Blue Marble - July 2009

G-8 Summit: The Battle of East vs. West

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 4:38 PM EDT

As the world's most powerful leaders convene in L'Aquila, Italy for the largest G-8 summit ever, one wonders, will anything actually be accomplished?

The Associated Press reported that many of the leaders arrived to the summit in electric cars. (We presume that for security purposes, Obama arrived in a traditional American-made hyper-bulletproof gas guzzler.)

This begs the question, will America take the lead in initiating global change?

As Kevin Drum reported earlier:

The basic problem isn't the 80% reduction by 2050, which is supported by both Obama and congressional Democrats.  The problem is the 2020 goal.  Right now, the Waxman-Markey climate bill requires a 17% cut by 2020, but that's from a baseline of 2005.  Depending on how you crunch the numbers, that works out to a cut of only 0-4% from 1990 levels.
The Europeans, conversely, want to see a 20% cut from 1990 levels by 2020.  Obama, presumably, sees no chance at all of getting Congress to agree to that, and the Europeans aren't willing to compromise their more stringent goals.  So for now, no agreement.  And Copenhagen is only five months away.

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A Banner Weak for the Climate Bill

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 4:00 PM EDT

The day before the Senate began hearings on HR 2454, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid fired up the troops with this call to arms: "As a legislator, everything is negotiable."

Indeed. And we saw how that process worked in the House. The Obama administration's tough beginnings melted like a snowman in December under the heat of industry lobbying. Oil. Coal. Agriculture. They all demanded concessions. They all got them.

Many progressives are holding their noses and supporting the "kludge of a bill" for a variety of reasons, all thoroughly debated throughout the blogosphere at this point. The only real news on this front is the action taken today by Greenpeace -- scaling Mt. Rushmore and unfurling a banner that exhorts President Obama to hang tough in this fight.

It was a beautiful sight.

But it will take more than that to get the job done. A blogger at 1Sky rightly points out that "grassroots pressure will be essential" in keeping the climate bill intact, let alone in making it stronger.

Yesterday's hearing before the Senate's Environment committee, was typical Kabuki Theatre. Committee Chair Barbara Boxer warned viewers to prepare for the GOP Hymn #137, "No, We Can't."

Republican Senators spoke early and often about the need to add billions for new nuclear power plants -- not that global warming is real, mind you, but, well, just because...

There are several committee hearings left (including more before Boxer's committee) and time for a grassroots movement to grow under the banner demanding a stronger bill. But that will take more concerted action than supporters have shown so far.

 

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.

T. Boone Pickens Scraps Plan for Massive Wind Farm

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 2:34 PM EDT

T. Boone Pickens' $10 billion plan to build the world's largest wind farm on the Texas panhandle has been scrapped. The high-profile project had benefited from the "Pickens Plan" media blitz in the lead-up to the 2008 elections, when the oil tycoon spent millions on TV ads promoting natural gas and wind power.

Though Pickens was lauded in the media at the time as an environmental hero, I was among a few reporters who questioned his motivation for building the wind project. His early plans would have used a right-of-way for the windmills' power lines to bring water from the Ogallala aquifer to cities downstate, draining a vast region of a fragile reserve. Pickens ultimately failed to find a buyer for the water, then faced a drop in energy prices due to the recession. In December, his Mesa Power LP put the wind project on hold before announcing last week that it would abandon it in favor of several smaller projects.

In making the announcement, Pickens cryptically cited problems associated with building his own power lines. It's odd that he can't tap those already being built to the Panhandle by the Texas Public Utility Commission. The Dallas Morning News reported that the lines "won't follow a path that Mesa had suggested" but didn't elaborate. Did Pickens' power lines fail because they needed the accompanying water pipeline to be profitable? A spokeswoman for Pickens didn't return a call.

 

Solar Blimp to Debut on English Channel

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 12:19 PM EDT

Here's another bright, green idea to save the world.

Within the next few weeks, a solar powered blimp sponsored by the French Projet Sol'r will fly across the English Channel. The timing is a clear homage to Louis Bleriot, the first person to fly across the channel in an airplane on July 25, 1909. When Bleriot embarked on his flight in his rinky dinky airplane, few could have imagined the advances in flight technology that would soon take us to the moon, or send hundreds of civilians across the world within hours.

This month's blimp flight, a century later, will mark an exciting era of exploration into the practical uses of alternative energy. For now, the significance of this project is mostly symbolic. But with transportation companies looking for new ways to cut costs, and the government threatening to crack down on emissions, the flight could indicate whether cutting out traditional fuel and deflating carbon emissions will become part of the equation.

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday July 8

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Here are stories from our other blogs you might have missed yesterday on healthcare, energy, and the environment. And don't forget to check out our new drug package! Lots of good tidbits in there, including my own painstaking map.

Feeling Bullish: Obama may go a little Raging Bull on oil speculators.

Changing the Guard: Mexico elections show people may think Calderon's drug war is failing.

Photo of the Day: Pretty topography as a soldier surveys Afghanistan.

 

 

 

Vegetarian Diet Prevents Disease

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 7:21 PM EDT

Just in time to refute last week's atrociously reported story...The American Dietetic Association released a position paper stating that vegetarian diets are healthful and nutritious for adults, infants, children and adolescents, and can help prevent and treat chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes.

The American Dietetic Association is the world’s largest organization of food and nutrition professionals.

"It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes."

The good news is that vegetarian diets tend to be lower in saturated fat and cholesterol, with higher levels of fiber, magnesium, potassium, vitamins C and E, folate, carotenoids, flavonoids and other phytochemicals.

Consequently, people eating well-balanced vegetarian diets tend toward lower blood cholesterol levels, lower risk of heart disease, lower blood pressure levels, and lower risk of hypertension and type 2 diabetes. Beyond that, vegetarians tend toward lower body mass indices and lower overall cancer rates.

Expanded sections in this updated position paper include: cancer protection factors in vegetarian diets, and the roles of fruits, vegetables, soy products, protein, calcium, vitamins D and K and potassium in bone health.

In other words, a vegetarian diet is better for you than a meat diet. It's also better for every other living thing on Earth. So why hasn't this study cracked the headlines?
 

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Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, July 7

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Your Tuesday dose of environment, health, and science stories from around our blogs:

Straight wonks on dope: Kevin Drum has never smoked weed. He's only seen a joint once. Here’s why he wants pot decriminalized. Plus: Government lies about pot revealed.

Palin's last hurrah: Possibly a requirement that Alaska girls under 18 to get parental consent for abortions, despite scientific evidence that such policies result in more late-term abortions.

Does not compute: Conservatives' bizarro healthcare arguments are sounding less and less convincing.

Cute Endangered Animal: Slow Loris

| Tue Jul. 7, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

This week's cute endangered animal is the aptly-named Slow Loris. The Slow Loris is a sympathetic little guy. He's got anime-huge eyes, and moves so slowly that he's an easy target for poachers in his native Southeast Asia. The nocturnal Slow Loris's only natural defenses are 1) holding onto a branch really tight; 2) a semi-toxic bite; 3) emitting an unpleasant smell; and 4) curling up into a protective ball-like shape. Pretty sad. One cool thing about the bite is that the Loris will nibble on his inner elbow to get toxins, then mixes the toxins in his mouth so that when he bites, it will sting more. Unfortunately, the toxin isn't fatal or debilitating for humans, though it will cause some pain, swelling, and redness.

The Slow Loris is a case of an animal being too cute for its own good. Besides having a babyish set of huge eyes, the Loris is furry, small, quiet, and apparently enjoys being tickled. The animal is prized as a pet, and shipments (often to Japan) of hundreds of Lorises have been intercepted. The fact that the Loris's instinct, upon stress, is to curl up into a ball makes it easy to transport, though often poachers will remove the Loris's teeth as a precaution. When not sold as pets, Lorises are hunted for use in traditional Asian medicines and like many other arboreal species, are threatened with habitat loss due to agriculture and logging. 

Currently, the Loris's endangered status varies by country but the 2007 CITES conference banned all international transport. The CITES conference also called for more research, as population data is often old or unreliable. To see one researcher's pics of his adorable subjects (don't worry, it's very humane research), click here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

 

Toxic Foraged Fish for Dinner in NYC

| Mon Jul. 6, 2009 5:55 PM EDT

New York City's Daily News reports that people who eat the fish they catch in the city's polluted waterways could be ingesting a smorgasbord of toxins, including mercury and PCBs. According to the story, health officials haven't tested the city's fish in a decade, so the paper decided to do send samples to a lab in Long Island. The results:

The News found the highest levels of mercury and PCBs in a striped bass caught off Gantry Plaza. The fish are highly prized among local fishermen for their size and flavor.

Bluefish samples from the Gowanus Harbor off Red Hook, Brooklyn, also had unsafe levels, tests conducted by Long Island Analytical Laboratories in Suffolk County showed.

A winter flounder caught off Hunts Point in the Bronx was slightly cleaner, with elevated levels of mercury but lower amounts of PCBs.

Hard times mean that a free meal is hard to pass up—fishermen at one pier told the Daily News that subsistence fishing has doubled in the past year. All the more troubling, then, that the polluted waters usually aren't marked: Health advisories about local fish's toxicity are seldom posted, even in the city's most popular fishing spots.

Of course the city should post the advisories, but if it does, that won't necessarily solve the problem. Eating potentially toxic fish vs. going hungry? Talk about a tough choice.

The Real Stink Behind Sewage Sludge & the White House Garden

| Sat Jul. 4, 2009 12:44 PM EDT

 Since I raised the possibility two weeks ago that sewage sludge fertilizer could have contaminated the Obamas' White House vegetable garden with lead, there has been a flurry of press on the subject. Various food and gardening blogs and dueling Huffington Posters weighed in, followed by the AP, Reuters, and the New York Times after a White House spokeswoman publicly addressed the lead issue on Thursday. Much of the coverage has sought to quell misperceptions that produce from the White House garden is unsafe to eat. Indeed, as I pointed out in my original post, the levels of lead in the garden are still well below those that the EPA says can cause health impacts. But in obsessing over whether the Obamas are poisoning themselves and their guests--and there's no proof that they are--most of the media missed the more interesting question: Is it really a good idea to grow vegetables on land that has been fertilized with sewage sludge?

The EPA thinks so, and has promoted the practice for decades as an alternative to landfilling sludge or dumping it in the ocean. In what was probably the single most effective component of a vast marketing campaign for sludge fertilizer, the National Park Service tilled it into the White House's South Lawn through much of the 1990s. Interest in the President's preferred brand of sludge spiked to the point that its makers had a hard time meeting the demand. Today, more than half the poop flushed in America ends up as fertilizer.

The safety of sludge might not be such a concern when it's spread your lawn and covered in a layer of grass, but chew on this: Food companies such as H.J. Heinz and Del Monte won't accept produce grown on sludge-treated land. The Netherlands and Switzerland effectively ban the use of sludge on farmland, and the practice is expressly prohibited by the USDA's organics standards. If sludge has been spread on the South Lawn anytime since about 2006, the Obamas' pesticide-free garden could not be certified as organic.

The human poop in sludge isn't necessarily the problem. Sludge can contain traces of anything that gets poured down the drain, from Prozac flushed down toilets to lead hosed off factory floors. The EPA sets concentration limits for several heavy metals found in sludge, including lead, but the limits are higher than what is deemed safe in some European countries. For example, the EPA permits sludge to contain up to 300 parts per million of lead, but the Netherlands raises concerns about soil with more than 40 ppm of lead.