Blue Marble - February 2013

Good Riddance: 112th Congress Had Worst Environmental Record Ever

| Fri Feb. 22, 2013 7:26 PM EST
Climate villains.

 "The best that can be said about this session of the 112th Congress is that it's over," League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski said this week.

The sentiment comes in reaction to the League's 2012 Congressional Scorecard, released on Wednesday, which showed that in a year that saw record breaking heat waves, drought, wildfires, Hurricane Sandy, and other climate-change fueled disasters, the Republican-led House of Representatives came out with the worst environmental record ever.

The League tallies its scores by looking at each member of congress' votes on laws that have major environmental implications. Last year, the House put forth more than 100 bills, riders, and amendments related to the environment and public health, mostly with harmful effects. On top of that, House Republicans' proposals sought to trample on virtually every area related to the environment, from rolling back EPA safeguards for waterways and wildlife that stand in the way of the pursuit of coal, to limiting the president's power to preserve land as National Monuments. Not even the sea turtles were safe. Rep. Jeff Landry (R-La.) offered an amendment to a bill that would prohibit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from enforcing a rule that prohibits fishermen from snaring the endangered reptiles in their nets. (The amendment was later dropped.)

The league credited the Senate and the Obama Administration for batting down many of the most appalling affronts to the environment, but a few slipped through. What is striking in the data is how starkly the scores fell along party lines. House Democrats had an average score of 82, while their Senate counterparts scored 89. House Republicans had a score of 10, while GOP Senators' average was 17.

League of Conservation Voters 2012 Scores By Party

The divide is also reflected in the scores of party leadership. Democrats Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin were both deemed environmental champions by LCV with perfect scores of 100, while Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Minority Whip Jon Kyl both had dismal scores of 7, only voting for two eco-friendly measures that also concerned subsidies for farmers.

In the House, Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi scored 94 and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer scored 91 for their attempts to stem the deluge of environmentally corrosive laws. Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor scored 3, voting against or abstaining on everything except flood insurance reform, and Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy scored 6, voting against the protection of the water supply in his home state of California. (Speaker of the House John Boehner got a pass because the speaker votes at his own discretion.)

"These issues have traditionally been bipartisan," Jeff Gohringer, spokesperson for the League, said. "Now members of Congress are standing up for the polluter agenda over the desires of their constituents. It's been taken to a whole new level in terms of the extreme leadership in the Republican Party in the House. They've cemented their position as the worst House ever in the face of historic extreme weather all across the country."

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87 Percent of Snapper Is Mislabeled, Study Says

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 3:08 PM EST

Trust salmon, maybe red snapper, but not tuna. These are the lessons a nervous seafood eater could glean from a new study by the marine-life advocacy group Oceana. A whopping 87 percent of red snapper and 84 percent of "white" tuna tested was found to be mislabeled, the study found.*

But only seven percent of salmon—one of the most commonly consumed fish in the USwas mislabeled, making it a somewhat bright spot in a sketchy fish market.

More than 300 volunteers served as food detectives for the study, purchasing more than 1,200 samples of seafood from 674 restaurants, sushi bars, and grocery stores in in major cities between 2010 and 2012. Oceana then DNA-tested the fish to catch imposters.

So what are you eating, really? For example: The report found a hodgepodge of fish masquerading as snapper, some more palatable than others:

Chart of mislabeled snapper

The best chances of finding actual red snapper were in Miami, New York, and in Boston, where several samples of red snapper ironically turned up in a grocery store mislabeled as a different fish. In samples from out west, including San Francisco, Portland, Seattle and Los Angeles, all of the red snapper was mislabeled, according to USDA standards.

Coal Country Bank First to Report Carbon Footprint to Shareholders

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 12:04 PM EST

There's a growing interest among enviros these days in combating climate change with direct offensives against the fossil fuel industry, sights locked on its bottom line. The idea is that while we scramble to invent more efficient light bulbs and throw up solar panels, we also chip away at the mountain of money that gives the industry its power, by turning shareholders on to the idea that unwise investments can make them accomplices in global warming.

Activist investment is nothing new, of course, the best-known case being the massive movement to divest from apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. But it's gaining traction in the realm of climate change: Bill McKibben in particular has campaigned recently for colleges and universities to divest their endowments from fossil fuels, and Al Gore this month backed the efforts of Harvard students to do so.

Shareholders at a host of corporations nationwide—including Exxon Mobil, fracking giant Nabors, and, incongruously, Dunkin' Donuts—have climate-related resolutions on the table this year that aim to require companies to account to shareholders on everything from mountaintop removal to greenhouse gas emissions to renewable energy use. This week, an unexpected institution became the first major bank to join their ranks and have its climate impact interrogated by shareholders. From the LA Times:

The resolution, which follows years of protests over banks financing certain coal operations, is to be included in proxy material being sent to shareholders of PNC Financial Services Group of Pittsburgh before the bank's April 23 annual meeting.

It asks PNC to assess and report back to shareholders on how its lending results in greenhouse gas emissions that can alter the climate, posing financial risks for its corporate borrowers and risks to its own reputation.

PNC is the only major bank based in Appalachia, a region where coal and gas extraction is a major business. It has long lent to mining companies, including those engaged in mountaintop removal, which involves blowing up peaks to reach coal seams below and has been blamed for degrading landscapes, destroying habitat and polluting streams.

You might not expect a bank smack dab in the heart of coal country to have the most environmentally progressive shareholders, but then again PNC, heavily entwined with the coal industry but not as unbreakably massive as, say, Bank of America, could be fertile ground for climate leadership. The bank has in recent years tried to give itself a green makeover, but apparently not enough to satisfy the shareholders behind the resolution, including a Roman Catholic group and Walden Asset Management. The case PNC ultimately makes to its investors should be an interesting study in the practical power of wielding shares as a weapon against climate change.

Explained in 90 Seconds: Permafrost

| Thu Feb. 21, 2013 6:01 AM EST

Glaciers. They really are the pinup geological formation for climate change. But spare a thought for permafrost. Perma-what? Answer: The gigantic carbon-rich Arctic landmass, that—until recently—has locked away its greenhouse gases in a deep freeze for millennia. That is, until man-made climate change has begun to unlock its CO2 stores, only then to be devoured by methane-spewing organisms. This microbial feast is accelerating climate change. The problem: It's a feedback loop. The hotter it gets, the more the permafrost melts, the more CO2 is emitted. And around and around we go, in a devastating roundabout for Arctic communities and the entire globe. Continuing our "Explained in 90 Seconds" series, here's a primer on permafrost.

Can Sustainable Food Feed the Whole US?

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 2:23 PM EST

In the early 20th century, political ads for then-presidential candidate Herbert Hoover promised Americans continued prosperity, or a "chicken in every pot." But today, in a new era of ecological crises, does our ability to feed ourselves in the future hinge on a chicken in every backyard?

This was one of the ideas explored at last night's panel of food journalists, moderated by New York Times contributing columnist Allison Arieff and co-sponsored by Mother Jones and the San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR). Addressing a room of 70-90 modern farmer types, urban-planners, and Bay Area locals, Mother JonesTom Philpott, Earth Island Journal's Jason Mark, and former Grist.org editor Twilight Greenaway discussed issues taking up the most space on their plates, along with their vision for the future of the sustainable food movement. You can listen to their conversation here:

"The implication that we can vote with our fork will only get us so far," said Philpott, who went on to critique the idea that consumer choice and a backyard crop alone can reverse an entrenched trend of industrialized and consolidated control of the food supply. "The infrastructure for [small] farms doesn't exist," he said. "The only policy solution is federal policy."

One way to legislate change would be through anti-trust laws that dismantle Big Ag's grasp on production, Philpott explained, but even so, the sustainable food movement is dealing with its own internal struggles in attempting to expand. "What's the sweet spot for scale for the sustainable food movement?" asked Jason Mark. While organic farmers are still negotiating the balance between quality and affordability of their products, "It's a rational choice to buy junk food instead of healthy food," Mark added.

But as stubborn as the status quo may be, panelists also shared stories about small, ecology-minded innovation in the age of engineered shmeat ("meat grown on a sheet," Twilight Greenaway explained). Greenaway also discussed polyculture experiments in the Long Island Sound, and panelists bounced insights off one another about the challenges and promises of biotech in the sustainability movement. "We've got this beautiful niche happening," Philpott said of efforts to de-industrialize food production in the last decade. "But staying away from self-satisfaction," he added, "is paramount."

Monsanto: All Your Seeds Are Belong to Us

| Wed Feb. 20, 2013 6:01 AM EST

"Roundup Ready" soybeans.

Vernon Hugh Bowman, a 75-year-old Indiana farmer, says that switching to Monsanto's Roundup Ready soybeans "made things so much simpler and better." Monsanto's patented beans can survive when they are sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, also known as Roundup, which makes pest control much easier. Monsanto is less impressed with Bowman: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday on a lawsuit that the company filed against him in 2007, accusing him of violating its patent on Roundup Ready soybeans.

Here's what happened: Bowman bought seeds from a grain elevator that sold soybeans for animal feed, industrial use, or other nonplanting purposes. The elevator contained a lot of "second generation" Roundup Ready seeds—the spawn of original seeds that other farmers had bought and harvested from Monsanto. That's not surprising, since "[Roundup Ready soybeans are] probably the most rapidly adopted technological advance in history," said Seth Waxman, who is representing Monsanto. "The very first Roundup Ready soybean seed was only made in 1996. And it now is grown by more than 90 percent of  the 275,000 soybean farms in the United States."

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Yikes! Without Top Predators, CO2 Emissions Skyrocket

| Tue Feb. 19, 2013 3:43 PM EST
The three-spined stickleback is a regulator of carbon dioxide emissions in its ecosystem:

Top predators do more than regulate prey populations (think wolves and deer). They also regulate carbon dioxide emissions. At least they do in freshwater ecosystems—where if you take away the top predators CO2 emissions rise a staggering 93 percent. 

This according to a new paper in the latest Nature Geoscience that holds ramifications for a lot more than marshes. "Predators are disappearing from our ecosystems at alarming rates because of hunting and fishing pressure and because of human induced changes to their habitats," said lead author Trisha Atwood, at the University of British Columbia.

I wrote in an earlier post here on research showing how the loss of biodiversity (itself often a function of the loss of top predators) likely alters CO2 dynamics and other issues of global change as much as greenhouse gases.

The stonefly (Hesperoperla pacifica) whose presence helps keep CO2 emissions in check: Lynette S. / Lynette Schimming via Flickr

Food web theory posits that predators influence the exchange of CO2 between ecosystems and the atmosphere by altering processes like decomposition and primary production (a function of the numbers and diversity of plants).

To test that theory, the researchers experimented on three-tier food chains in experimental ponds, streams, and bromeliads in Canada and Costa Rica by removing or adding predators. Specifically by adding or removing three-spined stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus) and the invertebrate predators stoneflies (Hesperoperla pacifica) and damselflies (Mecistogaster modesta). When all the predators were removed the ecosystems emitted a whopping 93 percent more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

"We knew that predators shaped ecosystems by affecting the abundance of other plants and animals," says Atwood, "but now we know their impact extends all the way down to the biogeochemical     level."

From the paper:

We monitored carbon dioxide fluxes along with prey and primary producer biomass. We found substantially reduced carbon dioxide emissions in the presence of predators in all systems, despite differences in predator type, hydrology, climatic region, ecological zone and level of in situ primary production. We also observed lower amounts of prey biomass and higher amounts of algal and detrital biomass in the presence of predators. We conclude that predators have the potential to markedly influence carbon dioxide dynamics in freshwater systems.

The paper:

  • Trisha B. Atwood, Edd Hammill, Hamish S. Greig, Pavel Kratina, Jonathan B. Shurin, Diane S. Srivastava, John S. Richardson. Predator-induced reduction of freshwater carbon dioxide emissions. Nature Geoscience (2013). DOI:10.1038/ngeo1734

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Fish Get Stoned, Too

| Fri Feb. 15, 2013 6:25 PM EST
This is your perch on drugs.

Human anti-anxiety meds are making fish tweak out, according to a study published in the latest issue of Science.

No, this has nothing to do with the small, but dedicated group of pet-owners who try to blow pot smoke into their animals' faces (or bowls). On a larger scale, researchers have shown that highly-medicated humans and farms are regularly dosing fish through treated wastewater in rivers and streams, and with everything from antidepressants to estrogen. This paper, however, shows that fish respond in a very curious way to benzodiazepines, a class of drugs that includes meds like Klonopin, Xanax, and Valium, and one of the most popularly prescribed and abused drug types in the world.

After the four Swedish researchers involved discovered concentrations of oxazepam, a benzodiazepine, in Swedish surface waters, they decided to see how fish reacted to the meds. The scientists found that perch exposed to wastewater tainted with low and high concentrations of the drug—amounts mimicking both initial exposure and potential accumulation in fish tissue over time—showed significant changes in behavior: The fish became less social, more active, bolder, and scarfed down zooplankton faster and earlier than the control group. In other words, the fish got stoned.

The bad news is that asocial fish fixing for munchies can have serious, "ecosystem-level consequences," according to the study. Populations of fishy stoners gobbling up all the food and swimming curiously towards predators could upset the food chain equilibrium, though study authors aren't quite sure what the net outcome might be. Plus, this testing doesn't cover how fish on benzos might react to all the other pharmaceuticals in the water—and what additional ecological and toxic consequences could come of that combined exposure. These drugs, things like anticonvulsants and medication used to treat high cholesterol, commonly show up in surface water as a result of treated human waste, or when folks flush meds down the drain.

The study's authors also made note that they tested just one kind of benzodiazepine and saw major behavioral changes; the additive effects of multiple benzodiazepines on fish are unknown. There's reason to suspect that the Swedish waters they tested, which reported rates of benzodiazepine contamination comparable to American water sources, would see a cocktail of these anti-anxiety drugs, especially as prescription rates are on the rise. Benzodiazepines are also addicting and regularly misused: In the past decade in the United States alone, the number of substance abuse treatment admissions sought for benzodiazepine and pain med addictions more than quintupled.

Pharmaceuticals in the water are not currently regulated, but the FDA recommends take-back programs for prescription meds to avoid environmental contamination—an initiative that Big Pharma has fought in California. In the meantime, researchers at the EPA are attempting to keep close tabs on what happens to fish on drugs, having recently expanded a research program to collaborate with several other federal agencies.

Government Watchdog Says Climate Change and Weird Weather Will Cost Big Bucks

| Thu Feb. 14, 2013 4:16 PM EST

Every two years, the Government Accountability Office—the independent agency charged with keeping an eye on how Congress spends our money—releases a list of programs and issues that present a high risk for fraud, waste, abuse, and mismanagement. This year, for the first time, the agency added climate change planning and response to the list—a reflection of the fact that the agency sees climate as a big fiscal risk for the US.

The GAO only added two new areas to its list this year that it believes creates risk. Climate change was one of them, along with the gaps in our weather satellite program. Here's how the GAO summed up the risks:

Limiting the Federal Government’s Fiscal Exposure by Better Managing Climate Change Risks. Climate change creates significant financial risks for the federal government, which owns extensive infrastructure, such as defense installations; insures property through the National Flood Insurance Program; and provides emergency aid in response to natural disasters. The federal government is not well positioned to address the fiscal exposure presented by climate change, and needs a government wide strategic approach with strong leadership to manage related risks.
Mitigating Gaps in Weather Satellite Data. Potential gaps in environmental satellite data beginning as early as 2014 and lasting as long as 53 months have led to concerns that future weather forecasts and warnings—including warnings of extreme events such as hurricanes, storm surges, and floods—will be less accurate and timely. A number of decisions are needed to ensure contingency and continuity plans can be implemented effectively.

On climate, the full report notes that the federal government was asked to pay out $60.4 billion in recovery funds for Hurricane Sandy alone. That's just part of an overall trend in increased disasters in the US that the GAO flags—including a record 98 disaster declarations in fiscal year 2011, up from 65 in 2004. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was on the hook for more than $80 billion in federal assistance between 2004 and 2011. And the federal government owns or insures a lot of at-risk property, in addition to managing 29 percent of the total land in the US.

The whole idea of the GAO list is to identify problem areas and try to fix them, so that we're not wasting money in the future. But the GAO notes that, since it started the list in 1990, only one-third of the issues it flagged have been addressed to the point that they could actually be removed from the list.

Florida Hunt Nabs 50 Invasive Pythons

| Mon Feb. 11, 2013 12:31 PM EST

Officials in Florida wrapped up a month-long hunt for Burmese pythons on Sunday, and are pleased by the haul of their inaugural snake sweep. The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission rounded up 50 pythons wandering the Everglades, the Miami Herald reports.

"You can argue it's not a huge number," Fish & Wildlife spokesman Jorge Pino told the paper, "but its 50 pythons not in the ecosystem causing havoc."

As we've reported here before, giant, invasive snakes are creating significant problems in Florida—and not just because they might crash your pool party or explode after eating too much alligator. The snakes—which can grow to 18 feet long and weigh as much as 164 pounds—have been eating native rodents and birds, reproducing with abandon, and generally causing problems in an ecosystem where they do not belong. That's why the state organized the hunt, complete with rules for how to kill pythons and a cash prize:

Hunters had to register with the wildlife commission, take a quick online course, and follow specific humane rules the commission determined were best fit to kill the Southeast Asian native monsters that can grow to close to 20 feet long. The pythons can be legally killed only by a gunshot to the head or by beheading with a machete.
Hunters have until 5 p.m. Monday to turn in what they have captured. They can keep the skins to do with as they wish. Prizes of up to $1,500 for the most pythons caught, and $1,000 for largest python captured, will be awarded at Zoo Miami on Saturday.

Scientists believe that the snakes initially entered the wild as abandoned exotic pets. This is what prompted the Obama administration to issue new rules last year barring the import of pythons and several other breeds of giant snakes. While pythons have been spotted in the wild elsewhere, Florida's warm, tropical climate is a more viable habitat for them. But with the rest of the US getting ever-warmer, we might want to pay more attention to Florida's python problem.