Blue Marble - July 2008

Solar Nirvana

| Thu Jul. 31, 2008 9:03 PM EDT

Dish_Stirling_Systems_of_SBP_in_Spain.JPG Science is publishing an MIT paper (in press) outlining a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal boutique energy source into the mainstream.

The breakthrough revolves around storing energy when the sun isn't shining—an expensive pitfall until now.

The new method uses the sun's energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Like photosynthesis.

Later the two can be recombined inside a fuel cell to create carbon-free electricity. Like running a fuel cell backwards.

The good part is the system would work day or night. The other good part is it requires nothing but abundant, nontoxic natural materials.

"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said senior author Daniel Nocera. "Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

For those who want to know how it works…

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Fires Burn Budgets Badly

| Wed Jul. 30, 2008 8:42 PM EDT

800px-Hercules_C130_bombardier_d_eau_Californie.jpg A couple of interesting articles on the fire season blazing in the West. The LA Times reports how fire commanders are pressured to order aircraft into action on major fires even when they won't do any good.

Why? Because they make good television. CNN drops, they call them.

And because citizens and politicians have come to expect the sight of aircraft dumping water and fire retardant means "their " fire is getting the attention it deserves.

It's not that aircraft aren't useful. They can help a lot. But aircraft don't put out fires, say firefighters. And their use is escalating the cost of fighting wildfires. Last year the Forest Service spent $296 million—up from $171 million in 2004.

The Sacramento Bee reports the Forest Service has already spent $900 million this year, nearly 75 percent of its fire-suppression budget. And this on a season that hasn't reached peak yet.

These days nearly half the Forest Service's budget is spent fighting wildfires or trying to prevent them. In 1991, it took only 13 percent. So far this year's fires have cost $210 million more than at the same point last year.

The Bee article alludes to the fact that climate change is driving a longer, more expensive, and more extensive, fire season.

Which is just one of the reasons why our big global warming experiment is going to be such a budget burner.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Doctors Prescribe... Nothing

| Tue Jul. 29, 2008 10:39 PM EDT

402px-Surgeon_operating%2C_Fitzsimons_Army_Medical_Center%2C_circa_1990.jpgThe patient is ill. It's contagious. It's sweeping the globe. And the doctors prescribe… two pills of ignorance and a shot of whining.

How's this? Well, a new survey reports that most health department directors believe their jurisdictions will face serious public health problems from climate change in the next 20 years. Yet few have done anything to detect, prevent, or adapt to the threats.

This, even though the majority of these directors believe that heat waves, heat-related illnesses, reduced air quality, reduced water quality, and reduced water quantity are likely to become common or severe problems in a warming climate.

Several factors contribute to the slackerism. Most survey respondents felt hamstrung by a lack of knowledge about climate change. Most felt little help was available from state and federal slackers. Most felt they needed more funding, staff, and training.

In other words, most are hoping someone else will take care of it.

"The reason why so many Americans view climate change as a threat to other species rather than as a threat to people may be in part because health professionals have been largely silent on the issue," says Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication. "By using the opportunities available to them, public health and health care professionals can educate people on the threats of climate change to their health and wellbeing."

That would require the docs to get off the antidepressants and get, well, seriously worried.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Perfect Storm Stores CO2 Perfectly

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 10:19 PM EDT

473px-Typhoon_Mindulle_28_jun_0445Z.jpg Hurricanes may be getting bigger and more frequent as a result of climate change. But they may also be counterbalancing their destruction by sequestering millions of tons of carbon in the deep ocean.

A new study finds that a single typhoon in Taiwan buried as much carbon as all the other rains in that country in a year.

Of the 61 million tons of sediment carried out to sea by the Choshui River during Typhoon Mindulle in 2004, some 500,000 tons consisted of particles of carbon, weathered from Taiwan's mountains.

That's 95 percent as much carbon as the river transports during normal rains in a year. It also equates to more than 400 tons of carbon per square mile washed away during the storm.

The good news is that once the carbon gets buried in the ocean it eventually becomes sedimentary rock and doesn't return to the atmosphere for hundreds of millions of years.

So, the work of tropical storms isn't enough to cancel out the warming gases we're putting into the atmosphere. But it's a pretty good response from a stressed planet.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

China Exports 33% Of CO2 Footprint

| Mon Jul. 28, 2008 9:55 PM EDT

200px-D-Link_made_in_china.JPG One-third of China's carbon footprint comes from producing goods for export. That's up from an estimate of 25 percent only 10 months ago.

Now a new paper in Energy Policy say China's export emissions equaled 1.7 billion tons of CO2 in 2005. That's 6% of total global emissions. The same as Germany, France, and the UK combined.

Many of the industries producing these emissions make electronics for the rich world. Which gets sticky when you realize that international policy penalizes the producer country, not the consumer. China, understandably, thinks that's wrong, reports New Scientist:

"In some measure, it makes sense if people buy goods and become liable for the emissions generated when the goods are produced," says Benito Müller of the Oxford Institute for Energy Studies, UK. "They will certainly be more choosy about what they buy."

Even Chinese consumers.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

More Cell-Phone Wariness From Docs

| Fri Jul. 25, 2008 3:40 PM EDT

cellphone150.jpgThe Baltimore Sun reports that another group of doctors has voiced its concerns about cell phones. They're the latest to do so; last year, a different group published the Bioinitiative Report, a roundup of some of the studies that suggest a link between cell-phone radiation and brain cancer.

This new group includes some bigwigs—most notably Dr. Ronald B. Herberman, director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute. Herberman told the Sun, "Really at the heart of my concern is that we shouldn't wait for a definitive study to come out, but err on the side of being safe rather than sorry later."

This, in a nutshell, is the precautionary principle, which is an important piece of this whole debate—but it's not really anything we haven't heard before. And we probably won't hear anything new until more science is in. Unfortunately, this could take quite a while. So the question remains: Should we follow Herberman's advice and use our mobiles sparingly till we know more?

Full disclosure: After researching "This is Your Brain on Cell Phones," I bought a headset. Just in case.

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Cow Poo Power Redux

| Thu Jul. 24, 2008 11:51 PM EDT

800px-Bos_taurus_taurus_relaxing.jpg California's already trying it. The people of India have been burning gobar for millennia. Now a new study finds that converting cow poo into a biogas could generate 3 percent of North America's electricity annually. Better yet, it would decrease greenhouse gases.

Here's why. If livestock manure is left to decompose naturally it emits two badass gases: nitrous oxide and methane. Nitrous oxide is 310 times more potent a greenhouse gas than CO2. Methane is 21 times more potent.

The researcher examined two hypothetical scenarios. The first: business-as-usual, burning coal and letting manure decompose. The second: anaerobically-digesting manure (think compost) to create biogas and burning it to offset coal.

The results? The hundreds of millions of livestock inhabiting the US could produce 100 billion kilowatt hours of electricity. Enough to power millions of homes and offices.

So could we call the first poo generating station the George W. Bush Shite House?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Carbon Offsets: Laughing off Climate Change?

| Thu Jul. 24, 2008 2:41 PM EDT

From the Wall Street Journal, here's the Kyoto Treaty's latest carbon offset scandal:

Rhodia SA manufactures hundreds of tons a day of adipic acid, an ingredient in nylon, at its factory [in Korea]. But the real money is in what it doesn't make. The payday, which could amount to more than $1 billion over seven years, comes from destroying nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, an unwanted byproduct and potent greenhouse gas. It's Rhodia's single most profitable business world-wide. Last year, destroying nitrous oxide here and at a similar plant in Brazil generated €189 million ($300.5 million) in sales of pollution "credits." . . .The [French-owned] Rhodia factory is slated to bring in more money, under the U.N.-administered program, than all the clean-air projects currently registered on the continent of Africa.

This story should lay to rest any doubts that carbon offsets must be treated with the utmost skepticism by lawmakers. It reprises a similar debacle I reported here, involving refrigerant manufactures who were "paid" under Kyoto to create more greenhouse gases so that they could destroy them and call it a carbon offset. The Rhodia case is all the more troubling because the culprit is a French company that should be running green anyway and because Kyoto's regulators were supposed to have learned how to prevent this by now. In short, buyer beware as the United States shops for its own legislative solution to climate change.
So why are these glaring cases of profiteering being glossed over in Washington? As I note in our July/August issue, the biggest carbon offset companies have partnered with some of the world's biggest polluters in an attempt to sculpt the details of a U.S. climate bill. (Lieberman-Warner would have allowed companies to meet up to 30 percent of their emission reductions with offsets). Hardly anybody is talking about this. The offset lobby still enjoys the kind of positive PR that its industrial partners can only dream of. It's a joke, but they're the ones who'll laugh to the bank.
 

Eat Less, Save The World

| Wed Jul. 23, 2008 4:27 PM EDT

800px-L%E9gumes_01.jpg Yup, it's that simple. Nineteen percent of total energy used in the US is tied to producing and distributing food. Too much food. Three times more than we actually need.

Cornell researchers suggest we eat less. The average American consumes 3,747 calories a day. That's 1200-1500 calories more than recommended. It's the reason we're fat and unhealthy, while our planet is lean and unhealthy.

The problem is that American diets are larded in animals and in junk food. Both use more energy to produce than healthful staples like potatoes, rice, fruits, and veggies.

By eating less junk and less meat, the average American would have a massive impact on fuel consumption and his/her health.

The authors suggest moving towards more traditional, organic farming methods for meat and dairy. They suggest crop farmers reduce pesticides and use more manure, cover crops, and crop rotations for better energy efficiency.

Changing the way we process, package and distribute food would help too. Although apparently the single most dramatic improvement in energy use would come from you and me consuming less processed foods. On average, American food travels 1,500 miles before it gets eaten.

Try the Modern Commandments: 1) Buy local. 2) Support organic and sustainable farms. (Stop whinging about the price, you're going to buy and eat less.) 3) Eat mindfully and savor every nourishing bite.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

Horse Virus Spreading to Humans

| Tue Jul. 22, 2008 10:43 PM EDT

Horses.london.750pix.jpg Heads-up on new developments on a new disease. Australia's biggest outbreak yet of the highly virulent Hendra virus is underway. The disease is transmitted from fruit bats to horses and from horses to humans.

It was identified in 1994—the last year there was a major outbreak. One human trainer and 14 horses died then, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. A second infected person recovered.

Now changes in symptoms in Queensland horses are suggesting a new strain. Perhaps one capable of human-to-human transmission.

New Scientist reports that two veterinary workers became infected roughly four weeks ago and remain hospitalized. Fifty more people who may have had contact with horses will undergo a second set of tests.

So far this year at least seven horses are infected. Five have died. Thirty-six more will be tested for a second time tomorrow.

The classic symptom of Hendra virus in a horse is severely labored breathing, frothy nasal discharge and swollen muzzle. The animals often die within days.

But this year's horses are suffering from neurological symptoms, including paralysis and loss of balance.

Human symptoms include a severe flu-like illness, headache, high fever, and drowsiness, which can progress to pneumonia, convulsions, or coma.

The Hendra virus has not been identified outside of Australia. Every outbreak since the first has been successfully contained to only one horse. Between 1994 and now, one other person was infected and survived. Though, confusingly, the US Centers for Disease Control reports that two out of three human infections prior to this year were fatal.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.