Blue Marble - February 2011

Today in GOP Climate Denial ...

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 3:07 PM EST

Denying climate change is de rigueur among members of the House Republican caucus. Rarely, though, do you see elected officials engaging in public debates on the science with a scientific organization. But that was exactly what has transpired as Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) has taken on the Union of Concerned Scientists in a Twitter war over climate change.

Not that it's particularly surprising. This is a guy who has argued in a congressional hearing that global warming might have been caused by dinosaur farts.

Here's the full exchange:

.@danarohrabacher calls #climate change "natural." There are multiple lines of evidence human activity drives it http://goo.gl/WZsdq #hcsst
@UCSUSA Guess ancient climate cycles, like current one on Mars,which mirrors changes on earth, not product of sun but of human activity
.@danarohrabacher Human warming=fact http://goo.gl/TEAhMMars warming=myth http://goo.gl/jvBD3 Sun outputs don't=warminghttp://goo.gl/LC0TY
@UCSUSA your answer deceptive: talks Mars warming. Issue is Earth and Mars icecaps shrinking at same time. Coincidence or Solar impact?
@danarohrabacher That's a red herring about the Red Planethttp://goo.gl/GSq6g Burying your head in the Martian sands puts us all at risk
@UCSUSA U ignore issue: incredible coincidence or solar? Whose head in sand? Read e-mails, U trust your source. Warming has become change
@danarohrabacher You don't want to understand. Denier talking points aren't science. Skepticalscience.com covers all this.
@danarohrabacher CA-46 is preparing for climate change. Long Beach sees water supply impact.http://goo.gl/rQQE1 Denial doesn't help.

Here's a quick run down of why his arguments—that global warming is caused by the sun, the climate's changed before, and that Mars is also warming—are all bunk.

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Jamba Juice's Mysterious "Dairy Base"

| Mon Feb. 28, 2011 5:30 AM EST
What do they really put in commercial smoothies?

Last week in the New York Times, Mark Bittman scolded McDonald's for turning something as inherently healthy as oatmeal into additive-laden junk food. This got me thinking about another "natural" item that fast-food chains have desecrated: the smoothie. I can make my own relatively low-calorie smoothie with three ingredients (fruit, ice, and skim milk) in my home blender. And yet fast food chains have somehow managed to mess up this simple task.

The bulletin board at the Jamba Juice near MoJo HQ welcomes customers with a colorful, friendly sign that reads, "We commit to bring you consistently great-tasting products made from simple, honest ingredients." The Jamba Juice website highlights its "natural energy from nutritious ingredients." Yet it's actually impossible to get a smoothie made with a base of plain old real milk: Only soy milk can be substituted for the frozen yogurt and sherbet in the "classic" smoothies, and the light smoothies are all made with a mysterious "dairy base" that contains the artificial sweetener Splenda.

"They Were Purposefully Trying to Deceive Everyone"

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 3:27 PM EST

As BP's well gushed into the Gulf of Mexico last year, the question of exactly how much oil it was spewing was hotly contested. BP first estimated that only 1,000 barrels of oil were leaking from the well each day; only months later would a team of scientists organized by the federal government conclude that it was actually more like 53,000 barrels per day.

It wasn't that BP couldn't come up with a better figure even in the early days of the spill. In fact, in 2008 the company had touted its advanced technology for measuring flow rate. And in an interview with Project Gulf Impact posted today, Dr. Ira Leifer, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California-Santa Barbara, explains how BP misled the scientists they tapped to produce flow rate estimates.

"The data we had was abdominable," says Leifer, describing footage that they were supposed to use to estimate the flow rate as "worse than the quality you typically see on YouTube." Rather than giving them the original footage of the spill site to evaluate, it appeared as if BP had taken a video of a computer monitor showing the actually footage and given them the blurry, jerky copy. "They were purposefully trying to deceive everyone," says Leifer.

Here's the full video:

Maine "Little Beards" Gov LePage Hired Pro-BPA Lobbyists

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 2:10 PM EST

Earlier this week I blogged about Maine governor Paul LePage's recent weird comments about the chemical BPA. "The only thing that I've heard is if you take a plastic bottle and put it in the microwave and you heat it up, it gives off a chemical similar to estrogen," remarked LePage, scientifically. "So the worst case is some women may have little beards." Uh-huh.

Tempting though it may be to blame a comment this embarrassing on temprorary insanity, a great piece in the Boston Phoenix suggests otherwise. Turns out LePage has hired some lobbyists for out-of-state drug and toy industry groups to help him form his opinions on environmental and kid-safety legislation.

Shortly after he was elected last year, LePage released a "wish-list" of environmental and health regulations he hoped to roll back. LePage said the ideas in the document came from small business owners in Maine. But it turns out that the wish list was actually the work of Ann Robinson, head of the corporate lobbying group Preti Flaherty Beliveau & Pachios. Robinson's clients have included PhRMA and Merck. Also the Toy Industry Association of America, which fought Maine's proposed BPA ban in baby bottles and sippy cups last year. Robinson served as co-chair of LePage's transition team and is currently his head advisor on regulatory reform.

In addition to Robinson, LePage also hired Patricia Aho, a lobbyist with the law firm Pierce Atwood, as his deputy commissioner of the Department of Environmental Protection.

Robinson and Aho are not exactly unbiased when it comes to regulations:

Lobbying disclosures on file with the state Ethics Commission show both PhRMA and Merck paid Robinson to defeat the KID-SAFE PRODUCTS ACT, a 2008 law that phased out toxic chemicals in toys, car seats, baby clothes, and other children's products. The AMERICAN PETROLEUM INSTITUTE and drug maker ASTRAZENECA paid Aho to do the same. The governor's wish list calls for "revisions to prohibitions of chemicals and materials in products" saying that "if the state is going to regulate consumer products at all, it should only do so when clearly justified on risk-benefit or cost benefit basis." 

Meanwhile, the Lewiston Sun-Journal reports on questions surrounding LePage's recent dismissal of Dr. Dora Anne Mills, the former the head of the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention who testified last year that BPA should be banned from kids' products. A spokesman for LePage insists that her firing wasn't because of her support for the BPA ban, but, understandably, some people are not convinced.

For more on LePage's efforts to undo decades of environmental legislation (including his attempt at making sure corporations don't have to go to the trouble of recycling) read the full pieces in the Boston Phoenix and the Lewiston Sun-Journal.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday February 25

| Fri Feb. 25, 2011 7:52 AM EST

News on health, the environment, and energy from our other blogs.

Va. is for... Lovers?: Anti-abortion forces in Va. win a victory over clinics.

Bad Jokes: Florida mayoral candidate yukks it up over bombing abortion clinics.

Midwest Melee: Iowa is the latest state to propose legalizing murder of abortion doctors.

Loophole: Some poor families' varying incomes may hinder government assistance.

Cost of Care: As GDP goes up, we can expect rise in health care spending too.

High Cost: Oil companies are still exempted from royalties they should be paying.

Long Wait: Bill in South Dakota mandates 72-hour wait for abortions.

GOP #Fail: GOP blocks creation of children's product safety commission.

Vote Right: Gov. Scott Walker's voting history reads like a pro-life handbook.

Gone Too Soon: New film looks into increasing suicide, depression in kids.

 

 

 

Science Shots: Science in Politics, Egypt, the Gulf—plus Bats!

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 4:30 PM EST

This issue of Science Shots comes entirely from today's issue of Science, filled with unusually juicy research and articles, at least to my taste. Here's a sampling.

In Letters, a thoughtful argument from Andrew D. Leavitt, of UCSF's Department of Laboratory Medicine, on why we need scientists to run for political office:

[I]n addition to improved science education, our society needs people trained in the scientific process and scientific thinking to serve in the political arena, not just as advisers, but as the actual policy-makers at the local, state, and federal level. This can only happen if the scientific community supports such career ambitions. As Carl Sagan said, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge."



From last weeks' AAAS meeting, Samantha Joye of the U of Georgia reported on BP's not-so-missing methane. Half a million tons of methane and other gases escaped from the Deepwater Horizon. Others have reported it gone. Joye's as-yet unpublished findings indicate the microbes worked hard—but not for long. The microbial breakdown, which had been 60,000 times higher than normal to the southwest of the well, fell to 300 times the background rate 6 weeks after the blowout, despite plenty of dissolved methane in the water:

Joye speculated that the microbes ran out of another nutrient, which would have prevented them from metabolizing more methane. She also reported that her team detected far more methane than expected to the northeast of the well in late summer, after it had been capped. "It looks like there's a significant amount of gas in the ecosystem," and it's spread across a larger area, she said.

 

Photo: US Coast GuardPhoto: US Coast Guard


"Cairo writes, Beirut prints, Baghdad reads," goes an Middle Eastern old saying. So will Egypt's revolution allow for a rebirth of science? asks Andrew Lawler:

As the country's universities prepare to reopen... Egyptian and foreign researchers see an opportunity to elevate science, if decades of neglect and corruption can be overcome... The statistics are daunting. According to the United Nations and the World Bank, Egypt spends less than a quarter of 1% of its gross domestic product on private and public R&D combined. In contrast, its neighbor Israel devotes 5% of its domestic product to R&D, and even Tunisia invests 1%, the highest percentage of any Arab country... Whether European and U.S. governments will assist in modernizing Egypt's antiquated R&D system remains unclear... Some worry that under a new government, religious conservatives could limit science or the public role of women. But many in Egypt dismiss such concerns. [Karimat] El Sayed, one of the most prominent women scientists in the country, says: "People here don't want to be ruled by an Islamist government. And women here in the past 10 to 15 years have taken on many managerial roles." The larger concern, says [Mahmoud] Saleh [a Cairo University chemist], is rooting out members of an old regime who blocked progress.

 

Photo: Jonathan Rashad, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.Photo: Jonathan Rashad, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


Also from the AAAS meeting (wish I'd been there), Winifred Frick of UCSC reported on her use of increasingly-available radar data to study bat behavior and ecology—specifically, to study Brazilian free-tailed bats common in the south-central US and in Mexico. Elizabeth Pennisi writes:

Frick and her colleagues described a new Web portal, called Surveillance Of Aeroecology using weather Radar (http://soar.ou.edu/), a collaboration between the University of Oklahoma and the [National Severe Storm Laboratory in Norman, Oklahoma]. It makes using those data much easier for biologists. Researchers can look at the big picture or zoom into a particular locale. The data are updated every 5 minutes, and all the information is archived. And in the next few years, the NEXRAD radars will be upgraded with equipment that may allow biologists to tell birds, insects, and bats apart, something they can't really do right now. "It's a tool that can be used by lots of people to ask a variety of different questions," says Frick. "It will really open up the field."

Already the weather radar data have revealed to Frick et al that during a dry year the bats risked emerging from their cave earlier in the evening to hunt, and emerged even earlier if the days were also hot. Whereas in a wet year they started to work later. All of this is an effort to balance the risks (from diurnal predators, like hawks, and daytime dehydration) with the benefits (from optimal insect blooms).

The potential of radar-assisted aeroecology comes not a moment too soon, as North American bats face severe threats from white nose syndrome, the mysterious bat disease driving at least 9 species towards extinction. The Center for Biological Diversity reports the fungal infection has appeared in two new states this month. Current thinking is that the fungus, a North America invasive species, may have been unwittingly imported from Europe on the clothing of a single spelunker.

 

 

Finally, incredible thermal infrared video of more than 500,000 Brazilian free-tailed bats emerging to forage at night from New Mexico's Carlsbad Caverns.

The issue:

  • Science. 25 February 2011 vol 331, issue 6020, pages 975-109.

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The Palm Oil PR Offensive Is Gathering Pace—But Not Weight

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EST

This post first appeared on the Guardian website.

Last week, I received an email from the Adam Smith Institute alerting me to a new briefing paper it is publishing this week. The ASI must have known that the title would catch my eye—and indeed it did: "Dispelling the myths: Palm oil and the environmental lobby."

The ASI bills itself as the "one of the world's leading thinktanks" and says that its aim is to "promote free markets, limited government, and an open society". It is known for being one of the chief policy architects of privatisation and the poll tax during the Thatcher era.

With this kind of pedigree, I was intrigued to see what the ASI's views on palm oil might be. I already had an inkling what its views on the "environmental lobby" might be (clue: not positive), but I wasn't aware that it had ever passed judgment on the merits of south-east Asia's highly controversial palm oil plantations.

Urban Homestead™?

| Thu Feb. 24, 2011 6:00 AM EST

Via Change.org's Sustainable Food blog, I just learned that the phrase "urban homestead" (think chickens, canning, and vegetable beds) is no longer up for grabs. A Pasadena-based group called the Dervaes Institute has trademarked it:

In what can only be described as a blatantly capitalistic move, the Dervaes Institute has successfully registered as trademarks such generic terms as "urban homesteading," "freedom garden," and "grow the future." Despite the claim on the Institute's Web site that the Dervaes "believe in giving freely to others," they recently sent out a barrage of letters to Web sites, bloggers, and authors that use these terms, informing them that they are legally required to either attribute these terms to the Dervaes Institute or replace them with supposedly more generic terms like "modern homesteading" or "urban sustainability projects."

Dervaes has forced Oakland's Institute of Urban Homesteading, which offers fascinating-sounding classes on topics like cheesemaking, quail farming, salami making, and coffee-bean roasting, to disable its Facebook page. Another one of the group's targets was a homesteading class at offered at the Santa Monica Public Library.

The weirdest part? Aside from the trademarking shenanigans, the Dervaes Institute seems like a pretty cool organization. The people behind it appear to be a family that decided to grow their own vegetables, and got hooked. Now they maintain a useful blog and website and run workshops geared toward urban homesteader (that's right, I said it!) wannabes.

Anyway, the irony of these folks claiming to have invented, and now own, the concept of self-sufficiency is just too blatant even to comment on. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going out to my backyard where I'm planning to build a chicken coop so I can have some eggs .

 Via OC Weekly.

Polar Bear Cubs Emerge From Hibernation

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 3:25 PM EST

This post courtesy BBC Earth. For more wildlife news, find BBC Earth on Facebook and Posterous.

January and February is a fantastic time of year for new life all over the world! And activity in the Arctic is of no exception, even though the freezing temperatures may have you thinking differently. Surviving and succeeding in the most extreme elements, the polar bear is one of nature's great fighters. And it starts from day one.

Born in the darkness of December, within the mountainous areas of the Arctic Circle, the first few weeks of these cubs' life would be fraught with danger if it wasn't for one thing: the dedication of their mother.

After consuming huge amounts of food (almost doubling their body weight!) in preparation for hibernation, the female polar bear will first wait for the sea ice to break up. Then in the snow drifts near the coastal waters, will go about making her den that will be her resting place for the next three to four months.

Resting in their deep warm nesting place, the polar bear mother will usually give birth to a pair of cubs. Born blind and deaf, these vulnerable bears take several weeks to develop even the basic abilities of seeing, hearing, smelling and walking. However with the dens insulation and their mother's fur and fatty milk, they'll be off to a fighting start in no time. And when the time does come, how exciting it is!

With the cubs weighing about 25 pounds and with the right weather conditions, the polar bear mother will break the den. Heading out on her own initially, mum will enjoy the shining sun, open space and fresh snow that she has been without throughout this entire process. And then it's time for the cubs.

 

Although it's no easy ride! The first breaths of the cold Arctic air and their inexperience of the snowy terrain means they won’t be traveling far a few weeks yet. However mum will continue to nurse them, they will learn communication and socialization skills through play with each other, and then the journey begins down the great slopes... to find their first tasty meal.

TN Legislature May Force Schools to Teach Science "Controversies"

| Wed Feb. 23, 2011 3:18 PM EST

The Tennessee House of Representatives is debating a bill on Wednesday that would push teachers to frame evolution, global warming, and other science topics as controversial in their classrooms, creating the impression that their validity is open for debate.

The measure, introduced earlier this month, requires state and local education systems to "assist teachers to find effective ways to present the science curriculum as it addresses scientific controversies" so that teachers can "help students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught." An identical bill has also been offered in the state Senate.

"The teaching of some scientific subjects, including, but not limited to, biological evolution, the chemical origins of life, global warming, and human cloning, can cause controversy," the bill states. Further, the state will not prohibit any teacher from "helping students understand, analyze, critique, and review in an objective manner the scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses of existing scientific theories covered in the course being taught."

It's not clear what the efforts to "assist" teachers in framing science as controversial would mean; it would probably depend largely on the school district. But the second part of the bill would make it entirely permissible for educators to teach whatever they want to kids about these subjects as long as they frame it as "science" and somehow relevant to the "controversy." And the bill doesn't limit this to just the "controversies" it lists explicitly. The intent of course is clear—compelling teachers to include creationist or climate-change denying materials alongside of actual scientific lessons.

As Julia Whitty wrote here last month, the most recent national survey of high school biology teachers found that only 28 percent consistently teach evolutionary biology. A full 13 percent already explicitly include creationism or intelligent design in their classes. The majority—60 percent—are cautious about even broaching the subject. As a result, nearly three-quarters of American students are in classrooms where information about evolution is "absent, cursory, or fraught with misinformation." The fear of controversy is enough to scare them away from the topic already.

It's the cautious group of teachers that the kind of state-level law proposed in Tennessee would most affect, said Joshua Rosenau, programs and policy director at the National Center for Science Education, a group that defends the teaching of evolution in the classroom. "For those folks, they're looking for a way out," said Rosenau. "They don't want to advocate for anything and they don't want to be seen as taking sides." And as a result, students don't learn even the basics about evolution in many public schools.

Five other state legislatures have presented anti-evolution bills already this year. A bill in New Mexico was tabled earlier this month and another in Oklahoma failed in committee on Tuesday. The Missouri House also has an anti-evolution bill on the table this session. Right now, the only state with this kind of law on the books is Louisiana, which passed a similar measure couched as "academic freedom" in 2008. And as I reported last year, global warming deniers and creationists have been joining forces more often in recent years to force schools to "teach the controversy" on these subjects.