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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Will this be the year that Davos attendees fight to protect the climate?

davos housing
January snow in Davos.

People like to mock the World Economic Forum's annual gathering at Davos. There are many reasons to do so -- the exclusivity, the overt pandering to the plutocracy, jealousy about who's received an invitation. Every year, it seems, there's some variant on this Guardian article, decrying the self-interestedness of the attendees. Aditya Chakrabortty suggests that what makes Davos fascinating is that it's "the most perfect case study of how the practitioners of free-market, globalized capitalism give the public one explanation for what they are doing and why, while privately pursuing the complete opposite."

With that context, an update from the WEF. A report commissioned for this year's gathering reinforces that the world needs immediate and massive investment in the effort to halt climate change. From Reuters:

The world must spend an extra $700 billion a year to curb its addiction to fossil fuels blamed for worsening floods and heat waves and rising sea levels, a study issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF) showed on Monday. …

The Green Growth Action Alliance, which compiled the study on behalf of the WEF, said the extra spending was needed to promote other forms of energy generation and greater efficiency in sectors including building, industry and transport.

The $700 billion, part of which would promote cleaner energies such as wind, solar or hydro-power, would be on top of about $5 trillion projected to be spent each year on infrastructure under a scenario of business as usual until 2020.

The report includes an enticement for Davos attendees: more public investment means more opportunity for private investment.


America doesn’t import its oil from where you think it does

When you think of American oil imports, you probably think of an empty expanse of desert with a few towering oil derricks sprinkled around. Heat shimmering off the sand. Trucks haul the fuel to tankers, which make their way from the Persian Gulf to some port on the Gulf of Mexico.

That image is wrong. What you should be picturing is a Mountie guarding a well ringed with maple trees.

Here, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, is where the U.S. imported oil from in October 2012, the last month for which data is available.

What's most interesting, though, is how the source of oil differs depending on the region of the country you live in. Last week, Business Insider shared this map created by RBC Capital Market.

oil imports
Business Insider
Click to embiggen.


140 nations — including the U.S. — agree on treaty to slash use of mercury

In seventh grade, our science teacher would, on rare, special occasions, let us play with mercury. This will be my edition of the crazy-things-that-used-to-be-OK stories that parents tell their kids. "You played with mercury? With your hands?" my kids will ask. Yep. It was stupid.

Where mercury is really dangerous, of course, is in the air. In 2011, the EPA proposed a new standard for the reduction of mercury pollution from power plants. (It is currently under review.) Over the weekend, 140 countries -- including the United States -- finalized a preliminary agreement to go one step further, proposing to scale back and eliminate a number of uses of mercury, including reductions in emissions from power production. From the United Nations Environment Program:

[The new reductions] range from medical equipment such as thermometers and energy-saving light bulbs to the mining, cement and coal-fired power sectors.

The treaty, which has been four years in negotiation and which will be open for signature at a special meeting in Japan in October, also addresses the direct mining of mercury, export and import of the metal and safe storage of waste mercury. …

Mercury and its various compounds have a range of serious health impacts including brain and neurological damage especially among the young.

Others include kidney damage and damage to the digestive system. Victims can suffer memory loss and language impairment alongside many other well documented problems.



Good news for Kabul’s Tourism Bureau: The city’s air is unhealthy, but not full of feces

Particulate matter is a particularly (pun intended and embraced) dangerous form of air pollution. Particulates are usually in the air as soot, small bits of burned fossil fuels which may cause millions of premature deaths annually. It was largely soot pollution that caused Beijing's Bladerunner-esque pollution last week.

Dust over Kabul
Dust over Kabul.

As I said, particulate pollution is usually soot. It doesn't have to be. Sometimes, the polluting particles are something … much less pleasant. Take Kabul. From the Times:

It has long been a given that the air pollution in this city gets horrific: on average even worse than Beijing’s infamous haze, by one measure.

For nearly as long, there has been the widespread belief by foreign troops and officials here that -- let’s be blunt here -- feces are a part of the problem.

Canadian soldiers were even warned about it in predeployment briefings, which cited reports that one test had found that as many as 30 percent of air samples contained fecal particles. The Canadians were worried enough that the government ordered a formal investigation, officials say.

There's reason to think that this apocryphal pollution assessment could be accurate. Kabul is bursting at the seams. The Times indicates that only 5 percent of homes are connected to sewage systems, in a city that now holds 10 times what it was designed for. And a common heating source is dried dung.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Obama: ‘We will respond to the threat of climate change’

capitol inauguration

Just before noon Eastern time, President Barack Obama was (ceremonially) sworn in to his second term of office.

His second inaugural address was strong in its embrace of progressive values -- gay rights, addressing poverty, opposing gun violence, stopping voting restrictions. You can read the whole thing here.

Obama's message, at its broadest, was that America is built and progresses through united action. That our government must actually be "of the people." In that vein, the president devoted a paragraph to climate change.

We, the people, still believe that our obligations as Americans are not just to ourselves, but to all posterity. We will respond to the threat of climate change, knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms. The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition; we must lead it. We cannot cede to other nations the technology that will power new jobs and new industries -- we must claim its promise. That's how we will maintain our economic vitality and our national treasure -- our forests and waterways; our croplands and snowcapped peaks. That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.


Biden drops by the Green Inaugural Ball to say thanks

Biden at a 2010 green jobs event
Biden at a 2010 green jobs event.

Last night's Green Inaugural Ball had an unannounced speaker: Vice President Joe Biden.

He had a brief message for the activists and environmentalists in the room: "I came to say thank you." Politico has more:

"I'll tell you what my green dream is: that we finally face up to climate change," Biden said during a surprise appearance at the "Green Ball," an inaugural weekend event for environmental groups. ...

Biden offered no details about what the administration's approach will be but said, "I don't intend on ending this four years without getting an awful lot more done.”

He added: "Keep the faith."

And, in an apparent knock to Republicans who question climate science, he said, "There is science in the White House."


There’s a hole in my plastic-bag law

Alameda County, Calif., where I live, has banned stores from giving out plastic bags as of Jan. 1. It's great news that was a long time coming, considering the county is home to eco-minded cities Berkeley and Oakland.

The county suffers from its fair share of local plastic bag pollution. “Each year, the equivalent of 100,000 kitchen garbage bags worth of litter end up in our local waterways, including an estimated 1 million disposable plastic bags,” says Jim Scanlin, manager of Alameda County's Clean Water Program. And without a water treatment plant, all that plastic flows directly into local creeks and San Francisco Bay.

Most businesses have switched to paper bags. But because of a loophole in the law, they actually don't have to -- they can simply call a plastic bag "reusable," like this awesome one I got from my local liquor store the other day.

photo (54)

Read more: Living


There’s too much garbage for just two garbage patches

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and North Atlantic Garbage Patch have some new competition from the south, where scientists have discovered evidence of a new floating garbage island off the coast of Chile.

South Pacific 2011_111611_version3

Scientists at the 5 Gyres Institute -- which tracks plastic pollution in all five swirling subtropical gyres -- discovered this mass of plastic by looking at ocean currents. This patch has accumulated in the South Pacific subtropical gyre, right around Easter Island. It’s the first documentation of a trash patch in the Southern Hemisphere.

This video shows the projected spread of plastic pollution over the next 10 years:

"To create a solution to an ecosystem-wide problem we must understand the scope and magnitude of that problem," said 5 Gyres Executive Director Marcus Eriksen. "It's our mission to be on the frontlines of that understanding, and to continue monitoring the most remote regions of the world's oceans."

Read more: Uncategorized


Boeing’s efficient Dreamliner planes are especially efficient at battery fires

787 dreamliner

Boeing's 787 Dreamliner™©® was meant to be the company's cap-featherer, a "super-efficient airplane" that hauls hundreds of people for thousands of miles using 20 percent less fuel than older planes of the same size. The company touted its solar-powered factory that produced zero waste, promising to recycle planes once they'd been retired. The plane's fuselage even eliminates the use of over 40,000 rivets, reducing waste and resource use.

Sometimes, Dreamliners©™ don't come true. After five incidents in the past two weeks, Europe, Japan, and the United States have grounded all fifty 787s currently in use. While one flight reported problems with its brakes and another had a leaky fuel valve, the problems have centered around the planes' lithium-ion batteries. Wired explains the importance of those batteries -- including how they make the planes less fuel-intensive:

The 787 was first announced ten years ago this month, and has cost Boeing more than $30 billion to develop according to the Seattle Times. Much of that cost lies in the many innovative new technologies the company used to create the most fuel efficient airliner flying today.

Hailed as the airliner of the future, the 787 is mostly built from composite materials and uses an unprecedented amount of electricity to power many of the systems on board the airplane. The Dreamliner is often referred to as the first composite airliner, but it could just as easily called the most electric airliner ever. …


More than half the U.S. is still in drought, and it’s likely to last through April

Do you know where the largest desert in the world is? Go ahead, Google it. I'll wait. The correct answer: the Antarctic. Even though it is cold and covered with snow, it receives very, very small amounts of precipitation. The more you know, etc.

I bring this up to demonstrate that appearances can be deceiving. Right now, for example, it is winter. And despite that, and despite the fact that the United States saw a decent amount of precipitation last week, much of the country is still under drought conditions -- nearly 59 percent of the lower 48 states, in fact.

drought levels

And that is likely to continue. From Climate Central:

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living