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April 2012


Critical List: Nigeria oil spill 60 times bigger than reported; Arctic Ocean methane

Amnesty International found documents showing that a 2008 Shell oil spill in Nigeria was 60 times bigger than the company claimed.

And in Russia, 2,000 tons of oil spilled from a well over two days. But, really, who knows how much oil it was?

The thawing Arctic Ocean is releasing gobs of methane into the atmosphere.

Figuring out how climate change is going to affect Himalayan glaciers: actually really tricky!

Read more: Uncategorized


10 gross green bathroom questions you never knew you had

Editor's note: Grist is celebrating the 10th anniversary of our Ask Umbra advice column. Today, we look behind at some of our favorite potty-related reader queries. Got an urgent question of your own? Go ahead, Ask Umbra.

10. Is it OK to pee in the shower? Sure, let it all hang out.

9. Should I pee in the ocean or behind the dunes? The answer just might sea-prise you.

8. Should I pee in my yard or next to the road? Advice for those wishing to go al fresco.

7. Is it OK to “let it mellow” in a public restroom? Um, gross.

6. Why is recycled toilet paper so scratchy? One word: fibers.

5. What uses more water, washing “pee rags” or making toilet paper? What is this “pee rag” you speak of?

4. Are feminine products compostable? Bloody well right -- with a few caveats.

3. Should I throw my toilet paper away, or flush it? Find out where it all ends up.

2. How can I reduce the water used for flushing my toilet? Dip into this bowlful of tips.

1. Do composting toilets smell bad? No -- give it a go.

Read more: Green Living Tips


How catching salmon can save a forest

The Nerka with Mount Fairweather in the background.

I lean over the rail, whispering sweet nothings to the salmon in the water below. Hooked through the cheek, she stares at me with a turquoise eye. I raise the baseball bat-like gaff with my right hand and promise her, “This will be quick.” When I slam the gaff against her head, her opal scales quiver faintly, then go still. I yank her out of her universe, and into mine. A pool of crimson spreads on the deck. “Thank you.”

My partner Joel glances over. “Nice one!” Like me, he grew up fishing. At 22, he became the captain of the Nerka, his childhood summer home. We’ve run this 43-foot salmon troller together for seven years, selling our catch to his father, who markets our salmon to restaurants, grocery stores, and food co-ops around the U.S.

Not to be confused with trawlers, which drag large nets across the ocean floor, trollers are hook-and-line boats that target as close as possible the intended catch with little harm to habitat. The Nerka putters along Southeast Alaska’s densely forested coastline, trailing four to six lines laddered with hooked lures. Each salmon comes over the rail individually, and is handled with care through the entire process.

From an efficiency standpoint, it doesn’t make sense to comb the sea for 18 hour days, for weeks on end, struggling to catch 100 salmon a day, one at a time.  The challenges and risks far outweigh the financial payoff. Like family farming, our greatest reward is our lifestyle. Between the Gulf of Alaska’s infinite blue swallowing the horizon and the Tongass National Forest’s lush green cloaking the coast, our office is a dreamscape. With whales, sea otters, porpoises, puffins and other sea birds as colleagues, our job involves more than merely catching fish. Occupying a link in this food chain is a privilege; doing it sustainably is a responsibility.


Why that corn-syrup-and-autism study leaves such a sour taste

Autism is a hot topic these days, and not even peer-reviewed journals can evade being drawn into its gyre. The real reasons for the growth in autism prevalence are related to expanded diagnosis, greater awareness and recognition, and shifts from other special education labels to autism. That hasn't stopped some researchers and peer-reviewed journals from using autism as a way to grab headlines, and it doesn't stop anyone from linking just about anything to autism.

Last week, Grist contributor Tom Laskawy took a recent "study" alleging a link between high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) and autism and highlighted it, calling it "suggestive research" that shifts the HFCS debate in an "unexpected and troubling way." The paper Laskawy wrote about is troubling, but not in the way that he argues.

Problem No. 1: This isn't a study. It is, as the abstract itself says and as the journal, Clinical Epigenetics, has labeled it, a review. That means a review of existing literature, not a study, with no original research presented, much less "suggestive" research. In other words, all those headlines -- including Grist's original one, which has now been rewritten -- blaring about a "study" finding a "link"? There is no study, and there's no link or association or relationship established in this paper between autism and HFCS consumption. In fact, as you will see below, the two don't even share a trend.

Read more: Food


Autism and high-fructose corn syrup: A deeper look

Photo by Bryan Gosline.

Grist's post last week about a paper that aimed to draw a connection between autism and high fructose corn syrup raised an almost immediate furor.

Some furors are healthy. As an editor I'm always happy when work that I publish gets people to consider new ideas and information that challenges their assumptions.

But some furors are more like, "Guys, you messed up." I'm afraid that from where I sit this was one of the latter kind.

Read more: Inside Grist


A live chat with green-jobs guru Van Jones

Van Jones. (Photo by Zach Gross.)

Editor’s note: The chat’s now over, but you can replay it in full.

Green economy pioneer Van Jones is chatting live with David Roberts.

Jones worked as the green jobs advisor to the Obama White House in 2009. In his newest book, Rebuild the Dream, the environmental justice advocate reflects on his journey from grassroots outsider to White House insider, shares intimate details of his time in government, and provides a blueprint for reinventing the American Dream. Hint: It’s not “Drill, baby! Drill!”

Jonesin’ to chat with Van? Click here to join the conversation.

Read more: Green Jobs


Would you like a bad farm bill — or a terrible one?

Photo by Jeff Cushner.

The 2012 Farm Bill finally appears to be moving forward. Sort of.

On Friday, the Senate Agriculture Committee released their draft of the half-trillion-dollar bill. But not much has actually changed for the better since the behind-closed-doors "Secret Farm Bill" process from last fall. Ag Committee members are still planning deep cuts to crucial conservation funding that both keeps farmers from planting up every acre of available land and ensures that their farming techniques don't endanger clean water and air. Meanwhile, blustery boasts of eliminating farm subsidies are highly exaggerated: Last week, for example, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that "farm subsidy days are numbered." But as was decided last fall, the committee simply plans to shuffle the bulk of "direct payment" subsidy dollars over to crop insurance, where they will continue to prop up the "Big Five" commodity crops (corn, soy, wheat, rice, and cotton).

Shortly after the draft was released, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) put out a statement claiming the bill “will do more harm than good.” Here's more from EWG Senior Vice President for Agriculture and Natural Resources Craig Cox:

It needlessly sacrifices conservation and feeding assistance programs to finance unlimited insurance subsidies and a new entitlement program for highly profitable farm businesses. Rather than simply ending the widely discredited direct payment program, the Senate Agriculture Committee has created an expensive new entitlement program that guarantees most of the income of farm businesses already enjoying record profits. Replacing direct payments with a revenue guarantee program is a cynical game of bait-and-switch that should be rejected by Congress.


Watch the climate conversation run aground

Here's a fascinating anthropological case study on how climate change plays out in the heartland. It seems there was a spirited debate on the issue in the Iowa legislature recently. More or less everyone involved got things wrong, which ... welcome to my life. But the way the debate unfolded is quite revealing.

It begins when Democratic Sen. Rob Hogg (that name can't hurt in Iowa politics) reads a statement from a coalition of Iowa religious leaders:

Climate change is one of the most pressing challenges facing our world today and as religious leaders representing diverse faith traditions we are called to reaffirm our commitment to be responsible stewards of Earth's resources and to act in love to our neighbors both locally and globally. Scientists, including those representing 28 Iowa colleges and universities who recently released a statement, have warned us that changes in global climate patterns are brining more extreme weather events to Iowa, the United States and our world.

So far so good.

Enter Republican Sen. David Johnson:

With all due respect to our religious leaders ... how much are you willing to spend to reverse what you call global warming? The country of Spain made a huge transition to their economy for green energy. What was the result of that? Bankruptcy?

This is a reference to one of those denier perennials, the Spanish jobs study. Conservatives wield it like a talisman. It was an atrocious study and has been debunked many times, but of course that's made almost no difference. Suffice to say, Spain has economic troubles, but they are entirely unrelated to its renewable energy subsidies, which amount to a tiny sliver of its GDP.

(Side note: For a brief period earlier this month, wind turbines covered 60 percent of Spain's power demand.)

Hogg then grew agitated:

How much better off would this country be if there hadn't been a $6 billion drought last year in Texas? How much better off would our state be if we hadn't suffered $20 billion in flood damage over the last 20 years? You want to ruin our economy, Senator Johnson, you stick your head in the sand and ignore this issue.

I like your spirit, Mr. Hogg, but ... no. The time lag between cause and climate effect is much larger than that. Any action that might plausibly have affected the Texas drought or Iowa floods took place many, many decades ago. And there is nothing Iowa can do in terms of climate pollution -- nothing humanity can do -- to prevent next year's droughts and floods. Actions taken today to reduce climate pollution will have effects on global temperatures, if at all, many, many decades in the future.

This is part of why climate is known as a "super-wicked problem." Many people benefit from burning fossil fuels today. Those who benefit from not burning fossil fuels (at least in terms of climate) live in the latter half of the century.

Johnson responded just as heatedly:

I'm on the side of the scientists. I served with in Antarctica and Greenland and I'm the only member of this body that has done that. And there is no agreement in the scientific community, no consensus that things have really changed because change happens.

"Things have changed because change happens" is, um, unfalsifiable. Nay, meaningless. I think what what he's trying to say, however, is that there's "no agreement in the scientific community" on climate change. This is, of course, flatly false. A 2010 survey published by the National Academy of Sciences found that 97-98 percent of working climate scientists agree on the basics of anthropogenic climate change.

Hogg and Johnson are both a little confused, though obviously Hogg much less -- and much less detrimentally -- so. But neither perspective is the one that does most damage to the prospects of progress.

No, the most dangerous perspective is expressed at the end of the rambling and fruitless hour-long debate, by Republican Sen. Randy Feenstra:

Honestly, on that subject I think we should just agree to disagree because it's not going to get us anywhere.

This is the climate conversation in miniature. The problem is raised. Conservatives forecast economic doom. The economics show that we can do a great deal at comparatively moderate cost (certainly moderate relative to the cost of climate change impacts), but it's very difficult to overcome fear with promises. So advocates make dramatic, often exaggerated claims about proximate impacts. Deniers dismiss the science altogether. And then people who aren't committed to one "side" or another get sick of it and want to move on -- to "agree to disagree."

This is why conservative deniers have a built-in advantage on climate. They don't have to win the argument. They just have to keep arguing until everyone gets sick of it.

Read more: Climate Change


President Obama edits out climate change from his Earth Day proclamation

Photo by Chuck Kennedy/White House.

Cross-posted from Climate Progress.

You’ll be glad to know that in the last 12 months, that whole climate change problem went away. At least that’s the impression left from comparing President Obama’s 2012 Earth Day proclamation with the 2011 one.

Read more: Climate Change


Modern day Moby Dick? Check out this super rare, all-white killer whale

Swim aside, Moby Dick -- there’s a new white whale in town. Researchers recently spotted what is believed to be the only all-white adult orca whale in existence. The Moby Dick doppelganger is making quite a splash in the wildlife community.

White whales of various species are occasionally seen; but the only known white orcas have been young, including one with a rare genetic condition that died in a Canadian aquarium in 1972.

Researchers know that this white whale -- whom they’ve named “Iceberg” -- is definitely an adult: His two-meter-long (6.5-feet-long) dorsal fin proves that he’s at least 16 years old.

Read more: Animals