On Thursday, SeaWorld announced it is ending its controversial killer whale breeding program this year. The move, which was announced in partnership with the Humane Society of the United States, follows years of mounting public backlash over the treatment of animals living in the company's parks.

SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby explained the company's decision in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times:

We are proud of contributing to the evolving understanding of one of the world's largest marine mammals. Now we need to respond to the attitudinal change that we helped to create—which is why SeaWorld is announcing several historic changes. This year we will end all orca breeding programs—and because SeaWorld hasn't collected an orca from the wild in almost four decades, this will be the last generation of orcas in SeaWorld's care.

The orcas currently in captivity at SeaWorld will live out the rest of their lives in the parks, despite pressure from animal rights activists to release them into the wild. Manby said on Thursday that such calls to release them were "not wise" and that if they were to do so, the whales would likely die.

For years, SeaWorld has been under intense scrutiny over the conditions killer whales are subjected to in its parks, conditions many animal rights activists describe as inhumane. The 2013 documentary Blackfish heightened those concerns.

In November, SeaWorld announced it was ending its popular killer whale show at its flagship park in San Diego.

Just one day after Hillary Clinton issued a lengthy apology for a controversial comment she made about Nancy Reagan's contribution to the fight against AIDS, the Democratic front-runner made another unforced error during a CNN town hall event on Sunday night.

Speaking in Ohio about her plans to revitalize coal country, Clinton said, "We're going to put a lot of coal companies and coal miners out of business." That comment was immediately preceded by a promise to invest in the clean-energy economy in those places, and immediately followed by a pledge to "make it clear that we don't want to forget those people." But it's not hard to guess which comment will end up as a sound bite in attack ads in coal states during the general election.

Clinton's statement likely referred to her support for President Barack Obama's Clean Power Plan, the cornerstone of his climate policy, which will require states to reduce their coal consumption in favor of natural gas, renewables, and energy efficiency. It garnered a quick rebuttal from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

Obama's climate regulations have little to do with the coal industry's decline over the last decade. For one thing, they are currently held up in court, and they wouldn't take effect for several years anyway. More important, coal is getting hammered by competition from natural gas made cheap by fracking, as well as the exploding solar and wind industries. In the last town hall, Clinton said that under her administration, "I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place." Since a widespread decline in gas consumption would most likely lead to an increase in coal consumption, it's possible that Clinton's energy policy could be just the opposite of the "war on coal" Paul describes.

Although Bernie Sanders is also a vociferous proponent of clean energy, Clinton is so far the only candidate in the race to produce a specific plan for supporting coal communities affected by the transition to a cleaner energy economy. Still, Sanders appears to be crushing Clinton in coal states that have had primaries so far. So it probably doesn't serve her campaign well to remind people that for a small number of communities, the fight against climate change could mean the end of a traditionally important field of employment.

Many American women with breast cancer undergo a mastectomy to remove the affected breast, but a growing number are opting to remove the noncancerous breast, too—a surgery known as contralateral prophylactic mastectomy (CPM). A new study in Annals of Surgery suggests that this second procedure, while risky, does nothing to improve a woman's chances of survival.

The rate of female breast cancer patients undergoing the surgery jumped from just under 4 percent in 2002 to nearly 13 percent in 2012.

In theory, the procedure is intended to prevent breast cancer from developing in the healthy breast—or sometimes to achieve a more symmetrical look after a mastectomy. The number of women doing it has tripled, from just under 4 percent of female breast cancer patients in 2002 to nearly 13 percent in 2012. That's based on data from nearly 500,000 women, analyzed by researchers from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

The procedure is often unnecessary, the researchers noted: Most patients are unlikely to develop cancer in the other breast, unless they have a genetic mutation that makes them particularly susceptible, or have a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer. "Our analysis highlights the sustained, sharp rise in popularity of CPM while contributing to the mounting evidence that this more extensive surgery offers no significant survival benefit to women with a first diagnosis of breast cancer," Dr. Mehra Golshan, a senior author of the study, said in a statement. In addition to the added cost, he noted, having the second surgery prolongs recovery time, increases the risk of complications and the need for repeat surgery, and affects the patient's "self image."

The breast cancer survivor group Susan G. Komen notes one possible cause for the spike in CPMs: MRIs that result in false positives—showing something that looks like cancer but turns out to be benign. Mammograms, too, often result in false positives and have resulted in huge numbers of women getting treatments they don't need. As Christie Aschwanden pointed out in an investigation for Mother Jones last year:

Mammography isn't the infallible tool we wanted it to be. Some things that look like cancer on a mammogram (or the biopsy that comes afterward) don't act like cancer in the body—they don't invade and proliferate in other organs. Some of the abnormalities breast screenings find will never hurt you, but we don't yet have the tools to distinguish the harmless ones from the deadly ones. And so these medical tests provoke doctors to categorize lots of merely suspicious cells in with the most dangerous cancers, which means that while some lives are saved, even more women end up with treatments they don't need…

Mammograms do help a small number of women avoid dying from breast cancer each year, and those lives count, but a 2012 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine calculated that over the last 30 years, mammograms have overdiagnosed 1.3 million women in the United States…Most of the 1.3 million women who were overdiagnosed received some kind of treatment—surgical procedures ranging from lumpectomies to double mastectomies, often with radiation and chemotherapy or hormonal therapy, too—for cancers never destined to bother them.

For more, check out Aschwanden's full story here.

Food psychologist Brian Wansink

We're excited to present another episode of Bite, our new food politics podcast. Listen to all of our episodes here, or by subscribing in iTunes, Stitcher, or via RSS.

Update, April 6, 2017: After an internal investigation of Wansink's work, Cornell University found errors in Wansink's work, but no misconduct, Retraction Watch reports.

Update, March 3, 2017: A group of researchers who reviewed several of Wansink's studies and his writing alleged data inconsistencies and instances of self-plagiarism. We're following the story here

Trying to shed a few pounds? Forget the fad diets, says food psychologist Brian Wansink. Instead, he recommends following his scientifically proven advice: If you serve yourself dinner on a small plate instead of a big one, for example, you'll end up eating less. People who keep fruit on their counters tend to weigh less than people who don't. Red-wine drinkers are thinner than white-wine drinkers.

Wansink runs the Food and Brand Lab, a research center at Cornell University where he and his team have found all sorts of clever ways of tricking your brain into eating better—so you don't have to count calories. As I learned while profiling him for Mother Jones last year, he's not exactly your typical Ivy League professor. Wansink is a passionate libertarian—who also did a stint working for the US Department of Agriculture. While he can't stand anything that smacks of food elitism—Taco Bell is one of his favorite restaurants, and he drinks six diet sodas a day—he earns grudging respect from foodie heroes like Mark Bittman and Marion Nestle. 


Wansink is also incredibly prolific—he always has his hands in a new project. We wondered what he'd been up to lately, so we invited him back to be the guest of honor on the very first episode of our new food podcast, Bite.

He tells us how selling fruit door to door as a kid growing up in Iowa set him on his career path, and he explains why you might want to opt for a "scenic walk" instead of an "exercise walk." He also catches us up on his latest research project, which involves Norwegian supermarket carts.

But wait, there's more to the inaugural episode of Bite than just this fascinating character! You'll also hear about a brand new lobbying group for makers of plant-based foods (like vegan tuna fish), and why you may want to rethink your recipe for green St. Patrick's Day cupcakes.

We hope you enjoy! And please subscribe, because we'll be back in two weeks with more savory insights.


At the end of 2015, the solar industry experienced something of a Christmas miracle when Congress unexpectedly extended a package of vital tax credits for renewable energy that were set to expire. Overnight, 2016 went from looking like it was certain to be a bust to looking like one of the biggest growth years on record.

New analysis from the energy market research firm GTM paints a picture of the awesome year solar installers in the United States have ahead of them. GTM predicts solar installations to jump 119 percent in 2016, adding 16 gigawatts of new solar by year's end. (For reference, in 2011 there were only 10 gigawatts of solar installed total across the country.) Most of that is utility-scale solar farms, with the remainder coming from rooftop panels on homes and businesses.

This clean energy boost isn't just a boon for the industry; as a result of the tax credit extension, greenhouse gas savings from solar and wind installations could add up by 2030 to the equivalent of taking every car in the country off the road for two years, a recent study found.

Here's the chart from the report. Show this to anyone who still thinks solar is some kind of fringe, hippie pipe dream:

GTM Research/SEIA

Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha (left) and LeeAnne Walters

Two women profiled by Mother Jones for helping to expose the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, will receive awards from the prominent free speech and literary group PEN America. The organization announced today that it will grant Freedom of Expression Courage Awards to advocate LeeAnne Walters and pediatrician Mona Hanna-Attisha. 

Walters, a stay-at-home mother of four, demanded that the city test her water for lead after her family kept getting rashes and developing other new symptoms. While researching Flint's water system, Walters uncovered critical holes in the city's water treatment protocols that she took to the Environmental Protection Agency. Her four-year-old son, Gavin, was later diagnosed with elevated lead levels that could have irreversible neurological impacts.

After Hanna-Attisha, a pediatrician at Flint's Hurley Medical Center, heard rumors of lead in the city's water system, she started studying the blood lead levels of Flint children before and after the change in water supplies. She found that blood lead levels had doubled and even tripled after the switch. "She bypassed standard channels to take on a malevolent state bureaucracy, undermining its assertion of official inviolability," says Andrew Solomon, president of PEN America, which granted last year's award to French publication Charlie Hebdo. "In speaking truth to power, she has saved innumerable lives."

According to PEN executive director Suzanne Nossel, the awards were inspired in part by a Mother Jones profile of Walters from January. "Mother Jones' account of LeeAnne Walters' dogged struggle to expose the truth about Flint's poisoned water supply underscored for us the essential role that citizens' voices play in cutting through official denials breaking open stories of immense public importance," Nossel wrote. "The tale of LeeAnne's tenacity inspired us as a model of courage in the exercise of free expression."

This is really cool: Big brains at MIT recently announced they have created the world's thinnest and lightest solar cell—so light it can sit atop a soap bubble without breaking it. The world-first design is, however, eye-popping:

  • The new cell is just 1.3 micrometers—one-fiftieth the thickness of a human hair.
  • It is one-thousandth the thickness of an equivalent glass-based solar cell—the ones you are probably most familiar with.
  • Pound for pound, the new cells generate 400 times the power of traditional cells.
  • The cell is made from an incredibly flexible cling wrap-like plastic called "parylene"—potentially giving rise to solar panels stitched invisibly into our everyday lives.

MIT's design is only lab-tested, for now. Scaling up the invention for commercial use could take years. But the proof-of-concept is already exciting the scientists—professor Vladimir Bulović, research scientist Annie Wang, and doctoral student Joel Jean. They are publishing their findings in an upcoming issue of the journal Organic Electronics.

"It could be so light that you don't even know it's there, on your shirt or on your notebook," Bulović said in a news release. The release also describes how the scientists came up with an innovative process that grows the "substrate" (the layer the cell is built on) and the solar cell itself— both at the same time.

"How many miracles does it take to make it scalable?" Bulović said. "We think it's a lot of hard work ahead, but likely no miracles needed."

Joel Jean and Anna Osherov/MIT

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

The headline negotiations during the Paris climate summit in December were between national governments: What would China, the United States, and other big emitters be willing to do? But just outside the spotlight, some of the most optimistic commitments to curb greenhouse gas emissions, ramp up clean energy, and invest in adaptive measures were being made by cities.

A new analysis from social scientists at University College London sheds some new light on the money behind those municipal efforts—and the results paint a highly uneven picture. The researchers compared spending on climate adaptation in 10 major global cities—that is, investments in infrastructure, public health, water systems, etc., aimed at making them more resistant to climate change. All 10 cities are members of the Compact of Mayors, an initiative to hold cities to a high standard of climate action.

On average among those 10 cities, spending on climate adaptation accounted for one-fifth of one percent of GDP in 2015, or about $855 million. Not surprisingly, cities in wealthier countries such the US and the UK spent far more than cities in African countries and Southeast Asia:


Cities in developing countries also lag behind on spending on a per-capita basis. (The Paris figure is so high in part because the study counted population just within a city's official boundaries, not the surrounding metropolitan area, and Paris' boundaries are relatively small)…


...and as a share of GDP:


The findings illustrate that spending on climate adaptation is more a function of wealth, and the value of local real estate, than the size of a city's population or its relative vulnerability to climate impacts. The researchers conclude that "current adaptation activities are insufficient in major population centres in developing and emerging economies."

That may not be very surprising—of course New York and London will be better able to rally funds for climate readiness than Addis Ababa. But it's an important snapshot of the uphill battle developing countries face in confronting climate change.

This post has been updated.

China is continuing to drag itself off coal—the dirty energy source that has made it the world's biggest greenhouse gas emitter. Figures published Sunday night by China's National Bureau of Statistics showed coal consumption dropping 3.7 percent in 2015, marking the second year in a row that the country has slashed coal use and greenhouse gas emissions.

To put that in perspective, Greenpeace East Asia says China's drop in coal use over the past two years is equal to Japan's total annual coal consumption—a trend the environmental group says could "far surpass" China's commitments enshrined in the Paris climate deal reached in December. Last year, China's carbon emissions dropped 1-2 percent, Greenpeace says, a decline the group attributes to both falling economic output from China's heavy industries and an upswing in renewable energy use. China is widely expected to meet or surpass its goal of "peaking" emissions (the point at which the country begins to permanently reduce its greenhouse gas emissions) by 2030.

But the shift away from coal will also hit the country's workers hard: The government plans to slash 1.8 million jobs in the steel and coal industries—about 15 percent of the workforce in those sectors, according to Reuters. The government says it has a $15.27 billion plan over 10 years to relocate these workers.

Today's news follows China's promise of a three-year moratorium on all new coal mines. The country also plans to shutter 1,000 existing coal mines this year alone, with deeper cuts to come. All of this has been accompanied by massive investments in wind and solar that have made the country's renewable energy firms world-leaders in clean power.

But with China—the world's second largest economy—there is always a disclaimer. It's right to be skeptical of official economic and energy statistics coming from China, which some experts say can be subject to political pressure.

Still, there are some undeniable signs of progress. The last major coal-fired power station in Beijing is expected to close this year, welcome news to residents of a city that is frequently blanketed in toxic smog.

Congressman Lamar Smith's crusade against the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration keeps getting weirder.

Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, suspects that NOAA scientists may have "changed" climate research data to make it appear as though a possible slowdown in global warming over the last decade-and-a-half didn't really happen. In other words, the congressman seems to believe that government scientists somehow manipulated the facts in order to support President Barack Obama's climate agenda.

It turns out that the scientific debate over the extent to which climate change took a so-called "hiatus" is far from settled and extends far beyond NOAA's research. Chris Mooney at the Washington Post has a detailed rundown of the latest research on this surprisingly difficult question here. Of course, the basic existence of man-made global warming is not in dispute by scientists, Smith's opinion notwithstanding.

But in any case, Smith is determined to get to the bottom of what he sees as an insidious plot by NOAA to falsify research. His original subpoena for internal communications, issued last October, has been followed by a series of letters to Obama administration officials in NOAA and other agencies demanding information and expressing frustration that NOAA has not been sufficiently forthcoming. In December, for example, he wrote to Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker complaining that NOAA showed a "pattern of failing to act in good faith." (NOAA is part of the Commerce Department.)

Now, a new letter gives some insight as to his specific grievances: Smith claims that NOAA's internal search for documents responsive to the subpoena has been "unnecessarily narrow," limited only to documents containing the terms "hiatus," "haitus," "global temperature," and "climate study." A NOAA spokesperson confirmed that those were the only search terms the agency used to find the relevant documents. On Monday, Smith asked NOAA to expand that field to include the words below ("Karl" presumably refers to Thomas Karl, the NOAA scientist behind the research Smith is interested in):

In Smith's defense, NOAA's four terms (three, really, since one is just a misspelling of another) are incredibly narrow and, if there really was any scientific malfeasance, would quite possibly miss it. At the same time, the new list further illuminates what Smith is really after: Some evidence of a nefarious political conspiracy involving Obama, the United Nations, the Paris climate agreement, and temperature buoys.

Sure, NOAA should be transparent about its activities. But the whole thing seems more and more like a wild goose chase by Smith—I'm not holding my breath for any bombshell revelations.