Blue Marble - July 2009

Leaner, Greener GM Might Change Logo from Blue to Green

| Fri Jul. 10, 2009 3:42 PM EDT

As GM prepares to cut 21 percent of its US jobs and produce smaller, more fuel-efficient cars, it's mulling over changing the color of its logo from blue to green. The AP reports that the switch would be "an effort to show consumers that it is leaner and greener, more focussed on fuel efficiency and better able to make quick decisions."

Depending on your perspective, this is either a brilliant move or a monumental case of chutzpah. It might signal GM's shifting priorities, or it might come off as an effort to put a new coat of green paint on the same grimy clunker. Given how far GM has to go before it's as green as companies like Toyota or Honda, perhaps the strongest message behind the color change would be this: GM is green with envy.

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This Week in Frog: Help Is on the Way!

| Fri Jul. 10, 2009 1:09 PM EDT

This week, we will focus on positive contributions that people are making to combat the extinction of frogs worldwide:

- In Panama, American and Canadian ex-pats are working to save the golden frog (pictured above).

- At Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York, and Plymouth University in England, professors are learning about why tadpoles have been turning into deformed frogs at incredibly alarming rates.

- Inmates in Washington state are making the most of their sentences by breeding frog species that have rapidly declined in recent years. Check out the video below for an amazing related story:

 

On a sidenote, today I entered the Save The Frogs poetry competition (deadline at midnight tonight) by submitting the following entry:

I entered the swamp, in search of a frog
His name was Mudraker, he hailed from Prague
Though he spoke Czech, his issues were global
Rapid decline, much worse than Chernobyl.

Mudraker came to the US of A
But non-native bull-frogs, scared him away
He battled pesticides throughout the year
Habitat destroyed, he remained austere.

His friends, victims in a deadly abyss,
finished from chytridiomycosis
Don't surf the net or drive Mitsubishis,
Now's our last chance to save these species.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, July 10

| Fri Jul. 10, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Just in case you missed these health, environment, and science stories from our other blogs:

Torture couture: Class up your t-shirt collection with these fine garments.

Political science: What percentage of scientists identify as Republican? A new Pew survey has the un-shocking answer.

Dr. Evil: Who best to fix healthcare? Why a fraudulent former hospital exec, of course.

Six characters in search of the drug war: How backward policies and forward-thinking traffickers got us to this point.

Let the circle be broken: Carbon-related positive feedback loops caused a horrendous drought in the Amazon in 2005. Just another joy of climate change.

Worry while you work: Mandatory furloughs, wage freezes, and benefit cuts are just some of the recession-related bummers keeping American employees up at night.

Photo of the day: Iraqi soldiers learn to use a terrain board to plan missions.

 

Flu Mutating

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 9:13 PM EDT

Barack Obama warned today of a resurgence of flu this autumn. But it's summer in the northern hemisphere. Hard to fret in warm weather. Right?

Well here are some developments worth the worry, summed up by New Scientist.

In June, more than 98 percent of genotyped flu cases in the US were caused by the pandemic swine flu—which is to be expected, since seasonal flus tend to die out in summer.

But the same high percentages of pandemic flu are appearing in the southern hemisphere, where swine flu, A(H1N1), is replacing the seasonal flu.

In the Australian state of Victoria, swine flu now accounts for 99 percent of all flu cases, with similar numbers from South America. The seasonal vaccine is proving useless.

The pandemics of 1918, 1957, and 1968 also completely replaced their seasonal flus.

Yet many drug companies are still laboring to produce seasonal flu vaccines for use later this year for the northern hemisphere—when they might well prove useless.

It's also possible that three viruses will be circulating later this year: the milder H1N1, plus H3N2, plus the swine flu A(H1N1). In this complicated scenario, seasonal and pandemic vaccines would be needed with people in different age groups requiring vaccines based on their exposure to past flus.

During previous pandemics, the pandemic virus mutated and its effects worsened. Some ominous signs are emerging now with swine flu, including a mutation to the virus's polymerase enzyme that allows it to replicate more efficiently. This mutation appeared in Shanghai and could make the virus more contagious or more virulent or both.

Three cases of resistance to the main antiviral drug Tamiflu were discovered last week in Denmark, Japan, and Hong Kong—including one in a girl who had never taken the drug. This suggests that Tamiflu-resistant swine flu might already be circulating.

Plus the news from Germany today that swine flu is capable of spreading from people to pigs and then rapidly between pigs. This was an experimental exposure in Germany. But if swine flu really does get loose in the ghastly world of pig farms, there's a risk of the virus mixing with other strains to create a real flu monster.


The German researchers were heartened the virus did not spread to five chickens housed with the pigs. That's the worst case scenario: a swine-avian flu hybrid. The H2N3 seasonal flu currently circulating has the ability to bridge that gap since it's composed of swine and avian flu genes dating back to the 1957 pandemic.

Enjoy smmer. Winter's going to get interesting.
 

Geoengineering Won't Save Our Oceans

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 6:13 PM EDT

Last month I wrote about geoengineering, controversial schemes to deliberately manipulate the Earth’s climate to slow the planet’s warming. I focused mostly on a proposal often called “solar radiation management” (PDF), in which sunlight is blocked in the upper atmosphere in order to reduce warming at the planet’s surface. A new study, cowritten by one of the main sources in my piece, Stanford’s Ken Caldeira, makes a major conclusion about this type of geoengineering: It may cool the planet, but it won’t prevent dangerously high levels of carbon dioxide from wreaking havoc on our oceans.

As MoJo’s environmental correspondent Julia Whitty has written, our oceans are already at their breaking point: Man-made emissions have negatively impacted the ocean's chemistry, and toxic waste is being dumped into our oceans without regard for its harmful impact on fragile marine ecosystems. To make matters worse, scientists fear that large-scale geoengineering proposals could cause further acidification of our oceans (for instance, the sulfur injected into the atmosphere in a solar radiation management scheme would fall back to the Earth's surface through precipitation), damaging the lifeforms that live there. More recent geoengineering studies (PDF), however, allayed those fears, finding that solar radiation management wouldn’t acidify the oceans as much as first anticipated.

Nonetheless, the Caldeira report finds that our oceans and coral life are in grave danger—and even the best-case-scenario geoengineering scheme to block out the sun’s rays won’t help the oceans much. Paired with a report from earlier this year stating that global warming is essentially irreversible, that CO2 will hang around in the atmosphere for around a thousand years or so, the Caldeira paper suggests that solar radiation-related geoengineering efforts aren't worth pursuing.

Perhaps geoengineering researchers would be better off focusing on ways to remove CO2 from the atmosphere, like synthetic trees that “scrub” the CO2 out of the air. After all, why waste time, money, and manpower on a geoengineering scheme like solar radiation management if, as this latest research suggests, it won’t do much to save our planet?

Take a Deep Breath. Senate Won't Mark Up Climate Bill Until September

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 4:18 PM EDT

Senator Barbara Boxer was expected to introduce a version of the Waxman-Markey climate bill in the Senate this month but Greenwire reports that she's going to wait:

The California Democrat told reporters that many senators are focused this month on health care reform legislation, prompting the delay from her original plan to hold a vote before the August recess.

Phew. Now everybody gets another month to stress out about this.

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San Francisco's Latest Eco-Innovation: Growing Produce Almost Everywhere

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 12:38 PM EDT

Is the future of agriculture the neglected flower bed on Main Street? The San Francisco Chronicle reports today that Mayor Gavin Newsom has ordered all city departments "to conduct an audit of unused land--including empty lots, rooftops, windowsills and median strips--that could be turned into community gardens or farms." If the Mayor gets his way, you could just as well get an apple from the corner mart as from a tree growing on the street corner.

The announcement is the latest fruit from an "urban-rural" roundtable of food experts that Newsom convened last year to look for more ways to get locally-grown foods onto the plates of city residents. The effort began last summer with a quarter-acre "victory garden" in front of city hall--a big hit with locals and tourists; Newsom later announced plans to replicate the effort at 15 sites around the city. He also floated the idea of planting fruit trees on street medians, and experimented with a strawberry patch atop a bus shelter--ideas that could catch on under his new food directive.

Newsom's move builds upon a vibrant hyperlocal agriculture movement in the Bay Area and along the West Coast. Detailed in "Inside the Green Zone" in our March/April food issue, the movement encompasses everything from professional farmers who'll sow your backyard to urban fruit foragers who barter blackberries plucked from city parks. The efforts have taken on a timeliness in the midst of the recession as cities look for ways to fill lots that aren't being developed and provide healthy, inexpensive food. Indeed, the original "victory garden" was planted by Eleanor Roosevelt on the White House lawn in the waning years of the Great Depression to serve as a model for rugged self reliance.

Newsom plans to go a step further by also requiring the city departments serve only high-quality food. Within two months, he'll send an ordinance to the city's Board of Supervisors mandating that all food served in city jails, hospitals, homeless shelters, and community centers be safe, healthy, and sustainable. Of course, the switch will be much easier in San Francisco, which consumes a million tons of food a year but has 20 tons available within a 200 mile raidius, than it would in say, New York. Still, there's no reason an apple tree couldn't also thrive on a sidewalk in Brooklyn.

Australian Town Bans Bottled Water

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 10:13 AM EDT

Residents of Bundanoon, New South Wales, Australia have voted to ban the sale of bottled water in their rural town—probably the first in the world to do so. Only two voters opposed the ban. Why?

Bundanoon's battle against the bottle has been brewing for years, ever since a Sydney-based beverage company announced plans to build a water extraction plant in the town. Residents were furious over the prospect of an outsider taking their water, trucking it up to Sydney for processing and then selling it back to them. The town is still fighting the company's proposal in court.

In other words, bottling water wastes an incredible amount of resources—natural and capital. (Producing the bottles for the American market requires 17 million barrels of oil; three liter of water are needed to produce a liter of bottled water.) So officials in Bundanoon will install more drinking fountains and encourage residents to use them to fill reusable water bottles for free.

I hope something like this catches on elsewhere. It's certainly possible. When San Francisco announced it would ban businesses from giving out plastic bags for free, some store owners griped it would hurt their bottom lines because paper bags are more expensive than plastic. But walk in to any Trader Joe's or Walgreens and you'll see a majority customers bringing their own bags or reusing them from previous trips.

That's the power of a collective mindset, albeit one driven in part by a law. Of course, there are other benefits to reusable bags, the least of which is not having to dedicate a cupboard to a heap of plastic stamped with CVS's logo.

But there are more potent incentives to banning bottled water. For one, the environmental benefit is greater (Americans recycle less than seven percent of their plastic, compared to 55 percent of the paper they use.) To me, though, the most potent incentive is purely economic: Part of the reason we pay taxes is so that we have clean drinking water. Whenever I buy a bottle of water, I feel like I'm doing something incredibly irrational, spending money on something for which there exists a free and arguably better substitute—tap water.

Eco-news Roundup: Thursday July 9

| Thu Jul. 9, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Blue Marblish stories from our other blogs you might have missed.

Healthcare Pitfalls: A public plan might mean cuts for those with severe health problems.

411 on G8: World leaders at G8 summit fail to agree on climate change goals.

Placebo Effect: There are lots of treatments for cancer, but not a lot of data on results.

Justice, Iranian Style: Torture and interrogations are now common, say sources.

You Can't Catch Black: Inner-city kids booted out of pool because white guests were scared.

Numerical Oddity: Today the clock will strike 12:34:56... on 7/8/9.

Old Forests Cool the World

| Wed Jul. 8, 2009 5:48 PM EDT

The practice of reducing forest fuels to lessen the chances of catastrophic fire undercuts a more vital service performed by old woodlands: the sequestration of carbon to offset global warming.

According to a new study in Ecological Applications, even if forestry biofuels were used in an optimal manner to produce electricity or make cellulosic ethanol there would still be a net loss of carbon sequestration in the forests of the Pacific Northwest for at least 100 years—and probably much longer.

Here's what the study found: In a Coast Range forest, if you remove solid woody biofuels to reduce fire risks and then use them for fuel, you need 169 years before you reach a break-even point in carbon sequestration. If you use the same woody materials for the inefficient production of cellulosic ethanol, you need 339 years to break even.

Prior to this study, it was widely believed that using biofuels to produce energy would offset the carbon emissions from this process. But these data negate that hypothesis.

Instead, the authors conclude, we should forego fuel reduction treatments to enable forest ecosystems to provide maximal amelioration of atmospheric CO2 over the next 100 years.

The hypothetical benefits of fuel reduction went up in flames when the fossil fuel costs of transportation, fuel for thinning, and other energy expenditures, was factored in. With those calculations, forestry biofuels recovered only 60 to 65 percent of the energy they cost. Producing cellulosic ethanol recovered as little as 35 percent.

The bottom line: Transforming old existing forests into anything other than old existing forests produces a net loss in carbon sequestration.

Interesting note: Another study recently concluded that the forests of Oregon and northern California, if managed exclusively for carbon sequestration, could double or even triple the amount of sequestration in many areas.

Not considered in this study: How global warming might affect the increase of catastrophic fire. However, the authors write that fire severity in many forests may be more a function of severe weather rather than fuel accumulation. Therefore fuel reduction efforts may be of only limited effectiveness, even in a hotter future.

So what'll it be—more fuel or a more stable world?