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Look who's changing the world
Profiles on the people who are making a difference in your green world.

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Meet the brazen scientist who’s taking over NASA’s high-powered climate lab

Gavin Schmidt
Christy Field

When the legendary James Hansen announced his retirement last year as director of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) -- a leading climate research group -- it was because, after a half-dozen citations and arrests from climate and Keystone XL protests, the 72-year-old could tell that the government organization was tiring of his tricks. But this left anyone wonkish enough to be paying attention wondering: Who was bold enough to replace him?

Earlier this month, NASA came out with the answer: Gavin Schmidt, an imperturbable champion of science. While his name isn’t as known as his predecessor’s -- at least, not yet -- he’s still pulled some pretty noteworthy stunts. He's unafraid to talk climate change with the most obnoxious of skeptics or deniers, and is known for steadfastly sticking to the data amidst flurries of spin. Schmidt's also got more than 120 scientific publications to his name, was a founding member of the influential RealClimate blog, and has talked climate science in a digestible way on everything from the TED circuit to The Daily Show.

But does he have it in him to be the next Hansen? No -- because Schmidt, 46, isn’t looking to fill anyone’s shoes but his own. And, based on a recent interview with Grist, we think he’s already got a pretty good pair on him, too. While he might not be out there storming the streets, Schmidt's combo of scientific cred and wry 'tude makes us wonder: Did NASA just replace one rabble-rouser with another? Here's why we're keeping an eye on the climate hawk:

Read more: Climate & Energy

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MAP TO THE FUTURE

A mapping group at MIT wants to show us the way to greener cities

San Francisco coffee shops. Click to embiggen.
San Francisco coffee shops. Click to embiggen.

Walking down the street, that feeling swells up inside you -- the buildings, the restaurants, the parks, the people: THIS is New York.

Or maybe it’s San Francisco. Or Chicago. Or LA. Whatever your city of choice may be, you love it because it’s just got that je ne sais quoi, unlike any other.

But Sep Kamvar, of the Social Computing Group at the MIT Media Lab, thinks it could be so much more interesting than that. With his You Are Here project, he and his group are on a quest to bring out all those little pieces that come together to make each city what it is, by creating a total of 10,000 data visualization maps of cities across the U.S. By doing so, he hopes that urbanites might recognize the elements that they love, and the ones they don’t, to shape their towns into more efficient, happier, healthier, and greener places.

A map showing greenery on the streets of Cambridge, Mass.
You Are Here
A map showing greenery on the streets of Cambridge, Mass. Click to embiggen.

“Each map gives a different angle of what the city looks like,” Kamvar says. The group does this by collecting data from sources ranging from Google Maps to local police departments, and presenting it into compelling visuals -- which he hopes can expose the things that need to be fixed.

Read more: Cities, Living

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Meet the sisters who put the rad in radical vintage

drakeford-sisters.jpg
Pendarvis Harshaw

The Drakeford sisters didn't start thrifting because it was the environmentally friendly thing to do. They just had a fashionable reputation to keep up in Oakland, and vintage threads were affordable, unique, and helped them stand out. "People knew us -- 'Oh, the Drakeford sisters,'" Dominique Drakeford told me over the phone recently. "We had this really cool identity."

It wasn't until she was studying business and environmental management in college that everything clicked. "I decided vintage is one of the most radical forms of sustainable fashion," she said. There's no production with used clothing, she says, and the price point makes it more accessible than new green fashion choices.

Read more: Living

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Meat Shmeat

This meat lover isn’t giving up on the test-tube burger

Cultured-Beef-01
David Parry / PA Wire

Isha Datar knows there are plenty of good reasons to stay away from meat. Like the facts that livestock production accounts for at least 14.5 percent of human-made greenhouse gas emissions worldwide, sucks up massive amounts of water, and drives a heck of a lot of deforestation, just to name a few. But, despite all of this, scores of Americans still can’t get away from another, equally verified truth: Meat is dang delicious.

Isha Datar
Isha Datar.

So what’s a meat lover to do? Datar thinks New Harvest, a nonprofit dedicated to the development of lab-grown meat alternatives (a.k.a. test-tube meat, cultured meat, or shmeat), is working toward the answer. As the group’s executive director, Datar believes that by taking animals out of the picture, cultured meat will allow us humans to get our fleshy fix while putting less of its burden on our planet.

It has now been almost a year since shmeat made its public debut, in the form of a $325,000 hamburger. But, costs aside, there's still a lot about the concept that sounds less than appetizing: After collecting cells from living animals, the cells are immersed in a nutrient bath, where they are left to grow into a sheet of tissue, which is then processed into a patty. Sounds more clinical than toothsome, right? Given the current romanticism of farm-to-table meals, will Americans be able to embrace a food product that's made from stem cells? 

Read more: Food, Living

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Minimum wage against the machine

Why we’re watching this climate scientist turned socialist politician

jess-spear
Dominic Holden, The Stranger

It's been a pretty good year here in Seattle for your average living wage-wanting, proletariat lovin', socialist-revolutionary-leaning progressive. Last November, Socialist Alternative party member Kshama Sawant made national headlines by getting elected to city council. And just last week, Seattle became the first major U.S. city to increase the minimum wage to $15 an hour, winning a historic battle for workers' rights and setting the bar for the highest minimum wage in the world.

Socialists in political office? A fair living wage for workers? Where are we, Denmark? What's next?

What's next is Jess Spear. She's young (32), she was a driving force behind the $15 minimum wage campaign in Seattle, and now she's running for Washington State Legislature … as a socialist. She also happens to have a background in climate science, and favors taxing corporations to build investment in renewable energy and away from fossil fuels.

Here are five reasons you should be watching Jess Spear:

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Is a greener oil industry possible? David Poritz thinks so

It’s hard to pick a more onerous presence in the global economy than oil. It’s messy: It spills, it poisons, it explodes. Our insatiable demand for it drives CEOs to flagrant disregard for the rights of communities and the integrity of natural environments in all corners of the globe, all in the name of producing more and more barrels that sell for $100 a pop. All of this has been going on for decades -- but a 25-year-old Rhodes Scholar from central Western Massachusetts is trying to change that.

David Poritz is the founder of Equitable Origin (EO), an organization that’s developed a gold standard, socially and environmentally speaking, for oil and gas extraction sites. Starting when he was a sophomore at Brown University, he spent three years working with NGOs, oil executives, environmental scientists, public officials, and indigenous communities to design the EO100 Standard, an extensive set of provisions that act as a benchmark against which oil companies' practices can be measured. Poritz’s goal is to push the oil and gas industry, that bête noire of the green movement, toward environmental and social responsibility. Just this month, EO beefed up its own credentials by becoming the first B Corp in the oil and gas industry, and also a member of the ISEAL Alliance. A documentary about Poritz's journey to founding EO, Oil & Water, debuted this week at the Seattle International Film Festival.

davidporitz_pragmatichat_cropped
Provided by David Poritz

This summer, EO expects to finalize certification of its first two sites, which are both owned by Pacific Rubiales, the largest private operator in Colombia, and make up 23 percent of the nation’s oil production.

I got to sit down with Poritz and talk about how a green oil industry can change from an oxymoron to a reality, and why it’s so urgent that it does.

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Want to build a tiny house with your boo? The TINY couple has tips for you

christophersmith_meretemueller
SpeakThunder Films

Three years ago – nearly to the day – Christopher Smith and Merete Mueller started building a 133 square-foot house from scratch with no construction experience, not a lot of money, and a pretty short timetable. (Spoiler alert: that timetable expanded – considerably.) As if those weren’t enough challenges, they were also in a relationship at the time. Oh – and they were filming the whole process for a documentary, TINY, which comes out today in digital and DVD release.

Since Mueller followed her dream of moving to New York in August 2012, she and Smith are no longer together, but they’re still close friends and see each other frequently. We talked to the very amicable exes about what it’s like to build – and live in – a tiny house when your construction partner is also your significant other. They shared some pro tips for any lovebirds out there considering the coziest version of cohabitation.

Read more: Living

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The misadventures of eco-comedian Kristina Wong will make you LOL

kristinawong_jump2
Amy Tierney/ Thrive Images

Comedian Kristina Wong was trying to go green way before it was cool, as documented in her hilarious 2010 special Going Green the Wong Way. The one-woman show, performed on a stage of entirely recycled materials, is a tour-de-force of self-satire that pokes fun at the green movement as well as her own blunders trying to live sustainably in an urban environment. If you're a fan of TMI, Wong's brand of comedy is for you: There's urine-soaked bus seats, well-intentioned teenage eco-terrorism, and a pep-talk about recycling sanitary pads.

Since Going Green Wong has been busy, making a rap album in Uganda while working with Women’s Global Empowerment Fund, telling off James Franco for being a jerk, crashing the Miss Chinatown pageant, performing a show about depression in the Asian American community, and writing about men with Asian fetishes. This summer she'll be rolling out new episodes for a reality television show, called I'm Asian American and … as well as giving the commencement speech at UCLA.

Along the way, she's found herself entangled in a growing web of LOL-worthy green moments.

Wong sat down to share the highlights (er, lowlights?) of her eco-misadventure -- from buying used vegetable oil in back-alleys to her DivaCup fiasco to the challenges of living carless in L.A. Here's an edited and condensed version of what she had to say:

Read more: Living

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Pipe Dreams

Snowboarder Marie-France Roy grabs air in the name of climate change

MFR BC 3

Talk with Marie-France Roy and it’s hard not to get thrown by her sweet nature and charming French-Canadian accent. But make no mistake about it: Called out by Snowboarder Magazine as “possibly the most well-rounded snowboarder in the world,” when it comes to powder, this girl can shred. Now, she wants to take her mettle beyond the slopes, through her crowdfunded, environmentally focused snowboarding flick, The Little Things. Roy hopes the film will inspire snowboarders to stay stoked on the slopes and on the small steps they can take in order to lead greener lives.

It all started five years ago, when Roy began to grapple with the reality that, as much as she loves nature and being outside, being a professional snowboarder isn’t exactly the eco-friendliest of jobs. “Snowboarding was giving me so much, and I wanted to give back,” she says. “But, when you snowboard for a living, you’re promoting the products of sponsors that support you. So I was promoting consumption, flying over the world. I just felt guilty.”

130223_oakleycanada_lifestyle-135Roy out on the slopes.

So much so that she considered quitting snowboarding altogether. But, instead of hanging up her board, she decided to use her name and star status to galvanize the snowboarding community around environmentalism. Her idea: make a film that features snowboarding’s biggest names, like Jeremy Jones and Gretchen Bleiler, and show the little things that they do in their daily lives for the sake of planet Earth -- in between shots of them going down halfpipes and spinning through the air, that is. 

Read more: Climate & Energy, Living

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Green with green

The new app that tracks your carbon footprint — and lords it over your friends

footprints-grass.jpg
Shutterstock

Ian Monroe wants you to beat your Facebook friends at a new game: Who has the lowest carbon footprint?

Monroe is the CEO of Oroeco, a recently launched web app that tracks a user's personal impact on climate change. The app not only helps you quantify your own footprint -- based on your spending habits, made possible through linking up with Mint.com -- but by logging in with Facebook it'll allow you to compare your carbon sins with those of your virtual community. Ultimately, Monroe wants to motivate users to emit a little (or a lot) less greenhouse gas. In other words, go ahead and feel green -- with envy, that is.

Ian Monroe.
Ian Monroe.

Grist interviewed Monroe about changing consumer behavior, the family business as inspiration, and the group that turns out to be some of the worst CO2 culprits (hint: We're looking at you, world-traveled greenies). Here's an edited and condensed version of what he had to say:

On green misconceptions:

Something that comes as a shock to a lot of our users: The average person who says they care about climate change actually has a substantially worse than average footprint. Generally that’s because they tend to have a bit more money, and they tend to be people who like to think of themselves as multicultural and like to get out and see the world. Which means that they’re flying around a lot, and all that flying generally outweighs any other green lifestyle choices that they’ve made. You have a lot of people who are using reusable bags and water bottles, driving a Prius, maybe eating a bit more of a veggie friendly diet. But then they’re flying to Bali or South Africa or something once a year. They end up having a larger carbon footprint than a conservative guy who drives an SUV in the suburbs of Atlanta but doesn’t fly anywhere.