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Past gas

Living next to natural gas wells is no fun

fracking protestors holding hands
Brett Rindt/Erie Rising

Driving around the rural back roads of Garfield County, Colo., you don’t see many cars. But one type of vehicle keeps popping up, often the only one you’ll see for hours: the white pickup trucks favored by gas drilling companies. Here in the central western part of the state, the rolling fields of scrubby yellow-green vegetation are frequently punctuated by natural gas wells. Even after a well has stopped producing gas, big cylindrical tanks of waste water and natural gas condensate remain, sitting behind low fences by the roadside. Too often those tanks emit toxic substances into the air or leak their contents into the ground, including volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene.

Are these ones leaking?
Are these ones leaking?

People who live on or near properties with gas wells say they have experienced an array of health effects from exposure to high concentrations of these chemicals. The known immediate effects of exposure to high concentrations of benzene, according to the Centers for Disease Control, include headache and drowsiness. Long-term exposure can cause cancer, as well as fertility problems in women.

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How Western civilization ended, circa 2014

Thwaites Glacier of West Antarctica.
NASA

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion of questionable claims about "drinkable" sunscreen, and a new study finding that less than 1 percent of scientists are responsible for a huge bulk of the most influential research.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. We are also available on Stitcher and on Swell. You can follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on FacebookInquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

You don't know it yet. There's no way that you could. But 400 years from now, a historian will write that the time in which you're now living is the "Penumbral Age" of human history -- meaning, the period when a dark shadow began to fall over us all. You're living at the start of a new dark age, a new counter-Enlightenment. Why? Because too many of us living today, in the years just after the turn of the millennium, deny the science of climate change.

Such is the premise of a thought-provoking new work of "science-based fiction" by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, two historians of science (Oreskes at Harvard, Conway at Caltech) best known for their classic 2010 book, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global WarmingIn a surprising move, they have now followed up that expose of the roots of modern science denialism with a work of "cli-fi," or climate science fiction, entitled The Collapse of Western Civilization: A View from the Future. [SPOILER ALERT: Much of the plot of this book will be revealed below!] In it, Oreskes and Conway write from the perspective of a historian, living in China (the country that fared the best in facing the ravages of climate change) in the year 2393. The historian seeks to analyze the biggest paradox imaginable: Why humans who saw the climate disaster coming, who were thoroughly and repeatedly warned, did nothing about it.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Slow your roll

Stephen Colbert can’t wait to belch exhaust all over bicyclists & hybrid cars

Greens had Stephen Colbert seeing red, so he was excited to hear about a new anti-environmentalist trend: coal rolling. "Coal rollers modify their diesel pickups to get shittier mileage and belch as much pollution as possible," explains Jim Meyer. The dirty pranksters then kick up black clouds on bicyclists, pedestrians, and hybrid cars. As Colbert points out, "The only other way to keep a Prius away from you is driving over 45 mph."

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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New Jersey reshuffles Sandy relief dollars, admits to numerous mistakes

Hoboken
Alec Perkins

Remember Bridgegate? No? You obviously weren’t trying to get across the GW Bridge last Sept 9-13. That’s when New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s administration barricaded several lanes, causing massive traffic jams, in apparent retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich for not supporting Christie’s reelection bid. (Christie, of course, says he knew nothing about the monkey business.)

Well, Sokolich wasn’t the only one accusing Christie and Co. of political reprisal last year. Another mayor, Dawn Zimmer (D) of Hoboken, wondered out loud if Christie intentionally sent her a shit sandwich by shortchanging her city on Hurricane Sandy relief money. Sandy flooded half of Hoboken with seawater and closed its main transit terminal for weeks, but the state gave the city only a fraction of the relief money it requested. Zimmer suggested it was because she’d refused to back a development project that was being pushed by one of Christie’s top aides.

We may never know if there were political motives behind those decisions, but the state later admitted to making numerous errors when it allocated the relief funds, and this week, it released a revised list of awards, shuffling hundreds of thousands of dollars of grants designed to make communities more resilient to storms. The new grants include $250,000 for Hoboken — the maximum amount now available to an individual city.

It’s a big win for Hoboken, and also for small, community news sites, which, as I wrote last week, are playing an increasingly critical role in the face, and aftermath, of natural disasters.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Sierra Club chief weighs in on conservation heroes, green energy, & Bruce Springsteen

michael-brune
Sierra Club

We have a new game we like to play with famous (and infamous) visitors to Grist World HQ. It's called Vs., and it goes something like this: Famous person sits down. Gristers present visitor with two related words or ideas or songs. Gristers then force visitor to choose one over the other -- and explain why he or she chose it. Visitor squirms, Gristers giggle, repeat. It's fun!

This time around, our lucky guest was Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club. And it turns out this is a game he's already pretty good at: Not only did he somehow manage to get through our questions without offending anyone (does that mean we lost?), he flipped the table around by saying a few things that got our wheels turning.

Natural gas vs. nuclear? Pounding the pavement vs. cutting a trail? Thunder Road vs. Ghost of Tom Joad? Watch the video to find out!

Read more: Climate & Energy

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This crusty activist gave up on playing by the rules. What are they gonna do, arrest him?

Alec Johnson
Tar Sands Blockade

It’s been over a year since Alec Johnson was arrested for locking himself to an excavator sitting on a pipeline easement in Atoka, Oklahoma. He’s still waiting to go to trial. Rural Oklahoma communities only hold jury trials once or twice a year, and every time a new court date comes up, Johnson gets bumped – priority goes to anyone charged with a felony or presently cooling their heels in jail, which Johnson is not.

A lot has changed in that year. The protest around U.S. energy policy and climate change has shifted fronts – coal terminals, oil-by-rail, divestment, solar, and a massive climate rally planned for this September. Keystone XL South (now renamed the Gulf Coast pipeline) is up and running and being monitored by an ad hoc group of volunteers. Keystone XL is on hold until after the November U.S. elections -- possibly for good, though Johnson has his doubts. “In my experience, the ruling class pretty much gets what they want when they want,” he says.

Johnson has been arrested seven times, though there’s a gap of several decades in the sequence. The majority of his arrests happened in the mid-'70s, outside of the Seabrook Station Nuclear Power Plant in Seabrook, New Hampshire. Johnson was a member of a direct-action group called the Clamshell Alliance, and getting arrested was a whole different business then. “I got the shit kicked out of me,” he said. “They had their badge numbers taped over. A lot of white people that doesn’t happen to, but it happened to me.”

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In 10 years, no one in Helsinki is going to own a car

Helsinki
iStock

The future is always changing. Back in the day, they promised a flying car in every garage. Now that the future is almost here, it’s looking like a no-go on the winged Chevy. In fact, in Helsinki, Finland, the future could mean empty garages. Turns out that in an age when we carry the sum of all human knowledge around in our pants pockets, some better ideas come up.

The Finnish capital is planning a comprehensive and flexible smartphone-enabled travel network that could be online by 2025. The system will combine small buses, self-driving cars, bicycles, and ferries. Users will simply enter their destination into an app and the system will suggest where to transfer from car to bike, for instance, and arrange for the vehicles -- and do it all for one easy and inexpensive payment.

Adam Greenfield at the Guardian has more on the plan:

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hot at the top

Wanna see what climate change looks like? Check out the vicious fires in northwest Canada

canadian-fire.jpg
NWT Fire

Lightning, an intense heat wave, and low rainfall are lighting up northwestern Canada like a bonfire, producing conflagrations that scientists are linking to climate change.

More than 100 forest fires are burning in Canada's lightly populated Northwest Territories, east of Alaska. Some residents are being evacuated from their homes; others are being warned to stay inside to avoid inhaling the choking smoke. Take a look at the latest map produced by the region's fire agency:

canada-fires
NWT Fire

“Some attribute that to climate change, and I’m one of those," Mike Flannigan, a professor of wildland fire at the University of Alberta, told CBC News. “What we are seeing in the Northwest Territories this year is an indicator of what to expect with climate change. Expect more fires, larger fires, more intense fires.”

Here's more from Climate Central:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Scientist: Save Earth by shrinking humans — and making them hate hamburgers

mad-scientist
Edward Fielding

If the Earth were a potluck, humans would be the guest who shows up empty-handed and already drunk, eats all the dip, knocks over the fish tank, and electrocutes the dog. There’s a reason why there’s a billion trillion planets out there and only one invited us to the party: No matter how many times we offer to fix the coffee table, perhaps with some sort of whacky pseudo-sciency scheme using Duck Tape and a hundred or so tons of iron sulphate, we’re still shitty guests.

Maybe it’s better to change ourselves -- and not just switching from bourbon to beer, but serious change, on the genetic level. At least that’s what Matthew Liao, director of the bioethics program at New York University, is suggesting.

Frank Swain with the BBC has more:

“We tried to think outside the box,” says Liao. “What hasn’t been suggested with respect to addressing climate change?”

The answer they landed on is human engineering: the biomedical modification of human beings to reduce their impact on the environment. The associate professor suggests that by changing our underlying biology – altering our size or diet, for instance – we could create greener humans. ...

“We’re not suggesting that we should mandate these ideas, but it would be good to make them options for people,” says Liao

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crikey

Australia repeals carbon tax, scientists freak out

Australian outback
Shutterstock

The cartoonish stereotype of Australia of yesteryear featured a rough-headed bloke in an Akubra hat wrangling crocodiles. That image has finally been scrubbed from our collective memories -- only to be replaced with something worse. Today, when we read news dispatches from Australia, we're seeing a dunderheaded prime minister cartoonishly wrangling commonsense, becoming the first leader in the warming world to repeal a price on carbon.

It's like George W. Bush, Crocodile Dundee-style.

Conservative prime minister, climate change denier, and accused misogynist Tony Abbott was elected in September. He started working as the nation's leader almost immediately, but he had to wait until this month for newly elected senators to take their seats. Abbott's (conservative) Liberal party still doesn't control the Senate, but it has found Senate allies in a powerful party that was founded just last year by kooky mining magnate Clive Palmer. Palmer held a press conference with Al Gore last month to announce that he opposed some of Abbott's climate-wrecking policies, and that he wanted a carbon-trading program to replace the carbon tax. That now seems to have been smokestacks and mirrors. When it came to repealing Australia's $US23.50 per metric ton carbon tax, the immodestly named Palmer United Party fell into line on Thursday, helping the repeal pass the Senate by a vote of 39 to 32, without demanding the establishment of any alternative.