Briefly

Stuff that matters


wake up already

What’s the most overlooked but important issue of the year?

The crisis of affordable housing (after climate change, natch).

It’s not for lack of local media coverage. Follow the news from New York City to Seattle, and you can’t avoid stories about skyrocketing home prices and rent along with record rates of homelessness. The bestseller Evicted followed low-income residents in Milwaukee who were tossed out of their homes for missing a rent payment.

Add up each local crisis, city by city, and it’s clear that the country has a national crisis that requires a national response. Yet affordable housing passed without much notice in the 2016 election. Interviewers and debate moderators never asked about housing. Republican presidential candidates, including President-elect Donald Trump, a high-end real estate developer, ignored it altogether.

To be sure, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders issued modest proposals on housing policy. But they gave housing little attention on the campaign trail.

So will 2017 be the year that our political system wakes up to the housing crisis? The signs aren’t promising. Trump and congressional Republicans want to cut housing aid, which has already been squeezed by cuts from the Budget Control Act of 2011.

But maybe it’s the year that progressives in Congress propose a national strategy to provide high-quality, affordable housing to all Americans. It’s a political cause in dire need of a champion.


Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This climate organizer works on the front lines in Miami.

Some kids dream of being a movie star or an astronaut, but not Karina Castillo. “Hurricane Andrew hit when I was 6, and it changed who I was,” she says of the historic storm that devastated a swath of South Florida near where her family lived. She decided right then to become a hurricane forecaster.

The youngest daughter of Nicaraguan immigrants, Castillo pursued her dream with the intensity of the storms that fascinated her, earning two meteorology degrees at the University of Miami, then working at NOAA and the Miami-Dade County Office of Emergency Management. But the young scientist soon made an important discovery: “I didn’t want to sit behind a computer and program models,” she says. “I knew I could help communicate science to the public.”

After a stint developing climate curricula at the Miami-based CLEO Institute, she took a job with Moms Clean Air Force, a national coalition of parents and caretakers fighting climate change and air pollution. Castillo is now the point of contact for Florida’s nearly 100,000 MCAF members, guiding them through meetings with policymakers, media appearances, and other climate and clean-air advocacy work. She also conducts national Latino outreach for the group, work she’s eager to ramp up in 2017.

“In the Latino community, the ideas of legacy and conservation are really important,” says Castillo. “When you talk about protecting children, the mama bear comes out of people. And that’s an unstoppable force.”


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


Clean Electricity Shocker

Lower-carbon power is less likely to kill you.

That’s the finding of this new paper. To put it more precisely, the study found that switching from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear power would not only reduce the risk of apocalyptic climate change, it would also make people and ecosystems healthier.

Um, duh? Sure, that finding might seem obvious, but there’s good reason for concern. Solar panel manufacturers, for instance, produce toxic slag. Wind turbine require tons of carbon-intensive steel and concrete. And nuclear waste will outlast us all. But, in every case, the pollution from fossil fuels is worse, according to the study.

The researchers basically created two alternate futures, one running on fossil fuels and another running on mostly clean energy. This model, at least, suggests that what’s healthier for the climate is healthier for us.


Hmm

Tens of thousands of teachers are getting climate-denying propaganda in their mailboxes.

It sounds insane, but may make more sense in the context of these three anecdotes:

1. The Heartland Institute, a libertarian, climate-denying think tank, is mailing its book Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and an accompanying DVD to every science teacher at American public schools. About 25,000 teachers out of a targeted 200,000 have already gotten the package.

2. On Wednesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos disparaged efforts by her predecessor Arne Duncan to invest in poorly performing public schools. Her words, via ABC News: “At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution?”

3. Here’s an image of the 2014 tax return of the Heartland Institute, which receives funding from ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and other fossil fuel corporations — nearly $7 million that year:

Betsy! Looks like you can buy the results you want in public education.


Grist 50: Van Jones' pick

Meet the fixer: This entrepreneur is diversifying cleantech.

Volt Energy does more than just finance and build green energy projects. A core tenet of Gilbert Campbell’s company is to provide “ladders of opportunity” in cleantech for people of color, who are drastically underrepresented in the field (last year, only 7 percent of solar workers were black). For Campbell and Volt, that means partnering with historically black colleges and universities, churches, and other black-owned businesses on clean energy installations and education initiatives.

Take an ongoing Volt project at Howard University. In addition to working on the largest solar installation at a historically black college, Campbell and his team are offering a mix of workshops at the business, engineering, and communications schools, so the students get first-hand instruction on the ins and outs of the industry. As a result of this engagement, 27 Howard engineering students will now be attending the upcoming American Association of Blacks in Energy conference to network with energy executives.

“We’re equally excited engaging these students as we are with the business side,” Campbell says. That ethos is apparent in all Volt projects. Installing the largest church solar project in D.C. wasn’t enough, for example: Campbell’s team also worked with the church to coordinate a green literacy program for congregation members.


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


Pachyderms for permafrost

How to defuse the methane timebomb in the Arctic? Unleash the mammoths!

A scientist living deep in Siberia thinks that bringing mammoths back from extinction could keep the Arctic ground perma-frozen. Keeping it frozen is important. In some places the permafrost reaches a mile deep; thaw that out, and it will belch clouds of methane into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

A new documentary explores this wonderfully off-the-wall idea.

How would it work? When snow piles up, it insulates the ground, preventing the earth from going into deep freeze. The scientist, Sergey Zimov, thinks that these revived mammoths would get hungry come wintertime and scrape off the snow to get at the grass underneath. Exposed to the icy darkness of Siberian winter, the ground would then freeze harder and stay frozen longer.

Zimov and his son, Nikita, now have a Kickstarter campaign to bring herbivores to a demonstration plot, which they call Pleistocene Park. They can’t bring in mammoths just yet, because as of today they’re still extinct, but scientists are working on that, too.


settle up

Nearly $100 million is now headed to Flint to swap out old pipes.

That’s the outcome of an agreement to settle a lawsuit that sought to force the state of Michigan to provide door-to-door delivery of bottled water to homes in the city. Flint’s drinking water was deemed unsafe in 2015 due to high lead levels.

The suit was filed last year by a coalition that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, Michigan’s ACLU, and a local resident. A judge approved the settlement on Tuesday.

Under its terms, $97 million will be set aside to replace lead or galvanized steel water pipes going into Flint homes with copper pipes. The state has three years to assess the piping and swap it out, if need be, in at least 18,000 area residences.

The deal allows the state to avoid delivering water to homes, and it provides a timeline for shutting down nine distribution centers in Flint that offer free bottled water and filters. If monitoring finds that lead levels are below an EPA-set threshold for the first half of 2017, Michigan can close those stations in September.

“For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground,” said Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC attorney. “The people of Flint are owed at least this much.”