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Q.I do my best to avoid plastic bags, but it takes a lot of planning to completely avoid getting them -- e.g., if I decide to buy items like Brussels sprouts that need to be corralled before going into my reusable bags. Do the plastic bags that supermarkets offer to recycle really get recycled? If not, I really need to get serious about planning ahead.
Jim P. Newton, Mass.
A. Dearest Jim,
I can empathize with your plight. I, too, have dashed off to the grocery to pick up “just a thing or two,” only to emerge laden with impulse radishes, string beans, or those alluring Brussels sprouts. While your checker no doubt thanks you for confining them to a plastic produce bag, your conscience may not.
Where did your political and religious opinions come from? How did you come by them? What made you who you are?
If you're like most people, you're probably inclined to answer this question by citing two main influences: your upbringing and your life experiences. But according to a growing body of science, such an account leaves out a major factor: your genes.
"The basic idea of a heritable component to political beliefs has been around for at least a quarter of a century," says University of Nebraska-Lincoln political scientist John Hibbing, coauthor of the new book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences. "It's shown up too many times, in too many different places, with too many samples. So there's something there."
The science dates back at least to 1986. In that year, the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published a paper using a classic "twin study" design to try to determine the heritability of a variety of political attitudes, such as views on the death penalty. The researchers concluded that genes could explain a substantial percentage of the variation in responses to an oft-used political questionnaire called the Wilson-Patterson conservatism scale.
Congress can often seem hopelessly anti-environment, what with right-wing Republican extremism, the power of extractive industries in both parties, and the rural bias of the Senate. This week is a partial exception, so savor it.
On Tuesday night, House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart Patty Murray (D-Wash.) struck a deal to fund the government through Sept. 30, 2014, and reverse some of the painful spending cuts from sequestration. The Bipartisan Budget Act does not specify how much money would go to each government program, only that $63 billion that would have been cut from federal discretionary spending over the next two years will instead be replaced thanks to some increases in fees and some cuts from other areas such as federal employee pensions. About half of the spending will go to defense, and half to domestic agencies, including environmental programs. If it passes, it will be up to the House Appropriations Committee to determine exactly which program gets what.
Environmental organizations such as the Natural Resources Defense Council are issuing statements celebrating the good news. “This is a positive first step in undoing some of the damage to national parks, clean drinking water, air pollution monitoring, and other environmental priorities,” says Alex Taurel, deputy legislative director for the League of Conservation Voters.
The 2014 World Cup in Brazil will dump 2.72 million tons of carbon dioxide into Earth’s atmosphere, according to the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA). To put that number into perspective, it’s equivalent to the CO2 produced by 560,000 cars in a year, or 136,000 American homes. And that’s over 1 million tons more CO2 than was emitted by the previous World Cup in 2010.
Most of that heat-trapping gas, about 80 percent, will come from air travel as teams and spectators jet set around the world’s fifth biggest country in order to get to the 12 different stadiums where the 64 World Cup matches will be played.
Last week’s draw, held in a giant tent on a remote beach in Brazil and drawing around 3,000 guests, is estimated to have produced 5,221 tons of carbon dioxide all on its own.
FIFA’s head of corporate social responsibility, Federico Addiechi, has pledged to completely offset 100 percent of the CO2 produced during the games next summer. This could include financing reforestation programs in Brazil and new investments in wind energy and hydroelectric power. FIFA estimates that offsetting the 2.72 million tons of carbon will cost about $2.5 million, a tiny fraction of the billions in revenue that the games are expected to generate. None of the offsetting projects will be announced until next year, however, and it remains to be seen if FIFA will carry through on its pre-game commitments after the World Cup spotlight has moved on from Brazil.
Oh, you're one of those cool sustainability-minded hippies, huh? You live in Portland or Brooklyn or someplace committed to dense living and local food? You compost and knit and check up on your chicken's psychological profile before you eat it? You're a member of the food coop and the community garden, and you kit out your bike like a Victorian gentleman? Well, sorry, you just got out-retro-cooled by this electric velocipede.
It's time to turn the tables on hurricanes. Instead of allowing their ferocious winds to tear apart our cities and infrastructure, why not use those winds to produce clean electricity?
Stanford University researchers used computer simulationsto calculate that a protective wall of 70,000 offshore wind turbines built 60 miles offshore from New Orleans would have reduced Hurricane Katrina's wind speeds by 50 percent by the time it reached land. The storm surges that toppled levees would have been reduced by nearly three-quarters. And a lot of electricity would have been produced, to boot, with the spinning of the wind turbines absorbing much of the storm's power.
A similar array off the coast of New York or New Jersey could have reduced Hurricane Sandy's wind speeds by 65 miles per hours, the scientists found.
Beijing's smog is legendarily bad -- on some days, stepping outside is kinda like trying to breathe in an ashtray. So it's not that surprising that someone on Sina Weibo, China's equivalent of Twitter, decided to deal with the pollution problem by shoving cigarette filters up his nose.
Rumors have spread over the Internet in China that taking cigarette filters and inserting one into each nostril can block the tiny PM2.5 particles of pollution that make breathing difficult and cause respiratory ailments. Some people have posted pictures online demonstrating the technique, although it was often unclear whether the pictures were in jest or in earnest.
“A magical fix for coping with the haze,” said one message that has been repeated many thousands of times on Sina Weibo, a microblog site that is China’s most popular equivalent of Twitter. “Take two cigarette filters, strip away the wrapping paper, and insert them in the nostrils.”
Now we also know that ocean acidification does more than break down marine skeletons -- it can actually cause behavioral changes in individual organisms. Simply stated, ocean acidification is making fish anxious -- or, at least, anxiety as we measure it in fish.
Scientists from UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Canada's MacEwan University recently published this surprising finding in Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Science. But what does it mean for fish to be anxious? According to this study, all it takes is observing how much time the fish choose to spend in dark versus light areas of their habitats. The test subjects were juvenile rockfish, whose natural environments -- kelp forests -- off the California coast offer varying levels of shade and sunlight. The researchers put a control group of rockfish in a tank with "normal," or unaltered, seawater and observed the fish moving continuously between the light and dark areas of the tank. They put a second group of rockfish in a tank with seawater of elevated acidity, meant to approximate the expected pH of the ocean 100 years from now, and observed something different.
A year ago, Unity College in Maine became the first school to divest from the energy companies whose bottom line depends on digging up and burning enough coal, gas, and oil to make climate change even worse.
“The campaign has some serious potential,” wrote Gristback then, “but we shouldn’t expect a social movement to coalesce and achieve results in just a couple months -- we’ll only be disappointed when it doesn’t.” The article went on to quote Angus Johnson, an assistant professor at the City University of New York and a historian of student organizing. “If you actually take the apartheid example seriously,” said Johnston, “it’ll be a PR war for the next 20, 30 years.”
Colleges are institutions well accustomed to deflecting youthful idealism. Students graduate every four years, after all, and administrators don't. But something interesting is happening with the divestment movement. While college administrations are rejecting the protesters' arguments, one significant external group is paying heed -- only its address is on Wall Street, not Ivy Lane. Specifically, three powerful individuals who are capable of commanding attention have begun, in different ways, to make loud noises about the climate: hedge fund founder and billionaire Tom Steyer, former U.S. Treasury Secretary and chair of Goldman Sachs Hank Paulson, and financial media mogul and outgoing New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.