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Why a city block can be one of the loneliest places on earth

12 hours 18 min ago

Recently, a Grist reader wrote to ask Umbra whether apartment buildings are designed to discourage interaction with neighbors. It struck a chord.

In the spring, I moved to my first solo apartment in a downtown building, and I have yet to exchange more than a “hello” with the people who live on either side of me. In fact, I’ve never seen the neighbor to my right. The tenant could be a human-sized badger — I have no idea.

Apartment life can be strangely isolating: the intimacy of removing a complete stranger’s underwear from the building washing machine; the awkwardness of silent elevator rides while rubbing elbows with a fellow tenant; the jealous pangs of hurrying alone past a cluster of happy friends sharing pizza on your stoop.

For being so packed full of life, a modern city block can be one of the loneliest places on earth.

There are those mythical apartment buildings where movie nights and taco bar potlucks are a thing. But those seem like rare and lucky arrangements — to the point where lack of human interaction has been labeled a health crisis. In November, former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy identified social isolation as one of our nation’s most pernicious public health menaces, alongside gun violence and opioid addiction.

Loneliness has significant political implications, too. Apartments make up almost a third of the housing stock in America’s largest cities, with half of all of them being home to only a single person.

Imagine a city block full of apartment buildings; if everyone living there retreats into their own little units, rarely speaking to one another, there’s no community identity, no shared sense of obligation and purpose. This isn’t just a mental exercise — one survey found that the less neighbors socialize with each other, the less politically engaged they tend to be.

“The self-government functions of streets are all humble, but they are indispensable,” Jane Jacobs writes in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, arguing against the type of 1960s-style “urban renewal” that actually made our neighborhoods more unlivable. “In spite of much experiment, planned and unplanned, there exists no substitute for lively streets.”

Jane “eyes on the street” Jacobs would probably have had much to say about our current “eyes on the iPhone” lifestyle, too. Technology’s relationship with political engagement is actually pretty complicated, but most of our Facebook feeds are likely more lively than our actual neighborhoods.

Luckily, there’s growing awareness of the power of lively streets, along with efforts to get people looking up and talking to their neighbors again. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s recent $106 million climate resilience package — specifically intended to address growing heatwaves in the city — included a program to build stronger community bonds. The rationale: In the face of pressing public threats like climate change, the best and most effective response is a community one.

But especially for many young city-dwellers, that sense of community remains elusive. It certainly is for me (I’m working on it) and maybe you. So let’s get back to that initial reader question: Are the buildings where so many of us live making us lonely, or is it just us?

As any architect worth her copy of Le Modulor can tell you, buildings shape humans and our interactions with one another as much as we shape them.

And yes, experts say the way we build today does not foster strong connections with our neighbors. Famed sustainable architect Sim Van Der Ryn argues in Design for an Empathic World that most buildings in which we live were designed with little thought given to how we live.

This approach to architecture is part of a larger cultural obsession with privacy — a concept that is very modern relative to human history, according to Christopher Leinberger, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. Three hundred years ago, residents of Western civilizations tended to cook, socialize, and even sleep in close, unprotected quarters.

“In the 20th century, for the first time in human history, we had the opportunity to build isolated developments in metropolitan areas, and we did it with a vengeance,” Leinberger says. The modern model for the built environment, he adds, is one that is segregated by race, income, and family status.

By contrast, the “empathic design” championed by Van Der Ryn means creating a space that attends to a person’s needs, physical and emotional health, and “connection to others.” Empathic buildings have inviting common spaces for residents to interact, and access to green space and the outdoors. They feel integrated with the street and the buildings around them.

I spoke with one architect whose firm designs with community and informal social interactions in mind. Schemata Workshop’s Grace Kim describes a successful project as one in which residents are able to see community activity on a daily basis. “That means having a hierarchy of public to private spaces in the homes — so people can retreat into the privacy of their homes, but have access to community just out their doors or through their kitchen window,” Kim says.

When I ask Kim how she became interested in this field, she says, in so many words, that our isolation is killing us. “American society is very insular and nuclear, and it’s actually been quite detrimental. I think incidents like Columbine and random shootings, people going postal, are a result of us living so individually and losing our sense of who we are, and of our community.”

It is our animal nature to seek solitude. “A human being likes to ‘withdraw into his corner,’ and it gives him physical pleasure to do so,” Gaston Bachelard notes in his landmark philosophical text on the home. But it’s also human nature to seek out the company and care of others. We need a built environment that allows both aspects of human nature to thrive.

There are, of course, a million and one ways to design a building, and a million and three ways to meet people. But to begin to understand the impact of the former on the latter, I spoke to two young women who have moved to big cities — Seattle and New York, respectively — and started to establish their lives from the foundation of atypical buildings.

The choice of cities isn’t a coincidence; Seattle and New York are two of the most cost-prohibitive urban areas in the country. The affordability of any neighborhood in either city has a “blink-and-you-missed-it” quality, which has the dual effect of pushing out long-term residents and forcing newcomers to cobble together fairly unconventional living situations.

Sarah Berkes’ dream, after graduating from the University of Washington in 2015, was to move to New York City and pursue a career in fashion. Berkes, over the phone, is bubbly and energetic — she’s the kind of person who appears to be chattering through a smile 90 percent of the time. Her college graduation gift from her parents was a one-way ticket to New York. In short order, she landed a job — and then an apartment at a boarding house for professional women.

One might hear such a description and think: Really? In 2017? It’s reminiscent of New York’s legendary Barbizon Hotel, inspiration for the establishment in which Esther Greenwood slowly lost her mind in The Bell Jar. But the communal nature of the building — including shared meals — introduced Berkes to “some of her best friends in the city.” It’s a setup, she notes, that reminds her of her old sorority house.

It isn’t the architectural features of the Webster Apartments that contribute to its Delta Gamma dynamic, so much as the boarding house’s emphasis on resident interaction. (Movie nights, happy hours, that sort of thing.) But there’s no question that Webster helped ease Berkes’ introduction to the city.

“If I just moved here and lived in a traditional apartment, I’d be on my own — like, do I go on Bumble BFF? Do I go outside on the street and try to talk to people? You’d have to go out and join clubs and find people who share interests.” (Which she has — Berkes is part of two running clubs, volunteers for an organization that helps train young girls to run marathons, and was a finalist in the Miss New York USA competition.)

The same kind of organized community is often sold as part of modern “microhousing” developments, which are meant to provide more affordable, super-small (around 200 square-foot) studio apartments. They’re commonly found in quickly gentrifying cities. Real estate agents tend to sell them on their fun! dorm-like! amenities: shared kitchens, game rooms, rooftop decks for get-togethers.

“It’s meeting a niche for those who don’t qualify for affordable housing but can’t meet the standard housing prices,” architect Grace Kim says. But, she notes, “most developers are doing it to make the most money possible — it’s a very lucrative real estate model. That translates to not wanting to be generous in communal spaces.”

Racine Lemons, a gregarious 26-year-old teacher (and, full disclosure, an acquaintance), moved into one such development in the Belltown neighborhood of Seattle. “I saw my immediate neighbors all the time, but we never talked,” Lemons says. She would meet neighbors on the building patio or roof over the summer but, true to the time-honored Seattle freeze, never saw them again during the colder months.

All the time she spent alone in her micro-unit, however, motivated Lemons to spend time volunteering with an organization in the neighborhood that works with at-risk seniors.

Lemons has lived in four different homes in Seattle in five years. She blames the city’s skyrocketing rents and housing costs on lack of community involvement more than, say, the buildings themselves.

“The rent prices are a huge contribution to why we aren’t able to socialize in our community,” Lemons says. “I’m getting a new studio now, and I have to pick up more hours at work, which takes time out of how much I want to volunteer or socialize or participate in block parties. I have to work harder to live in the area that I want to live in, and as a result, I’m not contributing to the community.”

At this point, we can maybe acknowledge that urban isolation might not always be the fault of the building. As Mira Mui, an architect at Schemata Workshop, explains, a conscious designer shouldn’t forsake obligations to foster social interaction and community relationships. But it’s ultimately the people living within that environment that truly make it a community.

“[A] metaphor that I like to use to exemplify the role of building and community are restaurants and food,” Mui writes in an email. “In restaurants, the design of the restaurant itself can be a major factor in enhancing or worsening the meal experience — there’s no denying that. But if the food is terrible, the restaurant design won’t make it a successful. If the food is amazing, the restaurant design could be pretty terrible and it wouldn’t really matter. Likewise, buildings can enhance community, but the people themselves will make the community.”

And that’s where we get to the elephant in the room: Which people are we talking about when it comes to community? The spritely newcomer? Or the community that existed before they got there? Arif Ullah has lived in New York for 30 years, and rarely runs into fellow natives.

“In New York, I think we just experience gentrification at a heightened level — so many people want to live here,” Ullah says. “It’s almost like an ‘experience’ destination.”

Ullah is the director of programs of the Citizens Committee for New York City, an organization that provides microfunding for community improvement projects across the city. He grew up as the son of Bangladeshi immigrants in a large apartment complex in Queens. His parents, who live in a rent-controlled apartment, still live in the building — although many neighbors have had to leave due to rising rents.

Ullah contrasts his parents’ building to another in the neighborhood, in which he estimates about 90 percent of the tenants are Bangladeshi. “The building is like a village — people leave their doors open, go into each other’s apartments. There’s a really strong sense of community.”

Again, that has nothing to do with the architecture of the building itself — it’s not a particularly “empathic” one. But things like shared ethnicity and culture are powerful ways to create a community within a building that was never designed for one. The impossible-to-keep-up-with cost of living in New York, though, is a significant detriment to the longevity of any such community.

That contributes to a transience, Ullah explains, that ultimately challenges any kind of community cohesion. And that’s not something Facebook can fix. “In many cases, social media can lead to a false sense of community,” leading people to avoid face-to-face interaction, he says. Still, Ullah has seen the value of social media as a powerful organizing tool.

And there are promising signs in New York, Ullah adds, including a big boom in community gardening groups and block associations around the city. They might be intended to do something very basic, like beautify a garden block, but they also become forums through which people can meet, then develop larger civic and political goals.

The potential pitfall, Ullah notes, is when newcomers take on the improvement of a neighborhood in a way that doesn’t take into account the needs or perspectives of those who have already lived there. “The new community that is privileged, usually white, are used to access and having that privilege. They then take stewardship or gain access to areas that people who have been living there for decades simply didn’t think to do.”

To get back to the question: You may live in a building that you feel cuts you off from the world, in a city that feels cold to you. The building, however, isn’t going to change more quickly than you can. If you feel stifled and isolated, the best solution is to open the door and go outside.

It takes a lot less strength, after all, to tear down interpersonal walls than physical ones. I mean, you could take on the physical ones, but don’t come to me for that security deposit.

Umbra’s community-building tips

OK, so now what? How do you go about being a good — or at the very least, engaged — neighbor?

  • Preserving affordable housing in your neighborhood is integral to a more civically engaged society. If you want to get more involved in that, good news! Affordable housing is featured in Umbra’s Apathy Detox Guide — here’s how to get started.
  • Getting to know your neighbors actually does require some planning, energy, and emotional fortitude, but — whoa! — we covered that in the Detox Guide, too. Our primer includes sex tips (sort of).
  • And if you simply need motivation to get up, out the door, and — not to be rude — over yourself, we’ve got it right here.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Why a city block can be one of the loneliest places on earth on Jun 27, 2017.

It’s time for cities to treat climate change like a public health crisis

Mon, 2017-06-26 18:57

Urban Canadians are feeling the impact of climate change. Flooding in Quebec this spring damaged nearly 1,900 homes in 126 municipalities, causing widespread psychological distress. Summer heatwaves are predicted to become more frequent and severe each year, putting more people at risk of injury and death. Vancouver and Toronto are working to manage these risks. Most Canadian cities need to work harder to include climate change in public health planning.

The Climate Change Adaptation Research Group at McGill University looks at how climate change is impacting human society, and what solutions we can design to protect ourselves. Drawing on evidence from our research into cities in Canada and around the world, we propose that cities will need to integrate climate change concerns into public health and the health-care sector more seriously.

Cities must also focus on the most vulnerable groups (such as low-income households and older adults) and emphasize the participation of citizens and the community in planning for climate change impacts.

Climate health risks in urban Canada

Heavy rains causing floods and mudslides are already frequent across Canada, as we’ve seen in Quebec and eastern Ontario this year, and in Calgary and Toronto in previous years. These events are predicted to increase in frequency and intensity. Violent thunderstorms and rising sea levels in coastal cities such as Vancouver and Halifax are also expected to get worse. Floods and violent weather cause injury, illness, and death, as well as mental health effects of distress.

Heatwaves are expected to become more frequent and severe over the next few decades, causing heat stroke and even deaths, as well as respiratory and cardiovascular disorders. Increased air pollution in cities will also come from automobile exhausts, exacerbated by projected warmer temperatures. Urban air pollution is linked with eye, nose, and throat irritation, respiratory conditions, and chronic pulmonary disease and asthma.

These climate change events will affect some groups more than others. Flooding is devastating to households lacking financial resources. Low-income families have reduced access to air-conditioned places. Older adults are more vulnerable to heat because of reduced thirst sensation, challenges of moving, visual or hearing impairments, and, often, social isolation.

Children are also at risk during heatwaves. They depend on a caregiver to recognize the symptoms of heat stroke and have less ability to sweat than adults.

Which cities are leading and which are lagging behind?

Toronto and Vancouver are leading health adaptation to climate change both in Canada and globally. Most of Toronto’s initiatives address extreme heat, along with flooding and air quality. Vancouver’s health adaptation initiatives also focus on heat-related risks. Vancouver also places an importance on vulnerable groups, namely homeless residents and low-income households.

Montreal only released its first climate change plan in 2015, but the city has been a pioneer in protecting residents from extreme heatwaves since 1994. The heatwave plan involves monitoring signs of heat-related illness, frequent visits to home-care patients, opening air-conditioned shelters, extending pool hours, and mass media communication campaigns. This has reduced mortality by 2.52 deaths per day during hot days.

Smaller cities face tougher challenges. Most Canadian municipalities simply do not have the resources and expertise to plan for the health impacts of climate change. Health adaptation competes with other important health priorities, such as smoking, obesity, and poverty.

Can urban adaptation be done better?

Some argue that climate change needs to be integrated deeper into city plans across all sectors. Vancouver and Toronto are already experimenting with this. Vancouver has updated its building code bylaw to raise flood construction levels. Toronto now requires all new buildings over 2,000 square metres to include roofs with vegetation on them — to slow down the urban heat island effect and reduce the incidence of heatwaves.

Cities also need to place the voices of people closest to impacts at the center of decisions. Low income and older residents, for example, are at the highest risk for heat-related illnesses or death. Many of these residents already suffer from health conditions and are more likely to experience social isolation and lack of support.

Another way to make adaptation easier is through collaboration and coordination. Municipalities can learn from each other, rather than reinventing the wheel. For example, it’s important to make sure there is a strong link and coordination between local public health authorities and municipal governments; in most Canadian provinces, these two are separate.

International networks of mayors’ offices such as C40 and Resilient Cities already work toward sharing knowledge and best practices.

Finally, cities should seek out adaptation options that have other health co-benefits. An example would be urban parks that provide shading from the sun but also serve as social amenities for recreation and socializing.

Preparing cities for the health impacts of climate change, then, needs to integrate climate risks into public health and the health-care sector. It needs to consider the risks for vulnerable people such as the elderly. It also needs to emphasize collaboration among cities and among government agencies.

With the Canadian federal government committing $125 billion to infrastructure from 2015 to 2025, now is the time to build health protections into how we climate-proof our cities.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline It’s time for cities to treat climate change like a public health crisis on Jun 26, 2017.

Okja promises gorgeous scenery, gruesome animal slaughter, and a whole lotta tears.

Mon, 2017-06-26 16:46

Imagine you have a pet that’s been genetically engineered to be delicious meat. The people who engineered said pet are eventually going to come after it for its intended purpose — what do you do?

This is the premise of Okja, the new film from Snowpiercer director Bong Joon Ho. Mija is a tween desperately trying to save her giant, genetically-engineered pet pig, Okja, from the hands of corporate butchers. It’s a guaranteed heartwrencher set against the lush mountains of South Korea.

In an interview with the New York Times, director Bong Joon Ho disclosed that he’d visited a Colorado slaughterhouse to prepare for the film’s graphic scenes. The experience pushed him to go temporarily vegan — and he wants to convey those horrors to the audience. “I wanted to inflict certain psychological pain [on the audience] because in reality, that’s what the animals go through,” he said.

Certain scenes succeed so well in this regard that the film was initially turned down by multiple studios. Netflix, however, will be streaming the film starting on June 28. Keep your tissues close and your tofu closer.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Okja promises gorgeous scenery, gruesome animal slaughter, and a whole lotta tears. on Jun 26, 2017.

This professor made a climate change PowerPoint for Trump, and it will make you smile.

Mon, 2017-06-26 16:36

Ken Schultz, a political science professor at Stanford University, shared the presentation on Twitter over the weekend.

The snarky explainer lays out climate change in terms President Trump can understand — you know, golf, big/beautiful walls, and YUGE Electoral College victories.

Check out the hilarious thread below:

pic.twitter.com/ks5oUczHi9

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/OD2n77ZYfh

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/7Zy7JkPBys

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/pcDsiJJvMS

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/EIMFz0xFCz

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/cSQTGd84vZ

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/7FJby0doBR

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/ShXepNqBB2

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

pic.twitter.com/1naupoqrSi

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

The end. pic.twitter.com/z9F03rTCGw

— Ken Schultz (@KSchultz3580) June 25, 2017

So simple, even a Trump can understand.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline This professor made a climate change PowerPoint for Trump, and it will make you smile. on Jun 26, 2017.

It’s ‘Energy Week.’ Here’s how Trump could convince America to care.

Mon, 2017-06-26 16:00

The White House has cooked up several themed weeks, including “Infrastructure Week” and “Tech Week,” to refocus our attention from distractions — like the Russia investigation — to the president’s agenda.

This week, Trump will attempt to train eyes on his “America First” plan and away from the dramatic showdown over health care in the Senate. He’s unlikely to be successful. After all, there’s nothing like energy policy to get people excited! (Alas, we kid.)

Here are a few tricks he could use to drum up additional interest:

  1. Rent a big ol’ blimp emblazoned with “America First Energy Plan.” Park it over the Capitol to literally overshadow the health care debate.
  2. Actually devote some Donald J. Trump tweets to energy policy — instead of, ya know, Russia and Hillary Clinton’s collusion with the Democrats.
  3. Pay Melissa McCarthy to perform a dramatic reading of the energy plan in the style of Sean Spicer. The crowd loves that bit; 28 million views on YouTube!
  4. Propose adding solar panels to the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Oh wait — Trump already did that.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline It’s ‘Energy Week.’ Here’s how Trump could convince America to care. on Jun 26, 2017.

The Southwest is burning

Sun, 2017-06-25 06:00

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

Record high temperatures in Phoenix this past week approached 120 degrees F and grounded commercial air flights. They are part of a larger regional trend: Across the West, hot, dry conditions are cooking up what may be an unmatched wildfire season. Already, 75 wildfires have burned in Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico. The National Weather Service currently has the region under heat warnings and excessive heat warnings. Fifty-five fires have burned in Arizona and New Mexico alone.

Yellow pins indicate states where fewer than 10,000 acres are burning. Red pins indicate states where 10,000 acres or more are burning. Click the pin for more details on number of fires, acreage burned, and active fires.

Nationally, wildfires have consumed more than 2.5 million acres of land so far this year. In the past decade, more acreage burned by this point only once, in 2011. That year, unusually hot, dry conditions led to several large conflagrations, including New Mexico’s Las Conchas Fire and Arizona’s Wallow Fire.

The line traces the fire acreage; the labels show the number of fires per year. Keith Halloran/U.S. Forest Service

According to NIFC, suppression alone cost almost $2 billion last year. The Trump administration’s proposed 2018 budget funds wildlife preparedness and suppression activities at $2.4 billion, the 10-year average cost of suppression.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The Southwest is burning on Jun 25, 2017.

California is playing defense under Trump

Sat, 2017-06-24 06:00

Xavier Becerra, California’s combative attorney general, has become the Golden State’s face of resistance to the Trump administration’s domestic initiatives, the blunt voice rejecting the president’s attempts to roll back the progressive immigration and environmental policies so central to California’s sense of itself.

At a June 16 press conference, for example, Becerra pushed back against stricter immigration enforcement, saying his office would review conditions at immigrant detention facilities in conjunction with a legislative measure that prohibits local governments from renting out jail beds to U.S. Immigration and Customs. One week earlier, Becerra sent Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke a withering, 11-page letter that flat-out rejected the president’s executive order aimed at delisting or shrinking national monuments his predecessors had established in California.

Yet as eloquent and forceful as the attorney general may be in his defiance, there are limits to the state’s protective stance. Becerra is mounting what amounts to a rearguard action because he has little choice in this age of Trump the Tumultuous.

Viewed from my perspective as an environmental historian, this defensive rhetoric runs counter to the no-holds-barred approach that defined California’s post-World War II drive for economic growth and social justice.

It is as if, for the time being, the California Dream so critical to Becerra’s personal success — and many others’ — has been put on hold.

Challenging Trump

The hardworking son of immigrants and the first in his family to go to college, Becerra finished law school in 1984, was elected to the state assembly, and then served in the state’s Department of Justice before winning an impressive 12 terms to the U.S. House of Representatives.

At each stop along the way, he has been a staunch advocate for the poor and marginalized, those who need a hand up and out. In January 2017, Gov. Jerry Brown (who is playing a similar role as Becerra on an international stage) tapped the politically savvy Becerra to replace newly elected Senator Kamala Harris as AG to become the first Latino to hold this high office in California.

Becerra’s tough-minded approach to his latest job has made him ubiquitous this commencement season. Between May 15 and 23 alone, he addressed the political science graduates at the University of California, Berkeley, those receiving their law degrees at USC and the University of San Francisco, and bachelor’s-earning undergrads at Occidental College.

Xavier Becerra has taken a defiant — and, by necessity, a defensive — tone vis a vis Washington. REUTERS/Mike Segar

Even as he cheered these graduates’ academic successes, he reminded them of the rough-and-tumble political environment they were entering. Becerra spoke of how he and other state AGs were challenging the legality of Trump’s Muslim travel ban. He affirmed his deeply felt support for the undocumented and asserted that cities could proclaim themselves sanctuaries, free from executive branch interference.

In resisting the Trump administration’s review of national monuments, Becerra wrote what amounts to a legal brief that cited judicial rulings and legislative records and made a strong case for a kind of states-rights environmentalism. Arguing separately against a plan to open up offshore drilling, he said: “Instead of taking us backwards, the federal government should work with us to advance the clean energy economy that’s creating jobs, providing energy, and preserving California’s natural beauty.”

California’s cultural clout

The late, great Kevin Starr argued in his magisterial, multi-volume study of California that the state’s particular genius is in offering “the highest possible life for the middle classes.” It proved time and again to be “the best place in the nation to seek and attain a better life.”

Fueled by a generous stream of tax dollars, the state’s educational systems, from K-12 through college and university, were the envy of the world. So, too, were its high-speed highways and highly engineered water systems, as well as its agricultural productivity, artistic energy, and technological creativity. California was a state on the move.

David Prasad

Its benefits were also broadly accessible: beaches were public, parks and open spaces plentiful, higher education was cheap. Here, democracy flourished, or at least it could do so. Where it did not, people battled to ensure that it would.

Those toiling in the fields of the Central and Imperial valleys, for example, endured oppressive conditions, but gained an important measure of control over their lives and livelihoods through the formation of the United Farm Workers of America. The struggles that African-Americans and Asian-Americans, Latinos, women, and LGBT activists have waged for increased rights, solidarity, and opportunities did not always originate in California, but they gained political visibility and cultural clout when manifest on the coast. If you wanted to remake yourself, go West.

Setting pace on public health

But all that prosperity took its toll. Clearing the air of the state’s legendary pollution — “don’t breathe too deeply when you arrive in California” used to be the warning — has taken decades. Grassroots activists, dedicated educators and scientists, and some principled public officials fought against entrenched opposition in Sacramento, Detroit, and Washington, D.C., to secure what now are the nation’s toughest environmental controls. More needs to be done, but these regulations have had a profound impact.

It is not by happenstance that the EPA owes its existence to a Californian (President Richard Nixon signed it into law December 1970). Or that the Clean Air Act grants the state the right to institute stricter measures than the federal government (which is why the current administration tried to deny California’s right to set higher standards).

The ground-level consequences of such innovations as catalytic converters is evident in enhanced public health. When I was a student at Pitzer College in Claremont in the 1970s, I almost never glimpsed the smog-enshrouded Mt. Baldy (elevation 10,050 feet), a few miles away. Today, its towering presence is visible 24/7.

There was no way to predict this remarkable turnaround when my classmates and I gathered outdoors for our graduation in 1975. And no way would bluer skies have become commonplace had the state heeded the advice our commencement speaker imparted to those entering a depressed job market in a society constrained by the budget-busting Vietnam War and post-Watergate cynicism. Hunker down, he said, hunker down.

That 1975 recommendation from a California assemblyman to retreat from the world was as wrong then as it is now in our similarly fraught environment. Rather than simply throw up a wall to fend off the barbarians at the gates, however understandable, California needs to reassert the bold, expansive, and democratic vision that has made it California. A prospect that requires a shared and tenacious commitment to the commonweal.

And a sense of agency. “You don’t have to do it by yourself,” Xavier Becerra told Berkeley seniors. “You don’t have to have done it before. But when you get out there with the guts and the grit and the ganas [desire], you can make a difference.”

That’s how dreams become real.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California is playing defense under Trump on Jun 24, 2017.

The fact is: Facts don’t matter to climate deniers

Fri, 2017-06-23 16:57

In an interview on CNBC’s Squawk Box this week, Energy Secretary Rick Perry falsely claimed that carbon dioxide was not the primary driver of the Earth’s climate. Instead, he offered, maybe it’s “the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.” (Umm, what?)

This is pure hogwash, and the largest professional organization for atmospheric science said as much. In a letter to Perry, Keith Seitter, the executive director of the American Meteorological Society, said that while it’s OK to be skeptical — that’s the heart of the scientific method — “skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.” Ouch.

His letter concluded that if Perry does not understand the drivers of climate change, “it is impossible to discuss potential policy changes in a meaningful way.” That’s where Seitter’s letter went wrong.

There’s just no reasoning with Perry’s kind of denial. After watching spats like this for more than a decade now, I’ve come to the realization that there is no graph, no chart, no international consensus statement, no engraved stone tablet lowered from heaven that could to convince someone who — by choice — refuses to believe a fact. It doesn’t matter to them how confident the scientific community is. And we’ve reached the point where debating denial is a waste of time. The need to fight climate change is just too urgent to wait for everyone to get on board.

The main problem I saw in the meteorologists’ letter (and, in general, with the current state of the climate debate) was its assumption that somehow climate deniers only need more information to see the light. Scientists have spent more than 30 years now trying to provide as much information in as many ways as possible and, if anything, climate denial is only getting more entrenched. What will it take for scientists to realize that this denial is a choice?

Decades of communications and psychology research shows that appeals to shared goals, values, and basic decency are a more effective way of working with conservatives on climate change. In red states across the country, renewable energy is booming, and it’s not because people there necessarily “believe” in climate change. It’s because renewable energy provides solutions that make sense. Scientists and liberal politicians need to move beyond trying to convince skeptics, and start working with them. There’s no time to lose.

In the 14 years that Perry served as governor, Texas grew into a wind superpower. It generates nearly a quarter of the entire country’s wind power, making Texas the top wind-producing state. (Of course, Texas is now the number one producer of natural gas, too.)

Other red states are producing a rapidly growing amount of wind power; in fact, most of the country’s wind-rich states are in the heartland. Of the 14 states that now produce more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind, eight are red states. The five states that now devote more than 20 percent of their grid to wind — Iowa, North Dakota, South Dakota, Kansas, and Oklahoma — all voted solidly for Donald Trump in 2016. The American Wind Energy Association reports that 99 percent of the country’s wind turbines stand in rural areas.

Climate denial is harmful in many ways, but it’s not preventing the spread of carbon-free power.

Maybe advocates for climate action should try to learn something from these red states. Judging by their quiet fondness for renewables, they’ve been doing a better job than the blue ones. The Texas wind boom came into being partly because Perry stayed out of the way and let investment dollars flow to the cheapest sources of power generation. In West Texas, that means wind — as it does in parts of at least 20 states right now.

But even Texas is not installing renewable energy fast enough. After accounting for the high cost of fossil-fuel pollution on public health, water, and other factors, people in nearly every state in the union would realize that wind is the cheapest option, according to an analysis by the University of Texas. If we want to get those wind turbines in the sky as quickly as possible, accurately accounting for those costs should be our bipartisan focus, not outing climate denial.

People in red states are already feeling the effects of climate change and acting to mitigate it. So let’s stop trying to persuade deniers and focus on ways to work together to reduce emissions and advance renewable energy. That’s the message that experts on weather and climate should be sending people like Perry. If some Republicans want to embarrass themselves by ignoring climate science, that’s their choice, and history will judge them harshly for it.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The fact is: Facts don’t matter to climate deniers on Jun 23, 2017.

Al Franken had to explain the scientific method to Rick Perry.

Fri, 2017-06-23 14:53

During his Thursday testimony before the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee about his department’s 2018 budget request, Minnesota Senator Al Franken decided to take Energy Secretary Rick Perry to task for statements he made on Monday.

Perry claimed that most changes in climate are due to “naturally occurring events, the warming and the cooling of our ocean waters, and some other activities” rather than CO2. What?

“Don’t you think it’s okay to have this conversation about the science of climate change?” Perry said. “What’s wrong with being a skeptic about something … that’s going to have a massive impact on the American economy?”

Franken was quick to point out that Perry is describing our old friend “the scientific method,” the type of skeptical analysis that is “exactly how science works.” Scientists have exhaustively debated and examined the cause of increasing global temperatures and concluded that, yes, it’s man-made climate change. The warming oceans are the result of climate change, not a cause of it.

“There’s no peer-reviewed study that doesn’t say this is happening,” Franken said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Al Franken had to explain the scientific method to Rick Perry. on Jun 23, 2017.

EPA science adviser says clearing board of experts leaves “huge void.”

Fri, 2017-06-23 13:51

On Monday, 38 of the EPA’s research advisers found out that their terms, set to end in August, would not be renewed.

One of them is Elena Craft, a senior health scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. “It creates a huge void in terms of scientific capacity,” Craft told Grist. “Systematically gutting these committees is essentially cutting off access to some of the greatest science advisers really in the world.”

The purge will leave 11 members on the Board of Scientific Counselors’ subcommittees. The latest move follows sweeping cuts to federal agencies in April. The empty seats on the EPA’s advisory board are expected to be filled with a more industry-friendly bunch.

Craft said that after the announcement, Robert Kavlock, acting assistant administrator for EPA’s research arm, told the advisers in a phone call that he expected the board to pay less attention to climate change.

The board of experts has counseled the EPA on its research programs for two decades. Last year, the board’s subcommittees recommended that the agency work on engaging with communities in its clean-air programs and investigate environmental risks from toxic chemicals. All this advice comes free of charge.

“For an agency that is slated to have its budget cut fairly significantly, cutting out all of the free labor and free help doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense,” Craft said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline EPA science adviser says clearing board of experts leaves “huge void.” on Jun 23, 2017.

We broke down Trump’s baffling speech on the “solar wall.”

Thu, 2017-06-22 19:58

In a speech this week in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, President Trump discussed one of his favorite topics: The Wall, which may one day be festooned with “beautiful” solar panels.

Let’s attempt to understand this, one clause at a time:

  1. “We’re thinking about building the wall as a solar wall so it creates energy and pays for itself.” A comprehensible, if flawed, premise.
  2. “And this way, Mexico will have to pay much less money and that’s good, right? Is that good?” Less is certainly closer to “nothing,” which is the amount that Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto has agreed to pay for the wall.
  3. “You’re the first group I’ve told that to.” No, you’re not.
  4. “Solar wall. Makes sense. Let’s see. We’re working it out. We’ll see. Panels, beautiful. The higher it goes the more valuable it is. Pretty good imagination, right? Good? My idea! So we have a good shot.” W H A T
  5. “That’s one of the places that solar really does work. The tremendous sun and heat. It really does work there. So we’ll see what happens.” This is impossible to argue with: There is certainly a non-negligible amount of sun and heat around the U.S.-Mexico border, solar will “work there” (as it does everywhere), and we have no choice, unfortunately, but to “see what happens.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline We broke down Trump’s baffling speech on the “solar wall.” on Jun 22, 2017.

Meteorologists aren’t having Rick Perry’s climate denial.

Thu, 2017-06-22 15:47

Today’s forecast: cloudy with a chance of burn.

Weather scientists from the American Meteorological Society wrote Energy Secretary Rick Perry a letter on Wednesday informing him that he lacks a “fundamental understanding” of climate science.

Here's what the AMS has to say about Rick Perry's denial that CO2 is the primary driver of climate change. @ametsoc https://t.co/REylNz0kQ5
Angela Fritz ⛈ (@angelafritz) June 21, 2017

Let’s rewind: Perry appeared on CNBC’s Squawk Box on Monday, where host Joe Kernan asked him about the role that carbon dioxide plays in climate change. Perry responded that CO2 is not a primary cause of global warming — instead, he pointed to “the ocean waters and this environment that we live in.”

Kernan called it a “pretty good answer.” It’s not, according to 97 percent of climate scientistsSquawk Box has become a safe space for climate deniers in the Trump administration, as Emily Atkin writes for New Republic.

The meteorologists’ letter concludes that Perry needs to get a grasp on the “best possible science” to make sound policy decisions about the nation’s energy needs.

It almost makes you wish Perry’s dancing career never met an untimely end. Almost.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Meteorologists aren’t having Rick Perry’s climate denial. on Jun 22, 2017.

Just as John Oliver predicted, a coal tycoon is suing him.

Thu, 2017-06-22 15:03

The nation’s largest privately owned coal company, Murray Energy, just filed a lawsuit against the Last Week Tonight host over the show’s recent segment. Oliver had criticized the company’s CEO, Robert Murray, for acting carelessly toward miners’ safety.

Murray Energy’s complaint stated that the segment was a “meticulously planned attempt to assassinate the character and reputation” of Murray by broadcasting “false, injurious, and defamatory comments.”

Oliver shouldn’t be too concerned, according to Ken White, a First Amendment litigator at Los Angeles firm, who told the Daily Beast that the complaint was “frivolous and vexatious.”

The lawsuit is hardly a shocking development. Before the show aired, Oliver received a cease-and-desist letter from the company. He noted that Murray has a history of filing defamation suits against news outlets (most recently, the New York Times).

Oliver said in the episode, “I know that you are probably going to sue me, but you know what, I stand by everything I said.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Just as John Oliver predicted, a coal tycoon is suing him. on Jun 22, 2017.

Oil will keep flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline — for now.

Thu, 2017-06-22 14:46

At a Wednesday hearing, U.S. District Court Judge James Boasberg established a summer timeline for the Standing Rock Sioux and the Cheyenne River Sioux to submit arguments that the pipeline should be shut down while additional environmental review takes place.

Both sides of the lawsuit — which alleges the Army Corps of Engineers violated treaties by permitting construction under Lake Oahe — will be able to submit comments in July and August. That means a decision about shutting down the pipeline could come as early as September, according to Jan Hasselman, the Earthjustice lawyer representing the Standing Rock Sioux.

Last week, Boasberg ruled that the Army Corps’ previous environmental review was inadequate, sending the agency back to the drawing board to reconsider impacts on fishing, hunting, and environmental justice.

At the hearing, Army Corps lawyer Matthew Marinelli declined to give a timeframe on the new review, but said he would offer an update July 17. “The Corps is just starting to grapple with the issues the court has identified,” Marinelli said.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Oil will keep flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline — for now. on Jun 22, 2017.

Scott Pruitt’s successor is wasting no time suing to stop climate action

Thu, 2017-06-22 13:04

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

Oklahoma Attorney General Mike Hunter has some big shoes to fill when it comes to using his authority to protect the interests of the fossil fuel industry. His predecessor, current head of the EPA Scott Pruitt, made a cottage industry of suing the EPA during his time in office. With Pruitt having moved on to bigger and worse things in the federal government, the ripple effects are starting to trickle down to the state level — and Hunter is wasting no time jumping on the wave.

On Monday, Hunter, along with 11 other attorneys general and one governor from conservative-leaning states, sent a letter threatening to sue California Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones over his Climate Risk Carbon Initiative. Established in 2016, the initiative is intended to allow California residents some public insight into the extent to which their insurance companies depend on fossil fuel–based investments.

If it seems unclear what these out-of-staters have to do with how California regulates its insurance industry, that’s because it is.

Joanne Spalding, Chief Climate Counsel and Managing Attorney for the Sierra Club, was taken aback by the rhetoric and claims of the letter. Calling the letter “an intrusion on state-level policies,” Spalding said the “idea that some other state is going to come and and tell California’s insurance commissioner how to do his job is pretty appalling.”

Spaulding said that California’s Insurance Commission has every right to issue these sorts of regulations and adapt programs that cover insurance industry activity. As outrageous as the threat is, Spalding said she wouldn’t be surprised if there ends up being litigation, in no small part due to Pruitt’s past example of using similar tactics as both publicity stunts and political tactics.

The letter appears to assert that since the policy was enacted over a year and a half ago, the circumstances of the fossil fuel industry have changed as Trump, Pruitt, and the rest of the Republican power structure work to prop up fossil fuels and roll back environmental regulations. Trump has already said he intends to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and the Clean Power Plan is in deep trouble. Meanwhile, Pruitt has gone on national television and made outrageous and easily refuted claims as to the number of coal jobs being created.

The AGs are ignoring the economic headwinds making fossil fuels an increasingly risky investment and the fact that insurance companies are already deeply concerned about the impacts that fossil fuel–driven climate change could have an their operations. The insurance industry faces one of the potential biggest losses of any industry due to severe weather, drought, sea-level rise, and other costly circumstances associated with global warming.

In January 2017, Jones further asked insurance companies doing business in California to voluntarily divest from investments in coal-fired power. Hunter and the other AGs want Jones to both stop requiring companies to publicly disclose fossil fuel investments and to also stop asking insurers to pledge coal industry divestment.

According to Brian Nowicki, the Center for Biological Diversity’s California Climate Policy Director, Jones’ actions are just the latest move by state leaders to reduce overall investments in the fossil fuel industry. For instance, In 2015, California enacted SB 185, which requires that the state’s huge public retirement systems divest from coal.

Nowicki also wonders how much the insurance industry, which appears to have gone along with the public disclosure request without too much foot-dragging, actually minds the policies.

“This is the same group of conservative attorneys general doing the bidding of the fossil fuel industry, fighting the progressive states that still want to address climate change,” he said. “I’m not sure that the insurance industry cares as much about this as the fossil fuel industry, since the insurance industry understands the downside risks that they face with the impacts of climate.”

In a statement put out along with the letter, Hunter makes his strong feelings towards Jones’ “ham-handed extremist environmental policy” clear, calling it “negligent, politically driven, unrelated to insurance regulation, and is risking a certain lawsuit.”

PRESS RELEASE: AG Hunter Calls on Calif. Insurance Commissioner to Stop Threats to Insurance Companies

MORE: https://t.co/GlYowX6IxD

— Mike Hunter (@AGMikeHunter) June 20, 2017

Jones didn’t waste any time personally responding to the letter, putting out a statement saying that threats of lawsuits are not going to stop him from making sure “that insurance companies are recognizing potential financial risks associated with climate change.”

While Hunter is ostensibly worried about “tens of thousands of Oklahoma businesses and citizens,” California has the largest insurance market in the United States.

Jones’ response states that:

The bankruptcy of over 35 coal companies and the refusal of four major United States banks to provide loans for new coal infrastructure, the announcement by Deutsche Bank — the largest international coal infrastructure lender — that it will not make new coal infrastructure loans, the decision of major international insurers to stop investing in coal, the decline in price of energy alternatives to coal, and the imposition of clean air regulations, are just some of the indicators that coal is or runs the risk of being a ‘stranded asset.’

For this reason, I asked the insurance companies I regulate to voluntarily divest from coal. I also asked insurers to publicly disclose their investments in coal, oil, gas, and utilities so insurers, regulators, shareholders, and consumers have better insight into these investments and the risks they face due to climate change.

Jones told the Los Angeles Times that California intends to continue to act based on the realities of climate science and the risks of climate change. As for the threat of litigation, he said “bring it on.”

Based on the closing remarks of Hunter’s letter, that threat is as real as climate change.

“If you continue to call for divestment and require discriminatory disclosures of fossil fuel investments,” they write, “we will be forced to consider the legal areas of relief available.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Scott Pruitt’s successor is wasting no time suing to stop climate action on Jun 22, 2017.

Rebellious cities team up to post climate data taken down by the EPA.

Wed, 2017-06-21 17:28

Burlington, Vermont, just became the 14th city to republish deleted EPA information on its municipal website.

The info, which concerns climate change and its effects, was taken down for review by President Trump’s EPA two months ago and has since been republished by major cities like Houston, Atlanta, and Seattle.

“Climate change is real, and deleting federal web pages that contain years’ worth of research does not alter this global, scientific consensus,” Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger said in a statement.

The City of Chicago kickstarted the movement in May by publishing the deleted info on its website, along with a helpful “Climate Change is Real” guide that encourages other cities to do the same.

It’s not the only way cities across the United States have committed to fighting climate change. Dozens have pledged to go 100 percent renewable, and major cities have joined an alliance to uphold the Paris Agreement’s objectives, despite Trump’s policy changes. No ragrets.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Rebellious cities team up to post climate data taken down by the EPA. on Jun 21, 2017.

The Great Lakes are already grimy. Trump wants to zero out cleanup funding.

Wed, 2017-06-21 15:51

President Trump’s proposed budget suggests axing $300 million in federal dollars for the Great Lakes. Yet, a new report from the EPA and its Canadian counterparts found that the lakes — Erie, Superior, Michigan, Huron, and Ontario — aren’t doing so hot.

The spread of invasive species and algal blooms continues to degrade water quality and threaten lake ecosystems, particularly in Lake Erie. Algae can hamper commercial fishing and recreation as well.

But hey, some good news: As chemical bans take effect, the amount of toxins in the waters is improving.

At a hearing last week on the EPA’s budget, Administrator Scott Pruitt faced tough reception about the Great Lakes cuts from both sides of the aisle — even as he defended the administration’s math. “I believe we can fulfill the mission of our agency with a trim budget,” Pruitt said. “We are committed to working with all states in that region to ensure water quality standards are advanced and protected.”

Good luck with that.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The Great Lakes are already grimy. Trump wants to zero out cleanup funding. on Jun 21, 2017.

An idea: Get a supermodel to tweet some climate policy at Trump.

Wed, 2017-06-21 15:07

I mean, it worked in Brazil, where Gisele Bündchen — supermodel, World Wildlife Federation representative, and behind-the-scenes shaper of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady’s political consciousness — tweeted at Brazilian President Michel Temer:

It's our job to protect our Mother Earth. @MichelTemer, please say NO to reducing protection in the Amazon! https://t.co/KkKF4MrhGg

— Gisele Bündchen (@giseleofficial) June 13, 2017

Bündchen’s tweet concerns legislation that would have removed protection from some parts of the Amazon rainforest. Temer’s administration has been remarkably anti-conservation, threatening indigenous lands in favor of new agricultural, mineral extraction, and hydroelectric developments.

And lo! Temer responded:

.@giseleofficial e @WWF, vetei hoje integralmente todos os itens das MPs que diminuíam a área preservada da Amazônia.

— Michel Temer (@MichelTemer) June 19, 2017

That means, “I vetoed those bills, because you are extremely beautiful.” NO! It just means, “I vetoed those bills.”

This seems like a good approach to try in America. Can someone please text Kendall Jenner to ask if she feels like doing something substantive for the greater good? The EPA is really hot right now.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline An idea: Get a supermodel to tweet some climate policy at Trump. on Jun 21, 2017.

Researchers are figuring out how to generate solar energy from paint

Wed, 2017-06-21 15:05

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

Researchers at RMIT University in Australia have developed a solar paint that could offer endless supplies of clean energy. The paint captures water vapor from the surrounding air, and then uses energy provided by the sunlight to split the water into hydrogen and oxygen. Once harvested, the resulting hydrogen could power fuel cells (which can provide electric power) or go directly into powering combustion engines.

“Hydrogen is one of the cleanest fuels, since it turns into water when burned,” explained the paper’s lead researcher, Torben Daeneke, in an email to Fusion. “The key advantage here is that no harmful side products … are emitted … no greenhouse gases are emitted if the hydrogen is produced from renewable energy sources.”

The so-called “photocatalytic paint” contains a moisture-absorbing compound (synthetic molybdenum sulphide) and a light-absorbing compound (titanium oxide), which work to absorb water vapor from the surrounding air and then split the water into hydrogen and oxygen molecules. Daeneke explained that as the light absorbing compound is already a common component of paint (titanium oxide is often used as a white pigment), adding the moisture absorbing compound could “convert a brick wall into energy harvesting and fuel-production real estate.”

“Our developed catalyst has the ability to absorb more moisture from humid air, which results in its ability to continuously split water using the energy provided by the sun,” said Daeneke. “The hydrogen needs to be then captured for storage and later use.”

Proponents of hydrogen as a power source often refer to the idea of a hydrogen economy, where, once properly stored, hydrogen could be used to power a whole range of applications.

According to Daeneke:

Photocatalytic paints may find application in multiple settings, one obvious one could be the local production of hydrogen as an energy carrier. [The paint could] also be integrated into complex systems, where the produced hydrogen is directly used in following chemical reactions to create more complex chemicals; similar processes already occur in plants, where solar energy is converted into complex sugar molecules.

Although the idea of a hydrogen economy has been touted as a green alternative to fossil fuels, it has routinely been criticized as being unrealistic because of its inefficiencies. Elon Musk, the cofounder and CEO at Tesla, has called hydrogen cars “bullshit” and has criticized water splitting as “extremely inefficient as an energy process.” Moreover, one of the most common methods of hydrogen production uses fossil fuels in a process called steam reforming, thereby negating the benefits of hydrogen being a zero emissions fuel.

But the photocatalytic paint could change the playing field for the hydrogen economy. “Musk is right to say that water splitting is often quite inefficient when compared to classical battery storage,” admitted Daeneke. “Luckily, our molybdenum sulphide is part of the same compound class that is currently considered to be one of the most efficient electrocatalysts to date.” Daeneke went on to explain that as photocatalytic paint requires few inputs aside from air vapor and sunlight, it’s more environmentally friendly than the lithium batteries that power Tesla’s cars (which require mining and refining of its components).

“Our new development has a big range of advantages,” explained Daeneke in a press release published by RMIT University. “There’s no need for clean or filtered water to feed the system; any place that has water vapor in the air, even remote areas far from water, can produce fuel.”

Still, the new technology has a ways to go before it can actively be used to generate energy. “Further steps are necessary in order to fully see the scope of this technology, for example our next targets are to incorporate this system together with gas separation membranes that will allow selectively harvesting and storing the produced hydrogen,” said Daeneke. “I would like to see the technology being used in the future, creating green fuels for our society.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Researchers are figuring out how to generate solar energy from paint on Jun 21, 2017.

Religious freedom isn’t just for Hobby Lobby — it’s for indigenous rights, too

Tue, 2017-06-20 18:33

Last week, the Standing Rock Sioux celebrated what they believe is a ground-breaking legal victory in the protracted fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

A federal judge in Washington, D.C., ruled that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers violated the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) in its expedited review of the pipeline, which was ordered by President Trump shortly after taking office. According to Judge James Boasberg, the Army Corps “did not adequately consider the impacts of an oil spill on fishing rights, hunting rights, or environmental justice.”

On Wednesday, the parties in the DAPL case will appear in court for a hearing about how to respond to the NEPA ruling. Oil could stop the flowing under Lake Oahe, the fourth-largest dam reservoir in the Dakotas. But that stoppage would be temporary.

If the Army Corps does revise its environmental assessment, the court could allow the pipeline to resume operation. The court and the Army Corps would have “served” environmental justice under NEPA — merely by paying lip service to the struggle for indigenous rights in the United States.

Lake Oahe stands at the center of a painful, decades-long story regarding the marginalization of Native Americans. In 1958, the Army Corps took over 200,000 acres from the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux, forcing them from their homes and sacred religious sites, so it could build a dam. Fast-forward nearly 60 years, and the reservoir created by the dam draws a million yearly tourists to its more than 50 recreational sites. It’s under the Sioux’s once hallowed ground — now at the bottom of Lake Oahe — where the Army Corps decided to route part of the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Earlier this year, as I was completing my law degree at New York University, President Trump fast-tracked the project’s completion. In the legal battles that ensued, teams of lawyers  — both large and small — took up the cause of the tribes and the thousands of pipeline activists that joined them, collectively known as “water protectors.”

Benjamin Eichert, director of the grassroots movement Greenpower, formed the Lakota People’s Legal Project to highlight the statutory issues regarding the construction of the pipeline. I joined the effort as legal researcher.

The oil flowing under Lake Oahe is not only a potential environmental calamity, it is a dagger through the heart of the Sioux tribes — and the NEPA ruling, while certainly a win, will not offer meaningful justice to those at Standing Rock.

One unlikely legal strategy that nearly did — and could loom large in future fights to protect indigenous land — is the Religious Restoration Freedom Act, a fan-favorite amongst the religious right.

Conservatives successfully employed the statute to argue that corporations with deeply-held religious beliefs, like the arts-and-crafts chain Hobby Lobby, could deny contraceptive coverage to female employees. In 2014, the Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, finding that providing that perk against its corporate values constituted a “substantial burden” on the company’s free exercise of religion.

In February of this year, attorneys for the Sioux tribes turned to the same playbook when seeking a preliminary injunction to prevent the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline under Lake Oahe. They argued that its construction desecrated the sole water source for the sacred Inipi ceremony — and would release untold calamities upon the Cheyenne River Sioux, as prophesied by their elders.

The argument framed the #noDAPL movement as an indigenous rights issue — and not just an administrative violation — for the first time in the legal realm.

Judge Boasberg pressed attorneys for the Sioux on whether they attributed the religious burden to the pipeline itself or the oil flowing through it. When the lawyers conceded that it was the oil — which wouldn’t flow for a few more weeks — the court found the pipeline would not present an imminent harm to the Sioux’s religious practices.

While the argument collapsed in this case of DAPL, it’s worked in the past. In 2008, a federal judge in Oklahoma granted an injunction in response to a religious freedom claim by the Comanche tribe against the United States government. The ruling prevented the construction of a military warehouse that would block the last clear view of the Medicine Bluffs, an essential vista for the tribe’s religious practices.

With numerous other encroachments onto indigenous land on the horizon, the religious freedom argument remains viable and relevant, with the Medicine Bluffs case as a hopeful precedent. The Trump administration may construct a border wall on burial sites in Arizona’s Tohono O’odham Nation. And it’s moving to open up the sacred Bears Ears National Monument in Utah to industrial development.

Using the Religious Restoration Freedom Act to connect environmentalism with indigenous rights does far more for environmental justice than procedural laws like NEPA. In the legal and grassroots battles to come, we should remember that these legal challenges are not just about oil spills or environmental impact statements, they are about the very fabric that unites a people.

Kartik S. Madiraju is a graduate of New York University School of Law, where he was a Root-Tilden-Kern Scholar and studied environmental law, civil rights, and constitutional law. He currently helps represent island nations in climate change negotiations.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Religious freedom isn’t just for Hobby Lobby — it’s for indigenous rights, too on Jun 20, 2017.

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