Blue Marble

Well, Well, Well, Look Who Just Endorsed a Bold Fix For Climate Change

| Tue Jun. 2, 2015 5:38 PM EDT
Shell's Arctic drilling rig docked in Seattle last month. The company now supports carbon pricing but hasn't changed plans to drill for oil.

Oil companies are pretty much the last ally you'd think of when it comes to advancing big-picture solutions to climate change. These are the companies, after all, whose product is responsible for causing a significant amount of climate change in the first place—and pretty much every proposed fix for global warming necessarily involves burning less oil.

So it came as a bit of a surprise Monday when six of the leading European oil companies, including BP and Shell, unveiled a letter addressed to the United Nations climate chief calling for a price on carbon emissions (read the full letter below).

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of ongoing UN-led international climate negotiations, the letter said. This week representatives from nearly 200 countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany, to prepare for a summit in Paris this winter where they hope to produce a powerful global accord on fighting climate change. The letter called on the world's governments to create new national carbon markets where they don't currently exist (like most of the United States, for example), and to eventually link those markets internationally.

"We believe that a price on carbon should be a key element" of global climate talks, a letter from several European oil companies said.

As Bloomberg Business pointed out, the letter is "unprecedented," in that it's the first time a group of major oil companies have banded together to advocate for a serious climate change policy. It was welcomed by the UN's top climate official, Christiana Figueres, who said that the "oil and gas industry must be a major part of the solution to climate change."

Most environmental economists and policy wonks agree that making companies pay for their carbon pollution—whether through a tax or a cap-and-trade system—is a fundamental step for any meaningful reduction in greenhouse gas emissions. The basic idea is that making carbon pollution expensive will drive big polluters to clean up. Policies like this are already gathering steam across the globe, from Canada to China. (California and a few Northeast states have regional carbon markets, but a national carbon price is still a non-starter in the US Congress.) Recently, Australia demonstrated just how effective carbon pricing can be, in a counterintuitive way: Carbon emissions dropped immediately after the country implemented a carbon tax, then jumped right back up when the tax was repealed.

If Monday's letter is any clue, oil companies are reading the writing on the wall, and they know that one way or another, it's time to start planning for a future when carbon pollution is more expensive and tightly regulated. Well, some oil companies: Conspicuously absent from the letter are any US oil companies, like Chevron or ExxonMobil; all the signatories are European. In fact, just last week Exxon chief Rex Tillerson implicitly blasted his European peers for cozying up to the UN on climate issues, saying his company wouldn't "fake it" on climate change and that investing in renewable energy is tantamount to "losing money on purpose."

The head of French oil giant Total addressed the cross-Atlantic schism in comments to Reuters, saying that the European companies were set on throwing their weight behind carbon pricing "without necessarily waiting for an American to come on board."

Although carbon pricing "obviously adds a cost to our production and our products," the letter says, the companies would prefer consistency and predictability over the patchwork of policies that exists now. In other words, it's easier to justify and plan investments in lower-carbon projects, such as replacing coal with natural gas, when carbon prices are stable and "even-handed," the letter said. At the same time, these companies have come under increasing pressure from shareholders to address how they'll stay profitable in the future, as restrictions on carbon emissions are tightened.

To that end, a few of the signatories already have their own internal "shadow" carbon price, where investment options are calculated with a hypothetical carbon price added in, as a way of anticipating future policies.

Still, progressive-sounding statements notwithstanding, oil companies are oil companies, and the letter gives no indication that any of them have plans to replace fossil fuels as their primary product. Shell, for one, is just weeks away from a new foray into offshore drilling in the Arctic. And according to Bloomberg, the European companies are no better than their American counterparts in terms of their actual carbon footprint. So it remains to be seen how committed the companies will be to supporting sweeping changes to the global energy system, or if letters like this are just a clever way to stay relevant as the international climate talks forge ahead. Either way, the paradox of a corporation calling for a carbon price while still pursuing fossil fuel extraction is just more evidence that the free market won't fix climate change voluntarily—governments have to create new policies, like an international carbon price, that energy companies can't evade.

Here's the letter:

 

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San Francisco Moves to Require Health Warnings on Soda Ads

| Mon Jun. 1, 2015 6:36 PM EDT

Sugar has invaded just about every part of our diet (Americans consume an estimated five times the amount of added sugar recommended by the World Health Organization), and it's making us sick. Too much added sugar can lead to heart disease and myriad other health issues, and research suggests sugar in liquid form is worst of all for you.

CalBev, the trade group representing California's nonalcoholic beverage industry, called the proposals "anti-consumer choice."

That's why today San Francisco lawmakers discussed requiring soda advertisements to include a health warning. It would read, "WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco."

Other proposed ordinances would prohibit the advertising of sugar-sweetened drinks on city property and ban their purchase with city funds or grants. These measures would be the first of their kind taken by an American city.

As expected, the sugar industry is not happy about them. Last year, it spent more than $10 million campaigning against a San Francisco ballot measure to tax sugary beverages, and, according to the San Jose Mercury News, industry groups are prepared to fight these ordinances, as well.

CalBev, the trade group representing California's nonalcoholic beverage industry, called the proposals "anti-consumer choice" and said the warnings would not improve health and instead mislead and confuse consumers.

San Francisco supervisor Malia Cohen, who introduced the soda ordinances along with fellow supervisors Scott Wiener and Eric Mar, has a different perspective. "Soda companies are spending billions of dollars every year to target low-income and minority communities, which also happen to be some of the communities with the highest risks of Type II diabetes," she said in a statement. "This ban on soda advertising will help bridge this existing health inequity."

Wiener added, "These health warning labels will give people the information they need to make informed choices about how these sodas are impacting their lives and the lives of people in their community."

A hearing was held for the ordinances earlier today. Next, they will be brought to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors for a vote.

Obama's Plan to Save the Monarch Butterflies' Epic Migration

| Sat May 23, 2015 3:52 PM EDT
A monarch butterfly.

Earlier this week, amid negotiating major trade deals and joining Twitter, Obama put forth a major infrastructure project: a highway for monarch butterflies.

That's right, monarch butterflies. The pollinators are crucial to the health of our ecosystems but, like bees, their populations have seen startling drops. Some groups are even calling for their protection under the Endangered Species Act. The Obama administration wants to do something about it as part of its strategy to protect pollinating insects, but that turns out to be a tricky task given the monarch's complex life cycle.

Each year, millions of monarch butterflies complete a 2,000-mile migration circuit from Mexico to the border of the United States and Canada that is so epic it has inspired poetry, a novel and documentary after documentary.

The whole process revolves around the butterflies' favorite plant, milkweed, on whose leaves they lay eggs. Milkweed grows in the northern United States and southern Canada, so each spring they migrate north from Mexico (a process that requires multiple generations), resting along the way on trees like this.

Monarch butterflies in trees
Rebecca Blackwell/AP
Monarch butterflies on branch
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

The generation that arrives up north has just enough energy to lay eggs on milkweed leaves before dying themselves. The new generation, bolstered by the milkweed, then grows up with the strength to make make the autumn trip back to Mexico before the cold, continuing the cycle.

Monarch butterflies
Noradoa/Shutterstock

But a mixture of climate change, development, and herbicide use has wiped out> the milkweed-hungry monarchs. The US Fish and Wildlife Service estimated that nearly one billion butterflies have died since 1990, a 90 percent population decline.

Enter Obama. As part of his "National Strategy to Promote the Health of Honey Bees and Other Pollinators," his administration has introduced a plan to restore the monarch butterflies' habitat and increase their population by 225 million. The centerpiece of the plan is a "flyway" along Interstate 35, which stretches from Texas to Minnesota. The plan calls for turning federally owned land along the interstate corridor into milkweed refuges for the butterflies.

Will it work? Many don't think it's enough, including Tierra Curry, a senior scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity. "The goal the strategy sets for the monarch butterfly migration is far too low for the population to be resilient," she said in an email adding more protection and a ban of harmful pesticides are needed to save them.

One source of hope for the insect is its beauty. No one wants to see these iconic butterflies go away.

monarch butterfly
Jean-Edouard Rozey/Shutterstock
monarch butterfly
Rebecca Blackwell/AP

 

School Lunches Just Got Way Better in These 6 Cities (and It's Not the Food)

| Thu May 21, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A school lunch served on a foam polystyrene tray.

School lunches may be healthier than when you were a kid, but the wasteful and polluting materials that cafeterias serve them on have actually gotten worse. In an effort to save on labor and equipment costs, many schools switched from washable trays to disposable foam ones over the past couple of decades. But this trend is now beginning to change.

The school districts of six major cities—New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, and Orlando— announced today that they will stop using polystyrene foam trays, and begin serving lunch on compostable plates.

The Urban School Food Alliance, which counts the country's largest school districts among its members, coordinated the change after developing an affordable compostable plate made from recycled newspaper that costs just a penny more than its foam counterpart.

"Shifting from polystyrene trays to compostable plates will allow these cities to dramatically slash waste sent to landfills, reduce plastics pollution in our communities and oceans, and create valuable compost that can be re-used on our farms," said Mark Izeman, a senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which partners with the Alliance.

This shift to compostable plates by more than 4,000 schools will save an estimated 225 million petroleum-based plastic trays from going into landfill each year.

What's next? The Alliance hopes to introduce compostable cutlery by next school year.

 

The 85-Year-Old Nun Who Went to Prison for Embarrassing the Feds Is Finally Free

| Tue May 19, 2015 4:17 PM EDT
Sister Megan Rice

Sister Megan Rice, the 85-year-old activist nun who two years ago humiliated government officials by penetrating and vandalizing a supposedly ultra-high-security uranium storage facility, has finally been released from prison. A federal appeals court on Friday overturned the 2013 sabotage convictions of Rice and two fellow anti-nuclear activists, Michael Walli, 66, and Greg Boertje-Obed, 59, ruling that that their actions—breaking into Tennessee's Y-12 National Security Complex and spreading blood on a uranium storage bunker—did not harm national security.

Rice's case has become the subject of intense media scrutiny, including a recent New Yorker profile by Eric Schlosser, whose latest book exposed gaping flaws in America's nuclear weapons program. The activists now await re-sentencing on a lesser charge of damaging federal property. The punishment is expected to be less than the two years they've already spent in federal prison.

Speaking with Rice over the phone this afternoon, I asked her how it feels to be free. "Not that much different, because none of us is free," she said, "and it looks like we are going to go on being un-free for as long as there is a nuclear weapon waiting."

Asked on Democracy Now this morning about her experience in federal prison, Rice gave a response worthy of Sister Jane Ingalls, a character from the Netflix prison drama Orange Is the New Black, who was clearly inspired by Rice. "They are the ones who are the wisest in this country," she said of her fellow inmates. "They know what is really happening. They are the fallout of nuclear weapons production."

Skip to the 33-minute mark to watch the interview:

Kayaktavists Take Over Seattle's Port to Protest Shell Oil's Arctic Drilling Rig

| Sun May 17, 2015 1:41 PM EDT
Kayaktavists gather to protest the Polar Pioneer, Shell's artic oil drilling rig stationed in the Port of Seattle.

This article is being updated as news breaks. See below for the latest.

Seattleites took a dramatic stand, er paddle, against Arctic oil drilling on Saturday afternoon. Against the backdrop of the Pacific Northwest city's skyline, around 200 activists, local Native Americans, and concerned citizens took to kayak and canoe and surrounded a giant, Arctic-bound Royal Dutch Shell oil drilling rig currently making a layover in the Port of Seattle.

Despite the oil giant's rocky history in the Arctic region, last Monday the Obama administration conditionally approved Shell's summer plans to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea, north of Alaska. Environmentalists are not happy, and neither are many in Seattle, whose port has become a home base for the two Shell oil rigs' operations. The Port of Seattle's commissioners took heat for their controversial decision to lease one of its piers to Shell, tying the progressive city to fossil fuel extraction and the potential for environmental catastrophe in the Arctic.

As the first of the towering oil rigs arrived in Elliott Bay late last week, a group of "activists, artists, and noisemakers" calling themselves ShellNo organized a series of protests to welcome the oil company. The "Paddle in Seattle" yesterday drew an impressive flotilla of kayaks, canoes, and boats into the Duwamish River, which feeds into the Elliott Bay, to surround the Coast-Guard-protected rig. Below is a roundup of Tweeted pictures taken by people on the scene:

UPDATE, Monday, May 18, 2:00 p.m. PST:

Today, "ShellNo" continued its protest of Shell's plans to drill for oil in the arctic by blocking the entrances to the Port of Seattle's Pier 5 where one of the oil company's rigs is docked. Hundreds gathered earlier this morning at the pier's main entrance to slow operations on the rig, although some rig workers were apparently able to get in through other entrances. Police did not interfere with the demonstration, and at about 1:30PM the group began to leave the pier and march back the way they came. Those present included Native American activists and Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant. Some pictures of the event:

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This Likely GOP Presidential Candidate Actually Believes in Global Warming

| Mon May 11, 2015 5:12 PM EDT

New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a potential contender for the Republican presidential nomination, thinks climate change is real and caused—at least in part—by human activity, according to MSNBC.

Christie said he believes there's "no use in denying global warming exists" but that he's skeptical about most of the mainstream approaches to dealing with it. That includes cap-and-trade programs and unilateral steps to reduce America's carbon footprint, such as President Barack Obama's proposed restrictions on power plant emissions.

Christie's comments essentially matched those he made in back in 2011, the last time he spoke publicly about the issue. In some respects, his position is refreshingly distinct from those of his probable rivals in 2016. Many of the GOP contenders—for example, Rand Paul, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio—sit somewhere on the spectrum of climate change denial. But at the same time, Christie's track record in New Jersey suggests that as president, he'd be unlikely to actually do much to confront global warming, even if he thinks it's happening. As Climate Progress put it:

As governor, Christie withdrew New Jersey from the nine-state Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a cap-and-trade program aimed at reducing emissions, in 2011. Last year, Christie called RGGI "a completely useless plan" and said that he "would not think of rejoining it." Christie even vetoed an attempt by the New Jersey state legislature to rejoin RGGI…New Jersey also doesn't have a statewide climate change plan—the state is the only one on the eastern seaboard to not have one in place or be in the process of developing one, according to the Georgetown Climate Center.

Christie's logic—that even if climate change is real, there's nothing we can do to stop it—is out of step with mainstream science. And it ignores the growing international political momentum around climate action, which Obama has sought to lead. Moreover, if Christie thinks that kind of rhetoric is going to help him score points with Republican voters in the wake of the federal indictments handed down last week in the Bridgegate scandal, he has a long way to go: The latest polling puts Christie behind all of his serious opponents for the nomination.

Obama Okays Shell's Plan to Drill for Oil in the Arctic

| Mon May 11, 2015 3:31 PM EDT
Protesters in Seattle have taken to kayaks as Shell's Arctic drilling fleet approaches the city.

Royal Dutch Shell cleared a major hurdle this afternoon when the Obama administration announced conditional approval for the company's application to drill for oil in the Chukchi Sea off Alaska's North Slope. The decision came after a few months of public comment on Shell's exploration plan, which was roundly condemned by environmental groups and several North Slope communities.

Shell's plan involves drilling for oil in a patch of ocean called the Burger Prospect. The drilling is slated to take place this summer when sea ice is at its lowest. In anticipation of this decision, two massive oil drilling ships owned by Shell are en route to a temporary dock in Seattle; from there, they are scheduled to press on to the Arctic.

If the ships make it to the planned site, it will be the first attempt Shell has made to drill in the Arctic (an area believed to hold massive subterranean reserves of oil and gas) since its disastrous effort in 2012. Back then, Shell faced a yearlong series of mishaps as it tried to navigate the icy waters, culminating in a wreck of the Kulluk, one of its main drilling ships. For many environmentalists, that botched project was a sign that Shell is ill-equipped to handle Arctic waters.

Moreover, today's decision underscored what many describe as an inconsistency in President Barack Obama's climate change policy: Despite his aggressive rhetoric on the dangers of global warming, and a suite of policies to curb the nation's carbon footprint, Obama has also pushed to expand offshore oil and gas drilling. Earlier this year, he announced a plan to limit drilling permits in some parts of the Arctic while simultaneously opening a vast new swath of the Atlantic ocean to drilling.

Allowing Shell to forge ahead with its Arctic ambitions flies in the face of the president's own climate agenda, said Franz Matzner, associate director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

"It's a total mystery why the Obama administration and [Interior] Secretary [Sally] Jewell are continuing down this path that is enormously risky, contradicts climate science, and is completely unnecessary to meet our energy goals," Matzner said. "It's a dangerous folly to think that this can be done."

Before Shell can start drilling, it still needs to secure a few final federal and state permits, including one that requires Shell to demonstrate how it plans to protect ocean life during drilling and in the case of a spill. Those decisions are expected within the next month or so.

A spokesperson for Shell told the New York Times: "Before operations can begin this summer, it's imperative that the remainder of our permits be practical, and delivered in a timely manner. In the meantime, we will continue to test and prepare our contractors, assets and contingency plans against the high bar stakeholders and regulators expect of an Arctic operator."

After a Mother Jones Investigation, Starbucks Says It Will Stop Bottling Water in California

| Fri May 8, 2015 2:49 PM EDT

On the heels of a Mother Jones investigation last week that found that Starbucks sources its bottled water from a spring in the heart of California's drought country, Starbucks announced yesterday that it will phase out use of its California bottling plant for Ethos Water over the next six months. Because of "the serious drought conditions" in California, the company will transition to its Pennsylvania supplier while looking for another source to cover the western United States, Starbucks officials said in a press release.

The Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its water production is itself facing drought conditions.

The California counties from which Starbucks sources and bottles Ethos have been in a drought emergency for years now. Placer County, where Ethos' spring water is drawn, was already declared a natural disaster area by the USDA because of the drought back in 2012. Reports from more than a year ago noted that the county was already scrambling to deal with the area's "extreme drought." Merced county, where the bottling facility is located, declared a local emergency due to drought more than a year ago, as "extremely dry conditions have persisted since 2012."

Meanwhile, the Pennsylvania county to which Starbucks is now shifting its entire national production of Ethos Water is itself facing drought conditions. While not as catastrophic as California's historic water emergency, Luzerne County, where Starbucks' east coast supplier sources and bottles Ethos, was declared to be under Drought Watch by Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection back in March. DEP issued the declaration after below-normal rainfall over the past year has led to low groundwater levels in the region, which the agency noted has the potential to cause well-fed water supplies to go dry. The state is asking local residents to voluntarily reduce water consumption and to "run water only when absolutely necessary." DEP has put large water users on notice to plan for possible reductions in water supplies.

Nevertheless, Ethos' Pennsylvania bottler, Nature's Way Purewater, which bottles a number of other brands at its facility, announced in January that it planned to double production going forward.

This article was reported in partnership with the Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from the Puffin Foundation.

These Scientists Just Lost Their Lives in the Arctic. They Were Heroes.

| Thu May 7, 2015 3:14 PM EDT
Philip de Roo (left) and Marc Cornelissen.

Early last month, veteran polar explorers and scientists Marc Cornelissen and Philip de Roo set out on skis from Resolute Bay, a remote outpost in the patchwork of islands between Canada and Greenland. Their destination was Bathurst Island, a treacherous 70-mile trek to the northwest across the frozen sea, where they planned to document thinning Arctic sea ice just a few months after NASA reported that the winter ice cover was the lowest on record.

It wasn't hard to find what they were looking for, according to a dispatch Cornelissen uploaded to Soundcloud on April 28.

"We're nearing into the coast of Bathurst," he said. "We think we see thin ice in front of us…Within 15 minutes of skiing it became really warm. In the end it was me skiing in my underwear…I don't think it looked very nice, and it didn't feel sexy either, but it was the only way to deal with the heat."

His next message, a day later, was an emergency distress signal picked up by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. According to the Guardian, a pilot flying over the spot reported seeing open water, scattered equipment, and a lone sled dog sitting on the broken ice. By last Friday, rescuers had called off the search. The pair are presumed to have drowned, victims of the same thin ice they had come to study. Cornelissen was 46; de Roo had just turned 30.

Yesterday, Cold Facts, the nonprofit with whom the pair was working at the time, dispatched a snowmobile expedition to attempt to recover their belongings. You can follow their progress on Twitter here. The dog, Kimnik, was found a few days ago and is doing fine, the group said.

In a blog post on the website of the European Space Agency, Cornelissen was remembered by former colleagues as "an inspirational character, an explorer and a romantic. He had fallen in love with the spellbinding beauty of the poles and had made it a personal mission to highlight the magnitude of the human fingerprint on this last wilderness."

It's not clear whether the ice conditions the pair encountered were directly attributable to climate change, according to E&E News:

That the region had thin ice is evident. Perhaps the ice had been thinned by ocean currents that deliver warm water from below, or by the wind, which could generate open water areas. It is difficult to know. Climate change may have played a role, or it may not have…the impacts of the warming on ice thickness regionally can be unpredictable, [ESA scientist Mark] Drinkwater said.

Still, the Arctic is warming twice as fast as anywhere else on Earth. We rely on the work of scientists like these to know exactly what is happening there and how it will affect those of us who choose to stay safe in warmer, drier places. Their deaths are a testament to the dedication and fearlessness required to stand on the front lines of climate change.

Rest in peace, guys.