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Seattle’s ‘autonomous zone’ belongs to a grand tradition of utopian experiments

The year 2020 seems to be drawn straight from the plot of some discarded dystopian novel — a book that never got published because it sounded too far-fetched. Not only is there a pandemic to contend with, unemployment nearing levels last seen in the Great Depression, and nationwide protests against police brutality, but it’s all happening in the same year Americans are supposed to elect a president.

Amid the chaos and tear gas, some people see a chance to scrap everything and start over, a first step toward turning their visions for a better world into reality. In Seattle, protesters in one six-block stretch of Capitol Hill, a neighborhood near downtown, have created a community-run, police-free zone, recently renamed the Capitol Hill Organized Protest, CHOP. It’s a scene of masked crowds, vibrant signs and street art, a “no cop co-op” giving away food and supplies, and newly planted community gardens. In Minneapolis, volunteers turned a former Sheraton hotel into a “sanctuary” offering free food and hotel rooms — until they got evicted.

“We’re seeing a new resurgence of utopianism,” said Heather Alberro, an associate lecturer of politics at Nottingham Trent University in the United Kingdom who studies radical environmentalists and utopian thought.

Problems like climate change, the widening gap between the rich and everybody else, and racial inequality gives many the sense that they’re living through one giant unprecedented crisis. And these combined disasters create “the exact conditions that give rise to all sorts of expressions” of utopian thinking, Alberro said. From broad ideas like the Green New Deal — the climate-jobs-justice package popularized by New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — to Seattle’s “autonomous zone,” people are offering up new plans for how the world could operate. Whether they came from literature or real-life experiments, these idealistic efforts can spur wider cultural and political change, even if they falter.

A community garden in CHOP’s Cal Anderson Park. Grist / Kate Yoder

Based on President Donald Trump’s tweets about Seattle’s CHOP (or Fox News websites’ photoshopped coverage of the protest) you’d picture pure chaos, with buildings afire and protesters running amok. The reality was more like people sitting around in a park, screening movies like 13th, and making art. It’s a serious protest too, with crowds gathered for talks about racism and police brutality in front of an abandoned police precinct. The protesters’ demands include abolishing the Seattle Police Department, removing cops from schools, abolishing juvenile detention, and giving reparations to victims of police violence.

“The Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone #CHAZ is not a lawless wasteland of anarchist insurrection — it is a peaceful expression of our community’s collective grief and their desire to build a better world,” Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan tweeted last week.

The protest zone goes by many names: Originally called the Capitol Hill Autonomous Zone, or CHAZ, it was later rebranded as CHOP. The barricaded area, which spans from Cal Anderson Park into nearby streets, is part campground, part block party. Tourists wander through, snapping photos of the street art.

A week earlier, protests in Cal Anderson Park, sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others, were met by police officers spraying rubber bullets, mace, and tear gas. Then, last week, the police abandoned the area, and the protesters declared it their own, turning the “Seattle Police Department” into the “Seattle People Department” with a bit of spraypaint.

The CHAZ follows a long history of anti-capitalist experiments that reimagined the way the world was run. In 1871, the people of Paris, sick of oppression, rose up to take control of their city for a two-month stint. The Paris Commune canceled debt, suspended rent, and abolished the police, filling the streets with festivals. The French government soon quashed their experiment, massacring tens of thousands of Parisians in “The Bloody Week.” Even though it was short-lived, the Paris Commune inspired revolutionary movements for the next 150 years.

Protesters sleep in Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan during Occupy Wall Street, 2011. Ramin Talaie / Corbis via Getty Images

In 2011, Occupy Wall Street protestors took over New York City’s Zuccotti Park for two months to highlight the problems of income inequality. Their encampment offered free food, lectures, books, and wide-ranging discussions. The radical movement ended up changing the way Americans talked, giving them a new vocabulary — the “99 percent” and “1 percent” — and its concerns about income inequality went on to mold the priorities of the Democratic Party.

Alberro compared Seattle’s CHOP to a community of 300 environmental activists in western France who set up camp at a site earmarked for a controversial new airport starting in 2008. One of many ZADs (zones à défendre) that have sprung up in France, the community ended up being not just a place to protest the airport, but to take a stand against what protesters saw as the underlying problems — capitalism, inequality, and environmental destruction. (The government ended up shelving plans for the airport in 2018). “The point of these autonomous zones is not only to create these micro exemplars of better worlds,” Alberro said, “but also to physically halt present forces of destruction” — whether that’s an airport or, in the case of Capitol Hill, how police treat black people.

A bike rides past a farm in “la Zad,” a utopian community protesting an airport in Western France. LOIC VENANCE / AFP via Getty Images

Seattle has a lengthy history of occupations and political demonstrations tracing back to the Seattle General Strike in the early 1900s. The Civil Rights era brought sit-ins and marches. Indigenous protesters occupied an old military fort in 1970 and negotiated with the city to get 20 acres of Discovery Park. Two years later, activists occupied an abandoned elementary school in Beacon Hill, demanding that it be turned into a community center (now El Centro de la Raza).

And it might not be a coincidence that the new protest zone appeared on the West Coast, often portrayed in literature as an “ideal place” to set up utopian communities, Alberro said. For instance, the book Ecotopia, published in 1975 by Ernest Callenbach, depicted a green society — complete with high-speed magnetic-levitation trains! — formed when northern California, Oregon, and Washington seceded from the United States. The book went on to become a cult novel, influencing the environmental movement’s focus on local food, public transportation, and renewable energy.

Ecotopia isn’t exactly an ideal parallel for the current wave of protests, as its utopia was white. Callenbach envisioned a segregated society where black people opted to live in the less affluent “Soul City.” Still, it’s apparent that some of its other messages live on. Alberro has talked to many “radical” environmental protesters for her research, and most of them haven’t read any of the green utopian books she asks about. But they repeat some of the ideas and phrases from that literature nearly “word for word” when describing the changes they want to see in the world.

Though Seattle’s protest zone is focused on racial oppression, not environmental destruction, Alberro sees a similar impulse behind all these projects. “Many activists would argue that it’s all part of the same struggle,” she said, arguing that people can’t successfully take on environmental issues without addressing racism and other socioeconomic problems. “There seems to be a cultural atmosphere that molds these different movements, even though they often don’t come into contact with one another.”

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Seattle’s ‘autonomous zone’ belongs to a grand tradition of utopian experiments

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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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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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‘Another hurricane?’ How climate disasters can give us compassion fatigue

Hurricane season is just getting started, and some U.S. politicians (cough cough TRUMP cough cough) already seem to be suffering from climate-related compassion fatigue.

In response to the news that then-Tropical Storm Dorian (now a Category 1 hurricane) was on its way toward Puerto Rico, President Trump seemed to blame the U.S. territory — or at least the weather gods — for the island’s repeated weather-related woes.

“Wow! Yet another big storm heading to Puerto Rico. Will it ever end?” Trump tweeted on Monday. He went on to lament a falsely inflated federal price tag associated with recovery from Hurricane Maria, which hit the island as a Category 4 storm in 2017. “Congress approved 92 Billion Dollars for Puerto Rico last year, an all-time record of its kind for ‘anywhere.’” (Just to set the record straight, Congress has allocated only about $42 billion to Maria recovery — and only about $14 billion of the money has reached the island so far.)

Hurricane Dorian, which is expected to hit the island on Wednesday, is also giving Puerto Ricans a sense déjà vu. But in contrast to the mainland’s mild attitude of annoyance at the repeat event, the idea of another storm hitting the island is ramping up local concerns. Puerto Rico’s newly minted governor Wanda Vazquez declared a state of emergency as the island is still recovering from the devastation of Hurricane Maria. “Puerto Ricans on the island have a serious case of PTSD,” Timmy Boyle, the spokesman for environmental justice group ACASE, told Grist. “Right now, there are long lines in gas stations and empty shelves at supermarkets, especially with water.”

Hurricane Maria was the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, that killed almost 3,000 people. Some residents are still living under blue tarps from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Meanwhile, the Trump administration is pulling a whopping $271 million in funding from FEMA disaster relief to pay for immigration detention space and temporary hearing locations for asylum-seekers on the southern border

The scientific consensus is that climate change will contribute to more frequent extreme weather events — be they hurricanes in the Caribbean, heatwaves in Europe, or flooding in Bangladesh. On a global scale, these events showcase how climate change is becoming an ever-increasing problem. Serialized emergencies increase a place’s vulnerability to climate change by inflicting new stress before infrastructure or morale have fully recovered from the last tragedy. Yet those outside affected zones can start to unconsciously dismiss repeated disasters as simply “the new normal.”

Compassion fatigue is a phenomenon wherein people withdraw after long periods of taking on others’ emotional burdens. As a person becomes overexposed to bad news, they can become more indifferent toward that type of suffering. And according to some experts, the opposite effect — heightened climate anxiety — can be just as paralyzing. In a 2017 Atlantic article, journalist Julie Beck argued that climate anxiety can cause people to turn inward, focusing on their own emotional state versus the plight of others.

“We make the assumption that if people are aware of how urgent and frightening and scary these issues are, then people will automatically translate that into ‘Oh my gosh, what kind of actions can I take?’” Renee Lertzman, a psychologist who studies climate-change communication told Beck. “That’s just simply not the case.”

That lack of empathy, whether it’s a result of compassion fatigue, crippling climate anxiety, or just being kind of a jerk, is bad enough when it’s coming from your fellow Americans. But as Puerto Ricans know, it’s worse when it’s directed at you from the commander in chief. “Trump shows no compassion for us,” said Jessica Montero Negrón, a community leader in the rural municipality of Utuado, speaking in her native Spanish. “People here are really scared.”

The solution, at least for locals, is to err on the side of being safe rather than sorry and fight harder for resources when it comes to future storms. On CNN, San Juan Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz — who has a history of sparring with Trump — said, “It seems like some people have learned the lessons of the past or are willing to say that they didn’t do right by us the first time and they are trying to do their best. That is not the case with the president of the United States.”

“We are not going to be concerned by, frankly, his behavior, his lack of understanding, and it is ludicrous. So get out of the way, President Trump, and let people who can do the job get the job done.”

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‘Another hurricane?’ How climate disasters can give us compassion fatigue

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Trump’s New York buildings need to cut emissions or pay millions in fines

“Don’t mess with your hometown.” That was the message New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio had Monday afternoon for real-estate-mogul-turned-President Donald Trump, who has several properties subject to carbon emissions targets recently set by the Big Apple.

If the Trump organization fails to reduce the carbon footprint of the eight buildings in question, it could face more than $2 million in yearly fines starting in 2030.

“[Trump’s] not just a problem because of his policies in Washington. He’s a problem because his buildings are among the biggest polluters in New York City,” said de Blasio, who has confronted the president time and again over issues ranging from global warming to immigration.

Trump has often undermined the science of global warming, including reports issued by his own administration. He’s also said he intends to take the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement — a promise House Democrats symbolically attempted to block by passing a doomed pro-climate bill earlier this month.

In April, New York City passed the Climate Mobilization Act, a package of 10 bills aimed at keeping the city compliant with carbon reduction goals outlined in the Paris accord. De Blasio expanded municipal climate policies by outlining his city-level “Green New Deal” (not to be confused with New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s own statewide version, or Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s much-discussed federal Green New Deal, which in its most clearly formed iteration is still just a non-binding resolution).

Keeping to NYC, De Blasio’s $14 billion deal would cut down greenhouse gas emissions by 30 percent by 2030.

Nearly 70 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions come from its buildings. The Climate Mobilization Act mandates buildings larger than 25,000 square feet reduce emissions by 40 percent by 2040 and 80 percent by 2050. These megastructures are just two percent of real estate in the city but are responsible for half of building emissions.

According to the mayor, Trump’s buildings’ carbon footprint is equivalent to 5,800 cars. “Maybe President Trump has forgotten where he comes from. This is the city that has suffered because of global warming and we are still vulnerable,” said de Blasio, referencing the devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy in 2012.

Speaking alongside the mayor at a rally inside Trump Tower, New York Communities for Change board member Rachel Rivera spoke about how she and her daughter are still recovering from Sandy seven years later. “We ran into the night with nothing  . . . When it rains extremely hard, [my daughter] gets extremely anxious,” she said. “New York City will not survive without a radical action to stop climate change.”

Rivera’s comments were met with both cheers and boos — the latter from counter-protesters who interrupted the gathering bearing signs that read, “Trump 2020.”

“Clearly the Trump Organization is a little sensitive to the fact that we’re calling them out for what they are doing to the climate and the way this building is a part of the problem,” de Blasio said. “But, we will not back down.”

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Trump’s New York buildings need to cut emissions or pay millions in fines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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New York City’s newly passed Green New Deal, explained

This story has been updated.

As the rest of the country continues to go back and forth over the possibility of a nationwide Green New Deal, New York City is forging ahead with its own version. The Climate Mobilization Act passed the city council on Thursday with a vote of 45 to 2 amidst cheers and applause from those inside the chambers.

The bundle of 10 bills will keep the city in line with emissions reduction targets set by the Paris Climate Agreement. Mayor Bill de Blasio is expected to sign the bill into law in the coming weeks.*

“This package of bills will be the single largest carbon reduction effort in any city, anywhere, not just New York City, that has been put forward,” said Committee for Environmental Protection Chair Costa Constantinides in a committee hearing the morning of the vote. “By our calculations, it will result in the equivalent of taking more than one million cars off the road by 2030.” Proponents of the legislation say it will have a significant impact on air quality in the city, which has higher than the national average asthma rates and create thousands of new middle-class jobs for the city.

Making big changes to meet climate goals in New York City is tricky because so much of the city’s day-to-day operation–from public transportation to water, even its ability to ban plastic bags — is controlled by the state government. By focusing largely on local building standards, the city has been able to carve out green legislation within its jurisdiction.

The act’s pièce de résistance is a bill that requires many of city’s buildings to significantly slash their carbon emissions starting in 2024, reducing overall emissions by 40 percent by 2030. Buildings are responsible for almost 70 percent of New York City’s greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2017 estimate. The Mayor’s Office of Sustainability estimates upgrades needed to meet the act’s emissions caps would cost building owners around $4 billion, according to the New York Times. The measure was vehemently opposed by the real estate industry, which argued the bill is costly, unrealistic and puts an unfair burden on the owners of buildings not exempted from the law.

New York’s powerful real estate lobby has been fighting energy-efficient building legislation as far back as 2009 when then-Mayor Bloomberg proposed a similar rule. So in a city where the real estate industry so often gets its way, today’s vote really stands out.

But the times are a’changing, and even skeptical New Yorkers (and potential 2020 presidential candidates) like Mayor Bill de Blasio, who recently called the act “very aggressive,” have come around in support of the measure. “Climate change poses an existential threat to New York City, and making buildings more sustainable and efficient is a key part of the solution,” said de Blasio’s Office of Sustainability via email. “Protecting New Yorkers from climate change is not optional.”

What does the act do?

The act consists of 10 bills which aim to reduce the city’s greenhouse gas emissions in a myriad of ways. Some of the standouts:

  1. A bill that requires the city to conduct a feasibility study by 2021 looking at closing the city’s 24 gas- and oil-fueled power plants in favor of renewable sources and batteries to store excess energy. The study would be revisited every four years.
  2. Green roofs on new and smaller buildings: two bills in the package stipulate that roofs should be covered in plants, solar panels, mini wind turbines or some combination of the three. Green roofs help filter pollutants and add agricultural space in cities.
  3. The final resolution of the package calls upon the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to deny the Water Quality Certification permit for the Williams Pipeline, which is proposed to bring fracked natural gas from Pennsylvania to the New York. Governor Cuomo banned fracking in New York in 2014, but proponents say the pipeline is necessary to meet the growing demand for natural gas, and that it will facilitate a city-mandated transition away from using dirtier oil for heating.
  4. It wasn’t voted on today, but an additional measure to convert all school buses to electric within 20 years was also included in the package, part of New York City’s goal to switch all public buses to electric by 2040. The council expects to vote on this bill by Earth day.

But the meatiest (veggiest?) bill of the bunch is unofficially known as the “Dirty Buildings Bill.” It requires around 50,000 of the city’s buildings to cut emissions by 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 by installing new windows, insulation and other retrofits to become more energy efficient. The legislation targets buildings over 25,000 square feet, which make up just 2 percent of the city’s real estate but account for about half of all building emissions. If landlords fail to meet targets, they will be forced to pay a fine of up to millions of dollars per year. Some of the guilty buildings will include Trump Tower, the Empire State Building, One World Trade Center, and 15 Central Park West.

Not every edifice will have to scramble to make energy-efficient updates. Non-profits, hospitals, religious sites, rent-controlled housing and residential buildings of four stories or less are exempted from the bill in various ways. The legislation also creates a low-interest energy loan program to help building owners get funding to make these green improvements. Councilmember Constantinides said that they designed the loans so that, most loan recipients should see a net gain after all is said and done after factoring in the cost savings from improved energy efficiency.

Who stands to benefit?

Well, the earth, naturally. But people-wise, NYC is hoping the construction work involved in the building overhaul bill will benefit the city’s shrinking middle class while simultaneously improving public health.

“By 2030, this bill will create 26,700 green jobs, and will prevent 43 premature deaths and 107 Emergency Room visits annually by 2030,” the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability wrote in an email to Grist.

A study by New York Working Families and the non-profit ALIGN NY found that the new laws would create 23,627 “direct construction jobs” implementing the retrofits, and 16,995 “indirect jobs” like building operation and maintenance jobs, manufacturing and professional services per year until 2030.

“We wanted to ensure legislation that tackled both climate change and inequality,” said Peter Sikora, the climate and inequality campaigns director with grassroots organization New York Communities for Change. “You can’t fight climate change on the backs of poor people of color, that’s not right.”

The bill looking at phasing out oil- and gas-fueled power plants could have a significant impact on air quality neighborhoods where existing plants are located. Many of the city’s power plants are in low-income areas, where local residents suffer from pollution.

Who put up a fight?

Hospitals and other healthcare facilities are among the biggest energy users among New York City buildings over 25,000 feet. Before the act passed, hospital representatives were seeking a total exemption from the “Dirty Buildings Bill” rules — but they were ultimately denied.

Hospitals are among the biggest energy users among buildings over 25,000 feet. . “Hospitals, in all fairness, are unusual because they’re 24-hour operations and have federal rules” such as replacing their indoor air a certain number of times per day, Sikora said. Still, “It’s ironic that healthcare institutions were lobbying against anti-pollution requirements.”

Although hospitals didn’t receive the full exemption from the new laws, they are being held to the lowest standard allowed by the “Dirty Buildings” bill, meaning they’ll still have to cut emissions, but not on the same timeline or to the same extent as other facilities.

What’s next?

Back to the power plant bill: Once the feasibility study is completed, what will be the next steps to start shutting down these pollution-spewing energy generators? There aren’t any guarantees or safeguards built into the legislation to say how, or when, the city council will use the study’s findings to begin divesting from the dirty fuel or shutting down power plants impacting lower-income communities.“The City Council will continue its work to move away from fossil fuel and into more renewable energy sources,” a spokesperson for New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson told Grist.

Sikora agreed that the city’s Green New Deal plans are fuzzy for now. “There are loads of details and implementation issues and administrative actions and financing mechanisms that need to take place moving forward,” he said.

The fate of the Williams Pipeline also remains to be seen. Even though the Climate Mobilization Act includes a resolution condemning the pipeline, it’s still largely up to Governor Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation, which has until May 16 to issue a key water certification that’d allow construction to begin this year. Even as environmental advocates celebrated New York’s Green New Deal vote, some participants peeled off for a march in protest of the fracked gas pipeline.

*This story previously stated that New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio signed the Climate Mobilization Act on Thursday. According to his spokesperson, he has not yet signed it, but will in the near future.

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New York City’s newly passed Green New Deal, explained

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New York City public schools will adopt ‘Meatless Mondays’

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Bye-bye, sloppy joes. Hello, tofu! Earlier this week New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that starting next school year, New York City’s public school lunchrooms will not serve meat on Mondays.

“Cutting back on meat a little will improve New Yorkers’ health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said in a statement (which was released, naturally, on a Monday.) “We’re expanding Meatless Mondays to all public schools to keep our lunch and planet green for generations to come.”

The New York City school district is the nation’s largest and includes more than 1,800 schools and  1.1 million students. The city’s “Meatless Monday” effort started out as a pilot program in 15 Brooklyn schools, where it proved to be both cost-effective and popular with students.

The fact that kids in NYC are down to munch on vegetarian or vegan meals once per week isn’t really a shocker; plant-based diets are more common among young people. Plus, the younger generation is pretty riled up about climate change, and there is no shortage of evidence that large-scale meat production plays a significant role in greenhouse gas emissions.

“Reducing our appetite for meat is one of the single biggest ways individuals can reduce their environmental impact on our planet,” said Mark Chambers, Director of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Sustainability, in a statement. “Meatless Mondays will introduce hundreds of thousands of young New Yorkers to the idea that small changes in their diet can create larger changes for their health and the health of our planet.”

New York Public Schools is not the first district to adopt the policy — more than 100 other districts across the country have also signed on. So, so long, Monday mystery meat! You will not be missed.


New York City public schools will adopt ‘Meatless Mondays’

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The Green New Deal is quickly becoming a test for 2020 Democrats

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New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey released their non-binding Green New Deal resolution Thursday morning; it outlines a vision of the future that’s a lot different from the one we’re in.

We’re talkin’ universal healthcare, a federal jobs guarantee, a transition to clean energy in a matter of decades, and more, much more. It’s a lot — and would have a tough slog becoming law in this Congress. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has already labeled the ambitious proposal “a suggestion.”

But the vague scope of the deal is intended to be a feature, not a bug. Believe it or not, the policies that would make up a Green New Deal aren’t actually meant to pass Congress just yet. Gasp! No really, welcome to politics. The resolution serves up two big questions: The less central one is, can House Democrats rally behind this ambitious climate proposal?

Remember, Pelosi isn’t running for president, and if this deal ever comes to the table, its proponents are banking on a new president in the White House and Democratic leadership in both houses of Congress. Which brings us to the main question: Can 2020 Democrats throw their support behind this level of bold climate action?

What’s included in Thursday’s proposal is just as important as what’s left out, particularly when it comes to getting presidential candidates on board. The resolution doesn’t exclude a price on carbon — an emissions-reducing mechanism favored by liberals and some conservatives — nor is there a strict definition of what “100 percent renewable energy” means. So someone like Cory Booker, a 2020 presidential candidate who happens to support nuclear energy, can comfortably put his name down as a cosigner of the new resolution.

Including Booker, five presidential candidates have cosigned AOC and Markey’s resolution: Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Bernie Sanders. Former Housing Secretary Julián Castro hasn’t explicitly said he backs this proposal, but he has expressed support for a Green New Deal in the past. Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Hawaii Senator Tulsi Gabbard, and former Maryland Representative John Delaney haven’t indicated if they support the proposed resolution yet.

With heavyweights like Warren and Harris on board, it’s becoming clear that a progressive Green New Deal will likely be a central tenet of any Democrat’s 2020 agenda. “We’re going to press all elected officials, especially 2020 contenders, to support this resolution. Where they stand on the resolution will make it clear who is using the Green New Deal as a buzzword and who is serious about transforming our economy in line with what science and justice demand,” Stephen O’Hanlon, communications director of the youth-led climate advocacy group Sunrise Movement said in an emailed statement.

For the likes of Gillibrand and Booker, signing on now is a quick way to make inroads with parts of the Democratic base. For Warren and Sanders, this proposal is catnip for their supporters.

So what all are these candidates putting their names on? Even taking vague language into account, there are a lot of ambitious elements in the resolution:

A job for every American: “guaranteeing a job with a family-sustaining wage, adequate family and disability leave, paid vacations, and retirement security to all people of the United States.”
A right to unionize: “strengthening and protecting the right of all workers to organize, unionize, and collectively bargain free of coercion, intimidation, and harassment.”
Death to monopolies: “ensuring a commercial environment where every businessperson is free from unfair competition and domination by domestic or international monopolies.”
Healthcare for everyone! And … housing for everyone? “[P]roviding all members of society with high-quality health care, affordable, safe and adequate housing, economic security, and access to clean water, air, healthy and affordable food, and nature.”

As you can see, this isn’t your run-of-the-mill resolution. We’ll see how many of these ambitious plot points survive the journey through the Washington machine.


The Green New Deal is quickly becoming a test for 2020 Democrats

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Here’s where 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro stands on the environment

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Last week, President Obama’s former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro announced he is running for president. Castro is well known in San Antonio, Texas, where he served as mayor from 2009 to 2014, but he’s not exactly a household name elsewhere in the country just yet. The Latino Democrat’s 2020 policy agenda includes progressive crowd-pleasers like universal pre-K and Medicare-for-all, but where does he stand on the environment?

We don’t have to speculate about Castro’s environmental intentions. During his announcement speech on Saturday, Castro swore to reaffirm America’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement and pass some version of a Green New Deal.

There’s reason to believe he isn’t just jumping on the climate change bandwagon because other (rumored and official) 2020 contenders — such as Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, and Washington state Governor Jay Inslee — have made climate change a central component of their platforms. While he was the mayor of San Antonio, Castro pushed the city’s public utility to close a 900-megawatt coal-powered plant, adopt a 20 percent renewable energy by 2020 pledge, and offer green jobs training. The city also launched a small car-sharing program and a bike-share system aimed at making transportation greener under his leadership.

But Castro’s environmental record isn’t blemish-free. In 2011, during his time as mayor, he touted the economic benefits of fracked gas for his district. “This is the kind of moment that only comes once a century,” he said of a proposed fracking project in the Eagle Ford Shale. And the native Texan has not yet taken the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge — a vow to eschew donations from Big Oil PACs that has only been taken by a few 2020 contenders thus far, including Warren and Inslee.

So as 2020 presidential candidates keep pushing each other further left, will Castro draw a clearer line in the sand when it comes to climate? We’ll keep you posted.

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Here’s where 2020 presidential candidate Julián Castro stands on the environment

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