Blue Marble - March 2010

Barbara Boxer Gets Demon Sheeped

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 10:02 AM EDT

The ad guy behind the Demon Sheep brings us a new video for California Republican Senate candidate Carly Fiorina that's almost as bizarre as its predecessor. It features a giant Barbara Boxer head floating over wind farms as a voiceover decries her support of cap and trade -- and it only gets weirder from there.

Giant Floating Head of Barbara Boxer's mistakes include "proclaiming her cap-and-trade bill would clean the environment, indifferent that it would take already painful jobless numbers and make them dramatically worse," says the creepy narration.

The nearly 8-minute ad is from Fred Davis, the same guy who made the demon sheep ad. Some have dubbed it the "HindenBoxer." Like its predecessor, it's strange enough to get people talking. The concept is that Boxer's power in Washington has swollen her ego and ... caused it to take flight. "She quit working for us, and starting working only for herself," it says.

On climate, at least, it's worth noting that Fiorina was once supportive of efforts to curb emissions--at least before she challenged Boxer, who has made climate change one of her signature issues. Fiorina even touted John McCain’s support for cap and trade in her speech at the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Here's the new video:

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Econundrum: Eco-Friendly Fur?

| Mon Mar. 15, 2010 5:30 AM EDT

Much as I'd love to settle the fur debate once and for all, I know far better than to pretend I have the answer: PETA won't catch me telling all you Econundrum readers to run out and buy a mink coat. Truth is, I can see both sides: Fur has the eco-advantage of being biodegradable, a quality that, as I wrote in a previous Econundrum column, is hard to find in synthetic fabrics. On the other hand, there's the ethical issue: Most fur these days comes not from wild animals but from factory farms (like those from whence our fast-food burgers hail). In Canada, for example, the 2005 market for ranch-raised fur was three times the size of the wild fur market, according to the CBC. So, like I said, no grand fur proclamations here. But I think I've found one fur idea I like. There's a bit of backstory here, so bear with me.

Our story concerns the nutria, a semiaquatic mammal that is not exactly charismatic: It looks roughly like a cross between a beaver and a rat. But in the early part of the last century, nutrias' silky coats fetched a good price, so French trappers imported them from their native South America to the the southeastern US. The critters bred like crazy, and trappers made a good living off their pelts—until animal rights campaigns of the '60s and '70s made fur uncool. Demand for pelts took a nosedive, and trappers could no longer keep up with the ballooning nutria population. Today, the voracious little beasts, who prefer to dine on the roots of marsh plants, have destroyed large swaths of bayou. They've also been implicated in the destabilization of levees, which, as we all know, is not good news for bayou ecosystems or their surrounding towns.

Fast forward to 2000, when, in an effort to incentivize trappers to once again catch and kill the nutria, Louisiana's Department of Wildlife and Fisheries began offering bounties—turn in a nutria tail, and the government gives you $5. It's working: Trappers are once again able to make a living off the land, and the nutria population has declined. But the program is expensive, and the market for nutria fur is still tiny. Michael Massimi, the invasive species coordinator at the Barataria Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP) told me that more than 95 percent of carcasses caught for bounty currently go to waste. "The problem is that for most trappers, getting a buyer for the meat and fur is not worth the effort," says Massimi.

Enter Cree McCree, a writer and fashion designer based in New Orleans. Last year, with the help of a $4,500 grant from BTNEP, McCree founded a group called Righteous Fur to promote nutria fur to fashion designers. McCree mobilized a few local designers, and the group has already staged two fashion shows this year. Recalls McCree, "We had everything from very elegant stoles and fur collar pieces to a tribute to Alexander McQueen." McCree's own contribution? A line of nutria-tooth jewelry. 

McCree's project seems to be taking off. Designer Oscar de la Renta featured a nutria piece in a recent collection, and this fall, McCree will take the nutria show to New York City's fashion week. The pieces aren't commercially available yet, but that's on McCree's agenda. "Next I want to do mass market urban streetwear," she says.

So there you have it: Fur fashion that also helps solve the problem of a destructive invasive species. Not saying McCree's bright idea means you should run right out and buy yourself a new stole. Just something to think about.

Putting the "I" in Climate

| Fri Mar. 12, 2010 3:33 PM EST

I expend a lot of pixels blogging about climate and energy legislation here in Washington, and just how much (or how little) our lawmakers will commit to cutting planet-warming greenhouse gas emissions. But are we overlooking some of the most immediate solutions to the problem--simple behavior changes that any of us can start making right now?

Tiny changes can yield a 15 percent reduction in US greenhouse gas reductions by 2020, cutting 1 billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, according to a new study released by the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Climate Mind Behavior Project at the Garrison Institute on Friday.

The changes they propose aren't major, and a lot of them would save money, too. If Americans who fly more than three times a year were to cut out one flight each, the US could cut emissions by 125 million tons. Five percent of fuel use in the US is used while idling, so if we all simply turn off the car off while talking to the neighbor, we could cut emissions 40 million tons of carbon. We could also reshape our food habits, by subbing in poultry for red meat a few days a week. Reducing the amount of food we throw away each year by 25 percent reduction would reduce emissions 65 million tons.

Not that these should come in lieu of national action to cut emissions from big polluters like coal-fired power plants and refineries, says Peter Lehner, executive director of the Natural Resources Defense Council. These are just things we could be doing while Congress hashes out much-needed policy reforms. “We realized it could make a difference, and we shouldn’t ignore that,” said Lehner. "These are things that could happen virtually immediately."

Some other things the report suggests we could be doing: canceling those catalog subscriptions we don’t actually want, using a programmable thermostat, putting our computers to sleep, and, of course, switching out old light bulbs for compact fluorescents.

The report doesn't, however, offer any suggestions about methods of encouraging widespread adoption of these habits. That's the next phase of their work. The groups held a symposium in New York this week with behavioral economists, social psychologists, and environmental advocates to discuss ways to encourage better individual choices and behavior shifts. I’d guess that a lot of people are at least vaguely aware that they should be doing these things; the problem is, most of us don't. The question of how best to encourage those practices is probably the most interesting.

I maintain that action at the state, federal, and international level to reduce emissions is by far the most important factor in curbing global warming. But Lehner argues that getting people to do the little things can help encourage them to become more involved in pushing their leaders to do the heavy lifting. "Good deeds foster other good deeds; momentum matters," he said. "For people to understand that personal action can make a big difference, leads to political action. You start biking to work, you start being active about getting bike lanes. All of these things start making sense to you--policy ideas are no longer abstract."

Can the Birth Control Pill Make You Live Longer?

| Fri Mar. 12, 2010 3:16 PM EST

Everyone knows the birth control pill is a powerful contraceptive. But there may be another benefit to the little blue tablet: Longer life.

According to a British study of more than 46,000 women over the course of nearly four decades, taking the pill on average reduces a woman's risk of death by 12 percent from such conditions as heart disease, circulatory disease, and bowel, uterine, and ovarian cancer.

The study comes with a few caveats: Surprisingly, women under age 30 who take the pill are three times more likely to die. And researchers noted their results could partly be attributed to pill-users being more healthy in general.

Still, though—more proof that family planning is always a good idea (are you listening, John Boehner?)

Can Photos Inspire a New Generation of Environmentalists?

| Fri Mar. 12, 2010 10:57 AM EST

One of the Environmental Protection Agency’s early projects was Documerica, an effort "to photograph America’s environmental problems, to document America’s natural and man-made beauty and to photograph the human condition" from 1971 to 1977. Now they’re releasing the 15,000 photos from the vault at the National Archives and posting them on Flickr.

Alexis Madrigal has more over on Wired about a project that was meant to document the country’s pollution problems and "help justify the existence of the EPA" in the first years of the agency. Here’s what archivist C. Jerry Simmons had to say about the project:

Documerica’s official mission effectively focused on popular but valid environmental concerns of the early 1970s: water, air and noise pollution; unchecked urbanization; poverty; environmental impact on public health; and youth culture of the day. But in reaction to the varied pollution, health and social crises, Documerica succeeded also in affirming America’s commitment to solving these problems by capturing positive images of human life and Americans’ reactions, responses and resourcefulness.

Their release got me thinking about how useful a similar project might be today. This year is a significant anniversary for the environmental movement, marking the 40th anniversary of both Earth Day and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. But the EPA is getting pummeled these days for its efforts to address the biggest environmental challenge of our generation, climate change. And many Americans remain utterly confused or outright indifferent to the problems.

Dead Zones Fuel Global Warming

| Thu Mar. 11, 2010 5:31 PM EST

A new paper in the journal Science reveals that oxygen-deprived (hypoxic) dead zones in the oceans have a far bigger impact than killing fish in local waters. The increased amount of nitrous oxide (N2O) produced in hypoxic waters can elevate N20 in the atmosphere—fueling more global warming and growing bigger atmospheric ozone holes.

Nitrous oxide is a highly potent greenhouse gas and is becoming a key factor in stratospheric ozone destruction. Dead zones are a result of climate change, eutrophication, and changes in ocean currents. The author of the study, oceanographer Louis Codispoti of the Horn Point Laboratory, says:

"As the volume of hypoxic waters move towards the sea surface and expands along our coasts, their ability to produce the greenhouse gas nitrous oxide increases. With low-oxygen waters currently producing about half of the ocean's net nitrous oxide, we could see an additional significant atmospheric increase if these 'dead zones' continue to expand."

Currently, the number and size of dead zones worldwide is doubling every decade (405 worldwide, last count)—including dead zones covering nearly all of the eastern and southern coasts of the US. The drivers behind most of these dead zones are human activities (fertilizers, livestock farming, burning fossil fuels).

The chemistry goes like this:

  • As dissolved oxygen levels decline in ocean waters, N2O production occurs.
  • In healthy well-oxygenated waters, microbes produce N2O at low rates.
  • But as oxygen concentrations decrease to the point of hypoxic levels, N2O production takes off.

When suboxic (little or no oxygen) waters occur at depths of less than 300 feet, the combination of high microbial respiration rates, plus a process called denitrification, can drive N2O production rates 10,000 times higher than average for the open ocean. Because the ocean is a net producer of N20, much of it will be lost to the atmosphere, driving up the climate impact. The future of marine N2O production depends critically on what will happen to the roughly 10 percent of the ocean volume that's currently hypoxic and suboxic:

"Nitrous oxide data from many coastal zones that contain low oxygen waters are sparse, including Chesapeake Bay," says Codispoti. "We should intensify our observations of the relationship between low oxygen concentrations and nitrous oxide in coastal waters."
 

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Americans More Confused About Climate Than Ever

| Thu Mar. 11, 2010 11:50 AM EST

How effective has the resurgence of the climate denial machine been? Look no farther than the latest Gallup poll on American attitudes on global warming, which found significant declines in public concern about the topic.

Forty-eight percent of Americans now believe that the "seriousness of global warming is generally exaggerated," up from 41 percent last year and 31 percent in 1997. "[T]he percentage of Americans who now say reports of global warming are generally exaggerated is by a significant margin the highest such reading in the 13-year history of asking the question," Gallup notes.

The majority of Americans still believe that global warming is happening, and 53 percent say the effects of the problem have already begun or will do so in a few years. But the number of people who think climate change is caused by human activity has dropped – from 61 percent in 2003 to 50 percent today. The percentage of people who believe that global warming is “going to affect them or their way of life in their lifetimes” has dropped to 32 percent, down from 40 percent in 2008.

The results clearly show the American public's skewed perception of climate science, thanks in large part to the "scandals" generated in recent months by climate skeptics. Now, only about half of Americans say that "most scientists believe that global warming is occurring," a drop from 65 percent in recent years. A full 36 percent of Americans think that scientists are "unsure about global warming," and another 10 percent say that most scientists believe global warming isn't occurring. In reality, the consensus is pretty darn clear among climate experts.

I’m not going to get too bent out of shape about this new poll, as Americans have been confused about climate for a quite a while, and at the same time, they’ve grown more supportive of efforts to address it. But this one is a good reminder of how much havoc the skeptics have wreaked in a very short time.

Is a Hybrid Climate Bill Good Enough?

| Thu Mar. 11, 2010 11:29 AM EST

Senators John Kerry, Lindsey Graham, and Joe Lieberman have said they are ditching cap and trade and instead looking to cut emissions using a "hybrid" approach – a cap on carbon generated by electric utilities, limited trading of pollution permits, and perhaps even a carbon fee on fuels. Details remain scant, but it's clear that they believe that cap and trade is so politically unpalatable at this point that they need to throw it out. But let's set the politics aside for a moment. Can senators defend their plan's environmental goals, if the mission is to cut carbon pollution and create jobs in clean energy? The answer seems to be no, at least according to Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Speaking at the Progressive Media Summit on the Hill on Wednesday, Boxer maintained the bill she wrote with Kerry that passed out of her committee last November--which looks a lot like the Waxman-Markey bill passed by the House--is the "gold standard" for climate legislation. "I'm for my bill all the way," said Boxer. "That's the best way, an economy-wide bill." Politically though, she acknowledged that her bill doesn't stand a snowball's chance in a warming planet of passing in 2010, hence the desire to pass a bill with much lower ambitions. "I'm not going to make an argument that the other approach is better," said Boxer. But, she added, "Is it better than doing nothing? Absolutely."

David Roberts has a great post on Grist about the many silly things senators have said about the possible future proposal from the three senators. All the chatter from senators focuses on vague disapproval of an economy-wide cap and trade program but no actual articulation of why their as-yet-undefined alternative is better. Because, frankly, if the goal of a bill is to reduce planet-warming gases, it's not. The hybrid they've talked about would only cut emissions in some sectors, leaving others untouched, and is likely to include even more sweeters for dirty energy interests like oil and coal. And even if the mission is also to create jobs -- which Democratic leaders have repeatedly emphasized should be the goal -- a strong, economy wide cap with complementary policies like a renewable electricity standard are the best way to unlock that potential.

At least Boxer admits that the only appeal of the hybrid approach is political. "Do I support their efforts? Yes," she said of the work of Kerry, Graham, and Lieberman. "Would I rather have my bill? Yes."

Peak Oil in 4 Years?

| Wed Mar. 10, 2010 7:06 PM EST

A new model predicts peak oil—the point where global oil production reaches a maximum and then declines—as early as 2014. Other models predict 2020 or later.

The new model is a more sophisticated version of the 1956 Hubbert model that accurately predicted peak oil in the US in 1970. That forecast was considered extremely pessimistic at the time. The new multicyclic model incorporates the complexities of oil production in other countries heavily influenced by fluctuating ecological, economical, technological, and political factors.

Evaluating the oil production trends of the 47 major oil-producing countries that supply most of the world's conventional crude oil, the researchers accelerated the forecast for peak oil to 2014, and showed that global oil reserves are being depleted by 2.1 percent a year. The authors suggest their new model could help speed efforts to conserve oil and intensify the search for alternative fuel sources:

"Even though it is inevitable to preclude the possibility of minor inaccurate forecasting results, still it is of paramount importance that the forecast be conducted. Without the forecast, a valid decision or public policy debate on a national or global scale cannot be made."

Their paper is available open access at ACS Publication's Energy & Fuels.
 

Introducing the Climate Desk

| Wed Mar. 10, 2010 4:09 PM EST

Starting today, Mother Jones and a notable group of news outlets are launching the Climate Desk, an unprecedented effort to cooperate on coverage of climate change. We’re working with the Center for Investigative Reporting, Grist, The Nation Institute, Slate, The Atlantic, Wired, and WNET on this project, which we describe as "a journalistic collaboration dedicated to exploring the impact—human, environmental, economic, political—of a changing climate."As global warming is the biggest challenge of our time, we thought it only appropriate that we pool our resources to explain and explore how the world is adjusting to this new reality.

Reuters.com blogger Felix Salmon has an excellent post kicking off our collaboration. He’ll be looking at how—or whether—corporations are moving to address the risks they face from climate change. I’ll be covering the politics and policy from Washington, DC, and Kevin Drum will also be weighing in on his blog. We’d love story ideas and tips, so please send them to scoop@motherjones.com or drop us a note in the comments below. And stay tuned for more on our new project!