Stuff that matters

new year, same fight

These are the indigenous-led climate movements to watch out for in 2017.

This year, the Standing Rock Sioux reminded everyone that indigenous people stand at the forefront of the fight for a just and sustainable planet. Here is some of the Native activism that will lead next year’s charge against climate disaster.

  • In North America, pipelines put up the biggest fight. The Tsleil-Waututh First Nation and Ochapowace First Nation in Canada have vowed a “long battle” against two new pipeline expansions, which will trespass traditional territory and risk oil spills.
  • Indigenous groups across Latin America battle land grabs from energy and agricultural developers.
  • In the Niger Delta, the indigenous Ogoni and local fishermen lobby for justice in tribal land “devastated” by Shell oil spills. If the latest lawsuit moves forward, the oil giant will go to court and may be saddled with millions of dollars in cleanup.
  • Coalitions in Malaysia and Cambodia fight back against deforestation driven by palm oil and agriculture. And the Kyrgyz people in Kyrgyzstan continue to protest the operation of the largest open-pit mine in Central Asia.

At times, these conflicts can turn into bloody wars. 2015 was the deadliest year for environmental activists, and 40 percent of victims were from indigenous groups. The latest numbers suggests the death toll in 2016 may have tripled. Despite the challenges, indigenous activism doesn’t look like it’s slowing down next year.

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toxic wake

Officials underreported Hurricane Harvey’s toxic fallout.

An investigation by the Associated Press and the Houston Chronicle uncovered more than 100 releases of industrial toxins in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

The storm compromised chemical plants, refineries, and pipelines along Houston’s petrochemical corridor, bringing contaminated water, dirt, and air to surrounding neighborhoods. Carcinogens like benzene, vinyl chloride, and butadiene were released. In all but two cases, regulators did not inform the public of the spills or the risks they faced from exposure.

The report also found that the EPA failed to investigate Harvey’s environmental damage as thoroughly as other disasters. The EPA and state officials took 1,800 soil samples after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. After Hurricane Ike slammed into Texas in 2008, state regulators studied 85 soil samples and issued more than a dozen violations and orders to clean up.

But post-Harvey, soil and water sampling has been limited to 17 Superfund sites and some undisclosed industrial sites. Experts say this is a problem because floodwaters could have picked up toxins in one place and deposited them miles away.

“That soil ended up somewhere,” Hanadi Rifai, director of the University of Houston’s environmental engineering program, told the AP. “The net result on Galveston Bay is going to be nothing short of catastrophic.”

Seven months after Harvey, the EPA says it’s investigating 89 incidents. But it has yet to issue any enforcement actions.

the jig is Alsup

4 surprising facts about the judge behind California’s climate change trial.

On the morning of a historic climate change trial, Judge William Alsup arrived at the courthouse ready to rumble. He had asked for a climate science “tutorial” in a case he’s presiding over — a lawsuit filed by two California cities against five major oil companies.

Here’s what we know about the fella holding the fate of the planet in his hands like a tiny baby bird:

  • He’s a fan of science. On Wednesday, Alsup came to court sporting a tie with a snapshot of deep space painted on it. He had prepped for the hearing by watching a slew of documentaries, including An Inconvenient Truth. Courts have these sort of tutorials from time to time, Alsup said, “so the poor judge can learn some science.”
  • He does his homework. In 2012, Alsup was the presiding judge over a major Silicon Valley lawsuit and — in a move that caught both sides by surprise — he showed up to the courthouse with a passable understanding of JavaScript.
  • He helped save DACA from President Trump. In January, Alsup blocked Trump’s move to end DACA, calling the decision “arbitrary and capricious.” Burn.
  • He’s got a sense of humor. During Wednesday’s climate change tutorial, in the midst of a round of questions about sea-level rise, a loud beep went off in the courtroom. “Coastal flood alert,” Alsup quipped.

Alsup isn’t afraid of laying down the law. After lawyers for most of the oil companies stayed silent in court on Wednesday, he demanded they come back in two weeks with more information.

burning questions

A court showdown poses climate change questions. Scientists have answers.

A first-of-its-kind climate science trial came to a California federal court on Wednesday. The cities of San Francisco and Oakland are suing five major oil companies for knowingly contributing to climate change and deceiving the public to rake in profits.

William Alsup, an unorthodox judge who requested a highly unusual tutorial in climate science, asked the defendants and plaintiffs to provide answers to eight questions. Climate scientists took to the interwebs to crowdsource answers to them. The questions include:

Q. What caused the various ice ages (including the “little ice age” and prolonged cool periods) and what caused the ice to melt? When they melted, by how much did sea level rise?
A. Natural changes in the Earth’s orbit and the amount of greenhouse gases. Sea level rose a lot — more than 400 feet.

Q. What are the main sources of CO2 that account for the incremental buildup of CO2 in the atmosphere?
A. Fossil fuel burning and deforestation.

Q. What are the main sources of heat that account for the incremental rise in temperature on Earth?
A. Human activities are likely responsible for 93 to 123 percent of recent global warming. It can go over 100 percent because we’re canceling out what would be natural cooling.

Environmental journalists, including Grist’s Nathanael Johnson, are tweeting updates from the courtroom. Follow along! And if you want to check out the rest of the questions, find them here.

picture this

Kids are beginning to picture scientists as women.

A third of the time, at least, according to a new analysis in the journal Child Development.

The findings indicate that today’s children are a splash more amenable to the idea of women scientists than the kids of the past. Between 1966 and 1977, researchers asked 5,000 kids to draw what they thought a scientist looked like. Are you ready for this? Only 28 (28! out of 5,000!) drew a recognizably female scientist.

The new analysis looked at data from 78 studies and determined that the percentage of children who draw female scientists has risen 28 percent since the ’70s. But kids are absorbing gender stereotypes as they age. While 70 percent of 6-year-old girls drew women as scientists, only 25 percent of 10- to 11-year-olds did — despite the fact that women are starting to gain more representation in science.

The truth of the matter is that science benefits when women and people of color are better represented. That’s why we’re hoping that our tots keep broadening their horizons.

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.