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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


How climate deniers are like ignorant patrons of ’80s gay bars

gay bar sign
Ryan Cannon

Writer and gay-rights activist Dan Savage has a provocative piece in the Seattle alt weekly The Stranger, comparing today's climate deniers to gay men in the early '80s who refused to face up to the reality of AIDS.

He starts out discussing a recent This American Life segment on ranchers in Colorado who won't acknowledge that climate change is happening, even as it's ravaging their land and livelihoods.

Listening to the ranchers in [reporter Julia Kumari] Drapkin's report—hearing the anger, denial, and fear in their voices—took me back 30 years. They sounded like another group of people whose world was on fire and who also couldn't bring themselves to face reality. They sounded like people I used to know. They sounded like those faggots who stood around in gay bars in 1983 insisting that AIDS couldn't be a sexually transmitted infection. Even as their friends lay dying, even as more of their friends and lovers became sick, they couldn't accept that sex had anything to do with this terrifying new illness.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living


Obama climate plan finally coming, on Tuesday

Barack Obama
The White House
He's thinking hard about that upcoming speech.

First we heard it from unnamed sources. Then we heard it from White House climate advisor Heather Zichal. And now we've heard it from Obama himself: The president is gearing up for a big speech in which he'll unveil his long-awaited second-term climate plan.

Obama announced the news in his weekly video address on Saturday. "This Tuesday at Georgetown University, I'll lay out my vision for where I believe we need to go: a national plan to reduce carbon pollution, prepare our country for the impacts of climate change, and lead global efforts to fight it," he said in the video, which was set to overwrought music and peppered with gauzy scenes of American landscapes. (Watch for yourself below.)


Massive Montana mine has tribes fighting over coal exports

A huge new coal-mining project just approved by the federal government pits a Montana tribe against native communities in the Pacific Northwest.

sign: "Crow country: Keep it beautiful, don't litter"
Lance Fisher
They may soon have a lot more than litter to worry about.

The Crow Nation in southern Montana overlaps the coal-rich Powder River Basin. The tribe is sitting on a deposit of up to 1.4 billion tons of coal -- more than the United States produces in a year -- and on Thursday, the federal government approved the lease of that coal to mining company Cloud Peak Energy. The company has begun preliminary work on a mine that could eventually produce up to 10 million tons of coal every year, much of which it hopes to move through three proposed export terminals in Washington and Oregon to sell to Asian markets.

As demand for coal in the U.S. fizzles thanks to the natural-gas boom, the coal industry is banking on a growing Asian appetite for cheap power to keep it afloat. And the Crow Nation is banking on the deal with Cloud Peak to turn its fortunes around. The Associated Press details what's in it for the tribe:


Wind industry and enviros team up to study bird deaths

A bald eagle
This eagle is feeling better already.

Amid growing controversies over birds killed by turbines, a handful of big wind energy companies are teaming up with conservationists to pool data that could help address the problem.

The American Wind Wildlife Institute, a nonprofit partnership of 22 wind companies and nine green groups, has a new project that aims to round up, analyze, and eventually publish hitherto secret data on bird kills at wind power developments. Midwest Energy News reports:

“Our goal is not to identify problems to prosecute,” said Abby Arnold, AWWI’s executive director. “Our goal is to develop a really good analytic tool that experts — biologists, statisticians, ecologists — and the wind industry can use to understand what these impacts are, where they’re occurring, and how we can address them.” …


Oil companies will curb use of air guns that torment marine mammals

Sperm whale
Finally, some peace and quiet.

Whales, dolphins, and manatees will finally enjoy some peace and quiet in parts of the Gulf of Mexico following a legal settlement that will restrict the use of oil industry air guns.

As if dodging oil spills and dead zones in the Gulf isn't bad enough, the marine mammals there are also subjected to deafening pulses of noise fired from boats searching for new oil fields to drill. “These super-loud airblasts hurt whales and dolphins,” said Miyoko Sakashita of the Center for Biological Diversity in a statement. “The seismic surveys sound like an underwater explosion, causing deafness and stress that can disrupt whales’ behaviors and even lead to strandings.”

The legal settlement filed Thursday with a federal court will block the use of the sonar guns in parts of the Gulf until the end of 2015. It will also add manatees to the list of species whose presence requires an automatic silencing of sonar blasts. From the Associated Press:


EPA abandons investigation into fracking pollution

Boy drinking water
Want to know what's in that water? Don't ask the EPA.

The EPA is dropping its only investigation that has found evidence of water contamination from fracking.

Following a three-year study of groundwater pollution around Pavilion, Wyo., the EPA concluded in a draft report in 2011 that fracking chemicals were a likely cause. The finding was obviously controversial — frackers would like us to believe that injecting poisonous chemicals into the ground couldn’t possibly poison water. Critics of the research found fault with the EPA’s methodology and said contamination could have predated fracking.

In the face of these controversies, the agency backed down Thursday, announcing that it was halting the research and abandoning its own draft findings. From The Hill:

The EPA said it will not complete or seek peer review of a 2011 draft study, which found that groundwater pollution in the Pavillion, Wyo., area was consistent with chemicals used in gas production.


Indonesia to seed clouds, try to put out huge plantation fires

Record-breaking air pollution caused by peatland fires in Sumatra has Malaysians and Singaporeans locked indoors -- and Indonesia today plans to try an unconventional approach to tackling the flames.

The Indonesians will dump chemicals from aircraft high above smoldering palm plantations in hopes of changing the weather. The goal is to seed clouds and force them to rain their moisture out over the stubborn conflagrations, which were triggered by slash-and-burn forest-clearing by the palm oil industry.

Smoke from Sumatra fires
NASA Goddard
Smoke from fires on Indonesia's Sumatra island is polluting Singapore and Malaysia.

From the Straits Times:

Two Casa 212 aircraft will be flown to the province's capital, Pekanbaru, on Friday morning and a C-130 Hercules Air Force aircraft will also be readied for the effort.

Personnel, equipment and seed material to induce rain over clouds have already been sent to Pekanbaru on Thursday night, the agency in charge added.

Cloud seeding is an unusual approach to firefighting. But, then, this is no ordinary fire. From Agence France-Presse:

About 100 firefighters tackling the blazes were finding them difficult to extinguish as they were smouldering underground in carbon-rich peatland, mostly in oil palm plantations, he said.

“It is extremely difficult to extinguish the fires that are burning under the surface of the peatland,” [Indonesian Forestry Ministry official Raffles Panjaitan] said.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Maine guv freaks out after local media report on his corrupt environment chief

Foreground: Maine Governor Paul R. LePage
Maine Department of Education
Foreground: Maine Gov. Paul R. LePage.

It's almost surprising that Maine Gov. Paul LePage (R) has never run for national office. In the realm of GOP presidential aspirants, he could give Herman Cain and Michele Bachmann a run for their money when it comes to political ineptitude and pure crazy. He’s told the NAACP to “kiss my butt,” and he recently used a violent sodomy analogy to describe a state lawmaker at a public rally.

But alas, we could be hearing less from LePage in the future: His spokesperson announced on Tuesday that the governor’s office will no longer communicate with three leading Maine newspapers, because their parent company, MaineToday Media, “made it clear that it opposed this administration.”

Evidence of this alleged opposition came in the form of a seven-month investigation of Patricia Aho, commissioner of the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and a former corporate lobbyist, the results of which were published in the Portland Press Herald, the Kennebec Journal, and the Morning Sentinel. The papers reported that Aho “has scuttled programs and fought against laws that were opposed by many of her former clients in the chemical, drug, oil, and real estate development industries.” The commissioner stalled a 2008 law to keep dangerous chemicals out of children’s products, weakened enforcement of real-estate and development laws, rolled back recycling programs, and oversaw a purge of information from the DEP’s website and a restriction of its employees’ ability to communicate with lawmakers, the public, and each other.

Aho’s performance lines up with LePage’s well-established allegiance to corporations before citizens.


Rampaging pig virus may raise pork prices

Vulnerable little factory-reared piggies.

A stomach virus that kills most of the piglets it infects is tearing across America, reaching farms in at least 13 states just a month after it was first detected here.

The disease threatens to trim back the nation's pork supplies at a time when the price of the meat is already rising following last year's drought.

Scientists say a strain of porcine epidemic diarrhea virus (PEDV), which shares 99.4 percent of its genes with a strain that recently killed more than 1 million piglets in China, is harmless to humans and other animals. But you wouldn't want to be a baby pig that contracted the disease.

From Reuters:

While the virus has not tended to kill older pigs, mortality among very young pigs infected in U.S. farms is commonly 50 percent, and can be as high [as] 100 percent, say veterinarians and scientists who are studying the outbreak. ...

Read more: Food


Study: Trees save at least a life a year in each of 10 major U.S. cities

Trees in Central Park
Keith Wagner
These trees in Central Park are doing their arboreal best to save the lives of New Yorkers.

Next time you hug a city-dwelling tree, be sure to whisper quiet thanks for the lives it is helping to save.

Researchers recently calculated that urban forests help save one or more people from dying every year in each of 10 major cities studied.

Trees growing in cities help clean the air of fine particulate air pollution -- soot, smoke, dust, dirt -- that can lodge in human lungs and cause health problems. Trees clear 71 tons of fine particulate matter (PM2.5) from Atlanta's air annually. And they suck up enough pollution to save seven or eight lives every year in New York City.

These are the findings of researchers with the U.S. Forest Service and Davey Institute, published in the journal Environmental Pollution [PDF]. They calculated the health and economic benefits of air-cleansing urban forests in 10 U.S. cities and found that trees save lives, reduce hospital visits, and reduce the number of days taken off work. They do that mainly by sucking pollutants out of the air. Economic benefits, mostly from reduced mortality, ranged from $1.1 million a year in Syracuse, N.Y., to $60.1 million a year in New York City.

Read more: Cities