Blue Marble - December 2012

How Dangerous Is the Lead in Bullets?

| Thu Jan. 3, 2013 4:33 PM EST
Don't inhale.

The most ubiquitous danger at firing ranges has a lot to do with bullets but nothing to do with getting shot.

It's all in the lead. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences found that OSHA lead exposure standards are too lax to protect military firing range employees. Repeated exposure to the toxic metal causes a raft of health problems including brain damage, high blood pressure, and anemia.

Lead is found in bullets as well as the explosive that ignites gunpowder. When a bullet is fired, it gets so hot that that lead actually vaporizes. Firing range employees breathe in the lead fumes, as well as ingest lead dust that settles on their body and clothes. OSHA sets the permissible level of atmospheric lead at 50 micrograms/meter2, but the report found that level frequently exceeded at military firing ranges, sometimes by several orders of magnitude.

The new report also finds OSHA's blood lead level recommendation of 40 µg/dL or lower to be too high. That limit hasn't changed since 1978, but subsequent research has found health problems at blood lead levels as low as 5 µg/dL. Lead is so damaging because it mimics calcium, an ion with essential roles everywhere in the body from bones to nerve cells. (It's especially dangerous for children with developing brains, which is why you hear so much about lead paint.) The report devotes more than 70 pages to detailing lead's many toxic effects in nearly every organ in the body, including the brain, blood, kidneys, heart, and reproductive organs.

How can firing range workers reduce their exposure? The most direct solution is switching to lead-free ammunition or at least jacketed bullets, which have a lead core covered with a coating made of copper or nylon. Lead has been traditionally favored because of its density, but the military has since developed lead-free ammunition that reportedly works just as well.

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Farewell Becky Tarbotton, Rainforest Action Network's Visionary Director

| Sat Dec. 29, 2012 12:55 AM EST

Becky Tarbotton, 1973-2012.

Right around the time that Madeleine Buckingham and I were taking on new roles here at Mother Jones back in 2010, Becky Tarbotton was doing the same as the new executive director for Rainforest Action Network, one of the mainstays of in-your-face but really smart environmental organizing.

Maybe that's why Becky and I hit it off so well: Figuring out these new jobs was definitely something we had in common.

Right from the start, though, it was really clear that Becky—one of a new generation of dynamic, inspiring, and field-tested visionaries coming into leadership roles in the environmental and social justice movement—was more than ready. She'd been program director at RAN for many years, knew the science, knew the policy world, and knew the importance of a kick-ass media operation and ground game.

No surprise, then, that during one of our first lunchtime conversations around the corner from RAN's downtown San Francisco office, we talked about how best to pivot our organizations to best deal with the great, new, complicated challenges of the day—challenges that the inherited patterns of thought and practice just weren't up to meeting.

I had no doubt that Becky would take RAN in the right direction. And she did. Take a look at the RAN website, and you'll see what I mean.

But now Rainforest Action Network and all of us who care about the earth and justice and democracy will have to do it without her. Becky died in an accident while on vacation a few days ago. She was 39.

Becky was carved from passionate, steely, joyful stuff. She was a young force to be reckoned with. Her death is an especially hard one, when what we assume to be a natural order in succession is upended.

Our love and deepest condolences go out to Becky's husband, Mateo, her brothers Jesse and Cameron, her mother, Mary, and the entire Rainforest Action community.

Lisa Jackson Leaves the EPA

| Thu Dec. 27, 2012 12:52 PM EST

EPA chief Lisa Jackson has stepped down after four years on the job. The NY Times puts her resignation in the context of what many perceive as a lack of climate-change action on the part of the Obama administration:

Ms. Jackson's departure comes as many in the environmental movement are questioning Mr. Obama's commitment to dealing with climate change and other environmental problems. After his re-election, and a campaign in which global warming was barely mentioned by either candidate, Mr. Obama said that his first priority would be jobs and the economy and that he intended only to foster a "conversation" on climate change in the coming months.

Here's Jackson's statement:

I want to thank President Obama for the honor he bestowed on me and the confidence he placed in me four years ago this month when he announced my nomination as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. At the time I spoke about the need to address climate change, but also said: "There is much more on the agenda: air pollution, toxic chemicals and children’s health issues, redevelopment and waste-site cleanup issues, and justice for the communities who bear disproportionate risk." As the President said earlier this year when he addressed EPA’s employees, "You help make sure the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat are safe. You help protect the environment not just for our children but their children. And you keep us moving toward energy independence…We have made historic progress on all these fronts." So, I will leave the EPA confident the ship is sailing in the right direction, and ready in my own life for new challenges, time with my family and new opportunities to make a difference.

More at NY Times.

VIDEO: Drought, Floods, and One Giant Storm: The Year in Climate Insanity

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 12:10 PM EST

2012, the hottest year on record in the United States, has been a wild year for Climate Desk. We've scoped out coal-guzzling data centers; traipsed across New York City's solar-paneled rooftops; stepped through the ashes of Colorado's record-breaking wildfire season; mingled with drought-striken cattle; been awed by the North Dakota fracking boom; cruised down the shrinking Mississippi River; strained to hear through the climate silence; seen communities pick through debris left by Superstorm Sandy; and more.

Along the way, we've depended on you to share stories and insights about this warming world, what we see as the most important issue of our time. A big thank you to all our readers, and we can't wait to give you a front-row seat to whatever 2013 has in store. To be continued…

To stay on top of the climate conversation, follow us on our website, YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter.

World Bank Says Poor People Need Coal

| Tue Dec. 18, 2012 6:18 PM EST

Last week, I reported on environmental groups calling foul on the World Bank for even considering a proposal to finance a new coal-fired power plant in Mongolia. Funding the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine project, which also includes a 750 megawatt coal plant, was out of line with the Bank's stated concern that the world is heading to devastating and irreversible climate consequences.

Rio Tinto has asked the World Bank Group's private funding arm, International Finance Corporation, for part of the money needed to start construction on the project. IFC was not able to comment at press time, but did send a lengthy email response on Tuesday. Basically they argue that poor nations need energy, that the World Bank is increasingly shifting its focus toward renewables, and that renewable energy can't meet all of Mongolia's needs.

I'll post the full response, from IFC communications officer Josef Skoldeberg, and let you evaluate for yourself:

The world must tackle the problem of climate change more aggressively. But this will be achieved by energy transitions by the largest consumers of coal, not by foreclosing on energy options that mean access to basic electricity for the world’s poorest people. This is not the terrain on which the battle against climate change will be won.
The problem with coal emissions rests squarely in the most highly industrialized nations. If you took all the developing countries in the world and added up all their emissions together, it still would be one-third of the emissions of the United States, European Union, and China combined – just one-third.
Increasingly, the World Bank Group only invests in coal in very rare circumstances - when poor countries have no other realistic options to rapidly ramp up renewable energy alternatives and power is needed for basic energy needs for hospitals, industry and factories, and to light schools, heat homes and cook meals. We have moved away from funding coal and have moved toward the funding of renewable energy. The Bank Group doubled lending for renewable energy in the last five years.
IFC has shifted its investments in the power-generation business from 70% of investments in fossil fuel-based energy to 70% of investments in renewable energy, with a new focus on off-grid and remote applications, access to energy and infrastructure. In 2011, IFC invested in Newcom, a Mongolian company that is building the country’s largest wind power project. IFC invested in Newcom because it believes that there are good opportunities to expand the use of renewable energy in Mongolia.
However, like other countries around the world, renewable energy cannot meet all of Mongolia’s immediate energy needs alone and the country’s other local resources, including coal, will likely need to play a role in its future energy mix. IFC is currently considering financing the Oyu Tolgoi copper mining project in Mongolia.
The Oyu Tolgoi mine is expected to bring significant benefits to the people of Mongolia, such as much needed jobs, government revenues and infrastructure. IFC is fully adhering to its environmental and social guidelines as they evaluate the project. To meet Mongolian requirements that the project be powered by domestic energy sources, Oyu Tolgoi is evaluating the option of a coal fired power plant for sourcing the relative large amounts of reliable power that the mine will need for continuous around the clock operation from within Mongolia.

The argument that we shouldn't be "foreclosing on energy options that mean access to basic electricity for the world’s poorest people" is not directly relevant here. This coal plant is being built to power a mine and refining operations, not homes.

Secondly, I find the argument that climate change is not the fault of developing countries a bit disingenuous. Of course it's true, but the issue is that those countries are working toward industrialization. And right now major multinational financial institutions are supporting their efforts by building in dirty energy, rather than helping them skip over those old technologies. It wasn't all that long ago that China and India were "just" developing nations. Now we're all wringing our hands about their major contributions to global warming.

It's interesting, however, that the IFC and World Bank seem to care enough about the issue to put out a lengthy and thoughtful statement. That in and of itself seems to indicate to me that they're concerned about opinions on their funding decisions as they relate to climate change.

As Secretary of State, John Kerry Would Be a Climate Hawk

| Mon Dec. 17, 2012 2:33 PM EST

Over the weekend, various news outlets reported that President Obama is going to tap Sen. John Kerry to serve as the next Secretary of State. This is not much of a surprise, since the other reported leading candidate for the post, UN ambassador Susan Rice, withdrew herself from consideration last Thursday. For climate hawks, having Kerry at the helm at State would be very good news.

Kerry is among the most fierce advocates for climate action in the Senate. Here he is in a floor speech from August talking about why climate change is "as significant a level of importance" as Syria and Iran:

Well, this issue actually is of as significant a level of importance, because it affects life itself on the planet. Because it affects ecosystems on which the oceans and the land depend for the relationship of the warmth of our earth and the amount of moisture that there is and all of the interactions that occur as a consequence of our climate.

Kerry is also the co-author of the last major climate bill anyone tried to pass in the Senate. At its rollout in September 2009, he called the bill "the beginning of one of the most important battles we will ever face, as legislators and as citizens."

He's also been a champion of international climate action since way back in 1992, when he attended the first major meeting on it in Rio, Brazil. On the 20th anniversary of the Rio summit this year, Kerry made a floor a statement on the ongoing climate paralysis:

Twenty years ago this month, a Republican President of the United States helped bring together all the world's largest economies in Rio to confront the issue of global climate change. The President was unequivocal about the mission. George Herbert Walker Bush said simply, "The United States fully intends to be the world's preeminent leader in protecting the global environment." How dramatic and sad it is that twenty years later, shockingly, we find ourselves in a strange and dangerous place on this issue—a place this former President wouldn't even recognize. When it comes to the challenge of climate change, the falsehood of today's naysayers is only matched by the complacency of our political system ... We should be compelled to fight today’s insidious conspiracy of silence on climate change—a silence that empowers misinformation and mythology to grow where science and truth should prevail. It is a conspiracy that has not just stalled, but demonized any constructive effort to put America in a position to lead the world on this issue, as President Bush promised we would and as Americans have a right to expect we will.

That's not to say that Clinton hasn't also expressed interest in climate change; she has. But it seems that it would be far higher up the priorities list for Kerry.

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IPCC Leaked Draft Prompts New Internet Flap

| Sat Dec. 15, 2012 7:08 AM EST
IPCC Chairman Rajendra Pachauri.

On Thursday, someone posted part of a draft version of the forthcoming report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) online, prompting a new round of internet freak-out over the report and the panel.

The IPCC's fifth assessment report on climate change—known as AR5—is slated for release starting in 2013. A blogger at the website Stop Green Suicide posted the draft of Working Group 1's portion of the report, which deals with the physical science of climate change, and it was reposted at the popular skeptic blog Watts Up With That. The poster was a guy by the name of Alec Rawls, who, in addition to writing about how solar activity is causing global warming, is also the son of the late philosopher John Rawls and the author of a book about how a "terrorist memorial mosque" being built near the site of the Flight 93 memorial in Pennsylvania.

Rawls signed up to be a reviewer for the draft report, which is really easy to do. Basically all you have to do is ask to see a draft and agree that you won't release it. (Seems like that last part didn't work very well here.)

Rawls says the release was justified because a lot of the scientists working on it work at public institutions, and the IPCC shouldn't be allowed to work in secret:

So may we please see this "science" on the basis of which our existing energy infrastructure is to be ripped out in favor of non-existent “green” energy? The only reason for secrecy in the first place is to enhance the UN’s political control over a scientific story line that is aimed explicitly at policy makers. Thus the drafts ought to fall within the reach of the Freedom of Information Act.

Rawls believes that the draft includes a "game-changing admission" that supports the argument that solar forcing—i.e., the sun—is causing the planet to warm, not carbon dioxide. Those claims about the new report have been pretty soundly debunked here and here.

As you can imagine, skeptics on the internet have gone bonkers over this, much like they did over the 2009 "Climategate" emails. But as with that incident, they're focusing in on a cherry-picked line that ignores everything else in the draft report.

The IPCC issued statement calling the release "unauthorized and premature," and warned that it "may lead to confusion because the text will necessarily change in some respects once all the review comments have been addressed." They did not comment on the contents of the draft report, other than noting that all drafts are "works in progress."

Like any report, it's not done until it's done, and there are likely to be more changes before it is officially released next year. Yet the incident has rekindled complaints about the IPCC's process. Andy Revkin has a good run down of those complaints, which include concerns about fixing errors and about how different working groups operate. I'll also note that while skeptics love to trash the IPCC as "alarmist," it has also been flagged for consistently underestimating climate impacts. Creating these reports involves hundreds of scientific papers, hundreds of scientists, and the review of governments, most of them working on a voluntary basis. It's almost inevitable that it would face some challenges.

Peter Frumhoff, director of science and policy at the Union of Concerned Scientists, summed up the latest flap well on Friday: "The IPCC is the most heavily scrutinized scientific body in the world. It's unfortunate, but not unexpected, that someone would abuse its peer review process. This won’t be the last attempt to undermine the IPCC."

Ouch! Sharp Lessons From Deepwater Horizon

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 7:18 AM EST
Deepwater Horizon collapsing: Photo: Stefan Leijon via Flickr.

The science journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) has published a Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Special Feature taking a look back 20 months after the explosion that killed eleven people and upended countless lives along the Gulf Coast. Specifically at what happened, what we learned, and what could be done better the next time around. The introduction is authored by Jane Lubchenco, administrator of NOAA, and Marcia McNutt, director of the USGS, among others. They write about the unprecedented scientific and engineering challenges suddenly thrown down in an arena of chaos:*

[S]topping the flow of oil, estimating the amount of oil, capturing and recovering the oil, tracking and forecasting surface oil, protecting coastal and oceanic wildlife and habitat, managing fisheries, and protecting the safety of seafood. Disciplines involved included atmospheric, oceanographic, biogeochemical, ecological, health, biological, and chemical sciences, physics, geology, and mechanical and chemical engineering. Platforms ranged from satellites and planes to ships, buoys, gliders, and remotely operated vehicles to laboratories and computer simulations... Many valuable lessons were learned that should be applied to future events.

High on their wish list:

  • The importance of preparedness. The consequences of lack of investment in recent decades in scientific understanding and technological development were brutally obvious during BP's mess.
  • Preparedness means a better basic understanding of the places likely to be affected by a spill at the scale of 'large marine ecosystems' such as the the Gulf of Mexico.
  • We need to mobilize funding for research fast during a spill, especially early on. 
  • We need a better way for government to talk to the broadly-dispersed scientific community during a spill.
  • We need a new way for scientists to maintain intellectual property of their data so that it will still be considered publishable by journals later on, even as it's released so the media and public can know what's going on in as it happens.

Here's a quick look at the findings of a few of the other papers in the special feature.

Photo: Howard Jelks via Wikimedia Commons. Mashup: Julia Whitty.

This paper begins by noting that the biological consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are unknown especially for plants and animals that live year-round in areas that were oiled. The authors studied killifish—small dwellers of the coastal marshes of the Gulf coast—during the first four months of the spill. They found that fish living in oiled areas showed significant biological changes including genetic changes. The embryos and larval forms of killifish exposed to contaminated waters showed genetic changes of the type that lead to developmental abnormalities, decreased hatching success, and decreased survival. Overall the levels of biological and genetic changes in Gulf killifish in oiled waters were similar to what was seen in fish, sea otters, and harlequin ducks who initially survived the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska but who afterwards suffered population declines. 

Photo: pennstatelive via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty.

This paper assessed the impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill on deep-water coral communities of the Gulf of Mexico. The authors examined 11 sites three to four months after the well was capped. They found healthy coral communities at all sites (map here) more than 12 miles / 20 kilometers from the Macondo well. But one site less than 7 miles / 11 kilometers away got walloped. The coral colonies there showed widespread signs of stress including: varying degrees of tissue loss; enlargement of sclerites (small bonelike supports); excess mucous production (think: snot); brittle stars (like the one wrapped around the coral sea fan in the photo above) that were bleached (think: stressed and unhealthy); and corals smothered with brown fluffy material called floc. Forty-three corals colonies were photographed at the contaminated site. About half of those colonies showed signs of stress in more than half the colony. A quarter of those colonies showed signs of stress in >90 percent of the colony. The brittle stars living commensally with the deep-water corals were hard hit too, with 53 percent displaying abnormal colors and/or attachment to the corals. Petroleum biomarkers in the floc bore the signature of oil from Deepwater Horizon. The authors write:

The presence of recently damaged and deceased corals beneath the path of a previously documented plume emanating from the Macondo well provides compelling evidence that the oil impacted deep-water ecosystems. Our findings underscore the unprecedented nature of the spill in terms of its magnitude, release at depth, and impact to deep-water ecosystems.

Photo: SkyTruth via Flickr. Mashup: Julia Whitty.

This paper reports on a wide range of gases and aerosols measured from aircraft around, downwind, and away from the Deepwater Horizon site, plus hydrocarbon measurements made from ships in the area. As you might guess air quality issues were different for workers at the site than for people living along the Gulf coast. Four sources of primary air pollutants attributable to the oil spill were detected including: hydrocarbons evaporating from the oil; smoke from deliberate burning of the oil slick; combustion products from the flaring of recovered natural gas; and ship emissions from the recovery and cleanup operations. Secondary organic aerosols that formed over the oil spill were dispersed in a wide plume which continued to increase in mass downwind, likely increasing aerosol particles in coastal communities. Hydrocarbons and ozone were also found downwind of the spill site though confined to narrower plumes.

Photo and mashup: Julia Whitty
Other papers in the special issue deal with estimating the flow rate of the well after blowout, plus the decision to cap the wellfederal seafood safety response, and a lot more. All the Deepwater Horizon papers in this PNAS issue are open access so you can read without a subscription.

This paper and this one looked at the effects of the microbial communities in reponse to the sudden eruption of oil and gas into the surface and deep waters of the Gulf. The blowout fed a deep sea bacterial bloom that ate hydrocarbons, formed a localized low-oxygen (hypoxic) zone, and altered the microbiology of the region. Blooms of microbes arose in the plumes of oiled and gassed water, plumes which then sometimes cycled on currents back to the spill site now ready populated with microbes ready to eat more erupting oil and gas. This made for an efficient natural compost system. Since crude oil is composed of thousands of different hydrocarbon compounds that biodegrade at different rates in different depths and water temperatures, the erupted plumes were colonized by different species of microbes at different stages, depths, and ages. (Thanks microbes!)

 

Jane Lubchenco, et al. Science in support of the Deepwater Horizon responsePNAS 2012. doi:10.1073/pnas.1204729109

Are Your Kids' Books Killing Tigers?

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 7:13 AM EST
Sumatran tiger cubs

Getting your kid a book this holiday season? Before you pat yourself on the back for not buying some plastic crap destined for the dump, consider this: The book you bought might actually be destroying the rainforest.

On Wednesday, the Rainforest Action Network (RAN) announced that in the pages of several popular HarperCollins children's books, it had found controversially sourced wood fibers, possibly connected to the destruction of the Indonesian rainforest.

RAN conducted independent forensic fiber tests on seven books and found that Splat the Cat: The Perfect Present for Mom & Dad, Talking Pictures: Images and Messages Rescued from the Past, and Fancy Nancy Splendiferous Christmas were composed of between 6 and 25 percent acacia fiber. According to RAN forest campaigner Robin Averbeck, ninety percent of acacia fibers come from plantations on land that used to be Indonesian rainforest.

Indonesia has the world's third largest rainforest, which contains 10 percent of the world's known plant species, 12 percent of known mammal species, and 17 percent of known bird species. But the rainforest also has one of the world's highest rates of deforestation, and Indonesia is the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, with about 80 percent of its emissions coming from the conversion of peatlands and natural forests.

The World Bank's Climate Hypocrisy

| Fri Dec. 14, 2012 7:13 AM EST

It's enough to give you whiplash. Last month, the World Bank put out a devastating new report on why 4 degrees Celsius of global warming "simply must not be allowed to occur." This month, the Bank is considering whether to provide financing for a new coal-fired power plant in Mongolia.

The World Bank Group's private funding arm, International Finance Corporation, is considering support for the Oyu Tolgoi copper and gold mine project in the South Gobi Desert, a project that also includes a 750 megawatt coal plant. Mining giant Rio Tinto is behind the venture, which is expected to cost $13.2 billion. The power plant would be used to run the mining and processing operations at what has been billed as the "world's biggest new source of copper." As NPR has reported, mining is booming in Mongolia. This plant would only intensify that trend.

The Sierra Club, Mongolia-based Oyu Tolgoi Watch, the Bank Information Center, and several other groups blasted the bank in a release on Thursday, arguing that it needs to conduct a more thorough assessment of impacts and alternatives. They argue that the bank should delay consideration until that is completed.

The groups argue that, if this funding is approved, the World Bank would be violating its own criteria for screening coal projects with regard to their climate impacts. It would also violate IFC's performance standards on environmental and social sustainability, they argue.

While the groups cite concerns about access to water supplies and local nomadic herders, the climate concern is probably the biggest. The environmental impact assessment conducted for the coal plant doesn't seem to include any figures on how much carbon dioxide it would emit annually.

The World Bank has been criticized before for continuing to fund coal plants. The World Resources Institute issued a report a few weeks ago about coal plants that are currently proposed or under construction, and it notes that the World Bank "has actually increased lending for fossil fuel projects and coal plants in recent years." That includes $5.3 billion in funding for 29 new or expanding coal plants, as reporter Dave Levitan pointed out. And just last year, the bank's own internal inspector criticized it for not adequately evaluating carbon emissions before granting a $3.75 billion loan for a coal plant in South Africa.

I asked World Bank and IFC for comment on Oyu Tolgoi, but a spokesperson IFC said it would not be able to respond by press time. I'll update when and if they do.