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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


How to respond to people who say the cold weather disproves global warming

Prepare to get hit with the truth
Prepare to get hit with the truth.

Those of you on the East Coast or who have access to the internet are likely aware that a severe cold snap has hit the region. It is affecting me personally, both because it is cold in my apartment and because my Twitter stream is now doubling as a real-time thermometer (with cursing).

What this means is that the opportunity is ripe for people who like to deny the existence of climate change to make stupid jokes. Some of these people will pull goofy stunts like building igloos, stunts which will land them a place in infamy among future generations. Other, lower-profile idiots will stop by your desk at work or email you or (God forbid) reach out on Facebook, saying something like "LOL what happenid to global warmeng??????" They will also mention Al Gore. Some will suggest you visit a thing called "Drudge Report"; do not do this.

As a general rule, it is not wise to engage with these people. They have already demonstrated that rationality is not a strong suit, so attempting to reason with them will only bring stress and pain to you both. But if you do want to engage with them -- you have eight hours to kill; you are a masochist -- we put together this handy, step-by-step guide for you to do so. Remember: speak slowly and, if necessary, draw pictures. The task before you makes Anne Sullivan's look trivial.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


U.N. launches new fight against food waste

No one can agree on just how much food we're wasting. But it is so, so much.

Image (1) foodwaste_flickr_sporkist_640.jpg for post 40081

The United Nations and its Food and Agriculture Organization say it's a third of all food produced, while other studies say it's closer to 40 or 50 percent. After it leaves the farm, a lot of food is chucked because it's not pretty, or it's past its expiration date, or it simply falls through the cracks. According to the EPA, food waste makes up 21 percent of the garbage bound for landfills in the U.S.

This is not news -- we've known for a while that our modern foodprint is massive. What's noteworthy is that people are actually maybe kind of starting to do something about it.

Today the United Nations launched a campaign to reduce global food waste, which it estimates at 1.3 billion tons a year.

"In a world of 7 billion people, set to grow to 9 billion by 2050, wasting food makes no sense -- economically, environmentally, and ethically," said U.N. Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

The campaign, "Think-Eat-Save," calls on eaters to take some logical steps -- steps so seemingly obvious that it's sad we need a campaign to promote them. E.g. make a shopping list and avoid impulse buys and "marketing tricks." Also: Freeze leftovers, donate to food banks, and don't be afraid to buy "funny" looking fruit and veg (if they even make it to the store shelves, that is).

Read more: Food


Holy mackerel: Tiny fishes no longer sustainable in E.U.

Sustainable, healthy, cheap, and definitely not overfished! That's what we've been hearing about small, oily mackerel for years. Four varieties of mackerel have been listed as "best choices" on the Seafood Watch eating guide, and a fifth made the "good alternatives" list. Even Mark Bittman and Tom Philpott agreed on the virtues of mackerel over other less sustainable fishes back in 2009.

Please don't eat us!
Please don't eat us!

But all that popularity hasn't been so great for the poor little mackerels in the Atlantic. Due to overfishing, they were just knocked off the U.K.'s Marine Conservation Society (MCS) list of best fish to eat. From The Guardian:

There has been an increasingly bitter three-year dispute between Iceland and the EU -- mainly the UK -- over who has the right to land the once-plentiful fish.

Conservationists fear stocks could be at risk after Iceland and the Faroe Islands dramatically increased their quotas in recent years. In 2011, 930,000 tonnes of mackerel were fished from the north-east Atlantic, but scientists claim the maximum that should be caught is 542,000 tonnes. ...

Read more: Food


A be-nice, don’t-hog-the-road guide for cyclists

Pro tip: Here is how not to ride your bike in a city unless you want people to think you are a total dick.

To that end, Transportation Alternatives has a new Street Code for Cyclists handbook. It's specific to New York City's rules of the road, but a lot of what's in here is basic common sense for bicycling commuters.

Sarah Becan

The No. 1 message: Biking may in fact rule, but pedestrians are the real road royalty.

We know -- and studies show -- that more bicyclists make cycling safer and safer cycling will encourage more people to get out and ride. This is a virtuous cycle that we can work together to continue. In this effort the public’s perception of cyclists matters as much as, if not more than, any new bike lane or scores of new riders. ...

Here’s a simple proposition: always yield to pedestrians. ...

Read more: Cities, Living


Nebraska governor signs off on new Keystone XL pipeline route; TransCanada laughs maniacally

Somewhere in Canada, a TransCanada executive has a big checklist on his wall. At the bottom, circled in red: "Approval of Keystone XL!!!!" Until today, only two checkboxes remained unchecked. But now, there's only one, because he's put a big fat X next to "Get OK from Nebraska." The Times reports:

Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska approved on Tuesday a revised route for the Keystone XL pipeline through Nebraska, brushing aside vocal opposition from some citizen groups and putting final approval of the pipeline project squarely in the hands of the Obama administration.

Governor Heineman, a Republican, said in a letter to Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton that his state’s review found that the new route avoided sensitive lands and aquifers. Mr. Obama had rejected the previous route last January on the grounds that construction of the pipeline threatened Nebraska’s Sand Hills region and that a spill could contaminate the critical Ogallala Aquifer.

For now, anyway
Thomas Beck Photo
For now, anyway.

This was basically the bare minimum of what TransCanada needed to demonstrate: that a spill wouldn't permanently ruin a critical source of water used for irrigation. Last October, the state's Department of Environmental Quality OK'd the new proposed route. Last month, hundreds of Nebraskans attended a public meeting to dispute those findings -- and to suggest that any spill would be hugely problematic.


Exxon makes up with Iraq just in time for the discovery of a billion barrels of oil

An American soldier stands near a 2006 oil field fire near Kirkuk
An American soldier stands near a 2006 oil field fire near Kirkuk.

Tensions between the semiautonomous Kurdish region in northern Iraq and that country's government are high -- in large part thanks to oil. ExxonMobil's recent agreement to explore drilling within Kurdish territory sparked a ferocious response from Iraq. One military officer suggested that exploration would be "a declaration of war."

It's no secret what prompts such fury. There's an enormous amount of money in the Iraqi oil fields; some of those disinclined to be generous to our former president suggest that opening Iraq's oilfields to American companies was a motive for Bush's initial invasion of the country. Both Kurdish and Iraqi leaders would like to maintain control over those inky streams of money, reinforcing ExxonMobil's tricky position.

Last week, ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson sat down with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in an effort to repair relationships between the two. It's an important consideration. When Chevron announced an extraction deal in Kurdistan, Iraq banned the company from exploration elsewhere. From the Associated Press:

Iraq announced the meeting between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Exxon Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson in a brief statement following the talks in Baghdad. It offered few specifics, saying that the men discussed the company’s activities and working conditions in Iraq.

Tillerson said Exxon was eager to continue and expand its work in Iraq and “will take important decisions in this regard,” according to the statement. …

A spokesman for the Kurdish regional government, Safeen Dizayee, downplayed the significance of Monday’s meeting.

“What is important is the results of this meeting, not the meeting itself,” he said. “We have not seen any change in Exxon Mobil’s policies regarding its work in Kurdistan.”

Another recent announcement provides additional incentive for ExxonMobil to mend fences.


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