Blue Marble

Victory Against New Coal Plants

| Sun Feb. 25, 2007 3:08 PM EST

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The Texas-based utility company TXU's plans to build 11 new coal plants, with funding from firms such as Merrill Lynch, have been scuttled. Two equity firms will buy TXU under terms that include trashing the controversial plans. The group Billionaires for Coal had staged protests outside Merrill Lynch offices last week. At about the same time, equity firms entered into negotiations with environmental heavyweights National Resources Defense Council and Environmental Defense, asking the groups what it would take for them to support the buyout. TXU will instead look to develop cleaner energy holdings. The New York Times is touting the deal as a beacon of what financial dealings may look like in "a regulatory and public-relations landscape in an era of climate change."

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Minnesota Goes Green, Really Green

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 10:20 PM EST

Governor Tim Pawlenty of Minnesota signed a law yesterday requiring that all state utility companies generate at least a quarter of their power from renewable sources by 2025. (One company, Xcel, which provides the state with half of its electricity, must meet 30% by 2020.) This plan is more ambitious than the state's previous 10% by 2015 objective.

Not ones to count on feds whose idea of an energy bill includes reversing decades of renewables wisdom and polluter protection waivers to solve the nation's energy problems, some two dozen states have adopted renewable energy goals. California, Hawaii, New York, Nevada, and New Jersey have all set their mark at 20% or more. "As states are catching up with us, we want to raise the bar," Pawlenty said.

Minnesota's law passed just days after EU energy ministers weakened a "20% renewable energy by 2020" plan by recommending that the target be made voluntary. Last year, China enacted a 15% by 2020 law, and Australia remains committed to producing enough renewable energy to power the homes of 4 million of its 20 million people by 2010.

Though New Hampshire and Colorado are considering stricter standards, Minnesota's initiative to more than triple its 8% renewable energy production in less than two decades prompted analysts to call it "the most aggressive in the country." If Pawlenty's bar-raising doesn't inspire other domestic and even international actions toward going greener, his Republican-governed Northern Great Plains state may become the most environmentally progressive place in the world.

--Nicole McClelland

Global Warming and Your Kids' Health

| Fri Feb. 23, 2007 3:31 PM EST

LiveScience reports on a study from Australia published in the International Journal of Environmental Health Research showing that a warming climate is bad for kids' health. Lawrence Lam, a pediatrics lecturer at Sydney University, compared emergency room visits for kids under age six to climate data, finding that higher temps outside correlated to more children with fevers and gastroenteritis visiting the ER.

The possible reason: Children's bodies can't cope with extreme changes in temperature as well as adults.

"The results from this study suggest a detrimental effect from climatic changes, particularly in terms of maximum temperature, on children's health," Lam said. "As global warming is becoming more apparent, there is an urgent need for more in-depth and thorough investigation of climatic factors on human health, especially in early childhood."

Chimps Hunt with Spears and Birds Plan for the Future as Science Debunks Myths of Human Uniqueness

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 9:15 PM EST

Two cherished illusions fall by the wayside. These belong to the smug category of talents that "make us human." Guess what, turns out these human attributes belong to chimpanzees. And birds. And probably for longer than we've owned them.

First up, tools to hunt prey. This is pure Homo sapiens, et ancestors, isn't it? Wrong. And, whoa, sacrilege of the most holies. Females and immatures turn out to be better hunters than the big boys. Check this out from Current Biology.

Although tool use is known to occur in species ranging from naked mole rats to owls, chimpanzees are the most accomplished tool users. The modification and use of tools during hunting, however, is still considered to be a uniquely human trait among primates. Here, we report the first account of habitual tool use during vertebrate hunting by nonhumans. At the Fongoli site in Senegal, we observed ten different chimpanzees use tools to hunt prosimian prey in 22 bouts. This includes immature chimpanzees and females, members of age-sex classes not normally characterized by extensive hunting behavior. Chimpanzees made 26 different tools, and we were able to recover and analyze 12 of these. Tool construction entailed up to five steps, including trimming the tool tip to a point. Tools were used in the manner of a spear, rather than a probe or rousing tool. This new information on chimpanzee tool use has important implications for the evolution of tool use and construction for hunting in the earliest hominids, especially given our observations that females and immature chimpanzees exhibited this behavior more frequently than adult males.

Translated: chimps build tools we call spears and use them to hunt specific nocturnal prey (bushbabies) that would otherwise be impossible to catch with the chimps' diurnal lifestyle. Oh, and again, the girls and kids do most of it and may well have invented it.

If that isn't humbling enough, how about birds that plan for the future? That's a struggle for even the college-educated human. In fact, based on our inability to solve those niggling global sustainability problems, you might conclude we can't do it at all. This from the University of Cambridge, where forethought is rewarded with publications in the journal Nature.

Some birds recognise the idea of 'future' and plan accordingly, researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered. According to their findings… western scrub-jays will store food items they believe will be in short supply in the future.

Planning for the future is a complex skill that was previously believed to be unique to humans. Other animals were perceived to be incapable of dissociating themselves from the present and any current motivation. Sometimes animals may appear to recognize future needs, but they are only exhibiting behaviors that are either instinctual (e.g. nest building) or prompted by immediate needs like hunger (e.g. food hoarding).

In order to determine whether some animals plan for future food needs or are simply acting on instinct, Professor Nicky Clayton and her team at the Department of Experimental Psychology tested the western scrub-jay.

Every morning, eight scrub-jays either were allowed into the compartment with 'no breakfast' or the compartment with 'breakfast'. They were then allowed to eat for the rest of the day. After several days, the birds were then provided with pine nuts suitable for caching (hoarding) in the evening. In anticipation of a morning without breakfast, the scrub-jays consistently hid food in the 'no breakfast' compartment rather than the 'breakfast' compartment, demonstrating an understanding of future needs (rather than just their immediate needs).

In a similar experiment, the scrub-jays were given either dog food in one compartment or peanuts in a second compartment for breakfast. When they were allowed to cache either food where they liked in the evenings, they once again demonstrated an understanding of future needs and a desire for a varied diet by hoarding peanuts in the dog food compartment and dog kibble in the peanut compartment. If they were caching for current hunger, they would not have discriminated between the types of food or the location of the cache.

Professor Nicky Clayton said, "The western scrub-jays demonstrate behavior that shows they are concerned both about guarding against food shortages and maximizing the variety of their diets in the future. It suggests they have advanced and complex thought processes as they have a sophisticated concept of past, present and future, and factor this into their planning."

Bird brains.

Billionaires Toast to Merrill Lynch's Investment in Coal-Fired Power Plants

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 8:20 PM EST

The Billionaires for Coal had a grand old time cavorting outside Merill Lynch in downtown San Francisco yesterday. Toasting with champagne glasses, tossing out one-liners, they sneered at a group of earnest, banner-waving protesters nearby. Just a few pairs of hipster sneakers and some scruffy facial hair poked out from under the Billionaires' suits, top hats, and cocktail dresses.

"Why travel to the tropics when we can bring the tropics to us?" asked Jodie van Horn. In real life she's an activist with Rainforest Action Network, but as a Billionaire she goes by Alata Monie. "We'll convert our winter properties to summer properties, and our summer properties to scuba properties."

"It's Darwinian: Survival of the Richest," said Levana Saxon, also known as Debbie Tont, wearing a jeweled barrette and strappy stilettos.

Across the courtyard, their fellow activists were staging a protest of Merrill Lynch's financing of 11 new coal-fired power plants in Texas, a more than $10 billion project.

The Billionaires presumed to be ready for a cocktail party with executives. Unfortunately, Merrill Lynch had locked the glass doors and was routing all employees through a restaurant on the side of the building. Many of the businesspeople glanced over once as they walked past but quickly turned away.

"Seventy-eight billion tons of greenhouse gases," preached Brianna Cay Cotter.

"Huzzah!" cheered the Billionaires. "More warming, less species!"

One problem is that coal emits more carbon dioxide than any other fuel source, except peat and raw wood. And though a new technology called gasification could keep more carbon out of the air, TXU plans to stick to a cheaper, conventional method called pulverization, according to the New York Times.

The new plants will emit more greenhouse gasses than 21 states or several countries—as much carbon dioxide as the annual emissions of 14 million American cars, according to the Rainforest Action Network.

But the Billionaires just fired back witty barbs.

"Rainforest Action Network? We can have more rainforest right here in San Francisco!" said one. "My daughter could buy RAN with her allowance," said van Horn.

While RAN staged similar protests across the country, a panel of judges yesterday delayed hearings for six of the plants to the summer in order to grant opponents time to prepare their case.

As Marc Gunther of Fortune writes, "Merrill Lynch talks a good game when it comes to saving the earth," claiming in their online "Environmental Sustainability Policy," "We are committed to a policy of environmental excellence…. We hold an annual Renewable Energy Conference…. We have sought to reduce energy consumption and emissions by an average of 2% annually."

Light on the Arctic Horizon

| Thu Feb. 22, 2007 6:55 PM EST

They may not officially constitute a tipping point, but the forests that line the Artic Circle hold massive potential to speed up or slow down global warming.

Nearly half of the greenhouse gas carbon that exists on land is contained in these forests, much of it in permafrost. If the permafrost melts, the peat and other plant matter trapped in it would decay, releasing carbon which would, in turn, speed the melting. The trees also store carbon.

Development, mining and logging account for a quarter of the carbon loss in forests, so new Canadian initiatives to give financial perks for preserving land in that country's so-called "boreal forests" could have some positive effect. Boreal forests in Canada and Scandinavia are likely to be better cared for than those in the U.S. and Russia, whose environmental records, frankly, suck. Canada is also exploring options to sequester carbon dioxide in these relatively pristine lands—a practice that seems questionable, but may be the best option—after reducing our carbon emissions—for keeping our feet out of nature's fire.

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Kinky Climate

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 9:05 PM EST

Hey, why can't we have tv ads like this? Even the politicos might pay attention. Apparently Tony Blair got the message, though not loudly enough to do anything while actually in office with genuine power at his fingertips. Could we convince the Dommes of the world to flog some climate guilt into their Washington slaves?

AAAS Statement on Climate Change Represents 10 Million Scientific Voices

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 8:32 PM EST

Annoyed by pesky climate change naysayers? Wish you had some ready ammunition at hand? Carry a copy of this in your bike bag.

The AAAS (American Association for the Advancement of Science) Board of Directors released a statement at their annual meeting in San Francisco last weekend on climate change. Founded in 1848, the AAAS is an international non-profit organization serving some 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, and 10 million individuals. Its journal Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of one million. In other words, this is the real deal, people, as close to the Science Bible as it gets.

The text of the AAAS statement on climate change reads as follows:

The scientific evidence is clear: global climate change caused by human activities is occurring now, and it is a growing threat to society. Accumulating data from across the globe reveal a wide array of effects: rapidly melting glaciers, destabilization of major ice sheets, increases in extreme weather, rising sea level, shifts in species ranges, and more. The pace of change and the evidence of harm have increased markedly over the last five years. The time to control greenhouse gas emissions is now.

The atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide, a critical greenhouse gas, is higher than it has been for at least 650,000 years. The average temperature of the Earth is heading for levels not experienced for millions of years. Scientific predictions of the impacts of increasing atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases from fossil fuels and deforestation match observed changes. As expected, intensification of droughts, heat waves, floods, wildfires, and severe storms is occurring, with a mounting toll on vulnerable ecosystems and societies. These events are early warning signs of even more devastating damage to come, some of which will be irreversible.

Delaying action to address climate change will increase the environmental and societal consequences as well as the costs. The longer we wait to tackle climate change, the harder and more expensive the task will be.

History provides many examples of society confronting grave threats by mobilizing knowledge and promoting innovation. We need an aggressive research, development and deployment effort to transform the existing and future energy systems of the world away from technologies that emit greenhouse gases. Developing clean energy technologies will provide economic opportunities and ensure future energy supplies.

In addition to rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions, it is essential that we develop strategies to adapt to ongoing changes and make communities more resilient to future changes.

The growing torrent of information presents a clear message: we are already experiencing global climate change. It is time to muster the political will for concerted action. Stronger leadership at all levels is needed. The time is now. We must rise to the challenge. We owe this to future generations.

Boys Will Be Boys, Even if They're Depressed

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 5:45 PM EST

This week's Newsweek features a story on men and depression. It's a confusing story because women have long been known to suffer depression at twice the rates men do, and though the tone of the article is meant to suggest that scientists are finding increasing rates of depression in men, no such statistic is ever offered.

This could be a great story if it focused on how a few men actually experience depression, and what that means in our guy-centric go-get-'em culture. But, after a brief and superficial discussion of a state senator suffering from depression, the story goes on to reassure the reader that men suffer from depression in those same stereotypically male ways in which the media insists they do everything else. Here's Newsweek "discovering" its own mainstream biases in science:

In a confessional culture in which Americans are increasingly obsessed with their health, it may seem clichéd—men are from Mars, women from Venus, and all that—to say that men tend not to take care of themselves and are reluctant to own up to mental illness. But the facts suggest that, well, men tend not to take care of themselves and are reluctant to own up to mental illness.

In fact, even being mentally ill can't make American men act less like men:

Instead of talking about their feelings, men may mask them with alcohol, drug abuse, gambling, anger or by becoming workaholics. And even when they do realize they have a problem, men often view asking for help as an admission of weakness, a betrayal of their male identities.

Is this stuff for real? What about the possibility that working too much and drinking too much cause depression? This is Logic 101. Haven't scientists and science reporters learned that when you stumble upon your preconceptions, maybe it's because they are right where you left them? Here's another gem of the surprising-yourself-in-the-mirror variety:

If modern psychologists were slow to understand how men's emotions affect their behaviors, it's only because their predecessors long ago decided that having a uterus was the main risk factor for mental illness.

Or, it could be that because a disproportionate number of scientists are men, they didn't want to learn that men had feelings, too. This is the single best reason for ensuring that minorities and women are represented in all fields.

So what should we do about this new epidemic? You guessed it: First, we should suddenly take depression seriously, and call it a genuine illness instead of just some mopey bullshit your wife pulls on you. Second, we should empathize with men when they get in to bar fights and yell at their wives, because, it turns out these are symptoms of male depression! (The disease behaves entirely differently in women: Weeping women are depressed; irritable women are just bitches!) Seriously:

Depressed women often weep and talk about feeling bad; depressed men are more likely to get into bar fights, scream at their wives, have affairs or become enraged by small inconveniences like lousy service at a restaurant.

Your husband cheated on you? Give the guy a break; he's depressed! Rageaholic? Poor baby! Rather than taking the example that men also suffer from depression to indicate that perhaps our gendered expectations of them—success at all costs! Don't talk about your feelings, you girl!—may be misplaced, the article takes the opportunity to reaffirm that even depressed guys can be part of the rat race. All of the men profiled in the article are successful guys who, after taking some time off and getting medicated, go right back to their successful jobs. What hard lives they lead! It's perfect, really, because it gives us an excuse not to look more deeply into the reasons why women and some minorities are more likely to be depressed.

Is There DDT in your Omega-3s?

| Wed Feb. 21, 2007 4:19 PM EST

A new study commissioned by Greenpeace [PDF] found that that OmegaPure brand omega-3 fish oil supplements contains high levels of DDT, the pesticide Dieldrin, and PCBs. Yikes. That's bad news for consumers of OmegaPure, which is made by Omega Protein, North America's biggest fish-oil producer. But as we've already reported, DDT and PCBs aren't the only reasons thoughtful consumers might want to skip OmegaPure. First of all, it's made from menhaden, an ecologically crucial fish that's in danger of being wiped out by Omega's fishery. And if you still need a fatty acid fix, there are other, less destructive options out there. Which is not to say that other fish-oil products don't contain some of the nasty stuff apparently in menhaden oil. I suspect that there's no longer such a thing as a contaminant-free fish oil.