Blue Marble

These 11 Popular Sodas Tested Positive for a Potential Carcinogen

| Thu Jan. 23, 2014 7:05 AM EST

The chemical compound that gives some sodas a caramel-brown color could be a carcinogen—and according to a new study by Consumer Reports, it's in many popular soft drinks at levels that exceed what many experts consider safe. Between April and December of 2013, researchers tested 110 bottles of various brands of soda for the 4-methylimidazole, or 4-MeI for short. They found the highest levels of the substance in Goya Malta, a malt-flavored soda popular in Latin American communities, and in various Pepsi products:

Consumer Reports Chart
Click for a larger version. Courtesy of Consumer Reports

4-MeI is not federally regulated, but the International Agency for Research on Cancer lists it as a potential carcinogen (PDF). In California, products that expose consumers to more than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI are supposed to have a warning label, according to the state's Proposition 65—yet none of the sodas that the group tested carried such a label. Dr. Urvashi Rangan, a toxicologist and executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety and Sustainability Center, believes that one reason for the New York samples' relatively high levels of 4-MeI might be that New York doesn't have a similar warning-label rule.

The researchers found that the Coca-Cola products had relatively low levels of 4-MeI. On the other hand, some of the samples of Dr. Snap, a soda sold at Whole Foods with a "natural" label, had levels that exceeded the California warning-label threshold.

PepsiCo representatives told Consumer Reports that they don't attach the warning label to their products in California because their research shows that consumers drink only about a third of a can of their products a day, on average—an amount that contains less than 29 micrograms of 4-MeI. The other brands whose products Consumer Reports tested have not yet responded to the findings.

Rangan notes that 4-MeI is present in some foods as well: barbecue sauces, soups, imitation pancake syrup, gravy, and canned mushrooms, among others. While Consumer Reports is urging the FDA to regulate 4-MeI, in the meantime, consumers should consider avoiding foods and beverages with caramel color, Rangan says. "We just don't think coloring your food brown should give you cancer."

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NASA: 2013 Tied for the 7th-Hottest Year on Record

| Wed Jan. 22, 2014 10:55 AM EST
Your anomalously hot planet in 2013.

Yesterday, NASA and the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration jointly put the year 2013 in its climate context. It was a very hot one: NASA's data have 2013 in a three-way tie for the seventh-hottest year in recorded history, while NOAA's have it in a three-way tie for the fourth hottest. (The gap arises due to slight differences in how the two agencies take into account matters like the warming of the Arctic, where there are relatively few weather stations.)

But those little discrepancies don't matter that much, explains NASA's Gavin Schmidt, who is deputy chief of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. What really matters is the larger pattern, and here there's really no disagreement. "The fact of the matter is that the long-term trends are very clear," says Schmidt.

How clear? NOAA and NASA agree that with the exception of 1998 (the year of a record-breaking El Nino event), every single one of the top 10 hottest years has occurred since the year 2000. They have slight differences in their rankings, to be sure, but on that big-picture question, there really isn't any daylight between the two agencies.

Similarly, their assessments of long-term global warming show a remarkable similarity:

Global warming. NASA/NOAA

But hasn't global warming "slowed down"? Schmidt agrees that the rate of warming over the 2000s wasn't quite as rapid as during the 1990s, something scientists are still working on understanding a bit better. But at the same time, the new analysis shows that the 2000s were considerably warmer than any previous decade. And Schmidt expects the 2010s to be hotter than the 2000s, and so on. And so on.

"If you look decade by decade, it's clear that the last decade is warmer than the decade before, which is warmer than the decade before," says Schmidt. "And we don't anticipate that changing."

Believe It: Global Warming Can Produce More Intense Snows

| Tue Jan. 21, 2014 2:44 PM EST
Satellite image of the intense US blizzard of February 5-6, 2010.

We all remember "Snowmageddon" in February of 2010. Even as Washington, D.C., saw 32 inches of snowfall for the month of February—more than it has seen in any February since 1899—conservatives decided to use the weather to mock global warming. Oklahoma Senator James Inhofe and his family even built an igloo on Capitol Hill and called it "Al Gore's New Home." Har har.

Yet at the same time, scientific voices were pointing out something seemingly counterintuitive, but in fact fairly simple to understand: Even as it raises temperatures on average, global warming may also lead to more intense individual snow events. It's a lesson to keep in mind as the northeast braces for winter storm Janus—which is expected to deliver as much as a foot of snow in some regions—and we can expect conservatives to once again mock climate change.

To understand the relationship between climate change and intense snowfall, you first need to understand that global warming certainly doesn't do away with winter or the seasons. So it'll still be plenty cold enough for snow much of the time. Meanwhile, global warming loads the dice in favor of more intense precipitation through changes in atmospheric moisture content. "Warming things up means the atmosphere can and does hold more moisture," explains Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo. "So in winter, when there is still plenty of cold air there's a risk of bigger snows. With east coast storms, where the moisture comes from the ocean which is now warmer, this also applies."

Why does the atmosphere hold more moisture? The answer is a key physical principle called the Clausius-Clapeyron equation, stating that as atmospheric temperature rises, there is an exponential increase in the amount of water vapor that the air can hold—leading to more potential precipitation of all types. (A detailed scientific explanation can be found here.)

Indeed, scientific reports have often noted the snow-climate relationship. An expansive 2006 study of US snowstorms during the entirety of the 20th century, for instance, found that they were more common in wetter and warmer years. "A future with wetter and warmer winters...will bring more snowstorms than in 1901-2000," the paper predicted. There is also a clear increase in precipitation in the most intense precipitation events, especially in the northeast:

Percent increases in the amount of precipitation occurring in the heaviest precipitation events from 1958 to 2007. US Global Change Research Program.

"More winter and spring precipitation is projected for the northern U.S., and less for the Southwest, over this century," adds the draft US National Climate Assessment. Precipitation of all kinds is expected to increase, the study notes, but there will be large regional variations in how this is felt.

"The old adage, 'it's too cold to snow,' has some truth to it," observes meteorologist Jeff Masters, co-founder of the Weather Underground. "The heaviest snows tend to occur when the air temperature is near the freezing mark, since the amount of water vapor in the air increases as the temperature increases. If the climate in a region where it is 'too cold to snow' warms to a level where more snowstorms occur near the freezing point, an increase in the number of heavy snowstorms is possible for that region."

In fairness, global warming is also expected to decrease overall snow cover, because intense snow events notwithstanding, snow won't last on the ground as long in a warmer world. In fact, a decrease in snow cover is already happening.

Today's snows will usher in a new northeast cold spell, not as intense as the "polar vortex" onslaught of two weeks ago but still pretty severe. But a temporary burst of cold temperatures doesn't refute climate change any more than a major snowstorm does. Indeed, we have reasons to expect that the rapid warming of the Arctic may be producing more cold weather in the mid-latitudes in the Northern hemisphere. For an explanation of why, listen to our interview with meteorologist Eric Holthaus on a recent installment of Inquiring Minds (from minutes 2 through 12 below):

None of this is to say, of course, that global warming explains single events; its effect is present in overall changes in moisture content, and perhaps, in the large-scale atmospheric patterns that bring us our weather.

Still, that's more than enough to refute conservatives who engage in snow trolling.

6 Scary Facts About California's Drought

| Sat Jan. 18, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Satellite views of the Sierra Nevada, a year apart.

"Fire season just didn't end this year."

The comment came from Scott Miller, the Los Angeles County fire inspector, in the wake of the Colby Fire in the foothills near Los Angeles. The fire is now 30-percent contained, but it serves as the latest reminder that California is facing an increasingly alarming drought—one that yesterday prompted Gov. Edmund Brown, Jr., to declare a state of emergency.

Last year was California's driest on record for much of the state, and this year, conditions are only worsening. Sixty-three percent of the state is in extreme drought, and Sierra Nevada snowpack is now running at just 10 to 30 percent of normal. "We're heading into what is near the lowest three year period in the instrumental record" for snowpack, says hydrologist Roger Bales of the University of California-Merced.

Water shortages, devastating wildfires, and growing economic impacts: All could be on the way unless more precipitation arrives, and fast. Here are some scary realities about the drought:

1. It's Bordering on Unprecedented in Some Areas. According to Christopher Burt, weather historian at Weather Underground, the City of San Francisco has received only 2.12 inches of water so far in this water year. The driest water year on record was from 1850-1851, at 7.42 inches. So as of now, San Francisco is below half of the all-time record low.

2. Time in the Rainy Season is Running Out. California doesn't get steady rain all year round. Rather, it has a rainy season each year, and we're currently in it. Typically, the rainy season runs through March; if major precipitation doesn't arrive by then, it probably won't be coming. Granted, this is also the chief source of hope right now: California can sometimes get plenty of water in February and March.

3. The Drought Could Lead to Dirtier Energy Use. Peter Gleick, president of the Oakland-based Pacific Institute, points out one less-noticed consequence of the drought: The lack of water means less available hydropower. And that has consequences: "Because renewable hydropower is among the cheapest and most versatile of electricity sources," writes Gleick, "California ratepayers will have to pay for more costly fossil fuels to make up for the difference." The result, he notes, is likely to be "billions of dollars in added energy costs and generating more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere."

4. It's Setting the Stage for a Devastating Fire Season. Hotter, drier conditions favor wildfires. Indeed, California has already seen several significant fires since the October 31 end of the traditional fire season, including December's Big Sur fire and the ongoing Colby Fire in the Los Angeles area. That's a bad sign. So is the fact that in just the first 11 days of January, the state saw 154 fires that burned 598 acres. That's way above the five-year average for this time of year.

For California, seven of the 10 largest fires in state history have occurred since the year 2000. And if these dry conditions persist throughout 2014, another new fire may be added to that list.

5. It Could Pummel Agriculture. California is an agricultural powerhouse. For crops, the state accounts for 15 percent of national sales and for livestock, 7.1 percent, according to the California Department of Food and Agriculture. But now farmers are likely to have considerably less water. This won't lead to agricultural collapse, but it will definitely take a toll. "There will be, in agriculture, fewer plantings, fewer harvests, and revenue of seasonal crops," says UC-Merced's Roger Bales. "There could be more expensive pumping of groundwater. And there could be just lower yields if they have less water to apply."

6. It's a Sign of What's to Come. NOAA's seasonal drought outlook projects persistent or worsening conditions in California through April:

US seasonal drought outlook. National Weather Service

Over the longer term, climate projections suggest that this risk will continue or increase. According to the draft National Climate Assessment, the US Southwest—which includes California and five other states—can expect less precipitation, hotter temperatures, and drier soils in the future, meaning that by 2060, there could be as much as a 35-percent increase in water demand. Along with that comes a 25- to 50-percent increased risk of water shortages.

So even if California gets some much needed rain in the coming months, that'll only be a short-term reprieve. Right now, the state needs to engage in some major climate adaptation planning, to get ready for a much drier future.

PHOTOS: Koalas, Tennis Players Grapple with Australian Heat Wave

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 6:50 PM EST

Parts of Australia are in the midst of a massive heat wave, straining resources and sparking fires. Matches had to be suspended at the Australian Open in Melbourne, where temperatures hit 109 degrees Fahrenheit. Here are photos showing the toll this extreme heat has taken on the country's forests, animals, and visiting tennis stars.

Victoria brushfire
A fire-fighting helicopter extinguishes a fire burning throughout Victoria's Grampians region. Country Fire Authority/ZUMA

 

 

Australian Open fountain
Fans cool off in a fountain outside the Rod Laver Arena on day five of the Australian Open. Jason O'Brien/ZUMA

 

 

Serena Williams
Despite the heat, Serena Williams set a tournament record by winning her 61st Australian Open match. Ken Hawkins/ZUMA

 

 

Global-Warming Denial Hits a 6-Year High

| Fri Jan. 17, 2014 7:00 AM EST
Fox News on the morning of September 27, 2013, covering the new IPPC report on climate change.

The latest data is out on the prevalence of global warming denial among the US public. And it isn't pretty.

The new study, from the Yale and George Mason University research teams on climate change communication, shows a 7-percentage-point increase in the proportion of Americans who say they do not believe that global warming is happening. And that's just since the spring of 2013. The number is now 23 percent; back at the start of last year, it was 16 percent:

The percentage of Americans who believe global warming is human-caused has also declined, and now stands at 47 percent, a decrease of 7 percent since 2012.

At the same time, the survey also shows an apparent hardening of attitudes. Back in September 2012, only 43 percent of those who believed that global warming isn't happening said they were either "very sure" or "extremely sure" about their views. By November of last year, that number had increased to 56 percent.

Overall, more Americans now say they have all the information they need to make up their minds about the climate issue, and fewer say they could easily change their minds:

Increasing righteousness about global warming, on both sides of the issue Yale and George Mason teams on Climate Change Communication.

The obvious question is, what happened over the last year to produce more climate denial?

According to both Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale and Ed Maibach of George Mason, the leaders of the two research teams, the answer may well lie in the so-called global warming "pause"—the misleading idea that global warming has slowed down or stopped over the the past 15 years or so. This claim was used by climate skeptics, to great effect, in their quest to undermine the release of the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report in September 2013—precisely during the time period that is in question in the latest study.

As we have reported before, the notion of a global warming "pause" is, at best, the result of statistical cherry-picking. It relies on starting with a very hot year (1998) and then examining a relatively short time period (say, 15 years), to suggest that global warming has slowed down or stopped during this particular stretch of time. But put these numbers back into a broader context and the overall warming trend remains clear. Moreover, following the IPCC report, new research emerged suggesting that the semblance of a "pause" may be the result of incomplete temperature data due to the lack of adequate weather stations in the Arctic, where the most dramatic global warming is occurring.

Nonetheless, widely publicized "pause" claims may well have shaped public opinion. "Beginning in September, and lasting several months, coincident with the release of the IPCC report, there was considerable media attention to the concept of the 'global warming pause,'" observes Maibach. "It is possible that this simple—albeit erroneous—idea helped to convince many people who were previously undecided to conclude that the climate really isn't changing."

"Even more likely, however," Maibach adds, "is that media coverage of the 'pause' reinforced the beliefs of people who had previously concluded that global warming is not happening, making them more certain of their beliefs."

As Maibach's colleague Anthony Leiserowitz of Yale adds, it isn't as though those who were already convinced about global warming became less sure of themselves over the last year. Rather, the change of views "really seems to be happening among the 'don't knows,'" says Leiserowitz. "Those are the people who aren't paying attention, and don't know much about the issue. So they're the most open-minded, and the most swayable based on recent events."

Journalists take heed: Your coverage has consequences. All those media outlets who trumpeted the global warming "pause" may now be partly responsible for a documented decrease in Americans' scientific understanding.

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The First Lawsuit Against Obama's New Coal Limits Just Got Filed

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 5:24 PM EST

In December 2012, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., dismissed a suit by the company behind a proposed new coal plant in Texas that sought to block new carbon dioxide pollution limits on power plants proposed by the EPA. The court's reasoning was that any appeal would have to wait until after the rules were finalized, not simply proposed. So last week, after the EPA published an updated version of the proposal, Clean Air Task Force legal director Ann Weeks said she doubted a new round of lawsuits would be in the offing. 

But it took just a week to see the first fusillade against this major pillar of President Obama's climate strategy: Yesterday the state of Nebraska, where coal is the largest power source, filed suit against the proposed rule.

"Just goes to show I should never try to predict whether or not suits will be filed," Weeks said in an email.

The suit revolves around carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which scrubs pollutants from power plant emissions. Because of the tight limits on carbon pollution called for in the proposed rule, using CCS would become the only way to build any new coal-fired power plants, a restriction coal advocates have said will effectively kill the industry. The EPA, meanwhile, contends that CCS is viable and affordable.

The Nebraska suit cites a 2005 law that made funding available to study CCS at three new high-tech power plants—currently under construction in Mississippi, Texas, and California—that together have received $2.5 billion in federal grants and tax credits. The suit asks the district court to declare that the proposed rule is "in excess of statutory...authority" and require the EPA to withdraw it; under the law, the suit contends, the EPA is prohibited from using technology developed with this funding as the sole basis for a Clean Air Act regulation like the one proposed last week.

A statement from Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, a Republican, makes it clear that protecting the interests of the state's coal industry is as much a priority as adherence to the 2005 statute. "The impossible standards imposed by the EPA will ensure no new power plants are built in Nebraska," the statement says.

How Wall Street Can Solve the Climate Crisis

| Thu Jan. 16, 2014 11:40 AM EST

One of the hard truths about climate change solutions—whether they're solar panels, protective seawalls, or carbon-sucking golf balls—is that somebody has to pay for them. This week the UN's climate chief, Christiana Figueres, told Climate Desk that global investment in clean energy technologies needs to reach $1 trillion per year by 2030 (a little less than the GDP of South Korea), roughly tripling where we're at now, to keep global warming within the limit agreed on by international climate negotiators.

So when more than 500 investors who hold the strings on the world's biggest purses—the heads of investment banks, insurance companies, pension funds, international development banks—descended on the UN headquaters in New York yesterday for a high-powered summit hosted by the sustainable business* nonprofit Ceres, you'd hope they would be ponying up for climate solutions.

There's just one problem: Investment is on the decline for the second year in a row, according to new statistics released yesterday by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. In 2013, investors worldwide put $254 billion into clean energy technology, 20 percent below 2011's record high.

"The figures this year are not great," BNEF CEO Michael Liebreich told the group, which together represent roughly $20 trillion in assets. "But we are by no means in as bad a place as we could be."

"There are serious consequences to getting this wrong." -Anne Simpson

That might sound like damning with faint praise, but in fact analysts here insisted the numbers mask a more optimistic story of growing concern about climate change on Wall Street. One important factor behind the investment decline, Liebreich said, is the falling cost of renewable energy installations, meaning investors get more bang for fewer bucks. Just in the last 18 months, the cost of a typical solar panel system dropped 45 percent; from 2012 through 2013, the total number of installed systems worldwide grew 20 percent.

In other words, the volume of renewables on the grid is growing even though less is being spent on them. And overall, a range of green money analysts at the conference insisted that Google's $3.2 billion purchase this week of energy efficiency startup Nest is just the latest sign that mainstream investors are beginning to see moneymaking opportunities in climate protection.

"Breathtaking": The White House Releases Its Climate Heavy Hitter on the Polar Vortex

| Wed Jan. 15, 2014 11:05 AM EST
John Holdren

Last week, amid the media furor over the "polar vortex," the White House did something pretty unusual. It released a highly produced scientific video titled "The Polar Vortex Explained in 2 Minutes."

In the video, White House science adviser and physicist John Holdren dismantles silly claims that cold weather refutes global warming. "The fact is that no single weather episode can either prove or disprove global climate change," explains Holdren. He then describes how, in fact, climate change could make extreme winter weather in the mid-latitudes more common. "A growing body of evidence suggests that the kind of extreme cold being experienced by much of the United States as we speak is a pattern that we can expect to see with increasing frequency as global warming continues," Holdren asserts. Watch it:

Climate wonks and climate communications specialists say that the video is a nice piece of work. (So far, it has been seen by over 140,000 people, much more than other White House videos featuring Holdren.) They also note that it is rather daring in its willingness to endorse the still-contested hypothesis that Arctic warming is disrupting the jet stream and contributing to many ensuing weather extremes. "It was truly breathtaking to watch Dr. Holdren embrace our Arctic linkage idea with such conviction," says climate scientist Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, who has been the leading proponent of the theory.

What stands out most about the video is the fact that it exists at all. "A two-minute video on the polar vortex? It is the first time I've ever seen anything like that coming out of the White House on this issue," says Nick Sundt, a former student of Holdren's at the University of California-Berkeley who is now communications director for climate change at the World Wildlife Fund.

Indeed, there have long been lamentations within climate change circles that Holdren, a highly credible scientific figure who known for his ability to grandly synthesize data to present the true scope of the climate and energy challenge, hasn't been better deployed by the White House. The prominent climate science blogger Joe Romm even directly charged in 2011 that David Axelrod and the "White House communications shop" had been "muzzling" Holdren.

It didn't help that early in the Obama years, Holdren was a particular target of right-wing commentators, who suggested, based on a textbook he coauthored with Paul and Anne Ehrlich in the 1970s, that he was a proponent of coercive population control methods. The charge was misleading, but it got a lot of airtime.

Whatever the reason, major public communication and education moments are not what we've come to expect from Holdren during the Obama administration. "Holdren has not been allowed to do what Holdren should have been allowed to do on climate change," adds Rick Piltz, a Bush administration climate science whistleblower who now runs Climate Science Watch. "And this thing on the polar vortex only scratches the surface of my disappointment about that, unless there's a lot more coming."

Maybe there is. After all, in mid-2013, President Obama shifted his message on climate change, from one focused on energy and "green jobs" to one focused on extreme weather and preserving the planet for future generations. At the same time, the administration rolled out a comprehensive climate change action plan based on three pillars: cutting carbon, climate adaptation, and international policy accords. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, which Holdren runs, also seems more interested in outreach of late. Last year, it debuted "We the Geeks," a Google Plus hangout series on science and innovation.

"I think that the administration as a whole is increasingly seeing climate as among its most important legacy issues," says Paul Bledsoe, a senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund and former Clinton White House climate aide. "And obviously science is at the heart of the climate problem, so it's just incredibly important and powerful that John is speaking."

Holdren's office did not respond to requests for comment.

How the West Virginia Spill Exposes Our Lax Chemical Laws

| Mon Jan. 13, 2014 3:39 PM EST
Site of the spill on the Elk River in West Virginia

The West Virginia chemical spill that left some 300,000 people without access to water has exposed a gaping hole in the country's chemical regulatory system, according to environmental experts.

Much the state remains under a drinking-water advisory after the spill last week into the Elk River near a water treatment facility. As much as 7,500 gallons of the chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, which is used in the washing of coal, leaked from a tank owned by a company called Freedom Industries.

A rush on bottled water ensued, leading to empty store shelves and emergency water delivery operations. According to news reports, 10 people were hospitalized following the leak, but none in serious condition.

The spill and ensuing drinking water shortage have drawn attention to a very lax system governing the use of chemicals, according to Richard Denison, a senior scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who specializes in chemical regulation. "Here we have a situation where we suddenly have a spill of a chemical, and little or no information is available on that chemical," says Denison.

West Virginia store shelf.
An empty West Virginia store shelf Foo Conner/Flickr

The problem is not necessarily that 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, or MCHM, is highly toxic. Rather, Denison says, the problem is that not a great deal about its toxicity is known. Denison has managed to track down a description of one 1990 study, conducted by manufacturer Eastman Chemical, which identified a highly lethal dose, in rats, of 825 milligrams per kilogram of body weight. But how that applies to humans at much lower doses in water isn't necessarily clear.

In response to the crisis, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Environmental Protection Agency have determined that a level of 1 part per million in water is safe. The drinking water advisory is now slowly being lifted on an area-by-area basis.

So why do we know so little? All of this traces back to the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, or TSCA, the law under which the Environmental Protection Agency regulates the production of chemicals. According to EPA spokeswoman Alisha Johnson, MCHM is one of a large group of chemicals that were already in use when the law was passed, and so were "grandfathered" under it. This situation "provided EPA with very limited ability to require testing on those existing chemicals to determine if they are safe," she says.

There are more than 60,000 such grandfathered chemicals, according to Johnson. A leak involving any of them into water could trigger to a similar situation of uncertainty—meaning that this spill has served to underscore a major gap in how we regulate chemicals.

"What we have now is a situation where because our system, our policies, and regulations don't require this information be developed, we're left scrambling when something like this happens," says Denison.