Blue Marble

British Columbia Votes on Carbon Tax

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:32 PM EDT

North America's first carbon tax faces a critical test in upcoming elections in British Columbia. The results are likely to ripple across the continent.

Nature News points out that Canadian provincial elections don't normally garner international attention. But economists and environmentalists are viewing the election on May 12th as a test of several climate change policies. 

The incumbent Liberal Party government imposed a carbon tax in British Columbia in July 2008. It's been unpopular with many from the start because it boosted fuel costs during a time of record-high oil prices.

The opposition BC New Democratic Party (NDP) has vowed to "axe the tax," claiming it's ineffective and unfair to populations living in remote locations. Traditionally the NDP has been a greener party than the Liberals—leading some to accuse it now of attacking the carbon tax simply to chase votes in a tight election.

According to Nature News, economist Charles Komanoff, co-founder of the non-profit Carbon Tax Centre in New York, says: "We are keenly interested in watching this unfold. If [the tax] persists, it will give a big boost to the cause in the United States."

During Canada's 2008 federal election, the Liberal party campaigned for a green shift, hoping to put more tax burden onto polluters. They lost a bunch of seats for taking that stance and consequently the idea of a national carbon tax was scrapped.

A battle is also being fought in BC over independent power production. The Liberals have allowed private companies to apply for licenses for small hydroelectric projects that don't require building dams, claiming this is the most efficient way to boost renewable power production. Others claim company profits are incompatible with environmental stewardship and the NDP is campaigning to scrap this scheme too.

Tzeporah Berman of the climate-change advocacy group PowerUp Canada in Vancouver says British Columbia is going through are some of the world's first growing pains in adapting to  real climate policy. "The debate had been all abstract until now," says Berman. "It had been entirely possible to support a phase-out of fossil fuels and build-out in clean energy without having to face what those things mean in practice."

Developments in Canada are interesting to note in terms of a new political science study predicting the Obama presidency will likely break through a structural bias in American politics favoring the status quo and bring about significant changes in policy. The study predicts a shift in policy being twice as large as produced by Bill Clinton’s election in 1992, 40 percent larger than Ronald Reagan's election in 1980, and twice as large as FDR's election in 1932.

The prediction is based on a "pivotal politics" theory and employs the concept of the "gridlock interval" to assess the likelihood of policy change in Obama administration. You can download the paper [pdf] from PS: Political Science & Politics for free.
 

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Weird Bird Smuggling News

| Wed May 6, 2009 3:13 PM EDT

Liquids? Nope. Gels? Nah. Aerosols? Uh-uh. Birds? Ah-ha!

Yesterday, a man attempting to smuggle songbirds into the US from Vietnam was betrayed by his flamboyant leggings:

Sony Dong, 46, was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport in March after an inspector spotted bird feathers and droppings on his socks and tail feathers peeking out from under his pants, prosecutors said.

"He had fashioned these special cloth devices to hold the birds," said U.S. attorney spokesman Thom Mrozek. "They were secured by cloth wrappings and attached to his calves with buttons."

The reason? American collectors shell out $400 per bird. They cost less than $30 each in Vietnam.

In other bird smuggling news, over at Baltimore-Washington International Airport, customs officers discovered that a Nigerian passenger was carrying a souvenir pigeon head concealed in some homemade soap. (HT @noahwilliamgray.)

More bird smuggling stories? Post 'em in the comments.

Cute Animal vs. Global Warming

| Wed May 6, 2009 2:30 PM EDT

The Fish and Wildlife Service said today that it will launch a year-long review to see if the American Pika is endangered by global warming. The American Pika is a small, furry, rabbit-related mammal whose habitat and range, conservationists say, has been severely restricted by global warming. The pika, not to be confused with the jerboa or Pikachu, lives in cold, mountainous regions of the Western US. As those foothills and mountains have warmed, the pika has been forced to make its home in higher elevations. Problem is, there's a limit to how high they can go: the higher the elevation, the smaller the habitat.

If the pika receives endangered status next year, it will be the first mammal in the lower 48 states to receive protection due to global warming. The pika might make a great mascot against global warming. It's small, furry, cute, has big ears and shiny eyes... to further the cuteness factor, the pika communicates with "whistles" and actually gathers wildflowers to nibble on. Take that, polar bears.

200-Plus New Frogs in Madagascar

| Tue May 5, 2009 7:18 PM EDT

Somewhere between 129 and 221 new species of frogs have been identified in Madagascar—nearly double the known amphibian fauna on the island. The new study suggests that biodiversity in this biodiversity hotspot has been significantly underestimated, even in well-known and well-studied national parks.

"People think we know which plant and animal species live on this planet," says Miguel Vences of the Technical University of Braunschweig, one of the authors. "But the century of discoveries has only just begun—the majority of life forms on Earth is still awaiting scientific recognition."

In the 15 years prior to these findings, researchers had discovered and described over 100 new frog species from Madagascar and believed their species inventory to be nearly complete.

But the new surveys show far more species than suspected. The results come from DNA sequencing of 2,850 specimens of amphibians at 170 sites. The data don't show suggest more individual amphibians living in Madagascar—only more species diversity. Which means the new species are likely fragile and less populous.

The new research also implies that total biodiversity of all species on Madagascar could be higher than previously thought. Therefore the continuing destruction of rainforest in Madagascar may be affecting more species than we know.

Although many reserves and national parks have been created in the past ten years, real protection on the ground is thin. Madagascar has already lost more than 80 percent of its historic rainforest.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, found that nearly one-quarter of the new species were discovered in unprotected areas.
 

Note to Self: Avoid Surgery in Georgia

| Mon May 4, 2009 7:32 PM EDT

Doesn't "wrong-site" surgery sound oh so much friendlier than "Oops, we removed the wrong breast?"

From the AJC:

A surgical team at Northside Hospital was supposed to remove one of the patient’s breasts — but performed a double mastectomy because of a mistake, state records show. At Atlanta Medical Center, a surgeon drilled into the wrong side of a patient’s head before discovering the error. At several Georgia hospitals, doctors circumcised the wrong babies, performing the procedure against their parents’ wishes in cases at Wellstar Kennestone Hospital and Cartersville Medical Center. At others, doctors mistakenly operated on the wrong hand, knee, hip, leg, hernia and other body parts.

In Georgia, wrong site surgeries apparently get reported once a month. And it's not just a problem in the South: Pennsylvania's even worse.

I wonder how many of these mistakes are related to sleep deprivation in doctors, don't you?

[H/T ProPublica.]

Asian Mercury Crossing the Ocean

| Mon May 4, 2009 5:18 PM EDT

A fascinating new study documents for the first time how mercury gets from smokestacks in Asia to tuna on dinner tables in America. Scientists sampled Pacific Ocean water from 16 sites between Honolulu and Alaska, then constructed a computer model linking atmospheric emissions, transport and deposition of mercury, and ocean circulation.

Their findings published in Global Biogeochemical Cycles show how mercury originating from fossil-fuel-burning plants and waste-burning plants in Asia falls into the Pacific Ocean near the Asian coastline. The mercury-enriched waters are then carried by large ocean currents east towards North America.

The study documents for the first time something of the mysterious process by which mercury becomes methylmercury in the ocean. The simple version: Mercury rained down from the atmosphere is taken up by phytoplankton living in sunlit waters. When these plankton die they rain down into the depths where they're decomposed by bacteria. The process of decomposition turns mercury into methylmercury.

Methylmercury is an environmental neurotoxicant that rapidly bioaccumulates in the foodweb, eventually concentrating in top-tier predators like tunas and humans. Some 40 percent of human exposure to mercury in the US comes from eating tuna hunted in the Pacific Ocean. Pregnant women who consume mercury-laden seafood can pass on life-long developmental effects to their children.

Since the Industrial Revolution anthropogenic mercury levels in the atmosphere have risen threefold, with corresponding increases in terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems. This study found mercury levels in water samples rose an alarming 30 percent between the mid 1990s and 2006. That's hardly the end of it though. The authors predict another 50 percent increase in the Pacific by 2050 if emission rates continue as projected.

Yet another reason to we can't tread water on fossil fuels. Too bad Australia's Kevin Rudd just did a spineless jellyfish backflip on climate change. As if the economy is disconnected from the environment.
 

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Shell Won't Have To Pay for Pesticide Mess

| Mon May 4, 2009 4:10 PM EDT

Taxpayers, get ready to spend more to clean up hazardous-waste sites. With a precedent-setting decision, the Supreme Court just made it a little easier for companies who are involved in environmental contamination to pass the buck to the government.

Here's what happened: Shell Oil sold millions of dollars worth of pesticides to an agricultural company called Brown & Bryant, which stored the chemicals improperly. Later, the company went out of business, and it was discovered that those cheicals had contaminated the nearby land, which was later designated a Superfund site.

Treehugger points out that this case raises some interesting (and potentially troubling) questions about corporate culpability:

...once a company sells hazardous chemicals, is it responsible for ensuring they're kept safe? Or is it out of their hands entirely? Should companies that lease land to businesses that have potentially dangerous environmental practices be responsible for the safeguarding of that land? Or should the government have to pick up the tab in unfortunate situations like this[?]

 

 

Friday Cocktail: Smart Wind, Sun for the Poor, Sinking TV

| Fri May 1, 2009 5:36 PM EDT

Round 1: Smart turbine blades improve wind power. That's the hope of researchers using sensors and computational software to constantly monitor forces on wind turbine blades and rapidly adjust to changing wind conditions. Engineers at Purdue U and Sandia National Laboratories believe a smarter turbine can also provide critical real-time information to prevent damage from high winds.

The sensor-embedded blades are now being tested at a USDA lab in Texas. The sensors will help develop future blades with control surfaces and simple flaps capable of changing the aerodynamics, something like an airplane wing. The US is now the largest harvester of wind energy in the world, surpassing Germany. But the question remains: How to make wind energy safer for birds and bats. We need smart tech on that too.

Round 2: Some 70 percent of rural households in India lacks electricity and more than 60 percent use kerosene lamps for lighting. Kerosene is expensive, inefficient, potentially dangerous, and a major source of greenhouse gases. On the other hand, India averages 250 to 300 sunny days a year. Solar could provide a greater equivalence of energy than the country’s total consumption.

The nonprofit Sadguru Foundation supplied 100 solar lanterns to socially and economically disadvantaged households in 25 Gujarati villages, 70 percent of which are connected to the power grid but don’t receive power in the morning or evening when energy is redirected to cities. The lanterns reduced villagers’ expenditures on kerosene and electricity between $150 and $250 a year. That particularly benefited schoolchildren and women who received six hours of clean dependable light during times at home they really need it. Seems like an idea worth growing.

Round 3: As I wrote some time back, the Pacific nation of Tuvalu—all nine coral atolls of it—is suffering from rising sea levels. Now boingboing via Wreck & Salvage reports that Internet domain registrar GoDaddy is advising against buying a .net domain name. Why? Because Tuvalu owns and leases all .tv names—its country code. Don't buy, says GoDaddy, "because it’s sinking." Which floats the question: What becomes of the meager resources of a tiny nation when and if that nation no longer has any landmass to call its own? Maybe if we allocate enough of Round 1 & 2 (above), when Tuvalu does inevitably disappear beneath the waves, there will be a clean new homeland thay can still call .tv.
 

Swine Flu Survey: How Scared Are You?

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 4:22 PM EDT

Never mind how unlikely your imminent swine flu case actually is, how freaked out are you by the possibility you'll catch the disease? Researchers at Stanford are tracking answers to this (paraphrased) question through an anonymous online swine flu survey, which you can take here.

Via Marcel Salathé at Miller-McCune:

The Good Flu Still Needs Stopping

| Thu Apr. 30, 2009 2:37 PM EDT

It’s been interesting to watch the media ramp-up to hysteria over the new influenza strain and now drop it like spoiled news because it’s not deadly enough for the headlines. Too bad that's wrong twice.

First off, during the initial discovery of influenza A(H1N1)—no, it’s not swine flu anymore—many outlets were far too quick to diagnose and prognosticate, when all anyone could reasonably do was take a breath and wait a second for the science to sort through the fiction. That didn’t happen. Instead, imaginary death tolls mounted.

Now it’s clear this new flu is more gentle than ordinary flu. Yet this is just the moment when it’s potential for lethal harm blossoms.

Why? Because the farther the virus spreads, the more chance it will mix or reassort with other flus and turn into something more lethal. Already the unusual A(H1N1) flu combines strains from three species—swine, avian, human—from three continents—North America, Europe, and Asia. That’s new.

The mix provides an order of complexity we don't yet understand, says Kennedy Shortridge of the University of Hong Kong. AAAS’s ScienceNow reports that Shortridge led investigations into the initial emergence of H5N1 avian influenza in 1997.

Shortridge is concerned this newly-hacked virus might prove unstable and ready to reassort with other viruses encountered in a human or animal host. It’s already arrived in Asia where the H5N1 virus is circulating and where strains of Tamiflu-resistant human H1N1 are circulating. He speculates that swapping genes between these viruses could result in one that is more pathogenic or more easily passed from person to person or both. The prospects for change in the virus are considerable and truly worrying.

But this is just the moment when the media is sheepishly casting around for a bigger news story. They’ve already cried Wolf and infected everyone with boredom. Now, when we drop our vigilance, is just the moment when a good flu can go bad.

And, btw, I can’t help in the midst of all this to picture a world where for the sake of atmospheric health we all become vegetarian. You know, just to reduce our carbon footprint by a whopping 33 percent. I know, it’s a fantasy. But imagine it anway. Without the brutal disease-making factories of pig and fowl farms, we’d all be healthier—people and planet.