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The Math of Life and Death – Kit Yates


The Math of Life and Death

7 Mathematical Principles That Shape Our Lives

Kit Yates

Genre: Mathematics

Price: $13.99

Publish Date: January 7, 2020

Publisher: Scribner


A brilliant and entertaining mathematician illuminates seven mathematical principles that shape our lives. “Kit Yates shows how our private and social lives are suffused by mathematics. Ignorance may bring tragedy or farce. This is an exquisitely interesting book. It’s a deeply serious one too and, for those like me who have little math, it’s delightfully readable.” —Ian McEwan, author of Atonement “Kit Yates is a natural storyteller. Through fascinating stories and examples, he shows how maths is the beating heart of so much of modern life. An exciting new voice in the world of science communication.” —Marcus du Sautoy, author of The Music of the Primes From birthdays to birth rates to how we perceive the passing of time, mathematical patterns shape our lives. But for those of us who left math behind in high school, the numbers and figures hurled at us as we go about our days can sometimes leave us scratching our heads and feeling as if we’re fumbling through a mathematical minefield. In this eye-opening and extraordinarily accessible book, mathemati­cian Kit Yates illuminates hidden principles that can help us understand and navigate the chaotic and often opaque surfaces of our world. In The Math of Life and Death , Yates takes us on a fascinating tour of everyday situations and grand-scale applications of mathematical concepts, including exponential growth and decay, optimization, statistics and probability, and number systems. Along the way he reveals the mathematical undersides of controversies over DNA testing, medical screening results, and historical events such as the Chernobyl disaster and the Amanda Knox trial. Readers will finish this book with an enlightened perspective on the news, the law, medicine, and history, and will be better equipped to make personal decisions and solve problems with math in mind, whether it’s choosing the shortest checkout line at the grocery store or halting the spread of a deadly disease.

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The Math of Life and Death – Kit Yates

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Are farmers setting the Amazon ablaze in support of Bolsonaro?

Farmers are reportedly setting fire to the Amazon rainforest to show support for Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s policy of opening up protected areas to private ownership. According to a widely disseminated article in a small newspaper, Folha do Progresso, the organizers of this “Day of Fire” are hoping that 2019 sets a record for burning.

Ranchers and farmers routinely use fire in tropical agriculture to clear land for planting and cattle pastures, but the practice had slowed before Bolsonaro took office in January. Brazil’s space research agency reported this week that fires have increased 84 percent this year compared to the dry season last year. On Monday, smoke from rampant fires plunged Sao Paulo into darkness in the afternoon.

Many news outlets have said the 74,000 fires Brazil has seen this year sets a record, but that’s based on statistics that only date back to 2013. And deforestation is actually down from its peak in the 1980s. The real, undisputable news here is that there’s been a spike in fires and deforestation under Bolsonaro. And given the Amazon rainforest’s important role in capturing carbon emissions, the stakes seem much higher.

Christian Poirier, a program director for the nonprofit Amazon Watch, said that farmers were clearly emboldened by Bolsonaro to burn forests. “The fires currently ravaging the Amazon are directly related to President Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental rhetoric, in which he errantly frames forests and forest protections as impediments to Brazil’s economic growth. Farmers and ranchers understand the president’s message as a license to commit arson with wanton impunity, in order to aggressively expand their operations into the rainforest.”

Bolsonaro isn’t exactly taking credit, saying he had a “feeling” that the fires were set by nonprofit environmental groups trying to make his government look bad.

There’s been a huge growth in Brazil’s farms, especially after President Donald Trump’s trade war sent China — the top buyer of U.S. soybeans — shopping in South America. But the farm boom won’t improve the lives of poor Brazilians if it depends on dismantling environmental protections, said Toby Gardner, the director of nonprofit Trase. He sees Brazil trending toward “apparent disregard for devastating effects of environmental degradation seen from the recent and unprecedented spate of wildfires, set by landowners to clear forest for agriculture,” he said in an email.

Brazil’s massive forests are a critical part of the Earth’s life support system. The Amazon holds some 17 percent of the world’s plant-based carbon, and fires release that greenhouse gas. It’s home to millions of unique species and people. Fires are also burning in Brazil’s Cerrado — the central savanna — and its other forests.

“We think this Day of Fire really captures the craziness of what is going on in Brazil — deforestation for the sake of it, as an act of political demonstration,” said Alex Armstrong of the environmental group Mighty Earth in an email. Mighty Earth and other organizations think big corporations can prevent deforestation by promising not to buy crops from Brazilian farmers who burn forests. Some corporations, such as the grain-trading giant Cargill, say they need a supportive government in Brazil before they can act.

It’s worth noting that Grist could not independently confirm that farmers have set fires as a demonstration: Every story and source interviewed about the Day of Fire pointed to the same article based on an interview with an anonymous source. But the space agency observed a spate of fires in the region where farmers reportedly planned their protest. And a government prosecutor has opened an investigation into the reported Day of Fire.

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Are farmers setting the Amazon ablaze in support of Bolsonaro?

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It’s official: Parts of california are too wildfire-prone to insure

California is facing yet another real estate-related crisis, but we’re not talking about its sky-high home prices. According to newly released data, it’s simply become too risky to insure houses in big swaths of the wildfire-prone state.

Last winter when we wrote about home insurance rates possibly going up in the wake of California’s massive, deadly fires, the insurance industry representatives we interviewed were skeptical. They noted that the stories circulating in the media about people in forested areas losing their homeowners’ insurance was based on anecdotes, not data. But now, the data is in and it’s really happening: Insurance companies aren’t renewing policies areas climate scientists say are likely to burn in giant wildfires in coming years.

Between 2015 and 2018, the 10 California counties with the most homes in flammable forests saw a 177 percent increase in homeowners turning to an expensive state-backed insurance program because they could not find private insurance.

In some ways, this news is not surprising. According to a recent survey of insurance actuaries (the people who calculate insurance risks and premiums based on available data), the industry ranked climate change as the top risk for 2019, beating out concerns over cyber damages, financial instability, and terrorism. While having insurance companies on board with climate science is a good thing for, say, requiring cities to invest in more sustainable infrastructure, it’s bad news for homeowners who can’t simply pick up their lodgings and move elsewhere.

“We are seeing an increasing trend across California where people at risk of wildfires are being non-renewed by their insurer,” said California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara in a statement. “This data should be a wake-up call for state and local policymakers that without action to reduce the risk from extreme wildfires and preserve the insurance market we could see communities unraveling.”

A similar dynamic is likely unfolding across many other Western states, according to reporting from the New York Times.

To understand the data coming out of California we can use my own family as an example: A few months after Grist published a story about how my parent’s neighborhood is trying to fortify itself against future forest fires, my mom’s insurer informed her and my stepfather that they’d need to get home insurance elsewhere. For two months they called one insurer after another, but no company would take their premiums. So they turned to the state program as the insurer of last resort — which costs about three times more than they’d been spending under their previous, private insurer.

My folks have spent a lot of money clearing trees and brush from around their house. They’ve covered the walls in hard-to-burn cement panels, and the roof with metal. But insurance risk maps don’t adjust for these improvements. Instead, insurance companies seem to have made the call that the changing climate, along with years of fire suppression, have made houses in the midst of California’s dry forests a bad bet, and therefore uninsurable.

“For us, because we’ve done good financial planning and our house is paid off, it’s just an extra expense,” said my mom, Gail Johnson Vaughan. “But we have friends who have no choice but to leave.”


It’s official: Parts of california are too wildfire-prone to insure

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There are glimmers of a Green New Deal in Inslee’s big new climate plan

The little-known governor of Washington state just unveiled the ambitious second phase of his climate plan, and there are more pieces of the puzzle to come. That’s no surprise to those familiar with his platform: Jay Inslee is running as the climate candidate.

Some of Inslee’s fellow presidential candidates have embraced a progressive climate plan called the Green New Deal. A resolution outlining that plan, introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, points to some vague and rather massive policy ideas. But AOC’s policy plan isn’t expected to roll out until next year. Until then, Inslee’s plan is beginning to look like the closest thing we have to a road map.

Much like the Green New Deal, Inslee’s plan (the parts of it we’ve seen so far) offers a federal jobs guarantee, a 10-year mobilization on clean energy, and even healthcare benefits for impacted coal workers. Inslee wants to spur a $9 trillion investment that will fight off the worst of climate change and enable workers to find gainful employment in the transition to renewable energies.

One of the advisors to New Consensus, the think tank building out the Green New Deal, saw positive similarities between the two. “I think what Governor Inslee is doing very well and what the Green New Deal does very well is approach the problem through not only an environmental lens but also an economy lens,” said Brandon Hurlburt, who served as chief of staff to Stephen Chu, secretary of energy under President Obama. “We need people to understand the type of job that they can have in the mobilization effort that Governor Inslee is talking about.”

Inslee isn’t shy about drawing parallels between his plan and the history that inspired the Green New Deal. “Eighty-six years ago this month, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt laid out the details of the New Deal in a radio address,” the first line of Inslee’s plan reads. “Just as it did in the 20th century, America must rise to this 21st-century challenge with a bold plan.”

Here’s how his Evergreen Economy Plan aims to make that happen:

A $9 trillion investment in infrastructure, labor, green industries, and new technologies. That doesn’t mean that Inslee expects Congress to cough up $9 trillion on his first day in office (the same goes for Beto’s $5 trillion climate plan). The plan leverages money to jumpstart investment: $300 billion in average federal spending plus an additional $600 billion more from the private sector every year.
A green bank. Inslee calls this the “Clean Energy Deployment Authority” and it’s like an ATM for green spending. The bank will get start off with $90 billion to invest in low-cost solutions that the private sector has been ignoring.
Helping out rural America. Inslee aims to accomplish this by providing debt relief to struggling communities, starting clean electricity coops, funding energy efficiency upgrades, and investing in regional authorities. It’s a bottom-up plan that lets rural states maintain control of the energy transition.
Under Inslee’s plan, federal agencies will have to purchase 100 percent clean energy by 2024 using union labor. The plan will also spend $3 trillion on upgrading and building more resilient infrastructure, another opportunity, Inslee says, for good-paying jobs. Some of these skilled-labor positions could clock in at $25 an hour.
A G.I. bill for workers affected by the transition to renewables, particularly folks employed by the dying coal industry. That includes: securing retirement benefits for impacted workers by stabilizing the nation’s retirement system, guaranteeing access to healthcare for qualifying workers, educational stipends and income support for workers who want to transition to new jobs, and more.

There’s a lot more in Inslee’s plan: a Clean Water For All initiative that invests in upgrading the nation’s crumbling water infrastructure, grants for smart grid networks, investments in public transit systems (helllooooo, MTA). Almost every piece of the Evergreen Economy Plan provides opportunities for thousands of new jobs.

“We need to have a jobs program that makes sure everyone has a shot at these good jobs in terms of training and otherwise,” Inslee told Grist in an interview in April. “When we’re defeating climate change, what we should be doing is increasing economic equality. That’s invested throughout this whole system.”

Unlike many of the now 23 presidential hopefuls, the governor of the Evergreen State actually has some achievements under his belt to point to as he makes a case for why America needs to tackle climate change full-on.

But Inslee is polling at a paltry 1 percent. His involvement in the 2020 presidential race, however, could have the effect of inspiring other, more established candidates to roll out their own climate plans.

New Consensus advisor Hurlburt pointed out that thanks to candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Inslee, voters will have a wide array of choices. “If Democrats are trying to outdo each other by proposing the most ambitious policy to meet the scale of the problem, that’s a good way to start addressing [climate change],” he said.

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There are glimmers of a Green New Deal in Inslee’s big new climate plan

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After Standing Rock, protesting pipelines can get you a decade in prison and $100K in fines

Cherri Foytlin and her fellow protestors spent much of last summer suspended 35-feet in the air in “sky pods” tied to cypress trees. They were hoping to block the Bayou Bridge Pipeline from running through their part of Louisiana.

At the time, Energy Transfer Partners was building the pipeline to move oil between Texas and St. James Parish in southern Louisiana, crisscrossing through the Atchafalaya Basin, one of the largest swamps in the country. Foytlin and others with the group L’Eau Est La Vie (“Water Is Life”) set up wooden platforms between trees along the proposed path of the pipeline. The construction crew couldn’t build the pipeline with a protestor dangling above.

Though the protesters were on private land with the landowner’s permission, some were eventually arrested by St. Martin’s Parish Sheriff’s deputies in mid August. The pipeline was completed in March, yet Foytlin could still face up to five years in prison and $1,000 in fines.

That’s because Louisiana’s Governor John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, signed HB 727 into law last spring, making trespassing on “critical infrastructure” property a much more serious crime than garden-variety trespassing. What was once a misdemeanor is now a felony. The law takes a broad view of what’s “critical”: pipelines, natural gas plants, and other facilities, as well as property on a proposed pipeline route, even if the pipeline isn’t there yet.

Foytlin is one of at least 16 people in Louisiana who’ve been arrested and charged with felonies under the new law, according to Loyola University law professor Bill Quigley, who’s representing Foytlin. All of them were jailed and had to post bonds, some as high as $20,000 to get out. The district attorney hasn’t officially charged any of them yet, Quigley said.

“These are people saying let’s make sure we have something left for future generations in the most beautiful swamp in the world,” Foytlin said. “And for that we were charged with felonies, we were beaten, we were stepped on, I was choked.” To her, the law allows the state to jail people for unpopular political views. (Messages left with the St. Martin Parish Sheriff’s Office weren’t returned.)

The effort to punish pipeline protestors has spread across states with ample oil and gas reserves in the last two years and, in some cases, has garnered bipartisan support. Besides Louisiana, four other states — Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota and Iowa — have enacted similar laws after protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline generated national attention and inspired a wave of civil disobedience.

Just last week in Texas, House lawmakers passed a bill that makes interfering with some oil and gas operations makes interfering with operations at oil and gas facilities a third-degree felony — on par with indecent exposure to a child.

Lawmakers in at least seven other states, including Minnesota, Kentucky, and Illinois, are considering similar legislation.

All these efforts have garnered broad support from the oil and gas industry. And many of the bills bear a startling resemblance to model legislation being pushed by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a conservative nonprofit backed by the Koch Brothers.

They have a lot in common. For starters, they heighten penalties for damaging oil and gas infrastructure and for trespassing with the intent to disrupt operations. Some mete out punishments of up to 10 years in prison and $100,000 in fines. Others would penalize organizations that “aid” protesters, making environmental groups liable for the actions of their members.

“This law is unnecessary,” said Elly Page, an attorney with International Center for Not for-Profit Law, a group that has been tracking this legislation around the country. “Trespass is already a criminal offense under the law. Damaging private property is already a criminal offense. These create really egregious penalties for conduct that’s already penalized.”

The forces behind the scenes

By the beginning of 2017, hundreds of protesters at Standing Rock had spent months clashing with law enforcement and private security guards hired by the pipeline company Energy Transfer Partners. Videos of law enforcement blasting protesters with water cannons had gone viral, and the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe filed suit to block the pipeline. Inspired by those protests, a coalition of Native American and environmental activists in Oklahoma announced they planned to stop construction of the Diamond Pipeline, which would carry oil from Cushing, Oklahoma to Tennessee.

That February, a Republican member of Oklahoma’s state House, Representative Mark McBride sponsored a bill raising penalties for trespassers on property with oil and gas infrastructure and holding any “person or entity that compensates or remunerates a person for trespassing” liable. McBride said at the time that the idea for the bill came from protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline. When asked how he would define “compensates,” he punted, saying it “would be for the courts to decide.”

Gov. Mary Fallin signed McBride’s bill into law three months later, along with another piece of legislation that created penalties for protesting near facilities considered “critical infrastructure.” Protesters in Oklahoma can now face a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail, and organizations that “compensate” them are liable for up to $1 million.

That caught the attention of ALEC. The influential group takes corporate money and drafts ready-made legislation for lobbyists and lawmakers. It has been behind the effort to exempt Big Oil from having to disclose chemicals in fracking fluids and pushed so-called ag-gag laws, which stymie undercover investigations of agricultural operations.

At a national conference organized by ALEC in December 2017, the group’s Energy, Environment, and Agriculture task force proposed a model bill titled the “Critical Infrastructure Protection Act.” A few months later, ALEC’s board signed off on the bill, and it soon appeared on the organization’s website. Bills with similar language then began cropping up in state legislatures.

In March 2018, then-Louisiana State Representative Major Thibaut, a Democrat, introduced HB 727, the one that landed Foytlin in jail. That same month, Wyoming and Minnesota passed similar legislation which was later vetoed by their governors.

Oil and gas lobbyists have also been backing legislation penalizing protestors. In state after state, representatives for Big Oil were an overwhelming majority of those testifying and registering as lobbyists in support of the proposals.

This January, a lobbyist working with the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers wrote to Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant’s policy advisor promoting legislation “to provide for criminal penalties for those who wilfully and illegally trespass, disrupt, destroy” oil and gas facilities. The lobbyist noted in his email that he was “expecting a bill from Chairman [Angela] Cockerham and Chairman [Sally] Doty,” two members of the state’s legislature representing each side of the aisle. Doty and Cockerham introduced bills that fit his description in the Mississippi House and Senate that week.

The second wave

Environmental advocates who’ve been tracking these anti-protest bills say 2019 has ushered in a second wave of them. And ALEC appears to be cheering them on. In February, as a cold snap gripped the Midwest and Northeast, ALEC’s Grant Kidwell sent an email to members of the group’s Energy, Environment and Agriculture task force noting that Illinois, Indiana, Mississippi, and Wyoming had introduced legislation with similar language to their model bill. “The frigid temperatures brought by the polar vortex this week serve as a reminder of the important [sic] of energy infrastructure,” he wrote. “Thankfully, states have recognized the important [sic] of critical infrastructure and are moving to protect it.”

[Copies of the ALEC newsletter and emails by lobbyists were obtained by Documented, a watchdog group that tracks corporate influence on public policy, and provided to Grist.]

Texas has seen a handful of prominent pipeline fights in recent years, including ones opposing the Trans-Pecos pipeline near the Texas-Mexico border and the southern segment of the Keystone XL pipeline. Environmental groups and landowners are currently trying to stop construction of the Permian Highway pipeline, a 430-mile conduit to move natural gas from West Texas to the Gulf Coast.

The legislation could have a chilling effect on private landowners who’ve played a large role in fighting pipelines in Texas, said Judith McGeary of the Farm and Ranch Freedom Alliance, an advocacy group for independent farmers.

Valero has been building a pipeline through McGeary’s 165-acre farm in central Texas. A few weeks ago, McGeary, the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, said she found a swastika painted on the pipeline on her property. Suspecting that members of the construction crew were involved, she locked the gates to her farm and demanded that Valero send new workers. McGeary said Valero responded by threatening to sue for up to $500,000 in damages for interfering with construction. (Valero did not respond to a request for comment.)

“This was a horrible experience for us as it was,” she said. “We look at this legislation and they could’ve been threatening to have the sheriff come and pursue us for third degree felonies — for locking the gate for a weekend. It’s an incredible overreach.”

Environmental advocates see a key difference between the states that considered such bills last year and this year. In 2018, the vast majority were Republican-controlled and had significant oil and gas resources. Now the effort is spreading to states run mostly by Democrats, like Illinois, and devoid of large oil and gas deposits, like Kentucky. Illinois, for instance, is considering a bill that would make trespassing on critical infrastructure property a Class 4 felony, in line with obstruction of justice, criminal sexual abuse, and parental kidnapping.

‘Damn it, we’re going to go all in.’

Activists and First Amendment advocates are fighting back. In South Dakota, after Governor Kristi Noem championed bills that prohibit “riot-boosting” and enable the government to collect damages from protesters, the Oglala Sioux Tribe told her she’s “not welcome” on their reservation.

“These are our lands and our water,” the tribe’s president, Julian Bear Runner, wrote in a letter to Noem. “If you do not honor this directive … we will have no choice but to banish you.”

The ACLU has also filed suit challenging South Dakota’s new law on behalf of a handful of environmental and indigenous rights groups. Vera Eidelman, a staff attorney with the ACLU, pointed to one provision that allows the government to collect damages from protesters and use the money to cover the expenses of law enforcement.

“Meaning, essentially, if you protest the pipeline and are held liable under this law, you have to pay damages, and you are in fact funding this thing that you protested,” Eidelman said.

Quigley, the law professor representing Foytlin, said he plans on challenging Louisiana’s law as unconstitutional in federal court. “The law infringes on the First Amendment right to protest by being so vague that it can be used in an arbitrary and discriminatory manner as it was [with Foytlin],” he said.

For her part, Foytlin says such laws won’t deter her or other advocates from protesting pipelines. In fact, they might backfire.

“People will continue to go to prison.” she said. “They think that by upping the punishment they’re going to keep people from protesting, but what will happen is we’re going to do things that are more worth getting the felony. Because now if we’re going to jail, then damn it, we’re going to go all in.”

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After Standing Rock, protesting pipelines can get you a decade in prison and $100K in fines

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Can New York make buildings super-efficient, fast?

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

New York City passed the most aggressive climate bill in the nation in April, and the city got it done in a truly New York way.

The Climate Mobilization Act is the city’s effort to abide by the Paris climate-change agreement even after the Trump administration withdrew the U.S. from the global accords. Before its abrupt about-face, America’s plan had been to cut carbon emissions by 80 percent by the year 2050. New York is taking up that pledge by introducing new regulations to address the energy performance of buildings.

Buildings contribute a huge share of New York’s carbon emissions — nearly 70 percent, thanks to normal everyday use, but exacerbated by inefficient heating and cooling systems — so they’re an obvious target for regulation. But it’s less obvious how the building sector will answer this charge. There’s a fundamental mismatch in expertise: The people who know how old buildings really work aren’t the same people designing energy-efficient retrofits. Only a big push will get them in the same room (at great expense to landlords).

The city’s new “80-by-50” law prescribes several benchmarks along the way to the ultimate goal in 2050. Some buildings will need to produce real results soon; different types of buildings will be subject to specific targets. The city’s first big milestone arrives in 2030: By then, New York buildings will need to have collectively cut their carbon emissions by 40 percent. Any buildings larger than 25,000 square feet will be subject to the cap (with some key exceptions), which means around 50,000 buildings in total. For landlords and building owners, this is an enormous lift in just over 11 years. That’s by design.

“There’s still a lot of details to figure out as to how this gets implemented,” says Lindsay Robbins, a director for strategy and implementation at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which hashed out this policy’s compromises with the Real Estate Board of New York. “I don’t think any city has done this on this scale before.”

The hope is that New York’s climate law is awesomely burdensome. No, that doesn’t mean a ban on glass skyscrapers. But a law that turns over the everyday dealings of real estate in New York has a great deal of promise for upsetting how buildings work everywhere. That’s what this represents, according to supporters like John Mandyck, CEO of the Urban Green Council, a nonprofit devoted to making New York buildings sustainable. “This law could possibly be the largest disruption in our lifetime for the real-estate industry in New York City,” he says.

New York’s new law is an effort to make the road by walking: It’s not something anyone knows how to do until everyone commits to doing it. The fact that this legislation is sweeping in its scope is why it stands a chance of succeeding, its supporters say. It’s the first plank in the suite of legislation that Mayor Bill de Blasio describes as the city’s own Green New Deal. The idea is to build a durable industry in energy retrofitting, one that benefits everyone involved — and by doing so, establishing a model for other cities around the world. And the city can’t get there with a measure that asks building owners to simply swap out light bulbs.

“New York City is going to spend billions and billions of dollars to meet this new law. When we do that, New York Harbor is still going to flood if the rest of the world doesn’t enact aggressive climate reduction strategies as well,” Mandyck says. “Our point all along has been that if we’re going to spend the billions of dollars, let’s make sure we come up with policies that are exportable.”

New York is going it alone here

Other cities are looking at building performance, to be sure. Every city has an incentive to level up the energy efficiency of buildings: In New York, buildings alone account for 95 percent of electricity use for the city, according to the Urban Green Council. But most cities have not taken steps beyond tracking and disclosure.

More than 25 U.S. cities have adopted various energy-benchmarking policies, as have the states of California and Washington. These laws make it mandatory for building owners to report their energy use (namely their electric and gas bills). Disclosure laws have guided net-zero building codes and voluntary agreements. Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., were early signers.

It’s worth noting the limits of disclosure. Building owners who don’t meet voluntary standards don’t pay any price. Importantly, disclosure is not supposed to be a shaming tool: Benchmarking in New York might show a range in energy consumption by hotels, for example, with usage calculated per square foot so as to compare big hotels with small ones, without naming any specific buildings.

What New York is doing is more strident: It’s the first city to attach a dollar value to these disclosure figures. Washington, D.C., passed a building-energy performance standard in December for buildings over 50,000 square feet, and when buildings in the District fall out of compliance, those landlords will be moved into an advisory lane to get back on track. San Francisco passed a law this month requiring big buildings to switch to renewable electricity, an easier goal for a city with a forgiving climate located in a state with a cleaner grid.

In New York, building owners who don’t meet their carbon reduction requirements will pay fines. Potentially very large fines: The statute calls for a penalty of $268 per every assessed ton of carbon over the cap. For landlords just over the line, the fine will be nominal. But the city’s worst offenders could be looking at annual penalties of more than $1 million.

It’s a policy with teeth, in other words. Fortunately for landlords, there’s a lot of room for buildings to improve, according to Vivian Loftness, professor at Carnegie Mellon University and the Paul Mellon chair in architecture.

“Buildings in the U.S., and certainly commercial buildings, have been incredibly sloppy in their energy use,” Loftness says. “We’ve got [older] mechanical systems that are running at 50 percent efficiency, where there’s things on the market that will run at 95 percent efficiency. We’ve got a lot of room for upgrades for boilers and chillers, air-handling units, control systems — there’s so much room in just the hardware of buildings.”

New York’s strict standard may work for landlords

The Climate Mobilization Act sets deep reduction targets over a fairly short period. Since the law establishes 2005 as the benchmark year  — meaning building energy consumption needs to fall 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030 — landlords who have made some strides in energy reduction will get credit for their work. The poorest performers will need to show improvement sooner, by 2024, but about one-quarter of buildings won’t require substantial changes. Taking the progress already made into consideration, New York will need to level up its building-energy-performance game by 26 percent over the next 11 years.

Still, it’s significant, especially for New York landlords with multiple buildings in their portfolio. The Real Estate Board of New York, which represents many large developers, has vocally opposed the legislation. The legislation “does not take a comprehensive, city-wide approach needed to solve this complex issue,” said John H. Banks, the board’s president, in a statement. The group objects in particular to exemptions that they say put a greater strain on the building owners subject to this regulation.

“A coalition of stakeholders including environmental organizations, labor, engineering professionals, housing advocates and real estate owners came together and proposed comprehensive and balanced reforms that would have achieved these goals,” Banks said. “The bill that passed today, however, will fall short of achieving the 40 x 30 reduction by only including half of the city’s building stock.”

Douglas Durst, the chair of the Durst Organization, wrote in a letter to Crain’s New York Business that under this legislation, “empty buildings score better than occupied ones, and hundreds of thousands of inefficient and energy-intensive smaller, city-owned and [New York City Housing Authority] buildings have significantly less stringent standards.”

“To get down to even 20 percent from where I am today, with the technology that exists, there’s nothing more that I can do,” Ed Ermler, the board president for a group of condo buildings in Queens, told The New York Times. “It’s not like there’s this magic wand.”

It will take work, no question, says Lane Burt, managing principal for Ember Strategies, a consultancy and strategy firm. But it will not take a wizard. For starters, not every individual building needs to make the 40 percent mark: That’s an aggregate goal. And buildings don’t need to hit their target tomorrow.

“If you’re a building owner and your engineers are telling you, it’s impossible to get 20 percent carbon reduction or 30 percent carbon reduction, really, you need better engineers,” Burt says. “What I interpret from that concern is that the owners are saying, ‘It’s financially impossible for me to do this right now.’ And that I believe completely.” He adds, “The good news is, it might be financially impossible for them to do right now, but we’re not necessarily talking about right now. We’re talking about three decades.”

Over a long enough time span, in fact, the heavier lift makes it more likely that landlords will succeed, not less so, according to supporters of the bill.

“What’s smart about this bill is it doesn’t ask for a small increase. It asks for a big increase,” says Greg Kats, president of Capital-E, a clean-energy consultancy and capital firm. “It’s the kind of thing where if you’re going to do something, you should do quite a lot of it, because the transaction costs [for landlords] to set it up, to engage with tenants, are substantial fixed costs.”

Switching to solar might show gains in kilowatt hours fast. But often, measuring energy efficiency is trickier. It means achieving a negative outcome, a reduction in energy consumption, usually by introducing additive systems that contribute to an overall decrease. Buildings are complex systems: Higher-efficiency windows lead to lower air leakage, which reduces heat loss, which lowers heating bills. Buildings are all different, though, so figuring out the suite of improvements suited to a particular building is complicated.

After all, the work involved is interruptive, whether it means overhauling HVAC processes or considering more costly improvements to a building’s roof or facade. While tenants see the benefit of this work once it’s done, they hate it while it’s happening. With a long-enough runway, landlords can plan around the natural business cycle of a lease (around 10 years, generally) to find the lowest-cost window for this work. And given a tall order, building owners have an incentive to spend in order to achieve big savings.

The hassle of getting to a 10 or 15 percent reduction is not that different from reaching 40 percent, Kats says. Either way, a landlord needs to capture data, engage with landlords and utilities, meet with vendors and consultants, and buy new equipment. These transaction costs are high, but many of these costs are the same whether the goal is 15 percent or 40 percent.

A bad bill — something that asked landlords to make smaller changes more gradually, or with less certainty about future benchmarks or timing — might encourage landlords to look for the low-hanging fruit, the barest improvements necessary to meet the regulatory burden. But big asks translate into benefits that landlords can show to tenants. A law firm may not love an interruption from building management — but replacing office lighting with LED lamps that improve visual acuity? A promise against freezing-cold workspaces that landlords can actually keep? Tenants want those changes!

“If you go deep on [energy efficiency], there are some real economies of scale,” Kats says. Landlords can make changes “that save on capital costs or create more space for you that’s rentable space. It’s that kind of systems approach which deep upgrades allow that makes it much more cost effective.”

How will building owners come up with the capital?

Deep upgrades require capital, of course. Improvements for buildings are expensive, and the payback is long. Most investors don’t think of the building sector as a 50-year investment or even a 30-year investment. It’s rare for a building owner to weigh upfront investments against long-term operating costs, because the capital comes from different pockets, and the savings may variable or may not be guaranteed, according to Loftness. Building improvements ought to pay out within the lifetime of the equipment or materials, but not within, say, five years — so there’s a mismatch between up-front costs and long-term savings.

Owners who also occupy their buildings tend to have longer views about costs, she says, but they may not share the same long-term economics. The question is academic for a building owner who doesn’t have the capital to pay for building upgrades. So it’s good news, for both investors and owner-occupants alike, that the market has an answer to help New York meet this new burden.

The solution comes from California. When the state passed energy-conservation laws 30 years ago, it made utilities responsible for achieving those savings, with the idea being that utilities can bear to wait 30 or 50 years to see a gain. So California utilities have actively promoted investments, financed by the utilities themselves, as a way to meet the regulatory burden. A similar approach is likely to be popular in New York to meet the new energy benchmarks.

“Rather than you, the building owner, having to come up with the money, the utility is coming up with the money, and basically taking the payback through the energy savings,” Loftness says. “Your bill stays the same, but 10 years later, you’ve paid back the ‘loan’ of what they invested in the building.”

The most common category of energy-efficiency financing are negotiated payments known as energy service performance contracts (ESPCs). Under this arrangement, a third party finances the upgrade, sharing the savings with the property owner and making a profit. Third parties that develop, design, build, and fund these improvements are called energy service contract organizations (ESCOs). When utilities are directly involved, as in the California model, the savings-backed arrangements are called utility energy service performance contracts (UESPCs or USPCs), to complete the acronym soup of energy-efficiency financing.

Whether it’s Con Edison or Siemens, these organizations play an important function, as lenders, consultants, or engineers who help building owners bridge the gap for their capital needs.

The federal government, for example, can literally print the money it needs to invest in its own energy retrofits. But federal agencies have a hard time getting Congress to actually allocate the funds to meet these standards (namely set by the Energy Policy Act of 1992). So the government relies on ESCOs to finance and perform this work for federal buildings. As silly as it sounds, the federal government pays private entities to finance this work, through anticipated future savings, even though it’s a safe bet that the U.S. Department of Energy will still be here 50 years down the road.

State and local governments offer their own avenue for financing energy retrofits. Known as property assessed clean energy (PACE) programs, these municipal assessments are effectively loans that are attached to the property. PACE programs, such as the one that New York is introducing with the Climate Mobilization Act, offer long-term financing for little or no money down, with an alternative approach to underwriting that opens up access to these loans to a greater number of consumers than private lenders might. By attaching a loan to a property (and not the property owner who takes out the loan), PACE assessments can transfer with the property when the title changes — meaning that a building’s former owner is not stuck with the tab.

Loftness says that she expects that this meta-industry around energy efficiency financing will be a much bigger part of the New York landscape by 2030 and beyond. “It makes financial sense,” Loftness says. “They make more money on the savings than they do on the expense to upgrade the building.”

An industry may emerge to fully support the changes coming to New York buildings. That doesn’t mean it won’t be a challenge. The city will need to help building operators and owners — the people who know the most about their buildings — talk with the people who can design the solutions to improve them over time. Operations and design engineering aren’t the same skill sets. It may take the full three decades between now and 2050 to find all the answers.

“The reality is, this is difficult. This is the engineering challenge of our time,” Burt says. “There’s not a lot of folks around who really understand how big buildings work, especially the way they were designed 50 or 60 years ago.”

This problem is not specific to New York. The knowledge gap between operating buildings in St. Louis and boosting building performance in St. Louis is just as wide. But if New York can figure out a solution that touches all the buildings in New York, then it will have necessarily developed the knowledge, the expertise, and the specialization that can serve the entire country. Or the world.

Saving the climate through better bureaucracy

New York’s law aims to put officials and experts in an optimal position to answer the questions that haven’t even come up yet. To that end, it creates a new sub-department under the New York Department of Buildings. While its precise mandate is still to be determined, this department will be outside the mayor’s office and fully integrated into the function of the city. “That’s the city sending a signal to building owners that this is something you need to manage, just like vacancy or rent,” Burt says.

The law also establishes an advisory board, with members appointed by the mayor and the city council, to evaluate several issues on an ongoing basis. The board will at times reconsider the per-square-foot carbon reduction goals for each of 10 building category types, from residential to hospitals to retail. While the legislation has set standards for the first compliance period, there are still a lot of details to determine for the next phase (2030–2034), and the fine print will fall to the Department of Buildings, the advisory board, and the Mayor’s Office of Sustainability.

“For this [policy], the Department of Buildings is also the same department that has administered the benchmarking legislation and the audit requirements that have been in place, so I think that’s they were also chosen to administer this,” Robbins says. “Since this is a whole other level of oversight and decision-making, and paperwork and processes, that’s why they decided to create a whole new division and a new person to head that up, to make sure this legislation is successfully implemented.”

The city’s forthcoming Office of Building Energy and Emissions Performance will be headed up by a registered design professional, the legislation stipulates. No director has been named yet.

Still to come: Carbon cap-and-trade for buildings

One of the most formidable policy ideas in the bill also falls in the TBD category: It sets the stage for a carbon-trading market between buildings. It authorizes a study and guidelines for implementing a real-estate carbon market by 2021. If and when carbon trading comes to town, building owners could trade carbon-emissions credits in order to meet the cap. Owners of large portfolios could trade between their buildings to meet targets.

If New York’s policy is done right, carbon trading could serve low-income neighborhoods in particular. Extra credit could be given to upgrades performed in distressed areas, creating an incentive in areas that lack access to capital, whether the factor is 2-to-1, 3-to-1, or 10-to-1. Picture an ESCO — a Siemens or a FirstEnergy — meeting with building owners in low-income neighborhoods and offering do the building upgrades in exchange for the credits.

“This creates an entirely different source of capital to finance efficiency upgrades in low-income neighborhoods,” Mandyck says.

“The overall importance of trading is that it’s globally relevant,” he adds. “It doesn’t matter what political system you have, what climate you’re in, what your building stock is. Building carbon trading can work anywhere in the world.”

There are still lingering questions that the Climate Mobilization Act hasn’t addressed. Some involve the carbon trading market: how those low-resource neighborhoods will engage in the carbon market shaping up around them, for example. Robbins notes that New York State has committed to a number of energy-efficiency investments; it’s unclear whether buildings owners can apply for these grants in order to meet New York City goals, or whether the state will deem them “free riders” for whatever political reasons.

Robbins also notes that an enormous chunk of New York City buildings were exempted from the guidelines. Any building with more than one rent-regulated housing unit will face a different regulatory path. If buildings with affordable housing — and this means buildings with any affordable housing — don’t comply with the carbon caps, they’ll face a list of “pre-set prescriptive measures,” Robbins says. A slap on the wrist compared to fines.

Residential buildings over 25,000 square feet with affordable units represent half the large buildings in New York. This means half of the applicable buildings won’t be required to meet the energy standards, which also means the other half will need to work that much harder to get to 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent the following decade. New York lawmakers feared that the cost would be passed on to renters, or that rents on buildings might be raised to the point at which units are no longer considered rent stabilized.

“We understand the constraints and the reasons why rent-regulated housing was dealt with the way that it was,” Robbins says. “But that is such a huge swath of the multi-family buildings in this city, and it is a sector that we really want to see get the benefits of energy efficiency.”

There are other features of the bill that could produce big changes in industry. Mandyck notes that the law enables building owners to switch to renewable energy sources in order to get to compliance; currently, 70 percent of all electric energy use in New York City is generated through fossil fuels. He says that a renewable-energy credit will create a much higher demand for renewable energy in New York.

There are drawbacks to be addressed, too. Laurie Kerr, president of LK Policy Lab, a research and design institute for energy efficiency, says that it might be a mistake to set a single target for compliance in 2030. Rather than asking owners of half of New York’s buildings to hit a single deadline, the city might consider cascading annual targets for different building typologies.

But she praises the potential of a building-to-building carbon-trading market as a “least-cost path” for a bill that otherwise sets stringent targets for buildings. She points to a similar, smaller ordinance in Tokyo as a model for carbon trading. New York’s bill is strict, she says; any degree of freedom for building owners is going to help.

While the long runway and high benchmarks for success set by New York’s climate law makes it worth the trouble for building owners — and tenants, and providers, and consultants — it will still mark a huge shift for the city. The Real Estate Board of New York is joining forces with the Institute for Market Transformation, an energy-efficiency nonprofit, to provide training sessions to help the real-estate industry adjust.

It could fail — it could fall to corruption, incompetence, or politics. Sweeping climate answers such as the Paris accords have demonstrated that they are vulnerable to populism and the slow-moving wheel of democratic consensus.

But if New York real estate and New York regulators can get it right? If a climate bill can work in New York, it can work anywhere.

“There was a time before cities had departments of sanitation. There was a time before cities had departments of health,” Kerr says. “These were all game-changers in the histories of cities. This is another turning point.”

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Cape Town’s ‘Day Zero’ water crisis, one year later

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

In January 2018, when officials in Cape Town announced that the city of 4 million people was three months away from running out of municipal water, the world was stunned. Labelled “Day Zero” by local officials and brought on by three consecutive years of anemic rainfall, April 12, 2018, was to be the date of the largest drought-induced municipal water failure in modern history.

Photos of parched-earth dams and residents lining up to collect spring water splashed across news sites. The city’s contingency plan called for the entire population to collect its water — a maximum of a two-minute-shower’s-worth a day per person — from 200 centralized water centers, each serving the population equivalent of an MLS soccer stadium.

Then April 12th came and went, and news of the crisis evaporated.

One year on, Cape Town has apparently made it through the worst of a historic drought without turning off the taps, although the water supply is still tenuous. How the city managed to evade disaster — a combination of water conservation and efficiency measures, smarter use of data, and a little help from Mother Nature — serves as a largely hopeful precedent for cities globally facing increasing risk of extreme environmental events. Still, serious challenges in establishing a resilient and sustainable water supply system for Cape Town remain.

90 critical days

The countdown to Day Zero was 90 days. So what did Cape Town do to beat it? Unsurprisingly, it was not a silver bullet but a barrage of efforts that averted disaster. One big boost came in February 2018, when the national government throttled allocation of water in the region earmarked for agriculture, allowing more to flow to urban residents. The same month, farmers also agreed to divert additional water stored for agricultural purposes to the city.

However, the city’s conservation efforts were as important, and more remarkable. Cape Town’s government ramped up water tariffs and enforcement of prohibitions on heavy users, prohibiting use of municipal water for swimming pools, lawns, and similar non-essential uses. The city’s government also implemented a new water-pressure system in January, saving roughly 10 percent of overall municipal water consumption.

The effect was stunning. Cape Town’s municipal water-use levels historically oscillate throughout the year, showing up on a graph as a standing wave pattern with troughs coinciding with wet winters, and peaks mirroring the dry summer months when people rely more on taps for water. Like an ocean wave crashing onto shore, this wave pattern fizzled out as Cape Town implemented drought restrictions, cutting its peak usage by more than half in three years.

The January 2018 announcement alone galvanized a 30-percent drop in residential consumption after a steady but slower decline in earlier stages of the drought, according to City of Cape Town statistics.

A city changes its habits

Technical fixes and regulatory controls implemented by the municipality were important to curbing water consumption, but reaching such levels of conservation would not have been possible without large-scale cooperation by a wide swath of residents, businesses, and other stakeholders.

“It doesn’t matter how much technical expertise you’ve got, but you actually have to stand back and understand the system more broadly,” notes Gina Ziervogel of the University of Cape Town, who has researched the crisis. For the city, this meant using data more effectively to prompt people to save water.

Starting in 2017, the municipality had begun ratcheting up its drought-awareness campaign, publishing weekly updates on regional dam levels and water consumption and using electronic boards on freeways to notify drivers of how many days of water supply Cape Town had left. Then, in January 2018 and with Day Zero looming, the city got more aggressive. In addition to announcing its Day Zero countdown, the city launched a city-wide water map to show water consumption on a household level, allowing people to compare their consumption to their neighbors and the rest of the city.

Heightened outreach regarding the crisis prompted wide discussion: The municipality’s weekly water report became a regular topic at social gathenings and on the radio. Governmental and civic organizations published water-saving techniques, and people traded tips on social media. In an unusual turn of events, techniques used in the poor, water-strapped township areas gained traction in wealthier areas.

Prompted by new water-use tariffs, businesses also began increased efforts to communicate the need to save water to customers and employees. Bathroom signs explaining “If it’s yellow, let it mellow … ” became ubiquitous in restaurants and bars, while startup and corporate types initiated “dirty shirt” challenges to see who could go the most days without washing their work shirt.

Crisis averted (for now)

By the end of March 2018, the emergency efforts had provided a small additional buffer in the city’s water reserves, allowing city officials to push back Day Zero beyond the upcoming rainy season. In June 2018, the region saw average rainfall for the first time in four years. With the rain, dam levels rose, and officials were able to call off Day Zero indefinitely.

Cape Town’s multi-pronged effort to stave off Day Zero succeeded. Still, the challenges to achieving water security persist. Although dam levels are above the lows experienced during the drought, they remain below pre-drought years and currently stand at 50 percent of capacity. Meanwhile, daily water use for the city has crept higher over the past year.

Furthermore, disparities in access to water in Cape Town continue to be related to extreme economic inequality, which generally runs along the racial lines established during South Africa’s colonial and apartheid eras. For a large proportion of Cape Town’s poor citizens, whose only normal access to water is a communal tap, Day Zero remains a constant reality. Combine this with a complex political climate and historical distrust of state policies, and it is easy to understand that a sustained unified effort to conserve water is fraught with tension.

Cape Town is making a longer-term effort to diversify its water resources, but that too is prompting concerns. Projects to desalinate ocean water and tap the aquifer beneath the city have proven far more expensive than initially thought, and have also faced questions about their environmental impacts on local ecosystems and overall sustainability. An increase in private wells drilled by wealthier households has added pressure to the future availability of this source. Although plans for both desalination and groundwater extraction are progressing, neither alone will solve Cape Town’s water issues.

For now, the city and its residents are still enduring moderate drought conditions. Urban water restrictions remain in place, although less strict than before, and the legacy of the drought can still be seen all around Cape Town. Many businesses continue to remind customers to restrict their usage in signs taped to bathroom mirrors and above toilets. That’s probably just as well — water-scarcity issues are not likely to go anywhere, considering the increased risks of drought caused by climate change and population growth.

As for other cities facing similar resource crises: Ziervogel advises “to make sure you’ve got those relationships and partnerships in place so that when a crisis hits you can actually draw on those partnerships.”

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John Hickenlooper has a curious connection to a Trump Cabinet secretary

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

Former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper’s ties to the oil and gas industry run deep, especially when compared to those of other candidates in the unwieldy 2020 Democratic field. In some ways, given that Hickenlooper served two terms in the fifth-largest oil-and-gas-producing state, these connections are not surprising. But what may be less apparent is that his government service also intersected with David Bernhardt, the new secretary of the Interior responsible for opening public lands to industry development. Hickenlooper has also often ended up aligned with Bernhardt’s former law and lobbying firm, Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, on matters regarding fracking, the use of public lands, and support for the oil and gas industry over the interests of consumers.

Any governor of Colorado, no matter what party, would inevitably come into contact with the firm, which represents dozens of clients across the energy sector alone. His own chief of staff, Doug Friednash, came from Brownstein in 2015, only to return to it again before the governor’s tenure ended last year. Hickenlooper has been dubbed “Frackenlooper” by critics who claim he’s prioritized major oil and gas development at the expense of citizen activism.

Brownstein is one of the most profitable lobbying firms in the country, and its influence naturally extends into Colorado government as well. According to the Denver alt-weekly Westword, “When there’s a hot political issue in Colorado, the Brownstein firm usually has a seat at the table … and sometimes more than one.”

Now, internal emails reveal how the law firm enjoyed a seat at the table very close to the governor’s. They show how Brownstein became a conduit for the relationship between Hickenlooper’s administration and one of its most prominent Colorado clients, the Colorado Oil and Gas Association (COGA), an industry group that led the way in trying to thwart local attempts to restrict fracking. In this matter, pitting local communities against the fossil fuel industry, Bernhardt, who was the chair of Brownstein’s natural resources division, and Hickenlooper’s administration repeatedly fought on the same side to clear hurdles to drilling.

In 2012 and 2013, two Colorado towns, Longmont and Fort Collins, had placed a moratorium on fracking development. The communities, worried about potential groundwater contamination, argued that municipalities should have the right to reject Colorado’s fracking expansion, setting up a face-off with the considerably more lax Colorado Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, whose appointments by the governor often include regulators with extensive energy sector connections.

Hickenlooper’s administration sued Longmont and Fort Collins for preempting state law, and, on behalf of COGA, Brownstein sued them in a case that worked its way all the way up to the state Supreme Court. Before becoming Ryan Zinke’s deputy at the Department of the Interior, Bernhardt was the energy and natural resources chair at the firm with broad responsibilities and a long list of his own clients in the oil sector. In 2016, the state Supreme Court struck down the bans in Longmont and Fort Collins, setting a precedent statewide and providing a big win for Brownstein, Hickenlooper, and COGA.

“We appreciate the Supreme Court’s guidance on balancing private property rights and local government jurisdiction of oil and gas operations in Colorado,” Hickenlooper said in a celebratory statement that struck his usual theme of working with industry, not against it. “We’ll continue to work creatively and energetically with communities and industry to ensure our world-class environment is protected while remaining a place that is welcoming to business and jobs.”

It is unclear how direct a role Bernhardt played in the industry’s fight as chair of the natural resources division, and the matter doesn’t appear on the listed conflicts of interest in his ethics disclosure. But he was front and center celebrating his firm’s victory in a May 2016 press release issued from the firm: “This case involved precedent-setting issues pertaining to state preemption of oil and gas activities,” Bernhardt said in a statement commending his employee, whose “knowledge of energy and land use law were on exceptional display in front of the Supreme Court, showing the depth and breadth of our team.”

A few months after the 2016 state Supreme Court win, environmental activists were gathering signatures for a pair of ballot initiatives, Nos. 75 and 78, that would have given municipalities the power to ban fracking and force fracking operations to be located 2,500 feet from occupied buildings. COGA objected to the efforts and sought a series of meetings, including getting oil and gas executives on the “governor’s dance card” to plot a strategy to defeat or at least undermine the initiatives, according to emails obtained through state requests by the watchdog group Documented and shared with Mother Jones.

The ballot initiatives barely gathered support, and neither one cleared the threshold for enough valid signatures to make the 2016 cycle. Activists tried again in 2018 with Proposition 112, a state initiative that would have required the sites for new oil and gas wells to be located more than 2,500 feet away from any occupied building — schools, homes, and sensitive areas — because of health concerns. Once more, Hickenlooper was on the side of COGA and opposed Proposition 112, arguing that the measure would impose excessive burdens on the economy and state budget. Both the governor and COGA pointed to the estimate that 85 percent of non-federal lands would be off the table. The industry contributed $38 million to help defeat it and back a different initiative, which also failed.

Nonetheless, before leaving office in 2018, the state commission struck a compromise ahead of a newly elected Democratic wave, unanimously approving a more narrow order setting new fracking operations back 1,000 feet from schools.

Now Hickenlooper is on the campaign trail, Bernhardt is running the Department of the Interior, and COGA is working with the Colorado arm of the American Petroleum Institute in its next fight: preventing the new Democratic majority in Colorado from passing a law to give local entities more power to curb fracking. Tracee Bentley, Hickenlooper’s legislative director at the time, started the American Petroleum Institute’s Colorado arm in 2015 and is working on the side of oil and gas on this effort.

Last year, Bentley hosted an American Petroleum Institute roundtable in which she sounded the alarm about citizen efforts to rein in the oil industry and praised compromise in terms that Hickenlooper now echoes on the campaign trail. “I know that the key to our success is collaboration,” she said in a statement, “and we will continue to work hand-in-hand with government partners, communities and stakeholders alike to ensure that our shared future betters the lives of all Coloradans.”

Appearing on the same panel was then-deputy Interior Secretary David Bernhardt.

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Climate change group scrapped by Trump reassembles to issue warning

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

A U.S. government climate change advisory group scrapped by Donald Trump has reassembled independently to call for better adaptation to the floods, wildfires, and other threats that increasingly loom over American communities.

The Trump administration disbanded the 15-person Advisory Committee for the Sustained National Climate Assessment in August 2017. The group, formed under Barack Obama’s presidency, provided guidance to the government based on the National Climate Assessment, a major compendium of climate science released every four years.

Documents released under freedom of information laws subsequently showed the Trump administration was concerned about the ideological makeup of the panel. “It only has one member from industry, and the process to gain more balance would take a couple of years to accomplish,” wrote George Kelly, then the deputy chief of staff at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, in a June 2017 email.

The advisory group has since been resurrected, however, following an invitation from New York’s governor, Andrew Cuomo, and has been financially supported by Columbia University and the American Meteorological Society. It now has 20 expert members.

The panel is now known as the Science to Climate Action Network (SCAN) and has now completed work it would have finished for the federal government, releasing a report on Thursday warning that Americans are being put at risk from the impacts of a warming planet due to a muddled response to climate science.

“We were concerned that the federal government is missing an opportunity to get better information into the hands of those who prepare for what we have already unleashed,” said Richard Moss, a member of SCAN and a visiting scientist at Columbia University, who previously chaired the federal panel.

“We’re only just starting to see the effects of climate change, it’s only going to get much worse. But we haven’t yet rearranged our daily affairs to adapt to science we have,” he added.

The fourth National Climate Assessment, released on the day after Thanksgiving last year, detailed how climate change is already harming Americans, with sobering findings on future impacts. At the time, Trump said he didn’t believe the report.

“The impacts and costs of climate change are already being felt in the United States, and changes in the likelihood or severity of some recent extreme weather events can now be attributed with increasingly higher confidence to human-caused warming,” states the report, the work of 13 U.S. government agencies..

On current trends, the U.S. economy is set to lose $500 billion a year from crop damage, lost labor, and extreme weather damages, the report found. Rainfall levels and flooding have increased in much of the country, with the amount of the U.S. West consumed annually by wildfires set to increase as much as sixfold by 2050, according to the assessment.

But these warnings have been only intermittently heeded in decisions made by cities and states across the U.S., due to a lack of knowledge, political will, or funding. The U.S. has no national sea level rise plan, for example, and the Trump administration has scrapped rules around building infrastructure in areas deemed vulnerable to climate change. These circumstances have led to haphazard planning that results in certain dwellings repeatedly lost to flooding or fire.

“We live in an era of climate change and yet many of our systems, codes, and standards have not caught up,” said Daniel Zarrilli, chief climate adviser to New York City, one of the few U.S. cities with such a person. “Integrating climate science into everyday decisions is not just smart planning, it’s an urgent necessity.”

In its new report, the Science to Climate Action Network recommends the creation of a “civil-society-based climate assessment consortium” that would combine private and public interests to provide more localized help for communities menaced by floods, wildfires, or other perils.

“Imagine working in state or county government — you have a road that is flooding frequently and you get three design options all with different engineering,” Moss said. “You don’t have the capacity to know what is the best option to avoid flooding, you just know what costs more.

“Climate issues aren’t being raised in communities. They may know they are vulnerable but they don’t know whether to use, for example, wetlands or a flood wall to stop flooding. We need to establish best practices and guide people on how to apply that locally.

“This is extremely urgent. Every year that goes by means more people losing everything from flooding and fire, including the lives of loved ones. This needs to be addressed as rapidly as possible.”

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tears into Republicans painting Green New Deal as ‘elitist’

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

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a Democrat from New York) on Tuesday delivered an impassioned defense of the Green New Deal, the ambitious Democratic proposal aimed at fighting climate change, after a Republican member of Congress attacked the resolution as an elitist plan he claimed had been created by out-of-touch “rich liberals from New York or California.”

“I think we should not focus on the rich, wealthy elites who will look at this and go ‘I love it, cause I’ve got big money in the bank. Everyone should do this!’” Representative Sean Duffy (a Republican from Wisconsin) said.

“It’s kind of like saying ‘I’ll sign onto the Green New Deal but I’ll take a private jet from D.C. to California — a private jet — or I’ll take my Uber SUV, I won’t take the train, or I’ll go to Davos and fly my private jet,’” he continued. “The hypocrisy!”

Ocasio-Cortez swiftly rejected the characterization. She also denounced the overall Republican strategy to portray climate change concerns as an issue of privilege.

“This is not an elitist issue, this is a quality of life issue,” Ocasio-Cortez responded, her voice rising in exasperation. “You want to tell people that their concern and their desire for clean air and clean water is elitist? Tell that to the kids in the south Bronx which are suffering from the highest rates of childhood asthma in the country. Tell that to the families in Flint.”

The fiery exchange came as the Senate blocked a measure to advance the Green New Deal. Republicans, who have so far offered no plans to combat climate change, repeatedly mocked the Democratic plan as unserious and “socialist” during Tuesday’s debate. Senator Mike Lee (a Republican from Utah) made a splash of his own by relying on various charts that included images of babies, Ronald Reagan, and cartoon sea creatures for his criticism.

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tears into Republicans painting Green New Deal as ‘elitist’

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