Blue Marble

One Good Thing to Come Out of California's Drought Is This Luminous Book

| Tue Sep. 29, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

What if, contrary to current El Niño predictions, California never again catches a break from drought? Such is the world imagined by Mojave Desert-bred Claire Vaye Watkins in her electrifying debut novel Gold Fame Citrus. 

Watkins was born in Bishop, California, a small city in the Sierra Nevada's eastern foothills, and grew up in parched territory nearby. She first made waves with her short story collection, Battleborn, which won the Dylan Thomas prize and the New York Library Young Lions Fiction Award. Vogue called Watkins "the most captivating voice to come out of the West since Annie Proulx."

Gold Fame Citrus opens with young couple Luz and Ray eking out an existence in a vacant mansion in what was once Los Angeles, during a "drought of droughts," under the "ever-beaming, ever-heating, ever-evaporating sun." Bronzed Luz, wafer-thin and grimy, traipses around the mansion in a starlet's old robes, dodging rats and scorpions and living as "basically another woman's ghost," while Ray, usually shirtless with long, unbound curls, attempts to turn the villa into a survival bunker. 

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements.

In this vision of the not-so-distant future, the West has run dry. Its citizens, who had once crowded California in search of "gold, fame, citrus," are now referred to as Mojavs and are all mostly banned from the more lush parts of the country. Water is rationed in paltry jugs at precise points of the day.

While attending a demented raindance festival, Luz and Ray encounter a strange girl they call "Ig," who clings to the couple and soon thrusts herself into their lives. Afraid of the vagabonds who might come looking for Ig, the improvised family flees Southern California in a search for more fertile territory, passing nomads, forest graveyards, and anthropomorphized sand dunes along the way.

Watkins' prose sizzles, her pen morphing sentences into glimmering new arrangements. While surrealist fiction is often striking for the fantastical scenery it conjures, Gold Fame Citrus haunted me with its references to objects I now take for granted. In a passage describing the only fruit still available in Luz and Ray's world, Watkins writes:

Hard sour strawberries and blackberries filled with dust. Flaccid carrots, ashen spinach, cracked olives, bruised hundred-dollar mangos, all-pith oranges, shriveled lemons, boozy tangerines, raspberries with gassed aphids curled in their hearts, an avocado whose crumbling taupe innards once made you weep.

Just as she turns a familiar landscape into a mysterious and foreboding geography, Watkins breathes new life into words we thought we knew well. Gold Fame Citrus will hypnotize you like a dream, and make you want to take a big swig of the water we have left.

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NASA Scientists Just Discovered Liquid Water on Mars

| Mon Sep. 28, 2015 10:37 AM EDT

Scientists have known for several years that there is ice on the surface of Mars. But liquid surface water—which many believe would be a prerequisite for life—has remained elusive. Until now.

This morning, NASA scientists announced that satellite images have revealed traces of liquid water on Mars' surface. The water is salty, which keeps it from quickly freezing or evaporating.

From the New York Times:

The researchers were able to identify the telltale sign of a hydrated salt at four locations. In addition, the signs of the salt disappeared when the streaks faded. "It's very definitive there is some sort of liquid water," [lead scientist Lujendra] Ojha said…

Liquid water is considered one of the essential ingredients for life, and its presence raises the question of whether Mars, which appears so dry and barren, could possess niches of habitability for microbial Martians.

Here's a bit more detail from the Guardian:

Liquid water runs down canyons and crater walls over the summer months…The trickles leave long, dark stains on the Martian terrain that can reach hundreds of metres downhill in the warmer months, before they dry up in the autumn as surface temperatures drop. Images taken from the Mars orbit show cliffs, and the steep walls of valleys and craters, streaked with summertime flows that in the most active spots combine to form intricate fan-like patterns.

Scientists are unsure where the water comes from, but it may rise up from underground ice or salty aquifers, or condense out of the thin Martian atmosphere.

Look! In The Sky! It's a Bird! It's a Plane! AND THEY'RE ON FIRE! Oh Wait, It's a Blood Moon.

| Sun Sep. 27, 2015 6:45 PM EDT

The Blood Moon starts at 10:11pm ET! You can watch it live here. Or you can go outside and look at it IRL. But you won't do that because you're an internet shut-in. No judgment!


What is a Blood Moon?

It is not the end of the world.

It is, well, let this video explain:

China's Climate Plan Isn't Crazy and Might Actually Work

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 2:30 PM EDT

Today Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Barack Obama are planning to jointly announce long-awaited details of China's plan to slash its greenhouse gas emissions by putting a price on carbon dioxide pollution. The plan, which will commence in 2017, will make China the world's biggest market for carbon cap-and-trade, a system that sets a cap on the amount of CO2 that major polluters like power plants and factories can emit, then allows those entities to sell off excess credits (if they pollute less than the limit) or buy extra ones (if they pollute more than the limit).

The idea of a system like this is that it uses the market—rather than simply a government mandate—to force cuts in the emissions that cause climate change. Want to pollute? Fine, but it's going to cost you. If you clean up, you can make cash selling credits to your dirtier neighbors. A similar type of policy, a carbon tax, imposes a different kind of financial incentive in the form of a fee paid to the government for every unit of CO2 emissions. Ultimately, the rationale behind both systems is the same: Because corporate polluters now have to pay a financial price price for their emissions, air pollution and fossil fuel consumption both go down, clean energy goes up, and the climate is saved.

Many environmental economists agree that some kind of carbon price—either cap-and-trade or a tax—is the most efficient and effective way to quickly curb fossil fuel consumption, and thus give us a chance at staving off global warming. Democrats in Congress attempted to enact a national cap-and-trade program in the US in 2009; it passed the House but was killed by the Senate Republicans. Since then, a national carbon pricing system has been a non-starter in Washington. But there are plenty of other examples of successful systems elsewhere that should make us optimistic about China's new plan.

The Northeast United States: The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI) is a cap-and-trade market that includes nine states in the Northeast, set up in 2008. The program is widely considered a success and is expected to reduce the region's power-sector emissions by 45 percent compared to 2005 levels by 2020. This year, the price of credits has been riding high, a sign that the market is working to create a powerful incentive to reduce emissions. The most recent auction of credits, in September, generated in $152.7 million for the states—revenue that is re-invested in clean energy programs and electric bill assistance for low-income households.

California: When Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through legislation in 2006 to set aggressive climate targets for the state, the key mechanism was a cap-and-trade program, which finally opened in 2013. So far, it seems to be working. Emissions are down, while GDP is up. In fact, the California program was a primary model for the Chinese system.

British Columbia: This Canadian province's carbon tax, first enacted in 2008, is one of the most successful carbon pricing plans anywhere. Gasoline consumption is way down, and the government has raised billions that it has returned to citizens in the form of tax cuts for low-income households and small businesses. The program "made climate action real to people," one Canadian environmentalist told my former colleague Chris Mooney.

Australia: For a country that is notoriously reliant on coal, Australia had been on the progressive side of climate politics after it passed a national carbon tax in 2012. The tax was scrapped just two years later, after then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott blamed it for a sluggish economic recovery and high energy prices. But the repeal actually yielded an unexpected insight into the success of the program: In the first quarter without the tax, emissions jumped for the first time since prior to the global financial crisis. In other words, the tax had worked effectively to drive down emissions.

Europe: Of course, carbon pricing systems aren't without their flaws, and the European Trading Scheme has provided a good example of the risks. The system has often been plagued by a too-high cap, meaning the market becomes flooded with credits, the price drops, and polluters have little incentive to change. This month, regulators passed a package of reforms meant to restrict the number of credits and bolster the market. But even with the low price, the ETS has been effective enough to keep the EU on track to meet its stated climate goals.   

Even with these good examples to draw from, there are still challenges ahead for China. How will the government allocate credits among different polluters? Will the polluters actually trade with one another? How effectively will the government be able to monitor emissions, to ensure that the credits actually match real pollution?

But at the very least, Republicans in the US just lost one their favorite excuses for climate inaction: That China, the world's biggest emitter, is doing nothing.

The Feds Have a Secret Plan to Stop the Next Car Pollution Scandal

| Fri Sep. 25, 2015 10:46 AM EDT
A VW plant in Germany.

Days after Volkswagen admitted that half a million cars it sold in the United States contained software enabling them to evade clean air laws, top Environmental Protection Agency officials say they are planning to toughen emissions testing for all automakers. The EPA now plans to examine vehicles for so-called defeat devices.

In a letter released this morning, the EPA said federal regulations allow the agency to "test or require testing on any vehicle at a designated location, using driving cycles and conditions that may reasonably be expected to be encountered in normal operation and use, for the purposes of investigating a potential defeat device." The EPA said it planned to begin conducting these additional procedures when vehicles undergo emissions and fuel economy testing, and it warned that the new procedures "may add time to the confirmatory test process and…additional mileage may be accumulated."

"We are stepping up our testing," Janet McCabe, the EPA's acting assistant administrator, told reporters. "We take seriously our responsibility to oversee the enforcement of clean air regulations. The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."

"The VW violations have made it clear that we need to adapt our oversight."

Last Friday, the EPA issued a citation to Volkswagen for equipping nearly 500,000 diesel-powered cars sold since 2009 with software that can detect when the car is undergoing federal testing for smog-forming emissions. During the test, the cars meet the standard; under normal driving conditions, emissions are up to 40 times higher. Similar devices were installed on some 11 million VW cars worldwide, producing illegal air pollution that may contribute to thousands of deaths. The resulting scandal devastated VW's share value and forced the ouster of its CEO.

The EPA is currently investigating the full extent of the illegal software program and could ultimately deliver up to $18 billion in fines. Today's announcement doesn't affect that investigation. Officials said no recall has been announced and that if one is eventually called for, VW drivers will hear about it directly from the company.

EPA chief Gina McCarthy said the agency is concerned that other automakers could have similar devices that have gone undetected. Even if they don't, VW is responsible for a new raft of regulatory headaches for all companies that want to sell cars in the United States.

Chris Grundler, director of the EPA's Office of Transportation, wouldn't say exactly how his agency would sniff out defeat devices. But it would add additional time and rigor to the testing process, he said.

"We're not going to tell them what the test is," he said. "They don't need to know."

Did Pope Francis Soften His Climate Message for Congress?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2015 9:42 AM EDT

In the run-up to Pope Francis' address to Congress today, there was a lot of speculation about how his climate change message would play in a chamber where action on climate often goes to die. Most of the pontiff's positions on global warming are not popular with Republican members of Congress—especially the fact that it exists, and that humans are causing it.

We got a bit of a preview during the pope's speech yesterday at the White House, where he laid out his typically forceful message on the need to fight global warming. He even favorably mentioned President Barack Obama's new restrictions on power plant emissions:

Mr. President, I find it encouraging that you are proposing an initiative for reducing air pollution. (Applause.) Accepting the urgency, it seems clear to me also that climate change is a problem which can no longer be left to our future generation. (Applause.) When it comes to the care of our common home, we are living at a critical moment of history. We still have time to make the change needed to bring about a sustainable and integral development, for we know that things can change. (Applause.)

But a draft of the pope's speech to Congress this morning lays out a considerably softer message on climate. He cites his landmark encyclical on climate, Laudato Si, but he doesn't use the phrase "climate change" at all:

It goes without saying that part of this great effort is the creation and distribution of wealth. The right use of natural resources, the proper application of technology and the harnessing of the spirit of enterprise are essential elements of an economy which seeks to be modern, inclusive and sustainable. "Business is a noble vocation, directed to producing wealth and improving the world. It can be a fruitful source of prosperity for the area in which it operates, especially if it sees the creation of jobs as an essential part of its service to the common good" (Laudato Si’, 129). This common good also includes the earth, a central theme of the encyclical which I recently wrote in order to "enter into dialogue with all people about our common home" (ibid., 3). "We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all" (ibid., 14).

In Laudato Si’, I call for a courageous and responsible effort to "redirect our steps" (ibid., 61), and to avert the most serious effects of the environmental deterioration caused by human activity. I am convinced that we can make a difference and I have no doubt that the United States – and this Congress – have an important role to play. Now is the time for courageous actions and strategies, aimed at implementing a "culture of care" (ibid., 231) and "an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature" (ibid., 139). "We have the freedom needed to limit and direct technology" (ibid., 112); "to devise intelligent ways of... developing and limiting our power" (ibid., 78); and to put technology "at the service of another type of progress, one which is healthier, more human, more social, more integral" (ibid., 112). In this regard, I am confident that America's outstanding academic and research institutions can make a vital contribution in the years ahead.

The message today is much softer, much less direct. Perhaps Pope Francis didn't want to tread too heavily on the message in a room that wouldn't be receptive to it.

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How Scientific Are the US Dietary Guidelines?

| Thu Sep. 24, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

Later this year, the US government is set to unveil its new dietary guidelines—advice on what Americans should eat to stay healthy. The guidelines, once known as the Food Pyramid, are updated every five years and are hugely influential: They affect everything from food labeling and doctors' advice to school lunch menus, aid programs for low-income families, and research priorities at the National Institutes of Health. They also have some clout globally, with governments in other Western countries often adopting similar nutrition policies.

In the 2015 report for the new guidelines, the advisory committee said it did not use Nutrition Evidence Library reviews for more than 70 percent of topics it covered.

So how exactly does the US government come up with these guidelines? The process might be less scientific than you'd expect, according to a new investigation in a major British medical journal that suggests Big Food is playing too big of a role in the government's dietary recommendations.

The guidelines, writes journalist Nina Teicholz in the BMJ journal, are based on a report by the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, a panel of experts tasked with reviewing scientific studies on nutrition. For years, the advisory committee faced criticism about its review process, so in 2010 the US Department of Agriculture created the Nutrition Evidence Library, which set up a system to methodically evaluate scientific research based on a hierarchy of evidence and a transparent grading process.

But in the 2015 report for the new guidelines, the advisory committee said it did not use NEL reviews for more than 70 percent of topics it covered; instead, Teicholz found, the committee used studies by outside professional organizations, including some with backing from Big Food, like the American Heart Association (which she says received 20 percent of its revenue from industry in 2014) and the American College of Cardiology (which she says received 38 percent of its revenue from industry in 2012).

In her investigation, Teicholz also examined the industry ties of specific members of the advisory committee, finding that they received support from groups like the California Walnut Commission, the International Tree Nut Council, Unilever, and Lluminari, a health media company that works with General Mills, PepsiCo, and Stonyfield Farm. "While there is no evidence that these potential conflicts of interest influenced the committee members, the [2015 dietary guidelines] report recommends a high consumption of vegetable oils and nuts," Teicholz writes, while noting that most scientists in the field of nutrition receive some support from industry due to a shortage of public research funding.

Teicholz, author of The Big Fat Surprise, a book about the politics behind dietary fat recommendations, takes particular issue with the advisory committee's push to restrict saturated fats, which it describes as a form of "empty calories." She writes, "Unlike sugar, saturated fats are mostly consumed as an inherent part of foods such as eggs, meat, and dairy, which together contain nearly all the vitamins and minerals needed for good health." She says the committee also did not sufficiently consider studies showing that low-carbohydrate diets are effective for promoting weight loss and improving heart disease risk factors.

Barbara Millen, the chair of the advisory committee, rejects allegations that the committee's dietary recommendations are not supported by science. "The evidence base has never been stronger to guide solutions," she was quoted as saying in the BMJ. "You don't simply answer these questions on the basis of the NEL [Nutrition Evidence Library]. Where we didn't feel we needed to, we didn't do them. On topics where there were existing comprehensive guidelines, we didn't do them."

Millen defended the recommendations on saturated fat and said there had been insufficient evidence to consider low-carbohydrate diets, while adding that committee members were vetted by counsel to the federal government. But Teicholz isn't convinced: "It may be time to ask our authorities to convene an unbiased and balanced panel of scientists to undertake a comprehensive review, in order to ensure that selection of the dietary guidelines committee becomes more transparent, with better disclosure of the conflicts of interest, and that the most rigorous scientific evidence is reliably used to produce the best possible nutrition policy," she writes.

Update: The US Department of Health and Human Services has issued a statement about the BMJ article: "The British Medical Journal’s decision to publish this article is unfortunate given the prevalence of factual errors. HHS and USDA required the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee to conduct a rigorous, systematic and transparent review of the current body of nutrition science. Following an 19-month open process, documented for the public on, the external expert committee submitted its report to the Secretaries of HHS and USDA. HHS and USDA are considering the Scientific Report of the 2015 Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee, along with comments from the public and input from federal agencies, as we develop the 2015 Dietary Guidelines for Americans to be released later this year."

Hillary Clinton Opposes the Keystone Pipeline

| Tue Sep. 22, 2015 3:41 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton has long declined to take a position on whether or not the Obama administration should approve the Keystone XL oil pipeline. That just changed. At a campaign event Tuesday in Des Moines, Iowa, Clinton came out against the controversial project.

Here's her statement, via NBC:

"I think it is imperative that we look at the Keystone XL pipeline as what I believe it is: A distraction from the important work we have to do to combat climate change, and, unfortunately from my perspective, one that interferes with our ability to move forward and deal with other issues," she said during a campaign event in Iowa Tuesday.

"Therefore, I oppose it. I oppose it because I don't think it's in the best interest of what we need to do to combat climate change."

Clinton now joins the ranks of two of her opponents in the Democratic presidential primary, Bernie Sanders and Martin O'Malley, who have both opposed the pipeline. Democrat Jim Webb, however, supports the project, along with all of the Republican candidates. A final decision, which has been years in the making, is expected from the Obama administration by the end of this year.

Which States Are the Most Obese?

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 5:24 PM EDT

Bulging waistlines have become the new normal in the United States, according to Monday's "State of Obesity" report. Though only five states saw increases in adult obesity last year, researchers noted little improvement to the nation's weight crisis overall: The average American adult is 24 pounds heavier than in 1980, when obesity rates were less than half of their present levels. The report is published annually by Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

With more than one-third of Americans considered obese and nearly 70 percent of them overweight, rates of obesity-linked diseases have also risen steadily. Across the South and the Midwest, where the obesity crisis is most severe (Arkansas, West Virginia, and Mississippi topped the scales in this year's report), rates of hypertension and diabetes climbed past record highs. Racial and economic disparities are also acute: Nearly half of black adults are now obese, compared with just under one-third of white adults. The researchers said higher rates of food insecurity, targeted marketing of unhealthy foods, and unequal health care access were all factors contributing to the disparity.

But the researchers also note a few areas where policy and lifestyle have curbed crisis-level rates. Obesity was less of an issue in states out West and in the Northeast, where sedentary lifestyles are less common. (The nation's slimmest state, Colorado, also had the lowest rate of physical inactivity). And while the child obesity rate remains three times its level from 1980, the researchers add that outreach to parents, programs offering nutrition assistance, and healthy-eating campaigns in schools seem to be making a difference: Obesity among children has declined since 2004.

Trust for America's Health and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation

Volkswagen's Shares Veer off Cliff After Automaker Admits It Cheated Pollution Tests

| Mon Sep. 21, 2015 11:12 AM EDT

Investors severely punished Volkswagen when trading opened on Monday morning in Europe, driving the German automaker's stock price off a cliff. The steep decline comes after the US Environmental Protection Agency accused the company of evading federal clean air laws, and its CEO was forced to apologize. The rout wiped away nearly a quarter of the company's share value virtually overnight—about 15.4 billion euros ($17.4 billion), according to Bloomberg. As of Monday morning US time, the price had rebounded a bit.

On Friday, the EPA handed down a damning citation to VW outlining a plot that, while highly nefarious, is pretty impressive in its scope: According to the EPA, the company outfitted half a million diesel-powered cars sold in the United States with software called a "defeat device" that could detect when the car was being officially tested for toxic emissions. During the test, the cars' computers would apply extra pollution controls; for the rest of the time, when the cars were being driven on the road, smog-forming emissions were up to 40 times higher than the legal limit.

It's unclear how far up the chain of command the deception reached. On Sunday, VW CEO Martin Winterkorn said he was "deeply sorry" for breaking the public trust and ordered an internal investigation. That won't stop the ongoing US investigation, which could ultimately result in up to $18 billion in fines. Monday's stock plunge wiped out nearly that same amount.