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Grist 50: Cameron Russell's picks

Meet the fixers: These activists want carbon polluters to pay.

When you’re confronted with an issue as big and urgent as global climate change, what do you do? Camila Thorndike and Page Atcheson decided to pick one avenue of attack and go hard. They’re the creators of the Put A Price On It campaign, which is a joint project of Our Climate, an advocacy organization lead by both Atcheson and Thorndike, and Years of Living Dangerously. Their premise: The best way to fight climate change is simply to make carbon pollution more expensive — and organizing youth leaders around the country to push state legislation is the best way to make that kind of carbon tax happen.

Put A Price On It launched in August, which means the campaign was still in its infancy when it was hit with some pretty bleak news on Nov. 8. But Atcheson and Thorndike were focused on policy change on the state level all along — and there’s still quite a bit of hope there.

“It’s impossible to not be optimistic when your job is to work with young people,” Atcheson adds. The day after the election, “our students had the attitude of: ‘We need to work harder, we’re even more dedicated than we were yesterday, we have to move forward and our future is at stake — and we’re the most effective messengers at that.’”


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


the road to denial

Trump comms chief Anthony Scaramucci used to be right about climate. Not anymore.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned over the appointment of Scaramucci, a Wall Street executive and longtime supporter of President Trump.

Scaramucci’s Twitter history holds some surprises for a Trump appointee. Case in point:

Scaramucci called the science of climate change “pretty much irrefutable” in a June 2016 interview with a financial outlet and tweeted about climate action on multiple occasions last year.

But when Scarmucci joined Trump’s transition team following the election, a very curious transformation occurred. In an appearance on CNN in December, Scaramucci noted that some scientists believe climate change is “not happening.” When the show’s host reminded him about the scientific consensus on the matter, Scaramucci countered that there was once “overwhelming science that the earth was flat.”

We’ll wait and see if Scaramucci descends further into climate denial during his role as communications secretary, which begins in August.

And speaking of incoherence on climate change, here’s a grand performance to watch in memory of Spicer’s old job:


greenbacks

A gold-standard test proves we can save forests with just a little money.

Here’s a simple way to match the priorities of rich environmentalists (saving forests and vulnerable species, like gorillas) with the needs of the poor (making a little more money): Pay people living near endangered forests not to cut them down.

The world has already promised to spend billions this way. But do people just take the cash and still hack away?

A new study of a cash-for-forest program attempts to answer that question. Northwestern University economist Seema Jayachandran led a randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard for science — monitoring 60 villages in Uganda over two years.

People were cutting down trees around all the villages. But they chopped down fewer in areas where villagers were paid $11.40 an acre per year not to. It’s a great bang for the buck, if you measure in terms of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere — several times cheaper than other popular methods, like subsidizing solar panels.

“I came into this study expecting to be a wet blanket,” Jayachandran, told the New York Times. “We were surprised the impacts were so large.”

Everyone has their pet ideas for saving the world. We need good evidence like this to figure out which ones work best.


easy tiger

Louisiana won’t give the security firm that tracked DAPL opponents a license.

The state Board of Private Security Examiners rebuffed the North Carolina company known as TigerSwan, citing a legal complaint filed by a similar North Dakota agency charging that the outfit operated in that state without legal permission.

Fabian Blache III, the board’s executive director, said that Louisiana law governing the private security industry is designed to protect the state’s people. He said TigerSwan — which was denied a license in North Dakota twice — had not shown it could follow regulations.

Internal company documents obtained and reported on separately by Grist and The Intercept last month revealed the extent of TigerSwan’s surveillance operations during last year’s protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Earlier this month, the Associated Press reported that Energy Transfer Partners said it no longer had a security presence on the ground in North Dakota, and TigerSwan said it had ended work with the Dallas-based pipeline developer at the end of June.

But apparently the firm was still seeking to work for Energy Transfer Partners in Louisiana, where the company is currently planning to build a 162-mile pipeline known as Bayou Bridge, which would shuttle refined crude oil to hubs in Texas. That project, like Dakota Access, faces court challenges.

Regional advocacy groups pleaded with the Louisiana board to deny TigerSwan’s license, citing the type of intrusive surveillance reportedly employed by the company in North Dakota. “TigerSwan follows people as if we were criminals,” said Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade. “We can disagree about the pipeline without resorting to such behavior.”


florida, man

A Florida town requires solar on new homes.

South Miami became the first U.S. city outside of California to require solar panels on new residential construction and some home renovations.

The city passed the law after high school student Delaney Reynolds, inspired by the laws in California, wrote to mayors in the area. “We made history [Tuesday] night,” South Miami Mayor Philip Stoddard said. “It’s not going to save the world by itself, but it’s going to get people thinking about [solar].” The 2.3-square-mile city receives an average of 5–10 building permits per year.

Meanwhile, Miami’s mayor asked for $192 million in his proposed budget to help keep Florida above the (ever-rising) water.


beaker speaker

Government scientist to Trump admin: ‘Abuse of power cannot go unanswered.’

Joel Clement, former director of the Interior Department’s Office of Policy Analysis, published a scathing opinion piece in the Washington Post on Wednesday. Clement writes that the administration has chosen “silence over science” and its climate denial endangers communities, like the Alaska Native villages that he used to work with.

The piece was prompted in part because of Clement’s reassignment to the Office of Natural Resources Revenue, a branch of the department that collects royalty payments from fossil fuel companies who operate leases on public land. Clement’s bizarre job switch — for which he says he has no expertise — was one of dozens Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke implemented in June.

“It looks like an attempt to make the agency so it doesn’t work very well or [so] that the powers that be exercise their will more easily on the agency,” Senator Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat, told Politico after the reorganization.

Clement believes reassignments are meant to compel people to quit as an effort to cut the department’s staff. Now, he’s calling himself a whistleblower. “Silencing civil servants, stifling science, squandering taxpayer money, and spurning communities in the face of imminent danger have never made America great,” Clement writes.


we oui

That French plan to attract climate scientists? It’s working.

After his election, French president Emmanuel Macron created a program setting aside $69 million to fund researchers, especially from the U.S., to ply their trade in France. “Here, you are welcome,” Macron told scientists via Twitter, in a not-so-subtle jab at President Trump.

A month later, it appears researchers took Macron seriously. According to France’s national research agency, hundreds of climate scientists from around the world have applied for the program. Many hail from the U.S. The agency says most applicants are looking for short sabbaticals, but more than 150 applied to stay for four or more years.

Macron’s idea has its detractors. French researchers felt snubbed because their president built a shiny website to attract new talent at a time when domestic science needed more funds, according to Science. Grist’s own Nathanael Johnson pleaded with leading American climate researchers to “resist France’s allure” because their smarts are so needed here.

But when the U.S. administration casts aside scientists every chance it gets, it’s hard to argue with researchers’ interest in going where they’re wanted. One tenured climate expert told Nature that if her position were more precarious, she’d be “jumping at the opportunity.”