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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Traffic deaths are down, but pedestrian and cyclist deaths are up

Fewer people are dying in car accidents in the U.S. (except in California, where it's been raining lately and people have been very confused). Traffic deaths fell 1.9 percent in 2011, hitting their lowest level since 1949.

That's great news for drivers, who haven't been getting a lot of good news in their driver-lives lately. Here's the bad news: Drivers are killing the rest of us. The Los Angeles Times reports on new federal transportation figures:

Federal officials highlighted the overall decrease in [traffic] deaths. But at least one traffic safety group said the figures were alarming, particularly a 3% increase in pedestrian deaths and an 8.7% increase in cyclist fatalities from 2010 to 2011.

"We are still concerned about the numbers of cyclists and pedestrians at risk on our roadways," said Paul Oberhauser, co-chairman of the Chicago-based Traffic Safety Coalition, which is partly funded by the traffic safety camera industry. "This new report is a reminder we still need to be cautious and share the road."

Rory Finneren
Read more: Cities, Living


How ExxonMobil may cause a civil war in Iraq

When George W. Bush decided that the United States (and its "allies") were going to invade Iraq, there was some small amount of outcry. Opposition focused on three areas: speculation that Bush only wanted to open the country's oil markets, concern that an invasion would spark civil conflict, and some displeasure that the administration lied about Iraq's arsenal of weapons. (In retrospect, these critiques were pretty fair.)

A policeman stands guard near a pool of oil that leaked from a damaged pipeline in Basra province.
Atef Hassan / Reuters
A policeman stands guard near a pool of oil that leaked from a damaged pipeline in Basra province.

So it's with some anguish and a sense that the cosmos has again rearranged itself that we report another hiccup in Iraq's already turbulent passage to stability. At the center of it: one of the oil companies for whom several hundred thousand American troops kicked open the door.

From the Washington Post:

With their opposing armies massed on either side of the contested border dividing southern and northern Iraq, leaders in Baghdad and the semiautonomous Kurdistan region are warning they are close to civil war -- one that could be triggered by Exxon Mobil.

Although leaders on both sides are negotiating a walk back from the brink, they also say their armies could easily be provoked into battle. ...

“The prime minister has been clear: If Exxon lays a finger on this territory, they will face the Iraqi army,” said Sami Alaskary, a member of parliament and close confidant of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “We don’t want war, but we will go to war, for oil and for Iraqi sovereignty.”

ExxonMobil is not the first company to attempt to walk the line between Kurdistan and Iraq proper. Earlier this year, Chevron announced a deal with the Kurds and was black-listed by Iraq. Exxon's leases are closer to the informal border with Iraq, raising the government's ire.

Read more: Uncategorized


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: