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Hurricane Harvey will bring some of the heaviest downpours anyone has ever seen

Hurricane Harvey made landfall late Friday night on the Texas coast as one of the most intense hurricanes in U.S. history, spawning as many as 50 tornado warnings in the Houston area alone.

But its worst feature is still to come: several days of what could be some of the most intense rainfall this nation has ever recorded, a clear signal of climate change.

After a destructive storm surge washed away homes, and winds as strong as 132 mph blew away roofs and left hundreds of thousands without power, Harvey is expected to stall, drastically worsening the risk of catastrophic inland flooding from relentless rains.

As of Saturday morning, nearly 15 inches had already been recorded as bands of heavy thunderstorms streamed onshore from the warm Gulf of Mexico, with at least five more days of heavy rain on the way.

Through mid-week, Harvey is expected to move at an exceedingly slow 1 mph, pushing its rainfall forecast off the charts. For the first time in its history, the National Weather Service is forecasting seven-day rainfall totals as high as 40 inches in isolated pockets — equal to what’s normally a year’s worth or rain for coastal Texas.

Some high-resolution models predict even more. (For reference, the estimated 1-in-100-year seven-day rainfall total for the region is just 18 inches.) Meteorologist Ryan Maue estimated that 20 trillion gallons of water will fall on Texas over the next seven days, which is equal to about one-sixth of Lake Erie.

Virtually every river and stream between San Antonio and Houston is expected to experience record or near-record flooding over the next few days. Forecasters racked their brains to recall a scenario so dire anywhere in the world; a 2015 typhoon hitting the Philippines produced a similar amount of rain, but over a much smaller area.

Although the exact impact of global warming on the strength and frequency of hurricanes remains undetermined, there’s a clear climate connection when it comes to higher rainfall. All thunderstorms, including hurricanes, can produce more rain in a warmer atmosphere, which boosts the rate of evaporation and the water-holding capacity of clouds.

Heavy downpours have increased by 167 percent in Houston since the 1950s, and flooding there has been heightened by unfettered development and urban expansion. Some of the worst flooding in the region’s history has come from slow-moving storms like Harvey.

We don’t yet know if climate change will bring more slow-moving, rapidly intensifying tropical storms like Harvey. But flooding is what kills most people in hurricanes, and that will only get worse.

Taken from: 

Hurricane Harvey will bring some of the heaviest downpours anyone has ever seen

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Maybe RT Has a Bigger Influence on American Politics Than We Think

Mother Jones

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Yesterday I noted that the intelligence report on Russian hacking devoted an awful lot of space to RT America, the Kremlin-funded cable TV network. That struck me as odd since I don’t think RT had much influence on the election. Shortly after I wrote that, I got this tweet:

And this email:

I think you underestimate the influence of RT on the Jill Stein and “Never Hillary” crowd among Bernie supporters. This is only one aspect of delegitimizing the center. A leftist progressive friend who works on Syrian refugee issues was really disturbed by how many on that part of the spectrum think Putin is just dandy.

And this from Vox’s Zack Beauchamp:

The ODNI report focuses, to an almost surprising degree, on RT — the Kremlin’s international, English-language propaganda media outlet. The report contains several striking observations about RT’s reach, message, and proximity to the Russian government.

….According to the report, RT — as well as Sputnik, another Russian government–funded English-language propaganda outlet — began aggressively producing pro-Trump and anti-Clinton content starting in March 2016. That just so happens to be the exact same time the Russian hacking campaign targeting Democrats began.

….During the 2016 campaign, RT aired a number of weird, conspiratorial segments — some starring WikiLeaks’ Julian Assange — that cast Clinton as corrupt and funded by ISIS and portrayed the US electoral system as rigged.

Put this all together and you have a portrait of a sometimes Alex Jones-esque “alternative channel” that appeals to fringe elements on both the left and right and successfully hides its identity from them. As the charts from the ODNI report show, it’s also one with a growing social media presence, even if the precise numbers in the report aren’t wholly reliable. I still don’t know whether this translated into more than a negligible impact on the race, but I thought it was worth passing along. It may be that RT is more important than I give it credit for.

Excerpt from: 

Maybe RT Has a Bigger Influence on American Politics Than We Think

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ERP Blogstorm Part 4: Miscellaneous

Mother Jones

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The fourth and final part of our series of charts from the Economic Report of the President has no theme. It’s just three unrelated charts that I felt like posting. First up, here is the IMF’s forecast of global growth over the six years since the end of the Great Recession:

Every year they think the decline in growth is over and the global economy will pick up again. And every year they’re wrong. Now they’re forecasting the same thing in 2016. Next year we’ll find out if they’re finally right.

Next up is a chart that shows how oil prices affect national economies in the Middle East:

Kuwait can balance its budget with an oil price of $50 per barrel. Saudi Arabia needs about $70. Bahrain needs $90. And Libya needs to start spending less.

Finally, here’s a chart I’ve put up in various forms several times over the years:

We’ve grown used to thinking of health care costs as spiraling out of control, but that wasn’t a regular fact of life until the early 80s. Then, for the next 20 years, health care inflation ran way higher than overall inflation. However, the gap started narrowing as early as the mid-90s. Here’s a chart of my own that shows the gap directly:

Using a 10-year rolling average helps smooth out the spikes so we can focus on the trend instead. Medical inflation was fairly moderate in the late 50s and then declined fairly steadily to even lower levels until the early 80s. Then it skyrocketed, and this is the era we’re most familiar with. But by the early aughts it had fallen back to its previous level in the 60s and 70s, and it’s stayed there for the past 15 years.

The authors of the report try to make a case that the subdued medical inflation of the past few years is due to Obamacare, but they try too hard. Obamacare has likely had some effect, but basically it just had the good luck to go into effect at a time when medical inflation was already pretty low.

What this all shows is that we should change how we think of medical inflation. Most of us think of it as something that’s out of control, and we hope that the recent slowdown isn’t just a blip. Instead, we should think of the period from 1980-2000 as a blip. Except for those two decades, medical inflation has run steadily at about 1.5 percent above overall inflation, and there’s no special reason to think this will change. That’s the normal rate for the postwar era.


ERP Blogstorm Part 4: Miscellaneous

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ERP Blogstorm Part 3: Banking

Mother Jones

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Part three of our series of charts from the Economic Report of the President is all about banking. Mostly, it’s a trip down memory lane. Here’s a look at the worldwide market in derivatives over the past couple of decades:

The volume of derivatives went from $10 trillion to $35 trillion in two years starting right before the market crashed. Here’s another perspective on that:

In 1990, shadow banking was about the same size as the traditional banking sector. By 2007 it was more than twice as big. Just before the crash, shadow banking comprised two-thirds of the entire banking industry and it was almost entirely unregulated. This is why I was happy that Hillary Clinton at least mentioned shadow banking during the campaign.

Here’s how all this affected tradition banks:

In 2007, losses from trading amounted to about $30 billion. By 2009 that had skyrocketed to about $100 billion—and that’s in addition to about $40 billion in traditional loan losses. This is what happens when you start with a housing market that’s already in bubble territory and then egg it on with insane levels of rocket science derivatives, most of them unregulated bastard offspring of the shadow banking sector.

So what’s happened since then? We had a huge crash, the Fed instituted higher capital ratios for “systemically important financial institutions,” and we passed the Dodd-Frank reforms. Here’s what banks look like now:

Before the Great Recession, the biggest banks (green line) had Tier 1 equity ratios of about 7 percent. That’s why they couldn’t weather the crash. Today they’re above 12 percent. Is that enough? Maybe not. But it’s a helluva lot better than it used to be.

Finally, here’s an intriguing chart that shows one of the specific consequences of Dodd-Frank:

Most single-name derivatives are now cleared through a central clearinghouse, which makes it easy for traders to cancel out mirror-image positions they hold. This is called “compression,” and it reduces the total volume of derivatives and increases the safety of the financial system. Today, derivatives worth $200 trillion (notional) are compressed out of existence each year.

Needless to say, Republicans are hellbent on repealing Dodd-Frank. Sure, it makes the banking system safer and helps protect consumers, but big banks don’t like it, so that’s that. The party of Donald Trump, the working man’s president, will do whatever Wall Street tells them to do. Funny how that works, isn’t it?


ERP Blogstorm Part 3: Banking

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ERP Blogstorm Part 1: Income Inequality

Mother Jones

ERP? Yes indeed. That’s what the cool kids call the Economic Report of the President. The 2017 edition is out, so this weekend I’m going to highlight a few of the charts that caught my eye. These are not necessarily the most important topics in the report. They just happened to strike me as interesting and worth sharing more widely. I’m mostly going to present them without much commentary.

In previous times, I would have called this a series of blog posts. Today I suppose I should call it a blogstorm. Gotta keep up with the lingo, after all. Our first topic is income inequality. Here’s the impact of the 2009 stimulus bill and the Making Work Pay tax credit:

And here’s the impact of changes in tax policy (primarily the effects of the “fiscal cliff” negotiations, which renewed the Bush tax cuts for all but high-income taxpayers):

And finally, here it is all put together: stimulus, tax changes, and Obamacare:

The lowest-income folks saw their after-tax income increase by about 18 percent. The after-tax income of the top 1 percent declined by about 5 percent and the top 0.1 percent declined by about 10 percent.

Not bad. Sadly, nothing infuriates Republicans more than reducing income inequality, and they will do everything they can to reverse this and then some over the next four years. The rich can never be too rich and the poor can never be too poor in GOP land.

Continued – 

ERP Blogstorm Part 1: Income Inequality

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No, All the New Jobs Have Not Passed Whites By

Mother Jones

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Over at the New York Times today, Eduardo Porter takes on the notion that working-class whites ignore their economic interests and vote for Republicans because of social issues like abortion and guns:

This view fits a common narrative among liberal analysts of American politics….But it largely misses the mark….There are almost nine million more jobs than there were at the previous peak in November 2007, just before the economy tumbled into recession. But the gains have not been evenly distributed.

Despite accounting for less than 15 percent of the labor force, Hispanics got more than half of the net additional jobs. Blacks and Asians also gained millions more jobs than they lost. But whites, who account for 78 percent of the labor force, lost more than 700,000 net jobs over the nine years.

This is very badly misleading. Let’s plow our way through a fistful of charts to get at the truth. First up, here’s the employment level:

Porter is right: if you look at the raw number of jobs, blacks and Hispanics have gotten most of them. Whites are at about the same level as they were in 2007. How can this be? That’s easy: it’s because the white population is at about the same level as it was in 2007

Whites have the same number of jobs as in 2007 because there are the same number of whites as in 2007. Hispanics and blacks have more jobs because there are more Hispanics and blacks. This means nothing. What you’d like to know is what percentage of each group is employed:

These numbers rattle around a bit. Whites did better in 2010-13 while blacks and Hispanics have done better in 2014-16. At this point they’re all within a few points of each other. Now put all this together and you get the unemployment rate:

All three groups are at nearly the exact same level as they were in 2007, which means that all the new jobs have been shared out equally by population. Whites have done about as well as anyone else, and since whites started out ahead, it means they’re still ahead. Here’s the unemployment rate today, which is nearly identical to the rate in 2007:

Whites: 4.2 percent
Hispanics: 5.7 percent
Blacks: 8.1 percent

If you take a look at this stuff without accounting for population growth you’ll be badly misled. When it comes to jobs, whites had it better than blacks and Hispanics in 2007 and they still do today by about the same amount. They haven’t been screwed by the job market any more than anyone else, and they haven’t gained or lost ground. After ten years with a huge recession in between, we’re all back where we started.


No, All the New Jobs Have Not Passed Whites By

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White Supremacist Sites Claim Their Traffic Is Booming. Actually, No.

Mother Jones

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Has white supremacy gone mainstream? It certainly feels that way based on this week’s headlines, with leading so-called “alt-right” figures crowing about Trump’s victory on major news sites (including Mother Jones). The self-described alt-right “platform,” Breitbart News, claimed that its readership has doubled over the past eight months to 37 million unique visitors. And Trump’s choice of Breitbart chairman Stephen Bannon, nativist Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, and anti-Muslim Lt. General Michael T. Flynn for key leadership posts has given bigotry a seat in the Oval Office.

But here’s a reality check: Readership of actual white supremacist websites—by which I mean those that openly claim the racial superiority of whites—has actually changed very little over the past year. Here’s a chart of unique monthly visitors to the largest two such sites, provided to Mother Jones by the analytics firm comScore:

This is hardly the sort of growth one might expect if Americans were suddenly warming up to white supremacy. Traffic to Stormfront was lower last month than in October, 2015. The Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi site founded in 2013, had too little traffic in many months even to meet comScore’s reportability thresholds. Though comScore’s traffic figures aren’t 100 percent reliable, they do suggest that the growth of these sites has been at best minimal over the past year.

Daily Stormer publisher Andrew Anglin told me in an email that his traffic had doubled over the past year to 4 million unique viewers, but did not respond when I confronted him with comScore’s dramatically lower figures. Anglin has claimed a rise in readers based on the notoriously unreliable Alexa rankings, but back in 2014, when Alexa showed a decline in Daily Stormer readers, he called Alexa “a complete joke which can never be taken seriously again.”

Breitbart also appears to be inflating its numbers. According to data collected by comScore, its traffic has increased over the past year from 13 million to 19 million unique viewers. That is still a dramatic rise, but it falls far short of the 37 million unique visitors that Breitbart claims. (A Breitbart spokesperson did respond to a request for comment).

There’s no doubt Breitbart has unleashed a miasma of racist rhetoric and ideas over the past year. In the week following the election, organizations that track hate crimes recorded the biggest spike in such incidents since the aftermath of 9/11. Among 10,000 Trump supporters sampled by an analytics firm in October, more than a third followed at least one white nationalist Twitter account. Trump’s denunciations of entire etnic groups, religions, and genders has had the effect of normalizing hate speech.

But white supremacy is still a step too far, even for Trump and his inner circle. Maybe they really do find neo-Nazis and the KKK abhorrent (if so, Trump certainly could have been swifter in denouncing them). Or maybe they’re just smart enough to know what any corporate marketer long ago figured out: When it comes to unvarnished white supremacy, nobody wants to hear it.

Source article: 

White Supremacist Sites Claim Their Traffic Is Booming. Actually, No.

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These Maps and Charts Show Where Clinton and Trump’s Essential Voters Are

Mother Jones

Three weeks ago, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver made an hypothetical map of what would happen if only women voted for president on November 8. The results were strikingly lopsided: Hillary Clinton would trounce Donald Trump, 458 electoral votes to 80.


After that map (right) went viral, Trump fans rushed to reinforce his resistibility to most women by tweeting the hashtag #Repealthe19th (as in the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote). Another Silver map, showing that a male-only electorate would elect Trump in a landslide, confused Eric Trump, who blasted it to his dad’s supporters, proclaiming, “Right now all the momentum is on our side.” These maps also sparked a slew of “What if only ____ voted” joke maps.

Ste Kinney-Fields

Yet Silver’s gendered election maps also inspired a set of maps (right) that further broke down various electoral scenarios by demographic group, which was shared widely.

While there were some initial questions about their origins and sourcing, the maps’ creator, Ste Kinney-Fields, came forward and revealed that her data came from FiveThirtyEight’s Swing-O-Matic. That’s a nifty tool that lets users generate presidential election outcomes by tweaking the political preferences and voter turnout among different demographic groups.

These maps highlight just how essential demographics are for each candidate’s path to the White House. Clinton can not win without the votes of women and people of color, and conversely, Trump can not win without men and white people. But these maps’ emphasis on winner-take-all electoral math obscures the depth and variance of the candidates’ support among key demographic groups. Silver’s map of women’s votes assumes that because Clinton is beating Trump by 10 percentage points nationally, a women-only election would boost her performance by 10 points in every state. And the viral maps based on the Swing-O-Matic uses 2012 election data to predict voter preferences and turnout rates.

For more current, state-level numbers on how various demographic groups might vote, I pulled data from YouGov, whose election model is based on more than 46,000 recent interviews with potential voters. Using its data, I generated a series of “What if only ____ voted” maps show which states the candidates would win, and by how much. (They’re based on YouGov’s October 22 data.)

What if only women voted?

Let’s start with women. In Silver’s map, women would hand Clinton 458 electoral votes. (A candidate needs 270 to win.) In the map below, based on the YouGov data, Clinton still has a lock on 330 electoral votes. (Texas and South Carolina were too close to tell, but they would probably go to Trump.) In all 50 states, she gets more support from women than men, but her level of support among women varies widely. Their support for Clinton ranges from a high of 86 percent in Washington, DC, to a low of 30 percent in Utah. In New York and California, she’d win by more than 30 points. But in Wyoming and West Virginia, she’d lose by more than 20 points.

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What if only men voted?

Relying just on men, Trump would easily win with 338 electoral votes. Overall, Trump has a consistent advantage among men, ranging from 2 points (Delaware) to 10 points (Montana). Men’s support for Trump ranges from a high of 61 percent in West Virginia and Wyoming to a low of 12 percent in Washington, DC. The map below is a bit bluer than Silver’s: Clinton could win over dudes by a small margin in Virginia.

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What if only white people voted?

Trump’s strong support from white voters is no secret. If only they voted, he’d win handily. Here, the YouGov data is similar to the FiveThirtyEight data. It shows the depth of support that Trump enjoys among white people, especially in the South, where Clinton trails by 40 points or more in every state from Texas to South Carolina. And in most otherwise blue states, Trump and Clinton are within several points of each other.

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YouGov doesn’t provide state-level data for white men, white women, or white people by education level. However, by plugging its national-level data into the Swing-O-Matic, we can compare how various categories of white people would affect the election according to the FiveThirtyEight model and the YouGov model. (One big difference between two data sets is that FiveThirtyEight’s assumes two percent of the vote going to third party candidates; YouGov’s shows nine percent of the white vote going to third party candidates.)

The YouGov data for white people overall generates a pretty bleak electoral scenario for Clinton. However, its data for white women and college-educated whites looks much better for her. If either of these groups voted alone, Clinton would eke out a victory with 280 electoral votes.

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What if only black people voted?

Electoral maps don’t get any bluer than this. African-Americans support Clinton by huge margins. Only in Idaho does her support dip below 80 percent of black respondents—to a still-respectable 74 percent. Even though there’s no data for super-white Montana, it’s highly likely that its small black population backs Clinton—creating a scenario in which she’d pick up all 538 electoral votes. (So far, Trump’s Twitter followers haven’t suggested #Repealthe15th.)

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What if only Hispanics and Latinos voted?

Clinton also would enjoy a monumental landslide if only Hispanics and Latinos voted. However, her support among this key constituency dips in the deep South: In Mississippi, 47 percent of Hispanics prefer Clinton, while 42 percent support Trump.

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What if only 18- to 29-year-olds voted?

The viral “What if” maps didn’t look at age, but YouGov’s data does include age cohorts. Young voters are another important Clinton base: If only Millennials voted, they’d overwhelmingly vote to make her America’s second-oldest president ever. However, her support among the young and youngish varies widely by state. In otherwise red states like Idaho, Wyoming, and South Dakota, significant chunks of these voters say they’re supporting third-party candidates Gary Johnson or Jill Stein. The real question about this voting bloc is: How many of them will show up to vote? About half of eligible 18- to 29-year-olds voted in 2012.

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What if only people 65 or older voted?

On the flip side, America’s oldest voters would elect fellow Baby Boomer Donald Trump. Clinton would still hang on in coastal blue states, but would still lose to a candidate who says he feels 35. And this group doesn’t slack on Election Day: About 72 percent of voters 65 or older cast ballots in 2012, one of the highest turnout rates for any demographic group.

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While these maps are a fun way to generate poli-sci-fi scenarios, they’re still a useful tool for exploring the demographic coalitions Clinton and Trump need to win.

Or here’s another way to look at the data: Could Clinton and Trump win if any one of their major demographic bases didn’t show up to vote? If white voters or any subgroup of white voters didn’t vote, Trump would lose. If Hispanic voters didn’t vote, Clinton would still be safe. But if black voters went AWOL, she’d be cutting it uncomfortably close. If Clinton does win next Tuesday, she’ll probably thank all Americans for their support. But she should really thank women, people of color, and younger voters.

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These Maps and Charts Show Where Clinton and Trump’s Essential Voters Are

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Why Fireworks Are Even More Dangerous This Year

Mother Jones

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For years, teenagers from the Southern United States have made a trip to South Carolina to stop at the dozens of shops, stands, and warehouses that sell fireworks with names like “Red, White, and Boom,” “Bad Blonde Joke,” and “One Bad Mother-in-law.” The Palmetto State has long been a destination for pyro-loving patriots because of its lax fireworks laws: The minimum age to buy celebratory explosives is 16, and nearly every type of firework is for sale.

But crossing state lines for July Fourth party favors may not be as common this year. States are increasingly relaxing their fireworks laws, by dropping the minimum age requirement below 18 or allowing a wider variety of backyard explosives to be sold. Georgia, West Virginia, and New York are among the states that have made changes to the laws over the past year.

The looser laws haven’t come without controversy. Fireworks are notoriously dangerous (remember last year when two NFL players lost fingers during fireworks accidents?), and child safety groups are raising concerns that allowing minors to get hold of fireworks will lead to more firework-related injuries around the summer holiday.

There’s some evidence backing that worry. Twelve-year-olds are injured by fireworks more than any other age group, according to an analysis by StatNews. And boys are mostly to blame: Of the 225 12-year-olds injured by fireworks between the late ’90s and 2015, only 50 were girls.

Source: National Electronic Injury Surveillance System Chart by Natalia Bronshtein/Statnews

A recent study by pediatric researchers at the University of Louisville found that the severity of firework burns in kids has increased over the last decade, and that the average age of kids burned decreased from 12 to 11 years old. Though he can’t pin it completely on changes in the law, the study’s lead author, Dr. John Myers, says there’s definitely a connection.

“When states switched from 18 to 16, that’s the big difference we’ve seen,” Myers said. “We advocate states to go back to 18.”

Source: National Electronic Injury Surveillance System Chart by Natalia Bronshtein/StatNews

Other groups oppose fireworks for reasons other than the injuries they cause. The National Fire Protection Association takes an avid stance against the use of any backyard firework because of their link to summer fires. According to the association, fireworks caused an estimated 15,600 fires in 2013. Nearly 30 percent of all firework-caused blazes between 2009 and 2013 happened on July Fourth.

On the other side of the debate are advocates for backyard fireworks, who argue that people will mess around with the things whether or not they’re allowed to. Julie Heckman, executive director of the American Pyro Association, which represents various firework and pyrotechnic companies, says the at-home explosives are actually more dangerous when they’re illegal because people use even less caution.

“Independence Day is so recognized as the holiday that people use backyard consumer fireworks—it’s part of our American culture,” Heckman said. “In the areas that have prohibition, people choose to use them anyway…They are very careless.”

Heckman points out that in the three states that have a complete ban on consumer fireworks—Massachusetts, Delaware, and New Jersey—firework-related injuries still occur. For example, the Massachusetts Fire Incident Reporting System found there were 775 fire-related incidents over a 10-year period, with 15 people injured. Those numbers still pale in comparison to numbers from states that have more relaxed laws: In South Carolina, 182 people were injured by fireworks in 2010 alone.

Either way, states are moving ahead and making it easier for teens to get hold of sparklers and other fireworks. The big bucks they’ll rake in as a result can’t hurt: In New York, which just relaxed its firework laws in some counties, tax revenue from firework sales could reach as much as $2 million.


Why Fireworks Are Even More Dangerous This Year

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Science Says This Centuries-Old Discovery Will Save the Planet

Mother Jones

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The United States leads the world in the number of electric vehicles on the road, but the count is still tiny: about 350,000. That’s less than 1 percent of all passenger cars and trucks in the country. Recent market research suggests that number will climb steadily over the next several decades. But will it climb fast enough? When it comes to fighting climate change, that could turn out to be one of the most important questions of the next few years.

On April 22, world leaders gathered in New York City to sign the Paris Agreement on climate change, in which they vowed to keep global temperature rise to “well below” 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, a limit the world is already more than halfway toward exceeding. Meanwhile, energy experts have begun to map out the fine-grain details of what meeting that goal would actually require. And it’s becoming increasingly clear that electric vehicles have a indispensable role to play.

It turns out that one of the most immediate societal changes for average Americans in a climate-savvy future would likely be the electrification of just about everything. In other words, the hope of the planet could like in a force—electricity—we’ve known about for hundreds of years.

That might sound strange, given that electricity production is the number-one source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. Coal- and gas-burning power plants are still our main sources of electricity, and in some parts of the country the power grid is so dirty that electric vehicles might actually cause more pollution than traditional gas-guzzlers.

But thanks to the explosive growth of solar, wind, and other renewable energy technologies, electricity is getting cleaner all the time. Over the last decade, the share of total US electricity production from renewables (including hydroelectric dams) rose from about 9.5 percent to more than 14 percent, with year-to-year growth getting faster all the time. So there’s a good case to be made for phasing out the other types of fossil fuel use in our daily lives—particularly gasoline for cars and oil and gas for heating buildings. We should be using electricity instead—even if that means using more electricity overall.

That’s a key finding of the Deep Decarbonization Pathways Project, an international consortium of energy researchers that produced a detailed technical study of how to cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent compared to 1990 levels by 2050—the change necessary if Americans hope to do their part to stay within the two-degree limit. The report found that it’s technically possible for the US to meet that target, at an annual cost of about 1 percent of GDP, without sacrificing any “energy services.” That is, the report assumes we’ll still drive and have houses and operate factories the same as we do today. But to do so will require a major boost in electrification—which will in turn require that the US produce about twice as much electricity as it currently does—while reducing the carbon emissions per unit of energy down to just 3 to 10 percent of their current levels. In other words, at the same time we’re electrifying everything, we need to continue to clean up the electric grid and double down on energy efficiency, especially in buildings.

“You can’t get to a level of emissions that’s compatible with 2C or less unless you do all three of those things,” said Jim Williams, one of the report’s lead authors and chief scientist at the private research firm Energy and Environmental Economics.

We get energy from fossil fuels in two basic ways: Either burning it in a power plant to create electricity that gets used elsewhere, or by burning it directly where it’s needed—i.e., your car’s internal combustion engine or a gas-fueled stove. Williams’ basic idea—which has also been advanced by other leading energy economists, particularly Stanford’s Mark Jacobson—is to axe that second category as much as possible, while simultaneously “decarbonizing” the electric grid by replacing fossil fuels with wind, solar, and other renewables.

Williams’ model doesn’t assume that all fossil fuel consumption goes completely to zero. A small portion of electricity could still come from natural gas plants; some oil and gas could still be used for manufacturing and industrial purposes; and airplanes, freight trains, and ocean liners may still rely mainly on petroleum. But by the middle of the century, the total “budget” for fossil fuels will become so small that they need to be limited only to uses that are absolutely unavoidable. Everything that can run on electricity needs to do so. Cars and buildings are low-hanging fruit. And despite gradual fuel efficiency improvements in cars over the last few decades, Williams said, there’s ultimately no way to make an oil-burning internal combustion car engine efficient enough to fit in the tiny fossil fuel “budget.”

“At some point you can’t continue to do direct combustion of fossil fuels, even if it’s efficient,” he said. “There is a point where you have to get out of direct fossil fuel combustion to the maximum extent.”

Ending direct combustion of fossil fuels would take a massive bite out of greenhouse gas emissions: Put together, buildings, transportation, and industrial uses account for more than half of the country’s carbon footprint.

In practical terms, the most important element of that transition would be bringing electric vehicles off the sidelines and into the mainstream. The charts below, from the report, illustrate what that transformation would look like. It’s important to note that these charts are not a projection of what the authors think will happen, but rather a prescription for what they think should happen. In the left chart, you can see that starting in the mid-2020s, sales of gas-powered cars (blue) fall off dramatically in favor of hybrids (red) and fully electric vehicles (gold). On the right, you see that by the mid-2030s, there are more electric cars and hybrids on the road than gas-powered cars:


At the same time as this transformation is happening on the road, your gas stove will be swapped for an electric one; ditto the gas furnace in your basement. Gas stations will close and be replaced by charging stations. Machinery in factories that uses oil and gas will be largely replaced with electric equipment. Your propane or charcoal grill could be replaced by a George Foreman…you get the idea.

These are big shifts, but Williams said they probably won’t actually be very noticeable to most people. How much do you really know about what’s under your hood? Would you really notice if your basement held an electric heat pump instead of a gas furnace?

“The carbon aspect is in the guts of it that people don’t really look at,” he said. “The good news is that even if we continue to live like we’re living, we have the technology, we have what it takes to quit emitting so much CO2 to the atmosphere.”

Still, we’re not yet on pace to meet the goals laid out in the DDPP report. In a recent market forecast from Bloomberg New Energy Finance of global electric vehicle sales—a realistic picture of what the future actually holds, given current policies—global sales of electric and hybrid vehicles in 2040 are still only 35 percent of total car sales, instead of close to 100 percent in Williams’ model.

How do we get on track? Williams argues that policymakers need to start spending less energy worrying about fuel efficiency for oil-powered cars and focus instead on speeding up the transition to electric vehicles. That’s something the Obama administration has only scratched the surface of, so it could be an area of focus for the next president. Power grid operators, too, need to start planning for a future in which there could be major demand for electricity in sectors (i.e., electric cars, home heating, etc.) that are small now.

“We’re not used to having a whole lot of our electricity being used by sectors that currently don’t exist,” Williams said. “We need to already be thinking about that. If we don’t start planning now, we’ll run into dead ends.”

Have more questions about electricity? We’ve got your answers in this special podcast episode with our engagement editor Ben Dreyfuss:

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Science Says This Centuries-Old Discovery Will Save the Planet

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