Blue Marble - August 2012

Climate Change Is a Great Punchline, Mitt

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 1:12 PM EDT

If you didn't catch Mitt Romney's acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention on Thursday night, you really missed an amazing snapshot of how he'll treat environmental issues as president: as a laugh line.

Here's the line from his speech last night. The stage directions are mine:

President Obama promised to begin to slow the rise of the oceans … (Pause for effect, look of mild, mocking amusement on your face. Audience will chuckle here.)

And heal the planet. (Another pause for comedic effect.)

My promise (Pause) is to help you and your family. (Cheers.)

And here's the video:

Did you get the joke? It's hilarious that President Obama cares about climate change and promised to do something about it. Mitt Romney will totally not give a crap about that at all, aren't you glad?

The Gulf Coast is, of course, just starting to recover after yet another major storm hit earlier this week. Climate change makes bad storms worse, and higher sea levels—due to both thermal expansion and the melting of the polar ice caps—also makes storm surge and the resulting flooding way worse, too. And Mitt Romney adjusted his schedule to go to New Orleans on Friday to check out the damage. I'm sure everyone there will finds his remarks really funny.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Chimps Infected with Human Diseases Pose Possible Risk to Reintroduction Efforts

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

This post first appeared on the Scientific American website.

When a wild animal is rescued from poachers or wildlife smugglers, conservationists usually make an effort to rehabilitate it and return it to life in its native habitat. But what if the animal contracted a disease from humans during captivity that could then be transmitted back to the rest of its species? Should that animal still be released?

A team of scientists working in Africa recently encountered just that conundrum. They were looking for evidence of pathogen transmission from humans to apes at two chimpanzee sanctuaries in Uganda and Zambia, but were surprised by what they found: 58 percent of the chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) tested were found to be carrying drug-resistant strains of the staph bacteria Staphylococcus aureus. Ten of the human veterinarians working at the sanctuaries also carried the bacteria. The level of infection "mirrors some of the worst-case scenarios in US hospitals and nursing homes," team member Thomas Gillespie, a primate disease ecologist and associate professor at Emory University, said in a prepared release.

According to the US Centers for Disease Control, staph can cause potentially fatal infections of the skin or blood. Drug-resistant staph causes more than 18,000 human deaths in the US every year. The strains of staph bacteria at the sanctuaries were found to be resistant at various levels to penicillin, oxacillin, trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole, erythromycin, tetracycline and clindamycin. None of the humans or chimps at the sanctuaries showed any signs of illness from the bacteria.

Carbon Cap-and-Trade Explained in 1 Simple Diagram

| Fri Aug. 31, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

James WestJames WestEvery year at the Pacific Coast Producers processing plant in Woodland, California, half a million tons of tomatoes are sliced, diced, canned, boiled, and shipped to grocery stores nationwide. The operation is driven by steam, lots of it, which comes from a suite of massive natural-gas-powered boilers. Together, these boilers emit over 25,000 metric tons (about 27,557 US tons) of greenhouse gases annually, which means PCP will be forced to join California's cap-and-trade carbon market, set to kick off in November.

The plan, which officials hope will put the country's most populous state on track to cut greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050, isn't the first carbon trading scheme in the United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, a collective of several Northeastern states (including Massachusetts, which rejoined a few years after being forced out by then-Gov. Mitt Romney), has been auctioning carbon credits, called allowances, since 2008. But unlike RGGI, which applies only to power plants, California's plan extends to all sectors of the economy, which means businesses from paper mills, oil refineries, and universities to pharmaceutical manufacturers, steel mills, and food processors like PCP will have a stake in California's campaign against climate change.

Yesterday, some 150 of those businesses got their first taste, as the curtain lifted on a dress rehearsal of the auction where companies will bid for the allowances (each worth one metric ton of carbon) that determine how much they're allowed to emit, a dry run staged to let companies get comfortable with the system and work out any kinks before it launches for real in a few months. Over the next year, about 150 allowances will be bid on, together worth anywhere from $550 million to $1 billion depending on market forces. Some will be given away for free, to help businesses adjust to the added expense.

"It's like some brave new adventure," said Mona Schulman, a PCP vice president, as she waited for the fall of the digital gavel (the auction is held online) to start bidding. "Everybody's in favor of clean air and the environment being healthy, but there's a lot of uncertainty down the road."

Barring an unforeseen advancement in steam boiler technology, Schulman said, the plant will have limited options for reducing emissions; as the cap gets lower every year, they'll be left with the tough choice of having to cut production, or shell out to other companies for their unused allowances.

Feds Greenlight Shell to Begin Arctic Drilling Prep

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 6:16 PM EDT

The Department of Interior greenlighted a plan Thursday to let Shell make drilling preparations in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, before some of the final approvals to drill in the sea are in place. The news riled enviros, who argue that the company has not demonstrated it is ready to deal with an accident in the freezing waters of the Arctic.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said that the approval is limited to "certain, limited preparatory activities." The company will be allowed to dig mud line cellars, which are holes dug about 40 feet into the sea floor in which a blow-out preventer will be placed once oil drilling actually begins. (Readers will recall that a "blowout preventer" is that thing that failed to prevent a blowout during the BP spill down in the Gulf of Mexico.) The company will also be allowed to drill down 1,400 to 1,500 feet in preparation for the two casing strings.

Salazar and other Interior officials said that they do not believe that the preparatory work will tap into any oil wells, so the company can proceed before their emergency response equipment is ready. "We are confident it can be done safely and without risk to the environment," he said.

Shell has been given most of the approvals to begin drilling in the Chukchi, but does not yet have its oil spill response barge, the Arctic Challenger, ready to begin work up in Alaska. The company has had problems with the boat, including citations for illegal discharges of hydraulic fluids earlier this month. Shell has asked for an extension of the drilling season so it can get more time up there after the barge's delay. The exploration plan Interior approved says Shell will drill until September 24, but the company wants an 18-day extension.

Enviros are not fans of the entire idea of drilling in the Arctic. It's remote, and the area is frozen over for six months out of the year, making spill cleanups extremely complicated. It's also treacherous, with heavy winds and frequent storms, and it's really dark much of the year. Allowing Shell to start work up there without having its emergency response ship in place "seems at best irresponsible," said Cindy Shogan, executive director of the Alaska Wilderness League. Margaret Williams, managing director of World Wildlife Fund's Arctic Program, was even more critical of the entire operation: "To drill in our Arctic Ocean is to gamble with its future."

Mood Lighting at Fast Food Joints Makes You Less Fat

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 2:45 PM EDT

Soft lighting and smooth jazz not only add romance to your fast-food dining experience, they also make you less likely to overeat, says a new study by Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab. Researchers transformed part of a Hardee's in Champaign, Illinois into a swanky fine-dining establishment. They left the rest of the restaurant as it was. The (very breathlessly reported) results:

Researchers hypothesized that participants in the fine-dining part would consume more as the relaxed atmosphere would cause them to linger longer and order more food than those in the fast food environment. Interestingly results showed that even though participants in the fine-dining area ate for longer than those in the main eating area they actually consumed less food! Those in the fine dining area were also no more likely to order extra food. Another surprising result is that even though participants in the fine-dining part ate less food they actually rated the food as more enjoyable, so changing the atmosphere can change food consumption and food satisfaction!

The fancy-pants diners consumed 18 percent less food than their casual counterparts. Classy!

5 Crazy Ideas to Save Coral Reefs

| Thu Aug. 30, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

Coral reef image: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons; beach umbrella: Loren Sztajer via Flickr Coral reef image: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Beach umbrella image: Loren Sztajer via Flickr

How are we going to save coral reefs in a world where carbon dioxide is changing the temperature and chemistry of the ocean at a rate unprecedented in 300 million years?

"We urge that the marine science and management communities actively solicit and evaluate all potential marine management strategies, including unconventional ones."

Three marine ecologists have written a persuasive paper in Nature Climate Change arguing that the time has come to seriously consider rolling up our sleeves and doing something.

"It's unwise to assume we will be able to stabilize atmospheric CO2 at levels necessary to reduce or prevent ongoing damage to marine ecosystems," says coauthor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. "In lieu of dealing with the core problem—increasing emissions of greenhouse gases—these techniques and approaches could ultimately represent the last resort. I hope we don't end up in the position but we must at least be prepared."

Here are a few suggestions worthy of exploration, suggest the authors, even if only on a small scale:

  1. Deploying buoyant shade cloth (it's been tried on the Great Barrier Reef) to protect corals from heat stress that leads to bleaching and death
  2. Using electrical current to stimulate coral growth and mitigate bleaching
  3. Trying selective breeding or genetic engineering to help species develop biological resistance and adaptation
  4. Maintaining or managing ocean chemistry by adding base minerals such as carbonates and silicates to neutralize acidity and help marine creatures make their shells/skeletons
  5. Convert CO2 from land-based waste into dissolved bicarbonates to add to the ocean for carbon sequestration and reduced ocean acidity 

 Coral image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Lifesaver image credit: dharma communications via Flickr.Coral image credit: Nick Hobgood via Wikimedia Commons. Lifesaver image credit: dharma communications via Flickr.

Why the urgency?

Well, while some species may be able to adapt to change by migrating deeper into the ocean or further from the equator, it's not going to be easy. For instance, the Great Barrier Reef would have to migrate south at the rate of nearly 10 miles (15 kilometers) a year to keep pace with the predicted increases in ocean temperatures.

"The magnitude and rapidity of these changes is likely to surpass the ability of numerous marine species to adapt and survive," Hoegh-Guldberg says.

The open-access paper:

  • Greg H. Rau, Elizabeth L. McLeod & Ove Hoegh-Guldberg. The need for new ocean conservation strategies in a high-carbon dioxide world. Nature Climate Change. 2012. doi:10.1038/nclimate1555

 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

GOP Platform: "Liberty" Will Protect the Environment

| Wed Aug. 29, 2012 2:53 PM EDT

The GOP platform for 2012 is now official, and it includes its fair share of right-wing talking points on energy and environment. That includes deriding the Obama administration's policies and espousing the kind of drill-everywhere, EPA-be-damned ideas that the GOP has become known for in recent years.

On fracking:

The current President has done nothing to disavow the scare campaign against hydraulic fracturing…We will respect the States’ proven ability to regulate the use of hydraulic fracturing, continue development of oil and gas resources in places like the Bakken formation and Marcellus Shale, and review the environmental laws that often thwart new energy exploration and production.

Meanwhile, fracking is virtually unregulated at the federal level, and state laws have massive gaps that leave many communities at risk.

On climate change:

Finally, the strategy subordinates our national security interests to environmental, energy, and international health issues, and elevates "climate change" to the level of a "severe threat" equivalent to foreign aggression. The word "climate," in fact, appears in the current President's strategy more often than Al Qaeda, nuclear proliferation, radical Islam, or weapons of mass destruction.

Actually, the words "climate change" don't even appear in the energy and environment sub-section of the platform. You have to dig way down deep in a subhead called "A Failed National Security Strategy" to find them anywhere at all.

The EPA:

The most powerful environmental policy is liberty, the central organizing principle of the American Republic and its people. Liberty alone fosters scientific inquiry, technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and information exchange. Liberty must remain the core energy behind America's environmental improvement.

There's tons of other hilarious stuff in there, like "private ownership has been our best guarantee of conscientious stewardship," and "[t]here is no place in regulatory agencies for activist regulators." Read the whole thing here.

How a Category 1 Hurricane Like Isaac Can Do Plenty of Damage

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 7:32 PM EDT
Waves crashing on Orange Beach, AL.

Update 8/29 2:15 EDT: Hurricane Isaac hit the Gulf Coast early Wednesday morning. Wind speeds have slowed, but the storm moving at just 6 miles per hour is expected to dump rain up to 20 inches of rain over the next day.

New Orleans' federal levee system, given a $14.5 billion upgrade post-Katrina, has held back the storm surges so far.  Storm surges as high as 12 feet did overtop a local levee in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, flooding the area and leaving dozens stranded on their roofs. More than half a million Louisiana residents are also without power. Isaac is expected to weaken as it continues inland, with rain continuing for another day.

--

Exactly seven years to the day since Katrina hit, Hurricane Isaac is set to make landfall in Louisiana and Mississippi Wednesday morning. Isaac didn't rain too hard on the GOP's convention parade in Tampa, but the slow-moving and large Category 1 hurricane can still do a plenty of damage as it heads up the Mississippi.

For starters, the area covered by Hurricane Isaac is huge. The storm's outer edges are raining down on Florida and North Carolina, some 200 miles from the eye of the hurricane. The hardest hit areas along the Gulf will likely be dumped with over 24 hours of heavy rain. Earlier today, President Obama signed a declaration of emergency in Mississippi. Offshore oil rigs, which have reported wind speeds of 90 mph, are also being evacuated.

High winds create the biggest threat to coastal regions: storm surges. The crests of water pushed ashore by hurricane winds flood and destroy all property in their path. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) earlier tweeted out a specific warning explaining the danger of storm surges.

In 2005, storm surges caused by Katrina overwhelmed the levee system, wrecking catastrophic damage across New Orleans. Isaac doesn't have the Category 5 intensity of Katrina, but even a Category 1 hurricane can do plenty of damage. For example, Hurricane Claudette in 2003 battered the coast of Texas for more than 24 hours, causing $180 million in damage. Aside from storm surges, long and heavy rain from Hurricane Isaac can cause flooding on its own.

Storm trackers might want to check out Google's Hurricane Isaac crisis map, embedded below. The full map has links to government announcements, hurricane information, and geotagged user videos.

US Cars Creeping Toward Decent MPG Standard

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 3:25 PM EDT

I've been looking to buy a car for more than a year now, an adventure I've chronicled here before. I still don't have one, largely because it's really hard to find something that meets both my high miles-per-gallon and low cost standards. But thanks to a new rule that the Obama administration finalized on Tuesday, an ideal car for me might be available … in 2025.

The EPA and the Department of Transportation announced that they had finalized rules that will require new cars and light trucks to hit a fleet-wide average of 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. The administration estimates that the increase will eliminate the need for 12 billion barrels of oil and save drivers $1.7 trillion in gas costs.

Enviros cheered the final rule, even though just a few months ago they were begging the administration to raise the number to 60 miles per gallon. How high to set the target has been a long-standing debate between automakers, enviros, and the Obama administration.

The new rules are pretty tough, particularly when you look at what's on the market right now. The best hybrids currently available are only getting in the 40s when it comes to miles-per-gallon. There are electric cars that get 99 miles-per-gallon-equivalent right now, but those are still pretty rare and expensive, not to mention hard to figure out where to charge them. Meanwhile, there are a lot of cars that are waaaaay down at the bottom when it comes to fuel economy, getting 14 miles-to-the-gallon. The new rules are significant because they will bring the numbers up on the top end, but on the bottom end as well.

These latest rules follow the previous requirement that automakers reach 35.5 miles per gallon by 2016. That target was the first increase in fuel efficiency since 1990, so it was long overdue. It just might help us catch up with our foreign colleagues, as the European Union already averages 43.3 miles per gallon and Japan averages 42.6.

Butterball Turkey Employee Admits to Animal Abuse

| Tue Aug. 28, 2012 2:50 PM EDT

Back in February, the nonprofit animal advocacy group Mercy for Animals posted a video documenting workers at a North Carolina Butterball turkey facility abusing the birds. (Warning: The video is extremely graphic.)

On Tuesday, reports Mercy For Animals, one of the workers caught on tape, Brian Douglas, pled guilty to felony cruelty to animals. His sentence, according to MFA:

Douglas will serve a sentence of 30 days imprisonment, followed by 6 months intensive probation and 36 months of supervised probation. Douglas was also ordered to pay $550 in fees and fines, and provide a DNA sample to the state, and will be subject to warrantless searches. Four other Butterball employees were also charged with cruelty to animals. Their cases are still pending.

The video shows Douglas and other workers kicking and throwing turkeys and hitting them with metal rods. Pretty hard to imagine, especially if you've ever hung out with turkeys. My hens were some of the most endearing animals I've ever known. Read about my turkey adventures here.