Blue Marble

Shit Is About to Get Real in California, El Niño Report Predicts

| Fri Dec. 11, 2015 7:00 AM EST
El Niño storms caused California's Russian River to flood in 1998. Scientists predict that this year's rains will rival those of the 1997-98 season.

After four years of drought, Californians are bracing for another potentially destructive weather event: El Niño. Earlier this week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, released a disaster plan including what to expect from the upcoming rainy season. Here are the key takeaways:

  • This may be the strongest El Niño on record. Weather reports indicate that this year will be warm and wet—perhaps even more so than the winter of 1997-1998, which is currently the strongest recorded El Niño. That year, California evacuated 100,000 people.
  • The dry conditions mean more flooding. The lack of soil moisture has made the soil "harden and act like cement," making it, paradoxically, less likely to soak up the rain. The chance of flooding is far higher than usual, especially in the productive farm country of the Central Valley and the surrounding area—including the state's capital. "The primary risk areas are in populated areas mostly notably in Sacramento," the report reads—and because of that, "a major flood situation would have significant impact on the economic, cultural, and political life of California." Additionally, a catastrophic levee failure in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta would jeopardize a major source of water for 60 percent of California homes and for a portion of the state's agricultural industry." One in five Californians lives in a flood zone.
  • Wildfires in the summer mean more landslides in the winter. The wildfire season this year was devastating in California, scorching more than 300,000 acres. Mudslides are common in these scorched areas, called "burn scars," because water quickly runs off and there aren't trees to keep the soil, rocks, and other debris in place. Southern Californians got a little taste of what this might look like when rain led to severe landslides in October.
  • King Tides, El Niño, and the Blob mean higher sea levels and more potential damage. Sea levels typically rise a few inches during El Niño, but this winter, scientists predict that the giant swath of warm water off the West Coast—dubbed the Blob—will lead to a rise of between 8 and 11 inches. State officials are particularly concerned about the potential damage caused by storms toward the end of both December and January, when the highest tides of the winter, called King Tides, are expected.
  • The rains may ease the drought but won't solve it.  All this water will certainly ease the drought and raise levels in the state's depleted reservoirs. But because the state is so behind on precipitation, it's very unlikely that it will make up for the state's now four-year water deficit.

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The Government’s New Food Rules Will Be a Huge Deal. Bacon Lovers Are Not Going to Be Happy.

| Wed Dec. 9, 2015 8:48 PM EST

The Obama administration is soon expected to reveal its new dietary guidelines for Americans, with advice about which foods to pile onto your plate—and which ones to avoid—if you want to stay healthy.

Once illustrated by the Food Pyramid (and now by a circular graphic called MyPlate), the guidelines are updated every five years, and they're hugely influential, affecting everything from school lunch menus and government agricultural subsidies to aid programs for low-income families and research priorities at health agencies. They're supposed to be based on scientific studies and recommendations from nutrition experts, but given all the different theories about what makes a healthy diet—not to mention all the different stakeholders, including Big Ag—past guidelines have sparked plenty of controversy. This year's drafting process has been particularly contentious. Here's a primer:

Meat eaters, take note. The government has cautioned in the past against eating too much red meat. But this year, the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee—which reviews scientific studies and gives the government advice about how to write its guidelines—has recommended that you watch your intake of all meats, including leaner options like chicken, as my colleague Maddie Oatman reported in February. Seafood will probably still be considered healthy, though, and the government will likely scrap its previous advice about limiting cholesterol—which means that you can replace your breakfast sausage and bacon with a hearty helping of eggs.

Watch that sweet tooth. The new guidelines will likely recommend that you cut down your sugar intake—big time. The Advisory Committee concluded that most people shouldn't consume more than about four to nine teaspoons of sugar per day, depending on your body mass index. What does that mean for your snacking? A single eight-ounce cup of low-fat strawberry yogurt has six teaspoons of sugar, to put things in perspective. Right now, some studies suggest we eat as many as 30 teaspoons of sugar every day. Here's a look at several surprisingly high sources.

The government has cautioned in the past against eating too much red meat, but this year it might recommend that you watch your intake of all meats.

Shoddy science? In September, food writer and activist Nina Teicholz ruffled feathers by questioning the scientific integrity of the dietary guidelines. In an investigation published by a major British medical journal, she claimed that the Advisory Committee had used some studies by outside professional organizations with backing from Big Food, like the American Heart Association. She also claimed that some members of the committee had received support from groups like the International Tree Nut Council, Unilever, and Lluminari, a health media company that works with General Mills and PepsiCo. The government fired back, arguing that Teicholz's claims were based on factual errors and that the Advisory Committee had conducted "a rigorous, systematic and transparent review of the current body of nutrition science." More than 180 scientists called for a retraction of Teicholz's investigation, but others have agreed that the food industry plays too big a role in what the government tells us to eat. (Check out this Mother Jones feature about how Big Dairy has convinced the government to promote milk, despite evidence showing that too much of it may be harmful for adults.)

Sorry, tree huggers. This year's dietary guidelines won't consider the environmental footprint of foods—and that'll make Big Ag happy. Back in February, the Advisory Committee published a report urging the government to focus on sustainability as a component of healthy eating. Committee members argued that if we don't think about the planet now—by promoting diets high in fruits and vegetables and lower in meat products—we'll likely face problems later on. "Access to sufficient, nutritious, and safe food is an essential element of food security for the U.S. population," they wrote. "A sustainable diet is one that assures this access for both the current population and future populations." That advice didn't please Big Ag, whose backers sent letters to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, arguing that environmental impact was beyond the scope of the dietary guidelines. And he listened: In October, Vilsack made it known that the guidelines would pinpoint good foods for human health—not foods with a light impact on the planet.

Flavored E-Cigarettes May Be Worse for You Than Nicotine

| Wed Dec. 9, 2015 7:00 AM EST

"An exotic fusion of pineapple and coconut with champagne infused blueberries."

"Creamy milk chocolate and rich peanut butter flavors."

No, these are not excerpts from the dessert menu at a fancy hotel. They're some of the latest offerings from the makers of vape pens and e-cigarettes—which are the same thing, more or less. As e-cigs gain traction (sales are expected to soar seventeenfold over the next 15 years), manufacturers are having a heyday concocting flavors that can be inhaled—an estimated 7,000 to date. Public health experts warn of the addictive nicotine in e-cigs and vaping fluids, and their potential to serve as a "gateway" to tobacco, especially for teens. But a new Harvard study instead took a hard look at those tantalizing flavors—and found that a majority, at least of the samples tested, contained chemicals linked to a dangerous lung disease.

Researchers tested 51 e-cig flavorings, including "Cupcake" and "Alien Blood," and found chemicals linked to lung disease in 47 of them.

Researchers at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health analyzed various e-cig and vape pen liquids for the presence of three related chemicals—diacetyl, 2,3-pentanedione, and acetoin—that are also used in artificial butter flavorings. By the turn of the 21st century, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) had deemed diacetyl safe to eat, but little was known about what happened when a person inhales it. Then, in the early 2000s, workers at several plants that manufacture microwave popcorn came down with a nasty lung disease after prolonged exposure to the fake-butter fumes. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated cases of this so-called popcorn lung and later released guidelines for dealing with diacetyl in the workplace, along with a list of foods that contain the chemical. "Current evidence points to diacetyl as one agent that can cause flavorings-related lung disease," notes the CDC's National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health. NIOSH says it is uncertain whether the other two compounds pose health risks, but it points out their chemical similarities to diacetyl.

Now the popcorn-lung chemicals are turning up in vape pens. The Harvard researchers tested 51 e-cigarette flavorings they deemed appealing to youths—think "Cupcake" and "Alien Blood"—and found diacetyl in 37 of them. At least one of the three suspect chemicals was present in 47 of the 51 samples. The researchers could not determine conclusively that using an e-cig flavored with these chemicals is harmful. But they pointed out that "the heating, vaporization, and subsequent inhalation" creates "an exposure pathway" similar to that of the microwave popcorn workers. Two of the flavors tested—"menthol" and "tobacco"—do not appear on the OSHA's list of flavors likely to contain diacetyl.

Since they landed on the market in 2004, e-cigarettes and vape pens have been dogged by controversy. Fans claim they are far less toxic than regular cigarettes and might even help tobacco smokers quit. Public health officials counter that it's too early to know very much about e-cigs' health effects, especially on young people. (Their use among teens tripled from 2013 to 2014.) At least 43 states have placed age restrictions on the sale or possession of the products.

The FDA does not currently regulate e-cigarettes—it has stalled for years in proceeding with proposed rules that would allow it to regulate the devices as tobacco products. But given the new findings, the agency may want to take a closer look at the sweet flavors that make the nicotine go down.

The House Just Voted to Ban Those Tiny Pieces of Plastic in Your Toothpaste

| Tue Dec. 8, 2015 5:55 PM EST
A sample of microbeads collected in Lake Erie

Yesterday, the US House of Representatives voted to phase out microbeads, the little pieces of plastic that act as exfoliants in personal-care products ranging from face wash to toothpaste. The bill, which was introduced last year by Rep. Frank Pallone (D-N.J.), would ban the use of synthetic microplastics in cosmetics by 2018. Sens. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and Gary Peters (D-Mich.) introduced companion legislation in May.

Environmental advocates have expressed concern for years over the beads, which are so small that they aren't caught in water treatment plants. There are roughly 300,000 microbeads in a single tube of face wash; by some estimates, Americans dump roughly 300 tons of the beads per year into US waterways. The microplastics, which serve as a sponge for toxins, are frequently confused by fish as food and make their way up the food chain—they've turned up in tuna and swordfish.

Several states have enacted microbead bans, starting with Illinois in 2014. California passed the strictest legislation yet in October this year, banning both synthetic and biodegradable plastics. (Many experts argue that there is no such thing as plastic that can biodegrade in ocean conditions.) If it becomes law, the national legislation, which only focuses on synthetic plastics, would supersede these state bans.

Here are a few products with and without the plastic beads. If you're curious about a product you use, look for polyethylene on the ingredient list.

 

Jane Goodall Just Called Out Republicans on Climate Change

| Mon Dec. 7, 2015 11:09 AM EST
Jane Goodall spoke with reporters at a briefing in Paris on Monday. She was joined by "Mr. H," a stuffed chimp that she has traveled with for 30 years.

At the major climate summit in Paris on Monday, renowned conservationist Jane Goodall called for Republicans in Congress to back down from opposing an international agreement on climate change.

"Success [at the Paris climate summit] would be a binding agreement to limit carbon," she said in a briefing with reporters. But "a binding agreement isn't much use unless it leads to actions and implementation. So there has to be a commitment to go back to your nation and follow through."

Republicans in Congress need to "just sit down and forget about politics," Jane Goodall said.

Asked whether that will happen in the United States, Goodall said, "It depends on who the next president is, doesn't it?" All the leading Republican presidential candidatesmost recently (and colorfully) Chris Christie—have said they would walk back President Barack Obama's climate agenda. Most of them reject mainstream climate science, as well. The Democratic candidates have all taken the opposite position, wanting to push action on climate change beyond what Obama has been able to achieve.

This week, diplomats from nearly every nation on Earth are huddled in Paris to finalize a sweeping global agreement to limit greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the impacts of climate change. Prior to the summit, Obama offered a commitment from the United States to reduce the nation's greenhouse gas emissions by one-third by 2025. That commitment is backed by regulations based on existing US law—the Clean Air Act—but the commitment itself is unlikely to be legally binding internationally. Last week in Paris, Obama said other parts of the agreement should be binding, including a requirement that countries periodically revisit and possibly strengthen their carbon reduction targets.

But at the same time—back in Washington, DC—Republicans in Congress have taken steps to sabotage the Paris negotiations, passing legislation to block key parts of Obama's climate agenda. (Those resolutions will almost certainly remain symbolic, as they face a guaranteed veto from the president.)

Obama's statements notwithstanding, the US delegation in Paris could present obstacles to achieving a strong agreement as the talks move into their second and final week. One of the biggest issues on the table is international finance (i.e. how wealthy, high-polluting countries such the United States should help pay for climate change adaptation and clean energy in vulnerable developing countries). As Ben Adler reported last week for Climate Desk partner Grist:

Presumably the Obama administration would like to offer more climate finance, but it cannot without congressional authorization. Asking Republicans for foreign aid to solve a problem they claim doesn't even exist would be like asking them to pay for gay weddings. Instead, the Obama administration has to fight with Congress just to make sure the GOP doesn't strip what little climate finance the US has pledged, around $500 million per year until 2020, from the budget.

To Goodall, who spent more than 50 years studying chimps in Tanzania, these lawmakers are letting short-term politics obscure the bigger picture. They need to "just sit down and forget about politics," she said. "Think about your children and revisit your belief."

Donald Trump Just Gave the Dumbest Rebuttal to Obama's Big Paris Speech

| Tue Dec. 1, 2015 12:58 PM EST
 

What is Obama thinking?

A video posted by Donald J. Trump (@realdonaldtrump) on

On Monday, in Paris, President Barack Obama pressed world leaders to adopt an aggressive international agreement to curb climate change. To do so, he said, would be an "act of defiance" against the terrorists who killed 130 people in French capital on Nov. 13.

Donald Trump, a leading presidential contender who seems to relish getting scientific information as wrong as possible, is not happy about this. It's a "ridiculous situation," he said in the new Instagram post above, that Obama is "worried about global warming" while "the world is in turmoil and falling apart in so many ways, especially with ISIS."

It remains unclear how those things are contradictory. Also, Obama hasn't exactly been ignoring ISIS while in Paris, as Trump seems to suggest: He has repeatedly framed his presence at the climate talks as integral to the international campaign against terrorism.

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Want to Know What’s Happening in Paris This Week? Watch This

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 3:17 PM EST

Just a few weeks after a national poll found that most Americans want the United States to reduce its greenhouse gas footprint, the White House announced billions of dollars in new funding for clean energy innovations. Is solar paint the wave of the future? Will Republicans in Congress succeed in derailing the president's agenda for the climate summit in Paris? Zoe Schlanger of Climate Desk partner Newsweek and I visited the set of MSNBC's Greenhouse program this morning to discuss.

Check it out below:

Obama Just Called Saving the Planet an "Act of Defiance" Against Terror

| Mon Nov. 30, 2015 11:12 AM EST

A major two-week summit on climate change opened on Monday in Paris, and President Barack Obama was there to urge world leaders to push for a strong international agreement to slow global warming.

In his speech (video above), the president also offered a rebuke to the terrorists behind the November 13 attacks in the French capital that left 130 people dead.

The summit, he said, is "an act of defiance that proves nothing will deter us from building the future we want for our children."

Obama acknowledged America's unique responsibility for ensuring success at the talks, which are designed to produce an unprecedented agreement between nearly 200 nations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change. It's the first time nations have tried to reach that goal since the last major climate summit, in 2009 in Copenhagen, crumbled over disagreements between the United States, China, and developing nations.

In his second term, Obama has sought to make action on climate change a central part of his legacy; a strong agreement in Paris would be a vital component to that. "I've come here personally, as the leader of the world's largest economy and the second-largest emitter," Obama said, "to say that the United States of America not only recognizes our role in creating this problem, we embrace our responsibility to do something about it."

Prior to the speech, Obama met privately with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The two leaders have worked closely over the last year to advance a joint climate agenda. Xi also gave a speech, in which he said it was "very important for China and the United States to be firmly committed to the right direction of building a new model of major country relations."

Obama's remarks come a day after the White House announced a sweeping initiative to double public-sector investment in clean energy research and development from $5 billion to $10 billion by 2020. That new program, known as Mission Innovation, also includes more than a dozen major private-sector investors, including Bill Gates, Richard Branson, and Mark Zuckerberg. 

Finance for clean energy and for climate change adaptation is likely to be a major issue at the talks, as vulnerable nations in Africa, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere urge the United States and other major emitters to pony up more cash. At the last major climate summit in Copenhagen, countries agreed to raise $100 billion per year for a UN-administered climate adaptation fund. That goal is only about two-thirds met.

Purina Pet Food Is So Much More Disgusting Than We Even Knew

| Tue Nov. 24, 2015 9:16 PM EST
Nestlé's Fancy Feast cat food, with a "fish and shrimp feast" flavor, is a product of Thailand.

If you've ever purchased seafood or pet food from Nestlé, you may have unwittingly contributed to the abuse of migrant workers in Southeast Asia.

Burmese and Cambodian workers are tricked into laboring on Thai fishing boats after fleeing persecution and poverty at home.

On Monday, Nestlé admitted that it had found indications of forced labor, human trafficking, and child labor in its supply chain in Thailand, where the Switzerland-based company sources some of the seafood that it sells in supermarkets around the world, including in the United States. The findings came after an internal investigation that was launched by Nestlé in December last year, following reports by media and NGOs that linked the company's shrimp, prawns, and Purina brand pet foods with abusive working conditions.

Many of the workers in question are migrants from Thailand's less developed neighbors, Burma and Cambodia, who are tricked into laboring on fishing boats after fleeing persecution and poverty at home, according to the Massachusetts-based nonprofit Verité, which at Nestlé's request interviewed workers at six of the company's production sites in Thailand. Workers "had been subjected to deceptive recruitment practices that started in their home countries, transported to Thailand under inhumane conditions, charged with excessive fees leading to debt bondage in some cases, exposed to exploitative and hazardous working conditions, and, at the time of assessment, were living under sub-par to degrading conditions," Verité wrote in its report.

But Nestlé isn't the only one with a tainted supply chain: The mistreatment of migrants is systematic in Thailand's fishing sector, Verité found, meaning that other American and European companies that buy seafood from the country are likely complicit in similar labor abuses. These abuses have been highlighted by the US State Department, which last year downgraded Thailand to the lowest level in its annual report on human trafficking, and they underpin several lawsuits that have been filed recently against retailers including Nestlé and Costco Wholesale Corp. Steve Berman, managing partner of the law firm Hagens Berman, which in August filed a class-action lawsuit against Nestlé, told the New York Times that the company's report on Monday was "a step in the right direction," but added that "our litigation will go forward because Nestlé Purina still fails to disclose on its products, as is required by law, that slave labor was used in its making."

For its part, Nestlé has vowed to publish a strategy to protect workers in Thailand, including by bringing in outside auditors and training boat owners about human rights. "This will be neither a quick nor an easy endeavour, but we look forward to making significant progress in the months ahead," Magdi Batato, Nestlé’s executive vice president in charge of operations, said in a statement.

China Is Absolutely Destroying the US on Clean Energy

| Tue Nov. 24, 2015 5:13 PM EST
A worker installs solar panels on November 17 in Yantai, Shandong Province, in China.

When world leaders convene on Monday in Paris for two weeks of high-stakes climate negotiations, one of the top items on the agenda will be how developing nations should prepare for and help to slow global warming. Opponents to President Barack Obama's climate agenda, such as GOP presidential contender Marco Rubio, like to argue that anything the United States does to curb greenhouse gas emissions will be pointless because countries like India and China aren't doing the same.

But new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance shows that this argument is just hot air: For the first time ever, over the last year the majority of global investment in clean energy projects was spent in developing countries. In fact, clean energy investment in China alone outpaced that in the United States, the United Kingdom, and France combined, BNEF found. Across 55 major non-OECD countries, including India, Brazil, China, and Kenya, clean energy investment reached $126 billion in 2014, a record high and 39 percent higher than 2013 levels. 

The chart below shows how that level of investment is opening up a market for wind, solar, and other clean energy projects in non-OECD countries that is now larger than the market in the traditional strongholds of the United States and Europe. In other words, the very countries Rubio likes to malign as laggards are actually leading the charge.

BNEF

That trend is likely to continue for decades to come, BNEF found. Check out their projection for growth through 2040:

BNEF

These numbers add up to a big deal for the climate, because they show that countries in Africa and Southeast Asia that still lack reliable electricity for millions of people are solving that problem, and growing their economies, without relying on dirty fossil fuels. China, to be clear, is still the world's largest emitter of greenhouse gases, and it doesn't plan to peak its emissions until 2030. But its early commitment to clean energy means it can continue its rapid rate of growth with far less pollution than it would produce otherwise.

The BNEF report is just the most recent good sign for the clean energy business. Big corporations in the United States are signing contracts for a record amount of clean energy for their data centers, warehouses, and other facilities. And the Paris talks are likely to send a jolt through the industry, as countries around the world redouble their commitments to get more of their power from renewable sources.

Stay tuned for more news on this front as the talks unfold over the coming weeks.