Blue Marble

What Comes From Alaska & May Save Us All?

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 7:17 PM EST

Oudemansiella_nocturnum.JPG No, not these miraculously fast fruiting bodies but these ones: mushrooms. That's right. The fungi growing in the dry spruce forests of Alaska, Canada, Scandinavia and other northern regions are fighting global warming in unexpected ways. When temps rise and soils warm, fungi are not increasing the rate at which they convert soil carbon into carbon dioxide—as many feared. Instead they dry out and produce significantly less CO2.

Northern forests contain an estimated 30 percent of the Earth's soil carbon. That's equivalent to the amount of atmospheric carbon. Which means that mushrooms are not contributing to a vicious cycle of warming in dry boreal forests. Instead, they're actually preventing further warming from occurring. Possibly giving us a teensy bit more time to implement responsible policies to counteract warming globally. . . Starting with responsibly electing the next president of the United States. The study, btw, appears in the journal Global Change Biology.

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

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Obama's (And Our) Clean-Coal Blues

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 4:16 PM EST

The Internets are all atwitter today with talk of Obama's supposedly devastating admission that he wants to "bankrupt" the coal industry in the United States. An Ohio industry spokesman said Obama is a "disaster"; conservative blogs are attributing the remarks to some kind of San Francisco "truth serum", and Sarah Palin is accusing the San Francisco Chronicle, which conducted the offending interview back in January, of deliberately hiding its content from voters. (See the article and the Chron's rebuttal here.)

I just want to make a few points to inject a little sanity into this discussion. First, as I mentioned above, the quote comes from a comprehensive sit-down interview Obama conducted with the Chronicle nearly nine months ago. (Watch the whole thing here.) Since then, his stance on this issue has been pretty consistent. He supports a cap-and-trade system for carbon emissions (as does John McCain, by the by), as well as the development of "clean coal" technology.

Here's where we get to the real problem. In the interview, Obama asks, "how can we use coal without emitting greenhouse gases and carbon? And how can we sequester that carbon and capture it?" Characterizing unilateral opposition to coal as "ideological," Obama also stresses that since we already get so much of our electricity from coal, we can't expect to eliminate it from the mix anytime soon. "If technology allows us to use coal in a clean way, we should pursue it," he concludes.

But when it comes to "clean coal", it's environmentalists who should be worried, not coal executives.

The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics, Part 1

| Mon Nov. 3, 2008 1:24 PM EST

The following is a guest blog entry by Marcy Darnovsky of the Center for Genetics and Society.

To read The Spitterati and Trickle-Down Genomics Part 2, click here.

Just before the world's financial system hit the skids, the New Yorker's Talk of the Town and the New York Times' Sunday Styles section both featured lengthy accounts of a celebrity "spit party," at which notables in cocktail attire ejected their saliva into test tubes. The chic gala, hosted by media moguls Barry Diller, Rupert Murdoch, and Harvey Weinstein, was the latest episode of a remarkable publicity push by 23andMe, the start-up biotech firm whose mission is "to be the world's trusted source of personal genetic information."

The Google-backed company launched its celebrity strategy this past January, when it distributed a thousand free spit kits at the elite World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. But the genomes of the rich and famous were just the first step. Early this fall, 23andMe announced that it's slashing its prices to Christmas-stocking levels, in a bid to make DNA tests this year's high-tech must-have.

Diabetes Hits South the Hardest

| Fri Oct. 31, 2008 7:37 PM EDT

According to a CDC study released yesterday, new cases of Type 2 diabetes have nearly doubled in the last decade, from about 5 per 1,000 people in the mid-1990's, to 9 per 1,000 in 2007. Type 2 diabetes accounts for nearly 95 percent of all diabetes cases in the US, and is often linked to America's obesity epidemic.

The report was the first to analyze data by state, and found that the highest number of new diabetes patients are in the South. And it's no wonder. The South has the highest rates of poverty and physical inactivity, two major risk factors for obesity.

—Nikki Gloudeman


Got Another Planet?

| Thu Oct. 30, 2008 8:23 PM EDT

599px-The_Earth_seen_from_Apollo_17.jpg The planet is headed for an ecological credit crunch that will make Wall Street's convulsions look positively jolly. In fact at the rate we're going we'll need two planets by 2030. That's because more than three quarters of the human population now live in countries where consumption outstrips environmental renewal, reports the BBC. This makes them ecological debtors—drawing or overdrawing on land, forests, seas, and resources of other countries.

The Living Planet Report is the work of WWF, the Zoological Society of London and the Global Footprint Network. According to the latter: Our demand on nature, just as with the economy, is reaching a critical tipping point. Two years ago, their data showed humanity on track to reach the two-planet mark by 2050. Now we've accelerated our obsessive borrowing and should be there at around the time children born today are entering the workforce. . . Happy birthday, babies.

The countries with the biggest impact on the planet are the US and China, together accounting for 40% of the global footprint. The US also shares the limelight with the United Arab Emirates as the two nations with the largest ecological footprint per person. Malawi and Afghanistan have the smallest.

On Bowoto v. Chevron

| Wed Oct. 29, 2008 11:28 AM EDT

chevron-protest-1-300x200.jpgThe long-awaited Bowoto v. Chevron trial opened this week in San Francisco federal court. The international human rights case—over what happened in 1998 to Nigerian villagers protesting the energy behemoth's environmental impact—is rare for its use of the Alien Tort Claims Statute against a multinational corporation. To keep up with the trial, (expected to last into December), read this account of the first day, then keep an eye here for more good reporting on the case.

In these photos, Nigerians and "corporate accountability" activists protest in front of a Chevron station in San Francisco.

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Global Warming Killing Yellowstone's Amphibians

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 6:33 PM EDT

800px-Pseudacris_maculata.jpg The world's oldest national park cannot protect its populations of frogs and salamanders. Global warming is infiltrating park boundaries and destroying this amphibian refuge. A Stanford University study finds that remote ponds surveyed 15 years ago are now suffering catastrophic population declines in species supposedly not threatened. "The ecological effects of global warming are even more profound and are happening more rapidly than previously anticipated," the researchers write in PNAS.

The problem is disappearing ponds. The survey area lies in the lower Lamar Valley of northern Yellowstone. Dozens of small fishless ponds provide habitat once ideal for the breeding and larval development of blotched tiger salamanders, boreal chorus frogs, and Colombia spotted frogs. But high temperatures and drought are drying up the ponds.

The researchers studied climate and water records going back a century, ranging from handwritten logs of water flow in the Lamar River to satellite imagery. They could find no cause for the drying ponds other than a persistent change in temperature and precipitation. "It's the cumulative effects of climate," says biologist Elizabeth Hadly. . . Apparently national parks were a great idea of the 19th and 20th centuries. Now we need to graduate to the notion of a global park, refuge for us all.

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

From the Man Who Brought You the Segway: The Next Electric Car?

| Tue Oct. 28, 2008 4:25 PM EDT

segway.jpgRemember the Segway? Back in 2000, the self-balancing scooter was hyped as the Second Coming of wheeled transport. Unfortunately for its inventor, eccentric New Yorker Dean Kamen, it hasn't really caught on outside a narrow circle of enthusiasts. But Kamen doesn't care. He's got something better:

Conceived in Scotland almost 200 years ago, the Stirling is a marvel of thermodynamics that could help to replace the internal combustion engine—in theory it can turn any source of heat into electricity, in silence and with 100 percent efficiency. But corporations including Phillips, Ford and Nasa have devoted decades of research, and millions of dollars, to developing the engine, and all retired defeated, having failed to find a way of turning the theoretical principles of the engine into a workable everyday application.

After ten years and a $40 million investment, Kamen and his engineers think they've succeeded where NASA failed. Though the Stirlings aren't ready for commercial use, Kamen says he's test-driven engines burning everything from jet fuel to cow manure. They don't work in cars yet, he says. But they will.

Thoreau's Wildflowers Wilt In Warming Climate

| Mon Oct. 27, 2008 10:38 PM EDT

800px-Walden_Pond_1.jpg

The plants and flowers that Henry David Thoreau lovingly inventoried around Walden Pond 156 years ago are disappearing due to climate change. Researchers from Harvard and Boston Universities have tracked how warming temperatures have shifted the flowering times of 473 plant species in the woods at Walden Pond and elsewhere in Concord. Orchids, dogwoods, lilies, and many sunflower relatives are declining more swiftly than other species.

Climate-induced loss of plant diversity in Concord is alarming—especially since 60% of the area has been protected or underdeveloped since Thoreau's time. But rapid temperature changes have led to changes in the timing of seasonal activities. Since Thoreau's time, species now flower an average of seven days earlier—bad news for those dependent on pollinators, like bees, who have not responded in kind, or who are suffering population declines as well. The species in decline include anemones, buttercups, asters, campanulas, bluets, bladderworts, dogwoods, lilies, mints, orchids, roses, saxifrages, and violets.

Sounds like a poem, doesn't it? A poem falling silent. . . The mean temperature in the Concord area has risen 2.4 degrees Celsius over the past 100 years and is expected to climb between 1.1 and 6.4 degrees Celsius during the next 100 years. The paper is appearing in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences.

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

eBay to Ban Sale of Ivory After Damning Report

| Fri Oct. 24, 2008 5:30 PM EDT

elephant.jpgeBay announced this week that it would ban all sales of elephant ivory on its site after the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) reported (.pdf) that eBay auctions account for nearly two-thirds of the global trade in endangered species.

The animal-rights group tracked 7,000 online listings in 11 countries, cross-referencing the names of animals on endangered species lists with product keywords like trophy, oil, claw, and rug. The amount of trade in the US, they said, was ten times higher than the next-highest countries, China and the UK. Nearly 75 percent of trades were in elephant ivory; another 20 percent were exotic birds. Primates, cats, and other animals made up the difference.

Part of what's so insidious about online trading is how difficult it is to police. The sheer volume of auctions on big sites like eBay, where close to $2,000 worth of goods changes hands every second, makes it hard to verify every seller's claims. So, for example, a seller who claims his ivory earrings are "pre-ban"—made from ivory obtained before the US banned such imports in 1989—covers his back legally, but may not have documentation to back up his claims.