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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Celebrities to Obama: Fix the climate! Obama to celebrities: Sure, you got it

Can Evangeline Lilly, Ian Somerhalder, Malin Akerman, and Phillipe Cousteau succeed where others have failed? I don't know. I don't know who those people are. I'm guessing the last is Jacques' son, and Lilly is an actress, I'm pretty sure, but I'm not going to Google her.

These are some of the 24 (!!!) celebrities who have signed a letter to the president initiated by the Sierra Club. It quotes Obama's inaugural speech and then reads:

The letter in ad form. Click to see bigger version.
An ad featuring the letter. Click to see big PDF version.

Your legacy as 44th president of the United States rests firmly on your leadership on climate disruption. Only the president has the power to lead an effort on the scale and with the urgency we need to phase out fossil fuels and lead America, and the world, in a clean energy revolution.


Emphasis and capitalization in the original because pay attention, Obama.


Germany’s conservative environment minister kiboshes fracking

I do not understand German politics. Are they always the complete opposite of America? Is that how it works?

In Germany, for example, a conservative politician, the country's environment minister, suggested that he opposed fracking. From The Guardian:

Pending rules for the drilling techniques would likely be tightened, said Peter Altmaier, a conservative politician in chancellor Angela Merkel's government.

"The message is we want to limit fracking, we don't want to facilitate it," he told Deutschlandfunk radio. "And anyway I don't see in the foreseeable future that fracking will be employed anywhere within Germany." …

Altmaier said he would recommend that interested parties refrain from applying for exploration licences.

Those "interested parties" include BASF and ExxonMobil.

This is somewhere in Germany, for what it's worth.
This is somewhere in Germany, for what it's worth.

Bizarroland, right? It gets weirder.


Are green jobs meant to help the economy or the jobless?

Image (1) green_jobs_economy.jpg for post 31361

Over the weekend, two very different media outlets ran two very different takes on green jobs.

David Leonhardt, writing for The New York Times, begins with a common critique: Green jobs produce more expensive energy, so they're a net loss for the economy.

Green jobs have long had a whiff of exaggeration to them. The alternative-energy sector may ultimately employ millions of people. But raising the cost of the energy that households and businesses use every day -- a necessary effect of helping the climate -- is not exactly a recipe for an economic boom.

Not when framed like that, certainly. Leonhardt doesn't address the built-in economic advantages fossil fuels enjoy, nor the recent examples of price parity between fossils and solar, for example. He's trying to make a broader point: The climate should be fixed for its own sake, because the economic cost of climate change over the long run will be enormous. The goal is preventing disaster, not worrying about jobs.

This is an easy argument for the Washington bureau chief of The New York Times to make. Contrast Leonhardt with Aaron Alton, as profiled in a thoughtful piece by Brentlin Mock at Gawker.

After an intense six-week training program, the only thing that stands between Aaron Alton and a $90,000 fracking job is a commercial driver's license. It's August of 2012. The job, at a natural gas drilling company, is Aaron's ticket out of Harrisburg, PA.


Can we blame climate change for the Northeast’s massive blizzard?

The great blizzard of 2013 (which shall remain nameless) has come and gone. At least 15 people were killed, and 700,000 lost power. A nuclear power plant in Massachusetts was knocked offline. Storm surge in the state flooded several communities. In many parts of the Northeast, new one-day snowfall records were set. It was a massive storm -- one whose damage could have been much worse.

Christopher Burt at the Weather Underground puts the storm in perspective:

The storm was certainly among the top five to affect Southern New England and Maine and for some localities, the worst winter storm on record (going back 300 years since European inhabitants began keeping track of such things). …

It can probably be said that winter storm Nemo was the 2nd most intense winter storm event for Long Island, Connecticut, eastern Massachusetts, and perhaps Rhode Island. For Long Island and Connecticut the Blizzard of 1888 remains unparalleled whereas for Rhode Island and eastern Massachusetts the Blizzard of 1978 remains the top event. For southeastern Maine it would appear that Nemo has been the most extreme snowstorm on record. …

I might add that it is a bit unsettling that two of the most significant storms in the past 300 years to strike the northeastern quadrant of the U.S. have occurred within just four months from one another.

Emphasis added, because it's worth emphasizing.

nemo blizzard nasa
Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


The budget turmoil may mean no meat inspectors — and no meat

In every respect, the sequester is dumb. If you're only vaguely familiar with the term as it's being used this month: God bless you. But a little background is in order. The recently ended 112th Congress wasn't mature enough to come up with a plan to reduce the deficit (even though it had declared that the deficit was a big priority), so it decided to build a time bomb. "If you don't come up with a budget plan in the spring," it said, "this thing's gonna blow, slicing over a trillion dollars from the budget over the next decade." The 112th Congress then laughed maniacally and did nothing for the rest of the year. Now the 113th Congress is standing around holding this big bomb, sweating nervously, mad at the previous Congress (which was almost entirely the same people).

Oh, you don't care? Good, slash government, you say? Cool attitude. But also: Say goodbye to all of the meat you eat. From Reuters:

The Obama administration warned on Friday that across-the-board spending cuts set to take effect in March may result in furloughing every U.S. meat and poultry inspector for two weeks, causing the meat industry to shut down.

By law, meatpackers and processors are not allowed to ship beef, pork, lamb and poultry meat without the Agriculture Department's inspection seal.

Remember before when you were like, "Who cares about budget cuts?" Now, you do. Ha ha.

Can you even imagine going a day without delicacies like this?
Read more: Food, Politics


Are solar panels the worst thing for the environment ever? Um, no

Solar panel users.

Some very bad news, American consumers. You know those solar panels that you thought were so "green"? Turns out that they're completely terrible for the environment. Seriously. Completely terrible and awful and you're basically personally responsible for the eventual decline and collapse of modern civilization if you use one. It's sad, but true.

From the Associated Press:

While solar is a far less polluting energy source than coal or natural gas, many panel makers are nevertheless grappling with a hazardous waste problem. Fueled partly by billions in government incentives, the industry is creating millions of solar panels each year and, in the process, millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water.

To dispose of the material, the companies must transport it by truck or rail far from their own plants to waste facilities hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of miles away.

The fossil fuels used to transport that waste, experts say, is not typically considered in calculating solar's carbon footprint, giving scientists and consumers who use the measurement to gauge a product's impact on global warming the impression that solar is cleaner than it is.

You there. With the solar panel on your roof. Thanks for killing America.


Global wind capacity up 20 percent in 2012 — thanks in part to the U.S.’ monster December

Michael Lemmon

The tally is in: Wind had a hell of a 2012. From the Guardian:

Wind power expanded by almost 20% in 2012 around the world to reach a new peak of 282 gigawatts (GW) of total installed capacity. Of the 45GW of new wind turbines that arrived in 2012, China and the US led the way with 13GW each, while Germany, India and the UK were next with about 2GW apiece. …

The UK now ranks sixth in the world for installed wind power, with 8.5GW. In Europe, only Germany (31GW) and Spain (23GW) have more. China leads the world with 77GW installed and the US is second with 60GW.

The amount of installed capacity has been growing nearly exponentially over the past two decades.

Interestingly, last year's surge is thanks in part to American politics. More than five of the U.S.' 13 added gigawatts came in December, according to the Energy Information Administration.


A fracking horror story: Do you know who owns what’s underneath your land?

For your weekend reading, a horror story from North Carolina, via Reuters:

Three years ago, Vince and Jeanne Rhea found the house of their dreams in Shirley, Arkansas. They couldn’t believe the deal: 40 acres complete with a separate workshop that Jeanne could use as an art studio and two nearby lakes. It was also thousands of dollars cheaper than a property of that quality should have been. They booked a plane ticket from Raleigh, North Carolina that day to fly down and buy it.

When they got to Arkansas, they found out why it was so cheap.

The owner of the house had recently sold the mineral rights under the property to a natural gas company for use in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, a drilling technique that is opening new areas across the country for energy exploration. The front page of the local newspaper that day had a story about problems in the water supply and was advising residents not to bathe, Jeanne recalled. “There was no way we were making an offer after that,” she said.

Close call. Except that the Rheas then bought property in Lee County, a rural area of North Carolina -- and found that it too was over a shale formation.

[B]ecause of two arcane laws known as split estates and forced pooling, they may not even have the right to say whether gas companies can drill on their property. ...

“Whether we want to sell or not, the gas companies could take our property from us,” said Vince Rhea.

The courthouse in Lee County, North Carolina
The courthouse in Lee County, N.C.


Have coal companies been ripping Americans off even more than we already knew?

The coal industry, for as much as it whines and frets and fake-cries about how oppressive the government is, gets a pretty sweet deal. We've noted before than companies pay 25 cents a ton for coal from public lands and then can turn around and sell it for $35 a ton. (We've also mentioned that they often sell that coal to China, meaning we're subsidizing the world's largest consumer of coal, but that's a whole other issue.)

This was reported as eight pounds of coal, probably
This was reported as eight pounds of coal, probably.

What makes this so much more galling is that the weepy coal companies might not even be paying for all of the coal they're extracting. From The Hill:

Interior is looking into whether mining firms lowball the value of coal excavated from federal lands to minimize the fees they pay the government. …

Reuters said mining companies are underreporting the price of coal at mine sites — where royalties are assessed — then selling it to marketers that they often times own. Reuters said those intermediaries then ship the coal abroad, where they fetch higher prices.

[Sen. Ron Wyden (R-Ore.)] and Energy Committee ranking member Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) had asked [Interior Secretary Ken] Salazar to examine those charges in a January letter. They said the government could ill afford to lose out on any revenues, noting coal royalties amounted to $898 million in 2011.


Unable to stop climate change, EPA prepares for it

Jenna Pope

"We live in a world in which the climate is changing."

This statement from the EPA, the first line in its draft "Climate Change Adaptation Plan" [PDF] released today, is basic. But that the EPA is saying it is important.

For two reasons. The first is that the agency is advancing an argument it will need to make more forcefully later this year as it pushes for curbs on greenhouse gas pollution that could stem some of the worst effects of that changing climate. Though the draft report is dated June 2012, it only came out today -- less than a week before a State of the Union address in which Obama is expected to call for climate action. And, second, the EPA needs to get ready for what a warmed world looks like.

Until now, EPA has been able to assume that climate is relatively stable and future climate will mirror past climate. However, with climate changing more rapidly than society has experienced in the past, the past is no longer a good predictor of the future. Climate change is posing new challenges to EPA’s ability to fulfill its mission.

"Until now," huh? If you say so.

Over the course of 55 pages, the agency outlines the ways in which its mission -- protecting America's air and water -- will be threatened by climate change. For those who've been tracking the issue, it's largely what you'd expect. It's important to note: This is not a document meant to suggest how the EPA will prevent climate change. It simply says "here's what will happen as the world warms" and then considers how that will affect its mission.