Blue Marble - February 2010

Cute Endangered Animal: Axolotl Salamander

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 3:40 PM EST

The folks over at Change.org have rightly pointed out that cute endangered animals get more attention than the ugly ones. So I'll meet them halfway: this week we have a truly "uglorable" guest, the Axolotl Salamander. (Uglorable, for those of you not fluent in Lolcat, is an animal both ugly and adorable.) The Axolotl is a great example of uglorability, combining skinny, sea monkey-like limbs, a big ol' noggin shaped like a certain part of the male anatomy, and red fuzzies where his ears should be. He seems pretty cheerful, being that he's on the brink of extinction. Just look at that tiny smile. That's the spirit, Axolotl!

The Axolotl (pronounced ACK-suh-LAH-tuhl) salamander only lives (in the wild) in one spot on Earth, in Lake Xochimilco near Mexico City. Unlike other salamanders, the Axolotl don't fully go through metamorphosis. They do grow legs, but retain their gills (see red fuzzies, above) and dorsal fin, which other salamanders lose as they mature. As a result, the Axolotl is fully aquatic and lives only in the water.

Although often sold as pets and common in captivity, Axolotls are critically endangered in the wild. Their lake habitat has been drained to provide water to Mexico City, and has suffered from the introduction of invasive species like carp and tilapia that eat Axolotl and their offspring. Roasted Axolotl is also considered a delicacy in Mexico, something which can't possibly help the species's survival in the wild. The Axolotl's ability to regenerate many parts of its body has made it an experiment subject in medical labs. For example, the Department of Defense recently issued a $6.25 million grant for scientists to study the Axolotl's limb regeneration in hopes it will lead to medical advances for humans.

Only around 1,000 Axolotls remain in the wild, down from about 6,000 in the late 90s. There are many Axolotls in captivity, but they are often albinos (as seen above), not the greyish or brown varieties more common in the wild. But at least one biologist, Dr. Luis Zambrano of Mexico City's National Autonomous University, is making their preservation a priority by trying to set up protected natural habitat for the creatures. "If the axolotl disappears, it would not only be a great loss to biodiversity but to Mexican culture, and would reflect the degeneration of a once-great lake system," Zambrano told the Dallas Morning News.

 

 

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Nuclear's Slice of the Climate Pie

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 1:35 PM EST

Senators hoping to pass a climate and energy bill this year have listed increased support for nuclear power as one of the major enticements for Republicans and apprehensive Democrats to back the legislation. Barack Obama gave nuclear power a shout-out in his State of the Union address last week, and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the lone Republican collaborating on a bill, has made it clear that nuclear incentives are among his top priorities, which he believes could help garner wider support.

Yesterday, The Hill obtained a draft of the nuclear title that is expected to be included in the Senate bill, which includes basically everything the nuclear industry has asked for: additional federal loan guarantees to spur the construction of new plants, tax breaks and a streamlined approval process for new plants.

Most notably, it calls for, "A doubling the authorization for loan guarantees from $48.5 billion to $100 billion, of which $38 billion will be available for nuclear plants." (The Department of Energy announced on Monday that it plans to triple loan guarantees, to $54.5 billion, so it's been a good week for the industry.) The draft of the Senate language would also give nuclear power the same investment tax credits that wind and solar power currently receive.

The office of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) says this is not the most current draft, but the senator confirmed to The Hill that the incentive and guarantees are part of their plan. He also said that they are making progress on titles dealing with renewables, natural gas, and offsets, but haven't reached a decision on the mechanism to cap and price carbon dioxide. Kerry, Graham and co-sponsor Joe Lieberman have made it clear that they don't intend to release a final package, however, until they have the votes to pass it.

Obama, Graham Warn Dems Not to Settle For "Half-Assed" Climate Bill

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 12:30 PM EST

As I reported yesterday, some Senate Democrats are calling for leadership to abandon a cap on carbon dioxide pollution and instead move forward with a bill that focuses only on energy provisions. And President Barack Obama yesterday also acknowledged that this may well be what happens in the Senate. In remarks to Senate Democrats today, however, Obama called on his party not to take "the easy way out" by dropping a cap on emissions.

"One of the best ways to be on the forefront in energy is to incentivize clean energy and discourage the old sources or methods that aren't' going to work in the future," he said, noting that Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and John Kerry (D-Mass.) are working together to "find a workable, bipartisan structure" that includes both energy incentives and a cap on carbon.

"That's vital. Don't give up on that. I don't want us to just say the easy way out is for us to just give a bunch of tax credits to clean energy companies," he continued. "The market works best when it responds to price. And if they start seeing that, you know what, dirty energy is a little pricier, clean energy is a little cheaper, they will innovate."

Graham on Wednesday also rejected moving the Senate energy bill alone. "If the approach is to try to pass some half-assed energy bill, and say that moves the ball down the road, forget it with me," the South Carolina Republican told business leaders from the renewable energy industry on Wednesday.

It should be noted that Graham opposes this option both because it lacks carbon curbs, but also because he doesn't think the energy bill approved last June by the Energy and Natural Resources Committee does enough to expand development of nuclear power or offshore oil and gas drilling. But his support for a bill that includes both the desired incentives for fossil fuels and nuclear power and a cap on carbon sets him apart from a number of conservative Democrats, who would prefer to scrap carbon restrictions altogether.

House Trio Moves to Block EPA

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 10:28 AM EST

A bipartisan trio of House members announced yesterday that they are sponsoring a bill to block the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating greenhouse gases. Agriculture Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) and Missouri Reps. Ike Skelton (D) and Jo Ann Emerson (R) introduced the measure.

Efforts to bar the agency from following through on their determination that planet-warming emissions threaten human health are already underway in the Senate, as we've reported, and Rep. Earl Pomeroy (D-N.D.) has also introduced legislation on the subject in the House.

"I have no confidence that the EPA can regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act without doing serious damage to our economy," Peterson said on Tuesday. "Americans know we’re way too dependent on foreign oil and fossil fuels in this country--and I’ve worked hard to develop practical solutions to that problem--but Congress should be making these types of decisions, not unelected bureaucrats at the EPA."

Now, Peterson, it should be noted, did vote for the House climate and energy bill last year, but only after holding the bill hostage until he could wring as much out of it for Big Ag. And after getting what he wanted, he now says he would vote against the bill if it came back to the House. So his seriousness about imposing greenhouse-gas regulations through Congress is questionable.

Skelton did vote for the House bill, while Emerson did not. But Skelton now seems to be backing off of a cap, telling ClimateWire that Congress should put aside the cap-and-trade measure and move an energy-only bill."Let us set that bill aside and pass this scaled-back energy legislation," he said.

Their bill would not only bar the EPA from regulating greenhouse gas emissions under the Clean Air Act, but it would also restrict the agency from calculating land-use changes in other countries in biofuel policies and broaden the definition of renewable biomass.

The Garbage Patch Bird

| Wed Feb. 3, 2010 7:00 AM EST

The remains of an albatross chick lie on Midway Atoll, a tiny stretch of sand that is one of the world's most remote marine sanctuaries. Midway is more than 2,000 miles from the nearest continent—but it's also in the middle of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a vast oceanic swirl of plastic debris. Nesting chicks fill their bellies with plastic as their parents collect and feed them bits that look to them like food. As a result, tens of thousands of albatross chicks die from starvation, choking, internal bleeding, and poisoning each year. See more of Chris Jordan's Midway photos at chrisjordan.com and watch a slideshow of his project below.

Obama: Senate Might Drop Carbon Cap

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 4:37 PM EST

Did Obama endorse a Plan B approach to passing legislation on climate and energy this year? Well, if he didn't outright support the idea of moving an energy bill without a cap on carbon pollution, as some moderate Democrats are calling for, he did acknowledge that it might well be what happens in the Senate.

TPM reports that at a town hall meeting in Nashua, N.H. today, Obama said that limits on carbon pollution remain the "most controversial aspects of the energy debate," and that the Senate may move forward with an energy-only bill this year, rather than a comprehensive bill that also includes a cap on carbon dioxide emissions. Some in Congress, he said, are saying, "let's do the fun stuff before we do the hard stuff."

"We may be able to separate these things out, and it's conceivable that that's where the Senate ends up," he said, "but the concept of incentivizing clean energy so that it's the cheaper more effective kind of energy is one that is proven to work and is actually a market-based approach."

Now, Obama didn't endorse the idea of an energy-only bill. But he also didn't he use the opportunity to make a clear, full-throated affirmation of why the cap is a crucial part of a bill. I would argue that "incentivizing" clean energy and making it cost-competitive necessarily requires a cap, but Obama could have made that a whole lot clearer today. Instead, he seems to be caving to the demands of the Senate's most conservative Democrats on this issue.

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Lancet Retracts 1998 Study Linking MMR to Autism

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 3:32 PM EST

Venerable British medical journal Lancet retracted a 1998 study today linking the measles, mumps and rubella combination vaccine to autism, after the study's author, Dr. Andrew Wakefield, was found to have acted unethically.  A British medical panel said Wakefield had shown "callous disregard" for the subjects of his study and "the pain they might suffer." 

The Wakefield study had been a lynchpin in the argument, popular among the mothers of Beverly Hills, Long Island and La Jolla, that routine childhood vaccination against deadly diseases caused autism in some children.  Lancet editor Richard Horton called it the "starting pistol" for MMR-Autism hysteria, which reached a fever pitch toward the middle of the last decade, even amidst massive outbreaks of measles—and more recently, mumps—in the UK, Western Europe, and parts of the US.  

Sadly, it's too late to put the genie back in the bottle. With or without the jewel in their crown, those convinced that MMR will cause permanent damage to their children (more permanent than deafness, say, or death) are determined to remain convinced. As if we needed more proof, Dr. Wakefield currently practices in Austin, Texas. 

Will Brazil's New Dam Displace Indigenous People?

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 3:07 PM EST

"There is not going to be an environmental disaster," is quite a way to launch a renewable energy project. The quote is from Carlos Minc, Brazil's environment minister, at the announcement of the South American country's plan to move forward with the controversial Belo Monte hydroelectric dam in the Amazon.

Current estimates indicate that the 11,000 megawatt dam on the Xingu River, the world's third largest, will flood nearly 100 square miles of Brazil's rain forest and cost more than $17 billion. This environmental impact has caused many critics, including pop star Sting, to claim that the dam places an undue burden on Brazil's indigenous people. "We are opposed to dams on the Xingu and will fight to protect our river," said Megaron Tuxucumarrae, a leader of the Kyapo Indians of the Amazon Basin. "We want to make sure that Belo Monte does not destroy the ecosystems and the biodiversity that we have taken care of for millennia."

Some anti-dam activists have worried that, in addition to harming their forests, the project could displace indigenous populations. Minc rejects these concerns. "Not a single Indian will be displaced," he said. "They will be indirectly affected, but they will not have to leave indigenous lands."

The claim sounds reassuring, but it's difficult to take at face value since the Brazilian government has made a practice of moving indigenous people off their land in the name of conservation. As Mark Schapiro reports for Mother Jones, the Brazilian "green police" is feared for displacing the Guarani Indians as part of their conservation strategy in the Guaraquecaba Environmental Protection Area, a 50,000 acre rain forest funded by General Motors, Chevron, and American Electric Power.

Robert Messias, the head of Brazil's environmental agency, told the Amazon paper Diario do Para that the dam's construction will impact nearly 12,000 indigenous people but that they would eventually benefit from the project. "The conditions outlined in the license are designed so that the local population have a superior quality of life...at the end of the construction," he said.

New Study: Abstinence-Based Sex Ed Works

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 3:01 PM EST

Abstinence-only education free of traditional, unrealistic, wait-until-marriage preaching can delay teens' sexual debuts, researchers reported Monday. The landmark study, published in the February issue of Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, is the first to show that an abstinence-only program can successfully reduce the number of teens losing their virginity, challenging the reams of research that show otherwise. Could it color the country's approach to preventing unwanted pregnancies and STDs among teens?

Possibly, but the program researchers studied differs from conventional ones in a major way. Instead of simply disparaging pre-marital sex or condom usage, the program's teachers encouraged the (mostly 12-year-old) black students in the abstinence-only control group to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of having sex. Many students recorded more cons than pros. Two years later, a third of students in the abstinence-only group said they'd had sex, compared with nearly half of the students who learned about healthy behavior and safe sex in addition to abstinence.

Though proponents of abstinence-only sex ed are cheering the study's results, it's unlikely to revive enthusiasm for religious or morals-based abstinence programs. In four of the five states with the highest teen birth rates—Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, and Arizona—schools are not required to teach sex ed, but if they do, they must teach abstinence. The increasing numbers of pregnant high schoolers in these states, in addition to other factors, shows their model is not working. Even Bristol Palin, whose son recently turned one, told Fox last year that teaching young people abstinence is "not realistic at all."

President Obama eliminated more than $150 million in federal funding for abstinence-based sex ed programs (which had not been scientifically proven effective), but funded a new $114 million pregnancy prevention initiative that would only suppoprt programs whose effectiveness is scientifically assured. When asked whether the new study's results would alter the president's sex education policies, White House spokesman Reid Cherlin told the Associated Press that "Our approach is to use science and evidence to fund what works, while leaving room for innovation and new thinking. We feel the policy we introduced at the beginning of the administration accomplishes that." But Health and Human Services Department spokesman Nicholas Pappas told the Washington Post that the new study may signal a policy change: "No one study determines funding decisions, but the findings from the research paper suggest that this kind of project could be competitive for grants..."

Big Oil's Big Year

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 2:31 PM EST

In case you were feeling sorry for Big Oil now that the Obama administration has proposed cutting their tax breaks, the 2009 lobbying figures for the industry are available. And the industry spent big: $154 million on lobbying last year alone. That's more than any previous year, and more than any other energy interest looking to shape the debate on Capitol Hill.

Lobbying disclosures analyzed by the Center for Responsive Politics found that oil interests spent 16 percent more on lobbying in 2009 than in 2008. ExxonMobil alone spent $27.4 million on lobbying, the second biggest business spender in 2009, while Chevron spent $20.8 million, ranking seventh. Electric utilities followed close behind, spending $134.7 million last year.

By comparison, energy interests categorized as "miscellaneous" spent just $29 million on lobbying. This category includes groups like the American Wind Energy Association, local water districts, ethanol companies, smart grid promoters, and various others. Environmental organizations spent approximately $21.3 million last year on lobbying—which, if you're counting, is just 7 percent of what fossil fuel interests spent.

And this isn't all of it; CRP has only tallied 80 percent of the lobbying disclosure forms, and a more detailed report is expected later this month. It's important to note that not all energy companies are lobbying against climate change legislation. A number of electric utilities have been supportive of measure to cap and reduce carbon dioxide pollution. But the lobbying totals show just how much these industries are spending to influence what that legislation might look like.