Blue Marble

We Have Some Bad News for You About Pretty Much Everywhere

| Tue Feb. 23, 2016 12:56 PM EST
Flooding in Miami

Humans are causing sea levels to rise at the fastest rate in nearly 3,000 years, according to a series of scientific reports released Monday. What's more, the new research concludes that this acceleration is already resulting in increased flooding in US coastal communities.

The increase in sea level rise is really quite dramatic, as this chart from Climate Central illustrates:

The impact of that change is already being felt by Americans. From the New York Times:

[Scientists] also confirmed previous forecasts that if emissions were to continue at a high rate over the next few decades, the ocean could rise as much as three or four feet by 2100…The rise in the sea level contributes only in a limited degree to the huge, disastrous storm surges accompanying hurricanes like Katrina and Sandy. Proportionally, it has a bigger effect on the nuisance floods that can accompany what are known as king tides…The change in frequency of those tides is striking. For instance, in the decade from 1955 to 1964 at Annapolis, Md., an instrument called a tide gauge measured 32 days of flooding; in the decade from 2005 to 2014, that jumped to 394 days.

Here's another great Climate Central tool that lets you see the impact in a selection of the most vulnerable coastal cities:

Scary as this all is, it's further proof that the leading GOP candidates for president are living in a fantasy world. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, despite representing perhaps the most vulnerable state, doesn't want to do anything about climate change. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz deny the problem even exists. But it's a fact that the US economy has a direct stake, today, in slowing climate change and preparing for its impacts. Every study like this that comes out makes it more ridiculous, and dangerous, to pretend that isn't the case. 

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Are Cage-Free Eggs All They're Cracked Up to Be?

| Wed Feb. 10, 2016 7:00 AM EST

Cage-free eggs, once a niche product for ethically minded (and well-off) shoppers, are suddenly a hot commodity with an unlikely customer: Big Food. Sonic and Burger King are the latest to join a slate of companies promising to ditch eggs produced by caged hens.

They follow an unlikely trailblazer: McDonald's, which announced in September that it would go cage-free by the end of 2025. That decision unleashed a "tidal wave of commitments," says Paul Shapiro, vice president of farm animal protection at the Humane Society of the United States. The list now includes most major American fast-food chains, retailers including Target and Walmart, and food service providers, like Aramark and Sodexo.

Although the number of cage-free birds increased 37 percent last year, they remain less than 10 percent of the nation's 277 million hens, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Now large egg producers are scrambling to catch up by investing in new cage-free facilities—a swift about-face for an industry that once vehemently fought efforts to eliminate the cramped, paper-sized "battery cages" in which the vast majority of hens spend their lives. In 2008, when California voted on Proposition 2, a measure that mandated that hens should be able to fully spread their wings "without touching the side of an enclosure or other egg-laying hens," United Egg Producers, the industry's primary trade group, spent $10 million in a failed effort to defeat the initiative. But this October, UEP President Chad Gregory told Politico that the group wouldn't put up a fight in Massachusetts, where a measure modeled after California's will be on the ballot in November.

Most companies, including McDonald's, have given egg producers up to a decade to change how they house their hens. As Wired charts in detail, the industry is choosing to gradually phase out, rather than dismantle, a production system that's been designed since the 1950s to provide maximum efficiency. Today, Americans demand 6 billion to 7 billion eggs each month, and they expect every dozen to come relatively cheap.

That means that while cage-free is often portrayed as a nostalgic return to pre-mechanized farming, the newest egg facilities are not like your grandfather's bucolic little chicken farm. At nonorganic farms, where outdoor access isn't required, large egg producers are primarily building multitiered aviaries—stacked arrangements in which thousands, if not tens of thousands of birds roam throughout the barn, hopping from level to level. "There are birds by your feet, your knees, your shoulders—cities of birds," explains Shapiro.

Giving hens the simple ability to move around prevents many of the worst health problems associated with battery cages, Shapiro says, by strengthening brittle bones and allowing them to act on their natural instincts to roost and forage.

But in these large, industrial aviaries, the birds "don't typically go outside," says Shapiro. And letting a flock of birds roam within a closed, confined aviary presents its own concerns. A three-year study produced by a consortium of egg providers, academics, and advocacy groups found that aviaries had nearly twice the death rate of caged systems. Most of the difference had to do with aggression between the birds and outbreaks of cannibalism.

One study showed that aviaries had nearly twice the death rate of caged systems.

Cannibalism is a learned behavior, a nasty symptom of industrial breeding and housing, says Joy Mench, an animal behavior specialist at the University of California-Davis who co-led the study. Outbreaks are more likely to flare up in densely stocked aviaries, where hens are given unfettered access to other birds. And for that reason, aviary managers continue to rely on the standard industry practice to lessen the risks of pecking: cutting off the sharp tips of the hens' beaks.

Reduced air quality in the closed barns is another concern for both birds and workers, who need to spend more time managing the hens in a cage-free system. In battery cage systems, birds were separated from their waste. Without that separation, ammonia buildup can occur when feces aren't removed in a timely fashion, particularly in cold climates. But the most acute problem is that a moving flock clogs the air with dust. "There were days when you could hardly stand to walk into that aviary," says Mench, referring to the Midwestern egg facility where the study was conducted. "You couldn't see 4 feet in front of your face."

Additionally, in both caged and uncaged systems, disease spreads like wildfire. Last year's avian flu outbreak, which killed millions of hens and sent egg prices skyrocketing, is thought to have originated in backyard flocks but took its heaviest toll as it blazed through crowded industrial barns.

"People are going to love that they are cage-free, but you have to look at the whole system," says Janice Swanson, a professor at Michigan State University and a co-author of the study. "It's going to be a lot of work before cage-free is environmentally sustainable and actually does what we want it to do for the hens."

The study suggested that bigger, so-called "enriched" cages, with room for the multiple birds to move and exhibit more natural behaviors, may be a better bet for health and safety than aviaries. Those systems are legal under California law, which didn't ban cages but instead mandated minimum space requirements. But since they don't meet the corporate cage-free pledges, egg producers don't have an incentive to build them.

So while cage-free systems remove many of the inherent cruelties of battery cages, the welfare of the hens inside them hinges on how these facilities, which can range from packed industrial aviaries to smaller farms with ample space and outdoor access, are designed and managed. That can be difficult to decipher from the labels on an egg carton.

If you're looking to further mitigate the cruelty behind your next omelet, the Humane Society recommends looking past labels like "vegetarian-fed," "natural," or "farm fresh," which are stamped on cartons for marketing purposes. Pasture-raised, certified organic, or free-range are typically better bets for eggs produced by a happier, healthier hen—if you can stomach the higher cost.

 

The Supreme Court Just Dealt a Huge Blow to Obama's Climate Plan

| Tue Feb. 9, 2016 8:42 PM EST

In a setback for the Obama administration, the Supreme Court on Tuesday temporarily halted enforcement of Obama's signature climate initiative.

The Clean Power Plan, issued by the Environmental Protection Agency last summer, requires states to limit coal-fired power plant emissions—the nation's largest source of greenhouse gases—by a third by 2030. The regulation was expected to revamp the energy industry in the coming decades, shutting down coal-fired plants and speeding up renewable energy production. But 29 states, together with dozens of industry groups, sued the EPA, claiming the rule was "the most far-reaching and burdensome rule the EPA has ever forced onto the states."

In a 5-4 vote today, the Supreme Court issued an unusual, one-page emergency order for the EPA to put the plan on hold until the US Court of Appeals, which will hear the case this summer, comes to a decision. While the hold is temporary, many see the order as a sign that the Supreme Court has concerns about the policy.

 

Obama Wants to Raise Your Gas Prices to Pay for Trains

| Fri Feb. 5, 2016 2:02 PM EST

In his final State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama promised to "change the way we manage our oil and coal resources, so that they better reflect the costs they impose on taxpayers and our planet." A few days later, he followed through on the coal aspect of that pledge, with a plan to overhaul how coal mining leases are awarded on federal land. Now, he seems ready to roll out his plan for oil.

The president's budget proposal for his last year in office, set to be released next week, will contain a provision to place a new tax on oil, White House aides told reporters. According to Politico:

The president will propose more than $300 billion worth of investments over the next decade in mass transit, high-speed rail, self-driving cars, and other transportation approaches designed to reduce carbon emissions and congestion. To pay for it all, Obama will call for a $10 "fee" on every barrel of oil, a surcharge that would be paid by oil companies but would presumably be passed along to consumers…The fee could add as much as 25 cents a gallon to the cost of gasoline.

The proposal stands virtually no chance of being adopted by Congress. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the renowned climate change denier who also chairs the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said in a statement, "I'm unsure why the president bothers to continue to send a budget to Congress. His proposals are not serious, and this is another one which is dead on arrival."

Still, the idea may be helped a little by the sustained drop in oil prices, driven by a glut of supply from the Middle East and record production in the United States. Gas is already selling for less than $2 per gallon in all but 11 states, the lowest price point since 2009. Raising that cost would also be a boon for electric vehicle sales, which have stagnated because of low gas prices as sales of gas guzzlers have climbed.

Obama's prospective Democratic successors, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, haven't weighed in on this proposal yet, although they have both been broadly supportive of his climate change agenda. But the proposal could prove to be awkward for Clinton, who has promised not to raise taxes on families making less than $250,000 a year.

This Chart Shows Why Your Conspiracy Theory Is Really Dumb

| Mon Feb. 1, 2016 1:48 PM EST

Update, 2/2/2016: Chris Bauch, an editor for PLOS ONE, said in an email that the author of the study we reported on below "should have used a different model for some of the analyses" and that the author "is working on submitting errata." Bauch added, however, that he is "pretty sure the correction will not change the conclusions” and that he does not "foresee a retraction.” We'll update when we know more.

By now, climate change has joined the moon landing and the JFK assassination in the upper echelons of fodder for conspiracy theories. Back in 2004, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) called global warming the "greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." A few years later, Inhofe told our own David Corn that the climate hoax was most likely being perpetrated by Barbra Streisand. Donald Trump, meanwhile, thinks it was "created by and for the Chinese." I could go on.

There's plenty of evidence that these conspiracy theories are garbage, starting with the overwhelming scientific consensus about climate science and the fact that 2015 was the hottest year on record. But in case you're still not convinced, here's another bit of proof.

In a new peer-reviewed paper in the journal PLOS ONE, an Oxford physicist devised a mathematical formula for the lifespan of conspiracy theories—that is, how long it would likely take for them to be publicly unveiled if they were in fact true. It's not long: In the case of climate change, it's about 27 years if you assume the cover-up is perpetrated by only published climate scientists—and just four years if you assume it includes the broader scientific community.

The author, David Robert Grimes, found similar maximum life spans for a few other prominent conspiracy theories:

Grimes, PLOS 2016

Let's pick, somewhat arbitrarily, preeminent climatologist James Hansen's 1988 testimony to Congress about global warming as the beginning of the great fraud. According to Grimes' formula, climate change would have been publicly outed as a hoax by 1992 if it were carried out by a broad coalition of scientific organizations. And it would have been exposed by 2015 if it were carried out only by published climate scientists. Unless I missed something, that didn't happen. (Sorry, the "Climategate" emails definitely don't count.)

conspiracy chart
Here's how long it would take for four big conspiracies to fall apart: (a) moon landing hoax, (b) climate change hoax, (c) vaccination conspiracy, and (d) suppression of a cure for cancer. Grimes, PLOS 2016.

Grimes' model is based on the statistical probability that one person within the conspiracy (one climate scientist, for example) would intentionally or accidentally let slip the truth. The odds of that happening go up as the number of people involved in the conspiracy increase—hence the shorter life span for the climate fraud if it involved broad scientific organizations (whose membership Grimes totals at more than 400,000). To help in that analysis, Grimes studied a few actual conspiracies, including the National Security Agency's widespread spying on US citizens that was exposed by Edward Snowden.

Anyway, climate change is not a hoax. And we did land on the moon. And there isn't a hidden cure for cancer. And you should go get your vaccinations, dammit.

H/T: The Skeptics Guide to the Universe

There May Soon Be More Plastic in the Oceans Than Fish

| Fri Jan. 29, 2016 7:00 AM EST

Discarded plastic will outweigh fish in the world's oceans by 2050, according to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. That is, unless overfishing moves the date up sooner.

The study, a collaboration with the World Economic Forum, found that 32 percent of plastic packaging escapes waste collection systems, gets into waterways, and is eventually deposited in the oceans. That percentage is expected to increase in coming years, given that the fastest growth in plastic production is expected to occur in "high leakage" markets—developing countries where sanitation systems are often unreliable. The data used in the report comes from a review of more than 200 studies and interviews with 180 experts.

Since 1964, global plastic production has increased 20-fold—311 million tons were produced in 2014—and production is expected to triple again by 2050. A whopping 86 percent of plastic packaging is used just once, according to the report's authors, representing $80 billion to $120 billion in lost value annually. That means not only more plastic waste, but more production-related oil consumption and carbon emissions if the industry doesn't alter its ways.

The environmental impact of plastic waste is already staggering: For a paper published in October, scientists considered 186 seabird species and predicted that 90 percent of the birds—whose populations have declined by two-thirds since 1950—consume plastic. Plastic bags, which are surprisingly degradable in warmer ocean waters, release toxins that spread through the marine food chain—and perhaps all the way to our dinner tables.

Most of the ocean's plastic, researchers say, takes the form of microplastics—trillions of beads, fibers, and fragments that average about 2 millimeters in diameter. They act as a kind of oceanic smog, clouding the waters and coating the sea floor, and look a lot like food to small marine organisms.

In December, President Barack Obama signed a law banning microbeads, tiny plastic exfoliaters found in toothpaste and skin products that get flushed into waterways. But the MacArthur report urges plastic producers to step up and address the problem by developing products that are reusable and easily recycled—and that are less toxic in nature—and working to make compostable plastics more affordable.

The 2050 prediction is based on the assumption that global fisheries will remain stable over the next three decades, but a report released last week suggests that may be wishful thinking. Revisiting fishery catch rates from the last 60 years, Daniel Pauly and Dirk Zeller of the University of British Columbia found that the UN's Food and Agricultural Organization drastically underestimates the amount of fish we pluck from the seas. The United Nations relies on official government data, which often only captures the activities of larger fishing operations. When the British Columbia researchers accounted for smaller fisheries, subsistence harvesting, and discarded catches, they calculated catches 53 percent larger than previously thought.

There was a glimmer of hope in the findings, though: The researchers write that fishing rates, after peaking in 1996, declined faster than previously thought—particularly among large-scale industrial fisheries. Whether that trend will hold is another story.

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2015 Was by Far the Hottest Year on Record

| Wed Jan. 20, 2016 12:06 PM EST

2015 was almost certainly the hottest year since we began keeping records, according to data released today by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In a press release Wednesday, NASA stated that it was 94 percent confident that last year was the warmest since 1880. Here's a chart from NOAA:

NOAA/NASA

"Record warmth was spread throughout the world," said Thomas Karl, director of NOAA's National Centers for Environmental Information. "Ten of 12 months were records. That's the first time we've seen that."

NASA/NOAA

Shattered global temperature records are becoming increasingly commonplace, thanks to climate change; with today's announcement, all five of the hottest years on record have occurred in the last decade. But the amount by which 2015 shattered the previous record, in 2014, was itself a record, scientists said. That's due in part to this year's El Niño, characterized by exceptionally high temperatures in the Pacific Ocean.

NASA/NOAA

But Gavin Schmidt, director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said the effects of El Niño only really appeared in the last few months of the year, and that 2015 likely would have been a record year regardless. 

"2015 was warm right from the beginning; it didn't start with El Niño," he said. "The reason this is such a record is because of the long-term trend, and there is no evidence that trend has slowed or paused over the last two decades."

NASA/NOAA

Schmidt added that El Niño is likely to persist into 2016, which means we could be in for a record-breaking year yet again.

The Feds Just Approved Offshore Fish Farming

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 9:06 PM EST
Federico Rotman, of the Hubbs-SeaWorld Institute, holds a young California yellowtail at their facility in San Diego. The Institute is helping fund Rose Canyon Fisheries, which hopes to raise yellowtail and other species in a massive offshore farm 4.5 miles off the coast of San Diego.

If you eat seafood, you've likely swallowed some farmed fish: These days, the whale's share of shrimp, tilapia, mussels, and increasingly salmon sold at American restaurants and seafood counters comes from the hands of aquaculturists rather than local fishermen.

Yet while fish farmers have pretty much mastered the art of raising tilapia in ponds and shellfish next to coastlines, raising marine fin fish—think all the best kinds of sushi, like tuna, yellowtail, kampachi—presents some headaches. The closed saltwater tanks needed to house these species on-land are costly and energy intensive. When they're raised in nets right by the coasts, waste can build up and damage nearby ecosystems.

That's why many seafood entrepreneurs are applauding this week's announcement by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: The agency will now allow the large-scale farming of fish in cages deep in the ocean, in waters regulated by the federal government.

The new rule, effective February 12, will allow American seafood farmers to apply for a permit to operate an offshore aquaculture farm in the Gulf of Mexico. According to NOAA, the move will help the US, which raises only 20 percent of its seafood in native waters, catch up with the rest of the world in terms of seafood output. Gulf offshore farms will produce up to 64 million pounds of seafood a year. "Marine aquaculture creates jobs, supports resilient working waterfronts and coastal communities, and provides international trade opportunities," NOAA stated in a press release.

But not everyone is excited about these future offshore operations.

Gulf fishermen will have to compete with the new offshore ventures, and some worry that creatures that escape from deep underwater cages could breed or mess with their wild stocks. And while the farms will be several miles away from the coastline, some conservationists say that we still don't know the long term effect such outfits could have on marine ecosystems. According to Politico's Morning Agriculture newsletter, several organizations, including the Center for Food Safety and Food and Water Watch, are "analyzing legal options" in regards to the new rule out of concern for the environment.

The announcement paves the way for offshore ventures in other regions of the US to acquire permits. Rose Canyon Fisheries has been waiting since 2014 for approval of its project, which will raise yellowtail jack, white bass, and striped bass in a massive farm miles off the coast of San Diego. Don Kent, head of Hubbs-Seaworld Research Institute, which is co-funding Rose Canyon, envisions the project as a way to correct America's seafood imbalance—the fact that we import roughly 90 percent of the seafood we consume. "The big advantage we'll have over those other supplies is the fact that we can grow it locally," he told KPBS News.

Renowned food journalist Paul Greenberg isn't convinced these ambitious aquaculture projects will solve America's seafood dilemma. Americans often eschew native fish species and import exotic varieties instead, he told NPR's The Salt. "Rather than trying to start up new and complicated ventures, first let's try to eat the fish we've already got."

Here's the Big Problem With Those Low Gas Prices Obama Is So Happy About

| Thu Jan. 14, 2016 5:07 PM EST

In his State of the Union address this week, President Barack Obama gave an approving nod to the price of oil, which is now the lowest it has been in more than a decade.

"Gas under two bucks a gallon ain't bad, either," he said.

For motorists, that logic is unassailable. But depending on where in the country you live, the low oil price could come back to haunt you in unexpected ways. According to new federal data, half a dozen states with prominent oil drilling industries have taken heavy blows to their budgets. That could prompt a sweep of spending reductions and cuts to education, poverty programs, and other social services.

"It could be hugely problematic for some of these states," said Michael Leachman, director of state fiscal research at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

The data show a steep drop in revenue from severance taxes, which natural resource companies pay to states when they extract oil, coal, or natural gas. When oil prices drop, oil production drops next, followed by severance tax revenue. And for states such as Alaska, Wyoming, and North Dakota, which draw a majority of their income from severance taxes, that means the budget can quickly implode. Now, policymakers in those states are scrambling to make up the shortfall in other ways and decide which state programs could face the chopping block.

Alaska's decline in revenue has been especially severe:

EIA

The Energy Information Administration report notes that Alaska's severance tax income—which provides three-quarters of the state's budget—went from $5 billion in 2012 to practically zero in 2015. As the New York Times reported, that drop has the state's governor considering re-instating an income tax for the first time in 35 years. Meanwhile, legislators in North Dakota are considering cutting $100 million in spending after tax revenues came in nearly 10 percent lower than expected. Even though oil production there hasn't changed much, the EIA found that "total severance tax revenues fell from more than $3.5 billion in 2014 to $2 billion in 2015 as oil prices declined."

A similar story is playing out in Oklahoma, where, the EIA notes, "collections from state sales taxes and individual and corporate income taxes are also significantly affected by oil and natural gas prices":

EIA

Trying to predict oil prices far out into the future is a fool's errand, so it's hard to say how lasting the damage to these states could be. Still, there's reason to think that the oil market is in for a bumpy road ahead, thanks to a growing market for electric vehicles, increasing fuel efficiency standards, and high volumes of oil coming out of Saudi Arabia and other OPEC countries. According to Bloomberg, oil demand in the US is flatlining even as nationwide oil production increases:

BNEF

The current tax crisis could signal an urgent need for oil-reliant states to diversify their tax base, Leachman said.

"There's no question it's not sustainable in Alaska," he said. Other states are at risk of following suit. "You're going to have to rethink your strategy for funding public services if you think oil and gas prices are going to stay really low levels."