Blue Marble - December 2011

The Spoils of Sustainable Seafood

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 12:54 PM PST
Leatherback turtle on the nest.

The Florida longline swordfish fishery held onto its coveted received certification by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as a "sustainable" seafood yesterday. CORRECTION: The Florida swordfish fishery is the first US longline fishery to get an MSC certification.

This despite the efforts of SeaTurtles.org* to challenge the designation.

The concern of conservationists is that:

  • The Florida swordfish fishery captured ~147 endangered leatherbacks and loggerheads from 2005 to 2009—a capture rate higher than the much larger Gulf of Mexico or Hawaii longline fleets.
  • The Florida longline swordfish fishery captures and dumps dead and dying billfish, bluefin tuna, and sharks overboard, an unsustainable practice.

This isn't the first trouble the Marine Stewardship Council has generated. The self-appointed watchdog group was slapped down last year by a top-shelf collection of scientists for ignoring science in favor of bureaucracy. (I wrote about that here.)

This isn't the first trouble the Marine Stewardship Council has generated. The self-appointed watchdog group was roughed up by reports its "sustainable" Chilean sea bass was neither sustainable nor sea bass.

Last August the MSC "sustainable" label was roughed up again when a paper in Current Biology reported that genetical sampling showed nearly 1 of every 5 fillets of Chilean sea bass certified as "sustainably caught" was neither Chilean sea bass, nor from an area deemed to have a sustainable fishery. (I wrote about that here.)

The concern of SeaTurtles.org is that the Florida swordfish certification was based on a piecemeal assessment and ignored the cumulative impacts of the fishery along the US Atlantic Seaboard.

Conservationists are also concerned that next in line for certification is the Canadian longline swordfish fishery, which captures at least 1,200 turtles a year.

Same turtles, travelling the same water highways. So when is the Marine Stewardship Council going to look at the big picture, you know, the sustainable one?

A better safe seafood guide: the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch.

* In the interest of full disclosure: MoJo publisher Steve Katz is on the board of SeaTurtles.org's parent organization, Turtle Island Restoration Network.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Internal Review Dings World Bank's Funding of Massive Coal Plant

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 9:52 AM PST

I have a new article up today about Kusile, a new coal-fired power plant in South Africa that was funded in part by a loan from the US Export-Import Bank. In it, I also mentioned Medupi, a similar plant that is under construction in northern South Africa that was funded by a $3.75 billion loan from the World Bank.

But a recent report from the World Bank's internal inspector that the bank did not adequately evaluate the environmental impacts of the plant before approving the loan to Eskom. The panel found that "the magnitude of emissions from Medupi far outweighs emissions avoided" through mitigation measures, the report concludes. In addition to greenhouse gas emissions, it also cites "significant shortcomings" in the bank's consideration of water consumption, particulate pollution, or the impact on local communities. Nor were the impact of additional mines that would likely need to be created to feed the plant adequately considered.

The report didn't find that funding the plant violated bank rules on greenhouse gas emissions, but that's because the bank doesn't have clear climate targets, as Energy & Environment reporter Lisa Friedman noted earlier this month.

The report was issued after South African environmental groups requested an investigation. The report was covered in the local press on Friday (link is in Afrikaans, you'll have to pop it into Google Translate).

A Roadmap Out of Durban?

| Fri Dec. 9, 2011 3:02 AM PST
European Commissioner for Climate Action Connie Hedegaard and Chinese negotiator Xie Zhenhua meet outside the plenary hall.

It's Friday morning here in Durban, the last day of the COP17 climate negotiations and the point where things come together—or they don't. Ministers are in the final hours of intensive meetings, and some sort of decision is expected later today.

It's expected that they'll agree on the framework for the Green Climate Fund and other in-the-weeds details on issues like adaptation and clean technology. But what's not yet clear is whether countries will agree on a new timetable for when a legally binding agreement should be reached. The US has been reluctant to commit to a roadmap, while China has been somewhat ambiguous about where they stand.

Meanwhile, the European Union, the Alliance of Small Island States, and the Least Developed Countries have been firm in calling for a roadmap that indicates where all this talking about climate change is going. The three blocs released a joint statement this morning calling for just that. Here's the statement, in full:

The least developed countries, the Alliance of Small Island States and the European Union are united in their desire for an ambitious outcome in Durban.
We believe that the world has had a lot of time to think. What we need is not more thinking. What we need is more action.
The gap between our ambitions and the current pledges is simply too wide. And we need not to remind anyone of the scale of climatic threats facing the most vulnerable countries in the world as a result of climate change. The facts are clear and we are still too far from where we need to be to secure the most vulnerable countries’ right to sustainable development.
The chance to reach our objective is getting smaller as time passes and we need to start this process today. For many countries, this is a matter of survival and this process should be able to deliver an answer to meet their worries.
We need to deliver in Durban. We are ready to operationalize the Green Fund and the other Cancun institutions; to deliver what we have already agreed in Cancun. But higher ambitions on mitigation action are crucial. What we need is to effectively stop climate change. And that can only happen if all parties to the UNFCCC process will be committed to concrete efforts.
Hence, we need firm and clear decisions mapping out next steps that deliver the ambition we need. This includes agreeing an amendment of the Kyoto Protocol for the second commitment period together with a robust mandate and roadmap for a legally binding instrument. Under this instrument, all parties to the UNFCCC need to commit, respecting the principle of common but differentiated responsibility and respective capabilities.
The price of buying time is rising. Durban must deliver. The EU, LDCs and AOSIS are ready to undertake concrete obligations to manage the climate change challenge. We urge others to join.

Big Hurricanes Beget Big Earthquakes?

| Thu Dec. 8, 2011 2:35 PM PST

Where most people are of risk related to seismic activity. Click for larger image.: Credit: Benjamin D. Hennig, Sashi Research Group, University of Sheffield.A visualization of all major earthquakes compiled in the Global Significant Earthquake Database, showing where most people are at risk related to seismic activity. Click for larger image. Credit: Benjamin D. Hennig, Sasi Research Group, University of Sheffield.

A new study suggests that earthquakes, including the big temblors in Haiti and Taiwan in 2010, might have been triggered by tropical cyclones.

Researchers analyzed data from quakes of magnitude-6 and above in Taiwan and Haiti and found a strong relationship between the two, with large earthquakes occurring within a four-year window following a very wet tropical cyclone season.

In Taiwan, these extremely wet tropical cyclones possibly triggered these major earthquakes:

  • Typhoon Morakot in 2009: a 6.2 temblor in 2009 and a 6.4 in 2010

  • Typhoon Herb in 1996: a 6.2 quake in 1998 and a 7.6 in 1999

  • Typhoon Flossie: a 6.2 quake in 1972

In Haiti, the 7.0 earthquake of 2010 struck 1.5 years after a 25-day deluge when the island was drenched by two hurricanes and two tropical storms.

Tracks of all tropical cyclones worldwide from 1985 to 2005. : Credit: NASA, Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons.Tracks of all tropical cyclones worldwide from 1985 to 2005.  Credit: NASA, Nilfanion, via Wikimedia Commons.

So what's the mechanism? Possibly that rain and rain-induced landslides rapidly erode the Earth's surface above the fault, lessening its load and priming it for a release. The research, led by Shimon Wdowinski at the University of Miami, is being presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting underway in San Francisco.

Since current climate models call for the possibility of stronger tropical cyclones (and possibly more of them as well), then we might expect more big quakes where cyclones and seismic faults intersect.

Other research suggests the frequency of earthquakes increases where glaciers are rapidly melting and similarly unloading faults. So it seems our warming, stormier, and less icy world might be a shakier world too.

Negotiators Discuss Taxing Ships to Pay for Climate Change

| Thu Dec. 8, 2011 2:13 AM PST

One of the big issues under discussion at the climate talks here in Durban is how to pay for the programs that reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help people adapt to climate change. There's been a lot of work already done on setting up a multi-billion dollar Green Climate Fund, but it's still not clear where all that cash would come from.

One option on the table—and a pretty good one—is a tax on global shipping. This is generally called a "bunker" tax, referring to the place where fuel is stored on a ship. The idea is to put a fee on emissions that stem from shipping stuff all over world on cargo boats, which would have the impact of both pushing the industry to reduce its emissions, and creating a source of revenue that can be put into the Green Climate Fund.

Emissions from maritime shipping account for about 3 percent of greenhouse gases currently, but are on the rise. A levy on those emissions could generate quite a bit of money. Oxfam estimates that a fee of $25 per ton of carbon would generate $10 billion per year. Meanwhile, it would only raise the price of shipping by an estimated 0.2 percent. Part of the revenues would likely be rebated to poorer countries to make sure the tax doesn't put new burdens on their domestic industries, but the fee has still made some developing countries nervous.

It's also supported by some industry players, including the International Chamber of Shipping, which represents 80 percent of the industry. NGOs like it too. "Raising money for climate action from the shipping industry is just good policy," said Steve Herz, senior attorney with the Sierra Club's International Climate Program. "It will help reduce a large and growing source of carbon pollution, will impose little if any costs on consumers, and can be designed to protect the poor from any adverse impact."

Some developed countries (read: the United States) have been resistant to having any formal directive within the conference on where the money for the Green Climate Fund should come from; that, they argue, should be up to each of the donor countries to decide.

Another option that has been discussed is a fee on aviation. The bloc of least-developed countries has proposed a levy on all international flights, paid for by the ticket-buyer. Their argument, of course, is that if you can afford an expensive international trip, you can afford a few extra dollars to pay for your emissions. But when the European Union recently put a tax on all flights through EU countries, members of Congress freaked out; the House actually passed a bill that would forbid US airlines from paying the fee. A number of other countries were also displeased with the EU's plan. But it can be hard to get developed countries to commit to public funding for climate, and the specific amounts are offered at the discretion of political leaders or bodies. A funding stream like a bunker or aviation tax is more reliable, and it's outside the control of a particular country, which makes it an appealing option for many negotiators.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

The 10 Most Sugary Kids' Cereals

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 4:00 AM PST
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Cap'n Crunch's OOPS! All Berries is one of the 10 most sugary kids' cereals on the market, according to the Environmental Working Group.

As a kid, I once begged my mom for a product called Ice Cream Cones cereal. That name really tickled Mom, the sheer audacity of it. It wasn't even trying to sound healthy! Needless to say, Ice Cream Cones never made it into our shopping cart. Apparently, it didn't make it into very many other shopping carts either: According to Wikipedia, it lasted for only a few months in 1987.

I'd always kind of thought that the demise of Ice Cream Cones Cereal proved that even stressed-out parents wouldn't go for such an unapologetic nutritional disaster. But boy was I wrong! In perusing a new report on sugar cereals from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), I learned about many modern cereals my seven-year-old self would have been clamoring for, including Smorz, Froot Loops Marshmallows, and Cap'n Crunch's OOPS! All Berries.

In case you couldn't tell from their names, those cereals pack in a lot of sugar (or corn syrup, but as I've said before, basically same diff). And they aren't the only ones: EWG found that three of the most popular kids' cereals (Kellogg's Honey Smacks, Post Golden Crisp, and General Mills Wheaties Fuel) contain more sugar per serving by weight than a Twinkie, and 44 others have as much sugar as three Chips Ahoy cookies.

The top 10 worst, ranked by percent sugar by weight:

1 Kellogg's Honey Smacks 55.6%
2 Post Golden Crisp 51.9%
3 Kellogg's Froot Loops Marshmallow 48.3%
4 Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch's OOPS! All Berries 46.9%
5 Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch Original 44.4%
6 Quaker Oats Oh!s 44.4%
7 Kellogg's Smorz 43.3%
8 Kellogg's Apple Jacks 42.9%
9 Quaker Oats Cap'n Crunch's Crunch Berries 42.3%
10 Kellogg's Froot Loops Original 41.4%

EWG points out that the sugar content in these dessert-like cereals is much greater than federal guidelines recommend:

More than three-quarters of children’s cereals do not meet the federal Interagency Working Group's proposed nutrition guidelines for 2016. Far more meet the industry’s standards for foods nutritious enough to be marketed to children.

Eighty-two percent of General Mills children's cereals don't meet the federal guidelines, but only 5 percent fail to meet the industry's standards. Not surprisingly, General Mills has joined other food, media, and entertainment companies in calling to replace the government proposal with industry's more lenient guidelines.

But major cereal makers don't even take their own industry's targets seriously; one-fourth of children's cereals contain too much sugar.

So what's a parent to do? In my house growing up, my folks were partial to a rather dreary cereal called Amaranth Flakes. If you prefer your cereal a bit less austere, these major brands are good choices, says EWG

  • Kellogg's Mini-Wheats:
    Unfrosted Bite- Size,
    Frosted Big Bite,
    Frosted Bite-Size,
    Frosted Little Bite
  • General Mills Cheerios Original
  • General Mills Kix Original

Even cheaper, and hardly any sugar at all: a bowl of oatmeal.

The EWG has more breakfast factoids and suggestions here.

Can the US Live Up to Its Climate Pledge?

| Wed Dec. 7, 2011 3:54 AM PST

I'm in Durban, South Africa, this week for the 17th Conference of the Parties, the annual meeting through the United Nations on climate change. It's been calm here, with little of the tension and chaos of previous COPs. But that's largely because no one thinks that much is going to happen here.

The US position in the Durban climate talks remains, much like it's been for the past three years, that there's no big rush on climate change. A legally binding climate agreement, the US negotiating team has maintained, isn't as important as countries simply making good on the emission-cutting targets they've already laid out.

Of course, this soft stance is largely because our negotiators (and the rest of the world) know that the US is going to be a hard sell on a treaty. No one needs to be reminded that there's still no domestic climate policy in the US. The US agreed, first under the political agreement in Copenhagen and the official UN Framework Convention on Climate Change processes in Cancun, to cut emissions. But compared to other nations, that goal is pretty pathetic—an emissions cut of 17 percent below 2005 levels, when most other developed countries are working from a baseline of much lower 1990 emissions.

Even with that small of a goal, we're not that far along in meeting it. In a press conference on Monday, US Climate Envoy Todd Stern was asked about progress in the US on meeting that goal. That answer isn't exactly clear. Stern gave an unofficial estimate that the US has cut emissions 6 percent from 2005 levels so far, and pushed back on the idea that the US hasn't done anything. "I think that a good deal has been done by the US already, more than has ever been done before," said Stern. He cited several of the Obama administration's early actions, like increasing vehicle emission standards and investing in clean technology through the 2009 stimulus.

"It's 2011 now," he said. "We've got more than eight years to go with respect to the 2020 target."

Of course, it's not really that simple. The US can't just wake up in January 2019 and say, hey, let's cut our emissions another 11 percent in 12 months (and probably won't, if Newt Gingrich is president then). Moreover, the US will have to start, at some point, reporting on how much progress it's made on that goal formally to the rest of the world. Transparency about emissions has been, after all, the US negotiators' top priority in an agreement, and a top source of tension with other big players like China. The US will, at some point, have to be transparent about just how much it is doing at home.

Still, the US has been pretty reluctant to even have a conversation about turning the pledges into a new, legally binding treaty. Instead, the US negotiating team argues, that the current goals are firm enough under the Cancun agreement, and countries will live up to them. Stern decried "an excess of focus" on a legal agreement "as the be all and end all." That, however, is unlikely to be enough for other countries, who want to make sure that the US (and everyone else) is actually living up to the promises they've made on paper.

Fukushima Fallout

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 3:09 PM PST
Cesium-137 deposition maps.

There's been a flurry of troubling news from Fukushima's crippled nuclear power plant. Here's a recap:

  1. The Tokyo Electric Power Company estimates that of 45 tons of radioactive wastewater that leaked from the plant, some 40 gallons (150 liters)  leaked into the Pacific Ocean in recent days, reports the New Zealand Herald.

  2. The Japanese milk-powder company Meiji, whose factory lies within 200 miles (320 kilometers) of the Fukushima plant, recalled 400,000 cans of baby formula after discovering 30.8 becquerels of radioactive cesium per kilo in the product, reports the BBC. This level is considered within the safety range, though infants and children are more susceptible than adults to lower levels of exposure, and eating radiation is worse than external exposure. Until now, Meiji had been checking waterborne but not airborne radioactivity levels near their factory, reports the New York Times—hence the "new" findings.

  3. A new paper (open access) in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) reports that two episodes of rain in the days following the disaster dispersed most of the radioactive iodine, tellurium, and cesium now found in Japan's surface soils. The first rain on 15 March spread the contamination around Fukushima prefecture. The second rain on 21 March transported and deposited radiation on Ibaraki, Tochigi, Saitama, and Chiba prefectures, as well as in Tokyo.

  4. Another new paper (open access) in PNAS reports on the distribution of Cesium-137. With its half-life of 30.1 years—meaning it will lose only half its radioactivity in the next three decades—cesium-137 is the most dangerous of all fallout for livestock and hence human life in the area for decades to come. The researchers found Cesium-137 strongly contaminated soils in large areas of eastern and northeastern Japan, whereas western Japan was sheltered by its mountain ranges. Soils and ocean waters between 130–150 °E and 30–46 °N were estimated to contaminated by 5.6 and 1.0 petabecquerels, respectively.

  5. The Telegraph reports that Japan's Environment Ministry has finally granted permission to animal welfare groups to enter the no-go zone around Fukushima and rescue abandoned cats, dogs, and other pets. Many are believed to have starved to death, though several hundred are thought to be alive and running wild. Only animals whose owners have requested rescue, and who can prove they can provide shelter, will be allowed a pick up. (Somehow I imagine the rescuers will find a kinder solution than that.)

 

Attack of the Mammoth Clones?

| Tue Dec. 6, 2011 5:02 AM PST
When they bring this fella back from the dead, he's going to have some major scores to settle.

Try figuring out if this is an excerpt from an AFP story that ran on Saturday, or the synopsis for a certain 1993-Steven-Spielberg-popcorn-movie-turned-amusement-park-ride:

Scientists from Japan and Russia believe it may be possible to clone a mammoth after finding well-preserved bone marrow in a thigh bone recovered from permafrost soil in Siberia, a report said...

Teams from the Sakha Republic's mammoth museum and Japan's Kinki University will launch fully-fledged joint research next year aiming to recreate the giant mammal, Japan's Kyodo News reported from Yakutsk, Russia...[T]he discovery in August of the well-preserved thigh bone in Siberia has increased the chances of a successful cloning. Global warming has thawed ground in eastern Russia that is usually almost permanently frozen, leading to the discoveries of a number of frozen mammoths...

Now, I think I've seen this movie before...and I distinctly recall Jeff Goldblum getting brutalized by a large dinosaur.

But in all seriousness (since the Jurassic Park angle has already been done to death on this story) the report is just the latest in the teams' efforts to bring the animal back from extinction—a phase that the species of tusked mammal have dabbled in for about 100 centuries.

The clone-a-furry-prehistoric-creature formula, according to researchers, is as follows:

  • Swap out the nuclei of egg cells from an elephant for ones taken from the frozen mammoth's marrow cells, thus creating embryos with mammoth DNA.
  • Plant those special embryos into the wombs of a bunch of elephants.
  • Each elephant—a close relative of the mammoth—delivers the resurrected-mammoth baby in roughly 22 months.