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Moniz confirmed as energy secretary, McCarthy’s EPA nomination advances

Ernest Moniz
MIT
Here's Ernest.

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) stopped throwing a temper tantrum and took a deep breath for long enough Thursday to allow the Senate to unanimously confirm Ernest Moniz as secretary of energy.

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology physics professor and fossil fuel-industry fan was confirmed with a 97-0 vote. The vote had been delayed more than three weeks by Graham in protest over $200 million of planned nuclear energy budget cuts in his state.

Moniz served as an energy undersecretary in the Clinton administration and he is replacing Steven Chu, also a physicist, who is stepping down from the department's top job.

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Ag-gag bill chokes in Tennessee

pigs
Shutterstock

It appears ag-gag bills can't even hoof it in farm country: Tennessee joins a roster of states who are strangling ag-gag bills before they can reach the killing floor.

Tennessee lawmakers had narrowly approved a bill that would have required anybody who filmed animal abuses to turn over the footage to law enforcement within 48 hours or risk being fined. That would have prevented undercover animal activists from documenting systematic animal abuse by agricultural workers, helping factory farms get away with cruelty.

But Gov. Bill Haslam (R) called BS on the bill and said that he plans to veto it. From a statement issued by the governor on Monday:

First, the Attorney General says the law is constitutionally suspect. Second, it appears to repeal parts of Tennessee’s Shield Law [which protects journalism] without saying so. If that is the case, it should say so. Third, there are concerns from some district attorneys that the act actually makes it more difficult to prosecute animal cruelty cases, which would be an unintended consequence.

Read more: Food, Politics

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Heady Colo. farmers plowing ahead with hemp farming

What do you do when the federal government won't let you plant a sustainable, super-useful crop on your own land? Well, if you're Ryan Loflin, you do it anyway.

HempFarmer

As of this week, Loflin has planted America's first real crop of industrial hemp in more than a half-century.

The 40-year-old farmer from Springfield, Colo., has been scheming for months. "I believe this is really going to revitalize and strengthen farm communities," Loflin told the Denver Post in April. Now he's leased 60 acres of his father's alfalfa farm to plant and tend the hundreds of hemp starters he's already been grooming.

Hemp, for those who aren't familiar, is a variety of cannabis that -- sorry kids! -- won't get you high. Strong, nutritious, and super sustainable to grow, hemp is used for everything from rope to cereal. It requires few herbicides, and has even been called carbon negative by some boosters. And while it's illegal to grow it in the U.S., it's not illegal to sell. Right now imported hemp -- the only legal kind -- accounts for about $500 million in annual U.S. sales, according to the Hemp Industries Association.

So what if it were homegrown, Loflin-style?

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As climate change broils the Arctic, John Kerry apologizes

Oops, it's melting. Sorry 'bout that.
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Oops, it's melting. Sorry 'bout that.

"Hello, world? Hey, John Kerry here. Just wanted to apologize for all those decades of America's non-leadership on that crazy global warming thing. But now we've decided to start making some nice sounds about the issue. Hope you can hear me making them over the din of the Arctic ice breaking up behind me."

OK, so the Secretary of State didn't actually say that. But the leader of the department that will rule on the climate-changing Keystone XL pipeline proposal has begun apologizing for the nation's lack of progress in tackling climate change.

“I regret that my own country -- and President Obama knows this and is committed to changing it -- needs to do more and we are committed to doing more,” Kerry said Tuesday, referring to climate change, in a press conference with Sweden's prime minister.

Kerry is in Sweden to attend meetings in the country's northernmost city of Kiruna of the Arctic Council, an intergovernmental forum for governments that have a stake in the fate of the fast-melting region. As the Arctic melts, new shipping routes and oil fields are opening up, and the international community is going to need to coordinate and temper the scramble to cash in on these new opportunities.

"We come here to Kiruna with a great understanding of the challenge to the Arctic as the ice melts, as the ecosystem is challenged, the fisheries, and the possibilities of increased commercial traffic as a result of the lack of ice raises a whole set of other issues that we need to face up to," Kerry said during the press conference. "So it’s not just an environmental issue and it’s not just an economic issue. It is a security issue, a fundamental security issue that affects life as we know it on the planet itself, and it demands urgent attention from all of us."

The Obama administration on Friday released the National Strategy for the Arctic Region [PDF]. The strategy pledges to "enable our vessels and aircraft to operate ... through, under, and over the airspace and waters of the Arctic, support lawful commerce ... and intelligently evolve our Arctic infrastructure and capabilities." All done sustainably and in harmony with other nations, of course. But the 11-page document is not so much a detailed strategy document as it is a vague wish-list for the future of the region, and no federal funds have been committed to turn the strategy's goals into reality.

That said, the attention that the U.S. is affording the Arctic Council is politically significant. From the BBC:

Mr. Kerry, who held one of the first US Senate hearings on climate change as early as 1988 with then-Senator Al Gore, is hoping to put the spotlight on the issue of climate change again, after efforts to make concrete progress faltered during President Barack Obama's first term.

Despite a multitude of international crises, Mr. Kerry insisted on attending the meeting of the once-obscure council.

Climate change has countries as far away as India also paying attention to the Arctic -- and seeking observer status in the council.

What the Arctic most needs, of course, is a fast and deep cut in the world's greenhouse gas emissions. Actions leading to that -- like, say, rejecting the Keystone XL Pipeline -- will carry more weight than press-conference words.

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California might borrow $500 million from its climate fund

shutterstock_133256705
Shutterstock

One of the great features of California's cap-and-trade program is that all the money that the state raises by selling carbon allowances to polluters is supposed to be plowed back into initiatives that help cool the climate. So not only does the program limit and reduce carbon emissions; it also forces polluters to pay to undo some of the harm that they cause.

But with such a big stack of green sitting there, staring the notoriously cash-poor state of California in its desperate face, how can a government resist?

And so it's starting to look as though $500 million raised by selling carbon allowances could be funneled away from green programs and loaned instead to the state's general fund. The L.A. Times reports:

Gov. Jerry Brown sparked controversy Tuesday when he proposed to shift $500 million out of the state’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund and loan it to the state general fund as part of the effort to balance the budget. ...

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97 out of 100 climate scientists agree: Humans are responsible for warming

CO2
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The Earth revolves around the sun. Also, it's overheating because we're burning fossil fuels.

Can you guess which of those two long-established facts just received an additional jolt of publicized near unanimity among scientists?

It was, of course, the latter. (The oil industry has no economic interest in attempting to debunk the former, and you can no longer be persecuted for claiming it.)

An international team of scientists analyzed the abstracts of 11,944 peer-reviewed papers published between 1991 and 2011 dealing with climate change and global warming. That's right -- we're talking about 20 years of papers, many published long before Superstorm Sandy, last year's epic Greenland melt, or Australia's "angry summer."

About two-thirds of the authors of those studies refrained from stating in their abstracts whether human activity was responsible for climate change. But in those papers where a position on the claim was staked out, 97.1 percent endorsed the consensus position that humans are, indeed, cooking the planet.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Just in time for summer: Budget cuts force Forest Service to skimp on firefighters, trucks

Let it burn, says the Tea Party.
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Let it burn, says the Tea Party.

Tea Partiers who watched gleefully as the sequester slashed government spending are welcome to douse forest fires near their homes with teapots full of Earl Grey this summer. Across-the-board budget cuts mean federal wildfire fighting efforts could be overwhelmed.

The U.S. Forest Service will hire 500 fewer firefighters this year and 50 fewer fire engines will be available than previously expected, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced this week. The Interior Department also plans to pare back its firefighting crews.

Hot and Bothered - small x  200
Susie Cagle

The seasonal firefighting jobs are going up in smoke because of Congress's inability to come up with a national spending plan. President Obama called for spending cuts and tax increases to help balance the budget, but Republicans would have none of the latter.

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Kosher salt: Don’t stress about sodium intake (unless you’re an average American)

Go crazy, dude.
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Go crazy, dude.

Salt’s membership in junk food’s holy trinity (along with sugar and fat) means it’s one of the food industry’s essential tools for making its products addictively good. (Journalist Michael Moss reveals this in his eye-opening book Salt Sugar Fat, but if you’ve ever housed a box of Cheez-Its solo, you already knew that.) For decades now, limiting salt intake has been part of the public-health mantra; groups like the American Heart Association vilify salt for its links to high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease and recommend that we all aim for no more than 1,500 milligrams a day of salt consumption.

But all of a sudden a new report is causing a stir by saying that recommendation may be meaningless, and that consuming extremely low levels of sodium could actually be harmful.

Far out. Pass the Cheez-Its!

Sadly, it’s not quite that simple. The report, commissioned by the Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, confuses more than it clarifies. It looks at studies on sodium intake and health outcomes conducted since 2005 — the last time the U.S. issued dietary guidelines on salt. Back then, the USDA recommended that the general population consume 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams a day, and that populations at risk for heart disease and high blood pressure limit intake to 1,500 milligrams. The more recent evidence calls those guidelines into question. The New York Times reports:

“As you go below the 2,300 mark, there is an absence of data in terms of benefit and there begin to be suggestions in subgroup populations about potential harms,” said Dr. Brian L. Strom, chairman of the committee and a professor of public health at the University of Pennsylvania. He explained that the possible harms included increased rates of heart attacks and an increased risk of death. …

There are physiological consequences of consuming little sodium, said Dr. Michael H. Alderman, a dietary sodium expert at Albert Einstein College of Medicine who was not a member of the committee. As sodium levels plunge, triglyceride levels increase, insulin resistance increases, and the activity of the sympathetic nervous system increases. Each of these factors can increase the risk of heart disease.

“Those are all bad things,” Dr. Alderman said. “A health effect can’t be predicted by looking at one physiological consequence. There has to be a net effect.”

Medical and public health experts responded to the new assessment of the evidence with elation or concern, depending on where they stand in the salt debates.

Some experts worry the report will send the wrong message -- that we’re off the hook in terms of watching our salt. A spokesperson for the AHA said the group “remained concerned about the large amount of sodium in processed foods, which makes it almost impossible for most Americans to cut back.”

Read more: Food, Living

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U.N. to world: “Eat your insects.”

"Something's different about my Hoppy Meal ... "
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"Something's different about my Hoppy Meal ... "

"Waiter, there's a fly in my soup."

"Terribly sorry, sir. It seems that the kitchen was running a little low on maggots."

If we want to satiate the world population's ever-growing appetite, insect farming should be the next global foodie fad. Or at least that's the gist of a new report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. The thorough 187-page report [PDF], published Monday, covers everything from different cultures' attitudes towards eating insects to farming methods to tips for using insects as emergency food during disasters.

Benefits of bug munching are manifold: The report points out that farmers can raise insects on human and animal waste, they emit fewer greenhouse gases and produce less pollution than cattle or pigs, and they use substantially less land and water than other livestock.

Read more: Food

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Climate-related disasters cost American taxpayers $96 billion last year

Superstorm Sandy's aftermath.
Shutterstock / Glynnis Jones
Superstorm Sandy's aftermath.

Schools and roads are nice to have. But what American taxpayers are really dropping serious money on, through no direct choice of their own, is cleaning up and helping out after all those climate-related disasters.

A new analysis by the Natural Resources Defense Council shows that the federal government dished out $96 billion last year on what the NRDC calls "federal climate disruption costs." That works out to $1,100 per taxpayer, or one-sixth of the government's non-defense related spending. It's more than the feds spent last year on education or on transportation.

The unwelcome spending spree came during the second most expensive year on record for such disasters. Superstorm Sandy hit last year, as did the drought-induced failures of federally insured crops. Floods and forest fires also racked up sizable bills.

Read more: Climate & Energy