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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Canadians are eating tar-sands pollution

tar-sands protest
Caelie Frampton

Tar-sands extraction isn't just turning swaths of Canadian land into postapocalyptic film sets. New research shows it's also contaminating the wild animals that members of the Mikisew Cree and Athabasca Chipewyan First Nations have traditionally relied on for food.

We already knew that the tar-sands operations have been dousing northern Alberta with mercury and other forms of pollution. Now university scientists have collaborated with the First Nations to test the pollution levels in hunted animals found downstream from the tar-sands sites. Here are some lowlights from their findings, which were included in a report published on Monday:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Space Oddity

Hopefully NASA won’t screw up its CO2-measuring satellite this time


The last time NASA tried to launch a satellite to measure carbon dioxide levels from space, within minutes the $273 million project plopped into the Southern Ocean (oops). Tomorrow they’re giving it another go. The Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO)-2 will blast off at 2:56 a.m. PDT from the Vadenburg Air Force Base in California. This time, it’ll hopefully make it to 438 miles above the planet, where it will be in a prime position to obsessively watch Earth breathe.


Which sounds stalker-esque, but don't get too creeped out. OCO’s main goal is to figure out where, exactly, atmospheric CO2 currently comes from -- and, more mysteriously, where it ends up. While fossil fuel emissions have tripled since the 1960s, levels of atmospheric CO2 have risen by less than a quarter (but unfortunately that's still enough to cause big global change). That’s because somehow our oceans and plants have, on average, been able to keep pace with absorbing half of the total atmospheric CO2. But scientists still don't know a lot about the dynamics of how this is happening, which leaves them wondering: How long can we expect these carbon sinks to keep sucking the stuff down?


Climate change making emperor penguins’ feet a lot less happy


As the largest living penguin species, the emperor penguin reaches four feet in height and 100 pounds in weight. In some ways, this iconic bird could be considered one of the most successful bird species in the world. While most birds spend half their lives flying south, emperors got as far south as you can get, put on a nice tuxedo, and then gave up flying all together.

Now the dapper dressers are in trouble -- these emperors may have no clothes, but that doesn't mean they're looking forward to a warming world, according to a new study in Nature Climate Change:

Read more: Climate & Energy


Please, sir, may I have some more?

California’s cap-and-trade program will fund environmental justice

Richmond refinery
Jason Holmberg

Have poor Californians hit the environmental-health jackpot?

The money raised through the sale of carbon credits under the state's young carbon-trading program is earmarked for projects that help the climate and the environment. And under a law passed a couple of years ago, SB 535, 25 percent of that money must go to programs that provide benefits to disadvantaged communities, with 10 percent to be spent on projects located directly within those communities. Disadvantaged communities are determined by the state based on pollution levels and socioeconomic factors. They are typically poor neighborhoods of color, where health is compromised and lives are cut short by pollution from the refineries and power plants whose greenhouse gas emissions are being capped.

A $156 billion budget signed recently by Gov. Jerry Brown (D) outlines how the state will spend $872 million expected to be raised over the coming year through the sale of carbon credits. (Note that the $832 million figure in the chart below excludes a $40 million emergency appropriation to help manage the drought.)


The thin edge of the veg

Going vegetarian can cut your diet’s carbon footprint in half


The agricultural industry is a heavy global warmer, responsible for a tenth of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. But not all farm bounties are climatically equal.

New research reveals that the diets of those who eat a typical amount of meat for an American, about four ounces or more per day, are responsible for nearly twice as much global warming as vegetarians' diets, and nearly 2.5 times as much as vegans'.

That's because directly eating vegetables and grains, instead of inefficiently funneling them through livestock to produce meat, reduces the amount of carbon dioxide produced by farms and farm machinery. It also cuts back on the amount of climate-changing nitrous oxide released from tilled and fertilized soils, and, of course, it eliminates methane belching and farting by cows and other animals.

A team of British researchers scrutinized the diets of 2,041 vegans, 15,751 vegetarians, 8,123 fish eaters, and 29,589 meat eaters, all of them living in the U.K. They estimated the greenhouse gas emissions associated with 289 types of food. Then they combined the data to determine the globe-warming impacts of those four diets, based on consumption of 2,000 calories a day.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Buzz kill much?

Just how friendly are your “bee-friendly” plants?


We don't want to kill your bee-loving buzz, but if you buy "bee-friendly" plants and seedlings from Home Depot or similar stores, then you could be unwittingly killing the bees that you're trying to protect.

Friends of the Earth tested 71 garden plants with "bee-friendly" labels purchased from major retailers in the U.S. and Canada and discovered that 36 of them had been treated with bee- and butterfly-killing neonic pesticides.

"Since 51 percent of the plants that were tested contained neonicotinoid residues, the chance of purchasing a plant contaminated with neonicotinoids is high," states a new report detailing the findings. "Therefore, many home gardens have likely become a source of exposure for bees. For the samples with positive detections, adverse effects on bees and other pollinators consuming nectar and pollen from these plants are possible, ranging from sublethal effects on navigation, fertility, and immune function to pollinator death."

Déjà vu? You bet. The nonprofit published similar findings last year.


joke's on you, assholes

Obama is absolutely lambasting Republicans on climate change now

Obama laughs
White House

It isn't cool to wreck the climate. Not in 2014, anyway. That much is iceberg clear in the wake of a speech by President Barack Obama on Wednesday. Addressing a League of Conservation Voters’ annual dinner, Obama, who one year ago outlined a Climate Action Plan that sidesteps the obstructionist Congress, escalated the ridicule that he has lately been slathering on Republicans and other climate change deniers. From Politico:

“It’s pretty rare that you encounter people who say that the problem of carbon pollution is not a problem,” Obama said. “In most communities and workplaces, they may not know how big a problem it is, they may not know exactly how it works, they may doubt they can do something about it. Generally they don’t just say, ‘No I don’t believe anything scientists say.’ Except, where?” he said, waiting for the more than accommodating crowd to call back, “Congress!”

Obama smiled — not his big toothy self-satisfied grin, but his stick-it-in-the-ribs smirk.

“In Congress,” he said. “Folks will tell you climate change is hoax or a fad or a plot. A liberal plot.”

Then, Obama said, there are the people who duck the question. “They say, hey, I’m not a scientist, which really translates into, I accept that man-made climate change is real, but if I say so out loud, I will be run out of town by a bunch of fringe elements that thinks climate science is a liberal plot so I’m going to just pretend like, I don’t know, I can’t read,” Obama said.

“I mean, I’m not a scientist either, but I’ve got this guy, John Holdren, he’s a scientist,” Obama added to laughter. “I’ve got a bunch of scientists at NASA and I’ve got a bunch of scientists at EPA.”


It's just a baby

Happy first birthday, U.S. Climate Action Plan!

climate action's first birthday

Anthropogenic climate change is as old as a tortoise -- it's been more than a century since our fossil-fuel pollution started raising temperatures and melting snow and ice. Global action to temper climate change is considerably younger. It hasn't been a quarter of a century since the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change was launched to help thrash out global climate treaties.

And here in the U.S., climate action is little more than a disoriented baby. It has been exactly one year since President Barack Obama unveiled his Climate Action Plan, circumventing Congress and setting 75 goals for reducing carbon pollution, bracing for the impacts of climate change, and leading international climate efforts.

Since then, as the administration notes in a progress report, it has proposed carbon pollution rules for new and existing power plants, ramped up efforts to use federal land for renewable energy projects, leased out federal waters for a planned wind farm, published an overdue National Climate Assessment, embarked on an effort to reduce methane pollution, and proposed a $1 billion climate adaptation fund. Meanwhile, Obama and other Democrats and their progressive allies have begun a campaign of ridiculing Republicans on their climate-change denialism, using the issue as a wedge.



Everything we know about neonic pesticides is awful


Neonicotinoid pesticides are great at killing insect pests, which helps to explain the dramatic rise in their use during the past 20 years. They're popular because they are systemic pesticides -- they don't just get sprayed onto plant surfaces. They can be applied to seeds, roots, and soil, becoming incorporated into a growing plant, turning it into poison for any bugs that might munch upon it.

But using neonics to control pests is like using a hand grenade to thwart a bank robbery.

Which is why the European Union has banned the use of many of them -- and why environmentalists are suing the U.S. EPA to do the same.

The pesticides don't just affect pest species. Most prominently, they affect bees and butterflies, which are poisoned when they gather pollen and nectar. But neonics' negative impacts go far beyond pollinators. They kill all manner of animals and affect all kinds of ecosystems. They're giving rise to Silent Spring 2.0.

"It's just a matter of time before somebody can point to major species declines that can be linked to these compounds," said Pierre Mineau, a Canadian pesticide ecotoxicologist. "Bees have been the focus for the last three or four years, but it’s a lot broader than that."

Mineau contributed to an epic assessment of the ecological impacts of neonics, known as the Worldwide Integrated Assessment, in which 29 scientists jointly examined more than 800 peer-reviewed papers spanning five years. Their findings are being published in installments in the journal Environmental Science and Pollution Research, beginning last week with a paper coauthored by Mineau that details impacts on vertebrate animals, including fish and lizards. Here's a summary of highlights:


Fracking chemicals could mess with your hormones

fracking chemicals

Feeling overly hormonal? Not hormonal enough? Just wait for frackers to move into your neighborhood and let them throw the medical dice for you. Fracking chemicals have been found to screw with many of the hormones that control a wide range of important bodily functions.

Last year, a team of researchers reported that fracking chemicals found in water samples from a heavily fracked region of Colorado messed with human estrogen and androgen receptors in laboratory experiments. Those scientists linked Colorado's fracking binge with "moderate levels" of such chemicals in the Colorado River, which is a major source of drinking water. That's screwed up, because those hormones help us maintain sexual health.

But it gets worse. Preliminary findings of a followup study were presented this week by one of the same research team members during a joint meeting of the International Society of Endocrinology and the Endocrine Society. The early findings suggest that it's not just sex hormones that frackers can mess with.

The researchers analyzed 24 chemicals commonly used by frackers -- noting that those chemicals represent a small subset of the hundreds of chemicals used in fracking, many of which are kept secret. Not only were most of the studied chemicals found to mess with our estrogen and androgen systems, but some of them were also found to affect hormones that prepare our bodies for pregnancy (progesterone), that break down sugar (glucocorticoid), and that regulate growth and development (the thyroid system). Only one of the 24 chemicals did not affect any of the hormonal systems studied.