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Climate change is going to turn the Earth into a planet of hungry kids

hungry kid
Shutterstock

Talk of climate change-induced disasters probably brings to mind Pacific islands disappearing into the ocean, powerful storm surges, overwhelming floods, and raging wildfires. But some of the impacts -- stemming in part from some of these same phenomena -- will be more prosaic, but just as deadly.

Take food. A report released Monday evening by Oxfam America, an anti-poverty organization, finds that, “food prices could double by 2030, with half of this rise driven by climate change.” The result? “There could be 25 million more malnourished children under the age of 5 in 2050, compared with a world without climate change.”

We're not talking about kids in the backseat whining that they want their chicken McNuggets posthaste. This is about already impoverished families in the world's poorest countries that will be pushed to starvation by rising prices for their dietary staples.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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ExxonMobil agrees to report on its climate vulnerabilities. Here’s why that’s a good thing.

Exxon website
Shutterstock

Here’s a bit of confusing news: Environmentalists have successfully pressured ExxonMobil to publicly report on how much climate regulations might hurt its business. The New York Times reports:

Energy companies have been under increasing pressure from shareholder activists in recent years to warn investors of the risks that stricter limits on carbon emissions would place on their business.

On Thursday, a shareholder group said that it had won its biggest prize yet, when Exxon Mobil became the first oil and gas producer to agree to publish that information by the end of the month.

In return, the shareholders, led by the wealth management firm Arjuna Capital, which focuses on sustainability, and the advocacy group As You Sow, said they had agreed to withdraw a resolution on the issue at Exxon Mobil’s annual meeting.

It is easy to understand why shareholders would want to know how ExxonMobil is planning for a future in which demand for oil is stunted by global climate treaties and a hodgepodge of national and regional carbon caps and carbon taxes. But Arjuna and As You Sow are committed to sustainability, not just the financial interests of shareholders. So why is this good for the environment? You might imagine that if Exxon reports that it will suffer greatly from carbon pricing, that would hurt, not help, the campaign to pass climate legislation. After all, politicians cower in fear of harming their generous allies in the fossil fuel industry, especially politicians from dirty-energy-producing states.

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Why cabs and car-sharing are good for the environment

car with pink mustache
Alfredo Mendez
The pink mustache marks this as a Lyft car.

The urbanist fixation with new car services such as Uber and Lyft can seem paradoxical. Why is it good for the environment and for cities to increase the number of cars for hire on our roads? The same could be asked about regular old taxis, and car-sharing services like Zipcar. Aren’t cars bad for the environment?

For the rare person who already lives car-free in a city such as San Francisco, a cab ride or car rental might actually increase their carbon footprint. But the vast majority of American households do own cars. For any city as a whole, more car-sharing and cab apps will actually mean less driving and lower carbon emissions.

To understand why, you have to consider the role that these alternatives play in a region’s transportation network. Eric Jaffe of Atlantic Cities did a great post on this in 2012, drawing on the work of Columbia University professor David King. King mapped New York City taxi rides on a typical weekday and put together a time-lapse video showing where they began and ended. Here is what he found, via Jaffe:

Read more: Cities, Living

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Renewables dominate new U.S. electrical capacity

solar farm in front of trees
Oregon Department of Transportation

First, the good news -- break out the champagne! The overwhelming majority of new U.S. electrical capacity is coming from wind and solar, according to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. FERC just released its monthly analysis for February, and the Sun Day campaign, a research and advocacy organization promoting sustainable energy, summarizes the findings:

Wind and solar provided 80.9% of new installed U.S. electrical generating capacity for the month of February. ...

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Keystone foes turn their fire to natural gas exports

Cove Point protest
chesapeakeclimate

Republicans in Congress, and some Democrats too, are pushing hard to get the U.S. exporting more natural gas, using the crisis in Ukraine as an excuse. The House is considering a bill that would require the Department of Energy to immediately approve more than 20 pending applications for natural gas export facilities.

Some of the nation’s leading environmentalists, including Bill McKibben of 350.org and Michael Brune of the Sierra Club, are now launching a counter-campaign, fighting natural gas exports in general and one proposed export terminal in particular.

On Tuesday, a coalition of 16 environmental organizations sent a sternly worded letter to the White House. "President Obama, exporting LNG [liquefied natural gas] is simply a bad idea in almost every way," they write. They express irritation with Obama's enthusiasm for natural gas exploration and argue that gas exports would harm American consumers and the environment.

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What we can learn from millennials who opt out of driving

preppy guy on bike
Shutterstock

The signs of an American shift away from driving have been so well-reported as to amount to a new conventional wisdom -- declining vehicle miles traveled, increasing mass transit use, the trendiness of biking. Jeffrey Ball of The New Republic examines whether the leaders of this supposed cultural movement, the millennial generation, really are affirmatively choosing not to drive. Could it be instead that most of them are merely avoiding the cost of driving? During the last decade in which driving has plateaued, gas prices have risen and the economy has been weak.

Ball is compelling in marshalling evidence that, except for a relatively small number of educated professionals choosing to live car-free in big cities, the decline in driving reflects economic constraints, not personal preferences. Here are his two concluding paragraphs:

According to data from the Federal Highway Administration, “zero-vehicle households” encompass two Americas, one unusually rich and one unusually poor. Roughly 4% of those households earn more than $80,000 annually, a wealthy group concentrated in and around New York. Yet 70% of U.S. zero-vehicle households earn less than $30,000 per year. It’s a spread, in other words, much like many others in certain coastal American cities: Some well-off and often-child-free folks up top, some struggling folks at the bottom, and not many in between.

Things may well be changing in the land of the Mustang and the Explorer. But for now, most carless households in the U.S. remain what they’ve long been: carless by economic necessity rather than by choice.

Ball suggests higher up in the piece that such a conclusion is bad news for urbanists and environmentalists, who are hoping America’s love affair with the gas guzzler has ended. “[I]t may be ... an economically-driven, and thus ephemeral, shift,” Ball writes. He implies that millennials will start driving more as they move up the income ladder.

While his basic analysis is strong, it could lead to a different conclusion, one much more encouraging to environmentalists.

Read more: Cities, Living

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What was the point of the Senate’s climate talkathon? Changing the terms of the political debate

Sen. Brian Schatz
Sen. Brian Schatz, a climate hawk who pushes climate talk.

On Monday night, 31 senators pulled an all-nighter on the chamber’s floor. This rager wasn’t for fun, though, and it wasn’t because they were rushing to meet a legislative deadline. It was a climate talkathon, lasting nearly 15 hours.

To those watching the proceedings on C-SPAN, it was a little unclear what the intended purpose was. There was no bill to address climate change on the docket, and if there were it would have no chance of passing the Republican-controlled House. The only Republican who showed up, Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), mocked the event. The speakers mostly rehashed well-established science and talked about the effects of extreme weather in their states  -- sometimes very small-bore effects. Even Al Franken (D-Minn.) earnestly lamenting that “turkey growers are finding it difficult to heat their barns” didn’t make it funny.

So what was the point? “One of the major objectives was to engage the American public, and we did that,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), an organizer of the event, told Grist in a phone interview Thursday. “We need more passionate enthusiasm and engagement from the public."

With this strategy, Democrats are mimicking the activism-oriented approach of their conservative Republican colleagues. When the House Republicans vote for the thousandth time to repeal Obamacare, they aren’t accomplishing anything tangible, but they are generating press coverage and exciting their base.

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Here’s a way to prevent gas explosions and help the climate too

sign: "Caution: high pressure gas pipeline"
Kara Newhouse

New York City was struck Wednesday morning by a tragic building explosion in Harlem that has, at latest count, killed at least seven people and injured 60 more. Being a New York City resident, my first thought, selfish as it may be, was, “How do I prevent something like that from happening to my building?”

As it turns out, there is something we could do to prevent more disasters like this from occurring, and it would also be good for lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

The cause of the explosion was a natural gas leak. Just a day earlier, as Capital New York notes, the Center for an Urban Future (CUF), a New York City-focused think tank, issued a report on New York’s decaying infrastructure. Among the problems it identified: leaky pipes carrying natural gas.

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Wanna buy a Tesla in New Jersey? “Fuhgettaboutit,” says Christie

Tesla and Chris Christie
Concavo Wheels / Gage Skidmore

When it’s time to make another sequel to “Who Killed the Electric Car?,” Gov. Chris Christie (R) of New Jersey may get a cameo. The Associated Press reports:

[New Jersey] State motor vehicle officials have approved a regulation that would require all new car dealers to obtain franchise agreements to receive state licenses, a move critics say will hurt the electric-car industry's attempts to expand.

The regulation, adopted Tuesday by the state's Motor Vehicle Commission by a 6-0 vote, effectively prohibits companies from using a direct-sales model.

Tesla, which makes electric cars and sells them directly to consumers, will be forced to shut down its two New Jersey showrooms. Teslas are not carried by regular auto dealers, so New Jerseyans will now have to travel out of state to test drive or buy one. By cutting out the middleman of an independently owned auto dealership, Tesla has been able to make its cars more affordable. (Electric cars cost more than conventional ones -- Teslas in particular -- but some of the difference can be recouped over time with savings from not having to buy gasoline.)

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Don’t worry: Your rail trail is (probably) safe

rails-to-trails trail
Ed Brownson

Rail trails -- the biking and walking paths that have sprouted up on disused railroad lines over the last couple of decades -- can be beautiful and popular public spaces. The Capital Crescent Trail on the outskirts of Washington, D.C., for example, passes scenic waterfronts and is packed on sunny weekend afternoons. As cars and trucks displaced passenger and freight rail in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, abandoned rail lines fell into disrepair and became an eyesore. In 1983, Congress passed the “Rails-to-Trails Act.” Since then, the federal government has worked with rail companies and the communities traversed by tracks to reclaim these spaces for the public. Some 20,000 miles of rail trails have been established, with more constantly in development.

So it was alarming news for trail advocates when the Supreme Court ruled 8-to-1 on Monday in favor of a private property owner, and against the federal government, on the question of who owns the rail-line right-of-way on his property. The media headlines made it sound like a dramatic defeat: “U.S. justices deliver blow to 'rails-to-trails' policy,” from Reuters, was typical.

It was indeed a bad ruling for rail trail enthusiasts. But relax! The effect will be very limited.

Read more: Cities, Politics