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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


The $400 million plan to unsink a giant cruise ship

Nearly a year after it crashed into a very picturesque rock on the coast of Giglio Island in the Mediterranean, the Costa Concordia cruise ship is still lying on its side in the middle of a marine wildlife preserve. The island's mayor called the ship "an ecological timebomb," but while it's not (currently!) leaking oil into the sea, the Concordia is basically a massive amount of pollution still waiting to happen.

Roberto Vongher

There are only two things to do: Chop it up, sink it, and say sorry, or spend $400 million towing the failed monstrosity away from nature.

The latter it is!

Business Insider calls the plan, "the riskiest, most complicated, and most expensive salvage plan ever undertaken," and no one is entirely sure it will actually work.

The process consists of stabilizing the ship with massive cables (almost complete); drilling an underwater platform into the sea floor; attaching massive floaties to each side of the ship, tipping it upright, and (hopefully!) towing it away from the protected coastline still mostly intact.

Workers had to take a four-day rock climbing course before beginning the work, which will take months.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Meat company sues USDA to speed up horse meat sales

A lot of people are pretty upset about the fact that we are still without a new farm bill. But no one is upset in quite the same way as this New Mexico man who is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society of the United States, and other people who are standing in the way of him slaughtering and selling horses.


A provision passed last year might've effectively made horse slaughter legal for the first time in five years, but it turns out the feds are not exactly chomping at the bit to get back to inspecting those slaughterhouses. There's no telling whether a new farm bill would restore a ban on the practice by defunding the USDA inspections. (The House has recommended that, but the Senate hasn't.)

Rick de los Santos and his Valley Meat Company want to force the USDA to allow the country's first horse meat operation since 2007. But it's hard out there for a guy who wants to profit off of horse meat. The Los Angeles Times reports:

After waiting a year for permits, De los Santos, 52, says he's using the courts to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume inspections necessary to open what would be the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse since 2007.

"I've submitted all the paperwork and have been told all along 'Oh, it won't be long now,'" said De los Santos, who owns Valley Meat Co. "I followed all their guidelines. I put more than $100,000 in upgrades and additions on my facilities to handle equine slaughter. And then the government comes back and tells me, 'We can't give you the permits. This horse issue has turned into a political game.'

"So what else do you do? I figured it was time to go to court."

Another idea for something to do: not open a horse slaughterhouse?

Read more: Food


EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has left the building

Image (1) lisa_jackson.JPG for post 38785We knew this one was coming, but now it's official: Lisa Jackson, President Obama's long-embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is leaving her post.

Jackson served for four years as lead environmental regulator for the Obama administration, taking innumerable volleys of criticism from all directions. Serious environmentalists felt she caved too regularly to White House-driven compromises, allowing the climate to become a footnote and essential initiatives to be watered down. Meanwhile, the Tea Party right set her up as a job-killing bogeyperson and marshal of a "war on coal." (Green types only wished that war was real.)

As the first African American EPA administrator, Jackson brought a more inclusive approach to her environmental work -- moving both her agency and the national public far beyond old green stereotypes. The achievements of Jackson's tenure were real: major improvements in automobile emissions standards, important new controls on mercury in power-plant fumes, and the first-ever federal ruling that greenhouse gases should be classed as pollutants.

And yet no one who is conscious of the climate crisis can fail to see the last four years as, fundamentally, a failure where it most counts -- a critical, fleeting, now-missed chance to jam open a closing window of opportunity and alter our global-warming course. Early in Obama's first term, the White House and a then-Democratic Congress took one futile run at a watered-down cap-and-trade measure, then played dead on the issue. Obama barely mentioned the climate during his reelection campaign. Prospects for stronger action remain dim.

Read more: Uncategorized


New York’s energy-efficiency survey suggests that older is often better

The new LEED-certified 7 World Trade Center is much less energy efficient than older buildings.
The new LEED-certified 7 World Trade Center is much less energy efficient than older buildings.

Here's a tip for Manhattan building owners looking to build as energy-efficiently as possible: Build your structure 100 years ago.

New York City's recently implemented law mandating that buildings report energy use has revealed that the city's best performers are often not its newest additions. From the Times:

Older buildings tend to have higher Energy Star scores because they have thicker walls, fewer windows and less ventilation -- superior “thermal envelopes,” as a report on the early results puts it. They are also less suited to energy-gobbling activities like computer data crunching, the downfall of some youthful but middling performers. ...

Unlike cities that depend heavily on automobiles, New York racks up most of its carbon dioxide emissions -- nearly 80 percent -- in heating and cooling buildings. Tracking this energy use is deemed crucial to meeting the city goal of cutting overall emissions by about a third by 2030, to slash costs and fight climate change.

New York’s largest buildings -- just 2 percent of the roughly one million buildings in the city -- account for 45 percent of the energy expended by the entire building stock.

We took the data -- which is available online -- and mapped it by address. (We chose to use greenhouse gas emissions, since the metric used by the Times, its Energy Star rating, had far fewer data points. Clicking an address will reveal both its GHG emissions and efficiency rating.)

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Seattle mayor calls for city’s pension funds to dump oil stocks

Mike McGinn
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is no fan of fossil fuels.

Student groups at 192 colleges and universities are calling on their schools' endowments to sell off stocks in fossil-fuel companies, inspired by a campaign that we've reported on before. Now that campaign is spreading from campus to city hall, as Climate Progress reports:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is now calling on his city to strip fossil fuels from its two main pension funds. According to the city’s finance director, Seattle has $17.6 million invested in Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as smaller investments in other oil and gas companies. Mayor McGinn sent a letter to the city’s pension fund managers on Friday calling for them to move their money elsewhere.

McGinn is the first municipal leader to get on board with 350's campaign. As the mayor explains on his blog, he doesn't control the investment of pension funds, but he and his staff want to work with the city council and the pension board to help move toward divestment.

McGinn, a local Sierra Club leader before he was elected mayor in 2009, has also recently criticized proposals to send coal trains through Seattle to ports on Washington's coast. He's commissioning a study on the potential economic impacts of the trains and coal-export plans. “I’m not sure very many jobs are being created in Seattle, compared to impacts,” he said earlier this month.


Western Antarctica is warming three times faster than the rest of the world

We've known for a while that temperatures on the Western Antarctic Peninsula are warming rapidly, resulting in huge ice loss. That peninsula, south of South America, was believed to be an outlier; Eastern Antarctica has actually seen its ice mass increase.

But, as is so often the case with our climate predictions, the outlier is just the leading edge of the problem. New research suggests that temperatures in Western Antarctica overall have spiked since the late 1950s.

From the Times:

[T]he temperature at a research station in the middle of West Antarctica has warmed by 4.4 degrees Fahrenheit since 1958. That is roughly twice as much as scientists previously thought and three times the overall rate of global warming, making central West Antarctica one of the fastest-warming regions on earth.

“The surprises keep coming,” said Andrew J. Monaghan, a scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., who took part in the study. “When you see this type of warming, I think it’s alarming.”

antarctic ice

This is a significant rise -- though relative to how cold Antarctica is overall, it doesn't mean that you should start booking a cruise for the continent's sunny beaches. Not yet, anyway. Mostly because once the western portion of Antarctica melts, sea levels will rise at least 10 feet, meaning the beaches won't be where you'd expect.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Energy conservation gets gamified

young women with smartphones
OMG, I just saved way more energy than you.

Continuing its long tradition of reporting on trends long after they've become trendy, The New York Times has a big story today on gamification: "a business trend — some would say fad — that aims to infuse otherwise mundane activities with the excitement and instant feedback of video games."

[D]igital technologies like smartphones and cheap sensors have taken the phenomenon to a new level, especially among adults. Now, game concepts like points, badges and leader boards are so mainstream that they have become powerful motivators in many settings, even some incongruous ones. At a time when games are becoming ever more realistic, reality is becoming more gamelike.

A lot of gamification is aimed at getting us to buy junk. The BBC quotes one critic within the gaming industry:

Ian Bogost, co-founder of the game design company Persuasive Games, ... calls Gamification a “marketing gimmick”. And, in another blog post, took his critique one step further, describing it as "exploitationware" and “bullshit, invented by consultants as a means to capture the wild, coveted beast that is videogames and to domesticate it for use in the grey, hopeless wasteland of big business ..."

But some people are trying to harness the trend for good instead of evil. From the Times:


Marijuana growers endanger salmon, bears, and even dogs

marijuana plant
Pot: not so green.

We've written before about the environmental damage done by marijuana growers -- massive energy consumption, indiscriminate pesticide use, dead little forest critters, both cute and uncute. Now the L.A. Times reports that pot growers in California are also undermining salmon recovery efforts, poisoning bears, and even threatening our BFFs: dogs.

The marijuana boom that came with the sudden rise of medical cannabis in California has wreaked havoc on the fragile habitats of the North Coast and other parts of California. With little or no oversight, farmers have illegally mowed down timber, graded mountaintops flat for sprawling greenhouses, dispersed poisons and pesticides, drained streams and polluted watersheds.

Because marijuana is unregulated in California and illegal under federal law, most growers still operate in the shadows, and scientists have little hard data on their collective effect. But they are getting ever more ugly snapshots.

Here's the bad news about salmon:

Read more: Living


What the fiscal cliff would mean for our cities and food

Over the last several weeks of fiscal-cliff frenzy, we've heard a lot about taxes, taxes, taxes. It's apocalypse now-ish! With only 10 days left before we go careening off that cliff, President Obama and congressional leaders are trying (so they say!) to stop the crazy train that they set rolling in the first place.

Atlantic Cities warns of the horrors awaiting us in the ravine below: big cuts for transportation and urban infrastructure, from housing to roads. The Section 8 low-income housing program and Community Services Block Grants could be slashed, as well as assistance for the homeless, which would mean hard times for the poor plus local layoffs.

The thing that makes all of this so troubling is that direct federal funds make up only a fraction of a city's budget. Much more money comes from state governments. Maryland, for example, stands to lose $100 million if the government goes over the fiscal cliff.

And without clarity on just how the federal government will try to plug up its debt, states are struggling to create a road map for their own infrastructure efforts.

Even if the fiscal cliff doesn't come to pass, all this uncertainty will likely have a long-term impact. "Cities and metros are getting the picture that the federal government is not a reliable partner," says Bruce Katz, vice president at the Brookings Institution and founding Director of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.

Today the National League of Cities released a statement saying, "Local elected officials have been at turns appalled, stunned, and dismayed, at what is passing for 'serious debate and negotiation'" around the fiscal cliff.

Meanwhile, leaders from states that stand to benefit from a new Farm Bill are urging Congress to summarily lump it into the last-minute budget agreement. That would affect food stamps, big ag subsidies, and a lot more. The Atlantic details some of the less-discussed risks of a last-minute Farm Bill:

Read more: Cities, Food


Your 2012 climate change scorecard

As our friends at like to remind us, climate change really comes down to math. Put x amount of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, see y degrees of warming. Our goal -- meaning, our goal as an evolved, aware species that would rather not be plagued by droughts and megastorms and constant flooding and armed conflict -- is to reduce how much carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere each year instead of continually increasing the amount.

We're not good at this. And time is running very low: We either need massive, quick action or it's too late.

Given that this particular year is nearing its end, we decided to figure out how the math for 2012 stacked up. Did we, on balance, change our ways so that our net greenhouse gas emissions declined, or did we yet again increase how much we're polluting? Are we running in the positive or the negative or what?

Well: Scorecard! Getcher scorecard!


The minus column
Things that reduced climate change

Obama rejected the Keystone XL pipeline -- for now.
President Obama's move in January to postpone the contentious pipeline wasn't the final word, and it may end up having been more important politically than environmentally. But the rejection has prompted tar-sands companies to reconsider producing tar-sands oil at all, which is good news for the climate, given how much more greenhouse gas such fuel produces. Obama could still OK the pipeline, but it doesn't make much sense for him to.

Effect on climate pollution: -2
Methodology for this: I picked a number between -10 (leads to reduction in pollution; good) and 10 (increases it; bad). Want to fight about it?