Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Beijing’s air is dirty for the same reason yours might be: Polluting neighbors

Yesterday, a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., issued a major blow to efforts to curb air pollution. A lower court last year struck down the EPA’s cross-state air pollution rule, and the appeals court declined to reconsider the case. The rule aimed to reduce air pollution that travels from one state to another, a situation that limits the ability of the polluted state to take action against polluters.

The problem is perhaps best illustrated by what's now happening in China. Today in Beijing, the air quality is "unhealthy," according to the automatic sensor atop the U.S. embassy. Two weeks ago, it was five times worse, drawing the world's attention to a problem that had become literally visible in the Chinese capital. This is what the air looked like two days ago, on Wednesday, as the country's legislature held its annual meeting.

The mayor of Beijing attempted to explain that his city has made progress. From Xinhua:

At the first session of the 14th Beijing Municipal People's Congress on Tuesday, acting mayor Wang Anshun said in a work report that the density of major pollutants, such as sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide, has dropped by an average of 29 percent over the past five years.

The high percentage stirred debate among deputies on Wednesday, as the current smog could make residents suspicious over the truthfulness of the figure. Some deputies even advised deleting the reference from the report to avoid disputes from the public.

Wang's data on pollution levels may be questionable, but there is an argument that he could make effectively: It's not all Beijing's fault.


When trees die, so do we

Trees! Everyone loves trees. They soak up carbon, make stuff pretty, and have been shown to keep crime down in cities. It's pretty clear our fates are tied to the trees'. Sooo, what happens when they all die? Uhh, so do we.


Millions of ash trees in the Eastern and Midwestern U.S. are being chomped to bits by a beetle called the emerald ash borer. But those beetles aren't just hurting trees. From Discovery:

[I]n the neighborhoods hit by the beetle that kills ash trees, researchers noticed a stark rise in human mortality from cardiovascular and lower respiratory disease: there were 15,000 more deaths from cardiovascular disease, or 16.7 additional deaths per year per 100,000 adults, and 6,000 more deaths from lower respiratory disease than in unaffected areas, or 6.8 additional deaths per year per 100,000 adults.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Could the sharing economy kill public transit?

Ken Schmier is a Bay Area transit guru. He's essentially responsible for the limitless Muni Fast Pass in San Francisco, and created the NextBus application in the 2000s to help people catch those ever-elusive city buses. But now Schmier is thinking transit may not be all it's cracked up to be.

abandoned bus

“Frankly,” the Bay Area attorney and businessman told Next City, “I think transit agencies are obsolete.”

Blame that damn sharing economy.

Schmier is now all about what he calls “Micro-Transit” -- in other words, ride-sharing, or turning regular cars into taxis.

sharing-economy-detailThe Bay Area already has Casual Car Pool, a long-standing ride-share project that relies on a vintage website and message board instead of the smartphones and big money of new ride-sharing ventures. It’s kind of an organized form of hitchhiking, and it really works.

Schmier wants to make this general idea more efficient, scalable, and tech-savvy. From Next City:

Read more: Cities


Hey evil coal boss: Is it also Obama’s fault if you’re hiring workers back?

Robert Murray
Reuters / Danny Moloshok

This guy! We haven't seen Robert Murray since around election time and, to be honest, we missed him. He's the closest thing we've got in the 21st century to an evil 19th-century coal baron, hellbent on profit and laughing heartily at the misfortunes of the poor. He's retro. That's always fun.

Last time we heard from Murray was when he sent a prayer to his local West Virginia paper lamenting how the reelection of Barack Obama meant he had to fire a bunch of his staff. (Was it the staff that he docked a day's pay to appear in a Romney ad? Was it the staff he forced to contribute to his political action fund? We may never know.) So, wiping away big fucking crocodile tears, Murray wrote these powerful words:

The American people have made their choice. They have decided that America must change its course, away from the principals of our Founders. And, away from the idea of individual freedom and individual responsibility. Away from capitalism, economic responsibility, and personal acceptance. ...

Lord, please forgive me and anyone with me in Murray Energy Corp. for the decisions that we are now forced to make to preserve the very existence of any of the enterprises that you have helped us build.

Then: boom, pink slips, because Obama is killing coal and hates white people, probably. Boo-fucking-hoo, Robert Murray is so sad.


Kerry comes out strong for clean energy in nomination hearing

Right now on Capitol Hill, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) is being grilled by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee as it considers his nomination to be secretary of state. Well, not grilled exactly. Smiled at, mostly. So far, the most contentious issue has been the 9/11 attack in Benghazi, Libya, in part because the Republican members who failed to unsettle Hillary Clinton on the topic yesterday are trying to save face.

kerry hearing
Kerry appears before the Senate committee.

The next secretary of state -- who will 100 percent certainly be Kerry unless he suddenly moves to Canada or is photographed giving nuclear waste to terrorists and even then the odds only drop to 80 percent -- will be responsible for signing off on the permit that will allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. The topic has come up during today's confirmation hearing. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) raised it, as did Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wy.). Each time, Kerry punted, suggesting that he needed to study the issue more. This is probably the most we're going to hear on the issue during this hearing.

But Kerry went long on climate change and clean energy in response to another question from Barrasso. Here's the exchange:


Cool job posting: Earn $20 pretending to hate wind energy

Important job opportunity, everyone. From Craigslist:

Our firm needs 100 volunteers to attend and participate in a rally in front of the British Consulate/Embassy in Midtown Manhattan on the East Side on Wednesday, January 30, 2013 at 12 noon. The event is being held in order to protest wind turbines that are being built in Scotland and England. Your participation will be to ONLY stand next to or behind the speakers and elected officials/celebrities that will be speaking at the rally.

"Volunteers" will each get $20. That's the going rate in New York City for a closely held political principle.

This is sort of what protestors look like
This is sort of what protestors look like.


Utah Republican proposes bill to prepare for climate-change-worsened wildfires

Yesterday, Utah Physicians for a Healthy Environment declared that the air in Salt Lake City constituted a health emergency. From CBS News:

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has singled out the greater Salt Lake region as having the nation's worst air for much of January, when an icy fog smothers mountain valleys for days or weeks at a time and traps lung-busting soot.

That's what led more than 100 Utah doctors to petition state officials on Wednesday. They suggest lowering highway speed limits, making mass transit free for the winter and curbing industrial activities. They also call for a permanent ban on wood-burning, and want large employees to let people work from home.

Levels of soot in the air around Salt Lake City reached 130 micrograms per cubic meter -- well above the EPA's clean air standard of 35 micrograms.

Smog over Salt Lake City, 2006
Smog over Salt Lake City, 2006.

Interestingly, at about the same time that the physicians group made its declaration, a (Republican!) state legislator in Utah introduced a bill targeting one key contributor to air pollution and soot: wildfires. Climate change is expected to vastly increase the number of wildfires in the state, for which Rep. Kraig Powell suggests the state should plan in advance. From The Salt Lake Tribune:


Shell wins prestigious award for ineptitude

Quick word of congratulations to our friends at Shell. Yesterday, the company was awarded the Public Eye People's Award for 2013 -- making it (as far as I can tell) the first two-time winner of this estimable honor, having also won in 2005.

What's the Public Eye Award? From the website for this esteemed prize:

The Public Eye Awards mark a critical counterpoint to the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos. Organized since 2000 by Berne Declaration and Friends of the Earth (in 2009 replaced by Greenpeace), Public Eye reminds the corporate world that social and environmental misdeeds have consequences - for the affected people and territory, but also for the reputation of the offender.

Emphasis added.

Guilty ... of winning awards!
Guilty ... of winning awards!

And why did Shell earn top honors? (Well, alongside Goldman Sachs.) (I accidentally typed "Goldamn Sachs" and thought briefly about keeping that.)

Shell is always involved in particularly controversial, risky and dirty oil production projects. Thus, this Dutch-British corporation, chosen by online users for the public naming and shaming award, is also out in front in the highly risky search for fossil fuels in the fragile Arctic. This has been made possible by climate change and the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap, to which Shell has contributed. Every Arctic offshore oil project means new CO2 emissions. The Arctic's oil reserves are enough for just three years. For this, Shell is jeopardising one of the Earth's last natural paradises and endangering the living space of four million people, as well as unique fauna.


World leaders emitted 2.5 million kilograms of CO2 getting to Davos

The World Economic Forum worries about climate change. Here is the organization's page on the issue, including its "CEO Climate Policy Recommendations." (For example: “‘Environmentally effective and economically efficient’ framework proposed to succeed Kyoto Accord.” Get on that, U.N.!) This week, WEF's CEO friends are at the Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, which we've mentioned.

Which made us wonder: How much did getting all of those CEOs and government leaders and baseball players together itself contribute to climate change?

The answer is: quite a bit. But before we get to the actual number, here's how we got it. Earlier this week, the business site Quartz got its hands on the complete attendee list for this year's Davos gathering. Quartz parsed the data about 15 different ways (go play with the sorting tool!) and, when we asked, were happy to share the data with us. (The Forum has an updated list [PDF], but Quartz' data is more than enough for our purposes.)

Davos Town

Getting to Davos isn't easy. The picture above shows the town itself, small boxes at the base of various Alps and foothills. There's no airport. The only ways in are by train, car, or -- for the elite of the elite -- helicopter. The closest major airport is in Zurich, about a three-hour train ride away. For the smallest possible carbon footprint, then, someone from the United States would fly to Zurich and take the train in. (This is what I did, in 2009.) Seems modest. Until you realize that over 700 people came from the United States to attend the Annual Meeting -- not including World Economic Forum staff or support staff.


Americans are consuming less high-fructose corn syrup

High-fructose corn syrup was our sweetener of choice in the late '90s, when we were all high on junk food and the potential for this crazy new thing called The Internet. Those were fast times!

Now we are jaded and less interested in the sweet stuff. According to the USDA, this year only 4.5 percent of the U.S. corn crop is expected to be used for production of high-fructose corn syrup, the lowest amount since 1997.

12-10-24banksysodaFuck you, soda!

Corn costs have tripled since 2004, making the syrup a less cost-effective sweetener. And some health advocates say efforts to combat obesity have helped to curb HFCS consumption, including New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s much-despised and much-lauded big soda ban.

From Bloomberg the news source, not Bloomberg the mayor: