Yeast scraped from a 35-million-year-old whale fossil is the key ingredient in a "paleo ale" from a Virginia brewery. Like many scientific innovations, the idea came about late one night over a pint.
As the saying goes, “You don’t know what you’ve got until it’s gone.”
For the people of Beijing in 2008, "it" was air pollution. "Up until then, every day the sky was a shade of gray or cream," says Huang Wei, Director of Greenpeace's Climate and Energy Program in Beijing, "But in the countdown time to the Olympics, the sky suddenly turned blue. Many of us, people of all ages, would stop on the street and marvel at how wonderful it was."
Beijing had shut down factories, restricted traffic, and improved public transportation, all in time for the opening ceremony of the Summer Games to escape international ridicule and embarassment for its perpetual toxic smog that made any athletic endeavor harmful to your health. But after the closing ceremony, Beijing was right back where it started. As the blue sky disappeared behind the familiar veil of smog, the people of Beijing had learned a valuable lesson: "The Olympic Games revealed to everyone - the government and the people - that in terms of solving our air pollution problem, it can be done," says Zhang Jianyu, China Director of the Environmental Defense Fund.
But China still had a ways to go. In response to the global economic crisis that same year, Chinese leaders announced a $586 billion stimulus plan focused on building infrastructure, allowing the pollution to get worse. At the same time, the U.S. embassy in Beijing installed an air monitor on its building and began broadcasting hourly levels of a range of pollutants, including PM2.5 - particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns - tiny enough to penetrate your lungs and enter your bloodstream. “Up to that point, China’s government reported the air quality, but it wasn’t very specific," says Greenpeace's Huang Wei. "If the pollution level reached a certain point, they might publish it as simply 'bad.'”
The U.S. Embassy air monitor, however, spat out numbers. People in Beijing downloaded smartphone apps that recorded the U.S. Embassy’s hourly Air Quality Index and many began to memorize what the numbers meant. 0 to 50 meant the air was good – rarely the case. An average air quality reading in Chinese cities hovered around 150 – labeled ‘unhealthy,’ but sometimes, it climbed into the 300 to 500 range, prompting officials to urge people to stay inside. “When it’s 400, I don’t ride my bike anymore,” says Zhou Xizhou, director at IHS Energy in Beijing. “There is the physical side, you can feel it," says Zhou of Beijing's worst air days, "I do feel it in my eyes, but for a lot of people it’s also psychological. Just being in a gray polluted environment, you feel somewhat suppressed.”
In the winter of 2012-13, pollution levels went beyond the U.S. Embassy’s own index, forcing airports to shut down because pilots couldn’t see the runway. The international press dubbed it ‘the airpocalypse’. That winter in Beijing saw air quality index readings climbing towards 1,000. As a comparison, when the air quality in Paris hit 150 this year, the city instituted a driving ban and offered free public transportation.
But Zhou says there is good news on the horizon. “What’s encouraging being in the energy sector is that we are seeing unprecedented actions and determination to address this issue. A part of me wishes that this will be China’s 'Silent Spring' Rachel Carson moment."
Zhou says China’s way of addressing air pollution is different from the American approach of the 1960s and '70s, the era of clean air legislation and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency.
China’s government prefers the mandate approach. “For example, issuing a mandate that says every coal fired power station in Beijing will be gone by the year 2016," says Zhou, "You can’t do that in America.”
China’s top-down authoritarian regime may inspire hope that China could clean up its air with a few snaps of its leaders’ fingers. But in China, central power has limits - local governments in China often disregard new mandates and laws handed down from the Beijing because there’s often no funding to implement them. “China’s local governments have no motivation at all to deal with environmental problems unless they make money," says Peking University Professor Xu Jintao. "That’s why I think a pollution tax would work. If some of that revenue goes to fund the local government, they’ll quickly help solve this problem.”
Using London as a model, Beijing has plans next year for a traffic congestion charge on drivers who enter the city. Xu says implementing these kinds of measures now, while China’s consumer culture is still young, is important because it frames a new social mindset. “China’s growth model is based on the idea that natural resources are free," says Xu, "We’ve never considered clean water, clean land, or clean air as scarce resources. But now, in China, they are scarce. Nothing is free. When you go the market, you won’t find free cabbage. You need to pay for it. And now Chinese consumers will need to pay for clean air, land, and water.”
But the Environmental Defense Fund’s Zhang Jianyu isn’t sure Chinese consumers will sacrifice the perks of being a consumer just to save the environment. “Everyone in China now wants a car, and it’s hard to deny them that," points out Zhang. "If China’s 1.3 billion people live like Americans, planet earth is finished. That’s my biggest concern. How can you deprive the Chinese of their right to become consumers and live a modern lifestyle? None of the developed countries have been good models, and we're heading down the same path of consumerism.”
It’s a path the U.S. has already traveled, polluting much of the world in the process, and now it’s China’s turn, says Zhang. If the U.S. and other developed countries don’t help China clean up, he says, the smog that plagued LA in the 1950s will return.
Except this time, it’ll be blowing from across the Pacific.
Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to Washington, D.C., after meeting the Iranian foreign minister about nuclear negotiations. The deadline for a deal limiting Iran's nuclear program is Sunday, but it might be extended.
An attempt at a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas has broken down. Hamas rejected the terms of the cease-fire, and Israel renewed its campaign of air strikes on the Gaza Strip.
Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is on Capitol Hill, delivering her semi-annual economic report to Congress. Yellen expressed concern that labor force participation remains weak and that there's been a lack of progress in the housing sector.
Iraq chose a new speaker of its parliament today — a small step that the U.S. has been urging it to take toward ending the crisis there. But many say it's far from the overhaul that's needed.
Jose Antonio Vargas, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and undocumented Filipino immigrant, has been detained at a Border Patrol station.
House Republicans have resisted granting President Obama's request for $3.7 billion in emergency immigration funds. Now, they're crafting a package of their own to respond to the crisis at the border.
The new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is supposed to be combat-ready next year. But the aircraft, which is already over-budget, failed to show up at the International Air Show in the UK. The show was to be its big overseas debut. Christopher Werth looks at what this means for the plane's manufacturer, Lockheed Martin.
California is set to impose mandatory water restrictions Tuesday. Urban water users will be prohibited from spraying down pavement, watering landscaping in a way that causes runoff and running fountains that do not re-circulate their water.
Lawmakers looking for ways to patch a hole in the Highway Trust Fund have zeroed in on a budget gimmick called "pension smoothing." Visitors outside the nation's capital say it has a nice ring to it — until they find out what it really means.
Once in a while, elected officials turn down raises because they think it looks bad if they're also having to cut budgets or raise taxes. Sometimes, though, they're genuinely altruistic.
Officials say the snails are "highly invasive, voracious pests" that eat paint and stucco off houses. But the snails are a prized delicacy in West Africa, where they're marinated or grilled on sticks.
Hollywood is making a lot of comedy films this summer, but they're not spending as much as they were before. The cost of making a comedy has dropped almost 50 percent in the past four years.
So what does this mean for the movies that weren’t a big hit in the box office, like "Blended," starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore? Are those movies going to lose money?
"They’re still going to make money," says Sharon Waxman, editor-in-chief at The Wrap. "It’s not going to make $100 million at the box office, like most Adam Sandler comedies have in the past, but it’s still going to make a profit."
Hollywood has finally figured out how to pay the talent less, and keep production costs down. However, these movies are still profitable because overseas ticket sales make up 70% of the global box office.
"When it comes to comedies, humor is such a particular thing," says Waxman. "It may work in some countries, and not work in others."