Tag Archives: climate
Early Thursday morning, two activists who have opposed a planned $9.4 billion petrochemical complex in St. James Parish, Louisiana, were arrested for “terrorizing” an oil and gas lobbyist connected to the Taiwanese plastics manufacturer responsible for the development. While the protest action leading to the charges occurred six months ago, the arrests come just a week after residents of the parish won a court battle against the company, allowing them to host a Juneteenth prayer ceremony on a slave burial site on the company’s property.
The charges against Anne Rolfes and Kate McIntosh — two members of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, the environmental health and justice organization that’s been fighting the plastics company, Formosa, alongside RISE St. James, another grassroots environmental justice group — carry a punishment of up to 15 years in prison and a fine of $15,000.
Last year, a judge ruled that Formosa had illegally dumped billions of plastic pellets called nurdles into Texas’ Lavaca Bay and other waterways. The company agreed to pay a $50 million settlement as a result of complaints and lawsuits filed by Texas residents and environmental groups. In December, Louisiana activists sent a sealed container filled with the company’s nurdles to the home of an oil and gas lobbyist in Baton Rouge, as an act of protest against the company’s planned development in Louisiana. The package was accompanied by a letter explaining the box’s contents.
According to Bill Quigley, an attorney representing Rolfes and McIntosh, the Baton Rouge police department called him early Thursday morning, claiming that there were outstanding charges against the two. Both turned themselves in, but they were reportedly taken to the parish prison in handcuffs and leg irons. The two were released on bond late Thursday afternoon.
“The timing is suspicious,” Quigley told Grist. “It seems a little bit more than coincidental that six months pass, and now charges against them are being announced, as the community fights for the cemetery that Formosa resisted so urgently to keep them away from.”
Janile Parks, Formosa’s director of community and government relations, denied that the company had any role in or knowledge of the arrests. “[Formosa] was unaware that this action was going to be taken by the state and had only heard second hand that deliveries of plastic pellets were made … in the Baton Rouge area some months ago,” she wrote.
Quigley also added that the “terrorizing” statute is a much more serious charge than even Louisiana’s critical infrastructure law, which carries up to five years in prison and a fine of $1,000 for trespassing in the vicinity of critical infrastructure like oil and gas pipelines. The “terrorizing” charge is intended for actions such as bomb threats, according to Quigley.
“It’s really hard to believe that what [the defendants] did was a serious terrorizing threat,” he said.
Soon after Thursday’s arrests, a new coalition called the Alliance to Defend Democracy launched what it says is an effort to protect free speech in Louisiana. The alliance includes community leaders, clergy members, and grassroots environmental organizations such as the Coalition Against Death Alley, the Concerned Citizens of St. John, Extinction Rebellion New Orleans, the Greater New Orleans interfaith Climate Coalition, RISE St. James, the Green Army, 350 New Orleans, No Waste Louisiana, and the Louisiana Bucket Brigade.
St. James Parish is located in Louisiana’s 85-mile industrial corridor between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, which has been known for decades as “cancer alley.” The area’s Black population has suffered disproportionately from the COVID-19 pandemic, and residents have long suffered some of the highest pollution-linked cancer rates in the country. Many residents say that Formosa’s new development will only make matters worse.
St. James resident Sharon Lavigne, an outspoken critic of Formosa and the founder of RISE St. James, had previously been visited by parish sheriff’s deputies and threatened with arrest for peaceful visits to the burial site on Formosa’s property.
“This is our home, and we’re not just going to let Formosa come here and destroy our lives and the health of our community,” Lavigne told Grist. “I’ll die before I give up. We’re not going to stop. We’re going to have more people join us, and we’re going to be stronger.”
Against the backdrop of renewed calls for racial justice nationwide in the aftermath of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the state of New York announced on Tuesday a slate of grants totaling more than $10.6 million to help underserved residents access affordable solar energy. The grants will help offset predevelopment costs to address resource barriers that typically prevent low-income residents — particularly communities of color — from installing clean energy or energy storage in their homes.
The Empire State is set to provide individual grants of up to $200,000 each to affordable housing providers, community organizations, and technical service providers to assist low-income households and install solar and energy storage systems meant to benefit entire communities. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), the government agency administering the program, will be hosting a webinar on July 14 to launch the grant opportunities and provide more information on the application process. The state will accept applications on a quarterly basis through the end of 2024.
This initiative is the result of New York’s landmark environmental justice legislation, which helped bring the state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) to life in January. The CLCPA made headlines for being the most ambitious emissions-reduction legislation in the country, thanks to its promise that the state will reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040. The CLCPA and the accompanying environmental justice bill require the state to make good on its commitments to address environmental injustice and invest in underserved and pollution-burdened communities. Tuesday’s announcement is part of that follow-through.
“We got a law passed — among all accounts the most ambitious in the country, maybe the world — so now, let’s see how real these elected officials are about Black Lives Matter,” Eddie Bautista, executive director of the NYC Environmental Justice Alliance, told Grist. “This is for us a pivotal moment, where we can either work in partnership with the government or call hypocrisy at the top of our lungs.”
On Tuesday, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation also unveiled its appointments to the Climate Justice Working Group, which will guide the state in carrying out its ambitious climate targets. Bautista, who was announced as one of the group’s appointees, said that community members appointed to the group would hold elected officials accountable for continued funding and also figure out how to effectively reach out to marginalized communities to inform them about opportunities such as NYSERDA’s grants.
“In this moment where you have elected officials tripping over each other to claim some portion of the Black Lives Matter mantle, this is the moment where they have to put up or shut up,” Bautista told Grist. “It’s easy to put out a statement when you’re seeing police brutalizing people, but what do you do when the very air is brutalizing people?”
The Climate Justice Working Group consists of representatives from environmental justice communities across the state, including members from New York City community groups, rural communities, and urban communities in upstate New York, as well as representatives from state agencies such as NYSERDA, and the Departments of Conservation, Health, and Labor. The group is set to have its first convening in July as they map out next steps to fast achieve New York’s climate goals.
“We’re relieved that the process is moving forward,” Bautista said.
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It’s becoming clear that black and Latino communities in the U.S. suffer disproportionately from the novel coronavirus. The COVID-19 mortality rate for black New York City residents, for example, is twice that of white residents, and a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report has suggested that black Americans in general are hospitalized for COVID-19 at much higher rates. Research is also emerging showing that exposure to air pollution likely makes COVID-19 deadlier. In other words, when it comes to COVID-19 outcomes, it’s clear that race matters and that pollution matters. What is not yet clear is how, exactly, these two troubling trends are related.
In hopes of finding concrete connections between air pollution in communities of color and COVID-19 outcomes, last month Democrats in Congress introduced the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act, which would allocate an additional $50 million to existing Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant programs and prioritize that funding for projects that “investigate or address the disproportionate impacts of the COVID–19 pandemic in environmental justice communities.”
The measure was included in the HEROES Act, the $3 trillion pandemic relief legislation that passed the House of Representatives last month with mostly Democratic support. The legislation’s future in a Republican-controlled Senate is shaky, but at a House Committee on Energy and Commerce hearing on Tuesday, lawmakers and advocates continued to push for the bill funding the study of the relationship between pollution and racial disparities in COVID-19 outcomes.
“COVID-19 has exacerbated what we have known all along,” said California Representative Raul Ruiz, one of the bill’s cosponsors, during the hearing. “[At-risk communities are] disproportionately breathing polluted air and drinking dirty water due to neglect or decisions by others.”
Jacqueline Patterson, director of the NAACP’s Environmental and Climate Justice Program, discussed how black and Latino communities in the U.S. face more extensive exposure to pollutants, making them more susceptible to lower respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. More than 70 percent of black Americans “are living in counties in violation of federal air pollution standards,” she told the panel of lawmakers.
Patterson also criticized the Trump administration’s approach to environmental policy.
“Instead of strengthening regulations to reinforce protections for communities made vulnerable by poor air quality, we have an administration that has rolled back over 100 regulations in the context of COVID-19,” she said, referring to the Trump administration’s broad relaxation of environmental enforcement during the pandemic.
Patterson said that the funding provided by the Environmental Justice COVID-19 Act would help existing organizations, like local chapters of the NAACP, study the way environmental factors affect public health for communities of color. However, she isn’t sure that the $50 million allocated is enough to accomplish the bill’s aims.
“[The bill] is going to make a difference, but I think ‘enough’ is gonna be a hard bar to reach at this point because the needs are so great,” she told Grist. “Air pollution standards aren’t even stringent enough in the first place.”
When Hurricane Florence slammed into southeastern North Carolina in September 2018, the worst-hit communities were already dealing with a litany of hazards: poverty, pollution from coal ash ponds and lagoons filled with livestock waste, chemicals in the drinking water, not to mention many were still in the process of rebuilding after Hurricane Matthew tore through two years earlier. According to Naeema Muhammad, organizing director of the North Carolina Environmental Justice Network, people in these largely black and brown communities in cities like New Bern and Lumberton, and rural towns like Faison, struggled to evacuate.
“People are pretty much left on their own to try to navigate out of danger,” Muhammad told Grist. When the flooding came, it flushed coal ash, animal waste, and human waste from wastewater treatment plants into the waterways, which spilled over riverbanks and into the streets. “People had to navigate through that water,” she said.
If you had been following coverage of the hurricane on one of the major nightly news shows at the time, you might have missed this story entirely. That’s because not a single segment that aired on ABC’s World News Tonight, the CBS Evening News, or the NBC Nightly News reported on the disparate impacts Florence had on marginalized communities, according to a new analysis by Media Matters.
The media watchdog nonprofit analyzed 669 segments produced by those shows from 2017 to 2019 covering seven hurricanes, including Florence, and one tropical storm. Not one addressed the fact that these extreme weather events did not affect everyone in their paths equally — that the devastation they brought to poor communities and communities of color was far worse — despite ample research highlighting this disparity.
“It does not come as a surprise at all,” Muhammad said of the study. “We have a lot of issues going on in the floodplain areas that do not get addressed by the media. It’s mainly because of the faces in those areas,” which are predominantly black, Native American, and Latino.
Marginalized communities already have and will continue to suffer disproportionately from the extreme weather that becomes more common with climate change, from hurricanes and flooding to heat waves and wildfires. This is not just because they are more likely to live in the floodplain or the line of fire, although that is part of it, and is often the result of racist practices like redlining. Low-income and minority communities are also more likely to live in poor-quality housing and to not have the means to evacuate, rebuild, or relocate. As the Media Matters report states, “These events expose vulnerabilities stemming from historic and systemic inequities, but they too often go unexplained — partly because broadcast TV news fails to even do the minimum of reporting on who is being harmed the most, let alone delving into why some communities are being disproportionately affected.”
By contrast, PBS Newshour produced nine segments over the same time period that specifically addressed the disproportionate impacts hurricanes had on marginalized communities. While they represented only about 4 percent of the public broadcaster’s total hurricane coverage, the segments were at least substantive: One highlighted how undocumented families in Texas who did not qualify for disaster aid were faring in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. Another focused on black residents in a neglected North Carolina public housing project who had no evacuation plan during Hurricane Florence.
Juan Declet-Baretto, a social scientist with the Union of Concerned Scientists who researches climate vulnerability and environmental justice, warned about the dangers of the media not visiting these communities and talking to residents about what they experience. “It creates a huge blindspot in people’s perception, public perception and policymakers’ perception,” he told Grist. “It sends a message that there are some people in society that we collectively deem that they are not important, that it is not worth saving their lives.”
Media Matters found that this blind spot extends beyond extreme weather events to other environmental justice issues. When it comes to the novel coronavirus, the organization found that the same three corporate broadcast news shows failed to report on the connection between air pollution and the high COVID-19 death rate among people of color, especially black people.
Last Saturday morning, Muhammad said she woke up and lay in bed feeling angry. Over the previous few days, mass protests had spread to major cities all over the country in response to the police killings of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Kentucky, and the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men while he was out for a jog in Brunswick, Georgia. “I’m angry that this policeman could so casually murder somebody in plain view, in broad daylight, as if it was nothing,” said Muhammad, referring to Floyd’s killing.
But the ongoing demonstrations are not about a few specific violent incidents; they are about the enduring structural racism and everyday violence inflicted on black Americans, of which environmental injustice is one manifestation.
“And then I said, man, on top of that, we have all of this environmental degradation in our communities, where people feel like they got a right to dump crap that they don’t want onto poor communities, and predominantly people of color, without a thought, and without being held accountable for the damages that they’ve caused,” Muhammad continued.
“And yet, communities gotta be made to prove that they’re being harmed when all this stuff happens, whether it’s a hurricane, whether its animal waste, whether its coal ash, GenX, murder, you name it. You gotta be made to prove that you’re being harmed.” (GenX is the brand name of one of the types of polyfluoroalkyl and perfluoroalkyl substances, the “forever chemicals” also known as PFAS.)
Muhammad urged the media to try harder to get to the root of the story, to go into impacted communities and talk to folks. “The evidence is already there,” she said. “If you sit there and hear the story and look around, people are not making this shit up. It’s real. People are living this stuff every single day.”
While the protests rage on, the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take more lives every day, and an active Atlantic hurricane season is in the forecast.
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Ocean creatures are finding themselves in hot water as the world warms. To stay cool, they’re relocating to deeper parts of the ocean, and it’s throwing ecosystems all out of whack.
A new study in the journal Nature Climate Change calculated how fast different layers of the ocean are heating up. Species are swimming to deeper waters to escape the heat at different rates, and the researchers warn that many sea dwellers like tuna, which rely on plankton at the water’s surface for food, might struggle to adapt.
The study brought a new phrase into the news: climate velocity. It’s basically the speed and direction that a given species will need to shift as their corner of the world heats up. Climate velocity has been in use in academic circles for more than a decade, but the study marks the first time the phrase made the headlines.
As climate change reshuffles life on earth, climate velocity applies up here on the surface, too. Warmer weather will drive animals seeking new homes into encounters with species they don’t normally meet — sort of like how grizzlies have been showing up in polar bears’ dwindling territory, leading to the emergence of grolar bears (or pizzlies?). And it’s not just flora and fauna. Humans, too, will have to move to survive.
Global warming will make large swaths of the Earth too hot for humans, as David Wallace-Wells memorably described in The Uninhabitable Earth, a book that features a grisly account of how the body breaks down in sweltering heat. That’s just one of many interesting challenges in store. The rising ocean is already submerging coasts, and changing weather patterns are helping to create new deserts. (The Sahara is expected to keep swallowing up more land as the planet warms.) Researchers estimate that the climate crisis could displace between 25 million and 1 billion people by 2050. For perspective, the most commonly cited number — 200 million — means that one in every 45 people would be displaced by mid-century.
Warmer weather and changing weather patterns are already altering how people grow food. In Alaska, for instance, rising temperatures mean that farmers can farm potatoes on the previously inhospitable tundra. Greenlanders are harvesting strawberries and tomatoes. In California, farmers are planting orchards, crossing their fingers that the fruit and nut trees they’re planting today will be able to make it in the hotter, drier world that the coming decades will bring.
Migration is inevitable. The fish are definitely in trouble. But our climate velocity, the pace at which people will be forced to abandon their homes and relocate, is largely TBD. One reason estimates of the number of people who will be displaced varies so widely is that it’s hard to predict human behavior. If governments decide to pull the plug on fossil fuel emissions soon, it will slow climate velocity and save human lives — and probably rescue a bunch of cute marine species, too.
Last August, a San Francisco–based tech startup called Stripe made a bold climate promise. The company, which makes software that enables online payments and is valued at $36 billion, was already investing in energy-efficiency projects to reduce its carbon footprint. It was also paying for carbon offsets for the emissions that it couldn’t avoid, from things like business flights and the natural gas burned to heat its offices. But Stripe wanted to go even further to take action on climate change. The company announced it would spend an additional $1 million annually on emerging carbon removal technologies, bringing its carbon balance sheet into the black.
The announcement kicked off a vetting process in which Stripe solicited proposals and consulted with scientists to evaluate them. On Monday, it delivered on its promise, revealing its first four winners, which will be receiving about $250,000 each.
Though the amounts are small, the gesture is huge. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has said that in order to prevent catastrophic climate change, we’ll need to start actively pulling carbon out of the carbon cycle and permanently sequestering it. But a lot of the tools available to do so are still nascent and expensive, and will require the kind of leap-of-faith buy-in that Stripe is offering to help them scale up.
The carbon removal technologies Stripe chose are early stage, and currently remove carbon at a cost of between $75 and $775 per ton — a far cry from common carbon offset projects like forest conservation and methane capture from landfills, which typically cost less than $10 per ton. Stripe’s $1 million will only sequester about 6,500 tons of CO2, assuming the earliest-stage projects it chose actually work.
Swiss-based ClimeWorks has the most established technology of the bunch, and is also the most expensive. ClimeWorks uses renewable energy to power machines that capture CO2 directly from the air and inject it deep underground, where it reacts with rock formations and hardens. The company says its pilot project will bury 50 tons of CO2 in 2020, and it’s in the process of developing a larger plant that will capture several thousand tons of CO2 per year.
Charm Industrial’s bio-oil, produced from biomass, will be injected underground Charm Industrial
Stripe also chose CarbonCure, a Canadian company that takes CO2 sourced from industrial emitters and incorporates it into concrete.
A third company, Charm Industrial, will use the money to test the viability of injecting bio-oil underground — sort of like reverse oil drilling. Bio-oil is a carbon-rich fluid produced by burning biomass like corn husks and rice straw that typically rot in the field; burying it underground removes it from the carbon cycle.
The fourth winner is Project Vesta, a startup founded by a guy who also markets supplements that allegedly enhance brain function. Project Vesta is working on a pilot study to prove the safety and efficacy of spreading a mineral called olivine on sandy beaches, where waves will break the olivine down, speeding up its ability to pull CO2 from the air.
If you’re thinking that some of these projects sound a little out there, you’re not alone. Some climate hawks and scientists have raised their eyebrows at the announcement. “I question whether the companies that they are supporting can scale,” commented Jigar Shah, president of the clean energy investment firm Generate Capital, on Twitter. Volcanologist Erik Klemetti voiced concern that Project Vesta could have unintended ecosystem consequences.
But Jane Zelikova, chief scientist at Carbon180, a nonprofit focused on carbon removal, applauded Stripe for being a leader in the space.
“They’re not the only company thinking about negative emissions or carbon removal,” Zelikova said. “But they’re certainly the first ones essentially saying, ‘We’ll pay any price per ton, we want to move this whole field forward.’ I think that’s really awesome.”
Zelikova’s expertise is in soil carbon sequestration, and she was one of the scientists hired by Stripe as consultants to review submissions. Ultimately the company did not go with any soil-based carbon removal projects, but Zelikova praised Stripe for seeking expert opinion and outside analysis and for making the entire process transparent. Stripe has shared its evaluation criteria online and encouraged other companies to use it, in addition to making all of the proposals it received available on GitHub.
“That is very impressive and I think very rare, the level of transparency and cooperation,” said Zelikova. “I hope they serve as a template for how other people can do something similar.”