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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


By 2017, the world will be burning enough coal for another U.S. and Russia

Coal mine

Extremely good news for the world: Over the next five years, oil will fall from the top spot as a source of energy.

Extremely bad news for the world: Coal will replace it.

From The Guardian:

Coal consumption is increasing all over the world -- even in countries and regions with carbon-cutting targets -- except the US, where shale gas has displaced coal, shows new research from the International Energy Agency (IEA). The decline of the fuel in the US has helped to cut prices for coal globally, which has made it more attractive, even in Europe where coal use was supposed to be discouraged by the emissions trading scheme. …

According to the IEA, demand from China and India will drive world coal use in the coming five years, with India on course to overtake the US as the world's second biggest consumer. China is the biggest coal importer, and Indonesia the biggest exporter, having temporarily overtaken Australia.

According to the IEA's Medium Term Coal Market Report, published on Tuesday morning, the world will burn 1.2bn more tonnes of coal per year by 2017 compared with today -- the equivalent of the current coal consumption of Russia and the US combined. Global coal consumption is forecast to reach 4.3bn tonnes of oil equivalent by 2017, while oil consumption is forecast to reach 4.4bn tonnes by the same date.

The calculus, in brief: The U.S.'s natural gas boom has dropped demand for coal, making U.S. coal cheaper. That cheaper U.S. coal helps drive down costs for the fuel internationally, where it's already cheap and accessible. So in five years' time, we'll be burning as much coal as we do now, plus the amount of coal currently consumed by another Russia and another United States.


Crunching the numbers: Will you see a white Christmas?

snowy field

There are two questions that arise at the end of every year. The first is: Did I fulfill all of my resolutions this year? And the answer to that is always no, unless you are lying to yourself. The second is: Will we have a white Christmas? And, pretty soon, that one's going to always be no, as well. Unless you move to, say, Canada.

This year is one of the bubble years, a year in which a white Christmas is still possible. Yes, it's warmer than usual -- in fact, it's the warmest year in American history -- but the worst long-term effects of warming haven't yet made December snowfall an improbability. So let's ask the question.

Spoiler: For most of the country, the answer is always no. If you live in Miami, it likely never occurs to you to even ask it, unless the query comes up as you're singing a Christmas carol. Angelenos, the same; snowfall is something to be visited on mountaintops, not seen in drifts around a palm tree.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


More hot days may mean more blind babies


A congenital cataract is a condition in which a child is born with cloudiness in the eye's lens, obscuring the ability to see. Depending on the extensiveness of the cloudiness -- in other words, how severe the condition -- such cataracts can significantly impair vision.

And, according to new research, there appears to be a correlation between increased temperatures and incidents of congenital cataracts. From Daily Climate:

In the first study to explore a link between extreme heat and birth defects, researchers from the New York Department of Health and The State University of New York at Albany found that even a five-degree increase in temperature during crucial developmental stages in pregnancy increased the odds of an infant developing congenital cataracts.

The cataracts interfere with vision development in babies and are a leading cause of preventable blindness and vision impairment in children. The defect occurs in three of 10,000 births.

Not anymore, apparently.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Will the FDA keep hiding most data on farm antibiotic use?

Livestock antibiotics may beef up our meat, but they may also create drug-resistant bugs that could one day kill us. Unfortunately, the FDA doesn't want to tell us what it knows about how much antibiotic use is happening on American farms.

Animal Equality
Antibiotics bottles on a pig farm.

Tomorrow, the FDA will hold two public meetings on reauthorization of the Animal Drug User Fee Act, which is due to happen in 2013. One question up for discussion: how much antibiotic info should be publicly released under the act. First passed in 2003, ADUFA took money from frustrated drug companies that wanted to speed up their review process and gave it to the feds to hire more reviewers. (Hiring federal drug reviewers with big drug dollars -- not sketchy at all!) The 2008 reauthorization of the act added a provision requiring the FDA to release compiled data on livestock drug use. But this is hardly an open government effort, as Maryn McKenna writes at Wired.

[I]n each year, the FDA released only summed amounts, in kilograms, of all the drugs sold, by all the companies, for all livestock species, across all agricultural uses: growth promoters, prevention, and treatment.

The veterinary pharma companies are not getting together, adding up their sales by drug class for the entire year, and delivering the totals to the FDA. The companies report to the agency individually; they report their data by month, not year; and they report how the drugs are administered, in feed, in water, or by injection.

The FDA receives all this data but is not releasing it, presumably for reasons having to do with its initial ADUFA negotiations with agriculture.


San Francisco’s private-public spaces go public-public

It may be one of the most expensive places to live in the country, but San Francisco is still sticking to its hippie roots and trying to look out for its commoners. A city mandate requires that downtown developers include a space in every new building for the city's scruffy thousands who can't afford Financial District condos. Some of these privately owned public spaces, or POPOS, look especially nice and fancy. Some have weird but glorious monster head sculptures. All languish relatively unused -- but that may be about to change.

Moonrise by Ugo Rondinone
Scott Beale

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

The provision of privately owned public open spaces is governed by the city's 1985 downtown plan. The formula "to meet the needs of downtown workers, residents and visitors" requires 1 square foot of public space per 50 square feet of office space or hotels.

Read more: Cities


The real gun crisis is in America’s urban sacrifice zones

Friday's shooting at an elementary school in sleepy suburban Newtown, Conn., may have rekindled our national conversation about gun control, but that conversation consistently ignores America's real gun crisis. Suburban rampage killings are on the rise, but they are not the country's scourge. The vast majority of the guns are in the cities, they are neither big nor particularly scary looking, and they are killing a lot of people, old and young, every day.


On Friday, President Obama said, "Our hearts are broken." On Saturday, Bob Herbert wrote, "Our hearts should feel broken every day."

Read more: Cities


For the 36th November in a row, global temperatures were above average

Last month, we had a popular post noting that people 27 years old or younger had never experienced a month of cooler-than-average global temperatures. A lot of people -- presumably ones who lead such full, busy lives that they cannot click links and/or read past the first paragraph of an article -- were quick to point out that where they lived (invariably somewhere in the northern expanses of Canada) it had in fact been very cold one winter, and that this personal, localized experience trumped 332 months of above-average global air and land temperatures because the world revolves around them.

Anyway, the point is: We're up to 333 months.

The average November temperature across land and ocean surfaces around the world was 1.21°C (0.67°F) above the 20th century average, marking the fifth warmest November since records began in 1880. ... Including this November, the 10 warmest Novembers have occurred in the past 12 years. The 10 coolest Novembers on record all occurred prior to 1920. November 2012 also marks the 36th consecutive November and 333rd consecutive month with global temperature higher than the long-term average. The last month with a below average temperature was February 1985, nearly 28 years ago.

333 months! Halfway to the apocalypse, one can only assume.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Wyoming considers adding fossil fuels to school curriculum — with the industry’s help

The state of Wyoming likes the fossil fuel industry. A lot. So much so that it wants to make sure its kids know everything there is to know about energy development. And, so:

State officials and representatives of the energy industry will be asked to develop a course of study focusing on the energy industry and natural resources to be taught in Wyoming schools under a bill approved Thursday by the Legislature’s Joint Education Committee.

The bill, which will now be considered in the Legislature’s general session beginning Jan. 8, is intended to give students more appreciation and knowledge of Wyoming’s resources and opportunities, according to Nick Agopian of Devon Energy, who led an initiative with other energy officials to develop the bill.

This seems kind of unnecessary. About 5 percent of the population of the state of Wyoming works in an extractive industry: mining, oil and gas extraction, logging, etc. After a dip following the recession, that figure is growing steadily, thanks largely to fracking.

wyoming pop v extractors

Doesn't it seem likely that with one in 20 Wyomingites working in an extractive field, kids have some understanding of the sector?

Here's some language from the proposed legislation:


Coal museum installs solar panels to save money (obviously)

Today in irony:

Wales’ National Coal Mining Museum located at Big Pit, Blaenavon, Nr Abergavenny in south Wales, now has 200 photovoltaic solar panels erected on the Big Pit museum’s roof with another 200 solar panels installed on the National Collection Centre in Nantgarw.

Wales' National Coal Museum
Wales' National Coal Museum.

Why? Because solar panels save money, obviously. I mean, why use other fuel sources, whatever those might be, when you can generate your own electricity and make some money off of it?

It is estimated that the solar panels will offset about £400,000 [$648,000] during the next 25 years. [It] cost about £70,000 to install the panels, which was funded by the museum. The electricity generated will be used on site with any surplus being sold to the National Grid, which can produce additional income for the museum.

“Coal is such an important part of Wales’ heritage and yet green energy will play a major part in its future. A solar powered coal-mining museum is a fantastic way to celebrate this national journey," said Peter Walker, Museum Manager of Big Pit. "But it’s far from just symbolic — the museum will benefit from huge reductions in energy bills and a solid return from the feed-in tariff.”


Soot pollution may cause as many as 3.2 million premature deaths a year

St. Louis
Morgan Burke

There are several factors that probably contribute to what the Atlantic Cities refers to as St. Louis' "asthma epidemic." High rates of smoking, for example. And: air pollution.

The number of children suffering from asthma in the St. Louis metropolitan area is nearly three times the national average, according to Asthma Friendly St. Louis, a community program designed to help school-age kids and teens manage respiratory illness. Despite the efforts of several community initiatives, the disease is often poorly managed because of a lack of access to care and educational resources. …

In East St. Louis, which sits across the Mississippi River from St. Louis in Illinois, asthma rates are among the highest in the nation, and experts suspect that this is linked to the high rates of pollution and poverty in the city. 44 percent of East St. Louis residents live on incomes below the federal poverty line.