Blue Marble

A Few Things I'll Give Thanks For

| Wed Nov. 21, 2007 9:59 PM EST

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Tofurky. According to the Washington Post, the meatless Thanksgiving dinner-in-a-box hit the market twelve years ago, after founder Seth Tibbott endured a nasty holiday bout with a stuffed pumpkin and a rock-hard gluten roast. Well, your suffering was worth it for the rest of us, Seth, because Tofurkey tastes great.

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Thanks to Lloyd Alter at Treehugger for his list of Five Climate Change Events To Be Thankful For:

1. Al Gore and the IPCC won the Nobel Prize. 2. The 1st CAFE standard in 22 years was passed in the Senate. 3. All the democratic presidential front runners have proposed a comprehensive energy plan, asking for large carbon dioxide emission reductions. (but some still love coal) 4. The 4th IPCC Synthesis report was a blunt and urgent call for action. (though it's not pretty) 5. Public Opinion is shifting: 3/4 of Americans would make lifestyle changes or pay energy and carbon taxes.

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Thanks for the fact that Hassan Mashriqui of Louisiana State University, a place intimately familiar with the effects of monster hurricanes, gave Bangladesh emergency officials storm-surge maps 24 hours in advance of Cyclone Sidr. Maps so detailed that local agencies were able to take advance action, saving countless lives.

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Thanks to Plenty for news that the Democratic Republic of Congo is setting aside an 11,800-square-mile reserve for endangered bonobos—our closest relatives in the primate world, sharing an amazing 98.4% of our DNA, found only in the DRC, the only primates to live in a peaceful, matriarchal society. Now suffering from the bushmeat trade. Eat them? Hell, we need to invite them to mentor us.

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A European Space Agency's OSIRIS satellite photo of the Earth at night.

Thanks for the fact that we are still here. We haven't destroyed everything (yet). We might still learn to be a better species and cherish this amazing world we are so incredibly lucky to be part of.

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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EPA Removes Everglades Expert From Restoration Project

| Tue Nov. 20, 2007 1:24 PM EST

everglades200.jpgHow do you reward an employee for years of faithful service on a project? A new watch? A raise? At least a pat on the back? Nah. If you're following the lead of the EPA, you remove him from the project.

Richard Harvey has been serving as an EPA representative on the Everglades restoration since it began in 1999. The project has been plagued by environmental problems since the get-go, and Harvey hasn't been shy about pointing them out. When water authorities diverted excess water from polluted Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee and St. Lucie rivers, Harvey warned that this wasn't a great idea.

The most recent scuffle started last fall, when officials wanted to install an underground pipe to shunt excess water from the lake. A pipeline is not a magician, though, and dirty water has to go somewhere. In this case, Harvey said, the water would flow into Biscayne National Park. Another not-so-great idea. At a meeting, via conference call, he said:

Once again we're routing dirty water....We are extremely concerned because the track record when the district and the corps move dirty water around is some resource gets trashed.

Little did Harvey know, a reporter was also at the meeting, and she quoted him in print. A few months later, Harvey's supervisor removed him from the project.

The restoration is now almost a decade old, and some people seem to think that the park is all better. Last summer, for example, the U.N. World Heritage Committee removed the Everglades from its list of endangered places. But most experts agree with Harvey—the River of Grass still has a long way to go.

Five Bullet Points of the Latest IPCC Report

| Tue Nov. 20, 2007 1:00 AM EST

global_intro_240x394.gif Thanks to Nature, here are the highlights of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. The UN body won the latest Nobel Peace Prize (along with Al Gore), and maybe that emboldened them to take off the gloves in this round. The five talking points of the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report, Climate Change 2007:

• Warming of the world's climate is "unequivocal" — 11 of the past 12 years (1995-2006) rank among the 12 warmest years since 1850. • It is "likely" (meaning a 66% likelihood) that there has been significant man-made warming on every continent except Antarctica over the past half-century. • Continued greenhouse-gas emissions at or above current rates would induce climate changes that would be "very likely" (meaning a 90% likelihood) to exceed those observed during the twentieth century. • Fossil fuels will dominate the world's energy portfolio until at least 2030, and emissions look set to rise by 25-90% during that time. • Given our current understanding, it is too difficult to estimate the extent of future sea-level rise.

The real question: will this overdue urgency translate into anything resembling action at next month's United Nations Climate Change Conference in Bali? Or will it go the way of Kyoto, stymied by American, and now (inspired by our example) Chinese, stonewalling?Julia Whitty is Mother Jones' environmental correspondent. You can read from her new book, The Fragile Edge, and other writings, here.

Politics V. Endangered Species, or The Julie MacDonald Drama (Again)

| Mon Nov. 19, 2007 8:02 PM EST

T_eques-low.jpg Good article in today's Christian Science Monitor on how political efforts to undercut the Endangered Species Act are facing fire in the courts. In each case, Bush's political appointees overrode federal scientists' recommendations, with little or no justification, according to six lawsuits filed Thursday by the Center for Biological Diversity. Who are the losers? Mexican garter snakes, Mississippi gopher frogs, Santa Ana suckerfish, to begin with. We've heard this before but—

"This wave of lawsuits is different—and what makes them so different is that the agency itself and its inspector general have provided a lot of compelling evidence of political interference with the proper functioning of the act," says J.B. Ruhl, a law professor at Florida State University in Tallahassee and an expert on the ESA. A big factor in the CBD's legal fusillade hinges on the April release of a scathing report [pdf] by the Interior Department's inspector general on the actions of Julie MacDonald, the department's former deputy assistant secretary for fish and wildlife and parks. The report found numerous questionable actions on endangered species and criticized her release of internal documents to outside groups opposed to the ESA.

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Moreover, the Endangered Species & Wetlands Report revealed that Julie MacDonald received a Special Thanks for Achieving Results (STAR) award for her work during 2004. That amounted to a tidy $9,628 windfall—just short of the $10,000 threshold that would have triggered a review by the Office of Personnel Management. This, according to DOI, for "an outstanding one-time accomplishment or contribution of a non-recurring nature that produces tangible savings or intangible benefits."

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Oh. Is that what they call eviscerating a stellar piece of legislation?

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

The Garbage Game

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 8:44 PM EST

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Treehugger posts notice of the Garbage Game produced by The Gotham Gazette. You get to play at garbage commissioner and dig into the stinky reality of New Yorkers throwing away 64,000 tons of garbage a week, 7 billion pounds a year, for a billion dollars a year. You get to decide what to do with your empty water bottles, frayed towels, apple cores, the 3.6 million tons of diapers Americans throw away yearly. Where are you going to send your city's garbage? Next door? Overseas? Learn the consequences of your decisions. Best of all, play the game with your kids and enjoy the light in their eyes when they realize the effects of the profligate lifestyle you're generating on their behalf.

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

Timber! Katrina's Dead Trees Release as Much Carbon as Stored in US Forests Yearly

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 8:06 PM EST

051021_katrinatrees_hlg_10a.hlarge.jpg Scientists from Tulane and the University of New Hampshire using NASA satellite data calculate that Hurricane Katrina killed or severely damaged 320 million large trees in Gulf Coast forests. The damaged trees subsequently released large quantities of CO2 to the atmosphere—the equivalent of 60-100% of the net annual carbon sink in all US forest trees. Why? Because dead trees no longer photosynthesize and can't store carbon. Plus, dead wood is consumed by decomposers whose communities grow in keeping with the bumper crop, and who then "exhale" large quantities of CO2 into the atmosphere.

The August 2005 hurricane damaged or destroyed 5 million acres of forest across Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. "It is surprising to learn that one extreme event can release nearly as much carbon to the atmosphere as all U.S. forests can store in an average year," said Diane Wickland, manager of the Terrestrial Ecology Program at NASA Headquarters in Washington. Climate change forecasts predict more larger and powerful storms like Katrina more frequently in the future.

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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Coal Sponsors Tonight's Democratic Debate

| Thu Nov. 15, 2007 7:11 PM EST

cnncoal.jpgThink Progress points to the full-page ad in today's New York Times stating that tonight's Democratic presidential debate on CNN is sponsored by the "clean coal" industry. Wow. Aren't euphemisms fun? Sort of the magical realism of the political world. According to Think Progress, the coal industry's "clean" agenda would have us:

• Expand coal production by using government-funded technology to convert coal to vehicle fuels, thereby producing twice as much global warming pollution as gas production, and consuming huge amounts of water to boot. • Crank out as many new power plants as possible before limits on greenhouse gas pollution take effect. Nearly 150 coal-fired power plants are already on the drawing board. • Delay and weaken any limits on CO2 pollution, even though scientists tell us we need a 20% reduction by 2020, and an 80% reduction in 2050 [actually, we need more than that and faster too]. • Convince Congress to give coalies free "allowances" to emit greenhouse gases rather than force coal-fired plants to buy them in cap-and-trade auctions.

The coal industry's sponsorship of tonight's CNN debate in Las Vegas appears to be an attempt to pressure Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), who has stood firmly against the construction of three proposed major coal-fired power plants in his home state: REID: "I want to help Nevada become the national leader in renewable energy and energy independence. We have vast wind, solar and geothermal resources and we're wasting energy every day we're not tapping into those free, clean, and reliable power sources… As proposed, these coal plants are old news, the way of the increasingly distant past."

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

The Dirtiest Dozen Polluters

| Wed Nov. 14, 2007 9:08 PM EST

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Southern Co's Plant Scherer in Georgia is the biggest CO2 emitter in the US and 20th worst in the world

Among 50,000 power plants worldwide, which are the biggest CO2 emitters? The Center for Global Development has analyzed that. Turns out Australians are (still) the biggest per capita emitters (11 tons of power-sector CO2 emissions per person per year). Americans are the biggest overall (>9 tons pp). China (2 tons pp) and India (0.5 tons pp) are still lightweights per capita, though seriously competitive on a cumulative level.

Globally, power generation emits nearly 10 billion tons of CO2 per year. The 8,000 power plants in the US spew more 25 percent of that. Roughly 2.8 billion tons per year. The US's biggest CO2 emitter is Southern Co, the sty (pig or eye, your choice) of the nation, with annual emissions of 172 million tons, followed by dirtbags American Electric Power Company Inc, Duke Energy Corp, and AES Corp.

Here are dirtiest dozen individual plants in the US. All are coal-fired. Any in your hood, parading as do-gooders?

• The Scherer plant in Juliet, GA: 25.3 million tons • The Miller plant in Quinton, AL: 20.6 million tons • The Bowen plant in Cartersville, GA: 20.5 million tons • The Gibson plant in Owensville, IN: 20.4 million tons • The W.A. Parish plant in Thompsons, TX: 20 million tons • The Navajo plant in Page, AZ: 19.9 million tons • The Martin Lake plant in Tatum, TX: 19.8 million tons • The Cumberland plant in Cumberland City, TN: 19.6 million tons • The Gavin plant in Cheshire, OH: 18.7 million tons • The Sherburne County plant in Becker, MN: 17.9 million tons • The Bruce Mansfield plant in Shippingport, PA: 17.4 million tons • The Rockport plant in Rockport, IN: 16.6 million tons.

The least dirty CO2 region in the US is the West Coast, where much of the electric power is generated by nuclear and hydroelectric plants.

Number one worst power plant the world is Taichung Lung-Ching Township Taiwan, at 41.3 million tons a year.

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

Hard-Working Microbes Make Hydrogen At Record Rate

| Wed Nov. 14, 2007 8:21 PM EST

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Bacteria break up fermented plant waste in a microbial electrolysis cell, forming hydrogen

Researchers at Penn State University have coaxed common bacteria to produce hydrogen in a new, efficient way. Using starter material that could theoretically be sourced from a salad bar, the team has charmed bacteria from wastewater into generating abundant, clean hydrogen from cellulose or vinegar with a little zap of electricity. In a table-top reactor, no less.

Other systems produce hydrogen on a larger scale, reports the National Science Foundation, but few if any match the new system for energy efficiency. Even with the small jolt of electricity, the hydrogen provides more energy as fuel than the electricity needed to drive the reactor. The overall efficiency of the vinegar-fueled system is better than 80 percent, far better than the efficiency generating the leading alternative, ethanol. By perfecting the environment for the bacteria to do what they already do in nature, the new approach can be three to ten times more efficient than standard electrolysis.

Good news. And further proof that bacteria are our friends.

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

What's the Best Way To Fuel A Car?

| Mon Nov. 12, 2007 7:40 PM EST

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According to a new Rand Corporation study, diesel and hybrid cars and light trucks provide more societal benefits than gas or E85 vehicles. For the antiRands out there, listen up for a minute.

The research forecasts the benefits and costs of three alternatives to the gas-powered internal combustion between 2010 and 2020. Advanced diesel and hybrid technologies showed well. E85 did not. Comparisons were made for three vehicle types: a mid-sized car, a mid-sized SUV, and a large pick-up. The cost-benefit comparisons were made for individual consumers, and for society, on a per-vehicle basis over the life of the vehicle. The results placed advanced diesel first, followed by hybrid, gasoline, and last of all E85.

Consumer considerations included technology costs, fuel savings, mobility, and performance. Societal considerations included tailpipe pollutants, greenhouse gas emissions, and energy security costs (from greater dependence on expensive and unstable foreign oil supplies [not to mention oil spills…]). The report noted that if the cost of hybrid falls significantly, its benefits will likely equal or exceed the diesel. It also noted that E85's dismal results are the result of the high costs of producing the fuel.

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