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Why are Scam PACs So Much More Common on the Right Than the Left?

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:01 PM EST

Politico's Ken Vogel reports on a phenomenon that's gotten a fair amount of attention on both the right and the left:

Since the tea party burst onto the political landscape in 2009, the conservative movement has been plagued by an explosion of PACs that critics say exist mostly to pad the pockets of the consultants who run them....A POLITICO analysis of reports filed with the Federal Election Commission covering the 2014 cycle found that 33 PACs that court small donors with tea party-oriented email and direct-mail appeals raised $43 million — 74 percent of which came from small donors. The PACs spent only $3 million on ads and contributions to boost the long-shot candidates often touted in the appeals, compared to $39.5 million on operating expenses.

....[Democrats] have mostly avoided the problem, though they also benefit from the lack of tea party-style insurgency on their side. That could change if the 2016 Democratic presidential primary inflames deep ideological divisions within the party. But on the right, this industry appears only to be growing, according to conservatives who track it closely.

And this problem isn't limited just to consultants who set up PACs to line their own pockets. Media Matters reports that right-wing outlets routinely tout—or rent their email lists to people touting—all manner of conspiracy theories and out-and-out frauds. Here's an excerpt from Media Matters' list:

  • Mike Huckabee sold out his fans to a quack doctor, conspiracy theorists, and financial fraudsters.
  • Subscribers to CNN analyst Newt Gingrich's email list have received supposed insider information about cancer "cures," the Illuminati, "Obama's 'Secret Mistress,'" a "weird" Social Security "trick," and Fort Knox being "empty."
  • Five conservative outlets promoted a quack doc touting dubious Alzheimer's disease cures.
  • Fox analyst Charles Payne was paid to push now worthless stocks.
  • Newsmax super PAC boondoggle.
  • Right-wing media helped "scam PACs" raise money from their readers.

More here. So here's my question: why is this so much more common on the right than on the left? It would be nice to chalk it up to the superior intelligence of liberal audiences and call it a day, but that won't wash. There's just no evidence that liberals, in general, are either smarter or less susceptible to scams than conservatives.

One possibility is that a lot of this stuff is aimed at the elderly, and conservatives tend to skew older than liberals. And while that's probably part of the answer, it's hardly satisfying. There are plenty of elderly liberals, after all—certainly enough to make them worth targeting with the same kind of fraudulent appeals that infest the right.

Another possibility is that it's basically a supply-side phenomenon. Maybe liberal outlets simply tend to be less ruthless, less willing to set up scam fundraising organizations than conservative outlets. In fact, that actually does seem to be the case. But again: why? Contrary to Vogel's lead, this kind of thing has been a problem on the right for a long time. It definitely got worse when the tea party movement created a whole new pool of potential patsies, but it didn't start in 2009. It's been around for a while.

So then: why is this problem so much bigger on the right than on the left? I won't be happy with answers that simply assume liberals are innately better people. Even if they are, they aren't that much better. It's got to be something institutional, or something inherent in the nature of American conservatism. But what?

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The NFL Has a Domestic-Violence Problem, But All We Got Was This PSA

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 3:39 PM EST

Ever since the NFL embarrassingly mishandled the Ray Rice domestic-assault incident this summer, the league has tried to prove it has become enlightened about violence against women. Its latest attempt? A 30-second Super Bowl ad.

The new public service announcement, which will air during the first quarter of Sunday's game, pans through a house in disarray, presumably because of a domestic dispute, while audio of a woman talking to a 911 dispatcher plays over it. At the end, a message flashes on: "Help End Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault; Pledge to Say 'No More.'" The PSA was made, free of charge, by advertising giant Grey for the sexual- and domestic-violence-awareness group NO MORE; the league donated the prime advertising spot, worth about $4.5 million.

These broadcasts are part of an NFL offensive to save face after the Baltimore Ravens and the league created an uproar by barely punishing Rice after he was first charged with assaulting his then-fiancée (and current wife). It wasn't until TMZ leaked security footage showing Ray Rice punching Janay Rice in an Atlantic City elevator (which Goodell dubiously claimed he hadn't seen before) that the NFL indefinitely suspended the Ravens running back and began to make an effort to change how it handles players accused of domestic violence and sexual assault.

The NFL has since reformed its punishments for players involved in domestic or sexual violence, created rather confusing new disciplinary bodies to determine and hand out those punishments, required the league to attend education sessions about sexual assault and domestic violence, and hired female advisers to improve how the league deals with domestic violence.

The NFL had its first test leading up to the AFC Championship game, when it put the Indianapolis Colts' Josh McNary on paid leave after he was charged with rape. But in order for the NFL to prove that it's committed to lasting reform of an entrenched culture that has long ignored and even enabled violence against women, it will to need to continue to address these issues—long after its Super Bowl ad has aired and the dust of this horrible season has settled.

8 Crazy Quotes In Support of Celebrating Robert E. Lee on MLK Day

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 2:52 PM EST

Arkansas, Mississippi, and Alabama are the only three states in the country that celebrate Robert E. Lee on the same day as the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. Their reasoning for the combo celebration is that the two have birthdays just a few days apart—never mind the, uh, conflict of interest.

Today, Arkansas' elected officials had the opportunity to pass a bill seeking to separate the two commemorations. By doing so, Arkansas would join Georgia, Florida, and Virginia, which honor Lee—but not on MLK Day.

But this morning, Arkansas representatives struck down the bill with a chorus of nays. Below are a few choice quotes from opponents of the bill explaining why:

1. "Everyone in this room owes Robert E. Lee a debt."

2. "You've got MLK parades all over the nation, but no one celebrates Lee! Well, a lot of people do, a very large crowd."

3. "This bill is out to change our constitution."

4. "It's called American history."

5. "I really wish we could all celebrate a non-separate, but equal holiday."

6. "You wouldn't celebrate Christmas in July!"

7. "Why are we doing this? We are chasing a non-problem."

8. "Separate is not equal." 

FAA to Football Fans: Super Bowl Is a No-Drone Zone

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 2:39 PM EST

On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) released a 15-second warning to football fans eager to sneak a bird's-eye look at this Sunday's Super Bowl: Leave your drones at home.  

The No Drone Zone campaign is part of the FAA's ongoing efforts to regulate small drones flying over crowded stadiums. The Washington Post reported last November that the aviation agency was investigating a rash of incidents involving drones hovering over major sporting events. A month earlier, the agency extended its ban on airplane flights over large open-air stadiums to include unmanned and remote controlled aircraft. 

Drones over sporting events have occasionally raised alarms. In August, a man was detained after he flew a drone that flew over a preseason NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and Kansas City Chiefs. A month later, police questioned a University of Texas student who was flying a drone around Royal-Texas Memorial Stadium. Last October, a drone carrying an Albanian flag during a soccer match between Serbia and Albania sparked a riot in Belgrade.

Earlier this month, the FAA issued an advisory reiterating the civil and criminal penalties for pilots who drone the Super Bowl. (Also banned in the airspace above the University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Arizona: gliders, parachutes, hang gliders, balloons, crop dusters, model aircraft, and model rockets.) The Goodyear blimp will be allowed.

Murder In Los Angeles Is Way Down Among Teenagers

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 12:52 PM EST

The LA Times reports that murder is becoming less common among teenagers:

“You're not seeing youngsters like you have in the past,” said Det. Todd Anderson of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. “You used to see a lot more kids who were 16, 17, 18, 19. While it does still happen, it seems like they are getting a little bit older.”

In 2000, the average homicide victim was 30 years old and in 2014, the average victim was 34 years old, according to a Los Angeles Times data analysis. The shift comes as the total number of homicides falls.

Why?

George Tita, a criminologist at UC Irvine who studies homicide, said the increase in age is consistent with the changing nature of gang violence and the sharp decrease in killings throughout the county.

Others say that the trauma of losing brothers, cousins and fathers to street violence may make gang life less appealing to younger people. “It's the little brother looking at what happened to the big brother and saying, ‘I don't want to go that way,'” said Elliott Currie, another UC Irvine criminologist. “It's something I think we criminologists don't talk about enough.”

That may be part of the answer. But you'll be unsurprised that there might be another, more plausible, reason: lead. Back in the 90s, the teenage and 20-something generations had grown up in the 70s and early 80s. This was an era of high lead emissions, and this lead poisoning affected their brains, causing them to become more violence-prone when they grew up.

Today's teenagers, however, were born in the late 90s and early aughts. This was the era when leaded gasoline had finally been completely banned, so they grew up in a low-lead environment. As a result, they're less violence prone than their older siblings and less likely to find refuge in gangs.

As always, lead is not the whole story. There have been other changes over the past couple of decades, and those changes may well have had an impact on both gangs and on crime more generally. But lead clearly has a generational impact. Younger kids are now less violent than in the past, while older folks haven't changed much. They've gotten older, which has always been associated with a drop in violent crime, but their basic temperament is still scarred by a childhood filled with lead emissions from automobiles.

In any case, the age of a homicide victim is highly correlated with the age of the killer, and the chart above, excerpted from the Times story, shows homicide victimization age in 2000 and 2014. The huge bulge between age 15-30 is nearly gone, which is just what you'd expect if lead played an important role in violent crime. There may be less mystery here than the experts think.

Greek Investors Apparently Surprised By Stuff No One Should Be Surprised About

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 10:50 AM EST

The latest news from Greece is a bit peculiar:

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras told his new cabinet on Wednesday that he would move swiftly to negotiate debt relief, but would not engage in a confrontation with creditors that would jeopardize a more just solution for the country....Later, the new finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, appeared to harden the tone, saying that Greece’s bailout deals were “a toxic mistake” and that the new government was determined to change the logic of how the crisis had been tackled.

While many Greeks were hopeful that Mr. Tsipras would follow through with even a fraction of his populist promises, investors were more rattled. The Athens Stock Exchange, which already had billions of euros in value wiped out during Greece’s election campaign, fell around 7.5 percent in midday trading on Wednesday after slumping around 11 percent on Tuesday. Shares in financial companies in Greece plummeted more than 17 percent on Wednesday.

I wonder what has the stock market so spooked? After all, Tsipras is just doing what he's said he was going to do all along. Everyone expected him to take at least this hard a line on Greek debt, if not harder. So why the sudden panic? Shouldn't this have been priced in long ago? What's new here?

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No One Can Agree on What to Call Drones

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Ceci n'est past un drone.

Early Monday morning, a small, temporarily unidentified flying object crashed on the White House lawn. The mishap, possibly the result of droning under the influence, prompted a salvo of alarming headlines about a stealthy violation of presidential airspace. "A Drone, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House," declared the New York Times. Fox News announced, "White House gets drone defense wake-up call," while New York magazine warned, "Secret Service Can't Protect White House From Drones."

The most ominous-sounding word in those headlines is "drone," a term that's come to encompass everything from the two-pound DJI Phantom quadcopter that flew over the White House fence to the nearly 5,000-pound MQ-9 Reaper, which can be flown remotely via satellite and fire laser-guided missiles at targets eight miles below. As Dutch designer Ruben Pater's Drone Survival Guide conveys, there are drones and then there are drones:

The Drone Survival Guide (in English and Pashto) Ruben Pater

Is there an easier way to differentiate a hi-tech toy from a killing machine? Why not just call that stray quadcopter a remote-controlled or model aircraft? (No one would write a headline such as "A Model Aircraft, Too Small for Radar to Detect, Rattles the White House.")

The Federal Aviation Administration treats lightweight noncommercial drones as model aircraft. (They must stay under 400 feet and can't fly beyond the operator's line of sight.) Yet a true hobby drone is different than a traditional remote-controlled plane in one significant respect: It can fly itself. As former Wired editor Chris Anderson explains on his site DIY Drones, "Usually the UAV is controlled manually by Radio Control (RC) at take-off and landing, and switched into GPS-guided autonomous mode only at a safe altitude." The DJI Phantom can fly itself back home; users can program flight paths into top-of-the-line model. DIY Drones uses the terms UAV and drone interchangeably.

Even if equating personal drones with model aircraft might irk amateur remote pilots, it would help defuse the devices' death-from-above image. That would probably please the manufacturers of military and commercial drones, who would prefer if you don't use the D-word at all. Testifying before the Senate in 2013, the head of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (the robot lobby) stated, "I do not use the term 'drone.' The industry refers to the technology as unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS, because they are more than just a pilotless vehicle…The term 'drone' also carries with it a hostile connotation and does not reflect how UAS are actually being used domestically." Besides UAS, other suggested alternatives to "drone" include Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) and Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA).

The future Marilyn Monroe poses with a World War II-era Radioplane drone. US Army via Wikimedia Commons

While the president and White House freely call them drones, the military is also not keen on the designation. An Air Force spokeswoman told Defense News that "There are some people who are offended by it." And UAS has its detractors: Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a reporter last year, "You will never hear me use the word 'drone,' and you'll never hear me use the term 'unmanned aerial systems.' Because they are not. They are remotely piloted aircraft."

Yet for critics of remote-control warfare, the word economically delivers an explosive payload—much like a drone. The American Civil Liberties Union has endorsed using "drone" rather than the officially sanctioned abbreviations. "These acronyms are technical, bland, and bureaucratic. That's probably their principal advantage from the point of view of those who want to separate them from the ugly, bloody, and controversial uses to which they've been put by the CIA and U.S. military overseas," writes ACLU senior policy analyst Jay Stanley. "[I]f the word continues to carry a reminder that this is an extremely powerful technology capable of being used for very dark purposes, then that's not necessarily a bad thing."

To further complicate things, some people insist that "drone" only refers to unpiloted aircraft used for target practice—the term's original meaning. As analyst Steve Zaloga explained to Defense News, it was coined by an American admiral who in 1935 witnessed a demonstration of a remote-controlled British aircraft dubbed the Queen Bee: He "adopted the name drone to refer to these aircraft in homage to the Queen Bee. Drone became the official US Navy designation for target drones for many decades." (Fun fact: Future bombshell Marilyn Monroe assembled small target drones in a California factory during World War II.) According to Zaloga, the military kept calling all remote-controlled aircraft drones until the 1990s. (He's partial to calling them RPAs.)

Drones will likely remain the most convenient way to describe the rapidly expanding variety of…drones. But whatever you do, don't call them "pilotless drones." That phrase especially infuriates pedants, like Drone Man, the San Francisco Chronicle reader who left an angry voicemail expressing his disgust at the paper's use of the seemingly redundant (yet grammatically acceptable) term. Here's the dance mix: 

 

6 Terrifying Facts About Measles

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST

The current outbreak of measles that began in California has sickened 86 people and landed 30 babies in home isolation. The California Department of Health has issued an official warning that "any place where large numbers of people congregate and there are a number of international visitors, like airports, shopping malls and tourist attractions, you may be more likely to find measles, which should be considered if you are not vaccinated."

Not everyone is so concerned. In a Facebook post on January 16, celebrity pediatrician Robert "Dr. Bob" Sears encouraged his followers not to "let anyone tell you you should live in fear of" measles. "Ask any Grandma or Grandpa (well, older ones anyway)," he wrote, "and they'll say 'Measles? So what? We all had it. It's like Chicken pox.'"

Well, Dr. Bob is wrong—measles is serious business. Consider these facts:

  1. Measles is one of the most contagious illnesses known to man. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it infects about 90 percent of people who come into contact with it. The virus can survive on surfaces or even in the air for up to two hours. That means that if an unvaccinated person happens to pass through a room where someone with measles was a few hours before, he or she has a very high chance of contracting the disease. 
     
  2. Some people who get measles become seriously ill. Before the advent of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, between 3 and 4 million people contracted measles each year in the United States. Of those, 48,000 were hospitalized, 4,000 developed the life-threatening brain condition encephalitis, and 400 to 500 died.
     
  3. Almost everyone needs to be vaccinated for measles in order to protect the most vulnerable people. The epidemiological concept of "herd immunity" means that enough people in a given community are immunized so that people who can't get vaccinated—infants that are too young to receive vaccines, people who can't get vaccinated because their immune systems are not strong enough, and the small number of people for whom the vaccine doesn't work—are protected. The threshold for herd immunity varies by disease; for measles, it's 92 to 94 percent.
     
  4. In some places in the United States, MMR vaccination rates among kindergartners aren't anywhere near the herd immunity threshold. In Marin County, California, only 80 percent of students are up to date on their vaccinations. In Nevada County, California, the figure is 73 percent. New York magazine reported last year that dozens of New York City private schools had immunization rates below 70 percent. (Californians can check rates at individual schools here.)
     
  5. Worldwide, measles is far from eradicated. According to the CDC, in 2013, more than 60 percent of children in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia Nigeria, and Pakistan were not adequately vaccinated against measles. Seventy percent of measles deaths worldwide occurred in those countries.
     
  6. Measles could make a major comeback in the United States. It's happened in other developed nations: In the mid-1990s, UK public health officials considered measles eradicated in the country—but in 2008, because of low vaccination rates, measles once again hit endemic status. Between 2008 and 2011, France saw more than 20,000 cases of measles—after virtual elimination of the disease just a few years before.

Something Really, Really Terrible Is About to Happen to Our Coral

| Wed Jan. 28, 2015 6:00 AM EST
Healthy coral reef, posing with happy fish

Coral reefs cover just 0.1 percent of the ocean floor, but provide habitat to 25 percent of sea-dwelling fish species. That's why coral scientist C. Mark Eakin, who coordinates the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Coral Reef Watch program, is surprised that the warning he has been sounding since last year (PDF)—that the globe's reefs appear to be on the verge of a mass-scale bleaching event—hasn't drawn more media attention.

During the last mass bleaching event, we lost almost a fifth of the world's coral reefs. Only some have recovered.

Bleaching happens when coral loses contact with zooxanthellae, an algae that essentially feeds them nutrients in symbiotic exchange for a stable habitat. The coral/zooxanthellae relationship thrives within a pretty tight range of ocean temperatures, and when water warms above normal levels, coral tends to expel its algal lifeline. In doing so, coral not only loses the brilliant colors zooxanthellae deliver—hence, "bleaching"—but also its main source of food. A bleached coral reef rapidly begins to decline. Coral can reunite with healthy zooxanthellae and recover, Eakin says, but even then they often become diseased and may die. That's rotten news, because bleaching outbreaks are increasingly common.

Before the 1980s, large-scale coral bleaching had never been observed before, Eakin says. After that, regionally isolated bleaching began to crop up, drawing the attention of marine scientists. Then, in 1998, an unusually strong El Niño warming phase caused ocean temperatures to rise, triggering the first known global bleaching event in Earth's history. It whitened coral off the coasts of 60 countries and island nations, spanning the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean, Red Sea, Persian Gulf, Mediterranean, and the Caribbean. We functionally "lost between 15 percent and 20 percent of the world's coral reefs" in '98, Eakin said. Only some have recovered.

Eakin is concerned about a relapse, because the oceans are relentlessly warming, driven by climate change from ever-increasing greenhouse gas emissions. As heat builds in the ocean, he says, coral become more vulnerable to bleaching.

Getting hot in here: Coral reefs are sensitive to warming water. Oh-oh. NOAA

As a result, it no longer takes a classic strong El Niño to cause warming and trigger mass bleaching. This current El Niño, after starting strong last year, has essentially collapsed, in what Eakin calls a "highly unusual" pattern. Even so, the northeast Pacific is experiencing "very warm" water, he said. Overall, the oceans' waters have warmed so much in recent years that most coral areas are "right on the verge of having enough heat stress to cause bleaching and it doesn't take nearly as much to start one of these global-scale events," he said. Since 1998, there have been two major beaching events, neither driven by a strong El Niño. In 2005, the Caribbean ocean experienced its worst-ever bleaching event despite a relatively tame El Niño year, and in 2010, the second-ever globe-spanning bleaching event occurred, again during a mild El Niño. It wasn't as severe as the 1998 disaster, but unlike the earlier one, it "didn't have a strong El Niño driving it," Eakin says.

Which brings us to 2015. During our phone conversation, Eakin directed me to this page on NOAA's Coral Reef Watch site. He asked me to consider the below chart, which shows the water-temperature patterns that prevailed in spring  '98—bleaching was most severe where the color is darkest red, signifying the most severe warming.

NOAA

Then he directed me to the latest NOAA analysis, taken this month, that forecasts warming patterns four months into the future.

NOAA

He called the warning currently happening in the Indian Ocean (the one on the left in the above charts) "amazingly similar" to the situation in '98, which foretells a warming pattern that could subject coral to a '98-scale bleaching crisis. "If you look at where we were in 1998 and look at where we are now, you see that the ocean is primed to respond with a sustained high temperature during the warm season in a way that previously took a big El Niño, and now doesn't," he said.

Again, a mass bleaching doesn't translate directly to mass coral die-off, because coral can recover. But the recovery takes decades—large reefs grow about 1 centimeters per year, Eakin says—and the bleaching events are coming faster and faster, each one stalling recovery and causing new damage. The emerging pattern for large-scale events looks like this: 1998, 2005 (confined mainly to the Caribbean), 2010, and now, quite possibly, 2015.

Bleached coral within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. NOAA

And another facet of climate change makes recovery even more difficult, Eakins added: acidification, which comes about as the oceans sponge up more and more carbon from the atmosphere. Heightened acidity makes it harder for coral to absorb the calcium carbonate it needs to build and maintain their skeletal structure.

Eakin says it will take major action to reverse climate change to save the globe's coral reefs. Currently, carbon dioxide makes up nearly 400 parts per million of the atmosphere, and for coral to thrive, we'll need to throttle that back to 350 ppm or possibly even 320 ppm, he said. Those are ambitious goals. Making coral resilient enough to survive until we can manage to do that, he added, will require taking action against "local stressors" that also harm them, like overfishing and pollution.

"People say corals are the rainforests of the sea. But coral reefs are more biodiverse than rainforests," he said. "It ought to be the other way around: Rainforests are the coral reefs of the land." And these glorious cradles of oceanic life aren't getting any stronger. "The punch that knocks a boxer out in the ninth round doesn't have to be as hard as the punch that would knock him out in round one," Eakin said.

This Map Shows Why The Midwest Is Screwed

| Tue Jan. 27, 2015 4:44 PM EST

The ongoing drought in California has been, among other things, a powerful lesson in how vulnerable America's agricultural sector is to climate change. Even if that drought wasn't specifically caused by man-made global warming, scientists have little doubt that droughts and heat waves are going to get more frequent and severe in important crop-growing regions. In California, the cost in 2014 was staggering: $2.2 billion in losses and added expenses, plus 17,000 lost jobs, according to a UC-Davis study.

California is country's hub for fruits, veggies, and nuts. But what about the commodity grains grown in the Midwest, where the US produces over half its corn and soy? That's the subject of a new report by the climate research group headed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, former US Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer (who recently shut down rumors that he might run for Senate).

The report is all about climate impacts expected in the Midwest, and the big takeaway is that future generations have lots of very sweaty summers in store. One example: "The average Chicago resident is expected to experience more days over 95 degrees F by the century's end than the average Texan does today." The report also predicts that electricity prices will increase, with potential ramifications for the region's manufacturing sector, and that beloved winter sports—ice fishing, anyone?—will become harder to do.

But some of the most troublesome findings are about agriculture. Some places will fare better than others; northern Minnesota, for example, could very well find itself benefiting from global warming. But overall, the report says, extreme heat, scarcer water resources, and weed and insect invasions will drive down corn and soybean yields by 11 to 69 percent by the century's end. Note that these predictions assume no "significant adaptation," so there's an opportunity to soften the blow with solutions like better water management, switching to more heat-tolerant crops like sorghum, or the combination of genetic engineering and data technology now being pursued by Monsanto.

Here's a map from the report showing which states' farmers could benefit from climate change—and which ones will lose big time:

Risky Business