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Lyft pledges to cancel out the carbon from your next ride

Fri, 2018-04-20 18:44

Lyft, the ridesharing technology company, announced Thursday that it’s balancing out the carbon emissions from its fleet by purchasing carbon offsets. Basically, this means the firm will plow some of its revenue into funding projects that reduce greenhouse gases — think: planting trees or investing in wind energy projects — in order to cancel out the emissions from the more-than-a-million rides its app facilitates each day.

The carbon-neutral pledge suggests the company is taking some responsibility for the roughly 50 million monthly rides serviced through its platform. It’s also part of a larger strategy to lessen Lyft’s carbon footprint and to provide a billion rides a year via autonomous electric vehicles by 2025. Some energy experts have applauded the announcement, while suggesting it should be the first in a multistep process to ensure Lyft isn’t just removing the pollution it adds, but that it’s making less in the first place.

“I think it’s very much a partial step,” says Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at University of California, Berkeley. “Recognizing it and offsetting it is not the full answer,” he says. “But it’s certainly a great start.”

While ridesharing has certainly been an innovative technology, Kammen notes, it’s not great for the planet. Emissions-wise, Americans continuing to hop into cars across the country is something to worry about.

“Transportation, primarily driven by an increase in vehicle miles, has surpassed the power sector as the largest source of climate emissions in the United States,” writes Regina Clewlow, a transportation expert and founder of the mobility data platform Populus, in an email to Grist.

At University of California Davis, Clewlow researched the ecosystems around ride-hailing apps like Lyft and Uber. Her report from last fall found that the startups’ services discourage people from using public transportation, walking, and biking. In fact, 49 to 61 percent of the trips offered by those companies would have either not happened or been made by bike, foot, or public transit.

In New York, an urban transportation consulting company’s report found that app-based transportation companies have added more cars to the city’s streets. The firm, Schaller Consulting, led by a former New York City Department of Transportation senior official, found that the surge in vehicles could be increasing the amount of idling time for drivers, presumably between rides. In their analysis, they noted that on weekdays, there’s been an increase in the amount of unoccupied taxis, Lyfts, and Ubers in Manhattan’s central business district.

As for the carbon-offsetting tactic, Kammen says that in the past, these credits have not always proven to be solid. “The gripe has been that these credits are sometimes suspicious. A number of companies have done them in the past, and there have been claims everything from the same piece of conserved forest or project is being sold multiple times — there’s no verification,” he explains. “All that’s true, but definitely credits have gotten better in time.”

In its announcement, Lyft says it is working with sustainability consultant 3Degrees to verify the offsetting projects, and that all the initiatives will be in the U.S., with a majority near the app’s most popular service areas. And the company adds that it will only support projects that are new and wouldn’t have happened without Lyft’s support.

And hey, Uber — which is desperate for a public relations win — hasn’t taken such a bold step as it deals with sexual harassment scandals, ties to the Trump administration, and the recent death of a pedestrian from a self-driving Uber. Going green could help further Lyft’s clean reputation relative to its primary competitor.

Still, some have criticized carbon offsetting as a way for companies to “go green” without making more substantive changes. Kate Larsen, a director who focuses on climate change at the independent research organization Rhodium Group, says that getting cleaner vehicles into Lyft’s fleet, both autonomous and not, is an important next step. In order to meet decarbonization goals set under the Obama administration — not a formal policy under President Trump, but commonly used as a U.S. decarbonization benchmark, Larsen says — half of all cars on the road by 2030 need to be zero emissions or electric.

“Having commitments from transportation-network companies like Lyft and Uber and others that align with those kind of goals, I think, are really what we would hope to see in the coming years as sort of the next step,” Larsen says, adding that Lyft could look at incentivizing their drivers to get electric cars.

Derik Broekhoff, a senior scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, a Swedish think tank, says that while Lyft’s announcement is an encouraging sign, it’s best to look at carbon offsets as an interim solution. He explains that long term, the company should look to electrify its fleet, encourage carpooling, and try to integrate more with public transit systems.

“But all those things take time,” Broekhoff says. “Carbon offsets are a good way to yield immediate results in terms of reducing your carbon footprint on the way to these deeper reductions that at least in principle they are trying to move toward.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Lyft pledges to cancel out the carbon from your next ride on Apr 20, 2018.

Someone please tell Scott Pruitt that air pollution leads to more deaths than fuel efficiency standards.

Fri, 2018-04-20 17:20

The EPA administrator’s latest ploy to justify regulatory rollbacks: ignore mountains of scientific evidence and tell the public that efforts to protect our health are bad for us. (Well, maybe this strategy is not exactly new.)

This time, Pruitt is saying that fuel economy standards are actually killing people. His argument is twofold: First, he contends that the rules force automakers to build lighter vehicles, which don’t hold up well in car accidents and could increase fatalities. Simulated crash testing does not support this Koch-backed theory, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Second, Pruitt says that higher fuel efficiency standards could drive up prices and discourage people from buying newer, safer vehicle models.

Why go to such great lengths to bring back dirtier cars and trucks? The Los Angeles Times reports that the Trump administration is building up a case to revoke California’s ability to set higher mileage standards than federal law, a provision included in the Clean Air Act.

Because it’s such a huge market, California influences worldwide auto standards. A State of the Global Air report recently found that air pollution led to 1 in 9 deaths worldwide and contributed to more than 6 million deaths in 2016. That’s well over four times the number of people who die in car accidents globally each year.

Plus, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report released this week found that more than 40 percent of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Someone please tell Scott Pruitt that air pollution leads to more deaths than fuel efficiency standards. on Apr 20, 2018.

Detroit is about to cut off water for thousands of people

Fri, 2018-04-20 15:08

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

In the next few weeks, Detroit is set to start shutting off water to thousands of residents with unpaid bills. Since the shutoffs began four years ago, tens of thousands of Detroiters have had their water cut off, drawing sharp criticism from local anti-poverty activists as well as the United Nations.

Households are slated for shutoff once their water bill is 60 days or $150 past due. While more than 17,000 households are at risk, Gary Brown, director of the Detroit Water and Sewage Department, told the Detroit Free Press that roughly 2,000 will actually be shut off as more residents enroll in repayment and assistance plans. The city’s Water Residential Assistance Program (WRAP), for instance, offers up to $1,000 a year to help customers catch up on their accounts.

According to Brown, the average home slated for shutoff this year is $663 past due, and most water connections are restored within 48 hours of being turned off. City records obtained by Bridge Magazine show that the number of yearly shutoffs went from 33,000 in 2014 to 17,500 last year. Overall, there have been more than 101,000 shutoffs in the past four years.

In late March, Mayor Mike Duggan’s office touted the $7 million that has been spent in the last two years to help Detroiters facing shutoffs. Just the week before, the city council approved a $7.8 million contract to Homrich Wrecking for conducting water shutoffs.

Advocates who work with the poor black and brown Detroiters who are most vulnerable to losing their water say the city’s financial assistance programs are inadequate. They are little more than “a marketing plan being framed as a compassionate solution,” says Monica Lewis Patrick, president and CEO of We the People of Detroit, a grassroots group fighting the water shutoffs. Many Detroiters who enroll in payment plans are at risk of falling back into cycles of nonpayment, says Mark Fancher, staff attorney for the Racial Justice Project of the ACLU of Michigan. “Not because they’re lazy or just choosing to be poor,” but because “there are a whole lot of reasons why people are poor and there are lots of poor people in Detroit.”

Brown told the Free Press that the tricky part of conducting shutoffs is “separating the truly needy from those who are just not paying.” That line of thinking, says Fancher, presumes that those who aren’t paying are “deadbeats that have the money, but have chosen not to pay. This is completely contrary to the reality of most people who are dealing with these shutoffs.”

In a city that’s 80 percent black, more than 35 percent of residents live in poverty, the highest rate among the nation’s 20 largest cities. Unemployment hovers around 9 percent and the median income is around $28,000. Yet water rates have climbed as much as 400 percent in the last 20 years.

Large-scale water shutoffs began in 2014, just as the city was crawling out from the wreckage of the country’s largest-ever municipal bankruptcy, pegged at $18 billion. The shutoffs have been advertised as an unavoidable, if painful, treatment for restoring the city’s fiscal health. In 2014, the office of then-Emergency Manager Kevin Orr referred to the shutoffs as “a necessary part of Detroit’s restructuring.” Patrick isn’t buying it: “You can’t convince me that while you’re smiling at me and shutting my water off that this is good for me and you represent my interests. As my grandmother would say, ‘You can’t piss on me and tell me it’s raining.’”

In 2014, two United Nations special rapporteurs declared the shutoff policy a “violation of the most basic human rights.” “I heard testimonies from poor African American residents of Detroit who were forced to make impossible choices — to pay the water bill or to pay their rent,” Catarina de Albuquerque, the special rapporteur on the human right to water and sanitation, said after visiting the city. Among the findings she recounted:

Ms. de Albuquerque cited the case of a woman whose water had been cut and whose teenage daughters had to wash themselves with a bottle of water during menstruation. In other instances, she continued, she heard mothers who feared losing their children because their water was shut off; heads of household who feared losing access to water without any prior notice; others who feared receiving unaffordable and arbitrary water bills.

Activists and researchers have pointed out that the Detroit Water and Sewage Department’s financial woes can’t be blamed entirely on the city, since it stretches far beyond the city itself, serving 40 percent of Michigan’s population. The progressive think tank Demos has described the decision to include the department’s $6 billion debt in the city’s bankruptcy filing as an accounting trick used to negotiate more favorable terms with lenders.

We the People of Detroit and other grassroots groups have been organizing to not only stop the shutoffs, but make water more affordable. Cities like Philadelphia are experimenting with tying residents’ water bills to their incomes to ensure that families don’t become trapped in a cycle of missed payments. We the People recommends that no family living at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line ($25,100 for a family of four) pays more than roughly 3 percent of their income for water, the rate considered affordable under UN guidelines. (The Environmental Protection Agency pegs affordability at 4.5 percent of median household income.) In 2017, Michigan State University researchers found that the median household spends about $1,620 on water bills annually, roughly 6.5 percent of a poverty-line income. More alarmingly, they found that by 2022, water rates would climb to unaffordable levels for 35 percent of households nationally.

Under an income-based plan, Fancher says, many Detroiters would not be paying market rate for water, but they would be paying something, leaving the city in better financial shape than it is under the status quo: “You replace a whole lot of people who are paying nothing with a whole lot of people who are paying something. In the long run, the utility is far better off than it would be.”

However, the city has refused to alter water rates, insisting that its hands are tied by a state constitutional amendment that requires new taxes to be approved by voters. An affordability fee, Fancher argues, would not legally be a tax. The constitutional argument, he says, has been “a convenient excuse for not doing something that makes a whole lot of sense.”

Some water rights activists see the city’s intransigence as more evidence of a quiet campaign to push poor people of color out of the city. In a recent study, We the People found that many home foreclosures concentrated in Detroit’s black communities were driven in part by overdue water bills. “It’s about using water to displace residents in order bring in a younger, whiter population to dilute black political power in Detroit,” Patrick says. They are “weaponizing water as a tool of gentrification.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Detroit is about to cut off water for thousands of people on Apr 20, 2018.

These 5 Midwesterners are giving their communities a makeover.

Fri, 2018-04-20 14:27

While East and West coast states are busy suing Big Oil and divesting massive retirement pensions, people in the middle of the country are also working on long-term solutions for their communities — with a little less fanfare.

We interviewed some of them for the Grist 50 2018, our list of rising stars drawing up solutions to humanity’s biggest challenges.

  • Nebraskan Melissa Freelend decided it was time to bring renewables into her state’s energy mix, so she got herself elected to the board of directors of the biggest energy provider in the state.
  • Juliana Pino escaped civil war in Colombia when she was just a kid. Now, she’s working to change discriminatory laws and fight for environmental justice in Illinois.
  • In Chicago, police ticket bicyclists in African-American and Latino neighborhoods twice as often as in white neighborhoods. Olatunji Oboi Reed, a dedicated bike rider, is working to ensure that people can get around town without facing discrimination or racial profiling from police.
  • Milwaukee has a lot of empty lots. It also has a sewage overflow problem. Justin Hegarty has a plan for both: He’s replacing vacant, concrete lots with gardens — green sponges that divert water from sewers.
  • Devita Davison is using her evangelist background to advocate for homegrown businesses in Detroit. Her nonprofit, FoodLab Detroit, assisted 320 small businesses last year.

Looking for more fixers? We’ve got ’em.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline These 5 Midwesterners are giving their communities a makeover. on Apr 20, 2018.

As coral reefs disappear, some tropical fish might just keep swimming

Fri, 2018-04-20 06:30

The future looks grim for coral reefs. Warmer oceans, overfishing, pollution, and gradually acidifying waters have destroyed more than a third of the world’s shallow tropical coral reefs. Just this week, a new report said that Australia’s Great Barrier Reef — the crown jewel of the world’s oceans — lost half of its corals in just the past three years. More than 90 percent of the world’s near-surface coral habitat could be gone in the next 30 years.

This is a big deal. Coral reefs support about a quarter of all marine biodiversity in just 1 percent of the ocean’s space. And so tropical reef fish, among the most vulnerable organisms when it comes to climate change, are increasingly under threat.

But amid all the bad news, it’s vitally important to have a reality check: Some reefs and reef fish — the familiar angelfish, eels, snappers, and parrotfishes — will survive. We are just now learning some basics of how Earth’s vast biodiversity responds to warming, and there’s a growing realization that deeper, cooler waters are one possible future for coral reefs and the fish that inhabit them.

A recent study in the journal Scientific Reports builds upon other studies showing that some coral reef fish may be more resilient than we thought to climate change, boosting chances that reef ecosystems might withstand the current onslaught. The evidence suggests that tropical fish species can adapt to warmer waters just by moving a few feet down to cooler waters. For some fish, profound changes don’t necessarily lead to extinction.

Carole Baldwin, a marine biologist at the Smithsonian Institution and lead author of the new study, thinks that deeper waters are the future for coral reefs, and she makes a case for hope amidst uncertainty.

“We know that fishes in general, like a lot of marine organisms, can survive a lot deeper,” says Baldwin. “We figured that there was a lot of habitat that is suitable for reef organisms between 500 and 1,000 feet, and sure enough, that is exactly what we found.”

Baldwin and her colleagues have discovered and named a new zone of the ocean between about 400 and 1,000 feet down where species may be beginning to flee and morph into entirely new ecosystems. Baldwin had to use a submarine to conduct her research off the coast of Curaçao in the Caribbean.

The new oceanic realm that Baldwin and her colleagues have identified — the “rariphotic zone” — is named for its lack of sunlight (rari = low, photic = light).

As a curator of the Smithsonian’s fish collection, the largest of its kind in the world, Baldwin knows a thing or two about tropical fish. And it’s possible that this “new” zone has actually been around for a long time, providing refuge for surface fish during times of environmental turmoil. Baldwin says there’s evidence that gobies — a type of small, bottom-dwelling fish — migrated from shallow reefs to deep reefs in response to warmer waters about 10 million to 14 million years ago. She wants to expand her work in the rariphotic zone to study other groups of fishes and the corals themselves, in an attempt to learn more about larger-scale responses to ocean warming.

“The hopeful thing is that if species start moving deeper now or in the future in response to warming surface waters or deteriorating reefs, that there are these other zones that they can go to.”

Rich Pyle, a fish scientist with the Hawaii Biological Survey, agrees that deep water corals hold immense promise for conservation efforts.

“The more we look, the more obvious it is that there are no natural ecology-wide boundaries” that prevent shallow fish from descending to greater depths, he says.

But it’s not as if surface fish can just pack up and move to deeper waters overnight, either. Pyle says that there are certain species, such as some rays, that live at both shallow and deep waters, and those are the ones that stand the best chance of survival.

“If we screw up the shallow reefs,” Pyle says, “we can take some comfort knowing that the deeper reefs still have populations of these organisms.”

Pyle is a pioneer of deep-water coral exploration. But the new zone that Baldwin and her colleagues have identified goes even further into the depths.

“These deeper coral reefs below about 30 meters have been barely looked at for the past several decades,” Pyle says. One reason is that’s about as deep as scuba diving gear allows you to easily go.

As a result, no historical data exist for species in this zone of tropical reefs. There isn’t even much data about temperature at these depths, though it is significantly cooler and more stable than surface waters.

To be sure, Pyle says there’s reason to believe that deep reefs may even be in greater danger than their shallower cousins.

For example, it’s possible that stronger hurricanes have started raining thicker plumes of sediment down on deep reefs, burying fragile corals. Increased surface level pollution may also block light, stopping photosythesis. Deep reefs are also more accustomed to steady water temperatures, so they could be more vulnerable to severe marine heat waves of the future.

All of this argues for doubling down on deep-reef research in preparation for the ravages of climate change in the coming decades.

“We just need to spend more time out there in the sub to see what’s happening,” says Baldwin. She thinks it’s a good idea to begin designating deeper reefs as marine protected areas, too.

Reefs will survive, at least in some form. It’s just a question of what they will look like. Genetic engineering of corals, farming corals, transplanting corals, or trusting corals to adapt in surprising ways are all strategies currently underway.

And it looks like coral fish have a shot at surviving, too. If they migrated to the depths in the past, maybe they could do it again.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As coral reefs disappear, some tropical fish might just keep swimming on Apr 20, 2018.

Scott Pruitt’s got 99 problems but Trump ain’t one.

Thu, 2018-04-19 16:22

Congressional Democrats have been keeping an eye on the embattled EPA administrator, and they aren’t happy with what they’ve seen. On Wednesday, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and Florida Representative Kathy Castor introduced a resolution to kick Pruitt out.

It was signed by 131 representatives and 39 senators — the most senators to call for the removal of a cabinet official in U.S. history. If you need any inspiration for insults, the press release about the resolution has plenty. Udall called him “the emperor of the swamp.” Castor said: “There is a slime problem at the EPA — and it is coming from the administrator’s office.”

Pruitt’s pileup of scandals ranges from wasteful spending (private flights) to ethical transgressions (sidelining officials who question him). That’s not to mention the damage his policies pose to public health. He faces a total of nine investigations from Congress, the White House, and his own agency. One investigation concluded this week that Pruitt broke the law in buying a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.

The call to boot Pruitt lacks bipartisan support, as Lisa Friedman writes, so it probably won’t have the desired effect. Some Republicans have turned against Pruitt, including John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Most prominent Republicans, including President Trump, reportedly stand behind him — for now.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Scott Pruitt’s got 99 problems but Trump ain’t one. on Apr 19, 2018.

The Northeast is chugging right along on climate change action.

Thu, 2018-04-19 16:02

The West Coast often dominates the climate conversation, with its mudslides and wildfires and lawsuits against big polluters. But the Northeast also seems to be taking climate change pretty seriously.

Don’t believe me? Even New Jersey, America’s trash can, is cleaning up its act. Here’s what’s going down on America’s right-hand flank:

  • New Jersey is not only prepared to foil the Trump administration’s plans by banning offshore drilling — it also passed bills that require the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. That includes a pretty big subsidy for nuclear energy (if that frightens you, check out this piece).
  • Five New England liberal arts colleges announced plans on Thursday to build a solar power facility in Maine. This is the first time a higher-ed alliance in New England has tackled a local solar project like this, but it follows a larger trend of universities picking up the slack on climate change.
  • A new study shows that the nine Northeast states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a state-led cap-and-trade program, have created thousands of new jobs in renewables, cut costs, and sharply reduced emissions.

Climate action isn’t limited to America’s coasts, of course. Communities in Colorado recently announced plans to sue the pants off of Big Oil — just the sort of local climate action we’ve been waiting for.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The Northeast is chugging right along on climate change action. on Apr 19, 2018.

Californians definitely want a housing bill. Just not this one.

Thu, 2018-04-19 15:10

An audacious proposal to build denser cities around public transit lines in California made it as far as its first Senate committee hearing this week, before legislators shot it down.

But even as they were killing it, senators called for a resurrection. During the hearing on Tuesday, most lawmakers on the California Senate committee vowed to redouble their efforts to pass another version, and every one of them said the state needed a fix like this. Something needs to be done to tackle California’s housing crisis and help the state hit its ambitious carbon-cutting goals.

But this particular bill, with its many fervent opponents? No thanks.

The bill was introduced by Scott Weiner, a Democrat from San Francisco, and a powerful voice among the state’s pro-housing YIMBYs (as in “yes, in my backyard”). It would have raised height limits to allow four-to-five story apartment buildings around major transit stops, while stripping away local rules that require builders to make parking lots for every new unit.

Senate Bill 827 (it’s testament to the controversy #SB827 is a thing on Twitter) divided environmentalists. The Natural Resources Defense Council and Environment California backed it because California will only meet its climate goals if Californians get out of their cars, and that won’t happen unless the state makes it possible for more people to live in cities near transit hubs.

The California Sierra Club, on the other hand, straight-up hated the proposal.

“This is a bad bill, and bad bills get killed,” Kathryn Phillips, the director of Sierra Club California, told San Francisco Magazine. “The thing we oppose is the heart of the bill.”

The Sierra Club worried that tying zoning rules to transit stops would lead communities to campaign against public transit. It also feared that development would squeeze out the poor people who rely on transit most.

Victoria Fierce, an organizer for the YIMBY group East Bay Forward, countered that the proposal addressed these concerns. Weiner had added renter protections to the bill that would have required developers to provide free housing for people whose homes were demolished and give them the right to return to one of the new units.

Weiner’s bill drew attention from around the country because it could have transformed California cities. But its audacity also drew criticism. The construction trades’ union — a major Democratic donor — was against it. Local governments thought the bill diminished their power, and mostly opposed it. Social justice advocates — with a few notable exceptions — opposed it, arguing that SB 827 could spur gentrification.

Last year, we told the story of how Weiner took another failed housing bill, revamped it to address opponents concerns, and ushered it through the legislature. He’ll be trying to do the same thing with a new bill next year. In the meantime, there are a slew of other housing proposals on deck.

“This issue is not going away,” Weiner said.

As she was watching lawmakers praise the goals of the bill while scuttling it, Fierce found herself heartened. “Everyone was in favor of the bill in the general sense. I think it’s clear that the Overton Window on housing and transportation has moved,” she said, referring to the range of ideas considered politically acceptable.

To get laws passed that will actually reduce vehicle miles traveled and gasoline burned, advocates will need to consolidate that support. “The last piece of the puzzle is getting environmentalists onboard with dense, transit-oriented housing,” Fierce said. “Long commutes aren’t just a social justice issue, they are an environmental justice issue.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Californians definitely want a housing bill. Just not this one. on Apr 19, 2018.

When criminal justice and environmental justice collide

Thu, 2018-04-19 06:08

Rhonda Anderson and her daughter, Siwatu-Salama Ra, have spent much of their lives working to protect their Detroit community from polluters. Anderson has organized for the local Sierra Club for nearly two decades. And Ra represented the Motor City during the landmark Paris climate talks.

Fellow activists credit Ra with bringing this year’s Extreme Energy Extraction Summit — where activists from vulnerable communities strategize on fighting polluters — to Detroit for the first time.

Ra, however, won’t be able to attend. Last month, a judge sentenced 26-year-old mother, who is currently 7-months pregnant, to a mandatory two years in prison after she was controversially convicted of felony assault and firearm possession. She faces the prospect of giving birth in prison — away from her family, as well as the community she works to lift up.

“My daughter — my baby — she’s not doing well,” Anderson tells Grist. Ra, who had complications in her last pregnancy, is already experiencing contractions this time around. Her mother describes a pelvic examination her daughter recently had to endure while shackled.

“It’s medieval,” Anderson says. “And it reminds me of slavery.”

Black communities in the United States, like the one Ra and Anderson serve, face a host of structural challenges that impact day-to-day life — from environmental injustice to heightened policing and racial profiling. Black people are 75 percent more likely than other Americans to live in neighborhoods that border oil and natural gas refineries — and they face a disproportionate amount of health threats as a result of air pollution. As a black woman, Ra is more likely to be incarcerated than a white woman — four times more likely, in fact. These systemic injustices have collided in Ra’s case, as her supporters say a double standard and a flawed legal system have robbed her community of one of its most dedicated defenders.

“Siwatu has spent her life fighting environmental injustice and pushing back against the big polluters who are violating the law to poison her community,” the Sierra Club’s executive director, Michael Brune, said in a statement. “In this case, it does not appear that she is being afforded the protection of the law she deserves, as is all too often the case for women of color dealing with our criminal justice system.”

Here’s how Ra arrived at her current predicament: This past summer, at Anderson’s home, Ra got into an argument with another woman. As the dispute escalated, the woman reportedly rammed her vehicle into Ra’s car — which had Ra’s toddler inside — before allegedly aiming her car at Anderson. In response, Ra, who says she repeatedly asked the woman to leave, reportedly took out her unloaded, registered firearm. The woman called the police before Ra did, which authorities said made Ra the assailant in the case.

Michigan has a stand-your-ground law that protects people from facing criminal charges if they use deadly force in self-defense. It’s the same legal strategy George Zimmerman successfully employed in Florida after he shot and killed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, who was walking to his father’s Orlando-area home. To prove her innocence under the provision, Ra needed to convince jurors that she was afraid for her life.

“The prosecutor convinced the jury and judge that I lacked fear, and that’s not true,” Ra said during her sentencing. “I was so afraid, especially for my toddler and mother. I don’t believe they could imagine a black woman being scared — only mad.”

Ra’s advocates have called into question the fact that the jury was not informed that finding Ra guilty would result in a mandatory sentence. Because of the required punishment for a guilty verdict, letters of support from the community attesting to her years of service had no effect in lessening her punishment.

“In environmental-justice organizing, you’re dealing with a lot of small emergencies all the time, especially in an underdeveloped, under-resourced city like Detroit,” says William Copeland who worked alongside Ra at the East Michigan Environmental Coalition. Here incarceration, he adds, “is a big emergency.”

Copeland says Ra excels at getting people who are often left behind engaged in environmental justice work. As a teen, she founded a program to get urban youth involved in the East Michigan Environmental Coalition — reeling in a group that other environmentalists hadn’t been able to reach.

“The successes that she had shows the depth of being able to speak people’s language — to be able to read something that’s written in one language and translate it to the language of the ‘hood or the language of the people,” Copeland says. “[Without Ra], those folks wouldn’t be getting involved.”

That’s one reason why he and Anderson say they need Ra back in the community immediately. In the past, she’s also worked to hold a Marathon Petroleum refinery and the Detroit Renewable Power trash incinerator accountable for their emissions. “Get her back out here so she can continue the work that she’s been doing all these years,” Anderson says.

Ra’s attorneys are working toward an appeal and asking that she be released on bond so that she can give birth outside of prison. On Wednesday, the Council on American-Islamic Relations Michigan Chapter filed a complaint on behalf of Ra and other Muslim women at the Women’s Huron Valley Correctional Facility, noting that they have not been allowed religious meal accommodations or access to a hijabs.

As part of her campaign to free her daughter, Anderson is calling for the larger environmental community to realize that pollution is just one of many inequities people in fence-line communities face. But polluting and criminalizing these groups essentially go hand-in-hand, she explains.

“As long as we find a whole group of people dispensable, the environment is going to continue to be impacted. You can pollute them and do whatever to them, and white folks and anybody else can sit off to the side and say, ‘I’m safe — it’s not me,” Anderson says. “We are the ones that are preyed upon.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline When criminal justice and environmental justice collide on Apr 19, 2018.

The whole island of Puerto Rico went dark for the first time since Hurricane Maria.

Wed, 2018-04-18 15:08

On Monday, the island’s power utility boasted that it had restored electricity to 97 percent of customers. Two days later, the precarious electric grid collapsed, plunging the entire island into a blackout for the first time in seven months.

“Back to September 20th,” tweeted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

The outage, reportedly caused by a construction equipment accident, is the second to hit Puerto Rico recently. Last Thursday, a fallen tree took out power for 870,000 people. Such events have become a fact of life for Puerto Ricans, who are currently living through the second biggest electricity crisis in modern world history. Only the magnitude of electric grid damage by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, was worse.

The recovery effort continues to drag on, hampered by poor planning, rampant corruption, and logistical nightmares. So far, the hurricane has triggered more than a thousand deaths, a mental health crisis, and a mass exodus from the island.

Officials estimate that power will be restored in 24 to 36 hours. But it’s not coming back for everyone — tens of thousands of rural residents of eastern and central Puerto Rico have been waiting for their lights to turn back on since September.

And guess what? The next hurricane season is just six weeks away.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The whole island of Puerto Rico went dark for the first time since Hurricane Maria. on Apr 18, 2018.

Our National Parks belong to everyone. So why are they so white?

Wed, 2018-04-18 13:10

original video:

Only 20 percent of visitors to National Parks are people of color. As the broader conservation movement continues to struggle with diversity and inclusion, many worry that the Trump administration will only make things worse. Watch our video to learn about the troubling history of public lands and to meet the conservationists of color who are trying to change the parks’ future.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Our National Parks belong to everyone. So why are they so white? on Apr 18, 2018.

Boulder, Colorado, is the latest city to sue Big Oil over climate change.

Tue, 2018-04-17 18:18

Remember those lawsuits California and New York filed against major oil producers for knowingly heating up the planet? Two counties in Colorado just teamed up with the city of Boulder to file a similar lawsuit of their own. The complaint alleges that oil companies contributed greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for decades while knowing the consequences.

Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County are taking ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy (Canada’s biggest oil company) to court in an effort to hold them accountable for damages caused by extreme weather — events scientists have linked to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Colorado has seen a 2 degree F increase on average over the past 30 years, making it the 20th fastest warming state in the U.S. since 1970.

The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit say their communities have endured wildfires and flash floods fueled by climate change. They want ExxonMobil and Suncor to pay millions for the damage and fork over additional money to fund climate adaptation initiatives.

“Plaintiffs have taken substantial steps to reduce their own GHG emissions,” the complaint says. Meanwhile, “Defendants have acted recklessly.” Watch out, Big Oil! Colorado isn’t pulling its punches.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Boulder, Colorado, is the latest city to sue Big Oil over climate change. on Apr 17, 2018.

Tensions rise in battle over Canadian pipeline.

Tue, 2018-04-17 16:51

Justin Trudeau, Alberta, and Kinder Morgan are on one side; British Columbia, First Nations, and environmental activists are on the other.

Alberta introduced legislation yesterday that B.C. officials say is retaliation against their opposition of the pipeline expansion, which would triple the amount of crude oil transported from the former to the latter. Kinder Morgan recently announced that it was stopping all nonessential spending on the project as a result of legal efforts and protests aimed at blocking it. If B.C. doesn’t back down by May 31, the company could scrap the project altogether. The Alberta bill allows the province’s energy minister to decide what fossil fuel products it exports, which could drive up gas prices in B.C.

Yet another battle was brewing in the courtroom. More than 200 anti-pipeline demonstrators have been arrested so far, including prominent political leaders Elizabeth May and Kennedy Stewart. A judge upped penalties for nearly two dozen protesters arrested alongside May and Kennedy from civil disobedience to potential criminal charges.

Amnesty International issued a statement in support of the activists: “Far too often, governments in Canada have overreacted to land rights protests and protests perceived to threaten favored resource development projects. It is clear that pipeline development is a high stakes issue for politicians. This means even greater vigilance is required to ensure that the right to protest is not sacrificed.” Fight on.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Tensions rise in battle over Canadian pipeline. on Apr 17, 2018.

This 1983 article about the EPA hitting rock bottom is way too relevant.

Tue, 2018-04-17 14:42

Substitute some scandals, and parts of this 35-year-old New York Times report on the EPA sound like they could have been written today. “Once noted for its efficiency and esprit,” it reads, “the agency is now demoralized and virtually inert, according to past and current officials of the agency, Congressmen of both parties and outside critics.”

The article was published at the height of controversy in the tenure of former EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford — yes, she was Neil Gorsuch’s mother. Under President Reagan, she rolled back environmental protections and cut the agency’s budget, leading to a demoralized, understaffed agency. Sounds a lot like the EPA today, right?

The similarities with current Administrator Scott Pruitt don’t end there: Burford’s reign at the EPA was marked by ethical controversy. Her management of the Superfund program sparked a congressional investigation that stretched months. In the end, Burford withheld subpoenaed documents from the House and, held in contempt by Congress, she resigned.

This prompted some EPA employees to celebrate and start wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I Survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.” Now there are calls to #BootPruitt, but it remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself.

And hey — the EPA rebuilt itself after 1983, so maybe there’s hope it will bounce back again.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline This 1983 article about the EPA hitting rock bottom is way too relevant. on Apr 17, 2018.

Climate-friendly burgers: fact or fiction?

Mon, 2018-04-16 18:52

Here’s a crazy idea: What if your love of steak wasn’t a massive environmental problem but part of a solution instead? What if we could suck carbon out of the air and save the world simply by eating beef?

A new study suggests that all this is possible, but it comes with a whopper of a caveat.

Ranching advocates have long thought carbon-negative beef was possible. The hypothesis was that grasslands and grazing animals have an ancient relationship; they’ve evolved together and depend on each other for optimal health. But modern ranching methods severed that connection, so the thinking went. Allow cattle to graze in the manner of wild herds — very heavily in one area for short periods, and then giving that area time to regrow — and the ancient relationship could be restored. Grasses would grow lush and suck up lots of carbon dioxide, more than compensating for the greenhouse gases that the cattle produce.

The problem was, there wasn’t good science to support this hypothesis. There have been studies looking at carbon sequestration in grazed land, but those only worked when you trucked in tons of compost, which can be prohibitively expensive. Then, a couple of weeks ago we finally got our first study showing grass-fed beef can be carbon negative. Here it is. Let the beef bacchanal begin.

Actually, before you dump gravy over your head and skip off to join the celebrants, let’s look at that big caveat: The beef in this study took up twice as much land as conventional beef production.

Agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions come mostly from cutting down forests, and livestock are a primary culprit because they dominate 77 percent of agricultural land. And farms keep expanding to feed more meat-hungry people. There’s a danger that findings like this could give grass-fed beef a green halo, and allow people to feel virtuous for buying more double cheeseburgers. That would be a disaster. If everyone in the world started eating this kind of carbon-negative beef, we’d have to clear forests and wildlands to expand pasture, and that would wipe out any carbon savings.

Getting it right requires a balancing act. If we manage to slash our collective burger habit in half, while only buying beef raised the way described in this study, then voila, carbon-negative beef! That really could happen if good replacements —  say, the Impossible Burger and good old mushrooms — help us drive down beef consumption.  And that’s also assuming these practices work in a lot of different places. Remember, this is just one study (other terms and conditions apply, not valid in Veganistan).

There’s another way this might work: Conventional beef cattle spend two-thirds of their lives eating grass before they move to a feedlot and start eating grain. If ranchers around the world start applying the lessons of this study to that first two-thirds of a steer’s life, it could go a long way toward offsetting cattle emissions without taking up any more space. That’s a way we could tweak the system, and it wouldn’t require optimistic assumptions about how we’d keep people from clearing more farmland or convince everyone to eat less meat.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Climate-friendly burgers: fact or fiction? on Apr 16, 2018.

FEMA had a totally inadequate plan for dealing with Hurricane Maria.

Mon, 2018-04-16 16:39

The agency low-balled how much damage a Category 4 hurricane would leave behind in Puerto Rico, according to a Politico review of a recently released FEMA planning document. The 140-page plan from 2014 outlined how FEMA would respond to “the inevitable ‘big one’ that will test local, commonwealth, territorial, and Federal capabilities” in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The document reveals that FEMA intended to rely heavily on local authorities and the private sector in the event of a catastrophic hurricane. (To be fair, no one could have predicted the bizarre Whitefish fiasco.) Although FEMA often plays a supporting role to state efforts, it failed to take into account that Puerto Rico’s looming debt crisis and faltering infrastructure would severely limit the territory’s ability to bounce back on its own.

More than half a year after the storm, 50,000 people are still without electricity. The lackluster recovery effort is partly a result of FEMA’s decision not to take the lead in Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery, disaster-response experts say.

Take this as an illustration of just how much FEMA underestimated the potential for devastation: The plan predicted the agency would move from response to recovery mode after only one month — something it’s just recently started to do.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline FEMA had a totally inadequate plan for dealing with Hurricane Maria. on Apr 16, 2018.

8 kids from Florida are suing their state over climate change.

Mon, 2018-04-16 15:29

Rick Scott, who has served as Florida’s governor since 2011, hasn’t done much to protect his state against the effects of climate change — even though it’s being threatened by sea-level rise.

On Monday, eight youth filed a lawsuit against Scott, a slew of state agencies, and the state of Florida itself. The kids, ages 10 to 19, are trying to get their elected officials to recognize the threat climate change poses to their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

18-year-old Delaney Reynolds, a member of this year’s Grist 50 list, helped launch the lawsuit. She’s been a climate activist since the age of 14, when she started a youth-oriented activism nonprofit called The Sink or Swim Project. “No matter how young you are, even if you don’t have a vote, you have a voice in your government,” she says.

Reynolds and the other seven plaintiffs are asking for a “court-ordered, science-based Climate Recovery Plan” — one that transitions Florida away from a fossil fuel energy system.

This lawsuit is the latest in a wave of youth-led legal actions across the United States. Juliana v. United States, which was filed by 21 young plaintiffs in Oregon in 2015, just got confirmed for a trial date in October this year.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 8 kids from Florida are suing their state over climate change. on Apr 16, 2018.

The shipping industry sets sail toward a carbon-free future

Mon, 2018-04-16 10:20

Cargo-shipping regulators have struck a historic deal to set their dirty fuel-burning industry on a low-carbon course.

On Friday, the International Maritime Organization agreed for the first time to limit greenhouse gas emissions from global shipping. The nonbinding deal marks a critical shift for the sector — which, until last week, was the only major industry without a comprehensive climate plan.

Cargo ships are the linchpin of our modern global economy, transporting roughly 90 percent of everything we buy. They also contribute significantly to planet-warming gases in the atmosphere. If the shipping industry was a country, its total annual emissions would rank in the top 10, between those of Japan and Germany.

Left unchecked, shipping-related emissions are on track to soar by as much as 250 percent by 2050 as global trade expands, the maritime body projects. Such a spike at sea would offset progress in carbon reduction made on land.

Yet with the new emissions targets, observers say, the shipping industry now has more than a fighting chance to clean up its act.

A difficult negotiation

The International Maritime Organization agreed to reduce emissions from global shipping by at least 50 percent from 2008 levels by 2050. The United Nations body also pledged to pursue deeper cuts to meet the Paris Agreement’s more ambitious goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, or 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit, above pre-industrial levels.

The hard-won plan follows tense negotiations involving envoys from 173 countries at the organization’s headquarters on the banks of the Thames River in London. The Marshall Islands and other Pacific nations doggedly pushed the most ambitious proposal on the table: a 100-percent reduction in shipping emissions within two decades, a move that would bring the sector in line with the 1.5-degree target. The European Union also championed a plan to curb emissions by 70 to 100 percent by mid-century.

Yet other powerful voices in the room, led by Japan, favored smaller emissions cuts and much longer timelines. The United States and Saudi Arabia, two oil-producing giants, objected outright to any emissions cap. Meanwhile, some shipping executives warned of rising cargo costs and threats to business if aggressive targets were put in place.

“It was extremely difficult,” says Faig Abbasov, a shipping policy expert with Transport & Environment, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Brussels, Belgium. “Almost every day, we were coming back to negotiations in the morning thinking, ‘Will it collapse today, or do we have a chance?’”

Environmental groups and industry leaders alike applauded the resulting compromise, saying it will help accelerate the shift away from high-carbon bunker fuel — the sludgy leftovers from the petroleum-refining process — toward cleaner alternatives, such as fuel cells, batteries, and sustainable biofuels.

The Marshall Islands marshal a deal

Back in 2015, The Marshall Islands was first the nation to urge the International Maritime Organization to adopt a greenhouse gas strategy. It has spearheaded the charge for ambitious shipping rules ever since.

The sprawling Pacific island chain has unique authority on the matter, its officials say, because its livelihood is uniquely intertwined with the shipping industry.

The nation is home to the world’s second-largest ship registry, behind Panama, with nearly 12 percent of all cargo ships flying the Marshallese flag. The country’s 75,000 people depend on cargo ships to supply nearly all of their food. Yet greenhouse-gas emissions from shipping and other industries threaten the nation’s very survival, with rising sea levels, extreme storms, and severe drought pushing islanders from their homes.

At the shipping confab, David Paul, the Marshall Islands’ environment minister, argued the final outcome could mean the difference between a “secure and prosperous life” and an “uncertain future” for children born today on the country’s low-lying coral atolls.

After the deal was struck, Paul returned to his central London hotel room with overcome with relief, if not exhaustion. “Just the fact that we were able to get a deal is historic,” he tells Grist. “We’re optimistic that at least there is a way forward.”

Still, he calls the deal the “bare minimum” of what his country could accept as climate policy. In comparing the organization’s process to a game of baseball, he says last week’s deal is just a single. Effectively, the shipping industry is only on first base enroute to full decarbonization of the sector.

“We realized going into these negotiations that we weren’t going to come away with a home run,” he says. “It’s going to be an incremental process going forward.”

Only the beginning

Last week’s agreement is an initial strategy, with a long-term plan to be adopted in 2023 — after the organization collects emissions data from cargo ships over the period between 2019 and 2021.

In the meantime, regulators are expected to debate binding, enforceable steps that compel — not merely encourage — the industry to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and a shift away from fossil fuels.

“What was adopted was just IMO’s long-term objective,” Abbasov of Transport & Environment says. “What will actually reduce emissions are the concrete actions. But that’s still to come.”

No specific proposals are on the table just yet, he explains, however, short-term rules will likely target emissions from existing ship operations to keep them from rising any further. That might mean requiring crews to take steps like lowering their vessel’s operating speeds, which reduces power demand and fuel consumption — but would impact shipping time.

Mid-term measures could compel shipping companies to replace carbon-intensive fuels with cleaner alternatives, including fuel cells powered by hydrogen or ammonia — or for smaller vessels, batteries that can recharge at ports. Taking these innovations mainstream, however, would likely require adopting “market-based measures,” such as a tax on carbon emissions.

According to a report by the International Transport Forum, an intergovernmental think tank, “Maximum deployment of currently known technologies could make it possible to reach almost complete decarbonization of maritime shipping by 2035.”

Dozens of small ships around the world are now running on hydrogen and electricity, and a major ferry line in Scandinavia is building two of the largest battery-powered ships to date. Energy-efficient ship designs, smarter logistics systems, and “wind-assisted” technologies, such as spinning rotor sails, are also proven ways to slash emissions.

Still, many of these technologies still remain prohibitively expensive for shipowners or aren’t yet available in sufficient supplies. If every cargo ship today switched to hydrogen fuel cells, for instance, most vessels wouldn’t have enough hydrogen on board to leave the port.

Experts say the International Maritime Organization deal offers a much-needed push for the shipping industry to begin developing and investing in 21st-century technologies.

In a statement, Peter Hinchliffe, secretary general of the International Chamber of Shipping, the industry’s main trade group, summed up last week’s agreement: “We are confident this will give the shipping industry the clear signal it needs to get on with the job of developing zero CO2 fuels.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The shipping industry sets sail toward a carbon-free future on Apr 16, 2018.

Trump’s new executive order spells disaster for our air quality.

Fri, 2018-04-13 16:17

While we were all watching the Wheeler and Pruitt train wreck on Thursday, President Trump nonchalantly gave industry a huge pass to pollute. The executive order makes it easier for businesses to comply with air quality standards, and also limits the EPA’s ability to hold states accountable for failing to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The executive order is a big blow to science and health in the United States. It restricts what science can be considered when regulating air quality and directs the EPA to heed warnings from interests outside of the scientific and public health realms. That means taking into account things like how much it would cost to implement air quality regulations — something the Supreme Court decided was illegal in 2001 (so keep an eye out for Trump’s order to be challenged in court).

There a lot of reasons why scientists, lawmakers, and advocates are crying foul. But it all boils down to this: We’re going to be breathing worse air because of it. And fence-line communities of color are going to be hardest hit. Not only because they already breathe the worst air in the United States, but because Trump’s executive order lets states trade pollution permits — which tends to allow polluters to stack their chips in the places that are already suffering the most.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Trump’s new executive order spells disaster for our air quality. on Apr 13, 2018.

These 5 artists are sketching out the future of climate action.

Fri, 2018-04-13 15:45

According to an article in Yale Climate Communications, art can help us “see what can be difficult to see” — something that’s particularly important for climate change, which often affects us in invisible ways.

We interviewed some of the artists provoking thoughtful environmental action for the Grist 50 2018, our list of rising stars drawing up solutions to humanity’s biggest challenges.

  • Favianna Rodriguez creates visual art that makes connections between racial, gender, and environmental justice. You’ll recognize her work from the People’s Climate March and immigrant rights rallies.
  • Imani Jacqueline Brown organized the Fossil Free Fest, an event this spring that used art to bring communities together to envision a fossil-free New Orleans.
  • Antonique Smith, a singer and actress, starred as Mimi in the Broadway show Rent — and she’s dedicating way more than five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six-hundred minutes to climate change action.
  • Putting Big Oil in the spotlight? Tanya Kalmanovitch is up to the task. She wrote a play about her experience growing up next to the biggest bitumen oil reservoir in the world.
  • If you think there’s nothing funny about climate change, think again. Comedian Josh Healy is providing some much-needed comic relief — and inspiring others to take action.

Looking for more creatives? We’ve got ’em.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline These 5 artists are sketching out the future of climate action. on Apr 13, 2018.