Blue Marble

40 Percent of Deaths Linked to Environment

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 3:53 PM EDT

Hmmm... Maybe it's not so bad to drink Dr. Pepper after all. A recent Cornell University study has found that nearly half of deaths worldwide are caused or exacerbated by environmental pollution, including water pollution.

David Pimentel, the Cornell professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who conducted the research, links 62 million deaths each year to organic or chemical pollutants, placing these factors alongside long-known killers such as heart disease.

Increasing rates of Malaria, E. coli, Salmonella, AIDS, and Tuberculosis all are linked to environmental degradation, according to Pimentel. "In the United States alone, 76,000 people are in the hospital each year, with 5,000 deaths, just due to pollution of air, food, or water," he said. "Cancers are increasing in the U.S., and AIDS is on the rise."

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Free Fruit for U.K. Kids Contains Pesticides (Wait, U.K. Kids Get Free Fruit?)

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 3:39 PM EDT

When I learned that most free fruit for schoolchildren in the U.K. contains residue from pesticides, I didn't know quite how to react. I mean, pesticides in food is always bad news for sure. Yet I can't help but think that free fruit for kids is a pretty good idea (and one that we haven't managed to pull off in the U.S.).

Then again, maybe I'm wrong. From a Child Health News article on the topic:

Critics say the scheme was always unlikely to work because making fruit and vegetables available at school break time has no place in a culture in which healthy food is considered 'uncool' and they say stories abound of children forlornly wandering around the school playground with a bucket of fruit, trying to dispose of it.

Conclusion: Even if the free fruit were organic, it would still need some serious PR work.

Polar Bears Mostly Extinct by 2050

| Tue Sep. 11, 2007 12:56 PM EDT

Sad news. A recent U.S. Geological Survey claims that 2/3 of the world's polar bears will be extinct by 2050 due to Arctic warming. Ice up North is melting so fast that the large predators likely won't have enough ice on which to hunt and breed during the summers. The Secretary of the Interior has suggested making polar bears a "threatened" species under the Endangered Species Act, entitling the animals to federal protections. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is giving a final recommendation on the bear's addition to the list to the Interior in January 2008. The Interior's suggested protection of the polar bear, though not finalized, is an encouraging move, given the Bush administration's history of active opposition to wildlife conservation.

Though the polar bears are disappearing, there is hopeful news on the other side of the globe. In a steamy Indian rainforest, tigers have been spotted 30 years after they were assumed extinct in the area. A local official estimates there are now about 20 of the big cats living in the wet, mountainous region of Maharashta. India is home to about 1,500 tigers, half of the world's tiger population.

Pope Issues Plea for the Earth at First-Ever 'Green' Youth Rally

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 6:03 PM EDT

Yesterday, The Catholic Church's first eco-friendly youth rally featured a plea from Pope Benedict for humans to make "courageous choices" that will help save the earth "before it is too late."

The rally, held in Italy, lasted through the weekend and attracted nearly half a million attendees. Usually a crowd of that size would create a huge amount of environmentally unfriendly garbage, but not so in this case. Participants were issued kits including a recyclable backpack and color-coded trash bags to organize personal recyclables, and meals were served on biodegradable plates.

Weird Weather Watch: Another Category 5 Hurricane

| Tue Sep. 4, 2007 2:50 PM EDT

A few weeks ago, as Dean approached Mexico, I wrote that just 30 hurricanes have attained Category 5 status since record-keeping began in 1886. Twelve of those occurred since 1980; 7 since 2000.

Make that 31 total, and 8 since 2000: Hurricane Felix hit Central America with a vengeance this morning. It was the first time two Category 5 storms have made landfall in a single season.

More than 14,000 people were evacuated.

Speed of Climate Change An Unseen Danger

| Sun Sep. 2, 2007 9:52 PM EDT

The total amount of global warming we allow has dire consequences for our planet. But so too does the speed of that climate change. According to the Centre for International Climate and Environmental Research (CICERO), this focus has not yet appeared in either science or policy.

CICERO highlights some ecological studies focusing on the rate of climate change, most of which leave no doubt that the expected rate of change during this century will exceed the ability of many animals and plants to migrate or adapt. One such study found that five percent of all ecosystems cannot adapt more quickly than 0.1°C per decade over time:

Forests will be among the ecosystems to experience problems first because their ability to migrate to stay within the climate zone they are adapted to is limited. If the rate is 0.3 °C per decade, 15 percent of ecosystems will not be able to adapt. If the rate should exceed 0.4 °C per decade, all ecosystems will be quickly destroyed, opportunistic species will dominate, and the breakdown of biological material will lead to even greater emissions of CO2. This will in turn increase the rate of warming.

There is also a risk that rapid climate change will increase the likelihood of the really big and scary changes, i.e., the irreversible ones, such as a weakening of the Gulf Stream, and/or the melting of the Greenland ice sheets. Rapid change increases the risk of triggering positive feedback mechanisms that will increase the rate and level of temperature change still more. Read more about these in MoJo's The Thirteenth Tipping Point.

According to CICERO, to focus on the speed of climate change we need to concentrate more on the short-lived greenhouse gases (methane and tropospheric ozone), as well as particles with a warming effect, such as soot (black carbon). They also suggest a greater focus on the medium-term—the next few decades—since the fastest changes will likely occur around that time.

Of course, that requires that we speed up the grindingly-slow gears of public policy and determination. First step in that process: Stop fighting the naysayers. It's a waste of time and energy and we've already lost a decade doing it. We need to step around, over, or through their obstinate refusal to face the truth. Luckily, we have a model for doing this, since we hopscotched over the "science" of the tobacco industry long ago.

On that cheery note, I'm off to the wilderness for a week or three, close to the comforts of nature, far from the madding consumers. JULIA WHITTY

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Study Confirms Human-To-Human Spread Of Avian-Flu

| Wed Aug. 29, 2007 10:38 PM EDT

Doctors on scene were mumbling about this when it happened. Now researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center confirm that the avian influenza A (H5N1) virus spread between a small number of people within a family in Indonesia in 2006. Using a computerized disease-transmission model that took into account the number of infected cases, the number of people potentially exposed, and the viral-incubation period, the researchers produced the first statistical confirmation of humans contracting the disease from each other rather than from infected birds.

The cluster contained a chain of infection involving a 10-year-old boy who probably caught the virus from his 37-year-old aunt, who had been exposed to dead poultry and chicken feces, the presumed source of infection. The boy then probably passed the virus to his father—a possibility supported by genetic sequencing. Other person-to-person transmissions in the cluster were backed up with statistical data. All but one of the flu victims died, and all had had sustained close contact with other ill family members prior to getting sick—a factor crucial for transmission of this particular flu strain.

"The containment strategy [quarantine] was implemented late in the game, so it could have been just luck that the virus burned out," said lead author Ira M. Longini Jr. "It went two generations and then just stopped, but it could have gotten out of control. The world really may have dodged a bullet with that one, and the next time we might not be so lucky."

The researchers estimate the risk of one infected person passing it to another to be 29 percent—a level of infectiousness similar to seasonal influenza A in the United States. They also assessed another large avian-flu cluster in eastern Turkey with eight infected people in 2006, four of whom died. In this case, there was no statistical evidence of human-to-human transmission—though that was most likely due to a lack of sufficient data. "There probably was person-to-person spread there as well but we couldn't get all the information we needed for the analysis," said author, Yang Yang.

After near hysteria, the media's gone Rip Van Winkle on this one. Not a good idea. The problem has not gone away. JULIA WHITTY

Natural Disasters More Destructive Than Wars

| Tue Aug. 28, 2007 8:21 PM EDT

Natural disasters are far more destructive than wars. And the damage will only worsen unless drastic change is taken to address global climate change. This according to Jan Egeland, the United Nations head of humanitarian affairs from 2003-2006. In an interview with AFP [via Yahoo], Egeland said: "Already seven times more livelihoods are devastated by natural disasters than by war worldwide, at the moment, and this is going to be much worse, the way the climate is developing. Climate change, it's happening. It's not a threat. It's happening today and those who suffer the most are the poorest in Africa. Where there was already drought, the droughts are getting worse. Where there was already flooding the floodings are getting worse, as we speak." Egeland called for dramatic changes in lifestyles "if we are to avoid having disasters virtually every month in large parts of the world."

You mean, like: Texas, Oklahoma, Ohio, Tennessee, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Idaho, Montana, Greece, England, India, China, Mexico, Sudan, Taiwan—to name a few.

Btw, if you have time to follow only one link to recent disasters, I suggest the Christian Science Monitor piece on how the Greek fires are linked to a deadly dearth of environmental protection. It's a good example of how our hubris towards the natural world creates ugly synergistic feedback loops.

Oh, and this is what it will cost to keep natural disasters from getting a lot worse. A bargain. JULIA WHITTY

Massive Investment Needed Against Climate Change

| Tue Aug. 28, 2007 7:29 PM EDT

Hey, compared to the cost of the war in Iraq, this is fire sale. Plus, a whole lot more effective for homeland security [read why]. A new UN report presented in Vienna says that more than 200 billion dollars will be needed by 2030 just to keep greenhouse gas emissions at today's levels. According to AFP, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change estimates that between 0.3 and 0.5 percent of global gross domestic product, and between 1.1 and 1.7 percent of global investment, will need to be spent on addressing climate change. This will include investing in technology research and renewable energy. It will also require energy efficiency for transport, industry and construction, as well as supporting agroforestry, and implementing sustainable forest management. The report also states that, in the short term, energy efficiency remains the most promising means to reduce emissions. . . So, have you changed to flourescent light bulbs yet? Are you riding that bike? It's well known in the bike industry that most Americans ride their new bikes a full 18 miles before garaging them forever. Come on. Our cheapest fuel remains human fat. JULIA WHITTY

California's Healthcare Battle In A Nutshell

| Sat Aug. 25, 2007 3:37 PM EDT

Leave it to the Washington Post to give the best synopsis I've read of the battle currently underway in California between the Republican governor (Schwarzenegger) and the Democratic legislature over efforts to create a statewide healthcare plan. Though California hasn't actually led the way in this kind of initiative (look to Hawaii and, much later, Massachusetts), its decision—due in three weeks—may well set the agenda for other states and presidential candidates to follow.

The urgency here, reports the Post, is that Californians are less likely to be covered than residents of 45 other states, and those who are covered are concerned it's not going to be there for them when they need it. . . [sure is a familiar feeling in my world, read: self-employed and paying scary, ever-increasing percentage of meager earnings for dubiously useable health insurance. . .] Read here for examples of why that is.

From the WP:

Under both the governor's proposal and the Democrats', employers would have to spend a minimum amount on health care for workers or pay money into a state-run purchasing pool through which people could buy private insurance. But the employer's fee under the Democrats would be higher—7.5 percent of payroll, compared with 4 percent of payroll under Schwarzenegger's plan. Another difference: The governor would require physicians to pay 2 percent of their revenue to the state, and hospitals 4 percent, to help finance the new system. The Democrats' plan has no such charges. The governor would require everyone to have a basic level of health insurance; the Democrats have no individual mandate. Both plans would expand public programs and subsidized coverage for low-income families. Neither is cheap. Schwarzenegger's plan would cost $12 billion annually and cover an estimated 4.1 million people; the Democrats' would cost $8.3 billion and cover 3.4 million.

Let's hope they reach a tenable consensus and trigger tons o' momentum on a national agenda. Once again, Californians, have more power than they realize. . . JULIA WHITTY