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California defies Trump to ban pesticide linked to childhood brain damage

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

California is banning a widely used pesticide that has been linked to brain damage in children, a major victory for public health advocates who have long fought to outlaw the toxic chemical in the agricultural industry.

The state ban on chlorpyrifos, a pesticide used on almonds, citrus, cotton, grapes, walnuts, and other crops, follows years of research finding the chemical causes serious health effects in children, including impaired brain and neurological development. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had moved to ban the chemical under Barack Obama, but the Trump administration reversed that effort, rejecting the scientific conclusions of its own government experts.

“Countless people have suffered as a result of this chemical,” the California EPA secretary, Jared Blumenfeld, said in an interview on Wednesday. “A lot of people live and work and go to school right next to fields that are being sprayed with chlorpyrifos … It’s an issue of environmental health and justice.”

The move in California, home to a vast agricultural sector responsible for growing a majority of the nation’s fruits and nuts, is the latest example of the state resisting Trump’s conservative agenda and policies. Environmental activists, however, have been pushing to stop chlorpyrifos use in the state for years in the wake of overwhelming evidence of harms caused by exposure.

“This is a very important and pivotal moment,” said Angel Garcia, the chair of the Coalition Advocating for Pesticide Safety, who has worked with families affected by chlorpyrifos. “It sends the message to communities that they are starting to be heard … People will now have a safer future.”

Epidemiological studies have linked chlorpyrifos to a number of health conditions. Pregnant women living near fields and farms that use the chemical have an increased risk of having a child with autism. Exposure to low to moderate levels of chlorpyrifos during pregnancy have also been associated with lower IQs and memory problems. California officials cited a recent review by a state panel on toxic air contaminants, which found the effects in children could occur at lower levels than previously understood.

“The science is definitive,” said Blumenfeld, adding that he hoped the move would spur the federal government to take action. “This job really should have been done by the U.S. EPA.”

After environmental groups sued the Trump administration for reversing the Obama-era ban, a judge ordered the federal EPA to prohibit use of chlorpyrifos last year. But the government appealed that decision, and the courts have ordered the EPA to make a final decision about chlorpyrifos by July.

Activists have accused the Trump administration of backing the interests of DowDuPont, a chlorpyrifos manufacturer whose predecessor donated to the president.

DowDuPont is now “evaluating all options to challenge” California’s ban, spokesman Gregg Schmidt said in a statement, adding that eliminating chlorpyrifos would “remove an important tool for farmers and undermines the highly effective system for regulating pesticides that has been in place at the federal level and in the state of California for decades.” He also noted that the chemical is currently approved for use in roughly 100 countries.

The U.S. banned chlorpyrifos for residential use back in 2001. An expert panel of toxicologists last year recommended a ban on all organophosphates, the class of pesticides that includes chlorpyrifos. More than 10,000 tonnes of organophosphates are sprayed in 24 European countries each year.

In California, the process of banning chlorpyrifos use across the Central Valley agricultural regions could take up to two years, officials said. In 2015, the state implemented tighter restrictions on the use of chlorpyrifos, but critics have argued that a full ban was the only way to protect the health of farming communities.

The California governor, Gavin Newsom, has also proposed $5.7 million in new funding to support the transition from chlorpyrifos to “safer, more sustainable alternatives.”

Climate change is expected to worsen pest challenges in agriculture, which means the need to find alternatives to toxic chemicals is urgent, said Blumenfeld: “It’s not just about chlorpyrifos. It’s making sure we have a more holistic and nature-based approach.”

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California defies Trump to ban pesticide linked to childhood brain damage

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Elizabeth Warren’s latest policy proposal shares roots with the Green New Deal

For all her experience and name recognition, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is being out-fundraised by relative newcomers like Texas’ Beto O’Rourke and Indiana’s Pete Buttigieg this quarter. But when it comes to policy proposals, the Democrat is still outpacing most of her rivals in the 2020 Democratic primary.

On Monday, Warren released a proposal that promises, among other things, an executive ban on new offshore leases and drilling on government-owned lands on her first day in office. It marks her sixth policy plan in three and a half months, and is one of the primary field’s first climate proposals that touches on the themes laid out in the Green New Deal.

Warren’s proposal includes free access to national parks for American citizens and pledges to restore protections to national monuments like Bears Ears that were rolled back by the Trump administration. Most interestingly, she introduces the framework for the kind of conservation workforce that would put a smile on FDR’s face.

The 21st Century Civilian Conservation Corps, as she describes it, “will create job opportunities for thousands of young Americans caring for our natural resources and public lands.” The idea is to house the new corps under the umbrella of Americorps — the voluntary civil society program funded by the federal government.

If you squint you can see some similarities between Warren’s notion of putting 10,000 young Americans and veterans to work in conservation and the federal jobs guarantee laid out in the Green New Deal, which promises a family-sustaining wage to every American. The two plans, of course, borrow from Franklin Roosevelt’s economic stimulus package post-Depression in both name and content.

The centerpiece of the larger proposal is two-pronged: a moratorium on new drilling on federal lands with “a goal of providing 10% of [the nation’s] overall electricity generation from renewable sources offshore or on public lands.” Her idea effectively swaps oil and gas for renewable energy projects on public lands.

While some regions across the country have taken it upon themselves to impose their own temporary or permanent fossil fuel moratoriums, doing it on a federal level across all American public lands — more than 25 percent of the country’s total land — is unprecedented. Obama, in his last year as president, accomplished a portion of his (now partially dismantled) climate legacy through executive action. His administration removed certain areas of the country from oil and gas drilling, such as parts of the Atlantic Coast and Alaska, but also encouraged natural gas development as part of its “all-of-the-above” energy policy.

Warren’s public lands proposal contains seeds of what could grow into a full-fledged Green New Deal if the senator manages to clinch the presidency next year. Regardless of where she ends up, her plan is ambitious enough that her fellow 2020 contenders will likely feel the need to produce their own climate and environment proposals lickity-split.

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Elizabeth Warren’s latest policy proposal shares roots with the Green New Deal

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Trump is about to make the pork industry responsible for inspecting itself

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

Next time you tuck into a pork chop or a carnitas-filled burrito, spare a thought for the people who work the kill line at hog slaughterhouses. Meatpacking workers incur injury and illness at 2.5 times the national average; and repetitive-motion conditions at a rate nearly seven times as high as that of other private industries. Much has to do with the speed at which they work: Hog carcasses weighing as much as 270 pounds come at workers at an average rate of 977 per hour, or about 16 per minute.

President Donald Trump’s U.S. Department of Agriculture is close to finalizing a plan that would allow those lines to move even faster, reports the Washington Posts Kimberly Kindy. The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service is currently responsible for overseeing the kill line, making sure that tainted meat doesn’t enter the food supply. The plan would partially privatize federal oversight of pork facilities, cutting the number of federal inspectors by about 40 percent and replacing them with plant employees, Kindy adds. In other words, the task of ensuring the safety of the meat supply will largely shift from people paid by the public to people being paid by the meat industry.

Deregulation is on brand for the Trump team, but the idea of semi-privatizing the USDA’s meat inspection dates to former President Bill Clinton, who launched pilot programs for both chicken and pork plants. President Barack Obama was an enthusiast — his USDA approved a similar plan for chicken slaughterhouses in 2014, but declined in the end to let all poultry companies speed up the kill line after fierce pushback by workplace and food safety advocates. In its waning days in 2016, the Obama USDA was close enough to finalizing hog slaughterhouse deregulation that a bipartisan group of 60 Congress members sent a letter to then-USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack urging the the department not to make the move.

The Trump administration appears to be bringing new zeal to the task of reshaping meat inspection. Once it finalizes the new pork inspection, the USDA plans to roll out a similar scheme for the beef industry, Kindy reports. And last fall, the agency announced it would would let some chicken slaughterhouses speed up their kill lines from 140 birds per minute to 175 birds per minute.

The USDA has long insisted pulling inspectors off the kill line—while also speeding it up—is about “modernization.” “Advances in animal science, market hog production systems, biosecurity, and veterinary medicine have eliminated the vast majority of diseases inspected for under traditional inspection,” the agency claimed in a 2018 explainer.

What does this deregulation mean for the safety of our meat? We already have a sneak preview. For years, a USDA pilot program has allowed five large hog slaughterhouses to operate at higher line speeds with fewer inspectors. A 2013 audit by the USDA’s Office of Inspector General found that the USDA “did not provide adequate oversight” of the pilot facilities over its first 15 years, and as a result, the plants “may have a higher potential for food safety risks.”

According to the OIG report, there are 616 USDA inspected hog plants in the United States, meaning that just 0.8 percent of them are in the pilot program. Yet of the top 10 US hog plants earning the most food safety and animal welfare citations in the period of fiscal years 2008 to 2011, three were enrolled in the pilot program. By far the most-cited slaughterhouse in the United States over that period was a pilot plant — it drew “nearly 50 percent more [citations] than the plant with the next highest number.”

And in 2015, the Government Accountability Project released affidavits from four USDA federal inspectors working in the pilot hog plants. Their reports from the sped-up line, which I wrote about here, don’t make for appetizing reading. Here’s an excerpt.

“Not only are plant supervisors not trained, the employees taking over USDA’s inspection duties have no idea what they are doing. Most of them come into the plant with no knowledge of pathology or the industry in general.”

“Food safety has gone down the drain under HIMP [the acronym for the pilot program]. Even though fecal contamination has increased under the program (though the company does a good job of hiding it), USDA inspectors are encouraged not to stop the line for fecal contamination.”

In Kindy’s recent Washington Post report, Pat Basu, chief veterinarian for the USDA inspection service from 2016 to 2018, makes similar observations. He “refused to sign off on the new pork system because of concerns about safety for both consumers and livestock,” Kindy reports. “The USDA sent the proposed regulations to the Federal Register about a week after Basu left, and they were published less than a month later, according to records and interviews.”

The Trump USDA first announced plans to finalize the new system in February of 2018, but has made no public comments on it since. Kindy reports the changes are imminent, and could be rolled out “as early as May.” The agency did not respond to my request for comment.

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Trump is about to make the pork industry responsible for inspecting itself

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A bipartisan group of senators just agreed we need to break our addiction to carbon

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Leaving our fossil fuel-entrenched economy behind is looking more and more like a bipartisan goal. Case in point: A bipartisan Senate committee just apparently agreed that we need to decarbonize our energy system.

On Thursday, the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources held a hearing on how to innovate the energy sector, and it took a climate-friendly turn. While the group didn’t reach a consensus on how to achieve “net-zero greenhouse gas emissions,” as promised in the brand new Green New Deal resolution, the conversation was nevertheless encouraging.

Near the end of the hearing, Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat of Nevada, asked the committee if anyone disagreed with looking into an energy portfolio with the “outcome of decarbonization.” The room was silent. A few seconds later, Cortez Masto concluded, “I think that’s why we’re here. That is where we could set our long-term mission and goal.”

Leading up to that, the committee found plenty to agree (and in a few instances, disagree) on.

“It is time to push hard to bring down the cost of clean energy technologies like renewables, advanced nuclear, next-generation energy storage, and carbon capture,” said Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, the chair of the committee, in her opening remarks.

Even Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia — a Democrat who just earlier this week applauded President Trump’s line about the U.S. being the world’s No. 1 oil producer during the State of the Union address — appeared to get behind the eventual goal of decarbonization. “Breakthrough technologies will help us reliably meet our energy needs in the future while decarbonizing our energy system,” he said.

Tellingly though, he called for a focus on new technologies to suck carbon out of the air. The coal-state senator from  made it clear that he wasn’t ready to kick dirty energy to the curb just yet: “We must acknowledge that fossil fuels will continue to play an integral role in our electric generation.”

He also expressed concern over the economic effects of a transition to renewables on West Virginia: “We don’t want to drink dirty water. We don’t want to breathe dirty air. We want our kids to have a future. We really do. But they also realize they have to have a job to sustain themselves.”

In response, Cortez pointed to her state of Nevada. “Ten years ago, Nevada was known for gambling, entertainment, and mining,” she said. “Now we are an innovation state.”

Senator Debbie Stabenow, a Michigan Democrat, also highlighted the promise of renewables. “There are 8,000 parts in a big wind turbine, and we’re prepared to make every single one of those [pieces] in Michigan,” she said. “You can do some in West Virginia, too,” she told Manchin.

But as Ernest Moniz, former Energy Secretary under Obama, said in his testimony to the committee, “Accelerating this transition will not be easy.”

Moniz urged the committee to make sure they’re not putting all their low-carbon eggs in one technology basket. “There is no single low-carbon, one-size-fits-all solution,” Moniz said. “What we need to do is have the full quiver of arrows for which low-carbon solutions can be fit to purpose in different regions of our country and in different countries.”

Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, emphasized the necessity of reaching zero emissions by mid-century while acknowledging the work that lies ahead. “With some reasonable success and failure,” Grumet said, “ I think we can actually provide a better future for our children, which has been the human tradition for 10,000 generations.”

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A bipartisan group of senators just agreed we need to break our addiction to carbon

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China is both the best and worst hope for clean energy

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

In Katowice, Poland, delegates from around the world have gathered to discuss how to curb emissions of greenhouse gases. The intent is to meet the goals that emerged from the 2015 Paris United Nations Climate Summit. But this year there’s a new top dog at the table.

The United States, led by a president who doesn’t believe in climate change or the scientists who study it, will take a back seat at this month’s climate summit, known as COP24. Meanwhile China, with its massive economy and growing green energy sector, has become the world’s climate leader.

That might seem like a good thing if it weren’t for a couple of problems. China is the world’s biggest carbon polluter, and its emissions won’t start easing for many years. Chinese leaders are also exporting dirty energy around the world through their “belt and road” development program, which is spurring economic growth throughout Africa and Southeast Asia. A construction boom in coal-fired power plants has accompanied that growth in places like Vietnam, Pakistan, and Kenya, for example.

So having China as the big power at a climate summit doesn’t bode well for any new get-tough-on-carbon deals between now and the end of the meeting on December 14, experts say. “The negotiations abhor a vacuum,” says Andrew Light, senior fellow at the World Resources Institute and a former climate negotiator in the Obama administration. “The U.S. is not showing leadership, so China steps in.”

The latest round of climate negotiations (held in the capital of Poland’s coal-producing region of Silesia) are focused on the technical issues of how best to measure and verify each country’s stated emissions reductions. Even though the negotiations are held under the flag of the United Nations, there’s no real carbon police out there. So it’s up to each country to self-report their carbon dioxide emissions from factories, automobile tailpipe emissions, and other sources that end up forming a warming blanket in the Earth’s atmosphere. Those numbers are then fact-checked by other nations and NGOs.

A major report released in October by a panel of the world’s leading scientists says that the planet will experience severe environmental damage — wildfires, hurricanes, droughts, and floods — that could top $54 trillion by 2040 unless there’s a big downward shift in carbon dioxide emissions. That’s going to require every nation to make changes, as well as individual cities, states, and businesses.

“It will require things that are more aggressive, like shutting down existing power plants, and by 2030, we probably need to reduce global coal power production by 70 or 80 percent,” says Nathan Hultman, director of the Center for Global Sustainability at the University of Maryland.

Hultman, who worked on climate issues in the Obama White House, says the solutions may be politically impossible for now. “Are we doing enough quickly enough?” he said. “The answer is probably no. At the same time, we have to ask, how do we ramp up contributions toward limiting emissions.”

Still, Hultman and others see progress, and they see China as both a cause of the problem and a potential solution. China burns half the world’s coal and has added 40 percent of the world’s coal capacity since 2002. More than 4.3 million Chinese people work in coal mines, compared to 76,000 in the U.S. (that’s fewer employees than work at Arby’s or in radio).

While China is gaga for coal, it also is more green than anyone else. China owns half the world’s electric vehicles and 99 percent of the world’s electric buses. One quarter of its electricity comes from renewable power like solar or wind. Its cheap silicon panels have driven down the price of solar energy worldwide, and Chinese manufacturers are now starting to export EV batteries to automakers in Europe, Asia, and the U.S.

For Chinese leaders, boosting global green energy isn’t a moral issue, it’s an economic one, according to Jonas Nahm, assistant professor of energy, resources, and environment at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. “It doesn’t come from an altruistic place,” Nahm said. “They are doing this as an economic development strategy.”

Nahm has been studying the disconnect between green energy targets announced by party leaders in Beijing, and the actions of local leaders in China’s far-flung provinces. He found that up to 40 percent of renewable energy is wasted because there’s no national power market in China. That means that wind and solar power generated in one province can’t be sent to an adjacent province, so more coal plants are fired up even if there’s cheaper green energy next door.

But China’s reliance on dirty coal has come back to haunt its own citizens, according to Nahm. “The air pollution crisis is a reason to get away from coal,” he said. “That’s the first environmental crisis that’s pushed the government to act, and then the impact of climate change. There’s desertification, water shortages, giant dust storms, and some of these problems are getting more severe.”

Nahm and the other experts believe that China is headed in the right direction on climate change, but its economy is so big and so dependent on coal that it takes a while to get there. As for the climate summit in Poland, it’s possible that China might try to wiggle out of meeting even tougher new climate commitments, even as it becomes the biggest nation supporting the U.N. Paris agreement goals. President Trump said he plans to walk away from the Paris agreement; the earliest he can do that is in 2020.

There’s also the issue of checking up on each country’s measurements. Before the Paris agreement, China was considered a “developing” nation subject to less stringent reporting requirements. That changed after 2015. But without a strong U.S. influence to check it today, China might try to loosen the bookkeeping, says Samantha Gross, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

“What will the reporting requirements be and how will they be verified,” said Gross. “That’s what the negotiators will be duking out in Poland. I’m curious to see how far they get.”

As for China, Gross says they hold the cards for the world’s climate future. “We’re all gonna fry if they don’t do something.”


China is both the best and worst hope for clean energy

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What the Los Angeles Auto Show tells us about the future of cars

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If you ask anyone about the future of the auto industry, it’s all about electrification, ride sharing, and autonomous driving. But in the short-term, at least for automakers, it’s pure anxiety.

Not only did General Motors recently reveal plans to discontinue six of its car models by the end of 2019 (including its only electric offering, the Chevrolet Volt), the Trump administration announced earlier this week that it intends to end automaker subsidies for electric cars after 2022. If pleasing the consumer weren’t enough, now car manufacturers have to worry about a president who clearly doesn’t grasp the complexities of their industry.

Caught between the consumer demands of today and the technology of tomorrow, American auto manufacturers are being pulled in two very disparate directions. Case in point, The Los Angeles Auto Show, which kicked off this weekend to packed crowds, has come to be about two, at times, contradictory concepts: luxury and the environment.

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Finally for those awaiting an electric car that doesn’t look like a science experiment, there’s the Range Rover Plug-in hybrid, Jaguar I-pace (a hybrid SUV), and BMW i8 Roadster and Convertible. Despite the death of the Chevy Volt, nearly every manufacturer is making some sort of entry into electric vehicles, meaning there is more room for fun. EVs aren’t just econo-boxes anymore; the technology is reaching into all aspects of the auto industry, which offers (greener) hope for their future.

In the meantime, however, American car companies still rely heavily on sales of pickup trucks and SUVs. In recent years the balance in the car world has shifted from passenger sedans to SUVs and pickup trucks. When General Motors recently announced it was restructuring, laying off nearly 15 percent of its salaried employees and changing its production offerings, it wasn’t so much an industry shake-up as an aftershock. Ford and Chrysler have largely abandoned sedans, GM is the last of the big American carmakers to make the move.

So how can industry aficionados pursue both what we want (SUVs) and (what we need) new electric options, both snazzy and standard?

The L.A. auto show says as much about the city as it does the state of the industry. The City of Angels is one of the biggest and most important car markets in the U.S., and what happens at this auto show has consequences. As someone who’s been covering the industry for nearly a decade, there’s a lot on display beyond the shiny coats of wax and ginormous red bows.

Here’s what the auto show’s offerings say about the future direction of the auto industry:

SUVs are getting greener

In the U.S., more SUVs and pickup trucks are sold than cars. But that doesn’t necessarily mean people want to drive gas-guzzlers. Consumers are flocking to more fuel-efficient crossover SUVs, such as the Honda CRV. Companies such as Volvo are introducing hybrids, and Kia unveiled its Niro EV. SUVs are getting more fuel-efficient, though three-row SUVs are showing no signs of going away — Ford’s Lincoln brand debuted a new Navigator and BMW showed off its xDrive40i model.

Electric vehicles are still the future (globally)

At a time when other automakers are turning out new hybrid models, what are we to make of GM putting the Volt on the chopping block? It’s not the first time the car company has done away with its electric vehicle offerings. (GM killed the EV-1 back in the ‘90s, then introduced the Volt in 2011.)

Environmentalists have long worried carmakers would abandon electric vehicles due to lagging sales (as they have before). And despite all the space on the show floor for electric cars, U.S. consumers have still not embraced them. Without the federal government incentivizing EVs, you’d expect carmakers to be running in the other direction.

But the good news is even if the current administration isn’t interested in the electric vehicles, California, China, and European nations surely are. China has followed the Golden State’s lead in pushing hard for electric vehicles. Air quality in China is an important political issue. On a tour I took of Chinese manufacturers last year, officials admitted that party leaders feel popular opinion about the environment could threaten their hold on power.

Because of the Chinese and European commitments to electric vehicles, the global market for EVs doesn’t appear to be facing extinction. But despite Tesla’s popularity, EV sales are not what they need to be domestically to make them major market winners.

Vehicles are getting more autonomous and more craaaazy

Veteran car journalist Jean Jennings told me, with a bit of regret in her voice, that the future of the industry is “shared rides, electric cars, and autonomous.” In many ways Jennings says the work that it’s going to take for GM to get to a cleaner, safer, profitable future demands rethinking how the cars are made — and that mean no driver instead of no gas.

A person driving a 2003 Honda Civic would barely recognize the driver-assist technology of today like automated braking and adaptive cruise control. Now, the most exciting tech geared toward driver-assist includes I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-magic features that allow a driver to essentially see through the engine block (making parking easier), and map-the-city visualizations that use the pipes and wires under the road to help autonomous vehicles find their way.

Tough air quality standards are likely here to stay

California’s Air Resources Board, soon to be led by California Governor-elect Gavin Newsom, is expected to fight a long battle with federal regulators to preserve the right for the state to set tougher emissions standards than the rest of the country. Trump being in office might seem like an opportune moment for the auto industry’s air quality standards to relax significantly; but China is the market driving these regulations now, and people there really care about air quality.

Politics and the auto industry typically do not mix well

The talk of this auto show was GM, in part because so many GM workers at the show only have months left at their jobs. It was these job cuts, after a bailout from taxpayers, that drew the ire of President “Tariff man” Trump, whose threats to discontinue electric car subsidies have not played well with industry professionals.

President Trump isn’t the first politician to try to use auto executives as a convenient punching bag. CEOs of car manufacturers haven’t done themselves any favors by, say, opposing airbags and fuel economy standards in the past. But this administration’s public feud is causing major road burn in the industry — and not only for GM. If the president intended to punish the Detroit-based company, he failed to grasp an important part of the electric vehicle rules from the Obama era: Because GM got in early on plug-in electric vehicles, it’s already used up most of its federally backed incentives to sell electric cars. (And its credits drying up is what made the Volt expendable.

Buckle up, because auto trends are part of a cycle

If the future of the industry were a race, it’d be the Indianapolis 500: fast and circular. Take GM’s cuts: The auto industry is cyclical, and layoffs are no surprise. Reshaping the current GM line-up also seems to this reporter (the child and grandchild of auto workers) to be a part of that cycle.

What’s interesting to me about this auto show is the feeling of déjà vu. American car makers are turning away from sedans, just as they did in the early 2000s The shift may not be forever — especially considering that some companies, such as Honda, are investing MORE money in its small cars. As Honda executive Sage Marie pointed out, the company is both investing in sedans and looking to emerging markets, while the American car companies stay wedded to pickups.

So when it comes to predicting the future of the auto industry, don’t get trapped by what’s just around the bend. Automakers are still, in general, looking toward a greener future… but there might be a few pit stops along the way.

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What the Los Angeles Auto Show tells us about the future of cars

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What the Trump administration got wrong on its own climate report (pretty much everything)

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

The federal government’s new National Climate Assessment is the latest scientific report to confirm the devastating effects of climate change: Extreme hot weather is getting more common, wildfires are becoming more devastating, rising sea levels are forcing people from their homes, and so forth. “Climate change is transforming where and how we live and presents growing challenges to human health and quality of life, the economy, and the natural systems that support us,” the report says. And without rapid action to reduce carbon emissions, these problems are going to get worse. A lot worse.

The Trump administration has responded to the climate crisis by rolling back regulations and policies intended to reduce carbon emissions — exactly the opposite of what experts say is required to slow global warming. So it was no surprise when the Trump administration tried to bury the inconvenient report by releasing it on the afternoon of Black Friday. It didn’t work, though.

On Monday, when asked about the report’s conclusion that climate change will wreak havoc on the U.S. economy, President Trump said, “I don’t believe it.” Tuesday, the White House doubled down on its climate denial, with Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders questioning the methodology and conclusions of the climate report and saying it was “not based on facts.” That phrase is a fitting description for the talking points offered up by the White House. With one exception, none of these points is factually accurate:

Climate change won’t affect the economy. The president may not “believe” it, but economists do. The report released a few days ago says that if climate change is left unchecked, “annual losses in some sectors are estimated to grow to hundreds of billions of dollars per year by the end of the century.”

It’s worth noting that the 1,656-page report was issued by Trump’s own government. It is backed by NASA, NOAA, the Pentagon, and 10 other federal scientific agencies. It represents decades of work by more than 300 authors.

Trump is leading on clean air and water. The president and his spokespeople have repeatedly tried to divert attention from climate change by claiming that what really matters is clean air and water. “The president is certainly leading on what matters most in this process, and that’s on having clean air, clean water. In fact, the United States continues to be a leader on that front,” Sanders said at the White House press conference. In case anyone missed it, she said it three times.

First off, the president is not leading on clean air and water. In fact, he has been working steadily to overturn or relax rules and programs designed to protect air and water, everything from the Clean Power Plan to fuel efficiency standards. The only reason America’s air and water are relatively clean today is because of policies and legislation adopted before Trump took office. The level of particulate matter in the air actually increased last year, after a long period of steady decline.

More important, the continued burning of fossil fuels is expected to make both the air and the water more polluted. The National Climate Assessment estimates with “high confidence” that global warming will increase ozone levels across the nation’s central region, and that it will lead to increased smoke from wildfires.

What the Trump administration fails to understand is that climate change is air pollution. Human activities are polluting the air with heat-trapping gases that are raising the planet’s temperature to feverish levels. Reducing climate change is simply a matter of reducing the air pollutants that are causing it.

America’s air is the cleanest ever. In an interview with the Washington Post on Monday, Trump asserted that the nation’s air and water is “right now at a record clean.” Um, no.

The United States has relatively clean air, but not the world’s best. Canada, Australia, and four other countries have cleaner air by at least one metric. And thanks to wildfires exacerbated by climate change, Northern California literally had the world’s worst air quality earlier this month, dirtier even than the air above smoggy mega-cities in China and India.

The new report relies on extreme climate models, not facts. At the press conference, Sanders claimed that the latest climate assessment “is based on the most extreme model scenario, which contradicts long-established trends … It’s not data-driven.”

Not true, say authors of the report. In a Twitter thread, climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe of Texas Tech University said Sanders actually made two false statements, because Hayhoe and other authors of the report “considered many scenarios” including ones in which carbon emissions would be very low, and the observed increase in carbon emissions over the past 10 to 15 years has been consistent with the scenarios modeled in the report.

The report is based on decades of federal data, not just models — data that show carbon dioxide levels and global temperatures rising in tandem. As Axios reported last week, the Earth has been warmer than average for 406 months in a row: “This means that no one under the age of 32 has ever experienced a cooler-than-average month on this planet.” That’s an entire generation.

Climate modeling is difficult and imprecise. As Sanders said at the press conference, “Modeling the climate is an extremely complicated science that is never exact.” OK, score one true statement for Sarah.

What Sanders didn’t say, though, is that computer models have done a good job of predicting what has already happened to the climate, and they are constantly improving. Also, climate models are more likely to underestimate than overestimate the amount of long-term future change.

Obama’s science adviser agrees with Trump. One of Sanders’ talking points seemed to suggest that skepticism about the climate report was bipartisan: “Even Obama’s undersecretary for science didn’t believe the radical conclusions of the report that was released.” Sanders neglected to mention a few key facts about Steven E. Koonin, the former undersecretary who has frequently argued that climate science is not “settled.”

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Koonin is a theoretical physicist, not a climate scientist. During the Obama administration, he served within the Energy Department for only 18 months, with limited budget authority and responsibilities. Sanders could just as easily have called Koonin “the former chief scientist for the multinational oil and gas company BP,” a position he held for five years. Or she could have called Koonin “the former Obama official that Trump’s EPA administrator wanted to use special authority to hire.” Either of those identifications would have made it clear that Koonin has far more in common with Trump than Obama.

The fact that one of Obama’s high-level employees doesn’t agree with the latest climate report is meaningless. But it’s a classic climate-denier strategy: Lean heavily on the few scientists who don’t agree with the mainstream consensus on climate change, and hope that the public will be fooled into thinking that scientists are evenly divided on the issue.

Based on facts. During its live broadcast of the press conference, CNN took the unusual step of displaying a “Facts First” sidebar next to Sanders. As the press secretary criticized the report, CNN posted a graphic with bullet points about the report: “Climate Change report involved 300 scientists, 13 federal agencies; Co-Author: Not paid for report; Open for review & transparency before publishing.”

It almost seemed as though CNN was trying to “inoculate” its viewers against what Sanders might say, a communications strategy that may be more effective than debunking false statements that have already been made. If that’s true, perhaps it would be better for me to focus on what the Trump administration isn’t talking about, than on the climate claptrap that came out of the White House over the past few days.

Here’s what Trump and Sanders are mum on: the other climate report published by the federal government on Black Friday. In that report, the Interior Department and the U.S. Geological Survey estimated that the extraction and burning of fossil fuels produced on federal lands, including offshore areas, was responsible for about one-fourth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 to 2014. The Trump administration wants to lease even more public land to drillers, at bargain-basement prices, which will make global warming worse. That’s not just a bad deal for taxpayers; it’s a bad deal for everyone on Earth.

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What the Trump administration got wrong on its own climate report (pretty much everything)

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EPA stops pretending to ‘update’ the climate change page it deleted

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It’s no secret that the Trump administration has been deleting climate change from government websites. Perhaps the saddest part of it all has been the fate of the EPA’s climate page, which used to provide information on the health and environmental impacts of human-induced climate change.

Shortly after President Trump took office in January 2017, a spokesperson for the EPA transition team told The Hill that there were no plans to take down content regarding climate change. “We’re looking at scrubbing it up a bit, putting a little freshener on it, and getting it back up to the public,” he said.

Nearly two years later, that “little freshener” has turned into an overhaul.

In April 2017, the EPA’s climate change page was taken down for revisions to “reflect the agency’s new direction under President Donald Trump.”

After a year and a half of waiting, it’s now clear that there is no update coming. The page has dropped the pretense of revisions, an analysis by the Environmental Data & Governance Initiative shows. The site dropped the line “This page is being updated” in October and replaced it with “We want to help you find what you are looking for.”

Thankfully, it still links to a snapshot of the page from when President Obama was in office. If what you’re looking for is up-to-date climate change data from 2018, however, you’ll have to look elsewhere.


EPA stops pretending to ‘update’ the climate change page it deleted

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Trump’s latest rule rollback makes natural gas as dirty as coal

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

This summer’s statistics on electricity use and generation included a significant gem: Over the last 12 months, power generation from coal has dropped to a three-decade low. That was party-worthy news for the climate, for air quality, for folks who live near power plants, and for the natural gas industry, which is partly responsible for coal’s decline. Just days later, however, the Trump administration crashed the shindig, causing a major buzzkill.

No, the president’s attempts to revive coal have not succeeded. But on September 18, the Interior Department snuffed out new rules aimed at lowering the oil and gas industry’s methane emissions, just days after the EPA started the process of euthanizing its own methane regulations. This is a bummer not only for the planet, but also for the natural gas industry’s efforts to portray its product as the clean fossil fuel.

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Coal began its climb to dominate the electricity mix in the 1960s, peaking in the mid-2000s, when power plants burned about 1 billion tons per year, generating about half of the nation’s electricity — and an ongoing disaster. Donald Trump likes to talk about “clean, beautiful coal.” It’s anything but. The smokestacks that loom over coal power plants kick out millions of tons of planet-warming carbon dioxide annually, along with mercury, sulfur dioxide, arsenic, and particulates, all of which wreak havoc on human health. What’s left over ends up as toxic (sometimes radioactive) piles of ash, clinkers, and scrubber sludge.

When natural gas is burned to produce power, however, it emits only about half the carbon dioxide of coal, and virtually none of the other pollutants associated with burning coal. So during the 2008 election season — when climate politics were less polarized than now — both parties pushed natural gas in different ways, with Republicans chanting, “Drill, baby, drill,” and Democrats calling natural gas a “bridge” to greater reliance on renewable energy sources. At the same time, advances in drilling were unlocking vast stores of oil and gas from shale formations, driving down the price of the commodity, and making it more desirable to utilities.

(Video via Andrew Thorpe and Joshua Krohn / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory)

As a result, natural gas gobbled up a growing share of the nation’s electricity mix, while coal’s portion withered. In 2008, natural gas generated 21 percent of the electricity in the United States; now, its share is 33 percent. Coal use, meanwhile, plummeted from 48 percent to 29 percent over the same period. In consequence, the electric power sector’s total carbon dioxide emissions have dropped by 700 million metric tons over the last decade, with an attendant decrease in other harmful pollutants. Every megawatt-hour of coal-fired electricity that is replaced by gas-fired electricity is a net win for the planet — and the humans who live on it.

Except when it’s not. Natural gas has an Achilles’ heel: When it is sucked from the earth and processed and moved around, leaks occur. The main ingredient in natural gas is methane, a greenhouse gas with 86 times the short-term warming potential of carbon dioxide. Every punctured pipeline, leaky valve, and sloppy gas-well completion eats away at any climate benefits. And if methane’s leaking, so too are other harmful pollutants, including benzene, ethane, and hydrogen sulfide. And so the fuel’s green credentials, and one of the industry’s main marketing tools, end up wafting into thin air.

An aerial view taken by the airborne imaging spectrometer AVIRIS-NG of a methane plume from a gas storage tank in Kern Front oil field. The leak persisted for multiple years.Riley Duren, Andrew Thorpe and Stanley Sander / NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory

When the Obama administration proposed rules that would make the oil and gas industry clamp down on methane emissions, it was a gift, not a punishment. Not only would people and the climate benefit; the natural gas industry would be able to sell itself as a clean fuel and a bridge to the future.

The Obama-era rules are similar to those passed in Colorado in 2014, with the industry’s support. Far from being onerous, they simply require companies to regularly look for and repair leaks and to replace faulty equipment. Some companies already do this on their own; the Obama rules would simply mandate this responsible behavior across the board. That’s why the Republican-controlled Congress ultimately decided not to kill the rules. That, however, did not discourage Trump.

Trump is not being “business-friendly” by ending the rules. Rather, he is once again indulging his own obsession with Obama and with destroying his predecessor’s legacy, regardless of the cost to human health and the environment. Trump’s own EPA estimates that its rule rollback will result in the emission of an additional 484,000 tons of methane, volatile organic compounds, and other hazardous pollutants over the next five years. Meanwhile, the death of Interior’s methane rule on Tuesday will add another half-million tons of pollutants to the air. In the process, it will erode the pillars of the once-vaunted natural gas bridge.

Then again, maybe the time has come to let that bridge burn. We get 70 times more electricity from solar sources now than we did in 2008, and renewables hold 11 percent of the total share of power generation. Perhaps just as significant is a less-noticed fact: Electricity consumption in the U.S. has held steady for the last decade, even dropping during some years, despite a growing population, a burgeoning economy, harder-working air conditioners, and more electric devices. That means we’re becoming more efficient and smarter about how we use energy. If we keep this up, we’ll be able to cross that fossil fuel chasm, no matter how many bridges Trump burns down.

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Trump’s latest rule rollback makes natural gas as dirty as coal

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While Trump rejects science, Obama and Clinton warn of climate change’s urgent danger

The Democratic Party VIPs offered sobering remarks on the immediacy of climate change on Friday. Former President Obama and former presidential candidate Hillary Clinton warned separately that climate change is not an intangible, future threat, but one that is at this moment devastating the planet and its inhabitants.

During a “State of Democracy” speech at the University of Illinois, Obama offered a science-backed reminder: “We know that climate change isn’t just coming. It is here.”

Clinton issued a similar sentiment on Twitter. “We’re not fighting for the planet in some abstract sense here,” she said. “We’re fighting for our continued ability to live on it.” She pointed to record-high temperatures across the world, the biggest wildfire in California history, and an unprecedented red tide in Florida — all visible signs that climate change is something to be contending with right now.

Both of their remarks stood in contrast to the tide of climate denial under the current administration, from President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement to the EPA’s ongoing censorship of climate science.

Obama noted how the current Congress has “rejected science, rejected facts on things like climate change.”

Clinton focused her tweet thread on Brett Kavanaugh’s lengthy record of undermining environmental policies, which Grist has examined. Kavanaugh, now in his fourth day of Supreme Court confirmation hearings, struck down a federal program to curb cross-state pollution from power plants in 2012 and just last year ruled that the EPA’s attempt to phase out hydrofluorocarbons was outside its authority, as Clinton tweeted.

Clinton came to a sober assessment of what’s at stake: “Replacing Kennedy with Kavanaugh would swing the Court to a new, hard-right majority that would rule against curbing greenhouse gases for years — maybe decades — that we can’t afford to waste on inaction.”

Both Obama and Clinton saw political engagement as part of the way out of this quagmire. “The antidote to a government controlled by a powerful few, a government that divides, is a government by the organized, energized, inclusive many,” said Obama.

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While Trump rejects science, Obama and Clinton warn of climate change’s urgent danger

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