Stuff that matters

This is where I leaf you

Tens of millions of trees across the U.S. are dying.

Climate change is a big underlying cause. And the tree loss will make climate change worse.

From Hawaii’s ohi’a to Seattle’s cottonwoods to the oldest white oak in North America, the country’s trees are in peril. In California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains alone, 66 million trees have died in the past six years, the Guardian reports.

But while the specific causes vary — from disease and insects to drought and wildfires — much of this death is driven by climate change.

This isn’t just a problem for tree-hugging hikers and homeowners distressed by brown leaves. Forests play a vital role in stabilizing the Earth’s climate. Trees act as a carbon sink by extracting nearly a quarter of human carbon dioxide emissions from the air. But when trees die, instead of sequestering carbon, they emit it.

How big could this unfolding disaster be? Richard Birdsey, a researcher with the U.S. Forest Service, told Rolling Stone last year, “if the carbon sink in forests fails, a simple speculation is that global temperatures would increase proportionally to the increase of CO2 concentration, so about 25 percent above current climate projections.”

That could mean death for a whole lot more than just trees.

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Day in Court

After Supreme Court ruling, Flint residents will finally see officials in court.

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed two class-action lawsuits over contaminated water to go to trial.

Flint residents and businesses brought civil rights claims against state and local officials in the suits, filed in 2014 and 2016. The city’s lead crisis has been linked to an increase in fetal deaths, a deadly Legionnaire’s disease outbreak, and long-term effects on children’s health.

Both lawsuits were thrown out just over a year ago by U.S. District Judge John C. O’Meara, who said that the cases fell outside of his jurisdiction because of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). On top of that, he ruled that the plaintiffs failed to follow SDWA provisions that require defendants be given 60-day notice.

A federal appeals court — which the Supreme Court agreed with — later reversed O’Meara’s dismissal of the cases. That ruling is significant for another reason: It allows the plaintiffs to seek monetary damages.

“I am thrilled that the highest court in the country feels that we have the right to sue and deserve our day in court,” said Melissa Mays, who filed suit alongside other Flint parents in 2014. Mays, who is white, is one of more than 100,000 residents in the majority-black city who were exposed to lead-contaminated water after the city tried to cut costs by switching water sources in 2014.

lives on the line

Surprise! Cutting emissions doesn’t just help polar bears, it saves people, too.

More stringent climate regulations could save as many as 153 million lives, according to a study published this week in Nature Climate Change. The researchers looked at how many premature deaths could be avoided by keeping global temperatures from rising above 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, half a degree less than the goal set out in the Paris Agreement — an international limit on emissions we could surpass in … five years.

The study shows exactly how much the 154 cities used in the analysis stand to lose if governments don’t act to limit emissions quickly. This is the first time researchers have mapped out the number of lives that could be saved city by city with an effort to restrain global warming.

Places like New York, Los Angeles, and Moscow could avert somewhere between 120,000 and 320,000 early deaths. Two big cities in India, Kolkata and Delhi, could each save approximately 4 million lives, and 13 African and Asian cities could save 1 million lives each.

If rising sea levels and melting sea ice don’t get us moving on emissions reductions, maybe the imminent premature deaths of millions of people will do the trick.

Single Issue Voter

Cynthia Nixon is campaigning on fixing New York’s broke-ass subway.

You may have heard that, in an extremely good Sex and the City plot development, the actress is challenging Governor Andrew Cuomo for the throne of New York state. The primary issue she appears to be campaigning on: the New York City subway, which is both the largest and most comprehensive metro system in the country, and also catastrophically dilapidated.

The MTA, currently held together by spit and four prayers, is such a central part of Nixon’s campaign that it gets its own section on her website. Therein, one can find an extremely sick burn of her opponent:

Governor Cuomo has dealt with transportation like someone who visits New York, but doesn’t actually live here — who uses our bridges and airports to get in and out of the city, but doesn’t have to depend on the trains to get to work every day.

Nixon’s SATC character did not take the subway one single solitary time … UNTIL SHE MOVED TO BROOKLYN!!! Which is where she’s currently campaigning among irate New Yorkers stranded on subway platforms — specifically, this morning at the Utica Avenue station in Crown Heights.

To quote Zoya Teirstein, native New Yorker: “She can win. She doesn’t need any other issue.”

By Any Means Necessary

Abortion rights are headed back to the Supreme Court, this time as a First Amendment issue.

On Tuesday, the court will hear arguments about a California law that tries to clarify the facts that women receive about their reproductive rights. The accuracy of that information becomes increasingly important as environmental disasters — which are growing more, uh, disastrous — endanger women more than men. Women can be better prepared by having full control of their reproductive decisions.

Crisis pregnancy centers are organizations, often masquerading as medical clinics, that attempt to dissuade women from seeking abortions. California’s Reproductive FACT Act, passed in 2016, requires reproductive health clinics and CPCs to post notices advising their clients that the state provides free or low-cost family planning, prenatal care, and abortion; and that CPCs publicize that they are not licensed to practice medicine.

Alliance Defending Freedom, the legal organization representing the centers suing the state of California, claims that the requirements of the Reproductive FACT Act are unconstitutional because they require CPCs to “promote messages that violate their convictions,” Bloomberg reports. The state of California argues that information provided by medical professionals is publicly regulated, and that women who depend on public medical care and are unaware of their options should not be provided with confusing information.

Last February, a Gizmodo-Damn Joan investigation found that women seeking abortion clinics on Google — because, let’s be real, that’s how a lot of us find medical care — could be easily led to CPCs instead, as Google Maps does not distinguish them from real medical clinics.

We’ll be watching this case.

safety first

After fatal crash, will people trust self-driving cars to steer us to a cleaner future?

A driverless car struck a woman in Tempe, Arizona, on Sunday night, the first time a self-driving vehicle has killed a pedestrian. The accident was caused by one of Uber’s cars operating in autonomous mode with a human safety driver at the helm.

According to the Tempe police department, the woman was hit while crossing a street outside of the crosswalk area. This isn’t the first time one of Uber’s driverless vehicles has crashed in Tempe: A Volvo XC90 on self-driving mode was struck by another car a year ago.

Arizona has lax regulations on self-driving cars, so companies like Waymo and Uber have been using the state as a testing ground. Sunday’s tragedy is a setback for an industry that was already struggling to get consumers to trust self-driving tech. A 2016 survey found that 55 percent of respondents were not willing to take a ride in a driverless car.

That’s bad news for the environment. According to an analysis by UC Davis, driverless vehicles around the globe could decrease carbon dioxide emissions from traffic by more than 50 percent in 2050. That is, if people can get used to the idea of sharing rides with strangers in cars driven by … nobody.

Ethic Fail

The Department of Interior had a no good, very embarrassing week.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke insulted Japanese Americans, people with disabilities, veterans, and elders. He’s also facing heat for alleged travel luxuries and for mixing government business with politics.

Here’s the rundown:

  • Lawmakers are calling racism after Zinke responded to Representative Colleen Hanabusa’s request that National Park Service fund the preservation of concentration camps that held Japanese Americans during WWII by saying, “Oh, konnichiwa.” Senator Tammy Duckworth of Illinois tweeted, “Nope. Racism is not OK” and Senator Mazie Hirono of Hawaii called the comment “flippant & juvenile.”
  • Zinke told the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee that he wants to make it more expensive to visit a national park, blaming the fee hike on grandma and grandpa and other people eligible for discounted entry. “When you give discounted [rates] to the elderly, veterans, and the disabled and do it by the carload, not a whole lot people actually pay at our front door,” he said.
  • The White House told Zinke and three other cabinet members to be on their best behavior after poor ethics reports. Zinke came under heat for travel costs (he insists he never took a private jet because his plane had propellers) and $139,000 doors.
  • Residents in East Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, thought it was weird that Zinke came to their hometown in February to personally deliver a ceremonial check for $300.7 million to fund the clean-up of abandoned coal mines. Watchdogs say Zinke was using his role as Interior Secretary to give his party a leg-up in the Tuesday special election — although Democrat Conor Lamb won anyway.

And to top it all off, the Bureau of Land Management issued “vision cards” for employees to wear as a reminder of the bureau’s commitment to, what else — oil. The cards outline the bureau’s guiding principles, and feature commissioned art that depicts an oil rig and a cattle ranch.

up is down

Blame the Arctic for your wild winter weather, New Yorkers.

There’s new evidence out this week that disruptions in the Arctic linked to climate change are fueling severe winter weather along the East Coast, especially during February and March.

This year certainly fits the bill. Back-to-back-to-back nor’easters have pummeled the Northeast in recent weeks, dropping nearly 100 inches of snow in Vermont and roughly double that in parts of western Pennsylvania and New York State.

The study, published in the journal Nature, adds more support to scientists claiming that what happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic. It finds that “when the Arctic is warm both cold temperatures and heavy snowfall are more frequent” in the eastern United States. That squares with strong evidence that nor’easters are getting worse, bringing more coastal flooding and more snow.

The broader context, though, shows that even while big snowstorms during the late winter are getting increasingly common in the Northeast, there’s no trend toward more total snowfall over the full winter season. Winter is the fastest-warming season, and it’s likely that in many places, especially the deep south and mid-Atlantic, what would have been small snowstorms a few decades ago now fall as rain. In Arkansas, Tennessee, and North Carolina, snow totals have plunged by more than 50 percent over the past 30 years.

Coal Cl(ash)

EPA’s new environmental justice adviser is not down with its coal ash plan.

Jeremy Orr was appointed to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council last week. He also serves as the NAACP’s environmental and climate justice chair for its Michigan State Area Conference.

Orr spoke out about the EPA’s proposed rollback of federal coal ash laws to InsideClimate News. The plan would give states more autonomy in determining how they dispose of the toxic substance, which is often discarded in landfills or in “surface impoundments” — basically, giant coal ash ponds.

“It’s framed as being able to save up to $100 million for the utility industry, but what’s the trade-off?” Orr said of the proposal. “Can you really quantify and trade off the disproportionate health impacts that these communities near these ponds are going to suffer?”

On the same day it proposed the changes, the EPA dismissed a civil rights complaint filed by members of the majority black community of Uniontown, Alabama. Residents say the nearby coal ash landfill contributes to an increased risk of cancer and respiratory problems.

Robert Bullard, the unofficial “Father of Environmental Justice,” told the Guardian that Uniontown was “a textbook case of environmental racism.”

you've got to be joking

Humor can get young people fired up about climate change.

A study published in the Journal of Communication aimed to find out whether humor, fear, or straightforward facts would best motivate people to act in the environment’s favor.

Researchers from Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund showed participants three mock weather forecasts to gauge their reactions. The videos, all featuring the same weatherman, showed climate change in dramatically different lights. One took an ominous tack, while another presented the facts in a straightforward fashion.

The academics enlisted the help of Second City, the Chicago improv group where Tina Fey and Amy Poehler got their start. The humorous version features a bumbling meteorologist failing to interpret the obvious signs of climate change, in the style of The Colbert Report. (Watch it here.)

Each video concluded with a call to action about climate change. While researchers found that the fear-inducing video was a good climate-change motivator across age groups, humor was the most effective approach for 18- to 24-year-olds.

“The humor video made people laugh more, and people who found it funny were more likely to want to plan to partake in activism, recycle more, and believe climate change is risky,” said Christofer Skurka, the paper’s lead author.