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Stephen Colbert to the children of America: Dream of being a politician with zero grasp of science!

Grist.org - Sat, 11/08/2014 - 00:38

I’ve put it in writing before, and I’ll say it again: I love America. I really, truly do! But this week, at least, my relationship with the land of my birth has faced some dire challenges, as it seems that the governing body of this fair nation has become something of a series of practical jokes. This one is particularly hilarious (read: Please direct me to the nearest open window): The likely head of the Senate Environmental Committee is the man who literally wrote the book on climate denial — and even talked to us about it! America’s coastline, meet your reaper: James Inhofe, Oklahoma senator. (I would specify political party, but at this point it’s just redundant.)

Whenever we feel real sad, we turn to one of our would-be Grist boyfriends: Stephen Colbert. (I know it seems like we have a lot of those. Well, sea levels are rising, life is short, and we like to keep our options open!) On the much-beloved refrain of the GOP with regard to climate change, Colbert reflects: “Yes, everyone who denies man-made climate change has the same stirring message: ‘We don’t know what the f*** we’re talking about!'”

So, watch the video above, and at least a few of the tears in your Friday double bourbon (let’s be honest — this week, it’s at least a triple) will be from laughter.

Filed under: Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

Was the shocking outcome of Maryland’s gubernatorial race about rain, or something else?

Grist.org - Fri, 11/07/2014 - 23:24

Days after Republicans ethered Democrats in this year’s midterm elections, many are still scratching their heads over the Maryland’s governor race, where the once-sure-shot Democratic candidate Anthony Brown lost to Larry Hogan, the GOP’s once-sure-nobody who has never held elected office. OK, many people are not wondering about this, it’s really just me.

Maryland is one of the bluest states (Hogan is only the second Republican governor in the last 50 years) that has built a reputation for being one of the greenest on the back of its popular, twice-elected Gov. Martin O’Malley. Brown is O’Malley’s lieutenant governor of eight years, and was the governor’s appointed successor (had the electorate agreed) since O’Malley is term-limited. Brown’s platform was basically a copy-and-paste of O’Malley’s, with emphasis on education and the environment.

Brown’s advantage didn’t stop there: He had over four times as much money to spend than Hogan in a state where registered Democrats outnumber Republicans two-to-one. He led in every poll; FiveThirtyEight gave him a 94 percent chance of winning. He had the endorsement of every major Democratic stalwart in the state. President Obama came down to stump for him, for better or worse, but more importantly, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton stumped for him as well. How the hell did Brown fuck this up?

According to the dozens of commentaries I’ve read about this race, there’s almost unanimous agreement that it boiled down to this: Brown ran a very bad campaign; Hogan ran a very good campaign. As Philip Bump wrote at The Fix, “Brown lost to the candidate that the voters preferred, simple as that.”

I’ve had a hard time accepting the simplicity, but after talking to a number of political scientists, environmentalists, and residents in Maryland, I concede. OK, Brown beat himself.

But what is there to learn from what Brown did wrong and from what Hogan, apparently did right? Exploring those questions leads me to two prominent features of this race — one seen, one unseen — that have heavy implications for those of us who are concerned about transitioning toward a clean-energy, pollution-free future that’s based on justice.

Let’s take the visible feature, first:

Blame Brown’s loss on the rain:

While there were numerous reasons for why Brown’s campaign was so terrible — outlined cleanly here by blogger and former Baltimore Sun reporter Barry Rascovar — many are literally blaming it on the rain.

Specifically, some pundits, particularly at the national outlets, are pointing at Maryland’s “rain tax” as Brown’s albatross. No, Maryland does not tax its rain, but it does collect fees from homeowners and businesses to help the state manage stormwater runoff, which is one of the biggest sources of contamination in the Chesapeake Bay. Hogan’s campaign exploited angst against the stormwater management fee, rebranding it as a “rain tax,” and turned the race into a referendum on O’Malley’s tax-and-spend administration. Brown had little to do with the policy, but Hogan tagged him in every O’Malley meme as complicit.

Alec MacGillis reported in the New Republic that “every single voter” he spoke with in Baltimore County brought up the rain tax. Matt Yglesias credited it as the reason Democrats lost Maryland. A beautician named Shannon Laue derided it as a reason she voted for Hogan in the Baltimore Sun. And then there’s Kandie, an African-American woman the Hogan campaign featured in a video to further hammer the Democrats on their “tax on rain”:

The so-called rain tax is a policy created to help heal one of the most polluted harbors in the nation. The stormwater fee is required under a bill passed by state legislators and signed into law by O’Malley in 2012. It is just one part of a broad-scale strategy to help clean up the bay that involves the federal government and other states in the Chesapeake watershed like Virginia and Pennsylvania. The state is mandated by the EPA to implement strategies to curb its Chesapeake pollution.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation

The arrow you want to pay attention to in the above infographic is the one labeled “Urban & Suburban Stormwater Runoff.” The stormwater management fee is applied for the impervious surfaces such as rooftops and driveways that racetrack rainwater into our waterways, along with all the chemicals and pollution the rain picks up along the way. It’s an annual fee applied in 11 counties — the rate varies per county, but it’s $39 for a single family home in Baltimore County — the proceeds of which are used to create stormwater capture projects like rain gardens.

The policy is loved by progressives, liberals, environmentalists, and the Chesapeake’s protectors alike. And yet, it probably wasn’t the best way to handle the stormwater pollution problem. Here’s why:

1. It’s inflexible. Roy Meyers, an environmental policy professor at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, says one of the major flaws of the policy is that, “there’s no way to reduce your tax burden if you come up with ways of mitigating stormwater runoff at your home.” Meaning, for example, if you install equipment in your roof that captures the rain, preventing runoff, you still have to pay the stormwater fee. This obviously won’t endear voters.

2. It shifted the cost burdens of cleaning the Chesapeake to homeowners. Pautuxet Riverkeeper Fred Tutman was particularly miffed about this when I talked to him, saying the stormwater management fee should have been applied to real estate businesses and developers that create the impervious surfaces to begin with. “Why should [homeowners] have to pay for [real estate's] bad practices?” said Tutman, who teaches environmental law and policy at St. Mary’s College. “They put an extra bill on the end users, people who didn’t make these problems, when they know we get better environmental practices when you apply penalties on the businesses that actually build these systems.”

3. It handed Republicans a cudgel for Brown. Of the eleven counties tasked with administering the fee, a few were Republican, meaning they were against it from the gate. Combine that with the problems above and you have a recipe for disaffection and a new weapon handed to Republicans looking to fell Democrats over taxation.

So the storm water management fee didn’t do Brown any favors. But was that really enough to explain why almost 13 percent of voters from the four counties that Brown won bolted for the Republican candidate this year? Philip Bump notes that this strongly suggests that Brown’s loss can’t be explained purely by low voter turnout, but rather by O’Malley voters shifting support to the GOP. Which leads me to the unseen feature of this race.

Brown’s skin color wasn’t a factor, which means it was.

On a public radio roundtable about this race the other day, one of the panelists (I don’t have his name or a link — sorry I was driving) brought up that Brown downplayed race — his blackness — in this campaign. Instead, he trumpeted his qualifications as a Harvard-trained lawyer and his military experience. In 2010, the prominent African-American candidate Artur Davis ran for governor in Alabama downplaying his blackness as well. He lost.

One of the listed reasons why Brown’s campaign ran so poorly is that people barely saw him. He didn’t show up for debates, held few press conferences, evaded reporters, and disappeared this summer, according to Rascovar.

Was this a deliberate thing? Did his campaign staff and consultants think it was a good idea to keep Brown out of the public eye, possibly so voters would forget that he was black? I know the question itself sounds silly. Still, if O’Malley became popular for constantly attending public events and pressing the flesh, why didn’t the campaign staff push Brown to do the same?

Regardless, Brown lost despite the fact that his campaign was the policy twin of O’Malley’s. But as Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin told the Washington Post, “The bottom fell out among white voters in Baltimore County.”

Were white Democrats really so hot about the “rain tax” that they threw their party under the bus for a Republican political novice? If so, why didn’t Maryland voters have any complaints about the $2.6 million in public campaign funds Hogan took from the state to run. He did this because the typical big spenders on Republican races didn’t believe in him enough to invest in his race.

I obviously can’t prove that there was some kind of Bradley Effect in Maryland, but I do know this: There have been few African Americans elected historically in statewide campaigns, especially in the South, where the only African-Americans popularly elected statewide since Reconstruction are Doug Wilder, governor of Virginia for one term (1990-1994) and Sen. Tim Scott, who won in South Carolina this week, and with little help from black voters.

I’ll concede that, given Brown’s mistakes, racism among voters was likely not the prevailing factor in this race. Still, the question keeps swirling in my head: If Brown was white, would he have won on Tuesday? We’ll never know.

Either way, there are important takeaways from this race for those pushing for a more just energy future.

  1. No matter how environmentally benevolent the policy, the design matters. Meaning, reducing pollution or producing cleaner energy won’t mean much if the costs are passed to consumers. Those of low-income end up taking it the hardest and that’s a sure way to turn people away from your campaign, no matter how progressive.
  2. No matter how democratic the campaign, race matters. When people claim that race doesn’t matter, racism always ends up proving them wrong. There’s no way to mute race, so it might as well be addressed purposefully. The racism might be overcome, albeit not easily. But it can’t be done by evading people altogether, like Brown did.

Let Maryland be a lesson to all environmentalists hoping to push their agenda and for the candidates of color they support.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Politics
Categories: Environment

Scotland may achieve energy independence before political independence

Grist.org - Fri, 11/07/2014 - 23:19

Th’ Gaelic gales o’ Britain’s blashie northern land dinnae just carry Celtic tunes o’er th’ highland anymair. Noo, they’re reducin’ the need fur fossil ‘n’ nuke power as weel, thanks tae win’ turbines a’ ower Scootlund producin’ loads o’ lecky.

In case you didn’t catch that, ThinkProgress published an article yesterday whose title sums up the story: “Scotland Produced Enough Wind Energy To Power Every Home In October.”

This news is super noteworthy and good especially since Scotland’s flurry of wind will help keep watts flowing while four big U.K. nuclear power plants go offline, preventing a huge ramp up of coal and gas burning to replace the nuke power.

But it also brings up one thing that often gets glossed: “Powered homes” can be a confusing unit. What does that mean in terms of factories, shops, streetlights, and server farms using electricity? What if 200 homes equals half a factory? That unit also ignores big differences in how homes use energy, rendering efficiency and conservation irrelevant. This is all just to say “all the homes in Scotland” is not “all of Scotland” (even though it sounds like it).

No question, putting energy and emissions in relatable terms without being misleading is difficult. But I’ll give it a shot: Here are a few other things we could do with the 982,842 megawatt-hours of electricity generated by Scottish wind turbines during October:

  • Drive a Tesla Model S about 3.4 billion miles, or 135,000 times around the earth at the equator. (According to Tesla’s assumptions.)
  • Charge an iPhone 6 battery from 0 percent to full 58 billion times. (According to OPower’s research.)
  • Boil enough water for 44 million cups of tea. (According to physics, and assuming a perfectly efficient electric tea kettle — meaning not a single joule of heat is lost in bringing that magical kettle to boil.)

Clearer? If not, head over to ThinkProgress to get more facts and figures that illustrate Scotland’s impressive headway in the shift to climate-friendlier energy.

Noo, if ainlie Scootlund cuid pat tae uise a’ they bagpipes’ haun tae win’ power. That’d be stoatin.

Filed under: Climate & Energy
Categories: Environment

I watched a bunch of scrotums get snipped and it was totally fine

Grist.org - Fri, 11/07/2014 - 22:55

When people talk about contraception, it’s almost always discussed as a woman’s issue. Hell, even when I pitched this series on safe sex and how it relates to climate, I framed it as coverage of women’s issues and really didn’t think twice about it. This makes exactly zero sense, because it takes the equal participation of both sexes to create a child. That’s biology!

And yet, the opportunities to equally share the responsibilities of birth control are few and far between. An anecdote from my own real life experience: When attempting to buy Plan B at a drugstore with the guy who had necessitated the purchase, the cashier refused to split the charge on both of our cards. “I can’t do it,” she said. “Not possible,” the manager reiterated, as the line to the register rapidly grew behind us. And then, gravely: “Only one can pay.” The metaphor was a bit too real.

Men have two favors to distribute at the family planning party, basically: Condoms and vasectomies. Condoms are great for a lot of reasons — they protect against STDs, first and foremost, and they require almost no advance planning. But as far as preventing pregnancy goes, their effectiveness rate is not great. In fact, if a woman depends on condoms as her primary form of contraception over a period of 10 years, with typical use, there’s an 86 percent chance that she will have an unintended pregnancy during that time. (Re: Failure with “typical use” — please see Plan B story above.)

Vasectomies, admittedly, are a pretty extreme option. They’re surgical and permanent — although they are reversible, albeit only by undergoing a second surgery — and a lot of men are fairly apprehensive about someone going in and snipping things in their scrotum. (That’s the technical medical description of the operation, FYI.)*

But in the words of Greg Hanscom, Grist Senior Editor and Designated Office Dad — so he has experience in this matter! – “dudes need to step the fuck up.”

Dr. Doug Stein co-founded World Vasectomy Day — which falls on November 7 — to encourage men to consider stepping the fuck up, so to speak. How exactly does one commemorate World Vasectomy Day? By performing some strategic snips live at a Planned Parenthood in Kissimmee, Fla., in front of an audience, broadcast to the world.

“But not more than I normally would on a Friday,” Stein clarifies. “What’s different in what I’m doing on World Vasectomy Day is opening up conversations about men’s role in family planning. What we’ve done is offer to do vasectomies for free for any man who is willing to go public.”

Why the emphasis on vasectomies as opposed to other forms of birth control? Well, ladies, raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced some shitty side effects of birth control. (At 17, I spent my first three months on the pill waking up and curling into the fetal position on the bathroom floor from nausea and dizziness. Not to mention the worst skin of my life! Hooray!) The beauty (or injustice, depending on your perspective) of the human anatomy is that man parts are more easily accessible than lady parts, which makes long-acting or permanent contraception methods for men both less risky and easier-to-perform than options for women.

“A vasectomy draws a man into the realm of reproductive responsibility, something which has traditionally been the role of women,” says Stein. “[But] the contraceptives that women use all have a set of risks … [And] tubal ligation for women is a more difficult procedure, it has a higher failure rate, it has a greater complication rate, and when it fails it often results in a tubal pregnancy rather than a healthy pregnancy. So it really behooves men to step up to the plate.”

I’m a feminist, and also just a decent human, so I figured: If I’m going to advocate for men to take some reproductive responsibility, I’d like to confirm that their options don’t suck. I took it upon myself to watch the livestreaming of three (3) vasectomies, performed by Dr. Stein, on World Vasectomy Day.

Here is what I can report: It appears to be significantly more comfortable than getting, say, a Pap smear. Or, for a comparison both sexes can appreciate, a teeth cleaning.

okay. we're getting a little spray anesthetic appetizer because of "the anxiety that needles near the scrotum generate." fair!

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

oh boy… here we go. erin, patient #1, is giving an interview by skype WHILE undergoing vasectomy. this is magnificent multitasking.

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

"honestly, i'm having fun talking to you now on camera. it's barely registering that i'm having a surgical procedure at the moment." – erin

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

wait. erin is already standing. either dude is a top contender for the chillest vasectomy patient of all time or it's really not a big deal

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

ok! this is moving so fast! it's alfredo's turn!!

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

WOW ok full shot of scrotum. there is smoke!! alfredo is not even breaking a sweat

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

there's some snipping action going on but alfredo kinda looks like he's about to take a nap

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

shockingly i do not feel faint but do kind of wish i weren't eating yogurt right now. SORRY sorry.

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

next up: luis. he's 22 and has 3 kids. wife's IUD failed (!!)

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

"do you want to watch any of it, luis?" "no, that's fine." FAIR. it really seems like this is harder for the audience than the patient

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

ok, dizziness is setting in with each subsequent shot of surgical scissors. FOR ME!! NOT LUIS!! luis is a champ.

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

"the vas deferens is about the width and length of a piece of cooked spaghetti. it takes a while to empty those guys out." YOOOOOO

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

luis is up! for the record i have just watched three vasectomies happen in the time it took me to have breakfast. #worldvasday

— eve andrews (@eefandrews) November 7, 2014

In conclusion: If you’re a dude, and you’ve decided that your child-having years are over — or you’ve thought long and hard about it and you don’t want any children at all — the physical procedure of locking your sperm in the garage is actually not such a big deal. And if safe sex is going to be easy and hassle-free for everyone involved — well, it just makes sense that both parties should be willing to participate equally in making it so.

So, men, I can tell you with some certainty: Your options are fine. Great, even. And your one trip to the urologist would mean far fewer to the gynecologist for us. If you happen to get a chance to watch a live-stream of a speculum in action**, you might understand why that’s a pretty fair deal.

*It’s not.

**For the record, I am not volunteering for this.

Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living
Categories: Environment