Blue Marble - March 2013

The Most Radioactive Man on Earth Has the Kindest Heart

| Tue Mar. 12, 2013 6:40 AM EDT
Naoto Matsumura, a 53-year-old fifth-generation rice farmer, returned to his contaminated home near Japan's Fukushima power plant to care for his cows:
 
UPDATE: Many of you asked where to donate to help Naoto and the animals he's caring for. VICE told me this: "This is the NPO organization that Naoto and his supporters run: http://ganbarufukushima.blog.fc2.com/. It's a Japanese website but on the middle-left there is donation information in English."
 

This 18-minute video by VICE Japan profiles Naoto Matsumura, a 53-year-old fifth-generation rice farmer who went back into the dead zone around Japan's Fukushima nuclear power plant to take care of his cows (and pigs, cats, dogs, and ostriches), and then stayed there. If you're wondering why anyone would live in a place with >17 times normal radiation, Naoto, in the video, explains his rationale on moral grounds. Including this:

Our dogs didn't get fed for the first few days. When I did eventually feed them, the neighbors' dogs started going crazy. I went over to check on them and found that they were all still tied up. Everyone in town left thinking they would be back home in a week or so, I guess. From then on, I fed all the cats and dogs every day. They couldn’t stand the wait, so they’d all gather around barking up a storm as soon as they heard my truck. Everywhere I went there was always barking. Like, 'we’re thirsty' or, 'we don’t have any food.' So I just kept making the rounds."

As for the filmmakers, Ivan Kovac and Jeffrey Jousan, here's some of what they had to say:

The radiation dosage per hour inside Naoto’s house, as measured by the Geiger counter we brought with us, is two microsieverts per hour, and outside our reader spiked to seven microsieverts. When we asked Doctor Hiroyuki Koide at the Kyoto University Research Reactor Institute how bad this was for Naoto, he said, "Japanese law states that any location with an hourly dosage exceeding 0.6 microsieverts [per hour] should be designated as a radiation-controlled area and closed off to the general populace. Once inside a radiation-controlled area you can’t drink the water, and you really shouldn’t eat anything. It’s inconceivable to me that a normal person could live there."

All of the other ~15,000 residents of Naoto's town still live in shelters—except for Naoto and his animals. And they're not going anywhere, say the filmmakers.

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Climate Change is Biggest Threat, Says Top Navy Commander in Pacific

| Tue Mar. 12, 2013 6:15 AM EDT
Admiral Samuel J. Locklear, commander of the Pacific Command, talks to Sailors aboard Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer USS Barry:

As I wrote in Full Green Ahead in the current issue of Mother Jonesthe US Navy is paying close attention—and giving far more than lip service—to the problems underway from a changing climate. But until now no one's said it quite so loudly as Admiral Samuel Locklear, commander of the US Pacific Command.

Locklear met privately with scholars at Harvard and Tufts universities on Friday and said that the biggest long-term security threat in the Pacific region is climate change, reports the Boston Globe, and that significant upheaval related to the warming planet is:

"Probably the most likely thing that is going to happen... that will cripple the security environment, probably more likely than the other scenarios we all often talk about." Locklear continued: "People are surprised sometimes, [but] you have the real potential here in the not-too-distant future of nations displaced by rising sea level. Certainly weather patterns are more severe than they have been in the past. We are on super typhoon 27 or 28 this year in the Western Pacific. The average is about 17."

What's really interesting here is that the US has declared the Asia Pacific region (and all its security issues from North Korea, China, Japan, and the South China Sea) its primary security focus. "After a decade in which we fought two wars that cost us dearly in blood and treasure," President Obama told the Australian Parliament in 2011, "the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region." Now Admiral Locklear is saying that among all those juicy potentials, climate change is likely to be the single biggest piece of trouble.

Cyclone Sandra in the South Pacific on 10 March 2013
Cyclone Sandra in the South Pacific on 10 March 2013: NASA image courtesy Jeff Schmaltz

To get a sense of how huge that is, listen to Ret. Rear Admiral Dave Titley, whom I interviewed for my Navy piece last spring, when he was Oceanographer of the Navy and director of Task Force Climate Change. He was pretty forthright then about the giant issues facing the Navy from rising sea levels and a melting Arctic (more here). So this is what he had to say Monday about Locklear's precedent-setting statement in Boston:

For those that follow climate change and national security, having the Commander of the US Pacific Command (Admiral Sam Locklear) highlight climate change as a significant 'threat' to his area of responsibility is a big deal. While other 'Combatant Commanders (specifically Africa and US Northern Commands) have talked about Climate Change, the Pacific Command (and its Commander) are a 'big deal' in the security world. This is the command that deals with China, the South China Sea, the Korean Peninsula, Japan, etc. every day. So to put Climate Change on a par with those challenges—is very significant.

 

CHARTS: Not Everyone in the International Conservation Caucus Votes for Conservation

| Tue Mar. 12, 2013 6:02 AM EDT
Tipping the scales

In 2012, Rep. Ander Crenshaw (R-Fla.) and his colleagues in the Republican-led House of Representatives put forward a record number of legislative items that would directly impact the environment for good or ill—but mostly for ill. The acts ranged from mandating drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to defunding the federal government's efforts to prohibit use of fuels that emit high levels of greenhouses gases to completely gutting the Clean Air Act. Out of the more than 100 bills, riders, and amendments advanced by the House, the League of Conservation Voters in its 2012 Congressional Scorecard highlighted 35 bills that had the greatest ramifications for the environment and public health. On those 35 bills, Crenshaw voted against the environment 33 times.

It might not seem that surprising considering Republicans' record on conservation initiatives in recent years is spotty at best, but Crenshaw sits as one of the chairmen of a group of 140 lawmakers* who joined together to advance initiatives for the protection of natural resources around the world: the International Conservation Caucus.

MAP: Is the Next Fukushima in Your Backyard?

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 4:52 PM EDT
Clockwise from top left: Byron Nuclear Station; Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant; Perry Nuclear Plant; Brunswick Steam Electric Plant. Each experienced a "near miss" in 2012.

Two years ago today, floodwaters from a massive, deadly earthquake/tsunami combo in Japan knocked out cooling equipment at the Fukushima nuclear power plant, resulting in what experts were quick to deign the second-worst nuclear disaster in history (after Chernobyl), after radioactive contamination touched everything from tuna to baby formula to butterflies. The $125 billion incident precipitated an identity crisis among the world's big users of nuclear power, particularly Germany, which was so spooked that it vowed to shut down every one of its nuke plants by 2022.

But here in the United States, there's no sign of any impending nuclear phaseout, despite the steady parade of meltdown scares reported in a new study by the Union of Concerned Scientists. UCS dug into public data from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the nuclear industry's top federal regulator, and found that, in 2012, 12 different nuclear power plants experienced "near miss" events, defined as an incident that multiplies the likelihood of a core meltdown by at least a factor of 10. The reasons range from broken coolant pumps to fires to "failures to prevent unauthorized individuals from entering secure areas"; in some cases aging equipment was at fault, and two plants were repeat offenders. One California plant already ranks high in vulnerability to earthquakes. In most cases, the study charges, weak oversight from the NRC was to blame.

In the map below, click on a plant to see what caused it to have a brush with meltdown in 2012:

"They All Look Like a Vatican Version of the Tea Party Movement"

| Mon Mar. 11, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

"Even on a good day, I get discouraged thinking about the election of a new pope," laments Maureen Fiedler, a nun and blogger at the progressive Catholic newspaper National Catholic Reporter. "They all look like a Vatican version of the tea party movement."

On Tuesday, three weeks after Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation on February 28, the world's cardinals will begin their conclave to choose a new pope. The past few decades have been rough ones for a church struggling with the widespread sex abuse scandal and an ever-worsening shortage of clergy. But with 1.16 billion members worldwide, the church is still massive—and it's actually in a perfect position to help save the planet, should it choose to do so.

The flock is increasingly centered in the developing world, where people are most likely to bear the brunt of environmental destruction and climate change. The church has a strong tradition of social-justice work, including the United States' Catholic Worker movement and Latin America's liberation theology. Indeed, National Catholic Reporter notes that even the notoriously socially conservative Benedict XVI famously delivered a World Day of Peace speech called "If You Want to Cultivate Peace, Protect Creation," and named pollution among the world's "social sins."

So will Benedict's successor keep up the ecocrusading? Fiedler is right that on social issues like birth control, gay rights, and celibacy among priests, the papabili—or likely contenders—are predictably conservative. Nevertheless, some have spoken out on climate change, conservation, and other hot topics. Here's my extremely unscientific look at a few of the most environmentally aware:

Cardinal Peter Turkson, Ghana: Turkson is probably the most controversial of all the papal candidates. In 2011, he really riled anti-UN types by calling for a "true world political authority." Then, during a meeting of bishops at the Vatican last year, he showed a ridiculous video warning about the spread of Islam in Europe. Most recently, when asked about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church, he told CNN's Christiane Amanpour:

"African traditional systems kind of protect or have protected its population against this tendency," he said. Because in several communities, in several cultures in Africa, homosexuality or for that matter any affair between two sexes of the same kind are not countenanced in our society."

So, yikes. Nevertheless, in the past few years Turkson has often expressed interest in protecting the planet. Here he is talking about environmental stewardship in 2012:

In this 2010 interview with U.S. Catholic magazine, Turkson talked about how surface mining devastates Ghanaian ecosystems, and why Americans should care. In a 2011 address during a visit to Wasnhington, DC, he emphasized that protecting the environment can help the poor:

…despite the naysayers, economic resources exist that could help wipe the tears from the eyes of those who suffer injustice, who lack the basics of a dignified life, and who are in danger from any deterioration in the climate. The poor do benefit from champions in solidarity who believe that injustice can be reduced, that harmonious relationships can be fostered, that our planetary ecology can be made sustainable, that a world of greater communion is possible.

Cardinal Scola

Cardinal Angelo Scola, Italy: In a recent speech to twentysomethings in Italy, Scola showed hipster cred of sorts by quoting Jack Kerouac and Cormac McCarthy. In his 2005 book The Nuptial Mystery, however, he alienated both feminists and the gay community by arguing, as the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal put it, "that feminism is responsible for homosexuality, because the more women act like men, the more men are likely to want to have sex with other men." Right. For those of you who still care what he has to say about the environment after that doozy, consider his elegantly stated thoughts in a 2010 article called "Protecting Nature or Saving Creation?":

The way for the urgent, collaborative convergence between ecology and theology is to continue the logic of creation with love. This logic is scientific, religious and political all in one. And consequently it is the logic of justice and of the complete development of humanity.

Cardinal Odilo Pedro Scherer, Brazil: Like many of the other candidates, Scherer is extremely conservative on issues you'd expect; for example, he has vociferously opposed abortion and gay marriage, the AP reports. But he's also been a champion of the poor and outspoken on deforestation, writes National Catholic Reporter's John L. Allen Jr.: 

Scherer has also embraced the strong environmental concerns of the Brazilian bishops, especially with regard to the Amazon. In 2004, he called on the Brazilian government to strictly control the expansion of farmland in the Amazon, "so that measures are no longer taken after the problem is already there, after the forest is felled and burned."

Cardinal Rodriguez

Cardinal Óscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiaga, Honduras: If I were electing the pope, Rodríguez would probably get my vote. This guy doesn't just pay lip service to environmental stewardship. As the president of Caritas Internationalis, the Catholic Church's social-justice NGO, Rodríguez has spoken out strongly on climate change, calling it a "faith issue." Last year Rodríguez's team advocated for a legally binding treaty that would force world nations to reduce carbon emissions.

Rodríguez is progressive in other ways; he once said that "neoliberal capitalism carries injustice and inequality in its genetic code." He has also advocated immigration reform in the United States. Rodríguez is not without controversy, however. Here's National Catholic Reporter on a particularly low point:

In 2002, Rodriguez set off a tempest in the United States by comparing media criticism of the Catholic Church in light of the sex abuse scandals to persecutions under the Roman emperors Nero and Diocletian, as well as Hitler and Stalin. He suggested that the American media was trying to distract attention from the Israel/Palestinian conflict, hinting that it reflected the influence of the Jewish lobby.

Cardinal Tagle

Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, the Philippines: At 55, Tagle is probably the youngest of the candidates. He's also one of the more progressive (though not as much as Rodríguez). Tagle is known for his work with the poor, and he recently supported an anti-development protest in an eastern coastal region of the Philippines. And then, there's this tidbit from the AP:

Even as a bishop, Tagle did not own a car. He took the bus or "jeepney," the popular working-class minibus, to church and elsewhere.

On the other hand, Tagle has strongly opposed the use of birth control among Catholics, as have almost all of the other candidates. One could argue—and Julia Whitty does a great job of it in this Mother Jones piece—that the best gift that a pope could give to the poor and the environment would be to allow Catholics to use birth control. But even though the Vatican once almost took that route, there's little support for it among today's cardinals. That's too bad, considering the views of the faithful, at least in the United States: A recent New York Times and CBS News poll found that 71 percent of American Catholics would prefer a pope who favors modern birth control.

MAP: 42 States Have "Nightmare Bacteria"

| Fri Mar. 8, 2013 2:27 PM EST

States with confirmed CRE cases.

The news on antibiotics just keeps getting worse. In the past decade, methicillin-resistant staph aureus—better-known as MRSA—and clostridium difficile ("C. diff" for short) emerged as poster-bugs for antibiotic-resistance. This week, the Centers for Disease Control trumpeted alarming findings about another group of lethal, antibiotic-resistant microbes that has spread in recent years to hospitals across the country.

These "nightmare bacteria"—as CDC director Dr. Tom Frieden dubbed them this week—are called "carbapenem-resistant enterobacteriaceae," or CRE. In healthy people, dozens of enterobacteria species live in the digestive system and pose no threat. In hospital patients with weak immune systems, however, they can cause devastating infections, especially when they acquire resistance to the antibiotics known as carbapenems. These drugs have long served as the treatment of last resort for enterobacterial infections resistant to other antibiotics.

Between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of resistant cases of enterobacterial infection more than tripled.

Between 2001 and 2011, according to the CDC's new report, the proportion of resistant cases of enterobacterial infection more than tripled, from 1.2 to 4.2 percent. And a 2012 survey of acute-care hospitals found that almost one in twenty reported at least one CRE case during a six-month period. The agency did not report the number of deaths from these cases; however, earlier studies found mortality rates of up to 50 percent.

What alarms health care experts is how easily this resistance trait can spread. In bacteria, resistance often arises from genetic mutations. In contrast, CRE carry genes for enzymes that deactivate the carbapenems. These gene packets can be passed along whole to bacteria of the same or even different species--a highly efficient method of disseminating antibiotic resistance. In hospitals, the bacteria are transmitted through hand contact and infected equipment.

An outbreak of klebsiella pneumoniae, an enterobacteria species, swept through a National Institutes of Health research hospital in Bethesda in 2011, infecting 18 patients and killing six. The six-month outbreak began in June that year with the transfer to the NIH hospital of a 43-year-old New York patient with a history of persistent infections.

The incident demonstrated that standard procedures at even the most prestigious medical centers were not sufficient to stem an outbreak of these pathogens. Although CRE infections still remain relatively uncommon in the United States, the CDC warned in its report that the bacteria "have the potential to move from their current niche among health-care–exposed patients into the community" and urged health-care facilities to intensify infection control efforts.

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Navy Says Biofuels a Priority During Sequester

| Fri Mar. 8, 2013 7:20 AM EST

I reported in the current issue of Mother Jones on the US Navy's aggressive goals to reduce dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels (My Heart-Stopping Ride Aboard the Navy's Great Green Fleet). These targets include testing and scaling up of biofuels and conserving whatever energy the Navy does procure by using new technologies and good-old common sense—plus training a new generation of officers as "energy warriors."

So what's the sequester going to do to those initiatives, which former Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta described as among his most important? I spoke with Tom Hicks, Deputy Assistant Director of the Navy for Energy. He told me that at this point all Department of Navy and Department of Defense programs are subject to cuts and civilian furloughs. But some programs weigh more importantly than others:

At this time of declining budgets, investments in the efficiency of our ships and airplanes and in developing alternative fuels becomes more important than ever. In many ways those investments provide savings to the Navy's fleet and to the Navy ashore. The way we budget, we've already accounted for the savings that were expected to be made in fiscal year 2013. If those investments don't happen we'll experience additional costs that we'll have to find a way to pay for in future years. So in a very real way we're going to be facing some bigger budgetary issues if we can't find ways to make those investments.

I know that energy remains one of the top priorities with the Secretary [of the Navy, Ray Mabus]. Certainly shipbuilding is probably foremost among his priorities. But energy is up there as well, in part because of what it provides us. For the fleet it provides additional combat capability and mission effectiveness, and it reduces our vulnerability to increasingly volatile petroleum markets. We had the [amphibious assault ship] USS Makin Island that just recently completed its maiden nine-month deployment. It went out with $32 million fuel budget and it returned back with $15 million saved over its planned fuel usage. That's because it has a hybrid electric drive [part gas-turbine-electric and part diesel-electric] and many other efficiency measures on board that allows it to reduce the amount of energy it needs to conduct its missions. To us, to the Secretary of the Navy, it's now more important than ever to maintain our level of investment in energy.

According to the Washington Guardian, the Navy is forecasting an $8.6 billion budget shortfall by the end of 2013, with plans to shut down four air wings, cancel or delay deployments of up to  six ships, dock two destroyers, and defer a planned humanitarian mission by the hospital ship USNS Comfort to Central and Latin America, plus furloughs among its civilian workforce. So far, no mention of axing energy programs.

The Science Gender Gap in 4 Horrifying Charts

| Fri Mar. 8, 2013 7:00 AM EST

Not to put too much of a damper on International Women's Day, but I want to call your attention to Nature's eye-popping new report on the persistent gender gap in the sciences. The short of it: Women scientists have made some gains, but they're still getting the short end of the stick.

Take, for example, this chart showing the difference in the median annual salaries for scientists and engineers in 2008. This includes all education levels—bachelor's, master's, and PhD—and age levels:

Nature/National Science Foundation

It doesn't get any better when you have a doctorate, either. Here's the difference between male and female PhDs:

Nature/National Science Foundation

The same goes for getting grants. Here's a chart showing the number of National Institute of Health grants awarded, by gender. Men also got bigger grants; the average size grant for male winners was $507,279, while the average grant to women was $421,385:

Nature/NIH

Part of the issue, as we've reported here before, is persistent gender bias. Male candidates are offered higher starting salaries as well as better mentorship and advancement opportunities. The Nature report also cites research indicating that having children is more likely to push women out of a career in the academy; female postdocs who have or want to have children are twice as likely to leave academia than male colleagues.

I'll end with some better news. At least there are more female science and engineering PhDs entering academia these days:

Nature/National Science Foundation

 

Insurers on Climate Change: Whatevs

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 3:24 PM EST

Despite record heat and extreme weather disasters in recent years, insurers aren't adequately planning for climate change, according to a report issued Thursday. Only 13 percent of insurance companies have a "specific, comprehensive strategy" to deal with global warming.

Researchers at Ceres, a nonprofit that advocates for businesses to become more sustainable, looked at 184 responses from major insurance companies to a new National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) survey on climate risk. They found that only 23 of those companies—which include property and casualty, life, and health insurers—are really taking climate change seriously. Thirteen of those are foreign-owned companies.

Major insurers like Allstate and Travelers expressed "strong ambivalence about the state of the science" in their disclosures.

Out of a potential score of 50 points for climate readiness, insurers averaged a 7.3 overall. Property and casualty insurers—the ones that have to pay out when a monster storm wrecks your house, for example—were more on the ball, with eight actually describing concrete ways they are taking climate change into account in their business. But major insurers like Allstate and Travelers expressed "strong ambivalence about the state of the science" in their disclosures, Ceres found.

Ten percent of responders—many of them life and health insurers—argued that the survey was "not relevant" for their business. The report flags one response from health insurer Excellus that argues that "the Company is not aware of any conclusive data that there are health effects directly (or indirectly) related to climate change." But, as we've reported here before, climate impacts like heat waves, the spread of vector-borne diseases, among others, pose what some in the medical community have dubbed the "biggest global health threat of the 21st century." Only one health insurer, Kaiser Permanente, had a strong position on climate change.

The report's authors found that 88 of the 184 companies said they see climate change as a "potential future loss driver," rather than a current threat. They note, however, that these responses were collected in May 2012—well before Hurricane Sandy which, along with other extreme weather events, caused $58 billion in losses for the insurance industry last year.

This could be bad business for insurance companies, but it's also bad for the rest of us that rely on insurance, Ceres argues. "The insurance sector is a key driver of our overall economy," said Mindy Luber, president of Ceres. "Every segment of insurance industry faces climate risks, and yet the industry's response has been uneven." Luber argued that even just accounting for the risks would go a long way toward helping them address them. "What gets measured gets managed."

Insurance regulators care too, because allowing the risks to go unmanaged could be expensive for policy holders. "Climate has the potential of being a game changer for the insurance industry and we want to make sure it stays on their radar," said Mike Kreidler, the insurance commissioner for Washington State, which is one of three states mandating climate disclosures. "A lot of companies aren't doing much yet."

The Scariest Climate Change Graph Just Got Scarier

| Thu Mar. 7, 2013 3:05 PM EST
Average global temperature over the last ~2,000 years. Note the massive uptick on the far right side. Courtesy Science/AAAS

Back in 1999, Penn State University climate scientist Michael Mann released the climate change movement's most potent symbol: The "hockey stick," a line graph of global temperature over the last 1,500 years that shows an unmistakable, massive uptick in the 20th century, when humans began to dump large amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. It's among the most compelling bits of proof out there that human beings are behind global warming, and as such has become a target on Mann's back for climate denialists looking to draw a bead on scientists.

Today, it's getting a makeover: A study published in Science reconstructs global temperatures further back than ever before—a full 11,300 years. The new analysis finds that the only problem with Mann's hockey stick was that its handle was about 9,000 years too short. The rate of warming over the last 100 years hasn't been seen for as far back as the advent of agriculture.

marcott B
Marcott's team used ocean records to reconstruct global climate further back in time than ever before. Courtesy Science/AAAS

To be clear, the study finds that temperatures in about a fifth of this historical period were higher than they are today. But the key, said lead author Shaun Marcott of Oregon State University, is that temperatures are shooting through the roof faster than we've ever seen.

"What we found is that temperatures increased in the last hundred years as much as they had cooled in the last six or seven thousand," he said. "In other words, the rate of change is much greater than anything we've seen in the whole Holocene," referring to the current geologic time period, which began around 11,500 years ago.