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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Beijing’s recurring air pollution grounds flights, puts kids in the hospital

Imagine you're an airline pilot. Which of the cities below looks like the more appealing one for landing a large jet?

To the left, an image of Beijing's air taken last week when the pollution monitor on top of the U.S. Embassy measured a fairly low level of particulate pollution (29 parts per million per volume). To the right? The air yesterday, at a level of 462. If you chose the image at left, congratulations. Airlines in Beijing agree with your assessment.

From Huffington Post:

Thick, off-the-scale smog shrouded eastern China for the second time in about two weeks Tuesday, forcing airlines to cancel flights because of poor visibility and prompting Beijing to temporarily shut factories and curtail fleets of government cars. ...

The U.S. Embassy reported an hourly peak level of PM2.5 -- tiny particulate matter that can penetrate deep into the lungs -- at 526 micrograms per cubic meter, or "beyond index," and more than 20 times higher than World Health Organization safety levels over a 24-hour period. …

Visibility was less than 100 meters (100 yards) in some areas of eastern China, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. More than 100 flights were canceled in the eastern city of Zhengzhou, 33 in Beijing, 20 in Qingdao and 13 in Jinan.


Are you a terrible person for eating quinoa?

The quinoa debate has ravaged the internet these past few weeks -- kind of like how selfish Westerners with a taste for gluten-free grains are allegedly ravaging the livelihoods of South American farmers.

Quinoa growing in Bolivia.
Quinoa growing in Bolivia.

Joanna Blythman kicked off the brouhaha earlier this month with a piece for The Guardian contending that the fast-growing Western appetite for quinoa has priced the Peruvian and Bolivian poor out of the market for the delicious, protein-laden (and kind of sperm-resembling) grain. "[T]here's a ghastly irony when the Andean peasant's staple grain becomes too expensive at home because it has acquired hero product status among affluent foreigners preoccupied with personal health, animal welfare and reducing their carbon 'foodprint,'" she writes.

The piece sparked a quinoa pile-on. Esquire called it "the quinoa quandry" (groan). "The more you love quinoa, the more you hate Bolivians," declared a Care2 headline. "A long time ago, 'Bolivian marching powder' meant cocaine. Now it could mean quinoa," wrote a Yahoo! News correspondent who was having a really bad day with ledes. And I think Technorati may actually for reals be suggesting here that "America just needs to send a few hundred Chick-fil-A's to Peru and Bolivia."

Blythman's moral panic about quinoa is not baseless, but it is somewhat misled, and definitely misaimed.


Waste heat from cities can heat up other parts of the planet

Cities aren't perfectly efficient energy machines, you guys. They're great, especially when transit and density make it possible for city dwellers to use less energy, but cities still release a lot of waste heat out of tailpipes and chimneys. And all that waste heat has to go somewhere.


According to a new study published in Nature Climate Change, that waste heat is disrupting the jet stream and warming up other parts of the world, thawing winters across northern Asia, eastern China, the Northeast U.S., and southern Canada. From Reuters:

That is different from what has long been known as the urban-heat island effect, where city buildings, roads and sidewalks hold on to the day's warmth and make the urban area hotter than the surrounding countryside.

Instead, the researchers wrote, the excess heat given off by burning fossil fuels appears to change air circulation patterns and then hitch a ride on air and ocean currents, including the jet stream. ...

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


One step forward, one step back for tar-sands protesters

It's a bittersweet moment for direct environmental action against nasty tar-sands pollution. (So many moments are bittersweet in the fight against nasty tar-sands pollution ...)

On the sweet side, Canada's Idle No More movement has gone global today, mobilizing protests around the world to highlight mistreatment of indigenous peoples and the environment. The movement has been galvanized by plans to pipe tar-sands oil across First Nations land in British Columbia and by the Canadian government's attempts to roll back environmental protections for most of the country's waterways. Actions are already rolling across Canada, at U.N. headquarters in New York, and as far away as Australia and Greenland.

"This day of action will peacefully protest attacks on Democracy, Indigenous Sovereignty, Human Rights and Environmental Protections when Canadian MPs return to the House of Commons on January 28th," organizers said in a statement.

But for the bitter: The Tar Sands Blockade, which is fighting ongoing construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline in Texas, faced a significant setback in court on Friday.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Marco Rubio: ‘Changing the weather’ isn’t something government can do

We got so caught up in our excitement over John Kerry's comments on climate and clean energy last week that we completely missed Sen. Marco Rubio's (R-Fla.) take on the topic.


According to Politico, here's how Rubio responded after Kerry argued at his confirmation hearing that clean energy is a $6 trillion market.

That’s too much effort to put on climate change, according to Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, a leading early contender for the Republican presidential nomination in 2016.

“I don’t think it’s the most pressing foreign policy issue facing America,” Rubio told POLITICO outside Kerry’s confirmation hearing on Thursday. “There’s a lot of things government can do but changing the weather isn’t one of them.”

Rubio is a guy who took a quarter of a million dollars from fossil fuel interests for his campaign. A guy who called for more offshore drilling as he lamented the Gulf oil spill. A guy who shortly after Election Day declared that the age of the Earth is "a dispute amongst theologians" and said he couldn't weigh in because "I'm not a scientist, man."


Famed climate economist Nicholas Stern: ‘I underestimated the risks’ of climate change

You will be forgiven for not knowing who Nicholas Stern is. In short, a former chief economist for the World Bank, he began service in the office of Britain's Chancellor of the Exchequer. There, in 2005, he was asked to produce what became a definitive assessment of the economic effects of climate change. Published in 2006, the "Stern Review Report on the Economics of Climate Change" suggested that climate change would result in a 5 percent drop in the annual gross domestic product in perpetuity, and that stabilizing the climate would itself cost 2 percent -- a massive sum.

Nicholas Stern at Davos, 2009
World Economic Forum
Nicholas Stern not being listened to at Davos, 2009.

Last week in Davos, however, Stern suggested that his conclusions were wrong. They were too optimistic. From The Guardian:

In an interview at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Stern, who is now a crossbench peer, said: "Looking back, I underestimated the risks. The planet and the atmosphere seem to be absorbing less carbon than we expected, and emissions are rising pretty strongly. Some of the effects are coming through more quickly than we thought then."

The Stern review, published in 2006, pointed to a 75% chance that global temperatures would rise by between two and three degrees above the long-term average; he now believes we are "on track for something like four ". Had he known the way the situation would evolve, he says, "I think I would have been a bit more blunt. I would have been much more strong about the risks of a four- or five-degree rise." ...

"This is potentially so dangerous that we have to act strongly. Do we want to play Russian roulette with two bullets or one? These risks for many people are existential."


Today’s oily news: Refiner wants to ship oil on Great Lakes, oil barge spills in Mississippi

A refinery in Superior, Wis., wants to cut in on the rail industry's sweet deal: shipments of oil from North Dakota. The company doesn't own trains. But it does sit at the tip of Lake Superior.

Lake Superior, covered in white instead of oily black
Lake Superior, covered in white instead of oily black.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Petroleum refiner Calumet Specialty Products Partners is exploring whether to build a crude oil loading dock on Lake Superior, near its Superior, Wis., refinery, to ship crude oil on the Great Lakes and through connecting waterways, the company said Friday. …

Pipelines are the cheapest way to move petroleum products, [analyst Ethan] Bellamy said, but their delivery points are fixed. Railcars, barges and ships can move to different delivery points. That allows crude to go to the highest bidder.

And what could go wrong?

Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that a pipeline spill two summers ago of Canadian tar sands oil fouled Michigan's Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary.

"That should give anyone who cares about the Great Lakes pause," he said.

Well, yeah. But that was a pipeline. When is the last time a boat carrying oil leaked into a waterway? I mean, besides yesterday.


Fox News guy is mad that Obama talked about climate change instead of ‘pressing issues’

Over the weekend, Fox News once again allowed its employees to say things on-air, which the media company somehow fails to understand is generally a risky proposition. But Fox seems committed to letting them do so, and therefore you get things like this.


On "Fox News Watch" (which is not, as you might assume, a weekly catalog of all of the ways in which Fox News has failed), talkers worried that "cheerleading" from the media for Obama's inaugural address "threatens to overshadow reporting." And Fox News hates it when cheerleading obscures objective coverage.

From the Washington Post:

Jon Scott, host of “Fox News Watch,” made clear that he wasn’t part of the adoration crowd. Here’s his take on Obama’s speech:

We heard during the inaugural address, we heard about climate change, we heard about gay rights, we heard about lots of issues but nothing much about the deficit and some of the pressing issues, you know, the really pressing issues of our time.


North Dakota’s oil boom strains healthcare system

Oil industry worker Bobby Freestone enjoys a day off at a so-called man camp outside Watford, N.D.
Reuters / Jim Urquhart
Oil industry worker Bobby Freestone enjoys a day off at a so-called man camp outside Watford, N.D.

The New York Times continues its excellent series on the ramifications of North Dakota's fracking boom with a look at the state's overstressed, insufficient healthcare system. (Previously: the state's gender imbalance.)

The furious pace of oil exploration that has made North Dakota one of the healthiest economies in the country has had the opposite effect on the region’s health care providers. Swamped by uninsured laborers flocking to dangerous jobs, medical facilities in the area are sinking under skyrocketing debt, a flood of gruesome injuries and bloated business costs from the inflated economy. ...

Over all, ambulance calls in [one western area of the state] increased by about 59 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to Thomas R. Nehring, the director of emergency medical services for the North Dakota Health Department. The number of traumatic injuries reported in the oil patch increased 200 percent from 2007 through the first half of last year, he said.

The 12 medical facilities in western North Dakota saw their combined debt rise by 46 percent over the course of the 2011 and 2012 fiscal years, according to Darrold Bertsch, the president of the state’s Rural Health Association.

The rate of injury shouldn't come as a surprise. In 2011, Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicated [PDF] that workers in mining and oil and gas extraction had an on-the-job fatality rate of 71.6 deaths per 100,000 workers. While lower than rates for fishermen and loggers, it's far higher than other theoretically dangerous occupations. The Atlantic breaks the data down further, if you're interested.

But back to North Dakota. The problem with healthcare access and funding doesn't start at the hospital walls.


Apple CEO wonders who would want to work for an oil company

On Friday, ExxonMobil passed Apple to become the most valuable company in the world. We were all very happy to see that happen, because who really cares about Apple stuff when we've got Exxon's newest offerings to lust after. (True gas geeks know no greater thrill than when Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson busts out his signature "one more thing.")

This is all lies and "jokes"; it is, as we noted last week, disconcerting that oil companies continue to make money hand over fist. (In a few days, ExxonMobil will announce its 2012 earnings, so we'll revisit this theme then.) But we have an ally in our frustration, it seems -- Apple CEO Tim Cook.

Tim Cook, speaking last June
Tim Cook, speaking last June.


Speaking to employees on the current controversies around Apple’s income and future, Cook reportedly told his workers and colleagues that “we [Apple] just had the best quarter of any technology company ever.” Cook expressed this with immense satisfaction and appreciation for his teams that made this happen.

Cook further added, likely referring to gas and fuel juggernaut Exxon, that “the only companies that report better quarters pump oil.” “I do not know about you all, but I do not want to work for those companies,” Cook reportedly said.