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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Oh no, the Doomsday Clock didn’t change at all

This clock -- like all clocks -- is wrong.
This clock -- like all clocks -- is wrong.

If you are asked what time it is, the answer is 11:55. If you are asked what happens at midnight, the answer is "all of humanity is destroyed and the Earth becomes the crumbling home planet of resilient insects until it is eventually consumed by the sun." On the plus side, if you answer this way people will probably stop asking you what time it is.

Yes, our friends at the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (not a supervillain meetup) have decided that we are five theoretical minutes from our complete destruction -- a determination that … doesn't change from last year. So that's good, I guess? From Live Science:

Keeping their outlook for the future of humanity quite dim, the group of scientists also wrote an open letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to partner with other global leaders to act on climate change.

The clock is a symbol of the threat of humanity's imminent destruction from nuclear or biological weapons, climate change and other human-caused disasters. In making their deliberations about how to update the clock's time this year, the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists considered the current state of nuclear arsenals around the globe, the slow and costly recovery from events like Fukushima nuclear meltdown, and extreme weather events that fit in with a pattern of global warming.

I don't really get why the clock didn't change. We took more steps backward in 2012 than we did forward, according to analysis by yers truly. And isn't the nature of climate change such that the threat of it automatically increases over time?


California’s nutty farmland values are spiking

Over the past few years, farmland values have ballooned nationwide. In California, that rise has not only changed the economics of Central Valley farming, but the crops themselves.

A weak dollar has pushed up demand for exports of California's goods to Asia, especially almonds, pistachios, and walnuts. In 2011, almonds beat out California's iconic grapes as the state's second top commodity, at $3.9 billion a year. Nut-growing farmland value has grown 15 to 20 percent over the last two years, and it's still consistently selling for 10-20 percent above asking price.

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In the economically troubled Central Valley, this is the kind of market that makes short-sighted investors drool and long-view economists wince. From the Associated Press:

Investors both foreign and domestic have taken notice, buying up farmland and driving up agricultural land values in a region with some of the highest residential foreclosure rates.

California's almond industry, which grows about 80 percent of the global almond supply and 100 percent of the domestic supply, saw the most dramatic growth powered by strong demand from new money-spending middle classes in India and China. The growth has prompted a rush for almond-growing land and pushed almond land values through the roof ...


More Hill staff go on to lobby for the oil industry, because this is how politics works

lend me a lobbyist

Here's more of this nonsense. From The Hill:

The Independent Petroleum Association of America (IPAA) has hired a pair of House GOP staffers to promote oil-and-gas development in Western states and the Gulf of Mexico.

The industry lobbying group said Tuesday that it’s expanding its government affairs staff by adding Mallori McClure, who was an aide to Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.), and Samantha McDonald, who worked for Rep. John Fleming (R-La.).

“Mallori’s and Samantha’s experience on Capitol Hill, both advising legislators who not only sat on the House Natural Resources Committee, but who represent important energy-producing states primes them perfectly to advocate for America’s independent oil and natural gas producers inside the Beltway,” said IPAA President Barry Russell in a statement.

Bullshit. Mallori and Samantha's relationships on Capitol Hill prime them perfectly to advocate for the industry with their friends and former associates.


2012, the hottest year in U.S. history, was one of the coldest years this century globally

This is the state of the climate as we know it now. 2012 was only the 10th-warmest year in recorded history around the world (though, of course, it was the warmest in U.S. history). Nonetheless, 2012 global land and sea temperatures were higher than every year in the 20th century, save one, 1998. Yet in terms of the 21st century, 2012 was one of the coldest.

Again, just to make the point: The hottest year in American history was one of the coldest worldwide this century.

Here's the overview from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

The globally-averaged temperature for 2012 marked the 10th warmest year since record keeping began in 1880. It also marked the 36th consecutive year with a global temperature above the 20th century average. The last below-average annual temperature was 1976. Including 2012, all 12 years to date in the 21st century (2001–2012) rank among the 14 warmest in the 133-year period of record.

Read more: Climate & Energy


As the House votes on Sandy aid, dudgeon and hypocrisy are in full effect

Do you remember superstorm Sandy? Big storm that happened last year. Wiped out a bunch of houses; knocked out the transportation system in the nation's largest city for a week. If you do remember it, you'll be glad to hear that word of the disaster has finally reached Washington, D.C., our nation's capital.


Today (already!) the House of Representatives will leap into action on providing aid to affected communities. We outlined how the vote was expected to go last week. Fox News provides an update:

The base $17 billion bill by the House Appropriations Committee is aimed at immediate Sandy recovery needs, including $5.4 billion for New York and New Jersey transit systems and $5.4 billion for the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster relief aid fund.

Northeast lawmakers will have a chance to add to that bill with an amendment by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, R-N.J., for an additional $33.7 billion, including $10.9 billion for public transportation projects. ...

"We have more than enough votes, I'm confident of that," said Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., claiming strong support from Democrats and Republicans from the Northeast and other states for both the base $17 billion bill and the amendment for the additional $33.7 billion.

Well, we'll see about that. I haven't whipped the Congress, but I've seen enough of this House GOP to know that they won't spend a dime on New York liberals without throwing some sort of tantrum.

Credit where it's due, however. When the House passed the first part of a relief package, some $9.7 billion to support an almost-broke FEMA, a number of Republican lawmakers opposed the measure. One has changed his mind. From Talking Points Memo:


Feds mark territory all over L.A. wildlife habitat

Los Angelenos may be fond of their cars, but they're also fond of their diverse wildlife. That's probably not what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was counting on when it unilaterally and without warning decided to clear-cut 43 acres of wildlife habitat on L.A.'s Sepulveda Basin.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Much of the area's vegetation had been planted in the 1980s, part of an Army Corps project that turned that portion of the Los Angeles River flood plain into a designated wildlife preserve.

Tramping through the mud Friday, botanist Ellen Zunino — who was among hundreds of volunteers who planted willows, coyote brush, mule fat and elderberry trees in the area — was engulfed by anger, sadness and disbelief.

"I'm heartbroken. I was so proud of our work," the 66-year-old said, taking a deep breath. "I don't see any of the usual signs of preparation for a job like this, such as marked trees or colored flags," Zunino added. "It seems haphazard and mean-spirited, almost as though someone was taking revenge on the habitat."

In 2010, the preserve had been reclassified as a "vegetation management area" — with a new five-year mission of replacing trees and shrubs with native grasses to improve access for Army Corps staffers, increase public safety and discourage crime in an area plagued by sex-for-drugs encampments.

The Army Corps declared that an environmental impact report on the effort was not necessary because it would not significantly disturb wildlife and habitat.

By Friday, however, nearly all of the vegetation — native and non-native — had been removed. Decomposed granite trails, signs, stone structures and other improvements bought and installed with public money had been plowed under.

Since the razing, the Corps has posted many photos of happy birds in other parts of the basin habitat in an attempt to reassure the public, or at least the public that is aware of its Flickr page. The Corps said that "somehow" it "didn't clearly communicate" its intentions to plow under the habitat. Is it any wonder that excuse didn't go over so well with, well, anyone?

Read more: Cities


New GOP House Science committee chair to hold totally objective climate hearings

Rep. Lamar Smith, pictured here probably thinking about science.
Rep. Lamar Smith, pictured here probably thinking about science.

We'll admit, we were skeptical when we heard that Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) would be taking over as chair of the House Science committee. This is the guy, after all, who in 2009 awarded major news networks a "Lap Dog Award" for covering climate change. (Lap dogs are known for reporting demonstrably true news.)

Smith has big plans once he takes the reins, including getting to the bottom of this "climate change" thing. The Dallas News reports:

The Texan who just took over as chairman of the House Science Committee, Rep. Lamar Smith, R-San Antonio, plans a fresh assessment [of climate change], with a hearing in coming weeks on the current state of the environment, according to a committee aide.

“I believe climate change is due to a combination of factors, including natural cycles, sun spots, and human activity. But scientists still don’t know for certain how much each of these factors contributes to the overall climate change that the Earth is experiencing,” Smith said through an aide. “It is the role of the Science Committee to create a forum for discussion so Congress and the American people can hear from experts and draw reasoned conclusions. During this process, we should focus on the facts rather than on a partisan agenda.”

Man. Great idea, Rep. Smith. Really. Let's cut through the partisan bullshit and figure out what's really going on with the climate. Let's hold hearings! What could be more effective than that?

Well, maybe that just-released 1,200-page report on the climate change effects likely to hit the U.S. over the course of this century. A report years in the making that involves reams and reams of scientific data and research from 300 government and independent scientists. A report drafted by an agency created by Congress. A report that is categorical in its assessment that climate change is real, is happening, and promises to radically shift the country's environment.


Court: Polar bear habitat that interferes with oil drilling has to go

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Through a bit of evolutionary serendipity, polar bears are cute. They are big and fuzzy and have thick, dopey heads. This is helpful to the polar bears, because it's given the animals a powerful tool in their fight for existence. "Do you want polar bears to go away?" fundraising pleas ask above a sharp photograph of a bear's clear black eyes.

To which oil companies say, "Only if they're in the way." Last week, a federal court in Alaska overturned a Fish and Wildlife Service habitat designation for polar bears after the fossil fuel industry sued, complaining that the habitat interefered with oil exploration. From the Wall Street Journal:

A U.S. court in Alaska has overturned a federal rule aimed at protecting polar bear habitat in the Arctic, handing a victory to the oil and natural-gas industry.

The rule, established by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is "valid in many respects," but the agency didn't follow all the legally required steps before adopting the regulation, U.S. District Court Judge Ralph R. Beistline wrote in the decision, which was dated Thursday and published Friday. …

The government designated barrier islands, offshore sea-ice and "denning" areas, where female polar bears are known to make dens where they give birth to their young during winter months, as critical habitat. At the time of the designation, in November 2010, the Fish and Wildlife Service said the areas were "essential for the conservation of the bear."


California cold snaps farmers’ crops

Time for more predictably weird weather news! Sunny California, while still sunny, has been freezing this week. Temperatures statewide plunged to as much as 20 degrees F below normal, the lowest lows the state has seen in years.

The freezing overnight temps are seriously bad news for California farmers' crops, especially the state's $2 billion citrus industry, which accounts for most of the commercially available oranges and lemons in the U.S.

mr. ephotopoet

Strawberry and avocado farmers, too, "are having a lot of sleepless nights," protecting crops with in-field heaters, coverings, fans, and water.

From the Los Angeles Times:

The cold snap has been a particular concern for citrus farmers across the state, who have been up all night since Thursday. There are $1 billion in oranges, lemons, tangerines and grapefruit still on trees in California, the nation's largest producer of fresh citrus.

Read more: Food


U.S. renewable investment drops in 2012 — but still hits second-highest level ever


This is one of those "good news/bad news" things. We'll start with the bad news, from The Hill:

Green energy investment fell in 2012 globally after hitting record levels the year before, driven in part by reduced activity in the United States, according to new data from Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

The research firm reported Monday that overall investment was $269 billion, down from $302 billion in 2011 …

And now the good.

… but still the second highest level ever, according to its database. …

“We warned at the start of last year that investment in 2012 was likely to fall below 2011 levels, but rumors of the death of clean energy investment have been greatly exaggerated,” Michael Liebreich, the company’s CEO, said.

“Indeed, the most striking aspect of these figures is that the decline was not bigger, given the fierce headwinds the clean-energy sector faced in 2012 as a result of policy uncertainty, the ongoing European fiscal crisis and continuing sharp falls in technology costs,” he said.