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Four epic green ballot battles to watch today

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It's an off-year election so there are no congressional races today, but some state and local battles are of immense interest to environmentalists. Here's a quick rundown of the key green fights to keep an eye on:

Virginia governor's race

In the gubernatorial election in Virginia, the leading candidates are virtual caricatures of their political parties when it comes to climate change. The Democrat, Terry McAuliffe, is concerned about global warming and supports renewable energy. He also used to run a (now quite troubled) greentech company. The Republican, Ken Cuccinelli, is a climate skeptic who's been trying to score political points by whining about the Democrats' "war on coal." Cuccinelli previously led a witch hunt of a prominent climate scientist, Michael Mann, trying, unsuccessfully, to force the University of Virginia to turn over emails and other records related to Mann's time at the school. (You'll never guess who Mann has been supporting in the governor's race.)

President Obama called out Cuccinelli's climate illiteracy while stumping on Monday for the Democrat. “It doesn’t create jobs when you go after scientists, and you try to offer your own alternative theories of how things work and engage in litigation around stuff that isn't political,” Obama said. “It has to do with what's true. It has to do with facts. You don’t argue with facts.”

Virginia, a coal-producing state, used to be solidly red, but in recent years it's turned purple. The state's voters went for Obama in 2008 and 2012, and they look very likely to lean blue in this race. McAuliffe is firmly up in the polls.

Read more about the race here and here.

Anti-fracking ballot measures in Colorado

The Colorado Oil and Gas Association has poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into advertisements trying to convince residents of four Colorado cities to vote against ballot measures that would ban or suspend fracking.

Read more: Politics

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Blistering exposé prompts Johns Hopkins to suspend black-lung screenings

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The coal industry has a decades-old friendship with Johns Hopkins University, but now that cozy relationship is being torn apart by the scrutiny of investigative journalists.

When employees filed for black-lung-related benefits, coal companies paid the Baltimore-based university handsome sums to screen the claimants for the disease. After reviewing chest X-rays, the university's scientists almost always concluded that the scans did not show black lung -- a conclusion which often overwhelmed any other medical opinion in the case.

(Black lung disease, or coal workers’ pneumoconiosis, kills an estimated 1,500 former coal miners every year. It is a painful and preventable ailment contracted by inhaling coal dust.)

The racket was exposed by the ABC, working in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity:

For 40 years, these doctors have been perhaps the most sought-after and prolific readers of chest films on behalf of coal companies seeking to defeat miners’ claims. Their fees flow directly to the university, which supports their work, an investigation by the Center for Public Integrity and ABC News has found. According to the university, none of the money goes directly to the doctors.

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Forest Service’s firefighting fund can’t keep up with wildfires

The Rim Fire in California
NASA

The Forest Service can't keep up with the rising costs of fighting wildfires in a warming world.

As climate change dries out fire-prone forests, the frequency and intensity of forest fires are increasing. Between 1985 and 1999, the federal government never spent more than $1 billion on fire suppression in a single year, according to this National Interagency Fire Center table [PDF] of firefighting costs since the mid-'80s.

But in 2000, the federal bill came in at $1.4 billion, and then it continued to increase, exceeding $1.5 billion five times from 2006 to 2012. And the number of acres of forest burned each year has also been rising.

This year has been a nightmare fire season in the American West: The U.S. Forest Service, which incurs most of the nation's forest-fire suppression costs, ran out of firefighting money. Again. From E&E Publishing:

Lightning bolts rained across the West in August, sparking hundreds of wildfires in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Montana, and pushing the cash-strapped Forest Service to the brink.

The service had at that point spent $967 million battling wildfires that had torched more than 3.4 million acres in 2013. Its emergency fund exhausted, it had about $50 million left -- enough for about half a week.

That's become business as usual for an agency that's run out of wildfire suppression funds seven times in the last 12 years. So Chief Tom Tidwell did what his predecessors had done: He raided the agency's nonfire accounts to make up the shortfall. ...

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Most Tea Partiers think warming is “just not happening”

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How many Tea Partiers does it take to swap out an incandescent lightbulb?

Nine percent of them. The rest don't believe in energy-efficient alternatives because they haven't figured out that humans are warming the globe. (Also, they're pissed about FASCIST GOVERNMENT PLOTS to control their sources of illumination.)

A Pew Research Center poll of 1,504 American adults last month found that about two-thirds of Americans understand that the climate is changing. That figure has been more-or-less unchanged during the last few years of Pew polling on the subject.

More Democrats than Republicans are clued in to the reality of climate change -- 84 percent of Democrats agreed that there is "solid evidence the Earth is warming," compared with 61 percent of Republicans. But within the Republican Party, there's about as much agreement over climate science as there was over the Tea Party-fueled federal government shutdown.

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More nukes: James Hansen leads call for “safer nuclear” power to save climate

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James Hansen and three other PhD-wielding climate scientists published an open letter Sunday calling on the world to ramp up the development and deployment of "safer nuclear energy systems" to help slow climate change. Nuclear power is a notoriously prickly subject for environmentalists: It promises bountiful zero-carbon power in an era of profligate fossil-fuel burning, currently meeting 20 percent of U.S. electricity needs. But it produces copious amounts of radioactive waste, and it threatens communities living nearby (you may recall Fukushima in Japan, Chernobyl in the former USSR, and Middletown, Pa., near the Three Mile Island nuclear reactors).

In the letter, which is addressed to "those influencing environmental policy but opposed to nuclear power," the quartet argue that renewables "like wind and solar and biomass will certainly play roles in a future energy economy," but that such renewables "cannot scale up fast enough to deliver cheap and reliable power at the scale the global economy requires."

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Accidents? What accidents? Shell’s Arctic drillers are ready to roll again

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OK, so last year was a nightmare for the officials at Shell charged with figuring out how to plunder the Arctic for oil. Shell gets that. Both of the company's exploratory oil rigs in the region were damaged in accidents, wells were abandoned, a vice president lost his job, and the Obama administration prevented the company from resuming its Arctic work this year.

But Shell is delighted to announce that its problems have largely been fixed and it's ready to return to some American-controlled Arctic waters next year. From E&E Publishing:

In a teleconference with energy analysts, Shell Chief Financial Officer Simon Henry said the company will submit an exploration plan for the Chukchi "in the next few weeks." Shell officials added, however, that the company has not yet reached a final decision on drilling.

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Leaked IPCC report: Humans are adapting — but hunger, homelessness, and violence lie ahead

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If you are anything like us, you're waiting for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to publish the next installment of its epically important assessment report with bated breath. Rejoice: The waiting is over, thanks to an intrepid sneak who leaked the doc ahead of schedule.

The latest leak gives us a peek at the second quarter of the most recent assessment (it's the fifth assessment report since 1990 by the world's leading climate change authority). The document, scheduled to be unveiled in March, deals with the severity of climate impacts and worldwide efforts to adapt to it.

Now, technically we're supposed to wait until the final draft is officially published before sharing its contents with you climate-news-hungry readers. But we just can't resist: Here is our summary of some of the upcoming report's key findings, accompanied by a boilerplate warning: Despite being marked "final draft," these conclusions could change between now and the official release in March.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Bill would boost renewables to 25 percent by 2025, has no chance in hell of passing

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Most states in the union require utilities to generate a certain percentage of their electricity from renewable sources. A new bill in Congress would take that strategy national.

Sens. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) and Tom Udall (D-N.M.) -- cousins, as it happens -- introduced legislation this week that would require utilities across the country to generate a quarter of their electricity from wind, solar, and other renewable sources by 2025.

That’s right in line with Colorado's current renewable electricity standard, and it's modest compared to California's, which calls for utilities to get 33 percent of their electricity from renewables by 2020. Look abroad and it's more modest still: Germany generates 23 percent of electricity from renewable sources, with a goal of reaching 80 percent by 2050. Around the world, 138 countries have renewable energy goals or requirements in place.

“Clean energy creates jobs, spurs innovation, reduces global warming and makes us more energy independent,” said Mark Udall. “This common-sense proposal would extend Colorado’s successful effort to expand the use of renewable energy alongside natural gas and coal to the entire nation.”

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Bangladesh’s biggest power plant will harm world’s biggest mangrove forest

Sundarbans National Park in Bangladesh
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Burning coal is a surefire way of damaging the climate, and harming mangroves is a surefire way of worsening climate impacts. Which makes the planned construction of Bangladesh’s largest coal-fired power plant at the edge of the world’s biggest mangrove forest doubly troubling.

Construction is beginning on the 1,320-megawatt Rampal power plant less than 10 miles from the Sundarbans, the sweeping mangrove system that straddles Bangladesh and India, helping to protect an eastern chunk of the Subcontinent from floods and cyclones.

An estimated 20,000 people recently marched to protest the project. Scientists warn it will produce pollution that feeds acid rain over the mangroves and suck up vast quantities of the ecosystem's water.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Congress backtracking on law that aimed to reduce flood risks

New Jersey after Sandy
U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Northeast Region

Demolishing coastal habitats and replacing them with buildings is just asking for trouble. Mangroves, sand dunes, and other coastal ecosystems can buffer rising tides and storm surges. Homes, driveways, and roads, on the other hand -- well, they just flood.

Yet since the late 1960s, the federal government has been promoting the construction of homes in flood-vulnerable coastal areas through the National Flood Insurance Program. Under the NFIP, taxpayers subsidize the costs of insuring homes in flood-prone neighborhoods. The program has led to the demolition of coastal habitats and the construction of flood-vulnerable homes is coastal areas around the country.

Fortunately, lawmakers came to understand the folly of the nation's ways. Last year, by a 412 to 18 margin, Congress did something unusual: It passed a bill that went on to become law. The bill started raising flood insurance rates to something resembling market prices.

Unfortunately, now Congress wants to backtrack. Seems members didn't comprehend the scale of the problem they were trying to fix. The issue of unsuitable homes built on flood plains is so entrenched that the new law led to severe economic impacts for homeowners who were forced to foot greater shares of the insurance bills needed to protect their properties.

"All the houses, all the stores, all the businesses -- everything has to be raised six, eight, ten feet high," Mike O'Reilly, a resident of New York's Broad Channel Island, told CBS News during a protest last month that took place on land that was inundated after Superstorm Sandy struck the region. "If you don't comply with this impossible task, the insurance premiums are going to up $20,000-$30,000 a year."

Reacting to widespread anger, Congress is now scrambling to undo the program changes that it once so heartily supported.