Blue Marble

Your Future Begins in Bali: Global Climate Summit Opens

| Mon Dec. 3, 2007 10:43 PM EST

Yvo de Boer, Executive Secretary, from the press conference "Overview of the main issues of the COP/Technical and logistical details for journalists."

Also largely absent from today's news—unless you read offshore, say, at the BBC—the portentous UN Climate Change Summit 2007 opening today in Bali. Governments are assembled to discuss how to reduce greenhouse gas emissions after 2012 when the current Kyoto Protocol targets expire. You know the Kyoto Protocol, the one Bush never signed, dooming it to irrelevance.

This is the first big international meet since the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned that evidence for global warming is "unequivocal." What's Bush's stance this time around? The BBC put it diplomatically:

Meanwhile, US President George Bush—who favours voluntary rather than mandatory targets—issued a statement saying that the nation's emissions had fallen by 1.5% in 2006 from levels in 2005.

Bush—that champion of weird math and damn the consequences—hopes his numbers will enable the US to avoid doing what everyone else is in Bali to do: agree to binding emissions targets. This even though 150 multinationals last week did just that, according to Business Green, including Coca-Cola, Gap, Nike, British Airways, Nestlé, Nokia, Shell, Tesco and Virgin, as well as a number of Chinese companies such as Shanghai Electric and Suntech.

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

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Hunger: Coming Your Way

| Mon Dec. 3, 2007 9:55 PM EST

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Global agriculture could go into steep, unanticipated declines due to complications that scientists have so far inadequately considered. So say three new reports published in this week's Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Predicted changes from 1- to 5-degree C temperature rises in coming decades fail to account for seasonal extremes of heat, drought or rain, multiplier effects of spreading diseases or weeds, and other ecological upsets. All are believed more likely in the future, according to The Earth Institute at Columbia University:

"Many people assume that we will never have a problem with food production on a global scale. But there is a strong potential for negative surprises," said Francesco Tubiello, a physicist and agricultural expert at the NASA/Goddard Institute of Space Studies who coauthored all three papers. Existing research estimates that developing countries may lose 334 million acres of prime farm land in the next 50 years. After mid-century, continuing temperature rises—5 degrees C or more by then—are expected to start adversely affecting northern crops as well, tipping the whole world into a danger zone.

Is there any mention of any of these three papers anywhere in the mainstream news? Not that I can find. The world goes on, as usual, headlining inconsequentials and absurdities.

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

Texas Science Curriculum Director Resigns Over Creationism Kerfuffle

| Fri Nov. 30, 2007 2:29 PM EST

creation190.jpgThe science blogosphere is abuzz (here, here and here, for starters) with some juicy creationism news from Texas. According to the Austin American-Statesman, Chris Comer, the state's director of science curriculum, was pressured into resigning this month. Her crime? Forwarding an e-mail about an upcoming talk by creationism expert Barbara Forrest. (Now mind you, by "creationism expert," I don't mean "creationist." Barbara Forrest testified in the Dover trial, and according to Pharyngula blogger PZ Meyers, she had creationists shaking in their boots.)

Anyway, long story short, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) had a fit. A TEA memo obtained by the Statesman said, "Ms. Comer's e-mail implies endorsement of the speaker and implies that TEA endorses the speaker's position on a subject on which the agency must remain neutral."

Now, never mind the fact that the neutrality for which Texas strives on the subject of creationism pretty much amounts to bad science. Even if neutrality is your goal—heck, even if you're the biggest creationist ever—you might still be interested in hearing what this Barbara Forrest has to say. And if you're a teacher, you're ostensibly interested in open forums, free exchange of ideas, etc. Tough luck for you if you're teaching in Texas. Talk about a hostile learning environment.

More Than 1 in 4 US Birds Imperiled

| Thu Nov. 29, 2007 8:35 PM EST

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How are America's birds doing after seven years of the antiGreens? Well, 178 species in the continental U.S. and 39 in Hawaii are in need of immediate conservation. That according to the 2007 Audubon WatchList.

"We call this a 'WatchList' but it is really a call to action, because the alternative is to watch these species slip ever closer to oblivion," said Audubon Bird Conservation Director and co-author, Greg Butcher. "How quickly and effectively we act to protect and support the species on this list will determine their future; where we've taken aggressive action, we've seen improvement," says David Pashley, American Bird Conservancy's Director of Conservation Programs and co-author.

Could Step One be any clearer? Fast forward to 2008 & ditch the flightless leaders.

Among the most imperiled species on the list that regularly breed in the continental U.S. are:

Gunnison Sage-Grouse (not on Endangered Species Act list (ESA) [here's why, at least in part]) • This species is restricted to Southwest ...

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

New Tectonic Source of Geothermal Energy?

| Thu Nov. 29, 2007 8:02 PM EST

volcan42.jpg Geochemists from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Arizona State University have discovered a new tool for identifying potential geothermal energy resources. The discovery came from comparing helium isotopes in samples gathered from wells, springs, and vents across the northern Basin and Range of western North America. High helium ratios are common in volcanic regions. When the investigators found high ratios in places far from volcanism, they knew that hot fluids must be permeating Earth's inner layers by other means. The samples collected on the surface gave the researchers a window into the structure of the rocks far below, with no need to drill.

"A good geothermal energy source has three basic requirements: a high thermal gradient—which means accessible hot rock—plus a rechargeable reservoir fluid, usually water, and finally, deep permeable pathways for the fluid to circulate through the hot rock," says Mack Kennedy. "We believe we have found a way to map and quantify zones of permeability deep in the lower crust that result not from volcanic activity but from tectonic activity, the movement of pieces of the Earth's crust."

Geothermal is considered by many to be the best renewable energy source besides solar. Accessible geothermal energy in the United States, excluding Alaska and Hawaii, is estimated at 90 quadrillion kilowatt-hours, 3,000 times more than the country's total annual energy consumption. Determining helium ratios from surface measurements is a practical way to locate promising sources.

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

Clean Up the Coal Plants, Then Clean Out the Fridge

| Wed Nov. 28, 2007 7:46 PM EST

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While the filthy coal industry touts its far-off "clean coal" technology to help keep federal subsidies flowing, perhaps there's a simpler solution to the emissions and toxins these plants belch. A Texas company called Skyonic has developed a process it claims can reduce smokestack carbon by up to 90 percent by transforming the C02 into solid NaHCO3, better known by the brand name Arm & Hammer. Hey, baking soda from coal waste! Great idea, especially if—as the company claims—the stuff comes out food-grade clean. (Even so, I think I'll just use mine to eliminate fridge odors.)

The process, which is now being tested on a pilot scale in Texas, is driven by heat from the waste gases. It involves an input of sodium hydroxide (lye), which is produced on-site, and produces as byproducts hydrogen and chlorine gases, which could be sold at a profit along with the baking soda, the company says.

Skyonic CEO Joe David Jones told ZDNET, where you can read more on this, that his company's "SkyMine" technology also eliminates 97 percent of the heavy metals and most of the acids and nitrogen compounds, which would eliminate the need for pricey smokestack scrubbers. The company is working on a full-scale system it hopes to install in 2009 that would, it says, absorb the waste output of a large (500MW) plant—which includes about 338,000 tons of carbon annually.

Sounds almost too good to be true; pie-in-the-SkyMine, you might say. Still, if it pans out, there'll be plenty of baking soda for that pie, and one less reason to hate the coal industry. 'Course, there is a little matter of blowing the tops off mountains. ...

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Green Jobs Growing

| Tue Nov. 27, 2007 8:08 PM EST

solar-panel-1.jpg Thanks to Grist for pointing the way to a fact sheet from the Environmental and Energy Study Institute showing that clean energy, already a job-creation engine, will soon rev even higher:

• Energy efficiency now employs 8 million, and renewable energy 450,000, in the U.S. • Renewable energy creates more jobs per megawatt of power installed, unit of energy produced, and dollar invested than fossil energy. • Generating 20 percent of U.S. electricity from new renewable energy by 2020 will add 185,000 new jobs, while cumulatively reducing utility bills $10.5 billion and increasing rural landowner income by $26.5 billion. • A national light vehicle efficiency standard of 35 mpg by 2018 will create 241,000 jobs, including 23,900 in the automotive sector, while saving consumers $37 billion in 2020 alone. • The Massachusetts clean energy sector employs 14,000 and will soon be the state's 10th largest economic sector. • Washington state's 15 percent renewable energy standard will result in a net increase of 1,230 jobs in-state. • California's Million Solar Roof Initiative will generate 15,000 jobs there. • Germany employs 214,000 in renewable energy, including 64,000 in wind. • Denmark's wind industry employs 20,000 and Spain's 35,000. • U.S. wind power was responsible for 16,000 direct jobs and 36,800 total jobs in 2006. •

Not to mention which, renewables revive communities.

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

Good News on Storing CO2 Underground

| Tue Nov. 27, 2007 7:38 PM EST

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Very promising news. Looks like storing carbon dioxide deep below the earth's surface might be a safe, long-term sequestration solution. University of Leeds (they're busy there) research found that porous sandstone, drained of oil, provides a safe reservoir for CO2. Investigator Stephanie Houston examined water pumped out with the oil and found it unexpectedly rich in silica, revealing that silicates had dissolved in the newly-injected seawater in less than a year—much faster than predicted. This is the type of reaction needed to make CO2 as stable as, say, the dissolved carbonate in still mineral water. It's also what's needed to prevent the captured CO2 leaking back to the surface at some future (catastrophic) date.

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

Biodiesel Sludge Converted to Hydrogen

| Tue Nov. 27, 2007 6:30 PM EST

241469637_3334f8faa3_m.jpg What to do with the byproduct of biodiesel? You know, that low-grade sludge that's produced, molecule for molecule, alongside biodiesel. Well, scientists at the University of Leeds have turned the unwanted crude glycerol (sludge) into a high-value hydrogen rich gas. The novel process developed by Valerie Dupont and her co-investigators mixes glycerol with steam at controlled temperatures and pressures, separating the waste product into hydrogen, water and carbon dioxide, with no residues. A special absorbent material filters out the CO2, leaving a purer product.

Currently hydrogen production is expensive and unsustainable, using either increasingly scarce fossil fuels or other less efficient methods such as water electrolysis. The new process is near carbon neutral, since the CO2 generated is not derived from the use of fossil fuels.

Let's hope the new processes emerging from a worldwide explosion of research prove green, sustainable, and economically feasible.

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

In Defense of Uncomfortable Air Travel

| Tue Nov. 27, 2007 2:55 PM EST

air%20travel%20200.jpgThe heaviest travel weekend of the year is over, and the verdict is in: "Flying coach has become an increasingly miserable experience," says the New York Times. In an article called "Aboard Planes, Class Conflict," Michelle Higgins enumerates the various ways in which modern air travel, well, sucks: The seats are tiny. Blankets and pillows are scarce. Free meals have become a distant memory.

This weekend, I traveled a round-trip total of 5,408 miles to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Boston. Sure, it was cramped (barely even enough room to turn the pages of Sky Mall) and the miniature allotment of pretzels (flung at me in my window-seat cave) didn't exactly tide me over for six hours, but basically, I spent most of both plane rides asleep, and the whole thing was astoundingly easy. From one coast to another! In only five hours! Coming back yesterday morning, I boarded the plane while it was still dark and rainy in Boston, but as the trip wore on the day dawned clear in the West, and I spent a good half hour staring out the window and marveling at how I was being whisked across the country. There go the snow-capped Rockies! Onto the Sierra Nevadas! I arrived at work in San Francisco only an hour late. I'd love to see my family more often, and after this easy trip back home, I began to think I could. But should I? Probably not.

Convenient though it may be, air travel is not exactly green. By some estimates, flights account for nearly four percent of human contribution to global warming. But there's a deeper problem, too. Environmentalists like Wendell Berry would argue that we've allowed ourselves to abuse our earth as much as we already have because we feel disconnected from it. No matter how tiny your seat is on a plane, it's pretty easy to feel divorced from the planet when you're zooming across it at 30,000 feet up.