Blue Marble - February 2009

Your Water Bottle Is One-Quarter Oil

| Fri Feb. 27, 2009 6:12 PM PST
Still want to drink it? Because the truth is that bottle of water is up to 2,000 times more energy intensive than just turning on the tap. No one really knew that until now.

Researchers at the Pacific Institute in Oakland California ran the numbers and found that bottle production alone wastes 50 million barrels of oil a year (that's 2.5 days of US oil consumption). Add to that energy the energy needed to process the water, label the bottles, fill the bottles, seal the bottles, transport the bottles, cool them prior to sale… well, you get the idea.

Bottom line: Bottled-water drinkers in the US alone in 2007 squandered the equivalent of 32 to 54 million barrels of oil. Triple that number for worldwide use. For perspective, imagine each bottle is one-quarter full of oil.

As reported at Treehugger: Bottled-water drinkers are the new smokers.

Since oil and water don't mix, turn on the tap. Still want a container? Try reusable Nalgene or stainless steel. Not without impact but durable at least. Traveling overseas to the lands-of-unclean waters? Pony up for a Katadyn bottle/filter combination. I can personally attest that this all-in-one system is a miracle worker of good intestinal and environmental health.

Concerned about the one in six humans who must live in the lands-of-unclean waters? Consider tossing a doubloon or two at the LifeStraw people who've found a nifty and inexpensive way to survive deadly water supplies.

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Obama Hearts the EPA

| Fri Feb. 27, 2009 11:43 AM PST
Boy, what a reversal of fortune for the Environmental Protection Agency. After suffering years of neglect, staff cuts, and intimidation, it now stands to see its budget increased by 34 percent--among the largest bump for any federal agency in percentage terms. Much of the increase would fund clean water projects and restore the Superfund Tax, which expired in 1995, raising an estimated $6.6 billion by 2014 for hazardous waste cleanup. As if to underscore the EPA's return to favored agency status, Michelle Obama spoke at agency HQ while her husband was unveiling his budget yesterday. "Your work will not only save our planet and clean up our environment," she said. "It's going to transform our economy and create millions of well-paying jobs." Her optimism reminds me of Bush's love for his faith-based initiatives, but at least this time around there's a bit more evidence behind the hope.

Medicaid, Sexing It Up Since 2010

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 10:55 PM PST

Obama's 2010 budget overview is out, and rest assured the religious right will make hay from certain HHS family planning provisions. Says RH Reality Check:

While the overview is generally non-specific, it does make clear that the Medicaid family planning expansion—which would extend Medicaid coverage for family planning services to non-pregnant women–is included (see page 127). The expansion, which would enable states to extend coverage to non-pregnant women without first seeking a waiver from the federal government, was first included in the economic stimulus package

Will the feds also drop their finger-wagging insistence on abstinence-only sex-ed? It's possible, since the budget outlines "fund[ing] models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have become sexually active."

It's a start. And even though Tay Wiles' latest reproductive health legislation updates are freaking me out, at least Obama's HHS Secretary isn't blogging about how anti-abortion he is, yes?

View the full 2010 Budget overview here. (pdf)

Ships Spew Killer Pollution

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 8:45 PM PST
In fact ships pollute nearly half as much as all the world’s cars. We're talking smog-type pollution. The kind that causes premature deaths from heart disease and asthma. A new study [pdf] estimates the total contribution of commercial maritime shipping and it adds up to about 2.2 million pounds of particle pollution a year.

Since more than 70 percent of shipping traffic takes place within 250 miles of the coastline, ship spew is a serious health issue for nearly half the people of the world—the number who live near the coast [pdf]

The problem starts with sulfates, the same gunk emitted by diesel engines on land. Sulfates already have some measure of regulations attached to them. But more than half of shipping pollution comes from organic pollutants and sooty black carbon. These aren't targeted by today’s regulations.

When you consider that our world is a giant fluid dynamics experiment, then it makes sense that what happens at sea flows ashore. And vice versa. There are all kinds of ways to address this problem. Kevin Drum talks cap and trade and that could work for shipping too. But keep in mind that one upside to the global downturn in the economy is decreased shipping and therefore cleaner air. So why not recast the recession as a long-overdue refreshment for our weary planet?

The $1 Trillion Carbon Cap GDP Boost

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 11:00 AM PST

The consensus among economists these days is that the economic cost of curbing climate change in the short-term will run between 0.5 and one percent of U.S. GDP—about $143 billion if we use 2008's GDP as a reference.

But Grist's Gar Lipow doesn't think curbing climate change will cost the GDP a dime:

Coen Brothers Take on Clean Coal (Video)

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 10:38 AM PST

The Coen brothers + environmental advocacy equals this:

Take that, "clean" coal! You're never going win the battle for the hearts and minds of America's movie-going hipster minority now! (No, seriously, "clean" coal is a hoax and needs to be stopped. Kudos to the Coen brothers for joining the effort.)

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Species Invasion: Coming June 2010

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 7:04 PM PST
We know that invasive species are now a threat to 20 percent of the endangered vertebrates of the world. Most are invading beyond their home worlds by hitchhiking on our rides: planes, trains, cars, ships, feet. Everything from bacteria to bats is doing it. I wrote in depth about the scary lionfish invasion of the Atlantic in the Jan-Feb MoJo. New research forecasts that June 2010 is likely to be the worst invasion month ever.

Why? Because that's when temperature, humidity, and rainfall are likely to converge at many distant airports. In other words, when it's hot and humid in Miami it's also likely to be hot and humid in Shanghai. Species hitching a ride at one airport will more easily survive in the other. Add to that climate synergy the increasing traffic from India and China and we're likely to have an invasive species bloom in June 2010. Including whatever diseases the invaders are carrying... So what can we do? For a start:

  • Ramp up inspection activities at airports during the 6/10 time frame. And all other time frames.

  • Redirect at least some of the war on drugs to defending against biological invasions. Seriously, can't we put sniffer dogs and their handlers to better use?

  • Feed us in the air. Agricultural pests are invading on the foodstuffs individual travelers carry because the airlines no longer feed us. (Sometimes saving money is unbelievably costly.)

  • Consider your next flight… you know, along with the CO2 footprint... factor in the your potential as the vector of a new invasion. Is the trip worth it?

Mining Reform: A Golden Opportunity

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 3:58 PM PST

In the midst of America's financial crisis, one of the biggest government giveaways goes to an industry that least needs it: gold mining. Even as prices for gold hover near historic highs and mining exacts a deep environmental toll, the General Mining Law of 1872 allows $1 billion in hard rock minerals to be taken from federal lands each year royalty-free. All told, mining companies have been exempted from paying at least $100 billion in royalties, taxes, and fair land prices.

On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a hearing on updating the 137-year-old law, which was enacted during the Grant administration. The House is expected to pass sweeping royalty and environmental reforms, but the bill must also clear the Senate, where last year a similar effort stalled in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the gold mining industry’s most powerful ally.

Reid faces a delicate political dance. Typically a reliable ally to environmentalists, he’s also the son of a gold miner, father of children who maintain ties to the industry, and representative of a state that mines more gold than all but three nations. In a nod to his virtual veto power over mining reform, last year the House held a similar hearing in the town of Elko, ground zero for Nevada's mining industry. There, Reid expressed his support for "real and reasonable reform" before ultimately turning on the House’s reform bill as "not something Nevada can accept."

A spokesman for Jeff Bingaman, who oversees mining legislation as the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, sees this as the year that a reform bill finally passes. With the treasury bleeding dollars and the gold mines swimming in cash, Reid may be headed for the final showdown between two seemingly incompatible sides of his political identity. Whatever compromise he supports could make him an historic statesman, put him out of a job, or both. I explore how it all might shake out in the March/April issue’s feature, Gold Member.

How Food Policy Gets Made: Finland vs. the US

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 1:09 PM PST

Matt Yglesias has a post up contrasting how the creation of health policy differs in Finland and the United States. Here's his description of Finland's process, as it pertains to school lunches:

...in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter.

...what's crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

By way of contrast, here's an example of how food industry lobbyists hijack the system in the United States, courtesy of the very good American News Project:

The next issue of Mother Jones, which is either on newsstands near you or will be soon, is on how to fix food. Most of the content is not online yet, so if you want to read more you'll have to settle for this conversation we had with Michael Pollan, a longtime MoJo contributor who has more neat ideas on reforming food policy than just about anyone.

Climate Tipping Point Coming Faster Than IPCC Thought

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 11:18 AM PST
Two reports released recently—one from the UN's Environmental Programme and the other by the World Bank—warn that dramatic, irreversible climate shifts are coming faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipated. In the IPCC's last report, published in 2007, it expected that global sea levels could rise up to two feet: the UN document says it may be more like six feet. More disturbingly, it says that "we may have already passed tipping points that are irreversible within the time span of our current civilization."

Although we've covered tipping points in previous issues of Mother Jones, it's still disturbing to hear the UN say they may have already been tipped, and not in our favor. For those who are interested, the World Bank report goes into further detail about tipping points as seen in the Andes, coral reefs, Gulf of Mexico wetlands, and Amazonian forests that may or may not be too far gone to do anything about.