As if the swelling number of kids in the world isn't enough to keep him busy, Santa Claus is being forced to shift his home eight inches every year to keep up with climate change.
Assuming I'm getting this fable right, the jolly old dude who rose from the dead and ascended to the North Pole to construct a toy-building redoubt and a reindeer-based delivery system could consider himself one of the many refugees of the changing climate.
That's according, more or less, to the findings of a new study published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, which used satellite gravity measurements from the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment to monitor the recent meanderings of the precise location of the North Pole.
The conflict between electric utilities and distributed energy -- mainly rooftop solar panels -- is heating up. It's heating up so much that people are writing about electric utility regulation, the most tedious, inscrutable subject this side of corporate tax law. The popular scrutiny is long overdue. So buckle up. We're getting into it.
There's a short-term problem and a long-term problem. The former is about how electricity rates are structured, specifically how utilities compensate (or don't) customers who generate power with rooftop solar PV panels. The latter is about developing an entirely new business model for utilities, one that aligns their financial interests with the spread of distributed energy. The danger is that fighting over the former could delay solving the latter.
Today, let's dig into the fight at hand. It's about utility rates, specifically "net metering," yet another nerdy green term no one understands. I will endeavor to make clear what it is and why the fight over it is so damn interesting and exciting. Exciting, I tell you! Wake up!
Sabrina Warner keeps having the same nightmare: a huge wave rearing up out of the water and crashing over her home, forcing her to swim for her life with her toddler son.
"I dream about the water coming in," she said. The landscape in winter on the Bering Sea coast seems peaceful, the tidal wave of Warner's nightmare trapped by snow and several feet of ice. But the calm is deceptive. Spring break-up will soon restore the Ninglick River to its full violent force.
In the dream, Warner climbs on to the roof of her small house. As the waters rise, she swims for higher ground: the village school which sits on 20-foot pilings.
Even that isn't high enough. By the time Warner wakes, she is clinging to the roof of the school, desperate to be saved.
Warner's vision is not far removed from a reality written by climate change. The people of Newtok, on the west coast of Alaska and about 400 miles south of the Bering Strait that separates the state from Russia, are living a slow-motion disaster that will end, very possibly within the next five years, with the entire village being washed away.
The Ninglick River coils around Newtok on three sides before emptying into the Bering Sea. It has steadily been eating away at the land, carrying off 100 feet or more some years, in a process moving at unusual speed because of climate change. Eventually all of the villagers will have to leave, becoming America's first climate change refugees.
It is not a label or a future embraced by people living in Newtok. Yup'ik Eskimo have been fishing and hunting by the shores of the Bering Sea for centuries and the villagers reject the notion they will now be forced to run in chaos from ancestral lands.
But exile is undeniable. A report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers [PDF] predicted that the highest point in the village -- the school of Warner's nightmare -- could be underwater by 2017. There was no possible way to protect the village in place, the report concluded.
If Newtok cannot move its people to the new site in time, the village will disappear. A community of 350 people, nearly all related to some degree and all intimately connected to the land, will cease to exist, its inhabitants scattered to the villages and towns of western Alaska, Anchorage, and beyond.
Mark Tercek leads the largest conservation group in the galaxy. As president and CEO of the Nature Conservancy, he oversees a staff of 4,000 people spread around the planet, an annual budget exceeding a half-billion dollars, and land holdings that would fetch billions more if they weren't all locked up for the sake of protecting wild animals. Still, the former Goldman Sachs exec insists that he’s a small-time player in a world where large corporations rule and nature lovers get what they can.
In his recent book, Nature’s Fortune, co-authored by Jonathan Adams, Tercek argues that nature deserves a bigger slice of the pie. He's not looking for handouts (though his organization, like Grist, depends on the generosity of good people like you). Instead, he argues that conservation is good for business -- a message he says is catching on, particularly among corporations and cities.
Witness New York. In the 1990s, faced with the prospect of building a multi-billion-dollar water treatment system, the city instead invested in protecting its watershed in the Catskills, partnering with communities, landowners, and farmers to prevent pollution, rather than paying to clean it up after the fact. As a result, the Big Apple gets clean drinking water at a fraction of what it would cost to build water treatment plants, and the Catskills get an infusion of green -- trees, yes, but also cash. (Tercek and Adams tell that story in the book, in a section that we’ve reprinted here.) The Nature Conservancy is now helping to spread that model to cities all over the world.
Tercek dropped by Grist HQ a few weeks ago for some vegan vittles and a chat with the whole staff. Here are a few of our questions, and snippets of his answers, about how his organization is changing with the times, the challenge of getting city people to care about conservation, and his dealings with the big businesses that make even the Nature Conservancy look small.
Q.Why should we be putting half a billion dollars a year into protecting nature as opposed to say, pushing solar and other renewable energy technology forward?
A. I think we should do both. That new technology should be pursued either by the government doing the right thing because the private sector’s not, or the private sector. Obviously there’s lots of ways to incentivize that private-sector investment -- put a price on carbon. And there are enormous numbers of people who are rich, or powerful and influential, attracted to those initiatives. So they’re going pretty well.
In the meantime, we think the work we do is extraordinarily important. For example, in northwestern Montana, near Glacier National Park, there were 300,000 acres of land made available for purchase by us by Plum Creek. This land, just because of where it’s situated in between other protected areas, was extraordinarily attractive for development -- second homes for well-to-do people. So we bought all that land in one swoop for half a billion dollars.
Now why is that important? Well, all the species that were there when Lewis and Clark were there are still there. So it’s extraordinary wilderness. And if climate change occurs like we expect it will, those grizzlies and lynx, they can migrate north up to B.C. -- we’re doing comparable work right over the border. If we hadn’t done that, this land would have been developed, for sure, and this opportunity would be gone forever.
Eddie & Sam’s Pizza in downtown Tampa, Fla., boasts "Real New York Pizza." The distinguishing characteristic of real New York Pizza? Not the crust, the cheese, the sauce, the toppings, or even the giant, floppy slices. It's the water. Every few months, Eddie & Sam’s brings in 1,000 gallons of water from the same Catskill springs that feed New York City's reservoirs. Another company, the Brooklyn Water Bagel Co., with about 20 locations across the country, has gone even further. Rather than import water from Brooklyn, the company seeks to recreate the precise chemistry of New York water through a patented 14-step filtration process, and only then can the water be used to make their bagels.
All that time, money, and technology to get just the right water for pizza and bagels may seem excessive, but New Yorkers take justifiable pride in their water. Most of New York’s supply never passes through a filter and receives comparatively small doses of chlorine and fluoride.
For their high-quality and lightly-treated water, today’s New Yorkers can thank quite a few forested hillsides and a handful of foresighted city planners. Though they did not put it in these terms, those planners invested in nature, and generations of New Yorkers have reaped the benefits ever since.
The city planners’ investment had particular urgency. Cholera outbreaks that spread through the city’s water in the early 19th century killed thousands of New Yorkers. These epidemics, along with water pollution and a quickly growing population, forced city officials to search the countryside for cleaner and more reliable sources than surface water and local wells. Even in 1837, New York officials, anticipating the city’s growth, invested in a system of aqueducts to bring water from the Croton River, east of the Hudson River and some 25 miles north of the city line.
By the end of the 19th century, population growth outstripped the capacity of the aqueducts from the Croton River. To supplement this supply, officials turned their attention to the Catskills, 2,000 square miles of hills and valleys west of the Hudson and three times as far from the city as the Croton. The region was still almost entirely rural. There were some farms, but forests were largely intact and streams clean-running. Construction of a system of reservoirs, tunnels, and conduits from this ideal water supply began in 1905.
Smokey the Bear always seemed like a pretty reasonable bear-dude to me. He doesn't appear to have any other politics beyond encouraging campers to douse their fires. But that's not how artist Lopi LaRoe sees Smokey. Last fall, LaRoe radicalized the U.S. Forest Service's stern spokesbear in artwork and merchandise.
"This is Smokey waking up and saying, 'Oh you didn’t do that to my environment.' Smokey wants to fight the corporations and protect the air and the water and the plants and the animals and the people," LaRoe tells Waging Non-Violence.
Turns out the U.S. Forest Service is not super into that, and has threatened LaRoe with legal action if she doesn't stop selling Smokey the Anti-Fracker merchandise plus remove all her images from the web.
But considering how reasonable that Smokey always seemed, it got us thinking: What other cartoon bears might be wishing they could get political, were it not for their overlords? We checked in with a few to get their response.
Geoengineering's time has come -- or so a chorus is beginning to swell. Since so far we've failed to apply political or economic fixes to the unfolding global warming disaster, a technofix can look -- depending on where you sit -- like either a slam-dunk no-brainer or a regrettable last resort.
Geoengineering means deploying technology to roll back climate change now that we've missed the opportunity to avert it. Schemes come mostly in two flavors: carbon dioxide removal and solar radiation management. In the former, we try to suck carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and get it back in the ground; or we shunt CO2 aside at the smokestack before it gets to the atmosphere, and bury or store it; or we promote algae blooms that absorb CO2 at the ocean surface and then die off and carry it to the ocean floor. In the latter, we try to deflect solar energy from the Earth by stirring up reflective sea mist or seeding clouds with sulfur particles or doing something else to sunscreen the planet.
In other words: Tamper with the climate even more to deal with the fallout from our climate-tampering! Sounds terribly Rube-Goldbergy -- and it is. (If you want more detail, try Grist's explainer on the subject.) These are large-scale undertakings with large-scale implications for largely opaque systems that we don't largely grasp.
Unfortunately, the slam-dunkness of geoengineering turns out to be illusory at best. We really don't know if any of these schemes can or would work. How much time, energy, and money should we put into finding out?
Let’s say I win the lottery, and want to use my $50 million winnings to save the planet. For example, I could fund enviro groups. I could fund political campaigns to defeat Big Oil’s congressmen. Or I could provide subsidies to buyers of electric cars. But where would I find the biggest bang for my big bucks?
Hypothetically yours, Mark M. Athens, Ohio
A. Dearest Mark,
I would suggest you donate it to Grist. As it happens, we’re in the middle of a fundraising campaign, and $50 million would go a long way. (So would $5, come to think of it.) Imagine all the cruelty-free peppermint tea I could buy with that kind of cashola!
Your question is an intriguing one, and I will gladly use it as a break from discussions of dish soap and lightbulbs, not that I don’t love those too. Let’s indulge in a bit of good old-fashioned fantasizing.
When a reader asked Grist advice maven Umbra Fisk how she would spend a $50 million lottery windfall on the planet, she indulged in some quick-pick fantasizing, rounding up ideas from a few leaders in the field. Here are their full responses:
Erika Allen, Chicago and national projects director, Growing Power:
My son, who just turned 5 in March, and I discussed this. He would buy buildings in the town and make sure everyone has a nice place to live and lots of strawberries to eat. (There is a longer story here about how he connects homelessness and food.) Along the same vein, [I would put it into] working to create community food systems that are closed loop ... food, energy, housing, education, holistic health in a manner that constantly recirculates wealth and monetizes everyone’s contributions and inputs.
Nowadays, in an age of rising population and scarcities of food and water in some regions, it's a wonder that humanitarians aren't clamoring for more atmospheric carbon dioxide.
No, it's not The Onion. It's the Wall Street Journal editorial page, which nowadays is much the same thing.
Once again, the country’s leading financial newspaper is recycling long-debunked myths from disinformers with PhDs posing as climate scientists -- in this case, Harrison H. Schmitt and William Happer, "In Defense of Carbon Dioxide: The demonized chemical compound is a boon to plant life and has little correlation with global temperature."
But what nefarious forces have been demonizing CO2? Let’s see: