Blue Marble

Solar in the Desert: Can We Get It Right This Time?

| Tue Jun. 30, 2009 5:37 AM EDT

It's partly the florid language that makes me and some other Westerners uneasy.

"Arizona, the New Frontier! Armed with an abundance of sunlight, Arizona is the land of sunshine and opportunity."

That palaver could have been lifted from a 19th Century swindler's sheet, written to separate greenhorns from their golden coins. But, in fact, I just cut-and-pasted it from the Bureau of Land Management's current website. The BLM controls vast areas of the West, (68% of Nevada, 40% of Utah, 17% of Arizona) and is pitching the opportunities for "solar development companies, or 'prospectors'" in the old New Frontier of the American Southwest.

Yesterday, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar (who oversees the BLM) designated 670,000 acres in six Western states as Solar Energy Study Areas. The Las Vegas Sun described these tracts of BLM desert lands as being "on a fast track for development" as giant solar power farms. To ensure that permits are issued quickly, Salazar announced that the BLM will open four new offices in California, Arizona, Nevada and Wyoming.

Now, I know we need to kick our addiction to fossil-fuel. And I also believe that using renewable energy sources like solar and getting serious about energy conservation are keys to a livable future. But I'm also aware of our history of "development" -- the Western spin-cycle of boom and bust, hope and despair, professed love of the land and simultaneous destruction of it.

Sandy Bahr knows all of this, too. But, she says, "Maybe this time we can get it right."

Bahr is the director of the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon chapter, an organization which was working on land use issues before Arizona was a state. "We don't need to get into those old conflicts this time," she says.

There's plenty of "disturbed" land in the West, she points out. Why not build renewable energy power plants on the scars left by the old polluting ones? Why not recycle abandoned agricultural land that should never have been cultivated and let solar power companies buy water-depleting farms and use that land (some forms of solar power plants are water intensive, but still need less than agriculture)?

Transmission lines, which can interfere with migrating wildlife, don't have to be a problem either, Bahr says. Route them alongside freeways, which already prevent animals from crossing.

There are cultural and human rights issues to consider, as well.

During a BLM sponsored public hearing on solar development in California in 2008, Carmen Lucas, a member of the Kumeyaay Nation, told the Bureau that before anything was built in his area, someone from the Kumeyaay community would need to examine the area to make sure it wasn't an ancient burial site. The "need for speed," he told the BLM, must not be allowed to trump Native people's rights.

Over the next several months, the BLM will be making siting decisions for these new solar mega-plants. That, says Bahr, is when we'll see how committed to meaningful change the nation really is.

Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones. For more of his stories, click here.

Advertise on

Swine Flu Accidentally Resurrected From the Dead?

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 6:35 PM EDT

Amid an unsettling report today of Tamiflu resistance in a Danish A(H1N1) patient, comes a study in The New England Journal of Medicine tracing the swine flu's 90-year evolution.

The current flu strain has genetic roots in an illness that sickened pigs at a swine show in 1918 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. A near-century of development since then may include this flu's accidental resurrection from an extinct strain.

Here's what likely went down. At the same time the 1918 flu pandemic was spreading among humans, pigs were hit with a similar respiratory illness. Early experiments confirmed the 1918 swine virus and a human strain emerged about the same time.

According to the authors of the new paper, there was a temporary "extinction" of this strain of virus from humans in 1957. But then it reemerged 20 years later in a small 230-person outbreak in 1976 among soldiers in Fort Dix, New Jersey. That outbreak did not extend beyond the military base.

However the next year H1N1 reemerged in people in the Soviet Union, Hong Kong, and northeastern China. The genetic origin of that 1977 strain turns out not to be the 1976 Fort Dix strain. Instead, it was closely related to a 1950 human strain.

Which means that given the genetic similarity of the two strains, reemergence was likely due to an accidental release during laboratory studies of the 1950 strain that had been preserved as a "freezer" virus.

Ouch. Hate it when that happens.

The authors hypothesize that concerns about the Fort Dix outbreak stimulated a flurry of research on H1N1 viruses in 1976, which led to an accidental release and reemergence of the previously extinct virus a year later. The reemerged 1977 H1N1 strain has been circulating in various seasonal influenzas ever since—including today's.

Or maybe it wasn't such an accidental a release? Conspiracists, restart your engines.

The GOP's Fake Climate Scandal

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 5:15 PM EDT

Most people accept that politicians do stupid things in the service of parochial interests and paleolithic ideologies. It's a problem as old as Congress. Yet occasionally a Congressman does something beyond stupid--something that causes thinking people to wonder if this representative has the intelligence or integrity to serve in public office. These moments are like ice sheets splitting off the Arctic Shelf and sliding into the ocean--they're fun to watch and yet totally depressing.

Today's example comes from Senator James Inhofe (R-Okla), who has ordered a Congressional investigation into how the EPA "suppressed" a report that questioned the science behind climate change. Grist notes that the "suppressed" report was written by an economist with no training in climate science, includes no original research, cites old and irreputable references, and was nonetheless accepted, unsolicited, by the EPA's climate scientists for consideration. If the meagreness of the report's policy impact is a scandal, then so is the fact that Joe the Plumber isn't the go-to guy for rewiring your attic.

And yet Inhofe tells Fox News that this EPA economist, Alan Carlin, "came out with the truth" and that "they don't want the truth at the EPA." Inhofe really could be this stupid, or there could be a deeper, more cynical political logic at work. Fox concluded that "the controversy is similar to one under the Bush administration--only the administration was taking the opposite stance." Fox's message to its readers seems to be that the legitimate James Hansen scandal and the phony Alan Carlin "scandal" cancel each other out. It's all just politics.

If you believe that, how do you decipher the truth behind climate change? One way would be to start with what you already think you know and then look for those scientists--or economists posing as scientists--who support that position. Last week Rep. Paul Broun (R-Ga) claimed that global warming was a "hoax"--a statement, impossible to back up with more than partisan intuition, that was met with applause on the House floor.  It must have been quite a spectacle: A big chunk of legislators, smaller than in years past but still frozen in their beliefs, taking a jolly plunge into insanity.



Obama Allots $346 Million for Efficiency, Research

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 2:18 PM EDT

President Obama joined Secretary of Energy Steven Chu Monday in announcing new regulations designed to cut carbon emissions and energy use with efficient technology, along with $346 million from the stimulus bill for efficiency research.

The regulations specifically target lighting, which the Department of Energy says consumes seven percent of all energy we use. While compact-fluorescent bulbs and incandescent lighting aren't the most inherently exciting subjects, the DOE says the new regs will curb 594 million tons of CO2 and eliminate the need for 14 coal-fired power plants—over the next 30 years.

While 594 million tons is a huge chunk of carbon, over the next thirty years it will equate to less than one half of one percent of our total carbon footprint. Americans regularly emit around 15.6 trillion pounds—about 78 billion tons—of carbon every year. In other words, the energy department's plan is a step in the right direction, but it's a minuscule one.

Eco-News Roundup: Monday, June 29

| Mon Jun. 29, 2009 6:00 AM EDT

A merry Monday to all. Here's a selection of green-tinged stories from our other blogs you might have missed: 

Sleeping With the Enemy: Canst the Greenpeace layeth down with the GOP?

Double the Cats, Double the Fun!: Feline Friday tradition continues, but with twice the catness.

Quantity v. Quality: Michael Jackson coverage swamps meaningful House debates on the climate change bill.

Climate=PASS: Climate aka green jobs bill passes the House.


Updated, Full Text Version of Waxman-Markey Climate Bill

| Sat Jun. 27, 2009 4:54 PM EDT

If you—like Reps Joe Barton (R-TX) and John Boehner (R-OH)—are having problems locating a full text version of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, HR 2454, complete with amendments, we've linked to them here.

While the GOP made a fetish out of secrecy when they were in charge, there is still a lot of work to be done to increase goverment transparency. Part of that effort is to allow everyone to have access to pending legislation in a timely manner, including but not limited to the honorable gentlemen from Texas and Ohio.

Transparency is a good idea; it ought to be the law. And, guess what? There's an organization trying to make that a reality. Read the Bill supports House Resolution 554, which would require that all legislation be available online for public review for a minimum of three days before it could be voted on.

Check them out. Happy reading.


Osha Gray Davidson is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones.


Advertise on

Is the US a Failed State? Or Just a Climate Rogue?

| Fri Jun. 26, 2009 4:19 PM EDT

It's not a question one tosses off idly. There's no comparison between the U.S. and places like Afghanistan and Iraq, which have lost, as Max Weber put it, "the monopoly on the legitimate use of physical force." Yet when it comes to America's ability to protect itself from the vicissitudes of a changing climate, many people are wondering if some kind of third-world putdown might be accurate.

"Why do we allow the U.S. to act like a failed state on climate change?" asks George Monbiot in the Guardian, lamenting the failure of the Waxman-Markey climate bill, which passed in the House today, to achieve anywhere close to the emissions cuts that scientists and European countries say are needed to avert catastrophe. "A combination of corporate money and an unregulated corporate media keeps America in the dark ages."

Over at the Thin Green Line blog, Cameron Scott expands on the idea, construing Weber a bit more broadly. "A failed state is one in which the government can no longer control destructive social forces," he writes. "The forces in question here are the powers of lobbyists to write mistruths into law." One of those mistruths being that we need not feel a sense or urgency about climate change.

Personally, I prefer the definition of a failed state offered by the experts at the Crisis States Research Center, who say, "A failed state is one that can no longer reproduce the conditions for its own existence."  A climate that can sustain us is certainly one of those conditions. Even if the U.S. survives the loss of its coastal cities and the Sierra snowpack that feeds California, it probably won't endure the ensuing global resource wars, at least not in its current form.

You can quibble over whether the U.S. is a failed state or a failing state--it really depends on when you think the world has passed the global tipping point and how much we're to blame. Perhaps we're more accurately described as a rogue state. Like Iran, but more advanced. Instead of forcibly preventing the media from covering inconvenient truths, all our ruling elite needs is the death of a pop star. Voila! The debate on climate change disappears, replaced with obeisances to the God of Pop.

Friday Frog Blog: Fribute to Michael Jackson

| Fri Jun. 26, 2009 3:26 PM EDT

To pay tribute to Michael Jackson, this week's frog blog is a photo essay dedicated to frogs with unusual skin tones:

7657118_28d73d5699 22556558_dc172140af    401141532_0eeb9c7f7a 1077493861_ea529a66b2 1376843326_76f9f58356

All photos are from Flickr and used under a Creative Commons License. In order, the photos come from the following Flickr users: Paul Robinson,  headexplodie,  sara j s, K<3money, and calico 13.

GOP: "The Pain in Spain Falls Mainly on US"

| Fri Jun. 26, 2009 2:00 PM EDT

As House GOP opponents of Waxman-Markey continue trash-talking the climate bill, listen carefully for the name Gabriel Calzada, aka "the Spanish professor," as George Will called el gran profesor in a flim-flam of a column yesterday.

 (Calzada should not be confused with The Spanish Prisoner, a venerable con-game that...on second thought, the two Spaniards are pretty much interchangeable.)

You'll have to listen carefully, though, because key Republicans (Marsha Blackburn, TN, for example) are likely to use code, dropping oblique references to "the report from Spain." (See p. 434 in that report.)

As an indignantly redundant Ed Whitefield (R-KY) described Calzada's work, the "empirical study" uses "empirical data" to prove that for every "so-called green job" created in Spain under a cap-and-trade regime identical to Waxman-Markey, 2.2 good jobs were lost.

And that's the good news.

Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) says that the Spanish Prisoner Professor's study found we could lose 20 "regular" jobs (see pp. 442-3) for every green one created by the climate bill.

Scary stuff. In fact, Rep. John Shimkus (R-IL) says that after talking with Calzada, the climate bill now scares him more than the 9/11 terror attacks:

"[Calzada] said, America, are you crazy? We have got 17.5 percent unemployment in Spain, and you want to model your aspects [sic] after us? You have got to be kidding me...this debate is so crazy!"

The GOP fearmongers would have me scared, too, if I didn't know how this con game worked.

Let's start with el profesor Calzada himself, who according to a recent piece in the Washington Times, hails from "one of Spain's leading universities."

Is it:

  1. The University of Salamanca, established in 1218;
  2. The University of Navarra, regarded as the best private university in Spain; or,
  3. The University of Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid campus, now celebrating its 10th anniversary.

If you guessed number 3, you're right! (Although, URJC has yet to make it on any top 10, 100, or 250 lists of Spanish universities.)

OK, it may not be the most prestigious University in the world (or Spain or Madrid), but Calzada has a wonderful record that stretches back, um, a decade, when he earned his PhD. in economics from URJC, where he is now an Associate Professor of Economics.

Perhaps Calzada has been widely published? Strong but wrong. His school website lists only two obscure and fringy journals, "The Journal of Libertarian Studies" and something called "Economic Affairs y Procesos de Mercado," for which Calzada may also serve as "assistant manager (subdirector)."

As a final accolade, the site boasts that Calzada "has been economic advisor to several companies in the tourism industry."

What's left out is Calzada's links to several right-wing groups that claim global warming is a hoax. This is the man Republican leaders cite most frequently to support their bogus claim that Waxman-Markey will lead to the destruction of millions of jobs in the United States.

Want to hear more about Calzada's sketchy background -- and why Republicans give the appearance of believing his research? Check back later. For now, I want to catch the rest of the con game as it plays out on Capitol Hill.


Osha Gray Davidson covers solar energy for The Phoenix Sun, and is a contributing blogger for Mother Jones.

Eco-News Roundup: Friday, June 26

| Fri Jun. 26, 2009 6:01 AM EDT

Happy Friday. Before the weekend gets rolling, here are the environment, health, and energy-related stories from our other blogs.

Like a Dog who Speaks Norwegian: Sanford is a rare, rare creature: an introverted politician.

Have it Your Way: Burger King equates a big sandwich with something else... big.

The C Word: Obama talks about cap and trade bill without using the phrase "climate change."

And Now He's Dead: King of Pop dies not of mysterious ailment, but likely of a very ordinary heart attack. News arc swings wildly in response. At least for a day or two.