Blue Marble - March 2010

PETA Slams Tyson's Pigeon Show

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 12:53 PM EDT

Audubon's Alisa Opar reports that PETA is (predictably) up in arms over former boxing champion Mike Tyson's latest gig: Taking on Tyson, a show about pigeon racing on Animal Planet. I don't always see eye to eye with PETA, but in this case I think they're right. Audubon reported in a recent issue that "roller" pigeons—the kind of bird Tyson competes with—are bred for a "genetic seizure-like disorder" that causes them to tumble to the ground, sometimes dying on impact. And the pigeons aren't the sport's only victims. Hawks and other birds of prey are harmed, too:

When their pigeons start doing their thing, birds of prey see them for exactly what they are—genetic invalids ripe for plucking. As Tony Chavarria, owner and publisher of the Birmingham Roller Pigeon Discussion Board (roller-pigeon.com), perceptively notes, “Many fanciers have been forced to leave the hobby/sport due to incessant attacks by these birds of prey which seem to focus on these roller pigeons as a primary food source (especially in the cities).” Solution: Make the world safer for rollers by continuously killing raptors as they gravitate to roller lofts from all compass points, like stars to black holes.

In 2007, seven members of "roller" clubs in southern California were charged with fatally beating and shooting federally protected raptors. Tyson himself has never killed an encroaching hawk, but it's said that Los Angeles' roller club members kill as many as 2,000 hawks every year. Weird choice, Animal Planet. I'll take Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom instead, please.

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States Split on EPA Climate Regs

| Wed Mar. 17, 2010 10:26 AM EDT

Democrats and Republicans in both the House and Senate are staging attacks on the Environmental Protection Agency’s finding that greenhouse gases endanger public health in hopes of blocking related regulations from going into effect. Across the country, though, states are split on whether the EPA should continue with its legal obligation to regulate planet-warming emissions. Efforts in support of EPA regulation and against it have bipartisan backing from state leaders.

The state attorneys general of Alabama, Virginia, and Texas have filed petitions against the finding. The governors of 18 states and two territories have also joined the call for legislation to block the EPA, including Democrat Joe Manchin of West Virginia. "We feel compelled to guard against a regulatory approach that would increase the cost of electricity and gasoline prices, manufactured products, and ultimately harm the competitiveness of the U.S. economy," they wrote in a letter to congressional leaders from both parties earlier this month. "We strongly urge Congress to stop harmful EPA regulation of greenhouse-gas emissions that could damage those vital interests."

The governors of Mississippi, West Virginia, Alaska, Nebraska, Georgia, Kentucky, Nevada, Rhode Island, North Dakota, South Dakota, South Carolina, Utah, Minnesota, Hawaii, Louisiana, Alabama, Virgina, Arizona, Guam, and Puerto Rico signed on to the letter.

The governors don't specifically endorse either of the two leading legislative options for preventing EPA carbon regulations—a two-year delay from Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) or an outright block from Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)—but they do note that "a simple delay of EPA action will do nothing to provide relief to Americans looking for jobs or businesses looking to make new investments in our states."

The attorneys general of 16 states—Massachusetts, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Iowa, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington, along with New York City—have filed a petition in support of the EPA's work on climate change. Many of them were litigants in the Supreme Court case that originally prompted the agency's action. (The states that appear on both lists, Arizona and Rhode Island, have Republican governors and Democratic attorneys general who have split on the EPA finding).

Unless the Senate moves soon with new legislation, the EPA will likely become the new climate change battleground. It will be interesting to see how which side the remaining states choose to take.

Livestock Revolution Examined

| Tue Mar. 16, 2010 9:56 PM EDT

Global meat production has tripled in the past three decades and could double its present level by 2050. That's likely to have a significant impact on human health, the environment, and the global economy in the next 50 year, according to a new two-volume report, Livestock in a Changing Landscape. Key findings regarding the economic and ecological footprint of livestock:

  • More than 1.7 billion animals are used in livestock production worldwide and occupy more than one-fourth of the Earth's land.
  • Production of animal feed consumes about one-third of Earth's total arable land.
  • Livestock production accounts for approximately 40 percent of the global agricultural gross domestic product.
  • Although 1 billion poor people derive part of their livelihood from domesticated animals, commercialized industrial livestock has displaced many small, rural producers in developing countries, like India and China.
  • The livestock sector, including feed production and transport, is responsible for about 18 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions worldwide (the beef, pork and poultry industries emit large amounts of CO2, methane, and other greenhouse gases).
  • The livestock sector is a major environmental polluter, with much of the world's pastureland degraded by grazing or feed production, and with many forests clear-cut to make way for additional farmland.
  • Feed production requires intensive use of water, fertilizer, pesticides, and fossil fuels.
  • Animal waste is a serious concern, since only a third of the nutrients fed to animals are actually absorbed and the rest pollute lands and waters.
  • Total phosphorous excretions of livestock are estimated to be seven to nine times greater than from humans.

Co-editor Henning Steinfeld of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization says:

"Without a change in current practices, the intensive increases in projected livestock production systems will double the current environmental burden and will contribute to large-scale ecosystem degradation unless appropriate measures are taken."

Key findings regarding human health and the livestock industry include:

  • Beef, poultry, pork and other meat products provide one-third of humanity's protein intake.
  • The impact of meat protein is highly variable around the world: too much animal-based protein is not good for human diets; too little is a problem for those on a protein-starved diet—a problem in many developing countries.
  • Human health also is adversely affected by pathogens and harmful substances transmitted by livestock.
  • Emerging diseases (like the highly pathogenic avian influenza) arise as a result of changes in livestock production, and are becoming more difficult to trace and combat in the newly globalized marketplace.

The report suggests that countries provide incentives for better management practices that focus on land conservation and on more efficient water and fertilizer use. Co-editor Fritz Schneider of the Swiss College of Agriculture tells the Stanford Report:

"So much of the problem comes down to the individual consumer. People aren't going to stop eating meat, but I am always hopeful that as people learn more, they do change their behavior. If they are informed that they do have choices to help build a more sustainable and equitable world, they can make better choices."
 

 

Are Americans Giving Up On The Environment?

| Tue Mar. 16, 2010 3:19 PM EDT

Two new Gallup polls reveal Americans are becoming less concerned about the state of the environment.

A survey released yesterday shows just 34 percent of the public is worried a "great deal" about the environment, down from 40 percent the year before. Meanwhile, a poll published today reveals Americans are less troubled about pollution, global warming, deforestation, and animal and plant extinction than at any point in the past 20 years.

There are two ways to decipher these numbers. One is that the public is more content with environmental progress than before, so they have less to gripe about. Obama is certainly a more eco-friendly president than Bush, the climate bill is a buzzed-about legislative possibility, and the stimulus was a relative boon for the planet.

But the statistics may also indicate public indifference or even apathy. Thanks in large part to partisan bickering and scandals such as Snowpocalypse and ClimateGate, confusion over global warming has reached a fevered pitch. At the same time, the economic slump is swallowing the public's attention. What we may be witnessing is an endemic shift in prioritization, which raises the question: What, if anything, can instill a renewed sense of purpose?

Feds Call Out the Climate Bucket Brigade

| Tue Mar. 16, 2010 2:20 PM EDT

There are "significant gaps" in the government's ability to deal with climate change, according to a new report released by the White House on Tuesday. The study found that federal, state, and local governments aren't adequately prepared for the future consequences of global warming—or even the environmental changes that they are already experiencing.

The report was authored by the Interagency Climate Change Adaptation Task Force, a joint project of the Council on Environmental Quality, the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley told reporters that while regulating greenhouse gases remains the administration's top priority, "we also believe we must prepare for the inevitable effects of climate change."

Climate change "is affecting, and will continue to affect, nearly every aspect of our society and the environment," the report concludes, adding that wildfires, flooding, droughts and heat waves are already "affecting the ability of federal agencies to fulfill their missions."

President Barack Obama created the task force last October with an executive order directing it to draw up recommendations for domestic and international adaptation to climate change impacts within a year.  This study is just an interim report, which focuses on broad bureaucratic goals, before the task force's more specific recommendations will be released later in the year.

NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco pointed out that communities need more information—and more detailed data—about particular environmental changes they may be forced to grapple with in the near future. Rather than gazing 50 or 100 years ahead, she said, governments need reliable information on climate impacts that will occur in the next decade. By way of illustration, Lubchenco pointed to a report issued last summer by the US Global Change Research Program that compiled the work of 13 different government agencies on climate impacts. The report looked at climate impacts by region and economic sector, noting anticipated effects like more than 100 days of 100-degree temperatures in Texas and the disappearance of some of the Florida Keys by the end of the century.

The White House introduced that report last June in the heat of the climate debate in the House, which narrowly passed after months of painful wrangling. Nearly a year later, the Senate hasn't moved on a bill, and the legislation that senators are talking about may deal with climate only as an afterthought. The task force efforts are a reminder that while the Senate fiddles, Rome burns—and the federal government is already calling out the bucket brigade.

Save the Newts from the Internet

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 5:25 PM EDT

The CITES meeting is underway in Qatar this week, with 175 member nations struggling to regulate international trade in everything from Atlantic bluefin tuna to elephant ivory, plus all kinds of other important stuff.

Getting less attention, but nevertheless interesting, is the story of the Kaiser's spotted newt, an Iranian salamander. The species is critically endangered in the wild, believed to number fewer than 1,000 mature individuals.

The little amphibian also illustrates a new conduit for danger for wildife: the internet. The species is avidly sought by pet by collectors and wildlife enthusiasts, and its numbers have declined by more than 80 percent in recent years. Now it's the first species under consideration for an Appendix I listing—the highest level of protection, which bans all commercial international trade in the species—under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Endangered Fauna and Flora (CITES).

WWF and TRAFFIC tell us that CITES governments will be considering whether or not to take a more proactive approach to regulating online trade, including:

  • Creating an international database of the trade
  • Implementing scientific research to gauge the correlation between wildlife loss and online trade
  • Forging a closer collaboration with INTERPOL, the international law enforcement agency

In 2006, an investigation by TRAFFIC into the sale of Kaiser's spotted newts revealed 10 websites claiming to stock the species. One Ukrainian company claimed to have sold more than 200 wild-caught specimens in a single year. The problem is the internet connects sparse sellers with sparse buyers willing to pay $300 for a newt, amplifying the troubles for wildlife.
 

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Will Health Care Reform Help or Hinder a Climate Bill?

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 5:16 PM EDT

It looks like Congress may finally pass health care reform this week. Environmental advocates have been bemoaning the fact that the prolonged health care debate has tangled up action on climate. But could passage of the bill actually do more to screw up the chances of passing climate and energy legislation? Lindsey Graham – the only Republican actively engaging with Democrats on climate – warned yesterday that moving health care without Republican support may ruin hopes for future bipartisanship.

"If they do this, it's going to poison the well for anything else they would like to achieve this year or thereafter," Graham said on ABC's "This Week” on Sunday, warning against using reconciliation to move the bill forward.

Among Republicans, Graham is one of the few that the administration might care about. In addition to working with John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.) on a climate and energy package, he’s the basically the lone GOP collaborator on Guantanamo and immigration (though he’s had some harsh words for Obama on that of late, too).

He said, however, that maybe the Obama administration would do well to focus on climate and energy--an area where there is some bipartisan interest in collaboration--before moving to other contentious issues. "This is one issue where the president has been great. He's saying all the right things to give us a chance to become energy independent, clean up the air and create jobs. But when it comes to health care, he's been tone deaf, he's been arrogant, and they're pushing a legislative proposal and a way to do that legislative proposal that's going to destroy the ability of this country to work together for a very long time. And that's not necessary."

No Doggie Bags Allowed: Fair?

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

Over at the Consumerist, there's a debate raging over whether restaurants should be allowed to deny customers doggie bags, sparked by one diner's recent experience at seafood chain McCormick and Schmick's way-cheap happy hour.

In a nutshell: Guy couldn't finish his burger and fries, so he asked for a take-out container. The hostess told him no, since the restaurant has a "no to-go" policy during happy hour. The burger guy's girlfriend wrote a letter of complaint, saying she was "disappointed in the restaurant’s rigid rule, mostly because the rule clearly promotes and even encourages the wasting of food." A McCormick and Schmick's representative explained the reason for the policy in an email response:

Unfortunately when we offer a To Go box to any customer, then every other customer wants one. This may not seem so bad, but with the extremely low prices we offer on our Happy Hour Food (our 8oz burgers & fries are less than half the price of the same item at a fast food restaurant and much higher quality) we immediately have people ordering a great many items that they have no intention of finishing at the restaurant.

Do you buy it, Blue Marble readers? Considering the staggering amount of food we throw away (and the considerable environmental impact of all that wasted food), can we really afford to let restaurants get away with such policies?

 

Where's Obama's Scientific Integrity Plan?

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 12:20 PM EDT

One of President Barack Obama's first executive orders last year was a demand for improved scientific integrity across federal agencies. His administration, he said, was devoted to "ensuring that scientific data is never distorted or concealed to serve a political agenda, and that we make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology." He directed John Holdren, his chief science adviser, to "develop a strategy for restoring scientific integrity to government decision making" and ensure that the new administration makes decisions based on "the soundest science."

It was a directive to repair the tattered image of government science following eight years of the Bush Administration, during which scientists were silenced, reports were supressed or edited, and administration officials refused to even review key scientific findings. And that's just referring to climate science--there was also plenty of evidence that they sought to undermine or ignore scientific findings in food safety, air pollution, and reproductive health.

The Obama administration's plan to restore credibility to the agencies was due by July. But one year after the order, we still haven’t seen guidelines from the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Now scientific integrity advocates are wondering what's taking so long. "While the new administration has been generally supportive of scientific integrity values, it’s moving too slowly to establish badly needed reforms," says Francesca Grifo, director of the scientific integrity program at the Union of Concerned Scientists.

UCS notes several key steps the administration should take. The current system, says Grifo, "still discourages scientists from communicating about their research results" and "keeps the public in the dark about the scientific basis for policy decisions." She says that while NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have adopted better policies about talking to the media, other agencies have not. She’d also like to see more openness about who administration officials are meeting with. The White House last year began releasing visitor logs, but other agencies aren’t required to do so.

There also aren't strong enough protections for government scientists who blow the whistle on malfeasance, says Grifo. She pointed to recent testimony before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee from Dean Wyatt, a former official at the Food and Drug Administration, on the agency’s retaliation against him for reporting serious problems at two meat packing plants in 2007 and 2008. "The administration has changed, but the system that allows retaliation against whistleblowers has not," says Grifo.

The House Science Committee put Holdren on the hot seat on the issue last month. Most of the attacks were from Republicans arguing that this administration is stifling climate science--something they didn’t seem to have much of a problem with in the previous administration. So the new rules would ideally shield the administration from criticisms Republicans are now lobbing their way.

At the hearing, Holdren acknowledged that the delay was "appalling," and cited "the difficulties of constructing a set of guidelines that would be applicable to all agencies and accepted by all concerned." Rick Weiss, director of communications and a senior policy analyst at OSTP, says the plan should be finalized in the near future. "Although it is close to being done, it is not done yet," he tells Mother Jones, adding that the plan is still caught up in discussions between the agencies, the Office of Management and Budget, and OSTP.

While scientific integrity advocates are getting impatient about the new guidelines, they acknowledge that much has improved in just the first year under Obama. Admittedly, the Bush administration set that bar pretty low. But formal new rules would go a long way to restoring the lost credibility of government scientists and agencies.

The Disappearing Climate Bill

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 11:39 AM EDT

When John Kerry introduced the climate bill last September that he co-authored with Barbara Boxer, he heralded action to stop global warming as "one of the most important battles we will ever face, as legislators and as citizens." But after that measure failed to gain traction, Kerry embarked on a new legislative process with Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.)--and now says addressing climate change will be merely a superfluous benefit of passing the legislation that they are expected to introduce any day now.

In an interview with the Associated Press, Kerry suggested that his pollution-cutting plans are only an afterthought. "It's primarily a jobs bill, and an energy independence bill and a pollution reduction-health-clean air bill," said Kerry. "Climate sort of follows. It's on for the ride."

As I reported last week, House members are already more than a little nervous about what a Senate bill might actually look like. Kerry affirmed that his bill may be unrecognizable from what the House passed last summer. "It will be a very different mix of a bill from where we were at the end of the House effort," Kerry said. "It will be simpler, and hopefully, capable of attracting support."

He also insisted that this isn't just a rhetorical shift to abandon the term "cap and trade" that has been successfully demonized by foes. "This has nothing to do with branding … This is a different bill. It will have a different structure,” said Kerry.

There are plenty of questions about whether the senators' alternative measure will be able to meet the same climate goals as previous bills, especially if it ramps up energy incentives (many of which aren't very environmentally friendly) in order to draw additional votes. Supporters have long touted this effort as a comprehensive package that can deliver both the energy and environmental benefits, and most have scaled back expectations on the environmental side as Senate negotiations continue. That Kerry is now dropping the idea that it's a climate bill at all can't be a good sign for where those negotiations are heading.