Signs of Life

Small Stories about Big Change


Threatened Status for Polar Bears

Polar bears. Photo by John Pitcher / ISP.

The Arctic is especially vulnerable to global warming, and the region is warming up much faster than other regions. This pronounced change has caused sea ice to melt, glaciers to shrink, and permafrost to thaw. That's bad news for polar bears, who rely on sea ice for mating, for occasional respite from long-distance swimming, and for access to their main prey, ice seals.

A 2006 study by the U.S. Geological Survey found that polar bear cub survival rates in the South Beaufort Sea have been falling since 1989, when major changes to sea ice began.

The Bush administration recently acknowledged the bears' plight. On December 27, Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne proposed listing the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). This proposal follows a petition submitted by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may consider the proposal for one year before making a final decision.

Polar bear bones in the Arctic's Svalbard Archipelago. Photo by Frederic Widmann.
Polar bear bones in the Arctic's Svalbard Archipelago. Photo by Frederic Widmann.

If the listing is approved, the federal government would be required to develop a recovery plan to protect the polar bears. However, Kempthorne told The New York Times that the issue of climate change is beyond the scope of the ESA.

Kassie Siegel, attorney for the Center for Biological Diversity, disagrees. “The only way to avoid jeopardizing the polar bear is to reduce emissions,” said Siegel.

In a dramatic example of just how fast the ice can change, 33.6 square miles of ice broke away from Ellesmere Island in northern Canada in less than an hour in August 2005. The event was discovered by Laurie Weir, who monitors ice conditions for the Canadian Ice Service, as she was reviewing old satellite images and noticed a missing section of the Ayles Ice Shelf. It was the largest event of its kind in the area for at least 25 years and included one island of ice slightly larger than Manhattan and approximately 100 feet thick.

—Michelle Wallar

Also ...
The National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) published in December the results of a research study on the melting of Arctic sea ice. Their conclusion: the speed of melting is likely to accelerate so rapidly due to global climate change that the Arctic Ocean could become nearly devoid of summertime ice as early as 2040.

However, the NCAR scientists also found that if greenhouse gas emissions were reduced, the likelihood of rapid ice loss would decrease. “Our research indicates that society can still minimize the impacts on Arctic ice,” said scientist Marika Holland.

Step It Up Close to Home

Step It Up 2007 logo

Although awareness of the looming climate crisis is spreading, the largest street protest to date has consisted of only 1,000 people. Bill McKibben's Step It Up 2007 campaign is asking people to join in a massive protest united by a common message: reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Rather than scheduling a single protest in Washington, DC, McKibben is calling for smaller events in local communities on April 14, the new National Day of Climate Action. The goals: show local members of Congress that their own constituents care about the issue and demonstrate that a growing movement is spreading across the nation. And, of course, protesting closer to home cuts down on carbon emissions.

—Catherine Bailey

Interested: see


Voting Machines to Leave Paper Trail

San Diego's new machines leave paper trails. Photo by Nathan Gibbs.
San Diego's new machines leave paper trails. Photo by Nathan Gibbs.

The change of control in Congress may mean the end of paperless direct recording electronic (DRE) voting machines. Rep. Rush Holt has stated his commitment to passing his bill—introduced twice in the House, but not acted on—requiring a voter-verified paper ballot for all votes. Sen. Dianne Feinstein plans to introduce a similar bill in the Senate.

Meanwhile, the federal Elections Assistance Commission (EAC) has approved creation of a new federal program for testing and certifying voting systems. Although the program will be voluntary, 39 states currently require certification of voting equipment, and the new federal program is likely to become the standard for certification. The EAC will certify testing laboratories and procedures. This will be the first time that testing has been done under federal jurisdiction rather than by private laboratories.

The Technical Guidelines Development Committee (TGDC), which advises the EAC, plans to have new guidelines for equipment and testing in place by July. Those guidelines will require voting systems to be “software-independent”—that is, they must produce a voter-verified record that can be independently audited. For the moment, the TGDC says, the only systems that satisfy that requirement are paper-based.

The increased interest in problems with DREs comes in part from trouble with the 2006 election. In Florida's 13th District, a lawsuit is underway to require a new election for U.S. representative. In this hotly contested race, 18,000 ballots showed no vote for representative. In Democrat-heavy Sarasota County, 16 percent of DRE ballots showed no vote for the House race, as opposed to a mere 2.5 percent of paper absentee ballots. Since the DRE machines produced no voter-verified paper record, a true audit of the election is impossible.

—Doug Pibel


Active-Duty Soldiers Call for End to War

During the Vietnam War, more than 1,300 active-duty soldiers signed an open letter to The New York Times declaring their opposition to the war. A similar movement is now surfacing as more than 1,000 mostly active-duty soldiers, sailors, Marines, and airmen have signed an Appeal for Redress, a petition to Congress to bring the troops home from Iraq.

These petitioners reflect a growing discontent within the military about the way President Bush is handling the Iraq War. Nearly four years into the conflict, a Military Times poll found that just 35 percent of military personnel support Bush's handling of the war, down from 63 percent in 2004.

—Julia Wingert

Also ...
One U.S. military officer faces six years in prison for his refusal to deploy to what he calls an illegal and immoral war. Lt. Ehren Watada, the first officer to publicly refuse deployment to Iraq, will stand trial in Fort Lewis, Washington in February.

“We all swear an oath to protect the Constitution of the United States,” Lt. Watada says. “Sometimes that comes with a price.”

Lt. Watada had planned to offer testimony at his court martial that the war in Iraq is itself illegal, and that it is the duty of U.S. soldiers to refuse to carry out illegal orders. The judge ruled in January that no such testimony would be allowed. So a tribunal of citizens convened the weekend of January 20 at the Evergreen State College, near Fort Lewis, to hear the testimony the judge excluded.

Expert witnesses in international law and human rights, veterans of the Iraq conflict, and policy analysts made the case that the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

Lt. Watada, meanwhile continues to speak out: “The people have the power to stop the war.”

—Sarah van Gelder


Poor People's Candidates Sweep Latin American Elections

With the January inauguration of a new president of Ecuador, a comeback president in Nicaragua, and a re-elected president in Venezuela, the tide of change in Latin America appears unstoppable.

Just a year ago, Bolivia's first indigenous president, Evo Morales, took office, and Brazil's left-leaning president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, was re-elected in October.

Within hours of his swearing-in ceremonies in Managua, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega signed on to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), a trade pact that also includes Bolivia and Cuba and is widely seen as an alternative to the U.S.-supported Free Trade Zone of the Americas.

Chavez, whose swearing in was the same day, offered Nicaragua low-interest loans, discounted oil, and assistance with health care, housing, and education.

The new president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, likewise signed an agreement with Chavez within hours of his swearing in. The bilateral energy deal furthers the growing integration of the region.

Other signs of this trend can be seen in the widespread rejection of U.S.-backed free trade agreements, the growing interest in the Common Market of the South (Mercorsur), and a controversial pipeline proposal to link Venezuela, Brazil, and ultimately Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay, and Uruguay.

An integrated Latin America—independent from the North and focused on solving the problems of the poor—is gaining strength.

—Sarah van Gelder

YES! editor Sarah van Gelder recently returned from a three-month study trip in Latin America.


2006 National Average Temperatures Ranked by Area

“We have turned up Earth's thermostat.”

2007 report Penn State analyst Richard Alley, on the government's announcement that 2006 was the warmest year on record in the United States.

On right: YES! Magazine graphic, 2007, showing 2006 National Average Temperatures Ranked by Area. The entire U.S. is ranked 'Much Above Normal'. Source: National Climatic Data Center/NOAA.



The Great Divide Gets Larger

A new global study of personal wealth shows that the richest 2 percent of adults now own more than half of global household wealth. The study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research of the United Nations University, Helsinki was based on data from the year 2000. It showed that the richest 1 percent of adults (those worth at least $500,000) controlled 40 percent of global assets, and that the richest 10 percent of adults (those worth at least $61,000) owned 85 percent of the world total. Meanwhile the bottom half (those worth less than $2,200) together owned barely 1 percent of global wealth.

The United States is one of the world's wealthiest countries, but the wealth divide here is just as deep. The richest 10 percent of Americans controls 70 percent of the wealth.

While the median wage and salary income grew by only 11 percent between 1966 and 2001, the wealthiest 10 percent saw an increase of 58 percent, and the top 1 percent had an increase of 121 percent. Those in the top 0.1 percent enjoyed a 236 percent income increase in those 35 years, according to a report by Ian Dew-Becker and Robert Gordon of Northwestern University.

The rising disparity is alarming to most Americans, according to a December Bloomberg/Los Angeles Times poll. Nearly three-quarters of Americans said the income gap is a somewhat serious or very serious problem.
Of those making less than $40,000 a year, 85 percent considered the gap a serious problem; more than three of five of those making more than $100,000 agreed.

—Michelle Wallar


Work vs. Family?

Companies can boost employee satisfaction—and profits—by offering workplace flexibility (such as flex-time and telecommuting), support for working parents, and subsidies for after-school child care. That is the conclusion of a study by Brandeis University, released on December 8. The study surveyed more than 1,700 parents employed at three Fortune 100 firms.

Working parents of school-age children worry about what happens when school lets out, according to the study. This worry, which cuts across gender, age, and socio-economic status, can lead to reduced productivity.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 15 percent of U.S. workers have employer assistance for child care.

—Michelle Wallar


New Super Union

The British trade union Amicus has announced an international alliance with three other unions—the German IG-Metall and, in the United States, the International Association of Machinists and the United Steel Workers. The goal: to keep labor standards high and to make it harder for transnational corporations to play employees in different countries off one another. The Guardian reports that if Amicus follows through on a planned merger with the Transport & General Workers' Union, the international super-union will have over 6 million members.


A Few Fashion Waifs Out of Work

Opportunity strikes outside London's fashion shows. Photo by Janet Cole.
Opportunity strikes outside London's fashion shows. Photo by Janet Cole.

In September, Madrid's fashion houses took a bold step toward reducing the societal pressure on women to be unhealthily thin. They banned under-weight runway models. It was the world's first ban on overly thin models at a top-level fashion show, and they meant it.

Madrid turned away 30 percent of the models agencies had lined up, including Spain's hottest model, Esther Canadas, who had a body mass index (BMI) of only 14. Madrid's guidelines barred any woman with a BMI of 18. This means that a 5' 8'' model who weighed less than 122 lb. would be barred.

Then, as often happens in the fashion world, it became trendy.

In December, Milan also banned skinny models, as well as those under the age of 16. When Paris and London refused to follow suit, the world waited to see what New York would do.
In January, New York's fashion houses rejected a ban opting instead to issue guidelines for healthy body image.

The director of New York's Elite agency complained that the trend against “Size Zero” could harm careers of naturally “gazelle-like” models.

—Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn


California Joins Move to Universal Health Care

On January 8, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger released a proposal for near-universal health care for California's 36 million residents. Estimated to cost $12 billion per year, the plan calls for contributions from the government, employers who don't offer heath insurance, and the uninsured themselves. The proposal would also require doctors and hospitals to contribute 2 and 4 percent of their revenue to the fund, respectively.

The state would mandate that each resident have health insurance. Low- to moderate-income families would be eligible for state-funded free or subsidized health care. Those making more would have to buy their own insurance.

The plan awaits approval from the California State Legislature. If implemented, California would become the fifth, and largest, state to offer near-universal health care for its residents.

Some consumer groups are objecting to requiring insurance without putting cost controls on health care and ensuring that the coverage is meaningful, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Jerry Flanagan of the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights told the Chronicle, “If consumers felt they would really get an affordable product that would provide some real coverage, they would be willing to support a mandate that stabilizes the system.”

—Sarah Kuck

Fuel gauge at empty

“For the first time in 25 years, motorists' average mileage went down.”

2007 report Gasoline and the American People by Cambridge Energy Research Associates.


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