Blue Marble - February 2010

Eco-News Roundup: Tuesday February 2

| Tue Feb. 2, 2010 7:07 AM EST

A Man, A Plan: A Congressman's plan to save money through Medicare is just talk for now.

Fate of Fuel: Ethanol's production speed makes it the only biofuel sensitive to oil prices.

Forecast: Cloudy: Even Kevin Drum isn't sure when/if they'll 'pass the damn bill'.

Foregone Conclusion: Dems had a deal on healthcare. Then Brown got elected.

Simply Put: A solution to healthcare can sound simple, but the reality is complex.

Cell Dangers: Why cell phone conversations are more dangerous than in-person talks.

Aiming Low: This year, Obama isn't putting a dollar value on cap-and-trade.

Great Expectations: Men are now getting affirmative action in higher education.

False Sails: US agrees to Copenhagen carbon caps, but only if Congress agrees. Oy.

Gallows Humor: Climate-related funnies in the State of the Union speech.

Bin Laden Goes Green: Bin Laden expresses concern about US's climate stance.

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Bonobos Share Better

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 7:51 PM EST

Sharing comes naturally to bonobos, the smallest of the chimpanzeelike apes. Their larger cousins, common chimpanzees, share naturally only in childhood. Human children have to be taught how to share. But bonobos apparently never learn how not to share.

In the paper in Current Biology, researchers from Harvard and Duke universities designed experiments to measure food-sharing and social inhibition among chimps and bonobos in African sanctuaries:

  • Paired animals were put into an enclosure with food. Younger chimps behaved similarly to young bonobos in their willingness to share food. But as chimps matured, they became markedly less willing to share.
  • Bonobos, given an opportunity to hog a food pile all to themselves, while a fellow bonobo watched from behind a gate, universally chose to open the gate and let their friend share—even if he or she wasn't begging or asking.

Co-author Brian Hare told Duke University:

"A chimp would never voluntarily do that. Chimps will do things to help one another, but the one thing they will not do is share food."

Bonobos continue to share like juveniles even in adulthood. This may be thanks to their habitat south of the Congo River, where an abundance of food allows them to maintain a cooperative gentleness throughout life. Unlike common chimps, bonobos don't have to compete with gorillas for food. Nor do they compete with each other.

In effect, the researchers say, bonobos never have to grow up. Peter Pan. Pan paniscus.

Bonobos also enjoy life in a matriarchy. Chimps weather life in a patriarchy. Lucky bonobos.
 

Energy Scientists: Nuclear Loan Increase is Bad Policy

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 3:25 PM EST

When President Obama voiced strong support for nuclear energy at his State of the Union address last week, both sides of the aisle jumped to their feet in applause. Nuclear subsidies have become a political necessity in Congress, despite the fact that nuclear energy is dirty, dangerous, and not really renewable. And due in large part to the nuclear industry's lobbying strength in Washington, democrats have drawn criticism for favoring cleaner options like wind power in lieu of nuclear. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, for one, criticized the president's initial plan as "a national windmill policy instead of a national energy policy, which is the military equivalent of going to war in sailboats."

Nuclear enthusiasts are no doubt pleased by the administration's announcement today that it intends to triple the amount of nuclear loan guarantees for new nuclear plants to $54 billion. "It's important to have a higher bar than what we have been working with, just $18.5 billion," John Keeley, a spokesperson for the Nuclear Energy Institute, told me. "Put it in the context of where we need to go as a culture. You can't get there with the volume the government has underwritten so far."

USA Today's Green House blog reports today that a cohort of environmental groups, energy scientists, and small-government conservatives have mobilized to oppose nuke pushers like Alexander and Keeley. One letter to Obama, penned by taxpayer advocacy and nuclear non-proliferation groups, warns that "With hundreds of billions in bailouts already on the shoulders of U.S. taxpayers, the country cannot afford to move forward with a program that could easily become the black hole for hundreds of billions more."

A Less Toxic Environment for Environmental Justice?

| Mon Feb. 1, 2010 1:18 PM EST

In Kettleman City, a town on Interstate 5 midway between San Francisco and Los Angeles, nearly half of the 1,500 mostly non-white residents live below the poverty line and an unusually high number suffer from cancer, asthma, and birth defects. Environmental justice groups and residents blame the town's landfill, which contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, a cancer-inducing, immune-weakening, development-impairing toxin. But the 23 years that they've spent lobbying the US Environmental Protection Agency to investigate the problem have come to naught. Until last week. Speaking at a protest of 150 people on Wednesday, Jared Blumenfeld, the new head of the EPA's Region 9, pledged to visit Kettleman City, tour the landfill, and meet the mothers of infants who died or were born with birth defects. The breakthrough is one of the more tangible signs that Obama's EPA could be getting serious about protecting poor and minority groups from the toxins that often disproportionatley affect them.

Environmental justice groups have had high hopes that the nation's first African-American president understands their cause. As a Senator in 2007, Obama introduced the Healthy Communities Act, which would have expanded research on environmental toxins and provided funding to clean up blighted communities. During the presidential election, he vowed to strengthen federal environmental justice programs and provide low-income and minority communities the legal ability to challenge environmental policies that adversely affect their health. Asked if Blumenfeld's visit to Kettleman City is part of Obama's push to take environmental justice more seriously, an EPA spokeswoman wrote in an email, "Jared is an Obama appointee and the Obama administration has made EJ a priority."

The Kettleman City case illustrates how "solving" environmental problems can just mean kicking pollution further down the socio-economic ladder. Some of the PCBs in the landfill come from a power plant in San Francisco's predominately Black Bayview-Hunters Point community. In 2006, city workers found that Hunters Point residents living near the plant suffered from excessive rates of breast cancer, leukemia, childhood cancers, respiratory illness, and other diseases. That year, locals convinced the city to shutter the plant, but also sought assurances from the plant’s owner, Pacific Gas & Electric Co., that the hazardous waste collected from the site would not be funneled into another town.  “We couldn’t see our way to causing the same problems in other communities,” Marie Harrison, whose grandson suffered from chronic nosebleeds and asthma attacks, told me. Kettleman City residents fear that's exactly what happened.

Advocates want the EPA to deny, or at a minimum, extensively review the draft permit that allows disposal company Chemical Waste Management to continue dumping PCBs in the landfill. They also want the agency to withdraw its 2007 draft environmental justice assessment, which denies that the landfill poses a health risk to residents. Until then, they're witholding judgment on the EPA's new approach to their cause.  Bradley Angel, Executive Director of Greenaction for Health and Environmental Justice, says, "We are seeing some concrete action to indicate that it might be a new day, but it's too soon to tell."