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This fake LEGO ad shows the Arctic drowning in an oil spill

I don't know who thought it was a good idea to get their kids a Shell-themed LEGO set, but apparently someone did, or Greenpeace would not have had to make this depressing video protesting the advertising partnership between the world's largest toy company and a global fossil fuel conglomerate. (I mean, child-me would definitely have coveted those polar bear and husky minifigs, but a flaming oil rig?)

In fact, LEGO and Shell go way back, to the 1960s when the popular build-it-yourself toy company started selling Shell-branded toys to future engineers. But now, with Shell making persistent yet tentative moves in the warming Arctic, Greenpeace is calling out the companies' 2012 contract, which they claim is worth $116 million to Shell's PR department. The run of logo-bedecked toys are sold at gas stations in 26 countries, and have supposedly been accompanied by a 7.5 percent increase in Shell sales.

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Will the U.S. keep spending taxpayer money on dirty coal plants abroad?

coal
Shutterstock

Congress could get in the way of Obama's efforts to clean up power plants -- not just here at home, but abroad.

A year ago, when President Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan, he declared that the U.S. would stop funding most coal projects in other countries. “I’m calling for an end to public financing for new coal plants overseas unless they deploy carbon-capture technologies, or there’s no other viable way for the poorest countries to generate electricity,” Obama said in his big climate speech. In December, the U.S. Export-Import Bank, which helps American firms access markets abroad, changed its lending guidelines to conform with Obama’s edict.

But now pro-coal members of Congress are moving to block the new guidelines. The Hill reports:

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Need to charge your phone while herding? There’s an ass for that

donkey.jpg
Rachele Totaro IT

Most of you may know "Solar Donkeys" as the name of my ill-fated 1987 sci-fi rock opera, but as is so often the case, life is finally imitating art. The desperate need to stay connected being the mother of 21st century invention, village herders in Turkey found the most obvious solution to keeping their cellphones juiced on those long nights out with the flock. They mounted solar panels to donkeys, which may sound strange at first until you realize they didn’t have access to llamas.

Now I can’t imagine why a Turkish herders needs a constant connection to his Foursquare account ("Just checking in. Day 32, still in a field next to my robodonkey"), but that herder is probably wondering why I think the world needs my up-to-the-minute opinions on the latest episode of America’s Got Talent, so que sera, sera.

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hacking the climate

In the Colombian rainforest, an experiment in community-driven climate protection

Tolo River patrol
Anthrotect

On a stifling hot afternoon, five men make their way through the dense rainforest of northern Colombia. Frazier Guisao, a former logger, heads the single-file line, slicing through the thick undergrowth with a machete to carve out a narrow tunnel.

Guisao and his team wear T-shirts embossed with bright letters spelling out COCOMASUR, an abbreviation of the Spanish name of their small Afro-Colombian enclave, known as the Black Communities of the Tolo River and Southern Coast.

hacking-climate-logo
Hallie Bateman

When the group pauses for a break at the base of a giant almendro tree, Guisao looks up to examine it. Trees in this region can reach as high as 10-story buildings. The trunk of this one would take 15 people hand-in-hand to surround. “This wood is worth around three million pesos in town,” he says. That’s about $1,500.

Guisao and his team are here to make sure that these trees are never cleared for profit, though.

Three years ago, the Tolo River community decided not to log its 32,000 acres of rainforest, and instead to protect it for its pristine habitat and the river that gives the community both its name and its only source of fresh water.

In addition to these obvious benefits, the forest offers another valuable service: The trees and soil are a safe depository of carbon. When rainforests are burned or cleared, carbon escapes into the air in the form of carbon dioxide, a gas that warms Earth’s climate.

Increasingly, companies and governments around the world are willing to pay communities like the Tolo River to preserve rainforests as a way of offsetting their own carbon emissions, and slowing climate change. In 2012, governments and corporations bought a half a billion dollars worth of carbon offset through a global, United Nations-lead initiative known as REDD -- short for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation.

The program has drawn criticism for corruption, improper carbon accounting, and project developers taking advantage of illiterate indigenous peoples. Still, forest conservation through REDD can be part of the solution to both deforestation and climate change.

This is the story of one community that found a way to do it right.

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Put a label on it

GMO labeling initiative heads to the ballot in Oregon

label-genetically-engineered-food
Steve Rhodes

More than enough Oregon voters have given their signatures to get a GMO-food labeling initiative on the ballot in November, according to the Center for Food Safety.

Three New England states -- Connecticut, Maine, and Vermont -- have all succeeded in passing labeling bills through their legislatures in the past year, but in the rest of the country, legislative efforts as well as ballot initiatives have so far failed.

California was the first state on the West Coast to try a ballot initiative, in 2012. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Then Washington tried a ballot initiative in 2013. Food and seed companies spent tons of money advertising against it and it failed. Now, to complete the coastline, Oregon is cuing up its own ballot initiative.

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Hubble brag

Smile! Satellites can see your illegal fishing from space

fish-satellite
Hallie Bateman

If a fish falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it … wait, is that not how it goes? Let’s put it this way: If a fishing boat illegally scoops up a load of fish in the middle of the ocean and no one is there to see it, it’s still illegal -- but until now there has not been much anyone could do about it.

It turns out that satellites a few hundred miles above earth are a lot better at surveying the high seas than, say, a lone Coast Guard boat with a spyglass, especially in the most remote waters where fishermen may be used to acting with impunity -- ignoring quotas, transferring fish from ship to ship, dumping bycatch, even changing the vessel's name between ports like a Shakespearian youth slipping casually into drag. Thanks to new projects in high-powered satellite surveillance, it may be possible to put an end to pirate fishing once and for all.

This is good news for, let me see, about a billion people.

Illegal fishing takes as much as 26 million metric tons of fish from the sea every year, or about 1 in 5 fish sold, for a grand theft of $23.5 billion total (or, to put it yet another way, almost 16 times the GDP of Belize or a mere seventh of the market value of Facebook). That's money that doesn't go to the fishermen who play by the rules, while lawbreakers put pressure on already overfished stocks like tuna and swordfish. And while illegal fishing has been getting a lot of press -- notably, President Obama issued a memo on the subject last month -- it's hard to make a real dent in it without some serious international cooperation. Ships need to be traceable as they travel from one country's maritime oversight into another's, and enforcement needs to be stern enough that the risks of fishing illegally outweigh the rewards.

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Eden Foods pulls a Hobby Lobby

This organic food company is refusing to pay for employees’ birth control

Eden Food cans

Just because a company is organic doesn't mean it's progressive. Exhibit A: Eden Foods.

Like Hobby Lobby, Eden Foods sued the Obama administration to try to get out of providing contraceptive coverage for its employees. Eden Foods is a Michigan-based business that bills itself as "the oldest natural and organic food company in North America." It is solely owned by Michael Potter, a Catholic who refers to birth control pills as "lifestyle drugs" and likes to whine about "unconstitutional government overreach." (More crazy quotes from him below.)

In Eden Foods Inc. v. Kathleen Sebelius, filed in federal court in March of 2013, the company claimed its religious freedom was being violated by the Affordable Care Act's mandate that employee health insurance cover birth control. The suit argued that "contraception or abortifacients ... almost always involve immoral and unnatural practices.” In October, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals decided against Eden Foods, ruling that a for-profit company cannot exercise religion.

But then, on June 30, the Supreme Court ruled in the Hobby Lobby case that family-owned, "closely held" companies can use religion as an excuse to flout the birth control mandate. Eden Foods is one of a few dozen "closely held" for-profit companies that have filed suit over the Affordable Care Act's contraceptive mandate. On July 1, the Supreme Court ordered the 6th Circuit Court to reconsider its decision against Eden Foods and another plaintiff with a similar case.

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This might get loud

Is this pipeline company ready for some whale hazing?

orcas in the ocean
Pavel Lunkin

The pipeline situation in Canada has been contentious for a while. But now, it's getting positively weird. In the latest twist, the energy giant Kinder Morgan is proposing a novel wildlife protection scheme. If a pipeline expansion that boosts oil exports out of Vancouver leads to a massive new spill, Kinder Morgan says it knows just what to do: It will spook the whales.

OK, I know that's a lot to take in, so let's back up a bit.

Canada, pipeline-wise, is starting to look a lot like the U.S. It has become a place where putting in a new pipeline is so controversial that the most expedient thing is to take an old one and make it bigger. For example: one new pipeline, the Northern Gateway, is facing a cavalcade of legal challenges and protests.

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The rat came back

Retracted Roundup-fed rat research republished

lab-rat
lculig

A paper based on an experiment led by the scientist Gilles-Eric Séralini -- which became a lightning rod in the genetic engineering controversy and was eventually retracted -- has been republished in the journal Environmental Sciences Europe.

The paper suggests an association between tumor growth in rats and the consumption of Roundup-resistant corn, or Roundup itself. Its publication unleashed a flood of photos showing horrifically tumorous rats.

Back in December, I wrote that the retraction was unwarranted. Sure the study's sample sizes were far too small to show anything definitive, but many other experiments -- including some suggesting the safety of genetically engineered foods -- have used the same methods. Retracting this paper without applying the same level of scrutiny to those other papers was clearly a double standard.

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Latest sign that the end is nigh: You can now get a “ride share” in a helicopter

uber-ocalypse

You know how it is -- there you are, standing on the roof of the American embassy during the fall of Saigon and all of the helicopters have their vacancy lights turned off. It’s the worst!

Now, thanks to the ride-share company Uber and its whirly-bird partner, Blade, well, you’d still be screwed. But if you want to get from Manhattan to the Hamptons this Thursday for a little surfing, they’ve got you covered.

Uber, a company that gets its name from a word banned from the German national anthem after World War II, is teaming up for one day with Blade, a company that offers Uber-like services for those in desperate need of a helicopter. Just make sure you get the pilot to crank Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” as you come in low over P-Diddy’s place.