Blue Marble - May 2012

Are Flame Retardants Especially Toxic to Minority Kids?

| Thu May 24, 2012 3:34 PM EDT
Kids' pajamas are one of the many household items that are often treated with flame retardants.

Earlier this month, the Chicago Tribune published an eye-opening investigation of how the chemical industry, through a far-reaching disinformation campaign, has spent years undermining efforts to ban flame retardants. These chemicals have long been added to household items like furniture, clothes, toys, blankets, and TVs, but many have been linked to cancer, neurological and developmental problems, and other serious health risks.

The Tribune series sparked headlines across the country, as well as loud calls for greater scrutiny and regulation of the potentially hazardous chemicals. Now a study posted yesterday by Environmental Health Perspectives, a leading peer-reviewed journal, provides an effective reminder of just how widespread and tenacious the problem is. The researchers examined exposure to flame retardants commonly found in furniture and reported measurable levels in the blood of all 77 toddlers, in all samples of dust collected during home visits to their households, and on 98 percent of hand swipes taken from the children, all of whom were from North Carolina.

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New Climate Threat to Critically Endangered Leatherback Sea Turtles

| Thu May 24, 2012 3:12 PM EDT

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling: Florida Fish and Wildlife via FlickrLeatherback sea turtle hatchling: Florida Fish and Wildlife via FlickrA new paper in PLoS ONE reports that critically endangered leatherback sea turtles nesting in Costa Rica—a stronghold of the surviving population—are severely affected by the warmer and drier climate that accompanies El Niño cycles.

Unfortunately, a warmer and drier climate is also exactly what's forecast for Costa Rica in a warming world in the coming century, according to IPCC projections... a whopping 3°C (5.4°F) warmer and 25 percent drier on the Pacific coast.

As the authors note, leatherback turtles are already critically in danger of extinction from egg poaching and  bycatch in fisheries. Now climate change threatens them further. From the paper:

Egg-burying reptiles need relatively stable temperature and humidity in the substrate surrounding their eggs for successful development and hatchling emergence. Here we show that egg and hatchling mortality of leatherback turtles (Dermochelys coriacea) in northwest Costa Rica were affected by climatic variability (precipitation and air temperature) driven by the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Drier and warmer conditions associated with El Niño increased egg and hatchling mortality... Using projections from an ensemble of global climate models contributed to the IPCC report, we project that egg and hatchling survival will rapidly decline in the region over the next 100 years by ~50–60%, due to warming and drying in northwestern Costa Rica, threatening the survival of leatherback turtles. Warming and drying trends may also threaten the survival of sea turtles in other areas affected by similar climate changes.

 

Hatching success and emergence rate projections of leatherback nests in 100 years of climate change: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, set al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602Hatching success and emergence rate projections of leatherback nests in 100 years of climate change: Pilar Santidrián Tomillo, et al. PLoS ONE. DOI:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602

In the graphs above you can see the authors' projections of both hatching success (the percentage of eggs within a clutch that develop completely) and emergence rate (the percentage of hatchlings that successfully emerge from the nest within two nights of the initial emergence event). From the paper:

Our model projected that both hatching success and emergence rate would significantly decrease between years 2001 and 2100 due to a warming and drying of the area encompassing northwest Costa Rica. Of the 17 IPCC models used here, 13 of them projected a decrease in precipitation while all models projected an increase in air temperature. Our projections indicated that hatching success would decrease from a 10-year moving average ~0.42 to ~0.18 from the beginning to the end of the 21st century, and emergence rate from ~0.76 to ~0.29.

 

Leatherback sea turtle hatchling: Ken Clifton | algaedoc via Wikimedia CommonsLeatherback sea turtle hatchling: Ken Clifton | algaedoc via Wikimedia Commons

As the IUCN Red List notes, the decline in nesting of leatherback turtles has been far greater than 80 percent in most Pacific populations, the species' major stronghold. Global adult female populations have fallen by more than 70 percent in less than one turtle generation. Current annual nesting  mortality for females is estimated at ~30 percent.

That means adult females stand a nearly one-in-three chance of dying every year.

Add to that the increasing rates of nesting failure in a warming world and you get the fast-track to extinction for a species that's survived 110 million years of pre-human challenges.

The paper:

  • Santidrián Tomillo P, Saba VS, Blanco GS, Stock CA, Paladino FV, et al. (2012) Climate Driven Egg and Hatchling Mortality Threatens Survival of Eastern Pacific Leatherback Turtles. PLoS ONE 7(5): e37602. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0037602

Polluters Ran Amok Under Romney, Says Watchdog

| Thu May 24, 2012 2:49 PM EDT

As governor of Massachusetts, Mitt Romney made a number of decisions that significantly limited the state's ability to crack down on environmental crimes, according to the watchdog group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER).

On Thursday, the group released a recap of Romney's efforts to cut and reorganize the state's enforcement agencies. His time as governor was marked by budget cuts, understaffed and underfunded agencies, and lax enforcement, PEER said.

Just weeks after taking office in 2003, he announced a plan to centralize the state's legal services and lay off as many as half of its attorneys, including many within the Department of Environmental Protection. In rolling out the plan, Romney's chief legal counsel Daniel Winslow singled out environmental positions as a target for cuts in an interview with Lawyers Weekly. Critics said the move would limit the state's ability to prosecute environmental crimes, as the DEP was already "chronically understaffed" and would likely have to drop some cases. In the end, Romney's reorganization plan was stymied by opposition from enviros, unions, and residents.

His administration also cut the DEP's budget by almost a third, and temporarily closed its Northeastern Regional Office in Wilmington, Mass. An internal DEP memo that the Boston Globe obtained noted that these cuts were hurting the state. "Over the long term ... these budget and staffing cuts cannot be sustained without significantly increasing risks to public health and the environment and increasing serious operational and service delivery problems for the agency," it said. 

In 2004, Romney's administration was accused of suppressing a report that detailed problems within the Massachusetts Environmental Police (MEP), which enforces laws related to pollution, wildlife and marine safety. The report, which was conducted by the International Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, found that the police staffing was "inadequate," the programs were "grossly under-funded," and that the department had "weak leadership and management." Just 105 of the 130 full-time posts were filled, and the pay for environmental enforcement officers was far lower than other law enforcement in the state.

PEER later conducted its own survey of MEP staff, and found that 97 percent of respondents felt that the police force was not sufficiently funded "to fulfill its environmental mission." Ninety-nine percent felt it wasn't sufficiently staffed. Nearly three-quarters disagreed with the statement that they had "confidence in the professionalism" of the MEP managers they report to. Staff confidence in the state's enforcement agency was pretty abysmal.

New England PEER Director Kyla Bennett says this history is indicative of Romney's disregard for enforcing the state's environmental laws. "Romney's approach to enforcement was to use it as a last resort, and to be as friendly to business as possible," she said. "I shudder to think what it would be like if he implemented those policies nationwide."

Heartland Institute in Financial Crisis After Billboard Controversy

| Thu May 24, 2012 2:43 PM EDT

The Heartland Institute

This story first appeared on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The ultra-conservative Heartland Institute admitted it was in financial crisis on Wednesday, with the flight of corporate donors making it difficult to pay staff or cover the costs of its annual conference aimed at debunking climate science.

In a speech at the close of this year's climate conference, Heartland's president, Joseph Bast, acknowledged that a provocative ad campaign comparing believers in man-made climate change to psychopaths had exacted a heavy cost.

However, Bast also attributed Heartland's current problems to his weakness in financial management.

Climate Change Will More Than Triple Annual US Heat-Death Toll

| Thu May 24, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

In an average summer in the United States, there are 1,332 heat-related deaths. But climate change will make that number rise to 4,608 by the end of the century, according to a new report from the Natural Resources Defense Council. In total, the US can expect 150,000 deaths due to excessive heat by 2100, the report projects.

The paper is based on research recently published in the journal Weather, Climate and Society that looked at the impact that hotter days and nights would have on heat-related deaths. Scientists expect temperatures to rise 4 to 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century due to human-induced climate change, and the number of days where the temperature presents a health threat will tick upward. That will be felt most in cities, where all that asphalt and glass amplify the heat and the dense population leaves more people vulnerable. Thirty-seven of 40 cities studied will see increases in heat-related deaths, they predict.

The hardest hit will be Louisville, Detroit, and Cleveland, researchers found. The average number of deaths in Louisville was 39 per summer from 1975 to 2004. That figure is expected to grow to 257 per summer by mid-century and to 376 by 2100. That's a total of 18,988 more deaths than would occur without climate change. Detroit can expect 17,877 additional deaths over the rest of this century, and Cleveland 16,625.  Many of the most affected cities are in the Midwest and Northeast, where the weather is more variable and where populations aren't as adapted to extreme heat. By comparison, Miami currently averages zero heat-related deaths, which researchers expect will continue because the temperature, while hot, is relatively stable and air conditioning is widely available.

"As temperatures continue to rise and climate variability continues to increase, we're going to have some real problems," said Larry Kalkstein, one of the paper's authors and a senior professor of geography and regional studies at the University of Miami. These heat deaths are "a silent killer," he added. It's not like a tornado, where destruction and the death tolls are readily apparent, so the public often doesn't notice escalating body counts.

And those figures might be conservative, according to NRDC's program director for climate, Dan Lashof, because they don't take into account projections on population growth in those cities, or anticipated growth in the number of sick or elderly people, who are often hit hardest in heat waves. Kalkstein also noted that it's often difficult for medical examiners to determine that a death was definitively due to heat, since it often exacerbates preexisting heart or respiratory issues. That means the baseline figures for cities could already be low. (See Mother Jones' interview with climatologist Matthew Huber for more dystopian projections.)

"This is a real wake up call," said NRDC's Lashof. "Carbon pollution has real life or death consequences."

A Little Anti-Social Behavior With Your Organic Carrots?

| Wed May 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Are people who buy organic food a bunch of selfish, judgmental a-holes? That's basically the conclusion of a new study published in the journal Social Psychology & Personality Science.

The study found that subjects who are exposed to images of organic foods "reduce prosocial behavior" and "harshen moral judgments" of others. The researcher, Kendall Eskine of Loyola University in New Orleans, took 60 people and split them into three groups. The first group was shown photos of clearly-marked organic foods, the second was shown comfort foods like cookies, and the third was shown control foods like rice or oatmeal. Then a variety of situations were laid out for them—like "second cousins having sex" or "a lawyer on the prowl in an ER trying to get people to sue for their injuries"—and they were asked to assign a moral judgment to each, on a scale of 1 to 7.

Eskine found that the organic group was more likely to judge the people in the stories harshly. The organic test subjects averaged a 5.5, while the controls averaged a 5 and the comfort food subjects averaged a 4.89. The scientists also asked the participants to state how much time they would offer to volunteer, from 1 to 30 minutes, and found that the subjects who saw the organic food photos were still jerkier than the rest. The organic food group offered to volunteer 13 minutes, while the rice people offered 19 minutes and the cookie people offered 24.

But why was the organic group meaner than the others? Eskine offers a suggestion:

"People may feel like they've done their good deed," he says. "That they have permission, or license, to act unethically later on. It's like when you go to the gym and run a few miles and you feel good about yourself, so you eat a candy bar."

The study has inspired a number of responses online to the tune of, "See, we knew those pointy-headed argula eaters were a bunch of self-important dicks." But as Jess Zimmerman points out over at Grist, the study is pretty flawed and probably aimed at pissing off organic eaters. For one, it treats shoplifting, eating your dead dog, and cousins engaging in consensual sex as equal moral issues when it averages their judgments. And secondly, it was a tiny sample size and all the subjects were college students.

Most importantly, no one in the study was actually eating food. They weren't even buying it. They were just looking at pictures of it! Staring at pictures of food would probably make me hungry and therefore more judgy and selfish, too.

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Fracking: The Music Video

| Wed May 23, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the ProPublica website.

Have you been curious what all the hubbub on "fracking" is about? Here is a fabulous music video explaining it:

Here's more about the video, which was done by David Holmes and other talented journalism students at Jay Rosen's NYU's Studio 20. It was part of their collaboration with us to build better explanations for stories. For more on fracking, its lack of regulation, and the potential for drinking water contamination, check out our now nearly three-year running investigation.

Heartland Institute Adviser: "The People That Warm Spells Kill Are Already Moribund"

| Tue May 22, 2012 7:35 PM EDT

The Heartland Institute

This story first appeard on the Guardian website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

It was an odd choice of icon for the ultra-conservative Heartland Institute. But there he was in round glasses, beard, and halo of curls staring out from T-shirts and coffee mugs at their gathering of climate change contrarians this week, the scientist whose internet sting set Heartland on its current course of collapse.

Heartland's seventh climate conference, which runs until Wednesday, was a much diminished event, compared to earlier lavish gatherings which spilled out over several floors of a hotel in New York City's Times Square and attracted up to 800 followers.

Rich People vs. Wildlife Conservation Trusts

| Tue May 22, 2012 1:35 PM EDT

It's long been clear that the super rich often believe that the law is just a minor annoyance that expensive lawyers can find away around, especially if it involves off-shore tax havens. Now, apparently, some of them are training their sights on legal restrictions that prevent them from cutting down trees to maximize the panoramic views of their country estates or expand their private jet runways.

Over the past few decades, land owners hoping to preserve wilderness areas or green space have created hundreds of conservation easements that they have then donated to land trusts. This is supposed to ensure that any future owners of the property abide by the environmental conservation restrictions. But lately, according to the New York Times, the nation's land trusts are winding up in epic legal battles with property owners who have bought land covered by such easements and proceeded to ignore them.

The Times reports on cases where wealthy property owners had ignored conservation easements to cut down hundreds of trees on wetlands, built a gravel road over a protected trout stream, and installed a manorial lawn and gardens on land required to remain in a natural wilderness state. Such flagrant violations have forced underfunded land trusts to sue the property owners to prevent more violations and to remedy the damage if possible. The Times notes that the legal battles have a common denominator: "the wealth of the property owners challenging restrictions." The legal battles have become so ubiquitious that the land trusts have been forced to set up an insurance company to help them pay the bills. The trusts typically win the cases, but which can take a decade or more to resolve, as the Times reports:

In East Haddam, Conn., defending one case against a landowner took almost a decade and cost the local trust $415,000, about half of which was covered by insurance. "It nearly brought us to our knees," said Anita Ballek, a co-founder of the East Haddam Land Trust.

The story was buried in the Sunday Times, but was a depressing piece of news, especially for people who had set up the easements in the first place to preserve their little corner of nature. The penalty for cutting down hundreds of protected trees could be a decade of expensive litigation, but the rich offenders will continue to enjoy the unobstructed views from their verandas in the meantime. And of course, once old tress are cut down, it will be decades before they return to their original state, if ever.

Apple Dumps Coal—Sort Of

| Tue May 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Last Thursday, Apple announced that it would meet the energy demands of its massive Maiden, North Carolina, data center—one of the sites providing virtual space for our ever-increasing piles of digital detritus—using entirely renewable sources by the end of 2012. The announcement came one month after Greenpeace released a damning report titled "How Clean Is Your Cloud?" targeting Apple's Maiden facility in particular for its less-than-clean sourcing from utility giant Duke Energy, which produces 60 percent of its electricity in North Carolina from coal. (Watch the Climate Desk's video about the new data center here.)

The "cloud" is slated to increase in size roughly 50-fold by 2020, a fact that Greenpeace argues makes it imperative that IT giants like Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and Apple start greening their energy, and soon. Each of these companies has numerous data centers busily converting tons of energy for our data needs, and many are located in regions where they can buy their energy on the cheap. (Check out the map after the jump to see if there's one near you). With Thursday's announcement, Apple joins the two other companies in what Greenpeace has called Duke's "dirty data triangle"—Google and Facebook—in attempting to clean up its image.