Blue Marble

California Just Had Its Warmest Winter on Record

| Thu Mar. 13, 2014 2:26 PM EDT
temperature map
NOAA

This winter has been a tale of two Americas: The Midwest is just beginning to thaw out from a battery of epic cold snaps, while Californians might feel that they pretty much skipped winter altogether. In fact, new NOAA data reveal that California's winter (December through February) was the warmest in the 119-year record, 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit above the 20th century average.

The map above ranks every state's winter temperature average relative to its own historical record low (in other words, relative to itself and not to other states). Low numbers indicate that the state was unusually cold; higher numbers mean it was exceptionally warm. As you can see, the Midwest was much colder than average, while the West was hotter than average (despite a season-long kerfluffle about polar vortexes, the East Coast wasn't exceptionally cold, after all).

As we've reported, there's currently a scientific debate over whether climate change in the Arcitc is making the jet stream "drunk," and thereby increasing the likelihood of extreme cold spells; the exact role of climate change in California's record heat is still unclear.

As anyone working in California's farming industry could confirm, the state also had an exceptionally dry winter, the third-lowest precipitation on record. Other interesting facts from the NOAA report:

  • At the beginning of March, 91 percent of the Great Lakes remained frozen, the second-largest ice cover since record keeping began in 1973.
  • With reservoirs in central and northern California at 36 to 74 percent of their historical average levels, these regions would need 18 inches of rain over the next three months to end the drought, much more than the state normally gets in that time period.
  • Alaska's winter was the eighth-warmest on record, 6.2 degrees F over the 1971-2000 average.

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WATCH LIVE: Is a Carbon Tax a Good Idea? Just Ask British Columbia

| Mon Mar. 10, 2014 2:27 PM EDT
 
6:30 pm - 8:00 pm PT, Thursday, March 27, 2014
Queen Elizabeth Theatre Salons, Vancouver
Android? Click Here

In the US context, the idea of putting a tax on carbon is going nowhere fast. While the policy has been championed by liberal legislators and by a few conservative apostates, like former South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis, mainstream Republican sentiment remains opposed to climate action. For the moment, many lawmakers remain too busy denying the reality of human-caused climate change.

Cross our northwestern border, though, and a carbon tax isn't just an idea, it's a reality. Five years ago, the Canadian province of British Columbia joined a small group of local and national governments (still fewer than 20 overall) that have created a carbon tax—setting a price on carbon in an effort to reduce emissions. Today, the tax brings in $1 billion a year in revenue that is returned to British Columbia taxpayers. Assessing the tax's impact on overall greenhouse gas emissions is a somewhat complicated endeavor, given a number of confounding factors (like the economic collapse of 2008-2009), but it's clear that when it comes to the use of carbon-intensive petroleum products like gasoline and diesel, there has been a marked decline since the year 2008 in British Columbia. In the first four years of the carbon tax, sales of refined petroleum products per capita in BC declined by 15 percent, according to the Sightline Institute, substantially more than the decline in Canada as a whole.*

At a time when carbon tax policies appear increasingly enticing (especially in light of the failure of cap-and-trade in the US), what can British Columbia's experience teach us about the prospects for solutions to climate change? How is the tax working? How do British Columbians feel about it? And has it prompted a desired growth in the clean energy industry?

To delve into these questions, Climate Desk, Climate Access, and Bloomberg BNA are partnering to present "The Carbon Tax Return: Lessons Learned From British Columbia's First Five Years of Taxing Emissions." This distinguished panel, preceded by a cocktail reception, will take place on Thursday, March 27, at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, Salon C in downtown Vancouver, with doors opening at 5:30pm PDT. For tickets, click here. To join the event on Facebook, click here. The event will also be livestreamed at this page starting at 6:00pm PDT.

Featured speakers include: Spencer Chandra Herbert, a member of BC's legislative assembly and the New Democratic Party's designated voice on the environment; Merran Smith from Clean Energy Canada; and Ross Beaty the chairman of Alterra Power Corp. Best-selling science writer and Climate Desk Live host Chris Mooney will lead these policymakers and thought leaders in discussing the innovations, pitfalls, and promise of the first five years of the carbon tax in British Columbia. 

Speaker Biographies:

Spencer Chandra Herbert, Environment Critic and Member of the BC Legislative Assembly

Spencer Chandra Herbert was re-elected to represent Vancouver West-End in 2013. He is the official opposition environment critic and previously served as the opposition voice on Tourism, Arts, and Culture and the BC Lottery Corporation and Gaming Policy. Spencer served as an elected Vancouver park board commissioner from 2005-2008, where he worked to improve environmental sustainability in Vancouver's Parks and accessibility to programs for youth and low-income people. 

Merran Smith, Director, Clean Energy Canada

Merran Smith is the director of Clean Energy Canada at Tides Canada. She leads a team working to diversify Canada’s energy systems, cut carbon pollution, and reduce the nation's fossil-fuel dependence, and she writes and speaks extensively on the opportunities for Canada in the global low-carbon economy.

Ross Beaty, Chairman Alterra Power Corp.

Ross J. Beaty is a geologist and resource company entrepreneur with more than 40 years of experience in the international minerals and renewable energy industries. In early 2008, Mr. Beaty founded Magma Energy Corp. to focus on international geothermal energy development. In 2011, Magma and Plutonic Power merged to create Alterra Power Corp. Mr. Beaty also founded and currently serves as chairman of Pan American Silver Corp., one of the world's leading silver producers.

Jeremy Hainsworth

Jeremy Hainsworth is a contributor internationally to Bloomberg BNA (BBNA) and the Associated Press. Jeremy has worked with BBNA for over three years on legal, regulatory, and policy issues in western Canada for BBNA's wide-ranging stable of international publications.

* A previous version of this article stated that British Columbia's greenhouse gas emissions per capita had declined by 10 percent from 2008-2011 after the adoption of the carbon tax, compared with a decline of only 1 percent for the rest of Canada. Those figures did not include emissions from a variety of sectors, however, including electricity and heat generation. This article has been revised for clarification.

Here Are 5 Infuriating Examples of Facts Making People Dumber

| Wed Mar. 5, 2014 7:00 AM EST

On Monday, I reported on the latest study to take a bite out of the idea of human rationality. In a paper just published in Pediatrics, Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth University and his colleagues showed that presenting people with information confirming the safety of vaccines triggered a "backfire effect," in which people who already distrusted vaccines actually became less likely to say they would vaccinate their kids.

Unfortunately, this is hardly the only example of such a frustrating response being documented by researchers. Nyhan and his coauthor, Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter, have captured several others, as have other researchers. Here are some examples:

1. Tax cuts increase revenue? In a 2010 study, Nyhan and Reifler asked people to read a fake newspaper article containing a real quotation of George W. Bush, in which the former president asserted that his tax cuts "helped increase revenues to the Treasury." In some versions of the article, this false claim was then debunked by economic evidence: A correction appended to the end of the article stated that in fact, the Bush tax cuts "were followed by an unprecedented three-year decline in nominal tax revenues, from $2 trillion in 2000 to $1.8 trillion in 2003." The study found that conservatives who read the correction were twice as likely to believe Bush's claim was true as were conservatives who did not read the correction.

2. Death panels! Another notorious political falsehood is Sarah Palin's claim that Obamacare would create "death panels." To test whether they could undo the damage caused by this highly influential morsel of misinformation, Nyhan and his colleagues had study subjects read an article about the "death panels" claim, which in some cases ended with a factual correction explaining that "nonpartisan health care experts have concluded that Palin is wrong." Among survey respondents who were very pro-Palin and who had a high level of political knowledge, the correction actually made them more likely to wrongly embrace the false "death panels" theory.

3. Obama is a Muslim! And if that's still not enough, yet another Nyhan and Reifler study examined the persistence of the "President Obama is a Muslim" myth. In this case, respondents watched a video of President Obama denying that he is a Muslim or even stating affirmatively, "I am a Christian." Once again, the correction—uttered in this case by the president himself—often backfired in the study, making belief in the falsehood that Obama is a Muslim worse among certain study participants. What's more, the backfire effect was particularly notable when the researchers administering the study were white. When they were nonwhite, subjects were more willing to change their minds, an effect the researchers explained by noting that "social desirability concerns may affect how respondents behave when asked about sensitive topics." In other words, in the company of someone from a different race than their own, people tend to shift their responses based upon what they think that person's worldview might be.

4. The alleged Iraq-Al Qaeda link. In a 2009 study, Monica Prasad of Northwestern University and her colleagues directly challenged Republican partisans about their false belief that Iraq and Al Qaeda collaborated in the 9/11 attacks, a common charge during the Bush years. The so-called challenge interviews included citing the findings of the 9/11 Commission and even a statement by George W. Bush, asserting that his administration had "never said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated between Saddam and Al Qaeda." Despite these facts, only 1 out of 49 partisans changed his or her mind after the factual correction. Forty-one of the partisans "deflected" the information in a variety of ways, and seven actually denied holding the belief in the first place (although they clearly had).

5. Global warming. On the climate issue, there does not appear to be any study that clearly documents a backfire effect. However, in a 2011 study, researchers at American and Ohio State universities found a closely related "boomerang effect." In the experiment, research subjects from upstate New York read news articles about how climate change might increase the spread of West Nile Virus, which were accompanied by the pictures of the faces of farmers who might be affected. But in one case, the people were said to be farmers in upstate New York (in other words, victims who were quite socially similar to the research subjects); in the other, they were described as farmers from either Georgia or from France (much more distant victims). The intent of the article was to raise concern about the health consequences of climate change, but when Republicans read the article about the more distant farmers, their support for action on climate change decreased, a pattern that was stronger as their Republican partisanship increased. (When Republicans read about the proximate New York farmers, there was no boomerang effect, but they did not become more supportive of climate action either.)

Together, all of these studies support the theory of "motivated reasoning": The idea that our prior beliefs, commitments, and emotions drive our responses to new information, such that when we are faced with facts that deeply challenge these commitments, we fight back against them to defend our identities. So next time you feel the urge to argue back against some idiot on the internet…pause, take a deep breath, and realize not only that arguing might not do any good, but that in fact, it might very well backfire.

Survey: These Are the Most and Least Obese States in America

| Tue Mar. 4, 2014 6:23 PM EST

West Virginia's tenure as the most obese state in America—a three-year run that no one ever called a dynasty—is over.

According to Gallup, which just released its 2013 survey on obesity in America, 35.4 percent of Mississippians have a BMI above 30, giving the home of 3 Doors Down the highest obesity rate in the Union. West Virginia came in second at 34.4 percent.

Meanwhile, Montana toppled three-time defending least-obese champion and budding marijuana tourist destination Colorado, with a svelte 19.6 percent.

You can check out the full results here.

On average, residents of the 10 most obese states were—unsurprisingly—less likely to eat healthily, consume fruits and vegetables, or workout regularly than residents of the least obese states.

Overall the national obesity rate rose to 27.1 percent in 2013. It has risen every year since 2008.

Impeach.

Watch: Dancers Defy Beijing's "Nuclear Winter" Smog

| Fri Feb. 28, 2014 12:06 PM EST

Face masks are selling out online as China's cities this week choked on pollution so bad one local scientist called it "somewhat similar to a nuclear winter." A local cancer prevention official said this revolting blanket of air, largely caused by a "black triangle" of coal pollution, could pose a bigger public health risk than the 2003 SARS epidemic. At rates of over 20 times what the World Health Organization says are acceptable, the air has forced Beijing to shutter city factories, and residents have taken to social media to vent their anger using a now-well-known brand of dark humor. One of the funniest tweets reported by the South China Morning Post recalls a saying by current president Xi Jinping: "Make socialist core values as pervasive as the air." Chinese netizens: "Also as toxic?"

The official local scale of "PM2.5"—those tiny, toxic particles that can prove so dangerous to health—came in at 501 micrograms per cubic meter on Wednesday. The measurements taken from the US Embassy (and popularized via its Twitter feed) were higher, at 542: "beyond index." (The US EPA says anything above 300 is hazardous). Another measure of how bad it is: Radio Free Asia reported this week that a resident of the coal-burning city of Shijiazhuang, in a rare act of defiance, is suing the local government for failing to act over the deadly smog.

Comparing the frigid weather hampering the US to Beijing's endemic smog, Paul Flynn, tech director at PR firm Edelman in Beijing (and a friend), texted me: "After a week of Beijing pollution levels over 500, give me a clear arctic breeze any day." But if fleeing is not an option, why not dance? I loved watching this homage to Pharrell's infectious hit, "Happy," performed by brave locals and expats at some of Beijing's most recognizable tourist locations. The video, by filmmakers Stephy Chung, Em Jaay, and Sarah E Weber, hit the web this week, and has been already featured on a bunch of very cool China blogs that you should definitely keep tabs on. Enjoy!

H/t to Paul Flynn for pointing the video out.

Sorry, California. A Little Rain Isn't Going to Save You.

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 6:51 PM EST
comparison of California drought maps

California, supplier of nearly half of the fruits, veggies, and nuts produced in the United States, is on track to experience its driest year in modern history. And though the state was lucky to have some rain this week, even a torrential storm would not be enough to fill its aquifers, replenish its soil, and save many of its crops.

We've been tracking the drought through the US Drought Monitor, which uses satellite imagery, water flow, and precipitation data to create weekly drought maps. (Data is collected on Tuesdays, and released the following Thursday.) As of this week, 21 of the state's 58 counties are experiencing "exceptional drought"—including those Central Valley areas where so many of the state's crops grow. Above, check out the maps we've compiled from the past few weeks, starting with the one that prompted Gov. Jerry Brown to announce a state of emergency on January 17.

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State Dept. Investigators: No Conflict of Interest in Keystone XL Review

| Thu Feb. 27, 2014 1:23 PM EST
Construction workers piece together the southern portion of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas.

Opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline were dealt another blow Wednesday evening with the release of a long-awaited report from the State Department's internal oversight office on a potential conflict of interest in the Department's environmental review of the project. The report found that even though employees of the contractor hired to carry out the review had previously consulted for the company pushing the pipeline, the information they provided to the Department was "not misleading."

Moreover, the report found that State Department officials had followed protocol for objectively selecting a contractor, even taking steps that are above and beyond what is officially called for. For example, a six-person panel conducted in-person interviews with each contractor applying for the job.

Last night's report, issued by the State Department Office of Inspector General (OIG), comes on the heels of the environmental review in question, which found that oil in the Canadian tar sands region would likely be exploited with or without Keystone XL. That was unwelcome news for the project's opponents, since President Obama, in his major climate change speech last summer, said his administration would approve the pipeline only if it wouldn't lead to a significant increase in carbon emissions. If rail, trucks, and other pipelines could transport the oil anyway, it's more likely the Obama administration will give a green light to the project. Last week, the editor of the prestigious journal Science (who previously served as the head of the US Geological Survey under Obama) made that argument in a surprise endorsement of the pipeline. A final decision could come this spring, but that is far from guaranteed.

The conflict-of-interest controversy dates back to November 2011, when the OIG began to investigate claims that TransCanada, the company behind Keystone XL, had improperly influenced the selection of a contractor to write an early environmental impact statement. No impropriety was found, but OIG made recommendations to improve the selection process. The next year, for a second environmental review called for by the president, State hired a new contractor: Environmental Resources Management. ERM's review was released in March 2013, and it was roundly criticized for being soft on the pipeline's potential harms, particularly downplaying the climate impact. Another major problem, as Mother Jones first reported, was that the publicly released biographies of the statement's authors, who were employees of ERM, had been redacted, concealing extensive ties to the fossil fuel industry, including work directly with TransCanada. Another OIG investigation was opened up, leading to the report released yesterday.

From the report:

Marcellus Energy Development Could Pave Over an Area Bigger Than the State of Delaware

| Wed Feb. 26, 2014 4:49 PM EST

This story originally appeared on the Huffington Post website and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Development of natural gas and wind resources in the Marcellus shale region could cover up nearly 1.3 million acres of land, an area bigger than the state of Delaware, with cement, asphalt and other impervious surfaces, according to a paper published this month in the scientific journal PLOS One.

The study, conducted by two scientists from the conservation organization The Nature Conservancy, predicts that 106,004 new gas wells will be drilled in the Marcellus region, based on current trends in natural gas development. The region includes parts of New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Virginia.

Believe It or Not, January Was Full of Big, Warm Climate Anomalies

| Mon Feb. 24, 2014 7:00 AM EST

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

Much of America is about to be overrun by another miserable cold-dozer next week, but on the planetary scale, things have actually been warm. January's temperatures were the hottest for the month since 2007 and, with a combined global average of 54.8 degrees, this was the fourth warmest January since records began in 1880.

That's the word from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, which recently released an updated "State of the Climate" that includes the above map of temperature anomalies. Note cooler-than-normal patches in the eastern US, central Canada, Scandinavia, and a big hunk of Russia, which had country-scale temperatures 9 degrees below average. But the big story was heat, heat, heat, as NCDC explains:

During January 2014, most of the world's land areas experienced warmer-than-average temperatures, with the most notable departures from the 1981–2010 average across Alaska, western Canada, Greenland, Mongolia, southern Russia, and northern China, where the departure from average was +3°C (+5.4°F) or greater. Meanwhile, parts of southeastern Brazil and central and southern Africa experienced record warmth with temperature departures between 0.5°C to 1.5°C above the 1981–2010 average, contributing to the highest January Southern Hemisphere land temperature departure on record at 1.13°C (2.03°F) above the 20th century average. This was also the warmest month for the Southern Hemisphere land since September 2013 when temperatures were 1.23°C (2.21°F) above the 20th century average.

Some other outliers: France tied its warmest January on record with 1988 and 1936; China logged its second-warmest January since it started collecting records in 1961; and in Spain, it was the third-hottest month since 1996.

The climatologists also highlighted a few "significant climate anomalies and events" for January and pinned them to this map. Parts of the US had a severe lack of rainfall, the UK squelched through its third-wettest January on the books, and the Arctic sea ice continues to pull a disappearing act:

Western Australia doubled its usual precipitation and the extent of the Antarctic sea ice got huge in a season when it historically shrinks. Why's that last thing worrisome? "We suspect that the increasing presence of icebergs broken off from ice shelves and glaciers within the Antarctic sea ice pack is a major contributor to a temporary but increasing trend in the Antarctic sea ice extent," explains NOAA. "Since the rapid disappearance of the Antarctic ice shelves and glaciers itself is seen as a response to global warming, the slight increase in sea ice extent that we are observing can be paradoxically linked to the same warming trend."

To zoom in on the climate events in the US, there's this map showing California's ingrained drought, piles and piles of snow in Chicago, and the sweaty results of Alaska's recent heat wave. Overall, the country's western heat lost to the eastern frigidness—temperatures were 0.1 degrees below the 20th-century average and many states had top-10 cold Januaries, including Georgia, Alabama, Indiana, and Michigan:

Images courtesy of NCDC / NOAA

Giant Slaughterhouse Recalls Fancy Grass-Fed Beef After Processing "Diseased and Unsound Animals"

| Fri Feb. 21, 2014 7:00 AM EST

Last month, Rancho Feeding Corp., a slaughterhouse in Petaluma, California, issued a small recall notice, for beef it had processed on a particular day in 2013. That much was routine—meat processing facilities have to pull back product with some regularity when contamination is discovered. But the Rancho recall was different: Earlier this month, the company announced that it needed to recall all the beef it processed in 2013—8.7 million pounds in all, found in more than a thousand grocery stores in 30 states. The most famous of the recalled items are Nestlé Hot Pockets, but the plant produced a lot of other beef products for wholesale, including cheeks, lips, liver, oxtail, and other parts. So have you eaten any of that beef? Here's some background:

What is Rancho Feeding Corp.? Before it ceased operations last week, Rancho Feeding Corp. was the only USDA-approved slaughterhouse within about a three-hour radius of Petaluma. According to Stephanie Larson, the livestock and range adviser at the University of California's Cooperative Extension system, about 25 percent of Rancho's customers were "niche market" operations—many of which raised grass-fed and organic beef. The other 75 percent of the company's business was meat destined for burgers, tacos, chili, and other processed foods for supermarkets and restaurants. Many of Rancho's clients were dairies seeking to slaughter cows that were no longer giving milk.

Just how much meat is 8.7 million pounds? A few years back, my colleague Tom Philpott calculated that Cargill's 36 million pounds of recalled ground turkey was enough to make burgers for the residents of the world's six most populous cities. By the same logic, the 8.7 million pounds of Rancho recalled beef could make burgers for every resident of New York City, London, and Tokyo. As Gwynn Guilford at Quartz points out, letting that much potentially dodgy meat slip through the cracks is what happens when the government skimps on inspectors.

Why did they recall it? According to the USDA' s Food Safety and Inspection Service, Rancho issued the recall after FSIS inspectors determined that it had "processed diseased and unsound animals and carried out these activities without the benefit or full benefit of federal inspection." It was a Class I recall, which means the FSIS considered it "a health hazard situation where there is a reasonable probability that the use of the product will cause serious, adverse health consequences or death." Beyond the recall notice, though, FSIS has offered few details. So far, there are no reports of people getting sick after eating tainted beef processed by Rancho.

How does the recall affect ranchers? Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times reported that Marin Sun Farms, an artisanal meat producer in Point Reyes Station, California, has bought Rancho Feeding Corp. If the company reopens the facility as a USDA-approved slaughterhouse, Rancho's former clients will likely be relieved, since Rancho was the only game in town. (Consolidation of slaughterhouses is a problem for ranchers across the nation.)

Bill Niman, the founder of sustainable meat company Niman Ranch who now runs a grass-fed operation called BN Ranch, told the Village Voice that Rancho's closing would be "a great loss to the Northern California food community."

Sally Gale and her husband own Chileno Valley Ranch, a 600-acre, 100-head beef operation in Marin County that sells grass-fed beef directly to consumers. The Gales, who have owned their ranch for 15 years, used to hire a slaughterer to dispatch their steers on their property. (A few years ago, Bonne Azab Powell profiled a traveling slaughterer in Mother Jones.) But about five years ago, they received a notice saying that the practice was illegal and that they must take their animals to a USDA-certified slaughterhouse. The only one in the area was Rancho.

Because of the recall, the Gales have had to dispose of three adult steers—worth about $1,600 each—that Rancho had slaughtered. If Rancho closes, Sally Gale worries that the long drive to the next closest slaughterhouse, more than 150 miles away, will stress the animals and add an extra expense to what Gale describes as an "already marginal business." California's drought has hit ranches like hers hard, she says, and she expects that many will have to charge their customers more to make up for the losses. 

Typically, Chileno Valley Ranch sends about six cows to slaughter every week. Now, the Gales will be waiting until they have 30 ready to make the long trip worthwhile. "The government told us that we couldn't slaughter our own meat," says Gale. "And now they're telling us that we can't bring them to Rancho either."