Blue Marble - November 2009

As the World Burns

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 9:31 PM EST

Just the other day I was whinging about a photo on the BBC website of an ice sculpture of a penguin (it's in this slide show) surrounded by well-dressed, admiring urbanites. I thought: How cool, what better way than a melting sculpture to highlight the plight of polar animals. Then I read the caption. Something along the lines of: "An ice sculpture of a penguin as part of a campaign to encourage shopping in London’s West End." Not a trace of irony there.

Now I see on Designboom the perfect, icy riposte. The thousand (give or take) ice figures of "Melting Men" by Brazilian artist Nele Azevedo has been appearing around the world since 2005, according to GreenMuze. Azevedo originally intended the installation of disappearing men as a critique of monuments in cities: replacing stone with ice, immortality with ephemeron.

Not hard to see why the installation has been reinterpreted, hijacked really, by those concerned for our warming world.

More photos of the melting men on this Flickr thread.
 

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Eco-News Roundup: Friday November 20

| Fri Nov. 20, 2009 1:04 PM EST

Cost Effect: The healthcare bill may be expensive, but it may rein in long-term costs.

Going Swiss: The Swiss model of healthcare might be one for the US to follow.

Man-Made: There'll be a ripple effect as the US Army Corps is found liable for broken New Orleans levees. [Los Angeles Times]

Out Sick: US Chamber of Commerce wants to stop federally paid H1N1 sick days.

Big Talk: US and China talk climate, with some actual progress.

Hot Rocks: Kidney stones and malaria are just a few of global warming's risks. [Bloomberg]

Climate Sell-Out: Oliver North is using the "cap and trade boondoggle" as a fundraiser.

Not a KO: Sen. Boxer throws a party for climate legislation that's not done yet.

Rx in CT: Pfizer throws its weight around its Connecticut home, and in Congress.

Is Climate Change a Feminist Issue?

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 4:24 PM EST

Yes, according to a report released yesterday by the United Nations Population Fund. "Women—particularly those in poor countries—will be affected differently than men," the report states. In developing countries, the report goes on to explain, erratic weather is increasing floods and droughts which "...increases the burden for women and girls, as they are the ones expected to ensure that there is enough food for the family." Women produce 60 to 80 percent of food in most developing nations, a task made increasingly difficult by climate change.

Aside from food production and acquisition, women in poor countries in general have fewer material resources and income-earning opportunities, more child-rearing duties, and they are less likely to survive natural disasters like tsunamis and floods than men. But as women may disproportionately suffer the effects of climate change, they may also be part of the solution. The report's authors suggest that wide access to contraception and reproductive health services for women in poor nations may do more to reduce climate change than any legislative action. (As we've reported before, children are CO2-heavy investments.) Additionally, women are "more likely than men to buy 'green' products" and are "less likely than men to trust governments and corporations to solve environmental problems."

Offset Your Infidelity

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 7:05 AM EST

Do you have difficulty being faithful? Fear not: CheatNeutral allows you to offset your infidelity by paying another couple not to cheat. With just a few easy payments, you can assuage you guilt and continue your meandering ways.

Sound crazy?

That's because the "service" is an elaborate satire of carbon offsets, the system that allows polluters to justify their sins by paying to reduce emissions elsewhere.

As Mark Shapiro illustrates in the recent issue of Mother Jones, in the wrong hands carbon offsetting=greenwashing. When enviro-villains GM, American Electrical Power, and Chevron recently partnered with the Nature Conservancy, they weaseled out of tougher emission limits by purchasing reserves in a Brazil forest. In return, they got rights to the trees' potentially lucrative carbon sequestration—while pushing locals from their land. Environmentally responsible? Yeah, right.

Of course, carbon offsetting isn't all bad. Legit companies like TerraPass, for instance, allow individuals and businesses to offset their everyday emissions by funding renewable energy projects.

But CheatNeutral sharply makes the point: Wouldn't it make more sense for the worst offenders to not screw over a partner—or an ecosystem—in the first place?

News From TreeHugger: Condoms to Stop Climate Change, Land Mines Thwarted by Bacteria & Political Peak Oil

| Thu Nov. 19, 2009 6:00 AM EST

Editor's Note: A weekly roundup from our friends over at TreeHugger. Enjoy!

Let's Give Out Free Condoms to Stop Climate Change... Maybe Not as Daft As It Seems

The latest UN Population Fund report says that an important component in combatting climate change is limiting population growth. But will reigning in population growth really stop climate change? Quickly, in itself, no. Can it help, yes, though the situation is far more complex that a quick-grabby, twitter friendly headline can ever portray it.

Gangsters Go Green! Mafia Tied to Fraudulent Italian Wind Farms - Madagascar 'Timber Mafia' Thriving

There have been an increasing number of stories coming to light detailing how organized crime syndicates around the world have been getting their dirty little fingers into the green world. The latest: 1) Italian police have arrested two businessmen on fraud charges, linking them with Mafia in wind farm permit fixing schemes; and 2) The government of Madagascar (such as it is) appears to be tied in with what's being called a 'timber mafia', profiting from illegal wood sales largely sent to China:

Canada's Heartland - Political Peak Oil's First Refuge

Not long after Obama returns from his Asian tour, expect a lengthy state visit to Canada, with announcements to follow of nuclear power plant development (needed to extract the oil) and carbon dioxide storage tests in Alberta: at Canadian and US taxpayer expense. Then a repeat of NAFTA vows to ensure that there are no added costs for pumping the Alberta extracted crude across the border. If that doesn't work out, and if oil goes back up over US$100/barrel, it's oil shale or bust.

Photo Safaris Potentially More Damaging Than Hunting

The binary choice is a false one: Properly administered hunting is not detrimental to wildlife populations and without proper management photo safaris collectively, regardless of the individual 'greenness' of individual operations, can have adverse impacts on wildlife.

The TH Interview: Frances Beinecke, President of Natural Resources Defense Council

No matter if you're a climate activist or a firm believer in the political process, there's no getting around that the negotiations leading up to next month's COP15 conference have been tough of late. The need to keep pushing for strong and immediate climate action has never been greater -- something which NRDC President Frances Beinecke's just-released book Clean Energy, Common Sensedoes compellingly -- so, when over the weekend it was de facto officially announced that Copenhagen will just produce a framework for future binding action it seemed the perfect entrée for the latest TreeHugger interview:

Scientists Create Bacteria That Lights Up Around Landmines

It seems like something straight out of a science fiction film, but this new bacteria is very real. "Scientists produced the bacteria using a new technique called BioBricking, which manipulates packages of DNA." The bacteria is then mixed into a colorless solution, "which forms green patches when sprayed onto ground where mines are buried." The bacterial stew can also be dropped via airplane in extremely sensitive areas.

Study Shows Investing in Nature More Valuable Than Gold (Literally)

If 'moral prerogative' isn't reason enough to invest in protecting nature, here's another one: it's just been found to bring up to hundredfold return on capital. Yes, that's a potential 10000% gain--better than an investment in gold. According to a new study called The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (TEEB), putting money into protecting wetlands, coral reefs, and forests could be the best financial move one could ever make.

Recycling Heat Just Got Way Cooler

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 9:06 PM EST

We waste 60 percent of all the energy we produce burning fuels and in power plants—most lost as excess heat. If we could harvest that waste heat we could use a lot less electricity.

Now a paper in the current Journal of Applied Physics suggests a new way to recycle waste heat. The process might, for instance, double the run time of cellphones and laptop computers and increase output in power plants.

Here's the current conundrum. Existing solid-state technologies that convert heat into electricity are inefficient. Existing systems that efficiently convert heat into electricity produce very little power. Your choice: high efficiency or high throughput, but not both.

On top of all that, theory predicts that energy conversion can never exceed a specific value, the Carnot Limit. Even so, modern commercial thermoelectric devices only achieve about one-tenth of the Carnot Limit.

So how to do it better?

The MIT experiments involve a different technology—thermal diodes—which suggest future efficiencies as high as 40 percent of the Carnot Limit and ultimately perhaps 90 percent.

Here's what the researchers did:

  • They started from scratch rather than trying to fix existing devices.
  • They carried out their analyses using a supersimple system that generated power with a single quantum-dot device—a kind of semiconductor confining electrical charges very tightly in all three dimensions.

Add to their efforts the results of another MIT paper showing an intermediate step towards achieving heat transfer at a rate orders of magnitude higher than predicted by theory.

The end result: heat converted into harnessable electricity at a rate promising enough that a new company, MTPV Corp (Micron-gap Thermal Photo-Voltaics), is already working on the development of a new technology based on the work described in this paper.

Co-author Peter Hagelstein tells MIT that when work began on the project in 2002 such heat-recycling devices "clearly could not be built. We started this as purely a theoretical exercise." Developments since then have brought theory much closer to reality.

I suppose someone's going to get filthy rich and powerful making a cleaner-powered world... Conundrum: Part 2?
 

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Judge Tosses Out Tim DeChristopher's Eco-Defense

| Wed Nov. 18, 2009 6:00 AM EST

Yesterday, a federal judge handed down a setback to Tim DeChristopher, the climate-change activist who threw a monkey wrench into the Bush administration's last-minute land giveaway. DeChristopher is facing criminal charges for pretending to bid on millions of dollars worth of oil and gas leases in Utah last December, a stunt that helped knock the ball into the court of the Obama administration, which canceled the controversial sale. As DeChristopher explained to Bryan Farrell in a recent interview with Mother Jones, he'd planned to defend his actions by arguing that he had to do what he did in order to help prevent the environmental damage—including carbon emissions—that would have resulted if the land auction had gone ahead as planned. Now the judge presiding over his case has rejected that long-shot approach. As Judge Dee Benson dismissed DeChristopher's "choice of evils" defense, he also seemed to imply that the 27-year-old econ student's efforts had been futile, writing, "Unlike a person demolishing a home to create a firebreak, DeChristopher’s actions were more akin to placing a small pile of dirt in the fire's path."

Was DeChristopher's impersonation of a land-hungry oilman, which he says was inspired by the Yes Men, a foolish prank or cutting-edge climate activism? Read our interview and reach your own verdict.

Meditation Beats Drugs for Heart Disease

| Tue Nov. 17, 2009 8:45 PM EST

A new clinical trial found that meditation cuts the risk of heart attack, stroke, and death by nearly 50 percent in patients with existing coronary heart disease—making relaxation and mental focusing as effective as powerful new drugs in treating heart disease, reports AAAS News.

The study tested transcendental meditation on 201 African American patients with narrowed coronary arteries who were at high risk factor for heart attack and stroke. All the patients were given standard prescription drugs, as well as an educational course in cardiovascular health. Half the patients also practiced transcendental meditation for 15 to 20 minutes a day.

The results? Patients who mediated on top of standard treatment experienced 47 percent fewer heart attacks, strokes, and deaths compared to the control group. The benefits lasted more than 5 years and up to 9 years in some patients.

In comparison, statin drugs taken to reduce cholesterol levels only lessen the risks of heart disease by 30 to 40 percent relative to existing treatments. Common blood pressure drugs reduce these outcomes by only 25 to 30 percent. Meditation proves as powerful as any new class of heart disease medications entering the market.

Oh, and once you've learned the technique, it's free.

Om.
 

Temperatures Set to Skyrocket

| Tue Nov. 17, 2009 7:39 PM EST

Here's the strongest evidence yet that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is outstripping the ability of natural sinks to absorb it. The authors of this study predict the present course will lead to a staggering rise of 6 degrees Celsius (10.8 degrees F) in coming decades. Even conservative scientists agree that any rise above 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees F) risks catastrophic climate change.

Highlights from the paper just out in Nature Geoscience:

  • In the past 50 years, roughly 43 percent of global CO2 emissions have stayed airborne in the atmosphere. The rest were absorbed by Earth's carbon sinks on land and in the oceans.
  • However the atmospheric fraction of total CO2 emissions has not held steady but increased over time from about 40 percent to about 45 percent.

The trend is likely the result of a decrease in CO2 uptake by carbon sinks on land and in oceans as the world warms. Which means the forests and waters are maxxing out. Here's why:

  • Emissions are still rising.
  • Before 2002, global emissions grew by some 1 percent a year, since then by some 3 percent a year.
  • The growth is mostly due to China's metastatic output.

However the authors' point out that what's really happened is the developed world has exported its emissions to the developing world. America, Europe, Australia and the like are using the manufacturing power of China to produce goods each would have made themselves 20 years ago.

The real troublemakers? Consumers. Not producers.

We need leaders. Bill McKibben rightly chastizes Barack Obama in a MoJo's Copenhagen Here We Come special report:

The announcement yesterday from the APEC meeting in Singapore that next month’s Copenhagen climate talks will be nothing more than a glorified talking session makes it clear that [Barack Obama] has, at least for now, punted on the hard questions around climate. The world won’t be able to get started on solving our climate problem, and the obstacle is—as it has been for the last two decades—the United States.

You can't fool the science any of the time, Mr. President. Gotta make this the number 1 priority, like, yesterday.

Chasing the Flu With an Interactive Map

| Mon Nov. 16, 2009 10:16 PM EST

What happens when you mix a new flu with new supercomputing power with new superspeedy genome sequencing with a new trend toward the free sharing of scientific data with the supertool Google Earth?

You get Routemap: a visualization of disease transmission based on genetic sequencing.

Translation: You can see where and how disease is spreading in near-real time on a Google Earth map of the world. (FYI: You might have to install a Google Earth plug-in. You will have to leave this page to play with the map.)

It's up and running right now for H1N1—an interactive routemap for the ongoing geographic transmission based on 461 full genomes of the pandemic flu. It's like a vaccination against ignorance. Watch the flu spread. See where it came from and where it's going. Get out of the way.

The visualizations are originally the outgrowth of a study linking many powerful computer systems to analyze huge amounts of genetic data collected from all publicly available isolated strains of the H5N1 virus—that is, of the avian flu. The researchers developed the means to visualize their results in Keyhole Markup Language for virtual globes. Their paper on flu tracking is in Cladistics.

Researchers can use the site to data share. The rest of us can watch the data spread.