Blue Marble - July 2009

Phew, China and U.S. Sign Memorandum

| Tue Jul. 28, 2009 5:13 PM PDT

After a series of negotiations that primarily focused on the economy, ace global ambassador Hillary Clinton managed to convince her Chinese counterparts to sign off on a "memorandum of understanding" in which the planet's #1 (China) and #2 (U.S.) polluters pledge to cooperate so that a comprehensive climate change agreement can be reached in time for December's Copenhagen climate conference.

But will the memorandum actually do anything? At this point, that's unclear. But at least it's a start, which is surely better than hardcore diplosquabbling, as was the case for Clinton in India last week.

My prediction: India will be the biggest thorn in America's side this December, and Brazil won't make the conference a cakewalk either.

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The Not-So Fertile Crescent

| Tue Jul. 28, 2009 4:22 PM PDT

Last week came news that the Colorado River may go dry. Could the Fertile Crescent be next?

Akio Kitoh of Japan's Meteorological Research Institute thinks so—he forecasts that the Crescent will disappear in this century.

Several factors have contributed to the depletion of the once-lush Mesopotamian marshes, where the Euphrates and Tigres rivers converge. Dams constrict water flow, drought grips the area, and Iraqis are increasingly draining the water for agricultural purposes.

There have been efforts to make the area fertile once again. But if conditions don't change dramatically, the cradle of civilization may eventually be no more.

Pro-Lifers Hijack Health Care Reform

| Tue Jul. 28, 2009 11:50 AM PDT

One of the most controversial issues related to the health care debate currently raging in Congress is whether the government plan, like most private plans, should cover the cost of abortions. And compromise on the issue may be impossible as Republicans and some moderate Democrats continue their campaign to distract the public by focusing on divisive issues like abortion. Dana Goldstein of the American Prospect writes today about the smear campaign, disseminated by conservative media outlets like Fox News, to portray health care reform as a tacit approval of government subsidized abortion:

Abortion is far cheaper and safer than pregnancy and childbirth and prevents society from shouldering the cost of children parents aren't prepared to care for. President Obama has said his health-reform goals are to offer Americans more health choices, bring down costs, and make our society, as a whole, a healthier one. In that context, abortion coverage is a no-brainer.

If every American were going to be covered by government-funded health insurance, we wouldn't be debating this topic. While constantly grandstanding on abortion, our political elites have been surprisingly adept at making sure women with the ability to pay -- in other words, the daughters, sisters, and girlfriends of politicians -- will always have access to abortion. But by maintaining a system full of inequities, in which women with fewer options and resources are more likely to rely on the new public plan, Democratic leaders have allowed abortion opponents, once again, to hijack a policy debate. And that, sadly, is uniquely American.

More than torpedoing compromise, though, pro-lifers from both sides of the aisle are actively trying to get abortion spiked from any bill that moves through Congress. Last month, 19 Democrats wrote to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi saying that they would not “support any healthcare proposal unless it excludes abortion from the scope of any government-defined or subsidized health insurance plan."

And President Obama is staying out of it. Louisiana Republican John Fleming claimed recently that "by being silent on this issue [Obama is] actually making an affirmative statement in favor of taxpayer abortions." That wouldn't be so bad, but instead it's something much worse. As Ezra Klein points out today, the health care discussion is being run by centrist Democrats and conservative Republicans. So by staying silent on the issue, Obama is not effectively condoning government subsidized abortion; he's letting it die on the table.

A Supposedly Fun Thing That Seems To Kill Whales

| Tue Jul. 28, 2009 9:42 AM PDT

Guest blogger Mark Follman writes frequently about current affairs and culture at markfollman.com.

I took notice back when David Foster Wallace chronicled the cultural dark side of going on a cruise. But ultimately it’s the environmental dark side of the industry that makes me know I’ll Never Do It at All.

Over the weekend, an adult fin whale—a threatened species in Canada—turned up dead in the waters at a cruise ship terminal in Vancouver. The rare marine giant was impaled on the bow of the “Sapphire Princess,” a Princess Cruises’ ship arriving from Alaska.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, July 28

| Tue Jul. 28, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Today's science, health, and environment posts from our other blogs:

Above the law? James Ridgeway on the possibility of jury nullification in the abortion doctor killing case

File under "totally obvious": Texting while driving is a pretty bad idea.

The problem with private: Health insurance companies are all well and good if you're healthy, but they avoid sick people like the plague.

Hype alert: Climate change denialists are trying to spin scientific uncertainty into proof that global warming is a hoax. Here's why they're wrong.

Should Kosher Veggies Be Organic?

| Mon Jul. 27, 2009 4:42 PM PDT

It's a sign of the times when the Orthodox Union starts taking its cues from the Certified Organic crowd. After 2000 years of formalized Jewish dietary law, Israel's top Rabbi has threatened to revoke the kosher status of vegetables deemed excessively sprayed. 

Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, the country's top religious authority, said he would yank veggies' blanket kosher seal of approval over "insane quantities" of insecticides. Although even the man with the plan acknowledged that there is no precedent for decertifying fruits and vegetables, he said that health hazards alone make spraying a religious concern. (Kashrut, the body of law dictating what is and isn't kosher, forbids eating any known poison.)

Besides being a good green initiative and probably long overdue, there may be some business sense in this. Only 21 percent of people who buy kosher food do so for religious reasons; the rest choose kosher for its perceived health benefits. Because Jewish law forbids mixing dairy and meat, most desserts and snacks contain neither, making them an easy choice for vegans and vegetarians. Kosher animals aren't fed other animals' parts, and their care and slaughter is strictly supervised. Finally, many buyers simply believe that the religious certifiers do a better job than the government at keeping food clean and safe. The laws are literally so complicated, the main certifying body in America runs a hotline.

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Eco-News Roundup: Monday July 27

| Mon Jul. 27, 2009 4:46 AM PDT

Blue Marble-ish stories from our other blogs:

Commodifying Carbon: Turning carbon into just another commodity might not be a bad idea.

Making Lemonade: Congress is so close on the healthcare bill... yet so far.

In With the Old: The new drug czar, like the old one, still thinks marijuana is dangerous.

Global What? Despite George Will, the globe IS still warming.

Fat Cats: Kevin Drum is putting his kitties on a diet. Predicted Inkblot response: hiss!

Making Changes: Is healthcare reform wilting? David Corn opines.

Cougar Convention: Cougars are setting up a den in Palo Alto.

 

Should You Trade in That Clunker?

| Fri Jul. 24, 2009 5:55 PM PDT

The federal government's Cash for Clunkers program officially began today, but the ridiculous car dealership ads encouraging you to "get rid of that old jalopy" have been airing for some time now:

 

Nevermind that the Model T shown above gets better gas mileage than many of Detroit's newest offerings. With so much Madison Avenue labor dedicated to trashing old cars, you could be forgiven for feeling a bit of an econundrum: Buy a new car with lower emissions? Or don't, and save the energy needed to manufacture it? Last year, we looked into the question and came up with this rule of thumb: If your car gets more than 25 mpg and you don't drive much, you're better off keeping it instead of buying something more efficient. Fortunately, Cash for Clunkers only allows trade-ins for cars that get less than 18 mpg. Does that make the program the best use of government money? Probably not, but compared to a lot of other subsidies to banks and automakers, it's not all that bad.

Friday Frog Blog: Weddings, Discoveries, and Obsessions

| Fri Jul. 24, 2009 3:03 PM PDT

This week in frog, three stories you could have missed:

  • In India, villagers fell back on an old tradition when they hosted a frog wedding as a symbolic act that they hope will bring rain to their land.
  • A species of frog that was thought to be extinct was miraculously discovered in the San Bernardino National Forest near Idyllwild, California.
  • Lady Gaga's got a frog fetish.

As a belated tribute to Walter Cronkite, we leave you with the following words: "And that's the way it is."

What My Marriage Counselor Asked

| Fri Jul. 24, 2009 1:26 PM PDT

Nearly 25 years ago, a marriage counselor asked me a simple question. Four words, and it changed my life.

I had been in and out of this relationship for several years. First we hung out, then we hung it up. We lived together on a commune, we moved out and then moved apart. We saw others, we moved back in together. We separated, got married, then separated again. It was your typical troubled hippie relationship, circa 1970s.

Through all of it, there was a stew of anger simmering on a back burner. We had no idea what was fueling it, so we did the logical thing: we pretended it wasn't there. Well, watched pots may never boil, but let me tell you, it's the unwatched ones that seethe and roil out of sight, and, from time to time, explode. When they do, anyone nearby gets burned. There was never any actual violence, even verbal abuse, but the pain we inflicted on each other was real enough.

After one particularly bad scalding, we agreed to see a marriage counselor. Our first session started like a court hearing, with me as the prosecutor rattling off the charges against my then-wife. I was more like a cross between a prosecutor and an earnest shrink, actually. "Charge #1 [fill in the blank]; Why did she do that?" "Charge #2; I don't understand why she did such a terrible thing!" Repeat for charges 3-12. Why? Why? WHY?!

Finally, I turned to the judge/marriage counselor and pleaded: "I don't understand how she can say she loves me and still do these things that are so hurtful!"

The counselor had the quiet hand-wringing demeanor of Gabriel Byrne's character, Paul Weston from In Treatment. He appeared to mull over my question and then sat upright in his chair.

"I'm not really interested in why she does those things," he said, slowly. "What I want to know is: Why do you stay?"

Two days later I moved out. We got a divorce and that was that.

It's the same with climate deniers. (Stay with me, here.)

Why do good, smart people like MJ's own Kevin Drum continue to debate those who insist global warming isn't caused primarily by human action? It's not like the facts aren't out there. This is settled science (as far as science can ever be considered settled). A list-serv of enviro-journo types to which I belong recently went through a small spasm along these same lines: "How can we best convince doubters that global warming is real?"

Once upon a time that was a legitimate question. No more.

Like the marriage counselor's reaction to me digging into my former-wife's motivations, I've lost interest in what motivates climate deniers. Religion? Politics? Money? I don't know and I don't care. The battle between those who accept global warming and those who don't is like a really bad marriage where the two sides bicker endlessly over who's right. This marriage cannot be saved. It's time for a divorce.

Journalists and others need to turn our attention to solutions. Debating solutions to global warming is a sign of a healthy relationship. All sides have a common baseline and can help each other figure out where we need to go from here.

Politically, massive resources should be used to defeat everyone in Congress who still wants to debate the modern equivalent of "Is the earth really round?" We need to divorce pols who are divorced from reality, and the proper venue for that is the ballot box (or in some cases the recall petition).

And then, we need to get on with our lives, with creating solutions to the largest problem facing us: global warming

All I can say for sure is that it worked for me.

Once I stopped debating deniers I met this really wonderful energy source named solar power. We've been seeing each other pretty regularly for several months now.

I'm happy to say I think it's serious.

 

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. He edited The Climate Bill: A Field Guide. For more of his stories, click here.