Author Archives: ElmoDonohoe

We just got our disaster bill and it was $306 billion

Highways turned into rivers with white-capped waves in Texas. Wildfire smoke reddened the sky in California. And the country’s signature “amber waves of grain” were parched by drought, leaving farmers with fields of gray, cracked soil in Montana.

In all, the United States was hit by 16 weather events last year that cost more than $1 billion each, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated. Piece them together, and you get the story of a climate transformed by human activity — and a country racked by wild weather that cost us a record-shattering $306 billion.

That price tag is four times more than average over the past decade, adjusted for inflation. It was nearly off the charts.

2008, 2011, 2012, and 2017 experienced one or more tropical cyclones.Grist / Amelia Bates / NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

Last year blew past the previous record for disasters, $215 billion, set in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck. The priciest natural disasters tend to be hurricanes, which explains why 2017 was so different. Harvey, Irma, and Maria were three of the five most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history, and they all hit in one year. The three accounted for 87 percent of the bill. 

Western wildfires racked up $18 billion in damages, tripling the price tag of the previous worst wildfire year, 1991.

Severe storms, flooding and drought afflicted people across the country. But the Northeast was the only region spared from a disaster that caused $1 billion or more in damages.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

Given how much time we’ve devoted to talking about climate change’s fingerprints on everything, you’d suspect its criminal record would be well-documented. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how climate change affects a particular storm or heatwave, scientists are getting better at untangling the connection. For example, researchers calculated that the chances of a Harvey-esque storm hitting Texas was made six times more likely because of climate change.

Oh, and did we mention that last year was the third-hottest on record? Thank goodness it’s over. But don’t get excited — extreme weather is already creeping in to the new year. In just the first nine days of 2018, the weather has already dealt us deadly mudslides and a bomb cyclone.

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We just got our disaster bill and it was $306 billion

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Here come GMO labels!

GMO-it-all

Here come GMO labels!

By on Jun 23, 2016Share

I’m too high-minded to say “I told you so,” but after a lot of wrangling, the Senate struck a deal on Thursday that would lead to mandatory labels for genetically engineered ingredients across the United States. Just like I said it would.

It’s a compromise between Republicans and Democrats on the Senate Agriculture Committee that would make labeling of genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, mandatory. But it would allow food makers to convey the information in a barcode or QR code, which you could see on your smartphone or on an in-store computer screen. And the compromise does not require the labeling of foods produced with gene-editing techniques. See more details here.

This deal cues up a full Senate vote, likely as soon as next week. After passing through the Senate, it would then have to be reconciled with similar bill that already passed the House, and get President Obama’s signature. If this bill becomes a law it would preempt a stricter GMO-labeling law in Vermont, which is scheduled to go into effect on July 1.

The whole thing is unfolding just as I predicted. Republicans compromised by making the labels mandatory, and Democrats compromised by allowing a scannable code rather than simply printing the words “contains GMOs” on packages. Here’s why scannable codes are perhaps a better idea than you might think.

It’s the only workable bargain and a pragmatic one. It will allow people who really care about avoiding GMOs to do it, without making it seem like that’s the key concern.

But let’s not stop here. If we are going to put a label on the front of the box, let’s say something about its greenhouse gas emissions or its effect on biodiversity — stuff that matters a lot more than GMOs. Maybe one day, consumers will learn more about those things when they scan QR codes.

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Here come GMO labels!

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Congress Allows DC to Sled, But Not to Regulate the Sale of Marijuana

Mother Jones

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Residents of Washington, DC, have taken major issue with Congress on two big local priorities in the past year: legalizing marijuana and sledding on the slopes of the US Capitol. DC voters approved a ballot measure last November to legalize weed by a 65-27 percent margin, only to be told by Congress that the city couldn’t regulate or tax the sale of the drug. And residents flocked to the Capitol with their sleds after a heavy snow in March, only to be thwarted by Capitol police.

In its omnibus budget deal released Tuesday night, Congress tackled both of these issues, granting DC its wish on one but not the other. Sledding, the body determined, would be permitted; regulating the marijuana market would not.

The District of Columbia—home to more than 650,000 people, making it more populous than Vermont or Wyoming—lacks a voting representative in Congress, and its budget is subject to congressional approval, a unique carve-out that no other US city or state must contend with.

As part of a larger deal to keep the government funded for the next year, Congress is asking Capitol police to let kids from the surrounding neighborhoods bring their sleds to the slopes outside the building, among the best in the town. But while the kids can frolic, Congress still wants to prevent the adults in town from buying and selling a once-illegal substance.

The budget deal includes a rider first implemented last year that prohibits the city government from using any of its money to further legalize marijuana in the nation’s capital. After voters approved Initiative 71 last November—which legalized home growth and possession of small amounts of the drug—the city has been stuck in a gray area. Residents can now safely keep a small stash of weed at home without fear of being arrested by local cops, but there’s no legal way for them to buy the drug, unless they qualify for a medical marijuana prescription. The city council was on track to pass rules to allow for a marketplace and taxation system, like those in Colorado and Washington state, late last year before Congress intervened, much to the consternation of local officials. As I wrote earlier this summer:

There are a whole host of reasons the city government and voters would prefer a market where marijuana is sold in approved storefronts just like liquor. As Colorado has shown with its regulated system, bringing drug sales out of the black market can be a boon for tax revenue, with the state set to collect about $125 million this year from marijuana sales taxes. And before the ballot initiative last year legalized personal possession of small quantities of the drug, studies had shown that black residents of DC were 8.05 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white residents, even though black people and white people smoke pot at equal levels nationally.

That rider barred the city from regulating marijuana sales until government funding ran out. Tuesday night’s deal extends the prohibition through next September—and effectively signals that stripping the District’s ability to regulate a drug it has legalized has become a de facto part of any deal to keep the government from shutting down.

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Congress Allows DC to Sled, But Not to Regulate the Sale of Marijuana

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Do Energy-Saving Homes Really Use ‘More Energy’?

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Do Energy-Saving Homes Really Use ‘More Energy’?

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Watson Not Just for Jeopardy! Anymore

Mother Jones

IBM plans to make Watson, the computer that beat the all-time Jeopardy! champs, available on the web to everyone. But why? In addition to the PR value for its cloud computing business, I suspect the answer is at the bottom of this New York Times story:

Besides gaining bragging rights and a much bigger customer base, IBM may be accelerating the growth of Watson’s power by putting it in the cloud. Mr. Gold said that Watson would retain learning from each customer interaction, gaining the ability to do things like interacting in different languages or identifying human preferences. IBM has taken steps to keep these improvements for its own benefit, by retaining rights in user agreements that customers are required to sign.

Once it’s publicly available, Watson is going to receive a tidal wave of new interactions that it can learn from. Basically, the public will be doing IBM’s beta testing for it. Everybody wins.

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Watson Not Just for Jeopardy! Anymore

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