Blue Marble

More Stuff for Pregnant Women to Worry About

| Tue Dec. 11, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Pregnant women are told not to do lots of things. No booze! No sushi! No deli meat! No peanuts! Stop smoking! But doctors apparently aren't warning them about more insidious substances that they encounter in their daily lives, according to a new study from researchers at the University of California-San Francisco.

Environmental Health News reported on the study on Monday:

Almost all of the doctors in the new, nationwide survey, conducted by University of California, San Francisco researchers, said they routinely discussed smoking, alcohol, diet and weight gain. Eighty-six percent also said they discuss workplace hazards, and 68 percent warn about second-hand smoke.

But only 19 percent said they talk to their pregnant patients about pesticides and only 12 percent discuss air pollution. Forty-four percent said they routinely discussed mercury with pregnant women. Eleven percent said they mention volatile organic compounds, which are fumes emitted by gasoline, paints and solvents.

Even fewer physicians warned their patients about two chemicals in consumer products that are often in the news: bisphenol A (BPA) at 8 percent and phthalates at 5 percent. Nine percent of the doctors told their patients about polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), industrial compounds often found in fish.

Pregnant women are exposed to dozens of harmful chemicals every day—mercury, bisphenol A, flame retardants, and pesticides. Exposure to toxic chemicals in the womb can have a "profound and lasting impact on health across the life course," doctors have found.

Women already have a lot to deal with when pregnant, which is why some doctors say that they should be doing more to raise awareness about those potential hazards even before women become pregnant.

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Another Disappointing Climate Meeting Draws to a Close

| Sat Dec. 8, 2012 2:30 PM EST

The United Nations talks in Doha weren't expected to produce much progress In addressing climate change. But the negotiations, which concluded Saturday, failed to meet even the low expectations that had been set for the negotiations.

Talks dragged into the evening (Doha time), as parties were still deadlocked on key points like extending the Kyoto Protocol, the emission-cutting treaty adopted 15 years ago that is poised to expire at the end of the 2012, and how to raise the $100 billion in funds to address climate change promised to developing countries. But negotiators ultimately emerged with what they're calling the "Doha Climate Gateway" (they seem to get more creative with these titles every year). Here's what it entails, as Reuters reports:

A package of decisions, known as the Doha Climate Gateway, would also postpone until 2013 a dispute over demands from developing nations for more cash to help them cope with global warming.
All sides say the Doha decisions fell far short of recommendations by scientists for tougher action to try to avert more heatwaves, sandstorms, floods, droughts and rising sea levels.
The draft deal would extend the Kyoto Protocol for eight years. It had obliged about 35 industrialized nations to cut greenhouse gas emissions by an average of at least 5.2 percent below 1990 levels during the period from 2008 to 2012.

Preserving the Kyoto Protocol in a second commitment period (or KP2, as it is sometimes called) is a big deal, since Kyoto is the only legally binding global climate agreement we have. While the US and other major emitters like India and China are not parties to that treaty, it's something. This is especially important, since at last year's talks neogiators determined that they would not negotiate a new, legally binding treaty that includes the US and China until 2015, and that new treaty won't take effect until 2020. Brazilian Minister of Environment Izabella Teixeira summed up the outcome pretty well in her statement to the plenary session Saturday night:

We are not fully satisfied with the outcome achieved. We wanted more. We believe more is needed. But we also believe that a Conference that ensured KP2 is, by definition, a success.

But as you can imagine, small island nations and other vulnerable countries aren't exactly calling Doha a "success," given that waiting around a few more years could prove hazardous to their survival. Here's a statement from Nauru's Foreign Minister Kieren Keke, who serves as the chair of the Alliance of Small Island States:

This is not where we wanted to be at the end of the meeting, I assure you. It certainly isn't where we need to be in order to prevent islands from going under and other unimaginable impacts.
The biggest concern – and not just for small islands mind you – is the failure to deliver the mitigation ambition the scientific community says is essential to keep global warming from exceeding 2 degrees Celsius, to say nothing of 1.5 degrees, and the cascade of catastrophes that would follow.

Reactions are coming in from American and international NGOs that have been following the process in Doha. Here's Jennifer Haverkamp, the director of the international climate program at the Environmental Defense Fund, pointing out that after 18 years of meetings about how to mitigate climate change, we're now dealing with the fact that the changes are already here:

This is the next step in the UN's increasingly reactive response to climate change. First the focus was on avoiding emissions. When mitigation efforts proved inadequate, it turned more attention to adaptation. Now, as the effects of extreme weather and rising oceans hit communities from the Philippines to New Jersey, the UN has realized it must begin to grapple with the damaging effects of climate change it had been mostly trying to avoid.

And here's a statement from Kumi Naidoo, executive director of Greenpeace International:

Today we ask the politicians in Doha: Which planet are you on? Clearly not the planet where people are dying from storms, floods and droughts. Nor the planet where renewable energy is growing rapidly and increasing constraints are being placed on the use of dirty fuels such as coal. The talks in Doha were always going to be a modest affair, but they failed to live up to even the historically low expectations.

Harsh. Better luck next year?

Nebraska Kids to Learn America Is Awesome, Climate Change Is Just a Theory

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 3:49 PM EST

Students in Nebraska are getting new standards for social studies curriculum, after weeks of intense debate. The state Board of Education reached agreement on two items of controversy this week: whether to include "American exceptionalism" and how to teach about climate change, the Lincoln Journal Star reports.

The fight had been over whether to explicitly teach the idea of American exceptionalism, as one board member proposed, and whether to include information about climate change, which the current standards do not mention. The board approved the standards after making some changes:

The words "American exceptionalism" do not appear in the final draft, but the concept does. In the sixth- through eighth-grade U.S. history standards, one of the “indicators” -- examples of what to teach -- is the "unique nature of the creation and organization of the American Government, the United States as an exceptional nation based upon personal freedom, the inherent nature of citizens’ rights and democratic ideals."
Likewise, climate change appears in the sixth- through eighth-grade geography standards, but is presented as a theory, not as fact, asking students to evaluate "recent global climate change theories, and evidence that supports and refutes such theories."

Yikes! Government Details 6 Most Terrifying Arctic Trends

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:23 AM EST

polar bear photo: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commonspolar bear photo: Ansgar Walk via Wikimedia Commons

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published its seventh-annual Arctic Report Card this week, and though they didn't hand out a grade as they have in the past, it might as well be marked "G" for grim. Here are six of the biggest problems up north.

Virtually the entire length and width of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet melted for the first time in 2012. This year was also the longest melt season ever witnessed. Plus Greenland's ice lost some of its glitter as exposed soot, dust, and other particles blew onto the snow, darkening it and making it even more susceptible to melt. The more Greenland melts the more sea level rises.

Snow cover extent in both Eurasia and North America hit new record lows in June—the third time in five years that North America has set a new record low and the fifth year in a row that Eurasia has. The rate of June snow cover loss over Northern Hemisphere lands between 1979 and 2012 is -17.6 percent per decade—a faster decline than sea ice loss. Loss of spring snow cover affects the length of the growing season, the timing and dynamics of spring river runoff, permafrost thawing, and the yearly breeding and migratory clocks of wildlife. These schedule changes can throw species wildly out of sync with their environment—animals might migrate after their forage food has passed peak nutrition, for example—threatening their survival. 

Arctic sea ice reached its smallest coverage, or extent, on record, 18 percent smaller than the previous record low set only five years ago and 49 percent below the 1979-2000 average. As the ice pack shrinks the ocean absorbs more sunlight and warming accelerates causing even more ice loss. Consequently wind patterns, clouds, ocean currents, and ecosystems are undergoing rapid transformations.   


Arctic sea ice used to persist for many years, getting older and thicker with each passing year. Nowadays, not only is the area or extent of sea ice dwindling, but its volume too. The loss of old, thick, melt-resistant ice can easily become a self-reinforcing process. When old ice melts away—or when young ice fails to survive melt seasons—the ice that remains in the Arctic is predisposed to melt quickly the following summer. And that's what's happening in the 21st century, as you can see in the animation showing ice volume from 1987 to 2012 (below). Watch how old sea ice, on which so much Arctic life depends, is fast disappearing.


High primary productivity created by blooms of phytoplankton are normal at the edge of sea ice. But when this image was captured  scientists at sea discovered a massive bloom reaching up to 62 miles / 100 kilometers under the thinning ice—yet another change in yet another Arctic ecosystem.


The loss of the polar ice cap over the Arctic Ocean exposes the waters to rising levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide like never before. No one yet knows what scary changes will ripple out from that.

All background maps and data visualizations courtesy of the NOAA team. See originals and more here. All graphic mashups: Julia Whitty.

Free-Market Group Fights to Save California Oyster Farm

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Last week, the Interior Department announced its decision to let a historic Northern California oyster farm's permit expire to make way for the West Coast's first marine wilderness. In response, the Drakes Bay Oyster Company's owner, Kevin Lunny, filed suit this week in hopes of saving his company. That's not a big surprise: Lunny told the San Francisco Chronicle that the news had left him in "disbelief and excruciating sorrow." Here's the twist: As the East Bay Express reported, Lunny is being represented by a low-key, free-market advocacy group—a somewhat strange bedfellow for a company that bills itself as a environmentally sustainable operation and has enjoyed strong support from Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).

The group representing Drakes Bay Oyster Company, Cause of Action, is run by Dan Epstein, a former GOP counsel on the House's Committee on Oversight and Government Reform under California Republican Darrell Issa. Epstein is also a veteran employee of billionaires Charles and David Koch; he used to work at the Charles G. Koch Charitable Foundation and for a Koch Industries lawyer. Epstein supports Lunny's lawsuit against the National Park Service and the Interior Department, he said in a statement, because "we refuse to let the NPS and Secretary Salazar get away with exerting power that destroys a business and a community under the guise of authorized discretion."

Cause of Action alleges that the government failed to fulfill its obligation to conduct a proper environmental review and relied on flawed science showing that the oyster farm harmed the environment in its decision not to renew its permit. But in reality, according to interior secretary Ken Salazar, the decision was made to avoid setting a precedent that would threaten longstanding National Park Service policy to let permits expire on public land chosen by Congress to become wilderness. (Congress flagged Drakes Estero, where the oyster farm has operated since the 1930s, as a "potential wilderness" site in 1976.)

Epstein's advocacy work, in any case, hasn't always been so noble as coming to the rescue of a family business. After congressional conservatives slipped a measure into a recent spending bill that banned federal grants from going to 501(c)(4) non-profits engaged in lobbying, Cause of Action sent letters to at least 20 groups using federal money to fight obesity and tobacco use, warning them they might be sued. The group said it sent the letters "only as a convenience," but critics contended it was an attempt to intimidate the non-profits.

This time, no one can claim that Esptein is hiding his free-market, Koch-esque motive for helping Drakes Bay Oyster Company: "Cause of Action is committed to ensuring that federal agency decision-making that can affect economic prosperity in the United States is held to the scrutiny of public accountability," his statement also read.

Report: IPCC Is Underestimating Climate Threat

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, is a favorite punching bag for climate deniers. The panel, made up of scientists from around the world who evaluate and coalesce the best and latest science on climate change, issues new reports every five to six years; the fifth report is will begin rolling out in 2013. But while deniers love to cry that the IPCC is "alarmist," the comparison between what the panel has predicted over the last 20 years and what actually panned out in the real world shows that the IPCC has "consistently underestimated" the impacts, according to a new report highlighted by the Daily Climate.

The piece draws from new research from Naomi Oreskes, a history and science professor at University of California—San Diego, and Michael Oppenheimer, a geoscientist at Princeton University. Among the examples of the panel's conservative predictions:

The drastic decline of summer Arctic sea ice is one recent example: In the 2007 report, the IPCC concluded the Arctic would not lose its summer ice before 2070 at the earliest. But the ice pack has shrunk far faster than any scenario scientists felt policymakers should consider; now researchers say the region could see ice-free summers within 20 years.
Sea-level rise is another. In its 2001 report, the IPCC predicted an annual sea-level rise of less than 2 millimeters per year. But from 1993 through 2006, the oceans actually rose 3.3 millimeters per year, more than 50 percent above that projection.

Among the challenges for the panel are the fact that, as IPCC Vice-Chair Jean-Pascal van Ypersele describes, the authors work to "achieve consensus" and include the "full diversity of views that are scientifically valid."

See the full piece on the report here.

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83 Seconds Of Cuteness About Our Scary Climate Screwups

| Fri Dec. 7, 2012 6:03 AM EST

Here we are again: around the international negotiating table, this time in Doha, Qatar, taking miniscule steps towards tackling climate change. "Has it always been this way?" I hear you ask. Why, yes. It has. And these invaluable 83 seconds—produced by the Center for International Climate and Environmental Research, Oslo—will help you understand why.

Is Your Baby Sleeping in Carcinogens?

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 5:07 PM EST

UPDATE: Walmart announced Thursday evening that it will remove unlabeled items from its California stores.

The Oakland-based Center for Environmental Health announced on Thursday that it is taking legal action against a group of retailers selling products—many of them designed for infants and toddlers—that are made with a carcinogen. That includes changing pads, crib mattress pads, nap mats, and baby seats.

The chemical TDCPP, also known as chlorinated Tris, was removed from clothing for babies back in the 1970s. But it can still be found in a number of products that contain flame retardant-laced foam. Since October, California has included the chemical on its list of carcinogens and required products that carry it to bear a warning label. (California is generally the most aggressive in forcing companies to remove or at least label harmful chemicals, and since manufacturers only tend to make one model of their product, the California labels usually appear everywhere in the US.)

But despite the fact that there have been concerns about this chemical for 40 years, it's still showing up in products at major retailers in California. CEH had products purchased at Target, Babies R Us, Walmart, and Kmart tested, and found the chemical in many products that weren't labeled as containing it. 

The CEH study found the chemical in products like the Sweet Beginnings Bassinet Pad, Dexbaby Safety Changing Pad, Peerless Plastics KinderMat, Baby Delight Snuggle Nest Portable Infact Sleeper, and the Nap Nanny Portable Infant Recliner (which the Consumer Product Safety Commission has already filed a complaint against, after five infants died while using the product), among others.

CEH has issued legal notices to the companies selling these products, asking them to recall products sold since the new labeling rule was put in place at the end of October, and to either remove the chemical from new products or label them appropriately if they include the chemical. If the legal notice is not addressed in 60 days, the group has signaled it will move ahead with a lawsuit.

A spokeswoman for Target told the San Francisco Chronicle that the company "is committed to abiding by state and federal laws and regulations, and we expect our vendors to do the same."

The Real War on Christmas: Climate Change

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 4:08 PM EST

Every year we hear about some new front in the "War on Christmas" that liberals are supposedly waging against this most important of all Christian holidays. But an actual war on Christmas is coming—and it's spurred by climate change. It's a liberal conspiracy!

The summer drought caused many Christmas holiday tree seedlings in Tennessee to die this year, The Tennessean reports:

Record heat and abnormally dry conditions conspired to cause significant losses, especially among seedlings and saplings, local growers say. That could result in higher prices in the future, when those trees would have been hitting the market.
"The drought sure made it rough this year," said Wayne Pressler, owner of Kirkwood Tree Farm in Clarksville, who estimated he lost about half of his roughly 400 trees.
Other growers reported losing up to 80 percent of trees that were planted in the past year, and as much as 20 percent of older trees, the Tennessee Department of Agriculture said.

The Department of Agriculture notes that this won't really affect the trees people are buying this Christmas, since it takes trees six to seven years to get to an average height for holiday festivity status. But it will likely have an impact in a few years, when we're all fighting over a few statuesque firs or stuffing presents under some puny Charlie Brown pine.

Sandy Price Tag: $50 Billion

| Thu Dec. 6, 2012 6:13 AM EST
A beach house in Far Rockaway, New York destroyed by Hurricane Sandy.

A few weeks ago, my colleague Kevin Drum wrote that Congress was "about to get hit in the head with the price of climate change." Well, here it is. On Wednesday, news broke that President Obama is expected to ask for around $50 billion in disaster aid in response to Hurricane Sandy. And even that is not nearly as much money as the affected states have asked the federal government to provide.

From the New York Times:

The White House is assembling a spending request to send to Capitol Hill as early as this week, and while the final sum is still in flux, it should fall between $45 billion and $55 billion. That represents an enormous sum at a time when Mr. Obama is locked in a titanic struggle with Republicans over the federal deficit, but is significantly less than the states sought.
Unless an austerity-minded Congress adds to the president’s plan, state leaders would have to figure out other ways to finance tens of billions of dollars of storm-related expenses or do without them. New York, New Jersey and Connecticut were seeking a combined $82 billion in federal help both to clean up and restore damage from Hurricane Sandy as well as to upgrade and harden infrastructure to prepare for future storms.

Climate-fueled megastorms like Sandy, droughts, wild fires—none of these are cheap. And while this is one big, expensive storm, we've also been paying for billion-plus-dollar disasters more frequently in the paset few years.  For so long, all we seemed to hear from Congress about climate change were complaints that we can't afford to deal with it. Now that a giant bill is coming due, I wonder what they'll have to say.