Blue Marble

Polar Bears Win Protection

| Wed May 14, 2008 4:01 PM EDT

baby-polar-bear.jpgAfter several months of delays, the polar bear has been declared protected under the Endangered Species Act due to global warming. This is the first time in history that global warming has officially "endangered" an animal, and the great white bear is the first species the Bush administration has put on the endangered list in two years. This is the longest gap between new animals added to the list since the Endangered Species Act was signed into law in 1973 under the Nixon administration.

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McCain Recycles His Green Image...From MoJo?

| Wed May 14, 2008 3:25 PM EDT
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In the past few days, we've seen John McCain turn green faster than David Banner. Just in case this sudden transformation shreds his clothing, he can now suit up in his campaign's new line of "Go Green" merchandise. Items include 70% bamboo polo shirts, organic cotton baseball caps, and a travel mug made from recycled plastic. All feature a new twist on the militaristic McCain logo—the little star has been replaced with the recycling symbol. That's okay—the symbol is all about reuse, even if it's being used to woo voters who want their trash to biodegrade in less time than it takes to get US troops out of Iraq. But how to explain why the lead image on McCain's climate-change page (top) is oddly reminiscent of the logo from our latest cover (bottom)?

(Tip of the organic hat to Tim Dickinson.)

MoJo Nukes Convo: Harvey Wasserman Highlights

| Tue May 13, 2008 12:08 PM EDT

harvey-wasserman.jpgHarvey Wasserman, author of Solartopia! Our Green Powered Earth, is an anti-nuclear activist. Wasserman feels that nuclear is a "costly and dangerous curse from previous bad decision-making." Nuclear is costly, he says, not only fiscally but environmentally. "The radioactive fuel chain is a major cause of global warming," Wasserman says. Instead, he suggests we embrace wind and solar power, which are "already proven and cheaper."

Below are highlights from Wasserman from MoJo's recent expert-led online reader conversation:

"Since you have quoted a Rockefeller study, how about we quote Al Gore, in a letter (to me) dated November 3, 2000:

'Thank you for your recent inquiry regarding nuclear energy and the Kyoto Protocol. Let me restate for you my long held policy with regard to nuclear energy. I do not support any increased reliance on nuclear energy. Moreover, I have disagreed with those who would classify nuclear energy as clean or renewable. In fact, you will note that the electricity restructuring legislation proposed by the [Clinton] Administration specifically excluded both nuclear and large scale hydro-energy, and instead promoted increased investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy. It is my view that climate change policies should do the same....Al Gore'

This letter is posted at the www.nirs.org web site, where answers to many of the other questions raised in this dialog can be found."

"There is more nuke than solar/wind capacity in the US not because of market forces favoring nukes, but because the US government, initally at the behest of the nuke weapons industry, has poured hundreds of billions into the technology."

"I have seen far too many containment domes to have any faith in any of them. No other kind of industrial facility can inflict the kind of damage that can come from a nuke."

"There is a reason there seems to be little middle ground in these nukes versus renewables debates, which is that there really isn't any."

"The critique of corporations is simple: corporations in the country have human rights, but no human responsibilities."

And here are what a few readers had to say about Wasserman:
"Harvey, I try to approach issues with an open mind. Keeping an open mind means maintaining a healthy disinterestedness, [but] I have run out of tolerance for your emotionally-laden sloganeering. Who are you to define what gets to be harmonious and what must be war? Sun and wind as love from the earth? The sun causes cancer. Wind becomes hurricanes that destroy cities."—Jonathan Severdia

"The problem with your perspective is that it's not being implemented, not by SMUD, not by anyone. If you look at who IS building wind-farms and solar (CPS) it's all the same utilities you've been screaming about for decades:FPL, PG&E, etc."—David Walters

"If you read Henry Wasserman's comments in his profile, it is OBVIOUS he knows what he's talking about, and is CORRECT in his assessment. An to anyone oblivious to the dangers that are posed merely from design flaws and human error...read about Chernobyl and gain an understanding of the loss that will impact literally generations and generations and generations."—Mike

"I gather that you are not enthusiastic about coal, so, without nuclear, how can we produce baseload power to meet projected demand? Massive solar thermal may do the trick for the Southwest, but how do we provide for Buffalo, Minneapolis & Flint?" —Douglas Price

How To Win A Nobel

| Sat May 10, 2008 8:40 PM EDT

teaser.png Log enough hours of Foldit and you might play your way into a cooperative Nobel. The new online game is designed to understand how existing proteins fold themselves, as well as to design new ones. The ultimate goal is to tap into that endless supply of human gaming energy to solve really hard problems. You might find yourself part of a cure for HIV or Alzheimer's or malaria. Or one of the many who designs a new protein to break up toxic waste, say, or absorb CO2 from the air.

There are more than 100,000 different proteins in the human body. They form every cell, make up the immune system, and set the speed of chemical reactions. We know many of their genetic sequences but don't know how they fold up into shapes so complex it would take all the computers in the world centuries to calculate them. Yet humans' natural 3-D problem-solving skills, utilized in an addictive gaming scenario, might solve the problems in only years. Or less. At least that's what a bunch of computer scientists, engineers, and biochemists from the University of Washington are hoping.

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game accurate and engaging. They faced challenges commercial game developers don't encounter, including not knowing the best results themselves.

Let Them Eat Biofuel

| Fri May 9, 2008 11:52 PM EDT

800px-Gas_Prices_Medium_Term.png Gas prices are rising and this could be great news. Even though it seems lousy in the short run. The truth is higher gas prices are already forcing people to drive less, skip trips, rethink vacations, and reject SUVs—part of a whole host of behavioral changes that add up to rare good news for our endangered atmosphere. LiveScience blogger Robert Roy Britt writes that some people are already slowing down on the roads as a means to save gas, as are some airlines. Higher gas prices are also saving human lives. Two thousand fewer people will die road deaths and 600 fewer will die from air pollution. One economist calculates that each $1 rise in gas equals 14 percent less fuel consumption over the long haul.

However, higher gas prices simultaneously feed biofuel fever. Why use oil when you can use corn? But biofuel is also associated with steeply rising food costs. The dilemma is that you and me can drive 1,000 miles or we can feed a person for a year, and people around the world are getting hungrier, writes Stan Cox on AlterNet. Our gas guzzling ways are about to drive the state of Iowa, the epicenter of agriculture, to import corn. How's that for weird? Apparently it's so weird that the politicos are scrambling to plow under last year's crop of legislature as fast as they can, writes Cox:

Now 24 Republican members of Congress, citing high food prices, have come out into the open to urge a retreat from the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates rapid increases in biofuel production... Gov. Rick Perry of Texas has formally requested that the federal government relax biofuel requirements imposed on his state… The Missouri legislature is considering a rollback of its own recently passed law requiring that gasoline must be mixed with a minimum percentage of ethanol.

MoJo Nukes Convo: Jonas Siegel Highlights

| Fri May 9, 2008 5:59 PM EDT

Jonas%20Siegel%20head%20shot.jpgJonas Siegel is editor of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a media organization that focuses on the intersection of science and security, and has covered nuclear weapons and energy issues for the past five years.

Although Siegel is in awe of nuclear's amazing energy-generating power—"a pound of uranium 235 has more than 2 million times the energy content of a pound of coal," he says—he acknowledges that so far the industry has been hindered by safety issues. The industry must address the risk of nuclear proliferation and waste storage if it's to become a part of our future mix of energy-providers, Siegel says.

Check out some of Siegel's other views, below, as expressed in last week's Blue Marble expert-reader conversation:

"One of the most vexing aspects of the current system is that it allows ... the same uranium enrichment facilities that enrich fuel for power production can also enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The plants that reprocess spent fuel after it is taken out of a reactor can be used to make additional fuel—or plutonium for nuclear weapons."

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Pigs Spared Med School Surgeries

| Thu May 8, 2008 5:24 PM EDT

184100079_51b6915f01_m.jpg NatureNews reports how doctors used to practise surgery on animals before being allowed to work on patients. Nowadays only a handful of US med schools maintain animal labs. The Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Ohio will shut its live-animal lab this month. Next semester, instead of practising on anaesthetized pigs, its med students will use technologies like virtual simulations. It's all part of a general phase-out of animal labs across the US. In 1994 live-animal experiments were on the curriculum in 77 of 125 medical schools. Now as few as eight use them.

Cost is a factor in the change, since it's expensive to maintain animals and veterinary staff. But simulations have also developed impressively in the past decade. The most advanced simulators now have 'haptic feedback,' providing the sensation that the students' instruments are touching real tissue—advances that make the use of live animals gratuitous, according to John Pippin, a cardiologist in Dallas who once used live dogs to study heart attacks but now works for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The group continues its work to convince the 6% of US institutes that still use live animals to change their ways—notably the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. NatureNews reports that Jonathan Lissauer, a doctor recently trained at Johns Hopkins, says that sometimes animal surgeries were used "as just a diversion for people who won't be using those skills at all. I think then you cross the territory from appropriate medical education to something worse than that. There was no medical utility in having pigs die so that people going into psychiatry could play around."

why_animals_matter_medium_rwcz.jpg According to Erin Williams and Margo DeMello in their compelling treatise on how animals suffer in institutional settings, Why Animals Matter: The Case for Animal Protection, the switch from live-animal experiments to simulations was driven in large part because "medical students around the country expressed reservations about killing animals as part of their education, and many refused to participate in dog labs and other classes in which animals were killed…" Could this be a way to identify the compassionate docs from the not so compassionate?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent, lecturer, and 2008 winner of the Kiriyama Prize and the John Burroughs Medal Award. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Green Porno: Are You Ready?

| Thu May 8, 2008 1:06 AM EDT

green-porno.jpgThere's green lotion, green clothing lines, and even green sex toys. So why not the natural next step, green porn? The Sundance Channel is now hosting "green porno videos" on its website. But lest you think green porn means watching Laurie David and Al Gore getting hot and heavy whilst discussing the Kyoto Protocol, it's not. And thank goodness for that. Instead, it's Isabella Rossellini dressed up as snails, bees, and praying mantids to show how animals mate. Sometimes ridiculous, sometimes horrifyingly graphic, you just have to see it for yourself. Visit the official "green porno" site here.

MoJo Nukes Convo: Stewart Brand's Take

| Wed May 7, 2008 10:13 PM EDT

brand-headshot.pngStewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, is a futurist with Global Business Network and works half-time as president of The Long Now Foundation. Brand looks toward the future on nuclear power, musing that we'll likely increase nuclear power to become more like France (which gets 80% of its electricity from nuclear) or phase it out in favor of better methods. Of course, Stewart writes, the whole nukes debate "could seem irrelevant in the face of drastic climate events forcing huge-scale geo-engineering."

Below are a few of Brand's choice comments from the MoJo online nukes conversation:
"The problem is not that nuclear is expensive. The problem is that coal is cheap."

Myanmar's Epic Floods Seen From Space

| Wed May 7, 2008 3:17 PM EDT

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Go ahead, tell the people of Myanmar that global-warming-related superstorms aren't anything to worry about. That 100,000-plus aren't dead and 95% of the buildings in the path of Cyclone Nargis aren't demolished. These images from the European Space Agency's Envisat satellite, taken a year apart, show the extent of the flooding. Envisat's radar cut through the clouds to reveal critical Near Real Time situation on the ground. The image on the left (above) is from a year ago. The image on the right shows flooding (black areas) two days after the cyclone's passage. Accuweather reported Nargis made landfall with sustained winds of 130 mph and gusts of 150-160 mph—ramping up with frightening speed from a Category 1 to a strong Category 3 or minimal Category 4 hurricane at landfall. Not as big as they get, but combined with an 11.5-foot storm surge, about as deadly as they get.

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NASA's color images from the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on its Terra satellite use a combination of visible and infrared light to highlight floodwaters. Water appears blue or nearly black, vegetation bright green, bare ground tan, and clouds white or light blue. The image on the left is from approximately a month before the cyclone. In the May 5 image on the right, the entire coastal plain is flooded. Fallow agricultural areas have been especially hard hit. Yangôn, with a population of over 4 million, is surrounded by floods. Several large cities, with populations between 100,000–500,000, are also inundated. Muddy runoff colors the Gulf of Martaban turquoise.