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Victory! California guv signs bill to protect clotheslines

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Earlier this year, I wrote about a story in San Francisco in which a landlord was trying to evict several tenants over what is a pretty common sight in the city’s Chinatown: laundry, air-drying outside of apartment windows. The attempt was unsuccessful — but it got people wondering. How was it possible that anyone could forbid something as energy-efficient as letting the sun — a huge ball of incandescent gas that just hangs out in the sky, free of charge — dry people’s laundry?

That wondering can now stop, because Jerry Brown, governor of California, just a few days after signing a landmark bill to tackle climate change, signed another bill, AB 1448, which aims to make California a more welcoming place to those people who want to let their underpants fly high outside their apartment window.

AB 1448 was sponsored by Assemblywoman Patty Lopez (D-San Fernando), who used a previous ordinance allowing apartment-dwellers to engage in “personal agriculture” (that is: growing food in the space they rent) as a precedent for arguing that, well, laundry is not a crime. “Growing up, my family and many of my neighbors used clotheslines as the way to dry their clothes and other laundry,” López wrote in a press release about the legislation. “Californians can now do their part for the environment while saving money on their electric bill.”

This isn’t the first time that California has tried to legalize line-drying. When AB 1448 passed, California was already one of 19 “Right to Dry” states across the country, which meant that local governments couldn’t pass bans on line-drying. In reality, though, the old “Right to Dry” was pretty bourgeois: It didn’t extend to apartments, condominiums, trailer parks, or anywhere with a homeowners’ association agreement.

This meant that people who owned their own property could air-dry without fear, while a lot of the lower and middle-income people who would be most motivated to line-dry found themselves blocked by landlords or homeowners’ associations who saw clotheslines as a sign of disorder and poverty.

AB 1448 isn’t quite carte blanche to cover the urban landscape with laundry. The legislation emphasizes, repeatedly, that line-drying is not about creative use of existing building infrastructure.

(1) “Clothesline” includes a cord, rope, or wire from which laundered items may be hung to dry or air. A balcony, railing, awning, or other part of a structure or building shall not qualify as a clothesline.

(2) “Drying rack” means an apparatus from which laundered items may be hung to dry or air. A balcony, railing, awning, or other part of a structure or building shall not qualify as a drying rack.

It also leaves a few loopholes for a determined landlord to stymie laundry efforts on the part of tenants. Tenants have to ask permission first to install a clothesline, and a landlord can veto one if it interferes “with maintenance of the rental property.”

Still, this is a step in the right direction. Congratulations, California. In your honor, I will fly a damp dishtowel outside my window (but not from a balcony, railing, awning, or other part of my structure or building).

Filed under: Article, Cities, Living, Politics

New York’s JFK airport has an urban farm. Wait, what?

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The potatoes in your bag of complimentary airline chips could someday come from a farm at — surprise! — New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Outside JetBlue Airways’ Terminal 5, a few thousand black plastic crates form raised beds for an urban garden. USA Today reports:

Designed to promote New York agriculture and add a bit more green space to the airport, the 24,000-square-foot T5 farm is growing produce, herbs, and the same blue potatoes used to make the Terra Blues potato chips JetBlue offers year-round as complimentary snacks to passengers during flights.

“In today’s world of genetically modified and franken-foods, it is very important to know where your food comes from,” said Brian Holtman, JetBlue’s manager of concession programs, at a farm “reveal” on Thursday. “By creating a farm at T5, we can show crew members and customers exactly where their food is coming from.”

This fledging farm-to-airplane-tray movement has a long way to go. It takes between one and three potatoes to produce each bag of JetBlue chips, according to CBS, and JetBlue hands out 5.8 million bags each year. The potatoes grown in the airport’s garden (smaller than half a football field) would meet less than 1 percent of that demand, CBS points out. That’s not the plan for right now anyway: The farm will provide produce for the terminal’s restaurants.

Starting an urban garden at an airport wasn’t easy. Since encounters between wildlife and airplanes are costly, the plants were specially selected to attract bees and butterflies — and not heftier fauna. In addition, the garden’s plastic crates were bolted to the ground to ensure the garden could withstand the force of an earthquake or Katrina-level-hurricane.

So the question remains: Why? The company hopes that this unlikely farming experiment will improve air quality around the terminal and educate the garden’s visitors in addition to providing airport food.

However, when compared to the huge carbon footprint of air travel (which accounts for 2.5 percent of global emissions), the garden is small potatoes.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Food, Living

Even as House descends into chaos, it manages to do big favor for Big Oil

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You thought the House of Representatives was mired in dysfunction, unable to find anyone competent to accept the miserable burden of serving as speaker and corralling the truculent Tea Party caucus. You heard that congressional Republicans are hopelessly divided between their mainstream and far-right wings, incapable of keeping the government running and now descending into total chaos.

Well, it turns out the House is working just fine and Republicans have found one thing they can all agree upon: deregulating the oil industry. Of course, the particular action they’ve just taken serves no purpose other than to fatten a few oil companies’ bottom lines.

On Friday, the House passed, on a 261 to 159 vote, a bill to end the ban on exporting crude oil. (Twenty-six Democrats joined with virtually all Republicans in supporting it.) This is an idea that has been growing in popularity among Republicans and a handful of oil-state Democrats over the last few years, since the shale oil boom has dramatically expanded domestic oil production. Oil companies have been lobbying aggressively for it.

If the ban were lifted, it would be bad news for the environment. As I explained last year:

The bigger profits to be gained from exporting crude oil would incentivize companies to drill more in the U.S. That means more oil contamination of our domestic environment — see, for example, the increasingly frequent oil-hauling train explosions — and more CO2 emissions when that oil is inevitably burned.

“The environmentalists’ end objective is to leave it all in the ground,” explains Public Citizen’s energy program director Tyson Slocum. “The more difficulties [oil companies] have, the less incentive there is for additional production. It has a downward pressure on production.” In this case, the crude export ban is a difficulty, and eliminating it would therefore encourage more drilling and fracking.

Put another way, the prospect of higher prices from foreign refiners would give oil companies more of an economic incentive to go after hard-to-reach supplies. It was only after oil prices rose in recent years that oil companies found it worthwhile to engage in the dirty, energy-intensive process of extracting oil from the Canadian tar sands.

Forcing oil companies to refine their crude oil into gasoline on U.S. soil before exporting it is not an efficient way of combatting climate change. If we had a strong mechanism in place to phase out oil usage, like a suitably high global carbon tax, then a ban on exports would be a lousy policy. But in the absence of a carbon tax, it is best to restrict fossil fuel development through any means possible. That means we should keep the crude oil export ban in place. Repealing it is just a giveaway to oil companies that would hurt the climate and the broader environment. It might be worth trading with the oil industry and its congressional Republican lackeys for a pro-environment policy of equal or greater value, but otherwise climate hawks should oppose lifting the export ban.

And oppose it they have. Environmental groups blasted the vote. Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune called it a “thinly veiled attempt to sell out the American public to Big Oil.”

Fortunately, the bill doesn’t look likely to become law. It may not pass the Senate, and even if does, President Obama has threatened to veto it.

Hillary Clinton, for her part, opposes lifting the ban without “a broader energy plan that does include concessions from the oil and gas industry.” It’s unclear exactly what concessions she has in mind, but one example suggested by the White House is eliminating tax breaks for oil drillers. North Dakota Democratic Sen. Heidi Heitkamp wants to attach renewable energy development incentives to the bill.

The crude oil ban has the potential to turn into another Keystone XL fight, in which both sides dig in their heels over the symbolism. Unlike building Keystone, however, this proposal doesn’t poll well. One poll last year found that 69 percent of voters, including 61 percent of Republicans, don’t want the U.S. to export more oil abroad. Republican politicians may push the bill hard during the election cycle, but that would reflect their need to appeal to deep-pocketed fossil fuel industry donors rather than to average voters.

If this all depresses you even more about the state of American democracy, then look on the bright side: At least Republicans aren’t threatening to shut down the government if Obama doesn’t sign the bill. Yet.

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

Solar power access looking a lot brighter in California

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An important part of all the talk around renewable energy is how we can make it accessible to everyone, and not just the fortunate few who prefer Teslas with their Dom Perignon. But in California, they’re doing more than just talking about it — they’re making it happen on a larger scale than anywhere else in the country.

On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown signed bill AB 693, which designates $100 million to installing solar power equipment in low-income communities over the next 10 years. Thanks to the bill, 215,000 multifamily affordable housing units will have solar panels installed. Low-income families who use solar power will also be eligible to get credit for lower utility costs.

In a press release, Strela Cervas, the co-director of California Environmental Justice Alliance, stated:

While low-­income communities and communities of color have long been locked out of the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy, AB 693 will bridge this green divide. It will infuse low-­income communities with health and economic benefits by lowering utility bills and creating clean energy in some of the communities that have been most impacted by pollution.

AB 693 is one of three bills in the environmental justice package signed this week by Brown. Another adds two representatives to California’s Air Resources Board from communities overburdened by pollution and environmental degradation, and the third details a policy that would bring income from penalty fines directly to the same such communities.

Despite that whole massive drought and being on fire thing, the Golden State is looking pret-ty good this week. We’re a little jealous over here in New York — and California already had the far superior unofficial state anthem, so this is just getting unfair.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics

Pour a glass of booze and saddle up for this week’s birth control news

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October is, quite possibly, my favorite month — and one that, this time around, has put motherhood on my mind. No! Not like that. For starters, my mother’s birthday is in October (feliz cumple, Mom). And every Sunday of this month, I get to rest easy knowing that the NFL is fighting the good fight against breast cancer, which killed my grandmother, by requiring its players to don cleats dyed my least-favorite color and donating an eensy fraction of its revenue to medical research. Thanks, Goodell!

When my grandmother was my age — and already had a kid (❤ you, Dad) — the Pill was just in its developing stages. In my mother’s mid-20s, Roe v. Wade was fresh out of the Supreme Court. I wonder if either of them would have thought that today, in 2015, the question of women being free to decide what to do with their own bodies — of having a choice when it comes to motherhood — would still be up for debate.

Well, it is, and that blows, but let’s talk about it. Because October is still the most perfect month, your chasers for this week commemorate some of my — and hopefully your! — favorite things about it.

Curious why we’re writing about access to reproductive healthcare? Watch this video.

Shot: This week, The Guardian had a fantastic piece on Amanda Kimbrough, an Alabama mother who was imprisoned for the stillbirth of her son. Her story is a heartbreaking example of why the personhood movement can be so damaging.

Chaser: It’s sweater weather, y’all — you know what that means:

Shot: A new study from Texas confirms that increasing wait times to get abortions by shutting down clinics results in more late-term abortions — which not only carry greater health risks and financial burden, but are regularly under attack by conservative legislators.

Chaser: Steelers fandom is pretty much ingrained in my people from birth, but football culture is pretty fucked up! Let Amy Poehler’s parody of the best TV show that ever existed explain:

Shot: Here’s a reminder that the Supreme Court is likely gearing up to revisit the question of whether your employer can deny you contraception coverage based on religious belief.

Chaser: Fall is for eating things you actually enjoy, like a child’s birthday cake. (Not a specific child — that’s rude — just a birthday cake intended for children.) This one — which I once made for my housemate’s 25th birthday, so I can confirm it works for adults — is fucking good, and also has apples in it, which are healthy. You’re welcome.

And to close things out, some encouraging news of mice and men (sorry): The responsibility of birth control could finally start to shift toward men with a new study performed on mice, which provides evidence of a protein-blocker that could be the key ingredient in a male birth control pill.

Filed under: Living, Politics

Media disaster reporting can throw a wrench in the way you process disaster risk

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The last time I read about a BASE-jumping accident, I remember thinking to myself, Huh, BASE jumping. I could use a little more adrenaline in my life. Maybe I should give that a shot. And thanks to science, now I can take solace in the fact that this kind of baseless (sorry), idiotic risk-accounting isn’t that rare: A new study in Nature Climate Change suggests that reporting on natural disasters can actually encourage people to move to more dangerous places. Way to go, brains! (Spoiler alert: I still have yet to BASE jump and likely never will — largely because it’s an objectively dumb thing to do — but I did rent a canoe last weekend, which has to count for something.)

Natural disasters have cropped up in the news a lot lately. And for good reason: There are plenty of them out there. To get at the question of how these reports affect people’s risk perceptions, researchers from Australia, the U.K., and Israel designed a psychological experiment that allowed study participants to make decisions about where to live, given fake reports of disaster frequency and location.

Participants were awarded points for living in one of three different villages, with more points awarded for riskier situations — akin to, say, a beachfront home generally being lovely, except for when those pesky hurricanes start wreaking havoc. Lead author Ben Newell explains the experiment over at The Conversation:

One group only found out if their own dwelling was hit, a second group found out if any of the dwellings in their village was hit, and a third group found out if any dwellings in either risky village were affected.

These three groups were designed to mimic information people could get in real life from personal experience, local sources, or from afar via media or authorities.

The key result was that the third group – people given the most information about recently experienced or avoided disasters – took more risks and were more likely to choose regions prone to disasters.

Getting full information about all the villages, as is possible in real life through media and authorities, appeared to reinforce for people that “most of the time nothing bad happens in the risky areas”.

There’s also a good amount of empirical evidence out there for this kind of effect. Newell cites a study suggesting that new home buyers after the Loma Prieta earthquake “reduced their assessment of risk as information concerning the location and rate of earthquakes” was released. “A similar pattern was found following the Tohoku tsunami of 2011, with unaffected residents exhibiting lowered risk perception about the heights of waves warranting evacuation,” he writes.

Anecdotally, there’s also the fact that here in the Seattle Grist office, we chose to laugh off the news of impending Pacific Northwest earthquake doom, hunker down at our standing desks, and order another round of doughnuts instead. (To be fair, there’s a pretty great doughnut place across the street.)

Part of what’s going on here is that people are generally just kind of awful at estimating risk. Probabilities mean different things for different people, and we rarely take time into account when assessing these probabilities, anyway. The field of behavioral economics is rife with examples of poor risk accounting. Low probabilities, in particular, are usually overestimated. There’s also that tricky gut feeling that says, “Oh, that will never happen to me.”

“Statements often seen in the media such as a ‘one-in-50 or one-in-100-year’ event could lead people to assume, incorrectly, that there won’t be another event for 49 or 99 years,” writes Newell. “This perception is compounded by their typical daily experience of nothing bad happening.”

The solution? “Risk messages need instead to focus on the accumulation of events and the increase in their associated risks across time,” writes Newell. “For example, people should be reminded how many major floods or severe fire days occurred between specific points in time – such as ‘four events between 1900 and 1949,’ or ‘ten events between 1950 and 2000.'”

Of course, we could also just try to develop the common sense not to move to disaster areas. And if that’s too much to ask — which seems likely — the least we could do is invest in real risk management. That means actually implementing tsunami preparation advice, demanding that buildings are up to the latest earthquake codes, and using sound landscaping techniques and maximizing defensible space in the event of wildfires. For many of us, climate change is already here. We ought to be ready for its effects.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Living

Trump heads to U.K. supreme court over wind farm spoiling his precious view

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Donald Trump took a moment out of his busy schedule making a mockery of American politics to take a battle over wind farms to the U.K.’s supreme court.

The backstory: In 2006, Trump bought land north of Aberdeen, Scotland, promising to construct the world’s finest golf resort out of the area’s natural sand dunes. Local authorities, unimpressed with Trump’s blather, denied his plans, but the Scottish government overruled their decision and America’s future oligarch was allowed to proceed. Trump International Golf Links was competed in 2012.

But when Scotland decided to construct a wind farm in sight of Trump’s resort, and the man with the spider silk hair was, to put it mildly, displeased. Trump accused Scottish ministers of illegally approving the clean energy project and sued. He lost. In June of this year, three senior judges in Edinburgh dismissed his attempt to block the wind farm.

“Today’s written judgment is no surprise,” a Trump spokesperson said after the ruling. “It’s impossible to have a fair hearing challenging windfarm applications in Scotland. We have already instructed our legal team to commence an appeal before both the supreme court of the U.K. and the European courts.”

And that brings us to now, with Trump appealing the lower court’s decision to the U.K.’s supreme court, which, one hopes, has more important things to worry about that the view from a billionaire’s golf course.

The Guardian reports:

Lang Banks, director of WWF Scotland, said: “Donald Trump should be using his vast wealth to do good instead of trying kill off initiatives that will create jobs, boost the economy and help cut carbon emissions. Once up and running, this test facility will be ideally placed to help test the technologies needed to harness Scotland’s huge offshore renewables potential, ensuring learning by industry, and playing an important role in helping to drive down costs.”

A personal message on Trump’s golf course website declares: “When I saw this piece of land I was overwhelmed by the imposing dunes and rugged Aberdeenshire coastline. I knew that this was the perfect site for Trump International, Scotland. I have never seen such an unspoiled and dramatic seaside landscape and the location makes it perfect for our development.”

It’s unclear why anyone would see an unspoiled and dramatic seaside landscape and think, “You know what this needs, a fucking golf course.” But, as columnist Ian Jack wrote earlier this year, “In golf there are now many worse things than the club bore, and one of them is Donald Trump.”

Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

California bans microbeads, fish rejoice

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California is now the latest state in the nation to bad microbeads, those little ball thingies in your face wash. The problem with microbeads, as you may recall, is that they are too small for water treatment plants to filter, so they wash down drains and into bodies of water. They then become breakfast for some unsuspecting fish. But even if you hate fish and want them to suffer, plastic isn’t good for your belly either — which is exactly where it’ll end up when you have a Nemo sandwich for lunch.

California joins six other states in restricting the beads — including Colorado, Illinois, Indiana, Maine, Maryland, and New Jersey — but the Golden State’s outright ban is the strongest in the nation, and includes biodegradable microbeads. Biodegradable microbeads may sound like a good alternative, but they are made from bio-polymers that could also introduce toxins into the food chain.

So what will life after microbeads be like? Can you survive in a post-microbead world? Sure you can — take it from us, there’s plenty of ways to look good without hurting the planet.


Filed under: Article, Living

Self-driving cars are good. Too good

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Guys, we’re so not ready for the future. The chrome-plated, fuel-efficient, robot-everything future we’ve been working toward? Trust me, we can’t handle it.

Exhibit A: Engineers at Google have been running road tests with a fleet of some 20 autonomous vehicles for six years, and in that time the robo-drivers have been involved in 11 “minor incidents.” I know what you’re thinking: “Not bad! I’d like to see the average human driver cover a million miles without getting into a scrape or 11.”

But with the sensory data of an omniscient god and reflexes that make the rest of us looks like drunk, mitten-handed babies, how did the autonomous fleet get in so much as a single fender bender?

Well, it comes back to said mitten-handed babies. Just because Google’s cars are extremely good at avoiding accidents doesn’t mean they can keep US from hitting THEM. In many of the 11 recorded incidents, a driverless car edging into an intersection or hesitating at a stop sign was rear-ended by an overeager human driver behind it.

That’s right. The robots are here, and they drive like my gran. Where a human driver, used to cruising alongside fellow jerks, might accelerate to cut into the flow of traffic, a driverless car will stop short to minimize risk. Smart? Maybe — but that doesn’t count for much if it’s too smart for the rest of us to catch on.

So we COULD all take a lesson from the robot cars and chill … or, we could program autonomous vehicles to be a little more like us. Which, in the Wall Street Journal, Google admits they’re already doing, by making their cars drive a bit more “humanistically.”

You hear that, future? Stay in your corner. Right now, we need driverless cars that can tailgate and ignore speed limits with the best of us — really, it’s for the greater good.

Filed under: Business & Technology, Science