Blue Marble - November 2012

5 Climate Hawks Who Won on Tuesday

| Thu Nov. 8, 2012 12:48 PM PST
Screeeeeeee!

Climate-minded voters were pleased to see President Obama reelected on Tuesday, and to hear him call out "the destructive power of a warming planet" in his victory speech. But they also scored some notable wins in state houses and Congress this year. Here are five "climate hawks" that will take office in 2013.

1. Jay Inslee, Washington state's new governor (most likely). Inslee, a Democrat, who has represented Washington in the House of Representatives since 1993, has long been a champion of renewable energy and sound environmental policies. In 2007 he coauthored the book Apollo's Fire: Igniting America's Clean Energy Economy, on that very subject. He was a member of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming (back before the Republicans nixed it) and the co-chair of the House Sustainable Energy & Environment Coalition. He was also a key figure in shaping the climate bill that passed the House in 2009. As governor, he has pledged to continue that leadership.

2. Martin Heinrich, New Mexico's next senator. Democrat Heinrich defeated Republican Heather Wilson in the race to succeed retiring Senator Jeff Bingaman. Heinrich authored the Clean Energy Promotion Act, a bill that would have expanded the number of renewable energy projects on public lands. (It didn't pass, but it was a nice idea.) Before joining Congress he was a board member of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and was appointed to serve as the state's Natural Resources Trustee, who oversees the assessment and protection of the state's resources.

3. Angus King, Maine's next senator. King, an independent, is drawing attention because he won't say whether he plans to caucus with the Democrats or the Republicans. But environmental groups are certain that he will be a strong voice for climate action, based on his record as governor of Maine. After leaving office, he went into the wind energy business, building a 50-megawatt wind farm in Oxford County. He won endorsements from the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club.

4. Pete Gallego, the next congressman from Texas' 23rd District. Gallego, a Democrat, defeated Republican incumbent Quico Canseco in this very close House race that featured fights about Jesus and a rare, eyeless spider. An outside group sent a mailer to voters accusing Gallego of siding with "left-wing extremists" in the debate over protecting this spider's habitat from the construction of a new highway. Gallego won the endorsement of the League of Conservation voters based on his record of, in his own words, promoting a "robust, environmentally-friendly economy."

5. Carol Shea-Porter, the once-and future-congresswoman from New Hampshire's 1st District. Shea-Porter served two terms in the House but lost her seat to Republican Frank Guinta in the tea-party surge of the 2010 election. She reclaimed it on Tuesday, rallying support with a poignant appeal for action on global warming: "If Americans want to fix this climate change problem, they will first need to fix Congress in November."

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The Soda Tax Lost. Now What?

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 1:10 PM PST

Measures in Richmond and El Monte, California that would have taxed sugar-sweetened beverages at a penny-per-ounce rate failed to pass in either city yesterday. In Richmond, 67 percent of voters said no to Measure N, striking down an attempt by councilmembers such as Jeff Ritterman, the main champion of the tax, to raise funds in hopes of curbing high rates of childhood obesity in the area.

Measure N recieved opposition from some Richmond councilmembers, such as Nat Bates, who told the Contra Costa Times that the tax was an overreach. Fierce campaign spending may have also played a role in quashing passage of the tax; as I reported yesterday, soda and food industry groups, such as the American Beverage Association, poured $2.5 million to defeat the campaign, outspending supporters at a ratio of 35 to 1. That $2.5 million on campaign spending against the tax is almost as much as the $3 million Ritterman was hoping could be raised by the measure to be put towards addressing some of the city's health issues. The tax fared even worse in El Monte, where only 23 percent of voters favored the tax. There, the soda industry spent $1.3 million to counter the measure.

Though disappointed that the initiatives will have to wait for another election, Ritterman says just getting the measures on the ballot doesn't have much of a downside for cities. "If you win, you get millions of dollars to address childhood obesity," he told me. But either way, "you get a very spirited conversation about the health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverages that you didn't have before." Ritterman says he has seen less soda consumed at public events around the city because of the debate the tax raised, and thinks young people's soda drinking habits may have been changed by the coversations the proposed initiative sparked.

Ritterman says he believes that a statewide or nationwide soda tax would be more effective than a local one. With the Obamas' emphasis on healthy eating, he's holding out hope for national movement towards taxing soda. In the meantime, he plans to encourage 14 California cities to propose soda taxes in 2014. He also hopes people will start paying more attention to the science behind the overconsumption of sugar: in this campaign, "it was really treated as a political issue by people not taking on the science."

In the meantime, though people in Richmond and El Monte won't pay a bit more to consume sugar-sweetened drinks, the health costs of dealing with high diabetes and heart disease rates will continue to add up. Says Ritterman: "We're actually paying more money by not having the tax, but people weren't aware of that."

California Approves Clean Energy Measure; Michigan Voters Nix Theirs

| Wed Nov. 7, 2012 12:46 PM PST

For green energy fans, Tuesday's vote on state-level ballot measures was a mixed bag. Michiganders voted down a measure to increase the state's clean energy mandate, while California voters approved an increase in taxes on out-of-state businesses in order to fund clean energy projects.

More on the Michigan measure, which aimed to raise the state's renewable energy standard to 25 percent by 2025, from the Detroit News:

With most precincts reporting, 63 percent of voters opposed the measure.
"Obviously, we're pretty happy with what we're seeing," said Steve Transeth, the former head of the Michigan Public Service Commission who has worked to defeat the ballot measure. "As we've said all along, it's very important we move forward with clean energy and a clean environment. But this proposal was just not the way to go about it."
Proposal 3 represented a doubling-down on renewable energy after state legislators voted in 2008 to reach a 15 percent standard by 2015. Those backing the ballot measure claimed the new standard would not only accelerate Michigan's move away from environmentally-damaging fossil fuels, but create jobs and investment from the construction and maintenance of wind turbines.

There was better news out of California, where voters approved Proposition 39. The measure is expected to generate $1 billion a year that will fund clean energy and other state programs by closing a loophole that currently allows out-of-state businesses to avoid some taxes. From the Sacramento Bee:

The initiative was leading 59 percent to 41 percent late Tuesday with 43 percent of the vote counted.
Proposition 39 was backed almost entirely by billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, who spent $32 million on the campaign.
The initiative would initially pump $500 million into the state budget and education in the first half of 2013. Thereafter, it would also devote about $500 million for clean energy, in addition to $500 million for the budget and education each year.

WATCH: On Long Island, Sandy Victims Vote—Or Not

| Tue Nov. 6, 2012 5:20 PM PST

Oceanside High School in Oceanside, Long Island, has long played host to national elections. But this morning, it opened its doors to a whole new raft of voters: Those whose original polling places nearby had been disabled by Hurricane Sandy.

Even as intersections remained without traffic lights, and piles of water-destroyed household furnishings lined the streets, many in the steady stream of voters here made it clear that weighing in on our next president was still a priority. They were also adamant that in this traditionally Republican-leaning neighborhood, President Obama's efforts to address the storm wouldn't be enough to pull votes away from Mitt Romney.

Closer to the water's edge, where ocean debris still litters sidewalks and many remain without food or heat, the polling station seemed a lot further off. "I've been living in the cold," Kathleen Basler says. "There is no way, shape, or form that I could even get to a voting booth."

Will Big Soda Beat the California Soda Taxes?

| Tue Nov. 6, 2012 4:52 PM PST

Should sugary drinks be taxed to discourage people from overconsuming them? That's the question California voters in Richmond and El Monte are asking as they head to the polls today to decide on what could become the first penny-per-ounce taxes imposed on sugary beverages by cities in the US.

As I reported in June, some economists and public health researchers think that soda has enough price elasticity that its consumption rates would be shaken up by such measures. And growing research about diabetes and other health problems associated with the overconsumption of sugaras discussed in the recent Mother Jones exposé "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," for instance—has convinced some it may be time for the government to help regulate its consumption.

Just in time for today's election, a new study presented at a conference last week underscored the potentially positive role such excise taxes could play in problems plaguing minorities and low income communities. When researchers from the University of CaliforniaSan Francisco and other universities projected the impact of a 20 percent drop in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in California, they found that incidence of diabetes and heart disease would drop up to 5.6 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.

But more importantly, the researchers found, incidence would decrease more significantly for certain groups who struggle with these issues the most: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and poor people. For these groups, a soda tax could decrease diabetes incidence by around 8 percent, and heart disease by around 2 percent. Total savings associated with avoiding these health issues in California? As much as $1 billion for diabetes, and an extra $130 million for heart disease.

Richmond's councilman Jeff Ritterman, who proposed the city's soda tax, or "Measure N," called these research findings "the smoking gun" in an email in early November, especially considering two-thirds of the city is black or Latino, and 32 percent of school kids are obese. The city also suffers from an 11 percent unemployment rate and high rates of poverty. As California Watch reported, the lead researcher of the study thinks the findings are significant because they show that some groups that in general drink more soda and are at a higher risk of diabetes may also benefit most from a tax on SSBs.

The taxes are by no means universally popular. Many in the Richmond area, including some black and Latino leaders, feel they were left out of the soda tax discussion and worry that a tax could slow sales at local small businesses. As the debate heated up over the summer and fall, these opponents were encouraged by the likes of, who else? Big Soda. 

Maplight.orgMaplight.orgAs my colleague Kate Sheppard reported, the American Beverage Association bankrolled a coalition against the tax in Richmond, framing it as a "tax on poor people." (This coalition also successfully sued the city to not have to disclose its donors on campaign fliers). Data compiled at the end of October by Maplight.org shows that groups like the ABA, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo have outspent supporters of Measure N at a ratio of 35 to 1. The soda industry reportedly spent another $1.3 million to defeat El Monte's soda tax. Whatever the outcome of today's election, the outsize spending reveals just how far the beverage industry will go to protect its product, even if the public health consequences are less than sweet.

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A Creepy October in the Arctic

| Tue Nov. 6, 2012 4:13 AM PST

View from the 05 Deck on USCG icebreaker Healy on 15 October 2012: Julia WhittyView from the 05 Deck on USCG icebreaker Healy on 15 October 2012: Julia WhittyThis was the view at sunrise from the 05 deck five levels above the main deck of the Coast Guard icebreaker Healy three weeks ago. (For more about this science cruise check out my Arctic Ocean Diaries.) It was a balmy 27°F (-2°C). On the same cruise last year temperatures fell to -20°F (-29°C). Last month the ocean was relatively calm. There wasn't much of anything to indicate we were actually in the Arctic. It looked a lot like South Pacific sunrises I've watched from open boats in a shorty wetsuit. Frankly it was creepy.

Arctic sea ice extent for October 2012 was 2.7 million square miles (7 million square kilometers). Magenta line shows 1979 to 2000 median extent for that month. Black cross indicates geographic North Pole. Yellows shows seas within the Arctic Ocean: National Snow and Ice Data CenterArctic sea ice extent for October 2012 was 2.7 million square miles (7 million square kilometers). Magenta line shows 1979 to 2000 median extent for October. Black cross marks geographic North Pole. Yellow names mark the seas of the Arctic Ocean: National Snow and Ice Data Center

Yesterday the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) released their monthly overview of Arctic sea ice for October 2012, which explains a lot of what I saw. The map above shows October 2012 ice in white, compared to the median sea ice extent from 1979 to 2000 (pink line). Here's what the NSIDC report says:

Average ice extent for October was 7.00 million square miles (2.70 million square miles). This is the second lowest in the satellite record, 230,000 square kilometers (88,800 square miles) above the 2007 record for the month. However, it is 2.29 million square kilometers (884,000 square miles) below the 1979 to 2000 average. The East Siberian, Chukchi, and Laptev seas have substantially frozen up. Large areas of the southern Beaufort, Barents, and Kara seas remain ice free.

That's less ice in the Arctic this October than an area of Alaska and Texas combined.

My cruise covered the entire eastern extent of the Chukchi Sea and the entire southern extent of the Beaufort Sea. These are the Alaskan parts (and some Canadian parts) of the Arctic Ocean. The fact that they remain largely ice free even now could bode poorly for ecosystems accustomed to a cap of sea ice most of the year.

a snapshot of how ocean depth in the Arctic influences sea ice extent. Sea ice cover for August 28, 2012 is shown in semi-transparent white; ocean depths are indicated in blues, with deeper blues indicating greater depth: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Jamie Morison/Applied Physics Laboratory, University of WashingtonA snapshot of how ocean depth in the Arctic influences sea ice extent. Sea ice cover for 28 August 2012 is shown in semi-transparent white, ocean depths in blues, deeper blues indicating greater depth: National Snow and Ice Data Center courtesy Jamie Morison/Applied Physics Laboratory, University of Washington

Really interesting in the NSIDC report is an analysis of what forces may affect sea ice formation:

Research by our colleagues Jamie Morison at the University of Washington Seattle and NASA scientist Son Nghiem suggests that bathymetry (sea floor topography) plays an important role in Arctic sea ice formation and extent by controlling the distribution and mixing of warm and cold waters. At its seasonal minimum extent, the ice edge mainly corresponds to the deep-water/shallow-water boundary (approximately 500-meter depth), suggesting that the ocean floor exerts a dominant control on the ice edge position.

They note that in some some cases sea ice survives even in shallower continental shelves because of water circulation patterns. The shelf of the Greenland Sea is nearly always ice covered because of southward-flowing Arctic currents that keep it cold. Meanwhile other shallow areas like the Barents and Chukchi seas lose their ice cover due to warm ocean waters and freshwater runoff from rivers—two forces that are increasing in strength as the land warms too.

VIDEO: Weary New Jersey Residents Face Another Ordeal: Voting

| Mon Nov. 5, 2012 4:13 AM PST

Hurricane Sandy took away a lot of things: power, homes, even lives. For residents of Moonachie, New Jersey, a small town just across the Hudson River from New York City, the storm took a stab at their basic right to vote. After severe flooding here, much of the town remains without power, which led local election officials to decide over the weekend to close all the polling places and redirect residents to consolidated locations nearby.

It's the same story all across the state: Some 300 polling places shut down or moved, according to the governor's office, creating a logistical nightmare for election planners and a headache for voters (for what it's worth, Gov. Chris Christie announced plans to allow votes to be emailed or faxed in). And while New Jersey, a solidly blue state, has never seen less than 70 percent turnout for a presidential election, residents here say until the lights come back on, casting a vote is the last thing on their minds.      

What Would a Romney Victory Mean for the Environment?

| Sat Nov. 3, 2012 3:03 AM PDT

When it comes to the planet, it's hard to get a great sense of what Mitt Romney would actually do as president. His campaign website includes a long list of issues—Puerto Rico, Medicare, Values—but environment doesn't merit its own section. Anything on the subject is buried under energy, where he promises to make the US an "energy superpower" and calls the Obama administration's green energy policies "nothing short of a disaster."

1. States would oversee fossil fuel development on federal lands. Romney's campaign has promised that as part of his plan to "dramatically increase domestic energy production," states "will be empowered to control all forms of energy production on all lands within their borders, excluding only those that are specifically designated off-limits." That could include some national parks.

2. Regulations would be weakened. Romney has pledged to "take a weed whacker" to federal environmental regulations. His plan lacks specifics, but calls for "streamlining" environmental review periods for energy development plans and "allowing state reviews to satisfy federal requirements." (See Nos. 3 and 6 for more.)

3. Coal companies would get to do pretty much whatever they want. Romney has accused the Obama administration of waging a "war on coal," and has pledged to reverse many of the administration's regulations. As president, he would likely approve the most extreme anti-environmental bills offered in Congress—like the "Stop the War on Coal Act," passed in September. The bill was a grab bag for coal interests, taking away the EPA's ability to regulate mountaintop-removal coal mining, greenhouse gas emissions, coal ash disposal, mercury and air toxins."I like coal," Romney said at the October 3 debate. "I'm going to make sure we’re going to be able to burn clean coal." However, he has offered few specifics on what he would do to make coal "clean" as president. 

4. He would open new areas to drilling. Romney has pledged to open new areas to drilling off the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He also wants to ramp up drilling in already-available areas.

5. The Keystone XL pipeline will be approved. Romney has said he would approve this massive proposed pipeline running from Canada to Texas "on day one."

6. Greenhouse gas emission regulations would be halted. Romney now treats climate change as a punchline, despite the fact that he at least pretended to care about it as governor of Massachusetts. Thus, he doesn't see a reason that the EPA should be regulating carbon dioxide emissions at all. "I exhale carbon dioxide," he joked at an event last November. "I don't want those guys following me around with a meter to see if I'm breathing too hard."

7. Say good-bye to new fuel-economy rules. Romney has pledged to throw out the new miles-per-gallon standards for cars and light trucks set by the Obama administration. "Gov. Romney opposes the extreme standards that President Obama has imposed, which will limit the choices available to American families," according to his spokeswoman.

8. No more clean-energy loans. Romney has regularly attacked the Obama administration's tax breaks and loans for the clean-energy industry, particularly the loan to now-bankrupt solar company Solyndra. He says he will end support for electric vehicle companies and clean-tech companies as president.

VIDEO: With or Without FEMA, Staten Island Sifts Through the Rubble

| Fri Nov. 2, 2012 3:46 PM PDT

One of the first confirmed victims of Hurricane Sandy was Angela Dresch, 13, who was killed Monday night by a massive storm surge that swept through her home just behind the beach in Tottenville, Staten Island. All told, Staten Island saw more deaths than any other borough, and took some of the storm's worst beatings. With destroyed houses and a rising body count, residents here say they felt ignored by FEMA and the Red Cross, despite desperately wanting and needing their help.

By Friday morning, FEMA officials were in Tottenville, helping residents apply for disaster compensation. But they were already behind the Tottenville community itself, which had rolled out scores of volunteers armed with shovels and wheelbarrows (and a boatload of doughnuts) to help those who lost their homes sort through the rubble.