Stuff that matters

Grist 50

Meet the fixer: This storyteller puts people first.

For all their glittering charisma, solar cells and wind turbines don’t make for the best story subjects. But the people who benefit from cleantech — whether they’re landing jobs in the industry, breathing cleaner air, or just saving a few bucks on utilities — have the real tale to tell.

With 100%, a media campaign from The Solutions Project, Sean Watkins and his team seek out diverse climate leaders across the country and tell their success stories over Facebook, Instagram, and sometimes even physical billboards. The purpose is to build inspiration and momentum for others to push for 100 percent clean energy in their communities and create campaigns that outlive our gone-in-a-minute attention spans.

For the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, Watkins enlisted Avengers star Mark Ruffalo to host eight short videos that profile tribal members and supporters at Standing Rock. Watkins also shines a light on communities that might otherwise fall under the radar. Case in point: a social media and YouTube campaign to recognize PUSH Buffalo, a local group that’s turning the shuttered houses and storefronts on the city’s West Side into a sustainable neighborhood. (Check out the story of PUSH Buffalo’s deputy director, Rahwa Ghirmatzion, another Grist 50 member.) “We know and believe that there are success stories everywhere,” says Watkins.

Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.

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The Buck Stops Here

Trump grudgingly signs a bill that stops his border wall from ruining a wildlife refuge.

His administration had hoped to break ground on the wall within the 2,088-acre Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge along the Texas-Mexico border — because where better to begin than on land that’s already federally owned?

Never mind that the refuge was created to protect over 400 species of migratory birds and endangered species like the ocelot, which scientists have warned could cease to exist in the U.S. if the border wall cuts through Southeast Texas.

Lawmakers rebuked many of President Trump’s attempts to slash budgets for environmental and clean energy programs by passing the massive $1.3 trillion omnibus spending bill. After threatening a veto, Trump narrowly averted another government shutdown on Friday when he reluctantly signed the bill into law.

A marsh within the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

The bill sets aside $1.6 billion for construction of the border wall. Environmentalists and immigrants rights advocates say that the revised route — which would run along the edge of the refuge — still poses significant threats to surrounding ecosystems and communities.

“While it preserves the Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge for the time being, it still risks people and places nearby,” the Sierra Club’s Scott Nicol said in a statement, adding that the wall could increase flooding on Native American land, harm endangered species, and disrupt wildlife migration.

something in the way he denies

NBC meteorologist has seen fire and he’s seen rain, and he will NOT moderate debate with climate denier James Taylor.

Taylor — a senior fellow at the Heartland Institute, not the American singer-songwriter — is scheduled to speak at a conference in Miami Beach next week that teaches journalists how to cover climate change. You read that right, a well-known climate denier is going to advise reporters and editors on how to cover an issue he doesn’t believe exists.

That doesn’t sit well with John Morales who was invited to moderate a panel that puts Taylor in conversation with Natalie Lever, a branch manager at a climate action organization started by Al Gore called Climate Reality.

On Wednesday, Morales tweeted out a letter he sent to event host Florida International University, outlining his reasons for declining his invitation. In the letter, Morales highlighted the “false equivalence,” an ongoing issue in climate coverage that gives established scientists and people on the outskirts of the climate debate equal footing in a misguided effort to provide audiences with a “balanced” narrative.

Well, Morales has had it up to here with false equivalence, the Heartland Institute, and FIU. Check it out:

Looks like it’s lonely times when Taylor cannot find a friend.

toxic wake

Officials underreported Hurricane Harvey’s toxic fallout.

An investigation by the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle uncovered more than 100 releases of industrial toxins in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The storm compromised chemical plants, refineries, and pipelines along Houston’s petrochemical corridor, bringing contaminated water, dirt, and air to surrounding neighborhoods. Carcinogens like benzene, vinyl chloride, and butadiene were released. In all but two cases, regulators did not inform the public of the spills or the risks they faced from exposure.

The report also found that the EPA failed to investigate Harvey’s environmental damage as thoroughly as other disasters. The EPA and state officials took 1,800 soil samples after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After Hurricane Ike slammed into Texas in 2008, state regulators studied 85 soil samples and issued more than a dozen violations and orders to clean up.

But post-Harvey, soil and water sampling has been limited to 17 Superfund sites and some undisclosed industrial sites. Experts say this is a problem because floodwaters could have picked up toxins in one place and deposited them miles away.

“That soil ended up somewhere,” Hanadi Rifai, director of the University of Houston’s environmental engineering program, told the AP. “The net result on Galveston Bay is going to be nothing short of catastrophic.”

Seven months after Harvey, the EPA says it’s investigating 89 incidents. But it has yet to issue any enforcement actions.

the jig is Alsup

4 surprising facts about the judge behind California’s climate change trial.

On the morning of a historic climate change trial, Judge William Alsup arrived at the courthouse ready to rumble. He had asked for a climate science “tutorial” in a case he’s presiding over — a lawsuit filed by two California cities against five major oil companies.

Here’s what we know about the fella holding the fate of the planet in his hands like a tiny baby bird:

  • He’s a fan of science. On Wednesday, Alsup came to court sporting a tie with a snapshot of deep space painted on it. He had prepped for the hearing by watching a slew of documentaries, including An Inconvenient Truth. Courts have these sort of tutorials from time to time, Alsup said, “so the poor judge can learn some science.”
  • He does his homework. In 2012, Alsup was the presiding judge over a major Silicon Valley lawsuit and — in a move that caught both sides by surprise — he showed up to the courthouse with a passable understanding of JavaScript.
  • He helped save DACA from President Trump. In January, Alsup blocked Trump’s move to end DACA, calling the decision “arbitrary and capricious.” Burn.
  • He’s got a sense of humor. During Wednesday’s climate change tutorial, in the midst of a round of questions about sea-level rise, a loud beep went off in the courtroom. “Coastal flood alert,” Alsup quipped.

Alsup isn’t afraid of laying down the law. After lawyers for most of the oil companies stayed silent in court on Wednesday, he demanded they come back in two weeks with more information.

burning questions

A court showdown poses climate change questions. Scientists have answers.

A first-of-its-kind climate science trial came to a California federal court on Wednesday. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland are suing five major oil companies for knowingly contributing to climate change and deceiving the public to rake in profits.

William Alsup, an unorthodox judge who requested a highly unusual tutorial in climate science, asked the defendants and plaintiffs to provide answers to eight questions. Climate scientists took to the interwebs to crowdsource answers to them. The questions include:

Q. What caused the various ice ages (including the “little ice age” and prolonged cool periods) and what caused the ice to melt? When they melted, by how much did sea level rise?
A. Natural changes in the Earth’s orbit and the amount of greenhouse gases. Sea level rose a lot — more than 400 feet.

Q. What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
A. Fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

Q. What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth?
A. Human activities are likely responsible for 93 to 123 percent of recent global warming. It can go over 100 percent because we’re canceling out what would be natural cooling.

Environmental journalists, including Grist’s Nathanael Johnson, are tweeting updates from the courtroom. Follow along! And if you want to check out the rest of the questions, find them here.

picture this

Kids are beginning to picture scientists as women.

A third of the time, at least, according to a new analysis in the journal Child Development.

The findings indicate that today’s children are a splash more amenable to the idea of women scientists than the kids of the past. Between 1966 and 1977, researchers asked 5,000 kids to draw what they thought a scientist looked like. Are you ready for this? Only 28 (28! out of 5,000!) drew a recognizably female scientist.

The new analysis looked at data from 78 studies and determined that the percentage of children who draw female scientists has risen 28 percent since the ’70s. But kids are absorbing gender stereotypes as they age. While 70 percent of 6-year-old girls drew women as scientists, only 25 percent of 10- to 11-year-olds did — despite the fact that women are starting to gain more representation in science.

The truth of the matter is that science benefits when women and people of color are better represented. That’s why we’re hoping that our tots keep broadening their horizons.

Day in Court

After Supreme Court ruling, Flint residents will finally see officials in court.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed two class-action lawsuits over contaminated water to go to trial.

Flint residents and businesses brought civil rights claims against state and local officials in the suits, filed in 2014 and 2016. The city’s lead crisis has been linked to an increase in fetal deaths, a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, and long-term effects on children’s health.

Both lawsuits were thrown out just over a year ago by U.S. District Judge John C. O’Meara, who said that the cases fell outside of his jurisdiction because of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). On top of that, he ruled that the plaintiffs failed to follow SDWA provisions that require defendants be given 60-day notice.

A federal appeals court — which the Supreme Court agreed with — later reversed O’Meara’s dismissal of the cases. That ruling is significant for another reason: It allows the plaintiffs to seek monetary damages.

“I am thrilled that the highest court in the country feels that we have the right to sue and deserve our day in court,” said Melissa Mays, who filed suit alongside other Flint parents in 2014. Mays, who is white, is one of more than 100,000 residents in the majority-black city who were exposed to lead-contaminated water after the city tried to cut costs by switching water sources in 2014.

lives on the line

Surprise! Cutting emissions doesn’t just help polar bears, it saves people, too.

More stringent climate regulations could save as many as 153 million lives, according to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change. The researchers looked at how many premature deaths could be avoided by keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, half a degree less than the goal set out in the Paris Agreement — an international limit on emissions we could surpass in … five years.

The study shows exactly how much the 154 cities used in the analysis stand to lose if governments don’t act to limit emissions quickly. This is the first time researchers have mapped out the number of lives that could be saved city by city with an effort to restrain global warming.

Places like New York, Los Angeles, and Moscow could avert somewhere between 120,000 and 320,000 early deaths. Two big cities in India, Kolkata and Delhi, could each save approximately 4 million lives, and 13 African and Asian cities could save 1 million lives each.

If rising sea levels and melting sea ice don’t get us moving on emissions reductions, maybe the imminent premature deaths of millions of people will do the trick.

Single Issue Voter

Cynthia Nixon is campaigning on fixing New York’s broke-ass subway.

You may have heard that, in an extremely good Sex and the City plot development, the actress is challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo for the throne of New York state. The primary issue she appears to be campaigning on: the New York City subway, which is both the largest and most comprehensive metro system in the country, and also catastrophically dilapidated.

The MTA, currently held together by spit and four prayers, is such a central part of Nixon’s campaign that it gets its own section on her website. Therein, one can find an extremely sick burn of her opponent:

Governor Cuomo has dealt with transportation like someone who visits New York, but doesn’t actually live here — who uses our bridges and airports to get in and out of the city, but doesn’t have to depend on the trains to get to work every day.

Nixon’s SATC character did not take the subway one single solitary time … UNTIL SHE MOVED TO BROOKLYN!!! Which is where she’s currently campaigning among irate New Yorkers stranded on subway platforms — specifically, this morning at the Utica Avenue station in Crown Heights.

To quote Zoya Teirstein, native New Yorker: “She can win. She doesn’t need any other issue.”