Blue Marble - September 2009

Eco-News Roundup: Wednesday September 2

| Wed Sep. 2, 2009 4:05 AM PDT

Pitching Healthcare: How does the media make it accessible?

Greening the Big Easy: Four years later, New Orleans is a lab for green construction. [Time]

Whale Tale: Who needs Moby Dick? Not American students, some argue.

Lead It Be: Lead guidelines for toys are fine, but they hurt second-hand goods market.

Moving Mountains: The UK's Royal Society says if we don't stop emitting GHGs soon, geoengineering may be our only option. [Science Daily]

World on Fire: New info shows climate change is responsible for half of the wildfires in the Western US.

Bionic Brains: A new microchip that bypasses blocked nerves might offer movement to the paralyzed someday. [New Scientist]

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Cute Animal in Danger: Giant Panda

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:13 PM PDT

With their distinctive coloring and large size, Giant Pandas have long been a favorite of zoo-goers. The giant furballs look as if they'd like nothing better than to chew some bamboo and watch a re-run of Mad Men with you on the couch. Maybe order a pizza, vegetarian-style. But contrary to their adorable appearance, giant pandas are actually quite ornery according to many keepers' accounts. One Beijing Zoo panda named Gu Gu has attacked three visitors, one of which entered his cage specifically to hug him. In his most recent attack, the 240-lb Gu Gu "clamped down on the intruder's leg and refused to let go... Zookeepers had to use tools to pry open the animal's jaws."

Fortunately for China, which rents out panda bears to various zoos for approximately $1 million a year, Americans and people around the world still love the panda. With their big dark eyes and baby-like body shape, pandas are easily anthromorphized and seem to breed well in captivity. In fact, 25 were born near Sichuan since the May 12 earthquake there.

Is Peak Oil a Waste of Energy?

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 3:32 PM PDT

That's the thesis of Michael Lynch, a former MIT energy expert turned consultant, in a lengthy New York Times op-ed published last week. "Like many Malthusian beliefs," he writes, "peak oil theory has been promoted by motivated groups of scientists and laymen who base their conclusions on poor analyses of data and misinterpretations of technical material." Lynch concludes that oil will come down to $30 a barrel as new supplies come online in the deep waters off Africa and Latin America, in East Africa, and "perhaps the Bakken oil shale fields of Montana and North Dakota."

Setting aside the pitfalls of oil shale, it's probably worth noting that Lynch is not your average oil supply forecaster. He's a frequent guest on talk shows who is famed for attacking Peak Oil with the same zeal that proponents defend it. Lynch is one of many disparate voices quoted in a 2005 Times piece, "On Oil Supply, Opinions Aren't Scarce."  And way back in 1998, he wrote "Crying Wolf: Warnings About Oil Supply," where he made some of the same points as he did last week.

It's worth noting that 1998 marked the birth of the modern Peak Oil movement with the publication, that same month, of "The End of Cheap Oil," a Scientific American piece by Colin Campbell and Jean Laherrere, two oil industry veterans every bit as qualified as Lynch. Campbell was Amoco's former chief geologist for Ecuador, who spent a decade studying global oil production trends.  Laherrere supervised production techniques worldwide for Total. All of this is to say that the Peak Oil theory is not just a bunch of blog chatter, as Lynch would have us believe.

Still, sometimes those bloggers manage to shed some light on this arcane debate, as Kevin Rietmann, aka The Dude, did on the Oil Drum, the main online gathering place for the peak oilers, last Thursday. Rietmann broke down a graph comparing the accuracy 2008 oil supply predictions made by Campbell and Lynch in the mid-90s (see below). The result? Campbell underestimated 2008 production, which was just shy of 74 million barrels per day, by 4.79 million barrels per day. But Lynch was even further off, overestimating production by more than 12 million barrels per day.

Of course, as your stockbroker will tell you, past performance is no guarantee of future profit. Wars, hurricanes, and botched geological assumptions can quickly throw off forecasts, or not. That's why the safest approach is often to consider a wide range of projections from multiple experts. And when you do that with the global supply of conventional oil, one thing is clear: we are running out fast.

A Big Gulp of Human Fat

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 2:04 PM PDT

We all know New York City takes a hard line against the fast food industry and its role in the obesity epidemic. Last year, the city mandated that chain eateries with more than 10 outlets in NYC would be required to display calorie information next to the price of every item, a move that other cities have been copying like the answers to a pop quiz. With one victory under its belt, the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has set its sights on a new opponent: soft drinks.

On Monday, the city debuted a truly repulsive-looking $367,000 ad campaign depicting a bottle of cola being poured into a glass of human fat. Sound disgusting? Then don't click here.

Wielding Stick on Climate, EPA Reminds it Could Regulate CO2 Itself

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 10:44 AM PDT

If the Senate does not pass a cap and trade bill this year—a prospect that seems increasingly likely—the Obama administration may start pressuring legislators by moving to regulate CO2 itself.

Yesterday, as leading Senate Democrats announced they were putting off introducing a cap and trade bill, EPA administrator Lisa Jackson let it be known that her agency would probably classify CO2 as a pollutant under the Clean Air Act "in the next months," triggering her ability to regulate it without approval from Congress. The so-called "endangerment finding," long sought by environmentalists, was announced in April but has yet to be formalized. It would hypothetically allow the EPA to regulate greenhouse gases much as it does other forms of air pollution, by capping point-source emissions and fining polluters.

Jackson and President Obama have said that they prefer letting Congress regulate greenhouse gas emissions instead of doing it through the executive branch, a process that might prove more cumbersome and disruptive to the economy. Still, with conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans under intense pressure to block or water down the bill, Obama might gain a strategic edge by getting more specific about how he'd tackle the issue if they don't. That could in turn give some legislators political cover, allowing them to tell their corporate overseers and conservative constituents that voting for the bill was in their "best interests"—a way of averting something even stricter. (Indeed, even the hint of the threat has already swayed one prominent Republican, Grist notes).

Would that approach mean much bigger political risks for Obama? Of course. But it might be worth it: By 2012, when Americans realize that their electric bills haven't skyrocketed, gas doesn't cost $4 a gallon, and coal miners are still employed, Obama's stance on global warming might be old news, or even a plus at the ballot box.

5 Creative Uses for: Coffee

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

Made too much coffee? Got extra grounds? Before you throw it in the sink, consider one of these ideas, brought to you by AltUse.com:

1. Fertilize plants: Before you plant, mix your seeds with used coffee grounds. You'll increase your plant size, and the grounds will also ward off any underground pests attracted to your veggies. Works best for carrots and radishes.

2. Deter ants: Did you know that ants hate coffee? Use coffee grounds instead of traps to keep 'em out of the house without chemicals.

3. Rid the fridge of odors: Works like baking soda: Fill a small bowl with fresh, dry grounds of coffee and place it in the fridge. After a day or two, the smell should be gone.

4. Grill a burger: (OK, sort of a cheat since it's not for coffee itself, but the can.) Cut some holes in the bottom of an old metal coffee can to create a grill-like surface. At the top of the can, cut out a moderate size triangle. Place the can upside down and use the triangle to place newspaper or dry pine needles in to use as a fire starter. Light. Once the bottom of the can is hot enough you can use the surface as a makeshift grill and cook your meat, veggies, or anything else. Great for camping.

5. Stain wood: Brew a pot of fresh coffee and allow it to sit for a minimum of two days. Use a paintbrush to apply the coffee to unstained wood consistently and allow to dry over night. Apply as often as required to create the color and finish you desire.

Check back next Tuesday for more ways to reuse and use up your extras.

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Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday, September 1

| Tue Sep. 1, 2009 4:00 AM PDT

September already. Rabbit rabbit. Here's today's environment, health, and science stories from beyond the Blue Marble:

Could cap-and-trade become the new health care? Kevin Drum on what might happen if conservatives start treating climate change legislation the way they have health care reform.

Torture docs called to account: A physicians' group says medical personnel who violated professional ethics or the law under the US torture program should be prosecuted and/or lose their license and society memberships.

Forget Fiji: And get yourself a reusable Mother Jones water bottle instead. 

Bad wrap: Think you're just eating the food inside the package? You could be ingesting chemicals from the wrapper, too.

Solar energy from outer space: Not as sci-fi as you might think.