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Never mind the bollocks

Climate change got you down this Earth Day? Time for a badger mask

dark mountain
Dark Mountain Project

It’s not often that any magazine profiles an environmentalist. So when the New York Times Magazine did just that this week, I got excited. Just in time for Earth Day!

Setting aside, of course, the uneasiness that I feel about Earth Day. When you are the only habitable planet in the solar system, as well as the large spheroid mass whose rotation around the sun actually makes days happen, arguably all of the days are yours. But Earth Day itself has very sweet and thoughtful origins as an idea, proposed by a Wisconsin senator in 1970, to host teach-ins on ecological issues around the country. The teach-ins became so huge that the momentum from that day of meetings is credited with the creation of the EPA, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Endangered Species Act -- along with the persistence of Earth Day itself, which very few people seem to get excited about any more, but which hovers in our vision anyway like the afterimage of a camera flash.

Part of that persistence is a consequence of the news cycle, which requires holidays in order to write about things -- civil rights, women, the fact that the only planet we live on seems to be having some tropospheric issues -- that we all should be writing about anyway. And so, for its Earth Day story, the Times chose, in something of a punk move, to profile another generator of an unexpectedly viral idea -- Paul Kingsnorth.

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Making the road safe for biking’s nervous Nellies

little-boy-bicyclist.jpg
Shutterstock

I used to bike like everyone was trying to kill me. I was fresh out of college and had moved to San Francisco to seek my fortune, only to discover that the city’s public transit system was more of a simulacrum of a system than something that actually got me reliably on time to my job -- or, let's be honest, jobs. Living in the city required a lot of jobs, and sometimes the bus came and sometimes it didn’t. So I started biking.

Even if drivers didn’t bear any malice towards me -- and almost none of them did -- I learned to regard them with caution. They were bored. They were tired. They were steering 3,000+ pounds of metal powered by a combustion engine, but they spent so much time there that they behaved like it was their living room. (I looked over, once, and saw a woman in huge Audrey Hepburn sunglasses, eating corn on the cob and driving with her elbows.)

It is because of this experience that I view the recent news that California’s Department of Transportation has signed on to the National Association of City Transportation Officials guidelines for street design with unmitigated delight. NACTO is the kind of agency that rarely makes the news -- probably because it’s dead boring. But to those interested in the future of our cities, NACTO is also an illustration of how local governments can have much more power than they initially seem to.

Read more: Cities, Living, Politics

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Share and share a bike

Montreal, Boston, NYC: Which city has the best bikeshare program?

city-bike-share-b
Peter Kudlacz | mvcav | Bex Walton

My life as a bikeshare tourist began three years ago. Before, whenever I visited a new city, I felt like it was hard to get a sense of the local geography. Traveling by subway was fast and provided an excellent opportunity to check out what other people were reading. But the experience of going down into the subway and reappearing in a different location was disconcerting. I felt like I was teleporting, or a prairie dog.

When it works, bikeshare is like the Sesame Street of urban cycling: The bikes are big and cartoonish and comfortable. Cars seem to give you more space on the road, possibly because you look like a total n00b and they don't trust you to know what you're doing. And moving from neighborhood to neighborhood gives you a sense of how the city fits together.

I've only used bikeshare in three cities, but hope to use more. (Cleveland, I'm looking forward to it. San Francisco, can't wait 'til you've got enough of a network to bike to more than just the shopping malls downtown.) Here, I give you: what I've learned so far.

Boston: Hubway

The first time I used a bikeshare was at a conference in Boston. At the end of the day there, I felt as though I had spent hours paddling a tiny boat through a howling vortex of schmooze, unsure of where or how I might come ashore.

Read more: Cities, Living

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How to catch a coal ash spill? Send lawyers, boats, and airplanes

Waterkeeper Alliance Coal Ash Dumping
Waterkeeper Alliance

Peter Harrison has an enviable life: He spends a lot of time in a boat, exploring the waterways of North Carolina. Peter Harrison also has an interesting life: Other boats sometimes follow his, with huge cameras pointed in his direction, shutters clicking away.

"It's just intimidation," Harrison says. The people with cameras tend to be security guards for Duke Energy, the state's largest electricity provider, and a company that Harrison spends a lot of time investigating.

Over the past few years, environmental groups like the one that Harrison works for, Waterkeeper Alliance, began to notice that every time they have tried to sue Duke over coal ash dumps that are spilling arsenic and mercury into North Carolina's drinking water, the North Carolina Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) would find a way to block or delay the lawsuit.

It also did not escape their notice that the state's governor, Pat McCrory, had worked at Duke for 28 years before running for political office. Or that the secretary of DENR was a McCrory appointee who described his approach to running the agency as being “a partner” to those it regulates.

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Prairie doggone

Like some dust bowl with your grain belt?

grassland
Audrius Matikiūnas

I once visited one of the last scraps of prairie in Ames, Iowa. It was about the size of a football field, at most, and surrounded by corn in all directions. To me it didn’t look like much. But I had arrived there with a group of entomologists who squealed with delight and immediately scattered into the grasses, emerging periodically to show off the especially fetching bugs they had found. This field, we were told, remained grassland for one reason only: No one could grow corn on it. It was too wet, too rocky, too much clay. The agricultural flaws …

Read more: Food

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Risk game: What a warmer planet means to the bottom line

Kate Gordon
Photo by Next Generation

Kate Gordon has been described as Tom Steyer’s "secret weapon," but it turns out that finding her is as simple as making a phone call and then riding up the elevator to her office in San Francisco’s Financial District. Here, Gordon is managing Risky Business, an ambitious project that aims to quantify the financial risks that climate change poses to the American economy.

The report, which is slated to be released this June, is headed by Steyer, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, and features input from an eclectic Risk Committee of former cabinet members and other political heavy-hitters.

A former housing activist, Gordon has taken an unconventional path to environmentalism. Before she became the vice president and director of the energy and climate program at Next Generation, Steyer's nonprofit policy think tank, Gordon spent a decade drawing up strategies for boosting green jobs and manufacturing, some of which found their way into state and federal policy -- most notably in President Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

I recently met with her in Next Generation's offices to talk about quantifying disaster risk, the fate of the "green jobs" boom, and finding hope in numbers.

Q. The first thing I'm curious about is, what kind of climate change data are out there? What do you have, and what would you like to see more of?

A. The climate risk data just isn’t out there. The reinsurance industry is the big exception. They were doing a lot of work around climate risk because they had to -- they were insuring the insurers.

But most of the reinsurers -- who have been talking about this since the '80s -- are based in Europe. The reason we decided to do this project was to have a very U.S.-focused, business-focused, and investor-focused approach to climate risk, which wasn’t really available outside of some private institutions.

The five sectors we’re looking at are agriculture, public health, energy systems, coastal infrastructure, and then labor productivity -- which isn’t exactly a sector. Of those, the ones that have been most studied from a risk perspective are agriculture and coastal infrastructure, and that’s largely because of private industry.

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Nancy Drew and the mystery of the secret oil spill

Sort of like this, but covered in oil.
Penny Meyer
Sort of like this, but covered in oil.

When oil spills across a national monument, and no one is there to see it, does it still leave a mark?

Apparently a really big one, but one that still takes a while to find. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, Utah's Bureau of Land Management (BLM) just discovered four miles of oil damage in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument -- thanks to some thoughtful hikers who stumbled onto the scene and photographed the evidence.

Normally, the monument looks like the backdrop of a motivational calendar, but the area the hikers found was black and streaky. There were black bathtub rings around trees and rocks at the level of the spill's highest reach. The overall effect was like that of  a really poorly executed Andy Goldsworthy installation, or the mess left in the wake of the Cat in the Hat, if the Cat in the Hat were a wildcatter.

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Exploding trains

Why we can’t seem to stop oil-filled rail cars from going boom

Don't like pipelines? Get ready for rail.

People -- including me -- have written a good amount already about how trains have been exploding lately. In 2008, 9,500 carloads of crude oil were shipped by train in the U.S.; in 2012, that number was 234,000 carloads. The oil is packed into freight cars that date back to the 1960s and that normally carry payloads like corn syrup, then shipped along aging freight infrastructure. When the trains fail, they fail hard, and because freight lines were built to run through cities, rather than around them, they fail around people. Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, the Alabama wetlands, and eastern North Dakota are just …

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Toto, our wind turbines are safe for another year!

turbinerainbow
Peter M2009

As we all know from that fine documentary film, The Wizard of Oz, Kansas has a lot of wind. Even when it isn’t sweeping away sullen little farmgirls into concussion-induced Technicolor allegory, it’s got enough windpower to put it smack dab in the area known as “The Saudi Arabia of Wind” -- that lavender trough of higher wind speed that runs through the middle of the U.S. Department of Energy’s utility-scale wind resource maps.

For this reason, Kansas has become one of the test kitchens experimenting with shifting away from digging stuff out of the ground and burning it, and towards making that wind do something useful for once. In 2007, after a tornado wiped out the farm town of Greensburg, the city was rebuilt, with solar panels and wind turbines within the city proper and a wind farm five miles out of town. The whole setup produces enough power for the entire city and a few neighboring municipalities as well. In 2009, Kansas passed a renewable energy portfolio standard (RPS), which mandates that local utilities get 10 percent of their power generation capacity from renewables from 2011 to 2015, 15 percent from 2016 to 2019, and 20 percent by 2020.

The RPS was passed with bipartisan support as part of a compromise bill -- approved by its opponents in exchange for the expansion of coal-fired power plant in Holcomb, Kan. But even with bipartisan support, the standard caught the attention of the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) -- a conservative think tank with close ties to the oil and gas industry that is opposed to just about everything to do with alternative energy.

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One California oil town keeps fracking in check — by banning all drilling

oil rigs
Shutterstock

To the city council, the story sounded a little fishy. It was true that Carson City, Calif., probably still had oil of some kind. Los Angeles County had a well-documented history of being an oily place. As early as the 1850s, there were reports of enterprising folks scooping up the occasional seep of oil that rose to the surface and refining it into lamp oil. But these days the easy oil of L.A. County is long gone -- especially in Carson, where the oil drilling began in the 1920s.

So how was Occidental Petroleum, which had approached the city with a set of plans for new drilling infrastructure, planning to get more? A few years ago, the company had begun reopening wells that had seemed closed for good. Now, it had announced its intention to drill 200 new ones. What, exactly, was it planning on doing differently, that other wildcatters with oily gleams in their eyes had somehow missed?

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy