Blue Marble - March 2010

Graham's Got God on His Side

| Wed Mar. 24, 2010 9:21 AM EDT

Lindsey Graham has been called a "wussypants," "girly-man," and "half-a-sissy" by Tea Partiers for his support for climate action. Two different county Republican parties in his home state of South Carolina have voted to censure him on the issue, with one calling his views on climate change “out of step with the beliefs of Republican voters."

But Graham has at least one big player on his side: God.

The Christian Coalition is running ads in his state in support of his climate efforts, we learn via Grist. The ads focus on America's dependence on fossil fuels, conjuring up the memory of George Bush pointing out our addiction to foreign oil. But if that’s what it takes to mobilize their conservative Republican base on this issue, all power to them. With 2.5 million members across the country, this can’t hurt. Here’s the script:

President Bush was right: our addiction to foreign oil threatens our national security and economic prosperity. America spends almost a billion dollars a day on foreign oil and a lot of that goes to countries that do not like us and harbor terrorists. Washington's failure to act puts our national security at risk, and drains our economy. I've heard from so many Christian Coalition supporters that energy is one of the most important issues we face today. America is a can-do country. We've got to take the lead to explore energy alternatives and protect our national security. We have to make our country safer by creating jobs with the made-in-America energy plan. I would like to ask you to call Sen. Lindsey Graham and encourage him to continue fighting for our families.

Climate action also got some more evangelical support on Wednesday morning, as the Evangelical Environmental Network and the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference visited Washington to call for legislation to address global warming. The groups state that "fulfilling Jesus' teaching to love our neighbors and care for 'the least of these' includes protecting the poor from climate change and helping them adapt to the consequences they did not cause."

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Solar Panels: Tomorrow's Toxic Waste?

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 5:32 PM EDT

How toxic are your solar panels? The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC), a group that has done more than any other to clean up the electronics industry, attempted to answer that question today with the release of its Solar Scorecard. It didn't get very far. Of the 25 solar manufacturers that SVTC contacted, only 14, which together represent just 24 percent of the solar market, even responded. And their answers weren't always heartening. Among SVTC's findings:

  • Six companies report that their products contain lead, a potent neurotoxin.
  • Three companies report that their products contain cadmium, a known carcinogen.
  • One company uses nitrogen triflouride, a potent greenhouse gas
  • Only seven companies provide recycling free of charge
  • Only eight companies said their would support "extended producer responsibility" laws that would require them to take back or recycle their products

That many solar panels contain lead and cadmium, which are being phased out by computer manufacturers, is no small matter. In the coming years, SVTC estimates that 1.5 billion pounds of solar panel waste containing 2 million pounds of lead and 600,000 pounds of cadmium will be disposed of in California alone.  Some older solar panels are already being ditched well ahead of their 20-year lifespans as cheaper, more efficient versions hit the market. Nevertheless, even the stringent recyling laws of California and Europe exempt solar panels (though Europe's may soon include them). SVTC wants to see solar panel recycling become standard practice along with efforts by solar manufacturers to phase out toxins. "In order for a product to be really green," says SVTC executive director Sheila Davis, "it needs to be green throughout its entire lifecycle."

Frack the Climate Bill

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

Will legislators use the climate bill as an excuse to let the natural gas industry run roughshod over clean water standards? If the industry gets its way, they might.

BP America Inc. and several other oil and gas giants are lobbying for the pending Senate climate and energy bill to recommend against the federal regulation of hydraulic fracturing, the controversial practice used to extract natural gas from shale, coal beds, and other geological formations, reports Energy & Environment Daily. Draft language that has been floated by the industry to legislators would allow natural gas extraction to continue with almost no regulation.

This move comes just days after the Environmental Protection Agency announced that an investigation into fracking, a practice which many fear is contaminating ground water supplies. Fracking uses a high-pressure blast of chemical compounds, sand, and water to fracture rock and access natural gas. The agency noted "concerns that hydraulic fracturing may impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health and the environment." This follows a 2004 study from the EPA during the Bush administration that concluded there is no risk of contamination of drinking water from fracturing, despite the fact that compounds have been found to contain toxic chemicals like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene. In 2005, the industry successfully lobbied to have fracking fluids exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act—meaning companies don’t have to report exactly what they’re blasting into the ground.

Diesel fuel, which contains a number of carcinogens, was supposed to be off-limits even under the loosened rules. But a House investigation last month revealed that natural gas extraction companies like Halliburton have, in recent years, illegally injected hundreds of thousands of gallons of diesel into the ground. A recent report from the Environmental Working Group found that a single fracking site can contain enough benzene and other toxic chemicals to contaminate the amount of water New York state uses in a day. Despite this, the natural gas industry maintains that their fracking fluids are perfectly safe, and that their composition represents proprietary information that they shouldn't have to disclose.

The practice is also getting more scrutiny as estimates of the amount of gas available in the US have dramatically increased, driving more interest in the fuel. The push to regulate carbon emissions is also likely to spur a boom in natural gas production. The fuel emits 30 percent less carbon dioxide than oil and 45 percent less than coal, and is often touted as the "bridge fuel" to renewable energy sources, as it's relatively easy to modify coal-burning plants to use natural gas.

A "discussion draft" of proposed language on natural gas in the climate bill that E&E obtained suggests that states should have the authority over regulating the industry, not the federal government. It also states that companies should not be required to publicly disclose chemicals contained in fracturing fluids, as they are "trade secret information." The draft came from BP, but is reportedly under consideration for inclusion in the climate bill that Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) are expected to release soon. Natural gas, the language proclaims, is a "proven energy source that can provide substantial amounts of secure, clean energy to the Nation."

In addition to the new EPA study, House Energy and Commerce Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) in February announced an investigation into fracturing. Colorado Rep. Diane Degette (D) is also sponsoring House legislation that would bring fracking materials back under the Safe Drinking Water Act and force companies to make public the chemicals they use.

Comity on Climate? Eh, Not So Much

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

Is Lindsey Graham cooling down after getting hot under the collar over the weekend about health care reform? The day after the passage of the legislation, he warned that the "sleazy" process might derail future bipartisan efforts. His remarks caused some to wonder whether he was looking for an out on climate legislation. But now Graham says while he may not be happy about how health care reform passed, he's still intent on working on a climate and energy bill. His Republican colleagues, however, might not be so enthusiastic.

Graham told reporters yesterday (via Greenwire) that he's "still committed to trying to roll out a vision of how you can price carbon and make it business-friendly." But he stopped short of predicting that their vision could be come law anytime soon. ”We're still going to do that ... But the truth of the matter is, I think you're going to find most of our colleagues around here risk adverse [sic],” said Graham. The health care vote, he warned, is "going to make it very difficult to do anything complicated and controversial."

Case in point: John McCain. "There will be no cooperation for the rest of the year," the Arizona senator—and Graham's mentor—declared in a radio interview on Monday."They have poisoned the well in what they've done and how they've done it."

I can't say I’m shocked that McCain is taking his ball and going home for the next nine months. Most folks had already written him off as a "no" vote on a climate and energy bill, despite his longtime commitment to the issue. Let's hope other Republicans who have been active on climate and energy issues will take the same approach. Still, Graham aside, I'm not expecting much comity from Republicans on climate legislation.

John Kerry, however, thinks that the health care fight might help his effort to pass a climate bill. "In the wake of health care’s passage, we have a strong case to make that this can be the next break-through legislative fight," he said.

"Fight" may be the operative word.

Senators Call for Climate Vote This Year

| Tue Mar. 23, 2010 10:18 AM EDT

I have a new article up this morning on what we know about the pending climate and energy legislation in the Senate from John Kerry (D-Mass.), Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). What we know, in short, is that climate goals will likely be scaled back in order to gain support, and that even with lowered ambitions it still faces an uncertain future in the upper chamber.

Despite the irresolution, 22 senators sent a letter to Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday calling for a floor vote on comprehensive legislation this year.

"[W]e believe the United States Senate should consider bipartisan and comprehensive clean energy and climate legislation this year with a renewed focus on jobs and reduced dependence on foreign oil," wrote the senators, who represent a range of regional interests, including coal and manufacturing states. "Our lack of a comprehensive clean energy policy hurts job creation and increases regulatory uncertainty throughout our economy. Businesses are waiting on clear signals from Congress before investing billions in energy, transportation, manufacturing, buildings and other sectors. America’s competitiveness and export strength are also at stake."

Signing on to the letter: Mark Begich of Alaska, Michael Bennet of Colorado, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Roland Burris of Illinois, Maria Cantwell of Washington, Tom Carper of Delaware, Robert Casey of Pennsylvania, Al Franken of Minnesota, Kay Hagan of North Carolina, Tom Harkin of Iowa, Ted Kaufman of Delaware, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Patty Murray of Washington, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Jon Tester of Montana, Mark Udall of Colorado, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Mark Warner of Virginia, and Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman may release a more detailed outline of their legislation as early as this week, with legislative text expected after the Easter recess. The trio shared some specifics about the legislation with industry and environmental groups last week, and will meet with a larger group of senators this afternoon to discuss details.

When (or if) a climate and energy package would go to a vote remains unclear. As of yet, there's not actual legislative text, and the Environmental Protection Agency would need five to six weeks to evaluate the both the environmental and economic impacts of the bill before it could go to the floor. According to Democratic sources in the Senate, financial reform is expected to come before climate and energy, and it's possible that immigration could also come precede the Kerry-Graham-Lieberman bill on the legislative calendar.

Super Sizing the Last Supper

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 5:52 PM EDT

An analysis of the 52 most famous paintings of the Last Supper painted over the past 1,000 years finds they've gotten heftier over time. The analysis was facilitated by computer-aided design technology that allowed items in the paintings to be scanned, rotated, and their size calculated regardless of their orientation in the painting. The findings:

  • The size of the entrées has progressively grown 69 percent in the course of the millennium.
  • Plate size has increased 66 percent.
  • Bread size has increased ~23 percent.

The results suggest the phenomenon of serving bigger portions on bigger plates—which pushes people to overeat—has occurred gradually over the millennium. The research was conducted by Brian Wansink of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, and author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, and his brother, Craig Wansink, professor of religious studies at Virginia Wesleyan College, Norfolk, Va., and an ordained Presbyterian minister. Brian Wansink says:

"The last thousand years have witnessed dramatic increases in the production, availability, safety, abundance and affordability of food. We think that as art imitates life, these changes have been reflected in paintings of history's most famous dinner.

The paper's in April 2010 International Journal of Obesity.
 

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Big Box Giant Best Buy Takes on the Chamber

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

Best Buy last week became the latest major business player to distance itself from the US Chamber of Commerce on climate policy. The chamber, says the big box titan, "has not spoken for Best Buy on these issues."

Here's the company's official statement:

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a membership organization with varied business stakeholders and interests. Those interests among industry don’t always align; on the issue of climate change legislation and regulatory actions, we have certainly seen this to be the case. Best Buy has stated that we are supportive of comprehensive climate change legislation and working to move toward a low carbon economy. With regard to the Chamber’s climate initiatives, the Chamber has not spoken for Best Buy on these issues. We have shared our views with the Chamber and will continue to do so. Best Buy’s commitment to sustainability aligns with global interests in addressing climate change. Best Buy is an innovator in offering our customers products and services that enable them to live more sustainably. At the same time, Best Buy is addressing our own carbon footprint resulting in a positive impact on the economic, environmental and societal well-being of the planet.

The company also notes that it participates in a number of pro-climate-action business organizations like the Alliance to Save Energy, Business for Innovative Climate and Energy Policy, and the Sustainability Consortium. It's interesting timing for Best Buy's statement, considering that for the first time, the Chamber is making positive noises about the Senate bill currently in the works. That said, the Chamber is still waging a legal battle against climate science. It may be a little late to the action, but Best Buy has been asserting a stronger stance on climate issues of late -- announcing last month that they were joining lobbying efforts in support of a climate bill and making more of an effort to be a "green giant" among big box stores through their efforts to reduce waste and improve sustainability throughout their supply chain.

Microsoft criticized the Chamber’s stance on climate earlier this month. And there were a number of defections last fall over the issue: Midwestern utility Exelon Corp., the New Mexico utility holding company PNM Resources, Northern California utility Pacific Gas and Electric, and Mohawk Fine Paper all dropped out over a span of several weeks. Nike also resigned from the Chamber's board.

Is Lindsey Graham Looking for an Exit on Climate?

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 10:20 AM EDT

As you're likely well aware, health care reform passed late last night, after more than a year of brutal debate; maybe now we can move along to other important issues, like this climate and energy bill I've been harping on. But with the passage of health care along strict partisan lines, are politics in Washington so contentious that we might not accomplish anything else this year?

That seems to be the posturing from Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the lone Republican working with Democrats to craft energy and climate policy. Shortly after last night’s vote, his office fired off a statement calling the use of reconciliation to pass health care "sleazy." Last week he made similar remarks, warning that passing health care reform along partisan lines would "poison the well" for bipartisan work on other issues. Here’s his statement:

The Democrats may have won today in the House of Representatives, but the American people lost. Higher taxes, more government control of health care, and Enron-style accounting define this bill. The upcoming elections will be a referendum on the substance and process used to pass it. I believe it will be a clear choice. Republicans will pick up a lot of votes from people who think this is bad for their business, their family, and the process used to pass it was sleazy.
I am committed to repealing this multi-trillion dollar health care nightmare and replacing it with bipartisan reform that will lower costs and improve access.

Of course, as a Republican he’s basically required to say as much. And the idea that there was any comity left in Congress, as Kevin Drum has noted, is pure comedy. But some like Josh Nelson over on EnivroKnow have begun to wonder if Graham might be looking for an out on his work on climate and energy policy. I sure hope not; I think he’s been very sincere about his desire to address these concerns, even in the face of a good deal of criticism from other members of his party. Of course he's advocating for including a lot of things in a bill that aren’t necessarily good for the environment, but he's been at least willing to come to the table. I would note, however, that he hasn’t explicitly committed to voting for a climate and energy package this year, only to working on building bipartisan support for a bill. From what I've heard from Senate staffers, it's not clear that he has so far convinced other Republicans to join him in that effort.

Graham is also one of the few Republicans who has been willing to cross party lines on issues like climate and energy policy, immigration reform and Guantanamo, so he holds a lot of sway. This is particularly true on climate and energy, where five to six moderate Democrats are basically written off as a "no" vote on anything that includes a cap on carbon. Not only is his support crucial, but he’s seen as the key to bringing along enough other Republicans on this issue to pass a bill.

We'll have to wait and see where Graham shakes out. He, along with John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), is expected to formally roll out details of their legislation soon, possibly as early as this week. Some details have already leaked, though many specifics remain in flux, according to sources who have met with the senators.

Econundrum: 12 Most Pesticide-Laden Fruits and Veggies

| Mon Mar. 22, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

At my local farmer's market, organic avocados cost as much as $2 a pop. Yet I can sometimes find the conventional version at the supermarket for half that (and some of the cheap ones are even grown right here in California). Considering my homemade guacamole addiction, I'd quickly bankrupt myself buying only organic avocadoes, so I usually go for the cheapos at the grocery store. My reasoning: You don't even eat the skin of the avocado, so presumably, for avocados and other peeled produce, pesticides aren't a problem. Right?

Not always. Some fruits' and vegetables' thick skins do protect the edible part from chemicals. But not all. The Environmental Working Group recently analyzed samples of 47 common produce items in the state that they're usually eaten (i.e., avocados were peeled, apples washed with water, etc.) then ranked them according to the amount and variety of pesticides the researchers found. Good news for my guac addiction: As I suspected, peeled avocadoes contain a small amount of pesticides, ranking 46th on the list. But bananas come in at a surprisingly high 27, and cucumbers at 19. "It’s really hard to use your intuition to figure out what’s going to have high pesticide loads," says EWG spokesperson Amy Rosenthal. "Skin is something to take into account, but it doesn’t always make a huge difference."

More findings: Peaches, apples, and sweet bell peppers were the three most pesticide-laden crops tested, while frozen sweet corn, avocado, and onion were least contaminated. The EWG team estimates you can lower your pesticide intake by as much as 80 percent if you steer clear of the top 12.

In descending order, the EWG's 12 most contaminated fruits and vegetables:

Cookbooks Threaten Fish?

| Fri Mar. 19, 2010 5:54 PM EDT

An innovative analysis of seafood-eating trends in the past 125 years shows that in the US at least we're 'eating up the food web'—not because fish high up on the food web are more abundant fish but because they're less abundant. In other words, the more expensive the fish, the more desirable it is as a main ingredient in recipes.

The researchers from the Northwest Fisheries Science Center deciphered this when they gathered 3,092 seafood recipes from 105 cookbooks published in Pacific Northwest between 1885 and 2007. In past decades we ate many more lower trophic level seafood (small planktivorous fish, like sardines). Whereas over time our cookbooks have come increasingly to call for much higher trophic level seafood (large carnivorous fish, like tuna).

Specifically, between 1885 and 2007, the average trophic level of the recipes rose from 2.92 to more than 3.4. (Sharks, apex predators, have the highest trophic level of 4.) This is a counterintuitive finding, as New Scientist reports:

"[Lead author Phillip] Levin had expected the opposite trend, because decades of intense fishing have depleted the populations of many fish with a high trophic level, and as a result more and more of the world's fish harvest is now made up of smaller "trash" fish of lower trophic levels. He suggests it didn't work out that way because cookbooks don't reflect what we eat so much as what we aspire to eat. "It's more about culture than fish," he says. Indeed, Levin suspects that rarity may be partly responsible for the prestige of fish like cod and tuna. "When food is expensive, that's the stuff that shows up in cookbooks," he says. If so, cooks will continue to seek out these species even as their populations dwindle still further—a perverse demand that could stymie efforts to restore healthy fish populations."

In their paper in Fish and Fisheries the authors conclude:

"Ultimately, sustainability of fisheries and marine ecosystems is not solely a biophysical problem—sustainability must also include the viability of socially shaped relationships between people and the sea. Knowledge of the drivers underlying the pattern of 'eating up the food web' should aide in developing policies that move beyond managing pressures (fishing), but also deal with the social drivers that generate those pressures."