Skip to content

Elon Musk: The Jonas Salk of Climate Change?

“There is no patent. Can you patent the sun?”  –Jonas Salk, explaining to Edward R. Murrow in a 1955 interview why he didn’t patent his groundbreaking vaccine for polio.

Salk understood the importance of his incredibly effective polio vaccine for the future of the nation’s and the world’s public health. His vaccine was one of the most important medical advances of the 20th century, and he declined to patent it. Thus, over 100 million people were vaccinated in the first two years after clinical trials ended in 1955, all but eliminating a scourge that had plagued the country for generations.

Now we’re in a new century, with a new scourge: climate change. Many entrepreneurs have spent the past couple of decades trying to break our dependency on Big Oil and Big Coal. None has a higher profile than Elon Musk, the wunderkind behind SpaceX, SolarCity, and Tesla Motors. Could he be this generation’s Jonas Salk?

He’s already beat NASA at their own game:

Now he’s putting his money (and he’s got a lot) where his mouth is:

On June 12th he took to Tesla’s website and pledged to no longer enforce the patents on his Tesla electric car:  “Tesla will not initiate patent lawsuits against anyone who, in good faith, wants to use our technology.” Overnight, engineering developments protected by over 500 patents became part of the open-source movement. Musk wrote that his primary reason is because “it is impossible for Tesla to build electric cars fast enough to address the carbon crisis.” Like Salk, he recognizes that climate change is an issue that requires a level of cooperation not common in capitalism. He wants some synergy, now.

First came the love, then came the cynics. “It’ll never stand up in court”; “What if Ford and GM build a Tesla knock-off?”;  “Caveat emptor”; It’s not “only an altruistic act of charity” they say. We are all cynics of American capitalism, but when NOAA’s National Climatic Data Center said that June 2014 was the hottest June in the recorded history of planet Earth, it was clear someone had to do something.

Musk says he did it because, according to Ashlee Vance writing in BusinessWeek, he “wants to promote a more dramatic shift toward electric cars, so he will do what he can to accelerate things.” Vance also noted that Sun Microsystems once did the same thing—open-source its products when the company’s stock price started going south. That’s not Tesla’s situation, though. Last August the stock was at $138, and now it’s at $223, having soared as high as $265 in the past year.

Musk’s point is to expedite important business partnerships that will lead to a faster and more widespread adoption of electric vehicles, which still comprise less than 1% of the market. The hope is to facilitate creating an infrastructure of recharging stations that make electric cars practical for the general public. “Our true competition is not the small trickle of non-Tesla electric cars being produced,” Musk says, “but rather the enormous flood of gasoline cars pouring out of the world’s factories every day.”

Thus, Tesla is fighting against GM, Ford, Toyota, and Honda, and what Tesla Motors has going for it is a superlative product. The Tesla Model S travels 265 miles in one charge, accelerates from 0 to 60 in 4.2 seconds (comparable to the Corvette, Ferrari, Porsche, and Lamborghini); and has zero emissions. It’s the 2013 World Green Car of the Year, Motor Trend Car of the Year, and Consumer Reports’ “best car ever tested.”

Sometimes good PR, good business sense, and doing the right thing for the environment coincide. You’d have to be awfully cynical to think that Musk isn’t on the right side of history. But for some reason, even though the Tesla announcement made a big splash in the news, thoughtful analysis on the topic has been sparse. It is simply too soon to tell what will happen.

One of the big, largely ignored problems of electric cars is where the electricity comes from. Sure, the cars have no emissions, but those massive battery packs are often charged with electricity that comes from coal-burning power plants; as of 2013 39.1% of the country’s electricity is generated from coal.

Even that’s a problem that Musk is addressing through his SolarCity initiative, which liberates consumers from the monopolies of the electric utilities with free solar panel installation in their homes. Nevertheless, our heroes cannot be expected to solve all our problems. Salk eradicated a disease that killed and condemned thousands of others to life in an iron lung and didn’t even receive the Nobel Prize. Musk so far has been called an “Obama-backed loser” by Sarah Palin, and TV’s Jim Cramer bellowed about Tesla: “You don’t want to own this stock! You don’t want to own this car! Heck, you don’t even want to rent the thing!” With enemies like that, Musk’s future looks bright and I hope ours does as well.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: August 5, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , , ,

Giant Hogweed: Put on Your Hazmat Suit before You Go Outside

Have you heard the one about the mammoth carrot plant that’s so toxic it can scar your skin and permanently blind you? It’s the Giant Hogweed (Heracleum mantegazzianum), a plant indigenous to Caucasus and Central Asia that was imported to Europe in the 19th century as a showy perennial and then made its way to North America.

It looks like Queen Anne’s Lace that got tasered with a nuclear beam:

Evil in bloom.

Today it can be found throughout the temperate portions of Canada and the American Midwest, Northeast, and Pacific Northwest:


Sorry, Canada.

The giant hogweed lives up to its name: It’s a weed that grows up to 14 feet tall with leaves that can span 5 feet wide and white flower clusters up to 2.5 feet in diameter. And like a giant hog it can hurt you if you get too close. That’s because it is phototoxic, meaning that if the plant’s sap comes into contact with your skin and then your skin is exposed to sunlight, your skin will become discolored and then blister (this process is called phytophotodermatitis).

Gloves in the garden—always a good idea.

The reaction can start up to 48 hours after contact. In some cases, the blisters can cause permanent scarring and discoloration. What’s more, if you get the sap on your fingers and then rub your eyes, you can go blind—either temporarily or permanently. This is a problem, given that children “have been known to use the plant’s large, hollow stems as play telescopes or pea-shooters,” according to Drew Halfnight, writing in Canada’s National Post. Way to ruin your weekend.

Giant Hogweed is more dangerous than poisons ivy, oak, and sumac. So it makes sense that you learn how to identify it. You don’t want to be the one wrapping your bare arms around the stalk saying, “Hey, George, would you look at the size of this thing?”

By gum, it's taller 'n LeBron James.

Luckily, it’s not hard to spot when it’s fully grown—its size is a huge clue. First off, you’re probably safe on the golf course, the beach, and the neighborhood tot lot. Like poison ivy, Giant Hogweed thrives in disturbed environments; areas along roadways, waterways, and the edges of wooded areas where civilization meets up with the wild. Apart from its height, the other giant thing about the plant is its leaves, which are lacy and compound, like 5-foot wide fronds of celery or carrot greenery (they belong to the same family). The hogweed’s flower clusters are comprised of many tiny flowers on umbrella-like stems that can span over a foot.


The real problem is identifying the plant before it blooms and before it reaches its leviathan size; the Giant Hogweed can take up to four years to reach maturity. And when it does bloom, each flower head can release 50,000 seeds, which can stick around in the soil for a few years. So really, don’t even think of leaving home without protective clothing.

Innocent? I think not.

For more pictures of the Giant Hogweed in various states of growth, see here.

It’s a perennial, meaning that unless you dig out the entire root system, it will grow back the next year. Just make sure you’re wearing your hazmat suit (or long sleeves, pants, and rubber gloves). Let the plant rot in the sun. Make sure the seeds don’t spread by putting the flower head in a big ol’ plastic bag and letting that rot in the sun too. Prevent seeds from sprouting by covering the area in plastic. Spraying with repeated applications of glyphosate (the active chemical in Roundup) also works, just make sure you’re getting those dangnabit seedlings that are bound to pop up in the spring. Or, better yet, just call your local university extension or department of natural resources and have them take care of it.

Mother Nature is out to get you.

One problem in identifying Giant Hogweed is that its primary doppelganger is the nontoxic cow parsnip, with the primary differences being that of size. Of course, making this distinction may be difficult if you’re looking at a giant hogweed that’s still growing. A cow parsnip leaf only grows up to 2.5 feet wide and its similar-looking flower clusters only grow to 1-foot wide. Cow parsnip is actually useful;  Native Americans have used it for centuries as a natural insect repellant.

Cow parsnip: A good plant.

The Giant Hogweed has the rare distinction of having been confirmed on as really living up to its hype, rather than debunked as a hoax like the latest celebrity death rumor. However, other media outlets are trying to stem (heh) the hysteria. The Michigan State University Extension wants people to know that you’re not likely to see the plant on “a vigorous tramp through the woods or wetlands.” But it’s always a good idea to remember that plants can be evil.

So let’s review what we need to stay away from as we go cavorting through the field chasing butterflies this summer. Always be on the lookout for that nasty trio that can ruin your adventure:


Trifecta of killjoy foliage.

For poison oak and poison ivy, don’t forget: “Leaves of three, let them be.” For sumac, remember: “Leaves of nine, very bad sign.”

How about this for the Giant Hogweed: “Mammoth Queen Anne’s Lace—shield your hands and face, and call the hazmat team posthaste.”

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: July 22, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , ,

The United Floods of America: Cross-Checking Data on the Coming Deluge

A picture is worth a thousand words. The polar ice is melting, the glaciers are retreating. Whether or not you believe this influx of H2O is caused by anthropogenic global warming (although, seriously, it is), that won’t stop the steady rise in sea levels from here on out.


The inability to gaze into a crystal ball and see the future is what gives climate change deniers so much ammunition. While climate scientists are pretty sure what the future holds, the deniers are absolutely positive that no one knows the future. When it comes to sound bites, the deniers’ emphatic response trumps the scientists’ measured response every time. (It’s a good thing the millennials have been conditioned since Day 1 to think critically about the media; I’m counting on their rationality to help get us out of this mess.)

The point is, we need some graphic illustrations to bring home the dangers of climate change. A polar bear adrift on an iceberg may tug at the heartstrings, but it doesn’t mean much if you live in Florida:



Or Louisiana:


That’s why Nickolay Lamm’s digitized photographs are so amazing. Maybe you’ve seen these pictures. They combine sea level rise mapping data from Climate Central with photographs of beloved American landmarks and shows how the creeping sea level will decimate our landscape. The 12-foot sea level rise he envisions inundates Liberty Island, leaving the Statue of Liberty alone above the waterline while the massive gift shop built in her honor sinks into the drink:


Here’s the Jefferson Memorial with the rising Atlantic sea level of 12 feet:



How about Boston?


And while we’re at it, here’s something for you West Coast people—AT&T Park in San Francisco, after the Giants become a synchronized swim team:


These Photoshopped Pictures of Doom represent the worst case scenario of sea levels rising 12 feet, which is projected to happen in about 200 years under the climate models used by Climate Central, an independent, nonprofit organization staffed by highly regarded scientists and journalists dedicated to disseminating climate facts to the general public. So, obviously, the pictures are simply for illustrative purposes only—no one expects a major league stadium to last more than a couple decades, let alone a couple of centuries.

In addition to these images, Climate Central offers interactive maps of coastal states that show threats from sea level rise and storm surge in every coastal town from Portland, Maine to Galveston, Texas on one coast, and from Seattle to San Diego on the other. The maps show the current population numbers that are in danger from different levels of flooding. It’s important to note that pure sea level rise differs from the threat of tidal and storm surges, like that seen with Hurricane Sandy. The ocean doesn’t have to rise 12 feet for serious Katrina-like destruction; basically, most coastal areas near sea-level are at risk for major damage during serious weather events, which will be more frequent due to the warming ocean currents. But you already knew that.

However, a little fact-checking is in order here. How does Climate Central’s data stack up against the data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)? You can see for yourself at NOAA’s Sea Level Rise and Coastal Flooding Impacts page, which only projects up to a 6-foot sea-level rise, versus Climate Central’s 12 feet. To hedge their bets, NOAA’s map also includes a Mapping Confidence function, which shows the statistical likelihood that a given area will be inundated at each rise in sea level. Upshot: Fort Lauderdale—it’s time to look at inland real estate.

Look at Pompano Beach, just north of Fort Lauderdale. It’s on the Atlantic Intracoastal Waterway, and tons of housing developments have been constructed so each abode is on a canal. At a 6-foot sea level rise, nearly all of the community of over 100,000 people is underwater with a “high degree of confidence” according to the NOAA data (“high degree of confidence” are the areas in blue; “low degree of confidence” is in yellow):


Looking at a similar area from Climate Central’s map, the data is hard to read:


I think the areas underwater are those in the “mapped in area”—everything in white is safe (i.e., in the upper right-hand corner). But it’s hard to tell.

Furthermore, when trying to rectify Lamm’s Photoshopped image of the Statue of Liberty with the mapped data from Climate Central, things are fuzzy. Here’s the mapped image with a sea level rise of 5 feet around Liberty Island:

I think this means that the whole island is underwater, but I’m not sure. You’d think they would somehow indicate that the island is underwater but Lady Liberty herself is not. Here’s the map at a 4-foot sea-level rise:

I take this to mean that the island is largely “safe,” but the docks are gone.

Here’s the data from NOAA with a 6-foot sea level rise at Liberty Island, which seems to coincide fairly well with the 4-foot sea-level rise from Climate Central, although their map doesn’t have as high a resolution:


None of this means that Climate Central’s data is inaccurate, only that it is a bit hard to read. Thus, if you want scare tactics—Lamm’s photos are the way to go. If you want to drill down extremely granular data vetted by experts, NOAA can’t be beat. A corollary of this exercise is that despite politicians who yammer on about how the “jury’s still out” regarding climate change, many large government agencies have been dealing with the reality of global warming for many years and will continue to do so no matter who’s in office.

One question I have as a Michigander is the degree to which the Great Lakes will be affected by rising sea levels. So far, neither NOAA nor Climate Central has addressed this issue. Their maps focus solely on the East, West, and Gulf coasts. I think it all goes back to the uncertainty principle; many more factors are involved in water levels in the Great Lakes than in the comparatively simple prognostication process of pinpointing when Venice Beach will disappear. I take solace in this; it’s comforting to live amidst such a large supply of fresh water, even if “fresh” these days is a relative term.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: July 8, 2014, 10:30 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , ,

That Hamburger = Enough Water to Fill a Swimming Pool

You’re already pretty savvy about the environmental significance of water. You know that fresh water is a finite resource and that Americans use a lot of it for things that don’t matter in the grand scheme of evolution—vast tracts of suburban lawns, fountains in Las Vegas, etc.

You turn the faucet off when you brush your teeth and perhaps even contribute to charities that bring clean water to poor people in developing countries. You eat low on the food chain because it’s better for your own health as well as the health of the planet. However, a good barbecue every now and then is a beautiful thing.

Now it’s time to learn about your water footprint. Like your carbon footprint, which measures your greenhouse gas output from your lifestyle (how far you drive, how much energy you consume, etc.), your water footprint measures how much water usage you are responsible for, not only for obvious things like toilet flushes and showers (illustrated below; this is known as your direct water footprint), but also for the things you consume and buy (known as your indirect water footprint). How much water did it take to grow that orange you’re eating? How much water was involved in the industrial processes that resulted in that Prius you’re driving?

The part of your indirect water footprint that you have the most control over is the part comprised of what you eat. No surprise here—a pound of meat takes oodles more water to create than a single orange. But just how much more? Here’s where you can scour the Internet for a meaningful infographic and not come up with anything overtly satisfying. There’s this:

It’s factual, but not very interesting. What we need is something that really drives home the point. So I decided to put together my own infographic that visually represents the water needed to grow various foods, using data from the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).

Here it is:

Source: U.S. Geological Survey,

Now that’s information! Basically, the water footprint of a slice of bread, an orange, or a cup of coffee is infinitesimal next to the giant stomp of a hamburger. If those gallons of hamburger water were used for a swimming pool instead, you could do the backstroke in them.

Furthermore, to make sure the graph fit on this page, I used the lowest water estimate for hamburger. The USGS gives hamburger a water footprint range of between 4,000 gallons and 18,000 gallons of water for a single patty—hold the bacon, hold the cheese. This huge variance depends on where in the world the cattle are raised and numerous other factors. Let’s assume this burger is the product of a steer from a run-of-the-mill Texas cattle ranch, and not some pampered Kobe steer from Japan.

But where are the other foods? Yeah, chicken is there, at a relatively modest 500 gallons for a pound of meat, and the egg clocks in next to the chicken at 50 gallons—if you can squint maybe you see it. That’s 150 gallons of water for a brunch-sized omelet. But where is coffee (35 gallons per cup), orange juice (13 gallons per glass), and bread (10 gallons per slice)?

Well friends, they’re there. I input the numbers in Excel myself. But that’s the glory of this infographic: The discrepancy between staples like bread and orange juice and red meat is astronomical, even though a gallon of orange juice and a pound of hamburger are nearly equivalent in price. Their water footprint is not reflected in what we pay for them.

While water footprint statistics are certainly handy for the environmentally conscious among us, they also have real and significant ramifications on a geopolitical level. Each country or region has finite water resources, or water budgets, that may or may not be sufficient for its population to feed itself and live sustainability. What does this mean for a country like China, for instance, which has transformed hundreds of millions of people from vegetarians (out of necessity) into carnivores (out of preference) as its economic fortunes have skyrocketed—even as it remains one of the most water-scarce countries in the world?

The water footprint is a handy concept that allows us to see the ramifications of our choices, both as individuals and as nations in the global community. For more information on the water footprints of different kinds of food, check out this chart from

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: June 25, 2014, 3:00 pm Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , ,

The Megadrought Is Now

Forget the polar vortex, the record snowfalls in the East, and the abandoned cars on Atlanta’s iced-over freeways. The real news is the drought in the West, by far. Yet unless you live in the middle of it, you’re probably only tangentially aware of the crisis because it doesn’t fit snugly into the 24-hour news cycle. The drought took three years to come to fruition in 2013; it’s a silent, slow-rolling tragedy rather than blink-of-an-eye disaster, and it’s got California in its crosshairs:

This is the March 18, 2014 map from the USDA: See that brick-red splotch over central California? That’s “exceptional drought,” which is as high as the scale goes. The surrounding fire-engine red is “extreme drought.” All told, 38 million people live in California, and their access to water is at risk. Moreover, that brick-red region produces the lion’s share of milk, fruits, vegetables, and nuts consumed in the United States. California’s almond crop alone requires 100 billion gallons of water each year.

Here’s the national picture from the National Climatic Data Center, which, oddly, doesn’t seem to reflect the magnitude of the massive snowstorms in the Northeast this winter:

California, when you’re done with the moisturizer, pass it on to Arizona, New Mexico, and Nebraska (Texas, I’m assuming you have your own).

But how do we evaluate this picture in historical terms? According to the Guardian’s climate change reporter Andrew Freedman:

Longer-running records indicate the 13-month drought, which is part of a 3-year dry period, is equal to or worse than any other short-term drought and is among the top 10 worst droughts to hit California in the past 500 years, based on tree-ring records and instrument data. The drought is part of a broader Western drought that has lasted for roughly 13 years, raising the specter of a modern-day “megadrought” akin to events that doomed some ancient civilizations.

A megadrought is one that lasts two or more decades or one that inflicts a level of economic damage that leads to mass migration. Most megadroughts are associated with La Niña conditions on the Pacific Ocean. They are rare events: Even the Dust Bowl of the 1930s is not considered a megadrought. However, some scientists, including Lynn Ingram, have uncovered evidence that the 20th century was California’s wettest century in 1,300 years. During this time, dams were constructed to divert water, and population and industry developed in accordance with a quantity of water that was far above the geographical norm—to say nothing of launching an unprecedentedly massive agriculture industry smack dab in the middle of a desert. Ingram, the author of The West Without Water: What Past Floods, Droughts, and Other Climatic Clues Tell Us about Tomorrow, believes that this current drought could be the start of a trend that could last as long as a century.

Blame It on La Niña

Most climatologists blame La Niña for this current drought. Although anthropogenic climate change may exacerbate the situation and make summer heat waves worse,  overall the drought seems to have a more natural explanation. La Niña has coincided with all the major droughts of the past 100 years, some of which lasted up to 10 years, and this one is no exception. La Niña and its counterpart El Niño together form the Southern Oscillation climate pattern in which the surface temperature of the Eastern Central Pacific Ocean varies by several degrees. A lower-than-normal ocean temperature results in La Niña; a higher-than-normal temperature results in El Niño. Typically, La Niña results in droughts in the West and cool, rainy summers in the Midwest. El Niño has the opposite effect: Wet winters in the Southwest, including California, and warm, dry winters in most other places in the contiguous United States. This begs the question: Can we count on El Niño to end the drought?

Answer: Maybe. Some signs indicate that an El Niño may be triggered by the late summer of 2014 and last through next winter; the National Weather Service Climate Prediction Center gives this a 49 percent chance of happening. However, a strong El Niño will provide more relief than a mild El Niño, and there is no way to predict its strength even if it does appear.

Until Then. . . .

California Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency on January 17, 2014. This requires enacting emergency plans in the event of drinking water shortages, hiring more firefighters, and launching a campaign urging citizens to reduce their water usage by 20 percent. In February, President Obama pledged $183 million in federal funds ease the state’s water woes, with the majority earmarked for livestock disaster assistance and some $60 million dedicated to food banks.

Kathy Wilson Peacock is a writer, editor, nature lover, and flaneur of the zeitgeist. She favors science over superstition and believes that knowledge is the best super power. Favorite secret weapon: A library card.

Posted on: June 10, 2014, 6:00 am Category: Current Issues Tagged with: , , , , , ,