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A bright idea

Obama makes a push for solar power

Obama and solar panels
Nellis Air Force Base

The White House threw a solar party on Thursday, and the streamers and ticker tape came in the form of millions of dollars of new support for solar projects. The Hill reports:

The Obama administration on Thursday announced a $15 million program to help state, local and tribal governments build solar panels and other infrastructure to fight climate change.

Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and White House counselor John Podesta announced the program at what the White House billed as a "solar summit" designed to push governments and private and nonprofit businesses to up their use of solar power.

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Science of filmmaking

These biologists created a gorgeous film about African glaciers

Nate&Neil
Day's Edge Productions

Chasing Ice launched a new sub-genre of horror films: Watch big beautiful glaciers melt. OK, that might not sound as date-night friendly as a slasher flick, but, hey, if a kid talking to a wagging finger named Tony can be scary, watching the Arctic melt away is downright terrifying. Filmmakers Neil Losin and Nathan Dappen recently joined the field with Snows of the Nile, a visually stunning documentary about the disappearing glaciers in Uganda’s Rwenzori Mountains (you can watch the trailer here). Losin and Dappen brought a twist to their ice-gazing short by focusing on glaciers where you might not expect them: the tropics. The emerging …

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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How BP turned a whole community into an endangered species

oystermen on boat
Shawn Escoffery
Oystermen of Plaquemines Parish, La.

Whether you live in Seattle, Baltimore, or Schenectady, N.Y., if you’ve had an oyster dish, chances are the shelled delicacies came from the Gulf of Mexico, most likely off the Louisiana coast, which produces a third of the nation’s oysters. Crabs? Hate to break it to you, but those luscious “Baltimore” crab cakes -- yep, those are from Louisiana too.

This has been a fact for a long time, but it might soon become an artifact. The reason: the BP oil spill disaster of 2010, which dumped over 205 million gallons of oil and another 2 million gallons of possibly toxic dispersants into the Gulf, devastating the area that’s responsible for 40 percent of the seafood sold commercially across the U.S. For the end user, this just means Maryland chefs actually using Maryland crabs again. But on the supply side, this means that whole communities of fishers along the Gulf Coast have been put out of business, their livelihoods ruined.

Oystermen have fared among the worst in that bunch, notably the African-American oystermen who live and work in Plaquemines Parish, on the lowest end tip of Louisiana. They used to harvest a great deal of the shellfish that eventually adorned our restaurant plates, but the impacts of the BP disaster have proven too difficult to rebound from. They’re now facing “zero population” of oysters, as one seafood distributor put it.

For too long, these black oystermen have been invisible not only to the nation they serve but also to the state they live in. The new documentary Vanishing Pearls from first-time filmmaker Nailah Jefferson hopes to raise the oystermen’s visibility and also our awareness of their value in our national economy and environment.

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Chris Christie is still trying to force a pipeline through the New Jersey Pinelands

Chris Christie
Gage Skidmore

In January, on the heels of the embarrassing revelation that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s (R) staffers created a traffic jam on the George Washington Bridge to punish an obscure political rival, Christie and his allies were handed a defeat. The New Jersey Pinelands Commission rejected a proposed 22-mile natural-gas pipeline that would go through a national reserve of forests and wetlands. Though Christie went so far as to bully a commissioner who was skeptical of the pipeline into recusing himself from the decision, that wasn't enough to secure approval.

But now the pipeline is back. The state’s leading power brokers want the commission to reconsider and are pressuring commissioners to change their votes, working both behind the scenes and through public statements and symbolic votes in county and town legislative bodies. The Philadelphia Inquirer recently reported, “A growing number of elected officials from Gov. Christie to lawmakers including Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) have joined county freeholders and township officials in support of the project. They are considering ways of returning the issue to the Pinelands Commission, possibly as a ‘compelling public need’ for energy security and scores of jobs.”

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People of color contribute least to smog, yet breathe more of it. WTF?

latina-woman-air-mask-flickr-esparta-palma
Esparta Palma

Get a load of this: It’s not poor people whose nostrils get the dirtiest air. It’s people of color -- even wealthy ones.

It’s true, you can’t 1,000 percent separate race and class, but new findings from the University of Minnesota found that race, more than income, determines who smog hurts the most. Writes ThinkProgress:

When low-income white people were compared to high-income Hispanic people, the latter group experienced higher levels of nitrogen dioxide. Altogether, people of color in the U.S. breathe air with 38 percent more nitrogen dioxide in it than their white counterparts, particularly due to power plants and exhaust from vehicles.

Unfair, especially because people of color produce less air pollution than white people (African-Americans, for example, emit 20 percent less CO2 than white Americans). So why is this happening? You know, other than racism? Writes Atlantic Cities:

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New hurricane maps will show whether your house could drown

hurricane-flash-flood.jpg
Gina Jacobs / Shutterstock

The federal government will begin making its hurricane warning maps more colorful this summer, adding a range of hues to represent the danger of looming floods.

Red, orange, yellow, and blue will mark coastal and near-coastal areas where storm surges are anticipated during a hurricane. The different colors will be used to show the anticipated depth of approaching flash floods.

Severe flooding that followed Superstorm Sandy helped prompt the change -- NOAA says it had a hard time convincing Manhattanites that they faced any real danger from such floods.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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Is climate change the new slavery?

a crowd of poor people
Shutterstock

The latest report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is out, with its layers of deadening bureaucratic prose. Climate watchers have had their latest chance to make out, as best they can, what biblical futures await us on a hotter, drier, stormier planet. Two sentences from the report's second installment struck me with the force of a storm surge: “Climate change is projected to progressively increase inter-annual variability of crop yields in many regions. These projected impacts will occur in the context of rapidly rising crop demand.” Translation: We’ll have smaller harvests in the future, less food, and 3 billion more mouths to feed.

The IPCC has done an heroic job of digesting thousands of scientific papers into a bullet-point description of how global warming is shrinking food and water supplies, most drastically for the poorest of Earth’s 7 billion human inhabitants. Being scientists, though, they fail miserably to communicate the gravity of the situation. The IPPC language, at its most vivid, talks of chronic “poverty traps” and “hunger hotspots” as the 21st century unfolds. The report offers not a single graspable image of what our future might actually look like when entire populations of people — not only marginalized sub-groups — face perennial food insecurity and act to save themselves. What decisions do human communities make en masse in the face of total environmental collapse? There are no scientific papers to tell us this, so we must look to history instead for clues to our dystopian future.

The last global climate crisis for which we have substantial historical records began 199 years ago this month, in April 1815, when the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia cooled the Earth and triggered drastic disruptions of major weather systems worldwide. Extreme volcanic weather — droughts, floods, storms — gripped the globe for three full years after the eruption.

In the Tambora period from 1815 to 1818, the global human community consisted mostly of subsistence farmers, who were critically vulnerable to sustained climate deterioration. The occasional crop failure was part of life, but when relentless bad weather ruined harvests for two and then three years running, extraordinary, world-changing things started to happen. The magnitude and variety of human suffering in the years 1815 to 1818 are in one sense incalculable, but three continental-scale consequences stand out amid the misery: slavery, refugeeism, and the failure of states.

Read more: Climate & Energy

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No-till farming’s Johnny Appleseed — in a grimy Prius

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Let’s start with Jeff Mitchell’s car. From the outside, it looks like a regular, if slightly dinged-up, white Prius. But inside it’s so messy that it’s hard for me to describe it without sounding like I’m exaggerating.

When I say the back seat is packed solidly with papers, I mean that literally: It’s as if Mitchell had pulled up alongside a set of filing cabinets and transferred everything that could fit into the back, carefully filling the leg space until it was high enough to be incorporated into the stack on the seats. The papers are wedged solidly together, three-quarters of the way up to the headrests.

There’s some PVC pipe back there too, some metal tools, a power cord, and some luggage. But that’s just what I could see on the surface. On the front dash there’s another layer of files, and a layer of dirt. And again, when I say dirt, I’m not overstating it. It’s not just a patina of dust; there are big clots of mud clinging to the face of the radio.

“What can I say?” Mitchell said when I asked about the state of his vehicle. “I’m embarrassed. People say I could just scatter seeds in here and they’d grow.”

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I was never able to get a straight answer out of Mitchell as to why his car was so squalid, but it’s easy enough to guess. He has spent years driving up and down California’s long Central Valley, from one field to another, asking farmers to sign up to try new conservation techniques. He estimates that the car has driven 600,000 miles, though he can’t say for sure: The odometer stopped at 299,999. The car really does have to function as a high-speed file cabinet, as well as a mobile tool shed and soil-sample transporter.

“So, is this basically your life?” I asked, after about an hour driving down highway 99.

Read more: Climate & Energy, Food

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Here’s what fracking can do to your health

coughing-mjmaster_0
Daniel Foster | Shutterstock | Tim McDonnell

If you know one thing about fracking, it might be that the wells have been linked to explosive tap water. Of course, a tendency toward combustion isn't the biggest problem with gas-infused water; it's what could happen to you when you drink it.

Although the natural gas industry is notoriously tight-lipped about the ingredients of the chemical cocktails that get pumped down into wells, by now it's widely known that the list often includes some pretty scary, dangerous stuff, including hydrochloric acid and ethylene glycol (a.k.a. antifreeze). It's also no secret that well sites release hazardous gases like methane and benzene (a carcinogen) into the atmosphere.

So just how dangerous are fracking and other natural gas extraction processes for your health (not counting, for the sake of argument, explosions and earthquakes)? Is it true, as an activist-art campaign by Yoko Ono recently posited, that "fracking kills"?

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Fruit of the Gloom

Mark Ruffalo, you are our chosen green celeb! (We hope you like fruit)

markruffalo_withbanana
Shutterstock

The people have spoken, and one lucky man in Hollywood will be the happy recipient of a fruit basket.  The entire Grist staff just breathed a collective sigh of relief, because this guy can get pretty riled up when things don’t go his way.

That’s right, folks -- Mark Ruffalo beat out five fellow actors and one supermodel to be crowned as Grist’s greenest celebrity. What about this rugged hunk won the hearts of our green-minded audience? Was it his outspokenness against the natural gas and oil industry? Was it his valiant efforts to protect water resources through his own nonprofit? Was it the ease with which he makes Henry David Thoreau sound incredibly sexy? Let’s just go ahead and circle “all of the above.”

And Adrian Grenier, if you’re reading this: We’re sorry we don’t have more Entourage fans among our readers. But hey -- you know what you can do to change that!

So, Mark, keep an eye out for a delightful collection of seasonal fruit on your doorstep. And since we hope you actually enjoy eating it, we promise it won’t be from Edible Arrangements.