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Climate change threatens the economy. Here’s what regulators can do right now.

Many of the economic risks of climate change are already crystal clear, and yet financial markets have yet to take them into account. That dangerous disconnect is the impetus behind a new report out on Monday from the sustainable finance nonprofit Ceres.

“U.S. financial regulators, who are responsible for protecting the stability and competitiveness of the U.S. economy, need to recognize and act on climate change as a systemic risk,” the report says. It calls on financial regulators across seven federal agencies as well as state agencies to do so, offering more than 50 recommendations that the authors believe are under the purview of regulators today, without the need for any additional legislation.

The report highlights three ways climate change is a systemic risk to financial markets. There are the physical risks of a warming planet — droughts, wildfires, and more frequent and intense storms will cause direct economic losses. This reality is already abundantly clear: The 2017 hurricane season caused $58 to $63 billion in damages in Florida alone. In 2018, wildfires in California burned up $12 billion in insured losses and led to the bankruptcy of the state’s largest utility, which took criminal responsibility for starting one of the fires.

Then there are socioeconomic risks, which are manifold. Industries that rely on physical outdoor labor, like agriculture and construction, will see productivity losses as temperatures rise. Economies that rely on tourism could be hurt by not only the physical risks outlined above but also by biodiversity loss. Higher temperatures will come with significant health impacts, including respiratory issues, premature deaths, and the spread of disease as carriers like mosquitos move into new habitats.

The third category is transition risk — the idea that the transition to a carbon-neutral economy is inevitable, and that companies in denial about that are setting themselves up to lose money. Transition risk includes possibilities like a carbon tax, changes in consumer sentiment, or the loss of investments in fossil fuel assets with long lifespans, like pipelines, that could end up out of commission before they are paid off.

The report calls on the Federal Reserve System, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, the Housing Finance Authority, and insurance regulators, among other financial regulatory bodies, to first and foremost acknowledge that climate change poses a systemic risk to financial market stability. Veena Ramani, Ceres’ senior program director for capital markets systems, said in a press call that once these agencies publicly affirm this fact, that will mean acknowledging that it’s within their mandate to address climate risks in their rulemaking.

So what might that look like? Ceres’ recommendations for regulatory agencies include doing deeper research on how climate change will affect the economic stability of the U.S. Regulators could also require banks and insurance companies to integrate climate change into their “stress tests” — analyses of how well an entity can withstand a financial crisis — and to reflect the costs of climate change in their decision making. The report also recommends that regulators encourage corporate transparency about climate risk — something that the SEC actually issued guidance on a decade ago, but then promptly eased up on enforcing. The SEC’s Division of Corporation Finance sent 49 comment letters to companies about their climate risk disclosures in 2010, but has sent only six such letters over the last four years.

Finally, the report advocates for financial regulators to require that banks disclose the carbon emissions from their lending and investment activities, and define which activities will make climate change worse and which will help mitigate the systemic risks posed by the crisis — and then reorient capital toward those solutions.

Many of the recommendations made in the report have already been implemented in other countries. For example, late last year, the Bank of England announced it would subject U.K. banks and insurers to climate resilience stress tests. Just this past Friday, the E.U.’s top banking regulator, the European Banking Authority, issued new guidelines that require banks to incorporate climate risks into their credit policies. The guidelines also say that banks should assess whether borrowers could be found responsible for contributing to global warming. They cite a European Commission report from 2018 that found that “close to 50% of the exposure of euro area institutions to risk is directly or indirectly linked to risks stemming from climate change.”

Also on Friday, the International Monetary Fund published a new chapter of its latest global financial stability report calling for climate risk to become a part of international reporting standards. The chapter highlights how little of an impact known risks like extreme weather events have had on markets.

In a press call about the Ceres report, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island said that industries are finally awakening to the fact that climate change is not just a public relations issue. “This is something for their risk managers, this is something for their chief executives,” he said. “Whether you’re in agriculture, or insurance, or banking, or investment, these are dire warnings pointing right at the heart of your business.”

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Climate change threatens the economy. Here’s what regulators can do right now.

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Coronavirus postpones major climate plan in Congress

The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, a bipartisan group formed at the direction of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi after the 2018 midterm election, has been working on a plan to tackle rising emissions — the committee calls it a “climate action framework” — for the past year. It planned to release the framework at the end of this month. On Monday, committee chair Kathy Castor, a Florida Democrat, said the release is being postponed due to COVID-19.

“As Congress focuses on the important mission of protecting Americans from the threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided today to postpone the release of our climate action plan,” Castor wrote in a press release. “We will continue to work on clean energy solutions and a more resilient America — and look forward to releasing our plan when appropriate.”

The decision to delay the release of the framework, one of the only concerted efforts to mitigate the looming climate crisis in the House right now, is the clearest example yet of how COVID-19 has pushed climate policy to the backburner. Castor said she and her fellow committee members met with more than 1,000 stakeholders (community members, scientists, government officials, etc.) and reviewed more than 700 detailed comments before forming their climate policy recommendations.

One of those comments was authored by Washington Governor Jay Inslee, the former presidential candidate and longtime climate hawk. In a December 16 letter to the committee, obtained by Grist, Inslee called climate change one of the greatest threats Americans have ever faced. “Confronting this challenge and realizing this opportunity must be our nation’s foremost priority,” he wrote. But Inslee has little time for climate action now; he’s busy battling the coronavirus in his state, which is ground zero for COVID-19 in the United States.

Some climate policy wonks have made the case that now is the time for ambitious climate legislation that creates jobs while decarbonizing the economy —a Green New Deal, if you will. But as Congress struggles to pass even a baseline coronavirus relief bill, it’s clear that climate policy has tumbled down lawmakers’ list of priorities for the time being.

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Coronavirus postpones major climate plan in Congress

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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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Why Hurricane Dorian is so unpredictable

Hurricane Dorian has been — quite literally — all over the map. The powerful storm is expected to barrel into Florida and parts of Georgia this weekend, potentially as a Category 4 hurricane. If so, it will be the strongest hurricane to hit the East Coast in nearly 30 years. But the storm has been a tricky forecast from the start, and its final destination remains a mystery.

Back in the good old days when Dorian was still categorized as a tropical storm (i.e., Tuesday), there were a lot of worries that the weather system would directly hit Puerto Rico, where people are still recovering from the destruction wreaked by 2017’s Hurricane Maria. On Wednesday, the National Weather Service upgraded Dorian to a Category 1 hurricane, prompting residents of the U.S. territory to rush grocery stores and gas stations to stock up on supplies. But for all that bracing, the storm ultimately ended up just grazing the island and its neighboring U.S. territory the American Virgin Islands.

Hurricanes are, by nature, unpredictable. But experts say Dorian, which has gathered strength relatively quickly over the past few days, has been especially hard to predict. “The National Hurricane Center still doesn’t have high confidence on the hurricane’s track several days out,” Corene J. Matyas, a professor who studies tropical climatology at the University of Florida, told Grist. “Dorian is not following a typical track of a storm in its location.”

A lot of the uncertainty is because the storm is predicted to make a left turn, but the timing and angle of that shift will be determined by its interaction with a high-pressure ridge forecast to build near the storm, Matyas said. “We have to accurately predict this feature to be able to predict Dorian, and the ridge functions differently than the hurricane.”

According to Brian Tang, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Albany, it’s unlikely weather models will have enough information to predict the storm’s path and strength accurately until Saturday. And even then, Tang emphasized we won’t truly know what’s going to happen: “We do not know where Dorian might make landfall in Florida, and whether Dorian hits the brakes before it gets to Florida, over Florida, or after crossing Florida.”

In the meantime, Florida (and parts of Georgia’s coast) are on high alert. As of Friday afternoon, the whole state remains in the storm’s “cone of uncertainty.” (Though the name sounds delightful, it basically refers to the probable track of the center of a tropical cyclone.) On Thursday, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis declared a state of emergency for all of the state’s 67 counties, citing the storm’s “uncertain path.”

If Dorian does indeed make landfall on the East Coast, it would be in rare company: It could become the strongest storm to hit the state’s east coast since Hurricane Andrew (a Category 5) in 1992, as meteorologist Philip Klotzbach noted. Once it hits the mainland, Dorian is expected to slowly move inland, where its pace could prolong communities’ exposure to unrelenting winds and rain.

Tang says that’s one reason Florida residents need to be preparing now, even if they’re not within the storm’s cone of uncertainty: “They should make sure they have a hurricane plan and supplies […] and they should follow the advice of public officials, police, and emergency management, especially if they are told to evacuate.”


Why Hurricane Dorian is so unpredictable

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The Democratic debates heated up all the way to lukewarm on climate

the youth doth protest just enough

Climate activists protest at the DNC headquarters ahead of the first primary debate

Ten candidates will take the stage at the first official Democratic National Committee debate tonight in Miami, Florida. But a question already looms over the festivities: Should the DNC host a climate-themed debate?

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The Democratic debates heated up all the way to lukewarm on climate

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Young climate leaders just told a House committee to get its act together

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Melody Zhang’s fascination with the environment, “God’s creation,” began when she was a kid and uttered her first words in Chinese: 出去, which means “Go outside.”

Zhang, the climate justice campaign coordinator for Sojourners (a faith-based social justice magazine) and the co-chair for Young Evangelicals for Climate Action, read this anecdote as part of her testimony in front of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis on Thursday morning.

The congressional hearing wasn’t a typical one. In its first-ever hearing, the brand-new committee listened to the voices of young people who are urging policymakers to take action on climate change.

Along with Zhang, three other young leaders gave brief testimonies about their experiences with climate change: Aji Piper, one of the 21 plaintiffs in the youth climate lawsuit Juliana v. United States; Chris Suggs, a student activist from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill; and Lindsay Cooper, a political analyst for the Louisiana governor’s office.

18-year-old Suggs grew up in North Carolina, which experienced severe flooding during Hurricane Florence last year. The saddest thing about recurring weather disasters, Suggs said, is that they affect the communities that have already been hit the hardest by all of society’s other problems.

“You have poor, rural communities that are completely underwater or get cut off from their access to food, hospitals, and medical supplies,” he said in his testimony. “Climate change is an extra kick to communities and populations that are already down.”

After hearing the witnesses’ stories, the committee chair, Democrat Kathy Castor of Florida, asked, “Where do you find hope and optimism in the face of such a daunting problem?”

Zhang said she is energized by the creativity and joy that young people bring to the climate movement. She pointed to last month’s Youth Climate Strike, where students at tens of thousands of schools around the world took the streets to demand that leaders act on climate change.

“This level of engagement and activism is one of the best things I have seen in my many years of beating my head against the wall on this issue,” said Representative Jared Huffman from California, a Democrat who joined the Youth Climate Strike.

While most committee members found the youth’s testimonies compelling, Gary Palmer of Alabama and some other Republican representatives expressed an, um, different viewpoint.

“The fundamental principle in addressing these issues is that you have to fundamentally define the problem,” Palmer said. “If you don’t properly define the problem, then the solutions you come up with are generally going to be off the mark.” (He also disparaged the “emphasis on anthropomorphic impact.” Last time we checked the dictionary, “anthropomorphic” means having human-like characteristics. Don’t you mean “anthropogenic,” Mr. Palmer?)

First-time representative Joe Neguse, a Democrat from Colorado, rebuked Palmer’s argument. “I don’t know that this committee needs to necessarily define the problem,” he said. “The scientists and experts [already] defined the problem for us.”

Since he took office three months ago, Neguse said, every meeting he’s had with young people has been about the environment. While he’s worried about the future his 7-month-year-old daughter might inherit, he was reassured by the capable young people in the room. “When my daughter is my age,” he said, “you all will be the leaders running for office, and I have no doubt that given the reality [now], we will truly make progress in this important issue.”

At the end of her testimony, Zhang made one final plea. “As political leaders, especially ones of faith, I implore you to respond faithfully and with full force to love God and neighbor by enacting just, compassionate, and transformative climate policies which rise to the challenge of the climate crisis. That is my prayer for you.”

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Young climate leaders just told a House committee to get its act together

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Batteries are key to clean energy — and they just got much cheaper

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Batteries are critical for our clean energy future. Luckily, their cost has dropped so low, we might be much closer to this future than we previously thought.

In a little less than a year, the cost of lithium-ion batteries has fallen by 35 percent, according to a new Bloomberg New Energy Finance report. Cheaper batteries mean we can store more solar and wind power even when the sun isn’t shining or wind isn’t blowing. This is a major boost to renewables, helping them compete with fossil fuel-generated power, even without subsidies in some places, according to the report. Massive solar-plus-storage projects are already being built in places like Florida and California to replace natural gas, and many more are on the way.

The new battery prices are “staggering improvements,” according to Elena Giannakopoulou, who leads the energy economics group at Bloomberg NEF. Previous estimates anticipated this breakthrough moment for batteries to arrive in late 2020, not early 2019.

According to the report, the cost of wind and solar generation is also down sharply — by between 10 to 24 percent since just last year, depending on the technology. These numbers are based on real projects under construction in 46 countries around the world.

The lower battery prices have big implications for electric cars, too. There’s a key cost threshold of about $100 per kilowatt hour, the point at which electric vehicles would be cheap enough to quickly supplant gasoline. At this rate, we’ll reach that in less than five years.

Now that cheap batteries are finally here, we’re well on our way to electric modes of transportation and always-on renewable energy — and not a moment too soon.

What’s driving the plunge? Giannakopoulou cites “technology innovation, economies of scale, stiff price competition and manufacturing experience.” Other storage methods, like pumped hydro, still account for the vast majority of energy storage capacity, but lithium-ion batteries are much more flexible and don’t require specific locations or environmental conditions to work. Like everything in the built environment, lithium-ion batteries also require mining and manufacturing. There’s still a chance that some new exotic battery technology will quickly supplant lithium-ion, but its ubiquity and — now — cheapness will be hard to beat.

Electric vehicles will become cheaper to own and operate than gas ones. In places like California, Texas, and Germany, electricity prices have occasionally dropped below zero — a sign that the grid wasn’t yet ready to handle the glut of renewable energy produced there. Now, more of that cheap power will be stored and passed on to consumers. This could be the moment when renewable energy starts to shut down fossil fuel for good.

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Batteries are key to clean energy — and they just got much cheaper

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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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Climate change could push tropical diseases to Alaska, according to a new study

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Nearly a billion people could be newly at risk of tropical diseases like dengue fever and Zika as climate change shifts the range of mosquitoes, according to a new study.

Since the life cycle of mosquitoes is temperature sensitive, scientists have long been concerned about how their prevalence might spread as the world continues to warm. The study is one of the first to examine in detail how that might happen by using an overlap of two disease-carrying mosquitoes’ range and projected monthly temperature changes under a variety of future warming scenarios.

In the most extreme scenario of more than 4 degrees C (7.2 degrees F) warming by 2080, certain tropical disease-carrying species of mosquitoes currently found only seasonally in the U.S. South and southern Europe could greatly expand their range, as far north as Alaska and northern Finland — north of the Arctic Circle. That would force a redefinition of the term “tropical” diseases.

The sheer enormity of people who could be exposed gave the lead author pause. “It’s rather shocking,” said Sadie Ryan, a disease ecologist at the University of Florida’s Emerging Pathogens Institute, in an interview with Grist.

In Europe alone, the number of people exposed to the dengue-carrying Aedes egypti and Aedes albopictus mosquitoes could roughly double within the next 30 years. In currently warm climates like the Caribbean, West Africa, and Southeast Asia, tropical disease incedence could actually decrease as those climates become so warm that they “exceed the upper thermal limits for transmission.” In other words: It will be too hot for the mosquitoes to effectively carry dengue.

On the whole, “climate change will dramatically increase the potential for expansion and intensification of Aedes-borne virus transmission,” according to the study.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats to global health,” Ryan said. “There are many more vector-borne diseases out there that are temperature sensitive.” Ryan also cautioned that mosquitoes, ticks, bark beetles, and invasive fungus threaten animals and plants as well as human health, and climate change is making many of them worse.

Malaria, which was not considered in this study, already affects nearly half of the world’s population, according to the World Health Organization, killing more than 400,000 people each year — one of the leading causes of death for children in Africa. Previous studies have shown that hundreds of millions of people could be newly exposed to malaria by the end of the century, which is carried by a different species of mosquito. Dengue is one of the most common tropical diseases, but it is far less deadly than malaria — out of 100 million infections, it causes about 22,000 deaths each year.

According to the work from Ryan and her colleagues, Europe could be hardest hit because it sits on the leading edge of where mosquitoes can now survive. The worst-case scenario that Ryan and her colleagues explore is actually worse than business-as-usual — it’s a world where civilization doubles down on fossil fuels and planetary systems cause the world to heat beyond the 3.4 degrees C (6.1 degrees F) currently projected.

Ryan said her results should send a clear message to public health departments to boost their budgets in preparation.

There are countless reasons to be scared of climate change, and invading mosquitos might be one of the most tangible. Still, Ryan points out that it’d probably be among the least of our worries — sea-level rise, food shortages, mass migration, and financial collapse would probably pose a much greater risk to civilization.

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Climate change could push tropical diseases to Alaska, according to a new study

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11 takeaways from the Washington Post’s climate ideas op-ed

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In 1956, journalist Waldemar Kaempffert published an article in the New York Times warning of future environmental catastrophe — including global temperature rise — if humanity failed to curb CO2 emissions. “Such a comparatively small fluctuation seems of no importance,” he wrote. “Nevertheless, it can bring about striking changes in the climate.”

Kaempffert’s climate assertions, unfortunately, did not set a precedent for the decades of environmental coverage to come. For many years, many top media companies have neglected to cover climate change — and when they do pay attention, it’s usually only because President Trump did or said something about it.

But anecdotally, it seems like climate change coverage might be picking up steam. This past weekend, NBC’s Meet the Press devoted a full hour to climate change — a first for a weekend news program.

Then on Wednesday, the Washington Post Opinions Staff went full-out Waldemar Kaempffert and presented 11 ideas for drastically cutting greenhouse gas emissions, each one written by climate policy leaders and experts.

If you’re too busy to read the full Post article, don’t stress. We’ve got the CliffsNotes version right here:

  1. Pass local emission goals. Look, we all know the federal government isn’t moving on this anytime soon. The Trump administration has been systematically dismantling Obama-era Clean Air regulations and continues its love affair with coal power. So we need all levels of government and businesses to green up and curb global warming.
  2. Reduce the use of air conditioners, which contain hydrofluorocarbons, a more potent greenhouse gas than even CO2. “Globally, a phasedown of HFC refrigerants could avoid up to 0.5 degree Celsius of warming by 2100,” wrote Durwood Zaelke, president of the Institute for Governance & Sustainable Development.
  3. Make electric vehicles easier to use and more affordable. Electric vehicles need not only be the way of the Silicon Valley. Federal tax credits, expanded infrastructure (i.e. charging stations), and incentive measures could make EVs the car of the future.
  4. Keep existing nuclear plants running… for now. Nuclear power is controversial but the Post article posits they’re necessary until more low-carbon solutions are available (lest they be replaced by natural gas).
  5. Design cities to encourage people to walk, not drive. How do you encourage more cyclists and pedestrians? For starters, well-lit intersections, covered bus stops with clear signage, and protected bike lanes. If you need more inspiration, check out this video from about how Grist’s very own Even Andrews (aka Umbra) gave up her vehicle.
  6. Curb food waste by avoiding unnecessary production. In an actual embarrassment of riches, the world lets a third of its food supply go to waste. Composting, and food recycling help place limitations what edible items end up in the landfill heap, but the best strategy is to avoid unnecessary food production in the first place.
  7. Incentivize carbon farming. That’s right – farming doesn’t need to lead to plumes of CO2 and pesticide runoff. With the right techniques (and legislation!), farming can give back to the earth, sequestering carbon in the soil instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.
  8. Secure a moratorium on new factory farms. Factory dairy and meat farms lead to a lot of earth-warming methane (and they don’t even need to report emissions). The article recommends rural communities transition to more resilient, carbon-effective agriculture models by halting new construction (and subsidization) of these massive productions, and focus on reducing overproduction at existing facilities.
  9. Adopt a carbon tax. Former Florida representative (and a 2017 Grist 50 Fixer) Carlos Curbelo writes that carbon taxes are “the best way to inspire such a wide-ranging, meaningful change, at the pace that we need it.” Curbelo proposes using carbon tax revenue to “robustly fund our nation’s infrastructure, help coastal communities adapt to the immediate effects of climate change and give low-income Americans and displaced workers assistance in the transition.”
  10. Stir up competition between electricity companies to get them to retire inefficient plants. In theory, companies will switch to cleaner fuels when they become cheaper.
  11. Pass a Green New Deal (aka the ‘Medicare for all’ of climate change) to get our economy to run on renewable energy. The idea, offered by 2018 Grist 50 member Varshini Prakash, is to create jobs while simultaneously prioritizing the communities most impacted by climate change.

“Radical change from one state, or even the whole United States, won’t address climate change on its own,” writes the Washington Post Opinion section staff, “but taking these actions could help start the planet down a path toward a better future.”

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11 takeaways from the Washington Post’s climate ideas op-ed

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