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Philip Bump's Posts

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The Earth is going bald, ice-wise

In a guest post at ThinkProgress, Neven Acropolis outlines the bad news about Arctic ice:

If you want to mislead people into thinking that there is nothing weird going on in the Arctic, you have to do it during winter. In winter things almost look normal on some graphs, with gaps between trend lines and long-term averages not as ridiculously big as during spring and summer. ...

Sea ice area has never been so low for this date in the satellite record, not even close to it. 2012 has over half a million of square kilometers less ice than record minimum years 2007 and 2011.

There was a distinct possibility this would happen, although I didn’t expect it to happen quite this early.

Read more: Climate Change

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If we can’t end climate change in one grand effort, maybe we can do it in 21 little ones

Photo by Rachael Voorhees.

This week, representatives of nearly every country in the world are in Rio de Janeiro attending a meeting hosted by the United Nations that happens once every 10 years. While there, the world could come together and agree to a plan that will effectively reverse decades of carbon pollution.

It won't. There are a lot of reasons why no grand accord will result from Rio: politics, economics -- every nation, it seems, has its own reasons. But perhaps the problem isn't the convocation. Perhaps the problem is the expectation that there's a climate change silver bullet.

A new paper from researchers in Germany and the Netherlands suggests that an incremental approach to closing the gap between where emissions are and where they need to be may be easier and more successful. Without any change in greenhouse gas emissions, the world will be creating 12 more gigatons of carbon dioxide a year than we should be in order to prevent worst-case global warming. In order to close that gap, the research team sought to identify areas that share four characteristics:

  • There's existing traction.
  • There are benefits besides greenhouse gas reduction.
  • There are organizations or individuals that can lead on the issue.
  • Action can achieve a reduction of one-half billion tons of carbon dioxide by 2020.

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Japan turns reactors back on – but bulks up on solar

Japan's announcement over the weekend that it would restart two nuclear reactors caused no small amount of consternation within the country and abroad. Seventy-one percent of the country opposes turning the reactors back on. They point out that the country has been meeting power demands just fine without the reactors online, and also note some of the challenges of using nuclear power. Such as earthquake/tidal wave combos that knock out power plants and lead to radiation leaks. That has happened before. In recent memory.

On the other hand, Japan is also moving to become a solar power heavyweight. A boom in the country's solar market may soon move it past Germany and Italy to be the second-largest in the world. Bloomberg reports:

Industry Minister Yukio Edano set today a premium price for solar electricity that’s about triple what industrial users now pay for conventional power. That may spur at least $9.6 billion in new installations with 3.2 gigawatts of capacity, Bloomberg New Energy Finance forecast. The total is about equal to the output of three atomic reactors. Solar stocks rallied.

Read more: Nuclear, Solar Power

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Isabella Rossellini knows more about bees than you do

Photo by Chris Johnson.

What are fish thinking when they change genders?

When Burt's Bees invited me to this press event, they probably didn't expect Isabella Rossellini to be the one asking questions, much less that one. Or for her to go on and note that gender assignation is largely a human construct. And to then express curiosity about what the process is like from the fish's perspective.

Sitting next to Rossellini, holding my notebook, I'm not really sure how to answer. After a pause, undeterred, she explains that fish are less interesting to play than insects because "sometimes they spawn, but that is it."

Luckily for her, we were there to talk about insects -- namely, bees -- and sitting with people who could answer the trickier questions she raised: for example, how scientists test for neonicotinoids, a pesticide that may impact bee navigation. ("Do they take the hives? … Do they feed them?" The answers were unknown.)

Rossellini has created an unusual niche for herself. Her series for the Sundance Channel, Green Porno, introduced Americans to the exotic, alarming mating rituals of flies, snails, and praying mantises -- with herself starring as each of the creatures. She enjoys the roles primarily because of the eccentricities of behavior, because of the tiny nuanced details that she likes to try and get right. And, clearly, because it is a topic about which she's deeply curious and fascinated to learn.

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Good news: The EPA isn’t watching you with drones

This is outside your window right now, maybe. (Photo by quadrocopter.)

Did you hear that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is using drones to spy on farmers to track their movements and probably take away their Second Amendment rights and force them to use solar power and eat soy?

If you heard that, turn off Fox News. And maybe wean yourself off of Twitter.

A long time ago, the EPA discovered that it was much more cost-effective to monitor violations to the Clean Water Act by using small planes to fly over farms. As the Washington Post notes, the Supreme Court signed off on the practice in 1986, and it's only a very small part of how the EPA does enforcement.

In May, a group of U.S. senators sent a letter to the EPA asking about flyovers in Nebraska. A Twitter user with a fondness for eagles read "aerial surveillance" in the letter and tweeted "'security' drones." A conservative blog picked that up and, next thing you know, it's on Fox News. Fox, perhaps busy with other things, failed to call the EPA to ask whether the rumor was true.

Read more: Politics

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Twitter, storms, and Twitterstorms

Image by eldh.

Twitter is really great at letting you know about the weather. Twitter may be less great at impacting it. But two initiatives aim to try.

Activists from 350.org and partner organizations have launched a "Twitterstorm," encouraging people to tweet the hashtag #endfossilfuelsubsidies today. Their aim is to both draw attention to government underwriting of the fossil fuel industry and to put pressure on participants at the Earth Summit in Rio to take effective action on climate change.

They have a benchmark in mind: to best a record set by Justin Bieber fans in which the same message (wishing him a happy birthday) was tweeted 322,000 times in one day. Tracking the hashtag, it looks like they have a ways to go -- but any contest that aims to diminish the dominance of Justin Bieber is obviously one that receives my hearty endorsement.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, the Department of Transportation (ADOT) is having a poetry contest, as transportation agencies so often do. They've hit on a rarely recognized feature of Twitter: It's the perfect size for a haiku. (You remember haiku. A poem in three lines; five syllables, seven syllables, five syllables.)

Read more: Climate Change, Politics

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Cabo Pulmo: The reef so nice, they saved it twice

The beach at Cabo Pulmo. (Photo by jeffgunn.)

Located at the tip of the Baja peninsula, Mexico's Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park looks beautiful. (According to photos; efforts to cajole funding for a personal visit by this writer were unsuccessful.) But what sets the park apart isn't the gorgeous view from the beach, it's what lies underwater offshore.

Cabo Pulmo is home to one of the northernmost coral reefs in the world. Sixteen years ago, the Mexican government set the area aside to protect it from rampant commercial and sport fishing which, during the 1980s, damaged the reef and depleted its number of fish. In the time since the reserve was announced, Cabo Pulmo has rebounded. A study by researchers in the United States and Mexico found that by the end of last decade, its biomass of fish had rebounded 463 percent. The local area saw benefit, too, transitioning successfully from a fishing-based economy to one based on ecotourism.

A classic story of a successful conservation effort. And then, in 2008, a developer was granted permits to build a massive resort just outside the park boundary. With a proposed name of Cabo Cortes, the plan was to essentially replicate nearby Cabo San Lucas.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Kaiser Permanente: We’ll be ready for the inevitable climate-change-based downfall of society

Photo by tedeytan.

From Bloomberg News:

Kaiser Permanente (KP), one of the largest health care providers in America, has a clear mission: improve health. In a surprising and welcome twist, KP is publicly recognizing that climate change threatens that mission.

"One of the largest health care providers" glosses over it a little bit. Kaiser has over 180,000 employees -- 16,000 of whom are physicians -- and 8.8 million members. In short, Kaiser is an institution that rivals New York City in scale with a history rooted in tackling social issues; the company evolved from an informal association aimed at providing health insurance to shipbuilders in Oakland.

Kaiser's climate change efforts are ones you might predict: increased energy efficiency, carbon offsets, and generating its own power, including 11 megawatts of solar. More interesting is how Kaiser anticipates climate change will impact public health.

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EPA proposes sensible update to soot pollution limits. Expect outrage

In another dimension -- a wonderful, magical dimension -- an announcement about curtailing soot pollution would be hailed as a triumph, an obviously useful decision that's worth celebrating.

That dimension seems like it would be a nice place to live.

Today, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed a stricter guideline for particle pollution, small pieces of dust and soot and other combusted matter that are released into the air and then inhaled. Particulate matter is one of six pollutants covered by the EPA's National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which serve as a sort of clean air check list. Every five years the standards are reviewed for efficacy in protecting public health; each is supposed to be updated as needed to protect health.

There are two types of particulate matter regulated by the EPA, and two levels at which they're monitored. Today's proposal [PDF] would drop the annual amount of allowable fine particle (PM 2.5) pollution from 15 micrograms per cubic meter to 12 or 13 -- in the former (better) case, a reduction of 20 percent. The EPA also proposed a new standard that would improve visibility in urban areas, mandating either 28 or 30 deciviews. States would have until 2020 to meet the standards.

So that's the science. More important are the impacts. Those most susceptible to negative effects of particulate pollution are those with heart and lung disease, older people, children, and those in low-income households. Long-term fine particulate matter exposure results in premature death from heart disease and increased heart attacks and strokes; short-term exposure can trigger similar deadly responses along with impaired breathing. The EPA estimates that a reduction to 12 micrograms/cubic meter would save between $2.3 billion and $5.9 billion in health costs. Annually.

Win-win, right? Well ...

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Future California surfers are advised to hang zero toes over acidic waves

Still from an animation of projected ocean acidity.

One of the lesser-known but still widely feared effects of an atmosphere chock-full of carbon dioxide is that it makes the oceans more acidic. The process, as described by Science magazine:

About one-third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) humans pump into the atmosphere eventually diffuses into the surface layer of the ocean. There, it reacts with water to create carbonic acid and release positively charged hydrogen ions that increase the acidity of the ocean. Since preindustrial times, ocean acidity has increased by 30%. By 2100, ocean acidity is expected to rise by as much as another 150%.

The level of acidity at the surface could reach pH levels of about 7.7 by 2050. Contrary to our enticingly misleading headline, this is not nearly acidic enough to melt anyone's toes; it's still less acidic than distilled water. (And, besides, dissolving body parts in acid takes a long time.)

Read more: Animals, Climate Change