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Built (not) to spill

People keep building in flood-prone places like Houston.

And all that unchecked development makes flooding worse. It’s worth looking back at an in-depth piece published last year by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune, which made a compelling case that, by turning Houston’s permeable prairie into houses, people have transformed a sponge into a bathtub. It has also put more people in harm’s way.

“More people die here than anywhere else from floods,” Sam Brody, a Texas A&M University at Galveston researcher, said at the time. “More property per capita is lost here. And the problem’s getting worse.”

Of course, it’s not just Houston. We’re doing the same thing along the Atlantic seaboard — rebuilding rather than retreating after Hurricane Sandy. Without regulations in place to force people to plan for floods (or wildfires or hurricanes) they often don’t. And President Trump is trying to make it easier to build without considering rising sea levels.

Eventually we’ll learn from this, right? Right? It’s hard to say “yes” with any confidence. This is the worst flood Houston has seen, but it’s hardly the first. There were also floods in 2016, and 2015, and 2009, and 2008, and 2006 …

We’re making predictable disasters worse. We’ll need to do just the opposite if we are to adapt to climate change.

 

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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.


déjà vu

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

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

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

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

‘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.”