Blue Marble - March 2010

Asilomar Dispatch: Geoengineering Bad Fixes for Worse Problems

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 11:00 AM PDT

Tinkering with the Earth and its atmosphere in an attempt to fend off global warming—a.k.a. geoengineering—seems like the stuff of science fiction: Lacing the stratosphere with sulfur aerosols or whitening clouds over the ocean to reflect sunlight back into space. Fertilizing the oceans with iron to help them absorb more carbon dioxide. It's big science on a comic-book scale, and as such, it carries no small dose of risk and controversy.

"Some of these technologies seem inappropriate," Victor Menotti, director of the International Forum on Globalization, told MoJo at a press briefing Thursday. "There's a sort of scientific arrogance that these experiments will be manageable. But before we get into talking about a Plan B, we want to get back to how we can cut emissions."

"People think this is still science fiction, but it's not," added Silvia Ribeiro, program manager for ETC Group, an environmental advocacy organization. "Science [magazine] said this conference was like geoengineering coming out of the closet."

She's referring to the Asilomar International Conference on Climate Intervention Technologies, where I've spent the past week schmoozing some of the field's top researchers. ETC Group has circulated a letter—signed by dozens of like-minded organizations—questioning the entire conference and the motives of its attendees. (You can download the group's report here.) Quoting the conference's stated goal, Ribeiro said, "They are saying we are going to deploy this without asking if this is what we want."

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Energy Stars for Everyone!

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 10:28 AM PDT

Energy Star is often lauded as one of the federal government's most successful energy efficiency programs. Most Americans have seen the logo on air conditioners, refrigerators, lamps, and laptops. The Energy Star stamp of approval is supposedly reserved for products that use 20 to 30 percent less energy than federal standards for appliances. But an investigation by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that the program hands out stars like candy. In fact, GAO investigators were able to get Energy Star approval for products that a) weren't even remotely energy efficient and b) didn't actually exist.

In its report released today (which was scooped by the New York Times), the GAO explains that its auditors conducted a nine-month study of the program, which is administered by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy. They applied for stars for 20 fake products. Three-quarters of the applications for bogus devices were successful—including a "gasoline-powered alarm clock," described as "the size of a small generator." The GAO notes that the clock received the Energy Star label "without review of the company Web site or questions of the claimed efficiencies." A computer monitor got a star "within 30 minutes of submission." The GAO also won approval for a "room air cleaner"—actually just a space heater with a feather duster and some fly strips attached.

The fake products were typically greenlighted without any questioning or investigation. In fact, auditors discovered that the application process was often automated, meaning the submissions had never been reviewed by an actual person. Companies approved as an Energy Star partner could also just download the logo and stick it on any of their products—including those that hadn't been approved for the label.

About 40,000 products currently bear the Energy Star logo.  The program was created in 1992 under the Clinton administration to help consumers make better decisions about household goods. As the GAO points out, the government uses federal tax credits and appliance rebates to promote Energy Star, and all federal agencies are required to purchase products certified by the program.

Even more worrying, the Energy Star program is also the inspiration for the Obama administration's proposed $6 billion Home Star program, which will award ratings and incentives for more energy efficient homes.  

The Department of Energy and EPA issued a renewed pledge earlier this week to improve the program, promising to do a better job of testing and enforcement. "Consumers can feel confident" in the program, said the release, because in 2009 it "saved enough energy to avoid greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to those from 30 million cars—all while saving nearly $17 billion on their utility bills."

Energy Star and Home Star have a lot of potential to encourage smarter energy use. But not if the feds are slapping gold stars on non-existent gasoline-powered alarm clocks.

News Flash: World Still Getting Hotter

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 10:25 AM PDT

The World Meteorological Organization yesterday confirmed that the past decade was the warmest on record—the latest evidence that humans are heating up the planet. The report confirms what NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies concluded several months ago.

Temperature measurements from 2000 to 2009 find that the Naughts were the warmest decade since the adoption of modern temperature recording began in the 1850s, confirms the WMO. Last year was ranked as the fifth warmest on record.

“A number of extreme weather and climate events were also recorded in 2009, including in particular heatwaves in China, India and southern Europe, as well as in Australia,” said Michel Jarraud, Secretary-General of WMO. The report also notes that parts of the United States, Canada and Siberia experienced cooler temperatures than average, while other parts of southern South America, Australia and southern Asia experienced extreme high temperatures.

Don’t expect 2010 to be any better. NASA’s earlier report predicts that "a new record 12-month global temperature will be set in 2010."

It's also worth noting that it was the WMO's temperate data that George Will grossly distorted in support of his bizarre theories of global cooling last year, as Mark Goldberg points out. Despite the fact that the WMO called him on his fudging, he's so far continued to repeat those distortions. I can't wait to see how he'll manipulate the latest report.

The Human Hair Additive in Your Food

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 4:00 AM PDT

For his recent Mother Jones story on the origins of the "remy" hair used in high-end wigs and extensions worthy of Lady Gaga, Scott Carney sacrificed his own locks to a Hindu temple, but explained that clippings from short hair like his are used mainly as fertilizer or source material for a ubiquitous food additive called L-cysteine (L-cys for short). This amino acid, which gives hair its strength, also gives Noah's bagels their bounce, puts the softness in Tastykakes, and imparts mom-made freshness to Lunchables. It's a meat flavor enhancer and an expectorant, too—and has even turned up on a list of cigarette additives.

Human hair isn't the only source of L-cys. You can extract it from poultry feathers or even synthesize it in a lab—although the end product is no different than what you'll get by dumping tons of barbershop waste into vats of hydrochloric acid and separating the coveted compound from the resulting chemical stew. George Cherian, chairman of Indian hair exporter Raj Impex Hair, however, has long been the cheapest source of L-cys. You'd be hard pressed to find a richer source: Human hair contains up to 20 percent cysteine by weight, while duck feathers may yield only about half as much.

GM's Segway Space Pod

| Fri Mar. 26, 2010 3:30 AM PDT

Well, would you check out these little bastards? Wow. As described by our friends over at ClimateProgress.org...

The EN-Vs will have a top speed of 25 miles per hour and a range of 25 miles. They are powered by lithium-ion batteries. GM hopes to outfit them with sensors, cameras and GPS devices so they can communicate with each other, avoid crashes and be operated autonomously. The communication would also let drivers talk to each other while driving, hypothetically creating a situation where two vehicles could hold a video conference while commuting to work.

Pretty friggin' nifty, to be sure. They look most excellent for navigating the Google campus. Yet somehow I just can't imagine how they would handle the potholes in my hometown. Actually, I can: Bam! Rattle! Bang! Seems like it would take some serious infrastructure upgrades for these things to be remotely practical in most urban area. Plus, they're Segways. Just sayin'.

As for autonomous control, for years we've had technology that allows cars to join up in a line and commute without the driver's help—unclogging traffic and saving gas. The problem there is a social one: Relinquishing control of the vehicle freaks people out. ClimateProgress reports that these pods might cost about one-fifth what a car does. But I can think of a cheaper, more practical alternative: the bus.

Senators Continue to Court Industry Support for Climate Bill

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 4:18 PM PDT

Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) huddled with industry representatives for the second time in just over a week to curry support for the energy and climate package they’re putting together. Emerging from the meeting, both the interest groups and the senators hailed progress on getting to shaping a bill that's as industry-friendly as possible.

Speaking to reporters after the meeting, Graham said they’re making progress on getting a bill that industry groups--like the Chamber of Commerce, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Nuclear Energy Institute, who participated in the meeting--can support. He reaffirmed his belief that their bill would be dramatically different than the House-passed bill. "Cap and trade is dead. It’s been beaten to death," he said. "I think it’s an idea that needs to die." (This despite the fact that, from what is known about their bill, it will include some level of a cap and trade program and look a lot like the House bill).

He also downplayed the bill's (theoretically) core goal of addressing climate change as merely an ancillary benefit to everything else. "We’ve gone away from this massive, economy-wide cap and trade system that had as its goal keeping Iowa from becoming beach front property to a national energy strategy, sectorally designed, that will lead to energy independence and do the things on carbon to create jobs, not lose jobs,” he said. (Sorry, Iowa!)

"If it's not perceived to be business friendly, a revolutionarily, dramatically different approach from the old system … then I’ve failed,” said Graham.

Lieberman was laudatory of their meetings with industry groups, calling them "extraordinary discussions." But asked about threats from the left flank if the bill becomes too industry-friendly, he was dismissive. "In the end this will be one of those cases where everybody will be a little unhappy," said Lieberman. "But if they’re mostly happy that we’ve done something constructive, it will pass.”

The groups present for Thursday’s meeting didn’t offer any new details, though they said they remain pleased with the direction the senators are taking the bill. "It was just a good exchange of information from each of the groups… an exchange back and forth with the senators," said Bruce Josten, the head lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

"We’ve had a bunch of provisions that we’ve been sharing with their staff," said Marvin Fertel, CEO of the Nuclear Energy Institute. "They were very open-minded about that. We were very pleased with the discussions we’ve had with the staff." He also expressed hope that nuclear power would be included in a “clean energy standard” in the bill, rather than an renewable electricity standard, an idea that Graham has endorsed.

It's not clear yet when there will even be a bill. Graham said they expect to release a bill "within a couple of weeks after Easter break." Lieberman said they expect to have it ready by the week of Earth Day, April 22. They offered few details on the bill, outside of what has already leaked from previous meetings.

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Drill, Maybe, Drill?

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 3:32 PM PDT

A fight is brewing among Senate Democrats over whether to expand offshore drilling in their forthcoming climate and energy legislation. According to senators and others briefed on the bill being drafted by Sens. John Kerry, Joe Lieberman, and Lindsey Graham, a large portion of the outer continental shelf (OCS), the 600 million acres land just off the coast of the United States, will be available for drilling. That's riled up at least 10 progressive coastal state senators, who are now threatening to vote against the measure.

"[W]e hope that as you forge legislation, you are mindful that we cannot support legislation that will mitigate one risk only to put our coasts at greater peril from another source,” write the senators in a letter to Kerry, Graham and Lieberman. Interest groups, they warn, "are aggressively pursuing an effort to open the nation’s coasts and oceans for unfettered access to oil and gas drilling." The letter's signatories are Bill Nelson of Florida, Robert Menendez and Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey, Sheldon Whitehouse and Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Barbara Mikulski and Ben Cardin of Maryland, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, and Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

The bill will reportedly allow states to decide whether or not to permit drilling within 35 miles of their coast lines. But oil companies could drill between 35 to 75 miles off-shore unless states actively opted out of this provision. The federal government would get to decide about drilling projects more than 75 miles offshore.

The bill will also apparently give the states that opt in a cut of the revenues from the leased plots of the OCS, a deal-sweetener for state governments that the coastal-state senators also balked at. As they point out in the letter, one state could bar drilling while a neighboring state could allow it—and the state borders don't mean much in the event of an oil spill. The senators note that there have been 40 oil spills that have each dumped more than 42,000 gallons into US waters since 1964. The infamous 1989 Exxon Valdez spill covered 1,300 miles. Offshore drilling could also threaten coastal industries such as fishing and tourism, which are worth some $11.4 trillion, the letter says—and for little pay off. "The fact of the matter is that we only have 3% of the world’s oil reserves while we use 25% of the world’s oil," write the senators write. "The only way for us to lower oil prices is to pursue an aggressive policy of energy efficiency and conservation."

But there's also a sizable block of pro-drilling Democrats itching for outer continental shelf drilling to be included in the climate and energy bill. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) said yesterday that a revenue sharing deal between oil companies and states is "absolutely crucial for me, yes, and for several other important senators.”

Following a meeting with Kerry, Alaska Democrat Mark Begich told reporters that senators "are still working" on drilling components, but provisions that would allow state to decide on drilling are expected to be included. "[T]hat’s great because Alaska loves OCS," said Begich, who also wrote a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid on Wednesday outlining his desire for more drilling. "It will benefit no Alaskan to slow the advance of climate change's effects if no one can afford to rebuild their eroding village, meet a payroll or heat their home," Begich wrote.

As environmental advocates briefed on the bill have pointed out, some proposed language on outer continental shelf drilling could actually mark an improvement over where things stand today. In October 2008, Congress allowed the long-standing moratorium on offshore drilling to expire. Currently almost the entire OCS is available for leasing by oil companies, though no new tracts have been leased so far. If the bill protects some areas, it could be acceptable—but that's a big if. Revenue-sharing is also a big concern for enviros, since it would dramatically increase a state's incentive to opt-in.

While enviros anticipated that they would need to accept some drilling in a bill in exchange for a carbon cap, the details that have trickled out so far indicate that the provisions might be a greater expansion of drilling than their lowest expectations. As Kerry, Graham and Lieberman court Big Oil to gather support for a bill, are they at risk of losing their left flank?

It's Official: HFCS Makes You Fat

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 3:27 PM PDT

The high fructose corn syrup industry has been arguing for years that their product is no worse than sugar when it comes to weight gain and obesity. According to a new study by Princeton University, that's simply not true.

When researchers fed HFCS to rats, the rodents gained significantly more weight than those fed regular sugar. Further, the HFCS-fed rats exhibited more specific characteristics of obesity, including increased abdominal fat and trigylcerides.

The study illuminates the underlying problem with the obesity epidemic, which hits low-income areas the hardest. Agricultural corn subsidies make HFCS a remarkably cheap sweetener to produce, so it's commonly used in low-cost products. Not surprisingly, last year the Journal of the American Dietetic Association found higher intakes of HFCS in groups with low income levels.

Yet for all the evidence that the syrup is a major contributor to our country's burgeoning and class-based obesity problem, our government continues to serve as the industry's biggest cheerleader. According to the Tufts University Global Development and Environment Institute, HFCS producers receive implicit government subsidies of $243 million a year—plenty to keep the product a staple of the American diet.

The Other Climate Bill

| Thu Mar. 25, 2010 11:21 AM PDT

Ready for the battle of the climate bills? As John Kerry, Lindsey Graham and Joe Lieberman hammer out climate legislation, their biggest challenge may not be coal-state Democrats, or Republicans who deny global warming—but a bipartisan pair of senators who believe they've already produced  better legislation.

Sens. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced climate legislation last November, attracting almost no attention—despite the fact that bipartisan bills dealing with Obama's major domestic policy initiatives belong on the endangered species list these days. Collins has been supportive of previous climate bills, and is seen as one of a small handful of potential Republican "yes" votes for legislation this year. But the pair like to point out that they've actually written a bipartisan bill, while Kerry, Graham and Lieberman get all the attention for just talking about one. "It’s very difficult to judge what’s actually in Sen. Kerry's bill when he has not yet produced an actual bill," Collins told reporters on Wednesday at an event sponsored by the Bipartisan Policy Center. "I think it's changed 25 times in the last 25 days," Cantwell said. Collins added: "Rather than seeing parts of our bill cannibalized and put into another bill, I think they should take a look at coming on to our legislation."

The Carbon Limits and Energy for America's Renewal Act, or CLEAR, uses a "cap-and-dividend" approach to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Basically, this is a lot like the cap-and-trade system entrenched in the Waxman-Markey climate bill passed by the House last year. But there are some key differences. Under cap and trade, all emitters are required to comply with a cap on greenhouse gases. Those who emit too much can buy pollution permits from those who emit less than their limit. But in cap and dividend, the majority of pollution permits are auctioned off only to the first-sellers of fossil fuels—that is, oil refineries and coal-mining companies. Seventy-five percent of the money raised from the sale of those permits is returned to energy consumers via a rebate. The remaining 25 percent would go to renewable energy and energy efficiency programs.

Proponents of this system argue that it's a lot simpler than cap and trade, mainly because it doesn't require a complex trading system for permits. The legislation drafted by Cantwell and Collins is only 39 pages—a dramatic contrast with the Waxman-Markey bill in the House, which clocked in at 946 pages.

Changing Climate, Shifting Fisheries

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 2:33 PM PDT

A new model has been developed to study rising ocean temperatures and fishing rates on a single fish population, which might also forecast the combined impact of climate change and fishing on other species. NOAA researchers developed the model to forecast the future of the Atlantic croaker fishery in the mid Atlantic under various climate and fishing scenarios. The results for various temperature and fish population scenarios through 2100:

  • At current fishing levels, the spawning population of Atlantic croaker will increase between 60 and 100 percent.
  • The center of the Atlantic croaker population will shift 30 to 65 miles north.
  • The maximum sustainable yield will increase 30 to 100%.

Lead author Jon Hare of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center lab in Rhode Island explains:

"Some fish populations will increase and others decrease as a result of climate change. Understanding and quantifying the effect of climate change on populations, in combination with the effect of exploitation, is a major challenge to rebuilding and maintaining sustainable fisheries in the coming decades."

Atlantic croaker (Micropogonias undulatus) is a coastal marine fish of the eastern US supporting an $8 million commercial fishery annually. Previous studies have shown a strong link between croaker abundance and winter temperatures.

The population model was based on the expectation that ocean temperatures will increase through the 21st century. It was also based on the hypothesis that recruitment—the survival of juveniles to adulthood—is determined by water temperatures. Although Atlantic croaker spawn in the ocean, their larvae migrate to Delaware Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and Pamlico Sound, where they overwinter. Winter temperatures in the bays strongly affect larval survival.

The problem with current fisheries models is twofold. First, they tend to be short-sighted, says Jon Hare:

"Most stock assessments that inform fishery management decisions do not include the effect of a changing environment because they are conducted annually or every few years and do not provide a long-term view."

On the other hand, climate models tend to forecast on 50 to 100 timescales, and that's too long for fisheries management, says Hare:

"Fishery management does not operate on these long time scales, and shorter-term forecasts are required. In the future, a range of climate forecasts that include both the effects of fishing and climate on fish populations over time intervals of 5 to 20 years, 20 to 50 years and 50 to 100 years could be provided. These kinds of coupled models will help provide the best scientific advice for managing fisheries under changing climate conditions in the future."

The paper's in the March 2010 issue of Ecology Applications published by the Ecological Society of America.