Blue Marble - February 2012

The Lorax: Blowing Smogulous Smoke

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 4:02 PM EST

Fans of The Lorax have raised concerns that the new big-screen version is neglecting the environmental message of the beloved Dr. Seuss book. The movie doesn't come out until March 2, but the initial trailer and promotional materials ignited a round of complaints on the web.

Now people are having a (rather justified) heart attack about the fact that The Lorax is now being used to cross-promote a new SUV. Earlier this week, Mazda announced that it has partnered with Universal Pictures to promote the new "'Seuss-ifed' 2013 Mazda CX-5 crossover SUV." The cross-promotion includes commercials with a cartoon version of the car driving through a valley of Truffula trees. The ads claim that the car is "Truffula tree friendly" –whatever that's supposed to mean, given that the car is a standard fuel-injection-engine SUV. Sure, it's apparently better than other SUVs on the market. But not that good.

Here's the ad:

Branding professional Jason Bittel was apparently so inspired by this atrocity that he wrote his own Seuss-tastic poem:

A Lorax-branded combustion engine? I mean, seriously?
Not a hydrogen? Not an electric?
Not even a Thneed-sponsored cross-breed?

Whoever is in charge of branding
For the Lorax’s mula-making machine -
Have you read the book you’re hijacking?
Did you misinterpret what it means?

Update: Then there's these "Lorax-approved" disposable diapers. Because, you know, there's nothing that says "we speak for the trees" like the 3.6 million tons of nappies (2 percent of total municipal waste!) that Americans throw away every year.

Update #2: That's not all. According to AP, the film has nearly 70 "launch partners." The list includes Whole Foods, Pottery Barn Kids, Stonyfield Farm, HP ("Print Like the Lorax"), Doubletree Hotels (Costa Rica "eco-travel" giveaway), and the EPA's EnergyStar program. And don't forget IHOP, which is featuring Lorax-themed dishes because "Planting trees can make you hungry!" Among the eco-friendly offerings:

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Human Superbug Started On Farms

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 6:37 PM EST
Pigs in a factory farm.

It's long been suspected that administering large amounts of antibiotics to livestock promotes antibiotic resistance.

Now a new paper in mBio describes how a particularly nasty strain of MRSA—the CC398 strain found primarily in pigs but also in cattle and poultry—likely did that. 

Sequencing the genomes of 88 closely-related strains of S. aureus, the researchers found the CC398 strain likely originated as a harmless bacterium living in humans, which acquired antibiotic resistance only after it migrated into livestock. From there it migrated back to humans, where it now causes skin infections and sepsis, mostly in farm workers.

So far the strain has not evolved the ability to transmit between humans.

From the paper:

The CC398 strain of MRSA, which appeared in 2003, is now commonplace in US livestock. 

Modern food animal production is characterized by densely concentrated animals and routine antibiotic use, which may facilitate the emergence of novel antibiotic-resistant zoonotic pathogens. Our findings strongly support the idea that livestock-associated MRSA CC398 originated as MSSA in humans. The jump of CC398 from humans to livestock was accompanied by the loss of phage-carried human virulence genes, which likely attenuated its zoonotic potential, but it was also accompanied by the acquisition of tetracycline and methicillin resistance. Our findings exemplify a bidirectional zoonotic exchange and underscore the potential public health risks of widespread antibiotic use in food animal production.

Last month the FDA announced new restrictions on antibiotics in livestock. But New Scientists reports these rules cover only 0.2 percent of antibiotics used on farms in the US.

The paper:

  • Price LB, et al. 2012. Staphylococcus aureus CC398: host adaptation and emergence of methicillin resistance in livestock. mBio 3(1):e00305-11. doi:10.1128/mBio.00305-11.

Heartland Docs Indicate It Paid Gov't Scientist for Work

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 5:50 PM EST

According to one of the documents that came out in last week's scandal, the Heartland Institute plans to pay a federal scientist for his contributions to an annual climate-denial report. The proposed 2012 budget for the institute is one of the more interesting things to come out of the Heartland documents that were passed around the internet, as it includes a $1,000-per-month payment to a Department of Interior employee.

Posted on DeSmogBlog last week, the budget includes a monthly stipend for Indur Goklany, who serves as a senior adviser in the office of policy analysis at the Department of Interior. The document indicates that the money is compensation for authoring a chapter on "economics and policy" for the "Nongovernmental International Panel on Climate Change," an annual paper that Heartland and other climate deniers release in response to the reports from the actual, United Nations-sanctioned scientific panel known as the IPCC.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.), the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on National Parks, Forests and Public Lands, on Wednesday requested a Natural Resources Committee hearing to investigate whether this payment violates ethics rules at the DOI. Greenpeace also requested an investigation into this in a letter sent to DOI Secretary Ken Salazar on Tuesday. In it, the group notes that the ethics guidelines for federal employees state that they "generally may not receive pay for teaching, speaking and writing that relates to [their] official duties."

The Heartland funding wouldn't be the first time Goklany has worked with free-market think-tanks. According to his website, Goklany has also authored three books published by the Cato Institute and has written for the Reason Foundation and the Fraser Institute, three libertarian think-tanks.

Adam Fetcher, a spokesman for DOI, told Mother Jones that the department is reviewing the matter.

Romney Super-PAC Donor Also Big Climate Hawk

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 3:39 PM EST

Over at Big Think, Matthew Nisbet flags an interesting factoid about the biggest donor to Mitt Romney's super-PAC: he's also a major donor to the Environmental Defense Fund.

Julian Robertson, a former hedge fund manager worth a reported $2.4 billion, has given $1 million to the Restore Our Future PAC, making him one of the biggest donors this year among actual people (as opposed to corporations).

As Nisbet notes, Robertson contributed more than $40 million to the Environmental Defense Fund between 2005 and 2009 "to support the group’s efforts to pass cap and trade legislation"—which accounted for nearly a third of the amount that the group spent on that effort over that time period.

Romney has been pretty squishy about the subject of climate change over the years, supporting a cap-and-trade plan as governor of Massachusetts before changing his mind. Most recently, he's taken to claiming that "we don't know what's causing climate change."

The goal of super-PAC donors is, ostensibly, to get their candidate of choice elected. But it's also about influencing that candidate's policy decisions. In Robertson's case, he's clearly spent a whole lot more money on getting climate policy passed than he has on Mitt Romney. So perhaps he's banking on Romney doing yet another about turn on climate once elected.

"Heartlandgate" Takes a Turn for the Surreal

| Tue Feb. 21, 2012 5:09 PM EST

The case of the stolen documents from the climate deniers at Heartland Institute continues to get weirder. On Monday evening, scientist and cofounder of the California-based environmental group Pacific Institute Peter H. Gleick announced to the world that he was behind the acquisition and dissemination of the Heartland documents that drew so much attention last week.

In a piece published on the Huffington Post, Gleick said he received the "strategy memo" (which Heartland says is fake, while admitting that the rest of the docs are legitimate) in the mail from an anonymous source. He then posed as someone else to solicit additional information from Heartland, which he says was a "serious lapse of my own professional judgment and ethics." He also offered his apologies, attributing it to his exhaustion at the ongoing battles over climate science:

My judgment was blinded by my frustration with the ongoing efforts—often anonymous, well-funded, and coordinated—to attack climate science and scientists and prevent this debate, and by the lack of transparency of the organizations involved. Nevertheless I deeply regret my own actions in this case. I offer my personal apologies to all those affected.

Calling what Gleick did a poor choice would be an understatement, of course, and he's been condemned by others in the environmental world for it already. Stealing or acquiring people's email by deceit is illegal and unethical, no matter who's doing it. 

And it's not going to please Heartland, which was already raising money to sue the pants off anyone and everyone who had written about the documents. Over the weekend, Heartland issued "cease and desist" letters to a number of parties that had posted the documents online, seeming to miss the irony inherent in that, given its own role in promoting emails pilfered from climate scientists. Heartland put out a statement Monday night pledging to seek legal enforcement against Gleick and accusing him of having authored the memo that it says is fake. From Heartland president Joseph L. Bast:

We are consulting with legal counsel to determine our next steps and plan to release a more complete statement about the situation tomorrow. In the meantime, we ask again that publishers, bloggers, and Web site hosts take the stolen and fraudulent documents off their sites, remove defamatory commentary based on them, and issue retractions.

Needless to say, this is getting ugly. And it's not likely to end well for anyone, considering that a drawn-out legal process would mean that both the plaintiff and the defendant will have access to all kinds of information through the discovery process. And as Heartland has made abundantly clear, it has a lot of internal stuff it doesn't want getting out there in the public eye.

Which Major Corporations Are Backing a Climate-Denier Think Tank?

| Sat Feb. 18, 2012 7:00 AM EST

Over at ThinkProgress Green, Josh Israel and Brad Johnson expose 19 major corporations backing the Heartland Institute, the think tank whose internal documents were leaked this week, laying bare its plans to teach students that climate change is a hoax and other anti-climate efforts. As my colleague Kate Sheppard reported on Thursday, the documents—posted here and here—prompted a backlash from Heartland, which deemed at least one of the documents fake and some tampered with. Interestingly, Heartland president Joseph Bast then used the incident to write to donors, first to apologize—the leaked emails identified some private donors, to whom Heartland promises anonymity "because nobody wants the risk of nutty environmentalists or Occupy Wall Street goons harassing them"—and then to ask for more money ("Now more than ever, I need you to stand by us in our time of need").

Heartland's fundraising tactics (PDF) seem to have worked well in the past, given the group's impressive suite of corporate donations in 2010 and 2011. Here's a selection of the full list* of Heartland's corporate backers, via ThinkProgress:

Altria Client Services Inc.: $90,000

Amgen, USA: $25,000

Anheuser-Busch Companies Inc.: $5,000

AT&T: $100,000

BB&T: $16,105

Comcast Corporation: $35,000

General Motors Foundation: $30,000

GlaxoSmithKline: $50,000

Microsoft Corporation: $59,908

Nucor Corporation: $502,000

PepsiCo, Inc.: $5,000

Pfizer: $130,000

Reynolds American Inc.: $110,000

Time Warner Cable: $20,000

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that the list above was the full list. The sentence has since been fixed.

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Image-of-the-Week: Boozy Fruit Flies

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 4:07 PM EST

 Credit: David Marquina Reyes via Flickr.

Credit: David Marquina Reyes via Flickr.

Fruit flies live on fruit, and a lot of fruit rots and ferments, so that fruit flies also live to some extent on alcohol. A new paper in Current Biology reports on whether this boozy lifestyle contributes anything besides slurred flight, impromptu couplings, and fruit fights (okay, I made that part up). What they found was that having an elevated blood alcohol was the best defense against a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in their bloodstream. In lab tests, researchers from Emory U in Georgia found the larvae of infected fruit flies self-medicated with booze (the first ever case for an insect) equivalent in alcohol to beer, and that boozers survived infestation better than teetotalers... To the holidays—all 365 of them.

Exxon Valdez Oil Walloping Mom and Pup Sea Otters

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 4:59 PM EST

 Sea otter nursing pup.: Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

Sea otter nursing pup: Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

A new paper in MEPS reports on the strong lingering effects of oil on sea otters in western Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of birds and thousands of marine mammals 23 years ago.

The researchers report that exposure to oil has hardly ended—and the likelihood of exposure is highest for mothers with pups than any other members of the otter population.

Although initial assessments found the Exxon Valdez oil decayed quickly and therefore was of little consequence long-term to wildlife, these assessments have not held up in the long term. From the paper:

[C]ontrary to claims of rapid recovery and limited long-term effects, ample evidence accumulated in the decades since the spill has demonstrated that not all injured species and ecosystems recovered quickly, with protracted recovery particularly evident in nearshore food webs... Sea otter population recovery rates in heavily oiled western [Prince William Sound] were about half those expected, and in areas where oiling and sea otter mortality were greatest, there was no evidence of recovery through 2000.

Click for larger image: James L. Bodkin, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523James L. Bodkin, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523

To get a better sense of why this might be, the researchers recorded the foraging behavior of 19 sea otters in waters where lingering oil and delayed ecosystem recovery have been well documented. They found that while otters can forage up to 302 feet (92 meters) deep, much foraging takes place in the more heavily-oiled waters of the intertidal zone. Here's how that breaks down:

  • Between 5 and 38% of all foraging was in the intertidal zone.
  • On average female sea otters made 16,050 intertidal dives per year.
  • 18% of the females' dives were at depths above the 262-foot-deep (0.80-meter-deep) tidal elevation.
  • Males made 4,100 intertidal dives per year.
  • 26% of male intertidal foraging took place at depths above the 262-foot-deep (80-meter-deep) tidal elevation.  

Joe Robertson via Wikimedia CommonsJoe Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, estimated annual oil encounter rates ranged from up to 24 times a year, with a conservative average of 10 times a year for females and 4 times for males.

Worrisomely, exposure rates increased in spring when intertidal foraging rates doubled and when females were nursing small pups. The problem apparently arises most from the otters' habitat of digging in intertidal and subtidal sediment for clams:

Exposure levels [to oil] cannot be quantified, and the biological and ecological consequences of the exposure that results from the identified [clam-eating] path are difficult to assess and largely remain unknown. However, we now know that variation in individual and seasonal dive patterns means that some sea otters are much more likely to be exposed to oil than others. We also know that most exposure comes at a time of year when most adult females are giving birth, and that pups have few mechanisms to avoid or mitigate exposure to oil. 


The open-access paper:

  • Bodkin JL, Ballachey BE, Coletti HA, Esslinger GG and others (2012) Long-term effects of the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill: sea otter foraging in the intertidal as a pathway of exposure to lingering oil. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523

 

Internal Heartland Institute Email Blasts "Lamestream Media" for Climate Leak

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 7:15 AM EST

It's been an interesting few days in the climate denial world. On Tuesday, DeSmogBlog and Think Progress posted what they described as internal documents from the Heartland Institute, a fossil-fuel-funded right-wing think tank that spends much of its time denying climate change. The posted documents include plans for disseminating climate change disinformation to kids and to provide funding for science deniers.

Heartland responded on Wednesday, claiming that some of the documents are real, but others are a "total fake," and still others are being reviewed. The group wrote in a press release:

The stolen documents were obtained by an unknown person who fraudulently assumed the identity of a Heartland board member and persuaded a staff member here to "re-send" board materials to a new email address. Identity theft and computer fraud are criminal offenses subject to imprisonment. We intend to find this person and see him or her put in prison for these crimes.

It's worth noting that Heartland didn't seem to mind when emails between climate scientists that were stolen from a server, made public, and lied about on the internet—either the first or second time it happened. It's only now that that type of behavior is "just despicable," a "violation of journalistic ethics," and a criminal offense.

Now Heartland is using the incident to fundraise, according to an email to donors obtained by Mother Jones on Wednesday night. The email complains that "scores of bloggers and left-wing activists and their pets in the lamestream media" are posting and quoting the documents, and says that what New York Times' Andy Revkin did—i.e. publishing some of the documents—"was not only unethical, it was also probably illegal." It also asks for donations to the organization's legal defense fund to fight "false and defamatory" stories. And it apologizes to funders whose names were made public by the incident: "We promise anonymity to many of our donors because nobody wants the risk of nutty environmentalists or Occupy Wall Street goons harassing them. We know that privacy is important to you."

The full email is below the fold:

Perfect Storm of Fire Overdue in the West

| Wed Feb. 15, 2012 5:52 PM EST

Deer and wildfire, Montana.: John McColgan, USFS, via Wikimedia Commons.Deer and wildfire, Montana: John McColgan, USFS, via Wikimedia Commons.

The western US has suffered an increasing number of large wildfires in recent years according to a new paper in PNAS. The causes are droughts, a build-up of combustible fuels—largely from trees dying of heat and insect infestations—plus the spread of fire-prone species. 

While grazing and fire suppression actually reduced wildfires below normal for most of the last century, combustible biomass rose, along with temperatures and drought. 

The convergence of these two trends—suppressed fires with more fuel—has now created conditions for a perfect storm of wildfires.

 

  Estimated historical saw timber affected by fire. Click for larger image.: Credit: Jennifer R. Marlon, et al. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1112839109.

Trends in temperature, drought, and population from charcoal, fire scars, historical, tree rings, and archeological data. Click for larger image: Jennifer R. Marlon, et al. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1112839109.

The authors based their findings on charcoal in sediments over the past 3,000 years, compared with historical wildfires and fire scars from burned trees. These data showed fewer wildfires in the 20th century than at any time besides the Little Ice Age.

Key findings:

  • Warm dry intervals like the "Medieval Warm Anomaly" between 1,000 and 700 years ago saw more burns.
  • Cool moist intervals like the "Little Ice Age" between 500 and 300 years ago saw fewer burns.
  • Short-term peaks in fires were associated with abrupt climate changes: warming or cooling.
  • Humans caused fires to shift from their 1,000-year-maximum range to their 1,000-year-minimum range in less than 100 years.
  • Climate acted synergistically with humans to increase fire events sparked by agricultural practices, clearing of forests, logging activity, and railroading. 

 

Credit: USDA via Wikimedia Commons.Credit: USDA via Wikimedia Commons.

The authors warn of the dangers of suppressing fire in a warming world. From the paper:

Based on the fire data alone, the levels of burning during the 19th and 20th centuries are not anomalous... When climate is considered however, the past approximately 150 years are remarkably anomalous. Although the current rate of biomass burning is not unusual... it is clearly out of equilibrium with the current climate. Our long-term perspective shows that the magnitude of the 20th century fire decline, while large, was matched by "natural" fire reduction during cold, moist intervals in the past. Current fire exclusion and suppression however, is taking place under conditions that are warmer and drier... which calls into question their long term efficacy.

The paper: