Blue Marble - June 2011

Love Symbols of the Suri

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:39 PM EDT

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

Status symbols appear in different forms all over the world. From a crown, to a scar, to a family name: each visible denotation can be attributed to a significant event or an accomplishment, and especially when it comes to marriage.

However as symbols change over time, or differ as a response to the cultural environment. One thing remains the same, and it is mankind's want to remain conscious of and give example to its unique cultural values. For the Suri people of Southwest Ethiopia, it is the fierce competition for land and highly prized cattle that determines many of its traditions, and consequently, its status symbols.

Even in an unstable region such as the grasslands, these self-sufficient people have found a power and confidence in their own culture that has meant many ancient traditions have stayed at the forefront of their lives today. However as times change and individuals roles develop, sensitive changes are beginning to take place. For the Suri, each household is run by the female. She controls the sale of beer and grain, and it is only in her marriage that a family's most important symbol of status—cattle—can be obtained.

However the ingrained process by which marriage happens, is evolving. In the video below, we are given example of the changing attitudes to a status symbol that although has proved to still be incredibly significant to some… for others, is becoming something of the past.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Ohio's Ambitious 'Heartbeat Bill' Passes House

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 7:07 PM EDT
Fetus at 7 weeks, with detectable heartbeat

First, abortion opponents wanted to stop abortion after viability, which happens around 24 weeks. Then they wanted to stop it at the highly-contested point at which fetuses may be able to feel pain, around 20 weeks gestation. Now, the Ohio House has passed a bill (54 to 43) that would outlaw all abortions in the state, even in cases of rape and incest, after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, as early as 6 weeks after conception. The bill (HB 125) will now proceed to Ohio's Republican-led state Senate.

The bill, which I deconstructed thoroughly in a March blog post, is designed to be a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade and prevent some of the 88% of all abortions that occur before 12 weeks gestation. At 6 weeks, many women may not even know they're pregnant yet. And even if a woman did find out she was pregnant at, say, two weeks after conception, she would only have a month to make the life-changing decision on whether to abort, find a care provider, gather funds and transportation, and schedule the procedure. The law would also leave abortion access up to chance, since due to body fat, date of conception, an embryo's position in the uterus, and the type of ultrasound administered, one woman's fetus may show a heartbeat at six weeks while another's may not until 12 weeks.

The law is so extreme that even Ohio Right to Life cannot stand behind it. "There are not sufficient votes on the current U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe, regardless of what vehicle is used," the organization tells visitors to its website. "As a result, the 'heartbeat bill' will be yet another precedent setting decision by the U.S. Supreme Court we will have to overcome in the future." In addition, Ohio Right to Life points out, the bill would be expensive to defend in court and if it was struck down, the court would likely instruct defenders to pay Planned Parenthood's attorney's fees.

Jump Onboard Bachmann's Crazy Train

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 4:00 PM EDT

My colleague Tim Murphy has an excellent rundown of some of GOP presidential contender Michele Bachmann's wackiest quotes. But via Grist, here's one of my favorites of the environmental variety, decrying federal investment in high-speed rail:

"It is a brand new, billion-dollar high speed train that is going to go from Disneyland up to Las Vegas...Harry Reid, the senator from Nevada, was behind this measure, and it makes us wonder, is he more interested in making sure kids start gambling at younger ages?"

(That's from a speech on the House floor in 2009, via TNR.)

Yet she seems to neglect the fact that the 185-mile, high-speed rail of debauchery only extends to Victorville, Calif., meaning the kiddos would first have to hitchhike the 81.8 miles from Anaheim before hopping on the fast-train to hussies and high-rollers.

Beaches to Avoid This July 4th

| Wed Jun. 29, 2011 10:59 AM EDT
Avalon Beach: I'll stay on the sand, thank you.

Angelenos beware: If you plan to spend your Independence Day soaking up rays on the beach, it might be wise to stay out of the water.

That's according to the Natural Resources Defense Council's 21st annual report on beach water quality, which reveals the nation's dirtiest lake and seaside beaches. Southern California snagged the most spots on a list of "repeat offenders," where contamination—mostly from human and animal waste in storm runoff—exceeded national standards at least a quarter of the time over the last four years.

Overall, 2010 saw the second-highest number of beach closures and health advisories in the past two decades. Beaches were scored based not only on water quality, but also on how accessible local officials made that information to the public.

NRDC officials cited everything from the stomach flu and pink eye to dysentery and hepatitis as illnesses that can strike swimmers, adding that animal waste can exacerbate algal blooms that have health consequences for marine life. And you thought the local water park was bad.

"A day at the beach shouldn't have to come with a skin rash as a souvenir," NRDC water expert David Beckman said.

New Brain-Boosting Chemicals Found in Breast Milk

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 7:50 PM EDT

Breastfeeding has been widely recommended by organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the CDC because of the health benefits to babies. Not only does breast milk seem to help babies' disease resistance, it has also been correlated with higher IQs and even higher test scores. But why is breast milk a "brain food"? Scientists have a variety of theories: for one, brains are made up of fats, and breast milk contains lots of DHA omega-3 fatty acids. Breastfeeding is also soothing to the infant, which reduces stress hormones that might disrupt or slow brain development. This week, a new study out of PLoS One has found some additional brain boosters: S100B, BDNF, and GDNF.

The S100B protein, found in high levels in breast milk, is linked to brain maturation and development.

The protein BDNF (Brain-Developing Neurotrophic Factor), called "Miracle-Gro for the brain" by one scientist, helps existing neurons thrive and stimulates the growth of new neurons in various areas of the brain. It's also tied to the development of long-term memory.

GDNF is short for Glial cell-Derived Neurotrophic Factor, and it's a small but punchy protein: it helps very specific neurons develop, AND keeps them running. It's so powerful that in adults, it's been pegged as a possible treatment for degenerative neurological diseases like Parkinson's.

Together, the researchers say, these chemicals may "exert a stimulating effect on neurodevelopment during breastfeeding or long afterward" and that the substances have been shown to be "critical" in "neuronal growth, development, protection, and repair."

With an increasing list of benefits, it's no wonder human breast milk is a hot commodity.

Severe Weather: Act of Nature, or of Man?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 5:00 PM EDT

If you've noticed a flood of news about severe weather this year, don't chalk it up to coincidence, the Rapture, or your overactive imagination. What we're seeing is climate change at work, according to research released by the Pew Center today. The paper, titled "Extreme Weather and Climate Change: Understanding the Link, Managing the Risk," lays out the science plainly. From the paper's introduction: "Is global warming causing more extreme weather? The short and simple answer is yes." As our world warms (in 2010, more nations reported record high temperatures than ever before), the planet is at higher risk for deadly heat waves, extreme precipitation, and flooding. So far, the weather this year does not bode well for the future—if temperatures continue to rise, these events will only become more common.

Is this new information? Sort of. Scientists who used to hesitate to link individual incidents of severe weather to climate change are now arguing it is risky—nay, dangerous—not to do just that, especially considering the increasing frequency. Understanding these weather events—vast flooding as close as North Dakota and as far away as Australia, a violent tornado season, wildfires of unprecendented scope and size in Texas—might be the key to protecting ourselves and future generations, write the paper's authors, Daniel G. Huber and Jay Gulledge. They wrote:

Individual weather events offer important lessons about social and economic vulnerabilities to climate change. Dismissing an individual event as happenstance because scientists did not link it individually to climate change fosters a dangerously passive attitude toward rising climate risk. The uncertainty about future weather conditions and the inability to attribute single events to global warming need not stand in the way of action to manage the rising risks associated with extreme weather.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Let's Abolish the Most Effective Agency in the Country!

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 1:33 PM EDT

The Environmental Protection Agency is the prime target of a lot of right-wing conspiracy theories: some have suggested that the agency plans to regulate human respiration, while others worry that it's secretly plotting to infringe upon the right to bear arms. But as a new report from the White House Office of Management and Budget shows, the EPA actually has the best track record among the agencies when it comes to setting rules whose pluses outnumber the minuses. True, the EPA's rules do often come at higher costs than those of most agencies, but the benefits still far outweigh them:

It should be clear that the rules with the highest benefits and the highest costs, by far, come from the Environmental Protection Agency and in particular its Office of Air. More specifically, EPA rules account for 62 to 84 percent of the monetized benefits and 46 to 53 percent of the monetized costs. The rules that aim to improve air quality account for 95 to 97 percent of the benefits of EPA rules.

Of the 20 air rules that have come from the office in the last 10 years, the Clean Air Fine Particle Implementation Rule stands out as the most beneficial—it saves $19 billion to $167 billion every year because the public isn't being exposed to harmful air pollution. This came at a cost of just $7.3 billion per year. Overall, the report documented 32 major federal rules from the EPA in the past decade, which saved the economy up to $550.7 billion, at a cost of somewhere between $23.3 billion and $28.5 billion.

So while Republican presidential candidates are talking about abolishing the agency (see: Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich), it's a helpful reminder that the agency actually exists for a reason and is arguably the most economically beneficial of government entities. If you like breathing, that is.

Science for Hire

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 12:40 PM EDT

My piece this morning about fossil fuel interests continuing to pay scientists to produce "studies" raising questions about the human influence on global warming fails to mention my favorite element in the story of Willie Soon. Not only has the Harvard aerospace engineer benefited from the largess of fossil fuel companies over the past decade; he's also managed to style himself as an "expert" on a whole lot of things he doesn't appear to have any qualifications to write about.

There was, of course, the 2007 paper claiming that polar bears weren't actually harmed by climate change. That paper was backed by ExxonMobil, the American Petroleum Institute, and the Charles G. Koch Foundation, which should have raised some questions about what exactly an astrophysicist knows about polar bears. Also dubious was Soon's op-ed published in the Wall Street Journal last month claiming that mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants aren't actually bad for people. This is supposedly because we have "proteins and antioxidants" in our bodies, he wrote, that "help protect us." The EPA just made up the health concerns about mercury pollution to "punish hydrocarbon use," he wrote.

The Journal touted Soon as "a natural scientist at Harvard" who is "an expert on mercury and public health issues"—a questionable claim at best. He also has a long history of working with groups that deny climate change. Paul Driessen, of the climate denial group Committee for a Constructive Tomorrow, coauthored the piece. Soon also has a number of affiliations with groups that sow climate doubts: he has served as the chief science advisor for the Science and Public Policy Institute, a scientific adviser to the Greening Earth Society, and an expert with the George C. Marshall Institute, a conservative think-tank. And it's not hard to see why he's become one of the go-to scientists for industry and conservative groups.

Did ExxonMobil Break Its Promise To Stop Funding Climate Change Deniers?

| Tue Jun. 28, 2011 7:00 AM EDT

Back in 2008, ExxonMobil pledged to quit funding climate change deniers. But according to new documents released through a Greenpeace Freedom of Information Act request, the oil giant was still forking over cash to climate skeptics as recently as last year, to the tune of $76,000 for one scientist skeptical of humankind's role in global warming. This—and much more—came to light in a new report about the funding of Wei Hock "Willie" Soon, an astrophysicist with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

Soon has been a favorite among climate skeptics for years, since coauthoring a paper back in 2003 that claimed that the 20th century was probably not the warmest, nor was it unique. That paper, published in the journal Climate Research, was widely criticized by climate scientists for its content, not to mention the funding it received from the American Petroleum Institute. An astrophysicist by training, Soon has also claimed that solar variability—i.e., changes in the amount of radiation coming from the sun—are to likely to blame for warming temperatures.

In 2007, Soon coauthored a paper challenging the claim that climate change harms polar bears. The paper drew plenty of criticism, as it was funded in part by the American Petroleum Institute, The Charles G. Koch Foundation, and ExxonMobil—groups with a clear interest in the debate over whether the bears merited endangered species protections.

Given that Soon had previously disclosed some of his corporate funding, in December 2009 Greenpeace submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Smithsonian Institution asking for information about Soon's funders and any conflict of interest forms he may have submitted. In response, Smithsonian produced a list of his major bankrollers, which included more than $800,000 from major energy interests. According to the document, Exxon provided $55,000 for a study on Arctic climate change in 2007 and 2008, and another $76,106 for research into solar variability between 2008 and 2010.

ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers accused Greenpeace of "peddling this discredited conspiracy theory" about its support for climate deniers. He maintained that the company stopped funding Soon in 2009. "We made a decision to discontinue funding groups whose positions on climate change weren't very constructive. It was distracting," said Jeffers. "The issue of climate change is so important, it shouldn't be distracted by the type of things Greenpeace does," Jeffers said.

Even if Greenpeace and Smithsonian are wrong and ExxonMobil has stopped funding his work, Soon still appears to be getting significant backing from other fossil fuel companies, with the coal giant Southern Company providing $120,000 to look at "solar variability and climate change signals from temperature" in 2008 and 2009, and the Koch Foundation providing Soon another $65,000 last year.

"Dr. Soon needs to make clear what exactly these corporations expected from him," said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace. "There's been a long-term campaign of climate denial for over 20 years, organized by big coal and big oil. This is evidence that it continues to this day."

The Opening Round of Fuel Efficiency Debates

| Mon Jun. 27, 2011 2:05 PM EDT

On Friday, I raised the question of whether the Obama administration would raise fuel economy standards significantly this year as a real response to rising fuel costs. Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the administration plans to at least come pretty close to the 60-miles-per-gallon target enviros set, raising the average for passenger cars and other light vehicles to 56.2 MPG by 2025:

The White House’s ambitious opening bid, which it revealed in conversations with domestic auto companies and lawmakers last week, has already sparked resistance. U.S. automakers have offered to raise fuel efficiency over the next eight years to between 42.6 and 46.7 mpg, according to sources who had been briefed on the negotiations.

Of course, as the article and the comment from the White House makes clear, 56.2 MPG appears to be the administration's opening bid. That means it is likely to be subject to some negotiations between now and September when the proposed rules are expected to be announced. Automakers are starting down at the low end of 42.6 miles per gallon and, as they have in the past, will likely do their damnedest to pull the figure that direction.