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Saving Chaco: As coronavirus consumes New Mexico, drilling threatens sacred land

The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed tribal communities in New Mexico, where Native Americans comprise about 11 percent of the state’s population but a staggering 56 percent of its recorded COVID-19 cases. Last week the Navajo Nation, whose territory stretches across northern Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, recorded the highest number of coronavirus cases per capita in the country, surpassing New York and New Jersey.

It is against this backdrop that the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management (BLM) just moved forward with its decision to hold a series of meetings to gather public input on a controversial oil and gas drilling plan for the Greater Chaco Region, a culturally and spiritually significant area for the Pueblo and Navajo peoples of northwestern New Mexico. Of course, the ongoing pandemic means that the meetings were held virtually — but because less than half of rural tribal households have fixed broadband access, critics say that these meetings were “public” in name only.

The meetings were intended to allow the public to give feedback on a proposed amendment to the region’s land use plan, which will update guidelines on how the BLM manages oil and gas development (such as fracking leases) on public land, as well as lands on which the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has authority to issue leases. The plan could ultimately add more than 3,000 new oil and gas wells to the area. Air quality monitoring has already found unusually high and hazardous levels of particulate matter pollution in one of the affected counties — the exact kind of pollution that has recently been linked to COVID-19 deaths, and may be exacerbated by new drilling.

Local tribes were heavily involved in the public input process until the novel coronavirus hit. Now they say that it’s shortsighted and reckless for the agency to plow ahead with the comment period. On Friday, during the second of the BLM’s five virtual public meetings, Richard Smith Sr., the tribal historic preservation officer for the Pueblo of Laguna, told the agency that the pueblo’s leadership couldn’t attend any of the meetings because it remains laser-focused on addressing the urgent health and safety needs of its community during the COVID-19 pandemic. In March the tribe requested that the BLM extend the deadline for the public comment period — and the situation has only grown more dire since then, Smith said.

“It is simply unconscionable to continue with the current schedule … and on behalf of the Pueblo of Laguna I urge you to immediately halt the current schedule and work with tribes and other stakeholders on developing a feasible timeline,” said Smith Sr.

Known as the Farmington Mancos-Gallup Draft Resource Management Plan Amendment (RMPA) and Environmental Impact Statement, the draft land use plan was publicly released for a 90-day public comment period on February 28. Depending on which version of the plan is ultimately adopted, the BLM projects that there could be as many as 3,101 new oil and gas wells within the planning area. A broad coalition of tribal leaders, environmental groups, conservationists, and politicians — including U.S. Senator Tom Udall and the entire New Mexico congressional delegation — have urged the BLM and BIA to postpone the public comment period, which is currently set to expire at the end of this month.

“The Greater Chaco Canyon Region is a sacred landscape that we owe a duty to protect. We take that duty seriously,” said J. Michael Chavarria, governor of the Santa Clara Pueblo and chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, during a recent press call with other tribal, state, and federal leaders. He noted that the council, which represents the 20 governors of the sovereign Pueblo nations of New Mexico and Texas, was shocked and dismayed that federal agencies decided to move forward with the meetings in the midst of the pandemic. The last of the five meetings concluded on Monday morning.

Santa Clara Pueblo Gov. J. Michael Chavarria, right, during a forum at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, N.M., on Sept. 20, 2016. AP Photo / Russell Contreras

“Some of our pueblos have been hit hard by the virus and we cannot participate in meaningful consultation, even though it’s a virtual RMPA meeting,” said Chavarria.

The BLM began the amendment process in 2014 to update its current plan, and it pledged to address tribal concerns such as air quality, climate change, and environmental justice. The Greater Chaco Coalition, which represents more than 200 tribal, environmental, and community groups working to protect the region from further drilling, says that the draft plan shows that the agency has not followed through on these promises — and instead will facilitate more fracking. (The BLM did not respond to Grist’s request for comment.) Once approved, the plan will determine how land in the region is managed for the next 10 to 15 years.

Considered the cultural heart of the American Southwest, the Greater Chaco Region is home to ancient Puebloan ruins, including Chaco Canyon, where Chacoans built complex, multi-story buildings and flourished more than a millennium ago. While the canyon itself — which is now part of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site — is protected from drilling, the surrounding region within the San Juan Basin is not permanently protected.

The basin’s Mancos Shale rock formation is a major reservoir of natural gas and oil that has attracted industry attention in the past decade as new technologies emerged for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. If the BLM doesn’t extend the public comment period, then it’s clear the federal agencies are intent on fast-tracking oil and gas development despite community opposition, according to Paul F. Reed, a preservation archaeologist and Chaco scholar with Archaeology Southwest, a conservation-focused nonprofit based in Tucson, Arizona.

“With the price of oil way down currently because of the crisis, there’s absolutely no reason to rush this planning process and thrust a hasty decision on New Mexicans that puts thousands and thousands of historic, sacred sites at risk as well as the folks living now at ground zero,” said Reed during the public comment portion of the BLM’s virtual meeting on Friday.

In court over the last five years, tribal, environmental, and legal organizations have successfully challenged the BLM’s approval of fracking and oil and gas drilling in the Greater Chaco Region, citing the agency’s failure to address the cumulative impacts of fracking on human health, the environment, and the cultural landscape. The agency has already leased more than 90 percent of federally managed land in the basin for drilling, including areas that intersect historic Chacoan roads and villages. But now those organizations say that long-protected areas are newly at risk for drilling. This comes as the Trump administration has dramatically increased drilling leases on public lands across the American West and the Gulf of Mexico.

“Part of the problem is that this [public input process] is now taking place in the context of an unprecedented health pandemic,” said attorney Kyle J. Tisdel, the climate and energy program director at the Western Environmental Law Center, which has taken the BLM to court over the cumulative effects of drilling since 2015. “That pandemic obviously has also an outsized impact on the Navajo Nation.”

Daniel E. Tso, who represents eight local government subdivisions, or chapters, within the Navajo Nation Council, the nation’s governing body, said in a letter to BLM officials last month that the leasing of land parcels for new oil well development throughout New Mexico’s tribal communities has worsened air pollution. This has weakened the respiratory health of residents, he wrote, making them more vulnerable to severe cases of COVID-19. One chapter, Counselor, has seen particularly heavy development by the oil and gas industry, and its neighboring chapters of Ojo Encino and Torreón-Starlake could experience an increase in oil lease sales if the new land use plan goes into effect.

For residents in these rural areas, there’s no escaping the presence of the oil industry, according to Tso, who noted during the recent press call that residents who travel long distances for medical treatments such as dialysis must share the road with heavy industry-related traffic. Given residents’ concerns around increased air pollution, it’s crucial that the comment period be delayed, Tso said during the press call.

“Nature has no boundaries, air has no boundaries. We are all connected in this aspect,” said Tso. “The greater Chaco area really needs to be saved for the future.”

Despite their concerns about the prospect of increased drilling, these Navajo communities were largely excluded from the BLM’s virtual public meetings because they either don’t have reliable high-speed internet access or lack it altogether, according to Tso. A 2019 Federal Communications Commission report found that less than half of households (46.6 percent) on rural tribal lands have access to fixed broadband service. Beyond the technological hurdles, many residents primarily speak Navajo, so virtual meetings conducted by the BLM in English present an added obstacle, said Tisdel of the Western Environmental Law Center.

“The notion that they’re going to just hold these public events and put them on Zoom calls is really problematic because that is not how Navajo communities engage in dialogue or communication,” he said.

Federal agencies are required by law to engage the public via robust outreach. If residents can’t meaningfully participate, then the agencies aren’t fulfilling that statutory obligation, noted Tisdel. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1970 requires that federal agencies assess the environmental effects of proposed actions such as federal infrastructure projects, while the Federal Land Policy and Management Act of 1976 has requirements to ensure public participation.

“The point of NEPA and the reason you have the comment period is to allow the public to engage and allow those comments to help shape the decision-making process — to help shape the ultimate choices that are made,” said Tisdel. “The key community is not going to have an opportunity, at least at this point, to be able to shape what that decision looks like.”

Though the BLM did not respond to Grist’s request for comment, the agency’s state director for New Mexico, Tim Spisak, used Friday’s virtual public meeting to acknowledge community pushback and defend the agency’s decision to move forward.

“We understand that these conversations are often preferred to be done in person, but right now it is critical that we do our part to keep the American public and BLM and BIA employees healthy and safe,” said Spisak. “It is also important though that we maintain a capable and functioning government to the greatest extent possible during the COVID-19 outbreak.”

Rebecca Sobel, a senior climate and energy campaigner with the environmental conservation nonprofit WildEarth Guardians, said during the same meeting that she would have preferred to cede her comment time to a local community member, person of color, or elder. But that’s not possible in a virtual forum, without face-to-face engagement where she could easily see all the attendees, she told the BLM.

“These meetings were pretty broadly and uniformly called out for their racism and inequitable access for participation,” said Sobel. She then proceeded to blast Twisted Sister’s hit 1984 song “We’re Not Gonna Take It,” which kicked off the public comment portion of the meeting on a raucous note.

The ruins of Pueblo Bonito house at Chaco Culture National Historical Park on May 20, 2015. Mladen Antonov / AFP via Getty Images

Compromised by Exposure

Earlier this spring, Harvard’s school of public health released a study that found a connection between elevated COVID-19 death rates and air pollution, specifically elevated levels of the particulate matter known as PM 2.5. The research, while not yet peer-reviewed, does suggest that people in counties with higher levels of PM 2.5 are more likely to die from the new coronavirus. This is a major concern for Navajo community leaders who have been studying the health effects of pollution connected to oil drilling in the Navajo chapter of Counselor in New Mexico’s Sandoval County, as well as the surrounding area.

The San Juan Basin, which has more than 300 oil fields and 40,000 drilled wells, encompasses the New Mexico counties of San Juan, McKinley, Rio Arriba, and Sandoval, all of which have land that will be assessed for additional drilling as part of the resource management plan. All of those counties, with the exception of Rio Arriba, are facing COVID-19 outbreaks, according to Senator Udall.

Five years ago, after residents began voicing concerns about unusual respiratory and health symptoms, the Counselor chapter submitted a resolution to the Navajo Nation calling for a moratorium on oil drilling. The chapter also undertook a health impact assessment to examine how oil and gas drilling is affecting residents in the Greater Chaco Region. One part of the assessment focused on air monitoring in Counselor, a rural community of about 700 residents that is part of a tri-county area (that also includes the chapters of Ojo Encino and Torreon) where there’s been a marked increase in fracking.

Community members formed the Counselor Health Impact Assessment Committee, which collected air monitoring data in 2018. The results were analyzed by the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, a nonprofit public health organization that assists communities impacted by oil and gas development. The outdoor measurements show that Counselor has higher-than-average levels of PM 2.5 compared to similar communities across the country — communities that are also near oil and gas drilling.

The air monitors also measured hazardous spikes of PM 2.5 in the air outside homes and well pads. All of this was concerning before COVID-19 struck, given that residents who live near a source of air pollution are at greater risk for developing or worsening respiratory or cardiovascular diseases. But the recent Harvard findings clarified just how dangerous even small increases in exposure to this type of fine particulate matter could be for residents with any kind of respiratory illness during the COVID-19 pandemic, said Teresa Seamster, who co-authored the 2019 assessment and is a volunteer researcher and member of the Counselor Health Committee.

“This is why in the Navajo Nation so many people are getting seriously ill,” said Seamster. “If you’re exposed to oil and gas emissions, it could be very serious for you because you’re compromised.”

Protecting a history

U.S. Interior Secretary David Bernhardt visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park last year. Afterward he implemented a one-year deferral on oil leasing in a 10-mile buffer zone around the park. That was supposed to give the BLM time to work on the resource management plan and also give Congress the time to vote on a bill that would permanently protect federal land within that zone from future oil and gas leasing. Now, that time is running out: The deferral is set to expire this month.

Among U.S. parks, Chaco Canyon is among the most threatened by oil and gas development, according to a National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) report. For tribal leaders, Chaco scholars, and environmental conservationists, protecting the region surrounding the park is a top priority because it is part of the cultural and spiritual landscape for the area’s tribes. The region is a vital part of the present identity of residents of Laguna Pueblo, who interact with the land through song, prayer, and pilgrimage, said Smith Sr.

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“Now more than ever, connections to our pueblo identities are a source of strength in difficult times,” he said during Friday’s BLM meeting. “We must ensure that these connections will not be irreparably severed, but maintained intact for future generations that will surely follow this crisis.”

The NPCA, which has also urged the Department of Interior to pause the public input process during the pandemic, notes in its report that oil and gas development has resulted in pollution from flares, leaking infrastructure, and “rampant” methane waste — particularly in the San Juan Basin, which has created a 2,500-square-mile methane cloud over the Four Corners region, including the area around Chaco Park.

“This plan to further industrialize these areas immediately surrounding the park with more drilling risks further scarring the landscape and destroying archeological sites, while the increase in carbon emissions will affect local air quality and the climate,” said Emily Wolf, New Mexico program coordinator at NPCA, in a statement to Grist.

Preserving archaeological sites requires a regional approach that preserves landscapes so that Pueblo communities don’t lose cultural and spiritual connections, said Reed — for example, when a historic corridor is breached by a pipeline or a power line. This means not just preserving individual sites, but also protecting the broader landscape from oil and gas development.

“The sites become these islands of protected bits of history and important spiritual landscapes for tribal folks, but then we get infill all around it with the industrial landscape, so the character, the feeling, and some of the other spiritual and intangible aspects get lost through time,” said Reed.

Improving management of this landscape to maximize protection of these sites requires the input of tribes, but with stay-at-home orders limiting mobility and a broad lack of internet access impeding communication, this is all but impossible, according to tribal, state, and federal leaders who have submitted communiqués to the BLM.

The greater Chaco landscape “is a uniquely special place that we can’t get back once destroyed,” said Senator Udall. “The short extension of this process out of respect and concern for the tribes, pueblos, and communities impacted is imperative.”


Saving Chaco: As coronavirus consumes New Mexico, drilling threatens sacred land

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Climate change is coming for our toilets. Here’s how we can stop it.

Of all the amazing conveniences Americans are lucky enough to enjoy, the bowl that makes the poop go away is one of the best — on par with the tap that turns the water on and the box that makes the food hot. But I am here to ruin your day and tell you that climate change could compromise the humble toilet. If we don’t act soon, the consequences could be disgusting.

About one in five households in the United States depends on a septic system to eliminate waste (that’s 60 million households, for those of you who don’t like fractions). Septic systems not only dispose of our waste, they also protect public health, preserve precious water resources, and provide long-term peace of mind for city planners and plumbers alike. But that septic-associated security could go down the drain, according to information in a U.N. report on oceans published last week.

While the report is not specifically about your bathroom, per se, it shows how a stealthy threat — sea-level rise — could make it more difficult for people with septic systems to flush their toilets. A brief primer on septic systems, which are common in rural areas: The stuff in your toilet goes into an underground tank, where it breaks down (I’m gagging) and gets drained out into a leach field (gross) that’s at least 20 feet from your house. In order to function properly, those drainage fields have to be relatively dry.

Rising groundwater levels (a problem that accompanies sea-level rise) are soaking the fields, making it more difficult for our waste to break down and get absorbed properly. Rising groundwater also affects the soil’s ability to filter out harmful bacteria, which poses a public safety risk. And to make matters worse, increased rainfall, another climate change-related perk, is exacerbating the issue. It’s a back-up problem that can’t be solved with a plunger, if you catch my drift.

New England, where roughly half of homes rely on septic systems, is especially at risk. So is Florida — home to 12 percent of the nation’s septic systems. Miami-Dade county commissioned a report on vulnerable toilets this year and found 64 percent of tanks could run into problems by 2040. Minnesota, an inland state, has to contend with another climate-related toilet problem: lack of snow. Snow, which keeps things nice and insulated, has been noticeably absent in early winter and spring. Freezing temperatures are still kicking around, though. That means the frost line has taken a dive deep underground and compromised thousands of Minnesotans’ septic systems. See? Septic tanks are getting it from all sides these days.

So is the solution to dig up all the septic tanks, put them on stilts, and clothe them in Canada Goose parkas? Not exactly, says Elena Mihaly, staff attorney at the Conservation Law Foundation. She worked on a 2017 report on climate change’s effect on wastewater treatment systems that laid out some possible solutions to this poopy problem.

One method is to reform the way septic systems are regulated so that new systems are evaluated for their susceptibility to climate change before they’re put in. Researchers are already mapping out areas with infrastructure that’s vulnerable to groundwater level rise in coming years in states like New Hampshire. When it comes to existing septic systems, Mihaly says inspecting them when houses change hands at point of sale is a “way to make sure that we’re checking in on how infrastructure is doing given current risk, and how it’s changed from 30 or 40 years ago.”

And there are other practices that can head off this problem, too. Shallower leach fields, for example, rely on a narrower depth to treat water. Municipalities can install town-wide sewer systems in areas where household septic tanks don’t make sense. Frequent inspections are key, too. “It’s important to get your septic system inspected every three or four years,” Mihaly said. “Not only looking at all the pieces on the outside but at what’s happening with the groundwater that is flowing near it.”

Most importantly, it’s crucial to understand that groundwater doesn’t act in predictable ways, and it can impact more than just septic systems. “It’s not a given that if you have 3 feet of sea-level rise you’ll always have this much groundwater rise inland,” Mihaly said. “It’s really dependent on the underlying geology of that area, so it’s going to be very location-specific.” Roads, drinking water wells, landfills, and other infrastructure are susceptible to rising groundwater, too. “We actually have infrastructure that’s inland that we need to be thinking about as well in terms of reliability and functionality in the face of climate change,” she said.

You hear that, America? Climate change is coming for our conveniences. It’s time to get potty trained.

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Climate change is coming for our toilets. Here’s how we can stop it.

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This sexy beach read might actually help Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery

Nothing puts a damper on one’s romantic life like a Category 5 hurricane. That’s just one of the obstacles faced by 20-year-old former sex worker Dolores “Dulce” Garcia, the sugar daddy-dealing protagonist of the new book Side Chick Nation. As she tries to outrun her past by going from Miami to the Caribbean, she ultimately lands in Puerto Rico just in time for Hurricane Maria.

Climate change and colonialism don’t typically make for a sexy beach read, but Side Chick Nation, the fourth installment in UC Berkeley lecturer Aya de León’s Justice Hustlers feminist heist series, attempts to do just that — weaving action and romance into the vivid backdrop of Puerto Rico’s stilting recovery from Hurricane Maria.

Dulce, the titular “side chick,” is a world-weary pragmatist; she answers the call from a past sugar daddy looking to, well, “reconnect,” all while lying to Zavier, the man with whom she has actually fallen for after just a few dates. After Hurricane Irma slows the flow of sugar daddies in Puerto Rico to a trickle, she finds herself sleeping in a storage unit in San Juan, waiting for the next storm — Maria — to hit.

In the aftermath of the hurricane, she serves as a witness to both the heartbreaking reality of climate change and the exploitation that can ensue. She notes the international businessmen who flock to the island to manipulate the destruction for their own financial gain, making shady use of relief funds and devastating the island even more. De León draws parallels between Dulce’s experience as a “side chick” and Puerto Rico’s relationship with the mainland, which cheerfully exploits the U.S. territory in good times but abandons it when it is in need.

For me, as a Puerto Rican transplant who has reported on Puerto Rico’s recovery after Maria, I was intrigued by the novel’s premise. I talked with de León, who teaches creative writing at UC Berkeley, about Side Chick Nation and why she chose popular fiction as a means to get folks riled up about the climate crisis.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Image courtesy of Aya de León

Q.Why did you write this book? What do you hope readers get out of it?

A. The biggest takeaway that I really want for everyone has to do with Hurricane Maria and the crisis of climate and colonialism in Puerto Rico. I’m hoping people feel that intersection at a level of empathy. Part of what I was thinking of when I was writing was, in the future when this book comes out, the hurricane will have receded from the headlines and yet the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico will be ongoing. I just wanted to make sure that folks could connect to these human stories, this unprecedented level of this devastation at this intersection.

Something that was also super important to me for this book is [to reach] an audience that includes young women of color. I really like the idea of young women of color thinking of themselves as activists around issues like the climate. Being a part of the Puerto Rican diaspora and watching the island get hit made it clear to me that climate change is the top political priority. Climate is something that affects everybody and affects people of color even more. The perception of environmentalism is that it’s a white movement — and that’s not actually true. So I wanted to push back on that.

Q.Where did you get the idea to set the fourth installment of your Justice Hustlers series in a post-Maria Puerto Rico?

A. I was writing another book at the time. I had outlined it and started to work on it. Then, the hurricane hit and I was like, “Oh my god, I have to write about the hurricane!” It occurred to me that the biggest platform that I have was this Justice Hustlers series. I wasn’t sure how to make it make sense with the rest of the series, but I remembered one character from a previous book — Dulce. One of the things I was reading at the time was Salvage the Bones, a novel about Hurricane Katrina. It made me think: what does it mean for the audience to know what’s gonna happen while the characters don’t know?

Q.You went to Puerto Rico to research this book. What was that like?

A. I had not been back to Puerto Rico for a decade. I visited in 2018 about a year after Hurricane Maria hit. It was really intense to be back. One of the things that was so profound is that the whole island has signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. There was some sort of emotional chill because people had been deeply impacted in a lot of ways.

I mostly was in San Juan where things looked more or less back to normal. Still, stores were closed and traffic lights were knocked out — and that was almost a year later! I rented a car and drove around the interior of the island, where I saw lots of FEMA tarps blue roofs. I definitely got a sense of the devastation. That was key for me — to just go and just bear witness. It was less about information and more about being present with the community.

Q.The book deals with a lot of really intense issues like colonialism and disaster capitalists while also telling this gripping, feminist romance storyline. Do you think popular fiction in general, might be the way to get people to understand the complex relationship between disparity and climate crisis?

A. I think popular fiction and fiction, in general, has always played that role. It’s hard to empathize with a historical event, but it’s easy to empathize with an individual. And that’s what I wanted — for people to connect. What does it mean to have your homeland devastated, your people devastated? Ultimately, I’m writing romantic suspense but I’m thinking of suspenseful situations that relate to big political situations — like Hurricane María.

Q. Can you tell me about the challenges of writing about disaster?

A. I just had to cry a lot. I had to grieve a lot. And I had to hold off feelings like being unworthy or unable or not up to the task. Here we have this thing that changed the Puerto Rican people, and here I am, this sort of west coast, mixed-heritage diaspora Puerto Rican who is like the second generation born in the U.S. How could I possibly be the person to write this book? Ultimately it’s just the reality of the disaster. Maybe I’m not the right person, but I’m the person with a book contract and I can’t write about anything else.

The hurricane changed stuff for everyone in the diaspora. We have to show up, and what I have to bring to the table is a book that is a popular fiction approach. This may be the story for people that aren’t gonna read Naomi Klein’s Battle for Paradise — although I hope everybody will read that too! I wanted the message to get to the places where I already had a platform. I can’t imagine having written about anything else. This is the story of my people right now.


This sexy beach read might actually help Puerto Rico’s hurricane recovery

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The Sunrise Movement has a plan to force presidential candidates to address climate change

The Sunrise Movement has had a big year: The climate activist group staged a protest in Nancy Pelosi’s office, helped spur a standoff between kids and California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, and had a meeting with Beto O’Rourke that resulted in the candidate taking a pledge to eschew fossil fuel donations. Sunrise activists are known for coming in real hot and pushing the Green New Deal like their lives depend on it. The next piece of their climate plan is no different.

On Monday night, the group hosted a rally in Washington, D.C., featuring two of the patron saints of the current climate movement: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Bernie Sanders. At that rally, between jabs at Joe Biden’s alleged “middle of the road” climate approach and stabs at the fossil fuel industry, Sunrise unveiled the next rung of a ladder that the group hopes will lead all the way to the White House.

Here’s how the group aims to center the 2020 presidential race around climate change, even though the main Republican contender has one of the most severe allergies to climate action doctors have ever seen.

Sunrise hopes to get Democratic candidates to accept their three key demands: Candidates must sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, make the Green New Deal a priority on day one in office, and call on the Democratic National Committee to host a climate debate. The group says it is in the process of mobilizing its network of thousands of volunteers across the nation to put pressure on the candidates to meet its demands.

Sunrise is also organizing a demonstration at the presidential debate in Detroit beginning on July 30, the deadline for candidates to accept the aforementioned three demands. The group says it will host a parallel event featuring speakers and stories from folks on the frontlines of the climate struggle.

Will 2020 candidates buckle under pressure? We’ll see. But it’s clear from the rapid-fire way Beto took the no fossil fuel money pledge that Sunrise’s tactics have left a serious impression on the presidential hopefuls: No one wants that awkward Feinstein moment.

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The Sunrise Movement has a plan to force presidential candidates to address climate change

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Trump issues Earth Day message without mentioning climate change

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

Donald Trump issued on Monday an Earth Day proclamation that omitted any mention of climate change or the cavalcade of environmental threats posed by deforestation, species loss, and plastic pollution. The president chose instead to praise the benefits of a “strong market economy.”

In response, one leading climate scientist said Trump’s environmental policy was “in many cases the antithesis of protection.” The executive director of the Sierra Club said Trump was “the worst president for the environment our nation has ever had.”

Trump praised the “abundant beauty and life-sustaining bounty” of the American environment but did not echo growing warnings from scientists over rising temperatures or the precipitous decline of many species.

“Environmental protection and economic prosperity go hand in hand,” Trump said in his message for Earth Day, a global event held to support environmental protection annually since 1970.

“A strong market economy is essential to protecting our critical natural resources and fostering a legacy of conservation. My administration is committed to being effective stewards of our environment while encouraging opportunities for American workers and their families.”

Trump added: “At the same time that our nation is experiencing historic economic and job growth, our air and water quality ranks among the highest in the world.” He stated that his administration has “expanded support for conservation of land, water and wildlife.”

Last year, U.S. government scientists issued a 1,000-page climate change assessment that warned the country faces hundreds of billions of dollars in economic losses due to rising temperatures, flooding, and wildfires. Thousands of Americans are expected to die in worsening heatwaves, with diseases such as West Nile, dengue fever, chikungunya, and Lyme set to expand in range as temperatures rise and rainfall patterns change.

“The fact that they’re not mentioning what many consider to be the gravest existential threat facing humanity is a good indication of the priorities of this administration,” said Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M University.

“The clear priority of the administration is extracting unsustainable short-term profits from the environment, which is in many cases the antithesis of environmental protection. This is not surprising.”

Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, called Trump “the worst president for the environment our nation has ever had,” adding: “He has regularly and consistently prioritized the profits of corporate polluters over clean air, clean water and the health of our communities.

“The fact that he continues to ignore the climate crisis endangers the nation and will be viewed by history with scorn.”

Trump has routinely disparaged climate science and has attempted to dismantle every major policy aimed at lowering planet-warming emissions, favoring a watered down alternative his administration admits would cause an extra 1,400 deaths a year from air pollution. In June 2017, he announced the withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate deal.

The administration has thrown open vast tracts of public land and almost all U.S. waters to oil, gas, and coal mining, removed protections from some prized landscapes, and scrapped rules that stopped mining waste being dumped into rivers.

Trump, who recently erroneously claimed that wind turbines cause cancer, has repeatedly stated that the U.S. has some of the cleanest air and water in the world.

In fact, while the U.S.’s air is generally far healthier than growing economic powers such as China and India, the American Lung Association has pointed out that 4 in 10 Americans still live in counties with harmful levels of smog.

Millions of Americans are also exposed to drinking water containing industrial chemicals, while lead in water remains a widespread issue five years after the notorious contamination in Flint, Michigan.

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Trump issues Earth Day message without mentioning climate change

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Enviros get ready to throw down over Trump’s border wall national emergency

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On Friday morning, President Trump declared a national emergency to secure funding for a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Opponents of the wall argue the issue does not warrant national emergency status. In usual Trumpian style, the president told journalists exactly what many were already thinking.“I didn’t need to do this,” he said. “But I’d rather do it much faster.” Whoomp, there it is!

The wall isn’t just an expensive political maneuver; its construction poses a threat to Tohono O’odham Nation land and culture, as well as biodiversity, wildlife refuges along the border, and endangered species. Case in point: One study shows that the wall threatens 93 endangered species.

Elected officials and the environmental community came out swinging against the executive order mere minutes after it was announced, promising lawsuits and counter-bills.

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The Sierra Club vowed swift legal action against the declaration. “We are repulsed by this unprecedented attack on the borderlands and on our democracy, and we intend to resist it with every tool possible,” the organization’s executive director said in a statement.

The League of Conservation Voters, an organization that keeps tabs on how Congress votes on environmental legislation, called the wall “xenophobic, racist and environmentally destructive” in an emailed statement.

And the National Butterfly Center, home to “the greatest volume and variety of wild, free-flying butterflies in the nation,” has already filed a restraining order to keep federal workers from trampling all over the sanctuary and its delicate inhabitants as they plan out a wall that would cut directly through the property.

On the congressional side, New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced on Twitter that she plans to introduce a bill with fellow Democrat Joaquin Castro to block the executive order. “[We] aren’t going to let the President declare a fake national emergency without a fight,” she said. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer released a statement calling the order “unlawful.”

Meanwhile, Trump is preparing for battle. “I expect to be sued,” he told reporters. You got that right, buddy!


Enviros get ready to throw down over Trump’s border wall national emergency

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Bad news for the Amazon as Brazil backs out of hosting U.N. climate talks

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Brazil was set to be the host country for COP 25, next year’s crucial United Nation talks to address climate change, but just two months after offering to do so, the country’s officials have reversed their stance.

Brazilian leaders communicated the decision on Monday to Patrícia Espinosa, executive secretary of the U.N. Convention on Climate Change, just days before the start of COP 24, this year’s annual climate conference being held in Katowice, Poland. The Brazilian government blames the change on budget constraints and the ongoing presidential transition process. But others are interpreting the move as yet another sign of President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s impending war on the environment.

“This decision is not surprising considering it comes from a leader with proven skepticism towards the reality of climate change, and open animosity towards those working to preserve our climate,” Christian Poirier, program director at Amazon Watch, told Grist. Poirier also says he doesn’t buy Brazil’s budget excuse for reversing on hosting the conference. “It is clear that Mr. Bolsonaro’s reactionary political agenda was the decisive factor in this decision.”

Bolsonaro confirmed that he participated in the decision, saying “I recommended to our future minister that we avoid the realization of this event here in Brazil.”

(The United Nations did not immediately reply to Grist’s request for comment.)

Before Bolsonaro’s election, the country seemed eager to host the next round of international climate talks. According to Brazilian news site O Globo, the foreign ministry had said Brazil’s offer reflected “the consensus of Brazilian society on the importance and the urgency of actions that contribute to the fight against climate change.”

But in some ways, the current reversal comes as no surprise. During his campaign, Bolsonaro (a.k.a. The Trump of the Tropics) vowed to jettison from the Paris Climate Agreement — though he’s since backtracked from that promise. Still, he’s been steadfast in his desire to open up the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest, to mining, farming, and dam building. He’s said he wants to open up the country’s existing indigenous reserves to commercial exploitation. And earlier this month, he chose a new foreign minister that has said he believes climate change is a Marxist plot to help China.

A recent report issued by the Brazilian government found the Amazon has reached its highest levels of deforestation in a decade, thanks to illegal logging and the expansion of agriculture in the area. And there are major concerns that Bolsonaro’s lax environmental policies could push the Amazon past its tipping point as one of the world’s most important carbon sinks.

Brazil withdrawing its offer to host COP 25 also carries symbolic weight when you consider the country is the birthplace of global climate talks. The milestone Rio Earth Summit of 1992 set the green agenda for decades to come.

“The image of Brazil is at risk,” said Carlos Rittl, executive secretary of the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental non-governmental organizations, in an interview with the New York Times. “Climate and the environment are the only issues where Brazil is a leader in global terms. We are not leaders in world trade, we are not leaders in a geopolitical sense on security issues. But on climate and environment we are leaders, and we are giving that up.”

The South American country’s decision has left the United Nations scrambling to find a new site for the summit. A new venue for the summit has not yet been determined.

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Bad news for the Amazon as Brazil backs out of hosting U.N. climate talks

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Carbon tax debate: Nobels and IPCC vs. Trump and Doug Ford

Apologies, future generations: The world has been totally slacking on carbon taxes. And the Nobel prize committee may be trying to give us a hint.

The panel awarded its latest economic prize this week to William Nordhaus, a professor at Yale and the father of climate change economics. He’s best known for creating a model that simulates how the climate and the economy coevolve. It’s now widely used to project the outcomes of climate policies like carbon taxes.

The Nobel committee lauded him for showing that “the most efficient remedy for the problems caused by greenhouse gas emissions would be a global scheme of carbon taxes that are uniformly imposed on all countries.” Nordhaus received the prize on Monday along with New York University economist Paul Romer.

“I wouldn’t say that it’s a coincidence that Nordhaus and Romer won this year,” says Christopher Knittel, a professor of applied economics at MIT. “They both work on sustainable growth. I think the committee probably understands we’re on a path toward unsustainable growth. Their choice underscores the need for policymakers to act.”

A day earlier, the world’s top scientists sent a similar message in a gigantic, comprehensive report outlining the various way we can try to keep the planet habitable. A carbon price “is central to prompt mitigation,” the report says, though “a complementary mix of stringent policies is required.”

It’s a timely reminder. Although there are some regional cap-and-trade programs up and running in California and the Northeast, there’s nothing resembling a carbon tax in the U.S. So here’s another coincidence: The closest thing yet, a “carbon fee,” has a chance of passing next month in Washington state — assuming the multi-million-dollar campaign by oil companies doesn’t convince voters it’s a bad idea.

Washington state’s Initiative 1631 would charge $15 per ton of carbon dioxide, ramping up by $2 per year until the state hits its climate goals. Researchers say an effective carbon price would need to be quite a bit steeper — something in the $40 to $50 range, according to Knittel.

And any effective carbon price would need to rise really fast. Limiting warming to 1.5 degrees C above pre-industrial levels would take a carbon price of at least $135 per ton by 2030 — and possibly as high as $5,500 per ton, according to the U.N. report. If that sounds astronomical, it’s just a fraction of the kind of carbon price we’d need by the end of this century: somewhere between $690 to $27,000 a ton (yes, that’s 27 with three whole zeroes!).

So … better late than never? Knittel says the real power of a state-level carbon tax policy is that it could serve as a demonstration for a nationwide policy. That could come in handy if, say, an administration that actually wanted to act on climate change ever came into office.

Carbon taxes may sound like the most boring, straightforward thing in the world, but they remain controversial (and not just in Trump Nation). Just look to Canada, where Ontario’s premier, Doug Ford, has launched a crusade against carbon taxes. “The carbon tax is the absolute worst tax for Canadian families, Canadian businesses, and the Canadian economy,” he tweeted last week. Ford launched a legal challenge against Canada’s federal carbon tax plan in September. People on the other side of the political spectrum have it out for carbon taxes, too.

“If I had the time and heart to comment on Nordhaus’ Nobel, it would be to simply say that Nordhaus was wrong, in ways that may have done as much damage as it’s possible for an economist to do,” wrote climate advocate Alex Steffen in a Twitter thread. “[P]utting the weight of economic authority behind carbon pricing as the only effective strategy for action, helped exclude bolder, and — it turns out — more realistic strategies for regulation, public planning and technological disruption.”

The U.N. scientists acknowledge the many barriers to getting effective carbon taxes passed. The report says carbon prices are a “necessary ‘lubricant’” (their words, not mine!) for climate action, though not enough on their own. That’s because of “a persistent ‘implementation gap’ between the aspirational carbon prices and those that can practically be enforced.”

“The policies are lagging very, very far — miles, miles, miles behind the science and what needs to be done,” Nordhaus said shortly after winning the Nobel. “It’s hard to be optimistic. And we’re actually going backward in the United States with the disastrous policies of the Trump administration.”

Knittel says carbon taxes still make sense, despite the high cost. “By delaying it, it means the right carbon tax was harder than it would have been,” he says. “It’s more costly to act now, but that doesn’t reduce the necessity to act.”

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Carbon tax debate: Nobels and IPCC vs. Trump and Doug Ford

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Bigger, stronger, rainier: Is Hawaii’s Hurricane Lane a sign of what’s to come?

Hurricane Lane, one of the strongest hurricanes ever measured in the Central Pacific Ocean, is on a crash course with paradise.

At the peak of its intensity late Tuesday and early Wednesday, Lane had sustained winds of 160 mph and gusts up to nearly 200 mph — making it the most powerful hurricane to threaten Hawaii on record. The storm, now downgraded from Category 5 to 4, poses a colossal threat to the islands: The National Weather Service says that “life-threatening impacts are likely.”

On Lane’s current track, Hawaii could see torrential downpours, mudslides, and 20-foot waves. The desert-like parts of the tropical islands could witness a year’s worth of rain, up to 2 feet, in mere hours. Lane should weaken as it approaches, but it could still bring tropical-storm-force winds to almost every part of every island — winds strong enough to tear roofs off homes and cause widespread power outages that could last weeks or months.

Hawaii’s governor, David Ige, declared a state of emergency in advance of the hurricane, which is expected to arrive as soon as late Wednesday night. On Twitter, President Donald Trump urged those in its path to prepare. Hawaiians have taken those words to heart, clearing out grocery store shelves and filling up their gas tanks.

The vast majority of people in the state have never seen a storm like this. Since 1950, just two hurricanes have made official landfall in Hawaii, both hitting the island of Kauai. As of Wednesday afternoon, the most heavily populated islands were either under a hurricane watch or warning.

As the waters of the Central Pacific warm, hurricanes like Lane are expected to become more common — and indeed, the Pacific has seen a flurry of hurricanes near Hawaii in recent years. While the hurricane threat to Hawaii tends to peak during El Niño years, recent research shows that long-term ocean warming, not El Niño, is likely the dominant cause of Hawaii’s growing hurricane threat. And Hawaiian scientists have found these new hurricanes tend to be larger, stronger, and rainier.

A disaster response effort in Hawaii could be hindered by the Jones Act, as Puerto Rico experienced during the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. The act restricts foreign ships from delivering supplies from the mainland to the islands — meaning that Hawaiians pay inflated prices for basic supplies, which could make restocking shelves and rebuilding homes especially difficult.

In addition to sea-level rise and coral bleaching, hurricanes are increasingly part of Hawaii’s reality. For his part, the governor is putting Hawaii on a path to reduce its contribution to climate change. In 2015, Ige signed legislation making the state the first in the nation to mandate 100 percent renewable energy — a goal it plans to reach by 2045.

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Bigger, stronger, rainier: Is Hawaii’s Hurricane Lane a sign of what’s to come?

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Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang – David Philipps


Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang
David Philipps

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: October 10, 2017

Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company

Seller: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

A Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter’s history of wild horses in America—and an eye-opening story of their treatment in our own time. The wild horse is so ingrained in the American imagination that even those who have never seen one know what it stands for: fierce independence, unbridled freedom, the bedrock ideals of the nation. From car ads to high school mascots, the wild horse—popularly known as the mustang—is the enduring icon of America. But in modern times it has become entangled in controversy and bureaucracy, and now its future is in question. In Wild Horse Country, New York Times reporter David Philipps traces the rich history of wild horses in America and investigates the shocking dilemma they face in our own time. Here is the grand story of the horse: from its prehistoric debut in North America to its reintroduction by Spanish conquistadors and its spread through the epic battles between native tribes and settlers during the days of the Wild West. Philipps explores how wild horses became so central to America’s sense of itself, and he delves into the hold that wild horses have had on the American imagination from the early explorers to the best-selling novels of Zane Grey to Hollywood Westerns. Traveling through remote parts of the American West, Philipps also reveals the wild horse’s current crisis, with tens of thousands of horses being held in captivity by the federal government, and free horses caught between the clashing ideals of ranchers, animal rights activists, scientists, and government officials. Wild Horse Country is a powerful blend of history and contemporary reporting that vividly reveals the majesty and plight of an American icon, while pointing a way forward that will preserve this icon for future generations.

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Wild Horse Country: The History, Myth, and Future of the Mustang – David Philipps

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