Blue Marble

Top 10 Science Stories of 2007

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 9:55 PM EST

Big year all around. Many stories that will influence the future of all life on Earth, intimating just how intimately science nowadays is tied to environmental ills, inspirations, solutions. This is not your father's science. Live Science posts an insightful top 10 of 2007, which I've taken the liberty of riffing on:

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#10 Peak Oil: A new study this year predicts that global oil production could peak as soon as 2008, and likely before 2018.

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#9 Antarctica: A host of surprises this year. Satellite lasers detect a series of...

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Bush Administration to California: Eff You

| Thu Dec. 20, 2007 12:44 PM EST

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You know how the Right loves states' rights? Turns out that only applies when "states rights" means "persecuting minorities." It turns out that "Trying to avert near-certain global climactic doom," is not, apparently, a "state right."

Earlier today, the EPA denied California's request for a waiver that would allow the state to regulate automobile emissions. (This comes after a court fight that forced the EPA to rule on the request). The decision, according to the lede of a must-read Washington Post story, "overruled the unanimous recommendation of the agency's legal and technical staffs." Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of course promised to take the decision to court. David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club's chief climate counsel, told the Los Angeles Times, "These guys are 0 and 4 in court," he said. "And they're about to go 0-5." That's the part of this story that really says "Eff You": The EPA knows it's going to lose in court. From the Post story:

William Becker, executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies, which represents officials in 48 states. . .[said the EPA] "has issued a verdict that is legally and technically unjustified and indefensible."
EPA's lawyers and policy staff had reached the same conclusion, said several agency officials familiar with the process. In a PowerPoint presentation prepared for the administrator, aides wrote that if Johnson denied the waiver and California sued, "EPA likely to lose suit."
If he allowed California to proceed and automakers sued, the staff wrote, "EPA is almost certain to win."

So in this one, the good guys will probably win again. But victory will mean delaying important greenhouse gas regulations for a stupid, petty, pointless court fight the Bush administration already knows it will lose. Chalk up another point for auto industry lobbyists and bad government.

Bamboo Makes Better Bridges

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 6:58 PM EST

dn13107-1_400.jpg Bridges of bamboo could provide a cheaper, more environmentally sustainable engineering solution than steel. New Scientist reports that a prototype bridge has been built in China using horizontal beams made from a bamboo composite. The 33-foot span proved strong enough to support even heavy trucks. It was also cheaper to build and more environmentally friendly to make than steel or concrete, says developer Yan Xiao of the University of Southern California and Hunan University.

Pound-for-pound, bamboo is stronger than steel when stretched and more robust than concrete when compressed. Stalks mature in a few years, rather than decades for trees, so more can be harvested from the same amount of land. Plus bamboo is a grass that is harvested like mowing a lawn, leaving the roots intact to regrow. Whereas cement production releases 5-10% of total global carbon dioxide emissions, bamboo soaks it up as it grows. All this suggests a more sustainable engineering solution in China, says New Scientist... Sure, for China, but why not everywhere?

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

U.K.'s Gordon Brown Plans to Pressure China, India

| Wed Dec. 19, 2007 4:56 PM EST

china-pollution140x147.jpgThe U.N. climate change conference in Bali may be over, but China and India aren't off the hook yet. U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown says he will press China and India for further support fighting climate change during visits the two countries next month.

China, for one, needs the pressure because, while the country faces grave ecological consequences for its rapid industrialization, the country's environmental enforcement agency, SEPA, has historically been pretty hands off.

Hopefully that's changing somewhat. This year, SEPA rejected at least $91 billion in new factories and enterprises that failed to meet environmental standards—about 30% of all projects submitted to the agency. SEPA is also resorting to publicly shaming polluting corporations, which will hopefully prove effective as fines for polluting are so low that companies often opt to pay them instead of upgrading equipment.

W-T-Effing-F? Worst Present Ever: Siamese Fighting Fish Trapped in Your iPod Speaker

| Mon Dec. 17, 2007 8:53 PM EST

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Condemned to the throb of your musical bad tastes. No room to even turn around. Can this be real? Apparently it's so real and so desired that some Australian pet stores can 't keep it in stock, reports the Sydney Morning Herald. The iPond—yes, that's right, the iPond, surely an epitome of parasitic marketing—is one-fifteenth the recommended tank size for its miserable inhabitant. The tank's water capacity is about 22 ounces. A Melbourne Aquarium spokesman said Siamese fighting fish require a minimum tank size of 2.5 gallons.

All I want for Xmas is a better world for fish.

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

Farmed Salmon on the Menu? Just Say No

| Mon Dec. 17, 2007 8:26 PM EST

14salmon.650.jpg A forthcoming study in Science shows that parasitic sea lice infestations caused by salmon farms are driving nearby populations of wild salmon toward extinction. Wild pink salmon have been rapidly declining for four years, reports SeaWeb. Author Martin Krkosek, a fisheries ecologist from the University of Alberta, expects a 99% collapse in another four years, or two salmon generations, if the infestations continue. The data are from the Broughton Archipelago, a group of islands 260 miles northwest of Vancouver, environmentally, culturally, and economically dependent on wild salmon.

This study and earlier studies by the same authors shows that sea lice from fish farms infect and kill juvenile wild salmon, raising serious concerns about net pen aquaculture in general. "It shows there is a real danger to wild populations from the impact of farms," says Ray Hilborn, a fisheries biologist from the University of Washington, not involved in the study. "This paper is really about a lot more than salmon. This is the first study where we can evaluate these interactions and it certainly raises serious concerns about proposed aquaculture for other species such as cod, halibut and sablefish."

If you must, eat wild Alaskan salmon.

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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Drug-Resistant E. Coli Rampant Among Poultry Workers

| Mon Dec. 17, 2007 4:02 PM EST

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If you needed yet another reason to be grossed out by the American meat industry, consider this tantalizing tidbit: U.S. Poultry workers are much more likely than the average American—32 times more likely, in fact—to carry antibiotic-resistant E. coli bacteria, according to a Johns Hopkins study.

With the recent news that drug-resistant staph infections are on the rise, most people I know have become vigilant about germs in public places. Flip-flop use in gym locker rooms, I'd bet, is on the rise. But actually, we should be feeling squeamish about big ag: "One of the major implications of this study is to underscore the importance of the non-hospital environment in the origin of drug resistant infections," says Eileen K. Silbergeld, one of the study's lead authors, in the study press release. Growth-stimulating antibiotics are just another part of the daily grind (ugh, sorry) at mega-farms. In fact, it's thought that the majority of antimicrobials produced in the U.S. are used in the meat industry. And unfortunately, unlike at the gym, flip-flops probably don't offer much in the way of protection at the slaughterhouse.

De-Stuffing the Holidays

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 4:32 PM EST

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Winter solstice

In keeping with the revelations of The Story of Stuff, maybe you've decided to transition to a non-gift holiday? ChangingThePresent floats a few ideas for weaning the greedy:

For the wine connoisseur: ($10) Clear landmines in Afghanistan with Roots of Peace and replace them with grapevines. • For the karaoke junky ($5) Help 50,000 people improve their reading skills by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS) on Bollywood film songs on TV through PlanetRead. Your gift provides 30 minutes of weekly reading practice to 50,000 people, for one year. • For the friend who never comes to your show: ($5) A bag of concrete. This gift through KaBOOM! will provide an 80 lb bag of concrete which will be used to anchor a swingset, slide, or climbing structure for kids to play on. • And more

Grist also suggests interesting de-stuff alternatives—though their carbon offsets are questionable, as are carbon offsets in general:

Write I.O.U.s: Dust off your babysitting, pet-care, housecleaning, gardening, snow-shoveling, or haircutting skills—whatever you've got—and make someone's day just a little bit easier. • Stop junk mail: Subscribe your gift recipient to a stop-the-junk-mail service like...

Double Trouble: China and the U.S. Gang Up on the Environment

| Fri Dec. 14, 2007 2:17 PM EST

bali-conference.jpgChina and the U.S. have been quite the bosom buddies lately, both on economic and environmental issues. But is it any wonder? As we discussed in our current feature article, "The Last Empire," China's booming economy is based on a high-consumption, capitalist, American model.

Just yesterday, the two countries concluded the annual conference between high-ranking Chinese and American economic and environmental officials, the Sino-U.S. Strategic Economic Dialogue, in which they discussed economic policies for upcoming years. According to government-run Chinese newspaper Xinhua, during the talks the two countries set up Chinese manufacturing and inspection regulations to prevent mishaps like the tainted pet food and toy recalls. Xinhua also reports that "China and the United States agreed to conduct extensive cooperation over a 10-year period to focus on technological innovation, adoption of clean technology and sustainable natural resources."

The promise to adopt clean technology seems like nothing more than a false gesture, considering both China and the U.S. refused mandatory emissions cuts of 20 to 40 percent by 2020 at the U.N. climate change conference in Bali this week. (Japan, Russia, and several other countries also rejected mandatory emissions limits.) Instead, the U.S. suggested emissions cuts could be "voluntary." While such a response is typical for the Bush administration, it could potentially derail the Bali agreement entirely and basically tell any nation, including fast-developing ones like China and India, to keep on polluting.

European Union representatives have said they won't attend next month's American-led climate conference in Hawaii if the U.S. does not sign up for mandatory cuts because it would essentially be "meaningless."

Reality Check From Bali

| Thu Dec. 13, 2007 7:44 PM EST

This Washington Post article conveys in short and sweet style how serious the U.S.'s refusal in Bali to accept emissions caps is.

Europe: frustrated, vowing to boycott Bush's distracter tactic, the "major economies" meetings he's hosting on global warming. Brazil—home to the world's largest intact forest—threatening not to comply with rules that only apply to developing countries.

Most disturbing of all, Americans support carbon emissions caps because they're the only way of fending off catastrophic climate change.

As Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for climate and energy, put it, the targets don't come from "figures taken at random," she said. Rather, the 25 percent by 2020 "reports very specifically back to what the IPCC tells us."

Compare the sanity of that remark—we're doing what the best scientists tell us we have to—to the childish churlishness of this one, made by James L. Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, explaining why the U.S. refuses to do the right thing and accept the caps: "We will lead. The U.S. will lead. But leadership also requires others to fall in line and follow."

Despite Americans' political will, our government is standing in the way of the best documented solution for the greatest problem the world has ever faced.