Blue Marble

Obama Hearts the EPA

| Fri Feb. 27, 2009 1:43 PM EST
Boy, what a reversal of fortune for the Environmental Protection Agency. After suffering years of neglect, staff cuts, and intimidation, it now stands to see its budget increased by 34 percent--among the largest bump for any federal agency in percentage terms. Much of the increase would fund clean water projects and restore the Superfund Tax, which expired in 1995, raising an estimated $6.6 billion by 2014 for hazardous waste cleanup. As if to underscore the EPA's return to favored agency status, Michelle Obama spoke at agency HQ while her husband was unveiling his budget yesterday. "Your work will not only save our planet and clean up our environment," she said. "It's going to transform our economy and create millions of well-paying jobs." Her optimism reminds me of Bush's love for his faith-based initiatives, but at least this time around there's a bit more evidence behind the hope.

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Medicaid, Sexing It Up Since 2010

| Fri Feb. 27, 2009 12:55 AM EST

Obama's 2010 budget overview is out, and rest assured the religious right will make hay from certain HHS family planning provisions. Says RH Reality Check:

While the overview is generally non-specific, it does make clear that the Medicaid family planning expansion—which would extend Medicaid coverage for family planning services to non-pregnant women–is included (see page 127). The expansion, which would enable states to extend coverage to non-pregnant women without first seeking a waiver from the federal government, was first included in the economic stimulus package

Will the feds also drop their finger-wagging insistence on abstinence-only sex-ed? It's possible, since the budget outlines "fund[ing] models that stress the importance of abstinence while providing medically accurate and age-appropriate information to youth who have become sexually active."

It's a start. And even though Tay Wiles' latest reproductive health legislation updates are freaking me out, at least Obama's HHS Secretary isn't blogging about how anti-abortion he is, yes?

View the full 2010 Budget overview here. (pdf)

Ships Spew Killer Pollution

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 10:45 PM EST
In fact ships pollute nearly half as much as all the world’s cars. We're talking smog-type pollution. The kind that causes premature deaths from heart disease and asthma. A new study [pdf] estimates the total contribution of commercial maritime shipping and it adds up to about 2.2 million pounds of particle pollution a year.

Since more than 70 percent of shipping traffic takes place within 250 miles of the coastline, ship spew is a serious health issue for nearly half the people of the world—the number who live near the coast [pdf]

The problem starts with sulfates, the same gunk emitted by diesel engines on land. Sulfates already have some measure of regulations attached to them. But more than half of shipping pollution comes from organic pollutants and sooty black carbon. These aren't targeted by today’s regulations.

When you consider that our world is a giant fluid dynamics experiment, then it makes sense that what happens at sea flows ashore. And vice versa. There are all kinds of ways to address this problem. Kevin Drum talks cap and trade and that could work for shipping too. But keep in mind that one upside to the global downturn in the economy is decreased shipping and therefore cleaner air. So why not recast the recession as a long-overdue refreshment for our weary planet?

The $1 Trillion Carbon Cap GDP Boost

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 1:00 PM EST

The consensus among economists these days is that the economic cost of curbing climate change in the short-term will run between 0.5 and one percent of U.S. GDP—about $143 billion if we use 2008's GDP as a reference.

But Grist's Gar Lipow doesn't think curbing climate change will cost the GDP a dime:

Coen Brothers Take on Clean Coal (Video)

| Thu Feb. 26, 2009 12:38 PM EST

The Coen brothers + environmental advocacy equals this:

Take that, "clean" coal! You're never going win the battle for the hearts and minds of America's movie-going hipster minority now! (No, seriously, "clean" coal is a hoax and needs to be stopped. Kudos to the Coen brothers for joining the effort.)

Species Invasion: Coming June 2010

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 9:04 PM EST
We know that invasive species are now a threat to 20 percent of the endangered vertebrates of the world. Most are invading beyond their home worlds by hitchhiking on our rides: planes, trains, cars, ships, feet. Everything from bacteria to bats is doing it. I wrote in depth about the scary lionfish invasion of the Atlantic in the Jan-Feb MoJo. New research forecasts that June 2010 is likely to be the worst invasion month ever.

Why? Because that's when temperature, humidity, and rainfall are likely to converge at many distant airports. In other words, when it's hot and humid in Miami it's also likely to be hot and humid in Shanghai. Species hitching a ride at one airport will more easily survive in the other. Add to that climate synergy the increasing traffic from India and China and we're likely to have an invasive species bloom in June 2010. Including whatever diseases the invaders are carrying... So what can we do? For a start:

  • Ramp up inspection activities at airports during the 6/10 time frame. And all other time frames.

  • Redirect at least some of the war on drugs to defending against biological invasions. Seriously, can't we put sniffer dogs and their handlers to better use?

  • Feed us in the air. Agricultural pests are invading on the foodstuffs individual travelers carry because the airlines no longer feed us. (Sometimes saving money is unbelievably costly.)

  • Consider your next flight… you know, along with the CO2 footprint... factor in the your potential as the vector of a new invasion. Is the trip worth it?

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Mining Reform: A Golden Opportunity

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 5:58 PM EST

In the midst of America's financial crisis, one of the biggest government giveaways goes to an industry that least needs it: gold mining. Even as prices for gold hover near historic highs and mining exacts a deep environmental toll, the General Mining Law of 1872 allows $1 billion in hard rock minerals to be taken from federal lands each year royalty-free. All told, mining companies have been exempted from paying at least $100 billion in royalties, taxes, and fair land prices.

On Thursday, the House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources will hold a hearing on updating the 137-year-old law, which was enacted during the Grant administration. The House is expected to pass sweeping royalty and environmental reforms, but the bill must also clear the Senate, where last year a similar effort stalled in the hands of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the gold mining industry’s most powerful ally.

Reid faces a delicate political dance. Typically a reliable ally to environmentalists, he’s also the son of a gold miner, father of children who maintain ties to the industry, and representative of a state that mines more gold than all but three nations. In a nod to his virtual veto power over mining reform, last year the House held a similar hearing in the town of Elko, ground zero for Nevada's mining industry. There, Reid expressed his support for "real and reasonable reform" before ultimately turning on the House’s reform bill as "not something Nevada can accept."

A spokesman for Jeff Bingaman, who oversees mining legislation as the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, sees this as the year that a reform bill finally passes. With the treasury bleeding dollars and the gold mines swimming in cash, Reid may be headed for the final showdown between two seemingly incompatible sides of his political identity. Whatever compromise he supports could make him an historic statesman, put him out of a job, or both. I explore how it all might shake out in the March/April issue’s feature, Gold Member.

How Food Policy Gets Made: Finland vs. the US

| Wed Feb. 25, 2009 3:09 PM EST

Matt Yglesias has a post up contrasting how the creation of health policy differs in Finland and the United States. Here's his description of Finland's process, as it pertains to school lunches:

...in 1999, parliament passed some legislation guaranteeing a nutritionally balanced school lunch. So the National Nutrition Council wrote some guidelines dictating that a properly balanced lunch would feature fresh or cooked vegetables covering half the plate, a starch (potatoes, rice, or pasta) covering a quarter of the plate, and meat or fish or a vegetarian protein alternative covering the remaining quarter.

...what's crazy about it is the way it happened. Parliament felt children should eat a well-balanced meal, and so guidelines were written by a government agency and then implemented. Like magic!

By way of contrast, here's an example of how food industry lobbyists hijack the system in the United States, courtesy of the very good American News Project:

The next issue of Mother Jones, which is either on newsstands near you or will be soon, is on how to fix food. Most of the content is not online yet, so if you want to read more you'll have to settle for this conversation we had with Michael Pollan, a longtime MoJo contributor who has more neat ideas on reforming food policy than just about anyone.

Climate Tipping Point Coming Faster Than IPCC Thought

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:18 PM EST
Two reports released recently—one from the UN's Environmental Programme and the other by the World Bank—warn that dramatic, irreversible climate shifts are coming faster than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) anticipated. In the IPCC's last report, published in 2007, it expected that global sea levels could rise up to two feet: the UN document says it may be more like six feet. More disturbingly, it says that "we may have already passed tipping points that are irreversible within the time span of our current civilization."

Although we've covered tipping points in previous issues of Mother Jones, it's still disturbing to hear the UN say they may have already been tipped, and not in our favor. For those who are interested, the World Bank report goes into further detail about tipping points as seen in the Andes, coral reefs, Gulf of Mexico wetlands, and Amazonian forests that may or may not be too far gone to do anything about.

Yes, It's True: GMOs Contaminate Mexican Corn

| Tue Feb. 24, 2009 1:16 PM EST
Ignacio ChapelaIn April 2002, I sat in the office of UC Berkeley environmental science professor Ignacio Chapela as an ancient telephone chortled incessantly with calls from scientists and journalists curious about his latest study, a paper published in Nature showing how genes from GM corn entered local varieties of the plant in Mexico, where GM crops are banned. Samples of the corn sat in vials on his desk. An international controversy had erupted over the experiment, and earlier that month the prestigious journal published an unprecedented near-retraction. “Nature has concluded that the evidence available is not sufficient to justify the publication of the original paper,” said a terse editorial note. Chapela admitted to making a few interpretative mistakes, but stood by his findings even when a study by a different team of researchers in 2005 was unable to replicate his results. His findings were finally corroborated this week by scientists from Mexico, the United States, and the Netherlands who looked at thousands of seed samples from hundreds of Mexican corn fields and found that around 1 percent of them had genes that had jumped from GM varieties. Even before this week, major detractors agreed with Chapela's main point. Corn disperses pollen easily, so one should expect that GM pollen carried by the wind has mated with local corn varieties in much of the world.

Although neither expensive--total cost $2000--nor surprising, Chapela’s study was attacked because it provoked ongoing feuds. Disagreements about what might happen when GM crops interbreed with their unaltered neighbors are now more than a decade old. Scientists still debate whether transgenics will diminish genetic diversity in local crop varieties, kill beneficial creatures, or reduce the ability of entire plant populations to survive.

Scientists already know that pollen from GM crops can kill beneficial insects. For example, the Bt gene in corn poisons pests like the European corn borer but could also inadvertently wipe out the valuable Typhlodromalus aripo. The T. aripo, as it is known, eats both corn pollen and the ignominious green mite, which wreaked havoc on Africa’s cassava crop in the 1980s and early 90s. The mite was accidentally introduced from South America and scientists combated it in 1993 by importing the T. aripo from Brazil. After it went to work eating mites, it immediately increased cassava yields by 35%. The addition of Bt pollen to that diet could be a boon to the mites and a disaster for T. aripo and farmers. “If it destabilized cassava,” says Andrew Paul Gutierrez, a Berkeley researcher who has done computer modeling on GM crops, “it could destroy the basic food staple for 220 million Africans in an area twice the size of the United States.”

Accepting such risks becomes even more difficult given that Bt is probably only a temporary solution to insect invasions. Last February, University of Arizona researcher Bruce Tabashnik documented the first case, in GM cotton, of insects developing a resistance to the Bt gene. “My own experience in the history of insect resistance is that they develop resistance to whatever control measure is used against them,” he told me in 2002. “I think it’s just a matter of time.”