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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


World superpowers are about to get a brand new coast

Someday the northern coast of Alaska could look like this.

This is a remarkable thing to consider:

"[T]he northern coast is about to become a real coast; maybe not today, maybe not this year, but in a short time. We need to start thinking about that."

So says an authority no less than Major General Francis G. Mahon of the U.S. Northern Command. The comment came during a panel discussion this weekend in Washington, D.C.

“There are many, many others who have economic interests who would like to harvest [resources in the Arctic] and sell them on the economic market,” Mahon said.

Mahon said, as an example, that for Chinese exports to Europe, it is 40 percent shorter to move goods through the Bering Strait than to move those goods through Panama or around the southern tip of South America.

“From an economic standpoint, you know that will be exploited as quickly as possible,” Mahon said. “Ultimately, we will be operating up there more.”

We knew this, of course, and have written about it. But that frame, the creation of a new coast, is remarkable.


Buy or die: The survivalist approach to climate doom

Climate change is coming! Quick, buy more stuff!!

American Red Cross

That's the advice from the New York Times Magazine feature "How to Survive Societal Collapse in Suburbia." Wait, don't laugh yet -- we'll get to that.

First, meet Ron Douglas, a champion of survivalist consumer culture as a solution to our impending human-made doom. Douglas, his wife, and their six children live in the Denver exurbs with a "modified" vehicle that holds a lot of gas, which is apparently super "self-reliant." Douglas founded "one of the largest preparedness expos in the country," where companies try to sell people on disaster hoarding. But, like, sustainably!

Douglas talked about emergency preparedness, sustainable living and financial security — what he called the three pillars of self-reliance. He detailed the importance of solar panels, gardens, water storage and food stockpiles. People shouldn’t just have 72-hour emergency kits for when the power grid goes down; they should learn how to live on their own. It’s a message that Douglas is trying to move from the fringe to the mainstream.

By mainstream here they mean, to the middle and the left. For too long we've allowed political conservatives to dominate the survivalist market with their camoflauge and shotguns -- obviously if those things were organic, they could gain more market share!

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


The CIA shutters its climate change center, because who needs it?

This isn't the real CIA headquarters -- or IS IT

The CIA will close its Center on Climate Change and National Security.

Ugh. Who'd it sleep with?


It is better for the environment if birds do not die prematurely

There are two ways that birds can provide insight into the environment. Both involve the birds dying.

Birds eat insects. Some birds, like certain swallows, eat insects that live in the sediment of lakes and streams. If that sediment is polluted, the birds can die -- which can allow scientists to pinpoint locations of pollution with some accuracy. Scientists in Ohio put swallow nesting boxes near a river they hoped to monitor for pollution -- and the experiment seems to have worked.

From Nature:

[The U.S. Geological Survey's Thomas] Custer described how his group has ... used swallows to monitor a 2010 project intended to remove contaminated sediments from Ohio's Ottawa River near Toledo. Not all the data are in yet, but things look good, he says. "From the standpoint of the birds, this is not a hotspot."

One advantage of using swallows for such work is that they are known to forage over fairly small distances, rarely more than 500 metres from their nests. "They represent very localized contamination," Custer says.

A good sign: Living swallows.

While it seems a little cruel to build homes for swallows to see if they'll die, it can actually be helpful to the birds as well.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Shell, BP join dozens of companies expressing support of carbon pricing

This young lady elegantly summarizes the request.

Everyone wants a carbon tax. Literally everyone. I just did a poll of my house and my dog Lucy kind of nodded slightly, so I feel confident in saying that 100 percent of Americans support a carbon tax (margin of error, 100 percent).

Really, it isn't just me and my dog. (Actually, I'm kind of iffy on it, but I'm willing to hear the dog's arguments.) Here is who else wants a carbon tax, according to Corporate Climate Comminqués, a project of Cambridge University: BP. Shell. British Airways. ING. Kodak. Ricoh. Unilever. That's literally every major corporation in the world (margin of error, like, 90 percent).

To be fair, they don't all support a carbon tax. They, in the words of the document, "urge policy-makers to focus on introducing a clear carbon price framework in a stable and timely manner." Which includes requesting that leaders:

  • Make carbon pricing a central part of national policy responses.
  • Work towards the long term objective of a carbon price throughout the global economy.
  • Set sufficient ambition through internationally agreed targets to drive change at a pace commensurate with the 2°C goal.


Climate change will be ‘devastating’ to world’s poor, World Bank says

It's not just America's poor who will pay the most for climate collapse.

The World Bank's new "Turn Down the Heat" report projects a 4 degree C (7.2 degree F) rise in global temperatures by 2100, a change that would have especially catastrophic consequences in the developing countries the World Bank is ostensibly attempting to aid. Yes, the climate class gap is global.

Dan Johanson

"We will never end poverty if we don't tackle climate change. It is one of the single biggest challenges to social justice today," World Bank President Jim Yong Kim told the media Friday.

From the report [PDF]:

The projected impacts on water availability, ecosystems, agriculture, and human health could lead to large-scale displacement of populations and have adverse consequences for human security and economic and trade systems. The full scope of damages in a 4°C world has not been assessed to date.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Greatly increased greenhouse gas emissions found at Australian fracking site


Given a lump of coal or a tank of natural gas to burn for energy, there's no question which is the better choice for the environment. As David Roberts noted earlier this year, utilities switching to cheaper natural gas is one of the factors contributing to the U.S.' recent decrease in CO2 emissions. Good news.

There is, of course, a but. It is unclear how big the overall benefit of a switch to natural gas is if the switch relies on fracked gas. During the process of fracking, some amount of gas escapes into the atmosphere -- mostly methane, which is 20 times more effective at retaining heat than carbon dioxide. The amount that generally escapes is debated, ranging from 0.2 to 2 percent. That latter figure would be … bad.

So is this, via the Los Angeles Times:

[R]eported findings of methane, carbon dioxide and other compounds at more than three times normal background levels have stirred new controversy in eastern Australia over the pros and cons of boosting natural gas output by “fracking,” a process that blasts sand, water and chemicals into deep underground wells.

Researchers from Southern Cross University took mobile air testing equipment to the Tara gas field near Condamine in Queensland to measure the ambient gas content. They found more than three times the level of toxic gases than expected, based on the industry’s claim that leakage from the wellheads is “negligible.”

“The concentrations here are higher than any measured in gas fields anywhere else that I can think of, including in Russia,” Damien Maher, a biochemist who helped conduct the tests, told the Sydney Morning Herald.


How many times should the government rebuild at-risk areas?


That's some view, right? Imagine waking up to that every morning, heading out to the beach during the summer with a picnic and a book. It's a subset of the American dream: a place on the beach that you retire to, frittering away hours upon end.

Sometimes, though, things like this happen:

John de Guzman

That's a house in the New Dorp Beach section of Staten Island, an area ravaged by Hurricane Sandy.

Storm damage in coastal areas is not new. But the increased severity of storms seems to be, as is the increased urgency behind a long-standing question: Should the government facilitate rebuilding in areas that are prone to natural disaster?


Good news for nostalgists: The debate over the Keystone pipeline has returned

And it's official: The debate over the Keystone XL pipeline is back.

Yesterday, several thousand people protested outside the White House in a scene echoing the regular protests that made headlines last year. Led, as always, by activists from, the protest was intended to increase pressure on President Obama to deny permit approval to the pipeline. If approved, Keystone XL would dramatically increase the amount of tar-sands oil TransCanada ships from Alberta, Canada, to American refiners, perhaps even making the risky endeavor of tar-sands drilling profitable in one fell swoop.

Keystone protest

From The Guardian:

"It's no longer sort of a rag-tag bunch of kids -- it's the very heart of the environmental movement," said Bill McKibben, president of, who helped lead the protest. ...

Obama put the pipeline on hold in January, citing the need to review environmental concerns with a portion of the route in Nebraska.

TransCanada changed its route and reapplied for the permit. Nebraska's state government is expected to approve the new route by the end of the year, and Keystone proponents have urged the Obama administration to grant the permit soon afterward.


Abusive slaughterhouse fined $500 million in massive meat-recall case

More than four years after the biggest meat recall in U.S. history, a settlement has been reached in the Humane Society's lawsuit against Hallmark Meat. The California slaughterhouse not only abused sick cows but then sent their meat into the food system, putting American eaters across the country at risk. A federal court has handed down a $500 million judgment in the case, but as Hallmark is bankrupt, it'll be a symbolic end to this grisly story.

From the Associated Press:

The case marked the first time federal fraud statutes were used in an animal abuse case, the HSUS said. As a supplier of meats for the national school lunch program, the company had signed federal contracts certifying that it would provide humane treatment of animals sent to the company for slaughter.

The widely circulated video shot by an undercover operative in 2007 showed "downer cows" — those too weak or sick to walk — being dragged by chains, rammed by forklifts and sprayed with high-pressure water by employees who wanted them to stand and walk to slaughter.