Blue Marble

McCain: Environmental Truant?

| Fri Feb. 22, 2008 8:11 PM EST

McCainCrop.jpgThe League of Conservation Voters recently released its 2007 environmental scorecard—Sen. John McCain's score: 0. This has to be a disappointment for the Republican front-runner who received the LCV's green endorsement in 2004, and who posts a (slightly) better lifetime score of 24. (This is out of 100; in comparison Senators Clinton and Obama post lifetime scores of 87 and 86, respectively.) But it appears that his embarrassing low score is a result of his absence at every key environmental vote of the year, including the votes to repeal tax breaks for big oil. Likely you remember the media buzz over McCain's other missed votes.

So his voting record begs the question: how green is McCain? Well, as the environmental online magazine Grist notes, he has been outspoken on global warming and the need to decrease carbon emissions. He also seems to oppose drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, although he has missed important votes on this as well. On the other hand, he passionately promotes coal and nuclear power, and endorses heavy subsidies for both. Meanwhile, Opensecrets.org places McCain third on the list of top Senate recipients of Oil and Gas industry contributions, ranking just under Sen. Clinton. Oh, and he joins only six other Senators from 2007 with a score of 0 from the LCV. The Sierra Club gives a concise rundown:

McCain was the only member of Congress to skip every single crucial environmental vote scored by the organization, posting a score lower than Members of Congress who were out for much of the year due to serious illnesses—and even lower than some who died during the term.

Yikes.

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Killing Others Makes Us Sicker

| Thu Feb. 21, 2008 8:52 PM EST

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Credit: Nature

Oops. More of those unforeseen consequences. Including the first scientific evidence that deadly emerging diseases have risen steeply across the world. Why? Because of human expansion into shrinking pockets of biodiversity and resulting contacts with wildlife (think poor countries). Plus, the bonus factor (think rich countries), new diseases arising from overuse of antibiotics, centralized food processing, and other technologies, nursing other outbreaks, like multidrug-resistant pathogen strains. The study appears in the Feb. 21 issue of the scientific journal Nature.

In the new study, researchers from four institutions analyzed 335 emerging diseases from 1940 to 2004, then converted the results into maps correlated with human population density, population changes, latitude, rainfall and wildlife biodiversity. Disease emergences have quadrupled in 50 years. Sixty percent travelled from animals to humans, most from wild creatures. Hot spots on the map span sub-Saharan Africa, India, and China, with smaller spots in Europe, North America, and South America. Translated: everywhere.

Still waiting for human intelligence to overrule human appetite.

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.

Less Golf, More Water?

| Thu Feb. 21, 2008 1:05 PM EST

golf100.jpgNumber one on the New York Times' most-e-mailed list today is a story about the mass exodus from American golf courses. No one knows exactly why corporate America is abandoning its erstwhile favorite sport. Not enough time? Too lazy?

Whatever the reason for the shift, there's at least one good thing about it. Golf courses are notoriously thirsty, and developers have a nasty habit of putting them in the darnedest (driest) places. If our newfound apathy about golf translates into fewer courses built over the long haul, [insert corny golf metaphor—a la "that's a hole in one for the environment"— here].

Then again:

To help keep the Great Rock Golf Club afloat, owners erected their large climate-controlled tent near the 18th green last summer. It sat next to the restaurant, Blackwell's, already operating there.

The next question: How far into the depths of unsustainability will golf-course owners sink to win back customers?

Nature Does Anti-Terrorism Better

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 10:50 PM EST

dhs-threat.jpg Living things can show us how to keep society safe. So says biologist Raphael Sagarin of Duke University in a fascinating interview with New Scientist. "You can look at virtually any question about security through a biological lens," says Sagarin, "from how to develop weapons systems to how to organise government departments. One clear lesson is that the species or systems that have been around the longest, adapted to many different environments and captured the most resources have a structure of fairly limited central control, with a lot of autonomy. You can see this… in the immune system, for example, or in colonial organisms such as ants and corals."

"In stark contrast, says Sagarin, is the US response to 9/11, "which was to create this enormous Department of Homeland Security. You can see the results: individual organisations do not get enough autonomy and cannot make decisions in a timely manner. They cannot respond and adapt without having to go up through many layers of command. It's more to do with keeping power and maintaining committee memberships, jobs and budgets than security."

Furthermore, he says, "organisms inherently understand that there is risk in life. The idea that we can eliminate these risks would be selected against quickly in the natural world since any organism that tried to do so would not have enough resources left for reproduction, or feeding itself."

Sounds vaguely familiar.

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.

Who's Really Paying for Cheap Shrimp?

| Tue Feb. 19, 2008 10:03 PM EST

20051115135555.jpg Not you and me. That farmed tiger shrimp costs five times what we're paying. So who's getting charged the difference? Local poor people and the local environment. This according to Daniel A. Bergquist of Uppsala University. Despite what many international aid organizations claim (and fund), Bergquist says his studies in Sri Lanka and the Philippines prove that a major portion of the local population is excluded from aquaculture and continue to be as poor as ever. "The winners are the local elites," he says. What's more, aquaculture often entails cutting mangrove forests for shrimp and fish ponds, creating environmental problems that eventually impact aquaculture.

By using methods that factor in all costs, Bergquist was able to show, for instance, that the price of tiger shrimp would need to be more than five times higher than it is today for the environment and the local population to receive fair compensation for their input. "Aquaculture is a clear example of how the colonization of the southern hemisphere is still going on, finding new avenues via globalization and international trade," says Bergquist.

So maybe the good folks at Blue Ocean Institute will add tiger shrimp to their excellent sustainable seafood texting service, and keep a few more of us from eating it until the price gets real.

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.

Whippets No Laughing Matter

| Mon Feb. 18, 2008 9:00 PM EST

480711693_309fab42a3_m.jpg It's called the forgotten greenhouse gas. You know, nitrous oxide (N2O), the magic behind whipped cream. You might not know it's 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide and represents 9% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Its longevity in the atmosphere provides a potentially more damaging legacy than CO2, reports the University of East Anglia. Currently, agriculture and wastewater treatment industries account for 80% of global emissions (from bacteria that make N2O from nitrogen-rich fertilizers, and from bacteria in wastewater treatment). Now the Nitrous Oxide Focus Group is convening to examine sources and sinks of N2O in the environment, its role in climate change, and to develop techniques to mitigate its effect.

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

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The Great Tech Challenges Ahead

| Fri Feb. 15, 2008 5:13 PM EST

2083995467_3b20b1d4bf_m.jpg There's four of them, sort of. At least according to the National Academy of Engineering, which convened an international group of tech thinkers to identify the grand challenges facing us in the 21st century. The report was released at today's AAAS annual meeting in Boston. Robert Socolow, mechanical and aerospace engineer at Princeton, reports the list was too subjective to assemble in order. Instead they identified four broad categories of challenges:

(1). environmental wholeness: the need for humans to take care of our earthly home and to be good stewards of the environmental quality that we depend upon (2). our own wellness: the medical side of human life (3). vulnerability: recognition of the fact that we live on a planet that experiences earthquakes and tsunamis, and that we are a species that causes trouble for itself. (4). the joy of living: after you've got health and environmental soundness and you feel protected against the bad side of both human nature and Mother Nature, there is still something else to aspire to: self-knowledge and enlightenment.

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

Good News on the Border Fence?

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 6:24 PM EST

jaguar.jpg Maybe. The AP reports that 28 miles of virtual border fence was approved by Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff yesterday. The virtual fence will include 98-foot unmanned towers equipped with radar, sensor devices and cameras capable of distinguishing people from cattle at a distance of about 10 miles. (MoJo reported on the controversy over this fence from an environmental perspective in Gone. Think: endangered wildlife can't cross a real fence either).

Kim Vacariu, of The Wildlands Project, tells me that if the virtual fence "becomes reliably functional, it would indicate that the recommendations generated through our Border Ecological Workshops, action requests to Congress, and other efforts are beginning to reach the officials who are making security infrastructure decisions—that they are seeing the importance of protecting borderland ecology from the effects of wall-building. However, it's important to note that construction of [the virtual fence] requires road-building and associated other infrastructure that continues to degrade borderlands ecology. So we need to wait and see just how this system will work. If it does, we're taking a step in the right direction."

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

World's Largest Sea Sanctuary Created in Pacific

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 5:27 PM EST

Kiribati%20Broken%20Bridge%20DSCN0004.JPG Couldn't come at a better time. Conservation International reports the tiny Pacific Island nation of Kiribati (pronounced: Kiribas) just established the world's largest marine protected area—a California-sized ocean wilderness of pristine coral reefs and rich fish populations threatened by over-fishing and climate change. The Phoenix Islands Protected Area (PIPA) conserves one of the Earth's last intact oceanic coral archipelago ecosystems, consisting of eight coral atolls and two submerged reef systems in a nearly uninhabited region of abundant marine and bird life. The 410,500-square-kilometer (158,453-square-mile) protected area also includes underwater mountains and other deep-sea habitat… Agree this is excellent news? Thank them.

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

More Than 40% of World Ocean "Heavily Impacted" by Humans

| Thu Feb. 14, 2008 4:36 PM EST

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A new study in Science reports more than 40% of the world ocean is heavily impacted by human activities. Scientists from UCSB and NOAA combined 17 data sets of different human activities, examining overfishing, fertilizer run-off, commercial shipping, and pollution, and analyzed the effects on marine ecosystems, including coral reefs, seagrass beds, continental shelves, and the deep ocean. The team also examined climate change by three measures: sea surface temperatures, UV radiation, and ocean acidification. These were found to be among the most important factors in global impact.

"This project allows us to finally start to see the big picture of how humans are affecting the oceans," said lead author Ben Halpern, at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at UCSB. "Our results show that… the big picture looks much worse than I imagine most people expected. It was certainly a surprise to me." The most heavily affected waters include large areas of the North Sea, the South and East China Seas, the Caribbean Sea, the east coast of North America, the Mediterranean Sea, the Red Sea, the Persian Gulf, the Bering Sea, and several regions in the western Pacific. The least affected areas are largely near the poles. "Unfortunately, as polar ice sheets disappear with warming global climate and human activities spread into these areas, there is a great risk of rapid degradation of these relatively pristine ecosystems," said Carrie Kappel, a principal investigator on the project at NCEAS.

The researchers note there's still time to preserve the more pristine areas. And we can all do our part. Know what you eat. Know what you buy. Buy less. Eat less.

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