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Meet the singing, anti-fracking nuns

Down the road from the Maker's Mark bourbon distillery in the central Kentucky town of Loretto, a feisty cadre of nuns has been tending crops and praying since the early 1800s. An order founded on social justice, the Sisters of Loretto are quickly becoming the face of a new grassroots campaign against what they see as a threat to holy land: the Bluegrass Pipeline. The 1,100-mile pipeline will carry natural gas liquids from the Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia fracking fields, and will pass through Kentucky -- eventually connecting with an existing pipeline that runs all the way to the Gulf Coast.

The pipeline is in its early stages of development, but the nuns have already refused to allow company representatives to survey their 800-acre campus, and they are taking their message to local community meetings … sometimes in the form of song.

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Claws and effect: Climate change turns lobsters into cannibals

Noah Oppenheim's plan was simple: Rig a young lobster underneath a waterproof, infrared camera; drop the contraption overboard off the coast of Maine; and see who comes along for a bite to eat. The takers, he expected, would be fish: Cod, herring, and other "groundfish" found in these waters that are known to love a good lobster dinner. Similar experiments conducted in the 1990s showed that apart from being snatched up in one of the thousands of traps that sprinkle the sea floor here -- tools of this region's signature trade -- fish predation was the principle cause of lobster death. Instead, Oppenheim, a marine biology graduate student at the University of Maine, captured footage that looks like it comes straight from the reel of a 1950s B-grade horror movie: rampant lobster cannibalism.

Tim McDonnell

Warming waters can cause lobsters to grow larger and produce more offspring, and the last decade has been the warmest on record in the Gulf of Maine. That, combined with overfishing of lobster predators and an excess of bait left in lobster traps (see info box below), has driven the Maine lobster harvest to thoroughly smash records that stretch back to 1880. One of the side effects of this boom, Oppenheim says, is cannibalism: There are countless lobsters down there with nothing much to eat them and not much for them to eat, besides each other.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food


Five gorgeous landmarks threatened by rising seas


So, you spent last weekend celebrating American independence with patriotic fervor and you’re now enthused about the preservation of American history and culture and all things awesome and bygone. Right?

Keep that historical buzz going for a moment to contemplate five sites the National Trust for Historic Preservation -- the country’s preservers-in-chief -- thinks are most vulnerable to flooding caused by sea-level rise.

Even though the Trust fields regular requests for planning assistance from coastal cities across country, the group says no comprehensive models yet exist to address sea-level rise and its threat to historic landmarks. That’s bad, says Anthony Veerkamp, a program director with the Trust, because without first taking stock of what we might lose, “inevitably there will be adaptation strategies that do lesser or greater harm to historic resources.”

Here are five sites the Trust is most worried about:

1. San Francisco’s Embarcadero


California’s Bay Area can expect sea levels to rise by up to 55 inches by the end of the century, putting an estimated 270,000 people and $62 billion [PDF] worth of San Francisco urban bling at risk of increased flooding. That presents a major challenge to the three-mile stretch of San Francisco’s downtown Embarcadero district, which features more than 20 historic piers, a bulkhead wharf in 21 sections, a seawall built in the late 1800s, and the iconic Ferry Building, fully commissioned in 1903. California’s seasonal king tides already overflow San Francisco’s sea walls and occasionally spill into the Embaracadero, providing a preview for what might happen more regularly if sea levels continue to rise.

2. New York City’s Battery

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Live chat: Obama’s new climate plan

Climate Desk hosted a Google Hangout with Grist's own David Roberts and Kate Sheppard from Mother Jones to debrief Obama's climate speech. The chat has ended, but you can still watch it below:

Roberts also appeared on Seattle's NPR affiliate KUOW. Listen here.

Check out Climate Desk's live blogging of the day's events:


Occupy Sandy: Once welcomed, now questioned

An incomplete section of the destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk in late May.
An incomplete section of the destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk in late May.

Nearly eight months after Hurricane Sandy destroyed almost three miles of historic boardwalk along the Rockaway peninsula at the southern end of New York City, the shore hums with sounds of $140 million worth of beach recovery: circular saws, jack hammers, and tractors. While construction continues around the clock, officials have reopened beaches in hopes that a vibrant tourist season will kick-start the local economy; on this hot June day, a handful of surfers catching breaks on the city's only legal surfing beaches is one tangible sign that the work to remediate 1.5 million cubic yards of displaced sand [PDF] has been successful.

Now, beyond immediate relief work and the big-ticket city spending -- the A train is finally rumbling along elevated tracks to Far Rockaway -- community organizers can rattle off a shopping list of daily small-dollar needs that don't usually get their own entries in big-name relief agency spreadsheets: community garden maintenance, recovering lost furniture, or hiring a killer grant writer to ensure the money keeps flowing.

As relief turns to long-term recovery, community activists have their eyes on a group they know has some money left unspent: Occupy Sandy.

After Superstorm Sandy hit New York last October, Occupy Wall Street -- the global protest movement against economic inequality that started in downtown Manhattan -- set up a new group, Occupy Sandy, and mobilized thousands of supporters to raise more than $1.37 million, according to finances made public on its website.

But here's the thing: Roughly $1 out of every $5 raised -- nearly $300,000 -- remains unallocated. According to interviews with Occupy Sandy organizers, it's been more than three months since the group began the process of giving this remaining money over to community groups in the hardest-hit areas. Only a fraction of the $150,000 that has already been allocated to the Rockaways has so far been disbursed.

Meanwhile, as Americans face an ever-increasing number of natural disasters and extreme weather events, more recent victims like those in tornado-devastated Moore, Okla., are looking to Occupy Sandy as a model to replicate, warranting a closer look at how the group balances its books.


How climate change makes wildfires worse

An aircraft releases fire-retardant over Black Forest, Colo.
An aircraft releases fire-retardant over Black Forest, Colo.

Last year, Colorado suffered from a record-breaking wildfire season: More than 4,000 fires resulted in six deaths, the destruction of 648 buildings, and a half a billion dollars in property damage. Still reeling, Coloradans are once again fleeing in their thousands from a string of drought-fueled fires.

So what role is climate change playing in the worsening wildfires? Here's what we've learned:

Is climate change making wildfires worse?

Hot and Bothered - small x  200
Susie Cagle

Big wildfires like Colorado's thrive in dry air, low humidity, and high winds; climate change is going to make those conditions more frequent over the next century. We know because it's already happening: A University of Arizona report from 2006 found that large forest fires have occurred more often in the Western United States since the mid-1980s as spring temperatures increased, snow melted earlier, and summers got hotter, leaving more and drier fuels for fires to devour.

Thomas Tidwell, the head of the United States Forest Service, told a Senate committee on energy and natural resources recently that the fire season now lasts two months longer and destroys twice as much land as it did four decades ago. Fires now, he said, burn the same amount of land faster.

How many more fires are we talking about?

Read more: Climate & Energy


FEMA report: Climate change could increase areas at risk of flood by 45 percent

Damaged homes along New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.
Greg Thompson / USFWS
Damaged homes along New Jersey shore after Hurricane Sandy.

Rising seas and increasingly severe weather are expected to increase the areas of the United States at risk of floods by up to 45 percent by 2100, according to a first-of-its-kind report released by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Wednesday [PDF]. These changes could double the number of flood-prone properties covered by the National Flood Insurance Program and drastically increase the costs of floods, the report finds.

The report concludes that climate change is likely to expand vastly the size and costs of the 45-year-old government flood insurance program. Like previous government reports, it anticipates that sea levels will rise an average of four feet [PDF] by the end of the century. But this is what's new: The portion of the U.S. at risk for flooding, including coastal regions and areas along rivers, will grow between 40 and 45 percent by the end of the century. That shift will hammer the flood insurance program. Premiums paid into the program totaled $3.2 billion in 2009, but that figure could grow to $5.4 billion by 2040 and up to $11.2 billion by the year 2100, the report found. The 257-page study has been in the works for nearly five years and was finally released by FEMA after multiple inquiries from Climate Desk and Mother Jones.

The report attributes only 30 percent of the increased risk of flooding to population growth; 70 percent is due to climate change. FEMA designates what are known as special flood hazard areas, where there is a 1 percent risk in any given year of a major flood occurring. (They're also known as 100-year floodplains.) If you have a federally backed mortgage on your home and it's in a special flood hazard area, you are required by law to carry flood insurance. As of 2013, the NFIP insures 5.6 million properties. But that number could double by 2100, to as many as 11.2 million, the report found.

Read more: Climate & Energy


She’s got the Power: What does Obama’s U.N. ambassador pick think about climate?

Samantha Power speaking in Geneva in 2009.
U.S. Mission Geneva / Eric Bridiers
Samantha Power speaking in Geneva in 2009.

Samantha Power, Obama's U.N. ambassador-in-waiting, frowned modestly as the president heaped lofty praise on her this week when he announced a major national security reshuffle.

"One of our foremost thinkers on foreign policy, she showed us that the international community has a moral responsibility and a profound interest in resolving conflicts and defending human dignity," he said. "I think she won the Pulitzer Prize at the age of 15 or 16," he joked. (Power won in 2003, in her early 30s, for A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, a rationale for American intervention in international atrocities.)

In accepting the president's nomination -- the Senate still needs to approve -- Power argued for a strong American role in the U.N.: "As the most powerful and inspiring country on this Earth, we have a critical role to play in insisting that the institution meet the necessities of our time. It can do so only with American leadership."

But will Power's brand of leadership extend to advocating climate action from her powerful position at the U.N.? After all, climate change is a top priority in the U.N.: While development has been grinding, members at the Doha climate conference last December reaffirmed a previous decision to reach a global pact to replace Kyoto by 2015; Secretary General Ban Ki-moon himself has listed climate change at the very top of his 2013 to-do list (up there with stopping the bloodshed in Syria). By contrast, there's very little evidence that climate change has motivated Power's career or featured in her public comments, leaving foreign policy experts confused as to how she might rise to the challenge. The people in the know ... don't know.

"I don't think she has ever illustrated particular views one way or another on the environment," said former colleague Professor Robert Stavins, an expert on environmental economics at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.

"I don't think we have any information," said Joshua W. Busby, at the Robert S. Strauss Center for International Security and Law. On climate change, "I didn't find anything she's ever said."

What clues we do have lie in her critique of the United Nations.


How to fix the climate, in one simple flowchart

After we published our How to win a climate argument flowchart, we thought, "Wouldn't it be great if all the climate solutions were boiled down into a simple, step-by-step flowchart?" As President Obama gets down to business in his second term, we look at what's next for his administration as well as where your own individual choices fit into the big picture. Choose your own climate solution adventure (and click to embiggen):


Feeding the trolls: Meeting with a climate denier, face to face

If you disagree with me, you are a total fucking idiot!

If you've ever read anything on the internet, chances are you've encountered a troll. No, not the kind that live under bridges, or the ones with a shock of neon hair. We’re talking about those annoying commenters who get their kicks by riling people up as much as possible. But have you ever wondered who these people really are? Well, we found out.

Internet researchers at George Mason University recently found that when it comes to online commenting, throwing bombs gets more attention than being nice, and makes readers double down on their preexisting beliefs. What’s more, trolls create a false sense that a topic is more controversial than it really is. Witness the overwhelming consensus on climate change amongst scientists -- 97 percent agreement that global warming is real, and caused by humans. But that doesn't settle the question for Twitter addict and Climate Desk perennial thorn-in-the-side Hoyt Connell.

"If you allow somebody to make a comment and there's no response, then they're controlling the definition of the statement," Hoyt says. "Then it can become a truth."

We first encountered Hoyt, or as we know him, @hoytc55, several months ago on our Twitter page, taking us to task for our climate coverage. And the screed hasn’t stopped since: In April alone, Hoyt mentioned us on Twitter some 126 times, almost as much as our top nine other followers combined. So we did the only thing we knew how to do: Track him down, meet him face to face … and ask a few questions of our own. Here's episode one of our three-part series, Trollus Maximus:

Read more: Climate & Energy