Blue Marble - November 2008

CO2 Levels Already in Danger Zone

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 4:08 PM PST

toc-cover-310x250.jpg If we want to avert climate disaster we have to reduce atmospheric CO2 below present levels. Like Right Now.

This is a big change in thinking. Until recently many believed we could emit a wee bit more before calling calamity down upon ourselves and everything else. The new paper in Open Atmospheric Science Journal echoes Bill McKibben's piece in the current Mother Jones: The Most Important Number on Earth.

The number is 350. That's parts per million. Atmospheric CO2 is currently at 385 ppm and increasing by about 2 ppm a year from the burning of coal, oil, and gas and forests. Many thought we could get to 450 ppm before disaster. But the new research is based on improved data on Earth's climate history and ongoing observations of change, especially in the polar regions. The researchers combined evidence of Earth's response to past CO2 changes with recent patterns of climate changes. The results show that atmospheric CO2 has already entered a danger zone.

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MoJo Audio: PETA President on Chicks and Clicks

| Fri Nov. 7, 2008 11:22 AM PST

PETA is best known for two things: animal rights and outrageous ads. Its campaigns have featured naked women galore, caged ladies in bikinis, and even an online striptease. Feminists accuse PETA of being sexist, but the organization's founder and president Ingrid Newkirk says that's "rubbish." The campaigns are designed to get people to go to PETA's educational site, she says, and they work. To hear more from PETA's president about why the organization goes with such controversial tactics, and why her new book isn't just about animals, click here.

Droughts Destroy Dynasties

| Thu Nov. 6, 2008 10:51 PM PST

400px-Drought.jpg Chinese history is replete with the rise and fall of dynasties. New research identifies a natural phenomenon behind at least three of the downfalls—the weakening of the summer Asian Monsoon. The same problem may be afflicting northern China now.

Summer monsoon winds originate in the Indian Ocean and sweep into China. When the monsoon is strong, it pushes farther into northwest China. The new research found a strong summer monsoon prevailed during at least one of China's golden ages, the Northern Song Dynasty, when rice first became China's main crop and China's population doubled. Weak summer monsoons coincided with drought in the northwest and the increasing civil unrest that unraveled the Tang, Yuan, and Ming dynasties.

The droughts were deciphered from layers of stone in a 1,810-year-old, 4.5-inch long stalagmite from Gansu Province, China. Measurements of uranium and thorium revealed the date each layer was formed. Analysis of two forms of oxygen were used to match those measurements to low rainfall dates. Prior to this research no one expected that a record of surface weather would be preserved in underground cave deposits.

Scientists Vote Obama

| Tue Nov. 4, 2008 2:26 PM PST

Barack Obama has captured the lion's share of visible support among scientists, reports AAAS. "It's an enthusiasm chasm," says Michael Stebbins, president of the Scientists and Engineers for America Action Fund, which created a YouTube channel for scientists to explain their choice. As of press time, 22 videos have been posted, all by Obama supporters.

Bernice Durand, a physicist who worked for antiwar candidate Eugene McCarthy in 1968, has jumped back into the political fray for Obama. Since September, she's worked with more than three dozen scientists who've placed articles or letters in 50-plus newspapers in 20 states, most of them considered still up for grabs. The scientists have also appeared on radio shows and been interviewed by reporters covering the campaign. "On issues of science," says Durand, "on support for research, and on [Obama's] interactions with the scientific community, there's no contest compared to McCain," she says.

Nothing like the disaster of the past 8 years and the potential for so much worse to motivate scientists to finally step out from behind the wall of science and claim their rightful—and much needed—voices in society.

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

The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics, Part 2

| Tue Nov. 4, 2008 11:47 AM PST

The following is a guest blog entry by Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

To read The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics Part 1, click here.

Efforts by California and Massachusetts to assert regulatory oversight of direct-to-consumer gene testing companies elicited predictable howls in the libertarian-leaning regions of the blogosphere. The gist of the don't-tread-on-me argument: Those are my DNA sequences; keep your hands off.

23andMe understands this impulse, and appeals to it. On the "values" page of its website, for example, it says, "We believe that your genetic information should be controlled by you….Though we store and help you interpret it, your genetic information is yours to have and explore."

What Comes From Alaska & May Save Us All?

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 5:17 PM PST

Oudemansiella_nocturnum.JPG No, not these miraculously fast fruiting bodies but these ones: mushrooms. That's right. The fungi growing in the dry spruce forests of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and other northern regions are fighting global warming in unexpected ways. When temps rise and soils warm, fungi are not increasing the rate at which they convert soil carbon into carbon dioxide—as many feared. Instead they dry out and produce significantly less CO2.

Northern forests contain an estimated 30 percent of the Earth's soil carbon. That's equivalent to the amount of atmospheric carbon. Which means that mushrooms are not contributing to a vicious cycle of warming in dry boreal forests. Instead, they're actually preventing further warming from occurring. Possibly giving us a teensy bit more time to implement responsible policies to counteract warming globally. . . Starting with responsibly electing the next president of the United States. The study, btw, appears in the journal Global Change Biology.

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

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Obama's (And Our) Clean-Coal Blues

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 2:16 PM PST

The Internets are all atwitter today with talk of Obama's supposedly devastating admission that he wants to "bankrupt" the coal industry in the United States. An Ohio industry spokesman said Obama is a "disaster"; conservative blogs are attributing the remarks to some kind of San Francisco "truth serum", and Sarah Palin is accusing the San Francisco Chronicle, which conducted the offending interview back in January, of deliberately hiding its content from voters. (See the article and the Chron's rebuttal here.)

I just want to make a few points to inject a little sanity into this discussion. First, as I mentioned above, the quote comes from a comprehensive sit-down interview Obama conducted with the Chronicle nearly nine months ago. (Watch the whole thing here.) Since then, his stance on this issue has been pretty consistent. He supports a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions (as does John McCain, by the by), as well as the development of "clean coal" technology.

Here's where we get to the real problem. In the interview, Obama asks, "how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon? And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it?" Characterizing unilateral opposition to coal as "ideological," Obama also stresses that since we already get so much of our electricity from coal, we can't expect to eliminate it from the mix anytime soon. "If technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it," he concludes.

But when it comes to "clean coal", it's environmentalists who should be worried, not coal executives.

The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics, Part 1

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 11:24 AM PST

The following is a guest blog entry by Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

To read The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics Part 2, click here.

Just before the world's financial system hit the skids, the New Yorker's Talk of the Town and the New York Times' Sunday Styles section both featured lengthy accounts of a celebrity "spit party," at which notables in cocktail attire ejected their saliva into test tubes. The chic gala, hosted by media moguls Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, and Harvey Weinstein, was the latest episode of a remarkable publicity push by 23andMe, the start-up biotech firm whose mission is "to be the world's trusted source of personal genetic information."

The Google-backed company launched its celebrity strategy this past January, when it distributed a thousand free spit kits at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But the genomes of the rich and famous were just the first step. Early this fall, 23andMe announced that it's slashing its prices to Christmas-stocking levels, in a bid to make DNA tests this year's high-tech must-have.