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Should Your State Be Able to Ignore the Nation's Most Important Pollution Law?

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 1:20 PM EDT

Earlier this month, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) proposed a bold solution for any state that doesn't like President Barack Obama's flagship plan to slash carbon emissions: Just ignore it. The new rule, issued under the Clean Air Act, aims to reduce the nation's carbon footprint 30 percent by 2030. It would require every state to devise a plan to cut the carbon intensity (pollution per unit of energy) of its power sector. By simply ignoring the mandate, McConnell reasoned, states could delay taking steps like shuttering or retrofitting coal-fired power plants until the rules get killed by the Supreme Court (even though the chances of that happening are pretty remote).

Last week, McConnell justified his unusual suggestion that state regulators deliberately ignore federal law by arguing that the rules themselves are illegal. And yesterday, he took his campaign to a new level by introducing—on behalf of GOP co-sponsors Rob Portman (Ohio), Roy Blunt (Mo.), Tom Cotton (Ark.), and Orrin Hatch (Utah)—an amendment to the Senate's massive budget bill. It would allow any state to opt out of the rule if that state's governor or legislature decides that complying would raise electric bills, would impact electricity reliability, or would result in any one of a litany of other hypothetical problems. The amendment could get a vote later this week.

Meanwhile, over in the House, Reps. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.) and Fred Upton (R-Mich.) have introduced a bill along essentially the same lines, which is set to to be debated by the Energy and Power Subcommittee, which Whitfield chairs, next month.

Republicans are pitching these proposals as necessary steps to protect Americans from the power-hungry, climate-crazed Obama administration. But if passed, they might do more to protect the interests of coal companies. In fact, the Portman amendment introduced by McConnell explicitly allows states to opt out if the rules would "impair investments in existing electric generating capacity"—in other words, if they require the early retirement of any power plants. The apparent justification is that in order to comply with the Environmental Protection Agency, states will have to quickly implement sweeping changes to their power system that could leave residents with expensive, unreliable power.

In reality, many energy economists (not to mention utility companies themselves) have found that the range of options states have to comply with the EPA—such as mandating better energy efficiency and building more renewable energy—are more than enough to keep the lights on and bills stable, while simultaneously burning less coal. (Meanwhile, regardless of any new EPA rules, coal is already on a precipitous and probably irreversible decline thanks largely to the recent glut of cheap natural gas.) 

Both bills also work on the assumption that the rules grossly overstep the EPA's authority by extending beyond coal-fired smokestacks to the whole power system. That question is likely to be at the heart of the inevitable court battles over the rule. But as leading environmental lawyer Richard Revesz testified to a House committee this month, wide-reaching plans like this have been successfully implemented under the Clean Air Act for other pollutants like sulfur and mercury throughout the legislation's 40-year history. 

In any case, giving states the option to opt out of federal air quality rules essentially undermines the entire premise of the Clean Air Act, probably the most powerful piece of environmental legislation ever passed. As Natural Resources Defense Council policy chief David Doniger put it yesterday: "These bills would force us back to the dark days half a century ago when powerful polluters had a free hand to poison our air, because states were unwilling or unable to protect their citizens."

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Neil DeGrasse Tyson Blasts Florida's Alleged Ban on Discussing Climate Change

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 11:38 AM EDT

Neil DeGrasse Tyson has now weighed in on Florida's alleged ban on using the words "climate change" and "global warming" in government communications. The astrophysicist-turned-TV-star told a Sarasota, Fla., crowd on Monday that he was astonished by the report, adding he thought "as a nation we were better than this."

"Now we have a time where people are cherry picking science," Tyson said, according to the Herald Tribune of Sarasota. "The science is not political. That's like repealing gravity because you gained 10 pounds last week."

Earlier this month, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting published an explosive story alleging that Scott's administration had instituted an unwritten policy forbidding government employees from using "climate change," "global warming," and "sea level rise" in official communications. The governor has since denied the report, but several environmental groups have called for a probe into the alleged ban.

In his remarks Monday, Tyson said that while it may be easy to shame politicians for their climate change denial, it's ultimately the voters who are responsible.

"Debating facts takes time away from the conversation," Tyson said, according to the Bradenton Herald. "We should be talking about what we are going to do about this. I don't blame the politicians for a damn thing because we vote for the politician. I blame the electorate."

This isn't the first time Tyson has scolded voters for electing science-denying politicians. In a January interview with the Boston Globe, he said he used to get "bent out of shape" about elected officials like snowball-wielding Senator James Inhofe publicly claiming climate change is a hoax. But his views have since evolved.

"The real challenge to the educator is not beating politicians over the head, or lobbying them, or writing letters," he said. "It's improving the educational system that shapes the people who elect such representatives in the first place."

The People Who Pick Your Organic Strawberries Have Had It With Rat-Infested Camps

| Wed Mar. 25, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

When most of us think of Mexican food, we visualize tacos, burritos, and chiles rellenos. But we should probably add cucumbers, squash, melons, and berries to the list—more or less the whole supermarket produce aisle, in fact. The United States imports more than a quarter of the fresh fruit and nearly a third of the vegetables we consume. And a huge portion of that foreign-grown bounty—69 percent of vegetables and 37 percent of fruit—comes from our neighbor to the south.

Mexican farmers whose work supplies US supermarkets and restaurants often endure subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and labor arrangements that approach slavery.

Not surprisingly, as I've shown before, labor conditions on Mexico's large export-oriented farms tend to be dismal: subpar housing, inadequate sanitation, poverty wages, and often, labor arrangements that approach slavery. But this week, workers in Baja California, a major ag-producing state just south of California, are standing up. Here's the Los Angeles Times: "Thousands of laborers in the San Quintín Valley 200 miles south of San Diego went on strike Tuesday, leaving the fields and greenhouses full of produce that is now on the verge of rotting."

In addition to the work stoppage, striking workers shut down 55 miles of the Trans-Peninsular Highway, a key thoroughfare for moving goods from Baja California to points north, the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada (in Spanish) reported after the strike started on March 17.

The blockade has been lifted, at least temporarily. But the "road remains hard to traverse as rogue groups stop and, at times, attack truck drivers," the LA Times reports. And the strike itself continues. The uprising is starting to affect US supply chains. An executive for the organic-produce titan Del Cabo Produce, which grows vegetables south of the San Quintín Valley but needs to traverse it to reach its US customers, told the Times that the clash is "creating a lot of logistical problems…We're having to cut orders." And "Costco reported that organic strawberries are in short supply because about 80% of the production this time of year comes from Baja California," the Times added. The US trade publication Produce News downplayed the strike's impact, calling it "minor."

Meanwhile, the strike's organizers plan to launch a campaign to get US consumers to boycott products grown in the region, mainly tomatoes, cucumbers, and strawberries, inspired by the successful '70s-era actions of the California-based United Farm Workers, headed by Cesar Chavez, La Jornada reported Tuesday. And current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez has issued a statement of solidarity with the San Quintín strikers.

Such cross-border organizing is critical, because the people who work on Mexico's export-focused farms tend to be from the same places as the people who work on the vast California and Florida operations that supply the bulk of our domestically grown produce: the largely indigenous states of southern Mexico. And the final market for the crops they tend and harvest is also the same: US supermarkets and restaurants.

In a stunning four-part series last year, LA Times reporter Richard Marosi documented the harsh conditions that prevail on the Mexican farms that churn out our food. He found:

  • Many farm laborers are essentially trapped for months at a time in rat-infested camps, often without beds and sometimes without functioning toilets or a reliable water supply.
  • Some camp bosses illegally withhold wages to prevent workers from leaving during peak harvest periods.
  • Laborers often go deep in debt paying inflated prices for necessities at company stores. Some are reduced to scavenging for food when their credit is cut off. It's common for laborers to head home penniless at the end of a harvest.
  • Those who seek to escape their debts and miserable living conditions have to contend with guards, barbed-wire fences, and sometimes threats of violence from camp supervisors.
  • Major US companies have done little to enforce social responsibility guidelines that call for basic worker protections such as clean housing and fair pay practices.

As for their counterparts to the north, migrant-reliant US farms tend to treat workers harshly as well, as the excellent 2014 documentary Food Chains demonstrates. The trailer, below, is a good crash course on what it's like to be at the bottom of the US food system. In honor of National Farm Worker Awareness Week, the producers are making it available for $0.99 on iTunes. And here's an interview with the film's director, Sanjay Rawal, by Mother Jones' Maddie Oatman.

Robot-Building 6-Year-Old Girls Talking Tech With Obama Is the Best Thing You'll See All Week

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 7:56 PM EDT

On Monday, President Obama made his annual rounds at the White House Science Fair. The event is a breeding ground for adorable interactions with kid-nerds (See 2012's marshmallow-shooting air cannon), but his chat yesterday with five cape-wearing Girl Scouts from Oklahoma was especially magical.

The 6-year-olds from Tulsa's Girl Scout Troup 411 were the youngest inventors selected to present at this year's fair. Inspired by conversations with a librarian and one of the girls' grandmas, they built a mechanical Lego contraption that can turn pages, to help patients with mobility issues read books.

The group of first graders and kindergartners explain to Obama that the device is a "prototype" that they came up with in a "brainstorming session." One of the girls asks Obama if he's ever had his own brainstorming session.

"I have had a couple brainstorming sessions," replies an amused Obama. "But I didn't come up with anything this good!"

Another girls asks what he came up with:

"I mean, I came up with things like, you know, health care. It turned out ok, but it started off with some prototypes," the president says.

And then they all go in for a group hug. GOLD.

Suzanne Dodson, the coach of the Lego team and the mom of one of the scouts, told Tulsa World that she's glad the girls are getting such positive attention for their project: "It really is a problem with girls, when they get to middle school, they lose confidence in their own ability to succeed in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math)" she said. "Having this experience at young age really gives them a confidence boost."

Housekeeping Note

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:27 PM EDT

I'll be busy with various tests and doctor appointments all day Wednesday, so no blogging. I should be back on Thursday, health permitting.

Everything Changed on 9/11, Starting With Ted Cruz's Musical Taste

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 3:26 PM EDT

During a segment of CBS's This Morning show, Senator Ted Cruz attempted to explain how the attacks on September 11 moved him to shun the soulless genre of rock music and pick up country:

You know, music is interesting. I grew up listening to classic rock and I’ll tell you sort of an odd story. My music tastes changed on 9/11. And it’s a very strange—I actually, intellectually, find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me and I have to say, it—just as a gut level, I had an emotional reaction that says, “These are my people.” And so ever since 2001 I listen to country music, but I’m an odd country music fan because I didn’t listen to it prior to 2001.

September 11, the day the music died for our only declared presidential candidate and now the phoniest dude you'll run into at a country concert. This is going to be a wildly entertaining road to 2016.

(h/t Slate)

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Has Israel Given Up On Democrats?

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 11:46 AM EDT

Israel is doing its best to spy on the nuclear negotiations between Iran and the West. No surprise there. But the Obama administration believes they've taken things too far:

The spying operation was part of a broader campaign by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to penetrate the negotiations and then help build a case against the emerging terms of the deal, current and former U.S. officials said....The espionage didn’t upset the White House as much as Israel’s sharing of inside information with U.S. lawmakers and others to drain support from a high-stakes deal intended to limit Iran’s nuclear program, current and former officials said.

....“People feel personally sold out,” a senior administration official said. “That’s where the Israelis really better be careful because a lot of these people will not only be around for this administration but possibly the next one as well.”

The upshot of all this is that support for Israel is rapidly becoming a partisan issue. “If you’re wondering whether something serious has shifted here, the answer is yes,” a senior U.S. official said. “These things leave scars.” This is not likely to be good for Israel in the long term.

Study: Monsanto's Roundup Herbicide Probably Causes Cancer [UPDATED]

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

UPDATE: Monsanto is trying furiously to discredit the World Health Organization's assessment that glyphosate is a probable carcinogen. The company is pushing the WHO to retract the assessment, Reuters reports. And in an email, a Monsanto public relations person wrote that "[W]e are reaching out to the World Health Organization (WHO) to understand how, despite the wealth of existing science on glyphosate, the IARC [International Agency for Research on Cancer] panel could make a classification that disagrees with scientific and regulatory reviews."

Monsanto has assured the public over and over that its flagship Roundup herbicide doesn't cause cancer. But that soon change be . In a stunning assessment (free registration required) published in The Lancet, a working group of scientists convened by the World Health Organization reviewed the recent research on glyphosate, the key ingredient in Roundup and the globe's most widely used weed-killing chemical, and found it "probably carcinogenic to humans."

One scientist called the report's finding "the most surprising thing I've heard in 30 years" of studying agriculture.

The authors cited three studies that suggest occupational glyphosate exposure (e.g., for farm workers) causes "increased risks for non-Hodgkin lymphoma that persisted after adjustment for other pesticides." They also point to both animal and human studies suggesting that the chemical, both in isolation and in the mix used in the fields by farmers, "induced DNA and chromosomal damage in mammals, and in human and animal cells in vitro"; and another one finding "increases in blood markers of chromosomal damage" in residents of several farm communities after spraying of glyphosate formulations.

Monsanto first rolled out glyphosate herbicides in 1974, and by the mid-1990s began rolling out corn, soy, and cotton seeds genetically altered to resist it. Last year, herbicide-tolerant crops accounted for 94 percent of soybeans and 89 percent of corn, two crops that cover more than half of US farmland. The rise of so-called Roundup Ready crops has led to a spike in glyphosate use, a 2012 paper by Washington State University researcher Charles Benbrook showed.

Benbrook told me the WHO's assessment is "the most surprising thing I've heard in 30 years" of studying agriculture. Though a critic of the agrichemical industry, Benbrook has long seen glyphosate as a "relatively benign" herbicide. The WHO report challenges that widely held view, he said. "I had thought WHO might find it to be a 'possible' carcinogen," Benbrook said. "'Probable,' I did not expect."

He added that the report delivered no specific conclusions about the dosage glyphosate requires to trigger cancer. But given that US Geological Survey researchers have found it in detectable levels in air, rain, and streams in heavy-usage regions, that it's widely used in parks, that it has also been found in food residues (though the US Department of Agriculture does not regularly test for it), the Environmental Protection Agency will likely come under heavy pressure to demand new research on it. Most US research on glyphosate, Benbrook added, has focused on the chemical in isolation. But in the real world, glyphosate is mixed with other chemicals, called surfactants and adjuvants, that enhance their weed-slaying power. Importantly, some of the research used in the WHO assessment came from outside the US and looked at real-world herbicide formulations.

Monsanto shares closed nearly 2 percent lower Monday as investors digested the news. It's not heard to see why they're squeamish. The agribusiness giant is most known for its high-tech seeds, but its old-line herbicide business remains quite the cash cow, as its 2014 annual report shows. That year, the division reaped about a third of the company's $15.8 billion in total sales. Indeed, Monsanto's herbicide sales grew at a robust 13 percent in 2014 clip, vs. an anemic 4 percent for its other division, seeds and genomics.

Our Meat Obsession May Kill Us. But Not How You Think.

| Tue Mar. 24, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

The world is using more antibiotics than ever before—and showing no signs of stopping. A new analysis published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science predicts that worldwide consumption of the drugs will grow 67 percent by 2030. Over the same period of time, in Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, the authors expect that antibiotic use will double.

The reason for the dramatic increase in antibiotic use, say the authors, mostly has to do with the planet's ever-increasing appetite for meat. Since the 1970s, meat producers have been dosing livestock with regular, low doses of antibiotics. For reasons not entirely understood, this regimen helps animals grow bigger. In the United States, 80 percent of all antibiotics already go to livestock, and the practice is becoming the norm the world over. This map shows the current global antibiotic consumption in livestock (in milligrams per 10 square kilometer pixels):

Map courtesy of Proceedings of the National Academy of Science

As the middle class in the developing world grows, demand for meat—and use of the antibiotics to grow that meat cheaply and quickly—is expected to rise as well.

To get a sense of how quickly our global appetite for meat is growing, take a look at China. There, livestock producers are buying record amounts of corn and soy to feed a growing number of animals:

Jaeah Lee

As antibiotic use skyrockets, experts expect that germs will evolve to resist them. That's scary, considering that some of the same drugs we use on livestock are also our best defense against infections in humans. And suberbugs, several recent studies have shown, can and do jump from animals to people. In fact, another recent study predicted that antibiotic resistant infections will kill 10 million people a year by 2050. 

There's also evidence that antibiotics might soon stop working the way that meat producers want them to: A recent analysis concluded that the drugs are no longer making pigs bigger.

The good news: Despite loose federal regulations around antibiotic use on farms, American consumers are beginning to favor meat grown without drugs. And manufacturers are taking notice: Earlier this month, McDonald's pledged to serve only chicken raised without antibiotics, and Costco quickly followed suit.

Police: There Is "No Evidence" of Gang Rape Detailed in Rolling Stone's UVA Story

| Mon Mar. 23, 2015 5:01 PM EDT

In a news conference on Monday, the Charlottesville Police Department announced it would suspend an investigation into the University of Virginia rape allegations first detailed in an explosive Rolling Stone article published last November. The police said they found "no evidence" supporting the claims of the student Rolling Stone identified as Jackie.

"I can't prove that something didn't happen, and there may come a point in time in which this survivor, or this complaining party or someone else, may come forward with some information that might help us move this investigation further," Police Chief Tim Longo told reporters. He also stressed the inquiry was not permanently closed.

According to Longo, Jackie did not cooperate with police officials, who conducted nearly 70 interviews, including speaking with Jackie's friends and members of UVA's Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. Jackie alleged her 2012 rape occurred in Phi Kappa Psi's fraternity house.

The results of the investigation follow a turbulent four months for the magazine, after news outlets such as Slate and the Washington Post unearthed major errors compromising Rolling Stone's story. The magazine acknowledged the discrepancies, saying it had "misplaced its trust" in Jackie.

The story, however, fueled a national conversation over campus sexual assault. An independent investigation led by Columbia University's School of Journalism is expected to be released in the coming weeks.