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Thank you to the 255 signatories for their recently-published letter to the editor “Climate Change and the Integrity of Science” in the 7 May 2010 issue of Science. The letter, a polite request to de-escalate political assaults on scientists, is concise, direct, and refreshing (almost radical). Here’s an excerpt:

We also call for an end to McCarthy-like threats of criminal prosecution against our colleagues based on innuendo and guilt by association, the harassment of scientists by politicians seeking distractions to avoid taking action, and the outright lies being spread about them.

Gratitude is expressed to the 255 signatories because they are speaking out and challenging what could become, or has become, status quo.

I hear the rally cry expressed by the signatories and will respond by doing what I can to continue to fight for the integrity of science and the people who practice and teach it.

All citizens should understand some basic scientific facts.

Sign me up.

In the Washington Post, David A. Fahrenthold and Juliet Eilperin contrast the first Earth Day in 1970 — which led to environmental victories for clean air and water — with today’s less promising iteration:

The problems [today] are more slippery: pollutants like greenhouse-gas emissions, which don’t stink or sting the eyes. And current activists, by their own admission, rarely muster the kind of collar-grabbing immediacy that the first Earth Day gave to environmental causes.

With Lisa Jackson now in charge at EPA, we’ve seen some steps toward curbing global climate change. In December, EPA issued an endangerment finding, stating that greenhouse gases threaten public health and welfare (which means EPA can regulate them). In April, with the Department of Transportation, the agency increased fuel-efficiency requirements and set greenhouse-gas emission standards for cars and light trucks.

While these actions are important, we need a much stronger response to stabilize the climate – and such a response doesn’t seem to be forthcoming. The Copenhagen climate talks were a crushing disappointment, and the better-than-nothing House climate bill is unlikely to survive the endless watering-down process that seems necessary to get anything through the Senate these days.

At least the Senate does seem motivated to do something about the woefully inadequate Toxic Substances Control Act. Last week, New Jersey Senator Frank Lautenberg introduced the Safe Chemicals Act, and US Representatives Bobby Rush and Henry Waxman released a discussion draft of a similar bill. The Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families coalition supports the legislation, but also calls for it to be strengthened in several ways. Here’s their summary of the pros and cons:
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I’ve been hearing a lot of complaints recently about Obama’s failure to achieve legislation on healthcare or climate change during his first year in office, despite the fact that Congress is to blame for both these failures. What Obama does have more control over is the activities of federal agencies, whose leaders are presidentially appointed.

A recent Rolling Stone article by Tim Dickinson showcases what one agency head, EPA’s Lisa Jackson, has accomplished over the past several months. While her record hasn’t been perfect – her early approval of several mountaintop-removal mining permits was a big disappointment – it demonstrates what kinds of things a committed administration can do regardless of whether or not Congress is willing to move forward.

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Although most of the focus in Copenhagen is on reducing emissions of carbon dioxide, negotiators are also looking at other greenhouse gases, reports Jim Tankersley in the Los Angeles Times. Methane, which is produced by livestock and landfills, has 23 times the global warming potential of CO2. Hydrofluorocarbons are used in refrigeration and cooling, and came into wide use after the Montreal Protocol slashed the use of CFCs because they damage the ozone layer; that agreement’s structure could now help speed the phase-out of HFCs.

While not actually a gas, black carbon is also a major contributor to climate change – by one estimate, it’s responsible for 18% of the world’s warming. These particles of soot come from biomass-burning cookstoves and some ships, and retain the sun’s heat rather than allowing it to be reflected back up into the atmosphere. Black carbon deposited on snow and ice can speed melting, which contributes to sea level rise and water-supply problems.

Tankersley notes that addressing these less-high-profile contributors is potentially easier than tackling CO2 emission:

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Climate change means more droughts in some parts of the globe, and drought spells disaster for many food crops. Recent events in Kenya also remind us that drought can spark disease outbreaks, as people are forced to rely on contaminated water sources and have less water for hygiene. 

The New York Times’ Jeffrey Gettleman reports:

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The title of a new report from Physicians for Social Responsibility (via the Charleston Gazette’s Ken Ward) doesn’t pull any punches – it’s called Coal’s Assault on Human Health. While noting that coal mining presents risks to miners and local communities, the report focuses mostly on the health effects of coal combustion. The authors discuss the effects on humans’ respiratory, cardiovascular, and nervous systems, and then explore the more indirect health effects from global warming, to which coal-burning contributes:
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I feel like I’m pretty up on the push for green jobs (creating jobs in the building and installation of wind turbines, construction of energy-efficient buildings, etc.) but this morning at the APHA meeting, I learned something about the occupational health angle of this movement. At a session from the Blue-Green Alliance, Walter Jones of the Laborers’ Health and Safety Fund of North America and TJ Lentz of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health spoke about making green jobs safe jobs.

So far, it seems that the shift toward greener buildings hasn’t done much to make the construction or maintenance of these places safe for workers. (One positive point is that the use of safer paints and solvents can reduce workers’ as well as residents’ exposure to fumes.) Designers of buildings don’t generally pay much attention to the ways that their plans will affect the way workers interact with them, and design schools don’t tend to include occupational health and safety in their curricula. Jones noted that between 1990 and 2003, 42% of all US construction-related fatalities were linked to design.

Problems include a lack of anchor points for workers to tie off to when they’re working off the ground, and parapets that meet building code requirements (being at least 30 inches high) but not OSHA requirements (39 to 45 inches). When it comes to wind turbines, fall protection is also crucial, and the inside of the tower is a confined space – but designers rarely address anchor points or tower access and ventilation issues.

Occupational health and safety advocates are working to get safety issues on designers’ radar. The American Association of Safety Engineers has begun working on a standard to protect workers involved in windpower facilities, and NIOSH runs a Prevention Through Design program. As we all throw our support behind green jobs, we should make sure that “green” includes worker health and safety.

Coal and oil dominate the national conversation about energy, but we’d be remiss to forget about nuclear power. For one thing, we still have to figure out what to do with all of the nuclear waste we’ve created already. Nuclear power is also getting more attention as a power source that doesn’t pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere the way fossil fuels do – we’d just have to figure out what to do with the radioactive waste, and whether we have enough water for the necessary cooling (simple, right?).

The New York Times’ Matthew L. Wald provides a useful source of information for anyone who needs to get up to speed on nuclear power and/or keep up with the latest developments. The top part of the page features the latest news involving nuclear power (from a number of sources); scroll below that for an easy-to-read explanation of what nuclear reactors do, what kinds of problems they’ve had, and how new proposed designs try to address the challenges.

UPDATE (10/21): A commenter points out that conversations about nuclear power as an energy source also need to consider the toll of uranium mining and milling. Dan Frosch’s NYT article “Uranium Contamination Haunts Navajo Country” explores the lasting damages of uranium mining on Navajo communities in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah.

Today is Blog Action Day, and bloggers around the world are posting about aspects of climate change. I’m highlighting one thing all of us can do to help the planet and our own health at the same time: eat less meat.

In their report Livestock’s Long Shadow, the UN Agricultural Organization estimates that the livestock sector is responsible for 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions. This comes from several elements of livestock production, including the following:

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Several years ago when I was writing an article about solar energy, I tried without success to find a reliable figure for how much the U.S. spent subsidizing fossil fuels. So I was delighted to see that the Environmental Law Institute has released a report that answers that very question.

The big number: Between 2002 and 2008, government subsidies to fossil fuels totaled $72 billion. Renewable fuels got $29 billion during those years, but nearly half of that money went to corn-based ethanol, which is more of a sop to corn-growing states than a real solution to environmental problems. And those subsidy figures aren’t entirely comparable either, the ELI authors point out:

Most of the largest subsidies to fossil fuels were written into the U.S. Tax Code as permanent provisions. By comparison, many subsidies for renewables are time-limited initiatives implemented through energy bills, with expiration dates that limit their usefulness to the renewables industry.

Year after year, U.S. taxpayers help keep oil and coal prices low, and decades of low fossil-fuel prices have encouraged us to build homes, cars, and cities that use far more energy than necessary. Our tax dollars have been funding air pollution and climate change. It’s time to get fossil-fuel subsidies out of the tax code.


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