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Ask Umbra: Are GMO sugar beets bad for the birds?

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Q. Dear Umbra,

I feed hummingbirds a syrup made of 1 cup sugar and 4 cups water. I recently read an article about GMO sugar beets in the U.S. And that beet sugar is sold as granulated sugar and not labeled to indicate beet as opposed to cane sugar. So my question is, what effect will GMO beet sugar, if I unknowingly bought and used it for my hummer syrup, have on the birds?

Susan W.
Egremont, Mass.


A. Dearest Susan,

I love that your first thought upon learning that sugar is not labeled transparently is for the birds. That is, for lack of a better word, sweet.

As we began chronicling in the pages of Ye Olde Grist Herald back in 2007, genetically modified sugar beets have been on a stealth march into your pantry (and your hummingbird feeder) for a few years now.  Sugar beets themselves, the non-GMO kind, are nothing new: They actually make up more than half the sugar production in this country, with sugar cane comprising the rest. (That’s half the sugar. I’m not talking high-fructose corn syrup, sucralose, verbose, comatose, or any of those other sweeteners.)

Unless your box of sugar says “cane sugar,” it almost certainly contains sugar beets. And since we don’t label genetically modified ingredients in this country (yet), chances are even better it contains GM sugar beets, which now make up at least 95 percent of the country’s sugar-beet crop.

Read more: Food, Living


Is global warming really slowing down?

Fox News in October 2012.
Fox News in October 2012.

Chances are you've heard people say that global warming has "stopped," "paused," or hit a "slowdown." It's a favorite talking point of political conservatives like Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who recently declared that there has been "no recorded warming since 1998." Climate skeptics frequently use these arguments to cast doubt on climate science and to downplay the urgency of addressing global warming. Last year, for instance, Fox News pronounced global warming "over."

Scientists disagree. It's true that they also acknowledge the slowdown: A new paper just out in the prestigious journal Nature, for instance, cites the "hiatus in global warming" and seeks to explain it with reference to changes in the tropical Pacific. The recently leaked Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, too, cites an "observed reduction in surface warming." But scientists say the slowdown is only temporary -- a result of naturally induced climate variability that will soon tip back in the other direction -- and that more human-caused global warming is on the way.

So who's right? Here's what you need to know about the slowdown, why it's happening, and why the threat of global warming is still very real:


A gorgeous video of a devastating fire

Matt Johnson

Over and again, I am struck by the paradox of the beauty inherent in some terror. Usually, this comes in the form of weather. Hurricanes from space are stately and serene, completely belying the destruction below. A mesocyclone swirls, dark and foreboding and gorgeous, over a Texas plain. Rapidly forming storm cells create tornadoes which devastate Oklahoma, but are delicate and soft when seen from space.

Wildfires aren’t exactly weather, but they are related, and certainly fall into this category of terrifying yet still distressingly beautiful. This summer, my home state of Colorado suffered the most destructive fire in its history. Oddly, the number and acreage of the fires haven’t broken records, but the locations are key; two lives were lost in the Black Forest fire, and the property damage was historic.

Photographer Matt Johnson traveled to Colorado in June 2013 and shot time-lapse footage of the West Fork Complex Fires, another wildfire which was triggered by lightning and eventually burned over 100,000 acres. The video he created is both stunningly gorgeous and viscerally horrifying.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Mind the carbon gap

Reinhard Dietrich

If you've ever been on the tube in London, both the sign writer and the conductor will have reminded you to "mind the gap." The gap in question is the one between the platform and the train. To board the train safely, you need to mind the gap. Climate policy has some fast-growing carbon gaps.

Carbon gaps are the difference between a country’s extraction, production, and consumption of fossil fuels:

  • Extraction: where primary fossil fuels are extracted from the ground
  • Production: where fossils fuels are combusted
  • Consumption: where products made using fossil fuels are consumed

Due to the growing trade of carbon, in fuels and products, a country’s extraction emissions or consumption emissions can be very different from its production emissions (the conventional estimate). By using the three accounting points, as researchers did in the recent paper “Climate policy and dependence on traded carbon," we can get a better understanding of a nation’s climate impact.

The graphic below details extraction, production, and consumption emission estimates for seven regions in 2007:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Why are some states trying to ban LEED green building standards?

leed building
Chris Phan
LEED Gold-certified Wayne L. Morse U.S. Courthouse in Eugene, Ore.

The amendments and executive orders never actually mention LEED by name. They ban new construction built with public money from seeking (or requiring) any green building certification that's not recognized by something called the American National Standards Institute, or that doesn't treat all certifications for wood products equally. But that's really just a mouthful meant to ensure no more LEED-certified courthouses or state offices or libraries.

Behind the bans are a group of industries -- primarily conventional timber, plastics, and chemicals -- unhappy that much of their product goes unrecognized by the LEED standard created by the U.S. Green Building Council. LEED now certifies a million and a half square feet of real estate a day, affixing a "green" label onto public buildings, commercial offices, and private homes that rack up points on a 100-point scale and rewards things like locally sourced materials and energy-efficient design.

Using lumber clear-cut from the side of a sensitive stream half a continent away does not, in short, get you anything.


Hope and fellowship

David Roberts in "Hope" posterOver the last 10 years, I've been asked one question more than any other: Is there any hope? Or are we just f*cked?

Regular readers could be forgiven for concluding that we are, indeed, f*cked. On one side, we have the brutal logic of climate change, about which I wrote:

If there is to be any hope of avoiding civilization-threatening climate disruption, the U.S. and other nations must act immediately and aggressively on an unprecedented scale.

On the other side, we have the many forces that retard or prevent change. Cognitively, we suffer from status quo bias and loss aversion. Psychologically and physiologically, we are designed to heed immediate threats with teeth and eyes, not long-term, incremental, invisible dangers. Socioeconomically, power is concentrated in the hands of wealthy incumbents who benefit from the carbon-intensive status quo: fossil fuel companies, the sprawl industry (roads, real estate), Big Ag, airlines, heavy manufacturers, and so on. Politically, we are gripped by polarization, dysfunction, and paralysis. Individually and collectively, we are extremely poor judges of risk, particularly the sort of risk posed by climate change. That makes social change, what Weber called the "slow boring of hard boards," halting and painful at best.

And so we are stuck, as I said at the end of my TEDx talk, "between the impossible and the unthinkable."

It's difficult to see a way out of this dilemma that doesn't involve considerable suffering. Limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius, the widely agreed-upon threshold beyond which climate impacts are expected to become severe and irreversible, is likely off the table. Widespread adaptive measures are slow in coming, far more expensive than mitigation would have been, and subject to enormous inequality of impact based on wealth and class.

So, in this grim situation, do I have hope? It's complicated.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Green ole opry: Susan Werner sings sweet songs of sustainability

susan wernerStanding in the spotlight at the quaint Thrasher Opera House in rural Green Lake, Wis., clad in a sleeveless plaid cotton shirt and jeans, cradling an acoustic guitar, Susan Werner could pass for a folk or country singer cut from old cloth. That she was a farm girl herself, and her audience is made up mostly of farmers, only adds to that impression: The uninitiated might expect songs about lost love, lost teeth, tight jeans, or a swig of whiskey whetting away the Dust Bowl days.

But then Werner leans in toward the mic and in a clear, strong voice, elicits hoots and applause from the audience with the tongue-in-cheek "Herbicides."

Skies of blue and fields of green, waterfalls of Atrazine
Hundred acres to explore, acres of Alachlor
Hey, hey, ho, ho, mom and dad how could they know
Ho, ho, hey, hey, herbicides done made me gay 

Dubbed the “Empress of the Unexpected” by NPR, Werner, 48, takes on farming chemicals, climate change, drought, and the changing farm landscape in the vein of ‘60s folksters who rallied against Vietnam and government wrongs -- musicians like Dylan, Mitchell, and Baez. And while she has been on the music scene since the early 1990s, her music has caught on recently with both a new generation of farmers and older ones, who fill the small theaters and opera houses to hear her perform.


We should add climate change to the civil rights agenda

green jobs marchers
Green for All

This week, tens of thousands of people from across America streamed into the nation’s capital to observe the 50th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington — and Green for All was among them.

We marched against the recent attack on voting rights. We demanded justice in the face of Stand Your Ground laws and racial profiling. We marched to raise awareness on unemployment, poverty, gun violence, immigration, and gay rights. And we called for action on climate change.

Chances are, when you think about civil rights, environmental issues aren’t on the radar screen. But stop and think about it. Remember Hurricane Katrina?


Americans are driving less in nearly every state

empty road

After 60 years of car-worship, Americans in virtually every state are driving less, according to a new report from the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. Over the past eight years, the number of vehicle miles traveled has steadily decreased, a trend dominated by the so-called millennial generation’s much lower driving rates.

Total vehicle miles traveled peaked in 2007 after steadily rising for decades. Since then, however, driving per person has dropped in 46 states. Washington, D.C., residents drive the least, at an average of 5,774 miles each year, followed by Alaska, Hawaii, New York, Rhode Island, and Pennsylvania. Young people everywhere are driving far less than prior generations -- while 97 percent of 19-year-olds had driver's licenses in 1983, only 69 percent did in 2011. The average driving miles for people between the ages of 16 and 34 also dropped dramatically between 2001 and 2009.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


U.S. bike-sharing fleet more than doubles in 2013

Today's opening of the San Francisco Bay Area bikeshare brings the combined fleet of shared bikes in the United States above 18,000, more than a doubling since the start of the year. The United States is now home to 34 modern bike-sharing programs that allow riders to easily make short trips on two wheels without having to own a bicycle. With a number of new programs in the works and planned expansions of existing programs, the U.S. fleet is set to double again by the end of 2014, at which point nearly 37,000 publicly shared bicycles will roll the streets.

U.S. Bike-Sharing Fleet, 2012-2014The largest bikeshare in the United States is in New York City, where some 6,000 bicycles are available at 332 stations in Manhattan and Brooklyn. The program opened at the end of May 2013, and in less than three months hit 2 million trips. On busy days, each bike gets checked out seven times or more, a remarkably high borrowing rate. The city ultimately hopes to expand the program to other boroughs and grow to 10,000 bikes.