Blue Marble - July 2014

LA's Crappy Old Pipes Mean More Epic Floods Are Coming

| Wed Jul. 30, 2014 5:38 PM EDT
Workers respond to the broken water main in Los Angeles.

Yesterday at around 3:30 pm, a water main burst near the campus of UCLA in the Westwood neighborhood of Los Angeles. It gushed for nearly three hours, sending water as high as 30 feet into the air and flooding campus—cars' wheels were submerged, the brand-new basketball court was covered in standing water, eager students brought boogie boards. As much as 10 million gallons are estimated to have been lost, at a rate of 38,000 gallons per minute.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

US Coal Exports Have Erased All The CO2 Savings From the Fracking Boom

| Mon Jul. 28, 2014 5:37 PM EDT

The domestic fracking boom has been widely celebrated as a godsend in the fight against climate change. In 2007, cheap natural gas began replacing dirtier coal as the fuel of choice in US power plants. By 2012, the switchover was annually saving an estimated 86 million tons of CO2, the carbon equivalent of taking 21 million cars off the road. That's obviously a huge accomplishment, but it comes with a lesser known catch: All of that coal we're no longer using is still getting dug up, sold off, and spewed into the atmosphere.

The carbon pollution savings from our switch from coal to gas has been more than canceled out by an increase in our coal exports, according to a recent study by Shakeb Afsah of the group CO2 Scorecard. After the domestic market for coal dried up in 2007, US exports of steam coal increased by 83 million tons, resulting in the release of an additional 149 million metric tons of CO2. That's 73 percent more CO2 than Americans have saved so far by ditching the black stuff.

The study is mentioned today in a great story by AP's Dina Cappiello, who looks at whether the coal exports will ultimately increase carbon emissions. Coal companies point to studies suggesting international demand for coal is fairly inelastic, meaning that if US coal exports suddenly disappeared, they would simply be replaced by coal from somewhere else. Yet other studies conclude that the US exports depress prices, driving up demand and delaying a switch to cleaner options.

As I've previously noted, huge new coal export terminals proposed on the West Coast have become the latest flash points in the climate wars. Cappiello points out that a single ship full of Appalachian coal, exported from Virginia to South America, contains enough greenhouse gas to match the annual emissions of a small American power plant.

UPDATE: Cappiello's story has spawned new debate over whether coal exports increase emissions. Andrew Revkin weighs in, and CO2 Scorecard responds.

Obama Is About to Give You the Right to Unlock Your Phone

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 4:26 PM EDT

Ever wondered why you can't transfer your old phone to a new carrier? The practice, known as cellphone unlocking, is illegal. It probably won't surprise you that in the '90s, wireless carriers—who, for obvious reasons, wanted everyone to buy new phones and plans—lobbied for a ban.

As I wrote last year, this ban isn't just annoying and expensive for consumers, it's also wasteful. We only keep our phones for an average of 18 months , and when we get a new one, the old one seldom makes it to a recycling facility. Many languish in desk drawers; some end up in the garbage. That means a lot of electronic waste in landfills, not to mention the environmentally hazardous materials such as rare earths required to make all those new phones.

So it's great news that today the House unanimously passed a law that would finally make phone unlocking legal. The Senate approved the measure last week. Now President Obama just needs to sign off, which he has pledged to do.

After that, if you unearth that old phone from the desk drawer, someone might actually be able to use it.

PETA's Five Most Tone-Deaf Stunts

Fri Jul. 25, 2014 3:23 PM EDT

Proving once again PETA is unfamiliar with how to a deliver meaningful publicity campaign, the animal rights group is now looking to score a win off poor people's thirst.

Some background: The bankrupt city of Detroit has been shutting off its tap water to thousands of poor residents in order to force them to pay for nearly $90 million in overdue water bills. Advocates have slammed the move, calling out the city for eliminating a basic human right. The NAACP recently filed a lawsuit calling the shut down discriminatory, as most of Detroit's low-income residents are overwhelmingly black.

It takes a certain type of callousness to look at this situation and see anything other than misfortune. PETA saw an opportunity! The animal rights group has made an offer to poor Detroit residents: Be one of 10 families to denounce meat and they'll put an end to your family's thirst. PETA will even throw in a basket of vegetables for the effort.

"Vegan meals take far less of a toll on the Earth’s resources," PETA wrote in a recent press release. "It takes about 2,500 gallons of water to produce just a pound of meat but only about 155 gallons of water to produce a pound of wheat."

This seems like as good a time as any to look back on PETA's misguided and often times exploitative PR campaigns of the past:

1. "Boyfriend went vegan and knocked the bottom out of me." (2012)

Enhance your sex life by encouraging your boyfriend to go vegan. He'll transform into a "tantric porn star," breaking your neck and causing your body to go limp. The sex will be so mind-blowing, in fact, you'll wander aimlessly in just a bra, as you reflect on the violent sex you had the pleasure of subjecting yourself to the evening prior.

2. "Holocaust on your plate." (2003)

Here the group matches photos of factory farms with Holocaust inmates. The display was promptly banned in Germany—a move PETA found absurd considering a Jewish PETA member happened to fund the campaign.

3. Too fat for Plan B? Try "Plan V." (2013)

Jumping on news Plan B may not work as well for women over 165 pounds, PETA urges women to shed a few pounds by going vegan.

4. Dog breeding is for Nazis. (2014)

Again conjuring up the atrocities of the Holocaust, which lets keep in mind systematically killed 11 million people, the group equates dog breeding to Hitler's plan to bring about a pure Aryan race.

5. Don a fur coat and you'll be beaten. (2007)

The disturbing video above even seems to justify senseless violence.

Detroit has already severed off the tap water supply to nearly 125,000 people, with thousands more likely to have their resources shut down in weeks to come. And anyone with a remote interest in current events understands most Detroiters are low-income residents, many of whom could not afford to have a vegan diet.

Nice going, PETA.

You'd Scream, Too, If You Were This Close to a Collapsing Iceberg

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 12:54 PM EDT

Climate change is melting ice at both ends of the planet—just ask the researchers who published two papers in May saying that a major expanses of antarctic ice are now undergoing a "continuous and rapid retreat" and may have "passed the point of no return."

As the poles melt, icebergs are breaking off and drifting with greater ease, creating a world of problems for humans and animals alike. In Antarctica, warmer winters mean icebergs aren't held in place as they once were, and are now colliding with the ocean floor more frequently, laying waste to a complex ecosystem. In Greenland, summer icebergs— like one twice the size of Manhattan that broke off 2012—can clog up shipping lanes and damage offshore oil platforms.

But whether climate change set it free or not, even a single 'berg can be dangerous if you get too close, as this couple discovered when they took a look at one floating off the coast of Newfoundland, in eastern Canada.

h/t to Minnesota Public Radio News for finding this one.

Popular Anti-Science Site Likens Journalists to "Nazi Collaborators" Over GMO Coverage

| Fri Jul. 25, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
A graphic from a Natural News post likening journalists to Nazis.

Update: Adams has appended a note to the story that likened journalists to Nazis: "After careful analysis, I have come to the conclusion that the Monsanto Collaborators website is a bait-and-switch trap engineered by the biotech industry in an effort to lure in support from GMO skeptics and then discredit them with some sort of insane 'call to action' of some kind....For the record, in no way do I condone vigilante violence against anyone."

For years, Natural News—a conspiracy-minded alternative medicine website that attracts roughly 7 million unique visitors each month—has been crusading against the practice of genetically modifying food. But this week the site's proprietor, Mike Adams, took the campaign to new extremes with a post comparing journalists who are critical of GMO activists to "Nazi collaborators." Adams also urged readers "to actively plan and carry out the killing of those engaged in heinous crimes against humanity." Below is a snippet from his anti-media diatribe:

Monsanto is widely recognize as the most hated and most evil corporation on the planet. Even so, several internet-based media websites are now marching to Monsanto's orders, promoting GMOs and pursuing defamatory character assassination tactics against anyone who opposes GMOs, hoping to silence their important voices.

These Monsanto collaborator sites tend to be "leftist" publications but also include at least one prominent business and finance publisher on the political right. All of them are Monsanto collaborators who have signed on to accelerate heinous crimes being committed against humanity under the false promise of "feeding the world" with toxic GMOs.

The rambling post goes on to compare the agrochemical giant Monsanto to IG Farben, a "chemical conglomerate run by Nazi collaborators" that "used Jewish prisoners as human guinea pigs in horrific medical experiments." And it calls on readers to target journalist who Adams views as pro-GMO by publicly listing their names:

Just as history needed to record the names and deeds of Nazi war criminals, so too must all those collaborators who are promoting the death and destruction caused by GMOs be named for the historical record. The true extent of their collaboration with an anti-human regime will all become readily apparent once the GMO delusion collapses and mass global starvation becomes an inescapable reality.

I'm hoping someone will create a website listing all the publishers, scientists and journalists who are now Monsanto propaganda collaborators. I have no doubt such a website would be wildly popular and receive a huge influx of visitors, and it would help preserve the historical record of exactly which people contributed to the mass starvation and death which will inevitably be unleashed by GMO agriculture (which is already causing mass suicides in India and crop failures worldwide).

Adams, a self-proclaimed nutritionist who was featured on Dr. Oz earlier this year, is famous for his far-fetched ideas. He believes, for example, that Americans are being poisoned by lead-infused "chemtrails" and that Microsoft is developing infertility drugs that "target specific races."  David Gorski of the website Science-Based Medicine has dubbed Natural News "a one-stop shop" for "virtually every quackery known to humankind, all slathered with a heaping, helping of unrelenting hostility to science-based medicine and science in general."

Still, Adams has a large pool of readers who take his ideas seriously. After he published his screed likening journalists to Nazi sympathizers, a "Monsanto Collaborators" website appeared with images of Nazi soldiers and emaciated corpses alongside a list of reporters whom Adams accuses of being in the GMO industry's pocket. The heading reads "Journalist Collaborators."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Study Finds Kids Prefer Healthier Lunches. School Food Lobby Refuses to Believe It.

| Tue Jul. 22, 2014 2:29 PM EDT

From all of the commotion around the new federal school lunch standards, you'd think they were really Draconian. Republican legislators have railed against them. Districts have threatened to opt out. The School Nutrition Association (SNA), the industry group that represents the nation's 55,000 school food employees, has officially opposed some of them—and doubled its lobbying in the months leading up to July 1, when some of the new rules took effect.

Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches.

Here's who doesn't mind the new standards: kids. For a study just published in the peer-reviewed journal Childhood Obesity, researchers asked administrators and food service staff at 537 public elementary schools how their students were liking the meals that conformed to the new standards. Half of those surveyed said that the students "complained about the meals at first," but 70 percent said that the students now like the new lunches. Rural districts were the least enthusiastic about the new meals—there, some respondents reported that purchasing was down and that students were eating less of their meals. But respondents from schools with a high percentage of poor students—those with at least two-thirds eligible for free or reduced-price meals—were especially positive about the new standards: They found that "more students were buying lunch and that students were eating more of the meal than in the previous year."

"Kids who really need good nutrition most at school are getting it," says Lindsey Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author and a research scientist at the University of Illinois-Chicago. "That's really good news."

SNA's response? To issue a statement declaring that "these reported perceptions about school meals do not reflect reality." The group cites USDA data that participation in school meals has declined by 1.4 million since the new rules went into effect in 2012. But Turner, the Childhood Obesity study's lead author, notes that this is only about a 3 percent drop. She also points to a Government Accountability Office study that found that most of the drop-off was among students who pay full price for lunch.

What makes SNA's stance on the new rules even stranger is that they actually are not all that strict. For example: Foods served must be whole grain rich, but as I learned from my trip to SNA's annual conference last week, that includes whole-grain Pop Tarts, Cheetos, and Rice Krispies Treats. Students are required to take a half cup of a fruit or vegetable—but Italian ice—in flavors like Hip Hoppin' Jelly Bean—are fair game.

Not all members of SNA consider the task of tempting kids with healthy foods onerous. As I reported last week, Jessica Shelly, food director of Cincinnati's diverse public schools, has shown that all it takes is a little creativity.

HT The Lunch Tray.

California Farms Are Sucking Up Enough Groundwater to Put Rhode Island 17 Feet Under

| Wed Jul. 16, 2014 11:39 AM EDT

California, the producer of nearly half of the nation's fruits, veggies, and nuts, plus export crops—four-fifths of the world's almonds, for example—is entering its third driest year on record. Nearly 80 percent of the state is experiencing "extreme" or "exceptional" drought. In addition to affecting agricultural production the drought will cost the state billions of dollars, thousands of jobs, and a whole lot of groundwater, according to a new report prepared for the California Department of Food and Agriculture by scientists at UC-Davis. The authors used current water data, agricultural models, satellite data, and other methods to predict the economic and environmental toll of the drought through 2016.

Here are four key takeaways

  • The drought will cost the state $2.2 billion this year: Of these losses, $810 million will come from lower crop revenues, $203 million will come from livestock and dairy losses, and $454 million will come from the cost of pumping additional groundwater. Up to 17,100 seasonal and part-time jobs will be lost.
  • California is experiencing the "greatest absolute reduction in water availability" ever seen: In a normal year, about one-third of California's irrigation water is drawn from wells that tap into the groundwater supply. The rest is "surface water" from streams, rivers, and reservoirs. This year, the state is losing about one-third of its surface water supply. The hardest hit area is the Central Valley, a normally fertile inland region. Because groundwater isn't as easily pumped in the Valley as it is on the coasts, and the Colorado River supplies aren't as accessible as they are in the south, the Valley has lost 410,000 acres to fallowing, an area about 10 times the size of Washington, DC.
  • Farmers are pumping enough groundwater to immerse Rhode Island in 17 feet of it: To make up for the loss of surface water, farmers are pumping 62 percent more groundwater than usual. They are projected to pump 13 million acre-feet this year, enough to put Rhode Island 17 feet under.
  • "We're acting like the super-rich:" California is technically in its third year of drought, and regardless of the effects of El Niño, 2015 is likely to be a dry year too. As the dry years accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to pump water from the ground, adding to the crop and revenue losses. California is the only western state without groundwater regulation or measurement of major groundwater use. If you can drill down to water, it's all yours. (Journalist McKenzie Funk describes this arcane system in an excerpt from his fascinating recent book, Windfall.) "A well-managed basin is used like a reserve bank account," said Richard Howitt, a UC-Davis water scientist and co-author of the report. "We're acting like the super-rich, who have so much money they don't need to balance their checkbook." 

The Great Barrier Reef Will Be Ravaged By El Niño

| Tue Jul. 8, 2014 5:00 AM EDT
The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Australia.

This story originally appeared in the Guardian and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

The Great Barrier Reef is set to be ravaged by the expected El Niño weather phenomenon and scientists warn that similar warming events have significantly impacted upon the reef’s coral.

Research by the University of Queensland studied large Porites coral colonies, a type of coral considered more resistant than others to changes in the environment.

By analysing and dating coral samples, researchers found there was a significant correlation between mass coral mortality events and spikes in sea surface temperature over the past 150 years.

One of the Biggest Opponents of GMO Labeling Is Offering More Non-GMO Products

| Wed Jul. 2, 2014 2:15 AM EDT

Cargill, a giant privately held food manufacturer, is one of the biggest enemies of laws requiring companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients. But even as the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA), an anti GMO-labeling lobbying group Cargill belongs to, fights GMO-labeling laws in state legislatures and courthouses around the country, Cargill is introducing more GMO-free products.

Last week, Cargill announced its newest non-GMO crop, soybean oil, which will join corn and beans on Cargill's list of unmodified products offered in the United States, among others.

Gregory Page, the chairman of Cargill's board, sits on the executive board for the GMA, the big-food lobbying group that recently sued Vermont for passing a bill requiring food manufacturers to label genetically modified foods. The company warns on its website that mandatory labeling can be "misleading" to consumers who might believe genetic modification and bioengineering in food is dangerous. A GMO label does not provide any meaningful information about the food, Cargill argues, because GMO foods are "substantially equivalent" to non-GMO foods.

But despite this, Cargill seems to see the benefit in offering consumers the option of eating unmodified foods. "Despite the many merits of biotechnology, consumer interest in food and beverage products made from non-GM ingredients is growing, creating opportunities and challenges for food manufacturers and food service operators," Ethan Theis, a spokesman for the company, said in a company press release last week. Even the fiercest opponents of GMO labeling are willing to offer non-GMO products when consumers' cash is on the line.