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Stuff that matters


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This scientist connects investors to new food tech.

Animal agriculture is a complex tangle of issues, all pulling in different directions: culinary tradition, animal welfare, methane emissions, deliciousness, deforestation. As a senior scientist at the Good Food Institute, a nonprofit dedicated to finding foods that will displace animal meat, Liz Specht looks for technological fixes to the beefy meat problem.

Specht spends her days researching ways to engineer plant-based foods that taste better, cost less, and consume fewer resources than animals. She then points startups toward the food technology that’s likely to work for them, and helps venture capitalists differentiate between companies proposing flashy BS and those who know their stuff. She’s an entrepreneurial matchmaker.

Specht lives in an RV, working remotely and roaming from state to state. Everywhere she goes, she steps into a store to see what plant-based products are available, where they are placed in the store, and how they are advertised. Making meat replacements might be a technical problem, but Specht is acutely aware that technology must move with culture. “I think of technology’s role as that of a dance partner to society, following its leads and anticipating its future moves,” she says. Time for the food industry to listen to the music.


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

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hold the phone (and dial it)

Not enough states are taking climate action. Time to make some calls!

It’s Climate Week in New York!!! A host of CEOs and government officials — including Washington Governor Jay Inslee, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and California’s Jerry Brown — have descended on New York City to discuss what the United States can do to compensate for the federal lack of action on climate change.

The U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of businesses and 14 states plus Puerto Rico, is still on track to make important reductions in keeping with the Paris Agreement. However, despite major commitments from states such as California and New York, it looks like we aren’t going to meet the national reductions promised by the agreement, reports Bloomberg News.

The U.S. is on track to reduce emissions by 15–19 percent by 2025. The goal was 26–28 percent.

But it’s not too late for more states to join in on the fun! Pennsylvania is the third-largest emitter of CO2 in the national energy sector, so I called Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania to ask him if he’d sign on to the U.S. Climate Alliance. He said, “OF COURSE! Why didn’t you ask before?”

No! Actually, he’s kind of touchy about climate action. But I did leave a message with his aide, just to confirm that you can do it, too. Call your governor.


green markets

Climate solutions need cold, hard cash. This group aims to make those investments easier.

“If you just look at the energy sector, we need about a trillion a year,” Barbara Buchner says about the gap between between our climate goals and the amount of investment in developing solutions.

To spur those needed investments, Buchner’s group, The Lab, just launched a new crop of projects aimed at making it easier for investors to put money into green investments. Projects include partnerships between hydropower operators and land conservation and restoration efforts and “climate smart” cattle ranching initiatives in Brazil, as well as more esoteric exploits in private equity and cleantech development.

There are three main barriers that keep investors away from innovative projects, Buchner says: lack of knowledge of new projects, perception of higher risk, and an unwillingness to go in alone on unproven projects.

Breaking down these barriers is important because that climate investment gap can’t be closed by government spending alone.

“It’s the backbone, it’s the engine behind overall climate finance,” Buchner says of these early, targeted projects by governments and non-governmental organizations. “But the private sector [investors] really are the ones that make the difference.”


maria

Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico with record-breaking rains.

The most powerful hurricane to hit the island in nearly a century brought ravaging winds and rainfall on Wednesday, destroying homes, knocking out all of the power, and snapping concrete poles in half. Maria wrecked many repairs that had just been completed after Irma swiped at Puerto Rico two weeks ago.

The National Hurricane Center reports that the island could receive an additional 4–8 inches of rain through Saturday. Puerto Rico remains under a watch for life-threatening flash floods and mudslides.

Grist contributing writer Eric Holthaus pointed out some surprising stats regarding Maria’s rainfall on Twitter:

  • In one day, parts of Puerto Rico received 24–36 inches of rain. Compare that to Houston, which received 32 inches in three days during Harvey.
  • In Caguas, a city in the mountains of eastern Puerto Rico, rain gauges measured more than 14 inches in one hour — apparently a candidate for a new world record.
  • For reference, Caguas got more rain in a single day (nearly 40 inches) than Seattle does in an average year (37 inches).

After Puerto Rico, Maria headed toward the Dominican Republic, the Turks and Caicos Islands, and the Southeast Bahamas — bringing debilitating rain with it.


hurry up!

Can we still avoid the worst of climate change? Maybe.

A new study in Nature Geoscience shook the climate science world by suggesting that we may have more leeway in the fight to keep global warming below 1.5 degrees C.

The researchers found that IPCC models were overestimating how much warming has already occurred. That means we may actually have a chance of not blazing past the 1.5 degrees C goal and well into the 2 degrees C danger zone — which is where it has previously looked like we were headed.

Of course, the results are so new — and so drastic — that many are skeptical they will stick. For one thing, the new analysis focuses on a period of time when temperatures were relatively cool, a fact that most other scientists have chalked up to natural, temporary factors.

And even if the new study’s numbers play out, it will still be very hard to limit greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as we need to. Still, “very, very difficult” is better than “impossible” and 1.5 degrees C is much better than 2 degrees C.

And as Justin Gillis of the New York Times pointed out recently, the real uncertainty is not in our models, but in ourselves.


Mommy dearest

‘Mother!’ is a climate change parable, and it sounds terrifying.

No movie this year has generated more intrigue than director Darren Aronofsky’s horror flick mother!, starring Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem.

While many have teased out the biblical themes in the controversial film, there’s another story you might miss in this symbolism-heavy nightmare. Aronofsky and Lawrence explained the film’s climate change connection to the New York Times. (Warning: spoilers ahead.)

“Mother!” is about Mother Earth (Ms. Lawrence) and God (Mr. Bardem), whose poetic hit has the weight of the Old Testament: hence all the visitors clamoring for a piece of Him, as his character is called. The house represents our planet … The movie is about climate change, and humanity’s role in environmental destruction.

Sound weird? Heck yeah. Critics have characterized mother! as a “tour de force of choreographed insanity” that thrives on the “horror of confusion.”

And to point out one further similarity with climate change: Just like watching the damage climate change is wreaking on the planet unfold, watching mother! leaves us uneasy and outraged at what we’re witnessing.


not a drill

Mexico City was built on land that’s prone to severe earthquake damage.

Less than two weeks after the second-biggest earthquake in Mexico’s history, a second quake hit, causing more than 200 deaths and toppling buildings around the country.

The 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Tuesday afternoon just a few hours after Mexico City held earthquake drills to mark the anniversary of the country’s deadliest shock in 1985.

“It’s very horrendous,” Guillermo Lozano, humanitarian and emergency affairs director for World Vision Mexico, told the L.A. Times. “Most of the people were at work and children were at school.”

The soft soil underneath Mexico City tends to amplify the damage from quakes. The megalopolis is built on ancient lakebed filled with wet clay deposits that experts compare to jello. When seismic waves pass through, the lakebed jiggles, causing even more violent shaking aboveground.

Seismologists say it’s unlikely that Tuesday’s quake is related to the 8.1-magnitude one that shook the country Sept. 8, since they struck hundreds of miles apart and occurred weeks, not minutes, apart.

It’s been a hectic month for North America, from hurricanes to wildfires. But unlike intense superstorms, at least earthquake devastation is one thing we can’t blame ourselves for, right?

Well, it’s more complicated than you might think.

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