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Exctinction VI: This time it's personal

Dead elephants, plagues, and rats: Why the sixth extinction is bad for you and everyone you know

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Hey, remember the dinosaurs? Yeah, neither. All it took was one massive asteroid, and all the dinos were wiped off the face of the planet. Well, there’s a new asteroid in town: us.

New research published in the journal Science lays out the scope of the destruction we've wrought -- and suggests that it's going to come back to bite us. Not only will the so-called sixth extinction make that wildlife safari you’ve always wanted to take a lot less interesting, it could increase disease and make it even harder to feed our own ever-growing population. Happy weekend!

Similar to previous extinction events, the large, cute animals (like elephants and polar bears) are disappearing the fastest: since 1500, more than 320 land-based vertebrates have gone extinct. Which isn't just bad news for wildlife junkies; their loss translates into a shift in the whole ecosystem. Scientists found that areas in which the big guys disappeared quickly became infested with rodents – who bring all of their disease-carrying parasites with them.

“Where human density is high, you get high rates of defaunation, high incidence of rodents, and thus high levels of pathogens, which increases the risks of disease transmission,” lead author Rodolfo Dirzo says. “Who would have thought that just defaunation would have all these dramatic consequences? But it can be a viscious cycle.”

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Be a patriot, eat less beef

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As Josh Harkinson noted this week, cows are the United States' single biggest source of methane -- a potent gas that has 105 times the heat-trapping ability of carbon dioxide. That's one major reason why beef's greenhouse gas footprint is far higher than that of most other sources of protein, according to an EWG study. (Though it's consumed at a fraction of the rate of beef or chicken, lamb is by far the most carbon intensive of the major meats, according to EWG, since the animal's smaller body produces meat less efficiently but still produces a lot of methane.)

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And EWG's estimate of beef's impact may actually be on the conservative side: A study released this week found the greenhouse gases associated with beef to be even higher.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Want to support clean energy? Fight for voting rights

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Nikki Burch

As Jelani Cobb wrote recently in The New Yorker: “The past year has offered an odd object lesson in historical redundancy. The 50th anniversaries of major points in the civil-rights movement tick by at the same time that Supreme Court decisions and political maneuvering in state legislatures offer reminders of what, exactly, the movement fought against.”

The most recognizable example of what Cobb is referring to is the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 Shelby v. Holder decision, which severely weakened the heralded Voting Rights Act just weeks before we recognized the 50th anniversary of the historic March on Washington that made the civil rights law possible. Earlier this month, we recognized the 50th of the Civil Rights Act, and next year will mark the half-century mark of the Voting Rights Act itself. And yet equal protection for people of color seems to be moving backwards.

Why should this matter to the average white (green) American? Well, for many reasons. But one of them is this: In our ever-browning America, empowering black and brown voters is absolutely necessary to make the transition to clean energy.

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Back-to-the-land meets back-to-the-future

Amory Lovins’ high-tech home skimps on energy but not on comfort

Amory Lovins' Banana Farm
© Judy Hill Lovins

For most of its history, environmentalism has been associated with a back-to-the-land lifestyle: being one with nature, living in the woods, wearing sandals, maybe driving a Volkswagen. Over the last decade, a counter-narrative has taken over. Cities are in. As climate change has become the dominant environmental issue, a low-carbon lifestyle has become the priority. Denser living is heralded for its energy efficiency, as are walking, biking and taking transit instead of driving.

All other things being equal, walkable urbanism beats sprawl. But one house in Old Snowmass, Colo., demonstrates that, with the right design, rural living can be about as low-carbon as possible. And it turns out those hippies were on to something: the secrets to low-impact rural housing lie in embracing nature instead of combatting it. Plus it helps to have some bleeding-edge technology.

Amory Lovins, the owner of the house, is exactly the guy you'd expect to live here. A bespectacled physicist and world-renowned energy-efficiency expert, he cofounded the Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982 with his then-wife L. Hunter Lovins. They chose this location, nestled up in the mountains 14 miles from Aspen, for RMI's first headquarters, which they built as a model of energy efficiency. The original structure was completed in 1984. Today, RMI has expanded into other buildings, but Lovins still lives in the original house, which got a high-tech makeover in 2009.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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On climate change, Republicans are even more backward than oil companies

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Ask your average liberal or environmentalist to name the primary impediment to action on climate change, and the response will probably be: “Easy. It’s the fossil fuel industry.”

It's not that easy, however. The fossil fuel companies are actually more accepting of climate reality than virtually every Republican in Congress.

That’s the conclusion I came to after watching a presentation by Cho-Oon Khong, chief political analyst at the Shell Oil company at the Aspen Ideas Festival last month. Khong called a temperature increase of 2 degrees Celsius “the flu,” leading to heat waves, sea-level rise, and 10 to 20 percent less arable land. “But the worst effects are beyond that limit, when you start to see feedback loops,” he warned.

Accepting the 2 degree Celsius target is the same thing as accepting the recommendations of the global scientific community. Khong laid out possible world energy portfolios for keeping warming to 2 degrees. None would thrill environmentalists, as they rely to varying degrees on increases in nuclear energy, natural gas, and the deployment of carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). But he nonetheless acknowledged that we needed to change our ways.

“We have to talk about using any fossil fuel more efficiently, and CCS,” he said. Afterwards, he told Grist, “I think it would be foolish to dispute the science [of climate change].”

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Frackers learn one does not simply walk into Pittsburgh and mess with its CSAs

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Adelina W

The Pennsylvania Constitution stipulates that its citizens have a right to “clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic, and esthetic values of the environment.”

Allow me to propose, herewith, an amendment: “… and a toxin-free CSA box, goddamn it.” (Would Benjamin Franklin approve of that wording? Who cares, he’s dead!)

In New Sewickley Township, about 30 miles north of the city of Pittsburgh, there's a new microcosm of the ongoing tug-of-war between the oil and gas industry and people who just happen to like clean air and water (crazy! I know). Kretschmann Farm, which has supplied certified organic produce to the greater Pittsburgh area for 36 years, is engaged in battle with Cardinal Midstream, a Texas-based corporation proposing to build a natural gas compressor station right next door.

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Picture This

Climate change VR games make you a better person by making you kill trees and coral

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Despite our best efforts to convince people of the dangers of climate change, fully half of Americans still choose to ignore the 97 percent of scientists who say it’s real. Well, stop tearing your hair out, and get a load of this mind boggling study out of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which shows how virtual simulations might be the thing to do the trick.

Armed with an Oculus VR headset, one of the lab's games guides the participant on a walk through the forest. And then, things get a little weird:

From Smithsonian:

In a minute, she's handed a joystick that looks and vibrates like a chainsaw, and she's asked to cut down a tree. As she completes the task, she feels the same sort of resistance she might feel if she were cutting down a real tree. When she leaves this forest, and re-enters the "real" world, her paper consumption will drop by 20 percent and she will show a measurable preference for recycled paper products. Those effects will continue into the next few weeks and researchers hypothesize it will be a fairly permanent shift. By comparison, students who watch a video about deforestation or read an article on the subject will show heightened awareness of paper waste through that day—but they will return to their baseline behavior by the end of the week.

Just imagine what she’d do if we made her go out and cut down a real live tree!

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Northwest wildfires: We broke the forests, now we need to fix them

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Jason Kriess

The Northwest is ablaze. Both Washington and Oregon are in official states of emergency as dozens of fires burn on forests and rangelands. Rainy weather in some areas has helped firefighters in the past few days, but according to the federal government’s InciWeb website, there are still 22 large fires burning almost a million acres in the two states. The half-contained Carlton Complex fire in north-central Washington alone has torched 150 homes and burned more than a quarter million acres, making it the largest in state history.

Welcome to the hot, flammable future, America. We’ve been setting ourselves up for these fires for a long, long time.

David Freedman has a strong piece on the past, present, and future of wildfire in America in the latest issue of Men’s Journal. Here’s a snippet starring Dave Cleaves, an economist and former professor who now advises the chief of the U.S. Forest Service:

In the late 1980s, Cleaves found himself wondering: Why was the U.S. being hit by more and more uncontrollable fires? Up until then, increasing investments in firefighting seemed to have rendered wildfires tamable. But in 1989, 873 structures burned down in California wildfires. In 1990, 641 structures were lost in a single fire. In 1991, more than 3,300 homes were torched in a firestorm near Oakland. Throughout the 1980s, an average of 3 million acres had burned each year in the U.S.; by 1991, the number exceeded 5 million acres. "Large parts of whole counties in the West were going up in single fires," says Cleaves. "We'd never seen fires like that."

Cleaves pored over the data and came to a disturbing conclusion, one that seemed almost preposterous at the time: A slow but accelerating rise in average temperatures in the West was tipping the wildlands into a state of unprecedented vulnerability that would render fires increasingly uncontrollable. Today, we call it climate change.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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American idyll

North Dakota’s ag commissioner race oughta be on Broadway

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Tom Kelly

In the struggle over North America's energy boom, some tales are more suitable for Broadway musical treatment than others. But could there be another story more perfect for song and dance than that of the race for North Dakota agricultural commissioner?

The agricultural commissioner does pretty much what you expect -- handle permits for agricultural lands, which, in the case of North Dakota, is mostly ranchland. Since part of permitting grazing territory is making sure that said land remains safe for grazing, the agricultural commissioner also has sway over drilling permits and oversight -- a lot of sway.

Now that North Dakota is producing more oil than some OPEC members, and oil companies are planning to drill 35,000 new wells across North Dakota in the next 15 years, the race for this relatively homespun political office has suddenly become the stuff of political melodrama.

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Drilling in Pennsylvania has damaged the water supply 209 times in last seven years

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WCN 24/7

Whether or not you think that's alright depends on your perspective. According to Patrick Creighton, those numbers are pretty good -- so many oil and natural gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania in the past seven years that 209 problem wells is a mere 1 percent of the total. But Creighton happens to be the spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group composed of natural gas drillers. So there's that.

According to Steve Hvozdovich, 209 is a lot. "You are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply.” But then Hvozdovich works for the environmental group Clean Water Action. He would like clean drinking water.

Read more: Climate & Energy