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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Review: ‘Romney Campaign’ parody of the clueless ultrarich is hilarious, but unrealistic

In one of the better segments of improvised comedy in recent history, activists from the ongoing skit "the Mitt Romney campaign" staged a hilarious send-up of upper class attitudes and disdain this weekend. Centered at the estate of a cartoonishly evil fictional set of brothers, "the Kochs," the comedians imagined an expensive fundraiser cleverly set in the same general locale as The Great Gatsby.

The difference between the Yes Men and The Mitt Romney Campaign, though, is that the Yes Men know exactly where to quit before straining our credulity. Some of the Romney characters use setups and characters so unrealistic that they would make Sacha Baron Cohen blush. Case in point: The jokesters offered up "rich attendees" to be interviewed by assembled media, all of whom were presumably in on the joke. Here's what one told the Los Angeles Times.

A New York City donor a few cars back, who also would not give her name, said Romney needed to do a better job connecting. “I don’t think the common person is getting it,” she said from the passenger seat of a Range Rover stamped with East Hampton beach permits. “Nobody understands why Obama is hurting them.

“We’ve got the message,” she added. “But my college kid, the baby sitters, the nails ladies — everybody who’s got the right to vote — they don’t understand what’s going on. I just think if you’re lower income — one, you’re not as educated, two, they don’t understand how it works, they don’t understand how the systems work, they don’t understand the impact.”

It's certainly amusing to think that someone might be so callously out-of-touch with the rest of the world as to make such a ridiculously condescending argument. I mean, the veiled suggestion that some people shouldn't have the right to vote? A joke's a joke, but no actual human being would ever say such a thing.

Read more: Politics


Black lung disease, once on the brink of extinction, is back. Thank the coal industry

In February 1969, miners in West Virginia launched an illegal wildcat strike. The action halted extraction for half of the mines in the northern part of the state for days. The miners had one demand: end black lung disease.

The action worked. By the end of 1969, new policies went into effect in an effort to curb the disease, which results from the inhalation of coal dust and leads to long-term lung damage and impaired breathing. New exposure limits were set, and miners were offered regular chest X-rays and compensation for damage. Donald Rasmussen, a pulmonologist in West Virginia interviewed by NPR, has tested tens of thousands of miners over the past half-century.

"In 1969, I publicly proclaimed that the disease would go away before we learned all about it," he adds. "And I was dead wrong."

Photo courtesy of the National Archives.
Read more: Coal


Apple withdraws its products from national environmental standard

The grass in this image is likely glued on. (Image by Earl Wilkerson.)

EPEAT (the Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool) is a national standard (funded in part by the EPA) that certifies electronic products as "environmentally preferable." Among other things, EPEAT considers energy consumption and recyclability in awarding products one of three levels of certification.

Last week, all of Apple's desktop and laptop computers were certified as EPEAT Gold. Today, none of the company's products appear on the index at all.

From the Wall Street Journal:

In order to meet the standards, recyclers need to be able to easily disassemble products, with common tools, to separate toxic components, like batteries. The standards were created jointly by manufacturers, including Apple, advocacy groups and government agencies. Frisbee says an Apple staff member told him at the end of June that the company no longer wanted Apple computers to be listed as EPEAT certified.

“They said their design direction was no longer consistent with the EPEAT requirements,” Frisbee said. The company did not elaborate, Frisbee said. “They were important supporters and we are disappointed that they don’t want their products measured by this standard anymore.” suspects that design changes seen in the new MacBook are to blame.


Multinational food corporations thank you for buying ‘organic’

A dozen or so organic farmers drive their electric tractors to a wood-beamed meeting house. There, they consider what counts as organic, the processes and additives that should and shouldn't carry that label. They consider the evidence and talk to the experts, running late into the day as the dusky light outside begins to grow red. After all, the integrity of the label is at stake. Finally, they agree. A few quick handshakes and it's off into the dusk, the scent of rich soil their companion on the long, slow drive back to the solar panel-topped farmhouse.

This advertisement for organic farming has been brought to you by Kraft.

The reality of industrial consolidation in organic food, as an article in the Times over the weekend made clear, is a familiar -- if not yet well-known -- tale. A lucrative industry is rapidly embraced and consumed by existing titans, its boundaries stretched and flexed to wring the most money out of the tiniest adjustments. Washington is enlisted as a partner leveraging the tried and true tools of lobbyists and relationships.

The humble headquarters of your local organic food provider. (Photo by David Neubert.)

The story of Big Ag is the story of Big Organic.

Read more: Food, Organic Food


Norway could halt all oil extraction tonight, probably only temporarily

A model offshore rig. (Photo by eschipul.)

Norway, the world's eighth-largest producer of oil, could cease all production later today. From France24:

Norway is hours away from the first complete shutdown of its oil industry in more than 25 years as the government holds off on breaking up a fight between striking offshore workers and employers, threatening exports from western Europe's top producer.

The strike by offshore workers over pensions is already in its third week, and a deadline for government intervention ahead of a planned midnight lockout of all offshore staff looms.

"The companies are now ready to close down production on the Norwegian continental shelf if the government doesn't intervene before midnight," Eli Ane Nedreskaar, a spokeswoman for the Norwegian oil industry association (OLF), told Reuters.

The sticking point is a request from offshore workers to lower their retirement age to 62. An existing strike has already cut the country's output by 13 percent.

Read more: Oil


Mother Nature has evil plans for your weekend

Well, it's almost the weekend again. Weekends in July: the perfect chance to get outside, head to a park, play a game of baseball.

You should not do anything of those things this weekend if you live in basically 90 percent of America.

If you live in an area marked in orange, stock up on Popsicles.

This is's Severe Weather Alerts map. If you click through, you can see specific warnings for wherever you live. But you'll notice one thing right away: several of these United States are going to be hot.

Read more: Cities


For the first time, America produces as much electricity from natural gas as from coal

This piece of coal is sad and feeling unloved. Good.

Literally while we were posting our article about Europe's adoration for burning up coal, this came across the wire (Twitter) from ThinkProgress:

For the first time in U.S. history, natural gas electricity generation equaled coal generation, according to preliminary April figures from the Energy Information Administration:

Click to embiggen.

… As the agency points out, there are a variety of factors that contribute to the changes in generation such as seasonal variability, changes in prices, age of infrastructure, and rising or falling inventories. But looking at the chart above, we can see a clear longer-term trend: use of coal is declining steadily and natural gas is filling in the gap.

In fact, recent data from the EIA showed that generation from coal dropped 19 percent between the first quarter of 2011 and first quarter of 2012 — moving from 44.6 percent to 36 percent. If this preliminary data is correct, that means that coal generation fell another 4 percent between March and April of this year.

This is remarkable enough that I added emphasis above. Coal is declining! Banner headline, front page above the fold, 40-point type. Definitely read the rest of the ThinkProgress piece for more context, first taking a second to applaud.

But here's something else I noticed.


White House has been ‘timid’ on regulating fracking, says former White House lawyer

Jody Freeman says the Obama administration "has been timid about calling for a stronger federal role" in regulating fracking. And she should know, as she served as White House counselor for energy and climate change from 2009 to 2010.

In a New York Times op-ed, Freeman argues that state-level regulation is not good enough:


Europe goes crazy for coal – and we can blame ourselves

London, during the coal-caused "Great Smog" of 1952. (Photo courtesy of Geograph.)

Germany just set a new record in solar energy production, creating 14.7 terawatt-hours of electricity over the first six months of 2012. Solar energy covered between 10 and 50 percent of the country's peak hour demand on average every day. Nice work, Germany!

Meanwhile, elsewhere in Europe (and also in Germany):

Demand for coal, the dirtiest fuel for making electricity, grew 3.3 percent last year in Europe while sales of less-polluting natural gas fell 2.1 percent, the steepest drop since 2009, according to a BP Plc report.

Oh man, Europe, what happened? We thought you were cool.

But even with some European Union member nations implementing efforts to increase the cost of carbon pollution, coal is still less expensive than the alternatives. And Europe has its enablers:

Cheaper coal was made possible partly by a 49 percent jump in first-quarter imports from the U.S., Energy Information Administration data show.

The fracking boom in the U.S. has led to a big drop in coal use, meaning that we're now free to export that coal to Europe.

Ha ha. Um, sorry, guys.


Warming waters pose a huge threat to the world’s coral

Photo by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

There's a reason people focus on the preservation of coral reefs. They're an oddity (animals that look and behave like plants), a beauty (see photo above), and a ecological asset (reefs are enormously diverse ecosystems). The world has thousands of reefs in various sizes and at various levels of health.

Image courtesy of NASA.

And, according to a new study, they are all at enormous risk due to climate change.

For years, researchers have examined the expected impact of global warming on the reefs. Overfishing and pollution have long been identified as stressors for coral, with some scientists arguing that those factors are more critical threats. But a new study from researchers at Florida Institute of Technology suggests that coral has been decimated by warmer waters before.

The research from doctoral student Lauren Toth and advisor Richard Aronsen, published this week in Science, involved taking core samples from reefs, boring an aluminum pipe into dead reefs off the coast of Panama (nice work if you can get it). When they extracted the samples, they were surprised to find that two-and-a-half millennia of expected growth was missing.

Read more: Climate Change