Briefly

Stuff that matters


good arridance

Roughly a quarter of the planet is slowly turning into a perpetual desert.

A study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change contains a stark warning for humankind: If global temperatures rise 1.5 degrees C above preindustrial levels by 2050, between 20 and 30 percent of the world’s land surface could face desertlike conditions.

Swaths of Asia, Europe, Africa, Central America, and southern Australia would be hit particularly hard by drought and aridification, the long-term reduction of moisture in soil. More than 1.5 billion people currently live in these regions.

But there is a way to avoid this desertlike fate — for the most part. The study projects that two-thirds of affected areas could be salvaged if we limit warming to 1.5 degrees C.

The Paris Agreement calls on the international community to limit warming to under 2 degrees C, but that goal is getting harder and harder to meet. The planet has already warmed by 1 degree C, and several studies indicate we’ll hit the 2-degree mark by the end of the century even if we stop burning fossil fuels immediately.

Oh, and don’t forget that President Trump intends to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate deal at the first available opportunity, significantly weakening the global effort to mitigate the effects of climate change. Happy 2018?

Get Briefly in your inbox every weekday

clean coal

An old coal-fired plant in North Dakota is trying to go green.

The Minnkota Power Cooperative’s Milton R. Young station got a $6 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to design a carbon capture model that would reduce the plant’s carbon emissions by 90 percent.

The project is one of seven funded by the Energy Department’s new $44 million Design and Testing of Carbon Capture Technologies program.

The 40-year-old Minnkota station has two coal-powered units that together produce roughly 700,000 kilowatts of energy. Its larger unit is slated to get retrofitted with carbon capture technology — when CO2 is sucked from the air and stored underground so it doesn’t enter the atmosphere.

But the project will take more than a year to design, and at the end of that period, Minnkota Power might decide that the project isn’t economically feasible.

It’s a very real possibility. The woe-begotten Kemper Power plant, the nation’s first “clean coal” carbon capture facility, stopped work on clean coal last summer and reported billions of dollars in losses.

Then again, the Trump administration passed a budget this month that contains enormous incentives for clean coal tech, and researchers say carbon capture could be key to keeping global temperatures under the 2 degrees C limit.

Wait, hold up: Are scientists and the Trump administration in agreement for once?


from Russia with love

Rex Tillerson is caught in a love triangle with Russia and the U.S.

“The relationship that I had with Putin spans 18 years now,” the secretary of state said during a 60 Minutes interview with CBS’ Margaret Frank. “It was always about what I could do to be successful on behalf of my shareholders, and how Russia could succeed.” A true deal-maker.

But as U.S. secretary of state, the ex-CEO of ExxonMobil is supposed to put the United States’ interests first. That should ostensibly put some pressure on the relationship between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Tillerson, which was commemorated with a Russian friendship medal in 2013 after ExxonMobil signed deals with Rosneft, the state-owned Russian oil company.

Russia is one of the world’s top exporters of both oil and gas. As Alex Steffen and Rebecca Leber have written, the country stands to benefit from procrastinating on climate change action that would limit fossil fuel extraction.

In the 60 Minutes interview, Tillerson recounted his first meeting with the Russian president after becoming U.S secretary of state. “Same man, different hat,” is how he recalls reintroducing himself.

“What he is representing is different than what I now represent,” Tillerson elaborated. “And I said to him, ‘I now represent the American people.’”

Convincing! And now, on to the SNL skit that apparently made Tillerson laugh out loud:


pedestrian crossing

It’s more dangerous to cross a street if you’re black. Here’s why.

Sure, walking means fewer emissions and a healthier you. But have you ever spent an annoying amount of time trying to cross a busy street? For black people, the wait is usually even longer.

Recent studies show that drivers’ racial bias lengthens wait times for black pedestrians. Along with poor infrastructure, bias could explain why black Americans and other people of color have significantly higher rates of pedestrian deaths. Watch the video to learn more.


hy-genie in a bottle

Ditch the deodorant, save the planet?

A new study brings to light a little-known source of dangerous emissions: personal care products.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, used computer models to study how a wide range of stuff people use in their homes, from lotion to house paint, contributes to air pollution. Printer ink, glue, and cleaning products contain petroleum-based chemicals. Even your deodorant may release smog-promoting particles into the air (not to mention your armpit).

Researchers showed that these volatile chemical products (VCPs) produce half of the volatile organic compounds found in Los Angeles. That means that household products may contribute as much to air pollution as motor vehicles do. VCPs help create ozone, the compound that provokes asthma, and PM2.5, super-small pollutants that can cause cancer and lung disease.

It’s hard to believe that a dab of lotion could be as harmful as a gallon of gasoline, but gas only produces carbon dioxide (which causes a whole different set of problems). A full 40 percent of the chemicals in lotions and other personal products float into the atmosphere.

So the next time you’re indulging in some well-deserved self-care, maybe go easy on the products.


flight club

We’re calling BS on Scott Pruitt’s excuse for flying first-class.

The Environmental Protection Agency administrator has seemingly made it his mission to burn as much jet fuel as he can, as expensively as possible. How does one even find a $1,641 ticket from D.C. to New York City?

The EPA’s latest explanation for the taxpayer-funded spending spree is that first-class upgrades help Pruitt avoid confrontations with fellow airport-goers — like when someone yelled at him “Scott Pruitt, you’re f—ing up the environment.” These types of encounters make Pruitt feel “unsafe” while flying, as Henry Barnett of the agency’s Office of Criminal Enforcement told Politico.

But that’s a strange way to justify all those first-class tickets, considering the events described happened in an airport, not a plane. Plus, airline safety experts say first-class isn’t really safer than the rank-and-file alternative.

Federal regulations say government travelers should act as any “prudent person” would. Pruitt could easily buy a window seat in coach with two aides by his side, as Norm Eisen, a former U.S. ambassador, pointed out on Twitter. Along with his 24/7 bodyguards, it seems like that should be enough.

Then again, maybe there’s a security advantage to heated towels and complimentary snacks we haven’t considered yet. Or maybe this is just another step of Pruitt’s plan to dismantle the agency he runs: spend its entire budget on extra legroom.


¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Republican Lisa Murkowski says it’s time for her party to take climate change seriously.

“Why is it politically charged to say climate change?” the Alaska senator asked during a speech on Wednesday. “I see in my state the impact we have from warming temperatures.”

She makes a good point. Alaska is experiencing coastal erosion, bigger storms, and melting permafrost.

So … why did she just open up new areas for oil drilling?

Murkowski only backed the Senate’s tax overhaul last December after a provision was added to open up 1.5 million acres of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to drilling. The provision potentially allows between 4 and 12 billion barrels of oil to be extracted and burned.

Her voting record on environmental policy has earned her a lifetime score of 19 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. Compare that to the Senate’s average score of 50 percent.

But Murkowski thinks we can have our fossil fuel cake and eat it, too. “We can absolutely continue to use hydrocarbons and critical minerals and protect the environment at the same time,” she said on Wednesday. However, leading scientists declared in 2015 that three-fourths of fossil fuels reserves needed to stay in the ground to avoid catastrophic warming — and we’ve burned a lot of oil, gas, and coal since then.

The senator did not respond to request for comment on Thursday. But at least she’s talking about climate change, I guess.


catch the drift

Arkansas banned a weedkiller. Now, Monsanto is suing.

When Monsanto introduced a new kind of seed that wouldn’t die when exposed to the herbicide dicamba, it triggered a crisis in the southeastern United States. Farmers planted the seed and started spraying dicamba, and it worked great! Except that it drifted onto other farmers’ fields and killed their crops.

And the dramatic plot twists keep coming. One farmer gunned down another in a confrontation over his withered crops. Then, states began to restrict the use of dicamba, with Arkansas completely banning it last summer.

Monsanto wasn’t happy about that. In the latest development, the agribusiness company sued the Arkansas State Plant Board, which regulates pesticides. It also sued each of the individual board members — who, for the record, are just local, agriculture-minded folks who volunteer their time.

One board member, Terry Fuller, told NPR’s Dan Charles: “I didn’t feel like I was leading the charge. I felt like I was just trying to do my duty.”

But farmers on the other side of the debate, who think the ban is way too strict, are demanding at least limited access to dicamba. What a mess.


you're toxic

Roses are red, violets are blue, America to coal: I might dump you.

A new survey from the National Surveys on Energy and Environment shows rising public support for ditching coal.

In 2008, America got roughly half of its electricity from coal. A decade later, the public has grown more hostile toward the dirty energy source, even while its support for natural gas hasn’t wavered much.

But the country’s toxic relationship with coal isn’t over: The survey, which sampled random U.S. adults over the phone, shows a majority of the public is “not yet ready for a complete phase-out.” Break-ups are hard, we get it.

More from the survey:

  • In 2017, 48 percent of those surveyed supported a coal phase-out.
  • Opinions differed along party lines: 30 percent of Republicans support a phase-out, while 54 percent of independents and 56 percent of Democrats do.
  • Only 34 percent opposed phasing out the dirty fuel — a big jump from a year earlier, when 50 percent opposed doing so.
  • People who live in coal mine states are more likely to strongly oppose a coal phase-out.

Whether you’re on Team Coal or Team … Not Coal, the important thing to keep in mind is that coal has a prettier, smarter, and healthier alternative: renewable energy.


Green Queen

Queen Elizabeth has no patience for plastic.

Her Majesty officially banned plastic straws and bottles from all cafés, dining halls, and catered events on royal estates.

Like many of us, she was influenced by the soothing voice of David Attenborough. Unlike almost all of us, that happened while she filmed part of a conservation documentary with the venerable naturalist, where we imagine they discussed crumpets, ocean plastics, and being 91 years old.

“Across the organization, the Royal Household is committed to reducing its environmental impact,” a Buckingham Palace spokesperson said. The ban is one of a few big green moves of late by Her Majesty, including plans to add solar panels and biogas generator to Buckingham Palace.

Of the 300 million tons of plastic produced every year, more than 8 million are estimated to end up in the ocean. Brits alone use well over 7 billion disposable plastic water bottles a year, recycling fewer than half of them (and recycling plastic comes with a whole other set of problems). If that rate remains unchanged, there will be more plastic by weight than fish in the ocean by 2050.

You may not have known that the Queen drinks four alcoholic beverages a day, but now you know she will be consuming them sans straw.