Blue Marble

"Three Months Is a Lifetime": Sandy Victims Slog On

| Tue Jan. 29, 2013 3:18 PM EST
Tony Lazzara has forked out $20,000 of his own money for storm repairs.

When Hurricane Sandy struck Staten Island, it dumped three feet of seawater into Tony Lazzara's basement, just up the road from where two lives became some of the earliest fatalities of the storm. When Climate Desk first met Lazzara, he was dragging sopping furniture out onto the street. Three months later he's still drying out, juggling contractors and insurance agents, and trying to stanch the steady hemorrhaging of his checking account.

"I had a refrigerator, washer, an oven, beautiful cabinets, bedroom sets, couches, you name it," Lazzara says. His insurance didn't help nearly enough, he says: So far, he's had to fork out $20,000 from his own pocket. At least Lazarra still has his home; the same can't be said for the 3,500 families displaced by the storm in New York and New Jersey. Still, his challenges are by now all too familiar to countless Tri-State families for whom the last three months have been an uphill battle to get back on their feet and squeeze aid out of insurance companies and government programs.

"Three months is a lifetime for some people," Lazzara says. "Can you imagine being displaced for three months?"

firefighters
Firefighters rest after the devastating Breezy Point inferno. James West/Climate Desk

Lazzara and folks like him caught a much-needed break yesterday when Congress, after much hemming and hawing, finally passed a $50 billion aid package for victims of Hurricane Sandy—despite opposition from 31 GOP Senators who had previously supported emergency relief in their homes states. While much of the money will go to local governments (to repair infrastructure, reimburse emergency spending, and rebuilding the damaged coastline), some is destined for the pockets of people like Lazzara, whose homes were damaged or destroyed, and to business owners who suffered storm-related losses (the storm's total pricetag is estimated at $50 billion). But Lazzara says he's a long way from popping a bottle of champagne: Bad communication, neglect, and perceived mismanagement by government agencies like FEMA in the storm's wake left him and his neighbors suspicious and cynical about ever actually receiving a check.

"That money's going to sit in limbo forever," he says, "There's going to be a big fight about it again."

Advertise on MotherJones.com

Texas Public Schools: Still Teaching Creationism

| Mon Jan. 28, 2013 7:01 AM EST

In Texas public schools, children learn that the Bible provides scientific proof that Earth is 6,000 years old, that the origins of racial diversity trace back to a curse placed on Noah's son, and that astronauts have discovered "a day missing in space" that corroborates biblical stories of the sun standing still.

These are some of the findings detailed in Reading, Writing & Religion II, a new report by the Texas Freedom Network that investigates how public schools in the Lone Star State promote religious fundamentalism under the guise of offering academic courses about the Bible. The report, written by Mark Chancey, a professor of religious studies at Southern Methodist University, found that more than half of the state's public-school Bible courses taught students to read the book from a specifically Christian theological perspective—a clear violation of rules governing the separation of church and state.

Many school districts pushed specific strains of fundamentalism in the classes:

  • "The Bible is the written word of God," proclaims a slide shown to students in suburban Houston's Klein Independent School District (ISD). Another slide adds: "The Bible is united in content because there is no contradictions [sic] in the writing. The reason for this is because the Bible is written under God's direction and inspiration."
  • A PowerPoint slide in Brenham ISD in Central Texas claims that "Christ's resurrection was an event that occurred in time and space—that is was, in reality, historical and not mythological." (emphasis in original)
  • In North Texas, Prosper ISD promotes the Rapture, claiming in course materials that "the first time the Lord gathered his people back was after the Babylonian captivity. The second time the Lord will gather his people back will be at the end of the age."

Some Bible classes in Texas public school appear to double as "science" classes, circumventing limits placed on teaching creationism. Eastland ISD, a school district outside Fort Worth, shows videos produced by the Creation Evidence Museum, which claims to possess a fossil of a dinosaur footprint atop "a pristine human footprint."

Perhaps the wackiest Bible lesson was the one presented to students at Amarillo ISD titled: "Racial Origins Traced from Noah." A chart presented in the classroom claims that it's possible to identify which of Noah's three sons begat various racial and ethnic groups. Chancey explains:

According to the chart, "Western Europeans" and "Caucasians" descend from Japeth, "African races" and Canaanites from Ham, and "Jews, Semitic people, and Oriental races" from Shem. A test question shows that the chart was taken seriously: "Shem is the father of a) most Germanic races b) the Jewish people c) all African people."

In Texas, public schools have the legal right to offer these kinds of classes—up to a point. In 2007 the state legislature passed a law allowing school districts to offer "elective courses on the Bible's Hebrew Scriptures and New Testament." The Supreme Court long ago ruled that such classes pass constitutional muster, as long as they don't advocate for a specific religious view. As Chancey points out, the state of Texas obviously needs to do a much better job of educating its teachers about what that means.

Losing Nemo: Great Barrier Reef At Risk From Coal

| Sat Jan. 26, 2013 2:10 PM EST
The Great Barrier Reef

Coral reefs already have a lot on their plate: ocean acidification and warming, damage by extreme storms, water pollution from industrial runoff, even crazy invasive starfish. Now, it seems, the big momma of all reefs, Australia's Great Barrier Reef, is also under siege by fossil fuel development being pushed by the recently elected conservative Queensland state government. The risk is great enough that UNESCO has threatened to strip the reef of its World Heritage Site status this year, if not more is done to protect it.

"It would be an international shame for Australia and send a shocking message that even the wealthiest nations can't manage their reefs," Felicity Wishart, director of Fight for the Reef, said. The campaign is a newly-formed coaltion between the World Wildlife Fund and the Australian Marine Conservation Society to pressure the state and federal governments to curb industrial development near the reef.

barrier reef
Comparative size of Great Barrier Reef World Heritage site. Courtesy Australian Government

Wishart said a suite of more than 60 proposed industrial facilities, mostly to facilitate coal exports, are being considered for the Queensland coast, off of which the reef is located. If built, she said, they would nearly double the amount of ship traffic over the reef, posing the risk of physical collisions and oil spills, and necessitate dredging the ocean floor nearby, adding to sediment contamination that can block the sunlight the corals need to thrive.

Last year UNESCO decided the threats were enough to warrant dispatching a team to investigate; it drafted a series of recommendations for the state and federal governments, which are due to issue a response by Feb. 1. If the World Heritage folks aren't sufficiently impressed, they could demote the reef to "World Heritage in Danger" status, along with another large reef in Belize where chunks were sold off for development, a historic Buddhist landmark in Afghanistan that was sacked by the Taliban, and a host of other brutalized spots. World Heritage listing doesn't confer any specific legal protection per se (in the way that, say, officially designating habitat for an endangered species in the US would); rather, UNESCO provides guidance for local governments to better manage the sites. Still, the demotion could deal an embarrassing blow to the $5 billion tourism industry the reef supports—designation is largely seen as a major tourist draw, and getting booted from the list could send the signal that the reef just ain't what it used to be.

NASA's Alarming Map of the Worst Australian Heat Wave on Record

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 4:14 PM EST

This story first appeared in The Atlantic Cities and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Although temperatures around the country have receded this week, many Australians no doubt are still having fever dreams of their country's recent skull-boiling weather. The past four months have been the hottest ever recorded on the continent, with a new countrywide high temperature on January 7 busting the mercury bulb at 104.6 Fahrenheit. (It wasn't much better that night, with A/C units struggling to compensate for 90.3-degree heat.)

But how far and wide did this steamy bulk of hotness spread? The folks over at NASA have revealed the answer in the form of a heat map, and it looks like this was truly a monster-sized "persistent and widespread heatwave event," as the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has dubbed it. Here it is, the surface-temperature anomalies for January 1 through 8 as observed by satellite:

Sierra Club Turns to Civil Disobedience to Stop Keystone Pipeline

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Earlier this week, the Sierra Club announced that it is lifting its long-standing institutional prohibition on civil disobedience so that it can protest the development of the tar sands. The club's board of directors approved the change, which executive director Michael Brune made public on Tuesday. While staff and board members have previously participated in acts of civil disobedience in a personal capacity, this is the first time that the organization will take part.

The group has been mum on exactly what sort of civil disobedience it is planning. It is cosponsoring an anti-Keystone XL rally on the National Mall on February 17 with 350.org and the Hip-Hop Caucus, but says that the civil disobedience will be a separate event.

I caught up with Brune on Thursday to talk about what this means for the 120-year-old environmental organization.

Mother Jones: So is this only allowing civil disobedience related to the tar sands, or does it open it up the possibility to use it for other issues as well?

Michael Brune: Right now the board has authorized us to do this singular action on tar sands and climate. It will have a broad frame of wanting the president to be as muscular in his approach to fighting climate change as he can, with a particular focus on the tar sands pipeline.

MJ: What was it about this issue in particular that forced the change?

MB: Look at what's happened in just the last year. Record-breaking wildfires, unusual heat waves in Chicago last February, a full degree warmer in the lower 48 than we've ever seen, droughts, Hurricane Sandy, the derecho, bizarre storms happening all across the country. It's clear that our climate is already destabilizing, and it's also clear that there's a lot that the president can do to solve the problem. So we need to provide as much urgency and focus to ensure that the president's commitment is an enduring one and that his ambition meets the scale of the challenge.

MJ: Has the Club ever officially done civil disobedience?

MB: The Club has never officially done civil disobedience in our 120-year-history. There was a standing rule, an explicit prohibition on civil disobedience that the board has lifted. I don't know exactly when it was put in place, but it's been in place for decades. When it's used rarely, in extraordinary conditions, American history shows that it has done a great deal in helping to address injustices. We think that given the time we're in right now, with the threats we face from climate change, and the opportunities we face from a clean energy transition, that we need the strongest possible leadership from the president. And civil disobedience can help to provide that.

Explained in 90 Seconds: It's Cold. That Doesn't Mean Global Warming is Fake.

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 7:11 AM EST

At Climate Desk, we like to call them—affectionately—our "pet trolls." (You know who you are. Hi!) They are regular readers that pepper us on Twitter and Facebook with one of several climate myths upon the publication of every article, sometimes with freakish speed. One of the most popular myths is this: Global warming isn't real because it's really cold outside; climate models are thus full of sh*t. So, here in 90 seconds, is our attempt to explain something we interact with every day, in all sorts of ways, from flying in a plane, to getting a loan, to betting on a horse: computer modeling.

Our video features Drew Purves, from Microsoft in Cambridge, UK, a statistics whiz specializing in modeling the climate and ecosystems. Think of him as the Nate Silver of carbon. You can read about his latest research project, a rallying cry to model the entire world's ecology—that's right, the entire world—in the latest edition of Nature.

Advertise on MotherJones.com

After Nebraska Setback, Greens Regroup on Keystone XL

| Fri Jan. 25, 2013 7:11 AM EST

Environmentalists waging an ongoing fight against the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt a major setback this week when Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed off on the pipe's route through his state. Now all that stands between TransCanada, the company behind the pipeline, and broken ground is a signature from the State Department, the final decision about which is expected this spring.

Between now and then, the sprawling unofficial coalition of green individuals and groups that have bonded in the last two years over opposition to the pipeline is gearing up for a final push. It's certain to be an uphill battle: Yesterday a letter signed by 53 senators put renewed pressure on Obama to say yes, and other than the rare rhetorical nod to climate action there are few clues that he'll nix the project*. So the rhetoric of the next couple months could make or break the pipeline.

Opposition to the Keystone XL has tended to coalesce around two different arguments, the tools in the anti-Keystone toolbelt: The first is that the pipe could deal a deadly blow to the global climate by raising the floodgates for oil from Canada's tar sands, believed by scientists to be one of Earth's dirtiest fuel sources; the second is that the pipe could pose a slew of localized threats on its path from Alberta to the Gulf of Mexico, from potential leaks contaminating groundwater to careless work crews plowing through fragile dinosaur fossil beds. Governor Heineman's decision seems to close the book on the state-level fight and steal some thunder from the localized argument, but leading Nebraska activist Jane Kleeb says local landowners aren't ready to cede their home turf quite yet.

"Oh yeah, it's far from over. We have landowners asking us to train them in civil disobedience," Kleeb said. "These folks are not joking around. They homesteaded this land. They don't trust this company. And they don't want [the pipeline]. So they're going to do everything they can to keep it from crossing their lines."

keystone route
Nebraska DEQ; Tim McDonnell

Can Two Dedicated Congressmen Make Their Colleagues Care About Climate?

| Thu Jan. 24, 2013 12:37 PM EST

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) announced on Thursday that they are forming a joint House-Senate Climate Change Task Force. The effort will be "dedicated to focusing Congressional and public attention on climate change and developing effective policy responses." Any member of Congress interested in the issue can join.

The group intends to release reports, memoranda, and correspondence "to advance the group's goal of increasing awareness and developing policy responses to climate change."

The task force's first action is a letter sent today to President Obama asking him to outline specific steps that federal agencies will take to get the country to the administration's previously stated goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 17 percent by 2020. They also asked him to scale up investment in clean technology and develop a strategy for dealing with climate impacts across the US. Obama gave climate change significant space in his inaugural address earlier this week, but hasn't yet outlined plans to deal with it in his second term. 

"The window to deal effectively with a warming planet and to mitigate long-term risks is quickly closing," they wrote in the letter, which was also signed by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). "Our best hope to change course is to forge together a national consensus that insists on addressing climate change. And our best hope for forging that consensus is the presidential leadership we know you can give to this issue."

The letter pretty much acknowledged that Congress isn't likely to do much in terms of meaningful action, which puts the onus on Obama to take executive action. "We in Congress need your leadership most of all. Virtually all Republicans in Congress opposed comprehensive climate legislation in the 111th Congress, and they voted to strip EPA of regulatory authority in the last one. Progress is Congress may be so difficult or protracted that you should not hesitate to act."

Fracking Wastewater Threatens to Drown Ohio

| Wed Jan. 23, 2013 2:55 PM EST

First, the good news: Using the process known as hydraulic fracturing to create natural gas wells produces less wastewater than wells created using more conventional methods, according to a new study in the journal Water Resources Research. Scientists from Duke and Kent State universities found that fracked wells create 35 percent as much wastewater per unit of gas when compared to conventional wells. The scientists note that this upsets the common idea that fracking creates more wastewater than other types of gas extraction.

But now the bad news. Because of fracking, gas extraction is up 570 percent since 2004 in the Marcellus shale region, which means that there's a whole lot more wastewater overall to deal with.

Because of fracking, gas extraction is up 570 percent since 2004 in the Marcellus shale region.

"On one hand, shale gas production generates less wastewater per unit," explained co-author Brian Lutz, an assistant professor of biogeochemistry at Kent State. "On the other hand, because of the massive size of the Marcellus resource, the overall volume of water that now has to be transported and treated is immense. It threatens to overwhelm the region's wastewater-disposal infrastructure capacity."

And while most of that fracking is taking place in Pennsylvania right now, Ohio is taking a huge portion of the wastewater. As the Akron Beacon Journal points out, Pennsylvania's 6,400 active wells created 20 million barrels of wastewater in 2011, and about 35 percent of it—7 million barrels—was disposed of in injection wells in Ohio, accounting for more than half of the wastewater Ohio dealt with.

Ohio can't do much to stop Pennsylvania from shipping its wastewater over the border due to the interstate commerce clause in the Constitution, which stipulates that only Congress can regulate this type of interstate trade. The best the state can do is set tougher rules on disposing of that wastewater, which has been discussed but not acted upon. Citizens in Mansfield, Ohio, voted last year to block injection wells in their town, however.

A Quick, Awesome Must-Read on Climate Change

| Wed Jan. 23, 2013 7:01 AM EST
Kerry Emanuel

At this point, climate change is so politicized that it's difficult for the general public to sort out what scientists really know—and don't know—about it. Penned by Kerry Emanuel, an atmospheric sciences professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, this latest edition of What We Know About Climate Change is the most comprehensive, readable, BS-free rundown on the topic that you're likely to find. It's short enough to read in a day, apolitical enough to appeal to both your Fox-obsessed wingnut uncle and your dreadlocked freegan older sister in Brooklyn, and just detailed enough to provide a reload of fresh intellectual ammunition to help you engage others on the topic.