Some recent related work by Joseph Doolen

My other related work this year:

Botox for Incontinence? Believe It (Healthline.com)

Fat Needs Sleep, Too (Healthline.com)

FDA Alert: Kellogg’s Recalls Mini-Wheats Due to Metal Risk (Yahoo! News)

Will Solar Power Survive in the Free Market? We’ll See As Germany Cuts Its Solar Subsidies (Policy Mic)

Parasitic Fly Turns CCD Honeybees Into Zombies (Policy Mic)

In Tar Sands Battle, Canada Chooses Economic Interests Over the Environment (Policy Mic)

Fracking Industry Crashes Academic Conference: But That Was Not Even the Worst Part (Policy Mic)

Lack of Leadership on Climate Creates a ‘New Normal’ (Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media)

Working within the psychologies of belief and learning (Science Writing in the Age of Denial)

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BIG BAD CORN

BIG BAD CORN

 

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Disturbing Spike in West Nile Deaths in South in Recent Days, Especially Dallas Area, Severe Cases at Their Highest Since 2004.

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Courtesy: Wikimedia Commons

By Joseph Doolen

West Nile Virus deaths in 2012 have more than tripled in the first few days of August, according to compiled news reports.

As of July 31, only four deaths in the U.S. had been attributed to West Nile, with 241 cases reported in 22 states.  Sixty percent of these cases were in Texas. The next weekly report is due to be out this Tuesday, in which the death count may rise to at least thirteen.

Five additional deaths in Texas were reported by news agencies this past week, all centered around the Dallas-Fort Worth area.  This brings the total count in the Lone Star state to seven.

Dallas has 123 cases, a 63 percent increase from last week.  Neighboring Tarrant County now has 86 confirmed cases compared to 61 a week ago.

The six reported fatalities in Dallas County have broken its annual record.  West Nile cases typically peak in mid-August.

An elderly woman in Tarrant County, another in California and an elderly man in Kansas are among the August fatalities. Compromised immunity in the old and sick play a large part in a victim’s vulnerability to the disease.

The West Nile virus can cause two illnesses: the more serious neuroinvasive form, which can cause encephalitis and meningitis, and West Nile fever, which has milder symptoms.  144 of the 241 cases reported so far are reported to be neuroinvasive, the highest number reported in the U.S. since 2004, which will undoubtedly be surpassed in the next CDC report.

Less than one percent of victims get the more serious symptoms, and only ten percent of those will die as a result. Others may suffer from permanent brain damage and neurological disorders.  Chronic kidney disease was recently shown (in the journal PloS One) to be a long term affect in many people that have been infected.

Another two deaths were reported in Louisiana this past week, the state’s first since 2008. A spike in cases of the disease was also observed.

State health departments are required to investigate cases to determine if they match standards set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Sustained warmth throughout the calendar year is a likely culprit, according to CDC’s Roger Nasci.

“The conditions were just right to really kick up the number of infected mosquitoes,” Nasci told NPR. “That translates into the greater likelihood that infected mosquitoes are going to bite people and then they get infected and a proportion of them show these symptoms.”

Citizens are advised to observe the “Three D’s” of preventing mosquito-borne illness:

  • Defense – Use mosquito repellant and cover exposed skin when possible
  • Drain – Eliminate mosquito breeding areas by getting rid of all standing water
  • Dusk and Dawn – Just stay inside during these most active times of the day for the pesky vectors

Up to 80 percent of those affected by West Nile may never know it, exhibiting fever, body aches or rash.  Many will exhibit no noticeable symptoms at all. However, there is no treatment or vaccine for the disease.

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Topsoil Loss in Corn Belt Enhanced by “Renewable Fuels” Explosion

“Dust Bowl” by Alexandre Hogue

A growing pressure on American farmers to pack every acre with crops is now leading to a drastic increase in topsoil loss due to erosion.
Erosion is an old problem, one that Americans thought they solved after the Dust Bowl by simply changing planting, tilling and irrigation practices (OK, not that simple).The causes are new, and ultimately the blame lies at the feet of agribusiness and the government that subsidizes it.
Driven by skyrocketing crop prices, practices such as planting up to stream beds and unnecessarily excessive tilling are now commonplace. CBS News reports (4/7/11) that in between spring 2010 and spring 2011, corn prices have increased 52 percent and soy 45 percent. Corn prices are being driven by the demand for ethanol production, which is skyrocketing in order to meet Renewable Fuel Standards. Production of these so-called renewable fuels will eventually reach 36 billion gallons per year by 2022.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) and Iowa State University found that erosion in Iowa is much worse than previously reported. In some regions, soil loss was found to be 12 times greater than the previously stated average loss of 5.2 tons per acre per year.

The stated average loss is only slightly higher that the  “sustainable” 5 tons of soil that is naturally generated per acre of Iowa soil.  In the study, however,  scientists measured soil loss after storms, estimating that up to 64 tons of soil per acre gets washed away. Over 6 million Iowa acres had at least twice the erosion of what is sustainable.

EWG study, more erosion occurring in red/orange

Changing weather patterns and inadequate enforcement of protections compound the problem in the Corn Belt. Heavy rains in 2009 devastated farmland across the state and down the Mississippi River Valley.

Iowa prairie soils 150 years ago had about 12-16″ of topsoil; now they have only about 6-8″ of topsoil.

This is a loss of fifty percent!  And I think we will want to be here fro more than another 150 years. What’s more, the entire world depends on the black soil of the Midwest to feed an exploding population.

Erosion is an omnipresent problem in history and around the world. In North America, though, we cannot seem to help ourselves in making it worse:

globalchange.umich.edu

How will we respond to this crisis? With agribusiness subsidies, the rabbit hole is deep. The problems are complex. The solution is simple and it’s a theme here with The Purporters: Stop subsidizing failure, and corn ethanol is the biggest failure of all.

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Ten Minutes to Placate the World

The Durban 17th Conference of the Parties (COP 17) finished up over this past weekend. The talks were supposed to end December 9, but were extended two days longer due to gridlock, making this the longest U.N. Conference on Climate Change meeting in history.

Despite Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, an agreement was reached by China, the U.S. and India to cut emissions.

India threatened to walk out of the talks last week, protesting against European Union plans to force all countries to cut carbon emissions as part of a legally binding treaty similar to a regime the E.U. has had in place for years.

India’s initial reaction to the West’s proposal was best summed up by India’s environment minister Jayanthi Natarajan:
“How do I give a blank cheque signing away the livelihood rights of 1.2 billion members of our population? What about common but differentiated responsibility; what about the effort to shift the burden to countries who have not contributed to the problem?”
A last-minute huddle at the conference, now being referred to as “10 minutes to save the world” was all that prevented total failure in Durban. New emissions cuts still won’t be enacted until 2020.

The argument between the parties was based on historical greenhouse emissions. Developed countries, who are responsible for the lion’s share of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, don’t want a disproportionate burden of reduction. Developing countries (i.e. India) want to be able to emit at a rate that will allow them to industrialize competitively.

In what 350.orgcalled “risky, creative, powerful activism” youth groups and African rights coalitions staged protests and civil disobedience throughout the city during the conference.

Greenpeace activists protest in Durban

350.org

The “Durban road map” as proposed by the E.U. is still too weak to stop temperatures rising above the “danger point” of 2C because it does not set tough targets for emissions cuts or a quick enough timetable.

According to the International Energy Agency we Earthlings are about to build enough fossil-fueled power stations, factories and inefficient buildings in the next five years that the resulting global warming will have catastrophic and irreversible effects.

So what was the point here? It’s starting to look like the smart people are going to have to get us ready for the coming disaster that will be life on Earth for billions of people.

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Sugarcane Ethanol Is in Your Gas Tank’s Future

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I asked scientists and economists about sugarcane ethanol and whether it could out earn corn ethanol should the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (VEETC) expire at the end of 2011.  Without fail, a resounding “yes” was the answer.

“Because of the perennial nature of sugarcane, the higher yield than corn, and the lower energy input in cultivation and processing, cane is just better,” University of Minnesota bioengineer Jason Hill said.

In addition, plant waste (bagasse) from the cane plants is used to power the ethanol manufacturing process.  A similar process mentioned above dealing with corn, but Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell points out that soil erosion becomes a huge problem in both scenarios, especially for corn, which causes the most erosion and requires the most pesticide and fertilizer of any crop.

Corn stover -- reddydairyfarms.com

The “carbon footprint” of corn ethanol production is much higher than that of ethanol production from a simpler carbohydrate–sugar, which ferments relatively quickly and easily.  All arguments for corn ethanol and its subsidization have been thoroughly rebuked for years.  While sugarcane ethanol is not perfect, it appears to be the most economically viable alternative.  Brazil now has cars that can run on any blend of gasoline and ethanol.

“We know this is not a simple or quick process, but the introduction of Flex-Fuel vehicles (FFVs) around the world is something that has to be considered, and it can only happen with decisive support from automakers and the government. FFVs helped Brazil replace 50% of its gasoline needs with ethanol,” said Leticia Phillips of UNICA, the Brazilian Sugarcane Industry .

“I’m a conservation nut,” Iowa State economist David Swenson said.  “I don’t take anyone seriously if they are talking about increasing energy production or positing an untested or false technology.”

UNICA President and CEO Marcos Jank released a statement in response to the VEETC tariff extension.

“It is clear that the United States is not committed to open and fair trade in clean energy, particularly ethanol,” Jank said.

Importing mass quantities (billions of gallons per year to meet RFS) of Brazilian ethanol will likely to be done once VEETC expires.  As ethanol-gas blending will persist in the decades to come, importing sugarcane ethanol will be a cheaper alternative to both fossil fuels and corn ethanol, with many fewer pitfalls.

Brazil’s struggles in the 1970s led them down a path to energy independence.  Where will our current struggles take us today?

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King Corn has No Clothes

 

In 2009, one-third of U.S. corn was converted to ethanol.  According to Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell, this replaced a whopping 1.4 percent of our oil consumption.  This means that only 4.2% of our oil consumption would be replaced if we turned all American corn into ethanol! Even converting all corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of gasoline (only) demand and 6% of diesel demand.

In January 2010 the EPA granted a waiver to existing rules to allow the use of E15 — made with 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline — in cars made in model year 2001 or after.  The decision expands the pool of vehicles that could use such a fuel to about 62 percent of the total on the roads. Agriculture companies and ethanol distilleries have been pressing for an increase in the limit on ethanol in motor fuel because ethanol production in the U.S. is approaching 10 percent of gasoline use, a point commonly known as the “blend wall” in the ethanol industry.

“That decision (to allow E15 use) was pure politics,” Iowa State economist Swenson tells me.

“A dumb move,” Dr. Pimentel added.

University of Minnesota bioengineer Dr. Jason Hill called the increase dangerous, adding that “it wasn’t studied that well.”

Until recent increases in oil prices, high production costs made biofuels unprofitable without subsidies.  According to Swenson, accelerated investment in ethanol plants has been due to skyrocketing corn prices as well as the increases in subsidies and RFS requirements.

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