2012 - %3, January

Long Overdue Plant Hardiness Map is a Hothouse

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 6:53 PM EST

 2012 plant hardiness zone map: USDA and Oregon State University

2012 plant hardiness zone map. Click for interactive image: USDA and Oregon State University

The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a long overdue new version of their Plant Hardiness Zone Map yesterday—the first update since 1990.

How out of date was the 1990 map? It was based on data from 1974 to 1986. That's 26 years ago. 

The new map is interactive, which is cool, and based on a much finer data scale than the old one, which is great. And guess what. It shows that things are getting warmer. The USDA managed to pretty much bury that fact in Bureaucratese in their press release (highlights are mine):

Compared to the 1990 version, zone boundaries in this edition of the map have shifted in many areas. The new map is generally one 5-degree Fahrenheit half-zone warmer than the previous map throughout much of the United States. This is mostly a result of using temperature data from a longer and more recent time period; the new map uses data measured at weather stations during the 30-year period 1976-2005. In contrast, the 1990 map was based on temperature data from only a 13-year period of 1974-1986.

 

1990 USDA plant hardiness: USDA1990 USDA plant hardiness: USDA

In the 1990 map above you can see the scale is less fine. But you can also tell at a glance where things have changed in a big way, compared to the 2012 map... in the southern Rockies, southern Appalachians, upper Michigan, swathes of the Canadian and Mexican borders, coastal California, etc.

The 2012 map comes with its own interesting climate-phobic history, as noted by Cornell University's gardening.cornell.edu

In 2003 the American Horticultural Society released a draft version of a new map based on data from 1986 to 2002, which showed dramatic northward movement of hardiness zones. USDA pulled this map from circulation and had said they would release an updated map in 2005. Instead, in 2006 the Arbor Day Foundation issued a map noting that indeed climate zones had shifted significantly from 1990 to 2006, implying that the climate was warming. The map released today by USDA confirms many of these trends.

 

2006 USDA plant hardiness map: USDA2006 Arbor Day plant hardiness map: Arbor Day Foundation

 

Here's the 2006 Arbor Day Foundation map, using the same scale as the 1990 map. You can see how things have warmed and how the planting zones are shifting north. If you parse this map against the finer-scale of the 2012 map, they look pretty much the same. 

Advertise on MotherJones.com

A Victory for Cute Kids, Civic Engagement, and the Trees

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 6:39 PM EST

You have to hand it to the enterprising students of Ted Wells' fourth grade class. On Wednesday, I wrote about the kids' Change.org campaign to get Universal Pictures to include more environmental education in the promotional materials for the film version of Dr. Seuss' The Lorax. On Thursday, Wells and Change.org announced that Universal has added a huge green icon to the movie site that takes visitors to a page full of information and tips on protecting the environment.

The "Lorax Project" page includes educational materials about trees around the world and ideas about what young people can do to protect them. Wells found out that Universal had updated its site when a representative from the company gave him a call on Wednesday afternoon. I spoke to Wells on the phone Thursday evening, after the class celebrated at their Brookline, Mass. school.

"I need to teach my students a lot in a year, but if I can teach them that they can make a difference, that it feels really good to be part of something bigger than themselves ... those are life lessons," Wells said. "I am pleased kids can have those experiences at 9 or 10."

Wells also sent some great quotes from his students via email. "We're going to be on earth longer than adults will," said one student in the class, Sophia. "By the time we're adults, it might not look as good as it does now UNLESS people start caring."

"Even though we might be very little we can still make a lot of change in anything we work hard at," said another student, Georgia.

The class petition got more than 57,000 signatures at Change.org. Wells said the class had a dance party during their snack break on Thursday to celebrate the victory.

Voting Newt Off the Island Turns Out to be Surprisingly Hard

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:57 PM EST

It's sort of fascinating watching the Republican establishment finally go nuclear on Newt Gingrich. As near as I can tell, pretty much everyone who actually served with or alongside Newt in the 90s hates his guts. But as long as he was just writing books and doing think tanky stuff, they were willing to let bygones be bygones. Ditto for the period when he was supposedly running for president but, in reality, was just conducting an innovative new kind of book tour.

But now that he has millions of dollars of Sheldon Adelson's casino money and has even an outside chance of actually winning, the long knives are out. Bob Dole has a scorching attack here. The Drudge Report is now the We-Hate-Newt Report. Philip Klein launches a brutal broadside here. Suddenly everyone remembers the 90s again, and in particular how volcanically unstable Newt was.

All good fun. What's most ironically amusing about all this, though, is that underlying a lot of the attacks on Newt is the complaint that he's not conservative enough. Weirdly enough, there's some truth to this by modern GOP standards. Newt's tone and temperament are perfectly suited to the no-compromise-no-surrender spirit of the tea party-ized GOP, which is why he's so appealing to the base during debates. But the truth is that for all his bluster, Newt was perfectly willing to do deals during his time as Speaker. He likes to think of himself as a world-historical figure, and that means getting world-historical things done. Simple obstruction is not really his MO. That makes him doubly unreliable, since obstruction is the sine qua non of movement conservatism these days.

Conservatives think that listening to Newt is a hoot, and they love it when he gets the crowds wound up. The problem is that they never quite realized the crowd wasn't in on the con. The rank-and-file actually took Newt seriously, and now party leaders have to figure out how to suck the fetid air back out of the Gingrich-inspired fever swamps without losing their core audience of old people and the white working class, who are voting for their side because they're scared to death that Barack Obama is destroying western civilization. In the end, I don't think they'll have much trouble pulling this off, but in the meantime it makes the whole spectacle even better fun for us jeering liberals.

Newt Rips Romney for Millions in Goldman Sachs Investments

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:48 PM EST
Newt Gingrich.

Is Newt Gingrich a Mother Jones reader? You'd be forgiven for thinking so after hearing Gingrich's new line of attack on GOP front-runner Mitt Romney. On the campaign trail in Florida Thursday, Gingrich singled out Romney's dozens of investments Goldman Sachs-run funds for criticism. "Let's be clear: you're watching ads paid for with the money taken from the people of Florida by companies like Goldman Sachs, recycled back into ads to try to stop you from having a choice in this election," Gingrich said in Florida Thursday, according to Politico. "That's what this is all about."

Newt went on:

"The question you have to ask yourself is, what level of gall does it take to think that we collectively are so stupid that somebody who owns lots of stock in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, somebody who owns lots of stock in a part of Goldman Sachs that was explicitly foreclosing on Floridians, somebody who is surrounded by lobbyists who made a living protecting Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, can then build his entire negative campaign in Florida around a series of ads that are just plain false."

Last week, Mother Jones reported that Romney and his wife, Ann, profit off of almost three-dozen investments in funds run by Goldman Sachs in the couple's blind trusts and individual retirement accounts. Though Romney filed his latest personal financial disclosure last August, we were one of the first news outlets to report on his extensive Goldman holdings. The investments are worth between $17.7 million and $50.5 million.

You can read the full story here.

Bob Dole Slams Gingrich for Carrying Around an Ice Bucket

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:32 PM EST

It was one of the oddest lines of the already plenty-odd 2012 campaign. On Thursday, the Mitt Romney HQ zapped out a statement from former Republican Senator Bob Dole blasting Newt Gingrich for being erratic, arrogant, and a liability to his party. This was hardly a shocker, given that Dole can partly (but only partly) blame Gingrich for his loss to Bill Clinton in the 1996 contest. But the Dole statement did contain a weird sentence referencing that campaign:

Newt would show up at the campaign headquarters with an empty ice-bucket in his hand—that was a symbol of some sort for him—and I never did know what he was doing or why he was doing it.

Gingrich and an ice bucket? Sounds surrealistic. But last week, my colleague Tim Murphy explained the connection between the then-House speaker and his bucket:

Leading up to the 1996 election, Gingrich criss-crossed the country brandishing a white bucket, as a symbol of how Gingrich had cut bureaucratic waste by eliminating an anachronistic ice delivery service to congressional offices. Dating back to before the advent of refrigeration, ice had been delivered via white buckets to each office twice a day at no cost. Gingrich boasted that the program had cut $400,000 per year from the federal budget by eliminating 23 paid staff positions. "If there was any one symbol I wish we could be remembered by, I believe it should be an ice bucket," Gingrich said at the time. "We didn't authorize a study, we didn't phase it out, we didn't call for a training program, we just went cold turkey."

There was, of course, a catch:

Gingrich didn't actually end the free ice service at the Capitol; he just created a new system. Under Gingrich's watchful eye, Congress set up five ice distribution centers around the Capitol complex, so that staffers could haul their daily load of ice back to the offices. The ice was still free, in other words, and it was still being distributed. According to Roll Call at the time, Gingrich was himself taking advantage of the free ice entitlement he derided, dispatching a staffer to the ice distribution center twice a day to fill a bucket.

No wonder Bob Dole remains mystified to this very day.

Supermarket Meat Comes From Sick Animals

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:25 PM EST

At Maverick Farms, we keep a flock of chickens for eggs. It seems axiomatic to me that the happier and healthier the birds are, the better the eggs will be. So if a salesperson showed up pitching a product that would, say, boost egg production by 5 percent, while making our birds sick, but just healthy enough to keep laying, I'd send him packing. Who wants to eat eggs from a sick chicken? And why would I intentionally harm the animals who provide my eggs?

The US meat industry has different ideas. Its main goals are to maximize production while minimizing costs. Animal health matters only to the extent that the animals need to be well enough to scuttle down the slaughter line (or produce eggs, in the case of hens). Thus the industry routinely feeds livestock stuff that makes them sick.

Reporting for the newly hatched Food and Environment Reporting Network, the excellent food-safety reporter Helena Bottemiller exposes one major example: the widespread use on factory-scale hog farms of ractopamine, a drug that boosts meat production but makes hogs miserable. The drug—fed to 60 to 80 percent of pigs, Bottemiller reports—"mimics stress hormones, making the heart beat faster and relaxing blood vessels." Its effects are pretty dire:

Since it was introduced [13 years ago], ractopamine had sickened or killed more than 218,000 pigs as of March 2011, more than any other animal drug on the market, a review of FDA veterinary records shows. Pigs suffered from hyperactivity, trembling, broken limbs, inability to walk and death, according to FDA reports released under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Now, 218,000 pigs over 13 years is a rounding error for the pork industry, which slaughters upwards of 110 million hogs every year. The industry has clearly calculated that torturing pigs with pharmaceuticals is worth a few losses, so long as overall meat production gets a boost.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Charts: Wall Street Blows All Other Political Donors Away

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 5:24 PM EST

Wall Street's outsized political influence is no secret, but some new data shows just how much it's ballooned. According to the Sunlight Foundation, campaign spending by elite donors from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector has jumped 700 percent in the past two decades, far outpacing individual donations from all other industries.

Sunlight found that donors who give more than $10,000 to candidates, parties, and outside spending groups—the "political one percent of the one percent"—account for 25 percent of total individual contributions. Among those elite donors who work in the so-called FIRE sector, contributions have risen from $15.4 million in 1990 to $178.2 million in 2010. According to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics, the finance part of the FIRE trio (i.e., Wall Street) accounts for around two-thirds of the sector's donations. (Not surprisingly, a significant chunk of 2012's biggest super-PAC donors are current or former Wall Street execs.)

During the 2008 election cycle, FIRE's top donors gave $328 million, outspending their closest competitors—lawyers—by more than $200 million.

After a brief Democratic fundraising advantage before Barack Obama's election, Republicans are once again reaping the majority of the sector's money.

Take a look at all the charts and findings here.

This post has been updated to more accurately explain the difference between the FIRE sector and Wall Street.

Defending Climate Scientists

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 4:44 PM EST

A few months ago, I wrote about a new effort to provide legal defense support for climate scientists who become the subject of attacks. Now the fund is officially off the ground, and it has raised $25,000.

The Climate Science Legal Defense Fund announced this week that it has found a non-profit sponsor in the group Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Scott Mandia, a professor of physical sciences at Suffolk County Community College, started the fund last September in response to the ongoing campaign that climate deniers have waged to obtain the emails and other correspondence of Pennsylvania State University climate scientist Michael Mann. The ongoing fight has created a substantial amount of legal fees. Meanwhile, the American Tradition Institute, the group that has sued to access Mann's emails, has is linked to a number of wealthy fossil fuel interests.

"Academic salaries are not designed to support ongoing legal expenses in fights with corporate-funded law firms and institutes,” said Mandia in a statement announcing the fund's progress so far. "These legal battles also have taken many of our brightest scientific minds away from their research."

As we've reported rather extensively, many climate scientists are the subject of harassment. For more, see James West's piece on MIT's Kerry Emanuel, my piece on Texas Tech's Katharine Hayhoe, or my feature on Mann.

Another Reason To Be Glad Rick Perry Won't Be President

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 4:08 PM EST
Texas governor Rick Perry.

Woe is the injured consumer or medical patient in Texas who brings a lawsuit against a big corporation or the government. A new report out from the nonprofit advocacy group Texas Watch has taken a hard look at more than 600 decisions by the Texas Supreme Court over the past decade and found that consumers and plaintiffs are routinely taking it on the chin. And consumers are losing far more often in the court than they were before short-lived GOP presidential candidate Rick Perry became governor.

Since 2005, consumers have lost nearly 80 percent of Texas Supreme Court cases in which a consumer was pitted against a big corporation or the government. Most of the time, the consumer plaintiffs had already prevailed before a jury—the high court overturned jury verdicts in 74 percent of consumer cases, with very little dissent.

Texas Watch attributes the massive scale-tilting to the fact that the court is now dominated by judges who were appointed by Perry starting in 2000. Six of the nine judges on the all-Republican court were initially appointed by Perry. In Texas, the judges are elected, but when a vacancy occurs, a governor can appoint a judge to fill out the remaining term, a move that all but guarantees the judge will prevail in the general election. And in Texas, Republican judges who've wanted to retire have often done so mid-term, allowing Perry to appoint their replacements.

Plaintiffs never did all that well in Texas courts compared with the big companies they were suing, but once Perry took office, the little guy's odds got even worse. See this:

Texas WatchTexas WatchThe trend doesn't help the case of those who suggest the solution to the influence of money in judicial elections is to have appointed judges. The data also don't reflect the fact that since 2003, simply getting a plaintiff's case into court in Texas has become far more difficult, especially in medical malpractice cases. Changes in state tort laws have kept thousands of consumers and injured patients out of court all together. According to the most recent data from the National Center on State Courts, in 2008 (the most recent year available), there were 10,000 fewer tort cases filed in Texas than in 1999. Those numbers fell even though the population of Texas jumped 20 percent over the past decade. 

The decisions made by the Texas Supreme Court in individual consumer cases have wide reach. In one case highlighted by Texas Watch, the court essentially ruled that the state does not have the authority to pass laws creating stricter consumer protections than those that exist at the federal level—a remarkable opinion in a state that is openly hostile to the federal government's rule of law.

The trend doesn't look to end any time soon, Texas Watch notes gloomily:

Justices that Governor Perry has appointed to the bench, and who were subsequently elected, have relentlessly and recklessly pursued an activist ideological agenda focused on immunity for corporate and state wrongdoers, subverting the rule of law from within and effectively turning the granite walls of the court into a mausoleum for plaintiffs.

Santorum Trashes Public Colleges, Then Stumps at One

| Thu Jan. 26, 2012 3:35 PM EST

Between a morning prayer breakfast with state Republican leaders in Tallahassee and tonight's primary debate in Jacksonville, dark-horse presidential candidate Rick Santorum stopped at a half-full auditorium at Florida State University to deliver his anti-Obama message to young conservatives. But at this hard-hit public college in a capital racked with budget woes, Santorum sidestepped the biggest issues facing the school's students.

A small grouping of sign-carrying protesters gathered outside the student union, while even more students circulated unawares through the nearby campus Chili's, as Santorum told the crowd of aboout 200 that the "foundational premise of America" is "the belief in God."

After a brief exposition on the differences between France, with its guillotines, and the United States, with its freedom and vest-pocket-sized copies of the Constitution (one of which he brandished), Santorum knocked Newt Gingrich's latest space-colonization plan and said the former House speaker "wants to spend money like Obama." He added: "The idea that anybody's going out and talking about grand new very expensive schemes to spend more money at a time when we do not have our fiscal house in order, in my opinion, is plain crass politics."