Blue Marble - May 2011

Hasta la Vista, Arnie: Can the Climate Movement Afford to Lose Arnold Schwarzenegger?

| Tue May 24, 2011 2:46 PM EDT

The most prominent Republican voice for climate action is now in the (hound)doghouse. Turns out the Sperminator has been pumping more than iron.

If you're as revolted as I am, you might be tempted to toss the bum permanently overboard—but can we afford to?

At a time when every Republican presidential contender is arguing against climate action, when more than half of the Republicans in Congress question whether climate change is even happening, let alone whether we should do anything about it, Arnold Schwarzenegger has been consistently leading the charge against climate change and for clean energy.

He has long since lost favor with the GOP base—if he ever had it—but Schwarzenegger still commands a huge audience and is much more likely to reach Joe and Jane Six-Pack than are the pip-squeaks holding climate-denying hearings in the House or the milquetoast Democrats opposing them.

While governor of California, Schwarzenegger signed the landmark Global Warming Solutions Act (aka AB 32), laying the groundwork for the nation's first mandatory, statewide cap-and-trade system to go into effect in 2012. Last year, he pushed hard to defeat the oil-industry-funded initiative, Prop 23, that would have repealed that climate law. He fought automakers and the Bush administration for the right to impose tough vehicle emissions standards in California, paving the way for the Obama administration to adopt tougher standards nationally.

Along the way, he's been effective at communicating climate concerns to the masses—not in terms of parts of million, but in terms of macho climate heroes versus girlie-men deniers. Sure, he did dumb stuff like keep a fleet of Hummers and fly daily between L.A. and Sacramento, but all in all, the Governator was a force for green.

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Micronesia Challenges Europe's Dirty Energy

| Tue May 24, 2011 1:00 PM EDT
The Prunéřov Power Station in Bohemia, Czech Republic

The Federated States of Micronesia (FSM), an island nation scattered across the Pacific north of New Guinea, has already had to confront the tides of climate change, which have eaten away at its coasts and left its food and water security in shambles. When leaders in FSM heard that the Czech Republic planned to extend the license on its biggest polluter, the Prunéřov power station, they decided that a coal plant halfway across the world had everything to do with their fragile island country's health. In January of 2010, FSM legally intervened in the extension of the plant by calling for a Transboundary Environmental Impact Assessment, which required the Czech government to take into account the environmental impact upon another territory when deciding whether to approve the project.

Waxman Targets the Koch Brothers

| Mon May 23, 2011 2:32 PM EDT

What do the infamous Koch brothers have to do with the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which, if approved, would run 1,661 miles from Alberta, Canada to Texas, carrying 900,000 barrels of oil from Canada's tar sands to US refineries? TransCanada has requested permission to build the pipeline, but Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) want more information about how project might also benefit the right-wing financiers and their energy conglomerate, Koch Industries. The pair sent a letter ot Republican leadership on the House Energy and Commerce Committee asking them to formally request more information. This comes in response to an article from SolveClimate that indicated that the Kochs could profit big time if the pipeline is approved.

The lawmakers wrote:

Publicly available information indicates that the company is involved in several aspects of Canadian tar sands development. Koch’s Pine Bend Refinery in Minnesota currently processes roughly 25% of the tar sands fuel imports to the United States. Koch owns Flint Hills Resources, LLP, in Calgary, Canada, which is “among Canada’s largest crude oil purchasers, shippers and exporters.” Flint Hills Resources also operates a crude oil terminal in Hardisty, Alberta, where the Keystone XL pipeline will begin. According to the Government of Alberta, Koch Industries has both proposed and producing tar sands projects in the province. The Oil Sands Developers Group also indicates that Koch is a tar sands project developer. Koch’s Corpus Christi refinery is positioned near the end of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and would be a potential buyer for the tar sands crude shipped through the pipeline.

When Democratic staff for the Energy and Commerce Committee recently inquired about Koch Industries' connections to the proposed pipeline, however, the company's representatives told them the firm has "no financial interest" in the project. Waxman and Rush want the committee's Republican leadership to formally ask the company to provide any and all documents relating to the pipeline.

This comes as House Republicans attempt to advance a bill that would expedite the review process for the pipeline, forcing President Obama to make a decision by November 1, 2011. (The text of the bill makes it pretty clear that its authors want that answer to be a "yes.") The House energy and commerce committee is holding a hearing on the legislation today, where TransCanada's president, Alex Pourbaix, will testify.

The State Department recently granted more time for evaluation of the pipeline, as environmental groups, farmers and lawmakers from the region have expressed concerns about its potential environmental impacts. Those fears are justified; TransCanada's current pipeline has been plagued by leaks.

Republicans on the committee and Koch Industries have counter-attacked, with one Republican staffer calling Waxman's request a "transparently political stunt" in a comment to The Hill. Of course, it's no secret that drawing a Kochtopus connection is an easy way to draw attention to a subject. But it shouldn't distract from the many substantial concerns about the pipeline proposal with or without their involvement.

Will Kids Get Lyme Disease If Schools Don't Spray?

| Mon May 23, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Hip, hip, hooray! As of last week, student athletes in New York will no longer have to worry about getting a mouthful of toxic chemicals when they dive for the ball: The state became the second to ban pesticides on school playing fields and playgrounds, following Connecticut, which has had a similar law since 2007. A ban has also been proposed in New Jersey.

The move would seem like a no-brainer, considering the ever-growing pile of evidence that pesticides are harmful to kids. Childhood exposure to the chemicals has been linked to a long list of conditions, including asthma, ADHD, and even cancer. But not everyone thinks school spray bans are a good idea. Some have argued that pesticides are essential tools for preventing tick-borne illnesses like Lyme disease, allergies to bee stings, and other creepy-crawly threats. Here's a spokeswoman for the pesticide industry group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE) in the Hartford Advocate on Connecticut's school pesticide ban:

"It's quite an over-reach," says RISE spokeswoman Karen Reardon. She says the failure to use pesticides on school fields in Connecticut, for example, could lead to "the spread of Lyme disease" by allowing deer ticks to multiply. There can be instances when "pest pressure needs to be knocked down immediately," Reardon says, adding the best way to do that is with the "judicious use" of pesticides.

Environmental health advocates dismiss the tick argument as a pesticide-industry scare tactic. "Whether it's public health crises or those deadly weeds, there's always some emergency that industry touts as the reason to spray pesticides on school grounds," says Paul Towers, state director of the California watchdog group Pesticide Watch. Still, the idea of playing fast and loose with Lyme disease at schools is a bit unsettling. So is there any merit to RISE's claims?

Not really, says Mana Mann, a pediatrician with the Mt. Sinai's Children's Environmental Health Center. "There is no evidence supporting the use of pesticides in the school environment to affect the incidence of Lyme disease." Furthermore, most laws that ban or limit chemical use at schools make exceptions for public health issues. Both New York's and Connecticut's bans fall into this category. "We're not asking anyone to stop controlling ticks," says Paul Tukey, the founder of the environmental health advocacy group Safe Lawns. "We're trying to get people to stop using pesticides to kill dandelions."

Not as easy as it sounds, considering that the $36 billion pesticide industry has devoted significant resources to convincing the public that its wares are keeping them safe. The RISE website Debug the Myths is entirely devoted to defending the reputation of much-maligned pesticides. "We know you can handle the truth," reads one section of the site. "Pesticides help keep our families healthy and our homes happy." This summer, Debug the Myths will go on tour, offering kid-oriented activities like a "What Pest Are You?" quiz. Adults can "write a letter to tell your local government officials about the benefits of the pesticide and fertilizer products you use at home and about those used in your community."

All the PR and lobbying efforts seem to be paying off. In California the Healthy Schools Act of 2011 would have required school districts to adopt stricter rules around pesticide applications. It was weakened in an amendment this month, after lobby groups including RISE and the Western Plant Health Association fought against it. The first version of the bill forbid, for example, the use of known carcinogens and blanket spraying on school grounds; the amended version included neither of these rules. When I spoke to Dominic DiMare, a lobbyist for the Pest Control Operators of California, he said he believed that industry groups played a major role in the amendment.

Earlier this year in Connecticut, environmental groups fought for a bill that would give individual cities and towns more autonomy in limiting pesticide use in lawns and public spaces. But in March, State Rep. Richard Roy (D-Milford) announced that the state senate's Environment Committee had decided not to introduce any new pesticide bills in 2011. Roy told a CT News Junkie that he "made the agreement with the lead pesticide lobbyist to take a year off on pesticides because passage of the law banning pesticides on school grounds was so contentious."

Politically expedient though such deals may be, they're not the best move for kids' health. "Children are especially vulnerable to pesticides because they are still growing and developing," says Mann, the Mt. Sinai pediatrician. "Because research studies have shown a wide range of negative health effects for children from their exposure to pesticides, pesticide use [at schools] should be avoided as much as possible."

Laws about pesticide use at schools vary widely. Many states use some form of integrated pest management, which incorporates non-chemical control methods as well as traditional pesticides, though there's not a lot of consistency in exactly how this is interpreted. If you're curious about policies in your state, check out Beyond Pesticides' guide (PDF).

You're Gonna Need a Bigger Boat

| Fri May 20, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

When I heard about the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, I was at first a little confused. I knew the name from his renown as the writer behind Jaws, which of course became a film that scared the living bejesus out of me as a child. I was not aware, however, that Peter Benchley committed much of his life to environmental activism after the book, specifically to shark conservation.

His fame came largely from his 1972 novel by the same title about a man-eating terror, upon which the infamous film was based. But now, even after his death in 2006, his legacy of calling attention to the misunderstood beasts continues. For the last four years, his wife, Wendy, has dedicated an award in his name that honors work to protect the ocean and its inhabitants in a variety of areas—science, public policy, media. This year's award ceremony is Saturday night here in DC.

I recently spoke to Wendy Benchley, who is also the director of Shark Savers, a non-profit that, as the name implies, is dedicated to saving sharks. I wanted to know more about what inspired the shark love, given that my own thought after watching Jaws wasn't to run out and hug a great white.

"He was just hooked by the power of this beautiful shark," she said, noting that her husband went on to write both fiction and nonfiction about the ocean. "I would certainly say that Jaws is what opened the ocean world to us and allowed us to go and dive, to research, study and educate ourselves about the ocean and do what we could to try to help with the issues."

She continued, "Peter's life mirrors recognition that the ocean is a complicated, vital place, and over last 30 years we've been systematically damaging it."

She notes that while some people may have read Jaws and been terrified (like me), there are also many for whom the book inspired a love of the water. "I would place my best that for every person who was terrified, there were 10, 20, or 100 who were fascinated."

A Strange Love Story from the Deep

| Fri May 20, 2011 6:04 PM EDT

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

In a time full of romance and a royal wedding, BBC Earth looked toward the natural world to find out exactly which animal truly mates for life.

Weirdly enough, it took us to the dark zone of the ocean, more than 3,300 feet below the surface, to find the perfect couple. However, they were not only not what we expected, but were a total surprise to find at all! It was during the filming of the documentary series Blue Planet that the hairy angler was first discovered. Like many deep-sea fish, these creatures were new to science because of the great depths at which they live.

With a mouth full of fang-like teeth, a stomach that can expand to ingest prey twice its size, and a body covered in sensory antennae called neuromasts, you might be scared to learn that this is just the female! But never fear, the male is tenth the size of the female and much less frightening, at lease visually. Without a bright lure like the female, males ability to capture prey is nearly zero. Therefore the male takes on a more parasitic role.

With scarce food and mates, it's essential to the survival of both male and female that the union is made permanent. When the two encounter each other in this inhospitable habitat, the male is quick to take the plunge. Latching onto her underside with his sharp teeth, the male will fuse with the female’s bloodstream where he will remain, providing sperm in return for essential nutrients.

However as time passes, not only will the male lose his eyes and all of his internal organs except his testes, but he could be joined by up to six other males! Watch BBC Earth executive producer Alastair Fothergill describe what he found weirdest about filming this amazing creature.

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The Voice of the Dolphins

| Fri May 20, 2011 3:36 PM EDT

In his newly released book, The Voice of the Dolphins, filmmaker Hardy Jones reports his story of a life spent working with dolphins—working to understand them and working to save them. 

Ultimately, and with a sad irony, this dolphin work proves important to Hardy's own survival. He writes:

 

This memoir covers three phases of my more than thirty years spent among dolphins and other sea creatures: my initial, exhilarating encounter with friendly dolphins; my subsequent discovery that these creatures are mortally threatened by both slaughter and the chemical contamination of our oceans; and, finally, my diagnosis with a form of blood cancer that has clear links to the same chemical toxins that are causing disastrous consequences among dolphins.

 

Like all love stories, Hardy's story with the dolphins—Atlantic spotted dolphins in the Bahamas, spinner dolphins in Hawaii and Tahiti, orca in the Pacific Northwest and Norway, to name a few—is full of beauty, discovery, and wonder. The book resonates with these passages. Here Hardy describes swimming for the first time in the wild with dolphins who did not flee him... a feat even Jacques Cousteau considered impossible in 1978 when Hardy pulled it off.

 

Dolphins raced at me from all directions, their eyes wide and bloodshot with excitement. The sea was a cacophony of breaking waves, my own gasping, yells, outboard motors, and the creaky-door buzzing of dolphin sonar. Whenever I surfaced, I tried to get some idea of how the filming was going, but no one was even remotely coherent. Words tumbled out of ecstatic faces...

I made a surface dive and swam down among a mixed group of juvenile and adult dolphins, blending into their formations, banking and turning in mid-water. It seemed I had no need to breathe, that I’d assumed properties of a dolphin just by being among them. When my air did run out, I clawed my way back to the surface and gasped for breath, often to find a trio of dolphins accompanying me.

 

Atlantic spottAtlantic spotted dolphins. Credit: Bmatulis via Wikimedia Commons.Atlantic spotted dolphins. Credit: Bmatulis via Wikimedia Commons.

 

But like many love stories, Hardy's with the dolphins is also full of pain and sickness. In 1979 he went to Japan to film the slaughter of dolphins. This was the first of many trips to talk, listen, and argue with the fishermen in defense of the dolphins—all done decades before The Cove filmmakers got there.  Hardy writes of being haunted by the two irreconcilable dolphin worlds he'd come to know:

Again and again, especially in early morning hours when I couldn’t sleep, my thoughts returned to the brutal images of dolphins piled on the beaches of Iki... I placed an aerial photograph of the dead dolphins littering the beach at Iki on my desk. Next to that photograph, stood a framed print of two dolphins, looking at me as we swam side by side in the turquoise waters of the little Bahama Bank.  
 

His first film on the dolphin slaughter in Japan was called Island at the Edge—a masterpiece of restrained, elegant reporting. But that was only the beginning. He writes:

 

In the course of my travels to Japan, I’d come to realize that... a major part of the incentive to local fishermen to pursue and kill dolphins is cash put on the table by international dolphin traffickers who come to Taiji to pick out "show-quality" dolphins. They pay enormous amounts, as much as $150,000 for a dolphin trained in Taiji. The service includes trainers who will accompany the locally trained dolphin to its final destination in one of the many dolphinaria in Japan, as well as to China, Korea, French Polynesia, Turkey and Egypt. For dolphins, this must be the equivalent of an alien abduction. The captive dolphins eventually end up in a cement tank performing for fish in aquarium shows and "swim-with-dolphins" programs around the world.

 

Shamu Stadium, SeaWorld. Credit: David Bjorgen via Wikipedia.Shamu Stadium, SeaWorld. Credit: David Bjorgen via Wikipedia.

 

From stories of the brutal dolphin entertainment industry, Hardy was eventually drawn into other problems, including the monumental tragedy of six million dolphins drowned in tuna nets. His film If Dolphins Could Talk helped tip that story in a new direction.

 

When the show hit the air, the results were explosive. The emotional impact of the footage was amplified by a short PSA hosted by George C. Scott that included a 900 number, produced for the show by Stan Minasian of the Marine Mammal Fund. The result was a pile of six thousand telegrams hitting the desk of the chairman of Starkist tuna demanding an end to catching tuna by setting nets on dolphins. Within weeks, Starkist announced that it would no longer accept tuna caught on dolphin. The dolphin-safe label was born and is today overseen by Earth Island Institute and the Marine Mammal Fund. My film synergized with years of hard work by several organizations and was a major conservation victory.

 

Courtesy Hardy Jones.Credit Okeanis, courtesy Hardy Jones.

 

In 2003, Hardy was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a rare blood cancer. A few weeks later, he was offered an exciting film project with the PBS series Nature. The film that would eventually come to define him was called The Dolphin Defender.

 

In follow-up conversations with [PBS], we mapped out the general shape of the film that would be an episodic journey through my career of making films about dolphins. It would combine archival footage shot over a period of several decades with newly shot footage that would fill in gaps in the story and bring it up to date... I hadn’t looked at a lot of that old film for years, and as I started to screen bits and pieces, memories flooded back with a combination of exhilaration, nostalgia, and not a few thoughts of how young I looked. The reaction was, no doubt, intensified by my new-found sense of mortality. 

 

Amazingly, Hardy eventually discovered that his rare disease was not rare in dolphins. Investigating further, he found that places where dolphins were suffering were also myeloma hot-spots for people.

But I'll leave the rest of that amazing chapter of Hardy's story for you to read.

 

Mother and calf bottlenose dolphins. Photo by M. Herko, courtesy NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.Mother and calf bottlenose dolphins. Photo by M. Herko, courtesy NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

There are a lot of old friends in Hardy's book, and many facile sketches of others in that strange realm where dolphins, diving, and filmmaking intersect. I'm there too, because Hardy and I worked together for 20 years making nature documentaries. I shared many of the adventures and some of the horrors he describes in The Voice of the Dolphins.

After more than three decades, Hardy's relationship with the dolphins he loves and admires has mellowed. You can get a sense of that in this clip (below) from BlueVoice.org—Hardy's nonprofit dedicated to fighting to end the slaughter of dolphins and to exposing levels of toxins in the marine environment harmful to marine mammals and humans. Hardy included.

So buy the book. It's vivid, vibrant, impassioned, generous, inspirational, and packed with one good sea yarn after another. Best of all The Voice of the Dolphins is loaded with dolphins—old friends with names and personalities and great stories that only Hardy can tell on their behalf.

 

Among Dolphins from BlueVoice.org on Vimeo.

 

Eco-News Roundup: Friday May 20

| Fri May 20, 2011 7:24 AM EDT

Blue Marble-ish news from our other blogs.

Fact Free Nation: GOP attack on health care waivers ignores key facts.

Cut Ballot: Circumcision will be on the San Francisco ballot.

Green Alert: Anti-terrorist watchdogs still have their eye on Greenpeace.

Keeping Pace: Medicare costs outpace wages, GDP, and yes, even taxes.

White Coats: Doctor shortage, and solving it, used as political ploy.

Corny: Corn sugar lobbyists inspire a cheeky commercial.

Just Say Yes: GOP hopeful Jon Huntsman says he believes in climate change.

 

 

 

Hurry Up And Wait for the Rapture

| Thu May 19, 2011 5:06 PM EDT

In case you've been out of the loop because your town isn't plastered with signs foretelling the End of the World, some portion of the population believes that the Rapture is coming this Saturday, May 21, at 6 p.m.

I've assumed that this is a small but particularly vocal group—and fairly well funded, given the number of billboards and buses they've plastered in major metropolitan areas like DC and San Francisco. Many people (myself included) have been having a good time mocking these predictions of the pending apocalypse.

But as some of my favorite godless heathens over at the Center for Inquiry pointed out today, most Americans differ with the May 21sters only on the question of when the rapture is going to occur, not if. A total of 41 percent of Americans think Jesus Christ is returning by 2050—that's 23 percent who say he is "definitely" on his way back and 18 percent that say he's "probably" coming soon.

In the South, a full 52 percent of those polled predicted that JC's return is imminent. Those figures come from a June 2010 poll from the Pew Research Center for People & the Press.

"It's a sobering thought that well over 100 million Americans believe Jesus is on his way—the date just may not have been penciled in yet," said CFI President and CEO Ronald A. Lindsay in a press release Thursday. "It’s both disturbing and unfortunate that so many still cling to what can only be described as a fairy tale."