Blue Marble

The House Just Voted to Ban Those Tiny Pieces of Plastic in Your Toothpaste

| Tue Dec. 8, 2015 4:55 PM EST
A sample of microbeads collected in Lake Erie

Yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted to phase out microbeads, the little pieces of plastic that act as exfoliants in personal-care products ranging from face wash to toothpaste. The bill, which was introduced last year by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), would ban the use of synthetic microplastics in cosmetics by 2018. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced companion legislation in May.

Environmental advocates have expressed concern for years over the beads, which are so small that they aren't caught in water treatment plants. There are roughly 300,000 microbeads in a single tube of face wash; by some estimates, Americans dump roughly 300 tons of the beads per year into US waterways. The microplastics, which serve as a sponge for toxins, are frequently confused by fish as food and make their way up the food chain—they've turned up in tuna and swordfish.

Several states have enacted microbead bans, starting with Illinois in 2014. California passed the strictest legislation yet in October this year, banning both synthetic and biodegradable plastics. (Many experts argue that there is no such thing as plastic that can biodegrade in ocean conditions.) If it becomes law, the national legislation, which only focuses on synthetic plastics, would supersede these state bans.

Here are a few products with and without the plastic beads. If you're curious about a product you use, look for polyethylene on the ingredient list.

 

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Jane Goodall Just Called Out Republicans on Climate Change

| Mon Dec. 7, 2015 10:09 AM EST
Jane Goodall spoke with reporters at a briefing in Paris on Monday. She was joined by "Mr. H," a stuffed chimp that she has traveled with for 30 years.

At the major climate summit in Paris on Monday, renowned conservationist Jane Goodall called for Republicans in Congress to back down from opposing an international agreement on climate change.

"Success [at the Paris climate summit] would be a binding agreement to limit carbon," she said in a briefing with reporters. But "a binding agreement isn't much use unless it leads to actions and implementation. So there has to be a commitment to go back to your nation and follow through."

Republicans in Congress need to "just sit down and forget about politics," Jane Goodall said.

Asked whether that will happen in the United States, Goodall said, "It depends on who the next president is, doesn't it?" All the leading Republican presidential candidatesmost recently (and colorfully) Chris Christie—have said they would walk back President Barack Obama's climate agenda. Most of them reject mainstream climate science, as well. The Democratic candidates have all taken the opposite position, wanting to push action on climate change beyond what Obama has been able to achieve.

This week, diplomats from nearly every nation on Earth are huddled in Paris to finalize a sweeping global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Prior to the summit, Obama offered a commitment from the United States to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2025. That commitment is backed by regulations based on existing US law—the Clean Air Act—but the commitment itself is unlikely to be legally binding internationally. Last week in Paris, Obama said other parts of the agreement should be binding, including a requirement that countries periodically revisit and possibly strengthen their carbon reduction targets.

But at the same time—back in Washington, DC—Republicans in Congress have taken steps to sabotage the Paris negotiations, passing legislation to block key parts of Obama's climate agenda. (Those resolutions will almost certainly remain symbolic, as they face a guaranteed veto from the president.)

Obama's statements notwithstanding, the US delegation in Paris could present obstacles to achieving a strong agreement as the talks move into their second and final week. One of the biggest issues on the table is international finance (i.e. how wealthy, high-polluting countries such the United States should help pay for climate change adaptation and clean energy in vulnerable developing countries). As Ben Adler reported last week for Climate Desk partner Grist:

Presumably the Obama administration would like to offer more climate finance, but it cannot without congressional authorization. Asking Republicans for foreign aid to solve a problem they claim doesn't even exist would be like asking them to pay for gay weddings. Instead, the Obama administration has to fight with Congress just to make sure the GOP doesn't strip what little climate finance the US has pledged, around $500 million per year until 2020, from the budget.

To Goodall, who spent more than 50 years studying chimps in Tanzania, these lawmakers are letting short-term politics obscure the bigger picture. They need to "just sit down and forget about politics," she said. "Think about your children and revisit your belief."

Donald Trump Just Gave the Dumbest Rebuttal to Obama's Big Paris Speech

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 11:58 AM EST
 

What is Obama thinking?

A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

On Monday, in Paris, President Barack Obama pressed world leaders to adopt an aggressive international agreement to curb climate change. To do so, he said, would be an "act of defiance" against the terrorists who killed 130 people in French capital on Nov. 13.

Donald Trump, a leading presidential contender who seems to relish getting scientific information as wrong as possible, is not happy about this. It's a "ridiculous situation," he said in the new Instagram post above, that Obama is "worried about global warming" while "the world is in turmoil and falling apart in so many ways, especially with ISIS."

It remains unclear how those things are contradictory. Also, Obama hasn't exactly been ignoring ISIS while in Paris, as Trump seems to suggest: He has repeatedly framed his presence at the climate talks as integral to the international campaign against terrorism.

Want to Know What’s Happening in Paris This Week? Watch This

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 2:17 PM EST

Just a few weeks after a national poll found that most Americans want the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, the White House announced billions of dollars in new funding for clean energy innovations. Is solar paint the wave of the future? Will Republicans in Congress succeed in derailing the president's agenda for the climate summit in Paris? Zoe Schlanger of Climate Desk partner Newsweek and I visited the set of MSNBC's Greenhouse program this morning to discuss.

Check it out below:

Obama Just Called Saving the Planet an "Act of Defiance" Against Terror

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 10:12 AM EST

A major two-week summit on climate change opened on Monday in Paris, and President Barack Obama was there to urge world leaders to push for a strong international agreement to slow global warming.

In his speech (video above), the president also offered a rebuke to the terrorists behind the November 13 attacks in the French capital that left 130 people dead.

The summit, he said, is "an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children."

Obama acknowledged America's unique responsibility for ensuring success at the talks, which are designed to produce an unprecedented agreement between nearly 200 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change. It's the first time nations have tried to reach that goal since the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, crumbled over disagreements between the United States, China, and developing nations.

In his second term, Obama has sought to make action on climate change a central part of his legacy; a strong agreement in Paris would be a vital component to that. "I've come here personally, as the leader of the world's largest economy and the second-largest emitter," Obama said, "to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it."

Prior to the speech, Obama met privately with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders have worked closely over the last year to advance a joint climate agenda. Xi also gave a speech, in which he said it was "very important for China and the United States to be firmly committed to the right direction of building a new model of major country relations."

Obama's remarks come a day after the White House announced a sweeping initiative to double public-sector investment in clean energy research and development from $5 billion to $10 billion by 2020. That new program, known as Mission Innovation, also includes more than a dozen major private-sector investors, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg. 

Finance for clean energy and for climate change adaptation is likely to be a major issue at the talks, as vulnerable nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere urge the United States and other major emitters to pony up more cash. At the last major climate summit in Copenhagen, countries agreed to raise $100 billion per year for a UN-administered climate adaptation fund. That goal is only about two-thirds met.

Purina Pet Food Is So Much More Disgusting Than We Even Knew

| Tue Nov. 24, 2015 8:16 PM EST
Nestlé's Fancy Feast cat food, with a "fish and shrimp feast" flavor, is a product of Thailand.

If you've ever purchased seafood or pet food from Nestlé, you may have unwittingly contributed to the abuse of migrant workers in Southeast Asia.

Burmese and Cambodian workers are tricked into laboring on Thai fishing boats after fleeing persecution and poverty at home.

On Monday, Nestlé admitted that it had found indications of forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor in its supply chain in Thailand, where the Switzerland-based company sources some of the seafood that it sells in supermarkets around the world, including in the United States. The findings came after an internal investigation that was launched by Nestlé in December last year, following reports by media and NGOs that linked the company's shrimp, prawns, and Purina brand pet foods with abusive working conditions.

Many of the workers in question are migrants from Thailand's less developed neighbors, Burma and Cambodia, who are tricked into laboring on fishing boats after fleeing persecution and poverty at home, according to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Verité, which at Nestlé's request interviewed workers at six of the company's production sites in Thailand. Workers "had been subjected to deceptive recruitment practices that started in their home countries, transported to Thailand under inhumane conditions, charged with excessive fees leading to debt bondage in some cases, exposed to exploitative and hazardous working conditions, and, at the time of assessment, were living under sub-par to degrading conditions," Verité wrote in its report.

But Nestlé isn't the only one with a tainted supply chain: The mistreatment of migrants is systematic in Thailand's fishing sector, Verité found, meaning that other American and European companies that buy seafood from the country are likely complicit in similar labor abuses. These abuses have been highlighted by the US State Department, which last year downgraded Thailand to the lowest level in its annual report on human trafficking, and they underpin several lawsuits that have been filed recently against retailers including Nestlé and Costco Wholesale Corp. Steve Berman, managing partner of the law firm Hagens Berman, which in August filed a class-action lawsuit against Nestlé, told the New York Times that the company's report on Monday was "a step in the right direction," but added that "our litigation will go forward because Nestlé Purina still fails to disclose on its products, as is required by law, that slave labor was used in its making."

For its part, Nestlé has vowed to publish a strategy to protect workers in Thailand, including by bringing in outside auditors and training boat owners about human rights. "This will be neither a quick nor an easy endeavour, but we look forward to making significant progress in the months ahead," Magdi Batato, Nestlé’s executive vice president in charge of operations, said in a statement.

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China Is Absolutely Destroying the US on Clean Energy

| Tue Nov. 24, 2015 4:13 PM EST
A worker installs solar panels on November 17 in Yantai, Shandong Province, in China.

When world leaders convene on Monday in Paris for two weeks of high-stakes climate negotiations, one of the top items on the agenda will be how developing nations should prepare for and help to slow global warming. Opponents to President Barack Obama's climate agenda, such as GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio, like to argue that anything the United States does to curb greenhouse gas emissions will be pointless because countries like India and China aren't doing the same.

But new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that this argument is just hot air: For the first time ever, over the last year the majority of global investment in clean energy projects was spent in developing countries. In fact, clean energy investment in China alone outpaced that in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France combined, BNEF found. Across 55 major non-OECD countries, including India, Brazil, China, and Kenya, clean energy investment reached $126 billion in 2014, a record high and 39 percent higher than 2013 levels. 

The chart below shows how that level of investment is opening up a market for wind, solar, and other clean energy projects in non-OECD countries that is now larger than the market in the traditional strongholds of the United States and Europe. In other words, the very countries Rubio likes to malign as laggards are actually leading the charge.

BNEF

That trend is likely to continue for decades to come, BNEF found. Check out their projection for growth through 2040:

BNEF

These numbers add up to a big deal for the climate, because they show that countries in Africa and Southeast Asia that still lack reliable electricity for millions of people are solving that problem, and growing their economies, without relying on dirty fossil fuels. China, to be clear, is still the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it doesn't plan to peak its emissions until 2030. But its early commitment to clean energy means it can continue its rapid rate of growth with far less pollution than it would produce otherwise.

The BNEF report is just the most recent good sign for the clean energy business. Big corporations in the United States are signing contracts for a record amount of clean energy for their data centers, warehouses, and other facilities. And the Paris talks are likely to send a jolt through the industry, as countries around the world redouble their commitments to get more of their power from renewable sources.

Stay tuned for more news on this front as the talks unfold over the coming weeks.

This Jeff Goldblum Video Isn't Really That Funny, But I Give Him Credit for Trying

| Thu Nov. 19, 2015 1:41 PM EST

It's pretty hard to be funny about climate change. Not just because the subject tends to be grim, but also because the solutions tend to be technical, wonky, and interesting mostly just to nerds.

The video above, released today by Funny or Die in affiliation with the League of Conservation Voters, makes a valiant effort. It features Jeff Goldblum explaining the Obama administration's plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to a boardroom full of cartoonishly evil fossil fuel executives. I won't spoil what he says, since it's the punchline (such as it is). Suffice to say the execs don't like it…and something about Miami Vice star Don Johnson.

I also won't go on record vouching for the jokes in this. I chuckled a few times. I will say that Goldblum—or rather his character, the mysterious "Fixer"—nails his description of the Clean Power Plan, which aims to reduce carbon dioxide pollution from the power sector by about a third by 2030, and which will form the backbone of Obama's contribution to the upcoming global climate talks in Paris. The framing of the video is also spot-on: The plan is indeed facing stiff opposition from coal companies and the industry's allies in statehouses and in Congress

The Clean Power Plan is admittedly kind of boring to most people, despite being a groundbreaking policy achievement and an important step toward saving the planet from global warming. So if it takes Jeff Goldblum to get people interested, I've got no problem with that. Enjoy!

France Scrambles to Secure Upcoming Climate Talks After Deadly Attacks

| Mon Nov. 16, 2015 1:32 PM EST
Security was heightened across Paris following Friday's deadly attacks. A major international climate summit is due to start there in two weeks.

On Saturday, just a day after terrorist attacks in Paris left at least 129 people dead and hundreds more injured, the French government vowed to forge ahead with a long-scheduled international summit on climate change.

The summit, which is scheduled to start in just two weeks, will take place at an airport in the northern suburbs of Paris, not far from the stadium that was the site of multiple bombings on Friday. There, world leaders plan to hash out final details of the most wide-reaching international agreement ever to combat climate change. White House officials confirmed to Politico that President Barack Obama still intends to attend the talks, as scheduled prior to the attacks. Dozens of other heads of state are expected to be there as well.

"[The summit] will go ahead with reinforced security measures," French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said. "This is an absolutely necessary step in the battle against climate change and of course it will take place."

Christiana Figueres, who chairs the UN agency overseeing the talks, released a similar statement on Twitter:

Even prior to the attacks, 30,000 French police officers were scheduled to secure the event, according to Radio France International. More than 10,000 diplomats, non-governmental organization employees, and journalists are expected to attend the summit. Specific new security measures have not yet been made public, but Politico quoted an unnamed French official who said participants should expect "extremely tightened security" following the attacks.

Paul Bledsoe, a former climate advisor to President Bill Clinton, also told Politico that the attacks could actually improve the odds that the talks reach a successful outcome.

"The resolve of world leaders is going to be redoubled to gain an agreement and show that they can deliver for populations around the world. The likelihood for a successful agreement has only increased because of these attacks," Bledsoe said.

On Thursday, just a day before the attacks, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared to butt heads with his French counterpart over what the exact legal status of the agreement will be. Other questions remain as well, such as how wealthy, heavily polluting countries such as the United States will help developing nations pay for climate change adaptation. But overall, the Paris talks are expected to yield a better outcome than the last major climate summit, in Copenhagen in 2009, which failed to produce any meaningful action to curb greenhouse gas emissions or prepare for the impacts of global warming.

Meanwhile, on Monday French officials said they would block a series of rallies and side events that were scheduled to take place outside the main negotiations. Environmental groups are scrambling to work out how to change their plans following the attack. Several groups involved in organizing protests and rallies that were intended to coicide with the Paris talks confirmed to Mother Jones that a hastily arranged meeting to hash out a plan will take place on Monday evening, Paris time. Will Davies, a spokesman for Avaaz, one of the main advocacy groups involved, said that despite the flurry of activity, plans for global marches in cities other than Paris were still going ahead as scheduled.

Stay tuned for more updates on this story.

This Chart Shows Which Countries Are the Most Screwed by Climate Change

| Fri Nov. 13, 2015 2:33 PM EST
Verisk Maplecroft

One of the cruel ironies of climate change is that its impacts tend to fall hardest on the countries least equipped to manage them.

When drought or sea level rise strike the United States, communities at least have access to federal aid, top scientific expertise, public investment in expensive climate-ready infrastructure, and the like. But some of the most extreme effects of global warming are headed for developing countries—drought wiping out crops in East Africa, or catastrophic hurricanes pounding Southeast Asia—that don't have access to those resources.

New research from Maplecroft, a UK-based risk consultancy, paints a pictures of where vulnerability to climate change is most pressing. Their analysis drew on three criteria: exposure to extreme events, based on the latest meteorological science; sensitivity to impacts (i.e., does a country have other sources of income and food supply if agriculture takes a hit?); and adaptive capacity—are the country's government and social institutions prepared to work under adverse climate conditions and help citizens adapt to them?

Unsurprisingly, Africa and Southeast Asia ranked the lowest, while Scandinavian countries ranked the highest. (While definitely at risk from sea level rise, countries such as Norway and Sweden have rich, highly functional governments to manage adaptation.) The major global climate talks in Paris are coming up in just a couple weeks; the chart above makes it clear why it's so important for big players like the US and China to work closely with delegations from developing countries on solutions that will provide immediate support and relief.