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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


It’s a sports dome and a hurricane shelter all in one

There's a lot of talk these days about the need to become more resilient and ruggedize our systems in order to better cope in a climate-changed world. It's nice to actually see a little action on this front -- in Texas, of all places.

Eagle Dome in Woodsboro, Texas
Jay Phagan
Texas' first "hurricane dome" in Woodsboro will do double duty as a gym and a shelter. We expect it'll look more appealing once the gale-force winds start blowing.

From the Associated Press:

Most of the time, the windowless building with the dome-shaped roof will be a typical high school gymnasium filled with cheering fans watching basketball and volleyball games.

But come hurricane season, the structure that resembles a miniature version of the famed Astrodome will double as a hurricane shelter, part of an ambitious storm-defense system that is taking shape along hundreds of miles of the Texas Gulf Coast.


Peer-to-peer sharing went big in 2012 — and so did opposition

This year, ride-sharing services Lyft and Sidecar amassed millions in new funding. Uber, which lets passengers hail idle town cars with their smartphones, expanded to new cities from San Francisco to New York. And Airbnb, which makes it easy for people to rent out their homes or rooms for short periods, expects to be filling more rooms per night than Hilton by the end of the year.

And yet, in a number of cities across the country, these businesses are illegal. New things are scary. And new things that grow really fast are the scariest.

2012 saw increased acceptance and growth in sharing and peer-to-peer businesses, presenting new options for consumers and new problems for established businesses and government regulators. As these new businesses grew, so did their collective disruptive force.

As Tim Wu wrote at The New York Times, "Change isn’t always pretty, but a healthy city is one where old systems — even the hallowed taxi medallion — stand to be challenged by the winds of creative destruction."

New tech makes these businesses possible, but their sustained success doesn't hinge on advances in smartphone design or social networking. We're choosing peer-to-peer because we want to do business differently. We actually kind of want to pretend like we're not doing business at all.

Lyft and Sidecar enable individuals with their own cars to find and drive customers, keeping the majority of the fare with a small chunk going to the company.

The detachable pink mustache alerts ride-seekers that this ride is a Lyft.
The detachable pink mustache lets ride-seekers know this is a Lyft.

"The big difference between the Lyft experience and the cab experience is supposedly friendliness. That's why they bill themselves as 'your friend with a car,'" Lyft driver Kate Dollarhyde told me. "A lot of my customers tell me they prefer Lyft because they feel more safe than they do in cabs, and also because they feel they can talk to and make friends with drivers."

In an increasingly inhospitable, unfriendly world, peer-to-peer business sells you on, well, your peers. Lyft, which launched in San Francisco this summer with plans to expand into Seattle and Los Angeles in 2013, is selling community. But it's also selling savings. Dollarhyde says Lyft trains drivers to inform customers that the rides cost about $4 less than a cab.

Even with those lower fares, Lyft can be a real source of income for drivers: “I make more money driving for Lyft per hour than I have doing anything else,” said Dollarhyde.

Airbnb can also be a significant moneymaker for participants. "Ultimately, we want to empower people and we have thousands of people around the world that are making an incredible, meaningful amount of revenue," Airbnb cofounder and CEO Brian Chesky told CBS. "We've helped thousands of people stay in their homes."


It’s high-speed rail vs. farmers in California

drawing of California's planned high-speed train
California High Speed Rail Authority

A planned high-speed rail line in California is looking forward to a bumpy 2013 (and 2014, and 2015 ...). It may be attorneys rather than travelers who really win from the largest public works project in the state's history, at least in the immediate future. The Fresno Bee reports that many farmers and other property owners along the intended route in the Central Valley have vowed to fight the project, potentially forcing the state to exercise eminent domain to seize needed properties.

Up and down the Valley, the rail authority anticipates spending tens of millions of dollars to buy the land it needs in Merced, Madera, Fresno, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. The agency hopes to begin construction next year on a stretch of about 30 miles from northeast of Madera to the south end of Fresno -- the first portion of what is ultimately planned as a 520-mile system linking San Francisco and Los Angeles.

But some vocal property owners, including farmers, are loathe to part with their property and have vowed to force the state to use its power of eminent domain -- a potentially costly and time-consuming ordeal.

The line will eventually connect L.A. to San Francisco, but the first portion to be built will go through the through the Central Valley bread basket, pitting awesome California Cuties against awesome California regional transit. The total cost of the project is currently projected at $68 billion, but that likely doesn't include enough money to settle cases with all property owners, especially farmers whose livelihoods are directly tied to their property.


New Hawaii senator says climate change is urgent

Brian Schatz
Governor Neil Abercrombie
Brian Schatz, the newest member of the U.S. Senate.

The new senator from Hawaii may come from a laid-back state, but he's not very chill when it comes to climate change. Brian Schatz (D), the former lieutenant governor, said this week that climate change will top his legislative agenda as he joins the Senate as a replacement for the late Sen. Daniel Inouye (D).

“For me, personally, I believe global climate change is real and it is the most urgent challenge of our generation,” Schatz said.

And then this beautiful rainbow burst forth across the islands.


I don't have to tell you how unusual it is to hear this kind of straight talk from a U.S. senator. But Schatz is young, and he also comes from a series of small islands that for obvious reasons may have more immediate concerns about rising sea levels than, say, Nebraska. From The Hill:


Holiday shopping is down, mall blight is up

It seems a lot of Americans shifted the gift this holiday season. Early reports from retailers indicate this may well be the least shop-happy winter since the apocalyptic recession Christmas of 2008. And climate change sure isn't helping.


Reuters reports:

Shares of retailers dropped sharply on Wednesday, helping drag broader indexes lower, as investors realized they were likely to be disappointed when companies start to report results in a few weeks' time.

"The broad brush was Christmas wasn't all that merry for retailers, and you have to ask what those margins look like if the top line didn't meet their expectations," said Kim Forrest, senior equity research analyst at Fort Pitt Capital Group.

Growth was always expected to slow this season, though an improving employment picture and rising home values had helped mitigate the worst fears. But then Superstorm Sandy hit the East Coast in late October, mild weather blunted sales of winter clothing and rising concern about the "fiscal cliff" became more of a reality, dragging down already-pessimistic forecasts.

(T-minus how long until someone rebrands swimsuits as a great climate collapse fashion choice?)

Stores stand to scoop up nearly a third of their annual sales over the holiday season, so this drop could be significant -- but could it be enough to push us closer to a more lasting shifting of the gifts?

Read more: Living


The $400 million plan to unsink a giant cruise ship

Nearly a year after it crashed into a very picturesque rock on the coast of Giglio Island in the Mediterranean, the Costa Concordia cruise ship is still lying on its side in the middle of a marine wildlife preserve. The island's mayor called the ship "an ecological timebomb," but while it's not (currently!) leaking oil into the sea, the Concordia is basically a massive amount of pollution still waiting to happen.

Roberto Vongher

There are only two things to do: Chop it up, sink it, and say sorry, or spend $400 million towing the failed monstrosity away from nature.

The latter it is!

Business Insider calls the plan, "the riskiest, most complicated, and most expensive salvage plan ever undertaken," and no one is entirely sure it will actually work.

The process consists of stabilizing the ship with massive cables (almost complete); drilling an underwater platform into the sea floor; attaching massive floaties to each side of the ship, tipping it upright, and (hopefully!) towing it away from the protected coastline still mostly intact.

Workers had to take a four-day rock climbing course before beginning the work, which will take months.

Read more: Climate & Energy


Meat company sues USDA to speed up horse meat sales

A lot of people are pretty upset about the fact that we are still without a new farm bill. But no one is upset in quite the same way as this New Mexico man who is suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Humane Society of the United States, and other people who are standing in the way of him slaughtering and selling horses.


A provision passed last year might've effectively made horse slaughter legal for the first time in five years, but it turns out the feds are not exactly chomping at the bit to get back to inspecting those slaughterhouses. There's no telling whether a new farm bill would restore a ban on the practice by defunding the USDA inspections. (The House has recommended that, but the Senate hasn't.)

Rick de los Santos and his Valley Meat Company want to force the USDA to allow the country's first horse meat operation since 2007. But it's hard out there for a guy who wants to profit off of horse meat. The Los Angeles Times reports:

After waiting a year for permits, De los Santos, 52, says he's using the courts to force the U.S. Department of Agriculture to resume inspections necessary to open what would be the nation's first new horse slaughterhouse since 2007.

"I've submitted all the paperwork and have been told all along 'Oh, it won't be long now,'" said De los Santos, who owns Valley Meat Co. "I followed all their guidelines. I put more than $100,000 in upgrades and additions on my facilities to handle equine slaughter. And then the government comes back and tells me, 'We can't give you the permits. This horse issue has turned into a political game.'

"So what else do you do? I figured it was time to go to court."

Another idea for something to do: not open a horse slaughterhouse?

Read more: Food


EPA administrator Lisa Jackson has left the building

Image (1) lisa_jackson.JPG for post 38785We knew this one was coming, but now it's official: Lisa Jackson, President Obama's long-embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, is leaving her post.

Jackson served for four years as lead environmental regulator for the Obama administration, taking innumerable volleys of criticism from all directions. Serious environmentalists felt she caved too regularly to White House-driven compromises, allowing the climate to become a footnote and essential initiatives to be watered down. Meanwhile, the Tea Party right set her up as a job-killing bogeyperson and marshal of a "war on coal." (Green types only wished that war was real.)

As the first African American EPA administrator, Jackson brought a more inclusive approach to her environmental work -- moving both her agency and the national public far beyond old green stereotypes. The achievements of Jackson's tenure were real: major improvements in automobile emissions standards, important new controls on mercury in power-plant fumes, and the first-ever federal ruling that greenhouse gases should be classed as pollutants.

And yet no one who is conscious of the climate crisis can fail to see the last four years as, fundamentally, a failure where it most counts -- a critical, fleeting, now-missed chance to jam open a closing window of opportunity and alter our global-warming course. Early in Obama's first term, the White House and a then-Democratic Congress took one futile run at a watered-down cap-and-trade measure, then played dead on the issue. Obama barely mentioned the climate during his reelection campaign. Prospects for stronger action remain dim.

Read more: Uncategorized


New York’s energy-efficiency survey suggests that older is often better

The new LEED-certified 7 World Trade Center is much less energy efficient than older buildings.
The new LEED-certified 7 World Trade Center is much less energy efficient than older buildings.

Here's a tip for Manhattan building owners looking to build as energy-efficiently as possible: Build your structure 100 years ago.

New York City's recently implemented law mandating that buildings report energy use has revealed that the city's best performers are often not its newest additions. From the Times:

Older buildings tend to have higher Energy Star scores because they have thicker walls, fewer windows and less ventilation -- superior “thermal envelopes,” as a report on the early results puts it. They are also less suited to energy-gobbling activities like computer data crunching, the downfall of some youthful but middling performers. ...

Unlike cities that depend heavily on automobiles, New York racks up most of its carbon dioxide emissions -- nearly 80 percent -- in heating and cooling buildings. Tracking this energy use is deemed crucial to meeting the city goal of cutting overall emissions by about a third by 2030, to slash costs and fight climate change.

New York’s largest buildings -- just 2 percent of the roughly one million buildings in the city -- account for 45 percent of the energy expended by the entire building stock.

We took the data -- which is available online -- and mapped it by address. (We chose to use greenhouse gas emissions, since the metric used by the Times, its Energy Star rating, had far fewer data points. Clicking an address will reveal both its GHG emissions and efficiency rating.)

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Seattle mayor calls for city’s pension funds to dump oil stocks

Mike McGinn
Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is no fan of fossil fuels.

Student groups at 192 colleges and universities are calling on their schools' endowments to sell off stocks in fossil-fuel companies, inspired by a campaign that we've reported on before. Now that campaign is spreading from campus to city hall, as Climate Progress reports:

Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn is now calling on his city to strip fossil fuels from its two main pension funds. According to the city’s finance director, Seattle has $17.6 million invested in Chevron and ExxonMobil, as well as smaller investments in other oil and gas companies. Mayor McGinn sent a letter to the city’s pension fund managers on Friday calling for them to move their money elsewhere.

McGinn is the first municipal leader to get on board with 350's campaign. As the mayor explains on his blog, he doesn't control the investment of pension funds, but he and his staff want to work with the city council and the pension board to help move toward divestment.

McGinn, a local Sierra Club leader before he was elected mayor in 2009, has also recently criticized proposals to send coal trains through Seattle to ports on Washington's coast. He's commissioning a study on the potential economic impacts of the trains and coal-export plans. “I’m not sure very many jobs are being created in Seattle, compared to impacts,” he said earlier this month.