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Companies are turning ocean trash into running shoes and sunglasses

Sat, 2017-08-19 06:00

This story was originally published by Oceans Deeply. For important news about plastic pollution, you can sign up to the Oceans Deeply email list.

When oil prices drop, as they have in recent years, recycling profits plummet. In most countries, it’s cheaper to simply make new petroleum-based plastic goods than turn the ones used once into the same items again. That’s led to a dismal recycling rate of just 9 percent worldwide, and an enormous buildup of plastic in the ocean, according to a recent study on global plastic production.

But as recycling rates drop and ocean pollution worsens, many innovators are taking marine debris, a notoriously unrecyclable material, and turning it into useful items. They’re turning all types of marine plastic trash, from old fishing gear to bits of broken-down hard plastic called microplastic, into new products.

“I think it is viable if it means that marine debris increases in value, so the efforts to clean up get a higher priority,” said Kristian Syberg, a plastics expert at Roskilde University in Denmark who has sailed through the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, collecting samples of marine debris for analysis. “Such cleaning processes near coastal zones in highly polluted areas could potentially remove a lot of marine debris such as microplastics.”

Products currently made from recycled ocean plastic include shampoo bottles, skateboards, sunglasses, athletic shoes, sportswear, doormats, jewelry, and board shorts. Some companies involved in ocean plastic “upcycling” are reporting encouraging numbers in keeping marine debris out of landfills and the ocean.

Four years ago, Cape Porpoise Trading Company in Maine began making doormats out of old lobster trap ropes collected before they are lost or abandoned at sea.

“Since the company’s inception, we’ve sold somewhere around 6,500 mats, and each mat uses about six pounds of rope, on average,” said Kerin Burnett, the company’s owner. “Through our work, we’ve kept nearly 40,000 pounds of rope out of landfills and the ocean.”

Burnett said she reaches out to fishers on social media and asks for their unusable ropes. Though she pays them per pound, Burnett said that many fishers are happy to contribute their rope for free. Once the company picks up ropes, the staff cleans and sorts them according to color, and then weaves the ropes into doormats.

Bureo recycles fishing nets in Chile that otherwise would be abandoned in the ocean into skateboards and sunglasses.

And a partnership between sportswear company Adidas and conservation organization Parley for the Oceans, called “Adidas x Parley,” scoops up marine debris and uses it to make athletic shoes. Adidas also has replaced plastic bags and packaging for more sustainable materials to reduce the amount of plastic flowing into the ocean.

An Adidas shoe made partly from recycled ocean plastic trash. Adidas

“The mutual focus is on Parley’s comprehensive Ocean Plastic Program, which is led by the Parley A.I.R. Strategy — Avoid, Intercept, and Redesign — to prevent plastic entering our oceans and transform it into performance sportswear,” said André Mendes, Adidas’ senior manager of sustainability communications. “Spinning the problem into a solution, the threat into a thread.”

In January, TerraCycle, which rewards people for sending their unrecyclable trash, such as granola bar wrappers and dog food packaging, to the company, unveiled a pilot Beach Plastic Cleanup Program. TerraCycle has partnered with consumer products giant Procter & Gamble to create the world’s first shampoo bottle made of 25 percent recycled beach plastic. The plastic is sourced from people who collect it from local beaches. And Canadian environmental group The Ocean Legacy Foundation and cosmetics company Lush are collaborating on a project to make product bottles from recycled ocean plastic trash.

Using marine debris as a raw material has its challenges. Once it enters the ocean, a process called photodegradation breaks down the chemical bonds holding plastic together. The decomposition is also accelerated by wind and waves. And often the plastic upcyclers recover is covered with algae and barnacles.

Before it can be used, ocean plastic must be sorted, cleaned, and broken down into small, uniform pieces. Then it’s transformed into pellets that can be melted into various shapes.

But this process is time consuming and sometimes expensive. And while experts say that upcycled products can raise awareness about marine debris, they note it is not the best way to address ocean plastic pollution.

“Upcycling should never be the focus of preventing the pollution,” said Syberg. Instead, he said people should be encouraged to replace plastic with sustainable materials.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Companies are turning ocean trash into running shoes and sunglasses on Aug 19, 2017.

British Columbia is having its worst wildfire season in recorded history.

Fri, 2017-08-18 15:55

More than 2,500,000 acres have burned there since April 1, nearly six times the typical amount for a full year.

B.C. extended a state of emergency on Friday to help speed the flow of aid to affected communities. More than $300 million has been spent fighting the fires so far, and one remote wildfire is so out of control that the B.C. Wildfire Service called it “a force of nature.”

NASA analysis shows that the thick smoke plumes coming from B.C. are so dense they broke records. Smoke like that can “turn day into night,” said Mike Fromm, a meteorologist with the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory. Scientists worry that massive amounts of black soot will head northward toward Greenland, potentially speeding up ice melt there.

A 2013 study found that Earth’s boreal forests — a broad swath from Alaska and Canada to northern Europe and Russia — are burning at a rate unseen in at least 10,000 years. Some climate models show this vast forest may have already switched from a net carbon sink to a source of carbon emissions.

Though fire season is more than half over, there’s still time for the B.C. wildfires to grow. The latest forecast from Natural Resources Canada shows extreme fire danger in parts of British Columbia, with an outlook for above average severity through the end of September.

This was Vancouver's north shore mountains, as viewed from the city, during the height of the smoke here

— Simon Donner (@simondonner) August 17, 2017

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline British Columbia is having its worst wildfire season in recorded history. on Aug 18, 2017.

Minnesota report: Proposed tar sands oil pipeline would harm tribes.

Fri, 2017-08-18 14:55

On Thursday, state regulators released their final environmental review of a proposed replacement for an aging pipeline owned and operated by the Canadian company Enbridge. The $7.5 billion project would cut through sacred Native American lands in northern Minnesota.

If approved, tribes have promised the pipeline would face opposition akin to the demonstrations at Standing Rock against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

The state’s final review expressed significant concern over environmental justice, citing “disproportionate and adverse impacts … to both low-income and minority populations … as well as those populations residing or using lands in the vicinity of the Project, in particular American Indian populations.”

All of the potential routes for the pipeline would slice through lakes used to grow wild rice, a crop sacred to the region’s Ojibwe tribes. Activists opposed to the pipeline, such as Honor the Earth founder Winona LaDuke, want the state to consider a “no-build alternative.”

“I want to trust the government of Minnesota to do the right thing,” Duke told the Duluth News Tribune. After additional hearings and public testimony, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is expected to make a final decision by April 30.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Minnesota report: Proposed tar sands oil pipeline would harm tribes. on Aug 18, 2017.

How to watch the eclipse without trashing the Earth

Fri, 2017-08-18 14:53

The moon will pass in front of the sun on Aug. 21, cutting a swath of shadow across the country and blocking our nearest star for about two minutes in the middle of the day. Millions of Americans are traveling just to stand in the passing darkness.

The problem is, all those humans (as many as 7 million by one estimate) could do a lot of damage. The official eclipse website compares the event to “20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation,” which sounds rambunctious indeed. Max Yasger’s farm took more than a month to clean up.

So here are some tips for making your Great American Eclipse as low-impact and environmentally friendly as possible.

Watch out for cars

As small towns prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime level of crowding, the potential for real emergency is high. Traffic jams are predicted for Charleston, South Carolina, and Salem, Oregon, which could make it harder for emergency services to respond to accidents in the hours surrounding the solar eclipse. Plus, hours of inhaling all those exhaust fumes take a toll on your health.

Taking a plane, train, or automobile? Looks like it’s time to research some carbon offset plans. If not, consider giving yourself and the planet a break by taking a bike or bus to your viewing site.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

It’s wildfire season in the West, which means popular eclipse viewing sites in Oregon — where as many as a million visitors are headed — could be near an active blaze. Multiple wildfires are burning in the state.

Officials expect small fires from eclipse enthusiasts, whether from careless campers or from cars pulling over into tall, dry grass at the edge of the road. The long, wet winter has given way to a hot, dry summer, which means conditions are prime for wildfire. Even a few small fires could get out of control quickly, and evacuation routes will be clogged with tourist traffic.

All of this means officials have placed the risk of a major wildfire emergency at “moderate to high.” One fire scientist wrote: “In short, I fear a disaster; an eclipse apocalypse. I really hope I’m wrong.”

Yikes. You should check wildfire conditions near you before you head to your viewing site. And if you’re camping out for the eclipse, abide by any fire bans and make sure to put out all fires completely. For more information, the Oregon Department of Transportation has a complete guide on how to avoid starting a fire here.

Don’t be trashy

With so many eclipse chasers flocking to small towns and campgrounds along the eclipse route, a lot of garbage will be left behind. Residents of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are already calling for volunteers to help tidy up. Some towns are putting trash cans and port-a-potties near major access routes, but even these emergency facilities are sure to be overwhelmed. Pro tip: Take your trash with you; bonus points for separating out the recyclables. Basically, don’t make a mess wherever you are. You know, just like any other day.

Be remote

Of course, the lowest-impact way to watch the solar eclipse is from afar. Even though only 14 states will experience the total eclipse of the sun, all of the lower 48 will see some degree of partial eclipse. So pick up some eclipse glasses (even more important if you’re not in the path of totality) and go stand outside on Monday.

NASA will also live-stream the entire event from multiple space crafts and weather balloons, ensuring you get a prime view, minus the traffic jams and carbon emissions. Just pretend you planned it this way all along.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How to watch the eclipse without trashing the Earth on Aug 18, 2017.

Supervolcanoes: The secret to a battery-powered future?

Fri, 2017-08-18 14:19

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

Electric cars and smartphones of the future could be powered by supervolcanoes like Yellowstone after scientists discovered that ancient deposits within them contain huge reservoirs of lithium — a chemical element used to make lithium-ore batteries, supplies of which are increasingly dwindling.

Lithium, a soft white metal first discovered in 1817 by Johan August Arfvedson, has become widely used in manufacturing, most importantly in the production of rechargeable batteries for phones, laptops, cameras, and vehicles. It has also been used in psychiatric treatments and to produce nuclear weapons.

Most of the world’s lithium currently comes from Australia and Chile, generally being extracted from brines, pegmatites (igneous rock), and sedimentary rocks. But it is a finite resource, and with car manufactures and technology companies increasingly looking to create battery-powered devices, lithium is becoming an ever-more precious metal, with demand outstripping supply.

In a study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers from Stanford University and the U.S. Geological Survey have found a new potential source for lithium — within America’s supervolcanoes.

These volcanoes are capable of producing huge eruptions, about 1,000 times bigger than average. Along with the famous Yellowstone caldera, there are three other supervolcanoes in the United States: Crater Lake, Long Valley, and Valles Caldera.

When these volcanoes erupt, they collapse into huge basin-like formations known as calderas. These depressions often fill with water to become lakes, with the ash and pumice ejected during the eruption spread across the caldera in ancient deposits.

In the study, the team looked to supervolcanoes as a potential source of lithium because of the lithium-enriched magmas that formed them. Over thousands of years, lithium leaks out of the volcanic deposits, accumulating in the caldera lake, eventually becoming concentrated in a clay.

The team looked at samples taken from the High Rock caldera complex in Nevada, Sierra la Primavera in Mexico, Pantelleria in the Strait of Sicily, Yellowstone, and Hideaway Park in Colorado. By comparing concentrations of magmas formed in these various tectonic settings, they were able to show how supervolcanoes have the potential to host huge amounts of lithium-rich clay deposit.

“If you have a lot of magma erupting, it doesn’t have to have as much lithium in it to produce something that is worthy of economic interest as we previously thought,” study coauthor Gail Mahood said in a statement. “You don’t need extraordinarily high concentrations of lithium in the magma to form lithium deposits and reserves.”

Having a supply of lithium available could prove hugely useful in the coming decades — it could meet the rising demand for the metal and to “diversify the global lithium supply chain,” the team wrote.

“We’re going to have to use electric vehicles and large storage batteries to decrease our carbon footprint,” Mahood said. “It’s important to identify lithium resources in the U.S. so that our supply does not rely on single companies or countries in a way that makes us subject to economic or political manipulation.”

Lead author Thomas Benson added: “We’ve had a gold rush, so we know how, why, and where gold occurs, but we never had a lithium rush. The demand for lithium has outpaced the scientific understanding of the resource, so it’s essential for the fundamental science behind these resources to catch up.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Supervolcanoes: The secret to a battery-powered future? on Aug 18, 2017.

California went all-in on natural gas. Can it do the same with renewables?

Thu, 2017-08-17 19:49

Noemi Tungui lives in Oxnard, California, the so-called “Strawberry Capital of the World.” But Oxnard’s idyllic branding omits other details of its landscape: power plants, oil wells, and within the city limits, the Halaco Engineering Superfund site — where a metal recycler once operated right on the Pacific Ocean.

The city of about 200,000 is situated on the coast between the upscale towns of Santa Barbara to the north and Malibu to the south. But unlike those affluent neighbors, Oxnard’s shores are lined with aging energy infrastructure.

Tungui migrated to Oxnard, which is nearly 75 percent Latino, from the state of Michoacán, Mexico, when she was toddler. And until she became a citizen last year, Tungui mostly kept quiet about the pollution in her community because, like many of her neighbors, she was undocumented. But today, there’s no mistaking her message: Living in Oxnard means living with toxic exposures.

In 2015, NRG Energy proposed building a new natural gas power plant in Oxnard to replace an older facility. Its primary function would be to provide electricity to the area in the event of power disruptions in California’s energy grid. In June 2016, the California Public Utilities Commission — one of two state agencies charged with approving energy projects — signed off on the proposal.

But Tungui and other community members say the so-called Puente Power Plant will further pollute an already overburdened city, would be vulnerable to sea-level rise, and is simply unnecessary.

In June, after nearly three years battling the NRG project, community members won a victory: The California Energy Commission, the other agency that approves energy projects, authorized an unprecedented study to investigate whether renewable alternatives could fill Puente’s proposed role.

Tungui was among those who lobbied the commission in Sacramento. “I told them that they definitely wouldn’t put a project like this in their backyard,” the 24-year-old says.

The report from the state’s energy-grid manager, the California Independent Systems Operator (CAISO), released Wednesday, may not settle the controversy over the plant proposal. It found that distributed renewables and energy storage could do the job of a Puente — but that the consequences would be a higher estimated cost and less reliability.

Advocates see the defeat of Puente as a potential watershed, a chance for California to demonstrate its commitment to modernizing its electricity grid. While politicians throughout the state have made grand pledges to uphold climate progress, environmentalists and industry are still debating how swiftly California should substitute renewables for traditional fossil fuel power, specifically natural gas. Puente’s eventual fate could signal how quickly California will pivot toward the sustainable future it’s selling.

Clean energy advocates were cautiously optimistic about the new study’s results. “The basic bottom line is that the study shows there are clear alternatives,” says Lucas Zucker, an organizer with the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, “which is really the key criteria we’ve been needing.”

NRG spokesperson David Knox, however, took the report as a positive sign for the Puente project to move forward. “While we find the results of the CAISO study interesting from a theoretical standpoint, the results do not present any feasible alternatives.”

“Puente” means bridge in Spanish, a not-so-subtle reference to the belief among some scientists and politicians that natural gas is a “bridge fuel” to achieving lower emission levels while we ramp up the capacity of renewables. In the early 2000s, California embraced the cleaner-burning fossil fuel. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, most of the energy California now consumes comes from natural gas.

But the mix is changing. In April, for instance, non-hydroelectric renewables — wind and solar energy — generated more electricity than natural gas by more than 1,000,000 megawatt hours, enough to power more than 92,000 U.S. homes for a year. Lawmakers are now debating a bill to convert the state’s electricity to 100 percent renewables by 2045. And California is on track to meet its current goal of 50 percent renewables by 2030.

From the outside, it looks like California’s nearly crossed the natural gas bridge — which makes projects like Puente puzzling to environmental advocates.

“You can’t keep saying you want 100 percent renewables and allowing fracking and supporting new oil and gas,” says Lisa Belenky, a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to stop building new fossil fuel plants.”

Creating a stable energy grid means having ample supply so the state doesn’t run out — especially in unusual situations like a particularly hot summer that drives up energy demand or after a massive gas leak at Aliso Canyon that cripples production. Puente is designed to be that fallback energy source, to offer uninterrupted electricity service to the region if, say, a forest fire took out the lines shuttling power from far-flung plants and electricity substations.

The unlikelihood of that event is one reason activists aren’t too concerned about the lower reliability of renewables shown in the alternatives study. They say investing in Puente would be buying into a “stranded asset” that will quickly become obsolete.

“Now is the time to start making that conversion,” says Jim Caldwell, a chemical engineer and energy expert who lobbied for the renewables study. He calls Puente “an oversized, inefficient, and unnecessary response” to reliability needs.

In February, the Los Angeles Times reported that California produces a glut of energy, partly due to the state’s falling demand. As a result, many power plants are operating well below their capacity.

“We overbuilt the system,” Michael Picker, president of the California Public Utilities Commission, told the Times. “That was the way we provided that degree of reliability.”

As renewables make up a larger chunk of energy produced, utilities have to negotiate the shift from relying on always-burnable fossil fuels to storing solar or wind energy when it’s not sunny or windy.

That switchover isn’t as simple as shutting down a combustion-engine car factory and reopening it as a Tesla production line, Caldwell admits. “The grid has to operate 24/7, 365 — it has to be available all the time,” he says. “You have to change it on the fly, so it’s a harder proposition. But it’s not against the laws of physics.”

Earthjustice attorney Matt Vespa says that California’s Public Utilities Commission has sent mixed signals of late on whether California will continue to lean on natural gas. In May, the commission rejected a Southern California Edison request to refurbish an old power plant, ruling it was not the most environmentally friendly way to ensure energy resilience in a blackout. But in August, Earthjustice and the Sierra Club had to appeal a utilities commission’s decision that allowed natural gas companies to participate in a program designed to encourage the state’s utilities to buy energy from renewable sources.

Though Vespa still believes the commission tends to give natural gas a leg up, he says, “The tide is changing.”

The repercussions of California moving on from natural gas will be far-flung, but few places will feel them more acutely than Oxnard.

If the Puente plant is rejected, in a battle that’s beginning to get attention statewide, Tungui says it might also inspire other California communities to speak up against fossil fuel infrastructure and pollution.

“I hope it doesn’t just influence the people, but the people empowered at the very top who can make those changes, like Governor Brown,” Tungui says. “This would be a way to really wake him up.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California went all-in on natural gas. Can it do the same with renewables? on Aug 17, 2017.

California scientists are calling for the largest U.S. investment in climate research in years.

Thu, 2017-08-17 16:31

The sunny state’s been defying the Trump administration’s, er, lax approach to climate action by leading the way on their own since before the inauguration. Now, a cohort of scientists in the state are proposing plans for a climate research institute. It would focus on projects combating the effects of climate change in the U.S.

Upside: With Trump’s consistently dismissive approach to climate policy, California’s initiative would fill an increasingly wide gap in research on climate solutions.

Downside: It’s expensive, of course. While advocates of the institution are considering the state’s cap-and-trade revenue as a source of funding for the institute, the deets on the rest of that cash are still in the works.

While the proposal for the institute will need to clear California legislature, it’s off to a somewhat promising start. Governor Jerry Brown has reportedly given the initiative an informal thumbs-up, and the institute has the support of nearly all of the state’s academic institutions.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California scientists are calling for the largest U.S. investment in climate research in years. on Aug 17, 2017.

Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill.

Thu, 2017-08-17 16:26

ExxonMobil’s Pegasus Pipeline poured more than 200,000 gallons of heavy crude into a neighborhood in Mayflower, Arkansas, in 2013. Twenty-two homes had to be evacuated, and in the aftermath, hundreds of residents complained of nausea, nosebleeds, and respiratory problems.

In 2015, the EPA fined Exxon more than $4 million in penalties over the spill. Separately, a federal pipeline regulator accused the company of violating safety standards and imposed an additional $2 million in fines.

Exxon disputed those punitive damages, arguing that it met legal obligations. On Monday, an appeals court overturned a majority of the violations and fines. According to its decision: “The unfortunate fact of the matter is that, despite adherence to safety guidelines and regulations, oil spills still do occur.”

Exxon, however, was aware of issues with this particular pipeline prior to the Mayflower incident, and an argument can be made that it should have done a better job of planning for an accident. The pipeline was 70 years old at the time of the spill, and Exxon knew it was prone to cracking along its seams. (Pegasus had split open or leaked nearly a dozen times before.)

But you know what they say, “Pipelines will be pipelines.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Court says pipelines — not Exxon — are to blame for a major oil spill. on Aug 17, 2017.

The world’s largest volcanic region was just discovered in Antarctica.

Thu, 2017-08-17 15:54

That’s all kinds of scary. If there’s one place on Earth that would be the worst possible spot for a giant volcanic chain, it’s beneath West Antarctica. Turns out, it’s not a great situation to have a bunch of volcanoes underneath a huge ice sheet.

In a discovery announced earlier this week, a team of researchers discovered dozens of them across a 2,200-mile swath of the frozen continent. Antarctica, if you’re listening, please stop scaring us.

The study that led to the discovery was conceived of by an undergraduate student at the University of Edinburgh, Max Van Wyk de Vries. With a team of researchers, he used radar to look under the ice for evidence of cone-shaped mountains that had disturbed the ice around them. They found 91 previously unknown volcanoes. “We were amazed,” Robert Bingham, one of the study’s authors, told the Guardian.

The worry is that, as in Iceland and Alaska, two regions of active volcanism that were ice-covered until relatively recently, a warming climate could help these Antarctic volcanoes spring to life soon. In a worst-case scenario, the melting ice could release pressure on the volcanoes and trigger eruptions, further destabilizing the ice sheet.

“The big question is: how active are these volcanoes? That is something we need to determine as quickly as possible,” Bingham said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The world’s largest volcanic region was just discovered in Antarctica. on Aug 17, 2017.

Trump revoked an Obama rule that protected against flooding

Wed, 2017-08-16 17:17

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

Last summer, just weeks after being crowned the Republican Party’s presidential nominee, Donald Trump scored major political points by visiting flood-ravaged southern Louisiana. The flooding was America’s worst natural disaster since Hurricane Sandy, and yet, President Barack Obama had not yet interrupted his vacation to tour the damage. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee, hadn’t visited either. Victims felt ignored. But some saw hope in Trump. “It just lets you know that somebody on the national level is doing something,” flood victim Sandra Bennett told the New York Times. Reverend Bill Engelhart told the Los Angeles Times, “[Trump] really cares, and this is his way of showing it.”

A decision Trump made Tuesday, nearly a year to the day after his Louisiana visit, suggests otherwise: He signed an executive order that, among other things, rescinds flood protections for federally funded buildings and infrastructure. First reported by E&E News, Trump’s order undoes an Obama-era executive order that required new public infrastructure projects — like subsidized housing, hospitals, and fire departments — to be built a few feet above the so-called “100-year floodplain,” or the height at which there is a 1 percent chance you’ll experience an enormous flooding event. The requirement accounts for future sea-level rise predicted by “the best-available and actionable science,” the order reads.

As the Washington Post noted in 2015, Obama’s order was the first time the federal government took sea-level rise projections into account, instead of relying only on historical data. It was also the rare climate change policy that was praised by both conservative and progressive interest groups. That’s because sea levels are undeniably rising. Conservatives might always deny and fight about the fact that humans caused that sea-level rise, but adaptation to storms and flooding is far less controversial that ascribing blame to humans and acting to prevent it. Groups on the right and the left also mostly agree that it’s dumb to spend taxpayer dollars on expensive projects that are at a high risk of being destroyed by natural disasters.

But Trump is on a mission to undo as many of Obama’s policies as possible, no matter now reasonable they were. In a press conference announcing his executive order — the same press conference in which he again blamed “both sides” for the fatal violence in Charlottesville — Trump said approvals for new infrastructure projects take too long because of the regulatory process. Trump wants to spend $200 billion on infrastructure projects, including repairing bridges and roads, building new airport terminals, reconstructing the Northeast Corridor rail line, even financing a clean energy power plant on the Hudson River. Ostensibly, undoing Obama’s flood standards will be a way to speed up these projects. (Trump did not say that was the specific reason, nor did a reporter ask.)

But speedily built projects are worthless if they become damaged beyond repair in just a few years. They likely will, as flooding is the country’s most common natural disaster. It’s also the costliest: FEMA estimates that flood damage costs Americans $260 billion from 1980 to 2013. Federal flood insurance claims are also through the roof, averaging $1.9 billion annually from 2006 to 2015. And as we work to fix these projects that weren’t protected from flooding, the working class people who Trump promised to protect will suffer most from the loss of their rail line, bridge, fire station, housing project, or hospital. “This is climate science denial at its most dangerous, as Trump is putting vulnerable communities, federal employees, and families at risk by throwing out any guarantee that our infrastructure will be safe,” Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in a statement.

What makes all this so confounding is that Trump clearly recognizes the threat of sea-level rise. Last year, he applied for a permit to build a sea wall to prevent erosion at his oceanfront golf resort in Ireland. Trump later withdrew that permit — because of opposition from locals, not because the threat disappeared. As Politico reported, the application included an environmental impact statement that said, “If the predictions of an increase in sea-level rise as a result of global warming prove correct, however, it is likely that there will be a corresponding increase in coastal erosion rates … around much of the coastline of Ireland. In our view, it could reasonably be expected that the rate of sea-level rise might become twice of that presently occurring …”

It’s not just Trump’s foreign properties that are at risk from rising seas. “In 30 years, the grounds of Mar-a-Lago could be under at least a foot of water for 210 days a year because of tidal flooding along the intracoastal water way, with the water rising past some of the cottages and bungalows,” the Guardian reported last year, citing an analysis by Coastal Risk Consulting. And The Hill reported that “Trump’s oceanfront condos in Miami and his Doral golf course would also be threatened, according to projections by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the South Florida Regional Climate Change Compact.”

And yet, Trump has made clear that he thinks climate change is a “hoax.” That’s why Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer in June introduced a bill, “The Prohibiting Aid for Recipients Ignoring Science (PARIS) Act,” to block the president’s properties from federally subsidized flood insurance. “The American people should not be responsible for bailing out leaders who ignore science to gain political points, while subjecting the United States — and the rest of the world — to the catastrophic effects of climate change,” the congressman said. “Trump may choose to reject science, but he can’t ignore the impacts — especially as they happen in his own backyard.”

The bill will never become law, but Blumenauer is right about the president’s hypocrisy. When Trump visited Louisiana last year, he said, “I came here to help.” But now he’s showing little concern not only for future flood victims, but the taxpayers who will have to cover the damage to public infrastructure wrought by rising seas.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Trump revoked an Obama rule that protected against flooding on Aug 16, 2017.

The European Union is considering an electric car mandate.

Wed, 2017-08-16 16:40

After the United Kingdom and France joined the Netherlands and Norway in putting an end date on the sales of fossil fuel–powered cars, the E.U. may set wide-reaching requirements for electric vehicles.

Per reports from Climate Home, the E.U. governing body is mulling an electric and hybrid car quota for automakers by 2030. Though such a proposal would fit with the E.U.’s overall pro-climate stance, it may or may not happen, according to contradictory accounts that have emerged over the past few weeks. The most recent report suggests a proposal is likely.

“They have made it very clear that it is their intention to go to a zero-emissions mandate,” an unnamed source with knowledge of internal E.U. talks told Climate Home. “The car industry has been told to stop complaining about it and start being constructive.”

Policy aside, recent economic forecasts suggest that electric vehicles may account for more than half of global car sales by 2040. Several European companies, including Volvo, are taking the hint. Even scandal-embattled Volkswagen unveiled four new electric cars in April.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The European Union is considering an electric car mandate. on Aug 16, 2017.

Wind and solar energy are literally (that’s a literal ‘literally’) saving lives.

Wed, 2017-08-16 14:37

The increasing presence of wind and solar in the United States helped prevent the premature deaths of up to 12,700 people between 2007 and 2015, according to a new study from Nature Energy.

How’s that? Well, with the rise of clean energy, there’s a reduced risk of exposure to harmful emissions from fossil fuel–burning power plants, like the class of sooty airborne particulate known as PM2.5 (which has been found to damage lungs).

But wind and solar can’t take all the credit — increased regulations and shifting markets helped, too. The study authors report that sulphur dioxide emissions fell from almost 10 million tons in 2007 to 2.7 million tons in 2015 after coal plants were required to complete retrofits to meet air-quality standards.

So that’s one more piece of evidence that wind and solar really do save the day.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Wind and solar energy are literally (that’s a literal ‘literally’) saving lives. on Aug 16, 2017.

Meet July, the hottest month yet

Tue, 2017-08-15 18:08

Our planet has never been warmer than it was last month, according to data released by NASA on Tuesday.

Yes, you’ve heard some version of that story before, and you’re sure to hear it again and again in the coming years, but this time, it’s a bit freaky.

The news that July was the hottest month on record comes as a relative surprise, because there hasn’t even been an El Niño this year — the natural climate shift that usually boosts global temperatures. In fact, 2017 started with La Niña conditions, which tend to temporarily cool the planet, yet we still wound up with a record anyway. That’s shocking, as well as compelling evidence that anthropogenic climate change is picking up speed.

Using measurements collected from about 6,300 land- and ocean-based weather stations around the world, NASA scientists calculated that the planet’s average temperature during July was about 2.25 degrees C (4.05 degrees F) warmer than the long-term annual average.


Technically, July 2017 now shares the record in a statistical tie with July 2016 and August 2016 in NASA’s 137-year temperature record — all three are within the margin of error. July and August of 2016 had a bit of extra help from an El Niño, and last month achieved the mark all on its own. According to Gavin Schmidt, the NASA climate scientist who helps oversee the dataset, these three months are now “way ahead of the rest.” In a Twitter post, Schmidt predicted that 2017 will easily rank as one of the three warmest overall years on record, but probably won’t top 2016 as the warmest single year in history.

Such a warm month during the peak of the Northern Hemisphere’s summer created a cascade of extreme weather conditions. In western Canada, the worst forest fires in nearly 60 years have already torched upwards of a million acres, more than four times what normally burns in an entire wildfire season. In California, Death Valley recorded the hottest month ever measured anywhere on Earth, with an average temperature of 107.24 degrees F. Several days topped 120 degrees.

In Alaska, some cities recorded their warmest month in history, in part because of the early retreat of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.

“There’s basically now no sea ice left within 200 miles of Alaska,” the National Weather Service’s Rick Thoman told Climate Central. At the start of the month, the volume of sea ice across the Arctic was the lowest ever measured.

In Europe, a persistent heatwave earned the name “Lucifer.” Spain recorded its hottest July day ever, with temperatures reaching 109 degrees F, and a drought in Italy prompted widespread water rationing. On its hottest day in history, Shanghai, China, saw a spike in fights and traffic accidents that the state-run media blamed on the heat. Temperatures exceeding 120 degrees F in Saudi Arabia prompted one engineer to invent an air-conditioned umbrella.

This is climate change in action. Rising temperatures are the best-predicted consequence of more greenhouse gas emissions. A recent study showed that 82 percent of locally record-hot days worldwide can be linked to climate change, but on the bigger, planetary scale, the evidence is even clearer: The most recent global assessment of climate science said that human-caused warming is now “unequivocal.”

All of this is evidence that our relationship with the planet is entering a new and dangerous phase. The good news is that, because we’re causing the shift, there are still things we can do to turn it around. But on our current pace — the fastest warming in at least 1,000 years — we’re quickly leaving the cozy climate that gave rise to human civilization.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Meet July, the hottest month yet on Aug 15, 2017.

Trump wants to ignore the effects of climate change when permitting infrastructure projects.

Tue, 2017-08-15 17:12

President Trump signed an executive order Tuesday that he said will streamline the environmental review required to get large public construction efforts — like roads, bridges, and buildings — off the ground.

From the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, the president proclaimed that the executive order would repair our “badly broken” process for garnering permits for infrastructure projects.

The policy sets a goal of two years for finishing a permitting process and assigns a lead government agency to helm each approval. The order also rescinds an Obama-era requirement that government-funded buildings take into account likely sea-level rise in design and construction. (States and other local agencies, however, will still be able to establish stricter permitting practices.)

Updating America’s “crumbling infrastructure” became a central tenet of Trump’s presidential campaign — and he promised billions to the effort. Trump called the current permitting process a “massive, self-inflicted wound on our country.”

“It’s disgraceful,” the president said.

The White House argues the order will bring “accountability and discipline” back to the permitting process. But many environmentalists decry it as an obvious attempt to skirt environmental rules — and cite it as further evidence of Trump’s anti-climate change agenda.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Trump wants to ignore the effects of climate change when permitting infrastructure projects. on Aug 15, 2017.

The security firm that tracked DAPL opponents denies providing illegal services.

Tue, 2017-08-15 16:13

Last week, North Carolina–based TigerSwan answered a lawsuit brought by the North Dakota Private Investigative and Security Board alleging it operated without a license for months during anti-pipeline protests.

In its filing, TigerSwan describes its business in North Dakota as “management consulting” as opposed to security work. While the firm admitted to making recommendations to local law enforcement, it claims it “did not undertake or furnish ‘private security service’ or ‘private investigative service’” in the state.

In early June, Grist and the Intercept published details from situation reports prepared by TigerSwan for its client, Energy Transfer Partners — the company constructing the Dakota Access Pipeline. The documents describe the firm’s military-style surveillance tactics against anti-pipeline activists and their allies during the protests. That month, a spokesperson for Energy Transfer Partners said it was no longer employing TigerSwan — though Louisiana later denied TigerSwan a license to work on another Energy Transfer Partners pipeline.

The North Dakota board sued TigerSwan in late June, seeking thousands of dollars in penalties. TigerSwan says the regulations referred to in the complaint are vague and asks for the court to dismiss the lawsuit.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The security firm that tracked DAPL opponents denies providing illegal services. on Aug 15, 2017.

Your previously worthless tweets could be used for science.

Tue, 2017-08-15 14:00

There’s an enormous amount of information posted to social media sites every day, and increasing ability to sift it for patterns and trends. Scientists could potentially find useful data about ecosystems’ health on Twitter, according to a report in The Conversation.

Researchers recently tested this hypothesis with 300,000 tweets sent from the Great Barrier Reef. They filtered for useful tweets — those containing pictures or observations about wildlife, coral bleaching, or other environmental factors — and then plotted them on a map of where they had been sent.

The Conversation

Even though the tweets came from amateurs with no intention of participating in a citizen science experiments, passive info like location tags and timestamps could give scientists useful data, especially in places without other methods of environmental monitoring in place.

As the researchers write, “Think of it as citizen science by people who don’t even realise they’re citizen scientists.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Your previously worthless tweets could be used for science. on Aug 15, 2017.

Stores waste tons of CO2 a day by blasting A/C with the doors open

Tue, 2017-08-15 09:28

This article is published in partnership with:

With back-to-school shopping season starting up this summer, we invite you, dear consumer, to step back from the dazzling world of reclaimed wood pencils and vinyl-free rolling backpacks for a moment. On your quest for a new pair of fair-trade sneaks, how many shops and restaurants can you spot with their air conditioning blasting and their doors and windows open wide?

Sustainability may be a hot commodity in the business world, but many retailers continue to blast their air conditioning with the hope that a stream of cool air projected onto city sidewalks will lure sticky customers inside. Not only is there little data available to support the idea that an open-door, A/C-pumping approach does much to increase sales, but literal tons of greenhouse gases end up in the atmosphere as a result. Positively chilling!

Throughout the course of a summer, an average store can waste upwards of 4,200 kWh of electricity — releasing a whopping 2.2 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — simply by leaving the air conditioning on while windows and doors are open, according to New York-based energy giant Con Edison. (That’s about the same amount of pollution emitted by a diesel semi driving from New York to Miami, by the way.) Such a practice also increases the risk of widespread brownouts or blackouts when summer scorchers start to overtax a city’s power grid.

In New York City alone, air conditioning in commercial spaces accounts for about 10 to 20 percent of all of the energy used in the Big Apple and up to 10 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions released each year. If all 10,000 of the city’s businesses shuttered their windows and doors when running the A/C, they could save about 22,000 extra tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

In the summer of 2015, with the help of more than 200 volunteers throughout five boroughs, New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs launched the “Shut the Front Door!” social media campaign to help combat the issue. The campaign took to the streets and to social media to educate business on the environmental and financial impacts of their energy use.

Shut the Front Door also sought to strengthen a 2008 law requiring chain stores with five or more locations and retail businesses upwards of 4,000 square feet throughout New York City to keep their doors closed. By fall 2015, the New York City Council updated the law to require all businesses, no matter their size, to abide by it. The change fits with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s ultimate plan to reduce carbon emissions 40 percent by 2030, then all the way to 80 percent by 2050.

While New York City is ahead of the curve in mandating that retailers close their doors and not waste A/C, stores around the country are propping open their doors to lure in customers during the hottest and second busiest shopping time of the year.

Clean-energy nonprofit Generation 180 has created Keep it Cool, a campaign that enables environmentally conscious consumers to remind retailers to close their doors without the awkwardness of having to ask a store manager in person to turn their air conditioning down. Using Facebook Messenger, concerned shoppers can send store locations to Generation 180. Generation 180 then sends a supportive note to air-conditioned establishments with closed doors, while stores with their windows and doors open are encouraged to be less wasteful in the future. The organization also puts the stores on a national map, which is updated daily as new retailers commit to the cause.

With strength in numbers, Keep it Cool hopes to give sustainably minded consumers the leverage to make collective change. Citizen science and data reporting have already helped make progress on important environmental issues, from observing pesticide drift pollution to monitoring ecological recovery after devastating wildfire.

“That’s the beauty of Keep it Cool,” says Susan Klees, Campaign Director for Generation 180, a Virginia-based nonprofit seeking to educate, mobilize, and empower consumers to advocate for cleaner energy choices. “Not only does it educate individuals about the pollution generated by stores keeping their doors open, but we’ve also created a campaign that we hope will inspire people to act.”

Consumers can also play an especially powerful role when it comes to the push to transition to green energy, says Klees. A lot of misconceptions around clean energy still persist, she says, leaving many unsure how they can make an individual difference. Many people are still unaware, for instance, that the cost of producing clean energy (like solar power) has dramatically decreased over the years, becoming a much more commercially viable option for businesses and residences throughout most of the country.

Ours is the first generation with real choices in how we power our lives. Generation 180 is a nonprofit committed to advancing the transition to clean energy and supporting a cultural shift in energy awareness through engaging content, digitally enabled campaigns, and an empowered volunteer network. You can make a difference in reducing pollution in your own community by participating in Keep It Cool.

Learn More

Here at Grist, you know what we like almost as much as solar panels? Partners! They help us keep the lights on so we can keep bringing you the best and most Gristy journalism on the planet. Click here for more information.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Stores waste tons of CO2 a day by blasting A/C with the doors open on Aug 15, 2017.

As Houston plots a sustainable path forward, it’s leaving this neighborhood behind

Tue, 2017-08-15 05:00

Part of a series on communities overcoming obstacles to become cleaner and greener.

Juan Parras gives one hell of a tour of Houston’s east side. He’s charming and funny. Wearing a beret, he strikes an old-world look, like he might lead you to a cafe on a plaza. He doesn’t charge a fee for his services. After all, you’re on a “toxic tour,” and Parras is on a mission.

Parras grew up in 1950s West Texas. He remembers segregated schools, the restaurants that wouldn’t serve him, the unpaved roads, and the people who lived closest to the local refinery. Those experiences led him to a career as a social justice advocate. The resident of Houston’s heavily industrial east side has worked in a city housing department, for a union, for a law clinic, and on a campaign that stopped a PVC factory from being built in Louisiana’s “Cancer Alley.”

For the last decade, he has served as executive director of Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (better known as t.e.j.a.s.). Part of his work is leading tours past the heaping piles of scrap metal along Houston’s Buffalo Bayou and by Cesar Chavez High School, which opened in 2000 within a quarter-mile of three large petrochemical plants.

Juan Parras has led Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services for the past decade. t.e.j.a.s.

Parras can go all day, up and down the Houston Ship Channel to Denver Harbor and neighborhoods like Galena Park, Baytown, and Pasadena. Surely you’ve read about the Keystone XL pipeline and other controversial proposed projects that would carry oil from the Canadian tar sands to Gulf Coast refineries? Parras can show you where many of them would end.

The toxic tour sometimes concludes in the neighborhood of Manchester, a six-square-mile grid of streets where the petrochemical industry towers directly over small homes. Where, according to EPA databases, Valero Refining can produce up to 160,000 barrels a day of gasoline and other fuels. Where the Ship Channel Bridge, one of the busiest stretches of Interstate 610, carries tens of thousands of vehicles per day (along with their emissions) directly over homes. And where about 4,000 people live — more than 95 percent of whom are people of color, and 90 percent low income.

The cancer risk for residents of Manchester and the neighboring community of Harrisburg is 22 percent higher than for the overall Houston urban area, according to a recent report from the Union of Concerned Scientists and t.e.j.a.s. While the city works to overcome its image as a dirty oil town, these neighborhoods remain solidly dominated by the petrochemical industry. And despite the work of Parras and his team, the environmental and health issues that Manchester’s residents face are not gaining enough political traction to garner real change.

“Environmental justice issues become all too easy to grasp when you take people into neighborhoods,” Parras said when the Sierra Club awarded him its 2015 Robert Bullard Environmental Justice Award. So Parras gives the toxic tour over and over again, hoping that, eventually, people will listen.

In 2016, Houston was lauded for its “green transformation.” The D.C.-based nonprofit Cultural Landscape Foundation brought visitors from around the country to study new investments in the city’s parks, as well as an 150-mile network of trails alongs its bayous. Long the whipping boy of the urban-planning world, the fourth-largest U.S. city will soon have half a dozen signature parks designed by internationally known firms.

Yet Houston’s attempts to appear greener have thrown longstanding inequities into sharper contrast. Two-bedroom apartments in a downtown highrise overlooking Discovery Green park rent for more than $4,000. Seven miles east, chemical storage tanks dot the landscape around Hartman Park in Manchester, where nearly 40 percent of residents live in poverty.

Beyond financial disparities, the region’s signature industry inflicts a staggeringly disproportionate burden on east-side residents. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report, the airborne concentration of 1,3-butadiene, which causes cancer and a host of neurological issues, is more than 150 times greater in Manchester and Harrisburg than in West Oaks and Eldridge, relatively affluent neighborhoods on Houston’s west side.

A Valero refinery sits directly across the street from the entrance to Hartman Park in Manchester, in east Houston. Courtesy of Yvette Arellano | t.e.j.a.s. & Union of Concerned Scientist Center for Science and Democracy

Adrian Shelley, director of Texas’s outpost of the watchdog group Public Citizen, describes Manchester and the neighborhoods that abut it as sacrificial lambs, where the situation is “unjust, offensive, cruel, racist, ridiculous, tragic, and costing lives.”

Juan Flores has lived in Galena Park, right across Buffalo Bayou from Manchester, since the age of four. One of his earliest memories, as a kindergartner, was “seeing all this white stuff on the cars” and thinking it was snow — a rare occurrence in Houston. He played in it until his mom yelled out, “Hijo, no! We don’t know what it is!”

When he would play with friends over in Manchester, he remembers smells that “were so unbearable you had to go inside.”

“Most of the people who live in the area, like my dad, work in the industry,” Flores says. “We are aware of the dangers. We can smell the chemicals.”

He recalls “his first explosion,” which happened in the nearby Pasadena neighborhood in 1989, when Flores was in sixth grade. He remembers seeing “a big mushroom cloud.” The so-called Phillips disaster — which was actually multiple explosions at the Houston Chemical Complex owned by the energy company Phillips 66 — broke the windows of his school. Twenty-three Phillips 66 employees were killed and 314 people were injured.

Flores was a member of the Galena Park city council from 2014 to 2016. He helped get an ordinance passed that limits the time trucks can idle on city streets, a substantial source of air pollution along the Ship Channel. The neighboring Jacinto City community adopted the policy, too.

According to Flores, truck drivers were at first upset with the new regulation. But he helped them understand the impact of running engines on the neighboring communities. “I told them, ‘Guys, it is your own kids,’” he says.

Local advocates say the only remedy for really helping the people trapped in Manchester and its toxic surrounding areas would involve a public buyout of their homes for the full cost of rebuilding their houses. (Market prices for Manchester-area homes are depressed by their hazardous neighbors). But even if residents were suddenly able to move to more pristine surroundings, Shelly says, doing so would disperse an entire community.

Meanwhile, it’s tough to argue that Houston — despite its new park-building boom — isn’t prioritizing industry over the health of its vulnerable communities. In May, Houston agreed to sell Valero several Manchester streets near its refinery for $1.4 million. The energy company will expand its footprint, adding auxiliary buildings and more parking for the facility.

In recent years, according to Parras, Valero has bought out some residents in a piecemeal approach. (Valero did not respond to requests to comment for this story.) But he still didn’t see the deal coming.

“I found out about the sale of the streets through the newspaper,” says Parras, who was taken aback after reading a Houston Chronicle article. “We are ignored.”

Policy that would help Houston control its pollution problem is tough to enact in a town dominated by the petrochemical industry. In 2005, a Chronicle investigation on industry-reported emissions spurred then-Houston Mayor Bill White to approach companies about voluntarily reducing air pollution — 1,3-butadiene, in particular.

In Manchester, Valero took the step of placing a sophisticated air monitor at its facility’s fenceline. Citywide, the impact of White’s entreaties on emissions appears to have been inconsequential, and the effort likely cost him in his subsequent campaign for governor.

An aerial view of Manchester. Google Earth

City-led initiatives are consistently challenged in courts by the Business Coalition for Clean Air, an industry-lobbying group that represents ExxonMobil and others. Last year, it convinced the Texas Supreme Court to strike down Houston’s Clean Air Ordinance, which was adopted during White’s administration.

The court ruled that the city does not have authority to enforce clean air regulations. During the last legislative session and the current special session, state politicians have put forward a range of bills using that and other pro-industry precedents to undermine the city’s ability to police environmental issues. Lawmakers have attacked tree-preservation ordinances, fracking bans, and policies to reduce single-use plastic bags.

A 2016 report by the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, and Texans for Public Justice found that the three state oil and gas regulators raised $11 million in recent years, 60 percent of which came from the industries they’re charged with monitoring. A 2017 report by the Environmental Integrity Project found that Texas penalizes only 3 percent of the illegal pollution releases reported by companies.

“In a different political environment, self-reported violations or reports of air-emission events would result in fines of $25,000 per day,” Shelley says. “But it is not done, even though the authority is there under the law.”

T.e.j.a.s. argues that the state should require chemical facilities to use safer substances, update their technologies, continuously monitor and report emissions, and avoid the construction of new facilities near homes and schools.

But Bakeyah Nelson, the executive director of Air Alliance Houston, says that putting such changes into effect “is tied to civic engagement and voting.” A real shift will happen, she explains, only when “elected officials reflect what the population looks like and vote in a way that is consistent with what people want, which is protection from environmental toxins.”

Last year, former Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, a Mexican-American running on a platform that included environmental justice issues, challenged incumbent Gene Green, who has represented Texas’ 29th district, which includes Manchester, since 1993. Despite the district having a population that is 76 percent Hispanic origin, local and national Latino leaders backed Green, praising his consistent stand on immigration issues.

Green retained his seat with a message that voters were more concerned about the jobs that industry brings than curtailing its unchecked growth.

According to the Air Alliance’s Nelson, that economy-versus-environment framing is a false dichotomy. She says that greater regulation at a national level has coincided with continued economic growth and helped spur technological innovation.

Countering industry’s hold on the region would involve raising awareness among locals that they don’t have to choose between their health and their livelihoods, Nelson says. But the very fact that people choose to live in places like Manchester, which has been heavily industrialized since the 1970s, points to fundamental problems with access to safe, healthy, affordable housing, she adds.

“People need living wages so they don’t have to purchase homes that put their health at risk,” Nelson explains. “It is about environmental, health, and economic justice. All of those things are tied together.”

In some cases, little more than a fence separates Manchester homes from neighboring industry. Paul Hester

Houston-based and other Texas nonprofits — like Air Alliance Houston and Environment Texas — have recently banded together to try to bring the air quality around so-called fenceline communities (meaning they border the fences surrounding industrial facilities) into the public consciousness.

“Through storytelling and good science, we are informing people that we need better air for a healthier and prosperous Houston,” says Matthew Tresaugue, who manages the newly formed Houston Air Quality Media Initiative. The strategy includes amplifying the voices of residents, like Bianca Ibarra, a recent graduate of Galena Park High School, whose video PSA won a competition held by the media initiative and sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund.

The collaborative effort is funded by the Houston Endowment, a charitable organization that gives out $80 million in grants yearly to local nonprofits. (Though the Endowment has fewer direct ties to oil and gas wealth than other local foundations, it’s previous president, Larry Faulkner, sat on the board of ExxonMobil while at the organization.)

Tresaugue stresses the need to move people to take action and put pressure on policymakers by connecting people in areas far from the Ship Channel to the challenges faced by residents of communities like Manchester, Harrisburg, Galena Park, Baytown, and Pasadena.

That’s something Juan Parras has been doing for years now. And while the new initiative gets its feet under it, he’ll continue his tours, giving them to anyone from students to fellow activists to public officials. That way, people can see and smell and reckon with what Manchester’s residents live with every day.

“This is considered the capital of the industry for gas and oil,” Parras says. “We learn that on a daily basis.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As Houston plots a sustainable path forward, it’s leaving this neighborhood behind on Aug 15, 2017.

Without air conditioning, America’s prisons can be unbearable — and sometimes deadly

Mon, 2017-08-14 19:03

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

Quintero Jones was an inmate at the McConnell Unit in Beeville, Texas. One day, when the outdoor temperature had reached 98 degrees and humidity made it feel like 110, the 36-year-old collapsed in his cell and lay on the floor gasping for breath. According to a federal lawsuit filed by his family members in July, by the time help arrived, it was too late. His autopsy revealed that his death was caused by an asthma attack.

“Everybody knows high temperatures can be lethal, particularly to those who can’t take steps to cool themselves,” says David Fathi, the director of the National Prison Project at the American Civil Liberties Union. “Whenever there’s an extreme heatwave, people die — prisoners and nonprisoners alike.”

All across the country, prisons and jails are not equipped with air conditioning, and when temperatures soar, inmates are often trapped in unbearable, life-threatening conditions. The southern United States faces the greatest risk of extreme heat in the future, and cities in Florida, Louisiana, and Texas are projected to see the greatest increase of dangerously hot days. All three rank in the top 10 of states with the highest incarceration rates, and already, serious problems have emerged.

In Texas, only 75 percent of state prisons have air conditioning. In July, after inmates filed a lawsuit, a federal judge ordered air conditioning for vulnerable inmates at the Wallace Pack Unit, a prison one hour north of Houston that houses hundreds of elderly and disabled inmates. Since 1998, 22 people have died in Texas prisons and jails because of heat-related issues.

On a hot summer day in August 2015, 25-year-old Cynthia Apkaw hanged herself with her bed sheet in her cell at a women’s prison in Arizona. According to Fox 10 Phoenix, the guards weren’t able to stop her because they were sitting in the air-conditioned command center.

In Florida, where most state-run prisons do not have air conditioning, Climate Central, a nonprofit climate science news organization, estimates that by 2050, the average number of days above 90 degrees in Miami will increase from 86 to 134. At Dade Correctional Institute, which lies within the Miami area, even the staff describe the prison as a “squalid, un-airconditioned, putrid hell.”

Inmates at the Jefferson Davis Parish jail in Jennings, Louisiana, hope for rain to cool down the sweltering jail. Jennings is approximately 40 miles from Lafayette, where, according to Climate Centralthere are approximately 87 days in the year — or nearly three months — when temperatures soar above 90 degrees. By 2050, there will be 125 such days. Despite the hot weather, residents approved funding for a new jail in 2014 only after local leaders promised there would be no air conditioning for the inmates. “That’s like saying we’re going to build a new jail,” says Fathi, “but we’re not going to have a fire escape or medical care.”

Last month, St. Louis, Missouri, was in the middle of an extreme heatwave where temperatures reached 103 degrees, with heat lasting over a five-day period. In a video from the Medium Security Institution jail, the inmates inside could be heard screaming, “Help us!” and “We ain’t got no A/C!” After the video went viral, activists showed up to the jail to protest the conditions and city officials agreed to bring in portable cooling units.

With extreme heat comes a myriad of illnesses ranging from sunburn to heat stroke, which can be lethal. “If communities do not take preventative measures,” Blad Plumer and Nadja Popovich wrote in a story for the New York Times in June, “the projected increase in heat-related deaths by the end of this century would be roughly equivalent to the number of Americans killed annually in auto accidents.”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a number of remedies for exposure to excessive heat, like moving to a cooler area or taking a cool bath. But an incarcerated person who may be experiencing the symptoms of heat stroke — nausea, confusion, or fainting — “is very limited in the steps they can take to cool down,” says Fathi. Inmates don’t have to be part of a vulnerable group like the elderly to get sick from the heat. Valley fever, a fungal infection found in Central California that has flulike symptoms, is intensified during heatwaves. As Mother Jones reported in 2015, valley fever can be lethal for certain populations who are more likely to be behind bars:

“In California, the quirks of valley fever’s pathology have collided with the state’s habit of jailing a disproportionately large number of black and brown people. For years, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation housed many of these minority inmates in prisons scattered throughout the dusty, endemic areas of the Central Valley. Thousands fell ill and dozens died.”

2017 study by the American Meteorological Society found that today’s climate extremes will become the new normal as soon as 2020. “At the moment, it doesn’t seem like such a big deal when we have record-hot summers or years,” Sophie Lewis, a climate researcher who worked on the study, told Climate Central“But this study really shows the nasty side of our current records becoming more frequent in the near future.”

The obvious solution to the problem of hot prisons is air conditioning. After inmates at a maximum security prison in Wisconsin filed a lawsuit over the facility’s extreme temperatures in 2000, a federal court ruled that the prison must install air conditioning in 2004. But in the hottest states, air conditioning prisons is still an uphill battle.It’s getting warmer and we’re having more and more periods of extreme heat,” Fathi says. “This isn’t an issue of comfort or luxury — this is an issue of life or death.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Without air conditioning, America’s prisons can be unbearable — and sometimes deadly on Aug 14, 2017.

Glacier National Park is overcrowded. Thanks, climate change.

Mon, 2017-08-14 18:05

A record-breaking 1 million people visited Glacier in July, up 23 percent from last year. Park officials are stuck dealing with overcrowded parking lots, more medical emergencies, and a shortage of open campsites.

While the number of visitors has fluctuated in past decades, it’s been on the rise over the past five years. Some attribute the park’s popularity to low gas prices (perfect for road trips!) and all the envy-inducing photos making their way to Instagram, while others blame our old pal climate change: All but 26 of the 150 glaciers that existed in Glacier National Park in the late 1800s have melted away, and scientists say it’s “inevitable” we’ll lose the rest. Such predictions have prompted a wave of “doomsday tourists” who want to catch a glimpse of climate change in action.

“People tell us they want to see glaciers before they’re gone,” Pamela Smith, a Glacier campground volunteer, told the Missoulian. “They have come here to see the impacts of climate change for themselves.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Glacier National Park is overcrowded. Thanks, climate change. on Aug 14, 2017.