Counting Green Cars

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

While Cash for Clunkers is topped off with an extra $2 billion, science journalists do the math on its environmental impact. Plus, two diseases traced back to their primate origins.

Illustration: Mike Pick

Republican Senator Jim DeMint kicked off the week on Fox News Sunday, throwing a wet blanket over America’s favorite new government program, the Car Allowance Rebate System (CARS), lovingly called “Cash for Clunkers.” The program has been so popular, searches for eligible cars consistently ranked in the week’s top Google trends, dealers filing paperwork have repeatedly crashed the government’s website, and most importantly, the program has distributed all of the $1 billion in rebates that were made available for trading in cars that get lower than 18 miles per gallon. 

The fiscally conservative senator had this to say: “The federal government went bankrupt in one week in the used car business, and now they want to run our health care system.”

Ah yes, the used car business, which apparently involves paying people to have their old cars recycled, while another business sells them new ones. Indeed, the program failed so miserably that it apparently doubled weekly car sales and injected nearly $1 billion dollars of windfall cash into the economy. Before packing it up for the August recess, Congress decided that this was the kind of failure they could get behind: The House doubled-down on the program, voting for an additional $2 billion last Friday. The Senate passed the House bill yesterday. President Obama is likely to sign the extension into law today.

But what of its ecological impact? The core concept, even its colloquial name, is rooted in the idea that the program would be replacing carbon-intensive vehicles with more efficient alternatives. Science journalists have been furiously crunching the numbers all week, and the results aren’t entirely unexpected: As a “green” program, Cash for Clunkers is pretty junky.

Seth Borenstein’s Wednesday headline for the Associated Press describes the program’s net impact on the environment as “a blip,” and he tallies the carbon dioxide savings as amounting to less than an hour’s worth of the nation’s yearly output. Gwen Ottinger of the Chemical Heritage Foundation breaks down the philosophy of consumption in a Monday Washington Post op-ed, demonstrating that even well-meaning programs, such as EnergyStar ratings for appliances, can lead people to make less eco-friendly choices in the long run.

But while Cash for Clunkers may do little in the way of combating climate change, there is no denying the change of mentality it represents for drivers. Being one of those latte-sipping, east coast elites, I’m more likely to take advantage of New York City’s test-run of a European-style bicycle-sharing program than to buy a car, no matter how green. But you don’t have to be a road warrior to know that unsustainable, gas-guzzling giants were not only given a pass over the last two decades, they were actively subsidized. Now, they’re being junked en masse—three Ford Explorer models are the top three vehicles being traded in.

This Week In Primates: Cameroon Edition

After last week’s report that chimpanzees do develop a simian form of AIDS—scientists had previously thought them to be immune—apes remained in the news this week with two new discoveries that link primate, human diseases, and, oddly enough, the nation of Cameroon.

French researchers, publishing in this week’s Nature Medicine, have found a new strain of HIV that seems to be related to a strain of simian immunodeficiency virus found in gorillas. So far, only one human has tested positive for the strain, dubbed HIV-1p: a 62-year-old woman originally from Cameroon. Though the woman has a high virus count and has been ill, she does not show a compromised immune system symptomatic of AIDS. The woman also claims not to have had direct contact with apes, meaning that the virus was likely sexually transmitted from another human infected with HIV-1p. However, with only one subject, the researchers are just beginning to piece together the strain’s species-jumping history. 

A second group of researchers has had better luck in tracing the origin of malaria, for the first time conclusively linking it to chimpanzees, based on a study of chimps at three wildlife sanctuaries in Cameroon. Several new strains of the parasite that causes malaria in chimps—Plasmodium reichenowi—were discovered, allowing researchers to determine how the most common and virulent human-malaria strain—Plasmodium falciparum—could have mutated and jumped the species barrier. The group, which includes lead author Stephen Rich of University of Massachusetts–Amherst and Nicholas Wolfe’s team from the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative at Stanford University, published their findings in this week’s PNAS.

Wolfe was optimistic that the team’s findings could lead to better malaria vaccines, the best of which are still at the clinical trial stage and provide limited immunity. He may not have to wait long, as a third group of researchers have demonstrated a method for developing a seemingly effective vaccine, using a novel, potentially risky, approach.  An international team exposed 15 brave human subjects to malaria-carrying mosquitoes, giving 10 of the subjects the anti-malarial drug chloroquine during the periods of exposure: once a month for three months. After waiting a month to factor out the protective effect of the chloroquine in the experimental group, all 15 subjects were exposed again. Only the five-member control group showed signs of infection; the experimental group had developed antibodies. 

This Week In Social Darwinism

According to a Wednesday CNN report by Emily Chang, a Chinese summer camp—the Chongqing Children’s Palace—has partnered with Shanghai BioChip, a genetic testing company. The Children’s Palace apparently provides aptitude tests and behavioral analysis for anxious parents who want to send their child down the ideal career path; this is the first time its services will include genotyping. The report says that Shanghai BioChip will test 11 genes, granting insight into a child’s “IQ, emotional control, focus, memory, athletic ability, and more.” As of this posting, Shanghai BioChip’s website is down so details could not be confirmed; a shame, as I was very curious to know which chromosome they found the “IQ” gene. Of course, you don’t need to go to China to get your kid’s future athletic prowess assayed—Atlas Sports Genetics will sell you a diagnostic kit over the internet for $149. Distopian nightmares about genetic aristocracies aside, at least this makes picking teams for kickball easier.

Originally published August 7, 2009

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