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The royal baby is cute and all, but hello, the planet is on fire

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The royal baby is cute and all, but hello, the planet is on fire

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The Drought Isn’t Just a California Problem

Mother Jones

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California’s been getting a lot of attention for the drought, but it’s not alone in its lack of rain: This year is on track to be the driest on record for several western states. As the map below—a recent iteration from the US Drought Monitor—shows, virtually all of Washington, Oregon, and Nevada are covered in swaths of “severe,” “extreme,” or “exceptional” drought.

Here’s a primer of the situation in each state:


While Oregon is technically in its fourth year of drought, the state started feeling the effects in earnest in 2014. Since then, Gov. Kate Brown has declared two-thirds of the state’s counties to be in a state of emergency. “The extreme drought conditions we are experiencing reflect a new reality in Oregon,” she said in a July statement.

The past year hasn’t been particularly dry, but it has been abnormally warm, meaning some water is falling as rain but not freezing into a slow-trickling snowpack that feeds streams. While the western side of the state, which relies on rain-fed reservoirs, has been shielded from the worst effects of the drought, the eastern side relies on snowpack, which is at record low levels. The snow that did fall melted more than two months earlier than it usually does.

Of the water that’s diverted from streams and rivers, about 85 percent is used on agriculture. Top products include cattle and milk, hay, wheat, and “greenhouse products” (flowers and herbs). Like in California, irrigation districts are cutting off water to farmers with junior water rights. Farmers are compensating for the lack of surface water by pumping groundwater, but unlike California, Oregon has regulated its groundwater for more than 50 years. In water basins that are deemed to be in critical condition, farmers are prohibited from digging new wells.


Nevada relies on water from the Colorado River, which is stored in two giant reservoirs: Lake Mead, in Nevada, and Lake Powell, in Utah. Las Vegas depends on Lake Mead, about 15 miles from the city, for 90 percent of its water, but the reservoir is just 38 percent full. Still, officials are confident there’s enough in the reservoirs to stave off water cuts, at least for the next year.

NASA images from 2000 to 2015 show Lake Mead shrinking while Las Vegas expands. NASA

With its sprawling cities in the middle of the desert, Nevada has been forced to be smart about water for years. This is in part due to history: The amount of water that localities could take from Lake Mead was decided when the lake was created back in the 1930s, and that allocation has stayed constant while the population of the state has shot up. Las Vegas may seem like a giant party of fountains and pools, but the city recycles (treats and reuses) a whopping 94 percent of its water. The state pioneered “cash for grass” programs, in which residents or businesses get rebates for replacing turf with desert landscaping; since 1999, the state has removed roughly 4,000 acres of turf. In Las Vegas, any home built after the year 2000 is prohibited from having a front lawn.


Like Oregon, Washington derives its water from snow melt and can’t count on El Nino to boost the water supply. Last June, snowpack levels in the state were at their median levels, but by this past May, when Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency, the levels were at 20 percent of the median. Now, stream levels across the state continue to reach record lows. This has spurred some action: The state allocated $16 million to drought responses over the next two years, including grants to help the agriculture industry, which is a leading producer of apples, milk, wheat, and hops. The Department of Agriculture estimates the drought will cost the state $1.2 billion in 2015 in lost crops, or about 12 percent of past crop values. Some localities are imposing restrictions on watering lawns, and the Seattle/Tacoma area is asking for a 10 percent reduction in voluntary water use to avoid future cuts.

Washington’s Chiwauwkum Creek wildfire in 2014. Washington Department of Ecology

The drought has also turned the normally cool, rainy state into a wildfire hotspot: The state is on track to experience the most destructive and costly year of fires on record. Earlier this week, three firefighters were killed battling a wildfire. “Our fire season started a month ahead, our crops matured weeks ahead and the dry weather we usually get in August, we’ve had since May,” Peter Goldmark, Washington’s commissioner of public lands, told the New York Times earlier this month.

State ecologists are also concerned about the drought’s effects on fish, particularly salmon, which swim upstream in the late summer and fall to spawn but may have trouble doing so this year because streams are so shallow and warm. The state’s Department of Fish and Wildlife is now creating artificial channels, using sandbags and plastic sheeting, to help the fish move upstream.

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The Drought Isn’t Just a California Problem

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The American Meal: The Massive Waste it has Become.

We talk of sustainability, healthy, and green every day. We try our best to manage what we use, what we don’t, and what we throw away… everywhere but at the table at our favorite restaurant.

Here we want to throw off the restrictions, the cares, and the woes of everyday life and treat ourselves and our children to a nice meal we didn’t have to cook and don’t have to clean up after. The problem is, it’s not just a treat anymore and the modern American family eats out more than it eats at home. So began the restaurant wars.

And what a war it is. Bigger, cheesier, and cheaper. Portions so large; few of us can actually eat it all. However, that is not going to deter us from getting it all, now or later. Having stuffed our faces until we can stuff them no more, we get ahold of the to-go-box and cram it full with everything we couldn’t get down in one sitting; then we take it home to top us off later while we stretch out on our favorite chair and watch American Idol.

Here’s where it gets a little sticky… pun intended. The fact of the matter is, more than half of what we take home ends up in the trash. While some restaurants have a food waste-recycling program (not enough of them by the way), at home you don’t. You simply step on the little black pedal and the trash lid opens and in the trash it goes. With all the other items from the refrigerator or pantry that never made there way into your families’ bellies.

Perhaps, and this is just a thought, if you can’t eat it all, let the restaurant dispose of it wisely. If you know the portion is too big… simply order a smaller one. That way we all use less, dispose of less, and magically… we all spend less on food, clothes, and maybe even avoid the onset of type 2 diabetes.

I could get more into the benefits of eating smarter and less, but that’s for you and your mirror to decide.

Restaurants produce millions of pounds of food waste everyday. They pile it in trash dumpsters and send it to the landfill. The most disturbing part of this is, they don’t have to. There are companies out there that can help them with this problem. Quest Resource Management Group for example, will actually take it away and turn in into something useful, like compost.

But just like only eating what you can in one sitting and not taking the rest home makes us feel somewhat cheated, the same goes for the restaurants … they would rather do what they know, which is pile your plate higher and higher for less money. Then they throw what we all know was a waste from the start into the trash and pay someone to take it to the landfill. The worst part of all, is that very little of what is thrown away is actually trash and can be used for so much more.

Want to reduce the amount of landfill? Don’t eat so much. Every time you take your family out to dinner, ask your favorite restaurants to offer human sized portions and not just JUMBO. Perhaps, the more of us that ask, the more they will listen and start to offer them as a regular menu item. At the very least, eat what you can and choose to patronize establishments that dispose of their waste responsibly. After all, it takes consumers to encourage change. The most powerful weapon in the world is that little piece of plastic in your wallet …wield it wisely.


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The American Meal: The Massive Waste it has Become.

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Mother Jones Goes Old School. Really Old School.

Mother Jones

And now for something completely different. A friend of mine has taken up stained glass as a hobby (you can see more here), and he recently made me a stained glass version of the banner at the top of my blog. It arrived yesterday, and it’s now hanging above my desk. Are you jealous yet? He even got a discount on the raw glass when the folks in the store found out what it was for. Turns out they’re fans of Mother Jones. All I need now to go along with it is an illuminated manuscript version of the blog itself.

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Mother Jones Goes Old School. Really Old School.

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Super Euros: Top 10 climate-change-fighting countries are all in Europe

Super Euros: Top 10 climate-change-fighting countries are all in Europe


Europe, as viewed from a greenhouse gas.

There isn’t a country in the world that’s on track to reduce emissions to the extent needed to keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius (3.7 Fahrenheit). But for a glimpse of something resembling climate leadership, peer across the pond.

The Climate Change Performance Index [PDF], produced by Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe, ranks countries based on their greenhouse gas emissions, emissions-reduction efforts, energy efficiency, renewable energy portfolios, and policies aimed at slowing climate change. Here’s the top-10 list from this year. Every country is in Europe:

  1. Denmark
  2. United Kingdom
  3. Portugal
  4. Sweden
  5. Switzerland
  6. Malta
  7. France
  8. Hungary
  9. Ireland
  10. Iceland

Eight of those 10 countries are part of the European Union, which is also taking action — and even committing real money — to fight climate change. The European Parliament just adopted a seven-year budget that includes an unprecedented $243 billion for climate projects. Most of that will be spent within the E.U.’s 28 states, but some of it is earmarked as climate aid for developing countries.

E.U. climate commissioner Connie Hedegaard discussed the budget during a press conference in Warsaw, Poland, where U.N. climate negotiations are underway. She said that for the world to successfully tackle climate change, “one of the things we need … to change is the whole economic paradigm, including the way we construct our budgets.”

Beyond Europe, it’s not looking so good. The U.S. ranked 40th out the 58 countries on the Climate Change Performance Index, just three spots above China. The report notes that the U.S. did reduce greenhouse gas emissions 8 percent over the last five years, thanks in part to Obama administration regulations covering transportation and coal.

At the bottom of the list are Saudi Arabia, Kazakhstan, and Iran. Those are the only three countries that rank worse than Australia and Canada — two of the four countries behaving badly that we told you about on Monday.

Australia’s delegates have been accused of particularly boorish behavior during the Warsaw talks. “They wore T-shirts and gorged on snacks throughout the negotiation,” a Climate Action Network spokesperson complained to The Guardian. Worse, Australia has blocked progress toward a treaty. Along with the U.S. and E.U., Australia refused to discuss developing countries’ demands for climate-change compensation, leading to 132 countries walking out of negotiations. 

“There is a sense that Australia was being horrible and the U.S. wasn’t moving toward accepting the creation of a new body to address loss and damage,” Jake Schmidt, the Natural Resources Defense Council’s international climate policy director, told Grist from Warsaw. “It was also 4:00 in the morning.”

Climate Change Performance Index, Germanwatch and Climate Action Network Europe

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Super Euros: Top 10 climate-change-fighting countries are all in Europe

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We Can Reduce Poverty If We Want To. We Just Have To Want To.

Mother Jones

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Jared Bernstein makes an important point today: Several Nordic countries have made great strides in ending poverty, but it’s not because they have some kind of magic bullet. It’s because they give poor people more money and more services.

The chart on the right shows raw poverty levels in blue. The Nordic countries are basically about the same as the United States. There’s no Scandinavian miracle that provides high-paying jobs for everyone. However, once you account for government benefits, the poverty rate in the Nordic countries is about half the rate in America. Universal health care accounts for some of this, and other benefits account for the rest. Some are means-tested, others are universal. There’s no single answer. The only thing these countries have in common is a simple commitment to taking poverty seriously and doing something about it. Bernstein approves:

In the age of inequality, such anti-poverty policies are more important than ever, as higher inequality creates both more poverty along with steeper barriers to getting ahead, whether through the lack of early education, nutrition, adequate housing, and a host of other poverty-related conditions that dampen ones chances in life.

This situation is only going to get worse as automation improves. Still, we’re plenty rich enough to address it if we want to. There’s nothing stopping us except our own will to do it.

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We Can Reduce Poverty If We Want To. We Just Have To Want To.

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The No-Fly List: Orwellian or Kafkaesque?

Mother Jones

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A few weeks ago, Rehan Motiwala tried to board a flight home to Los Angeles. Here’s what happened when he changed planes in Bangkok:

Airline staff in Bangkok refused to issue him a boarding pass for his connecting flight. U.S. and Thai officials told him that he could not travel but offered no explanation, leading him to believe he’d been placed on the U.S. government’s secret no-fly list.

After dozing on benches and wandering the airport terminal for four nights, Motiwala was told that a Justice Department official had arrived from the United States to question him. When he declined to answer questions without a lawyer present, U.S. officials left him in the custody of Thai authorities, who tossed him into a detention center in the bowels of Suvarnabhumi Airport.

….Motiwala, whose parents are of Pakistani origin, was not told why he might be on the list. A likely possibility, however, is his contact with Tablighi Jamaat, a conservative Muslim missionary movement based in South Asia.

Obviously Motiwala wasn’t on the no-fly list when he left the country last year, and obviously he was on the list when he tried to return. The lesson is pretty clear: be careful who you talk to, citizen. You really don’t want to get on our list, do you?

The basic outrage here is obvious: in a liberal democracy, no citizen should be subjected to this kind of treatment without due process. And the no-fly list not only doesn’t incorporate due process, it goes out of its way to be the most Orwellian possible denial of due process imaginable. You are on a list. Maybe. But we won’t tell you. How can I get off the list? Well, who says you’re on a list in the first place? But I can’t fly. Sorry, we can’t comment on that. Rinse and repeat.

And here’s what I don’t get: If authorities wanted to question Motiwala, they obviously knew where he was. All they had to do was wait for him to disembark at LAX and take him into custody. So what’s the point? I guess the LAX option doesn’t give them the leverage of throwing him into a rat-infested hellhole if he doesn’t cooperate. Welcome to America.

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The No-Fly List: Orwellian or Kafkaesque?

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Al Gore, raising the heat on Obama, calls Keystone an “atrocity”

Al Gore, raising the heat on Obama, calls Keystone an “atrocity”

Center for American Progress Action Fund

The Goracle does not like Keystone.

From one Nobel Peace Prize winner to another, this whole Keystone XL thing is an “atrocity.”

Al Gore has been calling on Barack Obama to step up the fight against climate change and Keystone, most recently during an interview with The Guardian:

The former vice-president said in an interview on Friday that he hoped Obama would follow the example of British Columbia, which last week rejected a similar pipeline project, and shut down the Keystone XL.

“I certainly hope that he will veto that now that the Canadians have publicly concluded that it is not safe to take a pipeline across British Columbia to ports on the Pacific,” he told the Guardian. “I really can’t imagine that our country would say: ‘Oh well. Take it right over parts of the Ogallala aquifer’, our largest and most important source of ground water in the US. It’s really a losing proposition.” …

“This whole project [Keystone XL] is an atrocity but it is even more important for him to regulate carbon dioxide emissions,” Gore said. He urged Obama to use his powers as president to cut carbon dioxide emissions from new and existing power plants — the biggest [single] source of global warming pollution.

“He doesn’t need Congress to do anything,” Gore said. “If it hurts the feelings of people in the carbon polluting industries that’s too bad.”

A few days previous, the former veep made another call for Obama to take action. “I hope that he’ll get moving on to follow up on the wonderful pledges he made in his inaugural speech earlier this year and then soon after in his State of the Union,” Gore said during a Google+ video chat last week, Politico reported. “Great words. We need great actions now.”

Gore joins a growing number of Democrats and activists who have been voicing their frustrations with Obama over the president’s failure to match his strong climate rhetoric with strong climate action. Last week, a group of Democratic senators sent the president a letter urging him to get going. From The Hill:

Five senators from New Jersey, New York and Connecticut sent a letter Thursday to President Obama saying the “superstorm” that tore through the Northeast last year “brought home the increasing costs of global warming for millions of Americans.” …

The letter urges Obama to impose emissions standards on the nation’s existing power plants, which is a top priority for climate change activists.

It seems the president is preparing a response to the growing tide of cries for action. From Bloomberg:

With his administration under pressure from environmentalists to reject the Keystone XL pipeline project, President Barack Obama plans to unveil a package of separate actions next month focused on curbing U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

At closed-door fundraisers held over the past few weeks, the president has been telling Democratic party donors that he will unveil new climate proposals in July, according to people who have attended the events or been briefed.

Obama’s promise frequently comes in response to pleas from donors to reject TransCanada Corp.’s proposed Keystone XL project, a $5.3 billion pipeline that would carry tar-sands oil from Canada to U.S. refineries. Opponents of the pipeline say it would increase greenhouse-gas emissions by encouraging use of the tar sands.

While Obama has not detailed the specifics of his plan to the donors, pipeline opponents anticipate the package will include final rules from the Environmental Protection Agency to limit greenhouse-gas emissions from new power plants.

One big question is whether Obama’s new climate action plan will be linked to approval of Keystone XL, an attempt to mollify both sides. That wouldn’t work. As climate organizer (and Grist board member) Bill McKibben said earlier this year, “Given that the Arctic melted last summer, we’re not really in a place where we get to try and ‘please both sides’ anymore.”

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Al Gore, raising the heat on Obama, calls Keystone an “atrocity”

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5 Butterfly Species Just Vanished While No One Was Looking

Mother Jones

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An entomologist hired by the state of Florida to find any surviving members of five rare butterflies species spent six years on the search instead of the two without finding any. “I thought I was going to find some at some point so I just took a lot more time,” Marc Minno told the Miami Herald. “They’re just not there.” He concluded that the Zestos skipper and the rockland Meske’s skipper—which haven’t been seen in more than a decade—should be declared extinct, that the Zarucco duskywing is likely extinct too, and that the nickerbean blue and the Bahamian swallowtail are now gone from their North American range: the coastal and inland forests of southern Florida. From the Miami Herald:

Considering that there have been only four previous presumed extinctions of North American butterflies—the last in California more than 50 years ago—Minno finds the government response to such an alarming wave frustrating. “There are three butterflies here that have just winked out and no one did a thing about it,” Minno said. “I don’t know what has happened with our agencies that are supposed to protect wildlife. They’re just kind of sitting on their hands and watching them go extinct.”

Worse, because these species were never listed as threatened or endangered they now fall into a limbo where the government won’t declare them extinct either. “There is no requirement for us to do anything as far as a formal announcement that it’s gone,” Ken Warren, spokesman for the Fish and Wildlife Service’s South Florida office, told the Miami Herald. Meanwhile Minno argues that something is badly awry when species vanish before the feds even begin the process of considering whether or not they’re in trouble.

Alarmed over the backlog of 757 species awaiting listing, the Center for Biological Diversity sued the Fish and Wildlife Service and won a settlement in 2011 “requiring the agency to make initial or final decisions on whether to add hundreds of imperiled plants and animals to the endangered species list by 2018.” Unfortunately that may already be too late for these five butterflies species.

The problems facing butterflies in Florida and elsewhere are complex and poorly understood, but include: climate change; urban sprawl; pesticides; hurricanes; invasive species; and all the perils associated with the genetic bottlenecks that accompany species in sharp decline. Last summer an effort was made to begin captive breeding of Florida’s Schaus butterflies, but only a handful of individuals could be found in the wild and none was a female.


5 Butterfly Species Just Vanished While No One Was Looking

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Yes, Of Course the Iraq War Was (Partly) About Oil

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Glenn Greenwald points today to a column by former Bush speechwriter David Frum, in which Frum discusses what he saw inside the White House during the runup to the Iraq war:

I was less impressed by Ahmed Chalabi than were some others in the Bush administration. However, since one of those ‘others’ was Vice President Cheney, it didn’t matter what I thought. In 2002, Chalabi joined the annual summer retreat of the American Enterprise Institute near Vail, Colorado. He and Cheney spent long hours together, contemplating the possibilities of a Western-oriented Iraq: an additional source of oil, an alternative to US dependency on an unstable-looking Saudi Arabia.

I’m trying to remember if this is even a revelation anymore. Certainly anyone who argued at the time that oil was one of the motivations for the Iraq War was ridiculed mercilessly, but since then it’s been all but obvious, right? There was the fact that the only building American troops protected during the post-invasion rioting was the Oil Ministry. There were all those lovely maps of Iraqi oil fields that we learned had been part of Dick Cheney’s energy task force since long before 9/11. There was the urgency over restoring Iraq’s oil production that seemed to take precedence over almost everything else. Hell, no less than Alan Greenspan conceded after the fact that the war was “largely about oil.”

Besides, in a broader sense, even lots of war supporters acknowledged that, in general, American interest in the Middle East is driven strongly by our interest in the stability of Middle East oil supplies. That’s not exactly a news flash, and if it’s true in general then it must also have been at least part of the specific motivation for getting rid of Saddam Hussein. After all, until we did that, the oil sanctions against Iraq would stay in place.

Still, it’s good to hear this from the horse’s mouth. The Iraq war wasn’t all about oil, but there’s not much question that it was in the forefront of a lot of people’s minds.

Mother Jones
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Yes, Of Course the Iraq War Was (Partly) About Oil

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