Blue Marble

Republicans Are Still Totally Wrong About ISIS

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 4:16 PM EDT
An Iraqi soldier tracks an ISIS sniper near Tikrit in April.

On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Martin O'Malley made an astute observation about ISIS in an interview with Bloomberg.

"One of the things that preceded the failure of the nation-state of Syria, the rise of ISIS, was the effect of climate change and the mega-drought that affected that region, wiped out farmers, drove people to cities, created a humanitarian crisis [that] created the…conditions of extreme poverty that has led now to the rise of ISIL and this extreme violence," said the former Maryland governor.

Republicans were quick to seize on the comment as an indication of O'Malley's weak grasp of foreign policy. Reince Priebus, chair of the Republican National Committee, said the suggestion of a link between ISIS's rise to power and climate change was "absurd" and a sign that "no one in the Democratic Party has the foreign policy vision to keep America safe."

Here's the thing, though: O'Malley is totally right. As we've reported here many times, Syria's civil war is the best-understood and least ambiguous example of a case where an impact of climate change—in this case, an unprecedented drought that devastated rural farmers—directly contributed to violent conflict and political upheaval. There is no shortage of high-quality, peer-reviewed research explicating this link. As O'Malley said, the drought made it more difficult for rural families to survive off of farming. So they moved to cities in huge numbers, where they were confronted with urban poverty and an intransigent, autocratic government. Those elements clearly existed regardless of the drought. But the drought was the final straw, the factor that brought all the others to a boiling point.

Does this mean that America's greenhouse gas emissions are solely responsible for ISIS's rise to power? Obviously not. But it does mean that, without accounting for climate change, you have an incomplete picture of the current military situation in the Middle East. And without that understanding, it will be very difficult for a prospective commander-in-chief to predict where terrorist threats might emerge in the future.

The link between climate and security isn't particularly controversial in the defense community. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama called climate change an "urgent and growing threat" to national security. A recent review by the Defense Department concluded that climate change is a "threat multiplier" that exacerbates other precursors to war, while the Center for Naval Analysis found that climate change-induced drought is already leading to conflict across Africa and the Middle East.

In other words, O'Malley's comment is completely on-point. If Priebus and his party are serious about defeating ISIS and preventing future terrorist uprisings, they can't continue to dismiss the role of climate change.

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How the US Chamber of Commerce Is Helping Big Tobacco Poison the Rest of the World

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

The US Chamber of Commerce hasn't just worked to thwart climate change legislation, obstruct health care reform, and pooh-pooh Wall Street regulations. The nation's most powerful business lobby recently turned its attention to promoting cigarettes overseas, apparently using a rationale that corporations are, well, people:

"The Chamber regularly reaches out to governments around the world to urge them to avoid measures that discriminate against particular companies or industries," the Chamber said in a short statement responding to a recent New York Times piece on its tobacco lobbying. Since 2011, according to the Times, the US Chamber intervened in at least nine countries and the European Union—either directly or through one of its many foreign affiliates—to oppose regulations designed to prevent smoking.

Moreover, according to a report released last week by anti-smoking groups, including the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and Action on Smoking and Health, tobacco companies have joined US Chamber affiliates in 56 countries. Those companies also sit on Chamber affiliates' boards or advisory councils in 14 countries—most of which happen to be places where people smoke a lot: Albania, Armenia, Estonia, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Lithuania, Macedonia, Malaysia, Morocco, Poland, Serbia, the Slovak Republic, and Taiwan.

The report also highlighted previously unreported cases in which the US Chamber has gone to bat for its tobacco company members:

  • Burkina Faso: In January 2014, the US Chamber sent a letter to Prime Minister Luc Adolphe Tiao warning that the country's plan to implement graphic warning labels on cigarette packages violated international property rights and trade agreements. The threat of costly trade litigation delayed implementation of the law, according to government officials.
  • Philippines: In 2012, the US Chamber and its local affiliate fought an effort to raise taxes on cigarettes, claiming it would create a black market. The commissioner of the Filipino Bureau of Internal Revenue recently told the local press that those fears have proved unfounded.
  • United Kingdom: In 2014, the US Chamber released a joint statement with business groups and sent letters opposing a bill that would create standardized packaging for tobacco products. The bill "sends a negative message to the United Kingdom's trading partners," one letter said, "and undermines its reputation for the rule of law." The bill passed in March 2015.

US Chamber CEO Tom Donohue's most striking innovation has been to allow controversial industries to use the Chamber as a means of anonymously pursuing their political ends. The same politicians who might ignore a complaint from a tobacco company may listen when that complaint comes from a group that claims (albeit disingenuously) to represent 3 million businesses.

But the strategy comes with a risk in terms of its corporate clientele. Apple and Nike quit the Chamber over its stance on climate change, and CVS just parted ways with the group over its tobacco lobbying.

California Just Fined Some Farmers $1.5 Million for Using Too Much Water

| Mon Jul. 20, 2015 5:25 PM EDT

California's Water Resources Control Board proposed a $1.5 million fine today for a farming district's unauthorized use of water—the first such fine in the state's four-year drought. The Board alleged that the Byron-Bethany Irrigation District, a region serving 160 farmers just east of San Francisco, illegally diverted nearly 700 million gallons of water over the course of two weeks in June.

Byron-Bethany is one of about 5,000 water-rights holders notified this year that there isn't enough water to pump from lakes and rivers, and it's illegal to divert water after receiving such notifications. In response, several water users, including Byron-Bethany, have sued the state for cutting off its water supply.

"We will vigorously defend our rights," said Rick Gilmore, general manager of the district, to the San Jose Mercury News last month. "All our sweet corn and tomatoesthey won't make it to harvest. Almonds and cherries will suffer damage," he said. "They'll lose the water they need for July and August."

The proposed fine, which the district will likely contest in a coming hearing, is the first fine sought by the Board under a new structure in which water rights holders can be penalized for past unauthorized use of water, even if they have stopped diverting since. But Byron-Bethany probably isn't alone; Andrew Tauriainen, a lawyer for the state's Division of Water Rights, says, "It's highly likely that additional enforcement actions will follow in weeks and months ahead."

Koalas Get Laid By Making This Horrifyingly Disgusting Grunting Sound

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 2:59 PM EDT

Listen to the sound in that video. If I had to guess what it meant, soliciting sex would probably be pretty far down my list. It strikes me more as the sound a Chicago Bears fan might make after swilling a pitcher of Bud Light.

But new research has revealed for the first time that this mysterious bellowing is most likely the male koalas' mating call.

Despite their popularity, relatively little is known about koalas' social interactions, since they tend to be solitary and thus difficult to study. To overcome that challenge, researchers at Australia's University of Queensland fitted 21 koalas on St. Bees Island with GPS tracking collars during the summertime mating season.

Over two months, the GPS devices recorded how often koalas came into contact with one another. The scientists found that while male-female interactions increased during mating season, male-male encounters remained rare, suggesting that the male koalas had a way of avoiding each other while attracting females.

The most likely explanation is that bellow, lead author William Ellis told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation:

Researchers suggest that the male koala's bellowing serves to warn other males away from their territory, so there's no need for close-up grappling and competition.

Ellis says the bellows may also be a way of communicating important information to potential mates.

"Our studies on the bellows have certainly shown us that the bellow itself contains information on size but also individuality; they are distinct for each particular male," he says...

Given the often isolated nature of koala groups, individuality of bellows may help female koalas avoid mating with close relatives, thereby maintaining the population's genetic diversity, says Ellis.

Happy Friday!

Here Is the Clearest Image NASA Has Ever Taken of Pluto and its Moon Charon

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 2:25 PM EDT
Pluto, left, and its largest moon, Charon, in a photo taken Wednesday from aboard the New Horizons mission.

For years now, NASA's New Horizons spacecraft has been hurtling towards the far edges of the Milky Way for its July 14 rendezvous with one of the great mysteries of the solar system: Pluto. But we're already receiving captivating, never-seen-before images of this icy world, such as the one above, of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. NASA says New Horizons was about 3.7 million miles from Pluto when it snapped this picture late on Wednesday. See the full image here.

From NASA:

"These two objects have been together for billions of years, in the same orbit, but they are totally different," said Principal Investigator Alan Stern of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado.

Charon is about 750 miles (1200 kilometers) across, about half the diameter of Pluto—making it the solar system's largest moon relative to its planet. Its smaller size and lower surface contrast have made it harder for New Horizons to capture its surface features from afar, but the latest, closer images of Charon's surface show intriguing fine details.

Newly revealed are brighter areas on Charon that members of the mission's Geology, Geophysics and Imaging team (GGI) suspect might be impact craters. If so, the scientists would put them to good use. "If we see impact craters on Charon, it will help us see what's hidden beneath the surface," said GGI leader Jeff Moore of NASA's Ames Research Center. "Large craters can excavate material from several miles down and reveal the composition of the interior."

The mission, which launched in 2006, has already traveled 3 billion miles to get to Pluto. The spacecraft will go on to race past the dwarf planet at 30,000 miles per hour next week, absorbing all the data it possibly can about our least-understood distant neighbor—snapping photos with its Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (LORRI), a little color-adding camera Ralph, and a host of other gadgetry.

We'll bring you the latest images when they become available next week. Can't wait.

"Safe" Plastic Alternatives Linked to Scary Health Problems

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 6:05 AM EDT

Exposure to two chemicals widely considered safe—and used in hundreds of consumer products including plastics, cosmetics, and soap—has been linked to increased blood pressure, insulin resistance, and other dangerous health problems in children, according to a new study.

The chemicals, di-isononyl (DINP) and di-isodecyl (DIDP), were long seen as safer alternatives to their precursor, a phthalate called DEHP, which was associated with hypertension. Even though their use has been on the rise over the past decade, they were never fully tested—until now.

In one study, researchers from the NYU Langone Medical Center analyzed urine samples of over 1,300 adolescents between the ages of 8 and 19 and found that the levels of DINP and DIDP corresponded to levels in blood pressure. In a separate study, the same team studied 356 teens and found a similar correlation between the chemical levels and insulin resistance—a condition that can lead to diabetes.

The researchers recommend limiting exposure to these compounds by avoiding plastics marked with 3, 6, and 7, opting for fresh food over packaged, and making sure never to put plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher, where they are more apt to leech chemicals.

This isn't the first time plasticizing chemicals marketed as safe alternatives have proven otherwise. In last year's Mother Jones investigation into the dangers of BPA-free plastics, Mariah Blake uncovered the plastic industry's "Big-Tobacco" style campaign to bury research that showed how their products were connected to a litany of health problems—and the US government's failure to step in:

US regulators also have continued to ignore the mounting evidence linking BPA and similar chemicals to human disease, even as bans have cropped up around the world. Although more than 90 studies examining people with various levels of exposure suggest BPA affects humans much as it does animals, the FDA recently announced that its research "supports the safety of BPA" in food containers and packaging. And the EPA program that was supposed to screen some 80,000 chemicals for endocrine disruption hasn't fully vetted a single substance. In 2010, the agency sought White House approval to add some endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are commonly found in plastic—among them BPA, phthalates, and a class of compounds known as PBDEs—to its "chemicals of concern" list because it found they "may present an unreasonable risk to human health." This would have required chemical makers to share safety-testing data with federal regulators. The proposal languished until last September, when the EPA quietly withdrew it, along with a proposed rule requiring manufacturers to disclose safety data on chemicals in their products.

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These Antidepressants May Increase the Risk of Birth Defects

| Thu Jul. 9, 2015 6:22 PM EDT

Babies born to women who took certain antidepressants during pregnancy may have an elevated risk of birth defects, according to a study published Wednesday in the medical journal BMJ.

Over the past few years, researchers have come to conflicting conclusions about the health impacts of taking common antidepressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, early in pregnancy. Some studies have found prenatal exposure to SSRIs to be associated with heart and brain defects, autism, and more, while others have found the risk to be minimal or nonexistent.

The BMJ study, led by researchers at the the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, shed light on the matter by analyzing federal data of 38,000 births between 1997 and 2009. Researchers interviewed the mothers of children with certain birth defects associated with SSRIs, asking if they took certain antidepressants during the first three months of pregnancy or the month prior to it. Unlike many previous studies, which looked at the effects of SSRIs as a group, the researchers looked at the health impacts of five specific drugs. They found that two drugs were associated with birth defects, while three of the drugs were not. Here are the details:

  • Sertraline (Zoloft): No increased risk of birth defects. (This was the most common of the five drugs, taken by forty percent of the women on antidepressants.)
  • Paroxetine (Paxil): Babies were between 2 and 3.5 more likely to be born with heart defects, brain defects, holes between heart chambers, and intestinal deformities.
  • Fluoxetine (Prozac): Babies were two times more likely to experience heart defects and skull and brain shape abnormalities.
  • Escitalopram (Lexapro): No increased risk of birth defects.
  • Citalopram (Celexa): No increased risk of birth defects.

Researchers are quick to note that even in the case of paroxetine and fluexetine, the absolute risk of these defects is still very small. If mothers take paroxetine early in pregnancy, for example, the chance of giving birth to a baby with anencephaly, a brain defect, rise from 2 in 10,000 to 7 in 10,000.

Some doctors worry that studies like this dissuade mothers who truly need mental health treatment from seeking it—particularly since the stress associated with depression in the mother can impact the health of the baby. Elizabeth Fitelson, a Columbia University psychiatrist who treats pregnant women with depression, described this tricky balance to the New York Times earlier this year: "For about 10 percent of my patients, I can readily say that they don't need medication and should go off it," she said. "I see a lot of high-risk women. Another 20 percent absolutely have to stay on medication—people who have made a suicide attempt every time they've been unmedicated. For the remaining 70 percent, it's a venture into the unknowable."

Solar Power Is Mostly for the Affluent. Here's Obama's Plan to Spread the Wealth Around.

| Tue Jul. 7, 2015 1:33 PM EDT
President Barack Obama speaks after touring a solar facility in Nevada in 2012.

Rooftop solar power systems cost a lot less these days than they did five or 10 years ago, and with many solar companies now offering leases and loans, it's safe to say that going solar is more affordable than even before. That trend goes a long way to explaining why solar, while still making up less than 1 percent of the total US energy mix, is the fastest-growing power source in the country.

But access to solar power is still overwhelmingly skewed toward affluent households. Of the roughly 645,000 homes and business with rooftop solar panels in the US, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000, according to a report earlier this year from the George Washington University Solar Institute. The typical solar home is 34 percent larger than the typical non-solar home, according to energy software provider Opower.

President Barack Obama wants to change that. On Monday the White House announced a package of initiatives to make solar more accessible for low-income households. The plans include a new solar target for federally subsidized housing and an effort to increase the availability of federally insured loans for solar systems.

Of the country's 645,000 solar homes and businesses, less than 5 percent are households earning less than $40,000.

Low-income households face a number of barriers to going solar. They're less likely to own their own roof, less able to access loans or other financing options for solar, and more likely to have subsidized utility bills that don't transfer the financial benefits of solar to the homeowner. And yet, in many ways low-income households stand to benefit the most from producing their own energy: The proportion of their income spent on energy is about four times greater than the national median, according to federal statistics. And because lower-income households tend to use less electricity overall than higher-income households, a typical solar setup covers more of their demand. The GW study found that a 4 kilowatt solar system, about the average size for a house, would cover more than half of a typical low-income household's energy needs and that if all low-income households went solar, they would collectively save up to $23.3 billion each year.

"[This is] aimed at taking directly on those challenges and making it easier and straightforward to deploy low-cost solar energy in every community in the country," senior White House climate advisor Brian Deese told reporters in a call yesterday.

The initiative starts by tripling the target for solar on federally subsidized housing to 300 megawatts by 2020, as well as directing the Department of Housing and Urban Development to provide technical guidance for state and local housing authorities on how to go solar. The White House also announced more than $520 million in commitments from private companies, investors, NGOs, and state and local governments to pay for energy efficiency and solar projects for low-income households. The initiative places particular emphasis on so-called "community" solar, in which groups of households pool resources to build and maintain a shared solar system in their neighborhood.

Some states and power companies are already angling to support solar for low-income housing. Arizona Public Service, a Phoenix-area utility, recently launched a $28.5 million program to install its own solar panels on rooftops in its service area, specifically targeting low-income households. And New York's electricity regulators recently bolstered incentives for power companies that invest in energy efficiency and renewables. Con Ed, the power company serving most of New York City, plans to spend $250 million on such upgrades in Brooklyn and Queens, as an alternative to a $1 billion upgrade to the old natural gas-fired electric grid.

The president's plan builds on a commitment he announced earlier this year to train 75,000 workers for the solar industry (which is already adding jobs 10 times faster than the overall economy). It also dovetails neatly with Obama's larger climate objectives, especially his hotly-contested plan to reduce the nation's energy-related carbon emissions 30 percent by 2030, as well as the economy-wide climate targets that form the US bargaining chip for this year's UN climate negotiations in Paris.

For all those promises to work, "the question is how states and utilities can reduce their emissions, and the buildings that they serve are a critical part of that system," said Natural Resources Defense Council financial policy analyst Philip Henderson. "Making those buildings more efficient and using less energy from dirty power plants is a direct and essential way to meet those goals."    

America's BBQ Grills Create as Much Carbon as a Big Coal Plant

| Thu Jul. 2, 2015 1:48 PM EDT

As your neighbors fire up their barbecues this Independence Day, the most popular day in America to grill, they won't just send the scent of tri-tip or grilled corn over the fence in your direction—they'll also send smoke. As my colleague Kiera Butler wrote about here, even the "cleanest" gas grills emit pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every hour they're used. So how many emissions can we expect from dinner barbecues on the 4th?

Roughly eighty percent of American households own barbecues or smokers, according to the Hearth, Patio, and Barbecue Association. Let's say all 92.5 million of them decide to grill on Saturday. A 2013 study by HPBA found that 61 percent of users opted for gas grills, 42 percent for charcoal, and 10 percent for electric (some respondents had multiple grills). If that reflected all households across the United States, and each household used its grill for an hour on the 4th of July, then we'd get a calculation like this:

(56.425M gas grills*5.6 pounds of CO2) + (38.85M charcoal grills*11 pounds CO2) + (9.25M electric grills*15 pounds CO2 ) = 882 million pounds of CO2

That's roughly as many emissions as burning 2145 railcars of coal, or running one coal-fired power plant for a month.

But let's be honest—no one wants to give up summer grilling, and these emissions stats probably won't convince your neighbor to turn off the barbecue. You might instead offer up ideas on recipes with ingredients that are friendlier to the planet—like these 4 veggie burgers that don't suck.

Finally, a Little Good News on the California Drought Front

| Wed Jul. 1, 2015 3:47 PM EDT

Finally, some good news on the California drought beat: Californians reduced their residential water usage in May by a whopping 29 percent compared to the same month in 2013, according to a report released today by the State Water Resources Control Board. That's the steepest drop in more than a year.

Californians may have been inspired to reduce their water use by the mandatory, statewide municipal water cut of 25 percent that Gov. Jerry Brown announced in April, though those cuts didn't go into effect until June. (Those 25 percent reductions did not apply to agriculture, which uses an estimated 80 percent of the state's water, though some farmers have faced curtailments.)

"The numbers tell us that more Californians are stepping up to help make their communities more water secure, which is welcome news in the face of this dire drought," said State Water Board Chair Felicia Marcus in a press release. "That said, we need all Californians to step up—and keep it up—as if we don’t know when it will rain and snow again, because we don't."

In May, California residents used 87.5 gallons per capita per day—three gallons per day less than the previous month. Big cities that showed the most dramatic cuts include Folsom, Fresno, and San Jose. But water use by area varies drastically, with places known for green lawns and gardens, like Coachella and Malibu, using more than 200 gallons per person per day. Outdoor water usage is estimated to account for about half of overall residential use.

Officials are cautiously optimistic. Board spokesman George Kostyrko says Californians "did great in May and we are asking them to keep doing what they are doing and work even harder to conserve water during these critical summer months and beyond."