By Jeremy Deaton
This year, state legislatures will redraw the electoral map. The GOP controls most state legislatures, and they are expected to draw congressional districts to favor Republicans, which will make it easier for them to win a majority of seats in the House of Representatives, even if they fail to win the most votes overall. This dynamic will influence policymaking on a number of issues, including the environment. Recent events in North Carolina give some idea of what to expect.
In North Carolina, coal-fired plants historically dealt with the leftover ash by mixing it with wastewater and dumping it into an open pit nearby. Because coal generators need a lot of water, power plants and coal ash ponds usually sit next to a lake or river.
This arrangement can have disastrous consequences. In 2014, a pipe under a coal ash pond owned by Duke Energy in Eden, North Carolina cracked open. The pipe carried wastewater from the nearby coal plant to the Dan River. When it broke, upwards of 30,000 tons of soggy, toxic coal ash seeped into the pipe and drained into the river.
In the aftermath, the Obama administration created the first-ever regulation on coal ash ponds, though it was remarkably weak. Michael Yaki, of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, later said it was "practically toothless in its ability to protect the poorest and minority population of our country from things such as coal ash." Despite this, in 2015, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would water down the regulation even further in ways that could lead to a repeat of the Dan River spill or allow coal ash ponds to leak toxins into drinking water.
Every single Republican member of North Carolina's congressional delegation voted in favor of the bill — including Rep. Mark Walker, whose district included the site of the Dan River spill — even as North Carolina residents living near coal ash ponds were being told not to drink well water. Every Democrat voted against it. The bill ultimately died in the Democratically-controlled Senate.
To understand why North Carolina Republicans would vote for a doomed bill to slash coal ash protections, it helps to consider their political circumstances.
In the anti-Obama fervor of 2015, it wasn't hard to marshal Republicans against the spectre of regulatory overreach, particularly against the energy industry. While Duke Energy donated to every member of North Carolina's congressional delegation, it gave substantially more to Republicans than to Democrats. But perhaps more important than campaign contributions or the political milieu was the impact of gerrymandering.
In 2010, Republicans came to power in North Carolina, and when they redrew the congressional map, they carved up Democratic strongholds to dilute the power of Democratic voters — namely, Black voters — creating districts that wiggled and stretched across large expanses. This practice, known as gerrymandering, produced a map that heavily favored Republicans.
In 2014, the GOP won only 55 percent of the vote statewide, but they came away with 10 out of 13 seats, and not one of these races was particularly close. Every politician Republican was well insulated against swings in public opinion. A 2014 poll from the Sierra Club found that 70 percent of North Carolina voters would be more likely to support a politician who " favors strong regulations and enforcement… to prevent future spills," and yet every Republican fought such rules.
Because of the way the electoral map was drawn, 12 of the 14 coal ash pond sites in North Carolina were in districts represented by Republicans, meaning that almost no one living near a coal ash pond was represented by someone who favored stronger regulations. And most coal ash pond sites are in areas that are disproportionately low-income, according to data from Earthjustice.
This is the North Carolina congressional map for the 2014 midterm election. The map is shaded according to the partisan lean of each district, with darker colors indicating more support for either Republicans, in red, or Democrats, in blue. The black dots indicate the locations of coal ash pond sites.
"Any environmental issue will receive less attention in a district where voting power has been diluted and divided," said Jason Rhode, national coordinator for the Princeton Gerrymandering Project at Princeton University. "Without that voice, environmental injustice can run rampant."
In 2016, a federal court determined that North Carolina's congressional map had diminished the power of Black voters and ordered the legislature to redraw the map. The Republican majority produced a map that, on its face, looked more fair. But it still carved up Democratic strongholds, which typically meant Black communities, with the effect of diluting the Black vote. In the most egregious case, they drew a line through the middle of North Carolina A&T State University, the largest historically Black university in the country. The final map produced just as many Republican seats, and it left only one coal ash site in a district represented by a Democrat.
This is the North Carolina congressional map for the 2016 election. The map is shaded according to the partisan lean of each district, with darker colors indicating more support for either Republicans, in red, or Democrats, in blue. The black dots indicate the locations of coal ash pond sites.
"The government is supposed to be by the people and for the people. We're getting further and further away from that," said Rev. Gregory Hairston, senior pastor at Rising Star Baptist Church and a coal ash advocate.
By diluting the Black vote, he said, the Republican-controlled legislature undermined the ability of Black voters to influence policy on issues like coal ash, which disproportionately harm Black residents.
"We found that many of the issues that we faced — strokes, cancer, asthma and different neurological diseases — had developed around these centers," Hairston said. "There is still pollution that is being put into our rivers, our basins, our water supplies."
Gerrymandering also produces more extremes, as lawmakers in safe districts are more likely to fear a primary challenge than a general election loss. This can stymie environmental legislation, said former North Carolina state Representative Chuck McGrady, a moderate, pro-environment Republican who led the legislative response to the Dan River spill.
"The problem is that, because of gerrymandering, there is just not a lot of discussion and not a lot of ability to find compromise on a range of issues, including environmental protection," he said. "Gerrymandering has allowed both parties to play to their base and makes it more unacceptable for anyone to compromise on whatever the issue is. It really doesn't matter."
In 2019, a North Carolina state court delivered another blow to North Carolina's gerrymandered congressional map. Judges said that map was far too partisan and ordered the Republican-controlled legislature to redraw it once again. They did, and the result was a map that would send eight Republicans and five Democrats to Congress. While it was more representative than the previous map, and some districts were made more competitive, the new map still heavily tilted toward the GOP. Only three coal ash sites were in districts represented by Democrats.
This is the North Carolina congressional map for the 2020 election. The map is shaded according to the partisan lean of each district, with darker colors indicating more support for either Republicans, in red, or Democrats, in blue. The black dots indicate the locations of coal ash pond sites.
Experts at Princeton said the more reliable way to produce a fair map is to assemble an independent citizen-redistricting commission, a bipartisan collection of citizens whose goal is to produce a fair map.
"If you have a very transparent process where the people making the decisions have the interests of the constituents at heart, that's going to make a good map," said Hannah Wheelen, project manager and data coordinator at the Princeton Gerrymandering Project. "Process and public involvement are what make good maps."
In 2019, McGrady put forward a bill to overhaul North Carolina's redistricting process. The bill calls for an independent commission to draw the map and for the legislature to vote on it. McGrady also introduced a constitutional amendment to enshrine this process. Both measures failed.
"We got so very close. I had really firm commitments in terms of the North Carolina legislature taking this up last year, and then this little pandemic arrived, and it's just not an issue you can resolve through Zoom calls," he said.
Now, any hopes of ending gerrymandering are likely dead, at least for a few more years. Every 10 years, states redraw the congressional map. In the 2020 election, Republicans retained their grip on the state legislature, and in 2021 they are likely to draw the map to favor the GOP. North Carolina's democratic governor, Roy Cooper, has no veto power over the maps.
"I will continue to have an interest in making sure that our representation in the U.S. Congress more closely resembles the purple nature of our state, but I would not be surprised if my friends across the aisle take a different vantage point," said Ben Clark, a Democrat in the North Carolina Senate.
In the last round of redistricting, Clark put forward a map that would have sent seven Republicans and six Democrats to the U.S. House of Representatives, meaning it would have been roughly representative. It failed, but it showed what a fairer map might look like.
Clark's map preserved communities, including those affected by coal ash ponds. On his map, the Dan River coal ash pond would fall in a Democratic-leaning district that included Greensboro, which lies just 30 miles south. And the Sandhills region, a flat, sandy area on the southern side of the state would also be collected in one district.
"It just makes sense to do a Sandhills district," he said. "They have similar historical concerns, environmental concerns."
This is a North Carolina congressional map proposed by state Sen. Ben Clark. The map is shaded according to the partisan lean of each district, with darker colors indicating more support for either Republicans, in red, or Democrats, in blue. It shows the average partisan lean according to the 2018 election for the North Carolina state Senate, state House and U.S. House of Representatives. The black dots indicate the locations of coal ash pond sites.
Among those environmental concerns is the Weatherspoon coal ash pond in Lumberton. Until the pond is finally closed, it poses a threat to people who live nearby, as heavy rains could flood the pond and carry coal ash into the nearby Lumber River. Lumberton is comprised mostly of people of color. Around a third of residents live below the poverty line.
"They're working for a living, but they don't have a whole lot," said Jefferson Currie II, Lumber Riverkeeper with the Winyah Rivers Alliance. "A lot of corporations over the years, they chose the path of least resistance. That meant [polluting] people who can't necessarily litigate and fight back."
Currently, this area is in the ninth district, which is represented by a Republican, Dan Bishop, the lead sponsor of bill requiring transgender people to use the bathroom corresponding to their sex at birth. In Clark's map, the ninth district would lean Democratic, reflecting the partisan makeup of the Sandhills region. The sixth district, which includes the site of the Dan River spill, would also be represented by a Democrat. In total, six of the state's 14 coal ash pond sites would be represented by Democrats. Clark's map would also be more competitive than the current map, meaning elected officials couldn't just play to their base.
"The best of all worlds is to have a sufficient number of districts that are truly competitive, in which the candidates have to compete on their ideas and values," Clark said. "I don't want a map that automatically elects all Democrats or automatically elects all Republicans."
While North Carolina's GOP-controlled legislature is unlikely to produce a competitive map on its own, there is some slim hope for reforming gerrymandering this year. Congress is currently considering a bill, H.R. 1, that would require states to use independent citizen-redistricting commissions to draw maps. The bill would also ban map drawers from engaging in partisan gerrymandering or breaking up relevant communities – in particular, communities of color, like North Carolina A&T State University.
Clark, however, is pessimistic about the chances of ending gerrymandering in 2021. Currie held a similarly dim view, but he said that people should rally nonetheless.
"We don't push strong enough or hard enough. We need to say, 'We want a nonpartisan commission or we're gonna vote y'all out of office,'" he said. Though, he added, "I'm not expecting them to draw the most geographically and politically representational map. And if they did, I might pass out."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
By Jeremy Deaton
Shreya Ramachandran, 17, remembers witnessing California's water crisis firsthand on a visit to Tulare County in 2014, when she was still a preteen. Tulare spans a large swath of farmland in California's Central Valley, and at that time, locals were facing dire water shortages amid an ongoing drought made worse by climate change.
"I was talking to some of the people in the area whose wells completely ran dry, and they were left without water because they weren't connected to the central water grid. They were trucking water in for even basic needs," she said. "I was really affected by their stories, and I wanted to do something to help."
The experience spurred Ramachandran, who lives in Fremont, California, to find ways to reuse water from sinks, showers and laundry machines, what's known as grey water, to help people better cope with intense drought. She has won numerous awards for her research, was named a global finalist in the 2019 Google Science Fair, and is featured in the forthcoming PBS Peril and Promise climate change documentary, The Power of Us.
Ramachandran said that after she returned home from Tulare she made every effort to conserve water in her life. She took shorter showers and turned off the tap when brushing her teeth, but it had little effect on how much her house consumed.
Around that time, Ramachandran's grandmother was visiting from India, and she had brought with her a handful of soap nuts. A soap nut, also known as a soap berry, is a small yellow or brown fruit encased in a hard, brown shell. Soap nuts are native to India, where they are used for bathing. Massage one in a bowl of water, and it will begin to lather and smell of apples, Ramachandran said.
"I was using them as a shampoo, and I was thinking, 'Okay, if they can be used for this purpose, maybe soap nuts can be used as an alternative laundry detergent as well. And then we can reuse the water because soap nuts are all-natural,'" she said. "The best ideas come to you when you're in the shower."
Ramachandran said that soap nuts, which are often sold as a detergent, make for an effective cleaning agent. One only needs to put four or five nuts in a cloth bag and toss it in with their laundry, and they can reuse that bag of nuts as many as 10 times, making soap nuts significantly cheaper than organic detergent. Ramachandran wanted to see if the leftover water could be used to nourish plants.
"I read a ton of papers. I developed a project plan. And I contacted universities up and down in California. I sent so many cold emails, did so many cold calls until, finally, a really wonderful professor at UC Berkeley agreed to look over my project plan and greenlight it," she said.
That professor was environmental scientist Céline Pallud, who studies soil. She said that Ramachandran's experiments were comparable to the work of a college student, which she said was "extremely impressive," given that she was only 12 when she undertook the research.
Ramachandran tested the laundry water on tall fescue, a type of turfgrass, and an assortment of vegetables, comparing the effect of soap nuts with organic and conventional soaps and detergents. That would mean setting up dozens of pots in a highly controlled space.
"I kicked my parents out of the master bedroom because I needed a space that was as close to a greenhouse as possible, and the master bedroom had ideal—and I mean, seriously, ideal—lighting and temperature conditions," she said. Fortunately, her parents, both computer engineers, were willing to accommodate her.
"I didn't take her seriously at first and tried to talk her into considering alternate places," said her mother, Hiran Rajagopalan. "Ultimately, I didn't want to disappoint her. After all, she was only trying to do science."
Ramachandran tracked nutrients and bacteria in the soil and kept a close eye on the health of the grass. She looked for traces of E. coli, which can make people severely ill if consumed. She worked continuously, even on Christmas and New Year's Day, and she took advanced classes in statistics to learn how to analyze all the data collected.
"I found that grey water from soap nuts, as well as several organic detergents, could be reused safely for non-potable uses," she said. "But grey water that was generated from [conventional] soaps that had things like soluble salts and boron, that became very detrimental because those ingredients accumulated in the grey water and then made it unusable for crop irrigation."
Ramachandran went on to found her own nonprofit, The Grey Water Project, which teaches people how to recycle grey water in their own homes. She does workshops at schools, libraries and corporate events, and she developed a grey water science curriculum that has been implemented in more than 90 schools so far.
"I tell people what the best practices are for grey water reuse. And I let them know, 'These are the detergents you should be using," she said. "My ultimate goal is essentially for grey water reuse to be just as common as paper or plastic recycling."
Ramachandran, now a senior in high school, is applying to colleges and has already been accepted to Stanford. She wants to study biology and environmental science to continue the kind of work she is already doing. But she also wants to study public policy to help make use of good science.
"I've learned a lot about what it means to be a scientist," she said. "You can use science to develop the solutions, but it's equally important to implement them."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
Is Sunrun the best option for solar panels on your home?
If you're considering a solar panel installation, chances are you've come across the name Sunrun. A lot of literature exists on this leading residential solar panel installer, but research can be overwhelming, so we're breaking down everything you need to know in this Sunrun solar review.
As one of the nation's top solar companies, Sunrun focuses on installing custom-designed solar arrays and backup battery systems, and installations are performed quickly and easily by the provider's massive fleet of technicians. Sunrun also offers a solar leasing program that's popular among customers.
|Sunrun Fast Facts|
|Service Areas||22 states and territories, including AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, IL, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, RI, SC, TX, VT, WI, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.|
|Service Types||Solar panel and backup battery installations|
|Types of Panels||High-efficiency monocrystalline panels from top solar suppliers like LONGi and Costco|
|Backup Battery Options||Brightbox Home Battery storage, which uses lithium-ion batteries like the Tesla Powerwall and the LG Chem|
|Certifications||Solar Energy Industries Association|
Better Business Bureau
|B+ with accreditation|
Read on to learn more about the provider, or to see if Sunrun is available in your area and get a free quote, fill out the 30-second form below.
Founded in 2007, Sunrun's mission is to create a world run by solar energy. Since 2007, Sunrun has expanded at an impressive rate, now offering services in over 20 states as well as Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.
Sunrun designs solar panel layouts custom to a roof's shape via satellite imagery, giving homeowners more control over the appearance and efficiency of their systems. The company's integrated home solar battery storage service, Brightbox, sets it apart from the many other providers that have yet to deploy storage options that bring a number of key benefits to solar customers.
Sunrun also provides a wide variety of solar financing options for its customers. Catering to a large client base has allowed for Sunrun's massive growth, but it's also presented challenges that have soured the company's reputation online. The BBB gives Sunrun a rating of a B+, which is lower than the average solar provider.
Sunrun Solar Services and Installation
Sunrun is a comprehensive solar installer, providing design and installation of custom solar solutions complete with backup battery storage, home energy monitoring and energy control during outages. These tools can help homeowners manage, store and monitor their home's energy use for additional savings on their electric bills.
The types of panels and inverters Sunrun offers come from brand names like SolarEdge, LONGi and Costco. They are ideal for the quick and easy installations that Sunrun prides itself on. An average customer could expect the installation process to look like this:
- Receive a free quote by providing preliminary information such as your address, monthly energy costs and credit score.
- If interested after receiving the quote, a Sunrun sales rep will provide a detailed proposal including your custom system design, appearance and estimated energy savings over the course of the system's lifetime. The proposal should include any local and state solar incentives, so be sure to make note that any are included.
- Once you've decided on the custom system that fits your needs, you will need to complete paperwork and obtain permits and approvals. Sunrun will handle the permits and approvals from your presiding city or county, but you should expect this process to take a few weeks.
- During the permitting process, Sunrun will also check for net metering programs through your utility company and will enroll you if eligible.
- Once all permits and approvals are gathered, Sunrun will install your system. With Sunrun's resources, this will likely be the easiest part of the entire process.
- Finally, you'll need to pass inspection and turn on the system. Once the system is installed, both the city and your electric company will most likely require inspections. Sunrun will handle the logistics of both. Once these pass, a customer will be able to turn the system on.
Solar Panel Warranty
All Sunrun installations, whether leases or purchases, are covered by the Sunrun Guarantee. This 10-year comprehensive warranty includes free equipment replacement and system repairs, covers all parts and labor costs and guarantees that roof penetrations are watertight.
Sunrun advertises free maintenance, repairs and insurance on its products, but it should be noted that those services are only available to customers leasing panels through Sunrun. Any customers who have purchased panels from Sunrun will be held to the product warranty of the panels they purchase (typically between 12-25 years). As such, all warranty claims will be handled through the panel manufacturer rather than Sunrun.
Sunrun Costs and Financing
The cost of a solar system from a particular provider is difficult to estimate, as pricing can vary widely depending on your state, your roof and your home's energy needs. As Sunrun has been an industry leader for some time, most other solar providers actually offer installations at a slightly lower cost to give them a competitive edge. This is just another reason we encourage our readers to get quotes from competing solar companies.
Much of Sunrun's expansion can also be credited to its utilization of solar leases, which allow homeowners to rent solar equipment from Sunrun at a monthly cost. Though leasing panels provides immediate energy savings with a low upfront cost, purchasing panels provides the greatest value long-term. Keep in mind that leases will not be eligible for the solar tax credit.
Solar Financing Options
Sunrun offers four different solar plans for its customers.
- Monthly lease: This option requires the least money down but also provides the least overall value. Sunrun retains ownership of the panels and you make monthly payments to purchase the energy they generate. The monthly payments are guaranteed to be less than what your utility payment would be, but the savings are not as great as they would be if you purchased the panels.
- Full lease: In a full lease, the customer pays Sunrun an upfront fee to rent the panels for around 25 years (the term of the lease can vary). Sunrun retains ownership of the solar equipment. This saves a customer more money than a monthly lease, but it's still significantly less than if a customer purchased panels.
- Monthly loan: Customers can receive a solar loan from a third party to fund the purchase of solar equipment. These loans require monthly payments and typically have a payback period of between five and 10 years. In a monthly loan, a customer still owns the system outright, which adds to their property value, allows them to claim the solar tax credit and provides greater long-term energy savings than a lease. However, they will pay interest on the loan, making the system more expensive.
- Full purchase: A full purchase is the most recommended method of investing in solar energy. When customers purchase panels, they buy the system designed by Sunrun outright. Immediately, the solar panels add property value and the homeowner is eligible for the solar tax credit. Over time, homeowners will see a larger return on investment when paying in cash.
Sunrun Solar Reviews
Sunrun's size is both its biggest strength and its biggest weakness, and most customer reviews reflect just that. Positive Sunrun solar reviews praise the company's speed and ease of installation, yet a high employee turnover rate, communication troubles and growing pains have plagued a number of customers who feel their needs were not met.
Positive Sunrun Reviews
The size and resources of Sunrun make its business model reliant on high volumes of installed solar panels. Positive reviews usually reflect a quick and easy installation with immediate energy savings and little to no maintenance or further customer support needed. Most frequently, these positive reviews come from customers who opted for a solar lease rather than ownership.
Here are a couple of examples:
"I originally had my Solar installed by another company that was eventually purchased by Sunrun. The service with Sunrun has been far better than the service with the previous company."
— Brian Schopf via Trustpilot
"We have had our Sunrun system in place for over a year now. No problems at all. They were very courteous and responsive during the installation process."
— Peter W via BBB
Negative Sunrun Reviews
Most of Sunrun's negative reviews stem from a lack of attention to a customer's needs. Sunrun is one of the nation's largest solar providers, which presents challenges for customers troubleshooting issues with their system's performance.
Solar panel issues can be difficult to troubleshoot, and the size of Sunrun's client base can make the company's customer service department more difficult to get in touch with than a smaller solar provider.
This Sunrun review reflects the overall sentiment from dissatisfied customers:
"Worst company ever for follow-up once you have a problem… I have been waiting for a new inverter [for] seven months. No one bothers to tell you what they are going to do, or what they have done once they finally get to your house for a repair. No written report to update you. I have lost money this year because my system is either not running or is underperforming."
— Linda T via BBB
Final Thoughts on Sunrun Solar
Sunrun's mission, size and breadth of services make it one of the most well-known solar providers in the country today. However, its B+ BBB rating and poor reputation for customer service may make some buyers wary. An average customer experience with Sunrun will depend greatly on the quality of the sales representative assigned to your area, and many homeowners have run into bad experiences.
|Sunrun Pros||Sunrun Cons|
|Expansive service area||Expensive labor|
|Backup battery services||Frequent customer service issues|
|Free maintenance on leases|
|Flexible financing and lease options|
Sunrun is a good and practical choice for customers looking to quickly and simply save money on their energy bills through a solar lease. However, for homeowners looking for attentive customer service both before and after installation, we advise you to shop around. You can start getting free quotes from a number of solar installers near you below.
Solar Energy Provider Comparison
To put this Sunrun review in perspective, let's compare the company to a few other national providers. Sunrun typically ranks highly in services offered, service areas and flexible payment options. Where Sunrun unsurprisingly falters is in its reputation for customer service and BBB rating.
|Sunrun||Blue Raven Solar||SunPower|
|Services Offered||Solar panel installation, battery installation, monitoring, maintenance||Solar panel installation, monitoring, maintenance||Solar panel installation, battery installation, monitoring|
|Service Areas||AZ, CA, CO, CT, FL, HI, IL, MD, MA, NV, NH, NJ, NM, NY, PA, RI, SC, TX, VT, WI, Puerto Rico and Washington D.C.||CO, FL, GA, ID, IL, IN, KS, KY, MO, NC, NV, OH, OR, SC, TX, UT, VA||All 50 States|
|Payment Options||Cash, loan, lease, PPA||Cash, in-house financing plans||Cash, loan, lease|
Frequently Asked Questions
Is Sunrun a legit company?
Sunrun is a legitimate solar installer leading the industry in quantity of installs and breadth of products offered. Hundreds of thousands of homes across the country have installed solar power with Sunrun. Though Sunrun is legitimate, there is a concerning amount of bad reviews regarding Sunrun's customer experience. Often, unconcerned sales staff can make customers feel their business was not taken seriously.
Is Sunrun solar a good deal?
As is the case with most solar providers, getting a good deal is dependent on many factors. Sunrun is certainly capable of providing customers with a solar energy system that saves them money, but a better deal might be found by a different solar provider, especially if you are looking to purchase panels rather than lease from Sunrun.
Is Sunrun owned by Tesla?
Sunrun is not owned by Tesla. In fact, Sunrun is one of Tesla's biggest rival companies in the solar industry. Unlike Sunrun, Tesla solar offerings focus more on products and less on installation services, so the companies are distinctly different.
Which is better, SunPower or Sunrun?
Which company is better will depend on what the customer is looking for. If you're looking for customer service, a high BBB rating and to purchase high-quality panels, we'd likely recommend SunPower over Sunrun. If you're a customer looking for a quick and easy solar panel lease to save a small but guaranteed rate on your energy bill each month, Sunrun may be the better choice.
Where is Sunrun available?
Sunrun is available in 22 states and territories, including Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Vermont, Wisconsin, Washington D.C. and Puerto Rico.
By Gloria Oladipo
In the face of dangerous heat waves this summer, Americans have taken shelter in air conditioned cooling centers. Normally, that would be a wise choice, but during a pandemic, indoor shelters present new risks. The same air conditioning systems that keep us cool recirculate air around us, potentially spreading the coronavirus.
"Air conditioners look like they're bringing in air from the outside because they go through the window, but it is 100 percent recirculated air," said Forrest Meggers, an assistant professor of architecture at Princeton University. "If you had a system that could cool without being focused solely on cooling air, then you could actually open your windows."
Meggers and an international team of researchers have developed a safer way for people to beat the heat — a highly efficient cooling system that doesn't move air around.
Scientists lined door-sized panels with tiny tubes that circulate cold water. Stand next to a panel, and you can feel it drawing heat away from your body. Unlike air conditioners, these panels can be used with the window open — or even outdoors — making it possible to cool off while also getting some fresh air. This reduces the risk of spreading airborne viruses, like the coronavirus.
"If you look at what the health authorities and governments are saying, the safest place to be during this pandemic is outside," said Adam Rysanek, an assistant professor of environmental systems at the University of British Columbia, who was part of the research effort. "We're trying to find a way to keep you cool in a heat wave with the windows wide open, because the air is fresh. It's just that it's hot."
Cooling panels have been around for a while, but in limited use, because scientists haven't found a good way to deal with condensation. Like a cold can of Coke on a hot summer day, cooling panels collect drops of water, so they have to be paired with dehumidifiers indoors to stay dry. Otherwise, overhead panels might drip water on people standing underneath.
Meggers and his colleagues got around this problem by developing a thin, transparent membrane that repels condensation. This is the key breakthrough behind their cooling technology. Because it stays dry, it can be used in humid conditions, even outdoors.
In air conditioners, a dehumidifier dries out the air to prevent condensation. This component uses an enormous amount of energy, around half of the total power consumed by the air conditioner, researchers said. The new membrane they developed eliminates condensation with no energy cost, making the cooling panels significantly more efficient than a typical AC unit.
The research team involved scientists from the University of British Columbia, Princeton, UC Berkeley and the Singapore-ETH Centre. They published their findings in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"This study demonstrates that we can maintain comfortable conditions for people without cooling all the air around them," said Zoltan Nagy, an assistant professor of civil engineering at the University of Texas, who was not affiliated with the study. "Probably the most significant demonstration of this study is that humans can be provided with comfort in a very challenging thermal environment using a very efficient method."
Researchers developed their technology for use in the persistently hot, muggy climate of Singapore, where avoiding condensation would be particularly difficult.
To test their design, they assembled a set of cooling panels into a small tunnel, roughly the size of a school bus. The tunnel, dubbed the "Cold Tube," sat in a plaza in the United World College of South East Asia in Singapore. Scientists surveyed dozens of people about how they felt after walking through the tunnel. Even as the temperature neared 90 degrees F outside, most participants reported feeling comfortable in the Cold Tube.Scientists said they want to make their technology available to consumers as quickly as possible, for use in homes and offices, or outdoors. Climate change is producing more severe heat, which is driving demand for air conditioners. Researchers hope their cooling panel will offer a more energy-efficient alternative to AC units. If consumers can use less power, that will help cut down on the pollution that is driving climate change.
Before they can sell the panels, researchers said they need to make them hardy enough to survive outdoors. The anti-condensation membrane is currently so thin that you could tear it with a pencil, so it must be made stronger. Scientists also need to demonstrate that the panels work efficiently indoors. Hospitals and schools in Singapore have already shown interest in the cooling system.
"We know the physics works. Now we need to do one more test so we have a bit more of a commercially viable product," Rysanek said. "It's really about trying to get this into people's hands as quickly as possible."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
By Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
José "Josh" Catzim Castillo, a 25-year-old lobster fisher, circles a hollow concrete box resting on the seafloor, just off the coast of Mexico's Yucatán Peninsula. He slips a snare into the box and shakes it. Three spiny lobsters, or langostas, shoot out and try to flee, but Castillo is too quick.
He surfaces, hoisting his catch. Its tail snaps loudly, and its antennae makes a high-pitched squeak. Castillo's father, Pablo Catzim Pech, 51, hauls the spiny lobster into their fishing boat. The creature is one of most sought after crustaceans in the Caribbean. Marked by its thick antennae and sharp spines that run the length of its body, it can sell for $40 a pound in the United States.
Castillo and his father Pech are part of a collective with exclusive rights to fish spiny lobsters in Maria Elena bay, part of Mexico's Sian Ka'an national park. The lobster fishers of Maria Elena are an ecological success story. Even as the lobsters face increasingly chaotic weather and overfishing around the Caribbean, they are flourishing in the bay, thanks to the efforts of the collective.
Castillo is left behind in the ocean, as his father, Pech, steers the boat away from the rain to keep the lobsters alive. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
When it starts to rain, Pech dips two rags in the ocean and spreads them over the plastic crates attached to the sides of his boat, each one filled with dozens of lobsters submerged in saltwater. Pech steers the boat back to shore, leaving Castillo with only his mask and flippers — and no life jacket — in the ocean behind him.
"Sweetwater kills the lobsters," Pech said.
Climate change is bringing more intense rainfall to the region, flooding the bay with freshwater, menacing the lobsters, which can only survive in saltwater. The fishers say they are finding it harder to understand the weather. To make matters worse, rising seas are eroding the narrow beaches of Maria Elena. Seven years ago, a hurricane destroyed all but one cabana along the beach, while rainwater stagnated in the bay and killed many lobsters.
Then there is overfishing. Since the 1980s, lobster populations have dropped as much as 40 percent across the Caribbean, according to Eloy Sosa, a marine biologist at the research center Ecosur, who works with Castillo's collective to protect the spiny lobster. The crustaceans are diminishing in number and becoming harder to find, so fishers are having to dive as much as 40 meters underwater, weighed down by oxygen tanks, to try to nab them.
That's not the case in Maria Elena, where the lobsters are thriving. The bay's newest lobsterman, Jose Eduardo Uitz, actually came to the reserve because he no longer wanted to risk his life going deeper into the ocean to catch lobsters. In Maria Elena, they lie just under the surface.
Fishers of Maria Elena prepare to go to sea. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
Maria Elena wasn't always a lobster haven, however. The collective was granted special permission to fish in the reserve after it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987, but it wasn't until a decade later that the collective adopted sustainable fishing practices.
"Nobody knew anything about sustainability back then. Fishermen would take the eggs from a pregnant lobster, go home and scramble them with chicken eggs," Pech said.
Things changed when scientists like Sosa began conducting workshops inside the park, showing the fishers how to protect the lobsters by allowing them enough time to grow and reproduce. Thanks to the collective's efforts, lobster numbers have risen in Maria Elena, though they have yet to return to levels seen in the 1980s.
"The old men say that when they first arrived, there were so many lobsters that they even used to walk up to the shore," Castillo said.
Today's fishers are far more responsible than their forebears. They treat the crustacean like an investment and guard it jealously, hoping to nurture it back to its former glory.
Pablo Catzim Pech measures the tail of a smaller lobster with a 5-inch ruler. If the tail is shorter than the ruler, he will throw the lobster back into the ocean. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
"Being in Maria Elena is a privilege," Sosa said. "If an associate breaks the rules, the punishment is tough. They could expel you from the collective."
A descendant of Maria Elena's founders, Castillo knows this better than most. He is still trying to earn his place in the collective, waiting for a position to open up in the group of 50. For now, he is just an employee of his father, who is a member.
"I hope he will take charge of everything. I am teaching him everything about the lobster fields, the reef, and how to be a good captain," Pech said.
To keep the lobsters healthy, Pech inspects each one that Castillo catches. If it looks too small, he measures it. If the tail is shorter than the five-inch ruler, he throws the lobster back into the sea.
"We also free the biggest lobsters, weighing more than six pounds. The market doesn't pay their value. They are usually females, and they keep the species alive," he said.
Lobster tails, cut from the animals that died during capture, are collected in a bucket to be sold separately from the live exports. Agostino Petroni and Sandali Handagama
When the lobster fishers throw a female back into the ocean, they not only protect the local population, they also support lobster populations in other parts of the Caribbean. The females lay millions of eggs that grow into larvae and float along ocean currents to new homes thousands of miles away.
After measuring and sorting the lobsters, the fishers send them to Cozumel to be sold. Occasionally, they keep a few for themselves, to be cooked on a hot skillet in a crowded cabana on the beach. It is a small indulgence for fishers who have nurtured the lobsters back into abundance in Maria Elena bay.
"The biggest threat to this place is us," Pech said. "We are in the lobsters' habitat. It is our livelihood, but we are invading a place we do not belong."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
Art by Matteo Farinella, written by Jeremy Deaton
Algal blooms are killing wildlife and making people sick. Here's how we aided their reign of terror.
Matteo Farinella is a neuroscientist-turned-cartoonist who uses comics to explain science. You can follow him @matteofarinella. Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a nonprofit climate change news service. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
By Jeremy Deaton
President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden are in a dead heat in Texas, a state that has swung Republican in every presidential election since 1976. If Biden pulls off the unthinkable and defeats Trump in Texas, it will be by mobilizing Latino voters.
This fact could play into the ongoing debate in Democratic circles over the party's position on climate change, which is a leading issue for Latinos. Biden's climate advisory council, led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former secretary of state John Kerry, has put forward an ambitious climate plan which bans fracking and oil exports — policies that could turn out Latinos in states like Texas and Arizona. This stands in contrast to Biden's current, relatively modest climate plan, which permits fracking, a concession to gas-rich states like Pennsylvania and Ohio. Sources told Reuters that the more modest plan is likely to win out. This could come at the cost of Latino votes.
"Given what we know about Latinos and their interest in voting for candidates who are pro-climate, we think they are a really important group that could be mobilized," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. "They could potentially make a really big difference in states like Texas and Colorado and Arizona."
Latinos Are Really Worried About Climate Change. Democrats and Climate Advocacy Groups Aren't Capitalizing on This Fact.
Latinos consistently vote in smaller numbers than other groups. The reasons are varied. Latinos often face structural barriers, like onerous voter ID laws or long lines at polling places. Many are immigrants or the children of immigrants and have never voted nor seen their parents vote. The biggest factor, however, may be that politicians are failing to reach Latinos or failing to speak to issues Latinos care about, said Victoria DeFrancesco Soto, assistant dean for civic engagement at the University of Texas.
"There is a need to attack apathy," she said. "While structural barriers do have an impact, the problem is apathy and figuring out what policies connect most to people." Consistently, Latinos say they want policies that address climate change.
"Many people assume that the only people who really care about climate change are white, well-educated, upper-middle-income, latte-sipping liberals, and it's just not true," Leiserowitz said. "Actually, the racial and ethnic group that cares more about climate change than any other is Latinos."
Compared to other groups, Latinos are more worried about the crisis, more willing to take action, and more likely to say they will vote for a candidate because of her stance on climate change. Leiserowitz and his colleagues have sorted Americans into six groups according to their views on climate change, ranging from the "Alarmed," who are most exercised about the problem, to the "Dismissive," who think it's a hoax. Latinos — Spanish speakers in particular — are far more likely to count among the "Alarmed."
Leiserowitz said that, broadly speaking, Latinos are worried about climate change because they are more likely to hold an egalitarian worldview. Latinos fear climate change will worsen inequality, a concern that is often born out of personal experience. After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, for instance, the federal government left the island to languish, allowing many survivors to slip into poverty.
While climate change remains a top-tier issue for Latinos, the political class has yet to act accordingly. "Alarmed" Latinos are less likely than other "Alarmed" Americans to say they have been contacted by an organization working on climate change, a shocking failure of public outreach.
"That is the whole point of an advocacy organization — they recruit people," said Leiserowitz. "I think there are plenty of reasons to be engaging this community and really investing in this community."
Democrats Can't Rely on Anti-Trump Sentiment to Mobilize Latinos.
In one sense, Trump is already doing everything he can to spur Latinos to the polls, not just through his gross mistreatment of Latin American immigrants, but also by failing to address climate change. Hurricane Maria, a storm made more severe by rising temperatures, spurred many Puerto Ricans to move to the mainland, where they are able to vote in the upcoming presidential election.
But Democrats can't count on Trump to mobilize Latinos, DeFrancesco Soto said. And their outreach to Latinos must speak to more than just concerns about immigration.
"I think that there needs to be more attention paid to economic needs and structural inequities that Latinos face. Immigration needs to be a pillar of the platform of reaching out to Latinos, but not the main one," she said. "They have to feel that the system takes into account their voice."
Democrats can make their case by pushing for ambitious climate policy that also tackles economic issues, said Ramon Cruz, the current president of the Sierra Club, the first Latino to hold the position. The Green New Deal aims to curb pollution from highways, factories and power plants in communities of color and to create jobs in those same communities.
"Construction, manufacturing, agriculture — all of those could benefit greatly from the Green New Deal," Cruz said. "It is boosting the sectors of the economy that are very important for the Latino population." He added that economic stimulus will be especially critical for wooing Latinos, who have been hit especially hard by the recession.
Cruz said the Sierra Club is working to mobilize Latinos, and that his election as the club's president is, in part, a recognition of the central role that Latinos play in the climate movement. He said the Sierra Club is publishing materials in Spanish and reaching out to groups in key states like Arizona and Florida.
"Clearly, there are a lot of people who would like to see him gone, but the challenge is how to mobilize those people," Cruz said. "We need to activate our base, and we need to ensure that the message is consistent with a clean economy."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
- Trump Penalizes Migrants Fleeing Climate Crisis He Ignores ... ›
- Fighting Climate Change Is a Social Justice Issue Too - EcoWatch ›
- Climate Crisis Gets 16 Minutes at Ninth Democratic Primary Debate ... ›
- Voting Is Now a Public Health Issue ›
- House Democrats Unveil Bold Climate Plan Linked to Racial Justice - EcoWatch ›
- Puerto Rico Drought Leaves 140,000 Without Running Water - EcoWatch ›
- Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces Unveil Improved Climate Policy - EcoWatch ›
- Covering the 2020 Elections as a Climate Story ›
- The Next Election Is About the Next 10,000 Years ›
- U.S. Voters Increasingly Concerned About Climate Crisis - EcoWatch ›
- These Races Will Shape How U.S. Elections Affect Climate Progress - EcoWatch ›
By Jeremy Deaton
Experts disagree about how fast the United States can replace coal and gas-fired power plants with zero-carbon electricity. Some say we can shift to 100 percent clean power by 2050 with little friction and minimal cost. Others say that's unrealistically optimistic. Scientists on both sides of the argument agree that it's possible to get to 80 or 90 percent clean power. The debate centers on that last 10 or 20 percent.
Researchers tried to get around this sticking point in a new analysis from UC Berkeley. Instead of asking, "how much?" they asked "how fast?" — specifically, how fast we could get to 90 percent zero-carbon power — meaning wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear power — at no extra cost to consumers. Thanks to rapidly falling costs for wind turbines, solar panels and batteries, the answer is 2035.
"We're spending too much time stressing about the last 10 percent and not enough time thinking about the first 90 percent," said Ric O'Connell, executive director of GridLab, a clean energy consulting firm, and co-author of the report. "So let's focus on the first 90 percent."
When utilities build a new power plant, they pass the cost on to ratepayers. By 2035, ratepayers will have paid off most gas- or coal-fired power plants running today, meaning consumers won't lose money if utilities shut those plants down early. That's what researchers mean by "no extra cost." Ratepayers will be funding new, exclusively carbon-free power plants after they have paid off the old ones. Cutting pollution will help people breathe easier, reducing health care costs, making it cheaper overall to move to shift away from fossil fuels.
By building out wind, solar and battery storage, the authors say, we can take every coal-fired plant offline, as well as a number of gas-fired power plants. We would use the remaining gas-fired power plants to supply electricity when needed. Fossil fuels would only account for 10 percent of the power supply, while nuclear power and hydropower — which generate no carbon pollution— would account for around 20 percent. The remaining 70 percent will come from wind and solar paired with battery storage — meaning 90 percent of our electricity would come from zero-carbon sources.
The cost of renewable energy has fallen precipitously over the past decade, consistently outpacing expert projections. From 2009 to 2019, the cost of wind power fell 70 percent, while the cost of large-scale solar fell close to 90 percent, according to Lazard. From 2010 to 2019, the cost of batteries also dropped close to 90 percent, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance. The falling costs of batteries is a game changer, because batteries can store power for when the sky is dark and the wind is idle.
"The pace of technology development has typically been underestimated," said Amol Phadke, an energy research scientist at UC Berkeley and lead author of the report. "In my career, all my projections have been conservative." He said that experts have grown more and more optimistic about how fast costs will drop in the years to come.
Every year, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory's Annual Technology Baseline (ATB) projects the future cost of wind and solar energy. The graphs above show the projected cost of wind and solar in the best-case scenario. Every year since 2015 the projections have grown more optimistic. Source: UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy
Authors considered the fact that Americans are embracing battery-powered cars and buses, which will put added strain on the power grid. They say that utilities can meet the rising demand at the same cost with wind and solar as they would with coal or gas.
None of this is likely to happen, however, without the help of lawmakers. The cost of fossil fuels by and large does not account for the toll they take on human health. To account for this fact, and to help overcome inertia in the energy system, experts call for several measures in an accompanying policy paper, such as a national clean power standard and tax credits for renewable energy.
The graphs above show the power mix in two different scenarios — one, where the lawmakers enact policies, such as a national clean power standard, to push utilities to shift to wind and solar (left), and one where utilities continue to operate as normal (right). Source: UC Berkeley Goldman School of Public Policy
The study makes use of the latest models from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and software developer Energy Exemplar. It finds that moving to 90 percent zero-carbon power, a labor-intensive endeavor, could generate upwards of half a million jobs a year, which authors say could help the United States overcome the current economic slump.
The shift to clean power would also be a boon to public health at a time when the country is battling a deadly respiratory disease. The report finds that a shift to 90 percent clean power could save as many as 85,000 lives by 2050 by sparing Americans from toxic pollution. Experts unaffiliated with the study commended the report, including its focus on public health.
"Climate and environmental impacts fall disproportionately on communities of color and low-income communities," Patrick Brown, a researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative, said in an email. "It's always important to be clear about the human cost of fossil energy when it's included in such models, so I was glad to see these costs included."
Mark Jacobson, a professor of environmental engineering at Stanford University, believes the report wasn't ambitious enough, saying, "I am confident their goal can be met, but I think we can go even further." His own research, which has been the subject of vigorous debate, found it would be possible to power the country entirely with wind, solar and hydropower by mid-century.
O'Connell believes that researchers should focus on getting to 90 percent zero-carbon power rather than arguing about the feasibility of reaching 100 percent. Just as scientists 20 years ago couldn't have predicted how cheap wind and solar would be today, scientists today can't predict how much new technologies will cost 15 years from now. He listed several that could get the United States to 100 percent zero-carbon electricity, such as green hydrogen, next-generation nuclear power and home appliances that interact with the electric grid. But, he said, technology has already advanced to the point where the United States can overhaul the power grid right now.
"A lot of the focus has been on 2050," O'Connell said. "We said, 'Let's look at the near-term runway and what we can do in the next 15 years."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
By Jeremy Deaton
Pipeline giant Kinder Morgan is cutting a 400-mile line across the middle of Texas, digging up vast swaths of private land for its planned Permian Highway Pipeline. The project is ceaseless, continuing through the coronavirus pandemic. Landowner Heath Frantzen said that dozens of workers have showed up to his ranch in Fredericksburg, even as public health officials urged people to stay at home.
"There weren't wearing masks. They weren't wearing gloves. They weren't practicing social distancing," he said. Frantzen believes the workers pose a danger to him and his 85-year-old father, whom he cares for. While the laborers are confined to the pipeline's path, he worries they could spread the coronavirus by touching fence railings or gates that he might later handle.
In Texas, where the governor exempted pipeline projects from his March stay-at-home order, companies like Kinder Morgan have few checks on their power of eminent domain, which allows them to build pipelines through privately owned farms and ranches that lie in their way. Eminent domain is broadly unpopular and, when used for pipelines, legally contentious. The coronavirus adds a new wrinkle to the debate over the practice as companies like Kinder Morgan continue to work through the pandemic, vexing landowners.
"It is wild that people are being forced to accept others onto their land at this time, and if they have an issue with what's happening, they have to put themselves at risk to address workers directly," said Erin Zweiner, who represents Blanco County and Hays County in the Texas House of Representatives. "These are workers who hop all over the country, so they're pretty high-risk spreaders."
Allen Fore, vice president of public affairs at Kinder Morgan, said the company has instructed workers on how to avoid spreading the coronavirus, though, he added, it is not always possible to take every precaution.
"Once construction is underway and you're on site, there are some limitations on masks and the distance people need to be away from each other simply for safety and construction purposes," he said, "We do leave that to the discretion of the contractor specific to the tasks that they are performing."
While eminent domain does entitle landowners in the pipeline's path to compensation, it does nothing for those living nearby who may be impacted by construction. In March, Kinder Morgan reportedly spilled drilling fluid into an underground water supply in Blanco County. Teresa Albright, who lives close to the site, told KVUE that brown fluid later poured out of her faucet, making it harder to wash her hands or clean her clothes, even as the coronavirus demanded she do both.
Fore said that Kinder Morgan has supplied water and food to affected homeowners and promised to pay for plumbing repairs. He also said that the company, which is currently facing a lawsuit over the spill, has halted work at the site of the accident and is looking for alternate routes for the pipeline.Rebekah Sale, executive director of the Property Rights and Pipeline Center, emphasized that Texas isn't the only place where pipeline projects are creating headaches for landowners worried about the coronavirus.
"We have people sending us pictures from these pipeline sites all over where no one's wearing a mask," she said. "People are gathered together. In some cases, they need to bring in 'man camps' of workers to build these pipelines in communities."
Marvin Winstead of Nash County, North Carolina is battling the planned Atlantic Coast Pipeline, which would run through his farm. In March, Winstead learned the project's managers would be sending assessors from Maryland to estimate the value of his property.
"Not only did they want to be on my property, they wanted to send these assessors into the interior of my home," he said.
A spokesperson for Dominion Energy, which is leading the project, said the appraisal would have taken place before North Carolina issued its stay-at-home order at the end of March. After conferring with landowners' attorneys, however, it agreed to postpone its appraisals indefinitely. Winstead was nonetheless alarmed that Dominion had planned to send workers into his home during a pandemic.
Stacey McLaughlin of Douglas County, Oregon said the pandemic has made it more difficult to pay for a lawyer, and thus, harder to fight off Pembina, the company behind the Pacific Connector Pipeline, which would run through her property, a plot that she and her husband restored after it had been logged by the previous owners.
"I personally have lost all of my income from my work for 2020, and now we are being faced with exorbitant and extraordinary legal fees to fight for our land and against eminent domain," said McLaughlin, a consultant for local governments. "They could, at any day, pursue a court order to try to get on our property to do surveying."
Champions of the project are pressuring Oregon governor Kate Brown to greenlight the pipeline, claiming it would create thousands of jobs, helping to overcome the economic slump. But McLaughlin said that with the virus still raging, she does not want workers to come onto her land. With two parents in their eighties and a son who is a nurse at a nearby hospital, she is already feeling overwhelmed.
"We're losing sleep at night for a lot of reasons," she said. "Having to deal with this pipeline as we struggle to keep ourselves and our families safe is just inhumane."
Sale said that the Pacific Connector Pipeline is an especially egregious example of eminent domain. The legal justification for such projects comes from the Natural Gas Act of 1938, which allows for the use of eminent domain for pipelines that will serve the interests of the American public — namely to deliver gas to homes and power plants. The Pacific Connector Pipeline will primarily carry gas drilled in Canada and the Rockies to a port in Oregon so it can be shipped to Asia.
"Because the frantic oil and gas industry is trying to get the last dollars out of what seems, very clearly, to be a dying industry, they just run roughshod over property rights," Sale said.
Drillers have flooded the market with cheap fracked gas, driving down prices. As a result, gas has proven increasingly unprofitable. Companies have amassed debt. Stock prices have slumped. And the coronavirus has only accelerated these trends.
"It seems pretty hard to argue with a straight face that these projects are financially essential right now when we're seeing a reduction in production," Zweiner said. "I think a lot of folks are assuming that it will suddenly reverse one day, but I suspect we're looking at a much longer term issue."
When landowners do triumph over pipeline firms, it usually isn't by challenging the use of eminent domain. More often, it is by persuading officials to deny needed permits. On that front, landowners may have just gotten a big helping hand. A federal judge in Montana recently revoked a blanket permit allowing pipeline projects to skirt environmental review. The Trump administration is appealing the ruling, which could create major hurdles for pipeline projects.
Over the long term, lawmakers may seek to narrow the use of eminent domain. In January, House Democrats released a draft climate bill that, experts say, would effectively end the practice for pipeline projects. McLaughlin said landowners should be clamoring for such a measure.
"You have people across this country who are up in arms — and bearing arms — so they don't have to stay inside their houses and they don't have to wear a mask," McLaughlin said. "That's nothing compared to the violation of our constitutional rights as property owners."
This story originally appeared in Nexus Media and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
- Alberta Energy Minister Calls Pandemic 'a Great Time' to Build ... ›
- Keystone XL Pipeline Construction to Forge Ahead During ... ›
- SCOTUS Gives PennEast Pipeline Company Eminent Domain in New Jersey ›
By Jeremy Deaton
You may have heard about the hole in the ozone layer, which hovers over Antarctica. It has shrunk over time thanks to policies that curbed the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. In the nearly 40 years that NASA has kept track, it has never been smaller. That's the good news.
The bad news is that a separate hole in the ozone layer briefly opened up in the Arctic in March before closing in April, and climate change may be partly to blame.
This isn't the first such rift to develop in the Arctic, but it is the largest. Scientists say that in March, a stratospheric polar vortex — a band of strong, frigid winds circling the pole — corralled chlorine and bromine that chewed away at the ozone layer. Scientists said that climate change may have set the stage for a colder, and thus more powerful, polar vortex.
"In those years when a vortex can spin and set itself up and be undisturbed, it's getting colder and colder," said Ross Salawitch, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland. Cold air strengthens polar vortexes, allowing them to deal more damage to the ozone layer, he said.
This year's Arctic polar vortex was unusually strong and long-lived, helping to deplete the ozone layer. At the same time, currents that would normally deliver ozone from surrounding areas were stagnant. The bruising was far less severe than what is typically seen over the South Pole, though. At the South Pole, stratospheric polar vortexes are reliably strong thanks to the extreme cold, so the ozone layer regularly thins.
In a stratospheric polar vortex, high-altitude clouds form from trace gasses in the atmosphere. Pollutants containing chlorine and bromine are essentially benign until they run into one of these clouds. Then they transform into chemicals capable of terrorizing the ozone layer.
They still need sunlight to do their dirty work, however. That comes at the start of spring —around September in the Southern Hemisphere and around March in the Northern Hemisphere. As the days get longer, these chemicals react with sunlight to deplete stratospheric ozone.
Because Antarctica is so isolated from the rest of the world, a strong polar vortex can form undisturbed. That's not the case in the Arctic, where the mix of land and water surrounding the North Pole produces more dynamic weather that can weaken or disrupt a polar vortex.
Polar stratospheric clouds activate the chemicals that deplete the ozone layer. NASA
Ozone holes rarely form at the North Pole — the last one appeared in 2011 — and they are typically short-lived. But what happens in the Arctic does not stay in Arctic. As a result of the damage, the ozone layer is now a little thinner everywhere else. While it will repair itself over time, the recent polar vortex has likely slowed the recovery.
At the South Pole, the ozone layer tears open yearly. Scientists first discovered the Antarctic ozone hole in 1985. Researchers determined that it was caused by chemicals containing chlorine and bromine. These include chlorofluorocarbons, which are found in air conditioners, refrigerators and spray cans, halons, which are found in fire extinguishers, and methyl bromide, which is used to kill weeds, insects and other pests. The discovery was met with alarm, as the ozone layer filters out dangerous ultraviolet radiation, helping to sustain life on Earth.
"If there was no ozone layer, the ultraviolet radiation would sterilize the Earth's surface," said Paul Newman, chief scientist for earth sciences at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "Crop yields go down as ultraviolet exposure goes up." In humans, ultraviolet radiation can cause skin cancer and cataracts, and can weaken the immune system.
To restore the ozone layer, in 1987, countries adopted the Montreal Protocol to stem the use of ozone-depleting chemicals. It worked. Over time, the hole grew smaller and smaller, and the ozone layer began to heal. By the middle of this century, scientists expect it will be fully restored.
Carbon pollution is acting like a blanket, trapping heat in the lower atmosphere. As a result, it is both warming the surface of the Earth and preventing heat from reaching the upper atmosphere. As such, the lower atmosphere is warming, while the upper atmosphere is actually cooling. Polar vortexes grow stronger in the cold, producing more of the high-altitude clouds that activate the chemicals that eat up the ozone layer.
"The temperatures in the stratosphere will probably be decreasing somewhat, and so that may slow down the recovery of the ozone layer," Manney said. "We have this situation in the Arctic, where we have had a couple of winters in the last couple of decades that have been much colder than usual."
Newman believes that falling temperatures will do little to deplete the ozone layer, however. He is more concerned with how climate change will alter currents that replenish Arctic ozone or break up the Arctic polar vortex.
"We don't really see a strong cooling of the Arctic stratosphere," he said. "The question in my mind is rather, 'What is the impact of climate change on these large-scale weather systems?'"
Salawitch said that it is difficult to determine what, exactly, the future holds for the ozone layer in the Arctic. Models disagree as to how much or how fast temperatures will change at the North Pole, or what that means for the polar vortex. As such, some say Arctic ozone will continue to thin, while others project a speedy recovery.
Scientists emphasized that the recent ozone hole in the Arctic would have been substantially worse had countries not taken steps to curb pollution. They said the episode speaks to the importance of the Montreal Protocol.
"We do have to keep in mind that the Montreal Protocol was very successful in getting the world to stop emitting these chlorofluorocarbons. The ozone layer is starting to recover," Manney said. "It's a remarkable success story."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
- Healing Ozone Layer Shows Why Environmental Treaties Matter ›
- Saving the Ozone Layer 30 Years Ago Slowed Global Warming ... ›
- Record Ozone Hole Over the Arctic Has Closed - EcoWatch ›
By Jeremy Deaton
The coronavirus is a case study in the limits of federalism. Where the federal government has declined to gather and distribute masks, gloves and ventilators, states and cities have been forced to compete for medical supplies, paying exorbitant prices to secure needed equipment. Where the federal government has been slow to ramp up testing, states and cities are struggling to conduct tests at the scale required to reopen business.
It is against this backdrop that 23 cities and counties, the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and the National League of Cities added their voice to a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration's plan to weaken limits on carbon pollution from power plants. The document detailed how cities will struggle to cut carbon pollution without help from Washington.
"Cities can do a lot, but there are many ways in which the success of cities' climate plans hinge on concerted federal action," said Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, which worked with local leaders on a brief in support of the lawsuit. "I think that the fact that we were able to get this many cities to take the time necessary to give a final review to the brief, provide comments and get the final sign-off, indicates how important this issue really is."
Burger said the project had taken on special significance as of late, given that people living in more polluted areas are more likely to die of the coronavirus. Notably, it is communities of color that are most likely to be under siege from both air pollution and the coronavirus, as well as worsening floods, storms and heat waves.
Civic leaders have limited means to cope with these inequities — a mayor can't shut down a power plant that lies outside her jurisdiction, even if that power plant is sending pollution wafting over her city.
"The EPA's irresponsible weakening of its rules to allow power plants to pollute more will increase air pollution, asthma rates, and the overall burden on public health services for cities like Las Cruces," said Mayor Ken Miyagishima of Las Cruces, New Mexico, which signed onto the amicus brief. "At all levels of government, we need to be more vigilant about managing and reducing risks, whether it's a pandemic or climate change."
In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that the Environmental Protection Agency had the authority to regulate heat-trapping gases. The agency later determined that it also had the obligation to do so. To fulfill that duty, the EPA under President Obama crafted the Clean Power Plan, a sweeping policy to limit carbon pollution from power plants.
President Trump, who has repeatedly called climate change a hoax, promised to do away with the Clean Power Plan in his 2016 campaign. He has since fulfilled that promise by replacing the policy with the Affordable Clean Energy rule, which does far less to limit pollution from power plants. Now, 22 states and the District of Columbia are suing the EPA for falling short of its legal duty to regulate carbon pollution.
While carbon dioxide poses little short-term threat to human health, it comes from the same power plants that produce mercury, sulfur dioxide and other pollutants linked to lung disease, heart disease, asthma and other maladies. Over the long term, carbon pollution is fueling deadly weather disasters like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina. By the EPA's own estimate, the Clean Power Plan promised to save as many as 4,500 lives a year by 2030. Its replacement would only save around 120 at the high end. That grim calculus has mayors, governors and business leaders eager to strengthen federal limits on carbon pollution.
"We don't get to net zero in the United States without some kind of coordinated, comprehensive action by the federal government," Burger said. "Whether it's a public health crisis at this scale or the climate crisis, failures at the federal level lead inevitably to failures at the local level."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
- Trump's EPA Pick Hides Pro-Polluter Record Behind Process ... ›
- 'Fossil Fuel Companies Knew': Honolulu Files Lawsuit Over Climate ... ›
- Trump Admin Goes After States for Protecting the Environment ... ›
By Jeremy Deaton, video by Bart Vandever
The 2010 BP oil spill dumped more than 200 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico, where it killed billions of fish. Had things gone as planned, that oil would have fueled cars and trucks, worsening climate change, which is going to kill billions of fish — and that was the best-case scenario. In short, oil is bad for sea life.
Except sometimes it's not.
That's because the legs and bracings holding up oil platforms are the ideal setting for ocean reefs. Fish like to gather around the pylons, which are covered in mussels, barnacles and corals. Emily Hazelwood, who worked as a field technician after the BP oil spill, recalled learning about the reefs firsthand.
"BP had hired all the fishermen who lost their jobs to drive our boats," she said. "Every time we would go out with them, and we would pass one of the many oil platforms, they would say they couldn't wait to go out there fishing."
Experts say offshore oil will peak this year as prices fall, a trend exacerbated by the coronavirus and the ongoing price war between Saudi Arabia and Russia. The slump is expected to send a growing number of rigs offline.
There is a real question as to what to do with the shuttered rigs, which can provide a safe home to ocean life. Oil platforms typically lie far from shore, so they are protected from the water pollution that empties into the ocean, Hazelwood said. They are safe from commercial fishing trawlers that gather up schools of fish out at sea.
"Stretching from sea floor to sea surface, these platforms can be as large as the Empire State Building, which provides a lot of real estate for marine life," Hazelwood said. "That richness of life on an oil platform is just so cool. I have never seen a group of fish like that before."
A diver explores sea life on the Eureka oil rig off the coast of Long Beach, California. Blue Latitudes
Hazelwood and her business partner Amber Sparks, co-founded consulting firm Blue Latitudes. Together, they work with oil companies to preserve the reefs that form on decommissioned oil platforms, lopping off the top while letting the rest of the structure stay in place. This process can save oil firms millions by sparing them the cost of tearing down an old rig.
Naturally, not everyone is wild about leaving the skeletons of oil platforms to rust in the ocean. In 2010, California passed a controversial law that would allow oil firms to convert old rigs into artificial reefs. Critics say it lets companies off the hook for cleanup by making the state liable for the remains of decommissioned oil platforms.
"The oil companies walk away. The state has to deal with this structure in the ocean forever, dealing with any safety issues, any pollution issues, any maintenance issues," said Linda Krop, chief counsel with the Environmental Defense Center in Santa Barbara, California.
Divers explore sea life on the Eureka oil rig off the coast of Long Beach, California. Blue Latitudes
She said it's also unclear if the rigs-to-reef program has much value for sea creatures. If old oil platforms become hot spots for recreational fishing, that could leave reefs mostly barren of marine life.
"We don't know what benefit will arise from leaving a platform at sea. We want that studied. That's what the current law requires. But the proponents are trying to weaken that part of the law," she said.
Hazelwood and Sparks, for instance, have called for streamlining the rigs-to-reef program to make it easier for oil companies to convert old platforms into ocean habitats. They say that tearing down viable reefs just doesn't make sense.
"Most environmental groups, they want to go back to the way the world was 10,000 years ago. And who wouldn't? I mean, that would just be an unbelievable planet to live on," Hazelwood said. "But that's not necessarily the reality of our situation right now, so we advocate for finding that silver lining."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.
By Lauren Wolahan
For the first time ever, the UN is building out a roadmap for curbing carbon pollution from agriculture. To take part in that process, a coalition of U.S. farmers traveled to the UN climate conference in Madrid, Spain this month to make the case for the role that large-scale farming operations, long criticized for their outsized emissions, can play in addressing climate change.
Often, conversations about agriculture feature calls for more small-scale, organic farming, the abolition of animal agriculture, and a shift away from farming row crops like corn and soy. The farmers at the meeting in Madrid, many of them political conservatives, aimed to challenge this view.
A.G. Kawamura, a third-generation fruit and vegetable grower and California's former secretary of food and agriculture, responds to critics by asking, "Well, did you eat today?"
The debate about the environmental impact of agriculture harkens back to the 1950s, which gave rise to synthetic pesticides and fertilizer, genetically modified crops, and advanced machinery. These tools allowed farmers to produce more food than ever before, but they also did considerable damage.
The widespread use of pesticides and fertilizers killed insects and birds, as well as fish who lived downstream of farms. The focus on cash crops led many farmers to plant the same crop year after year, sapping the soil of needed nutrients. And the embrace of high-powered farming tools turned once-rich topsoil into lifeless dust.
In light of these facts, many in the environmental community have called for a radical overhaul of the agricultural system. Longtime farmers of row crops like corn and soy are pushing back. They say that, through smart farming practices, they can actually help curb pollution.
Many farmers, for instance, are using advanced technologies that help them to cut down on pollution by allowing them to apply chemicals only where they're needed. But these technologies are only cost-effective on larger farms.
Growers said they can mitigate the impact of large-scale farming by embracing practices such as no-till farming, which uses machines that don't tear up the earth, and so doesn't release the carbon stored in the soil. They have also called for planting cover crops — like oats, radishes and cereal rye — in between rows of corn or hay to cover any bare earth, keeping carbon trapped in the ground.
In addition to stemming pollution, these practices also help the soil hold more moisture, meaning it can absorb extra water during a heavy rainstorm, keeping farms healthy. In an industry increasingly threatened by extreme weather, this is good business, said Fred Yoder, an Ohio farmer and former head of the National Corn Growers Association. He said he thinks of his soil as a 401k, a long-term investment that will help him weather future difficulties.
Yoder and other growers want the UN to encourage member countries to incentivize climate-friendly farming practices. Cover crops, for example, are currently used on just 4 percent of Iowa farmland. Widespread adoption of cover crops could be key to curbing farming-related emissions.
Critics, however, say that even with smarter practices, large-scale farms will continue to be a significant source of pollution.
"Farming is more than just a collection of practices. It is a system within the local ecology," said Ben Lilliston of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. He said that carbon-smart farming can help curb pollution, but he believes that, ultimately, growers need to build farms that are more integrated with nature.
Many growers in Madrid, however, contended that large-scale farms could operate in harmony with nature, and they were eager to defend their environmental bona fides.
"The American farmer is the original environmentalist," said Ray Gaesser in a panel on agriculture and climate change. Gaesser has been farming soybeans in Iowa for 50 years and previously chaired the American Soybean Association. "Yes, I happen to be conservative," he added, "but that doesn't mean I am not seeing the impacts of our changing planet first hand."
Gaesser recalled a time 20 years ago when he watched, astonished, as four inches of rain fell on his farm in less than an hour. The deluge washed away much of his topsoil. Since then, he's seen such rainstorms like that one strike at least once a year.
Another way that farmers can combat climate change, panelists said, is by embracing renewable energy. In corn-rich Iowa, for instance, the landscape is dotted with wind turbines and barns with solar panels on their roofs. The revenue from clean energy on farmland helps insulate growers against increasingly volatile commodity prices as well as the severe weather that could stunt yields.
"Farmers are used to working with big equipment, and they don't tolerate equipment that doesn't work, and just like everyone else, they love making money. Solar works, and it makes them money," Tim Dwight, President of the Iowa Solar Energy Trade Association, said on the panel. "What's not to love?"
Dwight said that wind and solar have grown in Iowa with the support of the agricultural community, which looms large in the Hawkeye State. His colleagues underscored this point in their argument at the climate talks.
"Farmers have a tremendous opportunity to be part of the climate solution," said Ernie Shea, president of Solutions from the Land, a non-profit advocating for better farming practices to address climate change. "That's why so many of us are here."
Reposted with permission from Nexus Media.