Blue Marble - November 2009

Diagnosing Health Care's Carbon Footprint

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 9:44 PM EST

Ever wonder how much of the American carbon footprint is caused by the American health care system? In a research letter published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, U of Chicago researchers estimate for the first time. The result: a surprising 8 percent, or nearly a tenth of the country’s bindmogglingly fat CO2 emissions.

Interestingly, health care accounts for 16 percent of US gross domestic product. So are health care costs way out of whack? Or is the health care business unusually light on the C02?

Not hard to guess that one.

The biggest wastrel? Hospitals, with their high energy demands for temperature control, ventilation, and lighting.

Second biggest wastrel? The pharmaceutical industry, with its high energy costs of manufacturing and researching drugs, combined with high transportation costs for drug distribution.

Fixes? The authors suggest that hospitals create recycling programs (they don't have those already?) and buy goods and services from environmentally friendly suppliers.

As an example, the U of Chicago Medical Center's sustainability program created a plastic recycling program diverting more than 500 pounds of waste a day from landfills and mandating that 90 percent of cleaning supplies have Green Seal certification. These measures reduced waste costs from $55,000 to $35,000 a month. Apparently green is good for the medical greenback.

The Brits are assessing their health care footprint too. James Black blogging at Health and Environment says that Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) is Europe’s largest public sector contributor of CO2 emissions and accounts for a quarter of the UK’s total carbon footprint. He suggests this triage:

The average face to face staff meeting costs the NHS $415, and 82% of those attending meetings typically claim around $67 each in expenses. One meeting costs the Earth an average of 47kg of CO2. The NHS estimates that if just half of its management and frontline staff were to use video conferencing, 219,000 tonnes of CO2 emissions could be saved every year.

(Not that technological cures are carbonless.)

Jeannette Chung, lead author of the JAMA research letter, diagnoses the American system when she says:

"In this country, the primary focus is on issues surrounding patient safety, health care quality, and cost containment at this current point in time. The health care sector, in general, may be a bit slower than other sectors to put this [emissions] on their radar screen. But given the focus on health care policy and environmental policy, it might be interesting—if not wise—to start accounting for environmental externalities in health care.

Rx: Get wise. Fast.

Also, play more, get healthier.
 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Plastic Water Bottles as Art

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 6:46 PM EST

Turns out plastic bottles—like the ones Fiji Water comes in—are good for something after all: art. Earlier this year, environmental activist David de Rothschild set sail with a crew of six to steer a boat made entirely of used plastic bottles around the world. Meanwhile, back in the US, artist Ellen Driscoll constructed a miniature landscape made entirely of 2,600 #2 plastic bottles. According to Driscoll, the project, titled "FastForwardFossil: Part 2" is "a ghostly translucent visual fugue in which a nineteenth century trestle bridge plays host to an eighteenth century water-powered mill which spills a twenty-first century flood from its structure." The exhibit closed this week at the Smack Mellon Gallery in Brooklyn, but photos are online here. And click through to see more below the jump.

Loch Ness Golf Balls

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 4:12 PM EST | Scheduled to publish Tue Nov. 10, 2009 5:21 PM EST

Whimsical: A group of Scottish scientists recently went looking for the Loch Ness monster. Not-so-whimsical: They found no trace of Nessie. Instead they found evidence of...old people. In the form of golf balls. Thousands of them. The balls came from a nearby driving range popular among tourists.

So clearly this is fodder for another, even sadder, verse of "Puff, the Magic Dragon" about Jackie Paper's insipid golden years. But if the coming-of-age overtones alone aren't depressing enough for you, consider this: According to CNN, the 300 million golf balls that are lost or discarded every year in the US will take up to 1,000 years to decompose. During that time, they can contaminate surrounding ecosystems with heavy metals:

It was found that during decomposition, the golf balls dissolved to release a high quantity of heavy metals. Dangerous levels of zinc were found in the synthetic rubber filling used in solid core golf balls. When submerged in water, the zinc attached itself to the ground sediment and poisoned the surrounding flora and fauna.

And friendly water monsters, too, no doubt. Maudlin!

 

 

Cute Animal in Danger: Bonneted Bat

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 4:00 PM EST

The Florida bonneted bat (Eumops Floridanus) is one of 249 species which are candidates for federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. Since taking office this year, President Obama has only listed one new species (a Hawaiian plant) as endangered, and is scheduled to list another species in December. In contrast, noted conservation foe George W. Bush listed an average of 8 species a year, and Bill Clinton listed an average of 65 species a year. The Florida bonneted bat is currently being reviewed for protection, but it really can't come fast enough. There are only an estimated 100 individuals left.

The Florida bonneted bat lives only in Florida, and is one of the largest bats in North America, with a wingspan of more than a foot and a half. While its wings are large, the bat's body is about the size of a sparrow's: three to four inches long and weighing only one to two ounces. The bat has been spotted in North Fort Myers and in near Miami, roosting in barrel-tile roofs or in the hollow trunks of trees. One of the largest known colonies of the Florida bonneted bat lives in a suburban backyard, first in a single-celled, and now in an upgraded three-chamber bat house built by the Organization for Bat Conservation. The bat house now has more than a dozen bats living in it, including an albino bat born around 2003.

While some Floridians are making a concerted effort to save the bat, its populations have been compromised by pesticide use, which poisons the insects that are the bat's main food source. In addition, habitat loss continues to be an issue. The bats prefer large, old trees with deep cavities for roosting and rearing young. But many of these trees are removed for various development projects, like one with eight bats in it that was removed back in 1979. Twenty-four species have gone extinct waiting to be listed as endangered. Hopefully, now that it's actually under review, the Florida bonneted bat won't be among them.

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday November 10

| Tue Nov. 10, 2009 8:05 AM EST

Conserving Power: Kevin Drum muses on why conservatives obsess about nukes.

Late Night: House finally passes healthcare bill, but with last-minute abortion amendment.

Fiscal Health: Abortion amendment is bad for women, costly for all of us.

Dems Sign Off: Sixty-four Democrats vote for healthcare bill, with Stupak amendment. [American Prospect]

Cap and Fade: Healthcare squabble may forever doom a Pelosi cap-and-trade push.

Overcompensating: GOP leaders say problem is we all have too much health insurance.

Too Slow: Obama slower than Bush on saving endangered species. [MongaBay]

Penn's Pick: Senate confirms controversial mining head from Pennsylvania.

Green Divide: Majority of green groups support climate bill but a few still holding out.

Friend or Foe: Soldiers in Iraq say contractors exposed them to dangerous chemicals. [Nashville Post]

Water Win: California approves several water bills that might overhaul system.

GOPcare: Republican healthcare plan is cheaper because it leaves people out.

Bad Advice: Bonner and Associates gets fired by its ethical adviser for climate letter scam.

Low Hopes for Copenhagen After Final Interim Meetings

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 3:54 PM EST

World leaders passed two major milestones in the pursuit of an international climate treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol over the weekend, both without resolving any of the major areas of disagreement before their final meeting of 2009 in Copenhagen.

The finance ministers of the G20 nations met over the weekend for a summit that was supposed to produce plans for financing climate change adaptation and mitigation in the developing world. And last week there were key meetings in Barcelona as part of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, the last meeting of the working groups ahead of the Copenhagen summit, which begins Dec. 7. Unfortunately, neither event produced the much needed progress.

Finance ministers were unable to come to a deal, as Reuters reports that "talks got bogged down in a row with large developing countries about who should foot the bill." The United Kingdom, which hosted the meeting, wanted to reach a deal to provide $100 billion to cover the costs of climate change in the developing world up until 2020. But in the end, they could only agree "to increase significantly and urgently the scale and predictability of finance to implement an ambitious international agreement."

The statement is not very specific, and it's not the kind of commitment that developing countries are saying is necessary to ensure their participation in a deal. Leaders promised a real agreement on financing would come at this meeting at their last summit in Pittsburgh in September, and securing an assistance package was seen as a crucial step ahead of the December meeting.

The meetings in Barcelona weren't much better. Talks ended in a stalemate, with US negotiators unwilling (and, frankly, unable, given the ongoing Senate debate) to offer concrete emissions reductions targets and downplaying hopes for a deal this year.

Developing nations didn't take the delay sitting down. On Tuesday, delgates from 50 African nations walked out in protest of rich nations' unwillingness to commit. Talks resumed after a day-long boycott, but in the end the African bloc called the goals from developed nations "unacceptable" and demanded least 40 percent cuts below 1990 levels by 2020. The rest of the developing world, known as the Group of 77, maintained that the US and rich nations were repeating empty rhetoric rather than making meaningful commitments to curbing emissions.

"Non-performance, non-deliverance and non-commitment by the developed countries is acting as a brake for any meaningful progress," said Sudanese delegate Lumumba Di-Aping, whose country currently chairs the G77. "We need a real change of heart and mind by the developed countries."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The Cape Cod Wind Farms

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 12:42 PM EST

The Economist's Democracy in America blog has a good item today on the offshore wind farms that are planned for the waters off Cape Cod and the stereotypical liberal elitist folks from Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, and the Cape who are trying to block them:

There's a modestly sympathetic way to read this kind of resistance, and it has to do with the way that environmentalism straddles different strands of American romanticism, which can sometimes conflict with each other. Historical preservationism and the romantic mythologising of indigenous cultures have both played valuable roles in American culture, and they grow from the same "On Walden Pond" roots as environmentalism itself. And that's all fine and good; but CO2 is at 370 ppm and rising. Enough is enough. If we are to have any hope of reducing carbon emissions, we are going to have to change our energy infrastructure. That requires some modicum of willingness to tolerate public action that affects one's own lifestyle. If we can't even get an offshore wind-farm project running, after eight years, because of a bunch of wealthy, self-indulgent whiners, there is absolutely no hope for reducing carbon emissions, and the heirs of those privileged preservationists will be able to watch the sun rise over the pristine Atlantic waters covering what used to be Nantucket Island.

DiA also points to an editorial on the subject that appeared in the New York Times last week. Unfortunately, our friends at the Economist either forgot about or are not aware of the definitive take on this controversy: a Daily Show report from over two years ago. The Kennedy-bashing dates the segment, but it's pretty brutal and dead-on:

Mother Jones' Kate Sheppard will have more on the Cape Wind project in a blog post later today.

Econundrum: Bamboozled by Bamboo?

| Mon Nov. 9, 2009 6:30 AM EST

When I needed new sheets last year, I didn't dream big: High thread counts are well outside my price range. So imagine my delight when I found bamboo sheets at my local Target. So soft! So cheap! And so sustainable: Bamboo is kind of an eco wonder crop, since it grows fast, absorbs more CO2 than most trees, and requires few pesticides. It’s also biodegradable and even naturally antimicrobial. I skedaddled out of Target in record time (phew), congratulated myself on this smart buy, and celebrated with a nap.

But last month, I had a rude awakening: I learned that my sheets are probably not as dreamy as Target claimed. Turns out most soft fabrics labeled bamboo are actually rayon, a synthetic fabric that can be made from the cellulose of any plant. In October, the Federal Trade Commission ruled that a company called, pricelessly, Bamboosa was not allowed to pass its bamboo-based rayon products off as "100 percent bamboo"—or claim they had bamboo's ecobenefits. The reason: Once you turn bamboo into rayon, it loses its biodegradable and antimicrobial properties. Bamboosa has changed its label to "viscose derived from bamboo." Cozy, huh?

My sheets aren't as bad as some of the cheapo synthetics out there. Since rayon is derived from plants, it's less carbon-intensive than fabrics made from petroleum (polyester, nylon, and acrylic, to name a few). But the chemical processes used to manufacture rayon can be awfully gnarly. Truly sustainable fabrics are hard to come by: Organic cotton is popular among ecodesigners, and while its water footprint is smaller than its conventional counterpart's, it's still not tiny. In general, determining a fabric's environmental impact requires a little homework. Organic Clothing blog has a great ecoclothing glossary.

The bottom line: Don't let fabric manufacturers pull the wool over your eyes: "Made from bamboo" often means rayon derived from bamboo, which isn't as sustainable as pure bamboo fibers.

Pundits Versus Data, the 5-Minute Smackdown

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 9:34 PM EST

Ever wondered just how partisan or bipartisan Congress is now compared to then? Well, here's a series of visual representations of just that, thanks to Andrew Odewahn, who calculated Senatorial affinities over time and plugged the data into GraphViz.

This is another typically fun and speedy Ignite presentation: 1 speaker, 5 minutes, 20 slides auto-advancing every 15 seconds, whether the speaker keeps up or not. Thanks to my friend Sara Winge at O'Reilly Media, the home of Ignite, for the heads up on the video.

 

Coal Propaganda for Kids

| Fri Nov. 6, 2009 3:32 PM EST

The coal industry seems to be taking an ever-greater interest in children—not their future, natch, but what they're coloring. A few months ago we highlighted a "clean coal" coloring book aimed at developing youthful enthusiasm for coal-generated power. Today we find yet another coloring book homage to the industry featuring anthropomorphized lumps of coal.

This one comes from the West Virginia Coal Association, "a trade association representing more than 90 percent of the state's underground and surface coal mine production" (see a list of members here.)

It explains that coal is a major source of electricity (without, however, noting that it's not the only form of electricity). It also features lumps of coal bathing and being cleaned off by a dog—which I'm fairly certain is an entirely new definition of "clean" coal. Actually, it kind of undermines the idea that coal is clean if it has to be washed, no? 

 

Think Progress has more.