Blue Marble

This Map Shows What San Francisco Will Look Like After Sea Levels Rise

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 6:24 PM EDT

Developers in the booming San Francisco Bay Area are busy planning everything from much-needed new housing to sports stadiums and gleaming tech campuses.

But according to a new report just published by the San Francisco Public Press, many of these construction projects sit on land susceptible to rising waters due to climate change. And regulators and local governments are not doing much to prepare. 

The Public Press found 27 major commercial and residential developments that will be vulnerable to flooding if San Francisco Bay sea levels rise as much as climate researchers like the National Research Council project in the next century. These developments include a new stadium for the Golden State Warriors, campuses being built by Google and Facebook, and revamped public spaces like San Francisco's iconic ferry terminal and Jack London Square in Oakland.

To make its maps, the Public Press partnered with the University of California-Berkeley Cartography and Geographic Information System Education Lab and used flooding and sea level projections from the US Geological Survey and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission predicts that in the next hundred years, water levels in the Bay could rise as much as 8 feet over high tide at current levels, including storm surge:

Despite the fact that more than $21 billion of new development is at stake, the report found that very little is being done to prepare for potential waterfront flooding risk. While most cities and counties around the Bay Area have begun studying the effects of sea level rise, none have actually enacted climate adaptation plans, like updating flood plain ordinances and buildings codes. Only one county (Santa Clara) has revised its local flooding maps.

We've seen before in other major urban areas that such short-sightedness can lead to staggering costs. Many scientists and environmental advocates believe the Bay Area could experience similar devastation if more is not done to adapt to climate change.

Brian Beveridge, co-director of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, told the Public Press, "It's going to fall down along lines of class and political power—who will be protected and who will be thrown to the dogs."

Advertise on

These National Parks Got an "F" in Air Pollution

| Wed Jul. 29, 2015 5:05 AM EDT
Yosemite was one of four national parks to regularly have unhealthy air pollution levels.

It's late summer, and Americans are flocking to the country's national parks for some recreation and fresh air.

But a study released this week by the National Parks Conservation Association found that air in some of the country's most popular parks is not so fresh—and it's potentially hazardous. The report rated the country's 48 parks in three categories: levels of ozone (a pollutant that can irritate or damage lungs), haziness, and the impacts of climate change on the park. Here are the 12 worst contenders (full list available here):

National Parks Conservation Association

Ozone is a pollutant common in smog, and it's particularly prevalent on hot summer days. Seventy-five percent of the parks had ozone levels between 2008 and 2012 that were "moderate" or worse, according to the federal government's Air Quality Index. Four national parks—Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Yosemite—regularly have "unhealthy" ozone levels, meaning that the average hiker should reduce strenuous activity and those with asthma should avoid it altogether. (You can see the air quality in your area here.)

Jobs at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, including those indoors, come with pollution warnings saying that at times the air quality "may pose human health problems due to air pollution," according to the report.

Pollution doesn't just make visitors and employees sick; it also ruins one of the parks' main attractions: the views. Smog affects vistas in all of the parks; on average, air pollution obstructs fifty miles from view. Here are some examples of how far visitors can see in miles today compared to "natural" levels, when air isn't affected by human activity.

National Parks Conservation Association

The NPCA didn't look into specific causes of air pollution in each location, but generally, the the report attributes it to the the usual suspects: coal-fired power plants, cars, and industrial and agricultural emissions. Under the Regional Haze Program, developed by the Environmental Protection Agency in 1999, states are required to implement air quality protection plans that reduce human-caused pollution in national parks, the NPCA contends that loopholes prevent power plants and other big polluters from being affected by the rules.

Ulla Reeves, the manager of the NPCA's clean air campaign, maintains that if enforcement for the Regional Haze Program isn't improved, only 10 percent of the national parks will have clean air in 50 years. "It's surprising and disappointing that parks don't have the clean air that we assume them to have and that they must have under the law."

Soon You Might Actually Be Able to Tell How Much Added Sugar Is in Your Food

| Tue Jul. 28, 2015 5:09 AM EDT

When the popular news quiz show Wait Wait...Don't Tell Me! hosted the country's Surgeon General, Vicek Murthy, last weekend, he was confronted with the question: What's your one weakness? "Sweets," he answered, "I like bread pudding and cheesecake, in particular."

Even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating.

Many of us can identify with the hankering for the occasional piece of cheesecake after dinner. But lots of the added sugar you inhale probably doesn't come in the form of dessert. Rather, Americans get much of their sweetening in the form of beverages—especially soda—and packaged foods that at first glance seem snacky or savory (yep, one serving of hoisin sauce has two whole teaspoons; barbecue sauce one and a half). While the World Health Organization has suggested that adults should get no more than 5 percent of their daily calories from added sweeteners—that's about 6 teaspoons—the average American ingests roughly five times that amount every day.

For decades, researchers and doctors have been sounding the alarm about the negative health risks associated with a diet too rich in added sugars—from obesity, poor nutrition, diabetes, and even heart disease. But as I've written about in the past, even if you're concerned about your levels of added sugar intake, it's nearly impossible to tell how much you might be eating: Current food labels don't require added sugar to be listed. There's even indication that food companies have gone to great lengths to keep that information hidden from the public's eyes. The US Department of Agriculture used to list added sugars for popular products in online, but the database was removed in 2012 after companies claimed that added sugar amounts should be considered trade secrets.

So in March, the Food and Drug Administration proposed revising nutrition labels to include added sugars on packaged foods. And on Friday, the agency went even further by proposing to require that packaged food companies must also include a percent daily value of added sugar on the nutrition label. (The daily value would be based on the recommendation that added sugar not exceed 10 percent of total calories, or roughly 12 teaspoons of sugar a day).

The FDA has already received pushback from industry groups about the attempt to make added sugar quantities more transparent; the Corn Refiner's Association questioned the agency's "statutory authority to do so" and complained of a lack of "credible scientific evidence." Meanwhile, Kellogg argued that the proposal "to distinguish added sugars...may confuse consumers." Of course, Kellogg happens to be the world's "second largest producer of cookies, crackers, and savory snacks."

Hillary Clinton Refuses to Take a Position on the Keystone Pipeline

| Mon Jul. 27, 2015 12:45 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.

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

| Thu Jul. 23, 2015 2:39 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 1:26 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.

Advertise on

Republicans Are Still Totally Wrong About ISIS

| Tue Jul. 21, 2015 3:16 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 5:05 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 4:25 PM EDT

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

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

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

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

Koalas Get Laid By Making This Horrifyingly Disgusting Grunting Sound

| Fri Jul. 10, 2015 1:59 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!