President Barack Obama will once again use his executive authority to mandate action on climate change, the White House announced this morning. Later today, Obama plans to sign an executive order directing the federal government to reduce its carbon footprint by 40 percent below 2008 levels within a decade. The White House announcement also includes carbon-reduction commitments from a number of large government contractors, including GE and IBM.
All told, the government pollution cuts along with industry contributions will have the effect of keeping 26 million metric tons of greenhouse gases out of the air by 2025, or the equivalent of what about 5.5 million cars would pump out through their tailpipes in an average year, the White House said. Yet it was unclear exactly how either the government or private companies planned to meet those targets.
In other words, it will take until 2025 to for the cuts to reach 26 million metric tons per year. And even that is a pretty small fraction of the nation's total carbon footprint, which was nearly 7 billion metric tons in 2013. But the announcement garnered praise from environmental groups as a sign of Obama's leadership on climate. In a statement, Natural Resources Defense Council president Rhea Suh called the announcement "a powerful reminder of how much progress we can make simply through energy efficiency and greater reliance on clean, renewable sources of energy."
The executive order will be the latest step the president has taken to confront climate change that won't require him to push legislation through a recalcitrant, GOP-controlled Congress. In the last couple years his administration has imposed tight limits on vehicle emissions and has put forward a flagship set of new rules under the Clean Air Act to slash carbon pollution from power plants. Obama also negotiated a bilateral deal with China that featured a suite of new climate promises from both countries. And sometime this spring, the president will announce what kind of commitments his administration will bring to the table for a high-stakes round of UN-led negotiations that are meant to produce a new international climate accord.
According to the White House, today's executive order directs federal agencies to:
Procure a quarter of their total energy from clean sources by 2025;
Cut energy use in federal buildings 2.5 percent per year over the next decade;
Purchase more plug-in hybrid vehicles for federal fleets and reduce per-mile greenhouse gas emissions overall by 30 percent by 2025;
Reduce water use in federal buildings 2 percent per year through 2025.
Last night, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a probable candidate for the GOP presidential nomination, shared his thoughts about climate change with late-night host Seth Meyers (video above). Here's what he said:
CRUZ: I just came back from New Hampshire where there's snow and ice everywhere. And my view actually is simple. Debates on this should follow science and should follow data. And many of the alarmists on global warming, they've got a problem because the science doesn't back them up. And in particular, satellite data demonstrate for the last 17 years there's been zero warming, none whatsoever. It's why, you remember how it used to be called global warming, and then magically the theory changed to climate change?
CRUZ: The reason is it wasn't warming. But the computer models still say it is, except the satellites show it's not.
We totally agree with his point that debates about climate "should follow science and should follow data." Right on! But according to Kevin Trenberth, a leading climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, everything else in Cruz's quote is "a load of claptrap…absolute bunk."
How the 2016 contenders will deal with climate change
Trenberth wasn't alone in his criticism. Several prominent climate scientists contacted by Climate Desk dismissed Cruz's analysis. "It is disturbing that some of our most prominent elected officials have decided to engage in distortions of and cynical attacks against the science," said Michael Mann of Penn State.
"Lawmakers have a responsibility to understand the science, and not to embrace ignorance with open arms, as Senator Cruz is doing here," added Ben Santer, a researcher at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab.
So what's wrong with what Cruz said? For starters, the satellite record does, in fact, show warming. Here's a view of temperature anomalies (that is, the deviation from the long-term average) reported by Remote Sensing Systems, a NASA-backed private satellite lab. It shows warming of about 0.2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1980, the beginning of the satellite record:
Remote Sensing Systems
Even still, there are a couple important caveats with satellite temperature data that Cruz would do well to make note of. One, Santer said, is that it has a "huge" degree of uncertainty (compared to land-based thermometers), so it should be approached with caution. That's because satellites don't make direct measurements of temperature but instead pick up microwaves from oxygen molecules in the atmosphere that vary with temperature. Fluctuations in a satellite's orbit and altitude and calibrations to its microwave-sensing equipment can all drastically affect its temperature readings.
More importantly, satellites measure temperatures in the atmosphere, high above the surface. The chart above shows the lower troposphere, about six miles above the surface. This data is an important piece of the climate and weather system, but it's only one piece. There are plenty of other signs that are far less equivocal, and perhaps even more relevant to those of us who live on the Earth's surface: Land and ocean surface temperatures are increasing, sea ice is declining, glaciers are shrinking, oceans are rising, the list goes on. In other words, the satellites-vs-computers dichotomy described by Cruz ignores most of the full picture.
For example, here's the most recent land and ocean-surface temperature data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, showing how temperatures this winter deviated from the long-term average (dating all the way back to 1880). Much of the globe is warmer than average, some parts are the hottest on record, and the overall global temperature was the warmest on record:
There's also a big underlying flaw with Cruz's cherry-picked timespan of 17 years, which almost any climate scientist would agree is far too short to observe any meaningful trend. 1998, the year Cruz starts with, was itself exceptionally warm thanks to the biggest El Nino event of the 20th century. If that's your starting place, the warming trend does indeed look weak. But look over a longer time period, and it's obvious that very warm years are more common now than before.
And in any case, even the modest "slow-down" in warming that has occurred since 2000 isn't inconsistent with what scientists have always expected man-made climate change will look like. Even the earliest climate models predicted the possibility of occasional leveling-off periods in upward-bound global temperature, like a landing on a staircase.
In fact, one reason why many scientists "magically" (as Cruz put it) have begun to prefer the term "climate change" to "global warming" is because they think the latter can misleadingly imply that every year will be incrementally warmer than the last. In reality, climate change is all about odds: Man-made greenhouse gas emissions substantially increase the chances of an exceptionally warm year, but they don't eliminate the possibility for average or even cold years to happen.
Even accounting for the apparent stability of the last few years, Santer said, "everything tells us that what's going on isn't natural."
As for Cruz's reference to snowy weather in New Hampshire...give us a break.
Last year, I attended the annual conference of the California Dietetic Association, the state's chapter of the country's largest professional organization for nutritionists and dietitians. Its premier sponsor—and lunch caterer—was McDonald's. That won't be the case at this year's conferencein April: The organization just voted not to invite the fast-food chain back.
Today a member of the California Dietetics Association shared the following letter from conference leadership on the Facebook page of Dietitians for Professional Integrity:
We would like to direct your attention to what the California Dietetic Association (CDA) has done to address our own issues surrounding sponsorship. We heard your concerns regarding CDA Annual Conference sponsorship and we have listened. We voted and McDonalds was not invited as a sponsor in 2015. This decision has impacted our finances; however, we believe it was important to respond to our member feedback. In addition, an ad hoc committee approved by the CDA executive board, reevaluated the sponsorship guidelines. The new sponsorship policy will be posted soon on www.dietitian.org. Any questions regarding the new policy can be directed to Kathryn Sucher, CDA President-elect [email address redacted]
We look forward to seeing you at the CDA Annual Conference.
Your 2014-2015 CDA Executive Board
That's not to say that the conference organizers have ditched corporate funders entirely. According to the schedule (PDF), Kellogg's is sponsoring a panel called "The Evolution of Breakfast: Nutrition and Health Concerns in the Future," while Soy Connection, the communications arm of the United Soybean Board, is hosting a session titled "Busting the Myths Surrounding Genetically Engineered Foods" (and sponsoring a "light breakfast"). A few other sessions sponsored by corporations and trade groups:
"Why We Eat What We Eat in America and What We Can Do About It" (California Beef Council)
"Probiotics and the Microbiome: Key to Health and Disease Prevention" (Dairy Council of California)
"New Research – Understanding Optimal Levels Of Protein And Carb To Prevent Obesity, Sarcopenia, Type 2 Diabetes, And Metabolic Syndrome" (Egg Nutrition Center)
"New evidence of Non-Nutritive Sweeteners: Help or Hindrance for Weight and Diabetes Management" (Johnson & Johnson McNeil, Inc, LLC)
"Plant-based Meals from Around the Globe" (Barilla Pasta)
Still, says Andy Bellatti, a dietitian and leader of the group Dietitians for Professional Integrity, ditching McDonald's as a sponsor is a step in the right direction. "There's still a long way to go," he said. "But the McDonald's sponsorship was just so egregious. I'm glad they came to their senses and got rid of it."
According to a company press release, the recalled boxes are 7.25 oz, "Original Flavor" Macaroni & Cheese Dinner with expiration dates between September 18, 2015 and October 11, 2015, and they're marked with the code "C2" below the date (referring to the box's production line). The boxes have been distributed across the United States and Puerto Rico, as well as some Caribbean and South American countries. The company's statement read, "We deeply regret this situation and apologize to any consumers we have disappointed," and added, "Consumers who purchased this product should not eat it."
Wind energy is growing fast. While it still accounts for less than 5 percent of the United States' total electricity mix, wind is by far the biggest source of renewable energy other than hydroelectric dams, and it accounted for 23 percent of new power production capacity built last year. Some experts think wind could provide a fifth of the world's energy by 2030. But wind in the US is always in a perilous position, thanks to its heavy reliance on a federal tax credit that is routinely attacked in Congress; the subsidy was allowed to expire at the end of last year, and its ultimate fate remains unclear.
Fortunately, wind won't be subject to the whims of legislators for much longer, according to a new analysis from the Energy Department. The new report found that within a decade, wind will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels like natural gas, even without a federal tax incentive.
Cost reductions and technology improvements will reduce the price of wind power to below that of fossil-fuel generation, even after a $23-per-megawatt-hour subsidy provided now to wind farm owners ends, according to a report released Thursday.
"Wind offers a power resource that's already the most competitive option in many parts of the nation," Lynn Orr, under secretary for science and energy at the Energy Department, said on a conference call with reporters. "With continued commitment, wind can be the cheapest, cleanest power option in all 50 states by 2050."
That would be a huge win for slowing climate change. The report finds that it could also lead to billions of dollars of benefits to the American public, from lower monthly electric bills to fewer air-pollution-related deaths.
Like most things you love in life, your cellphone might be contributing to your growing waistline—along with your tablet, videogame console, computer, and television. Electronic devices with chips contain flame retardants to cool those chips so they don't catch fire while you are using them. Researchers at the University of Houston are now finding that these commonly used chemicals may be connected to weight gain.
The compounds in question, Tetrabromobisphoneol A (TBBPA) and tetrachlorobisphenol A (TCBPA) can leach out of the devices and often end up settling on dust particles in the air we breathe, the study found. The compounds are a form of bisphenol A (BPA), a chemical ubiquitously used in food containers and plastic water battles that has already already been linked to obesity and increases in metabolic disorders.
After previous studies showed that these chemicals could activate stem cells to grow fat cells, the scientists set out to study their effect on living organisms.
Using sibling pairs of zebrafish, the researchers administered low doses of the chemicals to only one group for 11 days. Though both groups ate the same diet, after a month the zebrafish in the chemical group were heavier and showed signs of increased fat cell build up (zebrafish are transparent so scientists could see fat build up around vital organs as well as around the fish's sides).
The team was hopeful that the findings will lead to more in depth research on chemicals that can cause weight gain, said researcher Maria Bondesson in a University of Houston press release. "Our goal is to find the worst ones and then replace them with safer alternatives."
Should the new Dietary Guidelines—the advice the federal government issues every five years on what constitutes a healthy diet—include recommendations about what makes for a healthy planet? The meat industry sure doesn't think so.
The industry started flipping out when it saw some of the language in the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee's February report: "Consistent evidence indicates that, in general, a dietary pattern that is higher in plant-based foods...and lower in animal-based foods is more health promoting and is associated with a lesser environmental impact (GHG emissions and energy, land, and water use) than is the current average US diet."
Big Meat takes issue with two main things:
1) That the committee's scientists dared to comment on environmental sustainability issues in a nutrition report.
2) That the report said (elsewhere) that a healthy diet should be lower in red and processed meats.
The film focuses on the health merits of meat, arguing that it trumps other foods because, unlike plants, "animal proteins are considered complete proteins, or ideal proteins." Never mind that plenty of other accessible and cheap vegetarian foods, including rice and beans, or buckwheat, also provide complete proteins.
One calorie of beef requires 18 times the amount of fuel to produce as one calorie of grain.
But the video does not try to refute the notion that meat's environmental footprint is cause for concern—the UN argues, for instance, that livestock produce 14.5 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. The Dietary Guidelines' committee points out that producing one calorie of beef requires 18 times as much fuel as producing one calorie of grain.
It's no coincidence that the committee chose to flag the carbon footprint of our food: The guidelines are ultimately about people's relationship with food, and the deterioration of the environment's health is a blow to our food security. "Meeting current and future food needs," the committee notes, will depend on changing the way people eat and developing agricultural and production practices "that reduce environmental impacts and conserve resources."
So will the Dietary Guidelines retain this responsible language when they are officially published this fall by the departments of Health and Human Services and Agriculture? On Wednesday, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said that he could not rule out the chance that the final version will mention sustainability, but he implied that he would steer clear of doling out environmental advice. He told the Wall Street Journal:
"Our job ultimately is to formulate dietary and nutrition guidelines. And I emphasize dietary and nutrition because that's what the law says. I think it's my responsibility to follow the law."
The law or the money? The AP has reported that meat processing and livestock industries spent $7 million on lobbying and donated $5 million to members of Congress during the last election cycle.
For decades, it's been thought that low, regular doses of antibiotics help livestock grow big—thus increasing meat producers' profits. So common is the practice of lacing farm animals' feed with the drugs that an astonishing four-fifths of all antibiotics in the United States now go to livestock.
But a new meta-analysis by two Princeton researchers shows that antibiotics aren't as effective at promoting growth as they used to be. Studies from 1950-1985 suggested that antibiotics increased weight of young pigs by an average of about 17 older pigs by 4 percent. But similar studies since 2000 found much less dramatic results: 1 percent increase for young pigs and no measurable increase for older pigs.
No one knows why the drugs have become less effective—and in fact, there's no consensus on how exactly antibiotics increased growth in animals to begin with. One theory is that the drugs fight low-level infections, which allows the animal to use its energy for growing instead of warding off germs. The authors of the new analysis theorize that as hygiene at livestock operations improve, the rate of infections might be decreasing, thus negating the need for antibiotics.
Another (scarier) possibility: Bugs that cause common animal infections are becoming resistant to the antibiotics. The consequences of antibiotic resistance, of course, go far beyond pigs' rates of growth. As my colleague Tom Philpott has reported, superbugs can jump from animals to humans. Antibiotic-resistant infections already kill 700,000 people every year worldwide. A recent UK report predicted that number will rise to 10 million by 2050.
"If the benefits of [antibiotics for animal growth] have diminished, then it becomes reasonable to be cautious and avoid the potential public health costs," write the new report's authors. "Antibiotics are not needed to promote growth, but they are essential to treat infectious diseases and maintain animal health."
Those numbers are even more impressive when you compare them to other types of energy sources. Even though solar still accounts for a small share of US electricity generation (less than 1 percent), last year it added nearly as many new megawatts to the grid as natural gas, which is quickly catching up on coal as the country's primary energy source. (Coal, you can see, added almost nothing new in 2014.)
The report points to three chief reasons for the boom. First, costs are falling, not just for the panels themselves but for ancillary expenses like installation and financing, such that overall prices fell by 10 percent compared to 2013. Second, falling costs have allowed both large utility companies and small third-party solar installers to pursue new ways to bring solar to customers, including leasing panels and improved on-site energy storage. Third, federal incentives and regulations have been relatively stable in the last few years, while state incentives are generally improving, particularly in states like California and Nevada that have been leading the charge.
One more chart worth pointing out: Rooftop solar tends to get the most press because that's where homeowners and solar companies get into tussles with big incumbent power companies and the state regulators that often side with them. And it's true that a new home gets solar more often than a giant solar farm gets constructed. But on a sheer megawatt basis, utility-scale solar is still far and away the leading source, with a few notable projects coming online in 2014, like the Topaz Solar project in the California desert, the largest solar installation in the world.
In August of 2012, a salt cavern maintained by the mining company Texas Brine collapsed, creating a sinkhole outside the town of Bayou Corne, Louisiana, and prompting a mandatory evacuation order that has yet to be lifted. Two and a half years later, the sinkhole has grown to 31 acres, Texas Brine has reached a $48.6 million settlement with displaced homeowners, and the company is considering bulldozing much of the town and converting it into "green space."
But it's not just Bayou Corne evacuees who are looking for a new place to live—the neighborhood near the sinkhole is still home to 38 feral cats, who risk losing their suburban habitat if the properties return to nature because of the sinkhole.
The New Orleans Times Picayunehas the full story on the kittens of Bayou Corne, and the efforts of one of the few remaining residents, Teleca Donachricha, to find them a home:
Some of the residents had been feeding different groups of them, but those residents are all gone now. One woman had been trying to drive the hour from Baton Rouge every other day to feed one group of the cats, but Donachricha knew that wasn't going to last long. She said if the woman could provide food, she would feed the cats for her, and she has.
Texas Brine spokesman Sonny Cranch said he couldn't say when demolition will occur. The company donated $1,000 to a nonprofit Donachricha was working with to get some of the cats spayed and neutered. All but three of the 38 cats are now spayed or neutered -- one of the remaining ones is a newer arrival that was recently dumped there, and the other two she hasn't been able to catch.
"We support her efforts," Cranch said. "Hopefully she'll be successful in finding homes for these animals."