Briefly

Stuff that matters


It takes poo to tango

A new car from Toyota runs on a very renewable resource: human waste.

Yes, you read that right: The Toyota Mirai is powered by hydrogen fuel, which can be made from poop.

The process, as Quartz reports, is surprisingly simple. Toyota is using a wastewater processing plant in Fukuoka, Japan, to separate sewage into liquids and solids, and the solid waste is mixed with microorganisms that break it down, creating biogas. After that, carbon dioxide is filtered out, water vapor is added, more CO2 is extracted, and what you’re left with is pure hydrogen — a clean, efficient fuel that doesn’t emit greenhouse gases.

While this may seem space-aged, it’s actually old technology. Marc Melaina of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory told Quartz, “In India, they have loads of biogas plants in villages and such that are just part of their energy infrastructure.”

But poo-to-hydrogen technology is not widely available in the U.S. In fact, hydrogen fuel from any source is not widely available. There are only 29 hydrogen fueling stations in the entire country, and most are in California. If you don’t live in L.A. or San Francisco, you’re shit out of luck — at least for now. But that could change: The U.S. has plenty of crap that could be put to use.


Sound & Fury

Congressional climate deniers are getting called on their BS at town halls this week.

It turns out plenty of their constituents DO care about climate change, clean water, and environmental regulation, and they’re using the Congressional recess to make their voices heard.

Take, for example, Virginia Rep. Dave Brat, who probably expected a friendly reception from a Trump-supporting town in his district. Instead, reports the Washington Post, more than 150 people crowded into the small room to grill Brat on everything from the EPA to the Flint water crisis.

When asked if he denies climate change, Brat tried to joke “No, the climate changes all the time.” The angry crowd yelled back: “Answer the question!” And then there was this:

Want to make sure your representative gets the same message while on break from Washington? You can find a list of town hall meetings here — assuming they haven’t been cancelled by politicians afraid of straight talk from their constituents.


The Atlantis Seaboard

Maybe this is the century that America erects giant Atlantic seawalls.

And Boston could get the building started, as city officials are considering a massive barrier across Boston Harbor to prevent flooding from a swelling Atlantic Ocean. For now, however, it’s just an idea. JakartaVenice, and New Orleans are already building giant walls in the hope of holding back rising seas.

Boston has plenty at stake. Future floods could cost the city $80 billion worth of real estate and put the lives of 90,000 people at risk, according to forecasts. Which is why planners say the gigantic new piece of infrastructure is necessary — and of course it won’t come cheap.

Estimates say a simple barrier could run anywhere from a few billion dollars to tens of billions of dollars. Yet if it’s anything like Boston’s previous projects — and the Boston Globe says it “could rival the Big Dig in complexity and cost” — it will be at least five times more expensive and prove a political headache.

Either way, it would be cheaper than doing nothing.


solar dreams

A California legislator is pushing the state to get all of its electricity from renewables.

California is already shooting to get half its power from wind, solar, and hydro by 2030. But this new amendment, just drafted by state Senate leader Kevin de León (a Democrat from Los Angeles), would bump that deadline to 2025 and set a new deadline to go all-renewable by 2045. Great news, right?

Among the many obstacles in the way of that target, two stand out. First, the state will need to build a whole lot of solar panels and wind turbines. One group estimated that, to go 100-percent renewable, California would have to fill an area about the size of Connecticut with power plants. And of course we’ve seen in the past that many locals oppose big energy projects in their backyards, even when they are renewable.

The second big challenge is getting the electricity produced during daylight hours to the people who need it when the sun drops over the horizon and they turn on their lights. California will need to invest a lot of money in energy storage and develop new batteries to do that.

But maybe the simplest way to start tackling these obstacles is to add a few words to existing law, as de León is trying to do, that tells the Golden State to get ’er done.


The calm before the storm

Scott Pruitt is making nice with EPA employees, but big changes are to come.

On Tuesday, he stood in front of a room full of those employees and made his first address as administrator of the agency. Pruitt accepted welcome gifts (an EPA lapel pin and baseball hat), expressed appreciation for the staff, and insisted he would have his ears open to them. “You can’t lead unless you listen,” he said.

In his brief address, he made no mention of the toxic pollution threatening Americans’ health, but did decry the “toxic environment” polluting modern politics. He talked of working across the aisle and called for civility and “being problem solvers.”

Pruitt also lobbed subtle barbs at the agency’s past leadership, saying EPA needs to avoid abuses. “Regulations ought to make things regular. Regulators exist to give certainty to those we regulate,” he said. (Last week, he was even more critical of the Obama-era EPA, telling the Wall Street Journal that it had “disregarded the law.”)

But Pruitt made no mention of what’s likely to be big news this week: Trump is planning to sign executive orders that would start the process of rolling back two major EPA regulations: the Clean Power Plan, one of Obama’s signature climate programs, and the Waters of the U.S. rule, which regulates pollution in smaller bodies of water.


reading the signs

On Sunday, hundreds of scientists took a break from doing science to rally in support of it.

The protesters gathered in Boston’s Copley Square with some impressively nerdy signs, including “Scientists are wicked smaht” and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

The rally coincided with the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, held a few blocks away, but was not sponsored by the scientific organization. In fact, scientists have often been wary of participating in political demonstrations, citing the need for science to be objective and nonpartisan.

“We’re not protesting a party,” one scientist told the Boston Globe. “As scientists, we want to support truth.”

Truth, however, has increasingly become a political issue, with an administration that has denied climate change, attacked the value of the EPA, and put forward a non-evidence-based travel ban that would adversely affect many scientists and researchers in the United States. As one sign at the rally put it, “Alternative facts are the square root of negative one.” That is, imaginary.

Sunday’s rally was a warm-up act for the March for Science, which is expected to bring many thousands of scientists to Washington, D.C., on April 22, Earth Day.


flint lives matter

Racism was a big factor in the Flint water crisis, a new report explains.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission — a governor-appointed board established in 1963 to investigate and prevent discrimination — released a 138-page report on the Flint situation on Friday, and it’s damning.

Based on a year-long study, the report details how government failed Flint’s black residents for decades. Implicit bias and systemic racism ingrained in housing, education, infrastructure, and emergency management all perpetuated discrimination and eventually led to toxic lead levels in Flint’s water. The commission writes, “fixing the problems that originated in Flint’s latest chapter will address the tumor but not the cancer.”

Central to the report are recommendations for preventing Flint-style disasters in the future. They range from the simple — listen to residents more and relocate meetings to affected communities — to the challenging — adopt a new statewide environmental justice plan and restructure Michigan’s emergency manager law.

Though the report documents racism, it says those seeking to file claims over civil rights violations “will face an uphill climb” because racism and discrimination often harm people of color obliquely, within the law.

Its conclusion is pointed. “That the problem is systemic doesn’t mean there is nobody to blame,” the commission writes. “We are all to blame.”