Gov. Bill Walker, Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott and Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Andy Mack met this week with senior members of the Obama administration, urging them to keep the Arctic Ocean in the upcoming final version of the 2017-2022 federal offshore leasing program.
Friday, September 30, 2016 | By Tom Philpott | No Comments
Two new data points on the ongoing California drought and its impact on the state’s booming and thirsty farms:
• In California’s agriculture-rich, water-poor San Joaquin Valley, H2O from the state’s big irrigation projects has been especially scarce in recent years. As a result, farmers have had to rely heavily on water pumped from underground aquifers—and they’ve extracted so much of it that since 2013, land has been sinking in large swaths of the region, fouling up canals, bridges, roads, and other vital infrastructure and racking up billions of dollars in damage.
[N]ew wells are going in faster and deeper than ever. Farmers dug about 2,500 wells in the San Joaquin Valley last year alone, the highest number on record. That was five times the annual average for the previous 30 years, according to a Sacramento Bee analysis of state and local data
Back in 2014, Gov. Jerry Brown reversed a long tradition of Wild West groundwater management in California by signing a new law requiring the state’s most stressed watersheds to stop drawing down aquifers faster than they’re naturally replenished. The catch: The guidelines don’t kick in until 2040. In the meantime, San Joaquin Valley growers are embroiled in a “kind of groundwater arms race,” the Bee reports.
Aquifers don’t respect property lines, and in many cases, farmers with older, shallower wells are afraid of losing water to neighbors who are digging deeper wells and lowering the groundwater table. So they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to drill new wells of their own. All told, farmers are expected to spend $303 million this year alone to pump groundwater, according to UC Davis researchers.
Using satellite imagery, Watson looked at land conversions in California’s Central Valley (made up of two valleys, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento) between 2007 and 2014. She found that land devoted to the delicious (but water-intensive) nut had expanded 14 percent over that period—not surprising, given the ongoing almond boom.
The interesting finding, though, is that a huge chunk of the new almond territory was converted from fallow, completely un-irrigated land, including grasslands, wetlands, and forests. As for the rest, some of it switched over from less water-intensive crops like corn, cotton, wheat, and tomatoes; and some had been used for even thirstier crops like sugar beets, alfalfa, and clover. The bottom line: Watson calculates the net impact of the expansion was a 27 percent increase in annual irrigation needs for the converted land, putting massive new pressure on those struggling aquifers.
Over on Forbes, science writer Mallory Pickett notes that the study has yet to be published—it’s currently in peer review—and that “aerial images can only paint broad brush pictures” of the situation on the ground. But it’s not a pretty picture.
Thursday, September 29, 2016 | By Ben Adler | No Comments
This story was originally published by Gristand is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Two years after President Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping announced that their countries would work together to combat climate change, Republicans and conservatives in the United States continue to cite China’s rising carbon emissions as a reason not to bother cutting our own.
Earlier this month, Donald Trump’s economic advisor Stephen Moore claimed that limiting our carbon pollution is pointless because of China’s supposedly growing coal dependency. “Every time we shut down a coal plant in the US, China builds 10,” Moore told E&E News. “So how does that reduce global warming?”
Not only is Moore’s statement simply untrue, but the broader conservative theory behind it is badly outdated. China’s coal use and carbon emissions have dropped for the last two years. In 2015, China cut its coal use 3.7 percent and its emissions declined an estimated 1–2 percent, following similar decreases in 2014.
If China continues to cut its emissions, or even just keeps them at current levels, the country will be way ahead of its goal of peaking emissions by around 2030, which it laid out in 2014 and recommitted to during the Paris climate talks last December.
In part, China’s emissions are dropping because the country is undergoing a dramatic shift in the nature of its economy. For years, China had been rapidly industrializing and growing at a breakneck pace. Growth often causes emissions to rise, all the more so when a country has an expanding manufacturing sector and is building out its basic infrastructure such as highways and rail lines. Heavy industrial activity—especially making cement and steel, which are needed for things like buildings, roads, and rail tracks—can be extremely energy intensive and have a massive carbon footprint. But now, as China is becoming more fully industrialized, its growth is slower and driven more by service industries, like technology, that are much less carbon intensive.
And the Chinese government is spurring this shift to a lower-carbon economy by reducing its indirect subsidies, such as favorable lending from state-controlled banks, for coal and other carbon-heavy industries.. “This is actually a correction for the economy because China is adopting a more market approach,” says Ranping Song, an expert on Chinese climate policy at the World Resources Institute, an international environmental research organization. “That will have an impact on emissions.”
We can’t know whether Chinese emissions will continue dropping every year, but China is committed to improving the energy efficiency of its economy and the cleanliness of its energy sources, and it’s already off to a strong start. “There is a set of things happening in China that will continue to change the trajectory of its emissions,” says Jake Schmidt, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council.
Here are seven things China is doing to curb its climate-warming emissions:
Limiting coal use. Just a week after that 2014 announcement with Obama, China released an energy strategy that called for capping coal consumption by 2020. China also put a three-year moratorium on new coal mines, starting this year, and it’s been shutting down existing coal mines. Cutting back on coal not only reduces carbon emissions; it combats poor air quality, which has been causing serious health problems in notoriously polluted Chinese cities such as Beijing and Wuhan.
Carbon trading. Next year, China will launch a nationwide carbon market, the world’s largest. It will cover six of the biggest carbon-emitting sectors, starting with coal-fired electricity generation. This cap-and-trade program will build on programs China has already created in two provinces and five cities.
Cleaning up cars and trucks. China is the largest car market in the world. Cutting pollution from automobiles, like cutting pollution from coal plants, is essential not just to reducing CO2 emissions but to clearing the air in cities: The government estimates that roughly one-third of Beijing’s epic smog is from automobiles. China is pulling old, inefficient cars off the road, providing incentives for buying hybrids and electric cars, and enforcing stricter fuel-efficiency standards for new cars.
Making buildings more energy efficient. Two years ago, China started issuing requirements for buildings to be given energy-efficiency upgrades. The energy savings are just beginning to be felt, but given that buildings can last for decades or even centuries, there could be a long payoff period.
Building renewable capacity. China knows it needs alternative sources of energy to replace coal, so the government is investing heavily in developing wind and solar energy. “China has emerged as a leader in renewable energy,” reported Song and one of his colleagues in a blog post in April. “Investment soared from $39 billion to $111 billion in just five years, while electric capacity for solar power grew 168-fold and wind power quadrupled.” In Paris, China promised that at least 20 percent of its energy portfolio will come from non–fossil fuel sources by 2030.
Building nuclear reactors. Whatever you think of nuclear energy, it is one of the lowest-carbon forms of electricity out there. Earlier this month, China announced it will build at least 60 new nuclear power plants within a decade.
Building high-speed rail. A wealthier citizenry in a more industrialized country will be traveling a lot more. To limit transportation emissions, China is rapidly building high-speed rail. It already has more than 11,800 miles of high-speed rail that carry 2.7 million riders daily, and expansion plans are on the drawing board.
China will surely encounter hurdles and hiccups as it continues trying to rein in its emissions. The nation’s economy has recently been slowing down for cyclical reasons, as well as the structural ones mentioned above. After years of debt-fueled corporate investment and growth, Chinese companies are paying down their debts at the same time that the government is reining in industrial overcapacity and winding down the stimulus spending that got it through the Great Recession. China’s economy will eventually pick up again, and when it does, citizens will likely buy more cars, air conditioners, and electronic goods, leading to more electricity and gasoline use and perhaps greater carbon emissions.
But the policies China is enacting are designed to ultimately create a higher standard of living without more emissions. Since China has enormous low-lying cities that will be largely underwater in a century if climate change continues spinning out of control, the country has plenty of reason to curb its emissions and has shown that it is serious about doing it. That’s true whether Republican politicians in Washington choose to believe it or not.
Thursday, September 29, 2016 | By Samantha Michaels | No Comments
Last week, the United Nations announced that antibiotic resistance is the “biggest threat to modern medicine.” Nasty superbugs that have evolved to withstand antibiotics already kill 23,000 Americans every year—more than homicide—and experts predict that by 2050 they could kill some 10 million people around the world annually, more than the number of people killed by cancer. The United Kingdom’s chief medical officer describes the situation as a “nightmare.” Pretty soon, the director-general of the World Health Organization says, “common diseases like gonorrhoea may become untreatable.”
Amid the doom and gloom, scientists are buzzing over some hopeful news out of Australia: A 25-year-old researcher there thinks she may have discovered a key to averting this public health crisis. Shu Lam, a Malaysian Ph.D. student at the University of Melbourne, has found a way to kill bacteria with small star-shaped protein molecules that she builds in her lab.
Rather than poisoning the bad bacteria like antibiotics do, the molecules, called peptide polymers, destroy the bacteria’s cell walls. And unlike antibiotics, which also poison surrounding healthy cells, the polymers “are quite non-toxic to the healthy cells in the body,” Lam says. That’s because they’re much too big (about 10 nanometers in diameter) to enter healthy cells—”the difference in scale between a mouse and an elephant,” Lam’s supervisor told the Sydney Morning Herald. What’s more, in Lam’s experiments, generation after generation of bacteria don’t seem to become resistant to the polymers.
The research, published in Nature Microbiology, has been described by media as a major breakthrough that “could change the face of modern medicine.” Lam has successfully used the polymers to kill six different superbugs in her lab and another superbug in mice. The technique has effectively fought off infections from drug-resistant Acinetobacter baumannii, a bacteria that’s involved with pneumonia, meningitis, and urinary tract infections.
But it’s still too early to celebrate. Lam hasn’t tested the polymers on superbugs in humans yet, and she could need another five years to fully develop the technique, her supervisor says. “With research, you need to have a lot of patience,” Lam told the Telegraph (which, ahem, published its article about her discovery on the “Lifestyle-Women” section of its site).
Right now there seem to be few alternatives. As my colleague Tom Philpott has reported, scientists continue to discover more cases of bacteria that have evolved to resist the antibiotics we have. And we’re not coming up with new drugs at a speedy rate: Over the last half century, the Telegraph notes, only two new classes of antibiotics have entered the market.
Thursday, September 29, 2016 | By Julia Lurie | No Comments
In 2009, trains arrived in Uniontown, Alabama carrying four millions tons of coal ash, the toxic residue from burning coal. The ash was recovered from a spill in Kingston, Tennessee—a town that is more than 90 percent white—and brought to a new landfill less than a mile from the residential part of Uniontown, which is 90 percent black. Soon, Uniontown residents began reporting breathing problems, rashes, nausea, nosebleeds, and more.
“The smell, the pollution, and the fear affect all aspects of life—whether we can eat from our gardens, hang our clothes or spent time outside,” resident Esther Calhoun later said.
Uniontown residents filed a complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights in 2013, alleging that the waste was disproportionately affecting black property owners. By allowing the landfill to exist, they said, Alabama was violating Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which mandates that federeal funds not be used in a discriminatory purpose. The EPA is supposed to respond to such complaints within 6 months. Three years after filing the complaint, Uniontown residents are still waiting for an answer.
The story is one of many detailed in a scathing report by the US Commission on Civil Rights, a government watchdog group, on the EPA’s “long history” of not effectively enforcing its anti-discrimination policies. “EPA does not take action when faced with environmental justice concerns until forced to do so,” it reads. “When they do act, they make easy choices and outsource any environmental justice responsibilities onto others.”
For years, critics have accused the EPA of neglecting communities of color, pointing to cases from toxic air in Richmond, California to lead-contaminated water in Flint, Michigan.
The report sheds light on why this might be the case: Despite receiving early 300 discrimination complaints since 1993, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has “never made a formal finding of discrimination and has never denied or withdrawn financial assistance from a recipient in its entire history,” the report found. Last year, the Center for Public Integrity found that it takes the EPA a year, on average, to decide to accept or dismiss a Title VI omplaint, and that the agency dismisses or rejects the discrimination complaints in more than 9 out of 10 cases.
Much of the US Commission on Civil Rights report focuses on coal ash, which typically contains arsenic, mercury, and other heavy metals that are “associated with cancer and various other serious health effects,” according to the EPA. The ash is America’s second largest industrial waste stream (after mining waste), with 130 million tons generated each year—more than 800 pounds for every man, woman, and child in the United States. Until recently, the coal ash was typically dumped in unlined pits and covered with water, sometimes contaminating local water sources.
In 2014, the EPA came out with the first ever a coal ash storage rule—after environmental groups sued the agency for evading its responsibility to revise its waste regulations. The regulations say that new coal ash pits must be lined, and unlined pits need to be cleaned up—but only if they’re connected to active power plants and found to be polluting groundwater. What’s more, the rule doesn’t allow federal enforcement, leaving lawsuits as the only mechanism of ensuring that the guidelines are followed.
The US Commission on Civil Rights report took issue with these weaknesses, saying the rule “requires low-income and communities of color to collect complex data, fund litigation and navigate the federal court system—the very communities that the environmental justice principles were designed to protect.”
It recommends that the EPA bring on additional staff to respond to discrimination complaints and handle the current backlog (some cases are decades old). It calls for the agency to classify coal ash as hazardous waste, test water near coal ash ponds in poor and minority communities, and study the health effects of the waste. It also points out that all this will be difficult without funding from Congress—currently, only eight EPA staff members are directly responsible for Title VI compliance.
In a statement to the Center for Public Integrity, the EPA said that the report had “serious and pervasive flaws” and included factual inaccuracies and mischaracterizations of EPA findings. Mustafa Ali, environmental justice advisor to EPA head Gina McCarthy, said, “EPA has a robust and successful national program to protect minority and low-income communities from pollution.”
In places like Uniontown, Alabama, it’s hard to see evidence of such a program. “EPA is more focused on process than on outcomes; more focused on rhetoric than results,” wrote commission chairman Martin Castro in in the report. “By any measure, its outcomes are pathetic when it comes to environmental justice.”
Wednesday, September 28, 2016 | By EarthShare | No Comments
7 Tips to Fight Plastic Pollution
Enormous gyres made up of plastic “soup” have been found in all our oceans. The infamous North Pacific Gyre, also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, covers an area twice the size of Texas! Meanwhile, plastic chemicals like BPA are endocrine disruptors and, when ingested over time, can cause cancer, birth defects, and behavior problems. All this plastic is wreaking havoc on our health and environment. Here are some tips from EarthShare members on fighting back against plastic pollution:
Support Bag Fees and Bans. Policy is the most effective tool to fight plastic pollution. Tell your local, state, and federal politicians that you want to dis-incentivize wasteful plastic use. Check out the cities that have already done it.
Put pressure on manufacturers. If you believe a company could be smarter about its packaging, make your voice heard. Write a letter, send a tweet, or give your money to a more sustainable competitor (NRDC). Volunteer to Cleanup a Waterway. Sign up to participate in one of Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanups or Surfrider Foundation’s Cleanups. It’s a fun (and eye-opening) way to care for your local environment. Reduce *Before* Recycling. While it’s better than the landfill, recycling plastic isn’t a sustainable solution. Plastic degrades as it’s recycled and is sometimes exported to other countries. Reduce first, then reuse, then recycle (Save Our Shores).
Keep Plastic Out of the Kitchen. Avoid heating plastic containers and use kitchen dishes and implements made of glass, porcelain, wood, and stainless steel instead (CEHN).
BYO (Bring Your Own) Everything. From utensils and mugs to bags and diapers, we can kick the single-use habit by purchasing longer-lasting products meant to be reused (Surfrider Foundation/Earth Island Journal).
Wednesday, September 28, 2016 | By Natalie Schreyer | No Comments
President Barack Obama’s signature climate change initiative had its day in court Tuesday, as lawyers for 27 states, nonprofit groups, and utility companies argued that the carbon regulations are unconstitutional.
The rule, known as the Clean Power Plan, would enforce a 32 percent reduction on greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants by 2030 (compared with 2005 levels). As part of the implementation, the Environmental Protection Agency would require states with at least two coal-fired power plants to submit plans for emissions reductions. If states choose not to submit an acceptable plan, the EPA would impose one on them. The plan was a critical piece of the Obama administration’s successful efforts to forge the landmark Paris climate agreement last year.
The administration is relying on a section of the Clean Air Act as justification for the regulations, arguing that the law, originally passed by Congress in 1970 and later amended, empowers the EPA to “protect public health and welfare” from pollutants—in this case, carbon emissions that are driving global warming.
But the Clean Power Plan’s path has not been an easy one. Even before the regulations had been finalized, opponents sued to block it—a move that the DC Circuit Court of Appeals rejected last year. Opponents had more success once the final version of the rule was adopted. In a 5-4 decision in February, the Supreme Court issued an unusual stay, which prevented the rule from being implemented before it made its way through the courts. Yesterday’s arguments were the latest episode in the legal drama.
A panel of 10 federal judges heard the case in a marathon session that pitted the administration’s lawyers and environmental groups against a slate of opponents who argued the regulations exceed the EPA’s authority.West Virginia Solicitor General Elbert Lin charged that the rule would create a complex “new energy economy.” Others, such as attorney David Rivkin, who represents the state of Oklahoma, argue the Clean Power Plan intrudes on states’ rights to regulate their own electric grids. There were also several hours of highly technical arguments relating to inconsistent language in the House and Senate versions of a 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act.
At a panel discussion on Monday, Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, whose state is part of the coalition suing to block the rule, said the Clean Power Plan “represents an unprecedented expansion of federal authority.”
Others, such as attorney Allison Wood, who represents utility industry groups, told the court that the EPA can’t regulate emissions from sources like power plants under one section of the Clean Air Act when it already does so under a different section.
But Judge Cornelia Pillard, an Obama appointee, questioned this “double regulation” argument, pointing to laws that require motorists to drive on the right side of the road while also following the speed limit.
On constitutional grounds, the plan has one unlikely critic: Laurence Tribe, a liberal Harvard lawyer and former mentor to Obama who is participating in the case on behalf of the opponents to the rule. During Tuesday’s hearing, Tribe argued the Clean Power Plan violates the separation of powers between the executive and legislative branches of the federal government. If the Obama administration wants to regulate greenhouse gas emissions, he told the judges, “the solution is to go to Congress.”
But advocates say the Supreme Court has already determined that the EPA can regulate carbon dioxide. In the 2007 Massachusetts v. EPA case, they note, the court found that the Clean Air Act gives the EPA authority to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from motor vehicles.
After a long day of arguments, supporters of the plan were optimistic. “I think it was a remarkable day,” said Howard Fox, counsel for Earthjustice, an environmental law organization that signed on to a motion in support of the Clean Power Plan, on a conference call with reporters.
Where will the fight over the Clean Power Plan end up, and what does it mean for Obama’s legacy on climate issues?
If the DC Circuit were to find that the EPA exceeded its authority, it would remand the case to a lower court and the “EPA would essentially redo the rule,” Joanne Spalding of the Sierra Club told Mother Jones at a briefing. That would leave the country’s climate regulations in the hands of an administration led by either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
Another pathway is to the Supreme Court. West Virginia Attorney General Patrick Morrisey, who has led the charge against the Clean Power Plan, speculated at a panel discussion that if the current case doesn’t go his way, it could wind up at the Supreme Court in the fall of 2017. This time around, the result could be very different; Justice Antonin Scalia died in February shortly after casting one the deciding votes to put the regulations on hold. With the court now potentially split 4-4 on the issue, the fate of the Clean Power Plan could be deeply tied to the ongoing fight over Scalia’s replacement.
The DC Circuit Court’s opinion in the case is expected to come out near the end of this year or early next year, according to David Doniger of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which supports the plan.
Whichever way it goes, the stakes are high. As Brett Kavanaugh, one of the DC court’s most outspoken judges during the arguments, said, “This is a huge case.”
Wednesday, September 28, 2016 | By Tom Philpott | No Comments
Ah, McTeacher’s Night—the occasion for kids to watch their teachers peddle burgers, fries, and sugary drinks. In these tie-ups between schools and the fast-food giant, teachers encourage their students and their families to visit a McDonald’s outlet on a particular evening, and then work behind the counter in McDonald’s t-shirts. A portion of the night’s sales are donated to the school. The above video depicts one such event held for an Illinois high school in 2012.
Sound like an edifying spectacle for youth? A labor union called United Teachers Los Angeles thinks not. In a blistering letter recently published in the union newspaper, UTLA vice president Cecily Myart-Cruz lays out the case against McTeacher’s Night. She claims that the events amount to “predatory marketing of fast food to children,” “exploits the trust between teachers and students to promote its junk food,” and “often raise as little as $1 per student, a ridiculously small amount compared to the time teachers must spend participating and recruiting their students to attend.”
McDonald’s has not responded to request for comment on those characterizations.
Like the sweet sauce that tops a soft-serve sundae, Myart-Cruz’s critique comes after a campaign launched last year to kibosh McTeacher’s Nights, led by advocacy groups Corporate Accountability International and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and and supported by 50 national, state and local teachers unions.
A spokesperson for Corporate Accountability International pointed out to me in an email that McTeacher’s Night events contradict sponsorship guidelines (downloadable here) issued by the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) in 2011. The guidelines state: “Keep in mind we may not accept donations from or promote organizations that market, sell or produce products that may be harmful to children including but not limited to, tobacco, alcohol, firearms, gambling, or high fat and calorie foods and drinks.”
Using Freedom of Information Act requests, Corporate Accountability International and Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood have documented more than 120 McTeacher nights in greater LA since the start of 2013, including four this year. Nationwide, the groups have counted more than 600 since 2013.
On Monday, the UTLA announced a formal policy “calling on McDonald’s to end these disrespectful marketing gimmicks once and for all,” Myart-Cruz said in a statement.
Like a class clown who doesn’t know when to stop, Ronald McDonald would appear to be no longer welcome as a fixture in LA public schools.