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If Jeff Flake has taken up your cause, your cause is in danger

This weekend, someone — specifically, George Stephanopoulos — saw fit to ask Arizona Senator Jeff Flake what he thought of the Republican party’s position on climate change. Senator Flake, an active member of the party controlling our nation’s legislative branch (as well as its executive and judicial branches), said that he thinks the government should do more to combat warming.

You can always count on Flake to say something vaguely ethical and then do whatever will most directly undermine it. Most recently, you may remember him for giving an impassioned soundbite in support of Christine Blasey Ford, the woman who accused Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh of assault, … and then immediately voting to confirm Kavanaugh to the court. You may also recall him speaking out against the Republican tax reform effort last December … and then immediately voting to make it law.

Conflict-resolution theory, according to Kim Kardashian West’s makeup artist, dictates that when you are disappointed in someone’s behavior, you should mention some of their good qualities so that it’s clear you are viewing them in a balanced way. Here we go: Jeff Flake has very nice teeth. On Sunday, Flake showed off his excellent chompers while giving the following vacuous reaction to the recent, upsetting U.N. climate change report to Stephanopoulos on ABC’s The Week:

“There’s been more recognition [of the need for climate action] among Republicans, but the administration hasn’t taken the view of some of us that this is something we really need to deal with along with the rest of the world and address this. It’s going to be challenging — obviously, that report that came out was pretty dire. But I think there’s things we can do and should do, and Republicans need to be at the forefront if we want to keep our place and keep our seats.”

It is true that Republican officials have not been particularly proactive on the matter of climate change, to say the least. Just this weekend, in the aftermath of the “dire” IPCC report, President Trump’s economic advisor Larry Kudlow stopped just short of calling the assessment a “scare tactic.” And Flake’s colleague Marco Rubio, who represents Florida, where Hurricane Michael made its devastating landfall this past week, said he did not want to “destroy our economy” to combat climate change.

As a U.S. senator in a majority party, Jeff Flake is one of the one hundredth of one percent of humans in the world who can have a real, direct, tangible influence on slowing climate change. While he’s not seeking re-election this year, here is what he’s done with that position of power: He voted to confirm Rex Tillerson, Rick Perry, and Ryan Zinke to Trump’s cabinet. He voted against restricting methane pollution, incentivizing energy-efficient homes through the mortgage market, and banning fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic Refuge. He has a 8 percent pro-environmental voting record, according to the League of Conservation Voters.

Now that he’s made public comments about the need to take on climate change, I look forward to Jeff Flake’s upcoming vote to build more coal plants on top of whales.

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If Jeff Flake has taken up your cause, your cause is in danger

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If you’re suffering from climate grief, you’re not alone

Last week’s U.N. climate report gave a terrifyingly clear picture of a world on the brink of locking in catastrophe. It told us what was needed and the horrors that awaited if we failed to mobilize. As a scientific report, it was dazzling. But it didn’t tell us how to process, cope, and adapt our lives to the grief of that overwhelming knowledge.

In 1969, after interviewing hundreds of terminally ill patients, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross wrote On Death and Dying, a milestone text on how humans process permanent loss. Kübler-Ross’ description of those reactions — denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — are now famous, but they were never meant to be an orderly progression of “stages.” There is no “correct,” linear way to grieve. Our reactions are complicated because people are complicated.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach for taking in something like the looming existential threat of climate change. I’ve been listening to a lot of ’90s country music. One of my colleagues has substantially upped her sleep, while one of our Grist editors “stress bakes.” What we feel is what we feel, and it determines our reality — and importantly, our response, to the news. And that response is more important than ever.

What we need now is a major mobilization on climate change. That would require, in the words of the IPCC, “rapid and far-reaching transitions” in “all aspects of society.” We’re taking much more than just solar panels and reusable shopping bags here. After decades of delay, the scale of changes that are necessary will force us to rethink everything. To put in the changes necessary, we have to be able to connect our emotions to our actions. We have to process our grief. We have to somehow move through it, and we have to do all that together.

Last week, Scott Williams of Climate-KIC, a group affiliated with the European Union, wrote a short essay with the headline: “Do we need an IPCC special report for humans?” He explores what it would take to act on the U.N. report and asks provocative questions, like: “What does it mean when every coal mine town has no jobs in five years’ time? What does it mean when in ten years’ time if no airlines can fly over Europe? How do we feed our families if there’s an extended drought which causes mass crop failure? What is the point of putting away money into a pension fund if that fund is investing in a way that just makes things worse? And what are we going to do about it?”

For those of us dealing with climate grief, these questions are familiar. I get dozens of them every week, and I’m never sure exactly how to respond. My go-to reply is: Find a friend and talk about it. But in truth, although it works for me, I have no idea whether or not this is the right advice for everyone.

There are scant few people currently working on this. Kate Schapira, a climate activist in Rhode Island, has taken it upon herself to set up a Peanuts-style counseling booth each summer in a public park in Providence. Renee Lertzman, a psychologist and leader in this field, wrote a book on the subject called Environmental Melancholia — but in interviews, she admits there’s much more to learn.

The best guide I’ve seen so far is Josh Fox’s impressively named documentary How to let go of the world and love all the things climate can’t change. In it, Fox speaks with climate activists as they come to grips with the literal dying of a world they thought would last forever, and dedicate their lives to the struggle, not knowing exactly what the end goal might be. Through that catharsis, the activists re-engage with their role in helping avert the largest crisis in human history — and wind up aiming to build a different, better world. But others, we know, remain disengaged — some, overtly hostile to change — even as the stakes continue to rise.

We’ll need more than this. We’ll need a comprehensive crash course on human psychology to deal with the massive changes we’re seeing; a guide to self-care for the most important decade in human history. We need to know how climate change will change us as social beings, how we can deal with grief, how to go about the process of imagining a new society. We will need to know not only how we can survive in this new world, but how we will live.

This is a necessarily messy process and it won’t be easy, but I’m not sure what could be more important.

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If you’re suffering from climate grief, you’re not alone

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Is Sarah Silverman comedy’s new climate champion?

Finding humor in climate change isn’t easy (trust us!). That’s especially true this week, when U.N. scientists handed the world a big, scary report saying we’re on the road to catastrophe and Hurricane Michael carved a path of devastation through the Florida Panhandle. But Sarah Silverman is up for the challenge. The comedian delivered a nine-minute plea for climate action on Thursday in the latest episode of her Hulu show I Love You, America.

“I know climate change is not the most exciting issue, and the media knows it too, which is part of why it’s covered so infrequently,” Silverman said. She pointed to MSNBC anchor Chris Hayes’ controversial tweet in which he said climate change is a “palpable ratings killer” for news shows and so “the incentives are not great.”

“You know what’s a great incentive?” Silverman asked. “We’re all gonna f*#&’ing die.”

“I feel compelled to use my platform to speak out,” Silverman said. “Granted, my platform is on the third largest streaming network of three, so it’s not so much shouting from the rooftops as like complaining from an open mic at Panera Bread.”

Silverman covered a ton of ground in the segment, from scientists’ terrifying climate predictions to the “it’s a hoax” views of President Trump, who she calls a “Fox News grandpa.” Here’s a clip of her explaining how “absurdly rich and powerful people” are ruining the planet for the rest of us (the full thing is on Hulu):

“The only option is that we react to this massive state of emergency with massive action,” Silverman said. She brought up climate change on her show last month, too, explaining the Trump administration’s rollback of methane regulations.

Silverman isn’t the only comedian taking on climate change: Jimmy Kimmel and Trevor Noah also came up with jokes about the scary U.N. report … somehow.

So are comedians good messengers for climate change? Perhaps! A study from earlier this year found that humor, rather than fear or straightforward facts, got young people the most excited about taking action on climate change.

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Is Sarah Silverman comedy’s new climate champion?

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Michael could be the worst hurricane to ever hit the Florida Panhandle

With Hurricane Michael bearing down on the Gulf Coast, the state of Florida is just hours away from America’s latest hurricane disaster.

As of Tuesday evening, Michael was a Category 3 hurricane, and was expected to intensify even further before landfall on Wednesday afternoon near Panama City, where mandatory evacuations are underway. On Tuesday, President Trump signed a pre-landfall emergency declaration to help speed the flow of aid to Florida.

With Michael’s impending landfall, America is bracing for its fourth major hurricane in just 15 months. Last year’s trio of Harvey, Irma, and Maria made landfall with sustained winds above 115 mph, the criteria for a “major” hurricane.

In the Panhandle region of Florida, a storm like this is exceedingly rare. There have been only nine major hurricanes to approach the region in all of weather recordkeeping dating back to 1850. If Michael strengthens even a bit more than forecast, it could eclipse them all.

But wind speeds aren’t the only important factor here: 2012’s Sandy, which devastated the New York City region, and last month’s Hurricane Florence, which created all-time record flooding in North Carolina, had winds well below that threshold when they hit land. They still caused massive damage due to their large size.

Michael will be a relatively large hurricane, too, and is hitting a region of the Florida coast that’s particularly vulnerable to storm surge and coastal flooding. A huge swath of the northern Gulf Coast, from near New Orleans to Tampa, is currently under either tropical storm or hurricane warnings. Storm surge could be as high as 13 feet, depending on exactly where Michael makes landfall. Just offshore, waves in the normally docile Gulf of Mexico will be up to 40 feet high. The combination of extremely powerful winds and coastal flooding could prove devastating for the Florida Panhandle’s beach communities, like Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, which are set to take the brunt of Michael’s force.

In the past year since Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, tens of thousands of people have moved to central and northern Florida — and Michael is likely to bring repeat trauma for some. During Irma, half of the region lost power as the storm weakened. Michael is now gearing for a direct hit, while strengthening.

Southwest Florida, which is outside the warning area, is already seeing flooding — in one case, threatening a sea wall that has just been reconstructed after last year’s Irma. Michael is so large, it could even cause coastal flooding on the other side of Florida — in combination with the King Tide, an astronomical oddity that makes October 9 the highest high tide of the year, and the influence of long-term sea-level rise linked to climate change.

It’s impossible to think of record-setting hurricanes like Michael as freak aberrations from “normal” weather. Six of the seven most damaging hurricanes in U.S. history have hit in the past 10 years. In an era of rapid climate change, every weather event — including Michael — is a partial product of current and historical greenhouse gas emissions, and should come as a warning of yet worse hurricanes in the coming decades if we continue on a business as usual path.

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Michael could be the worst hurricane to ever hit the Florida Panhandle

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Carbon prices could save us … if we actually start using them

Ahh, carbon prices. Those pesky, politically fraught penalties governments slap on pollution and the polluters who emit it. Carbon taxes and pricing schemes could be our golden ticket out of climate change, but a new report shows just how far we have to go to put an effective price on carbon.

Welcome to the carbon price gap, the distance between a country’s current CO2 price and the low-end benchmark of an effective carbon tax (around $35). Earth is on track to warm more than 2 degrees C, a threshold at which ice sheets collapse at breakneck speeds, small island nations drown, and natural disasters pummel coastal regions.

At their current rate, carbon prices won’t overlap with the actual cost of carbon pollution until 2095. We simply don’t have that kind of time. The report, titled Effective Carbon Rates 2018, shows that the carbon price gap is closing at a “snail’s pace.” The carbon pricing gap for a group of 42 countries surveyed in the study dropped from 83 percent in 2012 to an estimated 76.5 percent this year. We’re talkin’ 6.5 percentage points in six years.

This is how much more each country needs to tax emissions to meet their Paris goals and keep warming under 2 degrees C (the numbers are based off data from 2015, but the authors point out that, unfortunately, nothing has changed too much in the years since):

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development

See? Pretty dismal. The countries that have the most work to do — Russia, Indonesia, Brazil — pollute a lot and have made virtually zero effort to price carbon. The countries with the smallest carbon gap — Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Norway — are nearly there. As you can see, most countries assessed in this report have a long way to go.

Here’s the good news: There are ways to close the gaps faster. China’s new emissions plan could reduce the country’s gap from 90 to 63 percent in the next few years. A handful of countries including the U.K., India, and South Korea implemented a variety of tactics to make some real headway on pricing emissions between 2012 and 2015.

And let’s not get bogged down with the percentages, says Jesse Jenkins, a postdoctoral fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School with a decade of experience in the energy sector. “How do we make the most impact in the least costly way within the political constraints that we face in each country?” Jenkins says. In other words, closing the gap requires a custom-built approach.

And there are even more reasons to be optimistic that carbon pricing, in addition to other sustainability initiatives, could help us stave off the worst effects of global warming. California has one of the only economy-wide carbon pricing policies in the U.S. The Golden State appears to have a paltry carbon price — about $20 per ton — but its other green initiatives actually make it pretty competitive compared to other global winners in sustainability.

“The magnitude of the carbon price itself is not a sufficient proxy for how effective climate policy is across the whole context,” Jenkins says. “It’s one piece of the overall effort.”

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Carbon prices could save us … if we actually start using them

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Psst, Trump. Acting on climate change is a great deal for the U.S.

On Tuesday, President Trump gave a speech to the U.N. General Assembly reiterating his deep-seated fear of America losing its “sovereignty” in global agreements. It’s a familiar sentiment from Trump — last year, he withdrew from the Paris Accord on the grounds that it would put the U.S. at a “debilitating and tremendous disadvantage” and would be a “self-inflicted, major economic wound” for the country.

However, Trump’s claim that investing in efforts to lower greenhouse gas emissions will cripple the American economy doesn’t really hold up. In fact, the United States is among the top nations that have the most to lose financially when it comes to not acting on climate change, according to a study published Monday in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The cost of our climate inaction? $250 billion per year, according to calculations by researchers at the University of California in San Diego.

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Here’s how they arrived at that number. The researchers looked at climate models and the relationship between temperature and economic output. They were able to estimate the financial damage from a ton of carbon (a figure known as “the social cost of carbon” or SCC) in individual countries. Lead author Katharine Ricke describes these calculations as the tab for the “self-inflicted damage” from climate change. The researchers found that in the U.S., the SCC is $48 per ton of carbon dioxide. So, since we’re generating 5 billion metric tons of CO2 pollution a year in the U.S., we’re looking at a massive bill.

The EPA also uses the SCC to weigh the costs or benefits of a climate policy — albeit, a lower social cost by the Trump administration’s estimations. Last month, the administration argued that the SCC should be at about $1 to $7 per ton of CO2. According to the EPA, this metric reflects “net agricultural productivity, human health, property damages from increased flood risk, and changes in energy system costs” — essentially all the ways climate change makes our lives more costly and miserable. By lowering that estimate, the Trump administration can better justify environmentally harmful policies.

Ricke, a professor at UC San Diego’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography, hopes this study will help demonstrate that the U.S.’s SCC is actually much higher than Trump’s figure — and that acting on climate change is what is actually in the country’s self interest. While climate change is expected to pan out poorly for most, there were few countries in colder regions — notably Russia — that might end up benefiting economically.

Earlier this year, researchers from Stanford found that fighting climate change could lead to trillions in economic benefits for the world. They calculated how temperatures could impact overall economic output and found that “in cooler places, a warm year leads to more economic growth and in a warm country, a warmer year leads to less economic growth,” according to Ricke. The UC San Diego, team built upon those findings to show the toll of carbon emissions on individual countries.

It short, the study just made it more abundantly clear that putting “America first” also requires a little global cooperation to make sure the planet doesn’t go up in flames.

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Psst, Trump. Acting on climate change is a great deal for the U.S.

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Michael Avenatti’s climate vision is 2020

Welcome to 2018, the parallel universe in which a man best-known for suing the president of the United States on behalf of a porn star is now considering running for president. But hey, President Trump was a reality TV star, so Michael Avenatti’s run doesn’t sound that far-fetched.

And if Avenatti did succeed Trump — which, for the record, would be extremely weird — at least he seems to give a rat’s ass about the environment.

In a document pinned to the bulldog lawyer’s Twitter profile on August 27 and reported on this week by E&E News, Avenatti outlines his stance on 20 issues, including climate change. In fact, climate features first on the list (fine, it’s alphabetical, but it’s still cool that at least one potential Democratic 2020 contender thinks climate change is worth putting front and center).

Committing to the goals outlined in the Paris agreement, addressing our reliance on oil, slashing emissions? Maybe other rumored 2020 presidential contenders will take a page out of Avenatti’s book and say “basta” to the prolonged political silence on climate change.

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Michael Avenatti’s climate vision is 2020

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Weathering the next Florence

As the country watched floodwaters rise across the Carolinas in the wake of Hurricane Florence this month, Puerto Ricans were still reeling from a storm that tore through the island a year ago.

The grim statistics from Hurricane Maria are well known: thousands of deaths, the largest power outage in U.S. history, and $90 billion in damages — a heavy toll for an island already in dire financial straits. But we still don’t know the extent of the wreckage from Hurricane Florence’s record-shattering rainfall.

Increasingly, there’s little space to breathe between catastrophes. And as climate change brings higher sea-level rise, more punishing winds, and heavier rains, super-charged storms are likely to get worse. But these natural disasters are partly human-made, which means that humans can also work to avoid future disasters.

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How do we prepare for a future filled with Florences and Marias? And when the next big hurricane does inevitably hit, how do we rebuild, not just our houses, but also our sense of community?

Grist surveyed experts in hurricane preparedness and relief efforts for their suggestions on making our coastal towns more resilient. Here’s how they responded, edited for length and clarity.

“Aid delayed is aid denied.”

Richard Burroughs, professor of coastal science and policy, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies

Waves, storm surge, wind, and rain coexist on dynamic natural coasts: We know how nature works. Adding in people with their homes, businesses, roads, and recreation always causes problems. The fixed structures and people are periodically overwhelmed by the hurricanes.

Adequate hurricane preparation consists of identifying zones of high risk and incentivizing people and businesses to move away from those zones. Insuring people so that they can stay in high-risk areas will ultimately fail because natural forces coupled with sea-level rise will win in the end. I recognize that major cities will not get up and move, but for other areas retreat is the preferred option.

Puerto Rico is a very important case where Hurricane Maria further exposed the vulnerability of not just individuals but whole governmental systems. Since hurricanes test both our physical infrastructure and the resilience of government, all Americans have a special stake in effectively addressing the issues Puerto Rico is facing. Houston and New Orleans have a lot to learn from San Juan and vice versa.

Maria Lopez cries while walking from her house that was flooded by Hurricane Maria.HECTOR RETAMAL / AFP / Getty Images

As the Puerto Rico case illustrates, we are woefully slow in making decisions related to individual claims because we have dispersed responsibility among many governmental agencies. After a flood, FEMA inspectors, National Flood Insurance Program adjusters, Small Business Administration loss verifiers, private flood insurance adjusters, and others may assess damage to the property. It’s both time-consuming and costly. The challenge for us all is to coordinate responses so that payouts can occur in a timely fashion. Aid delayed is aid denied.

“We need to have those communities at the table”

Mikki Sager, vice president of The Conservation Fund

We work with a tremendous number of community groups, particularly in areas rich in natural resources, but that have a lot of economic challenges, persistent poverty, and social and environmental justice issues. When we are trying to prepare for hurricanes, we have to look at the socio-economic aspect.

The Centers for Disease Control has social vulnerability index maps and data. The mid-Atlantic down across to Texas has huge areas of persistent poverty that are also the most vulnerable to climate change. The challenge that we face is that, for many reasons, the most vulnerable folks are not part of conversations about how to address the impacts of a natural disaster. We need to have those communities at the table. And we need to increase the flow of funding, both public and private, to help them set priorities for rebuilding.

We also need to increase the capacity of local government, businesses, and families in those vulnerable areas. Historically, especially here in the South, low-income folks and people of color have been pushed to the low-lying areas, to the wetland areas, to the floodplains.

We have several communities in the southeastern part of North Carolina right now that are still underwater, totally cut off. They don’t have access to the most basic supplies, but community groups and faith groups are pulling together funding to go out and buy tarps so that houses can start to dry out when the water has receded.

In Puerto Rico, we provided a grant for a group called Americas for Conservation and the Arts to focus on engaging the community and restructuring their food systems, putting it back to where it was [before Hurricane Maria]. They are doing some amazing work because they have local community folks leading the process. They’re both organizing and engaging the community in coming up with a solution, leaning heavily on what has worked in the past, and working towards addressing the economic issues, the social justice issues, and the environmental issues simultaneously through that project.

“It’s just really hard to establish [community cohesion] when the physical environment is pockmarked.”

Kofi Boone, associate professor of landscape architecture at North Carolina State University in the College of Design

Before a hurricane or a flood comes, we still have a very big pre-disaster education job to do to help communities understand what floodplains are and how they work, where they’re located, and what those risk factors happen to be.

After Hurricane Matthew, we all had a chance to work with the town of Princeville, which is the oldest chartered black town in North Carolina. That town was built in the floodplain of the Tar River, primarily because that was the available land that African American people could buy at the end of the Civil War. You find that a lot, where the most vulnerable populations have existed for generations in places that have had a series of crises and disasters, and so the recurring trauma and disruption that happens every time a flood comes prevents them from building wealth, equity, and a tax base.

There really isn’t a mechanism to encourage a community-level conversation to talk about the impacts that all of those individual actors have on the long-term sustainability of communities. It’s just really hard to establish a sense of community cohesion and maintain social networks when the physical environment is pockmarked.

I think it’s also about finding ways for people to do what they can. And a lot of the time, when we talk about [hurricane resilience] we’re thinking about you know, billion-dollar, 10-year long-range things when sometimes it’s the day-to-day stuff that makes the difference to a community that’s had this recurring trauma from losing, property, losing loved ones like over and over and over again.

James Howell Jr. sizes up how to protect his home from the approaching Hurricane Florence. The house was damaged by Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Howell said the furniture on his porch is there because he had to go out and rebuild the living room.AP Photo / Emery Dalesio

There is a need for healing and remembering what makes them special and why they’re important. It’s one thing if all you know about Princeville was that it’s in the low-lying area and it floods all the time. It’s another when you think about it as the first free black town in the United States that’s situated in a district that gave birth to many generations of political leaders, not just in North Carolina, but around the country. It alters how you see yourself.

“Everybody’s working together and everybody’s well informed”

Hanadi Rifai, director of the Hurricane Resilience Research Institute (HURRI) at the University of Houston

Education and coordination, especially with disadvantaged communities, would help areas be more resilient.

We always talk about education because the most important thing is for people to be continually reminded and educated about what could happen to them. Coordination — amongst all organizations, communities, and agencies at the state and federal level — is one of the most important things. When everybody’s working together and everybody’s well informed, they’re able to be more responsive not only in evacuating people but also in getting people back into their homes after the event has passed.

It’s especially important with disadvantaged populations — meaning, people that perhaps don’t have the resources and the means to undertake actions they need to.

Being able to sustain economic development and economic growth, and balancing the risks and rewards of having industrial, commercial, and economic activities would be really important for coastal communities. We talk a lot about hazards from industrial activities, chemicals, and storage of byproducts. If we’re able to get our coastlines more aware of that and find ways that we can manage the risks from those types of activities, we would truly have more resilient coasts. When the event comes, you can recover quickly and you don’t have these lingering environmental effects left to deal with which may prevent things from going back to normal for a while.

It’s like when you buy a car and see that label about fuel economy. We need a similar thing for buildings.”

Jeremy Gregory, research scientist and executive director of the Concrete Sustainability Hub at MIT.

The key thing is building structures that are not just designed to withstand normal weather events, but built to last longer and withstand more extreme events. Part of the challenge with that is a lot of structures built a long time ago aren’t adequately prepared to sustain the increasing severity of storms.

We’re not even talking about entirely rebuilding structures. Sometimes it’s just about making sure that homes have a good connection between the roof and the walls and that you have protection for windows and doors. Because after the wind breaks that pressure seal, then a lot of the damage comes from the water.

Kenan Chance’s home is surrounded by flood water as the Lumberton river continues to rise in the aftermath of Hurricane Florence in North Carolina.RJ Sangosti / The Denver Post via Getty Images

So it’s really the flooding that’s a lot worse than the wind, but a lot of times that’s wind level is what we design for. Heating and cooling units for buildings are often placed on the ground, down low.

A lot of the research that we do is about the quantitative, life cycle costs of a building, considering the hazards that it’s exposed to. People need to understand that the building they are investing in not only has an initial cost, it’s also going to have some costs due to hazards. As the  severity of storms increase, those costs are going to go up. And so we need to make that more transparent. It’s kinda like when you buy a car and see that label about fuel economy. We need a similar thing for buildings.

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Weathering the next Florence

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When disaster hits, solar power beats coal

This story was originally published by Mother Jones and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Within two weeks after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico, Richard Birt, a Las Vegas fire captain, flew to San Juan on what would be the first of many missions to try to get the island’s 96 fire stations up and running — not by fixing the problematical grid but by using solar power.

With the encouragement of San Juan fire chief Alberto Cruz Albarrán, logistical help from San Juan firefighters, and donated equipment from the company Sunrun, within a day-and-a-half a team outfitted the flat roofs of the fire department in Barrio Obrero — one of the poorer neighborhoods in San Juan — with solar panels. The panels and connected battery meant the station could be taken off the downed grid to run the most critical equipment including its 24-hour watch office that fielded calls, and its radio, lights, and doors.

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“When we got there the generator was broken, so there was no lights, no watch office, no radio, no anything,” Birt tells me in between his shifts at the Las Vegas fire station. “The idea [was] getting the watch office up so when someone walked up and said they had an emergency, they could respond.” With solar, the fire station had a backup option when the hastily repaired grid went down again — as it would repeatedly over the last 12 months. When Birt returned a few months later, he found that the crew had never unplugged the solar equipment. “With the grid going down, the firefighters felt they needed this up and running 24-hours a day and not have any gaps,” Birt recalls. “They said, ‘this works and the grid doesn’t.’”

Through the nonprofits Empowered By Light and Givepower, 10 fire stations in Puerto Rico have set up similar microgrids, and Birt hopes to raise millions more to finish the job. Other emergency responders have installed solar power as well. Solar panels filled the parking lot of a children’s hospital in San Juan, after Tesla made a donation to replace the hospital’s diesel generators.

Ensuring power for first responders in the wake of a disaster is a matter of life or death. “People died because of the lack of power,” Sunrun’s director of public policy in Puerto Rico Javier Rúa-Jovet said — 2,975 people in total. But the experiences of the children’s hospital in San Juan and the Barrio Obrero fire department are exceptions, because very few people in Puerto Rico have the option and resources to go solar.

Renewables account for just 2 percent of Puerto Rico’s electricity supply, making it among the most fossil-fuel reliant of nations and territories in the Caribbean. Which is to say, Puerto Rico is far from recognizing the vision solar companies had for a robust and self-reliant solar market. The reasons for this are a complicated mix of the lack of political will, legal obstacles, and the absence of enough federal assistance.

Maria, and the more recent storms like Hurricane Florence, tell a story about reliable power that’s quite different from what President Trump has claimed — which boils down to his usual support of fossil fuels. In a bid to subsidize the coal and nuclear plants that have struggled to compete economically against cheap gas and renewables, the Trump administration has floated a variety of plans — including stalling the retirements of coal plants for national security reasons and creating a strategic reserve for coal — that would allow it to subsidize these sources. One of the administration’s favorite arguments confuses the largely accurate observation that solar and wind are intermittent sources for energy (as in, the sun doesn’t always shine) with the more dubious logic that renewables are somehow more susceptible to security threats than a physical stockpile of coal.

It’s “a tremendous form of energy in the sense that in a military way — think of it — coal is indestructible,” Trump said at an August fundraiser on Long Island. “You can blow up a pipeline, you can blow up the windmills. You know, the windmills, boom, boom, boom, bing, that’s the end of that one.”

But that’s not what we’ve been seeing after catastrophic hurricanes. After Maria, solar power became a symbol for more reliable power, even if few had access to it. And more recently, Hurricane Florence tested the most solar-powered state after California. In North Carolina 4.6 percent of the state’s electricity comes from the sun. InsideClimate News reports that large solar farms and even rooftop solar (which face more variable conditions and are more susceptible to damage) remained intact following the storm. At the same time, those who live in North Carolina still saw massive power outages — at one point more than 300,000 residents were without power.

The upside of solar is that it easily lends itself to decentralized power and micro-grids that could maintain the power for more people in the wake of a disaster. Solar is “an easy distributed resource and obviously a clean one,” Vermont Law School’s Institute for Energy and the Environment Director Kevin Jones says. But the downside is that on its own it doesn’t lead to a more resilient a power grid, unless it is combined with advanced battery technology that allows people to disconnect from the grid to become self-reliant. Consider those fire stations: For a microgrid, panels on the roof had to be hooked up to long-lasting storage options. The combination of battery storage and solar could mean that “you have additional resilience when the grid goes down,” Jones notes.

An investigation by Puerto Rico’s Center for Investigative Journalism conducted after Hurricane Maria backs that up: “Most of the more than 10,362 renewable energy units installed by Puerto Ricans ended up as a roof ornaments,” they concluded. These units were connected to the grid; if they were microgrids with storage attached, things might have been different.

There are other barriers for more hurricane-resilient power. One is money. “You can have solar panels in a parking lot serving a children’s hospital in the short term, but in the longer term you have to put them in a place where you can have them permanently,” Jones says. “Those things take time and money and effort.” The second is public policy priorities. Supplying power to community members in a microgrid gets complicated, legally, because solar customers and companies must get permission from monopoly utilities. The uncertain future for Puerto Rico’s monopoly utility PREPA means an uncertain future for microgrids as well.

For now, multiple solar and storage companies are eyeing markets in Puerto Rico, and both companies and some residents have some hope for the future. Sunrun’s Javier Rúa-Jovet fits into both categories. He considers himself one of the lucky few who was able to take out a loan to buy a diesel generator after the storm, but remembers the frustration of dealing with maintaining and keeping the generator stocked with fuel, sometimes in the middle of a rainy night. “The costs aren’t only economical, there’s the psychological toll,” he said. But a switch to maintenance solar promises to be “a positive experience, not a stressful experience.”

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When disaster hits, solar power beats coal

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Hurricane Florence’s catastrophic flooding is a sign of what’s to come

Since barreling into North Carolina on Friday morning with gusts of up to 112 mph, Hurricane Florence has already submerged homes, left nearly 700,000 households without power, and killed at least five people. More than 200 people were rescued in Bern, North Carolina, where a 10-foot storm surge flooded town.

The hurricane is massive: at 400 miles wide, its hurricane-force winds stretch across a 160-mile span, as ABC reported.

Yet the long-ranging, torrential winds are not the primary concern. It’s the sheer volume of water, in the form of tidal surges, rain, and anticipated flash flooding that make this Category 1 storm unusually dangerous. As meteorologist Janice Dean put it, “The legacy of the storm is not going to be the winds. It’s going to be the rain.”

Florence may drench the Carolinas with an unthinkable amount of water this weekend: 18 trillion gallons, or enough to fill the Chesapeake Bay. As of early Friday afternoon, 20 inches of rain had already fallen in parts of North Carolina — and some resolution models are predicting that by Sunday, the southeastern part of the state could see 50 inches of rain.

We’ve seen a slow-moving storm like Hurricane Florence before. Last year, Hurricane Harvey brought record-breaking rains to Southeast Texas. “Slower forward movement means a hurricane has more time to inundate a region with rain and storm surge,” an article in Vox explains. “It’s a longer time to blow dangerous, power line-snapping winds.”

The extreme level of rain from Florence and Harvey shouldn’t be chalked up to coincidence. Researchers at Stony Brook University and Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory estimate that 50 percent of the rainfall from Hurricane Florence can be attributed to climate change.

Though Florence is a Category 1 storm, the risks from the staggering levels of water should not be underestimated. As an article in Time noted, “Hurricane Florence’s rapid downgrade from a Category 4 to a Category 1 underscores a potential public safety issue with the way hurricanes are measured and discussed.”

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Hurricane Florence’s catastrophic flooding is a sign of what’s to come

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