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L.A. braces for hellish heat waves while world leaders diddle

Is it me, or is it getting hot in here?

Two summers ago, the National Weather Service’s thermometer in downtown Los Angeles cracked 113 degrees F for the first time ever. Then it broke, leaving weather geeks to wonder if the city’s record high was actually even hotter than their tools were able to handle.

Better fix the thermometer, L.A. There’s more record heat on the way. A new study conducted by researchers at UCLA finds that climate change will drive up average temperatures in the City of Angels by an average of 4 to 5 degrees F by midcentury. And that’s just an average -- some days, global warming will no doubt push the mercury even higher.

Another new report, from the National Research Council, predicts that sea level will rise up to a foot along the California coast in 20 years, and could top 5 feet by the end of the century. Again, these are averages. When the big storms roll in, folks in Malibu can kiss their beachfront mansions goodbye.

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Congress passes terrible transportation bill, hits the road

After months of partisan gamesmanship, Congress finally coughed up a transportation bill today.

Both the House and the Senate voted to okay a compromise of a compromise that is a major letdown for fans of bikes and clean transit. President Obama is expected to sign it into law today or tomorrow.

Despite much back-patting and talk of bipartisanship, a semi-decent Senate version of the bill was gutted during the conference-committee process. First House lawmakers loaded it up with “poison pills,” including a provision that would have forced the approval of the Keystone XL tar-sands pipeline. Those pills were dropped from the final bill, but so were measures that would have promoted public transit, walking and biking infrastructure, air quality, accountability, and environmental review.

What was left? Highways, highways, and more highways.

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Cities outpace the ‘burbs for the first time in almost a century

Photo by Christopher Schoenbohm. Hold the phone. The Census Bureau has just released new numbers suggesting that America’s largest cities surged past the suburbs in 2011, growing at a faster rate than the ’burbs for the first time since Henry Ford started rolling out the cars that would fuel almost a century of sprawl. If the numbers hold up (these are between-year estimates, not full-blown census counts) they represent a dramatic shift, and one that fits nicely into our favorite narrative about cities rising from rust while suburbs languish in big-box obsolescence. Some highlights, care of the Associated Press: New …

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Boxer blinks, OKs a train wreck of a transportation bill

Lawmakers worked late last night to hammer out a final transportation bill -- the product of years of wrangling over how we’ll spend billions of dollars on roads, public transit, and biking and walking paths. The final language, which will be voted on before Congress breaks for the Fourth of July, is a huge disappointment to advocates of a cleaner, greener transportation system.

“If you’re not a paving contractor, you didn’t get much out of this bill,” says David Goldberg of the nonprofit Transportation for America. “This is just a really disappointing day.”

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Rio hangover: 50,000 people rallied for the Earth Summit. Did it do any good?

The Earth Summit is mercifully over, leaving us all to wonder: What the hell happened last week? Did the end result justify the 3,600 tons of CO2 generated by the U.N. delegation alone? And has anyone seen my pants?

Rio+20 was like Carnival without the party -- unless you consider 50,000 people cramming into conference centers, soccer stadiums, and makeshift meeting halls, all struggling to access the internet and navigate between venues as much as three hours apart by bus a good time.

The official summit and negotiations were, as we predicted, a bomb. The final “outcome document” [PDF], signed by world leaders last Friday, brings empty political speak to new heights. The 49-page tome amounts to a long list of “acknowledgements,” “affirmations,” and “underscorings” of statements and agreements already put in writing years or decades ago.

In a nutshell, the leaders of the world said, “We recognize that we are in deep doo-doo, and we need to do something about it.” What that “something” is remains unclear.

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Arnold ‘Terminates’ commitment to Rio Earth Summit

President Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron were both big no-shows during the Rio Earth Summit this week, but in the surest sign that this party was a bust, even former Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger decided not to come. This is a bit surprising, because he's no stranger to the allure of the Marvelous City -- and now that he's on his way to being single again, this could've been the perfect opportunity to pick up where he left off:

Schwarzenegger was scheduled to help hand out the Sustainia awards Wednesday evening, but reportedly got tied up with a movie shoot. Mmm hmmm. If not even the language of love could lure him to Rio this week, we must assume he had more important affairs to deal with. Ahem.

But really, who could blame him for staying home? The Earth Summit wraps up today with an endless stream of near-identical speeches from world leaders and their surrogates. (Secretary of State Hillary Clinton spoke for the U.S.: “Good morning” blah blah blah, “Brazil’s deft and effective leadership” blah blah blah, “a real advance for sustainable development” blah blah blah, etc.) Later today, bigwigs will sign a final “outcome document,” widely panned as a watered-down and insufficient plan that provides exactly zero help in meeting the challenges of creating a green economy for the globe. Afterwards, they’ll all probably go out for a show and a couple of caipirinhas.

All of which means we may have to wait until Rio+40 before we see Arnold reprise his carnival debauchery. Consider me and the internet crushed.

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A tale of two summits: Rio People’s Summit is both vibrant and troubled

Catadores, or trash pickers, fight for their rights. (Photo by Paulo Teixeira.)

“I am the son of a catadora,” begins João Paolo de Jesus, sounding like someone who has told his life story a few times before. “I lived around the open pit dump from the time I was 7 until I was 11 or 12.”

João Paolo’s mother was a trash picker, one of thousands of people in Brazil who subsist by sifting through society’s castoffs, gleaning copper, aluminum, plastics, and paper for sale to scrap dealers and recycling companies. The two of them lived near an open dump in Salvador, Brazil’s third-largest city. At 26, João Paolo has taken up the trade as well, and he is working to build pride and legitimacy for catadores locally and across the country.

The effort has brought João Paolo and several dozen other catadores to Rio this week under the banner of the National Movement of Collectors of Recyclable Materials -- the Movimento -- for the People’s Summit, a grassroots alternative to the Rio+20 Earth Summit.

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In Rio, disappointment, discontent — and a few silver linings

The first official day of the Rio+20 Earth Summit brought clouds, light rain, and a whole lot of sad-face among those who have worked for months to make the meeting a success. The overwhelming feeling here, even as world leaders and celebrities rolled in for the official pomp and circumstance, was that the summit was over even before it began. Still, not everyone was despondent.

The final “outcome document,” to be signed by heads of state at the end of the week, was “closed” to changes Tuesday night, and while there is a chance that it could be opened for further discussion, Brazilian leaders, who are shepherding the document to completion, have stated that they don’t intend to let that happen. By most accounts, the agreement is a great disappointment.

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17-year-old Kiwi shames world leaders into action at Rio

Twenty years ago, a 12-year-old rocked the Earth Summit in Rio with a plea to world leaders to get serious about saving the planet. Her name was Severn Suzuki, and today, she hands the torch to another young'un, Brittany Trilford, 17, who will address the leaders of 140 nations as the Rio+20 Earth Summit finally gets off to its official start.

Trilford hails from Wellington, the capital of New Zealand. Last winter, she entered the Date With History contest that invited young people to record themselves giving a speech to the leaders of the world about the future they wanted. She won the grand prize, a trip to Rio for the Earth Summit. She didn’t learn until later that she would actually have a chance to speak to at the summit in person.

Trilford’s date with history is at 9 a.m. Eastern time (that’s 6 a.m. on the West Coast). It should be webcast live here. Watch Grist for highlights later in the day, and a link to the video when it’s up. (See update at bottom of post.) Meantime, I caught up with Trilford yesterday with some questions about her speech, her prognosis for the planet, and how she got to be so freaking opinionated.

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Did 350.org’s Twitterstorm to end fossil fuel subsidies work? Kinda

Youth activists staged a "flash mob" at the Earth Summit talks yesterday, part of a broader effort to roll back subsidies for fossil fuels. (Photo courtesy of Human Impacts Institute.)

The Crazy Twitter Kids got a lesson in international diplomacy yesterday during a panel before the Rio+20 Earth Conference in Rio de Janeiro.

The panel was part of a broader push to end an estimated $1 trillion in government subsidies that go to fossil fuel companies around the world each year. At an event that has brought an incredible diversity of people to Rio, this was a largely white, Western bunch, with three Americans and a Scot (who currently resides in New York), no women (with the exception of Natural Resources Defense Council President Frances Beinecke, who introduced the event and then left), and a single researcher from India. Representatives of three environmental groups took turns arguing that it was time to stop pouring our tax money into oil, gas, and coal companies, and instead invest in clean energy like solar and wind.

“We’re handing a $1 trillion bill each year to the most profitable companies the world has ever seen,” said Iain Keith, a campaigner with Avaaz. “The measure of success this week will be whether or not we’re still paying $1 trillion to polluters after Rio.”

It was a clean, simple message at an event that has been characterized by cacophony and chaos, and even as the panelists spoke, it was going bananas on the Interwebs. Jamie Henn, communications director for the climate action group 350.org, beamed that, thanks to a “Twitterstorm” orchestrated by his group and others, the hashtag #EndFossilFuelSubsidies” had hit No. 2 on the list of top trending topics on Twitter worldwide. (No. 1 was “20FactsAboutMe.”) He rattled off the names of celebrities (Stephen Fry, Mark Ruffalo) and politicians (Nancy Pelosi, Mike Lee) who had added their voices to the storm. “We’re looking to see if that message can break through here in Rio,” he said.

If the conference room was any indication, it didn’t.