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Christie administration’s bridge-blocking stunt was bad for environment

Christie bridge cartoon
Donkey Hotey

As you've no doubt heard by now, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) administration shut down two access lanes to the George Washington Bridge toward New York City in September, causing local traffic in adjacent Fort Lee, N.J., to back up for hours. The media has focused, understandably, on the irritation, inconvenience, and even danger caused by the traffic snarls. Kids were late to school, adults were late to work, emergency responders couldn’t get through the traffic, and one woman waiting for them died.

But here's an angle most media have missed: The lane closures also caused more pollution. When cars idle in traffic, they burn more fuel per mile traveled. That means more local air pollution, which causes respiratory ailments and tens of thousands of deaths per year. Idling cars also generate more CO2 emissions.

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Travel leery: Which countries drive, fly, cycle, and take the train most?

When it comes to getting from point A to point B, the sky's the limit (at least for now -- space catapult, anyone?). Here are the four countries who have capitalized on their chosen transportation modes.

Read more: Living

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Go bottomless on the subway tomorrow for the annual No-Pants Ride

no_pants_ride
Dave Bledsoe

You can find an ass on the subway almost every day, but tomorrow there will be LOADS of asses. That's because tomorrow is Improv Everywhere's annual No-Pants Subway Ride, which takes the pants out of public transit, leaving you with only "ublic rit."

Here's what that looked like in 2013:

If you've always wanted to drop trou on the NYC subway, but have suspected (or found out the hard way) that it's frowned upon 364 days of the year, head to one of the meeting points tomorrow by 3 p.m. sharp:

Read more: Cities

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Think “peak oil” is a discredited idea? Think again

oil-jack-head-drill-pump
Shutterstock

Among the big energy stories of 2013, “peak oil” -- the once-popular notion that worldwide oil production would soon reach a maximum level and begin an irreversible decline -- was thoroughly discredited. The explosive development of shale oil and other unconventional fuels in the United States helped put it in its grave.

As the year went on, the eulogies came in fast and furious. “Today, it is probably safe to say we have slayed ‘peak oil’ once and for all, thanks to the combination of new shale oil and gas production techniques,” declared Rob Wile, an energy and economics reporter for Business Insider. Similar comments from energy experts were commonplace, prompting an R.I.P. headline at Time.com announcing, “Peak Oil is Dead.”

Not so fast, though. The present round of eulogies brings to mind Mark Twain’s famous line: “The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated.” Before obits for peak oil theory pile up too high, let's take a careful look at these assertions. Fortunately, the International Energy Agency (IEA), the Paris-based research arm of the major industrialized powers, recently did just that -- and the results were unexpected. While not exactly reinstalling peak oil on its throne, it did make clear that much of the talk of a perpetual gusher of American shale oil is greatly exaggerated. The exploitation of those shale reserves may delay the onset of peak oil for a year or so, the agency’s experts noted, but the long-term picture “has not changed much with the arrival of [shale oil].”

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Speak up to make sure the government counts climate costs

Woman yelling/announcing into megaphone
Shutterstock

As carbon pollution levels keep rising, we’re getting used to hearing about the human consequences of climate change: homes destroyed, families uprooted, entire communities washed away.

But increasingly, leaders across sectors are also talking about the financial consequences of climate change, both now and for our future -- like less productive farms, skyrocketing insurance bills for coastal communities, and the need to rebuild highways, bridges, and other infrastructure destroyed by super storms, to name only a few.

That’s why business moguls Tom Steyer, Michael Bloomberg, and Hank Paulson recently came together to launch Risky Business, an initiative to model climate change’s long-term fiscal threat to the U.S. Meanwhile, the U.N. is conducting its own study on climate and economic impacts. These efforts are happening because more and more leaders are recognizing the real — and unacceptable — costs that we are already paying for carbon pollution and the danger they pose to the long-term health of our economy.

So what can we do? The answer starts with using market forces to cut carbon pollution by pricing it. And right now, it’s time for we the people to make our voices heard on an important step in that direction.

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Enviros and climate scientists continue their fight over nuclear power

Dukovany Nuclear Power Station
Shutterstock

More than 300 environmental, peace, and anti-nuclear groups and leaders published an open letter this week urging four prominent climate scientists to stop "embracing nuclear power" as a tool for curbing climate-changing pollution.

In response, one the four scientists reaffirmed his reluctant support for nuclear power, denying that he embraces the technology, but saying there's "no justification" for claims it could never become safe or affordable.

The debate among environmentalists over nuclear power flared up in November, when the four scientists published a letter calling for increased development and deployment of "safer nuclear energy systems." The letter was written by some of the climate community's best and brightest: NASA scientist-turned-activist James HansenKen Caldeira of the Carnegie Institution for Science, Kerry Emanuel of MIT, and climatologist Tom Wigley.

That letter triggered a cavalcade of opinion articles, many of them arguing that nuclear power is too dangerous and much more expensive than wind and solar power. And now many critics of the scientists' arguments -- from tiny groups to big ones like Greenpeace USA and the Environmental Working Group -- have united to voice their opposition in this new letter. Here are some highlights:

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From Amiri to Zora: What these mountain-moving black writers can teach us about climate justice

Amiri Baraka.

Yesterday, the great poet, playwright, and American prophet Amiri Baraka passed away after weeks of illness. I remember discovering his work as a freshman at the University of Pittsburgh, notably his 1968 poem “It’s Nation Time,” which Baraka’s friend, and my mentor, Rob Penny (rest in peace) taught in his class “Black Consciousness.” My friends in that class, many of whom were of the more, er, “radical” variety, were drawn to the line in that poem, “when the brothers take over the school,” especially when we learned that our instructor Penny was part of a Baraka-inspired movement of black students who did exactly that.

On Jan. 15, 1969, they took over the university's central computer room -- nonviolently but forcefully -- at the top of its towering Cathedral of Learning. There, they locked themselves inside and demanded that the university hire more black professors, recruit more black students, and create an academic department for the study of people across the African diaspora.

Before that takeover, black Pitt students were told that there wasn’t room for all they asked for. So Penny and his colleagues had to make their own room, achieving justice through civil disobedience. It was Nation Time.

Most of their demands were granted and Penny became a professor in what would eventually be called Pitt’s “Africana Studies” department, teaching African American literature and theater. He and his close friend Vernell Lillie, both magnificent playwrights, introduced students like me to Baraka’s seminal play “The Dutchman,” and a whole catalogue of other black writers that my friends and I hadn’t yet discovered. Among them was Zora Neale Hurston, the black writer and anthropologist who wrote one of the great American novels, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She would have been 123 years old on Jan. 7, this week.

It is because of Baraka, Hurston, and Rob Penny that I had the audacity to ever pick up a pen or strum a keyboard to share any words with the world. Everything I learned from those writers informs how I cover environmental justice here at Grist.

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A poison aficionado’s guide to 6 killer chemicals

Antifreeze is a favorite of today's poisoners, because of its sweet taste.
Steve and Sarah Emry
Antifreeze is a favorite of today's poisoners, because of its sweet taste.

This episode of Inquiring Mindsa podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features an interview with Quartz meteorology writer Eric Holthaus about whether global warming may be producing more extreme cold weather in the mid-latitudes, just like what much of America experienced this week.

To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunes or RSS. You can also 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" shows on iTunes -- you can learn more here.

As a writer, Deborah Blum says she has a "love of evil chemistry." It seems that audiences do too: Her latest book, The Poisoner's HandbookMurder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, was not only a bestseller, but was just turned into a film by PBS (you can watch it for free here).

The book tells the story of Charles Norris, New York City's first medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, his toxicologist and forensic chemist. They were a scientific and medical duo who brought real evidence and reliable forensic techniques to the pressing task of apprehending poisoners, who were running rampant at the time because there was no science capable of catching them. "When Norris came to office in 1918, the same year, the city of New York actually published a report saying that poisoners could operate with impunity in New York City," explains Blum on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast [stream below].

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Maine’s governor signs GMO-labeling law

Paul LePage
MaineDOE

Maine on Thursday became the second state in the nation to require food manufacturers to put labels on products containing genetically modified ingredients -- sort of.

Gov. Paul LePage (R) signed "An Act To Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right To Know about Genetically Engineered Food," which mandates the following:

any food or seed stock offered for retail sale that is genetically engineered must be accompanied by a conspicuous disclosure that states "Produced with Genetic Engineering."

The law would also prevent any products containing GMOs from being labeled as "natural." That should seem obvious, but big food manufacturers are currently pressuring the federal government to allow them to use such labels on genetically modified foods.

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This bag saves energy by letting food slow-cook in its own steam

wonderbag
Fumi Yamazaki

This fat, tomato-looking bag is a slow cooker -- a slow cooker that you don't have to plug into the wall. Instead, it works on the same principle as wrapping a towel around a pot -- the bag insulates the pot, which keeps steaming under its own heat for hours. It was invented by a woman named Sarah Collins, and it's called the Wonderbag, but don’t worry, it’s OK anyway.

Here's how it works. You just boil something for a bit, then stick it in the bag -- make sure it's not too, too hot (like, Wonderbag-burning hot) first. Leave it in the bag for hours; come back to delicious food.

Skeptical? One Wonderbag user reports on her experience making vegetable stock:

I followed my usual method ... but once the pot had come to a rolling boil for five minutes, I turned off the heat and transferred the sealed pot to the Wonderbag and left it on my kitchen counter. I'll admit to experiencing a healthy amount of skepticism: to me, a simmering pot is the sign of something that will taste good. But, after four hours, I opened up my Wonderbag to reveal a rich, flavorful stock, that was about twice the volume it would have been if it simmered away on the stove all day (because the Wonderbag conducts a sealed, insulated heat, there is little to no evaporation).

Read more: Food, Living