Blue Marble - September 2009

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, September 4

| Fri Sep. 4, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

Calling all tweeps: A tip for Follow Friday: Follow @MoJoBlueMarble on Twitter for updates on all things enviro, health, and science. Such as:

Everything's coming up healthcare: Kevin Drum remains fairly optimistic that a decent healthcare reform bill will pass.

Healthcare penny pinching: Why the current bills on the table would do very little to cut costs

Coral reefs SOS: How rising carbon levels, acidity, pollution, algae, bleaching and El Niño are killing our reefs [The Guardian]

Bottleneck-Be-Gone: Cars with traffic-savvy GPS navigational systems pollute less. [Treehugger]

Department of parks and recession: As state funding dries up, parks go to seed. [High Country News]

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Guilt-Free Meat?

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 8:56 PM EDT

I suppose it's a sign of some kind of progress that people are thinking about ways to produce meat without the guilt. But these ideas give me the creeps.

As New Scientist points out, we eat 300 million tons of meat a year—50 percent more than in the 1960s. Much of it comes from inhumane factory farms.

Enter Adam Shriver's controversial paper in Neuroethics arguing that we are close to, if not already at, the point of genetically engineering factory-farmed livestock who cannot suffer.

Wow. Pain-free cows. You know, that doesn't work for me. It's right up there with the Cheney method of torture. I mean, what does hurting an animal who can't (or can) feel pain do to the miserable souls stuck with (or desiring) those jobs? Post-traumatic meat disorder.

Why not genetically engineer people to abhor meat?

Meat is more bad than good for us, bad for livestock, and bad for the planet. Eating a quality vegetarian diet would benefit every single living person. Here's why and why and why and why and why and why.

Plus, eating meat is bad for cows and sheep and goats and chickens and fish and every other wiggling thing we insist on putting into our mouths. Whether they feel pain or not.

MoJo has covered more than once some of the compelling and ever accumulating reasons that eating meat is bad for the planet.

Now some thinkers are suggesting producing in-vitro meat bioengineered in Petri dishes. Jennifer Jacquet blogging at Seed calls it Frankenmeat.

I'm feeling the need to fight back against the strange bacon fetish sweeping the sweepable world.

Tofu never suffers.
 

Report: University Researchers Get Average of $33K/Yr from Medical Industry

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 5:05 PM EDT

University researchers and lab workers receive on average $33,417 per year in payments from the drug and medical device industry; researchers who lead medical trials fare even better, earning more than $110,000 per year, more than a quarter of their total funding. This is according to a survey of more than 3000 life science faculty at 50 leading universities, published yesterday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Academics and medical researchers frequently claim that industry ties have no effect on their objectivity or results, but the report tells a different story: Researchers with ties to industry exhibited "a substantially greater portion of documented positive outcomes," the report notes. Other studies have made similar findings.

Basically, researchers backed by industry have little incentive to report negative results that could derail the profitable commercialization of their products. With university-corporate partnerships corrupting the ivory tower, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called for the government to step in. Since the Vioxx scandal of 2005, it has pushed the Food and Drug Administration to conduct its own in-depth safety trials before drugs are approved. But that would mean creating a larger government health bureaucracy. And we all know how that's going.

H/T 60-Second Science Blog.

Florida Caves on Climate Change

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 12:34 PM EDT

Not long ago, Florida Republican Charlie Crist was known across the country as "the environmental governor." As his first major initiative, he brought in fellow moderate Arnold Schwarzenegger to headline a Summit on Global Climate Change. He created a climate "action team" that issued reports that could have come out of the Sierra Club. And he signed green executive orders and pledged support for cap and trade. Florida, after all, is set to be inundated by rising sea levels and hammered by stronger hurricanes. In 2007, Crist said "global climate change is one of the most important issues we face this century."

That was then. Now, as Crist prepares to enter the state's Republican Senate primary, he's starting to sound less like climatologist James Hansen than Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe. Last week, his administration told other states that Florida would not join the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, the East Coast's cap and trade scheme, or present a proposed cap and trade rule to the Florida legislature. A spokesperson for the state's Department of Environmental Protection said the decision was prompted by "the strong liklihood of federal action on climate policy."

Environmental groups aren't buying that explanation. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility said the move was a major blow to the 10-state RGGI effort; Florida's participation would have increased the size of the program by 75 percent and likely raised the price of emissions permits. It also would have helped build a bipartisan case for federal legislation. "Gov. Crist’s retreat signifies that it is becoming increasing difficult for environmentally concerned citizens to advance in today’s Republican Party," said Florida PEER directory Jerry Phillips, "and that is a real shame."

A column in Tuesday's Orlando Sentinel notes that the 2009 legislative session in Florida was "a disaster for greenies." The House killed climate change legislation, and along with it, mandates for renewable energy. Crist says there may be no climate change summit this year. "Simply do the political calculation," writes Sentinel columnist Mike Thomas. "He would easily beat any Democrat in the Senate race. . .So environmentalists are of little use to him now. . .And when it comes to climate change, there is nothing in it for Crist anymore."

 

Eco-News Roundup: Thursday September 3

| Thu Sep. 3, 2009 6:03 AM EDT

Sunny Side Up: Kevin Drum is still optimistic about healthcare reform.

Cove-rt Action: The Japanese village featured in The Cove has yet to start its dolphin hunting season. [MongaBay]

Dumping the PO: Will Obama dump the public option?

Chemicals 101: A former educator has a revolutionary idea: build classrooms free of chemicals and see what happens. [Chapel Hill News]

How Diesel Exhaust Grows Cancer

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 7:19 PM EDT

A link has been found between diesel fumes and cancer and it lies in the ability of diesel exhaust to grow new blood vessels supplying solid tumors.

The new research, forthcoming in Toxicology Letters, found that more new blood vessels sprouted in mice exposed to diesel exhaust than in mice exposed to clean filtered air. The growth occurred in both healthy and diseased animals—meaning that even healthy bodies are susceptible to the damaging effects of diesel.

The problem lies in the size of inhaled diesel particles. Most are less than 0.1 micron in diameter—that's less than one-tenth of a millionth of a meter. Such tiny particles penetrate the blood stream, organs, and tissues to damage practically any part of the body.

Exposure levels in the study mimicked the exposures of people living in urban areas and of people commuting in heavy traffic. The levels were lower than, or similar to, those typically experienced by workers using diesel-powered equipment and those working along railroads, in mines, tunnels, vehicle maintenance garages, on bridges, farms, and at loading docks.

According to co-author Qinghua Sun, via The Ohio State University: "The message from our study is that exposure to diesel exhaust for just a short time period of two months could give even normal tissue the potential to develop a tumor."

The researchers found three types of blood vessel development after exposure to the diesel exhaust: angiogenesis, the development of new capillaries; arteriogenesis, the maturation or regrowth of existing vessels; and vasculogenesis, the formation of new blood vessels. All are associated with tumor growth but angiogenesis in particular can wreak havoc in the human body.

The researchers observed four ways that exposure to diesel exhaust facilitated tumor growth:

  • By activating a chemical signal, vascular endothelial growth factor, associated with new blood vessel development
  • By increasing levels of a protein, hypoxia-inducible factor 1, essential to blood vessel development when oxygen levels are low
  • By lowering the activity of an enzyme with a role in producing substances that suppress tumor growth
  • By inducing low-grade inflammation, often associated with tumor development, in tissues exposed to exhaust

"We need to raise public awareness so people give more thought to how they drive and how they live so they can pursue ways to protect themselves and improve their health," says Sun. "And we still have a lot of work to do to improve diesel engines so they generate fewer particles and exhaust that can be released into the ambient air."

Don't even get me started on nanoparticles, the next great health disaster we're enthusiastically blundering into.
 

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Can Solar Power in the Desert be "Green?"

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 4:03 PM EDT

As the popularity of solar and other clean renewable energy sources grows, environmental groups are playing a major role in shaping how the nation makes the transition to the new energy economy. One of the most visible examples of this renewed role for environmentalists is found in the roll-out of Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) on public lands primarily in the Southwest.

That's not to say that all environmental groups agree on all points. Todd Woody, who blogs for the NYT's Green Inc., recently covered one contentious issue in the Mojave Desert. Over at High Country News, Judith Lewis wrote a fascinating article in May about a schism between environmentalists over "Big Solar" in the Mojave.

In The Phoenix Sun I've reported on the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) plans for a Solar Energy Study Area (SESA) covering 670,000 acres in six Western states, here and here.

I had heard about, but not seen until recently, the formal recommendations made to the BLM by a coalition of environmental groups that includes some of the best known green players (e.g., The Wilderness Society, The Sierra Club) and some that you may not have heard of before (Great Old Broads for Wilderness).

The recommendations came in a 50-page letter sent to the government and provided by the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club.

You can download a full copy of the letter, but here's a brief outline of the green groups' major concerns.

Major Issues

Siting

Avoid siting in wilderness areas, national monuments, national conservation areas, national historic and scenic trails, areas of critical environmental concern (and several other specified areas).

Give priority for siting to already impaired lands such as abandoned mines, developed oil and gas fields and other brownfields.

Consider availability to water, shovel-ready projects and proximity to workers to minimize the need for additional infrastructure such as roads.

Right-of-Way Terms

ROW should not exceed the design life of the project.

ROW should require that companies exercise reasonable stewardship of the land.

ROW terms should change when applicable laws and regulations change.

Plans with the smallest footprints should be started first, to see if monitoring systems can handle them before scaling up.

ROW terms should require plans to and seeks to "avoid adverse impacts to land, air and water, and to cultural, biological, visual, and other resources, as well as to other land uses and users."

ROW should allow for termination if holder fails to comply with terms.

Planning Criteria

Comply with applicable laws and policies.

Follow already announced plan to identify lands as "available for development," "available with restrictions" and "not available."

Coordinate plans with other tribal, federal, state and local governments.

Consult with tribal authorities to insure that cultural resources are protected.

Encourage public participation.

The letter also includes sections on wildlife habitat, socioeconomic impacts and the importance of looking at a range of alternative plans.

When I talked with Sierra Club AZ chapter head, Sandy Bahr, she had an upbeat view of the SESA plan, confident that the current administration has a genuine interest in developing solar power facilities while protecting the local environment.

The Sierra Club, and the other signatories to the letter, say they'll be watching to make sure the BLM follows through.

A list of the organizations that signed the letter, along with links to their Websites, can be found, here.

 

Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger at Mother Jones. He publishes The Phoenix Sun and writes the "Brief Back" page at True/Slant. You can follow him on Twitter at BriefBack.

 

Can You Hear Me Now? Verizon Faces Calls for Boycott Over Anti-Climate Rally

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 3:22 PM EDT

Cell phone carrier Verizon Wireless has prompted an online uproar and calls for a boycott over its sponsorship of the "Friends of America Rally," a Labor Day gathering in Logan, West Virginia organized by mountaintop-removal coal mining company Massey Energy that appears intended to rile up the troops against climate change legislation.

Under similar political pressure, Verizon has already dumped its ads on Glenn Beck's Fox News show as of last week, citing Beck's "controversial track record." Another Fox blowhard, Sean Hannity, is set to appear at the Logan rally along with global warming skeptic Lord Christopher Monckton and the inimitable Ted Nugent. The sponsorships seem out of character for Verizon, which, on its website, touts efforts to address "the entire global emissions problem" through measures like fuels cells, solar panels, and energy efficient technology.

Verizon spokesperson Laura Merritt told me the sponsorship of the rally was "a local decision that was intended to support the immediate community." She added that more than 100 companies had signed on to the event (though most are small businesses or part of the mining industry). "I insure you that this is not a statement of our policy on any public issue."

Merritt declined to say what kind of events Verizon would not sponsor. When I asked if there are people in West Virginia who oppose mountaintop removal mining and support a climate bill, she demurred. "All I can tell you is that this decision was based on support of that immediate, small community there," she said. "Beyond that, I really don't know."

It's perhaps unfair to be too hard on Verizon when 3 million businesses belong to the US Chamber of Commerce, a brutal foe of cap and trade. Still, the company comes off as duplicitous and amoral when it panders to local audiences in opposition to its stated values. Fortunately, many consumers know that there are phone companies that actually put the planet ahead of profits. That's what I'd call a true Friend of America.

UPDATE: Courtesty of Think Progress, here's Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship inviting people to attend the rally, where they'll learn about how "environmental extremists and corporate America are both trying to destroy your jobs."

Chamber Backs off "Scopes" Comment

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 12:48 PM EDT

A few days after I made fun of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce for saying it wants a hearing on climate change that would be "the Scopes monkey trial of the 21st Century," the group has backed off the comment. Chamber vice president Bill Kovacs blogs on the National Journal website:

My "Scopes monkey" analogy was inappropriate and detracted from my ability to effectively convey the Chamber's position on this important issue.

What is the Chamber's position on this important issue? According to Kovacs, the Chamber is not one of the business lobby's "Climate 'deniers,'" but is simply against an "endangerment finding" by the EPA--a conclusion that greenhouse gasses are a threat and should therefore be regulated as pollutants. As I stressed yesterday, the endangerment finding serves as a powerful political club for the Obama administration in pushing the cap and trade bill that the Chamber opposes.  "[O]ne can be against an endangerment finding and still supportive of strong, effective action to reduce carbon emissions," Kovacs writes. "Indeed, the Chamber's platform of technology, efficiency, and a global approach would actually do more to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions than a finding by EPA ever could."

Assuming that's true--and there's no real evidence it is--when did "technology, efficiency, and a global approach" and an endangerment finding become mutually exclusive?

I continue to be appalled that the Chamber, which represents 3 million businesses, some of whom disagree with its stance on cap and trade, is run by people as short-sighted and blatantly dishonest as Kovacs. Even as he distanced himself from the "Scopes" comment and the "climate denier" label, he rolled out a list of "uncertainties" about human-generated climate change, ending in a mention of "the saga of Alan Carlin, the EPA whistleblower whose internal report criticizing the data behind the endangerment finding was ignored." As has been thoroughly addressed here and elsewhere, Carlin is an economist, not a climate scientist, and his report was read and discounted--"ignored," if you will--because it was based on false assumptions and flawed data. That the nation's largest business lobby is really that stupid doesn't bode well for the future of American commerce.

 

Adaptation to Allow More Katrinas?

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 11:54 AM EDT

The debate over climate change mitigation versus adaptation rose to a boil this week as the World Climate Conference kicked off in Geneva, vowing to bring adaptation front and center. Speaking about this new focus, WMO Secretary General Michel Jarraud stressed the importance of addressing the impacts of climate change that are already inevitable, like the rise of sea waters and the spread of diseases like malaria.

Following the release of California's Climate Adaptation Strategy last month, Tony Brunello of the California National Resources Agency told me that "it used to be that you'd get slapped in the face for talking about adaptation...it was seen as doing nothing and taking away from mitigation efforts." But, he said, anti-adaptation ferver has mostly died down as it has become clearer that mitigating climate change without bracing for impact is no longer realistic.

This week, however, that debate has grown more contentious, as some environmental writers and activists have pointed out adaptation's bargain with the devil: because resources are limited, it will undoubtedly divert funds from mitigation. Calling adaptation a "cruel eupmemism," Climate Progress writes that this increasing focus on adaptation is unrealistic, irresponsible, and could allow, rather than prevent, more disasters like Hurricane Katrina across the world: