TIME Environment

Paris Makes Public Transportation Free Amid Severe Smog

A general view shows the Eiffel tower and the Paris skyline through a small-particle haze March 13, 2014.
A general view shows the Eiffel tower and the Paris skyline through a small-particle haze March 13, 2014. Philippe Wojazer—Reuters

A number of French cities including Paris are making their public transportation systems free this weekend to combat extraordinarily high levels of smog caused by unusually balmy days, cold nights and little wind

A number of French cities including Paris have decided to make public transportation free this weekend in an effort to combat extraordinarily high levels of smog.

The emergency measure was announced by the French Minister for Ecology Philippe Martin on Thursday, AFP reports. The severe pollution is caused by unusually warm weather, a lack of wind, and a combination of cold nights and balmy days. Airparif, a non-profit organization accredited by the Ministry of Environment to monitor the air quality in Paris, reported that Thursday’s level of pollution hit the top of its index and that the agency will remain on alert over the next few days.

In October, the World Health Organization classified outdoor air pollution as carcinogenic.


TIME Environment

Sweep Our Dirty Rivers Clean

Polluted waters
Illustration by James Dyson for TIME

This concept for a barge that scoops up debris could keep pollution from reaching the oceans

The amount of plastic debris in the oceans has grown a hundredfold in the past 40 years. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade but instead floats in giant, immeasurable patches for birds and sea life to ingest. Take the Eastern Garbage Patch, for instance, a large gyre of marine debris located near the Midway Islands in the Pacific Ocean. Albatrosses in the area give birth to 500,000 chicks every year, and nearly half of them die–many of them after consuming plastic fed to them by their parents, who think it’s food.

The concept I propose, the M.V. Recyclone, would combat this ever growing problem of plastic waste making its way to our oceans by filtering out debris from the rubbish-stricken rivers that feed into them. By focusing on the polluted rivers, the M.V. Recyclone could tackle a concentrated stream of plastic, catching it before it spreads.

Dyson is the founder and chief engineer of Dyson Ltd.

TIME Environment

Study: New Man-Made Gases Eating Into Ozone Layer

Getty Images

Scientists say gasses from insecticides and solvents for cleaning electronic components are harming the atmosphere more than two decades after governments around the world resolved to pass legislation phasing out ozone-depleting gasses

A new study suggests man-made gases in the atmosphere are affecting the ozone layer, more than two decades after governments resolved to phase out ozone-destroying gases.

Three of the types of gases discovered are chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), the compound found in aerosol sprays and refrigerator coolants that created holes in the ozone layer nearly 30 years ago, the Financial Times reports. The gases may be emitted from chemicals used to make insecticides and solvents for cleaning electronic components, said the study by Dr Johannes Laube of the University of East Anglia, but their source is unclear.

A hydrochlorofluorocarbon, or HCFC, a less harmful replacement of CFCs, is another gas affecting the atmosphere.

The ozone layer in the earth’s stratosphere filters ultraviolet solar rays that are harmful to human health. In 1989 governments agreed to phase out CFCs, leading to a long-term recovery of the ozone layer. Scientists point to the ozone layer’s recovery as evidence that changes in human behavior can improve the environment.

But the recent discovery suggests the ozone layer is still being impacted. Emissions at the current levels have not been seen since controls were introduced, though the recent levels are still much lower than the extraordinarily high CFC output of the 1980s.

“The concentrations found in this study are tiny. Nevertheless, this paper reminds us we need to be vigilant and continually monitor the atmosphere for even small amounts of these gases creeping up, either through accidental or unplanned emissions,” said Professor Piers Forster of the University of Leeds.


TIME Agriculture

California Farmers Are Using ‘Water Witches’ to Make Your Two Buck Chuck

Proprietor Marc Mondavi demonstrates dowsing with "diving rods" to locate water at the Charles Krug winery in St. Helena, Calif. Eric Risberg—AP

Desperate times call for desperate measures?

In the middle of a record drought, some California farmers have hired dowsers — also known as “water witches” — to use uncommon techniques to find underground water, The Associated Press reports.

Dowsers extend copper or wooden sticks called “divining rods” over the ground to find new wells. Bronco Wine Co., the fourth largest winemaker in the U.S. (and the maker of Two Buck Chuck), employs dowsers on its 40,000-acre property, according to the AP.

The AP reports Napa Valley’s best-known “water witch” is winemaker Marc Mondavi, who charges as much as $500 per visit.

The state’s Department of Water Resources and the U.S. Geological Survey do not endorse the practice, arguing that there is no scientific basis to it.

MORE: California Set to Get Rain, But It Won’t Quench The Drought

MORE: California Farmers Need Water: Is Desalination The Answer?

TIME Gadgets

6 Gadgets That Help You Save Energy (and Money)

Getting a handle on your household energy consumption can save money and the environment. Your heating and cooling usage is an obvious target, but did you know it’s also important to monitor your gadgets and electronics gear?

The average US household spends $100 per year powering products that are turned off or in standby mode, according the the EPA. And, nationwide we spend $10 billion a year in energy costs.

Below you’ll find devices that help determine where you’re losing your money and ensure you keep spending under control.

Saving money on heating & cooling

Black & Decker

Black & Decker TLD100 Thermal Leak Detector

You’ll see big savings on your monthly energy bill when you stop heat and air conditioning from leaking out of your house. A thermal leak detector, like the Black& Decker TLD100 can show you where your home’s leaks are. Once the device has read the ambient temperature, you can start checking around windows, door frames and other places air could be escaping. The light will change to red for warmer spots and blue for cooler spots. You can set the temperature tolerances to one, five or 10 degrees.

Price: $35.10 on Amazon.com


Nest Learning Thermostat

The Nest Thermostat (2nd Generation) is smart enough to know when you’re away. So if you forget, it can lower the temperature about two hours after you’ve left. It’s continually monitoring your habits, so it can automatically adjust the temperature based on your needs. And, Nest lets you know when you’re saving energy, rewarding you with a green leaf icon. Even small changes to your thermostat settings can impact your monthly energy bill. For instance, each degree above 68° F can add three percent to the amount of energy needed for heating, according to the Edison Electric Institute.

Price: $249 on Amazon.com

Reducing energy use


Belkin Conserve Insight Energy-Use Monitor

Want to find out which electronics items are the biggest energy hogs in your home? Plug suspects like your networked printer, TV or even a whole powerstrip into the Belkin Conserve Insight Energy-Use Monitor to find out. It tracks and displays the annual cost (based on the pre-loaded U.S.-average rate or your own rate), CO2 emissions and power consumption. And if the outlet is hard to reach, the display’s six-foot cord make it easy to put it in a place that’s convenient to read.

Price: $26.99 on Amazon.com


Belkin WeMo Insight Switch

Curling irons, space heaters, coffee makers: they’re all easy to accidentally leave on when you’re rushing out the door. So to ensure they’re turned off, you can plug them into a Belkin WeMo Insight Switch. Remotely check in on an appliance or electronic device and turn it off (or on), set a schedule and monitor and control energy usage. If your device is on a switch, like your lights, try the WeMo Light Switch. It works with your existing wall plates.

Price: Belkin WeMo Insight Switch: $59.99 on Amazon.com, Belkin WeMo Light Switch: $49.99 on Amazon.com


Monster MP HT 800G Home Theater PowerCenter

When you’re TV is off, you don’t need your DVD player, surround receiver or game system turned on. With The Monster MP HT 800 G Home Theater PowerCenter with Monster GreenPower, you plug your TV into the green master plug on the lower right, and the outlets on the same row to the left, the GreenPower outlets, shut down automatically when the TV is turned off. The three outlets on the top row stay on, so you can continue to record programs on your DVR. In case of a power surge, you’ll get 2160 Joules of protection and an alarm will sound. If your powerstrip is buried at the back of your entertainment center, try the Belkin Conserve Switch Energy-Saving Surge Protector. It comes with a wireless remote for turning off power.

Price: Monster MP HT 800G: $56.56 on Amazon.com, Belkin Conserve Switch Energy-Saving Surge Protector: $25.98 on Amazon.com.


Lutron Maestro Dimmer with Occupancy Sensor

Have a light someone’s always forgetting to turn off? Install a motion-sensing light switch that will automatically shut off when the room is empty, like the Lutron Maestro Dimmer with Occupancy Sensor. It has a 150 degree motion detector with an angle up to 30 feet. You can set the sensitivity and the time or operate it manually. The light will go back on at whatever dimming level you set it at last. For use with incandescent and dimmable compact fluorescent bulbs.

Price: $31.76 on Amazon.com

This article was written by Suzanne Kantra and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Environment

These are 11 of the Oldest Things in the World

All that lives must die—but some organisms get a little more time on this Earth than others. For nearly a decade, the photographer Rachel Sussman has been traveling around the world, capturing images of the oldest continuously living things in the world, part of an effort to “step outside our quotidian experience of time and start to consider a deeper timescale,” as she put it in a TED talk in 2010. Everything she has photographed for the project is at least 2,000 years old, if not much, much older. That includes something as unimaginably ancient as the Posidonia sea grass meadow, found in protected waters in the Mediterranean Sea, which may be 100,000 years old, and something comparatively younger, like baobab trees found in southern Africa. It is a record of survival, of those organisms—and they’re all plants, lichen or coral, as the oldest animals live less than 200 years—that beat the odds of genetics and simply lasted.

Sussman has a new photo book out that details her project, along with a foreword by the science writer Carl Zimmer. There’s a sense of wonder imbued in these photographs of organisms that seem to be a physical record of time, but there’s also a call to action. Many of these subjects of Sussman’s portraits are under threat from habitat loss or climate change or simple human idiocy. (Sussman has written movingly about the loss of the 3,500 year-old Senator tree in Orlando, destroyed in a fire that was almost certainly set on purpose.) “The oldest living things in the world are a record and celebration of our past, a call to action in the present and a barometer of the future,” Sussman has said—and the images that follow prove her out.

TIME Environment

Obama Plays Water Guzzling Desert Golf Courses Amid California Drought

US President Barack Obama boards Air Force One at Palm Springs International Airport, Feb. 17, 2014 in Palm Springs, California. President Obama is returning to Washington,DC after spending the holiday weekend golfing in California. Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

The U.S. president flew to California Friday to highlight the state's growing water crisis, then turned around and spent the weekend hitting local aqua-hogging links while some Republicans and environmentalists cried foul

President Barack Obama traveled to California Friday to highlight the state’s drought emergency at two events near Fresno, calling for shared sacrifice to help manage the state’s worst water-shortage in decades. He then spent the rest of the weekend enjoying the hospitality of some of the state’s top water hogs: desert golf courses.

Vacationing with DVDs of his favorite television shows and multiple golf outings with his buddies, the duffer-in-chief played at two of the most exclusive courses in the Palm Springs area. On Saturday, Obama played at the Sunnylands estate, built by the late billionaire Walter Annenberg, which features a nine-hole course that is played like 18 holes. The following day he golfed at billionaire Oracle founder Larry Ellison’s 19-hole Porcupine Creek. On Presidents’ Day, Obama hit the links at Sunnylands once again.

The 124 golf courses in the Coachella Valley consume roughly 17 percent of all water there, and one quarter of the water pumped out of the region’s at-risk groundwater aquifer, according to the Coachella Valley Water District. Statewide, roughly one percent of water goes to keep golf courses green. Each of the 124 Coachella Valley courses, on average, uses nearly 1 million gallons a day due to the hot and dry climate, 3-4 times more water per day than the average American golf course.

Of course, golf is a vital industry to the tourist paradise with streets named for presidents and Hollywood stars, but the two courses Obama selected are among the most exclusive, seeing far fewer rounds-per-year than nearby courses. Sunnylands, owned by a trust, is not open to the public. Ellison’s course hosts charity events, but is also closed to the general public. Ellison himself has said he doesn’t golf.

Local golf officials realize they have a problem and are working to reduce their consumption. Water utilities are trying to transition the courses to using non-potable reclaimed water, instead of groundwater, for irrigation. In recent years, the 200-acre Sunnylands has cut back on the amount of turf grass and installed a more efficient irrigation system, according to a press release from the course operators. The course has prepared to transition to an as-yet-unfinished city-wide reclaimed water system. “The Annenberg Retreat at Sunnylands has taken significant measures to reduce water usage,” Geoffrey Cowan, the president of the Annenberg Foundation Trust at Sunnylands, said in the release. “In consideration of the conditions that led Governor Brown to make a drought declaration, reducing water consumption is a more important priority than ever,” Cowan said. A spokesman for the foundation did not immediately respond when asked how much water the course consumes.

Water data for Porcupine Creek was not available, though the 246-acre property reportedly features an “80-foot-diameter fountain ringed with 90 individually lit jets that shoot water up to 80 feet high.”

“It can’t just be a matter of there’s going to be less and less water so I’m going to grab more and more of a shrinking share of water,” Obama said Friday in Los Banos. “Instead what we have to do is all come together and figure out how we all are going to make sure that agricultural needs, urban needs, industrial needs, environmental and conservation concerns are all addressed.”

Republicans were quick to pounce on Obama’s water-intensive golf weekend. “We have seen this brand of hypocrisy from President Obama before — this time it seems his soap box doubles as a tee box,” said RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski. A White House official declined to comment on the record for this story.

TIME Environment

Bill Nye Scolds GOP Congresswoman on Global Warming

National Read For The Record Day - Press Conference
Bill Nye FilmMagic

"We need you to change things, not deny what's happening," he told Representative Marsha Blackburn on Meet the Press

Bill Nye “The Science Guy” told Republican Representative Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee to stop questioning the facts behind climate change on Sunday morning, as the Congresswoman said the “engineer and actor” didn’t know enough about climate science to claim authority.

The two sparred over the the most appropriate response to extreme weather events and global warming on NBC’s Meet the Press, and disagreed on the scientific consensus regarding climate change.

Blackburn maintained that there is no consensus in the scientific community about global warming, pointing to two vocal dissenters, Richard Lindzen of MIT and Judith Curry of Georgia Tech, who claim that humans are not causing climate change.

“Neither [Bill Nye] nor I are a climate scientist. He is an engineer and actor, I am a member of Congress. And what we have to do is look at the information that we get from climate scientists,” said Blackburn. “There is not agreement around the fact of exactly what is causing this.”

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate-warming trends over the past century are very likely due to human activities, according to NASA. Experts say there is still some uncertainty in absolutely linking isolated extreme weather events like Hurricane Sandy or bad droughts to global warming, but the vast majority of scientists ascribe climate change and the increase in extreme weather to human activity.

Nye responded harshly to the Congresswoman.

“We have overwhelming evidence that the climate is changing. That you cannot tie any one event to that is not the same as doubt about the whole thing,” said Nye. “There is no debate in the scientific community. I encourage the Congresswoman to really look at the facts. You are our leader. We need you to change things, not deny what’s happening.”

Blackburn argued that responding to climate change will involve balancing the costs of not preventing climate change with the benefits of continuing at high rates of carbon emissions.

“One of the things that we have to remember is cost-benefit analysis has to take place,” said the Congresswoman. “And it is unfortunate that some of the federal agencies are not conducting that cost-benefit analysis.”

Nye said the U.S. could stand to gain economically by investing in new technologies, but warned against the cost of denial.

“For me, as a guy who grew up in the U.S., I want the U.S. to lead the world in this,” he said. “These are huge opportunities, and the more we mess around with this denial, the less we’re going to get done.”

Watch the full debate here:

TIME Environment

Traveling the Keystone XL Pipeline

Portland protest against opening of Southern Keystone XL Pipeline
Protesters demonstrate against TransCanada in Portland on the opening day of the southern leg of the Keystone Pipeline, on Jan. 22, 2014. Alex Milan Tracy—Demotix/Corbis

North America is fast becoming the new Saudi Arabia. Are we ready for what that means for our future?

I recently traveled the tar sands of Canada and the route of the Keystone XL pipeline from Alberta to Nebraska. At ground-level, on North America’s new energy frontier, it’s clear a revolution is underway that goes well beyond the heated and sometimes hysterical debate over a single pipeline.

Almost no one I met during 12 days in Canada regarded the fate of the XL as critical to development of the tar sands. Production is ramping up, new pipelines and rail facilities are being built at a frantic pace, and both the province of Alberta and Canada at large appear drunk on the money and jobs the tar sands provide.

On the U.S. side of the border, a similar frenzy is evident in the Bakken, the vast oilfield in North Dakota and Montana that will also feed crude into the XL (if it is built). I met workers from across the U.S., many from poor backgrounds, earning $80,000 or more a year and building a middle class lifestyle. Typical is Greg Ralph, who grew up in a trailer in Texas, didn’t finish high school, and is now moving his wife and two young children into a new home.

“I have a mission,” he told me over beers in Williston, N.D. “To keep my kids out of a house on wheels. I came up that way, and I want better for them.”

If the economic benefits of the oil boom are readily apparent, so too is the environmental devastation. All around Williston, the prairie is on fire with gas burn-off from oil wells — hellish flares that pump six million tons of carbon dioxide into the air each year without heating a single home. I also visited a farm where a pipeline rupture recently saturated the land with 20,000 barrels of crude that will take two years to clean up. “It was just a wheat field before, and then it was an oil field,” said Patty Jensen, on whose property the spill occurred — a 110-year-old homestead now surrounded by rigs and flaring wells.

The Bakken is nonetheless a beauty spot compared to the tar sands region of Alberta. There, the forest and peat bog have been rolled up like so much carpet and the earth peeled to a depth of over 200 feet; flocks of birds die upon landing in toxic tailings ponds; and leaks at one site have been seeping since last May, drowning a large area of woods and wetlands in heavy bitumen.

These encounters, and many others on my 4,000-mile road trip, left me feeling that the Keystone XL is too narrow a scope through which to view the energy transformation in North America. The State Department concluded in late January that the pipeline won’t “significantly enhance” greenhouse gas emissions, and that stopping the XL won’t keep tar sands from being extracted and transported. All that may be true. But the 36-inch-diameter XL will carry only a fraction of the oil as today’s steady flow from Alberta and the Bakken rapidly turns into a gusher.

Tar sands production is on pace to almost double by 2020 and nearly triple by 2030. New mines are being built with a lifespan of 50 years, and production is shifting to steam-injection wells that produce even more greenhouse gases than mining tar sands. Production in the Bakken has roughly tripled over just the past three years. Oilfields in Wyoming, Colorado, and elsewhere in the U.S. are booming as well.

North America, in short, is fast becoming the new Saudi Arabia, and that’s before we count all the natural gas being fracked and the coal being mined.

This energy boom is likely to boost the domestic economy and may allow the U.S. to disengage from oil politics overseas. But a reliable and abundant fix of dirty oil from Canada, and conventional crude from the Northern Plains, will feed our addiction to fossil fuels and reduce the incentive to develop renewable sources of energy. This will “significantly enhance” greenhouse gas emissions, and localized environmental damage will likewise increase: more pipeline spills, more rail accidents, and more forest, wetlands, and prairie despoiled by mining and drilling.

Patty Jensen, whose family farm in North Dakota has been flooded with crude, commutes 65 miles round-trip to her job, and has a son working in the oil patch. “I don’t want to go back to my grandparents’ time,” she said, telling of their constricted lives and a six-year-old forbear who died of appendicitis because she couldn’t reach a hospital in time. But the recent spill, and the industrialization of the prairie she and her husband’s family have farmed for three generations, has led Jensen to ponder the big picture.

“I love the area we live in, it is absolutely beautiful in its way,” she told me. “I don’t want that statement to turn into, it was absolutely beautiful.”

Tony Horwitz is the author, most recently, of BOOM: Oil, Money, Cowboys, Strippers, and the Energy Rush That Could Change America Forever.

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