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California’s carbon emissions are back to ’90s levels. It can be done, people!

California’s carbon emissions are back to where they were when Macaulay Culkin was battling burglars and MC Hammer first told us we couldn’t touch this.

The California Air Resources Board said Wednesday that the state had hit its goal of bringing greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels four years ahead of schedule. The drop came thanks to a boom in renewables and improving efficiency.

“California set the toughest emissions targets in the nation, tracked progress and delivered results,” said Governor Jerry Brown in a statement.

The state actually hit the goal in 2016 and is only reporting it now because it takes a while to crunch the numbers. A 2006 law set the target and put the Air Resources Board in charge of charting the state’s progress.

The board’s report shows that carbon emissions dropped 13 percent from their recent peak, while the average Californian’s carbon footprint shrank 23 percent, to 10.8 metric tons per person — about half the national average.

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The results put the lie to the canard that emissions can only fall when an economy shrinks: the Golden State’s economy boomed as it cut its emissions. “California now produces twice as many goods and services for the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the rest of the nation,” according to the Air Resources Board.

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The biggest reductions came from the electric power sector, where an increase in wind and solar energy has been displacing fossil fuels.

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To be sure, there are some signs that future progress could be harder. In the first quarter of this year, for instance, California’s electric system was actually slightly more polluting than the same quarter of last year. The state will need to make improvements in other sectors to meet its goals. At this point those miles of vehicles, bumper to bumper on the freeways — not electric power — are the largest problem. And transportation emissions have gone up, not down.

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And so policy makers are turning their attention to cars. Governor Brown has a goal of getting 5 million electric vehicles on the road by 2030, up from about 400,000 today. To help that happen, California is spending nearly a billion dollars on charging stations, electric buses, and electric vehicles for government agencies. Some legislators are also trying to allow developers to build more homes in cities, where people can bike or take transit rather than driving. Both candidates vying to replace Brown as governor have vowed to build more housing.

California’s climate laws set the next milestone at cutting emissions another 40 percent by 2030, what Brown called “a heroic and very ambitious goal.”

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California’s carbon emissions are back to ’90s levels. It can be done, people!

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What does Puerto Rico’s utility privatization mean for solar?

It’s official: Puerto Rico’s beleaguered, bankrupt, and possibly corrupt power utility is being privatized. The U.S. territory was battered by Hurricane Maria nine months ago, and many homes remain without power amid a deeply flawed recovery effort.

Puerto Rico gets an enormous percentage of its electricity from fossil fuels. In 2016, the territory pulled just 2 percent of its power from renewables and a whopping 98 percent from fossil fuels. These fuels have to be imported, since Puerto Rico has no on-island sources for coal, petroleum, or natural gas, which raises their cost considerably.

It seems like the perfect opportunity to rebuild with cleaner sources of power. And after the storm, communities and companies stepped in with solar arrays and even a solar microgrid. So, what does privatization mean for the territory’s burgeoning installments of solar energy?

Selling the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) could be beneficial for solar, says Masaō Ashtine, who researches energy systems in the Caribbean. The change “will give more power to the industry to plan for renewable energy,” Ashtine says. Privatization could remove the red tape associated with public utility companies, he argues, and thus streamline the energy delivery process.

But others say that it has the potential to make things worse. PREPA’s workers’ union has protested that privatization will likely lead to higher energy prices with few improved services. Puerto Rican customers already pay some of the highest electricity rates in the country and experience an enormous number of service outages.

And, with more influence and control, the industry could leave some of the most promising community energy projects behind. “There’s no talk of community solar in the privatization bill,” says Frederico de Jesus, an affiliate of the advocacy coalition Power4PuertoRico. “They’re putting all their faith in the private companies.”

Arturo Massol-Deyá, the director of community organization at solar hub Casa Pueblo, is doubtful that the newly privatized utility will engage with community groups or with citizens more broadly. “Decisions by PREPA have been made with limited participation of the public, and I think with privatization that’s going to get worse,” he says.

The new bill also weakens the role of Puerto Rico’s Energy Commission, which for the past four years has served as a check on PREPA’s profligate spending and poor management. Without an independent regulatory board like the commission, de Jesus told me, Puerto Ricans face an uncertain future — both in terms of energy pricing and the future of renewables.

But advocates say they will continue to push forward with microgrids and renewables, with or without government support. Although Puerto Rico officials have proposed modest energy goals — 20 percent renewables by 2035 — recent projections from researchers at University of Puerto Rico Mayagüez say that the island has enough solar, wind, biomass, and hydropower potential to generate 200 percent of its needed electricity. And solar is on the front lines.

“Privatization is almost a false choice,” says de Jesus. “There can be a public monopoly or private monopoly. But a decentralized system with microgrids would do a lot to solve these problems.”

Massol-Deyá agrees. Casa Pueblo, he points out, has been running on solar since 1999, and an increasing number of businesses and other community centers are following suit. “Whether it’s in public or private hands, we need to move away from fossil fuel dependency,” he argues. “It’s a matter of changing our obsolete energy system.”

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What does Puerto Rico’s utility privatization mean for solar?

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Hurry! Only a few days left to apply for Grist’s fall fellowship.

Want to flex your skills as a journalist and get paid? You have a few days left to apply for Grist’s fall 2018 fellowship. The deadline is Monday, July 9, 2018.

If you’re just now hearing about the fellowship, here’s the deal: We’re looking for early-career journalists to come work with us for six-month stints. This time around, we’re looking for all-stars in three areas: news, environmental justice, and video. You’ll find a full program description and application requirements here.

Our past fellows are continuing to do high-impact work. Emma Foehringer Merchant has you covered on all things energy and policy at Greentech Media. Sabrina Imbler makes consumers smarter about upcycled bananas and lots more at The Wirecutter, a New York Times Company. Vishakha Darbha, a digital fellow at Mother Jones, produces videos on forced family separations and other of-the-moment topics. Raven Rakia recently received a Livingston Award finalist nod for her powerful piece on The Intercept about women visitors at Rikers Island jail complaining of invasive searches. And break out the bubbly: Recent environmental justice fellow Justine Calma just joined Grist as a staff writer.

So what are you waiting for? Oh, right, the last possible minute. As long as we receive your application by 11:59 p.m. PT on July 9, no judgment here.

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Hurry! Only a few days left to apply for Grist’s fall fellowship.

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Republicans are backing a ‘carbon dividend.’ What the heck is that?

Federal climate action may seem like a far-off prospect, but that’s not stopping a new group of climate hawks from launching a fresh campaign for a national carbon tax.

Here’s the real surprise: The proposal comes from Republicans, and it’s got the support of ExxonMobil and Shell.

The Baker-Shultz Carbon Dividends Plan, floated last year by the Climate Leadership Council, calls for taxing carbon emissions and returning the revenue as a “dividend” to everyday Americans. It’s named after James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz, two former secretaries of state and old-school Republican bigwigs.

And now this new bipartisan group, the Americans for Carbon Dividends, wants to push the plan through Congress someday — hopefully soon. The group is chaired by two former U.S. senators, Republican Trent Lott of Mississippi and Democrat John Breaux of Louisiana.

If you’re wondering what the heck a carbon dividend is, or why oil companies might be backing a carbon tax, we’ve got you covered.

The carbon dividend

The basic premise of a carbon dividend is to return 100 percent of the revenue raised from the tax to American households.

Other carbon fees would spend the money differently. To generalize, progressives prefer to invest the revenue in clean energy and climate mitigation. A coalition of new grassroots groups are pushing just this sort of policy in Washington state. Centrist and right-leaning climate-hawks, on the other hand, have called for a revenue-neutral plan that would return money to American citizens.

While Washington state’s proposed fee has an initial price of $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, the Baker-Shultz plan starts much higher, at $40 per ton. Under their proposal, the price would ramp up over time, taxing emissions from refineries, mines, wells, and ports.

To make up for higher energy costs, an average American family of four would receive about $2,000 from the program in the first year.

And then there’s cap-and-trade, which puts a limit on annual greenhouse gas emissions and either sells or gives companies permits to pollute. Although California and Northeastern states have figured out how to get regional cap-and-trade schemes in action, an attempt at a national cap-and-trade program failed almost 10 years ago — even with Democrats controlling both chambers of Congress. So…

Could a dividend be successful?

The carbon dividend has had prominent, eclectic backers, from James Hansen, a prominent NASA-official-turned-climate-advocate, to Bob Ingliss, a former Republican representative from South Carolina.

But there’s simply no good precedent. Like carbon taxes in general, it hasn’t been implemented in any state. And that can worry legislators who are considering it.

“It’s not going to happen overnight — we’ve been debating this for 30 years,” former Senator Lott tells the New York Times. But he says “the tide is turning.”

If a carbon dividend does manage to pass, experts are optimistic that it would be popular. In an interview earlier this year, Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, said, “Once people have the experience of getting that check, there will be a huge constituency saying, ‘Don’t you dare touch my revenue.’”

Leiserowitz pointed to Alaska, where residents get a yearly cut of oil revenue from the Alaska Permanent Fund. It created the sort of popular demand that Leiserowitz thinks could make a carbon tax politically sustainable over the long term, protecting it from future politicians.

Of course, the end goal is to ditch fossil fuels. If the economy ever gets fully decarbonized, you won’t be getting a big check in the mail from the dividend program.

The trade-offs

And now we get to why Exxon and Shell might be a fan of the Baker-Shultz plan. Environmentalists will find some bits hard to swallow. For one, it would protect fossil fuel companies from future lawsuits to hold them accountable for climate change.

Baker-Shultz’s carbon tax would also replace the Clean Power Plan, which regulates pollution from coal- and gas-fired power plants. President Trump and Scott Pruitt have been trying to dismantle the Obama-era plan — but maybe Baker and Shultz could end up doing the work for them.

For its part, Americans for Carbon Dividends says their proposal would be better at reducing carbon emissions than all of Obama’s regulations combined.

That’s compromise for ya.

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Republicans are backing a ‘carbon dividend.’ What the heck is that?

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The lessons FEMA says it learned from Hurricane Maria

It’s been nine months since Maria devastated Puerto Rico. After more than $90 billion in damage and an astronomical death toll, there are strong criticisms of the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response to the storm.

A planning document revealed that before Maria, FEMA underestimated the role that federal authorities would need to play if a catastrophic hurricane hit the island. As a result, the agency relied heavily on strapped local resources in a territory beset for years by an economic crisis.

“We must hold the federal government accountable for their response to the communities they are responsible to serve,” Hispanic Federation Senior Vice President Frankie Miranda said on a recent call hosted by the Power 4 Puerto Rico Coalition. “What we know from the groups working on the ground is that the federal response was uncoordinated, ineffective and, in many cases, even criminal.”

Now, as hurricane season kicks off again, there are deep fears about what will happen if another big one hits. And in an audio recording of a private meeting between President Trump and FEMA obtained by the Washington Post, the president’s conversation on everything from aircraft carriers to “clean coal” seemed to indicate that his priorities are far from Puerto Rico and how to protect Americans from this year’s hurricanes.

In an email to Grist, FEMA acknowledged that the agency can do better. The storms of 2017, a spokesperson wrote, illustrate that there’s much to be done “across the country at all levels of government” to prepare the U.S. for future hurricanes.

FEMA sent Grist some of its “lessons learned” from Hurricane Maria. We asked experts in emergency management and on Puerto Rico to weigh in on the priorities the agency outlined.

Engaging the community in public health

According to a death toll released by Harvard researchers last week, Hurricane Maria may have been one of the deadliest disasters in U.S. history — with up to 5,740 people perishing in the storm and its aftermath. The study found that one of the culprits behind such an astronomically high number of fatalities was lack of access to medical care — like breathing machines, which failed when electricity was lost.

So it’s no surprise that FEMA is reportedly focused on making sure people get the healthcare they need come the next storm. The agency says it’s reinforcing Puerto Rico’s healthcare systems, beefing up behavioral and mental health services, and working on plans for emergency oxygen backups.

The priorities FEMA outlined for Grist are broad, and the experts we spoke with emphasized that the devil will be in the details. “There’s a gap in terms of the stated goals and the specific measures within the public health system in Puerto Rico,” says Edwin Meléndez, director for the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. “How are the local authorities, the private hospitals, involved in this particular approach? How are they sharing goals and what is their implementation plan?”

Restoring power

Today, more than 60,000 people — nearly 5 percent of the island — are still without power. And in May, FEMA announced that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would be turning the job of restoring downed power lines back over to the embattled and bankrupt Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Experts agree that one of the biggest challenges is building back Puerto Rico’s ailing power grid to be more reliable than it was before. “Puerto Rico had experienced brownouts prior to the storm,” says Mike Sprayberry, president of the National Emergency Management Association. “The distribution lines were not well maintained, and then they get hit by this storm.”

So fixing Puerto Rico’s aging energy infrastructure will take more than just FEMA. But in the meantime, the agency is shoring up the number of backup generators it has available in the event of another catastrophic storm. The island was in seriously short supply of generators prior to Hurricane Maria.

“This has been the largest disaster generator mission in U.S. history with 1,667 generators installed to support the weakened power grids,” FEMA writes to Grist.

And relying too much on generators creates new challenges. “Having the generators in place is great, but what is the access to reliable and consistent fuel going to be? That’s going to be fundamental for the hospitals,” says Martha Thompson, Oxfam America’s program coordinator for disaster response in Puerto Rico.

Ivis Garcia Zambrana, a professor at the University of Utah, argues for more solar power instead of the expensive, and polluting, generators. “Generators are not good for people that are lower-income,” she says. “There must be ways of working towards more sustainability.”

Working on smarter aid distribution

With only one warehouse in the Caribbean prior to Hurricane Maria, FEMA struggled to distribute supplies across the territory in the wake of Hurricane Irma (which hit just weeks earlier).

FEMA now says that its warehouse capacity in Puerto Rico has increased from 84,295 to 315,000 square feet. It plans to stock six times as much water and generators this year compared to 2017, seven times as many meals, and eight times as many tarps.

So next time, the agency will just have to get those supplies to people in rural areas. “Whether they have taken measures to have preparedness across the regions — specifically in more isolated areas on the inside of the island — is something we haven’t seen data for yet,” says Meléndez with the Center for Puerto Rican Studies.

Beefing up communications and trainings

The storm crippled communications on the island, making it nearly impossible for residents to communicate with loved ones or authorities. It hampered recovery efforts, too, as emergency responders struggled to coordinate with one another due to downed cellphone towers.

Now, FEMA tells Grist it’s working with Puerto Rican agencies to create and test better emergency alert systems. And it’s developing a public outreach plan to ensure communication lines stay open.

“If you don’t have communications, you don’t know what people need,” says Sprayberry with the National Emergency Management Association. “You can really mismanage commodities.”

What FEMA’s not talking about

Puerto Rico’s struggling economy and global warming’s contributions to extreme weather phenomena, like Maria, are two elements FEMA doesn’t appear to be factoring in to future emergencies. When it released its strategic plan this spring, FEMA managed to omit any mention of climate change — which the agency openly addressed during the Obama administration.

But former FEMA administrator, Craig Fugate, assures us that career officials in the agency are still taking this into mind, albeit surreptitiously. “Apparently, it got cut out,” he says. “But if you look at what they’re doing, they’re in effect addressing climate change without saying it.”

Fugate, along with all the experts Grist spoke with, stresses the importance of building back a more resilient Puerto Rico.

“The problem is, if you’re just responding to disasters, they’re getting bigger and bigger,” Fugate explains. “And if you’re really going to change the outcome, it isn’t focusing on improving the response — that’s important, but it kind of misses the point.

“Why are we not doing more to reduce the impacts of disaster?”

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The lessons FEMA says it learned from Hurricane Maria

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Is the Mysterious Planet Nine Just a Swarm of Asteroids?

Researchers investigate alternative explanations for wacky orbits of objects in our solar system

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Is the Mysterious Planet Nine Just a Swarm of Asteroids?

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Here’s the one dude defending Trump’s latest bid to save coal

President Trump keeps trying to make coal happen. Last week, he told Energy Secretary Rick Perry to extend a lifeline to unprofitable coal and nuclear plants that are struggling to survive while competing against natural gas plants and renewables.

The rationale for propping up these plants? We might need their power soon. The United States keeps shutting down old power plants and some worry we’re losing too much too fast. In an op-ed  supporting Trump’s move, Terry Jarrett, a former regulator of Missouri’s utilities, argues we’re going to be sorry we don’t have that extra capacity.

Jarrett points out a Department of Energy finding that without coal plants, the Eastern U.S. would have suffered serve electricity shortages and blackouts during last winter’s “bomb cyclone.”

Blackouts aren’t just inconvenient and expensive — as we saw in Puerto Rico, they can be deadly. Without electricity, pumps stop pushing water into houses, sewage systems back up, and ventilators flatline in hospitals.

That study Jarrett cites notes that during the harsh weather, congestion in pipelines kept natural gas plants from ramping up, while wind and solar generation faltered. But does that mean blackouts are more likely if we don’t bail out coal and nuclear plants? Not according to another DOE study, which concluded that retiring old plants and building a diverse set of new plants actually would make the energy system more resilient.

Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Richard Glick cited this second study while rejecting the Trump administration’s last bid to save unprofitable plants in January. “There is no evidence in the record to suggest that temporarily delaying the retirement of uncompetitive coal and nuclear generators would meaningfully improve the resilience of the grid,” Glick wrote. Trump appointed Glick, and all but one of the other FERC commissioners (they may thwart this new proposal as well).

This proposal is unpopular not just among Trump appointees, but also fossil fuel companies, and utilities, along with the renewables industry and environmental groups (obviously).

Although there are some environmentalists, like those at Third Way, who favor subsidizing nuclear plants, they aren’t buying the assertion that we’ll have blackouts if we don’t we keep old nuclear and coal plants running.

So there’s a ridiculously broad coalition of interests saying this is a dumb idea. It’s harder to find people supporting this idea, whether they care about climate change or not. It’s probably safe to say that Jarrett, who likes to tweet articles from climate denier websites, belongs to the latter category.

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Here’s the one dude defending Trump’s latest bid to save coal

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North Pole, South Pole – Gillian Turner

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North Pole, South Pole – Gillian Turner

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The Aliens Are Coming! – Ben Miller

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The Aliens Are Coming!

The Extraordinary Science Behind Our Search for Life in the Universe

Ben Miller

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: November 1, 2016

Publisher: The Experiment

Seller: Workman Publishing Co., Inc.


Actor and bestselling science writer Ben Miller takes readers to the cutting edge of one of the greatest questions of all: Is there life beyond Earth?   For millennia, we have looked up at the stars and wondered whether we are alone in the universe, but in the last few years—as our probes begin to escape the solar system, and our telescopes reveal thousands of Earthlike planets—scientists have taken huge leaps toward an answer. “Forget science fiction,” author Ben Miller writes. “We are living through one of the most extraordinary revolutions in the history of science: the emergent belief of a generation of physicists, biologists, and chemists that we are not alone.”   The Aliens Are Coming! is a refreshingly clear, hugely entertaining guide to the search for alien life. Miller looks everywhere for insight, from the Big Bang’s sea of energy that somehow became living matter, to the equations that tell us Earth is not so rare, to the clues bacteria hold to how life started. And he makes the case that our growing understanding of life itself will help us predict whether it exists elsewhere, what it might look like, and when we might find it.  

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The Aliens Are Coming! – Ben Miller

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2018’s Most Efficient Solar Panels

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2018’s Most Efficient Solar Panels

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