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Rio hangover: 50,000 people rallied for the Earth Summit. Did it do any good?

The Earth Summit is mercifully over, leaving us all to wonder: What the hell happened last week? Did the end result justify the 3,600 tons of CO2 generated by the U.N. delegation alone? And has anyone seen my pants?

Rio+20 was like Carnival without the party -- unless you consider 50,000 people cramming into conference centers, soccer stadiums, and makeshift meeting halls, all struggling to access the internet and navigate between venues as much as three hours apart by bus a good time.

The official summit and negotiations were, as we predicted, a bomb. The final “outcome document” [PDF], signed by world leaders last Friday, brings empty political speak to new heights. The 49-page tome amounts to a long list of “acknowledgements,” “affirmations,” and “underscorings” of statements and agreements already put in writing years or decades ago.

In a nutshell, the leaders of the world said, “We recognize that we are in deep doo-doo, and we need to do something about it.” What that “something” is remains unclear.

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Romney opposes mercury rule, beclowns himself again

Photo by Austen Hufford.

Today marks a symbolic vote in the Senate: Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) is putting forward a Congressional Review Act resolution [PDF] that would stop the EPA's impending standards on mercury and other toxic power plant emissions in their tracks.

I won't rehearse all over again why the mercury rule -- mandated by court order, more than a decade overdue -- is such a big deal, or why further delaying it is a terrible idea, or how it fits into a comprehensive GOP plan to dismantle the system of U.S. environmental law, a plan relentlessly advanced by the most anti-environmental House in the history of Congress. Nor will I go on about how popular it is with the public. UPDATE: As Philip reported, and as expected, Inhofe's resolution was defeated in the Senate, 53-46.

I just want to mock the Romney campaign for a minute.

Read more: Coal, Politics, Pollution

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Fire retardants are great at killing forest fires, fish

A plane drops retardant in Arizona. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service.)

Colorado's High Park forest fire has burned nearly 60,000 acres. According to the Forest Service, 189 homes have been lost and 1.3 million gallons of water dropped on the blaze.

Planes are also dropping hundreds of thousands of gallons of fire retardant, a mix of chemicals intended to slow the fire's spread. From a report by the Denver Post:

So far this fire season, air tankers called to suppress wildfires have been dropping the fire retardants (the mix is called LC95A) at a record pace. As of Friday, more than 401,450 gallons had been dropped on Colorado forests this year, including 320,553 gallons on the lightning-sparked High Park wildfire west of Fort Collins, according to Forest Service records.

LC95A is good for slowing fires. But the slurry is also toxic.

Read more: Animals, Pollution

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Pollution makes carnivorous plants go vegetarian

Acid rain apparently has one benefit: It gives carnivorous plants so much nitrogen that they no longer need to eat meat. A new study has determined that sundews in Swedish bogs are cutting back on their insect consumption, which is good news if you're an insect or a human concerned about a Little Shop of Horrors scenario. Unfortunately, it's actually bad news for the sundews.

Read more: Pollution

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Getting used to being in charge of the planet

Last week's news about the tipping-point study in Nature ought to prompt some serious thinking. It is becoming increasingly clear that the decisions made by people alive today will determine the fate of life on Earth for centuries to come.

When stated plainly, that sounds almost absurd, like a science fiction premise: "They held the power to control the wooorld!" But it's true nonetheless. After a multi-century explosion in number, power, and impact, homo sapiens is now the dominant force on the planet, reshaping its biophysical systems through land-use changes, resource depletion, and climate change. We live in the Anthropocene, a geologic era shaped by humans.

We have not yet begun to grapple with that realization. In time, I believe it will rank alongside evolution by natural selection among ideas that have fundamentally transformed our understanding of ourselves and our world. Like Darwin’s dangerous idea, it will ripple its way through the physical and social sciences. Hell, some day even economists might get it! (I kid. Kind of.)

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This graphic novel about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch looks awesome

I'm Not a Plastic Bag is a graphic novel about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the agglomeration of plastic flakes that is swirling around in the Pacific Ocean. The book follows the journey of several pieces of trash destined to become part of the patch. The images are beautiful, and the story's reminiscent of The Brave Little Toaster, updated for a world in which trash doesn't get to live a second life.

The book is by Rachel Hope Allison, who describes herself as "a white girl with curly hair" who is nevertheless “not Jewish, nor am I Chelsea Clinton.” We can't help but have a little crush on her. Especially after she told Treehugger what drew her to this subject:

All this forgotten stuff, out in the remotest ocean, so far away from the people who created it. It gave me this sense of deep loneliness and geeky wonder by turns, and that's what eventually led me to bring it to life as my main character.

Read more: Living, Pollution

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Did you say ‘sea-level rise’? You liberal.

Via jaaronPhoto of Beijing smog by jaaron on Flickr.

Last week, the Chinese government demanded that foreign embassies stop reporting independent air pollution measurements. The U.S. Embassy in Beijing, for example, has a monitor on its roof that automatically tweets information about the city's particulate and ozone pollution.

The government claims that its objection is based on the small sample size such readings necessarily represent. The real critique, of course, is that air pollution in that nation's capital is an ongoing source of tension and embarrassment -- one that the government would rather not be a matter of public knowledge. It's embarrassing to have your carefully crafted messaging fall apart in the face of scientific evidence.

But that's China -- a repressive regime that mirrors 1984, right? It doesn't know the freedoms and honest debate that comes from living in a democracy.

Hold that thought.

Read more: Cities, Politics, Pollution

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Tsunami debris on the West Coast could be ‘far worse than any oil spill’

Last year's tsunami in Japan threw 1.5 million tons of debris into the ocean. It's starting to show up on the West Coast -- a soccer ball here, a motorcycle there, a 66-foot, 165-ton dock. According to the Associated Press, more might be coming. Or it might not. But when the debris arrives, if enough arrives, it could be dangerous enough to be a national emergency.

No one knows for sure what's going to happen next. The AP talked to “some experts” who thought most of that debris would chill out in the ocean, far from American shores. But they also talked to experts with names, like Chris Pallister, who was not so sanguine:

"I think this is far worse than any oil spill that we've ever faced on the West Coast or any other environmental disaster we've faced on the West Coast" in terms of the debris' weight, type and geographic scope, said Chris Pallister, president of a group dedicated to cleaning marine debris from the Alaska coastline.

Read more: Pollution

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Here’s what Pittsburgh looked like before smoke control

These vintage photos of Pittsburgh, from before it passed a smoke-control ordinance in 1941, are so hazy that some of them look like they've been hit with some kind of artsy-grunge Instagram filter. But this is just what an industrial city looked like in those days -- clogged with a low fog of coal-based factory belchings.

Read more: Cities, Coal, Pollution

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Bathtub photo lands coal activist in child-porn hot water

Maria Gunnoe

West Virginia coal activist Maria Gunnoe is used to intimidation, as writer/blogger Aaron Bady points out. It's one thing to oppose coal companies from the office of the mayor of New York City. It's another to do it, as Gunnoe does, from the West Virginia valley floors where the coal companies live.

Gunnoe has been an activist for years, in 2009 winning the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work trying to stem mountaintop-removal mining. The prize came with a $150,000 award -- money she planned to use modestly: to extend the city water system to her house.

Her water, from a source on her property, wasn't usable. Like many others in the region relying on wells and local sources, she depended on water that had been contaminated by run-off from the coal industry's retrieval process. In some cases, the water was visibly polluted, running yellow- or copper-colored directly from the tap. Gunnoe's efforts to stem pollution somewhat ironically meant she might be able to escape it.

Her neighbors weren't (and aren't) as lucky. Last week, Gunnoe joined some of them in Washington, D.C., to present the stories of people in her community at an oversight hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources, Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources. In a better world, the hearing would have ended with a commitment to stem the pollution. It ended much differently.