Tim McDonnell joined Climate Desk after stints at Mother Jones and Sierra magazine. He remains a cheerful guy despite covering climate change all the time. Originally from Tucson, Tim loves tortillas and epic walks.
Here's a bit of depressingly apocalyptic news to kick off your weekend: A new study has found that if humans burn all of the known reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas, virtually all the ice on the planet will melt, inundating the land with up to 200 feet of sea level rise.
The good news is we'll all be long dead by the time this happens. Even at our current rate of carbon dioxide emissions from burning fossil fuels, the kind of catastrophic ice loss the study describes won't take place for several thousand years. The exact timing is the hardest part for scientists to nail down; the ultimate outcome, however, is quite certain. One of the study's authors, climatologist Anders Levermann of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, described it as similar to leaving an ice cube on a table in a hot room: You can be confident it will melt, even if you don't know exactly when.
Scientists have been carefully scrutinizing ice in Antarctica for a while now, since so much of the world's water—and thus, potential sea level rise—is locked up there. The most studied section is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which appears to already be in an irreversible decline and could ultimately produce 10 feet of sea level rise. But Levermann said the study today, published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, is the first to look holistically at ice across the whole of Antarctica. The scientists projected loss of ice in a series of increasingly dire scenarios, based on the total amount of CO2 humans release after today. Ten thousand gigatons of CO2 is roughly what you'd get from burning all the known fossil fuel reserves. Our current rate is about 36 gigatons per year, and rising, so depleting the remainder could take a few hundred years. After that, it would take several thousand more years for the full effect of the warming to take hold.
The chart below shows the eventual ice loss after 10,000 years given different quantities of emissions:
Winkelmann et al, Science 2015
What's even scarier isn't shown in the chart: Antarctica, Levermann said, "will be the last bastion, the last ice on the planet." In other words, if we reach scenario F, all the rest of the world's ice will already by gone. At that stage, you can kiss most of the coastal cities goodbye (if they're still there, anyway—remember, we're talking about thousands of years in the future).
To be sure, there are plenty of reasons to be concerned about climate change in the more immediate future: more extreme weather, droughts, crop failures, and the like. Sea level rise (albeit on a much smaller scale than what is described here) is already taking a toll on coastal communities around the world. But this is a disturbing preview of the long-term disruption caused by our actions. I certainly wouldn't want to be on Earth then:
What should have been an easy public-relations win for Chipotle is turning into a major headache—but one that could have interesting repercussions in the public debate about genetically modified organisms.
Back in April, the fast-casual burrito chain announced that it would stop serving food prepared with genetically engineered ingredients. At the time it didn't seem like a huge change, since only a few ingredients—notably the soybean oil used for frying—contained GMOs. (More than 90 percent of the soy grown in the United States is genetically engineered.) But as critics in the media were quick to point out, there was an obvious hole in Chipotle's messaging: The pigs, chickens, and cows that produce the restaurant's meat and dairy offerings are raised on feed made with GMO corn. (In fact, 70-90 percent of all GMO crops are used to feed livestock.) And don't forget the soda fountain, serving up GMO corn syrup by the cup.
This is the first lawsuit to challenge the veracity of an anti-GMO marketing campaign.
Last week, Chipotle got officially called out, when a California woman filed a class-action lawsuit against the company for allegedly misleading consumers about its much-publicized campaign to cut genetically modified organisms from its menu.
"As Chipotle told consumers it was G-M-Over it, the opposite was true," the complaint reads. "In fact, Chipotle's menu has never been at any time free of GMOs."
Chipotle has never denied that its soda, meat, and dairy contain, or are produced with, GMOs. A spokesman, Chris Arnold, said the suit "has no merit and we plan to contest it." Still, the case raises an unprecedented set of questions about how food companies market products at a time when fewer than 40 percent of Americans think GMOs are safe to eat (they are) and a majority of them think foods made with GMOs should be labeled.
The California statute applied in the lawsuit deals with false advertising: Allegedly, the "Defendant knowingly misrepresented the character, ingredients, uses, and benefits of the ingredients in its Food Products." The suit then provides a cornucopia of Chipotle marketing materials, such as the image to the left, which implies that that taco has no GMOs in it—even though, if it contains meat, cheese, or sour cream, then GMOs were almost certainly used at some stage of the process. The suit goes on to detail how Chipotle stands to gain financially from this anti-GMO messaging. The upshot is that, according to the complaint, Chipotle knew its stuff was made from GMOs, lied about it, and duped unsuspecting, GMO-averse customers like Colleen Gallagher (the plaintiff) into eating there. (Gallagher is being represented by Kaplan Fox, a law firm that specializes in consumer protection suits. The firm didn't respond to a request for comment.)
It will be up to the court to decide whether Gallagher's claims have any merit. But there's a big stumbling block right at the beginning: There's no agreed-upon legal standard for what qualifies a food as being "non-GMO," and thus no obvious legal test for whether Chipotle's ad campaign is legit. In fact, several food lawyers I spoke to said this is the first suit to legally challenge the veracity of that specific claim, which means it could set a precedent (in California, at least) for how other companies deal with the issue in the future. That sets it apart from deceptive marketing suits related to use of the word "organic," for example, for which there is a lengthy legal standard enforced by the US Department of Agriculture. (Organic food, by the way, is not allowed to contain GMOs.)
"There are many definitions of what constitutes non-GMO that are marketing-based definitions," said Greg Jaffe, biotechnology director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "But nothing like [the federal standard for organic labeling] exists for GMOs at the moment."
In the context of this lawsuit, that lack of clarity may work to Chipotle's advantage, said Laurie Beyranevand, a food and ag law professor at Vermont Law School. Without specific guidelines to adhere to, Chipotle could basically be free to make "non-GMO" mean whatever the company wants it to mean (more on that in a minute). The question before the court is about the gap, such as it exists, between Chipotle's understanding of that term and its customers' understanding of it, when it comes to the meat, dairy, and soda at the heart of the suit.
Beyranevand said the soda could be a weak point for Chipotle. Even though the company's website is clear that its soda is made with GMO corn syrup, customers could still be misled by the advertising into thinking it isn't.
Even if a chicken has been stuffed full of genetically modified corn its whole life, it's no more a GMO than I would be if I ate the same corn.
Meat and dairy are a different story, and there's a bit of existing law that makes Chipotle's rhetoric seem more defensible. In Vermont, the only state to have passed mandatory GMO labeling laws, meat and dairy products are exempted. And that makes some sense: Even if a chicken has been stuffed full of genetically modified corn its whole life, it's no more a GMO than I would be if I ate the same corn.
"Chipotle is just sort of riding on the coattails of that state legislation," Beyranevand said. In other words, Chipotle could have pretty good grounds to argue that a reasonable person wouldn't confuse its advertising with the notion that livestock aren't fed GMOs.
Of course, not everyone agrees with Vermont's approach. That includes the Non-GMO Project, an independent nonprofit that has endorsed nearly 30,000 food products as being non-GMO over the past five years. The group won't give its stamp of approval to meat products that have been fed GMOs. According to Arnold, Chipotle "would love to source meat and dairy from animals that are raised without GMO feed, [but] that simply isn't possible today."
a GMO by any other name...
Let's zoom out to the broader issue: Why isn't there a standard definition for what makes a food product count as "non-GMO"?
The closest thing is a bit of draft language the Food and Drug Administration published in 2001 that was meant as a nonbinding blueprint for companies that want to voluntarily label their foods as non-GMO. Turns out, that simple-sounding phrase is loaded with pitfalls. As "GMO" has gone from a specialized term used by biochemists to describe seeds, to broadly used slang for the products of commercial agriculture, its meaning has gotten pretty garbled. That makes it hard to come up with a legal definition that is both scientifically accurate and makes sense to consumers, and it leaves companies like Chipotle with considerable linguistic latitude.
First of all, there's the "O" in GMO. A burrito, no matter what's in it, isn't really an "organism," the FDA points out: "It would likely be misleading to suggest that a food that ordinarily would not contain entire 'organisms' is 'organism-free.'" Then there's the "GM": Essentially all food crops are genetically modified from their original version, either through conventional breeding or through biotechnology. Even if most consumers use "GMO" as a synonym for biotech, the FDA says, it may not be truly accurate to call an intensively bred corn variety "not genetically modified."
Finally, there's the "non": It might not actually be possible to say with certainty that a product contains zero traces of genetically engineered ingredients, given the factory conditions under which items such as soy oil are produced. Moreover, chemists have found that vegetables get so mangled when they're turned into oil that it's incredibly difficult to extract any recognizable DNA from the end product that could be used to test for genetic modification. So it would be hard, if not impossible, for an agency like the FDA to snag your tacos and deliver a verdict on whether they are really GMO-free.
"It would likely be misleading to suggest that a food that ordinarily would not contain entire 'organisms' is 'organism-free.'"
The point is that Chipotle likely isn't bound to any particular definition of the non-GMO label, and that we just have to take their word that the ingredients they say are non-GMO are, in fact, non-GMO. Lawmakers are attempting to clear up some of this ambiguity: House Republicans, led by Mike Pompeo (Kan.), succeeded in July in passing a bill that would block states from passing mandatory GMO labeling laws similar to Vermont's. The bill is now stalled in the Senate, but it contains a provision that would require the USDA to come up with a voluntary certification for companies like Chipotle that want to flaunt their GMO-less-ness.
Until then, another solution would be to seek non-GMO certification from the Non-GMO Project, though the group would likely reject Chipotle's meat products. In any case, Arnold said, neither Chipotle nor its suppliers are certified through the project, and they don't intend to pursue that option.
"We are dealing with relatively niche suppliers for many of the ingredients we use," Arnold said. "By adhering to a single certification standard, we can really cut into available supply of ingredients that are, in some cases, already in short supply."
With all this in mind, here's a final caveat: When Chipotle has its day in court, how we actually define what is or isn't a GMO product might not matter too much, explained Emily Leib, deputy director of Harvard's Center for Health Law. That's because the California laws in question here are as much about what customers think a term means, as what it actually does mean.
"The court will ask, 'Is there a definition [of non-GMO] or not?" Leib said. "They'll say, 'No,' and then they'll ask, 'Is this misleading?' How does this use compare to what people think it means?"
That's what makes this case interesting, since the truth is that most of the burrito-eating public knows very little about GMOs. Does that make it illegal for Chipotle to leverage peoples' ambiguous (and mostly unfounded) fears to sell more barbacoa? We'll have to wait and see. In the meantime, probably don't eat too much Chipotle, anyway.
We love Pluto. We love that we know so much more about it now—after the spacecraft New Horizons hurtled 3 billion miles to get there and send back the amazing Pluto pictures that arrived in July. Today, NASA released a new set of images that bring us right up close to the planet's weird, chaotic surface in unprecedented detail.
"This is what we came for—these images, spectra and other data types that are going to help us understand the origin and the evolution of the Pluto system for the first time," said New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado. "And what's coming is not just the remaining 95 percent of the data that's still aboard the spacecraft—it's the best datasets, the highest-resolution images and spectra, the most important atmospheric datasets, and more. It's a treasure trove."
Our friend Phil Plait at Slate has some more detail about what these images tell us. But for now, just check them out for yourself. Kickass!
NASA: "This synthetic perspective view of Pluto shows what you would see if you were approximately 1,100 miles above Pluto's equatorial area, looking northeast over the dark, cratered, informally named Cthulhu Regio toward the bright, smooth, expanse of icy plains informally called Sputnik Planum. The entire expanse of terrain seen in this image is 1,100 miles across." NASA
NASA: "This image features a tremendous variety of other landscapes surrounding Sputnik. The smallest visible features are 0.5 miles in size, and the mosaic covers a region roughly 1,000 miles wide." The white squares outline close-ups in the following two images. NASA
A close-up from the image above, this is called the "chaos region" because of the diversity of surface geology. NASA
NASA: "This 220-mile wide view illustrates the incredible diversity of surface reflectivities and geological landforms on the dwarf planet. The image includes dark, ancient heavily cratered terrain; bright, smooth geologically young terrain; assembled masses of mountains; and an enigmatic field of dark, aligned ridges that resemble dunes; its origin is under debate." NASA
NASA: "Two different versions of an image of Pluto's haze layers, from a distance of 480,000 miles. Pluto's north is at the top, and the sun illuminates Pluto from the upper right. The left version has had only minor processing, while the right version has been specially processed to reveal a large number of discrete haze layers in the atmosphere. In the left version, faint surface details on the narrow sunlit crescent are seen through the haze in the upper right of Pluto's disk, and subtle parallel streaks in the haze may be crepuscular rays—shadows cast on the haze by topography such as mountain ranges on Pluto, similar to the rays sometimes seen in the sky after the sun sets behind mountains on Earth." NASA
A boy sits on a bus on Wednesday after his family arrives in Athens from the Greek island of Lesbos.
After weeks of mounting pressure, the Obama administration has finally agreed to raise the quota of Syrian refugees allowed into the US to 10,000 in the next fiscal year, which begins October 1.
The US has so far played a pretty small role in the ongoing migrant crisis in Europe. Tens of thousands of Iraqis, Afghanis, and Syrians are fleeing war in their home countries in search of a better life elsewhere—prompting dramatic scenes as migrants use any means possible to get to countries across Western Europe.
So far, only about 1,500 Syrians have been allowed into the US—out of roughly four million that have poured out of the country to escape attacks by ISIS and their own government since the start of the civil war. Meanwhile, European countries are accepting many more, as they open their borders to hundreds of thousands of migrants: Germany alone approved 42,680 Syrian asylum applications in 2014, according to the Guardian.
Update, Monday Sept. 14, 12:00pm ET: During the closing minutes of their session Friday afternoon, California legislators passed SB 350. Although stripped of the provision to reduce the state's gasoline consumption, the bill still includes new standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency. It now heads to Gov. Brown's desk; he is expected to sign it this month.
SB 350, which had passed the state Senate but faced an uphill climb through the Assembly, was intended to enshrine in law a series of ambitious climate targets unveiled earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). One of the most important was a proposal to slash the state's gasoline consumption in half by 2030. Here's a bit of background from my story last week:
SB 350 would bring the state's gasoline consumption down to about where Florida's is now, while setting new targets for clean energy and energy efficiency projects…The gas consumption target would likely require some combination of new fuel efficiency standards for cars, incentives for alternative fuels and biofuels, cooperation with local planning agencies to improve public transit and make communities less car-reliant, and a push to get people to buy more electric vehicles. (California is already home to half of the roughly 174,000 electric vehicles on the road in the United States.)
"If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball," said Tim O'Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. "This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate."
Other parts of the bill are intact, including the goal to get half the state's power from renewable energy sources and double the efficiency of state buildings by 2030. But the gas reduction proposal faced intense opposition from the oil industry, the most powerful special interest in Sacramento. Now, that provision is up in smoke, apparently as a compromise measure to ensure passage of the other provisions, according to the New York Times:
Henry T. Perea, a moderate Democrat who was a leader of the opposition to the petroleum measure, said he would support the measure—Senate Bill 350—in this form, which he called a compromise…
The measure was the subject of an intense campaign directed by the Western States Petroleum Association, which labeled the bill "the California Gas Restriction Act of 2015" in television advertisements and mailings. The president of the organization, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, applauded the decision to drop this proposal and said that oil companies "remain committed to working with Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators on climate change and energy policy."
Mr. Brown told reporters in Sacramento that he would use his executive powers to continue to force the kinds of reductions in global emissions that have been a central goal of his governorship. "Oil has won the skirmish, but they've lost the bigger battle," he said.