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Archive for May, 2010

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Can the Gulf Coast situation get any worse? Significance of the oil spill, part II

Sunday, May 30th, 2010

Now that hurricane season is upon us, we’re learning this week from forecasters that it’s supposed to be a bad one:

Weather Services International predicted 18 named storms, 10 hurricanes and five intense hurricanes, rated as Category 3 storm with winds of 110-130 mph, or greater.

NBC ran a segment (video clip) asking what impacts hurricanes might have on the oil spill.  The clip mentions, among other things, that 2010 Atlantic sea surface temperatures are the warmest on record—not a good omen when it comes to hurricane intensity.

This is, potentially, a very serious situation for the Gulf states.   If a Katrina-like storm surge were to push the oil plume onto land, we would be looking at possible oil contamination of all of the affected land areas.  Imagine parking your car in your house and opening the oil pan drain plug, letting oil leak onto the floors and out onto your driveway, lawn, and streets.  Now do that for every car and home along the Gulf Coast that could be impacted by storm surge where the oil plume is close to shore.

This has to be keeping people at EPA and the Gulf Coast up at night.   It could be an environmental pollution disaster the likes of which we have never seen—Marshes, swamps, white-sand beaches, and coastal/vacation communities becoming a giant, oil-soaked, polluted brownfield.

One would think that witnessing this kind of unprecedented environmental disaster, and the potential for worse with the impending hurricane season, would help make the case for the transition to clean energy.  Indeed, this week we have seen the oil spill mentioned by President Obama and some members of Congress as motivation for a long-term energy strategy.

Don’t hold your breath.

Even these events—as bad as they appear in real life— can be externalized from the day-to-day lives of most people in unaffected areas.  Maybe that will change as this spill gets worse and we face the possibility of oil release for another few months, but right now, there is simply not enough outrage from the public demanding change in Washington, as Bob Herbert alluded to last week.  And John Kerry is right, halting drilling on the Gulf Coast isn’t going to happen.

So where does all this leave us in terms of climate change, energy, and oil spills?

I’m pretty pessimistic these days.  I’m not sure if anything short of a severe economic energy shock that hits ordinary people hard—similar to what we saw in 2006-2007—will bring us to a tipping point.  If the U.S. returns to $4-5/gallon gasoline and home heating oil, we will start seeing environmentalists, security hawks, the energy independence crowd, green jobs advocates, and everyday citizens realign once again.  Only then will there be a coalition large and loud enough to force Washington take on the political-economic might of the fossil fuel industry and their lobbyists.

If my guess is right, then we are probably still a few years away from seeing a serious move to clean energy—not until the economic recovery is further along, economies pick up speed, and the demand for oil and oil speculation kick back into high gear, causing oil prices to spike once more.  Fortunately, this time around—unlike 2006-2007—we will have better technology, including electric cars, which will help make the leap easier and more sustained (provided that people can afford them).

The Gulf Coast is unfortunately poised to become collateral damage as we wait for more significant economic drivers to make the clean energy transition happen.

I’m lucky to have had the chance to travel along the coast from New Orleans to Tampa in the spring of 2005 before Katrina hit and now this oil spill happened.  It’s a beautiful region.  For our friends and all of the wildlife living there, let’s just hope this is a mild hurricane season and that most of the oil stays in the deep sea where it will hopefully get removed by hungry bacteria.

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joiseyshowaa/2392156164/

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Posted in behavior, climate change science, energy, pollutants, toxics | 4 Comments »

Gearing up for summer: New caution urged for many popular sunscreens

Monday, May 24th, 2010

Environmental Working Group released their 2010 sunscreen report this week, suggesting that many sunscreen SPF ratings are misleading, and some ingredients—like vitamin-A-related compounds—may actually enhance skin damage and cancer:

“Many sunscreens available in the U.S. may be the equivalent of modern-day snake oil, plying customers with claims of broad-spectrum protection but not providing it, while exposing people to potentially hazardous chemicals that can penetrate the skin into the body,” said EWG Senior Vice President for Research Jane Houlihan. “When only 8 percent of sunscreens rate high for safety and efficacy, it’s clear that consumers concerned about protecting themselves and their families are left with few good options.”

This year, new concerns are being raised about a vitamin A compound called retinyl palmitate, found in 41 percent of sunscreens. The FDA is investigating whether this chemical, when applied to skin that is then exposed to sunlight, may accelerate skin damage and elevate skin cancer risk. FDA data suggest that vitamin A may be photocarcinogenic, meaning that in the presence of the sun’s ultraviolet rays, the compound and skin undergo complex biochemical changes resulting in cancer. The evidence against vitamin A is not conclusive, but as long as it is suspect, EWG recommends that consumers choose vitamin A-free sunscreens.

Here’s more information, including how to find a better sunscreen for you:

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Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/joeshlabotnik/782119885/

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Posted in health | 1 Comment »

Herbert: The bitter reality of the American present

Saturday, May 22nd, 2010

Bob Herbert’s column in today’s Times forces us to look in the mirror not only with regards to the Gulf oil spill but to the political-economic foundation of social and environmental problems in general:

The response of the Obama administration and the general public to this latest outrage at the hands of a giant, politically connected corporation has been embarrassingly tepid. We take our whippings in stride in this country. We behave as though there is nothing we can do about it.

The fact that 11 human beings were killed in the Deepwater Horizon explosion (their bodies never found) has become, at best, an afterthought. BP counts its profits in the billions, and, therefore, it’s important. The 11 men working on the rig were no more important in the current American scheme of things than the oystermen losing their livelihoods along the gulf, or the wildlife doomed to die in an environment fouled by BP’s oil, or the waters that will be left unfit for ordinary families to swim and boat in.

This is the bitter reality of the American present, a period in which big business has cemented an unholy alliance with big government against the interests of ordinary Americans, who, of course, are the great majority of Americans. The great majority of Americans no longer matter.

No one knows how much of BP’s runaway oil will contaminate the gulf coast’s marshes and lakes and bayous and canals, destroying wildlife and fauna — and ruining the hopes and dreams of countless human families. What is known is that whatever oil gets in will be next to impossible to get out. It gets into the soil and the water and the plant life and can’t be scraped off the way you might be able to scrape the oil off of a beach.

It permeates and undermines the ecosystem in much the same way that big corporations have permeated and undermined our political system, with similarly devastating results.

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Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/chrisjman/3338514389/

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Posted in behavior, energy, environmentalism, nature and culture, pollutants, toxics | No Comments »

Pesticide link to child behavior?

Monday, May 17th, 2010

MSNBC is reporting today on new research suggesting that some pesticides may double the rate of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) in kids.

Youngsters with high levels of pesticide residue in their urine, particularly from widely used types of insecticide such as malathion, were more likely to have ADHD, the behavior disorder that often disrupts school and social life, scientists in the United States and Canada found.

Kids with higher-than-average levels of one pesticide marker were nearly twice as likely to be diagnosed with ADHD as children who showed no traces of the poison.

The take-home message for parents, according to Bouchard:  “I would say buy organic as much as possible,” she said. “I would also recommend washing fruits and vegetables as much as possible.”

As discussed in a previous post “Do our daily routines put our health at risk?” here’s an easy to use shopping guide of which fruits and vegetables to buy organic.

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Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/anushruti/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in behavior, food and agriculture, health, organic, toxics | 2 Comments »

Friedman: The time is now for energy innovation

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

From his latest column in today’s NY Times:

There is only one meaningful response to the horrific oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and that is for America to stop messing around when it comes to designing its energy and environmental future. The only meaningful response to this man-made disaster is a man-made energy bill that would finally put in place an American clean-energy infrastructure that would set our country on a real, long-term path to ending our addiction to oil.

That is so obviously the right thing for our environment, the right thing for our national security, the right thing for our economic security and the right thing to promote innovation. But it means that we have to stop messing around with idiotic “drill, baby, drill” nostrums, feel-good Earth Day concerts and the paralyzing notion that the American people are not prepared to do anything serious to change our energy mix.

…As the energy consultant David Rothkopf likes to say, sometimes a problem reaches a point of acuity where there are just two choices left: bold action or permanent crisis. This is such a moment for our energy system and environment.

Posted in energy | No Comments »

Agriculture: Evolution strikes back

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

The NY Times is running a cover story on how crop weeds are becoming resistant to one of the most ubiquitously used herbicides—Roundup.

This is the herbicide that farmers can spray on genetically modified crops that are resistant to its damage.  It’s widely used on major crops, such as soy, corn, canola, sugar beet, and cotton.

In theory, all weeds other than the GM crop succumb to the chemical.  As the Times story suggests, that’s not the case anymore because weeds are evolving resistance, possibly rendering Roundup and Roundup-ready GM crops ineffective.

Just as the heavy use of antibiotics contributed to the rise of drug-resistant supergerms, American farmers’ near-ubiquitous use of the weedkiller Roundup has led to the rapid growth of tenacious new superweeds.

To fight them, Mr. Anderson and farmers throughout the East, Midwest and South are being forced to spray fields with more toxic herbicides, pull weeds by hand and return to more labor-intensive methods like regular plowing.

“We’re back to where we were 20 years ago,” said Mr. Anderson, who will plow about one-third of his 3,000 acres of soybean fields this spring, more than he has in years. “We’re trying to find out what works.”

Farm experts say that such efforts could lead to higher food prices, lower crop yields, rising farm costs and more pollution of land and water.

“It is the single largest threat to production agriculture that we have ever seen,” said Andrew Wargo III, the president of the Arkansas Association of Conservation Districts.

…If frequent plowing becomes necessary again, “that is certainly a major concern for our environment,” Ken Smith, a weed scientist at the University of Arkansas, said. In addition, some critics of genetically engineered crops say that the use of extra herbicides, including some old ones that are less environmentally tolerable than Roundup, belies the claims made by the biotechnology industry that its crops would be better for the environment.

“The biotech industry is taking us into a more pesticide-dependent agriculture when they’ve always promised, and we need to be going in, the opposite direction,” said Bill Freese, a science policy analyst for the Center for Food Safety in Washington.

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Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/kankan/ / CC BY 2.0

Posted in food and agriculture, land use, organic | 2 Comments »

Parker: What happened to the seasons?

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

This interesting piece by John Parker can be found in this quarter’s Intelligent Life, the lifestyle and culture magazine from The Economist.

With a seemingly distant and global challenge like climate warming, it’s been a struggle for science to convey the realities that warming is underway and that it’s likely human caused.

What would it take to persuade the 50% of Americans and others around the world who are unconvinced that warming is happening and that is has the potential to fundamentally alter our lives and experiences?  A catastrophe like sudden, major ice loss from Antarctica or Greenland?

Subtle shifts like the timing of flowers, the lengthening of spring, the migration of birds, or thawing permafrost—things we have been documenting and writing about since the 1990s— seem to happen unnoticed.

Or perhaps not, as Parker indicates…

In the Indian state of Orissa, the black-headed oriole is the messenger of spring. It appears in the villages in January to greet the season’s start and flies away to the forest in March, signalling its end. Richard Mahapatra’s mother used the oriole’s fleeting appearance to teach her son about the natural rhythms of the world. “People like my mother remember six distinct seasons,” says Mahapatra, an environmental writer who now lives in New Delhi. After spring (basanta) and summer (grishma) came the rainy season (barsha). Between autumn (sarata) and winter (sisira) came a dewy period called hemanta. Each season lasted two months and the appearance of each was marked by religious festivals. “She had precise dates for their arrival and taught me how to look for signs of each.”

Damselflies gathered thickly a week before the rains began. Markers of the monsoon, they did not cluster at other times. The open-billed stork alighted on the tamarind tree on Akshaya Trutiya, a festival which usually fell in April or May and traditionally marked the start of the agricultural year. Farmers said that if you forgot the day, the bird would remind you, so predictable was its arrival. In the Mahapatra family’s garden, the nesting of bats in the peepal tree marked the onset of winter; when the tree flowered, it was midsummer.

Lately the heralds of the seasons have become unreliable. Damselflies swarm not only in the rainy season but in winter, the driest time of year. The stork no longer appears just on Akshaya Trutiya, but at other times, too. Villagers hear the song of the oriole in summer and the rainy season, not just spring. And this, Mahapatra says, is because spring is no longer a distinct season. Instead of six periods of equal length, Orissa now has two, a brief rainy season and a burning eight-month summer. Winter is a mild transition between the two, and spring, autumn and hemanta have been relegated to little-noticed interludes of a mere week or so.

“When I return home”, says Mahapatra, “my mother mourns the death of the seasons. Her memories of Orissa’s climate are alien to the generation I belong to. For me, my childhood Orissa is dying. The state now has a new and strange climate that nobody can understand or predict.”

Read more here

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Photo credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/ddsnet/ / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Posted in behavior, climate change science, communication and framing, environmental literacy, nature and culture | No Comments »

The significance of the BP oil spill

Sunday, May 2nd, 2010

The contrast in visual symbols from our energy economy over the past few weeks has been interesting.

On one hand, we have the explosion and potentially catastrophic spill of the BP rig in the Gulf of Mexico.  On the other, we have the approval of the Cape Wind Farm in New England.  What should we make of this?

As Lisa Margonelli points out in pieces in The Atlantic and the New York Times today, these kinds of symbols can have powerful effects, including a revitalized environmental movement, a renewed push for clean energy, and a ban on offshore drilling.

However, she’s correct to point out that the story is not so simple, with exporting our oil spills to developing nations being one likely unintended consequence of domestic environmental protection coupled with little reduction in energy consumption.  And she also notes that it’s dependence on fossil fuels—not simply offshore drilling— that perpetuates the suite of environmental problems we are dealing with today (links hers):

The oil spill in the Gulf is horrific and it’s very likely it’ll get worse. While locals get to work scrubbing the oiled birds with Dawn dish detergent,  a fracas will begin in Washington. Generally speaking this is an opera called “The Punishment,” and for the last two major oil spills of great political  consequence (Santa Barbara in 1969 and the Exxon Valdez in 1989) it involved  a moratorium on drilling somewhere in the US. The problem with this, as I lay out in an op-ed in today’s New York Times, is that we basically shift drilling and  its risks to other countries. (The figure that the Niger Delta, roughly the size of England, has suffered the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez of spilled oil every year since 1969 ought to make us cry.)

…Simply pushing oil production away from us does not solve the underlying problem. But much can be done to change drilling on federal lands and possibly make it safer. A good first step would be to reform the federal Minerals Management Service, which is responsible for both environmental enforcement and financial administration of offshore drilling leases. In 2008, this agency was caught up in a wide-ranging ethics scandal — including allegations of financial self-dealing, accepting gifts from energy companies, cocaine use and sexual misconduct — that exposed its ridiculously close relationship with the oil industry.

Several years ago, the agency considered requiring the installation of relatively inexpensive ($500,000) remote-controlled switches on offshore drilling rigs as a backup mechanism for shutting down spills like the one that’s running out of control today — but decided it wasn’t needed because there were other ways for drillers to cut off their wells.

I hope the Deepwater Horizon spill doesn’t get bad enough to join Santa Barbara and Exxon Valdez in the rogues’ gallery of huge environmental disasters. But it should galvanize us to address the real problem with oil spills — the oil.

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Photo Credit:  http://www.flickr.com/photos/skytruth/ / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Posted in energy | 2 Comments »

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