Energy & the Environment

Eric Schlosser, Bard of Folly

AP Images/John S. Zeedick
I t took decades after the invention of nuclear weapons for today’s taboos against them to take hold. Some witnesses to the first nuclear explosions apprehended their horror immediately. Some planners, civilian and military, fell in love. In the 1950s and 1960s, the U.S. built nuclear reactors in Iran, Pakistan, and dozens of other countries; in the 1960s and 1970s, the Atomic Energy Commission made plans to use nuclear explosions to dig a canal in Nicaragua and carve a pass-through in the California mountains for Interstate 40. Influential strategists like Herman Kahn were enthralled by the potential of nuclear weapons to reshape the world. On Thermonuclear War , Kahn’s best-known book, contains scenarios not only for how nuclear weapons would work in World War III but also in World Wars IV, V, VI, and VII. All too often, the history of nuclear weapons has been told as a history of those schemes, a history of plans for wars that never took place. The genesis of nuclear weapons has...

Attack of the Giant Grass!

AP Photo/Allen Breed
AP Photo/Allen Breed A rundo donax towers over the tallest man's head. It's thick, bamboo-like, and three-stories tall. It can withstand cold, and it can withstand drought. Give it water, and a little nitrogen, and it grows. Fast. Killing it can be difficult. In California, where it was introduced in the 1800s, Arundo has gotten so out of control that in some places it seems to be the only plant growing on the riverbanks. It doesn’t have seeds, but it doesn't need them: it has other methods of multiplying. A fierce rainstorm can tear up its shallow roots and spread them far downstream. There, they start growing all over again. Mow it down, spray it with pesticides—it’s all futile. If any of the monstrous reeds are left upstream, they'll grow back. Arundo doesn't need to be near water to thrive, though. It grows pretty much anywhere. It grows in Oregon, Arizona, Texas, Missouri, Georgia, Florida, Maryland, Virginia—down the West Coast and across the broad swath of the southwest and...

Is the CIA on Its Way to Hacking the Sky?

Human manipulation of the climate might be the quickest way to combat global warming. It's also the most frightening.

AP Images/David J. Phillip
T he news seemed tailor-made to drive conspiracy theorists and members of the tinfoil hat club into a frenzy. In July, the National Academy of Sciences confirmed that the CIA is helping to underwrite a yearlong study examining atmospheric geoengineering—deliberate, planetary-scale manipulation of the climate to counteract global warming. As reporters took jabs at the idea of “spooks” seeking to “control the weather,” the National Academy of Sciences tried to brush away concerns. “We are not producing anything, building anything, or deploying anything. It’s more of a state-of-the-science review,” an academy spokesperson told me, noting that NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are also helping to pay for the study. Still, the CIA’s interest in geoengineering marks a turning point in the simmering debate about the controversial technology: More and more people are starting to take the once-laughable idea seriously. Both supporters and skeptics of...

Slow and Steady Wins the Anti-Keystone XL Race

AP Photo/Nacogdoches Daily Sentinel, Andrew D. Brosig
Flickr/ Elizabeth Brossa G race Cagle knew what Keystone XL’s path through Texas meant for the state’s environment. The pipeline was going to run through the post-oak savannah, a type of forest that's drying out, desertifying. It’s one of the few places in the world where the ivory-billed woodpecker—one of the world's largest woodpeckers, a bird so endangered that for years no one had seen one alive—makes its home. Cagle graduated college at the end of 2012 and had planned to get a PhD.; she was studying ecology, biology, and chemistry. But she couldn’t just sit in a classroom while Texas was in danger. So, she took a risk. She sat in a tree. She stayed there while construction crews hired by TransCanada, the company behind the Keystone XL pipeline, came and took down the trees around her. In October, TransCanada sued the group she joined, the Tar Sands Blockade, along with other organizations employing direct action against the pipeline. As the company tried to stop the blockaders,...

Burgers from the Future

This was definitely not grown in a lab. (Flickr/Simon Willison)
Let's talk meat, shall we? Americans eat a lot of it. Our cow population (or "inventory" if you prefer, as the beef industry does ) is almost 90 million, and total beef consumption in the U.S. is over 25 billion pounds. If you piled all those hamburgers in a stack, you'd have ... well, let's just say you'd have a really big stack of hamburgers. And we eat even more chicken, though a bit less pork; according to the National Chicken Council (unofficial motto: "B'cawk!"), total beef, pork, and poultry consumption adds up to more than 200 pounds a year for every waddling man, woman, and child in this great nation of ours. To a lot of people, even those who aren't vegetarians, industrial meat production is a moral compromise at best (and I say that as someone who does eat some kinds of meat). Most of us would just rather not think about the process that produced our chicken cutlet or burger. But what if you could produce the meat without actually killing an animal? And I don't mean some...

Progressives' Post-DOMA To-Do List

AP Photo/Alex Brandon, file
AP Photo/The Columbus Dispatch, Fred Squillante T wo of my favorite writers on legal subjects, Dahlia Lithwick and Barry Friedman, wrote a piece for Slate earlier this week wondering if the progressive agenda hasn't been exhausted by the victories on same-sex marriage. "While progressives were devoting deserved attention to gay rights," they argue, "they simultaneously turned their backs on much of what they once believed." I share their sense of frustration, but I interpret the landscape differently. To me, the problem isn't the lack of a robust progressive agenda. The problem is that progressives generally lack power. Last week, I saw strong defenses of progressive values at every level of politics—from ordinary citizens to the highest offices in the country. In a brief window of time, you saw heroic opposition to barbaric attacks on the welfare state in North Carolina and reproductive freedom in Texas, President Obama's climate change speech , and eloquent defenses of equality by...

The Danger in Our Water Supply

A dairy farm with 2,500 cows produces as much waste as Miami. FairWarning investigates how that puts our water supply in danger.

Rex Images via AP Photo
Kate Golden, Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism This investigation was conducted by FairWarning ( www.fairwarning.org ) a Los Angeles-based nonprofit investigative news organization focused on public health and safety issues. A s factory farms take over more and more of the nation’s livestock production, a major environmental threat has emerged: Pollution from the waste produced by the immense crush of animals. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that America’s livestock create three times as much excreta as the human population. By the agency’s reckoning , a dairy farm with 2,500 cows—which is large, but not exceptional—can generate as much waste as the people in a city the size of Miami. Yet unlike human waste, which often receives sophisticated treatment, animal waste commonly goes untreated. It is typically held in underground pits or vast manure lagoons, and then spread on cropland as fertilizer. It’s been this way for decades, but worries have grown along...

A River Runs Through It

Everyone agrees that the only way to fix the Gulf of Mexico dead zone—the largest off the United States—is to fix the Mississippi, but not everyone agrees how. 

Dennis Chamberlin
Dennis Chamberlin This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network , an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health. T o get an idea of how American coastal waters might look just before they succumb to all the degradations they have suffered these past five centuries, it would be worth taking a July trip to Mobile Bay, an Alabama inlet that feeds into the Gulf of Mexico. If the air is still and hot, an event may occur that Gulf Coast residents call a “jubilee.” The bottom-dwelling flounder will be among its first victims, growing agitated as each successive gulp of water brings less and less oxygen across their gills. In a panic, the fish will head shoreward toward the only breathable water they can find—the tiny oxygenated riffle the sea makes as it bumps lazily against the beach. At the shoreline, they will find humans waiting for them armed with “gigs,” crude...

I Don't Think We're in Kansas Anymore, Keystone

Flickr/350.org
AP Photo/Elise Amendola I t’s rare for environmental organizations to lead outside spending in an election. Even the largest don't have that much cash to burn. But in last month's Senate primary in Massachusetts, no other interest group spent more. 350.org Action Fund, the young political arm of the climate campaign group 350.org, picked this as its first race and dropped just over $50,000 during the primary. Hedge-funder Tom Steyer's NextGen Committee spent more than $500,000, according to the Federal Election C ommission—almost half of which went to the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). The LCV contributed a fair bit of its own money on the race, too, with its total spending ringing in around $850,000. All of this money went to support Representative Edward J. Markey or to oppose Representative Stephen Lynch, the two main candidates in the primary to choose which Democrat would vie for John Kerry’s old Senate seat. When climate change was on Congress’s radar, Markey was a leader...

Don't Give Up on Green Tech Yet

flickr/Chris Wevers
W hen in 2008 George W. Bush signed the law creating the Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program (ATVM), which gives loans to car companies investing in green tech, conservatives were outraged. They took to talk radio to express their dismay, they introduced bills to dismantle the program, they poured contempt on Bush for trying to "pick winners and losers" with a bunch of hippie-mobiles running on patchouli and idealistic delusions. I'm just kidding, of course. Conservatives didn't actually do those things. It was only when Barack Obama took office in 2009 that they discovered their antipathy to the ATVM (though their dislike of electric cars was evident long before). The program got some scrutiny last week when the House Oversight Committee held a hearing on the dire straits of Fisker Automotive, the recipient of a Department of Energy loan. Despite the fact that a number of the Republicans on the committee, including chairman Darrel Issa, had previously requested...

The Keystone Fight's Labor Pains

The battle over the tar sands pipeline among unions has been XL on drama.

AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File
AP Photo/Nati Harnik “F or too long we have allowed some corporations to hold a gun to our heads and demand that we choose jobs or choose the earth.” That’s what Terry O’Sullivan, the general president of the Laborers International Union of North America, told green groups and fellow unions at a green-jobs conference in February 2009, just a few months after the union—one of the largest in the country—joined the Blue-Green Alliance, a group organized to advocate for a “clean economy.” But by January 2012, O’Sullivan had made a choice. The climate bill had failed, the money from the recovery act had run out, political tides had turned against government spending, and the union was no longer so keen to partner with the environmental movement. “We’re repulsed by some of our supposed brothers and sisters lining up with job killers like the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council to destroy the lives of working men and women,” O’Sullivan said. This heady “job killer” rhetoric...

It's Not Easy Being Green

Flickr/CREDO Action/
Flickr/Takver A bout a year ago, on March 26, 2012, Sandra Steingraber, an environmental writer and activist against natural-gas fracking, wrote a public letter titled “Breaking Up with the Sierra Club.” Breakups are never easy, and the letter, published on the website of the nature magazine Orion , was brutal from the start: “I’m through with you,” Steingraber began. The proximate cause of the split was the revelation that between 2007 and 2010 the nation’s oldest environmental organization had clandestinely accepted $26 million from individuals or subsidiaries associated with Chesapeake Energy, a major gas firm that has been at the forefront of the fracking boom. “The largest, most venerable environmental organization in the United States secretly aligned with the very company that seeks to occupy our land, turn it inside out, blow it apart, fill it with poison,” Steingraber wrote. “It was as if, on the eve of D-day, the anti-Fascist partisans had discovered that Churchill was...

The Once and Future Gov

AP Photo/Eric Risberg
AP Photo/Eric Risberg A merica’s most futuristic governor seems borne back ceaselessly into the past these days. As he shows me around his office on a crisp winter morning, California Governor Jerry Brown points out not just the desk that his father, Edmund “Pat” Brown, used during his own term as governor from 1959 to 1967 but also photos of his grandparents and his great-grandfather, who came to California in the gold rush years. “He knew John Sutter,” Brown says. The only two governors in the past half-century who were native Californians, he points out, were he and his father. At 74, Brown has lost little of the intensity that impressed and occasionally discomfited voters during his first tenure as governor nearly 40 years ago. His outfit—an open-collar shirt under a white pullover sweater, blue jeans—may be West Coast casual, his shaved head may call to mind the Zen monks with whom he’s studied, but Brown’s emotional repertoire does not include laid-back, except when he’s talking...

What We'll Be Talking about in 2016

AP Photo/Mark Hirsch
Yes, pundits of all stripes are already starting to handicap the presidential fields for 2016. Yes, that’s a long time from now … although we are under three years to the Iowa Caucuses, and probably just about two years from the first debates, so it’s not all that long. More to the point: as long as the candidates are running—and they are—there’s no reason to pretend the contest hasn’t started yet. While the identity of the next Democratic and Republican nominees is important, what’s even more important is what they intend to do if elected. Indeed: the nomination process is important because it’s how parties sort out their differences and make decisions about who they are, and what kinds of public policy they support. Moreover, the nomination process is the best chance for groups and individuals within the party to have a chance of affecting what the party will do if it wins. In general elections with huge electorates, there’s not much one person can do that makes any difference. In...

A Voice for Climate, 40,000 Strong

Jaime Fuller
Drew Angerer/SIPA via AP Images A llison Chin, president of the Sierra Club, knows now is the moment to think big on climate. It’s been a year of “records”: A record number of droughts have hit towns across the country, record temperatures slowly roast the planet, and storms have left record amounts of snow and rain in their wake. Finally, too, a record number of people have conceded that we’re changing the environment for the worse. “Mothers, fathers, grandparents, children, businessmen, people of the faith—it’s not just environmentalists that are affected by this,” Chin says. She knows that environmentalists need to be practical—they need concrete demands that all people left adrift by a changing climate can endorse. But facing such long odds and high stakes, how can they be anything but ardent about the environment? Yesterday’s climate rally, which supporters billed as the largest in history, proved a near perfect mix of the practical and the passionate. Facing a chilly February...

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