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Ken Burns: Before Sandy, there was the Dust Bowl

As the East Coast licks its wounds from superstorm Sandy, many in New York and New Jersey are still without power, wondering how on Earth it got this bad. Ken Burns, the great innovator of the American documentary, thinks this is the perfect time to seek some wisdom from generations past.

His new film, The Dust Bowl, tells the story of the the worst human-made ecological disaster in U.S. history. For it, Burns and his team tracked down the last remaining survivors of the catastrophic dust storms of the 1930s and matched their intimate stories (most were children at the time) with lush archival footage.

Wikimedia Commons
Buried machinery in a South Dakota barn lot, 1936.

When I caught up with Burns in New York City, he drew comparisons between what happened then and what is happening now -- and how we can prevent future Dust Bowls and Sandys.

The Dust Bowl airs Nov. 18 and 19 on PBS.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Weary New Jersey residents face another ordeal: Voting [VIDEO]

Hurricane Sandy took away a lot of things: power, homes, even lives. For residents of Moonachie, N.J., a small town just across the Hudson River from New York City, the storm took a stab at their basic right to vote. After severe flooding here, much of the town remains without power, which led local election officials to decide over the weekend to close all the polling places and redirect residents to consolidated locations nearby.

It's the same story all across the state: Some 300 polling places shut down or moved, according to the governor's office, creating a logistical nightmare for election planners and a headache for voters (for what it's worth, Gov. Chris Christie (R) announced plans to allow votes to be emailed or faxed in). And while New Jersey, a solidly blue state, has never seen less than 70 percent turnout for a presidential election, residents here say until the lights come back on, casting a vote is the furthest thing from their minds.

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Breezy Point, Queens, reels from hurricane-caused inferno [VIDEO]

"I think we all can agree we're seeing complete and utter devastation," Brendan Gallagher says, standing in front of the charred remains of his childhood home.

Just a short drive from New York City's famous Rockaway beaches, Breezy Point, Queens, is a quaint seaside hamlet where many cops and firefighters come to retire. It's a place known for charming historic bungalows and sweeping ocean views, but on Monday night, it quickly became the setting for some of Hurricane Sandy's most terrifying damage.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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What’s inside your iPhone 5? [VIDEO]

The iPhone has become one of the developed world’s most ubiquitous consumer products; the new iPhone 5 sold more than 5 million units in its first week. But the vast majority of iPhone users have no clue what goes into the guts of their coveted toy. That’s no accident, since the phone’s internal design and chemical content are closely guarded trade secrets and Apple deliberately makes it difficult for consumers to open up the device.

Enter Kyle Wiens, whose company, iFixit, aims to help users penetrate their gadgets’ dark secrets, from how much toxic mercury they contain to how to change the damn battery. Last week, Climate Desk found shelter from a torrential rainstorm near one of New York City’s Apple stores and watched Wiens go to work (see video above). Today, iFixit released the results of its chemical analysis of the iPhone 5 and a suite of other popular cellphones, conducted by the environmental nonprofit Ecology Center.

First the good news: The iPhone 5 is leagues ahead of its more toxic predecessors -- especially the 2G.

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Jill Stein wants to #Occupy the White House

Here's one thing Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have in common: They don't have to battle for attention with a squad of dancing jellyfish puppets. Jill Stein did, and won. The Green Party presidential candidate spent yesterday morning in Manhattan's Financial District with the environmental contingent of Occupy Wall Street, dodging cops, patiently waiting out street theater performances, and shouting hoarsely into the People's Mic.

"Wall Street has put our climate in crisis," Stein yelled, to an ample wiggling of spirit fingers. "It's up to us to lead the way on the economy and the climate."

Occupy Wall Street has long eschewed party politics, which makes the appearance of this long-shot presidential contender slightly discordant. But to see Stein, for whom environmental issues are a campaign centerpiece, marks an apex in what Occupy's environmental organizers call a yearlong struggle to bring climate change to the forefront of the movement.

Stein, 62, is a Harvard-educated physician who first entered politics 10 years ago as a Green-Rainbow Party candidate for Massachusetts governor, after years of public health activism. Despite her greatest electoral success being a seat on the Lexington, Mass., Town Meeting in 2005 and 2008, Stein will go head to head with Obama and Romney in at least 38 states this November, making her a contender for the votes of environmentally conscious Occupiers nationwide who are dissatisfied with both mainstream parties' mollifying of the fossil fuel industry.

Stein isn't naïve about her chances for the White House. But she's running anyway, because in her mind both parties are tarred by the same brush.

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Photos: See ya later, lovely glaciers

This summer could be dubbed The Great Melt. The belt of ice surrounding the Arctic has melted to its lowest level in history, a record seen by many scientists as evidence of long-term climate change. Adding to environmentalists’ fears, Royal Dutch Shell sunk its first drill bit into the Arctic seabed, taking the first steps in American offshore oil exploration in these frigid waters.

A new book by photographer James Balog, Ice: Portraits of Vanishing Glaciers, captures in vivid color just what’s at stake as climate change erodes ice in some of the world’s most extreme places. Balog shared six of his favorites with Climate Desk:

Aerial view, meltwater on Greenland ice sheet. Click to embiggen. (Photo by © James Balog.)

James Balog has spent the last 30 years donning crampons, paddling canoes, and hopping into dog sleds and helicopters to capture the world’s ice on film. He’s been everywhere from Bolivia and Nepal to Alaska and Montana to France and Switzerland, in an ongoing project that he says is “about getting in close to ice and experiencing all its colors and textures and shapes.”

This summer’s record melt in the Arctic, Balog told Climate Desk as he was en route to a glacier shoot in Iceland, is a reminder that “ice is the canary in the coal mine; you can touch and see and hear climate change.”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Baby steps: Why Obama’s nod to climate change could pay off

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

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How extreme weather supersizes global food price tags

Photo by Oxfam.

Democrats blame record drought. Republicans blame Obama. But one thing both parties agree on is that food prices are going up. In his acceptance speech at last week's GOP convention, Mitt Romney openly mocked tackling climate change as the opposite of helping working families, yet pointed to food prices in his long list of ongoing concerns: "Food prices are higher. Utility bills are higher, and gasoline prices, they've doubled," he claimed.

But Heather Coleman, Oxfam's senior climate policy adviser, sees this (ever-so-thin) overlap of (ever-so-tenuous) agreement as an opportunity. "Those of us who are truly aware of the impacts of climate change find it appalling that climate change could be used as a laugh line," Coleman said in a Skype interview. "[But] there's a lot more that needs to be done and I think we can all come together on this issue of agriculture."

A new Oxfam report released today hopes to close this understanding gap between climate change and global food prices, arguing previous research grossly underestimates future food prices by ignoring the impact of severe weather shocks to the global food system.

The report, "Extreme Weather, Extreme Prices," argues current research paints only some of the picture by relying on steady increase in temperatures and precipitation. To get a more accurate picture, researchers threw down wild cards -- the crazy weather events like droughts, hurricanes, and floods we've come to increasingly expect -- to "stress-test" the system. They've come up with some disturbing numbers.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Record drought sends cattle hoofin’ East [VIDEO]

Lifelong Wyoming rancher Neil Forgey is hoping the grass is greener in Winner, S.D. This year's drought has forced a terrible choice on ranchers in affected states: sell, or haul. Neil's usually verdant land in Douglas, Wyo. -- home for decades -- is "drier than it's ever been," he said. Every county in that state is a declared disaster area, eligible for federal money. Neil's property was also threatened by the Arapaho Fire, which destroyed nearly 99,000 acres, the worst in Wyoming this year. "It was selling them, or South Dakota," he said.

Neil found greener pastures seven hours and 330 miles east, in Winner, on an expansive prairie owned by a family friend. There, at risky expense, 120 head of cattle will graze until September in the hope next year will bring rain.

Not so lucky are ranchers just an hour south, in Bassett, Neb., where the local auction house can barely keep up with a brimming cattle yard.

As ranchers flee fire and drought, and scientists warn of more severe droughts driven by climate change, Neil's story is repeating all over the West.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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How Curiosity turns Mars into a climate-change lab

Mars' surface, as seen through Curiosity's eyes.

Scientists have made great strides in predicting what will happen to Earth's climate, but there is a fundamental problem: We only have one climate to test our hypotheses in. We can't irreversibly hack Earth's climate (by pumping it full of toxic gases, for example) to test whether our assumptions are right or wrong -- that, obviously, would be disastrous for Earth's inhabitants. That means climate models are loaded with historical and empirical data to make them function.

If only we could take the model to another planet to really test the underpinning physics!

Bingo. Curiosity, the car-sized mobile chemistry lab that dropped spectacularly onto the surface of Mars yesterday, will give scientists a rare chance to test their assumptions about how climate change works on Earth. It will hunt the surface of Mars for sediment to pick up and drop into its sophisticated onboard machinery, then send back critical insights into how the climate of Mars -- once warmer, with rain, rivers, and deltas -- has changed over billions of years, lashed by solar winds.

Read more: Climate & Energy