Blue Marble

Trees Cast Dark Shadow Over Solar Panels

| Thu Mar. 27, 2008 6:33 PM EDT

solar_energy_power_262070_l.jpgIn one of those "only in California" type lawsuits—a state that heavily promotes solar and renewable energy under the California Solar Initiative—homeowners Richard Treanor and Carolynn Bissett of Sunnyvale, California, have been forced to chop down two redwood trees in their backyard that were obstructing prime-time rays from their neighbor's solar array. Citing the Solar Shade Control Act, a remnant legislation from the energy crisis of the '70s, a Santa Clara County judge ruled in December in favor of solar array owner and Santa Clara resident Mark Vargas.

Vargas installed the 10-kilowatt solar array on his home in 2001. Treanor and Bissett's redwoods, which were planted in 1997, eventually grew tall enough to shade more than 10 percent of Vargas' solar panels, inciting a not-so-neighborly feud. Aside from the tricky issues regarding property rights, the case also pits the benefits of carbon-dioxide-absorbing resources against those associated with sources of renewable energy.

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Is Your Collar Changing Colors?

| Wed Mar. 26, 2008 2:10 PM EDT

This campaign season, we've been endured the candidates espousing their support for "green collar jobs." But does anyone know what these jobs are exactly? As the New York Times puts it, green collar jobs are just updated versions of blue collar jobs. If a steel plant goes from producing steel to make cars to producing steel for wind turbines, its workers' collars go from blue to green. But this doesn't necessarily mean the steel plant is producing less pollution or is, in itself, better for the environment.

Definitions for what makes a green collar job vary depending on job duties and the industry they're in, but it'd be nice to know what defines these jobs that now number 8.5 million in the U.S.

Global Warming for Fun and Profit

| Mon Mar. 24, 2008 5:41 PM EDT

Sick of frittering away your hard-earned wages on March Madness? How about betting on melting ice instead?

An annual contest to guess the exact moment the ice breaks on the River Tanana, 300 miles north of Anchorage, is attracting global interest, both as a chance to win a $300,000 (£151,000) prize and as one of the world's most precise scientific indicators of the effects of global warming.

Betting closes at midnight on April 5, and tickets are sold throughout Alaska.

Drilling Making Alaskans Sick

| Mon Mar. 24, 2008 3:00 PM EDT

offshore200.jpgBy now, most of us have heard about how oil and gas drilling does a number on ecosystems. But it's no good for people, either. By way of the British Columbia online magazine the Tyee comes the story of Nuiqsut, a coastal community of 523 people in northern Alaska, about 100 miles west of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Back in the late '90s, the oil and gas companies wooed the local Inupiat tribe with promises of jobs and minimal environmental impact—just 14 acres of tribal land would be affected by offshore and land drilling, they said. But now, 14 looks more like 500, and the community is a whole lot worse for the wear, says Rosemary Ahtuangaruak, mayor of Nuiqsut and also a health-care worker:

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."

Philip Morris Cleans Up Its Act - By Genetically Modifying Tobacco

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


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.

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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, 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, 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

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.