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EPA’s proposed air pollution standards for soot could save thousands of lives

Mon, 01/09/2023 - 03:15

Late last week, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed tighter limits to one of the country’s most dangerous air pollutants: fine particulate matter, or soot. But while the long-awaited move could save thousands of lives per year, health experts say it’s still not enough.

Soot is also known as fine particulate matter because its fragments are so small — 2.5 microns in diameter or less. When inhaled into the lungs over time, these harmful materials can cause damage leading to premature death, heart attacks and cancer. Sources for the deadly pollutant include construction sites, power plants, and refineries. Those who live nearby (disproportionately low-income households and people of color) face the greatest risk of exposure.

Since 2012, the national annual air quality standard — a number that represents a limit to the average amount of particles in the air outdoors — has been 12 micrograms per cubic meter for fine particulate matter. The Clean Air Act requires these standards to be revisited every five years. The last time the matter came under discussion was 2020, when the Trump administration rejected tougher standards on particulate matter, despite public health officials’ calls for more stringent protections.  

Under the Biden administration, the new proposed limit is between 9 and 10 micrograms per cubic meter. An even greater range, between 8 and 11 micrograms per cubic meter, will be open to public comment following the proposal. Only after the period of public comment, which will last 60 days following the publication of the proposal in the federal register, will a new standard become official.

“Our work to deliver clean, breathable air for everyone is a top priority at EPA, and this proposal will help ensure that all communities, especially the most vulnerable among us, are protected from exposure to harmful pollution,” said EPA Administrator Michael S. Regan in a press release. 

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But while the EPA asserted its new proposal “reflect[s] the latest health data and scientific evidence,” public health experts have said this is not the case; the EPA’s own Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee actually recommended an annual standard as low as 8 micrograms per cubic meter. The World Health Organization’s guideline for annual average exposure to particulate matter is even lower, just 5 micrograms per cubic meter.

“EPA is soliciting comment consistent with the [Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee’s] full range of recommendations,” said the agency’s public affairs specialist Shayla Powell in an email, explaining that while the committee’s advice is important, it is not the only factor the agency considers when making a proposal. 

“The Agency also takes into consideration the available scientific evidence, quantitative risk assessment information, and public comments received throughout the reconsideration,” she wrote. 

Some health advocates remain unmoved by that logic. “The proposal falls far short of what is necessary,” said Paul Billings, national senior vice president of public policy for the American Lung Association. “Eight [micrograms per cubic meter] would provide the most protection, particularly to low-income and people of color.” 

Research shows particulate matter exposure causes between 85,000 and 200,000 excess deaths each year in the U.S. According to the EPA, a new primary annual standard of 9 micrograms per cubic meter would prevent up to 4,200 premature deaths per year. Billings said these benefits are far greater if the standard was just one microgram per cubic meter lower — preventing up to 12,000 premature deaths. 

“Any improvement from our current standard brings us to better health,” said Joshua Apte, an associate professor of environmental engineering and environmental health sciences at UC Berkeley, “but the lower the better.”

Apte, who has researched the impact racist real estate practices like redlining have had on exposure to air pollution, said that national standards, no matter what they are, often fall short of protecting communities facing the greatest risk. 

“A tighter standard alone is not going to solve this problem,” he said. National air quality standards applied across an urban area, for example, will still result in disproportionate exposure among residents depending on whether they live and their proximity to sources for pollution, even if the area meets national standards overall. 

“Rather than focusing our emissions reductions uniformly across the entire country,” Apte said, “if you focus on targeting the communities that are most disparately exposed … we could eliminate most of the disparities.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline EPA’s proposed air pollution standards for soot could save thousands of lives on Jan 9, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Brazil keeps protecting Indigenous land in the Amazon. It’s not stopping deforestation.

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 03:45

Indigenous territories and protected areas in Brazil’s Amazon forest see higher and faster rates of deforestation than unprotected areas. That’s according to a new study in Nature that says despite an expansion of protected areas and increased recognition of Indigenous territory across 52 percent of the Brazilian Amazon from 2000 to 2021, forest loss has increased in those areas at an alarming pace.

“Brazil has made good progress in terms of how much protected areas have grown, but Indigenous territories and protected areas need more resources if we want them to maintain their capacity to strengthen forests,” said Xiangming Xiao, a University of Oklahoma biology professor and the report’s primary author. 

Between 2000 and 2021, roughly 27 million hectares of forest in non-protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon were lost. However, between 2018 and 2021, the relative rate of gross forest loss was higher in protected areas and Indigenous territories, nearly double that of non-protected areas. That increase, the report says, is likely related to economic development and loosening of environmental conservation policies championed by former president Jair Bolsonaro’s administration beginning in 2019. 

“Indigenous lands and protected areas are vulnerable in a different way from the non-protected areas,” Xiao said. “The forest in these areas are mostly primary forest. They have more biomass, more biodiversity, and if they are lost that will have a disproportionate impact in terms of biodiversity, conservation, and carbon storage.”

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Between March and September 2020 alone, Brazilian legislators passed 27 acts that weakened environmental regulations and fines for violating conservation laws dropped by 72 percent in the same period. Under the Bolsonaro regime, mineral prospecting and mining increased with applications currently pending for roughly 100 million hectares with nearly 20 percent of those applications in protected areas, Indigenous territories, or regions with strict conservation regulations. Nearly half a dozen proposed bills could reduce federal authority over protected areas and loosen constraints on economic activities in Indigenous lands. 

In 2020, satellite data revealed record highs in illegal mining and primary forest loss. The report says COVID-19 has also had impacts, hitting Indigenous communities hard and making it easier for illegal loggers and miners to encroach on their land. Currently, the Brazilian Supreme Court is trying a case that could limit what lands can be identified as Indigenous – allowing only areas possessed by Indigenous peoples in 1988 to be granted ownership. 

The study also shows that not all protected areas are created equally. Strictly monitored protected areas lost more forest than protected areas that were designed for sustainable use, where humans are allowed to live and work. Xiao speculates that even though areas with strict protections are expected to be better preserved, they might have different systems and less capacity to deal with the pressures of industry growth, COVID-19, and economic development  over the past few years. 

But the more interesting part, Xiao said, is showing that protected areas designed for sustainable use are still effective. 

“Sustainable use is good and effective for conservation,” Xiao said. “That raises a question in how we address forest conservation and human development. It shows we maybe want to build protected areas that carefully consider how to fit the needs of people in that area. Protection must balance the needs [of the forest and of people].”

Xiao says Brazil’s recent presidential election could herald tighter forest regulations. The satellite images used in the report show fluctuations in the country’s deforestation rates that parallel changes in administration. The period of least deforestation, roughly 2004 to 2010, coincides with president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s first administration, which prioritized conservation in the Amazon. With his return to office and recent environmental initiatives, including selecting the Indigenous leader Sônia Guajajara, of the Guajajara tribe and born on Araribóia land, to head up a new Ministry of Indigenous Peoples, Xiao says Lula da Silva’s history of strong environmental policy may lead to reduced deforestation.

“There will be challenges of course,” Xiao acknowledged. “But we’re already working with satellite data from 2022 and will see how governments and policies impact conservation. We’ll be able to see whether they help or not.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Brazil keeps protecting Indigenous land in the Amazon. It’s not stopping deforestation. on Jan 6, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

5 climate questions for 2023

Fri, 01/06/2023 - 03:30

This story was originally published by Capital and Main and is reproduced here with permission.

All good stories start with a question. So here are five to consider as the record-breaking accumulation of greenhouse gases continues into the opening days of 2023.  

Climate change, of course, can’t be divided into parts. The answers to these questions, however you devise them, may start small and specific and then, like climate change itself, to borrow the title of a popular 2022 film, illustrate how it is “everything everywhere all at once.” 
 
1) In what ways do the fossil fuel companies resemble a criminal conspiracy?  

The territory of Puerto Rico is using a novel argument in a recently filed lawsuit alleging that oil and coal, and their paid allies, conspired to mislead the public over the costs and consequences of their greenhouse gas emissions. In the lawsuit, filed in early December, 16 Puerto Rican municipalities charged the companies under the RICO statute normally used to prosecute organized crime. The municipalities allege “decades of deception” by oil and coal companies, their trade associations and a network of funded think tanks to cast doubt on the connections between their greenhouse gas emitting products and the climate change-induced extremes (floods, droughts, hurricanes) that their residents have experienced over the past two decades. 

That same constellation of companies and institutions is pretty much omnipresent in neighborhoods across the United States. The groundbreaking group of plaintiffs in Puerto Rico offer some pretty evocative descriptions of fossil fuel industry actions that most likely have occurred in cities and states elsewhere in the country. They cite evidence going back as far as 1989, when defendants ExxonMobil, Shell, BP and Rio Tinto launched  a nonprofit corporation, the Global Climate Coalition, “to influence, advertise, and promote the interests of the fossil fuel industry by giving false information to their consumers and the public at large.” They allege that the companies’ aim, acting individually and collectively, is to convince the public that global warming is not occurring, and if it is, that there is no scientific consensus as to why. The damage caused in Puerto Rico by the extreme weather events of the last five years, they claim, can be traced to these efforts, which convinced governing authorities to resist actions that would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, or properly prepare for their impact. 

A similar constellation of companies and institutions have made the same misleading arguments in communities across the United States — starting in Washington, D.C., but also in state capitals across the country — where they have worked to undermine national, state and local responses to climate change. The Puerto Rican case will be watched closely for its use of the criminal, as opposed to civil, statutes, and builds upon a long trail of legal offensives to hold the industry accountable for the immense financial consequences of climate change for the public treasury — a drain on public funds that is being felt in every jurisdiction across the U.S.
 
2) What is a greenwash?
 
Public concerns over climate change have risen to such an extent that companies are now trying to ride the wave by describing their work with new environmentally friendly language.  It’s time for journalists, and everyone else, to beware of  virtue signaling in the climate realm. How to know if claims are real? The EU is devising rules to hold investment firms — many of them also operating in this country  — accountable for their “sustainability” and other claims. The United Nations has already done so, with some tartly worded introductory remarks, “It’s Time to Draw a Red Line Around Greenwashing,” to the report “Integrity Matters: Net Zero Commitments by Businesses, Financial Institutions, Cities and Regions.” As the impacts of atmospheric disequilibrium become ever more clear, and the claims of companies in the spotlight ever more vaguely “green,” there will, no doubt, be abundant opportunities to hold companies accountable to their “net-zero” and other climate claims. Those guides provide some handy clues to watch out for. Maybe there’s a greenwash in motion wherever you are — and it won’t be in a laundromat. 
 
3) Who will get water in the West? 
 
Residents of southern Arizona and California are discovering amid plummeting Colorado River reservoir levels what scientists told us long ago: You can’t grow water. The inconvenient truth about water is that the amount of moisture in the atmosphere doesn’t change; it just moves or stays longer in the atmosphere, but it does not expand in quantity. So we are stuck with what we have — a water supply that spends more time in the ever-hotter atmosphere, and comes down in ways that are less and less predictable. Some areas become wetter, others drier. Though that truth shapes the situation with regard to this most fundamental of resources, there’s another truism for journalists that also still holds: Follow the water, or follow where it used to be. That trail leads to money, and money leads to power. Wherever you live in the West, water is guaranteed to be a story for a long time. 

Start with the Colorado River, shift to the Tule and the Tuolumne and the Klamath, to the Sacramento and the San Joaquin — which feed, or not, the mighty pumps in Tracy sending water further south. Whatever river trail you follow, access to water in the West is what former Gov. Jerry Brown once called a “Hobbesian situation,” a fight over resources that is getting more brutal “as things get tighter” due to climate change. The battle over access to water, fought in locations across the West — along riverfronts, lakes, reservoirs, dams, canals, aqueducts, tunnels and every other form of  channeling water in a direction other than that it would normally flow — promises to become more intense and more desperate as the sources of that water become more erratic and centers of moisture shift in the atmosphere. At every stage, it’s a question of who gets the water and who does not. Water stories often start small, where levees or tunnels or dams or diversionary channels are dug or proposed, and can lead very quickly to the most powerful interests in a state, a city, a town, all thirsty for a drink.
 
4) What does an earthquake have to do with solar power?
 
In the week before Christmas, a powerful earthquake registering 6.7 on the Richter scale rattled Humboldt County in Northern California. Tens of thousands of residents in Eureka and surrounding towns lost power for over two days when PG&E’s electrical grid failed. Other than those with generators, the only residents in and around Eureka who had power when the grid went down were residents who’d installed solar panels — which were largely unaffected by the power outage. There is little, if any, evidence linking earthquakes to climate change. In that same area, however, there have been major storms and fires — both of which have been intensified by climate change. In those natural disasters, similar patterns emerged: While the power grid went down, the solar panels kept generating electricity. For those living and reporting along the picturesque fault lines of California, it is worth considering what this tells us about solar not only as a carbon-clean energy source, but as a hedge against disasters.  

And another angle into this highly topical storyline: In a cruel twist of timing for Humboldt County, in the days after the earthquake those residents with solar panels were able to read on their solar-recharged devices that  the state Public Utilities Commission had sharply cut their payments for selling excess power back to the grid, known as net metering. That move, long advocated by PG&E and the energy lobby, suggests an abundant string of local stories as solar installations drop — which they’re expected to by as much as 40% because of the rate cut — just as rooftop solar’s use in emergency situations becomes more clear. 
 
5) What do Indonesia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Brazil have to do with the weather in your neighborhood?
 
These three countries have the largest tropical forest areas in the world. They are home to an abundant diversity of species, and they are the world’s largest carbon sinks (reminder: Trees inhale carbon dioxide and exhale oxygen). At the recent Convention on Biological Diversity conference in Montreal, these three countries established an informal alliance, known as the OPEC of rainforests, to demand greater funding to ensure conservation of standing forests — often by indigenous communities who have lived in and protected the forest for millennia. Evaporation from those forests is also a critical ingredient in the huge flowing currents of moisture above our heads known as atmospheric rivers — which traverse the atmosphere and thus have a major influence on the weather (including on the recent rain and snowstorms that wreaked havoc in the U.S. over the holidays).  

All three countries in the new alliance also produce oil, and are thus both contributors to the emissions that are degrading their forests and hosts to the carbon sinks that can mitigate the damage from them. Either way, it’s clear how deeply our fate is tied to those distant rainforests. Their vitality helps determine the severity of the droughts, floods, rising temperatures and other symptoms here that are being triggered by global warming. For journalists, such connections offer clear stakes to Americans, who are being asked, like the people in other developed countries, to contribute hundreds of millions of dollars in public funds to ensure those trees remain standing. The weather, that great standby of all news coverage, may be the greatest climate story of them all — and may just start with whether or not a far-off tree in a place where we may never have the good fortune to visit is cut or burned, or left standing. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 5 climate questions for 2023 on Jan 6, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Will California’s ‘atmospheric river’ storms end the drought?

Thu, 01/05/2023 - 03:45

For the past three years, California has been suffering under the worst drought in state history. Key reservoirs have bottomed out, farmers have left their fields unplanted, and cities have forced residents to let their lawns go brown.

Now the state’s weather has taken a violent swing in the other direction. A series of powerful “atmospheric river” storms — so called because they look like horizontal streams of moisture flowing in from the Pacific — have brought record-breaking precipitation to the Golden State over the last two weeks, dropping almost a foot of rain in the San Francisco Bay Area, overwhelming the state’s rivers, and bringing several feet of snow to the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the eastern part of the state. The storms have caused widespread devastation, destroying critical roadways in the Bay Area and killing at least five people.

Though it has come at a tremendous cost, the past few weeks of rain have helped to refill the reservoirs that supply much of the state’s water, and snowpack levels in the Sierra Nevada are now well above their average levels for this time of year, meaning that major rivers will be much more robust after the snow melts in the spring. Barring a major dropoff, this year will be much wetter than the last few. 

“I’m cautiously optimistic,” said Jered Shipley, the general manager of the Anderson-Cottonwood Irrigation District, which provides water to pasture owners in the northern part of the state. “It gets us on track.” Shipley’s district takes water from Lake Shasta, the state’s largest reservoir, which all but bottomed out during the drought but has started to rebound over the past month.

If the reservoirs fill up as predicted, that will be great news for farmers and cities up and down the state, from Chico all the way to San Diego. Come spring and summer they’ll release the stored-up precipitation to cattle ranchers, nut farmers, and local water utilities around the state, ending a three-year spell of privation.

“To put it very bluntly, it’s been total devastation,” said Shipley. “This drought was a natural disaster. You may not have seen apartment buildings on fire or communities underwater, but [there were] displaced families, migrant workers not having jobs, businesses closing because nobody needed to service their tractors, feed stores closing.”

Even if 2023 does end up a wet year, it won’t prevent an ongoing water crisis, because surface precipitation is only one pillar supporting the state’s water needs. Since the reservoirs can’t hold more than a year of water, officials don’t have the option of holding it back to conserve for future years. And the other two pillars ensuring regular water availability in the Golden State — groundwater and the Colorado River — are facing crises that even a wet year won’t fix.

“This will fill our reservoirs, so that’s the good news,” said Jeffrey Mount, a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California’s Water Policy Center, who studies atmospheric rivers and their impact on California’s water. “But we have been in a really dry period for the last 20 years, and that hasn’t come to an end yet.”

A false-color satellite image shows the flooding caused by an “atmospheric river” rain event that struck California around New Year’s Day. NASA Earth Observatory

In the agriculture-heavy Central Valley, for instance, many farmers rely on water deliveries from a federal canal that funnels water westward from the Sierra Nevada. But households in this area also depend on groundwater withdrawn from underground aquifers, and recent research shows that these aquifers are drying up at an alarming rate. This dropoff has led to a surge in the number of dried-up wells in recent years and has forced some towns to rely on deliveries of bottled water.  

A deluge of snow may help recharge the reservoirs that supply major Central Valley irrigators, but it won’t refill the underground aquifers in the region, in part because most valley communities don’t have the ability to store excess water. In other parts of the country like Arizona, officials can bank water from wet years in underground aquifers, but any extra rainfall in the Central Valley just gets lost.

Cities in the Los Angeles metropolitan area face a similar two-pronged challenge. The region gets about a third of its water from the State Water Project, a canal system that diverts water from the reservoirs in the northern part of the state, and these deliveries have declined in recent years, forcing some cities to make drastic cuts. 

The current bout of rain will help fill up those reservoirs, but the rest of the water used by these cities comes from the Colorado River, which snakes through the arid western United States. The river’s two main reservoirs in Nevada and Arizonaare both in danger of bottoming out this year, and the federal government may soon slash California’s water allotment to stop that from happening. The rainfall from this week’s atmospheric river event won’t do anything to alleviate that crisis, although it will make the most dire scenarios for Los Angeles much less likely.

“Our focus tends to be on filling of surface reservoirs, and everybody declares the drought over,” said Mount. “That’s just fundamentally wrong.”

Read Next Snow loss is fueling the West’s megadrought

Atmospheric river storms like the one that struck California this week account for as much as half of all West Coast precipitation even in normal years, which makes them critical for bringing the region out of prolonged drought periods. The most recent forecasts suggest that this year’s wetter trend will persist through the winter, but there’s still a small chance that “the door slams shut,” as Mount puts it, and rain stops altogether. The northern Sierras also saw high precipitation totals in November and December of 2021, but then the rain flatlined in January and February of last year, leaving the state well short of average rainfall.

“It doesn’t look like that right now,” Mount told Grist. “None of the models I’m aware of are saying that it’s going to stop.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Will California’s ‘atmospheric river’ storms end the drought? on Jan 5, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Kentucky becomes the newest battleground in Republicans’ fight against green investing

Thu, 01/05/2023 - 03:30

Kentucky officials threatened to divest the state from 11 financial institutions on Tuesday over what it deemed to be climate-conscious investing practices. Targeted firms include BlackRock, JPMorgan Chase, and Citigroup, all of which have publicly pledged to incorporate pro-environment principals into their financial strategies.

Such policies, Kentucky State Treasurer Allison Ball said in a press release, “boycott fossil fuels” and “intentionally choke off the lifeblood of capital to Kentucky’s signature industries.” The announcement follows a state bill passed last year directing her office to publish an annual list of financial institutions involved in a so-called “energy company boycott.” 

Kentucky’s efforts are the latest in the Republican Party’s larger campaign against what are known as environmental, social, and governance, or ESG, investing principles. After years of activist efforts to get financial firms to disclose and account for their climate risks, ESG practices — which, in theory, prioritize investments in renewable energy, for example, over oil and gas — have moved from the sidelines to the mainstream, becoming a buzz-acronym on Wall Street. In March, the Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, the federal agency meant to protect U.S. investors, proposed new rules that would require companies to disclose their carbon emissions as well as the risks posed to their business by climate change. According to the mutual fund research firm Morningstar, 90 percent of all companies now have, or are in the process of creating, ESG strategies.

But over the past year, Republicans have staked their ground against what Florida Governor Ron DeSantis called “woke capitalism.” As of last August, 17 states have proposed or adopted legislation to limit business with institutions that consider environmental and social criteria in their investment practices. West Virginia and Texas created similar lists to Kentucky’s last year, and Florida, Louisiana, and Missouri pulled a collective $3 billion dollars out of BlackRock, whose CEO has been one of the most outspoken financial leaders about the value of ESG investing. 

Now, Republicans are using their control of the U.S. House of Representatives as a new tool in their fight against ESG, which they say could harm the fossil fuel industry as well as stakeholder profits. Patrick McHenry, a North Carolina Republican representative and new chair of the House Committee on Financial Services, called the SEC’s climate risk disclosure rules a “far-left social agenda” and has pledged close oversight of regulators. Other House Republicans will call asset managers to testify in hearings on their investments. At the state level, Republican state attorneys general have motioned that they are prepared to take the SEC policies to court if the rules are finalized, according to Inside Climate News

Yet when you look at the current state of climate-aligned investing on Wall Street, it seems Republicans’ concerns are much ado about nothing. While asset managers have started to invest growing subsets of funds in adherence with ESG principles, which consider things like the effects of climate change and the social impacts of supply chains, most of their money remains in funds that don’t account for carbon emissions. JPMorgan and Citigroup, both members of the United Nations’ Net-Zero Banking Alliance, were among the top financiers of the fossil fuel industry in 2021, according to a recent report. (Vanguard, the largest asset manager after BlackRock, dropped out of the alliance last month following backlash from Republican attorneys general.) What counts as an ESG investment also remains vague and undefined, which can lead to greenwashing; some financial companies’ energy transition funds, for example, can still invest in fossil fuel companies. While last year was the first in history where more money was raised in debt markets for green projects than for fossil fuel companies, Big Oil is still getting more money from high gas prices and private equity, and banks and asset managers appear to remain committed to funding the industry. 

In the wake of Kentucky’s announcement, the 11 financial firms added to the state’s restricted list have 30 days to notify the treasury of their holdings in energy companies, and 90 days to “stop engaging” in boycotts. If they fail to comply, the Kentucky government will pull its money from the institutions. So far, some of the listed companies have asserted their fossil fuel bonafides in response. In a statement to The Hill, a JPMorgan Chase spokesperson said, “We are among the largest financiers of the U.S. traditional and renewable energy industries, including in Kentucky where we serve some of its largest energy companies and utilities.” For Reuters, BlackRock pointed to its investments in energy companies like ExxonMobil and Occidental Petroleum.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Kentucky becomes the newest battleground in Republicans’ fight against green investing on Jan 5, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

A new EPA proposal is reigniting a debate about what counts as ‘renewable’

Wed, 01/04/2023 - 03:45

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has proposed new standards for how much of the nation’s fuel supply should come from renewable sources. 

The proposal, released last month, calls for an increase in the mandatory requirements set forth by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS. The program, created in 2005, dictates how much renewable fuels — products like corn-based ethanol, manure-based biogas, and wood pellets — are used to reduce the use of petroleum-based transportation fuel, heating oil, or jet fuel and cut greenhouse gas emissions. 

The new requirements have sparked a heated debate between industry leaders, who say the recent proposal will help stabilize the market in the coming years, and green groups, which argue that the favored fuels come at steep environmental costs. 

Below is a Grist guide to this growing debate, breaking down exactly what these fuels are, how they’re created, and how they would change under the EPA’s new proposal:

The fuels

Renewable fuel is an umbrella term for the bio-based fuels mandated by the EPA to be mixed into the nation’s fuel supply. The category includes fuel produced from planted crops, planted trees, animal waste and byproducts, and wood debris from non-ecological sensitive areas and not from federal forestland. Under the RFS, renewable fuels are supposed to replace fossil fuels and are used for transportation and heating across the country, and are supposed to emit 20 percent fewer greenhouse gasses than the energy they replace.

Under the new EPA proposal, renewable fuels would increase by roughly 9 percent by the end of 2025 — an increase of nearly 2 billion gallons. The new EPA proposal will set a target of almost 21 billion gallons of renewable fuels in 2023, which includes over 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol. By 2025, the EPA hopes to have over 22 billion gallons of different renewable fuel sources powering the nation. 

The United States is the largest producer of corn, which can be seen being harvested and stored in grain silos. With 40 percent of the corn produced used for ethanol, environmental groups argue that increased corn production leads to more fertilizer use and pollution. YinYang/Getty Images

Advanced biofuel, a type of renewable fuel, includes fuel created from crop waste, animal waste, food waste, and yard waste. This also includes biogas, a natural gas produced from the methane created by animal and human waste. Advanced biofuel can also include fuels created from sugars and starches, apart from ethanol. 

In its newest proposal, the EPA suggests a roughly 14 percent increase in the use of these fuels from 2023 to 2024 and a 12 percent increase the year after that. The EPA wants roughly 6 billion gallons of advanced biofuel in the marketplace by this year.

Nestled inside of the advanced biofuel category is biomass-based diesel, a fuel source created from vegetable oils and animal fats. This fuel can also be created from oils, waste, and sludge created in municipal wastewater treatment plants. Under the new EPA proposal, the agency is suggesting a 2 percent year-over-year increase in these fuels by the end of 2025, which equals a final amount of nearly three billion gallons.

Cellulosic biofuel, another type of renewable fuel, is a liquid fuel created by “crops, trees, forest residues, and agricultural residues not specifically grown for food, including from barley grain, grapeseed, rice bran, rice hulls, rice straw, soybean matter,” as well as sugarcane byproducts, according to the 2005 law.

“In the interim period, there’s going to be a need for lower carbon, renewable liquid fuels”

Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuel Association

The EPA’s recent proposal aims for nearly double the amount of the use of these fuels by 2024. Then a 50 percent increase the year after, equivalent to 2 billion gallons. 

The new RFS proposal also hopes to create a more standardized pathway for renewable fuels to be used in powering electric vehicles, with more and more drivers turning to EVs in recent years. 

“We are pretty pleased with what the EPA proposed for 2023 through 2025,” Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuel Association, an industry group whose members primarily include ethanol producers, but also represent biogas and biomass producers, told Grist. 

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Cooper said that the EPA and the Biden administration recognize that alternative fuels are a growing and needed sector while the country tries to move away from fossil fuels. Setting standards for the next three years will help the biofuels industry grow, said Cooper, who predicted more ethanol, biomass, or biogas producers will emerge in the coming years. 

“I think the administration recognizes that you’re not going to electrify everything overnight,” Cooper said, “and in the interim period, there’s going to be a need for lower-carbon, renewable liquid fuels.”

The controversy

While renewable fuel standards have gained a stamp of approval from industry producers and the federal government, environmental groups see increased investment in ethanol, biomass, and biogas as doubling down on dirty fuel. 

“It’s not encouraging because it continues on the false premise that biofuels, in general, are a helpful pathway to meeting our climate goals,” Brett Hartl, government affairs director for the nonprofit environmental group Center for Biological Diversity

Biomass wood pellets are a fuel source made from wood debris and lumber, and are a booming industry in the American South. The new Renewable Fuel Standard proposal calls for an increase in this fuel source, despite opposition from environmental groups. Anadolu Agency / Getty Images

Hartl argues that investing in increased corn production to fuel ethanol will continue harmful agricultural practices that erode soil and dump massive amounts of pesticides on corn crops, which causes increased water pollution and toxic dead zones across the country and the Gulf of Mexico. The United States is the world’s largest producer of corn, with 40 percent of the corn produced used for ethanol. 

A study released earlier this year from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that when demand for corn goes up, caused by an increase in blending requirements from the RFS, prices increase as well, which causes farmers to add more fertilizer products, created by fossil fuels, to crops. The EPA’s own internal research has also shown greenhouse gas emissions over the next three years will grow with the increase in blending requirements from the federal mandate.

22.68 billion the number of renewable fuel gallons the EPA hopes to have by 2025

The Center for Biological Diversity has been critical of the EPA’s past support of renewable fuel without a calculation of the total environmental impacts of how the fuel is produced and is currently in legal battles with the federal agency. They’re not alone in their critiques. 

Tarah Heinzen, legal director for Food & Water Watch, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, said in a statement that an increase in both industrial corn production and biogas, a fuel created from animal and food waste, are not part of a clean energy future. 

“Relying on dirty fuels like factory farm gas and ethanol to clean up our transportation sector will only dig a deeper hole,” Heinzen said. “The EPA should recognize this by reducing, not increasing, the volume requirements for these dirty sources of energy in the Renewable Fuel Standard.” 

Alternative fuels, like biogas and biomass (a fuel created from trees and wood pulp), have gained steam thanks to the ethanol boom of the renewable fuel category. The biogas industry is set to boom thanks to tax incentives created by the Inflation Reduction Act. 

Biomass is a growing industry in the South, with wood pellet mills popping up in recent years. Scientists from across the globe have decried the industry’s suggestion that burning trees for electricity is carbon neutral, with 650 scientists signing a recent letter to denounce the industry’s claims.

The world’s largest producer of wood pellet biomass energy has come under fire from a whistleblower who said the company uses whole trees to create electricity, despite the company’s claims of sustainably harvesting only tree limbs to produce energy. Wood pellet facilities have faced opposition from local governments and federal legislators, with community members in Springfield, Massachusetts successfully blocking a permit for a new biomass facility in November. 

Despite concerns from environmental groups, the forecasted demands of the EPA show that the nation is pushing for more of these fuels in the coming years. This past spring, a bipartisan group of Midwestern governors asked the EPA for a permanent waiver to sell higher blends of ethanol year-round, despite summer-time smog created by the higher blend of renewable fuel.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline A new EPA proposal is reigniting a debate about what counts as ‘renewable’ on Jan 4, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

Europe kicks off 2023 with a record-setting heat wave

Wed, 01/04/2023 - 03:30

Europe broke heat records last year, and 2023 is shaping up to be no different. A winter heat dome descended on the continent right just in time for New Year’s Day, crushing thousands of standing high-temperature records. Eight countries — Belarus, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, the Netherlands, and Poland — set new all-time records for warmest January weather on the first of the month. The heat wave caused temperatures to rise up to 36 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius) above average for this time of year. 

“This is exactly the kind of very abnormal event that is progressively rewriting global climatology,” Nahel Belgherze, a meteorologist in France, said in a tweet. Other experts based in Europe said the heat wave was unprecedented and alarming. Climatologist Maximiliano Herrera told CNN it’s “the most extreme heat wave in European history.” 

Climate researchers say the science linking climate change to record-setting heat waves is indisputable. Analyses of more than 100 hot spells over the past decade have shown that modern-day global warming, the majority of which has been brought about by the burning of fossil fuels, made nearly all of them more likely or severe. For example, an unusually hot summer in Texas in 2011 and a summertime European heat wave in 2017 were made 10 and four times more likely by climate change, respectively. 

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It’ll take time for researchers to parse exactly how much rising global temperatures influenced this particular weather event. Abnormal heat is still moving through Europe as the heat wave mixes with Arctic air edging in from the northeast and dissipates. But it’s already abundantly clear that Europe just experienced a severe departure from the norm. 

Poland broke its national temperature record before the sun had even breached the horizon on New Year’s Day when the town of Glucholazy hit 65.7 degrees F, according to the Washington Post. France broke more than 100 heat records that day. A town in western Belarus clocked a maximum temperature of 61.5 degrees F — the norm there in midwinter is 32 degrees F. The warm winter has turned famed European skiing destinations soupy and brown. Parts of the Alps were totally devoid of snow as of January 1; a major skiing competition set to take place in Switzerland next week will depend entirely on artificial flakes

The extremely warm temperatures aren’t expected to stick around for much longer, but meteorologists say above-average temperatures could plague mainland Europe for at least another week.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Europe kicks off 2023 with a record-setting heat wave on Jan 4, 2023.

Categories: H. Green News

The US has a new pollution rule for heavy-duty trucks for the first time in 2 decades

Thu, 12/22/2022 - 03:15

Communities that have long borne the brunt of vehicle pollution are one step closer to breathing cleaner air after the Environmental Protection Agency finalized stricter emissions standards for heavy-duty vehicles on Tuesday. 

The agency’s new rule, part of its larger Clean Trucks Plan, is the first time pollution standards for semi trucks, delivery trucks, and buses have been updated in more than 20 years. It will go into effect when 2027 vehicle models are made available for purchase.

Although heavy-duty vehicles represent less than 5 percent of vehicles on the nation’s roads, they are major emitters of nitrogen oxides, a group of polluting gases that play a significant role in the formation of smog. In high concentrations, nitrogen oxides are known to contribute to heart disease, allergies, asthma, and other lung diseases.

The EPA’s rule will for the first time require manufacturers to adopt newer technology that reduces pollution from trucks when they are idle, driving at low speeds, or navigating stop-and-go traffic. By 2045, the agency estimates that heavy-duty vehicle nitrogen dioxide emissions will decrease by 48 percent as a result of the rule. The regulation is also expected to prevent up to 2,900 deaths by 2045.    

Low-income people of color are more likely to live and work in neighborhoods close to major highways and roads, shipping corridors, and areas with large numbers of factories and warehouses — places where heavy-duty trucks create the most pollution. That’s because of the legacy of racist redlining and zoning laws that left many Black and brown families with few other housing options. The construction of the nation’s interstate highway system also targeted neighborhoods where communities of color were concentrated. And in some cities, bans on trucks on certain highways simply pushed them into already-burdened neighborhoods

“These communities have waited decades for action,” Katherine García, the director of the Sierra Club’s clean transportation campaign, told Grist.

But in recent years, in spite of overall stricter emissions standards for personal vehicles, communities that have fought for years for cleaner, more breathable air have faced setbacks. The rise in global e-commerce — exemplified by online giants like Amazon — has led to an explosion in warehouses, and their attendant delivery trucks, across the country. These “logistics hubs,” designed to accommodate constant consumer demand, frequently end up in areas with loose zoning regulations, cheap land, and a high proportion of low-income people of color living nearby. 

California’s Inland Empire, east of Los Angeles, is the home to the nation’s largest concentration of warehouses. The region is also infamous for having the nation’s worst ozone and particle pollution. Residents and advocates here have drawn a link between consumer demand for goods and the hundreds, if not thousands, of trucks that travel their roads on a daily basis. These trucks end up driving past and idling by schools, parks, and homes, exposing residents to more air pollution. Earlier this year, a cohort of the region’s cities extended moratoriums on warehouse construction to take time to assess the purported economic benefits and the very real environmental impacts of these developments. 

“We need systemic change, and we need to just clean up these trucks, and we have the solutions,” Melody Reis, the senior legislative manager at Moms Clean Air Force, a national organization that advocates for cleaner air, told Grist. 

“Inaction is injustice for these communities,” said Reis, “and this rule should make a tremendous amount of difference.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The US has a new pollution rule for heavy-duty trucks for the first time in 2 decades on Dec 22, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

After years of pressure, 3M will stop making ‘forever chemicals’

Wed, 12/21/2022 - 11:59

In the face of continued legal action from states across the country, 3M, a Fortune 500 manufacturing company, will discontinue the use of “forever chemicals” by 2025.

3M makes Scotchgard and other water-repellent products which contain a class of chemicals known as per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, that do not break down in the environment. PFAS has been found in nearly every state in the country and in everything from polar bears to fast food wrappers. Research has shown a link between these chemicals and public health concerns such as high blood pressure in mid-life women, stunted developmental growth, infertility, as well as kidney, liver, and testicular cancers.

In a statement, the St.Paul-based company said the decision comes on the heels of an “evolving external landscape,” which includes increased regulatory pressures. In the past year, the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, released a PFAS Strategic Roadmap, which plans to create new policies to protect public health and the environment while holding polluters accountable. In addition to the increased federal pressure, 3M has been the target of various lawsuits directed at PFAS manufacturers.

California announced a lawsuit in November that alleges 3M, DuPont, and other PFAS producers have caused far-reaching damage to public health and the environment by dealing in products laced with “forever chemicals.” The lawsuit is similar to a dozen others filed in states across the country. While the lawsuits are mounting, 3M’s awareness of their production problem has been festering for decades. 

As early as the 1970s, the manufacturing company knew that PFAS was accumulating in human bloodstreams. According to The Intercept, 3M was sued by its home state of Minnesota in 2010 and settled the suit for $850 million, which lead to a mountain of internal documents, memos, and research to be released by the state’s Attorney General’s Office, showing exactly what the company knew about the harm of the products it produced.

Minnesotans are still grappling with the potential health effects of PFAS, which has had devastating effects on the area’s youth. According to the Minnesota Reformer, a study of children who died between 2003 and 2015 in Oakdale, a Twin Cities suburb, found that a child who died there was 171% more likely to have had cancer than a child who died in the surrounding area. The state of Minnesota alleges that PFAS made its way into the area’s groundwater after decades of 3M discarding PFAS-contaminated waste products in unlined dump sites. 

The EPA announced in November that PFAS pollution from 3M had caused an “imminent and substantial endangerment” of the drinking water for nearly 300,000 people in the Quad Cities region of Illinois and Iowa and ordered an investigation into 3M’s role in the pollution. 

In 2000, 3M pledged to stop the use of two specific strains of PFAS chemicals in their production process, but the company argued, in its recent announcement, that the continued use of PFAS was “critical” to make products necessary for modern life, such as medical technology, phones, and automobiles. Legal experts estimate future litigation could cost the company upwards of $30 billion. 

In the wake of the announcement, environmental groups say the decision is long overdue and hope that the company is still responsible for decades of inaction and harm to the public.

“This is a big win for public health and the environment,” Mike Schade, a program director for the nonprofit Toxic-Free Future, told Grist. “3M historically has been one of the biggest PFAS polluters not only here in the US but globally, and for decades they have proceed and released massive amounts of PFAS that have contaminated communities, water supplies, fish and wildlife, all across the planet”

Schade said that this decision is part of a growing trend of major corporations abandoning PFAS in their manufacturing process. While the manufacturers are looking at a PFAS-free future, he noted that downstream businesses, like clothing companies that still trade in these chemicals, should stop the trail of toxic pollution. He said it’s likely that more companies will be looking for PFAS alternatives and the EPA and industry regulators should remain vigilant that the chemicals these companies replace PFAS with aren’t bound to create the same harms already documented by the forever chemicals. 

“In the years going forward, we’re going to be seeing hundreds of communities that have to clean up toxic chemicals, “ Schade said, “and 3M must be held financially liable for that pollution.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline After years of pressure, 3M will stop making ‘forever chemicals’ on Dec 21, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Study: Biology textbooks aren’t keeping up with climate science

Wed, 12/21/2022 - 11:00

With every year that greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise, the climate crisis deepens — as does the threat it poses to life on Earth. But that increasing urgency isn’t reflected in many of the U.S.’s undergraduate biology textbooks.

According to a new paper published Wednesday in the journal PLOS ONE, climate change coverage in college biology textbooks has failed to keep pace with our scientific understanding of the issue or its mounting importance for every living organism on the planet, from single-celled algae to blue whales. Although today’s textbooks contain more sentences on climate change than those from the 1970s, these sentences offer fewer solutions and have been pushed toward the back of the book — where they are likely to be skipped over.

“Why are we still ignoring this issue?” asked Jennifer Landin, a teaching associate professor at North Carolina State University and an author of the paper.

Landin and a coauthor looked at 57 of the most widely used undergraduate biology textbooks published between 1970 and 2019. They analyzed each book’s climate change coverage for length and content — the fraction of sentences used to describe the physical processes of climate change, its impacts on the world’s ecosystems, and ways to address it. They also looked at the textbooks’ changing use of charts and figures.

The good news, Landin said, was that climate coverage has increased since the 1970s and ‘80s, when college biology textbooks only dedicated about 11 sentences to the issue. By the 2000s, textbooks were covering climate change with a median of 51 sentences.

However, this number dropped in the 2010s to 45 sentences — “basically two pages of a Harry Potter paperback,” Landin said. This means most of the college biology textbooks published in the past decade have actually shortened their climate coverage since the 2000s, despite a more than three-fold increase in the number of scientific articles published on climate change during that time.

Biology textbook writers also seem to be pushing climate change coverage further toward the back of their books. They were already leaving it for the last 15 percent of pages in the 1970s, but according to the new study, by the 2010s climate coverage had been relegated to the last 3 percent of pages. This fits a long-term trend where publishers stick controversial topics like evolution toward the back of their textbooks. It’s significant, Landin said, because research suggests most professors progress chronologically through their textbooks — so anything at the end may be glossed over or skipped altogether.

Rabiya Ansari, who coauthored the study, with stacks of the biology textbooks she analyzed. Courtesy of Jennifer Landin

Joseph Henderson, an associate professor of environment and society at Paul Smith’s College who wasn’t involved in the research, said the study was interesting but that textbooks are only one piece of the education puzzle. “They could be doing a better job with biology textbooks,” he said, but it’s important to also think about whether and how teachers are actually using them.

“This paper and textbooks are a representation of the broader problem,” Henderson explained, “which is that education has been really slow on the uptake in terms of climate education,” especially when it comes to anything that could be perceived as political. Landin’s paper notes that not one of the textbooks published since 1970 mentioned several politically sensitive but high-impact individual or local actions to address climate change, such as changing one’s diet or building more energy-efficient housing. If individual solutions were mentioned at all, they mostly described relatively ineffective behaviors like recycling and turning off lights.

Large-scale intergovernmental agreements like the 1997 Kyoto Protocol — in which more than 150 countries committed to reducing their greenhouse gas emissions — got more coverage than individual actions in textbooks across the decades. Henderson called this a good thing, since the sphere of international policy is where the farthest-reaching changes can be made. But students will likely need an education in other fields like political science and history to better understand those agreements and learn how to push for more ambitious ones. “Climate change education has to be interdisciplinary,” Henderson said.

One beacon from Landin’s research came from her figure analysis. She found that, between the 1990s and 2010s, climate-related data visualizations more than doubled, expanding beyond charts that show rising CO2 levels to also include photographic evidence of glacier melt and maps of species migrations.  

This is the kind of progress Landin would like to see more of. She wants textbook editors to expand not just the data visualizations, but also the length of textbooks’ climate chapters. Publishers could put climate coverage earlier in textbooks, she suggested, and help students draw connections across all biology topics — like cellular anatomy, by showing how plants’ chloroplasts pull planet-warming carbon out of the atmosphere. And expanding high-impact solutions content could inspire change while combating young people’s climate anxiety.

“We’re seeing all these problems but we’re not given clear actions to take power over them,” Landin said. “There are clear and well-understood solutions that we simply need to educate young people about.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Study: Biology textbooks aren’t keeping up with climate science on Dec 21, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

5 ways climate change made life more expensive in 2022

Wed, 12/21/2022 - 03:45

Inflation dominated news headlines and American psyches in 2022. Overall, consumer prices jumped an average 7.1 percent this year, with the cost of just about everything going up, from cars to coffee and gas to groceries. The trend triggered a bitter midterm election campaign, prompted a series of aggressive interest-rate hikes from the Federal Reserve, and fears about an impending recession.

The causes were numerous, from the war in Ukraine to the post-pandemic economic recovery. But in many sectors, the specter of climate change was also lurking behind these higher costs. Extreme swings in temperature and precipitation caused shortages and soaring prices for essential utilities like electricity, heat, and water. A series of catastrophic weather disasters scrambled the supply chains for vegetables and staple grains. 

Many of us tend to think that we’re still immune to the direct effects of the climate crisis, but make no mistake — those effects are already here, and they’re hitting our wallets. Here is a look at some of the ways warming came back to bite us at the cash register in 2022.

Grocery bills

Food prices rose about 10 percent this year, one of the highest rates in decades. The surge in grocery bills has been spurred by pandemic supply chain issues and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but climate change played a bigger role than many people realize. Searing heat and other extreme weather hurt crops and livestock around the globe, driving up food costs in a phenomenon known as “heatflation.”

This summer, an unprecedented heat wave in China ruined the corn and soy crops used to feed pigs, sending the cost of pork, the country’s staple meat, soaring. Spain and Italy experienced a stretch of 100-degree temperatures and drought conditions that slashed olive harvests; by November, the price of extra-virgin olive oil in Spain, the world’s largest olive oil producer, had risen 45 percent compared to the previous year. Hurricanes hurt Florida’s citrus crop and snapped Puerto Rico’s plantain trees in half; the Western U.S. baked in a drought that threatens to increase food prices for the years to come.

It’s not just anecdotes: One analysis of seasonal temperatures and price indicators in 48 countries found that hot summers had “by far the largest and longest-lasting impact” on food prices, an effect that lasted nearly a year. Experts warn that flooding, drought, wildfires, and other climate-enhanced disasters will continue to leave shoppers paying a premium in the years ahead.

Read Next: Water bills

Delivering water to homes and businesses is a high-cost operation. Municipalities and utilities have to pump the water from a river or reservoir, treat it so it’s safe to drink, and send it through hundreds of miles of pipes and canals. They also have to keep repairing and upgrading all that infrastructure year after year. The cost of maintaining this delivery system stays more or less the same, but the amount of money these groups earn back depends on how much water they deliver to customers. 

Dry land is exposed on the banks of Lake Oroville, the second-largest reservoir in California that provides drinking water to more than 25 million people, in 2021. PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

In dry years like this one, utilities have to withdraw less water from dwindling reservoirs, which means they have less to sell, and have to raise prices to make up the difference. That’s currently happening in California, where many Central Valley residents are struggling to afford water even as local wells go dry; around 12 percent of state residents are behind on their water bills, owing as much as $1 billion in payments. As municipal supplies fell this year, it meant there was also less excess water available for trading on agricultural spot markets, causing prices to soar for farmers: The Nasdaq Veles California Water index rose by around 56 percent between January and June of this year, reaching an all-time high.

Other climate-driven extreme weather has impacted water prices in other ways. In wetter areas, extreme precipitation events caused unprecedented damage to utility infrastructure and forced costly repairs – a burden most often passed down to ratepayers. And in agricultural areas around the Great Lakes, excessive heat is increasingly causing fertilizer-laden water bodies to form harmful algae blooms. According to an analysis earlier this year, for instance, the cost of treating water in Toledo, Ohio, to eradicate this bacteria is now nearly $20 per resident per year — a cost incorporated into consumers’ water bills.

Insurance premiums

We rely on home insurance to help us recover after a disaster, but policies are getting more expensive and harder to obtain as floods, fires, and hurricanes intensify. These changes were acutely felt this past year. According to Policygenius, an insurance marketplace, 90 percent of U.S. homeowners saw their premiums increase from May 2021 to May 2022, with an average jump of $134 annually. 

Homeowners in flood-prone areas all over the country saw huge price hikes in recent months. The National Flood Insurance Program, or NFIP, which insures more than 5 million properties, is in the process of rolling out a new pricing system, raising rates in many coastal areas to more accurately reflect existing flood risk. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, the federal group that administers the NFIP, estimated that some 66 percent of policyholders would see their premiums jump by up to $10 per month under the new risk scale, 7 percent by up to $20 per month, and 4 percent more than $20. The hikes have been so severe that hundreds of thousands of homeowners have dropped their NFIP policies altogether.

A house flooded by water due to Hurricane Ian at Stillwright Point in Key Largo, Florida, September 29, 2022. Daniel A. Varela/Miami Herald/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Also this year, half a dozen insurers in Florida collapsed after their financial backers grew too concerned about hurricane risk; the state is now seeing the consequences of this breakdown, with price hikes in the wake of Hurricane Ian. On the opposite coast, several national insurance companies tried dropping customers in fire-risky areas of California to reduce their exposure to future disasters. As these insurers disappear, coverage gets more expensive, putting homeowners in a bind: They must either pay skyrocketing prices or drop their policies and live without a safety net. 

Utility bills

Climate change is impacting the frequency and severity of heat and cold spells in different parts of the United States – and in 2022, these periods of extremes made it harder for people to afford their home heating and cooling costs. One in six U.S. households are currently behind on their utility bills. 

Let’s start in the winter: Around 90 percent of U.S. households use either electricity or natural gas as their main source of heat. This past January, average household electricity rates soared by 8 percent, the highest increase in over a decade. Parts of the country experienced severe cold that month as warming temperatures in the Arctic destabilized the polar jet stream, sending frigid air southward. This winter, the U.S. Energy Information Administration estimates that average household heating costs for natural gas will increase by 28 percent, in part due to forecasted colder-than-average temperatures. 

This past summer, millions of Americans also dealt with stretches of extreme heat, which strained electric grids and caused household energy and air conditioning bills to skyrocket. The National Energy Assistance Directors Association estimated that Americans’ electric bills increased 20 percent due to the heat waves, jumping to an average $540.

Low-income families of color, both in urban and rural settings, are being hit the hardest. Black, Latino, and Indigenous households are more likely than white households to have their power cut off due to unpaid utility bills. “You have to choose between having a normal holiday season or maybe paying this bill or that bill. It’s all about survival,” said Linnea Jackson, General Manager of the Hoopa Valley Tribe’s Public Utilities District in Northern California. “Those increased costs are really impacting tribal communities.” 

Jackson says that in addition to higher energy costs from summers and winters with periods of hotter highs and lower lows, also known as weather whiplash, climate-driven disasters like wildfires, drought, and powerful storms all disrupt service and drive up costs. “It’s only getting worse. People are struggling to come up with the cost to afford basic electricity,” Jackson said. 

Kirstie Allemand arranges cardboard above an air conditioning unit in her window during soaring temperatures on July 28, 2022 in Ellensburg, Washington. David Ryder/Getty Images

In Bethel, Alaska, Sophie Swope, a Yup’ik environmental activist, says that thawing permafrost is causing houses to shift and crack, forcing people to spend more money on heating. Higher fuel costs also weigh heavily on communities like Swope’s, where many essential supplies have to be shipped in. “Everything is just so much more expensive,” Swope said.   

Electricity prices

High energy bills this year weren’t just a result of heat waves and cold fronts. The cost of power itself spiked all over the country. That’s in large part due to Russia’s war in Ukraine, which drove a scarcity in natural gas supply around the world and upped the cost of producing electricity from power plants. The Energy Information Administration estimates that residential customers paid 8 percent more for electricity, on average, than in 2021. 

The war may be the primary cause, but some parts of the country also saw rate hikes due to climate-related extreme events like storms, drought, and wildfires. In June, 1 million customers in Louisiana saw fees added to their bills, as much as $25 for some households, to help the electric utility Entergy recover costs related to storm damage from hurricanes Laura, Delta, Zeta, and Ida, as well as Winter Storm Uri in February 2021.

In California, customers of the largest utility in the state, Pacific Gas & Electric, or PG&E, started the year off with a rate increase that was driven in part by the costs of wildfire prevention. It didn’t end there. Just two months later, PG&E bumped its rates again to cover the rising cost of natural gas. The company said it had eaten up a lot of its natural gas supply the previous summer when the drought was limiting hydropower output, and had to buy more. 

The Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency that sells power from government-owned hydropower dams to utilities throughout the West, told Grist that reduced hydropower generation this year due to the megadrought put “upward pressure on power rates in some pockets of the West.” 

Jake Bittle, Kate Yoder, Joseph Lee, Brett Marsh, and Emily Pontecorvo contributed to this story.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline 5 ways climate change made life more expensive in 2022 on Dec 21, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Climate activists’ new, confrontational tactics aren’t popular. That’s kind of the point.

Wed, 12/21/2022 - 03:30

2022 may be remembered as the year that climate protests got weird. Activists prowled cities in the dead of night, using lentils to deflate the tires of thousands of SUVs. They glued themselves to airport runways. They also glued themselves to priceless artwork in museums, dumped flour on a sports car painted by Andy Warhol, and, infamously, launched a can of Heinz tomato soup at the glass protecting Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers.”

Frustrated with the sluggish pace of climate action, protesters turned to disruptive tactics, risking arrest and widespread disapproval. Activists made people late for work; they delayed flights; they were accused of vandalism. Their actions weren’t popular, but they anticipated that.

“We’re going to be noisy. We’re going to be disruptive. We’re going to be unignorable. We’re going to be a pain in the ass until you listen to us,” Emma Brown, a spokesperson for Just Stop Oil, the coalition behind the museum protests, recently told PBS Newshour. The group hopes to persuade the U.K. government to put a stop to all new fossil fuel projects.

When a pair of activists with Just Stop Oil tossed tomato soup at the van Gogh painting in London’s National Gallery in October, it sparked a widespread debate about the effectiveness of such tactics. In a survey of more than 2,000 Americans conducted within a month of the protest, 46 percent said that “disruptive non-violent actions including shutting down morning commuter traffic and damaging pieces of art” decreased their support for efforts to address climate change. Only 13 percent said such actions increased their support.

Climate protesters hold a demonstration after throwing soup at Vincent van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” at the National Gallery in London, United Kingdom, October 14, 2022. The gallery said the work was unharmed aside from minor damage to the frame. Just Stop Oil / Handout / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The thing is, the public rarely approves of disruptive protests — unless they happened sometime in the past. Suffragettes actually slashed paintings, permanently damaging them, and then were remembered as heroes. Even peaceful marches, as they unfold, are sometimes seen as unhelpful. After Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech following the 1963 March on Washington, three-quarters of Americans said they thought mass demonstrations harmed the cause, according to Gallup polling. The following year, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law.

That doesn’t mean that throwing soup at famous paintings will bring down greenhouse gas emissions, but it does suggest that the public has a poor track record of guessing what makes social movements successful. Experts say that disruptive demonstrations play an important role in gathering attention for a cause and making tamer protests appear more acceptable by comparison. 

“Confrontational protests, violent or not, are part of all successful social movements,” said Oscar Berglund, who researches climate activism and civil disobedience at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.

Read Next:

While climate protests are generally peaceful, fiery ones could raise the risk that things will get violent, depending on the circumstances. “The line between confrontational activism and violence is a very, very fuzzy line, particularly when you have law enforcement who may or may not be empowered to harm protesters,” said Dana Fisher, a sociologist at the University of Maryland who has studied the effectiveness of climate activism for two decades. States have recently passed draconian laws with harsh penalties for blocking fossil fuel infrastructure.

Despite that, there’s a growing appetite for nonviolent climate demonstrations. One-fifth of Americans under 40 say they’d likely participate in civil disobedience — such as sit-ins, blockades, or trespassing — to support action on climate change if a friend asked them to, according to a survey conducted last September by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. Fisher says that participation in civil disobedience appears to be on the rise, based on her surveys of AmeriCorps workers and climate organizers.

“There is potential here for a huge disruptive movement to arise quickly,” said Margaret Klein Salamon, the executive director of the Climate Emergency Fund, which backs nonviolent climate activism. Confrontational actions haven’t picked up speed in the United States as fast as they have in the United Kingdom, but there are signs that a wave may be starting here as well. 

In April this year, climate scientists chained themselves to a JPMorgan Chase building in Los Angeles to protest the bank’s funding of fossil fuel projects. In the summer, drivers of SUVs and pickup trucks in New York, the Bay Area, and Chicago found their vehicles with tires deflated and a leaflet on their windshield: “Your gas guzzler kills.” It was the work of the Tyre Extinguishers, an international group aiming “to make it impossible” to own large personal vehicles in cities. Last month, protesters picketed at private airports in New Jersey, North Carolina, California, and Washington state to highlight the toll that private jets took on the planet.

Disruptive protests are, by their nature, uncomfortable. Salamon, who is also a clinical psychologist, says the public is living in a “state of mass delusion” with regard to the climate crisis, sleepwalking into catastrophe. The role of activists is to shake everyone awake.

“If you think about it from that perspective, it makes all the sense in the world why these activists would be unpopular. You know, they’re making people think about climate — they’re making people feel really painful feelings, because it’s such a tough reality,” Salamon said.

Activists from Just Stop Oil close down a fuel terminal by boarding fuel haulage vehicles in Grays, England, April 1, 2022. Guy Smallman / Getty Images

Confrontational tactics can draw criticism, anger, and even death threats. But many activists feel that more conventional means of protesting won’t bring results. A phenomenon called the “activist’s dilemma” illustrates the problem. Protesters often have to choose between moderate actions that are easily ignored or more extreme actions that might alienate the public.

“It isn’t fun: I hate disrupting people’s lives, and it’s upsetting that it’s come to this. But it has come to this,” an anonymous Tyre Extinguisher activist told Vice earlier this year. “We feel that nothing else will work — we don’t have any more time for letters or marches or waiting for more elections. We’ve had those strategies for 30 years and they’re not working. It’s time to shake things up.”

Phoebe Plummer, one of the soup throwers with Just Stop Oil, admitted that their action was, in their own words, “slightly ridiculous,” but argued that the absurdity of the protest was what got the conversation on climate action going. In the months preceding the “Sunflowers” incident, Just Stop Oil had attacked a more logical target: oil terminals. Activists blocked so much oil infrastructure in April that they forced one in three gas stations in southern England to close. But they received little international attention.

Disruptive protests play a role in setting the agenda by opening up space for issues that might otherwise not get discussed. Take Insulate Britain, a group that began blocking roads in the United Kingdom last September, demanding that the government retrofit all U.K. homes to make them more energy-efficient. The group was widely unpopular, with only 16 percent of people surveyed viewing them favorably one month later. 

Insulate Britain protesters block roads at Parliament Square in London, England, October 12, 2022. Rob Pinney / Getty Images

But in the month after the protests began, the number of times that print newspapers in the United Kingdom mentioned “insulation” had doubled (not including references to “Insulate,” part of the group’s name). By June this year, the issue had risen on the policy agenda, with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson drawing up plans to insulate thousands of homes before winter struck. At the time, one official suggested that the policy could be called — wait for it — “insulate Britain.”

It’s hard to draw a straight line from protest to policy change, but experts say disruptive demonstrations may be more helpful than many people believe. “The fact that it’s unpopular doesn’t mean that it’s ineffective,” Berglund said, referring to Insulate Britain. “Ultimately, even if people dislike what protesters do, it doesn’t automatically turn them against the course that those protesters are fighting for.”

Of course, such protests are not great for building broad movements. They’re probably not going to change the minds of the minority of Americans who oppose climate policies. “These activists and the groups that are organizing these kinds of activism are acutely aware that they’re not speaking to those people,” Fisher said. Instead, they’re trying to mobilize people who are already sympathetic. Polarizing the public has the effect of forcing people to take a stance on something they might not be thinking about otherwise.

And by some measures, the strategy might already be working. Fisher said that the soup incident was “through-the-roof effective” by many of the short-term goals activists use to judge effectiveness, such as media coverage, even if it’s unclear what effect the action will have in the long run. According to Just Stop Oil’s organizers, the attention-grabbing protest made it easier to recruit new people.

In the recent past, civil disobedience was seen by climate organizers as “a bad tool,” Fisher said. “But there’s no question that the young generation of climate activists absolutely include that as one of their tools now.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Climate activists’ new, confrontational tactics aren’t popular. That’s kind of the point. on Dec 21, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Avatar: The Way of Water or how not to make Indigenous futurism movies

Tue, 12/20/2022 - 12:18

If you want to see some examples of actual Indigenous futurism filmmaking, may I suggest you look somewhere besides James Cameron?  

There’s the Cree-Metis’ filmmaker Danis Goulet’s recent Night Raiders or the late Mi’kmaw filmmaker Jeff Barnaby’s extremely timely last film, Blood Quantum, released for streaming near the beginning of the COVID pandemic. 

Both of those films look at and reframe Indigenous history through an Indigenous perspective: boarding school trauma in the case of Night Raiders and the unique relationship Indigenous people have with foreign disease (think smallpox) in the case of Blood Quantum. Both films speak to issues that affect and have affected Indian Country.

If you want to see a white man’s version of an Indigenous futurism film, however, then the local multiplex showing Avatar: The Way of Water is the way to go. 

That said, the plot of what some call Avatar 2 is simple enough: the Earth is dying, humans need resources, and this requires a complete takeover of the planet Pandora, which also requires the “taming” of the Indigenous inhabitants, the Na’vi. 

Former Avatar and now transformed into a full Na’vi, Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and family are driven out of their homelands by Sully’s former military colleague Quaritch (Stephen Lang), who’s also gone full Na’vi and is set on revenge. Sully is intent on protecting his family from further danger. Why is he running? Is it white guilt? He claims it’s to protect his Indigenous clan, yet his wife Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) wants to fight.

The Sully family fly far out to sea where they meet Tonowari (Cliff Curtis), the chief of the Māori-inspired Metkayina clan. The Metkayina are slow to accept them in their territories (the Sullys can’t swim well and their tails are too small) yet eventually take the Sullys in as one of their own and in time will join together in the fight against the approaching earth intruders, the Sky People.

Cameron’s latest is a curious mixture of surface Indigeneity signified from a white man’s perspective: long braids and dreadlocks attached to foreign bodies, the bodies laden with “exotic” ta moko-style tattoos. Ten-feet-tall men and women with large eyes and elfin ears are set in exotic alien locales that bring to mind fantasy artist Frank Frazetta or certain Lakota friends I’ve met. On top of all this is the connection these beings, the Na’vi, have with respect to the land and its inhabitants. It’s fantasy Indigeneity.

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It’s hard not to be skeptical of Cameron’s grasp of the Indigenous material he’s appropriating here. Sure, you can make up anything you want in a fantastical tale and even have your left-leaning cake too. There are no rules to filmmaking or art in general, and if you have the funding, the world is your oyster. One can create a world where we can see white men’s myopia in regard to the environment; a story of materialism and colonialism where the consequences of a hunger and thirst for money and resources are displayed from beginning to end. Where’s the fault in that?

The fault is that James Cameron can travel the world, do the “research,” hire Indigenous film legends like Wes Studi (Cherokee) in the first Avatar movie and Cliff Curtis (Maori) and Jermaine Clement (Maori) in Avatar 2, but he can’t escape who he is: a filmmaker who told the Guardian in 2010 that his inspiration in making the first Avatar film was based on the Lakota Sioux. 

“I couldn’t help but think that if they [the Lakota Sioux] had had a time-window and they could see the future … and they could see their kids committing suicide at the highest suicide rates in the nation … because they were hopeless and they were a dead-end society — which is what is happening now — they would have fought a lot harder.” 

Cameron’s comments are tone-deaf, condescending, and not the kind of ally I want or need to help tell Indigenous stories. It’s one thing to read and research about a culture; it’s quite another to be of it. Perhaps that’s why there’s a boycott of the film currently underway by many Indigenous groups, one of which is led by Asdzáá Tłʼéé honaaʼéí, a Navajo artist and co-chair of Indigenous Pride Los Angeles.

The arresting animation includes this creature in Avatar: The Way of Water. 20th Century Studios

The animation in Avatar: The Way of Water is visually stunning. The animals in particular — I’ll call them sea beasts and air beasts — are very lifelike, with shadows and texture, and many have souls and thoughts of their own and communicate these with the Na’vi. The concept (much like the film) walks a fine line between being corny and magical, and you just have to go with the concept, should you buy into it. One thinks if you paid the ticket to be in the theater, you’re ready to take the ride. I viewed the film as a ride, once in a 3D IMAX theater and once in a regular theater. As someone with glasses, I have to say that I think I enjoyed the film better without the 3D accouterment (also there’s less danger of smearing popcorn butter on your clunky 3D glasses).

The thesis of the film, in the midst of the various subplots, exotic character names, and Pandora versions of whales and sharks and fascinating technology, seems to be: family first. In this case it’s the Sully family fighting against the elements and their enemies to persevere on the frontier. 

Sully (a Marine in his former human life) and his sons communicate to each other in military speak and it’s a bit cringey; his sons reply with “yes sir” to their father not as a sign of respect but because that’s just the way they relate to each other; they are sons in their father’s army. It’s a Sully family quirk. Is this wrong? Not necessarily, but it’s certainly jarring to hear in a family supposedly influenced by Indigenous culture.

And while not totally off topic, the poor white kid the Sully family has adopted, Spider (kind of a mix of the feral kid in Mad Max and gas station-era Justin Bieber), is often forgotten or left low on the priority list of the family. The mother practically despises him and he knows it. The lack of respect the Sully clan have for their human adoptee becomes comical as the movie progresses. 

At 3 hours and 10 minutes, the film needs a more aggressive editor. Though the time in Metkayina territories provides a nice backstory, we probably don’t need to spend as much time exploring this new Na’vi version of Maoriland. I was intrigued by the updated western movie influences: trains are derailed by Comanche, er, I mean Na’vi, and pillaged for modern weaponry, the Sky people view the Na’vi as hindrances to “progress,” the Sully family is seen as dirty “half-breeds,” half sky people, half Na’vi.

A film like this takes a lot of money to make, and as such is a technological marvel. Still, I’m left wondering, what if a producer just gave a Maori-inspired project like this to an actual Indigenous filmmaker, perhaps an actual Māori filmmaker like Taika Waititi, and we had an actual Indigenous filmmaker tell the story instead of a story told through the lens of a white guy updating colonial western movie tropes? What would that look like? And why are we watching an Indigenous story again through a white man’s (3D) lens? Well, the obvious answer is James Cameron has the money to make it. But when do Indigenous people get to make something like this?

Or maybe the better question is: Is this the type of thing Indigenous people would even want to make?

There are plenty of real-life issues that affect Indigenous people in 2022. The upcoming Supreme Court ICWA decision regarding whether Indigenous adoptees get to stay with Indigenous families or not comes to mind. We have water issues (which this film ironically has nothing to do with), of course colonialism is ever-present and the fight for resources is always in play, but do we need a white guy to dress these issues up in the world of fantasy where 10-foot-tall aliens fight “hard enough” to save the day to prove that we aren’t after all a “dead-end society”? Perhaps Indigenous futurism should be left in the hands of actual Indigenous filmmakers who know and can tell these stories?

When the first Avatar came out in 2009, I actually enjoyed it. The technology was shiny and new, there were fewer Indigenous stories on film, perhaps I even asked less of the type of Indigeneity I saw on the screen; times have changed. In 2022 we had three Indigenous-led TV shows in the United States: Rutherford Falls, Reservation Dogs, and Dark Winds. Reservation Dogs alone had at least half a dozen Indigenous directors in its ranks. The time has come for Indigenous directors to re-make these westerns and continue making our own Indigenous futurism films in our own image, to flip the script, tease the tropes, put Indian before Cowboy. We have enough proven talent at this point and don’t need out-of-touch, privileged directors like James Cameron to appropriate Indigenous culture for his stories. We can tell our own stories. We tell them better.

Jason Asenap is a Comanche and Muscogee Creek writer, critic, and filmmaker based in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Avatar: The Way of Water or how not to make Indigenous futurism movies on Dec 20, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

The case for spending less money on holiday gifts

Tue, 12/20/2022 - 03:45

You are familiar, I’m sure, with the institution of the gift shop: a business that exists entirely to sell useless treats and temptations, an ode to capitalistic superfluousness. During the weekend before Hanukkah, I found myself in such a place, driven into a state of dissociation by twee mugs and balsam-scented candles. This was how I ended up purchasing a felt pocket of catnip in the shape of a pierogi for my brother’s cat, because the package I was sending to his family in California just felt incomplete without a few extra trinkets. 

Normally, I am a woman who is familiar — intellectually, professionally, emotionally — with the many problems brought about by rampant holiday shopping. I know that both the copious buying and receiving of presents often constitutes a source of stress for all parties involved, that shiny wrapping paper and ribbon are a landfill nightmare, that the manufacturing and shipping of billions of goods for a few days’ celebration is both a burden on human workers and the polluted atmosphere. Indeed: the entire contemporary ideal of winter holidays is largely perpetuated by corporations to profit off of manufactured emotions

One obvious solution that evades most of these environmental and societal ills while still showering love and generosity upon your loved ones is to embrace gifts not bought new: homemade, secondhand, even — gasp! — regifted. It is a technique I personally strive to espouse. In the weeks leading up to Hanukkah, I took significant time and care this year to make personalized drawings in vintage frames for my family members, at my dining room table. (They were nice! I promise.) 

And yet I still felt the need to buy a few small things, simply to show that I was also willing to spend money on my loved ones — This in spite of being well aware that the gratuitous “just because” trinkets are among the worst offenders of gift-giving, as useless as they are unwanted. 

What is this force that compels me and millions of others to partake in the service of one very specific holiday ideal: the heap of shiny new presents, all wrapped up with a bow? Is it the consequence of capitalism, of holiday rom-coms, of deeply ingrained relationship dynamics? And more importantly, is it an ideal simply too powerful to subvert? 

Read more Why do I love the mall when I hate consumerism?

According to data from the National Retail Federation, a trade organization whose members range from department stores to multi-level marketing operations, 2021 holiday season spending grew by 13.5 percent compared to the previous year, a greater increase than any in the past 20 years. This year, gift spending is expected to grow by another 6 to 8 percent, even in light of the highest inflation rates in 40 years. 

The financial services company Bankrate surveyed consumers on how they would stretch their holiday budgets due to inflation. The most popular response was implementing coupons, discounts, and sales (41 percent), closely followed by simply buying fewer gifts (40 percent). The least popular answers were making handmade gifts and buying secondhand items, reported by only 14 and 11 percent respectively.

The reluctance to go with secondhand gifts boils down to how givers think used items will be received, said Julian Givi, a marketing professor at West Virginia University. His research suggests that fear is largely unfounded, driven in no small part by relentless messaging by retailers. “When it comes to used products, recipients are more open to them than givers anticipate,” he said. 

As it turns out, the person that gives the gift cares much more about how much it cost than the recipient, contrary to the assumption of Drake’s entire oeuvre. In fact, Givi says that “sentimental” gifts — family heirlooms, handmade gifts, even a simple framed photograph — are almost guaranteed to provide more happiness than a $20 tchotchke thrown into a Target cart in a panic.

Even knowing that from his own research, Givi admitted that he — much like myself! — usually succumbs to the pressure to spend a certain amount on new gifts every year. It’s a sort of prisoner’s dilemma of presents: If everyone else in the family gives an expensive gift, how will I look? 

An influential anthropological theory published in 1925 by the sociologist Marcel Mauss presents the practice of gift exchange as the foundation of all peaceful relationships among both individuals and communities. On one hand, it’s a nice idea that acts as a counterpoint to a society dependent on capitalistic commerce; on the other, that’s quite a bit of interpersonal pressure come December. 

But Mauss’ theory is grounded in the idea that there is no such thing as a selfless gift, as every gift is given in expectation of some form of equivalent reciprocation. This competitive element to gift giving – especially the pressure at the holidays to be the most thoughtful, the most generous, the most caring – drives us to spend, even when we don’t want or have to. After all, there’s no simple scale to measure sentimental value or joy or any other merit a gift might have. Why not let currency do the job instead? 

But to make matters even more fraught, the factors guiding contemporary gift giving aren’t just about money. There is also the expectation — particularly in romantic relationships — that the gift in question carry emotional significance. Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a rather harsh message for those who simply purchase their gifts in one 1844 essay:

The only gift is a portion of thyself … Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing … But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith’s.

Ralph Waldo Emerson Essays: Second Series, 1844

Emerson’s musings are a full-throated endorsement of the handmade present, to be sure — but to make such a thing requires significant spare time at the very least. If the two acceptable options to show your great affection for another person are extraordinary effort or extraordinary expenditure, I would guess that most people today will opt for the expenditure, since time is an increasingly precious resource in modern life. 

But what would it look like if the monetary or sentimental value of a gift weren’t a proxy for the giver’s own self worth, a way of establishing their place relative to others in a family, community, or society? This is part of the concept behind the Buy Nothing community, in which people in neighborhoods or small regional groups use social media to offer up or ask for goods. In these hyperlocal gift economies, nothing on offer is treated as more valuable than anything else. A diamond ring from a bad relationship should not be seen as worth more than a set of recycled baby food jars. (These are real examples.)

“You have a set of rules in a sharing economy, where you make it abundantly clear that every single gift has the same value,” says Liesl Clark, co-founder of the Buy Nothing Project. “We have had to work really hard at this, working at a flat economy where the true value is the connection between the people, and the wealth is the connections forged between proximal neighbors.”

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There are obvious challenges to applying these rules alongside a larger society in which diamond rings and baby food jars do have very different values. But one thing that Clark emphasizes is that the benefits associated with gifts exchanged via Buy Nothing groups often have little to do with those items’ worth in a commerce-based economy. A large pile of firewood from a giver’s property delivered right before a snowstorm cuts all the power to the recipient’s house quickly becomes the most precious thing in the world to that person, but it might have retailed for $19.99 at Kroger. 

To that end, we can reread Emerson’s quote with a takeaway other than “Ralph doesn’t want your Gift Cards.” The poet’s words, the miner’s gem, and the seamstress’s handkerchief would all be priced very differently in a store, but they represent the same value: a piece of oneself, given with love. 

Allow me, then, to propose a sort of progressive theory of gift-giving: Try not to focus on what you feel you should give. Above all else, a recipient wants to feel loved and cared for. They do not want to feel burdened or indebted. If these principles — and not an arbitrary sense of competition or obligation — guide one’s choices, I am confident that much of the stress of holiday presents will melt like snow on a lit windowpane.

As for the catnip pierogi — well, the cat loved it. But not significantly more than she loved the wrapping paper and ribbon that came with it.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The case for spending less money on holiday gifts on Dec 20, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Countries reach sweeping deal to protect nature

Tue, 12/20/2022 - 03:30

Nearly 200 nations reached a milestone agreement early Monday morning to protect biodiversity, pledging action on more than 20 targets spanning from land conservation to invasive species to pesticide use in an effort to stem the rapid deterioration of nature world-wide. 

The global accord, brokered at the latest United Nations’ biodiversity conference in Montreal, Canada, comes at a critical time: A recent U.N. report found that plants, animals, and ecosystems are declining at an “unprecedented” rate due to human activity, and that around 1 million species could go extinct within decades. 

The convention’s headline goal — to protect 30 percent of the planet’s land and waters by the year 2030 — received the most floor time over the meeting’s two-week run. The target comes from famed biologist E.O. Wilson, who argued that to reverse the extinction crisis, half of the planet must be set aside “for nature.” Some countries, like Colombia and the United States (the only country besides the Vatican that is not an official member of the international Convention on Biological Diversity), had already begun implementing a scaled-down version of the goal, dubbed “30×30,” within their own borders. Now, however, countries have a new global pact, known as the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework, for protecting land and sea that some have compared to the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). 

“It’s a landmark moment to have nearly every country on earth agree to halt and reverse biodiversity loss,” Craig Hanson, managing director for programs at the World Resources Institute, said in a press statement. “Yet the agreement is only as strong as countries’ political will to implement it, and countries now face the urgent task of turning these commitments into action.”

Leading up to the international gathering, Indigenous groups had expressed alarm over 30×30 and its potential to remove land and resources from tribal control in the name of conservation. “The prevailing concept of protected areas is ‘fortress conservation,’ exclusionary spaces based on the view of wilderness without people,” said Jennifer Corpuz, a member of the Kankanaey Igorot people from the Northern Philippines and a lead negotiator for the International Indigenous Forum on Biodiversity, a group of activists, scholars, and representatives from Indigenous governments and NGOs that organize around international environmental meetings. Time and again, studies have shown that Indigenous peoples are the best stewards of biodiversity, yet they are often hampered by protected area expansion and its attendant evictions and livelihood restrictions. 

“We saw the negotiation of a new framework as an opportunity to address those problems,” said Corpuz. The final language of the agreement calls for “systems of protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures, recognizing indigenous [sic] and traditional territories, and Indigenous rights are also mentioned with strong language at numerous points throughout the pact, according to Corpuz. While Indigenous groups had called for their territories to be recognized as a distinct pathway to protect biodiversity, Corpuz said “we feel that the language is ambiguous enough to accept.”  

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The biggest sticking point in the biodiversity negotiations, or the Conference of the Parties or COP15, was over who would fund conservation action in the most species-rich parts of the world, mostly in the Global South. Developing nations called for a $100 billion fund from wealthy nations, similar to the fund established through the U.N.’ s convention on climate change for climate mitigation and adaptation. Last week, delegates staged a walkout over the issue. The final agreement requires wealthy countries to provide $30 billion a year to small island nations and developing countries by 2030, although research has shown that closer to $700 billion per year is necessary to reduce species decline. Objections on Monday morning from the Democratic Republic of Congo and other African nations over insufficient funding were overridden when Huang Runqiu, the president of COP15 and China’s minister of ecology and environment, brought down the gavel to end the conference. 

In total, the final agreement contains 23 targets, including commitments to halve risks from pesticides and toxic chemical use in agriculture, halve invasive species introduction rates, and reform government subsidies linked to biodiversity destruction. 

Language requiring that companies disclose their impacts on the natural world and their financial risks associated with species extinction was watered down in the final version of the text. Developing nations and Indigenous peoples had also asked that when countries extract genetic resources from their biodiversity-rich ecosystems, like rainforests and peatlands, to make drugs and other products, that the origin countries receive an equitable share of the benefits of the research. While a mechanism was not established, language in the final text sets forth a two-year process to create a way to fund the communities and countries from which biodata is taken; Indigenous communities are calling to be the main beneficiaries.

Countries now have eight years to meet their new targets, which some observers have criticized for prioritizing economic interests and lacking any enforcement mechanism. As it stands, the 30 percent goal is global, not specific to individual countries, and commitments will be voluntary, similar to the Paris Agreement. At the 2002 biodiversity conference in the Netherlands, parties agreed to reduce the rate of species loss by 2010 and failed. The last major wave of biodiversity goal-setting happened in Aichi, Japan, in 2010, and not a single one of the meeting’s targets was met by the 2020 deadline. Given the track record, it remains to be seen if countries will make good on their ambitious new commitments.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Countries reach sweeping deal to protect nature on Dec 20, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

California passed a milestone law to stop neighborhood drilling. Now Big Oil has launched its counterattack.

Tue, 12/20/2022 - 03:15

Environmental justice communities and advocates across California celebrated a major victory in August when state legislators passed a bill to ban new oil wells and phase out old ones within 3,200 feet of sensitive sites like homes, schools, and hospitals.

It was a win decades in the making. Activists had spent years fighting to protect communities from the toxic impacts of neighborhood oil drilling, which include higher risks of cancer, asthma, heart disease, preterm birth, and other reproductive issues. Democratic state Senator Monique Limón, who introduced the setbacks bill, known as SB 1137, called its passing, “a historic moment in California history.”

But last week, Big Oil struck back. The California Independent Petroleum Association, or CIPA, the trade group representing drillers in the state, announced it has gathered enough signatures to force a referendum onto the 2024 state ballot. If approved by voters, it would overturn the state legislature’s decision and dismantle the new setbacks law, leaving it to CalGEM, the state’s slow moving regulatory body for oil and gas, to implement protections on its own accord. 

CIPA originally filed the paperwork for the referendum just three days after Governor Gavin Newsom signed the oil setback bill into law in September, and has spent months collecting the more than 600,000 signatures needed for the initiative to be formally included on the 2024 ballot; Stop the Energy Shutdown, the CIPA-run committee sponsoring the referendum effort, has now collected over 978,000. Over the next few months, California’s secretary of state and county registrars will count and certify the signatures.

“What we’re seeing right now is the last gasp of a dying industry that is willing to do anything to get what they want,” said Kobi Naseck, a coalition coordinator with Voices in Solidarity Against Oil in Neighborhoods, or VISIÓN.

While 2024 seems far away, experts told Grist that the new referendum, by even qualifying for the ballot, could have consequences starting immediately. Instead of going into effect January 1, the protections established by SB 1137 will be delayed until after the vote, buying fossil fuel companies two more years to reap profits from their wells. “What we could see in the next two years is a big run on permits and a huge amount of drilling, in anticipation of a loss for Big Oil in 2024,” said Naseck.

In California, there are 2.7 million people who live within 3,200 feet, a little over a half mile, of active oil wells; Black and Brown residents account for 70 percent of that total. The biggest funders of Stop the Energy Shutdown are oil companies that operate in low-income neighborhoods and places where communities of color live and work.  

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Sentinel Peak Resources, Signal Hill Petroleum, and E&B Natural Resources Management Corp., which together contributed over $10 million to the referendum campaign, have a combined 3,186 wells within the setback zones recommended by public health researchers and designated in the new bill. This past year, Signal and E&B received notices of violation for methane and noxious gas leaks that exceeded air safety standards; E&B made the news earlier this month for resisting excessive pressure warnings ahead of an oil well blowout in a residential area of Bakersfield that injured an employee. In total, the Stop the Energy Shutdown coalition of “small business owners, concerned taxpayers, local energy producers, and CIPA,” raised over $20 million as of December 2 to overturn the regulation that would protect people from these types of hazards.

In a statement to Grist, Rock Zierman, the chief executive officer of CIPA, said the legislative hearings on the bill did not adequately consider job losses, and that setback advocates “are trying to eliminate the cleanest oil production in the world, while destroying the rainforest and increasing greenhouse gas emissions by making California more dependent on foreign oil.” 

As Michael Hiltzik notes in the Los Angeles Times, nearly four-fifths of California’s oil already comes from overseas, and oil production in the state has been declining for years because the supply in the ground is depleting. In addition, at the senate hearing on SB 1137 in August, state Senator Henry Stern procured a statement from Nemonte Nenquimo, a Waorani leader involved in the tribe’s lawsuit to stop oil drilling in the Amazon due to its impacts on local people and ecosystems; Nenquimo expressed solidarity with the communities living near backyard oil wells in California. 

In the purest sense, getting an initiative or referendum on the state ballot is a way for residents to bring new laws directly to the public for vote. But in reality, it is an incredibly costly undertaking, referred to by detractors as a tool used mostly by special interest groups, such as industry, to get around legislation. In the case of the oil industry’s ballot push, residents and advocacy groups have reported numerous counts of petitioners sharing misleading information and outright lying about the purpose of the measure outside grocery stores across California. Inside Climate News reported on petitioners saying the oil-backed ballot measure would lower gas prices and that it would stop the practice of neighborhood drilling. It would in fact do the opposite.

Signature gatherers asked residents outside a grocery store in Sacramento to protect children and elders from oil and gas wells. In reality, the referendum would allow for increased neighborhood oil drilling in residential areas. Last Chance Alliance

“The office of the Secretary of State has received a large number of complaints,” said Hollin Kretzmann, an attorney focused on oil and gas issues with the Center for Biological Diversity. The Secretary of State has already launched an investigation, and advocates are calling for the state Attorney General to investigate the issue as well, said Naseck. 

Setback advocates expect to know the final status of the referendum effort and the validity of its signatures sometime between the end of February and April. 

If it does qualify, there is one last line of defense for communities. California’s regulatory body for oil and gas, CalGEM, was in the process of drafting a public health rule to create statewide buffer zones when SB 1137 was passed into law. According to advocates, CalGEM’s rulemaking process had been dragging on for years, and the bill was an attempt to force the agency to take swifter and more decisive action. 

“Even before SB 1137, we never needed a law on the books for CalGEM to do the right thing and regulate oil and gas operators near homes and schools,” said Naseck. Last year, the agency did deny a host of permits on the grounds of climate justice and public health. At the same time, they also permitted a set of new wells in Santa Clarita in Los Angeles County, leading to a lawsuit.

On Monday, the agency issued a notice of proposed emergency rulemaking action to implement setbacks, indicating that it plans to move forward with fulfilling its mandate under SB 1137. “If CalGEM wanted a permanent protection and safety buffer zone, they would continue with the draft rulemaking process that has been long delayed,” said Naseck. 

“All eyes will be on the agency to see what happens in the new year,” he added.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline California passed a milestone law to stop neighborhood drilling. Now Big Oil has launched its counterattack. on Dec 20, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Heatflation, overshoot, soup throwers: Grist’s picks for words of the year

Mon, 12/19/2022 - 03:45

Code red, glacier blood, megadrought: The defining words of 2021

Anthropause, ghost flights, spillover: Only a pandemic could bring words like these

Birth strike, flygskam, Pyrocene: And we thought things couldn’t get worse

Firenado, hothouse, smokestorm: The year fires went wild

Hotumn, meatmares, ecoanxiety: Oh, how young we all were then

It was a sunny morning in July when my editor sent me a hot tip. An unprecedented heat wave in China was ruining the corn and soy crops used to feed pigs, sending the price of pork soaring. And at the same time, hot and dry conditions were sweeping Europe, expected to erase a third of the seasonal harvest of rice, corn, and animal feed in Italy alone.

There was a pattern emerging. A month earlier, the United States had baked in searing temperatures that killed thousands of cattle in Kansas. Everyone was worrying about inflation with grocery bills and energy costs rising. And it looked like the record-breaking heat had been playing a larger role in driving up prices than many people realized. In the course of writing an article that linked these events together, a word was born: heatflation.

As the world overheats, new words and phrases turn up all the time, and old ones gain new meanings. Companies invent terms to sound greener, politicians try to come up with the smartest name for a climate bill, and activists bring brand-new words to life by devising fresh tactics to bring attention to their cause (like throwing soup at famous paintings).

There was so much going on in 2022, the language had some serious catching up to do. This summer, heavy rainfall submerged a third of Pakistan with deadly flooding. China endured a heat wave that was more intense, longer-lasting, and spread over a wider area than any in recent history. Yet the year also held positive developments: In August, Congress passed landmark climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, which President Joe Biden promptly signed into law. 

These shifting circumstances shape not only the physical world but also the way we talk about it. Every year, dictionary editors select a word that they think encapsulates the year’s spirit. This time around, Merriam-Webster picked “gaslighting,” Collins Dictionary selected “permacrisis,” and Oxford Languages went with “goblin mode.” Here are Grist’s 10 picks for the words of year, the terms and phrases that best captured the zeitgeist of our fast-changing planet in 2022.

 

Summer has transformed into ‘danger season,’ scientists warn. Hurricanes, heat, fires, smoke, drought: Is it time to stop sugar-coating summer?

Danger season

The period of the year from May to October plagued with wildfires, hurricanes, and heat waves.

Splashing in pools, eating ice cream cones … and evacuating from wildfires? Summer has earned a new, more sinister name: danger season, The phrase, coined by Erika Spanger-Siegfried, an analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, is meant to draw attention to how climate change has supercharged summertime threats. And this summer was no exception. A “heat dome” over France, Germany, Spain, and Britain — which scientists said would have been “virtually impossible” without climate change — led to an estimated 20,000 deaths. “I just want to say straight-up, frankly, 10, 15 years ago, when we would talk about these things, we didn’t want to scare people,” Rachel Cleetus, a policy director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told Grist earlier this year. “And now we’re scared, we’re terrified, for what we have already unleashed on the world.”

 

‘Flash droughts’ are Midwest’s next big climate threat: New research shows that dry weather is coming on more quickly than before, with little advance warning.

Flash droughts

Sudden dry spells marked by hot, dry air that sucks the moisture out of plants and soil.

You’ve heard of flash floods, outbursts of heavy rain that appear out of nowhere. It’s time to get accustomed to flash droughts, which can crop up in a matter of a week, parching the landscape with little warning. One descended on much of the Northeast in August, endangering the cranberry harvest in Massachusetts. In Oklahoma, 100-degree days dried out the land in July, sending the entire state into a drought. A study earlier this year found that rapid-onset droughts like these are taking hold faster as the climate warms, making them harder to predict, more devastating, and more damaging. Over the past two decades, for example, flash droughts increased more than 20 percent in the Central United States.

Heat pump

An efficient device that “pumps” heat from one place to another, used for both heating and cooling.

It was a big year for heat pumps, a confusingly named device that cools and heats homes. They’re ultra-efficient, using much less energy than traditional heaters, because they use electricity to move heat instead of creating it. Michael Thomas, a journalist and the founder of Carbon Switch, called them “the most overlooked climate solution.” After Russia invaded Ukraine in January, the European Union scrambled to find a way to lessen its dependence on Russian natural gas, enlisting heat pumps as a crucial tool. The technology is also gaining traction in the United States. Washington became the first state to require new buildings to have all-electric heating. Though installing heat pumps can be expensive, the average homeowner could save almost $1,000 on utility bills each year by switching from a fuel oil furnace, preventing four tons of carbon pollution in the process. And yes, in case you were wondering, the technology does work in the cold

 

Heatflation: How sizzling temperatures drive up food prices. As heat waves strike Europe and China, crops are withering.

Heatflation

When hot temperatures send prices soaring.

Climate change is gaining a reputation for driving up prices for all sorts of things. After I coined the word heatflation this summer, the term appeared in The Atlantic, Newsweek, and CBS, then made its way around the world in articles from India, Malaysia, and France. In the middle of harvest season in October, food prices in the United States were 10.9 percent higher compared to the year before — even higher than the overall inflation rate of 7.7 percent. Blazing-hot weather was likely one source of the surge. Last year, an analysis from the European Central Bank examined seasonal temperatures and price indicators in 48 countries and found that hot summers had “by far the largest and longest-lasting impact” on food prices. The changing climate has also been a culprit behind higher lumber prices (with trees getting eaten alive by wildfires and heat-loving bark beetles) and insurance premiums (as lenders retreat from risky, flood-prone areas).

Here’s what’s in the Senate’s $369 billion for climate and energy. The Democrats’ deal with Manchin is a climate landmark that would also boost fossil fuels.

IRA

A confusing acronym for the Inflation Reduction Act.

It’s already used as a stand-in for an individual retirement account and the Irish Republican Army, and this year the acronym was pressed into service for President Joe Biden’s landmark climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act. Democrats chose the name to appeal to voters as rising prices were top of mind (see entry for heatflation). The IRA directs $369 billion toward renewable power and energy-saving measures, such as tax credits to spur clean energy investments, rebates for buying electric vehicles, and grants to reduce pollution in economically disadvantaged communities. It also opens up new lands and waters to oil and gas leases, a bargaining chip to earn the vote of Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia. By 2030, the bill’s programs could help the U.S. cut emissions by 40 percent compared to 2005 levels. The question dividing White House officials and energy nerds now: Do you pronounce it by spelling out the letters (I.R.A.) or like the name Ira?

 

‘Nature-rinsing’: How polluters use the beauty of nature to clean up their image. Ever wonder why ads show SUVs dashing through the forest?

Nature-rinsing

Using natural imagery in advertisements to give the appearance of being environmentally friendly. 

Have you ever seen a commercial where an SUV veers offroad, then takes off through the trees, bounding through a beautiful forest? These kinds of advertisements are so common, it’s easy to miss what’s happening: a type of greenwashing recently labeled nature-rinsing. Polluting companies have long used the beauty of nature — images of wild animals, green plants, and lush landscapes — to clean up their reputation. Marketing research shows that such tactics are often successful, with nature-filled ads eliciting pleasant feelings and improving people’s views of the advertiser’s brand

Now these images seem to be popping up all over the place. According to a working study analyzing nearly 34,000 social media posts from European companies this summer, environment-related visuals appeared in 97 percent of posts from airlines, and well over half of posts from carmakers and oil companies. “I was shocked by the scale of it when we actually started to quantify it,” Geoffrey Supran, a Harvard researcher who coined nature-rinsing in the report, told Grist earlier this year.

Can the world overshoot its climate targets — and then fix it later? Policymakers seem to be banking on it. But irreversible climate impacts could get in the way.

Overshoot

A situation where the world overshoots its climate targets — and then fixes it later.

What’s the difference between the globe warming 1.5 degrees versus 2 degrees C? That half a degree means everything for the existence of small islands and for the well-being of millions of people who would sweat through deadly extreme heat. Unfortunately, we’re all but guaranteed to shoot right past the target of 1.5 degrees C, or 2.7 degrees F. Enter overshoot: a politically popular but scientifically suspect scenario in which the world blows past its climate goals and later brings temperatures back down. 

The problem for anyone banking on this turn of events is that some of climate change’s devastating consequences will turn out to be irreversible, as documented in a landmark report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in February. Extinct species will not come back; coral reefs might be permanently lost; ice sheets that melted into the ocean will keep sea levels high. A hotter climate could also set off feedback loops in which damaged forests and thawing permafrost may keep releasing the vast stores of carbon within them. Overshoot hasn’t yet traveled from scientific journals into the vernacular, but it’s sure to come up more often as the mercury continues to rise.

 

The mental block preventing people from buying electric vehicles A new study found people greatly underestimate how many of their daily tasks an EV could support.

Range anxiety

The worry that your car might die in the middle of a trip.

In 2022, electric vehicles hummed their way into the mainstream. The year kicked off with Super Bowl commercials promoting huge electric SUVs and the long-awaited release of the electric version of the most popular vehicle in America, the Ford F-150 Lightning. But range anxiety might be stopping some people from buying them. In May, a study found that many people in the United States and Germany mistakenly thought that an electric vehicle wouldn’t be able to meet their daily needs. Survey respondents underestimated how many daily tasks an electric vehicle could complete by as much as 30 percent. 

The fact is, batteries have been improving for years, and most EVs can now go 200 miles on a full charge, with more than a dozen models getting closer to 300 or 400 miles — like the popular Ford Mustang Mach-E and Tesla Model S. Showing car buyers that these vehicles can easily fulfill most of their activities — if not a road trip to Lake Tahoe — may help speed up the adoption of lower-emissions vehicles. Another thing that could help drivers feel less anxious about getting stranded is a robust network of chargers, which states are getting $5 billion to start building along the Interstate Highway System.

With ‘real zero,’ NextEra pushes back against deceptive carbon offsets Environmental advocates praise the plan and note a few flaws.

Real zero

A corporate goal to eliminate carbon emissions entirely, no accounting tricks allowed.

Like it or not, you’ve probably heard the phrase “net zero” by now. Corporations and governments have been announcing their intentions to go “net zero” for about a decade, pledging to suck up as much carbon as they emit, often by some far-off date. While the idea works, in theory, critics say these pledges can easily get exploited, leading to some creative accounting. In June, the company NextEra — which owns the large electric utility Florida Power & Light and is a big player in renewables and natural gas — pushed back at ambiguous net-zero pledges by coining real zero. The trademarked term means a company would actually eliminate its emissions without the use of carbon offsets or carbon capture. That is, genuinely zero emissions. While the real-zero goal might be laudable, the whole concept of voluntary corporate goals has drawn criticism for their lack of success: A recent study found that 93 percent of large global companies were on track to miss their emissions-cutting targets.

 

Interest in civil disobedience has reached a mini climate tipping point Non-violent protest for the planet? “Definitely,” say 4.8 percent of Americans in Yale study.

Soup thrower

A protester who launches soup at art in the name of their cause.

What does tomato soup have to do with climate change? It was a question no one needed to ask until October, when activists with the group Just Stop Oil tossed tomato soup at Vincent van Gogh’s iconic Sunflowers painting, protected by a pane of glass in London’s National Gallery. “Are you more concerned about the protection of a painting or the protection of our planet and people?” asked Phoebe Plummer, one of the soup throwers. Then, activists also flung mashed potatoes at a Claude Monet painting in Germany. The food-launching tactic led museums to tighten security and sparked vigorous debate over whether using an attention-grabbing tactic was helping or hurting the cause. Either way, activists are increasingly turning to civil disobedience as they become frustrated by the world’s slothlike progress on phasing out fossil fuels. In 2022, new words weren’t enough — the high stakes led to new actions, too.

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This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Heatflation, overshoot, soup throwers: Grist’s picks for words of the year on Dec 19, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Why Republicans are coughing up billions of dollars to save Florida’s insurance market

Mon, 12/19/2022 - 03:30

In the three months since Hurricane Ian struck Florida, the state’s fragile property insurance market has been teetering on the brink of collapse. The historic storm caused over $50 billion in damage, more than any disaster in U.S. history other than Hurricane Katrina. It also dealt a body blow to an industry that was already struggling to stay standing: Several insurance companies had already collapsed this year even before the hurricane, and major funders are now poised to abandon those that remain.

In recognition of this crisis, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis convened the state’s Republican-controlled legislature last week for a special session devoted to stabilizing the insurance market. In a matter of days, lawmakers passed a package of bills aimed at doing so. The package includes bills that will cut down on litigation and fraudulent claims that raise costs for insurers, but it also provides insurance companies with a $1 billion public subsidy to help them stay afloat next year. That’s on top of another $2 billion the legislature rolled out earlier this year.

One might think that this handout would be opposed by a legislature where Republicans enjoy supermajorities in both chambers — and by a governor who has styled himself a future leader of the Republican Party — but the state’s lawmakers don’t have many other options. DeSantis may trumpet Florida as a free-market success story, but the insurance market has all but abandoned it. 

The problem is that taxpayers will end up footing the bill for all this, even if they don’t own homes that are at significant risk — or don’t own homes at all. 

“If the state has to step in every year to help insurers stay in the market, that’s a problem, unless everyone in Florida is willing to keep paying more and more as these events occur,” said Patricia Born, an academic at Florida State University who studies risk management. DeSantis and his allies in the legislature can shift the cost burden from risky insurance customers to taxpayers or vice versa, but they can’t get rid of that burden altogether.

Read Next:

In a typical market, property insurance companies take in money from all their customers’ premiums and pay out to the subset of customers whose homes suffer damage. The revenue from premiums is supposed to guarantee that a company can pay out customers even under the most catastrophic circumstances. But that has become impossible for most Florida insurers to do: A huge share of homes in the state are vulnerable to hurricanes, which leave insurers liable for massive payouts — and the specter of climate-change-driven effects like “rapid intensification” means that storms that might once have petered out before landfall can suddenly become devastating. Insurers in the state have also seen a surge of costly litigation over roof damages thanks to a Florida-specific legal loophole

In theory, companies could raise prices to account for these costs, but in practice those prices would be too high for most customers to afford. Instead, many nationwide companies like State Farm have fled Florida altogether, leaving behind only small local carriers. When the crisis began after Hurricane Andrew in 1992, the state government created a public insurance company called Citizens that now serves as a provider of last resort to people who can’t get coverage from private companies. Citizens has doubled in size over the past four years as more of these companies collapse, and in some parts of the state it controls more than half of the insurance market.

In the weeks since Hurricane Ian, the biggest concern for the surviving private insurers has been the cost of reinsurance, which is insurance purchased by insurance companies. Just as a bank requires a homeowner to buy an insurance policy so she can cover sudden damages to her home, Florida requires insurers to buy their own insurance policies so they can afford to make big payouts after a storm.

Unlike the Florida-specific companies that currently sell home insurance to state residents, reinsurance companies are global corporations, many headquartered in Bermuda. These companies backstop the insurance markets in the world’s riskiest places, but the devastation from Ian is making many of the largest reinsurance providers cagey about operating in Florida. Industry analysts expect that these companies will pull as much as $100 billion of coverage off the Florida market next year, which could cause reinsurance rates in the state to rise by 10 percent or more.

When reinsurance gets more expensive, it spells trouble for small insurance companies like the ones that dominate Florida, said Sridhar Manyem, a researcher at the credit rating agency AM Best and the co-author of a recent report on the Florida market.

“They might have to drop some customers, they might have to raise rates, they might have to borrow more money at a pretty atrocious cost to buy reinsurance,” Manyem told Grist. 

This situation could get out of hand fast. Florida’s property insurance premiums are already about three times higher than the national average, and analysts expect them to rise another 20 or 30 percent next year. Companies that can’t raise more money through loans or price hikes will collapse, forcing more people to join Citizens. As that public insurance program keeps growing, it will get more vulnerable to a big storm, potentially putting the state on the hook for billions of dollars that it will have to raise from taxes.

President Joe Biden and First Lady Jill Biden listen to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis speak in Fort Myers, Florida, after Hurricane Ian. Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images

The state legislature approved a few measures last week that are designed to stop this downward spiral. One measure eliminates the unusual attorney’s fees that are driving the surge of roof litigation, a change lawmakers hope will help tempt insurers back to the market. Another measure would force every Citizens customer to buy flood insurance (even if they aren’t in a flood zone), and a third will slow down the growth of Citizens by requiring some potential customers to buy private insurance instead, even if it means they pay more. (Democrats in the legislature decried the lack of financial assistance for residents who face these new mandates.)

But the elephant in the room is the looming rise in reinsurance prices, which will make it even harder for Florida insurers to turn a profit next year. Reinsurance costs account for about half of the actual premiums that Florida homeowners pay, and that number is likely to rise.

“Right now that doesn’t look really good for any major carriers that might be thinking about writing in Florida, or even carriers that have been writing and might be thinking about leaving,” said Born. 

Florida’s government has been propping up the primary home insurance market for decades, but the toll of weather disasters is forcing the state’s conservative government to go even further by propping up the reinsurance market as well. The state already maintains a $17 billion reinsurance fund that helps insurers cover the largest hurricane claims, but Ian will just about wipe that fund clean. Refilling it before next hurricane season will not be easy. Earlier this year the state created an additional $2 billion reinsurance fund, and lawmakers added another $1 billion fund last week, pumping more money into the languishing market to protect the remaining private carriers.

Top Republicans in the state have tried to frame the public funding as a stopgap measure.

“It would be temporary, and it has to be contingent on getting major reforms so we actually fix the situation,” Paul Renner, the incoming speaker of the state House of Representatives, told reporters last month before the special session. “I do not want to be in a situation where we make any kind of new long-term taxpayer commitment to underwrite insurance.”

But funding a long-term solution to the insurance gap may be easier said than done. Even if the new package of bills does solve the litigation issue, hurricane risk is only going to increase as more people move to coastal cities and warm oceans make landfalling storms more powerful. As long as that trend continues, it will be difficult if not impossible for lawmakers to engineer a functioning private market.

That means that the state government, and by extension state residents, will foot the bill for protecting billions of dollars in vulnerable property. Unless something changes, a “long-term taxpayer commitment” is all but a certainty, and that burden will fall hardest on the Floridians with the least resources.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Why Republicans are coughing up billions of dollars to save Florida’s insurance market on Dec 19, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

Cleanup is underway for the US’s second-largest tar sands oil spill. Experts say it’ll be harder than past leaks.

Fri, 12/16/2022 - 15:04

The second-largest tar sands oil spill in the country — which left a black pockmark on Kansas grasslands a few weeks ago — will be harder to clean compared to past oil spills.

In early December, nearly 14,000 barrels of oil known as diluted bitumen spilled in north-central Kansas, three hours outside of Kansas City, Kansas. The cleanup is still underway, with at least 4,000 barrels now cleared from a waterway known as Mill Creek. But as time goes on, environmentalists and infrastructure experts worry about the oil that will be more difficult to clean.

According to TC Energy ,the Canadian operator of the Keystone Pipeline responsible for the spill, other sections of the pipeline have been restarted at reduced pressure. At the time of the spill, the pipeline was operating at 80 percent of the maximum recommended rate, which is allowed under a 2007 permit granted to the pipeline company by the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, or PHMSA. Normally, crude oil pipelines can’t operate above 72 percent of this rate. To be granted the exception, TC Energy had to “construct the pipeline using higher-grade steel,” according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

Diluted bitumen, or dilbit, is a natural oil sand found in sand deposits. It’s composed of sand, water, and bitumen, a sticky, black petroleum. According to an Inside Climate News analysis, dilbit is the heaviest of the crude oils used today and 50 to 70 percent of its composition is likely to sink in water, compared to the less than 10 percent of most crude oils. The oil inside the Keystone Pipeline is transported from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada — the globe’s third largest petroleum reserve — to refineries in the Midwest and the Gulf Coast. The leak occurred on a section of the Keystone Pipeline completed in 2011. 

“It is troubling to see so many failures and so much oil spilled from any pipeline, but it is especially troubling from such a relatively new pipeline,” Bill Caram, executive director of the nonprofit pipeline watchdog group Pipeline Safety Trust, said in a statement. 

According to a report from the National Academy of Sciences, dilbit is harder to clean, coats and adheres to landscapes and animals more than other crude oils, and has a smaller window of opportunity for proper cleanup. This study was commissioned by Congress after the infamous 2010 Kalamazoo, Michigan oil spill, where nearly 42,000 barrels of dilbit spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River from an Enbridge-operated pipeline. This oil spill, which took four years and billions of dollars to clean up while also prompting the evacuation of hundreds of homes, was the worst tar sands oil spill in the nation’s history.

So far, 71 fish and four mammals have been confirmed killed in the Kansas oil spill, with one beaver saved by rescue crews, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA. After the initial spill, TC Energy created two dams to prevent any continued spread and has since been working to remove the tar sands oil from surface water. According to the EPA, no drinking water wells were affected by the spill, but the federal agency and the Kansas Department of Health and Environment have urged people and animals to avoid the contaminated creek.

“We continue to prioritize the safety of people and the environment,” TC Energy said in a statement. “We are working with wildlife assessment crews including state and federal wildlife trustees and have trained professional responders onsite to identify any impacts to wildlife.”

The company has previously paid over $300,000 in fines related to damage caused by the Keystone Pipeline. 

The Keystone Pipeline, and its now-defunct offshoot Keystone XL, have sparked battles from local communities and Indigenous people in the nation’s prairie lands since its inception. In 2011, then-Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman urged the federal government to stop the expansion of the pipeline through his state to protect water. When the Keystone XL segment was announced, federal and local law enforcement began to strategize about how to stop Indigenous protests in Montana, South Dakota, and Nebraska “by any means.” 

The ruptured Kansas segment of the pipeline remains closed during the cleanup process. In a statement, TC Energy said it continues to work with the PHMSA to determine the cause of the ruptured line. President Joseph Biden recently released 2 million barrels of oil from the nation’s strategic reserve to various refineries in hopes of preventing “potential supply disruptions” caused by the spill. 

*Correction

This story has been updated to describe Pipeline Safety Trust as a nonprofit public watchdog group.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Cleanup is underway for the US’s second-largest tar sands oil spill. Experts say it’ll be harder than past leaks. on Dec 16, 2022.

Categories: H. Green News

After Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans fled to Florida. Then Ian happened.

Fri, 12/16/2022 - 03:45

When Hurricane Ian hit Central Florida last fall, Milly Santiago already knew what it was like to lose everything to a hurricane, to leave your home, to start over. 

For her, that was the outcome of Hurricane Maria, which struck her native Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing thousands of residents and leaving the main island without power for nearly a year. 

So in September 2022, nearly five years to the day when Maria tossed her life apart, Santiago was in suburban Orlando, visiting a friend. As torrents of heavy rain battered the roof of her friend’s home, and muddy waters flooded the streets, she realized they were trapped.

And that her life was going to change, again.

“It created such a brutal anxiety in me that I don’t even know how to explain,” she said in Spanish. 

In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, Santiago was one of more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans who left Puerto Rico and relocated to places like Florida, seeking safety, economic opportunities, and a place to rebuild their lives. Only now, with displacement caused by Hurricane Ian, as well as one of the worst housing crises in the country, the stability for Puerto Ricans in hurricane-battered Florida has never felt more at risk. With those like Santiago twice displaced, many are finding their resilience and sense of home tested like never before.  

Homes damaged by Hurricane Maria stand in an area without electricity on October 15, 2017 in San Isidro, Puerto Rico. Mario Tama via Getty Images

Santiago’s life right before Maria was based in Canóvanas, a town on the outskirts of Puerto Rico’s capital of San Juan. There, she lived with her teenage daughter and son. Hurricane Irma visited first, grazing the United States territory in early September and causing widespread blackouts. When Hurricane Maria hit on September 20, it ultimately took the lives of more than 4,000 Puerto Ricans, making it the most devastating tropical storm to ever hit the region. It would take 11 months for power to be fully restored to Puerto Rico’s main island, home to the majority of the territory’s population of just over 3 million.

Santiago lost her business as a childcare provider in the wake of the devastation to Puerto Rico’s economy and infrastructure. She decided she had no other option but to leave. By mid-October of that year, Santiago, with her children — and their father —relocated to metro Orlando.

It took her years to adjust to her new life. And then Ian happened.

“It was already a nightmare for me,” said Santiago, “because it was like reliving that moment when Maria was in Puerto Rico.” In the aftermath of Ian, Santiago was displaced from a rental home where she had lived for only a week.

Santiago’s déjà vu is not unique among Puerto Rican survivors of Maria living in Central Florida. Many are still reeling from the trauma of economic hardship, poor relief efforts, and displacement that was only now starting to be addressed in Puerto Rico itself.

“There are people who feel like, ‘Man, I just came here from Puerto Rico and here I am in this situation again,’” said Jose Nieves, a pastor at the First United Methodist Church in Kissimmee, a suburb of Orlando. Nieves’ work in recent years has extended to supporting immigrant families affected by natural disaster displacement in Central Florida. 

Central Florida is home to large Latin American and Caribbean communities. Many members work in low-wage and low-skilled jobs in the area’s robust tourism industry, which is nonetheless vulnerable to the economic fallout from natural disasters like Ian. Puerto Ricans and other Latin Americans are also among the millions of Florida residents who live in homes without flood insurance.

Earlier waves of Puerto Ricans had relocated to the mainland primarily for economic reasons. Along with those who came to Florida directly from the main island, thousands more had moved in recent years from other long-established Puerto Rican communities in New York and other parts of the Northeast. 

By the time Santiago and her family arrived in Orlando in 2017, the metro area was already one of the fastest growing regions in the country. Over one million people of Puerto Rican origin now live in Florida, surpassing the number in New York. In Central Florida, Puerto Ricans make up the largest community of Latinos. Among them are sizable Colombian, Venezuelan, and other Latin American nationalities.  

The Super 9 motel in Kissimmee, Florida, which became home to a number of Puerto Rican families displaced by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Ricardo Ramirez Buxeda via Getty Images

Like many other Puerto Ricans who had come before her, Santiago thought that a new life in Florida would provide what Puerto Rico couldn’t: wages that they could live well on, stable housing and infrastructure, and a local government that was responsive to their needs and that would uphold their rights as U.S. citizens. There was also the benefit of a large network of Spanish speakers who could provide support and share resources on how to navigate social and civic life on the mainland. And perhaps above all, there was also a sense that in Florida their vulnerability to the devastation of tropical storms like Maria would be lessened.

At first, Santiago and her family settled at her sister’s house in Kissimmee. World famous theme parks like Walt Disney World and Universal Studios were minutes away, as was Orlando’s international airport. In December 2017, after finding out that the local government was providing hotel accommodation for those displaced by Maria, Santiago and her family moved into a local Super 8, one of several motels along Highway 192, Kissimmee’s main drag. Its concentration of hotels and motels has earned Kissimmee the moniker of “the hotel capital of Central Florida.” 

In August of 2018, after more than eight months living at the Super 8, Santiago and her family started looking for more permanent places to stay. “By then the rents had skyrocketed and they were asking for $50 to $75 [a night] per head of family,” Santiago said of the motels. Landlords were also asking for two to three months rent for a deposit, a standard practice in Florida but one that took Santiago by surprise. “We said if we plan to stay we are going to [need] that money,” she said, “because we left Puerto Rico only with what little we had.” The family eventually settled in an apartment in Orlando.  

Ian hit at a time when the cost of living in Central Florida had soared, housing had become more unaffordable, and wages had stagnated. “We’ve just seen this massive spike in the cost of rent and in the cost of everything else,” said Sam Delgado, the programs manager at Central Florida Jobs with Justice, or CFJWJ, an Orlando-based workers’ rights organization.

“They say we have California’s expenses and Alabama’s wages.”

Sam Delgado, program manager at Central Florida Jobs with Justice

Delgado explained that the timing of Hurricane Ian at the end of the month left many local families struggling with whether to prioritize emergency expenses or rent. In the wake of the storm’s devastation, many households were forced to use rent money to buy non-perishable food items and gasoline, or temporarily relocate their families to hotels. “People just don’t have enough money for an emergency,” he said.

Florida’s affordable housing crisis, as in the rest of the U.S., is the result of several factors: limited housing stock, zoning laws restricting construction of new rental housing, and stagnant wages that have not kept up with the cost of living. “They say we have California’s expenses and Alabama’s wages,” said Delgado. 

Central Florida’s low-income Latino communities are among the hardest hit by the state’s housing crisis. They have some of Florida’s fewest financial and social resources to both prepare for disasters before they happen and to respond adequately after they do. Many live in properties such as mobile homes that are more affordable but less resilient to wind or flood damage.

For families that have previously been evicted or have a poor credit history, it’s even more difficult to secure housing in the traditional rental market. Throughout Orange County (of which Orlando is a part), Osceola County immediately south (home to Kissimmee), and even the Tampa Bay area along the Gulf Coast, the last option for these families is to move into hotels or motels. A number of such makeshift apartment complexes also became micro-communities for Puerto Ricans displaced by Hurricane Maria. The award-winning 2017 film, “The Florida Project,” dramatized the life of a family living in a motel in Kissimmee. But few see this trend as sustainable. “It’s expensive to be poor here because it costs way more to rent a hotel [room],” said Delgado.

And it’s only getting more expensive, as more extreme weather and displacement is putting pressure on the rental market. Prices for apartments are rising higher and higher to meet this demand. After recently looking for an apartment for she and her daughter, Santiago returned to her friend’s home, having had no luck at finding anything affordable. One place she looked at was asking $2,500 per month. “I don’t know what they were thinking,” she said.   

In many ways, the housing crisis has faced no greater urgency. Coupled with the lack of affordable housing, many in the Puerto Rican and larger Latino communities feel that the local and state government is not doing enough to support those who have been displaced.

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“If you were out of your house for 15, 20 days because of the flood, because you didn’t have electricity or services, it shows that [the state] was negligent,” said Martha Perez, who is a resident of Sherwood Forest, a RV resort community in Kissimmee. Perez was forced to leave her home, where she lived alone, after Ian’s floodwaters made her community uninhabitable for weeks. Both Milly Santiago and Perez, a Mexican citizen, have received material support from Hablamos Español Florida, a social services organization geared to Latino immigrant families in the state. 

“When our community gets hit by a hurricane, the recovery doesn’t take days or weeks. I mean, the reality is that many of those families are going to be struggling with the effects of the hurricanes for the next two years,” said Nieves of First United Methodist Church in Kissimmee. He says that the damage from Hurricane Ian has taken hundreds of homes off of the housing market, further exacerbating the affordability crisis.

For many locals and advocates, the needs that have arisen around housing, wages, and climate resilience are effectively the result of an unwillingness from those in power to address the needs of the state’s most vulnerable communities. And social support organizations and volunteers can only do so much. “Every time it’s a nonprofit organization responding to these immediate needs in communities, it looks more like a policy failure than it does a community coming together to help people,” said Delgado.

“What do I want from the government?” said Santiago. “I want them to be more fair with us, because there is a lot of injustice.” 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline After Hurricane Maria, many Puerto Ricans fled to Florida. Then Ian happened. on Dec 16, 2022.

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