Blue Marble - March 2014

How Do San Franciscans Really Feel About Google Buses?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A tech shuttle protest in San Francisco, December 9, 2013.

Earlier this month, the Bay Area Council, a coalition of Bay Area businesses, commissioned EMC Research to ask 500 likely voters in San Francisco how they felt about the much discussed commuter shuttles that take people from The City, Oakland, and Berkeley to tech-company campuses in Silicon Valley. The EMC researchers wrote in the ensuing report (PDF), released this week, "Despite what it might look like from recent media coverage, a majority of voters have a positive opinion of the shuttle buses and support allowing buses to use MUNI stops." (MUNI is San Francisco's municipal transportation agency.)

The survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll.

But I'm not so sure that rosy conclusion is warranted. For starters, Bauer's Intelligent Transportation, which contracts with several tech companies to provide bus service, is a member of the Bay Area Council. So are Google, Facebook, and Apple. There's also the fact that the survey found an awful lot of shuttle riders to poll. Six percent of respondents said that they rode one of the shuttle buses. Now, estimates of shuttle bus ridership vary wildly, but San Francisco's total population is only about 836,000—six percent of which is about 50,000. A spokeswoman from the San Francisco Municipal Transit Agency recently told me that an estimated 4,125 San Franciscans ride the tech buses. That's closer to 0.5 percent of city residents. The San Francisco Examiner points out that the survey excluded Spanish speakers.

And then there's the delicate phrasing of the survey questions. Last week, Pacific Standard had a great little post explaining why surveys are not always accurate measures of public opinion. The post looks at a recent survey conducted about the movie Noah. The group Faith Driven Consumer asked respondents: "As a Faith Driven Consumer, are you satisfied with a Biblically themed movie—designed to appeal to you—which replaces the Bible's core message with one created by Hollywood?" Unsurprisingly, 98 percent said they were not satisfied. Variety reported the survey's findings in a story titled "Faith-Driven Consumers Dissatisfied With Noah, Hollywood Religious Pics."

I thought of the Noah survey as I read the the tech-shuttle survey's script. Here are two examples of the questions, plus the percentage of respondents who strongly agreed with the given statements.

Please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

Image courtesy of Bay Area Council

Now, thinking specifically about employee shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with each of the following statements:

To be fair, the survey did include a few questions that allowed respondents to express negative opinions about the buses. But those questions tended to include loaded language. For example:

Now, thinking specifically about shuttle buses in San Francisco, please tell me if you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statements:

I'm guessing that if the word "causing" had been replaced with "contributing to," more people would have agreed with the statement. Same if the word "ruining" had been replaced with "changing."

Rufus Jeffris, the vice president for communications and major events at the Bay Area Council, wrote to me in an email that the Council stands by the survey. "The poll was intended to provide some broader context and perspective on some of the wrenching and painful issues we're dealing with," he wrote. "We feel strongly that scapegoating a single type of worker and single industry is not productive and does not move us forward to solutions."

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Like Meat and Beer? Hate Cancer?

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
This guy.

Spring is coming. Before long, beer-drinking men and women will be coaxing fiery embers to life and tossing dead animals onto charred metal grates above them. Ahh, the sizzle and snap of fat as it hits red hot coals. Oh no! What's that you say? Carcinogens are caused by the "contact of dripping fat with hot embers"?

Fear not, eager human. And keep a couple of your dark winter beers handy, because researchers from Portugal and Spain have found that marinating your pork chops in dark beer dramatically reduces carcinogenic contamination. Rejoice!

Smoke, pyrolysis (organic matter decomposing in intense heat), and dripping fat can all cause the accumulation of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) on charcoal-grilled meats. According to the EPA, PAHs have caused tumors, birth defects, and "reproductive problems" in lab animals—though the Agency clarifies that these effects have not yet been observed in humans. You can also find PAHs in cigarette smoke and car exhaust.

The researchers tested the effect of marinating meat with Pilsner, nonalcohol Pilsner, and Black beer, against a control sampling of raw meat. Black beer show the strongest "inhibitory effect," reducing the formation of carcinogenic PAHs by 53 percent. Pilsner beer and nonalcholic Pilsner, showed less significant results: 13 percent and 25 percent respectively. The scientists aren't entirely sure why a beer marinade has this effect; they speculate that it might be the antioxidant compounds in beer, especially darker varieties, which inhibit the movement of free radicals necessary for the formation of PAHs.

The study, which will be published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, and sponsored by the University of Porto and the American Chemical Society, confirms what we always knew in our hearts: Guinness is good for you.

GOP Lawmakers Scramble to Court Tesla

| Thu Mar. 27, 2014 6:00 AM EDT
A brand-new Tesla Model S comes off the line in 2012.

Electric vehicle sales in New Jersey ran out of batteries earlier this month, when the Chris Christie administration voted to ban car manufacturers from selling directly to drivers. The companies must now use third-party dealers. The ban applies to all car manufacturers, but seemed particularly aimed at Tesla, which had been in negotiations with the administration for months to sell electric cars straight from its own storefronts in the state.

The move was a win for the state's surprisingly powerful auto dealer lobby and a loss for one of the country's biggest electric car makers. But it also cemented New Jersey's place as a non-contender for the real prize: a $5 billion battery "gigafactory" that Tesla plans to begin construction on later this year. With an estimated 6,500 employees, the factory will likely become a keystone of the United State's clean energy industry and an economic boon for its host state. Now, Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and Nevada are scrambling to get picked, and last week Republican legislators in Arizona began to try pushing their state to the top of the pile.

Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated."

It's the latest sign that, at least at the state level, the clean energy industry's best friend might be the GOP. Newt Gingrich quickly pounced on Christie after the direct sales ban for "artificially" insulating car dealers, just weeks after calling for John Kerry to resign after Kerry named climate change as a principle challenge of the generation. On Tuesday, Texas Governor Rick Perry called his state's direct sales ban "antiquated" nearly a year after a Democrat-backed bill to change the policy was killed.

New Jersey and Texas aren't the only states where you can't buy a Tesla car directly from the company: Arizona and Maryland also have direct sales bans. But a bill passed out of committee in Arizona's GOP-controlled Senate last week would reverse the state's position and allow electric vehicle companies to sell directly out of their showrooms. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Warren Peterson (R-Gilbert) said he was spurred by the New Jersey situation to amend what he sees as a creeping assault on free market principles.

"For me, it's not about Tesla or electric cars," he said. "For me, a big concern I have now is we are limiting someone's choice."

But despite backing from some prominent Arizona Republicans (Sen. John McComish told the Arizona Daily Star he didn't see why the state should "prevent someone else who has a better idea from making an effort to enter that industry"), Warren said he's faced opposition from others who see the bill as damaging to the state's traditional car market or a handout to Tesla, arguments that swayed the decision in New Jersey.

"I have a tough time understanding why Republicans are opposed to it, because free markets are such a big part of the platform," he said. "States that moved away from this have made a big mistake."

This Is the Massive Storm That Is Happening Off the Coast of New England

| Wed Mar. 26, 2014 6:41 PM EDT

There is a "hurricane strength" storm happening off the East Coast right now. Wind speeds have reportedly reached 80 mph in New England and 119 mph in the Gulf of Maine. Judging by its wind field—the three-dimensional pattern of winds—the storm could be as much as four times as powerful as Superstorm Sandy. Fortunately, this week's storm only grazed the East Coast (though Cape Cod and Nantucket did see damage).

Using Cameron Beccario's interactive weather visualization map, you can get a sense of what wind like that actually looks like.

Source: earth; GIF: Brett Brownell

According to the Weather Channel, it looks like the storm is going to calm and slow tonight. So, everybody for the most part lucked out.

 

Viewers are Furious With Animal Planet for Mistreating Animals on "Reality TV"

| Tue Mar. 25, 2014 6:36 PM EDT

Upset viewers of Animal Planet are venting on social media after Mother Jones uncovered photographic evidence of animal mistreatment behind the scenes of the TV network's hit show, Call of the Wildman.

Every garden-variety item that the network has posted on its Facebook page since our investigation published on Monday—the rescue of a baby moose, the birth of an endangered kakapo, photos of "15 puppies so precious you'll forget your own name"—has been flooded with comments about the much sadder coyote photo included in our report, which reveals the animal confined to a cramped trap three days before a film shoot in which the animal handler and Wildman star known as Turtleman planned to "capture" it by hand.

Under the baby moose post—which asks Animal Planet followers, "Who doesn't love a happy ending, especially when it involves an animal as cute as this one?"—D'Shannon Llewellyn writes: "We all love happy endings but more so when they aren't staged and involve abuse and stress that is intentionally inflicted on the animal for the financial profit of your tv station. #CalloftheWildman Staged, Abusive, and certainly not animal loving."

Rona Seltzer posted a message echoed by other commenters, writing that she has now "stopped watching/supporting animal planet due to so many stories about abuse on some of their shows."

"The images and investigation coming out of that show are absolutely disgusting," wrote Ryan M Simmons. "It's 2014, not 1814. The short lived days of glamorizing white trash who have no regards for the well being of animals have passed."

More from Animal Planet's Facebook page on Tuesday:

Amid a lengthy thread on the Facebook page of Animal Place, a sanctuary for farmed animals in California, Barb Ruguone summarizes a theme pointed out by multiple commenters: "You'd think that a channel named Animal Planet would be working for the humane treatment of animals and education and not contribute to their abuse. I was so sad to learn of their part in abuse."

There has been a similar outpouring on Twitter. Michael McIntyre ‏(@FeverCityStudio) summed up the mood this way:

Meanwhile, on Turtleman's own Facebook page, fans either seem unaware of the revelations or they are sticking by their guy: 

Climate Change May Make Terrible Mudslides Like the One in Washington State More Common

| Mon Mar. 24, 2014 8:14 PM EDT
An aerial view of the deadly mudslide in Washington.

This story originally appeared on the Slate website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The death toll from this weekend's mudslide through Oso, Wash., is still climbing, with more than 100 still listed as missing.

The stories emerging are the definition of heart-rending. Here's one, from the Seattle Times:

One volunteer firefighter who had stopped working around 11:30 p.m. Saturday night said many tragic stories have yet to be told. He watched one rescuer find his own front door, but nothing else—not his home, his wife or his child.

They're in the "missing" category along with many it is feared will eventually be listed as dead.

"It's much worse than everyone's been saying," said the firefighter, who did not want to be named. "The slide is about a mile wide. Entire neighborhoods are just gone. When the slide hit the river, it was like a tsunami."

The most immediate cause of the mudslide is a near-record pace of rainfall for the area so far in the month of March.

Rainfall so far during the winter month of March has been 200-300 percent above normal across parts of western Washington State, site of this weekend's tragic mudslide. National Weather Service's Advanced Hydrologic Prediction Service

The Pacific Northwest has had an exceptionally wet finish to its rainy season, as storms that historically would have hit California were re-routed northward by a semi-permanent dome of high pressure that's been mostly responsible for the intensifying drought there.

This particular mudslide wasn't just a freak event brought about by heavy rain, although this month's deluge surely speeded the process. Another mudslide happened on this very same hillside just eight years ago.

In fact, the State of Washington recently completed a project aimed at preventing future mudslides, just short distance away from the site of this weekend's deadly tragedy. Only problem is? It was on the other side of the river. Again, from the Seattle Times:

Sixteen months ago, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) completed a $13.3 million project, called the Skaglund Hill Permanent Slide Repair, to secure an area just west of Saturday's slide, on the opposite side of the Stillaguamish River.

That project covered about a half-mile stretch of Highway 530, from mile marker 36.25 to 36.67. It secured a hill south of the river. Saturday's slide collapsed a hill north of the river and sent mud crashing into the Stillaguamish and across Highway 530 between mile markers 37 and 38, according to WSDOT.

This weekend's tragedy reminds me of a similar pair of mudslides that occurred in 1995 and 2005 along the coast of California, in the tiny town of La Conchita. In 2005, heavy rains caused groundwater levels to rise, re-mobilizing the previous debris flow and creating a repeat tragedy.

Like in La Conchita, this weekend's disaster occurred in an area known for its landslides. There are surely other, more remote areas where this process happens with less tragic results.

One of the most well-forecast and consequential components of human-caused climate change is the tendency for rainstorms to become more intense as the planet warms. As the effect becomes more pronounced, that will make follow-on events like flooding and landslides more common.

But we don't have to wait for the future. This is already happening. Here's an explainer, from the Union of Concerned Scientists:

As average global temperatures rise, the warmer atmosphere can also hold more moisture, about 4 percent more per degree Fahrenheit temperature increase. Thus, when storms occur there is more water vapor available in the atmosphere to fall as rain, snow or hail. Worldwide, water vapor over oceans has increased by about 4 percent since 1970 according to the 2007 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, its most recent.

It only takes a small change in the amount of water vapor in the atmosphere to have a major effect. That's because storms can draw upon water vapor from regions 10 to 25 times larger than the specific area where the rain or snow actually falls.

According to the U.S. Global Change Research Program's (USGCRP) most recent report, scientists have observed less rain falling in light precipitation events and more rain falling in the heaviest precipitation events across the United States. From 1958 to 2007, the amount of rainfall in the heaviest 1 percent of storms increased 31 percent, on average, in the Midwest and 20 percent in the Southeast.

The United States Geological Survey maintains a database and monitoring program dedicated to identifying other places like La Conchita and Oso that may be at risk of future mudslides.

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Watchdog: Chris Christie's Post-Sandy Proposal for Federal Funds Is "a Contradictory Mess"

| Fri Mar. 21, 2014 11:01 AM EDT

An environmental watchdog group has slammed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie's proposal for more Superstorm Sandy recovery funds, saying that the plan "conflicts with its own announced projects, ignores known threats, and contains numerous flaws."

New Jersey's Office of Emergency Management released the plan early last week. The state must submit this proposal, known as a hazard mitigation plan, to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) by the end of the month in order to receive more disaster recovery and mitigation aid. The plan does not ask for a specific amount of money, but functions instead as a wish list that may open up new funding streams for New Jersey in the future.

But having reviewed the plan, Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, is calling for FEMA to require New Jersey to make major changes before accepting the plan.

"The plan looks like it was put together at the last minute by a sleep-deprived college student, furiously cutting and pasting regardless of whether it is coherent," says Bill Wolfe, the director of PEER's New Jersey branch.

The proposal is detailed about the risks facing coastal New Jersey in the event of another storm like Sandy. But, Wolfe tells Mother Jones, it is almost entirely lacking in details on how New Jersey would rebuild the coast differently. "In real terms, in exchange for [FEMA] resources, the state is proposing no concrete, enforceable commitments to change anything," Wolfe says. In light of this, Wolfe says FEMA ought to require New Jersey to make broad changes to its municipal planning codes and state building requirements before giving the proposal its seal of approval.

In a press release, PEER states that it has only made "a cursory review" of the Christie administration's plan. But even its glancing evaluation turned up numerous errors. Christie's office set an April 11 deadline for public comments on the plan; but the final version is due to FEMA by the end of March. A section of the plan refers to the "Coastal Management Office," which Christie-appointee Bob Martin, the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection, abolished.

In other sections, the proposal makes statements undermining the state's ongoing construction projects. One portion of the plan decries the "hard structures" some coastal towns have built to protect vulnerable properties, as these can exacerbate erosion. But in a paragraph that follows, the plan praises work that New Jersey is overseeing to build new hard structures.

Pieces of the plan that deal with flood risks are especially problematic. In writing the flood risk section, the plan's authors failed to map New Jersey's hazardous waste management facilities, toxic waste sites, or chemical storage sites, and assess the risk of their releasing contaminants in the event of a flood, according to PEER. The plan also fails to evaluate the future risk of flood for the Barnegat Bay and Raritan Bay areas—two portions of New Jersey worst-hit by Sandy.

The plan "hides the risk of sea level rise by using a scale that makes it impossible to see the impacted areas on the map," PEER evaluators note. And some flood maps in the plan fail to account for projected levels of sea level rise, period.

PEER likens these flaws to the issues that spurred the US Department of Housing and Urban Development's inspector general to audit New Jersey's plans to spend $1.5 billion the state has already received in federal recovery aid—an ongoing probe partially inspired by PEER's complaints. In both cases, Wolfe notes, the plans were written with the help of private contractors who solicited little public input. "The process employed here typifies a governing style that is hyperpoliticized, fiercely insular, and ultimately utterly ineffective," he says.

Now You Can Get Solar Panels at Best Buy

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 1:39 PM EDT
solar costs
Tim McDonnell

There was an era when putting solar panels on your roof was a time- and money-sucking hassle on par with remodeling your kitchen. But the cost of going solar has been dropping fast. The latest signal of the industry's move into the mainstream came last week, when San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity* announced it would begin to sell solar systems out of Best Buy, alongside big-screen TVs and digital cameras.

"There are a lot of people out there with unshaded roofs, paying high electricity bills, who just don't know this is an option for them," said Jonathan Bass, SolarCity's vice president of communications. The move into Best Buy "gives us a chance to have that conversation with more people."

The company is the biggest installer in the country's biggest solar market, California, a state that earlier this month broke its all-time solar power production record twice on two consecutive days, churning out enough electricity from solar panels to power roughly 3 million homes. Just since last summer, California's solar production has doubled, according to the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state's electric grid. There's a lot more growth where that came from, Bass said.

McDonald's Definition of "Sustainable": Brought to You by the Beef Industry

| Thu Mar. 20, 2014 6:00 AM EDT

In January, McDonald's announced that it will begin the transition to sustainable beef in 2016. The plan was met with skepticism, since it didn't actually define "sustainable." In the weeks that followed, McDonald's continued working with a group called the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (GRSB) to come up with a working definition of the term, and on Monday, GRSB released a draft of its definition for public comment. In addition to McDonald's, GRSB's new set of sustainability guidelines will also be implemented by the group's other members, which include Walmart, Darden Restaurants (the parent company of Olive Garden and Red Lobster), Cargill, Tyson Foods, and the pharmaceutical company Merck.

Despite its name, the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef is not so much an environmental organization as a meat industry group. Its executive committee includes representatives from McDonald's, Elanco, and the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. Just two environmental groups—the World Wildlife Fund and Netherlands-based Solidaridad—are part of its executive board. Cameron Bruett, president of GRSB and chief sustainability officer for JBS USA, a beef-processing company, said that McDonald's, along with other members, helped come up with the organization's "sustainability" definition and guidelines. 

"I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed," said a GRSB spokesman.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the group's leadership, the GRSB's guidelines are short on specifics. Instead, the group provides a definition for sustainability that is open to members' interpretation. The plan says, for example, that sustainable companies must provide "stable, safe employment for at least the minimum wage where applicable" and institute "where applicable, third-party validation of practices by all members of the value chain." But it doesn't doesn't specify which third-party groups should conduct audits, and doesn't explain how workplaces should be monitored to prevent labor violations. In its section on climate change, it says that GRSB members should ensure that "emissions from beef systems, including those from land use conversion, are minimized and carbon sequestration is optimized." But it does not include any specific examples of target emissions standards or grazing policies.

Also absent from the plan is any mention of the beef industry's use of antibiotics. In the United States, four-fifths of all antibiotics go to livestock operations. McDonald's uses antibiotics to "treat, prevent, and control disease" in its food-producing animals, according to a McDonald's spokesman.

Using antibiotics to prevent disease—rather than only to  treat infections—has been criticized by some food-safety experts. But the new plan doesn't recommend that members ditch the practice. "I don't know if there's any justification for banning antibiotics in feed, I know that's popular in some media circles, I haven't seen the scientific evidence," said Bruett. Yet studies have shown that antibiotic-resistant bugs can jump from animals to humans. In February, several experts told Mother Jones that McDonald's couldn't call its beef plan sustainable unless it addressed the overuse of antibiotics in livestock. When asked about whether McDonald's will continue to be given antibiotics under the new sustainability plan, a McDonald's spokesman referred Mother Jones to this statement from February, saying "We take seriously our ethical responsibility to treat sick animals"​ and indicated that the company will continue to review its policy.

GRSB says that the lack of details in the plan is intentional; it "deliberately avoids" metrics that could be used to measure progress in sustainability, instead leaving it up to local roundtables to tailor the recommendations to specific regions. Bruett noted that "You could come out with a global standard, but it would simply be ignored, and it wouldn't lead to improvements among members." He adds, "There's all the discussion about sustainability, but it's by people who have very little knowledge or participation in the livestock industry...you'll never achieve [improvement] unless you have producer participation or support.​" 

But Dr. David Wallinga, the founder of Healthy Food Action, a group of health professionals dedicated to promoting good nutrition, points out that while it's true that one-size-fits all metrics don't always work, without specifics, policies are "largely unenforceable." He adds, "I suppose it's good that McDonald's is taking on the task of setting guidelines for sustainable beef, [but] a few foundational blocks are missing."

White House Unveils New Climate Data Project

| Wed Mar. 19, 2014 1:24 PM EDT
President Obama's June 2013 climate address.

The story was originally published by The Huffington Post and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The White House today unveiled a new Climate Data Initiative to make government-held data more available to researchers and businesses, and improve climate change preparedness across the country.

President Barack Obama had already mentioned the data initiative in a list of new programs announced in his big climate speech at Georgetown University last June. Today was its official unveiling.

One part of the data initiative is a new climate-focused section within the Data.gov website—called Climate.Data.gov—which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) will run. The climate data site will also offer infrastructure and geographic mapping data sets—showing bridges, roads, canals, etc.—from such agencies as the U.S. Geological Survey and the Department of Homeland Security.

To solicit ideas from the private sector on how to use all this data to create images and simulations showing coastal hazards, NOAA and NASA are launching a Coastal Flooding Challenge.

Making more of this type of information publicly available, the Obama administration announced, will "stimulate innovation and private-sector entrepreneurship in support of national climate-change preparedness."

According to the announcement, several companies—including Intel, Google, Microsoft and Esri (which creates geographic information systems software)—have committed to create new mapping software, applications and other technological tools for visualizing and preparing for climate-related risks. Nonprofits, academic institutions and local groups are also providing technological support.

In a White House blog post accompanying the announcement, chief presidential science adviser John Holdren and White House senior counselor John Podesta called the initiative an "ambitious" effort to make government data available to the private and philanthropic sectors.

The Climate Data Initiative, they wrote, "will help create easy-to-use tools for regional planners, farmers, hospitals, and businesses across the country—and empower America’s communities to prepare themselves for the future."