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This Was The First Year It Ever Went To Zero

via The Guardian

via The Guardian

Yes, it really is that bad. California is shriveling up before our eyes. Staggering under the worst drought in history, the state is confronting the possibility that it might just plain run out of water. Cities and counties around the state are imposing draconian penalties on water wasters  – don’t water that brown lawn, don’t wash that filthy car – and the state is scrambling desperately to divert precious water from where there is some to be found to where there is none. Governor Brown just signed legislation putting a $7.545 billion water bond before the voters. There’s an impressively long and (mirabile dictu) bipartisan list of supporters of the bill ranging from environmental groups through agricultural and construction organizations to the state chamber of commerce. But all that broad support still leaves unanswered the central question of how to divide a disastrously diminishing water supply around a state as populous and diverse as California. Who is more deserving? Almond farmers or vintners? The Los Angeles megacity or the small towns in the Sierra foothills where the ground is literally sinking because wells have run dry?

In the shadow of those snow-bereft mountains, California farmers are emptying their wells of ground water – the aquatic equivalent to eating your seed corn. When that water is gone it’s as good as gone forever: replenishing aquifers is a job of decades and centuries. Jeffrey Sutton of a Sacramento area canal authority is struggling with the fact that this year for the first time, some of its customers will receive no water. Nothing. Zip. Nada. “This was the first year it ever went to zero,” he says. “You can’t allocate water that’s not there.”

If you crane your neck, you can look back 500 years or more to find the Anasazi people who disappeared from the southwestern US. Decades of relentless drought did them in. That was a disaster for them. What to do with the tens of millions of present day Californians? What happens when a whole state finally runs dry? No one sees any easing of the current drought coming anytime soon. And there’s really no question that global warming will only make things worse.

California has always had a parlous relationship with water. There’s a road much loved by sports car drivers called Mulholland Drive that hugs the crest of the Santa Monica Mountains. It’s named after William Mulholland, the man who so famously brought water to a sleepy little desert town called Los Angeles. If you want a terrific history of the politics behind that feat, watch Roman Polanski’s brilliant 1974 film Chinatown which is based on Mulholland’s audacious accomplishment. It’s a compelling illustration of just how ugly the politics around water has always been in the Golden State. It doesn’t promise to get any prettier.

Update: In an editorial in today’s Los Angeles Times Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, warns bluntly that the state has “only enough water in storage to get through the next 12 to 18 months, and that’s it.”

These Stories Are Not Related

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Remember when Freedom Industries shut down Charleston, West Virginia by spilling thousands of gallons of a toxic chemical into the Kanawha River? Perhaps you were wondering what consequences might befall the company for poisoning the water supply for 300,000 residents of the state capital. Wonder no longer. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has fined Freedom Industries eleven thousand dollars – that’s $11,000 – for an incident OSHA itself described as one that could likely result in death or serious physical harm.

That draconian penalty is sure to impress the importance of environmental safety on the rest of the extraction industry.

Meanwhile, over in another coal-dependent state, state legislators worked themselves into a lather about new EPA carbon emission regulations. One Kentucky state senator illuminated the debate by informing us that “the temperature on Mars is exactly as it is here,” and pointing out that there are no factories or coal mines on Mars, so what’s the big deal, anyway? Not content with astronomical ignorance, another senator argued that just because the dinosaurs went extinct, we humans had no need to worry. “The dinosaurs died, and we don’t know why, but the world adjusted. And to say that this is what’s going to cause detriment to people, I just don’t think it’s out there.”  Well, okay then. If we humans die out, the world will adjust. Problem solved.

Come Christmas, some people might find a lump of coal in their stocking.


Bobby Jindal Presents “The Creature From the Oil-Black Lagoon”

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

There’s a lot of swampland on the Gulf Coast. A lot of that swampland has been polluted with oil. And a lot of that oil has oozed into the swamps of the legal system which is brimming over with lawsuits brought against the extraction industry. BP’s Deepwater disaster is only the most high profile case. It certainly brought a lot of public attention to the parlous state of the Gulf of Mexico and its hundreds of miles of vulnerable coastline – attention BP and its energy cohorts don’t want.

Things haven’t been going well for BP in the litigation that flowed up out of its underwater well along with all that oil. It has found it rough going even in the famously conservative and business-friendly Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals which has consistently swatted down the company’s attempts to wriggle off the liability hook. But the oil industry is nothing if not industrious. A business that hunts for oil thousands of feet below the surface of the sea will work just as hard to find a political solution to its legal problems. Now, thanks to Louisiana  governor Bobby Jindal, the oil business has what it hopes is a magic cloak to ward of further lawsuits.

Last week Jindal signed legislation designed to kill a lawsuit against almost 100 oil and gas companies.

The lawsuit was filed by the Southeast Louisiana Flood Protection Authority in an attempt to get oil and gas companies to pony up billions of dollars for damage caused by exploration and production in the vulnerable wetlands around New Orleans – wetlands that play a vital role in protecting the city from what the suit describes as the mortal threat of hurricane storm surges. The stakes for New Orleans could not be higher. The Authority filed suit to avert the dire consequences of the environmental degradation of the region’s coastline. The suit demanded that energy companies “honor their obligations to safeguard and restore the coastal treasures entrusted to them and from which they have so richly profited.” The Flood Protection Authority described the measures it demanded in its suit as essential to preserving the future of the state and its biggest city. The coastal barriers it sought to preserve have been brought to the brink of destruction over the course of a single human lifetime. Without immediate action to reverse the loss of wetlands and restore the region’s natural defenses, many of Louisiana’s coastal communities will vanish into the sea. Meanwhile, the Authority says, inland cities and towns that once were well insulated from the sea will be left to face the ever-rising tide at their doorsteps.”

Jindal’s signature has now thrown the future of that suit, and other similar actions, into doubt. The new law is specifically intended to stop the lawsuit in its tracks. It would limit enforcement of the state’s coastal zone program to the state Department of Natural Resources, a parish, a parish district attorney or the state attorney general.  The law previously allowed any government agency to file claims. The oil and gas industry lobbied strenuously to get the new law passed. Apparently the industry’s efforts were more persuasive than the state’s own attorney general who urged the governor to veto the bill, arguing that the language was both so vague and so sweeping that it would prohibit local governments from filing lawsuits against energy companies for past or future actions. A passel of legal scholars also weighed in warning that the bill would nullify lawsuits already filed against BP for damages from the oil spill by dozens of governmental entities. Environmentalists and urban planners are aghast.  The industry, on the other hand, was crowing about its bill, describing it as “a huge victory for the oil and gas industry as well as the economy for the state of Louisiana.”

The bill demonstrates how far and how deep the energy industry’s tentacles reach into the machinery of Louisiana politics. The Deepwater catastrophe brought a lot of unwelcome attention to the long-intertwined relationship between the oil and gas industry and Louisiana’s politicians. The new law is designed to restore that relationship to its historical centrality in the state’s political ecology. Whether it survives the inevitable appeals (it almost certainly won’t) is irrelevant. As a piece of of intimidating muscle flexing it’s in a class of its own: Let there be no doubt of who calls the shots in the state.

Jindal defended the bill by saying it creates “a more fair and predictable legal environment.” The good people of New Orleans can sleep easier now, secure in the knowledge that at least the legal landscape is predictable. The levees be damned.

Note: The Times-Picayune is, as always, doing yeoman’s work covering this story.

The Thousand Natural Shocks That Flesh Is Heir To

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

I don’t know about you, but I don’t like reading the words “bacteria” and “apocalyptic” in the same sentence – especially in the lead paragraph of a World Health Organization Report. The report, released last month, tells us in no uncertain terms that we are now entering the post-antibiotic world. Almost a century after the discovery of penicillin, humanity is once again vulnerable to simple infections we thought we had confined to the dustbin of medical history.

All the ills that flesh is heir to, the countless ailments and fevers that have plagued humanity for millennia, were seemingly in retreat with the flurry of antibiotics that followed on penicillin’s heels. Ten years ago, a simple urinary tract infection or a scrape from a rose bush would pass without incident – a simple course of antibiotics saw to that. Now, increasingly, even the most minor infections can take an ominous turn, thanks to the relentless evolution of the microbes antibiotics are designed to destroy. The prospect of expiring from simple infections is growing daily, in every corner of the globe.

The WHO report is a hypochondriac’s nightmare. According to the Organization, resistance to common bacteria has reached alarming levels around the world. The post-antibiotic era, far from being an apocalyptic fantasy, is a very real possibility for the 21st century. Antimicrobial resistance, it says, threatens the effective prevention and treatment of an ever-increasing range of infections. Resistance to common bacteria, parasites, viruses and fungi has reached alarming levels in many parts of the world. In some settings, there are few, if any, effective treatment options. One of the greatest achievements of modern medicine is teetering on the verge of collapse. And it isn’t simply preventing or treating hitherto minor infections which is problematic. Many pillars of modern medicine rest on defeating microbes: without antibiotics routine surgery, transplants, and chemotherapy would be impossible.

In an ironic twist, it was in hospitals themselves where resistant bacteria first appeared, and they have spread steadily outward. In 2005, approximately 100,000 Americans had severe anti-biotic resistant infections, of whom nearly 20,000 died. That’s a higher fatality rate than HIV and tuberculosis combined. In the words of Katherine Xue, writing in Harvard Magazine, this state of infectious affairs is the new normal. The relentless spread of antibiotic resistant super bugs raises the grim specter of a return to the medicine of a century ago.

Dr Jennifer Cohn, medical director of Medecins sans Frontier, says the WHO report “should be a wake-up call to governments to introduce incentives for industry to develop new, affordable antibiotics.”

Developing antibiotics is extraordinarily expensive and time consuming. Encouraging innovation in the field will likely require close coordination on a global scale and significant government intervention and support. Given that Britain’s chief medical officer has compared the rise in drug-resistant infections to the threat of global warming, we’ll have to cross our well-scrubbed fingers and hope the nations of the world can pull together on this. An ounce of prevention, as they say, is worth a pound of cure.






Ice & Us: There Is No Turning Back

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

Photo by NASA. Some rights reserved.

The scientific community seems to talk about rising sea levels A LOT. This makes sense – as far as consequences of global warming go, it’s one of the easiest to explain, and one of the most potentially disastrous. We’ve looked at how a rise in sea level would effect us domestically and the results were not heartening. It’s pretty easy A-to-B math to see that if the sea level goes up, many coastal cities will be in critical danger of flooding and other natural disasters, and the entire ecology of the oceans will drastically change. And if that proof wasn’t in the pudding before, it sure is now.

Two new studies released this week confirm that the enormous West Antarctica Ice Sheet, the segment of the Western Antarctica continent that extends out into the Amundsen Sea, is losing mass at a rate that cannot be reversed. The ice sheet is estimated to weigh 25.4 million km3, however the accepted narrative in scientific communities for decades has been that it has been steadily and exponentially losing mass, to the point where snowfall is no longer replacing the amount of ice the sheet is losing. Between the years of 1996 and 2006, there was a 75% increase is the amount of ice mass lost, a statistic that seemingly should have set off alarm bells eight years ago. This week’s studies, then, should really just function as icing on a terrible, terrible cake, but judging by the reactions seen online, a lot of people were unaware that this was a problem.

The studies (one published in Science and one in Geophysical Research Letters) reach the same unsettling conclusion – the ice sheet is falling apart, and at this point the process cannot be reversed or delayed. The melting process will unsettle neighboring sections the larger continental ice sheet, and will result in a 10 + ft. rise in sea level. This will continue to happen slowly over the rest of the 21st century and speed up in coming centuries to the point of total global crisis. Coming on the heels of very pessimistic reports on climate change from the White House and NASA, it seems the gravity of the situation is finally starting to sink in on the Internet at large. I saw links to both of the aforementioned studies linked to dozens of times on many social networks by all sorts of people who normally wouldn’t be inclined to share this kind of stuff. The reality of climate change has, for many, finally gotten personal.

The Secret World of Cobia

Photo by Some rights reserved.

Photo by Some rights reserved.

We’ve talked a little bit about aquaculture and fish farming before on the GM and how the industry has changed and evolved over time. One of the biggest criticisms against raising fish in captivity is that the fish are not healthy and therefore not as delicious when they hit our dinner tables (other, less selfish concerns with the industry are that it is wasteful, due to the amount of processed food it takes to feed these fish, and that the possibility of fish escaping their pens and contaminating the gene pools of ocean-raised fish). Brian O’Hanlon, through his company Open Blue, aims to change that.

Founded in Panama in 2009, Open Blue is an aquaculture business that does all of its fish-raising in, you guessed it, the open blue waters of the Caribbean. Open Blue has set up giant pods that float in the open water, designed to hold 35,000 fish. Then pens are weighed down and anchored to the sea floor, and monitored by boat with cameras and sensors to detect and discrepancies. On top of all that, divers make daily expeditions down to examine the cages and check the health of the fish.

O’Hanlon and his company set up shop in Panama because the government there was more receptive to his work. In the U.S., the necessary permit would only extend a few years and the operation would no doubt be scrutinized both by environmental groups and local residents. “What we’re trying to do takes a lot of capital and commitment,” says O’Hanlon in a profile by National Geographic.

But there’s more to Open Blue than just there methods – they are also making investments in the fish of the future. It’s an inevitability at this point that our favorite fish to consume (salmon, trout, bass) take a lot of energy (and resources) to produce. As the state of the oceans change and resources grow more scant, we will have to look to more efficient fish to feed our families. That’s where cobia come into the picture. Growing to full size in one third the time it takes salmon and diverse enough to be used in a number of cuisines, cobia seem like a solid bet for the kind of fish that will end up taking the place of our current favorites, and its cobia that Open Blue has chosen to focus on. Their operation is still young and the reality is that cobia still has a ways to go before it topples salmon as the people’s fishy champion, but the math is encouraging. Open Blue ships nearly 250 tons of fish out across the world every month, and last year, their demand outpaced their supply for the first time.

Final Boarding Call

via PixaBay

via PixaBay


I don’t try to describe the future. I try to prevent it. – Ray Bradbury

Those Cassandras at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change are at it again. The United Nations body reviews the latest scientific and economic research on climate change and issues reports on its findings about twice a decade. Back in 2007 it shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore for its efforts to promote greater knowledge about man-made climate change. At the time it won the prize the Panel declared, “Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt”. Its latest report  comes to essentially the same conclusion, but underlined, bolded, written in red, and italicized.

The IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report provides  what it describes as the most up to date view of the current state of scientific knowledge about climate change. Man made warming of the climate, it says, is unequivocal and the changes are unprecedented over millennia. The atmosphere has warmed, the amounts of snow and ice have diminished, sea levels have risen, the concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen dramatically, with much of the extra carbon absorbed by the oceans leading to dramatically increased acidity. Most aspects of climate change, it warns, will persist for many centuries even if emissions of CO2 are stopped, representing a substantial multi-century climate challenge.

The report states that dealing with climate change demands global cooperation, but makes plain that economic competition and cultural resistance have so far undermined effective collective action.

The report recognizes that different actors (countries, interest groups, and industries) will balance the risks and costs of climate change in different ways. It leans heavily in favor of a carbon taxes on the general principle that mitigation policies that raise government revenue generally have lower social costs than approaches which do not.  It also makes a strong case for blanket reductions in carbon energy subsidies and policies that encourage the private sector to play a central role in limiting emissions as it has in creating them. It also details that mitigation, while enormously expensive, pales in comparison with the vast and unpredictable costs failure to act will entail. All in all it concludes that, absent immediate action, failure to act – and act now – will make reigning in potentially catastrophic temperatures an impossibility.

Strip away the report’s diplomatic language and it is, in essence, a claxon. Act now or face potentially disastrous climatic changes within the century. “We cannot afford to lose another decade,” says Ottmar Edenhofer, a German economist and co-chairman of the committee that wrote the report. “If we lose another decade, it becomes extremely costly to achieve climate stabilization.”

Last month one of the giants of American journalism passed away. Jonathan Schell was the author of one of the most influential books I have ever read. Published at one of the darkest points of the cold war when the threat of nuclear annihilation seemed omnipresent, The Fate of The Earth described in paradoxically lyrical terms the growing potential and mind-numbing consequences of a full fledged nuclear war between the United States and the Soviet Union. I vividly recall the title of one of the chapters describing the state of the world in the wake of such a catastrophe: A Republic of Insects and Grass.   “Usually, people wait for things to occur before trying to describe them,” Schell wrote in the book’s opening section. “But since we cannot afford under any circumstances to let a holocaust occur, we are forced in this one case to become the historians of the future — to chronicle and commit to memory an event that we have never experienced and must never experience.”

With our invention of weapons of inconceivable fury, humanity entered a stage of development akin to a teenager grappling with the concept of suicide: The atom bomb confronted humanity with the prospect of causing its own extinction. For the first time in our species’ history it was possible for us to willfully bring about our own demise. In that context, Schell’s book electrified the public and gave an enormous boost to the anti-nuclear movement. As a catalyst for shaping mankind’s perception of the peril it faced, Schell’s book is perhaps matched only John Hersey’s reporting  on Hiroshima for the New Yorker in 1946.

As with nuclear weapons, the profound changes we are imposing on the earth confront us with the possibility of collective self-extinction. It also represents a collective failure of imagination. It isn’t just politics and economics which hinder global action. After millennia of being at the mercy of nature’s capriciousness, it is hard to grasp the reality that it is we who now pose our own existential threat. The mind balks at the notion that man, insignificant man, could threaten his own survival by altering the environment to suit his needs and desires.

The IPCC Report is no Fate of the Earth. But it’s a start, and the material it contains supports the argument laid out in a book which may be the environmental movement’s equivalent of Schell’s call to arms. I will report on that book in the weeks ahead.

In the meantime, the IPCC says if you want to catch the train to a livable future, it’s time to get on board.

New EPA Regulations Put Much-Needed Safety Measures on Pesticide Use

Photo by Michael D. Heckman. Some rights reserved.

Photo by Michael D. Heckman. Some rights reserved.

Late last week, the EPA released a pre-publication copy of a Federal Register proposed rule increasing safety measures surrounding pesticide use by agricultural workers and farmers. The new standards would impose new restrictions and requirements in an effort to better protect America’s 2-million strong agricultural workforce. Seems like a good time to do so – the last time the standards were updated was 1992, and obviously a lot has changed, agricultural-technology wise and everything-else wise, in the last two decades. As it stands, 12,000 workers are afflicted with acute pesticide poisoning in the U.S. every year, and it’s been suggested that this figure is actually a very conservative estimate, as cases of poisoning go extremely under-reported.

The new protocol as set forth in the EPA’s proposed rule will require a yearly training course on pesticide use and safety for all agricultural workers (the old standards required these only every five years), which seems like a no brainer. They also require farms that use pesticides to construct “buffer zones” around the area where pesticides are used to protect those nearby from drifting toxins, and for No Entry signs to be put up in these areas. So far so good! Perhaps the most significant restriction imposed by the new rules is that agricultural workers must now be 16 years of age or older to work on a farm that uses pesticides (family farms being the exception). Of course, this may also be the hardest component of the rule to implement, without creating some sort of expensive task force to go farm to farm and enforce it.

The rules will now enter a 90-day comment period following their publication in the Federal Register. The EPA hopes to publish the final rule by next year.

Reminder – Anecdotes Are Not Data

via Wikipedia

via Wikipedia

Much of the eastern United States has been smothered in snow this week. Not one, but two massive storms dumped up to eight inches of freeze from Kansas through New England. Along with the storm clouds has come the usual carping and snide commentary – how can there be global warming when it’s so cold and fluffy outside? Never mind the averages, I’m in a parka and gloves shoveling my sidewalk so, ipso facto, global warming doesn’t exist. Take that, pointy-headed scientists! Besides, Al Gore wears earth tone sweaters. This kind of junior high school taunting follows cold snaps as predictably as blue skies follow rain. The media then dutifully report the snark and remind us that scientists say any particular weather incident can’t be linked directly to global warming. 

So the whoppers that blanketed the eastern seaboard are two anecdotes about the climate. California’s record heat and drought are also  anecdotes. Here’s another from the great frozen north: temperatures in Alaska have soared this winter. Record warmth has been recorded across the state, a condition a national weather service spokesman describes as “spectacular.” Ski resorts have shut down and sledding races have been postponed or cancelled. Even the famed Iditarod is being altered because the lack of snow and ice makes its traditional route too dangerous. Plants are putting out green shoots. In January. In Alaska.

But those are just anecdotes. Don’t draw any conclusions from them. After all, it’s really cold in Boston.

Farm Bill Passes the Senate


Photo by tvanhoosear. Some rights reserved.

After two years of alterations and arguments, the farm bill has finally been approved by the Senate  by a vote of 68-32. The bill the Senate passed on Tuesday afternoon is the same bill that the House committee accepted last week, a final version that represents a bi-partisan compromise on the original bill. As President Obama acknowledged, the version that is on it’s way to his desk for signature “isn’t perfect – but on the whole, it will make a positive difference not only for the rural economies that grow America’s food, but for our nation.” A signing ceremony is planned for this Friday at Michigan State University.

The bill allocates $1 trillion in spending over the next decade. Its major components, and some of the major points of contrition, involve alterations to the commodities program to provide more agri-benefits to farmers, and $8 billion in cuts to the national food stamp program. Other fund allocations include $8 billion in expansions of crop insurance for farmers, and $125 million for a “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” at the USDA. While the bill seems to go a long ways towards providing expanded coverage and benefits to agribusiness, the cuts to food stamps (as well as other budget cuts like the elimination of a $5 billion crop subsidy program that allowed farmers to claim insurance whether they were actually growing crops or not) are expected to generate $23 billion in savings over the next ten years.

Needless to say, not everyone is happy about the bill being so close to being passed, and many readily admit it’s far from perfect. You can find specifics of exactly how the money in the bill will be spent as well as some of the more minor and interesting points of the bill at Modern Farmer and the Washington Post (as well as everywhere else on the internet, those are just two articles I found particularly enlightening).

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