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Global warming debate needs less ‘both sides’ wankery

Photo by Shutterstock.

Last year, after 10 years at The New York Times, ace reporter Tom Zeller Jr. moved to Huffington Post to cover energy and environment. Part of the enticement, I assumed, was the chance to make occasional forays into commentary and analysis, the kind of stuff that's off-limits for straight MSM reporters. Perhaps he had something to say about what he'd learned reporting.

It's somewhat disappointing, then, to find that what Zeller has to say about climate change is this: "Global Warming Debate Needs Cooler Heads To Prevail." The piece was posted while I was off on vacation and everyone else has forgotten about it, but it's still bugging me. After covering today's national politics, can this really be what Zeller has taken away, these catechisms of High-Broderism?

Like most mainstream U.S. pundits, Zeller is in the odd position of diagnosing U.S. political dysfunction without acknowledging its most salient feature: asymmetrical polarization, the fact that the right has become, in the words of respected D.C. scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein, "a resurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition."

The extremism of today's right is the defining feature of the Obama era and explains much of what has happened during it, including the toxification of the global-warming debate. But Zeller doesn't see it.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Meet Julian and Joaquin Castro, rising Democratic stars with a strong green streak

The other Castro brothers: Julián (left) and Joaquín. (Photo by Harry Cabluck/AP.)

Julián Castro is about to be catapulted into the national spotlight. On Sept. 4, the 37-year-old mayor of San Antonio, Texas, will give the keynote address at the Democratic National Convention -- a primo speaking gig that catapulted another promising young politician into the national spotlight eight years ago.

Julián will likely be introduced on stage by his identical twin brother, Joaquín, who's no slouch himself. Joaquín is expected to win a seat in Congress in November.

Both brothers went to Stanford and then to Harvard Law School. Both are frequently cited as rising political stars -- though they look barely old enough to be student-body president. And both are outspoken advocates for clean energy in a deeply red state.

Lest you get the brothers Castro confused, I'll introduce them one at a time …

Meet Julián

Julián: he's the mayor. (Photo by The Texas Tribune.)

Since being elected mayor in 2009, Julián Castro has taken dramatic strides to turn San Antonio, the seventh-largest U.S. city, into a national leader in renewables and efficiency.

Just a few months after assuming office, he got invited to an economic forum at the White House to talk about his city's successes. President Obama razzed the then-35-year-old for looking like an intern, then listened intently to what he had to say:

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The Chesapeake Bay: Another possible casualty of this year’s farm bill

Virginia farmer Buff Showalter relies on federal conservation funding to help him protect nearby Chesapeake Bay waterways.

Standing on the edge of a streamside habitat he helped restore, Virginia farmer Buff Showalter interrupts himself mid-sentence to point out a pair of hummingbirds overhead, barely visible as they sketch busy circles against a blue-sky backdrop. By late August, he says, there will be hundreds of them flitting around their favorite jewelweed wildflowers in this forage-covered patch of wetlands.

The patch used to be a favorite drinking hole for Showalter’s cattle as well, before he realized that having cows near and in the waterways could contribute to pollution in the nearby Chesapeake Bay. A decade later, the stream is fenced off and teaming with wild-looking shrubs and trees that help soak up pollutants before they reach the water.

Read more: Uncategorized

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Heart of glass: Has nature healed a California beach, or does that just make us feel better about our trash?

Photo by John Krzesinski.

I am looking out at a gorgeous kelp-filled cove on the Northern California coast. Waves crash on jagged rocks, quarrelsome seabirds swoop and dive over the foam, and the tidepools around me teem with anemones, crabs, and tiny, tiny fish. This place appears as wild and pristine as any spot on the American seashore.

Until I look down at my feet. Because I am standing on an engine block.

At least I think that’s what it is. Some sort of geared mechanism is clearly visible inside a larger, rusty outline. But the whole thing is barely distinguishable from the surrounding rocks. It’s as though it’s being digested by the earth.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Counting the harvest: How numbers can save urban gardens

Photo by Matt Harris.

A couple of years ago, a community garden in my Chicago neighborhood got the boot. A university owned the land, and even a determined grassroots campaign could not stop it (cue Joni Mitchell) from turning 140 bountiful plots into a parking lot. The eviction, and similar ones taking place nationwide, highlight one of the biggest challenges facing urban agriculture: a lack of land tenure.

The story of displaced urban gardens is nothing new. Remember L.A.’s doomed South Central Community Farm? Or Rudy Giuliani’s 1999 fatwa on community gardens?

In the past, protests have coalesced around the threatened farm or garden. Now, a loose coalition of scholars and activists is taking a different tack. They’re proactively surveying gardens in New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago in hopes that hard data -- servings harvested, revenues earned, and more -- will make landlords think twice before summoning the bulldozers.

Read more: Cities, Food

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Seven years after Katrina, Gulf Coast rail could return bigger than before

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In 2005, there weren’t many passenger trains rolling from Florida to New Orleans -- just three a week in each direction.

Now there are none.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina washed away swaths of rail along the Gulf Coast owned by CSX. Amtrak used those tracks for the last stretch of the Sunset Limited service mostly for passengers going to, or coming from, as far off as Los Angeles. After the storm, Amtrak suspended -- though it did not officially cancel -- the Gulf Coast portion of the route. Seven years later, Mayors from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle are plotting how to bring back the trains, and add new ones.

At present, communities along the Gulf are bracing for Hurricane Issac, expected to make landfall this evening, but earlier this month, More than 40 mayors gathered in Mobile, Alabama to hear from Amtrak what they need to do to get trains rolling.

Read more: Cities

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Contrarian conservationist: Nature Conservancy’s chief scientist riles old-school greens

Photo by Dave Lauridsen.

Peter Kareiva has some unconventional ideas about conservation. Chief scientist at The Nature Conservancy, Kareiva is known in scientific circles as a provocateur who constantly questions the status quo -- a habit that has made him a few enemies among old-guard conservationists.

Among his crimes: He thinks environmentalists should empathize more with the “other side” -- the loggers, fishermen, and developers. He works with big smoke-puffing, water-polluting, chemical-creating corporations such as Dow Chemical, which he calls a “keystone species” in the corporate ecosystem. And he refuses to accept the conservation mantra that nature is fragile; in fact, he thinks nature is resilient in most cases.

By working with a broader constituency, Kareiva hopes environmental issues will become human issues, incorporated into our basic social, economic, and political fabric. His advice for conservationists? “Don’t be a special interest. We all want a better future … We just have to make it clear to people how healthy nature contributes to a better future.”

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Keeping it in the family: BPA’s effects might last in our bodies for generations

Image by Shutterstock.

Back in May, I pointed to a study on a farm chemical that was found to cause physiological and behavioral changes in rats. Worryingly, the effects persisted for generations after a single exposure (it was the first time this phenomenon was extensively documented in an industrial chemical). In an email at the time, one of the study authors said, “Many other environmental compounds promote these types of phenomena ... Future science and policy needs to consider such phenomena and mechanisms.”

It looks like he was right. Now, another study has found evidence of multi-generational effects of exposure -- in this case, to that ubiquitous endocrine disruptor you love to hate: bisphenol A (BPA). The research appears in the peer-reviewed journal Endocrinology and was conducted by a team of scientists from the University of Virginia. Its title says it all: "Gestational Exposure to Bisphenol A Produces Transgenerational Changes in Behaviors and Gene Expression."

There are several interesting (and ominous) aspects of this new research that should give us all pause. The first is that researchers looked specifically at genetic effects. The previous study I cited examined behavioral and physiological effects alone. And yes, the scientists found evidence of genetic alterations from BPA exposure. But the truly significant aspect of the study comes from the fact that the researchers replicated in mice the low-level, chronic exposure that humans experience in their day-to-day lives. It was this level of exposure that caused the genetic and behavioral changes they saw.

Try not to get scared. I dare you.

Read more: Food, Living

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Through a green glass, darkly: How climate will reshape American history

Through a green glass, darkly: How climate will reshape American historyPhotos by John Gress, Reuters / Shutterstock.

Standing amid the Permian Basin oil fields in New Mexico last week, Mitt Romney announced an energy plan that takes "Drill, Baby, Drill" to a whole new level. Handing states control over oil, gas, and coal extraction on historically protected federal lands, he chucked a century of bipartisan policy going back to Teddy Roosevelt. For Mitt, it's "speak politely and carry a big drill."

The moment reminded us -- as you can bet we'll be reminded again this week when the GOP convenes in Tampa -- what the Romney campaign, to a large extent, is really about: the untrammeled freedom to extract wealth from the commons, whatever the costs to current and future generations.

But even more, moments like this offer a window onto what historian Mark Fiege calls "an environmental history of modern conservatism." In his magisterial new book, Republic of Nature: An Environmental History of the United States, Fiege suggests that the conservative movement itself "gathered political power from the transformation of the American landscape and in reaction to the environmental, economic, social, and political crises generated by that transformation." In fact, he goes on, "the modern conservative movement might be understood fundamentally as an argument about nature."

That's just one of the provocative insights in a book that fellow historians are hailing as a landmark of environmental history. And yet Fiege's work challenges what we even mean by "environmental history." The chapters are as much or more about people and iconic passages or events in the American past -- the Salem witch trials, the Declaration of Independence, slavery and Lincoln and the Civil War, the transcontinental railroad, the atomic bomb, Brown v. Board of Education, the early-'70s oil crisis -- as about "natural" environments. You almost wonder why Fiege calls it "an environmental history" at all. It's just history, fully told.

Read more: Politics