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Sierra Daily: January 2013
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13 posts from January 2013

Jan 30, 2013

Are Cat Parasites Controlling Your Brain?

Cat with American cootToday's peer-reviewed study showing the enormous toll taken on wildlife by domestic cats is getting a lot of press, and rightly so. ("That Cuddly Kitty Is Deadlier Than You Think" in the New York Times is both the paper's "most viewed" and "most e-mailed" story of the day.) In the journal Nature Communications, authors Scott Loss,Tom Will, and Peter Marra find that

free-ranging cats cause substantially greater wildlife mortality than previously thought and are likely the single greatest source of anthropogenic mortality for US birds and mammals.

The authors put the numbers at 1.4 to 3.7 billion birds killed annually in the United States, and 6.9 to 20.7 billion rodents. That's a lot of creatures. (Over at Mother Jones' Climate Desk, former Sierra intern Tim McDonnell helpfully put together a chart using the new numbers to put into perspective the much-lamented damage wind turbines do to birds, here.)

But here's the curious part. Why is this study getting so much more attention than the even more lurid indictment of felines in the current issue of Science News? "Little Mind Benders" by Susan Milius recounts how Toxoplasma gondii, a single-celled parasite that makes its home in the digestive tract of cats, "has wormed its way into an estimated one-third of people on the planet," lodging in their brains.

Studies comparing the infected and the noninfected raise the possibility that the parasite tweaks a person’s personality or ups the risk of suicide attempts, brain cancer and schizophrenia. Studies in people even report links between T. gondii and traffic accidents, greater odds of having sons than daughters, extra height and unusual opinions about the smell of urine.

T. gondii's effects on humans, it seems, are incidental to the world's creepiest reproductive strategy. The organism can only reproduce in the gut of a cat, and sends its offspring out into the world via the cat's feces, whence they hope to infect rats. Lodging in the rodents' brains, the organism causes them to "behave almost as if trying to become cat food."

A pounce and gulp from a cat is about the best thing that can happen to a parasite, but cat horror runs deep in rats. Even lab rats whose ancestors have not encountered cats for hundreds of generations normally avoid a catty scent.

When infected withT. gondii, however, rats became more active, a risk factor in itself for encountering a predator. They largely lost their reluctance to venture into test areas reeking of cat urine, and some of the infected rats actually spent more time in these urine-perfumed areas than in untainted refuges, Webster and colleagues reported in 2000. The parasite may possess an evolutionary trick that turns fear into a fatal attraction.

Take home advice from both stories: Keep kitty indoors, and be very careful when cleaning that litter box.  

Photo of a cat with an American coot by Debi Shearwater, courtesy of the American Bird Conservancy.

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

Winner Wind

4 turbinesThe next issue of Sierra is devoted to wind, and here's the perfect introduction: the official 2012 figures are in, and the American Wind Energy Association reports that not only did wind have its best year ever, installing 13+ gigabytes of generating capacity, but that it was the number one source of new generating capacity in the country, providing 42 percent of all new electrical power. Here are the top ten wind winners in new installed capacity:

1. Texas (1,826 MW)
2. California (1,656 MW)
3. Kansas (1,440 MW)
4. Oklahoma (1,127 MW)
5. Illinois (823 MW)
6. Iowa (814 MW)
7. Oregon (640 MW)
8. Michigan (611 MW)
9. Pennsylvania (550 MW)
10. Colorado (496 MW)

By the way, here's what wasn't a source of new generating capacity last year: coal. Not a single new coal-fired power plant opened last year, and (since 2010) 137 plants have been retired.

Image by chromatika/iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

Jan 29, 2013

Slouching Toward a BPA Ban

PrintoutTen years ago, Sierra published one of the very first articles linking the chemical bisphenol-A (BPA) to reproductive and developmental problems. At the time, the substance was nearly ubiquitous, notably in clear, hard plastic #7 water bottles. The story led the Sierra Club to quickly withdraw its line of polycarbonate bottles. Today, the field is dominated by metal bottles--although major manufacturer Sigg continued to use BPA in bottle linings until August, 2008.

(For more on hydration hardware, see "Drinking Buddies" in our current issue.)

Meanwhile, evidence against BPA has continued to mount. Frances Cerra Whittelsey, who wrote our groundbreaking piece, followed late last year with a short update on why the FDA is dragging its feet on banning the stuff. (She has a much more comprehensive version on her fine blog, The Equalizer.) While the agency dawdles, Suffolk County, New York, has banned sales receipt paper coated with BPA, and California is moving to declare BPA a reproductive health hazard (albeit at a high exposure level). With BPA-free alternatives readily available, why are we still using the stuff at all?

Image by iStock

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

Jan 28, 2013

Your Carbon Couchprint

Football fans watching televisionWatching the Super Bowl is good for the planet. Energy consulting firm Opower compared the electricity use of 145,000 American households on Super Bowl Sunday 2012 to that of other winter Sundays with similar weather and found that Game Day helps the U.S. reduce energy use by as much as 7.7 percent, depending on region. According to the New York Times, “the precise reasons are hard to identify, but apparently the increased reliance on some appliances - running a big-screen TV, opening and closing the refrigerator - were outweighed by other changes in routine, like not running the clothes dryer or the vacuum cleaner.”

“The total decrease in U.S. home electricity usage during the Super Bowl is greater than three times the energy consumed by all the TVs watching it,” writes Barry Fischer, who edits Opower’s blog. “With so many people glued to the couch during the game, fewer households are using electricity for cooking, cleaning or anything else other than watching the tube." All that communal couch-sharing turns into widespread energy-dollar savings. “Super Bowl XLVI demonstrated that when around one-third of Americans collectively watch a single 3.5-hour sporting event, the corresponding reduction in the nation’s daily energy bill can be upwards of $3.1 million,” Fischer writes.

So grab a bag of Sun Chips and a handful of baby carrots and curl up in front of the flat-screen guiltlessly this Sunday. And with feigned apologies to my Baltimore-based colleague Heather: Go Niners.

Image by iStock/4x6.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Jan 25, 2013

Driving Stereotypes

Toyota Prius v and Golden Gate BridgeRed-blooded Americans drive Ford pickups while crunchy-granola Californians drive Priuses. Blah, blah, blah. Care to deal in any more stereotypes?

Oh, wait. That one is true. The Los Angeles Times reports that while the bestselling vehicle in America is Ford's F-Series pickup, California's favorite car is the high-mpg Toyota Prius hybrid. In 2012, the Prius toppled the Honda Civic for the number one sales spot in the Golden State; nationally, the Prius ranks number 14. In fact, California accounts for more than a quarter of all Prius sales in the U.S. According to the Times, “Ford's F-Series pickup truck, perennially the national bestseller, placed seventh in California with sales of 25,434 — less than half of Prius sales.”

Yes, you can have sprouts with that.

Image of Toyota Prius v and the Golden Gate Bridge by Toyota Motor Corporation.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Jan 24, 2013

The Fit and the Filthy

Salt lake city air pollutionSome of the country’s most annoyingly fit and obsessively active outdoorspeople have crowded into Salt Lake City this week to take part in Outdoor Retailer, a twice-yearly convention where our favorite outdoor-gear stores place their orders for the coming year from our favorite outdoor-gear manufacturers. Salt Lake is an apt venue given the abundant outdoor-recreation opportunities in the right-next-door Wasatch Range (not to mention the 3.2 beer). What most OR attendees this year probably didn’t expect was finding themselves breathing the unhealthiest air in the country. 

According to Associated Press, the EPA “has singled out the greater Salt Lake region as having the nation's worst air for much of January, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time and traps lung-busting soot.” On Wednesday more than 100 doctors under the banner Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment petitioned Gov. Gary Herbert and other elected officials to lower highway speed limits, make mass transit free, and curb industrial pollution for the rest of the winter. "We're in a public-health emergency for much of the winter," said Brian Moench, an anesthesiologist and the group’s president.

Yesterday the greater Salt Lake region had up to 130 micrograms of soot per cubic meter, more than three times the federal clean-air limit. “That's equivalent to a bad day in the Los Angeles area,” notes AP.

Image from U.S. EPA Office of Air Quality Planning and Standards

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Lots of Things Make Sense If You Ignore Climate Change

FloodWhy is the government in the flood insurance business? That's the question considered this morning by David Kestenbaum on NPR's Planet Money. Lack of such insurance in the aftermath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, he reports, led the federal government to establish the National Flood Insurance Program. The program worked great until Katrina, which exhausted the program's budget and sent it into deficit. He quotes Mark Browne, professor of risk management and insurance at the University of Wisconsin, Madison:

"This is why flood insurance is a tricky business. You can have a quiet three decades, then a huge hurricane plows into a major city. Suddenly you're back in the red."

In fact, Kestenbaum concludes,

"Over the past few years, the National Flood Insurance Program has had to borrow $17 billion from the government . . . . The head of the National Flood Insurance Program says the program plans to repay the money it borrowed from the government — but it may take 20 or 30 years to do so."

Unless, of course, there were another major hurricane--or two, or five, or ten--during that period. Here's the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2007:

“Based on a range of models, it is likely that future tropical cyclones (typhoons and hurricanes) will become more intense, with larger peak wind speeds and more heavy precipitation associated with ongoing increases of tropical SSTs. There is less confidence in projections of a global decrease in numbers of tropical cyclones.  The apparent increase in the proportion of very intense storms since 1970 in some regions is much larger than simulated by current models for that period.”

So--the economics of federal flood insurance make sense--as long as you ignore climate change. Josh Laughren, climate and energy director for the World Wildlife Fund-Canada, makes a similar point in an editorial about the Keystone XL pipeline in Toronto's thestar.com. He's commenting on a letter written by Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall to U.S. President Barack Obama, urging him to OK the pipeline:

As always, the argument is simple, and narrowly framed: 1. Canada has a lot of oil and the U.S. needs oil. 2. We don’t have enough pipeline capacity to handle our ambition for unconstrained growth in oilsands production. 3. Building the pipeline will create jobs.

What could be simpler? Nothing --as long as you pretend climate change doesn't exist and don't make it part of the conversation."

Climate ignoring--it's the new climate denial.

Photo by PickStock/iStock: A family evacuates during the flood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 2008.

HS_PaulRauberFINAL (1)

PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

 

Jan 23, 2013

Energy efficiency? Why bother?

Newcastle coal mine 1855You buy efficient LED bulbs and that just encourages you to leave the lights on longer, negating the environmental benefits. You buy a hybrid car and its high mpg just encourages you to drive more miles, again negating your do-good intentions. At least that’s the thinking of those who subscribe to the “rebound” theory and its extreme corollary, “backfire” (in which all efficiency gains are wiped out), in their criticisms of energy-efficiency efforts from a carbon tax to support for plug-in cars to efficiency standards for appliances.

The only problem is that any so-called rebound effect is relatively insignificant. “If a technology is cheaper to run, people may use it more. If they don’t, they can use their savings to buy other things that required energy to make. But evidence points to these effects being small — too small to erase energy savings from energy efficiency standards, for example,” said David Rapson, assistant professor of economics at the University of California, Davis. Rapson co-authored “The Rebound Effect Is Overplayed,” an article published today in Nature.

The concept that energy use rises as industry becomes more efficient because people will turn around and produce and consume more goods stems from “The Coal Question,” an 1865 analysis by William Stanley Jevons. The pre-oil-era economist was concerned about what would happen to Britain’s economy when the UK hit “peak coal,” which it did in 1913. (The pessimistic Jevons “did not foresee both the adaptation of the British economy in reaching higher overall efficiency in a high energy price environment, and the eventual large scale introduction of petroleum.”)

But the “Jevons paradox” (which might be referred to as the “Why bother? paradox”) lives on. For their part, Rapson and his co-authors, Kenneth Gillingham and Matthew J. Kotchen from the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies and Gernot Wagner of the Environmental Defense Fund, found that in the modern economy, the rebound effect is not supported empirically. “Even though increased efficiency may prompt changes in behavior, energy is still saved overall,” said Rapson. “Energy efficiency policies should therefore continue to be considered as a way to address greenhouse gas emissions.”

Illustration of Newcastle coal miners in 1855 by iStock/whitemay

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus.”

Jan 14, 2013

People Are Sick of Driving

FredgraphMaybe it's the economy, and once things pick up everyone will hop back in the Chevrolet to see the USA. Or perhaps we've finally hit "peak car" and are going to try something different now. Whichever it is, after a three-year plateau following a peak in 2005, "vehicle miles traveled" started a long decline. It's now at about the level it was in February, 1995. One effect of the drop appeared in my newspaper this morning: "BART [Bay Area Rapid Transit] struggling to meet surging demand." Ridership on the Bay Area's commuter train is rising three times faster than anticipated--up about six percent over the prior year. "The recovering economy, high gas prices and growing environmental conciousness are driving record ridership on BART." The growth is so rapid that the transit district is frantically trying to come up with quick ways to improve service so as not to drive new riders away.

My favorite explanation for the decline of driving--beyond the obvious one, that everyone is joining the Club's Beyond Oil campaign--is advanced by Justin Horner at NRDC's Switchboard blog. It's a useful concept known as "Marchetti's Constant": "the reasonable idea that people will, or are really even able to, travel for only a certain amount of time per day.  Marchetti says it’s an hour, regardless of your travel speed.  Americans may have found that they’ve reached their own personal limit and are sick of driving, choosing less driving or alternatives if they have the option."

Graph courtesy of the St. Louis Federal Reserve

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PAUL RAUBER is a senior editor at Sierra. He is the author, with Carl Pope, of the happily outdated Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress. Otherwise he is a cyclist, cook, and father of two. Follow him on Twitter @paulrauber.

The Fiscal Cushion

Wind turbineEnvironmentalists heaved a sigh of relief earlier this month when, as part of its “fiscal cliff” legislation, Congress extended tax credits for utility-scale wind-energy projects. (The legislation also loosened the rules, covering projects whose construction began, and weren’t just “placed in service,” during the covered years.)

The funding bill also included other green-friendly provisions, many of which have gone largely unheralded. Most are merely extensions of existing benefits that had expired or were set to expire, but in this day and age, few greens are complaining.

They include:

Cleaner fuels: The legislation included tax credits and depreciation rules that support cellulosic ethanol and revived a biodiesel tax credit that expired at the end of 2011. Algae has also earned a spot as a favored biofuel. 

Plug-in electric motorcycles: A 2009 tax credit was extended for electric motorcycles and scooters that gives buyers a break of up to 10 percent of the purchase price, up to $2,500. 

Green remodeling: Homeowners can get a $500 tax credit on personal taxes for making certain energy-efficiency improvements to their primary residence. The provision expired in 2011, but has been extended retroactively to 2012 and forward through 2013. It covers 10 percent of your tab for energy-efficient upgrades -- from air conditioners and refrigerators to home insulation and new windows --  up to the $500 cap.  

New green homes: The Business Tax Credit for New and Renovated Energy Efficient Residences offers a $2,000 tax credit to contractors or developers. It also expired in 2011 and has been extended retroactively to 2012 and forward through 2013. 

Transit deductions The fiscal cliff legislation restores a provision that allows transit commuters to take a pretax deduction of $240. In 2012, commuters who drove a car and parked could take the $240, while transit users were limited to $125. 

Just in case you were beginning to think Birkenstock-wearing legislators had taken over Capitol Hill, Congress also helped out the oil and gas industry by keeping dividend tax rates equal to capital gains tax rates, and extending tax credits for coal produced on Indian tribal land.

Image by iStock/deliormanli.

HS_ReedMcManusReed McManus is a senior editor at Sierra. He has worked on the magazine since Ronald Reagan’s second term. For inspiration, he turns to cartoonist R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural, who famously noted: “Twas ever thus."


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