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For a warming world, a new strategy for protecting watersheds

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This story was originally published by Yale Environment 360 and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Long before an aspen tree fell on a power line in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains in June 2011, triggering the biggest wildfire in the state’s history, fire managers knew that New Mexico’s forests were vulnerable. Climate change-induced drought and higher temperatures had dried out the trees and soil. And after more than a century of fire suppression, areas that supported 40 trees per acre in the pre-European era now were blanketed with up to a hundred times as many. This profusion of trees — as many as one per square yard — weakened all of them, and rendered them defenseless against megafires.

Even so, the fire managers weren’t prepared for the astonishing power of the 2011 conflagration, known as the Las Conchas Fire. During its first 14 hours, it sent walls of flame hundreds of feet high as it consumed nearly an acre of forest per second and threatened the city of Los Alamos. By the time it was extinguished five weeks later, it had burned an area nearly three times as big as the state’s largest fire before it, and left behind nearly 100 square miles so severely burned that even seeds to regenerate the forest were destroyed.

But the fire’s full impact didn’t register until nearly two months later, when a thunderstorm in the Jemez Mountains washed tons of ash and debris into the Rio Grande River, the water source for half of New Mexico’s population and for a major agricultural area. Only an inch of rain fell, but the debris flows the storm generated turned the river black and dumped ash, sediment, and tree and shrub remnants into a major reservoir⁠, requiring a costly cleanup.

To ward off damage to equipment, water treatment plants in Albuquerque and Santa Fe closed for 40 days and 20 days respectively while they drew down precious stores of groundwater. Farmers found that the polluted water clogged the nozzles of their drip irrigation systems, rendering them useless. Even worse, the most severely burned portions of the watershed continued discharging debris and sediment into water channels long afterward; a heavy rainstorm two years later generated enough sediment to entirely plug the Rio Grande.

Ash blankets the forest floor immediately following the Las Conchas fire in 2011.

What has unfolded in New Mexico is far from unique. In the last two decades, megafires in similarly dry and overgrown watersheds have ended up contaminating downstream water supplies in numerous areas throughout the western United States, including Phoenix; Denver; Flagstaff, Arizona; and Fort Collins, Colorado. Downstream water managers serving millions of urban residents have learned that the security of their water supplies is tied to the health of upland watersheds that may be hundreds of miles away.

“There’s been a real change in consciousness among urban water providers and water utilities,” said Gregg Garfin, director of the University of Arizona’s Southwest Climate Adaptation Science Center. “They’ve come to realize that management of watersheds and fire ecology issues is just as important as the direct impacts of drought on water availability.”

This development is part of a broader nationwide shift in forest management over the last generation, as degraded forests in watersheds and the resulting rise of megafires and pest infestation have helped generate a shift away from focusing on forests chiefly as sources of commercial timber and instead toward “ecosystem-based management,” in which forests’ natural processes are reinforced to reap benefits like clean water. Indeed, in some areas forest restoration has been shown to increase the amount of water flowing into reservoirs. The shift toward ecosystem management has occurred even in such regions as the U.S. Northeast and Mid-Atlantic states, where wildfires are uncommon, but where other watershed menaces, including development and toxic agricultural runoff, have led to contamination of downstream water bodies such as the Chesapeake Bay, Delaware Bay, and the Hudson River.

In the western U.S., watershed restoration chiefly consists of two steps: thinning of trees and shrubs, and prescribed burns. In the eastern U.S., it involves a bigger set of tools, including planting native trees, reducing the area of impervious surfaces, and slowing the speed of stormwater so that more water percolates into soil and aquifers. All these measures are designed to improve water quality.

Both the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Forest Service have supported the shift, providing programs and funding for watershed restoration in much of the nation. But forest restoration is expensive: It costs anywhere from $600 ⁠to $1,500 per acre, depending on the degree of steepness of the terrain (sometimes helicopters are required to remove logs in mountainous areas) and the harvested logs’ commercial value (usually low to zero). Budget constraints exacerbated by the soaring cost of fighting rapidly proliferating wildfires have meant that government agencies can fund restoration of only a tiny fraction of the nation’s roughly 150 million acres of forest that need it. The result is that while numerous pilot projects have shown the efficacy of restoration, agencies rarely have enough money to treat entire watersheds.

Today, 108,000 acres of burned forest in central and northern New Mexico have been restored through strategic thinning and prescribed burns.

Faced with this dilemma after the Las Conchas fire, residents in the Rio Grande watershed pioneered a path forward. Guided by The Nature Conservancy, the most active U.S. environmental organization in watershed restoration, in 2014 they launched a public-private partnership, the Rio Grande Water Fund, whose 73 contributing members⁠ include government agencies at all levels, foundations and other NGOs, local water utilities, and local businesses and residents. Together they raised enough money for a 20-year program to restore 600,000 forest acres — enough to support the resilience of the entire central and northern New Mexico portion of the Rio Grande watershed. They have already restored 108,000 acres, and are racing to complete the job before another megafire occurs.

The Rio Grande Water Fund’s public-private partnership model has become official federal policy. Last August, the U.S. Forest Service published a landmark report called “Toward Shared Stewardship Across Landscapes” that outlined the agency’s intention to convene watershed stakeholders of all kinds to plan and fund watershed restoration. “Because fire crosses back and forth across land ownership boundaries, the risk is shared,” the report said. “Accordingly, land managers cannot achieve the fire-related outcomes people want … without shared stewardship of the wildland fire environment.”

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The benefits of watershed restoration extend far beyond water security. Most obviously, healthy forests deter megafires. Laura McCarthy, the Rio Grande Water Fund’s executive director, says that in three instances since restoration work began in New Mexico, wildfires that ran up against restored zones immediately died down. Healthy forests can tolerate low-intensity fires: They possess diverse understories of grasses, sedges, and forbs, and rich, microbe-laden soil, all of which supports wildlife, from insects to mammals. Watershed restoration can double the amount of carbon stored in the soil, which means that it’s a vital tool in fighting climate change. And watershed restoration creates jobs: In the case of the Rio Grande Water Fund, many of those jobs go to youths in traditional Hispanic and Native American communities where unemployment rates are 30 percent or higher.

In some regions, forest restoration even increases water supplies. Roger Bales, a hydrologist at the University of California, Merced, has shown that because watershed restoration requires the removal of vast numbers of young trees, loss of water into the atmosphere through evapotranspiration in those trees is eliminated. The water instead flows downward, into the soil, often on its way to the watershed’s rivers and reservoirs. Bales’ experiments in California’s Sierra Nevada show that restoration can increase water supplies in downstream reservoirs by 9 to 16 percent. That makes restoration a more cost effective (and vastly less destructive) water supply method in California than building dams. Restoration is also cheaper than fighting the megafires that are otherwise inevitable in the overgrown forests: Last year’s Camp Fire in Northern California alone caused $11 billion to $13 billion in damage.

Thinning of trees and shrubs is a labor-intensive (and, therefore, job-creating) process that may result in the removal of half or more of a degraded forest’s biomass in an effort to return the area to something like its pre-European ratio of trees to acreage. But unless it is followed by prescribed burns, undesirable trees and shrubs grow back. In that case, said Don Falk, a leading fire researcher at the University of Arizona, “You’re either committed to a perpetual Sisyphean cycle of thinning,” every 10 or 15 years, “or you’ve got to let fire back into the system.” Fire is an integral part of the functioning of many ecosystems: Blazes of less-than-megafire scale germinate seeds, keep native species in balance while warding off invasive species, and stimulate microbial activity that produces soil nutrients.

Prescribed burns are designed to do the job that naturally ignited fires once did, but they face certain obstacles. The seasonal window of opportunity for controlled burns is limited to a few months of the year, and conditions must be just right: high humidity, dry but not desiccated fuels, and some wind to disperse smoke high into the atmosphere, but not enough to risk losing control of the fire.

Laura McCarthy of the Rio Grande Water Fund points to a hillside near a Santa Fe, New Mexico reservoir where forest density has been reduced to fire-safe levels.

And even if conditions are perfect, firefighters trained in prescribed burn techniques may not be available. That’s because the lengthening of the fire season due to climate change has forced firefighters to spend more time away from home, trying to extinguish megafires throughout the West. To solve this problem, the Rio Grande Water Fund created a mobile team of prescribed-burn professionals who stay in the Rio Grande watershed.

When an unplanned fire occurs, fire managers must decide quickly whether an outbreak is modestly sized and unthreatening, in which case it should be allowed to burn as part of the desired reintroduction of fire into the watershed, or whether it’s a budding megafire, which must quickly be suppressed. A fire manager who lets a fire burn can face lawsuits or job loss if it goes out of control; for this reason, managers typically err on the side of fire suppression, sometimes setting back the cause of restoration.

As climate change intensifies, degraded watersheds will become more and more vulnerable to megafires, likely setting in motion a disastrous positive feedback loop: Megafires substantially increase greenhouse gas emissions, which heat the atmosphere and spawn more megafires. For this reason alone, watershed restoration is as urgent as any other kind of climate change remediation. Falk, the University of Arizona fire researcher, estimates that to have a chance of breaking this cycle, the area of watershed being restored in the U.S. must quickly increase by at least 10 times.

“Just as it’s imperative for us to begin addressing the underlying drivers of climate change at a much higher pace than we’ve been doing until now, in the same way we have to accelerate the work of restoring ecosystems,” he said. “These aren’t decisions we can sit around and ponder in an armchair for decades. We have to start acting now.”

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For a warming world, a new strategy for protecting watersheds

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The Green New Deal is here, and everyone has something to say about it

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For the past several weeks, there’s been rampant speculation about what would be included in the much talked about Green New Deal, the ambitious plan to tackle climate change and remake much of the American economy. That anticipation came along with trepidation from some corners over whether the deal would include controversial elements that have already led to heated debate. Will a future bill include a jobs guarantee? Will nuclear energy be part of our energy mix of the future? Will it fold in universal healthcare?

Well, the nail-biting can stop now that there’s an outline of the plan to chew on. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey’s resolution arrived Thursday morning.

“Today is a really big day, I think, for our economy, the labor movement, the social justice movement, indigenous peoples, and people all over the United States of America,” said Ocasio-Cortez, who represents parts of Queens and the Bronx, at an introductory press conference. “Today is the day that we truly embark on a comprehensive agenda of economic, social, and racial justice in the United States of America.”

NPR first published the 14-page non-binding resolution — basically a target list for what future legislation would aim to achieve. It calls for a 10-year plan to build more climate-resilient communities, upgrade American infrastructure, ramp up renewable power, make buildings energy efficient, reduce pollution, restore ecosystems, and clean up manufacturing, agriculture, and transportation.

Early indications are the plan has managed to thread the needle and get a lot of folks in the environmental movement on board — even those who might have been wary about what the proposal would entail.

The Peoples Climate Movement quickly offered its endorsement. The coalition’s diverse membership includes labor, green groups, environmental justice advocates, and activists — including Sierra Club, Service Employees International Union, and Indigenous Environmental Network. Getting all of those organizations in agreement is easier said than done; each has its own priorities and strategies for combating climate change.

“The Peoples Climate Movement has worked over the last four years to align different sectors of the progressive, labor and environmental movements,” said National Director Paul Gestos in a statement. “While many of our partners are assessing the legislation for strengths, weaknesses, and areas for improvement — and we know that much work lies ahead — the Peoples Climate Movement is proud to support this important first step toward a real climate solution.”

One of those groups that is assessing Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s offering is the Climate Justice Alliance, which had signaled that it would not support any proposal that allowed for the continued use of nuclear energy or adoption of schemes or technologies, like carbon pricing and carbon capture, that it sees as potentially extending our reliance on fossil fuels.

The just-released resolution calls for “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.” In lieu of a totally carbon-free economy, it sets up a net-zero one, where carbon emissions are canceled out — leaving on the table both nuclear and dirty energies outfitted with carbon-capture mechanisms. The resolution is also vague on pricing and the “costs” of emissions.

“The resolution is silent on any individual technology,” Senator Markey said during a press conference Thursday. “We are open to whatever works.”

In response to the resolution, Angela Adrar, executive director of the Climate Justice Alliance, wrote to Grist, “The Climate Justice Alliance welcomes the bold Green New Deal initiative from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Members of Congress; to truly address the interlinked crises of a faltering democracy, growing wealth disparity, and community devastation caused by climate change and industrial pollution, we must reduce emissions at their source.”

The bipartisan Citizens Climate Lobby, which has pushed hard for a price on carbon, said in a statement that while it shares the goal of “a swift transition away from fossil fuels.” It favors measures that could garner support from both sides of the aisle in a divided Congress. “The private sector can do much of the heavy lifting with this transition if it has the proper motivation, like a robust price on carbon,” said executive director Mark Reynolds.

Meanwhile, former Vice President Al Gore hailed the resolution as “ambitious and comprehensive” — but added that it’s only a first step. “Now the work begins to decide the best ways to achieve them, with specific policy solutions tied to timelines,” Gore said in a tweet.

There will no doubt be some hiccups moving forward. Aside from the debate over what the right energy mix should be, the resolution as it stands includes language promoting a jobs guarantee, universal healthcare, and housing for all — all topics that could rankle conservatives and even some moderates. Trying to get those kinds of federal guarantees to pass through Congress is a moonshot to say the least.

While politicians might differ in their responses to the resolution, its language centers on inclusivity, attempting to incorporate putting people first as part of the mainstream environmental agenda. The outline states up front that a Green New Deal must not only “promote justice and equity” but also seek to repair harm and prevent future injury to those most vulnerable to climate change and the fossil fuel economy — namely communities of color, indigenous peoples, migrants, rural communities, the poor, people with disabilities, the elderly, and young people.

Ocasio-Cortez worked closely with the youth-led environmental organization Sunrise Movement to craft the Green New Deal deal and whip up interest in it. Through a series of sit-ins and other actions, the activist group chased down Democratic politicians to win support for the plan. The tactic seems to have worked: The Guardian reported that 60 House members and 9 senators are co-sponsoring the resolution. That includes presidential hopefuls Corey Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Elizabeth Warren.

“In 2018, young people put the Green New Deal on the national agenda,”Varshini Prakash, founder and executive director of Sunrise (and a Grist 50 alumna) wrote in a statement. “The historic support for this resolution, especially among 2020 contenders, shows how far the movement has shifted the political conversation.”

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Life after EPA: What is Scott Pruitt doing now?

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Ever wonder what happens to people when they get booted from President Trump’s graces? (They don’t all wind up with a Saturday Night Live trip down memory lane.)

It’s been almost six months since Scott Pruitt was cut loose as head of the EPA, and for the most part he’s been keeping out of the spotlight. According to sources, Pruitt is using his industry connections to launch a private consulting business — you know, promoting coal exports and consorting with coal barons, the way a former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency would.

However, Pruitt’s lawyer, Cleta Mitchell, says these new career pursuits will stop short of violating an official five-year ban on lobbying the EPA. After a mess of ethics violations and legal scandals, Pruitt is proceeding with caution. Mitchell says: “He has discussed multiple opportunities with me and has been quite careful not to do anything that is even close to the line.”

Although Pruitt’s fall from grace hasn’t been memorialized on SNL, he did become the butt of a few jokes by someone else — his former bestie, Donald Trump.

Evidently, Trump has congratulated Andrew Wheeler, Pruitt’s replacement, several times for not trying to buy used mattress from Trump Hotel. Yep. Pruitt did that. But hey, there’s nothing wrong with a little reuse, reduce, recycle — it may turn out to be one of Pruitt’s better moves for the environment.

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How cities can lead on climate change solutions

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

This week, diplomats from about 130 countries are gathered in Katowice, Poland, for COP24, the latest in the annual series of climate change meetings convened under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. At the heart of the discussions this year is a grim report released in October by the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — the Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees C (SR1.5).

The product of more than 90 scientists working from thousands of peer-reviewed studies, SR1.5 laid out the catastrophic effects of exceeding 1.5 degrees C warming over the coming decades. Much of the global news coverage that followed the report’s release focused on a chilling projection in the form of a 12-year deadline the IPCC established to limit the most disastrous impacts of planetary warming. “It’s a line in the sand,” said Debra Roberts, a co-chair of Working Group II of SR1.5.

But the report wasn’t just a grave warning: It was also a roadmap to solutions. These solutions were organized around four areas, or systems — energy, land use and ecosystems, cities and infrastructure, and industry. And while urban issues comprise one of those four areas, actions in cities are integral to each system transformation. Put another way: There is no way to save the planet without serious changes in how city-dwellers live, work, and move. That’s a point stressed in this summary of the IPCC report aimed at urban policymakers, which was released at COP24. (I was one of the 21 co-authors of this report.) The necessary changes to limit warming must be made not only by national governments and the private sector, but also by city leaders and the residents of urban areas.

As a co-chair of the working group on impacts, Roberts led the world’s top climate scientists through the assessment, drafting, and approval process. A scientist herself, Roberts is the head of the Sustainable and Resilient City Initiatives Unit, eThekwini Municipality, Durban, South Africa. In other words, she is a rare climate expert who’s familiar with the scientific, diplomatic, and urban policy issues that this unparalleled global challenge represents.

CityLab asked Roberts to talk about the role city residents can play in delivering climate action, the critical importance of local political decisions, and the responsibility we all have to talk about — and act on — climate change with our neighbors.

Q. What should city residents, far removed from these diplomatic processes, take away from the current climate negotiations and SR1.5 in particular?

A. There are two really important sets of messages. First, we are probably facing a serious existential threat as a species. Along with that very serious message is a second key message about the need for rapid and ambitious action. We are probably living in the most important period of our species’ history. But when you face such a big call to action, such an historic moment, the individual can really feel lost.

What is profoundly important to me about the 1.5 report is that it points to lines of response to this big challenge that we face as a species by identifying four systems that need to go through rapid, unprecedented transformations: energy, land use and ecosystems, urban, and industry. While the public and private sectors certainly have input, the report also calls out that the individual has a role to play, too.

If you think about the energy system, the report tells me is that every element of action is important — all the way from the international to the national, to what I do in my life. Think about energy systems. I should be able to make choices about what energy I use in my home. Am I able to go off-grid, generate my own electricity, and if I generate excess, put it back in the grid? And if those choices aren’t there, then I need to reflect on why I don’t have those options. If I don’t have leadership which is making it easy for me to make these choices, then I need to change leadership. It’s a real call to action on personal choices, and that we need to be more cognizant of the leaders we put in place at all spheres of government.

Q. The possible impacts outlined in SR1.5 can make the individual feel irrelevant. But there’s this line that I found really striking: “Humans are at the center of global climate change: Their actions cause anthropogenic climate change, and social change is key to effectively respond to climate change.” How do you put the human back in a story that was once so focused on nation-states and climate regimes?

A. The scientific literature puts people back. That’s why those four systems transitions are so important. When it comes to urban systems, yes we can choose what kind of transport we use. When it comes to land systems, by changing our diets we change the pressures on land. When you think about industry, we are consumers. We are very powerful in terms of our ability to purchase, and we can be more critical of the things we choose to consume. Those four systems are in the real world. They define many of the ways we live our lives, and they give us the power to influence the outcome.

Every level of activity counts, all the way from changing your lightbulbs to the other end of the spectrum at the climate negotiations. So it’s empowering but it also involves a strong responsibility. The science is very clearThere is no physical or chemical law which will stop us from limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C. There is nothing that stands in our way. In fact, the key element is the political and societal will to make these changes.

Q. In the U.S. recently, there’s been talk about a “Green New Deal” for climate change. Huge, society-spanning transformation is needed, in other words. But when you look through SR1.5 at the things that every individual in a city can do, they’re things like riding a bike or line-drying laundry. It all sounds so far from this sweeping historical mission.

A. What you and I do, literally in our day-to-day boring lives, is an important element in saving the world. This is a global project. Everybody has to be in on it. You cannot leave a single person out. Before, as you indicated, the scientific debate tended to alienate the person on the street with formulas and graphs and international negotiations that no one really understood. This report is clear: Hanging out your laundry counts. This change is possible, and we can all contribute to that change.

Q. How do you encourage the tougher choices that are tied to larger, structural issues — what are frequently referred to in climate science as enabling conditions — that are often determined at the regional and national levels?

A. We need multi-level governance structures that enable us to make choices well beyond the laundry. When I go to work, I must be able to take a public transport system or access a shared car. And if I’m driving that car, that car must be electrified. Those are the important things. Those are choices I do not have control over. I have control over the laundry I put out on the line. I don’t have a choice around bigger systems of transport, energy production systems, and so on. But the onus is still on me in terms of how democracies work — in calls to action, at the voting booth, in talking to my neighbors and talking to local leadership about this.

That requires more of you than the hanging of the washing. Those enabling conditions — which involve changing policies, promoting effective governance, deployment of technologies in the right kinds of spaces — require us to be active.

Q. In a previous conversation I did here with Michael Ignatieff, we talked about the roles that neighbors must play in making cities work. It’s an interesting frame in the climate space, when people sometimes feel helpless: Have they spoken with their neighbors?

A. Everyone has to be in, but it’s hard for me to imagine how I’m in a process with somebody sitting in Thailand. I’ve got a much better sense of the community I live in. I can say to my neighbors, “OK, where are your solar geysers [a kind of solar water heater]?” That puts it at a scale that is about human action, and I think that’s what this report does. It humanizes not only the impacts — look at how we are already impacted, and how the poor and vulnerable are already disadvantaged — but it put the humans back in the solution space again.

Q. You work in a city and in the international diplomatic arena. What is the status of urban expertise when you’re starting to develop a report like this?

A. The IPCC started out largely focused on the natural and physical sciences. But as it became clear that you weren’t going to be able to solve climate change through some mysterious new technology, or entirely mitigate your way out of it because of lack of political ambition, the social sciences have become a more prominent voice in the process. We have drawn in as many practitioners as we could as authors of the report, who have the ability to assess knowledge so that the report speaks to things that are important in the real world.

I, as a local government practitioner, can pick up the report and can see they’ve looked at the literature on things that are important to me. If you look to chapter 4, you’ll see a huge amount of work on the feasibility assessment. That’s what I need to know as a practitioner. I need to know if an action is likely to work, and what its enabling conditions are. There’s a drive to use the science to fulfill the original IPCC mandate of providing objective information on the causes of climate change, but we’re also becoming clearer and smarter around the solutions. The moment you talk about solutions, people must be in that space.

Q.The document has a unique place in diplomatic history, but is also part of a developing story where practitioners and urban perspectives are gaining prominence. But of course, if nation-states don’t step up, cities won’t have the enabling conditions they need to take action. You operate at both the municipal and international levels. How do you think about that landscape?

A. The practitioner community is a particularly important community. What do I do in my day job as a local government practitioner? I speak to local leadership and local communities about these issues. But I am sometimes limited by national laws and policies, then I have to go talk to the national government. Local government can become a force for change. We’ve experienced that throughout our own work at the city level. Often cities will lead best. People don’t phone the president if their house washes away. They phone the mayor. We’re most aware of where the challenges lie. Local government has an important role to knock on national government’s door and say, “Those policies work; those do not,” and explain how you might enable us to do our work better.

To me, the nation-state is not a hallowed thing. It must be in service of the people. And where it disconnects, we as local government bear that responsibility for refocusing their attention and resources where they need to be. The report underscores the importance of local government. It’s really where a lot of this action is going to happen.

Q. Local government possesses expertise, and, depending on the tax structure where you are, some resources. But you’re really talking about local government as advocate. A bit like the individual with his or her neighbor, the city must advocate with the nation-state.

A. I suppose that’s what we’re saying as a principle. To the individual, deal with your neighbor. As a local government, the national government is a neighbor of sorts. We need to pop our heads over the wall and say, look, we need things to change. This is not a time for complacency.

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The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams

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The Dinosaur Artist

Obsession, Betrayal, and the Quest for Earth¿s Ultimate Trophy

Paige Williams

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $14.99

Publish Date: September 11, 2018

Publisher: Hachette Books

Seller: Hachette Digital, Inc.


New Yorker writer Paige Williams "does for fossils what Susan Orlean did for orchids" (Book Riot) in this "tremendous" (David Grann) true tale of one Florida man's attempt to sell a dinosaur skeleton from Mongolia–a story "steeped in natural history, human nature, commerce, crime, science, and politics" (Rebecca Skloot). In 2012, a New York auction catalogue boasted an unusual offering: "a superb Tyrannosaurus skeleton." In fact, Lot 49135 consisted of a nearly complete T. bataar , a close cousin to the most famous animal that ever lived. The fossils now on display in a Manhattan event space had been unearthed in Mongolia, more than 6,000 miles away. At eight-feet high and 24 feet long, the specimen was spectacular, and when the gavel sounded the winning bid was over $1 million. Eric Prokopi, a thirty-eight-year-old Floridian, was the man who had brought this extraordinary skeleton to market. A onetime swimmer who spent his teenage years diving for shark teeth, Prokopi's singular obsession with fossils fueled a thriving business hunting, preparing, and selling specimens, to clients ranging from natural history museums to avid private collectors like actor Leonardo DiCaprio. But there was a problem. This time, facing financial strain, had Prokopi gone too far? As the T. bataar went to auction, a network of paleontologists alerted the government of Mongolia to the eye-catching lot. As an international custody battle ensued, Prokopi watched as his own world unraveled. In the tradition of The Orchid Thief , The Dinosaur Artist is a stunning work of narrative journalism about humans' relationship with natural history and a seemingly intractable conflict between science and commerce. A story that stretches from Florida's Land O' Lakes to the Gobi Desert, The Dinosaur Artist illuminates the history of fossil collecting–a murky, sometimes risky business, populated by eccentrics and obsessives, where the lines between poacher and hunter, collector and smuggler, enthusiast and opportunist, can easily blur. In her first book, Paige Williams has given readers an irresistible story that spans continents, cultures, and millennia as she examines the question of who, ultimately, owns the past.

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The Dinosaur Artist – Paige Williams

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Undaunted by Trump, climate activists and leaders are meeting to plan their next move

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

A month after President Donald Trump pledged to pull the United States from the landmark 2015 Paris climate change pact meant to curb global carbon emissions, California Governor Jerry Brown seized the leadership role and announced that San Francisco would host the Global Climate Action Summit (GCAS). With the tag line “Taking Ambition to the Next Level,” the summit has become an amalgam of the Trump resistance, a climate pep rally, a marker between crucial United Nations deadlines, and a swan song for California’s four-term governor. Above all, it’s a reminder of how far the world is from avoiding the worst effects of climate change, and how critical the next few years are for determining future global health and stability.

In some ways, the event is a response to the call by the 2015 Paris negotiations for a more active role by subnational actors — jargon for businesses, cities, states, or anything that is not a national government — in addressing climate change. Accounting for more than 70 percent of carbon emissions globally, the role of cities and states has only grown more important as Trump continues his assault on progress in attaining climate goals. But even before Trump, mayors and governors began to playa more visible role internationally as they participated on the sidelines of the United Nations’ formal negotiations process. Back in 2015, Brown was arguing at the U.N. conference that cities, states, and the private sector could take on more saying, “We don’t have to wait for the federal government to say jump.”

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The timing of the San Francisco summit is also significant, occurring during the midpoint between the Paris meeting and the next major deadline in 2020. That’s when the 200 participating countries not only have to ensure they are on track to meet the modest pledges they made in Paris, but that they are exceeding them, because targets established in the Paris pact don’t approach the level of emissions cuts necessary to keep global warming below a destructive 2 degrees C. If all the pledges were added together and adhered to, the global goal would still not be achieved. Nor do the pledges expected at the summit get us much closer. But the idea is that a symbolic event like GCAS can help accelerate global momentum at international, national, and subnational levels.

As former U.S. climate envoy and Brookings Institute senior fellow Todd Stern puts it, the summit is “meant to galvanize and inspire” and also “show ourselves and the world that America is still in the game despite the abdication by the current national regime. To help build the engine of public and political will it will take to protect our future.”

A pep rally for climate action may not sound like much, but the world is at a point where every extra push counts. An estimate by a recent New Climate Economy report shows $26 trillion in economic benefits through 2030 only if the global economy actually is on the path to decarbonize. According to the report, the investments over the next 10 to 15 years “are a unique ‘use it or lose it’ moment in economic history.” In other words, the window is closing for investment in the right priorities. Increasingly, that is in transportation, which has overtaken the power sector as the biggest source of domestic emissions.

There are more than 300 affiliate events taking place this week that’ll echo Stern’s message, along with thousands representing big and small regions, cities, companies, and NGOs around the world. Countries like China and Germany have a presence, showcasing the international alliances California has forged in the Trump era. For the U.S., it’s also a reunion of many of the figures leading the “We Are Still In” movement, a campaign of political leaders, faith institutions, and businesses that have pledged their commitment to delivering on the Paris accord.

Together, the global commitments that roughly 7,000 cities and 6,000 companies have made since Paris do pack a punch. The entities making pledges on clean energy, forests, oceans, and infrastructure represent $36 trillion, far larger than the U.S. economy. In the U.S., actions by the subnational sector helped the country meet nearly half the commitment it made in Paris. An analysis this summer from economic think tank the Rhodium Group found that existing policies in the U.S. mean we are headed toward a reduction ranging from 12 to 20 percent of emissions by 2025, still falling short of its stated 26-28 percent goal. That still leaves some room for uncertainty, given the capacity of forests to absorb carbon and energy costs and the unclear future of many federal climate policies.

The attendees representing more than 100 countries offer both a hopeful moment of international cooperation and a clear indication of how the world is still failing to do as much as is needed. Nick Nuttall, a spokesperson for the summit, framed it as evidence that cities and regions “are not incrementally improving their climate actions, but pole-vaulting” toward the ambitious action needed in 2020. But United Nations Secretary General António Guterres acknowledged on Monday from New York that the private sector and subnational pledges may be “important strides. But they are not enough. The transition to a cleaner, greener future needs to speed up.”

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Undaunted by Trump, climate activists and leaders are meeting to plan their next move

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Baltimore voters will decide on the future of their water

Water bills in Baltimore are out of control. Between 2010 and 2017, the typical household’s annual water and sewer bill jumped from $347 to $720. Residents have even turned to buying bottled water and purchasing gym memberships just to use the showers, because its more affordable than using their tap.

Like many cities on the East Coast, Baltimore’s aging water infrastructure is in need of major investments. To repair and update its systems, the city has raised water prices. Companies have been pushing privatization while many residents, particularly in neighborhoods that are working class communities of color, have had their water shut off.

But just this week, two water-related bills were approved to make it to the ballot this fall. One bill would make it illegal for the city to turn over its public water utility to a private company. The other would create a racial equity fund to ensure that city services treat all residents fairly.

Several companies have approached Baltimore asking to lease or manage the city’s water service. Privatization is often an appealing move to cash-strapped cities, but Baltimore has turned down efforts so far. A Food & Water Watch study of the 500 largest community water systems in the U.S. found that private utilities typically charge close to 60 percent more for water than their public counterparts.

If voters pass the bill this fall, Baltimore will become the first major U.S. city to ban the privatization of its water. “Hopefully other cities across the country will follow our lead,” says City Councilman Brandon Scott, who introduced another measure that he hopes will help improve water service in the city’s most vulnerable neighborhoods.

Scott’s bill would help fund an equity assessment program that would mandate city agencies and services to evaluate and address any disparities based on race, gender, or income.

Under the program, the city would take a look at how water cutoffs and high water bills impact different communities. If they see that those water bill issues are impacting poor people, people of color, or women more frequently, then they’ll have to make changes, Scott says.

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Baltimore voters will decide on the future of their water

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Scott Pruitt introduced anti-abortion bills giving men ‘property rights’ over fetuses

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

In 1999, Scott Pruitt, then an Oklahoma state senator, introduced a bill to grant men “property rights” over unborn fetuses, requiring women to obtain the would-be father’s permission before aborting a pregnancy.

Pruitt, now the embattled administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, submitted the legislation again in 2005.

The bill, which did not pass either time, faded from Pruitt’s political legacy. But the legislation merits new examination as the EPA chief faces down an avalanche of corruption accusations. As HuffPost previously reported, Pruitt’s support from right-wing evangelical Christians, a group that largely opposes abortion, has helped him keep his job amid calls from droves of Democrats and a handful of Republicans to fire the administrator.

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And while his current role atop the EPA does not give him any official control over abortion policy, he has appeared alongside President Donald Trump in meetings with evangelical leaders, and his draconian history on the issue is of a piece with the administration. In one of Trump’s first acts after taking office, he reinstated and expanded the Reagan-era “global gag rule,” withholding federal funding from charities and aid organizations that counsel women on family planning options that include abortion. Last week, the White House proposed a new “domestic gag rule” that would strip Planned Parenthood of funding.

“It’s not surprising that another member of Trump’s inner circle is hostile to women,” said Dawn Huckelbridge, a senior director at the progressive super PAC American Bridge, which opposes Pruitt and supports abortion rights. “But framing a fetus as a man’s property is a new low.”

American Bridge resurfaced the legislation and shared it with HuffPost. The EPA did not respond to a request for comment.

Pruitt has spent his 15 months at the EPA pushing to keep government out of the private sector. He’s sought to radically deregulate the fossil fuel and chemical industries, clear the way for companies to produce more asthma-triggering pollution, allow deadly chemicals to remain on the market, and revise restrictions on teenage workers handling dangerous pesticides.

By contrast, the bill from his time as a state legislator stated that “it is the responsibility of the state to ensure that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” referring to a “fetus” as “property” that has been “jointly created by both father and mother.”

The legislation would have barred doctors from performing abortions without signed statements of permission from the father, or evidence that the man could not be located “after diligent effort.” If the pregnancy resulted from rape, the woman would be required to show “such assault has been reported to a law enforcement agency having the requisite jurisdiction.”

Doctors who performed the procedure without that documentation would have risked losing their medical licenses, been “civilly liable to the father of the aborted child for any damages caused thereby,” and had to pay punitive fines of $5,000.

In a statement to The Associated Press in 1999, Pruitt said a pregnant woman who were to obtain an abortion without meeting the bill’s criteria would face legal consequences. “She’ll be held accountable for it,” Pruitt said.

Pruitt also sought to restrict abortion in other ways. In 2001,when the legislature was considering a bill to require that pregnant minors show parental permission before obtaining an abortion, he introduced an amendment to define a “fetus” as “any individual human organism from fertilization until birth.”

The timing of the bills came nearly a decade after the Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, in which it ruled that provisions requiring a woman to obtain her husband’s permission for an abortion were unconstitutional.

“He doesn’t agree with the court’s not viewing women as property and also doesn’t believe in the intellectual concept that women should have agency over their own reproductive choices,” said Leslie McGorman, deputy director at the advocacy group NARAL Pro-Choice America. “Frankly there’s not a whole lot more to tell except that he is the guy who his record indicates he is.”

“He carries that lack of concern for the greater good throughout all of the things he’s done in his career,” she added, referring to his rollback of environmental safeguards.

Until 2017, Pruitt served on the board of trustees at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky, an institution that has said “a wife is to submit herself graciously” to her husband. Around the time he first introduced the abortion bill, in 1999, Pruitt served on the board of the MEND Medical Clinic and Pregnancy Resource Center. Its current executive director, Forrest Cowan, has said unwed mothers have been “failed” by a “boyfriend, who values his own selfish gratification over responsibility, and her father, who should have had her back.”

Pruitt’s crusade against abortion rights continued after he left the state senate to become Oklahoma’s attorney general. When a district court found a law requiring women to undergo an ultrasound before an abortion to be unconstitutional, Pruitt appealed the decision to the Oklahoma Supreme Court. After losing there, he unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take the case.

In 2012, The Tulsa World excoriated Pruitt in an editorial for wasting “more taxpayer money … on this misguided effort to control doctor-patient interaction and the practice of medicine — but only when women are concerned.”

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Scott Pruitt introduced anti-abortion bills giving men ‘property rights’ over fetuses

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Scott Pruitt suspends Obama-era Clean Water Rule for two years

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

On Wednesday, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt formally suspended the Obama-era Clean Water Rule for two years, while the Trump administration works to repeal and replace the rule with their own, industry-friendly version.

Also known as Waters of the United States (WOTUS), the rule was established by the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers in 2015. Largely celebrated by environmental groups, it expanded the protection of headwaters, streams, and 20 million acres of wetlands under the 1972 Clean Water Act. It also held farmers and real estate developers accountable for runoff pollution in streams running through their property. Over 100 parties initially challenged Obama’s rule, including business groups and some Republican officials, arguing that it was an overstep of government power.

WOTUS has been a target of Pruitt’s for years, even before he was in Washington; as Oklahoma attorney general, in 2015 he helped lead a multi-state lawsuit against the rule, calling it the “greatest blow to private property rights the modern era has seen.”

“Today, E.P.A. is taking action to reduce confusion and provide certainty to America’s farmers and ranchers,” Pruitt said in a statement Wednesday night. “The 2015 WOTUS rule developed by the Obama administration will not be applicable for the next two years, while we work through the process of providing long-term regulatory certainty across all 50 states about what waters are subject to federal regulation.”

Shortly after taking office, President Trump issued an executive order directing the EPA and the Department of the Army to rescind or revise the rule. In June, administration officials signed a proposed rule that aimed to revert environmental protection standards of water and wetlands to pre-Obama levels. A month later, it was published in the Federal Register. Wednesday’s action buys time for the administration to officially kill the rule.

As expected, environmental groups are outraged over the Trump administration’s decision to roll back WOTUS. Jon Devine, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council’s Water Program, said in a statement the action is “grossly irresponsible, and illegal — and [the NRDC] will challenge it in court.” Last year, the Environmental Defense Fund’s senior vice president for ecosystems, David Festa, said in a blog post that the Trump administration’s rationale for withdrawing the rule is “arbitrary” and “dead wrong.”

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Scott Pruitt suspends Obama-era Clean Water Rule for two years

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Coastal cities are in serious jeopardy, new sea-level rise study shows.

Called “Build Back Better,” the plan focuses on providing immediate relief while also making the island’s energy infrastructure more resilient to future storms. That means fortifying the electric transmission system and bulking up defenses at power plants and substations.

The plan also envisions a Puerto Rico dotted with solar farms and wind turbines, linked by more than 150 microgrids. Of the 470,000 homes destroyed in Maria’s high winds, the report points out many could be built back with rooftop solar. New battery storage systems would allow hospitals, fire stations, water treatment plants, airports, and other critical facilities to keep the lights on without power from the grid.

Overall, $1.5 billion of the plan’s budget would go to these distributed renewable energy resources.

The plan was concocted by a bunch of industry and government groups working together, including the federal Department of Energy, Puerto Rico’s utility, several other state power authorities, and private utility companies like ConEd. If enacted, it would take the next 10 years to complete.

With a $94 billion Puerto Rico relief plan in Congress right now, it’s actually possible that $17 billion of that could go to building a renewable, resilient energy system for the future. It’d be a steal.

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Coastal cities are in serious jeopardy, new sea-level rise study shows.

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