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April 26, 2010

Carbon unCaptured

I've never been a fan of carbon capture and sequestration for coal plants as a solution for addressing climate change. But so called "clean coal" technologies have been an important touchstone in pretty much every climate speech Obama has given -- and the current climate legislation enshrines it as a possible way forward for coal.

Well, now it looks like this particular vision of the future of coal was a mirage (via the Guardian):

A new research paper from American academics is threatening to blow a hole in growing political support for carbon capture and storage as a weapon in the fight against global warming.

The document from Houston University claims that governments wanting to use CCS have overestimated its value and says it would take a reservoir the size of a small US state to hold the CO2 produced by one power station.

Previous modelling has hugely underestimated the space needed to store CO2 because it was based on the "totally erroneous" premise that the pressure feeding the carbon into the rock structures would be constant, argues Michael Economides, professor of chemical engineering at Houston, and his co-author Christene Ehlig-Economides, professor of energy engineering at Texas A&M University

"It is like putting a bicycle pump up against a wall. It would be hard to inject CO2 into a closed system without eventually producing so much pressure that it fractured the rock and allowed the carbon to migrate to other zones and possibly escape to the surface," Economides said.

The paper concludes that CCS "is not a practical means to provide any substantive reduction in CO2 emissions, although it has been repeatedly presented as such by others."

An underground reservoir the size of a US state for a single plant?! Yeah, that's a big ol' oopsie right there. There are about 600 coal plants in operation in the US and there are, at last count, 48 contiguous states. Something about that math doesn't quite add up.

The question now is if anyone in government or industry will admit to the possibility that CCS is a fantasy. My guess is no. Like the ascendant nuclear power trend, CCS is such a convenient fiction, among other things as a way to bribe convince industry to go along with climate legislation it's hard to imagine the administration admitting we've got a naked emperor on our hands.

Photo credit: iagoarchangel

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April 22, 2010

USDA Downplays Dangers of Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide

crop duster

Sure, the crops are genetically engineered to withstand Roundup; but what about the soil?

What would happen if a USDA scientist discovered that one of the most commonly used pesticides on the planet with a reputation for having saved millions of tons of US soil from erosion was -- rather than a soil savior -- a soil killer?

That, to quote a certain paranormal expert, would be bad. And yet, it's true.

This news came to the fore thanks to a recently published must-read article from Reuters on how government regulators are "dropping the ball" on agricultural biotechnology. It begins with the story of USDA scientist Dr. Robert Kremer. Kremer has spent the last fifteen years looking at Monsanto's blockbuster broad-spectrum herbicide glyphosate (aka RoundUp), the most commonly used pesticide in the world and the companion to Monsanto's possibly monopolistic RoundupReady lines of genetically engineered seeds.

While exact figures are a closely guarded secret thanks to the USDA's refusal to update its pesticide use database after 2007, estimates suggest upwards of 200 million pounds of glyphosate were dumped on fields and farms in the US in 2008 alone. That's almost double the amount used in 2005.

Glyphosate has a reputation as the "safest" of all the agricultural herbicides and has become the primary means of weed control in industrial agriculture. While being the best of an extremely nasty bunch may be the faintest of praise, the USDA relies on this perception, which has been fueled by industry and government research indicating that the chemical dissipates quickly and shows low toxicity (as poisons go, that is) to humans.

The claim of "millions of tons of soil saved" relates to the soil that would have otherwise been lost to erosion without glyphosate's central role in chemical no-till farming techniques. Indeed, experts such as Dr. Michael Shannon, a program director at the USDA's Agricultural Research Service, as well as other USDA scientists, make this anti-erosion claim the core argument in favor of the widespread use of the chemical.

Even so, glyphosate has been under attack from several quarters of late. Research indicates that, while glyphosate on its own may be relatively "safe," it is actually quite toxic in combination with the other (supposedly "inert") ingredients in commercial preparations of the herbicide, i.e. the stuff that farmers actually spray on their fields.

And of course, there is the frightening spread of superweeds that glyphosate can no longer kill. It's to the point that thousands of acres in the South have been abandoned to resistant strains of giant pigweed.

Enter Dr. Kremer. His work, published in the peer-reviewed Journal of European Agronomy, further tarnishes glyphosate's golden status. He has found that glyphosate's side-effects in the ground are far more severe than previously thought.

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April 21, 2010

BPA-free Canned Tomatoes Coming Soon

One of the top sources of BPA exposure is canned tomatoes. The high acidity leaches the BPA out of can linings at a higher rate and canned toms were one of the first things I dropped from the shopping list when the BPA scandal broke. So this is good news:
Muir Glen, a subsidiary of General Mills, will be switching to metal can packaging that does not contain bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical that numerous food and product makers have moved away from....Starting with the next tomato harvest, all Muir Glen tomato products will come in cans with BPA-free liners.
Sadly, General Mills isn't announced what chemicals are in the new lining. In fact, one of the main reasons the FDA has been so reluctant to ban the chemical is the lack of alternatives (although it's worth pointing out that canning did exist before BPA was discovered) so it would be nice to know what General Mills will be using. Anyway, as happy as I am that there will soon be a BPA-free brand of canned tomato products, I also feel like keeping endocrine disruptors out of consumers' bloodstreams should not represent a competitive advantage.

On a related note, Coca-cola shareholders are voting today on a proposal to require the company to disclose what it's doing on BPA (all soda cans are currently lined with it). It will be interesting to see 1) if it passes and 2) if it turns into the first step in getting Coke to dump BPA.

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April 16, 2010

Red Flags in the Ocean

There's bad news in the oceans -- and I'm not talking about the Pacific Garbage Patch or the bluefin tuna (NSF via Brad Johnson on Twitter).

Current observational tools cannot account for roughly half of the heat that is believed to have built up on Earth in recent years, according to a "Perspectives" article in this week's issue of the journal Science.

Scientists at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) in Boulder, Colo., warn that satellite sensors, ocean floats, and other instruments are inadequate to track this "missing" heat, which may be building up in the deep oceans or elsewhere in the climate system.

"The heat will come back to haunt us sooner or later," says NCAR scientist Kevin Trenberth, the article's lead author.

"The reprieve we've had from warming temperatures in the last few years will not continue. It is critical to track the build-up of energy in our climate system so we can understand what is happening and predict our future climate."

The authors suggest that last year's rapid onset of El Nino, the periodic event in which upper ocean waters across much of the tropical Pacific Ocean become significantly warmer, may be one way in which the solar energy has reappeared.

The article goes on to point out that we really need to understand where that missing heat is before we start hacking the planet.

But then there's this (via MoJo's Blue Marble):

A new study (pdf) shows a warming globe is intensifying Earth's water cycle, making arid regions drier and high rainfall regions wetter. It also finds a clear link between warming-driven salinity changes at the ocean's surface and changes underwater that match the pathways surface waters take into the deep ocean.

The changes in the water cycle mean that the ocean beneath rainy regions of the globe has freshened, while the ocean in areas dominated by evaporation have grown saltier. The paper also confirms that surface warming of the world’s oceans over the past 50 years has penetrated into the oceans' interior, changing deep-ocean salinity patterns.

Salinity affects the speed, direction, and depth of ocean currents.

The ocean's role as a massive heat exchanger is a central form of climate control for the planet. The fact that 1) we don't really understand what it's doing with all the excess heat we're pumping to it and 2) we're already causing pretty significant alternations to it makes me more than a touch nervous. It turns out we're already hacking the planet and we don't seem to be very good at it...

Photo credit: Duncan Rawlinson

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April 13, 2010

The Un-supersizing of a Political Journalist

burgerSome fries with that? Once you've been super-sized, it's hard to go backPolitical reporter Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic has a new must-read piece on the obesity epidemic. Ambinder comes at the issue from the perspective of a former obese person, though he himself notes that his "cure" of bariatic surgery is risky, expensive, and one that can't be considered a blanket solution for the general population.

He also raises the chilling but very real possibility that the current generation of the medically obese (i.e. those with a body-mass index reading of over 30) may never succeed in returning to a more normal weight. Scientists have learned how tenaciously the body guards its resources, even when body weight far exceeds what's needed for survival.

But Ambinder is not without hope. In fact, he also wrote an accompanying blog post summarizing his priority list for tackling the problem. And two of his elements refreshingly face the often overlooked issues of class and stigma head on:

  • Recognize that what separates skinny people from fat people is luck, and not willpower. Either your genes or your unchosen social environment, will provide a shield against the pressures of the default obesogenic environment. If you're part of a chronically stressed population, have little or no access to quality public infrastructure, find yourself growing up in a dysfunctional family, and have limited social mobility, the chances that you'll be able to summon some magical reserve of willpower is slim to none. If you're white, upper middle class, tend to be hopeful about improving your lot in life, and have the time and resources to diet and exercise, you might be able to find a weight loss regimen that works for you. Either way, don't give yourself credit, and don't blame other people who aren't as lucky.
  • Deal with stigma on its own terms: so long as there are fat people, there will be fat stigma. Fat stigma is a dangerous health problem in an of itself. Since we collectively perpetuate it, we ought to collectively be more aware of how harmful it is, and channel that energy into stigmatizing those specific institutions and entities that actually make us fat and profit from doing so.

This issue of luck is crucial. The food industry and others who hate regulation want the debate to revolve around personal responsibility. But if just doing the "right thing" isn't enough, i.e. if obesity could happen to anyone, then it’s harder to argue against universal policies to address it.

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April 9, 2010

Americans See Weather Trees, Miss Climate Forest
A favorite refrain of climate change writers is that no individual weather event can be definitively linked to climate change. To see what's going on in the climate, you have to look at trends. And evidence is now pouring in that global warming has already changed our climate (via Brad Johnson):
Catastrophic rainfall is increasing in the northeastern United States, a new climate change report has found. As New England residents continue the clean up from the latest round of disastrous flooding, researchers at the University of New Hampshire commissioned by Clean Air-Cool Planet found these calamities are part of a long-term trend of extreme precipitation. The region, like the planet in general, is warming, shifting precipitation into more extreme events. As weather patterns are increasingly shaped by manmade pollution, the climate change impacts in specific regions like the Northeast become more starkly evident:

One of the most obvious examples of these impacts is the increase in extreme precipitation events, which, combined with changes in land use, have led to an increase in freshwater flooding events across the region, exemplified by the "100-year" floods that have occurred in southern New Hampshire in 2005, 2006, 2007. And again in 2010, powerful nor'easters drenched the northeast with 3" to 8" of rain three times (late February, middle of March, and end of March) which resulted in significant flooding across the region.

Subsequent to the floods in New England, came a record-breaking 90 degree day on April 7 in Boston. That's bad enough, but when you learn that it was the "earliest" 90 degree day on record -- the "typical" first 90 degree day in Beantown doesn't happen until June 5 -- I think you have to admit that, while we may not be at a tipping point quite yet, we're listing dangerously toward hot.

The only thing more disturbing than these developments is the fact that here in the US we're not allowed to talk about them. And -- as with other signs of civilization like national paid parental leave policies, affordable health care and effective environmental regulation -- we're increasingly alone among nations (via Joe Romm):

Other countries don't have a problem explaining to the public that extreme weather is already becoming common, just as scientists said it would (see "Must re-read statement from UK’s Royal Society and Met Office on the connection between global warming and extreme weather"). Indeed, at the very same time all the U.S. records were being smashed, the UK's Guardian reported that China is taking action to deal with warming-driven extreme weather:

China will tomorrow start ramping up preparations for typhoons, dust storms and other extreme weather disasters as part of a 10-year plan to predict and prevent the worst impacts of climate change….

China has a long history of devastating floods and droughts, but officials said the problems were intensifying.

"It is necessary to respond to the new situation under climate change to avoid and mitigate the losses caused by meteorological disasters," said Gao Fengtao, deputy director of the state council’s legislative affairs office, as he unveiled the new policy.

In recent years, he said, disasters were characterised by "sudden occurrence, wider variety, greater intensity and higher frequency in the context of global warming".

But in this country, as I've noted many times, the anti-science disinformers try to shout down any talk of a link between climate change and extreme weather.

It may partially be due to the fact that the people we've put in charge of reporting the weather don't know which way the wind blows -- but it's pretty much censorship at this point. I used to think that having lived through nearly a decade of GOP mis-government meant we'd learned some lessons about the benefits of living in the "reality-based community." But it sure seems like we're headed right back down the rabbit hole again.

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Americans are Number One - at Eating Packaged Food

The New York Times
had a small article and a big graphic recently on America's love affair with processed, packaged food:

Americans eat 31 percent more packaged food than fresh food, and they consume more packaged food per person than their counterparts in nearly all other countries. A sizable part of the American diet is ready-to-eat meals, like frozen pizzas and microwave dinners, and sweet or salty snack foods.

This probably doesn't come as too much of a surprise to anyone, especially given our outsized obesity rates compared to other countries. But the accompanying graphic helpfully illustrates a most unfortunate kind of "American exceptionalism."

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Photo credit: Hieropenen

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