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BP and Shell will keep (some of) it in the ground

One of the biggest liabilities on the world’s climate balance sheet right now is all of the oil, gas, and coal sitting in the ground, discovered, but not yet dug up. For more than a decade, environmentalists and scientists have argued that we’re going to need to practice some restraint and keep those fossil fuels buried if we want a livable planet.

Now, the “keep it in the ground” movement may be getting its most significant victory to date. In recent weeks, BP and Shell, two of the biggest fossil fuel companies in the world, indicated they plan to lower the official value of their assets by several billion dollars due to declining oil and gas prices. That means these companies are looking at their reserves, looking at the price of oil and the state of the world, and saying, this is not worth nearly as much as it was before. And the economics of digging it up are changing.

BP was the first, announcing in mid-June that it expects to write down up to $17.5 billion of its oil and gas holdings in its next quarterly report, a 12 percent drop from the previous valuation. Playing into that is the expectation that oil prices, currently deeply depressed from the global economic slowdown caused by the pandemic, may never fully rebound as some countries, including the entire E.U., prioritize a “green recovery.” Previously, BP assumed its oil was worth $70 per barrel, but now the British multinational has lowered that estimate to $55.

The move renders some of BP’s assets completely worthless. Sources told Reuters the company would be writing off reserves in the Canadian oil sands and ultra-deepwater wells off Angola because they are too expensive to develop.

Shell joined the club on Tuesday, saying it would write down between $15 billion and $22 billion of its assets next quarter. The Dutch-British corporation, the world’s largest non-state owned oil and gas company, had a slightly different outlook than BP on oil prices, saying it was dropping its expectations to $35 a barrel this year, with a slight rebound to $40 next year, and a long-term recovery to $60.

Charlie Cray, political and business strategist for Greenpeace USA, which has long been a major voice in the “keep it in the ground” movement, said in an email that BP and Shell are late to the party. “Both companies are playing catch up to what activists and economists have been warning for years: the climate emergency is going to make oil worth less,” he told Grist. Cray warned that we shouldn’t rely on the oil and gas industry, which he said “is predicated on reckless and never-ending expansion,” to usher in the energy transition. “Volatility in the market is not a substitute for robust federal policy to permanently phase out fossil fuels, hold climate polluters accountable, and begin a just transition for workers and impacted communities.” A week before disclosing the write-down, BP said it would lay off 10,000 workers.

Meanwhile, ExxonMobil is resisting pressure to acknowledge economic realities and write down its own assets. Several oil and gas accounting experts have filed complaints with the Securities and Exchange Commission alleging that the American company’s inaction amounts to arrogance … and potentially accounting fraud.

The European/American divide, with BP and Shell on one side and Exxon on the other, echoes those companies’ recognition of their responsibility when it comes to climate change. Indeed, the write-downs reflect not just the current economic slowdown, but also the larger shift these companies are undergoing to make sure they are still relevant in a low-carbon economy. “Both are in this unique position of trying to figure out what is the next 20 to 30 years for our business and our business model, while also trying to navigate in a world that’s clearly heading towards a low-carbon future,” said Michelle Manion, lead senior economist at the World Resources Institute, a global research nonprofit. “But at the same time being beholden to these quarterly expectations about making profit. It’s a pretty tough spot to be in.”

Both Shell and BP pledged earlier this year to become net-zero companies by 2050. However, their plans are still light on the details and have been scrutinized for not being in line with the goals of the Paris Agreement. In a statement about BP’s write-down, CEO Bernard Looney said it was “rooted in our net zero ambition and reaffirmed by the pandemic.” BP is expected to release a clearer roadmap for reducing its emissions later this year. Manion told Grist that the World Resources Institute has been working with Shell on its greenhouse gas accounting and that the company is starting to think seriously about a portfolio that includes low-carbon assets.

The same pandemic-induced price dynamics pressuring oil majors to write down their assets are also leading to outright bankruptcies. The latest to go under is Chesapeake Energy, which led the fracking boom in the U.S. a decade ago. The New York Times estimated that roughly 20 American oil and gas producers have filed for bankruptcy so far this year.

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BP and Shell will keep (some of) it in the ground

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Locusts and coronavirus: A Biblical nightmare strikes the horn of Africa

What if COVID-19 had shown up in the United States last year, just as Hurricane Dorian forced people out of their homes and into shelters? What would it feel like to be told to shelter in place as wildfires approach your doorstep? It’s hard to imagine handling more than one disaster of this magnitude — but before the novel coronavirus struck the horn of Africa, countries already had a plague on their hands.

Toward the end of last year, swarms of desert locusts began flooding the region in numbers not seen in decades. Unusually wet weather over the previous 18 months — likely linked to climate change — created ideal breeding conditions for the insects. Since then, the swarms have multiplied across ten countries as continued rain during what is typically the dry season allowed each new wave of the insects to breed. The plague is especially threatening in Kenya, Ethiopia, and Somalia. Desert locusts are voracious eaters who travel in swarms the size of cities and will devastate crops, pastures, and forests if they aren’t controlled, posing a major threat to food security in countries where already 20 million people are food-insecure.

Despite the alarming numbers of swarms, they have not dramatically impacted the food supply yet, according to Cyril Ferrand, the East Africa resilience team leader for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). When the locusts arrived in full force in late December, farmers had already secured their seasonal harvest.

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“Our concern is for the season to come,” Ferrand told Grist. Farmers are beginning to plant now for the June/July harvest, just as a new generation of locusts are starting to mature. “There could be up to 100 percent losses,” said Ferrand. “That’s very clear.”

To kill as many locusts as possible, time is of the essence. That’s why Ferrand raised the alarm two weeks ago when a shipment of pesticides to Kenya was delayed due to coronavirus-related flight restrictions. When Grist spoke to him on Friday, he said the stock had been replenished, and that COVID-19 has not been a major impediment to control efforts yet.

In Kenya, where Ferrand is based, there have been under 200 confirmed cases of COVID-19 so far. Social distancing measures are in effect, and masks are mandatory in public places, but the country has declared controlling the locusts a national priority, so spraying and surveying have not slowed down.

The FAO began coordinating aid to affected countries in January and is trying to raise $153 million for control operations as well as to safeguard livelihoods. $114 million has been raised so far. On the control side, the organization provides pesticides and spraying equipment, including planes and trucks, as well as training to conduct surveillance and keep track of where swarms are moving.

But controlling the swarms is a sisyphean task.

“The locust infestation is happening in a very wide area, and you find that every time you are trying to control in one region, there’s another swarm that is happening in a different region,” said Ambrose Ngetich, an FAO project officer in a video produced by the organization. “It is not possible to control them simultaneously, because most of the time they are at different stages.”

Locusts bury their eggs 4-6 inches underground. Once they are laid, spraying cannot prevent a new generation from hatching.

Losses to crops and ranchlands are inevitable. That’s why the FAO also plans to provide cash to affected communities to buy food, compensate farmers so that they can purchase seed for the next planting season, and supply feed to livestock farmers whose pastures get devoured.

The COVID-19 pandemic has not slowed the battle to stop the locusts yet, but if the outbreak becomes more severe and countries begin implementing stricter lockdowns, it could bring control operations to a halt.

“We are talking about a region that is very fragile,” said Ferrand. “After the health impact, the economic one could be extremely severe for a long period of time.”

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Locusts and coronavirus: A Biblical nightmare strikes the horn of Africa

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Researchers blast ‘forever chemicals’ into oblivion with plasma

Christopher Sales is an environmental microbiologist, and until recently, his world was about harnessing the power of microorganisms to break down contaminants in the environment. But a resilient intruder that does not succumb to the same old tricks has shaken up the remediation community and led Sales to look outside of his field for a solution. It’s a chemical that’s been found in water, soil, and food all over the planet: PFAS.

PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances) are a group of chemical compounds used in carpet, waterproof clothing, nonstick pans, and many other common products, that have gone unregulated and been dumped into the environment for decades. Exposure studies have linked some forms of PFAS to thyroid disease and some cancers, but there’s very little health research on most of them. They’ve been dubbed “forever chemicals” because they don’t break down over time, and now scientists like Sales are racing to figure out how to clean PFAS up.

“PFAS is becoming a big issue,” Sales told Grist. “It’s being found in a lot of different places, and unfortunately we haven’t found a microorganism that can degrade it.”

Sales is a professor at Drexel University, and he has experimented a little bit with biological treatments for PFAS with little success. But while chatting with one of his colleagues at Drexel’s Nyheim Plasma Institute, he learned that plasma was being used to kill bacteria and other contaminants in water, and wondered if it might be effective on PFAS. Plasma is the fourth state of matter after solids, liquids, and gases, and it is created by applying heat or electricity to gas. In September 2017, when the Department of Defense announced new funding for technologies to degrade PFAS, Sales asked the Nyheim researchers if they would be interested in collaborating. They secured a grant and got to work.

In January, Sales published a study detailing the results of that collaboration. After testing a new plasma-based treatment system on water samples contaminated with 12 different types of PFAS, they found that it degraded significant amounts of all of the compounds, and for some types of PFAS, the system degraded more than 90 percent of the contamination.

Degrading PFAS doesn’t necessarily remove their threat, because it can result in new, smaller molecules of PFAS. The real target, and the more challenging one, is to defluorinate them, or break apart their carbon-fluorine bond. In some of the tests at Drexel, the plasma treatment system successfully defluorinated about a quarter of the compounds.

“In terms of treatment efficiency, plasma technology ranks really high,” said Jinxia Liu, an environmental engineering professor at McGill University who was not involved in the study. Liu said that plasma treatments for PFAS are promising because they do not require any added chemicals and do not seem to produce harmful byproducts.

There are two ways to remove PFAS from water. Right now, the most widely used approach is to filter them out. But because PFAS don’t break down, filters just transfer the contamination from one medium to another. If the filter ends up in a landfill, PFAS can still seep out into groundwater. The other approach is to try to destroy the compounds altogether. Currently, the only scalable method to destroy PFAS is incineration, but that requires large amounts of heat and is very energy intensive.

Sales’ plasma treatment still requires energy, but much less. In plasma, what were once gas molecules have been broken apart, creating what scientists call a highly reactive environment. The freely floating electrons, ions, and unstable neutral atoms in this environment can be deployed as a sort of arsenal of weapons against other molecules. Depending on what the original gas was, some of these weapons will attack pollutants like PFAS. In their study, the Drexel researchers used regular air, which is cheap and abundant, as the gas.

The study results are encouraging, but they do not necessarily translate to a breakthrough in real-world decontamination efforts. The concentrations of PFAS in the water in Sales’ experiments were much higher than levels that are found in the environment. Sales said that at lower levels, the compounds become more difficult for the plasma to target. But this system was just a proof of concept on one liter of water. If Sales can secure another grant, he plans to scale the experiment up.

Another lab at Clarkson University has developed a plasma treatment system with comparable results using real groundwater samples. Last fall, the Clarkson researchers were also able to test it in the real world with a field demonstration on the groundwater at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Groundwater near military bases is notoriously contaminated with PFAS, since the chemicals have long been a key ingredient in the firefighting foam used to put out blazes during training exercises.

The EPA recently announced long-awaited plans to develop a drinking water limit for two specific PFAS compounds, PFOA and PFOS. Currently, the agency has only set a recommended “health advisory level” for drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. Although they haven’t published the results yet, Clarkson researcher Thomas Holsen told Grist that his team’s system lowered PFAS concentrations below that level at Wright-Patterson in most of the experiments. Their system can treat one gallon per minute, which doesn’t exactly compare to the filtration systems at wastewater treatment plants that process hundreds of gallons per minute. Then again, those systems don’t actually destroy PFAS.

Liu said the best application of plasma might be at the end of a treatment train, after other technologies have concentrated the contamination. “There are a lot of different treatment needs. There’s drinking water treatment, groundwater, processing water” — the kind used in industrial plants. “There’s no one solution that fits all. People need all these different technologies, and it depends on the situation,” she said.

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Researchers blast ‘forever chemicals’ into oblivion with plasma

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

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How did Democrats fare at CNN’s climate town hall? We asked the experts.

For seven whole hours on Wednesday night, 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls talked about our overheating planet at length (not that they had much of a choice). Rather than arguing or talking over each other, the candidates actually had the time and space to speak substantively on this complex issue at CNN’s Climate Crisis Town Hall, discussing carbon taxes, geoengineering, lawsuits against the fossil fuel industry, and much more.

There’s no question that the future president will have the weight of the world on their shoulders when it comes to tackling climate change. So which Democratic candidates did the heavy lifting on climate policy and wowed us with their know-how?

Grist gathered experts who powered through the lengthy town hall (or at least some of it) and asked them to evaluate the candidates’ performances through the lens of science, politics, and environmental justice. Here’s what the 2020 hopefuls did well — and what they messed up — during the evening’s climate ultra-marathon. These interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Grist / Leah Stokes

Leah Stokes

Assistant professor of political science, University of California, Santa Barbara

How much did she watch? All of it. (“I’m so f$#@ing tired.”)

CNN pushed candidates on sore spots, which I thought was impressive. We had Andrew Yang pushed on geoengineering — probably the first time that geoengineering has been talked about in any detail on national television.

We had Bernie Sanders pushed on nuclear, and he got fairly doomsday-ish. I mean, we have a lot of nuclear plants in this country. If it was as unsafe as he made it sound, things would be really bad!

Biden got pushed on the things that people have been trying to get him to clarify, and he really didn’t have great answers. Some of his answers sounded like Republican talking points: Yes, the U.S. only represents 15 percent of global emissions, and we must act with other nations, but it sounded like a reason to delay. And he ignored the fact that the U.S. is the driver of technology and innovation globally — so if the U.S. decarbonizes, it will affect every other country.

I think Warren was the best by far. She was so sharp. One point of weakness: her answer on nuclear was a little unclear. She sidestepped the issue of whether she’d extend the licenses of existing plants, which is what Sanders said he wouldn’t do. Nuclear is unpopular, so I think she was trying to thread a needle, but it left people saying she’s anti-nuclear. Otherwise, she knocked it out of the park.

Grist / Sylvain Gaboury / Patrick McMullan via Getty Images

Jamie Margolin

17-year-old climate activist, cofounder of Zero Hour

How much did she watch? Snippets. “I was busy being a student and fighting the climate crisis so I couldn’t sit down more than 30 minutes at a time.”

The 2020 election is going to be my first voting election, and I am actually still undecided in terms of which Democratic candidate I’m voting for. It’s very historic that this climate town hall happened — you’re able to really dig deep and see who actually knows what they’re doing and who’s actually just talking and saying what sounds good.

There were answers where I could see that a politician still didn’t fully grasp the full gravity of the climate crisis and how radically fast we need to act on it. Pete Buttigieg does not fully understand the full extent of how urgent this crisis is. Joe Biden claimed that he’d never put fossil fuel money over children’s lives; that is so false on so many levels. And many candidates kept mentioning stupid late targets for net-zero carbon, like 2050, that are way, way past what we actually need in order to solve the climate crisis.

I’ll add that it was really refreshing to see young people in the audience asking questions. They did a really good job as people who are going to be seeing the worst effects of the climate crisis. That was a very powerful moment.

Grist / Chuck Kennedy / MCT / Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Bob Inglis

Former Republican U.S. representative for South Carolina

How much did he watch? Not everything, but he followed the highlight reel.

I was struck by the angry tone of so many of the questioners and the divisive rhetoric worked into the questioning. It’s not a way to win people over to action. What I’m really concerned about is, the Democratic base is driving Democratic candidates to a place where they will not win the general election.

For example, take the question that morphed climate change into a discussion of abortion with Bernie Sanders. Just give me a break. That just caused us to lose so much ground on climate action all across the Southeast. It just brought up the cultural difference. We’re trying to solve climate change — why bring up abortion? That may be your favorite hobby horse, but it’s a rickety hobby horse. Most people would not get on and ride it.

I would ask, how can we bring America together to solve this? How can people on the left speak to their neighbors on the right and generate consensus on a solution? You know, hats off to Pete Buttigieg for speaking in a bipartisan way, realizing the need to bring America together. I think it’s born of his experience serving in the military and being a mayor.

Some of these answers went veering off the road on the left down into the ditch. Trump, meanwhile, has his car over in the right-hand ditch. Somebody needs to figure out a way to drive up on the pavement.

Gabriel Reichler

Sunrise Movement activist

How much did he watch? The whole event. He was actually there!

As I tweeted last night, it was extremely cold. I was joking that that must have had something to do with their attempt to use a very pathetic way of adapting to climate change: air conditioning.

A lot of amazing people were in the room. There was probably one of the largest collections of people I really look up to in one room at the same time. In the beginning, I was very excited but a little bit doubtful about what would come out of it.

Some of the candidates had really amazing responses, and I admired how they were keeping the energy up. But then there were some candidates who just couldn’t quite do that. Like having to sit through Joe Biden answering things was just anger and frustration.

Even with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, there were a few points where they weren’t giving completely satisfactory answers. Like Bernie had a somewhat unsatisfactory answer about the filibuster, and Warren had some not so satisfactory answers about things like nationalizing utilities and military things.

There were some moments when the moderate candidates gave shoutouts to Sunrise and the movement and the activists who are actually putting in the legwork. They were saying that the credit doesn’t really belong to them as candidates — it belongs to us.

Grist / Paul Archuleta / Getty Image

Mustafa Santiago Ali

Vice president for environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation

How much did he watch? “I made it through all of it, except for about 10 minutes. There was a storm that came through, and I have a satellite dish, so it went out for a second on Buttigieg.”

I think the format was pretty good. Thankfully, they had a number of young activists and leaders who were part of that process. I would have liked to have seen more diversity in the room. I would have loved to have seen a moderator who has a background in climate or environmental justice. But compared to the previous presidential debates, this was light years ahead.

When Secretary Castro talked about the need for civil rights legislation, that was a transformational moment. Most folks don’t know there’s been some real difficulty at EPA around the utilization of civil rights laws to deal with some of these impacts in vulnerable communities.

Then you transition to Senator Klobuchar and her first seven days and what she would actually do. I think it was good for those who are in the middle part of the country to see themselves reflected. I really appreciated Senators Sanders and Warren talking about the economy, and a just transition, and how workers in Appalachia and on the Gulf Coast have to be a part of this process.

I thought that Mayor Pete, when he began to talk about DOD and the military and that they have already acknowledged that climate change is real and are thinking about it in their long-term planning, was also really important. I appreciated Senator Harris talking about the need for stronger enforcement, because for frontline communities, there has never been enough enforcement.

And then on Senator Booker, I really appreciated him helping to walk people through these different types of impacts that are happening throughout the country. When the candidates talk about their policies, I want them to anchor it in the reality that’s going on in different parts of the country. Theoretical conversations, they’re fine, but they’re 20th century. We need 21st-century solutions.

Reporting by Nathanael Johnson, Paola Rosa-Aquino, Claire Thompson, Zoya Teirstein, and Nikhil Swaminathan

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How did Democrats fare at CNN’s climate town hall? We asked the experts.

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This group is teaching new sailors how to tackle plastic pollution

The Bronx’s City Island docks are a strange mixture of outer-borough New York and New England coast. There are crusty boatyards and pristine yacht clubs, seedy seafood joints and fancy oyster bars, “my she was yar” schooners and “I’m on a boat” party cruisers. But the love of the ocean has always had the ability to bring disparate-seeming forces together — including, in this case, climate activism and the American Sailing Association.

On a recent summer morning, I headed to the docks to watch Dave Jenkins prepare a small sailboat. Life vests and nautical maps in hand, Jenkins — a charismatic middle-aged man decked out in an appropriate sailing ensemble (boat shoes included) — boarded a vessel which was moored at the Harlem Yacht Club. We had been going back and forth for months trying to find the right time to head out on the water, only to be forced to reschedule several times due to unfavorable weather conditions. First it was the cold, then the heat, then torrential rain — the kinds of extremes that climate scientists say we should expect more of in the near future.

But on that day, with the sun shining bright and a slight breeze in the air, Jenkins assured me conditions were “ideal for sailing.”

“This is my playground,” Jenkins said of the open water. But it’s not just his alone — the way he sees it, the water belongs to everyone. He takes his sailboat, the Mary Lou, out regularly, showing students how to explore the five boroughs by way of its many waterways. While many people think of sailing as an exclusive endeavor, Jenkins says there are ways to keep the sport accessible. For example, there are a lot of old sailboats out there that sell for cheap and don’t require expensive fuel compared to one of those pesky motorboats.

“There’s so much to do in the city, they forget about the sixth borough — the water,” Jenkins said.

Jenkins’ love of the water is infectious. But in order for future generations to continue to enjoy it, he knows seafarers like himself need to do more than attract new talent. They also need to keep the ocean as clean as possible. And so every time he takes the sailboat out to open water, whether he’s hanging out with friends or instructing students, he keeps an eye open for any plastic debris.

Grist / Paola Rosa-Aquino

Jenkins says cleaning up trash while you are out on the water is something many sailors have been doing for a long time. But thanks to a new ocean cleanup program by the American Sailing Association, one of the world’s biggest coalitions of sailing enthusiasts, trainers, and charter companies, the habit is becoming formalized.

The group started the crusade, called Operation Plastic Pollution Purge, last year. The campaign, which, according to the American Sailing Association’s website, has exposed around 111 million people to the concept of ocean conservation, urges boaters to reduce or eliminate the number of plastic items they bring on their vessels and to collect and properly dispose of any trash they see while they’re out on open water. It’s an especially important value to instill in new sailing enthusiasts, and something organization says it is uniquely situated to do given its 300 schools and 7,000 instructors.

“It has to start with one person, and what better group of people than sailors,” Lenny Shabes, CEO and founder of the American Sailing Association, told Grist.

Granted, not all types of boats are great for the environment. Big cruise ships, for example, run off of diesel fuel and can actually end up being more harmful to the planet per mile even compared to air travel. But sailboats are largely wind-powered, and when decked out with solar panels like the one currently transporting 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg to the U.N. Climate Summit in New York City, can provide a net-zero means of transportation even across long distances.

More than that, Shabes says sailing can benefit the planet because it can make people realize they have a special responsibility to the water. “It’s a very spiritual thing. There’s no propulsion involved, other than what the good earth gives you. The difference between living in New York City and going sailing in the Long Island Sound, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world to sail is immense. To see it become polluted because some yahoo doesn’t care and throws the plastic bottle overboard — it irks me.”

And between the planet’s warming waters and humanities’ growing trash problem, the oceans need all the love they can get. Scientists don’t know exactly how much plastic trash is in the ocean, but some estimates suggest that as much as 244,000 metric tons might bob on the surface. Another 8.5 million metric tons are though to settle on the ocean floor per year. The United Nations estimates that by the year 2050 there will be more plastic debris in our oceans than fish.

“It’s as if you took a New York City garbage truck and dumped it full of plastic into the ocean every minute of every day,” Jenkins said.

If that trash stays at sea, it could cluster up in trash hot spots, the most famous of which is a swirling mass of garbage twice the size of Texas. The patch is located somewhere between California and Hawaii called the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There, currents deposit waste like abandoned fishing gear, bottles, and tiny pieces of pulverized plastics.

Back at the City Island docks, Jenkins and I were just about ready to set sail on our trash-finding venture. As the Mary Lou pulled out from the Bronx and into the open water, it felt like an escape from city life. To the east lay the Sound, Connecticut to the north and Long Island to the south. We headed toward the Long Island Sound.

Jenkins surveyed a nautical chart as we headed south and the ship neared the Throgs Neck Bridge. It wasn’t long before we spotted our first piece of refuse — a bright yellow bag floating on the waves. Jenkins quickly redirected the Mary Lou, grabbing a handy net. As we cruised by, he dipped it into the water and lifted it up to reveal a soggy bag of Funyons. After about three hours of sailing, we’d amassed a modest bag’s worth of trash. Jenkins said that if we’d gone sailing on a Monday after people were in surrounding beaches over the weekend, he would have expected even more prices of plastic surrounding the ship.

Grist / Paola Rosa-Aquino

Of course, it will take more than a few sailing trips to solve the ocean’s plastic problem. That’s why many countries are either restricting or even wholesale banning single-use plastics. But Bonnie Monteleone, executive director of the Plastic Ocean Project, says these small-scale clean-ups can still do a lot of good. As part of a separate cleanup effort, she hired charter fishermen to pick up trash they see offshore. “Just that exposure of getting people to become aware of how much trash is out there — I call it “the magic eye,” Monteleone told Grist. “Once you do you can’t unsee it. I think any opportunity that will get people out on the water [for this kind of effort] will cast a wider net and get more people proactive at picking up what they see. “

And the stakes are high: The billions upon billions of items of plastic waste choking our oceans, lakes, and rivers and piling up on land is more than unsightly and harmful to plants and wildlife. According to Lauren Coiro, the American Sailing Association’s marine conservationist, plastic Pollution is a very real and growing threat to human health. “In terms of the health of marine life, it’s not good,” Coiro told Grist. “In terms of our own health, it’s not good.”

Indeed, the toxic chemicals leach out of plastic and can be found in the blood and tissue of nearly every one of us. Exposure to these substances is linked to cancers, birth defects, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption and a whole slew of other ailments. What’s worse, instead of breaking down, plastic breaks into smaller and smaller pieces called microplastics, making it even harder to clean up.

But on a macro level, ocean cleanups can still do their part to help rid the ocean of its plastic scourge. And who better to lead the way than people who are already on the waves? “Sailors are naturally a really easily motivated group of people,” Coiro says. “When we asked sailors to start talking about this and take leadership … a lot of sailors [were] happy to do it..”

At the end of our rendezvous on open water, Jenkins packed the sails away, a process that requires the utmost care to avoid twists, tears, and tangles. With the lines finally coiled and the sails covered, and Mary Lou was tucked in for the day — but perhaps not for long.

If weather conditions are favorable, Jenkins says he’ll go back out and do the same thing all over again tomorrow.

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This group is teaching new sailors how to tackle plastic pollution

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These kids are striking for their school to cut its carbon footprint

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It was only two weeks ago that 16-year-old Azalea Danes says she officially became a climate activist, but she’s done her best to make that time count.

It all started after the high school junior, who attends Bronx School of Science, read about 13-year-old fellow New Yorker Alexandria Villaseñor’s protests outside the United Nations headquarters. Danes’ hunger to learn more quickly snowballed from there. She watched a TED Talk by Greta Thunberg, the Swedish teen who was just nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize after going on strike to protest government inaction on climate change, eventually sparking a global movement. When Danes found out that a massive youth climate strike was coming to the U.S. on Friday, March 15 and thought to herself: “I need to do something about this personally in my community.”

Courtesy of Azalea Danes

Danes is one of the hundreds of thousands of young people participating in today’s global Youth Climate Strike, walking out of classes to protest global leaders’ climate inaction. These kids, many of whom are still in elementary school, may be comparatively new to the environmental movement, but they are among the most motivated stakeholders in today’s climate movement. And they don’t just have their eyes set on a Green New Deal — many of them are looking for solutions closer to home.

The day after Danes found out about the youth climate strike she started an Instagram account to recruit her classmates to join her in a walk out. Within days, she had linked up with other climate-concerned students to draft a mission statement for their strike. And soon, more than 100 of her schoolmates had RSVP’d to the event on Facebook.

The students weren’t just playing hookie. Danes and her peers at the Bronx High School of Science crafted goals intended to make their school greener — demands for which they are willing to suffer through detention in order to make a reality.

Kids at the school are no slouches when it comes to academics — Bronx Science is a specialized public school in New York City that kids must test into to snag a coveted spot  (it’s where actor Tom Holland went undercover for a few days to research his recent role as Spiderman).

Although Danes says she was able to get approval to miss her class for the strike, many others at the school were denied – sometimes because they applied for a pass too late, or because they had a history of tardies or absences. Students without a pass receive a “cut” for missing class, which will only be removed from their record if they serve detention. A “cut” on your record could also have bigger ramifications. Today is the first day that students can select courses for next year — they have a week from now to make their choices. And anyone with cuts on their record won’t be able to enroll in Advanced Placement classes.

With academic pressures working against them, strike organizers at the school had to make a compelling pitch to get kids to skip out on class. “No matter how smart and driven we are to do well in school, we really have to prioritize our own future, take advantage of our civil responsibility, and protest when something needs to happen,” said, Alysa Chen, a 17-year-old senior who is the president of the school’s environmental club.

Chen has been making announcements and organizing other kids in her classes. And on Friday morning, she led roughly 100 students out of around 3,000 enrolled at the school who walked out of their school chanting, “Who’s power? Students’ power!”

On Friday morning, the students walked out through the front doors of the school, past the flagpoles, and across the street to an open sports field. Standing on the bleachers, Chen and other spoke to the crowd of students, including a couple dozen who joined them from another nearby high school.

“I have missed a math test. I’m screwing up my grades,” Bronx Science senior Sebastian Baez told the crowd through a megaphone. But “we are not here to skip school. We are here to change the world.” He then urged his peers to contact elected officials, to register to vote, and to keep talking about climate change after the strike ends — especially back at school.

17-year-old senior Eytan Stanton is another organizer of the strike along with Baez, Chen, Danes, and three others leading the work at Bronx Science. After consulting with his school’s building engineer on how to cut down the campus’s carbon footprint, he worked with his schoolmates to write up sustainability goals, which they included part of their demands for the strike. Together, they broke down the goals for greening the school into short, medium, and long-term deliverables.

Eytan StantonJustine Calma / Grist

The students found the most immediate gains would come from updating the school’s heating system. They want the school to get a summer boiler that they say will be more efficient in heating hot water during warmer months, allowing the school to shut off its larger boilers. They also want to switch from burning No. 2 oil for heat to natural gas to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The students are also pushing for smaller actions that have more to do with administrative choices than with big infrastructural changes. They want to make sure all computers are turned off for the weekends, and that utensils used at lunchtime aren’t wrapped in plastic. They also want to see more curriculum on climate change and instruction on how to make personal changes to live more sustainably.

The students have loftier aims for the longer-term, including switching to LED lighting, installing solar panels, and electrifying the heating system.

“It’s all backed by science, and it’s feasible,” said Stanton.

The Bronx Science students say their local focus doesn’t mean they’re ignoring the big picture. Along with those goals, they wrote a mission statement modeled after the format of a U.N. resolution, calling for a “war on climate change” and commitments to stick to goals set in the Paris Agreement.

Around 10:20 on Friday morning, after rallying outside their school for nearly an hour, about half of the crowd returned to class. The roughly 50 remaining students made their way to join a larger rally at New York City Hall. On the subway heading downtown, Arianna Luis, 17, Amara Reid, 17, Maya Schucherm, 16, and May Wang, 16, described what what was at stake for each of them. Of the four girls, only Luis didn’t get a pass to miss class, so she was marked absent for the day, but she had explained to her mom the night before why she was still going to rally. Luis said she feels her community has too much on the line to let an absence stand in the way of taking action.

“If you look at where my family is from in the Dominican Republic, people are farmers,” Luis said. “And if you don’t have enough water to water your crops, nobody’s eating.” Her classmates chimed in, each sharing the effects of climate change and burning fossil fuels that they see all around them — from pollution making people sick in the Bronx and in Beijing, where Wang’s family is from, to dirty beaches that Reid visited the last time her family returned to their native Jamaica.

Maya Schucherm, 16, May Wang, 16, Arianna Luis, 17, Amara Reid, 17,

The students say they know they won’t see changes overnight. Stanton and Chen, who worked to draft the demands for their school, expect the work to continue long after they graduate at the end of of the school year.

For all the Bronx Science students carefully researched demands to their school (they also met with the school’s assistant principal when drafting their plan), the district’s reaction has not yet been fruitful. The New York Department of Education has not endorsed their goals, and efforts to reach assembly members asking them to put pressure on school officials to grant amnesty to student strikes have gone unanswered.

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The New York City Department of Education emailed this response to Grist: “We encourage our students to raise their voices on issues that matter to them, and we also expect our students to be in attendance during the school day. We’ve issued guidance to school communities, and encourage schools to have discussions on current events and about the importance of civic engagement.”

Of the seven authors of the Bronx Science mission statement, Danes is the only underclassman who will still be at Bronx Science next year. Still, she also knows she won’t be alone. She’s exchanged emails with Alexandria Villaseñor, one of the organizers of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike. “I really would love to [meet] because she has been really my inspiration along with Greta Thunberg,” said Danes. At 13, Villasenor is three years younger than Danes. So who says your role models have to be older than you?

Alysa and Marian Chen outside City HallJustine Calma / Grist

As the rally continued outside New York’s City Hall, Alysa Chen’s mother, Marian, joined her daughter during her own lunch break from work. Standing nearby, she held her daughter’s bag and took photos as Alysa led chants and paced along the long line of young people singing in protest.

“I’m so happy they’re taking the lead to save everyone on earth,” Marian Chen told Grist. “Including us.”

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In the Green New Deal era, everyone has a climate ‘plan’ (even the right)

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In a tweet re-upping her support for a Green New Deal, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand pointed out that our political leaders have spent too long ignoring the topic of climate change. “Not one climate change question was asked in the 2016 presidential debates,” she wrote on Monday. “We can’t wait any longer to treat this like the urgent, existential threat it is, and to push bold ideas to transform our economy and save our planet.”

A lot can change in three years. Ever since New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey unveiled the targets of a Green New Deal — a national economic strategy to tackle warming and rising inequality — climate change has become a hot topic in Washington, D.C. Regardless of whether Congress ever passes any future Green New Deal legislation, the buzz around the plan has rocketed climate change near the top of the list of priorities for 2020 Democrats, Gillibrand included, and plopped the issue squarely on the national stage.

But not everyone is gung ho about the green utopia AOC and Markey outlined — a future in which workers are protected by unions, employed in high-paying green jobs, and covered by universal health care. Members of the GOP have not held back their disgust for the proposal. There’s already an endless reel of Fox News clips bashing Democrats for supporting a “socialist plot” to ban cows, airplanes, and everything else that sparks joy in the Republican party.

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Not to be outdone by social-media savvy progressives, a few moderates and right-wingers have come out with their own alternatives. Anything worth writing home about? Let’s take a look.

Michael Bloomberg

Much like his dream of putting a tax on Big Soda, the former Big Apple mayor’s presidential aspirations didn’t quite work out. He recently announced in an op-ed that he won’t enter the race, citing an overly crowded Democratic field as his main reason. His plan, instead, is to keep shoring up an initiative he started with the Sierra Club in 2016: a campaign to retire America’s coal plants called Beyond Coal. He’s also planning a new project called Beyond Carbon, although details on what exactly that entails are still fizzy, err, fuzzy.

Bloomberg took a minute to appraise the Green New Deal in his op-ed, boldly predicting what many others have already surmised: The current Senate will never pass it. “Mother Nature does not wait on our political calendar,”  he wrote, “and neither can we.”

John Kasich

The former governor of Ohio and once-and-maybe future Republican presidential candidate penned an op-ed of his own this week in USA Today. Of the Green New Deal, Kasich wrote, “Many Republicans and even some Democrats fear it would stifle economic growth and kill jobs, set off a massive redistribution of wealth, and dangerously centralize federal government power.”

Kasich makes the case that a more moderate series of market-based approaches will do a better job of tamping down rampant global warming. He calls for reducing methane emissions, continuing subsidies for electric vehicles, incentivizing more natural gas production, and doubling down on cap-and-trade.

Lisa Murkowski and Joe Manchin

The Alaska Republican and West Virginia Republ … [checks notes] … Democrat collaborated on an op-ed in the Washington Post calling for action on climate change. The senators did not mention the Green New Deal in their call to arms. Instead, they opted to emphasize the importance of bipartisanship in developing climate solutions. “We come from different parties, but we are both avid outdoorsmen and represent states that take great pride in the resources we provide to the nation and to friends and allies around the world,” the duo wrote.

Now, you may be thinking, didn’t Murkowski recently revel in President Trump’s decision to slip a provision into the tax reform bill opening up the pristine Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling? And hasn’t Joe Manchin voted anti-environment many times in the not-too-distant past? Correct on both fronts. So it’s not particularly surprising that the op-ed doesn’t offer much in the way of substantive climate solutions beyond the idea of “bipartisanship.”

The senators put their reaching-across-the-aisle plan in action by bashing the Green New Deal together at a global energy conference in Houston on Monday. Manchin said it had “no contents at all.” And Murkowski called the deal “distracting.” Instead, the two senators are laser-focused on a … carbon tax? Nope — in reply to a question posed by Axios’ Amy Harder, they each said they’re not ready to support that market-based solution yet, either.

Ernest Moniz and Andy Karsner

By contrast, a CNBC commentary co-written by Moniz, who served as secretary of energy under Obama, and Karsner, who was George W. Bush’s assistant secretary for the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, offers a slew of solutions. The authors propose a “Green Real Deal,” which prioritizes innovation, the need for region-specific climate solutions, and low-carbon technologies — including an increased reliance on natural gas and nuclear. (Editor’s note: Andy Karsner is a managing partner at Emerson Collective, one of Grist’s funders.)

“The mission is clear: Action is urgently needed to set and follow high-impact pathways to a low-carbon future,” Moniz and Karsner wrote on Monday. “We must, however, strive for a broader public consensus that respects local differences and allows all citizens equal opportunity to build a prosperous, fair, safe,and secure low-carbon future.”

John Barrasso

The Wyoming senator and chair of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works — who has labeled the Green New Deal “a raw deal” — published an op-ed in USA Today calling for more investment in nuclear and carbon-capture technologies. In it, he quoted an exorbitant price tag for the Green New Deal that, according to Politico, was effectively pulled from thin air by a conservative think tank. Barrasso also called the proposal “a gift to Russian President Vladimir Putin, weakening our economy and making us dependent on foreign energy.” Tell us how you really feel, buddy.

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In the Green New Deal era, everyone has a climate ‘plan’ (even the right)

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Atlantic Coast Pipeline delayed until 2021

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Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline boondoggle only grows worse.

If all had gone according to the company’s original plan for the contentious Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it would already be well on its way to carrying fracked gas. But the completion of the 600-mile pipeline — planned to run from West Virginia into North Carolina — has been delayed until 2021.

According to a spokesperson for Dominion, Karl Neddenien, all construction is halted because of multiple factors including increasing costs, and in part over a dispute regarding permits to cross the Appalachian Trail and national forests. He says the delay, caused by what he calls “well-financed” opposition groups, are impacting more than just the construction schedules, according to Neddenien.

“Their impact [of these delays are seen] in the communities and the families in their region. It’s really time to stop these pointless delays and get back to work building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” he said. “These delays are not improving or increasing environmental protections. We already have in place some outstanding protections.”

Opponents to the pipeline project, on the other hand, were encouraged by the announcement of the new, pushed-back timeline. “Anytime there’s a delay, we’re happy.” Chad Oba, chair of the Friends of Buckingham, an organization of Virginia residents opposed to the pipeline, told Grist. “It gives the public more opportunity to be informed about fossil fuel projects and how we don’t need more of them.” Buckingham is a historically black community where Dominion is slated to build a natural gas compressor station for the pipeline. Last month, the state’s Air Pollution Control Board voted unanimously to approve permits for the station despite vociferous community opposition.

Beyond construction setbacks, the project is going to cost a pretty penny: Estimated costs for the pipeline have ballooned to $ 7.5 billion (the original project was budgeted for around $6 billion.) And considering how demand for the pipeline is dwindling — thanks to competition from cheap, renewable sources — some experts aren’t sure the project will get up on its feet again.

Patrick Hunter, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, said the barrage of legal challenges and missing permits “leaves us with a serious question as to whether this thing will ever be built.” The Southern Environmental Law Center is one of many organizations to challenge Dominion’s construction, calling for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue its own stop-work.

(Dominion Energy did not immediately respond to Grist’s request for comment.)

Though the delay is good news for environmental groups, it’s a bit too early to whip out the champagne: Dominion said it currently expects the now-halted construction could begin again later this year.

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How are Republicans dealing with Green New Deal enthusiasm? As well as you’d expect.

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This post has been updated to include Senator Klobuchar’s endorsement of the Green New Deal.

Congressional Republicans don’t have a plan to tackle climate change — an issue voters across the political spectrum now agree needs to be addressed — but it only took a weekend for the GOP to come up with a response to the Green New Deal proposed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.

Surprise! The right is not a fan of the proposal, which calls for rapid decarbonization of the economy alongside other agenda items like universal healthcare, housing, and a federal jobs guarantee. Already, more than 15 percent of the House — 68 members — have signed on as sponsors of the deal. Supporters include five high-profile presidential contenders, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, and, most recently, Amy Klobuchar.

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Republicans, banking on the hope that backing such an ambitious proposal will come back to bite Democrats during the presidential election next year, unleashed a torrent of backhanded encouragement.

“It would be great for the so-called ‘Carbon Footprint’ to permanently eliminate all Planes, Cars, Cows, Oil, Gas & the Military – even if no other country would do the same. Brilliant!,” President Trump tweeted on Saturday. Eliminating airplanes and oil and gas would be great for our carbon footprint, but the resolution doesn’t actually call for an end to fossil fuels.

“I would like them to push it as far as they can. I’d like to see it on the floor. I’d like to see them actually have to vote on it,” Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson told Politico, adding, “It’s crazy. It’s loony.” South Carolina’s Lindsey Graham tweeted on Friday, “Let’s vote on the Green New Deal!”

Other Republicans took a more straightforward approach. Wyoming Republican and Environment Chair John Barrasso called the deal a “socialist manifesto.” “I think everyone on our side would say that the Green New Deal is a little bit much,” Michigan Representative Fred Upton told journalists.

Clearly, Republicans are a bit skeptical of the goals outlined in AOC and Markey’s resolution. But I think the Democrats pushing the deal would agree with Senator Graham: “Let’s vote on the Green New Deal!”

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How are Republicans dealing with Green New Deal enthusiasm? As well as you’d expect.

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