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Stuff that matters


The Vax Factor

Trump might bring a Kennedy into his administration. Too bad it’s the nutty one.

Robert F. Kennedy Jr. is respected for his decades of work as an environmental activist, but that’s not why Donald Trump wanted to talk to him. The president-elect is interested in Kennedy’s wrongheaded, conspiracy-driven views about vaccines.

Kennedy said that Trump asked him to chair a presidential commission on vaccine safety and “scientific integrity.” A Trump spokesperson later said that no final decision on a commission had been made.

But the two men do seem to agree on the issue: Kennedy has spread the fringe theory linking the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine to autism, and Trump has embraced the theory, too. “President-elect Trump has some doubts about the current vaccine policies and he has questions about it,” Kennedy said. “His opinion doesn’t matter but the science does matter and we ought to be reading the science and we ought to be debating the science.”

The science, however, has already been thoroughly debated and scientists have come to a clear conclusion: There is no connection between vaccines and autism.

The consequences of spreading anti-vaxxer nonsense could be dire: More than 130,000 people died from measles in 2015, and the vaccine is the easiest, most cost-effective way to prevent the disease. With a vaccine conspiracy theorist in the White House, vaccination rates could go down.

If only there were a vaccination against stupid.


Clean Electricity Shocker

Lower-carbon power is less likely to kill you.

That’s the finding of this new paper. To put it more precisely, the study found that switching from fossil fuels to renewable and nuclear power would not only reduce the risk of apocalyptic climate change, it would also make people and ecosystems healthier.

Um, duh? Sure, that finding might seem obvious, but there’s good reason for concern. Solar panel manufacturers, for instance, produce toxic slag. Wind turbine require tons of carbon-intensive steel and concrete. And nuclear waste will outlast us all. But, in every case, the pollution from fossil fuels is worse, according to the study.

The researchers basically created two alternate futures, one running on fossil fuels and another running on mostly clean energy. This model, at least, suggests that what’s healthier for the climate is healthier for us.


Hmm

Tens of thousands of teachers are getting climate-denying propaganda in their mailboxes.

It sounds insane, but may make more sense in the context of these three anecdotes:

1. The Heartland Institute, a libertarian, climate-denying think tank, is mailing its book Why Scientists Disagree About Global Warming and an accompanying DVD to every science teacher at American public schools. About 25,000 teachers out of a targeted 200,000 have already gotten the package.

2. On Wednesday, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos disparaged efforts by her predecessor Arne Duncan to invest in poorly performing public schools. Her words, via ABC News: “At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution?”

3. Here’s an image of the 2014 tax return of the Heartland Institute, which receives funding from ExxonMobil, Koch Industries, and other fossil fuel corporations — nearly $7 million that year:

Betsy! Looks like you can buy the results you want in public education.


Grist 50: Van Jones' pick

Meet the fixer: This entrepreneur is diversifying cleantech.

Volt Energy does more than just finance and build green energy projects. A core tenet of Gilbert Campbell’s company is to provide “ladders of opportunity” in cleantech for people of color, who are drastically underrepresented in the field (last year, only 7 percent of solar workers were black). For Campbell and Volt, that means partnering with historically black colleges and universities, churches, and other black-owned businesses on clean energy installations and education initiatives.

Take an ongoing Volt project at Howard University. In addition to working on the largest solar installation at a historically black college, Campbell and his team are offering a mix of workshops at the business, engineering, and communications schools, so the students get first-hand instruction on the ins and outs of the industry. As a result of this engagement, 27 Howard engineering students will now be attending the upcoming American Association of Blacks in Energy conference to network with energy executives.

“We’re equally excited engaging these students as we are with the business side,” Campbell says. That ethos is apparent in all Volt projects. Installing the largest church solar project in D.C. wasn’t enough, for example: Campbell’s team also worked with the church to coordinate a green literacy program for congregation members.


Meet all the fixers on this year’s Grist 50.


Pachyderms for permafrost

How to defuse the methane timebomb in the Arctic? Unleash the mammoths!

A scientist living deep in Siberia thinks that bringing mammoths back from extinction could keep the Arctic ground perma-frozen. Keeping it frozen is important. In some places the permafrost reaches a mile deep; thaw that out, and it will belch clouds of methane into the atmosphere, accelerating climate change.

A new documentary explores this wonderfully off-the-wall idea.

How would it work? When snow piles up, it insulates the ground, preventing the earth from going into deep freeze. The scientist, Sergey Zimov, thinks that these revived mammoths would get hungry come wintertime and scrape off the snow to get at the grass underneath. Exposed to the icy darkness of Siberian winter, the ground would then freeze harder and stay frozen longer.

Zimov and his son, Nikita, now have a Kickstarter campaign to bring herbivores to a demonstration plot, which they call Pleistocene Park. They can’t bring in mammoths just yet, because as of today they’re still extinct, but scientists are working on that, too.


settle up

Nearly $100 million is now headed to Flint to swap out old pipes.

That’s the outcome of an agreement to settle a lawsuit that sought to force the state of Michigan to provide door-to-door delivery of bottled water to homes in the city. Flint’s drinking water was deemed unsafe in 2015 due to high lead levels.

The suit was filed last year by a coalition that includes the Natural Resources Defense Council, Michigan’s ACLU, and a local resident. A judge approved the settlement on Tuesday.

Under its terms, $97 million will be set aside to replace lead or galvanized steel water pipes going into Flint homes with copper pipes. The state has three years to assess the piping and swap it out, if need be, in at least 18,000 area residences.

The deal allows the state to avoid delivering water to homes, and it provides a timeline for shutting down nine distribution centers in Flint that offer free bottled water and filters. If monitoring finds that lead levels are below an EPA-set threshold for the first half of 2017, Michigan can close those stations in September.

“For the first time, there will be an enforceable commitment to get the lead pipes out of the ground,” said Dimple Chaudhary, an NRDC attorney. “The people of Flint are owed at least this much.”


Bam!

Trump just took a sledgehammer to Obama’s climate legacy.

“Together we are going to start a new energy revolution,” the president said just before signing an executive order to boost old, dirty energy industries.

Here’s what he’s ordering his administration to do:

  • Toss out and rewrite the EPA’s Clean Power Plan, which aims to cut CO2 pollution from coal-fired power plants, as well as another rule intended to make new power plants cleaner.
  • End a moratorium on the leasing of federal land to coal-mining companies.
  • Roll back a rule that would curb methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public lands.
  • Rewrite a rule that would more closely regulate fracking on federal lands.
  • Step back from accounting for the full economic cost of climate change (aka the social cost of carbon) when making decisions.
  • Reverse an order that called for federal agencies to consider climate change when writing environmental impact statements for projects.
  • Review all federal rules to find any that stymie energy production.

(Vox has a great detailed rundown.)

This follows on the heels of Trump putting Obama’s ambitious auto fuel-economy rules on ice and attacking other environmental protections.

Some of the moves will go into effect quickly, but rolling back the Clean Power Plan and methane rule could take years and get tied up in court. Environmentalists are already plotting to take legal action and trip up Trump’s agenda in any way they can.