Blue Marble

Bush's Last War

| Tue Aug. 12, 2008 9:41 PM EDT

deadBEagle3.th.jpg Bush is after the Endangered Species Act with a lame-duck vengeance bordering on the sociopathic. He's proposing a whole new way to gut the Endangered Species Act. By cutting scientific review by independent experts, reports the AP.

Normally federal agencies have to consult with scientists at the Fish and Wildlife Service or the National Marine Fisheries Service before building roads, dams, mines, and whatnot. You know, in consideration of any one of the 1,353 animal and plant species in danger of extinction. But, no, says Bush. Who needs science when god whispers in your ear?

Not only that, the draft rules would also prohibit federal agencies from assessing greenhouse gas emissions from construction projects. This is Bush's way of getting back at the listing of the polar bear on climate change grounds.

Senator Barbara Boxer says the draft rules are illegal. Nevertheless the new rules are subject to a 30-day public comment period before they're law. That's all. Then Bush can launch his last war against eagles, owls, whales, ferrets, manatees, wolves…

Look for the casualties in court.

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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Can Playing Pac-Man Save the Forests?

| Mon Aug. 11, 2008 9:05 PM EDT

packman200.jpgIn another effort to attract attention to environmental issues through colorful, interactive cartoons (see The Meatrix), Dogwood Alliance—an organization dedicated to protecting US forests—has basically carbon-copied Pac-Man in a game to fight excessive packaging.

"Packaging Man" is basically Pac-Man with a few new graphics. Recycling symbols replace power pellets, Blinky and the gang are "corporate executives" intent on pilfering forests with phallic chainsaws, and the protagonist is not a yellow dot.

Though surely created with good intentions—US packaging waste weighs in at 80 million tons (.pdf) and is the largest source of municipal waste—the most creative part of the game is its intro, and who sits through those anyway?

Nonetheless, the "take action" link at the end is a little more rewarding than a perfect play, and it handily fills 20 minutes. Play here.

—Brittney Andres

Photo from dogwoodalliance.org

China's 'Great Shutdown' Is Scientific Gold

| Fri Aug. 8, 2008 10:26 PM EDT

AsianBrownClouda.jpg What happens when you turn off the pollution? Well the Beijing Olympics are giving scientists a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to observe how the atmosphere responds when a heavily populated region seriously curbs everyday industrial emissions.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography is flying unmanned aerial vehicle to measure smog and its effects on weather during China's 'Great Shutdown.' The flights start at Cheju Island in South Korea, 725 miles southeast of Beijing, and directly in the path of Chinese pollution plumes.

Data from the flights, combined with satellite and ground observations, are tracking dust, soot and other aerosols leaking out of China in atmospheric brown clouds.

Chinese officials have reduced industrial activity by as much as 30 percent and mandated cuts in automobile use by half, to safeguard the health of competing athletes.

Too bad most of Beijing's air quality doesn't have much of anything to do with its own emissions but comes from its own heavily-polluted provinces to the south. Too bad China doesn't make the Great Shutdown permanent. Too bad the whole world doesn't follow. Too bad the athletes' health is more important than everyone else's.

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

Just Say No To Biofuels

| Thu Aug. 7, 2008 10:50 PM EDT

The Kenyan courts are considering doing just that. A judicial review is weighing whether or not to halt the first stage of a US$370 million biofuel project that aims to replace up to 50,000 acres of coastal grassland with irrigated fields of sugarcane.

The project is based at the Tana River Delta on the northern Kenyan coast. It's opposed by environmental groups Nature Kenya, the East Africa Wildlife Society, and nomadic pastoralists, reports ENN.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai doesn't like it either. "We cannot just start messing around with the wetland because we need biofuel and sugar."

Could this be the beginning of a new movement?

Fact Checking John Tierney

| Wed Aug. 6, 2008 2:31 PM EDT
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In June 1996, the New York Times Magazine ran a story by John Tierney titled "Recycling is Garbage." In the now-infamous piece, Tierney argued that recycling was environmentally unnecessary, fiscally burdensome, and ideologically laughable. "Recycling," he concluded, "may be the most wasteful activity in modern America." Having provided comfort to millions of non-recyclers—particularly New Yorkers—. Tierney has since migrated to the paper's Science Times section, where he writes a regular column, "Findings." Despite the whiff of empiricism, the column is often a platform for his libertarian-tinged environmental skepticism.

Last week, Tierney struck again with a column listing "10 Things to Scratch From Your Worry List." The article displayed the typical Tierney M.O.: Take an environmental or health issue and dismiss it with a less-than-thorough glance at the research.

Here Be Arctic Dragons

| Wed Aug. 6, 2008 12:56 AM EDT

Arcticthumbnail2.jpg

One year ago Russia planted a flag of ownership on the seabed underneath the North Pole.

Now, with the ice melting before our eyes, the 21st century's first gold rush is on.

Want to know just who's after the Arctic's virgin oil, gas, and minerals? A new map shows the disputed territories that states might lay claim to in the future...

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Bacteria Not Flu Killed Most In 1918

| Tue Aug. 5, 2008 1:39 AM EDT

1918_1.jpg A new study in Emerging Infectious Diseases concludes that bacteria not influenza killed most people in the 1918 flu epidemic. The lesson: stock up on antibiotics for the next flu pandemic—bird flu, horse flu, or otherwise.

New Scientist reports that researchers sifted through first-hand accounts, medical records, and infection patterns from 1918 and 1919.

They found that bacterial pneumonia piggybacked on surprisingly mild flu cases. And the victims didn't die fast. A supervirus would have likely killed them in three days.

Instead, most people lasted more than a week and some survived two weeks—classic hallmarks of pneumonia.

Most compelling: medical experts of the day identified pneumonia as the cause of most of the 100 million deaths—the most lethal natural event in recent human history.

Other research suggests the brutal mechanism. Influenza killed cells in the respiratory tract, which became food and home for invading bacteria that overwhelmed overstressed immune systems.

Ten years later, penicillin overpowered bacteria in subsequent influenza epidemics. But nowadays we're having those nagging antibiotic problems.

So health authorities are increasingly interested in the role bacteria will likely play in the next pandemic. Yet little action has been taken. "They are just starting to get to the recognition stage," says Jonathan McCullers, infectious disease expert. "There's this collective amnesia about 1918."

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

Ivory Poaching Returns With A Vengeance

| Fri Aug. 1, 2008 11:52 PM EDT

800px-Baby_elephants3.jpg The ugly scourge of ivory poaching has reappeared in Africa—at levels higher than the epic slaughters of 1989.

Worse, the 7.4 percent annual death rate of 20 years ago was based on a population that numbered more than 1 million. Today the total African elephant population is less than 470,000.

Twenty years ago widespread media coverage of 70,000 elephants killed a year led to an international trade ban. That resulted in strong enforcement efforts, which halted nearly all poaching immediately.

But Western aid was withdrawn four years after the ban and poaching gradually increased to the current disastrous rates. Without anyone really noticing.

Except elephants.

Now a new study in the August Conservation Biology contends that most remaining large elephant groups will be extinct by 2020 unless renewed public pressure results in enforcement of the existing laws.

The good news: DNA evidence gathered from recent major ivory seizures shows conclusively that the ivory is not coming from all over Africa but from specific herds. Consequently, authorities could beef up enforcement in those areas and make an immediate dent in the problem.

The illegal trade is being carried out mostly by large crime syndicates. It's driven by growing markets in China and Japan, where ivory is in demand for carvings and signature stamps called hankos.

Good people of Asia, could you get over this fetish from the dark ages? No hanko is worth even one elephant.

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

What's in Anti-Viral Kleenex?

| Fri Aug. 1, 2008 3:43 PM EDT

Do all KLEENEX boxes come with federal warnings against misuse?

I hadn't intended to leave Walgreens with any kind of virucidal paper product, but in a fit of summer cold snuffles I accidentally bought a box of polka-dotted germ fighters equipped with directions against wiping up spills and an active ingredients list.

Promises the KLEENEX Anti-Viral tissue box: "[The] tissue has three soft layers, including a moisture-activated middle layer that kills 99.9% of cold and flu viruses in the tissue within 15 minutes."

Wow! Would eating one cure a cold altogether?

Tragically, this goes unanswered on the KLEENEX website. But here's my favorite question from the FAQ:

Solar Nirvana

| Thu Jul. 31, 2008 9:03 PM EDT

Dish_Stirling_Systems_of_SBP_in_Spain.JPG Science is publishing an MIT paper (in press) outlining a revolutionary leap that could transform solar power from a marginal boutique energy source into the mainstream.

The breakthrough revolves around storing energy when the sun isn't shining—an expensive pitfall until now.

The new method uses the sun's energy to split water into hydrogen and oxygen gases. Like photosynthesis.

Later the two can be recombined inside a fuel cell to create carbon-free electricity. Like running a fuel cell backwards.

The good part is the system would work day or night. The other good part is it requires nothing but abundant, nontoxic natural materials.

"This is the nirvana of what we've been talking about for years," said senior author Daniel Nocera. "Now we can seriously think about solar power as unlimited and soon."

For those who want to know how it works…