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Bernie, if you care about the climate, don’t run for president as an independent

Bernie Sanders
350.org, Josh Lopez

Are you feeling frustrated by the lack of action in Washington on the biggest problems facing the nation, such as economic inequality and climate change? Are you tired of watching a moderate Democratic president stuck in stalemate with Republicans in Congress? Well, help may be on the way, in the form of a left-wing presidential campaign that will make you feel good about yourself. Don’t worry that it could take votes from the Democratic nominee and potentially toss the election to the Republican. Ralph Nader did just that in 2000, and things worked out OK, didn’t they?

In an interview with The Nation, Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with the Democrats, says, “I am prepared to run for president of the United States.” But he hasn’t made up his mind about whether to run in the Democratic primary or as an independent. He says, “I haven’t reached a conclusion on that yet. Clearly, there are things to be said on both sides of that important question.” And then he muses about how there's a record-high number of independent voters in the country, but getting in televised debates as an independent would be impossible. (Sanders must expect that like Nader, but unlike Ross Perot, he wouldn't have the polling numbers to qualify for the debates.)

Based on the experience of right-wing insurgent candidates such as Ron Paul, Pat Buchanan, and Pat Robertson, it seems obvious that running in the primaries will attract the most attention to a candidate who is at one end of the political spectrum. By competing in the Republican primaries, conservative extremists have generated headlines and extracted concessions at the Republican convention.

But that's less important than the fact that presidential elections are not just an opportunity to advertise a platform. They result in the election of the most powerful officeholder in the world.

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Republicans use Putin as an excuse to push fossil-fuel projects

Vladamir Putin
World Economic Forum
Putin poutin'.

The hallmark of a Republican policy proposal is that it can be adapted to virtually any circumstance. Just as George W. Bush advanced tax cuts as the appropriate response to both budget surplus and deficit, congressional Republicans believe that fossil fuel promotion is the appropriate response to, well, everything. And so they have looked at the vexing problem of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine’s Crimea region and come up with a carefully calibrated answer: “Drill, baby, drill!

First, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) was struck with a brilliant insight: If Russia’s meddling in Ukraine is dangerous because Russia supplies Europe with oil and natural gas through pipelines that traverse Ukraine, then the U.S. should offer Europe an alternative source of fossil fuels. And so, she argues, the Obama administration should expedite approval of liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminals. “Our ability to respond quickly and nimbly I think is somewhat hampered by the process that we have in place,” she told reporters at an energy industry conference in Houston on Monday. “If this was a situation in which we wanted to use as political leverage our natural gas opportunities here, we’re not in that place now, and quite honestly it may be some time.” In her speech to the gathering, she also called on Congress to repeal the ban on exporting crude oil, saying, “Lifting the oil export ban will send a powerful message that America has the resources and the resolve to be the preeminent power in the world.”

House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), sensing an opportunity to portray generic Republican corporatism as a brave stand against Vladimir Putin’s bullying, issued his own statement Tuesday calling on Obama to approve LNG terminals. “The U.S. has a responsibility to stand up for freedom and democracy around the globe, and we have a responsibility to stand with the people of Ukraine in the face of Russia’s invasion,” said Boehner. “One immediate step the president can and should take is to dramatically expedite the approval of U.S. exports of natural gas. ... We should not force our allies to remain dependent on Putin for their energy needs.”

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How to make natural gas more climate-friendly

fracking site
Daniel Foster

This is a story about natural gas leakage, and we’re not talking about what happens after your grandfather says, “Pull my finger!”

Recent reports in journals such as Science and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have carried some depressing news: Natural gas, the “bridge fuel” touted by President Obama for its lower CO2 emissions and domestic abundance, may not actually be better for the climate than coal. Natural gas is mostly methane, which is half as carbon intensive as coal when it's burned, but when it's released directly into the atmosphere, it's 86 times worse for the climate than CO2 over a 20-year time frame. Rampant methane leakage in the fracking process and from pipelines raises natural gas’s total greenhouse gas emissions; the studies estimate that more than 2 percent of gas in the U.S. may escape through leaks.

It doesn’t have to be this way. The technology already exists to dramatically reduce methane leakage for a reasonable price. Environmental groups have put out reports outlining how. They could serve as a template for the oil and gas industry to follow voluntarily, or for the EPA to require under the Clean Air Act.

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Your car will soon be less polluting, thanks to EPA’s new gasoline rule

hand pumping gas
Shutterstock

On Monday morning, the EPA announced the adoption of new rules that will require oil refiners to reduce the amount of sulfur in gasoline.

As The New York Times explains, “When burned in gasoline, sulfur blocks pollution-control equipment in vehicle engines, which increases tailpipe emissions linked to lung disease, asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, aggravated heart disease and premature births and deaths. Proponents of the rule say it will be President Obama’s most significant public health achievement in his second term, but opponents, chiefly oil refiners, say it is unnecessarily costly and an unfair burden on them.”

If oil refiners say it's costly and unfair, that's a good sign. If they were not complaining, it would probably mean the rules were too weak. Transferring the public health cost of pollution to the companies that produce it is exactly what EPA rules should do.

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Five dumb bills just passed by the House would screw the environment

U.S. Capitol
Lewis Tse Pui Lung / Shutterstock

In an atmosphere of gridlock and partisan polarization, politicians in both parties produce legislative proposals while fully aware that they are wasting their time. Such was the case with the House of Representatives' latest flurry of activity this week.

To celebrate what they called "Stop Government Abuse Week," the Republican majority in the House passed a series of bills Thursday to muck up the regulatory process. Collectively, these bills would have an enormous negative impact on the EPA. Among all the other environmental regulations they would inhibit, they would prevent the forthcoming CO2 rules for power plants from being anywhere near as strong as they otherwise could and should be. Republicans don’t want to go on record voting to repeal the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act, as that would be unpopular, so instead they would render the laws meaningless. Environmental groups such as Earthjustice and the Natural Resources Defense Council are horrified. Before the bills even passed, they signed a letter of protest in coalition with labor unions such as the AFL-CIO and consumer advocate groups like Public Citizen.

Here is a brief summary of what each of the bills would do to impede agencies from enforcing laws Congress has already passed:

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People-friendly streets: They’re not just for big cities anymore

complete street in Brooklyn
NYCDOT
A tree-lined "complete street" grows in Brooklyn.

Earlier this month, a pair of senators introduced the Safe Streets Act. The bill would bring "complete streets" principles to federal road funding. Complete streets accommodate all users, regardless of whether they're in cars, regardless of age or disability -- pedestrians, bicyclists, wheelchair users, stroller pushers. In practice, this often means streets with sidewalks and bike lanes -- two features that are often missing from roads built in the last half-century.

For too long, traffic engineers simply asked how to move cars as quickly as possible, rather than how to make streets safe to walk along or cross on foot. But now complete-streets policies have been adopted in more than 610 jurisdictions across the U.S., requiring local transportation departments to take the interests of non-drivers into account. The Senate complete-streets bill would require all federally funded road construction or repair to do the same.

So where are these two senators from? Presumably bastions of liberal, coastal urbanism like California or Massachusetts? Try Alaska and Hawaii. The sponsors are Sens. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) and Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii). Complete streets, it turns out, are appealing in lower-density areas too.

“This is not just an urban priority,” Schatz tells Grist. “It’s important for people to be able to move within their community safely.”

Read more: Cities, Politics

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Obama has a good transportation plan. Now we just need to raise the gas tax to pay for it.

Obama and train
Frank Roche

The problems all started with Newt Gingrich. For decades, federal transportation funding had been a bastion of bipartisanship: The gasoline tax served as a user fee for our roads, 20 percent of the revenue went to mass transit and the rest to highways, and everyone kept the system running so their districts could get what they needed. Then, in 1994, Gingrich led the right-wing Republican insurgency that took over the House of Representatives. They did not want to raise the gas tax, even to keep pace with inflation. They actually tried to repeal the previous gas-tax increase, from 1993. Hatred of the gas tax, like hatred of all taxes, soon calcified into Republican orthodoxy. Rather than increase the gas tax, President George W. Bush presided over a growing gap between our transportation needs and the revenue the tax generated.

And the problem has not been fixed under Obama. With Republicans currently controlling the House, Congress cannot pass a reauthorization of the surface transportation law that would address our nation’s growing transportation investment needs. Instead, they have retained the status quo through a series of short-term extensions and then, in 2012, a two-year authorization (normally the law is extended for six years) that maintained current funding levels by using general revenues to patch a shortfall in the Highway Trust Fund, which is supposed to be fully supported by the gas tax. That authorization expires this year, so some kind of transportation deal will have to be worked out in the coming months.

On Wednesday, Obama went ahead and laid out a progressive vision for a four-year transportation bill, despite the fact that Republicans will never go for it. It would boost transportation spending to a total of $302 billion over four years and reorient that spending in smart ways.

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John Dingell was better for the environment than you think

Rep. John Dingell
Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, University of Michigan

To climate activists of the Millennial generation, John Dingell is an irritant, in the same way that Joe Lieberman was to anti-war activists. Rep. Dingell (D-Mich.), who represents a Detroit-area district that's home to the headquarters of the Big Three U.S. automakers, earned a reputation in recent years as a Democratic bad guy because he threatened to stand in the way of strong legislation to cap CO2 emissions. Fears that Dingell might use his chairmanship of the Energy and Commerce Committee to slow-roll or water down cap-and-trade prompted Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to take the unusual step of challenging Dingell for the chairman’s gavel. Waxman won, and it was widely viewed as a pivotal moment for environmental policy, Congress, and the Democratic Party.

The 87-year-old Dingell -- perhaps the last of the famous “old bulls,” or powerful, long-serving committee chairs -- announced on Monday that he will not seek reelection. He will go out as the longest-serving member of Congress ever, having held his seat since replacing his father in a special election in 1955. He had been the Energy Committee’s top-ranking Democrat for almost three decades, serving as chairman for most of that time.

Young climate hawks might be thinking "good riddance." They'll be surprised to learn that Dingell's retirement brought forth accolades from leading environmental organizations. “He’s played an integral role in enacting countless cornerstone environmental laws, from the Endangered Species Act, to the Clean Water Act, to the National Environmental Policy Act,” said the League of Conservation Voters, from which Dingell received a lifetime rating of 75 percent, and a 93 percent rating in 2013. “He’s been an important voice on environmental priorities for decades.”

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What can John Kerry accomplish with his climate talk?

John Kerry
World Economic Forum

It was an exciting moment for environmentalists Sunday when Secretary of State John Kerry gave a speech in Indonesia emphasizing the severity of the potential consequences of climate disruption. Kerry -- who has been a climate policy leader since he was in the Senate -- equated the threat of catastrophic climate change to that of nuclear weapons proliferation.

The latter has been the single greatest fear of American presidents since the dawn of the atomic era. It led us into war in Iraq, which demonstrated the foolishness of combating an international problem unilaterally. And now Kerry is applying that lesson to climate change,  arguing that the only effective course of action is multilateral cooperation. “Every nation on Earth has a responsibility to do its part if we have any hope of leaving our future generations the safe and healthy planet that they deserve,” said Kerry. He went on to imply that developing countries should agree to limit their emissions at U.N. climate negotiations in Paris next year.

From the Obama administration’s perspective, Kerry is sending an important signal: That they view global warming as a threat to human life and international stability, and combating it will be an organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. This is certainly a break with Obama’s predecessor, and even with Obama’s first term, which was more focused on narrowly tailored actions to address immediate humanitarian crises and on decapitating Al Qaeda.

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The city should shovel your sidewalk

Snow covered Brooklyn sidewalk
Premshree Pillai

It’s an odd fact of life in New York City that after a snowstorm the streets are nicely plowed but the sidewalks may remain a mess. The city dispatches trucks to clean the streets shortly after the snow stops falling. But the sidewalks? That’s up to the owners of the buildings alongside them. And if a homeowner doesn’t get around to shoveling? Well, then you’ll just find yourself delicately dancing along a bumpy, icy, and/or slushy stretch of pavement.

This is hardly unique to the Big Apple. Cities, and especially suburbs, throughout the country take the bizarre position that roads are a public good but sidewalks, where they even exist, are a luxury that homeowners must maintain for themselves. It is especially perverse in a city where more people walk than drive as they go about their daily lives.

Theoretically, New York City can fine owners $100 or more for not shoveling their patch of sidewalk. In practice, enforcement is somewhere between spotty and nonexistent.

And so, in this particularly snowy winter -- which may become the new norm thanks to climate change -- a New York City council member has proposed that the city up the fine to $250 and use the proceeds to pay for the shoveling itself. The New York Daily News reports:

Read more: Cities, Politics