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Coal’s death spiral, in 3 charts

The latest reports suggest that coal has the equivalent of black-lung disease: the condition is chronic, and the long-term prognosis is dire.

Power companies plan to shutter more than 10 big coal plants in 2018, extinguishing a major portion of coal burning in the United States (see the map below). According to projections released by the Energy Information Administration this week, coal-fired plants will produce less than 30 percent of the electricity Americans use this year. Back in 2000, coal provided more than half of our electricity. Cheap natural gas has knocked coal out of competition.

2018 will be a bad year to be a gray dot.

EIA

This year is expected be a big one for coal-plant retirements but, as you can see below, so was 2015, and 2012, and, well, much of the past decade.

Pretty much all the plants shutting down are fossil-fuel plants.EIA

“Coal in the U.S. might not be dead, but it is in a death spiral,” said Alex Gilbert, of the energy research firm SparkLibrary. “Coal’s demise is inevitable, but it can still emit significant greenhouse gas and other emissions on its way out. The main policy question now is whether the death spiral should be a decade long or decades long.”

What pushed coal power into the death spiral? In a word, fracking. A crackdown on toxic pollution and the rise of wind and solar power, too. If you look at this map of plants scheduled to open this year, it’s all renewables and gas.

Look at all those renewables… and gas plants.EIA

Gilbert said coal companies also played a supporting role in the dirty fuel’s demise. “Coal’s decline is mainly due to market competition with natural gas with regulations playing a secondary role,” he said. “Fundamentally, however, coal is dying because the industry decided to fight changing times. Instead of innovating into a 21st-century compatible energy source, they played politics.”

So, what does all this mean for greenhouse-gas emissions? Well, even if we stop burning coal, it wouldn’t be enough to solve our emissions problems. And as we squeeze carbon out of our electrical system, carbon emissions from cars, industry, and heating are all going up. That’s consistent with a long term trend.

“Between 2005 and 2016, almost 80 percent of the reduction in energy-related CO2 emissions in the U.S. came from the electric power sector,” wrote Trevor Houser and Peter Marsters of the Rhodium Group, a company which analyzes energy trends. To get greenhouse-gas emissions down, other sectors have to play a larger role.

Rhodium Group

This year, people are expected to drive more, and a growing economy will cause industry to ramp up. All told, the United States is likely to pump out more greenhouse gases this year, according to the new data from the EIA.

“After declining by 1.0 percent in 2017, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are forecast to increase by 1.7 percent in 2018,” the EIA wrote.

It looks like our biggest problem is no longer coal. It’s cars.

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Coal’s death spiral, in 3 charts

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3 Green Goals Worth Setting in 2018

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The start of a new year is traditionally the time to reflect on the past and set goals to improve in the future. As you do so, consider setting some personal environmental goals to help you on your path to living a greener, healthier, more sustainable life. The three goals below are a great place to start.

Reduce Your Food Waste

According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, the average American household throws away $2,200 worth of food each year. Clearly, cutting back on food waste is something most of us could work on. Shopping smarter is the first step in reducing your food waste. Walking into the grocery store with no plan can be a big mistake. Without a plan, it’s easy to buy far more food than you’ll actually eat, or foods that you won’t eat all of, during a given week.

By planning effectively, you can buy exactly what you need without getting too much excess. Finding good recipes is a key component. Often, recipes will call for a small portion of something, such as half a bell pepper. As you plan your meals for a week, find recipes that use many of the same ingredients, so you won’t be left with extras. Don’t forget to visit the bulk bins, where you can get exactly the quantity you need of certain ingredients. And make sure you actually eat the leftovers, rather than watching them grow mold in the back of your refrigerator.

When you do have leftovers that don’t get eaten, a backyard composting heap can be an excellent way to reuse them. Composting can be done regardless of your yard size, and can even been done when you live in an apartment.

Decrease Time in the Car

Cutting back on time in a car can be a daunting task, especially if you’re one of the many people that has to commute to work each day. But there are a number of things you can do to reduce the mileage.

One, you could switch to public transit a few days each week if this is available in your area. Riding the train, subway, or bus may not always be convenient, but by doing it just a couple of days per week, you’ll make a significant impact over the course of a year.

Two, carpool with a coworker. I get it, carpooling can be a bit of a pain. You’re forced to work on someone else’s schedule and there’s no “swinging by the store” on your way home. But instead of carpooling every day, why not do it a few days each week? If you carpooled every Tuesday and Thursday, you’d reduce your driving and get to know your coworkers better.

Carpooling is cool! Photo: Adobe Stock

Three, work from home more. While not every employer is open to the idea of remote workers just yet, why not try easing your boss into it. See if you can work from home just once a week or even one day every other week. As they see your productivity unchanged, they may open up to letting you do so more often.

Cut Back on Consumption

The last goal I’ll list here for you to consider setting this year is to consume less. Every new item you buy requires resources to manufacture and transport. In many cases, these items will be used a limited number of times before ending up shoved into a closet or, even worse, in the trash.

When considering a purchase, first think about how much you’ll actually use it. If the answer is rarely, consider borrowing it from a neighbor or friend. You may not need a power sander regularly, but your neighbor may be willing to let you use his. Participating in the sharing economy can be an effective way to reduce your consumption. There are also many services that rent out equipment and items for short periods of time.

If it’s something you will use often, first consider buying it used. There are so many great ways to shop for used items these days, you’re bound to find what you’re looking for in good condition somewhere. If you do need/want to buy new, always strive to buy quality items. This is especially important when it comes to clothes and shoes. You may have to pay a bit more, but in the long run, it’s absolutely worth it.

While these three green goals are a great place to start, there are many more out there. What are some of your green goals for this new year?

3 Green Goals Worth Setting in 2018

The start of a new year is traditionally the time …Brian BrassawJanuary 5, 2018

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3 Green Goals Worth Setting in 2018

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Algorithms to Live By – Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

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Algorithms to Live By

The Computer Science of Human Decisions

Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $9.99

Publish Date: April 19, 2016

Publisher: Henry Holt and Co.

Seller: Macmillan / Holtzbrinck Publishers, LLC


A fascinating exploration of how computer algorithms can be applied to our everyday lives, helping to solve common decision-making problems and illuminate the workings of the human mind All our lives are constrained by limited space and time, limits that give rise to a particular set of problems. What should we do, or leave undone, in a day or a lifetime? How much messiness should we accept? What balance of new activities and familiar favorites is the most fulfilling? These may seem like uniquely human quandaries, but they are not: computers, too, face the same constraints, so computer scientists have been grappling with their version of such problems for decades. And the solutions they've found have much to teach us. In a dazzlingly interdisciplinary work, acclaimed author Brian Christian (who holds degrees in computer science, philosophy, and poetry, and works at the intersection of all three) and Tom Griffiths (a UC Berkeley professor of cognitive science and psychology) show how the simple, precise algorithms used by computers can also untangle very human questions. They explain how to have better hunches and when to leave things to chance, how to deal with overwhelming choices and how best to connect with others. From finding a spouse to finding a parking spot, from organizing one's inbox to understanding the workings of human memory, Algorithms to Live By transforms the wisdom of computer science into strategies for human living.

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Algorithms to Live By – Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths

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Trump wants to to keep the largest coal plant in the West, built on Navajo land, open.

You’d think that, in an era of increasingly extreme weather and disasters that render whole regions of the country nearly uninhabitable for months, maintaining a weather service in tip-top shape would be a priority.

Turns out, under President Donald Trump, that hasn’t been the case. Shifting priorities and uncertainty over funding at the National Weather Service have led to as many as 700 current staff vacancies, according to a report in the Washington Post. That’s about 15 percent of its mandated positions.

“Given our staffing, our ability to fill our mission of protecting life and property would be nearly impossible if we had a big storm,” Brooke Taber, a weather service forecaster in Vermont, told her local paper.

Some offices, like the one in Washington, D.C., are missing a third of their workforce as hurricane season winds down ahead of winter, traditionally one of the busiest times of the year for storms. Although a weather service spokesperson denied the problem was hurting the quality of its forecasts, the service’s employees union said in a statement that the organization is “for the first time in its history teetering on the brink of failure.”

The report follows a Grist cover story this week that looked at how Trump’s proposed cuts to the National Weather Service are already making the country less safe.

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Trump wants to to keep the largest coal plant in the West, built on Navajo land, open.

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Here’s why Irma is a monster hurricane, in one GIF.

One would think that the demise of ticks and tapeworms would be cause for celebration (especially if your introduction to parasites was, as in my case, an encounter with zombie snails at a mercilessly young age).

But hold the party, say researchers. After studying 457 species of parasites in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection, mapping their global distribution, and applying a range of climate models and future scenarios, scientists predict that at least 5 to 10 percent of those critters would be extinct by 2070 due to climate change–induced habitat loss.

This extinction won’t do any favors to wildlife or humans. If a mass die-off were to occur, surviving parasites would likely invade new areas unpredictably — and that could greatly damage ecosystems. One researcher says parasites facilitate up to 80 percent of the food-web links in ecosystems, thus helping to sustain life (even if they’re also sucking it away).

What could save the parasites and our ecosystems? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Reduce carbon emissions.”

If emissions go unchecked, parasites could lose 37 percent of their habitats. If we cut carbon quickly, they’d reduce by only 20 percent — meaning the terrifying (but helpful!) parasites creating zombie snails will stay where they are.

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Here’s why Irma is a monster hurricane, in one GIF.

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Senate Intelligence Committee Gets Ready to Start Dishing Out Subpoenas

Mother Jones

Michael Cohen is in the news again. Not for this:

But because he’s been “invited” to testify before the Senate committee investigating the Trump-Russia connection:

I declined the invitation to participate, as the request was poorly phrased, overly broad and not capable of being answered,” Cohen told ABC News in an email Tuesday.

After Cohen rejected the congressional requests for cooperation, the Senate Select Intelligence Committee voted unanimously on Thursday to grant its chairman, Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, and ranking Democrat, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, blanket authority to issue subpoenas as they deem necessary.

Martin Longman didn’t expect this:

It’s still a bit premature to be effusive or unreserved in my praise here. But I have to give credit where it is due. The Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee have shown courage here and real indications of seriousness. I wouldn’t have predicted it but I’m willing to acknowledge it now.

The Senate Intelligence Committee has historically been more serious and bipartisan than most committees, so this is probably not quite as surprising as it seems. Nonetheless, it’s good to see some confirmation that there are still a few redoubts of integrity in Donald Trump’s Washington DC.

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Senate Intelligence Committee Gets Ready to Start Dishing Out Subpoenas

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The Dead Pool – 7 May 2017

Mother Jones

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I have a little catching up to do. Mark Green, President Trump’s second pick to be Secretary of the Army, has withdrawn. Green is a Tennessee state legislator who has made disparaging remarks about gays, trans people, and Muslims. Sadly, the radical left used these remarks to accuse him of hostility toward gays, trans people, and Muslims, and that became a “distraction.” So many distractions these days! On Friday Green announced that he was withdrawing his nomination.

But you know what they say: third time’s the charm. All Trump has to do is find someone who’s neither obscenely rich nor filled with hatred, and he should have no trouble getting a confirmation. How hard can that be?

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The Dead Pool – 7 May 2017

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James Comey Wasn’t a Partisan Hack. He Was Worse.

Mother Jones

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By coincidence, right after my Comey post yesterday morning the New York Times published a long tick-tock about how and why Comey did what he did. It doesn’t address the question of whether Comey tipped the election, it just provides an insider account of what was going through Comey’s head as he made decisions during campaign season.

It makes for depressing reading. The reporters conclude pretty strongly that Comey wasn’t motivated by any conscious partisan motives. But even if that’s true, there were pretty clearly partisan and personal influences at work. Apologies in advance for the length of this post, but putting all six of the following excerpts together in a single narrative is the only way to show what really happened. The story begins two years ago when the FBI opened its probe into Hillary Clinton’s emails:

On July 10, 2015, the F.B.I. opened a criminal investigation, code-named “Midyear,” into Mrs. Clinton’s handling of classified information….Everyone agreed that Mr. Comey should not reveal details about the Clinton investigation. But attorney general Loretta Lynch told him to be even more circumspect: Do not even call it an investigation, she said, according to three people who attended the meeting. Call it a “matter.”

….It was a by-the-book decision. But Mr. Comey and other F.B.I. officials regarded it as disingenuous in an investigation that was so widely known. And Mr. Comey was concerned that a Democratic attorney general was asking him to be misleading and line up his talking points with Mrs. Clinton’s campaign, according to people who spoke with him afterward.

This seems to have been the starting point. Even when Justice Department officials were making straightforward, “by-the-book” decisions, Comey was paranoid that they were acting to protect a Democrat—something that obviously might invite Republican attack if he went along. This belief continued to grow, and led to much of what happened later, when the investigation was wrapping up:

Early last year, F.B.I. agents received a batch of hacked documents, and one caught their attention. The document, which has been described as both a memo and an email, was written by a Democratic operative who expressed confidence that Ms. Lynch would keep the Clinton investigation from going too far, according to several former officials familiar with the document.

Read one way, it was standard Washington political chatter. Read another way, it suggested that a political operative might have insight into Ms. Lynch’s thinking.

Normally, when the F.B.I. recommends closing a case, the Justice Department agrees and nobody says anything….The document complicated that calculation, according to officials. If Ms. Lynch announced that the case was closed, and Russia leaked the document, Mr. Comey believed it would raise doubts about the independence of the investigation.

This email wasn’t related to Lynch or her office in any way. It was just gossip from a third party. But instead of ignoring it, Comey worried that it might leak and hurt his own reputation. This also motivated his decision, when the investigation was over, to hold an unusual press conference which damaged Clinton seriously even though he cleared her of wrongdoing:

Standing in front of two American flags and two royal-blue F.B.I. flags, he read from a script….“Any reasonable person in Secretary Clinton’s position” should have known better, Mr. Comey said. He called her “extremely careless.” The criticism was so blistering that it sounded as if he were recommending criminal charges. Only in the final two minutes did Mr. Comey say that “no charges are appropriate in this case.”

….By scolding Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Comey was speaking not only to voters but to his own agents. While they agreed that Mrs. Clinton should not face charges, many viewed her conduct as inexcusable. Mr. Comey’s remarks made clear that the F.B.I. did not approve.

Former agents and others close to Mr. Comey acknowledge that his reproach was also intended to insulate the F.B.I. from Republican criticism that it was too lenient toward a Democrat.

Again, Comey had failed to play it straight. Even though the decision to exonerate Clinton “was not even a close call,” as he later said, he tore into Clinton in order to protect himself from criticism—both from Republicans and from his own agents. This is especially damning given the subsequent evidence that Comey’s criticism of Clinton was wildly overstated. The same dynamic played out in reverse a couple of months later over the FBI investigation into Donald Trump and Russian interference in the election:

Mr. Comey and other senior administration officials met twice in the White House Situation Room in early October to again discuss a public statement about Russian meddling….At their second meeting, Mr. Comey argued that it would look too political for the F.B.I. to comment so close to the election, according to several people in attendance. Officials in the room felt whiplashed. Two months earlier, Mr. Comey had been willing to put his name on a newspaper article; now he was refusing to sign on to an official assessment of the intelligence community.

And it played out yet again in September, when agents discovered some Clinton emails on Anthony Weiner’s laptop. Michael Steinbach, a former FBI agent who worked closely with Comey, explained what went through Comey’s mind:

Agents felt they had two options: Tell Congress about the search, which everyone acknowledged would create a political furor, or keep it quiet, which followed policy and tradition but carried its own risk, especially if the F.B.I. found new evidence in the emails.

….Conservative news outlets had already branded Mr. Comey a Clinton toady. That same week, the cover of National Review featured a story on “James Comey’s Dereliction,” and a cartoon of a hapless Mr. Comey shrugging as Mrs. Clinton smashed her laptop with a sledgehammer.

Congressional Republicans were preparing for years of hearings during a Clinton presidency. If Mr. Comey became the subject of those hearings, F.B.I. officials feared, it would hobble the agency and harm its reputation. “I don’t think the organization would have survived that,” Mr. Steinbach said.

Once again, the primary concern was protecting Comey and the FBI. Republicans had made it clear that their retribution against anyone who helped Clinton would be relentless, and that clearly had an impact on Comey. Steinbach’s suggestion that Republican vengeance would have destroyed the FBI is clearly nuts, but Comey was taking no chances. He didn’t want the grief.

Even after it was all over, Comey’s partisan influences continued to work on him:

Officials and others close to him also acknowledge that Mr. Comey has been changed by the tumultuous year.

Early on Saturday, March 4, the president accused Mr. Obama on Twitter of illegally wiretapping Trump Tower in Manhattan. Mr. Comey believed the government should forcefully denounce that claim. But this time he took a different approach. He asked the Justice Department to correct the record. When officials there refused, Mr. Comey followed orders and said nothing publicly.

Daniel Richman, a longtime friend of Comey’s, said this represented “a consistent pattern of someone trying to act with independence and integrity, but within established channels.”

The evidence does indeed show consistent behavior, but of a different kind. At every step of the way, Comey demonstrated either his fear of crossing Republicans or his concern over protecting his own reputation from Republican attack. It was the perfect intersection of a Republican Party that had developed a reputation for conducting relentlessly vicious smear campaigns and a Republican FBI director who didn’t have the fortitude to stand up to it. Comey may genuinely believe that his decisions along the way were nonpartisan, but the evidence pretty strongly suggests otherwise.

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James Comey Wasn’t a Partisan Hack. He Was Worse.

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4K Monitors Are Awesome

Mother Jones

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My new camera produces better, sharper pictures, but that doesn’t do me a lot of good if I can only view them on a standard 90 dpi monitor. So I went out last week and bought a 4K monitor.

It rocks. Everything looks better and sharper, as if I’ve just put on a new pair of glasses. The resolution is good enough that I don’t need to bother with ClearType on Windows anymore. In fact, text looks better without it. Here’s what the New York Times looks like:

No anti-aliasing, no nothing. It’s nearly as sharp as a retina display on a tablet.

The monitor installed with no problems. Windows auto-detect worked fine, and scaling was automatically reset to 200 percent. So far, I’ve only run into two problems. First, my email client looked terrible. I guess it renders fonts internally or something. However, I’ve been meaning to switch clients anyway, so this was a good excuse to do it.

The other problem was with Photoshop, which you’d think would be highly attuned to high-res monitors. But one of its functions just doesn’t work right anymore. I tried it on my tablet and it failed there too. So it’s clearly something to do with the pixel density of the display.

Most people aren’t resolution geeks, but I always have been. If you are too, a 4K monitor is very much worth looking into.

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4K Monitors Are Awesome

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Trump wants to eliminate programs that prevent lead poisoning.

Catherine Flowers has been an environmental justice fighter for as long as she can remember. “I grew up an Alabama country girl,” she says, “so I was part of the environmental movement before I even knew what it was. The natural world was my world.”

In 2001, raw sewage leaked into the yards of poor residents in Lowndes County, Alabama, because they had no access to municipal sewer systems. Local government added insult to injury by threatening 37 families with eviction or arrest because they couldn’t afford septic systems. Flowers, who is from Lowndes County, fought back: She negotiated with state government, including then-Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, to end unfair enforcement policies, and she enlisted the Environmental Protection Agency’s help to fund septic systems. The effort earned her the nickname “The Erin Brockovich of Sewage.”

Flowers was continuing the long tradition of residents fighting for justice in Lowndes County, an epicenter for the civil rights movement. “My own parents had a rich legacy of fighting for civil rights, which to this day informs my work,” she says. “Even today, people share stories about my parents’ acts of kindness or help, and I feel it’s my duty to carry on their work.”

Years later, untreated and leaking sewage remains a persistent problem in much of Alabama. Flowers advocates for sanitation and environmental rights through the organization she founded, the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation (ACRE, for short). She’s working with the EPA and other federal agencies to design affordable septic systems that will one day eliminate the developing-world conditions that Flowers calls Alabama’s “dirty secret.”

Former Vice President Al Gore counts himself as a big fan of Flowers’ work, calling her “a firm advocate for the poor, who recognizes that the climate crisis disproportionately affects the least wealthy and powerful among us.” Flowers says a soon-to-be-published study, based on evidence she helped collect, suggests that tropical parasites are emerging in Alabama due to poverty, poor sanitation, and climate change. “Our residents can have a bigger voice,” she said, “if the media began reporting how climate change is affecting people living in poor rural communities in 2017.” Assignment editors, pay attention.


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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Trump wants to eliminate programs that prevent lead poisoning.

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