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British PM accused of sowing religious strife with ‘Christian country’ remarks

Britain is a ‘plural society,’ and characterizing it as a Christian country ‘fosters alienation and division in our society,’ public figures urge David Cameron in letter

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Japanese PM’s shrine offering stokes tensions with South Korea, China

Shinzo Abe’s offering was sent just before U.S. President Barack Obama begins a three-day visit to Japan

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Teen hitches ride to Hawaii in freezing flight inside jet’s wheel well

Teen lost consciousness during five-hour flight in freezing conditions, and it’s ‘an apparent miracle’ he survived, FBI says

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Meet the YouTube Boy Band

The YouTube Boy Band—as a group of British vloggers styled themselves for a parody video—is not, technically speaking, a real music group. Its five members don’t sing, or dance, or even have a proper name. But the boy-band dynamics are there: Your front man is Alfie Deyes, 20, (2.1 million … More »

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Three Gulf Coast victories scored since the BP spill

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You will hear a lot of gloomy reports about the state of the Gulf Coast as we approach the fourth-year commemoration of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill disaster on April 20. And that’s fair. BP deserves little cheer in the face of widespread health problems across the Gulf, for both humans and marine animals, and the disappearance of entire fishing communities. Despite what BP is telling us, it ain’t all good. But it ain’t all bad, either. Gulf Coast communities from the Florida Panhandle to Texas’s right shoulder had been through a few disaster rodeos before the BP spill. They’ve survived hurricanes named for just about every letter of the alphabet. And they’ve endured careless and reckless decisions from every level of government, way more than one time too many. Given those past experiences, residents and activists along the Gulf corralled together after the BP disaster to make sure their most immediate concerns would be heard this time around. Region-wide networks like the Gulf Future Coalition and the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health were formed immediately after the spill to harness the expertise of Gulf citizens who often historically were excluded from recovery processes. Through guiding documents like the Unified Action Plan for a Healthy Gulf and media projects like Bridge the Gulf, community members were able to voice their concerns and demands, free of bureaucratic or political filters. These projects gave Gulf residents the opportunity not only to frame the Gulf recovery narrative, but also to influence government-led recovery plans. The result has been three demonstrable victories: 1. The Gulf Coast gets to keep the money: The current civil trial against BP to determine how much the company will pay in Clean Water Act fines won’t conclude until next year, but scientists and legal experts expect fines to total upwards of $20 billion, which normally would be great news … for the U.S. Treasury. Under the Oil Spill Liability Act, such fines are directed to a special Treasury account to be used to cope with future oil tragedies. But Gulf Coast communities said, “Wayment, y’alls oil and gas drillers been foulin’ up our waters for decades. We deserve that money for the tragedies y’all been causin’ today.” The community groups wrote up a new law called the RESTORE Act, which would keep 80 percent of the BP fine money right there in the Gulf, and out of reach of D.C.’s balanced-budget stalkers. Inside-the-Beltway conventional wisdom says no one’s been able to get anything passed through Congress the past few years. Well, the RESTORE Act passed, and it’s now law. The Gulf Coast keeps the money. Derrick Evans, director of the Gulf Coast Fund, explains it better in this video. 2. Gulf Coast residents get some health care (even as they’re denied the full benefits of Obamacare): Unexplained illnesses have become prevalent in the wake of the spill, particularly among those involved in the emergency cleanup response immediately after. Despite an untold number of Gulf residents complaining of respiratory problems, rashes, and nausea, BP stated it would not hear any health-related grievances through its claims process. In fact, BP publicly doubted that any of the reported illnesses were connected to the oil spill. But Gulf advocates did not let BP off that easy. When the company settled part of its civil case with a party of commercial fishermen and oil workers for $7.8 billion in 2012, activists were able to finagle a $105 million carve-out for health centers to be built in every Gulf state. These new health facilities will provide services to all Gulf residents, not just those directly impacted by the oil spill, and also epidemiological training for doctors so they can better monitor for spill-related illnesses as they surface over time. “These communities gave input early on that helped to shape the program that is now coming back to provide health services to them,” says Steve Bradberry, executive director of The Alliance Institute, which helped facilitate the community input. Another silver lining here is that the new health centers, some of which are just now coming online, are being built in states where the governors have turned down federal funding to expand Medicaid. 3. You don’t have to rely on Anderson Cooper for your Gulf news anymore: When disaster strikes the Gulf, national media forces like CNN and The New York Times drone in to capture the melee, then disperse at the first sign of another news story elsewhere in the world. And then Spike Lee comes and shoots a documentary, and it’s a wrap. But that’s not the whole picture anymore. Gulf residents have taken their stories into their own hands, eyes, and voices, mainly through documentaries. The result is what film scholars will hopefully one day recognize as the definitive canon of cinematic Gulf tales of survival. I’ve written about a couple of them, such as Leah Mahan’s Come Hell or High Water and Nailah Jefferson’s Vanishing Pearls. Add to that list Monique Verdin’s My Louisiana Love and Margaret Brown’s The Great Invisible. Then offscreen there’s Cry You One, a play that takes its audience directly to the bayous and wetlands of Louisiana for its narrative — literally. These stories — along with those told in the hundreds of local blogs, news outlets, and books that have sprouted in the past few years — will give future historians a view from the ground of what restoration looked like, who benefited, and who was excluded.Filed under: Article, Business & Technology, Climate & Energy, Politics

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No-till farming’s Johnny Appleseed — in a grimy Prius

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Let’s start with Jeff Mitchell’s car. From the outside, it looks like a regular, if slightly dinged-up, white Prius. But inside it’s so messy that it’s hard for me to describe it without sounding like I’m exaggerating. When I say the back seat is packed solidly with papers, I mean that literally: It’s as if Mitchell had pulled up alongside a set of filing cabinets and transferred everything that could fit into the back, carefully filling the leg space until it was high enough to be incorporated into the stack on the seats. The papers are wedged solidly together, three-quarters of the way up to the headrests. There’s some PVC pipe back there too, some metal tools, a power cord, and some luggage. But that’s just what I could see on the surface. On the front dash there’s another layer of files, and a layer of dirt. And again, when I say dirt, I’m not overstating it. It’s not just a patina of dust; there are big clots of mud clinging to the face of the radio. “What can I say?” Mitchell said when I asked about the state of his vehicle. “I’m embarrassed. People say I could just scatter seeds in here and they’d grow.” I was never able to get a straight answer out of Mitchell as to why his car was so squalid, but it’s easy enough to guess. He has spent years driving up and down California’s long Central Valley, from one field to another, asking farmers to sign up to try new conservation techniques. He estimates that the car has driven 600,000 miles, though he can’t say for sure: The odometer stopped at 299,999. The car really does have to function as a high-speed file cabinet, as well as a mobile tool shed and soil-sample transporter. “So, is this basically your life?” I asked, after about an hour driving down highway 99. I was expecting a good-natured gripe about him becoming permanently welded to the driver’s seat. But instead he said: “You know, I’ve been truly fortunate. I’ve been doing this long enough that wherever I go I’ll look out and see a field and think, ‘That’s where we did that one trial, how’s that coming along?’ And there have been some big changes. It’s gratifying. There’s a soil scientist at Berkeley, Garrison Sposito, who says it may be just once or twice in a century that agriculture has an opportunity to re-create itself in a revolutionary way. Now, it may sound way over the top, but I think that’s what’s happening with conservation agriculture. It’s energizing for me to wake up to that every day.” His official title is Associate Extension Vegetable Crops Specialist, but since the early 1990s Mitchell has really been a Johnny Appleseed for conservation, leading an ever-growing band of farmers toward sustainability. The idea driving Mitchell’s work is to develop farm systems that are closer to proven natural systems. That main idea breaks down into four tenets: Don’t disturb the soil; maximize the diversity of plants, insects, fungi, and microbiota; keep living roots in the soil; and keep the ground covered with plant residues. Since 1999, a team working with Mitchell has been demonstrating that it’s possible to do all that profitably. After another hour on the road we reached the University of California West Side Extension and Research Center. Behind a handful of one-story buildings lay a collection of plots that workers have farmed continuously with conservation techniques. Mitchell took me to a field where they had been experimenting with a tomato-and-cotton rotation since 1999: “These beds have not moved, they have not been worked, in 15 years.” This 15-year study suggests that there are real, sustained benefits to the methods that the UC researchers have pioneered. Mitchell waded into the shoulder-high cover crops of one bed. There’s a bed nearby of cleanly plowed soil. The contrast couldn’t be more different. Mitchell knelt in the cover crop, pushing aside the plants. The earth was covered in a layer of duff (dead leaves and twigs). It looked a lot like — well, like any bit of ground that humans haven’t recently scraped. “There’s more organic material going into the soil, more carbon and more nitrogen. There’s more capture of water, and the shade and residue reduces soil water evaporation.” These kind of innovations might seem obvious, but the journey to no-till cotton has been exasperatingly hard. Cotton requires coddling: It has a large seed, but it’s not a vigorous seedling, so often a farmer will knock off a layer of dry soil, drop the seeds onto moist earth, then cover it up. All this requires tilling the field. So Mitchell’s team decided to fine tune a planter to bury the seeds at just the right depth: Too close to the surface and they’d dry out, too deep and they’d never make it up. But when they ran the planter over the field it bounced over dry tomato stalks and dropped seeds higgledy-piggledy. That first year the crop came up patchy. So they started trying residue managers, to push debris out of the way of each seed line, then brush it back into place. Mitchell went to Georgia to see what they were using there. They tried different timing and amounts of irrigation. If they tried to plant while the field was too wet the tractor would turn everything into a muddy mess. If they waited until it dried, the seed wouldn’t get enough moisture. If they irrigated after planting, the soil might form a hard crust that the seed couldn’t penetrate. They made pass after pass, making minute adjustments to the equipment until tempers frayed. “I’m not an argumentative guy, but some of the things have been so trying,” Mitchell remembered. At the end of one of those days, one of Mitchell’s collaborators threw up his hands and said, “This will never work!” But then, in 2004, after years of disappointments, they finally hit on just the right combination of techniques — specific levels of irrigation, fine-tuned equipment, special disk and finger attachments for the planter — and got a beautiful cotton crop. When all the pieces came together, the cotton began producing reliably. And Mitchell also noticed an added benefit: As the years passed, the soil improved, and all this got easier. Instead of the farm equipment needing to break up clots of compacted soil, the researchers found they were planting into soft, fine-grained earth, continuously tilled by worms and roots and microorganisms. Mitchell’s work looks like a clear winner on paper: The yields are now the same as in the plowed beds, and the no-till beds take less work, sequester more carbon, suck up less water, and require less tractor fuel. And yet few farmers have taken up these methods. “When I had the results showing that you can save 16 percent of irrigation water with residues and no till, I thought it would really change things in the Valley,” Mitchell mused. “But it hasn’t seemed to be that relevant.” There are farmers successfully using these methods, but the percentage is still very low. And Mitchell can understand why people are skeptical. The cost savings — for fuel and labor (water prices are too variable to estimate) — are just $70 an acre, which isn’t terribly significant for a cotton farmer. And, as Mitchell knows, there are lots of things that can go wrong when a farmer starts trying new things. That reluctance to change doesn’t slow Mitchell down for long. He knows that surmounting the technological challenges is less than half the battle. The bulk of the work is in teaching people how to do the same thing, and — even more importantly — convincing them that it’s worth their time. And so he gets in the dirty Prius again, year in and year out, adding mile after uncounted mile, and carrying his Johnny Appleseed act across California.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Food

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No, the IPCC climate report doesn’t call for a fracking boom

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You might have heard that the latest installment of the big new U.N. climate report endorses fracking, urging a “dash for gas” as a bridge fuel to put us on a path to a more renewable energy future. These interpretations of the report are exaggerated, lack context, and are just plain wrong. They appear to have been based on interviews and on a censored summary of the report, which was published two days before the full document became available. The energy chapter from the full report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says “near‐term GHG emissions from energy supply can be reduced” by replacing coal-fired power plants with “highly efficient” natural gas–burning alternatives — a move that “may play a role as a transition fuel in combination with variable renewable sources.” But that’s only true, the report says, if fugitive emissions of climate-changing methane from drilling and distribution of the gas are “low” — which is far from the case today. Scientists reported Tuesday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that methane measurements taken near fracking sites in Pennsylvania suggest such operations leak 100 to 1,000 times more methane than the U.S. EPA has estimated. The IPCC’s energy chapter also notes that fracking for gas has “created concerns about potential risks to local water quality and public health.” To protect the climate and save ourselves, the new IPCC report says we must quit fossil fuels. That doesn’t mean switching from coal to natural gas. It means switching from coal and gas to solar and wind, plugging electric vehicles into those renewable sources, and then metaphorically blowing up the fossil-fueled power plants that pock the planet. Stabilizing greenhouse gas concentrations at “low levels” requires a “fundamental transformation of the energy supply system,” the IPCC says. Overall, its latest report concludes that we must reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 70 percent by midcentury, and stop producing any such pollution by the turn of the century, if we’re to keeping warming to within 2 degrees Celsius, or 3.7 F. And nothing is more important in meeting those goals than revolutionizing the way we produce electricity. Humanity’s thirst for electricity is the biggest single cause of climate change, with the energy sector fueling a little more than a third of global warming. Wind, solar, hydro, and other renewable forms of energy account for a little more than half of all new generating capacity being built around the world, the report says. But that is not enough. The report notes that renewable energy still requires government support, such as renewable portfolio standards and prices and caps on carbon emissions. But, as desperately as we need to be curbing fossil-fuel burning, we just keep increasing it instead. Greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector rose 3.1 percent every year from 2001 to 2010. In the 1990s, they rose just 1.7 percent annually. “The main contributors to this trend were a higher energy demand associated with rapid economic growth and an increase of the share of coal in the global fuel mix,” the report states. Of course, slaking our thirst for electricity with renewables wouldn’t just be good for the climate. The energy chapter highlights “co-benefits” from the use of renewable energy, “such as a reduction of air pollution, local employment opportunities, few severe accidents compared to some other forms of energy supply, as well as improved energy access and security.” A revolution doesn’t sound so scary when you put it that way.Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy

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Here are the fair-trade hipster shoes you’ve been waiting for

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OlibertéForget giving hipster shoes to people in Africa (cough, TOMS). How about giving them jobs? Oliberté is that shoe company — with the added perk of giving you a way to buy your chukka boots and flats with less guilt. OlibertéOliberté bills itself as a fair-trade, sustainable clothing brand based in sub-Saharan Africa, paying its workers in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, more than double the minimum wage. The factory is the world’s first to be certified by Fair Trade USA. So in addition to fair pay, workers get benefits like 90-day maternity leave, reasonable work hours, no exposure to certain toxic chemicals, and decisionmaking via employee committee. Adds Treehugger: The shoes and bags are made from locally sourced leather, purchased from farmers who raise free-range cattle that typically live six to eight years. The company works with a tannery that is careful not to pollute and recycles its chrome … Although not all of the components are sourced from Ethiopia, the natural rubber used from the soles is also local. They work to make the factory zero-waste, recycling and reusing anything that’s left over from leather scraps to glue cans. And although the shoes aren’t cradle-to-cradle, you can mail ’em back to Oliberté when they’re worn out, and the company will find ways to recycle them. Other than the carbon emissions from shipping shoes halfway around the world — and yeah, that’s a big caveat — they sound pretty spiffy.Filed under: Business & Technology, Living

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Ukraine’s ‘Chocolate King’ could edge new-look Yulia for president

Petro Poroshenko, a 48-year-old billionaire, emerges as leadership favourite

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Karl Rove loses it after Fox guest calls Chris Christie report a ‘whitewash’

Republican strategist Karl Rove on Sunday accused a Fox News co-panelist of a personal “attack” after he called an internal investigation that cleared New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) for closing the busiest bridge in the world for political retribution a “whitewash.”…

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SNL: Reluctant ‘Obama’ struggles to repeat social media success of ‘Between Two Ferns’

The opening skit of this week’s episode of Saturday Night Night lampooned the Obama Administration’s last-minute efforts to get young people to sign up for Obamacare. The skit begins with “President Obama,” played by Jay Pharoah, praising the effort of his social media guru…

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Priest tells Fox News: ‘Noah’ movie left out God and will ‘pay for it dearly’

A Catholic priest, who is serving on the Archdiocese of New York, and also employed as an analyst by Fox News, has warned that people associated with the movie “Noah” will “pay for it dearly” because they had used the word “creator” instead of God. Fox News host…

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Enrollment milestone called ‘proof of concept’ by Obamacare supporters

By David Morgan WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Barack Obama’s embattled U.S. healthcare law, having survived a rollout marred by technology failures, reaches a milestone on Monday with the end of its first enrollment wave, and with the administration likely to come close to its goal…

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This Texas man is fighting the drought one tank of rainwater at a time

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How do you get to be the mayor of Tank Town? Practice, practice, practice! Or else, wait. I’m confused. Richard Heinichen became the mayor of Tank Town by building one rainwater storage tank in central Texas in 1994. Back then you could still get groundwater from a well, but apparently it smelled gross. He started out as a rainwater evangelist for the supplemental, sulfur-free benefits, but ended up as deus ex machina during Texas’ crippling droughts. Heinichen helped neighbors build their own rainwater tanks at first, then decided to turn the whole thing into a business. He built 16 tanks on his own property and sold some 1,300 others. He consults with hundreds of people a year about installing their own rainwater tanks. (Perplexingly, he’s also started bottling and selling his rainwater, Cloud Juice, but we hope he is at least using recycled bottles.) Now, during the worst drought in decades, Heinichen’s hometown of Dripping Springs, Texas, is running severely short on drips. This video fills in the details, with whimsy added in the form of charming water tank paintjobs and a soundtrack straight out of a Noah Baumbach movie. Heinichen points out that a single gravity-fed tank could support two people for almost a year. If the drought lasts longer than that? Store more water. Long live Tank Town. Filed under: Article, Climate & Energy, Living

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Taiwan stages massive anti-China trade pact rally

Tens of thousands of Taiwanese protesters took to the streets in Taipei on Sunday in a bid to pressure embattled President Ma Ying-jeou to retract a controversial trade pact with China. The protesters, many wearing black shirts and headbands reading…

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Documents reveal secretive Hollywood group’s shady donations to conservative politicians

Before Republican Senator Ted Cruz flew to Los Angeles to speak to Hollywood’s secretive right-wing organization, Friends of Abe (FOA), Cruz suggested to the Hollywood Reporter that IRS’s reluctance to immediately ordain FOA as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit tax-free charity was a left-wing government…

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Climate change threatens to wipe out Latin America coffee crops – and farmers

Under the coffee bushes, Rosibel and Benjamín Fijardo are on their knees, scraping carefully through a litter of dead leaves and dried mud. They are scavenging for stray coffee berries, fallen when the harvesters went through the plantation last week. After 20 minutes, Benjamín has a plastic cup…

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