Blue Marble

Toyota Tops Consumer Reports' Greenest Cars

| Fri Jan. 11, 2008 3:50 PM EST

prius.jpgAlthough "eco-friendliness" ranks well behind "safety" and "value" among qualities consumers consider when buying cars, Consumer Reports did due diligence finding out which brands of cars are perceived as the most green. To be clear, they only tested for brand's perception as an eco-friendly car-maker, not how friendly the actual car is to Mother Earth.

It's probably no surprise that Toyota ranks the highest, with its seemingly ubiquitous Prius. Nearly half of the consumers surveyed say they associate Toyota with being green, twice as many as selected the runner-up brand, Honda. Ford (Escape Hybrid), Chevrolet (Tahoe Hybrid), and GMC (Yukon Hybrid) came in at third, fourth, and fifth places, respectively.

Although being "green" came in fifth among qualities consumers say they look for, it's encouraging that eco-friendliness was ranked higher than "design/style" and "technology/innovation." To me, that signifies that Americans may be more willing to put the environment above looks and style or unnecessary doo-dads when purchasing their next automobile. Of course, if we had better public transportation systems, we might not need all those cars on the road at all. But hey, a gal can dream.

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Iditarod Race Feels Global Warming's Heat

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 7:30 PM EST

iditarod3.jpgCiting "less-than-winter conditions," and encroaching suburban development, Iditarod officials are moving the famous dog race's starting point 30 miles north from Wasilla to Willow. They're also shortening the first, ceremonial leg of the competition (the short, easier race that precedes the harsh, longer race to Nome) by seven miles.

This isn't the first time officials have had to change the traditional sled dog race's route. Just six years ago, a lack of snow forced them to move the 1122-mile-long race's start point 200 miles north, from Wasilla to Fairbanks. And even now, they have to truck in snow for the ceremonial start.

Warm weather isn't the only element threatening the Iditarod: Increasing suburban development has crunched in previously wide-open spaces. "No matter what the weather conditions would be, there's a lot of asphalt and other things that don't mix well with competitive racing," said Stan Hooley, executive director of the Iditarod Trail Committee. "To be around that is stressful for the dogs."

You can see an interactive map of the trail for this year's race, which begins March 1, here. To see the NOAA satellite view of the land around the start point, go here.

Antarctic Sea Ice Increase: Fodder for Global Warming Skeptics?

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 3:37 PM EST

antarctic200.jpgHold onto your hats, kids, because climate change skeptics are sure to have a field day with this one: Researchers have found that for the past 20 years, while ice in the Arctic has been rapidly decreasing, Antarctic sea ice has actually been increasing. "See?" The skeptics will say. "If the world really were getting warmer, then it wouldn't be all cold and icy in the South Pole."

But like many global warming denialist arguments, this one doesn't leave a whole lot of room for scientific nuance. Not all that science is fully understood yet, but until it is, you can fire back at doubting Thomases with a few basic facts: For starters, South Pole ice is much thicker than North Pole ice (2 miles in the Antarctic vs. 6-10 feet in the Arctic). Also, the ice in the north sits on open ocean, so it gets warmed from beneath&8212;while in the south, much of the ice sits on a continent.

Sydney Indymedia e-mailed renowned NASA climate scientist James Hansen, and he kindly put the Antarctic trends in some context:

All of the models, and the observations, have the central parts of Greenland and Antarctica growing faster because of global warming. This is a consequence of warmer air holding more moisture, thus increasing snowfall. But the net effect of warming on both continental ice sheets is mass loss, the increased melting being a larger effect than the increased snowfall.

And according to Hansen, not all of Antarctica's sea ice is increasing:

He also said "The fact that West Antarctica is shedding mass at a substantial rate, even though there is only small warming of surrounding sea surface temperatures, is a telling fact in my opinion, and a likely consequence of the warming ocean at depth, which affects the ice shelves that buttress West Antarctica, as discussed in our paper 'Dangerous human-made interference with climate: a GISS modelE study.'"

So there you have it: As usual, climate change is much more complex than skeptics would have us believe.

If China Can Ban Plastic Bags, Why Can't We?

| Thu Jan. 10, 2008 3:05 PM EST

china-bags.jpgCommunist governments may be oppressive to American eyes, but they do have the power to make sweeping environmental changes. Key example: China.

As Jacques Leslie reports in our current issue, China is the world's top CO2 emitter and uses more coal than any other nation. But in a bid to reduce pollution, effective June 1, the country's Communist government has banned those flimsy, white, petroleum-based plastic bags. And not just in a few cities, but across the entire nation of 1.3 billion people.

"While [the bags] providing convenience to consumers," the central government said in a statement, "they have also caused serious pollution, and waste of energy and resources, because of excessive use and inadequate recycling," China uses about 3 billion plastic bags a day.

Thicker plastic bags will still be allowed, for a fee, but the government is highly encouraging people to use traditional baskets or re-usable cloth bags. Citizens have been receptive, perhaps because pollution is so bad in China that most have experienced its effects (poor water quality, lung-searing smog) firsthand.

One consequence could be, since production of the bags in China will be banned, that perhaps we'll end up with fewer over here. Everything else we sell is made in China, if our plastic bags are too we might face a welcome shortage.

Feds Miss Deadline to Help Polar Bears

| Wed Jan. 9, 2008 8:00 PM EST

polar-bear150x180.jpgFederal authorities missed the deadline this week to classify polar bears as "endangered." Seems rampant habitat loss due to global warming isn't compelling enough to get them listed.

Well, today three conservation groups announced that they're going to sue the Department of the Interior to get the endangered status for the bear.

This all started last January, when an Interior Secretary proposed putting polar bears on the federal endangered list. The Endangered Species Act requires a final decision no later than a year after such a proposal. While the government claims that the deadline was missed because of the complex science involved, and because there has never been a species listed due to global warming, conservationists say that the federal government consistently uses such administrative excuses to keep animals off the list or meddle in scientific findings.

Just to give some context for the "science" part of the argument, a National Geographic study found that polar bears may be extinct by 2050 due to global warming, and in summer 2007, there was 40% less Arctic ice than there was in 2000, according to a study by the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As we wrote about last year, global warming is leading to extinctions across the global board. Unfortunately, we may not have the time it takes to convince the federal government otherwise, or to compel the feds to get their paperwork in order.

Artist Drives Mass Consumption Home

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 7:31 PM EST

handguns.jpg

A picture is worth 1,000 words. Chris Jordan's photo illustrations are worth 200,000 cigarette packs, 170,000 disposable batteries, eight million toothpicks, two million plastic beverage bottles, and 426,000 discarded cell phones. (Not that you can tell from the tiny reproduction, but the image accompanying this item contains 29,569 handguns.) In his humbling exhibit titled "Running the Numbers, An American Self-Portrait" the accomplished Seattle-based artist uses these subjects and others to depict our consumer culture's troubling stats. The smoke-packs illustrate the number of Americans that die every six months from smoking-related illnesses; the batteries represent fifteen minutes worth of Energizer's product output; the toothpicks show the number of trees harvested annually to create mail-order catalogs. You get the picture. So rather than blather on for another thousand words about these fascinating images, perhaps I'd better just send you to look at them.

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Patagonia Deconstructs Your Clothes

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 5:34 PM EST

gen2_footprint_site_2.jpg

Okay, I already covet their gear more than is morally good for me. Now Patagonia has launched a cool interactive website called The Footprint Chronicles. At the moment it's more evolving prototype than matured design. Still, it enables you to follow the environmental footprint of a handful of their products. "The impact of an unexamined life is far more serious than it once was—deadly so," says Patagonia, turning their own practices inside out and letting us pick at the seams. Their long-sleeved Wool 2 Crew shirt, for instance, is both environmentally good and bad: good comes from sustainably ranched sheep in New Zealand, dyed without heavy metals, sewn in the US; bad comes from a 16,200-mile-long footprint between New Zealand and Los Angeles via Malaysia and Japan. Not sustainable.

The site is designed to "ignite conversation every bit as much as corporate introspection," and encourages viewer feedback & discussion. "We've been in business long enough to know that when we can reduce or eliminate a harm, other businesses will be eager to follow suit," says Patagonia… Let's hope so.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Flu Deaths Run in the Family

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 4:45 PM EST

1918Flu_photo.jpg Everyone gets the flu. Some are more likely to die from it, reports New Scientist. A study published in The Journal of Infectious Diseases looked at death certificates and family records going back 100 years and found that blood relatives of flu victims were more likely to die than nonrelatives, even during different flu outbreaks. Risks increased with relatedness: siblings were 74% more likely to die than unrelateds; blood uncles 22%; first cousins 16%. Victims' spouses were also more likely to die, probably because they lived in the same house. The team is tracking relatives of people who died recently to see if they too are at increased risk, and if flu vaccinations help…. Good question.

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Some Biofuels Worse Than Fossil Fuels

| Tue Jan. 8, 2008 3:51 PM EST

bio-fuel_6648.jpg Burning biofuels emits less greenhouse gasses than burning fossil fuels. But producing some biofuels is far more environmentally costly, according to a new study commissioned by the Swiss government and reviewed by researchers from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Science. In particular, sugarcane, US corn, Brazilian soy, and Malaysian palm oil may be worse overall than fossil fuels in environmental destruction, pollution, and damage to human health. The new study calculates the relative merits of 26 biofuels based on relative reduction of greenhouse-gas emissions and an environmental-impact index. The best alternatives include biofuels from residual products, such as recycled cooking oil and ethanol from grass or wood… Hmm. What are the chances we can be smart about this?

Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Where the Candidates Stand on Science

| Mon Jan. 7, 2008 11:43 PM EST

homepage.jpg A 10-page special report, "Science and the Next U.S. President" published in the journal Science profiles the nine leading candidates' stances on important scientific issues.

"Science felt that it was important to find out what the presidential candidates think about issues that may not be part of their standard stump speeches but that are vital to the future of the country—from reducing greenhouse gas emissions to improving science and math education," said Jeffrey Mervis, deputy news editor, who oversees election coverage for the magazine's news department. "We hope that the coverage may also kick off a broader discussion of the role of science and technology in decisions being made in Washington and around the world."

Clinton gave the most detailed examination of science policy that any presidential candidate has offered to date, emphasizing innovation to drive economic growth, proposing a $50 billion research and deployment fund for green energy (paid for by increasing federal taxes and royalties on oil companies), and establishing a national energy council to oversee federal climate and greentech research and deployment programs.