Thursday, June 07, 2012

Mercury mania stoops to fraud

Willie Soon

As a scientist who has spent the past ten years studying the science of mercury (Hg) and the biologically toxic form of mercury, methylmercury (MeHg), I was taken aback by the clear misuse of the phrase “good science” in a recent letter by Florida DEP’s director of the Division of Environmental Assessment and Restoration (published in the Florida Times-Union newspaper).

The director referred to FDEP’s draft report in setting a strict mercury limit in Florida’s river, stream, lake, and coastal waters, which was released May 24. After a careful examination of the draft report, however, I have come to the conclusion that it contains serious flaws such that the strict mercury limit proposed by FDEP is not scientifically defensible.

First, FDEP’s notion that mercury “pollution” in our air, water, and land is a new, manmade phenomenon is simply wrong. While FDEP cited a 2008 paper that reported mean mercury levels of 0.25 parts per million (or ppm) in the hair of a group of women of childbearing age (16 to 49) in the Florida Panhandle, a study of 550-year-old Alaskan mummies reported average hair mercury levels of 1.2 ppm for four adults and 1.44 ppm for four infants. One mummy had hair mercury levels as high as 4.6 ppm!

Even more importantly, the FDEP draft report failed to consider the 17-year-long Seychelles Islands study, which found no harm, nor any indications of harm, from mercury in children whose mothers ate 5 to 12 servings of fish per week. In establishing the exposure risk of MeHg by fish consumption (most relevant to Floridians), the authors of this study argued that no consistent patterns of adverse associations existed between prenatal MeHg exposures and detailed neurological and behavioral testing. They concluded that despite the risk of MeHg to expectant mothers, “ocean fish consumption during pregnancy is important for the health and development of children and that the benefits are long lasting.” Indeed, the latest Centers for Disease Control data show blood mercury levels for U.S. women and children are already below EPA’s “safe” levels for mercury—the most restrictive mercury health in the world.

It is useful to note the FDEP draft report cited a 1972 study that confirmed tuna mercury levels in the past were higher (or at least not substantially lower) than tuna caught in the world’s oceans today. Although expecting to find a 9 percent to 26 percent increase in levels of MeHg, Princeton University scientists found no increase (actually, a minor decline) in fish tissue mercury levels after comparing Pacific Ocean tuna samples from 1971 and 1998. Those scientists concluded fish mercury level “is not responding to anthropogenic emissions irrespective of the mechanisms by which mercury is methylated in the oceans and accumulated in tuna.”

Second, it is curious that the FDEP draft report failed to note that forest fires in the state of Florida alone were estimated to emit more than 4,000 lbs of mercury per year from 2002 to 2006 alone. This single source of local mercury emissions is comparable to, if not significantly higher than, the mercury emitted for 2009 from all manmade mercury sources in Florida, including coal-fired power plants (which emit less than 1,500 lbs per year).

The FDEP draft report also repeatedly mentioned volcanoes as an important source of global mercury emissions but somehow fell short in conveying the full scale of this natural source of mercury. A new study in the January 2012 issue of the journal Geology noted a truly huge emission of mercury during the Latest Permian era (about 250 million years ago) where the event was estimated to emit about 7,600 tons per year! This is about four times larger than current estimates of the amount of manmade Hg emissions globally, and it persisted for nearly 500,000 years.

Such large sources of mercury resulting from the natural environment can explain why it is not surprising to find high levels of mercury in old samples taken before contamination by modern sources of mercury emission. These high levels have been observed in the hair of Florida panthers and south Florida raccoons as well as fish and aquatic life.

It is equally important to dispel the false impression from the FDEP draft report that mercury “pollution” in Florida’s watersheds and fishes is increasing. A note of caution from the U.S. EPA is clear: Contaminants in fish have been increasingly monitored since the 1970s, which has resulted in more advisories being issued due solely to increased sampling by the various states and “not necessarily due to increased levels or frequency of contamination.”

I would further note there is a serious flaw in FDEP’s draft report that sets a mercury limit of 1.25 parts per trillion (or 0.00000125 ppm) as the new standard for Florida’s inland and coastal waters. It is tacitly assumed by the FDEP that water mercury levels are directly related to fish tissue mercury levels. In fact, no such relationship exists, and indeed the FDEP draft report admits on page 58 that “Using the data collected for the [Florida Mercury Project], no relationship is observed when comparing total mercury in the water column to total mercury in fish tissues.”

Perhaps it is time for FDEP to reconsider the scientific basis of its mercury rulemaking.

Why is the FDEP so intent on setting mercury levels below those existing in nature? Why is it so difficult for the FDEP to fully disclose or explain such publicly available information from the scientific literature to all concerned citizens of Florida? Scientific inquiry must be above political pressure and partisan advocacy. Good decisions can arise only if the scientific evidence and knowledge are examined fully, without a selective bias.


Quick! Where is that global warming? Subcontinental glaciers are not melting

Global cooling set to starve Pakistan

Climate change is already beginning to affect the Pakistani economy it seems: Punjab’s agricultural areas face a water shortage due to the late melting of the Himalayan glaciers that form the source of the region’s rivers, delaying the sowing of three of the four most important crops in the country – cotton, sugarcane and rice.

“The water flow in the rivers is approximately 35% below what it should be for this time of the year,” said Arshad Khan, an officer at the Punjab irrigation department. “That shortage may rise to as high as 45% in the coming months just as the sowing season starts.”

Pakistan has four major crops – wheat, cotton, rice and sugarcane. The latter three are grown in a single season. Farms that grow these crops employ close to a quarter of the nation’s total workforce and produce about 10% of the country’s total economic output. Even the most minor of changes to the yields in these crops has a disproportionately large direct impact on the economy as a whole.

In addition to their direct contribution to the GDP, these crops also have an effect on the textile, fertiliser, cement and automobile industries since farmers are large consumers of the products of each of those manufacturing sectors.

The wheat harvest season in Punjab has recently come to an end, freeing up millions of hectares for cultivation of what are known as kharif (autumn} crops since they harvested in the autumn. Yet many farmers are currently leaving their land idle since they do not have enough water to sow their crops. Delays in sowing crops can often result in lower yields since variations in temperature and weather conditions can affect the output on farms.

“The water shortage will definitely create hurdles for farmers. Many of them will find it difficult to sow their kharif crops,” said Arshad Khan. “Central Punjab is currently not getting its share of water [from the dams in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Azad Jammu and Kashmir]. As a result, the water level in the canals is also running low and we are unable to fulfil the requirements of farmers.”

Sowing crops is a relatively water-intensive process. “The kharif crops being sowed right now need immediate watering. If we cannot ensure water availability, the yield will go down,” said Aamir Ali, a farmer in Faisalabad district.


Another crook "cleared" by his buddies

Note: There is not one detail offered about the "review" or even about who conducted it

A review has cleared the scientist Peter Gleick of forging any documents in his expose of the rightwing Heartland Institute's strategy and finances, the Guardian has learned.

Gleick's sting on Heartland brought unwelcome scrutiny to the organisation's efforts to block action on climate change, and prompted a walk-out of corporate donors that has created uncertainty about its financial future.

Gleick, founder of the Pacific Institute and a well-regarded water expert, admitted and apologised for using deception to obtain internal Heartland documents last February.

He has been on leave from the institute pending an external investigation into the unauthorised release of the documents, although it is not entirely clear what the investigation entailed. That investigation is now complete, and the conclusions will be made public.

The leaked Heartland documents included a list of donors and plans to instill doubts in school children on the existence of climate change.

They brought new scrutiny to the efforts by Heartland to block action on global warming, and to the existence of a shadowy network of rightwing organisations working to discredit climate science.

The thinktank also tried to capitalise on Gleick's actions, devoting a section of its website to Fakegate, as it termed the sting, and appealing for donations to combat what it called leftwing bullying.

Following the expose, Heartland acknowledged most of the documents were genuine. But the thinktank claimed the most explosive document, a two-page strategy memo summarising plans spelled out in detail elsewhere, was a fake.

Heartland also accused Gleick of forging the document and published findings of computer forensics experts that the memo did not appear to be a genuine strategy document.

Gleick, for his part, has consistently denied forging the document.


Germany's Nuclear Phase-Out hits the poor

Now that they've got to buy in their electricity from French nuclear reactors (Don't laugh!)

The German government was quick to approve a phase-out of nuclear power in the country after the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Now the costs of moving toward renewable energy are just being realized, and low-income consumers are paying the price.

After two weeks, the first letter arrives. The second notice comes a week later. On the fourth week, the bell rings and a technician from the power company, Vattenfall, is at the door. He has a black toolbox under his arm and he means business.

Aminta Seck, 39, has been through this twice before. If she doesn't pay the technician at least part of what she owes the company, he'll disconnect her electricity, leaving Seck and her three-year-old son Liam sitting in the dark in their two-room apartment, without lights, a working stove, refrigerator or TV.

Electricity prices in Germany have risen by more than 10 percent since the current coalition of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and business-friendly Free Democratic Party (FDP) took office. The price hike has been too much for some like Seck, an unemployed decorator from Berlin's Prenzlauer Berg district.

"Approximately every tenth household currently has problems paying for rising energy costs," says Holger Krawinkel at the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.

Left in the Dark

About 200,000 recipients of Hartz IV, Germany's benefits program for the long-term unemployed, had their power cut off last year because of unpaid bills, according to Paritätische Gesamtverband, an umbrella association for social movements in Germany.

The consumer protection organization for the federal state of North Rhine-Westphalia estimates that number to be as high as 600,000 per year. Ulrike Mascher, president of VdK, an interest group focusing on social justice, uses terms such as "fuel poverty" and a "blatant violation of fundamental social rights," when talking about the issue.

Meanwhile, the next price hikes are just around the corner. "The cost of electricity will rise, there's no question about that," says Jochen Homann, head of Germany's state-run Federal Network Agency.

The federal Economy Ministry calculates internally that prices will increase by between three and five euro cents per kilowatt hour within the next 12 months, in order to finance renewable energy subsidies and grid expansion. Those increases amount to an additional annual burden of between €105 and €175 ($130 and $220) for a family of three.

Consumer protection advocates and interest groups focusing on social issues blame the federal government for these increases. In particular, they say, the unchecked expansion of highly-subsidized photovoltaic installations is driving prices up, without the benefit of creating a commensurate increase in supply.

The CDU-FDP coalition itself has long wanted to cut back on funding for solar energy, but the Bundesrat -- Germany's upper house of parliament, which represents the individual federal states -- voted against the measure. It is unlikely lawmakers will reach a compromise on the issue before their summer recess this year.

'A Major Debate'

More than a year has passed since the Fukushima nuclear reactor disaster in Japan prompted Germany's lower house of parliament, the Bundestag, to vote to gradually phase out the country's nuclear power plants, replacing them wherever possible with renewable energy sources. Yet it is only now that a serious discussion is beginning over the costs of the nuclear phase-out.

Chancellor Angela Merkel made the transition to renewable energy a top priority after dismissing her environment minister, Norbert Röttgen, last month, but essential questions remain unanswered. Who will pay for this supposed "joint effort," in Merkel's words? What's the upper limit on costs? And when will voters' positive view of the nuclear phase-out give way to frustration over rising costs?

"I am very concerned about the way energy prices are growing," says Economy Minister Philipp Rösler of the FDP, discussing what he describes as a "battle to keep energy affordable." Thomas Bareiss, who coordinates energy policy issues for the parliamentary group of the CDU and its Bavarian sister party the Christian Social Union (CSU), predicts: "We're going to see a major debate over who pays for the transition to renewable energy."

The last thing the chancellor wants, especially with parliamentary elections coming up next year, is to open herself up to accusations that she lacks a sense of social justice or is indifferent to social issues. Leading figures within her coalition are pondering ways to combat the steady rise in energy prices, and to divert attention away from the failures over the past 12 months.

Their list of proposed solutions ranges from reducing energy costs for low-income consumers, to a new program that would earmark billions of euros for renewable energy sources and energy storage capacity. "We can't allow electricity to become a luxury," says new Environment Minister Peter Altmaier of the CDU, who also said he intends to meet as soon as possible with representatives from social welfare organizations.


German President Warns Eco-Lobby Against Centrally Planned Energy Policy

German President Joachim Gauck gave one of the most rational speeches on energy and environmental policy. No apocalyptic scenarios, no eco-fiction and a call to deal rationally and objectively with environmental and climate issues. "There is no better fertile soil for new ideas and solutions than an open society with open markets and free competition."

Gauck called the green energy transition “An ambitious project, which Germany as a leading industrial nation decided to undertake." He continued: "It will not succeed by means of planned economy regulations. Especially not with a plethora of subsidies ... There is no better fertile soil for new ideas and solutions than an open society with open markets and free competition ... Market-based, growth-friendly environment policy means to me that costs for environmental pollution and environmental risks will be charged to the polluters and not the taxpayers."

The following sentence will also not have particularly appealed to many listeners: "Sustainability does not imply limitation or giving up, but responsibility and reason." Gauck concluded his speech with a call for "sustainable progress".

Also remarkable was that he put "scientists and engineers" on top of a list of those who are needed for a better environment. The issue of "climate" appeared at the end of the speech, with a surprisingly cautious statement: "Leading climate scientists warn that momentous global warming is virtually unstoppable."

Presumably, this cautious note was added not only because the people in the park were freezing at 12 degree midday temperatures in June and were partially clothed in winter jackets.

Just a year ago, climate change speeches in Berlin were very different. Back then, speakers always emphasised that "the climate scientists" or even "the climate science” leave "no doubt" that the great warming is going to come. Now it is only the "leading climate researchers", who "warn”. A diplomatic retreat from the all-party dogma.

It is also interesting that Hubert Weinzierl (German Federal Environmental Foundation) did not put climate at the centre of his speech either, as it was usual at such events not so long ago. He mentioned it only as part of a series of four major global problems. The others were resource efficiency, loss of nature and feeding the growing world population.

This smells like a farewell to climate change as the dominant ecological theme. You don’t have to be a comedian to consider the fact that Germany is currently increasing again the energy generation by fossil fuels because of the hasty nuclear phase-out leaves no other choice.

Incidentally, the meadow behind the English lawn on which the celebration took place, is very beautiful and rich in wild flowers. Tomorrow the fox will also dare to return there again. It might find some left-over of an eco-sausage.


Australia: Queensland Environment Minister is a climate change sceptic

(The State of Queensland is bigger than Texas and California combined and has large natural resources)

QUEENSLAND'S new Environment Minister says he is not "100 per cent convinced" that humans are causing climate change.

Andrew Powell said he believed the climate was warming and humans needed to stop polluting and reduce their reliance on non-renewable energy sources. But he said he was "sceptical" human activity was to blame for all the changes.

"I think I represent a view that is fairly consistent across a certain percentage of the population, that until I'm 100 per cent convinced I'm always going to be a bit sceptical," he said, speaking during a press conference at Newmarket.

He was backed by Premier Campbell Newman, who first registered "surprise" that Mr Powell had been questioned over his stance. "I mean the sea-level rise predictions have changed constantly over the last 15 years and I think that's what he's saying," Mr Newman said. "(Mr Powell's) saying something that a Labor Minister would never have had to the honesty to say - we don't know what the impacts are precisely."

Asked whether he believed humans were responsible for climate change, Mr Newman said: "In terms of what the precise impacts will be of climate change anybody who says they know is having a lend of you." He said it was "refreshing" Mr Powell was "prepared to tell the truth".



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