Skip to content Skip to site navigation
Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


How New York’s poor ended up along its vulnerable coast

Damage in the Rockaways.
Reuters / Keith Bedford
Damage in the Rockaways.

Earlier this week, The New York Times examined how some of New York City's poorest residents ended up in what under different circumstances might be highly sought-after real estate: land right by the shore.

New York started building housing projects on the waterfront because that’s where its poorest citizens happened to live. It continued because that’s where space was most readily available. Finally, it built them there because that’s where its projects already were.

The case of the Rockaways, the spit of land on the southeastern edge of the city, is slightly different. The Rockaways are home to a disproportionately high number of poor people because of Robert Moses, the despotic city planner whose mid-century efforts to reshape New York City were largely successful.

Never one for nostalgia, Moses saw the Rockaways as both a symbol of the past and a justification for his own aggressive approach to urban renewal, to building what he envisioned as the city of the future. “Such beaches as the Rockaways and those on Long Island and Coney Island lend themselves to summer exploitation, to honky-tonk catchpenny amusement resorts, shacks built without reference to health, sanitation, safety and decent living,” he said, making his case for refashioning the old summer resorts into year-round residential communities.

What is more, the Rockaways had plenty of land that the city could buy cheaply, or simply seize under its newly increased powers of eminent domain, swaths big enough to accommodate the enormous public-housing towers Moses intended to build as part of his “Rockaway Improvement Plan.” Though only a tiny fraction of the population of Queens lived in the Rockaways, it would soon contain more than half of its public housing.

The old summer bungalows that weren’t bulldozed in the process were repurposed as year-round housing for those uprooted by Moses’ urban renewal -- derided as “negro removal,” by the writer James Baldwin -- across the city.

There's some irony in this: Many Sandy-related deaths occurred in small, low-lying structures, while Moses' much-derided highrises turned out to be safer places to ride out the storm.

Read more: Cities, Living


Will the devastated monarch butterfly take flight again?

The monarch butterfly species may be 250,000 years old, but it's only taken humans about 15 to devastate their whole population. I guess we're just overachievers like that.


A March study showed that genetically modified Roundup-ready crops were responsible for much of the monarchs' decline. Roundup is killing off the milkweed on which the monarchs lay their eggs, and sprawl and recent droughts threaten the milkweed as well. If that weren't enough, monarchs are losing a grip on the 60-square-mile area where they winter in Mexico. From In These Times:

Michoacáns near the state’s 12 butterfly reserves often turn to illegal logging because they have few other sources of income. It can take an illegal logger less than an hour to chop down a pine tree that has been sheltering monarchs for centuries. “From 1986 to 2006, 20 percent of the forest reserves in Michoacán were disturbed,” says Maria Isabel Ramirez, a geographer and conservationist from the National Autonomous University of Mexico. “More than 60 percent of this loss is tied to illegal extractions.”

Activists are working on both sides of the border to reestablish the monarchs’ once-glorious orangey reign, fighting the spread of Roundup in the U.S. and giving Mexican villagers better options than chopping down monarch habitat.

Read more: Living


House GOP finds perfect energy committee staffer in the energy industry

The Republican leadership of the House Energy and Commerce committee needed a staffer for the redundantly named Energy and Power subcommittee. And they found the perfect guy for the job, somehow.

From The Hill:

[Tom Hassenboehler is] returning to Capitol Hill from his role as vice president of policy development and legislative affairs with America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a trade group for gas producers.

Hassenboehler previously worked on the committee staff from 2004 until 2008, and then served three years as counsel to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee before going to the gas trade group.


Natural gas is eating coal’s lunch in the Southeast

The natural gas revolution will not be televised, because it's not fun to watch. But it might provide the power for your television, if that counts -- and if you live in the Southeast, the odds that it does are climbing.

States in the Southeast use a lot of coal. On this map, the darker states produced the most coal power in 2011. The Southeast is pretty dark, though less so than Texas and the Rust Belt.

coal use by state 2011

But that percentage is dropping, year-over-year, as the U.S. Energy Information Agency noted today.


China’s going greener, even if it means flattening 700 mountains

China's economic growth may be slowing for the first time in decades, but its air pollution is still going gangbusters. The city air is choked with fine particulates, and experts are projecting 3.6 million global deaths due to air pollution by 2050, many of them in China. The country announced this week it would be investing $56 billion in cleaning that up over the next three years, in part to appease, as Reuters reports, "increasingly prosperous urban residents."


Henry Paulson, the former Goldman Sachs CEO and treasury secretary who became the face of the 2008 economic collapse, has some advice for this newly struggling China. Paulson says the country's potential "is stifled by traffic and pollution." From The New York Times:

By adopting a new approach to urbanization, its leaders can assure more balanced investment, address a major source of debt, achieve a consumption windfall and clean up the country’s environment. Otherwise, China’s economic and environmental problems will worsen, with vast implications for the rest of the world ...

A flawed system of municipal finance is driving debt, corruption and dissent, while unsustainable urban planning has yielded polluted cities that are destroying China’s ecosystem. Yet China’s future requires continued urbanization, which, absent a new approach, will only make the problem worse.

Cities can, however, be part of the solution: better urban policies can put China on a healthier path forward, economically and environmentally.

Hey, you know what sounds like a better urban policy to me? Destroying 700 mountains! From The Guardian:

Read more: Cities


Unless hell freezes over, 2012 will be the hottest year in U.S. history

Even if the United States has the coldest December in its history -- even if it's a full degree (F) colder on average than the previous coldest December ever -- 2012 will be the hottest year in American history.

Click to embiggen.
Click to embiggen.

We figured this was coming. But even though November wasn't particularly hot -- coming in 2.1 degrees F above the 20th century average, making it only the 20th-warmest November ever -- it's now almost a certainty.

Read more: Climate & Energy


The 2012 Arctic report card: We’re going to need some summer school

Each year, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration releases a "report card" for how the Arctic is doing. This year, the Arctic gets an incomplete and a notice to be signed by its parents stating that it will require tutoring.

Warning: sad polar bears.

The report focuses on two primary findings. First, that the year's record ice loss comes despite a relatively unremarkable year, temperature-wise.

A major finding of the Report Card 2012 is that numerous record-setting melting events occurred, even though, with the exception of a few limited episodes, Arctic-wide it was an unremarkable year, relative to the previous decade, for a primary driver of melting -- surface air temperatures. From October 2011 through August 2012, positive (warm) temperature anomalies were relatively small over the central Arctic compared to conditions in recent years (2003-2010). Yet, in spite of these moderate conditions, new records were set for sea ice extent, terrestrial snow extent, melting at the surface of the Greenland ice sheet, and permafrost temperature.

Read more: Climate & Energy


NYC Mayor Bloomberg calls for climate preparedness, reviews Sandy recovery

Mike Bloomberg's tenure as mayor of New York has been bookended by disaster. The primary election that vaulted him to his position was originally scheduled for Sept. 11. And with just over a year left in his term: Sandy. This morning, in a high-profile speech, Bloomberg made his case for how New York will prepare for the next climate disaster.

The mayor's first two terms, from 2002 to 2010, were largely defined by 9/11 and how he and the city responded. The massive increase in the reach and power of the NYPD happened under Bloomberg -- as did a variety of foiled terror plots of various likelihoods and origins. Bloomberg's mantra has been safety, how even allowing NYPD to infiltrate out-of-state mosques and run a blatantly discriminatory stop-and-frisk system is worth it because crime dropped and no bombs exploded.

In 2007, just shy of halfway through his second term, Bloomberg announced PlaNYC, a push to prepare the city for a changing climate. "We're going to seize this opportunity," Bloomberg said at the time, "to lead the way forward and create the first environmentally sustainable 21st-century city." The plan moved forward without much fanfare, particularly once a signature element, congestion pricing, was killed. Nonetheless, as Bloomberg noted today (and as we've discussed before), the city launched a $2.4 billion green water infrastructure plan, revamped zoning, and restored wetlands.

What Sandy showed was how spotty the city's preparation actually was, five years down the road. While large portions of New York City woke up the day after the storm, yawned, and went about their business, hundreds of thousands woke up in the dark. Thousands woke up above flooded first floors. Dozens never woke up. Today, five weeks afterward, parts of the largest, richest city in America are still dark; just blocks from the arhythmically beating heart of the world of finance, massive buildings are still not ready to be reentered.

Mike Bloomberg makes his speech.
Mike Bloomberg makes his speech.


Nearly 50 percent of new electricity generation capacity added in 2012 was renewable

Every month, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission puts out a report called the "Energy Infrastructure Update" [PDF]. It is done in Microsoft Word by someone whose first priority isn't aesthetics.

But it does contain interesting information! Among which, this time: From January through October, 46.2 percent of new electricity generating capacity added in the U.S. was renewable.

breakout by type jan to oct new generation
From Renewable Energy World:

During the first ten months of 2012, 92 wind projects (5,403 MW), 167 solar projects (1,032 MW), 79 biomass projects (409 MW), seven geothermal projects (123 MW), and 9 water power projects (12 MW) have come on-line. Collectively, these total 6,979 MW or 46.22% of all new generating capacity added since the beginning of the year.

By comparison, new natural gas capacity additions since January 1, 2012 totaled 67 projects (5,702 MW) or 37.8% while three new coal projects added 2,276 MW (15.1%). Nuclear and oil represented just 0.8% and 0.1% of new capacity additions respectively.

For the first 10 months of 2011, renewable energy constituted just under 30 percent of new generation capacity.


One way to slow Arctic ice loss: Stop flying over it

Right after Sept. 11, the lack of any airplane activity over the U.S. allowed scientists to study the effects of flights on the weather. In doing so, they found a direct correlation: Temperatures dropped when planes weren't overhead. The science of the research is far more complicated than that simple statement, but it showed clearly that air traffic influences weather.

There's another way in which planes likely affect the planet: by contributing to Arctic ice melt. From The Washington Post:

A new study [PDF] suggests one way that humans could slow the melting of the sea ice — by preventing international flights from crossing over the Arctic circle. These cross-polar flights are a surprisingly large source of black carbon pollution in the region. And if those planes diverted course, that could help fend off the day when the Arctic sea-ice collapses for good. …

[T]hese cross-polar flights are just a small source of the greenhouse-gas emissions that are warming the planet. But they are a significant source of pollutants like black carbon, which absorb sunlight and warm the region. And pollutants from cross-polar flights tend to linger in the Arctic for a particularly long time, in part because the planes fly through the stratosphere, a relatively stable layer of the atmosphere. (Indeed, such pollutants could explain why Arctic ice is vanishing so much faster than scientists even expected.)

According to the models used by researchers from Stanford and MIT, rerouting planes to avoid the Arctic Circle could cool the region by .015 degrees C and even increase sea ice.

Carbon output in the Arctic before (left) and after (right) rerouting.
Carbon output in the Arctic before (left) and after (right) rerouting. Click to embiggen.