Tuesday, June 12, 2012


Back from vacation and let's begin with some self-promotion — I made it into the pages of The Nation:
Arijit Guha, a graduate student at Arizona State University who grew up in a “comfortable, upper-middle-class home,” had long nurtured “an interest in progressive politics and healthcare.” Those issues “had always been abstract,” until early 2011, when he returned from his honeymoon in India with what he thought was a stomach parasite. A doctor discovered a malignant growth in his colon. Surgery revealed tumors strewn throughout his abdominal cavity.

Less than a year of aggressive treatment put Guha over the lifetime cap on his student health insurance plan. His medical bills average $25,000 a month, more than half of what he and his wife earn in a year. Guha says the state of Arizona made matters worse when the state “decided it was more important to cut [healthcare] and distribute a few tax breaks to rich people than have a decent social safety net in place.” Narrowly defined criteria left him ineligible for Medicaid, and in 2011 the austerity ax lopped off a state program for people like him whose medical costs put them at risk for bankruptcy.

The Affordable Care Act could save Guha from the financial ruin of fighting for his life. In 2014, insurers will no longer be able to deny him coverage because of his illness, and lifetime caps on student health plans will be banned. “I am clearly not the sort of case that insurers are excited to take on,” he says. “But that’s the entire reason we have to have the individual mandate.” In the meantime, Guha can enroll in a transitional insurance program, but not until he’s been uninsured for six months. He is conscious of the fact that the law might vanish before then. “If the Supreme Court were to get rid of the act, or if Congress repeals the act, suddenly it would not be a six-month period of being uninsured but quite [a lot] longer,” he says. For now, as Guha undergoes chemotherapy and further surgery, he is fundraising. A strong network of friends have helped him develop a successful campaign based around a website called poopstrong.org. “Most people in my situation are not nearly as lucky,” he says.


There are even misgivings about the ACA among young Americans who voted for the president in 2008. Talon Hoke and Arijit Guha said they would have preferred a single-payer plan akin to Medicaid or the VA system to the individual mandate paired with insurance exchanges. The ACA also does little for the nearly 2 million undocumented young adults living, working and studying in America without insurance.


The ACA raises questions about which Americans deserve care and how it should be paid for. Young adults interviewed for this article said they support the ACA not only because they have an individual stake in its survival but also because the law expands, if imperfectly, a crucial aspect of the social safety net that has until now been denied to swaths of American citizens. As Arijit Guha put it, “A sane, just, equitable society is one where we pitch in for one another when someone is needy.” He says that lack of insurance reinforces economic inequality, because “the people that don’t have access [to care] are the ones at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder to begin with.” Research supports his argument: lower-income young adults are more likely than others to be both uninsured and sick. While they may struggle to pay for insurance out of pocket, the young adults I spoke to do want to invest in the nation’s health with their tax dollars. “For people to kick in their fair share seems appropriate, for something that everybody is going to use,” Inga Haugen explains. Says Hoke, “I hear about cuts in the education and healthcare system, and I think, what the hell are you guys spending the money on?” The number of young adults concerned about economic inequality has risen dramatically in the last year, as they find themselves on the descending end of the wealth gap see-saw. Even if the ACA is an insufficient political motivator on its own, it could help to galvanize young voters if, like Guha, Haugen and Hoke, they see it as part of the national debate about inequality, fairness and the worth of social services. 
Meanwhile, you can buy goods at the Poop Strong webstore to help me in my fight against cancer and lack of insurance. Raffle items include a chance to see Tenacious D, a set of crocheted cowls and afghan, a handcrafted mola from Panama, autographed CDs from string quartet Brooklyn Rider, a personalized musical arrangement by composer Jen Wang, a travel/writing consultation with author Doug Mack, and a chance to win an all-access pass to Fugazi's live concert archive. And we've still got a few t-shirts left, as well.

Speaking of health care and the ACA, what happens if the Supreme Court strikes down the individual mandate? Despite the uncertainty, some health care providers are moving forward with ACA-mandated changes.

And on a related note, an open letter to SCOTUS re: health insurance, in comic form.

Could our transformation of the Earth system be leading to planet-wide tipping points?:
Human activity now dominates 43 percent of Earth’s land surface and affects twice that area. One-third of all available fresh water is diverted to human use. A full 20 percent of Earth’s net terrestrial primary production, the sheer volume of life produced on land every year, is harvested for human purposes. Extinction rates compare to those recorded during the demise of dinosaurs and average temperatures will likely be higher in 2070 than at any point in human evolution.

Scientists informally call our current geological age the “Anthropocene,” and to Barnosky’s group this means we’re strong enough to tip the planet, radically changing regional climates and ecologies.

“Everything that happened the last time around is happening now, only more of it,” said Barnosky of the last ice age’s end and ongoing changes to Earth’s climate and biosphere. “I think the evidence makes it pretty clear that another critical transition or tipping point is very plausible within the next century.”

Yet while Barnosky and colleagues write that the plausibility of a planetary shift is high, they say “considerable uncertainty remains about whether it is inevitable and, if so, how far in the future it may be.” Other scientists echoed the caution.

“We have quite good evidence for the Earth having tipping elements. They can be very small, like a pond, or large like a monsoon system. Those we understand very well. But the bigger ones are harder to understand,” said ecologist Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University, a tipping point research pioneer. Scheffer said he is “not so convinced” that a single, Earth-wide shift is imminent.
Where exactly may that planetary boundary to avert global state shift be?:
Humans have already converted about 43 percent of the ice-free land surface of the planet to uses like raising crops and livestock and building cities, the scientists said. Studies on a smaller scale have suggested that when more than 50 percent of a natural landscape is lost, the ecological web can collapse. The new paper essentially asks, what are the chances that will prove true for the planet as a whole?

In interviews, scientists involved in writing the paper acknowledged that the 50 percent threshold was simply a best guess, based on extrapolating the earlier research. But they said they were deeply concerned about many of the trends on the planet and the seeming inability of the world’s political leadership to grapple with them.

The situation “scares the hell out of me,” said one author of the paper, James H. Brown, who is a macroecologist at the University of New Mexico and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “We’ve created this enormous bubble of population and economy. If you try to get the good data and do the arithmetic, it’s just unsustainable. It’s either got to be deflated gently, or it’s going to burst.”
More from the UC-Berkeley press office. And Stanford.

Consumers in developed countries are helping to drive biodiversity loss:
According to their study, global trade is responsible for about 30 percent of threats to species — and developed countries are driving much of the demand.

The team studied species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and determined whether they were threatened by the production of commodities, such as tea, sugar, coffee, fish, bananas, wool, rubber, and tobacco. The researchers also linked each commodity to the country where it was eventually consumed.

Developed countries imported many goods linked to habitat loss, while exporting relatively few. In developing countries, the opposite was true: these nations “find themselves degrading habitat and threatening biodiversity for the sake of producing exports,” the authors write. For example, production of coffee, palm oil, cocoa, and coconut in Papua New Guinea is endangering species such as the black-spotted cuscus and the eastern long-beaked echidna.

The US, Europe, and Japan are among the biggest importers of environmentally-tainted goods, the authors found. The production of Germany’s imports alone threatens 395 species, with commodities coming in from Madagascar, Ghana, Sri Lanka, Cameroon, and other countries. The study shows that “local threats to species are driven by economic activity and consumer demand across the world,” the team writes. Since both producers and consumers play a role in the destruction of biodiversity, “responsibility may lie with both camps, and may hence have to be shared between them.”

Texas turns to desalination, when conservation would've likely solved their problems:
Across the state, 44 desalination plants — none using seawater — have been built for public water supplies, according to the Texas Water Development Board. Ten more, including San Antonio’s, have been approved for construction by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality.

Most projects are small, capable of providing less than three million gallons per day, often for rural areas. The state’s largest is in El Paso, where the $91 million Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant, completed in 2007, can supply up to 27.5 million gallons of water a day, though it rarely operates at full capacity because of the high energy costs associated with forcing water through a membrane resembling parchment to take out the salts. (Production of desalinated water costs 2.1 times more than fresh groundwater and 70 percent more than surface water, according to El Paso Water Utilities.) Last year, the plant supplied 4 percent of El Paso’s water.

Interest in desalination surged more than a decade ago, when the technology became more efficient and cost-competitive, according to Jorge Arroyo, a desalination specialist with the Texas Water Development Board. But the severe drought of the past two years has triggered extra calls to his office. Texas holds 2.7 billion acre-feet of brackish groundwater — which translates to roughly 150 times the amount of water the state uses annually — in addition to some brackish surface water.

The state water plan finalized this year envisions Texas deriving 3.4 percent of its water supply from desalination in 2060. (It is less than 1 percent now.)

Environmentalists argue that desalination is not a silver bullet because it is energy-intensive and requires disposal of the concentrated salts in a way that avoids contaminating fresh water. Texas should first focus on conservation and the reuse of wastewater, said Amy Hardberger, a water specialist with the Environmental Defense Fund.

“What needs to be avoided is the, ‘Oh, we’ll just get more’ mentality,” she said. But getting more is what many Texans want. Odessa, which draws water from dangerously low surface reservoirs, is considering a desalination plant that could ultimately become bigger than the one in El Paso.

Using Google to determine racial bias in the anti-Obama vote:
From 2008 onward, “Obama” is a prevalent term in racially charged searches.

The state with the highest racially charged search rate in the country was West Virginia. Other areas with high percentages included western Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, upstate New York and southern Mississippi.

Once I figured out which parts of the country had the highest racially charged search rates, I could test whether Mr. Obama underperformed in these areas. I predicted how many votes Mr. Obama should have received based on how many votes John Kerry received in 2004 plus the average gain achieved by other 2008 Democratic Congressional candidates. The results were striking: The higher the racially charged search rate in an area, the worse Mr. Obama did.

Consider two media markets, Denver and Wheeling (which is a market evenly split between Ohio and West Virginia). Mr. Kerry received roughly 50 percent of the votes in both markets. Based on the large gains for Democrats in 2008, Mr. Obama should have received about 57 percent of votes in both Denver and Wheeling. Denver and Wheeling, though, exhibit different racial attitudes. Denver had the fourth lowest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won 57 percent of the vote there, just as predicted. Wheeling had the seventh highest racially charged search rate in the country. Mr. Obama won less than 48 percent of the Wheeling vote.

Add up the totals throughout the country, and racial animus cost Mr. Obama three to five percentage points of the popular vote. In other words, racial prejudice gave John McCain the equivalent of a home-state advantage nationally.

Food system workers don't have it so good.

Considering energy's deathprint.

The environmental damage accompanying fracking's boom.

The benefits of EPA's proposed carbon rules.

The US public believes in regulation.

Oh, of course, Barack Obama wants white kids to have asthma. It's so hard these days to be white.

Another climate change feedback to worry about: warming will release CO2 from terrestrial forest soils.

Emissions from power plants are killing the Great Lakes.

Cities in Latin America are doing better at climate change adaptation than ones in the US.

Of course, here in the US, even "sea level rise" has become a contentious term.

And it's worse in North Carolina, where it's not just the term that's contentious, but the act of accurately recognizing sea-level rise and planning for it that's potentially illegal.

NOAA reports on just how hot it has been this spring.

A plankton bloom in the Arctic, thanks to thinning sea ice.

Scotland commits to climate justice.

On greening the hospital operating room.

A majority of Chinese give top priority to protecting the environment.

The International Energy Agency's chief economist isn't optimistic about the trajectory of global emissions.

Other voices at the IEA are also pessimistic.

Investments in renewables are growing, however.

Carrots for those who avoid driving during peak times.

Visualize well-being, according to your preferences, via the OECD.

They may say its religious freedom, but the goal is to remove access to contraception.

The laughable rhetoric of anti-choicers.

Stand Your Ground Laws and potential racial bias.

Five Stand Your Ground cases you should know about.

Some facts on the injustice that is NYC's stop-and-frisk policy.

How the death of the newspaper industry has enabled Republican extremism.

It is impossible to separate social issues from economic issues.

Nearly 90% of the books reviewed by The New York Times are written by white writers.”

A couple good recent pieces from Dahlia Lithwick on voter suppression in Ohio and the siege mentality felt by Supreme Court justices.

Corey Robin offers a challenge to the left.

How the Obama administration uses the media to disseminate its message.

Since the Republicans can't get rid of our regulating agencies, their tactic is to deny them money instead.

Woodward and Bernstein: Nixon was an even bigger dick than we realized.

How does fake sugar work?

Missing mutations is cancer cells.

Corporate intrusion into scientific inquiry.

Open access to federally-funded research.

J.E.H. Smith on getting past the tokenism approach to non-western philosophy.

Redefining marriage, in the dictionary.

What America spends on groceries.

Is Morrissey ready to retire?

This is not the Neneh Cherry you remember. This is much more awesome.

Once upon a time...

Time to visit Lil' Barack:
Colbert on North Carolina's unwillingness to even consider sea-level rise:

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