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Australian Open heat was a climate-change preview, but at least nobody died

Melbourne is smoking hot
Alpha
41 degrees Celsius is 106 Fahrenheit.

The Australian Open ended in Melbourne on Sunday, when a Swiss man wearing a sweat-drenched shirt with yellow and red stripes won in four sets. It was bloody hot, and his nose burned red as he smooched a silver trophy.

In fact, the sweltering heat captivated the world's media and arguably stole the show. One player burned her bum when she sat down on a chair; another's plastic water bottle melted on the court's artificial surface. Athletes collapsed left and right, and one of them hallucinated. Emergency rules designed to help players survive the scorching heat slowed down play.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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ABC, CBS, and NBC nightly news covered climate for less than two hours in 2013

No climate coverage
Shutterstock

If you got all your news from television, you might not even know that the planet is warming.

"Altogether, ABC, CBS, and NBC reported on global warming for nearly an hour and 42 minutes during their nightly newscasts in 2013," Media Matters reported recently. "Out of a year's worth of coverage, the Sunday shows focused on climate change for 27 minutes."

When you see appalling figures like that, it can be tempting to find a television and yell at it. Problem is, it would just keep yell back at you about Justin Bieber, the Super Bowl, or what the weather was like today.

So members of the new Senate Climate Action Task Force went a step further, yelling at the network bosses about their pitiful climate coverage -- in letter form.

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Midwestern farmers harvesting solar power

Solar panels at a Wisconsin farm
USDA

It's not just milk, cereal, and soy that's being produced on Midwestern farms. Increasingly, farmers in the region are also harvesting their own solar power. That's according to a report in Midwest Energy News:

Solar installations have been taking off in many areas of the Midwest, but perhaps nowhere more so than in farm country.

“It’s a huge buzz now throughout the agriculture industry,” said Todd Miller, sales director for CB Solar in Ankeny, Iowa.

The Midwest is a conservative place, and today's conservatives tend to reject renewable energy. So what is it about farms that has the region's growers so eager to reap power from the sun?

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Free trade deal on solar and wind could hurt the environment

Environmental goods deal
Shutterstock

Pssst ... hey, foreigner, you wanna buy some green?

Government leaders huddling with business leaders at the World Economic Forum in Davos agreed on Friday to remove tariffs on so-called "environmental goods." Unfortunately, that agreement could end up warming the globe and harming the environment.

If a "joint statement regarding trade in environmental goods" that was signed by the U.S. and 13 other countries evolves into a binding World Trade Organization (WTO) agreement, then the container ships and trucks that crisscross the globe could start hauling more solar panels, wind turbines, and other such goodies from factories to consumers across international borders.

"We are convinced that one of the most concrete, immediate contributions that the WTO and its Members can make to protect our planet is to seek agreement to eliminate tariffs for goods that we all need to protect our environment and address climate change," the joint statement says.

We're talking about some serious green here. The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, which describes such an agreement as a high priority for the U.S., says total global trade in environmental goods is worth $955 billion a year -- and that 86 percent of that involves the signatories to the joint statement. Some countries apply tariffs of more than a third to such products.

On the face of it, that could seem to make some sense. So why isn't everybody buying it?

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Gas company: No need to frack outside London; regular old drilling will do

Blacombe protest
Sheila

The results of exploratory gas drilling near London are in, and they would seem to be wonderful news. It appears that Mother Nature broke up the rock before the frackers could get their chemical-tainted hands on it. But locals fear it's just a ruse.

The exploratory well, drilled by energy company Cuadrilla in the village of Balcombe, 35 miles south of London, is one of Europe's first forays into fracking. That's where residents clashed with police during protests over the summer.

"Based on our analysis of the samples we obtained from the exploration well, we can confirm that the target rock underneath Lower Stumble is naturally fractured," Cuadrilla told village residents in a recent letter. "The presence of these natural fractures and the nature of the rock means that we do not intend to hydraulically fracture the exploration well at Lower Stumble now or in the future."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Judge rules climatologist can sue skeptics who compared him to Jerry Sandusky

Michael Mann
Greg Rico / Penn State
Michael Mann

In 2012, the National Review and the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute compared climate scientist Michael Mann to convicted child molester and football Jerry Sandusky (in addition to calling Mann a scientific fraud). The article managed to trivialize both pedophilia and the climate crisis on the slim grounds that both Mann and football coach Sandusky were products of a corrupt Penn State. 

Understandably, Mann (who helped coin the term "hockey stick" to describe the sudden rise of temperatures) did not appreciate the connection, and he sued for libel. He argues that doing so would help protect the environmental movement from similar such nonsense. And last week, a D.C. Superior Court judge ruled that the lawsuit can move forward, denying a motion to dismiss. Here's Al Jazeera with the details:

Mann sued the parties for defamation in 2012, after CEI published, and the National Review republished, statements accusing Mann of academic fraud and comparing him to convicted child molester and former Penn State assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky except that "instead of molesting children, he has molested and tortured data in the service of politicized science that could have dire economic consequences for the nation and planet."

Judge Frederick H. Weisberg found that while "opinions and rhetorical hyperbole" are protected speech under the First Amendment, statements that call into question a scientist’s work could be understood as factual assertions that go to the “heart of scientific integrity.”

“To state as a fact that a scientist dishonestly molests or tortures data to serve a political agenda would have a strong likelihood of damaging his reputation within his profession, which is the very essence of defamation,” he said.

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Critics call Mayor Rahm’s plans to light up Chicago at night a dim idea

Chicago at night
Shutterstock
Not bright enough for the mayor.

Chicago has some of the most famous architecture in the world. But the intricacies of its imposing towers shine best when the sun is shining. So Mayor Rahm Emanuel has an idea: lights. Lots and lots of lights. Chicago will launch a worldwide hunt for a firm to design a lighting regime to illuminate the city at night -- part of an effort to boost tourism.

But is that wise? Environmentally, it's a tough case to make.

Birds smash into building facades in the dead of night all the time -- and lights are thought to be to blame. Through the Lights Out program, which asks building owners to dim or extinguish as many lights as possible, Chicago has been a trailblazer in dimming nocturnal streetscapes to help protect migratory birds.

And then there's that whole global warming thing. Drew Carhart of the Illinois Coalition for Responsible Outdoor Lighting, which battles against light pollution, points out that Paris, which Chicago is seeking to emulate, is actually catching up with the times and moving away from its City of Light moniker. The Chicago Sun-Times reports:

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U.N. warns us to eat less meat and lay off biofuels, or we’re in for it

Corn farmer
Shutterstock

We're overconsuming ourselves into environmental oblivion.

Farming will eliminate forests, plains, and other wild areas nearly the size of Brazil by 2050 around the world if we can't mend our agricultural, dietary, and biofuel-burning ways. This unsustainable drive for more growing land will result in rising hunger and more frequent riots as food prices increase.

That's the salty prognosis in a new report by scientists working for the U.N.'s International Resource Panel.

The amount of farmland has increased 11 percent since the 1960s, as growers struggle to meet growing populations' ballooning demands for food and biofuel, according to the report. About 1.5 billion hectares, or 3.7 billion acres, is now being used globally to produce crops, and that figure continues to grow. Making matters worse, about a quarter of the world's soils are degraded, which reduces the amount of crops that can be grown in them.

"Growing demand for food and non-food biomass will lead to an expansion of global cropland; yield growth will not be able to compensate for the expected surge in global demand," the report states. "Cropland expansion at the cost of tropical forests and savannahs induces severe changes in the living environment with uncertain repercussions."

What may be hardest for some of the world's poorest and hungriest residents to stomach is the vast amount of farmland that's being dedicated to growing crops for biofuels and for animal feed.

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Freedom Industries kept West Virginia spill details secret

Water testing in West Virginia
National Guard

If you had been among Freedom Industries' dozens of employees, you would have known more than your neighbors about the contents of a toxic spill that left hundreds of thousands of West Virginians without safe tap water recently.

After state officials discovered on Jan. 9 that chemicals had gushed out of a storage drum and into Elk River, the company told them that the drum contained something called 4-Methylcyclohexane methanol. The poison is used by the state's coal miners. Little is known about the precise hazards that it poses, but it has sickened hundreds of people.

What the company didn't tell the government until last week was that the drum also contained something that they call stripped PPH. The company did, however, tell its own workers about that second chemical in an email immediately after the spill. So, lucky them.

Stripped PPH was mixed in with the other chemicals in the drum at a concentration of about 6 percent. A material safety data sheet (MSDS) provided to state officials says stripped PPH contains a complex mixture of polyglycol ethers. "The specific chemical identity is being withheld as 'trade secret,'" the company wrote in the safety document, which was dated Oct. 15, 2013.

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Seashore solar comes to Japan

Japan solar project
SMA

Japan has been thinking creatively about electricity since the Fukushima meltdown nearly three years ago.

Dozens of nuclear power plants remain in the "off" mode while leaders and citizens tussle over whether nuclear power can ever be safe. That has left the gas-and-oil-poor country heavily dependent on expensive fossil fuel imports. So it has been turning to cleaner alternatives, using subsidies to help get tens of thousands of renewable energy projects off the ground. We told you recently that offshore wind turbines are being built near the crippled Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, part of an effort to turn the contaminated region into a hub for clean energy.

And now, for another Japanese endeavor into safe, low-carbon energy, look again to the sea. Smithsonian Magazine reports: