Blue Marble

Economy Screws Climate

| Fri Oct. 3, 2008 9:26 PM EDT

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Economic turmoil on its latest grandest scale is already threatening Europe's climate protection policies. Automakers today urged EU authorities today to reconsider proposed limits on CO2 emissions. Their argument: the current financial crisis makes it too hard to meet them, reports New Scientist.

Cynical-mini-me says why not make the car-makers adhere to tighter CO2 emissions and then give them a bail-out? You know, the tried and true method.

The European Commission is also proposing to auction CO2 emissions permits by 2013. But now Poland, Greece, Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, and Bulgaria are assembling a blocking minority to stall that climate package. They argue their power plants don't have enough cash to compete with giants like Germany on the free-market auctions.

Well, no one's got cash now. Maybe not even by 2013. Too bad we didn't seriously tackle this environmental regime change when the global economy was fat and happy. The ranks of the whiners just got bigger and louder and harder to budge. All while the environmental meltdown that no one's paying attention to until it gobbles us up is coming our way too.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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Study: Chocolate and Alcohol Are Bad for Your Planet

| Fri Oct. 3, 2008 4:53 PM EDT

You may already know how food manufacture contributes to global warming—it's had its fair share of coverage lately, though the actual numbers have varied. In 2007, climate change experts pegged agriculture as producing 10 to 12 percent of global emissions. A Greenpeace study bumps this number up to 17 to 32 percent when you factor in land-use changes such as deforestation and overgrazing.

But a four-year UK study recently released by the Food Climate Research Network is likely to be the most comprehensive research so far. Pegging 19 percent of the UK's greenhouse gas emissions as food-related—with meat and dairy contributing half of those—the report serves up more than the usual recommendations to shop locally and walk to the store.

Among the options? Eliminating "unnecessary" foods with little nutritional value like alcohol, which it says contributes 1.5 percent of emissions from food, and chocolate. According to Cadbury, notes the report, the milk in a chocolate bar is the source of 60 percent of the bar's greenhouse gas emissions (no word on whether dark chocolate-lovers are more eco-friendly).

Other personal change recommendations include: using microwaves more often, covering cooking pots for efficiency, shopping on the Internet, and accepting "different notions of quality"—presumably eating bruised peaches.

The UK report also states that by 2050 we'll all need to eat similar to developing countries today: A four-ounce portion (or two sausages) of meat every other day, four cups of milk per week, max, and no cheese. (Currently, the average Brit consumes more than three times that, or the equivalent of two chicken breasts, four ham sandwiches, six sausages, eight pieces of bacon, three hamburgers, 12.5 cups of milk, and three and a half ounces of cheese each week.)

But what do the meat and dairy associations have to say about this? Not surprisingly, the National Farmers' Union in England calls the proposals "simplistic". Chocolate lovers have yet to weigh in.

—Brittney Andres

Are Fluorescents Really Better?

| Thu Oct. 2, 2008 12:53 AM EDT

544px-Compact-Flourescent-Bulb.jpg Not necessarily. Not all parts of the world stand to benefit by switching from incandescent lightbulbs to compact fluorescents (CFLs). California does not. New Mexico does. Much of South America does not. Estonia does. Why? Because some places produce more mercury emissions by switching to fluorescent lighting, thereby trading fewer greenhouse gas emissions for more toxic mercury pollution.

A Yale study found the effectiveness of the switch varies by region depending on how heavily each area depends on coal, on the chemical makeup of the coal by region (some coal has mercury), and whether or not recycling programs exist for CFLs. In general, the cleaner the energy environment already in place the more detrimental the switch to CFLs. Youch.

Compact fluorescents are four times more energy-efficient than incandescent and last up to 10 times longer. But they also contain mercury, a toxin that can be released during manufacturing and disposal.

Gas Shortage Update: Southeast Still Suffering

| Wed Oct. 1, 2008 2:09 PM EDT

2892569352_8e69bf7ec5_m.jpgThe Citizen-Times reports that while Asheville's gas problems are improving, similar shortages throughout the Southeast mean that supplies could decline again over the next few days. In Atlanta things are so bad that Georgia's governor wrote to President Bush to ask him to step in. Even Newt Gingrich has noticed, telling the AP that the Southeast is "like a Third World country."

Speaking of politicians, here's something else: Barack Obama is apparently going to be hanging around Asheville over the next few days as he preps for his second debate with John McCain, scheduled for next Tuesday in Nashville, Tenn. The debate will be town-hall style, which means residents of Nashville—another city hard-hit by the gas shortage—will be asking the questions. Though the crisis has gained national attention over the past week, the candidates haven't weighed in yet. What solutions will they offer Tuesday night?

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from abbyladybug.

Acid Oceans Also Noisier

| Wed Oct. 1, 2008 12:25 AM EDT

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Increasing atmospheric CO2 increases the acidity of seawater, which allows sounds, like whale calls, to travel farther. Image: (c) 2008 MBARI (Base image courtesy of David Fierstein)

The acidification of seawater due to absorption of atmospheric CO2 is also enabling sound waves to travel farther. That's bad news for marine life, including whales and dolphins, who rely on sound for hunting and communication and who are already stressed by noisy ship traffic and military sonar.

A team from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute predicts that underwater sounds will travel up to 70 percent farther in some areas in 2050 than they do today. Whales could be heavily impacted. Military sonar already disrupt whale behavior more than 300 miles away. Dolphins and fish that use sound to locate prey, to avoid predators, and to defend their territories, will also be affected.

Election Day Is Deadly

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 11:27 PM EDT

441px-Accident_Nehoda_Uhersk%FD_Brod_2.jpg American presidential elections change the world. They also have a direct effect on public health. Fifty-five percent of the American population is mobilized to vote. Most rely on motor vehicles to get to a polling place. The result: an 18 percent increase in fatal motor vehicle crashes on presidential election day.

According to new research forthcoming in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the increased risk also extends to pedestrians. It persists across ages, sexes, regions, polling hours, and whether a Democrat or Republican is elected. Believe it or not, election day risks exceed those of Super Bowl Sunday and New Years Eve. Explanations: speed, distance, distraction, emotions, unfamiliar pathways to polls, and the potential mobilization of unfit drivers. (What about unfit candidates? Fear of them drives me faster to the polls.)

The investigators looked at all US presidential election days in the past 32 years, starting with Jimmy Carter. They also examined the Tuesday immediately before and immediately after election days as controls. The average presidential election leads to ~24 deaths from motor vehicle crashes. . . Talk about the ultimate sacrifice. All the more reason to make sure your candidate is really worth it.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award.

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Financial Risk-Taking Tied to Testosterone

| Tue Sep. 30, 2008 12:19 AM EDT

800px-Testosterone_structure.png No kidding. A new study finds that higher levels of testosterone correlate with financial risk-taking behavior. A Harvard study assessed men's testosterone levels before participation in an investment game, and found those whose testosterone levels were more than one standard deviation above the mean invested 12 percent more than the average man in a risky investment.

A previous study had already proved that men are generally more likely than women to take investment risks. Another demonstrated that male stock market traders experienced greater profits on days their testosterone was above its median level. The Harvard study, forthcoming in Evolution and Human Behavior, was the first study to directly examine, and find a relationship between, testosterone and financial risk-taking.

So, should the Congressional bail-out include estrogen replacement therapy for financially foolish CEOs?

For those interested in the details of the study…

GAO Slams Carbon Offsets

| Fri Sep. 26, 2008 8:47 PM EDT

The GAO is soon to publish a report faulting the credibility of the carbon offset market. It suggests that Congress think carefully before letting companies use offsets to comply with climate change legislation. Everyone has known that offsets can be sketchy for a long time, but my article in the July/August issue of Mother Jones was the first to explore how leading offset companies have partnered with oil companies and anti-regulatory lobbying firms in an effort to carve out a huge new market for themselves through climate legislation. These are the same guys to whom well-intentioned enviros have paid millions to offset car trips and airline flights. The financial meltdown has been bad enough. Let's hope it won't take a polar meltdown for Congress to realize that a laissez-faire carbon market won't save us.

Arctic Speed-Melt Record

| Fri Sep. 26, 2008 8:15 PM EDT

Although 2008 did not set a record for minimum sea ice it did set a record for speed melting. Arctic sea ice declined at a rate of 32,700 square miles a day in August. That's about the size of Maine. Every day. And that's compared to 24,400 square miles a day lost in August 2007—the record holder for minimum sea ice.

The 2008 results were surprising, says NASA, because last winter had near-normal ice cover. "We saw a lot of cooling in the Arctic that we believe was associated with La Niña," says Joey Comiso of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. "Sea ice in Canada had recovered and even expanded in the Bering Sea and Baffin Bay. Overall, sea ice recovered to almost average levels. That was a good sign that this year might not be as bad as last year."

But alas the sprint in August—the fastest-ever melt—undid the gains of the winter. Here's what it looked like:

Cement Plant Powered by Huggies

| Thu Sep. 25, 2008 7:31 PM EDT

Here's an idea that gives new meaning to waste management: to help produce energy, the Devil's Slide Cement plant in Morgan, Utah burns surplus diapers.

By mixing leftover Huggies with traditional sources, the company cuts coal consumption by 30 percent and prevents the disposables from clogging landfills. Only catch? Unused nappies only, please.

—Nikki Gloudeman