As the snow began to fall earlier this week in the lead up to the season's first major blizzard, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo told reporters that the Northeast was witnessing "a pattern of extreme weather that we've never seen before." Climate change, Cuomo argues, is fueling bigger, badder weather events like this one—and like Hurricane Sandy.
While the science that links specific snowstorms to global warming is profoundly difficult to calculate, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says it's "very likely"—defined as greater than 90 percent probability—that "extreme precipitation events will become more intense and frequent" in North America as the world warms. In New York City, actual snow days have decreased, but bigger blizzards have become more common, dumping more snow each time. Mashable reported that all of New York City's top 10 snowfalls have occurred in the past 15 years. Scientists can trace the cause to the enormous amount of energy we're pumping into the oceans. Kevin Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, told Wired this week that "the oceans are warmer, and the air above them is more moist"—giving storms more energy to unleash more precipitation. In short, the blizzard dubbed Juno was being fueled in part by the ocean's excess of climate change-related heat.
But climate change may not be the only way that human activity is making storms worse. In an emerging body of work, NASA scientists have identified a surprising contributor to American storms and cold snaps: Asia's air pollution. Over the past few years, a team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology has found that aerosols—or airborne particles—emitted from the cities fueling Asia's booming economies are making storm activity stronger in the Northwest Pacific Ocean. These storms wreak havoc on the polar jet stream, a major driver of North America's weather. The result: US winters with heavier snowfall and more intense cold periods.
Pollution billowing from Asia's big cities, they found, is essentially "seeding" the clouds with sulfur, carbon grit, and metals. This leads to thicker, taller, and more energetic clouds, with heavier precipitation. These so-called "extratropical" cyclones in the Northwest Pacific have become about 10 percent stronger over the last 30 years, the scientists say.
New Delhi, India, has the worst air pollution in the world, according to the WHO. All that smog is altering weather patterns around the world. Altaf Qadri, File/AP
The NASA animation above shows how these aerosol emissions moved around the world, from September 1, 2006, to April 10, 2007. I've included two versions of it. The first shows the Earth as a globe, the second shows the planet laid out flat. Also seen in the video are locations of wildfires, indicated by red and yellow dots. At the start, fires burn over South America and Africa, emitting black carbon, while dust from the Sahara moves westwards, getting sucked into two Atlantic cyclones. Later, in February, fires burning in Thailand and Southeast Asia mix with sulfates from industry in China and are eventually pulled eastward into cyclones that cross the Pacific and reach North America.
The work raises questions about proposals to "geoengineer" the globe by pumping aerosols into the atmosphere, which some argue could reduce the Earth's temperature by partially blocking out the sun. The NASA researchers found that sulfates are the most effective type of aerosol for deepening extratropical cyclones, which means that using them to fight global warming could bring about more stormy winter weather around the world.
There's some hope that China is attempting to stabilize and, eventually, curb its pollution through new emissions standards that would cut the level of dangerous particles, including sulfates. There are also signs that China's coal boom—the source of most of the country's air pollution—is finally slowing down. A new analysis released this week by Greenpeace showed that for the first time this century, China's coal consumption fell in 2014.
Americans for Prosperity, the free-market advocacy group established by the Koch brothers, mounts battles around the country on issues big and small via its nationwide network of chapters. Right now in North Carolina, AFP is vigorously opposing the revival of a state tax credit for renovating historic properties. The credit, which can be claimed by a company or a person, expired at the end of 2014, and the state's Republican governor, Pat McCrory, is pushing to renew it. AFP is working hard to thwart him. But the group's lobbying on this issue might be a tad awkward for one of its main benefactors: David Koch, who cofounded AFP and currently serves as chairman of the AFP Foundation. He used a near-identical tax credit when he renovated his historic Palm Beach villa—and saved money at local taxpayers' expense.
Donald Bryson, the director of AFP-North Carolina, recently told the Fayetteville Observer that the restoration perk was "another one of those tax credits that complicates the tax code." Bryson went on, "We're all for historic preservation, we have no problems with that. But if people are going to do it, they need to do it within the private market. I don't know why that requires a state tax credit."
What Bryson probably didn't know was that David Koch relied on the same type of tax credit when he spruced up Villa el Sarmiento, his 25,000-square-foot historic oceanfront mansion on Palm Beach's swanky South Ocean Boulevard, a decade ago.
In January 2002, the Palm Beach Post reported that Koch's waterfront mansion received one of six tax breaks approved by the town council under Florida's historic restoration tax credit. At the time, Koch was planning a $12 million remodeling of Villa el Sarmiento, a Mediterranean-revival-style structure built in 1923 and designed by famed architect Addison Mizner. Koch's tax break was expected to cost the city $48,000.
Asked about David Koch's 2002 tax deal and his group's opposition to North Carolina's housing restoration credit, Bryson said the current debate is "a different matter altogether." He added: "The historic tax credit in North Carolina was scheduled to sunset under an agreement made by the Governor and General Assembly in 2013. AFP has consistently advocated for simplifying the tax code, including allowing this credit to sunset. However, as long as these tax credits exist, we don't begrudge taxpayers making use of them."
A spokesman for Americans for Prosperity's national office pointed me to Bryson. A spokeswoman for Koch Industries, where David Koch is an executive vice president and board member, did not respond to a request for comment.
At Ibrahim Mohammed's fish stall, business is slow.
He's sitting behind a wooden table piled with a dozen tilapia and Nile perch at the market in Katoro, a roadside town in northern Tanzania. The fish—a staple of the Tanzanian diet—came in that morning from Lake Victoria, an hour's drive north. Around us, hundreds of shoppers are snatching up pineapples, textiles, and motorcycle parts. But Mohammed explains that basic economics is keeping customers away from his fish.
"There's less fish," he says. "So the price goes up, so customers can't afford to buy."
In the two years Mohammed has operated this stall, the retail price for both species has doubled. An average Nile perch has gone from roughly $2 to $4; tilapia from $4 to $8. That's far above the overall rate of inflation.
Nile perch makes up the majority of the catch. An invasive species that has dominated the lake for half a century, it's driven many of the native fish to extinction, earning it a reputation as an ecological disaster. For fishermen, though, it has become a cornerstone of the economy.
But over the last several years, locals here say, fish yields have begun to drop. The culprit: a worrisome combination of overfishing and climate change.
Hard statistics are notoriously difficult to come by, as the resource-strapped federal fisheries agency struggles to keep tabs on an industry composed almost entirely of small-scale, informal operators. But a 2013 government audit painted a disturbing picture. Between 2009 and 2011, according to the audit, yields of Nile perch on Lake Victoria fell about 5 percent.
THE NOVELIST DANIEL HANDLER is bobbing ahead of me in the cold bay water at San Francisco's Aquatic Park. His head, swathed in a red cap, resembles a maraschino cherry, and I struggle to keep up as the current presses me back toward land. "They told me to wear a swim cap so I wouldn't be mistaken for a seal," he explains. "So I was always wearing it, but then I wondered, 'What happens if I get mistaken for a seal? What then?'"
The "Balclutha" docked in Aquatic Park Maddie Oatman
Handler, 44, is best known for his Lemony Snicket kids' books, but his latest novel, the gruesome and delightful We Are Pirates, isn't so child-friendly. We'd arranged to meet here at the Dolphin Club, where he swims three or four mornings a week in the presence of historic tall ships such as the mighty Balclutha. Swimming makes him feel free, he says. It lets him shake off his celebrity and escape urban life for a bit.
Gwen, Handler's 14-year-old protagonist, also yearns to slip away. She's an awkward kid from SF's hypersafe Embarcadero neighborhood, grounded for pilfering makeup and a porn mag from the drugstore. Aided by her friends and a demented old man spewing pirate lore, she steals a boat and sets out for high adventure on the bay. As the dazzle of piracy darkens, Gwen's father, a dweebish radio producer, tries to bring her back to safety. Without skimping on talking parrots, Handler's novel touches on the nature of modern surveillance and the forces that compel us to reckless acts.
En route back to Washington at the tail end of his most recent overseas trip, John Kerry, America's peripatetic secretary of state, stopped off in France "to share a hug with all of Paris." Whether Paris reciprocated the secretary's embrace went unrecorded.
Despite the requisite reference to General Pershing ("Lafayette, we are here!") and flying James Taylor in from the 1960s to assure Parisians that "You've Got a Friend," in the annals of American diplomacy Kerry's hug will likely rank with President Eisenhower's award of the Legion of Merit to Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza for "exceptionally meritorious conduct" and Jimmy Carter's acknowledgment of the "admiration and love" said to define the relationship between the Iranian people and their Shah. In short, it was a moment best forgotten.
Alas, this vapid, profoundly silly event is all too emblematic of statecraft in the Obama era. Seldom have well-credentialed and well-meaning people worked so hard to produce so little of substance.
Not one of the signature foreign policy initiatives conceived in Obama's first term has borne fruit. When it came to making a fresh start with the Islamic world, responsibly ending the "dumb" war in Iraq (while winning the "necessary" one in Afghanistan), "resetting" US-Russian relations, and "pivoting" toward Asia, mark your scorecard 0 for 4.
There's no doubt that when Kerry arrived at the State Department he brought with him some much-needed energy. That he is giving it his all—the department's website reports that the secretary has already clocked over 682,000 miles of travel—is doubtless true as well. The problem is the absence of results. Remember when his signature initiative was going to be an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? Sadly, that quixotic plan, too, has come to naught.
Yes, Team Obama "got" bin Laden. And, yes, it deserves credit for abandoning a self-evidently counterproductive 50-plus-year-old policy toward Cuba and for signing a promising agreement with China on climate change. That said, the administration's overall record of accomplishment is beyond thin, starting with that first-day-in-the-Oval-Office symbol that things were truly going to be different: Obama's order to close Guantanamo. That, of course, remains a work in progress (despite regular reassurances of light glimmering at the end of what has become a very long tunnel).
In fact, taking the president's record as a whole, noting that on his watch occasional US drone strikes have become routine, the Nobel Committee might want to consider revoking its Peace Prize.
Nor should we expect much in the time that Obama has remaining. Perhaps there is a deal with Iran waiting in the wings (along with the depth charge of ever-fiercer congressionally mandated sanctions), but signs of intellectual exhaustion are distinctly in evidence.
"Where there is no vision," the Hebrew Bible tells us, "the people perish." There's no use pretending: if there's one thing the Obama administration most definitely has not got and has never had, it's a foreign policy vision.
In Search of Truly Wise (White) Men—Only Those 84 or Older Need Apply
All of this evokes a sense of unease, even consternation bordering on panic, in circles where members of the foreign policy elite congregate. Absent visionary leadership in Washington, they have persuaded themselves, we're all going down. So the world's sole superpower and self-anointed global leader needs to get game—and fast.
Leslie Gelb, former president of the Council on Foreign Relations, recently weighed in with a proposal for fixing the problem: clean house. Obama has surrounded himself with fumbling incompetents, Gelb charges. Get rid of them and bring in the visionaries.
Writing at the Daily Beast, Gelb urges the president to fire his entire national security team and replace them with "strong and strategic people of proven foreign policy experience." Translation: the sort of people who sip sherry and nibble on brie in the august precincts of the Council of Foreign Relations. In addition to offering his own slate of nominees, including several veterans of the storied George W. Bush administration, Gelb suggests that Obama consult regularly with Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and James Baker. These distinguished war-horses range in age from 84 to 91. By implication, only white males born prior to World War II are eligible for induction into the ranks of the Truly Wise Men.
Anyway, Gelb emphasizes, Obama needs to get on with it. With the planet awash in challenges that "imperil our very survival," there is simply no time to waste.
Grover Norquist—the president of Americans for Tax Reform and the man who for decades has served as conservatives' leading anti-tax zealot —had seemingly found his ideal politician in Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback. After Brownback was elected governor in 2010, he went on a mission to eradicate his state's income tax—slashing rates across the board in two rounds of cuts and setting rates to drop further over the coming years—eventually to zero if everything clicked in place.
Norquist loved it. He visited Topeka in 2013 to show his support during Brownback's State of the State address. In an interview with National Review a year ago, Norquist touted Brownback as a strong contender for the 2016 presidential nomination.
But political allies often prove fickle. Brownback's tax cuts have wrecked the state budget and forced the governor to propose raising taxes in order to avert fiscal calamity. And Norquist is now rallying conservatives in the Kansas Legislature to oppose the Republican governor's plan.
Earlier this week, Norquist penned a letter to state lawmakers encouraging them to thwart Brownback's proposal to raise taxes on liquor sales and tobacco products. Although Norquist hewed to his normal claims that taxes end up hurting the state's bottom line, he also adopted a tactic that you'd normally hear from liberals: Don't raise these specific taxes because they overburden the poor. "The fact is, so called 'sin taxes' like the cigarette tax and alcohol tax disproportionately impact consumers who can afford the tax increase least. A pack-a-day smoker would end up paying an extra $547.50 in taxes a year," Norquist wrote in the letter, according to the Topeka Capital-Journal. "Kansans living along the Missouri border may opt to avoid the tax altogether by purchasing their tobacco products in Missouri—where the tax would be lower."
A spokesperson for Americans for Tax Reform didn't respond to several interview requests.
It's a bit rich for Norquist to show concern for the plight of low-income Kansans now. Spending on social services plummeted during Brownback's first term in office. And the tax cuts that Norquist praised predominantly favored the state's wealthy citizens—particularly thanks to a decision to zero-out taxes for nearly 200,000 privately held companies. An analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities last year noted that the total effects of all the tax code changes in Kansas in fact raised taxes by 1.3 percent on the bottom 20 percent of the state's earners.
And although slashing state income taxes may have earned Brownback praise from the likes of Norquist and Reagan taxmaster Arthur Laffer, they left the governor in a tricky spot. There's a $710 million hole in the state's budget through June 2016. Brownback isn't relying on tobacco and liquor taxes alone to close that gap. He has also proposed slowing down planned decreases in the state's income-tax rates. But Brownback still vowed to stick with his original endgame. "We will continue our march to zero income taxes," he said in this year's State of the State address. Even when the evidence might suggest otherwise, conservatives like Brownback must still bow before the infallible altar of trickle-down economics.
Sika Eteaki lay in bed, shaking uncontrollably. The pillow and sheets were soaked through with sweat, but now he couldn't get warm. It felt like there weren't enough blankets in all of Lancaster State Prison to keep him warm.
Just a few months earlier, Eteaki had turned himself in for illegal possession of a firearm. He'd been arrested with a gun while driving back from a camping trip. He and his family had used the pistol for target practice, for fun, but a spate of nonviolent priors from the decade before had prosecutors threatening to put Eteaki away for years. Since those early arrests, Eteaki had turned his life around. He now had four kids under five, a renewed faith in Mormonism, and steady work at a foundry. The prosecutor went easy, and after months of negotiation, Eteaki pleaded guilty to felony firearm possession and got eight months in Lancaster, on the outskirts of Los Angeles. In July 2010, Eteaki's wife, Milah, drove him to the Long Beach courthouse, outside LA, where he surrendered and entered the system.
A hulking if slightly overweight presence, Eteaki stood 5-foot-10 and weighed 245 pounds, with broad shoulders, tattoos, and close-cropped black hair. His family was from the Polynesian archipelago of Tonga, and he'd arrived at Lancaster a strong, healthy man. But a few months into his stay, he started getting headaches and running a fever. He'd landed a plum job in the prison's cafeteria and didn't want to risk losing it by calling in sick, so he suffered through what he figured was a particularly rough flu for a week. He stopped by the prison clinic and was given ibuprofen and told to drink more water. He didn't get better. He went back to the clinic and got more of the same. After a few more days of delirium, Eteaki learned from another inmate how to get the docs' attention: "Tell them your chest hurts." The next day, he was admitted to the prison's hospital with a high fever and a diagnosis of pneumonia.
Bill Nye is weighing in on Deflategate again, but this time he has a few props and a message to share about something far more important.
New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick claimed atmospheric conditions and temperature changes could have caused footballs to lose air pressure during the team's AFC Championship win over the Indianapolis Colts.
That's where the video takes a very different turn.
"While we're all obsessed with Deflategate, let's keep in mind that there's something about which you should give a fuck," Nye said. "Yes, like Tom Brady, the world is getting hotter and hotter, and you know why? Because we humans are pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere."
Nye then began listing things that contribute to climate change—including long-winded Deflategate press conferences—and followed that up with a rallying cry.
"You should vote for congressmen and senators that appreciate the threat of climate change and the rate at which the world is getting warmer, so that we can preserve the earth for humankind for generations to come," Nye said.
Oh, and about those balls…
Nye took one out of the fridge, gave it a squeeze, pronounced it "pretty much the same," and said "the Patriots probably bent the rules a little bit."
Nye, who lived in Seattle for a number of years, ended the video with a message that's bound to rankle the New England faithful: "Go Seahawks!"
It wasn't long ago that Sen. Jeff Sessions was waging a lonely battle against comprehensive immigration reform. ABC News called the Alabama Republican a "lone wolf" in his dogged quest to kill the Senate's immigration reform bill, which passed the upper chamber in June 2013 on a 68-32 bipartisan vote. At one point, Sessions introduced an amendment to slash the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country legally—not even Texas firebrand Ted Cruz voted for it.
But Sessions' days of fighting immigration reform from the sidelines are over. Last week, he became chair of the Senate judiciary subcommittee on immigration. The new face of Republican immigration policy has yet to make headlines like his anti-reform ally in the House, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa), whose inflammatory rhetoric about undocumented immigrants ("deportables") has made him a household name within the Latino community. But Sessions is just as hardline as King. And now his party has place him in a high profile position in the nation's ongoing and contentious immigration debate.
"By choosing Sessions, Senate Republicans are handing over the agenda and a megaphone to their leading anti-immigrant voice," America's Voice, a pro-immigration-reform group, said in a seven-page memo circulated to reporters that enumerated Sessions' anti-immigration track record.
With the Super Bowl days away, the sports world's hot-take artists have spent the past week toggling between the intrigue and idiocy of Deflategate to the press conference reticence of Seattle Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch. In some ways, it has been the perfect ending to a dreadful year for the NFL and its commissioner, Roger Goodell.
Famous for his "protect the shield" mantra and disciplinarian ways, Goodell has seen his reputation get battered throughout the controversy-filled 12 months since Super Bowl XLVIII. So, as Ballghazi rages on and the big game approaches, here's a look back at the recent firestorms and missteps that made 2014 such a rotten year for the league and its commish:
Ray Rice: It was bad enough when the league initially suspended Rice, then the Baltimore Ravens' star running back, for a paltry two gamesafter his February arrest for assaulting his then-fiancée (now wife) at an Atlantic City casino. It got worse when the Ravens further bungled the situation. But when TMZ released security camera footage in September that actually showed Ray Rice punching Janay Rice, the league had to suspend him indefinitely—even as Goodell maintained that he had never before seen the video. (Numerousreports have made those claims seem laughable.) The NFL toughened its domestic-abuse policies, sure, and will air an ad during the Super Bowl to raise awareness. But the damage from the league's initial inaction already has been done. As Tracy Treu, the wife of former Oakland Raiders center Adam Treu, told me back in September, "When you're with an NFL team, the message to you is clear: Don't fuck anything up for your partner, and don't fuck anything up for the team."
Adrian Peterson: Just days after the explosive Rice video was released, the Minnesota Vikings' All-Pro running back was accused of hitting his four-year-old son with a switch and was indicted for reckless or negligent injury to a child. For a short time it looked like Peterson would be back on the field after missing just a week of work, but the Vikings quickly reversed course, and the NFL ultimately suspended him for the remainder of the season.
Greg Hardy/Jonathan Dwyer: Lost a bit in the Rice and Peterson headlines were the domestic-assault charges against Hardy, a Carolina Panthers defensive end, and Dwyer, an Arizona Cardinals running back. Hardy's then-girlfriend, Nicole Holder, testified in July that Hardy had dragged her around his apartment, threw her on a futon covered in rifles, and then put his hands on her throat. "I was so scared I wanted to die," she testified. Hardy was convicted; his appeal is set for February. (He took a paid leave of absence in September, in part to avoid a possible suspension.) Dwyer allegedly head-butted his wife and broke her nose in July. She reportedly went to police after seeing the Peterson news in September and fearing for her child's safety. Dwyer was put on the reserve/non-football-injury list and pleaded not guilty to charges on Monday.
Concussions: The league's ongoing concussion scandal may have peaked in 2013 with the airing of the Frontline documentary League of Denial, but the issue of player safety—indeed, the long-term viability of the game—isn't going away anytime soon. In July, a federal judge preliminarily approved a settlement between the league andformer players over concussion-related claims. Since then, more than 200 players have opted out of the settlement, objecting to the restrictions embedded in the deal. As ESPN the Magazine's Peter Keating wrote, "Fewer than 3,600 athletes, or about 17 percent of all retired players, will end up with some kind of illness that the settlement will compensate, according to forecasts by both sides in the case." (The settlement is still awaiting final approval.) Next up: the Christmas release of Will Smith's Concussion, a feature film based on a GQ profile of neuropathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, one of the first physicians to fight the NFL on brain trauma.
Snyder: Nick Wass/AP; dunce cap: Stockbyte/Thinkstock. Illustration by Dave Gilson.
Cheerleading lawsuits: If you haven't read my colleague Julia Lurie's roundup of the many lawsuits brought by current and former cheerleaders against NFL teams, go do that now. Here's an excerpt, about how different teams determine whether their cheerleaders are fit enough to perform:
The Jills allege being subjected to a weekly "jiggle test," which consisted of doing jumping jacks while their stomachs, arms, legs, hips, and butts were scrutinized. (The Jills manual also instructs, "Never eat in uniform unless arrangements have been made in advance. Just say 'Thanks so much for offering but no thank you'…NEVER say, 'Oh, we're not allowed to eat!'") Ben-Gals are required to weigh in twice a week, and if they come in more than three pounds over their "goal weight," they face penalties: extra conditioning after practice, benchings, probation, or dismissal from the team.
Aaron Hernandez trial: Hernandez, the former Patriots tight end who was arrested a year and a half ago for the shooting death of friend Odin Lloyd, is back in the news now that the jury has been selected and his murder case is set to start Thursday in Connecticut. Hernandez also has been charged with two more murder counts for a July 2012 double-murder in Massachusetts.
Anti-gay front offices: Linebacker Michael Sam came out as gay before the NFL Draft last February. No one knew for sure how it would play out—or what effect it would have on Sam's draft status—but a Sports Illustrated story that anonymously quoted general managers and front-office types around the league wasn't exactly welcoming. "I don't think football is ready for [an openly gay player] just yet," said one personnel assistant. "In the coming decade or two, it's going to be acceptable, but at this point in time it's still a man's-man game." Sam was drafted in the seventh round by the St. Louis Rams but was cut just before the season began. (After latching on with the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad for a spell, he's once again a free agent, albeit an engaged one.)
Jim Irsay: The Indianapolis Colts' billionaire owner was charged with driving while intoxicated in October; he later admitted to having hydrocodone, oxycodone, and Xanax in his system. (Police said they found "numerous prescription medication bottles containing pills," as well as $29,000 in cash, in Irsay's car.) The NFL suspended the outspoken 55-year-old for six games and fined him $500,000.
Not so super: While Super Bowl XLIX could break the TV ratings record, Mina Kimes reports in the latest ESPN the Magazine that the mayor of Glendale, Arizona—this year's host site—told her, "I totally believe we will lose money on this."
Jameis Winston on the horizon: If all of this weren't enough, this spring's NFL Draft will surely be all about Winston, the presumptive No. 1 pick and Heisman Award winner who was accused (but never charged) of rape as a Florida State freshman in 2012. Winston was recently cleared of violating FSU's code of conduct, though a 2013 New York Timesreport alleged that "there was virtually no investigation at all, either by the police or the university," after the allegations were made. The story isn't going away anytime soon: Last week, Winston's accuser went public in The Hunting Ground, a documentary on campus sexual assault that debuted Friday at the Sundance Film Festival.