Briefly

Stuff that matters


meals on deals

FEMA struck a deal with a company that failed to deliver enough meals to Puerto Rico.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency had awarded a $156 million contract to an Atlanta-based company, Tribute Contracting LLC, to give 30 million meals to hurricane survivors. It only delivered 50,000.

Another problem: The meals that Tribute provided weren’t up to FEMA’s standards as they weren’t able to be heated up easily, the New York Times reports. Citing “a logistical nightmare,” FEMA canceled the deal. (FEMA says it tapped other suppliers to successfully deliver adequate food to Puerto Rico.)

Prior to signing the Puerto Rico contract, Tribute had a history of “at least five canceled government contracts,” according to the Times. And Tiffany Brown — the owner and sole employee of the company — had no previous experience coordinating large-scale disaster relief.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee are investigating the contract. The snafu with Tribute highlights a potential pattern of behavior: Back in 2005, FEMA scrambled to find qualified contractors after Hurricane Katrina hit. That lack of planning created chaos and wasted hundreds of millions of dollars.

And Puerto Rico has already seen more than its fair share of botched contracts — remember the fiasco with the island’s utility and Whitefish Energy? With 20 percent of residents still without power, Puerto Rico still needs aid. Something it doesn’t need? More shoddy contracts.


Higher edu-action

13 universities band together to fight climate change.

While the U.S. government cuts science funding and rolls back environmental protections, some North American universities hope to fill that void with institutional might.

The University Climate Change Coalition, dubbed UC3, is writing a roadmap for university-level action on climate change. Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California and former Homeland Security secretary under Barack Obama, announced the coalition on Tuesday.

The participating research institutions from the United States, Canada, and Mexico have pledged to reduce their carbon footprints and foster climate change action in their local communities:

  • Arizona State University
  • California Institute of Technology
  • Tecnológico de Monterrey
  • La Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
  • Ohio State University
  • State University of New York
  • University of British Columbia
  • University of California
  • University of Colorado, Boulder
  • University of Maryland, College Park
  • University of New Mexico
  • University of Toronto
  • University of Washington

UC3 will operate in tandem with the Climate Leadership Network, a group of colleges and universities working to provide students with the tools they need to tackle climate change.

“The UC3 coalition believes that addressing climate change is an area where some of the world’s greatest research institutions can, and must, lead,” Napolitano said.


mercury rising

There is a huge amount of mercury trapped in the Arctic.

Which, by the way, is melting.

“This discovery is a game-changer,” said Paul Schuster, lead author of a new study that quantified the total mercury in the Arctic’s frozen permafrost.

And it’s a lot of mercury! To be precise, 793 gigagrams — more than 15 million gallons — of the stuff is currently locked up in frozen northern soils. That’s by far the biggest reservoir of mercury on the planet — almost twice the amount held by the rest of the world’s earth, oceans, and atmosphere combined.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the permafrost stayed, well, permanently frosty. But, as previous research has outlined, it’s not.

Mercury is a toxin that can cause birth defects and neurological damage in animals, including humans. And mercury levels accumulate as you go up the food chain, which is why king-of-the-jungle species like tuna and whale can be unsafe to eat in large quantities.

As thawing permafrost releases more mercury into the atmosphere and oceans, the implications for human health are troubling. Locally, many northern communities rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, two sources of possible mercury contamination. Globally, the toxin could travel great distances and collect in distant ecosystems.

As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to want permafrost to stay frozen.


phd candidates

A record-breaking number of scientists are running for office this year.

To stand up to climate change deniers and protect science, a wave of candidates from science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) backgrounds are running for local and federal office in 2018.

More than 60 STEM candidates have announced a bid for federal office, while almost 200 are running for state legislature and another 200 for local school boards, according to 314 Action, a political action committee.

It’s the one good thing to come out of the Trump administration’s attempts to wipe climate change from websites, silence experts, and generally take scientific censorship to the next level.

There’s currently a small number of STEM representatives in Congress — one PhD physicist, one microbiologist, and a handful of engineers, says Ted Bordelon, 314’s Director of Communications. More than 7,000 potential candidates have reached out to 314, and it’s trained nearly 1,500 of them.

The scientist candidates won’t have it easy. Some are challenging incumbents, who are generally favored. And some opponents will have financial support from the fossil fuel industry and the Koch brothers, who are spending $400 million on the election this year.

Shaughnessy Naughton, founder and president of 314, says that’s to be expected: “There’s basically a direct correlation between money that the fossil fuel industry spends on candidates and their refusal to do anything about climate change.”


bye!

Trump’s controversial environment pick is out.

President Trump’s nominee for the Council on Environmental Quality called CO2 a “plant nutrient,” which is true, I guess, but Kathleen Hartnett White also said that “Carbon dioxide has none of the characteristics of a pollutant that could harm human health,” so …

The environmental adviser nominee faced fierce opposition from congressional Democrats, who argued White’s climate denial disqualified her for the position. On Saturday, the Washington Post reported that White had withdrawn her name from consideration.

White drew widespread criticism after footage of her confirmation hearing made the rounds on social media last November. During that hearing, White said, “I do not have any kind of expertise or even much layman study of the ocean dynamics and the climate-change issues,” as a visibly frustrated Senator Sheldon Whitehouse pressed her on some pretty basic laws of nature.

As head of the CEQ, White would have had to assess the environmental effects of federal energy policies, a task best suited for someone who understands that humans have an effect on the environment.


at elon last

Tesla solar products are coming to a store near you.

Shoppers will be able to purchase the tech company’s solar panels and Powerwall batteries (home electricity storage units) at all 800 Home Depot locations across the United States.

Kiosks that sell the products are already up and running in some Southern California Home Depot locations, and more will launch in Las Vegas and Orlando next week. Tesla is also in talks with Lowe’s about carrying its solar products, sources told Bloomberg News.

The Tesla-Home Depot partnership will test solar’s performance on the mainstream market. It comes less than two weeks after Trump slapped a hefty import tax on solar panels, which is expected to make solar installation less affordable across the U.S.

Installing a solar panel system in your home can cost between $10,000 to $25,000 before rebates, plus another $7,000 for a battery. But once it’s up, you start saving on electricity bills. Type your address into Google’s Project Sunroof for an estimate of how much you’d save in the long run.


law-inspiring

New York to EPA: Get a lawyer. Again.

The Obama-era Clean Water Rule expanded government protection to cover streams and wetlands, and was hailed by environmentalists as a significant step forward for conservation. On Wednesday, EPA chief Scott Pruitt announced the agency is suspending the rule for two years, citing it as an example of government overreach.

New York state has a little something to say about that. On Thursday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, vowed to lead a “multistate coalition” to block suspension of the rule in court.

Schneiderman sued the Trump administration 28 times in 2017, and it appears he plans to continue the tradition this year:

Over the last year, we have not hesitated to fight back against the Trump Administration’s assault on the law and New Yorkers’ fundamental right to clean water, air, and environment. We won’t stop now.

He’s just one of many state AGs suing the administration over environmental rollbacks. Washington state’s Bob Ferguson has launched 19 lawsuits to derail Trump’s agenda, and California’s Xavier Becerra has become a nationally recognized expert at keeping the administration tangled up in court.


Moove along, nothing to see here

Every year, more cows are milked by robots.

The machines used to be cumbersome and prone to failure, but the newer models really work. They feed cows, milk them, clean them, and carefully monitor their health. According to Bloomberg, robots are staged to surge into dairies in coming years.

It’s part of a larger trend of automation across farm country, which could go into overdrive if President Trump continues deporting people living in the United States without papers. Farms have long relied on immigrants working for lower wages than citizens, who enjoy greater protection under labor laws.

We’re also seeing more farmers turn to guest worker programs, which temporarily import foreign workers.

A few years ago, I weighed the pros and cons of mechanized dairies. To put it bluntly, using robots is better than exploiting workers. But even though the jobs these robots take are really crappy, that means that money flowing to poor people will be diverted to robotics companies instead.

Robots could help small and mid-sized family dairies compete by cutting labor costs. On the other hand, automation could further depopulate rural towns.

In sum, robotic dairies mean that farmers will be working less with their hands and more with their heads.


Climate State of the Union

Here’s the State of the Union address you didn’t hear about.

Both President Trump’s speech and the official Democratic response from Representative Joe Kennedy III failed to mention climate change — y’know, the biggest threat facing the human race.

But one event DID put climate change front and center: the Climate State of the Union hosted by environmental activism group 350.org.

Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org, and Lennox Yearwood, president of the Hip Hop Caucus, emceed the event. It featured cameos from major players in the environmental, food, and justice movements — including a certain anti-billionaire senator from Vermont.

Author Naomi Klein, indigenous activist Dallas Goldtooth, and food justice advocate Tara Rodriguez Besosa, among others, took the stage to highlight the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico, the movement to build resilience through local food, and the indigenous-led resistance to new fossil fuel projects.

The best part of the night? When Bernie Sanders announced that the climate debate was over. Finally!