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Sierra magazine

Green Lining to the Recession | Up to Speed | Freaky Frogfish | Wheels of Misfortune | As the World Warms |
Woe Is Us | Fluid Measures | Capture or Release?

Green Lining to the Recession:
Is there an upside to the downslide?

It may be cold comfort as you contemplate your shrinking IRA and dwindling bank balance, but it seems that there's a silver--or maybe green--lining to the economic downturn.

"Recessions are great for the environment," says Christopher Knittel, an economics professor at the University of California at Davis. "As we get wealthier, we consume more, and a lot of what we consume is greenhouse-gas heavy."

The reverse is true as well: As we get poorer, we consume less. Global oil consumption is projected to decline by 2.4 million barrels per day this year compared with last year. As a result, the United States and the European Union are each expected to spew 100 million fewer tons of carbon dioxide. Drilling for oil and gas in the United States is down by more than a third over late last year.

Global belt-tightening is also affecting zippers, with U.S. sales of over-the-counter contraceptives up 10 percent, a sign that people may be opting for smaller families. Orders for vegetable seeds have risen 19 percent as cost-conscious households turn their backyards into single-family farms. Sales of canning and freezing supplies have increased 11 percent, indicating that Americans, who typically throw away 14 percent of what they buy, are trying to reduce food waste.

Bottled-water consumption has fallen 11 percent. Demand for beef is down so dramatically that Brazil, which had been rapidly converting its rainforests to cattle ranches, has seen a 70 percent drop in deforestation.

So is economic disaster the antidote to environmental destruction? Not entirely: Global investment in renewable energy and green technology is down 48 percent since last year. But the changes we're seeing show that getting people to abandon their wasteful ways is possible when the financial incentives are right.

"In a recession, people make adjustments," says John Whitehead, a professor of environmental economics at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Whitehead argues that now is as good a time as any to impose a price on carbon--either through cap-and-trade or a carbon tax--so that those adjustments can continue after the economy has recovered. "Every time an economy comes out of a recession, there are a lot of differences in the way people are making money," he notes. "It's always a great opportunity to change things for the better." --Dashka Slater

Freaky Frogfish

Divers in Indonesia have discovered a new species of anglerfish that seems to have been designed by a doodling hippie. Histiophryne psychedelica has a flat face and one of the ocean's most bizarre methods of locomotion. Instead of swimming, it assumes a globular form and hops along the ocean floor, propelled by stubby fins and water squirted out of its gills. "The overall impression," reports the journal Copeia, where the discovery was detailed, is of "an inflated rubber ball bouncing along the bottom." (See it at

The "psychedelic frogfish," as it's known, escaped notice until now because of its camouflage coloration and habit of hiding in tiny coral crevices. All recent specimens were found off Ambon Island in a small area divers call the "Twilight Zone" for its plethora of strange creatures. When a photo of the odd fish was sent for identification to Ted Pietsch, the University of Washington's curator of fish, he realized that he had two specimens collected in 1992 on his shelf. Their wild markings had faded in the formaldehyde, and that final camouflage had led him to misidentify them for 16 years. --P.R.

Wheels of Misfortune

Feeling lucky, punk? Just spin the wheel and bet on your chances of a livable future. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change studied two scenarios depicting a range of probabilities for future climate change: one in which nothing is done and one in which policy changes limit total atmospheric carbon dioxide to a modest 550 parts per million. (The current level is 385 ppm.) The size of each wedge corresponds to the likelihood of future temperatures rising to that range from 1990 levels by 2100. The sobering conclusion: We could do everything right and still have an even chance of a 4-degree increase by the end of the century. But if we don't do anything, the only question is how hot we're going to cook. --P.R.

Quick thinking before we slowly fry

Tater Touts As we crank up the heat, potatoes prosper. In fact, reports Potato News Today, they may become the staple of choice for the world's ever-growing population, since spuds require less water than wheat, rice, or corn. What will be a major adaptation for many cultures is one Americans can probably live with--french fries are already the most common "vegetable" children eat.

Impatience Is a Virtue President Barack Obama is making it clear that action on climate change can't come soon enough and that the United States has to do its share. His sense of urgency was underscored when White House science advisor John Holdren said the time has come to consider geo-engineering options like placing mirrors in space and seeding the oceans with iron. Global warming, Holdren said, is like being "in a car with bad brakes driving toward a cliff in the fog."

If You Bill It, They Will Come It's game time in Congress. Representatives Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) introduced a 648-page climate-change bill that would promote renewable power, increase energy efficiency, and cap greenhouse-gas emissions with the goal of bringing them 20 percent below 2005 levels by 2020 and 83 percent below those levels by 2050. More than 2,300 lobbyists have flocked to Washington to influence the climate-change debate, with business and fossil-fuel gladhanders outnumbering environmentalists 8 to 1. --D.S.

The glimmer and glow of fireflies is fading around the world, researchers report, and the culprits aren't little kids catching them in mason jars. Instead, blame habitat loss, pesticides, and light pollution for a decline that's been noted from Thailand to Tennessee. Fireflies flash to find mates, so the creatures are easily disoriented by artificial stimuli like headlights and flashlights. As ambient light increases, firefly sex decreases, robbing summer evenings of their magic.

An enterprising manufacturer has developed a line of artificial fireflies that flash and fade like the real thing. Firefly Magic lights can be placed in trees and bushes to conjure a time when nature provided such entertainment for free. "It's truly a product that will bring back enjoyable childhood memories," says a press release. Some models are even solar powered. Those who live in the humid climates where fireflies once thrived can help bring back the real thing by turning off exterior lights, planting trees and tall grass, and shunning artificial fertilizers and pesticides. —D.S.

Woe Is Us: Ready, set, panic.

Not Chocolate Too?
A deadly virus is ravaging cacao trees in West Africa, source of 70 percent of the world's cocoa. Hundreds of millions of trees have been destroyed in an attempt to contain the virus, but this year's crop may be cut by a third. The world's increasing appetite for chocolate is to blame: Farmers are planting cacao trees in marginal areas, leading to weaker trees that are more susceptible to disease.

Things are also bleak in the Amazon basin, where cacao trees are falling victim to nasty fungi like frosty pod and witches' broom. A late-1980s epidemic of witches' broom in Brazil turned the country from a major cocoa exporter into a net importer. In a worst-case scenario, says U.S. Department of Agriculture research geneticist Raymond Schnell, the Amazonian fungi would reach Africa, where cacao trees have "very little tolerance" to them. The Mars candy company is joining the USDA in a race to sequence cacao's genome before it's too late.

We Are So Doomed
Challenged by issues like antibiotic-resistant diseases, global climate change, and genetic engineering, large numbers of Americans are all, like, "Say what?" A recent Harris Interactive survey assessing U.S. scientific literacy found that 47 percent--of adults!--were stumped when asked how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun, and only 59 percent knew that humans and dinosaurs did not coexist.

Happily, though, four out of five are in favor of scientific education.
--Paul Rauber

Fluid Measures:
Weighing water use in dribs and drabs

Pop quiz: Which ingredient in Coca-Cola uses the most water? Surprisingly, it's not the carbonated water itself but the sugarcane, an ultrathirsty crop that sweetens most sodas outside the United States.

Gauging the hidden water content of everyday products is not unlike weighing the carbon footprint of food and travel choices. Coca-Cola has already vowed to become "water neutral," recycling wastewater in Shanghai and funding rainwater-harvesting programs in India to make up for irrigating all that sugarcane.

Such pledges, though, need to take into account when and where the water is used, says Arjen Y. Hoekstra, scientific director of the Water Footprint Network ( "Unlike climate change, which is caused by an overall increase in emissions," he says, "the impact of water depletion or pollution is larger if it occurs in a region with little water or in a dry period."

Water-watchers talk about "virtual water," the amount needed to produce various goods, especially food. By this measure, many European and Middle Eastern countries are net water importers. Identifying this imbalance can help richer governments more effectively target environmental aid: The Netherlands, for example, imports virtual water in the form of flowers from Kenya and could invest in helping growers improve their water efficiency.

Calculating virtual water transfers can also be good business. A loaf of bread and a bottle of wine, for example, each require more than 200 gallons of water to produce. Since the wine can be sold for a far higher price than the bread, an arid country might want to focus on vineyards while importing grain from elsewhere. Israel and Jordan are already boosting grain imports, saving their scarce liquid resources for more-profitable goods. --Jennifer Hattam

Capture or Release?
Trying to take the climate sting out of coal

Half the electricity in the United States comes from coal. In China, it's 80 percent. With the planet's oven timer ticking, some environmentalists argue that since coal isn't going away anytime soon, we had better find a way to deal with it. "Unless we have a climate-change solution that can apply to coal," says Sarah Forbes, senior associate at the World Resources Institute, "we won't have a solution to climate change."

The key to having our coal and burning it too is carbon capture and storage (CCS): separating the carbon dioxide, compressing it into a supercritical liquid, and sticking it deep underground--in old oil and gas fields, coal mines, or saline aquifers. The carbon can be stripped from the coal either before combustion, as part of a process that converts it into fuel gas, or afterward in a traditional pulverized-coal plant.

But all that separation and transportation takes more energy--which means burning even more coal. Unless other scrubbers are part of the package, it also means more sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxide, and mercury emissions. And more money: CCS would increase the cost of coal-generated power by 20 to 80 percent.

And that's why CCS remains largely theoretical. While the G8 nations set a goal last summer of having 20 CCS plants operating around the globe by 2010, so far there is only one--a 30-megawatt test plant in Germany.

And as prices for solar and wind energy drop, some question spending a lot of money to clean up a fuel whose primary advantage is its cheapness. But what's money these days in Washington? Partly to mollify coal-state legislators, the climate-change bill being debated in Congress at press time could allocate up to $10 billion for CCS research. --D.S.

Photos and illustrations, from top: Lloyd Dangle, David Hall/Seaphotos, Peter and Maria Hoey (2), John Ueland.



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