Blue Marble - November 2011

GOP Senators Want to Fast-Track Keystone XL

| Wed Nov. 30, 2011 5:50 PM EST

A few short weeks after the Obama administration decided to put off a final decision on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, a batch of Republican senators introduced legislation today that would force the president to approve the pipeline within 60 days.

The North American Energy Security Act, put forward by Senator Dick Lugar (R-Ind.), would also put the kibosh on further study of the pipeline's environmental impact. Demand by environmental activists for a more thorough consideration of environmental impacts was one contributing factor to the pipeline's delay.

At the heart of the legislation is the oft-repeated claim that the pipeline would create 20,000 jobs, mostly in construction.

"We have a dramatic opportunity to create American jobs NOW!" Lugar said in an emphatic statement.

That figure, which comes from an estimate by TransCanada (the Canadian behemoth behind the pipeline), has become a mantra for pipeline supporters, despite having been widely debunked. In fact, a September study by Cornell University's Global Labor Institute found that the pipeline could actually kill more jobs than it creates.

Nevertheless, Lugar and co-sponsors John Hoeven (R-N.D.) and David Vitter (R-La.) have framed Obama's delayed decision as an affront to job creation, a move Natural Resources Defense Council spokesman Anthony Swift dismissed as "political theater."

The bill "is being used as a messaging piece," Swift said, adding that he thought the bill very unlikely to reach the Senate floor, much less pass into law (given Obama's recent decision to delay making a final call, it would be pretty surprising if he signed legislation mandating a rushed verdict).

"His decision to do an environmental review was an imminently sensible one, and I don't think he's likely to reverse it," Swift said.

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Biggest Marine Park Proposal Makes No One Happy

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 6:52 PM EST
 

Part of the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast of Australia.: Credit: NASA.Part of the Coral Sea off the Queensland coast of Australia. Credit: NASA.The Australian government announced last week a proposal to create the world's largest marine protected area in the phenomenally biodiverse richness of the Coral Sea.

Too bad no one's happy with it. Of course, it's in the nature of protected areas to make people unhappy for a good long while before there's any hope of making them happy.

Yellowstone National Park.: Credit: Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons.  Yellowstone National Park. Credit: Daniel Mayer via Wikimedia Commons.

Yellowstone, the world's first national park, might have triggered part two of the Civil War if there had been more people living in the West at the time. Here's what Senator Cornelius Cole of California had to say about it during legislative debate:

I have grave doubts about the propriety of passing this bill. The natural curiosities there cannot be interfered with by anything that man can do.... I cannot see how [they] can be interfered with if settlers are allowed to appropriate them....  I do not see the reason or propriety of setting apart a large tract of land of that kind in the Territories of the United States for a public park. There is abundance of public park ground in the Rocky Mountains that will never be occupied. It is all one great park, and never can be anything else.... There are some places, perhaps this is one, where persons can and would go and settle and improve and cultivate the grounds, if there be ground fit for cultivation.


Australia's Coral Sea draft marine reserve covers 989,842 square kilometers (382,180 square miles).: Courtesy Commonwealth of Australia.Australia's Coral Sea draft marine reserve covers 989,842 square kilometers (382,180 square miles). Courtesy Commonwealth of Australia.

In Australia, some fishers are mad as hell about the proposed new park. For brevity in reporting, nothing beats this article, in its entirety, from the Queensland ABC:

Commercial fishers in the Coral Sea claim they are being made scapegoats despite a long history of sustainable fishing. Rob Louden is a licence and quota holder in the Coral Sea and East Coast sea cucumber fishery. He says the proposed Commonwealth marine park will put valuable and productive fishing grounds off limits for no apparent ecological or biological reason.


Man, sea cucumber.: Credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm via Wikimedia Commons.Man, sea cucumber. Credit: Fritz Geller-Grimm via Wikimedia Commons.

Scientists and conservationists are equally unhappy with the Coral Sea proposal. From Nature News:

Hugh Possingham, director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions at the University of Queensland, points out that little more than half... of the Coral Sea reserve is proposed as a 'no take' area, in which all fishing would be banned. The world’s largest existing marine reserve, established last year by the British government around the Chagos Islands in the Indian Ocean, spans 544,000 [square kilometers] and is a no-take zone throughout. An alliance of campaigning conservation groups, including the WWF and the Pew Environment Group, argues that more of the Coral Sea should receive this level of protection.


Credit: Richard Ling via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: Richard Ling via Wikimedia Commons.

The fight is fierce—and important. Australia is struggling to create meaningful protection for much of its waters. 

But its weak draft proposal last May for a southwestern Australian marine park prompted 173 scientists to write an open letter to the government in protest. One of the co-signers, CJA Bradshaw, wrote at his blog Conservation Bites:

Basically, the proposed parks are merely a settlement between government and industry where nothing of importance is really being protected. The parks are just the leftovers industry doesn’t want. No way to ensure the long-term viability of our seas.

Barry Wrasse is a stakeholder too. Here's what he has to say.


Is Laptop Wi-Fi Murdering Your Semen?

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 5:27 PM EST
Ride on, buddy. Ride on.

According to a new study by Argentinian scientists, published in the bluntly named journal Fertility and Sterility, the electromagnetic radiation generated during wireless web-surfing might be completely bulldozing your mojo.

Here's an excerpt from the (actually pretty awkward) Reuters Health report:

The digital age has left men's nether parts in a squeeze, if you believe the latest science on semen, laptops and wireless connections. In a report...scientists describe how they got semen samples from 29 healthy men, placed a few drops under a laptop connected to the Internet via Wi-Fi and then hit download.

Four hours later, the semen was, eh, well-done.

A quarter of the sperm were no longer swimming around, for instance, compared to just 14 percent from semen samples stored at the same temperature away from the computer. And nine percent of the sperm showed DNA damage, three-fold more than the comparison samples..."Our data suggest that the use of a laptop computer wirelessly connected to the internet and positioned near the male reproductive organs may decrease human sperm quality," [Dr. Conrado Avendaño of Nascentis Medicina Reproductiva and his colleagues] write in their report. "At present we do not know whether this effect is induced by all laptop computers connected by Wi-Fi to the internet or what use conditions heighten this effect."

A separate test with a laptop that was on, but not wirelessly connected, found negligible EM radiation from the machine alone.

The study makes it clear early on that none of this—even when taken together with past scientific reports—is conclusive; these cases of MacBook-cooked spermatozoa shouldn't lead avid tech-users to prematurely freak out as if we were talking about cell phones and brain tumors. And although male infertility has been linked to things as diverse as hormone imbalance, some types of medicine, heavy smoking, and conditions that cause abnormally high temparature of the testicles, leading experts in the field are hesitant to embrace the "wireless Internet is frying your junk" narrative.

"This is not real-life biology, this is a completely artificial setting," Dr. Robert Oates, president of the Society for Male Reproduction and Urology, told Reuters. "It is scientifically interesting, but to me it doesn't have any human biological relevance...[A]ll of this angst is created for real-life actual persons that doesn't have to be."

Moreover, there has yet to be a comprehensive study that examines whether laptop use—wireless or Ethernet—has any effect whatsoever on fertility or pregnancy. So rest assured: there's still a good chance watching season four of Parks and Recreation on Hulu with your Dell resting on your lap won't make you sterile.

Ringling Bros. Circus Hit With Largest Fine Ever

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 4:24 PM EST

Following a yearlong Mother Jones investigation of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey's elephant abuse, the USDA fined Ringling Bros. $270,000 for alleged Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations from June 2007 to August 2011. It's the largest civil penalty against an exhibitor in the AWA's four-decade history. For each violation after June 2008, the USDA can fine up to $10,000. That means the USDA is most likely charging Ringling Bros. with more than 27 violations. 

In our November/December 2011 issue, Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Nelson uncovered the big top on the circus's potential Animal Welfare Act (AWA) violations: elephants whipped with bullhooks, trapped in train cars filled with their own feces, and chained in place for a good part of their lives. Now, that could change. As part of the USDA's agreement with Feld Entertainment, Ringling Bros.' corporate parent, the company will start yearly AWA compliance trainings beginning March 31, 2012 for all new employees who work with animals. That would be a stark contrast to their past cooperation with the USDA. In Nelson's investigations, Ringling Bros. handlers were shown trying to postpone USDA investigations of their elephant training sites.

Feld Entertainment waived the opportunity for a hearing. In a press release, the company explained that "Feld Entertainment made a business decision to resolve its differences with the USDA." The company claimed it was more important to focus on the future of their animal care "instead of engaging in costly and protracted litigation." Feld still denies any wrongdoing or violation of USDA regulations, despite agreeing to pay the $270,000 USDA fine.

Here is the agreement, signed the Wednesday before Thanksgiving:

 
 

Minding the Gigaton Gap

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:58 PM EST

2010's Cancun agreement on climate change called for periodic review of whether member countries were doing enough to prevent catastrophic climate change. We already know that the stated commitments on cutting emissions aren't enough to reach the goal of keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), but at least countries agreed to reevaluate down the line.

How far are we from the goal of limiting global warming to 2 degrees? Still pretty far. Even if countries make good on the emissions cuts they promised last year (which isn't likely), we're still only 60 percent of the way toward staving off the worst impacts of climate change. The United Nations Environment Program and the World Resources Institute released a report on this problem last year. It's called the "Gigaton Gap." The two groups found that even if countries meet the more ambitious end of their pledges, they'll have to find a way to cut another five gigatons of emissions if we're to keep global warming at 2 degrees.

That said, there's still a heated (sorry) debate about whether 2 degrees, the goal previously agreed to, is even strong enough. The nations that will be most impacted by climate changes have called for a 1.5 degree goal (see my coverage of the issue from 2009 and 2010). Those countries argue the lower goal is necessary to avoid major impacts in small island nations and equatorial countries—an issue that is bound to be contentious once again this year in Durban. But if we're not going to make the 2 degree goal, we're certainly not anywhere near making the 1.5 degree mark.

Negotiators finessed this issue last year by including the "Review" section in the Cancun agreement, which calls for an "assessment of the overall aggregated effect of the steps" that countries have taken. It also calls for "consideration of strengthening the long term global goal," using the latest science to determine whether a 1.5 degree goal is necessary. The first review period is supposed to begin in 2013, which is right around the corner. But exactly what that process will entail is another detail that will be up for discussion in Durban over the next two weeks.

Tom Philpott Debates Freakonomics on Local Food

| Tue Nov. 29, 2011 3:23 PM EST

Yesterday, MoJo food and ag blogger Tom Philpott went head to head with Freakonomics' Steve Sexton on LA public radio station KPCC. If you've been reading Tom's blog, you know that the two have sparred before, most recently on the topic of whether the local food movement is good for the environment. That was the topic of yesterday's debate. Listen here:

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The 2011 Hurricane Season in 4 Minutes

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 5:33 PM EST

 

 

Crazy gets beautiful in timelapse. From the NOAA visualizations YouTube page:

The 2011 Atlantic hurricane season officially ends on Nov. 30 and produced a total of 19 tropical storms of which seven became hurricanes, including three major hurricanes. This level of activity matched NOAA's predictions and continues the trend of active hurricane seasons that began in 1995. From Arlene to Sean, Hurricane Season 2011 has been very active, leading to 120 fatalities and causing more than $11 billion in property and infrastructure damage. Surprisingly, none of the first eight tropical storms reached hurricane status, a record since reliable reports started in 1851. Hurricane Irene's effects in the Caribbean and the United States lead to 55 deaths and accounted for the bulk of this season's damage, more than $10 billion. Irene was the first landfalling hurricane in New Jersey in 108 years. Hurricane Katia had far-reaching effects causing severe weather in Northern Ireland and Scotland and power blackouts as far east as Saint Petersburg in Russia. Tropical Storm Lee caused major flooding in Pennsylvania, New York and into the Canadian provinces of Quebec and Ontario. The strongest storm of the season was Ophelia, which reached category four strength in the Atlantic Ocean east of Bermuda.
 

Climate Message Gets Clarity

| Mon Nov. 28, 2011 5:04 PM EST

A fascinating new paper today in Nature Climate Change on what exactly drives climate denial in the US. It's not so much a case of people filtering information to meet their pre-existing notions of climate change.

Rather, it's that a significant proportion of people (66.3 percent) believe—wrongly—that scientists disagree about climate change. It's this misperception that drives climate skepticism.

There's good news here. From the paper:

Importantly, these findings are actionable: the myth of widespread disagreement among climate scientists over whether global warming is happening has little to no basis in truth, and it emerged, at least in part, as the result of a concerted effort to deceive the public.

So what's to be done about it? The authors suggest the problem lies in crafting the message more positively:

Some studies suggest that repeating myths in efforts to debunk them—for example, stating 'many people incorrectly believe that there is much disagreement among scientists about whether global warming is happening'—will backfire and strengthen the misperception in many minds; this occurs because information that is more familiar is deemed more likely to be true, and repeating the myth only makes it more familiar over time. Instead, efforts to 'debias' audiences should repeatedly assert the correct information—for example, 'the vast majority of climate scientists agree that human-caused global warming is happening'—because repeated assertions, in time, become more familiar and therefore more likely to be deemed true. This strategy is consistent with the literature on public information campaigns, which has long emphasized the importance of the repetition of simple, clear messages to communicate effectively with the public.

 

The paper:

  • Ding Ding, Edward W. Maibach, Xiaoquan Zhao, Connie Roser-Renouf, & Anthony Leiserowitz. Support for climate policy and societal action are linked to perceptions about scientific agreement. Nature Climate Change (2011). DOI:10.1038/nclimate1295

Salsafying Cranberry Sauce

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 5:33 PM EST

Cranberry salsa—that's salsa, not sauce—has been my Thanksgiving dinner contribution of the last few years. I gave up on the traditional stuff long ago, after too many Thanksgivings where the cranberry offering slides out of a can and plops into a bowl, maintaining its floppy cylindrical shape until someone mashes it into a gelatinous goo and sticks a spoon into it. I'd wager that secretly, only about a fourth of Thanksgiving eaters even like the stuff.

"Not so!" shouts Ian, my MoJo colleague from the next cube over. Ian hails from the fair hills of Connecticut. "In New England, cranberry sauce is an important marker of a good Thanksgiving," he tells me, glaring at me for questioning what he sees as an essential holiday coulis.

But I say, why suck the life out of this tart, crimson New England bead, reducing it to an insipid mess of sugar and limp berries? According to the Cape Cod Cranberry Growers' Association, the cranberry is one of only three fruits native to North American soil, along with the Concord grape and the blueberry. It's time to get to know the fruit in raw form, and salsa allows you to taste the tangy snap of fresh cranberries. In the recipe below, the cranberries' tartness pairs well with the heat of ginger and chilis. Orange zest pulls it all together. So what if we've wandered off the traditionalist's map? On a plate heavy with roasted, boiled, sautéed, and simmered vegetables, a bit of raw crunch is a welcome respite.

Cranberry Salsa

Recipe inspired in part by SHASH's cranberry salsa recipe on AllRecipes.com

• 1 bag of fresh cranberries
• juice and zest of 1 orange
• 1/4 cup sugar
• 2 tablespoons minced ginger
• 1-2 serrano peppers
• juice of 2 limes
• a pinch of salt
• 1 bunch of chopped cilantro

Directions: In a saucepan, heat sugar, orange zest, orange juice, and ginger with 1/4 cup water until the mixture reduces and turns syrupy. In the meantime, chop the cilantro and serranos. Combine chilis and cranberries in a food processor until finely chopped. Transfer into a bowl, and add the ginger-orange syrup. Stir in cilantro, salt, and lime juice. Add a little more sugar and lime as needed; the salsa gets better after a couple of hours of soaking in its own juices. Eat with tortilla chips as an appetizer, or serve as a side dish.

The Real Remaining Question of "Climategate"

| Wed Nov. 23, 2011 11:36 AM EST
Where's Sherlock Holmes when you need him?

The release of a new round of pilfered emails from climate scientists has so far drawn much less attention than the first iteration of "Climategate" in 2009. But one interesting thread that's reemerged is the question I set out to answer earlier this year: who's behind the hack?

It's a mystery that has remained unanswered for two years. Staff and others close to the University of East Anglia are adamant that it was not an internal leak, and that an outside party breached the server to obtain the emails. This latest batch of 5,000 emails appears to be more from those obtained in 2009, rather than a new hack. Climate skeptics keep insisting, with no proof, that this has been an inside job orchestrated by a sympathetic staffer or grad student.

The Norfolk Constabulary, the local police department responsible for the official ongoing investigation, has been mum on the whole deal. In reporting on Climategate for this magazine, the most I could get out of the police were assurances that the department was still working the case. "Due to the sensitivity of the investigation it has not been possible to share details of enquiries with the media and the public and it would be inappropriate for us to comment any further at this time," said a less-than-helpful police spokesperson via email last year.

Turns out that the coppers have been doing almost nothing about the original hack. As the BBC's Richard Black writes on the latest release (via DeSmogBlog):

The Norfolk Police clearly see it as a criminal act too, a spokesman telling me that "the contents [of the new release] will be of interest to our investigation which is ongoing."
Groups like [the Union of Concerned Scientists] are, however, beginning to ask where that investigation has got to.
I have been passed information stemming from an FoI request to Norfolk Police showing that over the past 12 months, they have spent precisely £5,649.09 on the investigation.
All of that was disbursed back in February; and all but £80.05 went on "invoices for work in the last six months."
Of all the figures surrounding the current story, that is perhaps the one that most merits further interrogation.

That's about $8,843.64 when you convert it to US currency. That hardly seems consistent with a vigorous, let's-get-to-the-bottom-of-this probe. Will this new release of hacked emails prompt a real investigation?