Sierra Daily: December 2010

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11 posts from December 2010

Dec 22, 2010

Boss Hogs

The next time you follow a trail of bread crumbs in the Black Forest, you might want to keep an eye out for rampaging hordes of nuclear-powered boars.  

Weighing up to 400 pounds, with sharp eight-inch tusks, wild Bavarian boars are capable of charging at speeds of 30 miles per hour. And as if that's not enough to make you soil your lederhosen, some of them are also radioactive, the result of fallout from the explosion and fire at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986. It seems that the beasts are fond of forest mushrooms, truffles, and wild berries—three foods with especially concentrated levels of cesium 137. To the frustration of boar hunters looking forward to a pig roast, some Bavarian boars have cesium levels of 7,000 becquerels per kilogram—more than 10 times what's safe for their bratwurst. Last year, 650,000 wild boars were shot in Germany, but up to 4,000 of them were too radioactive to eat.

The German government compensates hunters who shoot radioactive boars, and the price tag keeps climbing. That's because unusually warm weather in Europe has allowed the porkers to feed and breed with abandon. In the past three years, the German boar population has increased sixfold, to 2.5 million. They've become a marauding menace, bursting into churches, shops, and cinemas; attacking pedestrians and cyclists; blocking highways; and even digging up corpses.

--Dashka Slater

(Editor's Note: While Dashka's "Woe Is Us" column for Sierra was at the printer, National Public Radio's Morning Edition brought news of a 300-pound rampaging in a German meat market, here.)

Dec 21, 2010

Stormy Weather

September 2010: Extreme monsoon rains flood 20 percent of Pakistan.| REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro

Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin once joked that global warming might improve conditions in his country. "You would have to spend less money on fur coats and other warm things," he said in 2003, lining up with then-president George W. Bush against the Kyoto Protocol. But last summer, drought and a record heat wave led to forest fires that killed 54, reduced daytime visibility in Moscow to 20 yards, and destroyed a quarter of the country's grain harvest. Shaken, Putin traveled to meet with climate scientists at an Arctic research station, where, Reuters noted, he likened the fires "to Nazi Germany's attack on the Soviet Union."

Climate models predict many more extreme weather events as atmospheric carbon dioxide increases, and world leaders of all political stripes are taking note. Last September, after intense rains in Mexico triggered massive mudslides and displaced half a million people from Chiapas to Matamoros, President Felipe Calderon, of the conservative National Action Party, called on the developed world to step up efforts to limit CO2 emissions. In Pakistan, the wettest monsoon in 80 years led to floods that killed 1,500 people and displaced millions. British foreign secretary William Hague—a former leader of the Conservative Party—warned that such disasters mean that dealing with climate change "is perhaps the 21st century's biggest foreign policy challenge."

"Climate change has pushed us beyond the bounds of previous extremes," says Kevin Trenberth, head of climate analysis at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. "It's important to get across that we have already reached this point."

The United States suffered its own string of climate anomalies. Last year Tennessee experienced a 1,000-year flood, and in the summer thousands of heat records were broken, including a blistering 113-degree day in Los Angeles.

Here's where U.S. exceptionalism comes in: While European conservatives like Hague, French president Nicolas Sarkozy, and German chancellor Angela Merkel have taken tough action on climate change, the Republican Party remains nearly unanimous in denying it's a problem. Half of the new GOP freshman class in Congress is made up of global-warming deniers. Meanwhile, NASA's James Hansen predicts new record-high temperatures for 2012, along with even more nasty weather.

--Dan Oko

Dec 20, 2010

Congress Dumbs Down

As 2010 nears its end, it's looking like a good candidate for hottest year ever. Maybe that will make an impression on the climate deniers preparing to take charge of various environmental committees in the House of Representatives, but I wouldn't bet on it. Sierra Daily previously reported on Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who promised to reconsider his support for energy-saving lightbulbs if only he could become chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. Well Upton got his wish, and promptly turned around and named climate-change denier Rep. John Shimkus (R-Ill.) as chair of the Environment and Economy Subcommittee. His position on the danger of global warming is that we're all cool: God promised Noah no more climate catastrophes. You can watch it here:


So no problem! --Paul Rauber

Out of Sight, Out of Our Minds?

The latest issue of TIME assesses the political impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill and concludes that Americans pay more attention to a punch to their wallets than to their guts:

"If the Gulf spill won't alter our relationship with oil, what will? Perhaps only one thing: cost. The only recent time we seemed close as a country to changing the way we use energy was in 2008, when gas prices skyrocketed past $4 a gallon. Those days may be coming back - gas is nearly $3 a gallon, and oil is creeping towards $100 a barrel as the global economy gets up off the floor. It's almost inevitable that a true recovery will bring back high energy prices, and that might finally be enough to force Democrats and Republicans to enact legislation that can actually make a difference. If we've learned one thing about the American public, it's that an oil spill may be a disaster, but expensive gas is considered a real catastrophe."

Meanwhile, federal scientists have concluded that oil buried in sediment at the bottom of the Gulf may threaten marine life, and the Sierra Club continues its efforts to ensure that BP is held accountable for the aftermath of its 40,000-square-mile spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

--Reed McManus

Dec 17, 2010

Watching Fox Makes You Stupid

Class! Let us consider two documents. First this memo from Fox News Washington managing editor Bill Sammon:

From: Sammon, Bill
To: 169 -SPECIAL REPORT; 036 -FOX.WHU; 054 -FNSunday; 030 -Root (FoxNews.Com); 050 -Senior Producers; 051 -Producers; 069 -Politics; 005 -Washington
Cc: Clemente, Michael; Stack, John; Wallace, Jay; Smith, Sean
Sent: Tue Dec 08 12:49:51 2009
Subject: Given the controversy over the veracity of climate change data…

…we should refrain from asserting that the planet has warmed (or cooled) in any given period without IMMEDIATELY pointing out that such theories are based upon data that critics have called into question. It is not our place as journalists to assert such notions as facts, especially as this debate intensifies.

Second, this excerpt from a World Public Opinion.org study, "Misinformation and the 2010 Electorate." It shows the percent of respondents who--falsely!--believe that most scientists think climate change is not occurring or are split on the matter, grouped by how often they consume news from various sources:


Those best informed on the subject are those who never watch Fox; those worst informed are those who watch Fox the most. Moral: Don't watch Fox. Class dismissed.

--Paul Rauber

Dec 15, 2010

Condoms or Consequences

Don't let it be said that Sierra Daily was premature in coming to extol Sir Richard's Condom Company, the Boulder, Colorado, based hipster outfit that donates a prophylactic to a country in need for every one sold. (Slogan: "Doing good never felt better.") The New York Times'  Economix blog went there this morning, praising the cleverness of Sir Richard's current ad campaign, which juxtaposes the price of its product against the consequences:

However! We can add value to the discussion by reminding readers of the classic of this genre: this French advertisement from 2006. Parents, don't tell me you've never been there:


--Paul Rauber

Dec 06, 2010

The Perfect Gift


The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge turns 50 today. It's holding up pretty well, as seen in this NASA satellite birthday portrait from July. (Right now it would resemble the famous picture of polar bears in a snowstorm.) But with the "drill, baby, drill" crowd back in Washington, the birthday candles on its next cake might resemble oil derricks. So what better time to give our favorite caribou-and-grizzly playground the gift of permanent protection? You can put that bug in President Obama's ear at http://arcticlove.org.

--Paul Rauber

Dec 02, 2010

Not That There’s Anything Wrong With That?

The compelling icon for an Arctic melting due to climate change is the cuddly, adorable polar bear -- which is losing its habitat. Will the icon for an Everglades polluted by mercury emissions from coal-burning power plants become the graceful white ibis -- which is turning gay because of hormonal changes caused by the toxic heavy metal?

University of Florida researchers studying why mercury pollution seems to reduce breeeding of the long-legged water birds were surprised to find that the more mercury a male ibis ate, the more likely it was to pair up with amother male. "We knew mercury could depress their testosterone levels,” says Peter Frederick, the University of Florida wildlife ecologist who led the study. “But we didn't expect this."

The fear is that if large numbers of ibises or any other species suffer similar effects from mercury ingestion, the species’ breeding rates could plummet. Mercury finds its way into waterways and wildlife diets after being released by power plants, mines, and medical- and municipal-incinerators. In water, bacteria converts mercury to highly toxic and easily absorbed methylmercury. To gain some insight into its effect, over three years the researchers fed the ibises food pellets that contained mercury levels equivalent to those measured in shrimp and crayfish in their normal wetland habitats.

The paired-up males “pretty much did everything except lay eggs,'' Frederick says. "They built nests, they copulated, they sat in the nests together.''

Even if you're feeling a bit squeamish, there’s no cause to become ibo-phobic. “Honestly, there is zero relevance for humans,” Frederick adds. But the group’s findings are worrisome, the latest in a long line of studies of mercury and other endocrine disrupters that affect reproductivity in creatures large and small.

--Reed McManus

Glad We Saved Mono Lake!

Trained eyes can detect on some ancient vehicles in California the faded remnants of bumpersticker imploring us to "Save Mono Lake!" The saltwater lake east of the Sierra Nevada was in danger of extinction in the 1970s and '80s, as water from the Owens River and other feeder streams was diverted to water the lawns of Los Angeles. Due to decades of hard work by the Mono Lake Committeeand the Sierra Club's Mono Lake Taskforce, in 1993 the California Supreme Court ruled that LA had to leave enough water in the streams to maintain downstream ecosystems--in this case, Mono Lake. LA reduced its diversions, and Mono Lake made a startling comeback.


And why is this good news in 2010? Because today NASA and the journal Science announced the discovery of an entirely new life form in the lake--a bacterium based not on phosphorous, as is every other known living thing on Earth, but on arsenic. "We've cracked open the door for what's possible for life elsewhere in the universe," said Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon, "and that's profound to understand how life is formed and where life is going." 

And it couldn't have happened if we hadn't saved that strange, wild lake.

--Paul Rauber

Dec 01, 2010

A Flip-Flop We Can Believe In

Florida 2
Today, the Obama administration announced that it was reversing its pre-BP-oil-spill call to open the eastern Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic coast to oil and gas drilling. Not surprisingly, the move was heralded by environmentalists. After all, flip-flops are ideal beachwear--but not so much if they're coated in oil.

Interior Secretary Ken Salazar told reporters that "The plan we announced in March was based on our best science at the time," but that "there has been significant additional information that has been gained" since the explosion and fire on the Deepwater Horizon rig on April 20.

The history of the White House's decision goes deeper, of course. In his State of the Union address in January, Obama called for "a comprehensive energy and climate bill" but also signaled a willingness to horsetrade to get it: He would make "tough decisions about opening new offshore areas for oil and gas development." Two months later, his administration announced it would open 500,000 square miles to oil and gas exploration. But timing is everything, and three weeks after that the nation was staring at daily images of unchecked oil billowing into the Gulf of Mexico, instantly turning the catchphrase "drill, baby, drill" into "spill, baby spill." (Then the November elections came, pretty much obliterating any chance we will hear the words "comprehensive" and "energy bill" together soon.)

There are also some rough-and-tumble politics at stake: The Miami Herald points out that Florida Senator Bill Nelson (D), a longtime drilling opponent, "is facing a crowded field of Republicans looking to challenge him for re-election in 2012," when an embattled Obama will also be counting on critical votes in Florida. Incoming Florida Governor Rick Scott (R) and newly-elected  Senator Marco Rubio (R) oppose the Obama administration's most recent move. (There's another flip-flop: The day after he secured the GOP nomination in April, Rubio backed off his support for expanded drilling in the Gulf of Mexico.) The key is Florida's voters, who remain deeply wary of drilling off their tourist-bedecked coasts: A Quinnipiac University poll in July found that 72 percent of Floridians support letting the state's voters decide whether to permanently ban offshore oil-drilling.

--Reed McManus

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