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Vanishing ocean smell could also mean fewer clouds

Beach smell
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Open your eyes: The clouds are disappearing, too.

Next time you're at the beach take a deep, long sniff: That special coastal scent might not last forever. While you're at it, put on some extra sunscreen: As that smell dwindles, cloud cover could, too.

The unique oceanside smell that flows over your olfactory organs is loaded with sulfur -- dimethylsulfide, to be exact, or DMS. It's produced when phytoplankton decompose. And it's a fragrant compound that's as special as it smells: In the atmosphere it reacts to produce sulfuric acid, which aids in the formation of clouds.

But it's a smell that's endangered by climate change. Experiments have linked the rising acidity of the world's oceans to falling levels of DMS. A paper published online Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change warns that ocean acidification could reduce DMS emissions by about one-sixth in 2100 compared with pre-industrial levels.

Clouds do more for us than just dispense  quenching rain and snow: They also reflect light and heat away from the earth, helping to keep temperatures down.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Maryland chickens out on farm pollution rule

Chickens
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Poultry produces lots of poop.

The Chesapeake Bay is shit out of luck.

The state of Maryland planned to tighten the rules on how much chicken manure farmers could spread over their fields -- part of an effort to slow the flow of nutrients into the East Coast's largest estuary. That would have helped reduce the size of the bay's dead zone, but it would have left the state's powerful chicken farmers in a smelly bind: What would they do with their copious streams of waste?

Read more: Food

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Syngenta to take a continent to court to upend pesticide ban

Dead bee
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Dead bees? Who cares?

Syngenta is preparing to spray its lawyerly might all over Europe in a bid to be allowed to keep killing bees.

The agro-chemical giant announced Tuesday that it would haul the European Commission before the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg in an effort to block the looming suspension of its neonic insecticide thiamethoxam -- aka Cruiser.

The commission voted earlier this year in favor of a two-year ban on neonicotinoid pesticides, beginning in December, because scientists have found that they slaughter the bees that suckle at the stamen of treated plants.

Syngenta's lawyers and executives claim that the company's product does no such thing -- even though killing insects is exactly what it's designed to do. From an AFP report:

"The Commission took the decision on the basis of a flawed process, an inaccurate and incomplete assessment by the European Food Safety Authority and without the full support of EU Member States," the company insisted. ...

Syngenta said the EU suspension was causing deep concern among farmers, who once the two-year-ban takes effect in December will need to replace "an extremely effective, low dose product (with) much less sustainable alternatives."

Sustainable, you say? Not many things could be more critical to a sustainable food supply than thriving pollinators.

Read more: Food

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Is the NSA surveillance program really about spying on environmentalists?

350
350.org

At the Guardian, Nafeez Ahmed, executive director of the Institute for Policy Research & Development, has an idea about what might be driving the massive expansion of the NSA's domestic surveillance program that we’ve learned so much about lately. It’s not concerns about religious fundamentalists who hate America. Instead, he suggests, the government is worried about environmental activism:

But why have Western security agencies developed such an unprecedented capacity to spy on their own domestic populations? Since the 2008 economic crash, security agencies have increasingly spied on political activists, especially environmental groups, on behalf of corporate interests. This activity is linked to the last decade of US defence planning, which has been increasingly concerned by the risk of civil unrest at home triggered by catastrophic events linked to climate change, energy shocks or economic crisis -- or all three.

Who would have thunk? It turns out the U.S. government is worried about climate change, after all. At least if being worried about climate change lets them use all their cool spy gear.

Across the government, security professionals are fretting about natural disasters and global oil shortfalls, Ahmed explains. The Department of Defense has written that "climate change, energy security, and economic stability are inextricably linked." They're nervous about what this means: What are people going to do when they realized they're, to use the technical term, totally screwed? The Army's Strategic Studies Institute has suggested that, in the case of a total freak-out, it might be necessary to "use of military force against hostile groups inside the United States."

Who are those hostiles? Why, they might just be environmentalists.

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Coal shoulder: BLM sells controversial coal mining lease, but no one’s buying

Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.
Kimon Berlin
Wyoming has enough coal trains for now.

Today the Bureau of Land Management in Wyoming held a sale for the lease of 148 million tons of coal on public land in the Powder River Basin -- and received not  a single bid, a first for the BLM in the state.

The sale was the first of two that the BLM had planned in the area over the next month, which combined would pave the way for the extraction of 316 million tons of Powder River Basin coal. Cloud Peak Energy had asked the BLM back in 2006 to open the site of today’s lease to mining, presumably to expand on its adjacent Cloud Peak mine. But today, the energy company decided it wouldn’t bid, and no one else stepped up (federal coal leases frequently see only one bidder). Here’s Cloud Peak CEO Colin Marshall in the company’s press release:

We carefully evaluated the estimated economics of this LBA [lease by application] in light of current market conditions and the uncertainty caused by the current political and regulatory environment towards coal and coal-powered generation and ultimately decided it was prudent not to bid at this time. … [W]e believe a significant portion of the BLM’s estimated mineable tons would not be recoverable by us if we were to be the winning bidder in the BLM’s competitive process. In combination with prevailing 8400 Btu market prices and projected costs of mining the remaining coal, we were unable to construct an economic bid for this tract at this time.

In other words, coal in this country is getting more difficult and costly to mine, domestic demand is falling, and Obama has directed EPA to crack down on emissions from coal-fired power plants. Even the coal industry’s hail-mary plan to stay profitable by pushing exports to Asia faces setbacks. We agree with Cloud Peak that starting up a whole new coal-mining operation is probably not prudent at this point.

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By 2050, flooding could cost the world’s coastal cities over $60 billion a year

Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.
Oliver Rich
Hurricane Sandy was a wake-up call for New York City, one of the 20 cities expected to see the most damages from flooding.

In 2005, flooding caused $6 billion worth of damage globally. By 2050, we could be hit with 10 times that much in losses -- and that’s only if the world’s biggest coastal cities make significant investments to mitigate risk. If we do nothing, costs could soar to $1 trillion.

These sobering statistics come from a new study in Nature Climate Change which identifies the 20 coastal metropolises that stand to lose the most when (not if) major flooding occurs in the future. Sea-level rise, subsidence (the land sinking), and increasingly strong storms -- all related to climate change -- increase the risk of flooding. But much of the growing price tag of future flood losses is thanks to the growing numbers of people crowding along the world’s coasts.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Tesla Model S rocks safety tests, gets highest possible score

Tesla Model S
The Tesla Model S: sexy and safe.

First the Tesla Model S got the highest score of any car Consumer Reports had ever reviewed, blowing testers away with its “innovation,” “world-class performance,” and “impressive attention to detail.” Now, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has awarded the car its highest rating possible, a five out of five in every category. (Note to luxury sports-car enthusiasts: Grist does not condone reckless driving no matter how high a car’s safety rating or how low its emissions.)

According to Tesla, “approximately one percent of all cars tested by the federal government achieve 5 stars across the board.” More from the company's press release:

Of all vehicles tested, including every major make and model approved for sale in the United States, the Model S set a new record for the lowest likelihood of injury to occupants. While the Model S is a sedan, it also exceeded the safety score of all SUVs and minivans. This score takes into account the probability of injury from front, side, rear and rollover accidents.

The Model S achieved such a high score in large part because it's an electric vehicle. The front of the car has only trunk space where a gasoline engine block would normally be, so it has a much longer “crumple zone” -- the part of the car that absorbs impact in a head-on collision. And the battery pack’s location beneath the floor gives the car a low center of gravity that substantially lowers its rollover risk.

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Fracking frenzy slows as oil and gas assets plummet in price

Not pumping as much as predicted.
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Yes, we know this isn't a fracking pump, but it's way prettier.

You know that domestic oil-and-gas boom that’s been sweeping the country for the past few years, turning places like Williston, N.D., into Sin City? Well, the party’s winding down -- or maybe it was never that ragin’ in the first place. Oil and gas shale assets, possibly overvalued to begin with, are plunging in price thanks to an oversaturated market and wells whose production hasn’t always lived up to expectations.

Bloomberg Businessweek reports:

The deal-making slump, which may last for years, threatens to slow oil and gas production growth as companies that built up debt during the rush for shale acreage can’t depend on asset sales to fund drilling programs. The decline has pushed acquisitions of North American energy assets in the first-half of the year to the lowest since 2004. …

North American oil and gas deals, including shale assets, plunged 52 percent to $26 billion in the first six months from $54 billion in the year-ago period, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. During the drilling frenzy of 2009 through 2012, energy companies spent more than $461 billion buying North American oil and gas properties, the data show.

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Democrats will soon have a big, fat fight over fracking

man and woman boxing
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Most Democratic politicians say nice things about renewable energy and less-nice things about coal and earnest things about the need for climate action. But when it comes to fracking for natural gas, Dems and enviros are increasingly at odds.

Exhibit A: President Obama. He's provided unprecedented support for clean energy. He's making moves to curb pollution from coal-fired power plants. He's saying climate change is a top priority for his second term. But he's just fine with fracking. His administration has yet to impose any regulations on the process; it's only offered weak draft rules so far. It recently approved plans for a third project to export fracked natural gas. Obama thinks natural gas is part of the climate solution, a bridge fuel that will help us make the transition from coal and oil to renewables, as he made clear in his big climate speech in June:

We should strengthen our position as the top natural gas producer because, in the medium term at least, it not only can provide safe, cheap power, but it can also help reduce our carbon emissions. ...

The bottom line is natural gas is creating jobs. It's lowering many families' heat and power bills. And it's the transition fuel that can power our economy with less carbon pollution even as our businesses work to develop and then deploy more of the technology required for the even cleaner energy economy of the future.

Even California Gov. Jerry Brown (D), a long-time booster of clean energy and climate action, is open to fracking.

But as anti-fracking activism heats up around the country, pro-fracking Dems might find themselves increasingly at odds with their base. As we near 2016, any Democrat who wants to replace Obama might have to start singing a different tune.

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Climate scientists are 95 percent sure that humans are causing global warming

When it comes to climate change, the writing is on the wall.
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When it comes to climate science, the writing is on the wall.

Climate hawks are buzzing over leaks from the fifth big climate report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, due to be officially released in September. Spoiler: Scientists are pretty damn confident that we're screwing up the climate.

An earlier draft was leaked in December by climate deniers trying to undermine the case for anthropogenic climate change. News of more recent leaked drafts comes to us from Reuters, which has no such agenda. Reuters sums up the report this way:

Climate scientists are surer than ever that human activity is causing global warming, according to leaked drafts of a major U.N. report, but they are finding it harder than expected to predict the impact in specific regions in coming decades. ...

Drafts seen by Reuters of the study by the U.N. panel of experts, due to be published next month, say it is at least 95 percent likely that human activities -- chiefly the burning of fossil fuels -- are the main cause of warming since the 1950s.

That is up from at least 90 percent in the last report in 2007, 66 percent in 2001, and just over 50 in 1995, steadily squeezing out the arguments by a small minority of scientists that natural variations in the climate might be to blame. ...

Read more: Climate & Energy