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Stuff that matters

déjà vu

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This 1983 article about the EPA hitting rock bottom is way too relevant.

Substitute some scandals, and parts of this 35-year-old New York Times report on the EPA sound like they could have been written today. “Once noted for its efficiency and esprit,” it reads, “the agency is now demoralized and virtually inert, according to past and current officials of the agency, Congressmen of both parties and outside critics.”

The article was published at the height of controversy in the tenure of former EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch Burford — yes, she was Neil Gorsuch’s mother. Under President Reagan, she rolled back environmental protections and cut the agency’s budget, leading to a demoralized, understaffed agency. Sounds a lot like the EPA today, right?

The similarities with current Administrator Scott Pruitt don’t end there: Burford’s reign at the EPA was marked by ethical controversy. Her management of the Superfund program sparked a congressional investigation that stretched months. In the end, Burford withheld subpoenaed documents from the House and, held in contempt by Congress, she resigned.

This prompted some EPA employees to celebrate and start wearing T-shirts with the slogan “I Survived the Ice Queen’s Acid Reign.” Now there are calls to #BootPruitt, but it remains to be seen whether history will repeat itself.

And hey — the EPA rebuilt itself after 1983, so maybe there’s hope it will bounce back again.


Not in the plan

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FEMA had a totally inadequate plan for dealing with Hurricane Maria.

The agency low-balled how much damage a Category 4 hurricane would leave behind in Puerto Rico, according to a Politico review of a recently released FEMA planning document. The 140-page plan from 2014 outlined how FEMA would respond to “the inevitable ‘big one’ that will test local, commonwealth, territorial, and Federal capabilities” in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

The document reveals that FEMA intended to rely heavily on local authorities and the private sector in the event of a catastrophic hurricane. (To be fair, no one could have predicted the bizarre Whitefish fiasco.) Although FEMA often plays a supporting role to state efforts, it failed to take into account that Puerto Rico’s looming debt crisis and faltering infrastructure would severely limit the territory’s ability to bounce back on its own.

More than half a year after the storm, 50,000 people are still without electricity. The lackluster recovery effort is partly a result of FEMA’s decision not to take the lead in Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery, disaster-response experts say.

Take this as an illustration of just how much FEMA underestimated the potential for devastation: The plan predicted the agency would move from response to recovery mode after only one month — something it’s just recently started to do.


wisdom youth

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8 kids from Florida are suing their state over climate change.

Rick Scott, who has served as Florida’s governor since 2011, hasn’t done much to protect his state against the effects of climate change — even though it’s being threatened by sea-level rise.

On Monday, eight youth filed a lawsuit against Scott, a slew of state agencies, and the state of Florida itself. The kids, ages 10 to 19, are trying to get their elected officials to recognize the threat climate change poses to their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

18-year-old Delaney Reynolds, a member of this year’s Grist 50 list, helped launch the lawsuit. She’s been a climate activist since the age of 14, when she started a youth-oriented activism nonprofit called The Sink or Swim Project. “No matter how young you are, even if you don’t have a vote, you have a voice in your government,” she says.

Reynolds and the other seven plaintiffs are asking for a “court-ordered, science-based Climate Recovery Plan” — one that transitions Florida away from a fossil fuel energy system.

This lawsuit is the latest in a wave of youth-led legal actions across the United States. Juliana v. United States, which was filed by 21 young plaintiffs in Oregon in 2015, just got confirmed for a trial date in October this year.


Breathe Uneasy

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Trump’s new executive order spells disaster for our air quality.

While we were all watching the Wheeler and Pruitt train wreck on Thursday, President Trump nonchalantly gave industry a huge pass to pollute. The executive order makes it easier for businesses to comply with air quality standards, and also limits the EPA’s ability to hold states accountable for failing to meet National Ambient Air Quality Standards.

The executive order is a big blow to science and health in the United States. It restricts what science can be considered when regulating air quality and directs the EPA to heed warnings from interests outside of the scientific and public health realms. That means taking into account things like how much it would cost to implement air quality regulations — something the Supreme Court decided was illegal in 2001 (so keep an eye out for Trump’s order to be challenged in court).

There are a lot of reasons why scientists, lawmakers, and advocates are crying foul. But it all boils down to this: We’re going to be breathing worse air because of it. And fence-line communities of color are going to be hardest hit. Not only because they already breathe the worst air in the United States, but because Trump’s executive order lets states trade pollution permits — which tends to allow polluters to stack their chips in the places that are already suffering the most.


Grist 50

These 5 artists are sketching out the future of climate action.

According to an article in Yale Climate Communications, art can help us “see what can be difficult to see” — something that’s particularly important for climate change, which often affects us in invisible ways.

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

  • Favianna Rodriguez creates visual art that makes connections between racial, gender, and environmental justice. You’ll recognize her work from the People’s Climate March and immigrant rights rallies.
  • Imani Jacqueline Brown organized the Fossil Free Fest, an event this spring that used art to bring communities together to envision a fossil-free New Orleans.
  • Antonique Smith, a singer and actress, starred as Mimi in the Broadway show Rent — and she’s dedicating way more than five-hundred twenty-five thousand, six-hundred minutes to climate change action.
  • Putting Big Oil in the spotlight? Tanya Kalmanovitch is up to the task. She wrote a play about her experience growing up next to the biggest bitumen oil reservoir in the world.
  • If you think there’s nothing funny about climate change, think again. Comedian Josh Healy is providing some much-needed comic relief — and inspiring others to take action.

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


no drought about it

Morgana Wingard/Getty Images

‘Day Zero’ isn’t just Cape Town’s problem. It’s a global phenomenon.

In January, officials in the drought-stricken South African city began counting down the days until the point that millions of taps would run dry. They called that point “Day Zero.”

While conservation measures helped Cape Town avoid that fate (for now), the phrase “Day Zero” seems to be sticking around. Experts are worried about similar scares happening around the globe: The Guardian reported on Wednesday that the next “‘Day Zero’ water crisis” could pop up in Morocco, India, Iraq, or Spain, where satellites show that reservoirs are shrinking fast.

“‘Day Zero’ is spreading as a term for ‘the date when municipal water reserves run out’ and for ‘water shortage/crisis/drought’ more generally,” tweets John Kelly, who’s been covering the phrase for Oxford Dictionaries’ blog. (Day Zero, I might add, is not to be confused the similar-sounding computer security term or the Elijah Wood film.)

From its inception, Day Zero sparked criticism from South African national government officials, who reportedly called it a “marketing ploy to scare the public into saving water.” Cape Town officials disagreed. And like it or not, other South African cities like Kouga have adopted the term.

“There is nothing new with water cuts,” a taxi driver in Kouga told HuffPost South Africa. “The only difference now is that we hear a new word — Day Zero.”


Show of Hands

Most Americans think climate change has a place in education.

Seventy-eight percent say that schools should teach kids about global warming, according to a recent analysis by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

Yale Program on Climate Change Communication

Still, not everyone agrees. In recent years, several states have introduced bills that would take climate science out of the classroom. In Idaho, legislators erased human-caused climate change from the state curriculum last year — but in February, the state government voted to include it again. That aligns with the will of the people: The Yale survey shows that in all 50 states, including Idaho, a majority of people support teaching kids about the warming planet.

Need some suggestions for climate change education that focuses on action and not gloom? Megan Herbert and Michael Mann’s The Tantrum That Saved The World is one option. Grist even tested the book out— we read it to a class of first graders to get their feedback, and they were pretty into it.


Wheeling and dealing

As Pruitt gets buried in scandal, Andrew Wheeler is one step closer to taking charge of the EPA.

Sick of hearing about Scott Pruitt’s transgressions yet? No? Here are a few more, then:

Kevin Chmielewski, Pruitt’s ex-deputy chief of staff, told members of Congress that Pruitt told staffers to find excuses for him to fly home to Oklahoma on weekends. Chmielewski also said that Pruitt insisted on flying Delta … so that he could rack up frequent flier miles. The former deputy chief of staff was placed on administrative leave in March after refusing to sign off on a first-class flight for another Pruitt aide.

If Pruitt ends up succumbing to the scandal avalanche, someone with a similar agenda — Wheeler — could take over the agency. He’s a former aide to Senator Jim Inhofe from Oklahoma (the guy who brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that climate change doesn’t exist), and is slated to become the EPA’s No. 2 man. The Senate voted 53 to 45 on Thursday to move Wheeler toward confirmation.

His rise has attracted minimal media coverage, but Wheeler’s EPA could be just as dangerous for the environment as it has been under Pruitt. He’s a climate denier and former coal lobbyist, and his under-the-radar approach could make him more effective than his predecessor.


Bury your doubts

SAUL LOEB/AFP/Getty Images

North Dakota is the first state with the power to decide how it will bury carbon.

On Tuesday, the Trump administration shifted the responsibility for regulating carbon storage in North Dakota from the federal government to the state. The idea is that regulators on the ground might do a better job than the feds. That follows a recent bill, just passed as part of Congress’s budget deal, that encourages utilities and industries to start capturing their emissions.

Good news? Well, it depends. If North Dakota doesn’t have the will or resources to set and enforce rules, it could lead to carbon leaks and groundwater pollution. Environmental groups are divided over whether carbon capture is a good thing. It’s hard to find any clear successes so far. America’s foremost experiment in carbon capture — the Petra Nova plant in Texas — is not only expensive but also designed to get more oil out of the ground. After Grist’s long investigation of Mississippi’s “clean coal” plant, our reporter wrote: “There is serious doubt among energy experts that this technology will actually produce a net benefit for the climate.”

On the other hand, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us that if we don’t figure out how to capture emissions from fossil fuels, we’re a lot more likely to take some serious climate-change body blows.