Briefly

Stuff that matters


cause and effect

Trump saved a pesticide Obama wanted banned. Then, it poisoned several farmworkers.

In early May, laborers harvesting cabbage in a field near Bakersfield, California, caught a whiff of an odor. Some suddenly felt nauseated.

A local news station reported that winds blew the pesticide Vulcan — which was being sprayed on a mandarin orchard owned by the produce company Sun Pacific — into Dan Andrews Farms’ cabbage patch.

Vulcan’s active ingredient, chlorpyrifos, has been banned for residential use for more than 15 years. It was scheduled to be off-limits to agriculture this year — until the EPA gave it a reprieve in March. Kern County officials are still confirming whether Sun Pacific’s insecticide contained chlorpyrifos.

More than 50 farmworkers were exposed, and 12 reported symptoms, including vomiting and fainting. One was hospitalized. “Whether it’s nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, seek medical attention immediately,” a Kern County Public Health official warned.

If chlorpyrifos’ presence is confirmed, the EPA may have some explaining to do. The Dow Chemical compound is a known neurotoxin, and several studies connect exposure to it with lower IQ in children and other neurological deficits.

The Scott Pruitt–led agency, however, decided that — and stop me if you’ve heard this one before — the science wasn’t conclusive.


#everbodyknew

Utility companies knew about climate change for decades, too.

A report out today from the Energy and Policy Institute, a clean energy advocacy organization, provides evidence that scientists warned utility companies about the potential dangers of climate change as early as 1968. That’s about two decades before global warming generally broke into the public consciousness.

Researchers at the institute have unearthed speeches from scientists to utility companies and industry groups, as well as government reports that those groups contributed to, both of which predicted that fossil fuels could spur climate change — although the scientific consensus then wasn’t as solid as it is now.

The Electric Research Council, a research group with input from utility companies like Pacific Gas & Electric and Southern California Edison, set aside $1.5 million to study the long-term effects of greenhouse gas emissions from power plants in 1971, the documents show.

Knowledge, or at least suspicion, of the impending crisis from utilities adds to the list of fossil fuel industry leaders who were aware of the risks of global warming well before they emerged on the world stage. Activists say that by keeping mum on the topic, those leaders “robbed humanity of a generation’s worth of time to reverse climate change.”


nervous arctic

Ships head for the melting Arctic. But there’s no plan if things go wrong.

Climate change is rapidly altering the region, and less sea ice means more ships are lining up to traverse its remote waters. “It’s what keeps us up at night,” Amy Merten, a NOAA employee, told the New York Times. “There’s just no infrastructure for response.”

Cargo ships and cruise liners are already setting sail, and the Trump administration is clearing the way for oil rigs to join them.

Canada, the U.S., and Russia have an agreement to help each other during emergencies, but the U.S. only has two functional heavy icebreaker ships, and rescue efforts would likely have to rely on other commercial ships being nearby.

To top it all off, the head of the Coast Guard, Paul Zukunft, says the U.S. is unprepared to deal with an Arctic oil spill. Zukunft pointed out the difficulty in cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon spill, which had much more favorable conditions.

“In the Arctic, it’s almost like trying to get it to the moon in some cases, especially if it’s in a season where it’s inaccessible; that really doubles, triples the difficulty of responding,” the head of the Navy’s climate change task force told Scientific American.


lead foot in mouth

Trump’s EPA promised to prioritize communities like East Chicago. How’s that working out?

In short, not so well.

When EPA administrator Scott Pruitt took office, he pledged that the agency would redouble its efforts on guaranteeing clean air and clean water in its so-called “back to basics” environmental agenda. In April, he visited East Chicago, a community of color in Indiana where residents have coped with lead and arsenic contamination for decades, to highlight that agenda.

As the Chicago Tribune points out, the EPA has repeatedly told Indiana Harbor Coke Company that its pollution exceeds legal limits, but the agency has yet to file a lawsuit. “I’ve been told by career staff at the agency that everybody is kind of frozen since Pruitt arrived. Nobody is willing to pull the trigger to enforce the law,” the former head of the U.S. EPA’s Office of Regulatory told the Chicago Tribune. More than 100,000 people live within the five miles surrounding the East Chicago facility.

The company that owns the facility told the Tribune that it’s “exploring a number of projects” to deal with the continued pollution. With proposed budget cuts of 31 percent at the EPA, it may be up to companies to monitor pollution and clean up after themselves. That’ll work.

Watch our video on East Chicago’s lead crisis:


leading indicator

Warren Buffett is driving truckloads of money into electric companies.

Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway recently announced that it plans to buy Oncor, one of the country’s largest electricity-transmission companies, for $9 billion. And Berkshire was already making 10 percent of its earnings from energy investments. It looks like the Oracle of Omaha is betting that there are big improvements for utilities to make.

“There are tremendous efficiencies to be squeezed out of the system,” Jon Wellinghoff told the Los Angeles Times. Wellinghoff is the former chair of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and chief executive of consulting firm Policy DE.

To wring these efficiencies (read “profits”) out of the system, Berkshire is pushing for a more interconnected electrical system across the American West. It’s involved in a project to build 1,000 miles of transmission lines across Idaho and Wyoming. That would allow distribution of cheap renewable energy — which is sometimes wasted in places where too much is produced at once — to more places that need electricity. Of course, it might also allow coal power plants to stay profitable longer.

These investments suggest that Berkshire is likely to join in the ongoing struggle between rooftop solar and utilities. Buffett apparently doesn’t think utilities are entering a death spiral at all.


the road to denial

Trump comms chief Anthony Scaramucci used to be right about climate. Not anymore.

On Friday, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer resigned over the appointment of Scaramucci, a Wall Street executive and longtime supporter of President Trump.

Scaramucci’s Twitter history holds some surprises for a Trump appointee. Case in point:

Scaramucci called the science of climate change “pretty much irrefutable” in a June 2016 interview with a financial outlet and tweeted about climate action on multiple occasions last year.

But when Scarmucci joined Trump’s transition team following the election, a very curious transformation occurred. In an appearance on CNN in December, Scaramucci noted that some scientists believe climate change is “not happening.” When the show’s host reminded him about the scientific consensus on the matter, Scaramucci countered that there was once “overwhelming science that the earth was flat.”

We’ll wait and see if Scaramucci descends further into climate denial during his role as communications secretary, which begins in August.

And speaking of incoherence on climate change, here’s a grand performance to watch in memory of Spicer’s old job:


greenbacks

A gold-standard test proves we can save forests with just a little money.

Here’s a simple way to match the priorities of rich environmentalists (saving forests and vulnerable species, like gorillas) with the needs of the poor (making a little more money): Pay people living near endangered forests not to cut them down.

The world has already promised to spend billions this way. But do people just take the cash and still hack away?

A new study of a cash-for-forest program attempts to answer that question. Northwestern University economist Seema Jayachandran led a randomized, controlled trial — the gold standard for science — monitoring 60 villages in Uganda over two years.

People were cutting down trees around all the villages. But they chopped down fewer in areas where villagers were paid $11.40 an acre per year not to. It’s a great bang for the buck, if you measure in terms of keeping carbon out of the atmosphere — several times cheaper than other popular methods, like subsidizing solar panels.

“I came into this study expecting to be a wet blanket,” Jayachandran, told the New York Times. “We were surprised the impacts were so large.”

Everyone has their pet ideas for saving the world. We need good evidence like this to figure out which ones work best.