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Who’s afraid of Hurricane Debby? The peculiar importance of a storm’s name.

Tue, 06/04/2024 - 01:30

Every year ahead of hurricane season’s official start in June, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases the forecast for the Atlantic Ocean’s tempestuous season ahead. In a predictable cycle, articles start swirling in to answer familiar queries: What will these hurricanes be called? Who picks their names? Why do hurricanes get named like people, anyway? This year, the first will be named Alberto, then Beryl, Chris, Debby, and so on all the way to William, the end of the alphabet in terms of desirable letters meteorologists trust they can wrest intelligible names out of.

It’s likely that a few of these monikers will get retired, an honor bestowed upon particularly deadly, destructive storms whose reuse “on a different storm would be inappropriate for obvious reasons of sensitivity,” according to NOAA. This year’s season is predicted to be the busiest on record because of record-hot waters in the Atlantic, which can stir up stronger hurricanes, and the predicted shift from an El Niño climate pattern to a La Niña one whose weaker high-altitude winds make it easier for hurricanes to form. NOAA recently projected that 17 to 25 named storms will appear this year, with four to seven reaching the status of major hurricanes, Category 3 or higher.

The official naming of hurricanes dates back to 1953, when the U.S. Weather Bureau started labeling tropical storms to get the public’s attention, reduce confusion between storms, and indicate a level of severity. (Storms don’t make the cut unless their winds reach 39 miles per hour.) The personality of hurricane names makes them memorable, but the practice comes with weird side effects, since names are loaded with cultural baggage that can affect how people talk about, or even prepare for, a storm barreling toward them. “Naming plays a huge impact in both how we view and respond to hazards,” said Liz Skilton, a historian at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the author of the book Tempest: Hurricane Naming and American Culture.

It works the other way around, too, with particularly bad hurricanes swaying what people name their babies. It’s well-documented that catastrophic storms resulted in fewer babies named Betsy (1965) and Harvey (2017), since most parents flinched at giving their kid a name associated with a catastrophe. Some even plan ahead: “Is it a bad idea to use an upcoming hurricane name?” one prospective parent asked on Reddit a couple years ago, worried the baby name they loved would be sullied. (The same names are rotated through every six years until they get retired by association with a terrible storm.) While the consensus on Reddit was that they were overthinking it, the hurricane association can cause problems for people with unique names. After Hurricane Katrina killed around 1,400 people in Louisiana and Mississippi in 2005, one trauma recovery psychologist who worked with survivors went by her initials, K.H., because introducing herself with her real name, Katrina, resulted in “a visceral reaction.”

After Hurricane Betsy struck in 1965, a resident of Miami Beach, Florida, braves high winds and waist-deep water to assess the damage. The widespread destruction across the Bahamas and the Gulf Coast earned the storm the nickname “Billion Dollar Betsy.” Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Oddly enough, research suggests that baby names that sound similar to a much-talked hurricane tend to spike in its aftermath. One analysis found that names that began with A became 7 percent more common after Hurricane Andrew caused billions of dollars of damage in 1992, and those that started with K rose 9 percent after Hurricane Katrina. The researchers chalked it up to the influence of hearing those names so frequently, which altered what kind of names sounded good to people.

Before hurricanes got human names, they were christened haphazardly, often depending on when or where they struck, like the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926. The practice of naming hurricanes after women started with Clement Lindley Wragge, an Australian weather forecaster, in 1896. Wragge’s idea went on to inspire George R. Stewart’s hit novel in 1941, Storm, starring a meteorologist who secretly named hurricanes after girls he knew. The notion gradually caught on, and the Weather Bureau decided to test it out nationwide.

The devastating storms of the 1954 season, Carol, Edna, and Hazel, became known as “the Bad Girls of ’54.” Reporters clamored at the chance to write about storms as dramatic feminine characters, depicting them as howling, shrieking, and playing coy. “Hurricanes were not just female — they were exemplars of the worst kind of womanhood imaginable,” Skilton wrote in Tempest. There was pushback from the start, and it only intensified in the 1970s, with Roxcy Bolton leading the feminist charge. “I’m sick of reading headlines such as ‘[Hurricane] Camille Was No Lady,’” she told the press. 

Skilton, who researched the language used to talk about hurricanes in thousands of newspaper articles over the decades, found that when storms struck, local reporters used the most gender-specific language. For example, when Hurricane Diane made landfall in North Carolina in 1955, 18 percent of articles in the surrounding states referred to the storm as a woman, either using she/her pronouns or nouns like “lady,” twice as often as articles in the rest of the country. Similarly, when Hurricane Camille barreled into Mississippi in 1969, articles in Gulf Coast states were more than three times as likely as other areas to specify the storm’s gender. Naming a storm imbues it with imagined, humanlike qualities, providing a target for people to express their anger “toward this natural object that has caused so much damage or destruction” where they live, Skilton said.

Signs are seen on a boarded-up restaurant in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, ahead of the expected landfall of Hurricane Irene in 2011. Nicholas Kamm / AFP via Getty Images

In 1979, a new system alternated between men and women’s names, at the order of President Jimmy Carter’s Secretary of Commerce, Juanita Kreps. At the same time, control of the naming convention was handed to the World Meteorological Organization, which still maintains the list. The Atlantic storms started rotating between English, French, and Spanish names, reflecting the blend of ancestry in the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast. It’s common practice around the world to give storms names that reflect the ethnicities in the regions they affect, said Brian McNoldy, a hurricane researcher at the University of Miami.

With names like Allen and Frederic thrown into the mix, hurricanes seemed to pick up more aggressive, even warlike personalities. Hurricane David, the first big storm in 1979, a period in which serial killers cast a shadow over the national mood, was called a “killer” that “ripped” and “razed” the coastline, diabolical and determined in “his” attack. These kinds of associations with names and gender can have real-world effects: A study in 2014 found that survey respondents perceived female-named storms as less deadly than their male counterparts, and, therefore, less worthy of evacuation. That correlation was reflected in historical death tolls, the authors found, with storms named after women causing more damage. The study received criticism, with some scholars raising questions about the methods, but Skilton said the research should lead people “to question whether the storm names are influencing us in a harmful way.”

As the climate changes, amping up hurricanes, floods, and heat waves, people are urging government agencies to give names to other kinds of severe weather, from “Winter Storm Archer” to “Heat Wave Zoe.” It’s opening up a new avenue in disaster communication — and, if history repeats itself, new complications.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Who’s afraid of Hurricane Debby? The peculiar importance of a storm’s name. on Jun 4, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Electric vehicles need cobalt. Congolese miners work in dangerous conditions to get it.

Sun, 06/02/2024 - 06:00

This story was originally published by CapitalB.

The story of  “John Doe 1” of the Democratic Republic of the Congo is tucked in a lawsuit filed five years ago against several U.S. tech companies, including Tesla, the world’s largest electric vehicle producer.

In a country where the Earth hides its treasures beneath its surface, those who chip away at its bounty pay an unfair price. As a pre-teen, his family could no longer afford to pay his $6 monthly school fee, leaving him with one option: a life working underground in a tunnel, digging for cobalt rocks. 

But soon after he began working for roughly 2 U.S. dollars per day, the child was buried alive under the rubble of a collapsed mine tunnel. His body was never recovered. 

The nation, fractured by war, disease, and famine, has seen more than 6 million people die since the mid-1990s, making its conflict the deadliest since World War II. But, in recent years, the death and destruction have been aided by the growing number of electric vehicles humming down American streets.

In 2022, the U.S., the world’s third-largest importer of cobalt, spent nearly $525 million on the mineral, much of which came from the Congo.

As America’s dependence on the Congo has grown, Black-led labor and environmental organizers here in the U.S. have worked to build a transnational solidarity movement. Activists also say that the inequities faced in the Congo relate to those that Black Americans experience. And thanks in part to social media, the desire to better understand what’s happening in the Congo has grown in the past 10 years. In some ways, the Black Lives Matter movement first took root in the Congo after the uprising in Ferguson in 2014, advocates say. And since the murder of George Floyd and the outrage over the Gaza war, there has been an uptick in Congolese and Black American groups working on solidarity campaigns.

Throughout it all, the inequities faced by Congolese people and Black Americans show how the supply chain highlights similar patterns of exploitation and disenfranchisement.

Bakari Height, the transit equity organizer at the Labor Network for Sustainability, says the global harm caused by the energy transition and the inability of Black Americans to participate in it at home are for a simple reason. 

“We’re always on the menu, but we’re never at the table,” he said. “The space of transportation planning and climate change is mostly white people, or people of color that aren’t Black, so these discussions about exploitation aren’t happening in those spaces — it is almost like a second form of colonialism.”

Morehouse College professors Samuel Livingston and Cynthia Hewitt unfurled a Congolese flag behind President Joe Biden as he gave his commencement address at the school on May 19. Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images

Height said, however, when Black people are in the room, these conversations are not only more prevalent, but also more action-oriented. His organization supports Black workers and helps craft policies that support “bold climate action in ways that address labor concerns without sacrificing what science is telling us is necessary.”

While the American South has picked up about two-thirds of the electric vehicle production jobs, Black workers there are more likely to work in non-unionized warehouses, receiving less pay and protections. The White House has also failed to share data that definitively proves whether Black workers are receiving these jobs, rather than them just being placed near Black communities. 

“Automakers are moving their EV manufacturing and operations to the South in hopes of exploiting low labor costs and making higher profits,” explained Yterenickia Bell, an at-large council member in Clarkston, Georgia, last year. While Georgia has been targeted for investment by the Biden administration, workers are “refusing to stand idly by and let them repeat a cycle that harms Black communities and working families.”

Solidarity activism reached a national stage last week at the Morehouse College graduation ceremony, when professors at the school sent clear messages to President Joe Biden. Samuel Livingston and Cynthia Hewitt unfurled a Congolese flag as Biden gave his speech. And Dr. Taura Taylor, wearing a DRC pin on her cap, stood up, raised her fist and turned her back to the president. Yet, less publicized has been the work of Congolese and Black American groups building bridges, including the Congo Initiative based in the Congo and the D.C.-based group Friends of the Congo.

Friends of the Congo has worked on several educational campaigns at home, brought Black Americans to the Congo for activism trips, and offered regular support to Congolese youth leaders. 

The work is sorely needed, as “John Doe 1’s” story has only become more common in the country. 

Roughly 75 percent of the world’s reserves of cobalt, the precious mineral with a sometimes reddish, teal, or violet tint needed for cellphones, laptops, and electric car batteries, lie under the chalky surface. 

On average, an electric vehicle battery requires 30 pounds of cobalt, meaning millions of tons of the mineral is needed for America’s EV boom, which will continue to push thousands of Black women, men, and children into pits and tunnels. In the U.S., these battery packs range from around $7,000 to nearly $30,000, while Congolese miners make mere dollars for mining most of the material found in them. 

“The country,” explained Maurice Carney, executive director of Friends of the Congo, “was designed for extraction, not development.” 

Read Next Ignoring Indigenous rights is making the green transition more expensive “Cobalt mining is the slave farm perfected”

Of the 255,000 Congolese citizens mining for cobalt, 40,000 are children. They are not only exposed to physical threats but environmental ones. Cobalt mining pollutes critical water sources, plus the air and land. It is linked to respiratory illnesses, food insecurity, and violence. 

Still, in March, a U.S. court ruled on the case, finding that American companies could not be held liable for child labor in the Congo, even as they helped intensify the prevalence. 

Companies operating in the country are “primarily concerned about their own welfare, filling their own pockets. They’re not really concerned about the welfare of the Congolese people,” Carney said earlier this year. 

Carney, a former research consultant for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, has spent years pointing out the link between the Congolese and Black American struggles.  

“What we say to people is that in a country that’s so critical to the future of the planet, a country that we’re all connected to through our cellphones and iPads or electric vehicles — even if you’re in California, you’re connected to the Congo,” he said. 

“Congolese women have the highest metallic content in the body in the world because they’re digging in the soil to get those minerals,” he added.

People work at the Shabara mine near Kolwez, Democratic Republic of the Congo, in 2022. At that time, some 20,000 people worked at Shabara, in shifts of 5,000 at a time. Junior Kannah/AFP via Getty Images

Similarly, in the U.S., as poor birth outcomes have been linked to higher exposure to pollutants, pregnant Black women are more likely to live in poor-quality environments compared to white women.

Cobalt accounts for as much as 60 percent of the batteries that drive our lives because the mineral possesses a unique electron configuration that allows the battery to remain stable at higher energy densities. This means cobalt-heavy batteries can hold more charge. 

While there has been a push to use alternative minerals in electric batteries, most other options are unstable and unsafe for the user. Some experts have argued that the U.S. should turn its attention to Canada, which is among the top five countries producing cobalt and the only nation in the Western Hemisphere with deposits of all the minerals required to make next-generation electric batteries. But it is a more costly venture that, to this point, has yet to make waves in the U.S. 

In the interim, no one knows how many women, men, and children have been killed in the Congolese operations, but the tally, which is likely to be thousands of lives per year, is expected to rise, researchers believe.

In the coming years, it is estimated that more than half of the world’s cobalt will be used just for EVs. The federally subsidized push to increase electric vehicle production by 2030 calls for a 15-fold increase in battery production. Already, the nation’s imports of cobalt increased by 35 percent from 2021 to 2022. 

Still, the U.S. has been slow to acknowledge its role. 

In a February White House press briefing about the U.S.’ effects and efforts on the environment across the African continent, the Congo and cobalt were never mentioned. And earlier this month, Amos Hochstein, White House senior adviser for energy and investment, encouraged mining minerals in “risky” countries in the name of the clean energy transition.

“We can all live in the capitals and cities around the world and say, ‘I don’t want to do business there.’ But what you are really saying is we’re not going to have an energy transition,” he said. “Because the energy transition is not going to happen if it can only be produced where I live, under my standards.”

The Congo is home to more than 90 times the amount of cobalt reserves found in the U.S., where Native American tribes are being exploited for the resource. (Over two-thirds of America’s cobalt is on Native American land.) 

It is one of several movements around the clean energy transition where workers and activists are highlighting how the greening of the world is coming at the expense of Black and Native lives.

Recently, the push for mining in the Congo has reached new heights because of a rift in China-U.S. relations regarding EV production. Earlier this month, the Biden administration issued a 100-percent tariff on Chinese-produced EVs to deter their purchase in the U.S.

Currently, China owns about 80 percent of the legal mines in the Congo, but tens of thousands of Congolese people work in “artisanal” mines outside these facilities, where there are no rules or regulations, and where the U.S. gets much of its cobalt imports.  

“Cobalt mining is the slave farm perfected,” wrote Siddharth Kara last year in the award-winning investigative book Cobalt Red: How The Blood of the Congo Powers Our Lives. “It is a system of absolute exploitation for absolute profit.”

While it is the world’s richest country in terms of wealth from natural resources, Congo is among the poorest in terms of life outcomes. Of the 201 countries recognized by the World Bank Group, it has the 191st lowest life expectancy.

Read Next Arizona wants to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon. Tribal nations are fighting back. Dreaming of actual societal benefits

The exploitation of Black workers in the Congo has contributed to some Black transit activists in the U.S. not fully supporting the transition to electric vehicles, despite the benefits for health and reducing pollution for some Black communities at home. The American Lung Association says 110,000 lives would be saved and 2.7 million childhood asthma attacks avoided by 2050 if Biden’s goals are reached and transportation pollution is lowered. 

But today, although EVs do not directly emit fossil fuels, the energy generated to charge an EV mainly comes from polluting fossil fuel power plants, which are disproportionately found in Black communities.

The activists say that moving toward more mass transit options would create actual societal benefits.

 “We don’t all live in big cities, but mass transit is still 100 percent the better option,” Height said. “More investment in mass transit options gives us different ways and methods of looking at how we can clean up many of these systems.”

While America’s dependence on cars has grown to the second highest globally, American buses, subways, and light rail lines consistently have lower ridership levels, fewer service hours, and longer waits than those in virtually every comparable country. 

It is true, Height acknowledged, that electric buses still rely on cobalt, but investment in mass transit options would dramatically lower the nation’s dependence on the mineral and the need for new infrastructure. Infrastructure, he said, that is not being used. Since 2021, the federal government has doled out nearly $10 billion for public electric vehicle charging infrastructure, for example, but only four states have built stations using the money. 

As it is now, EVs are also perpetuating economic inequality. Statistically, most households purchasing EVs earn more than $100,000 per year. The median Black household takes in just $46,000 annually, which could explain why only 2 percent of EV drivers are Black. 

Height believes that these discrepancies show the need for other investment options. While the Biden administration has allocated more than $65 billion for electric vehicles, the nation’s biggest climate spending bill allocated just $1 billion for clean heavy-duty vehicles like buses.

The investment, Height said, also “needs to come with a behavioral shift. People need to question: Do you really need a vehicle if you’re going to the same place that your neighbor is going, or the same direction as the people down the street? 

“We need to do it before this next individualistic idea of you get an EV, you get an EV, and you get an EV takes root,” he argued. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Electric vehicles need cobalt. Congolese miners work in dangerous conditions to get it. on Jun 2, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

California sides with big utilities, trimming incentives for community solar projects

Sat, 06/01/2024 - 06:00

This story was originally published by CalMatters.

California’s utilities regulator adopted new rules for community solar projects on Friday, despite warnings from clean energy advocates that the move will actually undercut efforts to expand solar power options for low-income customers.

The state’s biggest utility companies advocated for the new rules.

Community solar projects are generally small-scale, local solar arrays that can serve renters and homeowners who can’t afford to install their own rooftop solar panels. They are one part of the state’s overall strategy to eventually run the power grid entirely by renewable energy.

The California Public Utilities Commission’s 3-1 ruling preserves and expands programs that will allow any ratepayer to subscribe to a pool of projects and receive a 20 percent rate reduction, said Commission President Alice Reynolds. But it also reduces future compensation for solar providers and residents.

The commission calculates the benefits derived from distributed, small-scale solar power projects, which provide a “service” by sending clean energy to the power grid and reducing transmission costs by serving nearby communities. Solar developers are compensated for the value of the benefit their project provides.

Read Next Inside a California oil town’s divisive plan to survive the energy transition

The formula adopted this week essentially reduces the value of distributed small-scale renewable energy in the future, providing less of an incentive for new community solar projects to be built.

In the near term, the subsidies and incentives that help promote community solar installation will remain in place, paid for by a recent $250 million grant California received under the federal Solar For All program.

One of the concerns for solar advocates is what happens after that pot of funding runs out and the financial incentive to develop solar evaporates.

“The foundations of a sustainable program should not be built on one-time money,” said Derek Chernow, Western Regional Director for the Coalition for Community Solar Access.

While California has been a leader in promoting solar energy and advocating for an electric grid running carbon-free, the state’s efforts to encourage smaller solar projects have been lackluster. One example of a missed opportunity that critics point to is not requiring community solar projects to have battery storage systems that would allow power to flow after the sun sets.

“We are not done here today, ” Reynolds said, adding the programs can be modified and improved in the future.

Read Next US experienced staggering growth in solar and wind power over the last decade

With electric bills soaring for many Californians, she also was critical of the impact of “cost shift,” the idea that the subsidies provided to community solar projects are costs borne by all ratepayers. It’s a fundamental fairness argument that the commission has applied in other proceedings, to justify reducing subsidies.

But changing or reducing the subsidies and other incentives to a still-maturing industry, advocates argue, will result in fewer solar installations, ultimately cutting out low-income ratepayers from the benefit of renewable energy. Community access solar programs are supposed to ensure that at least 51 percent of the energy derived from the projects serves disadvantaged customers. 

Late last year, the commission overhauled incentives for owners of apartment buildings, schools, and businesses that install solar panels. Those regulations were another in a string of recent decisions the commission has taken to reduce financial incentives for rooftop solar. In late 2022, the commission reduced payments to homeowners who sell excess power from newly installed solar panels on single-family homes.

Advocates have been bemoaning what they say is California’s lagging clean energy leadership and criticizing Governor Gavin Newsom, who delivered a keynote speech at the Vatican Climate Summit last week, for not holding the state’s powerful utilities and oil companies to account.

The commission’s community solar decision was quickly added to the list of what critics say is a concerning pattern of backtracking on critical renewable energy policies.

“The CPUC’s recent series of decisions threatens to unravel California’s clean energy progress,” said the Solar Energy Industries Association in a statement. “It’s past time for Governor Newsom and state leaders to reign in the commission before it inflicts more damage on customers and the state’s clean energy economy.” 

Read Next Biden’s ‘Solar for All’ awards $7B to bring affordable energy to low-income families

As it had in earlier closely-watched decisions, the commission heard from a myriad of organizations, including the solar industry and environmental justice groups, advocating for programs that would expand access to clean energy and reduce power bills. 

There was scant public comment during the morning hearing but at least two state legislators voiced their opposition to the proposal. Assemblymember Christopher Ward noted that the updated proposal had only been released this week and decried it as “fatally flawed.”

“This does not reflect the intent of the bill,” Ward, a Democrat from San Diego, told commissioners, referring to legislation he authored that required the commission to review its rules. The unintended result of today’s decision, he said, would be to discourage new projects.

An aide to Senator Josh Becker, a Menlo Park Democrat, read a letter from the lawmaker saying that experts doubt the policies will expand access to clean energy.

In extensive remarks, Commissioner Darcie Houck outlined several concerns about the decision, including her view that it didn’t go far enough to benefit ratepayers in low-income communities. Much of the commissioner’s dissent centered on provisions that she said will disincentive adoption of solar and won’t allow for a “just and equitable energy transition.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California sides with big utilities, trimming incentives for community solar projects on Jun 1, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

San Diego ponders a bid to take over its for-profit energy utility

Fri, 05/31/2024 - 01:45

Activists pushing San Diego to take over the city’s investor-owned utility aren’t letting last year’s defeat of a similar effort in Maine deter their goal of establishing a nonprofit power company. They recently submitted petitions bearing more than 30,000 signatures from residents who want the City Council to let voters decide the matter this fall.

Advocates say a municipal takeover of San Diego Gas & Electric would deliver cheaper rates and a faster, more affordable, and more equitable transition to clean energy. Still, the measure faces long odds from skeptical council members who have twice rejected similar proposals.

The campaign is the first public power ballot initiative since 70 percent of voters in Maine rejected a proposal to take over the state’s two largest utilities. A group called Power San Diego delivered several cardboard boxes filled with petitions to the San Diego city registrar’s office on May 14. If just over 24,000 of the signatures on those documents are deemed valid, the Council will have to decide whether to put the question to voters in the next election.

What’s happening in Southern California reflects growing frustration with the high rates and lackluster service investor-owned utilities often provide — and a desire to accelerate the green transition. Similar campaigns are afoot in Rochester, New York and San Francisco, and Empire State lawmakers recently introduced a bill to buy out Central Hudson Gas & Electric and create a public power authority

“Across the country, people are talking about public ownership of energy,” Sarahana Shrestha, a New York state assembly member who co-sponsored the bill, told Grist. “If we want a just transition — taking care of workers, and making sure that it’s affordable and brings benefits back into communities — there’s no effective way of doing that while you’re still answering to shareholders.”

San Diego residents pay some of the nation’s highest electricity rates, and by one estimate, more than a quarter of customers are behind on their payments. (The utility has attributed its high rates to the cost of everything from wildfire prevention to building transmission lines and other clean energy infrastructure.) Takeover advocates say the move would save residents 20 percent on their utility bills because a nonprofit model eliminates the need to provide shareholders with a return. It estimates the cost at $3.5 billion, citing a study commissioned by the city last year.

That analysis found that the utility’s 700,000 customers who live within the city of San Diego could save 13 to 14 percent annually if the city bought the utility’s grid assets for $2 billion and created a municipal utility. The math is less favorable if the cost of the buyout goes up, however; at a price of $6 billion, ratepayers could face additional costs of $60 million over the first decade but see long-term savings after 20 years.

San Diego Gas & Electric vehemently opposes the effort and has backed the political action committee Responsible Energy San Diego to block it. The organization calls itself “a coalition of diverse San Diego leaders” fighting “a reckless ballot initiative to force a government takeover of the energy grid.” The utility has contributed well over $700,000 to the committee, according to records on the San Diego Ethics Commission website. 

That’s more than twice what Power San Diego has raised and reflects a dynamic in which political action committees supported by Maine’s two investor-owned utilities received 34 times more money than public power advocates. Activists there say that allowed the utilities to finance a robust campaign of advertising and misinformation to defeat the referendum.

San Diego Gas & Electric has hired Concentric Energy Advisors, the same consultants who helped defeat the effort in Maine. The company’s study commissioned by the San Diego utility estimated the cost of a public takeover of the grid at $9.3 billion. 

Matt Awbrey of Responsible Energy San Diego told Grist the city should address other priorities like affordable housing rather than a proposal “to create a new government-run utility that has no plan, budget, or verifiable cost estimates.” He said the cost of the takeover likely would bring “higher taxes, higher electric bills, and/or cuts to essential city services we all depend on.” 

Power San Diego intended to gather 80,000 signatures by July, which would have placed the proposal on November’s ballot. But it lacked the funding for such an effort and decided to seek 30,000 signatures, or roughly 3 percent of registered voters. That would require the City Council to vote on whether to put the matter to voters.

Dorrie Bruggeman, senior campaign coordinator for Power San Diego, doesn’t expect the council to do that; it already has rejected such a proposal on two occasions, with council members calling for greater detail on costs and projected revenues. Council President Sean Elo-Rivera is among those with reservations.

“I have no love for corporate monopolies reaching into the pockets of everyday working people,” he told the local news outlet La Jolla Light. “But this is a very complex and important issue and I don’t think this is baked enough to go to the voters.”

Regardless of any qualms the council may have, Bill Powers, chair of Power San Diego, said his organization has prompted an important discussion within the community and sparked voter engagement on the issue. The next step is getting policymakers behind the idea.

“If we can get a couple of council members that are open to public power, if we can get a mayor who is open to public power, which we’ve had in the past, then the movement isn’t dependent on the endpoint of a ballot initiative,” Powers said.

Such campaigns are gaining momentum elsewhere. Public power advocates in Rochester, New York, want the city to evaluate the costs and benefits of a municipal utility. In San Francisco, city officials are currently working with the California Public Utilities Commission to determine how to set a fair price for Pacific Gas & Electric’s distribution grid, in the hopes of creating a citywide public power system. 

On May 17, New York Assemblymember Shrestha and State Senator Michelle Hinchey introduced a bill to create the Hudson Valley Power Authority, a public power entity that would buy out Central Hudson Gas & Electric. The utility has drawn criticism for its high rates and a string of billing failures since 2021. If the measure passes, the Hudson Valley Power Authority would seek to lower rates, improve service, and hasten the green transition while protecting labor rights.

Joe Jenkins, Central Hudson’s director of media relations, told Grist the proposed takeover would involve “significant hidden costs, loss of jobs, and loss of tax revenue for towns and schools,” adding that rates for municipal utilities in New York are nearly 9 percent more expensive than those of investor-owned utilities. 

Shrestha said the legislation reflects her constituents’ growing interest in public power. Her office has hosted seven town halls this past year to discuss energy democracy. “People are so fed up with getting bills that are inconsistent and late,” she said. “People are really excited about learning how we can actually get public power done.”

Correction: This story misstated the number of customers who could save 13 to 14 percent annually if the city bought the utility’s grid assets.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline San Diego ponders a bid to take over its for-profit energy utility on May 31, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Better late than never: Wealthy nations finally meet $100 billion climate aid goal

Fri, 05/31/2024 - 01:15

International climate negotiations have long been haunted by a broken promise. In the wake of collapsed negotiations at the United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen in 2009, wealthy nations, led by the United States, pledged to provide developing countries with $100 billion in climate-related aid annually by 2020. The money was meant in part to ease tensions between the rich countries that had contributed the most to climate change historically and the poorer nations that disproportionately suffer the effects of a warming planet. But rich countries fell short of the target in both 2020 and 2021, deepening mistrust and stymying progress during the annual United Nations climate conferences, which are known by the abbreviation COP. 

A new report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD, confirms what the international organization began to suspect just before last year’s COP28: that wealthy nations finally surpassed the $100 billion goal in 2022. And while they were two years late delivering on their promise, rich countries partially compensated for their earlier shortfalls, contributing nearly $116 billion in climate aid to developing countries in 2022, according to the latest data available. That additional funding helps fill the roughly $27 billion gap resulting from rich countries’ failure to meet the $100 billion threshold in each of the two years prior.

“If you underachieved in the first two years, overachieving in the rest of the period is a good way to make up for that, to make amends,” said Joe Thwaites, a climate finance expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a U.S.-based environmental nonprofit. 

Even $100 billion, however, is far lower than the developing world’s estimated need. United Nations-backed research projects that developing countries (excluding China) will need an eye-popping $2.4 trillion per year by 2030 to transition away from fossil fuels and adapt to climate change.

Read Next The decade-old broken climate promise that looms over COP28

Serious questions also remain about the quality and accounting of the existing funding. According to the OECD report, more than two-thirds of the public finance in 2022 was provided in the form of loans rather than no-strings-attached grants. That means developing countries are required to pay the money back, often with interest at market rates. A recent Reuters investigation also found that some aid providers required recipients to work with companies based in donor countries, meaning that much of the aid money ultimately found its way back to wealthy nations. 

Such findings are likely to inform talks next week, as climate negotiators meet in Bonn, Germany, in preparation for COP29 in Baku, Azerbaijan, at the end of the year. Negotiators need to agree on a new collective goal for climate aid to developing countries this year. So far, different countries have submitted a range of proposals, with some nations floating $1 trillion annually as an appropriate number. Wealthy countries also want to expand their ranks so that some relatively rich countries that are technically classified as “developing,” like the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf, can contribute funds toward the goal. Historically, only countries that the United Nations designated as “developed” in the 1990s have been on the hook.

The new OECD report’s findings may be advantageous to wealthy nations as they negotiate these thorny issues, according to Thwaites. “Developed countries were not necessarily arguing from a position of strength or moral high ground, having failed to meet the $100 billion on time,” he said. If countries continue to provide a similar level of funding for the next few years, they could make up for the shortfall. “Making up for 2020 and 2021, meeting the goal in those two years, could help rebuild a bit of trust,” Thwaites added. 

The OECD report found that funding from all types of sources — multilateral development banks, the private sector, and public finance from governments — grew across the board in 2022. The increase in private-sector funding was particularly notable, jumping by more than 50 percent to a total of $21.9 billion.

The report indicated specific progress on funding for adaptation measures like sea walls and disaster-resilient infrastructure, an oft-overlooked area of climate finance. In 2021, countries pledged to double adaptation finance from the $19 billion provided in 2019 to $38 billion by 2025. According to the OECD report, adaptation funding had already risen to $32.4 billion one year after the pledge. 

As in past years, loans continued to make up the majority of funding. While developing countries have called on wealthy nations to move away from loans as the primary form of aid, all parties seem to agree that loans can be appropriate in some circumstances. For projects that generate revenue — such as investments in renewable energy — loans tend not to have a detrimental effect because they pay for themselves. But for measures that don’t generate revenue — in particular, adaptation measures like sea walls — loans can trap countries in cycles of debt. As a result, the call for increasing grant-based funding has grown louder in recent years. 

“A lot of countries are in debt distress,” said Thwaites. “And if they take on more loans for adaptation, where it doesn’t necessarily generate a return on the investment, that’s a challenge.”

Editor’s note: The Natural Resources Defense Council is an advertiser with Grist. Advertisers have no role in Grist’s editorial decisions.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Better late than never: Wealthy nations finally meet $100 billion climate aid goal on May 31, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Georgia governor calls for even more nuclear power despite budget woes

Fri, 05/31/2024 - 01:00

Georgia Governor Brian Kemp called for more new nuclear energy at an event Wednesday celebrating the first new nuclear reactors built in the U.S. in decades, at Plant Vogtle near Augusta, Georgia. The construction of those reactors, known as Vogtle Units 3 and 4, cost more than twice its original budget and ended years behind schedule.

“Today, we celebrate the end of that project,” Kemp told the crowd of state officials and utility executives. “And now, let’s start planning for Vogtle Five.”

That could be a tough sell to Georgians who have seen their bills go up multiple times to pay for the new reactors and for shareholders of the power plant’s largest owner, who had to absorb some of the costs. Originally billed as the dawn of a new nuclear era and priced at $14 billion, the Plant Vogtle project was plagued by repeated delays and ultimately cost an estimated total of more than $31 billion. 

When lead contractor Westinghouse filed for bankruptcy in 2017, prompting South Carolina to abandon its own nuclear project, Vogtle became the only new nuclear construction in the country. It still is. 

“If building more nuclear were a good idea, other states would be jumping on the bandwagon now,” said Liz Coyle, executive director of the consumer advocacy group Georgia Watch. “The fact that they’re not, I think, speaks volumes.”

Coyle said her group is preparing to fight any proposal for another reactor. 

For their part, the elected officials and utility executives at Wednesday’s event spoke of Plant Vogtle as a success story.

“Vogtle 3 and 4 don’t just represent an incredible economic development asset for our state and … a milestone for our entire country,” Kemp said. “They also stand as physical examples of something that I remind myself of every day: Tough times don’t last. Tough people do.”

Triumphal arrangements of the national anthem, “God Bless America,” and “Georgia On My Mind” backed by a gospel choir bookended the celebratory speeches. Attendees could snack on a sheet cake model of the power plant rendered in fondant.

A sheet cake version of the nuclear Plant Vogtle was among the celebratory aspects of the reactor’s opening ceremony. Emily Jones / Grist

Speakers touted Plant Vogtle as a win for clean energy, since it can produce enough electricity to power a million homes and businesses without the greenhouse gas emissions produced by coal or gas, according to Georgia Power, which owns the largest stake in the new reactors. That carbon-free energy is key to attracting new businesses to the state, Kemp and others said.

All five members of the Georgia Public Service Commission, or PSC — which oversees Georgia Power’s planning and rates, including the Vogtle project — addressed the crowd. 

“I just hope that we keep it up. We really should,” said commissioner Tricia Pridemore. “If we want to continue clean energy for our nation, it’s gonna take more than four.”  

In December, the PSC approved a deal that hikes Georgia Power customers’ rates now that Vogtle Unit 4 is online.

After the Wednesday event, commissioner Tim Echols said he supports more nuclear power in Georgia, but said a further Vogtle expansion would need to come with protections against runaway costs and other problems that plagued the last project.

“I really need some protection against a bankruptcy,” he said. “I just can’t do it on the same basis again.”

Echols suggested a federal “backstop” and a mechanism to ensure large customers like factories and data centers would pay for the bulk of nuclear construction.

Under current Georgia law, a further expansion of Plant Vogtle would need to be financed differently than the project that just wrapped up, Coyle said. In 2018, state lawmakers approved a sunset provision for the state law that had allowed Georgia Power to pass Vogtle’s financing costs on to customers during construction. Barring another change, that would mean Southern Company and its shareholders would shoulder those costs. 

Coyle said she’ll be urging lawmakers to keep it that way.

“Georgians are struggling, really, really struggling already to pay their power bills,” she said. “I hope we don’t have to go down this path again.”

On Friday,  U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and national climate advisor Ali Zaidi are visiting Vogtle for another event at the power plant. According to the Department of Energy, they plan to meet with local officials, as well as industry and labor leaders. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Georgia governor calls for even more nuclear power despite budget woes on May 31, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Expecting worse: Giving birth on a planet in crisis

Thu, 05/30/2024 - 01:45

International climate change panels often point out that women are more vulnerable to climate change than men. Hotter temperatures and more volatile weather inflame existing gender-based vulnerabilities, like domestic violence, inadequate access to health care, and financial insecurity. But there is another, largely invisible layer of climate impacts that falls along gendered lines: Research shows that climate change takes a profound physical toll on bodies that can bear children — from menstruation to conception to birth.  

There are various pathways by which climate change worsens health problems before, during, and after pregnancy. A pregnant person’s immune system stands down during those crucial nine months so as not to reject the growing fetus, leaving the gestating parent more susceptible to climate-driven infectious diseases like malaria. Exposure to extreme heat during pregnancy increases the likelihood of preterm birth, although the biological mechanism behind this relationship is still poorly understood. Sea level rise infuses drinking water with salt, which can lead to high blood pressure — a risk factor during pregnancy for premature birth and miscarriage. And for those who have access to fertility treatment, which involves highly time-sensitive procedures, increasingly massive and intense storms are making assisted conception unpredictable. 

Salt in the womb: How rising seas erode reproductive health

Women in Bangladesh are confronting the dangerous health effects of consuming salty water. They won’t be the last.

Story by

Four lost pregnancies. Five weeks of IVF injections. One storm.

A couple spent years and tens of thousands of dollars trying to have a baby. Then Hurricane Ian hit.

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‘How did we miss this for so long?’: The link between extreme heat and preterm birth

Heat waves are making pregnancy more dangerous and exacerbating existing maternal health disparities.

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After years of neglecting to study the climate-related health conditions that affect women and gender minorities who can get pregnant, the medical establishment is just beginning to understand the scope of these threats. At a moment when reproductive autonomy is under political attack, climate change is making it even more dangerous to have a uterus.

Here, you’ll find a package of stories that will help you understand a few of the profound effects warming has on people who can get pregnant. The full range of climate-related reproductive threats is vast, and this series doesn’t touch on all of them. Instead, it provides a series of snapshots — four windows into the lives of women who are facing unexpected risks as they attempt to conceive, gestate, and give birth to children in a warmer world. Their stories are a warning to us all. —Zoya Teirstein


WRITERS | Zoya Teirstein, Virginia Gewin, Jessica Kutz, Mahadi Al Hasnat

STORY EDITORS | L.V. Anderson, Paige Vega, Kara Platoni




DATA VISUALIZATION | Clayton Aldern, Jasmine Mithani

COPY EDITORS | Claire Thompson, Joseph Winters, Kate Yoder

FACT CHECKERS |  Sarah Schweppe, Melissa Hirsch, Caity PenzeyMoog

PARTNERSHIP MANAGERS | Rachel Glickhouse, Abby Johnston, Megan Kearney

AUDIENCE + ENGAGEMENT | Myrka Moreno, Justin Ray, Shira Tarlo

DESIGN + DEVELOPMENT | Mia Torres, Jason Castro, Mignon Khargie

document.querySelectorAll('.wp-block-grist-single-story-card .author-name a').forEach(anchor => { anchor.href = anchor.href.toLowerCase(); });

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Expecting worse: Giving birth on a planet in crisis on May 30, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Four lost pregnancies. Five weeks of IVF injections. One storm.

Thu, 05/30/2024 - 01:40

On their very first date, Kirsti and Justin Mahon talked about wanting kids. They met on a dating app in 2016, nine months after Kirsti moved from Texas to Florida. Almost immediately, they fell in love. 

A little over two years later, they got married. Six months after that, they started trying for a baby. To their surprise, they got pregnant right away. But just as quickly, they had an early miscarriage. At 27, Kirsti didn’t have any reason to suspect fertility problems, and her obstetrician was quick to reassure her: Kirsti’s blood work looked normal, and getting pregnant after a month of trying is a good sign of fertility. Conceiving again, she was told, would be easy. 

Over the next two years, Kirsti got pregnant three more times. None of her pregnancies lasted beyond the first trimester. 

“It felt like we were hitting a brick wall,” Kirsti said. In January 2022, the couple went to see a fertility specialist who conducted a series of intensive tests that uncovered what was really going on. Kirsti was only 29 years old at the time, but the specialist told her that her egg quality was that of a 40-year-old’s. In vitro fertilization, or IVF, the specialist said, was Kirsti and Justin’s best hope.

A photo Kirsti Mahon posted to social media after her third pregnancy loss in September 2021. Courtesy of Kirsti Mahon

It didn’t take the couple long to decide to take the plunge. “With every loss that we had it was like I was watching Kirsti lose a piece of herself,” said Justin. “It became obvious with the consultation that the IVF process was really the only way to guarantee that this really brutal cycle wouldn’t continue.”

So they drained their savings, cashed in an old retirement account, and took out two loans to pay for the treatment. They live in Florida, a state where coverage isn’t mandated, so most of the procedures would be out of pocket. Justin estimates it cost between $25,000 and $30,000. The couple hammered out the minutiae of IVF with their specialist, down to the timing of every hormone shot. They felt ready.

But Kirsti and Justin hadn’t accounted for hurricane season.

If the process of getting pregnant naturally feels murky and unpredictable, in vitro fertilization turns conception into a science — every menstrual phase, reproductive hormone and embryo carefully screened, tested, and optimized. First, patients inject themselves with fertility hormones aimed at stimulating ovarian follicles and bringing as many eggs as possible to maturity. An IVF cycle can fail right then and there, with the bad news showing up on an ultrasound screen or on the printed pages of a laboratory test before the eggs are even collected. Often, too few follicles develop. Ovulation can happen prematurely, or the ovaries can become hyperstimulated, causing pain, nausea, or more serious health problems. Everything can go wrong, and everything — down to the timing of each hormone shot — needs to go right.  

If it does, the patient’s eggs are removed for fertilization in an outpatient procedure called an egg retrieval. The eggs must be harvested 34 to 36 hours after the “trigger shot,” a final hormone injection which prompts the eggs to finish maturing, but before the ovary releases them into the fallopian tubes. Patients are administered a painkiller, then the doctor guides a needle through the vagina or stomach and into the ovaries, aiming to suction all the eggs from their follicles. Mature eggs — there can be dozens, just one, or none at all — are fertilized with sperm in vitro, Latin for “in the glass,” or in this case in a petri dish. There, the embryos mature for three to six days. Not all of them survive, or develop correctly. The ones that make it can be reinserted into the uterus right away or, more commonly, frozen for later use.

Amelia K. Bates / Grist

Two time-sensitive procedures bookend the most stressful and critical weeks of the IVF process. The first is the egg retrieval. Once the trigger shot has been administered, there’s no turning back. If the procedure doesn’t take place approximately 36 hours after the injection, the patient’s follicles rupture, casting the precious eggs irretrievably into the fallopian tubes. A missed alarm, a traffic jam, or a delayed flight can wreck an enormous financial and emotional investment. 

The second is the embryo transfer. A patient’s uterine lining must be sufficiently thick when an embryo is reinserted — otherwise, the embryo won’t implant, and the patient won’t get pregnant. Doctors often prescribe additional hormone injections for up to 12 weeks to boost estrogen levels and thicken the uterine lining before a frozen embryo is thawed and transferred. Fertility clinics typically require patients to come in regularly for ultrasounds to determine the optimal day for the transfer. If the lining remains too thin, or if the patient’s menstrual cycle advances too far, then the transfer must be delayed for at least another month. 

These windows of opportunity are narrow, and it doesn’t take much to slam them shut. For a growing number of would-be parents living in the coastal areas of the United States, where climate change is making hurricanes faster-moving and more intense, all it takes is a single storm.

In September 2022, the Mahons were preparing for the final stage of IVF: the embryo transfer. 

Kirsti had already undergone the grueling egg stimulation and retrieval process, which produced 23 eggs. Four had turned into embryos, and three were genetically tested. Two came back healthy and had been frozen.

A photo the Mahons posted to social media in February 2022. Courtesy of Kirsti Mahon

Her transfer had initially been scheduled for August, but it got canceled when Kirsti contracted COVID-19 that July. Now, as summer turned to fall, Kirsti spent five weeks injecting herself with hormones at their home on the outskirts of Naples, Florida, where she worked as an animal supervisor at the area zoo. Naples sits on Florida’s Gulf Coast, about 40 miles north of the northern edge of the Everglades.

Less than a week out from her transfer, she was at the clinic for a final ultrasound and some blood work when she asked whether she should be worried about a coming storm she had seen on a weather forecast. She remembers the nurse telling her, “We’ll keep an eye on it, but I really wouldn’t worry about it.” At that time, the storm system still looked like it might miss Naples.

By the weekend, though, what had started out as a tropical depression whipped itself into Hurricane Ian, which would turn out to be one of the deadliest and most destructive in U.S. history

That Monday, Kirsti and her husband had grown increasingly worried, so they emailed the fertility clinic for an update. While they waited to hear back, they tracked Hurricane Ian on the news, watching as it made its way toward the U.S. “It just kept getting scarier and scarier,” Kirsti said.

Jasmine Mithani / The 19th / Clayton Aldern / Grist

On Tuesday, Kirsti went into work and started to evacuate animals from their outdoor enclosures. At this point, the hurricane began to veer toward southwest Florida, but was still expected to make landfall more than a 100 miles north of Naples, sparing her town. That afternoon, calls began to stream in from her parents and her in-laws, who lived along the Florida coast. It was decided that they should take shelter in the couple’s house. By that evening, Kirsti’s two-bedroom, one-bath house was suddenly packed with family and a menagerie of pets. 

On Wednesday morning, Justin injected Kirsti with the last dose of her medication. Southwest Florida was flooding, and parts of the state were losing power, but they hadn’t heard anything from the clinic. Their appointment was supposed to be the next day. As far as Kirsti knew, the procedure was still on track.

Since the beginning of the 2000s, climate change researchers have warned that a warmer planet produces stronger and more damaging hurricanes. In 2020, 30 named storms developed in the Atlantic, setting a record. University of Pennsylvania researchers recently predicted that this year’s Atlantic hurricane season will include 33 named storms. Study after study has demonstrated that the convergence of a warmer, wetter atmosphere and a higher sea-surface temperature causes tropical depressions to grow into hurricanes more quickly. A study published late last year said storms have become twice as likely to develop from a weak tropical cyclone into a Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane within a 24-hour window — a process meteorologists call “rapid intensification.” The growing intensity of hurricanes has prompted some climate scientists to suggest adding a sixth category to the Saffir-Simpson scale, for hurricanes with winds faster than 192 miles per hour. 

Hurricane Ian was a prime example of a storm charged by climate change. It strengthened from a Category 3 into a Category 4 hurricane in under 24 hours. Ian is just one of several major hurricanes that have struck the southern and southeastern coasts of the United States in the past decade — regions that are particularly vulnerable to damage during the Atlantic hurricane season. In places like Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Puerto Rico, and Texas, it’s becoming increasingly evident that communities and the infrastructure they rely on are ill-prepared for intensifying storms.

Hurricane Ian intensifies as it heads toward Florida on September 26, 2022. NOAA

Hurricane Harvey, a Category 4 storm that hit Texas in 2017, submerged hundreds of roads, collapsed bridges, and damaged more than 300,000 homes. That same year, Category 4 Hurricane Maria decimated Puerto Rico’s aging power grid, plunging the island into darkness for nearly a year — the longest power outage in U.S. history. In 2020, Category 4 Hurricane Laura barreled into southwest Louisiana, displacing thousands of residents and nearly destroying the city of Lake Charles. The city was still clearing wreckage caused by Laura, the most powerful storm to hit southwest Louisiana since record-keeping began, when another hurricane, Category 2 Delta, carved a nearly identical path of destruction through the state. Lake Charles continues to recover four years later.

Fertility clinics are just as vulnerable to storms as any other infrastructure. When Hurricane Ida hit New Orleans in 2021, Nicole Ulrich, a doctor at Audubon Fertility Center, experienced firsthand the challenges intensifying hurricanes pose to these centers. Similar to Hurricane Ian, Ida progressed so rapidly that it caught the city and clinic off guard. 

Forecasters “thought it was maybe going to be a [Category] 1 or a 2, and then it was going to be a 3, and then all of a sudden, it was going to be a 4. At that point, there really should have been a mandatory evacuation, but there wasn’t enough time,” said Ulrich. “We had to close the clinic at that point, because there just wasn’t another option.”

As a result, Audubon had to cancel at least 10 IVF cycles, and delay the start of several others. This included patients who were preparing for embryo transfers, and others who had started injecting the hormones needed for egg retrieval. The clinic also had some embryos growing in the lab. It usually takes five or six days to tell which embryos are healthy and suitable for freezing, but Ulrich’s clinic had to quickly decide to freeze them early, on days two and three instead, just in case their backup power generator failed.

Once the clinic was back up and running, it took months before Ulrich and her team could fit in all the patients whose cycles had been canceled or delayed — patients who were anxiously awaiting the chance to restart the process.

An embryo transfer catheter and a model of a uterus are displayed in a fertility clinic in California. Jay L. Clendenin / The Washington Post via Getty Images

“For most people, waiting a month is not going to make that big of a difference. But when you’re in that moment and you’re 42 and you know your egg count is low, it feels like just the most devastating thing that could happen,” said Ulrich. “There is a chance that, especially when you get closer to 43, it might make a difference.”

The embryos Audubon froze early had to be thawed in order to mature and then refrozen. The clinic is still analyzing data from that change in protocol to understand if it affected pregnancy outcomes.  

Thanks to that experience, Ulrich published a paper in 2022 that calls for more research on the topic of IVF and climate change, with a focus on the particular challenges posed by rapidly intensifying hurricanes. “It had a huge impact on our clinic and our patients, and for months afterwards, we were still dealing with the aftereffects,” she wrote. 

But the experience taught Ulrich lessons other IVF facilities could benefit from. Ulrich said she’d love to see clinics establish better relationships with other fertility treatment centers in their region so that patients could transfer to them in times of disaster. She also encourages clinic staff to review their emergency action plans to ensure they are prepared to meet the changing nature of storms, and to be ready to make decisions quickly to salvage cycles and protect embryos. All clinics store embryos in nitrogen tanks, which do not rely on electricity and are typically safe from blackouts or issues with electrical grids. But the labs that embryos mature in before they are frozen do depend on electricity — and if a disaster takes out power for too long, even backup generators can run out of fuel. During Hurricane Katrina, embryos were lost at one clinic for this reason.

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Share of assisted reproductive technology clinics in areas with “very high,” “relatively high,” or “relatively moderate” hurricane risk

State Share of clinics in risky zones

Table displays only states with at least one clinic in a high-risk area. Risk categorized by census tract. Excludes clinics that reorganized or shut down after 2021.

Source: Centers for Disease Control; FEMA National Risk Index

Chart: Jasmine Mithani / The 19th; Clayton Aldern / Grist

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IVF clinics are currently not required to have emergency plans in place, but it is recommended by the American Society of Reproductive Medicine. In 2022, the society published its own paper highlighting the need for clinics to adapt to increasingly threatening hurricane seasons. 

“Clearly, climate change means you are having more extreme weather events, and [I] think that, like every other part of society, from homeowners to hospitals, fertility clinics have to think a bit more about how they can build more resilient systems,” said Scott Tipton, chief advocacy and policy officer with the American Society of Reproductive Medicine.

Within a few hours of Kirsti’s final hormone injection, she saw her nurse’s name light up on her phone. Before ducking into her bedroom to get some privacy from the houseguests, she exchanged a despairing glance with Justin. “I just looked at my husband and I was like, ‘It's not happening, it's not happening,’ and I took the phone call.”

The nurse immediately assured her that her embryos were safe but confirmed her suspicion: The clinic was closing because of the storm, and Kirsti wouldn’t be able to go through with the transfer the following day. In fact, they would have to start her cycle all over again. (Kirsti’s clinic did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It just felt like our earth was shattered,” she said. Five weeks of hormone injections had taken their toll on her body, both emotionally and physically. She had grown to dread the shots, which caused swelling in her buttocks, thighs, and stomach. “We had spent so much money, so much time. I was covered in bruises,” she said. “I hung up the phone and I just lost it. I lost it. I wasn’t even angry. I was just heartbroken.” 

Aside from the sadness she felt over yet another hurdle in their fertility journey, Kirsti thought about all the money she and Justin had poured into the treatment, including borrowing from family. The $2,500 the couple had spent on fertility medications that month evaporated the moment Kirsti’s phone rang. If the couple were to restart the embryo transfer process, they would have to spend thousands more. 

The average cost of one cycle of IVF in the U.S. is $12,400, but prices can vary depending on the clinic, the cocktail of fertility medicines used, and the number of embryos collected and frozen. Some clinics charge as much as $30,000 per cycle. And many patients need more than one cycle to get pregnant.

Because IVF is so costly, there is a large access gap between those who can afford the treatment and those who can’t. In a 2021 survey administered by researchers in Illinois who sought to better understand the demographics of IVF patients in the state, 75.5 percent of the respondents were white, 10.2 percent Asian, 7.3 percent Black, and 5.7 percent Latina. 

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Climate change + fertility

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Despite these hurdles, IVF is becoming increasingly popular. The treatment allows people to delay pregnancy for any number of reasons — to build a career, save money for a family, or find the right partner. And it’s a crucial tool for people struggling with infertility. In the U.S., that’s 1 in 5 women

More than 40 percent of all American adults now say they have used fertility treatments or know someone who has had them, as the number of people who delay childbearing grows. In 1970, the average age of a person giving birth for the first time was 21.4. In 2021, that average was six years higher.

As IVF has grown more common, it has also become the target of political and legal attacks. In February, Alabama’s Supreme Court, dominated by conservative judges, ruled that embryos created in vitro should be thought of as children for the purposes of wrongful death lawsuits. The ruling had an immediate chilling effect on clinics throughout the state. A month later, Alabama lawmakers extended criminal and civil immunity protections to IVF clinics for their day-to-day operations. Manufacturers of products used in the course of IVF treatment get some immunity protections under the new law, too. But the law still leaves providers at risk because it doesn’t challenge the court’s assertion that embryos are people.  

A billboard sponsored by the the Democratic National Committee as seen in February in Miami. The group sponsored 40 billboards across seven battleground states calling out the IVF ruling in Alabama. John Parra / Getty Images for DNC

This decision also has possible implications for doctors practicing IVF when a disaster hits, said Ulrich. “If you had an incubator on a power grid that failed, and you didn't have a backup or the backup failed — those embryos would have been lost,” said Ulrich. Perhaps patients would see the loss as an unavoidable accident — or perhaps they’d sue for wrongful death, she said. “It’s another reason to be careful.”

In the days after Hurricane Ian made landfall, Kirsti spent her time worrying about her family, her neighborhood, her house, and the animals at the zoo. Beneath it all, she felt a deep sense of despair. “I felt like every single piece of me was being hit and like every single thing I had was being ripped to shreds,” she said. But there was no doubt in her mind that she and Justin would try again. 

For months, Kirsti’s embryos stayed safely frozen while she and a few other women she knew from the clinic waited to have their transfers rescheduled. The hurricane’s disruption meant their appointments would come after others already on the books, so she wouldn’t be penciled in until December, delaying her procedure even longer. The clinic agreed to waive the fees for the postponed transfer, but Kirsti and Justin still had to pay out of pocket for the costly medications.

On Halloween, she once again started preparing her body to carry a baby, taking a slew of medications and undergoing daily hormone injections. On the first of December, she completed the long-awaited transfer. Two weeks later, her doctors confirmed what she already knew based on a home test: Kirsti was pregnant. “I was over the moon,” she said.

She was also nervous: “We had been pregnant before and it always ended in loss.” As she and her husband put together the baby’s zoo-themed room they felt hopeful — but nothing was certain until August 8, 2023, when she gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Gracie. 

A rainbow onesie and ultrasound pictures of the Mahons' daughter Gracie from April 2023. Courtesy of Kirsti Mahon

That day, the Naples coast was hot and sunny. As they looked down at their newborn daughter, Kirsti and Justin reflected on all it took to get there, after nearly four years of trying to start their family. “She was here and in our arms, and we just had this moment,” she said. “It was like, ‘We did it.’”

A few weeks later, Florida was hit by another Category 4 hurricane.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Four lost pregnancies. Five weeks of IVF injections. One storm. on May 30, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Pregnant in a warming climate: A lethal ‘double risk’ for malaria

Thu, 05/30/2024 - 01:35

Roger Casupang was working in a coastal clinic on the north side of Papua New Guinea, an island nation of 9 million in the southwestern Pacific Ocean, when a pregnant woman burst into his facility. She was in labor, moments away from delivering twins. She also had a severe case of malaria, a life-threatening mosquito-borne illness common in tropical countries.

Casupang, an obstetrician, quickly took stock of the situation. When the parent is healthy, a twin pregnancy is twice as risky as a single pregnancy. Meanwhile, severe malaria kills nearly half of the people who develop it during pregnancy. The woman was exhausted and delirious. Because many of his patients walked for days to get medical care for standard ailments, Casupang didn’t know which province she had come from or how long she had been traveling before she reached his clinic. 

What he did know was that the woman had arrived just in time. “She was actually pushing when she came in,” he said. 

Casupang, who was born in one of Papua New Guinea’s highland provinces and had been practicing medicine on the island for the better part of a decade at the time, had seen pregnant women die in less dire circumstances. Against all odds, with limited medical resources and medicines at their disposal, Casupang and the other medical professionals at the clinic were able to deliver the twins safely. Both babies weighed less than three pounds each, a consequence of their mother’s raging infection. The twins were moved to the nursery while Casupang and his fellow physicians worked to stabilize the mother. She was reunited with her babies after 10 days of intensive care. “If this case had presented in a remote facility,” Casupang said, “the narrative would have been very different.” 

Casupang’s patient was lucky to survive — but she also benefited from geography. On the coast, doctors see lots of patients with malaria, and many of those patients carry antibodies that protect them from severe infection. 

But malaria is on the move. 

A woman sleeps with her baby in the maternity ward of a hospital in Goroka in the Eastern Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea in 2009. Jason South / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Temperatures are rising around the world but particularly in countries where the disease is already present. That warming coaxes mosquitoes toward higher elevations, even as temperatures have historically been too cold for the insects to thrive. In these high-altitude areas, mosquitoes are feeding on people who have never had malaria before — and who are much more susceptible to deadly infections.

“When malaria hits new populations that are naive, you tend to get these explosive epidemics that are severe because people don’t have any existing immunity,” said Sadie Ryan, an associate professor of medical geography at the University of Florida. 

Pregnant people living in highland regions who have never had malaria before are worst-positioned to survive the bite of an infected mosquito. The very act of becoming pregnant creates a potentially deadly vulnerability to malaria. The placenta, the new organ that forms to nourish the fetus, presents new receptors for the disease to bind to. 

Amelia K. Bates / Grist

Pregnant women are three times more likely to develop severe malaria compared to nonpregnant women. For people who can become pregnant, the climate-driven upward movement of malaria mosquitoes poses nothing less than an existential threat.

“In Western countries, especially where malaria is not endemic, there is this perception that malaria has been around for so long that we already know how to deal with it,” said Deekshita Ramanarayanan, who works on maternal health at the nonpartisan research organization the Wilson Center. 

But that was never the case, and the perception is especially flawed now, as climate change threatens to rewrite the malaria-control playbook. “Pregnant people are hit with this double risk factor of climate change and the risks of contracting malaria during pregnancy,” Ramanarayanan said. 

Hundreds of millions of people get malaria every year, and an estimated 2.7 million die from it, mostly in tropical and subtropical regions. In 2022, 94 percent of global malaria cases occurred in sub-Saharan Africa. High rates of the disease are also found in Central America and the Caribbean, South America, Southeast Asia, and the western Pacific. Papua New Guinea registered over 400,000 new cases in 2022. That same year the country accounted for 90 percent of the malaria cases in the western Pacific.  

Malaria is carried by dozens of species of Anopheles mosquitoes, also known as marsh or nail mosquitoes. Anopheles mosquitoes carry a parasite called Plasmodium — the single-cell genus that causes malaria in birds, reptiles, and mammals like humans. 

When the bite of an Anopheles mosquito introduces Plasmodium into the human bloodstream, the parasites travel to the liver, where they lurk undetectably and mature for a period ranging from weeks to a year. Once the parasites reach maturity, they venture out into the bloodstream and infect red blood cells. The host often experiences symptoms at this stage of the infection — fever, chills, nausea, and general, flu-like discomfort. 

The earlier a malaria infection is caught, the better the chances that antimalarial medications can help prevent the development of severe malaria, when the disease spreads to critical organs in the body. 

Pregnancy primes the body for infection. 

A photomicrograph of placental tissue revealing the presence of the malarial parasite Plasmodium falciparum. BSIP / UIG Via Getty Images

The immune system, when it is functioning properly, engages an arsenal of weapons to ward off bacteria, viruses, and other pathogens. But pregnancy acts like an immunosuppressant, telling the defense system to stand down in order to ensure the body does not inadvertently reject the growing baby. “Your immune system is, on purpose, dialed back so that you can tolerate the fact that you have this fetus inside of you,” said Marya Zlatnik, an obstetrician and gynecologist at University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

Then there’s the added strain of supplying the baby with enough nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. The body must work overtime to provide for the metabolic needs of two. This factor, exacerbated by poverty, malnutrition, and subpar medical infrastructure in countries where malaria is commonly found, poses enormous challenges to maternal and fetal health. A malaria infection on top of those existing vulnerabilities introduces another, even more challenging set of obstacles.

The disease can produce severe maternal anemia, iron deficiency, or it can spread to the kidneys and the lungs and cause a condition known as blackwater fever. The disorder makes patients jaundiced, feverish, and dangerously low on vitamins crucial for a healthy pregnancy. 

“It’s pretty much synonymous with death for many patients up in the rural areas,” Casupang said. Research shows that malaria may be a factor in a quarter of all maternal deaths in the countries where the disease is endemic

A woman with her newborn baby in the birthing suite at a hospital in Goroka in 2009. Jason South / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

Plasmodium parasites have spikes on them, similar to the now-infamous coronavirus spike proteins, that make them sticky and prone to clogging up organs. If Plasmodium travel to the placenta, the parasites bind to placental receptors and cause portions of the placenta to die off. “It changes the architecture of the placenta and the ways nutrients and oxygen are exchanged with the fetus,” said Courtney Murdock, an associate professor at Cornell University’s department of entomology. The placental clots interfere with fetal growth, and they’re one of the reasons why a pregnant woman is between three and four times more likely to miscarry if she has a malaria infection, and why babies born to mothers sick with malaria come out of the womb malnourished and underweight. 

“You see the placenta start to fail,” Casupang said. Fetal mortality is closely tied to how much of the placenta becomes oxygen deprived. “The babies come out with very low birth weights,” he said. If the placental clots are extensive, “they usually die.” 

In 2020, approximately 122 million pregnancies — about half of all pregnancies worldwide that year — occurred in areas where people were at risk of contracting malaria. A 2023 study estimated that 16 million of these pregnancies ended in miscarriage, and 1.4 million in stillbirth. 

Researchers don’t know exactly how many of those miscarriages and stillbirths occurred in individuals who were bitten by malaria-infected mosquitoes. 

However, the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 35 percent of pregnant people in African countries with moderate to high malaria transmission were exposed to the disease during pregnancy in 2022. A widespread lack of health data in poor countries makes it nearly impossible to know how many of those infections resulted in maternal, fetal, or infant death. “Unfortunately, it is only safe to say that we do not have good morbidity estimates at this point,” said Feiko ter Kuile, chair in tropical epidemiology at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

Researchers have said that out of all the high-impact infectious diseases — including Ebola, mpox (formerly known as monkeypox), and MERS — malaria is the “most sensitive to the relationship of human populations to their environment.” In Papua New Guinea, the coastal zones that sit near or at sea level have long had environmental conditions that foster the development and spread of the Anopheles mosquito. Cases of malaria topped 1.5 million in 2020, and the vast majority occurred in the nation’s lowlands. 

At 4,000 feet or more above sea level, where some 40 percent of the Papua New Guinean population lives, temperatures have historically been too cold for Anopheles mosquitoes to thrive year-round. There have been seasonal outbreaks of malaria in those zones, but the background hum of malaria present in the lowlands largely disappears above the 4,000 feet mark. At 5,200 feet above sea level, periodic freezes kill mosquitoes and prevent them from establishing widely, making malaria infections there very rare.

But climate change is expanding the areas where Anopheles mosquitoes and the Plasmodium they carry flourish by fostering warmer, wetter environments. Mosquitoes thrive in the aftermath of big storms, when the insects have ample opportunity to breed in standing pools of water. 

At the same time, higher-than-average temperatures almost everywhere in the world mark the beginning of a new chapter in humanity’s long struggle to contain mosquitoes and the diseases they carry. Anopheles mosquitoes grow into adults more quickly in warmer weather, and longer warm seasons allow them to breed faster and stay active longer

This poses problems in areas where Anopheles mosquitoes are already prevalent, and in regions the insects are poised to infiltrate. The mountainous regions of the world — the Himalayas, the Andes, the East African highlands — are thawing as average global temperatures climb. What used to be an inhospitable habitat is becoming fertile ground for malaria transmission

Women pick strawberries in a highland field in Enga Province, Papua New Guinea, in December 2019. Betsy Joles / Getty Images Piglets stand on the road near Kapandas village in the highlands of Papua New Guinea in December 2019. Betsy Joles / Getty Images

Like their mosquito hosts, Plasmodium parasites are sensitive to temperature. The two most common strains, Plasmodium falciparum and Plasmodium vivax, like temperatures in the range of 56 to 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The warmer the weather, the more quickly the parasites are able to reach their infectious stage. A study that examined temperatures suitable to Plasmodium in the western Himalaya mountains predicted that, by 2040, the mountain range’s high-elevation sites — 8,500 feet above sea level — “will have a temperature range conducive for malaria transmission.”  

There’s little data on the rate at which Anopheles mosquitoes and the parasites they carry are moving upward in Papua New Guinea, but research shows temperatures across Papua New Guinea were, on average, just under 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees F) warmer between 2000 and 2017 than they were a century prior. A report conducted by the World Bank Group noted that this temperature rise “has been fastest in the minimum temperatures,” meaning climate change jeopardizes the overnight low temperatures that are so essential to mosquito control. Anecdotally, doctors and nurses working in the country’s colder regions say they have seen a familiar pattern begin to change. 

Stella Silihtau works in the emergency department at the Eastern Highlands Provincial Health Authority in Goroka, a town of 20,000 that sits at 5,200 feet above sea level on a major road that connects the scattered highland cities and towns to the communities along the coast. Silihtau and her colleagues are no strangers to malaria. Hundreds of people in Goroka and surrounding highland towns grow cash crops like coffee, tea, rubber, and sugarcane and ferry them down to the coast every week to sell to plantations and community boards. The highland dwellers are bitten by mosquitoes at lower elevations, and end up at the hospital where Silihtau works weeks later, sick with malaria. Over the past year, she’s seen unusual cases starting to crop up.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of patients that are coming in with malaria,” said Silihtau, who grew up in the lowlands. Many of these cases have been in people who have not traveled at all. “We’ve seen mild cases, severe cases, they go into psychosis,” she said.

A fire set to repel mosquitoes in Milne Bay Province, Papua New Guinea. Eric Lafforgue / Art in All of Us / Corbis via Getty Images

Silihtau and her colleagues don’t have the time or staff to keep close track of how many locally acquired malaria cases have been treated at the hospital over the past year. But Silihtau estimates that when she first started working at the hospital in Goroka two years ago, she saw one case per eight-hour shift, or none at all. Now, she sees between two and three cases of malaria per shift, some of them in individuals who have not traveled outside the boundaries of Papua New Guinea’s highland zones. “It’s a new trend,” Silihtau said. 

The new dangers that the upward movement of malaria mosquitoes pose to pregnant people are obfuscated by positive signals in malaria cases globally. 

Global malaria deaths plummeted 36 percent between 2010 and 2020, the dive driven by wider implementation of the standard, relatively low-cost treatments that research shows are incredibly effective at preventing severe infections: insecticide-treated mosquito nets, antimalarial drugs, and malaria tests. 

This promising trend stalled in 2022, when there were an estimated 249 million cases of malaria globally — up 5 million from 2021. Much of the increase can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic, which slowed various global infectious disease control efforts as health care systems tried to contain an entirely new threat. Funding for malaria control is also falling short. Countries spent a total of $4.1 billion on malaria in 2022, nowhere near the $7.8 billion in funding the World Health Organization says is necessary annually to reduce the global health burden of the disease 90 percent by 2030. 

Meanwhile, cases have been rising in step with the spread of a mosquito called Anopheles stephensi, a species that can carry two different strains of Plasmodium and, unlike the rest of its Anopheles brethren, thrives in urban environments. Efforts to control malaria in both urban and rural settings are stymied by the quickening pace and severity of extreme weather events, which scramble vaccination and mosquito net distribution campaigns, shutter health clinics, and interrupt medical supply chains. Record-breaking storms, which destroy homes and public infrastructure and create thousands of internal migrants, force governments in developing countries to choose where to allocate limited funding. Infectious disease control programs are often the first to go

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Climate change + fertility

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The world’s slowly warming highland regions are one small thread in the web of factors influencing the prevalence of malaria. But because of the lack of immunity among populations in upper elevations, the movement of malaria into these zones poses a unique threat to pregnant people — one that may grow to constitute a disproportionate fraction of the overall impact of malaria as climate change continues to worsen. 

“Pregnant women are going to be a high-risk population in highland areas,” said Chandy C. John, a professor and researcher at Indiana University School of Medicine who has conducted malaria research in Kenya and Uganda for 20 years. John and his colleagues are in the process of analyzing their two decades of health data to try to tease out the potential effects of climate on malaria cases. “What are we seeing in terms of rainfall and temperature and how they relate to risk of malaria over time in these areas?” he asked. His study will add to the small but growing body of research on how temperature shifts in high elevations contribute to the prevalence of malaria.

Controlling and even eradicating malaria isn’t just possible; it has already been done. Dozens of countries have banished the disease; Cabo Verde recently became the third African country to be certified as malaria-free. “Malaria is such a complex disease,” said Jennifer Gardy, deputy director for malaria surveillance, data, and epidemiology at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, “but that complexity is kind of beautiful because it means we’ve got so many different intervention points.” 

In addition to the typical interventions such as mosquito nets, the Papua New Guinea National Department of Health has had some success with medical therapies for people who develop malaria infections while pregnant. Doctors there and in many other malaria-endemic places use intermittent preventive treatment on pregnant women. The antimalarial is administered orally as soon as patients learn they are pregnant and, if taken on regularly, can significantly reduce the chances of severe malaria over the course of gestation. The treatment remains difficult to access in highland regions, as malaria has historically been uncommon there. If governments and hospitals pay attention and get these medicines into places where rising temperatures are changing climatic constraints on mosquitoes, they will save lives. 

A mother feeds her newborn baby in the maternity ward of a hospital in Goroka in 2009. Jason South / Fairfax Media via Getty Images

The smartest solutions are those that address malaria as a symptom of a wider system of inequity. Papua New Guinea is a “patriarchal society where men get the best treatment,” Casupang, who now works for an international emergency medicine and security company called International SOS, said. “Women are pretty much regarded as commodities.” Most married women must seek permission from their husbands to seek medical care at a facility, and permission is not always granted. Many women are also prevented from seeking medical attention by poverty, by the quality of the roads that connect rural villages to cities, and because they don’t recognize the symptoms of malaria or understand the risks the infection poses to themselves and their unborn children, Casupang said. Just 55 percent of women in Papua New Guinea give birth in a health facility, a partial function of the fact that the country currently has less than a quarter of the medical personnel it needs to care for mothers, babies, and children.

“There are quite a number of factors that will determine the outcome of a mother that has malaria,” Casupang said. “The most important thing is access to a health care facility.” He’s one of many experts who argue that better infrastructure, improvements in education, and the implementation of policies that protect women and girls double as malaria control measures — not just in Papua New Guinea but everywhere poverty creates footholds for infectious diseases to take root and flourish.

“Education, a living wage, sanitation, and all of these other very basic things can do so much for a disease like malaria,” John said. “It’s not a mosquito net or a vaccine, but it can make such a huge difference for the population.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Pregnant in a warming climate: A lethal ‘double risk’ for malaria on May 30, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Salt in the womb: How rising seas erode reproductive health

Thu, 05/30/2024 - 01:30

Today, 30-year-old garment factory worker Khadiza Akhter lives in Savar, a suburb of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Her small concrete house is clean and organized. Green shutters frame the windows, and clothes hang on lines outside her front door. A water spigot sticks out of the concrete next to the drying laundry, and the turn of a white plastic knob is all it takes for clear, clean water to rush out. Akhter calls it “a blessing of God.”

Akhter grew up some 180 miles south of Savar, in Satkhira — a district home to 2.2 million people on a river delta where, in recent decades, fresh water has become scarce. As sea levels rise, rivers dry up, and cyclones become more severe, Satkhira and the other low-lying districts that surround it have been among the first in the world to experience the sting of climate change-driven saltwater intrusion — the creep of seawater inland. 

The memory of drinking water tainted with salt is burned into Akhter’s mind. “It felt like swallowing needles,” she told Grist and Vox in Bengali. “It doesn’t quench your thirst.” The water was so salty Akhter couldn’t properly clean herself with it. The sodium in the water prevented soap from forming bubbles and left powdery streaks on her skin as it dried. Her hair fell out, and she itched all over. 

When she hit puberty, she had to wash her cloth menstrual pads in salty water. The monthly exposure to salt in her pads made her break out in sores. Akhter’s menstrual cycle became erratic. “One month, it showed up unexpectedly early, catching me completely off guard,” she said. “The next month, it seemed to disappear altogether.” She sought medical advice at the Shyamnagar Upazila Health Complex, the local hospital in Satkhira, but there was no long-term fix available to her, beyond stopping her period altogether with hormonal birth control pills. She left Satkhira a decade ago, when she was a teenager, and moved to Savar, known for having some of the cleanest water in Bangladesh. 

Khadiza Akhter fills up pitchers with water from a spigot in front of her home in Savar, Bangladesh. Mahadi Al Hasnat

When Akhter first arrived in Savar, she had trouble adapting to city life. She wasn’t used to eating food cooked on a gas stove, and went to extreme lengths to avoid it. “I used to buy biscuits or cakes from the office canteen and sometimes starved,” she said. But, Akhter, who knew she wanted children someday, pushed through. “All I ever wanted was a better life for my kids — a life where they wouldn’t have to worry about food or clean water,” she said.

Studies have shown that saltwater consumption has negative, long-lasting effects on nearly every stage of a woman’s reproductive cycle, from menstruation to birth. Akhter knew that if she stayed in Satkhira and started a family of her own there, she’d be putting herself in real danger. She’s not the only person in her region to leave in search of cleaner water. Millions of Bangladeshis have been internally displaced by flooding in the past decade, and experts say saltwater intrusion is one of the factors driving migration from rural regions of Bangladesh to urban centers. 

In some ways, Akhter is one of the lucky ones. She got out of Satkhira before saltwater consumption led to high blood pressure, a hysterectomy, or worse. But the women, and other people with uteruses, who remain in Satkhira are suffering from reproductive health effects — issues that could become common elsewhere in the coming years. As sea levels rise and intensifying storms stress infrastructure systems along coasts around the world, salt water threatens to infiltrate freshwater drinking supplies in countries like Egypt, Italy, the United States, and Vietnam. The issue, a 2021 study stated, “has become one of the main threats to the safety of freshwater supply in coastal zones.” The health of women living in these areas is on the line. 

Jahangirnagar University, a campus in Savar where Akhter and her family often spend their time. Mahadi Al Hasnat

Southwestern Bangladesh is accustomed to encroaching salt water. The region sits adjacent to where the Padma River — known as the Ganges in India — empties into the Bay of Bengal. Most of the Bangladesh delta is less than 2 meters, or 6.5 feet, above sea level, with some areas at or even below the tide line. When cyclones wheel into the bay, storm surge pushes salt water inland, flooding the area.

For generations, communities in Satkhira adapted to the ebb and flow that defines the delta ecosystem. In the late 1960s, when a catastrophic period of cyclone-driven storm surge submerged rice paddies in salt water and ruined livelihoods, Satkhira was one of the first districts in Bangladesh to turn those paddies into shrimp farms. Small-scale farmers took advantage of storm surge — trapping seawater in ponds and paddies to cultivate shellfish — and paved the way for other parts of coastal Bangladesh to do the same. Today, shellfish farms have expanded into roughly 675 square miles of land, most of it in southern Bangladesh. Annual shellfish exports are valued in the hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars, and the industry employs more than a million people directly, and millions more indirectly

But the district’s legacy of hard-fought resilience is being undone by climate change. 

Savar, Bangladesh. Mahadi Al Hasnat

Already, sea level rise has pushed the saline front more than 62 miles inland along the country’s 450-mile coastline. Climate models indicate that a 380-square-mile area in coastal Bangladesh, home to 860,000 people, could be under the high tide line by the end of this century. Every millimeter of sea level rise contributes to more expansive and intense saltwater intrusion in soil and freshwater resources. 

Between 2000 and 2020, the country was hit by eight major cyclones. One of these powerful storms, 2007’s Cyclone Sidr, produced a 16-foot-high storm surge, rainfall, and tidal waves that flooded an area home to 3.45 million people. This week, a storm of similar proportions, Cyclone Remal, destroyed tens of thousands of homes and trapped thousands of people in the country’s low-lying areas. Nearly 40 percent of the country’s seaside soil already has salt in it, but storms like Sidr and Remal — the severe cyclones that are projected to become more common as climate change worsens — supercharge salinization by spreading unprecedented quantities of salt water deeper inland.

The Bangladeshi government has inadvertently contributed to the problem. In the 1960s, the government built a series of embankments around reclaimed land in southern Bangladesh. These areas, called polders, were meant to protect communities and agriculture from storm surge. But the embankments, which stand up to 13 feet high, are not tall enough to keep major surges out. Seven cyclones with storm surge of more than 13 feet hit Bangladesh between 1970 and 2008. Once the embankments have been overtopped, the seawater can’t flow out again. 

Fishermen work in a marsh a few hundred feet from where Akhter lives in Savar. Mahadi Al Hasnat

The trend is made worse by the region’s growing shrimp and prawn industry. Black tiger shrimp, the main species of shrimp farmed in Bangladesh, thrive in brackish water — water that is saline but not quite as salty as seawater. When Satkhira began to embrace aquaculture and shrimp farming, the government neglected to study the potential risks of adding saline to freshwater ponds in order to make them suitable for shrimp farming. Over time, salt from the shrimp fields leached into ponds and other in-ground freshwater containers, further contaminating limited drinking water supplies. A 2019 report that tested salinity in 57 freshwater ponds in Satkhira found that 41 of them contained water that was too salty for drinking

The Padma River, which carries fresh water from Nepal through India to Bangladesh, is another source of salinity. The river supplies much of the fresh water Bangladeshis use for irrigation, farming, freshwater fishing, and drinking. But the Padma’s flow into Bangladesh is restricted seasonally by India, which controls a dam in West Bengal called the Farakka Barrage. During dry periods, the flow of water coming into Bangladesh from India slows and the volume of river water going into the ocean weakens, allowing seawater to work its way up the Padma. When heavy rain falls, the river swells and salt water is pushed back out, expunging the river of its salinity and transforming the river back into a freshwater resource. 

Families collect rainwater during the winter to use throughout the dry season, but climate change is scrambling those delicate calculations, too. The seasonal rains start later and stop earlier than they did a decade ago, and when it does rain, it rains harder. These compounding issues force Bangladeshis to pull more fresh water from groundwater aquifers, which are rapidly dwindling.

“The people are trapped,” said Zion Bodrud-Doza, a researcher at the University of Guelph in Canada who studies saltwater intrusion in Bangladesh. “When you don’t have water to drink, how do you live?”

In 2008, Aneire Khan, a researcher at Imperial College London, visited Dacope, a division of the Khulna district, which borders Satkhira in southwest Bangladesh. She met a gynecologist there who told her that an unusual number of pregnant women were coming to him with gestational hypertension and preeclampsia. 

The former is defined as two separate blood pressure readings of greater than 140 over 90 in the second half of the pregnancy. The latter occurs when those high blood pressure readings are accompanied by high levels of protein in the urine. 

Both conditions affect how the placenta develops and embeds into the uterine wall, said Tracy Caroline Bank, a maternal fetal medicine fellow physician at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Patients with either condition “have a higher risk of things like a preterm delivery, of fetal loss,” she said, in addition to “a higher risk of the baby growing too small.” Premature babies are dealt a bad hand before they take their first breaths: Low birth weights are linked to poor development, cognitive impairments, cerebral palsy, and psychological disorders

The gynecologist Khan spoke to said that high blood pressure readings, especially in women, were occurring with more frequency. Other medical professionals Khan spoke to in Khulna confirmed that observation. They thought salt water may be the culprit. 

Amelia K. Bates / Grist

People who drink water with small amounts of salt in it can grow acclimated to moderate salinity over time. Khan, who was traveling between London and Bangladesh at the time, tasted the water in Khulna and was surprised to encounter immediate, undeniable salinity. It was “very, very salty,” she said. She conducted a survey of blood pressure levels in pregnant women living along the coast and compared the data to blood pressure in women living inland. More than 20 percent of the women living in coastal zones had been diagnosed with a hypertensive disorder, compared to less than 3 percent of women living in Dhaka. It was clear that a serious public health threat was growing along the coast, but no formal epidemiological study of saltwater intrusion and reproductive health in Bangladesh existed at the time. Khan set out to change that. 

In 2011, three years after she spoke to the gynecologist in Khulna — the man who became her co-author — Khan published a study that showed that hypertension, or high blood pressure, in Dacope occurred seasonally. Out of the 969 pregnant women they analyzed, 90 presented with hypertension. In the wet monsoon months, heavy rains filled ponds with fresh water and diluted salt concentrations in rivers. During the dry season, lack of rainfall caused people to turn to other sources of drinking water that became steadily saltier over the course of the season. Of the 90 cases of gestational hypertension that Khan documented, 70 occurred during the months of November and April, the periods with the least amount of rainfall. 

The World Health Organization recommends that adults consume no more than 5 grams of salt per day, about a teaspoon worth. Khan ultimately discovered that women in Dacope were getting more than three times that amount per day from their drinking water alone during the dry months. 

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Climate change + fertility

Read all the stories in this series

Consumption isn’t the only way that salt water endangers women’s reproductive health. As Akhter learned as an adolescent, using salt water to wash cloth menstrual pads presents additional dangers. The water “doesn’t clean well,” said Mashura Shammi, a professor at Jahangirnagar University in Bangladesh who studies saltwater intrusion and the effects of pollutants on health. “The salt makes the cloth very hard,” she added, and can cause scratches in the vagina that lead to infection. 

Other women in southwestern Bangladesh, particularly those who make a living working in shrimp aquaculture or fishing in the rivers, suffer even more intense health repercussions. Standing in salt water every day can produce chronic uterine infections and uterine cancer. The International Centre for Climate Change and Development, a research institute, interviewed women from Bangaldesh’s coastal zones and found anecdotal evidence of a host of saltwater-linked health outcomes. “I have cut off my uterus through surgery due to my severe infections,” one 32-year-old woman said. “And I am not the only one, there are many like me.” In the same report, a doctor from the Shyamnagar Upazila Health Complex said she had noticed “an increase in infertility, irregular periods, and pelvic inflammatory disease.” The doctor said that the majority of her female patients over the age of 40 have had hysterectomies or have undergone procedures to eliminate the lining of the uterus in order to lessen heavy menstrual bleeding. 

Roughly 40 percent of the world’s population lives within 60 miles of a coast, and more than 100 countries are at risk of saltwater intrusion. By the end of 2019, 501 cities around the world had reported a saltwater intrusion crisis of some degree — more than a fifth of them home to more than 1 million people each. “Bangladesh isn’t the only country that’s going to be affected by salinity,” Khan said. “Vietnam, China, the Netherlands, Brazil — salinity in the coastal areas is going to be a huge issue, and is already a problem.”

The Mekong Delta, where the Mekong River flows into the ocean, is Vietnam’s breadbasket. Every year during the dry season, seawater flows up the mouth of the river from the South China Sea, turning the river salty for a month or two. People living in the delta — 20 percent of Vietnam’s population, many of them farmers — collect rainwater during the wet season to compensate for the seasonal salinity. But recent years have marked a departure from the norm. Yearslong droughts, more erratic rainfall patterns, and a network of Chinese dams upstream have produced a saltwater intrusion crisis in the Mekong River. The creep of saltwater upstream could lead to $3 billion in agricultural losses per year, and thousands of residents could see their drinking water cut off this year

A similar story is unfolding in the Nile Delta in Egypt, where farmers are pumping groundwater to supplant increasingly salty water from the Nile River. Overreliance on coastal groundwater upsets the natural balance between freshwater aquifer and ocean. As groundwater levels drop, the pressure keeping salt water out weakens, allowing the ocean in. If aquifers are drained too quickly, and past a certain point, pumping water out of the ground can actually suck ocean water into the aquifers like a vacuum. Some 15 percent of the most fertile land in the Nile Delta is contaminated with salt water due to drought, sea level rise, and overpumping. 

Nearly every solution to saltwater intrusion hinges on trying to keep seawater out of fresh water to begin with. Armoring coastlines with sea walls, levies, sandbags, and other hard infrastructure is the first line of defense in many countries. Those with water and money to spare can artificially “recharge” underground freshwater aquifers to preserve the natural tension between fresh water and salt water. Governments can also put restrictions on how much water farmers can pull from underground resources. 

Preventative measures are more effective than fixes put in place after the fact. It’s nearly impossible to clean salt out of fresh water without the aid of expensive and energy-intensive desalination equipment, which most countries do not have. A medium-size desalination plant, which is an incredibly energy-intensive piece of infrastructure, costs millions of dollars to build and then millions more in annual operation costs. Even in very rich nations, runaway saltwater intrusion poses risks to infrastructure and people. Most water supply networks’ intake stations in the U.S., for example, are not outfitted with desalination technology. Once saltwater intrusion reaches those stations, they have to be shut off to avoid pulling the water in.

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While global salinity monitoring is spotty, evidence of saltwater intrusion continues to grow.

Electrical conductivity value (µS/cm) 10K–100K 100K–1M 1M–10M Bangladesh U.S. Atlantic Coast U.S. Gulf Coast Australia

Source: Thorslund & van Vliet 2020 | Clayton Aldern / Grist

Last year, drought in the Mississippi and the Ohio River valleys weakened the flow of water in the Mississippi River, and a massive wedge of seawater from the Gulf of Mexico started to creep north. As the wedge moved upstream along the bottom of the river, intake stations in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, started sucking it in. More than 9,000 residents couldn’t drink water from their taps, and local officials started distributing bottled water. Rainwater eventually eased the drought and forced the wedge back toward the ocean. Water in Plaquemines Parish is currently safe to drink again, though experts warn salt water poses a long-term threat to drinking water in southeast Louisiana.

Saltwater intrusion “is an issue along most of the coastline in America,” said Chris Russoniello, a professor of geological sciences at the University of Rhode Island. California, Louisiana, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island are some of the states that are already confronting intrusion. But exactly how much of a threat it poses to communities “varies drastically from place to place,” Russoniello said. How much funding states direct to keeping saltwater intrusion at bay will determine the extent to which people feel the burden of intrusion. Many states already lack sufficient drinking water protections and infrastructure, particularly in low-income and minority areas. Saltwater intrusion is likely to exacerbate existing drinking water inequities. But, in general, the U.S. is much better equipped to address saltwater intrusion than other countries grappling with similar issues. 

“The places where this will really be felt are places where the resources are not available,” Russoniello said. In Bangladesh, the government has tried to leverage billions in international and domestic resilience funding to try to protect communities in the southern parts of the country. The solutions often do more harm than good. The embankments are susceptible to breaching, shrimp and prawn farmers have further contaminated soil and drinking water with salt, and an expensive network of gates, locks, and sluices meant to control ocean water are decaying due to lack of regular maintenance. District governments and nongovernmental organizations distribute rainwater collection tanks to a small percentage of families every year, which provide some measure of relief. But none of these fixes are permanent. 

“If the water is saline, you cannot make it fresh water in the blink of an eye,” Bodrud-Doza said. “People are trying to survive, but people need to leave.” Coastal Bangladesh and southeast Louisiana have that, at least, in common. Sea level rise will force a substantial portion of the population in both places to migrate inland. In areas where the encroaching tide, deadly storm surge, and widespread saltwater intrusion are inevitable, there will eventually be no option but retreat. “It’s something we need to think about as a society,” Russionello said. For the women already living on the front lines of a crisis that robs them of their health, reproductive organs, and pregnancies, retreating from the coastline is no longer a question of if, but how. 

Shamim, Muntaha, and Khadiza Akhter at home in Savar. Mahadi Al Hasnat

Akhter and her husband, Shamim, grew up in adjacent villages and met when they were children. They began dating in high school and later indicated to their families that they wanted to be married. Akhter was living in Savar when her marriage to Shamim was arranged by her parents. After they were married in a traditional ceremony in Satkhira, Akhter temporarily moved to Shamim’s village, where the salt levels in the drinking water were even higher than they had been in her home village. The couple tried purifying the water with aluminum sulfate powder and boiling the water with herbs. As a last resort, Shamim installed a water filter he obtained in Dhaka. Nothing helped. 

Akhter permanently relocated to Savar with Shamim, and, soon after, became pregnant and gave birth to her first daughter, Miftaul. Two years later, she gave birth to a second healthy girl, Muntaha. At first, the family lived together in Savar. But Akhter and Shamim both work full time, and they couldn’t afford day care for both children. Their older daughter, Miftaul, who is now 5, lives in Satkhira with her grandparents for most of the year, and Akhter worries about the impact that saltwater intrusion will have on her young daughter’s life. 

Akhter’s younger daughter, Muntaha, looks out a window. Mahadi Al Hasnat

“It’s not ideal for her health, especially now that she’s growing,” Akhter said. “She already has trouble showering with salty water.” Miftaul has begun attending school in Satkhira, but Akhter and Shamim plan to bring her back to the city, where the schools and water quality are better, as soon as possible. 

Akhter doesn’t want her children to relive a version of her own difficult childhood. A piece of her heart will always live in Satkhira, she said, but her future, and her daughters’ futures, are anchored in Savar. “I don’t want them to go through the struggles we faced.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Salt in the womb: How rising seas erode reproductive health on May 30, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

‘How did we miss this for so long?’: The link between extreme heat and preterm birth

Thu, 05/30/2024 - 01:25

When Rupa Basu was pregnant with her second child, her body temperature felt out of control — particularly as her third trimester began in the summer of 2007. It wasn’t particularly hot in Oakland, California, with high temperatures reaching 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Still, she felt uncomfortably warm even as her colleagues and friends were unbothered.

As her October due date approached, she drank extra fluids and avoided going outside during the hottest stretch of the day. “This is really weird,” she recalls thinking. She wondered if there could be a biological mechanism at work. 

That notion had troubling implications. “If this is a biological response, imagine what’s happening in places like India and Africa where the heat can get to an unbearable 130 degrees Fahrenheit,” Basu remembers thinking. As a researcher at the California Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, Basu knew that other vulnerable populations, notably the elderly, were particularly susceptible to heat

But she couldn’t find any answers to one fundamental question: do higher temperatures lead to premature births or other pregnancy complications? 

Rupa Basu poses for a photo while pregnant with her second child in June 2007. Courtesy of Rupa Basu

As Basu prepared for her second baby’s delivery, she began gathering state weather data and birth records to identify preterm births, those that occur prior to 37 weeks of gestation. Preterm birth is linked to a wide variety of health conditions, including anemia, respiratory distress, jaundice, sepsis, and retinopathy — and, at worst, infant mortality.

Researchers, including Basu, had already documented the impacts of air pollution on adverse pregnancy outcomes. But heat was, at the time, uncharted terrain — and the suggestion that it might have an effect was met with skepticism. Colleagues, particularly those who had not ever been pregnant, implied she was wasting her time. But when Basu published her study, her findings spurred similar research all over the world. 

Basu analyzed 60,000 summertime births — those taking place between May and September — from 1999 to 2006, across 16 California counties. She found higher rates of preterm births during higher temperatures. She published the research in 2010, and even though she focused on California, it was the first large-scale epidemiological study looking at preterm delivery and temperature conducted anywhere in the world. 

What was especially shocking, Basu said, was how much greater the risk was for Black mothers — 2.5 times higher than for white populations.

“How did we miss this for so long?” Basu asked. “Women are often the last to get studied. But the most vulnerable people are those who are pregnant.”

Those vulnerabilities are intensifying. In the last year, the hottest on record, 6.3 billion people — notably in South and East Asia and the African Sahel — experienced at least 31 days of extreme heat, hotter than 90 percent of documented temperatures between 1991 and 2020, according to a new report

Breast milk is fed via tubes to a preterm infant at a neonatal intensive care unit in Washington, D.C., in 2017. Astrid Riecken / The Washington Post via Getty Images

As human-caused climate change continues, the number, intensity and duration of heat waves will only get worse. Without intervention, those heat waves will cause millions of babies around the world to be born preterm. Higher temperatures will also have knock-on impacts to gestational and fetal health. As temperatures rise, so does drought and air pollution, which also increases the risk of preterm birth or low birthweight babies. Pollutants from vehicle combustion, including nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds, react in sunlight to form ozone. And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency calculated that extreme heat events will also lead to more wildfires, leading to air pollution that is expected to cause thousands of additional preterm births

Basu began research on pregnant people because they are woefully understudied and they represent one of the most vulnerable populations. Now that there is strong evidence that heat exacerbates adverse birth outcomes, she hopes it will instigate policy change, promote awareness, and ultimately, decrease risk and disparities. “We need to take more action,” she said. “This is preventable.”

Emergency medical technicians respond to a pregnant woman suffering from dehydration in July 2023 in Eagle Pass, Texas. Brandon Bell / Getty Images

In the 14 years since Basu’s initial paper, dozens of studies have confirmed that higher temperatures and heat waves are linked to preterm birth as well as stillbirth. 

In 2020, Basu co-authored a review of 57 studies that found a significant association between air pollution and heat exposure with preterm birth and low birth weight. Scientists have found an association between heat exposure and preterm birth rates in every developed nation, and in the few developing nations to conduct studies so far. 

While it’s not yet clear how heat triggers preterm birth, there are several hypotheses — including dehydration, hormonal releases that rupture membranes surrounding the fetus, or poor blood flow between parent and unborn child.

This research has taken place against a backdrop of a worsening maternal health crisis in the U.S., particularly in marginalized communities. The U.S. has the highest rate of preterm births in the developed world. Kasey Rivas, associate director of strategic partnerships at the March of Dimes and a co-author of a recent report on birth outcomes and disparities, told me that maternal health disparities in the U.S. stem largely from systemic racism and are worsening due to climate change.

Amelia K. Bates / Grist

A 2023 study found that the average preterm birth rate was 7.9 percent across North America, Australia, New Zealand, and Europe in 2020; but the United States’ preterm birth rate was higher — 10 percent. By comparison, the highest population-wide preterm birth rate in the world is 13.2 percent in South Asia. U.S. rates of preterm birth increased 4 percent between 2020 and 2021 — and rates were far higher in Black women (14.8 percent) compared to white women (9.5 percent), according to the March of Dimes report. “The data were disturbing and disheartening,” Rivas said.

In 2023, a team of scientists decided to take a closer look at a notoriously deadly heat wave in Chicago in 1995 during which over 700 died as high humidity made 106 degrees feel like a hellish 120. “If we didn’t see a racial effect during this event, we won’t see it anywhere,” study co-author Joan Casey, an environmental epidemiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, recently told me. 

Casey and her colleagues found convincingly stark racial disparities. The mean monthly incidence of preterm birth rose 16.7 percent beyond what was expected for Black mothers six months after the heat wave. No such link was seen in non-Hispanic white births. 

Further, a study conducted in Harris County, Texas, which includes Houston, the fourth largest U.S. city, found that the risk of preterm birth was 15 percent higher following extremely hot days — and had the greatest impact on communities of color that lived in neighborhoods with more concrete than trees.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

That finding points to the reasons behind the racial gap in preterm births linked to heat waves. Preterm birth has been linked to a number of factors including inadequate nutrition, exposure to air pollution, lack of access to quality health care, lack of air conditioning, or having a job working outdoors — or several of these at once. Heat only worsens existing risks.

And communities of color are more likely than white communities to face all of these risk factors, including heat. Predominantly Black neighborhoods were redlined, or deemed most risky, beginning in the 1930s when insurance companies created maps assigning investment risk levels based on race. Today, those redlined areas have more industrial facilities, excessive truck traffic, and a heavier pollution burden — and often, the least shade or green space. Areas dominated by concrete, asphalt, and buildings experience hotter temperatures due to the urban heat island effect, the phenomenon in which gray infrastructure absorbs and holds more heat than forests or waterways.  

Fresno County, California, which has some of the worst air pollution in the United States, exemplifies this pattern. Venise Curry, a consultant for community-based organizations collaborating with the UC San Francisco California Preterm Birth Initiative and others on a prenatal research study designed to lower preterm birth rates, told me that the county’s highest preterm birth numbers are in Southwest Fresno — a formerly redlined, predominantly Black neighborhood of color.

Shuttered storefronts line the area west of downtown Fresno, a city with a long history of redlining, or institutionalized housing racism. Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Black and white “women experience broadly similar climate changes, but are seeing drastically different outcomes — so something else must be at play,” said Bryttani Wooten, a Ph.D. student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who has studied racial disparities in preterm birth rates. “That something else is systemic racism, including legacies of residential segregation.” 

Obstetric providers in low-income communities of color describe preterm birth as a crisis. “Preterm birth is a 24/7, 365-days-a-year public health emergency in my community,” said Nneoma Nwachuku Ojiaku, an obstetrician in Sacramento. Madeleine Wisner, who was the only midwife provider serving low-income residents in the Sacramento Valley through the state Medicaid program for seven years until recently, described something similar. “A course of maternity care where nothing abnormal happens doesn’t exist any longer in the populations I was serving,” Wisner said. She’s seen a range of birth complications — including abnormally implanted placentas, umbilical cord abnormalities, and preeclampsia — in patients who were exposed to heat, air pollution, or wildfire smoke during pregnancy.

Black doulas and midwives are a small but growing population determined to improve Black maternal health, said Maya Jackson, the founder of Mobilizing African American Mothers through Empowerment, or MAAME. She said that while Black midwives were once at the forefront of birthing health care for Black and white mothers post-slavery, their systematic exclusion from medical institutions changed that. Today, Jackson is seeking funding to do community-based research on heat impacts on people of color to make sure that their lived experiences and the impacts of policies that shape housing, green spaces, or industrial pollution in brown and black neighborhoods are documented. 

“Somehow living has become a political issue,” she said.

A midwife talks with a woman and her pregnant wife in their home in Fountain Valley, California, in June 2021. In an effort to avoid racism and higher maternal mortality rates, some Black women are turning to Black midwives for care. Sarah Reingewirtz / MediaNews Group / Los Angeles Daily News via Getty Images

In recent years, researchers have turned their attention to poorer, hotter regions of the world — and the findings are grim. In March, a study conducted among outdoor workers in India found that exposure to heat stress above 81 degrees F doubled the risk of miscarriage. Overall in India, 8.5 percent of pregnancies in urban areas and 6.9 percent in rural areas end in miscarriage

Ana Bonell, a researcher at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, studies heat and birth outcomes in western Africa and Pakistan. She said it’s difficult to conduct research on maternal climate exposure and adverse birth outcomes in most places in Africa because they often don’t have electronic health records or the equipment needed to accurately determine how far along a pregnancy is — information necessary to determine if a birth is, in fact, preterm. Instead, she looked at acute physiological changes in pregnant farmworkers and their fetuses in The Gambia, a country in West Africa where the average temperature is 83 degrees F. In 2022, she published data showing that the farmworkers exhibited a 17 percent increase in fetal stress, defined by a fetal heart rate either above 160 or below 115 beats per minute or decreased placental blood flow, for each degree Celsius of heat.

A fetal monitor checks the maternal vital signs of a woman getting ready to have a baby. Education Images / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

“[These are] populations that have contributed almost nothing to climate change and are at [the] front lines of the climate crisis,” Bonell said. Research in Ghana, published last year, also found that exposure to temperatures 87 degrees F or higher throughout a pregnancy resulted in an 18 percent increased risk of stillbirth

“There seems to be this myth of endless adaptation,” said Chandni Singh, a climate researcher at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements. “In tropical countries that are already very hot, there is this continuous expectation to adapt, which is not feasible. You can’t adapt to 45 C” (113 degrees F). And heat has knock-on impacts. “Heat doesn’t come alone; it comes with water scarcity and wildfires,” she said, emphasizing the need to curtail greenhouse gas emissions.

Singh has reviewed a number of heat action plans created by city and state governments globally to improve heat advisory messaging or build cooling spaces and environments. She said there is an increasing but still insufficient focus on women, particularly addressing the fact that people who are pregnant or lactating have unique heat adaptation needs. 

“We know this is a problem, and certain women are affected more,” said Singh. “How do we deal with that? That’s the next challenge.”

A pregnant flood-affected woman carries her child as she walks near her tent at a makeshift camp along a railway track in India’s Punjab province in September 2022. Arif Ali / AFP via Getty Images

While research has established the link between heat and preterm birth, the next steps are to figure out how it happens in the body, and more importantly, how to prevent  it.  

On an individual level, Ojiaku advises her patients, as early as possible in their pregnancies, to keep cool, stay hydrated, and limit work-related heat exposures as much as possible. 

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Climate change + fertility

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But other policies are needed to right racial inequities. In 2022, Ojiaku called on Sacramento leaders to improve public health messaging about heat risks — and to appoint a chief heat officer, akin to those in Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Miami, whose job it would be to include pregnant people as at-risk populations in heat advisories. 

A March study of 17 federal, 38 state, and 19 city websites with heat-health information found that only seven websites listed pregnant people as vulnerable or at-risk populations. 

“We are more likely to see information on how to take care of pets during heat waves than pregnant women,” Ojiaku told me.

In addition, she said, creating green spaces such as parks in neighborhoods that have been subject to systemic racism and redlining can offer shade, cool spaces to exercise, and a buffer against air pollution. 

“Sacramento is called ‘the city of trees,’ but that’s for a select few in the predominantly wealthier sections of Sacramento,” Ojiaku said. “Other areas are a concrete jungle.” 

In 2023, UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, published a dossier describing measures needed to protect women and children from heat waves. It stressed prevention and preparedness, including training frontline workers to identify heat-related illness and local government adaptations such as providing cooling centers and shaded areas.

“We need to get prepared and take heat waves just as seriously as other disasters,” Ojiaku said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline ‘How did we miss this for so long?’: The link between extreme heat and preterm birth on May 30, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Cicadas à la carte? Here’s why it’s so hard to get Americans to eat bugs.

Wed, 05/29/2024 - 01:45

When Cortni Borgerson thinks about the trillion or so periodical cicadas emerging from underground, she sees more than clumsily flying insects flitting from tree to tree in search of a mate. She sees lunch.

Some may find that idea revolting, a belief often, if unknowingly, steeped in colonialism and the notion that eating insects is “uncivilized.” But Borgerson, an anthropologist at Montclair State University, is among those eager to change that perception. She’s a big fan of dining on bugs of all kinds, but finds cicadas particularly appetizing. “It’s one of the best American insects,” she said.

Their texture, she said, is something like peeled shrimp, and their taste akin to what you’d experience “if a chicken nugget and a sunflower seed had a baby.” She recommends first-timers cook them like any other meat and try them in tacos.

Borgerson’s not alone in her fascination with edible insects. In the lead-up to this spring’s dual-brood emergence, a flurry of cicada recipes, sweet treats, and culinary odes have sung the bulky bugs’ praises. The interest is part of a growing social movement in favor of alternative proteins among consumers increasingly demanding a more sustainable food system. 

“They’re this magical-looking insect that crawls up, that people are excited and interested in,” she said. “People are more excited about eating it than they might be about other types of insects.” 

The buzz around this cicada emergence provides an opportunity to break down misguided stereotypes and misconceptions about eating insects, Borgerson said. If you ask her, the creatures are more than tasty. They’re a sustainable alternative to carbon-intensive proteins like beef and an effective way of addressing rising rates of food insecurity

“Some insects have an incredible opportunity, and a potential, to reduce our carbon footprint in a delicious, but sustainable, way,” she said. 

Roughly 30 percent of the world’s population considers insects a delicacy or dietary staple, a practice that goes back millennia. A study published earlier this year found that over 3,000 ethnic groups across 128 countries eat 2,205 species of Insecta, with everything from caterpillars to locusts appearing in dishes of every description. These invertebrates are a rich source of protein, fat, and vitamins. The creatures are most commonly eaten by consumers in Asia, North America — predominantly Mexico, where people enjoy 450 varieties — and Africa.

The idea remains a novelty in the United States, where just six species are regularly consumed (crickets being the most popular). Consumer attitudes, based on old stigmas, remain a hurdle to broader acceptance.

Julie Lesnik, an anthropologist at Wayne State University who studies the Western bias toward eating things like beetles, called the “ick” response many Americans have toward the idea a cultural byproduct of colonization.

“Disgust is felt very viscerally and biologically,” she said. “So to tell somebody their aversion to insects is cultural and not physiologically programmed is a difficult thing to wrap your head around, because you can feel your stomach turn, you can feel the gag reflex come up if you are disgusted by the idea of eating insects. But disgust is one of the few learned emotions. So we are disgusted by the things our culture tells us to be disgusted by.” 

Joseph Yoon, founder of Brooklyn Bugs and chef advocate for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development, forages for cicadas. Jennifer Angus

Such a reaction also can be a sign of internalized prejudice, she said. Indigenous peoples throughout North America once consumed a variety of insects, a practice European colonists deemed “uncivilized” — a way to “other” non-white communities and cultural practices. “Is it racist? Yes, simply put,” Lesnik said. 

The racialized foundation of that ideology has garnered scrutiny in the wake of viral right wing claims that a shadowy global elite will make people eat insects. Politicized conspiracy theories — like the suggestion that Bill Gates will take away meat and force everyone to eat insects — are insidious misinformation that Joseph Yoon fights daily. 

“The very notion of edible insects, I believe, has people think about the lowest denominator,” said Yoon, the founder of Brooklyn Bugs and a chef advocate for the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development. “It’s for the apocalypse. It’s for poor people. It’s for marginalized communities in developing nations. And so the very notion of this creates a sense of fear, anger, resentment. Instead of putting insects in a silo because you don’t understand … we can work together to provide solutions for our global food systems.”

Eleven years ago, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization called bugs a promising alternative to conventional meat production. In the decade since, a surge of North American startups have launched to make insects into a primary food source for humans, an ingredient (flour is common), or a feedstock for cattle and pets. The market for such things in the United States is expected to hit $1.1 billion by 2033; globally, the figure is more than three times that

Still, for an industry in its infancy, the viability of scaling insect protein into a legitimate climate solution remains a burning question, one Rachel Mazac has studied intently. Mazac, a sustainability researcher at the Stockholm Resilience Centre, is among the scientists who have attempted to quantify the carbon footprint of producing things like crickets, mealworms, and black soldier flies on an industrial scale. So far, she’s found that insects make “extremely efficient” use of land and water compared to conventional livestock. Although she acknowledges the dearth of data on the subject, Mazac thinks insects warrant further consideration as a feasible alternative to more common — and carbon-intensive — meats. 

Not everyone sees insects as a climate solution, however. Matthew Hayek, an environmental researcher and assistant professor at New York University, co-authored a 2024 survey of more than 200 climate and agricultural scientists that showed widespread support for greater efforts by governments and the private sector to incentivize alternatives to meat and dairy. But he doesn’t believe insects belong on the slate of urgent solutions. Among other things, he questions the environmental impact of feeding them to livestock, and whether the creatures can be raised and harvested humanely.

“It’s a worthwhile area of investigation for fundamental science and research and development,” he said. “It is not worthwhile as an actual climate solution at a market level for somebody to invest in a climate solution.” 

Jeffery Tomberlin, an entomologist at Texas A&M University and director of the Center for Environmental Sustainability through Insect Farming, doesn’t buy that. He believes every possible alternative protein needs to be on the table because meeting the climate crisis requires reforming the global food system. “We should be looking at all options when we talk about how to be better stewards of our planet,” he said. “We need to diversify as much as possible.”

Doing that, however, will require consumers and policymakers to put aside old ideas and consider new possibilities. That, Tomberlin said, would prompt the kind of research and funding needed to “safely and efficiently” develop the processing and production practices needed to make insect protein a viable, scalable alternative to other meats. Only then will the idea of eating insects be more than a flurry of trendy headlines, and cicada tacos more than a fleeting novelty.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Cicadas à la carte? Here’s why it’s so hard to get Americans to eat bugs. on May 29, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Can carbon offsets actually work? The Biden administration thinks so.

Wed, 05/29/2024 - 01:30

On Tuesday, the Biden administration unveiled new guidelines on “responsible participation” in the voluntary carbon market, or VCM — the system that allows companies to say they’ve canceled out their greenhouse gas emissions through the purchase of carbon credits. Theoretically, every carbon credit a company buys represents one metric ton of CO2 that has been reduced or avoided through projects that wouldn’t have happened without the funding — like tree planting or the installation of wind turbines.

The guidelines, signed by President Joe Biden’s top climate and economic advisers, as well as the secretaries of Treasury, Energy, and Agriculture, are intended to boost the market’s credibility following a series of investigations that revealed numerous credits to be ineffective. 

One guideline calls for credits to meet “credible atmospheric integrity standards,” and another says companies should complement offsetting with the reduction of their own carbon footprints. The guidelines also call for environmental justice safeguards to ensure that credit-generating activities — many of which take place in the Global South — do not harm local communities.

For the most part, the 12-page document reflects existing guidance from informal overseers of the voluntary carbon market, including the Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market and the Voluntary Carbon Markets Integrity initiative. In this way, the guidance is a sort of endorsement of the work those nonprofit governance bodies have already been doing — and of carbon markets themselves.

The new guidelines are intended to help address a crisis of confidence in carbon credits, many of which have been found by recent studies and investigations to be ineffective. Some credits come from renewable energy projects that would have been built anyway, even without funding from the VCM. Others are generated by protecting natural ecosystems that were never under threat. Still others are based on projects that store carbon in ways that are unlikely to last more than a few years. Last year, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission — a federal regulator — created a new task force to address potentially widespread fraud and market manipulation within the VCM.

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According to a 2022 analysis from the World Economic Forum, less than one-fourth of 137 global companies surveyed planned to use carbon credits to achieve their emissions reduction targets; 40 percent of them cited the risk of reputational damage.

Some environmental groups hailed the Biden Administration’s guidance as a way to add legitimacy to the voluntary carbon market. Amanda Leland, executive director of the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund, said in a statement that the Biden administration’s “vote of confidence” could help the VCM reach $1 trillion by 2050, implying that this growth would funnel money into green jobs and climate resilience in the developing world. 

The global VCM is currently valued at around $2 billion. It grew rapidly in 2021 before declining in 2022 and 2023.

Critics said the new rules fail to address more fundamental concerns about the effectiveness of carbon credits. Some VCM offset projects send only a small fraction of the funds they generate to the communities they’re supposed to benefit, while the rest of the money gets gobbled up by traders, registries, investors, and other middlemen. And for a number of reasons, scientists say it’s inaccurate to equate a ton of carbon stored in biological systems with a ton of carbon released from the burning of fossil fuels — yet this assumption undergirds the VCM.

Proponents of carbon markets are still trying to “fit the circle of climate science into the square of carbon accounting,” Steve Suppan, a policy analyst for the nonprofit Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, told Grist.

Peter Riggs, director of the nonprofit Pivot Point and a co-coordinator of the Climate Land Ambition and Rights Alliance, said the federal guidelines are more concerned with creating a smooth market environment than with the integrity of carbon credits. 

“Generating rules for secondary markets and the clearing of credits may help with carbon market liquidity,” he told Grist. “But if the underlying accounting is still flawed, these moves just create systemic risk — in much the same way that credit default swaps did during the financial crisis.”

Instead of carbon markets, Riggs and others have advocated for a system of climate finance that allows countries, companies, and other polluters to support conservation and carbon-sequestering activities without claiming them as offsets.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Can carbon offsets actually work? The Biden administration thinks so. on May 29, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Recycling isn’t easy. The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is doing it anyway.

Tue, 05/28/2024 - 01:00

Allie “Nokko” Johnson is a member of the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana, and they love teaching young tribal members about recycling. Johnson helps them make Christmas ornaments out of things that were going to be thrown away, or melts down small crayons to make bigger ones.

“In its own way, recycling is a form of decolonization for tribal members,” Johnson said. “We have to decolonize our present to make a better future for tomorrow.“

The Coushatta Reservation, in southern Louisiana, is small, made up of about 300 tribal members, and rural — the nearest Walmart is 40 minutes away. Recycling hasn’t been popular in the area, but as the risks from climate change have grown, so has the tribe’s interest. In 2014, the tribe took action and started gathering materials from tribal offices and departments, created recycling competitions for the community, and started teaching kids about recycling. 

Recently, federal grant money has been made available to tribes to help start and grow recycling programs. Last fall, the Coushatta received $565,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency for its small operation. The funds helped repair a storage shed, build a facility for the community to use, and continue educational outreach. But it’s not enough to serve the area’s 3,000 residents of Native and non-Native recyclers for the long haul. 

Typically, small tribes don’t have the resources to run recycling programs because the operations have to be financially successful. Federal funding can offset heavy equipment costs and some labor, but educating people on how to recycle, coupled with long distances from processing facilities, make operation difficult. 

But that hasn’t deterred the Coushatta Tribe.

Courtesy of Skylar Bourque

In 2021, the European Union banned single-use plastics like straws, bottles, cutlery, and shopping bags. Germany recycles 69 percent of its municipal waste thanks to laws that enforce recycling habits. South Korea enforces strict fees for violations of the nation’s recycling protocols and even offers rewards to report violators, resulting in a 60 percent recycling and composting rate

But those figures don’t truly illuminate the scale of the world’s recycling product. Around 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic have been manufactured since the 1950’s and researchers estimate that 91 percent of it isn’t recycled. In the United States, the Department of Energy finds that only 5 percent is recycled, while aluminum, used in packaging has a recycling rate of about 35 percent. The recycling rate for paper products, including books, mail, containers, and packaging, is about 68 percent.

There are no nationwide recycling laws in the U.S., leaving the task up to states, and only a handful of states take it seriously: Ten have “bottle bills,” which allow individuals to redeem empty containers for cash, while Maine, California, Colorado, and Oregon have passed laws that hold corporations and manufacturers accountable for wasteful packaging by requiring them to help pay for recycling efforts. In the 1960s, the U.S. recycling rate across all materials — including plastic, paper, and glass — was only 7 percent. Now, it’s 32 percent. The EPA aims to increase that number to 50 percent nationwide by 2030, but other than one law targeted at rural recycling moving through Congress, there are no overarching national recycling requirements to help make that happen. 

In 2021, Louisiana had a recycling rate of 2.9 percent, save for cities like New Orleans, where containers are available for free for residents to use to recycle everything from glass bottles to electronics to Mardi Gras beads. In rural areas, access to recycling facilities is scarce if it exists at all, leaving it up to local communities or tribal governments to provide it. There is little reliable data on how many tribes operate recycling programs.

“Tribal members see the state of the world presently, and they want to make a change,” said Skylar Bourque, who works on the tribe’s recycling program. “Ultimately, as a tribe, it’s up to us to give them the tools to do that.”

But the number one issue facing small programs is still funding. Cody Marshall, chief system optimization officer for The Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit, said that many rural communities and tribal nations across the country would be happy to recycle more if they had the funds to do so, but running a recycling program is more expensive than using the landfill that might be next door. 

“Many landfills are in rural areas and many of the processing sites that manage recyclables are in urban areas, and the driving costs alone can sometimes be what makes a recycling program unfeasible,” he said.

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The Recycling Partnership also provides grants for tribes and other communities to help with the cost of recycling. The EPA received 91 applications and selected 59 tribal recycling programs at various stages of development for this year, including one run by the Muscogee (Creek) Nation in Oklahoma, which began its recycling program in 2010. Today, it collects nearly 50 metric tons of material a year — material that would have otherwise ended up in a landfill.

“Once you start small, you can get people on board with you,” said James Williams, director of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation’s Environmental Services. He is optimistic about the future of recycling in tribal communities. “Now I see blue bins all through the nation,” he said, referring to the recycling containers used by tribal citizens.

Williams’ department has cleaned up a dozen open dumps in the last two years, as well as two lagoons — an issue on tribal lands in Oklahoma and beyond. Illegal dumping can be a symptom of lack of resources due to waste management being historically underfunded. Those dumping on tribal land have also faced inadequate consequences. 

“We still have the issue of illegal dumping on rural roads,” he said, adding that his goal is to clean up as many as possible. “If you dump something, it’s going to hit a waterway.”

According to Williams, tribes in Oklahoma with recycling programs work together to address problems like long-distance transportation of materials and how to serve tribal communities in rural areas, as well as funding issues specific to tribes, like putting together grant applications and getting tribal governments to make recycling a priority. The Choctaw Nation in Oklahoma also partners with Durant, a nearby town. Durant couldn’t afford a recycling program of their own, so they directed recycling needs to the tribe. 

Read Next In France, zero-waste experiments tackle a tough problem: People’s habits

This year’s EPA grant to the Muscogee program purchases a $225,000 semitruck, an $80,000 truck for cardboard boxes, and a $200,000 truck that shreds documents. Muscogee was also able to purchase a $70,000 horizontal compactor, which helps with squishing down materials to help store them, and two $5,000 trailers for hauling. Williams’ recycling program operates in conjunction with the Muscogee solid waste program, so they share some of their resources. 

Returns on recycled material aren’t high. In California, for instance, one ton of plastic can fetch $167, while aluminum can go for $1,230. Corrugated cardboard can also vary wildly from $20 to $210 a ton. Prices for all recycled materials fluctuate regularly, and unless you’re dealing in huge amounts, the business can be hard. Those who can’t sell their material might have to sit on it until they can find a buyer, or throw it away. 

Last year, Muscogee Creek made about $100,000 reselling the materials it collected, but the program cost $250,000 to run. The difference is made up by profits from the Muscogee Creek Nation’s casino, which helps keep the recycling program free for the 101,252 tribal members who live on the reservation. The profits also help non-Natives who want to recycle. 

The Coushatta Tribe serves 3,000 people, Native and non-Native, and they have been rejected by 12 different recycling brokers – individuals that act as intermediaries between operations and buyers – due to the distance materials would have to travel. 

Allie Johnson said she couldn’t find a broker that was close enough, or that was willing to travel to the Coushatta Tribe to pick up their recycling. “We either bite the cost,” she said, “or commute and have to pay extra in gas. It’s exhausting.”

Currently, the only place near them that’s buying recyclables is St. Landry Parish Recycling Center, which only pays $0.01 per pound of cardboard. A truck bed full of aluminum cans only yields $20 from the nearest center, 90 minutes away. That’s how much the tribe expects to make for now. 

Still, the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is not giving up.

With this new injection of federal money, they will eventually be able to store more materials, and hopefully, make money back on their communities’ recyclables. Much like the Muscogee Creek Nation, they see the recycling program as an amenity, but they still have hopes to turn it into a thriving business. 

In the meantime, the Coushatta keep up their educational programming, teaching children the value of taking care of the Earth, even when it’s hard. 

“It’s about maintaining the land,” Johnson said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Recycling isn’t easy. The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana is doing it anyway. on May 28, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Researchers explore mining seawater for critical metals

Mon, 05/27/2024 - 06:00

Can metals that naturally occur in seawater be mined, and can they be mined sustainably? A company in Oakland, California, says yes. And not only is it extracting magnesium from ocean water — and from waste brine generated by industry — it is doing it in a carbon-neutral way. Magrathea Metals has produced small amounts of magnesium in pilot projects, and with financial support from the U.S. Defense Department, it is building a larger-scale facility to produce hundreds of tons of the metal over two to four years. By 2028, it says it plans to be operating a facility that will annually produce more than 10,000 tons.

Magnesium is far lighter and stronger than steel, and it’s critical to the aircraft, automobile, steel, and defense industries, which is why the government has bankrolled the venture. Right now, China produces about 85 percent of the world’s magnesium in a dirty, carbon-intensive process. Finding a way to produce magnesium domestically using renewable energy, then, is not only an economic and environmental issue, it’s a strategic one. “With a flick of a finger, China could shut down steelmaking in the U.S. by ending the export of magnesium,” said Alex Grant, Magrathea’s CEO and an expert in the field of decarbonizing the production of metals.

“China uses a lot of coal and a lot of labor,” Grant continued. “We don’t use any coal and [use] a much lower quantity of labor.” The method is low cost in part because the company can use wind and solar energy during off-peak hours, when it is cheapest. As a result, Grant estimates their metal will cost about half that of traditional producers working with ore.

Magrathea — named after a planet in the hit novel The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy — buys waste brines, often from desalination plants, and allows the water to evaporate, leaving behind magnesium chloride salts. Next, it passes an electrical current through the salts to separate them from the molten magnesium, which is then cast into ingots or machine components.

While humans have long coaxed minerals and chemicals from seawater — sea salt has been extracted from ocean water for millennia — researchers around the world are now broadening their scope as the demand for lithium, cobalt, and other metals used in battery technology has ramped up. Companies are scrambling to find new deposits in unlikely places, both to avoid orebody mining and to reduce pollution. The next frontier for critical minerals and chemicals appears to be salty water, or brine.

A technician pours a magnesium ingot at the Magrathea Metals facility in Oakland, California. Alex Grant

Brines come from a number of sources: much new research focuses on the potential for extracting metals from briny wastes generated by industry, including coal-fired power plants that discharge waste into tailings ponds; wastewater pumped out of oil and gas wells — called produced water; wastewater from hard-rock mining; and desalination plants.

Large-scale brine mining could have negative environmental impacts — some waste will need to be disposed of, for example. But because no large-scale operations currently exist, potential impacts are unknown. Still, the process is expected to have numerous positive effects, chief among them that it will produce valuable metals without the massive land disturbance and creation of acid-mine drainage and other pollution associated with hard-rock mining.

According to the Brine Miners, a research center at Oregon State University, there are roughly 18,000 desalination plants, globally, taking in 23 trillion gallons of ocean water a year and either forcing it through semipermeable membranes — in a process called reverse osmosis — or using other methods to separate water molecules from impurities. Every day, the plants produce more than 37 billion gallons of brine — enough to fill 50,000 Olympic-size swimming pools. That solution contains large amounts of copper, zinc, magnesium, and other valuable metals.

Disposing of brine from desalination plants has always been a challenge. In coastal areas, desal plants shunt that waste back into the ocean, where it settles to the sea floor and can damage marine ecosystems. Because the brine is so highly concentrated, it is toxic to plants and animals; inland desalination plants either bury their waste or inject it into wells. These processes further raise the cost of an already expensive process, and the problem is only growing as desal plants proliferate globally.

Finding a lucrative and safe use for brine will help solve plants’ waste problems and, by using their brine to feed another process, nudge them toward a circular economy, in which residue from one industrial activity becomes source material for a new activity. According to OSU estimates, brine from desalination plants contains $2.2 trillion worth of materials, including more than 17,400 tons of lithium, which is crucial for making batteries for electric vehicles, appliances, and electrical energy storage systems. In some cases, mining brine for lithium and other metals and minerals could make the remaining waste stream less toxic.

Ingots comprised of magnesium drawn from seawater by Magrathea Metals. Magrathea Metals

For many decades manufacturers have extracted magnesium and lithium from naturally occurring brines. In California’s Salton Sea, which contains enough lithium to meet the nation’s needs for decades, according to a 2023 federal analysis, companies have drilled geothermal wells to generate the energy required for separating the metal from brines.

And in rural Arkansas, ExxonMobil recently announced that it is building one of the largest lithium processing facilities in the world — a state-of-the-art facility that will siphon lithium from brine deep within the Smackover geological formation. By 2030, the company says it will produce 15 percent of the world’s lithium.

Miners have largely ignored the minerals found in desalination brine because concentrating them has not been economical. But new technologies and other innovations have created more effective separation methods and enabled companies to focus on this vast resource.

“Three vectors are converging,” said Peter Fiske, director of the National Alliance for Water Innovation at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley. “The value of some of these critical materials is going up. The cost of conventional [open pit] mining and extraction is going up. And the security of international suppliers, especially Russia and China, is going down.“

Read Next Staggering quantities of energy transition metals are winding up in the garbage bin

There is also an emphasis on — and grant money from the Department of Defense, the Department of Energy, and elsewhere for — projects and businesses that release extremely low, zero, or negative greenhouse gas emissions and that can be part of a circular economy. Researchers who study brine mining believe the holy grail of desalination — finding more than enough value in its waste brine to pay for the expensive process of creating fresh water — is attainable.

Improved filtering technologies can now remove far more, and far smaller, materials suspended in briny water. “We have membranes now that are selective to an individual ion,” said Fiske. “The technology [allows us] to pick through the garbage piles of wastewater and pick out the high-value items.” One of the fundamental concepts driving this research, he says, “is that there is no such thing as wastewater.”

NEOM, the controversial and hugely expensive futuristic city under construction in the Saudi Arabian desert, has assembled a highly regarded international team to build a desalination plant and a facility to both mine its waste for minerals and chemicals and minimize the amount of material it must dispose of. ENOWA, the water and energy division of NEOM, claims that its selective membranes — which include reverse and forward osmosis — will target specific minerals and extract 99.5 percent of the waste brine’s potassium chloride, an important fertilizer with high market value. The system uses half the energy and requires half the capital costs of traditional methods of potassium chloride production. ENOWA says it is developing other selective membranes to process other minerals, such as lithium and rubidium salts, from waste brine.

The Brine Miner project in Oregon has created an experimental system to desalinate saltwater and extract lithium, rare earth, and other metals. The whole process will be powered by green hydrogen, which researchers will create by splitting apart water’s hydrogen and oxygen molecules using renewable energy. “We are trying for a circular process,” said Zhenxing Feng, who leads the project at OSU. “We are not wasting any parts.”

Read Next Can carbon capture solve desalination’s waste problem?

The concept of mining desalination brine and other wastewater is being explored and implemented all over the world. At Delft University of Technology, in the Netherlands, researchers have extracted a bio-based material they call Kaumera from sludge granules formed during the treatment of municipal wastewater. Combined with other raw materials, Kaumera — which is both a binder and an adhesive, and both repels and retains water — can be used in agriculture and the textile and construction industries.

Another large-scale European project called Sea4Value, which has partners in eight countries, will use a combination of technologies to concentrate, extract, purify, and crystallize 10 target elements from brines. Publicly funded labs in the U.S., including the Department of Energy’s Ames Laboratory, at Iowa State University, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory, in Tennessee, are also researching new methods for extracting lithium and other materials important for the energy transition from natural and industrial brines.

At the Kay Bailey Hutchison Desalination Plant in El Paso, Texas, which provides more than 27 million gallons of fresh water a day from brackish aquifers, waste brine is trucked to and pumped into an injection well 22 miles away. But first, a company called Upwell Water, which has a facility near the desalination plant, wrings more potable water from the brine and uses the remaining waste to produce gypsum and hydrochloric acid for industrial customers.

There are hurdles to successful brine mining projects. Christos Charisiadis, the brine innovation manager for the NEOM portfolio, identified several potential bottlenecks: high initial investment for processing facilities; a lack of transparency in innovation by the water industry, which might obscure problems with their technologies; poor understanding of possible environmental problems due to a lack of comprehensive lifecycle assessments; complex and inconsistent regulatory frameworks; and fluctuations in commodity prices.

Still, Nathanial Cooper, an assistant professor at Cambridge University who has studied metal recovery from a variety of industrial and natural brines, considers its prospects promising as environmental regulations for a wide range of industries become ever more stringent.

“Companies that produce wastewater are going to be required to do more and more to ensure the wastewater they dispose of is clean of pollutants and hazardous material,” he said. “Many companies will be forced to find ways to recover these materials. There is strong potential to recover many valuable materials from wastewater and contribute to a circular economy.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Researchers explore mining seawater for critical metals on May 27, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Puerto Rico’s rooftop solar boom is at risk, advocates warn

Sun, 05/26/2024 - 06:00

In Puerto Rico, residents are flocking to rooftop solar and backup batteries in search of more reliable, affordable — and cleaner — alternatives to the central power grid. Fire stations, hospitals, and schools continue adding solar-plus-battery systems every year. So do families with urgent medical needs and soaring utility bills. The technology has become nothing short of a lifeline for the U.S. territory, which remains plagued by prolonged power outages and extreme weather events.

But a political challenge by a powerful government entity threatens to slow that progress, according to local solar advocates and Democratic members of the U.S. Congress.

The new development, they warn, could make it particularly hard for communities and lower-income households to access the clean energy technology. Puerto Rico may also lose the momentum it needs to achieve its target of generating 100 percent of electricity from renewables by 2050.

At issue is Puerto Rico’s net-metering program, which compensates solar-equipped households for the electricity their panels supply to the grid.

In January, Puerto Rico Governor Pedro Pierluisi, a Democrat, signed a bill extending the island’s existing net-metering policy through 2031, noting later that the program is key to meeting the government’s mandate to ​“promote and incentivize solar systems in Puerto Rico.” But the Financial Oversight and Management Board, or FOMB, is pushing to undo the new law — known as Act 10 — by claiming that it undercuts the independence of the island’s energy regulators.

The battle is brewing at a time when the U.S. government is spending over a billion dollars to accelerate renewable energy adoption in Puerto Rico, including a $156.1 million grant through the Solar for All initiative that focuses on small-scale solar. The purpose of these investments is to slash planet-warming emissions from Puerto Rico’s aging fossil fuel power plants while also keeping the lights on and lowering energy costs for the island’s 3.2 million residents.

Solar panels cover rooftops in a Puerto Rico neighborhood. Sunrun

In a May 17 letter, nearly two dozen U.S. policymakers urged the FOMB to preserve net metering. Among the letter-signers were some of the leading clean energy advocates in Congress, including U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Raúl M. Grijalva, and Senators Martin Heinrich and Edward Markey.

“Any attempt to reduce the economic viability of rooftop solar and batteries by paring back net metering should be rejected at this critical stage of Puerto Rico’s energy system transformation,” the policymakers wrote.

Today, Luma Energy, the private consortium that operates the island’s transmission and distribution systems, gives customers credits on their utility bills for every kilowatt-hour of solar electricity they provide. Those incentives help justify the costs of installing rooftop solar and battery systems, which can run about $30,000 for an average-size system, according to the Solar and Energy Storage Association, or SESA, of Puerto Rico.

Around 117,000 homes and businesses in Puerto Rico were enrolled in net metering as of March 31, 2024, with systems totaling over 810 megawatts in capacity, according to the latest public data provided by Luma.

That’s up from more than 15,000 net-metered systems totaling over 150 MW in capacity in 2019 — the year Puerto Rico adopted its 100 percent renewables goal under Act 17.

“One of the main drivers [of solar adoption] here is the search for resiliency,” said Javier Rúa-Jovet, the chief policy officer for SESA.

“But it has to pencil out economically too. And if net metering isn’t there, it will not pencil out in a way that people can easily afford it,” he told Canary Media. He said that net metering ​“is the backbone policy that allows people who are not rich to install solar and batteries.”

At the same time, new programs are starting to stitch all these individual systems together in ways that can benefit all electricity users on the island.

For example, the clean energy company Sunrun recently enrolled 1,800 of its customers in a ​“virtual power plant,” or a remotely controlled network of solar-charged batteries. Since last fall, Luma has called upon that 15 megawatt-hour network over a dozen times to avoid system-wide blackouts during emergency power events, including three consecutive days last week.

Renewables now represent 12 percent of the island’s annual electricity generation, up from 4 percent in 2021, based on SESA’s analysis of Luma data. Small-scale solar and battery installations, made affordable by net-metering policies, are responsible for the vast majority of that growth — and undoing those incentives could cause progress to stall out, as has been the case in the mainland U.S.

Until recently, Puerto Rico’s net-metering program seemed safe from the upheaval affecting other local policies. A handful of states — most notably California, the nation’s rooftop solar leader — have taken steps to dramatically slash the value of rooftop solar, often arguing that the credits make electricity more expensive for other ratepayers.

Before Governor Pierluisi signed Act 10 into law, the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau had been scheduled to reevaluate the island’s net-metering policy — a move that solar proponents worried would lead to weaker incentives.

Despite making significant progress, the territory is still far from meeting its near-term target of getting to 40 percent renewables by 2025, and many view rooftop solar and batteries as key to closing that gap.

That’s why Puerto Rico’s policymakers opted to delay the bureau’s review and lock in the existing financial incentives for at least seven more years. Under the new law, regulators can’t undertake a comprehensive review of net metering until January 2030. Any changes wouldn’t take effect until the following year, and even then they’d apply only to new customers.

However, in April, the Financial Oversight and Management Board urged the governor and legislature to undo Act 10 and allow regulators to study net metering sooner. When that didn’t happen, the board made a similar appeal in a May 2 letter, threatening litigation to have the law nullified.

The FOMB was created by federal law in 2016 to resolve the fiscal crisis facing Puerto Rico’s government, which at one point owed $74 billion to bondholders. The board consists of seven members appointed by the U.S. president and one ex officio member designated by the governor of Puerto Rico. The entity has played a central and controversial role in reshaping the electricity system — which was fragile and heavily mismanaged even before 2017’s Hurricane Maria all but destroyed the grid.


According to the FOMB, Act 10 is ​“inconsistent” with a fiscal plan to restructure $9 billion in bond debt owed by the state-owned Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority, which makes the money to pay back its debt by selling electricity from large-scale power plants. Act 10 also ​“intrudes” on the Puerto Rico Energy Bureau’s ability to operate independently, the board wrote, since it prohibits the bureau from studying and revising net metering on its own schedule.

“Puerto Rico must not fall back to a time when politics rather than public interest … determined energy policy,” Robert F. Mujica Jr., FOMB’s executive director, wrote in the letter.

While the board said it ​“supports the transition to more renewable energy,” its members oppose the way that Puerto Rico’s elected officials acted to protect what is one of the island’s most effective renewable-energy policies.

In recent days, solar advocates, national environmental groups, and Democratic lawmakers in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Congress have moved swiftly to defend Puerto Rico’s net-metering extension. They claim that efforts to undo Act 10 are less about upholding the bureau’s independence and more about paving a way to revise net metering.

Read Next As fossil fuel plants face retirement, a Puerto Rico community pushes for rooftop solar

“For the board to basically attack net metering really goes against what my understanding was for their creation, which was to look out for the economic growth of the island,” said David Ortiz, the Puerto Rico program director for the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors.

The renewables sector in Puerto Rico contributes around $1.5 billion to the island’s economy every year and employs more than 10,000 people, according to the May 17 letter from U.S. policymakers.

Ortiz said his organization ​“is really counting on net metering” to support its slate of projects on the island. Most recently, Solar United Neighbors opened a community resilience center in the town of Cataño, which involved installing solar panels on the roof of the local Catholic church. The nonprofit has also helped residents in three neighborhoods to band together to negotiate discounted rates for solar-plus-battery systems on their individual homes.

Javier Rúa-Jovet of SESA noted that net metering has already undergone extensive review. That includes a two-year study overseen by the U.S. Department of Energy, known as PR100, which analyzed how the island could meet its clean energy targets. The study suggests that net metering isn’t likely to start driving up electricity rates for utility customers until after 2030, the year the Energy Bureau is slated to revisit the current rules. PR100’s main finding, which is that Puerto Rico can get to 100 percent renewables, assumes the current net-metering compensation program continues until 2050.

The fiscal oversight board has requested that legislation to repeal or amend Act 10 be enacted no later than June 30, the last day of Puerto Rico’s current legislative session. After that point, the FOMB says it will take ​“such actions it considers necessary” — potentially setting the stage this summer for yet another net-metering skirmish in the U.S.

Read Next Puerto Rico is using residents’ home batteries to back up its grid

Should policymakers heed the FOMB’s demands, advocates fear it could become harder to develop clean energy systems, particularly within marginalized communities that already bear the brunt of routine power outages and pollution from fossil-fuel-burning power plants on the island.

“In a moment where the federal government is investing so much money to help low-income communities access solar, the FOMB on the other side trying to affect that just doesn’t make sense,” Ortiz said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Puerto Rico’s rooftop solar boom is at risk, advocates warn on May 26, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

As New York’s offshore wind work begins, an environmental justice community awaits the benefits

Sat, 05/25/2024 - 06:00

On a pair of aging piers jutting into New York Harbor, contractors in hard hats and neon yellow safety vests have begun work on one of the region’s most anticipated industrial projects. Within a few years, this expanse of broken blacktop should be replaced by a smooth surface and covered with neat stacks of giant wind turbine blades and towers ready for assembly.

The site will be home to one of the nation’s first ports dedicated to supporting the growing offshore wind industry. It is the culmination of years of work by an unlikely alliance including community advocates, unions, oil companies, and politicians, which hope the operations can help New York meet its climate goals while creating thousands of high-quality jobs and helping improve conditions in Sunset Park, a polluted neighborhood that is 40 percent Hispanic.

With construction finally underway, it seems that some of those hopes are coming true. Last month, Equinor, the Norwegian oil company that is building the port, signed an agreement with New York labor unions covering wages and conditions for what should be more than 1,000 construction jobs.

The Biden administration has been promoting offshore wind development as a key piece of its climate agenda, with a goal of reaching 30,000 megawatts of capacity by 2030, enough to power more than 10 million homes, according to the White House. New York has positioned itself as a leader, setting its own goal of 9,000 megawatts installed by 2035.

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Officials at the state and federal levels have seized on the industry as a chance to create a new industrial supply chain and thousands of blue-collar, high-paying jobs. In 2021, New York lawmakers required all large renewable energy projects to pay workers prevailing wages and to meet other labor standards. The Biden administration has included similar requirements in some leases for offshore wind in federal waters to encourage developers to hire union labor.

While the last year has brought a series of setbacks to the offshore wind industry, including the cancellation of several projects off New Jersey and New York that faced rising interest rates and supply chain problems, many of the pieces for offshore wind are falling into place. New York’s first utility-scale project began delivering power in March, while two much larger efforts, including one that Equinor will build out of the new port, are moving toward construction. Together, they will bring the state about 20 percent of the way to its 2035 target.

Community leaders in Sunset Park have cheered these wins, but they say it remains unclear how many of these jobs will actually go to residents of the neighborhood, a working-class community where the port is being built. It was the promise of green industrial jobs that brought community activists together with Equinor and political leaders to rally behind a proposal to redevelop the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal.

Now, as work proceeds, the effort helps highlight how difficult and complicated it can be to pair the transition to green energy and job creation with environmental justice concerns, even when all the players pledge support to that goal.

“It’s a thing that often falls off the table,” said Alexa Avilés, who represents Sunset Park on the New York City Council, about the priorities of communities. She worries that efforts to hire locally might bring workers from other parts of New York City or state, “and then we, the local community, never see any direct benefit. We see all the workers coming in and our folks are unemployed.”

‘We want good pay’

On a gray day in March, about 100 union members and government and corporate officials gathered in a glass-walled meeting room overlooking Queens, in a training center run by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They were there to celebrate the signing of a project labor agreement between Equinor and local unions, versions of which will be required for similar projects up and down the East Coast.

Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat and majority leader, said it was the culmination of years of work, including the hard-fought passage of an infrastructure law and then the Inflation Reduction Act, which ushered in renewable energy tax credits and financing, much of which is pegged to labor standards.

“New York can be the center of offshore wind in the whole country,” Schumer said. “But I said, ‘I’m not doing this unless labor is included and labor is protected.’ We don’t want to see low-wage jobs with no pensions and no health benefits build this stuff. We want good pay. We want good benefits. We want good health care.”

Senator Charles Schumer speaks to union members and government and corporate officials before the signing of a project labor agreement between Equinor and local unions. Equinor

The transition away from fossil fuels has brought uncertainty to workers in the energy sector. While the number of jobs in the renewable energy industry has been growing, wind and solar generation have lower unionization rates than coal or natural gas, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Many people have expressed fears that building electric vehicles will require fewer workers than conventional cars, though there may be little data to support that concern. 

For labor leaders and many Democrats, offshore wind has been the counter to these fears. A report by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimated that a domestic offshore wind industry in line with the Biden administration’s goals could create as many as 49,000 jobs, and New York and other states have been enacting legislation aimed at encouraging the industry to create as many jobs as possible with high labor standards.

More than 400 miles up the coast, Kimberly Tobias successfully lobbied the state legislature in Maine, where she is completing an apprenticeship with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to require some of the same standards that New York had adopted in 2021. Tobias grew up about 15 miles from the town of Searsport, which Governor Janet Mills recently selected as the site for Maine’s first offshore wind port. Tobias said the development will provide steady work that has been elusive in the renewable energy sector. 

“This is my 21st solar field in three years,” Tobias said, speaking via Zoom from a solar development where she was taking a break from installing panels. “The promise of being able to go to the same place for a project that’s projected to be five years, that’s a huge deal.”

Tobias said she hopes the offshore wind industry can help replace the jobs that Maine has lost from the decline of other industries like paper mills. 

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In the opposite direction, workers have already leveled the ground for a large wind port in Salem County, New Jersey, that will have room not only for staging assembly of turbines but also for manufacturing their parts.

At the signing in Queens, Schumer said, “We always thought there ought to be three legs to the stool: environment, labor, and helping poor communities that didn’t have much of a chance. And South Brooklyn Marine Terminal really met all three of the legs of the stool.”

But a more nuanced picture emerged the following week at a community board meeting in Sunset Park. There, several dozen people packed into a less glamorous room on the ground floor of a public library to hear a presentation by Equinor and its contractors about the project. Placards lining the walls advertised the benefits the project will provide the neighborhood and the state, and speakers pledged to create more than 1,000 jobs and to keep open communications with the community.

They would minimize truck traffic, they said, by coordinating deliveries and bringing in supplies by rail or barge when possible. A major elevated highway bisects Sunset Park, and two polluting “peaker” power plants line the waterfront, firing up on hot summer days when power demand soars.

A rendering of the South Brooklyn Marine Terminal offshore wind hub in Sunset Park. Equinor

They spoke about a learning center the company would build and about $5 million in grants that Equinor had given to city organizations, including funding workforce training and programming at a rooftop vegetable farm in Sunset Park.

But when it came time for questions, several community leaders echoed different versions of the same query: How many jobs will go to local residents? A confounding answer emerged.

A spokesperson for Skanska, the construction firm that was hired to build the port, said they were encouraging neighborhood residents to apply but that they need to hire through the unions. He said some small portion of jobs could be nonunion, particularly those that would come as part of a commitment to hire businesses owned by minorities and women.

The union requirements, then, might actually get in the way of hiring residents of Sunset Park.

A couple of days before the community meeting, Elizabeth Yeampierre voiced these same concerns in an interview in her Sunset Park office, where she is executive director of UPROSE, an environmental justice advocacy group that supported bringing the wind port to the neighborhood.

“There’s entire categories of people that we’re concerned about,” Yeampierre said. “We’re concerned about people who don’t speak English, people who are undocumented, people who are coming out of the prison system, mothers, single mothers with children — how are we going to make sure that those people are brought in?”

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Yeampierre remains supportive and excited about the wind port and what it can bring to the community. For years, UPROSE has fought to bring green industry to Sunset Park to help clean up the community and provide working class jobs that pay better than retail and other sectors.

UPROSE received one of the community grants from Equinor to fund a “just transition training center” that will help connect people in the neighborhood with training programs in different green industries. But Yeampierre said the city’s building trade unions also need to make an effort to expand their ranks.

“The truth is that if you want to hire people locally, and you want to make sure that historically marginalized communities get first dibs,” Yeampierre said, “then you need to create avenues for them to be able to go into these industries, and into this work. I don’t see that happening.”

Vincent Alvarez, president of the New York City Central Labor Council, a coalition of 300 unions, said his members were working with city agencies and officials to encourage local hiring in offshore wind. Many of those hires, he said, could be for administrative positions, security, and warehouse jobs at the Brooklyn port, positions that will be less specialized than in construction.

An Equinor spokesperson said the project labor agreement signed with the unions includes a “local hire requirement that gives priority to union members who live in Sunset Park,” but did not say how many people that might apply to. Representatives of Equinor and Skanska have said that in addition to direct jobs, additional money will flow to the neighborhood in the form of indirect jobs, feeding the new workers, for example, or providing other supplies.

Avilés, the city councilmember, said she and other community leaders continue to support the unions.

“We will always fight for a unionized workforce, because we know how important union work is for strong working class communities. But we also know we have people that are going to be outside of that, who also need dignified work.”

Now, Avilés said, she and other community leaders will continue to press Equinor, the unions and city agencies to make sure as many jobs go to Sunset Park as possible.

“It’s annoying that the work is here upon us, and we’re still kind of asking the same questions” about what benefits will flow to the community, “but I don’t think that closes the opportunity.”

Work on the port is expected to last three years. And if the offshore wind industry expands as state leaders hope, there will be years of construction of new projects beyond that.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline As New York’s offshore wind work begins, an environmental justice community awaits the benefits on May 25, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

What’s the difference between Indigenous nations co-managing or co-stewarding their land? A lot.

Fri, 05/24/2024 - 01:45

For a decade, wind farm companies had been eyeing Molok Luyuk — a mountain ridge of religious importance to tribes in northern California, whose people have worked for years to protect it. It’s also widely biodiverse with elk, mountain lions, and black bears, as well as 40 rare plants such as the pink adobe lily. 

Mia Durham is the secretary for the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, a tribe that has been in a relationship with Molok Luyuk for thousands of years. In response to petitions filed by wind energy companies that wanted to develop the area, the tribe and its allies asked President Biden to protect it in 2019. 

“That’s what heightened it for us and put us on track of moving forward as quickly as possible,” Durham said. “We wanted to protect sacred sites that are there. They were going to be severely impacted.”

One way to protect landscapes and waterways such as Molok Luyuk is to have them declared national monuments, a term used to designate that a section of land is federally protected from development and harm. While Congress designates national parks, only a president can designate a national monument.

That’s what happened earlier this month when the Biden administration expanded a national monument to include Molok Luyuk, joining the mountain ridge to the nearby Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, nearly 350,000 acres of coastal range in northern California. Tribes are now working on a co-stewardship agreement for the Molok Luyuk area, but not for the whole national monument. 

But the tribes that have a relationship with Molok Luyuk aren’t done with their advocacy. They’ve protected the area from energy development, but they still have little say in how the land is managed. While the federal government has pushed co-stewardship agreements over the years, national monuments are still considered property of the federal government.

Now that Berryessa includes Molok Luyuk, the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are in talks to enter into a co-stewardship agreement with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation, Kletsel DeHe Wintun Nation, and the Cachil DeHe Band of Wintun Indians of the Colusa Rancheria. The details are still being hashed out, but the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is excited to bring traditional knowledge to the management of Molok Luyuk. 

Melissa Hovey is the manager at Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument, and she said that co-management happens between the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service. These federal agencies can enter into co-stewardship agreements with tribes, but they can’t delegate management without congressional approval.

“Co-management means decision-making authority,” she said. “Co-stewardship means one entity still has the decision-making authority.”

You would think that “co-stewardship” and “co-management” would be simple terms to define, but there are numerous federal documents that have used the two terms interchangeably over the years. Co-stewardship is a broad term that describes agreements made between federal agencies and tribal nations to hash out shared interests in the management of federal lands. Co-management refers to a stronger tribal presence and decision-making power. 

The Biden administration has been pushing co-stewardship as a model for how federal agencies can build relationships with Indigenous nations. Tribes were forcibly removed from much of their ancestral homeland in the U.S., and so many are dispossessed from medicines, food, and ceremonial places that are now under federal management. 

In 2015, the Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument was created under President Obama using the Antiquities Act — a 1906 law that allows the president to protect places of historic and scientific interest on federal land and make them national monuments. Berryessa was protected because of the area’s biodiversity: 80 different species of butterflies, black bears, California newts, and predatory birds. Molok Luyuk translates from Patwin to English as “Condor Ridge,” in reference to the endangered California condor that used to fly along the ridge. 

Congressional action is not the only way to gain co-management powers. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition in Utah has one of the most successful stories of tribes gaining co-management status — they were given “true co-management” by an Intergovernmental Cooperative Agreement. In 2022, the federal government agreed to co-manage Bears Ears National Monument with the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of the Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni. For the first time ever, tribal nations worked with federal agencies to draft a resource-management plan that would dictate how a national monument should be run. 

Bears Ears National Monument in Utah is co-managed by the U.S. federal government and an intertribal coalition that includes six Indigenous nations. George Frey / Getty Images

Patrick Gonzales-Rogers is a professor at the Yale School of Environment where he specializes in tribal sovereignty and natural resources. He is also the former director of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition. 

Co-managment allows tribes to exercise sovereignty, according to Gonzales-Rogers. “It allows them to be more assertive,” he added. And when that happens, tribes can bring in religious and spiritual practices to utilize traditional knowledge, wisdom that had been minimized by federal agencies in the past. 

Gonzales-Rogers is hopeful that, exponentially, these choices will compound, “and may even have a nexus to say something like landback” a reference to a movement that is not only rooted in a mass return of land to Indigenous nations and peoples, but also tribes having sovereignty to steward the land that was taken from them. 

Gonzales-Rogers thinks the two terms have not been very well-defined over the years, but said co-stewardship agreements might be a good way to start building to co-management.

And the more tribes have autonomy over their ancestral lands, the better it is for conservation goals. According to a recent study, equal partnerships between tribes and governments are the best way to protect public lands — the more tribal autonomy, the better the land is taken care of. 

Mia Durham with the Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation is excited to get started in drawing up its own co-stewardship agreement on Molok Luyuk. 

“I hope it doesn’t take long, because we’ve been managing these lands already, so it shouldn’t be hard to put it on a piece of paper,” she said. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline What’s the difference between Indigenous nations co-managing or co-stewarding their land? A lot. on May 24, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

The ‘Doomsday Glacier’ is melting faster than scientists thought

Fri, 05/24/2024 - 01:30

At the bottom of the Earth sits a massive bowl of ice you may know as the West Antarctic ice sheet. Each day, the ocean laps away at its base, slowly eroding the glaciers that line its rim. When they inevitably give in, the sea will begin to fill the basin, claiming the ice for its own and flooding coastlines around the world. 

Thwaites Glacier is one of the bulwarks guarding against the collapse of this critical ice sheet, most of which rests below sea level and holds enough ice to raise the ocean by 3.3 meters, or almost 11 feet. Unfortunately, this frosty Goliath, the size of Florida, is also one of the world’s most unstable and fastest-melting glaciers. While glaciologists knew its rate of ice loss was dire, they recently discovered that it’s exposed to far more warming water than previously believed. In a study published this week, scientists using satellite imagery and hydraulic modeling found that warming tidal currents are permeating the massive block of ice at depths as great as 3.7 miles, causing “vigorous melting.”

“We really, really need to understand how fast the ice is changing, how fast it is going to change over the next 20 to 50 years,” said Christine Dow, an associate professor of glaciology at the University of Waterloo and one of the study’s authors. “We were hoping it would take a hundred, 500 years to lose that ice. A big concern right now is if it happens much faster than that.”

As climate change drives global temperatures ever higher, glaciers and ice sheets in polar and mountainous regions inevitably melt. The water and dislodged ice flows into the oceans, causing them to rise. Since 1880, global sea levels have climbed roughly 9 inches, and any sudden increase could be catastrophic for coastal cities like New York, Mumbai, and Shanghai. Low-lying countries like the Marshall Islands and Tuvalu could be submerged entirely.

Thwaites Glacier, often dubbed the “Doomsday Glacier,” already accounts for 4 percent of the planet’s sea level rise and loses 50 billion tons of ice annually. When it collapses, it could raise oceans worldwide by 65 centimeters, or just over 2 feet. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you think of how much ocean water we have in the world, that’s a huge volume,” said Dow.

The study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that the pulsing of tides, which raise and lower the ice, allow water to creep further under its shelf and weaken its anchor to the seabed. While the same team observed this phenomenon at Petermann Glacier in Greenland, it had not been recorded in Antarctica. Thwaites has about eight times the amount of ice in contact with the ocean as Petermann.

Using high-resolution satellite images and hydrological data, the study identified high-pressure pockets where the glacier’s surface had been raised, which showed that warm water was flowing under the ice. Previous models had only used the part of the glacier that touches the ocean as the “grounding line” from which to start calculating the potential speed of ice loss from contact with warm, salty water. Now, according to the paper, researchers may have found the missing link in modeling how glaciers change.

“This boundary is a really crucial aspect in geology with respect to the glaciers’ response to a changing climate,” said Bernd Scheuchl, an Earth systems researcher at the University of California-Irvine and an author of the paper. He says a better understanding of the way ocean water can penetrate the base of a glacier can help scientists better predict ice loss across the West Antarctic ice sheet. “The entire region is the gateway to an area that’s well below sea level.”

Predicting the speed of ice loss and sea level rise is no easy task. Ever-shifting factors, like the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, could slow or accelerate global warming, and in turn, the rate that glaciers melt. And modeling glaciers, which are hydrologically dynamic, remote, and difficult to research, is a technological challenge that computers have only recently been able to handle, according to Dow.

Sharon Gray, a marine scientist at the nonprofit Rising Seas Institute, says research breakthroughs like this help the world prepare for and adapt to disappearing coastlines. “It’s never going to be perfect,” she said. “But obviously, the better we can get our models, the better we get our projections that help us plan.” 

Given the complexity and uncertainty of modeling, Gray said it’s best to assume seas will rise to the highest predicted level and to prepare for worst-case scenarios. Some high-risk places, like Singapore and the Netherlands, are doing just that and have been investing in infrastructure to meet the challenge. “I think there’s hope and an opportunity in really thinking creatively and trying to wrap our heads around what’s coming and what we can do about it,” she said.

Researchers like Dow and Scheuchl say the best way to protect glaciers is to limit carbon emissions. Although the heat that humanity has already put into the atmosphere will linger for centuries and continue to melt glaciers, curbing the amount the planet warms could buy us time to prepare for, if not prevent, the most extreme outcomes.

“It’s never too late to make some change,” Scheuchl said. “Even if we aren’t able to stop these developments, we can slow things down and lessen their impacts.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the level of sea rise at risk if the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melts.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The ‘Doomsday Glacier’ is melting faster than scientists thought on May 24, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

A pot of unspent federal money could have prevented Jackson’s water crisis

Thu, 05/23/2024 - 02:00

Late in the summer of 2022, the Environmental Protection Agency sent the Mississippi state government a routine report assessing its use of federal funding for water infrastructure. The agency concluded with the words “no findings” — that is, the EPA found no issue with how Mississippi was spending its money.

The very next day, on August 29, as many as 180,000 residents in the Jackson area lost access to clean drinking water and Mississippi Governor Tate Reeves and Jackson Mayor Chokwe Lumumba both declared a state of emergency. 

More than 12 inches of rain had fallen across the region, causing the Pearl River, which begins about 75 miles northeast of Jackson and flows south to the Gulf Coast, to flood. Jackson’s main water treatment plant was overrun. Water pressure throughout the system plunged, leaving residents — along with hospitals and fire stations — without safe drinking water. Many homes had no water at all. Images of the National Guard distributing cases of bottled water to residents in miles-long queues flashed across screens. Contrary to the EPA’s conclusion, now public in a new report by researchers at the Project for Government Oversight, or POGO, the state’s capital was one heavy rainfall away from a public health crisis that captured the attention of the nation. 

Nearly two years later, thousands of residents across Jackson are still contending with low pressure and brown water. While blame for the crisis has largely fallen on the state and local governments, POGO​, a nonpartisan group that investigates waste, corruption, and abuses of power, spotlights the EPA’s role. The researchers obtained hundreds of documents that reveal a “troubling trend”: EPA officials knew that not enough federal funding was being dispersed by the state to Jackson for infrastructure improvements, and they failed to make note of these practices in their assessments. 

“EPA oversight is very important,” said Nick Schwellenbach, one of the researchers on POGO’s report. “The agency can’t force states to spend money in a certain way, but its oversight can nudge and prod states toward best practices.” The investigation highlights a breakdown in communication between different arms of the EPA: While the agency has been diligent about flagging drinking water issues in Jackson — suing the city in 2020 for violating the Safe Drinking Water Act — its supervision of the state’s use of federal dollars for water infrastructure updates has been limited. 

“There’s a lot that EPA oversight can do to head off disaster,” Schwellenbach said. “EPA was saying [to Jackson], ‘You’re out of compliance with federal law’ but wasn’t going to the state and saying, ‘What are you doing to help?’”

A Mississippi National Guard member directs traffic at a water distribution site in Jackson, Mississippi, in September 2022. Rory Doyle / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Long before the heavy rains that set off Jackson’s water crisis, the city’s infrastructure had been crumbling due to decades of neglect. Like many other midsize cities across the country — Memphis, St. Louis, Pittsburgh — Jackson experienced a decline in the late-20th century after its white, middle-class residents moved to the suburbs, severely limiting tax dollars available for infrastructure improvements. Today, Jackson is more than 80 percent Black, up from 50 percent in the 1980s, and a quarter of its residents live in poverty. As a result of the shifting demographics, the city council became majority-Black and Democrat, and by the 1980s, friction with the mostly white Republican state government had developed. 

When Congress amended the Safe Drinking Water Act in 1996, it established a program whereby municipalities could use federal funding to update their beleaguered water infrastructure. The Drinking Water State Revolving Fund is administered by state environment departments, which review applications by local governments and distribute funding in the form of loans each year. In accordance with the fund, the EPA is responsible for making annual reports on where the money is going. According to the agency, its audits are parts of a “circle of accountability,” and are meant to “guide funding decisions and program management policies.” But in the case of Jackson, the reports seem to have functioned as a “rubber stamp” of Mississippi’s management of the fund, POGO researchers wrote. 

Multiple arms of the EPA flagged issues with the agency’s oversight of the fund over the past decade. The Office of Inspector General, or OIG, the agency’s internal watchdog, found issues with the reports stretching back to 2011 and as recently as last year. In a 2014 document, the OIG noted that the EPA’s audits often do little to ensure that federal dollars from the fund go to communities with the greatest public health need or to disadvantaged communities — which, as POGO researchers pointed out, are often one and the same. Then, in a 2017 internal memo that the POGO report surfaced, EPA officials cited an unspent pool of money in Mississippi that represented “unrealized potential to protect public health.” That year, the agency’s regional office sent Mississippi a gleaming audit.  

While Mississippi has historically enjoyed generous allocations from the fund, with more than $260 million allotted between 2017 and 2021 alone, the city of Jackson has not reaped the benefits. In a civil rights complaint filed with the EPA in 2022, the NAACP noted that Jackson has received loans just three times in the program’s 25-year history. The Bear Creek Water Authority in the largely rural and white Madison County, by comparison, received funds nine out of the past 25 years. (The EPA dismissed the NAACP complaint earlier this month.) 

The Mississippi state government has denied that Jackson received less funding than other parts of the state, with Governor Tate Reeves writing in 2022 that there is “no factual basis whatsoever to suggest that there has been an ‘underinvestment’ in the city.” His account, the POGO researchers noted, does not acknowledge the state’s historically unforgiving loan program and the city’s wariness of taking on debt. 

Part of the problem, Schwellenbach noted, is that the EPA does not proactively make its oversight reports public. To complete its investigation, Schwellenbach’s team had to request hundreds of records through a freedom of information request. In addition to reviewing the EPA’s program assessments for dozens of states, which they compared to Mississippi, the researchers read through internal EPA memos and inspector general reports and interviewed EPA staffers to develop a comprehensive picture of the agency’s knowledge of conditions in Jackson. 

“The EPA’s reviews of state programs are something of a black hole,” Janet Pritchard, the director of water infrastructure policy for the Environmental Policy Innovation Center, told POGO. “While some states have recently revised how they define ‘disadvantaged communities’ and other policies that govern the distribution of state revolving fund awards … the extent or impact of EPA engagement remains unclear.” Johnnie Purify, an EPA staffer in the Region 4 office, which oversees Mississippi, told POGO that he “has no concerns with making EPA oversight reports public, and said they would be helpful to external parties and the public at large.”

The EPA’s failure to alert Mississippi about its uneven distribution of federal funds has had severe consequences for the people of Jackson, where brown-tinged water continues to flow out of taps across the city. These days, as little as a powerful thunderstorm can upset the fragile water infrastructure and upend residents’ lives for weeks. The ongoing crisis has also contributed to further population decline: Last year, the Clarion Ledger reported that Jackson is the fastest shrinking city in the nation.

The city of Jackson’s O.B. Curtis Water Plant in September 2022. Steve Helber / AP Photo

In November 2022, a federal judge appointed Ted Henifin, an engineer by training, to manage the city’s water system. Local advocates initially felt hopeful that Henifin’s expertise would go far toward improving conditions in the water system, but over time, they became frustrated by what they perceived as a lack of transparency in his decision-making. 

In December 2022, the Biden administration announced a $600 million allocation in the bipartisan infrastructure law for Jackson to repair its water system, a historic sum that Henifin has the authority to use as he chooses. In early 2023, Henifin established JXN Water, a private company, to update the city’s water system, prompting fears from the public that the system itself may soon be privatized, and fueling concerns about transparency, as corporations are not subject to public disclosure laws. Repeated requests by local advocates for data on water-sampling efforts have gone unanswered. Local advocates also became frustrated after Henifin inexplicably fired Tariq Abdul-Tawwab, a long-time community advocate and the only Black employee at JXN Water. Last summer, Henifin told a federal judge that there was “no health risk” in the drinking water that he was aware of, despite reports that some residents’ tap water was still the color of tea.

After his firing, Abdul-Tawwab began managing the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition’s ground support team, a group of emergency responders that work on “anything that the community needs help with that the state is not helping them with, and that the city may not have the resources to help with,” he told Grist. Residents call in to request assistance on a range of issues — leaky roofs, burst sewage pipes — but the most common complaint is the drinking water. Members of Abdul-Tawwab’s team spend much of their time delivering bottled water and filters and testing residents’ taps for heavy metals like lead or bacteria like E. coli. The results often come back positive. 

While he was careful not to get into the details of his firing, Abdul-Tawwab was open about his frustrations with Henifin’s management of Jackson’s financial resources. Journalists occasionally visit Jackson to report on the decrepit infrastructure, he said, but hardly ask questions about where the federal money meant to help residents is actually going. 

“Anyone in the United States of America reading this story needs to understand that the state of Mississippi is taking steps to make sure that Jackson doesn’t get what it needs,” Abdul-Tawwab said.

In an email, Henifin told Grist  that he stood by his statement that Jackson’s water is clean, noting that JXN Water conducts regular tests in accordance with federal permitting requirements. He also stated that brown water complaints are investigated as soon as they are received through the company’s call center, and that they don’t occur often. 

“JXN Water posts all Quarterly Reports on our website, hosts quarterly public meetings to address questions, and regularly speaks to community groups when invited to participate in their meetings,” he wrote. “Transparency is not an issue.”

However, the many Jackson residents that Grist has interviewed point out that while the water coming out of the city’s treatment plants may be clean, after it has traveled through the thousands of miles of pipes, the water comes out of their faucets in a vastly different condition. Requests for extensive testing of the network of pipes have sometimes gone unanswered, said Brooke Floyd, a director at the People’s Advocacy Institute, the organization that launched the Mississippi Rapid Response Coalition. She said she found it hard to believe that, as Henifin told Grist, residents were not reporting contaminated water to JXN Water’s call center, since the ground team gets frequent reports of water “with stuff floating in it.” 

Floyd acknowledged that JXN Water is proactive about posting its reports on its Facebook page, but said that advocates’ concerns about transparency go beyond the quarterly paperwork — they want to be involved in making decisions. Last month, a federal judge granted advocates at the Mississippi Poor Peoples’ Campaign and the Peoples’ Advocacy Institute their request to become parties to the EPA’s lawsuit against the city of Jackson. A seat at the table of the legal proceedings, they hope, will allow them to have a say in how federal funds are spent and ward off threats of privatization.

“When Henifin leaves, and the DOJ and the EPA leave, because they will, whatever is done — we will have to live with that,” Floyd said. She pointed to Flint, Michigan, where more than a decade after that city’s lead water crisis began, the system is still not fixed.

Schwellenbach, the POGO researcher, pointed out that the situation in Jackson is emblematic of a systemic problem, and could be a harbinger of worse things to come if the EPA does not step up its oversight. He pointed to Memphis, where the aging water system is coming under stress from climate-related impacts and years of disinvestment. The bipartisan infrastructure law represented a massive infusion of federal dollars to help cities update their water infrastructure, but to make sure the funds are used to actually help communities, the EPA needs to step up its involvement. 

“The EPA could have raised red flags earlier and more aggressively to push the states to do the right thing,” he said. “I think the most important thing here is to learn lessons from what went wrong, so we don’t have these kinds of crises in the future.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A pot of unspent federal money could have prevented Jackson’s water crisis on May 23, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News


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