Blue Marble

Bush & Company Choke on Clean Air

| Fri Mar. 21, 2008 7:37 PM EDT

ISS014-E-7738.jpg The EPA said last week it would improve air quality by cutting ground-level ozone limits from 80 parts per billion to 75 ppb. This should save thousands of lives a year. Sounds good? Well, according to New Scientist, the EPA's own scientific advisers told the agency last year of overwhelming evidence that an even tighter limit of 70 ppb would save thousands more lives. No go, said the EPA, apparently deciding those other thousands of lives are inconsequential.

Now the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) says the Bush administration wants to overhaul the whole process of setting air-quality controls by allowing political appointees to help draft advisory reports, taking the job away, at least in part, from researchers. New Scientist reports the words of Tim Donaghy of the UCS: "The administration has changed the rules along the way so that when the next administration gets into office, the role science plays in setting regulations will be greatly diminished."

This, by the way, dovetails with a call last month by the UCS for the next president and Congress to end political interference in science and establish conditions allowing federal science to flourish. "Good federal policy depends upon reliable and robust scientific work," said Francesca Grifo, director of the Scientific Integrity Program at UCS. "When science is falsified, fabricated or censored, Americans' health and safety suffer."

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Philip Morris Cleans Up Its Act - By Genetically Modifying Tobacco

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 9:36 PM EDT

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From the cigarette company that wants you to stop smoking comes a new frontier in tobacco consumption: the health-friendly (kind of), genetically modified chew. Researchers at North Carolina State University, funded by tobacco giant Philip Morris, are trying to take the cancer out of cancer sticks by removing the gene that turns the plant toxic when cured. As tobacco plants age, the nicotine in the leaves changes into the compound nornicotine, which in turn becomes a carcinogen when the plant is cured. Knocking out the gene that causes this change, the researchers report, leads to a 50% decrease in tobacco's most harmful toxins. No word on whether the alterations make nicotine any less addictive, but you have to give them credit for trying. h/t Wired

—Casey Miner

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user zombophoto.

Google to Launch Storm Surge Maps

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 4:06 PM EDT

katrina_satellite.jpgGoogle is partnering with the National Hurricane Center to create a searchable map of areas at risk of storm surges during hurricanes. Users can plug in their address and determine how threatened (if at all) their homes are by surges of water that accompany hurricanes—surges that proved deadly during Hurricane Katrina. Google hopes to have the application online by June 1, just in time for the start of the 2008 Atlantic hurricane season.

The National Hurricane Center says the idea for the map came from the overwhelming number of phone calls made to local weather and emergency information lines during the last few hurricane seasons: residents wanted to know what flood levels would be like at their homes. Hurricane forecasters have long had a computer model that estimates storm surge height, which is based on wind speed, hurricane strength, and trajectory, but only now will this information be available to the public directly.

Though this online tool will definitely help people get specialized information on storm surge risk for their own geographic location, I worry that it may not do much to help those who need the most help during hurricanes: the elderly. Post-Katrina evacuation analysis shows that those least likely to evacuate—even with clear instructions to do so from the mayor—were the elderly. Three-quarters of the people who died during Katrina were older than age 60. With some luck, though, younger internet users will be able to get themselves, and hopefully their older family members and neighbors out of harm's way.

Photo used under a Creative Commons license from GISuser.

The Greening of March Madness

| Thu Mar. 20, 2008 1:09 PM EDT

green-basketball.jpg March Madness starts today, so it's time to get those last minute brackets in. (I'm playing in an office pool and a journalist pool, as well as on ESPN.com, Facebook, and John McCain's website. I really hope I win that last one.) If you don't have any idea which schools are good, you can always vote your principles. You'll find all the info you need on greenbrackets.com, where an effort called the American College & University Presidents Climate Commitment has identified the greenest schools in the tournament. Top seeds UNC, Kansas, and UCLA make the list, as well as long shots George Mason, Portland State, and University of Maryland-Baltimore County (aka UMBC, the school name that sounds most like an investment bank). In all, 23 of the tournament's 64 teams are on the list.

According to the website, going green is good for your March Madness karma. Green schools have won four of the last five tournaments and have made up 50 percent of the Final Four over the last 10 years. So go win your office pool on the backs of environmentally friendly hoops.

By the way, a school is designated a green school if they sign onto this pledge. It could be stronger, but it's a start.

Reduce Carbon Emissions and Boost the Economy

| Wed Mar. 19, 2008 11:03 PM EDT

348546345_ed90e9d509_m.jpg Here's how. According to Yale's new interactive website, SeeForYourself, a national policy to cut CO2 by as much as 40 percent over the next 20 years could still result in increased economic growth. The study by Robert Repetto is a meta-analysis of 27 prior economic models and identifies seven key assumptions accounting for most of the differences in the model predictions.

The best part is SeeForYourself allows you to play forecaster and choose which assumptions you feel are most realistic. You can then view predictions based on your chosen assumptions. For instance, you get to rate assumptions such as: How likely is it that renewable energy technologies, such as wind and solar energy, will be available at stable prices and will be able to compete with fossil fuels once fuel prices rise far enough? Or: How likely is it that climate change will result in economic damages to the United States if U.S. emissions are not reduced?

It's fun, informative, and designed to convince our more feebleminded policymakers how easy it is to do the right thing and prosper. Descriptions of the models can be found in Costs of Climate Protection: A Guide for the Perplexed, World Resources Institute.

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

What's Worse? Exxon or Comfortable Footwear?

| Tue Mar. 18, 2008 8:22 PM EDT
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The Consumerist is having fun with its first-ever "Worst Company in America" survey. Today's corporate death match is between oil giant ExxonMobil and Crocs, the much-hated-upon yet oh-so-comfy rubber clogs. So who's worse? Here's a hint. And it looks like the Consumerist's readers are starting off on the the right foot, too.

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Satellites to Rescue Starving Arctic Animals?

| Tue Mar. 18, 2008 3:47 PM EDT

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In the Artic, a lot still goes unseen. Take the weird weather event of October 2003 that killed 20,000 musk oxen on Canada's Banks Island above the Arctic Circle. Rain fell for days atop 6 inches of snow and seeped through to the soil. When the temperature plunged, the rain froze into a thick layer of ice that persisted all winter. Browsers couldn't dig through to feed on lichens and mosses, and one-third of a 70,000-herd of musk oxen perished. "Starvation happened over a period of many months and no one knew until they went up to do the population count the next spring," says Thomas Grenfell, research professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. The closest weather station, 60 miles away, didn't record any rainfall at the time and few people recognized the oxen's distress.

Now Grenfell and Jaakko Putkonen, also of UW, have found evidence of the 2003 rain-on-snow occurrence in passive satellite microwave imagery. This could provide a signature to help detect similar events in the future, throughout the sparsely-populated Arctic, including in Alaska, northern Canada, Siberia, and Scandinavia. They looked for patterns in data from 10 different satellite microwave channels that correlated with rain-on-snow events. "The subtleties in the microwave levels mean there can be high error margins on this information, but the Banks Island event stood out like a sore thumb in the data," said Grenfell. He hopes satellite data might make up for a scarcity of weather stations and enable native people, who depend on musk oxen, reindeer and caribou, to get food to the herds to prevent mass starvation.

Not explicitly stated but worrying nontheless—expect more rain-on-snow events as the Arctic warms. Which means, this is what we've come to, essentially taming wildlife to keep it alive. Sad benchmark. The study will be published March 25 in Water Resources Research, a journal of the American Geophysical Union.

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

Green Buildings Cut CO2 Fastest

| Mon Mar. 17, 2008 6:29 PM EDT

The fastest and cheapest way to cut deeply into CO2 emissions is to overhaul old buildings for efficiency and build new ones green from the start. Turns out that buildings are responsible for more than one-third of North America's CO2 emissions, says a new report by the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. Promoting green design, construction, renovation and operation of buildings could cut North American building emissions from more than 2,200 megatons of CO2 annually to 500 megatons. Rapid deployment of emerging advanced energy-saving technologies could bring about these savings by 2030.

Currently, green buildings routinely reduce energy usage by 30 to 50 percent over conventional buildings. The most efficient now outperform them by more than 70 percent. The authors recommend ways to accelerate greening our homes and offices, calling upon government, industry and nongovernmental leaders to:

 

Create national, multi-stakeholder task forces for achieving a vision of green building in North America • Support the creation of a North American set of principles and planning tools for green building • Set clear targets to achieve the most rapid possible adoption of green building in North America, including aggressive targets for carbon-neutral or net zero-energy buildings, together with performance monitoring to track progress towards these targets • Enhance ongoing or new support for green building, including efforts to promote private sector investment and proper valuation methods • Increase knowledge of green building through research and development, capacity building, and the use of labels and disclosures on green building performance.

 

We need some national vision here. Yet another reason why 308 days, 19 hours, 37 minutes, and 1 second left (as of this writing) can't fly by fast enough.

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

Are Genetically Engineered Organics the Future of Farming?

| Mon Mar. 17, 2008 5:12 PM EDT

corn200.jpg This past weekend in the Boston Globe, Pamela Ronald, a U.C. Davis plant pathologist, tackled the debate over genetic engineering in organic farming. Without mincing words.

It is time to abandon the caricatures of genetic engineering that are popular among some consumers and activists, and instead see it for what it is: A tool that can help the ecological farming revolution grow into a lasting movement with global impact.

Bold, to be sure. But are these fightin' words? Probably.

President Bush Tells EPA How to Do Its Job; Clean Air Suffers

| Fri Mar. 14, 2008 11:56 AM EDT

From the Washington Post:

The Environmental Protection Agency weakened one part of its new limits on smog-forming ozone after an unusual last-minute intervention by President Bush, according to documents released by the EPA.
EPA officials initially tried to set a lower seasonal limit on ozone to protect wildlife, parks and farmland, as required under the law. While their proposal was less restrictive than what the EPA's scientific advisers had proposed, Bush overruled EPA officials and on Tuesday ordered the agency to increase the limit, according to the documents.
"It is unprecedented and an unlawful act of political interference for the president personally to override a decision that the Clean Air Act leaves exclusively to EPA's expert scientific judgment," said John Walke, clean-air director for the Natural Resources Defense Council.
The president's order prompted a scramble by administration officials to rewrite the regulations to avoid a conflict with past EPA statements on the harm caused by ozone.

The Post adds, "the rules that the EPA issued Wednesday will help determine the nation's air quality for at least a decade."