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Grist 50: Cameron Russell's picks

Meet the fixers: These activists want carbon polluters to pay.

When you’re confronted with an issue as big and urgent as global climate change, what do you do? Camila Thorndike and Page Atcheson decided to pick one avenue of attack and go hard. They’re the creators of the Put A Price On It campaign, which is a joint project of Our Climate, an advocacy organization lead by both Atcheson and Thorndike, and Years of Living Dangerously. Their premise: The best way to fight climate change is simply to make carbon pollution more expensive — and organizing youth leaders around the country to push state legislation is the best way to make that kind of carbon tax happen.

Put A Price On It launched in August, which means the campaign was still in its infancy when it was hit with some pretty bleak news on Nov. 8. But Atcheson and Thorndike were focused on policy change on the state level all along — and there’s still quite a bit of hope there.

“It’s impossible to not be optimistic when your job is to work with young people,” Atcheson adds. The day after the election, “our students had the attitude of: ‘We need to work harder, we’re even more dedicated than we were yesterday, we have to move forward and our future is at stake — and we’re the most effective messengers at that.’”


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

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it's always sunny in florida

Say hello to more solar panels, Sunshine State homeowners!

Up until Friday, Floridians couldn’t lease solar equipment. But that’s no longer the case! State regulators voted unanimously to authorize Sunrun, a San Francisco-based company and one of the nation’s biggest residential solar providers, to begin leasing equipment in the state.

The cost of installing panels has been a major impediment to the spread of solar in Florida. But, as part of the Florida Public Service Commission decision, Sunrun will require zero money up front from customers who have just begun renting panels. Now, households can lease panels for 20 years for a fixed amount instead of buying them outright.

Florida was recently called out for particularly bad solar policies in a report from the Center for Biological Diversity. This is a big step towards alleviating that, so rise and shine, Florida! 


off balance

At least one Sinclair station has been trying to cast doubt on climate science.

Suri Crowe worked as a senior reporter at a local TV news station owned by Sinclair Broadcast Group for three years. She allegedly got the boot in part because of her reporting on climate change, Buzzfeed News reports.

In October 2015, Crowe reported a segment on climate change for WSET-TV in Lynchburg, Virginia. She says she was ordered by management to include Donald Trump’s opinion on the matter to bring “balance” to the story. Crowe defended the mountains of scientific evidence pointing to human-induced climate change and was reprimanded for it in her performance review the following year.

“The management team felt the story was one-sided — indicating that human activity is to blame for global warming — period,” the station’s former news director, Len Stevens, wrote to Buzzfeed News. When Crowe’s contract with Sinclair ended last year, it was not renewed.

Like many of us who saw the creepy viral video of Sinclair’s “must-run” clips with local news anchors repeating rhetoric closely resembling President Trump’s messaging, Crowe is shaken up.

“I believe the ire at me was politically tainted,” says Crowe. “We really have to fight for journalism — it’s worth the fight.” Sinclair is on the precipice of taking over Tribune media, an acquisition that could bring the media giant to 72 percent of American homes.


bad logic

Someone please tell Scott Pruitt that air pollution leads to more deaths than fuel efficiency standards.

The EPA administrator’s latest ploy to justify regulatory rollbacks: ignore mountains of scientific evidence and tell the public that efforts to protect our health are bad for us. (Well, maybe this strategy is not exactly new.)

This time, Pruitt is saying that fuel economy standards are actually killing people. His argument is twofold: First, he contends that the rules force automakers to build lighter vehicles, which don’t hold up well in car accidents and could increase fatalities. Simulated crash testing does not support this Koch-backed theory, according to the California Air Resources Board.

Second, Pruitt says that higher fuel efficiency standards could drive up prices and discourage people from buying newer, safer vehicle models.

Why go to such great lengths to bring back dirtier cars and trucks? The Los Angeles Times reports that the Trump administration is building up a case to revoke California’s ability to set higher mileage standards than federal law, a provision included in the Clean Air Act.

Because it’s such a huge market, California influences worldwide auto standards. A State of the Global Air report recently found that air pollution led to 1 in 9 deaths worldwide and contributed to more than 6 million deaths in 2016. That’s well over four times the number of people who die in car accidents globally each year.

Plus, the American Lung Association’s State of the Air report released this week found that more than 40 percent of Americans live in counties with unhealthy levels of air pollution.


grist 50

These 5 Midwesterners are giving their communities a makeover.

While East and West coast states are busy suing Big Oil and divesting massive retirement pensions, people in the middle of the country are also working on long-term solutions for their communities — with a little less fanfare.

We interviewed some of them for the Grist 50 2018, our list of rising stars drawing up solutions to humanity’s biggest challenges.

  • Nebraskan Melissa Freelend decided it was time to bring renewables into her state’s energy mix, so she got herself elected to the board of directors of the biggest energy provider in the state.
  • Juliana Pino escaped civil war in Colombia when she was just a kid. Now, she’s working to change discriminatory laws and fight for environmental justice in Illinois.
  • In Chicago, police ticket bicyclists in African-American and Latino neighborhoods twice as often as in white neighborhoods. Olatunji Oboi Reed, a dedicated bike rider, is working to ensure that people can get around town without facing discrimination or racial profiling from police.
  • Milwaukee has a lot of empty lots. It also has a sewage overflow problem. Justin Hegarty has a plan for both: He’s replacing vacant, concrete lots with gardens — green sponges that divert water from sewers.
  • Devita Davison is using her evangelist background to advocate for homegrown businesses in Detroit. Her nonprofit, FoodLab Detroit, assisted 320 small businesses last year.

Looking for more fixers? We’ve got ’em.


Resign of the times

Scott Pruitt’s got 99 problems but Trump ain’t one.

Congressional Democrats have been keeping an eye on the embattled EPA administrator, and they aren’t happy with what they’ve seen. On Wednesday, New Mexico Senator Tom Udall and Florida Representative Kathy Castor introduced a resolution to kick Pruitt out.

It was signed by 131 representatives and 39 senators — the most senators to call for the removal of a cabinet official in U.S. history. If you need any inspiration for insults, the press release about the resolution has plenty. Udall called him “the emperor of the swamp.” Castor said: “There is a slime problem at the EPA — and it is coming from the administrator’s office.”

Pruitt’s pileup of scandals ranges from wasteful spending (private flights) to ethical transgressions (sidelining officials who question him). That’s not to mention the damage his policies pose to public health. He faces a total of nine investigations from Congress, the White House, and his own agency. One investigation concluded this week that Pruitt broke the law in buying a $43,000 soundproof phone booth.

The call to boot Pruitt lacks bipartisan support, as Lisa Friedman writes, so it probably won’t have the desired effect. Some Republicans have turned against Pruitt, including John Kelly, the White House chief of staff. Most prominent Republicans, including President Trump, reportedly stand behind him — for now.


the northbeast

The Northeast is chugging right along on climate change action.

The West Coast often dominates the climate conversation, with its mudslides and wildfires and lawsuits against big polluters. But the Northeast also seems to be taking climate change pretty seriously.

Don’t believe me? Even New Jersey, America’s trash can, is cleaning up its act. Here’s what’s going down on America’s right-hand flank:

  • New Jersey is not only prepared to foil the Trump administration’s plans by banning offshore drilling — it also passed bills that require the state to get 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030. That includes a pretty big subsidy for nuclear energy (if that frightens you, check out this piece).
  • Five New England liberal arts colleges announced plans on Thursday to build a solar power facility in Maine. This is the first time a higher-ed alliance in New England has tackled a local solar project like this, but it follows a larger trend of universities picking up the slack on climate change.
  • A new study shows that the nine Northeast states in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a state-led cap-and-trade program, have created thousands of new jobs in renewables, cut costs, and sharply reduced emissions.

Climate action isn’t limited to America’s coasts, of course. Communities in Colorado recently announced plans to sue the pants off of Big Oil — just the sort of local climate action we’ve been waiting for.


power outrage

The whole island of Puerto Rico went dark for the first time since Hurricane Maria.

On Monday, the island’s power utility boasted that it had restored electricity to 97 percent of customers. Two days later, the precarious electric grid collapsed, plunging the entire island into a blackout for the first time in seven months.

“Back to September 20th,” tweeted San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz.

The outage, reportedly caused by a construction equipment accident, is the second to hit Puerto Rico recently. Last Thursday, a fallen tree took out power for 870,000 people. Such events have become a fact of life for Puerto Ricans, who are currently living through the second biggest electricity crisis in modern world history. Only the magnitude of electric grid damage by Typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines in 2013, was worse.

The recovery effort continues to drag on, hampered by poor planning, rampant corruption, and logistical nightmares. So far, the hurricane has triggered more than a thousand deaths, a mental health crisis, and a mass exodus from the island.

Officials estimate that power will be restored in 24 to 36 hours. But it’s not coming back for everyone — tens of thousands of rural residents of eastern and central Puerto Rico have been waiting for their lights to turn back on since September.

And guess what? The next hurricane season is just six weeks away.


it's oil over

Boulder, Colorado, is the latest city to sue Big Oil over climate change.

Remember those lawsuits California and New York filed against major oil producers for knowingly heating up the planet? Two counties in Colorado just teamed up with the city of Boulder to file a similar lawsuit of their own. The complaint alleges that oil companies contributed greenhouse gases to the atmosphere for decades while knowing the consequences.

Boulder, Boulder County, and San Miguel County are taking ExxonMobil and Suncor Energy (Canada’s biggest oil company) to court in an effort to hold them accountable for damages caused by extreme weather — events scientists have linked to increased levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Colorado has seen a 2 degree F increase on average over the past 30 years, making it the 20th fastest warming state in the U.S. since 1970.

This is the first time non-coastal communities have sued fossil fuel companies over climate change, but inland states have their own set of climate-related problems. The three plaintiffs in the lawsuit say their communities have endured wildfires and flash floods fueled by climate change. They want ExxonMobil and Suncor to pay millions for the damage and fork over additional money to fund climate adaptation initiatives.

“Plaintiffs have taken substantial steps to reduce their own GHG emissions,” the complaint says. Meanwhile, “Defendants have acted recklessly.” Watch out, Big Oil! Colorado isn’t pulling its punches.

This story has been updated.


moody poutines

Tensions rise in battle over Canadian pipeline.

Justin Trudeau, Alberta, and Kinder Morgan are on one side; British Columbia, First Nations, and environmental activists are on the other.

Alberta introduced legislation yesterday that B.C. officials say is retaliation against their opposition of the pipeline expansion, which would triple the amount of crude oil transported from the former to the latter. Kinder Morgan recently announced that it was stopping all nonessential spending on the project as a result of legal efforts and protests aimed at blocking it. If B.C. doesn’t back down by May 31, the company could scrap the project altogether. The Alberta bill allows the province’s energy minister to decide what fossil fuel products it exports, which could drive up gas prices in B.C.

Yet another battle was brewing in the courtroom. More than 200 anti-pipeline demonstrators have been arrested so far, including prominent political leaders Elizabeth May and Kennedy Stewart. A judge upped penalties for nearly two dozen protesters arrested alongside May and Kennedy from civil disobedience to potential criminal charges.

Amnesty International issued a statement in support of the activists: “Far too often, governments in Canada have overreacted to land rights protests and protests perceived to threaten favored resource development projects. It is clear that pipeline development is a high stakes issue for politicians. This means even greater vigilance is required to ensure that the right to protest is not sacrificed.” Fight on.