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Global disaster costs dropped in 2012 — and in U.S., if GOP is to be believed

A bit of unexpected news: The cost of global disasters went down in 2012, not up.

That's according to re-insurer Swiss Re -- an insurance company that insures insurers. (It's insurance all the way down.) And you can put faith in the numbers Swiss Re came up with; few industries have as much at risk as the insurance industry.

From The Huffington Post:

According to a report released Wednesday by reinsurer Swiss Re, total economic losses from disasters -- naturally occurring or otherwise -- is estimated to be at least $140 billion. …

Even with the costs of Sandy, the second-most expensive storm in U.S. history after Hurricane Katrina, the total financial loss from disasters this year did not near 2011's total of $380 billion -- the highest in history -- or 2010's $218 billion.

The cost of disasters in 2011 may have been bolstered by the substantial losses associated with the earthquake and tsunami in Japan. This year, the top five most expensive disasters all occurred in the U.S.

Cheaper than it looks, I guess
Brian Birke
Cheaper than it looks, I guess.

Swiss Re notes in its report that 2012 was a particularly expensive year for American disasters.

2012 is dominated by large, weather-related losses in the US. Moreover, the top five insured loss events are all in the US. Hurricane Sandy is the largest Atlantic hurricane on record in terms of wind span. This record storm surge caused widespread flooding and damage to a densely populated area on the East Coast of the US. It also led to the worst power outage caused by a natural catastrophe in the history of the US. …

In addition, extremely dry weather conditions and limited snowfall in the US led to one of the worst droughts in recent decades, affecting more than half of the country. Drought-related agricultural losses are likely to reach approximately USD 11 billion, including pay-outs from federal assistance programs.


Meet Arnold Schwarzenegger, sorta green activist and Keystone XL fan

Arnold Schwarzenegger (hereafter, "Arnold") has long championed environmental action. He recently announced that he planned to spend his post-political life fighting climate change. And yet, in an interview with Politico, he says he supports building Keystone XL.

Schwarzenegger isn’t likely to win over the environmental community with his position on the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which Obama is expected to decide on early next year.

“In general, I’m all for it,” Schwarzenegger said. “I think that I’d rather get the energy from Canada than get it from the Middle East.”


Lon R. Fong

Let me tell you how Arnold became governor of the state of California. In 2003, California was one year into the second term of a fairly milquetoast Democratic governor, Gray Davis. He won reelection in 2002 because the Republican party successfully convinced Bill Simon, the least-likeable person in California, to run against him. (Well, Davis helped, by attacking the bejesus out of Simon's primary opponents.) So California kind of shrugged and reelected the guy.

But in 2003, a few things happened. First, the state of California continued its attempts to go completely broke, a process begun by unwitting voters in 1978. This prompted Davis to reinstate a hefty fee for people registering their cars, which wasn't popular. And later in the year, the state wasn't able to provide enough electricity to meet demand, due to various reasons some of which rhyme with "Benron." The pre-planned brownouts reinforced the perception that the state wasn't working right. People were mad.


Keystone XL wouldn’t use top-of-the-line leak detection, because that would be no fun

There are a lot of great things about running a huge metal tube filled with toxic sludge across the middle of the country and down to the Texas coast. There are the several dozen jobs that would be created, for one, and the scads of money earned by the Canadian tar-sands companies. And there are probably others, though I can’t think of them right now.

Well, I can think of one. The best thing about building Keystone XL (which is what we were talking about) is that it would create 1,897 miles along which anything could happen. It's like Whac-a-Mole, trying to figure out if and where the pipeline might rupture -- with the bonus that if it does rupture, any number of actual moles will be smothered in thick oily goo. And TransCanada is trying to make the game as fun as possible, by proposing to build the pipeline with relatively lax protections against leaks.

First one to spot a leak wins a prize.
First one to spot a leak wins a prize.

From Inside Climate News:

The leak detection technology that will be used on the Keystone XL, for instance, is standard for the nation's crude oil pipelines and rarely detects leaks smaller than 1 percent of the pipeline's flow. The Keystone will have a capacity of 29 million gallons per day--so a spill would have to reach 294,000 gallons per day to trigger its leak detection technology.

The Keystone XL also won't get two other safeguards found on the 19-mile stretch of the pipeline over Austin's aquifer: a concrete cap that protects the Longhorn from construction-related punctures, and daily aerial or foot patrols to check for tiny spills that might seep to the surface.

Experts interviewed by InsideClimate News estimate it would cost less than $10 million--roughly 0.2 percent of the Keystone's $5.3 billion budget--to add external sensor cables, a concrete cap and extra patrols to the 20 miles of the pipeline in Nebraska where a spill would be most disastrous.

So if you notice if the soil on your Montana ranch has suddenly turned black and sticky and is giving off fumes that cause you to pass out every 10 minutes, count up how much tar-sands oil you've got. If it's 293,000 gallons or less, shrug and enjoy your new highly flammable lifestyle. (Is tar-sands oil, a.k.a. diluted bitumen, actually flammable? Let us know, rancher!)


Keystone blockaders outmaneuvered but not defeated

Following news that TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline construction crew had outflanked the tree-sit blockaders, protesters say they're more resolved to fight on -- and not just in the trees.

Tar Sands Blockade

"We're escalating in very real ways," Tar Sands Blockade campaign spokesperson Kim Huynh told me this afternoon. The group's Jan. 3-8 action camp has 150-200 registered attendees, who will convene in East Texas from across the country for several days of training in community organizing, leadership, and direct action -- skills that they'll then take back to their own hometowns.

"TransCanada and Valero have offices across the country. We've identified certain targets," Huynh said. But: "We're under no illusions that direct action alone will stop this pipeline. We need a real holistic campaign, and a national, transnational movement."


Winter storm ‘Draco’ will solve, cause many problems

I guess "draco" is the word for "dragon" in Latin. I didn't know that, despite Mrs. Marino spending two years teaching me the language in high school. (We got to choose our own Latin names; I chose "Aesculapius," because I was a dork.) ("Was.")

Draco is also the name for the giant winter storm dropping snow over the Midwest. See if you can spot it on this map. If you know where the Midwest is, it should be easy.

weather map dec 19

This is good news, for a reason that you might not expect: It's precipitation in a region desiccated by drought. As we mentioned last week, cities across the region have been setting new records for days without snow. A lot of those records are about to end.

From Weather Underground:

Blizzard warnings are posted over portions of Colorado, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin, and snowfall amounts of up to a foot are expected in some of the affected regions. While the heavy snow will create dangerous travel conditions, the .5" - 1.5" of melted water equivalent from the the storm will provide welcome moisture for drought-parched areas of the Midwest. Though much of the moisture will stay locked up as snow for the rest of the year, runoff from the storm may help keep Lake Michigan and Huron from setting an all-time record low for the month of December, and may also keep the Mississippi River at St. Louis above the -5' stage though the end of December.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Lions and tigers and bears(!) are moving to the cities


It turns out those scruffy urban coyotes are not alone. From red foxes in London to mountain lions in Los Angeles to bears at Lake Tahoe, more wild carnivores are joining humans in the city. And biologist Stan Gehrt, who studies Chicago's coyotes, thinks we're only going to see more of them.

From Popular Science:

It’s reasonable to assume that these animals are moving to the city because they’re being displaced by climate change and habitat destruction, but that’s only part of the explanation. One of the biggest factors is that there are more large carnivores than there used to be — primarily, Gehrt says, because of successful conservation efforts. As we make our cities greener, they become more attractive to humans and animals alike. Finally, the relationship between humans and large predators is changing. “We’re now seeing generations of certain carnivores that have had fairly light amounts of persecution by people,” Gehrt says. “They may view cities quite a bit differently than their ancestors did 50 years ago. Then, if they saw a human, there was a good chance they were going to get shot.”

Read more: Cities


Something is leaking from the Deepwater Horizon site, but it’s not clear what


The Deepwater Horizon is the gift that keeps on giving. Usually, that gift is more oil. Right now, though, perhaps because of the holidays, it's leaking something unknown. It's a special present that will reveal itself on Christmas, maybe! That's fun. Thanks, BP.

From CBS News:

An "unidentified substance inconsistent with oil" is emitting from several areas of BP's Deepwater Horizon rig wreckage, but no sources of leaking oil were identified. That's according to the Coast Guard, which oversaw BP's recent week-long mission to inspect the undersea wells and wreckage from the 2010 explosion.

The exact content of the leaking substance and how much is coming out is one mystery. But if it's not oil, then it means the source of recurring oil sheens that have recently been spotted around the Deepwater Horizon site remains unknown.

The expression "unidentified substance inconsistent with oil" leaves a lot of leeway for what it might be. Pepsi, maybe? Hair gel? Possibly footballs? Is it stardust? Exposed Kodak film from the 1960s? Maybe it's donuts? Is it blood? I bet it's blood. Creeeepy.


Time’s Person of the Year talks climate a tiny, tiny bit

Obama clapping
mistydawnphoto / Shutterstock
clap clap clap

Well, everyone, it's official: President Barack Obama was the most important person in the world in 2012, as determined by the person researchers at Time magazine. (For context, Time has previously named Hitler, Stalin, and "you" the person of the year. Two of those were deeply undeserved.)

Why did the most powerful man in the world deserve to be named the most important man in the world, again? ("Again" as in "for the second time," since he was also the most important man of 2008.) Because he won reelection, basically, prompting speculation about who would have been named the Person of the Year had Mitt Romney won. Would it have been Mitt Romney? Our world will never know.

Time did mention other reasons for the honor besides the president's successful campaign. In its long article (about 5,000 words), even climate change is mentioned! Once. But that's appropriate; during his first term, Obama mentioned climate change .04 percent of the time.

After the election, Obama began writing goals for his second term on a legal pad.

They soon discovered that the yellow pad included some things spoken of only rarely during the campaign: dealing with the problem of climate change, for instance, emerged as a major thread, despite all the money the campaign had spent in southeastern Ohio praising Obama’s commitment to coal.

Obama grabs a pen. Chews on the end of it, thoughtfully. Slowly but with assurance writes "CLIMATE CHANGE" on a yellow sheet titled, "My Legacy." Looks at it. Nods approvingly. Sets the pen down.


Controversial California oyster farm fights to stay

It's a salty Christmas miracle for Drakes Bay Oyster Company -- albeit a temporary one.


The bivalve purveyor in Point Reyes, just north of San Francisco, was set to be dissolved at the end of the year: equipment dismantled, employees laid off, land vacated. This was the plan all along for the feds, who had issued a 40-year lease to the company with the intent of its expiration on Jan. 1, 2013, at which time the land would be returned to federal wilderness and cute scampering seals on the Point Reyes National Seashore.

After the Interior Department refused to extend the company's lease for another 10 years, Drakes vowed to fight the decision and filed suit. Now it's reached at least a temporary agreement with Interior. From the Marin Independent Journal:

Under the agreement, the oyster company which has long been a fixture in Point Reyes National Seashore may continue activities involving planting and growing new oysters in the water at Drakes Estero, avoiding layoffs of one-third of its 30 employees right before the holidays ...

Under the agreement, the oyster company has withdrawn its request for a temporary restraining order and instead will file a motion for a preliminary injunction challenging [Interior Secretary Kenneth] Salazar's decision.

A hearing is set for Jan. 25 on the injunction.

Everyone loves them some seals, even in molting season (this is saying a lot, seals), and many environmentalists -- the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, other usual suspects -- support closing the farm, citing the importance of pure wilderness. But many other environmentalists support letting it stay, and their voices have grown stronger over the past couple of weeks. Writes Earth Island Journal editor Jason Marks:


NYC’s public transit system will raise fares — because what choice does it have?

New York's Metropolitan Transit Authority and its director Joe Lhota received broad (and largely deserved) praise for the speed with which the city's transit system was brought back online after Sandy. One of the things that made that recovery remarkable was how expensive it was, with the agency tallying $5 billion in expenses linked to the storm. That cost came on top of the MTA's ongoing budget problems.

An empty, dry tunnel under the East River
An empty, dry tunnel under the East River.

Unsurprisingly, then, the MTA today announced plans to increase fares. As reported by The New York Times:

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted unanimously on Wednesday to raise the base fare on subways and buses by a quarter, to $2.50, and increase the cost of a 30-day MetroCard by $8, to $112. …

The cost of a seven-day subway or bus pass will also rise by $1, to $30. And the bonus on pay-per-ride MetroCards will decrease to 5 percent, from 7 percent, but will be available to anyone who places at least $5 on a card. Currently, the bonus applies only to purchases of at least $10.

Those increases are 11 percent for a single ride, 8 percent for a 30-day card, and 3 percent for a 7-day pass. Sounds steep -- particularly when you consider that fares have consistently increased faster than the rate of inflation. Then again, so has the number of bus routes and subway lines.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

Given that we're talking public transit, it's tempting to label the hikes regressive, disproportionately affecting lower-income users. But it isn't that simple. According to the most recent subway and bus rider data, the demographics of public transit users in the region are probably not what you'd expect.