Blue Marble - October 2010

Are Americans Climate Dummies?

| Tue Oct. 19, 2010 9:12 AM EDT

First, the good news: the majority of Americans understand that global warming is happening. That means that, despite all the attacks on climate science in the past year, the number of US citizens who recognize this problem has pretty much held firm. About half of those surveyed by researchers at Yale University recognized that human activity is causing the planet to heat up.

But that's not because Americans are particularly well-informed about climate science—or science in general, it seems. The same study found that 63 percent believe that global warming is happening. But a smaller percentage—57 percent—knows what the greenhouse effect is. An even smaller segment, 43 percent, made the connection between the build up of carbon dioxide and the greenhouse effect.

It gets more frightening. Via CBC News:

The poll reveals that almost half of Americans—49 per cent—incorrectly believe that the space program contributes to global warming, and that the hole in the ozone layer, toxic wastes, aerosol spray cans, volcanic eruptions, the sun and acid rain also play a role.

I guess there was one redeeming factor for our citizenry polled here: they'd like to know more. Three-quarters of respondents said they would like more information about the subject and that it should be taught in schools. Probably a good idea.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Could Clean Cookstoves Save Lives and Help Clear the Air?

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 5:55 PM EDT

Imagine if the global distribution of one household necessity could save lives, enable livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change. With Hillary Clinton's recent announcement of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, international leaders, organizations, governments and corporations are joining forces to offer a solution to the problem of smoke emissions from cooking devices in developing countries. This smoke also releases carbon dioxide, methane and black carbon into the atmosphere. Each of these components has been identified as a contributing factor to climate change.

Need to Know's Alison Stewart learned more about the $60 million initiative from Jacob Moss, a senior adviser in the office of air and radiation at the United States Environmental Protection Agency.

Subscribe to this podcast on iTunes.

This podcast was produced by Need to Know as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Science Shots: How Not to Decorate your Wind Turbine; and More

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 3:42 PM EDT

An idiosyncratic sampling of the latest science papers. Forthwith: Oil and ducks don't mix (at least for 25 years); Globalism is bad for the global economy; What color should we paint the wind turbine, honey? Plus, bonus autumn photos.

  • A long-term study of the effects of the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill on harlequin ducks supports a growing consensus that the cumulative mortality associated with chronic exposure to residual oil may exceed the acute mortality in the days and weeks immediately following a spill. Directly after the Exxon Valdez disaster, harlequin duck numbers declined 25 percent in oiled areas, survival rates remained depressed 6 to 9 years afterward, and did not match survival rates from unoiled areas for at least 11 to 14 years. The researchers project a timeline to complete recovery of 24 years, with a range of 16 to 32 years for best- and worst-case scenarios. The harlequin duck study is one of the most thorough considerations of the consequences of a major oil spill ever undertaken. The paper: Harlequin Duck population injury and recovery dynamics following the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. Ecological Applications. 20:1993–2006. DOI:10.1890/09-1398.1Harlequin duck. Credit: Dick Daniels, carolinabirds.org, courtesy Wikimedia CommonsHarlequin duck. Credit: Dick Daniels, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
  • Today's globalization makes the world economy more sensitive to recession and more resistant to recovery from recession than it was 40 years ago. A team of physicists analyzed UN trade data of the past 40 years. Using evolutionary theory, they predicted an increasingly sluggish response to recession as trade globalization grew. Their model also accurately predicted an increase in the hierarchical structure of the global trade network for a few years following a recession. The trend held true for three major recessions and four minor ones over the past four decades. The paper: Structure and response in the world trade network. Physical Review Letters. In press.

Credit: Dorothea Lange, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Dorothea Lange, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • Wind turbines might be good for tackling climate change, but they exacerbate the other major global change underwaythe loss of biodiversity—since turbines kill wildlife, notably birds and bats. Now a team of researchers has  assessed whether or not the color of the turbines attracts insects, and therefore insectivorous birds and bats. The common turbine colors 'pure white' (RAL 9010) and 'light grey' (RAL 7035) were among those found to attract significantly more insects than other colors tested. So, change the color, power down the lethal factor? Seems worth a try. The paper: Insect attraction to wind turbines: does colour play a role? European Journal of Wildlife Research. DOI: 10.1007/s10344-010-0432-7.

Wind turbine. Photo courtesy Wikimedia CommonsWind turbine. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

  • Plus, summer turned to brilliant autumn in only five days in the Allegheny Mountains last week. According to Holli Riebeek, who captioned the Earth Observatory page:

    Fall color typically peaks in mid-October as leaves gradually lose chlorophyll during the lengthening fall nights. Chlorophyll colors leaves green, so as the concentration of the pigment fades, so too does the leaves' green color. Other pigments—carotenoids (yellow, orange, and brown) and anthocyanins (red and purple)—can then show their colors.

    Here's how it looked from space, as green forests with a hint of orange (first image) turned pure orange (second image) five days later:

Mountains and highlands of northern Pennsylvania, 8 October 2010. Credit: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC. Caption by Holli Riebeek.Mountains and highlands of northern Pennsylvania, 8 October 2010. Credit: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

Mountains and highlands of northern Pennsylvania, 13 October 2010. Credit: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.Mountains and highlands of northern Pennsylvania, 13 October 2010. Credit: NASA images courtesy Jeff Schmaltz, MODIS Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC.

Condoms, Porn, and HIV

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 2:07 PM EDT

An adult-film performer tested positive for HIV last week, leading several production companies in Los Angeles County to halt filming indefinitely to contain a potential outbreak, the Los Angeles Times reports. The news is rattling a multi-billion dollar industry that routinely tests performers for the virus but does not require them to wear condoms. And therein lies the problem, says Michael Weinstein, president of AIDS Healthcare Foundation. The medical provider filed a lawsuit against LA County's Department of Public Health last year to force it to mandate condom use in the porn industry. The foundation lost that case, but it's appealing. "In any other job, we require companies to protect their workers even if it costs more money for the employers," Weinstein told me over the phone. "Why should the porn industry be any different?"

25 percent of all female porn performers were reinfected within one year.

The main argument made by actors, directors, and producers against requiring condoms in porn is viewers don’t want to see them so it'll hurt sales. Vivid Entertainment founder Steven Hirsch told LA Weekly in January that when Vivid went "condom-only," between 1998 and 2006, it saw a 10 to 20 percent drop in revenues. Then last week, Vivid suspended all film production due to one HIV-positive performer. I emailed Hirsch to ask him how much money his studio anticipates losing during the hiatus, but he has yet to reply.*

The gender and work history of the HIV positive performer, and the date when the test came back positive, have yet to be released by the Adult Industry Medical Healthcare Foundation, a nonprofit that offers medical services to sex workers. But rumor has it the perfomer is a man who's worked in both straight and gay porn; those potentially infected could be in the hundreds. An estimated (PDF) 2,000 to 3,000 porn performers work in the San Fernando Valley—the porn capital of the United States—starring in the more than 10,000 adult films made there yearly.

Cameron Gives $1 Million to Protect California's Climate Law

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 12:51 PM EDT

Two stories I've been tracking collided today, as Avatar director James Cameron (interviewed here) donated $1 million to the "No on Proposition 23" campaign in California (detailed here).

The proposition, backed in large part by major oil interests from out of state, seeks to delay the implementation of California's landmark climate change law indefinitely. The Los Angeles Times reports:

Cameron, who has previously embraced such environmental causes as saving the Amazon and battling Canadian tar sands development, is the first entertainment industry figure to make a major donation in the initiative fight. However, another player with deep Hollywood ties, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, held a fundraiser at his home in Brentwood last month to raise money to fight the measure, which he sees as a threat to his legacy of promoting clean energy.

"Mr. Cameron is not only a filmmaker with a conscience," said No on Prop. 23 spokesman Steve Maviglio, "he is willing to put his money where his mouth is when it comes to a fight for California jobs and our clean energy future."

Environmental groups have poured money into the campaign, growing its coffers to $20 million in the past weeks. Money has also come from clean-tech executives and other wealthy greenies, but this is the biggest check from one person so far. The "No" campaign now has a sizable lead on the oil and gas companies that have been working to defeat California's landmark climate law. The side that wants to put the climate law on hold has just $9 million in the bank.

So far, the vote is looking good for those who want to maintain California's forward momentum on climate. With a little more than three weeks to go, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found 46 percent of likely voters plan to vote "No" on Prop. 23. Thirty-five percent of the state wants to put the climate law on hold, and another 19 percent still aren't sure how to vote.

What's Greener: A Refurbed Laptop or a New One?

| Mon Oct. 18, 2010 4:30 AM EDT

My last laptop lived till the ripe old age of six, but toward the end of its life, it went downhill fast. It took its sweet time to complete even the simplest of tasks. I developed a nervous tic of saving my blog posts every two or three minutes, since I never knew when my browser would freeze or suddenly quit. And since its battery was only good for about five minutes, my laptop was basically a desktop with a tiny screen. I considered replacing it with a refurbished model, but in the end I was seduced by a brand new laptop that I figured could probably do more tricks than a used one. Besides, I had heard that newer models were actually better for the environment, since they used energy more efficiently than older models.

I'm not the only one who prefers shinily new over gently used. According to a survey by Resource Recycling, a company that publishes industry news for recycling businesses, consumer sales of refurbished electronics have dropped in recent years, since retailers are "flooding the consumer electronics market with new devices that are comparable in price to used goods, but are packed with more features." So are newer computers really a better deal than refurbished models in the long run? And which kind is better for the planet?

Environmentally speaking, refurbished computers are the clear winners. "An astonishing amount of resources go into making these products," says Barbara Kyle, the national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. According to a 2003 UN study (pdf), the manufacture of one desktop computer requires 48 pounds of chemicals, 1.7 tons of water, and 529 pounds of fossil fuels—about 10 times the weight of the computer itself. (By comparison, new refrigerators and cars require roughly their own weight in fossil fuels.) "The more we can reuse old products, the fewer new resources need to be extracted," says Kyle. And the less we add to the world's pile of e-waste, which is giant and growing bigger every day.

What's more, even though newer computers use energy more efficiently than older models, it's not the energy use by the consumer that's the main problem. A 2004 UN study (pdf) found that about four-fifths of the total energy consumed over a desktop computer's lifetime is used during production of the computer—and only one-fifth was consumed during its use.

Buying a refurbished computer also makes financial sense. Though prices of professionally refurbished computers vary widely depending on hardware age, software packages, and warranties, you can often find deals for as little as half the price of a brand new machine, and in many cases refurbished models will last just as long as new ones, says Willie Cade, the CEO of PC Rebuilders and Recyclers, a computer refurbishing company. (For specifics on various brands and price comparisons, check out this excellent Gizmodo post on the topic.) Cade and his team recently outfitted desktop PCs from 2001 with the latest software, then had college students use both the refurbished computers and brand new ones in a blind test (the monitors were identical). Thirty-six percent of the students couldn't tell the difference between the old computers and the new.

If you do choose a new computer, you can extend its life by cleaning up its software when it starts to get slow. People keep their new computers for an average of 2.5 years, but the majority of them can last a whole lot longer if you upgrade the software. "People often think computers slow down after a year or two," says Cade. "But that's usually a problem with the software—either there's too much of it or it's not working efficiently. If you refresh or clean up the software, it will usually get quicker." According to Cade, as a general rule of thumb, if you refresh your computer's software after its second birthday (which will usually run you a few hundred bucks), you can extend its life for three years if it's a laptop, and five or six if it's a desktop.

What you should look for if you're buying a refurbished computer: Make sure the software is legally licensed and genuine—that way you'll be able to get the necessary updates. Ideally, your refurbished laptop should come with a three-year warranty and a tech help phone number. "Someone that says 30 days—run away," says Cade. Make sure your refurbisher is registered and/or authorized: In the Microsoft world, that means being a member of the Microsoft Refurbisher Program

If you're getting rid of your old computer, make sure you do it responsibly. Chances are it can be fixed and sold or donated to someone else: The refurbishing company Gazelle.com pays cash for used computers and gadgets. PC Rebuilders and Recyclers will sell your spiffed-up computer to a needy school or organization for about a third of the cost of new. Most manufacturers will take back your used electronics; the recycling information group Earth911 has a good guide to those programs, plus a list of organizations that accept donations of old computers, here. The EPA has more resources here.

Special thanks to the folks at the Story of Stuff Project, who helped me research this post. Can't wait for the new Story of Electronics, out November 9!

Got a burning eco-quandary? Submit it to econundrums@motherjones.com. Get all your green questions answered by signing up for our weekly Econundrums newsletter here.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

America's Paltry Energy R&D Spending

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 8:48 AM EDT

Included in the Center for American Progress' new report on the massive amount of money oil companies are spending on research at universities in the US are some shocking figures about how little federal money is going to energy research and development.

US spending on energy research peaked in 1979, at $9 billion. Since then, it's declined significantly, to an average of just $3.6 billion per year from 1993 to 2006. This is more concerning when you see that spending compared to federal R&D outlays for defense, general science, or health. See this chart below. The tiny black area is US spending on energy R&D:

Eco-News Roundup: Friday October 15

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 6:16 AM EDT

Health and environmental news from our other blogs.

Corn Ethanol FTW: US ups percentage of corn ethanol allowed in fuel blends.

Bucking a Trend: Candidate Ken Buck's talk with a rape victim sets him back.

Mama Grizzlies: Despite talk of mama grizzlies, women will lose seats in Congress this fall.

Taking Aim: W.Va. candidate's ad takes aim at climate bill... literally.

Shocking Treatment: A school's punitive electric shocks may be on their way out.

Read Up: Increase your Burma awareness this weekend.

 

Big Oil U

| Fri Oct. 15, 2010 5:00 AM EDT

It's no secret that Big Oil weilds a lot of power in Washington. But oil giants are also spending big on campus, too—to the tune of $880 million. The liberal think-tank Center for American Progress released a new report on Thursday looking at the funding oil companies are lobbing at universities. In the past decade, oil companies gave millions to support energy research at ten of the top American universities—producing "potentially compromised" research, the group argues.

Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, Royal Dutch Shell, and ExxonMobil have all made sizable grants to universities to underwrite energy research. The funds from these private corporations are filling gaps left by declining public investment, but they could also be tainting research, the report's author says. "Our analysis found that Big Oil and other large energy firms are exercising quite a bit of influence and control over these universities' operations," said Jennifer Washburn, a researcher hired to conduct the report. The concern is that the research has been "hijacked or excessively controlled by" these companies.

The report looked at grants awarded to Arizona State University, UC Berkeley, Stanford, UC Davis, the Colorado School of Mines, the University of Colorado at Boulder, Colorado State University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Iowa State University, Texas A&M University, the University of Texas at Austin, and Rice University. Washburn and fellow researchers found that, in many cases, the companies got a major say in who sat on the boards allocating the money, did little to avoid conflicts of interest, and often were allowed to determine what information was released, and where. In many cases, the contracts the universities signed with the companies ceded quite a bit of control to the funders from the oil industry.

Washburn concludes that the study indicates that "the balance between Big Oil’s commercial interests and the university’s commitment to independent academic research, high-quality science, and academic freedom seems to have tilted in favor of Big Oil."

The major findings:

Big Oil disregarded peer review. None of the 10 research alliance agreements required impartial, scientific peer review procedures for the evaluation of research proposals or awarding of funding.
Big Oil assumed control of academic governing bodies. Most universities surrendered control of the governing bodies charged with directing the academic research alliance, leaving academic self-governance insecure. Several of the contracts allowed for full governing control by oil industry sponsors.
Big Oil managed research proposal selection. In these contracts, most of the universities allowed oil industry sponsors to control the evaluation and selection of faculty research proposals. Failure to address conflicts of interest: Not one of the 10 Big Oil agreements called for regulation of financial conflicts of interest on university research selection committees and governing boards.
Big Oil monopolized the results of academic research. Most of the 10 research alliance agreements granted oil industry sponsors up-front, exclusive commercial rights to academic findings, with only weak protections for faculty to share data and results with other academic institutions, though there were notable exceptions. Several alliance agreements permitted exceptionally long publication delays.

This is problematic, as it means much of the energy research and development is now guided by companies that have quite a conflict of interests. One well-known example the report cites is BP's $500 million grant to the Energy Biosciences Institute at UC Berkeley, which drew attention when the man key to sealing the deal, Steven Chu, was tapped to serve as the Secretary of Energy. The institute is primarily dedicated to researching biofuels, a focus that could be the result of a bias on the part of BP. After all, it's a company that has invested billions in infrastructure centered on liquid fuels. Oil companies in general tend toward research into biofuels, to the exclusion of other alternative energy technologies.

But it's often difficult for cash-strapped schools to turn down major funding. It doesn't help that government spending on energy research and development is drying up; between 1993 and 2006, federal spending on all energy-related R&D averaged just $3.6 billion per year, which is 60 percent less than it was in 1979.

Flickr IDs Longest Whale Migration Ever

| Thu Oct. 14, 2010 8:30 PM EDT

Flickr is now so expansive, or whale tours so ubiquitous, that together they're actually turning up usable wildlife data. Using pictures on Flickr taken by a Norwegian tourist, scientists found that a female humpback whale traveled nearly 6,100 miles while migrating, from Brazil to Madagascar, the longest migration ever recorded by a whale or any non-human animal.

The scientists were able to tell the whale, seen in 1999 and 2001, was the same one because of its unique tail markings. When whales breach, they often lift their tail (called a fluke) out of the water. These flukes are so particular to each individual animal that scientists can often identify tagged whales simply by viewing a picture of its tail. This particular whale's migration pattern was different than has previously been observed, and astonishingly long, beating out the past record for longest migration by 2,000 miles. Peter Stevick, a former member of the College of the Atlantic's Allied Whale told Biology Letters, "While the journey of this one whale is extreme, her example shows us that we should pay attention; whales may not always do what we expect, or remain in tidy groups."