Blue Marble - August 2009

Colbert Learns a Climate Lesson

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 10:31 PM EDT

Colbert argues for end-of-the-world sex. Bill McKibben argues that chemistry and physics don't haggle. In the end, Colbert plugs the date: October 24th, the 350 International Day of Action on Climate Change, planned for more than 1,500 locations, including the Pyramids, the Taj Mahal, and the Great Barrier Reef, where people will unite in a common call to lower carbon levels to 350 parts per million.

McKibben wrote persuasively about the need for this in last November's MoJo. How CO2 levels have already reached 390 ppm. How we need deeper and more rapid cuts than politicians have so far embraced. October 24th is a way to join voices before the global treaty talks in Copenhagen in December.

 

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Calories: Now Cheaper Than Ever!

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 6:22 PM EDT

Ethicurean's Marc R. has extracted some interesting tidbits from this recent GAO report on American food spending and agriculture. Through a few neat bar graphs, he elegantly makes a series of points. In summary: While total spending on food increased by 16 percent between 1982 and 2007, the share of our incomes that we spend on food decreased by 20 percent during that same time period. Calorie availability increased from from 2,200 calories per person per day in 1982 to 2,679 in 2007.

So basically, Americans have spent less money on more calories in recent years than they did back in the eighties. It's probably no coincidence that high fructose corn syrup, which is less expensive than sugar, really took off in the '80s and '90s.

Another important point: Prices of "healthy" food skyrocketed at the beginning of the current recession:

Eggs cost 25 percent more in February [2008] than they did a year ago, according to the USDA. Milk and other dairy products jumped 13 percent, chicken and other poultry nearly 7 percent.

I couldn't find numbers on junk food inflation, but I don't remember the price of a bag of chips changing all that much during that time. A 2007 University of Washington study suggests I'm right: Researchers found that junk food is not only typically much cheaper than "healthy" food; its price is also less subject to inflation:

The survey found that higher-calorie, energy-dense foods are the better bargain for cash-strapped shoppers. Energy-dense munchies cost on average $1.76 per 1,000 calories, compared with $18.16 per 1,000 calories for low-energy but nutritious foods.

The survey also showed that low-calorie foods were more likely to increase in price, surging 19.5 percent over the two-year study period. High-calorie foods remained a relative bargain, dropping in price by 1.8 percent.

 

 

 

Greenpeace: Lovin' McDonald's

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 1:31 PM EDT

Today on its website, Greenpeace grudgingly congratulates Mickey D's on its latest eco-accomplishment: The burger giant recently opened its first restaurant with hydroflourocarbon-free (read: ozone-friendly) refrigeration in Denmark.

Strange bedfellows, sure. But it's not the first time they've teamed up. Back in 2007, the Washington Post reported that members of the two groups worked together—sharing a tiny boat on the Amazon, no less—to stop deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest:

The eight were in the rainforest together on a mission to see firsthand where farmers were cutting down virgin forest to grow soy beans for, among other customers, McDonald's. And though Greenpeace had not long ago been accusing McDonald's of complicity in the deforestation, by the time of the Amazon trip in January, the eight officials were calling each other partners.

Those weren't just words. The ubiquitous fast-food company and the global environmentalists had already jointly pressured the biggest soy traders in Brazil into placing an unprecedented two-year moratorium on the purchase of any soy from newly deforested areas.

Obviously, this partnership is great PR for McDonald's (and make no mistake: The company milks it on its environmental site). But it's also a bonanza for Greenpeace. This kind of who-woulda-thunk-it tidbit is blogosphere/Twitter gold.

Via Triple Pundit.

5 Creative Uses for: Vodka

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Vodka's good in screwdrivers, cosmopolitans, and Cape Codders. It also works for:

1. Cleaning eye glasses: Wipe your lenses a soft, clean cloth dampened with vodka for dust- and bacteria-free specs.

2. Preserving razors: Soak your razors in vodka after use to clean them and prevent rusting.

3. Removing bandaids: Alcohol dissolves the sticky material. No painful rrrip!

4. Scrubbing the tub: Fill a spray bottle with vodka and spray caulking, let sit 5-10 minutes, and wash clean.

5. Perking up flowers: Mix vodka, sugar and water and pour in a vase to keep your aging flowers looking fresh.

Thanks, AltUse.com. Look for five creative ways to use common products every Tuesday here on the Blue Marble.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, August 18

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Tuesday's list of environment, science, and health stories from our other blogs and around the web:

Lipstick on a junta: Does Fiji Water prop up a dictatorship? We let the experts duke it out.

PETA, please: The animal activist group's latest antic is an embarrassing fat-bashing billboard. Oy.

Bye bye, public option; hello co-ops: James Ridgeway on why health care co-ops are a cop-out.

No crystal ball necessary: Should democrats have foreseen the outcry over advance care counseling? Kevin Drum says it wouldn't have mattered even if they had, since the lunatic fringe would have found something to obsess over no matter what.

Of pressure and pollen: Can stress make your allergies worse?

Cigna spills: The former head of corporate communications at one of the largest health insurance companies in America tells all.

Critical mass: When it comes to bikes, there's safety in numbers.

To keep up with environment, health, and science news from Mother Jones and beyond on Twitter, follow @MoJoBlueMarble.

Cute Animal in Danger: Dugong

| Tue Aug. 18, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Despite what a recent PETA ad would have you believe, some vegetarians are fat. Take, for example, the herbiverous and tubby Dugong. Dugongs have long been hunted for their fat, meat, and oil and they're easy targets: they swim slowly through shallow waters munching on seagrass like a cow on pasture. In fact, they're often called seacows. Though dugongs are protected in the US under the Endangered Species Act, some are still killed by motorboat collisions and poachers.

There are about 100,000 dugongs left, the majority in Australian waters. Like their relative the elephant, dugongs can grow huge: up to 11 feet in length and 2,000 pounds in weight. The shy animals can only stay underwater for about 6 minutes, and sometimes "stand" on their tail flukes to push their heads to the surface, holding their front flippers in front of them like arms. This activity, combined with the dugong's distinctive head and body shape, not to mention its "conspicuous" nipples, is thought to have inspired lovelorn sailors' tales of mermaids and sirens. Accordingly, dugongs (along with manatees) belong to the order Sirenia

The dugong's long lifespan (70 years) and a slow reproduction rate (one calf every 3 to 7 years) makes it less able to adapt to environmental changes than smaller, more fertile animals like squid or jellyfish. However, unlike some other animals, the dugong has no set breeding period and can mate year round. Although unusual now, there used to be "herds" of hundreds of dugongs, who would segregate cream-colored young in a "nursery" while blue-grey adults foraged for food. Now, most dugong groups sighted have only 6 or so members. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) dugongs are rarely found in captivity, but you can "adopt" your own dugong via the World Wildlife Fund here.

 

Follow Jen Phillips on Twitter.

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EPA Pesticide Tests Seriously Shortsighted

| Mon Aug. 17, 2009 7:58 PM EDT

Hard to believe but the Environmental Protection Agency commonly uses 4-day tests to set safe levels of pesticide exposure for humans and animals. New research suggests this timescale is way too short and doesn't begin to account for long-term effects.

The new data, published in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry, describe how the highly toxic pesticide endosulfan—a neurotoxin banned in several nations but still used extensively in US agriculture (check out the CDC's outdated description)—exhibits a "lag effect" after direct contact has ended.

The researchers exposed nine species of frog and toad tadpoles to endosulfan levels already occurring in the wild for the EPA's required 4-day period. After 4 days the amphibians were transferred to clean water for an additional 4 days.

Although endosulfan was ultimately toxic to all species, three species of tadpole showed no significant sensitivity to the chemical until after they were transferred to fresh water. Within 4 days of being moved, up to 97 percent of leopard frog tadpoles perished along with up to 50 percent of spring peeper and American toad tadpoles.

Tadpoles and other amphibians are famously sensitive to pollutants and considered environmental indicator species. The authors suggest that if endosulfan does not kill the world's most susceptible species in 4 days, then the 4-day test period is inadequate to gauge the long-term effects for larger, less-sensitive species—like us.

Co-author Rick Relyea said: "For most pesticides, we assume that animals will die during the period of exposure, but we do not expect substantial death after the exposure has ended. Even if EPA regulations required testing on amphibians, our research demonstrates that the standard 4-day toxicity test would have dramatically underestimated the lethal impact of endosulfan on even this notably sensitive species."

A second paper by some of the same authors in the same journal expands on Relyea's earlier findings that the popular weed-killer Roundup® is "extremely lethal" to amphibians in concentrations found in the environment. The latest report on Roundup® is available on Pitt's website (pdf).

Last year Relyea reported that the world's 10 most popular pesticides combine to create "cocktails of contaminants" that can destroy amphibian populations—even if the concentration of each individual chemical is within levels considered safe to humans and animals. I reported on this at TBM at the time. The cocktail killed 99 percent of leopard frog tadpoles. Endosulfan alone killed 84 percent.

A month earlier, Relyea published a paper in Ecological Applications reporting that gradual amounts of malathion (the most popular insecticide in the US)—too small to directly kill developing leopard frog tadpoles—nevertheless sparked a biological chain reaction that deprived the amphibians of their primary food source. As a result, nearly half the tadpoles in the experiment would have died in nature.

In other words, pesticides really really suck. How much research more does the EPA need to embrace 21st-century science?
 

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, August 17

| Mon Aug. 17, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Twip of the day: To keep up with environment, health, and science news from Mother Jones and beyond on Twitter, follow @MoJoBlueMarble. In the meantime, here's a sampling of Blue Marbleish goings on this Monday morning:

Get your Kevin Drum fix: If you didn't get a chance to watch Kevin Drum's NetRoots Nation keynote live, this week's MoJo podcast is a short Pittsburgh dispatch from him. In it, we talk about the NetRoots Nation male-to-female ratio, Arlen Specter on the healthcare "death panels," and how fellow attendees are feeling about Obama. Listen to the podcast here.

"Hatred, vitriol, and racism:" James Ridgeway on how town hall meetings on health care reform have become the latest target of violent far-right rhetoric.

Bag ban battle: As more and more cities ditch plastic bags, the plastic industry fights back.

The fine print: Over at Climate Progress, two different takes on whether or not Wal-Mart's pricy eco-labeling plan will work.

Is renewable energy worth more quakes? The San Francisco Chronicle on the promise and the peril of geothermal.

Have you ever heard of an "urban whale?" Treehugger explains why the term is, unfortunately, not as oxymoronic as you might think.

 

 

 

China's Air Pollution Causing Drought

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 7:13 PM EDT

Increasing air pollution over China in the past 50 years has reduced days of rainfall by nearly a quarter in the eastern half of the country—home to most Chinese people and pollution. Bad air is now likely affecting the country's ability to grow food crops, as well as causing a flood of health and environmental problems.

The study in the Journal of Geophysical Research-Atmospheres links for the first time high levels of air pollutants with conditions preventing the light rainfall critical for agriculture. The research suggests that reducing air pollution might ease the drought in north China.

In the last 50 years, southeastern China has seen increased amounts of total rainfall per year, while the northern half has seen less rain and more droughts. But the light rainfall that sustains crops has decreased everywhere. At the same time China's population has more than doubled and sulfur emissions from fossil fuel burning have exploded to nine times their levels 50 years ago.
 

Climate Cop-out at Copenhagen?

| Fri Aug. 14, 2009 5:00 PM EDT

Foreign Affairs journal has a piece in its upcoming September/October issue on the crucial Copenhagen climate-treaty negotiations in early December. The story's thrust: Keep your expectations very, very low.

Here's part of the journal's summary of the to-be-released story, penned by Michael A. Levi, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and director of CFR's Program on Energy Security and Climate Change:

"Government officials and activists should fundamentally rethink their strategy and expectations" for the December climate conference in Copenhagen, argues Michael A. Levi, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. According to Levi, the odds of signing a comprehensive treaty in December are "vanishingly small." With this in mind, rather than aim for a broad global treaty, negotiators should reinforce existing national policies and seek "international cooperation focused on specific opportunities to cut emissions" in rich nations and the developing world. Levi urges officials to view the conference as a chance to build efforts to cut emissions from the ground up, and try to "reinforce developed countries’ emissions cuts and link developing countries’ actions ... to objectives in other areas—such as economic growth, security, and air quality—that leaders of those countries already care about."

Oy. If this summary is representative of Levi's entire story, it's about as bleak a prediction of what purpose Copenhagen will serve as you'll find from a respected organization like CFR and from someone with Levi's presumed stature. Fair to say, plenty others, myself included, disagree with Levi's argument—which, from this summary, doesn't advocate much that would change the status quo. Even if a "comprehensive treaty" isn't completed in December, that doesn't rule out some kind of treaty framework—a far better option than Levi's call to "build efforts to cut emissions from the ground up, and try to 'reinforce developed countries’ emissions cuts and link developing countries' actions ... to objectives in other areas—such as economic growth, security, and air quality—that leaders of those countries already care about.'"