Environmental news from California and beyond

Category: International

Mountain gorilla deaths linked to respiratory disease in humans

GORILLA Humans have always posed the biggest threat to mountain gorillas, which for decades were poached for trophies and for sale on the world’s wild animal market. One gorilla died in Rwanda in 1992 after stepping on a landmine.

Now, a virus that causes respiratory disease in humans has been linked to the deaths of wild mountain gorillas, according to a study conducted by researchers in Africa and two U.S. universities.

The finding, which for the first time confirms that life-threatening diseases can be transmitted by humans to these critically endangered animals, is of particular concern because the parks where Gorilla beringei beringei is protected in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are surrounded by the densest populations in Africa, the researchers said.

In addition, those nations count on gorilla tourism -- which brings thousands of people from around the world -- to help earn much-needed hard currency to fund local economies and the national parks that shelter the animals.

The researchers are from the nonprofit Mountain Gorilla Veterinary Project; UC Davis; the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University; and the Rwanda Development Board. Their study was published online Monday by the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases, a publication of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Veterinarians had already noticed an increase in the frequency and severity of respiratory disease symptoms -- coughing, eye and nose discharge and lethargy -- among the total 786 wild mountain gorillas left in the world.

The study focused on a 2009 outbreak among 12 gorillas that was blamed for the deaths of an adult female and a newborn infant. Tissue samples from the stricken animals revealed the presence of nucleic acid from a virus known to scientists as human metapneumovirus.

In an interview, Kirsten Gilardi, assistant director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, said, “We don’t know how or when the virus came into this gorilla population, but we do know it was most recently described as a human virus.”

“These animals are so closely related to us that it is not all a surprise they are susceptible to human
pathogens,” she added. “There are some measures we can take to better protect mountain gorillas from incursions of human infections. For example, in an open-air environment, if people stay seven yards away or farther from a gorilla, it would be far less dangerous for that animal.”


California's valley elderberry longhorn beetle: an endangered species battle.

Flat-tailed horned lizard won't be listed as an endangered species.

-- Louis Sahagun

Photo: Mountain gorilla mother and infant. Credit: UC Davis Wildlife Health Center

Japan's nuclear crisis: An opportunity for geothermal energy?

Japan is sitting on enough untapped geothermal power to replace all its planned nuclear stations over the next decade. But with plans to build 13 more nuclear power stations, it has yet to consider harnessing its estimated 23.5 gigawatts in geothermal potential -- other than to develop hot springs.

With the nuclear crisis in its Fukushima reactors, however, this may change. Geothermal energy has struggled in Asia, with limited government and funding support, but it is now likely to attract interest as investors rethink the outlook for nuclear power.

Straddled along the Pacific "Ring of Fire," an arc of seismic activity, Asia's geothermal reservoirs are among the world's largest. Indonesia alone holds about 40% of the world's total reserves, but less than 4% is being developed, leaving the sector wide open for growth.

Asia's leading, fast-growth economies have relied on nuclear power to feed their insatiable energy demands. About 112 nuclear power reactors run in six countries in Asia, and more than 264 are planned for construction, according to the London-based World Nuclear Assn.

As public scrutiny of the nuclear industry intensifies, Asian governments will likely come under pressure to reduce nuclear power's share in the energy mix. "The Japanese will be reviewing their nuclear capacity, and [so will] many other places in the world," said Jeffrey Higgs, managing director at Hong Kong-based asset management firm Environmental Investment Services Asia. "This will refocus attention on alternative energy. Others will begin to look at geothermal as an alternative, the safest, cleanest of all energy sources," Higgs said.

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U.S. will do new studies on Keystone XL tar sands pipeline

Keystone pipeline map NRDC The U.S. State Department will require additional environmental studies before granting a permit for the 1,660-mile Keystone XL pipeline, proposed to carry oil from the tar sands of northern Canada through the U.S. heartland and on to south Texas.

In an announcement Tuesday, department officials said they would open a new round of public comments on a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement, to be released in mid-April, with a decision on whether to grant a permit for the controversial pipeline now expected by the end of the year.

Pipeline opponents have long called for new environmental reviews, looking especially at the ability of a standard oil pipeline to safely carry the diluted bitumen found in the tar sands of northern Alberta.

A study last month by three of the nation's biggest environmental organizations and the Pipeline Safety Trust warned of a higher risk of corrosion-related spills linked to higher levels of abrasives, temperature and acidity in tar sands oil -- claims that TransCanada, the pipeline builder, has rebutted. Download Keystone XL Fact Sheet TransCanada

Ranchers in Nebraska and surrounding states are also calling on the State Department to look at the possibility of a new pipeline route that would avoid a sandy, vulnerable area above the Ogallala Aquifer, a key source of farmland irrigation and drinking water that underlies eight states in the Great Plains.

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Global warming: The United Nations courts Tinseltown

S-GEORGE-CLOONEY-largeThe United Nations has long courted celebrities for its peace-keeping and anti-poverty efforts, from Mia Farrow and Ricky Martin to George Clooney and Angelina Jolie.

It is a mutually beneficial arrangement. Hollywood stars grasp at gravitas; the U.N. pushes for publicity.

Now the beleaguered multi-national agency, fresh from a disappointing round of climate negotiations in Cancun, wants something more concrete: actual story lines in movies, television and social media drawing attention to the dangers of global warming.

The push comes at a time when public concern over climate change has plummeted in the polls and Congress has rejected federal legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

“Usually I speak to prime ministers and presidents, but that has its limits” said U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who arrived in Los Angeles on Monday for a high-profile outreach effort. “Movie producers, directors, actors — they have global reach.”

Ban will sit down for a conversation with actor Don Cheadle before several hundred entertainment industry invitees at a “Global Creative Forum” Tuesday at the Hammer Museum.

The day-long gathering will feature panels titled “The United Nations and Hollywood for a Greener and Better Planet,” “Making Global Warming a HOT Issue” and "Empowering Women and Protecting Children for a Safer World.”

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Global warming protesters ramp up with climate talks' failure

The failure of global climate negotiations to slow greenhouse gas emissions is fueling protest movements in the U.S. and other countries, as the effects of sea level rise, longer droughts and stronger storms begin to take a toll.

More than 190 nations sent some 9,000 government officials, scientists and technicians to Cancun over the last two weeks, but the diplomatic arm-wrestling yielded little progress. That didn’t sit well with thousands of environmentalists and social activists, many of them from California, who converged on the seaside resort to pressure negotiators.

The negotiations were “shrouded in a fog of unreality,” said Bill McKibben, founder of, a group that advocates drastic cuts in emissions to reduce carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere from the current 387 ppm to 350 ppm. “The biggest and most powerful nations on Earth simply aren't paying attention to physics and chemistry.”

McKibben, whose group sent several San Francisco-based activists to Cancun, predicted that “the grassroots movement to demand real action will continue to mushroom. We're not big enough yet to beat the fossil fuel industry and its allies, but we're gaining.”

Over the last two years, has organized more than 14,000 climate demonstrations in 188 countries.

In Cancun, if the delegates negotiated behind closed doors, environmental groups made up for it by vying to stage the most creative "photo ops" to capture media attention. Mark Malijan, a freelance photographer whose trip to Cancun was sponsored by Earth Journalism Network, captured vivid images of a broad variety of protests. See his slide show above this post.

Among them was the demonstration of La Via Campesina, a social justice group that included Mayans from the Yucatan province around Cancun, and activists from both developing and industrial countries. About 1,000 protesters-- men, women and children, many in colorful outfits--carried signs promoting indigenous rights and condemning efforts to sell carbon credits from forests. Music from a steel drum and chants of “Si, se puede!” (Yes, we can!) punctuated the march.

Among the Via Campesina marchers were several organizers from Los Angeles’ Bus Riders Union, a group that pushes for public transportation for low-income Angelenos. “We came together as a grass-roots community delegation because we are most affected by the dirty energy industries,” Sunyoung Yang, 28, an organizer for the union’s Clean Air campaign, told the L.A. Times.

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Chiapas to California: preserving forests for dollars?

Chiapas big
The Mexican state of Chiapas, home to the left-wing Zapatista revolt of the mid-1990s, is now eager to join a most capitalist enterprise: California’s upcoming cap-and-trade market for carbon emissions.

Chiapas Gov. Juan Antonio Sabines Guerrero and California Environmental Protection Agency Secretary Linda Adams are making the rounds of the global climate talks in Cancun, touting a deal: California companies will pay Chiapas to protect its rain forest.

"California has opened its international market for carbon credits,” Sabines told a meeting of 700 forest advocates Wednesday, adding that Chiapas has the “best inventory of soil, forest and jungle” in Mexico.  He estimated that Chiapas could sell carbon credits of as much as 2 million metric tons into the California market over eight years.

Market prices are highly uncertain, but if carbon credits were selling at $20 a ton, that could mean as much as $40 million to help Chiapas save its forests. The cutting and burning of tropical forests, including the cloud forests in southern Mexico, account for as much as 15% of global carbon dioxide emissions which are trapping heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Rising temperatures worldwide are leading to melting glaciers, rising sea levels and stronger storms, according to scientific studies.

More than 190 nations are gathered in Cancun this week, struggling to craft a treaty that would curb carbon emissions, including an agreement to reduce deforestation. With the failure of the U.S. Congress to pass cap-and-trade legislation, some developing nations are looking to California as a source of funds to help their forest-dwellers develop other sources of fuel and income.

Steven L. Kline, a vice president of Pacific Gas & Electric, one of California’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases told Cancun delegates and activists that the company hopes to use international offsets to help with “keeping customer costs low and demonstrably reducing global emissions.”

Under California’s cap and trade program, expected to be approved by the state’s Air Resources Board next week, industries such as power plants and refineries could pay Chiapas to help save its rain forest in exchange for offsetting some of their own emissions in California.

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Cancun climate talks: Island states plead for survival

Greenpeace baloon

Among the delegates from 190 nations wrestling over international climate agreements in Cancun this week, there is nary a hint of the skepticism over global warming that has surfaced in the U.S. Congress, where oil, coal and other industrial interests have battled climate legislation to a standstill.

Floods in Pakistan, fires in Russia, typhoons in Vietnam, drought in Mexico -- every nation seems to have a tale of climate-related woe.  The most vulnerable nations include the small island states of the Pacific, the Caribbean and the Indian Ocean, which are threatened by rising seas, stronger hurricanes and fresh water shortages.

Ronny Jumeau, a delegate from the 150-island archipelago of Seychelles, has a message for the United States -- the only major greenhouse-gas emitter which declined to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol to limit planet-heating pollution: “If we sink, Manhattan sinks.”

Are the big countries paying attention? “President Obama’s heart is in the right place, but he can’t deliver,” says Jumeau, one of 9,000 diplomats, scientists and technicians negotiating in Cancun.

Many developing nations, such as China and India, have other agendas.  Saudi Arabia has emerged as an opponent of small island initiatives. “The island nations are very aggressive,” says U.N. Foundation President Timothy Wirth, a former U.S. negotiator. But their voices get buried.”

Read more in a Times story about Jumeau and the Alliance of Small Island States, a negotiating bloc of 43 countries which is creating a stir at the Cancun talks.

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: A balloon, launched by Greenpeace, rises next to the Chichen Itza ruins in Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.  Credit: Greenpeace

'The World in 2050' : The Arctic and everything below

The World in 2050 by Laurence SmithEveryone wants to predict the future, but Laurence Smith actually does so in his new book, “The World in 2050: Four Forces Shaping Our Civilization’s Northern Future” (Dutton, 2010).  

Smith, a UCLA professor and geographer, traveled the Arctic region after receiving a Guggenheim fellowship in 2006.  In Russia, Canada and the northern regions of Europe, he visited remote aboriginal villages, and studied both permafrost and demography. 

He concludes that the future is a mixed bag of positive and negative: People will urbanize further; the global population will age; and aboriginal groups of the far north will gain a voice in how we spend our natural resources. It’s not how many people live on Earth, but rather how we live that will affect outcomes. 

He recently spoke with The Times about his work.

By 2050, who will be the winners and losers?
The definition of a winner and loser depends on your point of view. There will be a surprising rise of indigenous power; from a human rights perspective, the indigenous groups are huge winners.

Most climate change will be overwhelmingly negative.  But there will be milder winters and a longer growing season in the northern countries, even in the northern U.S. like Minnesota.  If you are a raccoon pushing north, it’s good. But if you are a polar bear, it’s bad.

There will be reduced ice cover in the Arctic, which will allow for easier access for shipping. But the interiors of the north will become less accessible.  So, we’ll see a rising maritime economy –- with greater access by sea, but reduced access by land.

What’s happening with the aboriginal people through the high latitudes?
During the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, these people were pushed out, but in recent years there’s a been a rise in aboriginal power. It started in 1971 in Alaska with the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act.

This means that the northern people are now stakeholders. From a human rights perspective, it’s great. From an environmental perspective, once the agreements are in place, aboriginal people will be able to favor resource development. Though the aboriginal people deeply care about the land and want to minimize damage. This is happening in Canada. But it’s not echoed in most of Europe and in Russia it's bleak.

The perception Americans have of Arctic people is different from the way Arctic people view themselves. To them, they are changing like everyone else –- they want to move to town, they want the Internet. To us, the Arctic is a pristine part of the planet that we like to protect; we like to know it exists.  In terms of hunting, to them, they have lived off of these animals for thousands of years. To them, oil and gas are bounty of the land.

How will Canada fare in the future as compared to Russia?
Throughout most of northern Canada, they are all urbanizing and moving to cities. It’s a young population. Kids there today don’t want to live in a cabin, hunting and fishing; they want to live in town with a Wii. 

Canada is growing, while Russia is falling. They differ in their attitudes toward immigration. Canada has been good at attracting a skilled immigrant population.  In Russia, they are actually headed toward a population crash. Their population will drop by 17% in 2050.

Canada prizes education, work skills, and language. Russia is xenophobic. It’s a political issue -- if a Russian politician says we need to open the door to immigrants, they get crushed. Because of their differing attitudes toward immigration, one nation is thriving and one will crash.

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Cadmium: California and the U.S. target toxic jewelry

A bill to ban jewelry containing detectable levels of cadmium  has passed the California Legislature  and awaits the signature of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Fran Pavley (D-Agoura Hills) would ban sales of jewelry in California containing more than 300 parts per million of the toxic metal, which is a known cancer-causing agent.

Meanwhile, the federal government has moved to recall jewelry with cadmium and a bill to ban cadmium-laden jewelry is pending in Congress. The Los Angeles Times' Lily Kuo reports on the cadmium trade from our Beijing bureau:

The cupcake-shaped pendants came in shades of blue and pink, studded with rhinestones. Meant for little girls, they hung on simple faux-silver necklaces and cost as little as $8.

And they were potentially deadly, according to consumer advocates. This type of cheap costume jewelry made with the metal cadmium, which can be toxic at high levels, is at the heart of the latest "made in China" scare.

Read more: "Cadmium in Chinese Jewelry Raises Alarms."

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photo: At a factory in Yiwu, China, a worker assembles jewelry. Chinese manufacturers have begun substituting cadmium, a known carcinogen, for lead. Credit: Eugene Hoshiko / Associated Press

Western Climate Initiative: California, New Mexico and 3 Canadian provinces push greenhouse gas controls

California, joined by New Mexico and three Canadian provinces, outlined a detailed plan Tuesday to curb greenhouse gas emissions in a regional cap-and-trade program by January 2012.

The Western Climate Initiative, two years in the making, comes as Congressional legislation for a federal climate legislation has stalled and the focus of U.S. action to curb global warming shifts to the states. A Northeastern cap-and-trade program is operating, covering power plants, but the economy-wide Western program, if enacted, would be three times larger, eventually encompassing most industrial and transportation sources of carbon dioxide and other gases that have begun to alter the global climate. Europe has been operating under a cap-and-trade program for industry for several years.

But the future of the Western initiative is up in the air:  California’s push for statewide controls are under challenge in a ballot initiative, as well as by gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman.

According to a news release from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's office Tuesday the California-led plan “will be the most comprehensive carbon-reduction strategy adopted anywhere in the world.”  While international and federal climate controls are needed," Schwarzenegger said,  “California and the rest of the Western Climate Initiative partners are not waiting to take action.”

UPDATE: for the full story in Wednesday's paper click on Western Climate Initiative.

-- Margot Roosevelt


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