Blue Marble

For the First Time, the United States Will Actually Try to Waste Less Food

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 4:56 PM EDT

Each year, Americans throw away about a third of the country's food supply. But today, the US Department of Agriculture and the Environmental Protection Agency announced the country's first-ever food waste reduction goal, calling for a fifty percent reduction by 2030.

Frankly, this is huge news. Food is the single biggest contributor to landfills today: 133 billion pounds of it end up in dumpsters each year in America—enough to fill the Sears Tower 44 times. According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, the average family tosses out $1,500 of food each year, adding up to the equivalent of $162 billion worth of food across the nation. And the impact goes beyond the financial: Wasted food uses up about 25 percent of the US water supply and produces 33 million cars' worth of greenhouse gases each year (in landfills, food waste releases methane, a greenhouse gas much more potent than carbon dioxide). In the meantime, one in six Americans doesn't have a steady supply of food.

"Wasted," Natural Resources Defense Council

Most of the waste happens at a consumer level. We let food go bad in the fridge, or consumers misunderstand the meaning of expiration dates and throw away food before it's actually expired. But some waste happens at the production and retail levels—produce that doesn't look nice on the outside isn't picked on the farm, and restaurants and grocery stores toss food before it's spoiled to make room for new shipments.

"The United States enjoys the most productive and abundant food supply on earth, but too much of this food goes to waste," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Our new reduction goal demonstrates America's leadership on a global level in in getting wholesome food to people who need it, protecting our natural resources, cutting environmental pollution and promoting innovative approaches for reducing food loss and waste."

Advertise on

The Last Time California Was This Dry, People Thought the Sun Revolved Around the Earth

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

California's historic drought may be even more exceptional than we thought.

In a study published yesterday, scientists made a startling discovery about the severity of California's dry spell: They estimated that the Sierra Nevada mountain range's snowpack levels this year are the lowest they've been for 500 years. That's right, since roughly the year 1500.

This is bad news for Californians: Snowfall in the mountains can account for as much as one-third of the state's water supply during a normal year.

Last spring, measurements showed that levels were at their lowest point in the 75 years they've been recorded. (That period is shown in red on the graph below.) But scientists had to get creative in order to determine how much snow had fallen over the centuries before snowpack measurements were taken. Paleoclimatologists from the University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research analyzed studies that used tree rings to reconstruct historical rainfall and temperatures in California's mountains. By combining this data, they were able to estimate spring snowpack levels going back half a millennium, as represented in the graphic below. (SWE stands for "snow water equivalent," which means snowpack).

University of Arizona's Laboratory of Tree-Ring Research and Nature Climate Change

They found that while there have been many bad years for snow in the mountains, the last time the snowpack sank to this year's levels was around the year 1500.

This spring, the snowpack reached just 5 percent of average yearly levels.

According to Greg Corbin, a meteorologist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the state's water system can only store a limited amount of rain runoff, so it relies on snowpack to replenish water reserves. Until it starts snowing again, California has "a long, long way to go," to restore its water, he says.

We're Obliterating Global Temperature Records, and There's No End in Sight

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 6:16 PM EDT
2015 is on track to be the hottest year on record.

One after another, each of 2015's summer months have been among the hottest ever recorded on Earth. And a trio of new studies out this week, from three different countries, confirms that temperature records just keep tumbling—falling victim to an unusually massive El Niño climate event gathering strength in the Pacific, as well as unrelenting man-made climate change, which is cooking the entire system.

On Monday, Japan's Meteorological Agency said that this August was the hottest August worldwide since 1891, when its records begin. August was 0.81 degrees above the 1981-2010 average, smashing 2014's record.

Data from Japan's Meteorological Agency shows 2015's August was the hottest August in more than 120 years. JMA

Also on Monday, NASA confirmed that scientists have never recorded a hotter summer than this year's. When taken together, temperatures for June, July, and August were 1.4 degrees hotter than the long-term average, passing the previous hottest summer, 1998. Unlike Japan's study, NASA says this August was very narrowly the second hottest August on record (behind 2014).

And finally, major research from the United Kingdom's Met Office released this week concluded that 2015's overall temperatures are running at or near record levels (at about 0.684 degrees above the 1981-2010 average)—which suggests the next two years could be the hottest on record around the world.

"We know natural patterns contribute to global temperatures in any given year, but the very warm temperatures so far this year indicate the continued impact of (manmade) greenhouse gases," said Stephen Belcher from the Met Office, in a news release. "With the potential that next year could be similarly warm, it's clear that our climate continues to change."

The Met Office says this year's El Niño— the global climate event that occurs every five to seven years, bringing drought to places like Australia while heaping rain on the western United States—is likely contributing to record temperatures. (Sadly, it's unlikely to help quench California enough to break the drought.)

The El Niño itself could break records. "Recent oceanic and atmospheric indicators are at levels not seen since the 1997–98 El Niño," Australia's Bureau of Meteorology said on Tuesday, adding that the big climate event is unlikely to subside before early 2016.

El Niño is also probably contributing to the unusually active hurricane season in the Pacific. The Met Office says tropical cyclone activity across the northern hemisphere this year is about 200 percent above normal. Six hurricanes have crossed the central Pacific, more than in any other year on record.

America's 25 Top Restaurant Chains, Ranked by Antibiotic Use

| Tue Sep. 15, 2015 3:33 PM EDT

Heads up, meat eaters: A new report has rated the antibiotic use in the meat of 25 top fast-food or "fast casual" restaurants, and the results are, well, concerning. The report by Friends of the Earth, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and four other consumer health organizations, examined antibiotic use as well as the restaurants' transparency about their meat and poultry supply chains. Chipotle and Panera were the only chains to publicly report serving a majority of meat from animals raised without routine antibiotics.

"Chain Reaction," by Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, et al

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls antibiotic resistance one of the top five health threats facing the nation, killing an estimated 23,000 Americans each year. "When livestock producers administer antibiotics routinely to their flocks and herds, bacteria can develop resistance, thrive, and even spread to our communities, contributing to the larger problem of antibiotic resistance," the report explains. "The worsening epidemic of resistance means that antibiotics may not work when we need them most: when our kids contract a staph infection (MRSA) or our parents get a life-threatening pneumonia."

In addition to sending each company a survey, the report authors examined company websites and other publicly available information. They intend for the report to be updated annually as companies change their practices.

Here's a rundown of what researchers had to say about each restaurant (emphasis added):

  • Panera and Chipotle are the only chains that publicly affirm that the majority of their meat and poultry offered is produced without routine use of antibiotics.
  • Chick-fil-A and McDonald's have established policies limiting antibiotic use in their chicken with implementation timelines.
  • Dunkin' Donuts has a policy covering all meats but has no reported timeline for implementation.
  • While Starbucks has made positive statements supporting what it terms as 'responsible use of antibiotics to support animal health,' to our knowledge the company has failed to adopt a clear policy prohibiting routine use of antibiotics in its meat and poultry supply chains or to provide detailed public information on their purchasing practices.
  • While Subway did not respond to our survey, recent news outlets report that the company's goal is to 'eliminate the use of antibiotics in products across the menu' and that Subway is 'targeting to transition to chicken raise without antibiotics important to human medicine in 2016.'...It is unclear whether this would entail the end of all routine antibiotic use in its supply chains.
  • Burger King, Wendy's, Olive Garden, KFC, Chili's, Sonic, Denny's, Domino's, Starbucks, Papa John's Pizza, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Applebee's, Jack in the Box, Arby's, Dairy Queen, IHOP, Outback Steakhouse, and Little Ceasars either have no disclosed policy on antibiotics use in their meat and poultry, or have policies that in our estimation allow for the continued, routine use of antibiotics in the production of all meats they serve.

This Video Shows What It's Like to Drive Through California's Raging Valley Fire

| Mon Sep. 14, 2015 11:21 AM EDT

Hellish new video has emerged from the heart of California's Valley Fire, which turned vicious over the weekend, destroying an estimated 400 homes and 20 businesses in Lake County, northeast of wine country and Santa Rosa.

While not the biggest in size, the Valley Fire has become one of the most destructive in a fire season exacerbated by California's prolonged drought. According to the LA Times, four firefighters were injured and one civilian may have been killed. As of Monday morning, the fire, currently burning 50,000 acres, is only 5 percent contained, and more than 1,400 firefighters are on the ground.

Yesterday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in Lake and Napa counties, allowing the California National Guard and other state resources to mobilize against the fire.

Walls of flames crept up on one resident of the Anderson Springs community, who fled along a road swept by fire and posted a harrowing video of his escape. In a comment on the video, YouTube user mulletFive wrote, "We got no phone call, there were no sirens, no ash falling, no smoke, no air support. As far as we knew the fire was still far away. But it turns out it was very close to our home, there was simply not enough firefighters to tend to our area." He made it safely south to the Bay Area, according to comments on the video.

California Democrats Wanted to Save the World. They Just Caved to Big Oil.

| Thu Sep. 10, 2015 10:58 AM EDT

Update, Monday Sept. 14, 12:00pm ET: During the closing minutes of their session Friday afternoon, California legislators passed SB 350. Although stripped of the provision to reduce the state's gasoline consumption, the bill still includes new standards for renewable energy and energy efficiency. It now heads to Gov. Brown's desk; he is expected to sign it this month.

It appears I was a bit too bullish on the prospects for historic new climate legislation in California. Yesterday, Democrats in the state legislature caved to pressure from the powerful oil industry and dropped a critical piece of the bill.

SB 350, which had passed the state Senate but faced an uphill climb through the Assembly, was intended to enshrine in law a series of ambitious climate targets unveiled earlier this year by Gov. Jerry Brown (D). One of the most important was a proposal to slash the state's gasoline consumption in half by 2030. Here's a bit of background from my story last week:

SB 350 would bring the state's gasoline consumption down to about where Florida's is now, while setting new targets for clean energy and energy efficiency projects…The gas consumption target would likely require some combination of new fuel efficiency standards for cars, incentives for alternative fuels and biofuels, cooperation with local planning agencies to improve public transit and make communities less car-reliant, and a push to get people to buy more electric vehicles. (California is already home to half of the roughly 174,000 electric vehicles on the road in the United States.)

"If California can do this, it could really be the beginning of the snowball," said Tim O'Connor, director of California policy for the Environmental Defense Fund. "This is how California can really shake up the national conversation on climate."

Other parts of the bill are intact, including the goal to get half the state's power from renewable energy sources and double the efficiency of state buildings by 2030. But the gas reduction proposal faced intense opposition from the oil industry, the most powerful special interest in Sacramento. Now, that provision is up in smoke, apparently as a compromise measure to ensure passage of the other provisions, according to the New York Times:

Henry T. Perea, a moderate Democrat who was a leader of the opposition to the petroleum measure, said he would support the measure—Senate Bill 350—in this form, which he called a compromise…

The measure was the subject of an intense campaign directed by the Western States Petroleum Association, which labeled the bill "the California Gas Restriction Act of 2015" in television advertisements and mailings. The president of the organization, Catherine Reheis-Boyd, applauded the decision to drop this proposal and said that oil companies "remain committed to working with Gov. Jerry Brown and legislators on climate change and energy policy."

Mr. Brown told reporters in Sacramento that he would use his executive powers to continue to force the kinds of reductions in global emissions that have been a central goal of his governorship. "Oil has won the skirmish, but they've lost the bigger battle," he said.


Advertise on

Obama's Climate Plan Just Won Another Key Victory in Court

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 5:54 PM EDT

Last year, President Barack Obama released an early version of his plan to crack down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants—the cornerstone of his climate change agenda. Right away, a dozen coal-reliant states and coal companies fired back with a pair of lawsuits aimed at blocking the plan from going into effect. The challenges failed: A federal court in DC ruled that they would have to wait until the rules were finalized.

They tried again last month, when the final details were announced. But this afternoon, they got smacked down again because the rules, while now final, still haven't been published in the federal register (that process typically takes months). Here's the ruling:


Once again, the complaining parties were just too eager to chomp at the bit, said David Doniger, director of climate policy at the Natural Resources Defense Council. Counting this challenge, the previous one, and several prior attempts to squelch Obama's climate plan, he said, "they're batting 0-8 in premature challenges."

"It's not a great track record. You don't want to bring a succession of losing cases, because you get a bad reputation before the court."

The battle isn't over yet: You can count on the same cast of characters trying the same shenanigans when the rule is finally published sometime in October. 

Everything You Need to Know About California Climate Change in One Chart

| Wed Sep. 9, 2015 5:28 PM EDT

You've heard a lot about California's current historic drought. But the state is also experiencing some of the hottest temperatures on record, and the latest data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration show just how warm the past couple of years have been. In the graph below, courtesy of a tweet from the Pacific Institute's Peter Gleick, each dot represents the average temperature over the course of a year, from September of one year to August of the following.


President Obama Eats a Half-Mauled Salmon Carcass in Alaska and Likes It Very Much

| Tue Sep. 8, 2015 11:55 AM EDT

President Obama recently returned from a three-day trip to Alaska and the Arctic to push his climate agenda, but not before recording a clip for the reality TV show Running Wild with Bear Grylls for NBC. Grylls is the irrepressible British TV star who has made a career of eating absolutely anything to get out of pickles in the wilderness—combined with his survivalist know-how and occasional nudity.

In the short clip, broadcast on Today this morning, the president can be seen gingerly nibbling on the "bloody carcass" of an salmon that Grylls has cooked up on a portable stove after finding it on a riverbank. The fish had been previously chewed on by an actual bear, Grylls informed the president.

The verdict: "Bear's a mediocre cook, but the fact that we ate something recognizable was encouraging," Obama said—referring to Grylls's penchant for eating just about anything, like raw snake or giant larva. "Now, the fact that he told me this was a leftover fish from a bear, I don't know if that was necessary," the president said. "He could have just left that out."

Obama is called "the bear" himself occasionally, when he gets restless and starts doing unexpected things in public, outside the confines of his Secret Service bubble. "'The bear is loose': Is Obama breaking free or running away?" asked the Washington Post, last year. "As president, I am in what's called the bubble, and Secret Service makes sure that I'm always out of danger, which I very much appreciate, but it can be a little confining," he told Grylls, according to Today.

"This has got to be one of the best days of my presidency," he said.

Obama also ate dog meat as a child, which, you'll remember, unleashed a torrent of attacks from conservatives.

Correction: I wrongly referred to the salmon enjoyed by Obama and Grylls as "Atlantic" in an earlier version of this post. As Paul Arden, the communications director for congressman Jared Huffman (D-CA), points out by email: "Where'd you get the bit about it being Atlantic salmon? Should be Pacific salmon if it really did come from a bear? Looked like coho or sockeye…"

Kids Who Breathe More Pollution Have Lower Grades

| Sat Sep. 5, 2015 6:00 AM EDT

A growing body of evidence suggests pollution can do a number on the brain. The July/August Mother Jones cover story chronicled the research connecting neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's to the dirty air we breathe; studies have found that pollution may also age the brain prematurely. And according to new research from the University of Texas-El Paso, pollution's damage to the brain may start even sooner than was previously thought: Fourth and fifth graders exposed to exhaust emissions, researchers found, don't do as well in school as their peers who breathe cleaner air.

The new findings suggest poor students might be at a greater disadvantage because of pollution levels near their homes.

Using the Environmental Protection Agency's National Air Toxics Assessment, researchers estimated how often children were exposed to air pollution in their homes. They then compared that data with the academic performance of close to 1,900 kids enrolled in the El Paso Independent School District (EPISD)—an area prone to high levels of pollution.

Adjusting for other factors that can influence school performance, like socioeconomic status and parents' education levels, the researchers found that students exposed to more emissions had lower grade-point averages. Areas included in the study were ranked by the amount of air pollution, and students living in areas with the highest levels (in the top 75 percent) had GPAs that were 0.031 points below those who lived where the air was cleaner.

The researchers also found that pollution from "non-road mobile sources"—such as airports, construction vehicles, and trains—had the greatest impact on GPA, even though factories and vehicle emissions often receive the most attention from policymakers.

The American Lung Association reports that some 139 million people—close to half of the nation's population—live in areas with air that the group deems "too dangerous to breathe," and the UTEP researchers highlighted that low-income families are more likely to live in the most polluted areas. Poverty alone has been connected to adverse affects on childhood brain development, but the new findings suggest poor students might be at an even greater disadvantage because of pollution levels near their homes.

"This study and this body of literature about air pollution is demonstrating one more negative effect of air pollution in our environment," says researcher Sara Grineski. "There are many studies that show that higher levels of air pollution are associated with so many negative effects, from asthma, respiratory infections, cardiovascular disease, and autism, to reduced school performance."

Grineski and her coauthor believe their findings indicate an even greater urgency to implement policies that will curb emissions. "The finding that there is a significant association between residential exposure to air toxins and GPA at the individual level is both novel and disturbing," they write. "These findings provide another piece of evidence that should inform advocacy for pollution reduction in the USA and beyond."