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Gristmill: Fresh, whole-brain news.


Climate should be Obama’s No. 1 priority, say lots of people who aren’t tree-hugging enviros

In this week's New Yorker, editor David Remnick congratulates President Obama on his reelection and then tells him to get his ass in gear and get moving on climate change:

Barack Obama can take pride in having fought off a formidable array of deep-pocketed revanchists. As President, however, he is faced with an infinitely larger challenge, one that went unmentioned in the debates but that poses a graver threat than any “fiscal cliff.” ...

Last week, in his acceptance speech, Obama mentioned climate change once again. Which is good, but, at this late date, he gets no points for mentioning. The real test of his determination will be a willingness to step outside the day-to-day tumult of Washington politics and establish a sustained sense of urgency. There will always be real and consuming issues to draw his and the political class’s attention: a marital scandal at the C.I.A., a fiscal battle, an immigration bill, an international crisis. But, all the while, a greater menace grows ever more formidable. ...

The effort should begin with a sustained Presidential address to the country, perhaps from the Capitol, on Inauguration Day. It was there that John Kennedy initiated a race to the moon—meagre stakes compared with the health of the planet we inhabit.

And it's not only latte-sipping Manhattan liberals calling for action. Republican Christine Todd Whitman, former governor of New Jersey and head of the EPA under George W. Bush, has this to say:


Chevron to poor California town: ‘Thanks, but we’d rather pollute’

Remember this? Because I sure do.

That was an Aug. 6 fire at a 110-year-old Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif. Those outrageous, toxic plumes sent more than 15,000 people to area hospitals complaining of eye and respiratory issues. In the aftermath, it was revealed that Chevron hadn't installed air monitoring stations it had agreed to set up in 2010 and that it was bypassing existing monitoring equipment.

A month ago, the Richmond City Council unanimously adopted a resolution asking that Chevron adopt "the highest standards and best technology" to prevent future disasters and cut standard pollution in an area where residents are plagued by chronic asthma thanks to particulate pollutants. But the city's Planning Department told Chevron it could do whatever it wants, which is exactly what the oil giant is doing: replacing broken parts, but not upgrading anything. From The San Francisco Chronicle:


E.U. wimps out, postpones controversial airline-emissions law

Christmas came early this year for the dirty, dirty airline industry.


Following months of tension and threats, today the European Union announced it intends to postpone for a year a law aimed at curbing carbon emissions from airplanes. The law would have required all airlines that fly to or from E.U. countries to participate in a cap-and-trade system, granting each a certain level of CO2 output per year. If an airline exceeded that amount, it would have to buy carbon allowances or pay fines, starting in April of 2013. The law was an attempt to deal with fast-growing airline pollution; air travel is now responsible for about 3 percent of global CO2 emissions.

But the U.S., China, and India protested vehemently and claimed the issue should be dealt with on a global scale (because, you know, other international climate efforts have been so successful). From The New York Times:


Do environmental groups deserve credit for big wins last week?

Martin Heinrich (D) won election to the U.S. Senate from New Mexico last Tuesday, defeating his opponent, Heather Wilson (R), by more than five percentage points. (Here's a review of all of the Senate results.)

The Washington Post suggests a possible reason for the victory:

The environmental community scored a string of successes Tuesday in New Mexico, Montana, Texas and other states, winning seven of eight targeted Senate races and at least three targeted House races. Although plenty of outside groups poured money into these contests, even some representatives of the fossil-fuel industry said that environmentalists had invested their resources wisely in 2012. …

The League of Conservation Voters (LCV) spent more than $14 million this year, more than it had in the past three election cycles combined, and groups including the Sierra Club, National Wildlife Federation Action Fund, Defenders of Wildlife Action Committee, Environment America and Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund also devoted money and volunteers to key contests.

Peter pi

Or, to put it another way:

“There is evidence that the environmentalists have become a more mature political force,” said Scott H. Segal, who lobbies for utility companies at the firm Bracewell & Giuliani.


Venice swamped by near-record flooding

Every so often, a combination of high winds and high tides flood Venice, Italy. The phenomenon, known as acqua alta or "high water," submerges the already-sodden city in water feet deep. And -- big surprise -- it's happening more than it used to.

This weekend, acqua alta swamped the city, rising to about 1.5 meters, or almost five feet, above sea level.

From The Sydney Morning Herald:

Venice's high water, or "acqua alta", said to be the sixth highest since 1872, flooded 70% of the city and was high enough to make raised wooden platforms for pedestrians float away. The record high water in Venice -- 1.94 metres in 1966 -- prompted many residents to abandon the city for new lives on the mainland.

Venetians bombarded Facebook with moans about the city's weather forecasters, who had predicted just 1.2 metres of water on Saturday, before correcting their forecast at dawn on Sunday. …

Matteo Secchi, a hotelier and head of a protest group, who grew up in ground floor flat in Venice and recalls splashing into water on getting out of bed, said his hotel was only safe up to 140cm. "This morning the lagoon came right into the hotel entrance, and this is not clean water -- you need to mop with disinfectant twice after it goes down," he said. "The British tourists don't complain but the Americans can't understand how it's possible."

The Americans, I suspect, are starting to catch on. And also? I'm glad I'm not a Venetian weather forecaster.

Read more: Cities, Climate & Energy


Ticks are turning victims into vegetarians

Are you ready to never read "blood meal" the same way again?

Travellin' John

There is now scientific confirmation of the tick-borne meat allergies we first told you about in August. From ABC News:

A bite from the lone star tick, so-called for the white spot on its back, looks innocent enough. But researchers say saliva that sneaks into the wound might trigger a reaction to meat agonizing enough to convert lifelong carnivores into wary vegetarians.

"People will eat beef and then anywhere from three to six hours later start having a reaction; anything from hives to full-blown anaphylactic shock," said Dr. Scott Commins, assistant professor of medicine at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.

Read more: Living


Building climate resilience through smarter cities and tighter communities

It's been nearly two weeks since Hurricane Sandy decimated large parts of the Eastern seaboard. The subway may be back, but more than a half million people are still without power and thousands are still without water. The conversation continues about how best to adapt to a new world of monster weather.

Jeremy Zilar
An Occupy Sandy distribution center in Sunset Park, Brooklyn.

Scientific American has an interview today with climate scientist Cynthia Rosenzweig, who has been studying the impact of climate change on New York since the '90s, and first analyzed risks to the city infrastructure from rising waters in 2001. Rosenzweig says a new way forward for coastal communities will require "an integrated approach that covers three areas: engineering, ecologically based adaptation and policies."

Overarching all of this is design, urban planning. What we really need to do is recover, rebuild and create a vibrant and sustainable coastal city region. Let's do this in creative ways. For example, the Dutch are not just looking to engineering solutions, they are looking at a mix of solutions. So there are the iconic floating houses but they are also doing a lot with raising apartment buildings and allowing water to slosh in and out when floods come. We have to accept that we are a coastal region. There are going to be coastal floods. How do we live with it?

How do we live with it? The Census has this great and kind of shocking visualization of how Americans are drawn to coastlines like moths to flame. That "we" is huge, and climate change will touch all of us.

We haven't been able to look to the government for leadership on climate change, so why would we look to it for leadership on cleaning up the mess that climate change creates? In an interview at Salon, disaster historian and New York resident Jacob Remes discusses what "living with it" would look like from the ground up.

Read more: Cities, Living


Obama limits oil-shale development OK’d by Bush

Oil shale is a weird energy source. It’s a rock that contains shale oil, a type of hydrocarbon that differs from regular petroleum in part because it needs to be heated in order to be released. And it differs from the sort of shale in the Bakken Formation that’s feeding North Dakota’s oil boom — it's much harder to extract. So hard to extract, in fact, that oil companies don't even really try any more.

Oil and water don't mix. (Oil shale isn't this kind of oil, but, still.)

But that doesn't mean they're not irritated that the government intends to lock away federal land that sits over oil shale. After all, oil companies are ridiculously thin-skinned and greedy and use any opportunity to score political points. From The Hill:

The Interior Department on Friday issued a final plan to close 1.6 million acres of federal land in the West originally slated for oil shale development. …

Interior’s Bureau of Land Management cited environmental concerns for the proposed changes. Among other things, it excised lands with “wilderness characteristics” and areas that conflicted with sage grouse habitats.

Under the plan, 677,000 acres in Colorado, Utah and Wyoming would be open for oil shale exploration. Another 130,000 acres in Utah would be set aside for tar sands production. …

“This is another step in the wrong direction that limits development and investment in one of the nation’s most energy-rich areas and goes against a prior government decision that would allow for research and development over a much wider geographical area," [said some jerk from the American Petroleum Institute.]


Will baby boomers just keep on driving?

Every day, the generation that drove America's love affair with the automobile draws closer to death retirement. And who better to help us figure out what that means than the AARP?

Stefan Amer Royalty

A new report out from its Public Policy Institute considers whether America’s baby boomers may be moving toward lives that rely less on cars. From the Associated Press:

How long those 74 million people born between 1946 and 1964 continue to work, whether they choose to live in their suburban houses after their children leave home or whether they flock to city neighborhoods where they are less likely to need a car will have important ramifications for all Americans.

On the one hand:

Most boomers live in the suburbs and are expected to remain in the homes where they raised their children even after they become empty nesters. The housing bust has also trapped many older boomers in large homes whose values have fallen, sometimes below the balance of their mortgages.

On the other hand:

Demographers have noted an uptick in retirees moving to central cities where they're less dependent on being able to drive. Because there are so many boomers, if a significant number move to central cities, it could drive up housing costs and force cities to make greater accommodations for the elderly, such as more benches at bus stops or a slowing of the timing of pedestrian crossing lights.

Read more: Cities, Living


Hundreds of thousands still without power post-Sandy, provoking backlash against utilities

The New York transit authority's success getting the subways back online is probably not appreciated by the region's power companies, which have had, shall we say, less success.

At midday yesterday, about 700,000 customers were without power, including 200,000 who lost power after winter storm Athena swept through.

Manhattan, half-dark after Sandy.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), who estimates that Sandy could cost $50 billion in economic damage by the time it's fully cleaned up, started dropping bombs on the utilities yesterday.

"The progress is unacceptable," Cuomo said at a press conference. "To say that I am angry, to say that I am frustrated, disappointed, would be the understatement of the decade."

All of the state's utilities who have powerless customers, he suggested -- Con Ed, the Long Island Power Authority, the New York State Electric and Gas Corporation (NYSEG), and Orange & Rockland -- could be in for a rude awakening after cleanup is over.

"I promise the people of this state that they will be held accountable for their lack of performance," he added. "These are not God-given monopolies. I will review all of them."