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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Tobacco companies ordered to admit deception. Heads up, coal industry

Yesterday, a federal judge ruled that tobacco companies will have to pay for an advertising campaign admitting that they lied for years about the health impacts of cigarettes.

From Reuters:

[U.S. District Judge Gladys] Kessler's ruling on Tuesday, which the companies could try to appeal, aims to finalize the wording of five different statements the companies will be required to use.

One of them begins: "A federal court has ruled that the defendant tobacco companies deliberately deceived the American public by falsely selling and advertising low tar and light cigarettes as less harmful than regular cigarettes."

Another statement includes the wording: "Smoking kills, on average, 1,200 Americans. Every day."

The effect on consumers will be modest: Anyone who doesn't yet realize that the tobacco industry spent years obfuscating its role in damaging public health is probably not a terribly productive member of society. But the case is notable both for holding the companies accountable -- a very good thing -- and for establishing precedent. In case, you know, other industries that wantonly damage public health lie about the effects of their products.

fried dough
The only thing you could ever burn that could damage your health.


Sea levels are rising 60 percent faster than expected

One thing that can be said categorically about Hurricane Sandy is that sea-level rise was a key factor in the damage the storm caused. New York Harbor is 15 inches higher than it was in 1880, eight of which are due directly to human-made climate change. A 2007 report suggested that by 2100 the seas could be at least seven inches higher still.

But those estimates may have been conservative. The Institute of Physics revealed today that the seas are rising 60 percent faster than expected.

Manhattan in 200 years.

While temperature rises appear to be consistent with the projections made in the [Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's] fourth assessment report (AR4), satellite measurements show that sea-levels are actually rising at a rate of 3.2 mm a year compared to the best estimate of 2 mm a year in the report. …

Satellites measure sea-level rise by bouncing radar waves back off the sea surface and are much more accurate than tide gauges as they have near-global coverage; tide gauges only sample along the coast. Tide gauges also include variability that has nothing to do with changes in global sea level, but rather with how the water moves around in the oceans, such as under the influence of wind.

The study also shows that it is very unlikely that the increased rate is down to internal variability in our climate system and also shows that non-climatic components of sea-level rise, such as water storage in reservoirs and groundwater extraction, do not have an effect on the comparisons made.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


EPA: No new contracts for you, BP (but keep the old ones)

If you walked into your place of employment one day and -- oops -- were to blame for a massive explosion that killed a number of employees and which led to a months-long toxic spill killing an uncountable number of animals and crippling the local economy -- how long do you think it would take for you to be fired? Fourteen seconds? Fifteen?

Well, if you're an oil company who does business with the government, you'll be fine for years. But then you should expect a severe slap on the wrist.

"Hey, sorry. My bad."

From Bloomberg:

BP, which pleaded guilty to criminal charges after the worst U.S. oil spill in 2010, will be temporarily suspended from winning new contracts from the federal government, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement today.

The EPA said the ban was imposed because the company’s conduct during the Deepwater Horizon disaster showed a lack of integrity. The action, which doesn’t affect existing contracts, will stand until BP can demonstrate it meets business standards set by the government, the EPA said.

BP is one of the largest suppliers of fuel to the U.S. Department of Defense.


California is about to get drenched by an ‘atmospheric river’

This is a post about the weather in California, so it's only appropriate that it begins with a weed reference.

Remember The Pineapple Express?

In the movie, "Pineapple Express" is the name of the high-quality pot the protagonists enjoy. The dealer, Saul Silver, explains where the name comes from:

My guy Red told me it's when this Hawaiian flood takes special dirt to the weed or some shit. It's pretty scientific.

Not quite, Saul. (Saul is not good with details for some reason.) Actually, a Pineapple Express is a weather pattern that brings heavy precipitation to the West Coast. It's a particular type of a phenomenon called an "atmospheric river." And if you want to know what happens in an atmospheric river, stick around Northern California for a bit.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Why New York ran out of gas

China Ziegenbein

When Sandy hit the New York metropolitan area, the first thing to go was the electricity. The second thing to go was the gasoline.

Reuters has a lengthy look at how one of the busiest regions of America suddenly found itself short on fuel, leading to shuttered gas stations, price spikes, and rationing that only ended in New York City last week.

The storm's destructive powers were bad enough -- knocking out equipment and power at oil terminals and other energy infrastructure, while disrupting shipping for days because of debris in the harbor. But a series of decisions over recent years had also made the region much more vulnerable. The shuttering of regional oil refineries, decisions by companies to keep low fuel stocks because holding extra supply has become expensive or unprofitable, a recent government downsizing of emergency reserves, and the heavy reliance of fuel terminals on a vulnerable electric grid all played into the supply squeeze.


Obama signs bill exempting U.S. airlines from E.U. carbon plan

Now that Obama has won reelection, he is freed up to follow his heart, moving forward forcefully in the fight against climate change. Put a piece of legislation in front of him, Congress, and he'll sign it.

Even, say, a piece of legislation exempting U.S. airlines from an E.U. carbon dioxide reduction plan.


The E.U. plan (which has already been postponed anyway) would have required that any airline doing business in its member countries participate in a cap-and-trade system. The U.S. Senate leapt into action, initiating a bill that would exempt U.S. airlines from the mandate (claiming, ludicrously, that it was because it sought more sweeping carbon reduction schemes). The House followed suit.

And now, our president has signed it. From The Hill:

President Obama has signed into law a bill that requires U.S. airlines to be excluded from European carbon emissions fees.

Environmentalists had framed the bill as the first test of the president's commitment to fighting climate change in his second term and urged him to veto it. Obama signed it over their objections, though the move was not publicized by the White House. …


Duke Energy hires a congressman

Duke Energy has a proud tradition of excellent staffing moves. So we must congratulate the company on its latest hire: a sitting congressman.

Rep. Shuler.

From The Hill:

Retiring Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.) already has a new job lined up: he’ll be a top federal affairs official with North Carolina-based Duke Energy, the nation’s largest electric utility.

The Charlotte-based company, which has more than seven million customers and plenty of interests before regulators and Congress, announced Monday that Shuler will be senior vice president of federal affairs beginning in January.

The conservative Democrat won’t vote on any matters affecting Duke Energy for the remainder of his time in Congress, the company said in a statement that touted the hiring of the one-time Washington Redskins quarterback.

That's the commitment to ethical integrity our Congress is known for: No voting on issues related to your future employer. Strictly verboten. Hard line in the sand.


U.K. flooding prompts now-standard question: How will we pay for this?

Last week's E.U. report on anticipated effects of climate change made one point clearly: The United Kingdom can expect to see a lot more flooding. In case the Brits didn't read the report, Mother Nature decided to make that point directly.

From the Capital Weather Gang:

A weather double whammy has smacked the United Kingdom (UK) with flooding rain and powerful winds. The first wave struck this weekend, with the follow-up blow [Sunday] night into [Monday].

The storm that struck over the weekend was the more powerful of the two. The BBC reports more than 800 homes were flooded by the storm in England and Wales, and two people were killed. The worst weather was focused in South West England. The UK Met Office reports 40-60 mm of rain (1.5-2.5 inches) were common through Sunday morning while wind gusts reached 55-70 mph Saturday night. Prime Minister David Cameron described “shocking scenes of flooding” in Cornwall where rainfall reached 3.7 inches according to AccuWeather.

There are any number of photo galleries of those "shocking scenes," including this one of an elderly man being rescued from his car. Both The Guardian and the BBC had live blogs reporting damage, rescues, and anticipated further flooding. Britain's Environment Agency has a map of flood warnings that it has updated regularly over the past few days.


Senate works to bring dead polar bears into the U.S.

Martin Lopatka
This is what a polar bear looks like, in case you don't own a dead one.

Here is what the Senate is debating today. From NBC News:

Sportsmen might soon have more access to federal lands and be able to bring home as trophies 41 polar bears killed in Canada before the government started protecting the animals as a threatened species. …

The polar bear provision would allow the 41 hunters -- two from the home state of Montana Sen. Jon Tester, the Democratic sponsor of the bill -- who killed polar bears in Canada just before a 2008 ban on polar bear trophy imports took effect to bring the bears' bodies across the border. The hunters involved were not able to bring the trophies home before the Fish and Wildlife Services listed them as a threatened species. …

Tester said it would just allow a few people who have polar bear trophies stored in Canada to finally bring them home. "These polar bears are dead, they are in cold storage and we know exactly who they are," he said when the bill first came to the floor in September.

Read more: Uncategorized


Your local beach may be getting slightly cleaner, or maybe not


Just in time for summer (in Australia), the EPA released new water quality standards for beaches yesterday.

The new guidelines lower the allowable levels of Enterococci and E. coli bacteria -- if states choose to participate. From the Los Angeles Times:

The new guidelines, which update standards issued in 1986, may not immediately mean safer beaches and coastal waters. States have the authority to set their own water quality standards.

But federal environmental officials said they hoped the suggested guidance would prompt state leaders to toughen their own oversight of recreational waters where people swim, surf and go boating. California is among the states that may tighten standards. …

The tougher guidelines are expected to keep illnesses down to 32 per 1,000 people, compared with 36 illnesses for the lower standard, the agency said.

So, in short: If states apply the new guidelines, it will potentially reduce illness by about 11 percent. That's … a little underwhelming? Come on, EPA, Obama won reelection. This is the moment to be bold!

Read more: Living, Politics