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One state just banned reusable shopping bags to fight coronavirus

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu announced last week that reusable bags will be temporarily banned during the COVID-19 outbreak, and that all retail stores will be required to use single-use paper or plastic bags.

The move is a dramatic reversal of the recent trend of states and municipalities banning single-use plastic bags. Over the past few years, Hawaii, California, and more recently Oregon and New York have prohibited the use of plastic bags. The bans are an effort to reduce plastic pollution, which is driven by single-use plastics like shopping bags and has taken a terrible toll on ocean ecosystems.

“Our grocery store workers are on the front lines of COVID-19, working around the clock to keep New Hampshire families fed,” said Sununu, a Republican, in a statement announcing the executive order. “With identified community transmission, it is important that shoppers keep their reusable bags at home given the potential risk to baggers, grocers and customers.”

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New Hampshire isn’t the only state to revisit its plastic bag policies due to COVID-19: Maine has postponed a plastic bag ban that was set to go into effect on Earth Day, and New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has said it won’t take any enforcement actions against retailers who violate the state’s new ban until May. But New Hampshire is the first state to take the additional step of banning reusable bags.

So will the reusable bag ban make grocery store shoppers and workers safer? The science on that is somewhat shaky. It’s highly unlikely for the virus to spread from one person to another via a reusable cloth bag or another fabric, Vineet Menachery, an assistant professor of microbiology at the University of Texas Medical Branch, told Grist earlier this month. While the novel coronavirus, like previous coronaviruses, has been shown to survive for up to three days on plastic and stainless steel surfaces if left undisturbed, it’s easily destroyed with soap and water, or rubbing alcohol. So washing a cloth bag with detergent would stop the virus in its tracks.

That said, grocery store workers obviously don’t know whether a person bringing a reusable bag into a store has cleaned it recently or not. Sununu is right that grocery store workers are on the frontlines of this public health crisis, and we should all probably be doing what we can to make their lives easier and less stressful these days. And the climate impact of plastic vs. paper vs. cloth bags is actually more complicated than you might think — although reusing a bag you already own is always a more climate-friendly option than creating demand for a new bag.

So eco-conscious New Hampshirites shouldn’t feel too bad about obeying the governor’s order for now. Just make sure to keep tabs on your reusable bags so you don’t have to buy new ones once the pandemic is over.

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One state just banned reusable shopping bags to fight coronavirus

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3 Eco-Friendly Menstrual Products that Aren’t Tampons or Pads

Let’s face it: periods can be messy and sometimes uncomfortable affairs, and some of the most common period products, such as tampons and pads, are not exactly great for the environment. For instance, the average woman will actually use one-time (and often non-biodegradable) femcare products over 11,000 times in her lifespan. That’s a lot of waste!

While you can certainly invest in or make your own reusable cloth pads and liners, or even shop exclusively for 100 percent organic cotton and plant-based packaged period products, there are alternative menstrual products to keep on your radar if you want to try something different and eco-friendly.

Here are three eco-friendly alternative menstrual products that aren’t tampons or pads.

1. Menstrual Cups

Reusable, silicone menstrual cups are?probably the most well-known menstrual product alternatives to pads and tampons. Two of the most popular brands are?The Diva Cup and Lunette, although with a little research, you’ll be able to find many more.

Not only are reusable menstrual cups eco-friendly and economical, but they can offer up for 12 full hours of leak-free protection, and they tend to come in different size “models” so you can choose the most comfortable and best-fit cup for your particular body.

What’s more, menstrual flow actually doesn’t develop an odor until it’s exposed to air, so using a menstrual cup actually eliminates some of the scents associated with periods, because?you wear it?internally.

2. Period Underwear

Period underwear is essentially a pair of extra-absorbent underpants designed to catch your flow. Some designs can?hold up to two regular tampons’ worth of fluid, and most are designed to neutralize period odors.

You’ll likely need more than one pair for a full period-cycle, and they tend to cost a little more (Lunapads underwear can cost in the $40 range while Thinx usually runs in the $30 range) but all you have to do is throw them in the wash when you’re done, and they’re ready to go again.

3. Reusable Sea Sponges

Before you freak out, first just know that these aren’t the kinds of sponges you buy in a four-pack at the store and wash your dishes with. Reusable sea sponges are natural products that come from the ocean, which means they are totally free of synthetic materials, dyes, fragrances, chemicals and chlorine?none of which you want anywhere near your vagina.

Essentially, sea sponges are natural, reusable resources (they’re sustainably harvested and biodegradable!) that come in a variety of shapes and sizes. If you end up buying one too large, you can actually trim it down until it feels non-irritating and comfortable for you. Just make sure to wash them before use. Check out this article for tips on how to wash, trim and use a sea sponge as a tampon alternative.

Related at Care2:

?3 Ways To “Green” Your Period?
Why We Need To Talk About Reusable Menstrual Products
Menstrual? Products Should Be Free For Low-Income People

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3 Eco-Friendly Menstrual Products that Aren’t Tampons or Pads

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Nathaniel Rich’s ‘Losing Earth’ tells lost history of our current climate predicament

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Nathaniel Rich published his 30,000-word account of the years between 1979 and 1989 — the decade humanity missed its chance to fix climate change — in the New York Times Magazine last August. The response to the piece was so staggering that Rich put aside his other projects and started turning it into a book the very next week. Losing Earth: A Recent History is out on the shelves April 9, just eight months after the magazine version hit newsstands.

Our near-constant companion throughout the whole sordid tale is an environmental lobbyist by the name of Rafe Pomerance. In 1979, when the story begins, Pomerance happened upon a report warning that continued use of fossil fuels would cause “significant and damaging” changes to the planet’s atmosphere in the span of a few decades. Alarmed, Pomerance, with the aid of a geophysicist named Gordon MacDonald, decided to try to bring the issue to the attention of the U.S. government.

At first, serious progress appeared to be underway. The Carter administration commissioned a report to ascertain whether the issue was really as dire as some scientists were saying. (It was.) But when a team of scientists, policy experts, and government officials convened at a hotel in Florida to craft a framework for addressing the problem, they couldn’t even agree on what the opening paragraph of their statement should say. Thus began an excruciating decade of indecision, delay, and obstruction.

Pan Macmillan, 2019

If you finished the marathon task of reading the original magazine article, you’ll find the plotline more or less familiar, though there are some new chapters. And this time around, Rich addresses something many readers, including this one, were left wondering: What do we make of this history?

“We can realize that all this talk about the fate of Earth has nothing to do with the planet’s tolerance for higher temperatures and everything to do with our species’ tolerance for self-delusion,” he writes in the afterword. “And we can understand that when we speak about things like fuel efficiency standards or gasoline taxes or methane flaring, we are speaking about nothing less than all we love and all we are.”

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Grist caught up with Rich to talk about his new book and what we can make of the agonizing history he unearthed. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Q.Did you plan to turn your article into a book?

A.As soon as the piece was published, I realized there were some very large questions that arose from the history. I felt some obligation to try to answer those questions more explicitly than I was able to do in the article. I wrote a new afterword that’s essentially a stand-alone essay. I also wanted to go into a little more depth and bring the story up to date from 1989 to the present. Despite the length of the magazine piece, there was actually a lot I had to leave out. And so I was excited for the opportunity to publish a definitive version of the story that I think is fuller, more comprehensive, and more complete as a work of writing.

Q.I’m curious about some of the criticism your article received. Robinson Meyer of the Atlantic wrote that you let “fossil-fuel interests off the hook entirely,” and Naomi Klein argued that you overlooked the role capitalism played in dooming us all. How did you respond to that?

A.I was very surprised at some of those criticisms. As you said, there was this accusation, and usually it was expressed very viciously, that I had downplayed the oil and gas industry’s role in blocking climate policy during that decade. At first I was worried. I thought maybe — in my two-year survey and my interviews with like 100 people — maybe I did miss something.

The [oil and gas] industry wasn’t helping matters, as I write about in detail. Of course, they were aware of the science, just like the government, just like anybody who was following the issue, and made little effort to publicize it or anything else. They made no efforts to pass laws to limit emissions — that would be sort of a ridiculous expectation.

No one is disputing what happened since 1988 and ’89, but the suggestion was that there was a coordinated effort to stop climate policy earlier than that, and nobody in their attacks on the piece was able to come up with a single example.

Q.Why did you choose to tell the story this way, through the lens of a single decade in American history?

A.I felt that the story from 1989 to the present has been extraordinarily well told, and exhaustively told. And I didn’t feel like I had much to add to the story of industry involvement, the corruption of politicians, the corruption of scientists, the Republican Party’s embrace of, first, disinformation propaganda fed to it by oil and gas industry, and then the metastasizing of that into the full-fledged fantasy world of denialism.

What I felt was not understood very well, including by me when I first started researching it, was how we got to that point: the pre-history of our current paralysis. Paralysis not only in the political process but in some sense the dialogue, the public conversation about the subject. It’s been relatively unchanged since the 1990s. So there was this opportunity to tell the story of exactly a decade, from the establishment of scientific consensus about the nature of the problem and the birth of this movement to try to bring about a solution. That was the story that I feel like has been forgotten, including by a lot of people who are on the front lines of the climate change conversation.

A lot of activists and advocates are still under the impression that the problem started with James Hansen speaking before Congress in 1988. Even New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the other day was giving an extraordinarily passionate, eloquent speech on the floor of the House about how we need to take action on climate, and she said that the government has known about this since 1989. I don’t mean to single her out, but even people on the leading edge of this are still essentially taking for granted the industry talking point that this is a new problem, something that has just come to light as recently as the 1980s. Of course, the government knew about it in the 1950s. And scientists knew about it decades before that. The amount of public amnesia around the issue is staggering.

Q.A few times throughout the decade you focus on in your book, the United States was on the precipice of real climate action. It never materialized. Now, it feels like parts of the public are mobilizing toward action again. Could this time be different?

A.What’s changed really in recent months in the public conversation is that the young leaders are now bringing new momentum to the issue. They’re saying things like, “our lives are at stake, you people in positions of power are robbing our future from us.” They’re also making very emphatic connections in the way they talk about how the climate crisis is inextricable from almost every issue of social injustice in the U.S. and globally. When you hear Ocasio-Cortez or Greta Thunberg talk about it, they’re making a moral argument that I think is frankly stronger and more profound, and ultimately more politically effective, than making only the logical argument. There’s a moral tenor to the way they’re talking about it that I don’t think was present and couldn’t have been present in the 1980s.

It’s a transformation of the dialogue that I think was inevitable, but it’s heartening to see it happening now. It’s extremely powerful and it will only become more so. I also think it’s a more honest way of speaking about the problem, as something that is a threat to our very humanity and the way we view ourselves. That’s why I went back to this period [between 1979 and 1989] because I think it’s a way of writing about this story in human terms, before the poisoning of the dialogue.

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Nathaniel Rich’s ‘Losing Earth’ tells lost history of our current climate predicament

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We’re getting close to a bill for the Green New Deal. Here’s what we (kinda) know.

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The Green New Deal, that bold proposal to avoid catastrophic climate change, has been heralded as exactly the sort of large-scale action such an existential threat demands. But what’s in it? As New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey prepare to unveil their bill in the coming days, details about what’s actually in the plan are, well, fuzzy.

The draft framework for the bill, championed by Ocasio-Cortez and an activist group called the Sunrise Movement, and originally posted on AOC’s website, promised a bounty of liberal delights: universal healthcare, a federal green jobs guarantee, a transition to local-scale agriculture, carbon-neutral by 2045, and more. But a lot can change in a month. An ambitious Green New Deal strode into Washington, D.C., at the start of the new Congress last month; a different version could soon emerge.

Most of the negotiation around what is and isn’t in the soon-to-be-released bill is being hammered out behind closed doors, between the two representatives presenting the draft and various justice and environment groups. Some of that haggling has wound up on Twitter.

Here’s a snapshot of where things stand so far: First, a Politico reporter noted that two of the most ambitious tenets of the bill, a federal jobs guarantee and universal healthcare, were on the chopping block. AOC’s Chief of Staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, immediately responded to the rumors, saying those elements are still in play.

Then, bans on nuclear power and carbon capture, and the call for an end to oil, gas, and coal development (a distressing development for some activists) were reportedly axed as well. At a Sunrise Movement watch party on Tuesday night in New York City, representatives of the organization said those bans are still part of the proposal. Bloomberg, on the other hand, is still reporting that the early version of the plan “doesn’t explicitly include the ban on fossil fuels.”

Clarity should come next week, when twin resolutions from AOC and Markey are expected to be introduced, according to representatives from Sunrise. But it’s no surprise that AOC and Markey’s legislation has changed during its gestation in D.C.; it will likely continue to evolve as it moves through the Washington meat grinder.

Democratic candidates for president have been proclaiming their support for the “idea” or the “concept” of a Green New Deal. Why the vague language? It might have something to do with the risk involved in backing a proposal that could require $7 trillion, and a commitment to universal healthcare and a ban on fossil fuels. So, if the bill does drop the more ambitious elements of the original draft, it could encourage more candidates to dream up their own versions that could still garner stamps of approval from progressive politicians.

The hard truth is that any Green New Deal bill, even with a number of concessions, has a zero percent chance of making it through the Senate. And, if by some miracle Congress managed to pass the bill, it would surely perish upon reaching Trump’s desk. But the effort could answer an important question: Is 2019 the year the House rallies behind climate legislation?

Grist staff writer Justine Calma contributed reporting to this article from New York City.


We’re getting close to a bill for the Green New Deal. Here’s what we (kinda) know.

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What the stock market crash means for the climate

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Let’s talk about the stock market. Pretty terrifying, huh? The big Christmas Eve dip plunged the U.S. markets into “bear” territory — with declines of over 20 percent in the past three months alone. The day after Christmas followed with the largest rally in market history, half of which evaporated at one point on Thursday, but then entirely came back by the afternoon. That’s a lot of volatility in a time when the future is pretty volatile already — that’s right, I’m talking about the climate.

For those of us with more of a planetary perspective, what are we supposed to make of this financial rollercoaster?

Politicians have long presented the economy and the environment as competing issues. And on the surface, the vast majority of people in the world don’t care about the stock market. Nearly half the people in the world live on less than $5.50 per day, and it’s them who’ll bear the brunt of climate change. When asked, they care much more about climate change than the economy.

There’s evidence that an economic downturn could be good for the planet. The rare times the world has successfully temporarily stabilized or decreased annual emissions were during economic recessions like 1990-93 and 2008-09.

Recessions can force a rethink of the status quo; they demand efficiency and innovation. In short, during a recession, the economy must figure out how to do more with less. That’s exactly the challenge we face now that the science is absolutely clear that radical change is our only hope to stop climate change before irreversible tipping points kick in.

But while our capitalistic, growth-based economy is still closely tied to fossil-fuel use and a sustained downturn would likely reduce emissions, the whole truth is not so simple. Economic hardship doesn’t just hurt the rich, who are (by far!) the world’s biggest carbon emitters. Economic downturns hit hard in places with large inequality like Miami and Puerto Rico, which are also slated to bear some of the biggest burdens of climate change.

Not only would another recession impact unemployment, it could result in a shift in priority away from long-term challenges (like climate change) and onto short-term survival. And because governments have a bad habit of choosing austerity as a tool for cutting spending, it’s likely the rich will try to pass off the burden of their mistakes on the backs of the working class.

It’s impossible to know whether a future economic downturn in the U.S. would result in a widening gap between rich and poor, popular revolt (as we recently saw with France’s yellow vests), or something else entirely. But according to the Trump administration’s own climate reports, there is a strong possibility of long-term global warming-related GDP shrinkage. Even though many people (including me) have argued that the human costs of climate change are more important than the monetary ones, that doesn’t mean environmentalists can afford to ignore a possible market downturn. Those hurricanes are going to keep on coming, and someone has to pay the bills.

Climate change is much more terrifying than a potential recession. Still, we SHOULD care about the volatility of the stock market and a looming recession — at the very least, it should make us pay attention to the fragility of our current system and provide excuses for rethinking the way things work.

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Remember that $20 million ocean cleanup project? It isn’t working.

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The $20 million effort to clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch has hit a bit of a snafu.

Organizers for The Ocean Cleanup, which launched the project in September, already had their work cut out for them — the floating garbage patch is made up of an estimated 1.8 trillion pieces of plastic, which has coalesced into a field of debris twice the size of Texas, weighing in at 88,000 tons (that’s the equivalent of 500 jumbo jets, yikes).

In order to clean up the massive garbage island, engineers at the non-government organization built a U-shaped barrier, which they hoped would act like a coastline, trapping the plastic floating in large swathes of the patch. The system can communicate its whereabouts at all times, allowing a support vessel to come by periodically to pick up all the junk in the device’s trunk, so to speak, for recycling.

The highly anticipated endeavor deployed out of San Francisco in September, when the floating device — known as System 001 or Wilson — was towed out to the island of rubbish located between California and Hawaii. The goal of The Ocean Cleanup is to remove up to 50 percent of plastics in the area within five years.

But so far, the giant garbage catcher is having issues holding on to plastic waste.

George Leonard, chief scientist of the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit environmental advocacy says the organization’s goal is admirable, but can’t be the only solution to ocean plastics pollution. He said a solution must include a multi-pronged approach, including stopping plastic from reaching the ocean in the first place. Humans dump more than 8 million tons of trash into the ocean each year — the equivalent of one dump truck full of plastic every minute.

“The clock is ticking; we must confront this challenge before plastics overwhelm the ocean,” Leonard said.

The Ocean Cleanup Fonder Boyan Slat said the slow speed of the solar-powered 600-meter long barrier isn’t allowing it to scoop up plastic from the swirling trash island. Over the next few weeks, a crew of engineers will make tweaks to the system. Slat says it’s all part of the process when you take on a project this ambitious (Forbes called it “the world’s largest ocean cleanup”).

In a statement released on December 20, Slat said that he always expected it was going to be a bit of an ongoing experiment. “What we’re trying to do has never been done before,” he said. “For the beta phase of [the] technology, this is already a success.”

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As anti-plastic movements sweep the globe, change doesn’t always come easy

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

Australia’s two largest supermarket chains made waves earlier this year when they announced plans to ban single-use plastic bags in stores across the country. Environmentalists hailed the move, which according to new figures released this month, may have saved more than 1.5 billion bags from going into overstuffed kitchen drawers or landfills in less than six months.

The National Retail Association, a nonprofit group that represents the grocery industry, said in early December the entire country has seen an astonishing 80 percent drop in single-use plastic bags since Coles and Woolworths implemented the bans in July. The two supermarkets, which together own more than 60 percent of the grocery market in Australia, have each said they’ve kept more than 700 million plastic bags out of circulation this year.

But despite the good news, the proposal didn’t happen without some controversy.

Angry shoppers prompted outbursts in checkout lines in several Coles stores and the supermarket giant backflipped just weeks after implementing its ban amid vehement complaints. Coles stores quickly said they would provide heavier-duty, reusable bags for free for the foreseeable future, after some media outlets dubbed the phenomenon “bag rage.”

The reversal, however, created an even bigger outcry among environmental groups who claimed the chain had only increased the plastic problem by making single-use bags more durable and resistant to breaking down. The supermarket quickly backflipped again, saying it would provide those reusable bags for free for a short time before charging customers for them once more.

Both supermarket chains now provide several types of heavy-duty plastic bags for purchase that shoppers can pay for at a cost of about 11 cents apiece, or upwards of several dollars for nicer versions that double as coolers or are made of jute.

Some have worried that the more durable bags have only replaced cheaper single-use plastic bags, but both supermarket chains said they had seen a large uptick in customers bringing in their own bags in the five-month period since the old bags were phased out.

Both Coles and Woolworths declined to say how many new reusable bags they’ve sold. The 1.5 billion figure shared by the NRA doesn’t take into account any multi-use plastic products that have been handed out in their place. But Coles said the retailer was “delighted to see customers grow more accustomed to bringing” bags from home, a sentiment echoed by Woolworths.

“The majority of our customers are forming new habits by bringing their own shopping bags into stores,” a Woolworths spokesperson told HuffPost in an email. “This is reflected at the check out where we are seeing less and less transactions from customers having to buy new bags.”

Greenpeace Australia, which was heavily critical of Coles during its double-backflip on the ban, said the end of single-use plastic sales was a “great step in the right direction.” It also noted that on top of the grocery bans, every state in Australia has its own ban on plastic bags or one about to go into effect, except New South Wales (where the country’s largest city, Sydney, lies).

Zoë Deans, a campaigner at the environmental group said Greenpeace knew “people were happy to bring reusable bags with them” after an initial adjustment period, but said the change can take time.

“Switching to reusable bags can take a bit of adjustment, and our recommendation is to keep some in your car, by your front door, in your desk — make sure they’re accessible so you don’t forget them,” Deans told HuffPost. “We’d love to see supermarkets encouraging and trusting consumers to do so.”

Single-use plastic bags are produced en masse, but difficult to recycle. Australia has a population of just 25 million, but Coles and Woolworths estimated before the ban the chains used some 3.2 billion bags apiece for customers’ groceries.

The products can easily wind up in waterways, and a 2018 report by the Ocean Conservancy found plastic grocery bags to be the fifth most common item gathered during environmental clean-ups. Stories of animals who gorged to death on plastic have regularly appeared in the news, including a whale found with more than 80 bags in its stomach.

Bans or restrictions on plastic bags are now in effect in more than 40 countries, according to The New York Times.

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This is what a government shutdown over climate change would look like

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What issues are “worth” shutting down the government for? That, annoyingly, is the question America finds itself tackling again and again in recent years.

Our president was elected on a controversial platform of building a border wall to limit immigration. Now, he says he’s willing to shut down the government within days of Christmas in order to secure billions of dollars in funding for its construction.

On Sunday morning, Trump’s advisor, Stephen Miller, said the president would do “whatever is necessary” in order to build the wall — despite the fact that the general public feels that a government shutdown is pretty drastic. Still, one seems nearly inevitable and would begin this Friday — senators and representatives have already left for their home districts without a plan to avert it.

This seems as good a time as any to offer an important reminder: Climate change is an existential threat to human civilization and without radical action, we’re committing to irreversible destruction of the biosphere — the evolutionary equivalent of a meteor strike.

Which makes me wonder: What would it take for the Democrats to shut down the government — to do whatever is necessary — over climate change?

The first step would be making climate change a core and unrelenting talking point of the party’s platform — and then winning elections specifically with a populist mandate to take immediate, large-scale action on it.

We already have a glimpse of what that world looks like: Recently elected Justice Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and 2016 Grist 50 member Ayanna Pressley spoke incessantly about climate change in the runup to their midterm campaigns, rightly framing it as an intersectional justice issue.

The policy platform that has emerged from those electoral wins — the Green New Deal — has already pushed the larger Democratic Party to quickly consider positions that would have been deemed outright radical just a few months ago, like a nationwide 100 percent renewable energy mandate by 2030 and a green jobs guarantee. This kind of rapid shift in dialogue is consistent with the “moon shot” approach that scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic warming.

And those ideas have a lot of support: A recent New York Times poll shows that 98 percent of loyal Democrats and 66 percent of loyal Republicans would back a green jobs program.

Highly visible groups of young people, led by the Sunrise Movement, have already made clear that they’re not going to go easy on Democratic leadership if it ignores climate change. If the group’s protests escalate — if its members continue speaking with clear, moral language inspired by past civil rights struggles — there could suddenly be a hint in the air that transformative policy change could be imminent, also.

There are already signs that mainstream Democrats are listening. Likely incoming Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi promised dialogue with Sunrise protesters, though she’s yet to agree to the protesters’ request to direct a special committee explicitly to develop a Green New Deal plan.

On the Senate side, where the rules ensure that the Democrats — still in the minority — could block the president’s infrastructure plans, Minority Leader Chuck Schumer has already made clear that a Green New Deal is the only way forward. (It remains to be seen how insistent he’s going to be on that point.) And just this past Friday, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey became the second likely Democratic presidential contender (along with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders) to endorse the idea of the sweeping program. “We must take bold action on climate change & create a green economy that benefits all Americans,” he tweeted.

In the months ahead, it’s not inconceivable that a few dozen Democrats could form a progressive bloc and effectively commandeer the House, refusing to pass legislation on anything until a Green New Deal is signed into law. That, of course, would require a massive push from voters at the same time. It would need to be obvious to Democrats that they’d risk losing elections by not supporting it.

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This is what a government shutdown over climate change would look like

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4 ways the melting Arctic is wreaking havoc near you

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The Arctic is in the throes of what sea-ice scientist Peter Wadhams called a “death spiral.” As the region’s once abundant ice melts, giving way to a less reflective surface, the Arctic heats up faster — now at a rate that is double the rest of the planet.

“The ice is much thinner and lighter and broken and kind of slushy,” Jennifer Francis, a scientist who focuses on the Arctic at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told Grist. “It’s been described as rotten.”

The Arctic is heading toward irreversible melting and ecosystem destruction, according to the annual Arctic Report Card released on Tuesday by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The researchers found that the Arctic has lost nearly 95 percent of its oldest ice. On top of that, the once-pristine region is becoming quite dirty: In addition to a growing toxic algae problem, the Arctic Ocean now has the highest concentration of microplastics of any ocean on Earth. (The tiny, barely visible plastics pose a threat to any seabirds or marine life that accidentally eat them.)

For people living up north, the warming Arctic has immediate effects. Coastal Arctic communities, including indigenous peoples, are literally losing land as coastal ice (also called “shorefast ice”) melts. “The decline of shorefast ice is exposing communities to increased storm surge, coastal flooding, and loss of shoreline,” Donald Perovich, a professor of engineering at Dartmouth and a contributor to the report, said in a press conference.

For Americans in the continental United States, though, these changes in the Arctic can feel far away. It’s hard to imagine they’ll have much effect on daily life here. However, the implications are far-reaching. We’re not just talking sea-level rise: The melting Arctic is disturbing Earth’s weather system, causing profound changes to weather beyond the North Pole.

“What happens in the Arctic doesn’t stay in the Arctic,” said Judah Cohen, an MIT climatologist who wasn’t involved in the report.

Drought, heatwaves, and wildfires

Warning: You’re about to learn a lot about the polar jet stream, a river of wind that travels around the Northern hemisphere. The air in the north wants to flow to the south, where the layer of air is hotter and thicker (hot air expands, remember?). The now-warmer Arctic makes it so there’s less of a pressure difference, so what once was a mountain in the sky becomes a gentle hill.

OK, OK, so the atmospheric hill in the sky is less steep. So what? Like a river moving down a soft incline, the jet stream moves more slowly and more erratically. In the United States, these changes in the jet stream are linked to a persistent “ridge” — like a hump in the sky. The “Ridiculously Resilient Ridge,” as it’s come to be known, causes weather patterns to linger, “perpetuating drought, heatwaves, and extensive wildfires across much of western North America,” according to the report.

Nor’easters and severe cold

A strong jet stream ridge is often associated with a trough, an elongated low pressure system. The trough in the eastern United States may have earned itself a new nickname. “I figured the trough should have a name too, because it’s very persistent,” Francis said. “So I call that the Terribly Tenacious Trough.”

Francis likens the trough to leaving the refrigerator door open. It allows “frigid Arctic air to plunge southward, bringing misery to areas ill-prepared to handle it,” Francis wrote in an article in The Conversation. This phenomenon, according to the NOAA report, brought a “parade of destructive nor’easters along the eastern seaboard” in the winters of 2013-14 and 2017-18. Most notably, it led to what has been dubbed the “bomb cyclone,” an intense blizzard along the East Coast in January 2018.


When a ridge becomes very sharp, it can break off and form an eddy that runs counter to the ridge’s current. This phenomenon is known as “atmospheric blocking,” and it locks weather systems in place. “It’s like a traffic jam and in the air,” Cohen said.

Atmospheric blocking brings all kind of severe weather, including the slower, more intense hurricanes we’ve seen of late. Harvey and Florence, which hovered over the coast for days and dumped trillions of gallons of water, were dangerously stuck in place thanks to a “block.”

Even more climate change

As the warming Arctic sloughs off more layers of ice, it threatens to release stored carbon into the atmosphere — thus contributing to global warming and making extreme weather even worse.

This begins on a micro level: When the ground thaws, it activates microbes in the soil. “They start breathing out carbon dioxide or methane, depending on the situation,” said Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center. “It’s a feedback because if you put more of that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, that warms up things further. Right now the question is, ‘OK, is when does that kick in?’”

The Arctic as we know it is slipping away, and there are still a lot of unknowns about what that means for all of us. “Exactly how the northern meltdown will ‘play ball’ with other changes and natural fluctuations in the system presents many questions that will keep scientists busy for years to come,” Francis wrote in the report, “but it’s becoming ice-crystal-clear that change in the far north will increasingly affect us all.”

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4 ways the melting Arctic is wreaking havoc near you

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Rising seas could force a large-scale retreat from U.S. shores within decades.

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Rising seas could force a large-scale retreat from U.S. shores within decades.

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