Blue Marble - February 2012

Maldives Political Turmoil Ousts Leading Voice on Climate Change

| Wed Feb. 8, 2012 11:25 AM EST
Former Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed in 2009.

The president of the Maldives, Mohamed Nasheed, resigned on Tuesday amid what has been described in some press accounts as a coup. There are plenty of questions about the circumstances of his departure from power, but what is clear is that it means the loss of one of the most powerful and visible international leaders on climate change.

Nasheed told reporters on Wednesday he was forced to resign at gunpoint, after what appeared to be a mutiny by police officers and protesters. From Reuters:

"Yes, I was forced to resign at gunpoint," Nasheed told reporters after his party meeting a day after his resignation. "There were guns all around me and they told me they wouldn't hesitate to use them if I didn't resign.
"I call on the chief justice to look into the matter of who was behind this coup. We will try our best to bring back the lawful government."

Yet the newly installed president, Mohammed Waheed Hassan, said on Tuesday that it was a peaceful transition. The change of power has sparked rioting in the streets as well. It's not clear at this point what will happen in the country, and a United Nations political mission is expected to visit later this week.

The tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean has a population of just 395,000, and in 2008 Nasheed became the country's first democratically elected president. In that capacity, he has been a leading international voice advocating action on climate change. To illustrate the threat that sea level rise posed to his nation, he held a cabinet meeting underwater in 2009. And in 2010 his government installed solar panels on the presidential residence and rolled out a plan to cut the country's emissions. As Maldivian Environment Minister Mohamed Aslam told Mother Jones at the time, "We are the front line, we can start dealing with it ourselves."

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Farewell Mike deGruy

| Mon Feb. 6, 2012 3:29 PM EST

I was saddened to learn of the death of cinematographer Mike deGruy in a helicopter crash off Australia Saturday. He worked wonders with underwater film and video on nature documentaries for Nat Geo, the BBC, James Cameron, and many others.

Now and then I'd run into Mike at great wild places around the world... places where manatees overwintered or whales migrated or corals spawned. We were always part of different film crews. Yet he was unfailingly generous in sharing what he knew of the place or of his latest cool equipment. He was a fun storyteller too. You can watch his TED talk on octopus here.

I admired his adventurousness in trying novel ways to get out his message about the ocean world he loved. Here's a great clip from a little known 1992 BBC series using an unsual documentary approach back then: underwater talking heads. Mike's the guy in the bubble suit.

  

 

In this TEDx talk you can hear Mike talk about his heartbreak over the 2010 BP oil debacle. He was from Mobile, Alabama, and felt the assault on the Gulf's people and wildlife keenly. (BTW, the scars on his arm visible in this clip are from an epic attack by a gray reef shark in the Marshall Islands in 1978.)

The ocean was helped immeasurably by Mike deGruy's work and life... Fair winds and following seas, Mike.

Big Coal Attacks Penn State Climate Scientist (Again)

| Fri Feb. 3, 2012 6:35 PM EST

We've documented the long-term effort to malign Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann here rather extensively. Now a coal-backed group is running a smear campaign targeting an upcoming speaking event Mann is holding on campus.

The Common Sense Movement and the Secure Energy for America Political Action Committee (CSM/SEAPAC) have started a petition asking Penn State to cancel Mann's Feb. 9 speech. In the petition, they rehash "Climategate" and accuse him of "allegedly manipulating scientific data to align with his extreme political views on global warming." The group offers a template letter for people to send to "daily newspapers near you" attacking Penn State for hosting a speech by "someone of such questionable ethics."

Who is this "Common Sense Movement"? The website claims to represent "a group of individuals and businesses committed to ensuring the availability of affordable, reliable and secure sources of energy for American consumers." But as Brad Johnson reports at Think Progress, it's a coal front group:

SEAPAC is a wing of the Pittsburgh-based astroturf group Common Sense Movement, which is running the "I Am Coal" campaign. Contributors include James Clifford Forrest III, president of coal company Rosebud Mining, David Young, president of the Bituminous Coal Operators’ Association, and the top executives of Swanson Industries, a West Virginia mining equipment company.

Yes, just your average "American consumers."

Andrew Revkin called out the group's attempt to silence Mann as a "shameful attack on free speech." Thankfully, Penn State has not cowed, as The Guardian reported on Friday.

Perhaps the best part of this is that Mann, a respected scientist, plans to talk about his new book The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars at the event—a book that's largely about this nasty effort on the part of the fossil fuel industry to undermine his work.

Tell Us: How Do You Teach Your Kids About Climate Change?

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 11:47 AM EST

When I was in New Hampshire recently, I met Sarah Larson Dennen, a teacher at Moharimet Elementary School in Madbury. We were talking about something else entirely - the decline of New England's sugar maple - but another part of our on-carmera interview has stuck with me ever since: how Sarah teaches her young students about climate change.

"Language is really key when you're talking to kids," Sarah explained. "I don't use terms like 'global warming'. I use terms like 'climate change'. And I try to back things up by really showing them data."

"I look to see that these kids are care-takers of our whole natural world," she said.

That got me thinking: how do you teach your kids about climate change? You don't want to tell your kids the world is in uttter peril… right? But if they ask about climate change, what do you say?

Climate Desk wants to hear your stories. Leave your comments below. Or - and I encourage this! - head to our YouTube page and click "Create a video response" when you're commenting:

I will include your comments and videos in a feature we're working on right now. You can also get involved by liking us on Facebook, and following us on Twitter.

 

Is Sugar as Addictive as Alcohol?

| Thu Feb. 2, 2012 5:10 AM EST

As I sit down to write this post, I'm munching on a chocolate-orange cookie, something I grabbed to get me through a mid-morning energy slump. Packed with processed sugar, this treat could be considered just some empty calories I burn off as long as I take a rigorous walk at lunch or practice yoga after work. But scientists from the University of California–San Francisco, whose article "The Toxic Truth About Sugar" came out yesterday in Nature, are hoping to change this mindset. "There is nothing empty about these calories," they write, arguing that a growing body of evidence places the blame of the worldwide increase in chronic diseases such as liver toxicity, obesity, and pancreatitis squarely on the shoulders of this pervasive ingredient.

If UCSF researcher Robert H. Lustig and his team had their way, sugar would be regulated similarly to alcohol and tobacco, and would be knocked off of a USDA list of foods "Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS)," which allows food manufacturers to add unlimited amounts to any food. Using four criteria established in 2003 to justify regulating alcohol, these scientists make a case for why sugar is a public health concern and should be regulated:

  • Sugar is unavoidable: In recent years, it is being added to almost all processed foods. Even if I avoid cookies and desserts, for example, and I think I'm controlling my intake, I'm probably still taking in more sugar than what's necessary through processed snacks, bread, condiments, and beverages. According to the USDA (PDF), the average American ate the equivalent of 52 teaspoonfuls of sugar a day in 2000, compared to the 10 teaspoonful daily maximum recommended. Per capita consumption was up 39 percent from the 1950s.
  • It's toxic: The paper maintains that excessive consumption of sugar affects health beyond just adding empty calories. The food has been linked to metabolic dysfunction and its ensuing diseases, and Lustig asserts that fructose (one of two molecules that along with glucose makes up sugar) can have the same impact on the liver as alcohol. For more on fructose, read my coworker Kiera Butler's piece on sugar versus corn syrup. Also, see Gary Taubes's article on sugar's toxicity, which features Lustig, in the New York Times magazine last spring.
  • It's addictive: This claim appears a little extreme (hard to imagine a group called Sugarholics Anonymous), but the paper cites various studies that examine human dependency on sugar. The sweetener dampens the suppression of hormones that signal hunger and satisfaction to the brain, so the more we eat, the less likely we are to realize when we've had enough of the stuff, and the more likely we are to want more.
  •  Sugar has a negative impact on society: It's been linked to metabolic dysfunction, which can lead to heart disease, obesity, liver disease, and diabetes. In 2011, the United Nations declared that for the first time ever, chronic non-communicable diseases like these posed a greater burden on the world than infectious diseases. A 2011 University of Minnesota study linked the uptick in sugar consumption over the last 30 years to an increase in average body weight. Currently, seventy-five percent of all US health-care dollars are spent on treating metabolic syndrome and its resulting diseases.

So what's to be done to curb our demand for sugar? The pie in the sky solution for the UCSF scientists is to get food manufacturers to stop adding it to everything under the sun. "But sugar is cheap, sugar tastes good and sugar sells, so companies have little incentive to change," write Lustig and crew. Another solution is to make it less accessible by taxing it. Denmark is considering a sugar tax, and the United States may soon start taxing sugary sodas per ounce.

But the idea of regulating sugar is going to face plenty of protest from the massive sugar lobby, something that Lustig and colleagues recognize.  Taking hope from the success public health officials have had in fighting the tobacco lobby and regulating smoking in places nationwide, the UCSF researchers are optimistic about the government's ability to take on sugar like it has taken on smoking.

Republicans Want to Throw Kids Under the Bus. Literally.

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 5:52 PM EST

On Tuesday, House Republicans released a transportation package that environmental groups have labeled as a massive giveaway to oil and gas interests.

It's got everything that oil companies have asked for over the years and more: drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts, increasing oil shale production, allowing much larger trucks on highways, and cutting funds for high-speed rail. And Speaker John Boehner has said he wants to attach a provision to the bill that would force approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline as well.

But here's where it gets really sad: The bill would also cut the Safe Routes to School program, a $202 million grant program that helps states and school districts make improvements so that kids and their families can walk to school without getting run over. There are many reasons this program is a good idea. Pedestrian deaths have been up in recent years, and this is one way to address that challenge. It's also better for everyone else when kids don't need a fleet of polluting minivans to get to school. And walking is good for you. Unless you get run over, that is. Then walking is bad for you.

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When It Comes to Your Genes, How Much is Too Much Information?

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 1:32 PM EST

Would you want to know if you are at risk of developing a life-threatening disease? What if it's totally incurable? What if there's only a 5 percent chance it would even happen in your lifetime? On Tuesday, an ethics group at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge launched a site designed to wrestle with exactly these types of moral questions quickly cropping up due to the increased prevalence of gene sequencing.

If you are a volunteer in a medical study, for example, and have handed over a spit sample of DNA, the survey tries to determine what responsibility researchers have to let you know if they discover something sticky you may not know about along the way. The survey (chock full of images of "scientists" very seriously pipetting) is designed to crowd-source the data collection process in hopes of gauging broad public attitudes towards genomic testing; the eventual goal is to help inform emerging public policies on the issue. And don't worry if you don't consider yourself super science-literate—the questions are all designed to hit pretty close to home. The harder part will be figuring out how you really feel about knowing what's in the cards for you.

How much would you really like to know? Visit http://www.genomethics.org to fill out the survey.

America Spends Less on Food Than Any Other Country

| Wed Feb. 1, 2012 12:40 PM EST

Like Kiera—and, I'm sure, many of the readers of her article—I was a bit shocked when I calculated how much I spend on food. I like to think I'm thrifty in my food spending habits—I cook a lot and usually eat out only on the weekends—but I don't usually add up my food costs and rarely make serious estimates for food spending when I make a budget, instead assuming that I'll manage to make do with whatever's left after I cut a check for rent, buy a bus pass, and pay my utility bills.

Of course, this kind of logic is completely insane to most people in the world, for the simple and obvious fact that food is the most important thing to budget for. It's only because I live in a rich country where having enough to eat isn't really an issue that I can be so clueless about my food spending habits; as demonstrated by the chart below, the higher a country's average income, the smaller the percentage of income spent on food. 

 

Gates FoundationGates Foundation

On some level, this is pretty intuitive—food is a basic need, and there's only so much you can eat, no matter how much money you have. But even among developed countries, our food spending is ultra-low: People in most European countries spend over 10 percent of their incomes on food. In fact, Americans spend less on food than people in any other country in the world. Even we Americans didn't always expect our food to be so cheap, though: Back in 1963, when Molly Orshansky, an employee of the Social Security Administration, created the nation's first poverty threshold, she simply tripled the cost of the FDA's "thrifty" food plan, since at the time most families spent about a third of their incomes on food. So how'd we end up spending just a fraction of that four decades later?