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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


It’s too hot and muggy to work this century

It's getting too hot to get any work done
It's getting too hot to get any work done.

Think back to summer. No, no, don't think about the good times. Instead, try to remember what it was like when it was too stinkin' hot to get any work done.

Humans don't work so well when it's stinking hot. And that means that as the globe warms around us, we're doing less work. How much less? According to results of a study published Sunday in Nature Climate Change, humanity's summertime productivity has already fallen 10 percent since before the Industrial Revolution. And it's going to get worse.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Multibillion dollar question: How gross was BP’s negligence?

Image (1) bp_logo_425.jpg for post 42921The 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill was gross. Really gross. But what about BP’s negligence in creating that gross oil spill? Was that negligence also gross?

If you’re already tired of hearing the word "gross" over and over, you might want to tune out news of a trial that began today in New Orleans. The U.S. government and Gulf Coast states are seeking billions of dollars from BP in damages and fines. One of the key decisions that the federal judge must make in the case is whether BP was grossly negligent in causing the deadly explosion and subsequent oil spill, or whether the company was merely negligent. The stakes are big -- big with a capital B. Billions of dollars are at stake.

The government says the company’s negligence was totally gross. But, like somebody who farts in an elevator and then asks everybody to please stop whining because they didn’t try to make it smell so gross, BP is denying that claim. From a statement issued by BP:

“Gross negligence is a very high bar that BP believes cannot be met in this case,” said [BP General Counsel Rupert Bondy]. “This was a tragic accident, resulting from multiple causes and involving multiple parties. We firmly believe we were not grossly negligent.”

If U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier rules that the company was grossly negligent, then it could be fined up to $4,300 per barrel spilled under the Clean Water Act. (Barbier is hearing the case without a jury.) The government says 4.1 million barrels spilled, having reportedly backed away from an earlier estimate of 4.9 million barrels. If the judge accepts that figure, and also rules that BP was grossly negligent, the company may have to fork out $17.6 billion to the American people in Clean Water Act fines alone.


For Open Data Day, green hacks and snacks

Image (1) earth_computer_connected_green.jpg for post 39445Civic-minded hacktivists, you best brush off those keyboards and pick out a cute outfit, because tomorrow is International Open Data Day.

Cities around the world will be hosting hackathons to turn government data dumps into useful interactive applications for citizen engagement. Check the map for info on a 'thon near you.

For this special holiday occasion, San Francisco's Climate Corporation is hosting EcoHack. "EcoHack is about using technology to improve and better understand our natural environment," say the event's organizers. "Based on the hacking model of quick, clever solutions to problems, EcoHack is an opportunity to make a difference while having fun!" Woo, nerds!


Permafrost is even less perma than we thought

Hey, so, about that layer of long-frozen soil covering almost a quarter of the Northern Hemisphere's land surface? You know, the stuff that's started melting and freaking out climate scientists but often isn't calculated into global warming metrics?

Near Alaska, a chunk of permafrost breaks off into the Arctic Ocean
U.N./Christopher Arp
Near Alaska, a chunk of permafrost breaks off into the Arctic Ocean.

Yeah, so, uh, according to a new study published this week in the journal Science, that may be melting way faster than we thought. From Climate Central:

If global average temperature were to rise another 2.5°F (1.5°C), say earth scientist Anton Vaks of Oxford University, and an international team of collaborators, permafrost across much of northern Canada and Siberia could start to weaken and decay. And since climate scientists project at least that much warming by the middle of the 21st century, global warming could begin to accelerate as a result, in what’s known as a feedback mechanism. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy


How the environmental movement can save the environment

The environmental movement's challenge isn't energy, it's power.

Power is what prompts political change. Shifts in power, application of power. Not necessarily power on Capitol Hill, but at least enough power to force Capitol Hill to act. Environmentalists lack the power necessary to effect any major change because there are only a few environmental champions in positions of power in the United States: a few in the private sector, a few in Congress, a very few in the administration, almost no one in the media.

In order to make change, the movement needs to build political power. But instead it's consumed with building energy in an already-energetic base.

Image (1) power-shift-04.jpg for post 44251
Young people protest during Powershift 2011.

As David Roberts notes here and as I've noted before, passion and energy are critical to change. Without passion and a desire to make the status quo snap, nothing happens. But that passion has to exist within the powerful. And right now it doesn't.

Last weekend, tens of thousands of protestors met on the Mall in Washington, D.C., to demand that the president reject the Keystone XL pipeline. Organizers celebrated the turnout, hailing it as the largest climate rally in history.

That may be, but it's certainly not the largest environmental rally in history. On the first Earth Day in 1970, an estimated 1 million people rallied just in New York City, and nearly 20 million across the country. In 2000, a large Earth Day rally in D.C. was mirrored throughout the country. While those were more broadly focused on the environment, they likely matched last weekend’s crowd in energy. And large swaths of every such crowd shared a similar message: Take action to protect the Earth. Only the specifics varied.


USDA says crops will do better but food prices will do worse

Maybe not growing crops, but growing in value regardless.It's more cold comfort for drought-stricken farmers this week, and I don't mean the snow.

USDA chief economist Joe Glauber was all sunshine this Thursday in announcing that normal spring weather is expected to improve corn and soybean yields by huge percentages over last year's tiny drought-stricken crops. Bigger yields mean tinier prices -- Glauber said corn would be down about a third from last year, soy would drop more than a quarter, and wheat would be down about 11 percent.

From the South Dakota Argus Leader:

The recovery should send prices for most oilseeds and grains sharply lower, providing a much-needed reprieve for livestock, dairy and poultry producers struggling with high feed costs, and relief down the road for consumers who have paid more for food at their local grocery store. ...

“The critical factor that people will be following is weather,” Glauber said at the department’s annual outlook forum. “While the outlook for 2013 remains bright, there are many uncertainties.”

Way to bury the lede, Glauber. No matter how many times Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack says "American agriculture is quite resilient," there still remains the fact that American agriculture is also in crisis, and forecasters are expecting more hot and dry weather this year.

Read more: Food


Tar Sands Blockaders tell their own story in a new documentary

If this past Sunday's Forward on Climate rally showed a lot of love for President Obama, it showed even more for the nonviolent direct action going down in East Texas. Throughout the day, activists blockading construction of the southern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline received big support from even the most law-abiding demonstrators.

But though their civil disobedience might seem mainstream within the climate movement, the blockaders are taking some seriously big risks out there, and a new documentary shows just how big. The nearly hour-long film by Garrett Graham was produced in collaboration with the blockaders and includes footage they shot themselves, from some places where journalists might fear to tread lest, you know, pepper-spray, choke-holds, etc.

You can watch the whole thing right here:


Pipeline companies will get a $7 billion tax break through 2016


There are people in Washington, D.C., right now scratching their heads and writing memos and trying to figure out how on earth we might possibly avoid budgetary doomsday, the sequestration that will lop some $1.2 trillion out of the federal budget over the next decade. Again, this is only happening because Congress tried to threaten itself. It's like you threatening to rob yourself by holding a gun to your head and then trying to figure out how to keep from being robbed.

But while all of this is happening, something else is going on in Our Nation's Capital™: Pipeline companies are getting an even larger tax break than expected. From Bloomberg:

A tax break used by oil and gas pipeline companies such as Kinder Morgan Energy Partners LP (KMP) will cost the U.S. government $7 billion through 2016, about four times more than previously estimated, Congress’s tax scorekeepers said this month.

The nonpartisan Joint Committee on Taxation quadrupled its cost estimate for exempting the fast-growing “master limited partnerships” from corporate income tax in the year ended in September to $1.2 billion from $300 million. The annual cost will rise to $1.6 billion by fiscal 2016, the committee said.

$7 billion. $1.6 billion a year. Tack on the estimated $4 billion in tax breaks the oil industry receives each year, and pretty soon you're talking about real money.


Environmental, conservative, media organizations rank our lovable Congress

This place.
This place.

It is awards season, everyone! For cool people (well, cooler people than me) that means it's time for the distribution of Grammys and Emmys and Oscars and Whatevers. For other people, it's awards and accolades strewn upon Capitol Hill, meaning the various ratings of members of Congress by media entities and advocacy organizations.

It is, as I have analogized previously, like the trophies given out at the end of a season to kids in a youth basketball league, except some of the awards come from the coaches and others come from fawning parents. Like youth basketball awards, these accolades will sit on shelves in the corners of rooms for a few years and eventually be thrown out.

Anyway, here they are.

The League of Conservation Voters

Every year, the LCV ranks how members of the House and Senate vote on issues related to the environment. How did those august bodies fare this year, LCV?

From an environmental perspective, the best that can be said about the second session of the 112th Congress is that it is over. Indeed, the Republican leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives continued its war on the environment, public health, and clean energy throughout 2012, cementing its record as the most anti-environmental House in our nation’s history. …

The good news is that while the U.S. House voted against the environment with alarming frequency, both the U.S. Senate and the Obama administration stood firm against the vast majority of these attacks. There are 14 Senate votes included in the 2012 Scorecard, many of which served as a sharp rebuke of the House’s polluter-driven agenda.

Very, very surprising, I'm sure you'll agree.


Louisiana may see the highest-rising seas in the world

As Hurricane Katrina approached, many Americans for the first time learned about New Orleans' precarious, below-sea-level orientation. The city is described as "bowl-like," rimmed by levees and natural structures that might not hold back surging storm water -- and might make drying out nearly impossible. It turned out that the analogy was imperfect. New Orleans is more like a TV dinner tray, and only the Ninth Ward ended up flooded.

Image (1) katrina-new-orleans_h528.jpg for post 22404

After Katrina, anyway -- a category 3 storm when it hit. But as sea levels continue to rise, and warming promises bigger storms, New Orleans' complete submersion may be inevitable. From The Lens:

Stunning new data not yet publicly released shows Louisiana losing its battle with rising seas much more quickly than even the most pessimistic studies have predicted to date. ...

Southeast Louisiana -- with an average elevation just three feet above sea level -- has long been considered one of the landscapes most threatened by global warming. That’s because the delta it’s built on -- starved of river sediment and sliced by canals -- is sinking at the same time that oceans are rising. The combination of those two forces is called relative sea-level rise, and its impact can be dramatic.

Scientists have come up with four scenarios of sea-level rise, ranging from .2 meters (8 inches) to 2 meters (about 6.5 feet). They're using the mid-range figure, about 4.5 feet, to make local projections of relative sea-level rise.

For example, tide-gauge measurements at Grand Isle, about 50 miles south of New Orleans, have shown an average annual sea-level rise over the past few decades of 9.24 millimeters (about one-third of an inch) while those at Key West, which has very little subsidence, read only 2.24 millimeters.

For decades coastal planners used that Grand Isle gauge as the benchmark for the worst case of local sea-level rise because it was one of the highest in the world. But as surveying crews began using more advanced instruments, they made a troubling discovery.

Readings at a distance inland were even worse than at Grand Isle. “For example,” Osborne said, “we have rates of 11.2 millimeters along the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain -- the metro New Orleans area. And inside the city we have places with almost [a half-inch] per year.