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Coal ash and hog manure could flood vulnerable communities in Hurricane Florence’s path

North Carolina is home to 31 coal ash pits where Duke Energy stores an estimated 111 million tons of toxic waste produced by coal-fired power plants. The state is also home to thousands of manure pits, known euphemistically as “lagoons,” which hold approximately 10 billion pounds of wet waste generated each year by swine, poultry, and cattle operations.

A handful of news outlets are reporting about the danger of coal ash and hog manure spilling into North Carolina’s waterways in the wake of Hurricane Florence. Bloomberg covered the serious environmental and public health risks and the Associated Press warned of a potential “noxious witches’ brew of waste.”

There’s precedent for these concerns. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd, which struck North Carolina as a Category 2 storm, washed 120 million gallons of hog waste into rivers, Rolling Stone later reported. As AP noted this week, that was just one part of the mess caused by Floyd:

The bloated carcasses of hundreds of thousands of hogs, chickens and other drowned livestock bobbed in a nose-stinging soup of fecal matter, pesticides, fertilizer and gasoline so toxic that fish flopped helplessly on the surface to escape it. Rescue workers smeared Vick’s Vapo-Rub under their noses to try to numb their senses against the stench.

The media has been amping up its coverage of potential Hurricane Florence damage. But so far they’re missing an important part of the story — that African-Americans and other communities of color could be hit particularly hard by the resulting pollution. They’re also failing to note how the Trump administration has been loosening regulations and oversight in ways that could make coal ash and hog-waste spills more likely.

There’s an environmental justice component to this story

After Floyd, North Carolina taxpayers bought out and closed down 43 hog factory farms located in floodplains in order to prevent a repeat disaster. But when Hurricane Matthew hit the Carolinas as a Category 1 storm in 2016, at least 14 manure lagoons still flooded.

Even if they’re not widespread, hog-waste spills can still be devastating to those who live nearby — and many of the unfortunate neighbors are low-income people of color.

Two epidemiology researchers at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill published a paper in 2014 with a very straightforward title: “Industrial Hog Operations in North Carolina Disproportionately Impact African-Americans, Hispanics and American Indians.” They wrote, “Overflow of waste pits during heavy rain events results in massive spills of animal waste into neighboring communities and waterways.”

A Hurricane Floyd-flooded hog waste lagoon.JOHN ALTHOUSE / AFP / Getty Images

Tom Philpott explained more about that research in Mother Jones in 2017:

As the late University of North Carolina researcher Steve Wing has demonstrated, [North Carolina’s industrial hog] operations are tightly clustered in a few counties on the coastal plain—the very part of the state that housed the most enslaved people prior to the Civil War. In the decades since, the region has retained the state’s densest population of rural African-American residents.

Even when hurricanes aren’t on the horizon, activists are pushing to clean up industrial hog operations. “From acrid odors to polluted waterways, factory farms in North Carolina are directly harming some of our state’s most vulnerable populations, particularly low-income communities and communities of color,” Naeema Muhammad of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network said last year.

Poor and rural communities of color are heavily affected by coal ash dumps as well. The New York Times reported last month on an environmental-justice campaign against coal ash pollution in North Carolina. Lisa Evans, a lawyer with the environmental group Earthjustice, told the Times, “Coal ash ponds are in rural areas, particularly in the Southeast. Those communities have less power and less of a voice.”

The Trump administration recently loosened coal ash rules

The first major rule finalized by Andrew Wheeler, acting head of the Environmental Protection Agency, loosened Obama-era requirements for coal ash disposal. The change, which will save industry millions of dollars a year, could lead to more dangerous pollution. The Washington Post reported about this in July:

Avner Vengosh, a Duke University expert on the environmental impacts of coal ash, said that scaling back monitoring requirements, in particular, could leave communities vulnerable to potential pollution.

“We have very clear evidence that coal ash ponds are leaking into groundwater sources,” Vengosh said. “The question is, has it reached areas where people use it for drinking water? We just don’t know. That’s the problem.”

The Trump administration is also going easy on factory farms like the industrial hog operations in North Carolina. Civil Eats reported in February that there’s “been a decline in the number of inspections and enforcement actions by the [EPA] against concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) since the final years of the Obama administration.” Last year, more than 30 advocacy groups filed a legal petition calling on Trump’s EPA to tighten rules to protect communities from factory farms.

North Carolina Republicans aren’t helping things either — they’ve gone easy on coal plants and hog operations. And in 2012, the GOP-controlled state legislature actually passed a law banning state officials from considering the latest sea-level rise science when doing coastal planning. ABC reported on the development at the time:

The law was drafted in response to an estimate by the state’s Coastal Resources Commission (CRC) that the sea level will rise by 39 inches in the next century, prompting fears of costlier home insurance and accusations of anti-development alarmism among residents and developers in the state’s coastal Outer Banks region. …

The bill’s passage in June triggered nationwide scorn by those who argued that the state was deliberately blinding itself to the effects of climate change. In a segment on the “Colbert Report,” comedian Stephen Colbert mocked North Carolina lawmakers’ efforts as an attempt to outlaw science.

“If your science gives you a result you don’t like, pass a law saying the result is illegal. Problem solved,” he joked.

As Hurricane Florence bears down on North Carolina, journalists should make sure that their stories include the people who will be hurt the most by waste spills and other impacts, as well as the businesses and lawmakers who have been making such environmental disasters much more likely to occur.

Lisa Hymas is director of the climate and energy program at Media Matters for America. She was previously a senior editor at Grist.

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Coal ash and hog manure could flood vulnerable communities in Hurricane Florence’s path

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National park officials were told climate change was ‘sensitive.’ So they removed it from a key planning report.

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

Park officials scrubbed all mentions of climate change from a key planning document for a New England national park after they were warned to avoid “sensitive language that may raise eyebrows” with the Trump administration.

The superintendent of the New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park in Massachusetts had signed off a year ago on a 50-page document that outlines the park’s importance to American history and its future challenges. But then the National Park Service’s regional office sent an email in January suggesting edits: References to climate change and its increasing role in threats to the famous whaling port, such as flooding, were noted in the draft, then omitted from the final report, signed in June.

The draft and the emails were obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The documents provide a rare peek behind the usually closed curtains of the Trump administration. They illustrate how President Donald Trump’s approach to climate change impacts the way that park managers research and plan for future threats to the nation’s historic and natural treasures.

The editing of the report reflects a pattern of the Trump administration sidelining research and censoring Interior Department documents that contain references to climate science.

The New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, located on the shore of southeast Massachusetts, preserves the nation’s whaling history.New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

Earlier this year, Reveal exposed an effort by park service managers to remove references to human-induced climate change in a scientific report about sea-level rise and storm surge at 118 national parks. The Guardian recently reported on the Trump administration’s efforts to stall funding for climate change research in the Interior Department by subjecting research projects to unprecedented political review by an appointee who has no scientific qualifications.

In a survey by the Union of Concerned Scientists, government scientists reported being asked to stop working on climate change and connecting their science to industry actions. These are just a few of the examples of science under siege compiled by Columbia University in its “silencing science” tracker.

The email suggesting changes in the New Bedford park report was sent in January by Amanda Jones, a community planner with the park service’s northeast region.

“You’ll see that anything to do with ‘climate change’ has been highlighted in these documents. In a nutshell, we’re being told that we can talk about climate change in terms of facts — if we have data to back our claim, that is OK. We should, however, avoid any speculative language — like what ‘may’ happen in the future,” she wrote to Meghan Kish, the New Bedford park’s superintendent.

Scientists say telling park managers to avoid references to “what may happen in the future” is worrisome.


Steven Beissinger, a professor of conservation biology at University of California, Berkeley who reviewed the emails and edits in the New Bedford report, called it “irresponsible to future generations of Americans” for the park service to direct managers to ignore research on the future risks of rising sea levels, risks to endangered species, worsening wildfires, and other effects.

“We should have confidence in scientists’ projections and prepare for those kinds of scenarios,” Beissinger said. “We can hope they won’t happen, but we surely want to be prepared for them. We have to be looking at the future because places are going to be changing.”

A comparison of the draft and final documents shows all 16 references to “climate change” were removed.

Park service officials involved in editing the New Bedford report did not respond to repeated requests for interviews. But a park service spokesperson said parks are told to “address issues like climate change … using the best available scientific information.”

“Sound management requires that we rely on specific, measurable data when making management and planning decisions,” Jeremy Barnum, chief park service spokesperson, said in an email response to Reveal. “Climate change is one factor that affects park ecosystems, resources, and infrastructure.”

Barnum did not answer questions about the deletions from the New Bedford park report, which is known as a “foundation document.” But he said such documents are reviewed “to ensure that they are consistent with current policy and directives.”

The New Bedford park was created by Congress in 1996 to preserve 13 city blocks of a Massachusetts seaport that was home to the world’s largest whaling fleet in the 19th century. The park tells the broader history of American whaling.

Flooding from rising seas, increased snow melt and stormwater, larger storm surges and extreme heatwaves are among the threats from human-caused climate change to the park’s historic structures. A 1960s hurricane barrier that protects New Bedford is vulnerable to widespread failure in a 100-year storm if sea levels rise by 4 feet. A Category 3 hurricane could breach the barrier at current sea levels.

The original draft obtained by Reveal was dated Sepember 29, 2017, and signed by Kish. The final version, signed by Kish and Gay Vietzke, regional director of the park service’s northeast region, is dated June 2018. It is not yet available online, but the park sent Reveal a printed version of the 50-page booklet.

Among the sections highlighted for review and then deleted were references to climate change in charts outlining threats to New Bedford’s historic structures, port, and natural resources.

This sentence was removed: “Climate change and sea-level rise may increase the frequency of large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events, all of which havepotential to threaten structures.” In its place, the final document says: “Large storms and storm surge, rising groundwater tables, flooding, and extreme heat events all of have the potential to threaten structures.”

Also, in a section about research needs, the original draft called for a “climate change vulnerability assessment.” That’s missing from the final version, which instead calls for an “assessment of park resilience to weather extremes.”

In several places, the phrase “changing environmental conditions” is substituted for the deleted term “climate change.”

Also deleted is a mention of how development near the park “could impact character and ambiance of historic district.” Elsewhere, a reference to “gentrification” is replaced with “urban renewal.” Mentions of declining park service funding and the limited control that managers have over privately owned buildings in the park are also removed. The museum in the park, which contains ships, skeletons, and whaling artifacts, is privately owned.

Skeletons of sperm, humpback, right, and blue whales on display.New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park

The January email suggests that the edits are part of a broader review of foundation documents that Vietzke assigned a park service official named Ed Clark to conduct for the northeast region, which includes 83 national parks in 13 states.

“This late review came at Gay’s (Vietzke) request when she began her role as (regional director). Ed Clark was asked to review all foundation documents for sensitive language that may raise eyebrows especially with the current administration,” the email from Jones says. She wrote that the edits are “for your consideration, but not mandatory.”

Jonathan Jarvis, who headed the National Park Service under President Barack Obama, said that the direction to scrub the foundation documents must have originated from Trump administration officials, because he knows regional director Vietzke well.

“She would not be doing this of her own accord. This would have come down from on high, verbally,” he said.

Jarvis said career park service officials told him that their supervisors verbally directed them to make changes in a sea-level rise report so that they did not leave anything in writing.

Scientists say climate change already is affecting parks and that the threats will increase if people continue to release greenhouse gases, which come largely from burning fossil fuels.

Jarvis was director of the agency in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy brought devastation to the northeastern coast, including several national parks. The parks incorporated climate change projections into rebuilding efforts, including moving utilities out of the basements in the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, both of which were flooded by the storm.

“Without considering climate change, we would have put them back in the basement. That’s why it has to be in a planning document,” Jarvis said.

In many national parks, flowers are blooming sooner and birds are nesting earlier, temperatures and seas are rising, and glaciers are disappearing.

Mary Foley retired in 2015 after 24 years as the chief scientist for the park service’s northeast region. She said she was frustrated during the Bush administration because the park service lacked permission and funding to solicit key research about climate change. But she said the Trump administration’s policy of sidelining climate science is much more concerning. Now much of the science has been done, but the unwritten policy seems to be to order park managers to ignore it, she said.

“Managing a park is a difficult and expensive task,” Foley said. “It’s pretty shortsighted to ignore future climate change. If you are going to plan for construction of a visitor center you wouldn’t want to put it where sea-level rise is going to challenge that structure.”

But Foley and other former park service leaders said they hope that park managers will incorporate science into the planning for parks even if they scrub documents to please Trump’s team.

“Current managers are pretty knowledgeable of the implications of climate change. Whether or not that is written into formal documents, I don’t think that they will ignore it,” Foley said.

“The bottom line is, this is just paper,” Jarvis added. “You can’t erase in the superintendents’ minds the role of climate change. They’re going to do the right thing even if it’s not in the policy document.”

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National park officials were told climate change was ‘sensitive.’ So they removed it from a key planning report.

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Hurricane Maria’s official death toll just jumped from 64 to 2,975

A new report commissioned by the Puerto Rico government estimated that 2,975 people died in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

On Tuesday, Governor Ricardo Rosselló officially raised the hurricane’s death toll to match the report’s findings, making Maria the deadliest U.S. hurricane since a 1900 storm that hit Texas. In an interview with CBS News, Rosselló said his administration will take concrete steps to address the report.

It’s now absolutely clear that Hurricane Maria was a humanitarian tragedy with little precedent in modern American history. Carmen Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan and frequent critic of President Trump, called the new death toll “shameful” and a “violation of our human rights.”

The report has spurred renewed calls for a more complete understanding of just what went wrong in the storm’s aftermath, and justice for the victims and their families. Earlier this summer, lawmakers, including senators Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand, pushed for an independent commission to look into the government’s bungled response.

House candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has called for a “Marshall Plan” to rebuild the island to be carbon-neutral and address long-standing racial and economic inequalities. Many of Maria’s deaths were likely preventable, and Tuesday’s report, conducted by George Washington University, noted that the island was not adequately prepared for such a storm.

Maria was one of the strongest hurricanes ever recorded in the Atlantic, and caused a months-long breakdown in basic services on Puerto Rico, including a 328-day power outage, one of the worst in world history. As ocean waters warm, strong hurricanes like Maria are expected to become more common, and produce heavier downpours and more damaging coastal floods.

The death toll increase on Tuesday was nearly 50 times higher than the previous official count — 64, where it had been since the initial weeks after the storm. Trump, on his post-storm visit to Puerto Rico, held up a low death count to boast that it was not a “real catastrophe like Katrina.” For context, about 1,000 more people died in Maria than in Hurricane Katrina, the 2005 storm that hit New Orleans. According to the updated count, Hurricane Maria killed about the same number of people who died on 9/11.

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Hawaii’s Hurricane Lane is already a flooding catastrophe

A rare hurricane is dousing Hawaii, producing flooding, power outages, and washing away roads — damage the National Weather Service is calling “catastrophic.” It’s increasingly clear that the Aloha state is already feeling the effects of a changing climate.

As of Friday morning, Hurricane Lane is at Category 2 strength and continues to move towards Oahu, home to Honolulu and Hawaii’s most densely populated island. Though the latest projections showed Lane’s center remaining offshore, the most powerful side of the storm will still wash over nearly all of Hawaii’s main islands, bringing torrential rainfall for more than 24 hours to a million people.

As Lane approached Thursday evening, civil defense sirens pierced the cloudy Honolulu skies and federal officials pre-staged plane-loads of supplies in the country’s most isolated state, hoping to prevent a repeat of the government’s bungled response to Hurricane Maria’s in Puerto Rico. The Big Island has been hardest hit so far with rainfall exceeding 30 inches, transforming normally tranquil waterfalls into violent torrents.

As a result of Lane’s slow motion, the National Weather Service in Honolulu has boosted its maximum rainfall prediction to 40 inches in some parts of the islands — months worth of rain, even for Hawaii’s lushest locations. In an update late Thursday Hawaii time, the NWS said Lane is “expected to lead to major, life-threatening flash flooding and landslides over all Hawaiian Islands.”

There has never been a hurricane landfall in Maui or Oahu in recorded history. Even if Lane doesn’t achieve that feat, it’s already the closest a storm has ever approached central Hawaii. Water temperatures near Hawaii are as much as 4.5 degrees F warmer than normal this week, supporting Lane’s high winds and heavy rains.

As the waters of the Pacific warm, heavy rainfall has become an increasingly dangerous problem for Hawaii. Lane is Hawaii’s second major flooding disaster this year, after torrential rainfall on Kauai in April produced nearly 50 inches in 24 hours, a new U.S. record. Our warmer atmosphere can now hold more water vapor, resulting in heavier rainfall during both regular thunderstorms and hurricanes. Since the 1950s, the amount of rain falling in the worst storms in Hawaii has increased by about 12 percent, according to a University of Hawaii study.

As the the country’s only ocean state, Hawaii is on the front lines of climate change. Hurricane Lane is the latest example that Hawaii’s warmer, wetter reality is already here.

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The EPA’s coal plan is a ripoff for Americans, according to the EPA

The Trump administration’s newest proposal to weaken regulations on coal-fired power plants is called the Affordable Clean Energy rule, or ACE. But a close reading of the administration’s own analysis suggests that the acronym more accurately stands for Asthma, Climate Change, and Emphysema.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule would amend the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, making it easier for old coal power plants to stay open. The EPA considered the impact and found that if the plan leads coal-fired plants to start cleaning up their act, it would still cause more hospital visits, more sick days away from work and school, and the early deaths of up to 1,400 people each year, by 2030.

What’s remarkable is that the agency’s analysis doesn’t attempt to make the case that the new policy’s benefits to society outweigh the steep costs. Instead, the EPA’s figures show that the savings for coal plants are relatively trivial compared to the costs of rising pollution from coal-fired plants. Under every scenario the EPA ran, it found the proposed ACE rule would cost Americans at least $1.4 billion a year more than it saved, when compared with simply leaving the Clean Power Plan alone.

“When an agency wants to do something that’s harmful to the American people, it typically tries to hide it,” said Richard Revesz, director of the Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law. “What’s unusual here is that the EPA just comes out and says it.”

You have to do some digging to find these numbers. EPA’s press officers aren’t exactly highlighting the findings that the proposal would leave Americans worse off. In a fact sheet, for example, the EPA trumpets its finding that ACE could save power-plants up to $6.4 billion in compliance costs. But wade into the details to look up that scenario (check out table 18 on page 165), and you see that the EPA weighs that $6.4 billion against health costs that run between $16.6 billion and $75 billion.

That the EPA’s own analysis suggests the proposal will do more harm than good creates a legal vulnerability, according to Revesz, because federal agencies have an obligation to make policies that are not arbitrary or capricious under the Administrative Procedure Act, the 1946 law governing the regulatory and rule-making powers of federal agencies. “The administration is skating on very thin ice with this proposal,” Revesz said.

A coalition of 19 states and cities, including New York, California, and Massachusetts, has formed to defend the Clean Power Plan in court. And shortly after the EPA unveiled ACE on Tuesday, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood announced she’d sue to challenge the plan if it’s adopted.

“The fingerprints of the coal industry are all over this plan,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said in a statement. “It’s written to enrich the fossil fuel industry by poisoning our air and our climate.”

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A climate denial video has 6 million views. Facebook doesn’t care.

A two-minute video attacking the scientific consensus on climate change — made by infamous denier Marc Morano — is going viral. While the Guardian has already thoroughly debunked the content of the video, it’s still making the rounds on social media. On Tuesday, it had racked up over 100,000 shares and 6.3 million views on Facebook.

Even though the social media site has bragged about hiring third-party fact-checkers in many countries to cope with its fake-news problem, its approach to fake science remains obscure. “I don’t know if they are even fact-checking science,” says Gordon Pennycook, a professor at Canada’s University of Regina who studies fake news and political bias.

John Cook, who focuses on climate misinformation as a professor of cognitive science at George Mason University, says he hasn’t heard of the social media giant flagging any climate denial content. “Facebook’s fact-checking algorithms are a bit of a black box,” he tells Grist via email. (The social media site did not respond to a request for comment.)

Instead, Facebook seems to be taking aim at lower-hanging fruit, by limiting the spread of sensational stories from websites known to peddle in falsehoods like Infowars and YourNewsWire. “There’s a wide world of B.S., unfortunately,” Pennycook says.

But while fact-checkers focus on falsehoods akin to “Pizzagate,” fake science stories — which have the potential to influence public policy, health, and the future of the earth — can spread widely. Anti-vaccine groups run rampant on Facebook, with hundreds of thousands of followers exposed to misinformation about health risks of immunization. And the Flat Earth Society (don’t get me started), has more than 150,000 followers, although some of them (hopefully) follow the page as a joke.

Facebook can point to one example of it fact-checking science: Earlier this year, the social-media platform blogged that it had stopped the spread of a viral story about ending strokes by pricking a finger with a needle. But it’s hard to square this tiny victory with the other science misinformation circulating every day on the platform.

In 2016, an investigation by DeSmog found that the most-shared climate article throughout the year was a hoax piece that — like Morano’s video — critiqued the 97-percent scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. This is bad news, especially considering that psychologists have found that attacking consensus is one of the best ways to sow doubt.

Worse, some of Facebook’s third-party fact-checkers are known climate deniers themselves. The Weekly Standard, which was announced as a fact-checking partner in December, has called climate science “Dadaist science” and has critiqued climate action. The fossil fuel-funded Heritage Foundation has espoused climate change denial for decades — and is now partnered with Facebook to investigate possible “liberal bias” in its operations. As Joe Romm writes for ThinkProgress: “This is indeed the fox guarding the henhouse.”

But even if Facebook initiated substantial science fact-checking, it might not be able to stem the flow of denial. Researchers last year found that being “debunked” simply caused many conspiracy theorists to double down on their claims. And since these misinformers inhabit online echo chambers, they rarely see pieces getting debunked anyway.

Still, Cook thinks that Facebook should work on fact-checking science content on its platform. “They can’t just say they’re engineers and they’re absolved of responsibility,” he tells Grist. But he also has another, novel idea for preventing the spread of misinformation: a technique called “inoculation.”

While we might not be able to change the minds of current deniers, Cook explains, we can prevent others from being taken in by their claims. By giving individuals a sample of misinformation — and then explaining the psychology behind it — he believes communicators can “neutralize misinformation” before it starts to spread. “If you explain the techniques used to mislead people, they’re no longer influenced by them,” he says.

It’s ironic that the idea of inoculation, which anti-vaxxers have disparaged for years, could serve as a way to fight the very misinformation that they spread. But any large-scale effort to guard against climate denial or other false science will take a long time, and a lot of education. Like it or not, we need climate action now — and Facebook is still part of the problem.

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Hot weather strains the grid. Here’s how we could fix that.

Electricity crackled and arced between wires as Los Angeles residents watched, filming with their phones. And then the power died.

As temperatures have soared this summer, Angelenos have cranked up their air conditioners, straining power lines. On July 6, overloaded lines gave out and left 46,000 people sweltering in the dark.

Extreme temperatures lead to extreme electricity demand, so when sweltering weather settled over Texas in mid-July, the electric system that serves most of the state set three all-time records for power demand, one hour after another.

“This summer has been seen as a make-or-break test,” for the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, wrote Joshua Rhodes, who researches energy at the University of Texas, Austin.

Tougher tests are sure to come. Summer temperatures usually peak in August or September for the most densely populated areas of Texas and California. Every year, Los Angeles seems to set a new electricity demand record, said Martin Adams, Chief Operating Officer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

“Until the last few years we haven’t had many hot days downtown,” Adams said. “People are starting to put in air conditioning where they’ve never had it before.”

As the planet warms, higher temperatures and extreme weather are becoming more common, and that puts more stress on electric systems. The heat is already severe enough that farm workers in Georgia and Nebraska, as well as a postal worker in California, have died during this summer’s heatwaves. Rising temperatures trigger a dangerous chain reaction: More people run air conditioners to keep themselves cool, which strains electrical systems causing blackouts, which exposes people to hazardous heat.

How do we snap that chain? Experts have a few suggestions:

Replace old wires

When electricity demand surged in Los Angeles, pieces of the electrical system started to blow up. “Every weak link in the system shows up in a case like that,” Adams said. “A lot of times the failures are kind of explosive in nature.”

The sun was cooking the system from the outside, and the electricity surging through the wires was cooking it from the inside. When workers went to fix fried wires in one underground vault, a wall of 160 degree heat turned them back. They had to wait until the vault cooled to 120 degrees to check out the problem, Adams said.

It’s better for both utility workers and customers if utilities can replace aging parts ahead of time. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power is spending about a billion dollars a year upgrading equipment, Adams said. And they’ve focused efforts on areas that get the hottest, like the San Fernando Valley.

As people around the country draw more electricity to cope with extreme weather, utilities will have to install thicker wires and quickly replace old transformers.

Let the market work

As demand for electricity soared in Texas, so did prices: A megawatt hour of power — which goes for $40 to $80 in normal conditions — went for more than $4,000. The maps charting prices in California and the Southwest turned from mellow green to high-alert red, indicating unusually high rates. That alert triggered power plant operators across the region to fire up generators that had been sitting idle until electricity prices went high enough.

“There are some power plants that operate basically only on the very hottest day of the year,” said Michael Wara, director of the climate and energy policy program at Stanford University. “These are basically aircraft engines on cement pads that can be turned on within five minutes. And they might need to earn their entire revenue in a few hours of a hot July afternoon.”

High prices also send a signal to solar companies to build more panels, especially in Texas, where the peak demand for electricity comes roughly at the same time as the sun is highest in the sky.

“I think there’s going to be a lot of solar built in Texas in the next few years,” Rhodes said. “By 2020, I wouldn’t be surprised if we had double the solar we have now.”

Although prices influence production of power, they don’t do much to change how people use electricity. “When there’s a shortage of electricity, the prices go up, but customers are mostly still paying the same price they would at any other time,” explained James Bushnell, an energy economist and the University of California, Davis.

Even if people were more exposed to electricity prices, it might not be enough to get them to run around the house unplugging appliances, Wara said. If we could get people to use less energy for non-essentials during peak hours, it could prevent blackouts before they happen. But how?

Manage demand

A while back, Rhodes’s electricity provider made him an interesting offer: Austin Energy wanted permission to control his thermostat for 15 minutes at a time, four to six times a year, when electricity demand was peaking. (Rhodes has one of those smart thermostats, so the company could adjust it remotely.) In return, Austin Energy, would pay him $85 a year. Rhodes took them up on the offer and has no regrets. He doesn’t even notice when they take over. But by making tiny adjustments to thousands of thermostats like his, the power company is able to ramp down its power demand.

In most places however, utilities haven’t gotten this sophisticated. In Los Angeles, the utility asks customers to raise their thermostats a few degrees, and to avoid doing laundry during peak times. The utility can also make a dent in demand by turning down its own machines. When things started heating up in mid-July, the utility turned off some of the massive pumps it uses to suck water hundreds of miles over mountains and hills. That alone accounted for drop of 60 megawatts, Adams said.

In the future, utilities will likely get better at strategically curbing consumption, said Mary Anne Piette, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. Utilities might even be able to make surgical tweaks like preventing a neighborhood blackout by moderating its electric demand as its wires start to overload, she said. For instance, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power might see the temperatures rising toward 160 degrees in that underground vault, and react by turning down the air conditioners of the customers downstream, allowing the equipment to cool before it blows up and leaves them with no air-conditioning at all.

The more the climate changes, the more people need electricity to cool them down. Unless we upgrade our electrical systems to prepare, there will be a lot more people sweating in the dark.

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Hot weather strains the grid. Here’s how we could fix that.

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Hold on to your snowballs: More Americans accept the reality of climate change than ever before

Seventy-three percent! That’s the proportion of Americans who now think there is “solid evidence” of global climate change, according to a new report released by National Surveys on Energy and the Environment (NSEE). It’s the highest percentage since the survey started in 2008.

Good news? Sort of. Even those who accept the reality of climate change are still hazy on the causes. Only 34 percent of those sampled believed that climate change is due primarily to human activity, as established science indicates. As for the rest, 26 percent thought it was partially due to humans and 12 percent blamed natural causes. Come on, people!

Before you tear your hair out, here’s a quick lesson in the types of climate denial. “Trend deniers” are people who question whether the climate is changing at all — like the infamous snowball-throwing James Inhofe. “Attribution deniers,” on the other hand, question whether the changes can be linked to human influence — more in line with Scott Pruitt’s oh-so-vague climate beliefs.

Evidence suggests that trend deniers are on a sharp decline. Only 15 percent of those sampled in this study believed the climate was not changing at all. “That’s the lowest percentage since we started the survey,” says Barry Rabe, coauthor of the report and professor at the University of Michigan.

This has been a long time coming. Americans are experiencing more extreme weather on a personal level (heat waves, anybody?) and are seeing a growing number of reports about rising sea levels and melting polar ice.

National Surveys on Energy and Environment

But at the same time, attribution deniers are still around — and they present problems for anyone hoping to pass climate legislation.

“Those who are averse to mitigation aren’t as vehemently challenging the science of climate change, as they are the ability of policies to make any difference,” says Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg Institute of Public Opinion and another coauthor of the report.

This has been particularly visible in the Trump administration, where climate denial has taken the form of rejecting human influence rather than rising temperatures more generally. And, by denying the role of humans, the Trump team has absolved itself of making any significant policy changes — well, except for rolling back environmental regulations.

At least we don’t have to waste as much paper showing why a single snowball doesn’t disprove the reality of a warming world. But if you think that climate change is only partially — or not at all — caused by humans, you’re even less likely to take the drastic actions needed to prevent catastrophe.

“In general, having Americans accept the existence of climate change is a necessary condition for policy action,” Borick argues. “But it’s not sufficient.”

Borick and Rabe are hopeful that we will continue see slow movement toward both acceptance and action. The surveys show some hints that trend deniers can become attribution deniers — and that attribution deniers, in turn, may eventually accept the full science of climate change. But, if the last decade is any indication, it’s going to take a while.

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Hold on to your snowballs: More Americans accept the reality of climate change than ever before

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8 ways resigning EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suppressed science

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

EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt, who announced on Thursday that he is resigning, leaves a legacy of suppressing the role of science at the agency.

Blocking science in the name of transparency

In March, Pruitt proposed a new “science transparency policy.” Under the proposed rule, when the EPA designs pollution standards and rules, it would use only studies in which the underlying data is public. Pruitt said his policy would prevent the EPA from using “secret science” that cannot be tested by other researchers. But scientists say important findings could be excluded.

One example is research by Harvard University that linked fine particle pollution in U.S. cities with an increase in deaths from lung and heart diseases. The data for the 1993 study was key to the EPA’s setting of health standards that regulate air pollution. But the study’s underlying data is not public because researchers promised confidentiality to their subjects, 8,000 adults and 14,000 children in six cities.

Firing academic science advisers

Pruitt fired Science Advisory Board members who receive EPA grants for their research, saying they cannot remain objective if they accept agency money. In replacing them, Pruitt transformed the board from a panel of the nation’s top environmental experts to one dominated by industry-funded scientists and state government officials who have fought federal regulations.

Pruitt removed 21 members of the advisory board, mostly academics, and replaced them with 16 experts with ties to industries regulated by the agency and two with no industry ties. Fourteen of the new members consulted or worked for the fossil fuel or chemical industries, which gave Pruitt nearly $320,000 for his campaigns in Oklahoma as a state senator and attorney general. Eleven new members of the EPA’s board have a history of downplaying the health risks of secondhand smoke, air pollution, and other hazards, including two who have spun science for tobacco companies, according to an investigation by Reveal from the Center for Investigative Reporting.

Misrepresenting climate science

Pruitt repeatedly cast doubt on the scientific consensus that human activities are the primary cause of climate change. For instance, in a 2017 interview on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Pruitt said: “I think that measuring with precision human activity on the climate is something very challenging to do, and there’s tremendous disagreement about the degree of impact, so no, I would not agree that it’s [carbon dioxide] a primary contributor to the global warming that we see.”

Along the same lines, the Huffington Post in March published leaked talking points from the EPA’s public affairs office. The memorandum seemed designed to downplay humans’ role in climate change.

This contradicts the overwhelming science that people are causing climate change.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its 2013 summary for policymakers found that it is “extremely likely that more than half of the observed increase in global average surface temperature from 1951 to 2010 was caused by the anthropogenic increase in greenhouse gas concentrations,” or human activity. By “extremely likely,” the group of international scientists means a probability of 95 to 100 percent.

Ignoring science to reduce protections for waterways

Pruitt took steps toward repealing Obama-era protections for waterways and wetlands to fulfill a Trump executive order to roll back the reach of the Clean Water Act. That rollback would strip federal protection from seasonal streambeds, isolated pools, and other transitory wetlands, exposing them to damage, pollution, or destruction from housing developments, energy companies, and farms.

In June, Pruitt sent his proposal to redefine which waters are protected to the Office of Management and Budget, which is the final step before it is made public. Trump had ordered Pruitt to incorporate a definition put forth by late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, which defines protected waters as relatively permanent and continuously connected by surface water to navigable bays, rivers or lakes. If that definition is incorporated, it could allow damage to waterways that provide drinking water for more than 117 million Americans.

EPA brain drain

Pruitt’s hostility toward science fueled a brain drain at the EPA. The New York Times reported that out of 700 employees who left the agency in 2017, more than 200, or 27 percent, were scientists.

Among those leaving were 34 biologists and microbiologists, 19 chemists, 81 environmental engineers, and environmental scientists, and more than a dozen toxicologists, life scientists, and geologists. Few of these scientists have been replaced. According to the report, seven of the 129 people hired by the agency in 2017 were scientists.

Website goes light on science

After first removing the EPA’s Climate and Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments web page, the agency relaunched it with a new name: Energy Resources for State, Local, and Tribal Governments. The new web page omits many links to EPA information that was designed to help local officials prepare for climate change and reduce climate change emissions, according to an October study by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative.

Dirty power plants

Pruitt took steps to repeal the Clean Power Plan, the Obama-era regulation intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants 32 percent by 2030 compared with 2005.

Pruitt also was revamping an earlier Obama administration rule that required that all new power plants meet greenhouse gas standards that roughly equate to emissions from modern natural gas plants.

Budget cuts to tribes

Pruitt proposed deep cuts in the EPA’s budget that could slow the cleanup of the Navajo Nation’s uranium mines. So far, Congress has resisted much of the cuts. But Pruitt kept proposing them. For instance, the $2.9 billion he proposed in state and tribal assistance grants for fiscal 2019 would provide $574 million less than the current budget.

Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye worries that such cuts could derail the EPA’s efforts to identify the companies responsible for cleaning up old mines and supervise the projects.

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8 ways resigning EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt suppressed science

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James Hansen’s legacy: Scientists reflect on climate change in 1988, 2018, and 2048

Thirty years ago this week, NASA scientist James Hansen testified to Congress that the age of climate change had arrived.

The announcement shook the political establishment in 1988. George H. W. Bush, in the middle of a heated presidential campaign, vowed to use the “White House effect” to battle the “greenhouse effect.” Four years later, with then-President Bush in attendance, the United States became a founding member of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change — which still guides global climate action today.

Of course, it was not enough. Bush’s actions at the time were perceived as weakening the treaty — a missed opportunity. Since 1988, global carbon dioxide emissions have risen 68 percent. At the time of Hansen’s speech, fossil fuels provided about 79 percent of the world’s energy needs. Now, despite every wind turbine and solar panel that’s been installed since, it’s actually worse — 81 percent.

Hansen’s warning was prescient and his predictions were scarily accurate. Every county in every U.S. state has warmed significantly since then. Sea-level rise is accelerating, heavier rains are falling, countless species of plants and animals are struggling to adapt.

Thirty years after Hansen testified, the world still isn’t even close to solving the problem. In fact, for every year we wait, we are making the problem much, much harder.

On our current path, emissions will still be rising 30 years from now, and the world will have long ago left behind all reasonable chances of preventing the irreversible tipping points in the climate system that Hansen predicted.

If climate change was an urgent problem in 1988, it’s now an emergency.

Looking back on what’s happened in an interview with the Associated Press this week, Hansen expressed regret that his words weren’t “clear enough.” At times, Hansen and his colleagues have been down on themselves for not doing more, as if some perfectly worded sentence, or some arrestingly compelling chart would be enough to inspire a global mass-movement of action.

Thankfully, a new generation of climate scientists is starting to understand that perfect knowledge of the problem is no longer enough. Grounded in the missteps and failures of the past, scientists these days seem much more modest with their expectations for the next 30 years — but much more confident in their roles as citizens first, scientists second, just as Hansen has been.

This week, I asked 10 climate scientists to describe how Hansen’s work has affected them, and where they think the world’s response to climate change will go from here.

Ploy Achakulwisut, George Washington University
Suzana Camargo, Columbia University
Christine Chen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Andrew Dessler, Texas A&M University
Peter Kalmus, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (and Grist 50 member)
Kate Marvel, NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies
Kimberly Nicholas, Lund University
Michael Oppenheimer, Princeton University
Eric Rignot, University of California-Irvine
Farhana Sultana, Syracuse University

Answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Q. What has James Hansen — the advocate — meant to you personally and professionally as you wrestle with how to respond to climate change?

Kalmus: Simply put, Hansen is a personal hero of mine. Not only was he a pioneer in recognizing the scientific reality of climate change, he also realized this knowledge carries an obligation to sound the alarm.

Achakulwisut: As a PhD student in climate science, I wasn’t taught or incentivized to engage in advocacy. But Hansen’s actions helped me realize that the climate crisis is far too serious and urgent for me to contribute solely by publishing peer-reviewed papers. He’s inspired me to challenge academic norms and engage in grassroots activism.

Chen: I was born in the early ‘90s, which means that James Hansen’s testimony happened literally a lifetime — my lifetime — ago. Sometimes it’s hard not to feel hopeless about the situation when a NASA scientist has been trying to convince the world to mobilize for longer than I’ve been alive.

Camargo: I admire his courage to be such a strong public advocate. Unfortunately, other scientists can be discouraged from doing this type of advocacy, given the level of public attack that they could suffer.

Marvel: I think it’s important to note that there are now many diverse voices speaking up about the implications of climate change, and that there’s no “right” way to engage the public with the science. I admire James Hansen immensely as a scientist, and I respect his advocacy choices. But he’s not the only role model out there.

Oppenheimer: Jim became a symbol for the movement to push governments to act on climate change. I disagree with him on some of his specific proposals – like supporting a revival of nuclear power, and sometimes I disagree with him on the science. But it’s good to see a scientist who can articulate his concerns to governments, to the media, and other people based on the facts. We need more scientists who do so.

Q. Looking back on how scientists responded to climate change over the past 30 years — what was the single biggest mistake, in your opinion?

Camargo: If scientists had worked on a communication strategy from the start, there could have been a better chance for support of climate change policies by the public. The media had a big role in our current issues as well — by trying to give equal weight to the small minorities of skeptics and the other 95 percent of scientists.

Oppenheimer: We never found a way to make the issue tangible to the average person. That’s changing now as the impacts become more apparent. But for this problem, action before impacts was necessary. Now we are stuck with the inevitability of some unpleasant climate changes as we play catch-up.

Achakulwisut: When climate change first emerged in public consciousness, it somehow got filed under “environmental issue” with far-off impacts. (Polar bears are still the face of climate change.) But its major culprit — fossil fuel combustion — also causes many immediate impacts to our health and well-being. I think we missed an opportunity to connect these dots.

Q. And the single biggest success?

Dessler: The only encouraging thing happening today is the staggering drop in the price of renewable energy. I consider this our main hope to avoid catastrophic climate change — prices drop so much that emissions decrease without government policies.

Rignot: The biggest success was the banning of [ozone-destroying] CFCs with the Montréal protocol in 1986. It was the single biggest event where science and policy came together to take action and literally save the world. Now it should serve as a reference in time, where the world demonstrated that environmental changes can be solved for the better, with no economic setback.

Nicholas: The climate leadership void at the federal level has inspired so many state, city, business, finance, university, neighborhood, household, faith, youth, civil society, and other leaders to step forward and find ways to cut their climate pollution. People want to create solutions that work for them and their communities. They want a future without relying on fossil fuels.

Sultana: A positive outcome is that today a number of young people understand and care about the impacts of climate change … with a greater focus on issues of equity and justice.

Q. Where do you hope we will be 30 years from now? Where do you think we will be realistically?

Marvel: I hope we will take this seriously. I like humans, and I think we’re capable of great things. We (mostly) fixed the ozone hole. We signed the Paris agreement. I have optimism that we can do more in the future. But I fear that we will respond to the adversity that climate change brings with hate, fear, and unreason.

Dessler: I don’t think a serious carbon tax or other policy will happen. The best-case I see is that renewables become cheap enough that the economy switches by itself. As for what should happen: As a citizen and father, I think we should get our asses in gear and start reducing emissions as fast as we can.

Kalmus: I hope that we reach a cultural tipping point, where people finally vote with climate urgency, and elect leaders who enact sensible policies like a revenue-neutral carbon fee. Emissions ramp down, innovation ramps up. This is also what I think will happen – it’s only a question of when, and how bad we’ll let things get.

Rignot: Most likely we will only take a slow course of action. We will experience the consequences of climate change in full swing in the later part of the century. At that point, we will have technologies in place to avoid the most disastrous consequences. But the world should take a much more aggressive course of action. We also need to bring morality into the debate. The most deprived people on the planet will suffer the most from climate change.

Oppenheimer: Human history suggest that we may eventually wise up and move to cut emissions deeply – but only after significant losses emerge in such a way that action can’t be avoided. We do this sort of thing repeatedly but never seem to learn. Sometimes the catastrophe actually happens (like World War I and World War II), but often it’s averted, just barely (like the Cuban missile crisis).

Governments shouldn’t move blindly toward the precipice, mindlessly continuing behavior that is bound to end badly for everyone. There’s still time if we get going immediately to reduce our looming losses and come out the other side more or less OK. There’s still time, just barely.

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James Hansen’s legacy: Scientists reflect on climate change in 1988, 2018, and 2048

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