Blue Marble - April 2008

Lock Up CO2 In DVDs

| Thu Apr. 10, 2008 10:26 PM EDT

71519130_a643617ede_m.jpg Here's an idea. Carbon dioxide removed from smokestack emissions could become a valuable raw material for the production of polycarbonate plastics in eyeglass lenses, car headlamps, DVDs, CDs, and drink bottles. The processes involved would offer less expensive, safer and greener products, researchers suggested in two separate reports presented at the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society.

"Carbon dioxide is readily available, especially from the smokestack of industries that burn coal and other fossil fuels," says chemist Thomas Müller. "And it's a very cheap starting material. If we can replace more expensive starting materials with CO2, then you'll have an economic driving force." There's already a huge market, and millions of tons of polycarbonates are sold each year. But what hasn't been factored in is that these hard, tough materials represent what Müller calls "intriguing sinks" for exhaust carbon dioxide. In fact, there's no other consumer product with such potential for removing CO2 from the environment.

So, we may be drinking from a CO2 plastic bottle (well, hopefully not) and watching movies on waste-CO2 DVDs (well, preferably streaming) soon. "I would say it's a matter of a few years before CO2-derived polymers are available to the public," says Müller.

Good idea: make polycarbonates from waste CO2. Better idea: make less pollution and less polycarbonate plastics.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

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Flower Scent Destroyed by Air Pollution

| Thu Apr. 10, 2008 9:16 PM EDT

86496697_f9d2addeda_m.jpg Air pollution is destroying the fragrance of flowers and preventing pollinating insects from following scent trails to their source. The research from the University of Virginia indicates that power plants and automobiles are behind at least some of the decline of wild pollinators, like bees.

According to Jose Fuentes, co-author of the study, the scent molecules produced by flowers in the less polluted environment of the 1800s could travel up to 4,000 feet. Today, downwind of major cites, they may travel only 700 feet. This makes it increasingly difficult for pollinators to find flowers. The result, potentially, is a vicious cycle where pollinators struggle to find enough food to sustain their populations, and populations of flowering plants don't get pollinated sufficiently to proliferate and diversify. [Sound familiar?]

The scent molecules produced by flowers are highly volatile and quickly bond with pollutants such as ozone, hydroxyl and nitrate radicals, which destroy their aromas. So the flowers no longer smell like flowers. This forces pollinators to search farther and longer and possibly to rely more on sight and less on smell. Using a mathematical model of how scents travel with the wind, the team found it apparent that air pollution destroys the aroma of flowers by as much as 90 percent from periods before automobiles and heavy industry. The more air pollution in a region, the greater the destruction of the flower scents.

Just in case we don't already have enough reasons to tackle emissions.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Bright Lights, Green City

| Wed Apr. 9, 2008 5:04 PM EDT

time_square_york_271314_l.jpgIn the city that never sleeps, where the lights of Times Square blaze 24/7, electricity is at a premium for the more than 8 million New Yorkers. Yesterday, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that New York City is seeking proposals for the greening of NYC. Private developers will be contracted do all the legwork to outfit city-owned buildings with solar power—by purchasing, installing, and maintaining the solar installations. Developers can choose from among 11 potential sites throughout the cities 5 boroughs.

The solar power installations will have a total capacity of two megawatts, which is more than the 1.6-megawatt Google headquarters' solar array installation—the largest corporate installation in the United States. It is estimated that Google's solar panels will generate 2.6 megawatt hours—enough to power 1,000 homes in California—and offset 3.6 million pounds of CO2 emissions per year.

New York City is just one of 25 cities chosen to participate in the Solar America Initiative, which has partnered with the Department of Energy in order to make solar energy costs competitive with those of traditional energy sources. By 2015, the city hopes to increase its solar capacity to 8.1 megawatts, more than 5 times Google's current capacity.

—Joyce Tang

CO2 Maps Highlight Worst Offenders

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

A new, high-resolution, interactive map of US carbon dioxide emissions finds unexpected trouble spots. Too many emissions have been blamed on the northeastern US when the southeastern US is a much larger source than previously estimated. This according to Kevin Gurney at Purdue University, project leader. The maps and system, called Vulcan, show CO2 emissions at more than 100 times more detail than was available before. Previously, CO2 emissions data were reported, at best, monthly at a state level. Vulcan examines CO2 emissions hourly at local levels. Below is a great YouTube video of how it works, told in Geek, but probably understandable to nonGeek speakers or those with Geek as a Second Language. Look hard enough and you can almost find your own tailpipe in the maps.

The three-year project was funded by NASA and the U.S. Department of Energy under the North American Carbon Program, and involved researchers from Purdue University, Colorado State University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Vulcan will revolutionize carbon cycle research. It's considered the next generation in our understanding of fossil fuel emissions, with enormous implications for climate science, carbon trading and climate change mitigation work.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Small Nuclear Exchange Would Make Global Ozone Hole

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 9:30 PM EDT

509px-Nagasakibomb.jpg A limited nuclear weapons exchange between Pakistan and India using their current arsenals could create a near-global ozone hole, triggering human health problems and wreaking environmental havoc for at least a decade. According to a new computer modeling study from Brian Toon and Michael Mills of the University of Colorado Boulder, the ozone losses would be much larger than losses estimated in previous "nuclear winter" and "ultraviolet spring" scenarios.

A nuclear war between the two countries involving 50 Hiroshima-sized nuclear devices on each side would cause massive urban fires and loft as much as 5 million metric tons of soot about 50 miles into the stratosphere. The soot would absorb enough solar radiation to heat surrounding gases, setting in motion a series of chemical reactions that would break down the stratospheric ozone layer protecting Earth from harmful ultraviolet radiation—including ozone losses of 25 percent to 40 percent at mid-latitudes, and 50 to 70 percent at northern high latitudes.

Two 2006 studies led by Toon showed that such a small-scale regional nuclear war could produce as many fatalities as all of World War II and disrupt global climate for a decade or more. A nuclear exchange involving 100 15-kiloton, Hiroshima-type weapons is only 0.03 percent of the total explosive power of the world's nuclear arsenal, he said.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Beyond Propaganda: New Republic Rolls Out BP-Sponsored Enviro Blog

| Mon Apr. 7, 2008 8:20 PM EDT

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So, The New Republic has added a new blog to its roster: the Environment & Energy blog, which is sponsored, nay "powered," by BP. (Quips blogger Andrew Daniller: "I assumed their whole magazine was sponsored by military contractors.") Maybe this is where the blogosphere is headed, magazines selling off their real estate like major league ballparks, to the highest bidder. And we're all for creative ways to bring in revenue to support the cause, but there's a qualitative difference between running BP ads in a magazine and having the BP logo emblazoned on all energy and environment content—i.e. all the content that could relate to BP. Certainly the sponsorship raises issues of editorial-advertising line-blurring, potential self-censorship, the deterioration of journalistic self-respect, etc.

The company formerly known as British Petroleum (it now prefers "beyond petroleum"), despite furious rebranding efforts, has a typically abysmal environmental record: "Although BP put $500 million into solar power between 2000 and 2005, it spent $8.4 billion exploring and producing petroleum in 2004 alone." And BP at one time lobbied hard to open ANWR to drilling. Then again, so did TNR, asserting in 2002 that the plan to drill in the wildlife refuge "would almost certainly cause little environmental damage."

So what are environmentally- and ethically-minded TNR staffers to do? It's already a bit late for a preemptive strike against the sponsorship (like the one last year at the Memphis Commercial Appeal, where gutsy reporters rebelled and sunk a management-hatched plan to allow FedEx to sponsor a series on world business). BP must see the TNR blog as a relatively safe forum, one where it won't face persistent, searing criticism. So why not test BP's assumption? Why not scrutinize and heap journalistic abuse on BP and Big Oil till they can't take it anymore? TNR staffer Bradford Plumer engaged BP a bit today, calling out the company for "shamefully working behind the scenes in Congress to oppose strong climate legislation." That's a start.

—Justin Elliott

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Birds Feed Citizen Scientists

| Sat Apr. 5, 2008 4:58 PM EDT

45705967_eb04516a4c_m.jpg But first, the slacker birds. You know them. You've seen them. They flit from one bird feeder to the next, swilling millet, spilling sunflower seeds, covered in hulls and husks. Ever wondered about the ecological effects of feeding these backyard beauties? Well, Gillian Robb, Robbie McDonald, Dan Chamberlain, and Stuart Bearhop of various worthy institutes in the UK have published a research review in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, an online journal of the Ecological Society of America, as reported by AAAS. We dole out 500,000 metric tons of bird seed annually in the US and UK, supporting millions of songbirds. This researchers found that, though beneficial, the bonus seed may be a mixed blessing. From the abstract:

While alteration of the natural dynamics of food supply represents a major intervention in avian ecology, we have a remarkably limited understanding of the impacts of this widespread pastime… We consider positive impacts, such as aiding species conservation programs, and negative ones, such as increased risk of disease transmission. It seems highly likely that natural selection is being artificially perturbed, as feeding influences almost every aspect of bird ecology, including reproduction, behavior, demography, and distribution.

In one study, Robb and her colleagues found that dozens of blue tits that nibbled hand-out peanuts all winter fledged more chicks in the spring than those not fed. But a 2001 study of Florida scrub jays found that fed birds ate too much in winter and laid their eggs too early, so natural food sources weren't available when the hatchlings needed them. The review hints at concerns about indirect impacts too. Namely that fed winter residents could be monopolizing all the good breeding territories and natural food supplies in the spring, outcompeting returning migrants.

On the plus side, feeders and nest boxes offer some swell opportunities for studying bird behavior. The Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has launched some cool citizen-science web efforts:

Mapping Media Attention

| Thu Apr. 3, 2008 9:46 PM EDT

Here's a great series of cartograms—maps distorted to reveal a bias. In this case media attention by region. You can click on the buttons to see how newspapers warp their coverage of world news according to parochial interests. Nicolas Kayser-Bril first published this online on L'Observatoire des Médias, and later in expanded form in the Online Journalism Blog. Below is a newer cartogram, made in partnership with Gilles Bruno, of the coverage of the blogosphere. Their hope is to update these maps daily or weekly to pressure editors into covering more diverse issues.

blogosphere.gif

As for the cartographers' bias, where are the data for coverage of the world-ocean, accounting for more than 70% of Earth's surface? Where's Antarctica?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

CO2 Reductions Overly Optimistic

| Wed Apr. 2, 2008 10:10 PM EDT

2108987446_0cc86b89ec.jpg Reducing global emissions of carbon dioxide over the coming century will be more challenging than society has been led to believe. This according to an important commentary, called "Dangerous Assumptions," appearing in the journal Nature, and summarized in a press release from the National Science Foundation. The authors, from the University of Colorado at Boulder, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, and McGill University in Montreal, write that the technological challenges of reducing CO2 emissions have been significantly underestimated by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which won the Nobel in for its Climate Change 2007 reports.

"In the end, there is no question whether technological innovation is necessary—it is," write the authors. "The question is, to what degree should policy focus explicitly on motivating such innovation? The IPCC plays a risky game in assuming that business-as-usual advances in technological innovation will carry most of the burden of achieving future emissions reductions."

"Not only is this reduction unlikely to happen under current policies," says Roger Pielke, Jr., of CU-Boulder, "but we are moving in the opposite direction right now. We believe these kinds of assumptions in the analysis blind us to reality and could potentially distort our ability to develop effective policies."

Homeland Security Builds Fence to Enforce Law; Waives Law to Build Fence

| Wed Apr. 2, 2008 4:00 PM EDT

border%20fence.jpg

A month ago, Julia Whitty wrote that the government might be moving towards a saner approach to the border fence—environmentally speaking, anyway. Yesterday's news was not so sunny (and not so sane): the Department of Homeland Security announced that it will waive a host of federal environmental regulations in order to complete nearly 700 miles of border fence by the end of the year.

DHS insists that "the department remains deeply committed to environmental responsibility, and will continue to work closely with the Department of Interior and other federal and state resources management agencies to ensure impacts to the environment, wildlife, and cultural and historic artifacts are analyzed and minimized." Hard to see how they can possibly argue this when they plan to ignore the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Water Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and 28 other pieces of legislation whose scope includes everything from desert protection to Native American rights.

I wish I could say that this will be a tough sell, especially in those border communities already chafing at the government's heavy hand. But, sadly, it won't, because they don't have to sell it at all. The Department's authority comes directly from Congress, which amended a section of a 1996 law to allow the head of Homeland Security to waive regulations at his sole discretion. In short, legislators are so determined to build a fence that they'll ignore the ongoing, unified opposition of local leaders and environmental groups, and flout the law in order to enforce it.

Update: In the "nothing money can't buy" department, The Texas Observer reports that the fence will skip property owned by a major Bush donor.

—Casey Miner

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user jcarter.