Blue Marble

"Breathtaking": The White House Releases Its Climate Heavy Hitter on the Polar Vortex

| Wed Jan. 15, 2014 11:05 AM EST
John Holdren

Last week, amid the media furor over the "polar vortex," the White House did something pretty unusual. It released a highly produced scientific video titled "The Polar Vortex Explained in 2 Minutes."

In the video, White House science adviser and physicist John Holdren dismantles silly claims that cold weather refutes global warming. "The fact is that no single weather episode can either prove or disprove global climate change," explains Holdren. He then describes how, in fact, climate change could make extreme winter weather in the mid-latitudes more common. "A growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States as we speak is a pattern that we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues," Holdren asserts. Watch it:

Climate wonks and climate communications specialists say that the video is a nice piece of work. (So far, it has been seen by over 140,000 people, much more than other White House videos featuring Holdren.) They also note that it is rather daring in its willingness to endorse the still-contested hypothesis that Arctic warming is disrupting the jet stream and contributing to many ensuing weather extremes. "It was truly breathtaking to watch Dr. Holdren embrace our Arctic linkage idea with such conviction," says climate scientist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, who has been the leading proponent of the theory.

What stands out most about the video is the fact that it exists at all. "A two-minute video on the polar vortex? It is the first time I've ever seen anything like that coming out of the White House on this issue," says Nick Sundt, a former student of Holdren's at the University of California-Berkeley who is now communications director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

Indeed, there have long been lamentations within climate change circles that Holdren, a highly credible scientific figure who known for his ability to grandly synthesize data to present the true scope of the climate and energy challenge, hasn't been better deployed by the White House. The prominent climate science blogger Joe Romm even directly charged in 2011 that David Axelrod and the "White House communications shop" had been "muzzling" Holdren.

It didn't help that early in the Obama years, Holdren was a particular target of right-wing commentators, who suggested, based on a textbook he coauthored with Paul and Anne Ehrlich in the 1970s, that he was a proponent of coercive population control methods. The charge was misleading, but it got a lot of airtime.

Whatever the reason, major public communication and education moments are not what we've come to expect from Holdren during the Obama administration. "Holdren has not been allowed to do what Holdren should have been allowed to do on climate change," adds Rick Piltz, a Bush administration climate science whistleblower who now runs Climate Science Watch. "And this thing on the polar vortex only scratches the surface of my disappointment about that, unless there's a lot more coming."

Maybe there is. After all, in mid-2013, President Obama shifted his message on climate change, from one focused on energy and "green jobs" to one focused on extreme weather and preserving the planet for future generations. At the same time, the administration rolled out a comprehensive climate change action plan based on three pillars: cutting carbon, climate adaptation, and international policy accords. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren runs, also seems more interested in outreach of late. Last year, it debuted "We the Geeks," a Google Plus hangout series on science and innovation.

"I think that the administration as a whole is increasingly seeing climate as among its most important legacy issues," says Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former Clinton White House climate aide. "And obviously science is at the heart of the climate problem, so it's just incredibly important and powerful that John is speaking."

Holdren's office did not respond to requests for comment.

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How the West Virginia Spill Exposes Our Lax Chemical Laws

| Mon Jan. 13, 2014 3:39 PM EST
Site of the spill on the Elk River in West Virginia

The West Virginia chemical spill that left some 300,000 people without access to water has exposed a gaping hole in the country's chemical regulatory system, according to environmental experts.

Much the state remains under a drinking-water advisory after the spill last week into the Elk River near a water treatment facility. As much as 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used in the washing of coal, leaked from a tank owned by a company called Freedom Industries.

A rush on bottled water ensued, leading to empty store shelves and emergency water delivery operations. According to news reports, 10 people were hospitalized following the leak, but none in serious condition.

The spill and ensuing drinking water shortage have drawn attention to a very lax system governing the use of chemicals, according to Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who specializes in chemical regulation. "Here we have a situation where we suddenly have a spill of a chemical, and little or no information is available on that chemical," says Denison.

West Virginia store shelf.
An empty West Virginia store shelf Foo Conner/Flickr

The problem is not necessarily that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is highly toxic. Rather, Denison says, the problem is that not a great deal about its toxicity is known. Denison has managed to track down a description of one 1990 study, conducted by manufacturer Eastman Chemical, which identified a highly lethal dose, in rats, of 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. But how that applies to humans at much lower doses in water isn't necessarily clear.

In response to the crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency have determined that a level of 1 part per million in water is safe. The drinking water advisory is now slowly being lifted on an area-by-area basis.

So why do we know so little? All of this traces back to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the law under which the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the production of chemicals. According to EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson, MCHM is one of a large group of chemicals that were already in use when the law was passed, and so were "grandfathered" under it. This situation "provided EPA with very limited ability to require testing on those existing chemicals to determine if they are safe," she says.

There are more than 60,000 such grandfathered chemicals, according to Johnson. A leak involving any of them into water could trigger to a similar situation of uncertainty—meaning that this spill has served to underscore a major gap in how we regulate chemicals.

"What we have now is a situation where because our system, our policies, and regulations don't require this information be developed, we're left scrambling when something like this happens," says Denison.

Planet Hunter: We'll Find An "Earth 2.0" Within "10 or 15 Years"

| Mon Jan. 13, 2014 7:01 AM EST
Planet Beta Pictoris b

Last week, a team of astronomers at the Gemini Planet Imager in Chile released the mysterious blue image above. That small bright dot in the lower right of the image is a planet—not a planet in our solar system like Mars or Neptune, but one 63 light-years away. It's the planet Beta Pictoris b, which orbits the star Beta Pictoris in the southern constellation Pictor. But what's most exciting about the picture is the technology used to make it, which represents a dramatic improvement in the speed and quality with which scientists will be able to look for other planets—including "Earth 2.0," a theorized planet much like our own.

The first confirmation that planets exist beyond our solar system came in 1992, when a team of astronomers monitored changes in radio waves to prove that multiple planets were orbiting a small star about 1000 light-years away. Then, in 2005, astronomers created the first actual image of a planet beyond our solar system (the date is arguable because the observation was made in 2004, but not confirmed until a year later). Since then, hundreds more planets have been discovered, and a few others have even been photographed.

So when Gizmodo reported last week that the blue image above was the "first ever image of a planet, orbiting a star," they didn't have it quite right. In fact, the image wasn't even the first time that planet had been photographed. But the GPI images are still extremely exciting: They could mark the beginning of a new era of planet-hunting, thanks to technology developed by a team of astronomers led by Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  

Frank Marchis, who works for the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to explore, understand, and explain the prevalence of life in the universe, is a key member of Macintosh's planet-hunting team. I met with him in San Francisco last week to discuss the project and the search for Earth 2.0:

MJ: What exactly are we seeing in this image?

FM: Behind this image is a lot of work. This image is simply a planet orbiting around another star. So we call that an exoplanet – an extrasolar planet – because it doesn't belong to our solar system. It belongs to another planetary system. So this is the grail of modern astronomy. We're trying desperately now to image those planets because we know they exist. When you observe a planet with [the now defunct telescope] Kepler, what you've been doing is basically detecting the transit - the attenuation of [the star's] light - due to the planet passing between us and the star. Now with GPI, the Gemini Planet Imager, which is mounted at the 8 meter class telescope in Chile we're going to be able to see the planet itself.

What Do We Know About the Chemical That Spilled in West Virginia?

| Fri Jan. 10, 2014 6:48 PM EST
The Elk River in Clay County, West Virginia, one of the counties under a water advisory in the wake of a chemical spill.

The chemical that leaked yesterday into a West Virginia river "hasn't been studied very well," says Deborah Blum, a New York Times science columnist who specializes in reporting on chemistry.

A state of emergency was declared for nine West Virginia counties yesterday after a chemical called 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol spilled into the Elk River. The chemical is "used to wash coal of impurities," according to the Times.

The chemical leaked from a holding tank owned by a company called Freedom Industries, according to West Virginia American Water, a water company operating in the region. At present, the nine counties are under a "do not use" advisory from West Virginia American Water, and residents there do not know when they will be able to turn on their taps.

A rush on bottled water subsequently ensued, as documented in this tweet from a local news anchor:

Undoubtedly much more information will emerge on 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol and how dangerous it is (or isn't) in water. But to start things off we turned to Blum, who was just a guest on our Inquiring Minds podcast.

"We know methanol is toxic, we know that methylcyclohexane is moderately toxic, but I haven't seen a full analysis of the entire formula," says Blum. "Still, I think we can assume there's nothing here that we'd want to drink or like to see in our rivers." However, given that it is in the Elk River it will be "very diluted," she added, and likely will ultimately be broken down and digested by microbes. In the meantime, Blum praised authorities' cautionary approach.

The fact that relatively little is known about the compound, says Blum, represents "another reminder that we have way too may poorly researched compounds in the toxic registry and we desperately need to update our creaking regulations regarding industrial materials."

For our recent podcast with Deborah Blum, you can listen here:

New Data Shows How Hospitals Rip You Off

| Thu Jan. 9, 2014 7:00 AM EST

The United States has long been known to have one of the most expensive hospital systems in the world, and now a new study indicates that hospitals are overcharging patients for medical services.

According to the study published Monday by National Nurses United, the largest nurses' organization in the United States, the price of many services has skyrocketed since the mid-'90s. Many hospitals have set charges at 10 times their cost. The 100 most expensive hospitals in the country, for example, in 2011 charged 765 percent of their costs, or $765 for every $100 of total costs.

Courtesy of National Nurses United

Charles Idelson, a spokesman for NNU, says that even insured patients, whose insurance providers will offset some of the costs, will be affected by the price hikes. "The skyrocketing prices make premiums, co-pays and deductibles go up," Idelson says. Another recent study, by the Commonwealth Fund, found that "high deductibles and cost-sharing, along with no limits on out-of-pocket costs" may explain why even insured people struggle to afford health care. 

"Lets be clear: This is price gouging," says Charles Idelson, a spokesman for NNU. "And the hospitals are doing it because they want to increase their profits." As hospital prices hit record highs so did profits: In 2011 hospitals made $53 billion in profits, compared to $34.3 billion in 2009, according to the NNU data.

The situation is even worse for the uninsured, who have to cough up the full medical bill. "Our nurses all the time see patients skipping medical care that is necessary for them because they can't afford the high cost of what they’re being charged" says Idelson. The Commonwealth study found that in 2013 more than one-third of US adults decided to forgo recommended care because of costs.

The high cost of health care got renewed attention at the beginning of the new year when a 20-year-old posted the bill for his appendectomy on Reddit. The total cost after insurance was more than $11,000.

The National Nurses United study also found that excessive costs is worst at private and for-profit hospitals, which, according to the American Hospital Association, account for the vast majority of hospitals in the United States. In contrast, government-run hospitals exercised more restraint in their pricing. "Public oversight and regulation seems to help constrain excessive pricing," says the study.

Check Out This Shocking Map of California's Drought

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 4:44 PM EST

While the country's appetite for extreme weather news was filled (to the brim) this week by the polar vortex, spare a thought for sunny California, where exceptionally dry weather is provoking fears of a long, tough summer ahead.

The state is facing what could be its worst drought in four decades. The chart above, released by the National Drought Mitigation Center on Monday, shows just how dry the soil is compared to the historical average: the lighter the color, the more "normal" the current wetness of the soil; the darker the color, the rarer. You can see large swathes of California are bone dry.

Nearly 90 percent of the state is suffering from severe or extreme drought. A statewide survey shows the current snowpack hovering below 20 percent of the average for this time of year. The AP is reporting that if the current trend holds, state water managers will only be able to deliver 5 percent of the water needed for more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of farmland.

A study published in Nature Climate Change at the end of last year found that droughts will probably set in more quickly and become more intense as climate change takes hold.

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Brrrr: Incredible Photos of the Polar Vortex

| Tue Jan. 7, 2014 3:51 PM EST

UPDATE 4:35pm EST: Scott Harrison gave us the nod to publish his terrific photo of throwing boiling water into minus 14 degree air in the early hours of Monday morning, in Wicker Park, Chicago. If you have polar vortex photos you want to share with us, send us a note on Twitter: @MotherJones.

The polar vortex sweeping across the country has pulled 187 million Americans into the grips of crazy cold weather, snarled travel, forced an early orange harvest, and heated up the climate debate. It is also producing some amazing photography, from professionals and amateurs alike. Here are a few that have come to our attention in the last two days.

Hank Cain, via Shawn Reynolds/Twitter.

This picture was taken by pilot Hank Cain, over a frozen Chicago, and first tweeted by his friend Shawn Reynolds from the Weather Channel. Chicago reported a low of minus 16 degrees on Monday.

Nancy Stone/MCT/ZUMA

Teresa Wooldridge has her work cut out for her, pictured here trying to clear a path on the Northwest Side of Chicago.

@ChicagosMayor, The Office of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

The office of the Chicago Mayor tweeted this image of steaming rooftops yesterday morning. Four people reportedly died while shoveling snow in the city across the weekend.

NOAA/NASA GOES Project

NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center tweeted this picture showing the extent of the weather event—"a whirling and persistent large area of low pressure"—over the US. The image was captured by satellite Monday morning.

Ernest Coleman/ZUMA

Warmer temperatures in the Ohio River than the surrounding air created this eerie mist outside downtown Cincinnati on Monday. According to the National Weather Service, the city tied its record-low temperature for that date, at minus 7, set in 1924. Desperate times call for desperate measures: maintenance crews are treating roads with beet juice, apparently, because it can help melt ice at temperatures as low as minus 25; it's also said to be better for the environment than regular deicers. Factoid of the day!

@TeriMatthewson/Twitter

"I'd rather have my frozen berries in my smoothie, then on my front lawn," is the caption to this photo taken by Teri Matthewson, from Toronto, of the fruit tree in her front lawn. In Canada, the vortex has earned the nickname "polar pig" in some quarters, for its shape on the metrological map.

And the Chicago Tribune is reporting that 500 passengers were stranded on two trains last night west of the city because of the snow and ice.

Separately, Van Jones, co-host of CNN's Crossfire, this morning tweeted this pic of what he says is inside an Amtrak train:

Why the Arctic Is Drunk Right Now

| Mon Jan. 6, 2014 1:29 PM EST

UPDATE 1/22/2014: This article was originally written during the first extreme cold snap of 2014, which occurred in early January. But after checking today with Rutgers climate researcher Jennifer Francis, I confirmed that the jet stream is still in the same broad pattern described below, which has again allowed for a southward invasion of frigid Arctic air. When asked whether the Arctic was drunk again, Francis responded, "Yes, still drunk. In fact, it never sobered up after the last binge." Below, with Francis's help, I explain how global warming could be making these loopy jet stream patterns more common, contributing to cold weather in the mid-latitudes even as the Arctic warms. —CM

Perhaps the best analogy yet for the insane cold weather now afflicting the US came from science blogger Greg Laden, who created the viral image above. "Go home, Arctic," it reads. "You're drunk."

When it comes to the reason why the United States is currently experiencing life-threatening cold—with temperatures in the negative-20s in the Upper Midwest, and wind chills much lower than that—that's actually not so far from the truth. "It's basically the jet stream on a drunken path going around the Northern Hemisphere," explains Rutgers University climate scientist Jennifer Francis. In other words, we're experiencing record-breaking cold temperatures because a wavy and elongated jet stream has allowed frigid Arctic air to travel much farther south than usual.

And according to Francis' research—which has drawn increasing attention in the past few years—we're seeing more of just this kind of jet stream behavior, thanks, at least in part, to the rapid warming of the Arctic.*

To understand how it works, it first helps to think of the jet stream as a river of air that flows from west to east in the Northern Hemisphere, bringing with it much of our weather. Its motion—sometimes in a relatively straight path, sometimes in a more loopy one—is driven by a difference in temperatures between the equator and the north pole. Southern temperatures are of course warmer, and because warm air takes up more space than cold air, this leads to taller columns of air in the atmosphere. "If you were sitting on top of a layer of atmosphere and you were in DC, looking northward, it would be like looking down a hill, because it's warmer where you are," explains Francis.

The jet stream then flows "downhill," so to speak, in a northward direction. But it's also bent by the rotation of the Earth, leading to its continual wavy, eastward motion.

As the Arctic rapidly heats up, however, there's less of a temperature difference between the equator and the poles, and the downhill slope in the atmosphere is accordingly less steep. This creates a weaker jet stream, a jet stream that meanders more or, if you prefer the new analogy, staggers around drunkenly. "As the Arctic continues to warm, we expect the jet stream to take these wild swings northward and southward more often," says Francis. "And when it does, that's when we get these particularly wild temperature and precipitation patterns, and they tend to stay in place a long time." (For a more thorough explanation, see here.)

That's not to say the jet stream never staggered around drunkenly in the past. It did. But Francis thinks this is happening more often, and the result is all manner of weather extremes, including both cold snaps and also record heat. (Not every scientist agrees; for the debate over Francis's work, see here.)

Thus, it is not at all nuts to draw a connection between extreme weather, including extreme winter weather, and climate change. In fact, what would be truly stunning would be if the dramatic warming of the Arctic were not affecting the weather.

* This sentence was updated to reflect Francis's view that Arctic warming may not be the sole cause of these jet stream patterns.

Dear Donald Trump: Winter Does Not Disprove Global Warming

| Thu Jan. 2, 2014 6:41 PM EST
A Bostonian trudges by Government Center as Winter Storm Hercules's snows begin.

An intense blizzard, appropriately named Hercules, is about to blanket the Northeast. Antarctic ice locked in a Russian ship containing a team of scientists—en route, no less, to do climate research. Record low temperatures have been seen in parts of the US, and in Winnipeg, temperatures on December 31 were as cold as temperatures on...Mars.

So as is their seasonal wont, here come the climate skeptics. Exhibit A:

And Trump isn't the only one. A similar reaction came from Congressman John Fleming, a Louisiana Republican:

And RedState.com's Erick Erickson also piled on, blending global warming dismissal with religion:

Meanwhile, the front page of the Drudge Report listed a variety of cold weather news items under the heading, "Global Warming Intensifies..."

Drudge Report/Climate Desk

Rush Limbaugh also weighed in, noting that the Green Bay Packers may face San Francisco in subzero temperatures at home this weekend:

LIMBAUGH: I would love to see Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, and Hillary sitting outside on the 50 yard line of Green Bay the whole game, and then afterwards do a presentation for us all on global warming. Sit there the whole game outside.

And last but not least, Fox Business's Stuart Varney used the Antarctic ice story to claim that "we're looking at global cooling, forget this global warming."

All of this is all wrong in ways that have all been explained before. So just a few brief observations:

1. Statements about climate trends must be based on, er, trends. Not individual events or occurrences. Weather is not climate, and anecdotes are not statistics.

2. Global warming is actually expected to increase "heavy precipitation in winter storms," and for the northern hemisphere, there is evidence that these storms are already more frequent and intense, according to the draft US National Climate Assessment.

3. Antarctica is a very cold place. But global warming is affecting it as predicted: Antarctica is losing ice overall, according to the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. However, sea ice is a different matter than land-based or glacial ice. Antarctic sea ice is increasing, and moreover, the reason for this may be climate change! (For more, read here.)

Finally, just one last thing. When it's winter on Earth, it's also summer on Earth...somewhere else. Thus, allow us to counter anecdotal evidence about cold weather with more anecdotal evidence: It's blazing hot in Australia, with temperatures, in some regions, set to possibly soar above 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the coming days.

California Is Giving Tesla Another Huge Tax Break. Good Move.

| Fri Dec. 20, 2013 9:16 PM EST

This story originally appear on Slate and is reproduced here as part of the ClimateDesk collaboration.

This is going to drive the Tesla-haters crazy. The luxury electric-car maker is getting a huge new tax break from California, SFGate reports. The state will let it off the hook for sales and use taxes on some $415 million in new equipment it's purchasing in order to expand production of the Model S at its Bay Area factory. That amounts to a $34.7 million tax break to produce more of a vehicle whose sticker price starts above $70,000.

Tax breaks for the rich! Corporate giveaways! The working people forced to pay for tech titans' fancy rides!  

Well, sort of. But as SFGate's David R. Baker explains:

California is one of the few states to tax the purchase of manufacturing equipment, a policy that California business associations have spent years trying to change. But the state does grant exemptions for clean-tech companies as a way to encourage the industry's growth. The exemptions are issued by the California Alternative Energy and Advanced Transportation Financing Authority, chaired by State Treasurer Bill Lockyer.

So, in fact, it isn't Tesla per se that's getting special treatment from the state. It's the clean-tech industry in general, which California is very keen to promote for two reasons. One, it wants to establish itself as a leader in a sector that it believes will be a big driver of its economy in the decades to come. And two, it's one of the few states in the country that's actually, genuinely serious about reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions. Promoting clean energy is a crucial part of its strategy.

More broadly, whatever sense a tax on the purchase of manufacturing equipment might once have made for California, it's patently counterproductive in the context of clean-tech startups in the 21st century. Add to that some of the highest income and sales taxes in the nation, and it's no wonder California is worried about companies like Tesla picking up stakes and heading elsewhere. Businessweek notes that new manufacturing jobs in the state have risen less than 1 percent since 2010, compared with nearly 5 percent nationally. Gov. Jerry Brown has been chipping away at the tax already, and Tesla is just the latest example.

Nor is the deal likely to burden the state's taxpayers. Tesla's Model S is in huge demand, and the company has been scrambling since its launch to ramp up production. SFGate reports the new equipment will help Tesla boost production by some 35,000 vehicles a year from its current annual rate of 21,000. State analysts predict the added jobs and vehicle sales are expected to bring in more money to the state than the tax break will take away.

For all that, I think some criticism might still be justified if Tesla in the end simply remains a producer of luxury cars for the wealthiest consumers. But the company has insisted from the outset that its ultimate goal is to produce an all-electric car that middle-class buyers can afford. A Tesla spokeswoman told me last week the company is still on track to release its third-generation vehicle by 2016 or 2017. The price is widely expected to be about half that of the Model S—not cheap, but certainly headed in the right direction.

Meanwhile, the success of the Model S has kickstarted the industry as a whole and made California the epicenter of the electric-car world. That's thanks in part to a similar tax break the state gave the company several years ago to manufacture its cars there in the first place. I'd say there are worse ways for a state to spend a few tens of millions. But if you're still convinced that tax breaks to big manufacturers are unfair and wrong, you might want to train your ire on a state a little further north, which just offered an all-time record $8.7 billion in tax breaks to a company that manufactures perhaps the least-green transportation technology of all. The worst part: Boeing might just move out anyway.