Blue Marble

The World's Plan to Save Itself, in 6 Charts

| Fri Oct. 30, 2015 2:18 PM EDT

World leaders have a pretty comprehensive plan to fight climate change, according to a United Nations report released Friday—even if it doesn't go as far as many of them had hoped.

In just over a month, representatives from most of the countries on Earth will gather in Paris in an attempt to finalize an international agreement to limit global warming and adapt to its impacts. The video above is a snappy explainer of what's at stake at this meeting, but suffice it to say the proposed deal is split into two keys parts. First is the core agreement, parts of which may be legally binding, that comprises broad, non-specific guidelines for all countries. It calls on countries to take steps such as transparently reporting greenhouse gas emissions and committing to ramp up climate action over the next few decades.

But the real meat-and-potatoes is in the second part, the "intended nationally determined contributions" (INDCs). The INDCs are what sets the Paris talks apart from past attempts at a global climate agreement in Kyoto in 1997 and Copenhagen in 2009. Those summits either left out major polluters (the US dropped out of the Kyoto Protocol; China and India were exempted) or fell apart completely (Copenhagen), in large part because they were built around universal greenhouse gas reduction targets that not everyone could agree to.

The UN process is like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities.

This time around, the UN process is more like a potluck, where each country brings its own unique contribution based on its needs and abilities; those are the INDCs. The US, for example, has committed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025, mostly by going after carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants. So far, according to the World Resources Institute, 126 plans have been submitted, covering about 86 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions. (The European Union submitted one joint plan for all its members.) Those contributions are likely to limit global warming to around 2.7 degrees Celsius (4.9 degrees Fahrenheit) above preindustrial levels by 2100. That's above the 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) limit scientists say is necessary to avert the worst impacts—but it's also about 1 degree C less warming than would happen if the world continued on its present course.

Now, we have a bit more insight into how countries are planning to make this happen. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), the group that is overseeing the Paris talks, combed through all the INDCs to look for trends. Its report is a bit convoluted and repetitive; I don't recommend it to any but the nerdiest climate nerds. But I pulled out a few of the charts as an overview of what global action on climate change really looks like.

Types of targets: Most of the INDCs contain specific emission reduction targets. (Not all do; some countries, such as the small island nations, have such small or nonexistent emissions that it wouldn't make sense to promise to reduce them.) The most common way to state these targets is to promise that emissions at X future date will be lower than they would be with no action. Indonesia, for example, has pledged to increase its emissions over the next 25 years by 29 percent less than it would have under a "business as usual" scenario. The US commitment fits in the second category, an "absolute" target where emissions actually begin to go down. Others specify a date at which emissions will "peak," or set a goal for emissions per unit of GDP or energy production ("intensity").


Greenhouse gases: The commitments cover a broad range of greenhouse gases (most cover more than one), but carbon dioxide is the most common enemy. That's no surprise, as it's by far the most common.


Economic sectors: In different countries, different economic sectors are more or less responsible for climate pollution. In the US, the number-one source of emissions is coal-fired power plants; thus, President Barack Obama's plans focus on the power sector. In Indonesia, by contrast, deforestation is the biggest problem. Most plans cover more than one sector, but the most common is energy.


How to fix it: This section finds that implementing renewable energy is the most common way countries are planning to meet their targets. More interesting is the tiny role played by carbon capture, use, and storage, down at the bottom of the chart. This refers to technology that "captures" greenhouse gas emissions on their way out of power plants, or directly from the atmosphere, and buries or re-purposes them. Support for carbon capture—also known as "clean coal"—is popular with policymakers who don't want to curb coal use (including GOP presidential contender John Kasich), even though it remains costly and unproven at scale


How to adapt: Many countries' INDCs also contain information about how they plan to adapt to climate change. Water use, agriculture, and public health appear to be the biggest areas of focus.


A terrible, no-good, very bad summary: The most important question is clearly how all this adds up to reducing the world's greenhouse gas footprint and averting the worst threats posed by climate change. But the chart that addresses this question (below) is…not great. I'm including it so you have some sense of one big drawback of the Paris approach—without universal emissions targets, it's a lot harder to specify what the cumulative effect of these plans will really be. In short, here's what this chart shows: The gray line is global greenhouse gas emissions up to today. The orange line is how emissions will grow over the next couple decades if we do nothing. The three blue lines show how quickly we would need to reduce emissions to keep global warming to 2 degrees C; the longer we wait to take action, the steeper the cuts have to be. The yellow rectangles show a snapshot of where the INDCs leave us.

crappy chart

So, we're better off than before, but we're not out of danger. That's why it's essential for the core agreement to include requirements that countries adopt even more aggressive goals in the future; that's one of the key things that will be debated in Paris. In other words, the Paris meeting is just one key battle in a war that's far from over, Jennifer Morgan, director of the WRI's global climate program, said in a statement.

"Despite the unprecedented level of effort, this report finds that current commitments are not yet sufficient to meet what the world needs. Countries must accelerate their efforts after the Paris summit in order to stave off climate change. The global climate agreement should include a clear mandate for countries to ramp up their commitments and set a long-term signal to phase out emissions as soon as possible."

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This Commercial Might Be One of the Only Factual Things to Air During Tonight's GOP Debate

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 10:59 AM EDT

If you watch tonight's Republican primary debate on CBNC, you can expect to hear opinions on the economy and pot, attacks on newly annointed front-runner Ben Carson, and more. You can also expect to see the ad above, which lays out the economic case for action on climate change.

The 30-second spot is part of a six-figure TV and digital ad buy from NextGen Climate, the advocacy group run by billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer. At the beginning of the primary season, Steyer promised to focus his group's energy on holding Republican presidential candidates accountable for their lack of climate action, and to pursue a campaign to "disqualify" any candidate who doesn't accept mainstream climate science.

"America has never been a country of quitters," the ad states, over bucolic b-roll of farmers, veterans, and small town Main Streets. "We don't ignore threats like climate change."

Then the scene changes to wind farms and solar panels, as the narrator promises that American-made clean energy will produce jobs, innovation, and energy independence. At the end, it advocates a specific goal of getting half the country's power from renewable sources by 2030. (We're at about 7 percent now.)

Steyer is clearly right that clean energy is a major 21st-century growth industry. Solar is the fastest-growing energy source in the country, and employment in that sector already outnumbers coal miners two-to-one. Nearly $40 billion was invested in clean energy in the United States in 2014, 7 percent higher than the previous year. Earlier this month, California adopted the same ambitious target that Steyer is calling for: The state's power companies will be required to get 50 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2030.

But the message hasn't yet gotten through to most of the Republican presidential candidates. Marco Rubio's energy plan is basically the exact opposite of what Steyer wants. Jeb Bush wants to eliminate all energy subsidies, including those for renewables. Other candidates have variously denied the existence of climate change, championed fossil fuels, and taken pot shots at President Barack Obama's climate agenda.

The one exception, believe it or not, is Ben Carson, who—despite engaging in climate change skepticism—recently said he wants "more than 50 percent" clean energy. Maybe tonight we'll learn more about how exactly he plans to get us there.

4,400 Dead Cows Are Decomposing in a Sunken Ship in a Brazilian River

| Wed Oct. 28, 2015 5:00 AM EDT
The rotting bodies of the shipwrecked cattle lie on one of the beaches in the Barcarena region, in Para State, northern Brazil.

Earlier this month, a ship heading to Venezuela sank at the river port of Vila do Conde in the Amazon region of northern Brazil.

Shipwrecks are always tragic, but what made this one unique was the ship's cargo: 4,900 live cows. The animals, which belonged to the Brazilian beef company Minerva Foods, were headed to Venezuela. (This isn't Minerva Foods' first ship accident involving cows—another one happened in 2012.) The vast majority—around 4,400 animals—drowned inside the ship. Of the approximately 500 animals that managed to leave the vessel, only 100 survived. Hundreds of carcasses were carried by the current to local beaches. Local families loaded some onto trucks to take home and use for meat, but the remainder rotted in endless rows of bodies on the sand.

A few animals that managed to escape at the time of the sinking huddle on a part of the ship. Diario do Pará

Shipping live cattle is a relatively common practice in Brazil—last year, according to the country's Ministry of Agriculture, it exported 646,700 live cattle with a total value of $675 million. Some countries, such as Jordan and Lebanon, prefer buying cattle rather than meat so that customers can slaughter them in accordance with Muslim halal rules; other countries buy with the intention of fattening the animals before the slaughter.

Paulo Santos/Acervo H

Despite the unexpected access to meat, the lives of thousands of fishermen's families—most of whom are very poor—have become a living hell due to the smell of the decomposing carcasses and the fear that their drinking water and fishing grounds will be polluted. Local authorities have already removed the carcasses from the beaches but do not seem to know how to remove more than 4,000 bodies rotting below the river's surface.

To make matters worse, the ship was also carrying nearly 2 million gallons of fuel, which must be removed before the animals. Some have estimated the cost of the environmental disaster at upwards of $30 million. * The real scale of the environmental impact, however, is still being assessed.

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the estimated cost of the disaster. The sentence has since been fixed.

Women Can Boost Their Testosterone Just by Acting Like a Boss

| Mon Oct. 26, 2015 2:00 PM EDT

We often point to testosterone to explain the traits that make men "manly": competitiveness, horniness, impulsiveness. People have even blamed the testosterone levels of the architects of the Great Recession for the devastatingly awful decisions that led to the financial crash.

But new research shows that the reason men have more testosterone than women may have as much to do with gender socialization as inherent biology. Scientists from the University of Michigan published a study today that found that the act of wielding power increases testosterone levels regardless of gender. The study's authors went on to hypothesize that the reason women generally have less of the hormone than men may be, at least in part, because of gender norms that prevent women from accessing positions of power and discourage them from being competitive.

To come to this conclusion, researchers hired more than 100 actors to perform an activity during which they held power over someone else: firing a subordinate employee. The actors performed the firing both acting with stereotypically "masculine" traits (using dominant poses, taking up space, not smiling), and with stereotypically "feminine" traits (lifting their voice at the end of sentences, being hesitant, not making eye contact). Researchers also measured the levels of a control group watching a travel documentary. 

What they found was fascinating.

Not only did the female subjects acting in a stereotypically masculine way see an increase in testosterone (compared with the control), but those performing in a "feminine" way saw a significant boost, as well. In other words, just the act of wielding power, regardless of whether the wielder is performing maleness, increases testosterone levels. The study found that men did not have much of a testosterone boost during the activity, which, the study's authors guessed, could be because men's more frequent engagement in competitions and power-wielding activities "might paradoxically lead to dampened testosterone responses."

"Our results would support a pathway from gender to testosterone that is mediated by men engaging more frequently than women in behaviors such as wielding power that increase testosterone," the study says.

What's that in layman's terms? Gender inequality, at least in part, may be part of what's making men manly.

Bacon, Hot Dogs, and Processed Meats Cause Cancer, WHO Says

| Mon Oct. 26, 2015 9:32 AM EDT

A new report released by the World Health Organization on Monday reveals that processed meats such as bacon, hot dogs, and sausage cause cancer. Red meat, while carrying a slightly lower risk than processed meats, likely does as well.

According to the organization, daily consumption of 50 grams of processed meats—defined as meats that have been transformed by salting, curing, or other taste-enhancing methods—increased the likelihood of cancer by 18 percent. Processed meats, which are linked to an increased likelihood of bowel cancer, were found to be as carcinogenic as cigarettes, arsenic, and alcohol.

Red meat, such as lamb, pork, and beef, was classified as "probably carcinogenic" to humans.

"For an individual, the risk of developing colorectal cancer because of their consumption of processed meat remains small, but this risk increases with the amount of meat consumed," Dr. Kurt Straif, head of the WHO's cancer research agency, said in a press release. "In view of the large number of people who consume processed meat, the global impact on cancer incidence is of public health importance."

Monday's report, unambiguous in pointing out the clear link between processed meats and cancer, is sure to revive debate over the comparison between meat and cigarettes as carcinogenic substances. While previous studies have suggested associations between meat and cancer, none has gone as far as the WHO's latest findings to establish a direct causality.

The meat industry was quick to respond.

"We simply don't think the evidence support any casual link between any red meat and any type of cancer," Shalene McNeil, executive director of human nutrition at the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, told the Washington Post.

The WHO's report is the result of a study conducted by 22 scientists from 10 countries who examined more than 800 previous studies from around the world.

This headline has been updated to more accurately reflect the research.

Coal-Loving Republicans Are Suing Obama Again

| Fri Oct. 23, 2015 12:46 PM EDT

President Barack Obama's signature plan to fight climate change was formally published this morning, thus opening the season for a fresh round of legal challenges from two dozen states, most of which are major coal consumers.

The Clean Power Plan, as it's known, aims to reduce the nation's power-sector carbon footprint to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. To reach that goal, each state has a unique target that it can achieve by cleaning or shuttering coal-fired power plants, building renewable energy systems, and investing in energy efficiency. Ever since it was first proposed a couple years ago, it's been a punching bag for Republicans in Congress, in state capitals, and in the 2016 presidential race. Marco Rubio recently promised to "immediately stop" the plan if elected.

The plan has also already spent a lot of time in court, so far surviving a series of attempts by states and coal companies to block it from being implemented. The last such case ended in September, when a federal court ruled that legal challenges couldn't be brought until the final version of the new rules was officially published.

Now that threshold has been crossed, and the lawsuits are flooding in. According to the Hill, 24 states and Murray Energy, a coal company, filed suits Friday morning:

West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey (R), who is leading the legal fight against the plan, called it "the single most onerous and illegal regulations that we've seen coming out of D.C. in a long time."

The West Virginia and Murray lawsuits came the day the rule was published in the Federal Register, the first day court challenges can legally be filed. The states joining West Virginia are Texas, Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Jersey, Ohio, South Carolina, South Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Arizona and North Carolina.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that most of these states are major consumers of coal, the most carbon-polluting form of energy, and are thus the most likely to take a beating from the regulations. (Of course, coal has been struggling since before Obama even took office). Here's a look at how much the suing states depend on coal; I've ranked them by the share of their total electricity mix that comes from coal, rather than by their total consumption volume:

Tim McDonnell

It's worth noting as well that all but three of those states (Kentucky, Missouri, and North Carolina) have Republican attorneys general. Now that the dust has basically settled on battles over gay marriage and Obamacare, the Clean Power Plan is the next logical thing for GOP-led states to fight with the Obama administration about. 

But the plan really isn't as crazy as Morrisey, et al., would have you believe. In fact, it has taken some heat from environmentalists for not going far enough, and for doing little more than locking in the incremental greenhouse gas reductions that were already happening. Still, there's a lot riding on these legal challenges, because the Clean Power Plan is the administration's main bargaining chip for the global climate negotiations coming up in a month in Paris. The promises that Obama has made to the rest of the world as to how the United States will help slow climate change basically ride on this plan. So if the plan were to be killed in court, the whole international agreement could collapse.

Fortunately, it seems very unlikely that the court will throw the rule out, said Tomás Carbonell, a senior attorney at the Environmental Defense Fund.

Carbonell added that if history is a guide, the litigation is likely to come to a conclusion before Obama leaves office, which would preclude the possibility that a President Donald Trump or another climate change denier could let the plan wither on the vine by refusing to defend it in court.

The Natural Resources Defense Council has a good explainer on the plan's strengths, not least of which is that most states are already well on their way to coming up with a plan for compliance. So far, it doesn't seem like anyone is following Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's (R-Ky.) advice to just ignore the plan altogether.

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"Back to the Future" Never Predicted This Kickass Solar House

| Thu Oct. 22, 2015 9:48 AM EDT

Three years ago next week, when Superstorm Sandy swept through the New York City area, the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J., was right in the line of fire. The experience gave the school's engineers and architects plenty of food for thought on how to design a storm-proof coastal building. So when the Obama administration launched the 14th annual Solar Decathlon—a contest to build the most badass, cutting-edge, solar-powered home—they put pen to paper and hammer to nail. 

The result is the Sure House (a take on "shore house"), which was awarded first place in the competition this weekend. The house, shown off in the video above, is custom-built for the Jersey Shore, hardened against hurricanes, and uses a fraction of the energy of a normal house. It has tons of cool features: It's sealed water-tight against up to six feet of flooding; gets 100 percent of its power from solar panels that are designed to stay operational even when the electric grid goes down; and regulates its temperature without using any power for air conditioning or a heater, by using custom-built insulation and ventilation. (David Roberts at Vox has more details.)

Oh, and it's also really attractive and cozy:


Maybe there's hope that we'll survive climate change, after all.

Science Just Proved That Donald Trump Is Totally Wrong

| Wed Oct. 21, 2015 11:34 AM EDT

Donald Trump loves to tweet about how climate change is a hoax, especially when he personally feels cold. Because, you know, if global warming is really real, then it will never be cold anywhere ever again. (Just kidding. Winter is still a thing.)

He was at it again on Monday, tweeting that since it was "really cold outside," we "could use a big fat dose of global warming!" Sick burn, Donald!

Indeed, it's been kind of cold on the East Coast over the last week. But, Trump's local weather report notwithstanding, 2015 is still on track to be the warmest year on record, globally. And today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released data showing that this September was the hottest September on record (the records go back to 1880), following an August that also experienced record-breaking heat.

Here's NOAA's latest map, showing that in September, much of the globe had record or above-average temperatures:


The dark red blob off the US West Coast is El Niño, which is continuing to strengthen and is expected to produce above-average rain and snowfall in California this winter (although probably not enough to end the state's epic drought).

Sorry, Donald. I think we have a big enough dose of global warming already.

Here Is the Kind of Sunscreen That Won’t Destroy Coral Reefs

| Wed Oct. 21, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Earlier this month, scientists announced that the third global coral bleaching has begun—and that it could be the most destructive yet. The causes include the El Niño weather pattern, climate change, and the giant blob—and that's on top of pollution runoff and overfishing already wreaking havoc on reefs. Now, a new paper in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology by an international group of scientists adds another culprit: sunscreen.

Sunscreen can deform coral cells at a concentration as low as one drop in around 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

After gathering samples of adult and larval coral cells from reefs off the US Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Israel, and exposing them to oxybenzone, the active ingredient in many sunscreens, researchers discovered that even the tiniest amount of sunscreen—washed off a snorkeler or flushed down a shower drain and into the ocean—can make the delicate coral polyp more vulnerable to bleaching. The chemical deforms coral cells, damages their DNA, and, most disturbing of all, disrupts coral larvae endocrine hormones causing baby coral to encase themselves in their own skeletons and die.

According to the report, every year as many as 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter water around coral reefs, often excreting oxybenzone, which protects humans from ultraviolet rays. Craig Downs, one of the study's authors and the executive director of the Virginia-based Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, says oxybenzone can deform coral cells at a concentration as low as 62 parts per trillion—that's one drop in around 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

About half of sunscreens on the market contain oxybenzone which, as Mother Jones has reported on before, may also be harmful to humans. The good news: More companies are now offering sunscreens that use mineral blockers such as zinc-oxide instead of chemicals like oxybenzone—and Downs says using these products could reduce harm to coral reef. (He notes, however, that not all non-oxybenzone sunscreens are safe, especially oil-based products often sold by natural brands. Downs' team found that lavender, tea tree, jojoba, and other oils, which can act as natural insecticides, may kill delicate coral cells, as well.)

Normal coral cells are oblong and have lots of pigmentation (left) while those exposed to oxybenzone are less colorful, and their round shape prohibits proper growth (right). Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology

Coral reefs are home to a quarter of the ocean's marine life and are an important line of defense against storms for coastal populations. A recent attempt by the BBC to put a monetary value on the natural world's flora and fauna estimated that coral reef is worth $9.9 trillion to the global economy, or more than half the GDP of the United States. That number included the value of the fishing and tourism economies that coral reef support, as well as its ability to sequester carbon and mitigate storm damage.

Yet coral reefs are rapidly disappearing: During the past 30 years, the world's oceans have lost half of their coral reefs, including 80 percent of those in the Caribbean; some expect the remaining coral to completely vanish from that region within two decades. At least 10 percent of this reef is thought to be exposed to oxybenzone from sunscreen and other personal hygiene products.

Efforts to rebuild coral reef are underway, but they won't work if toxic chemicals like oxybenzone continue to leach into these ecosystems, says Downs. "It's a big ecological factor."

Here’s Barack Obama’s Newest Plan to Fight Climate Change

| Tue Oct. 20, 2015 1:52 PM EDT

The White House launched a new Twitter handle devoted to climate change Tuesday afternoon. The stream, called @FactsOnClimate, claims to provide "the facts on how is combating climate change in the U.S. and mobilizing the world to ."

The first three tweets highlight the most important pieces of President Barack Obama's climate legacy: His signature plan to slash greenhouse gas emissions from power plants and his stated commitment to reaching an international agreement on climate action in Paris this winter.

As Obama has made climate action a priority during his second term, his administration has doubled down on slick digital content to get the word out. There's a nice basic website, an immersive interactive portal to explore the science, Facebook videos, essays on Medium, and now this.

The Paris talks, where the US delegation is expected to support a commitment to reduce America's greenhouse gas emissions 26 to 28 percent by 2025 (compared to 2005 levels), are coming up in just over a month. Heads of state from around the globe are expected to drop in for the first day of the talks; on Monday, White House spokesperson Josh Earnest told reporters they "could certainly count [Obama] among the leaders who's considering traveling to Paris."