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Stuff that matters

Sun and Swine

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From clean energy to racial justice, the Carolinas are tackling environmental challenges.

Sweet Carolina, the good times never seemed so good! Let’s review:

  • Yesterday, the South Carolina House of Representatives sided with solar. It voted to bump the net metering cap from 2 to 4 percent. In English: More people with solar panels can be credited for extra electricity they create. It still has to get through the state Senate, but as Greentech Media reported, solar groups are calling it a preliminary victory.
  • North Carolina’s record on environmental justice is extremely poor, to say the least. The North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality is trying to address that with a new Environmental Justice and Equity Advisory Board. ThinkProgress reports that a diverse group of 16 representatives will help bring more North Carolinians across race and class lines into the environmental regulation creation and enforcement process.
  • North Carolina’s pig-farming industry is the second-largest in the United States. North Carolina Public Radio reports that a new state project is trying to make it easier to transform pig waste into cleaner energy.
  • A major pork producer has to pay out $50 million to nearby residents of its North Carolina farm in settling a lawsuit. The state’s hog industry has been shown to be an issue of environmental racism, as communities of color living near hog farms suffer from the health impacts of things like toxic runoff.

lack of agency

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

FEMA has the worst excuse for leaving climate change out of its strategy.

In March, after a year of record-shattering natural disasters, the Federal Emergency Management Agency released its long-term strategic plan. And that 37-page document somehow neglected to mention climate change — something the agency plainly addressed in the Obama era.

So Keith Ellison, a Democratic representative from Minnesota, sent a letter to FEMA asking why. Brock Long, the agency’s director, responded: “There was no decision, and no direction, to deliberately avoid or omit any particular term in the writing of the 2018-2022 Strategic Plan,” according to HuffPost.

Ellison wasn’t satisfied. “You still have not addressed why the plan makes no mention of climate change,” he wrote to Long on Wednesday, demanding further explanation.

But there is a simple answer. Although the Trump administration does not generally give explicit instructions to avoid saying “climate change,” it has become an unwritten expectation. The result is a culture of censorship.

While FEMA’s strategy doesn’t mention climate change, it employs the delightful euphemism “pre-disaster mitigation” 10 times, I wrote when the report came out, as well as other oblique references to “the changing nature of the risks we face.”


beachy keen

sarahracha / Flickr

Hawaii’s coral reefs may be safe from sunscreen — but not climate change.

Hawaiians and beach tourists alike could soon say goodbye to 3,500 sunscreen products. Aloha State lawmakers approved a ban on selling sunblock that contains coral-harming chemicals.

The ingredients in question — oxybenzone and octinoxate — can kill young coral and contribute to bleaching, according to the bill that now awaits approval from the governor. That’s backed up by some scientific studies, mainly out of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia.

But the bigger problem here is climate change. Ocean acidification can stunt coral growth, and warmer waters can cause coral bleaching — that’s when coral gets stressed and expels the algae in its tissue that gives it color and nutrients. A recent study found that the warming Great Barrier Reef has experienced widespread bleaching and death of coral.

Both the EPA and the Hawaiian government say that climate change poses a big threat to coral. A few years ago, heatwaves caused bleaching in almost half of Hawaii’s reefs, an event scientists called “unprecedented.”

Banning sunscreen may not stop the worst of the damage, but hey — coral reefs need all the help they can get.


quit it

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

This EPA spokesperson is done defending Scott Pruitt.

As the agency’s top public affairs official, Liz Bowman faced a difficult job. Pruitt is now the subject of 11 federal investigations.

While Bowman says she is leaving to spend more time with her kids, an EPA source told CNN that Bowman was tired of the scandals and “increasingly wary of being associated with Pruitt.”

She is the third top aide to leave the EPA this week, following the resignations of Pasquale Perrotta, Pruitt’s chief of security, and Albert Kelly, who ran the Superfund program. Last Thursday in front of Congress, Pruitt blamed his subordinates for the problems plaguing the agency. Coincidence?

The EPA press office took a Trumpian turn under Bowman’s leadership, and she became known for her snarky comments to journalists:

  • When the New York Times asked for comment about Pruitt’s unusual security measures last August, Bowman denied everything that employees had told them, adding: “It’s very disappointing, yet not surprising, to learn that you would solicit leaks, and collude with union officials in an effort to distract from the work we are doing to implement the president’s agenda.”
  • In October, she blew off a request for comment from the Times’ Eric Lipton with this doozy: “No matter how much information we give you, you would never write a fair piece. The only thing inappropriate and biased is your continued fixation on writing elitist clickbait trying to attack qualified professionals committed to serving their country.”
  • After months of this sort of treatment, the Society of Environmental Journalists wrote to the EPA in January requesting more transparency. Bowman wrote back, “The Trump EPA … has provided regional and national journalists — from the New York Times to the Daily Caller — with an unprecedented amount of access.”

Well, this EPA’s relationship with the media is certainly “unprecedented.”

We haven’t heard the last of Bowman. She has a new gig as communications director for Republican Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa.


Bugged out

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Ticks are making us sicker. The CDC blames warmer weather, not climate change.

Illnesses spread by ticks more than doubled between 2004 and 2016, a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows. Mosquito-borne illnesses are also on the rise.

Not addressed in the CDC’s report? Climate change’s role in all of this. Lead author Lyle R. Petersen says warmer weather contributed to the surge in diseases, but “declined to link the increase to the politically fraught issue of climate change,” the New York Times’ Donald G. McNeil Jr. reports. Funny — the CDC used to be very clear about that connection.

Ticks may be tiny creatures, but their bite can spread serious diseases like Lyme. A lesser-known tick called the lone star can saddle its victims with a lifelong red-meat allergy, as Grist’s Zoya Teirstein explains in a new cover story. And the lone star tick is spreading —  in part because warmer temperatures have allowed it to move from the southeastern and south-central U.S. all the way up to Maine.

As summer approaches, you can decrease your chance of becoming tick prey. Do a tick check after spending time in wooded areas or other tick hotspots. It may save you from a lifetime without red meat.


tailpipe takedown

California, D.C., and 16 other states are suing the EPA over its attempt to weaken auto rules.

In a news conference on Tuesday announcing the lawsuit, California Governor Jerry Brown took aim at EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt.

“States representing 140 million Americans are getting together to sue Outlaw Pruitt — not Administrator Pruitt, but Outlaw Pruitt,” Brown said. Without laws to mandate action, “We’re losing our battle on climate change,” he added.

For a long time, California has had tougher pollution rules for cars than the rest of the United States. Those restrictions played an enabling role in the development of technological improvements like unleaded gasoline and catalytic converters. During the Obama Administration, officials made a deal to merge California’s standards into the national ones by raising the federal benchmarks.

President Trump’s administration has said it is reneging on that deal. This week’s lawsuit posits that that violates the EPA’s own rules.

“The evidence is irrefutable: Today’s clean car standards are achievable, science-based, and a boon for hardworking American families,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a statement.

The 17 states — and the District of Columbia — that are suing the EPA are big: People living in those states buy 43 percent of all new cars sold in the country.

This isn’t the first time California has sued over environmental rollbacks. It’s the 32nd lawsuit Becerra has filed against the Trump administration.


scare quality

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Our air is worse than the EPA says.

The prevailing wisdom is that U.S. air pollution has been on a steady decline since the 1970s. That’s not exactly the case, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals.

Starting in 2011, progress on cleaning up air pollution stalled — and in some places, smog levels actually increased. The U.S. saw a 7 percent drop in nitrogen oxides between 2005 to 2009, followed by just a 1.7 percent fall from 2011 to 2015.

The EPA had projected a 30 percent decrease in nitrogen oxides between 2010 and 2016. That’s a big difference. Researchers from the U.S., China, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands compared surface and satellite measurements of air pollutants to the EPA’s emissions estimates, and they were surprised by the discrepancies, which indicate that the EPA data paints an unrealistically rosy picture of our air quality.

The research is less clear about why smog hasn’t improved much in recent years. It could be that we’re past the point of seeing dramatic change after landmark policy changes like the Clean Air Act took effect. Diesel trucks and industry pollution are likely culprits, too.

What’s cause for more alarm are two factors making it even harder to tackle air pollution: the Trump administration and climate change.


thwaites thwaites don't tell me

Boaty McBoatface is back to study a remote glacier with apocalyptic potential.

In the ship’s recent call to duty, the U.S. and Britain are teaming up in a massive five-year project to study the Thwaites glacier in Antarctica.

A strangely named vessel, Boaty McBoatface gets its moniker from a 2016 U.K. public vote to name a $300 million dollar research ship. The original suggester of the name, BBC radio host James Hand, regretted the idea, but it won by a landslide over majestic names like Endeavour and Falcon.

The government decided to give the large ship a more traditional title, but kept the people’s wishes somewhat afloat and bestowed the name upon the ship’s smaller submersible research vehicle. Both the larger ship and Boaty McBoatface will be a part of the recently announced project.

The glacier in question is nicknamed “The Doomsday Glacier” for good reason — if it and neighboring glacier Pine Island melt, they could cause the oceans to rise 11 feet, disastrously flooding coasts and submerging islands. A 6-foot increase would cause cities like Shanghai and Mumbai to disappear. It’s a topic Grist took on last year in a cover story.

Will Boaty McBoatface save the world from flooding? It’ll certainly play a role in the international project with about 100 scientists on board trying to better understand Thwaites. Go Boaty!


go to town

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Scott Pruitt can’t hold these cities back from a cleaner future.

Despite the never-ending stream of environmental inaction at the EPA, local governments across the country are setting goals to move toward renewable energy. In the last week alone:

Take that, Pruitt.