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Australian Open heat was a climate-change preview, but at least nobody died

Australian Open heat was a climate-change preview, but at least nobody died


41 degrees Celsius is 106 Fahrenheit

The Australian Open ended in Melbourne on Sunday, when a Swiss man wearing a sweat-drenched shirt with yellow and red stripes won in four sets. It was bloody hot, and his nose burned red as he smooched a silver trophy.

In fact, the sweltering heat captivated the world’s media and arguably stole the show. One player burned her bum when she sat down on a chair; another’s plastic water bottle melted on the court’s artificial surface. Athletes collapsed left and right, and one of them hallucinated. Emergency rules designed to help players survive the scorching heat slowed down play.

January is Melbourne’s hottest month, where temperatures routinely break triple digits. And summertime temperatures in this capital of the southeastern state of Victoria will only keep rising as the globe keeps warming. “In Melbourne we are seeing an increase in the amount of extreme heat,” one scientist told The Guardian. Victoria’s profile as a fire-whipped example of the global climate crisis can only go up from here. The following chart, produced by the country’s nonprofit Climate Council, shows that the number of extreme heat days per year (defined as exceeding 35 C, or 95 F) is rising:

Climate Council

Extreme heat days per year. Click to embiggen.

Professional tennis players are in their athletic prime and have access to top-notch medical care when the heat gets crazy. Millions of regular Victorians might not cope as well. Unprecedented bushfires linked to climate change killed 173 Victorians in 2009. “With populations at the rural–urban interface growing and the impact of climate change, the risks associated with bushfire are likely to increase,” a team of experts working for the state government concluded in a report. Meanwhile, hundreds more in the state died during that same summer because of heat exposure. Hot and fiery conditions in southeastern Australia this summer have mirrored those of 2009 — and such conditions are forecast to become more common.

Yet even in Victoria, where global warming’s toll is so visible, doctors say the conservative state government is failing to adapt. The Sydney Morning Herald reports:

Doctors and public health experts are calling for the Victorian government to urgently review its management of heatwaves as the death toll from this month’s record-breaking period appears to climb.

The Victorian Institute of Forensic Medicine, which works with the State Coroner to investigate reportable deaths, said that as of Friday it had recorded 139 deaths in excess of the average expected between Monday, January 13, and Thursday, January 23.

Dr Liz Hanna, a fellow at the National Centre for Epidemiology and Population Health at ANU, said it was ‘”unfathomable” that Victoria had not learnt enough from the catastrophic 2009 heatwave, when 374 lives were lost, and the Victorian Greens are demanding a formal inquiry into what they call the state’s ‘”clear lack of preparation” for periods of extreme heat.

While Institute of Forensic Medicine director Stephen Cordner said he could not be sure the deaths were due to the heat, most of the deceased were elderly people and those with chronic and mental illnesses, who are known to be vulnerable in extreme heat.

As somebody who spent countless parched days at Australian Open games during a childhood in Melbourne, I always felt that the city had no business hosting the Grand Slam event in January. Now I’m sure of it: It seems inevitable that the competition dates will eventually change, or that another city will need to take over.

In the scope of climate disasters with growing body counts, a too-hot tennis tournament seems a trifling matter. But it has helped broadcast Melbourne’s weather woes to the world — and if that’s what it takes to get people to rally, then it does us good service.

Heatwave ‘one of the most significant’ on record, says Bureau of Meteorology, Sydney Morning Herald
Anger over spike in deaths during record Victorian heatwave, Sydney Morning Herald
Is the Australian Open tennis feeling the heat of climate change?, The Guardian

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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Australian Open heat was a climate-change preview, but at least nobody died

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In the Bay Area, Anti-Google Protests Get Creepy

Mother Jones

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So, the Bay Area’s tech backlash has come to this: At 7 a.m. yesterday, activists showed up on the doorstep of Google engineer Anthony Levandowski to protest, well, pretty much everything. They’re holding the guy behind the self-driving car responsible for gentrification, destructive gold mining, Chinese sweatshops, government surveillance, and, more generally “the unspeakable horror” of helping “this disastrous economic system continue a bit longer.”

A flyer distributed by the activists, who call themselves “The Counterforce,” left little doubt that their fight is personal. “Preparing for this action, we watched Levandowski step out his front door,” it reads. “He had Google Glasses over his eyes, carried his baby in his arm, and held a tablet with his free hand. As he descended the stairs with the baby, his eyes were on the tablet through the prism of his Google Glasses, not on the life against his chest. He appeared in this moment like the robot that he admits that he is.”

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In the Bay Area, Anti-Google Protests Get Creepy

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The Latest One-Upmanship on the Lunatic Right

Mother Jones

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It’s hard to keep up with the latest in right-wing looniness. But Andrew Sullivan helps out by highlighting American Betrayal, a loopy new book that updates and then turbocharges the whole Yalta-treason-conspiracy-so-vast fever swamp of the late 40s and 50s:

Take a new book by Diana West about how the Soviet Union “occupied” America under FDR and dictated foreign policy to serve communist interests….And then you begin to inquire further and your eyes widen a little. A few paragraphs into reading the debate, you realize that all of this is connected with the claim of a current huge conspiracy lying in plain sight — the Muslim Brotherhood’s grip on the White House. Obama is a closet Islamist, just as FDR was a closet Stalinist. It all makes sense now!

….So do yourself a favor and get a glimpse of the insanity now dominating what was once a vibrant intellectual culture by reading Ron Radosh’s devastating review of the book. (David Horowitz gives his side of the kerfuffle here.) Front Page offered West equal space to respond but she wisely refused (see her position here). After reading Radosh, you realize why. She’s got nothing. But she still has much of the movement right on her side.

This morning he added an update:

I was dismayed by how isolated the push-back against the book — by David Horowitz and Ron Radosh — seemed to be on the right. So it’s worth revisiting the debate after a few days to check in on developments. First up: some good news today. Conrad Black’s review in NRO surely counts as a serious public counter to the legitimization of this conspiracy theory, lumping West’s far right-paranoia in with Oliver Stone’s far-left version.

Sadly, Conrad Black hardly counts. Sure, he’s a conservative, but he’s also a biographer of FDR who adores his subject. The fact that he’s defending Roosevelt doesn’t actually say much about the right.

On the other hand, Horowitz and Radosh aren’t exactly squishes on this stuff. If even they agree that West’s book is nonsense, then you can be pretty sure that it must be pretty well marinated in the worst kind of Glenn Beck-style nutballism. And yet, great swathes of the right wing have embraced it eagerly. This is part of a peculiar trend on the right over the past few years, in which conservatives are no longer content to argue that liberalism and the New Deal were merely misguided policies. That’s not enough. They’re now returning to Bircher-esque narratives that were abandoned long ago, in which the history of America since the 30s is just one long story of treachery, corruption, economic decline, and deliberate appeasement.

What’s the point of this game of one-upmanship? I’m not sure. But it’s sort of like the history of Hollywood blockbusters: spectacular battle scenes that seemed awesome just a few years ago are now old hat. New movies have to up the ante, which makes them more and more ridiculous every year. Likewise, conservatives seem to feel that they have to continually up the historical ante. You can barely get any attention these days by writing merely that liberals are trying to turn America into a socialist hellhole. That’s so 2009. Instead you have to argue that FDR was basically a Soviet mole. I’m not sure where it ends.

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The Latest One-Upmanship on the Lunatic Right

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Lobbyist Secretly Wrote House Dems’ Letter Urging Weaker Investor Protections

Mother Jones

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A letter that a group of progressive Democrats sent to federal regulators opposing new protections for millions of Americans’ retirement accounts was drafted by a financial industry lobbyist, according to documents obtained by Mother Jones.

The Department of Labor (DoL), which oversees the federal law setting minimum standards for many retirement plans, would like to require retirement investment advisers to act in the best interest of their customers, as opposed to their own best interest.

But 28 out of the 43 members of the Congressional Black Caucus—a group of African-American members of Congress that advocates for the interests of low-income people and minorities—signed onto a June 14 letter opposing the rule. So did Democratic lawmakers Pedro Pierluisi of Puerto Rico, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, Ed Pastor of Arizona, and Jim Costa of California.

The letter’s metadata indicates it was drafted by Robert Lewis, a lobbyist who works for the Financial Services Institute (FSI), an investment industry trade group:

Together, the liberal lawmakers who signed the letter have received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign money from the securities and investment industry in recent years.

In the letter, the lawmakers caution the DoL against proposing new regulations, warning that a strict new rule on retirement advisers may cause many of them to leave the market, and thus “could severely limit access to low-cost investment advice” for “the minority communities we represent.”

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Lobbyist Secretly Wrote House Dems’ Letter Urging Weaker Investor Protections

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Pesticides May Be Harmful to Animals Even at “Safe” Levels

A Chinese farm worker sprays pesticides. Photo: IFPRI-Images

All things are poison, and nothing is without poison: the dose alone makes a thing not poison.” The wisdom of Paracelsus, a 16th-century physician and alchemist, has formed the backbone of modern toxicology. There is a safe dose of radiation, and you can be poisoned by water. Some substances, like medicine, can be incredibly helpful at low levels but deadly at high ones. A modern toxicologist’s job is to find this line, and it’s a government’s job to put limits on exposure levels to keep everything safe.

For some compounds, however, the balance between safe and deadly may not be possible. The European Union seems to believe this is the case for one set of pesticides, the so-called neonicotinoidsThe EU has recently banned their use. Writing for Nature, Sharon Oosthoek says that when it comes to certain pesticides, including these now-banned neonicotinoids, we may have missed the mark—at least in Europe and Australia.

Citing two recent studies, Oosthoek says that even when pesticides like neonicotinoids are used at a level that is deemed “safe,” there may still be deadly effects on local wildlife. Looking at streams in Germany, France and Australia, scientists found that “there were up to 42% fewer species in highly contaminated than in uncontaminated streams in Europe. Highly contaminated streams in Australia showed a decrease in the number of invertebrate families by up to 27% when contrasted with uncontaminated streams.” Pesticides can have outsized effects on some species, while others endure them just fine. And year-after-year applications can cause the pesticides to build up in the environment, making them deadly after a few years even if the amount sprayed each year is within guidelines. It’s not clear whether such strong losses are the case everywhere, but they were for the studied streams.

As Paracelsus taught us, there is a safe level for everything—even pesticides. The trick is finding the right balance such that we can still derive their benefits without the unintended consequences.

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Pesticides May Be Harmful to Animals Even at “Safe” Levels

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Is the US About to Become One Big Factory Farm for China?

Mother Jones

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The small number of companies that dominate global meat production is about to get smaller. The Chinese corporation Shuanghui International, already the majority shareholder of China’s largest meat producer, has just bought US giant Smthfield, the globe’s largest hog producer and pork packer, in a $4.7 billion cash deal. (It still has to get past Smithfield’s shareholders and the US Treasury Department’s Committee on Foreign Investment, which reviews takeovers of US companies.)

Now, I hope this merger of titans doesn’t provoke a xenophobic reaction. Shuanghui has strong ties to China’s central government, but it also counts Goldman Sachs among its major shareholders. And the US meat industry is already quite globalized. Back in 2009, a Brazilian giant called JBS had already barreled into the US market, and now holds huge positions in beef, pork, and chicken processing here. And true, as China has ramped up its food production—and rapidly reshaped hog production on the industrial US model—it has produced more than it share of food safety scandals, including recent ones involving hogs.

But as I have pointed out, the US pork industry is no prize either—it pollutes water as a matter of course, hollows out the rural areas on which it alights, relies heavily on routine antibiotic use, recently inspired a government watchdog group to lament “egregious” violations of food safety and animal welfare code in slaughterhouses, and uh, has an explosive manure foam problem.

So forget about where HQ is for the vast conglomerate that ultimately profits from running Smithfield’s factory-scale hog farms and slaughterhouses. The real question is: What does this deal telling us about the global food system and the future of food? Reuters offers a hint:

The thrust of the deal is to send the U.S. made pork to China, a factor that one person familiar with the matter said would help during Shuanghui’s CFIUS Committee on Foreign Investment review.

If Reuters is right that deal’s purpose is to grease the wheels of trade carrying US hogs to China and its enormous domestic pork market, then we’re looking at the further expansion of factory-scale swine farming here in the US: all of the festering troubles I listed above, intensified. For Smithfield itself, the deal is savvy, because Americans are eating less meat. In order to maintain endless profit growth, the company needs to conquer markets where per capita meat consumption is growing fast, and the China market itself represents the globe’s biggest prize in that regard.

As for China, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy showed in a blockbuster 2011 report, the central government strived for years for self-sufficiency in pork, even as demand for it exploded, by rapidly industrializing production along the model pioneered by Smithfield. By essentially buying Smithfield, the government may be throwing in the towel—saying, essentially, let’s just offshore our hog production, or at least a huge part of it, to the US.

In an ironic twist, China appears to be taking advantage of lax environmental and labor standards in the US to supply its citizens with something it can’t get enough of. Industrial pork: the iPhone’s culinary mirror image.

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Is the US About to Become One Big Factory Farm for China?

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Lockheed Martin Wants to Pull Electricity from the Ocean’s Heat

If all goes to plan, a new deal inked by two of the world’s biggest companies could give rise to a sustainability advocate’s paradise: a resort near the South China Sea that gets all of its power from the heat of the water nearby through a new type of renewable energy.

The deal, says a news release issued by Lockheed Martin, will see the defense giant partner with the Reignwood Group—a massive company that does everything from selling Red Bull in China to operate hotels and golf courses, managing properties and operating a private aircraft service—to develop the first commercial plant for a new type of renewable energy generation system known as ocean thermal energy conversion (OTEC).

Ocean thermal energy conversion draws on the natural temperature gradient that forms in tropical oceans worldwide. The surface of the ocean, heated by the Sun, is much warmer than the water deeper down. OTEC plants use the warm surface water to boil a liquid with a really low boiling point in a low-pressure container to form steam. This steam then drives a turbine, generating electricity. Colder water from deeper down is pulled up in a pipe, and by having this cold water pass by the pipe containing the steam, the steam is condensed back into a liquid. The liquid flows around, is heated by the warm surface water, and turns into steam once more—on and on, generating electricity from the temperature gradient in the ocean.

The idea for ocean thermal energy conversaion has been around for a really, really long time. “The concept of deriving energy from ocean thermal gradients was a French idea, suggested in 1881 by Jacques d’Arsonval, and French engineers have been active in developing the requisite technology,” says Marine Energy Times.

According to energy reporter Tyler Hamilton, famed engineer Nikola Tesla even tried his hands at making it work.

While Lockheed has been working on this for four decades, one of the first in-depth discussions of the concept came from Nikola Tesla, who at the age of 75 outlined how such a plant might be built in the December 1931 issue of Everyday Science and Mechanics journal. Tesla spent considerable time devising a way to improve the efficiencies of such a power plant, but he determined that it was too great an engineering challenge at the time. “I have studied this plan of power production from all angles and have devised apparatus for bringing down all losses to what I might call the irreducible minimum and still I find the performance too small to enable successful competition with the present methods,” he wrote, though still expressing hope that new methods would eventually make it possible to economically tap the thermal energy in oceans.

So the idea is old, but recent technological developments have driven ocean thermal energy conversion into the realm of possibility. Interestingly, some of the most troubling issues facing OTEC were solved by the oil industry, says the Marine Energy Times:

Ocean thermal is the only remaining vast, untapped source of renewable energy, and is now ripe for commercialization.  The near market-readiness of this technology is largely attributable to the remarkable ocean-engineering innovations and successful experience of the offshore oil industry during the past thirty years in developing, investing in, and  introducing mammoth floating platforms.  That achievement has inadvertently satisfied ocean thermal’s key operational requirement, for a large, stable, reliable ocean platform capable of operating in storms, hurricanes and typhoons.

Consequently, adaptations of those offshore-ocean-platform designs can be spun-off  to supply the proven ocean-engineering framework on which to mount the specialized ocean thermal plant and plantship heat exchangers, turbomachinery, cold water pipe (CWP) system, and other components and subsystems.Those offshore engineering achievements have greatly reduced the real and perceived risks of investing in ocean thermal plants.

Lockheed Martin has been working on the technology behind OTEC, too, and the deal with the Reignwood Group will see them build a test plant. If they manage to pull it off, the work could open the door to increased investment in this new form of renewable energy.

According to Green Tech Media, there are some potential environmental issues to look out for: if the cold water brought up from depth is pumped out into the surface waters, you could trigger a huge algae bloom that is really bad for the local ecosystem. But, if you release the cold water further down, around 70 meters depth, you should be able to avoid this dilemma. Having a small-scale test plant will give researchers a way to learn about any other unforeseen issues before moves are made to implement this new type of renewable energy on a larger scale.

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Lockheed Martin Wants to Pull Electricity from the Ocean’s Heat

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This Town Was Almost Blown Off the Map


Now it’s back, and super green. dmbernasconi/Flickr If I were to tell you this is a story about a tornado in Kansas, it would probably bring to mind a certain doe-eyed girl and her little dog. Well, sometimes tornadoes transport girls and their adorable pets to magical lands. Other times they level entire towns. That is what happened the night of May 4, 2007, when an EF-5 tornado (for non-Kansans, that’s a really freaking big — the biggest, in fact) nearly two miles wide hit the town of Greensburg, a farming community in south-central Kansas. Almost all of the 1,383 residents lost their homes, nine died, and the town was left looking like this: To keep reading, click here.

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This Town Was Almost Blown Off the Map

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This Town Was Almost Blown Off the Map

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News Coverage of Local Politics is Fading Away

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Paul Waldman diverts my attention today to the 2013 edition of Pew’s “State of the Media” report. Pew says that local news is becoming ever more saturated by sports, weather, traffic and “bizarre events.” But the news isn’t all bad:

Crime stories have traditionally been among the largest component of local newscast, but in the two periods studied, there was a marked reduction. In 2005, crime accounted for a full 29% of the newshole. Five years later, that number had fallen to 17%.

As regular readers will immediately figure out, part of the reason for this is that there’s just less crime to report these days. What’s more, as overall crime rates drop, the TV viewing audience is less obsessed with it and less interested in the latest scary stories. So this is all good. But there’s also this:

The same basic trend was seen in coverage of politics and government. In 2005, those topics accounted for 7% of the airtime studied. By 2012/2013, that coverage had been more than halved—to 3% of the airtime. For some time, television consultants have been advising local television stations that viewers aren’t interested in politics and government, and it appears that advice is being taken.

Paul sort of half-heartedly looks for a silver lining here: “I suppose one could argue that what we have here is a salutary specialization. If you want to hear what’s going on in politics, you can turn to cable news, where you’ll get plenty of it, and you can turn to local news for traffic, sports, and weather.”

This would be OK if local newscasts were reducing their coverage of national politics. Cable news can indeed pick up the slack there. But they’re reducing their coverage of local politics, and increasingly so is everyone else. The Boston Phoenix closed up shop last week, part of a trend of community alt-weeklies shutting down. Local radio is mostly just chattering gasbags and syndicated blowhards. Metro dailies have all but abandoned local political coverage of the towns and suburbs that surround their urban core. Here in my neck of the woods, we discovered in 2010 that the city of Bell was enmeshed in a widespread corruption scandal, but since there were almost literally no reporters covering Bell, it went unnoticed for more than a decade.

Now, it’s not as if local TV news ever did a great job of covering local politics. But they did cover it, and so did a lot of other outlets. As all of them slowly but surely abandon it, local leaders remain under the scrutiny of a few activists and news junkies, but not much of anyone else. I don’t think anyone knows what to do about this, but it’s a problem.

Mother Jones
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News Coverage of Local Politics is Fading Away

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Politician Apologizes for Saying Bikers Pollute

Amy R.


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Politician Apologizes for Saying Bikers Pollute

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