Blue Marble - July 2009

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 24

| Fri Jul. 24, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Happy Friday. Blue Marble-ish news from around the site:

Vacation trumps healthcare: No reform till September, if ever.

Numbers game: If you're 29, is it true that no global warming has occurred in your adult lifetime?

Backwards bill: An Ohio state rep thinks a woman should be required to get written consent from the man with whom she had sex before seeking an abortion.

Late-night climate change: The Waxman-Markey climate bill had some pretty good language regulating the carbon derivatives market. Until someone added a big ol' 300-page asterisk at 3 a.m.

 

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US Solar Power Glows (and Grows)

| Thu Jul. 23, 2009 5:37 PM EDT

If anyone still doubts that solar power is the future (other than oil barons, coal kings and the jokers in Congress), a new report from the Interstate Renewable Energy Council (IREC) might change their mind.

In the study released this week, author Larry Sherwood has assembled an impressive collection of data proving that (as Sherwood writes), “Solar markets are booming in the United States due to rising energy prices, strong consumer demand, and financial incentives from the federal government, states and utilities.”

Here are some specifics from the IREC report:

  • The capacity of PV installations completed in 2008 grew by 63% compared with installations in 2007, and the average size PV systems is increasing.
  • Installation growth by capacity was largest in the non-residential sector, but the residential sector continues to dominate the number of installations.
  • Many states reported a doubling of PV capacity installed in 2008 compared with 2007.
  • Installations in California, the dominant U.S. market, increased by 95% in 2008.

 To find how your state fared — solarly-speaking — check appendix ‘C’ on the report’s last page. (Or click here to see that chart by itself.)

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here. This post appeared first in The Phoenix Sun.

 

Mileage Today No Better Than a Model T

| Thu Jul. 23, 2009 4:28 PM EDT

A new study in Energy Policy analyzes changes in fuel efficiency of US vehicles between 1923 and 2006. During the Age of the Model T—circa 1923—the fuel efficiency of the overall fleet of all vehicle classes was 14 miles per gallon. In 2006, it was a whopping 17.2 miles per gallon.

Woo-hoo. Proof evolution doesn't exist.

Researchers Michael Sivak and Omer Tsimhoni at the U of Michigan analyzed the fuel efficiency of the entire US vehicle fleet—cars, motorcycles, trucks, and buses. From 1923 to 1935 fuel efficiency managed about 14 mpg. In 1973 it hit the abyss at 11.9 mpg. By 1991, it straggled upwards to 16.9 mpg. The 1991 efficiency—if you can call it that—was a response to the 1973 OPEC oil embargo and the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Progress is now stalled. Between 1991 and 2006 the average efficiency improved by only 1.8 percent to 17.2 mpg.

New Scientist reports that electric vehicle research continues to advance with governmental backing but is unlikely impact fuel efficiency in the US in the short term.

For US fuel consumption to fall by 10 percent, average fuel efficiency across the entire fleet will have to rise to 19.1 mpg. Obama's May announcement that new cars should average 35.5 mpg by 2016 does nothing to boost the efficiency of the rest of the vehicle fleet.

The study suggests:

  • Financial incentives prodding owners to scrap older vehicles in favor of new ones
  • Tax breaks encouraging the development and introduction of fuel-saving tech
  • Society has much more to gain from improving a car from 15 to 16 mpg than from improving a car from 40 to 41 mpg. The benefits are greater from improving a truck from 4 to 4.5 mpg than from 7 to 7.5 mpg.

 

Urban Pollution Is the New Lead

| Thu Jul. 23, 2009 1:38 PM EDT

It doesn't take a fancy public health study to convince us that urban pollution—the kind that welcomes you to Los Angeles like a stifling hug from a dirty old uncle—is bad. But it helps. 

According to a new study released by Columbia, a common form of air pollution called polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) may be to blame for diminished intellectual ability in children. (PAH has also been linked to astronomical rates of chronic asthma and other respitory problems.)

The Mailman School of Public Health found that 5-year-olds in my old 'hood of Washington Heights,  Harlem, and the South Bronx who were exposed to high levels of the stuff in utero scored an average of 4.5 points lower on a standard IQ test than peers who weren't.  According to the authors, that's comperable to low-level lead exposure—and we all know how toxic lead is.

 

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday, July 23

| Thu Jul. 23, 2009 6:12 AM EDT

News from our other blogs you may have missed.

Taking the Public's Temperature: Is today's public friendlier to healthcare reform than yesteryear's? Kevin Drum seriously doubts it.

Summer Stock: Sen. Sherrod Brown says that if he has to work in August to finish this  healthcare bill, by Jeebus, he'll do it!

Two of a Kind: Pelosi says she'll work in August too, if it comes to it. Good times.

Escape Hatch: Sen. Orrin Hatch has left the bipartisan "coalition of the willing" that's trying to negotiate a deal on health care.

Shot Down: NRA's concealed weapons bill crashes in Congress.

Big Business: Advertising abounds in the healthcare world.

Bada$$ Bloggers: They're young, they're feminists, AND they blog.

Rape is Funny, Right?: Not so much... how to confront these 'jokes.'

 

AIDS Found in Wild Chimps

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 6:51 PM EDT

Even though AIDS likely came to us from chimpanzees, chimps don't develop AIDS. Or so we thought.

New evidence shows that chimpanzees infected with SIV—simian immunodeficiency virus, the precursor to HIV-1—do contract and die from AIDS. The paper appears in Nature.

The chimps at the heart of the study live at Gombe National Park, Tanzania. This population has survived the ravages of the modern world thanks to 50 years of dedicated oversight from Jane Goodall and colleagues.

Among the findings from researchers working in Gombe:
 

  • Infected chimps are 10-16 times more likely to die than uninfected chimps
  • Infected females are less likely to give birth
  • Infants born to infected mothers are unlikely to survive
  • The virus is transmitted sexually and through the milk of infected mothers
  • In the course of the nine year study, 10-20 percent of the 94 chimpanzees were infected at any given time


The finding opens up new opportunities for research. Goodall says: "We hope this will lead to a better understanding of the virus that will benefit both humans and chimpanzees."

The virus affects chimpanzees in similar ways to humans and although there is no practical treatment for the chimps, it appears the SIV infection is not as pathogenic as HIV-1 in humans. The Gombe chimps have maintained their community size despite the disease.
 

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Breaking: Vaccines Still Don't Cause Autism

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 6:45 PM EDT

Well, it's back again. The zombie meme that just won't stay dead.

We love a good conspiracy as much as the next investigative magazine—especially one that involves Big Pharma, the FDA, and the CDC. But as we've extensively reported here, the vaccines = autism meme might just be the most damaging medical myth of the decade. Not only is it based on false "science" that's tearing apart the families of sick children, it's unintentionally sickening thousands of others.

If you don't watch Oprah or read HuffPo, the theory goes like this. An ethylmercury-based preservative thimerosal (which was removed from all vaccines in the early 2000s) is retained by young children who then exhibit symptoms of mercury toxicity, the true cause of autism. Alternately, the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccines, when given in tandem as MMR (the only form of the vaccine currently available) overwhelms the systems of sensitive children, causing intestinal distress, which causes autism. Sound odd?

Putting aside for just a moment the enormous weight of scientific evidence against these theories and the sound discrediting of virtually every doctor or scientist who has ever supported them, the MMR-causes-autism theory is downright dangerous.

Anti-MMR crusaders like Jenny McCarthy and longtime partner Jim Carrey insist they're not anti-vaccine. But their position is dangerously close, for two reasons.

Meteorologists Take Geoengineering Seriously

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 5:02 PM EDT

Geoengineering received a big boost this week. The American Meteorological Society released a major statement Monday on the topic, making these recommendations:

1. Enhanced research on the scientific and technological potential for geoengineering the climate system, including research on intended and unintended environmental responses.
2. Coordinated study of historical, ethical, legal, and social implications of geoengineering that integrates international, interdisciplinary, and intergenerational issues and perspectives and includes lessons from past efforts to modify weather and climate.
3. Development and analysis of policy options to promote transparency and international cooperation in exploring geoengineering options along with restrictions on reckless efforts to manipulate the climate system.

The AMS is a respected scientific body here in the US, and a statement of this kind certainly gives credence to the possibility of a major, well-funded, possibly federal geoengineering research program. It also comes on the heels of a National Academy of Sciences workshop in which leading experts debated the merits of such a research program.

Some geoengineering critics (and there are plenty of them) say investment in this kind of research will only distract from mitigation efforts. I disagree, and now, so does AMS. And I think the Society responds well to that argument with this point:

Geoengineering will not substitute for either aggressive mitigation or proactive adaptation, but it could contribute to a comprehensive risk management strategy to slow climate change and alleviate some of its negative impacts. The potential to help society cope with climate change and the risks of adverse consequences imply a need for adequate research, appropriate regulation, and transparent deliberation.

Compromise for Condoms?

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 2:05 PM EDT

In government health care reform debates, abortion coverage is the third rail. Should some abortion be implicitly, if not explicitly, covered? Should Congress promote the use of contraception? And if abortion were covered, would Barack Obama's mother have had one?

Those hoping for compromise on the issue suffered a setback yesterday when Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) was "booted" from Democrats for Life, the anti-choice arm of the Democratic Party, for sponsoring legislation that would have supported the use of contraception to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

In a statement last week, Ryan said, "I can't figure out for the life of me how to stop pregnancies without contraception. Don't be mad at me for wanting to solve the problem."

As Atrios writes, Ryan's effort seems like a good faith attempt to find common ground on the abortion issue, but the anti-choice movement proved once again that it is against "any sex without a good chance of 'consequences' for the woman taking part."

Neither health care reform bill in the House or Senate mentions abortion explicitly. But the discussion raises a larger question about DC compromise on social issues. Since he began his campaign for president more than two years ago, Barack Obama has been consistent in advocating "common ground" on divisive issues like abortion. But the anti-choice rejection of contraception indicates that common ground on this particular issue may be impossible.

Can conservatives, for example, accept compromise on health care if it includes contraception or (gasp!) abortion? And will liberals accept compromise without it?

Creationist Girl Scout Honored

| Wed Jul. 22, 2009 1:42 PM EDT

If you were a nine-year-old girl in the year 1989 like I was, you might remember the movie Troop Beverly Hills, wherein a star-studded cast of scouts (including Tori Spelling, singer Jenny Lewis, and Margeaux from Punky Brewster) earns badges in accessorizing, shopping, and other mall-related pursuits. I mention this fine film not just because I wanted to (though that was part of it) but because today I heard about another non-traditional scout discipline: creationism.

Answers in Genesis blog reports that the Girl Scouts of America has bestowed its highest honor, the Gold Award, on Wisconsin teen Annie Wichman. Her winning accomplishments: amassing a library of creation literature for her church, building a model of Noah's ark, and teaching creationism to elementary schoolers. She called her project Alternate Universe.

I'm not convinced that this is an implicit endorsement of creationism on the part of the Girl Scouts of America. According to the Gold Award website, a winning projects is:

...something that a girl can be passionate about—in thought, deed, and action. The project is something that fulfills a need within a girl's community (whether local or global), creates change, and hopefully, is something that becomes ongoing.

The goal isn't scientific accuracy. It's personal fulfillment and community involvement. The teaching component irks me a little, especially if it was part of a science lesson in a public school instead of Sunday school at church. But overall, Wichman's project seems pretty innocuous.

And it's unlikely that scouts will soon add creationism badges to their sashes, though given the panoply of activities that can earn you an insignia these days (my favorite: Couch Potato. "Watching TV can be a fun, educational activity, a way to de-stress and relax sometimes. Or it can be a very unhealthy way to pass the time. It all depends on how and what you watch.") it's not entirely out of the question.

So: If you were to design a creationism badge, what might it look like? I favor dinosaur with rider.