Blue Marble - September 2007

Are Babies Causing Global Warming?

| Wed Sep. 12, 2007 1:06 PM PDT

Yes. Yes, they are.

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In the Arctic, Chemicals Disrupt Gender Balance

| Wed Sep. 12, 2007 11:05 AM PDT

We already knew that our greenhouse gases were causing problems for the Inuit. Now, we find out that some other little "presents" we've given the Arctic Circle—chemicals from our electronics—are wreaking havoc, too.

In many Inuit communities these days, twice as many girls as boys are born. Scientists recently traced the trend to a buildup of chemicals present in common electronic devices (like televisions and computers). When the chemicals enter the bloodstream of a pregnant woman, they can, scientists believe, act like hormones, causing a fetus to undergo a sex change in the earliest stages of development.

This is not a good thing. In one community in Greenland, only baby girls were born during the course of the study. And if that's not alarming enough, consider the wider implications:

The sex balance of the human race - historically a slight excess of boys over girls - has recently begun to change. A paper published in the US National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences earlier this year said that in Japan and the US there were 250,000 boys fewer than would have been expected had the sex ratio existing in 1970 remained unchanged. The paper was unable to pin down a cause for the new excess of girls over boys.

This does not bode well for humanity. Not to mention lines for the ladies' room.

Introducing BK's Apple Fries, Healthy Food Their Way

| Wed Sep. 12, 2007 8:29 AM PDT

bk-applefries091107.jpgBurger King announced today that they're going to offer healthier food for kids this fall. Their new "Kids Meal" will offer low-fat milk, flame-broiled chicken strips, and "Apple Fries"—red apples sliced (via BK's patented cutting process) and packaged, you guessed it, to look like fries. Although, leave it to Burger King to leave out the most nutritious part of the apple—the skin.

Burger King's attempt to provide healthier food could be in the interest of public health (or pressure?), but to me it sounds like just another marketing ploy which is par for the course for the fast food industry these days. But what's BK up to with these apple fries? Are they shaped like fries to trick children into eating them, or to have kids associate healthiness with french fries? Why not just give the kids a whole apple, skin and all?

After all, a recent Washington Post survey of DC fourth graders showed that kids actually do like fruit. Minimally processed mandarin orange segments, applesauce, and pineapple receive as high a kid's review as processed, sweetened treats. But I guess kids can't have it their way at Burger King.

Good News from Ground Zero

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 1:16 PM PDT

On the sixth anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Grist has an interesting post about Manhattan's financial district. The community's struggle to rebound has given rise to something the area hasn't seen in a long time: a residential neighborhood.

The Twin Towers were not a good addition to the financial district from a livability point of view; one of the main goals of the reconstruction there has been to "recreate the grid"; that is, the various smaller blocks that used to be there, the kind that make up the vibrant street life that Jane Jacobs first discussed in her classic book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities.

Grist's Jon Rynn points out that this project probably wouldn't have been possible without billions of dollars in federal aid. But now that the ball is rolling the community is beginning to take care of itself.

Wouldn't it be nice if the same thing happened in other places?

40 Percent of Deaths Linked to Environment

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 12:53 PM PDT

Hmmm... Maybe it's not so bad to drink Dr. Pepper after all. A recent Cornell University study has found that nearly half of deaths worldwide are caused or exacerbated by environmental pollution, including water pollution.

David Pimentel, the Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who conducted the research, links 62 million deaths each year to organic or chemical pollutants, placing these factors alongside long-known killers such as heart disease.

Increasing rates of Malaria, E. coli, Salmonella, AIDS, and Tuberculosis all are linked to environmental degradation, according to Pimentel. "In the United States alone, 76,000 people are in the hospital each year, with 5,000 deaths, just due to pollution of air, food, or water," he said. "Cancers are increasing in the U.S., and AIDS is on the rise."

Free Fruit for U.K. Kids Contains Pesticides (Wait, U.K. Kids Get Free Fruit?)

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 12:39 PM PDT

When I learned that most free fruit for schoolchildren in the U.K. contains residue from pesticides, I didn't know quite how to react. I mean, pesticides in food is always bad news for sure. Yet I can't help but think that free fruit for kids is a pretty good idea (and one that we haven't managed to pull off in the U.S.).

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. From a Child Health News article on the topic:

Critics say the scheme was always unlikely to work because making fruit and vegetables available at school break time has no place in a culture in which healthy food is considered 'uncool' and they say stories abound of children forlornly wandering around the school playground with a bucket of fruit, trying to dispose of it.

Conclusion: Even if the free fruit were organic, it would still need some serious PR work.

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Polar Bears Mostly Extinct by 2050

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 9:56 AM PDT

Sad news. A recent U.S. Geological Survey claims that 2/3 of the world's polar bears will be extinct by 2050 due to Arctic warming. Ice up North is melting so fast that the large predators likely won't have enough ice on which to hunt and breed during the summers. The Secretary of the Interior has suggested making polar bears a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act, entitling the animals to federal protections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is giving a final recommendation on the bear's addition to the list to the Interior in January 2008. The Interior's suggested protection of the polar bear, though not finalized, is an encouraging move, given the Bush administration's history of active opposition to wildlife conservation.

Though the polar bears are disappearing, there is hopeful news on the other side of the globe. In a steamy Indian rainforest, tigers have been spotted 30 years after they were assumed extinct in the area. A local official estimates there are now about 20 of the big cats living in the wet, mountainous region of Maharashta. India is home to about 1,500 tigers, half of the world's tiger population.

Pope Issues Plea for the Earth at First-Ever 'Green' Youth Rally

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 3:03 PM PDT

Yesterday, The Catholic Church's first eco-friendly youth rally featured a plea from Pope Benedict for humans to make "courageous choices" that will help save the earth "before it is too late."

The rally, held in Italy, lasted through the weekend and attracted nearly half a million attendees. Usually a crowd of that size would create a huge amount of environmentally unfriendly garbage, but not so in this case. Participants were issued kits including a recyclable backpack and color-coded trash bags to organize personal recyclables, and meals were served on biodegradable plates.

Weird Weather Watch: Another Category 5 Hurricane

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 11:50 AM PDT

A few weeks ago, as Dean approached Mexico, I wrote that just 30 hurricanes have attained Category 5 status since record-keeping began in 1886. Twelve of those occurred since 1980; 7 since 2000.

Make that 31 total, and 8 since 2000: Hurricane Felix hit Central America with a vengeance this morning. It was the first time two Category 5 storms have made landfall in a single season.

More than 14,000 people were evacuated.

Speed of Climate Change An Unseen Danger

| Sun Sep. 2, 2007 6:52 PM PDT

The total amount of global warming we allow has dire consequences for our planet. But so too does the speed of that climate change. According to the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), this focus has not yet appeared in either science or policy.

CICERO highlights some ecological studies focusing on the rate of climate change, most of which leave no doubt that the expected rate of change during this century will exceed the ability of many animals and plants to migrate or adapt. One such study found that five percent of all ecosystems cannot adapt more quickly than 0.1°C per decade over time:

Forests will be among the ecosystems to experience problems first because their ability to migrate to stay within the climate zone they are adapted to is limited. If the rate is 0.3 °C per decade, 15 percent of ecosystems will not be able to adapt. If the rate should exceed 0.4 °C per decade, all ecosystems will be quickly destroyed, opportunistic species will dominate, and the breakdown of biological material will lead to even greater emissions of CO2. This will in turn increase the rate of warming.

There is also a risk that rapid climate change will increase the likelihood of the really big and scary changes, i.e., the irreversible ones, such as a weakening of the Gulf Stream, and/or the melting of the Greenland ice sheets. Rapid change increases the risk of triggering positive feedback mechanisms that will increase the rate and level of temperature change still more. Read more about these in MoJo's The Thirteenth Tipping Point.

According to CICERO, to focus on the speed of climate change we need to concentrate more on the short-lived greenhouse gases (methane and tropospheric ozone), as well as particles with a warming effect, such as soot (black carbon). They also suggest a greater focus on the medium-term—the next few decades—since the fastest changes will likely occur around that time.

Of course, that requires that we speed up the grindingly-slow gears of public policy and determination. First step in that process: Stop fighting the naysayers. It's a waste of time and energy and we've already lost a decade doing it. We need to step around, over, or through their obstinate refusal to face the truth. Luckily, we have a model for doing this, since we hopscotched over the "science" of the tobacco industry long ago.

On that cheery note, I'm off to the wilderness for a week or three, close to the comforts of nature, far from the madding consumers. JULIA WHITTY