Briefly

Stuff that matters


2017, The Year That Keeps On Giving

Apparently bots are now beating us to all the best campsites, because of course.

The automated internet gremlins may be scooping up some of America’s most sought-after wilderness retreats in advance of their dumb mortal counterparts (us, the humans), reports KQED. I don’t know about you, but an inability to snag a tent site in Yosemite is a detail of AI dystopia I never considered.

Going camping is a very effective gateway to caring about protecting natural environments, albeit one that is systematically less accessible to city-dwellers and people of color. So it’s bad news indeed if that access to the outdoors is further restricted to those with the know-how to employ bots to scan campsite-booking websites for cancellations, or just automatically book up whatever is available.

There are measures to stop the bots — namely, website terms of agreement and those CAPTCHA word- or image-recognition tests — but those are not impossible for enterprising programmers to beat. More stringent measures, like two-factor authentication, are rare on reservation sites.

But there’s a simpler way to fight bot-tyranny, as KQED points out: Make reservations over the phone. We’ve got maybe five whole years before computers can beat us at that game, too.


Raising Medicane

You can blame a ‘medicane’ for this week’s deadly flooding in Greece.

Nope, a “medicane” is not a new type of health insurance. It’s a Mediterranean hurricane — such as the one currently developing in the Mediterranean Sea, where warming waters have produced a weather system with the characteristics of a subtropical cyclone.

Flash floods linked to moisture from the storm hit parts of Greece on Wednesday, killing 16 people and injuring dozens more. The storm is projected to skirt Sicily and head toward Greece this weekend, potentially inflicting more damage.

Medicanes are so uncommon that scientists have yet to establish a clear set of criteria for them. Weather systems like these are more typically found in the Caribbean, where warmer water temperatures feed tropical storms.

A Mediterranean cyclone generally counts as a medicane if it forms the characteristic hurricane-like “eye,” according to Emmanouil Flaounas, a meteorologist at the National Observatory of Athens who conducts research on medicanes through a European Commission-funded project.

His research suggests that Mediterranean cyclones will occur less frequently, but with more intensity, in the coming years. “Several future climate scenarios show a clear increase of the sea temperature, and this will be certainly related to an intensification of future cyclones,” he wrote in an email to Grist.


nothing to see here

Nebraska’s Keystone XL decision won’t hinge on Thursday’s 210,000-gallon spill.

Oil gushed out of the Keystone pipeline in rural South Dakota on Thursday, 30 miles west of the Lake Traverse Indian Reservation. Cleanup crews raced to the site, and TransCanada temporarily shut down the conduit.

So far, there are no reports of the oil entering water sources. But as local correspondent Kayleigh Schmidt said in a KSFY news segment on Thursday, you’ll get a nice “oil spill smell” nearby.

The leak occurred just days before Nebraska will decide whether or not to approve a route for the proposed northern leg of the long-disputed Keystone XL project, which would transport oil from the Canadian tar sands to the U.S.

Environmental groups said that Nebraska officials should consider the spill a “stark warning.” Just one problem: They can’t. A 2011 Nebraska law prevents state regulators from taking pipeline safety or possible leaks into account in their decisions — a rule that Nebraska’s Public Service Commission plans to abide by.

The spill is not Keystone’s first, but it is its largest — the 18th biggest spill in the U.S. overall since 2010, according to government data. And it’s possible the 210,000-gallon figure could still rise, given that oil companies often revise their initial estimates to be significantly higher.


Standing Rock

Security firm TigerSwan was paid to build a conspiracy lawsuit against DAPL protesters.

Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline, brought on the paramilitary outfit to surveil pipeline opponents with the intent of mounting a racketeering case against Greenpeace and other activist organizations, say three former TigerSwan contractors who spoke to The Intercept.

The lawsuit alleges that environmental groups engineered the #noDAPL movement in order to garner donations by paying protestors and inciting them to commit criminal activity and domestic terrorism.

Greenpeace general counsel Tom Wetterer told The Intercept that the lawsuit “grossly distorts the law and facts at Standing Rock.” While he’s certain Energy Transfer Partners won’t win, he notes that “what they’re really trying to do is silence future protests.”

Earlier this year, Grist and the Intercept independently reported on leaked TigerSwan documents that revealed its targeting of activists as jihadists in an intrusive military-style surveillance campaign. Within a month, a North Dakota state agency filed a complaint against the firm for operating there without a license. And Louisiana later denied TigerSwan permission to work there.

A lawyer representing DAPL opponents suing law enforcement, alleging police brutality and civil rights violations, told the Associated Press that online reports about TigerSwan’s operations are only strengthening her clients’ case.


Mind the gap

The U.N. climate talks have a gender gap. Women plan to fix it.

Since women are disproportionately affected by climate change, it’s about time they get a bigger seat at the negotiating table.

The Women and Gender Constituency, a group that works to ensure women’s rights are embedded in U.N. negotiations, is pushing for a new gender action plan set to be approved on Friday at the climate talks in Bonn, Germany.

Little progress has been made since negotiators proposed a “gender balance” goal to boost female participation five years ago. (The U.N. process initially failed to include gender in its agenda.) A recent paper from the U.N. climate change secretariat shows that women made up 32 percent of conference delegates in 2015 and 2016, up only one percentage point from 2012.

In addition to meeting the goal of gender balance among climate change decision-makers, the new plan aims to allocate more funding to women (particularly in developing nations), create a rights-based platform for indigenous peoples and local communities, and ensure climate solutions are “gender-just.”

That would be progress. Assessments based on 2015 U.N. global population projections suggest that increased access to education and family planning for women and girls is the No. 1 method of reducing global emissions.


scientific method

Another side effect of Puerto Rico’s power problems: Scientists struggle to do their work.

Nearly two months after Hurricane Maria, public health researchers in Puerto Rico are limited by the same lack of power, clean water, and infrastructure they are there to study.

Puerto Rico–born José Cordero is one such scientist. In the journal Nature, he describes leading a team through the devastated landscape to collect data on how drinking water contamination affects pregnant women. The scientists have to hurry to finish their work everyday, before night falls across the largely powerless island. Limited telephone access makes it difficult to get in touch with subjects.

Cordero’s project started six years ago to focus on water pollution and pre-term births, but this year’s hurricane has changed both the focus and the level of difficulty of the work. Other researchers have been hampered by hospitals that can’t administer routine tests and hurricane-damaged equipment, making it difficult to collect data on how air and water pollution are affecting health.

Still, Cordero’s team has managed to contact several hundred woman and collect samples of groundwater and tap water from homes near flooded Superfund sites. As he told Nature: “The kind of work we’re doing … has to be done now, because a few years from now, it’s too late.”


Jerry, are you ok?

Jerry Brown said some kinda weird things on his Europe tour.

The California governor is currently touring Europe to talk about his pet cause: climate action. He’s representing multiple coalitions of state and local governments — the international Under2 Coalition and U.S. Climate Alliance — that are trying to push for the social reform and clean energy infrastructure that would achieve the climate goals put forward by the Paris Agreement.

Anyway! Brown’s tour — throughout which he’s taken a strong, critical stance against the type of lifestyle that’s put us in a climate crisis — culminated in the U.N. Climate Conference in Bonn, Germany. He sounds … in a bad way.

The Huffington Post reported that Brown insisted on some extreme soul-searching at the Vatican at the beginning of the month: “At the highest circles, people still don’t get it … We need a total, I might say ‘brain washing.’ We need to wash our brains out and see a very different kind of world.”

In the most recent days of the tour, things have gone a bit off the rails. Brown has declared that he does not “conceptualize the world” in terms of “joy,” conceded — after some harassment — that he enjoys the occasional bite of cheeseburger, and had to apologize for Donald Trump.

Governor … we relate.