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Climate leftists and moderates have a radical new plan to defeat Trump: Work together

The period between April and December 2019 was a magical time for climate activists. The more than 20 Democratic candidates vying for the party’s nomination couldn’t stop trying to one-up each other. Candidates promised Green New Deals and millions of green jobs, initiatives to save the oceans and drilling bans on public lands. But to paraphrase Ecclesiastes, there’s a time to dream and a time to get down to business — and that’s exactly what climate advocates are doing now.

On Wednesday, a trio of major progressive political organizations — the Center for American Progress Action Fund, the Sierra Club, and the League of Conservation Voters — launched a new project called Climate Power 2020. The group’s advisory board is a hodgepodge of Democratic operatives and activists from across the climate spectrum. It includes party heavyweights like former Secretary of State John Kerry, Georgia politician Stacey Abrams, former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and Bill Clinton’s former chief of staff John Podesta. The advisory board also includes climate activists like Varshini Prakash, of the left-wing, youth-oriented group the Sunrise Movement, and Rhiana Gunn-Wright, an architect of the original Green New Deal plan. In short, it puts factions of the party that were just recently at odds with each other under the same umbrella.

“People who were on probably opposite sides of the primary fights are coming together because they understand there are two major goals of the climate movement right now: to defeat Donald Trump and to build momentum for the next president and Congress to pass major, bold climate policy,” Jamal Raad, a former staffer on Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign and an advisor to Climate Power 2020, told Grist.

The group doesn’t have a specific policy agenda, per se. Instead, it aims to accomplish the dual tasks of galvanizing the growing bloc of American voters who care about climate and furnishing Democrats with a workable offensive strategy on the issue of climate change.

That second agenda item is long overdue. The left has yet to figure out how to hit Republicans where it hurts on climate change, even though a widening swath of the GOP’s base is coming around to the idea that humans might have something to do with rising temperatures. That might be because Republicans are just better at messaging. Medicare for all? More like socialism for all. Gun control? An attack on the Constitution. Green New Deal? Hold onto your hamburgers.

Climate Power 2020 hopes to chisel out a better messaging strategy for Democrats ahead of the general election and appeal to climate-conscious Republicans. “[L]et’s combat myths and be aggressive and proactive about the need for climate action, because that’s the only way we’re going to be able to change the dynamics for 2021,” Subhan Cheema, a spokesperson for the group, told Grist in an email.

The group’s overarching goal is to show politicians that embracing climate policy is just good politics. “There are many who think that climate is an albatross or something for the Democrats,” Cheema said, “but our data shows the exact opposite, so let’s change that conversation.”

In order to actually accomplish that, the group plans to unleash a torrent of digital messaging in key swing states across the country, including Michigan, Arizona, Wisconsin, and Florida. Climate Power 2020 will use videos, social media campaigns, virtual town halls, and the like to drum up support for climate policies among persuadable voters, 62 percent of whom disapprove of Trump’s climate performance, according to the group’s in-house polling. The project hired Pete Buttigieg and Jay Inslee’s social media managers, as well as staffers from Elizabeth Warren and Michael Bloomberg’s campaigns, to help get the message out.

The message itself will highlight Trump’s mishandling of the coronavirus pandemic to connect the dots between this crisis and the next one. “For both COVID-19 and the climate crisis, the anti-science policies from this administration are pushing our nation into crisis,” Podesta said in a statement, offering a sneak peek at the group’s forthcoming offensive strategy.

Raad says the new project is “in the same vein” as a similarly collaborative initiative underway at Joe Biden’s camp. Also on Wednesday, Biden and his former top rival Bernie Sanders unveiled six joint policy task forces that will make policy and personnel recommendations to Biden’s campaign. The climate task force will be co-chaired by Kerry and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and will also include Prakash of the Sunrise Movement. The idea is to find the common ground underlying the policy themes that fractured the party in the primary.

For those of you following along at home, it’s clear that we’ve entered a new phase of the 2020 election. Climate organizers and policy wonks are putting aside their differences to pool resources, messaging, and even personnel. Will their unifying efforts pay off in November? Time will tell.

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Climate leftists and moderates have a radical new plan to defeat Trump: Work together

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Does New York need a new natural gas pipeline? It’s about to decide.

Last week, more than 100 protesters tuned into a virtual rally for a milestone push in a three-year battle against the Williams Pipeline, a controversial project that would bring a new supply of natural gas into New York City and Long Island. With individual pleas, homemade signs, musical performances, and speeches from the likes of Bill McKibben, Cynthia Nixon, and New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer, the protestors tried to summon the people power of a live event to tell New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration to stop the pipeline once and for all.

“We can’t pretend we are making progress on combating climate change if we continue to build out fracked gas infrastructure that will lock in emissions for years to come,” said Stringer, who is rumored to be considering a run for New York City mayor in 2021. “Let’s finish stopping this pipeline and move on to building out a cleaner, more sustainable city.”

The rally was held ahead of the May 17 deadline for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to rule on a key permit for the project. The pipeline would cut through northern New Jersey and then out about 23 miles into New York Harbor to connect with the existing gas system. One year ago, the agency denied the permit on the grounds that it failed to meet the state’s water quality standards. New Jersey’s environmental agency did the same. Both rejections were issued “without prejudice,” meaning Williams could reapply — which it quickly did.

National Grid, a gas utility that operates in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, would be the sole customer of the pipeline’s gas. As the fate of the project hangs in the balance, so do National Grid’s long-term plans — and, according to many observers, the fate of New York City and New York State’s climate goals. Both the city and state passed landmark laws last year that seek to drastically reduce carbon emissions by 2050. The city’s Climate Mobilization Act specifically aims to cut emissions from buildings — the majority of which come from natural gas heating systems.

After the Williams Pipeline permits were denied last summer, National Grid began rejecting new customer applications, claiming that it would not be able to meet future demand unless the pipeline was built. Real estate developments were stalled, new restaurants were left in limbo, and homeowners finishing up repairs couldn’t get the gas turned back on. The issue came to a head in November when Governor Cuomo accused the utility of extorting New Yorkers and threatened to revoke its license. The resulting settlement required National Grid to go back to the drawing board and come up with a slate of alternatives to make sure New Yorkers aren’t left in the cold if the pipeline isn’t built.

In February, before the novel coronavirus swept the country, the utility released a report with 10 ideas. One of them was the Williams Pipeline. The rest were smaller projects, none of which would alone solve the supply problem, the report said, although a scenario with some combination of them could. Most of the solutions involved building new gas infrastructure, like a liquefied natural gas terminal where gas would be delivered by tanker, or a smaller “peak shaving plant” that would store excess gas during the summer for when demand ramps up in the winter.

Some of the solutions on the menu were projects National Grid was already working on, like the construction of a new compressor station that will increase the amount of gas received through an existing pipeline. There were also three “no infrastructure” options that would expand existing programs that reduce demand for gas, like incentives for people to weatherize their homes and to replace their gas boilers with electric heat pumps. (National Grid is already required to offer these kinds of programs under New York State law.)

Critiques of the company’s report poured in from activists, environmental groups, politicians, and even the City of New York during a series of virtual public meetings the company was required to hold and in an online forum for public comments. During the meetings, National Grid President John Bruckner asserted that the company had not decided on any particular solution yet. However, some commenters felt the company’s report continued to make it seem like the Williams Pipeline was the only viable way for National Grid to avoid another moratorium, which could scare regulators into approving it. “If targets are not met, will have to restrict new gas customer connections,” the report reads, referring to potential scenarios with minimal to no new gas infrastructure.

Several groups, like the Environmental Defense Fund and NY Renews, an environmental justice coalition of more than 200 groups across New York State, criticized the company for failing to analyze the emissions impacts of each option, which would be necessary in order to evaluate whether they’re compatible with New York’s climate targets.

In comments submitted on behalf of New York City, lawyer Adam Conway wrote that adding new gas infrastructure runs counter to the city’s policies, and therefore only the “no infrastructure” options were viable tools for National Grid to address supply and demand gaps. An analysis performed by Synapse Energy Economics, a research and consulting firm, on behalf of the Eastern Environmental Law Center, alleged that National Grid’s assessment was flawed even prior to the pandemic, and that the company does not actually face an impending supply shortage. It found that the utility did not account for city and state energy efficiency and emissions reduction programs that will reduce demand for gas in the coming years.

At both the virtual meetings and among the online comments, some parties, like a nonprofit called Heartshare that provides utility grants to low-income households and the Community Development Corporation of Long Island, argued that the Williams Pipeline would be the safest option to ensure that low-income New Yorkers have an affordable way to heat their homes.

But National Grid agreed to play ball and evaluate its options again. On Friday, one week after the comment period closed, the company filed a supplemental report that incorporated some of its critics’ suggestions, including a greenhouse gas analysis and an update to the way the forecasted gap between supply and demand was calculated — which slightly reduces the projected gap. The new report narrows down the solutions and proposes two viable paths forward. Option A consists of the compressor station upgrade, a combination of “no infrastructure” measures to reduce demand, and a brand new option that was not in the original report — upgrading an existing liquified natural gas plant to increase its capacity. Option B is the Williams Pipeline.

If all of the criteria National Grid considered are given equal weight — safety, reliability, cost, compatibility New York’s climate targets — the report recommends Option A. However, if greater importance is placed on reducing risk and making sure the company can meet demand, “then the preferred choice is Option B” it says — the pipeline.

The company’s settlement with New York indicates that one of these paths will have to be decided upon by early June. Whether or not Option B is really on the table now sits in the hands of the Department of Environmental Conservation and Governor Cuomo.

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Does New York need a new natural gas pipeline? It’s about to decide.

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A jail built on a landfill is at the center of America’s coronavirus outbreak

New York City is the epicenter of the country’s COVID-19 outbreak — and perhaps nowhere is that outbreak more dangerous than in the city’s most notorious jail complex: Rikers Island.

As of Tuesday morning, across the city 287 inmates (most of them at Rikers) and 406 corrections department staff members had already tested positive for COVID-19. On Sunday, the New York Times reported the first coronavirus death of a Rikers Island inmate. Recent news reports have indicated that inmates at Rikers lack even the luxury of basic precautions such as hand-washing (due to reported shortages of soap) and social distancing, which advocates and former inmates say is impossible to practice in the cramped facility.

Rikers Island, built on a landfill and surrounded by polluting infrastructure, has long suffered hazardous environmental conditions like extreme summer heat, flooding, and noxious pollution. These hazards exemplify the facility’s unpreparedness for a public health crisis like the novel coronavirus — and may have primed its inmates and staff to be especially vulnerable to the most severe effects of COVID-19.

Vidal Guzman remembers these hazards well. He was arrested twice as a teenager and spent a combined three years incarcerated on Rikers Island, awaiting trial.

“Living in Rikers means understanding not to drink the water, understanding how to be careful when rats and rodents are running around,” Guzman told Grist. “Having a rule to stay six feet away from each other for protection against the coronavirus — that is impossible in Rikers.”

Guzman, now 28, ultimately served five years in a state prison before going on to become the outreach and engagement organizer for Just Leadership USA, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform. He recalls the “crazy rotten egg smell” that lingered at Rikers. The foul odor came from the landfill buried underneath the facility, which releases methane as the garbage decomposes over time and degrades the island’s air quality. The Poletti power plant, which was known as the biggest polluter in the Empire State before it closed in 2010, sat within a mile of Rikers when Guzman arrived there.

“Being around people who were young and with asthma — I saw them having problems with their breathing,” Guzman said. “There were individuals on Rikers who were saying things like, ‘I got asthma, I can’t breathe.’ And the elders are saying, ‘Well, you can’t breathe because the ground we’re standing on is built on landfill.’”

“That’s when I started to put things together,” Guzman remembered.

Vidal Guzman pictured on Rikers Island during a land use review process in 2019. Courtesy of Vidal Guzman.

More than 10,000 people are normally incarcerated on the island at any given time. Roughly 90 percent of them are people of color, and 67 percent have not been convicted of a crime and are simply awaiting trial. Though the inmate population is currently around 5,000, the crowded shared spaces present unique challenges for social distancing. Guzman described beds that are only two to three feet apart in the dormitory housing units, an arrangement that appears to persist even as the facility faces down a pandemic. According to the New York City Department of Correction website, officials are attempting to ensure there is an empty bed in between inmates “where possible.”

“We are following the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene guidance to identify any individuals with whom patients had close contact,” the department told Grist in an email. “The health and well-being of our personnel and people in custody is our top priority.”

Public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates have been demanding the release of all inmates with preexisting medical conditions, anyone jailed for parole violations, and the elderly. The government response has been painstakingly slow, advocates say. Hundreds of inmates are now being held in isolation or in quarantined groups after being exposed to someone who tested positive. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio recently boasted that 900 inmates had been released from the city jail system, bringing the inmate population to the lowest it has been since 1949.

Last Tuesday, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo quietly introduced changes to the state budget’s legislative text that would completely overhaul the Empire State’s recent criminal justice reform, which has only been in effect for three months. The new provisions, which the state legislature voted to pass days later, would expand pretrial detention powers. Advocates fear that the new changes could exacerbate the coronavirus outbreak.

“As someone who was incarcerated and had $25,000 bail at 16 years old, I am very disappointed,” Guzman told Grist. “The new reform would undermine the presumption of innocence, dramatically increase jail populations across the state, and exacerbate racial disparities.”

Governor Cuomo’s office did not respond to a request for comment before publication.

After seven years of incarceration, Guzman returned home at 24 and has been working and organizing with a campaign to close the Rikers Island facilities and improve conditions within the New York City jail system. In 2019, the New York City Council approved an ambitious $8 billion plan to shutter the jail complex by 2026. Queens Councilmember Costa Constantinides, who represents Rikers Island and is the chair of the City Council’s Environmental Protection Committee, has long advocated to transform the 413-acre island into a renewable energy hub. To make that vision a reality, he introduced the Renewable Rikers Act alongside other lawmakers last June.

The Renewable Rikers Act would hand over control of the island from the Department of Correction to the Department of Environmental Protection. It would also invest in studies to determine if the island could be home to a wastewater treatment plant and explore the feasibility of building renewable energy sources such as solar panels and battery storage facilities on the island.

For now, however, advocates and medical professionals are focused on getting the city’s thousands of inmates and jail staff through the pandemic alive.

“The most important part, being in a pandemic right now, is staying in touch with our family members, especially the black and brown communities who are feeling the most of this,” Guzman said. “I’m gonna tell you straight up: I’m in fear of what’s next.”

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A jail built on a landfill is at the center of America’s coronavirus outbreak

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Coronavirus has city dwellers heading for the hills. Here’s why they should stay put.

In the beginning of March, as the first cases of COVID-19 were reported in New York City, Anne Hilton Purvis, a realtor with Coldwell Banker Village Green — a real estate company that serves Upstate New York — started getting calls from clients. They were looking for “a lot of short-term rentals — three months, six months, some people wanted to buy something cash,” she said. At first, Purvis, who is a family friend of this reporter, advised prospective buyers to reach out to Airbnb hosts who might be offering up longer stints instead of daily or weekly listings.

But as the state’s outbreak worsened, and the governor imposed restrictions culminating in a shutdown of the state’s nonessential businesses, she realized it was time to stop showing houses to urbanites trying to flee the big city. “In the short term, if we can follow the rules and stay where we are, that might make this thing not so prevalent,” she said.

Cities across the United States, and New York City especially, are dealing with explosive virus transmission rates and dwindling hospital resources. It makes sense that city dwellers are itching to flee urban areas: Density, as the New York Times recently reported, is the Big Apple’s Achilles’ heel in its fight to contain COVID-19. But there are a number of reasons why they should suppress that urge.

The suburbs and rural areas aren’t necessarily safer from coronavirus than cities are. While cities do have higher populations and higher levels of social contact, living in the suburbs or countryside still requires some contact with other people —which provides opportunities for the virus to spread. Epidemiological sparks in cities can migrate to the suburbs and beyond as people move around. So it’s not really a question of if coronavirus will start circulating in earnest in Upstate New York and other rural and suburban areas, but when. Once it does, rural Americans are at a disadvantage — they’re further from hospitals and have fewer medical resources available to them. Not to mention more than one in five older Americans, who are especially susceptible to coronavirus, live in rural areas. If you leave a city for the countryside, you’re putting them at risk.

A pandemic-fueled mass exodus out of cities doesn’t just potentially put a massive strain on suburban and rural resources, it also adds fuel to another looming crisis: climate change. Density is actually good for us when there isn’t a pandemic afoot (aka the vast majority of the time). It allows for robust mass transit networks, efficient housing, bike lanes, and foot traffic. All of that, in turn, is good for mitigating climate change.

It may sound counterintuitive, since cities have historically suffered from dangerous pollution problems, but city dwellers actually have smaller carbon footprints than folks living in rural places. One report found that average emissions in NYC were less than a third of the U.S. average, mostly because New York’s famously cramped apartments use less energy than the large houses enjoyed by other Americans and because New Yorkers use public transportation instead of driving everywhere. A different study found that the average Manhattan household produces 32 metric tons of carbon each year, while households in a nearby suburb produce 72.5 metric tons on average.

If that isn’t evidence enough to convince urbanites to resist the temptation to trade their tiny dwellings for a pastoral lifestyle, they should consider this: Singapore and Hong Kong, denser cities than New York, have been generally successful in containing the coronavirus thanks to early testing, dogged contact tracing, and mass compliance from its citizens. Much of America is under mandatory social distancing measures right now not because cities are inherently bad, but because the federal government handled the outbreak poorly and Americans are loath to give up their personal freedoms.

So if you’re a city dweller who cares about reducing the spread of COVID-19 and slowing down climate change, stay where you are. Purvis knows that’s not an easy pill to swallow. “We’re a country that doesn’t like to follow rules,” she said. “But the only way to make the virus go away and not hit so many people is if we do follow all of the rules.”

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Coronavirus has city dwellers heading for the hills. Here’s why they should stay put.

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By law, New York has to protect communities from climate change. Cuomo’s budget ignores that.

Nearly 300 climate activists from across New York State gathered in the halls of the capitol building in Albany late last month during an environmental conservation hearing. They formally submitted testimonies to the committee, spoke with Assembly members, and rallied inside the building, occupying the lobby and one of the grand staircases. They were there to tell New York Governor Andrew Cuomo that they’d noticed he had some unfinished business with regard to the state’s climate policy.

The rally came after Cuomo released his 2021 budget proposal. Although it included a $33 billion, five-year plan to fight climate change, environmental groups were surprised to see that the budget didn’t mention anything about protecting vulnerable communities from the climate crisis — even though the state is required to do just that under the Empire State’s ambitious new climate law, Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA).

The CLCPA, which commits the state to net-zero emissions by 2050, was signed last July and officially went into effect on January 1, 2020. The final version of the bill was not exactly what advocates had hoped it would be. They envisioned it as the state’s version of the national Green New Deal: sweeping legislation that would curtail the state’s greenhouse gas emissions and transition to a greener economy while also addressing racial and economic issues. But last-minute changes made by Cuomo slashed the original bill’s social justice and labor provisions — making it look a lot less like the federal Green New Deal.

What the CLCPA does contain, however, are provisions to address climate impacts on disadvantaged communities. The law says that state agencies, authorities, and entities shall direct resources “in a manner designed to achieve a goal for disadvantaged communities to receive forty percent of the overall benefits of spending on clean energy and energy efficiency programs, projects, or investments” and “no less than thirty-five percent.” But Cuomo’s spending plan for fiscal year 2021 does not mention anything with regard to that provision.

In a letter to state representatives, New York Renews — a statewide coalition of nearly 200 advocacy groups — expressed their disappointment in Cuomo’s spending plan. “You passed a law designed to protect communities, but the governor’s budget does not include the funding necessary to do so,” the group wrote. “The governor’s status quo climate budget ignores disadvantaged communities as if the CLCPA was never signed into law.”

The $33 billion climate portion of Cuomo’s budget proposal includes plans to invest in resilient infrastructure, planting more trees, preserve fish and wildlife habitats, expand renewable energy, install electric-vehicle charge stations, ban single-use plastics, and permanently ban fracking in the state. But for New York Renews, these proposals don’t go far enough because they don’t address the unequal impacts of climate change and environmental contamination.

“Low-income communities and communities of color across New York State have consistently faced the worst impacts of pollution and climate change, yet the Governor’s budget does not meet the standard set by the CLCPA that at least 35 percent of climate and energy spending target frontline communities,” NY Renews coalition coordinator Stephan Edel told Grist in an email. “This is a grave oversight, but there’s still time to fix it.”

As part of the solution, NY Renews is pushing for the Climate and Community Investment Act, which would fine corporate polluters. The money generated by that fine would go to large-scale renewable energy projects, updates to the electric grid, environmental justice community projects, energy-efficient transit systems, helping low-income New Yorkers with their energy bills, and providing financial assistance to workers and nearby communities when fossil fuel infrastructure closes. Since it will take time for the Climate and Community Investment Act to go into effect and begin collecting money from polluters, New York Renews is demanding a $1 billion Climate and Community Investment Fund to be added to this year’s budget to jumpstart spending to benefit low-income communities.

In response to a request for comment from Grist, a representative for Cuomo said in an email that state agencies, in coordination with a new Climate Justice Working Group, will figure out how to devote at least 35 percent of clean energy funding to disadvantaged communities as required by the CLCPA.

State budget negotiations between Cuomo and the legislature will continue through March and will be finalized by March 31. New York Renews is committed to pushing its demands: On February 28, the group is set to gather around 300 activists to visit state legislators within their districts to talk about the budget and the Climate and Community Investment Act. It also plans to start working with the Climate Action Council, a policymaking body that was created under the CLCPA and is set to convene for the first time this month to begin setting specific emissions reductions targets for the state.

“We’re hopeful that the Assembly and Senate budgets will include new spending for climate justice and frontline communities, and that those provisions will be included in the final New York state budget,” Edel said. “Make no mistake, we’ll continue to fight for climate, jobs, and justice at every step of the process.”

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The plan to protect the Chesapeake is failing, and it’s Pennsylvania’s fault

In early January, members of the Chesapeake Bay Commission sat in a gray conference room in Annapolis, Maryland, for a routine meeting. The 21-member legislative body, with representatives from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Maryland, convenes regularly to coordinate interstate efforts to restore and protect the Chesapeake Bay. But as the meeting drew to a close, EPA Chesapeake Bay Program director Dana Aunkst got up and delivered a demoralizing message to the group.

“The TMDL itself is not enforceable,” he said. He was referring to the Total Maximum Daily Load, a set of science-based limits for three pollutants — nitrogen, phosphorous, and sediment — flowing into the bay. The states in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed have agreed to achieve the TMDL by 2025, and the EPA committed to enforcing it under the terms of a 2010 settlement. But Aunkst went on to describe the TMDL as merely “an informational document” that was “aspirational.”

Aunkst’s comments were jarring to some in the room, but they weren’t entirely out of left field. Pennsylvania, by far the largest source of pollution entering the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, has failed to meet its pollution reduction benchmarks for years, with little response from the EPA. This single state’s negligence threatens the success of the entire regional program.

The Chesapeake is the largest estuary in the United States, a nationally significant economic resource, and a crucial habitat for thousands of species. But the influx of pollution from upstream sources has led to fishery declines, recurring “dead zones” where pollutants starve aquatic animals of oxygen, and regular algae blooms that suffocate underwater plant life. Even after nearly 10 years of strategic planning and implementation of these pollution reduction plans by neighboring states, its overall health is still poor.

And Pennsylvania seems increasingly to blame. In August of last year, the state’s Department of Environmental Protection released its third and final Watershed Implementation Plan, or WIP. The plan admitted that PA was only about 30 percent closer to achieving its target for nitrogen pollution than it had been in the 1980s. Not only was the Keystone State entering the final phase of the cleanup far behind where it should have been, but the state’s plan for phase three still had it falling 25 percent short of the 2025 target. That underwhelming plan also had a funding deficit of about $324 million per year. In December, the EPA signed off on the plan with no indication of imposing consequences.

According to Harry Campbell, the Pennsylvania executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a nonprofit that works closely with watershed states on the cleanup effort, there are a few reasons the state is having such a hard time making progress.

Of all the sources of pollution going into the watershed, Pennsylvania has already tackled the lowest-hanging fruit — wastewater treatment plants. In fact, the state met its 2017 pollution reduction goals for wastewater treatment plants three years early. But the vast majority of PA’s contribution doesn’t come from these easy “point source” targets, it comes from “non-point sources,” like stormwater from the thousands of municipalities in the watershed, and runoff from 33,000 small farms.

About 80 percent of the nitrogen Pennsylvania needs to tackle comes from those farms. And convincing 33,000 farmers — who are already operating on razor-thin profit margins because of trade wars and a poor farm economy — to shoulder new conservation practices is a time- and labor-intensive process. “You have to work with individual farmers, meet them at their table, oftentimes provide the technical and financial assistance necessary to actually design and implement those practices,” said Campbell.

Part of the problem was also the planning process the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection employed for its earlier WIPs, which was not very inclusive of the various communities and entities whose buy-in was necessary for success. But according to Campbell, a lack of funding and leadership from the legislature have also plagued the state’s performance. “If the legislature and the administration invested in implementation of those plans, we’d be in a far better place than we are right now,” Campbell said.

When it came time to draw up the WIP for phase three of the Chesapeake Bay cleanup, the state finally made an effort to start from a more grassroots level. It created workgroups for each sector that included farmers and county commissioners. But Campbell, who was on the Local Area Goals Workgroup, said that even though the process was improved, the funding gap hung over the proceedings. “We just see it every day — whether it be the local county conservation districts or the partners on the ground, like watershed groups and land trusts — this persistent and consistent scarcity-like mentality, that we just don’t have enough to get the job done,” he said. “And so everyone was able to sense it, feel it, or otherwise acknowledge it.”

The governor of Pennsylvania, Democrat Tom Wolf, has proposed a tax on natural gas extraction in the state to raise money for infrastructure projects for five years straight. His latest proposal, the Restore Pennsylvania Plan, would raise $4.5 billion and fund many of the water pollution reduction strategies written into the WIP. But the tax is unlikely to make it through the Republican-controlled legislature.

Over the years, the EPA has penalized Pennsylvania for its lack of progress in small ways. It has objected to permits for wastewater treatment plant expansions, temporarily withheld funding, and most recently, redirected funding in order for it be used more efficiently. But those consequences have not been enough to get the attention of elected officials who continue to devalue the program, putting the entire cleanup effort at risk, said Campbell.

One of Pennsylvania’s neighbors has had enough. Following Aunkst’s comments at the meeting, the Republican governor of Maryland, Larry Hogan, who’s administration has spent a record $5 billion on Chesapeake Bay cleanup efforts, directed his attorney general to sue both Pennsylvania and the EPA. But it’s unclear whether EPA can be held liable for not enforcing the TMDL in Pennsylvania.

In response to the lawsuit, Governor Wolf’s office suggested that Hogan’s time would be better spent using his sway as a Republican to help Wolf secure more funding for the program. “Instead of protracted litigation that will take resources away from our efforts to improve water quality in the watershed and undermine the partnership that has helped make progress, Governor Hogan and the foundation’s time would be better spent convincing Republicans that control the legislature in Pennsylvania to support Governor Wolf’s plan,” said J.J. Abbott, a spokesperson for Wolf.

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The plan to protect the Chesapeake is failing, and it’s Pennsylvania’s fault

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Puerto Rico wasn’t ready for earthquakes — especially not after Hurricane Maria

It was half-past 4 in the morning when a 6.4-magnitude earthquake rocked Puerto Rico on Tuesday, leaving the island at a standstill.

Half asleep in bed, I couldn’t work out what was happening until the whole house began to shift side to side. My parents quickly grabbed my dog and we scurried out of our house near Hatillo, along the island’s northern coast. We’d already established an evacuation plan following the 5.4-magnitude quake that had rattled our nerves just the previous morning, before we opened our presents on Three Kings Day, an important Christian holiday across Latin America.

And just like that, Puerto Rico plunged into darkness, again.

After the quake, 97 percent of the island lost power. I was in the dark, but at least my house was intact. I was one of the lucky ones. Buildings, schools, and historic churches crumbled along the U.S. territory’s southern coast in the cities of Ponce, Yauco, Guayanilla, Lajas, and Guanica. More than a thousand people sought shelter after their homes were reduced to rubble, and at least one person died after a wall in his home collapsed on him.

Wanda Vázquez, who became Puerto Rico’s governor in August following historic protests calling for the ouster of the former scandal-ridden governor, Ricardo Roselló, declared a state of emergency on Tuesday as authorities surveyed the damage to the power generation plants. Many of the island’s power plants are located along the southern coast near the epicenter of Tuesday’s earthquake. The Costa Sur power plant, which generates about 40 percent of the island’s electricity, sustained severe damage.

By Thursday, around a third of Puerto Ricans remained without power, according to CBS News. The current bout of shaking may not yet be over — the United States Geological Survey warns that more aftershocks could be coming. Terrified of sleeping indoors during another tremor, thousands of Puerto Ricans have been sleeping outside in yards and parking lots.

On Wednesday, Trump approved Vázquez’s request for an emergency declaration, which will provide funds for things like debris removal and financial assistance for people who lost their homes. The island’s governor is requesting a “major” emergency declaration that would go even further by funding emergency and permanent work. (The United States commander-in-chief has stayed silent about the disaster on Twitter, preoccupied with the escalating conflict in Iran and his impeachment.)

Even though recovery efforts are on their way, I fear the island where I grew up will never be ready for the next disaster, natural or not.

Damaged homes, deaths, no electricity or clean water — it’s all too familiar in Puerto Rico. The earthquake, the most powerful one to hit the island in more than a century, awoke many unwanted memories of Hurricane Maria, the tropical tyrant that upended life in Puerto Rico in September 2017, killing an estimated 2,975 people and knocking out power in some areas for almost a year.

In many ways, the island still hasn’t recovered. A 2019 report from the American Society of Civil Engineers gave the island’s overall infrastructure a D- grade and its energy infrastructure a straight-up F, calling out inadequate restoration following 2017’s one-two punch from hurricanes Maria and Irma. “Given its location and susceptibility to natural hazards, Puerto Rico’s infrastructure must be more resilient than a majority of mainland America’s,” the report reads. “The need for more resilient infrastructure, coupled with bankruptcy, has led to current infrastructure that fails to meet citizens’ demands.” Case in point: Many bridges and roads on the island that were weakened by the hurricanes collapsed after the recent earthquakes.

Initially, Vázquez and José Ortiz, the CEO of public power utility PREPA, claimed that the electricity would be restored for most of the island in the coming days. But Ortiz told CBS News on Thursday that the crucial Costa Sur plant “will be out for probably over a year.” Many Puerto Ricans are now calling for protests on the grounds that top officials tried to minimize the severity of the earthquake damage on energy infrastructure.

It’s not just the electricity that’s vulnerable: homes are, too. After Hurricane Maria, the Federal Emergency Management Agency pressured the island to enact stricter building codes, which took effect two months ago. Puerto Ricans were all too aware that aging buildings were vulnerable to hurricane winds and flooding, but powerful earthquakes are a rarity on the island, so they didn’t prioritize earthquake-proofing. Some houses that were recently elevated to avoid storm surge, for example, collapsed during the shakes.

Disaster research experts estimate that the earthquakes could cost the island up to $3.1 billion, including damage to private and public property as well as economic losses from tourism. The United States Geological Survey has a more conservative initial estimate, putting economic losses at upwards of $100 million. Either way, it’s a hard hit for an island already strapped for cash. Puerto Rico is currently about $70 billion in debt.

Footing the bill for recovering from the earthquakes won’t be easy, especially considering the track record of federal aid. After the 2017 hurricane season, Congress appropriated $42 billion to the recovery effort in Puerto Rico ($16 billion through FEMA, $20 billion through Housing and Urban Development, and the remainder through more than a dozen smaller agencies). But only about $14 billion of these funds had actually been spent as of last July. To top it off, the federal response could be on the slow side. While Harvey and Irma survivors in Texas and Florida received about $100 million in FEMA assistance within nine days of the storms’ landfall, for instance, Maria survivors received only $6 million over the same time frame.

“We have not received the reconstruction money that has been allocated for Puerto Rico,” Carmén Yulín Cruz, the mayor of San Juan, told NBC News on Tuesday. “I urge every member of Congress, whether Democrat or Republican — this is an issue of justice — to ask and demand that the president of the United States declare portions, if not the entirety, of Puerto Rico a state of emergency.”

Many Puerto Ricans, both those living on the island and in the diaspora, have flooded social media with pleas for support. But they shouldn’t have to rely on the generosity of individuals to save them in the event of a powerful earthquake, a climate-charged hurricane, or any other natural disaster. For the sake of the Puerto Ricans who have lived through catastrophe time and time again, this is an opportunity for both the local and federal governments to finally get it right.


Puerto Rico wasn’t ready for earthquakes — especially not after Hurricane Maria

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New York’s ambitious climate and environmental justice laws are in effect. Here’s what’s next.

New York state’s landmark climate legislation has finally reached the finish line after a four-year marathon through Albany. And that means it’s reached the starting line for the state’s race to net-zero emissions.

The climate law, originally called the Climate and Community Protection Act but ultimately dubbed the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, struggled to make it past the Republican-controlled state senate for three years until Democrats finally won it back in 2018. Although New York Governor Andrew Cuomo altered the bill by slashing some labor and social justice provisions last summer, the CLCPA was still considered a major win for climate activists when Cuomo signed it into law in July with former Vice President Al Gore at his side.

But there was a catch: In order for the CLCPA to go into effect in 2020, Cuomo needed to sign a separate environmental justice bill by the end of 2019. As of mid-December, he hadn’t signed it, making several environmental advocates anxious as the January 1 deadline drew near. But finally, on December 23, Cuomo signed the environmental justice bill, putting the landmark climate law into effect as New Yorkers rang in the new year.

So what happens now that the environmental justice bill and the CLCPA are in effect? The CLCPA made headlines for being the most ambitious emissions-reduction legislation in the country thanks to its promises to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2040. But in the short term, the main outcomes of the two new laws will be … new policymaking bodies!

The CLCPA sets broad targets for emissions reductions, but the hard work of figuring out how to decarbonize New York’s economy will fall into a new group called the Climate Action Council. The Climate Action Council consists of 22 members including the heads of state agencies, the majority and minority leaders of the state senate and assembly, and various appointed experts — including at least one fuel gas executive. The Climate Action Council is required to come up with its first “scoping plan” for reducing emissions within two years, and then to revisit the plan every five years subsequently.

Meanwhile, the environmental justice bill will create a permanent environmental justice advisory group within the existing Department of Environmental Conservation, plus an interagency coordinating council that will make sure New York state agencies are treating New Yorkers fairly when it comes to the enforcement of environmental policies. Since low-income communities of color tend to bear the brunt of the fossil fuel industry’s social costs, the goal is to ensure that vulnerable or disadvantaged communities aren’t suffering negative environmental consequences from state policies.

The advisory group will consist of representatives from local environmental organizations that advocate for low-income communities of color, some business representatives, local government environmental officials, and members of either state or federal environmental organizations. The group will be tasked with developing a model environmental justice policy for state agencies by the end of 2020. Once the state adopts the group’s model policy, each agency will have six months to come up with its own environmental justice policy, but if an agency fails to come up with one, it will have to comply with the advisory group’s version.

The advisory group will also advise agencies on decisions like land-use permits for fossil fuel projects and monitor their compliance with the environmental justice policies.

New York Renews, a statewide coalition of nearly 200 advocacy groups, pushed for the environmental justice bill to be passed alongside the CLCPA, and for the CLCPA itself to include environmental justice provisions. “Protecting vulnerable populations, communities of color, and low-income communities should be a priority for all climate solutions,” said Adrien Salazar, a campaign strategist at progressive think tank Demos and a 2019 Grist 50 Fixer. “Science has shown consistently that communities of color and low-income neighborhoods are most vulnerable to climate impacts and pollution. This is why equity and justice was written into the CLCPA.”

This isn’t the first time New York has attempted to address environmental injustice. In 1999, the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation received a federal grant from the EPA to develop a comprehensive environmental justice program, and eventually created an advisory group. Though the Department of Environmental Conservation officially adopted an environmental justice policy in 2003, it failed to follow through on most of the advisory group’s recommendations.

But the CLCPA and environmental justice bill are binding — they require the state to meet its emissions reduction targets and make good on its commitments to address environmental injustice and invest in vulnerable communities. But Salazar, whose organization is part of New York Renews, warned that if agencies fail to mobilize adequate resources and put significant plans into motion, New York could very well fail to reach the goals it sets for itself.

“This will take every agency setting up programs and policies to meet the state’s goals, directing resources accordingly, and beginning to enact those plans starting now,” he said. “The state has to demonstrate how important it is to not just pass bold climate policy but to get the implementation right.”


New York’s ambitious climate and environmental justice laws are in effect. Here’s what’s next.

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When wildfires sweep through California, who gets left behind?

Over the past several days, 16 different wildfires have forced hundreds of thousands of Californians to evacuate their homes. Millions have gone without power for days, and more will experience planned outages as Pacific Gas and Energy, the state’s bankrupt power utility, scrambles to make sure its power lines don’t spark yet another wildfire.

The wildfire crisis, one that is expected to get worse in the Golden State in the coming years as the full effects of climate change kick in, illuminates a glaring disparity. When fires rip through a community, its most vulnerable members — the old and sick, domestic workers, construction workers, and incarcerated folks — get left behind. Stories emerging from the fires this year shed unflattering light on the way America treats its poor, old, and working class when climate catastrophe comes knocking.

On Monday, as the Getty Fire was tearing through Los Angeles, the L.A. Times reported on a housekeeper named Carmen Solano who showed up to work in Brentwood, one of the wealthiest areas in L.A., to find that the owners of the house had evacuated hours earlier. They failed to notify her that the neighborhood was under mandatory evacuation.

The Times also spoke to a police officer who said that, when he told many of the laborers he saw working in Brentwood that day that they needed to leave, they told him, “I have to finish.” Some who knew about the fire still made the commute because they couldn’t afford to miss a day’s wages. Fifty-year-old gardener Chon Ortiz mowed lawns while people evacuated around him on Monday, even though the owners hadn’t asked him to come to work. “If they say I have to evacuate, I will,” he told the Times’ Brittny Mejia in Spanish. “But I need to work.”

Poor residents in Northern California, where 200,000 people had to evacuate this week and 2 million are still without power, are facing similarly dire straits. When Governor Gavin Newsom traveled to a mobile home park in American Canyon on Saturday, a woman with a pulmonary heart condition told him that she didn’t have the money to stock up on the medication she needed before the power got shut off at her pharmacy. Her insurance wouldn’t cover refills until her current supply ran out, so her only option was to pay out of pocket. “You could get it if you have the money,” Constantine said. “But I can’t afford that right now. It’s a month’s rent.”

Perhaps no one is more marginalized during wildfire season than incarcerated firefighters. These firefighters get the same training and endure the same dangerous conditions as the state’s wildland firefighting department, CAL FIRE. But they only get paid around $1 an hour, and when they’re done fighting fires, they’ll go back to prison.

Since 1983, at least six of these incarcerated firefighters have died on the job. A new bill introduced in the California state legislature last month would allow prisoners to find careers in firefighting after they’re released, but it’s been met with resistance from the state’s biggest firefighters union.

Lest we forget the gaping disparity between those with means and those without in the fiery West right now, a growing number of rich people are hiring private firefighters to protect their property, the New York Times reports. One company near Sacramento offers “on-call” services for homes in Northern California and Eastern Washington. The price? Up to $3,000 per day. Welcome to the pyrocene, where we’ve set everything on fire and only some of us have the means to stay safe.

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When wildfires sweep through California, who gets left behind?

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2020 candidates have answers to the climate questions debate moderators didn’t ask

On Tuesday night, 12 candidates took the stage in Ohio to debate the issues most important to the Democratic electorate. Gun control, reproductive rights, health care, the company Ellen DeGeneres keeps (yes, you read that right), and more were on the menu. One issue was conspicuously absent: climate change. Somehow, the debate’s two media hosts, CNN and the New York Times, managed to go three hours without bringing up a global crisis that polls show is not only a top issue among Democrats, but young Republicans and independents, as well.

Climate advocates and even some of the candidates themselves were unhappy about the omission. And why wouldn’t they be? Most of the candidates who qualified for the debate are actually quite well versed in climate change, thanks to pressure from activists, previous debates with a former competitor (climate hawk and Washington Governor Jay Inslee), and of course, the impacts of warming they and other Americans have experienced.

Don’t believe us? We have proof.

David Roberts of Vox (formerly David Roberts of Grist) and his colleague Umair Irfan asked all of the 23 currently active Democratic campaigns to answer six questions about climate change. These weren’t softball questions about whether candidates would rejoin the Paris Agreement or when they wanted to reach net-zero emissions. The point was to go beyond the climate science consensus and get into the power dynamics relevant to passing climate policy in 2021.

Nine candidates — Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Pete Buttigieg, Beto O’Rourke, Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, and Michael Bennet (yep, he’s still running!) — sent in responses. Here, we offer some highlights.


The candidates were in agreement that climate change should be a top priority during their first 100 days in office and on a number of other things, including building off of President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and decarbonizing the economy by mid-century. But the questions about eliminating the filibuster (in order to pass climate legislation) and holding fossil fuel companies accountable shed the most light on which candidates will really put the pedal to the metal on averting climate catastrophe.

Abolishing the filibuster — a move that would allow the Senate to approve legislation with a simple majority versus a requisite 60 votes — doesn’t sound climate-related, but it is. Over the past six years, lots of progressive policy proposals have hurtled through the House only to be stopped short, primarily by Senate Republicans. Abolishing the filibuster would give Democrats the potential to actually accomplish something as big as a Green New Deal (an idea almost all of the Democratic 2020 candidates have endorsed). The downside to this, of course, is that it’s an absolute gamble. If Democrats take the Senate, abolish the filibuster, and go hog-wild on progressive legislation, Republicans could do the same with conservative bills down the road, if they retake control.

So who’s willing to take the gamble, or at least reform the filibuster? Seven candidates: Warren, Sanders, Harris, Buttigieg, O’Rourke, Steyer, and Klobuchar. Warren even brought it up during the debate on Tuesday, in response to a question about gun reform. Biden and Bennet said they would not scrap it.  That means those two candidates will have to find another way to pass their comprehensive climate plans by, we guess, trying to appeal to their Republican colleagues.

All of the candidates told Vox they would hold polluters accountable, but a few went above and beyond. Sanders and Steyer used the word “prosecute” in their responses, raising the possibility of pinning polluters on criminal charges. “They have evaded taxes, desecrated tribal lands, exploited workers and poisoned communities,” Sanders said. “[I] believe this is criminal activity, and, when [I am] president, [I] will hold the fossil fuel industry accountable.” Steyer said it’s time to “create real — potentially criminal — consequences for actions they may have taken to knowingly spread false information and slow climate action.” Warren also noted she would hold polluters criminally accountable, noting recent legislation she introduced to do just that.

The candidates’ answers to these questions are a reminder of how important it is that moderators ask questions about climate change during debates. Voters don’t just need to know whether or not their candidate of choice will implement a carbon tax. They need to know whether their candidate is prepared to use the full powers of the executive branch, if she or he is willing to change the rules to get legislation through the Senate, and if fossil fuel companies will ever actually have to pay for past cover-ups and crimes.

Alas, the most recent debate didn’t get viewers any closer to understanding the nuanced differences in how those vying to face Donald Trump will fight for climate action. We do, however, now know that at least two of the 12 candidates on stage dearly miss the late John McCain. But what will they miss when the planet descends into a fiery, sodden, polluted hellscape?

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2020 candidates have answers to the climate questions debate moderators didn’t ask

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