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How vulnerable is your community to coronavirus? These new maps reveal a familiar pattern.

The predominantly black and low-income communities living near the back-to-back petrochemical refineries of Louisiana’s “cancer alley” have long suffered compromised immune systems and high rates of disease. Now, the state’s fast-growing COVID-19 outbreak is poised to hit them especially hard.

Yet behind the veil of the pandemic, last week the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a temporary policy — with no end date specified — to suspend its enforcement of key environmental regulations, allowing industries like Louisiana’s petrochemical giants to make their own determinations as to whether or not they are complying with requirements to monitor pollution levels. Ironically, as the EPA relaxes its rules for polluters, the link between long-term exposure to environmental hazards and the most severe outcomes of coronavirus infections is starting to come into focus.

Jvion, a healthcare data firm, has collaborated with Microsoft to launch a new COVID-19 community vulnerability map to identify the populations most vulnerable to severe complications following a coronavirus outbreak. The interactive map aggregates socioeconomic and environmental factors, such as lack of access to transportation, exposure to toxins, unemployment, and mortality rate. According to the map, these factors make certain “cancer alley” communities particularly vulnerable.

“Our most heavily weighted and frequent determining risk factor was air quality, though that doesn’t mean that it’s the most predictive factor,” said John Showalter, chief product officer for Jvion. “There’s definitely a biologic rationale that environmental health hazards that lead to pulmonary and cardiovascular conditions would then lead people with those conditions to do poorly during a COVID-19 outbreak.”


Jvion used machine learning to analyze block-level data from the U.S. Census to help identify “environmental health hazard” as one key socioeconomic factor that makes a population more vulnerable to severe COVID-19 outcomes, based on the health effects of polluted air, contaminated water, and extreme heat. They also factored in how chronic exposure to outdoor air pollutants, such as fine particulate matter, can increase the risk of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and cardiovascular disease — preexisting conditions that physicians say can make the novel coronavirus more severe and fatal.

A side-by-side comparison of Jvion’s vulnerability map with the EPA’s Environmental Justice Screen (EJScreen) suggests a stark correlation between a community’s proximity to industrial facilities and its projected risk of severe COVID-19 outcomes.

Jvion labels Harris County, Texas, as having a high vulnerability for COVID-19 — and a key socioeconomic influencer for that determination is its “above average environmental health hazard.” A new analysis from the University of Texas Health Science Center echoes Jvion’s map: The report shows where risk factors for severe COVID-19 outcomes (mostly preexisting health conditions) are distributed across Harris County to determine which neighborhoods are most at-risk of hospitalization and intensive care for COVID-19. Cross-referencing the EJScreen, it becomes clear that the Harris County map highlights communities in close proximity to industrial facilities and those at a higher risk of cancer from breathing airborne toxins.

“There’s a familiar pattern in these maps, and it’s a pattern that you see in mobility rates and mortality rates, race and ethnicity demographics, as well as the distribution of industry in our country,” said Corey Williams, the research and policy director for Air Alliance Houston. “All those things overlap to a great extent, so there is a correlation, but it’s difficult to prove causation.”

Philadelphia has seen a rapid uptick in coronavirus cases, and its pockets of vulnerability have similar characteristics to Houston’s. Jvion’s map shows that the predominantly black and low-income neighborhoods of Point Breeze and Grays Ferry are considered to have an “extremely high” vulnerability risk for COVID-19 due to environmental hazards, elevated unemployment rates, and low incomes. The EJScreen shows that the areas are close to major highways with heavy traffic, wastewater plants, and industrial facilities.

It’s clear that the novel coronavirus is already compounding underlying systemic inequities in communities with more people of color, poverty, migrants, and those without access to resources like medical care. These maps can help ensure that government response and medical capacity in these at-risk populations can meet the needs of those likely to be severely ill from the virus, including those living near heavy industry and fossil fuel infrastructure.

In a letter submitted to the EPA last week, environmental groups demanded to know why polluting facilities are now excused from complying with environmental regulations, even as their operations continue relatively unfettered. “What is the basis for presuming that the pandemic means companies can no longer comply with environmental rules while they continue to operate and process all other forms of corporate ‘paperwork’?” the memo asked.

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How vulnerable is your community to coronavirus? These new maps reveal a familiar pattern.

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A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River – Aldo Leopold


A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River

Aldo Leopold

Genre: Nature

Price: $8.99

Publish Date: December 31, 1968

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Seller: The Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford trading as Oxford University Press

First published in 1949 and praised in The New York Times Book Review as "a trenchant book, full of vigor and bite," A Sand County Almanac combines some of the finest nature writing since Thoreau with an outspoken and highly ethical regard for America's relationship to the land. Written with an unparalleled understanding of the ways of nature, the book includes a section on the monthly changes of the Wisconsin countryside; another part that gathers informal pieces written by Leopold over a forty-year period as he traveled through the woodlands of Wisconsin, Iowa, Arizona, Sonora, Oregon, Manitoba, and elsewhere; and a final section in which Leopold addresses the philosophical issues involved in wildlife conservation. As the forerunner of such important books as Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Edward Abbey's Desert Solitaire, and Robert Finch's The Primal Place, this classic work remains as relevant today as it was forty years ago.

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A Sand County Almanac: With Other Essays on Conservation from Round River – Aldo Leopold

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Sea-level rise threatens 13 million Americans. Can FEMA help?

Entrepreneur and presidential hopeful Andrew Yang caught flak at the second Democratic debate in July for saying that the time has come to move Americans living in the path of sea-level rise to higher ground. “You can run but you can’t hide” doesn’t make a particularly good presidential slogan. After all, admitting defeat and letting nature take its course isn’t exactly our first instinct as human beings.

Managed retreat — abandoning areas that become so threatened by sea-level rise that they are, for whatever reason, considered not worth saving — has been a far less popular idea than adaptation strategies like flood gates, levees, and pumps. (Just look at Miami.)

But in many respects Yang’s realism is spot on. If the world keeps burning fossil fuels as usual, between four and 13 million Americans will see their homes inundated by sea-level rise this century. In the future, managed retreat will become unavoidable.

Don’t take Yang’s word for it. That’s one of the conclusions of a new study in Science Advances — the first to evaluate how managed retreat is functioning in the United States on a national scale. The study’s authors analyzed the Federal Emergency Management Administration’s voluntary buyout program — an initiative that allows owners of flood-prone properties to sell their homes and land to local governments, usually in the aftermath of a disaster. The aim of the program is to get vulnerable people and assets out of flood plains and to ensure that at-risk property doesn’t go back on the market so some other unfortunate soul ends up buying a house that floods once a year. So far, a little more than 40,000 people in 49 states have taken advantage of the program. That’s not a lot of households, and the study found that the number of buyouts overseen by FEMA has actually gone down over the past three decades.

By looking at buyouts that occurred between 1989 and 2017, the study’s authors were able to evaluate the way communities are utilizing (or not utilizing) FEMA’s buyout program, what demographics are benefiting from the program, and how retreat fits into a wider climate strategy.

The study took FEMA’s publicly available buyout data, compared it to other data sets, and found that the counties that take advantage of the program on average have higher income and population density than those that don’t. Within those counties, however, the neighborhoods where the buyouts took place were actually lower-income, denser, and more racially diverse. To the authors of the study, these trends signal that not all local governments have equal access to the program. For example, in Harris County, which includes Houston, there have been more than 2,000 buyouts since 1989. But Louisiana, Florida, and Mississippi — the three states that have had the highest levels of property damage from flooding — rank lowest in the nation in state-wide property buyouts.

The study also found that counties are, for the most part, buying up a few properties at a time with FEMA funds, instead of entire swaths — a predictable outcome when buyouts are voluntary. That’s a missed opportunity to restore flood plains and reduce overall risk to the community. To compound the complexity of the issue, FEMA hasn’t done a good job of documenting its own progress — when logging buyouts in its system, the administration neglected to fill out nearly half of the entries. That means that in many cases researchers don’t know what type of residence was bought out, including whether it was a rental or mobile home.

Millions of Americans may have to contend with managed retreat; why have so few taken advantage of FEMA’s program? Part of the reason may be due to the fact that retreating to higher ground hasn’t really been a central part of states’ flood risk mitigation plans thus far. Local governments have long prioritized approaches like disaster assistance and improved engineering. That could change, though, thanks to a perfect storm of factors. “Even places that have not done buyouts to date are increasingly thinking about the combination of hazards,” Katherine Mach, the lead author of the study, said in a conference call with reporters. “In Louisiana, for example, it’s the combination of oil extraction plus reduced sediment supply plus sea-level rise in normal circumstances versus disaster circumstances.” Buyouts will likely be part of the state’s “full suite of responses,” Mach said.

So what happens if Yang’s prediction of devastating sea-level rise comes true? There are 49 million housing units on the U.S. coast and over $1 trillion worth of infrastructure within 700 feet of the coast, says study author A.R. Sider. “If even one-tenth of that needed to relocate, we’d be talking about orders of magnitude larger than we’ve ever done before with buyouts,” she said.

The study’s authors hope their work lays the groundwork for more research on this topic. “One of the questions we’re trying to answer is what the impacts of buyouts are for the households that participate in them,” said Caroline Kraan, another of the study’s authors. “Where do these households move to? Are they better or worse off in the long term?” We know at least one presidential candidate who’s probably very interested in the answer.


Sea-level rise threatens 13 million Americans. Can FEMA help?

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The climate change ‘tipping point’ has already arrived for these 70 U.S. counties

For years now now, we’ve been hearing warnings about 2 degrees Celsius of warming — the global average cautioned against as part of the 2015 Paris accord. But according to a Washington Post interactive published on Tuesday, that so-called “tipping point” has already arrived in many towns across the country.

The earth is warming at an uneven rate. The Post looked at 100+ years of data from over 3,000 U.S counties and found that over 70 have already exceeded 2 degrees C of warming above pre-industrial levels. That translates to 34 million people (roughly 1 in 10 Americans) living in regions that are heating especially rapidly.

So where are the U.S. hot spots? The counties that have already reached 2 degrees C or warming are spread throughout the U.S., but there are some regional trends. The fastest-warming state in the country is Alaska, which may come as no surprise given its recent spate of heat waves and wildfires. In the Lower 48, Rhode Island’s average temperature increase is the first to pass 2 degrees Celsius, with other parts of the Northeast, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts, not far behind.

While the east coast has been sizzling this summer, the Post found that most regional increases were driven by warming winter temperatures, not summer heat waves. That’s means lakes can’t freeze (causing algae blooms, in some cases) and pests don’t die as per usual in certain historically cold regions. Less snow and ice also means those regions are less able to reflect solar radiation during winter, further feeding into the warming cycle.

The freezing point “is the most critical threshold among all temperatures,” David A. Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist and professor at Rutgers University’s department of geography, told the Post.

Scientists aren’t yet sure why the Northeast is warming so quickly. But experts say these 2-degree C hotspots are like little pieces of the future here in the present, showing us what’s coming.

Of course, climate catastrophes aren’t just about higher average regional temperatures. Cold, heat, flood, drought, and sea-level rise all pose significant risks to U.S. communities, according to a newly released analysis by the group Clever Real Estate. And bad news: The report found that many of the cities most at risk to the impacts of climate change are also the least prepared for it.

Clever Real Estate

There’s some concerning crossover between the Post’s list of rapidly warming counties and the areas identified by Clever Real Estate’s analysis (which was compiled by Eylul Tekin, a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University in St. Louis’ Memory Lab). Four of the top five cities with the “lowest degree of readiness” are located in Southern California (Anaheim, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, and Riverside). The counties in question have reached between 1.8 degrees C and 2.1 degrees C of warming compared to pre-industrial levels.

Parts of New Jersey also didn’t fare well on either list. Essex County has already hit the 2 degrees C warming mark, and Newark snagged the fifth spot on the list of places with the “largest difference between risk and readiness scores.”

So in short, there’s already a lot to sweat in many parts of the U.S. (which is even more reason to take climate action now). To get a better sense of the way your specific area is being affected, check out the two studies we mentioned here and here.

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The climate change ‘tipping point’ has already arrived for these 70 U.S. counties

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With hurricane season looming, Trump is blocking relief funds and mocking Puerto Rico

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

In the two hurricane seasons since Donald Trump was elected president, the United States was hit by five major hurricanes, including Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017. In the immediate aftermath of the record-breaking storm, Trump accused the mayor of San Juan of “poor leadership” and suggested Puerto Ricans weren’t doing enough to help themselves. Nearly two years later, Trump is still criticizing Puerto Rico with misleading descriptions of what has transpired since the storm.

His disdain for the island and its leadership has bled into a fight in the Senate over disaster relief for victims of the 2018 hurricane season.

Since March, Congress has been working on an aid package to assist victims of recent floods, wildfires, and hurricanes. Last October, the first Category 5 hurricane since 1992’s Hurricane Andrew made landfall near Mexico Beach in the Florida Panhandle. Seven months, 59 deaths, and $25 billion in damage later, Congress has yet to send a relief package to the Floridians affected by the storm. Lawmakers haven’t been able to agree on a finalized deal because Republicans, following Trump’s lead, have rejected measures that include more funding relief for Puerto Rico, where torrential rain and extreme winds caused catastrophic damage, including a major power grid failure and nearly 3,000 deaths.

“That whole bill is being jeopardized because of pettiness,” Al Cathey, the mayor of Mexico Beach, told the Washington Post last month.

In Puerto Rico, crumbling infrastructure was made worse by the powerful hurricane. A year and a half later, residents are still waiting on funds to repair hospitals, roads, and public schools. On the mainland, Hurricane Michael victims are also in dire straits. Many residents in Bay County, Florida, home to Mexico Beach, are still living in tents and trailers. Debris still lines the streets of Mexico Beach, and some residents continue to live in severely damaged homes. Because of Congress’ delay, many of the short-term aid programs have run out. Just before the six-month anniversary of the storm, the housing vouchers that allowed victims to stay in hotels expired, leaving 250 households scrambling to find other shelters. “We are truly the forgotten storm,” Bay County Commissioner Philip Griffitts told the Miami Herald.

Despite the sense of urgency in Florida, the president seems intent on continuing the fight over Puerto Rico funding. He has repeatedly said that Puerto Rico has received $91 billion in aid, but that is far from reality. Congress has allocated only $41 billion to Puerto Rico, and only a small fraction of that has been used because local government officials must detail how they plan to use the funds before they are disbursed.

Trump’s misleading tweet comes days after Republican and Democratic senators appeared to be taking steps toward finalizing a package. It signals that the White House isn’t ready to acquiesce to Democrats’ desire to include more funding for Puerto Rico. Meanwhile, hurricane season is set to begin in just four weeks.

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With hurricane season looming, Trump is blocking relief funds and mocking Puerto Rico

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California town declares climate emergency 4 months after state’s deadliest wildfire

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

Four months after the Camp Fire destroyed the northern California towns of Paradise and Magalia, city council members in the neighboring town of Chico voted this week to declare a climate emergency that threatens their lives and well-being.

Chico’s emergency declaration calls on the city to eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2030, among other demands that echo those included in the Green New Deal bill state lawmakers introduced in February. The bill is currently awaiting a hearing in the state Assembly’s Committee on Natural Resources.

The Camp Fire didn’t spread to Chico — it stopped just 10 or so miles away — but thousands of Butte County residents relocated there after they lost their homes. And given the devastating fire seasons California has faced in recent years, new and long-term residents alike want local leaders to take a more proactive approach to preparing for climate-related disasters.

Members of Chico 350, the local chapter of the national climate advocacy group 350.org, drafted the declaration proposal last month.

“The residents of Chico are already experiencing great economic loss and social, emotional and physical impact from climate related disasters,” they wrote. “It makes economic sense and good governance policy to be proactive rather than wait for more wildfires, severe storms, heat waves, and floods which threaten public health and safety.”

The Camp Fire started on the morning of November 8, 2018, after a PG&E transmission line failure. Over the course of a week, the fire destroyed 14,000 homes in Butte County and killed 85 people, many of whom were elderly and disabled. Members of the 14,000 households who lost their homes have tried to resettle in Chico, but it hasn’t been easy. The Federal Emergency Management Agency provided just 220 trailers for victims of the fire — hardly enough for the many families who are now insecurely housed.

“We don’t have enough housing, period, for the people relocated because of the Camp Fire,” City Councilwoman Ann Schwab, who voted in support of the declaration, told HuffPost in February.

Schwab said the town lacks both temporary and permanent housing options for the displaced. “People are sleeping in their cars, in motor homes. They are sharing bedrooms with friends and relatives,” she said.

“It was a bad situation before. Now it’s overwhelming.”

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California town declares climate emergency 4 months after state’s deadliest wildfire

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How U.S. recycling is changing now that China won’t take it

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

“This facility is our version of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.”

That’s how Eileen Kao described Montgomery County, Maryland’s recycling center on a tour. Kao, who is chief of waste reduction and recycling in the county’s Department of Environmental Protection, pointed out how machines in the facility help sort recyclables. As she described how the machines worked, a magnet separated steel and tin cans into a storage silo while a shaker table collected pieces of glass that were too small to be sorted. Dozens of workers hand-sorted at certain steps along the process.

The county’s recycling center in Derwood, Maryland, processed more than 31,000 tons of commingled material and more than 45,000 tons of mixed paper last year. At this building, commingled material (bottles, cans, and containers) is sorted. Mixed paper, including cardboard, is sorted in another facility nearby.

Over recent months, news coverage has depicted China’s National Sword policy as a crisis for recycling in municipalities all over the United States. Since early 2018, China has banned many scrap materials and has not accepted others unless they meet an extremely strict contamination rate of 0.5 percent. (Contamination rates of U.S. recyclables before sorting vary from place to place, but can reach 25 percent or higher.) The decision reflects China’s desire to recycle more of its domestic waste. Previously, China had been the destination for about 40 percent of the United States’ paper, plastics, and other recyclables.

National Sword sent waves through the global recyclables market. The changes in China diverted many materials to Southeast Asian countries, whose ports were not prepared to receive them in such high volume. Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia have begun to enact their own restrictions.

Meanwhile, many municipal recycling programs in the United States have suffered. As of January, Philadelphia was sending half of the recyclables it collects straight to the incinerator. Minneapolis stopped accepting black plastics. Marysville, Michigan, will no longer accept eight of 11 categories of items (including glass, newspaper, and mixed paper) for curbside recycling, in order to cut costs. Deltona, Florida, stopped curbside pickup altogether.

Many recycling and solid-waste organizations, as well as the U.S. EPA, have dedicated resources and staff to “identify solutions to be able to help support recycling here in the U.S.,” according to Dylan de Thomas, vice president of industry collaboration at the Recycling Partnership, a nonprofit that gives grants to and works with communities to improve their recycling programs. The EPA, which has typically left leadership on recycling to local governments, held its first-ever recycling summit in November 2018.

While recycling centers have been closing down in some places, like in greater Birmingham, Alabama, and around California, programs elsewhere are stepping up their efforts to decrease contamination levels in the recycling bin by educating residents about their role in the recycling process. This emphasis on outreach suggests a heavier onus on citizens to stop tossing items absentmindedly into the bin, and start disposing of them in a more informed, deliberate way.

Take plastic bags, for example. Whereas most grocery chains accept plastic bags for recycling, most municipal recycling programs do not. Still, plastic bags are frequently found in recycling bins. The mistake is so pervasive that Washington, D.C., mailed postcards to residents instructing them not to put plastic bags in the recycling bin. (D.C. only prints two types of mailers each year for recycling, one an overview and another focused on a particular issue.)

D.C. also did a pilot program with the Recycling Partnership to provide curbside feedback for residents. On one route, staff left a note behind for residents who had plastic bags in their recycling bin. Another route was the control, and staff did not leave tags. The route that gave residents feedback in the form of tags saw a 19-percent drop in plastic bags over the course of two weeks. The control route? An increase in bags of 2 percent.

“What we’re suggesting … is being very strategic and consistent with your tagging,” said Cody Marshall, the Recycling Partnership’s chief community strategist officer. “You have to go to the same houses over and over again four to five times with the tagging messages to really have an impact.”

Systematic tagging is an important strategy in the toolbox, according to Marshall, because it’s a targeted intervention to decrease the high contamination levels plaguing many municipalities as they try to bring their bales of recyclables to market. Recycling programs in central Virginia, El Paso, Tampa Bay and Orange County, Florida, and Phoenix are all tracking the impact of tagging on contamination.

The need for systematic approaches to reduce contamination is clear. Even though Americans recycle more now than ever, they’re not always sure what their local recycling program accepts. Increasingly, those mistakes can be costly for municipalities that are trying to sell the recyclables in bales. And, of course, to ensure that even more materials don’t end up in the landfill or incinerator.

Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Recycling and Composting Rates, 1960 to 2015

Source: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Many Americans are either aspirational recyclers,” said David Biderman, the executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA), “or they’re confused recyclers. Just because it’s made of plastic doesn’t mean it can be recycled.”

What can and cannot be recycled, as well as how recyclables are separated, differs based on where you live. Montgomery County, for example, has a dual-stream model. Residents have to sort their recyclables into two groups: commingled materials (bottles, cans, and containers) and mixed paper (cardboard and paper). Under a single-stream approach, by contrast, residents throw all household recyclables into one bin, separate only from non-recyclable trash. D.C. has a single-stream system.

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While dual-stream recycling allows the sorting process to begin before waste reaches the facility, single-stream recycling is convenient because people can put everything in the same bin. Between 2005 and 2014, the single-stream model went from being used by 29 percent of American communities to 80 percent, according to one survey. It may lead to people putting fuller bins out to be collected, but the uptake of single-stream recycling has also meant higher contamination rates.

Some communities are switching back to dual-stream in an attempt to bring down contamination. Otherwise, they’re hoping citizens can make better recycling decisions. Ecomaine, a nonprofit that processes recycling for more than 70 communities in Maine on a single-stream model, recently hired a new educator to inform residents about what’s recyclable, what’s not, and why.

“It has certainly been a tough year-and-a-half to two years,” said Ecomaine’s communications manager, Matt Grondin. “But in the end, that landfill storage is forever storage, and to abandon recycling programs for a year or two of a down market really is a short-sighted solution to a long-term problem.”

Back in Maryland, China’s policy hasn’t led Montgomery County to stop recycling anything. It continues to generate revenues from all the materials it recycles, Kao said, except mixed-color, broken glass, which it pays to recycle because it has little value. The county sells the majority of its bales domestically. In fact, one silver lining to China’s crackdown is a growing domestic market in the United States. More than a dozen North American paper mills have announced new capacity to process recycled paper, although it will be a few years before all of it comes online.

In any case, there are strategies that local programs can use, either separately or in combination, to find their way back to health and continue recycling waste. China’s policy change may not represent the much-feared “end of recycling” in the United States so much as an inflection point.

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How U.S. recycling is changing now that China won’t take it

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Nearly all tornadoes are survivable, so why are people still dying?

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On Sunday, Alabama suffered one of the deadliest tornado outbreaks in its history. At last count, 23 people are dead, with at least seven more missing. The worst tornado began just a few miles from Tuskegee and tore through the entire length of Lee County, smashing mostly rural homes and businesses, before crossing into Georgia. In total, 39 tornadoes were reported across a four-state region.

This isn’t just a weather disaster; it’s a failure of society. Lee County’s per capita income is $22,794, 19 percent live below the poverty line, and 17 percent of houses are mobile homes, nearly three times the national average. Unsafe shelter makes residents much more vulnerable to tornadoes.

Meteorological science has reached a place where nearly all tornadoes are survivable — for those with the means to take shelter underground. Average warning time has skyrocketed from 3 minutes to 14 minutes over the past 40 years — plenty of time to get the warning on your mobile phone (if you have one) and head to your basement (if you have one).

New radar and satellite technology that’s already in place and being developed promises forecasters an even longer heads-up for the strongest and deadliest ones in years to come — potentially doubling lead time to 30 minutes in the near future. Some meteorologists are even working to develop tornado warning systems specifically for mobile home residents. But that extra notice is wasted if you’re unable to do anything about it.

The National Weather Service issued a tornado warning 23 minutes in advance of the storm that hit Lee County on Sunday, and upgraded it to a tornado emergency 10 minutes before it struck. Yet Sunday’s tornadoes killed more people than every tornado in 2017 and 2018 combined.

The South, the poorest region in the country, is increasingly at risk of tornadoes. Climate change is shifting where tornadoes happen, away from the Plains states toward places like Alabama that are much more densely populated. Evidence also shows that although the overall number of tornadoes isn’t changing much, they’re more likely to come all at once — like on Sunday, precipitating chaotic days in which multiple tornadoes targeted the same towns in the span of just a few hours.

But it’s poverty, not changes in the tornadoes themselves, that often decides whether people survive them.

A recent study showed that Alabama has a 350 percent higher chance of having a mobile home hit by a tornado than Kansas. Yes, there are more houses in Alabama, but the state is also one of the poorest places in the entire developed world.

Lee County is at the outer edge of Alabama’s portion of the “Black Belt” region, the heart of Southern poverty. After more than a century of government neglect and exploitation, its poverty levels and poor infrastructure are more similar to impoverished places in Latin America and the Caribbean than the rest of the United States.

In 2017, a United Nations official conducting a two-week investigation on human rights abuses in the United States was shocked at what he saw in rural Alabama’s Black Belt, including yards filled with open sewage and tropical diseases more common in developing countries.

“The idea of human rights is that people have basic dignity and that it’s the role of the government—yes, the government!—to ensure that no one falls below the decent level,” the U.N.’s Philip Alston said in an interview with Newsweek. “Civilized society doesn’t say for people to go and make it on your own and if you can’t, bad luck.”

Alabama’s section of the Black Belt is where you can clearly see the worst transgressions of slavery and institutionalized racism right now. Lee County’s outsized vulnerability to tornadoes is tied to that history. Adapting to climate change will require tackling poverty and racial injustice — including better health care, housing, schools, and child care — especially for those places like Lee County. And it’s still killing folks during extreme weather — no matter how well we’re able to predict it.

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Nearly all tornadoes are survivable, so why are people still dying?

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5 House races where climate could tip the election

Earlier this fall, the world’s top climate scientists gave humanity about 10 years to avoid a future that really sucks. With the midterm elections right around the corner, that warning means voters are effectively deciding which candidates to trust with the keys to the climate. If voters are sufficiently worried about warming, that anxiety might help determine who is put in office.

According to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, worry is a stronger predictor of policy support than other emotions. “We found that it’s not fear, it’s not anger, and it’s not disgust or guilt,” he explained. “Worry doesn’t hijack, doesn’t overwhelm, rationality. It can really spur it.”

So just how worried about the planet’s future are voters in the nation’s tightest congressional races? Grist created a map overlaying competitive elections, as identified by The Cook Political Report, with climate concern data from Yale’s 2018 Climate Opinion Maps.

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These toss-up elections are spread throughout the country. Some are sprawling rural districts, others are comprised primarily of dense cities or metro areas. (Keep in mind that congressional districts vary in size, but each holds roughly the same number of people.) Each district varies in what percentage of its constituents report being worried about climate change — represented from yellow (not that worried) to red (pretty worried).

Interestingly, even in those districts where folks seem less concerned about climate change, a majority of people worry about it. Most of the seats in play are currently held by Republicans. And while several Democrats have doubled down on environmental policies, like renewable energy, climate change is a bipartisan issue in many of these communities.

Look closely at the map, and you’ll see a handful of neck-and-neck races in places chock full of climate-worriers. These communities range from the beaches of Miami and Southern California to the suburbs of Houston. Grist examined five of these highly climate-concerned toss-up districts to see what local factors may shift the balance of power in Congress.

Editor’s note: This map is based on up-to-date data at the time of publish. Also, Grist’s analysis excludes districts from Pennsylvania, since they recently redrew their congressional maps — and Yale’s data was collected before the redistricting effort. Sorry, Keystone State!

California 48th district (67 percent of residents are worried)

Members of various political and environmental groups pose for a group picture after press conference against offshore drilling along the California coast in Huntington Beach, CA, on Wednesday, July 25, 2018.Jeff Gritchen / Digital First Media / Orange County Register / Getty Images

California’s 48th congressional district includes much of coastal Orange County, and the local midterms are about as melodramatic as an episode of The O.C.

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Republican Dana Rohrabacher has represented this affluent, conservative bastion in a deep-blue state since 1989, but his seat is in play due in part to a few recent scandals: He had more than one clandestine meeting with Marina Butina, the former NRA darling arrested on suspicion of Russian espionage and election interference. That’s landed him on the radar of the Mueller investigation — and in hot water with voters. “They call me Putin’s best friend,” he told ABC last year. “I’m not Putin’s best friend.”

But even Republicans who deny Russian entanglements can’t get away with denying climate change in this sea-level community. The district’s stunning coastlines — from Huntington Beach to Laguna Beach — could see chronic flooding by 2030. That science isn’t lost on homeowners in the area, says Ray Hiemstra, co-chair of the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter Political Committee. “They’re actually starting to think, ‘Maybe I should start thinking of selling my place.’”

Rohrabacher says he supports solar and nuclear energy, as well as expanding oil and gas production. The staunch Trump supporter has stated in the past that offshore drilling is safer than importing oil on tankers, pointing to incidents such as the 1984 American Trader spill. In contrast, his opponent, Democratic candidate Harley Rouda, says he’ll promote clean energy while pushing back on offshore drilling efforts.

Florida 26th district (67 percent are worried)

REUTERS/Bryan Woolston

The tides are already lapping at the door in the low-lying Florida Keys. Within the century, scientists predict that much of South Florida could be underwater.

It’s no wonder that residents in Florida’s 26th congressional district — the state’s southernmost region which includes all three of its national parks, as well as part of Miami-Dade County — are some of the Americans who are most concerned about climate change in the nation. Almost 70 percent of its constituents are Latino, most of them Cuban-American. Polls show that Latinos consistently want climate action more than the population at large.

So what are people most concerned about? In addition to king tides, Elizabeth Bonnell, chair of the Sierra Club’s Miami Group, points to “climate gentrification” — when developers buy up future beachfront properties in low-income neighborhoods, pushing out current residents. Then, there’s the stifling heat, toxic algae, and dangerous hurricanes that have been brewing in the Atlantic recently.

The seat is one of the top 10 House races to watch in 2018, according to Politico. But District 26 is a special place where both candidates running for the House seat — yes, including the Republican — have explicitly backed climate action.

Incumbent Carlos Curbelo is one of only a handful of Republicans to openly address climate change. In February 2016 he co-founded the bipartisan Climate Solutions Caucus, which earned him a spot on the 2017 Grist 50 list. But this year, in the wake of Hurricane Michael, Curbelo called people who linked the historic storm, which intensified rapidly thanks to the Gulf of Mexico’s warmer-than-normal waters, climate change “alarmists.” The stance earned him some criticism.

“Those of us who truly care about #climatechange must be sober when discussing its connection to #HurricaneMichael or any other storm,” Curbelo tweeted. “Florida has had hurricanes for centuries. There’s no time to waste, but alarmists hurt the cause & move our fight for #climatesolutions backward.”

One week out from the election, the race is narrowing. And Democratic challenger Debbie Mucarsel-Powell, a former associate dean at Florida International University, has made the environment a key component of her political ads.

Texas 7th district (65 percent are worried)

Residents of the Houston neighborhood of Meyerland wait on an I-610 overpass for help during the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey on August 27, 2017.Brendan Smialowski / AFP / Getty Images

The Texas 7th is affluent, well-educated, largely residential — and as a result of Hurricane Harvey, still recovering from being underwater for a chunk of 2017.

While the east side of Houston has long been infamous for its oil and gas infrastructure, the more affluent west side is becoming increasingly vulnerable to climate change in the form of freak storms. It has suffered extensive flooding from Harvey and at least two other storms in the past five years.

Republican John Culberson has represented Texas 7th since 2001. As he faces a tough reelection this year against Democratic challenger Lizzie Pannill Fletcher, he’s largely avoided talking about climate change, including declining an invitation in January to a community climate forum held in his district. While he has eschewed those exact words during his re-election bid, Rep. Culberson has used last year’s hurricane as a major talking point, name-dropping the storm in more than half of his emails to voters this year.

“He hasn’t been one of the snowball throwers calling climate change a hoax,” said Daniel Cohan, an environmental engineering professor at Rice University. “But he takes a wait-and-see attitude, falsely indicating that the science isn’t clear.”

For a district that’s borne the brunt of so many environmental disasters, it’s unclear how much sway climate change will have over the results of this race. According to Mark Jones, a political scientist at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, there may not be enough swing voters in the Texas 7th who care about the issue. Those that do care already know how they’re voting. But Jones adds, there are “not an insignificant number” of voters who are still grappling with Harvey and could be potentially influenced by talk of climate policy.

Read more coverage on how climate politics are playing out in west Houston.

Texas 32nd district (65 percent are worried)


Texas has a lot of skin the game when it comes to climate change. A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) scientist once dubbed the state “the disaster capital of the United States” for its unique meteorological conditions.

Texas’ 32nd congressional district, which includes the suburbs northeast of Dallas, saw unprecedented rains and flooding in September and October. The storms led to multiple deaths in the Dallas area. An extreme drought and heat wave this past summer resulted in a remarkable uptick in heat-related hospital visits.

Like Texas overall, the 32nd is a “majority-minority” district: 49 percent white, 25 percent Latino, 15 percent black, and eight percent Asian. Environmental polls have shown that people of color are more likely to care about climate change compared to white people. And the district’s demographics are now colliding with extreme weather to drive climate concern.

At least for now, climate politics in the 32nd — which is more affluent than much of the state — are traditionally partisan. Pete Sessions, the incumbent Republican who’s represented the district (and its previous incarnation, District 5) since 1997, has a lifetime score of two percent from the League of Conservation Voters, indicating a strong anti-environment record. Sessions’ campaign platform includes “reining in the EPA” and opening public lands for drilling. When Sessions was questioned early last year about his support for controversial EPA head Scott Pruitt, he hanged the subject, putting the blame on New York and the Northeast for polluting America.

Sessions’ main opponent, Democrat Colin Allred, is an ex-football player and current civil rights attorney whose main focus is on reducing voter disenfranchisement. His environmental platform states he believes in promoting investment in renewable energy, “rejoining” the Paris climate accord, and defending the independence of the EPA and NOAA.

New Jersey 7th district (64 percent are worried)

The lower level of Lambertville Inn is covered in water as the Delaware River crests August 29, 2011, in Lambertville, New Jersey.William Thomas Cain / Getty Images

New Jersey’s 7th congressional district stretches from New York City’s western suburbs all the way to the banks of the Delaware River. Not only does the river serve as the water supply for more than 15 million Americans, but it’s also a source of considerable climate worry for constituents.

Polluted runoff finds its way into waterways which add to the district’s rising rivers, damaging families, homes, and businesses. Climate change-related flooding threatens the quality of life across the district according to Ed Potosnak, executive director of the New Jersey League of Conservation Voters. “That’s where lack of action by Congress has left families vulnerable,” he told Grist.

New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S., and the district runs the socioeconomic gamut, with a mix of suburban, exurban, and rural communities.

Republican Congressman Leonard Lance has represented the district since 2009. He’s also a member of the Climate Solutions Caucus. Though Lance has been a rare voice espousing the reality of climate change within the GOP, he also has a track record of siding with big business and the fossil fuel industry on legislation. Lance has a lifetime score of 23 percent on the League of Conservation Voters’ scorecard, hardly the marks of an environmentalist.

Lance’s opponent, Democrat Tom Malinowski, is new to New Jersey, but not to politics. He served as Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor under President Obama. According to the League of Conservation Voters, he has dedicated his career to people’s rights to breathe clean air and drink clean water. Like his opponent, Malinowski has stated he believes that humans are exacerbating climate change. He has promised to oppose pipelines that will run across the state and has spoken out against offshore drilling,

Additional Reporting Credit:

Map development: Lo Benichou (Mapbox)

Map data: The Cook Political Report and Yale’s 2018 Climate Opinion Maps (as of 10/30/2018)

Community profiles: Justine Calma, Kate Yoder, Stephen Paulsen, Eve Andrews, Paola Rosa-Aquino

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5 House races where climate could tip the election

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Hurricane Michael is a monster storm and an unnatural disaster

Hurricane Michael made landfall early Wednesday afternoon near Mexico Beach, Florida, as a high-end Category 4 hurricane, with sustained winds of 155 mph, just 2 mph below Category 5 strength.

The hurricane will likely devastate Florida’s Panhandle communities. It is, simply, a history-changing storm. According to the National Hurricane Center, “most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

As Michael approached land, meteorologists struggled to find words to describe it. On Twitter, the National Weather Service said, in all caps, “THIS IS A WORST CASE SCENARIO.” The hurricane’s winds and waves were so strong, their rumblings were detected on seismometers — equipment designed to measure earthquakes. Michael is expected to produce storm surge — typically the deadliest part of any hurricane — of up to 14 feet, smashing local records.

No storm remotely this strong has ever hit this part of Florida. The previously strongest hurricane to hit the Florida Panhandle had winds of 125 mph, 30 mph weaker than Michael’s. The local National Weather Service office in Tallahassee issued a chilling warning that Michael was “not comparable to anything we have seen before.”

Only the 1935 “Labor Day” hurricane, which hit the Florida Keys, and 1969’s Hurricane Camille, which struck Mississippi, were more intense at landfall in all of U.S. history. Michael is the fourth Category 4 hurricane to hit the U.S. in just 15 months, joining last year’s trio of Harvey, Irma, and Maria — an unprecedented string of catastrophic hurricane disasters.

In the hours before landfall, Michael rapidly intensified, strengthening from a Category 1 to a strong Category 4 in less than 36 hours — consistent with recent research on climate change’s impact on storms. Michael did this after passing over unusually warm waters in the Gulf of Mexico, which likely helped to increase the storm’s moisture content and provide fuel for more intense thunderstorms, a deeper central pressure, and stronger winds. Sea levels in the Gulf of Mexico have risen by about a foot over the past 100 years, so there’s a direct link between Michael’s coastal flooding and long-term climate change.

Recovery from Michael is likely to be a painfully slow process. The Panhandle is the most impoverished region of Florida, and this kind of a storm would be difficult to overcome even for wealthy communities. Calhoun County, just inland of where Michael made landfall, is the lowest-income county in the state, with a median household income of less than $32,000 per year. As we saw during last month’s Hurricane Florence in the Carolinas, it’s likely that thousands of people couldn’t even afford to evacuate.

Even if Michael wasn’t making landfall in a particularly vulnerable section of U.S. coastline, it would be an unrecoverable storm for many families. Our inaction on climate change made Michael into an unnatural disaster.

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Hurricane Michael is a monster storm and an unnatural disaster

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