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Here’s why the coronavirus pandemic has the U.S. oil industry feeling ill

Weeks before most Americans were aware that a pandemic would grind the United States economy to a halt, the Energy Information Administration released its short-term energy outlook. The federal agency predicted that carbon dioxide emissions from U.S. energy generation would fall by 2 percent this year and decrease another 1.5 percent in 2021. The decreases would bring emissions down to where they were before a 3 percent spike in 2018 — attributed to heavy use of air conditioning during a scorching summer and heating systems throughout a frigid winter.

That was in mid-January. On Tuesday, the Energy Information Administration, or EIA, put out a very different forecast.

Its latest outlook forecasts energy-related carbon emissions will fall by 7.5 percent this year due to the COVID-19 crisis. For an idea of how dramatic that is, consider this: Energy-related carbon emissions fell 7.1 percent in the wake of the financial crisis more than a decade ago. And that was the largest decrease in 19 years. The newly predicted emissions free fall can be attributed to an economy that’s suddenly in lockdown with millions of people staying home every day and industrial activity slowed.

On top of the new emissions forecast, the Energy Department has bad news for oil producers: U.S. officials will likely have to stop referring to the country as a net-exporter of oil, stymying a years-long march to become an international force in the crude oil game. The EIA estimates that U.S. oil production will drop by more than one million barrels per day due to the novel coronavirus. Americans will consume 9 percent less gasoline to fuel motor vehicles when compared to 2019, and jet fuel consumption will fall by 10 percent year over year. As a result, the agency estimates that the country will begin importing more oil than it exports sometime over the summer.

Back in February, Grist staff writer Naveena Sadasivam noted that in his State of the Union, President Trump took credit for the nation becoming energy independent. The U.S. officially became a net-exporter of oil products in November 2019. Sadasivam warned that with his claim the president ignored “the fact that the country is still subject to the global oil market.” Well, it still is, and a combination of plummeting demand due to coronavirus-influenced economic shutdowns and the inability of global oil powers to make a deal on oil production cuts are likely to blow that feather right out of his MAGA cap.

Oil isn’t the only fuel affected by an economy in the throes of a pandemic. The EIA expects coal generation to fall 20 percent in 2020, after previously projecting it would decline a more modest 16.9 percent. The natural gas industry may have the most on the line. Natural gas output is expected to drop 4.4 percent in 2021, the biggest dip since records began in 1998.

Renewables are still projected to outpace all other electricity types this year in terms of growth. But the EIA says annual additions to solar and wind capacity  are now likely 5 and 10 percent lower, respectively, than they were in the agency’s prior assessment.

The projected declines in oil and coal production and energy-related carbon emissions might seem like a major win for the planet, but alas, they’re not permanent. The EIA says emissions will rise 3.6 percent in 2021 (from 2020 levels) — the largest year-over-year growth in a decade — as the threat of coronavirus dissipates, and the economy roars back.

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Here’s why the coronavirus pandemic has the U.S. oil industry feeling ill

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America’s heartland is expected to flood again — but this time amid coronavirus

In mid-March, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its spring flooding outlook. According to its forecast, about a third of the U.S., 128 million people in 23 states, will be affected by flooding in the next few months, with the Northern Plains and Upper Midwest most at risk.

That prediction comes on the heels of a devastating year of flooding in America’s heartland. Between February 2019 and January of this year, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin experienced their wettest 12-month period on record, and Montana, Nebraska, Wyoming and the Dakotas experienced their second-wettest. Flooding is caused by a combination of factors, but climate change, which spurs warmer air and therefore more moisture, is one of them.

Meanwhile, most of the nation is under lockdown. COVID-19 testing capacity is still limited enough that state and federal officials don’t have a full understanding of how many Americans have been infected so far, but the number of confirmed cases is growing exponentially. Experts say the novel coronavirus could kill between 100,000 and 2.2 million Americans in the coming months, depending on which preventive actions are taken.

The nation has never had to deal with an epidemic and climate change at the same time. The way the federal government has handled both of those threats so far shows that it’s ill equipped to respond to scenarios that deviate from business as usual. Researchers have already determined that climate change acts as a threat multiplier: something that exacerbates existing risks. As we head into the spring and summer months and weather becomes more volatile, coronavirus could become a threat multiplier, too.

“A lot of folks that are focusing on the disaster space are starting to think about what we’re going to do with compounding events,” says Lauren Clay, assistant professor of public health at D’Youville College in Buffalo, New York. “We haven’t experienced a global pandemic in the U.S. on this scale in our lifetimes.”

The Federal Management Emergency Administration (FEMA), the agency that serves Americans affected by extreme weather, has been activated at the highest level to contain the coronavirus and placed in charge of the federal response to the epidemic. But FEMA is still reeling from three consecutive years of particularly catastrophic natural disasters, and it has its own coronavirus outbreak to contend with — seven employees recently tested positive for the virus.

“They were stressed even before the pandemic,” James Kendra, co-director of the Disaster Research Center at the University of Delaware, told Grist. FEMA was still working to resolve a number of disaster declarations from previous years — formal requests from cities, counties, or states for aid — before it was asked to join the effort to combat the coronavirus. To boot, the agency is chronically understaffed, even before President Trump reallocated some of its funding to immigration detention centers last summer.

When it comes to responding to the coronavirus, FEMA is in uncharted territory. If the agency had a plan for this scenario, Kendra isn’t aware of it. FEMA is using traditional tactics to confront this new challenge, announcing plans to distribute large quantities of medical equipment and supplies. But the agency has been light on specifics about what it has actually accomplished so far.

Once flooding and other natural disasters hit, Kendra says coronavirus is likely to hinder FEMA’s work because the social distancing required to keep FEMA staff and the people they interact with safe will affect the agency’s ability to do in-person field work. The agency has already suspended interpersonal fieldwork in Tennessee, where tornadoes killed 25 people in early March, because of the virus. FEMA agents will have to practice social distancing, disinfect facilities, and be far more mindful of disease transmission than normal, which in turn will be a “slowing factor on operations generally,” Kendra says.

At the same time, “the need for FEMA to be on the ground will probably be the same as usual,” Kendra says. The agency will have to adjust to figure out how to serve affected people without exposing them or its workers to coronavirus.

FEMA’s limited capacity to respond to natural disasters isn’t the only reason for Americans to fear flooding during the pandemic. A lot of the crops that go into our food, including as feed for livestock, come from the Midwest. For example, Iowa and Illinois alone supply one-third of the U.S.’s entire corn crop. Grocery stores have already seeing food shortages because of coronavirus. Will flooded farms make food more scarce?

At the moment, “We don’t actually have a disruption in the food supply chain,” Clay said. “There’s nothing stopping farmers from planting food, growing food, and putting food into the supply system.”

The bare shelves you might be seeing are a result of an abrupt spike in demand — people buying up a month’s worth of food instead of a week’s, and eating more meals at home instead of in restaurants. While kinks in the supply system are being worked out, there may be temporary shortages, but Clay says supplies will bounce back over time. The ripples will probably continue for as long as the pandemic does.

As spring unfolds, some specialty crops — aka fruits and vegetables — could be affected by social distancing policies implemented by fieldworkers and other issues brought on by the coronavirus. Strawberries grown in California will be picked more slowly by workers who are forced to spread out instead of crowding together. Apple orchards, which require large crews of workers to plant and prune trees, could see a shortage of labor due to limited availability of work visas (the federal offices that award visas have been closed for weeks). But overall, food will remain plentiful as long as the system adapts.

The addition of spring flooding and summer storms to the mix will require some adaptation, Clay said, but natural disasters have regional, rather than national, effects. “We might have some disruptions to some farms or some supply chains in different areas,” she said. But grocers will still be able to find suppliers in unaffected parts of the country. “The likelihood of us having flooding cause widespread disruptions would be minimal because we grow and produce foods in lots of different ways across the country.”

In the past few years, it has sometimes felt like Americans couldn’t catch a break from natural disasters. Floods in the Midwest in spring and summer were followed by West Coast wildfires and the Atlantic hurricane season in the late summer and fall. (The 2020 hurricane season, by the way, is expected to be “above normal.”) Now, the staggered nature of those events and their regionality is part of what’s preventing entire supply systems from collapsing during the coronavirus pandemic. In coming years, climate change could make those events far less staggered, extending the range of devastating floods across most of the country, spurring year-round fire seasons, and exacerbating the frequency of major hurricanes. If coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we need to start dividing some of our threat multipliers or risk confronting a challenge we can’t adapt our way out of.

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America’s heartland is expected to flood again — but this time amid coronavirus

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Even coronavirus can’t stop Trump’s environmental rollbacks

On Thursday, political risk research and consulting firm the Eurasia Group released an updated version of its “Top Risks 2020” report to show how coronavirus has sped up the trends that worry the group the most. The new report warns that the public health crisis will pull attention and resources away from addressing climate change.

“With large-scale protest activity diminished because of social distancing, civil society actors will turn to cyber and online tools to apply pressure on companies and governments, most of which will have less appetite and ability to respond to climate change,” the report says.

In addition to climate action, environmental protection at large may be threatened. The Trump administration is in the process of implementing major environmental policy changes, such as a rule that would allow companies to kill birds without repercussions, a total overhaul of the bedrock National Environmental Protection Act, and new restrictions on the types of scientific research the EPA can use in decisions that affect public health. “The government has been trying to rush through and finalize rollbacks before the upcoming election,” said Kieran Suckling, executive director of the Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental nonprofit. “Trump wants to be able to say ‘I accomplished all this.’”

Even with the nation’s attention turned to a public health crisis, the administration does not appear to be slowing down. On Wednesday night, the EPA officially opened the required 30-day comment period for its proposal to limit science that can be used in regulatory decisions. Due to the coronavirus, there will be no public hearing.

On Thursday, the comment period for the Migratory Bird Treaty Act closed, despite pleas for an extension from conservation groups. Also on Thursday, the head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission told reporters that he did not plan to delay the commission’s regulatory actions during the pandemic. And earlier last week, a BLM spokesperson told E&E News that the agency did not plan to postpone oil and gas lease sales.

Typically, when policy changes are proposed, they have to undergo a robust public input process, said Jesse Prentice-Dunn, Policy Director for the Center for Western Priorities. Legally, he said, agencies have to take the public’s comments into account, respond to them, and incorporate them into decision-making. “If you don’t actually have the public able to attend public meetings, able to really thoughtfully put together public comments, then that’s kind of short-circuiting that feedback process,” he said, and it allows agencies “to kind of move forward with whatever they want.”

More than 80 environmental organizations sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior David Bernhardt on Thursday requesting that the department suspend major policy and regulation changes, oil and gas lease sales, and public comment periods for the immediate future.

A spokesperson for the Department of the Interior told Grist, “All DOI actions, including comment periods and lease sales, are being evaluated on a case-by-case basis and adjustments are being made to ensure we are allowing for proper public input, while protecting the health and safety of the public and our employees.”

While the public at large may not have the mental bandwidth or physical ability to participate in rulemaking procedures right now, environmental organizations are keeping the pressure on, especially in the courts. “We’ve got about 100 active lawsuits to protect our air, water and endangered species and thus far they are proceeding,” said Suckling. “The federal courts have not stalled any of them yet.”

On Wednesday, after the Trump administration proceeded with an auction for offshore oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, environmental groups immediately filed a legal challenge to the sale. On Thursday, groups filed a lawsuit against the EPA for approving new chemicals without adequately informing the public, in violation of the Toxic Substances Control Act.

“[W]e are continuing to hold the Trump Administration accountable for its efforts to undermine our climate and clean air and water safeguards,” Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said in a statement to Grist. “The work may look different right now, but we’re still pushing forward to create the world we want to see together.”

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Even coronavirus can’t stop Trump’s environmental rollbacks

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Puerto Rico faces another disaster: The coronavirus pandemic

Puerto Rico has experienced a whirlwind of public health crises in the last few years. In 2017 Hurricane Maria left roughly 3,000 dead and thousands more displaced, making the island something of a patient zero for a world in which warmer global temperatures produce ever more deadly disasters. Then, this January a series of disastrous earthquakes once again put the U.S. territory’s strained infrastructure to the test. Now the new coronavirus has reached its shores.

Puerto Rican Governor Wanda Vázquez signed an executive order on Sunday to shut down the majority of businesses on the island (supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations, and banks are exempt) and impose a 9 p.m. to 5 a.m. curfew through March 30. People who violate the lockdown order could face a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in jail. The move comes as Puerto Rico confirmed five COVID-19 cases on the island in the last few days.

“We already have a fragile social fabric, because we’ve had to experience a great number of shocks” in recent years, said Christine Nieves, co-founder and president of the nonprofit Emerge Puerto Rico (and member of the 2018 Grist 50). “Now, we have a situation where we have to remain indoors, but there are negative side effects to that. In particular, older people alone at home could be potentially put in a situation where no one is checking in.”

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More than 20 percent of Puerto Rico’s population of nearly 3.2 million is 65 or older — an age cohort that is particularly at risk for severe and fatal COVID-19 infections. The island’s health infrastructure has not yet fully recovered from the shock of Hurricane Maria, when insufficient power and fresh water compounded patients’ suffering even after they had been admitted to the hospital.

Puerto Rico is also still grappling with the aftermath of the January earthquakes that destroyed three major hospitals and sent thousands of frightened people in the southern part of the island to camp outdoors, making them more vulnerable to the spread of illness — including the novel coronavirus. Nieves told Grist that the government still has not restored feasible housing options for people in the camps and that many of them are still living precariously in makeshift tents out in the open. (Puerto Rico’s Department of Health did not respond to requests for comment.)

“It’s been three years of nonstop shocks,” said Nieves. “People are tired. They are burnt out, and their immune systems are likely low, because they’re not taking care of themselves.”

The pandemic is also decimating tourism, a major component of the island’s economy. On Tuesday, Governor Vázquez demanded that the Federal Aviation Administration suspend all domestic and international flights to the island for 14 days and let her shut down airports.

It’s a new test for the island’s government. The Vázquez administration has been criticized for not acting swiftly enough as soon as the virus escalated in the mainland U.S. and (perhaps unfairly) for not more quickly obtaining test results from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, after a few suspected cases initially emerged. Meanwhile, Puerto Rico’s health secretary, Rafael Rodríguez-Mercado, resigned last Friday.

“Frankly, the government has been so negligent in responding,” said Nieves. “Our biggest bet right now, the one thing that we’re holding on to, is that the virus doesn’t spread because of our island’s temperatures.”

But Nieves noted that, unlike the common flu — which peaks during the winter season and then dies down as temperatures warm — it’s not yet known how the novel coronavirus fares in warmer temperatures.

Regardless of the circumstances, Nieves sees the nascent outbreak as an opportunity to step back and reflect on what Puerto Ricans have learned from previous disasters.

“The coronavirus does present a stop in rebuilding,” she said. “But it also presents a window of reflection, because not necessarily being fast and efficient can get us to where we want to go — so it’s a great opportunity and a great moment to consider what kind of world we are rebuilding for.”

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Puerto Rico faces another disaster: The coronavirus pandemic

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Lessons from coronavirus and climate change: Don’t be deceived by small numbers

Comparing the coronavirus pandemic to climate change is a fraught endeavor. Using one crisis to illustrate the dangers of another typically doesn’t work. For the most part, people only have the mental bandwidth for one life-threatening, world-altering crisis at a time. (Even one’s a stretch, if personal experience is any indication.)

But there is at least one major way in which coronavirus is similar to the climate crisis, and it’s worth talking about now, while the world’s collective missteps in containing COVID-19 are fresh in our minds: Small differences in numbers matter a lot.

When the coronavirus first began to spread beyond Wuhan, China, a misinformed bit of conventional wisdom started getting passed around: COVID-19 is just like the flu, and Americans survive flu epidemics on a regular basis. President Trump regurgitated this tidbit as recently as last week, tweeting, “So last year 37,000 Americans died from the common Flu. It averages between 27,000 and 70,000 per year. At this moment there are 546 confirmed cases of CoronaVirus, with 22 deaths. Think about that!” (Trump’s tweet was almost right — the flu killed 34,000 Americans last year.)

The flu has a death rate of around 0.1 percent in the U.S. COVID-19 has put an estimated death rate between 1 and 3.4 percent, although we won’t know the true death rate until the outbreak is over. The difference between 0.1 percent and 2 percent may not sound like much. Indeed, some people on social media have opined that a 97 or 98 percent survival rate sounds pretty good to them.

But a report published Monday by an epidemic modeling group said that, in the absence of federal and individual measures, COVID-19 could kill 2.2 million people in the U.S. Some of that is because COVID-19 is more contagious than the flu — but it’s also because there’s a major difference between a 0.1 percent death rate and a 2 or 3 percent death rate.

And there’s a major difference between 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C. Experts agree that, in order to avert mass casualties, serious upticks in extreme weather events, and unending heatwaves, global warming needs to stay below 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F) over preindustrial levels. We’re currently on track to surpass 2 degrees C (3.6 degrees F) of warming. Some studies show the world is on course for more than 3 degrees C (5.4 degrees F) of warming. So what’s in a half-degree? A whole lot, even if it doesn’t seem like it.

At 1.5 degrees C of warming, heat waves will affect 14 percent of the world’s population once every five years. At 2 degrees C, 37 percent of the world will be exposed to heat waves — 420 million more people. At 2 degrees C of warming, 61 million people more will be exposed to severe drought than if we kept warming to 1.5 degrees C. That half a degree could expose between 180 and 270 million more people to be exposed to water scarcity. At 1.5 degrees C of warming, coral reefs will decline 70 to 90 percent. At 2 degrees C, they become nonexistent. These are just a fraction of the findings in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 2019 special report on global warming, but you get the idea. Small changes in climate equal huge impacts.

Maybe if people started thinking about 1.5 degrees C like it’s the flu, and 2 degrees C like it’s a life-altering pandemic, politicians will be compelled to take action. Right now, we’re moving too slowly to avoid a worst-case scenario.

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Lessons from coronavirus and climate change: Don’t be deceived by small numbers

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Despite everything, US emissions dipped in 2019

Just a week into the new year, and the first estimate of how much planet-cooking pollution the United States belched into the atmosphere last year is already in. It’s not the kind of report card you’d be proud to show your parents, but at least it won’t leave you in tears.

Perhaps surprisingly, total emissions fell 2 percent compared with the year before, according to the Rhodium Group, a research firm that frequently crunches climate numbers. The reason for that decline? The US is burning less coal. That’s been driving down emissions from electricity generation. But the way we get around, heat our homes, and manufacture our stuff, hasn’t had much of an effect.

“It’s a good-news bad-news story,” said Trevor Houser, a partner at Rhodium and author of the report. “In the electricity sector we had a banner year — we had the largest decline in coal generation in recorded history. But in the other 75 percent of the economy, emissions remain stubbornly flat.”

Coal has been in a slow-motion death spiral over the past ten years. The country now generates half as much coal-fired electricity as it did in 2009. And that trend continued through last year, as coal generation slid 18 percent.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

Surging natural gas was the biggest reason for coal’s demise. Gas comes with its own problems for the climate– burning it releases carbon, and leaks release methane — but replacing coal with gas led to a decline in globe-warming gases, Houser said. Renewable energy from hydroelectricity, solar power, and wind turbines, increased 6 percent in 2019. So despite President Donald Trump’s vows to resurrect coal, it’s still sliding into history.

The same can’t be said of gas-powered cars and gas-fired furnaces — for the moment, those look locked in.

Clayton Aldern / Grist

Cleaning up the electrical grid is a great first step to cleaning up other sectors. With enough low-carbon electricity, more people could drive electric cars and ride electric trains. Builders could start installing electric heat pumps rather than gas furnaces in houses. “But that’s not going to happen on its own,” Hauser said.

Nudging people toward clean electricity requires policy: Efficiency standards, building codes, incentives, and taxes. Some state and local governments are making these changes, but at the federal level, the Trump administration is doing its best to stop them. As a result, the country’s energy use seems to have its own laws of motion. It takes a lot of work to change direction, but it’s relatively easy to let things keep running as normal. You can see that in coal’s continued slide, as well as in the status quo in emissions from factories, cars, and buildings.

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Despite everything, US emissions dipped in 2019

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Sea-level rise threatens 13 million Americans. Can FEMA help?

Entrepreneur and presidential hopeful Andrew Yang caught flak at the second Democratic debate in July for saying that the time has come to move Americans living in the path of sea-level rise to higher ground. “You can run but you can’t hide” doesn’t make a particularly good presidential slogan. After all, admitting defeat and letting nature take its course isn’t exactly our first instinct as human beings.

Managed retreat — abandoning areas that become so threatened by sea-level rise that they are, for whatever reason, considered not worth saving — has been a far less popular idea than adaptation strategies like flood gates, levees, and pumps. (Just look at Miami.)

But in many respects Yang’s realism is spot on. If the world keeps burning fossil fuels as usual, between four and 13 million Americans will see their homes inundated by sea-level rise this century. In the future, managed retreat will become unavoidable.

Don’t take Yang’s word for it. That’s one of the conclusions of a new study in Science Advances — the first to evaluate how managed retreat is functioning in the United States on a national scale. The study’s authors analyzed the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s voluntary buyout program — an initiative that allows owners of flood-prone properties to sell their homes and land to local governments, usually in the aftermath of a disaster. The aim of the program is to get vulnerable people and assets out of flood plains and to ensure that at-risk property doesn’t go back on the market so some other unfortunate soul ends up buying a house that floods once a year. So far, a little more than 40,000 people in 49 states have taken advantage of the program. That’s not a lot of households, and the study found that the number of buyouts overseen by FEMA has actually gone down over the past three decades.

By looking at buyouts that occurred between 1989 and 2017, the study’s authors were able to evaluate the way communities are utilizing (or not utilizing) FEMA’s buyout program, what demographics are benefiting from the program, and how retreat fits into a wider climate strategy.

The study took FEMA’s publicly available buyout data, compared it to other data sets, and found that the counties that take advantage of the program on average have higher income and population density than those that don’t. Within those counties, however, the neighborhoods where the buyouts took place were actually lower-income, denser, and more racially diverse. To the authors of the study, these trends signal that not all local governments have equal access to the program. For example, in Harris County, which includes Houston, there have been more than 2,000 buyouts since 1989. But Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi — the three states that have had the highest levels of property damage from flooding — rank lowest in the nation in state-wide property buyouts.

The study also found that counties are, for the most part, buying up a few properties at a time with FEMA funds, instead of entire swaths — a predictable outcome when buyouts are voluntary. That’s a missed opportunity to restore flood plains and reduce overall risk to the community. To compound the complexity of the issue, FEMA hasn’t done a good job of documenting its own progress — when logging buyouts in its system, the administration neglected to fill out nearly half of the entries. That means that in many cases researchers don’t know what type of residence was bought out, including whether it was a rental or mobile home.

Millions of Americans may have to contend with managed retreat; why have so few taken advantage of FEMA’s program? Part of the reason may be due to the fact that retreating to higher ground hasn’t really been a central part of states’ flood risk mitigation plans thus far. Local governments have long prioritized approaches like disaster assistance and improved engineering. That could change, though, thanks to a perfect storm of factors. “Even places that have not done buyouts to date are increasingly thinking about the combination of hazards,” Katherine Mach, the lead author of the study, said in a conference call with reporters. “In Louisiana, for example, it’s the combination of oil extraction plus reduced sediment supply plus sea-level rise in normal circumstances versus disaster circumstances.” Buyouts will likely be part of the state’s “full suite of responses,” Mach said.

So what happens if Yang’s prediction of devastating sea-level rise comes true? There are 49 million housing units on the U.S. coast and over $1 trillion worth of infrastructure within 700 feet of the coast, says study author A.R. Sider. “If even one-tenth of that needed to relocate, we’d be talking about orders of magnitude larger than we’ve ever done before with buyouts,” she said.

The study’s authors hope their work lays the groundwork for more research on this topic. “One of the questions we’re trying to answer is what the impacts of buyouts are for the households that participate in them,” said Caroline Kraan, another of the study’s authors. “Where do these households move to? Are they better or worse off in the long term?” We know at least one presidential candidate who’s probably very interested in the answer.

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Sea-level rise threatens 13 million Americans. Can FEMA help?

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Killing California car pollution rules could kill speed limits

If you want to upend a half-century of legal tradition, you better have a damn-solid argument to justify your move. Especially if it’s a legal move so broad that it could nullify local speed limits.

President Donald Trump is attempting a tectonic upheaval of precedent by telling California it can’t set its own rules for the greenhouse gases coming out of cars. The administration’s rationale is so broad, according to one law professor, that it would wipe out a lot more than the state’s ability to set its own standards. It could also outlaw state gas taxes, city speed limits, and various other local rules. If courts agree, the Trump administration’s case would lead to a tremendous shift of power from state and local governments to Washington.

“Their interpretation is just so broad, and so lacking in any limiting principles, that I couldn’t determine why even the most silly example wouldn’t apply,” said Greg Dotson, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon School of Law, who wrote a paper examining the administration’s argument.

Since the late 1960s, California has been setting car-pollution rules that go beyond the federal standards, and, until recently, the federal government has endorsed that as a reasonable way for state governments to deal with their own unique situations. It all started because California had more cars and more smog than other states.

But now the Trump Administration is trying to change all that, basing its argument on a line from the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975, which covers federal fuel economy standards. The relevant part:

“no State or political subdivision of a State shall have authority to adopt or enforce any law or regulation relating to fuel economy standards or average fuel economy standards applicable to automobiles covered by such Federal standard.”

On its face, that seems pretty cut and dry. If there’s a federal gas mileage standard, states and cities can’t mess with it. But if that’s the right interpretation, Dotson notes, there’s a ton of laws “relating to fuel economy standards” that would be in deep trouble. Gas taxes and speed limits affect vehicles’ fuel economy more than California’s greenhouse gas rules, as do local laws like bans on idling cars (which exist in nine states and many cities), and rules on the speed you can go when towing a trailer.

“Would anyone expect or want some 50-year-old law to pre-empt every state gas tax?” Dotson asked. “It’s goofy.”

There’s a lot more legalese to the administration’s argument, but that line from the Energy Policy and Conservation Act is the foundation, said Caitlin McCoy a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program.

“It’s everything,” McCoy said. “And it’s indicative of the strategy that the Trump administration has employed on environmental issues, looking for limiting principles in the underlying statutes so they can achieve the biggest cuts to authority.”

And it’s not like the Trump White House is strictly interested in slashing state authority. It argued on the side of state’s rights when fighting the Clean Power Plan, McCoy said.

California and 22 other states have already sued the Trump administration in federal court to stop the move. That means the courts will decide whether there’s any good reason to let states keep the power to set their own rules. If you want a preview of how this might play out in court, it’s worth looking at the last attempt to take away the rights of states to regulate car emissions. In 2007, President George W. Bush’s administration tried to strip California’s authority to regulate greenhouse gas pollution from cars. But the Bush administration wasn’t exactly enthusiastic about pursuing the case. As Dotson wrote, a lawyer from the EPA explained that “After review of the docket and precedent, we don’t believe there are any good arguments against granting the waiver [allowing California to regulate greenhouse gases]. All of the arguments . . . are likely to lose in court if we are sued.”

But we never saw that put to the test. When President Barack Obama came into office in 2009, he granted California’s authority to make its own rules, putting off the fight until now.

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Killing California car pollution rules could kill speed limits

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‘Another hurricane?’ How climate disasters can give us compassion fatigue

Hurricane season is just getting started, and some U.S. politicians (cough cough TRUMP cough cough) already seem to be suffering from climate-related compassion fatigue.

In response to the news that then-Tropical Storm Dorian (now a Category 1 hurricane) was on its way toward Puerto Rico, President Trump seemed to blame the U.S. territory — or at least the weather gods — for the island’s repeated weather-related woes.

“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end?” Trump tweeted on Monday. He went on to lament a falsely inflated federal price tag associated with recovery from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a Category 4 storm in 2017. “Congress approved 92 Billion Dollars for Puerto Rico last year, an all-time record of its kind for ‘anywhere.’” (Just to set the record straight, Congress has allocated only about $42 billion to Maria recovery — and only about $14 billion of the money has reached the island so far.)

Hurricane Dorian, which is expected to hit the island on Wednesday, is also giving Puerto Ricans a sense déjà vu. But in contrast to the mainland’s mild attitude of annoyance at the repeat event, the idea of another storm hitting the island is ramping up local concerns. Puerto Rico’s newly minted governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency as the island is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. “Puerto Ricans on the island have a serious case of PTSD,” Timmy Boyle, the spokesman for environmental justice group ACASE, told Grist. “Right now, there are long lines in gas stations and empty shelves at supermarkets, especially with water.”

Hurricane Maria was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, that killed almost 3,000 people. Some residents are still living under blue tarps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pulling a whopping $271 million in funding from FEMA disaster relief to pay for immigration detention space and temporary hearing locations for asylum-seekers on the southern border

The scientific consensus is that climate change will contribute to more frequent extreme weather events — be they hurricanes in the Caribbean, heatwaves in Europe, or flooding in Bangladesh. On a global scale, these events showcase how climate change is becoming an ever-increasing problem. Serialized emergencies increase a place’s vulnerability to climate change by inflicting new stress before infrastructure or morale have fully recovered from the last tragedy. Yet those outside affected zones can start to unconsciously dismiss repeated disasters as simply “the new normal.”

Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon wherein people withdraw after long periods of taking on others’ emotional burdens. As a person becomes overexposed to bad news, they can become more indifferent toward that type of suffering. And according to some experts, the opposite effect — heightened climate anxiety — can be just as paralyzing. In a 2017 Atlantic article, journalist Julie Beck argued that climate anxiety can cause people to turn inward, focusing on their own emotional state versus the plight of others.

“We make the assumption that if people are aware of how urgent and frightening and scary these issues are, then people will automatically translate that into ‘Oh my gosh, what kind of actions can I take?’” Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies climate-change communication told Beck. “That’s just simply not the case.”

That lack of empathy, whether it’s a result of compassion fatigue, crippling climate anxiety, or just being kind of a jerk, is bad enough when it’s coming from your fellow Americans. But as Puerto Ricans know, it’s worse when it’s directed at you from the commander in chief. “Trump shows no compassion for us,” said Jessica Montero Negrón, a community leader in the rural municipality of Utuado, speaking in her native Spanish. “People here are really scared.”

The solution, at least for locals, is to err on the side of being safe rather than sorry and fight harder for resources when it comes to future storms. On CNN, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz — who has a history of sparring with Trump — said, “It seems like some people have learned the lessons of the past or are willing to say that they didn’t do right by us the first time and they are trying to do their best. That is not the case with the president of the United States.”

“We are not going to be concerned by, frankly, his behavior, his lack of understanding, and it is ludicrous. So get out of the way, President Trump, and let people who can do the job get the job done.”

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‘Another hurricane?’ How climate disasters can give us compassion fatigue

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Why FEMA isn’t prepared for the next major U.S. disaster

According to every climate prediction model, our rapidly warming world is slated to experience more frequent and severe weather-related disasters. But according to a new investigation from E&E News, the Federal Emergency Management Agency is woefully unprepared for future catastrophes after misspending billions of dollars and countless hours of staff time on relatively minor disaster recovery efforts.

FEMA workers are an important resource for states in the wake of a disaster. They do everything from rescuing survivors to coordinating recovery efforts to providing emergency food and shelter. But they’re not for every occasion: The agency is only supposed to step in and supplement recovery efforts only when a disaster exceeds a state’s ability to cope. But according to the E&E article, FEMA tied up many of its key staffers’ time by responding to small-scale disasters such as undersized floods, storms and other events that states had the ability to bankroll themselves.

The total cost of that unnecessary aid? $3 billion.

For example, after July floods hit West Virginia — a state that was amassing over a billion dollars in budget surplus — FEMA not only staffed centers for residents to get emergency aid but provided 469 grants while the centers were open. And in 2017, FEMA responded to storms in Oklahoma that amounted to about $5 million in damage, while the state had over $450 million budget surplus.

FEMA helping out states hit by minor incidents may not sound like a terrible thing, but as a result of the misspending, E&E found that the agency failed to properly respond to the needs of communities hard-hit by major disasters, including Hurricane Maria. When Maria pummeled Puerto Rico two years ago FEMA was really not prepared. The U.S. territory’s disaster assistance progressed at a glacial pace, with the island not getting its first recovery center until Oct. 21, 2017 — a month after the hurricane, according to E&E News.

“FEMA is dying a death by 1,000 cuts,” Brock Long, former FEMA administrator, told E&E News. Long says that prior to Harvey, the agency already didn’t have enough emergency response staff to deploy. “We were out in the field staffing too many small to medium disasters.”

Making matters worse, when Governors (often) overestimate the costs of their states’ disaster recovery and get more FEMA funds than they need, there are no consequences.

The good news (and I use the word “good” loosely) is FEMA knows it has a problem. Last year, FEMA acknowledged that its disaster workforce “is historically over-committed to smaller disasters,” ultimately shrinking the agency’s capacity to prepare and respond to catastrophes.

In an effort to tackle this, FEMA administrators said they wanted to function as more of a block-grant agency, meaning it would be forced to prioritize disaster responses within a fixed budget. The agency also announced that rather than deploy its own staff for all disasters, it would reimburse states for minor disaster recovery — meaning states would need to buff up their own emergency response teams rather than relying on the federal agency to spearhead efforts.

But according to E&E, that policy has largely failed. FEMA is now facing a major staffing shortage at a time when the hurricane and wildfire seasons are about to hit their peaks. The agency currently has about 3,600 available emergency workers compared to about 6,000 at the same time two years ago — just before Hurricane Harvey hit. According to E&E, nearly three-quarters of the agency’s disaster workforce is currently tied up — meaning they are either assigned other disasters or on vacation.

“I cannot continue to send staff out to do every disaster for $2 million,” said former FEMA administrator Long during Senate Hearings last year. “The nation needs me to be ready to go for the Marias and the Harveys and Irmas.”

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Why FEMA isn’t prepared for the next major U.S. disaster

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