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Stuff that matters


Jeffer madness

Jeff Sessions has deep ties to a big electric utility, and that could create major conflicts of interest.

Confirmation hearings began Tuesday for Sessions, the president-elect’s pick for attorney general. In addition to asking questions about the Alabama senator’s racist, homophobic, anti-woman, and anti-immigrant positions, Democrats might want to probe Sessions’ connections to Southern Co., one of the largest electric utilities in the U.S.

The company, worth $47.8 billion, is the senator’s single largest corporate campaign donor, Bloomberg reports; Southern’s PACs and employees have funneled nearly $175,000 to his political campaigns since 1997. If Sessions is confirmed as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer, he would be in a position to do favors for the company. Southern would be seriously affected by the Clean Power Plan, which regulates carbon emissions from electric utilities. And a power plant Southern is building in Kemper, Mississippi, is being investigated by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Sessions has also received campaign contributions from ExxonMobil, which has been accused of hiding its knowledge of climate change from shareholders and the public. There have been calls for the Justice Department to investigate Exxon’s actions, but they wouldn’t get anywhere under Sessions, who last year came out loudly against any such investigations.

As Jamie Henn at 350.org said, “There’s never been such a strident advocate for the fossil fuel industry nominated for the role of attorney general.”


That Makes Sense

Saturday’s marches show that a whole lot of people DO care about using sound science to make policy!

Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in 600-plus cities across the world this Earth Day (on every continent but Antarctica) to March for Science. Although numbers are still coming in, attendance estimates include some 40,000(!) marchers in Chicago and 12,000 in London.

The Trump administration’s disregard for basic facts provided the impetus for many (but not all) to take to the streets, with organizers saying “science is under attack.” Some common concerns included White House efforts to abolish environmental protection, cut federal funding for research, and erase references to climate science from government websites, among other outrages. (Grist keeps track here.)

President Trump made no direct reference to the protests (not even on Twitter!), but he issued an Earth Day address in which he claimed: “My administration is committed to advancing scientific research that leads to a better understanding of our environment and of environmental risks … We should remember that rigorous science depends not on ideology, but on a spirit of honest inquiry and robust debate.”

Trump went on to tweet the following:

To which one might respond: Without a livable climate and planet, there’s not much hope of economic growth.

Missed the march? Here are some of our favorite snapshots (and see more from our Climate Desk partners):

A week from now, there’s an opportunity to do it all over again. Need tips and motivation for protesting like a pro? Find them in Ask Umbra’s 21-Day Apathy Detox.


Indescribable feeling

We just hit 410 ppm of CO2. Welcome to a whole new world.

This is not normal: We’re on track to witness a climate unseen in 50 million years by mid-century.

In pre-industrial times, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere stood at 280 parts per million. And that number has been rising ever since, warming the planet by 1.8 degrees F (1 degree C) along the way.

CO2 levels fluctuate with the seasons, climbing a bit higher each spring. We first hit 400 parts per million back in 2013, and that became the new norm just four years later. And on April 18 this year, as predicted, we crossed the 410 ppm threshold for the first time at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii.

Climate Central

While El Niño and other natural factors have sped up CO2 concentration increases in the past two years, fossil fuel emissions are the major driver, according to Climate Central.

As fictional carb-thief Aladdin once said: “Unbelievable sights/Indescribable feeling/Soaring, tumbling, freewheeling/Through an endless diamond sky.”

He was talking about the feeling you get when thinking about carbon concentration levels, right? Because that’s how WE feel! Just kidding, we feel terrified.


weekend plans

Are you going to the March for Science? Let us know.

Oh no — you forgot about Earth Day again. Every year. Every year this happens! Luckily, someone else made plans for you, so you don’t have to cobble together a last-minute vegan brunch or fern-planting party or something.

There are Marches for Science going on quite literally all over the world. Even at Coachella! Kendall, this is your big chance!

The point of showing up is to prove that a critical mass of people are upset (to put it mildly) that our political administration willfully ignores the collective advice of scientists around the world. The advice being: Can you just stop extracting fossil fuels to prevent the demise of the human race, please, no seriously, we’ve been over this a thousand times.

Anyway — now that you’re going, send us your photos, and we’ll share them on Grist’s Twitter. Just @ us.

And here’s some good reading for the bus ride to the march: Andrew Jewett in the Atlantic explains what needs to be done beyond marching for science. (Hint: It involves addressing the social structures that dictate how scientific policies are applied.)

Stay tuned to our Apathy Detox to learn why showing up to protests actually matters.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This entrepreneur helps the solar industry compete.

Behind the business of energy production, there are a lot of numbers. Usage data is essential to solar companies who are trying to figure out how to work in a given region — but it’s often hidden away in the outmoded databases of individual utility companies who aren’t in the business of accessible data storage.

Less than a year after kicking off her clean-energy career as a low-level analyst at PG&E, Elena Lucas decided she wanted to tackle that problem head-on. She cofounded the Bay area–startup UtilityAPI in 2014.

UtilityAPI wrangles the data and delivers to the companies who need it — and in doing so, it has brought the cost of installing solar panels down by 5 to 10 percent.

Lucas is also working to to make her company — and tech culture at large — more welcoming to women. Nearly half of UtilityAPI’s employees are women, most in executive positions. “I think it’s really different than a lot of other companies in the Bay Area,” Lucas says, “and I’m so proud of that.”


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


Green light special

Walmart just pledged to eliminate a billion tons of greenhouse gas.

That’s as much as Germany’s yearly emissions.

It’s hardly the first example of a business charging ahead on climate change mitigation while governments dither. Pretty much every giant corporation has made a commitment to reduce its emissions: food titan Unilever, everything maker General Electric, and IKEA (where you get your OMLOPPs), and on and on.

But what Walmart does matters. The company is such a behemoth that its policy changes trigger transformation around the globe. Walmart is the 10th largest economic entity in the world, after Canada, so this effort, dubbed “Project Gigaton,” is akin to every Canadian signing on to a strict sustainability plan.

Most of Walmart’s environmental footprint comes from other businesses extracting raw materials to manufacture Walmart’s products. So it will be pushing its suppliers to clean up their act, aiming to slash a gigaton of greenhouse gas emissions from its supply chain.

The Environmental Defense Fund has been working with Walmart to cut its emissions for years, and so there’s a track record here. In 2010, Walmart pledged to cut 28 million metric tons (like removing 6 million cars from the road), then surpassed that goal in five years. Now, they’re aiming to meet a goal 35 times larger, by 2030.


Ice, ice bergy

Gigantic icebergs have come to Canada, and the internet is losing its mind.

Every year, strong currents bring Arctic ice south along Newfoundland, Canada, to “Iceberg Alley.” Photos of a particularly large ’berg have flooded social media because, well, what’s not to love about these pretty scenes?

Iceberg season is the best season 🙌 #scenicnl

A post shared by Paddy Wadden (@paddywadden) on

For the tiny coastal enclave of Ferryland, these icebergs are the start of a busy tourist season. The one stationed next to town is classified as “large” by the Canadian Ice Service, meaning it’s between 151–240 feet tall and 401–670 feet long.

“It happens every year,” Ferryland Mayor Adrian Kavanagh told PRI. “Sometimes you’ll have lots of icebergs, other years you might get the odd one, but it all depends on the weather and the wind.”

These rogue icebergs may be run-of-the-mill for Ferryland — and annoying for shipping companies — but for the rest of us, they’re pretty breathtaking.