Blue Marble

Why Is a Whole Foods Exec Livestreaming His Empty Office?

| Thu Jun. 25, 2015 5:36 PM EDT

Whole Foods recently announced its plan to open a new line of smaller stores called "365," and along with the news they launched a very, well, strange promotional website. If you type in www.wholefoodsmarket.com/365 you will find a webpage streaming a live cam of 365 president Jeff Turnas's desk. As of the writing of this post, the live stream has been going for some 170 hours; that's more than seven days.

If this tactic is meant to show how hard Whole Foods is working on its new, more affordable venture (amid growing competition and accusations of overcharging customers), it's not really working. We scanned through the seven days of footage and not once was the office occupied.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

California Water Districts Just Sued the State Over Cuts to Farmers

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 8:39 PM EDT

Drama on the California drought front: On Friday, a group of water districts sued the State Water Resources Control Board in response to an order prohibiting some holders of senior water rights from pumping out of some lakes and rivers.

"This is our water," said Steve Knell, general manager of Oakdale Irrigation District, to KQED's Lauren Sommer. "We believe firmly in that fact and we are very vested in protecting that right."

Water allotments in the Golden State are based on a byzantine system of water rights that prioritizes senior water rights holders, defined as individuals, companies, and water districts that laid claim to the water before 1914. Typically, those with the oldest permits are the first to get water and the last to see it curtailed.

But on June 12, the state ordered the 114 senior water rights holders with permits dating back to 1903 to stop pumping water from the San Joaquin and Sacramento watersheds, a normally fertile area encompassing most of northern California. "There are some that have no alternative supplies and will have to stop irrigating crops," admitted Tom Howard, executive director of the State Water Resources Control Board. "There are others that have stored water or have wells that they can fall back on. It's going to be a different story for each one and a struggle for all of them." This is the first time since 1977 that the state has enacted curtailments on senior holders.

In response, an umbrella group called the San Joaquin Tributaries Authority (which includes the Oakdale Irrigation District) has sued the state. In addition, the Patterson and Banta Carbona irrigation districts filed two separate lawsuits. The lawsuits claim the state overstepped its authority by curtailing water to districts that claimed rights to the water before the state set up a control board in 1913 to oversee water rights.

"Water right holders were here before the state exerted any authority over water," said Knell. "Most of our water rights go back to the mid-1800s. So the state having authority over something that we developed long before the state got into this business is the legal question we will be asking a judge."

EPA Report Puts a Staggering Price Tag on Climate Inaction

| Mon Jun. 22, 2015 6:59 PM EDT

According to a report released Monday by the Obama administration, doing nothing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions would cost the United States billions of dollars and thousands lives.

The findings come as part of an attempt by the Environmental Protection Agency to quantify the human and economic benefits of cutting emissions in an effort to reduce global warming. The report is the latest piece of President Obama's recent climate push and provides a tool that he hopes to use in negotiations at the UN climate talks in Paris later this year.

The report, which was peer reviewed, estimates that if nothing is done to curb global warming, by 2100, the United States will see an additional 12,000 annual deaths related to extreme temperatures in the 49 cities analyzed for the report. In addition, the report projects an increase of 57,000 premature deaths annually related to poor air quality. The economic costs would be enormous as well. By 2100, climate inaction will result in:

  • $4.2-$7.4 billion in additional road maintenance costs each year.
  • $3.1 billion annually in damages to coastal regions due to sea-level rise and storm surges.
  • $6.6-$11 billion annually in agricultural damages.
  • A loss of 230,000 to 360,000 acres of cold-water fish habitat.
  • A loss of 34 percent of the US oyster supply and 29 percent of the clam supply.
  • $110 billion annually in lost labor due to unsuitable working conditions.

The EPA also used a number of charts to illustrate the difference between taking action to stop (or "mitigate") climate change and continuing with business as usual (which the charts refer to as the "reference" case).

For example, if we don't mitigate climate change, temperatures will continue to skyrocket:


Precipitation levels will become extremely volatile:


Air pollution will become much worse:

And the risk of drought will rise for much of the country:

 

Study: Flu Viruses Travel on US Roads and Railways

| Sat Jun. 20, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Viruses are hitching a ride with commuters on the nation's roads and railways, adding to the chaotic movement that makes seasonal outbreaks difficult to track and contain.

In a study published Thursday in PLOS Pathogens, researchers at Emory University tracked genetic variations in two strains of influenza between 2003 and 2013. They concluded that states highly connected by ground transit tended to have similar genetic variations of the flu, and they matched their findings with illness case data that showed closely timed epidemic peaks in those states. The researchers believe ground transit connectivity may be a better indicator of where a disease is likely to spread than air travel connections or even geographic proximity, though they say both remain important factors.

The US Interstate Commuter Network shows the number of people traveling daily between states for work. Courtesy of Bozick, CC-BY

Modern transport networks complicate the movement of viruses: In the past, contagion moved person to person and village to village, resulting in "wave-like patterns" of genetic variation that correspond to geographic distance, the report says. But with 3.8 million people in the United States taking ground transportation across state borders each day and 1.6 million doing so by air, the spread of illness has become far more chaotic: Transcontinental flights help foster bicoastal outbreaks, while well-traveled commuter corridors between Kansas and Missouri may mean those states share illnesses as neighboring areas go unscathed.

Researchers found that "commuting communities," divided into colored regions, tended to span state borders. Travelers carried influenza along with them. Courtesy of Bozick, CC-BY

The researchers hope their study, which they believe to be the first of its kind at the scale of the continental United States, will help epidemiologists better understand influenza's seemingly unpredictable spread.

This Map Shows Where the World's Water Is Drying Up

| Thu Jun. 18, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

Groundwater loss isn't just a California problem: According to a recent study by researchers at NASA and the University of California-Irvine, humans are depleting more than half of the world's 37 largest aquifers at unsustainable rates, and there is virtually no accurate data showing how much water is left.

The study, published this week in the journal Water Resources Research, used 11 years of satellite data to measure water depletion. Eight aquifers, primarily in Asia and Africa, were qualified as "overstressed," meaning they had nearly no natural replenishment. The most stressed basin was the Arabian Aquifer System, beneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen. Other quickly disappearing aquifers were the Indus Basin aquifer, between India and Pakistan, and the Murzuk-Djado Basin, in northern Africa.

Five other aquifers, including California's Central Valley Aquifer, were "extremely" or "highly" stressed, with some natural replenishment but not enough to make up for growing demand.

The growing demand on water, exacerbated by overpopulation and climate change, has led to a situation that is "quite critical," says Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA.

Aquifers house groundwater, which serves as a savings account of sorts: It's good to rely on in droughts but takes decades or centuries to replenish. Groundwater usually makes up about 40 percent of the California's freshwater supply, but now, as California endures its fourth year of drought and as farmers have resorted to drilling for water, that number has leapt to more than 60 percent. The state recently implemented regulations to measure groundwater supply that will gradually be implemented over several years.

NASA satellite images show groundwater loss in California. UC-Irvine/NASA

Measuring exactly how much groundwater remains around the world is both difficult and expensive, as it involves drilling, sometimes thousands of feet, into thick layers of bedrock. As a result, estimates of how much longer the existing groundwater will last often vary by orders of magnitude—from decades to millennia.

The researchers got around that problem by using data that shows subtle changes in the Earth's gravity, which is affected by the weight of the aquifers. They acknowledge that this is just a start, and call for more local, detailed data.

"We know we're taking more than we're putting back in—how much do we have before we can't do that anymore?" said lead author Alexandra Richey to the Los Angeles Times. "We don't know, but we keep pumping. Which to me is terrifying."

6 Foods That Still Have Scary Amounts of Trans Fats

| Wed Jun. 17, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

After years of hemming and hawing, the Food and Drug Administration has finally declared artificial trans fats a threat to public health, giving food companies until June 2018 to phase out partially hydrogenated oils, the primary source of trans fats in processed foods.

The decision doesn't amount to a full ban, allowing companies to petition for small amounts of trans fats if they can present evidence that it won't cause harm to consumers. But the FDA cautions that food companies will be hard-pressed to find research that contests the negative health effects of trans fats, which it says contribute to as many as 20,000 heart attacks and 7,000 deaths each year.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Dear Rick Santorum: Sorry, the Pope Actually Did Study Science. So He Might Know About Science.

| Tue Jun. 16, 2015 12:57 PM EDT

"I am not a scientist!" is now the standard escape hatch through which Republican climate deniers slither to avoid talking about climate science or evolution. From Sen. Marco Rubio, asked how old the Earth is: "I'm not a scientist, man." Rick Perry whipped out the same "I'm not a scientist" line last year in DC while questioning the consensus around climate change. Jeb Bush said the same thing back in 2009.

Now at least one GOP presidential hopeful is turning the talking point into an attack on the pope, ahead of his landmark encyclical on the environment, to be released Thursday. (A draft of the document has already leaked). Former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, a Catholic with a history of criticizing Pope Francis, says the pope should leave science to the scientists. "The church has gotten it wrong a few times on science," he told Dom Giordano, a radio host in Philadelphia, earlier this month. "And I think that we are probably better off leaving science to the scientists and focusing on what we're really good at, which is theology and morality."

One problem with Santorum's retort? The pope, while obviously not a climate scientist (he's the pope), actually did study science and therefore might have a better grasp of fundamental scientific processes than most people who have not studied science.

The National Catholic Reporter and the Official Vatican Network both report that Francis, then Jorge Bergoglio, earned a technician's degree in chemistry from a technical school in Buenos Aires before joining the seminary. Sylvia Poggioli from NPR also reports Francis worked as a chemist. Listen to her report from Morning Edition, below, from Rome:

And for good measure, here's a video my Climate Desk colleagues—Tim McDonnell and Suzanne Goldenberg (from the Guardian)—put together last week. They asked a bunch of climate change deniers at the annual Heartland Institute conference in Washington, DC, what they think of the pope's calls for action on climate change:

 

Is the Leading Nutrition Science Group in Big Food's Pocket?

| Mon Jun. 15, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

Figuring out whom to trust for nutritional advice can be a daunting task; new findings on everything from the dangers of sugar to the health benefits of leftover pasta seem to come out every day, and the "experts" behind them often have ulterior motives.

According to a report released today, even venerable nutritional science organizations and the journals they publish can't be trusted. Public health lawyer Michele Simon explores how corporate interests influence the findings of one of these research organizations: the American Society for Nutrition. The nearly 90-year-old nonprofit, comprising 5,000 scientists and experts, publishes the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition and claims to "bring together the world's top researchers, clinical nutritionists and industry to advance our knowledge and application of nutrition for the sake of humans and animals." But according Simon, the group's coziness with corporate sponsors calls its research into question.

Here are some of Simon's findings:

  • ASN's financial backers include many from the food and beverage industry. Their "Sustaining Partners," or financial donors of $10,000 or more, include the likes of Coca-Cola, Cargill, Monsanto, the National Dairy Council, and the Sugar Association.
     
  • These financial donors often sponsor ASN's events at conferences. For example, PepsiCo, DuPont, and the National Dairy Association sponsored ASN sessions at last year's annual Experimental Biology conference on topics like bone health and the science behind low-calorie sweeteners. Companies paid ASN as much as $50,000 for sponsorship of separate ASN satellite sessions.
     
  • ASN's leaders have had past ties with Big Food. Simon found that the people leading ASN frequently have ties to food corporations. For example, Roger Clemens, who formerly led ASN's public information committee, served as a "Scientific Advisor" for Nestlé USA for more than two decades. And past ASN President James O. Hill has reported personal fees from Coca-Cola, McDonalds, and the American Beverage Association.
     
  • ASN's stances on policy often go against established science. In April of last year, for example, the ASN's American Journal of Clinical Nutrition came out with a statement defending processed foods. "There are no differences between processing of foods at home or at a factory," it read. It went on to say that terms like "minimally processed" and "ultra processed" impart value and do not "characterize food in a helpful manner." These assertions contradict myriad findings that increasingly show the adverse health effects of processed foods. The ASN also came out against the Federal Drug Administration's proposal to label added sugars on Nutrition Facts labels. It commented on the FDA's proposal that "a lack of consensus remains in the scientific evidence of the health effects of added sugars alone versus sugars as a whole." It added that labeling added sugars will not improve consumers' food choices and health. This, too, goes against the findings of organizations like the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association.

Maps: The Poorest Areas in America Are Often the Most Polluted

| Sat Jun. 13, 2015 6:00 AM EDT
A sewage plant looms in the background of Barreto Point Park in the South Bronx.

The environmental justice movement has been fighting the hazards and toxins disproportionately affecting poor communities of color for decades. Now it has a new tool.

The US Environmental Protection Agency recently made public an interactive map that allows people to see how their communities' exposure to hazardous waste, air pollution, and other environmental risks stack up with the rest of the country. "EJSCREEN" combines demographic data and environmental factors to create an "environmental justice index." Environmental data includes vulnerability to air toxins and high particulate levels, exposure to lead-based paint, and proximity to chemical and hazardous waste treatment centers.

We started to explore the map, focusing on a few major cities. Not surprisingly, notoriously impoverished neighborhoods like West Oakland, the Bronx, and East New Orleans have the worst environmental justice indexes in many cases:

Hazardous waste:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

San Francisco Bay Area:

Air pollution:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

San Francisco Bay Area:

EPA EJSCREEN

Water discharge facilities:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

New Orleans:

EPA EJSCREEN

Lead-based paint exposure:

New York City:

EPA EJSCREEN

San Francisco Bay Area:

EPA EJSCREEN
EPA EJSCREEN

The Big Source of Pollution That No One Talks About

| Fri Jun. 12, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

When most of us think about air pollution, we imagine smog emanating from cars, trucks, and power plants. But oceangoing ships are also a major source of pollution around the world, and according to a new study, they're emitting toxic chemicals that can cause major health problems.

One study estimated that 60,000 deaths every year are related to particulate matter emissions from marine shipping.

A team of German researchers from the University of Rostock has found that emissions from ships can be even more dangerous than emissions from cars and trucks, causing damage to cells in our bodies that can lead to serious diseases like lung cancer, heart problems, and diabetes. In a study published by the Public Library of Science earlier this month, the researchers said ship engines that burn heavy fuel oil, the cheapest and most common kind of ship fuel, emit heavy metals, hydrocarbons, and carcinogenic fine particles.

These substances have been connected with inflammation, the body's natural response to pathogens that, over time, can lead to a wide range of chronic diseases. Exposure to pollution from heavy fuel oil can also encourage oxidative stress, a state in which the body is not able to fully counteract or detoxify the harmful presence of free radicals, and which can lead to everything from neurodegenerative diseases to cancer and gene mutations. Unfortunately, this cheap, dirty fuel is not the only culprit: The researchers also found that even the burning of diesel fuel, generally seen as a cleaner source of power, emits toxins that can change basic cellular functions in the body like energy and protein metabolism.

Exposure to shipping pollution takes a huge toll globally. In 2007, one study estimated that 60,000 deaths every year are related to particulate matter emissions from marine shipping, with most deaths occurring near coastlines in Europe, East Asia, and South Asia. Still, the United States isn't exactly winning medals for clean ports, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. In a 2004 report, the environmental advocacy group lamented that marine ports were among the country's most poorly regulated sources of pollution, with the Port of Los Angeles emitting far more smog-forming pollutants than all the power plants in the Southern California region combined.

Since then, ports have taken some steps to curb emissions, in part by allowing ships to plug in to onshore power sources, rather than idling their engines. But overall, pollution regulations in the United States have focused more strongly on cleaning up our roads. The German researchers suggested that it may be time to re-evaluate our strategy. "Due to the substantial contribution of ship emissions to global pollution, ship emissions are the next logical target for improving air quality worldwide, particularly in coastal regions and harbour cities," they wrote.