This episode of Inquiring Minds also features a discussion of the scientific accuracy of the new hit sci-fi film Gravity, and a controversy over the Nobel Prize in physics.
When Randy Schekman attended the University of California-Los Angeles in the late 1960s, getting a good college education was unimaginably cheap. Student fees were just a few hundred dollars; room and board was a few hundred more. "I could work a summer job and pay myself for the whole school year," says Schekman, now a cell biologist at the University of California-Berkeley.
On Monday, Schekman was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine for his pioneering research on how cells transport proteins to other cells -- a process fundamental to cellular communication.
Schekman's college experience at UCLA, from which he graduated with a degree in molecular sciences in 1971, shifted him from wanting to pursue a career as a medical doctor to a fascination with scientific research. It was pivotal to his success -- in science, the ultimate success. That's why it's so striking to hear Schekman say that as a Nobelist, he now wants to use his newfound influence to stand up for publicly funded higher education, which he considers to be "really in peril all over the country."
In this episode of Inquiring Minds (click above to stream audio), Schekman explains that his dad, a middle-class father of five, "never had to pay virtually anything to educate his kids. That simply isn't possible now, and it's just tragic that this happened." The numbers are staggering, particularly within Schekman's own state of California. For example:
No, this isn't a fundraising pitch or a plea for more readers. What we're looking for is a few good fellows. (In the dictionary's sense of "a student or graduate receiving a fellowship for a period of research." Not, you know, dudes.)
Today, we're proud to open the doors on a new Grist Fellowship program we've been hatching for some time now -- inspired by the top-notch fellowship programs that our colleagues at other publications like the American Prospect and Mother Jones have developed over the years.
We're inviting writers, editors, and online journalists of every stripe who are at an early stage of their career to come work with us for six months. You get to hone your journalistic chops at a national news outlet and deepen your knowledge of environmental issues. We get to teach you and learn from you and bring your work to our public. You won't get rich -- but you will get paid.
Maybe you're a cub reporter fresh out of college inspired by Nate Silver's 2012 election coverage and hoping to apply some statistical magic to the climate fight. Or perhaps you're a science writer intoxicated by the power of the moving image. If you're irreverent, imaginative, and hungry to improve your skills, this might be your place.
You'll work closely with our editors in Seattle, and with the program's director, Andrew Simon, on reporting and writing stories for Grist. If your skills extend beyond the traditional skills of journalism into realms like data journalism, multimedia, and software development, all the better.
When I caught up with Rob Hopkins at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week, he had just ended a seven-year, self-imposed airplane fast. This is a guy who takes the climate fight -- and the power of individual actions -- seriously. A few years back, he launched Transition Towns, aimed at helping communities lead the way into a post-fossil-fuel world. The movement has since spread around the globe.
Global warming could mean big business for controversial agriculture giant Monsanto, which announced earlier this month it was purchasing the climate change-oriented startup Climate Corporation for $930 million.
Agriculture, which uses roughly 40 percent of the world's land, will be deeply affected by climate change in the coming years. In 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted [PDF] that warming will lead to pest outbreaks, that climate-related severe weather will impact food security, and that rising temperatures will hurt production for farms in equatorial areas. (In areas farther from the equator, temperature rise is actually estimated to increase production in the short term, then harm production if temperatures continue to rise over 3 degrees C in the long term.) Meanwhile, increases in the global population will make it crucial for farmers to be efficient with their land, says UC Davis professor Tu Jarvis. "The increase in food production, essentially, in the future needs to be in yields -- output per acre," Jarvis says, even while weather patterns make farming less predictable or more difficult in some places.
Monsanto, meanwhile, has been gearing up to sell its wares to farmers adapting to climate change. Here are five climate change-related products the company either sells already, or plans to:
Jacqueline Patterson can rattle off an endless stream of statistics about how climate change, and the industries that are driving it, put communities of color at risk. Patterson heads the NAACP's environmental and climate justice program, so she lives and breathes these numbers -- statistics that show that African American, Hispanic, and other minority communities bear the brunt of our dirty ways, from power plant pollution to urban heat island effect and superstorms like Katrina and Sandy.
I caught up with Patterson at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week and found that she had some good news along with all the grim.
Following last month's release of the biggest study in climate science -- the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report [PDF] -- there have been manyrumblings about skewed, misleading media coverage. But we didn't have any data breaking down the press' performance on the most important climate story in years … until now.
Media Matters has a new content analysis of coverage of the report's release by major newspapers (the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and the Los Angeles Times), networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC), and online and wire services (Associated Press, Reuters, Bloomberg News). The period analyzed was from the beginning of August through the end of the September, since the report was leaked and much coverage occurred prior to its official release date of Sept. 27.
So what did Media Matters find? The picture isn't entirely bleak, but it contains plenty to be troubled about. Most notably:
Ranchers are finding carcasses everywhere, often clustered together at a fence line, emerging from the melting snow. Nobody knows how many cattle were killed in the blizzard that hit South Dakota and Wyoming on Oct. 4; the actual number probably won’t be tallied until spring. But it could be hundreds of thousands, the Wall Street Journal reports:
South Dakota Secretary of Agriculture Lucas Lentsch, citing estimates from industry groups, said as much as 5% of the state's 3.85 million cattle may have been killed, though he said the total death count may not be known until the spring.
As cow catastrophes go, that’s a big deal. Nothing this severe has happened in recent memory. But it’s not just about money; it’s also an emotional blow for many ranchers.
The Green Team at my church campaigned unsuccessfully for a policy of using -- and washing -- reusable dinnerware at church functions. Then we campaigned successfully for a policy of using all compostable dinnerware (plates, cups, and utensils) at church functions. The compostables are added to the bin that Cedar Grove Compost collects regularly. The compostable dinnerware costs a whole lot more than regular plastic-coated paper plates, plastic forks, and cups. Is using compostable dinnerware just greenwashing our church dinners? Is it really a significant improvement? Maybe we could use the cheap stuff and spend the savings on a better dishwasher...
Carolyn C. Edmonds, WA
A. Dearest Carolyn,
First, may I commend your church for supporting a capital-G Green Team? I like to imagine you and your compatriots as the eco-version of the Avengers, protecting your community from oil spills and the scourge of idling cars. Well done.
Yours is one of a few recent letters I’ve received on compostable dinnerware and entertaining -- and with the party-filled holidays just around the corner, now is a good time to devise a plan of attack for the mountains of dirty dishes looming in our future. (And while we’re in planning mode, here’s a refresher on greening your Halloween shindigs.)
Let’s start with the first part of your question: Is compostable dinnerware better than plastic? This is more complicated than it first appears.
Within 35 years, even a cold year will be warmer than the hottest year on record, according to research published in Nature on Wednesday. The study, which used 39 climate models to make a single temperature index for places all over the world, estimates when major U.S. cities' average temps will never again dip below that of the hottest year in the past century and a half. As the above chart shows, that's as early as 2043 for Phoenix and Honolulu, 2049 for San Francisco, and 2071 for Anchorage, Alaska.
The study found that the tropics will reach the point when even a cold year is hot based on past temperatures, referred to by the researchers as "climate departure," sooner than areas to the north. Climate departure will happen in 2025 in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and 2034 in Mumbai, India, for example, compared to a global average year of 2047. In coral reefs, both pH and temperatures are climbing. "Our paper's showing that pH is already well beyond the historical threshold," coauthor Abby Frazier told reporters Tuesday.