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Black environmentalists are organizing to save the planet from injustice

“I can’t breathe.” These were among the final words that George Floyd and Eric Garner gasped before their deaths at the hands of white police officers. That plea has become part of the current rallying cry for racial justice and an end to police brutality in the U.S. But for black people living near industrial facilities, the phrase has an additional layer of meaning: a reminder of their disproportionate pollution burden.

“While many in power seemed surprised that COVID-19 is killing twice as many black Americans, those of us in the environmental justice movement know that the health impacts of cumulative and disproportionate levels of pollution in our communities have created underlying health conditions that contribute to our higher COVID-19 mortality rates,” said Peggy Shepard, co-founder and executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, said at a virtual press conference on Monday.

Shepard is part of the National Black Environmental Justice Network (NBEJN), a national coalition of black environmental justice groups and grassroots activists founded in 1991. Although the network took a hiatus in 2006 after executive director Damu Smith passed away, the network just announced that it’s making a comeback against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic and renewed calls to fight racial injustice.

The network’s mission sends a clear message: Environmental injustice is not a single issue. Rather, it’s a constellation of issues including discrimination in housing, jobs, and healthcare.

It’s impossible to untangle black communities’ current risks from America’s long history of racist policies and practices. Discriminatory policies such as banks’ government-sanctioned refusal to approve home loans and insurance for people in communities of color, also known as redlining, forced black families into neighborhoods more likely to be exposed to industrial pollution and extreme heat. Now these same communities face a surge in unemployment and poverty rates as a result of the economic downturn brought on by the pandemic, and they are also disproportionately dying from the novel coronavirus as a result of a lack of health insurance, unequal access to test sites, and higher workplace exposure via employment in essential services. As if that wasn’t enough, a recent Harvard study also found a link between air pollution and death from COVID-19.

Given the systemic conditions that disproportionately expose black people to the coronavirus pandemic, climate change, and other worsening crises, NBEJN members — including the network’s co-chairs, environmental justice pioneers Robert Bullard and Beverly Wright — say they are now looking to bring in black lawyers, engineers, leaders, and other experts to join forces to help create an equitable green stimulus package, take on the fossil fuel industry, and fight the Trump administration’s seemingly endless orders to weaken environmental protections.

“We see these environmental rollbacks as not just fast-tracking project permits, but as a fast-track to the emergency room and cemeteries,” said Bullard, an author and professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University. “The NBEJN is about dismantling systemic racism, and we’re talking about turning the dominant paradigm on its head.”

Network leaders say COVID-19 recovery legislation could be an opportunity for lawmakers to pass a robust green stimulus package that would focus on environmental justice. Such a green stimulus package, the coalition said, needs to address core issues of systemic racism by, for example, providing green jobs to communities of color.

“Green stimulus packages often only look at protecting the world, but not protecting people like us,” said Wright, executive director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “Any stimulus package dealing with transportation to housing or whatever they’re talking about doing will have to include us and need to be viewed with equity and justice lenses.”

Even if an equitable green stimulus package makes it through Congress and the White House, there will still be a lot more work to be done. Bullard said that even if the Democratic party wins the presidential election or takes control of the Senate, it will take time to reverse Trump-era environmental policy damages, including the country’s withdrawal from the 2016 Paris Agreement. Even then, he added, policymakers will need to take additional steps to curb greenhouse gas emissions and center frontline communities. And NBEJN leaders say the network will stick around to make sure those steps are taken.

“Racism is baked into America’s DNA,” Bullard said. “NBEJN is needed today to fight these conversing threats and underlying conditions that are denying black people the right to breathe and the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness enjoyed by white America.”

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Black environmentalists are organizing to save the planet from injustice

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It’s official: Climate change made Australia’s wildfire season more likely

Australia has always had nasty wildfires. In 2005, the Eyre Peninsula bushfire crisped a wide swath of South Australia’s wheat belt on a day now known as Black Tuesday. In 2009, the Black Saturday fires led to 173 fatalities in Victoria. But this season was different in terms of scale, if not lives lost. Extreme fires have charred nearly 55 million acres of land and killed at least 34 people. Climate change, many suspected, was to blame for the ferocity of the fires.

Now we have evidence. On Wednesday, researchers have confirmed that climate change made Australia’s unprecedented wildfire season of 2019 and 2020 more likely. How much more likely? About 30 percent — and that’s a conservative estimate, the scientists say. That’s pretty significant, but the most concerning conclusion of the study, published by World Weather Attribution (a group of international researchers specializing in climate change, disaster preparedness, and atmospheric sciences), is that conditions for future fire seasons will be even worse.

To get their results, which have not been peer-reviewed yet, the researchers compared conditions in 1900 (before greenhouse gas emissions from human activity started heating up the planet) to conditions during the peak burning period in December 2019 and January 2020 according to the Fire Weather Index — a tool that calculates fire risk in a particular area by assessing weather conditions in addition to other climatic factors like humidity and wind. The researchers did not look at non-weather factors like ignition sources. They found that the index values for the most recent fire season in southeastern Australia were super high, and calculated that those high numbers are 30 to 80 percent more likely to pop up now than they were before 1900.

That’s more or less in line with what climate modelers say is possible on a planet that has warmed 1 degree C above pre-industrial levels, as our planet has. “These observed trends over southeast Australia are broadly consistent with the projected impacts of climate change,” the authors write. And things will start getting really dire when the planet warms an additional degree or more, at which point fires like the ones Australia saw this season will be four to eight times more likely. As such, “it is crucial to prioritize adaptation and resilience measures to reduce the potential impacts of rising risks,” they say.

Curiously, the four models used by researchers to assess wildfire risk showed that the dry conditions across Australia that many blamed for the proliferation of wildfires in the 2018-2019 season weren’t caused by climate change. Climate change did, however, double the chances of heatwaves during that period.

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It’s official: Climate change made Australia’s wildfire season more likely

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Red sky, flying embers: Australia’s fires are the first climate disaster of the decade

Wildfires scorched almost every continent in 2019, but the ongoing wildfires in Australia have caused unprecedented damage.

As fires have blanketed more than 12 million acres of land in Australia, killing at least 20 people and leveling more than 1,000 homes, tens of thousands of people have evacuated to safer ground while many are missing. On Thursday, the Australian state of New South Wales — which includes Sydney, the country’s largest city — declared its third state of emergency since November, and experts say the flames are getting worse. The New South Wales Rural Fire Service issued a fire spread prediction map that shows where the flames are projected to expand over the weekend as weather conditions deteriorate.

A record-breaking heatwave and ongoing drought caused by extreme temperature patterns in the Indian Ocean — all connected to climate change — created the conditions allowing these exceptionally intense wildfires to thrive. For those of us outside of Australia, photos of blood-orange skies, thick gray smoke, and people fleeing for their lives offer a small but devastating glimpse at the first major climate catastrophe of the 2020s.

Helicopters dump water on bushfires as they approach homes located on the outskirts of the town of Bargo on December 21, 2019 in Sydney, Australia. David Gray / Getty Images

This picture taken on December 31, 2019 shows firefighters struggling against the strong wind in an effort to secure nearby houses from bushfires near the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales. Saeed Khan / AFP via Getty Images

Smoke and flames rise from burning trees as bushfires hit the area around the town of Nowra in the Australian state of New South Wales on December 31, 2019. Saeed Khan / AFP via Getty Images

Cars line up to leave the town of Batemans Bay in New South Wales to head north on January 2, 2020. Peter Parks / AFP via Getty Images

Tourists walk with a dog through dense smoke from bushfires in front of the Batemans Bay bridge as cars line up to leave the town in New South Wales to head north on January 2, 2020. Peter Parks / AFP via Getty Images

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Red sky, flying embers: Australia’s fires are the first climate disaster of the decade

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Cory Booker shines at first-ever presidential environmental justice forum

Several Democratic 2020 candidates appeared on Friday in Orangeburg, South Carolina, to attend a historic event: the first-ever Presidential Forum on Environmental Justice. Moderated by former Environmental Protection Agency official and current National Wildlife Federation Vice President Mustafa Santiago Ali, as well as Democracy Now! host Amy Goodman, the forum addressed an issue that’s new to the presidential primary circuit but has for decades been a chief concern for people of color and frontline and low-income communities across the United States.

What is environmental justice? Ali defined the term for the audience gathered at an auditorium on the campus of the historically black college South Carolina State University by flipping it on its head. Environmental injustice and environmental racism, he said, are caused by regulations and policies that negatively affect the nation’s minorities and poor — in this case putting them more at risk from pollution or the impacts of climate change. To achieve environmental justice would be to craft policy with the explicit intent of protecting those communities.

Many of the Democratic candidates have said they intend to do just that, if they take over for Donald Trump as president. But only six of them showed up on Friday to tell voters how they aim to make good on that promise: Tom Steyer, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, John Delaney, Joe Sestak, and Marianne Williamson. Of those six, Booker and Steyer were the most nimble on their feet when discussing the topic of the day — a testament to the fact that they both have long histories of working with either climate groups or grassroots environmental activists (or both).

Notably absent from the stage was Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, who was preparing for a climate change-themed summit with Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in Iowa on Saturday. In the wake of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s departure from the primary race, Sanders, wielding a multi-trillion dollar climate plan he’s calling the “Green New Deal,” has positioned himself as the field’s climate hawk. And according to Vox, the Sanders campaign is making climate action a central component of its strategy in Iowa in the lead up to the state’s caucuses early next year. It’s a big bet on recent polls that show primary state Democrats consider climate change a top issue.

The environmental justice forum in South Carolina was hosted by the National Black Caucus of State  Legislators. (Editor’s note: Grist was one of the forum’s media sponsors.) And it was notable, not only for the being the first-of-its-kind event. In addition, it also showed that if Bernie Sanders may be the race’s new climate candidate, Cory Booker is its environmental justice candidate.

Booker took the stage following the evening’s undisputed headliner, Elizabeth Warren — the only frontrunner to make the trip to Orangeburg. The New Jersey senator, who has discussed these issues going back to his time as mayor of Newark, New Jersey, had no trouble distinguishing himself from his Massachusetts colleague. While Warren pledged a trillion dollars, as part of a $3-trillion climate plan, toward picking up the communities who find themselves facing the brunt of environmental injustice, the candidate with a plan for seemingly everything offered few specifics.

Booker, in contrast, spoke at length about pollution from pig farms in Duplin County, North Carolina, toxic coal ash in Uniontown, Alabama, and cancer clusters between Baton Rouge and New Orleans in Louisiana. Environmental racism, he said, is a “shameful reality in America.” He discussed his proposal to replace all lead service lines in the country, in order to help avoid the water crises that have gripped Flint, Michigan, and his hometown, Newark. When Goodman asked the Jersey senator to defend his support of nuclear energy,  he did so  along environmental justice lines, saying, “The damage done to poor and vulnerable communities is significantly worse from climate change than from nuclear waste.”

Does Booker think environmental justice could be a winning issue in Iowa? “Yes,” he told Grist after the forum. “Every state has Superfund sites, every state is struggling with environmental justice issues, so absolutely.”

Unfortunately, the 2020 contenders may not get another opportunity to discuss the topic this election cycle. After all, environmental justice has only been discussed, briefly, at one presidential debate, thanks to prodding from, Marianne Williamson, who has failed to qualify for the past two debates. And despite multiple requests from candidates, the Democratic National Committee said it will not host a debate on climate change.

Williamson told Grist she was impressed by what her fellow presidential hopefuls said at the forum. “When it comes to actual policies,” she said, “none of us are all that different from each other. We all get it.” At the very least, she added, the policies discussed at Friday’s forum would be a “complete reversal of the level of entrenched environmental injustice that is endemic to the agenda of the current administration.”


Cory Booker shines at first-ever presidential environmental justice forum

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CNN and the New York Times skip climate change in the fourth Democratic debate

Moderators of the three previous Democratic primary debates caught a lot of flak from environmental advocates for not spending enough time on climate change. On Tuesday night, moderators of the fourth debate paved the way for a new era of climate politics by featuring warming front and center. Just kidding. In actuality not a single question about the biggest threat facing residents of the United States, and the world, was asked of the 12 candidates who qualified for the debate.

That’s despite the fact that CNN, one of the night’s two host media organizations, recently held a climate change-themed town hall during which moderators grilled candidates on all angles of the issue. The New York Times, the other host, has a team of journalists specifically assigned to climate stories. (CNN even ran a Times ad touting its climate coverage during one of the debate’s commercial breaks). And yet, somehow, CNN and the Times were unable to muster even a yes/no question about a crisis that is projected to claim millions of lives and alter the world as we know it.

Instead, the candidates were asked about hot topics in recent news cycles, like about whether President Trump should be impeached and the commander-in-chief’s recent decision to pull troops out of Syria — as well as topics that have come up previously, like gun control, a wealth tax, and the minutiae of single-payer health care versus Medicare for all versus “Medicare for all who want it.” That’s all well and good: It’s certainly important that voters hear from the candidates on those issues. But at the 11th hour, when it seemed the moderators might finally ask the candidates a question about climate change, they delivered a disappointment of epic proportions.

Fifteen minutes before the end of the three-hour debate, CNN anchor Anderson Cooper referenced a recent controversy that erupted when a photograph of comedian and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres and George W. Bush watching a Cowboys game together surfaced. “I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s O.K. that we’re all different,” DeGeneres, a lesbian and self-identified liberal said in response to the backlash about her hang with the former Republican president. “In that spirit, we’d like you to tell us about a friendship that you’ve had that would surprise us and what impact it’s had on you and your beliefs,” Cooper said to the candidates.

That’s right. Moderators opted to go with a question about Ellen DeGeneres and friendship over the climate crisis. Climate experts and activists were … not pleased.

Even some of the candidates themselves took to Twitter to voice their displeasure with the moderators.

One former candidate, climate hawk and Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, had to weigh in.

Not all hope is lost. The moderators dropped the ball (and then kicked it into a flaming volcano), but several candidates managed to sneak flicks at the climate crisis into their answers on other topics. Bernie Sanders talked about how his climate plan will create 20 million new jobs in response to a question about manufacturing. Pete Buttigieg mentioned not losing sight of dealing with climate change while many in his party were preoccupied with Trump’s potential impeachment. Tom Steyer, the billionaire newcomer who has launched a campaign to bring out the climate vote, named a grassroots environmental activist in South Carolina as his unlikely friend. In fact, a majority of the candidates on stage thought to mention climate change over the course of Tuesday night’s debate.

Considering that recent polls show that, among registered Democrats, climate change ranks up there with issues like universal health care, gun control, and impeachment, you’d think moderators would want to, y’know, bring it up from time to time.

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CNN and the New York Times skip climate change in the fourth Democratic debate

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U.S. won’t take climate refugees displaced by Hurricane Dorian

President Trump’s ongoing war on migrants and refugees has extended to the Bahamas, where some residents say they’ve received little to no help from their own government after Hurricane Dorian absolutely devastated the area less than two weeks ago. The storm, which hit the islands as a Category 5 hurricane, killed at least 50 people (though that number is expected to rise, as more than 1,000 people are still missing).

While the United States has granted temporary protected status, or TPS, to natural disaster victims in the past, the Trump administration has decided not to extend the designation to Bahamas residents who were displaced by the monster storm. That means Bahamians can still travel to the U.S. temporarily if they have a travel visa, but they will not be granted work permits.

TPS is a form of humanitarian relief intended for people from designated countries where war, famine, natural disaster, or other crises make it difficult for people to return home safely. People with TPS can generally stay in the U.S. for a period ranging from six and 18 months, but the Department of Homeland Security can extend this time if conditions in their home country remain unstable. Those protected under TPS are granted work permits, allowing them to support themselves while living in the U.S. Created by the Immigration Act of 1990, TPS has protected immigrants from 22 countries at various times.

“Generally, under circumstances like this really catastrophic hurricane … TPS would be granted,” the Migration Policy Institute’s Doris Meissner told the Washington Post. The U.S. has over the years offered TPS to residents of Haiti and Nepal after earthquakes devastated those countries in 2010 and 2015 respectively, as well as in South Sudan and Venezuela following armed conflicts in those countries. In the late 1990s, Honduras and Nicaragua were designated for TPS after Hurricane Mitch killed more than 11,000 people in Central America.

One of the Trump administration’s main immigration goals has been to overhaul how the U.S. grants legal immigration status. It envisions a “merit-based” immigration system in which individual immigrants are selected based on their education level, relevant professional skills, and financial self-sufficiency. But critics say the administration is setting the bar so high that many Americans couldn’t pass it.

Trump’s goal of limiting legal immigration has run afoul of many longstanding U.S. immigration policies, but TPS might be the biggest affront to his vision of merit-based entry. Not only does the program extend legal protections to people who want to enter the U.S. based entirely on what’s happening in their home countries, but it also applies to people, whether they are tourists or undocumented immigrants, who are already in the U.S. when TPS is granted. As such, it came as no surprise to some humanitarian workers in Washington that this administration would not be continuing the tradition of offering a temporary home to Bahamians fleeing the storm.

The impacts of Trump’s new TPS approach will likely extend far beyond the hurricane season. As climate change continues to increase the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events, it’s likely that ever-larger numbers of environmental refugees will be forced to leave their homes behind in search of safety. According to a new report from the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, for example, 7 million people worldwide were displaced by natural disasters in the first six months of 2019 — “the highest mid-year figure ever reported for displacements associated with disasters.” But with the White House closing off avenues for migrants hoping for respite in the U.S., those climate refugees will see their options shrink just as they need help the most.

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U.S. won’t take climate refugees displaced by Hurricane Dorian

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Here’s why Iceland is mourning a dead glacier

Some 100 people gathered at the top of a volcano in Iceland on Sunday for an unusual funeral. The victim: A 700-year-old, six-mile glacier. Cause of death: climate change.

The Okjokull glacier actually died a decade ago. But Iceland decided to hold the funeral for the deceased ice mass — it’s first to go extinct from rising temperatures — last weekend amid warnings from the scientific community that hundreds of other glaciers across the sub-Arctic country could soon disappear. Iceland is projected to be entirely glacier-free within 200 years.

A plaque at the site of the vanished glacier, installed with a drill and assistance from some of the children in attendance, reads: “This monument is to acknowledge that we know what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” Henceforth the glacier will be known as just “Ok”; the Icelandic word for glacier, “jokull,” no longer applies.

An ice-free Iceland represents more than just an identity crisis for Icelanders. If global leaders don’t take action to slow rising temperatures, the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet alone could raise sea-levels more than five feet in the next 200 years. Enormous quantities of methane slumbering in the Arctic permafrost are threatening to come alive as record temperatures fry the top of our planet. Two fast-melting glaciers in Antarctica are holding back enough sea ice to flood oceans with another 11 feet of water.

The symbolic funeral took place three days before a meeting in Reykjavik between Iceland’s prime minister, Katrín Jakobsdóttir, other Nordic leaders, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Jakobsdóttir said she aims to make addressing the climate crisis a priority at that meeting. “We see the consequences of the climate crisis,” she told the group of mourners. “We have no time to lose.”

Iceland may be the first country to hold a funeral for a dead glacier, but it’s not the first to mourn a natural wonder under assault by global warming. Australia is grappling with the slow death of its Great Barrier Reef, three islands have disappeared into the rising sea in the past year, and the United States is on the cusp of losing many of its cultural sites, like Jamestown, to rising tides.

And the death count is bound to rise as we make our way deeper into this century. Are we prepared to hold a funeral for, say, Miami? By 2070, the city’s streets will flood every single day (whether South Beach real estate agents realize it or not). If world leaders can’t get rampant emissions under control, we’d all better start getting used to living in a world that is just “Ok.”


Here’s why Iceland is mourning a dead glacier

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Origins – Lewis Dartnell



How Earth’s History Shaped Human History

Lewis Dartnell

Genre: Geography

Price: $18.99

Expected Publish Date: May 14, 2019

Publisher: Basic Books

Seller: Hachette Digital, Inc.

A New York Times -bestselling author explains how the physical world shaped the history of our species When we talk about human history, we often focus on great leaders, population forces, and decisive wars. But how has the earth itself determined our destiny? Our planet wobbles, driving changes in climate that forced the transition from nomadism to farming. Mountainous terrain led to the development of democracy in Greece. Atmospheric circulation patterns later on shaped the progression of global exploration, colonization, and trade. Even today, voting behavior in the south-east United States ultimately follows the underlying pattern of 75 million-year-old sediments from an ancient sea. Everywhere is the deep imprint of the planetary on the human. From the cultivation of the first crops to the founding of modern states, Origins reveals the breathtaking impact of the earth beneath our feet on the shape of our human civilizations.

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Origins – Lewis Dartnell

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Here’s where all the official Democratic presidential candidates stand on climate

So far, 18 Democrats have announced bids to tussle with Donald Trump for the presidency in 2020, with more expected to throw their caps in the ring. In such a crowded field, it’s hard to decipher where each candidate stands on any issue, including climate change — a topic that was conspicuously absent in the 2016 election but appears will be front and center this time around. Luckily, the New York Times sent around a survey to each of the 18 declared Democratic candidates and got them all on the record about everything from a carbon tax to nuclear energy to renewables.

There are a few things that all of the candidates seem to agree on: The U.S. should stay in the Paris climate accord, reinstate President Obama’s climate legacy (which has suffered under Trump’s deregulation push), and invest in renewable energy. Some candidates said they would go even further in one or more of those issue areas, by adding their own flourishes to Obama’s Clean Power Plan or promising to work with the global community to strengthen the Paris pact.

Taking a look at where the candidates diverge yields a much more interesting analysis. Though there are many small distinctions between the 18 presidential hopefuls on climate policy, there are two issues where there is meaningful daylight between candidates.

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A carbon tax

A carbon tax is still controversial in the United States, despite its prominence in countries like Sweden and Norway, and the success of carbon-trading schemes in the state of California and the multi-state coalition named the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on the opposite seaboard. That’s in part because politicians don’t agree on what to do with the money generated by the tax — though most of the candidates said they’d at least be willing to consider a price on carbon.

Cory Booker, in his response to a survey question on whether he supports a carbon tax, said he would like to see the money from the tax go toward alleviating inequality. That progressive approach clashes with Pete Buttigieg’s response. The South Bend, Indiana, mayor said he supports a tax but advocates for returning the money generated by the fee to American families — a scheme favored by some Republicans.

Both the progressive and conservative versions of a carbon tax failed to pass in Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s deep-blue state. The self-described climate candidate has watched many iterations of such a tax fail, in spite of his state’s liberal voter base. Perhaps that’s why Inslee is still in the undecided camp when it comes to pricing emissions — there’s only so many times you can bang your head against the same wall.

Nuclear energy

Like it or not, nuclear energy will likely have to play a role in weaning the United States off of its oil and gas addiction. Any candidate who supports the Green New Deal (five senators and counting) will have a hard time achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 without leaning on nuclear, at least in the short-term.

Regardless of that inconvenient truth, the question on nuclear energy was the most divisive in the survey, according to the Times. Seven out of the 18 were in favor of new nuclear development, including Booker, Inslee, John Hickenlooper, and Amy Klobuchar. Bernie Sanders, one of the earlier proponents of the Green New Deal and the emissions target it centers around, is not in favor of new nuclear. Eight of the candidates either didn’t respond or had “strong reservations.”

“Nuclear energy is not ideal, by any stretch,” said Marianne Williamson, the spiritual healer who famously counseled Oprah Winfrey and is one of those with reservations. “But it is still head and shoulders above coal and natural gas.”

In such a crowded field, it’s these minute differences between candidates that will help climate-conscious voters decide who’s serious about tackling rampant warming, among the many other issues facing the nation. As a presidential candidate, it’s easy enough to say you’ll reenter a climate agreement that nearly every other global leader supports. It’s much more difficult to speak with literacy about controversial topics like nuclear energy, or thorny emission reduction plans like a federal carbon tax. As election season heats up, these candidates will have to expound on the ways they aim to cool the planet down.

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Here’s where all the official Democratic presidential candidates stand on climate

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Traffic pollution leads to 4 million child asthma cases every year

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

Four million children develop asthma every year as a result of air pollution from cars and trucks, equivalent to 11,000 new cases a day, a landmark study has found.

Most of the new cases occur in places where pollution levels are already below the World Health Organization limit, suggesting toxic air is even more harmful than thought.

Guardian Graphic / Source: Achakulwisut et al, Lancet Planetary Health

The damage to children’s health is not limited to China and India, where pollution levels are particularly high. In U.K. and U.S. cities, the researchers blame traffic pollution for a quarter of all new childhood asthma cases.

Canada has the third highest rate of new traffic-related asthma cases among the 194 nations analyzed, while Los Angeles and New York City are in the top 10 worst cities out of the 125 assessed. Children are especially vulnerable to toxic air and exposure is also known to leave them with stunted lungs.

The research, published in the journal Lancet Planetary Health, is the first global assessment of the impact of traffic fumes on childhood asthma based on high-resolution pollution data.

“Our findings suggest that millions of new cases of pediatric asthma could be prevented by reducing air pollution,” said Susan Anenberg, a professor at George Washington University. Asthma can cause deadly seizures.

The key pollutant, nitrogen dioxide, is produced largely by diesel vehicles, many of which emit far more than allowed on the road even after the Dieselgate scandal. “Improving access to cleaner forms of transport, like electrified public transport, cycling and walking, would reduce asthma, enhance physical fitness, and cut greenhouse gas emissions,” said Anenberg.

“This landmark study shows the massive global burden of asthma in children caused by traffic pollution,” said Chris Griffiths, professor at Queen Mary University of London and the co-director of the Asthma U.K. Center for Applied Research, who was not part of the research team. “Asthma is only one of the multiple adverse effects of pollution on children’s health. Governments must act now to protect children.”

Guardian Graphic / Source: Achakulwisut et al, Lancet Planetary Health

The new study combined detailed NO2 pollution data with asthma incidence rates and population numbers. Many large studies have already shown a strong link between traffic pollution and childhood asthma and that pollution causes damaging inflammation. This data on risks was used to calculate the number of new cases around the world.

“From the weight of evidence, there is likely a strong causal relationship between traffic pollution and childhood asthma incidence,” said Ploy Achakulwisut, also at George Washington University and the lead author of the new study. “So we can be confident that traffic pollution has a significant effect on childhood asthma incidence.”

The epidemiological evidence for NO2 being the key pollutant is the strongest. However, researchers cannot rule out that other pollutants also pumped out by vehicles, such as tiny particles, are also a factor as it is not possible to experiment directly on people.

“Childhood asthma has reached global epidemic proportions,” said Rajen Naidoo, professor at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, and not involved in the study. It indicates that 1 in 8 of all new cases is due to traffic pollution. “An important outcome from this study is the evidence that the existing WHO standards are not protective against childhood asthma.”

The country with the highest national rate of childhood asthma attributed to traffic pollution is South Korea, with almost a third of all new cases blamed on vehicles. Japan and Belgium are in the top 10, along with six Middle Eastern nations, including Saudi Arabia.

Due to their high populations and pollution levels, the top three countries for the total number of new children getting asthma each year are China (760,000), India (350,000), and the U.S. (240,000). The scientists said their research may underestimate the true levels in many poorer nations where asthma often goes undiagnosed.

“While it is important for parents to try to reduce individual exposure, maybe by avoiding highly congested roads as much as possible, not everyone can do this,” said Achakulwisut. “So it is important to call for policy initiatives to tackle pollution at city, state and national levels.”

“The good news is that a transition to zero-emission vehicles is already underway,” she said. Some countries and cities are pledging to phase out internal combustion engines and policies such as London’s new ultra-low emission zone are being rolled out. “But this transition needs to become global, and it needs to happen faster. Each year of delay jeopardizes the health of millions of children worldwide.”

Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, said: “We used to think the only real danger roads posed to children was the threat of a car accident. However, now we can see there’s an equally deadly risk: breathing in air pollution. Rightly, there’s been a huge effort to reduce road accidents and we need to see an equal commitment to reducing toxic air.”

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Traffic pollution leads to 4 million child asthma cases every year

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