Stuff that matters

pain in the grass

REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

As drought shaming fades in California, lawns are making a comeback.

Following an exceptionally dry winter in 2015, Gov. Jerry Brown mandated that cities cut back on water use by 25 percent. Californians responded by letting their grass turn brown, or replacing it with artificial turf and less thirsty plants.

Sod suppliers, landscapers, and conservation activists now say that lawns are coming back into fashion, the Guardian reports. California did away with mandatory water restrictions in June, which may have sent the wrong message to residents. In August, urban water consumption had risen nearly 10 percent from the previous year.

Before it dropped these restrictions, the state spent $350 million on rebates for those who tore out their water-sucking grass. Anti-lawn campaigns emerged, such as “Brown is the new green,” and the media drought shamed those who maintained lush, grassy expanses.

It seemed like these efforts were working: One major lawn supplier saw orders plunge from 500 per day to 80 during the height of drought shaming.

The orders have now crept into the hundreds — despite the severe drought conditions that persist. Another dusty winter would send California into its sixth straight year of drought.

block party

Now you can use Google to organize your neighbors around solar.

You may remember Google’s Project Sunroof, a website that uses maps, weather records, and a database of local laws and tax incentives to create, basically, Google Maps for solar. You just type in your address and, voilà, you can see exactly how suitable your roof is for solar.

Well, Project Sunroof just launched a new data explorer tool with real political potential — one that crunches solar feasibility data for an entire zip code. Interested in setting up a community solar project? Want to show your city council just how much energy the city could produce if they streamlined solar permitting? Picking a neighborhood for your solar-powered survivalist commune? Google’s got you covered.

Seriously — this is a cool development. For a long time, there was so little public discussion of climate change that it seemed like it could only be tackled on an individual basis. Public tools like this are a sign of how the culture is changing.

bundy of joy

What would happen to federal lands if the Bundys got their way?

The Malheur Refuge-occupying Bundy family and some Republican politicians argue that states like Nevada should control public land. Currently, the federal government owns nearly half of western land, which is managed by agencies like the Bureau of Land Management and the National Parks Service.

If, however, the feds gave up control of all that land, what would happen? Seattle public radio station KNKX found that transferring control to states would be a big — and costly — endeavor, one that most states aren’t prepared to undertake without federal dollars.

“I think that there are some assumptions in these state arguments that the federal government is going to continue to provide resources for these landscapes, and that’s not going to happen if they are not federal resources and they aren’t owned by all American people,” U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell told KNKX.

Without federal funding, the consequences for our natural resources could be huge. For more, check out KNKX’s story.

Read More

Reuters/Andrew Kelly

Election reading for you! Wait, don’t go.

This is it, folks: The last weekend we’re left in the dark as to who the next president of the United States will be. At the very least, the agony of the uncertainty will all be over soon.

  • First thing’s first: This election has been wildly stressful — to the extent that election anxiety has had palpable impacts. Break out the Xanax, or maybe just stay off Twitter?
  • The New York Times gave us a very small, very particular window into a segment of the American electorate — through a vape shop in rural North Carolina.
  • The Texas Tribune investigated what the construction of Trump’s proposed border wall could actually look like.
  • Next week, Washington residents will vote on I-732, a ballot measure concerning a carbon tax. Read David Roberts’ exhaustive discussion of the tax on Vox, or Rebecca Leber’s exploration of how it became so contested — but preferably both!
  • One of the more remarkable contrasts of this election has been the extent to which the public knows so much about the private life of one candidate — by virtue of his reality TV celebrity — and relatively little about that of the other. In May (seems so long ago), Rebecca Traister gave us a more intimate look at Hillary Clinton.

it's not just you


Why don’t we talk about climate change more?

To find out, Greta Johnsen and Tricia Bobeda — hosts of WBEZ’s Nerdette podcast — brought climate scientist Heidi Cullen to talk to 13 Chicago families about climate change and its dangers.

They found that people are scared of climate change — for good reason — and that makes them shut down:

One Loop resident admitted “climate change is important.” But when we asked if he’d think and talk about it more after having Cullen at his kitchen table, he replied, “Nope.”

If he did, he said, he’d just walk around depressed all the time.

But ignoring climate change won’t make it go away, and its impact on places like Chicago could be dire: Cullen says that by the end of this century, the 1995 Chicago heatwave that killed 750 people could happen three times a year.

Still, we persist in avoiding the topic. “In a lot of ways, I think this project affirmed many of my own concerns and fears about climate change,” Johnson told Grist. “I know it’s something I should be concerned about, but it’s also just so overwhelming and theoretical that it’s difficult to contemplate.”

For those who aren’t too scared to contemplate, check out more from Heat of the Moment, WBEZ’s special series on climate change.

Trump dump

REUTERS/Chris Keane

A reality check on Trump’s big idea to fix the budget.

The Republican candidate on Monday promoted his plan to purportedly save the government $100 billion over eight years. It involves cutting all federal spending on climate change programs, both domestic and international.

“We’re going to put America first,” Trump said at a Michigan rally. “That includes canceling billions in climate change spending for the United Nations, a number Hillary wants to increase, and instead use that money to provide for American infrastructure including clean water, clean air, and safety.”

As Bloomberg BNA reports, Trump didn’t give a precise tally for how he got to $100 billion:

[The] campaign press office said that the figure combined an estimate of what the Obama administration had spent on climate-related programs, the amount of U.S. contributions to an international climate fund that Trump would cancel, and a calculation of what Trump believes would be savings to the economy if Obama’s and Clinton’s climate policies were reversed.

That math, however, doesn’t work out: According to a 2014 report from the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers, a global temperature increase of just 3 degrees C would cost the United States 1 percent of GDP, or $150 billion a yearby damaging public health and infrastructure and battling sea-level rise, stronger storms, declining crop yields, and increased drought and wildfires.

Smog check

Can California get anyone other than rich people to buy electric vehicles?

The state government is now trying to answer that question.

California has a generous EV rebate program, which pays out $900 to $5,000 in cash to anyone who buys one. But most of that money has been going to well-to-do people, as 75 percent of EV buyers in the state make at least $100,000 a year.

Maybe that was fine when the state was just trying to kick-start the EV market, but now it’s aiming to get 1.5 million EVs on the roads by 2025, up from about 240,000 now, and it can’t do it if only the wealthy participate. Plus, one of the key benefits of EVs is that they improve local air quality, which is needed a lot more in poor neighborhoods than rich ones.

So, under rules that took effect this week, rebates will now only go to Californians making under $150,000. And people making under $35,640 (or $72,900 for a family of four) will get an extra $2,000. The state is also experimenting with a pilot program to help low-income people get loans to buy electric cars, both new and used.

These changes won’t do it alone. Access to charging stations, for example, is going to be critical. Still, this is a step in the right direction.

Do the math

Grist / Shutterstock

For every ton of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere, we lose 32 square feet of Arctic sea ice.

This is according to a new study in ScienceThat’s a sizable slab: Rose and Jack could have floated on a ’burg that big with room to spare (and Titanic would still end with a frozen hunk!).

If you live in the U.S., you are accountable for about 17 tons of CO2 a year. That’s roughly 1.4 tons a month, or one and a half Rose-and-Jack rafts every 30 days. Multiply that by 300 million people in the States, plus Europe, plus Australia, plus … you get the picture. In the last 30 years, we’ve lost enough ice to cover Texas twice over.

Thirty-two square feet per ton is a scary, but useful, statistic. It nails a number to our individual actions, the consequences of which might otherwise seem abstract, says Dirk Notz of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany.

For example, Notz offers, a round trip flight from New York to London knocks out 32 square feet of summer sea ice “for every single seat” — something to factor in when you’re calculating the price of a ticket home.

Mind the gap

Even with climate pledges, the world’s on track to warm by more than 2 degrees.

Countries that have put forward plans for the Paris Agreement need to take even more aggressive action this century, according to a United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) report, released one day before the agreement takes effect. Current pledges set the temperature to rise by 2.9 to 3.4 degrees Celsius, well above Paris’ goal to keep warming below 2 degrees.

Both the Paris Agreement and the recent amendment to reduce hydroflurocarbons (another potent greenhouse gas) “show strong commitment,” said head of U.N. Environment Erik Solheim. “But it’s still not good enough if we are to stand a chance of avoiding serious climate change.”

You can see where the Paris pledges fall short in this graph. We’re certainly better off than the business-as-usual baseline of emissions (that steep black line). But if you add up all countries’ individual pledges (the green and brown lines labeled INDC), we’re still far from the pathway we want (blue or purple).


To get back on track, we need to lose another 12 to 14 gigatons of CO2 by 2030. How do we do that? The report highlights citywide and regional initiatives, and improved energy efficiency, to make even deeper cuts in emissions this decade.