Blue Marble - June 2011

Spending Cap Could Hurt Federal Action on Climate

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 2:26 PM EDT

The debt ceiling continues to be the focus of deliberations in Washington, as Vice-President Joe Biden leads negotiations with congressional leaders to hammer out a deal. A number of Republicans in Congress say such a grand bargain must include an overall spending cap—which means no new federal spending in any fiscal year unless it's offset with cuts elsewhere in the budget.

A number of liberal groups have expressed concerns about what this means for social programs (see: here, here, and here). But it would also likely handicap federal efforts to deal with climate change using market-based measures, as the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out:

The cap that these proposals would establish very likely would make it impossible to enact any market-based strategy to reduce the carbon pollution that drives global warming. That's because all such strategies — from carbon taxes to carbon "allowance" systems — are "scored" under Congressional Budget Office (CBO) budget rules as both raising federal revenues and spending them. Comprehensive climate change legislation would raise revenues by putting a price on greenhouse gas pollution and use those revenues for such purposes as protecting consumers and energy-intensive firms and workers and investing in energy efficiency and clean energy technology.
Because the global spending cap proposals would impose a cap on total federal spending in any fiscal year (as a percent of Gross Domestic Product, or GDP), they would bar adoption of such strategies unless they contained large offsetting cuts in other government spending. This would be true even for climate protection proposals that raised sufficient revenue to fully cover their spending — or even went further and reduced the deficit. In other words, even climate protection legislation that reduced the deficit would run afoul of a global spending cap.

It's an academic point right now, really, since a federal climate plan, market-based or otherwise, isn't going anywhere for the time being. But it's worth noting that such a cap would have wide-ranging implications for federal policy.

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SCOTUS Sides with Emitters in Major Global Warming Case

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 1:39 PM EDT

On Monday, the Supreme Court released a unanimous decision siding with a group of utilities that environmental groups and states wanted to sue for their contribution to global warming. In American Electric Power v. Connecticut, the five biggest emitters in the United States asked SCOTUS to dismiss a suit first filed back in 2004.

The states and a group of land trusts sought to hold the unities accountable for global warming under federal common nuisance law, arguing that their emissions presented a threat to the health and safety of others and that they should be forced to begin reducing those emissions. But Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for the court, argued that the Environmental Protection Agency's regulations under the Clean Air Act supersedes the states' claim. Basically, since the EPA is already on the case, this suit is moot.

Those EPA regulations came about because of the 2007 SCOTUS decision in Massachusetts v. EPA that forced the agency to begin the process of issuing greenhouse gas regulations. Those regulations began rolling out this year—albeit slowly. The argument from the states and land trusts, though, was that those regulations won't affect the biggest, oldest polluters for some time (if ever, considering that those rules still have yet to be issued), and that this lawsuit provided a backstop should the EPA's regulations prove insufficient.

The SCOTUS decision was not a big surprise. The thing to keep in mind, though, is that some of the utilities arguing here that EPA's regulations make the case moot are the same ones who have waged war on those EPA regulations. American Electric Power has been particularly aggressive on that front, and its allies in Congress have sought to eliminate the EPA's ability to regulate greenhouse gases under the Clean Air Act. As Michael B. Gerrard, director of the Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, points out on their blog, "if Congress takes away EPA's authority to regulate GHGs but does not explicitly bar federal common law nuisance claims, these cases will come back."

So while the SCOTUS decision shuts down this particular pursuit for the time being, don't expect the litigation on greenhouse gas regulations to go away any time soon.

Jungle Games: Follow the Hunter

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 1:32 PM EDT

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

"Is it all going to be like this?" Human Planet’s Assistant Producer Willow Murton takes us into the thick of the rainforest and shares what it's really like to be confronted by deadly poisoned darts, a broken down boat, and fortune in disguise.
Masters of the Jungle
by Willow Murton, Assistant Producer, Oceans and Jungles team


There are places that you imagine you may return to and people you may meet again and then there are farewells to people and places you assume you will hold as a treasured memories. For me Aurelio village was one of those places; so remote, so distant, one of only two communities where the Matis of Brazil live. Set in the vast indigenous Vale do Javari reserve, it takes several days' boat ride to reach the village, as well as many months of painstaking preparation. I had first come here to make the series Tribe and couldn't believe my luck when I was asked to make a return trip for Human Planet–a rare privilege.


There is good reason to return to this remote corner of the Amazon for Human Planet's "Jungles" episode. The Matis are true masters of the rainforest. Pete, our endurance fit cameraman, and I are reminded of this on our first filming day. An hour into the hunt we'd come to film, we are up to our knees, even thighs at times in swamp mud, soaked through by the unrelenting rain and all eyes on deadly poisoned darts being fired over our heads! Pete turns to me and asks if it's all going to be like this?


Luckily it isn't. Thank goodness, our second hunt is on firmer, drier ground. We follow the hunters into their world, immersed in the sounds and signs of the forest as we track monkeys in the canopy. For all the planning, there are still situations that happen which are unimaginable and that can never be relived. After many hours hunting with no success, we are about to give up when suddenly a troop of monkeys scatters across the trees. The hunters follow, taking aim in the tree tops. The camera's eye is no match for the trained focus of the hunters. They find their mark fast and before long, they are tying dead monkeys together to carry them back through the jungle. Exhilarated by the speed and skill of our forest guides, we head back to camp just as the rain starts to fall.
Part of our return journey is by boat. There we sit, the two of us, blowpipes and cameras balanced on benches, monkeys at our feet and a group of hunters devouring the last of the snacks that we brought. Survival in the jungle is about taking the opportunities that it offers–and a camera crew's rations are as fair game as anything else found in the canopy. Pete turns to me, waving the sandflies from his eyes, and he utters the words no traveller should speak: "Imagine if we got stuck here now".


At that moment the boats motor clunks and we are indeed stuck–the hungry hunters and us up an Amazonian creek with no paddle! The boatmen, calm as ever, are quick in their evaluation of the situation. The motor is beyond repair but we are not beyond help. Bushe, the Matis translator who I also worked with four years ago, turns to me and instructs me to use the satellite phone to contact the village to arrange a rescue. It will be long soggy bug filled few hours before anyone can reach us. We ask Bushe what they would do without the BBC's technological intervention. "The forest has everything that the Matis need," he replies and every Matis knows the paths that winds through the forest to the village.


We cover ourselves in insect repellent and lie back on the roof of the boat in beautiful resignation to the sunset and our eventual rescue. What passes in the next few hours is one of those gifts of disguised fortune–stolen time and experiences. Floating across the river, the boatmen set nets and within minutes, they have gathered a dozen fish for supper including piranha. Soon, we are back on the bank, in front of a bright fire, stabbed with sticks of fresh fish. We joke around the flames, laughing into the smoke. The fish is quickly eaten with the bizarre addition of fruit flavoured rehydration salts for those who prefer their piranha on the tropical tasting side.


Then we all wash in the river, as our socks dry on sticks over the embers. Laughing still, we clamber back onto our boat. The sunset darkens to a thick sky studded with stars and the sounds of the forest once more. Somewhere in the distance, a motor can be heard but for the moment, the jungle absorbs us entirely. It is so good to be back amongst my Matis friends.

Step Right Up for the Pesticide Road Show!

| Mon Jun. 20, 2011 5:30 AM EDT

Read about the pesticide industry's opposition to bans on toxic chemicals on playgrounds and school athletic fields here.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a pesticide road show. Yup, you heard me right: It's a traveling circus of sorts, but instead of sword swallowers and tightrope walkers, the stars of this show are pest-management products. Called Debug the Myths, the tour is sponsored by the lobby group Responsible Industry for a Sound Environment (RISE), which aims to teach people to stop worrying and learn to love pesticides.

I had read about the East Coast leg of the road trip, so you can imagine my delight when I heard that the show was coming to an Orchard Supply Hardware (known 'round these parts as OSH) in Modesto, California. Google Maps said the drive from my house would take an hour and a half, but I needed to run some chicken errands at a feed store out there, anyway. After a pleasant drive (soundtrack by Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw, courtesy of the local country station) I pulled into the OSH parking lot around noon. The Debug the Myths tent wasn't hard to spot:

I made my way over. When I arrived, I was greeted by:

A very friendly giant tick! Here, you can see her chatting up an OSH customer. The tick directed me toward the rest of the display, where I met some other Debug the Myths staffers, including two entomologists from UC-Berkeley's Environmental Science Policy and Management program, a representative from Target, and a spokeswoman for RISE.

Birth Control for Men: Why the Wait?

| Fri Jun. 17, 2011 4:54 PM EDT

As Father's Day approaches, I can't help but think of contraception. Nearly every year I read an article promising that a male hormonal contraceptive is "just around the corner!". Yeah, right. At least, in the US.

There actually IS a male contraceptive implant similar to Norplant, which was 100% effective in preventing pregnancies among its human trial subjects. But the companies that produced it, Schering and Organon, stopped investigating male contraceptives after Schering was bought by Bayer. There's another contraceptive on the horizon though: RISUG. RISUG, which stands for Reversible Inhibition of Sperm Under Guidance, is a one-time injection directly into the vas deferens. The injection coats the inside of the vas with a polymer that breaks the sperms' tails and ruptures their cells, making them incapable of fertilization. In effect, it's a vasectomy without the surgery. RISUG is being tested in India, and so far, patients report is is 100% effective in preventing pregnancy and there are no adverse effects. Also, since it's a one-time procedure, there's no pills to remember to take, or condoms to break, so it's more reliable than other forms of birth control. And if a man decides later he wants to have a child, the procedure is (theoretically) reversible with an injection of a substance that breaks down the polymer, though this has not been tested in humans yet.

So does that mean it'll someday be offered in the US? Well, maybe. The problem in the US is two-fold. Firstly, pharmaceutical companies are not pushing on research to make solutions like RISUG available in the US. This means that most of the R&D funds are coming from the National Institute of Health. Secondly, there's a perception that men don't actually want to shoulder more of the responsibility for family planning because the benefits to them are not as pronounced as they are to women. This is undoubtedly one of the things hindering private investment. Douglas Colvard, a program director at a reproductive health non-profit, told Scientific American that at the end of the day, it's not men who are going to get pregnant. A man can still walk away from a pregnancy. And for that reason, a successful male contraceptive might have to offer benefits other than birth control, such as reduced hair loss or increased metabolism.

A male pill might have to be easier on the body than female contraceptives, too. Women have long complained of weight gain, moodiness, and other birth control side-effects, but despite that, 62% of US women of reproductive age use contraceptives. A recent clinical trial for a male contraceptive delivered via injection (similar to Depo-Provera for women) was ended early despite promising early results due to participants' complaints about side-effects such as depression, increased libido, and mood changes.

Diana Blithe, a program director at the National Institute for Child Health and Human Development, says that "The reality is we could get a product out there very quickly if companies would aggressively take on the process of making it happen," she said. But until consumers really ask for that product, or until marketing studies show it would really sell, US companies really have little to gain by developing a male contraceptive. Since condoms are widely available, protect against STDs, and have very few if any side-effects, it may be a long wait.

 

 

Animal House: Infestations to Avoid

| Fri Jun. 17, 2011 4:30 PM EDT

Be sure to eat your lunch before reading this. After buying their dream home 125 miles southwest of Yellowstone National Park, Ben Sessions and his pregnant wife discovered that their new digs were infested with thousands of garter snakes. After dueling with dozens of these scaly, two-feet-long horrors in the yard, Sessions quickly realized that his new home was sitting on top of a garter snake den. They could hear them slithering in the walls. He developed a snake fighting scheme, making morning sweeps of the house and collecting them in buckets.

Turns out the home was widely known as "the snake house." Though the Sessions had been assured by their real estate agent that the snakes were urban lore, a neighbor admitted his knowing guilt to the AP, "I felt bad... By the time we knew someone had bought it, they were already moving in. It was too late." The Sessions eventually filed for bankruptcy and fled after the birth of their new child (thanks a lot, neighbors).

To keep up with the spirit, here are some examples of other cringe inducing infestations. 

1) Powderpost Beetle

Wisut Sittichaya/Creative CommonsWisut Sittichaya/Creative Commons

These little suckers feast on wood and will damage your grandma's armoire if you're not careful. Lyctid powderpost beetles like manufactured hardwoods such as oak, ash, walnut, and hickory, and are often found in wood paneling, window and door frames, plywood, hardwood floors, and furniture.

 

2) Caterpillars/Moths

These colorful crawlers will lay eggs in your clothes, produce silk screens on your ceilings, and will munch the life out of your trees. Careful, they can also be posionous.

MamaGeek/WikipediaMamaGeek/Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) Ladybugs

As precious as they look, they can also make your life a living hell. Ladybugs are attracted to light colored houses and will seep in through the small cracks around windows and doors if they're looking for a place to camp out during winter. They won't eat anything in your house, but the scent they leave behind is hard to scrub off, or forget.

Gilles San Martin/WikipediaGilles San Martin/Wikipedia

 

 4) Mold  

Mold can be found anywhere and can grow on just about any organic substance, so long as there's moisture present.

 Thomas Anderson/flickrThomas Anderson/flickr

5) Maggots

This disgusting video should give you enough of an incentive to take out the garbage. Once maggots start multiplying, they're hard to stop.

 Tim Vickers/WikipediaTim Vickers/Wikipedia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6) Rodents

Rodents are very sexually active: a single breeding pair can produce 2000 offspring in months! If you do have a rat infestation, the CDC tells you how to solve it in four easy steps: call pest control, seal up open holes, set up traps, and make sure to keep your house clean. Also, please don't let your daughter play with it.

asplosh/Creative Commonsasplosh/Creative Commons

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

7) Frogs

One of the legendary ten plagues from the Book of Exodus, frogs are pretty harmless, except for the persistent croaking that'll keep you up at night. Tip: kill the bugs that attract the frogs and build a fence around your garden to keep them out.

 

8) The Greatest Hits: bed bugs, termites, cockroaches

You know 'em, you hate 'em. These creachers tear through wood, hang out in dark spaces, cracks and crevices, and are known for inciting hysteria among the toughest of men.

Piotr Naskrecki/WikimediaPiotr Naskrecki/Wikimedia

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Gem of the Week: When Doctors Are Wrong

| Fri Jun. 17, 2011 1:29 PM EDT

This week's gem goes to the Washington Post, for reporting on one man's fight against several doctors' false diagnoses of alcohol-induced cirrhosis.

Oregon man Jeff Williams was admitted to a Portland hospital with internal bleeding, cirrhosis of the liver, and low insulin due to newly diagnosed diabetes. Doctors, perhaps relying on what they saw most frequently, told Williams's family that he had advanced alcoholism. His family protested, and Williams himself admitted some college-age overindulging, but said he was only a social drinker. Doctors thought he was just in denial.

After being discharged, Williams went to a friend's ranch in eastern Oregon, bringing along his new insulin shots to take care of his diabetes. His friend, a retired doctor, had a Merck Manual in his bookshelf. While looking for causes of liver failure, Williams and his friend found a disease called hereditary hemochromatosis. Hereditary hemochromatosis causes the body to absorb too much iron from the gut, and distribute it to various organs, which leads to their failure. Most commonly, liver cirrhosis.

Williams called his HMO and demanded to be tested for the disease. The tests came back positive. "I was just so pissed," Williams told the Post. Doctors had actually tested his iron levels, and found them very high. However, they thought it was a consequence of his cirrhosis, so never looked into genetic testing. Luckily, treatment for the condition was fairly straightforward: get blood drawn weekly to reduce iron levels. And in saving his own life, Williams saved another: that of his twin sister, who also has the disease, though she had not shown symptoms. Other family members—an older brother and Williams's nephew—are carriers. Without Williams's tenacity, he might have never discovered (and subsequently been treated for) his condition.

This story reminded me of the excellent book by Jerome Groopman, How Doctors Think. And though many patients may tend to misdiagnose themselves with exotic conditions (hanta instead of the flu, for example), this story is a good reminder that doctors come with their own individual prejudices and lens of experience.

Source: "Medical Mystery: Alcoholism Didn't Cause Man's Diabetes and Cirrhosis," by Sandra Boodman (Washington Post, June 13, 2011)

Teens Drinking Less Sugar, Obesity Still Rising

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 8:33 PM EDT

Turns out soda has something in common with cigarettes: they're both habit-forming from an early age. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention uncovered that one-fourth of the 110,000 high schoolers surveyed drink at least one can of soda per day. Add Gatorade into the mix and the number jumps to two-thirds. On the bright side, the CDCP research team reported that teens drink water, milk, and fruit juice more often.

Though the number of teens drinking soda are substantial, the research team found a decadal drop in overall consumption of sugary drinks. Back in the 1990s and early 2000s, three-fourths of high schoolers imbibed a sugary drink, 10% more than they do today. This is positive news, especially given the nation's current battle with rising obesity rates. A UCLA study explored the connection between soda intake and obesity and found that adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages each day are 27% more likely to be overweight or obese. Gradual decreases in soda intake at a young age can not only help reduce expanding waistlines, they'll also reduce the annual $270B price tag associated with obesity, which includes increased health care costs, loss of productivity due to more disabled workers, and more obesity-related deaths.

So is banning soda machines in schools a success? Not entirely. Nancy Benor of the CDCP told the Associated Press, "Getting them out of the schools doesn't solve the problem completely because a lot of these drinks are consumed in the home."

The chart below breaks down the demographics by race and gender, and then spotlights use percentages based on each sugary beverage. From the data, boys are more likely than girls to drink soda, and Black/non-Hispanic teens are more likely than their white and Hispanic peers to drink a soda per day.

Did "No. 1" Climate Change Denier Fake His Résumé?

| Thu Jun. 16, 2011 6:00 AM EDT
Minnesota State Senator Michael Jungbauer.

Sometimes it seems hard to believe how much skepticism still exists about climate change, with the scientific community in near-unanimous agreement that yes, it's happening and yes, it's our fault. But as Minnesota State Senator Michael Jungbauer reminded us yesterday, most of that dissent comes from people who are more or less clueless about the science.

Jungbauer, who sits on the state's Senate Energy, Utilities and Telecommunications Committee, proudly calls himself the "No. 1 global warming denier in Minnesota." He also claims to have a bachelor's degree from the Moody Bible Institute with a "background in biochemistry." The first claim is easy enough to believe, but as for the second, MinnPost reported yesterday that Jungbauer never graduated, and that the closest thing he has to a bachelor's of science is a ministerial ordainment from Christian Motorsports International, which provides "chapel services" at "races, car shows, cruise-ins, and tractor pulls."

The Circus Comes to Town

| Wed Jun. 15, 2011 8:27 PM EDT

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

Travelling to the farthest corners of the world, it is not just the remarkable environments that can prove a little hard to capture.

When producer/director Mark Flowers met the children from the North-East Indian root tree villages, he hadn't bargained on having to make himself the center of attention. But sometimes it's the little extras that make an experience unforgettable.

by Mark Flowers, Producer/Director, Rivers/Urban team

The most heart-stealing and downright soul-enhancing benefit of working on a Human Planet shoot is the children we encounter while we are filming. It's unbelievably refreshing to step outside of a regulated, fast-paced and impersonal modern, urban society and meet people who live in a more open, communal and for me personally, a far more "Human" way.

The children we met during our trip to film living root bridges in one of the most remote areas of North-East India were fantastic—cheeky, smart, and funny.

To the young people who live in isolated hill villages in the rainforests of Meghalaya, the arrival of a gangly bunch of giant, pale-skinned strangers, brandishing weird black boxes, screens and cables, was the most surprising thing to happen in a long while. The circus had come to town!

Within minutes of us stepping out of the cars, there were bright eyes at the windows and small hands waving from the homes we passed. High pitched "hellos" echoed all around while tiny toddlers stood dumb struck for a few seconds in doorways and then exploded into howls. Dogs barked and sulky, caged cuckoos crooned from dark corners.

Whenever we set up to film very quickly we were surrounded in a small lava flow of children, far to shy to talk to us individually, but en masse, well that's different, isn't it? Whenever we got the camera out we were mobbed!

The funny thing was that we were hoping to shoot short stories for our sister production, working title "Little Human Planet", showing how children live in different parts of the world. This depended on the little people we were hoping to film behaving as if the camera wasn't there: Fat-chance!

We soon realized that if we were to get any shots that looked even vaguely natural, the crowd of children needed to be distracted, and that meant entertaining them. Guess who had to do the entertaining: Me. Yikes!

Just so you know, I am a greying man in early middle age. I am not a totally serious person but as a director on location I have a role to play out, a reputation to maintain. I have to be seen to be in charge! Usually you'd find me in earnest conversation with the team, or looking sternly down my monitor checking that each shot is right.

 

I didn't have a white rabbit, I don't know any tricks, so the only thing I could think of to do instantly was to sing! it was raining too, I had an umbrella—so I started with "I'm singing in the rain" but soon moved on to nursery rhymes to keep the "show" on the road.

I am not sure if the footage of the crowd and the children will end up being used as everyone looks very surprised or is laughing, but the most magical thing is that the little children joined in with me. Incredibly in such a remote part of the world they knew "Baa Baa Black Sheep" and "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star!" The memory of singing in the rain with little children holding Technicolor parasols is a memory I will always cherish.