Blue Marble - August 2011

Oil Lobby Resorts to Twitter Astroturf to Promote Pipeline

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 5:15 PM EDT

Someone in the oil industry appears to be resorting to astroturfing to bolster support for the controversial proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry tar sands oil from Alberta down to Texas if approved by the Obama administration. The Rainforest Action Network thinks the American Petroleum Institute and its oil lobby allies are behind a slew of fake Twitter accounts designed to prop up public opinion about the pipeline.

The final decision on the project lies with the State Department and is expected before the end of the year. The proposal has raised concerns among environmentalists, farmers, ranchers, and landowners in the region, however. Many tweeps following the debate have been using the hash tag "#tarsands" to discuss the pipeline. On Wednesday morning, RAN noticed a group of Twitter handles posting the same tweet, "#tarsands the truth is out!" followed by a link to the API webpage about the tar sands. Then those accounts sent out another link, this time to the Nebraska Energy Forum, a state-based group sponsored by API that has also been heavily involved in promoting tar sands development. I sent a request to API for comment about whether they are, in fact, behind the handles, but I have not yet received a response.

RAN's Brant Olson has compiled a bunch of the seemingly fake handles. It's pretty amusing that whoever is behind them bothered to make them sort of seem like real people. Take, for example, droidude7816, just a regular old Star Wars fan from Chicago who's "in a intimate relationship" with his girlfriend Sarah (um, ew). His short self-description also notes, "I own pretty much every starwar movie, action figure etc.," and "I'm also one who cares about the environment." It even has a little photo of some doughy white guy having a light-saber fight with Darth Vader! But then all of his 27 tweets are about the Keystone XL.

There's also SarahMama2, who claims to be just your average mother of a toddler who happens to tweet compulsively about the pipeline. And there's JennyJohnson10, "a single woman that works full time at a fitness center" and has "2 cats 1 dog and 1 snake" but only tweets about the tar sands. Or her Twitter friend kyleland1, who claims to be a Pizza Hut manager from Omaha who believes that "if you like pizza you should also like #keystonexl and the sweet #oilsands it benefits #nebraska."

Mmm, oil sands pizza! I'm sold. Thanks, oil lobby astroturfers!

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Scientists to Obama: Keystone XL Pipeline Sucks

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 3:01 PM EDT
James Hansen

The massive oil pipeline TransCanada wants to build from Alberta, Canada to Texas has already garnered criticism from environmentalists, senators, and farmers. On Wednesday, a group of prominent scientists added their names to the opposition roster with a letter to President Obama that calls the Keystone XL pipeline "environmentally destructive" and nonsensical.

"The tar sands are a huge pool of carbon, but one that does not make sense to exploit," the letter asserts. "It makes no sense to build a pipeline system that would practically guarantee extensive exploitation of this resource." Because the pipeline would cross an international boundary, it requires a presidential permit issued by the Department of State, and legislation (PDF) recently passed by the House of Representatives would force Obama to make up his mind by November 1.

If Richard Houghton, a senior scientist at Woods Hole Research Center and one of the letter's signatories, has anything to do with it, the president's answer will be a big fat "No." "The point of government is to look after the public interest, and I can't believe this pipeline is in the public interest," Houghton said in a phone interview. "It seems as though a pipeline is focused on immediate needs and not thinking on a bigger scale."

Scholastic: From Big Coal to Big Egg

| Thu Aug. 4, 2011 2:22 PM EDT

Earlier this year environmental and educational groups criticized the publishing giant Scholastic for partnering with the coal lobby to produce classroom materials on energy. The company ended up apologizing for it shortly thereafter and promising to be more vigilant in the future when partnering with outside organizations. But even with the a new advisory board and standards, the company still plans to partner with Big Egg for classroom educational materials.

Last week, the company issued a statement from its president and CEO Richard Robinson with an update on the actions it's taken since the coal kerfuffle. It noted that it is now focusing on working "only with a carefully selected list of non-profit, corporate and government partners," which will be vetted by a new board it created. Robinson predicted that this will result in axing a number of their corporate partners and about 40 percent fewer partnerships overall in the next year. The company also stated that it is "strengthening the editorial review of sponsored supplemental educational content and putting additional checks in place to ensure the accuracy and impartiality of the content."

In an interview with the New York Times, Robinson acknowledged that "once in a while there was a slip-up in editorial judgment" when it came to their sponsorship program, and vowed to improve. In addition to the coal group, its corporate partners have included the water filter company Brita, Microsoft, Disney, Nestlé and Shell.

But as the Times noted, the company still plans to partner with trade groups like the American Egg Board—the flacks behind the "Incredible Edible Egg" slogan. From the piece:

In the 2010-11 school year, the program included a Back to Breakfast contest in which 12 teachers each won $5,000 for short essays describing how they would use that grant, with the winners creating videos to post on YouTube. In one video, "Eggucation Week Back to Breakfast Challenge," a Chicago fourth-grade teacher tells of teaching her students about the benefits of eating eggs, and asking them to create egg recipes. Susan Linn, director of the Boston advocacy group, said the egg program raised many of the same issues that the discontinued ones had.

The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood points out that while healthy eating is of course an excellent educational topic, that information is probably not best presented by Big Egg.

Meanwhile, a conservative Christian group is now going after the Scholastic for another item in its collection: The Magic School Bus and the Climate Challenge. The Magic School Bus series is among its most popular, but the Cornwall Alliance argues that the book is promoting "global warming alarmism" in schools. The group also uses this as an opportunity to promote their own video series about how environmentalists are pushing "anti-Christian" views. Perhaps they'd prefer that Scholastic keep the lessons sponsored by Big Coal?

New Report: CO2 Emissions Cost Way More Than You Think

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 7:04 PM EDT

Since the Bush years, government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency, Council on Economic Advisers, and Department of Transportation have been calculating the economic costs of the damage caused by carbon dioxide emissions and the resulting climate change. Depending on who's running the calculation and their methodology (economic modeling based on projected growth, climate behavior, and related physical damages), these estimates currently range from $5.50 and $72 per ton of CO2. A new report, however, says that these estimates are way too low.

In 2010, one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere cost up to $893 in economic damage—more than 12 times the government's highest estimate.

After running an independent analysis, Economics for Equity and Environment (E3), the network of economists that published the report (PDF), found that in 2010, one ton of CO2 in the atmosphere did up to $893 in economic damage—more than 12 times the government's highest estimate. By 2050, the group says, these costs could rise up to $1,550 per ton of CO2 emitted. (A ton of CO2 is approximately what you release into the atmosphere by driving a car for two-and-a-half months.) While the government agencies acknowledge that their estimates are "imperfect and incomplete," E3 says they also omit "many of the biggest risks associated with climate change" and downplay "the impact of our current emissions on future generations."

Why Are White Guys Climate Skeptics?

| Wed Aug. 3, 2011 3:31 PM EDT

A new paper in Global Environmental Change has a generated some interesting chatter online. The title, "Cool dudes: The denial of climate change among conservative white males in the United States" sums it up the central question pretty well: Why do white guys think climate change is a bunch of baloney?

Via Chris Mooney, here's the summary of the data on conservative white males, or CWM:

— 14% of the general public doesn’t worry about climate change at all, but among CWMs the percentage jumps to 39%.
— 32% of adults deny there is a scientific consensus on climate change, but 59% of CWMs deny what the overwhelming majority of the world's scientists have said.
— 3 adults in 10 don't believe recent global temperature increases are primarily caused by human activity. Twice that many – 6 CWMs out of every ten – feel that way

It's not exactly shocking news, if you've ever taken a moment to consider that white men seem to make up the majority of the audience for Fox News, Glenn Beck, or Rush Limbaugh. The authors boil it down to a few psychological explanations: "identity-protective cognition," or seeking out and believing that which affirms the beliefs or values one already holds, and "system justification," or a motivation to defend the status quo.

Mooney also raises a good point about one theory the report authors left out of the discussion: "social dominance orientation." Basically, the idea is that white men like things they way they are now, because so far they've made out pretty well. They also seek out and are affirmed by others who believe the same things (i.e., Limbaugh and Beck). Mooney explains it eloquently:

Rather, I simply think they experience modern climate science and climate advocacy as an affront, an attack on them and what they believe. They were brought up in a certain way, they believe certain things, and they have no reason to think of themselves as bad people—and indeed, mostly they’re not bad people. They give to charity. They go to church. They provide for a family. And so on.
But then they perceive all these attacks on their values coming from outsiders—hippie environmentalists and ivory tower climate scientists. If you didn’t do anything wrong, and you consider yourself as reasonable and intelligent--but people are attacking you and your values—you maybe get kind of outraged and worked up.

What I wonder, though, is how much shifting demographics will affect this. Demographers expect that white people will become the minority in the US in the next 40 years. So the next generation of white men will not be as large or politically powerful, for one. And they might also be less inclined toward those psychological traits, having perhaps not enjoyed quite the vaunted status of our current generation of white guys.

But that also creates the potential for a backlash. As conservative white males become less numerous and powerful, this might increase the tendency toward protectionism/withdraw/hostility, particularly on the question of climate change.

Anyway, there are more interesting thoughts from Mooney, David Ropeik, and David Roberts—all of whom happen to be white dudes.

Deadly Animals: A Walk on the Wild Side

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 8:36 PM EDT

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

Bringing the best of natural history filmmaking to a large audience has never been easy. But what happens when you get the taste for something a little darker? Something a little more sinister, a little harder to find, something that’s intentionally keeping itself far from your reach.

This month at BBC Earth we are hunting down all that is Deadly. Gathering together the incredible knowledge of the BBC Earth natural history teams, with the most interesting and thrilling nature photography and film from the BBC.

Our blog will be taking the road less traveled in bringing you exclusive insights from behind the lens with none other than Steve Backshall, the naturalist who reaches parts of the world others just can't.

And on our YouTube, we will be dedicating a play-list especially to Steve who has made his pain whilst the filming of the "Deadly 60" series (now airing on Nat Geo Wild on Mondays from 10pm) our pleasure.

So join the hunt with us! Dance with sharks, meet some lethal giants, and discover oddities you cannot help but share... even with the most squeamish of your friends.

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The Fate of the Last Great Wilderness

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 5:10 PM EDT

A sea whip found deep on the slope of the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007.A sea whip found deep on the slope of the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007.

 

The next chapter in our thinking about the oceans is analyzed in a new paper in PLoS ONE. The deep sea—largest of Earth's ecosystems and its last great wilderness—has been spared much of what's befallen the rest of the ocean in the last century, thanks to its remoteness. But not any more.

Technology is rapidly undressing this veiled realm, allowing us to exploit its fisheries, hydrocarbons, and minerals at depths below 2,000 meters/6,562 feet. The authors write: 

[T]he challenges facing the deep sea are large and accelerating, providing a new imperative for the science community, industry and national and international organizations to work together to develop successful exploitation management and conservation of the deep-sea ecosystem.

 
Anemone attached to a carbonate boulder at 1,500 meters/4,921 feet depth in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.Anemone attached to a carbonate boulder at 1,500 meters/4,921 feet depth in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.

The paper represents the combined thinking of 11 researchers from around the world—Spain, UK, Norway, New Zealand, Mexico, US, and France—including some of the biggest names in deep-sea research. Coauthor Lisa Levin, recently made the Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, was featured in my biodiversity article in MoJo, Gone.

Based on their own extensive experience, combined with published scientific papers, the authors provide a semi-quantitative analysis of the scale of of human activities past, present, and future.

Synergies among anthropogenic impacts on deep-sea habitats. The lines link impacts that, when found together, have a synergistic effect on habitats or faunal communities. Credit: Ramirez-Llodra E, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0022588Synergies among anthropogenic impacts on deep-sea habitats. The lines link impacts that, when found together, have a synergistic effect on habitats or faunal communities. Credit: Ramirez-Llodra E, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0022588

They assessed 28 major anthropogenic impacts (above), grouped into 3 main categories—disposal, exploitation, and climate change. They then examined those effects on 12 deep-sea habitats (below). I've added links to explanations of the terms:

  • Mid-ocean ridges, characterized by benthic sessile fauna and localised demersal and pelagic communities.

  • Sedimentary slope (excluding other specific communities found on slopes such as cold-water corals, seeps, oxygen minimum zones), characterized by demersal fauna as well as epifaunal and infaunal benthos

  • Canyons, with a high degree of habitat heterogeneity and diverse fauna varying with substratum: sessile benthos and demersal fauna characterize hard bottoms, while mobile epifauna, infauna and demersal fauna abound in association with soft sediments.

  • Seamounts, characterized by sessile benthos and abundant localised pelagic communities.

  • Cold-water coral habitats, including the frame building corals and associated species.

  • Active hydrothermal vents, characterized by benthic fauna with a high degree of endemicity.

  • Cold seeps, characterized by benthic fauna with a relatively high degree of endemicity

  • Oxygen minimum zones abutting margins, characterized by specialized benthic fauna.

  • Abyssal plains, characterized by mobile epifauna and infauna.

  • Manganese-nodule provinces, specific habitat on abyssal plains, characterized by sessile and mobile epifauna and infauna.

  • Trenches, characterized by demersal megafauna and infauna.

  • Bathypelagic water column, characterized by mid-water species.

 

Deepwater Horizon oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010. (Top) photo of the oil being discharged in the water column; (Bottom) a coral in the deep Gulf of Mexico, with attached ophiuroid, covered with oil. Credit: Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE.Deepwater Horizon oil slick in the Gulf of Mexico, 2010. (Top) photo of the oil being discharged in the water column; (Bottom) a coral in the deep Gulf of Mexico, with attached ophiuroid, covered with oil. Credit: Lophelia II 2010, NOAA OER and BOEMRE.

The authors conclude that a sea-change is underway:

Based on the current knowledge available in the scientific community and expert estimates, we suggest that the overall anthropogenic impact in the deep sea is increasing, and has evolved from mainly disposal and dumping in the late 20th century, to exploitation in the early 21st century... During the remainder of the current century, we predict that the major impact in the deep sea will be climate change, affecting the oceans globally through direct effects on the habitat and fauna as well as through synergies with other human activities.

 

Unexploded ordinance on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.Unexploded ordinance on the seafloor in the Gulf of Mexico. Credit: Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.

The deep-sea habitats most affected at present are:

  1. Sediment slopes, mainly affected by fishing—trawling, longlining, and ghost fishing caused by lost or discarded gear
  2. Cold-water corals, which are especially vulnerable to damage from fishing gear that can destroy whole communities
  3. Canyons, mainly affected by fishing 
  4. Oxygen-minimum zones, most threatened by by climate change and significant increases in hypoxia. 

 

Macro image of tiny octocorals at 1,500meters/4,921 feet in the Gulf of Mexico depth. Credit: Courtesy of Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.Macro image of tiny octocorals at 1,500meters/4,921 feet in the Gulf of Mexico depth. Credit: Courtesy of Aquapix and Expedition to the Deep Slope 2007, NOAA-OE.

They paper provides a valuable summary of protected deep-sea habits worldwide. And it describes the biggest hurdle in the life-cycle of any protected ocean area—the ability of slow-funded science to keep up with the big money of industry and development. Add bureaucratic foot-dragging into the mix and the race to protect the real value of the deep becomes even more lopsided.  

They authors close with a call to arms, suggesting that human encroachment into the deep sea creates a new conservation imperative... and that effective stewardship will require continued exploration, basic scientific research, monitoring, and conservation measures—all at the same time.

Conservation in the deep sea offers challenges in the form of knowledge gaps, climate change uncertainties, shifting jurisdictions and significant enforcement difficulties. With time, technological advances can help address these challenges. It remains to be seen whether new approaches must be developed to conserve the biodiversity and ecosystem services we value in the deepest half of the planet.

 

Credit: wrobell at Wikimedia Commons.Credit: wrobell at Wikimedia Commons.

The paper:

  • Ramirez-Llodra E, Tyler PA, Baker MC, Bergstad OA, Clark MR, et al. (2011) Man and the Last Great Wilderness: Human Impact on the Deep Sea. PLoS ONE 6(8): e22588. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0022588
 
 Cross-posted from Deep Blue Home.

New Details on Polar Bear Scientist Investigation

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 11:22 AM EDT

Some new details have emerged in the mysterious case of Charles Monnett, the government wildlife biologist under investigation by the Department of Interior's Inspector General. When Monnett, who works for the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Regulation, and Enforcement (BOEMRE) in Alaska, was placed on adminstrative leave last month pending an investigation into unspecified "integrity issues," there was speculation that the probe was linked to the biologist's 2006 paper on polar bear deaths in the Arctic. But a spokeswoman for BOEMRE insisted last week that the investigation has "nothing to do with scientific integrity, his 2006 journal article, or issues related to permitting, as has been alleged."

On Tuesday, Monnett's legal representatives at Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) released a memorandum that the IG's office issued to the biologist last Friday indicating that its investigation centers on the procurement process for a research project on "Populations and Sources of Recruitment in Polar Bears." The University of Alberta in Canada is the lead organization on the ongoing study, but BOEMRE provided a substantial portion of the funding. The agency ordered to the university to "cease and desist" all work on the study five days before Monnett was suspended in mid-July.

The IG's memo to Monnett requests an August 9 meeting to discuss "compliance with Federal Acquisition Regulations, disclosure of personal relationships, and preparation of the scope of work." The memo also states that the matter under investigation was referred to the Department of Justice, but that the agency "declined criminal prosecution."

In a release on Tuesday, PEER, which maintains there nothing untoward about his relationship with the contractors working on the project, argued that Monnett's suspension interferes with valuable work tracking polar bears. The current polar bear study "has been extraordinarily successful," the group writes, in gathering "invaluable data" about the movement of polar bears across the US-Canadian border. This is of particular importance, PEER notes, in looking at the increased distances that the bears are traveling due to sea ice decline.

A spokesman for BOEMRE declined to comment on the new details, which make it clear that there's much more to this story than was apparent last week.

PSA: How to Avoid Being Eaten by Lions

| Tue Aug. 2, 2011 5:16 AM EDT

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

Being eaten by lions is probably something we’d all like to avoid. Steve Backshall, the host of "Deadly 60" on BBC, shares his top tips to help us steer clear of the killer jaws of big cats.

 

1. Stay in the car. "Lions don’t see a car as prey, so you're safer inside," our director Giles insists. If you're in a vehicle, stay in it.

2. If you go tracking on foot be extra vigilant.

3. Always travel with a local guide. (Our team had two local guides with them at all times.)

4. Carry a big stick and a firearm. (But use them as a deterrent, never intending to inflict harm on the animal. A hurt lion is a very angry lion.)

5. Keep your eyes open: You'd be amazed how close a 500lb lion can get without you noticing.

6. Always have a "spotter." Just because you're filming one lion, doesn’t mean there isn't another behind you.

7. Travel in a group: Lions are less likely to attack a group. Our team always stuck together and no one ever went out alone.

8. Know the signs: a lion spoor (footprint) has one pointed and three oval parts.

9. Don't interrupt their lunch: If you get between them and a carcass, you could be next on the menu.

10. Know their behavior: Lions are more likely to be aggressive if there are cubs around or when they are mating. But a sleeping lion can spring up and attack in the blink of an eye, so never get complacent.

So remember, read the signs and keep your wits about you!

Organized Crime Whacks Lots of Cute Animals

| Mon Aug. 1, 2011 5:56 PM EDT
A slow loris caged at a Southeast Asian wildlife market.

Here's something that will make you loathe organized crime even more than The Godfather, Part III: Mobsters murder many adorable, beautiful animals to make huge profits.

Elizabeth Bennett of the Wildlife Conservation Society writes in a recent paper that underground wildlife smuggling operated by crime syndicates is "decimating the world's most beloved species including rhinos, tigers, and elephants on a scale never before seen."

The illegal sales of animal parts—slow loris appendages, elephant tusks, bear paws, freshwater turtle shells, tiger skulls—has exploded over the years, particularly in Africa and in countries like Vietnam and Thailand, posing an existential threat to various species. And if that weren't enough, the trade also helps ruin ecosystems and drain resources in poor countries.

The complexities of shifting smuggling routes, not to mention "e-commerce" and government corruption, have presented a daunting challenge to national efforts and international cooperation apparatuses like the ASEAN Wildlife Enforcement Network, even as certain crackdowns on illegal activities like poaching show some signs of intensifying.