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[1THING] Blog: Archive for June, 2016

[ Here’s the Next Big Story on Climate Change ]

Last December, the climate summit in Paris offered journalists an unprecedented opportunity to reframe the global warming story. Climate reporting used to rest on the tacit understanding that the problem is overwhelming and intractable. That no longer rings true. While we have a better understanding than ever of the potential calamity in store, we finally have a clear vision of a path forward—and momentum for actually getting there.

To that end, Paris was a turning point for me personally, too: It was the end of the beginning of my career as an environmental journalist. This week I’m leaving Mother Jones after five years covering climate and other green stories. Paris underscored that it’s past time for me to look beyond the borders of the United States. That’s why, this fall, I’m going to undertake a Fulbright-National Geographic Digital Storytelling Fellowship. For at least nine months, I’ll move between Kenya, Uganda, and Nigeria to document how climate change is impacting food security.

I see agriculture in Africa as one of the most important, yet under-reported, stories about climate change happening today. It’s a fascinating intersection of science, politics, technology, culture, and all the other things that make climate such a rich vein of reporting. At that intersection, the scale of the challenge posed by global warming is matched only by the scale of opportunity to innovate and adapt. There are countless stories waiting to be told, featuring a brilliant and diverse cast of scientists, entrepreneurs, politicians, farmers, families, and more.

East Africa is already the hungriest place on Earth: One in every three people lives without sufficient access to nutritious food, according to the United Nations. Crop yields in the region are the lowest on the planet. African farms have one-tenth the productivity of Western farms on average, and sub-Saharan Africa is the only place on the planet where per-capita food production is actually falling.

Now, climate change threatens to compound those problems by raising temperatures and disrupting the seasonal rains on which many farmers depend. An index produced by the University of Notre Dame ranks 180 of the world’s countries based on their vulnerability to climate change impacts (#1, New Zealand, is the least vulnerable; the United State is ranked #11). The best-ranked mainland African country is South Africa, down at #84; Nigeria, Kenya, and Uganda rank at #147, #154, and #160 respectively. In other words, these are among the places that will be hit hardest by climate change. More often than not, the agricultural sector will experience some of the worst impacts. Emerging research indicates that climate change could drive down yields of staples such as rice, wheat, and maize 20 percent by 2050. Worsening and widespread drought could shorten the growing season in some places by up to 40 percent.

This isn’t just a matter of putting food on the table. Agricultural productivity also lies at the root of broader economic development, since farming is Africa’s number-one form of employment. So, even when hunger isn’t an issue, per se, lost agricultural productivity can stymie rural communities’ efforts to get the money they need for roads, schools, clinics, and other necessities. “We only produce enough to eat,” lamented Amelia Tonito, a farmer I met recently in Mozambique. “We’d like to produce enough to eat and to sell.” More food means more money in more pockets; the process of alleviating poverty starts on farms.

The story goes beyond money. Hunger, increased water scarcity, and mass migrations sparked by natural-resource depletion can amplify the risk of conflict. Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Boko Haram in Nigeria have both drawn strength from drought-related hunger.

This is also a story about new applications for technology at the dawn of Africa’s digital age. It’s a story about gender—most African farmers are women—and the struggle to empower marginalized sectors of society. It’s about globalization and the growth of corporate power, as large-scale land investors from Wall Street to Dubai to Shanghai see a potential windfall in turning East and West Africa into a global breadbasket. Such interventions could boost rural economies—or disenfranchise small-scale farmers and further degrade the landscape.

Of course, all the data points I’ve just mentioned are only that: Cold, lifeless data. They work as an entry point for those of us who are thousands of miles away from Africa. But they don’t tell a story, and they won’t lead to action. They won’t help Amelia Tonito improve her income. My hope is my coverage of this story will help provide the depth of understanding that is a prerequisite for holding public and corporate officials accountable, so that the aspirations of the Paris Agreement can start to come to fruition.

I’ve loved my time at Mother Jones and I’m truly at a loss to express my gratitude to my editors for the experiences they have afforded me. I’ve seen the devastating impacts of global warming, from the vanishing Louisiana coastline to the smoldering wreckage of Breezy Point, Queens, after Hurricane Sandy. And I’ve seen the cost of our fossil fuel addiction, from the dystopian fracking fields of North Dakota to Germany’s yawning open-pit coal mines. But I’ve also seen the fortitude of the young Arizonans who spent weeks sweating in the woods to protect their community from wildfires. And I’ve seen the compassion of a caretaker who, in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, stayed with her elderly patient on the top floor of a Lower East Side high-rise with no electricity or running water.

Encounters like these are what draw me to climate change as a beat. The story is just getting started.


[ A bright spot amid Brexit? Growing momentum for global climate action. ]

The broad-based approach of the Paris Agreement has made the politics of climate change much more resilient than before.


[ US, Canada, and Mexico take bold actions to advance clean energy and meet climate goals ]

Stacy Miller

[ San Francisco Just Passed the Nation’s Toughest ban on Styrofoam ]

San Franciscans, bid adieu to Styrofoam. On Tuesday, the city unanimously passed an ordinance banning the sale of any product made from polystyrene, the petroleum-based compound that’s molded into disposable dishware, packing materials, and beach toys—among other things. Even though it’s commonly known as Styrofoam, that’s just a name-brand owned by the Dow Chemical Company. 

It’s not SF’s first such restriction. In 2007, the city prohibited the use of polystyrene use all to-go food containers. More than 100 cities, along with Washington DC, now have similar laws in place. (The first Styrofoam ban was passed in 1988 by the City of Berkeley.) But San Francisco’s new ordinance, part of the city’s goal of “zero waste” by 2020, is the broadest yet. As of January 1, 2017 it will be unlawful to sell polystyrene packing materials (those infuriating foam peanuts, for instance), day-use coolers, trays used in meat and fish packaging, and even foam dock floats and mooring buoys.   

Polystyrene’s story begins in the first half of the 20th century, but it didn’t become a staple of our everyday lives until the second half, when world production of plastic resins increased 25 fold. Before long, polystyrene was synonymous with take-out food, barbeque plates, and disposable coffee cups—Americans today still used an estimated 25 billion foam cups each year.   

This week’s ban is a victory for environmentalists, who since the late 1970s have been up in arms over polystyrene’s impacts on marine life and waterways. (Recent evidence suggests the resins may be problematic for human health.) Polystyrene breaks down into tiny pieces, easily blown into the sea, where birds and fish often mistake them for food. The nonprofit Agalita Marine Research and Education found that about 44 percent of seabirds have ingested plastic, and 267 species of marine life are affected in various ways by plastic trash. (Witness photographer Chris Jordan’s devastating bird photos.)

While polystyrene is said to never completely break down in landfills, it actually can decompose in the oceans. The stuff eventually sinks, which makes it difficult to know how much of it exists. And polystyrene contributes to the horrifying notion that by 2050, we may have more plastics in the ocean than fish.

Critics of the new ban are quick to point out that polystyrene is recyclable—a judge actually overturned New York City’s ban on to-go containers last year, ruling that the city could make big money recycling the stuff. But while San Francisco residents can bring large pieces of polystyrene to a transfer station free of charge, it rarely gets recycled. The problem, says Robert Reed, a local project manager for Recology, a company that helps cities manage solid waste, is that few people bother to bring in their Styrofoam, and when they do, it’s usually not in good enough condition to be repurposed. (It can be melted down and used as trim or molding for building construction.) “The few buyers who exist demand that the material be very clean,” Reed says in an email. “They don’t even want dust on it.”

The American Chemistry Council, the trade group for chemical makers, opposed the city’s ban, arguing that polystyrene’s light weight results in less carbon emissions when products are transported. The group urged the city to consider the environmental costs of all packaging materials, as polystyrene will likely be replaced with compostable foams. “All packaging leaves an environmental footprint,” Tim Shestek, the council’s senior director, said in a statement.

“Compostables are not the silver bullet,” concedes Samantha Sommer, a project manager with Clean Water Action California, which aims to curb single-use products. Even compostable products, she says, “come from resources; it takes resources to produce, it produces energy and water emissions throughout its life cycle, and then becomes difficult to manage.”

But Styrofoam all the more so.


[ Is Alaska, another oil state, the next frontier for climate action? ]

I was not surprised when I looked out the airplane window and saw rows of wind turbines spinning against majestic, snow-covered mountains.


[ Is the Senate About to Put a Halt to GMO Labeling? ]

As recently as two weeks ago, the food industry was preparing to place labels on food products that contain genetically modified ingredients. But if a bi-partisan deal cobbled together last Thursday in the Senate Agriculture Committee gets signed into law, widespread labeling likely won’t come to pass. Instead, food companies will have the option of disclosing GM ingredients on their products with QR codes that can be read by smartphones, accompanied by only the words “scan here for more food information”—without direct on-package mention of GMOs.

The fight centers on a Vermont law, due to go into effect on July 1, that would require labeling in that state. Rather than go through the trouble of segregating out and labeling products destined for a state with a population 626,000, many huge food companies had instead resigned themselves to labeling nationwide. In recent months Mars, General Mills, Kellogg, ConAgra and Campbell Soup all announced plans for labeling.

The looming prospect provoked a massive legislative effort, spearheaded by the Grocery Manufacturers Association, to pass a bill in Congress to nullify state labeling initiatives, full stop. Ever since that bill failed to gain traction in the Senate in March, Senate Ag Committee Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and ranking Democrat Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) began working to cobble together a compromise. Under their bill, products that contain GM ingredients will only have to include a QR code, which in-the-know consumers with smartphones can scan. 

This week, Roberts and Stabenow began pushing hard for the full Senate to consider their compromise bill, reports Politico’s Helena Bottemiller Evich. They have industrial agriculture interests at their backs, Evich adds, noting that the American Soybean Association urged its members to email and call their senators “repeatedly until this legislation passes.” Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont), meanwhile, has vowed to “do everything I can to defeat this legislation.”

The Senate deal is widely viewed as a defeat for labeling advocates and a victory for the seed/pesticide industry. Andrew Kimbrell, a long-time industry critic and executive director of the Center for Food Safety, denounced the bill in an emailed statement. “This is not a labeling bill; it is a non-labeling bill,” he wrote. “Clear, on-package GE food labeling should be mandatory to ensure all Americans have equal access to product information.” Meanwhile, the Grocery Manufacturers Association, a deep-pocketed trade group called funded by major food processors as well as agrichemical/GMO titans like Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow, praised it as the “commonsense solution for consumers, farmers and businesses.”

If the proposed QR-code solution passes, it will preempt Vermont’s law. Whether it will pass the full Senate and House and be signed by President Obama remains to be seen. Stabenow had opposed previous efforts to preempt state labeling laws, so getting her on board was a big step closer to putting a halt to GMO labeling.


[ California’s Wildfires Just Tripled in Size ]

When it comes to forest fires, California can’t seem to catch a break.

Last year was a hellacious one for uncontrolled burns, and 2016 is looking just as bad. In the past week, the number of acres scorched by wildfire has tripled from around 32,000 to more than 98,000, according to the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. The number of fires the department, known simply as Cal Fire, has responded to is slightly above the seasonal five year average. But it’s early in the fire season. (California’s 2013 Rim Fire, the largest ever recorded in the Sierra Nevada, began in early August and blazed on into October, torching more than 257,000 acres.)

Local, state, and federal firefighters have already dealt with more than 2,400 wildfires so far this season, say’s Daniel Berlant, Cal Fire’s information officer. Last week, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency for Southern California’s Kern County, where the largest of those conflagrations still rages; the Eskrine fire covers more than 45,000 acres and is only 40 percent contained. It has killed two people so far, destroying 150 homes and damaging 75.

In recent years, drought conditions have fueled fires across the state. El Niño conditions brought badly needed rain this past winter, but the wetter conditions also begat a bumper crop of grasses that are now reduced to dry fuel. “The rain is always a blessing and a curse,” Berlant says.

In addition, thanks to prolonged drought and hungry bark beetles, California has more than 66 million dead trees, the US Forest Service estimates—more than double last year’s count. In short, the state is a tinderbox.

Ahead of the July 4 weekend, Cal Fire officials warn that they’ll be confiscating illegal fireworks. They’re also urging residents to keep fireworks away from dry, flammable materials. Which should be pretty obvious, but sadly…


[ No exit: How our public lands are fated for oil and gas development ]

The “No Exit” report shows that regardless of conservation value or potential energy resources, the Bureau of Land Management automatically places our public lands on the highway to oi



[ Now Tesla Wants to Buy a Solar Company ]

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

Elon Musk—future Mars settler, founder of Tesla—stepped into the solar business earlier this week with Tesla Motor’s $2.5 billion bid to buy SolarCity, the top home solar company in America.

Shareholders from both companies still have to approve the deal. And if they do, Tesla promises the results will be awesome. Musk says that he never wanted Tesla to be just a carmaker. Buying SolarCity will turn Tesla into a company that will sell you an electric car and the power to charge it. “This would start with the car that you drive and the energy that you use to charge it, and would extend to how everything else in your home or business is powered,” Tesla wrote in its company blog.

Then Wall Street frowned. The day after the announcement, Tesla’s stock slumped 10 percent, and Morgan Stanley cut its rating on Tesla’s shares.

So what gives? Does Wall Street not have the vision to get with Musk? Is the most futuristic car company in America about to drive off a cliff?

Here are a few ways of looking at it:

This whole thing is really a family drama.

Lyndon Rive, SolarCity’s co-founder and CEO, is Musk’s cousin. Is there some kind of family power struggle taking place? According to Eric Weishoff, founder of Greentech Media, Rive “didn’t sound happy enough for a man that just got $77 million dollars wealthier.” And why should Tesla buy Solar City when the two companies have been collaborating on batteries for half a decade now?

Tesla’s stock is sinking because Wall Street doesn’t get Silicon Valley.

Tesla was born in the startup culture of Silicon Valley, where it’s all about taking bold stands and getting big or going home. In Silicon Valley, companies eat other companies for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and late-night snack.

Worriers, however, have good reason to wonder why Tesla wants to get into the solar business so badly when it has 375,000 pre-ordered Tesla Model 3s that it’s supposed to be making. There’s the also the example of Sun Edison, an actual energy company that went bankrupt after a massive company-buying spree.

This smushing together could actually work, because, you know, synergy!

Tesla’s current clientele is, to put it mildly, loaded. Three-quarters of Model S buyers make more than $100,000 a year. It’s entirely possible that they are exactly the kind of people who might wander into a showroom, order a car, and impulse-purchase an entire solar installation to go along with it.

Solar City sells 100,000 solar installations a year to a wide demographic. If the price of the Tesla Model 3 manages to drop from the current sticker price of $35,000 and keep dropping, it’s imaginable that SolarCity’s current customers could be persuaded to choose a Tesla for their next car.

What we really need are lots of little Teslas, not a bigger Tesla

It’s been clear for a long time that Musk is a crazy dreamer of the Steve Jobs variety. But building a big company, even a really cool big company, cannot get America to low-carbon car heaven alone. The Big Three automakers—GM, Ford, and Chrysler — arose out of a Cambrian stew of automotive experimentation in the workshops of Detroit. Many have made the point (including me) that three still wasn’t enough to create the kind of competition that the American automotive industry needed to avoid getting its ass kicked by automakers in Germany and Japan.

This sale — if it goes through — might lead to great things. But what the world really needs are many Teslas, enough to create a large ecosystem of entrepreneurs working on cars, batteries, and solar. We need this a lot more than we need to buy solar panels from a car company.


[ Why Brexit Is Bad News for the Environment ]

This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Despite being an issue that knows no borders, affects all, and is of vital interest to future generations, the environment was low on the agenda ahead of the United Kingdom’s historic vote to leave the European Union.

The short answer to what happens next with pollution, wildlife, farming, green energy, climate change and more is we don’t know—we are in uncharted territory. But all the indications—from the “red-tape” slashing desires of the Brexiters to the judgment of environmental professionals—are that the protections for our environment will get weaker.

There is one immediate impact though, right here, right now: The crashing financial markets will damage the huge investments needed to create a cleaner and safer environment and will dent the nation’s fast-growing green economy, one economic sector where the UK could lead.

From the air we breathe to the food we eat to the climate we live in, how we protect and enhance the environment underpins the healthy and happy lives we all aspire to, now and for generations to come.

The 75 percent of 18-24-year-old Britons who voted to remain in the EU must be feeling betrayed by older generations today. Why? Because the UK’s membership of the EU has been a virtually unalloyed good for the environment.

The Brexit vote leaves it highly uncertain which protections will remain in place and the prospect of improving them seems remote. UKIP’s Nigel Farage, the politician who did more than anyone to force the EU referendum, doesn’t even think climate change is a problem and wants to scrap pollution limits on power stations.

With 400,000 early deaths a year from air pollution—40,000 in the UK—the EU saw things differently and set new legal limits in 2010. Many UK cities and towns remain above those limits today and campaigners have used EU rules to successfully sue the UK government. But UK ministers are even now fighting new EU rules to reduce early deaths. Pollution does not stop in its tracks at national borders, and 88 percent of environment professionals in the UK think an EU-wide policy is needed.

Earlier legal action from the EU forced the UK to clean up its sewage-strewn beaches, while many of the protections for nature and wildlife across the nation stem from EU rules. Here again, the people whose job it is to safeguard these wonderful places and reverse the damage of the past think leaving the EU is a mistake: 66 percent say there will be a lower level of legal protection for wildlife and habitats against 30 percent who think it will improve.

The EU has also driven a revolution in recycling and waste. What will happen to that, according to the people who made it happen on the ground? Two-thirds of the professionals think it will go into reverse, with 30 percent saying it will stay the same and just 4 percent thinking it will improve.

One major EU policy—its vast subsidy regime for farmers—has not been good for wildlife by encouraging damaging intensive agriculture: There are 421 million fewer birds in Europe than 30 years ago. But the Common Agricultural Policy was improving its approach to the environment and supports the farmers who put food on our tables every day. They are now in an agonizing limbo. Fishermen may hope to get larger quotas now the UK is leaving the EU but for how long? There will not, without strong protections, be plenty more fish in the sea for long.

The National Farmers Union (NFU) may get one wish from Brexit: the scrapping of a ban on pesticides that harm bees and other crucial pollinators. The NFU and UK ministers fought the ban, but the collective will of the EU saw it put in place.

The collective will of the EU has also been vital in climate change, both on the international stage and at home in the UK. The UK’s targets for renewable energy were agreed in Brussels but leaving the EU puts them into limbo too.

However, despite the current government hacking back support for clean energy, the UK does have strong domestic legislation which sets deep cuts in carbon emissions into law. But Boris Johnson, now a leading contender to be the UK’s next prime minister, is a climate change skeptic: Will he act on his conviction that all this global warming malarkey is piffle?

James Thornton, the chief executive of Client Earth, the lawyers who forced the government to improve its air pollution plans, said Brexit “leaves me shocked, disappointed and extremely concerned about the future of environmental protections in the UK.” Craig Bennett, head of Friends of the Earth, said the leave vote was a “red alert” for the environment.

Farage’s reaction to Brexit was unsurprisingly different: “I couldn’t be more delighted.”