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Occupy Sandy: Once welcomed, now questioned

An incomplete section of the destroyed Rockaway Beach boardwalk in late May.
squirrel83
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.

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How climate change makes wildfires worse

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

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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

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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.

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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):

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

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

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

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We just passed the climate’s ‘grim milestone’

The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.
NOAA
The Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where NOAA watched the carbon record break.

Over the last couple weeks, scientists and environmentalists have been keeping a particularly close eye on the Hawaii-based monitoring station that tracks how much carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere, as the count tiptoed closer to a record-smashing 400 parts per million. Thursday, we finally got there: The daily mean concentration was higher than at any time in human history, NOAA reported.

Don't worry: The earth is not about to go up in a ball of flame. The 400 ppm mark is only a milestone, 50 ppm over what legendary NASA scientist James Hansen has since 1988 called the safe zone for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, and yet only halfway to what the IPCC predicts we'll reach by the end of the century.

"Somehow in the last 50 ppm we melted the Arctic," said environmentalist and founder of activist group 350.org Bill McKibben, who called today's news a "grim but predictable milestone" and has long used the symbolic number as a rallying call for climate action. "We'll see what happens in the next 50."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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How Thatcher made the conservative case for climate action

Thatcher at the U.N. in 1990.
United Nations
Thatcher at the U.N. in 1990.

The year: 1990. The venue: Palais des Nations, Geneva. The star: Margaret Thatcher, conservative icon in the final month of her prime ministership. The topic: global warming.

Thatcher went to the Second World Climate Conference to heap praise on the then-infant Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and to sound, again, the alarm over global warming. Not only that, her speech laid out a simple conservative argument for taking environmental action: "It may be cheaper or more cost-effective to take action now," she said, "than to wait and find we have to pay much more later." Global warming was, she argued, "real enough for us to make changes and sacrifices, so that we do not live at the expense of future generations."

The Iron Lady's speech makes for fascinating reading in the context of 2013's climate acrimony, drenched as it is in party politics. In the speech, she questioned the very meaning of human progress: Booming industrial advances since the Age of Enlightenment could no longer be sustained in the context of environmental damage. We must, she argued, redress the imbalance with nature wrought by development.

"Remember our duty to nature before it is too late," she warned. "That duty is constant. It is never completed. It lives on as we breathe."

On climate change, Margaret Thatcher, who died on Monday at age 87, was characteristically steadfast, eloquent, and divisive. "The right always forget this part of her legacy," Lord Deben, a member of the House of Lords and chair of the U.K.'s independent Committee on Climate Change, told Climate Desk on Monday. Lord Deben served in the Thatcher government and said she was crucial in raising the profile of climate negotiations around the world, even when it was deeply unpopular amongst her colleagues. "She was determined to take this high-profile position," he said. "She believed it was her duty as a scientist." (Thatcher studied science while at Oxford University.) Barring a few members, "the rest of the cabinet were not convinced," he said.

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Withering drought still plaguing half of America

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

The $50 billion drought that bedeviled the country last summer -- the worst since the Dust Bowl of the 1930′s -- still has its fingers around half the country. And if predictions are to be believed, it’s only going to get worse for many in the coming months.

Weekly drought figures released Thursday by the U.S. Drought Monitor, a joint project of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the USDA, and several other government and academic partners, show the situation has worsened slightly from last week, with nearly 52 percent of the continental U.S. now suffering from a moderate drought or worse. Below-average winter snow pack and rainfall are keeping much of the country in a holding pattern. No measurable precipitation fell on most of central and northern Illinois, southern Wisconsin, central and northern Iowa, southwestern Minnesota, and the Louisiana Bayou last week. Rain that fell in the West did nothing to alleviate the drought there; in fact, parts of western Oregon and southwestern Washington have reported their driest start to a calendar year on record. The forecast for the next two weeks? Dry and dry again.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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How much is a beachfront home in the Sandy-ravaged Rockaways?

257 Beach 140th Street, a modest four-bedroom house blocks from the beach in the Rockaways, Queens, is fairly unremarkable, but it put up a hell of a fight during Hurricane Sandy. While other houses just down the street were being ripped off their foundations, 257, which had been up for sale since before the storm, suffered only a little flooding in the basement. It’s otherwise unscathed, but even that damage was enough to knock a solid 10 percent off its list price (down to $799,000 from $890,000), enough to make first-time homebuyers Matthew and Jenny Daly take a closer look.

“There are more opportunities because of everything that’s happened in the last six months,” Matthew says.

In New York City alone, Sandy racked up $3.1 billion worth of damage to homes. Many of those properties in hard-hit areas like the Rockaways and the south shore of Staten Island are still empty, awaiting repairs, government buyouts, resident squatters, or, like in the case of 257, a new owner ready to tackle a fixer-upper. Damaged homes are now on the market for as much as 60 percent off their pre-storm value, and local realtors say there’s a ready contingent of bargain-hunters waiting to pounce -- sometimes, to the detriment of sellers.