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The Atlantic hurricane season just started. It’s already breaking records.

As you read this, the third named storm of the Atlantic hurricane season, which officially started on June 1, is churning its way across southern Mexico. Meteorologists expect it to soon head northward, where it could gather strength over the warm, open waters of the Gulf of Mexico. It’s unlikely that Cristobal will turn into a full-blown hurricane, but experts say it’s likely that the storm will slam into the Gulf Coast late this weekend or early next week.

Cristobal developed winds greater than 39miles per hour, the minimum for a named storm, on Tuesday — one day after the official start of the hurricane season. If that feels a bit early for the third named storm of the season to rear its head, that’s because it is. For the past six years straight, a named tropical storm has appeared in May, days or weeks ahead of the official start date. But the Atlantic doesn’t usually spawn so many powerful storms so fast: This is the first time the third named storm of the Atlantic season has arrived so early.

In 2019, the third named storm of the season arrived on August 20. That’s due in part to the fact that last year had an El Niño, a wind pattern that blows warm air into the Pacific Ocean and sucks cold water into the Atlantic, helping to suppress storms there. This year looks like it could develop into a La Niña year, when the opposite weather pattern occurs, creating conditions for more hurricanes to develop in the Atlantic Ocean. Ocean water warmed by rising global temperatures (read: climate change) in the tropical Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea also contributes to the likelihood of an unusually active hurricane season. The National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration’s annual hurricane forecast predicts between 13 and 19 named storms including six to 10 hurricanes (compared to the average six).

“In modern history, this is unusual from the standpoint that you typically see the third storm in August,” Dan Kottlowski, AccuWeather’s lead hurricane expert, told Grist. Warm water, he said, is the main culprit. “You only have to take the temperature up maybe a half a degree Celsius for it to be more optimal for storm development.” Kottlowski said ocean surface temperatures in the Atlantic have risen since 1995, something he attributes in part to the way the ocean naturally cycles water but is also tied to rising global temperatures in recent years.

Right now, Kottlowski expects Cristobal to move through the western portion of the Yucatán over the next day or so, move off the west coast of the Yucatán, and then track toward the center of the Gulf, making landfall somewhere along the Louisiana coast late Sunday. While it’s more likely that Cristobal will make landfall as a strong tropical storm than a hurricane, Kottlowski says flooding will be widespread. “It’s very possible storm surge values could be well above three feet, perhaps as high as six feet, from this storm,” he said. “That will be enough to inundate a good part of the coastal area of Louisiana.” Flooding could penetrate deep into the state, he said, hitting areas that were flooded last year during Hurricane Barry.

When hurricanes hit coastal states frequently affected by extreme weather, communities of color and low-income neighborhoods — often situated in low-lying areas with aging infrastructure — suffer most. Louisiana is no exception. After Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in 2005, black residents of New Orleans and the surrounding areas were far more likely than whites to say they experienced 7 out of 10 hurricane-related hardships.

John Morales, a weather reporter and meteorologist for NBC6 in Miami who frequently highlights the connection between hurricanes and climate change for his viewers, says he is troubled by recent research that shows a statistically significant increase in the proportion of tropical storms that become major hurricanes globally. “We do know that out of the hurricanes that are forming, a greater percentage of these are becoming category 3, 4, and 5,” Morales said. He recalls the 28-storm 2005 hurricane season, when forecasters ran out of names for storms and had to start pulling letters from the Greek alphabet. “By the end of that hurricane season I was exhausted,” he said. “To think that, right now, we might be dealing with 20 storms, that is a significantly active hurricane season — it’s going to be really exhausting.”


The Atlantic hurricane season just started. It’s already breaking records.

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Trump is sneaking environmental rollbacks past a nation in quarantine

In the weeks since the novel coronavirus began its exponential spread across America, schools have closed; churches, synagogues, and mosques have canceled services; and non-essential businesses have shuttered. The U.S. economy has ground to a halt. But the Trump administration and some state governments are still going full steam ahead on rolling back environmental protections.

So what’s been happening while we’ve been sheltering in place? A whole lot. “Consistent” isn’t generally a word used to describe this president, but Trump has been nothing if not consistent in his commitment to ensuring unfettered freedom for big polluters.

On Tuesday, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency put the nail in the coffin of President Obama’s 2012 rule aimed at curbing auto emissions. That rule would have required automakers to improve the fuel economy standards of their cars and light fleet trucks to by 5 percent on average a year. Trump’s new rule will only require them to raise those standards by 1.5 percent annually. For an idea of how easy Trump has made life for automakers, the industry has said it would boost standards 2.4 per year sans regulation.

Trump says the Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient Vehicles rule will make new cars cheaper and bolster auto manufacturers in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. But loosening restrictions on automakers will lead to a billion more tons of carbon dioxide emitted and 80 billion more gallons of gasoline consumed cars over the course of their lifetimes. California is currently in a courtroom tussle with the EPA over a waiver that would allow the state to sidestep Trump’s rule and continue imposing stricter tailpipe emissions rules on vehicles driven in its jurisdiction.

Speaking of the EPA, the agency, helmed by former coal lobbyist Andrew Wheeler, is steadily moving forward with other rollbacks. Among them, a rule that could hobble future federal health regulations by limiting the studies regulators can use in the rulemaking process. Wheeler says the agency’s new rule to require disclosure of the raw data behind scientific studies used by the government to make regulations will increase transparency. Health experts argue it’ll exclude key studies that rely on confidential medical data.

Not content to move ahead with rollbacks that were already in the works, the EPA is also using the coronavirus as an excuse to let polluters loose on the playground. Last week, the agency announced it was going to let facilities like power plants and factories regulate themselves during the pandemic. The EPA will not issue fines for some air, water, and hazardous waste violations, and that loosening of restrictions will take retroactive effect going back to March 13. Companies should “act responsibly,” according to the EPA. Fat chance.

At the Department of the Interior, a similar saga is playing out. Last week, the department refused to extend the public comment period on its proposed reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, a 1918 rule protecting more than 800 avian species. The agency also kept moving along plans this month to consider drilling projects on previously protected lands in Alaska and New Mexico, and is continuing oil and gas drilling lease auctions apace.

States are getting in on the deregulatory action, too. Over the past two weeks, Kentucky, South Dakota, and West Virginia quietly passed laws that would penalize pipeline protesters. Under the new state laws, fossil fuel infrastructure like the Dakota Access Pipeline are designated “critical infrastructure” or “key infrastructure assets.” Causing damage above a certain dollar amount or tampering with those assets could now lead to felony charges.

Meanwhile, the governors of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Illinois have already temporarily banned or officially discouraged reusable bags in grocery stores, and Maine’s plastic bag ban is being postponed until January 2021. Republican officials arguing against efforts to limit plastic pollution are taking talking points from the plastics industry. The president of the Plastic Industries Association recently said, “As the coronavirus spreads across the country, single-use plastics will only become more vital.” But the science behind the assertion that plastic bags spread the virus is thin, and a recent study showed the virus is still viable on plastic surfaces after 72 hours.

It’s clear that the coronavirus crisis has handed Trump and conservative state lawmakers a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to do away with environmental protections they find too burdensome. Too bad social distancing isn’t effective for pollution.

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Trump is sneaking environmental rollbacks past a nation in quarantine

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Democrats want travel industry to reduce emissions in exchange for coronavirus bailout

As you read this, U.S. lawmakers are rushing to push a third coronavirus aid package through Congress to help alleviate the economic burden the pandemic has placed on people and industry. (The first, passed two weeks ago, was an $8 billion package that boosted funding for COVID-19 testing, and the second round of funding, signed Wednesday night, was aimed at providing paid family and sick leave to affected Americans.) Democrats want the new package to include measures that will reduce emissions from major polluters.

In a letter to the majority and minority leadership of both houses in Congress on Wednesday, eight Democratic senators, including former presidential candidate Cory Booker of New Jersey, asked Congress to include stricter environmental requirements for industries asking for bailouts from the economic fallout of the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Specifically, the senators highlighted the aviation and cruise industries, which are major contributors of greenhouse gas emissions — the former account for 2.5 percent of total carbon dioxide emissions globally, and the latter burns heavy fuel oil (“one of the dirtiest fuels,” the letter points out). The aviation industry has asked Congress for $50 billion in aid, more than three times the amount it received in the aftermath of 9/11.

“If we give the airline and cruise industries assistance without requiring them to be better environmental stewards,” the senators wrote, “we would miss a major opportunity to combat climate change and ocean dumping.” In addition to Booker, the letter’s signatories were Senators Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Tina Smith of Minnesota, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, and Jeff Merkley of Oregon.

On Twitter, Whitehouse made his point more forcefully.

His colleague Markey, co-author of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in the Senate and House last February, agreed.

Unfortunately, it’s unlikely these Democrats have the leverage to compel the Republican-controlled Senate and President Trump to enforce stricter environmental regulations in exchange for coronavirus aid. And it’s not clear that their colleagues in the Senate and House have the bandwidth to tackle both coronavirus and climate change at the moment under such a tight deadline. But with airlines and cruise companies desperate for a bailout, there may never be a better time to make them change their polluting ways.

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Democrats want travel industry to reduce emissions in exchange for coronavirus bailout

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Washington and Nevada join the swelling list of states aiming for 100% clean power

The peer pressure to clean up the electric grid is gripping the country.

Recent weeks have brought a flurry of ambitious clean-energy pledges. On Earth Day, Nevada’s governor signed into law a measure banning fossil-fuel generated electricity by 2050. Washington’s legislature just sent a bill to Governor Jay Inslee (the presidential contender) that would have the Evergreen State running on purely carbon-free electricity by 2030. Last month, New Mexico committed to 100 percent clean electricity by 2045. California, Hawaii, Washington D.C., and Puerto Rico, passed similar laws a bit further back. There are similar bills pending in Illinois, Minnesota, New York, New Jersey, Virginia, Florida, and Massachusetts. And don’t forget the 100-odd cities —  from Orlando, Florida to Pueblo, Colorado — that have vowed to kick their fossil-fuel addiction.

“Voters and state legislatures are being pretty darn clear that there’s widespread support for getting the electricity sector to 100 percent clean,” said Josh Freed, who runs the energy program at the Third Way think tank in Washington, D.C. “In our wildest expectations, we couldn’t have anticipated this much action this quickly.”

It’s a seismic shift from the 1990s and 2000s, when states made goals to get get a certain share of their electricity from renewable power. Those laws were designed to help the nascent renewables industry find its footing, Freed said. Now that the industry is up and running, “the next question is, how do we get carbon off the grid?”

That’s why everyone seems to be excited about the same goal. And this isn’t just the flavor of the month — there’s a good reason to focus on a carbon-free electric system. Though there are still hurdles to leap, states basically know how to eliminate emissions from the electrical grid, said Mike O’Boyle, head of electricity policy at the think tank Energy Innovation in San Francisco. You can’t say the same about eliminating emissions from air-travel or concrete production, at least not yet. So squeezing the greenhouse gases out of electricity is a clearly achievable goal. And there are beneficial knock-on effects: It paves the way to clean up transportation (by switching to electric vehicles) and buildings (by switching to electric heating and cooling).

“It think its a robust and meaningful trend,” O’Boyle said. “A lot of gubernatorial candidates, and presidential candidates, have campaigned on 100-percent clean electricity. It’s become part of the conventional wisdom that it’s a realistic and effective policy goal.”

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Washington and Nevada join the swelling list of states aiming for 100% clean power

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Former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt confirmed as Interior secretary. Yay?

The Senate confirmed David Bernhardt, a former oil lobbyist, as Interior secretary on Thursday afternoon in a 56-41 vote. Three Democrats — West Virginia’s Joe Manchin, New Mexico’s Martin Heinrich, and Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema — crossed party lines to vote in Bernhardt’s favor, along with Angus King, an Independent from Maine.

“I believe Mr. Bernhardt is clearly qualified to serve as secretary,” Manchin, the top Democrat of the Senate committee that oversees the Interior, said during a floor speech. “He knows the Interior Department inside and out and he is well versed on all the issues that come before it.”

The reason Bernhardt knows the department so well? He’s been serving as acting Interior secretary since January when Ryan Zinke, the department’s former head, resigned amid ethics investigations.

Bernhardt’s work as a longtime lobbyist for the oil and gas industry has led to concerns about conflicts of interest. To keep track of all of his recusals for former clients, he carries with him a card listing all of their names, the Washington Post reports. The Interior is entrusted with some 700 million acres of public lands and 1.7 billion acres off the country’s shores, and as the head of the department, there is a high chance that Bernhardt will oversee businesses he once lobbied for.

While Republicans rejoiced the moment, Senator Chuck Schumer, a Democrat from New York, was outraged. “Donald Trump campaigns on cleaning up the swamp and he does exactly the opposite when in office. An oil and gas lobbyist as head of the Department of Interior? My God,” Schumer said during floor remarks on Wednesday. “That’s an example of the swampiness of Washington if there ever was one.”

Speaking of swamps, environmental activists are not having it. Remember the viral video of the “swamp creature” seated behind Bernhardt during one of his confirmation hearings? That was Greenpeace activist Irene Kim, who put on the mask in protest as Bernhardt fielded questions from senators about his previous lobbying.

“David Bernhardt’s ties to Big Oil — the very industry he is tasked w/ regulating — are as deep as an oil well,” Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts and cosponsor of the Green New Deal, wrote in a tweet. “Those ties should be disqualifying for anyone nominated to head the Interior. We must stop the pollution of our democracy by Big Oil interests.”

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Former oil lobbyist David Bernhardt confirmed as Interior secretary. Yay?

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Kingbird Highway – Kenn Kaufman


Kingbird Highway

The Biggest Year in the Life of an Extreme Birder

Kenn Kaufman

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: April 11, 2006

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Seller: OpenRoad Integrated Media, LLC

An ornithologist’s account of his youthful, year-long, cross-country birdwatching adventure: “A fascinating memoir of an obsession.” — Booklist At sixteen, Kenn Kaufman dropped out of the high school where he was student council president and hit the road, hitching back and forth across America, from Alaska to Florida, Maine to Mexico. Maybe not all that unusual a thing to do in the seventies, but what Kenn was searching for was a little different: not sex, drugs, God, or even self, but birds. A report of a rare bird would send him hitching nonstop from Pacific to Atlantic and back again. When he was broke he would pick fruit or do odd jobs to earn the fifty dollars or so that would last him for weeks. His goal was to set a record—most North American species seen in a year—but along the way he began to realize that at this breakneck pace he was only looking, not seeing. What had been a game became a quest for a deeper understanding of the natural world. Kingbird Highway is a unique coming-of-age story, combining a lyrical celebration of nature with wild, and sometimes dangerous, adventures, starring a colorful cast of characters.

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Kingbird Highway – Kenn Kaufman

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The bad news about your favorite Mexican beers

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

Best enjoyed ice cold, the beers of Mexico are red-hot in the United States. Between 2013 and 2017, sales of brews from south of the border surged 44 percent, even as domestic beer sales dipped 3.5 percent. A single company benefits most from this cerveza boom: New York-based beverage giant Constella­tion Brands, which bought the U.S. rights to Mexican megabrands Corona, Modelo, Victoria, and Pacifico as part of a $4.8 billion deal back in 2013.

Constellation’s properties now account for about 1 in 11 brews sold in the United States. For investors, this fact has gone down like a frosty Corona on a broiling beach: Since June 2012, when Constellation first signaled it would take over U.S. distribution, the company’s stock has risen seven times over, driven largely by the explosive growth of its beer division.

But Constellation’s Mexican beer assets are complicated. The company can only sell the products in the United States (the Belgian-Brazilian behemoth AB InBev owns the Mexican rights), but the beer must be made in Mexico. To minimize hauling costs, the Constellation megabreweries are situated along the border. The company touts its flagship facility in Nava, Coahuila, less than 30 miles south of Eagle Pass, Texas, as “one of the world’s largest and most automated breweries,” churning out one case of beer for every drinking-age U.S. adult a year, as a promotional video puts it.

As U.S. demand for Constellation’s beer grows, the company plans to invest $1.8 billion in expansion over the next three years. A big chunk of that will go toward a massive new beer factory in Mexicali, a midsize city at the northeastern corner of Baja California. Mexicali sits in a blistering-hot desert that gets an average of three inches of rain per year and relies on the overtaxed Colorado River for its water needs. That’s not a great situation, given that the once-mighty waterway’s average annual flow between 2000 and 2014 was nearly 20 percent less than it was in the 20th century, a trend that will likely continue over the next decades as the climate changes. And some of Mexico’s portion of that water goes to Tijuana (pop. 1.8 million), as well as one of the country’s more productive farming regions. According to Mexico’s federal water agency, the Mexicali Valley water table is overstressed, with annual withdrawals far exceeding recharge.

Once it’s up and running in about two years, the Constellation brewery in Mexicali plans to make more than 132 million gallons of beer each year. A Constellation spokesman says the company’s breweries typically require about three gallons of water for every gallon of finished product. That’s at least 396 million gallons of water per year — the same amount it would take to supply more than 14,000 people with running water, at a time when about 200,000 Baja Californians already lack access to this basic necessity.

The company insists water shortages aren’t likely — the spokesperson said the new brewery will draw from Mexicali’s municipal waterworks and require at most 2 percent of the water supply annually. But in its yearly report, Constellation acknowledged that “there is no guarantee” there will be sufficient water for beer production. Indeed, back in 2016, the mayor of a town near Constellation’s Nava plant accused the brewery of taking so much water that his residents’ taps went dry. (Constellation says the water problems in the area were the result of poor infrastructure.)

Meanwhile, Constellation hails the economic impact of the new project, claiming it will create more than 500 permanent jobs. But the brewery will also use some U.S.-grown hops and barley, meaning limited benefit for the local farm economy. In short, our Mexican beer is brewed under a maquiladora model that has thrived along the border for decades: Factories import many of the components of manufacturing, slap them together with low-wage Mexican labor, and send them north, providing little long-term economic development — and in this case, potential ecological trouble.

In early 2017, a group called Mexicali Resiste began to oppose construction of the brewery, accusing local government officials of giving Constellation a sweetheart deal on water access. Several confrontations this year between protesters and police at the construction site have turned violent. No one can deny the appeal of a cold Corona on a long, hot summer day. But water-stressed Baja Californians are wondering what’s in it for them.


The bad news about your favorite Mexican beers

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Big Oil is spinning the New York Times’ historic climate article as a PR win. It isn’t.

Turns out, fossil fuel interests love “Losing Earth.” The New York Times Magazine’s massive climate change article from earlier this month has attracted furor from critics, who argue that it sidesteps issues of climate change denial and fossil fuel lobbying. But recently, it has also drawn praise from supporters of ExxonMobil.

“Bombshell: New York Times debunks #ExxonKnew climate campaign,” crows a headline on the website of Energy in Depth, an oil and gas lobby group funded by BP, Shell, Exxon, and others. For reference, #ExxonKnew is a campaign that aims to hold Exxon accountable for researching and accepting the science of climate change in the 1980s — and then spreading misinformation about it for the next several decades.

You don’t have to read all 66 pages of “Losing Earth” to see that the Times is definitely not debunking #ExxonKnew. You only have to read the epilogue, in which author Nathaniel Rich describes some of the denial campaigns launched by Exxon and the petroleum industry’s so-called Global Climate Coalition. Rich is aware of the role Exxon played in spreading and perpetuating climate change denial. But he does shift some blame off of fossil fuel groups and conservatives, and on to the amorphous concept of “human nature.”

“The rallying cry of this multipronged legal effort is ‘Exxon Knew,’” Rich writes. But, he counters, “The United States government knew … Everyone knew — and we all still know.”

This narrative — however well-intended and well-executed — plays right into Big Oil’s hands.

Advertising the Losing Earth issue as a win for Exxon is low-hanging fruit — Look! Even the left’s favorite newspaper is hesitant to blame us for climate change!

For oil and gas companies, it also represents a new play on an old, tired trick.

“Putting out these ads just proves the point that they’re trying to manipulate public opinion and confuse people about who’s to blame for this crisis,” Jamie Henn, communications director at 350.org, tells Grist.

For years, Exxon faced off against established science, lobbying against environmental regulation in Congress, publishing reports that undermined action on climate change, and putting out ads (in papers like the Times!) that spread doubt about the causes of global warming.

As temperatures rise and the effects of climate change — crazy wildfires, mega-hurricanes, heavier downpours — become more and more visible, Exxon and other companies like it have shifted their marketing approaches to keep their ships upright in the sea of public opinion. Whereas Exxon used to rely heavily on Earth’s “natural changes” to explain away rising temperatures, it’s now changing course to accommodate the fact that a clear majority of Americans accept the science behind climate change.

One of its new strategies is to advertise low-carbon energy projects, says Ed Collins, a research analyst at U.K.-based nonprofit InfluenceMap. Shot-in-the-dark projects, like ExxonMobil’s algae push, intend to show the public and politicians that the free market and technological innovation, not government regulation, can solve the dangers posed by climate change.

Rich’s piece is an unexpected gift for an industry that’s trying to show that it’s on the side of the people — and on the right side of history. Finally! An opportunity for Big Oil to align itself with journalists and historians rather than climate deniers.

But at the end of the day, Henn says, it’s just one article. “The idea that Exxon and its front groups somehow think they’re off the hook because one New York Times Magazine journalist wrote a story one particular way is pretty naive,” says Henn.

Plus, the tides of public opinion may have already turned. BP is still dealing with fallout from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, in which nearly 5 million barrels of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico. And a slew of cities, districts, and attorneys general across the country have launched lawsuits and investigations against major polluters for the role they played in misinforming the public about climate change.

“I think people are realizing that companies like ExxonMobil should be the ones to pay for the damage that they’ve done,” says Henn.

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Big Oil is spinning the New York Times’ historic climate article as a PR win. It isn’t.

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Kirstjen Nielsen and Brock Long visited Puerto Rico, and it was really weird

Kirstjen Nielsen, Secretary of Homeland Security, and Brock Long, head of FEMA, went on tour in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands Friday. Their mission, nearly a year after Hurricane Maria devastated both territories? To “meet with and thank Federal Emergency Management Agency personnel working on hurricane recovery and preparedness efforts,” according to a news release.

Local media on the islands reported that Long and Nielsen aren’t making themselves available to press during their visits and are limiting public appearances. But we sure got a sense of what’s happening on social media:

Twitter quickly responded to Nielsen’s tweet with a chorus of “too little, too late.”

Last month, FEMA — which is part of Department of Homeland Security — released a report admitting to some of its blunders during the response to Hurricane Maria. That included not having enough qualified staff, food, water, or other supplies on hand to deal with the disaster.

Outrage over the federal response to Maria is still simmering. Now it’s compounded by the frustration of Maria survivors — some of who still face uncertain housing prospects, even as we go deeper into this year’s hurricane season. After several extensions, FEMA plans to end its transitional shelter assistance again at the end of the month, but advocates say that a longer-term plan to help people get back into homes is needed.

And because tossing out paper towels just isn’t enough these days, Nielsen spent time handing out school supplies to children in San Juan before visiting a school in St. Croix.

Nielsen has been facing a lot of kid-related criticism lately. Her department forcibly separated families at the U.S.-Mexico border, lost track of who belongs with who, and has now missed deadlines to reunite them. Some members of Congress, including Senators Dick Durbin and Kamala Harris, have called for her to leave office over the policy.

So, of course, photos of Nielsen handing out backpacks on DHS’ Twitter account didn’t sit well with everyone.

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Kirstjen Nielsen and Brock Long visited Puerto Rico, and it was really weird

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Fire scientists know one thing for sure: This will get worse

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

Subtract out the conspiracists and the willfully ignorant and the argument marshaled by skeptics against global warming, roughly restated, assumes that scientists vastly overstate the consequences of pumping greenhouse gases into Earth’s atmosphere. Uncertainties in their calculations, the skeptics say, make it impossible to determine with confidence how bad the future was going to be. The sour irony of that muttonheaded resistance to data is that, after four decades of being wrong, those people are almost right.

As of July 31, more than 25,000 firefighters are committed to 140 wildfires across the United States — over a million acres aflame. Eight people are dead in California, tens of thousands evacuated, smoke and pyroclastic clouds are visible from space. And all any fire scientist knows for sure is, it only gets worse from here. How much worse? Where? For whom? Experience can’t tell them. The scientists actually are uncertain.

Scientists who help policymakers plan for the future used to make an assumption. They called it stationarity, and the idea was that the extremes of environmental systems — rainfall, river levels, hurricane strength, wildfire damage — obeyed prior constraints. The past was prologue. Climate change has turned that assumption to ash. The fires burning across the western United States (and in Europe) prove that “stationarity is dead,” as a team of researchers (controversially) wrote in the journal Science a decade ago. They were talking about water; now it’s true for fire.

“We can no longer use the observed past as a guide. There’s no stable system that generates a measurable probability of events to use the past record to plan for the future,” says LeRoy Westerling, a management professor who studies wildfires at UC Merced. “Now we have to use physics and complex interactions to project how things could change.”

Wildfires were always part of a complex system. Climate change — carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases raising the overall temperature of the planet — added to the complexity. The implications of that will play out for millennia. “On top of that is interaction between the climate system, the ecosystem, and how we manage our land use,” Westerling says. “That intersection is very complex, and even more difficult to predict. When I say there’s no new normal, I mean it. The climate will be changing with probably an accelerating pace for the rest of the lives of everyone who is alive today.”

That’s not to say there’s nothing more to learn or do. To the contrary, more data on fire behavior will help researchers build models of what might happen. They’ll look at how best to handle “fuel management,” or the removal of flammable plant matter desiccated by climate change-powered heat waves and drought. More research will help with how to build less flammable buildings, and to identify places where buildings maybe shouldn’t be in the first place. Of course, that all presumes policymakers will listen and act. They haven’t yet. “People talk about ‘resilience,’ they talk about ‘hardening,’” Westerling says. “But we’ve been talking about climate change and risks like wildfire for decades now and haven’t made a whole lot of headway outside of the scientific and management communities.”

It’s true. At least two decades ago — perhaps as long as a century — fire researchers were warning that increasing atmospheric CO2 would mean bigger wildfires. History confirmed at least the latter hypothesis; using data like fire scars and tree ring sizes, researchers have shown that before Europeans came to North America, fires were relatively frequent but relatively small, and indigenous people like the Pueblo used lots of wood for fuel and small-diameter trees for construction. When the Spaniards arrived, spreading disease and forcing people out of their villages, the population crashed by perhaps as much as 90 percent and the forests went back to their natural fire pattern — less frequent, low intensity, and widespread. By the late 19th century, the land changed to livestock grazing and its users had no tolerance for fire at all.

“So in the late 20th and early 21st century, with these hot droughts, fires are ripping now with a severity and ferocity that’s unprecedented,” says Tom Swetnam, a dendrochronologist who did a lot of that tree-ring work. A fire in the Jemez Mountains Swetnam studies burned 40,000 acres in 12 hours, a “horizontal roll vortex fire” that had two wind-driven counter-rotating vortices of flame. “That thing left a canopy hole with no trees over 30,000 acres. A giant hole with no trees,” he says. “There’s no archaeological evidence of that happening in at least 500 years.”

Swetnam actually lives in a fire-prone landscape in New Mexico — right in the proverbial wildland-urban interface, as he says. He knows it’s more dangerous than ever. “It’s sad. It’s worrying. Many of us have been predicting that we were going to see these kinds of events if the temperature continued to rise,” Swetnam says. “We’re seeing our scariest predictions coming true.”

Fire researchers have been hollering about the potential consequences for fires of climate change combined with land use for at least as long as hurricane and flood researchers have been doing the same. It hasn’t kept people from building houses on the Houston floodplain and constructing poorly-planned levees along the Mississippi, and it hasn’t kept people from building houses up next to forests and letting undergrowth and small trees clump together — all while temperatures rise.

“Some of the fires are unusual, but the reason it seems more unusual is that there are people around to see it — fire whorls, large vortices, there are plenty of examples of those,” says Mark Finney, a research forester with the U.S. Forest Service. “But some things are changing.” Drought and temperature are worse. Sprawl is worse. “The worst fires haven’t happened yet,” Finney says. “The Sierra Nevada is primed for this kind of thing, and those kinds of fires would be truly unprecedented for those kinds of ecosystems in the past thousands of years.”

So what happens next? The Ponderosa and Jeffrey pine forests of the west burn, and then don’t come back? They convert to grassland? That hasn’t happened in thousands of years where the Giant Sequoia grow. So … install sprinklers in Sequoia National Forest? “I’m only the latest generation to be frustrated,” Finney says. “At least two, maybe three generations before me experienced exactly the same frustration.” Nobody listened to them, either. And now the latest generation isn’t really sure what’s going to happen next.

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Fire scientists know one thing for sure: This will get worse

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