Blue Marble - June 2009

Cash for Clunkers Passes

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 2:22 PM EDT

The much-debated war spending bill made it through the House last night. Altogether, the bill asked for $106 billion, including the orginal $75.5 billion that Bush requested for 2009. The bill included a little side project that might help solve one of Obama's biggest problems: how to save the car industry and the environment, simultaneously.

The "Cash for Clunkers" program sponsored by Rep. Betty Sutton (D-Ohio) intends to hand out $4,500 vouchers to people who bought cars that got 10 more miles-per-gallon than their old ones. Vouchers for $3,500 will go to consumers who made a 4 mpg improvement. Experts estimate that the program could create up to $1.5 million in car sales per year, but it's unclear how much it will do for the environment. "Light truck" owners will only be required to make a 5 mpg change to earn a voucher, even if their new car is a 16 mpg Hummer by GM. Cash for Clunkers is a good idea in theory, but we're not going to get anywhere if the government rewards people driving unapologetic gas-guzzlers for becoming only slightly more responsible.

Some Republicans opposed the program because it appears to be another handout to the failing auto industry, while Democrats such as Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) say it doesn't go far enough. Sound familiar?

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Revive Chestnuts, Fight Climate Change?

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

American chestnut trees had always thrived in forests, towns, and farmland in the eastern US—until the early part of the last century, when a chestnut blight, thought to have come from the far east, all but obliterated the species.

But the tree still looms large in the American imagination, and for good reason: It's beautiful, towering and leafy. It also grows quickly, and its durable wood makes good floors, tables, and fences. For years, groups like American Chestnut Cooperators' Foundation have been working to revive the American chestnut. Now, it looks like a research team at Purdue University might have done it by creating a hybrid:

New efforts to hybridize remaining American chestnuts with blight-resistant Chinese chestnuts have resulted in a species that is about 94 percent American chestnut with the protection found in the Chinese species. Jacobs said those new trees could be ready to plant in the next decade, either in existing forests or former agricultural fields that are being returned to forested land.

Beyond the obvious ecological and aesthetic benefits of the new chestnut, researchers point out that the tree could also help mitigate the effects of global warming by removing carbon from the atmosphere. All trees do that of course, but the American chestnut would be particularly good at it, since it grows big quickly, explained a researcher:

"Each tree has about the same percentage of its biomass made up of carbon, but the fact that the American chestnut grows faster and larger means it stores more carbon in a shorter amount of time," Jacobs said.

No word yet on how the hybrid's chestnuts taste roasted, you know, over an open fire...

 

Hunters Overhunt Lions and Cougars

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 1:49 PM EDT

Sport hunters in the US and Africa are depleting lion and cougar populations. Why? Because wildlife managers respond to demands to control predators they believe threaten livestock and humans—rather than respond to demands to conserve the big cats.

The new study in PLoS ONE looked at lions and cougars killed by hunters over the past 15 to 25 years in Africa and the western US. The data suggest that management agencies routinely adjust quotas to control rather than conserve the big cats in areas where humans or livestock are believed threatened.

The reason sport hunting takes a significant toll on large felines is because replacement males routinely kill their predecessors' cubs, forcing female lions into estrus to improve their own mating opportunities.

The researchers confirmed this effect by comparing the impact of hunting on lions, cougars, leopards, and black bear populations. Male black bears don't routinely kill cubs of other males.

The results show that lion and cougar populations have suffered the greatest decline in places that sport hunting has been most intense in the last 25 years. Leopards are not as badly affected as lions and cougars, perhaps because they benefit from reduced numbers of lions. Black bears, by contrast, appear to be thriving despite thousands of bears killed by hunters.

The study results point to the need for new approaches to protect humans and livestock and to manage sport hunting without endangering vulnerable species. One possibility would be to restrict sport hunting to older males whose offspring have matured.

Or—radical thought—no hunting at all.

Combine this study with another recent investigation in PNAS showing that, in stark contrast with most predators, humans now exploit high proportions of prey populations and target large reproductive-aged adults. As a result, species hunted and fished by humans show particularly rapid and dramatic changes in phenotype (what an organism looks like as a consequence of the interaction of genetics and environment).

Average phenotypic changes in 40 human-harvested species were found to be much more rapid than changes in natural systems—outpacing them by more than 300 percent.

In fact species hunted or fished by humans now show some of the most abrupt trait changes ever observed in wild populations—rewriting the book on how fast phenotypes are capable of changing. The authors conclude that these changes (typically in the size of the animals and age of adulthood) can and do imperil populations, industries, and ecosystems.

Keep in mind we can't conserve ecosystems without their big predators, something I wrote about in GONE.
 

The Childhood Obesity Puzzle

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 9:15 AM EDT

What's making American kids fat? Some blame food deserts, while others implicate fast-food restaurants, lack of exercise, or poor parental eating habits. But a few recent studies seem to suggest that the childhood obesity epidemic may be more complicated than we thought.

In the New York Times, Tara Parker-Pope reports that among kids under 13, burgers and fries are out, while yogurt, soup, and grilled chicken are in. This, she says, is good news:

To be sure, pizza, burgers, fries and kids’ meals are still the most popular items ordered by children; the percentage gains for items like soup and yogurt are from a smaller base. But the trends bolster an argument that children’s health researchers have made for years: if you offer more healthful food, kids will eat it.

But will they? Another recent study suggests that parental eating habits actually have little to do with kids' food choices. And according to a study released today by the Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, household proximity to fast-food restaurants doesn't have much bearing on whether a child is obese, either. (And get this: The Purdue researchers found that living near a gym or rec center was actually associated with weight gain.)

So, what to make of these counterintuitive findings? While any one of these factors might not explain childhood obesity on its own, it's also not realistic to think of them as existing in a vacuum. Instead, they act in concert, along with other variables, like genetics. It's not totally out of the question that a kid who is genetically predisposed to obesity might also live near McDonald's and watch his dad eat Quarter Pounders three times a week. A wholistic study that figures out which factors matter most, and how they interact—that's a tall order. It'd take a long time, and a whole lot of research power to boot.

Till that happens, is it really useful to isolate these variables? Post your thoughts in the comments.

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday, June 17

| Wed Jun. 17, 2009 6:45 AM EDT

Stories on health, the environment, and science from our other blogs you might have missed yesterday:

Pay more, get less: Only about 1/5 of charter schools perform better than public schools.

Death and taxes: Musings on the taxes necessary for universal healthcare.

Grassley's tweets: A translation of tweets by 75-year-old senator Chuck Grassley.

Palin's pain: While Palin is complaining, real women are actually being raped in Africa.

Obama's 1st climate report: Press nearly wets itself in excitement.

Psoriasis Linked To Other Diseases

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 6:05 PM EDT

My roommate Mike has psoriasis, which, according to WebMD, is "a reddish, scaly rash often located over the surfaces of the elbows, knees, scalp, and around or in the ears, navel, genitals or buttocks." Luckily, his case is mild (it's only on his elbows), and you can't really notice it unless he's playing basketball. But after reading about a new study that links psoriasis to heart disease and other serious health problems, I'm worried about him.

Yesterday, Forbes reported that "people with psoriasis face an increased risk of major cardiovascular disease and death." The research they discuss, which included data from a Veterans Administration medical facility study, compared 3,236 people suffering from the skin disease to 2,500 psoriasis-free individuals and found a 78 percent higher incidence of heart disease, a 70 percent higher incidence of stroke and a 98 percent higher incidence of peripheral arterial disease (blockage of arteries in the legs) in the psoriasis group."

Without trying to sound preachy, I hope that those of you out there with psoriasis take these new findings as a wake-up call to stop partaking in activities that will increase your risk of heart disease or stroke, because you are likely already more genetically predisposed to these problems. Mike and I have decided to boycott red meat for a while and we plan to choose workouts over continuing our Woody Allen marathon.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Who's Thinner: Owners or Renters?

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 2:31 PM EDT

A new study from University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School finds that women homeowners are an average of 12 pounds heavier than renters. They're also more aggravated and spend less time socializing.

Thing is, it's hard to tell why. Figuring it out, the article notes, presents a chicken-and-egg type problem, since two lines of homeowner reasoning are possible:

a) Now that I've gone and bought a house, I may as well make owning my house worthwhile by maxing and relaxing in it as much as humanly possible.

b) I really like maxing and relaxing. Much more than, say, going for a walk with my friends. Gosh, it'd be great to have my very own M&R temple.

Previous studies have shown that homeowners are happier than renters, but they didn't control for external factors, like whether or not the subjects have kids. This study did.

Have you recently switched from renting to owning or vice versa? What's it like?

HT @aarieff.

Burbank Residents: Disney's Dumping Made Us Sick

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 1:29 PM EDT

Last week, we learned that residents of Burbank, California, are suing Walt Disney Co. for allegedly dumping carcinogenic chemicals in a local stream. Now, the Glendale News Press reports, they're saying said chemicals caused both people and animals to become sick. Troubling, but so far it doesn't exactly sound like the stuff of epidemiological studies: 

Standing at the intersection of Parkside Avenue and Parish Place, Panuska gestured down several neighboring streets, pointing out the homes whose residents she said were diagnosed with various cancers, and listing off dozens of cases where horses, dogs and cats came down with various maladies...

On Beachwood Drive, plaintiff Dennis Weisenbaugh reflected on the life of his office manager, Gene Montoya, who two years ago died of liver failure after eight years of working eight-hour days from his home office.

Three of Weisenbaugh’s horses were diagnosed with diseases similar to laminitis, a painful inflammation of the foot, and had to be put down.

It's awfully hard to prove a causal relationship between toxic chemicals and a handful of illnesses in people and pets, and that ambiguity will certainly work in Disney's favor. The company still hasn't said much on the issue, other than to point out that a 2006 investigation by the California Department of Toxic Substances Control found that chromium levels in the community weren't problematic. It'll be interesting to see whether the EPA agrees.

 

Climate Change Already Hammering the US

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 12:31 PM EDT

No matter what George Will says—extreme weather, drought, heavy rainfall, and increasing temperatures are already fact of life in many parts of the US thanks to human-induced global warming. Changes like these will increase in intensity from here on.

That's according to Global Climate Change Impacts in the United States, a 190-page report two years in the making, issued today, product of the US Global Change Research Program, including NOAA and 12 other US government science agencies, major universities, and research institutes. Some of the findings from the Midwest alone:

  • Average temperatures have risen in the Midwest in recent decades, especially in winter
  • The growing season is one week longer
  • Heavy downpours are twice as frequent as they were a century ago
  •  The Midwest has experienced two record-breaking floods in the past 15 years
  • Average annual temperatures are expected to increase two degrees Fahrenheit over the next few decades—and as much as 7 to 10 degrees by the end of the century, with more warming projected for summer than winter
  • Precipitation is expected to increase in the winter and spring
  • Summer precipitation will likely decline
  • More of the precipitation is likely to occur during heavier events
  • As temperatures and humidity increases, heat waves, reduced air quality, insect-borne diseases, pollen production, and growth of fungi are more likely to occur
  • Heavy downpours will overload drainage systems and water treatment facilities, increasing the risk of waterborne diseases
  • Average water levels in the Great Lakes—reservoirs for 20 percent of the planet's fresh surface water—could drop as much as two feet this century, affecting beaches, coastal ecosystems, fish populations, dredging, and shipping


Some of the effects of the changing climate are already inevitable and will require human and animal populations to adapt. Other effects can be mitigated by limiting future emissions of C02 and other greenhouse gases... George Will won't but we have to.
 

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, June 16

| Tue Jun. 16, 2009 9:00 AM EDT

Hello, and happy Tuesday. Here's what's new in health, environment, and science:

Healthcare mythology day: In critiquing Obama's plans for more healthcare spending, conservatives revive two favorite chestnuts of anti-nationalization rhetoric. Meanwhile, Obama trots out his own old wives' tale, suggesting that restricting medical malpractice lawsuits could help reduce healthcare costs.

Geek out on futuristic climate solutions: Should we tether kitelike wind turbines into the jetstream to harvest its massive wind power? Maybe. Block out the sun to keep earth from heating up? Probably not.

Salacious wildlife news: An environmental group says Obama's nominee for head of the US Fish & Wildlife Service whored out panther habitat to sprawl-mongering developers. 

And one last question: Did you celebrate Meatless Monday?