Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


While we dither on spending to prevent disaster, Big Oil doubles down on causing it

Earlier today, the office of New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced the anticipated economic impact of superstorm Sandy.

Disaster cleanup is a lousy way to spend $19 billion, even if it creates thousands of temporary jobs. A much better way is to spend money to prevent the worst effects from happening at all. So far, Americans have shown little interest in such foresight. From The New Yorker's James Surowiecki:

[F]or the most part, the U.S. has shown a marked bias toward relieving victims of disaster, while underinvesting in prevention. A study by the economist Andrew Healy and the political scientist Neil Malhotra showed that, between 1985 and 2004, the government spent annually, on average, fifteen times as much on disaster relief as on preparedness.

Politically speaking, it’s always easier to shell out money for a disaster that has already happened, with clearly identifiable victims, than to invest money in protecting against something that may or may not happen in the future. Healy and Malhotra found that voters reward politicians for spending money on post-disaster cleanup, but not for investing in disaster prevention, and it’s only natural that politicians respond to this incentive.

Surowiecki notes another political roadblock: the federal government's ongoing indifference to broad infrastructure spending. Combine the two, and the prospect of preventative investment seems daunting.

Map of post-Sandy flooding.


The shells of ocean animals are already dissolving in acidic seas

Several times over the past months we've noted the anticipated effects of ocean acidification. As the atmosphere's carbon dioxide content increases, some of it mixes with ocean water, forming carbonic acid, lowering the pH of ocean water. Even a slightly more acidic ocean could be enormously damaging to sea creatures, because it also means less of the mineral aragonite that some sea creatures use to form their shells.

National Geographic

We just didn't really expect it would happen this fast. From New Scientist:

In a small patch of the Southern Ocean, the shells of sea snails are dissolving. The finding is the first evidence that marine life is already suffering as a result of man-made ocean acidification.

"This is actually happening now," says Geraint Tarling of the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK. He and colleagues captured free-swimming sea snails called pteropods from the Southern Ocean in early 2008 and found under an electron microscope that the outer layers of their hard shells bore signs of unusual corrosion. …

Read more: Climate & Energy


Paris to ban older cars, ruining all of your chase scenes

If you know Paris, you know that it is primarily populated by men with pencil-thin mustaches who wear berets and carry around baguettes in paper bags. A lot of them wear shirts with thick horizontal stripes. These men don't talk much, they mostly loiter around in the background speaking a language comprised mostly of sniffs and grumbles. (There are also women in Paris; they are uniformly stunning.)

This is exactly what Paris looks like today.

The protagonists of the city are the superspies, the well-coiffed American and British men who use Paris as a rendezvous point with clumsy, heavyset agents from Russia or Bulgaria. Invariably, these meetings end poorly, and the superspies -- though heavily outnumbered -- manage to effect an escape by driving vintage cars along the banks of the Seine. Depending on the day, the Bulgarians either end up in the river, emerging with a spluttering curse, a fish draped across their heads, or they vanish from the scene in some sort of horrific explosion.

But all of that is likely to change, ruining the Paris that we know so well. The mayor of the city is going to ban vintage cars.

From the Times:

[T]he ban would include many of the most recognizably French cars, including the Citroën 2CV, known as the Deux Chevaux; the Citroën DS, celebrated for its clean, distinctive design; the Renault 4L, a practical Everyman’s car of the 1960s and ’70s; and many classic Peugeots. …

The ban would apply to private and commercial vehicles that would be older than 17 years in 2014 and therefore do not comply with existing European standards for the tailpipe emissions that cause smog.

A spokesman for the city estimated that 367,000 cars would be affected. Also targeted are heavy trucks older than 18 years and motorcycles older than 10.

Oh la la, etc.!


For the first time, a fossil fuel tanker is navigating the Arctic

The Ob River is a massive tanker that can carry 150,000 cubic meters of liquified natural gas. (You can tell it carries liquified natural gas because the side of the vessel says "L N G" in massive letters.) And the ship is about to do something that no tanker has done before: traverse the winter Arctic to ship fossil fuels from Norway to Japan.
You can follow its progress from your own natural gas-warmed home! Click to embiggen.

From the BBC:

The tanker was loaded with LNG at Hammerfest in the north of Norway on 7 November and set sail across the Barents Sea. It has been accompanied by a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker for much of its voyage. ...

"It's an extraordinarily interesting adventure," Tony Lauritzen, commercial director at [the company that owns the vessel,] Dynagas, told BBC News.

"The people on board have been seeing polar bears on the route. We've had the plans for a long time and everything has gone well."

Oh, good! There are still polar bears!


Happy Wastegiving, America!

As you prepare piles of food for family and friends this week, keep in mind how much you're actually going to eat. Each Thanksgiving, Americans waste more than a third of the turkey meat they purchase and prepare.

Read more: Food, Living


Modern-day Robin Hoods: Stealing construction supplies from the rich to give to the Sandy-hit poor

Superstorm Sandy not only revealed the massive class divisions in New York City, but also made them worse. As wealthier areas in Manhattan recover, poor and working-class communities in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island are still struggling.

Some New Yorkers have taken a decidedly illegal tack to solving this problem. From their press release:

Over the past two weeks, a group of concerned New Yorkers has been expropriating thousands of dollars worth of tools and materials from luxury residential developments across Manhattan and delivering them to neighborhoods devastated by Superstorm Sandy.

The confiscated materials, some of them never even used, include: shovels, wheelbarrows, hand trucks, pry bars, tarps, buckets, hard bristle brooms, industrial rope, contractor trash bags, particulate masks, work lights, work gloves, flashlights, heat lamps, and gasoline.

Liberated from their role in building multimillion-dollar pieds-à-terre for wealthy CEOs and Hollywood celebrities, these tools are now in the collective hands of some of the hardest-hit communities in the city where they are now being allocated and shared among the people who need them most. These expropriations will continue as long as the demand for them exists.

Read more: Living, Politics


Soon-to-retire weather satellites played key role in predicting Sandy’s path

Last month, shortly before Sandy ripped apart the shorelines of New Jersey and Long Island, we noted the possibly imminent budget-related retirement of government satellites that help forecasters refine weather data. As the article we cited then asked:

All this week, forecasters have been relying on ... satellite observations for almost all of the data needed to narrow down what were at first widely divergent computer models of what Hurricane Sandy would do next: explode against the coast, or veer away into the open ocean?

Now we know just how much reliance forecasters placed on satellites. Without them, predictions that Sandy would veer sharply to the west -- the path that brought it to New York -- would not have been made as early as they were.
This early projection of Sandy's path had it sliding harmlessly along the coast.


The government scolds the company responsible for last week’s rig explosion

U.S. Coast Guard

The Department of the Interior has some harsh words for Black Elk Energy, the company responsible for last week's explosion on an oil  rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Well, actually, not really harsh at all.

From a letter from Interior's Lars Herbst to Black Elk's CEO [PDF]:

This letter is to notify you that the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) has determined that the operating performance of Black Elk Energy Offshore Operations, LLC (Black Elk) must be improved immediately.

Or, ideally, a week ago.


Please don’t be thankful for America’s unsustainable love affair with big-box retail

If you're reading this on your phone from a line outside an electronics store, congratulations -- you're a real American! And you're probably way more excited about the 50th anniversary of big-box retail in this country than the rest of us are.

Fred Watkins

In 1962, when gas cost about 28 cents a gallon and the suburbs were growing faster than you can say "sports utility vehicle," Walmart, Target, and Kmart were all born.

NPR's Morning Edition talked to retail historian Marc Levinson about their rise to prominence and dominance.

One of the prerequisites for the big-box was the car. Everybody had to have a car because the big-box was sitting out in a parking lot somewhere. The big-box made shopping into a family experience. Mom and dad and the kids all piled into the car, they went out to this big store, and they could spend several hours there because there was, by the standards of the day, an enormous amount of merchandise.

Today's stores are about four times the size, but hey, so are our cars!

Since '62, the big boxes, especially Walmart, have grown like an infectious pox upon our nation. Even Friday's planned worker strikes at upwards of 1,000 Walmarts across the country may do nothing to slow the monster's growth. From The Daily Beast:


The 16 scariest maps from the E.U.’s massive new climate change report

Thinking about a Mediterranean vacation? Might want to go sooner rather than later.

The above map shows how the "tourism climate index" -- a calculation of how amenable the climate in a location is to outdoor activity -- will be affected by climate change during the summer in Europe. Blue areas will see climatic improvements; yellow, moderately worse climate; brown, significantly worse climate. So if you want to visit, say, Italy or Spain -- book your flight.

Earlier today, the European Environment Agency walked into the room and, plunk, dropped a 300-page report on the anticipated effects of climate change on the continent. Three hundred pages, chock-a-block with maps far more terrifying than that one up there. It's a road map on minute details of what Europe can expect on temperature, flooding, forest fires, soil quality, sea animals. It's the Grays Sports Almanac of the continent through the year 2100.

Here are some of the more alarming maps and graphs, because terror is a dish best shared. (A blanket note: All images from the full report [PDF]; on most, click to embiggen.)