Blue Marble

Climate Change Brews An Extinction Paradox

| Mon Apr. 16, 2007 5:38 PM EDT

Climate change could trigger boom-and-bust population cycles making animal species more vulnerable to extinction. Environmental conditions that produce abundant supplies of food and stimulate population booms set the stage for population crashes that occur when several good years in a row are followed by a bad year. "It's almost paradoxical, because you'd think a large population would be better off, but it turns out they're more vulnerable to a drop in resources," says Christopher C. Wilmers of the University of California, Santa Cruz, as reported by EurekAlert. Wilmers' powerful new mathematical model evaluates how climate and resources interact with populations, finding that dramatic population fluctuations make species more vulnerable to extinction due to disease, inbreeding, and other causes, with each crash reducing the genetic diversity of a species, lowering its ability to adapt and making it more prone to extinction. --Julia Whitty

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Giant Storm Slams The East

| Sun Apr. 15, 2007 4:08 PM EDT

A friend from the Berkshires in western Massachusetts emails me Sunday morning to say the snow is piling up outside and it's sleeting sideways. I'm supposed to be en route to New York City but the biggest nor'easter in 20 years has cancelled 300 flights to the right coast. Guess I'm staying in California. I love big weather and it would be fun to be in this, but more than likely I'd be stuck in some airport for days. In New York, Mayor Bloomberg called a press conference Saturday to warn of the coming storm. Jesse Ferrell of AccuWeather points out this is a likely first for an "unnamed" storm except possibly major blizzards. Ferrell also points out that AccuWeather meteorologist Dale Mohler was quoted by Bloomberg.com as saying "The storm will really set in Sunday afternoon. By April 16, the system may be as strong as a Category 1 hurricane, with winds above 74 miles per hour and stretch from Maine to Florida and as far west as the Mississippi River." Wow. A new species of storm. Who says all we're doing is cause the sixth great extinction? We're breeding new meteorological monsters. --Julia Whitty

Today is National Day of Climate Action

| Sat Apr. 14, 2007 1:32 PM EDT

Many of you likely know that today is the National Day of Climate Action. There are lots and lots of cool events around the country, which you can search by zip code at the Step It Up 2007 website. Got some free time on a spring Saturday? Try saving the planet for a little bit.

Carbon Confusion

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 8:27 PM EDT

smokestack.jpg

Two steps taken this week to combat global warming, IMO, are not all that.

For one, the EPA relaxed emissions standards yesterday for corn milling plants that make ethanol fuel. Ethanol might just be "the biggest greenwash ever," as Tom Philpott blogged at Grist. Without huge long-term subsidies and government intervention, "no market for corn ethanol would exist." "If ethanol delivers any net energy gain at all over petroleum gasoline, it's razor thin." Bill McKibben writes, "By the time you've driven your tractor to tend the fields, and your truck to carry the crop to the refinery, and powered your refinery, the best-case 'energy output-to-input ratio' is something like 1.34-to-1. You've spent 100 Btu of fossil energy to get 134 Btu." Hardly impressive, "compared to the ratio for oil, which ranges from 30-to-1 to 200-to-1, depending on where you drill it." The best that can be said for ethanol as fuel is that it "gives the farmers something to do." Unfortunately, it's not the little farmers but the industrial farmers, some as big as Cargill, that get most of the subsidies.

Two, Australia vowed today to set up a national system of carbon trading by 2010. A cap-and-trading system is a lousy second-best to taxing emissions, which would also stimulate technological innovation. The best that can be said for cap-and-trading is that it's experimental. The EU is running that experiment, and so far hasn't worked. Actually, the system collapsed. So many carbon credits were doled out that they when people discovered that supply outstripped the demand, the market crashed. "The ETS [emissions-trading-scheme] has had a rough ride. Nations have issued more permits to pollute than required in the first phase, which runs until the end of 2007. This has resulted in carbon prices falling as low as eight euros (£5) per tonne. This means that it has been cheaper for firms to buy spare permits than pay the 40-euro fine, or take steps to reduce their emissions," reported the BBC in December. There are simpler effective means for tackling climate change, for one, shifting subsidies away from fossil fuels. Gore has faith that a cap-and-trading system would create economic incentives for technological innovation. It's worth experimenting with while keeping the pitfalls and alternatives in mind.

Sundance Channel's Green Living Show Debuts Tonight

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 1:38 PM EDT

If you're going to use electricity tonight, you may as well do it watching Sundance Channel's new green living show, "Big Ideas for a Small Planet" (9 p.m. E/P).

In true Sundance tradition, "Big Ideas" is a series of short documentaries. But they're not the drab, depressing kind. Instead, they feature cutting-edge technologies and brilliant inventors bent on saving the earth.

Each episode has a theme, and tonight's is alternative fuels. You'll meet a couple who'll retrofit your gas-guzzling vintage ride into a clean machine, see an Indy 500 driver get better torque and pull using ethanol, and feel the rush with a monster trucker who fries chicken and then uses the grease as gas. These are people who don't just "talk the talk" about being green; they "drive the drive," as one quips. (That this first episode is about alternative fuels and a later one is about green vehicles is probably no coincidence: the show is "sponsored by Lexus," who has a new hybrid SUV on the market.)

The series doesn't end when you click off the TV. "Big Ideas" is just part of a larger line of programming, web features, and blogs called "The Green." Viewers can check out easy tips for green living, watch video clips, or learn more about environmental issues on "The Green" section of Sundance Channel's site, for which TreeHugger provided much of the content.

But lest you think Sundance the only cable channel targeting green viewers, the Discovery Channel is launching an entire network devoted to everyday green living next year.

—Jen Phillips

FDA Sued For Politicizing Women's Health

| Fri Apr. 13, 2007 12:39 PM EDT

Here's a new one: The Family Research Council is accusing the FDA of "politicizing women's health." Because before Plan B came around a woman's body was her own business? Right.

Yesterday a coalition of groups including the Family Research Council and Concerned Women for America filed a lawsuit against the FDA for its decision to approve the nonprescription sales of Plan B, Barr Laboratories' emergency contraceptive. Among its litany of complaints, the lawsuit accuses the FDA of violating the law by allowing the same drug to be distributed simultaneously by prescription and over the counter (uh, what about that "all-day non-drowsy relief"?), and it also names names, charging that the decision was made after "improper pressure" from Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Patty Murray.

"There are a lot of concerns," a spokesperson for the FRC told the Washington Times. This despite the fact that Barr has taken unprecedented steps to ensure the drug does not get into the hands of those under 18 and the uninformed. The company has agreed to send "anonymous shoppers" into pharmacies to test compliance with the age restriction, to distribute with the drug a booklet about its proper use, and to exclude gas stations and convenience stores from selling Plan B at all.

The improper pressure mentioned in the suit refers to Clinton and Murray putting a hold on the confirmation of current commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach until the FDA acted on the recommendation to approve OTC status. FRC said the decision to approve Barr's application is "very clearly caught up in political dynamics, and I would go so far as to say there is electoral politics involved here." Susan Wood, former director of FDA's Office of Women's Health, points out that the senators simply urged the agency to make a decision one way or the other, after months of stalling, and "didn't say what the decision should be."

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Coed Half-Naked Hunting

| Thu Apr. 12, 2007 10:22 PM EDT

Some archaeologists say the image of caveman as macho big-game hunter is just a figment of our 20th Century imagination. Then what were Neanderthal gender roles? Faye Flam asks in the Philadelphia Inquirer, "Did primitive peoples form relationships, the males playing father to sons and daughters, or did we act more like our chimpanzee and gorilla cousins--promiscuous, violent, with males fighting over the females?"

Most likely, fathers took more care of their kids as males and females approached the same body size. Human men and women are closer in body size than chimps. "In species with males and females closer to the same size, the sexes are more likely to work in pairs, cooperate, and share the burden of protecting their young," Flam writes. "So determining how long ago we reached our current ratio should point to when our ancestors stopped organizing themselves like apes and started acting more like people."

Speaking of prehistoric gender roles, this study is about two years old, but its absurdity is timeless: A researcher at Texas A&M University somehow demonstrated that female monkeys like playing with pots and pans. "Just like boys and girls, male monkeys like to play with toy cars whereas female monkeys prefer dolls" the Washington Post reported without irony, along with about 36 other news sources. "Males also played with balls while females fancied cooking pots." They quoted the researcher, Gerianne Alexander as saying, "The differences apparently date far back in evolutionary history to the time before humans and monkeys separated from their common ancestor some 25 million years ago."

So when in evolutionary history did monkeys learn what pots and pans are all about? Actually, that discovery launched the earliest known era of stay-at-home motherhood, by enabling moms to put dinner on the stove while their boys were out playing baseball with monkey dads. I saw it in Planet of the Apes.

A few years earlier, the same psychologist demonstrated that female monkeys like pink and male monkeys like blue. Maybe the next study will prove that monkeys associate white with weddings and black with funerals. Except for Chinese monkeys, who would, if they could, wear red to weddings and white to funerals. No doubt there are mental differences between the sexes due to hormones. One recent discovery was that men pay more attention to crotches than women, as shown in this eye-tracking study. (Scroll down). But that monkey study has such blatantly unscientific bias; it's like a university psychology department conducting research into whether or not African Americans are innately drawn to cotton.

Environmental Fact of the Day

| Thu Apr. 12, 2007 4:28 PM EDT

Americans spend, on average, 51 minutes a day commuting to and from work. The fastest growing group of commuters is "extreme commuters"—those whose one-way commute takes longer than 90 minutes. The length of one's commute is directly proportionate to how unhappy one is—meaning, the longer your commute, the more you hate life. So now you have a good reason to stop: Saving the planet for your children. Don't you think they'd prefer that to your nice big house in the exurbs?

Congolese Forests Falling In Exchange for Beer And Soap

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 8:59 PM EDT

The world's second largest forest, and one of the oldest on Earth, is being traded for bars of soap and bottles of beer. A Greenpeace report exposes international logging companies for creating social chaos and environmental havoc in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the wake of the logging. The report also nails the World Bank, largest "donor" to the DRC, for utterly failing to stop the destruction, despite a moratorium on new logging. In fact since 2002 more than 37 million acres of rainforest have been leased to the logging industry, an area the size of Illinois, including areas vital to biodiversity. You think it doesn't matter to you? Wrong. We all need these big leafy green places at the equator. --Julia Whitty

The Deep Freeze Is Thawing. So's The Crap We Put There

| Wed Apr. 11, 2007 8:27 PM EDT

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts wide-ranging thawing of the Arctic permafrost. This is likely to have significant implications for infrastructure including houses, buildings, roads, railways and pipelines. A combination of reduced sea ice, thawing permafrost and storm surges also threatens erosion of Arctic coastlines with impacts on coastal communities, culturally important sites and industrial facilities. One study suggests that a three degree C increase in average summer air temperatures could increase erosion rates in the eastern Siberia Arctic by up to 15 feet a year. But you've heard all this, right? What's worse is that in some parts of the Arctic, toxic and radioactive materials are stored and contained in frozen ground. Thawing will release these substances in the local and wider environment with risks to humans and wildlife. The report predicts significant clean-up costs. How optimistic. I predict no clean-up at all. Only a Super-Duper Fund. --Julia Whitty