Briefly

Stuff that matters


Little(r) home on the prairie

We plowed up more wild habitat in the Great Plains than in the Brazilian Amazon in 2014.

The Great Plains lost 3,686,960 acres that year; in contrast, the Brazilian Amazon lost 1.4 million, as the World Wildlife Fund points out.

The WWF calculates that an area the size of Kansas has been converted to row crops since 2009. That puts monarch butterflies — along with many other species of birds, plants, and insects — at risk.

“America’s Great Plains are being plowed under at an alarming rate,” said WWF’s Martha Kauffman in a statement. “Centuries old, critical prairie habitat that’s home to amazing wildlife and strong ranching and tribal communities is rapidly being converted to cropland and most people don’t even realize it.”

Ultimately, there are just two ways to stop conversion of land to agriculture: Reduce demand (i.e. eat less meat, use less biofuel), or grow more food in less space. More here.


hot mesh

DIY internet is helping remote communities track local climate changes.

The town of Rigolet, in remote Newfoundland, has its own app — it’s called eNuk.

The app collects reports and photos from users. Among other things, it tracks the climate conditions that can make travel on thinning sea ice highways and hunting paths dangerous for residents. (The Arctic is warming at an alarming rate, and disappearing sea ice imperils traditional knowledge and lifestyles.)

But the app doesn’t work very well without internet, and that is a slow and sparse commodity in Rigolet, as Motherboard reports. That’s why Vancouver-based company RightMesh is rigging up an alternative.

It uses something called “mesh networking,” a decentralized way to extend internet access into far-flung regions by turning every receiver (your computer or smartphone) into a transmitter (connecting to other computers). Put enough devices together in one place and, voilà, you have a mini-internet.

RightMesh has other bells and whistles — blockchain! broadband trading! — but basically it’s getting the internet to places where big ISPs haven’t gotten much foothold. And that makes it a lot easier to share information in uncertain times.


bad news travels fast

Lots of popular climate change articles aren’t totally credible, scientists say.

Some of these articles are sensationalized very nearly to the point of inaccuracy. Others are cases of “elaborate misinformation.”

A review from Climate Feedback, a group of scientists who survey climate change news to determine whether it’s scientifically sound, looked at the 25 most-shared stories last year that focused on the science of climate change or global warming.

Of those, only 11 were rated as credible, meaning they contained no major inaccuracies. Five were considered borderline inaccurate. The remaining nine, including New York Magazine’s viral “The Uninhabitable Earth,” were found to have low or very low credibility. However, even the top-rated articles were noted as somewhat misleading. (Read the reviews here.) 

“We see a lot of inaccurate stories,” Emmanuel Vincent, a research scientist at the University of California and the founder of Climate Feedback, told Grist. Each scientist at Climate Feedback holds a Ph.D. and has recently published articles in peer-reviewed journals.

Vincent says that the New York Times and Washington Post are the two main sources that Climate Feedback has found “consistently publish information that is accurate and influential.” (He notes that Grist’s “Ice Apocalypse” by Eric Holthaus also made the credibility cut.)

“You need to find the line between being catchy and interesting without overstepping what the science can support,” he says.


quitting time

Most members of the National Park Service Advisory Board got so frustrated they quit.

On Tuesday, 10 out of 12 advisory board members resigned, leaving the board crippled.

“We understand the complexity of transition but our requests to engage have been ignored and the matters on which we wanted to brief the new Department team are clearly not part of its agenda,” former Alaska Governor Tony Knowles wrote in a letter to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke on Monday.

Zinke didn’t meet with the committee at all last year. The advisory board, which was established to help him designate historic or natural landmarks, has technically been suspended since May 2017.

In 1935, Congress chartered the advisory board to help the National Park Service preserve American heritage. Now, board members are worried that the Trump administration has set that original mission aside indefinitely. “I hope that future actions of the Department of Interior demonstrate that this is not the case,” board member Carolyn Hessler Radelet wrote in a separate resignation letter on Wednesday.

But Zinke’s recent decisions, like disbanding the Wildlife and Hunting Heritage Conservation Council and the Advisory Committee on Climate Change and Natural Resource Science, indicate that expert input is pretty low on his list of priorities.


green light

The NAACP is bringing renewable energy to communities of color.

Over the next year, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People will install solar panels on 20 households and 10 community centers, train 100 people in solar job skills, and push for equitable solar access policies in at least five states across the U.S.

“Underserved communities cannot be left behind in a clean energy transition,” Derrick Johnson, NAACP President and CEO, said in a statement about the new Solar Equity Initiative. “Clean energy is a fundamental civil right which must be available to all, within the framework of a just transition.”

The initiative began on Martin Luther King Jr. Day by installing solar panels on the Jenesse Center, a transitional housing program in L.A. for survivors of domestic abuse. The NAACP estimated that solar energy could save the center nearly $49,000 over the course of a lifetime, leaving more resources to go toward services for women and families.

Aside from the financial benefits, the NAACP points out that a just transition to clean energy will improve health outcomes. Last year, a report by the Clean Air Task Force and the NAACP found that black Americans are exposed to air nearly 40 percent more polluted than their white counterparts. Pollution has led to 138,000 asthma attacks among black school children and over 100,000 missed school days each year.

It’s just a start, but this new initiative could help alleviate the disproportionate environmental burdens that black communities face.


follow suit

Los Angeles schemes to sue major oil companies over climate change.

California has had a hell of a year: droughts, wildfires, and now, mudslides. As taxpayers shoulder the brunt of the state’s enormous disaster relief tab, two L.A. lawmakers say fossil fuel companies should take financial responsibility for climate change-related damages.

In a written proposal, L.A. city council members Mike Bonin and Paul Koretz say fossil fuel companies did “nothing to stop their destructive ways” even though they knew their actions exacerbated climate change. They request a meeting with city attorney Mike Feuer to assess the feasibility of pursuing legal action against oil and gas companies.

In addition, the proposal suggests filing a motion to bolster New York City’s lawsuit against five major oil companies. That case, filed last Tuesday, also looks to shift the costs of climate change back on the companies responsible for causing the damage.

San Francisco and Oakland filed similar lawsuits in September 2017, arguing that oil and gas companies have failed to curtail emissions despite evidence that “global warming has become gravely dangerous.”


interiority complex

Hey — everyone can get into national parks for free on Monday.

The Department of Interior is doing something that isn’t the worst! Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

Wait — the National Park Service had 16 free-entrance days in 2016. This year, there are just four. Plus, there are plans to nearly triple entrance fees at a bunch of the most popular national parks during peak season.

Let’s review what else the ol’ Interior Department has been up to lately.

A massive overhaul: On Wednesday, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke proposed the biggest reorganization in the department’s history. It would shuffle tens of thousands of workers to new locations, and divide up the department’s current state boundaries into 13 new regions, affecting more than 500 million acres of land and water.

A monumental change: President Donald Trump recently downsized two national monuments in Utah, and Zinke has recommended shrinking a bunch more. Cool.

A Christmas story: On Dec. 22, the Interior quietly rescinded a bunch of climate change policies issued by the Obama administration, Elizabeth Shogren reported. Apparently, the rules were “potential burdens” to energy development.

So, uh, between the proposed fee hikes and the concern that climate change is slowly taking away our parks’ namesake glaciers and forests, you might want to take advantage of those free-entrance days and visit America’s beautiful landscapes ASAP.