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U.S. to help Pacific islands cope with climate change

International help is on its way for Vanuatu, which is threatened by climate change
Shutterstock / Karin Wassmer
Some help is on its way for Vanuatu, which is threatened by climate change.

Unless you're among the growing number of Americans whose homes are powered entirely by renewable energy, every time you switch on a light you're doing your part to sink a Pacific island.

Many of the thousands of tropical islands that dot the Pacific Ocean are low-lying and will be among the first countries to sink as the world's seas continue their steady rise.

But beyond the risks posed to their very survival, these islands face additional acute threats from freshwater shortages, coral bleaching, higher temperatures, and other hazards wrought by climate change. This despite the fact that their inhabitants have low carbon footprints and are contributing relatively little to the climate problem.

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. has spent the past year preparing aid projects designed to help a dozen Pacific island countries brace themselves against the growing threats posed by global warming.

Read more: Climate & Energy


E.U. car efficiency info may be more ‘creative’ than accurate

When it comes to legit auto fuel-economy data, a new report suggests there may be some sugar in the gas tank.

Activist group Transport & Environment says European car makers are consistently "optimizing" their cars' performances on fuel efficiency and emissions tests, i.e. cheating. Overall, T&E estimates that European car manufacturers are falsely claiming their cars are 25 to 50 percent more efficient than they really are.

"It's lots and lots of small tweaks," T&E's Greg Archer told the BBC. "And they all add up."

The report accuses car-makers of all sorts of MacGyver-like fuel-efficiency tricks used just during testing: taping up tiny cracks around doors and windows to reduce air resistance; lightening their cars; using special lubricants; slicking up test tracks; and stopping the car's battery from recharging. "Creative, but legal," according to The Guardian.

Click to embiggen.
Transport & Environment
Click to embiggen.

All that alleged trickery adds up to car drivers thinking they're getting a more efficient, cheaper vehicle, and officials thinking they're getting lower emissions and a cleaner environment. From The Guardian:


Big Sugar could get a big government bailout

sugar.jpgTrigger warning, healthy eaters. The USDA is considering a big sugar bailout. Here's how that would work: The agency would buy 400,000 tons of sugar from surprisingly productive sugar companies in order to give those sugar companies enough cash to pay back the the $862 million they borrowed from the USDA last October. And then you would riot in the streets because what the hell is going on, USDA?!

The Wall Street Journal reports on the part before the rioting:

The USDA makes loans to sugar processors annually as part of a program that is rooted in the 1934 Sugar Act. The loans are secured with some 4.1 billion pounds, or 2.05 million tons, of sugar that companies expect to produce from the current harvest. That comes to almost a quarter of total U.S. output that the USDA forecasts for this year.

If domestic sugar prices bounce back before a final decision [on the bailout] is made, the USDA would back away from plans to intervene in the market, [said USDA economist Barbara Fecso]. A final decision could come as early as April 1. ...

The loan program was designed to operate at no cost to taxpayers. A June 2000 study by the Government Accountability Office, then called the General Accounting Office, estimated the program's cost to the U.S. economy at $700 million in 1996 and $900 million in 1998.

The bailout would help bolster the price of sugar, therefore driving up the cost of sweetened goods. But even if you hate sugar and all the terrible things it does to our bodies, you're still paying for it.

Is that enough, though, to ally carrot and cupcake lovers in what New York Magazine wishes were a militant social movement?


U.N. to poor people: Sorry, pollution and warming will hit you hardest

The Chinese are fed up with pollution
Shutterstock / Hung Chung Chih

It's that time of year again. You're enjoying unseasonably warm weather / digging out from under an unexpected snow storm, looking forward to a summer full of invasive mosquitos, and oh, what's this? Why, it's another U.N. Human Development Report with terrible news about the planet!

The report celebrates advances in developing countries, improved conditions for the poor, and the "dramatic rebalancing of economic power" worldwide, i.e. the rise of Brazil, China, and India to crush Western white people. But it warns all that could be lost with climate change, deforestation, and air and water pollution. As usual, and as noted in past U.N. reports, the poor have the most to lose.

From The Guardian:

"Environmental threats are among the most grave impediments to lifting human development … The longer action is delayed, the higher the cost will be," warns the report, which builds on the 2011 edition looking at sustainable development.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Pipeline struck by tug still burning, yards away from oil-laden barge

This photo, taken Wednesday, shows how close the barge is to the burning tug and pipeline. Inside the barge and not visible from the outside is 2,200 barrels of crude oil, according to the Coast Guard.
Coast Guard
This photo, taken Wednesday, shows how close the oil barge, on the left, is to the burning tug and pipeline. The barge contains 2,200 barrels of crude oil.

A tugboat and a gas pipeline continued to burn in Louisiana on Thursday -- and connected to the burning tug is a barge laden with 2,200 barrels of crude oil, potentially ready to catch fire or spill.

The tug crashed into the liquid petroleum pipeline in Bayou Perot, 30 miles south of New Orleans, on Tuesday evening in shallow water after its crew steered into an area that vessels are not supposed to enter.

Not only was the no-go area clearly marked with white stakes, but the crew apparently plowed right over the warning stakes. "The tug and barge was in the middle [of a marked pipeline area]," Coast Guard spokesman Tanner Stiehl told WWMT. “It had taken down some of the white stakes and was in the middle of that area.”

Miraculously, all of the barge's crude has remained safely aboard so far, as emergency crews sprayed water over the barge to keep it cool and over the nearby flames. More than a dozen emergency response boats were floating near the fire on Thursday, with 40 emergency workers on hand ready to respond to a spill. A ring of floating absorbent boom was laid around the barge to help contain the oil if it leaks.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Extreme weather and GMO crops devastate monarch butterfly migration

It's not so much the butterfly effect as the butterfly affected: We knew monarchs had it bad as of late, but there was some hope for their winter migration -- until scientists conducted a census.


In just two years, the annual migration of North American monarch butterflies has declined by 59 percent, and scientists are blaming extreme weather and "changed farming practices," according to the New York Times. In other words, monster storms and monster Monsanto.

The area of forest occupied by the butterflies, once as high at 50 acres, dwindled to 2.94 acres in the annual census conducted in December, Mexico’s National Commission of Natural Protected Areas disclosed at a news conference in Zitácuaro, Mexico. ...

The latest decline was hastened by drought and record-breaking heat in North America when the monarchs arrived last spring to reproduce. Warmer than usual conditions led the insects to arrive early and to nest farther north than is typical, Chip Taylor, director of the conservation group Monarch Watch at the University of Kansas, said in an interview. The early arrival disrupted the monarchs’ breeding cycle, he said, and the hot weather dried insect eggs and lowered the nectar content of the milkweed on which they feed.

That in turn weakened the butterflies and lowered the number of eggs laid.

But an equally alarming source of the decline, both Mr. Taylor and Mr. Vidal said, is the explosive increase in American farmland planted in soybean and corn genetically modified to tolerate herbicides.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Wind power is poised to kick nuclear’s ass

Blowing away the competition in California
Shutterstock / Tim Messick
Blowing away the competition in California.

In 2012, wind energy became the fastest-growing source of new electricity generation in the U.S., providing 42 percent of new generation capacity, according to the American Wind Energy Association.

Wind power is becoming so cheap and so commonplace that it appears poised to help blow up the country's nuclear power sector, according to a recent Bloomberg article (which you really should read in full). Other highlights from the piece:

  • $25 billion was spent on wind energy in the U.S. in 2012.
  • The $25 billion outlay increased nationwide wind generating capacity by 13,124 megawatts -- up 28 percent from 2011.
  • That spending spree was fueled in large part by a mad scramble to qualify for federal tax credits that were set to expire at the end of last year (but were ultimately renewed by Congress).
  • Wind-generated electricity met about 3.4 percent of of American demand in 2012, a figure that's expected to reach 4.2 percent next year.
  • $120 billion spent on wind turbines since 2003 has increased wind power supplies 1,000 percent and created as much new electricity generation as could be provided by 14 new nuclear power plants.

In addition to federal tax credits, state-level renewable energy requirements are helping to spur wind's growth, and the nuclear industry thinks that's unfair:


Minnesotan towns say ‘no’ to a fracking sand mine

The main strip in the city of St. Charles, Minn.
The main strip in the city of St. Charles, Minn.

The fracking industry can't seem to buy itself any love.

While lawmakers in New York, Vermont, Fort Collins, Colo., and elsewhere consider or implement bans on hydraulic fracturing, companies that mine the sand that's used by frackers are also finding themselves rejected. And dejected.

Minnesota Proppant is one such company. It wanted to open one of the world’s largest frac-sand processing and rail-loading facilities in St. Charles Township in rural southeastern Minnesota (population 629). Sand in that area is highly prized by the fracking industry: It is just the right size and strength to be pumped with water and chemicals at high pressure into gas-rich shale, where it wedges into cracks that are opened up and holds them open, allowing natural gas to escape.

Unfortunately for the company, townsfolk weren't too keen on the pollution it was expected to produce. Nor were they thrilled that well water would be liberally pumped out of the ground by the miners. Concerns were raised about lung diseases that could be caused by airborne silica. And they worried that the local tourism industry could take a hit.

Do you suppose company officials took a hint and moved on?

They did not.


New Pope Francis sure likes buses, but will he be a leader for climate action?

Catholic Church

Jorge Mario Bergoglio has been named the new head of the Catholic Church. Pope Francis, as he's now called, awaits his future wearing cute outfits and riding around Vatican City in the popemobile. But where does Bergoglio stand on climate change?

Ex-Pope Benedict XVI, aka Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, used his papal platform to promote social and political action in response to global warming, and even added an electric car to the popemobile fleet. His predecessor, Pope John Paul II, was also a proponent of climate action. And other Catholic leaders have spoken out about the need for a response to the impending "serious and potentially irreversible" effects of a warmer planet. (But, shhh, don't say anything about birth control and population growth.)

Bergoglio is still a bit of a mystery, but his humble background is well-documented. A Jesuit, he claims to have quietly rebelled during a period of grisly military dictatorship in Argentina, hiding people in his church and giving out fake identity papers. He chose to live in a small apartment instead of the fancy cardinal's house in Buenos Aires, and he is best known "as a champion of the poor," says The Washington Post.

This is often reflected in his very humble lifestyle, despite his position. One much-cited example of his personal (and very Franciscan) commitment is that he takes the bus.

Read more: Living, Politics


New law aims to make eating lions illegal, because right now it’s totally not

When Mufasa gave Simba that speech about the circle of life, he maybe should have included an extra warning about becoming lion jerky for some hungry folks in the U.S. Because apparently that is a thing.

Illinois Rep. Luis Arroyo wants to make eating lions illegal in his state, and the proposal is a lot more controversial than you might think. If passed, the Lion Meat Act would make it ""unlawful for any person to slaughter a lion or for any person to possess, breed, import or export from this State, buy, or sell lions for the purpose of slaughter." Right now, eating lion is legal nationwide.

Burgers? Tacos? Snack sticks? Really?
Burgers? Tacos? Snack sticks? Really?

For a ban on eating a threatened species, Arroyo's proposal is garnering a lot of criticism -- and not just from the guy who runs the weird-meat store, though he's certainly the most annoyed. Richard Czimer of Czimer's Game & Seafood, Inc. (mm mm lion snack sticks and bear bacon!) told National Geographic that the ban is "trying to curtail a choice." Of Arroyo: "He's discriminating against all my customers and everybody who wants to try something new," said Czimer, who was only able to buy two lousy lions last year.

Czimer, who was jailed for six months in 2003 for buying and selling illegal tiger and leopard meat, is mostly but not entirely alone in his love for lion, which also enjoys a bit of market share in Arizona. Other critics of the Lion Meat Act seem to be bothered by the big-government overreach of preventing people from eating threatened species. From Take Part:

Read more: Food