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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.

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Antibiotics Are Spreading Like Crazy—and a Lot of Them Are About to Stop Working

| Sat Sep. 19, 2015 5:00 AM EDT

In 1945, Sir Alexander Fleming won a Nobel Prize for his discovery of penicillin, which transformed modern medicine. Later that year, the bacteriologist issued a prescient warning: The miracle medicine could one day come with dangerous side effects. If antibiotics were overused, he told the New York Times, bacteria would develop resistance and spur a new generation of bugs impervious to the drugs' power.

In the last 60 years, Fleming's advice has gone largely unheeded. Antibiotic consumption continues to grow even as health officials around the world sound the alarm over rising numbers of resistant bacteria. Now, a new report from the Center for Disease Dynamics, Economics and Policy (CDDEP), a multidisciplinary research organization, paints a harrowing picture of where we stand in the arms race against antibiotic resistance. The main finding is grim: Antibiotic consumption rose by 30 percent between 2000 and 2010 and is expected to swell further as demand for drugs and mass-produced meat products grow around the world.

"Antibiotic resistance is now clearly a problem in both the developed world and developing countries," coauthor Ramanan Laxminarayan told National Geographic. "Things are about to get a lot worse before they get better."

With the report, CDDEP also launched an interactive data visualization that shows antibiotic use from 69 countries. Additional charts also show antibiotic resistance rates of 12 different types of bacteria. For example:

One reason for the rising rates of resistance: Many developing countries that now have access to affordable antibiotics do not yet have the infrastructure to regulate them. The report highlights that 80 percent of antibiotics are consumed in communities and not in hospitals, and are often not prescribed by doctors. Many of the drugs being used are intended only for emergency cases. As Maryn McKenna reported in National Geographic:

Troublingly, that rising consumption worldwide takes in the most precious last-ditch drugs. Carbapenem use rose by 40 percent between 2000 and 2010, and the use of the very last-resort drug class polymixins rose by 13 percent. Sales of those drugs are rising fastest in India, Pakistan and Egypt, and many of those sales are retail, outside countries’ healthcare systems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, of the roughly 2 million people in the United States afflicted every year with illnesses caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, 23,000 of them will die. These illnesses cost around $20 billion each year, and lead to an additional $35 billion in productivity losses.

Over the next fifteen years, animal consumption of antibiotics is projected to increase by 67 percent.

In response to the imminent and growing threat of antibiotic resistance, this year, the White House launched the National Action Plan for Combating Antibiotic-Resistant Bacteria, which aims to cut down on overuse in the next five years. While it does offer a promising framework for better practices in health care, as my colleague Tom Phillpot reports, regulations fall short in one of the key areas of antibiotic overuse: agriculture. The meat industry consumes an unbelievable 80 percent of all antibiotics sold in the United States.

The Food and Drug Administration's voluntary guidelines advise against the use of antibiotics for animal growth—but the industry continues to exploit regulatory loopholes and administer growing amounts of antibiotics to the animals we eat.

Worldwide, according to the report, more than 63,000 tons of antibiotics were given to livestock in 2010, and this number is only expected to grow. Over the next 15 years, as demand for meat grows around the world and small scale farms switch to mass production to keep up, animal consumption of antibiotics is projected to increase by 67 percent.

While the outlook on growing antibiotic use and the likelihood of increased resistance seems grim, the authors of the report offer six strategies that could help curb the issues before they get worse:

  • Reduce the need for antibiotics through improved water, sanitation, and immunization
  • Improve hospital infection control and antibiotic stewardship
  • Change incentives that encourage antibiotic overuse and misuse to incentives that encourage antibiotic stewardship
  • Reduce and eventually phase out subtherapuetic antibiotic use in agriculture
  • Educate and inform health professionals, policymakers, and the public on sustainable antibiotic use
  • Ensure political commitment to meet the threat of antibiotic resistance

Earlier this year, the World Health Organizations' governing body, the World Health Assembly, called for its member countries to adopt policies that will curb antibiotic use by 2017. The report's authors hope their findings will lead to stronger stewardship around the world.

"With support from WHO and the international community, this resolution could catalyze change—or, like similar resolutions over the past decade, it may be ignored," they write. "The evidence in this report, documenting the seriousness of the problem and offering a successful approach to country level action, supports both the urgency and the feasibility of making progress in conserving antibiotic effectiveness."


The Feds Just Accused Volkswagen of an Unbelievable Scheme to Evade Pollution Laws

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 3:17 PM EDT
The Jetta was one of the VW models named in the citation.

Volkswagen produced hundreds of thousands of cars with a device made to intentionally evade air pollution standards, according to a citation issued today by the Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA alleges that nearly 500,000 VW cars sold in the United States over the last several years were equipped with the device, which the EPA says enabled the onboard computer to detect when the car was undergoing an emissions test. At that time, the engine would operate in a way that complied with emissions standards; at all other times, the car would produce emissions of harmful gases up to 40 times greater than allowed by federal law. The primary gas in question is nitrogen oxide, which causes smog, which is a leading cause of respiratory ailments.

This table from the citation lists the models that were allegedly outfitted with the illegal device. All of the cars in question had diesel engines:


The EPA cites a 2014 study by the International Council on Clean Transportation that found a troubling gap between real-world and laboratory emissions in some diesel cars, without naming specific manufacturers.

"When you test it in the lab, they looked great," said Anup Bandivadekar, one of the study's authors. "But when you actually drive them around, emissions were much higher."

The citation issued today lifted the curtain on the specific cars in question and delineates the federal laws VW is accused of violating. The EPA is continuing to investigate the charges and has passed the citation to the Justice Department, where it will be up to federal prosecutors to prove the charges. Volkswagen could be compelled to fix all the cars and pay up to $3,750 per car (roughly $18 billion altogether) in fines.

In a statement, a Volkswagen spokesperson said the company was cooperating with the investigation but declined to comment further.

This Catholic Congressman Is Boycotting Pope Francis’ Speech to Congress

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 11:55 AM EDT

When Pope Francis addresses a joint session of Congress next Thursday, there's a pretty good chance he'll talk about climate change, one of his favorite subjects of late. Paul Gosar, a Republican Congressman from Arizona, is not happy about that. 

Plenty of climate change deniers, Catholic and not, have expressed their displeasure with the Holy Father over his stance on climate. But Gosar, himself a Catholic, just became the first member of Congress to announce he will boycott the speech because of it.

In a column published in Town Hall yesterday, Gosar wrote:

The earth's climate has been changing since God created it, with or without man. On that, we should all agree…If the Pope wants to devote his life to fighting climate change then he can do so in his personal time. But to promote questionable science as Catholic dogma is ridiculous…

When the Pope chooses to act and talk like a leftist politician, then he can expect to be treated like one.

Obviously, Gosar, a dentist by trade, does not think man-made climate change is a real thing. He also isn't a fan of clean energy: Earlier this year, he sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an inquiry into allegedly deceptive trade practices by the solar industry. (It was later revealed that the letter was originally drafted by Arizona's biggest power company and slipped to Gosar's office.) He also wants to impeach the chief of the Environmental Protection Agency and has accused her of perjury.

Apparently, Gosar didn't get the memo that Congress, which is usually where hope for climate action goes to die, is supposed to be on its "best behavior" for the pope's visit.

So far, at least one faith group has called foul on Gosar. John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith for Public Life, said in a statement, "This stunning display of disrespect toward Pope Francis from a Catholic elected official shows a profound ignorance about the church's teachings when it comes to stewardship of creation."

David Letterman's New Job: Fight Back Against Global-Warming Deniers

| Fri Sep. 18, 2015 10:11 AM EDT

Stephen Colbert is great, sure, but we were all sad to see David Letterman leave late-night TV this spring. Fortunately, he's not gone forever: The National Geographic Channel announced yesterday that Letterman will appear as a special correspondent on the second season of Years of Living Dangerously, the Emmy-winning documentary series about climate change. 

From the Los Angeles Times:

The upcoming season of the series will focus on "solutions that individuals, communities, companies and even governments can use to address worldwide climate change," said [National Geographic Channels CEO Courtney] Bach in a statement...

Other Hollywood names attached to Season 2 include Joshua Jackson ("The Affair"), Jack Black ("The Brink"), Ty Burrell ("Modern Family") and Cecily Strong ("Saturday Night Live").

The season will air next October, just before the presidential election.

A Third of American Kids Will Eat Fast Food Today

| Thu Sep. 17, 2015 4:24 PM EDT

Every day, more than a third of children in the United States eat fast food. A new report from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention also showed that teens eat twice as much fast food as younger children; on average, 17 percent of teens' daily calories come from fast food.

Fast food consumption among children grew between 1994 and 2006, rising from 10 percent to 13 percent. The new report, which used data from the CDC's 2011-2012 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, shows only a slight decrease—overall, kids ages 2 to 19 consume 12 percent of their calories from fast food. Surprisingly, these numbers weren't different across socioeconomic status, gender, or weight.

Percentage of children and adolescents aged 2–19 years who consumed fast food on a given day, by calories consumed: United States, 2011–2012 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Over the last 30 years, childhood obesity in the United States has more than doubled. Between 1980 and 2012 the number of kids considered obese increased from 7 percent to 18 percent and the number of teens during that same period quadrupled.

In an interview with USA Today, Sandra Hassink, president of the American Academy of Pediatrics, pointed to fast food ads geared toward kids as a main factor in the soaring obesity rates. Indeed, as my colleague Kiera Butler wrote earlier this year, McDonald's, in an effort to revive its flagging sales, is marketing inside schools:

Over at Civil Eats, school food blogger Bettina Elias Siegel explained in December that McDonald's targeting of kids is no accident. Rather, it's part of the company's strategy to revive its flagging sales. In a December conference call, Siegel reported, McDonald's then-CEO Don Thompson and the company's US President Mike Andres told investors that the company has "got to be in the schools. When you look at the performance relative to peers of the operators [whose] restaurants are part of the community–it's significant."

Hassink also noted that diet-related diseases, like type-2 diabetes, are affecting Americans at much younger ages than they used to. (In fact, the youngest type-2 diabetes patient on record, a three-year-old girl, was recently diagnosed.)  This, said Hassink, should be cause for concern:

"Childhood is not a place where you can say, 'Let everyone eat what they want and we can fix it later.' "Hassink said parents should remember that daily choices about food can contribute to long-term chronic disease. "Health doesn't happen by accident," she said.

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2015 Will Probably Be the Hottest Year on Record

| Thu Sep. 17, 2015 12:46 PM EDT

Another day, another smashed temperature record.

Earlier this week, a trio of independent analyses by scientists in the UK, Japan, and the US found that global temperatures over the summer were among the highest on record. Wednesday, US scientists announced that sea ice extent in the Arctic shrunk to its fourth-lowest minimum ever this summer. And Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration joined the chorus with a report that found that last month was the hottest August ever recorded, and that 2015 is on pace to be the hottest year on record.

If this sounds familiar, that's because 2014 was very likely the hottest year on record until now. As my colleague Jeremy Schulman pointed out at the time, the specific ranking is way less important than the overall trend, which is that we're experiencing more record-breaking hot temperatures than ever before. Today's news is just more proof of that.

Here's the data for August. There is a lot of dark red (meaning the hottest on record) on this map:


The picture looks equally extreme for the year-to-date:


Here's how those year-to-date temperatures stack up against some other extremely hot years. You can see that 2015 is on pace to blow past 2014:

NOAA also reported that the insane drought in California and the Northwest won't be lifting anytime soon:


Here's What the Drivers of the GOP Clown Car Are Saying About Climate Change

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 4:06 PM EDT

The second Republican primary debate is tonight. It should be fun. It's supposed to focus on foreign policy, so it could be an excellent opportunity to examine the global implications of climate change. What's more, three of the show's biggest stars have been running their mouths about global warming over the last few days.

Guess what? The things they said were dumb and wrong.

First up: The Donald. During a speech in Texas on Monday, Trump took aim at President Barack Obama's oft-repeated (and true) claim that climate change is a major threat to America's national security.

"They changed it to climate change because the word 'global warming' wasn't working," Trump said. "Then they changed it to extreme weather—you can't get hurt with extreme weather."

Next up, rising star Ben Carson, who has gained more in the polls over the last month than any other candidate and poses the biggest challenge to Trump tonight. Last week, he told the San Francisco Chronicle that "there is no overwhelming science that the things that are going on are man-caused and not naturally caused. Gimme a break."

Actually, there is a ridiculously overwhelming amount of science that shows just that. And fortunately, California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) was happy to share all that information with Carson:

Finally, there's Carly Fiorina, the only candidate to be promoted from the "kid's table" debate in August, to the grown-up table tonight, thanks to some good polling early in the month. In an interview with CNBC's John Harwood published today, she trotted out the good old standby line that "a single nation acting alone can make no difference at all," and that therefore the United States needs to stop "destroying peoples' livelihoods on the alter of ideology."

I guess she missed the news that the United States, rather than acting alone, has actually been really successful in convincing China and other major polluters to take action.

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

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 3:56 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."

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

| Wed Sep. 16, 2015 5:00 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.