Eco-News Roundup: Friday, October 23

Environment, science, and health news from around the site:

Mining minister mystery: A senator anonymously blocked Obama's appointment of Joseph Pizarchik, who has a history of favoring coal industry interests, as head of the Office of Surface Mining.

Chamber plays the blame game: The US Chamber of Commerce says its misleading membership claims were "hardly our fault."

Where will all the permits go? The Kerry-Boxer climate bill has a big piece missing: It says almost nothing about how pollution permits will be allocated.

Obama's radioactive regulator: Why did the White House pick a cheerleader for nuclear energy to oversee the industry?

What's in it for us? Here's what it'll take to get the fence-sitters to approve the climate bill.

Hey Prius people! Ditch the Chamber! The liberal activist group MoveOn is pressuring Toyota—maker of the eco-status-symbol Prius—to leave the embattled US Chamber of Commerce.

Your friendly neighborhood climate-bill critics: The Cost of Energy Information Project (CEIP) is a new organization, but a lot of the same old critics of climate-change policy are behind it.

"Clearly," said CJ Karamargin, "we have an issue here that cuts across some of the divisions in Congress."

Just as clearly, Karamargin, press secretary to Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), was understating events. By a vote of 310 to 106 -- nearly a 3:1 margin -- the House of Representatives today passed the Solar Technology Roadmap Act, introduced by Rep. Giffords. The bill authorizes $2.25 billion to help fund solar power research, development and demonstration projects. It also directs the Secretary of Energy to create an eleven-person committee to advise where those funds would be best spent.


Congratulations, polar bears! You've just won 200,541 square miles of Alaskan habitat... maybe. After being sued by several environmental groups, the US Fish & Wildlife Service announced today that polar bears may receive what's thought to be the largest critical habitat ever. Too bad just earlier this week the Minerals Management Service announced that they'd approved Shell to drill in some of those those same 200,541 square miles. So what's it gonna be? Oil, or bears? Right now, that's to be determined. Fish & Wildlife will open a 60-day public comment period on the bear habitat proposal, but doesn't have to make a final decision on whether to actually award the land under the Endangered Species Act until June 30, 2010.

The proposed polar bear habitat, if it gets awarded, is extensive enough to encompass summer and winter sea ice, terrestrial denning areas, and islands. The terrestrial portion is in the Northern part of Alaska, some of it within a 20 mile radius from the US-Canada border, and some of it within a 5 mile radius of Barrow and the Kavik River. The sea ice/water portion extends over the Continental Shelf and includes water up to 300 meters deep. Under the Endangered Species Act, now that the polar bear is finally listed, the government must designate critical habitat.

But that's not stopping the State of Alaska: this week it filed a supplement to its 2008 lawsuit  contending that the government didn't really listen to its concerns before listing the polar bear as endangered. In a press conference yesterday, Alaska's attorney general said the state was doing "a good job in protecting the species," and that the government's models predicting further sea ice declines were "flawed." A representative from the Center for Biological Diversity, quoted by the AP, begged to differ

"We are really disappointed to see that the state of Alaska is continuing to deny the science of climate change... It is ironic in a state that is feeling the impacts of global warming before everyone else that the state would take this position that can only hurt Alaskans." 


Few countries have as much to lose from global climate change as India. The nation's water supply is largely dependent on rainwater from the Asian Monsoon and meltwater from Himalayan glaciers. Both are severely threatened in a changing climate.

Yet today Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said that India will not sacrifice its development for a new climate change deal in Copenhagen. Sadly, Singh is following a long line of short-sighted leaders failing to see that development will be not only arrested but reversed in the severe climate change scenarios looming if Copenhagen fails to yield a consequential decision.

In the next issue of MoJo, due on the stands in a few days, Bill McKibben writes that Copenhagen will be the most important diplomatic gathering in the world's history. The truth is, few people are more dependent on its outcome than the people of India—the 1 in 7 on Earth who will suffer more than you and me—even though my country produced the majority of greenhouse gases plaguing the world now.

Why? Because 1.2 billion Indians are already living at the far edge of their nation's ability to provide. There is not a molecule of buffer zone built into their supplies of water and food.

It's unfair. India should not have to sacrifice its development because my country got its development. But planetary systems are dispassionate and indiscriminate. They will make India pay for problems India did not make.

So Singh can stubbornly say he will not sacrifice his nation's economic development for a climate change deal in Copenhagen. But what he's really saying to the people of India is: Screw you.

Meanwhile, TreeHugger reports that India's Environment Minister, Jairam Ramash, is urging Singh to reduce national emission to COP15 without financial commitments and technological support from the US and other rich nations. Some in India see the future worth fighting for.

I've just returned from India, from that brief glorious moment when the monsoon switches off and the air is washed clean. But it only lasted 48 hours. The miles and miles of bumper-to-bumper coal trucks I saw snaking their way through the mountain roads of Meghalaya continued to deliver their loads. The people continued to burn this coal on their way to economic prosperity—to what may well rank as the shortest-lived economic prosperity in history. A glorious 48 hours of halcyon promise before the hammer falls.

When I flew away from India, the Asian brown cloud of coal smoke and diesel had coalesced, obscuring the sun and other stars, obscuring the sight of India from the air.

In case you missed it, Politics Daily published a disturbing piece by Walter Shapiro about a new study showing that millions of baby boomers face a greater risk of cancer thanks to Cold War-era nuclear testing.

Shapiro's piece centers on the startling findings of Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist who analyzed baby teeth from children born in the St. Louis area of Missouri between 1959 and 1961. He found that subjects who had twice the normal amount of Strontium-90 in their infant teeth had since died of cancer. His detective work eventually traced the Strontium-90 to nuclear test sites hundreds of miles away.

Mangano demonstrated how detonations in the Nevadan desert between 1951 and 1962 propelled radioactive chemicals into the atmosphere, which were then blown all over the country by the wind and returned to the ground by precipitation—infiltrating the water supply, grazing areas for cows, as well as orchards, farms and other sources of food. (Mangano believes the St. Louis children were most likely affected by contaminated cow milk—bottle feeding was in vogue at the time.) Mangano's explosive findings didn't receive the reaction you might expect: Shapiro was the only reporter who showed up at the press conference. You can read the entire study here.

A spoonful of sugar it isn't, but a biomedical breakthrough, urged on by none other than  74-year-old singer and actress Julie Andrews (aka Mary Poppins) may hold hope for thousands who've lost use of their vocal cords. 

Yes, science has developed yet another synthetic miracle to join titanium hips, pace-makers, and prosthetic robot hands. This time, it's a gel form of polyethylene glycol—a key ingredient in skin creams and lubricants. Scientists believe the gel can mimic the larynx's flaps of tissue which produce the human voice. They plan to start testing the gel on humans in two years.

Vocal cords, one might not be too surprised to learn, are alarmingly susceptible to damage. I still remember my distress when Chino Moreno (frontman for the Deftones) lost his primal scream to a vocal-cord injury and started putting out albums full of eerie art-noise instead.

Poor Julie Andrews isn't putting out albums of notice, but she struggles to hold a note after a 1997 surgery to remove non-cancerous growths on her larynx left extensive scarring. Scientists at MIT and Harvard, working with the singer, hope the gel can restore her famous five-octave range.

Today we visited Mendocino Middle School at the invitation of "the coolest teacher," Jeremiah Siem. Our team talked to the kids about how climate change could affect their community. Concerned, attentive, and wicked smart, the kids threw an assortment of great questions our way—and came up with some awesome ideas of what they could do to help make a positive difference in their community, like getting mom to ride her bike instead of taking the car, organizing a beach clean-up, or turning off the lights when they leave the room (blowing up factories was ruled out by boos).

This grand conversation was kicked off by a phenomenal demonstration of the asio otus bird call—which spread smiles and laughter throughout the packed lunchroom.



News From TreeHugger: Thursday, October 22

A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

$172 Billion Will Be Sucked From Global Economy Every Year if We Let Coral Reefs Die Off

Here's another potent warning about the huge economic value that intact ecosystems have: New analysis shows that if the world's coral reefs die because of climate change $172 billion a year will be sucked out of the global economy.

Ukraine's Ticking 'Time Bomb': Old Pesticides

When you think of dangerous stockpiles in the former Soviet Union, you probably think of nuclear and chemical weapons. But a single stash of pesticides in Ukraine poses a major threat to some 7 million people.

Political Myth: Trappers, Hunters & Fishers Are Against Strong Climate Legislation

Think US hunters don't want strong climate legislation? Think again. Political conservatives may favor fewer regulations, but that does not mean they categorically oppose endangered species protection, open space conservation, or climate action.

Carbon Capture is Essential for Developing World, And Still a Pipe Dream

The IEA has said that 2,000 coal plants with carbon capture & storage are needed in developing nations by 2050. The financial problem? It'll cost more than $5 trillion to retrofit existing plants, and the some 62,000 miles of support pipelines will have to be built—at a price tage of $275 billion for India and China alone.

Ottawa's 'Green Bin' Muncipal Composting Program is About to Take Off

They've been distributing green composting bins in the Canadian capitol for more than a month; and now the city's composting program is about to begin in earnest. Check out how Ottawa's program works, and get one going in your city.

Coal Plants Do $62 Billion of Damage to US Environment

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences reveal that US coal-fired power plans do over $62 billion in environmental damage a year due to hidden costs: Decreases to crop and timber yields, damage to buildings and materials, plus the toll coal takes on human health.

Just a quick "head's up:" The full House will debate the Solar Technology Roadmap Act (HR 3585) on Thursday, October 22, according to a news release issued by Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), would establish a group of experts picked by Secretary of Energy Steven Chu and drawn from government, industry and academia. The "Roadmap Committee" would guide government-private spending, authorized at $2 billion, for solar R&D.

More to come.

[Guest bloggers Lily Abood, Ben Jervey, and Adam Taylor are writing from the road this week while biking 350 miles to raise awareness of climate change issues. This post is the third in the Mother Jones Ride350 Dispatch series.]

You know the old question: If you could host a dinner party with 3 people, living or dead, from the entire arc of history, who would they be? There was a moment today when I felt as if I were living my answer to that question—except there were 17 guests, and they were all very alive. And they weren’t guests; they were my teammates. And we weren’t eating dinner; we were pedaling through fog-shrouded redwood groves. And we were laughing.

Granted, it’s hard not to smile when you’re enjoying an activity you love in a sublime setting.  Yesterday morning, the satisfaction of being in a community of friends surrounded by a community of very old living trees was enough to elicit a blissful howl from my throat. And considering the mellow roll of the terrain, the meander of the road along the Eel River, it’s not surprising that our mutual sentiment bordered on elation. 

Fast forward three hours, when the road had ceased to meander. We found ourselves on a much more direct, not to mention uphill, highway route. Instead of a scenic river we saw 18-wheel logging trucks, and the mist of the ferns were replaced by sweat droplets on baking asphalt. But the team conquered the disappointing change of scenery with good spirits: More laughter was heard over the cacophonous hammer of hydraulic breaks. 

Nick and David stopped for 30 minutes to talk to the docent at an interpretive center, only to spend the next ten (yes, it only took them ten) minutes catching up with the pack for lunch. We met a trio of touring bikers from Washington State, each over 60 years old and encouraging us to “keep paying into social security!” They were interested in 350, and at a rest stop under a freeway overpass, we discussed the upcoming negotiations in Copenhagen.   

We stopped at the world famous Confusion Hill where the proprietor was kind enough to fill our water bottles. No pressure to buy a flimsy magnet, just service with a smile and a “good luck!” as we continued down the road.

When I finally crested the rise to Standish Hickey State Park, my dad recounted for me the exuberance and exhilaration on the faces of every rider that had arrived prior. And as I dismounted my trusty steed I was greeted with high fives from the 17 that made it to the party.

Ride350 is not a race, but that doesn’t mean that we’re not going to have a darn good time chasing each other up these hills. So although it’s barely dawn and I’ve got 6,000 feet of climbing ahead of me, I can smell my best friend Zach’s percolated coffee brewing, and I look forward to two-wheel traveling for another day. —Adam