' education, sexual assault, trafficking in women and prostitution. These woes, however, are largely neglected in the media coverage.

And this:

In a study executed on behalf of ACTIONAID in 1993-1994 in the Himalayan region of Nepal, it became clear that environmental degradation has compounded stress within households and pressure on scarce resources. This meant that the pressure on children, particularly girl children, to do more work and at an earlier age was increasing. Girls do the hardiest work, have the least say and the fewest education options. Programmes that concentrate only on sending more girls to school were failing as the environmental and social conditions of the families deteriorated.

Ironically, women also produce less greenhouse gas emissions than men, the report concludes. Flatulence jokes aside, this includes women in the developed world.

In Europe, in both the work and leisure contexts, women travel by car less frequently and over shorter distances, use smaller, energy-saving cars and fly considerably less frequently than men.

Women are over represented as heads of low-income households and under represented in high-income groups. In this respect, income levels play a role in CO2 emissions: the higher the income, the higher the emissions from larger houses with more electrical equipment, bigger cars and so on.

Lower income people, who happen to be—you guessed it—mostly women, also have less access to energy-efficient appliances and homes because these tend to be more costly. Most frustrating of all, women perceive global warming as a more dangerous threat than men do and would do more to address it, given the tools.

Women and men perceive the cause of climate change (including CO2 emissions) differently. In Germany, more than 50 percent of women compared to only 40 percent of men, rate climate change brought about by global warming as extremely or very dangerous. Women also believed very firmly that each individual can contribute toward protecting the climate through his/her individual actions. However, policy planning does not reflect in anyway these perceptions.

By excluding women, the world loses vital input and profound knowledge—knowledge that may prove key to adapting to climate change.

Inuit women in Northern Canada have always had a deep understanding of weather conditions, as they were responsible for assessing hunting conditions and preparing the hunters accordingly. During a drought in the small islands of the Federal States of Micronesia, it was local women, knowledgeable about island hydrology as a result of land-based work, who were able to find potable water by digging a new well that reached the freshwater lens.

The report concludes:

There is a need to refocus the thinking and the debate on energy and climate change to include a human rights perspective. Integrating a rights-based approach to access to sustainable and affordable energy is an approach that will recognise and take into account women's specific needs and women's human rights. Current economic models based primarily on privatisation strategies do not include accountability in terms of meeting people's basic needs.

The UN has established a website on gender and climate change, where you can learn more, get involved.

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Bank of America Pledges $20 Billion for Green Loans

| Tue Mar. 6, 2007 8:53 PM EST

Bank of America dedicated a huge chunk of change today to green initiatives. It may just be the biggest green project of any corporation in history.

No doubt this is fantastic for the planet. But it may take a few years to tell whether this is as good for the planet as it is for the bank's reputation. For example, Yale law professor Daniel Esty said that last year Virgin's Richard Branson pledged $3 billion to combat global warming over a decade. But Branson only earmarked profits from his air and rail businesses, which don't always turn a profit.

Suspicion aside, it's crucial for corporations to get recognition for good work. Otherwise they won't do it. They'll behave according to the adage, "no good deed goes unpunished." Most of $20 billion will go to cut-rate rate loans for green business and green real estate. But the bank pledged to donate $100 million outright for conservation and to LEED certify all bank buildings. So give it up for the bank! Let's hope others follow suit.

The manifesto on cooperation between corporations and environmentalists is Natural Capitalism, an inspiring read. When is "corporate responsibility" just hype? Read about British Petroleum and Interface carpet company in our November issue.

—April Rabkin

Pollution Kills Babies (But So Do War and Poverty...)

| Tue Mar. 6, 2007 7:18 PM EST

San Francisco, that lovely city by the bay where you once left your heart—and home of Mother Jones, has the lowest infant mortality rate of any large U.S. city. But one neighborhood has the highest rate anywhere in California—comparable to those of developing countries. That neighborhood is the troubled Bayview-Hunters Point, home of gang violence, the city's main power and sewage treatment plants and a Superfund toxic waste site. Resident Tuli Hughes has lost 5 babies there.

Exposure to even small amounts of toxic substances during early pregnancy can result in miscarriages. That's abortion by neglect, or so a new report from the Center for American Progress attempts to persuade evangelicals, AlterNet reports approvingly. Indeed, the religious right has begun to take some interest in environmental "sanctity of life" issues, but thus far they have focused on mercury in fish—a problem far more likely to affect middle-class women (and, you know, fetuses).

I'm not convinced this is the best way to persuade people that environmental injustice is wrong. All people have equal rights to have a baby, but the world is overpopulated and anti-choice arguments hardly need encouragement. Maybe we should just call environmental injustice what it is—genocide.

Coal in Cars

| Tue Mar. 6, 2007 2:15 PM EST

A really bad idea that Washington likes and coal states are already funding.

EPA Wants Train and Ship Emissions Cut 90%, Starting Next Year

| Mon Mar. 5, 2007 10:28 PM EST

EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson held a press conference last Friday in one of the busiest ports of one of the reputedly dirtiest states: Newark, New Jersey. Johnson's goal is to make Newark and the rest of the nation cleaner, by reducing fumes and soot from diesel transport like cargo vessels and container trains by 90 percent. The changes will apply to a variety of vehicles, including freight and passenger trains, tugboats, yachts, ferries, and cargo ships.

This is one of the first times the Bush administration's EPA has made such an innovative proposal. As we reported last year, the EPA has had its libraries closed and Bush's latest budget is kind to corporations but harsh on wildlife.

When the EPA's proposed changes are completed, diesel engines would have reduced soot and other airborne matter by 90 percent. Most likely, Johnson said, the plan would not be fully implemented until 2030, and would cost $600 million to fulfill. But, he added, the savings from reduced respiratory illnesses and other air pollution-related maladies would be around $12 billion by 2030.

A timeline of the proposed changes:

  • 2008: New eco-friendly fuel, emissions systems are certified for locomotives, implemented as available
  • 2009: New diesel-powered trains and ships required to use "new emissions technology"
  • 2010: All older locomotives required to have "new emissions technology" implemented
  • 2012: Ships and trains required to use a cleaner diesel fuel which has very low sulfur levels
  • 2014: All marine vehicles using diesel engines required to use catalytic converters
  • 2015: All trains with diesel engines required to use catalytic converters
  • 2015: Final rules regarding manufacturing clean vehicles and their fuels implemented
  • 2030: Goal for all diesel-powered marine vehicles and locomotives to adhere to new environmentally-friendly regulations. Air-borne soot reduced by 90%
  • —Jen Phillips