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Nature vs. nature: Is “green infrastructure” the best defense against climate disasters?

A car drives through water driven onto a roadway by Hurricane Sandy in Southampton, New York
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

A year ago, Northeasterners were bracing for the worst. On Oct. 27, with Superstorm Sandy pinwheeling up the East Coast, Gov. Chris Christie declared  a state of emergency in all of New Jersey. Mayor Mike Bloomberg ordered 375,000 people to evacuate from low-lying areas of New York City, closing schools and shutting down the subway system. Stretching almost 500 miles across, Sandy had morphed into one of the most powerful storms in history, and it was about to body check greater New York.

For many, the worst came. In the past few weeks, we've seen story after story of residents who are still trying to piece their lives back together. But the storm played out quite differently for the residents of Cape May, N.J., a seaside haven for vacationers and birdwatchers. When they were allowed to return to their homes after the storm had passed, most locals found things largely as they had left them, not counting some minor flooding and truckloads of sand that washed into the streets.

Bill Ulfelder, New York executive director for the Nature Conservancy, credits a unique set of natural defenses for sparing parts of the town. Some of the neighborhoods that fared best were adjacent to the South Cape May Meadows preserve, a 218-acre natural area that the conservancy had worked to restore in 2004, alongside the state and the Army Corps of Engineers. "South Cape May had no wave damage and no flooding. All the water went into the wetland," Ulfelder says.

Ulfelder and his compatriots believe that Cape May holds lessons for other coastal areas as climate change whips up stronger, more damaging storms. Restoring dunes, marshes, and oyster reefs could dampen future storm surges, they say. Give a little back to Mother Nature, and maybe she'll go a little easier on us.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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NYC hurricane expert: “Sandy wasn’t the Big One”

Hurricane Sandy.
NASA GOES Project
Hurricane Sandy

One year ago today, Superstorm Sandy was just a twinkle in meteorologists' eyes. The storm, which kicked up from a low-pressure area in the Caribbean Sea on Oct. 22, wouldn't become an official hurricane for two days still. Even after it gained official hurricane status, raking across Jamaica and Cuba and soaking the Bahamas, U.S. weather models predicted that it would spin off into the North Atlantic and peter out, as most such storms do.

But Sandy did something different. After briefly losing steam, it rolled northward along the Eastern Seaboard and then veered left like a car that had just lost a wheel, barreling into the Jersey Shore and pushing storm tides through the streets of New York City. When the skies finally cleared and Wall Street opened back up, at least 159 people were dead, and the storm had caused $65 billion in damages and relocated the city's rat population.

It was a shocking turn of events. Hurricane Irene had given New York a good scare (and New England a thorough drubbing) in August 2011, but the last time a major hurricane had hit the city was 1938. That storm killed 600 people, according to a New York Times report. But after decades of relative quiet, many New Yorkers doubted it would happen again. It's easy, in those canyons of concrete and brick, to imagine that nothing will change.

There was one man, however, who saw Sandy coming. Nicholas K. Coch, a professor of coastal geology at Queens College, had been warning for almost two decades that a major hurricane could take out New York. The habit earned Coch the nickname "Dr. Doom" -- a sobriquet that he didn't take kindly to. ("No serious scientist wants to be called Dr. Doom," he says.)

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy

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Save yourselves: When it comes to climate change, the cavalry isn’t coming

When I caught up with Rob Hopkins at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week, he had just ended a seven-year, self-imposed airplane fast. This is a guy who takes the climate fight -- and the power of individual actions -- seriously. A few years back, he launched Transition Towns, aimed at helping communities lead the way into a post-fossil-fuel world. The movement has since spread around the globe.

Hopkins, a Brit, said he climbed on a plane again to attend a meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association, and try to convince foundations to pour money into transition efforts. He was in Austin speaking at SXSW and kicking off a whirlwind tour to promote his new book, The Power of Just Doing Stuff: How Local Action Can Change the World. When that's done, he's grounded again: "People say, 'Oh, you're flying again,'" he said. "I'm not flying again. I flew once."

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In the hot seat: The NAACP gets into the climate fight

Jacqueline Patterson can rattle off an endless stream of statistics about how climate change, and the industries that are driving it, put communities of color at risk. Patterson heads the NAACP's environmental and climate justice program, so she lives and breathes these numbers -- statistics that show that African American, Hispanic, and other minority communities bear the brunt of our dirty ways, from power plant pollution to urban heat island effect and superstorms like Katrina and Sandy.

I caught up with Patterson at the SXSW Eco conference in Austin, Texas, this week and found that she had some good news along with all the grim.

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Moment of roof: Urban farming entrepreneur explains how he got on top

Mohamed Hage is not your typical urban farmer. The Lebanese-born entrepreneur, now living in Montreal, got into food as a technological challenge: He wanted to come up with a better way for family back in Lebanon to grow crops. But to say he has a green thumb would be a bit of a stretch; instead, he relies on a knack for high-tech gizmos and marketing. In 2011, his business, Lufa Farms, opened the world's first commercial greenhouse on a roof in Montreal. Today, the company has two rooftop farms and a staff of about 30, including "more programmers than farmers," he says. Next year, Lufa expands to Boston, with plans for world conquest from there.

I caught up with Hage at the SXSW Eco conference happening this week in Austin. Here's what he had to say:

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The secret, sordid lives of shared cars

What? RelayRides totally checked my driving record.
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This Frasier reunion show isn't going to tape itself -- better step on it.

So you want to share your car. You've got a plan to rent it out during your off-hours. Good on you: You might help a few of your neighbors get by without owning a car, sparing your city some pollution-spewing, parking-space-hogging trouble. But be warned: Your car will take on a life of its own, and much of it will be a mystery to you.

Think of it as giving your S.O. permission to see other people. In the right trusting relationship, being monogamish (as Dan Savage calls it) can work just fine. But don't be surprised if your partner car comes home late sometimes, smelling like sex and cigarettes.

For my series on car-sharing, I spoke with a handful of people who rent their vehicles out by the hour, day, and week via the online platform RelayRides. They all reported that they were generally satisfied, if not downright pleased, with the experience, but each one had a story about the time things went wrong. Or weird. Or both.

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7 tips for sharing your car without going broke

money-car-cartoon
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The idea is seductively simple: Most of us use our cars just a tiny fraction of the time. Why not make a little money by renting out the neglected speed racer, rather than just leaving it sitting in the driveway, or worse, racking up bills in a parking garage?

"Rent your car, get paid." That’s how one car-sharing company, RelayRides, puts it on its website. "Earn up to $1,000 a month sharing your vehicle." Steve Webb, RelayRides’ press guy, tells stories about car owners who have given up their day jobs to become “micro-fleet managers.”

You might be tempted to think like Erinn Hutkin, a Chicago journalist who was laid off from her job at a suburban newspaper in January. She saw an ad from RelayRides while looking for work online and thought, "Here's a way to make some extra money by not doing much of anything."

But if all this sounds a little too much like one of those “make $100,000 a year working at home” schemes, surprise: You are right to be a little skeptical.

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Vikings have the most fun: U.N. says Danes are the happiest people on the planet

They don't always look happy, but really they are.
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They don't always look happy, but really they are.

Their days of seafaring plunder are over, but Danes are still the happiest people in the world, says the U.N. How do they do it? With sustainable development, a sane workweek, and umbrella drinks, for starters.

The news comes from a new United Nations report [PDF] attempting to measure the happiness factor of countries around the globe. The world's people are feeling decidedly “meh,” according to the report, released Monday by the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network: "On a scale running from 0 to 10, people in over 150 countries, surveyed by Gallup over the period 2010-12, reveal a population-weighted average score of 5.1."

But the mood in some countries is downright giddy: The U.N. calls them “happiness hot spots,” but you can just think of them as the Earth's erogenous zones. Topping the list? Denmark, which scored a 7.693 on the happiness scale.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Bird’s-eye view: Why crows thrive in the urban jungle

In an age of booming cities, rising temperatures, and vanishing wildlife, there's at least one critter that's doing just fine: the humble crow. But if it weren't for us, they wouldn't have it nearly so good. Find out why in this video:

Read more: Cities, Living

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We’re already sick of climate change — and getting sicker

doctors
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If there’s any doubt remaining in your mind that climate change is a plague on humanity, Linda Marsa will take care of that for you. Marsa is a longtime medical writer. She’s made a career as a muckraker, taking on the pharmaceutical industry and dispensers of scientific snake oil. And she’s recently turned her attention to how our warming of the planet increases the chances for a wide array of epidemic illnesses.

For her new book, Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Hurt Our Health -- And How We Can Save Ourselves, Marsa, a contributing editor for Discover, traveled the country and the world, looking for communities on the front lines -- “places that give us a glimpse of what’s coming in next 20, 30, 40 years,” she says. The result is a finely crafted and sobering tale on par with David Quammen’s recent tome, Spillover, only with a little less Isn’t this fascinating and a lot more, Holy fucking shit, people, wake the hell up!

“I’ve done some important stories, but nothing compares to the magnitude of this,” Marsa told us during a recent visit to Grist HQ. “Because this threatens civilization, this threatens us as a species.”

Here's a little more of what she had to say. Goodbye now. We're all moving to Canada.