Blue Marble

Hillary Clinton Refuses to Take a Position on the Keystone Pipeline

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 1:45 PM EDT

Hillary Clinton took a strong stance on clean energy Monday, telling a crowd in Des Moines, Iowa, that her efforts to tackle climate change would parallel President John F. Kennedy's call to action during the space race in the 1960s.

"I want to get the country back to setting big ambitious goals," Clinton said. "I want us to get back into the future business, and one of the best ways we can do that is to be absolutely ready to address the challenge of climate change and make it work to our advantage economically."

Her remarks tracked closely with an ambitious plan her campaign released Sunday night, which set a target of producing enough renewable energy to power all the nation's homes and businesses by 2027.

"America's ability to lead the world on this issue hinges on our ability to act ourselves," she said. "I refuse to turn my back on what is one of the greatest threats and greatest opportunities America faces."

"I think it's bogus," said Bill McKibben. "The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."

Still, the Democractic front-runner refused—as she has several times before—to say whether or not she supports construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. That project, which would carry crude oil from Canada's tar sands to refineries and ports in the United States, is seen by many environmentalists as a blemish on President Barack Obama's climate record. It has been stalled for years in a lengthy State Department review that began when Clinton was still Secretary of State. The Obama administration has resisted several recent attempts by Congress to force Keystone's approval, but it has yet to make a final decision on the project—although one is expected sometime this year.

"I will refrain from commenting [on Keystone XL], because I had a leading role in getting that process started, and we have to let it run its course," Clinton said, in response to a question from an audience member.

Her non-position on Keystone earned derision from environmentalist Bill McKibben, whose organization has been at the forefront of opposition to the pipeline.

"I think it's bogus," he said in an email. "Look, the notion that she can't talk about it because the State Dept. is still working on it makes no sense. By that test, she shouldn't be talking about Benghazi or Iran or anything else either. The more she tries to duck the question, the more the whole thing smells."

Clinton also punted on an audience request to reveal further details of how exactly she would finance the renewable energy targets she announced yesterday, which aim even higher than those already put in place by Obama. She reiterated that one key step would be to ensure the extension of federal tax credits for wind and solar energy that have expired or are set to expire over the next few years. And she said that she would continue Obama's practice of pursuing aggressive climate policies from within the White House, saying that "we still have a lot we can do" without waiting for a recalcitrant Congress to act.

Clinton acknowledged that the clean energy boom would come at a cost for the US coal industry, which is already in steep decline. She said she would "guarantee that coal miners and their families get the benefits they've earned," but didn't elaborate on what she meant or how specifically she would achieve that.   

Environmental groups offered a generally positive reaction to Clinton's policy announcement Sunday. In a statement, League of Conservation Voters vice president Tiernan Sittenfield commended her for "calling out climate change deniers and effectively illustrating the urgent need to act on a defining issue of our time." She also earned praise from billionaire environmentalist Tom Steyer, who has set a high bar on climate action for any candidate who wants to tap his millions.

"I refuse to let those who are deniers to rip away all the progress we've made and leave our country exposed to climate change," Clinton said.

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Study: Juvenile Detention Not a Great Place to Deal With Mental Health Issues

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 3:39 PM EDT

If you land in the hospital as an incarcerated teen, it's more likely for mental health reasons—psychiatric illnesses, substance abuse, depression, or disruptive disorders—than for any other factor, says a new study.

Researchers from the Stanford University School of Medicine examined nearly 2 million hospitalizations in California of boys and girls between the ages of 11 and 18 over a 15-year period. They found that mental health diagnoses accounted for 63 percent of hospital stays by kids in the justice system, compared with 19 percent of stays by kids who weren't incarcerated, according to their study published Tuesday in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

"Should we be getting them into treatment earlier, before they start getting caught up in the justice system?"

The study's lead author, Dr. Arash Anoshiravani, said it seems likely that many locked-up kids developed mental health problems as a result of earlier stressful events during their childhoods, such as being abused or witnessing other acts of violence. "We are arresting kids who have mental health problems probably related to their experiences as children," he said in a statement. "Is that the way we should be dealing with this, or should we be getting them into treatment earlier, before they start getting caught up in the justice system?"

Even if someone enters detention without a major mental health problem, she has a good chance of developing one once she's there. The World Health Organization cites many factors in prison life as detrimental to mental stability, including overcrowding, physical or sexual violence, isolation, a lack of privacy, and inadequate health services. And the problem is obviously not just limited to juvenile offenders: Earlier this year, a study by the Urban Institute found that more than half of all inmates in jails and state prisons across the country have a mental illness of some kind.

In the California study, kids in detention and hospitalized were disproportionately black and from larger metropolitan counties like Los Angeles, Alameda, and San Diego. Among children and teens in the justice system, girls were more likely than boys to experience severe mental health problems, with 74 percent of their hospitalizations related to mental illness, compared with 57 percent of boys' hospitalizations. (Boys, on the other hand, were five times more likely to be hospitalized for trauma.)

Earlier mental health interventions could lead to major savings, the researchers added: Detained youth in their study had longer hospital stays than kids outside the justice system, and a majority of them were publicly insured.

Good News, Bad News: Your Almond Milk May Not Contain Many Almonds

| Wed Jul. 22, 2015 2:26 PM EDT

Still chugging almond milk, despite everything we've told you this past year? There's some good news: you may not be destroying the environment as much as you've continued to not care about. Why? Because of the bad news: you are likely getting duped.

According to a new lawsuit, Almond Breeze products only contain 2 percent of almonds and mostly consist of water, sugar, sunflower lecithin, and carrageenan, the blog Food Navigator reports. Almond Breeze is among the top five milk substitute brands in the country.

The class action lawsuit, filed by two unhappy almond milk drinkers in the US District Court in New York earlier this month, seeks $5 million in damages from the products' distributor, Blue Diamond Growers.

While Blue Diamond Growers doesn't label how much of a percentage of its milk is made from almonds, plaintiffs Tracy Albert and Dimitrios Malaxianis say the company is misleading consumers by its claim on the front of the package that it is "made from real almonds."

Water-wasting and now potentially deceptive, if you needed one more reason to lay off the almond milk, here it is.

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.

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."

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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.

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."