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Just 90 companies are responsible for two-thirds of greenhouse gas emissions

smoke stacks

The climate crisis of the 21st century has been caused largely by just 90 companies, which between them produced nearly two-thirds of the greenhouse gas emissions generated since the dawning of the industrial age, new research suggests.

The companies range from investor-owned firms -- household names such as Chevron, Exxon, and BP -- to state-owned and government-run firms.

The analysis, which was welcomed by the former Vice President Al Gore as a "crucial step forward," found that the vast majority of the firms were in the business of producing oil, gas, or coal. The findings have been accepted for publication in the journal Climatic Change.

"There are thousands of oil, gas, and coal producers in the world," said climate researcher and author Richard Heede at the Climate Accountability Institute in Colorado. "But the decisionmakers, the CEOs, or the ministers of coal and oil if you narrow it down to just one person, they could all fit on a Greyhound bus or two."


Washington’s GMO labeling flop, two weeks later: What it means


Ever since Washington state voters rejected a measure to label genetically engineered food earlier this month, I’ve been trying to understand what the vote meant.

On election night, I stressed the importance of advertising, but people on Twitter and in comments have questioned that emphasis. Political advertising rarely changes opinions; it generally sets people more deeply in their convictions. So perhaps what the Washington vote shows us is that fewer people care about GM food than it seems.

Why the measure lost is also related to the question of who voted. In the end, only 45 percent of registered voters cast their ballots -- the lowest turnout in a decade. What does that mean? And what’s the significance of the fact that the race tightened up as officials counted ballots: The measure was losing by 10 percentage points in early tallies, but that margin eventually narrowed to 2 percentage points, with 49 percent voting for, and 51 against.

The answers to these questions have interesting implications for future labeling campaigns. The Washington vote seems to be telling us that concern about GM food is broad and shallow. That is, lots of people are vaguely worried about transgenics, but it’s not a core issue that drives majorities to the polls.

Read more: Food, Politics


Reading, writing, & arsenic: New Orleans school planned atop toxic dump

The original Booker T. Washington High School was razed to make way for a new mega-school -- then developers discovered the mess.
Anthony Turducken
The original Booker T. Washington High School was razed to make way for a new mega-school -- then developers discovered the mess.

Initially, James Raby just wanted to save his school, Walter L. Cohen High, in New Orleans. Named after a prominent black businessman and political leader, the school sits in one of the more diverse neighborhoods in Uptown New Orleans, and has served a mostly black student population. Raby graduated three years after it opened in 1953.

Cohen High was one of the first schools to reopen after Hurricane Katrina, but it has struggled to stay alive since then. The school was in one of the few neighborhoods that didn’t flood, so it was filled with a lot of students dealing with the traumatic stress and disorder that came with Katrina. Since 2006, it’s had three different administrative operators, at least a half-dozen principals, and a ton of teacher layoffs as a consequence of the shifting leadership.

No surprise, then, that the school has struggled academically. National Geographic spent six months filming there in 2008 and labeled it one of the most dangerous schools in America.

Cohen High was not included in the city’s “Plan for the 21st Century,” the post-Katrina reconstruction strategy devised through a city-wide community participation process to decide what would be rebuilt and how. The state wants to shutter it completely by 2015, and send the students to a new mega-high school, called Booker T. Washington, that is slated to be built about two miles away.

The Walter L. Cohen Alumni Association, over which Raby presides, opposes moving its alma mater to the new high school, arguing that, with the right leadership, Cohen High’s small class sizes could lead to better academic performance than a larger school. And as Raby learned during his campaign to keep Cohen alive, environmental assessments of the soil at the new site show high concentrations of dangerously toxic metals, including lead, arsenic, chromium, mercury, and barium.

Now, Raby’s mission has changed from saving his school to saving any student from having to go to a school that’s planted on contaminated land.

Read more: Cities, Living


Climate debt collectors: Occupy wants the 1% to pay up


Last year, Strike Debt -- a small collective of New York-based academics, filmmakers, and business types -- published a short book called The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual [PDF], which alternated between dispensing advice on how to clean up credit scores and chronicling the recent history of the finance industry.

Strike Debt is also known for a project called the Rolling Jubilee, which buys up old medical and mortgage debt that people might be despairing of ever paying off, and then erases it. The Rolling Jubilee earned the somewhat backhanded honor of being named "one of the few good ideas to come out of Occupy Wall Street" by Forbes.

The next edition of the The Debt Resistors' Operations Manual -- currently in the works, and due to be finished next year -- will have something that the original lacked: a chapter on climate change.

Why the shift? We recently spoke with Andrew Ross, professor of Social and Cultural Analysis at NYU, who became involved in Occupy in the early days of Zuccotti Park and helped to launch the Occupy Student Debt campaign before becoming a member of Strike Debt. Ross is the author of several books, most recently Creditocracy: The Case for Debt Refusal, which will be published this February by OR Books.

Q.  With all the large social issues that Occupy and Strike Debt have raised, why add climate change to the mix?

A.  Well, Strike Debt focuses on all kinds of debt: medical debt, housing debt, credit card debt. We started the Rolling Jubilee. We really wanted to publicize how the secondary debt market worked. A lot of people didn’t know how cheaply their debts have been sold. How lenders are willing to sell your debt cheaply -- but not to you. Knowing how cheaply your debt has been bought by the person who is trying to collect from you changes the dynamic. We hoped to raise $50,000, and now we've raised about $630,000 -- and abolished $15 million worth of debt.

What changed is, Hurricane Sandy happened. A lot of Strike Debt people became involved in Occupy Sandy. It drove home links we’d been talking about when we did the Strike Debt report. People were waiting for their FEMA loans and these predatory banks were circling around them.

Climate debt isn't a part of the political discourse, but climate debt needs to be honored and repaid. It's unusual compared to other kinds of debt because it tends to be the more affluent populations that are the debtors.


Coal industry tries to crash Warsaw climate talks, gets spanked

coal trucks

WARSAW, Poland -- The masters of the black-rock industry gathered at the International Coal & Climate Summit in Warsaw this week -- strategically hosted just a stone’s throw from the U.N. climate conference (COP19) — and they would like you to believe that coal has a place in a climate-friendly future.

At the summit, hosted by the World Coal Association (WCA), industry reps are promoting “high-efficiency” coal plants, carbon capture and storage (CCS), and other, wacky tech “breakthroughs” (gasification, anyone?).

The overall theme of the coal summit is that countries can keep burning coal and meet climate targets. They can have their cake and eat it, too.

Probably because CCS and other breakthroughs are still entirely unproven commercially, there’s been particular hype around so-called “high-efficiency coal.” In its Warsaw Communique that preceded the summit, the WCA called for “the immediate use of high-efficiency low-emissions coal combustion technologies as an immediate step in lowering greenhouse gas emissions.”

It’s a claim oft-repeated this week in Warsaw: High-efficiency coal is a climate solution.

Except it isn’t, says a group of 27 scientists from around the world who together released a report on Monday on how coal is absolutely incompatible with current internationally agreed-upon climate goals.


Colorado to crack down on methane emissions from fracking


Colorado health officials announced new rules on Monday that would work to cut the air pollution produced by oil and gas operations in the state. The rules would force companies to capture 95 percent of all toxic pollutants and volatile organic compounds they emit. In addition, the rules include a requirement that companies control emissions of the potent greenhouse gas methane, marking the first time a state has drafted rules to directly address the methane emitted by oil and gas operations, according to The Denver Post.

“These are going to amount to the very best air quality regulations in the country,” Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) said.

Methane is a key driver of climate change; the greenhouse gas is 25 times more potent than CO2 over a century and 72 to 100 times more potent over a 20-year period. As oil and gas production booms in Colorado, the resultant air pollution is becoming a serious concern. Last year, air sampling conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recorded a 4 percent methane emissions rate over Colorado, more than double the rate reported by the industry. A 2011 study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research found that “unless leakage rates for new methane can be kept below 2%, substituting gas for coal is not an effective means for reducing the magnitude of future climate change.”

Colorado’s new rules will require companies to detect leaks from tanks, pipelines, wells, and other facilities using devices such as infrared cameras, and to inspect for leaks at least once a month at large facilities and plug leaks. In addition, companies must adhere to stricter limits on emissions from equipment near where people live and play.


Want a climate deal? Rich nations will have to pay up to help poor ones

protest sign: "reparations for climate debt"
Oxfam International

It’s helpful to understand game theory if you want to know why it's so difficult to reach an international deal to reduce climate emissions. Everyone will be better off if everyone does their part, but if one country gets away with doing nothing while the others reduce their emissions, that country would be the biggest winner of all, enjoying the benefits of averted catastrophe without any of the costs. That calculation could lead to a lot of countries bailing out. No one wants to be the sucker who cuts emissions but still doesn't prevent catastrophic climate change because no one else participated.

So making a deal and sticking to it will require countries to place a lot of trust in one another. And that trust has to be painstakingly built.

When the world’s richest countries say -- as they did at the 2009 climate talks in Copenhagen, Denmark -- that they will contribute $100 billion a year to a Green Climate Fund to help poorer countries reduce emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change, and then they don’t pay in, it erodes trust. And yet, that’s what has happened so far, as John Upton reported in Grist last week. Only $7.5 million has been contributed to the fund’s coffers so far. That’s partly because it's not fully operational yet; it's intended to be funded at $100 billion a year starting in 2020. But it's also because wealthy countries are simply loath to part with the cash.

And it's not even that much money we're talking about here. Upton noted that $100 billion pales in comparison to the $500 billion that the world’s developed countries spend each year on fossil fuel subsidies.

Here are some other points of comparison:


A fresher Philly: Fruits and veggies make a comeback in the city’s corner stores

Healthy Food Close Up
The Food Trust

Maybe it’s not surprising that Philadelphia -- home of the cheesesteak, scrapple, and Tastykake -- has one of the highest obesity rates among large U.S. cities. (To be fair, nobody’s bragging about their city’s quinoa salad.)

The city has been actively battling the bulge for years. Deep fryers were banned in school kitchens in 2010 and kids haven’t been able to buy soda in school vending machines since 2004, for instance. (On a related front, Philly has targeted Chinese takeout restaurants for excessive salt. No word on the fate of the fortune cookie.)

But the city’s most visible and far-reaching program, the largest of its kind in the country, has been the Healthy Corner Store Initiative. The city-wide project, spearheaded by Philadelphia-based nonprofit The Food Trust, is an attempt to convince corner stores, those one-stop shops for SunnyD and SnoBalls, to carry healthy food.

Brianna Almaguer Sandoval.
Natural Resource Defense Council/SAWYER Agency
Brianna Almaguer Sandoval.

The program began as a small pilot project, with only 11 participating stores. In 2010, it expanded to more than 600 stores of an estimated 1,500 city-wide. “We had tested in a small sample, but we didn’t know if the store owners were going to respond,” says Brianna Almaguer Sandoval, the Healthy Corner Store Initiative's director. “But they are really stepping up. They’re reporting that they’re making money, that customers want those products.”

Read more: Cities, Food


Playing the field: Corn likes to sleep around — and that makes it hard to control GMOs

multicolored corn
Valerie Hinojosa

If there’s one thing that everyone in the GMO debate agrees upon, it’s that pollen spreads. It’s a basic fact of biology: Sex has always been hard to control. Expecting corn DNA to stop hustling around the gene pool once it’s been genetically engineered makes as much sense as expecting teenagers to become celibate once they get smartphones.

The technology that farmers use to keep plants from spreading their genes is pretty simple: It’s called distance. Keep cornfields 100 feet apart and you pretty much solve the problem, says Lynn Clarkson, president of specialty grain producer Clarkson Grain. For soy fields, 12 feet is enough, because soy pollen isn’t designed to fly. (Self-pollinating plants like soy are the introverts of the vegetable world; they mostly have sex with themselves.)

Distance, however, provides statistical prevention, not absolute prevention. A distance of 660 feet between cornfields is 99 percent effective at preventing breeding. At 1,000 feet, the effectiveness goes up to 99.5 percent. But it’s nearly impossible to get to 100 percent.

Clarkson understands this because his company deals in blue corn: “We have a pretty good sense of how far pollen will drift because blue kernels show up like beacons on yellow corn cobs.” It takes a separate grain of pollen to fertilize each kernel, so every cob provides a visual representation of the statistics in blue and yellow. “We’ve gotten calls from five miles away,” Clarkson says. “And a good Midwestern thunderstorm with big updrafts can move pollen hundreds of miles.”

So the question becomes: Who is responsible for controlling the plants? Should the person who wants carefully controlled genetics be responsible for planting in a secluded spot? Or do farmers with the potentially problematic pollen have a responsibility to keep their pollen out of other people’s fields?


A decade of monster hurricanes

NOAASuper Typhoon Haiyan as it made landfall in the Philippines. Earlier this month, Super Typhoon Haiyan stunned the meteorological community. The Navy's Joint Typhoon Warning Center, which tracked the storm, estimated its maximum one-minute sustained wind speeds at more than 195 miles per hour based on satellite imagery. If confirmed, that would exceed the official wind speed estimates for all other hurricanes and typhoons in the modern period. (Prior to 1969, some Pacific storms were recorded as stronger, but these measurements are now considered too high.) But here's the thing: Haiyan isn't the globe's only record-breaking hurricane in recent years. …

Read more: Climate & Energy