Blue Marble

The Craziest Things Republican Candidates Have Said About Climate Change In One Video

| Tue Oct. 28, 2014 3:52 PM EDT

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

Can the GOP's 2014 candidates give a straight answer on climate change? It appears not.

Many Republican candidates have offered roundabout answers to climate change questions. Some have said the climate isn't changing at all, while others have disputed research showing that human activity is driving those changes. Then there's Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), who said during a debate this year that he's confident our climate isn't changing because he has "Googled this issue."

Lee Fang of The Republic Report put together a mash-up of Republican candidates' greatest hits on climate change this year.

Watch it above.

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5 New York Epidemics That Were Way Worse Than Ebola Will Be

| Fri Oct. 24, 2014 3:18 PM EDT
board of health
An 1865 cartoon from Harper's Weekly ridicules the incompetence of the New York City Board of Health, first established to fight yellow fever. US National Library of Medicine

Ebola has arrived in New York City. So should residents here be worried about a widespread outbreak? Almost certainly not: The disease is not airborne, and infected patients are only contagious once they show symptoms. Craig Spencer, the infected doctor in New York, has said he didn't have symptoms Wednesday night when he rode the subway between Manhattan and Brooklyn and went bowling. Three people he came into contact with, who have not shown symptoms, have been placed in precautionary quarantine. And unlike West Africa, where health care is sparse and low-quality, the US is well equipped to handle cases of the virus; the hospital where Spencer is being treated has been preparing to treat Ebola patients. (Public heath officials in the city expected cases of Ebola to turn up sooner or later.)

But the prospect of a deadly disease outbreak in the Big Apple is still pretty scary, and the city hasn't always dodged the pathogen bullet. Here are a few epidemics in New York that were far worse than Ebola is likely to be.

Yellow fever (1795-1803):

The wharf in Philadelphia where yellow fever cases were first identified. Wikimedia Commons

The city's first health department was created in 1793 to block boats from Philadelphia, which at the time was in the grips of a yellow fever epidemic that left 5,000 dead. The tactic didn't work: By 1795 cases began to appear in Manhattan, and by 1798 the disease had reached epidemic proportions there, with 800 deaths that year. Several thousand more died over the next few years. (The disease causes victims' to vomit black bile and their skin to turn yellowish, and the fatality rate without treatment is as high as 50 percent.) This was no small blow for a city that at the time had only about 60,000 residents. As is the case today with Ebola in West Africa, misinformation was a big part of the problem: Doctors at the time had only just begun to speculate that the virus was carried by mosquitoes (other theorized sources included unsanitary conditions in slums and rotting coffee). Little effort was made to publicize the epidemic for fear of a mass exodus from the city, according to Baruch College. Today yellow fever is extremely rare in the United States but still kills 30,000 people every year, 90 percent of whom are in Africa.

Cholera (mid-1800s):

cholera
An 1865 poster from the New York City Sanitary Commission offers advice on how to avoid contracting cholera. Wikimedia Commons

By the 1830s New York was a booming metropolis of 200,000, with swarms of newcomers arriving daily on boats from Europe. When word of a raging cholera epidemic in Europe reached the city's Board of Health, it instituted quarantines on incoming ships and tried to clean up the filthy streets. But again the board was reluctant to make public announcements, this time to avoid disrupting trade, according to city records. One resident claimed the board was "more afraid of merchants than of lying." By June 1832, the disease, which causes severe diarrhea and can kill within hours if untreated, arrived in New York via boats traveling down the Hudson River from Quebec. Within two months, 3,500 people were dead—mostly poor Irish immigrants and blacks living in the city's slums. Outbreaks occurred again in 1849, with some 5,000 deaths, and in 1866, with 1,100 deaths

Polio (1916):

A physical therapist works with two children with polio in 1963. Charles Farmer/CDC

New York City was the epicenter of an outbreak of polio in 1916 that began with a handful of cases reported to a clinic in Brooklyn. The disease, which advances from feverlike symptoms to paralysis and sometimes death, ultimately spread to 9,000 New Yorkers and caused 2,400 deaths. Across the Northeast, the infection toll climbed to 23,000 by the fall. The disease remained prevalent in the United States until the 1954 introduction of Jonas Salk's polio vaccine. Polio is now extremely rare here. But worldwide, it still infects 200,000 people every year, particularly in Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Pakistan.

Influenza (1918):

influenza
In 1918, soldiers with influenza are treated at an Army hospital in Kansas. Wikimedia Commons

In August 1918, a Norwegian ship called the Bergensfjord pulled into New York Harbor carrying 21 people infected with a new and virulent strain of the flu. Over the next several weeks, dozens more arrived, mostly on ships from Europe, and sick passengers were quarantined in a hospital just blocks from the modern-day Bellevue, where Spencer is currently being treated. Those unfortunate sailors were just the first in what would become the deadliest disease outbreak in the city's history to that date. Over 30,000 deaths were recorded by November—the actual number was likely much higher—including 12,300 during the first week of November alone. One health worker visited a family in lower Manhattan and found an infant dead in its crib and all seven other family members severely ill.

Other nearby cities fared even worse: The death rate in New York was 4.7 per 1,000 cases, compared to 6.5 in Boston and 7.3 in Philadelphia, according to the National Institutes of Health. That may not sound like a lot, given that the Ebola death rate is closer to 50 percent, but because influenza is so easily spread it can infect a much greater number of people. Globally, the 1918 flu killed between 50100 million people, the worst public health crisis in modern times. Today, the flu is still considered the greatest infectious disease risk for Americans, killing between 3,000 and 50,000 every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In other words, it's possible that more people could die from the flu this year in America than have died worldwide from Ebola during this outbreak. And yet only 1 in 3 Americans get a flu shot. Get a flu shot, people!

HIV/AIDS (1981-present):

An AIDS poster from New York City in the 1980s US National Library of Medicine

The scourge of HIV/AIDS is the most familiar epidemic for modern New Yorkers, beginning with the June 1981 discovery of 41 cases of a rare cancer among gay men across the country. Throughout the 1980s, campaigns by the city encouraged New Yorkers to use protection during sex and not to share needles or use intravenous drugs. By 1987, according to city records, $400 million had been spent on AIDS services. But activists for AIDS rights groups like ACT UP accused city officials, led by Mayor Ed Koch, of dragging their feet and ignoring the true scale of the crisis. It took until the mid-'90s for anti-retroviral drugs to become widely available. Today, for people who have access to adequate health care, HIV is often manageable. But to date, more than 100,000 New Yorkers have been killed by AIDS-related maladies, according to state health statistics. Despite recent advances in medical treatment, infection rates are still high in New York, disproportionately affecting racial minorities and gay men.

Environmentalists Don't Like Europe's New Climate Plan. Can Obama Do Better?

| Fri Oct. 24, 2014 12:14 PM EDT
German Chancellor Angela Merkel talks with other European leaders in Brussels.

Environmental groups are warning that a new European agreement to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent by 2030 sets the bar far too low.

The pact—which was reached early Friday in Brussels—makes the European Union the first major bloc of countries to commit to emissions targets ahead of next year's crucial climate change talks in Paris. At the Paris meeting, world leaders will attempt to hammer out a global agreement that will keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Guardian reports that in addition to their commitment to cut greenhouse emissions by 40 percent, European leaders also agreed to increase the portion of the region's energy that comes renewable sources to 27 percent by 2030. That provision is legally binding for the EU as a whole, but not on a national level, potentially opening the door to disagreements about how to get there. The third notable part of the pact is a plan to increase energy efficiency by 27 percent, but that target is not legally binding.

Oxfam—the global development NGO—slammed the deal as "insufficient," saying the targets are too low and not enforceable enough. The group's Deputy Director of Advocacy and Campaigns, Natalia Alonso, said in a statement: "Today's deal must set the floor not the ceiling of European action, and they must arrive in Paris with a more serious offer." Oxfam called for a much for aggressive policy: 55 percent cuts in emissions.

Greenpeace also criticized the deal, saying the EU leaders pulled the "handbrake on clean energy."

"These targets are too low, slowing down efforts to boost renewable energy and keeping Europe hooked on polluting and expensive fuel," the group said in a statement.

Greenpeace EU managing director Mahi Sideridou added, "The global fight against climate change needs radical shock treatment, but what the EU is offering is at best a whiff of smelling salts."

Nevertheless, European leaders hailed the deal as a major breakthrough. "This package is very good news for our fight against climate change," said Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president.

Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, said the pact "will ensure that Europe will be an important player, will be an important party, in future binding commitments of an international climate agreement."

World Resources Institute, a leading climate policy research group, struck a more conciliatory tone than other environmental groups, while also calling for more aggressive targets. "Despite facing a dismal recession and difficult internal debate, European leaders demonstrated their resolve by staying the course," said the institute's director of climate and energy programs, Jennifer Morgan, in a statement. "At the same time, it is clear that all of the targets could have been—and should have been—more ambitious."

The deal raises the stakes for other countries to get serious about climate commitments ahead of Paris. According to the Guardian, it contains a clause that would trigger a review of the new targets—potentially torpedoing today's agreement—if other countries don't come to the table with comparable proposals next year.

It remains unclear precisely what the US government will seek at next year's negotiations. Early indications suggest the Obama administration is considering a plan that would require countries to limit emissions according to a specific timetable but wouldn't dictate to individual countries how deep those cuts would be.

In Just 15 Years, Wind Could Provide A Fifth Of The World's Electricity

| Wed Oct. 22, 2014 9:36 AM EDT
The Scroby Sands Offshore Wind Farm off the coast of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk, UK.

Up to one fifth of the world's electricity supply could come from wind turbines by 2030, according to a new report released this week by Greenpeace and the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC). That would be an increase of 530 percent compared to the end of last year.

The report says the coming global boom in wind power will be driven largely by China's rebounding wind energy market—and a continued trend of high levels of Chinese green energy investment—as well as by steady growth in the United States and new large-scale projects in Mexico, Brazil, and South Africa.

The report, called the "Global Wind Energy Outlook," explains how wind energy could provide 2,000 gigawatts of electricity by 2030, which would account for 17 to 19 percent of global electricity. And by 2050, wind's share of the electricity market could reach 30 percent. That's a huge jump from the end of 2013, when wind provided around 3 percent of electricity worldwide.

The report is an annually produced industry digest co-authored by the GWEC, which represents 1,500 wind power producers. It examines three "energy scenarios" based on projections used by the International Energy Agency. The "New Policies" scenario attempts to capture the direction and intentions of international climate policy, even if some of these policies have yet to be fully implemented. From there, GWEC has fashioned two other scenarios—"moderate" and "advanced"—which reflect two different ways nations might cut carbon and keep their commitments to global climate change policies. In the most ambitious scenario, "advanced," wind could help slash more than 3 billion tons of climate-warning carbon dioxide emissions each year. The following chart has been adapted and simplified from the report:

In the best case scenario, China leads the way in 2020 and in 2030:

But as the report's authors note, there is still substantial uncertainty in the market. "There is much that we don't know about the future," they write, "and there will no doubt be unforeseen shifts and shocks in the global economy as well as political ups and downs." The more optimistic results contained in the report are dependent on whether the global community is going to respond "proactively to the threat of climate change, or try to do damage control after the fact," the report says.

Drinking a "Medium" Soda Every Day Can Age You As Much As Smoking Does

| Mon Oct. 20, 2014 1:28 PM EDT

Just as soda companies plunk down millions of dollars to defeat local soda-tax ballot measures, researchers have found a link between regular soda consumption and premature aging.

Published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Public Health, a study of 5,300 adults compared the cells of people who drink soda every day to those of their non-soda-drinking counterparts. In the soda group, the ends of the chromosomes—known as telomeres—were shorter, a sign of their cells' diminished ability to regenerate. Our telomeres naturally shorten as we age, but scientists have discovered that a few behaviors—including smoking—can shorten them prematurely.

And here's the really interesting part: People who drank a 20-ounce soda every day experienced an additional 4.6 years of telomere aging—the same amount observed in smokers. "The extremely high dose of sugar that we can put into our body within seconds by drinking sugared beverages is uniquely toxic to metabolism," lead author Elissa Epel, a professor of psychiatry at University of California-San Francisco, told Time.

The researchers didn't find the same effect in those who drank diet sodas or 100 percent fruit juice.

Now Congressional Republicans Are Digging Through Scientists' Grant Proposals

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 4:22 PM EDT
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) has led an unprecedented investigation into the scientific operations of the National Science Foundation.

When scientists across the country need money for research projects, one place they often turn is the National Science Foundation. The NSF is an independent federal agency with an annual budget of about $7 billion, which it doles out to fund about a quarter of all federally supported science research.

Of course, the agency doesn't just give money away to anyone who asks. Proposals have to survive a rigorous review process that includes close scrutiny by a panel of top scientists in the relevant field. Competition is fierce: Of the 49,000 proposals submitted in 2013, only a fifth were ultimately funded. So as far as most scientists are concerned, an NSF grant is about the highest mark of scientific legitimacy a research project can get.

Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas) apparently disagrees. Over the last 18 months, Smith, who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, has launched an aggressive campaign against what he sees as misguided money management at NSF that fritters funds away on frivolous research. Research on ridiculous things like, you know, climate change.

Smith's committee is responsible for setting the NSF's budget. But in the last year, the Congressman has gone to unprecedented lengths to scrutinize the agency's scientific operations. His staffers are sifting through the archives of NSF grant proposal materials, which are normally kept strictly confidential to preserve scientific objectivity. They're looking for projects to highlight as evidence that NSF is wasting money on research that, from their view, aren't in the "national interest."

A great recent story in Science lays out Smith's strategy:

Four times this past summer, in a spare room on the top floor of the headquarters of the National Science Foundation (NSF) outside of Washington, D.C., two congressional staffers spent hours poring over material relating to 20 research projects that NSF has funded over the past decade…

The peculiar exercise is part of a long-running and bitter battle that is pitting Smith and many of his panel's Republican members against [Rep. Eddie Bernice] Johnson [the committee's ranking Democrat] and the panel's Democrats, NSF's leadership, and the academic research community…

Smith, however, argues he is simply taking seriously Congress's oversight responsibility. And he promises to stay the course: "Our efforts will continue until NSF agrees to only award grants that are in the national interest," he wrote in a 2 October e-mail to ScienceInsider.

The tally of projects under scrutiny by Smith's team has now grown to 47 (a listing of them is linked to in the Science story above). On one hand, that's a lot. The confidentiality of the NSF review process is a long-established, sacred scientific practice that protects research from bias and makes sure only the cream rises to the top. So any cracks in that firewall, and certainly any whiff of political interference, are of great concern to the scientific community.

On the other hand, the 47 grants represent only a tiny fraction of the NSF's total operation; together, they amount to about $26 million, or 0.37 percent of NSF's budget. Which raises the questions of why Smith would (a) throw himself into an investigation of spending that, all things considered, is barely a drop in the federal bucket and (b) pick these specific projects to focus on. A spokesperson from Smith's committee—who provided a statement on behalf of Smith's office (the same statement quoted by Science above)—did not respond to these questions.

Many of the studies at issue involve social sciences (a study of caste systems in Ethiopia, for example, and one about rural sanitation in India) that fall outside the core areas of engineering, mathematics, computer science, and biology that Smith, in a press release this spring, singled out as "the primary drivers of our economic future."

But some of the biggest-ticket items up for public dissection focus on climate change. They include a $3 million grant awarded in 2008 to study how federal agencies can better communicate climate science to the public and a $5.6 million award to a Columbia University team to carry out public education work on the impacts of climate change at the poles. You know, totally frivolous questions that have nothing to do with the "national interest" on things like rising sea levels, epic releases of methane, US military engagement in the Arctic, new areas for offshore oil drilling, and 35,000 stranded walruses. Definitely not stuff you need to worry about, or have our top scientists investigate and explain.

The letters over the past few months between Smith and NSF director France Córdova, an astrophysicist and former president of Purdue University, are a great new entry in the annals of government scientists explaining Science 101 to Republican Congressmen.

"NSF's investment in meritorious research projects enables new and transformative discoveries within and among those fields and disciplines, resulting in the expansion of our scientific knowledge and understanding," she wrote to him on May 19.

In other words, basic science shouldn't be judged by how closely it hews to a predetermined, profitable advance. The Large Hadron Collider probably isn't ever going to do much for the US economy, but that doesn't mean it's not in the "national interest" for us to understand the basic physics of the universe. Sometimes, even research on the mechanics of corkscrew-shaped duck penises can be a worthy investment of taxpayer dollars.

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Hurricane Gonzalo Is Going to Slam Bermuda Today

| Fri Oct. 17, 2014 10:47 AM EDT

The photo above was taken yesterday by an astronaut on the International Space Station. It shows Hurricane Gonzalo barreling across the Atlantic Ocean toward Bermuda.

Gonzalo, currently a Category 3 hurricane, is expected to make landfall in Bermuda this afternoon before veering back out to sea and away from the US East Coast. AccuWeather.com meteorologists are warning that the damage could be severe, with "a large and life-threatening storm surge [that] could exceed 10 feet and cause a major rise in water levels over coastal areas and causeways."

Stay safe, Bermudans.

People Are Trying to Sell Cinnamon Bark as an Ebola Cure

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 2:57 PM EDT

Marion Nestle reports that several supplement manufacturers are selling vitamins that promise to prevent or treat Ebola. The claims caught the attention of the FDA, which has issued warning letters to three of the manufacturers: Natural Solutions Foundation, Young Living, and DoTERRA International LLC. The agency lists specific claims it finds worrisome; for example, on a Young Living consultant's website, "Ebola Virus can not live in the presence of cinnamon bark."

Here's a screenshot from Natural Solutions Foundations' website:

An article on the Natural Solutions site talks about "the intentional introduction of Ebola into the United States by what will appear to be ISIS terrorists." It continues, "And it will happen soon, since we know from Dr. Rima's research that Ebola can become an airborne disease in temperate climates, such as North America's coming winter." It urges readers to prepare by stocking up on supplements that contain nanoparticles of silver: "The only protection we have against this new level of tyranny is making sure we do not get sick!!! The best way to do that is to make sure that EVERYONE you can reach has Nano Silver and knows how to use it."

Another supposed natural Ebola cure making the rounds: Vitamin C. Nestle found this gem on an alternative health information site called NaturalHealth365, which claims that a giant dose of vitamin C can cure Ebola (though it doesn't actually sell Vitamin C):

NaturalHealth365

It's not terribly surprising that supplement manufacturers have seized on Ebola. A new Harvard School of Public Health poll has found that 38 percent of Americans (up from 25 percent a few months ago) "are now concerned that they or someone in their immediate family may get sick with Ebola over the next year." That's quite a market.

Sorry, California. Winter Isn't Going to Fix Your Drought.

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 1:32 PM EDT
NOAA

California's crippling drought is not expected to improve over the winter, according to new forecast data released today by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Nearly 60 percent of the state is experiencing exceptional drought—the worst category—NOAA reported. The map above shows that the northern California coast could see some improvement. But in the Central Valley, a critical source of fruits, nuts, and vegetables for the whole country, conditions won't be getting better any time soon. A little rain is expected, NOAA forecaster Mike Halpert said in a statement, but not enough to reverse the trend.

"While we're predicting at least a 2 in 3 chance that winter precipitation will be near or above normal throughout the state, with such widespread, extreme deficits, recovery will be slow,” he said.

The report adds that El Niño, which tends to brings wet weather for the West Coast, is expected to be weak this winter and thus won't provide much relief.

California's winter is also more than 50 percent likely to be warmer than average:

temp map
NOAA

And in case you're still wondering why you should care about California's drought, try this: The state is the country's number-two pumpkin producer. And with Halloween approaching, pumpkin prices have jumped 15 percent because of the drought. Scary!

Nepal Just Had a Deadly Freak Avalanche. Is Climate Change To Blame?

| Thu Oct. 16, 2014 11:32 AM EDT
Rescue workers carry the body of an avalanche victim at the Thorong La Pass in Mustang, Nepal, on October 15.

Hikers on one of Nepal's most popular mountaineering routes may have had a deadly face-off with climate change this week, when a freak storm swept in and triggered an avalanche that killed at least 27 people.

Rescue work is underway for dozens of hikers who are still missing. October is typically a time for clear skies in Nepal, and already some scientists are pointing a finger of blame at global warming for the unseasonable storm. From the Toronto Star:

The current situation in Nepal — the incessant rain, blizzard and avalanche — appears to have been triggered by the tail of Cyclone Hudhud in neighboring India. The cyclone, reports suggest, was among the strongest storms recorded off the Indian coast.

“Storms in that region are getting stronger,” said John Stone, an IPCC lead author and adjunct professor at Carleton University in Ottawa. “It is not inconsistent with what scientists have been saying.”

The International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional agency based in Kathmandu that serves eight countries, said in a May report — just weeks after the April avalanche on Mt. Everest — that rising temperatures have shrunk Nepal’s glaciers by almost a quarter between 1977 and 2010, with an average of 38 square kilometers vanishing annually.

The report said that besides bringing more intense and frequent floods, avalanches and landslides affecting millions of people living in remote mountain areas, such changes could also hit adventure-seeking mountaineers.

As if summitting a giant Himalayan peak wasn't scary enough already.