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


Kyoto’s first phase expires as greenhouse gas emissions and dirty energy use spike

In 1997, most of the world's nations signed on to the Kyoto Protocol, a treaty intended to fight climate change. The goal was to gradually cut greenhouse gas emissions through the end of 2012, the first commitment period. How'd we do? From the CBC:

The controversial and ineffective Kyoto Protocol's first stage comes to an end today, leaving the world with 58 per cent more greenhouse gases than in 1990, as opposed to the five per cent reduction its signatories sought.

Ah, well. Worth a shot!

If there is anything good that came out of the Kyoto experience, it is that the issue it tried and failed to tackle is now top of mind, says [Steven Guilbeault of Equiterre, a Montreal-based environmental group].

"That's probably one of the biggest accomplishments of the Kyoto Protocol, is making climate change something that's part of our everyday life."

You know what else is making climate change something that's part of our everyday life? Climate change.

climate activists


Shell squeezes one last Arctic screwup into 2012

Shell ended 2012 the way it carried itself the entire year: with utter incompetence. From The New York Times:

One of Shell Oil’s two Arctic drilling rigs is beached on an island in the Gulf of Alaska, threatening environmental damage from a fuel spill and calling into question Shell’s plans to resume drilling in the treacherous waters north of Alaska in the summer.

The rig, the Kulluk, broke free from a tow ship in stormy seas and ran aground Monday night. The Coast Guard was leading an effort to keep its more than 150,000 gallons of diesel fuel and lubricants from spilling onto the rocky shoreline.

The Kulluk, pictured here trying to evolve into a land animal
Coast Guard
The Kulluk, pictured here trying to evolve into a land animal

Happily, the vessel isn't leaking any of its fuel. And, happily, Shell's complete inability to do things right over the last 12 months means that it wasn't actively drilling anything anyway.


Hyper-dysfunctional Congress punts on Sandy relief

Americans like to make fun of Congress. It's a staple of comedy akin to airline food, a joke that was already old by the time Mark Twain rolled around. But rarely have we had cause to mock our elected leaders as we do now, as the least productive Congress in a generation yawns and shuffles out of Washington. As it goes, it leaves behind a stopgap solution to the fiscal crisis -- and a complete abandonment of any aid for those affected by Hurricane Sandy.

John Boehner, who is only a leader in a theoretical sense
Gage Skidmore
John Boehner, who is only a leader in a theoretical sense

Late last night (at least, late by Congress' standards), the House voted to approve the ugly, flawed compromise Vice President Biden worked out with Senate Republicans. The vote happened only after a series of representatives took to the podium to laud the body's fine work and to celebrate a piece of legislation noteworthy in part for simply extending a number of tax benefits that were due to expire. But perhaps the ugliest moment of the year came after that vote, as members representing areas struck by the storm tried to get the House to hold a promised vote on a relief package. It didn't. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) pointed at majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.); a "leadership aide" put the blame back on Boehner.

Members from New York and New Jersey were furious. From the Times-Dispatch:

“This is an absolute disgrace and the speaker should hang his head in shame,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y.

“I'm here tonight saying to myself for the first time that I'm not proud of the decision my team has made,” said Rep. Michael Grimm, R-N.Y. “It is the wrong decision, and I' m going to be respectful and ask that the speaker reconsider his decision. Because it's not about politics, it's about human lives.”

“I truly feel betrayed this evening,” said Rep. Nita Lowey, D-N.Y.

It's not hard to guess why the House didn't want to approve an aid package last night. Even after pushing to slash the president's $60 billion proposal down to $20 billion, Republicans already being lambasted for raising taxes in the fiscal cliff vote (even though it extended existing low rates for some 99 percent of Americans) were undoubtedly hesitant to be seen as then OKing billions in relief to New York City liberals. Tax and spend.


The hottest race of 2013: House climate hawk Markey is gunning for Kerry’s Senate seat

Ed Markey
Martha Coakley
Could Ed Markey be the Senate's newest climate hawk?

The Senate will lose an advocate for climate action when John Kerry becomes secretary of state (assuming he gets confirmed, which seems pretty darn safe to assume). But it could gain another senator who's just as climate-hawkish if Ed Markey wins the race for Kerry's soon-to-be-vacated seat.

Rep. Markey (D-Mass.) announced last week that he intends to run in the special election next spring or summer to fill Kerry's spot. He's not the only Democrat who's talking about a run, but he's the most senior and high-profile, so the establishment swiftly got behind him, hoping to avert a primary fight.

Kerry didn't outright endorse Markey, but he praised him effusively, calling him "the House’s leading, ardent, and thoughtful protector of the environment." Kerry continued: “He’s passionate about the issues that Ted Kennedy and I worked on as a team for decades, whether it’s health care or the environment and energy or education."

Markey is arguably the most passionate, outspoken climate advocate in the House. You might remember him from such legislation as the Waxman-Markey climate and energy bill, which was passed by the House in 2009 and then died a slow and painful death in the Senate. Markey was the one and only chair of the House Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming during its existence from 2007 to 2010. Though Republicans killed the committee when they took control of the House two years ago, that hasn't stopped Markey from pushing energy and climate issues into the spotlight -- and writing about his efforts on Grist.


Wind-energy tax credit would get extension under ‘fiscal cliff’ deal

wind turbine and American flag
Tennessee Valley Infrastructure Group Inc.

It appears that a deal in the works to avert the so-called fiscal cliff would extend a critical tax credit for the wind-power industry for one year.

"The potential agreement that's being talked about ... would extend tax credits for clean-energy companies that are creating jobs and reducing our dependence on foreign oil," President Obama said at a press conference today.

The production tax credit (PTC) for the wind industry expires today. With its status up in the air, wind companies across the country have been laying off workers and putting projects on hold. If the PTC isn't renewed, 37,000 jobs could be lost, according to the American Wind Energy Association.


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