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Farmworkers are risking their health to harvest produce near California wildfires.

Mon, 2017-12-11 17:45

The out-of-control fires have already burned up an area the size of New York City and Boston combined. Meanwhile, farmworkers are still working 8 to 10 hour days, often without protective gear to guard them against the wildfire smoke.

Health officials are warning residents to stay indoors or wear masks if they need to go outside. California’s Division of Occupational Safety and Health advised employers to take precautions to protect their workers, but the law doesn’t require them to provide masks or other protective equipment.

Volunteers with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy handed out thousands of masks to farmworkers in Southern California. “It’s a little bit of playing whack-a-mole as the smoke drifts north,” says Lucas Zucker, policy and communications director at the alliance. “There’s definitely pressure in the industry to get those strawberries harvested before they get damaged by the ash.”

Breathing in smoky air can trigger asthma attacks, chest palpitations, and other respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Wildfire smoke also carries particles known to cause cancer.

Despite the risks, Zucker says many farmworkers have little choice but to stay on the job. “It’s a horrific choice to choose between the income that you need to keep a roof over your family’s head, and taking care of your own health and safety,” he says.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Farmworkers are risking their health to harvest produce near California wildfires. on Dec 11, 2017.

Trump’s EPA eases off on the whole “environmental protection” thing.

Mon, 2017-12-11 16:27

The Environmental Protection Agency is supposed to defend human health and the environment, but a New York Times analysis published Monday suggests that it hasn’t been doing a great job.

EPA enforcement data indicates that the agency has gone easier on polluters and been less strict about penalties under Trump compared to the two previous administrations. For example, under President Obama, the EPA ramped up demands that companies retrofit their factories to cut down on pollution. Those demands have petered out to a mere 12 percent of what was requested by the Obama administration.

Confidential EPA documents obtained by the Times also show that EPA enforcement officers around the country must now receive permission from Washington, D.C., before they can order air and water pollution tests — tests that are kiiiind of essential to keeping polluters in check.

That’s no accident. According to the report, the documents show that “the enforcement slowdown coincides with major policy changes ordered by Mr. Pruitt’s team after pleas from oil and gas industry executives.”

The EPA released a statement on Monday that “there is no reduction in E.P.A.’s commitment to ensure compliance with our nation’s environmental laws.” That’s nice, but the facts state otherwise.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Trump’s EPA eases off on the whole “environmental protection” thing. on Dec 11, 2017.

This House committee has clearly picked a side in the national monument debate.

Fri, 2017-12-08 19:38

It’s not Patagonia’s.

The public lands dispute heated up on Monday when outdoor clothing brand Patagonia turned its homepage into a call to arms against President Donald Trump’s decision to significantly shrink two national monuments in Utah.

On Friday, the House Natural Resources Committee fired back at Patagonia, accusing the company of “hijacking the public lands debate” in an attempt to sell more products.

.@Patagonia doesn't want #MonumentsForAll, they just want your money #BearsEars

— Natural Resources (@NatResources) December 8, 2017

It seems highly unusual for a House committee to traffic in conspiracy theories, but, to its credit, Patagonia’s website did see record traffic following the company’s stand against Trump.

Anyways — the Natural Resources committee will hold a hearing next Thursday to consider legislation proposed by Utah Republican Chris Stewart that would turn the remaining parts of Grand-Staircase Escalante National Monument into a national park.

That means Grand-Staircase Escalante would no longer be preserved under the Antiquities Act for containing objects of historical, cultural, or scientific interest; instead, it would be protected for its scenic, educational, and recreational value.

Democratic State Senator Jim Dabakis called Stewart’s proposal a “sleight of hand, a trick” to divert attention from the plot to open up public lands for mineral extraction.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline This House committee has clearly picked a side in the national monument debate. on Dec 8, 2017.

Northern Alaska is warming so fast, it’s faking out computers.

Fri, 2017-12-08 16:59

The loss of near-shore sea ice near Utqiaġvik (Barrow) has been so abrupt, it’s transformed the local climate.

Open water in the Arctic causes a compounding warming effect and rapidly elevates temperatures — water is darker than ice and absorbs heat quicker. The effect is particularly strong between October and December, the time of the year that used to have sea ice, but often doesn’t anymore. Octobers in Utqiaġvik are now nearly 8 degrees warmer than Octobers in the 1980s and ’90s.

Apparently, the computers tracking temperatures there have finally had enough. Deke Arndt, chief of NOAA’s Climate Monitoring Branch, explains:

In an ironic exclamation point to swift regional climate change in and near the Arctic, the average temperature observed at the weather station at Utqiaġvik has now changed so rapidly that it triggered an algorithm designed to detect artificial changes in a station’s instrumentation or environment and disqualified itself from the NOAA Alaskan temperature analysis, leaving northern Alaska analyzed a little cooler than it really was.

Basically, the computer thought the weather station had been moved. It hasn’t moved; Utqiaġvik is just a different place now.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Northern Alaska is warming so fast, it’s faking out computers. on Dec 8, 2017.

A bill in Congress would require more scientific research … into geoengineering.

Fri, 2017-12-08 16:49

On the one hand, supporting science is good! On the other hand, geoengineering — the modification of planetary systems to counteract the effects of global warming — is a risky long-shot attempt to address climate change, when much simpler, more direct solutions are already known.

A new bill introduced by a Jerry McNerney, a Democratic representative from California, calls for “a federal commitment to the creation of a geoengineering research agenda and an assessment of the potential risks of geoengineering practices” by the National Academies of Sciences.

The bill comes out of the House Science, Space, and Technology committee, chaired by outgoing climate foe Lamar Smith. Smith has somehow managed to support geoengineering research without acknowledging the changing climate that would render it necessary in the first place.

To be fair, research into geoengineering is a far cry from — as one proposal would have it — actually spraying particles into clouds to make them brighter, reflecting more sunlight and therefore allowing less heat to enter the atmosphere.

Whether that kind of planetary meddling will ever be a viable approach to climate change requires a lot more research, yes. But with the sciences feeling the pinch of a science-allergic administration, lots of important research is already on the chopping block.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A bill in Congress would require more scientific research … into geoengineering. on Dec 8, 2017.

Is Ryan Zinke pretending to be Christian Grey?

Fri, 2017-12-08 15:35

Not in a sexy way! Maybe kind of in a sexy way.

According to Politico, the interior secretary loves to travel by helicopter: a helicopter to a leisurely horseback ride with Vice President Mike Pence; a helicopter ride over the James River in Virginia to review a new power line installation site; a helicopter to the signing-in ceremony of Montana Senator Greg Gianforte (the angry guy).

Here’s video evidence of Christian Grey, the protagonist of the fictional book and film series 50 Shades of Grey, also enjoying a good heli ride:

It’s romantic!!!!!

It’s dangerous!!!!!!

It’s one of several ways to zoom around in a tiny aircraft!!!!!

(The key difference here is that Christian Grey ostensibly paid for his own helicopter, and Ryan Zinke is using many thousands of dollars of taxpayer money to use government helicopters.)

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Is Ryan Zinke pretending to be Christian Grey? on Dec 8, 2017.

The GOP tax bill could cost us the next generation of climate scientists

Fri, 2017-12-08 15:04

Grad students around the country are protesting the so-called grad student tax. Of course they are! They stand to lose thousands of dollars. But even if you’re not an aspiring PhD, the tax is cause for concern: It could hurt scientific research, leaving us less capable of tackling climate change.

In the environmental sciences, like many STEM fields, universities offer graduate students a stipend and cover their tuition in return for teaching or conducting research. The House tax bill approved in November would start treating tuition as taxable income. The Senate version keeps tuition waivers tax-free, but it’s unclear whether the tax will be part of the the final bill that reconciles the two versions.

More than half of grad students make $20,000 or less a year, according to stats from the Department of Education. Paying an extra few thousand dollars in taxes could make grad school unaffordable for many, and economists say it would discourage people from seeking advanced degrees. Professors and grad students in the environmental sciences told me that the tax would decrease the diversity and number of students in their programs, and could ultimately devastate climate change research.

“The worry is that if this passes — and then the other attacks on funding within the federal government for climate science — then we’re going to lose a generation of climate scientists,” LuAnne Thompson, professor of oceanography at the University of Washington (UW), said in an interview with Grist.

Graduate students are the muscle behind the research force, often making up the majority of researchers in a lab. They plan experiments, acquire data, and publish articles about the results.

“I feel like people are underestimating what it would mean for there to be fewer grad students,” says Natalie Lowell, a PhD student at UW’s School of Aquatics and Fishery Sciences. “It really is a direct correlation with how much less research there’s going to be.”

Lowell, who researches native shellfish species, says that she has to live fairly frugally to get by on her stipend. She lives in a basement apartment where squirrels “come out of the wall” and pee everywhere. In Seattle, where the tech boom has caused rent to skyrocket, this “absolute steal” costs $500 a month. She’s been saving up a couple thousand dollars a year, but she wouldn’t be able to do so under the tax. It would knock about $3,600 out of her bank account each year she’s in school.

For in-state students at UW, taxes would increase from roughly $2,700 to $4,200 a year, according to Matt Munoz, a graduate student studying public administration and policy at UW. Out-of-state students would be charged nearly $5,800.

The tax provision would be bad timing, since it could sabotage the efforts in diversity, equity, and inclusion that were finally picking up speed at UW. Thompson, the oceanography professor, says that the extra cost could make it impossible for people with limited resources to participate in College of Environment graduate programs.

“The way we think about conservation science has really shifted” as it has become more inclusive, UW’s Lowell says. “[The tax] is the sort of thing that would just throw a wrench in that. Because who’s doing the research totally determines how you frame questions, how you make connections, how you treat your workers.”

By limiting who can participate in graduate research, the grad student tax could stifle scientific innovation, similar to Trump’s travel ban. It could also make education prohibitively expensive for many international students, potentially sending some of the world’s brightest minds to other countries.

Marysa Laguë, a student from Canada pursuing a PhD in atmospheric science at UW, pays taxes in both Canada and the United States. She told me that she always has the “fallback plan” of going back to her home country if staying in grad school in Seattle becomes too expensive. “I don’t want to have to do that,” she says. “I’m here for a reason. I wanted to be here.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The GOP tax bill could cost us the next generation of climate scientists on Dec 8, 2017.

The first wintertime megafire in California history is here

Fri, 2017-12-08 13:42

In the hills above the Pacific Ocean, the world crossed a terrifying threshold this week.

As holiday music plays on the radio, temperatures in Southern California have soared into the 80s, and bone-dry winds have fanned a summer-like wildfire outbreak. Southern California is under siege.

As the largest of this week’s fires skipped across California’s famed coastal highway 101 toward the beach, rare snowflakes were falling in Houston, all made possible by a truly extreme weather pattern that’s locked the jet stream into a highly amplified state. It’s difficult to find the words to adequately describe how weird this is. It’s rare that the dissonance of climate change is this visceral.

That one of California’s largest and most destructive wildfires is now burning largely out of control during what should be the peak of the state’s rainy season should shock us into lucidity. It’s December. This shouldn’t be happening.

The Thomas fire is the first wintertime megafire in California history. In a state known for its large fires, this one stands out. At 115,000 acres, it’s already bigger than the city of Atlanta. Hundreds of homes have already been destroyed, and the fire is still just 5 percent contained.

In its first several hours, the Thomas fire grew at a rate of one football field per second, expanding 30-fold, and engulfing entire neighborhoods in the dead of night. Hurricane force winds have produced harrowing conditions for firefighters. Faced with such impossible conditions, in some cases, all they could do is move people to safety, and stand and watch.

“We can’t control it,” firefighter and photographer Stuart Palley told me from a beach in Ventura. “In these situations, you can throw everything you’ve got at it, tanker planes dropping tens of thousands of gallons of flame retardant, thousands of firefighters, hundreds of engines, you can do everything man has in their mechanical toolbox to fight these fires and they’re just going to burn and do whatever the hell they want. We have to learn that.” As we spoke, another wall of flames crested a nearby ridge, reflecting its orange glow off the sea.

The Thomas fire isn’t the only one burning right now. At least six major fires threaten tens of thousands of homes and have forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee in recent days. “California fires enter the heart of Los Angeles” read one New York Times headline, a statement so dire it could double as a plot synopsis in a nearby Hollywood movie studio. Million-dollar mansions in Bel Air were evacuated, and the 405 freeway, one of L.A.’s busiest, was transformed into a dystopian hellscape during the morning commute. Ralph Terrazas, the Los Angeles fire chief, called the conditions the worst he’s seen in his entire 31-year career. “There will be no ability to fight fires in these kinds of winds,” said Ken Pimlott, the state fire chief. Shortly after these statements, state officials sent an unprecedented push notification to nearly everyone in Southern California, ominously warning millions of people to “stay alert.”

For years, climate scientists have warned us that California was entering a year-round fire regime. For years, climate campaigners have been wondering what it would take to get people to wake up to the urgency of cutting fossil fuel emissions. For years, we’ve been tip-toeing as a civilization towards a point of no return.

That time is now.

The advent of uncontrollable wintertime megafires in California is a turning point in America’s struggle to contain the impacts of a rapidly changing climate. Conditions that led to the Thomas fire won’t happen every year, but the fact that they’re happening at all should shock us.

As California-based scientist Faith Kearns writes in Bay Nature magazine, “The admission that our best efforts may not always be enough opens a small window to shift how we think about disasters.”

The sirens are wailing, the long-feared scenarios are coming true. The era that scientists have warned us about for decades is here. There’s no denying the facts anymore: What’s happening right now in California is a climate emergency.

Historically, the Santa Ana fire season in Southern California peaks in October, at the end of the long summer dry season, just as the first snows of the winter start to appear in the Sierras. With the right conditions, the dense, cold air further inland gets funneled toward the coast, warming and drying as it quickly descends toward the sea, waiting to transform an errant spark into a raging inferno.

These are the Santa Ana winds, and they’ve been happening here for millennia. What’s different now, of course, is there are millions of people living in the area, for all the reasons people want to live in Southern California. The seasons are changing, too. Increasingly, those two facts are becoming incompatible.

There’s a whole series of links between climate change and this week’s fires. Ten years ago, scientists warned of possible lengthening of the Santa Ana fire season, and the data bear that out. Fire season is more than a month longer now, and 13 of the state’s top 20 fires in history have happened since 2000. This year’s “rainy” season has also been suspiciously absent so far, with Los Angeles rainfall 94 percent below normal since October. Right now, the atmosphere over the West Coast is the driest in recorded history. There’s no rain in the forecast for at least the next two weeks – the current fires could last until Christmas. Combine that with more people wanting to live in harm’s way – more than a million more people live in Southern California compared to 2000 – and it’s no wonder wildfire seasons are becoming increasingly catastrophic.

This year was the most expensive wildfire season in U.S. history, but money isn’t really the issue here. It’s the daily terror that fills residents as they look up and see a blood red sky and wonder if their home will make it through the night. It’s the rush on breathing masks as air pollution values spike above the top of the scale. It’s the realization that what you thought was normal, isn’t anymore.

In Houston, Puerto Rico, and Los Angeles, Americans are feeling the urgency of climate change not in weather data and distant news reports, but in their pulse rate.

Climate change is no longer some abstract concept, some line on a graph, some strongly-worded scientific consensus statement. Climate change is terrifying. It’s families fleeing a fire with only a moment’s warning to collect their photo albums. It’s single mothers using an ax to break a hole in the roof of their house as floodwaters rise into the attic of their home in the backyard of the oil industry’s capital city. It’s an entire island destroyed and forgotten, buried in a frenetic news cycle.

A new study this week that examines the recent performance of climate models, provides a hint that the ones showing the quickest rise in global temperatures have generally been the most accurate so far. Increasingly, that rise will accelerate, say the models, unless the world institutes a sharp reduction in emissions. Should we continue on a business as usual pathway, the new findings show a 93 percent chance that global warming will exceed what was previously considered a worst-case scenario by 2100.

A baby alive today has a good chance of living to the year 2100. The people of the future are real people, you can already meet them. Their climate futures are increasingly tangible. That climate change is now a California emergency doesn’t necessarily fate the region to uninhabitability, it provides an opportunity for a radical rethink. If we bungle this opportunity, all indications are that things can definitely get a lot worse.

A version of this story originally appeared in Rolling Stone.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The first wintertime megafire in California history is here on Dec 8, 2017.

People of color and low-income residents still haven’t gotten the help they need after Hurricane Harvey.

Thu, 2017-12-07 17:14

A new report by Kaiser Family Foundation and the Episcopal Health Foundation found economic and health disparities among those affected by Harvey.

Sixty-six percent of black residents surveyed said they are not getting the help they need to recover, compared to half of all hurricane survivors. While 34 percent of white residents said their FEMA applications had been approved, just 13 percent of black residents said the same.

And even though they are receiving less assistance, black and Hispanic respondents and those with lower incomes were more likely to have experienced property damage or loss of income as a result of the storm.

Additionally, 1 in 6 people reported that someone in their household has a health condition that is new or made worse because of Harvey. Lower-income adults and people of color who survived the storm were more likely to lack health insurance and to say they don’t know where to go for medical care.

“This survey gives an important voice to hard-hit communities that may have been forgotten, especially those with the greatest needs and fewest resources following the storm,” Elena Marks, president and CEO of the Episcopal Health Foundation, said in a statement.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline People of color and low-income residents still haven’t gotten the help they need after Hurricane Harvey. on Dec 7, 2017.

Inmates are risking their lives to fight California’s raging fires.

Thu, 2017-12-07 17:02

As wildfires tear through the greater Los Angeles area, destroying hundreds of homes, officials have warned nearly 200,000 people to evacuate.

Thousands of firefighters have arrived on the scene — many of them inmates, who make up about a third of the state’s wildfire-fighting force. Since the 1940s, California has relied on inmates to combat the flames by digging containment lines and clearing away brush. In return for this difficult and dangerous work — which has been compared to slave-era labor conditions — inmates get credit toward early parole and $2 per day in camp plus $1 per hour for their time on the fire line.

Roughly 250 women inmates serve on California’s firefighting force, risking their lives to get out of prison faster.

As massive fires rip through CA, I'm thinking of all the women putting their lives on the line to help fight them, for about $2 a day, just so they can get out of prison early and be with their children. Not the "sexy" story corrections wanted out there.

— Kamala Kelkar (@kkelkar) December 7, 2017

“I’ve seen women come back with broken ankles and broken arms, burns, or just suffering from exhaustion, you know, the psychological stress that people go through trying to just pass the requirements,” Romarilyn Ralston, a former firefighter trainer, told PBS.

As climate change makes wildfires worse, state officials are scrambling to recruit more inmates to fight them.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Inmates are risking their lives to fight California’s raging fires. on Dec 7, 2017.

A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee finally got to grill Scott Pruitt on Thursday.

Thu, 2017-12-07 16:51

It was the EPA chief’s first appearance on Capitol Hill in six months.

Republicans and Democrats on the panel pressed Pruitt on the EPA’s budget and staffing issues, and the agency’s overall approach to climate change. The EPA administrator hedged his comments on the Supreme Court’s climate endangerment finding and diligently stuck to his talking points.

Pruitt told lawmakers he will replace Obama’s Clean Power Plan instead of repealing the carbon-emissions rule like he originally said. He plans to conduct a “review of questions and answers around the issues around carbon dioxide” by the beginning of next year.

The panel then broke for three hours to allow the EPA head to attend a White House meeting on biofuels. Texas Senator Ted Cruz told Politico that it was going to be a “free-ranging discussion” about the Renewable Fuel Standard — a decade-old, politically contentious program that requires transportation fuel to partially contain biofuels.

A group of environmental and health advocates rallied on Capitol Hill on the morning of Pruitt’s testimony to highlight the EPA chief’s dismantling of science advisory boards, questionable spending patterns, and lack of policy enforcement.

Pruitt is supposed to make a series of similar appearances in Congress, but his next visit won’t be until Jan. 31.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A House Energy and Commerce subcommittee finally got to grill Scott Pruitt on Thursday. on Dec 7, 2017.

New York City’s watchdog sets her sights on climate change

Thu, 2017-12-07 14:09

As New York City’s public advocate, Letitia James is first in line to succeed Mayor Bill de Blasio. The first woman of color to be elected to hold citywide office in the Big Apple, she investigates complaints against city agencies and introduces legislation in the city council. Effectively, she’s the city’s official watchdog. And she recently set her sights on climate change, which she regards as an imminent threat to New Yorkers.

Last week, James held a public hearing to discuss what she called “the catastrophic consequences” of a warming planet. New Yorkers hoping the city would take the lead on climate-related matters — at a time when the federal government has all but abdicated responsibility — gathered at the Borough of Manhattan Community College in Tribeca, a neighborhood that James pointed out would be completely underwater by 2200 — if the world continues warming at its current rate.

Politicians and environmental groups met to call attention to the dangers climate change poses to New York’s most vulnerable, including children and seniors hospitalized during heatwaves and the disproportionate number of residents of color who live near heavy industry and storm-surge zones. According to Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, 420,000 of the 620,000 New Yorkers who live within a half-mile of busy ports and industrial areas are people of color.

Several panelists suggested the city take bold action. Michael Fabricant, treasurer of the Professional Staff Congress labor union, urged New York City’s largest pension fund to liquidate its investments in fossil fuels — a move James supports. And Isabelle Silverman with the Environmental Defense Fund called for the city to mandate that building owners move away from steam heating to more efficient systems in order to meet Mayor de Blasio’s 80 x 50 goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

Grist caught up with James after the hearing to talk with her about what she’ll do next to defend Gotham against the rising tides of climate change. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Q. What makes climate change an urgent issue for New York’s most vulnerable communities — especially low-income communities and communities of color?

A. I saw the aftermath of Sandy, and communities of color — particularly residents in public housing, who represent low-income communities — are still reeling from the effects. I’ve seen working families on Staten Island, as well as in parts of south Brooklyn, who are still struggling. Given the fact that by 2100 or sooner, many areas of our five boroughs where a lot of low-income residents live will experience chronic flooding, it’s really critically important that we step up and put our money where our mouths are. And that we lead the way in going green, in terms of our buildings but also in terms of our retirement fund — which is one of the largest retirement funds in this country — and that we divest from fossil fuels.

Q. Last week, the bond-rating agency Moody’s recently said that it was going to incorporate climate change into its credit ratings for state and local bonds. What incentive might this give a city like New York to make changes?

A. Clearly, it’s going to affect our credit ratings and obviously that affects how our bonds are rated on the market. It’s really critically important that we take climate change seriously and that we incorporate it into our policy — and even further it would provide more incentive to trustees to vote in favor of divestiture.

Q. Why was it important to have this hearing now?

A. A lot of the individuals who were urging us to divest, unfortunately, were not being heard. It was important that we put a face to this campaign, and that their voices be heard and that they be at the table and talk about the impacts of climate change — not only in New York City but all across this country.

And it’s not something that we could wait on. We’re experiencing it. We’re seeing the impacts, from Puerto Rico to Florida to Houston. And we’re dealing with a federal administration that won’t act, so it’s basically going to be up to municipalities and states to act. And so, as an elected official in New York City, I don’t want to follow, I want to lead. I think it’s really critically important that we lead, and that’s why I decided to take the first step.

Q. What were some of the big takeaways from the hearing for you?

A. My objective is:

  1. To draw attention to this issue, and …
  2. Not to be so reactive to a storm or a hurricane.

We can be more proactive in this city by putting in policies that address climate change. And they include, but are not limited to: transforming how we construct buildings in the City of New York and urging the business industry to get on board. And last but not least: to divest from fossil fuels in the City of New York and to invest in renewable energy.

Q. Do you have buy-in from the mayor and others in local government on those goals?

A. As you know, to the mayor’s credit, we have clear goals: He has an initiative that he launched called 80 x 50, and he announced the building initiative. Obviously there are still some concerns that these actions don’t go far enough, but it’s a step in the right direction.

Q. What comes next after this hearing? How will you push for those changes?

A. As a trustee on the NYC Employees’ Retirement board — the largest public pension system — I proudly worked with others to gain a vote in support of divesting from coal, and I know that we are in the process of studying divestment from fossil fuels. And when that study is complete, what I would like to do is urge some of my like-minded trustees to vote in support of divestiture.

I think it’s just our moral obligation to address climate change, and we’ve got to lead as opposed to follow — and that has been the legacy of New York City.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline New York City’s watchdog sets her sights on climate change on Dec 7, 2017.

Republicans are using some very shaky math to justify drilling in the Arctic refuge

Wed, 2017-12-06 18:10

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Early Saturday morning, Senate Republicans narrowly passed a controversial tax bill which — aside from overwhelmingly benefiting the rich — will open up 1.5-million acres of the pristine, 20-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) for oil and gas drilling.

The fate of the ANWR has been a decades-long tug-of-war between Republicans and Democrats, with the right seeing the massive oil reserves within the park as a source of revenue for Alaska and the country, and the left insisting on preserving the land, which supports hundreds of bird species, arctic foxes, caribou, and polar bears. First designated a “wildlife range” in 1960 and then later a refuge in 1980, the land is also home to the Native Alaskan Gwich’in tribe, which relies on the land for subsistence.

“The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge is one of the crowned jewels of our public lands,” Ana Unruh Cohen, the director of government affairs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told Mother Jones last week when the tax bill was still being considered. “Drilling there would totally mar this beautiful place.”

The ANWR measure was added to the tax bill late last month in an effort to secure the vote of Alaskan Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski, who had crossed party lines to oppose the Obamacare repeal in July and hadn’t yet committed to supporting the tax bill. The move worked; after the vote, Murkowski said in a statement that the bill’s passing was a “critical milestone in our efforts to secure Alaska’s future.”

Murkowski’s prediction, though, is an optimistic one. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) has estimated that drilling in the ANWR would raise $1.1 billion for the federal government over the next 10 years and another 1.1 billion for Alaska over the same time period. This would, in theory, help offset the unprecedented cost of tax cuts proposed in the bill, which is estimated to add a whooping $1.4 trillion to the national debt over the next decade.

But experts warn that the CBO’s estimates are off — by a lot. According to data prepared for the nonprofit Alaska Wilderness League by David Murphy, an assistant professor of environmental studies at St. Lawrence University, and analyzed by Bloomberg, the federal government is actually likely to raise less than a fifth of that 10-year goal, or about $145 million. This lower estimate is based on historic sales in the region; the average bid for drilling along Alaska’s North Slope since 2000 is $194 per acre. So, bids for ANWR land would need to be nearly seven times higher than that in order to match the $1.1 billion federal estimate.

The problem with the CBO estimate is that it’s based on the size of all recoverable oil reserves in the 1.5-million-acre section of the ANWR that would open for drilling (thought to contain between 4.3 and 11.8 billion barrels according to the United States Geological Survey). It also uses long-term oil prices of $70 per barrel (prices Tuesday were at about $57) and the estimated cost of production in the region. In a November report, the CBO says their estimates are “uncertain,” and “potential bidders might make assumptions that are different from CBO’s, including assumptions about long-term oil prices, production costs, the amount of oil and gas resources in ANWR, and alternative investment opportunities.” The CBO does not provide a margin of error in their calculations.

“[The CBO] doesn’t explain any uncertainty about this [$1.1 billion] number — and legislation is being drafted around it. This would never pass muster in an academic journal,” Murphy tells Mother Jones.

Findings from both the Audubon Society, a nonprofit conservation organization and the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, similarly diverge from CBO estimates, but predict that oil and gas drilling would yield even lower numbers than Murphy suggests, at just $37.5 million over the next decade. They hinge their estimates on the average bid per acre since 1999 in the much larger, neighboring National Petroleum Reserve (an area already allocated for oil and gas leasing), which is just $50 per acre.

“Opening the Arctic to drilling as part of this tax plan is simply shameful. The Arctic Refuge isn’t a bank — drilling there won’t pay for the tax cuts the Senate just passed,” National Audubon Society President and CEO David Yarnold said in a statement just after Saturday’s vote.

USGS / Wikipedia

Throwing even more confusion into the situation, when the Trump administration released its 2018 fiscal budget report in May, it claimed said that drilling in the ANWR would raise a staggering $1.8 billion over the next 10 years, but didn’t provide reasoning for the estimate in the report.

Beyond this uncertainty on how much drilling would actually deliver into state and federal coffers, the bigger issue might be that it’s not even clear if oil companies still want and are willing to drill in the ANWR — a contentious and also costly site for oil extraction. Due to differences in how the oil is held in the ground, oil production in the Arctic costs, on average, $78 per barrel, while production in the lower 48 states ranges from $40-60 per barrel, according to Murphy’s analysis. Moreover, there is no existing oil extraction infrastructure located on the reserve, and building wells from scratch would cost, on average, more than $6 million per well, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That doesn’t even take into account the headache that environmentalists and natives-rights activists could create for oil companies, if not potentially costly litigation.

Of course, this not to say that oil drilling won’t occur there. “It’s a much smaller area [than the neighboring Petroleum Reserve] with a large amount of oil,” so drilling in the reserve would likely be fruitful, says Murphy. “Talk about throwing darts at a board … If it’s opened up, I’m sure companies will bid on it.” And drilling there could still be profitable for companies, despite the higher cost of drilling in the Arctic. Still, the Petroleum Reserve may prove to be a safer option for oil companies, which would have access to existing infrastructure and less pushback from advocacy groups that oppose drilling in the ANWR.

“We have a significant position now that’s close to where we have infrastructure and a long history of strong operating capability,” said Al Hirshberg, the executive vice president of production, drilling, and projects for ConocoPhillips, in a statement. The company leases about 70 percent of the Petroleum Reserve’s sold acreage, and recently discovered a store of 300-million barrels of oil in the reserve. The company tells Mother Jones they “would consider” operations in the ANWR, but it sees “tremendous potential” in the Petroleum Reserve and remains “focused on our projects and exploration plans there” — a statement similar to what the company shared with Bloomberg.

Finally, there’s still a lot of unleased land left in the Petroleum Reserve. According to the Bureau of Land Management, over half of the reserve was still available for leasing as of August 2017.

It remains to be seen if the ANWR provision will remain in the tax bill once the Senate and the House finish reconciling their versions of the legislation. But even then, it is unlikely to be the cash cow Republicans are relying on. “Current presidential and congressional budget projections are unrealistic,” Murphy writes in his report. “It would be fiscally irresponsible to pursue this path on a budget justification.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Republicans are using some very shaky math to justify drilling in the Arctic refuge on Dec 6, 2017.

Southern California is burning, and so is Rupert Murdoch’s house.

Wed, 2017-12-06 16:53

For your consideration, a series of facts:

1. There are five (five!) wildfires currently burning in the Los Angeles area today, and upwards of 50,000 people have been evacuated.

2. They look like this.

Not the typical morning commute…

— A. Mutzabaugh CMT (@WLV_investor) December 6, 2017

3. This has been (and continues to be) California’s worst wildfire season to date.

4. There are many reasons for that — including increased drought, tree disease, and rising temperatures due to climate change.

5. California news station NBC4 reported that media mogul Rupert Murdoch’s $30 million Bel-Air estate is one of the homes to succumb to the blaze.

6. Rupert Murdoch has deemed climate change “alarmist nonsense.”

7. The last two facts, taken together, are definitely a total!!! coincidence!!!!

8. Destruction wrought by climate change has a disproportionate effect on low-income people and people of color.

9. Rupert Murdoch will be fine.*

*That’s an educated guess, not a fact.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Southern California is burning, and so is Rupert Murdoch’s house. on Dec 6, 2017.

Ryan Zinke wants Trump to downsize even more national monuments.

Wed, 2017-12-06 16:22

The interior secretary, once a Prius-driving proponent of environmental conservation, recommended shrinking four national monuments on Tuesday.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump officially downsized two of them, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah. Zinke’s final report recommends shrinking two more, Nevada’s Gold Butte and Oregon’s Cascade-Siskiyou, although he did not specify exactly how much land those monuments would lose. Zinke also recommended that Trump reorganize six national and marine sites.

Under Zinke, the Interior has pushed to take advantage of the fossil fuel resources beneath national public lands. National monuments have long enjoyed protected status under the Antiquities Act, passed in 1906 by Zinke’s hero, Theodore Roosevelt. But in a recent call with reporters, Zinke said that the act’s power has been “abused.”

Conservationists, environmental groups, and Native American tribes are gearing up for a legal battle against Trump over the Utah monuments, and even retailers have joined the fray. Outdoor clothing designer Patagonia made its stance clear. This is what its site looks like right now:


Zinke isn’t too happy about it. He told reporters that Patagonia’s claim was “nefarious, false, and a lie.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Ryan Zinke wants Trump to downsize even more national monuments. on Dec 6, 2017.

Let’s check in on some of the brands increasingly running your life.

Tue, 2017-12-05 17:40

Consumerism drives climate changesorry! — and there have been plenty of developments in the weird, dark world of retail this week. Let’s go:

  1. Brands are yelling at Trump: Outdoor retailer and newly, weirdly posh brand Patagonia has declared outright war on the Trump administration. “The President Stole Your Land,” the banner on Patagonia’s homepage read as of Monday, after the administration passed two orders cutting massive chunks out of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante national monuments. Those formerly protected public lands are now open to private interests (read: fossil fuel extraction).
  2. Brands are profiting from rural poverty: Dollar General, the super-discount chain, has grown in sales and profits over the past seven years by expanding into increasingly poverty-stricken rural areas devoid of economic opportunity. “The economy is continuing to create more of our core customer,” Chief Executive Todd Vasos told the Wall Street Journal.
  3. Brands are expanding their empires: Carbon secret-keeper/urban development scourge Amazon dot com surprise-opened its Australian site on Tuesday. Amazon, however, is waiting to trot out the free express shipping option for Aussies until after the New Year. That little feature is both one of the company’s more significant competitive advantages and one of its biggest environmental offenses.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Let’s check in on some of the brands increasingly running your life. on Dec 5, 2017.

A federal panel helped cities cope with climate change. Trump killed it.

Tue, 2017-12-05 15:45

After President Trump announced that he intended to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement, cities across the country stepped up to fill the void on climate change action by adopting ambitious renewable energy targets and cutting pollution.

But the Trump administration has placed another proverbial banana peel in the path of cities seeking to modernize their responses to climate change. This week, the National Institute of Standards and Technology disbanded a panel that worked with federal agencies to help local officials prepare for extreme weather and natural disasters.

The Obama administration had established the panel, called the Community Resilience Panel for Buildings and Infrastructure Systems, in 2015. The panel had its final meeting on Monday. It’s the most recent casualty in the Trump administration’s affront on climate-related groups in the federal government.

“It was one of the last federal bodies that openly talked about climate change in public,” the panel’s chair, Jesse Keenan, told Bloomberg News.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A federal panel helped cities cope with climate change. Trump killed it. on Dec 5, 2017.

Energy Transfer Partners has until April to develop an oil-spill response plan for the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Tue, 2017-12-05 15:45

A federal judge ruled Monday that the pipeline developer must create a scheme to address potential leaks and complete an audit by a third party, to ensure they’re complying with state and federal regulations, in fewer than four months.

The judgment comes as a result of the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes calling for additional measures to protect their drinking water and sacred lands at Lake Oahe. U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg ordered the Dallas-based gas company to work with local tribes and the Army Corps of Engineers on the oil-spill response plan and also submit bimonthly reports on the pipeline’s operations.

The court’s orders come on the heels of a Keystone pipeline spill in November that spewed 210,000 gallons of oil in South Dakota. Judge Boasberg cited the leak in his ruling: “Although the court is not suggesting that a similar leak is imminent at Lake Oahe, the fact remains that there is an inherent risk with any pipeline,” he wrote.

Boasberg’s mandates are interim measures while the pipeline is in the middle of a court-ordered environmental review. Despite the tribes’ objections, Dakota Access has been transporting oil since June.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Energy Transfer Partners has until April to develop an oil-spill response plan for the Dakota Access Pipeline. on Dec 5, 2017.

Bitcoin could cost us our clean-energy future

Tue, 2017-12-05 13:32

If you’re like me, you’ve probably been ignoring the bitcoin phenomenon for years — because it seemed too complex, far-fetched, or maybe even too libertarian. But if you have any interest in a future where the world moves beyond fossil fuels, you and I should both start paying attention now.

Last week, the value of a single bitcoin broke the $10,000 barrier for the first time. Over the weekend, the price nearly hit $12,000. At the beginning of this year, it was less than $1,000.

If you had bought $100 in bitcoin back in 2011, your investment would be worth nearly $4 million today. All over the internet there are stories of people who treated their friends to lunch a few years ago and, as a novelty, paid with bitcoin. Those same people are now realizing that if they’d just paid in cash and held onto their digital currency, they’d now have enough money to buy a house.

That sort of precipitous rise is stunning, of course, but bitcoin wasn’t intended to be an investment instrument. Its creators envisioned it as a replacement for money itself — a decentralized, secure, anonymous method for transferring value between people.

But what they might not have accounted for is how much of an energy suck the computer network behind bitcoin could one day become. Simply put, bitcoin is slowing the effort to achieve a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. What’s more, this is just the beginning. Given its rapidly growing climate footprint, bitcoin is a malignant development, and it’s getting worse.

Cryptocurrencies like bitcoin provide a unique service: Financial transactions that don’t require governments to issue currency or banks to process payments. Writing in the Atlantic, Derek Thompson calls bitcoin an “ingenious and potentially transformative technology” that the entire economy could be built on — the currency equivalent of the internet. Some are even speculating that bitcoin could someday make the U.S. dollar obsolete.

But the rise of bitcoin is also happening at a specific moment in history: Humanity is decades behind schedule on counteracting climate change, and every action in this era should be evaluated on its net impact on the climate. Increasingly, bitcoin is failing the test.

Digital financial transactions come with a real-world price: The tremendous growth of cryptocurrencies has created an exponential demand for computing power. As bitcoin grows, the math problems computers must solve to make more bitcoin (a process called “mining”) get more and more difficult — a wrinkle designed to control the currency’s supply.

Today, each bitcoin transaction requires the same amount of energy used to power nine homes in the U.S. for one day. And miners are constantly installing more and faster computers. Already, the aggregate computing power of the bitcoin network is nearly 100,000 times larger than the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers combined.

The total energy use of this web of hardware is huge — an estimated 31 terawatt-hours per year. More than 150 individual countries in the world consume less energy annually. And that power-hungry network is currently increasing its energy use every day by about 450 gigawatt-hours, roughly the same amount of electricity the entire country of Haiti uses in a year.

That sort of electricity use is pulling energy from grids all over the world, where it could be charging electric vehicles and powering homes, to bitcoin-mining farms. In Venezuela, where rampant hyperinflation and subsidized electricity has led to a boom in bitcoin mining, rogue operations are now occasionally causing blackouts across the country. The world’s largest bitcoin mines are in China, where they siphon energy from huge hydroelectric dams, some of the cheapest sources of carbon-free energy in the world. One enterprising Tesla owner even attempted to rig up a mining operation in his car, to make use of free electricity at a public charging station.

In just a few months from now, at bitcoin’s current growth rate, the electricity demanded by the cryptocurrency network will start to outstrip what’s available, requiring new energy-generating plants. And with the climate conscious racing to replace fossil fuel-base plants with renewable energy sources, new stress on the grid means more facilities using dirty technologies. By July 2019, the bitcoin network will require more electricity than the entire United States currently uses. By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today.

This is an unsustainable trajectory. It simply can’t continue.

There are already several efforts underway to reform how the bitcoin network processes transactions, with the hope that it’ll one day require less electricity to make new coins. But as with other technological advances like irrigation in agriculture and outdoor LED lighting, more efficient systems for mining bitcoin could have the effect of attracting thousands of new miners.

It’s certain that the increasing energy burden of bitcoin transactions will divert progress from electrifying the world and reducing global carbon emissions. In fact, I’d guess it probably already has. The only question at this point is: by how much?

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Bitcoin could cost us our clean-energy future on Dec 5, 2017.

5 Native American tribes are gearing up for a legal battle with Trump on national monuments.

Mon, 2017-12-04 18:00

Today, the president signed two proclamations drastically cutting land from two federal monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, by 80 percent and 45 percent, respectively.

When President Obama designated Bears Ears a national monument last year, it was a huge victory for five Utah tribes — the Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe, Hopi, and the Pueblo of Zuni — who came together in 2015 to push for the preservation of what they estimate are 100,000 cultural and ancestral sites, some dating back to 1300 AD, in the region.

“More than 150 years ago, the federal government removed our ancestors from Bears Ears at gunpoint and sent them on the Long Walk,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Davis Filfred said in statement. “But we came back.”

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president authority to establish national monuments, largely to thwart looting of archaeological sites. Trump is the first president to shrink a monument in decades.

The five tribes have said they will bring a legal case against the administration — the outcome could redefine the president’s powers to use the Antiquities Act. “We know how to fight and we will fight to defend Bears Ears,” Filfred said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 5 Native American tribes are gearing up for a legal battle with Trump on national monuments. on Dec 4, 2017.