For the current issue of Mother Jones, I wrote about the Bayou Corne sinkhole, a swampy, reeking, 24-acre hole in the earth that opened up near the site of an abandoned salt cavern in rural Assumption Parish, La. After the sinkhole first appeared (at about 1/24th of its current size) last August, Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) ordered the 350 residents of Bayou Corne to evacuate. On Aug. 2, Louisiana sued Texas Brine, the company that mined the salt cavern that experts have identified as the trigger for the sinkhole. Every few weeks the sinkhole burps -- this is really the term the geologists use -- and somewhere between 20 and 100 barrels of sweet crude bubble up to the surface. Really, it's best explained in the piece.
I saw a lot of strange things in Louisiana, but on Wednesday, Assumption Parish emergency response office, which continuously monitors the sinkhole for burps and seismic activity, released perhaps the strangest video I've seen yet. It's an entire grove of trees simply being swallowed up by the sinkhole -- something that was known to happen but no one had managed to capture clearly on camera.
Climate change is an awkward fit for the conventions and institutions that make up today's media.
There are a bunch of reasons for this, but the main one is that not much happens. Ecosystems change slowly and incrementally, on time scales much longer than those we're biologically designed to heed. Climate processes unfold over centuries, millennia, whereas we're primed to pay attention to what's happening in front of our noses, or at best within our lifetimes. "The seas rose another .001 feet today" is not a story any editor wants to publish or anyone wants to read.
Climate politics is its own story, of course, and offers some day-to-day developments ... but not many. U.S. politics addresses climate rarely, if at all, and when it does the results are, ahem, unenlightening.
All this means that it's difficult to report on climate change. News editors want to know what's new, what's changed, and on climate, not much has. There are no crime scenes, no explosive revelations, no sudden shifts, just ... PDFs. Lots and lots of PDFs. Climate change is just puttering along, moving at a pace that won't mean much over an editor's career but will profoundly reshape human habitats over centuries.
As we've previously written, researchers now know that cities obey some fascinating scaling relationships. The larger they grow in population, the more patents, infrastructure, crime, and economic output cities produce, each according to its own exponential equation. When a city doubles in size, for instance, it more than doubles its GDP.
Until now, though, the relationship between population and pollution has been less clear. Larger cities must produce way more of it, right? Beijing, with its 20 million people, seems perpetually steeped in the kind of smog that's visible from space. And yet, larger cities are also supposed to have all kinds of energy-efficiency benefits, and 8 million New Yorkers can't possibly drive as much as 8 million people who live just about anywhere else in America.
NASA scientists have been studying satellite data from across the globe in an effort to tease out the connect between population and pollution. In a paper recently published in Environmental Science & Technology, they've determined that cities follow a fairly similar scaling principle on the pollution front, too, although the relationship between population and air quality varies depending on where in the world you look.
The scientists focused on measures of nitrogen dioxide, or NO2, stuff that's produced from burning fossil fuels and car traffic. It's bad for you, but good for science: NO2 offers a close proxy for air quality. And the researchers were able to model NO2 levels in urban areas around the world (excluding obvious culprits like power plants) using data collected by the Ozone Monitoring Instrument on NASA's Aura satellite.
I'm not going to respond to all the points in this GM Watch deconstruction of my post about Arpad Pusztai, the scientist whose experiments testing the safety of genetically engineered potatoes ignited a controversy. But there are three interesting points that I think that critique got right, to one degree or another.
Before I examine those, I think it's worth commenting on the way this process of rebuttal plays out, now that I've been run through the cycle a couple times myself. There's something fascinating about how each statement in this conversation elicits an immediate and automatic response. At times I feel as if I'm standing between two giant argument machines: Each takes in every argument, runs it through an algorithm, and spits out the pre-formulated retort. One talking point reflexively provokes another, which then triggers a third. It's like two computers engaged in an endless series of tic-tac-toe games -- and it makes for a sterile, airless debate.
There is, however, one good reason for these automatic responses: The debate has been going on for so long that every point has been made over and over. So when a tired old assertion gets brought up again (by me, for instance), it only makes sense for someone who disagrees to trot out the same old information to debunk it.
That's all for the good. But this mechanical approach becomes a problem when it extends beyond correcting old misconceptions into automatic rejection of new information. People stop listening to each other. Minds close, the better to concentrate on building the next set of talking points. Yet the ultimate power of the mind lies in its ability not to convince, but to change.
Thomas Jefferson called Lake George in Upstate New York “without comparison, the most beautiful water I ever saw.” The painter Georgia O’Keefe lived part time at the lake during the 1920s and ’30s, drawing inspiration for some of her laconic, gauzy landscapes. The Whitneys summered there, the Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Rockefellers -- all the big industrialists. It’s still one of New York’s top vacation destinations, bringing in around $1 billion in tourism each year.
If climate change took vacations it would probably go there too. But climate change doesn’t take vacations. In fact, Mark Swinton says it’s kind of hanging out at Lake George all the time, and not in a regular-folk, kick-back-in-an-Adirondack-chair-and-read-a-good-book sorta way.
Swinton is a post-doctorate research associate with Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the university’s Darrin Fresh Water Institute. He has seen a dead zone crop up in the lake that appears to be fueled by unsavory algae, runoff tainted with overly rich nutrients, and stagnant circulation caused by oddball weather. It's an unsettling sign that even the most pristine places, and the best-protected water supplies, could be in trouble, impacted by climate change in ways that we don’t even understand yet.
To get a better grasp on how land use and climate change are altering the lake, Rensselaer's Darrin Institute, the nonprofit Fund for Lake George, and computer giant IBM have been laying the groundwork for a new "smart lake" initiative that will load up Lake George with more high-tech monitoring gadgets and sensors than any other body of fresh water in the world. When completed, it will be the Hubble Telescope of limnology, the Human Genome Project for freshwater lakes on a warming planet. And it will let us peer deep into what’s going to happen with some of our favorite vacation spots/ swimming holes -- oh, and the water we drink -- in a climate that is warming faster than ever.
In its deliberations over the Keystone XL pipeline, the State Department is taking flak not just from picket-sign-wielding environmentalists, but also from within the ranks of the Obama administration. This spring the EPA slammed an environmental review as "insufficient" and called for major revisions. And Monday, ThinkProgress uncovered a letter [PDF] from the Interior Department, dated from April, that outlines the many and varied ways in which the pipeline could wreak havoc on plants and animals (not to mention dinosaurs) along its proposed route.
The letter calls particular attention to a line in the State Department's most recent environmental impact assessment [PDF] that claims "the majority of the potential effects to wildlife resources are indirect, short term or negligible, limited in geographic extent, and associated with the construction phase of the proposed Project only."
"This statement is inaccurate and should be revised," states the letter, which is signed by Interior's Director of Environmental Policy and Compliance, Willie Taylor. "Given that the project includes not only constructing a pipeline but also related infrastructure ... impacts to wildlife are not just related to project construction. Impacts to wildlife from this infrastructure will occur throughout the life of the project."
Which wildlife? The letter raises concerns that potential oil spills, drained water supplies, and bustling construction workers could cause a general disturbance, but identifies the critters below, some of which are endangered, for special attention:
Over the years I've been asked many times about how to get into environmental journalism, or, alternately, how to save environmental journalism. The answer is always: I have no f'ing idea.
For one thing, as I mentioned the other day, my path into professional journalism was highly idiosyncratic and probably not replicable. I remain blissfully unaware of the career mechanics that other journalists are forced to deal with (bless their hearts).
For another thing: What is environmental journalism anyway? For those concerned about the interlocking problems of our age -- sustainability, energy poverty, peak everything -- I'm not sure it matters.
The field has traditionally been represented by the Society of Environmental Journalists, composed of reporters assigned by newspapers and magazines to the environmental beat -- pollution, deforestation, ecosystem stuff. For the most part, environmental journalism has been a subdivision of the science desk.
Now SEJ, like everyone else, is struggling to deal with two trends.
Ever since May, when a state-controlled Chinese company agreed to buy U.S. pork giant Smithfield, reportedly with an eye toward ramping up U.S. pork imports to China, I've been looking into the simultaneously impressive and vexed state of China's food production system. In short, I've found that in the process of emerging as the globe's manufacturing center -- the place that provides us with everything from the simplest of brooms to the smartest of phones -- China has severely damaged its land and water resources, compromising its ability to increase food production even as its economy thunders along, its population grows (albeit slowly), and its people gain wealth, move up the food chain, and demand ever-more meat.
Now, none of that should detract from the food miracle that China has enacted since it began its transformation into an industrial powerhouse in the late 1970s. This 2013 report from the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) brims with data on this feat. The nation slashed its hunger rate -- from 20 percent of its population in 1990 to 12 percent today -- by quietly turbocharging its farms. China's total farm output, a broad measure of food churned out, has tripled since 1978. The ramp-up in livestock production in particular is even more dizzying -- it rose by a factor of five. Overall, China's food system represents a magnificent achievement: It feeds nearly a quarter of the globe's people on just 7 percent of its arable land.
But now, 35 years since it began reforming its state-dominated economy along market lines, China's spectacular run as provider of its own food is looking severely strained. Its citizens' appetite for meat is rising along with incomes, and mass-producing steaks and chops for 1.2 billion people requires tremendous amounts of land and water. Meanwhile, its manufacturing miracle -- the very thing that financed its food miracle -- has largely fouled up or just plain swallowed those very resources.
In this post from a few weeks ago, I told the story of the dire state of China's water resources, which are being increasingly diverted to, and fouled by, the country's insatiable demand for coal to power the manufacturing sector.
Then there's land. Here are just a few of the findings of recent investigations into the state of Chinese farms:
Groups opposed to labeling genetically modified food outspent those in favor 5 to 1 last year when Californians voted on a labeling ballot measure. But the tables are turned in the run-up to an initiative vote in Washington state. So far, pro-labeling groups have spent more than $4 for every $1 spent by those opposed, according to an analysis by MapLight.
Contributions in support of Washington Ballot Initiative 522 ("The People's Right to Know Genetically Engineered Food Act") add up to nearly $4 million $3.5 million, while the opposition has raised about $950,000. The big money comes from the same interests that ponied during the California campaign, as you can see in this chart (click to embiggen).
That chart only shows the biggest contributors. Pro-labeling contributions come from a broader base; the money supporting the initiative comes from 5,698 supporters, compared to just 12 contributors in opposition.
The relative weight of contributions, however, is likely to shift rapidly as the Washington initiative approaches its Nov. 5 moment of truth at the ballot box. Last year, the campaign against the California proposition spent $42 million in the six weeks before the vote. That proposition failed, with 6.4 million "no" votes, and 6.1 million votes in favor.
Editor's Note and Correction: This story includes a chart from MapLight showing supporters of 1-522 had given $3,869,078. The correct number is $3,489,078.13, according to a MapLight correction.
MapLight has issued this update: "A previous version of MapLight's analysis cited the total amount raised in support of I-522 as $3,869,078, including two contributions that were disclosed by the Washington Public Disclosure Commission as having been made by 'ORGANIC CONSUMER FUND' when in fact they were made by 'ORGANIC CONSUMER FUND COMMITTEE TO LABEL GMOS IN WA STATE.' As a committee that is supporting I-522, contributions from ORGANIC CONSUMER FUND COMMITTEE TO LABEL GMOS IN WA STATE to other committees supporting I-522 should be excluded from the total amount raised in support of this measure, making the correct total $3,489,078.13."
Most climate models predict the same thing with storms: The more we stray from the climate norm, the stronger the hurricanes become. Which makes a lot of sense when you look at how these tempests work.