Briefly

Stuff that matters


It wasn't all a dumpster fire

2016 was a great year for wind and solar, even if nobody noticed.

Renewable energy’s gains this year were incremental and unglamorous, so they had a hard time competing with this:

lafd-dumpster-fire
LAFD

But even if the media didn’t give clean energy a lot of attention, the progress was notable.

In the U.S., the amount of residential solar installed rose, with no limits in sight. Utilities built solar projects in record-breaking numbers. This chart shows solar PV installations in the U.S.:

solar-installations-gtm
Greentech

Wind energy capacity in the U.S. also continued to rise, though not as dramatically as in 2015:

screen-shot-2016-12-30-at-11-16-01-am

 

Federal tax credits kept solar and wind competitive even when the cost of natural gas (which gets its own subsidies) reached epic lows earlier this year.

America wasn’t the only country to boost renewables and curb CO2 emissions. Worldwide, while the global economy has been growing, CO2 emissions per unit of GDP have been falling. The Paris climate agreement inspired a new wave of private investment in cleantech. Already, solar power is the cheapest form of new electricity in some (mostly emerging) markets, and competitive with coal worldwide.

cost-of-energy-world-average

This is not enough to stave off catastrophic climate change, but it’s a darn sight closer than we were a few years ago.

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Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This founder empowers people to choose renewables.

Usually when you flip a light switch, you have no way of knowing where the energy powering your bulb is coming from. One minute, it could be a wind turbine. Five minutes later, it’s a coal plant. But if you knew where your power was coming from at any given moment, “you could run your dishwasher or charge your car only on the renewables,” Gavin McCormick explains.

McCormick wants to make it a no-brainer to track swings in the grid’s power supply and then program appliances to use only green power. So he and partner Anna Schneider started the nonprofit WattTime in 2014. In June 2015, the first product enabled with WattTime’s software hit the shelves: JuiceBox Green 40, an electric vehicle charging station from eMotorWerks. WattTime has also partnered with Energate to make smart thermostats, Building Clouds to make HVAC controllers, and THG Energy Solutions to help businesses and homeowners shift their energy use to when there’s less demand on the grid.

There’s more to come. McCormick says that within the next three years, a predicted 26 billion appliances will be compatible with WattTime’s software, from iPhones to washing machines. “Just about anybody who controls their devices through the internet can now install the software,” McCormick says. That could translate to a pretty big dent in greenhouse gas emissions in the long run. For example, McCormick says smart thermostats would deliver a 5 percent reduction in emissions at a minimum — and in some places, like Hawaii, emissions could be virtually eliminated.


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


bottle royale

Now THIS is how you do a socially aware ad for a carbonated beverage.

Earlier this month, Pepsi released (and then almost immediately withdrew) an ad co-opting protest imagery with truly impressive tone-deafness

Last week, a different bottled beverage threw its hat into the Woke Ring to somewhat more success. Heineken, rather than attach a protest sign to a Kardashian, decided to imagine how deep-seated social divides — such as that between a climate change denier and a supporter of science, for instance — could be bridged:

That’s a well-executed piece of media with an unassailable message: People with ideological differences should sit down and talk, and engage each other in challenging the perceptions behind said differences.

Skilled advertisers, like pick-up artists, have a highly-developed sense for the precise sensitivity and location of their audience’s emotional vulnerabilities. Judging by this commercial’s thunderously positive reception, the beer-consuming public is feeling some shame over the lack of nuanced discourse.

Appealing to that guilt is a smart move for a multibillion-dollar company whose existence relies on lots of people, regardless of their politics, buying its product.

If we have to live in a hellscape in which brands create emotionally exploitative media and, in doing so, drive cultural conversation, then fine — very good ad. 10/10 ad.


mis-lead

Way more kids than we thought have lead poisoning.

A new report finds that health officials may fail to detect a third of U.S. children with high levels of lead in their bloodstream. In some states, up to 80 percent of cases could go unreported.

Comparing 11 years of state screening to a national health survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, researchers found that 23 states — many in the West and South — failed to detect more than half of their lead-poisoned children.

Lead is linked to behavioral and developmental problems. And according to Eric Roberts, the study’s lead author, black children are 2.7 times more likely to be exposed than their white peers; and children living below the poverty line have double the risk of exposure.

When practicing as a pediatrician in Boston, Roberts screened all his patients for lead. But when he moved to San Francisco, he was told the tests weren’t necessary. “The idea is that it’s a Northeast problem, or a Midwest problem,” he explains. That’s due to the legacy of industry and lead-based paint in older housing stock.

Regulations often direct doctors to test only “at-risk” children. But in most states, that system is falling short.

“It’s a failed policy in many places,” Roberts says.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This organizer fights for safer waste disposal.

Living in Detroit, Ahmina Maxey knew her city had a waste problem. At the time, Detroit was the only major city in the country without a curbside recycling program. In those years, Maxey often collected her community’s recyclable refuse at her house so she could take it to a recycling center. While working at the Zero Waste Detroit coalition, Maxey successfully pushed for a city-wide recycling program in 2014. Now she focuses on what happens to garbage after it’s been picked up.

At the Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (or GAIA), Maxey fights for an incinerator-free future. Garbage incinerators spew dangerous levels of chemicals like mercury, arsenic, and lead into the atmosphere — not to mention CO2 — often near communities of color. At GAIA, a network of over 800 grassroots groups and individuals, Maxey helps coordinate and connect communities working toward cleaner waste removal. She holds workshops on the dangers of incinerators and proposes zero-waste alternatives — such as comprehensive recycling programs and reducing consumption in the first place — in communities fighting active incinerators and incinerator proposals.

The way Maxey sees it, communities can create new, green jobs around better waste-removal practices, and clean up their air in the process. “For every job you can create from traditionally burning waste, you can create 10 more if you choose to recycle it and put it back in the economy.”


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


You Missed Something

Trump’s newest funding cuts are a nightmare for national security and public health.

On that note: In the event of a flood, do you prefer your town with or without toilet water flowing down the streets?

President Trump’s proposed cuts, issued on March 16, would roll back or eliminate programs that deal with environmental security concerns, the Intercept reports. These concerns include pandemics, extreme weather, and, yes, floods of sewage.

In March, Trump signed an executive order signaling that national security agencies no longer need to take climate change into consideration.

One minor problem: Virtually every major federal security document ever compiled on climate change names it as a significant threat to national safety. Both within the U.S. and around the world, we can expect rising seas, extreme weather, dramatic flooding, intense wildfires, and prolonged drought to increase migration, conflict, and health risks.

Trump has attempted to cultivate a tough reputation on national security with proposed increases in military spending, vague threats against North Korea, or yelling about That Wall all the time. But it looks like he’s ignoring a pretty enormous weak spot.


War on Facts

This is embarrassing, but there might be some climate denial in your school.

New legislative measures in six states seek to challenge science in the very place where it should be the most protected and least politicized: children’s classrooms.

As Vice reports, Oklahoma, Texas, Florida, Alabama, Idaho, and Indiana have all put forward bills that seek to discredit basic concepts like climate change and evolution in school curricula.

The measures include bills requiring teachers to describe established climate science as “controversial” and giving locals the right to object to textbooks they disagree with. These pieces of legislation indicate a shift from the longstanding “creationism deserves a place in the classroom” debate toward climate denial.

This is a pretty chilling follow-up to the news that the Heartland Institute mailed its climate-denial propaganda to thousands of science teachers across the country. If you were wondering why so many people were out March(ing) for Science — in the pouring rain, no less — last weekend, you may have your answer.