Blue Marble

Passing the Urine-or-Tea Test

| Fri Mar. 23, 2007 12:00 AM EDT

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Chinese hospitals thought they were testing urine samples, but they were really being tested. Reporters passed the lab warm tea in place of their urine samples. Out of ten hospitals, six diagnosed an infection, and five prescribed expensive medicine.

It's not the first health care scandal to piss everyone off. Ha. The health minister has come out calling hospitals greedy. The problem is, "In China, most village doctors make their income solely by selling drugs," reports Nicholas Zamiska in the Wall Street Journal.

The numbers: In rural areas, almost two thirds of prescriptions for the flu were unnecessary, according to the journal Health Policy and Planning. Prescription drugs markups are as high as 80%, according to the World Health Organization.

Unfortunately, such problems are not all so foreign. In the United States, fully a third of our medical spending goes to insurance overheads, which is why our health care costs exactly 50 percent more than any other industrialized country. And pharmaceutical lobbies keep drug prices how much higher than in Canada?

For more, read "Is it Prozac? Or Placebo?: New research suggests that the miracles promised by antidepressants may be largely due to the placebo effect. Too bad there's no money to be made in sugar pills."

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Twenty of World's 162 Grouper Species Threatened With Extinction

| Thu Mar. 22, 2007 4:48 PM EDT

The first comprehensive assessment of the world's 162 species of grouper, vital predators in many marine ecosystems as well as important commercial fish, found that 20 are threatened with extinction. Previously, eight species were listed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) Red List. The new assessment proposes adding 12 more. From the Conservation International press release:

A panel of 20 experts from 10 nations determined the extinction threat facing groupers, which are the basis of the multimillion-dollar live reef food fish trade based in Hong Kong and comprise one of the most valuable groups of commercial fishes in chilled fish markets of the tropics and sub-tropics. Around the world, consumers pay up to $50 per kilogram for grouper.

"This shows that over-fishing could decimate another major food and economic resource for humans, similar to the loss of the cod stocks off New England and Canada that has put thousands of people out of work," said Roger McManus, a senior director of Conservation International's Marine Program.

The ground-breaking workshop at the Department of Ecology and Biodiversity of the University of Hong Kong was the first systematic assessment of the commercially important species, said Dr. Yvonne Sadovy, Chair of the IUCN Grouper and Wrasse Specialist Group and Associate Professor at HKU.

"The results are worrying and highlight the urgent need for fishery management, more effective marine protected areas (MPAs), and more sustainable eating habits for consumers of these fishes," said Sadovy, who organized the workshop.

Groupers are among the oldest fish on coral reefs, with some species reaching more than 50 years old. Several species only reach reproductive maturity later in life, making them particularly vulnerable to fishing before they mature. In addition, commercial fishing that targets reproductive gatherings of adults further hinders replenishment of unmanaged populations.

The threatened groupers include two species of coral trout grouper, which are mainstays of the live reef food fish trade in Hong Kong. Both can be found in Hong Kong fish markets, but they face heavy and unmanaged fishing pressure that is rapidly reducing their populations.

In North and South America, heavy fishing of grouper for the chilled fish markets also poses a significant threat. The Nassau grouper, once one of the most commonly landed groupers in the islands of the Western Atlantic Ocean, now is listed as Endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act and has virtually disappeared from most Caribbean reefs.

The troubles facing fish worldwide are chronicled in Mother Jones' oceans issue. Go here to find out what you can feel okay about eating from the sea.

Rio Grande One Of The Big Ten Rivers At Risk

| Thu Mar. 22, 2007 4:16 PM EDT

The Rio Grande--Rio Bravo in Mexico--is among the world's top ten rivers at risk, according to a new report by the World Wildlife Fund. The World's Top 10 Rivers at Risk names the waterways facing widespread degradation even as millions of people depend on them for survival. The Rio Grande, marking the U.S.-Mexico border, made the Top 10 because it's severely threatened by water diversions, widespread alteration of the floodplain, dams and pollution. From the WWF press release:

"The world's freshwater ecosystems are under siege, and the rivers in this report are the front lines," says Carter Roberts, president and CEO of World Wildlife Fund. "We don't have to look far to find examples of the freshwater crisis. The Rio Grande basin is in our own backyard and over-extraction and drought are draining it dry, endangering a unique desert river ecosystem and potentially undermining the economic growth of communities along the U.S./Mexico border."

Five of the ten rivers listed in the report are in Asia: Yangtze, Mekong, Salween, Ganges and Indus. Europe's Danube, South Americas' La Plata, Africa's Nile-Lake Victoria and Australia's Murray-Darling also make the list.

Although the Rio Grande and its tributaries run through the arid Chihuahuan Desert it is home to a spectacular array of freshwater species. The river is also the lifeblood of the region's economy, providing water to some of the fastest-growing urban areas in the country and thousands of farms and ranches. Irrigation accounts for more than 80 percent of all water diversions from the river.

"The Rio Grande is a treasure for all Americans and Mexicans as well as an economic resource of incalculable value," said Jennifer Montoya, U.S. director of WWF's Chihuahuan Desert Program. "This report shows how the U.S. is as vulnerable as anywhere else to the freshwater crisis that is affecting the entire world."

Global Warming Saps Halliburton Profits

| Wed Mar. 21, 2007 9:27 PM EDT

Halliburton reported yesterday that lower natural gas prices and less drilling in North America due to a late winter affected their first-quarter profits. In fact, Halliburton shares took their steepest dive in 8 months, dropping nearly 10%. The company is the "world's second-largest oilfield services company" and issues affecting them often herald industry-wide trends.

The slump in profits was caused, analyst James Halloran told Bloomberg, by a late winter (quite possibly global warming related). A late winter meant that the ground froze later, so heavy drilling rigs could not move across Canadian and northern US oilfields until later in the season. That translated into fewer completed drilling projects. Not to mention, with the warmest winter on record this year, people may be using less gas and oil to heat their homes.

"Last fall, there's no question there was a weather issue," Halloran said. "And prices have not been exactly booming for people. My guess is there's been some ongoing reluctance to get large drilling projects going again."

One of Halliburton's "large drilling projects" affected by the weather is in Alaska's North Slope, a place heralded by National Geographic as "largest remaining piece of US wilderness" Drilling in valuable wilderness areas is just one of the reasons Halliburton shareholder meetings are regularly protested. No wonder they moved their HQ to Dubai.

--Jen Phillips

Global Warming Saps Halliburton Profits

| Wed Mar. 21, 2007 2:07 PM EDT

Halliburton reported yesterday that lower natural gas prices and less drilling in North America due to a late winter affected their first-quarter profits. In fact, Halliburton shares took their steepest dive in 8 months, dropping nearly 10%. The company is the "world's second-largest oilfield services company" and issues affecting them often herald industry-wide trends.

The slump in profits was caused, analyst James Halloran told Bloomberg, by a late winter (quite possibly global warming related). A late winter meant that the ground froze later, so heavy drilling rigs could not move across Canadian and northern US oilfields until later in the season. That translated into fewer completed drilling projects. Not to mention, with the warmest winter on record this year, people may be using less gas and oil to heat their homes.

"Last fall, there's no question there was a weather issue," Halloran said. "And prices have not been exactly booming for people. My guess is there's been some ongoing reluctance to get large drilling projects going again."

One of Halliburton's "large drilling projects" affected by the weather is in Alaska's North Slope, a place heralded by National Geographic as "largest remaining piece of US wilderness" Drilling in valuable wilderness areas is just one of the reasons Halliburton shareholder meetings are regularly protested. No wonder they moved their HQ to Dubai.

--Jen Phillips

Weird Weather Watch: A Month Worth of Rain in an Afternoon

| Wed Mar. 21, 2007 12:46 PM EDT

New Delhi, India, received two-thirds of an inch of rain in seven hours last Monday, surpassing March monthly averages in a single day. The temperature plummeted to nine degrees below average for the day.

Closer to home, Baltimore surpassed record rainfall for the date by more than an inch last Friday, with 2.14 inches of the wet stuff. West of Baltimore, Maryland got heavy snow, and a vehicle in the president's motorcade was involved in one of the many accidents the storm caused, as the president headed to Camp David for the weekend.

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Gore Challenged To Debate "Foofaraw of Pseudo-Science"

| Wed Mar. 21, 2007 2:11 AM EDT

Okay, I know this doesn't look for reals, but Lord Monckton, a former policy adviser to Margaret Thatcher, has challenged Al Gore to a Climate Change Challenge (for the fancy cursive you'll have to click on the link). Here's what Monckton recently sent to Gore's Tennessee home:

The Viscount Monckton of Brenchley presents his compliments to Vice-President Albert Gore and by these presents challenges the said former Vice-President to a head-to-head, internationally-televised debate upon the question "That our effect on climate is not dangerous," to be held in the Library of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History at a date of the Vice-President's choosing.

Forasmuch as it is His Lordship who now flings down the gauntlet to the Vice-President, it shall be the Vice-President's prerogative and right to choose his weapons by specifying the form of the Great Debate. May the Truth win! Magna est veritas, et praevalet.

Uh, yeah, truth is surely his endgame. Monckton had this to say about An Inconvenient Truth:

"A careful study of the substantial corpus of peer-reviewed science reveals that Mr. Gore's film, An Inconvenient Truth, is a foofaraw of pseudo-science, exaggerations, and errors, now being peddled to innocent schoolchildren worldwide."

That science is based on a solid corpus of scientific evidence backed by thousands of scientists, including those involved in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for starters, and there is documentation aplenty of the truths laid out in Gore's film on Exxon's involvement in climate policy for the U.S. government. How do we know? Because science writer Chris Mooney was the one to unearth the documents and write about the series of events detailed in the movie for Mother Jones in May 2005. I factchecked the article myself and have a foot-thick file of government documents backing up all of the ways ExxonMobil and the US govt have way-laid climate science. (Oh, and for those of you who want to use "foofaraw" in your next Scrabble game, find the definition here).

Monckton's is merely an effort to distract us into thinking that there is actually anything to debate (his challenge is a hot discussion topic at the official-sounding, Exxon-funded Center for Science and Public Policy.

His Lordship says,

"If Mr. Gore really believes global warming is the defining issue of our time, the greatest threat human civilization has ever faced, then he should welcome the opportunity to raise the profile of the issue before a worldwide audience of billions by defining and defending his claims against a serious, science-based challenge."

Al, tell him yes, as soon as "a serious, science based challenge" materializes, you're there.

James Hansen Testifies to Climate Science Meddling

| Tue Mar. 20, 2007 8:30 PM EDT

The Bush administration once again faces charges from James Hansen, a foremost climate scientist, of interfering with science in order to downplay global warming. Hansen is director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, and was one of the first experts to warn of the threat of climate change.

The US House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, during its second hearing on Monday, released a memo stating that documents "appear to portray a systematic White House effort to minimize the significance of climate change." From New Scientist:

In written testimony, Hansen said: "In my more than three decades in government, I have never seen anything approaching the degree to which information flow from scientists to the public has been screened and controlled as it has now."

The committee also heard a former White House aide attempting to defend his editing of government reports on climate change. Phil Cooney, chief of staff at the White House's Council on Environmental Quality from 2001 to 2005, said editing was part of the normal review process between agencies.

Right. Just for the record, before he joined the White House, Cooney was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and now works for ExxonMobil.

The committee [first] heard of this top-down pressure on climate scientists during the first hearing in January. Former government scientist Rick Piltz said that Cooney had tried to downplay the consequences of climate change in government documents.

In a 10-year policy plan, Cooney and Brian Hannegan, also at CEQ, made at least 181 edits to emphasize scientific uncertainty regarding the effects of climate change and 113 changes to minimize the importance of human contributions to global warming, according to the committee's memo.

For example, Cooney replaced "will" with "may" in the sentence: "Warming temperatures will also affect Arctic land areas." He also deleted this sentence: "Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment."

Do these guys really think they're going to escape the mayhem? Or are they all believers of that latter-day oxymoron, Intelligent Design?

Join the Club? More Killing of the Adorable and Defenseless

| Tue Mar. 20, 2007 8:12 PM EDT

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A baby polar bear, on which Jen reported earlier, isn't the only cute creature in peril this week: according to the Humane Society of the United States' countdown clock, there are only seven days left until the world's largest marine animal slaughter kicks off in Canada.

The (subsidized) seal industry's hunt, which lasts until May 15th, killed more than 300,000 seals last year, and while whitecoats are off-limits, most of those "harvested" were less than three months old.

If just the idea of baby seals being clubbed to death isn't disturbing enough, you can watch a horrifying video of fishermen chasing them around on bloody ice and bludgeoning them with hooked clubs. The hunt has been responsible for over a million allegedly inhumane seal murders since 2003, but that's just one of the animals' problems: that whole global warming thing means the ice on which they're born and grow up is melting, which, according to Canadian government estimates, was responsible for a 75% mortality rate among pups in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in 2002.

Despite claims by the Federal Fisheries Minister that the hunt is "humane and sustainable," the HSUS' year-long Canadian seafood boycott cost the country $350 million in exports to the US, and some European officials are calling for EU-wide action. Since this year's killing quota hasn't yet been released, animal rights groups are urging people to contact the Canadian government while there's still time.

- Nicole McClelland

Skywalk Over Grand Canyon Grand Opening: See it Live

| Tue Mar. 20, 2007 6:49 PM EDT

I blogged a few weeks ago about the completion of a "skywalk" over the Grand Canyon on Hualapi Indian land. The walk was the brainchild of a white Los Vegas man in the tourism industry, but Native Americans hope it will bring more tourist dollars to their impoverished tribe.

CNN is running live footage of the skywalk's opening right now. Check it out.