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What can John Kerry accomplish with his climate talk?

John Kerry
World Economic Forum

It was an exciting moment for environmentalists Sunday when Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Indonesia emphasizing the severity of the potential consequences of climate disruption. Kerry -- who has been a climate policy leader since he was in the Senate -- equated the threat of catastrophic climate change to that of nuclear weapons proliferation.

The latter has been the single greatest fear of American presidents since the dawn of the atomic era. It led us into war in Iraq, which demonstrated the foolishness of combating an international problem unilaterally. And now Kerry is applying that lesson to climate change,  arguing that the only effective course of action is multilateral cooperation. “Every nation on Earth has a responsibility to do its part if we have any hope of leaving our future generations the safe and healthy planet that they deserve,” said Kerry. He went on to imply that developing countries should agree to limit their emissions at U.N. climate negotiations in Paris next year.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, Kerry is sending an important signal: That they view global warming as a threat to human life and international stability, and combating it will be an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. This is certainly a break with Obama’s predecessor, and even with Obama’s first term, which was more focused on narrowly tailored actions to address immediate humanitarian crises and on decapitating Al Qaeda.


Fracking infrastructure? Not in my backyard, says Exxon CEO

Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil
World Economic Forum

Woe is Rex Tillerson, CEO of ExxonMobil.

Public utility Cross Timbers Water Supply Corp. has had the nerve to plan a water tower in Bartonville, Texasright next to Tillerson’s own personal horse ranch! Not only is the tower a blight on Tillerson’s very own piece of Texas forever, but it’s also going to bring all kinds of noise, traffic, and plebeians to his driveway. Oh, and one more thing – it’s also going to supply the energy companies that are quickly growing their fracking operations in the area. Included among these companies is XTO Energy, which ExxonMobil acquired in 2009.


This glowing sea shrimp is so bright you might think you’re hallucinating

When she saw a bright blue flash in a jar of water she'd collected off the coast of South Africa, jellyfish researcher Rebecca Helm thought she was hallucinating. In reality, she’d spotted the Sapphirina copepod, which she calls a sea sapphire -- a tiny shrimp-like critter that shimmers with a bright blue glow. When the light hits it just right, it shines like a little reflective piece of cellophane before disappearing again. Watch:

So how do nature’s underwater fingerprints work? Only the dudes are little blue nightlights, which sounds unfair until you hear the females have huge Zooey Deschanel-like eyes (the better to see them with!). Helm explains the iridescence:

Read more: Living


Believe it or not, January was full of big, warm climate anomalies

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Much of America is about to be overrun by another miserable cold-dozer next week, but on the planetary scale, things have actually been warm. January's temperatures were the hottest for the month since 2007 and, with a combined global average of 54.8 degrees F, this was the fourth warmest January since records began in 1880.

That's the word from NOAA's National Climatic Data Center, which recently released an updated "State of the Climate" that includes the above map of temperature anomalies. Note cooler-than-normal patches in the eastern U.S., central Canada, Scandinavia, and a big hunk of Russia, which had country-scale temperatures 9 degrees F below average. But the big story was heat, heat, heat, as NCDC explains:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Buy this gizmo, and you’ll only ever need one candle for the rest of your life

Benjamin Shine

This very clever gizmo solves a problem that humans have struggled with for hundreds of years: the stupid mess of dripping wax that happens every time you light a candle. (OK, to be fair we struggled with this a lot more hundreds of years ago than we do today, but still.) But now you can capture that wax and turn it into another candle, creating an infinite candle!

Well, not quite infinite, says FastCoExist:

Each time the Rekindle Candle burns, there’s a little less wax left, and eventually you’d have to start over with a new candle. How long it lasts, Shine says, depends on the specific candle -- some burn faster, some are drippier -- but you might be able to reuse the wax as many as five times.


Is the Arctic really drunk, or does it just act like this sometimes?

The jet stream in a particularly wavy state.
The jet stream in a particularly wavy state.

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas and best-selling author Chris Mooney, also features a discussion about Indre's new 24-lecture course, "12 Essential Scientific Concepts," which was just released by The Teaching Company as part of the "Great Courses" series.

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 Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the "Best of 2013" on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

Just when weather weary Americans thought they'd found a reprieve, the latest forecasts suggest that the polar vortex will, again, descend into the heart of the country next week, bringing with it staggering cold. If so, it will be just the latest weather extreme in a winter that has seen so many of them. California has been extremely dry, while the flood-soaked U.K. has been extremely wet. Alaska has been extremely hot (as has Sochi), while the snow-pummeled U.S. East Coast has been extremely cold. They're all different, and yet on a deeper level, perhaps, they're all the same.

This weather now serves as the backdrop -- and perhaps, as the inspiration -- for an increasingly epic debate within the field of climate research. You see, one climate researcher, Jennifer Francis of Rutgers University, has advanced an influential theory suggesting that winters like this one may be growing more likely to occur. The hypothesis is that by rapidly melting the Arctic, global warming is slowing down the fast-moving river of air far above us known as the jet stream -- in turn causing weather patterns to get stuck in place for longer, and leading to more extremes of the sort that we've all been experiencing. "There is a lot of pretty tantalizing evidence that our hypothesis seems to be bearing some fruit," Francis explained on the latest installment of the Inquiring Minds podcast. The current winter is a "perfect example" of the kind of jet stream pattern that her research predicts, Francis added (although she emphasized that no one atmospheric event can be directly blamed on climate change).

Read more: Climate & Energy


The city should shovel your sidewalk

Snow covered Brooklyn sidewalk
Premshree Pillai

It’s an odd fact of life in New York City that after a snowstorm the streets are nicely plowed but the sidewalks may remain a mess. The city dispatches trucks to clean the streets shortly after the snow stops falling. But the sidewalks? That’s up to the owners of the buildings alongside them. And if a homeowner doesn’t get around to shoveling? Well, then you’ll just find yourself delicately dancing along a bumpy, icy, and/or slushy stretch of pavement.

This is hardly unique to the Big Apple. Cities, and especially suburbs, throughout the country take the bizarre position that roads are a public good but sidewalks, where they even exist, are a luxury that homeowners must maintain for themselves. It is especially perverse in a city where more people walk than drive as they go about their daily lives.

Theoretically, New York City can fine owners $100 or more for not shoveling their patch of sidewalk. In practice, enforcement is somewhere between spotty and nonexistent.

And so, in this particularly snowy winter -- which may become the new norm thanks to climate change -- a New York City council member has proposed that the city up the fine to $250 and use the proceeds to pay for the shoveling itself. The New York Daily News reports:

Read more: Cities, Politics


This new IKEA bookshelf system could save forests of trees


IKEA is, functionally, in the business of selling ground-up trees, sometimes covered in very, very thin slices of not-ground-up trees. And it's not even clear that they get those trees in an above-board manner. (Get it, board?) But, when you need a bookcase, we know where you head.

We're not judging. We keep our records in Expedit bookshelves, too. In fact, we LOVE the Expedit, and we did a double-take when we found out IKEA was discontinuing it, just like you did.

But, as Gizmodo explains, this is actually a good thing -- a way for us all to do a little bit better by the world while still paying bargain-basement prices for furniture made of ground-up trees. Because IKEA is making a very, very similar shelf that uses slightly less wood.

The thickness of the wide outer edge that makes Expedit so distinctive. It seems like a minuscule change to us, but it's not. Sales numbers for Expedit aren't public, but we know that Ikea sells some 41 million similar Billy bookcases a year.

If Ikea can cut even a centimeter of wood on each of those products, it will save massively on material costs. It's also going to help them make good on their claim of sustainability.

Read more: Living


Meet the smart farm you can control with a smartphone

Freight Farms founders Jon Friedman and Brad McNamara
Shane Ernest

Repurposed shipping containers have long enjoyed a place in the spotlight of sustainable development and eco-dream-home Pinterest porn. They’ve even started to appear as heralds for the local food economy -- as grocery stores for food deserts and trendy pop-up restaurants. So it only makes sense that next up on the docket for urban agriculture and food independence are Freight Farms: hydroponic farms in shipping containers.

A Freight Farm is more than just a garden in a box. Each 325 square-foot unit comes equipped with high-efficiency red and blue LEDs to simulate night and day, a climate-controlled temperature system for optimal growth conditions, and vertical growing troughs. Translation: Farmers can enjoy a year-round growing season regardless of weather. Freight Farms are also sealable (no need for pesticides and herbicides), stackable, and (because of their closed loop hydroponic system) use 90 percent less water than conventional farming. And the fun part: Growth settings can even be controlled by a smartphone app.

Founder Jon Friedman calls his inventions "vessels for the next generation of food production." And the irony isn’t lost on him that these vessels may have once been clocking food miles for the global shipping industry. "It's one of those things, like, the weapon turns into the thing that saves everybody."


Farmers fed their hogs ground up piglet intestines … but, um, for a good cause?


Well, this is horrifying. A bunch of piglets at a hog farm contracted "porcine epidemic diarrhea virus," which sounds bad enough in and of itself. But then, after they died, the farmers used their intestines to inoculate grown pigs against the disease. Which is slightly better than feeding the grown pigs baby pig innards just all willy-nilly, BUT STILL. Is there really no better way to do this??

There's video, but, assuming you don't want to watch it, NPR reports:

In this video, we learn what happens to the piglets at Iron Maiden Hog Farm in Owensboro, Ky., that succumbed to the virus: The animals' intestines are ground up and fed, as a "smoothie" — as [Humane Society of the U.S.] dubs it -- back to the sows, which could be their own mothers. (The exact size of the farm is unknown, but the barn shown in the video houses about 2,400 sows.)

Read more: Food, Living