Blue Marble - September 2009

Imaging Global Warming

| Tue Sep. 15, 2009 5:00 AM EDT

"I don't really know what a ton of carbon dioxide looks like." US Representative Michael Burgess,  R-TX, during markup of HR 2454, House Committee on Energy & Commerce.

It should surprise no one that Representative Burgess voted against the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (ACES) when the historic climate bill narrowly passed the US House, just a day or so after the Texas Republican complained that he couldn't see the offending green house gas. If you can't see it; how do you know it's real?

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Doctors Overwhelmingly Favor Public Option

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 9:58 PM EDT

A poll conducted by the New England Journal of Medicine found that nearly 80 percent of American doctors favor the public option in health care reform. The Journal mailed a confidential questionnaire to 2,000 practicing US physicians 65 or younger to explore whether they endorse a public role for the profession.

Respondents were asked to indicate their agreement or disagreement with the following statements:
 

  1. Addressing societal health policy issues, as important as that may be, falls outside the scope of my professional obligations as a physician
  2. Every physician is professionally obligated to care for the uninsured and underinsured
  3. I would favor limiting reimbursement for expensive drugs and procedures if that would help expand access to basic health care for those currently lacking such care

The Journal also asked physicians to indicate whether they objected to using cost-effectiveness data to determine which treatments will be offered to patients.More than half the doctors answered. The results:
 

  • A large majority (78%) agreed that physicians have a professional obligation to address societal health policy issues
  • Majorities agreed that every physician is professionally obligated to care for the uninsured or underinsured (73%)
  • Most doctors were willing to accept limits on reimbursement for expensive drugs and procedures for the sake of expanding access to basic health care (67%)

Physicians were divided almost equally about cost-effectiveness analysis. More than half (54%) reported having a moral objection to using such data "to determine which treatments will be offered to patients."

Interestingly, age, race, and region didn't seem to affect opinions. Female doctors were more likely than males to object to using cost-effectiveness data to guide treatment decisions but otherwise did not differ on other questions.

There were differences in opinion based on the doctor's specialty. Surgeons, procedural specialists, and those in nonclinical specialties were all significantly less likely than primary care providers to favor reform that expands access to basic health care by reducing reimbursement for expensive drugs and procedures.

There were also consistent differences between self-described liberals and conservatives. The 28% of physicians who called themselves conservative were consistently less enthusiastic about professional responsibilities pertaining to health care reform.

The data suggest that some of the more controversial elements currently appearing in reform proposals will likely face serious opposition from segments of the medical profession, including:
 

  • Limiting reimbursement under Medicare (expanding the ranks of the underinsured)
  • Using cost-effectiveness data in treatment decisions
  • Limiting reimbursements for expensive drugs and procedures

The Journal concludes:
 

  • Most physicians see deliberations on health care reform as part of their professional responsibility
  • Conservative doctors need to be engaged for health care reform to succeed

 

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, September 14

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Happy Monday, everyone. Here's the enviro, health, and science news for today:

Podcast, people! David Corn and Kevin Drum on healthcare, Obama's speech, and Twitter's quirks. Corn doesn't really like to talk about the truthers, which makes his latest take on Van Jones and 9/11 conspiracies all the more interesting.

The Economics of Traffic: How much would you pay for a shorter commute?

Poland's organic revolution: The newest Western trend to hit Eastern Europe isn't a new fast-food chain—it's organic food. [AFP]

Vaccine skeptics and swine flu: Experts say vaccines don't cause autism, and young children who contract the H1N1 flu strain are at risk for serious complications. So why are some parents still refusing to give their kids flu shots? [L.A. Times]

U.S. of Euthanasia? Is Barack Obama's health care plan nothing but an underhanded plot to bring European-style euthanasia to the United States? David Corn and James Pinkerton duke it out on Bloggingheads.tv.

 

 

 

Should You Barbecue With Charcoal or Gas?

| Mon Sep. 14, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

A few months ago I moved into a house with a great backyard and a charcoal grill. Almost immediately, a burger-loving crowd descended, and they sort of haven’t left since. Endless summer is great and all, but I’ve had this nagging feeling that our charcoal habit is cooking the planet along with my food. I’ve considered switching to a gas grill, which releases less carbon dioxide than its charcoal counterpart: According to the Department of Energy, propane-powered BBQs produce 5.6 pounds of carbon dioxide per hour, compared to 11 pounds for charcoal. And CO2 isn't the only nasty thing about charcoal—it produces nitrous oxides, volatile organic compounds, and soot, too. Bummer, since it's the coals that give your meat its smoky flavor. 

So should you sacrifice charred deliciousness for the sake of the planet? Not necessarily—if you’re occasionally willing to ditch your cow-based grillables for a chicken thigh, or better yet a portobello or two. Blogger Jamais Cascio of OpenTheFuture.com calculated that the average American eats 1 to 3 cheeseburgers a week, contributing 1,190 to 2,017 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per person per year. Now let’s say you grill for half an hour three times a week from May through October—that’s 36 hours of total grilling, which adds 202 pounds of CO2 for gas grills, compared to 396 pounds for charcoal. Grilling 30 fewer cheeseburgers a year on your charcoal grill, then, gets rid of roughly the same amount of emissions as switching to gas.

So here's my advice: Char if you must (and you can pick a low-smoke charcoal like this one, which is made from coconut shells), but whatever kind of grill you choose, consider this rule of thumb: In terms of greenhouse gas emissions, one burger is the same as 3 pork chops, 6 pieces of chicken, 2 salmon steaks, or 21 pieces of mackerel.

Update, August 29, 2014: If you're worried about the cancer-causing compounds generated by charcoal grilling, marinate your meat in beer, says science.
 

Solar-Powered Schools

| Sun Sep. 13, 2009 12:54 PM EDT

When bank robber Willie Sutton was asked why he knocked over those temples of finance, he famously replied: "Because that's where the money is."

Duh.

And yet, even with a growing understanding of global warming and the realization that fossil fuels are finite, we're having a hard time implementing Mr. Sutton's wise, if obvious, rule: get the biggest bang for your buck. (Actually, Sutton's rule is more accurately rephrased as "getting the biggest bucks for your bang.")

Radioactive Cobalt Rescued From Lebanese Lab

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 9:56 PM EDT

News today that the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) successfully repatriated highly radioactive sources from Lebanon to Russia whence they came.

The trouble was 36 Cobalt-60 sources with a combined radioactivity of 3,500 curies. A single source is powerful enough to kill a person within minutes of direct exposure.

The Cobalt-60 sources were part of an irradiator used for biological pest control that had been lying dormant at an unspecified agricultural institute in Lebanon since 1996, reports Nature.

The irradiator once sterilized male Mediterranean fruit flies. When the project ended all knowledgeable staff left the institute, abandoning the Cobalt-60 in shielded containers safe  from contamination—only the containers themselves were not secured in the building.

IAEA officials originally identified problems in 2006. But after the first first-fact finding mission Israel bombed the airport and the recovery project had been on hold ever since waiting for Lebanon to normalize. On 30 August the Cobalt-60 was finally flown to a secure storage facility in Russia.

Hope that's not an oxymoron.

At any rate, the Lebanese operation is part of a wider initiative to secure radioactive materials from scientific research, medicine, and industry that might be used to make dirty bombs.
 

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday, September 11

| Fri Sep. 11, 2009 7:00 AM EDT

Happy Friday. At the end of this short week, here's what's new and Blue Marbleish at Mother Jones and elsewhere:

Forget Joe Wilson: The real news? The US Census Bureau reports that the number of uninsured Americans increased by a million between 2007 and 2008.

To Big Pharma with love: Every time you buy a Pfizer drug, the company puts a fraction of the proceeds toward defending its reputation against things like penis-shaped missiles on wheels.

Ted Kennedy's letter to Obama: It's worth reading the whole thing.

How to cut health care costs? Fix global warming: US taxpayers could save $450 billion in environment-related health-care expenses if we enact strong climate legislation. [Grist]

Sea you later: Cool (well, ok, depressing) photo of Central Asia's shrinking Aral Sea (Signs From Earth)

 

 

How Does the Internet See You?

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 9:51 PM EDT

This is fun, creepy, illuminating, and scary. Sort of like rubbernecking at your own wreck.

It's Personas, a component of the Metropath(ologies) exhibit on display at the MIT Museum by the Sociable Media Group from the MIT Media Lab.

Personas shows you how the Internet sees you. Enter your name and this devlishly clever web crawler scours for information and attempts to characterize you... to fit you into a predetermined set of categories created by an algorithmic process from a massive corpus of data. The process is presented visually in a cool and dynamic way.

Check it out. You get to be reduced to a pretty barcode.

Lives Melt With Arctic Ice

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 9:23 PM EDT

There's been plenty of study of physical processes like sea ice retreat, melting glaciers, and rising temperatures caused by global climate change in the Arctic. What’s understudied is the living North, including humans.

Now a new paper in Science reviews current knowledge on the ecological consequences of climate change in the Arctic and issues a call for action in needed areas of research.

Numerous warming effects include:

  • A lengthening growing season following a rapid spring melt
  • Earlier plant flowering
  • Earlier appearance of insects following a warmer spring
  • Deaths of newborn seal pups following melting of their under-snow birthing chambers
  • Shrub expansion on the tundra as the climate warms. This initiates a positive feedback loop: More shrubs means more warming and warmer soils lead to increased nutrient availability, growing yet more shrubs and cranking up more warming.

The start and end of winter is changing too. When it didn’t snow at Toolik Field Station until Thanksgiving a few years ago the soil got cold and stayed so cold that microbes in the soil were barely active. The spring green-up was slow in coming and likely affected caribou forage.

In 2008, snow fell in September and never quit. The warmer winter soils with active microbes were insulated from the cold and were able to provide nutrients to plants that stimulated growth.

"Humans live in the Arctic with plants and animals and we care about the ecosystem services, such as filtering water, fiber production, food production, and cultural values that the Arctic provides," Syndonia Bret-Harte tells the University of Alaska. The average Arctic temperature is expected to increase by 6 C. "That’s a mind bogglingly large change to contemplate."

FYI, you can read some cool research goals of Amy Breen and others in the International Tundra Experiment investigating warming in the permafrost at Ice Stories: Dispatches from Polar Scientists. Lots of polar research recapped here.
 

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday September 10

| Thu Sep. 10, 2009 7:22 AM EDT

Blue Marble-worthy stories from our other blogs, and around the net.

Health and Taxes: A tax reform vet gives his take on the healthcare debacle.

BPA Ban?: California is voting on banning bisephenol A from baby bottles. [LA Times]

Smart Human Tricks: Sen. Franken has an incredible geographic mind, draws nearly perfect map of US free-hand.

Single White Male: A new study shows who jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge, and ponders why. [San Francisco Chronicle]