Stuff that matters

Raising Medicane

You can blame a ‘medicane’ for this week’s deadly flooding in Greece.

Nope, a “medicane” is not a new type of health insurance. It’s a Mediterranean hurricane — such as the one currently developing in the Mediterranean Sea, where warming waters have produced a weather system with the characteristics of a subtropical cyclone.

Flash floods linked to moisture from the storm hit parts of Greece on Wednesday, killing 16 people and injuring dozens more. The storm is projected to skirt Sicily and head toward Greece this weekend, potentially inflicting more damage.

Medicanes are so uncommon that scientists have yet to establish a clear set of criteria for them. Weather systems like these are more typically found in the Caribbean, where warmer water temperatures feed tropical storms.

A Mediterranean cyclone generally counts as a medicane if it forms the characteristic hurricane-like “eye,” according to Emmanouil Flaounas, a meteorologist at the National Observatory of Athens who conducts research on medicanes through a European Commission-funded project.

His research suggests that Mediterranean cyclones will occur less frequently, but with more intensity, in the coming years. “Several future climate scenarios show a clear increase of the sea temperature, and this will be certainly related to an intensification of future cyclones,” he wrote in an email to Grist.

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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.

Climate hawking

The physicist who dreamed of other universes wanted us to save the one we’ve already got.

The legendary Stephen Hawking passed away early Wednesday in his Cambridge home.

Later in his life, Hawking channeled his famous intellect into averting Armageddon. “We face awesome environmental challenges: climate change, food production, overpopulation, the decimation of other species, epidemic disease, acidification of the oceans,” he wrote in an op-ed in 2016. “Together, they are a reminder that we are at the most dangerous moment in the development of humanity.”

While he predicted humans would need to find a new home on another planet to survive, he also wrote that “right now we only have one planet, and we need to work together to protect it.”

Hawking reportedly wanted his tombstone engraved with the famous equation for black hole entropy that he developed with colleague Jacob Bekenstein. “Things can get out of a black hole, both to the outside, and possibly, to another universe,” he said in a 2016 lecture. “So, if you feel you are in a black hole, don’t give up. There’s a way out.”

Doctors didn’t expect Hawking to live past 25 after he was diagnosed with ALS as a young man. He surpassed their expectations by 51 years. So if he beat the odds on his own, maybe the rest of us can take inspiration from him. As Hawking once said, “Climate change is one of the great dangers we face, and it’s one we can prevent if we act now.”

the west-laid schemes

Zinke may not allow oil drilling off the West Coast after all.

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke appears to have realized the obvious: The iconic Oregon coast would be better off without a couple of oil rigs as a backdrop.

In January, Zinke proposed opening up pretty much all U.S. coasts to offshore oil and gas drilling. But now he’s expressing doubts about the Pacific coast’s role in that plan. During a testimony to the Senate Energy Committee on Tuesday, he said West Coast states lack “resources of any weight” for offshore drilling. Meaning that there just isn’t enough oil and gas to bother. 

Zinke’s proposal has stirred up strong opposition from coastal states, and that may finally be getting through to him. “I think I’m going to mark down Washington as opposed to drilling,” he told Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington during the testimony, adding that her state’s opposition would be reflected in the next draft of the plan.

Still, he has yet to exempt the West Coast states from the proposal, as he did for Florida.

Another fun fact from the hearing: After Cantwell accused Zinke of taking expensive private jets (he clarified that he took private propeller planes instead), Zinke said: “I resent the fact of your insults, I resent the fact they’re misleading, I resent the fact of the doors.”

Guys: Zinke resents the fact of the doors.

koch swindlestries

Rex Tillerson is out, and the Koch brothers are in.

In an early morning tweet, President Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and announced that Mike Pompeo, CIA director and unofficial third Koch brother, would be taking over. In other words, a guy who believes climate change is merely an “engineering problem” is being replaced by someone who probably doesn’t think it’s even real.

Pompeo’s environmental record is pretty damning:

  • In a 2013 interview with C-SPAN’s Washington Journal, he argued that there’s considerable debate within the scientific community about the causes of global warming. There isn’t.
  • Since 2009, he has accepted more than a million dollars from the oil and gas industry while campaigning for Congress.
  • He was the largest recipient of Koch Industries campaign money in 2010. And soon afterward, as a newly elected Kansas representative, he hired a former Koch lawyer to be his chief of staff.

It looks like the Koch brothers, who’ve played a huge part in galvanizing the Republican Party against climate change, have Pompeo exactly where they want him.

And why is it important for our secretary of state to understand the basics of climate change?  For one, climate change poses a “growing geopolitical threat” to national security — a threat that Pompeo appears quite unequipped to tackle.

rules are rules

Judge to Trump: You can’t just ignore pollution rules.

Back in 2015, the Obama administration tightened the rules governing ozone, a pollutant formed by burning fossil fuel that damages lungs and exacerbates asthma. But President Trump’s administration blew past a deadline last year to put these tighter rules into practice. An Obama-appointed federal judge ruled on Monday that this inaction broke the law and that the White House must comply with the rules by April 30.

A coalition of environmental groups and 16 state attorneys general sued the Trump EPA to force the agency to do its job. “The stakes are high. The smog-reducing requirements at issue will save hundreds of lives and prevent 230,000 asthma attacks among children,” said the lead plaintiff, California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, in a statement. “That’s worth fighting for.”

It’s the latest in a string of defeats the Trump administration has suffered at the hands of attorneys general from blue states. And it’s Becerra’s ninth environmental legal victory against Trump. As we noted last year, Becerra has emerged as the most prominent anti-pollution prosecutor of the White House.