Briefly

Stuff that matters


suck it up

The first ‘negative emissions’ carbon-capture plant is up and running.

On Wednesday, Iceland flipped the switch on the first project that will remove more CO2 than it produces. The plant is operated by Climeworks, which also opened the first commercial carbon-capture plant in Switzerland earlier this year.

Here’s how direct-air carbon capture works: Giant turbines pull in huge quantities of air, hoovering up molecules of carbon dioxide so we can store it somewhere that’s NOT the atmosphere.

The Icelandic pilot program can remove an estimated 50 metric tons of CO2 from the air in a year. It pumps the collected gas deep into the island’s volcanic bedrock, where it reacts with basalt and essentially turns into limestone. Voilà! No massive reservoirs to manage for millennia — just a lot of rock.

If all this sounds too good to be true, there’s a reason. Ambitious “clean coal” plants have been engaged in a very public struggle with the economic reality of carbon capture in recent years, and direct-air capture is an even tougher sell.

But it’s getting more affordable. Today, companies estimate it would cost between $50 and $100 to capture a single metric ton of carbon. Iceland’s plant has already achieved $30 per metric ton. It will never work as a substitute for action to reduce emissions, but carbon capture could be a crucial part of keeping global temperatures in check this century.


But who's counting?

Puerto Rico’s governor called for a recount of Hurricane Maria deaths.

In a statement on Monday, Governor Ricardo Rosselló ordered the Puerto Rico Demographic Registry and the Department of Public Safety to review the official death toll of the hurricane.

Although the official number stands at 64, the New York Times reported that the real death toll is likely closer to 1,052. Its analysis compared the number of deaths after the storm to the average number of deaths for the same period in 2016 and 2015.

This gap stems from the government’s failure to release standardized criteria for what would count as a hurricane-related death immediately following the storm. Funeral homes and crematoriums did not include several related deaths in the official count, a Buzzfeed investigation found. Some of these deaths resulted from a lack of medical care, like power outages shutting off breathing machines for hospital patients.

When President Trump visited Puerto Rico in October, he lauded the low death toll, implying that the situation wasn’t “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina, when 1,833 people died.

“This is about more than numbers, these are lives: real people, leaving behind loved ones and families,” Rosselló said in a statement. “The Government needs to work with sensibility and certainty in the process of certifying a death related to the hurricane.”


alive and orwellian

The Trump administration takes censoring science to the next level.

Donald Trump’s White House is using some alarming tactics to keep people quiet about climate change and other scientific matters. Over the past few days, investigations have brought some of them to light:

No more climate tweets: Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke summoned Joshua Tree National Park’s superintendent to his office last month to reprimand him for tweeting about climate change, The Hill reported on Friday. Zinke made it clear that it was no longer OK for any national park to share climate change facts on official social media accounts.

Joshua Tree’s Twitter account had sent out a thread devoted to climate change:

“Science-based” gets banned: Over the weekend, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration has forbidden health officials at the Centers for Disease Control and other federal agencies from using words such as “fetus,” “transgender,” and “science-based” in official documents for next year’s budget.

EPA employees targeted: A lawyer with the Republican campaign group America Rising (which helps find damaging info on political opponents) submitted requests for emails written by EPA staffers who had criticized the agency, the New York Times reported on Sunday. The request calls for emails that mention EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt or President Trump, along with any email correspondence with congressional Democrats who had criticized the EPA.

America Rising is affiliated with Definers Public Affairs, a communications company founded by two influential Republicans that promises to help its clients “influence media narratives” and “move public opinion.” The EPA recently signed a $120,000 contract with Definers for media monitoring.

Things are getting pretty Orwellian in here.


get defensive

President Trump’s national security strategy omits climate change.

In a sharp reversal from Obama’s 2015 national security plan, which considered climate change an “urgent and growing threat to our national security,” Trump’s new strategy fails to even name-check it. Instead, the plan focuses on building up defense and ensuring energy security.

The new strategy was unveiled in a speech on Monday. Its main points center on advancing American influence, building up defense, and ensuring reciprocal relationships with other nations.

The strategy does drop a mention of the importance of environmental stewardship in a section titled ‘Embrace Energy Dominance.’ “For the first time in generations, the United States will be an energy-dominant nation,” it reads, and calls for a diversity of energy resources from coal and natural gas to renewables and nuclear energy.

But, overall, the new strategy emphasizes economic growth over climate change: “The United States will remain a global leader in reducing traditional pollution, as well as greenhouse gases, while growing its economy. This achievement … flows from innovation, technology breakthroughs, and energy efficiency gains — not from onerous regulation.”


'tis NOT the season

California is preparing for a weekend of wintertime wildfires.

That’s weird, because the state is technically in the middle of its rainy season right now.

The last few weeks have seen devastating fires in Southern California. Now forecasts show extreme fire risk extending north to the Bay Area, where rainfall has been less than 25 percent of normal since mid-September. According to the National Weather Service, “any fires that develop will likely spread rapidly.”

In Santa Barbara, about 100 miles northwest of Los Angeles, conditions are even more dire. The Thomas fire, now the fourth largest fire in state history, has already consumed more than 250,000 acres — an area nearly the size of L.A. itself. The current forecast shows at least three major wind events in the next week, which could fan the flames even further.

Smoke from the fire has turned the skies orange and caused air quality to plummet, prompting surreal scenes of surfers donning gas masks.

Southern California hasn’t received significant rainfall in more than 250 days. It’s now the 12th consecutive day for extreme fire conditions — an all-time record for any time of the year. That all this is happening in December, during what is normally the peak of the rainy season, is truly remarkable.


Big Brother

The EPA hired a ‘war room’-style media monitoring company.

Because that’s not weird or hostile at all.

As Mother Jones reported Friday, the EPA signed a $120,000 contract (using taxpayer money) with the opposition research firm Definers Corp. earlier this month.

Definers brings hawkish political strategies to the public relations services it provides to corporations and nonprofits. “At the heart of the Definers Public Affairs’ system is our information operation — our media monitoring and rapid response mechanism known as the War Room,” the company advertises. “A War Room offers the flexibility and dynamism necessary for robust intelligence gathering.”

Not only does the company monitor news coverage, it also claims to “build and influence media narratives, move public opinion and provide powerful ammunition for your public relations and government affairs efforts.”

Definers has deep Republican ties. Its current president, Joe Pounder, was previously research director for the Republican National Committee. Its founder, Matt Rhoades, led Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign in 2012. After that campaign, Rhoades launched America Rising, which the Wall Street Journal called “the unofficial research arm of the Republican Party.”

EPA spokesperson Nancy Grantham told Mother Jones, “The Definers contract is for media monitoring/newsclip compilation.”

Sounds like EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt’s plan to sway public opinion by speaking almost exclusively to right-wing media wasn’t working out as he’d hoped.


#MeToo

More than 10,000 Interior employees say they were harassed or intimidated.

In a survey released Thursday, about 35 percent of Interior Department workers reported experiencing harassment or intimidation at work in the past year. Eighty-five percent of respondents said they had to continue working with the person responsible for the harassment.

The survey collected employee responses earlier this year, several months before the recent avalanche of sexual harassment allegations in the United States. Eight percent of employees surveyed — nearly 2,400 people — reported sexual harassment.

For perpetrators of harassment, consequences were often lacking. Even though 76 percent of respondents said they took action when they saw an abuse of power, 40 percent said the person they told didn’t act or that they felt pressure to stop bringing up the issue.

Over the years, the Interior Department has seen a pattern of harassment. Thirteen female National Park Service employees wrote a letter of complaint alleging harassment and sexual misconduct in 2014.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke fired four senior managers for misconduct on Thursday, and threatened to remove hundreds more if necessary. “Intimidation, harassment, and discrimination is a cancer to any organization. However deep it goes, we will remove it from Interior,” he said in a video posted on the agency’s website.