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Space Oddity

Hopefully NASA won’t screw up its CO2-measuring satellite this time

OCOsatellite
JPL/NASA

The last time NASA tried to launch a satellite to measure carbon dioxide levels from space, within minutes the $273 million project plopped into the Southern Ocean (oops). Tomorrow they’re giving it another go. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 will blast off at 2:56 a.m. PDT from the Vadenburg Air Force Base in California. This time, it’ll hopefully make it to 438 miles above the planet, where it will be in a prime position to obsessively watch Earth breathe.

OCOsat
JPL/NASA

Which sounds stalker-esque, but don't get too creeped out. OCO’s main goal is to figure out where, exactly, atmospheric CO2 currently comes from -- and, more mysteriously, where it ends up. While fossil fuel emissions have tripled since the 1960s, levels of atmospheric CO2 have risen by less than a quarter (but unfortunately that's still enough to cause big global change). That’s because somehow our oceans and plants have, on average, been able to keep pace with absorbing half of the total atmospheric CO2. But scientists still don't know a lot about the dynamics of how this is happening, which leaves them wondering: How long can we expect these carbon sinks to keep sucking the stuff down?

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hacking the climate

B.C. put a price on carbon. What happened next will surprise you

BC mountains
Marcia and Mike Nelso Pedde

When I pull up to the pumps in my small hometown on the coast of British Columbia, Canada, I pay more for a tank of gas than in California, my new home. Why? Because regardless of where gas prices hover at the moment, the B.C. government tops off every gallon with a 25-cent tax.

Complaining about gas prices is almost as ubiquitous as small talk about the weather, so it seems counterintuitive for politicians to hike costs up even further. Yet somehow the province’s Liberal party managed not only to do just that, but also to win an election centered on the issue in 2009. They did it by designing the tax in a way that benefits the province's robust middle class.

hacking-climate-logo
Hallie Bateman

The B.C. carbon tax is built on a simple tenet of human behavior: When the price of something goes up, people will consume less of it. It actually applies to not just gasoline, but to all sources of atmospheric carbon, including natural gas and propane, and is based on how much carbon they emit. For example, since natural gas burns cleaner than gasoline, it is taxed at a lower rate. This ensures emissions are priced in proportion to their impact on the climate.

As a result, British Columbia’s per capita greenhouse gas emissions are now nearly 20 percent below the rest of Canada's. This put the province “within spitting distance” of its goal to reduce emissions 6 percent below 2007 levels by 2012 a year ahead of schedule, says Mary Polak, B.C.’s minister of the environment.

Sustainable Prosperity, a research and policy institute that measured the tax’s impacts, reported that the policy reduced fuel consumption seven times more than if the price of gas had naturally increased by the same amount due to market fluctuations. The tax drove consumption down not just by pushing gas prices up, but also by raising awareness about why we need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

All that happened in the span of just five years.

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Upcycling finally gets its own reality TV show

According to the latest census, there are roughly three times as many reality TV shows as there are people, so pretty much every job you could possibly imagine has a show. There are shows about the high stakes of baking; programs devoted to the thrilling world of long-haul trucking (which somehow has not had a single episode about meth); series on goldfish caretaking; heck, every other gun shop in America has a show (which is a lot of gun shops). Toddlers in tiaras have their own show as do toddlers who used to wear tiaras. But the reality TV field has been sorely lacking on the green front ... until now.

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First Nations, first dibs, says Canada’s Supreme Court

indigenous protest
Jennifer Castro

With just one court ruling, the situation of pipelines in Canada has changed in a big way.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled on a 14-year-old battle over logging rights on Tsilhqot’in Nation territory in British Columbia. Its decision says that any First Nation land that was never formally ceded to the Canadian government cannot be developed without consent of those First Nations that have a claim to it.

To say that this has huge implications for the Canadian oil industry is an understatement. The only thing that stands between Alberta, the province that is the hub of the country's oil boom, and the Pacific Ocean, which connects Canada to the lucrative oil markets of Asia, is unceded First Nations territory. The Northern Gateway pipeline, which Prime Minister Stephen Harper approved earlier this week, runs along a route that First Nations have already begun blockading, a full 18 months before the pipeline is expected to begin construction.

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Love train

This floating magnetic pod is the public transit of the future (we hope)

sky-train.jpg
Skytran

Usually when a defense contractor comes up with a wiz-bang gizmo, it’s the kind of thing that gives us nightmares, not think, “Man, I hope they bring that to my town!” But defense giant Israel Aerospace Industries is teaming up with California-based SkyTran to build a maglev system for its corporate campus in Tel Aviv.

The system uses small, two-person pods hanging from elevated tracks. You can order up a pod from your cellphone. Wired’s Alexander George has more:

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The oil boom in one slick infographic

Oil, oil everywhere! It’s coming … by sea, by rail, and by pipeline. Over the past five years, domestic oil production has jumped by 50 percent. The boom adds up to a mess of oil -- and oil data. Click on this interactive infographic to see how much of the black stuff has been flowing domestically, and why the Northwest may be in for a crude awakening:

Data and icons from the ForestEthics report “Off The Rails: The Fossil Fuel Takeover of the Pacific Northwest.”

The oil and gas boom in places like Texas and North Dakota caused the crude-by-rail industry to erupt almost overnight: In 2008, there were only 9,500 railcars of oil transported in the U.S., but last year there were an estimated 400,000 -- an increase of 4,117 percent in just six years, according to a new report by ForestEthics.

The nascent oil-by-rail industry is a hot mess: Different companies own the oil, railway tracks, and railcars, and so far regulations haven’t kept pace with the growth. Additionally, oil companies are trying to veil the railcar movements in secrecy -- but with mixed results. Citizen watchdog projects like Sightline’s “Oil Trainspotting in the Northwest” ask Pacific Northwest residents to track oil trains rolling through their communities with video cameras and smartphones.

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Buzz kill much?

Just how friendly are your “bee-friendly” plants?

neonic
Shutterstock

We don't want to kill your bee-loving buzz, but if you buy "bee-friendly" plants and seedlings from Home Depot or similar stores, then you could be unwittingly killing the bees that you're trying to protect.

Friends of the Earth tested 71 garden plants with "bee-friendly" labels purchased from major retailers in the U.S. and Canada and discovered that 36 of them had been treated with bee- and butterfly-killing neonic pesticides.

"Since 51 percent of the plants that were tested contained neonicotinoid residues, the chance of purchasing a plant contaminated with neonicotinoids is high," states a new report detailing the findings. "Therefore, many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees. For the samples with positive detections, adverse effects on bees and other pollinators consuming nectar and pollen from these plants are possible, ranging from sublethal effects on navigation, fertility, and immune function to pollinator death."

Déjà vu? You bet. The nonprofit published similar findings last year.

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Hope springs infernal

To motivate climate activists, use optimism

sign pointing to the village of Hope, Derbyshire UK
Pol Sifter

So it turns out, hope is important.

Did we know that already? We sort of knew that already. But -- according to a new study put together by researchers at George Mason University and Yale's Climate Change Communication Project -- hope is particularly critical as a motivator in the very doom-heavy world of climate change activism.

The paper's authors contacted a "nationally representative" sample of  50,000 people across the U.S. via an online survey, and asked whether they had contacted their elected officials to support climate change mitigation action; attended climate-related rallies or meetings; or donated to or volunteered with an organization working to reduce global warming.

One thing that was interesting -- but not especially cheering -- about the results: Believing climate change is a major risk does not necessarily predict you will take any kind of action about it. Out of the 2,164 people who actually responded to the survey, 16.9 percent had done at least one of the above things in the last year. While the people who had taken some action were more likely to believe that climate change was a serious problem, a substantial portion of people shared that belief but said they were planning on doing absolutely nada about it. Among the reasons given for not participating were: not thinking they were an "activist" (33 percent) and not believing that humans could get their act together in time to make a difference (78 percent).

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Ma, why does my scratch and sniff smell like a gas leak?

child-holding-nose
PathDoc

Back in January, I interviewed a very nice Texan who was organizing a neighborhood pipeline watch. While both oil and natural gas pipelines are the responsibility of the companies that build them (and the agencies that are supposed to keep an eye on them), in reality, the majority of leaks -- both natural gas and crude  -- are spotted by regular people.

Which is why the news that the pipeline company TransCanada is handing out scratch-and-sniff cards to Canadian farm kids so that they can identify pipeline leaks is both sensible and creepy. Sensible because: These kids and the pipelines occupy the same rural territory, so what kind of a jerk would judge an attempt to make that relationship safer? Creepy because: Children already have to deal with so much from adults -- is asking them to monitor our pipelines for us taking it a little too far?

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Ship to be square

This pop-up solar station looks like Optimus Prime, goes anywhere, and has wifi

Ecos PowerCube
ecospheretech.com

If there's anything your average irony-loving, trucker-cap-wearing hipster can't get enough of these days, it's pop-up shops. Mobile couture boutiques, indie-label record store shopping pods, artisanal mac-and-cheese food trucks — you name it. But now Florida-based tech company Ecosphere Technologies has taken the pop-up concept and attached it to something even more powerful than tacos: the sun.

The Ecos Powercube sounds like a video game console but is actually a fully functioning solar-powered energy station. The company describes it as "the world's largest mobile solar-powered generator." The technology is housed in shipping containers, so the Ecos Powercube can be brought in by boat, rail, or plane and dropped (gently) anywhere in the world for disaster relief, refugee situations, and military operations that sometimes cause refugee situations.