Blue Marble

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

 

 

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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.

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.

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Planet Hunter: We'll Find An "Earth 2.0" Within "10 or 15 Years"

| Mon Jan. 13, 2014 7:01 AM EST
Planet Beta Pictoris b

Last week, a team of astronomers at the Gemini Planet Imager in Chile released the mysterious blue image above. That small bright dot in the lower right of the image is a planet—not a planet in our solar system like Mars or Neptune, but one 63 light-years away. It's the planet Beta Pictoris b, which orbits the star Beta Pictoris in the southern constellation Pictor. But what's most exciting about the picture is the technology used to make it, which represents a dramatic improvement in the speed and quality with which scientists will be able to look for other planets—including "Earth 2.0," a theorized planet much like our own.

The first confirmation that planets exist beyond our solar system came in 1992, when a team of astronomers monitored changes in radio waves to prove that multiple planets were orbiting a small star about 1000 light-years away. Then, in 2005, astronomers created the first actual image of a planet beyond our solar system (the date is arguable because the observation was made in 2004, but not confirmed until a year later). Since then, hundreds more planets have been discovered, and a few others have even been photographed.

So when Gizmodo reported last week that the blue image above was the "first ever image of a planet, orbiting a star," they didn't have it quite right. In fact, the image wasn't even the first time that planet had been photographed. But the GPI images are still extremely exciting: They could mark the beginning of a new era of planet-hunting, thanks to technology developed by a team of astronomers led by Bruce Macintosh of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  

Frank Marchis, who works for the SETI Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to explore, understand, and explain the prevalence of life in the universe, is a key member of Macintosh's planet-hunting team. I met with him in San Francisco last week to discuss the project and the search for Earth 2.0:

MJ: What exactly are we seeing in this image?

FM: Behind this image is a lot of work. This image is simply a planet orbiting around another star. So we call that an exoplanet – an extrasolar planet – because it doesn't belong to our solar system. It belongs to another planetary system. So this is the grail of modern astronomy. We're trying desperately now to image those planets because we know they exist. When you observe a planet with [the now defunct telescope] Kepler, what you've been doing is basically detecting the transit - the attenuation of [the star's] light - due to the planet passing between us and the star. Now with GPI, the Gemini Planet Imager, which is mounted at the 8 meter class telescope in Chile we're going to be able to see the planet itself.

What Do We Know About the Chemical That Spilled in West Virginia?

| Fri Jan. 10, 2014 6:48 PM EST
The Elk River in Clay County, West Virginia, one of the counties under a water advisory in the wake of a chemical spill.

The chemical that leaked yesterday into a West Virginia river "hasn't been studied very well," says Deborah Blum, a New York Times science columnist who specializes in reporting on chemistry.

A state of emergency was declared for nine West Virginia counties yesterday after a chemical called 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol spilled into the Elk River. The chemical is "used to wash coal of impurities," according to the Times.

The chemical leaked from a holding tank owned by a company called Freedom Industries, according to West Virginia American Water, a water company operating in the region. At present, the nine counties are under a "do not use" advisory from West Virginia American Water, and residents there do not know when they will be able to turn on their taps.

A rush on bottled water subsequently ensued, as documented in this tweet from a local news anchor:

Undoubtedly much more information will emerge on 4-Methylcyclohexane Methanol and how dangerous it is (or isn't) in water. But to start things off we turned to Blum, who was just a guest on our Inquiring Minds podcast.

"We know methanol is toxic, we know that methylcyclohexane is moderately toxic, but I haven't seen a full analysis of the entire formula," says Blum. "Still, I think we can assume there's nothing here that we'd want to drink or like to see in our rivers." However, given that it is in the Elk River it will be "very diluted," she added, and likely will ultimately be broken down and digested by microbes. In the meantime, Blum praised authorities' cautionary approach.

The fact that relatively little is known about the compound, says Blum, represents "another reminder that we have way too may poorly researched compounds in the toxic registry and we desperately need to update our creaking regulations regarding industrial materials."

For our recent podcast with Deborah Blum, you can listen here:

New Data Shows How Hospitals Rip You Off

| Thu Jan. 9, 2014 7:00 AM EST

The United States has long been known to have one of the most expensive hospital systems in the world, and now a new study indicates that hospitals are overcharging patients for medical services.

According to the study published Monday by National Nurses United, the largest nurses' organization in the United States, the price of many services has skyrocketed since the mid-'90s. Many hospitals have set charges at 10 times their cost. The 100 most expensive hospitals in the country, for example, in 2011 charged 765 percent of their costs, or $765 for every $100 of total costs.

Courtesy of National Nurses United

Charles Idelson, a spokesman for NNU, says that even insured patients, whose insurance providers will offset some of the costs, will be affected by the price hikes. "The skyrocketing prices make premiums, co-pays and deductibles go up," Idelson says. Another recent study, by the Commonwealth Fund, found that "high deductibles and cost-sharing, along with no limits on out-of-pocket costs" may explain why even insured people struggle to afford health care. 

"Lets be clear: This is price gouging," says Charles Idelson, a spokesman for NNU. "And the hospitals are doing it because they want to increase their profits." As hospital prices hit record highs so did profits: In 2011 hospitals made $53 billion in profits, compared to $34.3 billion in 2009, according to the NNU data.

The situation is even worse for the uninsured, who have to cough up the full medical bill. "Our nurses all the time see patients skipping medical care that is necessary for them because they can't afford the high cost of what they’re being charged" says Idelson. The Commonwealth study found that in 2013 more than one-third of US adults decided to forgo recommended care because of costs.

The high cost of health care got renewed attention at the beginning of the new year when a 20-year-old posted the bill for his appendectomy on Reddit. The total cost after insurance was more than $11,000.

The National Nurses United study also found that excessive costs is worst at private and for-profit hospitals, which, according to the American Hospital Association, account for the vast majority of hospitals in the United States. In contrast, government-run hospitals exercised more restraint in their pricing. "Public oversight and regulation seems to help constrain excessive pricing," says the study.

Check Out This Shocking Map of California's Drought

| Wed Jan. 8, 2014 4:44 PM EST

While the country's appetite for extreme weather news was filled (to the brim) this week by the polar vortex, spare a thought for sunny California, where exceptionally dry weather is provoking fears of a long, tough summer ahead.

The state is facing what could be its worst drought in four decades. The chart above, released by the National Drought Mitigation Center on Monday, shows just how dry the soil is compared to the historical average: the lighter the color, the more "normal" the current wetness of the soil; the darker the color, the rarer. You can see large swathes of California are bone dry.

Nearly 90 percent of the state is suffering from severe or extreme drought. A statewide survey shows the current snowpack hovering below 20 percent of the average for this time of year. The AP is reporting that if the current trend holds, state water managers will only be able to deliver 5 percent of the water needed for more than 25 million Californians and nearly a million acres of farmland.

A study published in Nature Climate Change at the end of last year found that droughts will probably set in more quickly and become more intense as climate change takes hold.