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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


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.


‘Soul Food Junkies’ digs into African American food history and habits

Is soul food "the bane of African American health," or is it a cuisine with a long and complex cultural history?

What if it's both?

Filmmaker Byron Hurt's documentary Soul Food Junkies premiering tonight on PBS aims to tell the history of soul food and contextualize collards, peas, and cornbread in the contemporary fight for food justice in communities of color, communities we often call "food deserts."

Food deserts are by definition low-income communities without supermarkets or grocery stores, where fresh food is a rarity and people suffer from obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. We often blame food deserts themselves for those health problems, but that label can obscure culinary history, not to mention some basic facts. Many poor urban neighborhoods aren't actually food deserts at all -- they're closer to food swamps full of ready-made and relatively cheap processed items. The "nutritional timberline," as Karla Cornejo Villavicencio coins it at The New Inquiry, is a real thing.

In Hurt's film, he interviews a woman who is upset that her local grocery only carries vegetables “that look like they’re having a nervous breakdown." From PBS:

The idea is that if healthy choices are available, people will buy them. And that works to an extent. But old habits die hard. A 15-year longitudinal study found that upping the number of grocery stores in low-income areas didn’t result in people automatically buying healthier food.

Read more: Cities, Food


The 32 most alarming charts from the government’s climate change report

Just reading about the government’s massive new report outlining what climate change has in store for the U.S. is sobering. In brief: temperature spikes, drought, flooding, less snow, less permafrost. But if you really want to freak out, you should check out the graphs, charts, and maps.

For the more visually oriented bunker builders out there, here are the 32 most alarming images from the 1,200-page draft report. (Click any of them to embiggen.)

Things will be different.
Analysis suggests that temperatures could rise as much as 11 degrees by the end of the century. On this chart, note the lines labelled SRES A2 and SRES B1. Those are the two greenhouse gas emission scenarios used as worst- and best-case scenarios in many of the charts that follow.

1 temperature projections

It's possible that sea levels could only rise eight inches. It is also possible that they could rise over six-and-a-half feet.

1a sea level range

Over the past 30 years, we've already seen hundreds of billion-dollar weather disasters -- heavily centered on the South and Southeast.

1b climate disasters


California enjoys and/or suffers from a historic baby bust

Despite what my Facebook friend feed may be implying lately, California as a whole is not bursting at the seams with cute drooly babies. In fact, the Golden State is having a population crisis, at least by American standards. According to a new report from the University of Southern California, the state is making a "historic transition": California's fertility rate has dropped to 1.94 children per woman, below the 2.1 rate that replaces and grows the population and the economy. The U.S. birthrate was 2.06 children last year. Demographers are calling the drop, which has affected all racial and ethnic groups, "unprecedented" (and "European").


"Kids are no longer overrunning us. Now they're in short supply," demographer Dowell Myers told the San Jose Mercury News. "It changes the priorities for the state."

Post-baby-boom, California had no population worries. In 1970, kids accounted for a third of the state's population. Now they're projected to make up one-fifth by 2030.

The Wall Street Journal is particularly hysterical about what a lower population might mean for California's economic growth.

"Unless the birthrate picks up, we are going to need more immigrants. If neither happens, we are going to have less growth," said [Stephen Levy, director of the Center for Continuing Study of the California Economy]. The report wasn't optimistic, saying that "with migration greatly reduced…outsiders are much less likely to come to the rescue."

Read more: Living


BP kinda hoping the government can ignore a few hundred million barrels of spilled Gulf oil

British Petroleum, former record-holder for "most inept at U.S. offshore drilling," has a favor to ask of the government. Yeah, sure, the government says that 4.9 million barrels of oil were spilled when the Deepwater Horizon went blooey, but if we could agree it was actually more like, oh, 4.1 million, that would save BP a few bucks.

From FuelFix:

The U.S. government has asserted that the well discharged 4.9 million barrels of oil, or 206 million gallons. BP stated again in its filing Friday that it believes the spill was significantly smaller, though it hasn’t publicly provided its own estimate.

With a finding of gross negligence, the 4.9-million-barrel figure would carry a maximum Clean Water Act fine of more than $21 billion.

How big a dent would this obviously scientifically accurate adjustment make?

Such a ruling could reduce BP’s fine by as much as $3.4 billion if the court were to rule that BP acted with gross negligence when its Macondo well blew out 50 miles off the coast of Louisiana, leading to the worst offshore oil spill in U.S. history.

BP doesn't understand why this little incident has to be so expensive.
BP doesn't understand why this little incident has to be so expensive.


Why the environmental movement couldn’t get cap-and-trade passed

Image (1) capitol-flickr-opalsson.jpg for post 40971
O Palsson

The 2010 failure of the Senate to pass cap-and-trade legislation is a scar the environmental movement tries to ignore but can't stop examining. It sits there, barely healed, still painful -- a reminder of the lost promise of a new president and a brief House majority.

Harvard University political scientist Theda Skocpol has released a long, robust assessment of what went wrong in the political fight [PDF]. It's a detailed document that analyzes the politics of environmental policy leading up to the fight and in the years following, drawing direct contrast with the push for healthcare reform. Why that effort succeeded -- barely -- at the same time that cap-and-trade failed is interesting.

Skocpol's thesis for why cap-and-trade failed can be simplified to a few points: failed organizing efforts by advocates for the policy, an attempt to craft legislation behind closed doors at a moment that demanded transparency, and (of course) massive shifts in public opinion due to the concerted efforts of opponents of action.

It's that first point that is perhaps the most instructive, if I may betray my prejudices. Skopcol notes that environmental groups shifted focus away from the grassroots after winning key environmental protections. "Once those laws and federal regulatory bureaucracies to enforce them were in place," she writes, "the DC political opportunity structure shifted -- and so did the organization and focus of environmental activism. Big environmental organizations headquartered in Washington DC and New York expanded their professional staffs and became very adept at preparing scientific reports and commentaries to urge the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) onward."

Moreover, the organizations focused on responding to public opinion more than shaping it.


Shell’s Arctic drilling flunks even the lax air pollution standards it weakened

In its semi-inexplicable eagerness to get Shell the permits it needed to try to drill in the Arctic last year, the government made an important and ironic concession: The company would be allowed relaxed air pollution standards. The quote the company gave in its effort to be allowed to exceed pollution limits was pretty classic, pointing out that it "demonstrated compliance with a vast majority of limits."


But, anyway, Shell managed to not even meet the more lax pollution standards it insisted on. From the Houston Chronicle:

The Environmental Protection Agency issued two notices of violation [last] week alleging Shell ran afoul of the Clean Air Act permits governing its Kulluk drilling unit used in the Beaufort Sea and the drillship Noble Discoverer, as well as its support vessels, in the Chukchi Sea.

According to the agency, Shell's self-reporting of emissions revealed both drilling vessels released excess nitrogen oxide, leading the EPA to conclude that Shell had "multiple permit violations for each ship" during the 2012 drilling.

The emissions go beyond ones the EPA agreed to grandfather in a waiver Shell sought before it began drilling last year. Shell had asked permission to emit an unlimited amount of ammonia and more nitrogen oxide than originally permitted from the main generator engines on the Discoverer.


Beijing air pollution goes off the charts as electricity use climbs

Allow me to translate the information above. According to the air pollution sensor atop the U.S. embassy in Beijing, the amount of particulate matter (soot) in the air on Saturday at 8 p.m. local time was indescribably bad. At 886 micrograms per cubic meter, the level was "Beyond Index," past the end of a scale that goes from "Unhealthy" to "Very Unhealthy" to "Hazardous." Then: "Beyond Index."

Once, the system got creative. From the New York Times:

One Friday more than two years ago, an air-quality monitoring device atop the United States Embassy in Beijing recorded data so horrifying that someone in the embassy called the level of pollution “Crazy Bad” in an infamous Twitter post. That day the Air Quality Index, which uses standards set by the United States Environmental Protection Agency, had crept above 500, which was supposed to be the top of the scale. …

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, levels between 301 and 500 are “Hazardous,” meaning people should avoid all outdoor activity. The World Health Organization has standards that judge a score above 500 to be more than 20 times the level of particulate matter in the air deemed safe.

In online conversations, Beijing residents tried to make sense of the latest readings.

“This is a historic record for Beijing,” Zhao Jing, a prominent Internet commentator who uses the pen name Michael Anti, wrote on Twitter. “I’ve closed the doors and windows; the air purifiers are all running automatically at full power.”

Other Beijing residents online described the air as “postapocalyptic,” “terrifying” and “beyond belief.”

One broadcaster provided a visual representation of the pollution. He is not sitting in front of a yellow backdrop.


Pinnacles in California named as 59th national park

While California's state parks are perpetually troubled, at least the Golden State can celebrate a new national park. On Thursday, President Obama signed into law a bill by Rep. Sam Farr (D-Calif.) that makes Pinnacles National Monument in central California a protected national park, the 59th in the country and ninth in the state.

Pinnacles National Monument

The San Jose Mercury News has more:

"The park's sanctuary for the California condor and native wildlife, its red crags, caves, impressive displays of spring wildflowers, and opportunities for star-viewing under its noteworthy dark skies make Pinnacles a special place and worthy of its national park status for future generations to enjoy," said Neal Desai, Pacific Region associate director for the National Parks Conservation Association.

Farr had tried to make the bill stronger, but was foiled by House Republicans:

[T]he last Congress, which ended Jan. 3, was the first Congress since 1966 not to designate a single new acre of public land in America as federally protected wilderness, where logging, mining and other development is prohibited.

Farr's bill originally called for designating 3,000 acres inside Pinnacles boundaries as wilderness. The area is where biologists in recent years have been releasing California condors as part of a captive breeding program to bring the species back from the brink of extinction. But that provision was stripped out by Rep. Doc Hastings, R-Wash., chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Read more: Living, Politics


German neo-Nazis take to organic farming


If someone eats organic and/or vegetarian, we tend to make assumptions about their politics. With the notable exception of Glenn Beck, vegan and conservative don't tend to mix. (And he only lasted three weeks.)

Not so in Germany, where a small but vocal movement of right-wing environmentalists with some creepy ideas about food and purity are farming organic crops. The German Green Party's Böll foundation published a book about these "brown environmentalists" last year. The New Yorker introduces us to one of them: Helmut Ernst, a corn farmer, activist, and "not a Nazi" but a supporter of other seriously right-wing policies.

“What we’re seeing is a stable right-wing movement in Eastern Germany,” said Hubertus Buchstein, who is a political science professor at the University of Greifswald and one of the book’s authors. “Some of them have started organic farming—it seems to fit the right wing. Now, instead of being militant, a new strategy is to live in the country and sell organic apples. Some are vegan, very strict.”

Read more: Food, Politics