TIME Environment

Republicans Make Hay from Obama’s ‘War on Coal’

Not even 24 hours after the Obama administration announced new EPA rules, the National Republican Senatorial Committee was set to roll out robo-calls Tuesday attacking Democratic senators in energy-rich states

Not even a day after the Obama administration announced proposed new regulations to cut back on greenhouse gas emissions at power plants, Republicans had already planned a new offensive, using the new rules to hammer vulnerable Democrats in states across the country in a bid to retake the Senate.

On Tuesday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee is set to roll out robo-calls in energy-rich states Virginia, Louisiana, Colorado, and Alaska to target four incumbent Democrats in tight races for re-election.

Swing voters in those states will hear variations of this message: “Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs.”

The RNC released a web video Monday morning accusing Obama of continuing a “war on coal,” while Speaker of the House John Boehner called the plan “nuts.”

“Democrats like Mary Landrieu, Mark Begich, Kay Hagan, John Walsh, Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Pryor, Mark Udall, Bruce Braley, Gary Peters, Mark Warner, Alison Lundergan Grimes, Natalie Tennant all claim to be independent Democrats who stand up to President Obama yet it turns out they are completely ineffective and we will be reminding voters of that throughout the summer and fall,” said NRSC Press Secretary Brook Hougesen.

Democrats acknowledge that the new rules will make it more difficult to compete in a number of coal-country House districts, but argue their impact won’t be felt nearly as much in less parochial—and more consequential—Senate races.

Several of those Democrats are publicly breaking with the White House over the proposal, a move the White House expected. “While it is important to reduce carbon in the atmosphere, this should not be achieved by EPA regulations,” Landrieu said in a statement. “Congress should set the terms, goals and timeframe. Greater use of natural gas and stronger efficiency measures adopted by the industry have already helped us reduce carbon emissions to their lowest levels in 20 years, and this should continue. I will work with leaders of both parties to build on the progress we have already made.”

Others are trying to turn the issue around on Republicans: In Colorado, Sen. Mark Udall is firing back at Republican Rep. Cory Gardner’s attacks.

“The Pentagon says climate change is a threat to America¹s military infrastructure and global stability. Yet Congressman Gardner voted to ban the Department of Defense from taking crucial steps to protect our nation in a changing world,” said Udall spokesperson Chris Harris. “Droughts, wildfires, floods, heat waves and storms are driving up the price of groceries, hurting our economy and costing our state billions each year. Gardner’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge the facts of climate change is out-of-touch with mainstream Coloradans and will put our state at risk.”

Asked if the President was concerned at the adverse impact on Democrats seeking re-election, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said the benefits would speak for themselves — eventually. “The President thinks this is the right thing to do,” he said. “And he’s confident that there will be significant benefits to our health, public health, and to our economy as the years pass.”

The NRSC call scripts:

VA:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising Mark Warner stands by Obama’s costly regulations, because he stood with liberal senators in support of a plan that would have imposed a radical cap-and-trade plan on Virginia. A cap and trade agenda that one study said could increase gas prices in Virginia by 64 cents a gallon. Tell Mark Warner higher gas prices and new EPA regulations, just don’t make sense for Virginia.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000. 425 2nd St NE, Washington, DC 20002.

CO:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising Mark Udall stands by Obama’s costly regulations, because he lobbied other senators to support a radical cap-and-trade plan that would have increased Colorado energy prices and hurt jobs. Tell Mark Udall higher electricity costs and new EPA regulations, just don’t make sense for Colorado.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000

LA:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. So why has Mary Landrieu given hundreds of thousands of dollars to anti-energy Democrats? Landrieu even claims that she and Harry Reid are a team, even though Reid says “Oil makes us sick”? Tell Mary Landrieu that this war on American energy just doesn’t make sense for Louisiana.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000

AK:

Hi, this is ____ calling on behalf of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

Yesterday President Obama announced new costly environmental regulations. It’s all part of his radical energy plan, which he said would make electricity rates “skyrocket.” Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce said that the new EPA regulations will increase electricity prices and kill thousands of jobs. It’s not surprising Mark Begich stands by Barack Obama’s costly regulations, because he supported the same cap-and-trade energy tax plan as Obama. A cap-and-trade energy tax could have killed almost 6,000 Alaska jobs, and reduced disposable income for Alaskan households by more than $1,200. Tell Mark Begich that higher electricity costs, less jobs and these new EPA regulations, just don’t make sense for Alaska.
Paid for by National Republican Senatorial Committee. Not authorized by any candidate or candidate’s committee. 202-675-6000

TIME Environment

New Obama Climate Regulations Could Help U.S. Pressure China

New regulations will only have lasting benefit if they help encourage countries like China to take similar steps

As my colleague Michael Grunwald points out, the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) proposed new rules on carbon emissions from the power sector are a big deal. (Vice President Joe Biden might use slightly different language.) The rules—which still have to go through a year of public comment and which will almost certainly face legal and Congressional challenges—would cut carbon emissions from the power sector by 30% below 2005 levels by 2030. These regulations—which will apply to existing power plants, not just new ones—are by far the biggest single step taken by the U.S. to fight climate change. With the stroke of a pen (though it was technically be EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy’s pen), President Barack Obama has done more about global warming than all of his predecessors combined.

But climate action is measured in carbon, not in political legacies. By that measurement, the U.S. carbon regulations are only a beginning, and will only have lasting benefit for the world if they help encourage the major future emitters—the big developing nations like China and India—to take similar steps to reduce their own rapidly growing carbon emissions.

The truth is that the EPA regulations are so historic largely because so little has been done to restrict carbon emissions before. As Eric Holthaus points out over at Slate, choosing 2005 as the baseline year for carbon cuts makes it that much easier for the U.S. to meet a 30% cut. (In a call with reporters, senior EPA officials made the case that 2005 is less a baseline than a point of comparison for the changes that will be made in emissions by 2030. The actual policy, which will be left to individual states, flows from the energy mix in the U.S. as of 2012. But 30% less than 2005 levels sounds a lot more impressive than a smaller percentage from 2012 levels, even though they ultimately mean the same thing.) That’s because U.S. carbon emissions have already fallen significantly since 2005, thanks to a mix of increasing natural gas (which emits around half as much carbon as coal), a growing contribution from renewables and the recession, which reduced consumption of everything, including energy. As of 2011 carbon emissions from the power plant sector alone—which accounts for a little less than 40% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions—had fallen 16% since 2005, which means we’re already more than halfway there. Using 1990 as a benchmark year for emissions—which is what’s done in the UN climate process—the EPA regulations only amount to a 3.5% cut by 2020.

In fact, given that U.S. power plant emissions had been dropping, the reductions mandated in the regulations are likely much smaller than they seem. The EPA itself estimates that emissions from U.S. power plants will be 730 million metric tons less by 2030 than they would have been without the rules. That’s not a negligible amount—it’s equivalent to taking two-thirds of the country’s passenger vehicles off the road for a year—but it still amounts to just about 11% of total U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in 2011. The EPA predicts that by 2030, coal and natural gas will still be the leading sources of U.S. electricity, each contributing 30% of power, with non-hydro renewables coming in at 9%, up from about 6.7% now. It’s impossible that anything tougher would have been politically feasible—witness Republican House Speak John Boehner’s two-word reaction to the news rules: “It’s nuts.” Still, if everything the EPA predicts comes true—obviously not likely—the U.S. of 2030 will be a cleaner, healthier place, but it will still be pouring a lot of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

And even that may not matter all that much to the global climate. That’s because the U.S. has already been outpaced as the world’s top emitter by China, where carbon emissions have increased an astounding 52% since 2005. Rising India isn’t too far behind—carbon emissions have grown 50% since 2005. These giants, and other rapidly growing countries in the developing world, will be putting the vast majority of the new carbon into the atmosphere in the decades to come. The amount of carbon set to be saved by the EPA rules amounts to a little over 2% of total global carbon emissions in one year: 2012. It’s still China and the other big developing nations that control the future of the climate.

But that doesn’t mean U.S. action can’t make a difference—as much by example as by actual numbers. The EPA regulations should allow the U.S. to reach the 17% reduction below 2005 that Obama promised during the doomed U.N. climate summit in Copenhagen in 2009. U.N. climate talks, which resume at the end of the year in Lima, have always been hobbled by the refusal of the U.S. to take the lead on cutting carbon, going back to the fact that Washington failed to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. Representatives from Beijing and New Delhi could—and did—argue that it was unfair to expect still poor countries to cut carbon if the world’s top historical emitter refused to take action. But U.S. diplomats will now be able to point to EPA regulations as proof that the U.S. has pledged itself to long-term carbon cuts—and cuts that come under national law, not more amorphous international promises. “American influence is always stronger when we lead by example,” Obama told graduating West Point cadets in an address last week. “We cannot exempt ourselves from the rules that apply to everyone else.”

That doesn’t mean the dream of a global climate deal has been saved. The reality is that the future of climate action will look like this—national or regional entities taking steps on their own, for their own reasons, that will hopefully add up to something real. China is already taking aggressive steps on carbon, less to deal with climate change than to counter the truly horrific air pollution the country faces. Beijing will continue on that path to save itself, but U.S. leadership can’t hurt. “I fully expect action by the United States to spur others in taking concrete action,” said Christiana Figueres, the U.N.’s top climate official.

We’ll see. But here’s my prediction: The policies put in place in Washington or Beijing or New Delhi will ultimately matter far less than the technological changes that are already sweeping the energy industry. U.S. carbon emissions have fallen over the past decade—in the absence of national action—largely because of new technologies, including the fracking revolution, which made it economical for cleaner natural gas to displace dirty coal. In the years to come, solar panels will keep getting cheaper and cheaper, which could potentially upend the utility model, much in the same way that mobile phones disrupted landline companies. Big data will change how we use and produce electricity, reducing waste. Obama’s climate regulations will help cement those changes and encourage new ones as states mix and match to meet their emissions reductions goals.

But 2030 will look very different from 2014—and will almost certainly be much cleaner in the U.S.—for reasons that go far beyond a 626-page regulatory order coming out of Washington.

TIME Environment

Meet the Solar-Powered Plane That Will Fly Around the World

A look at Solar Impulse 1 and 2 as the second aircraft makes its inaugural voyage in preparation for the aircraft's global trip in 2015.

TIME housing

Tiny Houses With Big Ambitions

Is the tiny-houses movement a viable solution for American homeowners?

Anyone who’s been to the suburbs in the past half-century knows that American homes have been getting larger and more elaborate year after year. The average size of new homes has swelled by 50 percent since 1970, despite that the average family size decreased during the same period. And it’s not just here; similar trends have held sway in other prosperous, mostly Western countries.

As with most things, a countertrend, focused on homes that are smaller and simpler than the norm, emerged in recent decades. Sometimes referred to as the “tiny house movement,” the concept describes efforts by architects, activists and frugal home owners to craft beautiful, highly functional houses of 1,000 square feet or less (some as small as 80 square feet). It’s both a practical response to soaring housing costs and shrinking incomes, and an idealistic expression of good design and sensible resource use.

The most ardent advocates and early adopters of the concept were often looking to downsize and simplify their lives, create an affordable second home or find innovative ways to live outside the mainstream. Some small homes are on wheels and therefore resemble RVs, but they are built to last as long as traditional homes. Others represent clever architectural solutions to odd building lots or special design challenges. Aging baby-boomers see them as an efficient way to adapt to their changing needs. Most tiny houses are tailored for middle-class and wealthy families who made a conscious decision to “build better, not bigger.”

But natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and economic catastrophes like the Great Recession inspired many people to wonder if the movement might offer solutions to pressing housing crises, whether temporary or long-term. Cheaper to build and maintain, built mostly of ecologically friendly materials, requiring no building permits and taking up far less real estate than traditional houses, the appeal of “living small” is obvious to many people. Some imagine entire villages built of tiny homes as solutions to homelessness.

The movement itself remains small, however promising. Only about one percent of home buyers today go for houses of 1,000 square feet or less. That may be changing as more people become familiar with the ideas that animate the movement and as middle-class finances remain precarious.

Watch the video above and make up your own mind: Would you opt to live small if you could?

TIME Environment

Invasive Species: Not Always the Enemy

Endangered bird in invasive species
The California Clapper Rail has come to depend on invasive Spartina cordgrass Image courtesy of Robert Clark

The usual policy with invasive species is to eradicate them whenever possible. But in a changing world, that may not be possible

By some estimates, invasive species are the second-biggest threat to endangered animals and plants. Which is a problem, because invasions are on the rise, thanks to increasing global trade, climate change and habitat loss, all of which are turning the planet into a giant mixing bowl as invasive species spread across the globe. So it’s not surprising that many conservationists treat invasive species as enemy combatants in a biological war. The federal government spent $2.2 billion in 2012 trying to prevent, control and sometimes eradicate invasive species, in an effort that involved 13 different agencies and departments.

But un-mixing the global mixing bowl may be impossible—human activity has simply altered the planet too much. And as a new study in Science suggests, some invasive species have become so embedded in their environment that they could only be removed at great cost. Take them away and an ecosystem might collapse, in the same way that pulling a single thread can cause an entire tapestry to unravel.

Researchers from the University of California-Davis examined the relationship between the California Clapper Rail—an endangered bird found only in San Francisco Bay—and the invasive saltmarsh cordgrass hybrid Spartina. The Army Corps of Engineers originally introduced the grass Spartina alterniflora into San Francisco Bay in the mid-1970s in an effort to reclaim lost marshland. Unsurprisingly, though, the introduced species didn’t stay in its niche—it hybridized with native Spartina grass and began spreading, displacing the native Spartina and eventually invading more than 800 acres. That was a problem for the clapper rail, because the bird depended on the native Spartina as a habitat. So the Spartina casebecame a classic example of an invasive species causing trouble for an endangered native, which is why efforts began in 2005 to eradicate it. Those efforts were successful—more than 90% of the invasive Spartina has been removed, though the native plant has been slow to recover.

But something unexpected happened: Between 2005 and 2011, populations of the federally endangered clapper rail fell by nearly 50%. That’s likely because the bird came to depend on the invasive Spartina for habitat just as it had on the native. And since the population of the native grass wasn’t rebounding, the eradication of the invasive Spartina left the clapper rail that much more vulnerable. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service decided to prohibit further eradication of the invasive Spartina, while transplanting nursery plants of the native Spartina.

As an invasive species, though, the hybrid Spartina was still marked for death—the question was how to complete eradication of the plant without accidentally eradicating an endangered species as well. The Science researchers modeled out possible interventions and found that the best solution was to slow down the eradication of the invasives until the native plants could recover and the ecosystem could return to something like its natural state. The default reaction to invasives is to stamp them out whenever possible, but the Science study demonstrated that the collateral damage would simply be too great.

“Just thinking form a single-species standpoint doesn’t work,” said Alan Hastings, a UC Davis environmental science and policy professor and a co-author of the paper, in a statement. “The whole management system needs to take longer, and you need to have much more flexibility in the timing of budgetary expenditures over a longer time frame.”

This isn’t the only example of a conflict between eradicating an invasive species and protecting an endangered one that has come to depend on it. In the Southwest, a program to eradicate invasive Tamarisk was eventually scaled back when it was discovered that the tree provided a nesting habitat for the endangered Southern Willow fly-catcher bird. And as the pace of invasions around the world gains speed—and efforts to fight those invasions scale up—we can expect those conflicts to intensify.

That’s one reason why a small but growing number of wildlife ecologists have begun to question the wisdom of fighting an open-ended war against invasive species. In 2011, 19 ecologists co-authored an influential article in Nature arguing that we should judge species not by their origin, but by their impact on the environment. That piece produced serious pushback by mainstream ecologists accustomed to the eradication paradigm, but in a planet that has been so fundamentally remade by human beings—the ultimate invasive species—it’s clear that an all-out war can’t go on. “The planet is changing,” Mark Davis, a biologist at Macalester College and the lead author on the Nature article, told me not long ago. “If conservation is going to be relevant, it has to accept that.”

TIME Environment

Muskies Are Mad for the Moon

Muskie fish
If you want to catch a muskie, try it during the full moon Photo Researchers via Getty Images

The muskie is one of the hardest fish for anglers to land. Now researchers have found that the job might be easier during some lunar phases

The North American freshwater fish known as muskellunge—muskies, for short—are notoriously elusive and difficult to catch. “They’re known as ‘the fish of a ten thousand casts,'” says EPA fisheries scientist Ted Angradi, and an enormous body of lore has grown up around how to improve the chance of pulling one in. One technique—fishing during the full or the new moon—dates back to Native American anglers who fished the muskie’s home waters, mostly in the northern Great Lakes region.

As scientists and avid fishermen themselves, however, Angradi and his fishing buddy Mark Vinson, who studies fisheries out of the U.S. Geological Survey’s Lake Superior Biological Center in Wisconsin, wondered if they could bring some scientific rigor to the question.

The result: a paper titled Muskie Lunacy, which is just out in the journal PLOS One. The moon does give fishermen an edge on snagging muskies (whose formal name, for the record, comes from the Ojibwa word “maashkinoozhe,” or “ugly pike”). “The effect is at the margin,” says Angradi. “At best it improves your chances by five percent. But any little edge makes a difference.”

To put hard numbers to that edge, Angradi and Vinson went to the definitive muskie database, complied by—who else?—Muskies Inc. “We’d been thinking about the moon effect for some time,” says Vinson, “but then we came across this data set that looked phenomenal.” In the end, they crunched 341,959 muskie catch records from 1970 through 2013, which included data on location, date and time of the catch, size of the fish, and more. (Fish-rights advocates please note: more than 99% of the victims were released, which is part of the muskie-fishing ethic. “Anglers consider each fish important,” says Angradi. “It doesn’t make any sense to kill them.”)

In the end, it turned out that the moon really does have an effect. If you fish during the day, as 90% of anglers do, you’ll boost your chances of a catch by 5% if you go out during either the new or the full moon. If you fish at night, you get the same increase, but only during the full moon.

What the study doesn’t answer is why. One theory: “It might have something to do with feeding behavior,” says Vinson. Muskies are top predators, and it could be that the fish they feed on are more abundant during the full and new moon. The two fishing buddies are planning to test that hypothesis by looking at another data set. It’s a catalogue of 50,000 fish stomachs, which could give a clue about whether these tend to be fuller during the relevant parts of the lunar cycle. “These are lake trout,” says Vinson, “but they’re also top predators.” The same behavioral rules, in short, could well apply.

If the theory pans out, of course, it begs the question of why smaller fish are more abundant during the new and full moon. There should be plenty to keep Angradi and Vinson fishing for years.

TIME Environment

Greenpeace Activists Take Over Oil Rig Near Norway

NORWAY-ENVIRONMENT-GREENPEACE
Greenpeace International activists from eight countries scale and occupy Statoil contracted oil rig Transocean Spitsbergen on May 27, 2014 to protest the company's plans to drill the northernmost well in the Norwegian Arctic at the Apollo Prospect of the Barents Sea, close to the Bear Island nature reserve. Will Rose—Greenpeace/AFP/Getty Images

Protestors from eight different countries are responding to an oil-policy reversal from Norway's government

More than a dozen activists from eight different countries have occupied an oil rig in the Barents Sea, as part of a Greenpeace protest against a Norwegian company that plans to drill there.

The protestors decided to board the Transocean Spitsbergen rig — in arctic waters roughly 190 miles off of Norway — after Norway’s government reversed a decision to block oil drilling in the area, Mashable reports.

Greenpeace is concerned that an oil spill accident would cause tremendous environmental damage to the surrounding area and the nearby Bear Island nature reserve, and “could reach the nesting place of a million seabirds in less than a week,” said Finnish activist Sini Saarela, quoted on the Greenpeace website.

Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment told the Wall Street Journal that drilling does not violate “current policy or regulation.”

[Mashable]

TIME Environment

Why ‘Global Warming’ Is Scarier Than ‘Climate Change’

Climate change versus global warming
"Global warming" may be a more engaging term for activists than "climate change" Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

The two terms may seem synonymous, but one generates much more engagement than the other

A quick check of the TIME.com archives reveals that I’ve used the term “global warming” in 545 posts, videos and articles—not counting this one. And the term “climate change”? 852 times. That’s not surprising. While the two terms are largely synonymous—which is why there are 472 posts where I use both—”climate change” has become the preferred term for scientists because it better describes the long-term changes in the planet’s climate, which go well beyond simple temperature increase. Scientists use it, and so have I, but most of the time I simply rotate the two terms for variety’s sake.

But it turns out that global warming and climate change evoke very different reactions in ordinary Americans—and for those trying to motivate the public to act on greenhouse gas emissions, using “global warming” could be more effective. In a new report by the Yale Project on Climate Communications, researchers led by Anthony Leiserowitz surveyed Americans and found that “global warming” is used much more commonly than “climate change,” both in conversation and in Internet searches, and that “global warming” is significantly more engaging than “climate change.” That’s because global warming generated more alarming associations, causing survey respondents to think of disasters like melting ice, coastal flooding and extreme weather, while “climate change” generated more banal associations with generation weather patterns. “Global warming” was also associated with:

  • Greater certainty that the phenomenon was happening
  • Greater understanding that human activities were the primary driver of warming, especially among political independents
  • A greater sense of personal threat, as well as more intense worry about the issue
  • A greater sense that people are being harmed right now by warming, and a greater sense of threat to future generations
  • Greater support for both large and small-scale actions by the U.S. (although “climate change” generates more support for medium-scale efforts, especially among Republicans.)

That last bit is especially important. As the report’s authors note, some environmentalists have come to think “climate change” is a more effective term to use with Republicans, precisely because it doesn’t seem as catastrophic as “global warming.” (If there’s one thing conservative climate skeptics like to argue, it’s that environmentalists are constantly overstating the threat of climate change.) But the Yale report found that Republicans don’t really care which term is used, though “global warming” will sometimes generate stronger negative feelings among conservatives. Not that it much matters—a recent Gallup poll found that 65% of conservatives said they were skeptical of climate change, compared to just 24% of moderates and 9% of liberals.

But the Yale report also found that the term “global warming” actually seemed to reduce engagement with Democrats, independents, liberals and moderates:

African-Americans (+20 percentage points) and Hispanics (+22) are much more likely to rate global warming as a “very bad thing” than climate change. Generation X (+21) and liberals (+19) are much more likely to be certain global warming is happening. African-Americans (+22) and Hispanics (+30) are much more likely to perceive global warming as a personal threat, or that it will harm their own family (+19 and +31, respectively). Hispanics (+28) are much more likely to say global warming is already harming people in the United States right now. And Generation X (+19) is more likely to be willing to join a campaign to convince elected officials to take action to reduce global warming than climate change.

Scientists take great pride in the precision of their language, sometimes to the point of jargon-filled incomprehensibility. But language matters in politics, too. Just look at the difference between estate tax and death tax, two terms that refer to the same legal act—taxing wealth left over after a citizen dies—and yet connote two entirely different things. The difference between global warming and climate change isn’t that large yet, but environmentalists who want to nudge as much of the public as possible towards action should be careful which one they use.

TIME Environment

Your Ant Farm Is Smarter Than Google

Ants carry leaves to their nest
As a collective, ants are efficient and surprisingly intelligent Moment Select via Getty Images

Ant colonies are surprisingly efficient at forming intelligent networks that can rapidly spread information, according to a new study

Ants may have the largest brains of any insect, but that doesn’t mean a single ant on its own is all that smart. As individual ants leave their nest in search of food, they walk in what appear to be random paths, hoping to come across something to eat. The behavior of hundreds of scout ants circling their nests on a hunt for sustenance can be chaotic as it looks, like drunks stumbling about the house in search of their keys. The ants will search for food until they’re exhausted, then return to the nest to briefly eat and rest before heading back out again.

But as a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences makes clear, something amazing happens when an individual ant finds a food source. The ant will take a bit of the food back to the nest, leaving a trail of pheromones behind them to mark the path. A wave of ants will then attempt to follow the path back to the food source, but because pheromones evaporate quickly, their behavior will still look chaotic as they attempt to home in on the food.

Over time, though, the ants will organize their search, optimizing the best and shortest path between the food and the nest. As more ants follow the optimal path back and forth, they leave more and more pheromones, which in turn attracts more and more ants, creating a self-reinforcing efficiency effect. The chaotic, seemingly random foraging of individual ants is replaced with organized precision. Working as one, the ants create the sort of distribution networks a traffic engineer could only dream of.

“While the single ant is certainly not smart, the collective acts in a way that I’m tempted to call intelligent,” said study co-author Jurgen Kurths of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Reseaerch, in a statement. “The ants collectively form a highly efficient complex network.”

That’s not all the study found. The researchers also discovered that individual ants differ in their ability to find food. Over time older ants gather more experience about the environment surrounding their nests, which makes it easier for them to forage effectively, even though their age means they tire faster than young ants. The young ants are more like interns—their lack of experience means they can’t contribute much to foraging, but they are effectively learning on the job. (No word on whether they get course credit.)

Even though individual ants can get smarter over time as they learn more about their surrounding environment, the real ant intelligence is in the collective. Just how advanced are their search capabilities? Good enough to rival our best technology, at least. Google’s search engine forages for information on the Web in much the same way an ant colony looks for food. Google’s webcrawlers scour the Internet, bringing data about individual pages back to Google’s servers, where that information is indexed, sharpening the company’s picture of the ever-evolving Internet as it is—just as ants learn more and more about their environment over time. Google’s search algorithms use hundreds of signals to find the most efficient and accurate answer to any search query—just as the ant colony quickly organizes itself to find the most efficient path to a food source once it has been discovered by scouts.

But Kurths believes that ants are actually much more efficient at organizing data than a collective of human beings using the Internet could ever be, as he told the Independent:

I’d go so far as to say that the learning strategy involved in that, is more accurate and complex than a Google search. These insects are, without doubt, more efficient than Google in processing information about their surroundings.

Which doesn’t mean you should ask the closest ant colony, rather than Google, when you want to find out what time the Super Bowl is on. But in a digitally connected world where the network is quickly becoming smarter and more efficient than any individual, ants are apparently ahead of the game.

TIME Environment

‘Time Is Running Out’ To Stop Rising CO2 Levels, Says UN

April was the first time the monthly average of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere passed 400 parts per million, a threshold that the U.N. says has "symbolic and scientific significance"

The amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere reached a record high last month, according to the UN’s weather agency, highlighting the need to curb rising greenhouse gas emissions.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) said Monday that the monthly average CO2 concentration in the northern hemisphere surpassed 400 parts per million in April. CO2 levels have topped 400 before, but this is the first time the monthly average passed the threshold, which the UN says has “symbolic and scientific significance.”

“This should serve as yet another wakeup call about the constantly rising levels of greenhouse gases which are driving climate change,” WMO chief Michel Jarraud said in a statement. “Time is running out.”

CO2 is most responsible for the warming effect on the climate and its concentration in the atmosphere has been increasing steadily over the past decade.

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