TIME Environment

Study: Pesticides Cause Colony Collapse Disorder in Honeybees

Humans may be the cause of the massive decline in honey bee populations.

Pesticides are the probable cause of massive colony collapse disorder (CCD), a new study from Harvard’s School of Public Health claims.

On the rise since 2006, CCD works like this: Beekeepers suddenly discover that the hives they’re tending to have very few adult bees left in a colony, but there are no bodies. Essentially, the bees disappear from the colony and then die off en masse. This is a severe issue considering that one third of all food and beverages come from crops pollinated by honeybees.

The study’s lead author Chensheng Lu say that more research needs to be conducted to figure out how exactly the pesticides are afflicting the bees.

TIME National Security

Climate Change Poses Growing National-Security Threat, Report Says

A new report published by the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board this week finds that climate change is a "catalyst for conflict" and a "threat multiplier," proving to be a growing threat not only to the environment but also U.S. national security

Climate change does not only threaten the environment but also U.S. national security, according to a new study.

Global warming presents the U.S. with several security threats and has led to conflicts over food and water because of droughts and extreme weather, says the report, which was written by a dozen retired American generals and published by the Center for Naval Analyses Military Advisory Board on Tuesday.

“Climate change can act as a threat multiplier for instability in some of the most volatile regions of the world, and it presents significant national security challenges for the United States,” says the report, adding that problems will be felt “even in stable regions.”

The U.S. military should plan to help manage catastrophes and conflicts both domestically and internationally, it says, raising concerns regarding a wave of refugees fleeing rising sea levels.

“These effects are threat multipliers that will aggravate stressors abroad, such as poverty, environmental degradation, political instability and social tensions — conditions that can enable terrorist activity and other forms of violence,” the report states.

The authors of National Security and the Threat of Climate Change urge U.S. policymakers to act quickly. “The increasing risks from climate change should be addressed now because they will almost certainly get worse if we delay,” they say.

TIME weather

20,000 Homes Evacuated as Wildfires Burn Near San Diego

More than 20,000 homes in and around San Diego were evacuated after more than 700 acres were torched by wildfires, which officials say have been brought on by an extended period of drought and high temperatures

Unseasonably warm temperatures and boisterous winds triggered evacuation orders in San Diego on Tuesday, where more than 700 acres have been torched by wildfires.

Authorities called for the evacuation of more than 20,000 homes in and around San Diego earlier in the day, but officials allowed many to return to their homes on Tuesday night as temperatures dropped in the area.

“We believe we have a pretty good handle on it,” said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar. “We hope to do some more work through the night and into tomorrow, but I think the largest part of the emergency has passed.”

An extended period of drought in tandem with unusually high temperatures has left large swaths of the state’s landscape ripe for burning.

“Fire season last year never really ended in Southern California,” Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told the Associated Press.

California officials have responded to more than 1,350 fires since the beginning of January, which is double the average number of blazes at this time of year.

[AP]

TIME Environment

Sea Lions Are Starving to Death—and We Don’t Know Why

America's busiest marine mammal rehab facility is trying to figure out why mothers seem to be abandoning their young along the Pacific

On a sunny, windy morning in the rolling hills outside San Francisco, a pickup truck parks on what was once a missile site for the U.S. military. In the bed of the truck is a big white crate holding a little sea lion pup, an animal about half the size he should be, shaking with weakness. Pacheco—named for the road that runs by the stretch of nearby Ocean Beach where members of the public found the animal stranded—is the newest “patient” at the Marine Mammal Center. But, like nearly half of the other animals who arrive there, he might not be at the center long. “You can see his backbone,” says Shawn Johnson, director of veterinary science. “He’s not surviving.”

The Marine Mammal Center, situated in part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is the largest rehabilitation facility of its kind, and Pacheco is the latest in a record number of patients who have been delivered to their door this year. “It was like hitting a wall,” Executive Director Jeff Boehm says of the swell that started this spring. “The animals hit us fast and furious.” The influx of nearly 500 ailing sea lions, elephant seals and harbor seals is straining the resources of the non-profit Center. But it’s also providing opportunities to learn more about diseases that affect seals, sea lions—and land animals like humans.

Many of the patients currently in the care of the center’s 50 staff members and 1,100-member volunteer network are pups like Pacheco. In a normal year, the veterinarians might see 20 California sea lion pups who are malnourished and undersized. Since the beginning of this year, they’ve already treated around 100. “There’s a disturbance in the ocean right now,” says Johnson. “For some reason, they’re being abandoned by their moms.”

Each summer, such pups are born in the Channel Islands, a string off the southern coast of California, where they’re reared for nearly a year. The islands are hundreds of miles from San Francisco, which is why pups like Pacheco “shouldn’t be here,” as Johnson puts it. His best theory is that something is causing a food shortage, and so the mothers, unable to feed themselves, are deserting their offspring in search of food elsewhere. The pups then set out on their own, but they’re too inexperienced and weak to reach foraging grounds, eventually getting swept off course and washing up in places like Ocean Beach, sick and starving.

That’s just a theory for now, but the center is piloting a project that could help provide answers. The Marine Mammal Health Map will standardize data from all the marine mammal rehab facilities that care for stranded animals along America’s coasts—cataloging where the animals appear and how they’re diagnosed—and then overlay that information with oceanographic data already being collected by the government. That could allow experts to link patterns in strandings to temperature changes or ocean swells or the spread of toxins in the sea.

The Marine Mammal Center is part of a national stranding network set up by the Marine Mammal Protection Act. The legislation was passed in 1972 after marine animal populations had been decimated by human hunters. Elephant seals, who fill the air at the center with their signature bleats and who can weigh more than 5,000 lbs. (2,267 kg) when fully grown, were once killed for fat that was used in perfume and candles. Sea lions, who traipse around the center’s pens on their rotating front fins, were once fed to pigs because they were high in fat and easy to catch. The center was established nearly 40 years ago by a few volunteers who first tried to rehabilitate stranded marine mammals in kiddie pools. It has since grown to inhabit a $32 million complex with high-tech water filtration systems and on-site labs; veterinarians and students from around the world come there to learn about the animals. On the day Pacheco arrived, medical staff from New Zealand and Chile helped perform a procedure on a sea lion named Coco Max, whose rear flipper had swollen to twice its normal size after a bite became infected.

Sometimes that research can lead to surprising breakthroughs for humans. One toxin Johnson and his team have identified among their current patients is domoic acid. This toxin, a naturally occurring one found in algae, causes seizures among marine animals who have eaten small fish that have eaten algae blooms. In humans, domoic acid causes amnesic shellfish poisoning. Mussels filter the contaminated water through their systems, and when people eat the shellfish, the toxin can cause brain damage and memory loss. But government officials and researchers didn’t start scouring West Coast waters for domoic acid until scientists at the Marine Mammal Center identified it as a cause of a mysterious seizure outbreak among California sea lions in the late 1990s. Their discovery “led to a huge amount of research about how [amnesic shellfish poisoning] occurs, how to protect humans, a whole new department of public health,” says Johnson.

The vast majority of the center’s animal patients can’t eat or are so young they never learned how to swallow a fish whole. Volunteers blend “fish milkshakes”—made of high-fat herring, fish oil and water—that medical staff pump into the stomachs of the animals until they can be trained in “fish school” to chase and eat herring on their own. With their pens full, the Marine Mammal Center is currently grinding through 1,000 lbs. of fish per day, at a cost of $1 per pound.

And many of the patients won’t make it. Last year, about 60% of the animals admitted to the Marine Mammal Center were eventually released back into the wild. Many of the lost had cancer, or were simply too far gone from starvation by the time they were found. Even the success stories can be colored by tragedy. A sea lion named Silent Knight was found listless on a beach in Sausalito four years ago; when he was brought to the center, the veterinarians determined that he had been shot in the head, a too common practice among fisherman frustrated by the animals interfering with their catches or simply bored shooters on the beach. Though the wounds didn’t kill Silent Knight, they did blind him, and the animal couldn’t be released back into the wild. Happily, the San Francisco Zoo made a home for him instead.

That’s the kind of salvation story that employees try to impress on the 100,000 people, many of them school children, who visit each year—and whom the center might eventually depend on for donations in busy times. Right now, staff are anticipating that they might be grappling later this year with a possible El Nino, a period of abnormally warm ocean temperatures that can affect weather around the world. That could mean more storms that separate mothers from their young and less fish for marine mammals to eat. Altogether, that means busy times in the Marin Headlands. But the staff is hoping that as their research advances, they’ll be able to figure out a way to keep sea lions and seals from becoming patients in the first place. “That’s the goal,” says wildlife veterinarian Glenna McGregor. “To put this place out of business.”

TIME Opinion

Rubio’s Wrong on Climate Change

The senator on science: just say no
The senator on science: just say no Scott Eisen—Getty Images

A likely 2016 contender weighs in on climate change—proving he's ready to run for president, but not ready to hold the job

Good news for Marco Rubio fans! The junior Senator from Florida is ready to be President, according to, um, the junior Senator from Florida himself. Rubio may or may not be ready to hold the most powerful job in the world, but one thing is clear: He’s certainly prepared to run for it, at least in the modern Republican Party. If there was any doubt on that score, it was settled during an interview on ABC News on Sunday, when he checked one of the most important boxes on any GOP hopeful’s job application: declaring that he did not, could not, would not, believe that climate change is real.

“I do not believe that human activity is causing these dramatic changes to our climate the way these scientists are portraying it,” Rubio said. “I think severe weather has been a fact of life on Earth since man started recording history.”

Those two sentences alone are a clinic in the art of the counter-factual, non-scientific dodge that can never be proven wrong because it says nothing at all. It opens with the obligatory hedge of belief—as when the heads of the major tobacco companies testified before Congress in 1994 that they did not believe nicotine was addictive, though it has been scientifically proven to be, because belief need not have anything to do with fact and, in the case of the tobacco boys, had the additional advantage of not leaving them open to perjury charges. Rubio adds the obligatory soupçon of contempt for the scientists—or “these scientists” he calls them, one of those rhetorical eyerolls that dismisses an entire community of professionals as little more than a faction of hacks. Finally, there is the faintly scientific sounding statement that is utterly irrelevant to the issue he is ostensibly addressing. Extreme weather has always been a fact of life on Earth, Rubio points out. Stipulated, as the lawyers would say. Now how about addressing how we’re exacerbating it?

But Rubio goes too far, as all climate deniers eventually do, inventing things scientists never, ever say, and then confidently refuting them. Take his assertion that climate investigators have “take[n] a handful of decades of research and say that this is now evidence of a longer-term trend that’s directly and almost solely attributable to human activities.”

OK, let’s put aside for a moment that “a few decades” of research is huge, a massive body of work with the most sophisticated tools and computer models ever available, which have exponentially increased our knowledge of how climate works. Still, even with that, climate scientists treat words like “directly and almost solely attributable” as nothing short of radioactive because that overstates what the research can show so far. Science is a cautious and highly incremental process, and scientists themselves treat it that way.

The same disingenuousness is true of Rubio’s statement to CNN that, “I think that it’s an enormous stretch to say that every weather incident that we read about or a majority of them are attributable to human activity.” Again, it would indeed be a terrible stretch if scientists were saying such a thing—which is why they’re not. Indeed, it’s why they stress again and again that weather isn’t climate, that today’s heat wave in Arizona or flood in Colorado is nothing more than bad news for the people who live there, but that over time—say, over “a few decades of research”—trends emerge, patterns reveal themselves, and scientific theory becomes inescapable if still incomplete fact.

Rubio may realize all that already or he may not—only he knows. Either way, by saying the things he’s said he has indeed made a strong case that he’s ready to run for president—and an even stronger case that he’s not ready to hold the job.

TIME Environment

The World Needs More Clean Coal, or We’re Screwed

Coal plants in China
Coal plants like this one in China produce 40% of the world's electricity STR/AFP/Getty Images

Environmentalists have celebrated the rapid growth of renewable power. But a new International Energy Agency report makes clear that coal is still a major, and growing source of electricity. Unless we spend more time developing carbon-free coal technologies, there's little hope of holding back global temperature increases

The growth of renewable energy has gotten a lot of attention recently — and with good reason.

Buoyed by falling costs, wind and solar PV electricity generation has experienced double-digit growth globally in recent years. In the U.S. alone, demand for solar power increased by 41% in 2013. Altogether there are more than 440,000 operating solar electric systems in the U.S., a number that is growing every day thanks to the work of innovative new retailers like Solarcity. The Department of Energy just gave the go-ahead to three pioneering offshore wind developments along the U.S. East Coast.

All that good news makes it easy assume the world will soon be mostly powered by renewable sources. But as a new report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) makes clear, the numbers simply don’t back those dreams up. The global increase in coal-fired power generation has been bigger than that of all non-fossil fuel sources combined. And that’s not a recent change — coal has been outpacing non-fossil sources for 20 years, and coal now supplies about 40% of the world’s electricity needs. Six out of ten coal plants built over the past decade use the least efficient combustion technology, which means they emit even more pollution and carbon emissions then they should.

Even as the threat of climate change grows, the world is still using more and more of the dirtiest energy source out there; the World Resources Institute estimates that there are almost 1,200 big new coal plants in 59 countries proposed for construction. Developed countries like the U.S. should be able to reduce coal use rapidly, but most of the growth in electricity demand in the decades to come will be in developing nations—and coal will almost certainly be a big part of it. “Some people don’t want to talk about coal, but it’s the elephant in the room,” says Maria van der Hoeven, the executive director of the IEA. “It is there and it will be there for decades to come.”

Given that reality, you’d think the world would be working hard to make “clean coal” a commercial reality. That would be achieved by carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology, in which carbon emissions from fossil fuel sources are captured and then buried in the ground, making coal essentially carbon-free. But CCS has been stalled by technological challenges and high costs. Even though the G8 in 2008 backed an IEA recommendation to launch 20 large-scale CCS demonstration projects by 2010, a recent Wired cover story on the subject reported that the number of such projects around the world is actually falling, except in China.

That has to change. As the IEA makes clear, growth in electricity demand is outpacing all other uses of energy, as developing nations begin to achieve electrical parity with the developed world. Efficiency will help significantly, but given that there are still 1.2 billion people around the world who lack access to electricity, we’re going to need more power. Renewable energy will keep growing as it gets cheaper and cheaper, while smarter grids will allow utilities to manage intermittent sources and reduce waste. The grid of tomorrow won’t look at all like the grid of today — except that it will almost certainly still include coal.

The IEA reports that if the world wants to hold global temperature increase to 3.6 F (2.0 C), the CO2 emissions per unit of electricity must decrease by 90% by 2050. It won’t be cheap; the agency estimates the transition will cost $44 trillion, though that could potentially be largely offset through fuel saving from efficiency. Either way, we almost certainly won’t get there unless we can make coal a carbon-free source of electricity, too.

TIME Environment

Obama’s Energy Announcements Are Nice, But We’ll Need Much More

Obama touts solar power
Solar power in the U.S. has grown nearly elevenfold under President Obama's watch Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

The President visits a California Walmart to tout new policies on energy efficiency and solar

The warnings in the National Climate Assessment released earlier this week could not have been louder, predicting intensifying heat, torrential downpours and rising seas. And when President Obama spoke about the report, he was clear as well. “This is not some distant problem of the future,” Obama told The Today Show’s Al Roker on May 7. “This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.”

But if climate change is the problem, what’s the solution? Today Obama began to answer that question, announcing several executive actions on renewable energy and energy efficiency at a speech he’ll give later today at a Walmart in Mountain View, California. Those actions include a plan to drive $2 billion in energy efficiency upgrades to Federal buildings over the next three years, using long-term energy savings to pay for up-front costs. The Department of Energy will issue two final energy efficiency conservation standards for industrial products like escalators and walk-in supermarket freezers, as well as tougher new building efficiency standards. Altogether the White House expects that the actions will push private companies to invest an additional $2 billion in energy efficiency, and will cut carbon pollution by more than 380 million metric tons—equivalent to taking 80 million cars off the road for a year.

That’s nice—and the President will also announce plans by a number of housing developments to increase their use of solar power—but it’s important to remember that the U.S. alone emits more than 6.5 billion metric tons of greenhouse gases. These new executive actions are small bore compared to the sheer size of the climate challenge—although they are taking place against the backdrop of rapid growth in the U.S. solar industry, which has increased nearly elevenfold since Obama took office. The selection of a Walmart for today’s announcement—while controversial with labor activists—isn’t accidental. Walmart already gets about a quarter of its electricity from solar, far more than the country as a whole, and the company has been a leader in energy efficiency for some time. Walmart might not be a political ally to President Obama most of the time, but the retail giant is light-years ahead of most of corporate America when it comes to climate change.

But energy efficiency and solar power are comparatively easy climate policies. The real challenge will come when the Environmental Protection Agency issues regulations on the amount of carbon that can be emitted by existing power plants, the single biggest source of greenhouse gases—and the single biggest action Obama can take to answer the climate challenge. Today’s announcement in Mountain View is just a warm-up. The marathon is still ahead.

TIME Environment

White House Announces New Action on Solar Energy

President Barack Obama will announce over 300 new public and private sector commitments to clean, solar energy — but his decision to include Walmart in his plans angered some labor groups

The White House is announcing executive actions to advance clean energy on Friday, including $2 billion worth of upgrades to federal buildings to make them more efficient over the next three years.

President Obama will announce the planned upgrades on Friday in California, where he has been fundraising for Democrats running for the Senate since Wednesday. At the core of Obama’s announcement is a renewed focus on solar energy, including 300 new public and private sector commitments to make solar power more accessible. According to the White House, the commitments represent enough solar energy to power 130,000 homes.

Among the commitments are proposals to use more solar energy in affordable and low-income housing units, and expansion of solar energy at retail stores including Walmart, Apple, and Ikea. The decision to include Walmart angered some labor groups, who say the retailer pays low wages and offers few benefits to its workers. Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich openly criticized the inclusion of Walmart in a Facebook post Thursday.

The attention to solar energy follows a White House summit held in mid-April, where the administration urged business owners and local leaders to use more solar energy. At the so-called “solar summit,” the administration launched a $15 million program to help local, state governments combat climate change and utilize solar energy.

Obama is also set to announce the installation of solar panels at the White House residence on Friday. According to the LA Times, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said the installation of solar panels, “helps demonstrate that historic buildings can incorporate solar energy and energy efficiency upgrades.”

TIME Environment

Climate Change Is Here — But That Won’t Make Americans Care

Climate Change Report
Floodwaters from the Souris River surround homes near Minot State University in Minot, N.D. in this June 27, 2011 file photo. Charles Rex Arbogast—AP

If climate action has to wait until we all feel climate pain, we're doomed

The National Climate Assessment released Tuesday did not break much new scientific ground, but it debuted a new scientific message. “Climate change, once considered an issue for a distant future, has moved firmly into the present,” the report concluded. President Obama parroted that message while flacking the report: “This is not some distant problem of the future. This is a problem that is affecting Americans right now.” The media also focused on the here-and-now. “U.S. Climate Has Already Changed, Study Finds,” declared the New York Times. “U.S. Climate Report Says Global Warming Impact Already Severe,” said the Washington Post.

It’s true, of course. We’re already seeing hotter weather, nastier droughts, rising seas, and more damaging floods. I live at Ground Zero for climate change, so I’m keenly aware that it’s not just a someday phenomenon. But I’m also a bit skeptical that the new here-and-now message will get Americans to care about an issue that’s never really grabbed them in the past. Because while climate change really is our most daunting problem, it’s not our most imminent problem. It isn’t severely hurting most Americans who aren’t drought-ravaged farmers. It’s annoying that Biscayne Bay now floods the Whole Foods parking lot near my house once a month, but it’s not the end of the world.

Climate change, on the other hand, really could create the end of the world, or at least the end of the world as we know it. The scientific warnings about climate refugees, underwater cities, extreme storms, and agricultural depressions are unbelievably scary. The National Climate Assessment documented some of those potentially horrific scenarios for the U.S., like the baking of the Southwest, the melting of Alaska, and the drowning of Florida, but it emphasized the bad stuff that’s already happening.

This is partly because environmental activists are known for being Debbie Downers and Chicken Littles, for always accentuating the apocalyptic. Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, two longtime critics of the green movement, made a splash last month with a Times op-ed arguing that “images of melting glaciers, raging wildfires and rampaging floods” only increase skepticism about global warming. “More than a decade’s worth of research suggests that fear-based appeals about climate change inspire denial, fatalism and polarization,” they wrote.

Nordhaus and Shellenberger love nuclear power and natural gas, and the conclusion of their op-ed—that the public will start caring about global warming when enviros start embracing nuclear power and natural gas—smacked a bit of motivated reasoning. But their contention that Americans don’t like being hectored about looming disasters sounded plausible enough. (Joe Romm at Climate Progress disputed it; Nordhaus and Shellenberger responded here. I don’t know enough to adjudicate that particular fight.

Honestly, I don’t know what will get the public to start caring about global warming. The BP oil spill didn’t. The warmest decade in recorded history didn’t. Neither did Superstorm Sandy, despite Bloomberg Businessweek’s memorable “It’s Global Warming, Stupid” cover.

The epic drought in California doesn’t seem to be doing the trick, either. Part of the problem is a soft economy that makes environmental concerns seem like unaffordable luxuries. Part of the problem is the Republican Party’s rejection of climate science in the Obama era. And part of the problem is the invisibility of carbon pollution. It doesn’t make the air hard to breathe. It’s a huge threat to wildlife, but it doesn’t instantaneously wipe out species of charismatic megafauna. The recent coal ash spill in the Dan River in North Carolina and oil tanker explosion on the James River in Virgina were brought to you by fossil fuels, but it’s hard to connect those kind of accidents to the larger climate issue.

I’ve always thought that the “green jobs” argument for abandoning fossil fuels was pretty compelling; the wind and solar industries now employ more Americans than the coal industry. Maybe the spurious Republican assaults on Solyndra ruined that line of reasoning. Again, I don’t know. I’m not a marketing expert.

What I do know is that global warming is going to get a lot worse than it is now, and that it doesn’t feel that bad right now. I could see how the immediate effects of climate change would be a top-tier political issue in Kiribati, but for the U.S., the overwhelming majority of the pain lies decades in the future. I get that the new strategy is to use the impact that people are already feeling to get them to understand that the impact is only going to grow, but most people aren’t feeling any dramatic impact yet—even those of us at Ground Zero.

Maybe freaking people out about the future is as off-putting as the critics say. Unfortunately, the future on a warmer planet would be as frightening as the scientists say. The truth is unpleasant, but it’s the truth. If climate activists want to put a happy face on it, they can also point out that a warmer planet is not inevitable, that wind and solar and energy efficiency are getting cheaper while dirty energy is getting more expensive, that clean energy can be a vibrant source of economic growth. That’s the truth, too.

But if climate action depends on getting people outraged about what’s happening outside their window, we’re all doomed. We need action because of the pain that’s coming for our kids and grandkids, not because of the pain that’s already here. If we only act once the pain becomes unbearable, we’ll be way too late.

TIME Environment

Obama to Arkansas Tornado Survivors: Your Country Is Here For You

Barack Obama Vilonia, Arkansas Tornado
President Barack Obama tours tornado-damaged areas and talks with Daniel Smith and his sons Garrison Dority and Gabriel Dority in Vilonia, Ark. on May 7, 2014. Susan Walsh—AP

President Barack Obama toured areas in Arkansas on Wednesday that were destroyed by forceful tornadoes in late April, promising support to residents: "Your country is going to be here for you"

President Obama told residents of an Arkansas town blasted by tornadoes in late April that the federal government will have their backs throughout the rebuilding process.

“Your country is going to be here for you,” Obama said during a press conference Wednesday. The President spent Wednesday touring areas destroyed by severe weather including Vilonia, Ark. just outside of Little Rock. The April 27 storms killed 15 and left hundreds of homes ruined.

On Wednesday, Obama praised the people of Arkansas for their strength in his promises to provide support. “Folks here are tough,” Obama said. “They look out for one another … that’s been especially true this past week.”

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