Blue Marble

How a 20-Minute Conversation Can Convince People With Anti-Gay Views to Change Their Mind

| Thu Dec. 18, 2014 6:00 AM EST

A recent study suggests that a single conversation between a gay person and a same-sex marriage opponent may have the power to change the person's mind on the issue. 

The study, published last week in the journal Science, analyzed data collected by the Los Angeles LGBT Center after it sent pro-gay marriage canvassers to areas of southern California that had voted overwhelmingly in favor of Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California in 2008 until the Supreme Court overturned it in 2013. Starting in 2009, canvassers—both gay and straight—engaged in over 12,000 brief one-on-one conversations with those precincts' registered voters about either gay marriage or, with a placebo group, recycling. The survey found that respondents who had discussed gay marriage showed less prejudice towards gay people following their chat with the canvasser than those who had discussed recycling.

But these conversations weren't equally effective across the board: At a certain point in the initial conversation, the gay canvassers had been instructed to reveal that they were gay and hoping to get married, but that the law prohibited it, whereas the straight canvassers spoke of a "friend" or "relative."

Only the gay canvassers' effectiveness proved enduring.

"Those who discussed same-sex marriage with straight canvassers," write the study's authors, Michael J. LaCour and Donald P. Green, "quickly reverted to their pretreatment baseline opinions, and 90% of the initial treatment effect dissipated a month after the conversation with canvassers."

Meanwhile, the respondents who spoke to gay canvassers remained just as enlightened nine months later.

"The data show that in 20 minutes, the Los Angeles LGBT Center’s volunteer canvassers accomplished what would have otherwise taken five years at the current rate of social change," the center's David Fleischer said in a statement. "How did we do it? Our team had heartfelt, reciprocal and vulnerable conversations on the doorsteps of those who opposed marriage for same-sex couples, and volunteers who were LGBT came out during their conversations."

Researchers are hopeful their persuasion methods can produce similar results in reducing prejudices on other social issues as well. 

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New York State Just Banned Fracking

| Wed Dec. 17, 2014 1:01 PM EST
Anti-fracking activists at a rally in New York in October 2012.

After years of wrangling between environmentalists, lawmakers, and fossil fuel companies, New York's top public health administrator said he would ban fracking in the state, citing health risks.

From the New York Times:

The Cuomo administration announced Wednesday that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State, ending years of uncertainty by concluding that the controversial method of extracting gas from deep underground could contaminate the state’s air and water and pose inestimable public-health risks.

"I cannot support high volume hydraulic fracturing in the great state of New York," said Howard Zucker, the acting commissioner of health.

That conclusion was delivered publicly during a year-end cabinet meeting called by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo in Albany…The state has had a de facto ban on the procedure for more than five years, predating Mr. Cuomo's first term. The decision also came as oil and gas prices continued to fall in many places around the country, in part because of surging American oil production, as fracking boosted output.

New York is the second state to ban fracking, after Vermont did so in 2012. That move was largely symbolic, since Vermont has no natural gas to speak of. New York, by contrast, would have been a prize for the fracking industry, thanks to its massive share of the Marcellus shale formation.

"This is the first state ban with real significance," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney in New York for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "My head is still spinning, because this is beyond anything we expected."

The fracking battle in New York isn't quite over yet, Sinding said. Now the attention of activists will turn toward proposed infrastructure projects in the state—like a gas storage facility by Lake Seneca and an export facility on Long Island—that would handle natural gas from fracking projects in neighboring states like Pennsylvania.

This post has been updated.

These Are the Cutest Animal Videos of 2014, According to the World's Leading Science Journal

| Tue Dec. 16, 2014 11:08 AM EST

Nature is one of the world's flagship peer-reviewed scientific journals, a venue for some of our best new ideas about the world. Sometimes, those ideas are about animals that also happen to be outrageously, unconscionably cute. I'm talking baby-penguins-and-pomeranians-and-monkeys-cute. This morning the ingenious folks in Nature's video department rounded them all up into one face-melting video.

Here's how to put a YouTube video on endless loop. You're welcome.

Here's How Much the Storm Is Helping California's Epic Drought

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 6:21 PM EST
People canoeing and kayaking in a flooded parking lot in Healdsburg, California.

In the midst of the most intense drought in hundreds of years, Northern California is being bombarded with rain (here are some crazy photos). In a state that produces roughly half of the country's fruits and veggies, the water is more than welcome. The storm is expected to dump 2-8 inches of water in the Bay Area, and 2-5 inches in Southern California. But California would need 18-21 more inches of rain over the next six months in order to make up for the drought, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The state usually gets about 23 inches of rain per year.

Check out the similarity between a drought intensity chart from two weeks ago, when California was still pretty dry, and two days ago, after several days of rain.

Compared with the levels two weeks ago, there's been a small but noticeable increase in the state's reservoir water; California's two largest reservoirs, Shasta Lake and Lake Oroville, have both seen a three percent rise. The image below, updated on December 10th, compares how much California's reservoirs can hold (in yellow) with how much they're currently holding (in blue).

California Department of Water Resources

Some experts are worried that the rain will make people forget about the fact that California's still in a drought. "Thursday it'll rain, and people will say, 'Oh, I'm very excited,' and Saturday it'll rain, and 'Oh, drought’s over.' Not even close," Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow with Public Policy Institute of California focused on water, told KQED. "This has been three consecutive years of extreme dryness, and that extreme dryness translates to much lower groundwater levels, and very dry soils. It’s going to take a lot of rain to break this drought."

There's a Big Coal Giveaway in the Cromnibus Bill

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 2:17 PM EST

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

The 1,000-page omnibus spending package released Tuesday night is reigniting a fight over rules for U.S. financing of coal plants abroad.

In October 2013, the Treasury Department announced that it would stop providing funding for conventional coal plants abroad, except in "very rare" cases. And in December 2013, the Export-Import Bank announced a new policy that would restrict financing for most new coal-fired power plants abroad. The bank, often called Ex-Im, exists to provide financial support to projects that spur the export of U.S. products and services. The change in coal policy aligned with President Barack Obama's June 2013 call to end US funding of fossil fuel energy projects abroad unless the products include carbon capture technology.

But the language in the omnibus blocks both Ex-Im and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the US's development finance institution, from using any funds in the bill to enforce these new restrictions on coal projects.

Rep. Hal Rogers (R-Ky.), chair of the House Committee on Appropriations, touted this prohibition in his statement on the spending package. He said the measure would help "to increase exports of US goods and services." Rogers told The Hill that coal exports "are just about the only bright light in the coal business these days."

Environmental groups have fought for years to get the government's financial institutions to stop funding fossil fuel projects abroad, including a number of coal-fired power plants, mines, pipelines and natural gas export terminals. Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said in a statement that including this rider in the omnibus "undercuts one of the most important contributions President Obama has made to climate policy internationally."

"This continued desperate attempt by Republicans to prop up the moribund coal industry is a fools errand," Justin Guay, associate director of the international climate program at the Sierra Club, told The Huffington Post. "The coal industry is a dead man walking; it's time to align our economy with an industry that actually has a future."

These Photos of Flooding in San Francisco Are Insane

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 1:02 PM EST

A huge rain storm is battering Northern California right now. The photos are bonkers.

(Disclaimer: These are all from social media so maybe some are fake because some people get off making fake weather photos whenever these things happen, but they all look pretty legit to me.)

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Video: It Takes Only 60 Seconds to Refute Every Obnoxious Climate Denier You Know

| Thu Dec. 11, 2014 12:16 PM EST

If only all complicated science was accompanied by a kindly but sober British accent, and a jazzy beat. The U.S. National Academy of Sciences and the U.K. Royal Society have teamed up to produce this beautiful animation about the basics of climate science—from the greenhouse effect, to the role of human burning of fossil fuels, and the impacts on sea level rise, temperatures and the arctic. It's well worth your 60 seconds.

For more reading, the two groups have co-authored an excellent (and colorful) climate change primer that lays out the answers to 20 common questions—great to have up your sleeve for that awkward Christmas lunch with your climate-denying cousin. And there's also a more lengthy report—still highly readable—to get you deeper into the nitty gritty of of the science.

H/t: The Telegraph.

This Is Seriously One Of the Most Incredible Weather Videos I Have Ever Seen

| Wed Dec. 10, 2014 3:12 PM EST

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

A couple of months ago I posted an amazing time-lapse video called Stormscapes, showing storms and mesocylcones, created by photographer Nicolaus Wegner. It's really worth watching; seeing those swirling, dark clouds forming vortices over the Midwest is terrifying and mesmerizing.

Wegner contacted me recently; after a year of storm chasing he put together another video, Stormscapes2, and it's way, way better than the first one. In fact, I'd say it's seriously one of the most incredible weather videos I have ever seen.

Make this hi-def, full screen, and crank the volume up, because holy yikes.

Wow.

From the opening sequence to the last frame, that's magnificent. I was also really impressed by how Wegner let the music inspire the editing, and it really adds to the look and feel of the video.

The creepy oncoming storm sets the mood immediately, but then the double rainbow and crepuscular rays (shadows of clouds leaving long, dark shadows in the sky) converging on the horizon provide a brief interlude. Very brief.

Mesocyclones! Lightning! Exploding cumulonimbus clouds! Devil's Tower! And then, at the end, one of my favorite kinds of clouds: bulbs of mammatus clouds hanging down. Those are really peculiar, and it's not at all clear why they form. Their shape gives rise to their name, because they look like mammary glands. Seriously.

I've seen mammatus clouds just once, and it was unearthly. They're harbingers of severe weather, and Wegner mentioned he got that sequence the day a series of tornadoes hit the town of Wessington Springs, South Dakota. The town was devastated, but due to the work of the National Weather Service, not a single person was killed. They predicted the conditions were ripe for tornadoes, issued a warning, and people were able to get to safety in time.

That's amazing, but that's science. We've learned so much about the weather that we can predict with pretty good accuracy where and when tornadoes can form, and get people to safety.

As I watch Stormscapes2, I'm in awe of the beauty of weather, but I'm also uplifted. We understand a lot of these phenomena very well, and the things we don't understand, we learn. And when we learn, we make things better. We save people's lives.

Science saves lives. That's a pretty good thing to learn, too.

Watch NASA Launch Its Next-Gen Spacecraft Friday Morning

| Thu Dec. 4, 2014 3:57 AM EST
The Orion capsule waiting on the launchpad the day before ignition.

Update: NASA had to postpone the launch, which was originally scheduled for Thursday morning, because of a problem with a valve. The next opportunity to test Orion will come early Friday morning. This post has been updated to reflect the change.

It's been 42 years since a human last traveled outside of low-earth orbit, the barely-out-of-the-atmosphere band of space that communications satellites and the International Space Station call home. But Friday morning, NASA will take a step closer towards once again sending humans to the Moon—and perhaps beyond. At 7:04 am, the agency will launch the first unmanned test run of its Orion spacecraft, sending it up from Cape Canaveral for a two-orbit spin around the planet—a trip that, if all goes well, will last for 4.5 hours before Orion lands in the Pacific Ocean. You can watch the launch live here or, at the appointed hour, in the video below:

No one will be aboard Orion for the test flight. But the spacecraft, which is designed to be used for future manned missions to asteroids and eventually the Moon and Mars, is the first NASA capsule since the Apollo program that's designed to send humans beyond low-earth orbit. It is slated to travel 3,600 miles above the planet's surface this week—about 16 times farther out than the International Space Station.

But it'll be a long time before NASA begins sending humans back out towards the stars. That's due, in part, to the state of rocket science. NASA is using a Delta IV rocket to launch Orion into the sky. But the Delta IV is an older technology that is supposed to be a placeholder until NASA finishes work on the Space Launch System, a larger rocket that will blast the Orion capsule off on long-distance missions. That new system won't be ready until at least 2018, which means a manned mission isn't likely until the 2020s, with a Mars mission not on the docket until the 2030s. (And given the recent frequent delays in long term NASA missions, these dates could easily get pushed back more).

The Orion was originally designed for President George W. Bush's Constellation program, which aimed to return Americans to the moon by 2020 at the latest—a step towards a mission to Mars shortly thereafter. President Obama scrapped the Constellation program, which had been underfunded and nowhere near meeting its deadlines, shortly after taking office—sparing only the Orion capsule. Space policy has been a low priority for the  administration ever since. Obama has left designing a replacement for the Space Shuttle's low-earth-orbit work to the private sector, and hasn't put up much of a fight against objections from congressional Republicans that his plan to send humans to visit an asteroid is expensive and unnecessary.

Orion's launch could be the first step toward a bold new space program—or a flashy whimper of a doomed vision. But either way, big rocket launches are always exciting to watch, so tune in here.

The Fracking Boom Could End Way Sooner Than Obama Thinks

| Wed Dec. 3, 2014 1:00 PM EST
A natural gas rig outside Fort Worth, Texas.

President Obama is fond of touting America's vast trove of natural gas—and the energy (read: economic growth) it can provide—as a reason to support fracking. "Our 100-year supply of natural gas is a big factor in drawing jobs back to our shores," he told a gathering at Northwestern University in October.

You can hear that same optimism about US natural gas production from Democrats, Republicans, and of course, the industry itself. The conviction that America can fuel its economy by churning out massive amounts of natural gas for decades has become a core assumption of national energy policy. But what if it's wrong?

Those rosy predictions are based on official forecasts produced by the Energy Information Administration, an independent federal agency that compiles data on America's energy supply and demand. This spring, EIA chief Adam Sieminski told a Senate hearing that he was confident natural gas production would grow 56 percent between 2012 and 2040. But the results of a series of studies at the University of Texas, reported today in an article in the journal Nature, cast serious doubt about the accuracy of EIA's forecasts.

The UT team conducted its own analysis of natural gas production at all four of the US's major shale gas formations (the Marcellus, Haynesville, Fayetteville, and Barnett), which together account for two-thirds of America's natural gas output. Then, they extrapolated production into the future based on predicted market forces (the future price of gas relative to other fuels) and known geology. Their analysis suggests that gas production will peak in 2020, 20 years earlier than the EIA predicts. What's more, the UT researchers project that by 2030, gas production levels will be only half of EIA's prediction.

The difference in opinion stems from a difference in the scale of the analyses. The UT team's grid for each shale play studied was at least 20 times finer than EIA's, according to Nature:

Resolution matters because each play has sweet spots that yield a lot of gas, and large areas where wells are less productive. Companies try to target the sweet spots first, so wells drilled in the future may be less productive than current ones. The EIA's model so far has assumed that future wells will be at least as productive as past wells in the same county. But this approach, [UT-Austin petroleum engineer Ted] Patzek argues, "leads to results that are way too optimistic".

Why do these numbers matter? The federal government, states, and the private sector all base their energy investments—research and development, infrastructure construction, etc.—on forecasts of where our energy will come from in the future. If natural gas really is super-abundant, there may be less urgency to invest in renewables like solar and wind to replace coal plants as they age or are regulated out of existence. But if there's less recoverable natural gas than we think, we'll need to change our strategy to avoid coming up short on power 20 years down the line. At the same time, there are international repercussions: Many countries are taking cues from the United States on how to develop their own natural gas resources, so what happens here will shape those plans as well. And a series of massive natural gas export facilities are already being proposed across the US to ship our gas overseas; what will happen to global markets if those run dry prematurely?

Because they rely on informed guesses about future market conditions, these forecasts can never be bulletproof, and the UT study doesn't close the book on how much natural gas the US really has in store. But it's an important reminder that we should treat politicians' promises about fossil fuel wealth with skepticism.