TIME Environment

Lead Didn’t Bring Down Ancient Rome—But It’s Still a Modern Menace

Roman aqueducts led to lead contamination
Moment via Getty Images Aqueducts like this one contaminated Roman tap water with lead

Lead levels were high in ancient Rome's tap water—but not high enough to cause the collapse of its civilization

You could fill a book with theories on why the ancient Roman Empire declined and fell—which, in fact, is what the 18th British historian Edward Gibbon did in his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But if you don’t have time to read the 3,000 or so pages in Gibbon’s full work, here’s one very simple theory: it was lead. Canadian scientist Jerome Nriagu published an influential 1983 paper arguing that high levels of the neurotoxin lead—which contaminated water and other beverages through lead aqueducts and lead cups—caused mental disabilities and erratic behavior among members of Roman high society. Nriagu even reviewed the personalities and habits of Roman emperors between 30 B.C. and 22o A.D.—a list that includes notorious nutjobs like Nero and Caligula—and concluded that two-thirds of them suffered from symptoms of chronic lead poisoning. It’s hard to keep an empire going when your living god of an emperor has been brain-poisoned.

An empire brought down by one of its signature innovations, the aqueduct — it’s a theory that has stuck with the public, although experts have long been skeptical of its merits. It turns out that the theory was half-right: In a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of French and British researchers report that the tap water in ancient Rome was indeed contaminated with lead, with levels up to 100 times higher than those found in local spring water at the time. But while Roman tap water might not have passed modern-day standards, it’s almost certain that the contamination wasn’t extensive enough to be responsible for the collapse of Roman civilization.

As lead author Francis Albarede of Claude Bernard University in Lyon told the Guardian:

Can you really poison an entire civilization with lead? I think it would take more than lead piping in Rome to do that.

Still, any amount of lead can pose a danger to the human brain, especially those of young children, so Rome’s contaminated water couldn’t have helped. In fact, the more researchers learn about lead, the more dangerous it seems—and the more important it becomes to get lead out of the environment. There’s a fascinating body of research, summed up in this excellent piece by Mother Jones‘s Kevin Drumm, that links the drastic drop in violent crime in the U.S. over the past two decades to the phasing out of leaded gasoline in the early 1970s, which greatly reduced lead levels in the environment.

The theory is that children in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were exposed to high levels of lead in leaded gasoline and lead paint. High blood lead levels are directly correlated with a loss of IQ points. But more than that, lead seems to particularly damage the parts of the brain linked to aggression control and executive function. Lead seems to affect boys more—and men, of course, make up the vast majority of violent criminals. When those lead-exposed boys became young adults in the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t surprising that so many of them fell into violent crime. But once they aged out by the 1990s, that cohort was replaced by a generation of children who largely hadn’t been exposed to high levels of lead, and violent crime dropped.

But while most—though not all—American children are no longer exposed to high levels of lead, it’s still a major problem in poorer countries around the world. NGOs like the Blacksmith Institute are working to clean up lead contamination, though far more needs to be done. Lead may not have brought down the Roman Empire—you’ll need to go back to Gibbon for that—but two thousand years later, it’s still a public health menace.

TIME Environment

The Earth Is Changing Rapidly. Can We Change Too?

Antarctica used to be warm
Moment/Getty Images

On Earth Day, we celebrate a planet that has nurtured human life. But it wasn't always so nice—and as the climate changes, it may get worse

I had the chance to see the Grand Canyon last week for the first time, and I can tell you this: it is really big. So big, in fact, that I led my partner on an endless walk along the rim, searching for the entrance a trail that would take us some of the way down the canyon. It turned out that I misread the map scale just a tiny bit. I think she may have forgiven me by now.

Of course, there’s more to the Grand Canyon than its sheer size: Its exposed rock reveals some 2 billion years of Earth’s geologic history, a span of time that is unfathomable by human beings (our species Homo sapiens is about 0.00005% as old as the oldest rock found in the Canyon). And even that time period covers less than half of the Earth’s age. Our planet is ancient, and the only constant over the course of its 4.54 billion-year history has been change—albeit change on a scale that almost always unfolds far too slow for us to realize it. If the Earth seems as solid as the ground beneath our feet, that’s only because we haven’t been around long enough to see just how unstable it really is.

That’s something to keep in mind as we celebrate the 45th Earth Day. Human civilization has flourished over the past ten thousand or so years largely because our species has been fortunate enough to arise during a Goldilocks (not too warm, not too cold) climatic period known as the Holocene. It’s an age that has proven ideal for agriculture and other activities that now support a human population of 7 billion-plus. But it hasn’t always been this way, as a new study that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates.

A team led by Yale University scientists used a new method to determine temperatures in the Earth’s past, measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells found in Antarctica. The researchers found that during the Eocene epoch—about 40 to 50 million years ago—temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 63 F (17 C), with an average of 14 C (57 F). That’s far above the mean annual temperature of Antarctica’s interior today, which registers at a frosty -70 F (-57 C), and closer to the kinds of temperatures you’d see in today’s San Francisco. Seawater around parts of Antarctica was even warmer, a balmy 72 F (22 C)—or about the same temperature as the tropical seas around Florida today.

If there were people living 40 million years ago—there weren’t, FYI—they could have been snorkeling off the coast of Antarctica’s Ross Island.

Why? Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere during the Eocene were much, much higher, perhaps as high as 2,000 ppm or more. Even though human beings have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere by the gigaton for decades, that’s still far higher than current levels, which stand at a little above 400 ppm. But even that increase has helped global temperatures rise by about 1.53 F (0.85 C) since 1880, and despite 45 Earth Days since the first in 1970, global carbon emissions just keep on growing, reaching a record 36 billion metric tons in 2013.

As Brad Plumer puts it over at Vox, our chances of keeping global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C)—a figure governments around the world have adopted as a climate change red line—seem vanishingly small:

If you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re on pace to blow past the 2°C limit by mid-century — and hit 4°C or more by the end. That’s well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we’d have to repeat those cuts for decades.

Needless to say, that’s unlikely. Barring some major political or technological revolution, our Earth will likely change more in the decades to come than it has for the entire lifespan of human civilization—and that change almost certainly won’t be for the better. As the PNAS study shows, the climate we think of as stable—the “long summer” of humanity—has been drastically different over the course of Earth’s deep past. The Earth will change. The question for the Earth Days to come is whether we can change, too.

TIME Environment

Portraits of the Planet for Earth Day

Looking at the Icebergs, Near Franklin Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica in 2006.
Camille Seaman Looking at the Icebergs, Near Franklin Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica in 2006.

Google+ and TIME teamed up to find beautiful pictures of our planet. Selections made by TIME's photo editors are featured on the massive NASDAQ billboard in Times Square on Earth Day.

The NASDAQ billboard in Times Square features Google+ users' earth day photos selected by TIME's photo editors.
Wesley Houser / GoogleThe NASDAQ billboard in Times Square features Google+ users’ earth day photos selected by TIME’s photo editors.

Mars is nice and Jupiter has a big red spot, but there’s no more gorgeous planet in the known galaxy than Earth. On a day when we tend focus on the threats to the Earth—which are many—we should also take time to celebrate the varied beauty found throughout our home. Google+ collected photos from around the world tagged with #MyBeautifulEarth, and TIME editors culled through the images to find the very best. The pictures that appear below are visual reminders of the Earth’s diversity, from fathomless oceans to glowing volcanoes to alpine glaciers. The only constants are color—and overwhelming beauty. This planet is a never-ending feast for the eyes, which is one more reason why we should try to take care of it, on Earth Day and every day.

TIME Environment

Even Advanced Biofuels May Not Be So Green

Corn waste used for biofuels
Photographer's Choice via Getty Images New research shows that next-generation biofuels made from corn waste aren't so green

Environmentalists have long worried about biofuels like corn ethanol. But a new study shows that even advanced biofuels, which use waste from crops like corn to make fuel, may hurt the climate

Back in 2008, TIME published a controversial cover story with a simple line: The Clean Energy Myth. TIME’s Michael Grunwald made a damning case against the ethanol industry, arguing that the massive subsidies for biofuels intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting demand for oil actually had the opposite environmental effect:

“The basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.”

The years since have seen rounds of opposing studies on the environmental effects of bioenergy, even as the amount of biofuel produced has continued to rise. The U.S. is expected to use almost 5 billion bushels of corn to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol this year, thanks chiefly to government mandates. But research has also linked the use of crops like corn and soybeans as fuel to the rise in global food prices in recent years. (In 2013, four of every ten bushels of corn producing in the U.S. went to ethanol, almost as much as was used to feed livestock.) And improving gas mileage and rising production of domestic oil—thanks to the recent shale boom—have undercut the argument that biofuels are needed for energy independence.

Still, biofuel advocates have always pointed to the development of second-generation biofuels that will get around some of those environmental drawbacks by using the waste products of crops like corn or by tapping non-food plants like switchgrass or wood chips. Though those next-generation cellulosic fuels have proven difficult to develop on a commercial scale—it’s been chemically challenging to tap the energy locked in cellulose—there has been some progress recently, with major cellulosic ethanol plants from companies like DuPont and Abengoa Bioenergy.

But now it turns out that even next-generation biofuels may be worse for the climate than the fossil fuel-based sources they’re meant to replace. A new federally-funded study published in Nature Climate Change has found that biofuels made from corn waste release 7% more greenhouse gases over the short term than gasoline. That’s because by using corn waste like stalks and cobs as a fuel source, farmers aren’t letting the plant residue remain in their fields, when over time it would enrich the soil with carbon. The carbon gained by swapping out gasoline with next-generation ethanol made from corn waste doesn’t make up for the additional carbon lost by the soil. While next-generation biofuels are better for the climate over the long term, the study concludes they’re not green enough to meet federal standards for subsidies, which require cellulosic ethanol to produce at least 60% less carbon than gasoline. And without those subsidies—which amount to $1 per gallon—the nascent advanced biofuel industry could be smothered in the crib.

That should be extremely worrying to the biofuel industry, which has been counting on the growth of advanced biofuels as subsidies for corn ethanol are phased out. The Renewable Fuels Association—an ethanol trade group—was quick to criticize the Nature Climate Change study, noting that earlier research concluded that corn residue could be removed for fuel without reducing the amount of carbon in soil. And Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson Liz Purchia said in a statement that the study “does not provide useful information to the life-cycle greenhouse gas emission from corn stover ethanol.” University of Nebraska Professor Adam Liska, who led the Nature Climate Change study, noted that using some of the corn residue to produce electricity—where it could help replace far dirtier coal—could make next-generation biofuels greener. So could the adoption of other cellulosic sources, or even algae. But most of the next-generation biofuel plants that are close to completion will be using corn residue as an early fuel source.

The reality is that the biofuel industry is in trouble. For the first time ever, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly warned about the environmental risks of uncontrolled biofuel development in its most recent report on global warming. Given the political power of the farmers who directly benefit from ethanol subsidies—and the paucity of other immediate options to reduce the climate impact of transportation—biofuels aren’t going away. But the industry has a long way to go before it can prove that biofuels—even next-generation options—aren’t a clean energy myth.

TIME Environment

The Docu Series Years of Living Dangerously Tries to Close the Climate Gap

Years of Living Dangerously
The Years Project—Showtime Showtime presents "Years of Living Dangerously," a groundbreaking documentary event series which provides first-hand reports on those affected by—and seeking solutions to—climate change.

The world is on fire in the new series on Showtime. But the project will only make a difference if it can convince climate skeptics

There’s a fascinating moment during the first episode of Showtime’s new climate change documentary, Years of Living Dangerously. The actor Don Cheadle, in one of three concurrent segments in the premiere, had visited the impoverished Texas town of Plainview, which was hit hard by a recent drought—one the show links in part to climate change. But Plainview is a conservative and religious town, and virtually no one Cheadle speaks to thinks that global warming is real, let alone that it has anything to do with the drought. That’s not surprising—there is a huge and growing partisan difference on climate change, with a recent Gallup poll showing a 38 point difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.

Afterwards Cheadle sat down with the Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe and her husband Andrew Farley. Hayhoe obviously believes in climate change—she’s authored dozens of peer-reviewed papers on the subject—but unusually, she’s also an evangelical Christian, as is Farley. He’s also a confirmed Republican, but he tells Cheadle that while his wife has convinced him that climate change is real, the politics still get in the way. And then Cheadle says this:

I guess that’s really what it is is that if you accept climate change, then I have to vote for Obama…. Or if I say it’s not real then I can stay with my political affiliation and I can stay with the church and everything is all good because really what most people want to do is I think avoid conflict.

As Andrew Revkin points out over at Dot Earth, Cheadle has essentially stumbled onto what’s known as cultural cognition theory, the product of work by the Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan. Ezra Klein on his new site Vox has a great explanation of cultural cognition theory, but what it essentially means is that we all belong to tribes that might be defined by our political or cultural leanings, and that we’ll do almost anything to avoid conflict with those tribes—even “subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” as Kahan puts it. Cheadle is right—when it comes to climate change, identity trumps facts.

That fact helps explain the enormous scale of the challenge that Years of Living Dangerously faces. A documentary series that will air on Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern for the next nine weeks—opposite Mad Men, which just seems unfair—Years uses celebrities like Cheadle and reporters like Tom Friedman to tell the story of how climate change is impacting the world today. And that story is heavy on disaster, as the trailer shows:

I had a chance to watch the first episode on Wednesday night in New York at the Ford Foundation, which helped finance the series. For the most part it’s a strong work of documentary journalism, with richly shot and compelling stories. The premiere features Cheadle in Texas, Friedman in Syria—where drought has helped drive the civil war—and Harrison Ford journeying to the rapidly deforesting jungles of Indonesia.

If Friedman’s segment suffers from the sheer horror of Syria—it can be difficult to focus on the diffuse threat of climate change when there’s an ongoing civil war that has killed over 150,000 people—Ford (and his producers) ably demonstrates the massive environmental and social damage left by deforestation in the world’s fourth-most populous country. The scene when Ford helicopters across a rainforest that suddenly turns to stumps and char will stay with viewers.

While there are always nits to pick—Friedman doesn’t mention the role that overpopulation has played in stressing Syria—I was impressed by the relatively measured way the series took on the tricky science of attributing disasters to global warming, at least in the first episode.

But Years isn’t just a work of TV journalism, a super-sized series of 60 Minutes-like pieces about climate change. As James Cameron, the series’ executive producer, told Reuters, the aim is to convince people that global warming is an existential threat that demands major action:

The devastation to the planet that we’ll be experiencing in the next century is really, I think, pretty unfathomable for most people, and I think that what the series can do is to bring it home and make it real, make it real in people terms.

For a large chunk of the U.S.—most of the Democratic party—that message has already hit home. But as long as the partisan gap on climate keeps growing, the kind of broad national action that would make a difference will never happen. I suspect that’s why the series’ producers send Cheadle to Plainview in the first episode, immediately addressing—in a respectful way—the cultural roots of climate skepticism. But can Years shake that skepticism?

In a New York Times column, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute argue that the terrifying imagery of the series will actually turn people off:

A frequently cited 2009 study in the journal Science Communication summed up the scholarly consensus. “Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.” In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use “dire messages” about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are right that a large body of research has shown that catastrophic imagery can actually backfire, almost as if audience remembers respond to the horror by sticking their fingers in their ears. (Full disclosure: I’ve participated in a few panels at Breakthrough Institute conferences in the past.) You can see that when Cheadle asks people in Plainview about the drought, and they respond, essentially, that such catastrophes are natural. That’s cultural cognition again—in Plainview, it’s far more socially disruptive to say that the drought could be connected to rising carbon emissions than it is to say that the disaster is simply an act of God. Perversely, as the destruction ramps up—wait until the series gets to Hurricane Sandy—those responses only seem to harden.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that a messaging strategy based primarily around solutions would have better luck dislodging that skepticism. It looks like Years will address responses to global warming in episodes to come—some of the future segments include Jessica Alba on how corporations are cutting carbon emissions and Olivia Munn on Jay Inslee, Washington state’s climate warrior of a governor. But every indication is that disaster will be the dominant note in the series.

I can’t blame Years’ producers for that—scenes of biblical floods and collapsing glaciers make for far more compelling TV than wonky discussions about the pros and cons of nuclear power. And we do live in a dangerous world—thanks to the intersection of population growth, an increasingly interconnected global economy and yes, warming. I hope that as Years unfolds, it finds time to report on the need to adapt to those dangers. We need to do what we can to slow the pace of global warming, but we also need to build a more resilient society, one that can absorb the superstorms and megadroughts of the future, bending without breaking.

The reality is that no one really knows how to close the partisan gap on climate change—and if Kahan’s cultural cognition theory is correct, it might just be impossible. By pitching some of its segments directly at the sort of people who feel that accepting climate change means abandoning some of their core beliefs, Years is at least taking that challenge seriously. And when this series is over, that effort may be more lasting than all the imagery of storms and wildfires and chaos that will fill the screen for the next nine weeks.

TIME Environment

Wal-Mart Could Make Organic Food Cheap—and Eventually, Plentiful

Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif.
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif.

The retail giant says it will sell some organic products at 25% below what its competitors cost. That's good for the organic market

If you still think organic food is something for hippies and vegans—and best of all, hippie vegans, though that might be redundant—it’s time to update your cultural stereotypes. This morning Wal-Mart announced that it would begin carrying products from the Wild Oats organic line—and that it would offer the goods at prices that are at least 25% cheaper than their organic competitors. Wal-Mart, the Bentonville behemoth that became the biggest retailer in the world by ruthlessly lowering prices, wants to make organic food cheap. And that could make the organic food market go supernova. “If we can make the price premium disappear, we think it will grow much, much faster,” Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery at Wal-Mart U.S., told reporters.

Organic has already been growing rapidly. Though the category still accounted for just 4% of total U.S. food sales at the beginning of 2012, organic sales rose to 10.2% that year, or $29 billion. A decade earlier, organic sales were just $8 billion. And this rapid growth is occurring even as sales at traditional supermarkets have been slumping. A wide swath of customers are switching to organic food when they can, and chances are even more would make the move if they could afford it: internal research at Wal-Mart found that 91% of its customers would buy “affordable” organic products if they were available. Over at Fortune magazine—another Time Inc. title—the editors are hailing the organic star Whole Foods on the cover of their latest edition:

The Austin-based chain is one of the country’s most successful retailers — its revenue has doubled and profits have tripled since 2007 — defying dismal grocery industry trends by offering consumers a mix of organics, truly delicious prepared foods, and an expanding array of staples under its 365 house brand. Now, having conquered affluent suburbs and trendy urban areas, Whole Foods is out to win over the rest of America.

In the short term, Wal-Mart’s move—which for now will be confined to staples like olive oil and tomato paste—could actually raise prices for some organic foods. That’s because the demand for organics has been outpacing the supply —this year there’s been a shortage of organic milk in many places, and organic egg production has dropped even as demand has increased because the price of the organic feed needed for the hens that lay the eggs has skyrocketed. (The example of milk is instructive: sales of whole organic milk nationwide increased 17% from January through October 2011, compared with the same period in 2010—even as sales of conventional milk over those months fell by 2%.) Under U.S. Agricultural Department rules, it also takes at least three years for farmers to switch from conventional crops to organic ones, so there will likely be a lag.

Still Wal-Mart’s unique, um, talent for getting suppliers to do what it wants will likely ensure that organic supply will rise to meet that growing demand over time, at prices that are less than what consumers have been accustomed to paying. The cognitive dissonance is inevitable—for the hardest-core of organic shoppers, the ones who long ago turned away from conventional groceries because of health and environmental fears, Wal-Mart is up there with Monsanto as a symbol of all that is is evil in the food world. But Wal-Mart has actually been selling organic products for years with a lot of success. And just as the company’s adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy—while not without problems—has helped push those technologies towards the mainstream, Wal-Mart’s embrace of cheap organic could have a major impact on the American diet and farming. Scale is a hell of a thing.

TIME Environment

Banning GMO Labeling Is a Bad Idea—For GMOs

GMO labeling laws in California
Robyn Beck—AFP/Getty Images A new bill in Congress would nullify state efforts to mandate labeling of GMO foods

A bill introduced in Congress would nullify any state effort to require labeling of genetically modified organisms. But that will make GMO acceptance even less likely, as public support for GMO labels is on the rise

Americans in two states have voted on ballot initiatives that would have required the labeling of any foods made with genetically modified ingredients (GMOs, for short). And twice, voters rejected those initiative in close ballots—thanks in part to tens of millions of dollars spent by GMO crop developers like Monsanto and industry groups like the Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA). You’d think then that GMO supporters in the food industry would be feeling pretty confident that they could win on genetically-modified food legislation.

Apparently you’d be wrong. Republican Representative Mike Pompeo of Kansas introduced on Wednesday new legislation that would nullify any attempt by states to require GMO labeling. More than two dozen states so far are considering bills that would mandate some form of labeling, with Maine and Connecticut having so far passed labeling measures into law. According to Pompeo, that’s enough to mandate a federal response:

We’ve got a number of states that are attempting to put together a patchwork quilt of food labeling requirements with respect to genetic modification of foods. That makes it enormously difficult to operate a food system. Some of the campaigns in some of these states aren’t really to inform consumers but rather aimed at scaring them. What this bill attempts to do is set a standard.

The bill—the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act”—would prohibit any mandatory labeling of foods made with bioengineering. The bill would also make it virtually impossible for states to block any efforts by food companies to put a “natural” label on any product that does contain GMO ingredients, requiring the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to create regulations that specify the maximum level of accidental GMO presence allowed in foods that come with a non-GMO label.

Translation: it’s almost as if the bill’s drafters were trying to hit on every fear that GMO-phobes have. It’s not surprising that the Environmental Working Group (EWG)—an environmental non-profit that has been deeply skeptical of GMOs—has called the bill the “Deny Americans the Right to Know Act.” As Marni Karlin, the director of legislative and legal affairs at the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement:

Consumers, particularly the eight out of ten American families who buy organic products, want to know what is in their food. Rep. Pompeo’s bill ignores this consumer demand for information. Instead, it ties the hands of state governments, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and the Food and Drug Administration concerning GMO labeling. It is fatally flawed.

It’s worth noting that even though ballot initiatives to require GMO labeling have twice failed, polls indicate strong support for labeling nationally. A New York Times survey last July found that 93% of Americans believe that foods containing GMO ingredients should be labeled. But we’re still a long way from that happening. While both Connecticut and Maine have passed laws mandating labeling, the measures don’t actually kick in until other nearby states approve similar laws. It seems a little early to pass a federal law to nullify state laws that aren’t actually in power yet.

In reality, though, arguments about GMO labeling tend to be arguments about GMOs—their usefulness and their safety. Confusion is rampant over GMOs, and if you want smart, straight reporting on the subject, check out Nathanael Johnson’s great series at Grist, which is summarized here. Like Johnson, I think the hazards posed by GMOs are “negligible to non-existent.” While they have yet to really fulfill their promise, GMOs can be a useful tool as the world tries to figure out how to feed billions more people without significantly increasing farmland, something that would be far worse for the environment than any genetically modified crop.

But the fact that I think properly regulated GMOs can be an important part of global farming is also why I think this bill is a mistake. Would a patchwork of laws mandating GMO labeling in some states and not others be an enormous and costly headache? Yes. But the same surveys that show support for GMO labeling also show deep distrust of bioengineering in food. And a lot of that distrust stems from the sense that GMOs are somehow being foisted on consumers without their knowledge or their consent. As Johnson notes, that increases the sense of risk around GMOs:

In a famous paper on risk perception, published in Science in 1987, Paul Slovic pointed out that people judge voluntary, controllable actions as much less risky than those that are involuntary and out of their control. Similarly, people see the unknown as much more risky than the known. Genetically engineered foods are, for most people, both unknown and uncontrollable.

By passing a law that would preemptively ban any attempt to require labeling, GMO defenders are playing into the hands of their opponents, making bioengineering feel far more risky than it really is. GMO advocates are losing this battle—see a company as mainstream as General Mills announce that a flagship product like Cheerios would now be made without genetically modified ingredients. If the food industry was smart, it would take a leading role in establishing a national standard for GMO labels. But given the bloody way this endless debate has played out, I wouldn’t expect a truce any time soon.


TIME relationships

Drunk Voles Have A Lot To Teach Us About Relationships

A prairie vole, Microtus ochrogaster.
Joel Sartore—National Geographic Creative/Getty Images

Alcohol makes male prairie voles more restless in partnerships and likely to stray, while it makes females want to get closer to their partners. Does the same go for humans?

Science can be fun. Case in point: for a recent study, researchers from the Oregon Health and Science University and a number of other institutions gathered a group of prairie voles—small rodents found in central North America—and then, as if the scientists were frat brothers and the voles were humble pledges, proceeded to get them drunk.

No, this study was not published in The Onion. (You may be thinking of the influential “New Study Finds College Binge Drinking to be a Blast.”) It was actually published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the work actually offers valuable data about how alcohol use can impact how couples bond.

Here’s how: the researchers took a group of prairie voles and paired them off, male and female. Unlike many animals, prairie voles tend to mate for life, which makes them a useful model for studying social interactions. The male and female pairs were then given either water or a 10% alcohol solution, which is a little less than you might get in a normal glass of wine. (Another human-like trait of voles: they love to drink when they have the opportunity, preferring the alcohol to water, and in laboratory conditions they’ve even been shown to subtly encourage their partners to drink more.) The researchers then tested whether the voles would show a preference to spend time with their partners, or with a stranger vole.

The results will not be surprising to anyone who has been in a bar on a Saturday night. The male voles who had been given water always preferred their partner, but the ones who been given alcohol often wanted to spend time with strangers. For female voles, it was the opposite—consuming alcohol strengthened their desire to spend time with their partners, compared to when they were given only water. There were also contrasting changes in the neural systems that regulate social behavior. “It’s the first time we’ve shown that alcohol drinking can directly affect social bonding and that these effects are paralleled by changes in neuropeptides,” Andrey Ryabinin, a behavioral neuroscientist at Oregon Health and Science University and the lead researcher on the paper, told National Geographic.

What’s particularly interesting is that the alcohol had no effect on the amount of mating that went on between the voles—both the drunk ones and the sober ones—which means sex wasn’t playing a role in the differences in bonding behavior. Instead the difference between the genders seemed to come down to the effect that alcohol had on anxiety. In males, alcohol use seemed to decrease anxiety, whereas in females, alcohol seemed to increase anxiety. The relaxed males were less inclined to commit, while the stressed out females were more likely to seek out their bonded partners.

Voles aren’t people—we’re taller, for one thing—but the PNAS study bears out some of the effects that alcohol can have in human relationships, as seen experimentally and in, you know, experience. As the authors write:

The enhancement of attachment in female prairie voles parallels the prosocial effects of alcohol in humans. The inhibition of bond formation in males is reminiscent of the negative effects of alcohol on long-term attachments and marital happiness, which occur for both men and women.

That last bit is important—male or female, alcohol does not tend to be the strongest building block for couple partnering over the long term. (Citation: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) But you probably don’t need a peer-reviewed study to tell you that.

TIME Environment

Renewable Energy Investment Is Down—and That’s OK

Solar and wind in Germany
Sean Gallup—Getty Images Investment in renewables like solar and wind is down, but their share of global power is up

Funding for solar, wind and other forms of clean power fell 14% in 2013, largely because it's now cheaper to adapt to the newer technologies, but that doesn't mean the shift to renewable energy has fully stopped

On the surface, the new numbers on the global renewable energy industry in 2013 do not look good for the planet. Investment in renewable energy fell 14% in 2013 to $214.4 billion, according to a new report from the Frankfurt School-UNEP Collaborating Centre for Climate and Sustainable Energy Finance, the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and Bloomberg New Energy Finance. And that comes after a year when renewable energy investment was already falling—it’s now down 23% from the record investment levels seen in 2011. Given that recent reports from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) underscore the desperate need to increase the shift from fossil fuel to low-carbon power sources like solar or nuclear, the two-year investment decline is not good news.

But looking at the numbers more closely tells a brighter story. It’s true that investment in renewable energy has been falling, but that’s chiefly due to the rapidly falling cost of solar photovoltaic systems, according to Michael Liebreich of Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The average price of installing a solar panel has dropped by 60% in the U.S., which means that less money can buy more solar power. Globally, renewable energy aside from large hydro plants accounted for 43.6% of all new power capacity added last year—the same as in 2012—which translated to 81 gigawatts. That raised renewable energy’s share of total power generation from 7.8% to 8.5%.

On top of that, more clean energy companies can draw funding from public equity—a stock market index of clean tech companies was up 54% in 2013. And the biggest drop was in a form of energy—biofuels—that’s looking less green every year. Even with investment down, the shift towards a world powered by low-carbon sources hasn’t stopped. “The onward march of this sector is inevitable,” said Liebreich at a press conference Monday morning.

The biggest change on the global stage was in Europe, where investment was down 44% from the year before (U.S. investment fell by 10%). Some of that drop is due to the delayed effects of Europe’s economic slowdown, which led countries like Spain and Bulgaria to make retroactive cuts to subsidies for existing renewable energy projects, which killed off investment altogether. Renewable energy remains heavily subsidized in most of the world, which makes it extremely vulnerable to policy uncertainty. “For the last few years there has been enormous policy uncertainty, even in the heart of Europe,” says Leibreich. “We’re at a point where there will be a lot of regulatory cleanup.”

There are even some caveats to the caveats. Those 81 GW of wind, solar and other renewables added to the global grid last year is in terms of power capacity, not actual generation. Because wind and solar are intermittent—they generate power when the wind blows and the sun shines—they actually generate far less energy in practice than their listed capacity. In the U.S., the capacity factor for renewables—excluding hydro—was 33.9%, compared to 63.8% for coal and 90.3% for nuclear. Until we figure out how to balance out the renewable sources—either through cheap energy storage or through more advanced power grids—clean energy will often need to be supported by dirtier power sources.

Still, renewable energy is poised to become an ever bigger part of the global energy picture—though perhaps not as fast we need if we’re to stave off the worst effects of climate change. We’ll need not just more investment in new wind and solar plants, but also in the sort of research that will yield breakthrough technologies that can change the rules of the energy industry (More nuclear, by far the biggest source of near zero-carbon power in the U.S., would help as well). This is a power shift that is just beginning.

TIME climate change

Climate Change Is a Game of Risk

Hurricane Sandy flooding effects
Scott Eells/Bloomberg via Getty Images Climate change could increase the risk of catastrophic events like Hurricane Sandy

Climate change is uncertain, which is why the best way to understand how warming will change the world is through the language of risk

Every new chapter of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment is boiled down into what is known as a policymaker’s summary—a 40-page or so document that is meant to contain the essential conclusions of the panel’s work and be used to guide politicians and the business community as they respond to global warming. Or at least that’s the idea.

Though chapter 2 of the fifth assessment—which was released on Mar. 31 in Yokohama—had no shortage of dire warnings about global warming, including projections that food could become scarcer as temperatures increased, it doesn’t seem as if many policymakers read the policymaker’s summary—let alone the full report, which runs over 1,000 pages. Kate Gordon, the director of the think tank Next Generation’s energy and climate program, noted that no speaker at the Wall Street Journal‘s ECO:nomics conference—a conference devoted to the intersection between the environment and business—actually brought up the issue of global warming until well into the afternoon of the summit’s second day. “Energy prices, energy volatility, future of utilities? Yes,” she wrote. “Climate change? No.”

If climate change is going to matter as a political and economic issue, it needs to be translated into political and economic terms. Out in San Francisco the hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer is trying to make climate matter for politics, promising to spend tens of millions of dollars in 2014 on attack ads targeting politicians who oppose action on global warming. And Steyer is also involved in an effort to make climate change matter for the business community, teaming up with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson on the Risky Business initiative, a wide-ranging project that will eventually produce a major report about the likely economic impact of climate change on U.S. business. “We came to this thinking how do we get to a place and a way of talking about climate change that is comfortable for the business community,” says Gordon, who also serves as the executive director of Risky Business. “And that’s the language of risk.”

Risk—you’ll be hearing that word a lot in the context of climate change. That’s because the best way of thinking about the impact of global warming—and especially the economic impact—is as a risk factor. As the climate warms, sea level will rise, which puts coastal communities—from tens of millions of poor people in Bangladesh to ultra-wealthy Manhattanites—at greater risk of flooding. Warming may also intensify tropical weather, potentially increasing the risk of catastrophic storms like Katrina. If climate change cuts into the yield of crops like wheat or corn—as the latest IPCC report predicts—that could raise the risk of violent conflict in already impoverished countries. Climate change is a risk multiplier.

Putting climate change in the context of risk also gets around the uncertainty inherent in trying to predict the effects of something as fiendishly complex as global warming. Read the IPCC report closely, and you’ll see that there’s a lot of hedging, especially when it comes to the impact that warming temperatures will have on extreme weather. That’s not evidence that global warming doesn’t exists; rather, it’s evidence that climate scientists are honest about what they know and what they don’t know. And it doesn’t give us a free pass—it’s possible that hurricanes might not be responsive to warming, and it’s also possible that warming could supercharge storms. “The very fact of uncertainty—that’s what we mean by risk,” says Hemant Shah, the CEO of Risk Management Solutions (RMS), a catastrophe risk modeling firm that is taking part in the Risky Business initiative.

And this is what’s really important: businesses already know how to deal with risk. They’re accustomed to operating in an uncertain world, and hedging that risk appropriately, whether it’s the threat of natural disaster, war or regulation. By making CEOs see that climate change is just another form of risk—albeit one that’s potentially on a scale larger than any we’ve faced before—the Risky Business initiative will hopefully nudge them towards taking some steps to mitigate that risk. “The question is, what decisions can we make to manage that risk appropriately,” says Shah. “We think this is incredibly important work.”

RMS, which uses complex analytics to model natural catastrophe risk in real time, will provide much of the science behind Risky Business. The company’s analysts will use climate data and models to map out how rising seas, warming temperatures and changing atmospheric patterns could alter the natural disasters that already cost the global economy tens of billions of dollars each year. The result won’t be a single figure—a dollar cost that we can hang on climate change—but it will help us understand the danger we face. The question then is whether we’ll finally listen.

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