Stuff that matters

cape of good hope

Cape Town may have conserved enough water to avoid running out this year.

The South African city received record-low rainfall in 2017. That, paired with a three-year drought that climate change may have made worse, forced Cape Town to take drastic steps to avoid Day Zero — the day that millions of taps run dry.

City officials first projected Day Zero would arrive in March, but later pushed that date to April, then July. On Wednesday, city officials announced that Day Zero may not come at all this year. That’s thanks to the efforts of Capetonians, who managed to cut their water consumption in half.

In early February, the government instated a cap on daily water usage: 13 gallons per person. (For comparison, the average American uses 100 gallons of water a day.) Capetonians flushed their toilets less, took infrequent showers, and recycled wastewater.

As a result, the city’s combined water supply never dipped below 13.5 percent capacity, the level at which authorities would have had to cut off access for three-quarters of residents. Current levels are still at an alarming 23.6 percent, but the crisis has been avoided — for now. If Cape Town sees another dry winter, it might be in for a Day-Zero scare again next year.

Desperate measures

We might save melting ice caps by giving them blankets.

Yes, that’s a real proposal. We’ve officially moved out of the normal world and into a MacGyver-esque crazy-kludge land.

It’s one of a few eccentric — and potentially useful — ideas scientists have proposed for keeping the poles capped in ice. Let’s consider three of them.

Cover the ice: In the Swiss Alps, people pull white blankets over glaciers to shield them from the sun every summer. It may prevent up to 70 percent of the melting. Scientists say they could try something similar to preserve glaciers at the poles.

Then, there’s a proposal to spread “eco-friendly reflective sand on top of ice” from the nonprofit Ice911.

Just make more ice: Using giant wind turbines, we could pump water up on top of the ice during the winter. There — exposed to the cold air — it would freeze, providing an additional layer of protection for the summer.

Construct a cold foundation: Scientists have proposed building “underwater barriers in front of the glaciers most vulnerable to collapse, keeping warm ocean water from sloshing in to melt them,” as we wrote last month. These giant, underwater dams would eventually erode.

Let’s face it: All of these ideas are jury rigs. If we’re going to avoid some kind of sea-level rise disaster, we’ve got to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Pronto.

down by the bay

After a three-decade fight, the Chesapeake Bay is finally flourishing again.

The largest estuary in North America was home to a deeply diverse population of plants and animals — biodiversity that the six northeastern states bordering the Bay depended on for tourism and commercial fishing.

That all changed when agricultural runoff and wastewater fouled the watershed and nearly snuffed out many of its inhabitants. A coalition of states and the federal government got together to clean it up in 1984, and, after three decades of fits and starts (restoring biodiversity ain’t easy), they’re more or less succeeding.

According to a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the cleanup project has reduced nitrogen pollution in the Bay by 23 percent, resulting in a 316 percent increase in aquatic vegetation, including key species like seagrass. The results indicate that vegetation didn’t just increase, it became more biodiverse — which means the area will be more resilient.

Exciting, right? Well, President Trump’s 2018 budget suggests eliminating the Chesapeake Bay Program’s annual funding — about $73 million a year. It looks like neither the House nor the Senate is willing to fully cut the project’s funding, but we’ll have to wait until Congress finishes negotiating the full 2018 budget to see if the Chesapeake’s cleanup program has been spared.

litmus test

Scientists running for Congress are about to face a test in Texas.

The Trump administration’s reliance on alternative facts has inspired an unusual type of office seeker this year: the activist scientist.

According to the nonprofit advocacy group 314 Action, a record-breaking 60 candidates with science backgrounds have set their sights on Congress for the upcoming midterm elections. Many of those candidates are political novices with limited funding, and some are running in historically red districts.

Texas’ 21st District race on March 6, the country’s first primary election vote, will be a good litmus test. The seat up for grabs is currently held by Lamar Smith, a climate change denier who also happens to chair the House Science Committee. His imminent retirement has sparked a SUPER crowded race for his district, which voted for Trump by a 10-point margin in 2016. Four Democrats and 19 Republicans are in the running.

Two scientists are in that mix: Samuel Temple, a Republican, and Joseph Kopser, a Democrat. Neither of them can exactly be described as a traditional candidate. Temple, who says he plans on using a data-driven approach to politics, is  in favor of legalizing marijuana. And Kopser, who is pro-renewables, thinks banning fracking is a recipe for increased dependence on coal.

Do the nerds have a shot? Who knows. But the fact that scientists are running at all is pretty darn cool.

strike a deal

Striking teachers in West Virginia call for raising taxes on coal and gas.

The 48th lowest-earning teachers in the country are eight days into a strike that demands a 5 percent pay raise. They’re frustrated by rising health care costs and, y’know, working at Hardee’s on the weekends to make ends meet.

And some are arguing that the state’s fossil fuel industry should chip in to its tight education budget. During a walkout last week, strikers were heard yelling “severance tax” and “tax our gas!”

Raising state severance taxes on coal and natural gas from the current rate of 5 percent to 7.5 percent would generate an extra $93 million in revenue in 2019, an analysis from the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy shows.

The severance tax hike has the support of West Virginia governor Jim Justice, a Republican and former coal tycoon — of course, as it applies to natural gas. However, West Virginia Senate Republicans were not as enthused. Last week, they killed a measure that would have used natural gas severance tax revenue to help cover teachers’ insurance.

“[O]ur state is in poverty and will continue to be in poverty because these industries come in and tell our representatives how things are going to go,” Kristina Gore, a fifth grade social studies teacher, told The New Republic.

Coal ash wins day

Big surprise: Oil and coal win again in the Trump administration.

Today in the current administration pandering to fossil fuel companies: more EPA rollbacks just as emails reveal that oil interests were behind the shrinkage of Bears Ears.

The Environmental Protection Agency on Thursday announced a proposal to allow states to determine how to dispose of coal ash. In 2015, the Obama administration tried, albeit meekly, to regulate coal ash, the toxic waste left behind from burning coal.

And The New York Times confirmed suspicions that oil and gas exploration was a motive behind lopping off 2 million acres of land from the Bears Ears National Monument. The Times obtained thousands of emails and memos documenting the discussion between the Trump administration and fossil fuel interests.

“Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting a boundary change for the southeast portion of the Bears Ears monument,” an email from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch’s office read on March 15. Redrawing the lines according to the map would, “resolve all known mineral conflicts.” Bears Ears’ new borders open up nearly all the oil and gas sites drawn out on the map.

Legal limbo

A federal judge just opened the door to more climate lawsuits.

In a ruling this week, Judge William Alsup said that plaintiffs can sue greenhouse-gas emitters in federal court. That’s a big reversal. So far, the courts have held that it’s up to the EPA and lawmakers — not judges — to bring polluters into line.

In this case, the cities of Oakland and San Francisco sued a bunch of oil companies for contributing to climate change, raising sea levels and damaging their waterfronts. Because federal courts had previously said they wouldn’t regulate polluters, the cities were trying to move their lawsuit into the California court. If federal court wouldn’t punish polluters, the lawyers figured, maybe state court would.

Alsup denied the cities’ motion to move to state court. But instead of bowing to precedent and punting responsibility over to the EPA, he’s letting the lawsuit go to trial — in federal court.

“[The oil companies] got what they wanted; but they may be sorry they did,” said Ken Adams, lawyer for the Center for Climate Integrity, in a statement.

Of course, after opening this door, the courts could very well slam it shut again. The Supreme Court unanimously ruled in 2011 that it’s the job of Congress and regulators, not the court, to police emissions. But that decision concerned an American electric utility. Alsup said this case was different because the cities are suing international corporations.

beach don't kill my vibe

Opposition to Trump’s offshore drilling plan transcends party lines.

It turns out, most of us prefer our beaches nice and clean. That’s probably why a January proposal from Trump’s Interior Department to open up the Atlantic coast for offshore drilling was met with opposition from state representatives and attorney generals across the political spectrum.

Representative Nancy Mace — a South Carolina Republican who formerly worked as a field director for the Trump campaign in seven states — is the latest politician to reject offshore drilling. Mace has only been South Carolina’s representative for a few weeks, but she’s already breaking ties with her former employer.

“Ain’t gonna happen. Not on my watch!” Mace said at a rally in South Carolina on Wednesday, reports the Washington Post. South Carolina’s beaches rake in $20 billion a year in revenue for the state and provide 600,000 tourism jobs.

Other coastal states like Florida, California, New York, and Washington also have robust coastal tourism economies and have taken issue with the proposed policy.

Now, the Interior Department is holding a series of “listening sessions” in 23 states across the country to hear from the public about its drilling plan. Zinke has already gotten an earful from Democrats and Republicans for his decision to exempt Florida from offshore drilling in January.

At an event in February, South Carolina Republican Senator Chip Campsen said, “If Florida is unique, we’re more unique.”

Year in Review

We’ve lived through one wild year of Ryan Zinke.

It’s been 365 days since the secretary of the Interior rode a horse (Tonto, thank you) to his first day at the office and promised to make American energy dominance a centerpiece of his agenda.

In that period of time, Zinke dismantled protections on some of America’s most treasured national monuments, opened up acres of public land to oil and gas interests, and exposed miles of coastline to offshore drilling.

Here’s a quick recap of his recent crowning accomplishments:

  • On Zinke’s recommendation, the GOP December tax bill opened up 2,000 acres for development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, an area that’s home to many endangered species.
  • That same month, Trump downsized two national monuments, Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. A week later, Zinke recommended that the president shrink two more monuments and reorganize six marine monuments.
  • This January, Zinke unveiled plans to open up a whole slew of new areas for offshore drilling, including the Arctic, Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, and possibly parts of the Pacific.

To honor his efficiency, Zinke received the 2017 Rubber Dodo Award from the Center for Biological Diversity. It’s bestowed upon the “person or group who has most aggressively sought to destroy America’s natural heritage or drive endangered species extinct.” High praise for a guy who’s actually supposed to protect those things.