Blue Marble - July 2012

Will Cape Wind Be the Next Solyndra?

| Mon Jul. 23, 2012 5:28 PM EDT

After more than a year of failing to find a scandal in the Obama administration's loan to bankrupt solar company Solyndra, House Oversight Committee Chair Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) is now probing whether the Federal Aviation Administration's approval of the Cape Wind project was "politically based."

Issa and Transportation Committee Chair John Mica (R-Fla.) sent a letter to FAA chief Michael Huerta last week saying that they have "significant questions" about the project's approval, based on emails among staff that noted that the project consideration was "political." The letter strongly indicates that the White House might have pressured the FAA to approve the offshore wind project, which would be the first in the nation, as part of its green energy agenda. "A politically based determination of the Cape Wind project by FAA is an unacceptable use of federal authority, contravenes FAA’s statutory mandate, and raises significant safety concerns for aviation in Nantucket Sound," they wrote.

The top-ranking Republicans requested any communication regarding Cape Wind between the FAA, the project developers, and the White House for the last three and a half years by the end of the month. The FAA's approval was necessary to ensure that the 130 turbines in the project didn't interfere with flight paths or radar. 

Cape Wind was first proposed back in 2001 and finally won approval in 2010, after years of political wrangling in Massachusetts. Construction is expected to start next year and begin producing power in 2015. Of course the project was political, pitting big players in the state like the governor and the Kennedys, against each other. But that doesn't mean that the FAA's initial decision to approve it was politically motivated.

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Weak Smog Rules Cost Lives

| Fri Jul. 20, 2012 12:42 PM EDT

Smog standards that the Environmental Protection Agency proposed in 2010 could save as many as 4,130 lives per year, according to a new study from researchers at Johns Hopkins University. Just one problem: those standards are on indefinite hold.

More than two years ago, the EPA unveiled tougher new rules on ozone pollution. But in September 2011, President Obama stepped in to block the new rules as part of his administration's effort to remove "regulatory burdens." New rules are delayed until 2013, at the earliest.

But as the new study confirms, there are real-life costs of delaying these regulations. The current Bush-era standard is set at 75 parts per billion. Reducing it to 70 parts per billion, which is what the EPA was expected to propose, would save 2,450 to 4,130 lives per year, the Hopkins team found. Tightening it to 60 parts per billion, the lower end of the EPA scientific panel's recommendation, would save between 5,210 and 7,990 lives per year.

This is particularly problematic during periods of extreme heat like we've seen this summer. Ozone levels rise with temperatures, contributing to poor air quality that is especially harmful to folks with asthma or other respiratory and cardiovascular conditions. It can be deadly, but it can also result in more trips to the hospital and more missed days of work and school. As Environmental Health News reports, this will only become more important in the warmer future:

"We contend that a more stringent standard would prevent a substantial number of adverse health outcomes," wrote the researchers, led by senior scientist Frank Curriero of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
The team calculated the reduced deaths by incorporating data from a variety of health studies around the country that have found that whenever ozone levels rise, deaths and hospitalizations from cardiovascular and respiratory problems rise, too.
The authors warned that as temperatures heat up due to global warming, smog levels will worsen and deaths will increase. "Implementation of tigher emissions regulation is important because ambient ozone levels are predicted to rise with changes in global climate," they wrote.

But you know, everyone can wait until after the election to worry about that.

Beyond Foxconn: More Dirt on the Factories Making Your iPhone

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Troubling new findings from a labor watchdog group are casting doubt on Apple's highly publicized promise to improve working conditions in its overseas factories. Using a combination of surveys, onsite visits, undercover investigations, and face-to-face interviews, China Labor Watch evaluated 10 factories on Apple's supply chain. (The investigation was not limited to factories run by Foxconn, Apple's largest supplier, which came under media scrutiny after a series of worker suicides but whose factories, as the Fair Labor Association previously noted, "are way, way above average.") CLW's results hone in on an issue that prior media coverage and a much-hyped FLA report on Foxconn hadn't touched upon: the fact that dispatch labor workers, who don't appear on Apple's books, make up a significant percentage of Apple's factory workers.

Dispatch laborers are hired through third-party companies (like temping agencies in the United States) and have no formal agreement with a factory. Factories use dispatch labor because it is enormously profitable: It lets them get away with no severance pay, no responsibility for occupational hazards or work-related injury, no collective bargaining, and no limit on overtime. It's the same ruthless exploitation of unregulated laborers that our Andy Kroll found in subcontracted "shadow factories" in China, and a massive loophole in Apple's pledge to protect worker's rights in its factories.

CLW found that all but one of the Apple factories they investigated relied heavily on dispatch labor. The exception to the rule? Factories belonging to Foxconn, which, after finding itself in the glare of the Western media, transferred all the dispatch laborers in their Shenzhen factories to "direct hire" status in 2011, according to CLW's report. In a different factory in the same region, CLW found that almost 90 percent of the workers were dispatch laborers.

Take that number with a grain of salt, though. CLW admits that it doesn't have the access or the data to do a thorough investigation, and critics will be quick to point out the flaws in CLW's statistics; in factories that employ tens of thousands of laborers, the highest number of surveys returned was 94. In most cases, CLW was prevented from collecting data and conducting interviews. In Shanghai, 150 surveys were seized by local police, who arrested CLW investigators and bought them bus tickets out of the province.

PHOTOS: 90 Percent of Lemurs Are Threatened

| Thu Jul. 19, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Lemurs are arguably the world's most adorable vertebrates. They're also the most endangered, according to a recent study by Conservation International. A team of researchers found that an astonishing 90 percent of the 103 species of lemurs, native to Madagascar, are nearing extinction due to hunting and habitat loss caused by illegal logging on the island—the only place in the world that they live. Here's the breakdown:

23 are now considered 'Critically Endangered', 52 are 'Endangered, 19 are 'Vulnerable' and two are 'Near Threatened'. Just three lemur species are listed as 'Least Concern'.

If the internet has never shown you a picture of lemurs—which look kind of like monkeys but are actually more closely related to the slow loris—I don't know what you've been doing with your time. But here are a few from Conservation International to catch you up to speed:

Weighing in at about five pounds, the greater bamboo lemur is the biggest of all the lemur species.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAt five pounds, the greater bamboo lemur is one of the biggest of all the lemur species. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe red-ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe red-ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka, a colorful species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka, a colorful species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe blue-eyed black lemur is the only primate species (besides humans) with blue eyes © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe critically endangered blue-eyed black lemur is the only primate species (besides humans) with blue eyes. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAt only an ounce, Madame Berthe's mouse lemur is the smallest primate in the world.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierAlso critically endangered is the Madame Berthe's mouse lemur. Weighing just an ounce,  it's the smallest primate in the world. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe indri, the largest species of lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe indri, the largest species of lemur, is among those listed as critically endangered.  © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka hangs out. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe diademed sifaka hangs out. © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe black-and-white ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. MittermeierThe black-and-white ruffed lemur © Conservation International/photo by Russell A. Mittermeier

PHOTOS: Storms and Heat Waves Sweep the Country

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 5:35 PM EDT

Please allow a few seconds for the photos to load.

Climategate Investigation Closed—With No Closure

| Wed Jul. 18, 2012 12:20 PM EDT

The police in Norfolk, England, announced on Wednesday that they have ended their investigation into the theft of a bunch of emails from climate scientists at the Climate Research Centre at the University of East Anglia in 2009—with no actual conclusion. That means we might never know who was behind what led to Climategate, an ongoing smear campaign against climate science and scientists.

The Norfolk Constabulary said in a statement that it is approaching the statutory deadline on criminal proceedings in the United Kingdom and has not determined who took more than a thousand emails from a server in November 2009 and posted them on the internet. All that they have been able to determine, the police said, is that it was a "sophisticated and carefully orchestrated attack on the CRU's data files, carried out remotely via the internet." They also said that the thief used "methods common in unlawful internet activity to obstruct enquiries."

Read also: the truth about Climategate.Read also: the truth about Climategate.

In the statement, Detective Chief Superintendant Julian Gregory, the senior investigating officer in the case, said:

Despite detailed and comprehensive enquiries, supported by experts in this field, the complex nature of this investigation means that we do not have a realistic prospect of identifying the offender or offenders and launching criminal proceedings within the time constraints imposed by law.
The international dimension of investigating the World Wide Web especially has proved extremely challenging.

Gregory also said that they found "no evidence to suggest that anyone working at or associated with the University of East Anglia was involved in the crime." While frustrating that this greatly diminishes the chance that the UK police will ever bust the perps, it does go a long way toward quashing the rumors that the emails were leaked by some angry UEA employee, which is what many in the climate-skeptic community have long alleged.

UEA issued its own response on Wednesday, expressing disappointment that the investigation didn't go anywhere. "Clearly the perpetrators were highly sophisticated and covered their tracks extremely carefully," said Edward Acton, vice chancellor of UEA. "The misinformation and conspiracy theories circulating following the publication of the stolen emails—including the theory that the hacker was a disgruntled UEA employee—did real harm to public perceptions about the dangers of climate change."

The conclusion is a boon for would-be international computer criminals, since the police all but said in the statement that there's not much they can do about this kind of crime. The investigation involved the Norfolk and Suffolk Major Investigation Team, the Met's Counter Terrorism Command, National Domestic Extremism Team, and the Police Central e-crime Unit, and still couldn't manage to turn up much. The Norfolk assistant chief noted that online crime is a "global issue," and that while police are trying to develop adequate responses, "it falls upon individuals and organizations to be alert to this and take steps to mitigate risk as far as is practicable."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Charts: Gen Xers Say "Meh" to Climate Change

| Tue Jul. 17, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Generation Xers grew up with MTV, Nirvana, and the dot-com bubble. Today, Americans born roughly between 1961 and 1981 are better educated and work longer hours than their parents, sit on their children's school boards, and take active roles in their communities. But when it comes to climate change, Gen Xers voice a resounding "meh."Tim McDonnellTim McDonnell

That's the result of a University of Michigan study that polled some 3,000 Gen Xers and found that in the last several years their overall interest in climate change has waned.

Sociologist Jon Miller, the study's author, sees this as a sign of victory for the climate disinformation campaign. "I was optimistic because this group of people is more scientifically literate; they've grown up in an era of of science and quantitative discussion, unlike their grandparents," Miller says. But the complexity of climate science, the long time scale it takes to play out, and seeds of doubt sown on the nightly news have caused many Gen Xers to simply tune it out.

The data shows a broad "migration to the middle," says Miller, with passionate voices on both ends of the spectrum quieting down in favor of passive disengagement.Tim McDonnellTim McDonnell

The trend cuts through the political spectrum, as the chart at the top of this post shows: Conservative, moderate, and liberal Gen Xers alike felt more "disengaged" about climate change than any other attitude (details on those categories here). Not surprisingly, conservatives were overwhelmingly less concerned about climate change than liberals, with moderates split more or less evenly.

 

Climate change is one of the most politicized scientific issues in recent history. Miller says that when faced with loud debate over a subject they don't fully understand and whose full impacts seem to be on the horizon, most people will just stick with their political party lines. "Democracy works best on short-term issues, so [climate change] is a real challenge," he says.

But stepping outside the Gen X bubble, a string of recent climate-related surveys suggest a society more ready and willing to grapple with global warming could be in the offing.

CHART: The State of the Science on Extreme Weather

| Mon Jul. 16, 2012 3:59 PM EDT

One of the biggest challenges when writing about climate change is explaining whether an event was "caused by" global warming. Although global warming certainly creates the conditions that facilitate extreme events like heat waves and storms, it can often be difficult to convey the state of the evidence linking specific types of events to global warming.

Fortunately, the environmental group Union of Concerned Scientists did a pretty good job of that with this new infographic:

Chew on This: The BPA Derivative in Your Fillings

| Fri Jul. 13, 2012 6:56 PM EDT

Americans just got yet another reason to brush and floss regularly.

It turns out that those tooth-colored materials dentists now use to fill most cavities are made with derivatives of bisphenol A, the controversial endocrine-disrupting chemical used in a wide range of plastic products, including polycarbonate water bottles and food-can linings. Over the past decade, the BPA derivative known as Bis-GMA has been the predominant dental filler, going into the mouths of some 100 million Americans a year, according to one expert. And now a study in the journal Pediatrics is linking Bis-GMA fillings to worse behavioral outcomes in children.

This isn't the first time dental fillings have come under scrutiny. These off-white plastic composites are the supposedly safe alternatives to silvery mercury amalgam fillings, which have raised a number of neurotoxicity concerns. The FDA considers mercury amalgams safe, although countries like Norway and Denmark have banned the use of mercury in fillings (PDF). For largely aethestic reasons, the composite fillings have exploded in popularity and now outnumber amalgam fillings 10 to 1.

Charts: Which Country Feels the Most Guilty About the Environment?

| Fri Jul. 13, 2012 7:00 AM EDT

Americans are less likely than our international friends to make sustainable consumer choices, but we're also less likely to feel bad about it, according to the National Geographic Society's annual annual Greendex report.

Researchers from NatGeo asked 17,000 people in 17 countries around the world about their habits—how much energy they use, how they get around, where their food comes from, what they think about environmental issues. And in their results, released on Thursday, they found that American consumers were the "least sustainable" for the fourth year running. India, China, and Brazil—three of the biggest emerging economies in the world—scored the highest on the survey.

It's probably not a big surprise that the United States came in last place, given our gargantuan environmental footprint and our general love of all things unsustainable—big cars, big houses, meat, air travel, etc. But what's more interesting in their findings is that people in developing countries, who tend to have much less of a personal environmental impact, actually feel the most guilt about it. "The research finds a positive relationship between the extent to which people feel guilty about their impact and the Greendex scores of average consumers in the same countries," the study found. Meanwhile, consumers in the US didn't really feel all that bad about their impact:

Even more interesting: The survey found that people in countries that were the least likely to make sustainable choices—which, after the US, includes Canada, Japan, and France—were also more likely to feel like they could have a positive impact on the environment. People in developing countries, while more likely to report practicing sustainable behaviors, also said that they didn't feel like individuals could do much to affect the environment: