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Wildfire smoke is a silent killer — and climate change is making it worse

As the Kincade Fire burned through some 80,000 acres in Northern California, Ismael Barcenas, felt his lungs burning and “knots in [his] throat.” Barcenas, a farmhand at a vineyard in Santa Rosa, has asthma but kept showing up to work and choking through the smoke. After a few days, Barcenas left the county for cleaner air and checked into a hotel.

With strong gusts of wind blowing east, smoke from the Kincade Fire spread all the way to Sacramento last week, about 60 miles from where Barcenas works. There, Michal Borton, a student at Cosumnes River College, found it difficult to breathe as a well-ventilated chemistry lab let smoke in. Borton ended up leaving in the middle of the class.

Several hundred miles south near Long Beach in Southern California, Demetria Maldonado called in sick from her job as an aide for students with special needs. Smoke from the Getty and Castlewood fires had her coughing all day.

Monster fires in California have killed at least three people so far and burned tens of thousands of acres over the last couple of weeks. At least five fires are burning in the state; the Kincade Fire — which began two weeks ago — is still just 88 percent contained. The blazes have closed schools and businesses, forced hundreds of thousands of people to evacuate, and left behind charred rubble where entire communities once stood.

The effects have also been felt by people out of the path of the fires. Smoke from the Kincade Fire hung over the Bay Area for days, resulting in school closures and a “Spare the Air” alert — a call to avoid driving in order to reduce pollution. In Oakland, Fresno, Visalia and other cities, local public health officials have reported “unhealthy” and “very unhealthy” levels of air pollution and asked residents to stay indoors as much as possible.

Of primary concern is particulate matter, specifically PM2.5 — fine particles of soot and dust that are about 30 times smaller in diameter than a strand of human hair. They can burrow their way deep into the lungs, causing asthma and cancer. As wildfires burn through towns, spurred on by a warmer and drier climate, that soot and dust also picks up toxic chemicals from burning buildings.

“Things like lead or other toxins can attach on to that particular matter,” said Mary Prunicki, a pollution biologist at Stanford University. “When that’s inhaled, these other heavy metals or toxic pollutants hitchhike on the PM2.5.”

Researchers expect that particulate matter from wildfires will rise dramatically in the Western U.S. as the planet warms. One study estimates that between 2046 and 2051, wildfire-related PM2.5 levels will likely increase by 160 percent on average if temperatures continue to rise. Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, and forests in the northern Rocky Mountains will experience the worst of it, the researchers concluded.

Hotter and longer fires, especially those burning through towns with plastic and chemical materials, may also mean more toxic particulate matter, Prunicki said. “It may make things combust that otherwise wouldn’t, and when that’s put into the air, it can attach on to the particulate matter.”

Barcenas, the farmworker, has been working at the same vineyard for over two decades but said that the fires this year had him reaching for his inhaler more often than when blazes swept Northern California in 2017 and 2018. Leaving the county means missing work and less money for his family. “To me the worst thing about this fire is I’ve been without work for six days, and now four more days,” he said. “In the last fire, I was out only for one day.” He fears that if the fires continue like this, year after year, it could shutter farms in the region and put him out of work.

Barcenas and other asthma sufferers who’ve struggled to breathe the last couple of weeks may discover new health problems months from now. Researchers have found that wildfire smoke can trigger cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses months after the initial exposure, sometimes leading to premature deaths.

One study found that smoke from the Camp and Woolsey fires in California last year contributed to the premature deaths of as many as 1,400 people. That’s excluding the 88 people who died during the fires. A separate analysis last year by Reveal, a nonprofit news organization, concluded that in the months after the 2017 Tubbs Fire in Northern California that left at least 22 dead and burned about 37,000 acres, emergency rooms saw a 20 percent increase in visits by patients for cardiovascular diseases.

That spike in health problems is felt most acutely by the young, elderly, and people of color — in part a function of where they live. When researchers looked at Medicare hospital admission data between 2004 and 2009 for the Western United States, they found that more than 70 percent of black patients were exposed to more than one smoke wave, compared to just 56 percent of white patients. Overall, black residents in the West had a higher risk of hospital admissions as a result of respiratory illnesses.

A lot about wildfire smoke and public health remains unknown. Though many people wear masks as a protective measure, research on their effectiveness is scant, Prunicki said. It’s a question that she and a colleague are hoping to tackle along with looking into whether air purifiers can help people avoid breathing difficulties and other illnesses.

“There’s very little data when you try to guide people on who should be putting on masks,” said Prunicki. “That just makes it hard to make recommendations on what people should do because there’s not research to back it up.”

People also have different levels of comfort with masks. While Maldonado, the special education aide in Southern California, said that using a mask and putting a scarf across her mouth helped her breathe better, Borton, the college student, said that he found wearing a mask suffocating. He relied instead on two daily medications for asthma. “If I wear a mask, then I’m mostly just breathing in the air that I breathed out,” he said. “I just have to suffer through it.”

Jorge Rodriguez contributed reporting to this article.

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Wildfire smoke is a silent killer — and climate change is making it worse

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Grab your apocalypse bag — it’s fire season in California

It’s officially fire season in California. Dry winds rush in from the desert to the east, smoke turns midday to twilight, people hurry from place to place in facemasks, and the electricity goes out.

That’s been the story for the last three years. The risk of wildfires has always been high in the fall when the wind that usually carries cooling fog from the ocean into the interior reverses course. But it has never been so consistently bad. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but behind it all is a warming climate that’s killing trees, drying out brush, and turning bad behaviour into disasters.

Meteorologists predicted the dangerously dry weather a few days in advance, and Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility, let customers know that it would be turning off power to guard against windblown branches crashing into power lines. I was visiting my parents in Nevada City, a 3-hour drive east of my home in the Bay Area, when the lights went out on Saturday. The kids delighted at the novelty of it We set jugs of water by the sinks and made our way to bed by lamplight. In the morning, despite protests from the children, my father fired up the noisy generator he had hooked up to his propane tank, so we could do the dishes, cool the refrigerator, and check the news.

In Southern California, people grabbed their “apocalypse bags” of pre-packed necessities and made their way through jammed roads out of harm’s way. Former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and basketball star LeBron James were among the evacuees. James had to try four hotels before he found one with room for his family.

The search for housing was tougher in Northern California wine country, where evacuations from the Kincade fire have forced some 200,000 people out of their homes. People have been sleeping in churches and fairgrounds. Officials ordered mandatory evacuations from an area stretching from the active fire east of Highway 101 all the way to the Pacific Ocean as 70 mile-per-hour winds whipped the flames to the west. Some of the houses rebuilt since the 2017 fires may burn again. The smoke was dangerously thick in many parts of wine country, but farmworkers were still out picking grapes.

Many of the schools in the Bay Area closed, and those closest to the fire will be shut all week. More than 100,000 students stayed home Monday around Los Angeles. Firefighters worked to contain the Getty Fire in west Los Angeles, in anticipation of the most severe winds so far this year. PG&E expects to cut power to more than half a million customers on Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Sunday, when I surveyed routes for driving home, I found my options were limited. To the west, the Kinkade Fire was swallowing more of wine country. To the east, a handful of small fires were blazing. And in the middle, a wall of fire had engulfed the Carquinez Bridge, closing Interstate 80, our usual path home. We waited for hours. Fortunately, firefighters quickly put out most of the new fires, I-80 reopened, and we slipped home Sunday evening, gawping at smoking black patches on either side of the road.

The winds have calmed here in the Bay Area, but it’s only temporary. The weather is supposed to turn incendiary again by Wednesday. It’s just what Californians have come to expect. After all, it’s fire season.

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Grab your apocalypse bag — it’s fire season in California

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Greta Thunberg: We need a ‘concrete plan’ for climate action, not nice words

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

Unprecedented pressure exerted by young activists will push world leaders to address the unfolding climate crisis, even with a recalcitrant U.S. under Donald Trump, Greta Thunberg told the Guardian.

Thunberg, the teenager whose school climate strikes have ignited a global youth-led movement, said that her journey to New York on a solar-powered yacht was symbolic of the lengths young people will take to confront the climate crisis.

She said: “It’s insane that a 16-year-old has to cross the Atlantic in order to take a stand, but that’s how it is. It feels like we are at a breaking point. Leaders know that more eyes on them, much more pressure is on them, that they have to do something, they have to come up with some sort of solution. I want a concrete plan, not just nice words.”

Thunberg’s vessel emerged from the mist of an unseasonably drizzly day to be met by a throng of supporters and media at a marina near the southern tip of Manhattan on Wednesday. Her arrival was heralded by a flotilla of 17 sailboats, charted by the U.N., that intercepted her vessel near the Statue of Liberty.

Supporters chanted “welcome Greta” as the Swedish teenager stepped off the yacht, shook some outstretched hands and said that it felt like the ground was shaking beneath her feet.

Thunberg told the Guardian: “It’s so overwhelming. I’ve gone from nothing but me and the ocean to this.”

Despite the adulation from the crowds, Thunberg said she didn’t relish being cast as the global figurehead of the climate movement.

She said: “My role is to be one of many, many activists who are pushing for climate action. I don’t see myself as a leader, or icon, or the face of a movement.”


Greta Thunberg: We need a ‘concrete plan’ for climate action, not nice words

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The climate change ‘tipping point’ has already arrived for these 70 U.S. counties

For years now now, we’ve been hearing warnings about 2 degrees Celsius of warming — the global average cautioned against as part of the 2015 Paris accord. But according to a Washington Post interactive published on Tuesday, that so-called “tipping point” has already arrived in many towns across the country.

The earth is warming at an uneven rate. The Post looked at 100+ years of data from over 3,000 U.S counties and found that over 70 have already exceeded 2 degrees C of warming above pre-industrial levels. That translates to 34 million people (roughly 1 in 10 Americans) living in regions that are heating especially rapidly.

So where are the U.S. hot spots? The counties that have already reached 2 degrees C or warming are spread throughout the U.S., but there are some regional trends. The fastest-warming state in the country is Alaska, which may come as no surprise given its recent spate of heat waves and wildfires. In the Lower 48, Rhode Island’s average temperature increase is the first to pass 2 degrees Celsius, with other parts of the Northeast, including New Jersey, Connecticut, Maine, and Massachusetts, not far behind.

While the east coast has been sizzling this summer, the Post found that most regional increases were driven by warming winter temperatures, not summer heat waves. That’s means lakes can’t freeze (causing algae blooms, in some cases) and pests don’t die as per usual in certain historically cold regions. Less snow and ice also means those regions are less able to reflect solar radiation during winter, further feeding into the warming cycle.

The freezing point “is the most critical threshold among all temperatures,” David A. Robinson, New Jersey state climatologist and professor at Rutgers University’s department of geography, told the Post.

Scientists aren’t yet sure why the Northeast is warming so quickly. But experts say these 2-degree C hotspots are like little pieces of the future here in the present, showing us what’s coming.

Of course, climate catastrophes aren’t just about higher average regional temperatures. Cold, heat, flood, drought, and sea-level rise all pose significant risks to U.S. communities, according to a newly released analysis by the group Clever Real Estate. And bad news: The report found that many of the cities most at risk to the impacts of climate change are also the least prepared for it.

Clever Real Estate

There’s some concerning crossover between the Post’s list of rapidly warming counties and the areas identified by Clever Real Estate’s analysis (which was compiled by Eylul Tekin, a Ph.D. candidate at Washington University in St. Louis’ Memory Lab). Four of the top five cities with the “lowest degree of readiness” are located in Southern California (Anaheim, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, and Riverside). The counties in question have reached between 1.8 degrees C and 2.1 degrees C of warming compared to pre-industrial levels.

Parts of New Jersey also didn’t fare well on either list. Essex County has already hit the 2 degrees C warming mark, and Newark snagged the fifth spot on the list of places with the “largest difference between risk and readiness scores.”

So in short, there’s already a lot to sweat in many parts of the U.S. (which is even more reason to take climate action now). To get a better sense of the way your specific area is being affected, check out the two studies we mentioned here and here.

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The climate change ‘tipping point’ has already arrived for these 70 U.S. counties

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Mozambique floods cover more ground than NYC, Chicago, D.C., and Boston — combined

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Post-flood satellite images of Mozambique show that Cyclone Idai submerged about 835 square miles of homes and fields — an area larger than New York City, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Boston combined. Aid workers in Mozambique describe the floodwaters as “inland oceans extending for miles and miles.”

Idai’s official death toll in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Malawi reached 761 on Monday, but that total will surely rise. There are reports of hundreds of bodies alongside a single road as floodwaters began to recede.

Beira, Mozambique, reportedly the hardest hit city, “will go down in history as having been the first city to be completely devastated by climate change,” said Graça Machel, the country’s former first lady and a prominent humanitarian in an interview with the Mozambique newspaper Verdade on Monday.

The United Nations has characterized the storm and its aftermath as one of the worst weather-related disasters ever recorded in the Southern Hemisphere. As a result, the UN World Food Program now considers it one of its top concerns globally — on par with the wars in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan — estimating that some 3 million people have been affected, nearly half of them children.

On Monday, the UN launched a $282 million appeal for aid to cover the initial three months of its response to the cyclone. Over the weekend, President Donald Trump agreed to send the US military to help support the ongoing international relief operation — three days after a formal request from the Mozambique government.

Mozambique received nearly a year’s worth of rainfall in the days following Cyclone Idai, consistent with findings that rainstorms are becoming stronger and more common as Earth’s atmosphere warms up. After centuries of colonial rule by Portugal and decades of war after independence (in which the U.S. played an active role), Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world — a stark reminder of the inherent injustice of climate change, that those least responsible for greenhouse gas emissions are bearing its worst consequences.

An estimated 128,000 survivors have made their way to temporary camps near Beira, with an escalating risk of cholera and other waterborne diseases. The Red Cross announced plans to provide humanitarian support to 200,000 people for up to two years. “The scale and scope of suffering and damage is breathtaking,” said Red Cross secretary general, Elhadj As Sy, after touring the region around Beira.


Mozambique floods cover more ground than NYC, Chicago, D.C., and Boston — combined

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It’s official: El Niño is back. Now what?

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Thursday, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced that El Niño — the periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean, with weather consequences worldwide — has officially arrived.

El Niño typically peaks between October and March, so it’s pretty late in the season for a new one to form. This year’s El Niño is expected to remain relatively weak, but that doesn’t mean this one won’t be felt — in fact, its cascading consequences already in motion.

El Niños normally happen every two-to-seven years, but this is already the sixth El Niño of the 21st century. It’s also the first since the so-called “Godzilla” El Niño of 2015-2016, which boosted global temperatures to all-time records, snuffed out entire coral reef ecosystems, and created havoc for about 60 million people worldwide. There’s some evidence that El Niños are becoming more frequent and more intense due to climate change.

The advent of this El Niño means that 2019 is “almost certain to be another top-5 year,” wrote Gavin Schmidt director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, in an email to Grist. He gave “roughly 1-in-3 odds” that 2019 will surpass 2016 as the warmest year on record, thanks in part to the boost from El Niño.

Most short-term climate models show Pacific Ocean temperatures remaining unusually warm for at least the rest of this year, and a few hint that a bigger El Niño could form within about six months — though forecasting that far ahead is notoriously tricky.

This winter has been warmer and wetter than usual for most of the West Coast — a classic sign of El Niño weather. After years of drought, California snowpack currently sits at about 130 percent of normal, and on Thursday, Los Angeles officially surpassed its “normal” annual rainfall threshold for the first time in years.

In the short term, this El Niño is likely to keep pushing stormy weather ashore out West, especially in Southern California. Judging by past weak El Niños, the rest of winter elsewhere in the country could be cooler and wetter than normal, especially for the Northeast where snow has been notably absent so far. El Niño could bring some late-season snowstorm doozies for the East Coast as well as severe weather and flooding in the Southeast. Later this year, it’s likely that widespread wildfires will return to portions of the West Coast (new grasses and brush from the wet weather will become kindling in dry weather) and Southeast Asia, and severe drought could afflict East Africa and Australia.

The biggest potential consequence of this El Niño is its effect on global temperatures. Carbon dioxide is driving the long-term acceleration of global warming, of course, but there’s evidence that El Niño droughts prevent carbon dioxide uptake and permanently worsen climate change. The five warmest years in history have occurred in the past five years, and odds are that 2019 temps will rank second in all-time weather records. Should El Niño intensify later this year, 2020 would be even warmer, and may even be the first year to breach the much-feared 1.5 degree Celsius mark.


It’s official: El Niño is back. Now what?

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Atlantic Coast Pipeline delayed until 2021

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Dominion Energy’s Atlantic Coast Pipeline boondoggle only grows worse.

If all had gone according to the company’s original plan for the contentious Atlantic Coast Pipeline, it would already be well on its way to carrying fracked gas. But the completion of the 600-mile pipeline — planned to run from West Virginia into North Carolina — has been delayed until 2021.

According to a spokesperson for Dominion, Karl Neddenien, all construction is halted because of multiple factors including increasing costs, and in part over a dispute regarding permits to cross the Appalachian Trail and national forests. He says the delay, caused by what he calls “well-financed” opposition groups, are impacting more than just the construction schedules, according to Neddenien.

“Their impact [of these delays are seen] in the communities and the families in their region. It’s really time to stop these pointless delays and get back to work building the Atlantic Coast Pipeline,” he said. “These delays are not improving or increasing environmental protections. We already have in place some outstanding protections.”

Opponents to the pipeline project, on the other hand, were encouraged by the announcement of the new, pushed-back timeline. “Anytime there’s a delay, we’re happy.” Chad Oba, chair of the Friends of Buckingham, an organization of Virginia residents opposed to the pipeline, told Grist. “It gives the public more opportunity to be informed about fossil fuel projects and how we don’t need more of them.” Buckingham is a historically black community where Dominion is slated to build a natural gas compressor station for the pipeline. Last month, the state’s Air Pollution Control Board voted unanimously to approve permits for the station despite vociferous community opposition.

Beyond construction setbacks, the project is going to cost a pretty penny: Estimated costs for the pipeline have ballooned to $ 7.5 billion (the original project was budgeted for around $6 billion.) And considering how demand for the pipeline is dwindling — thanks to competition from cheap, renewable sources — some experts aren’t sure the project will get up on its feet again.

Patrick Hunter, a Southern Environmental Law Center attorney, said the barrage of legal challenges and missing permits “leaves us with a serious question as to whether this thing will ever be built.” The Southern Environmental Law Center is one of many organizations to challenge Dominion’s construction, calling for the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to issue its own stop-work.

(Dominion Energy did not immediately respond to Grist’s request for comment.)

Though the delay is good news for environmental groups, it’s a bit too early to whip out the champagne: Dominion said it currently expects the now-halted construction could begin again later this year.

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Atlantic Coast Pipeline delayed until 2021

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There’s a greater risk of ‘domino effect’ with planet’s tipping points, study says

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

Policymakers have severely underestimated the risks of ecological tipping points, according to a study that shows 45 percent of all potential environmental collapses are interrelated and could amplify one another.

The authors said their paper, published in the journal Science, highlights how overstressed and overlapping natural systems are combining to throw up a growing number of unwelcome surprises.

“The risks are greater than assumed because the interactions are more dynamic,” said Juan Rocha of the Stockholm Resilience Center. “The important message is to recognize the wickedness of the problem that humanity faces.”

The study collated existing research on ecosystem transitions that can irreversibly tip to another state, such as coral reefs bleaching and being overrun by algae, forests becoming savannahs, and ice sheets melting into oceans. It then cross-referenced the 30 types of shift to examine the impacts they might have on one another and human society.

Only 19 percent were entirely isolated. Another 36 percent shared a common cause, but were not likely to interact. The remaining 45 percent had the potential to create either a one-way domino effect or mutually reinforcing feedbacks.

Among the latter pairings were Arctic ice sheets and boreal forests. When the former melt, there is less ice to reflect the sun’s heat so the temperature of the planet rises. This increases the risks of forest fires, which discharge carbon into the air that adds to the greenhouse effect, which melts more ice. Although geographically distant, each amplifies the other.

By contrast, a one-way domino-type impact is that between coral reefs and mangrove forests. When the former are destroyed, it weakens coastal defenses and exposes mangroves to storms and ocean surges.

The deforestation of the Amazon is responsible for multiple “cascading effects” — weakening rain systems, forests becoming savannah, and reduced water supplies for cities like São Paulo and crops in the foothills of the Andes. This, in turn, increases the pressure for more land clearance.

Until recently, the study of tipping points was controversial, but it is increasingly accepted as an explanation for climate changes that are happening with more speed and ferocity than earlier computer models predicted. The loss of coral reefs and Arctic sea ice may already be past the point of no return. There are signs the Antarctic is heading the same way faster than thought.

Co-author Garry Peterson said the tipping of the west Antarctic ice shelf was not on the radar of many scientists 10 years ago, but now there was overwhelming evidence of the risks — including losses of chunks of ice the size of New York — and some studies now suggest the tipping point may have already been passed by the southern ice sheet, which may now be releasing carbon into the atmosphere.

“We’re surprised at the rate of change in the Earth system. So much is happening at the same time and at a faster speed than we would have thought 20 years ago. That’s a real concern,” said Peterson. “We’re heading ever faster towards the edge of a cliff.”

The fourth most downloaded academic research of 2018 was the Hothouse Earth paper, which considered how tipping points could combine to push the global climate into an uninhabitable state.

The authors of the new paper say their work goes beyond climate studies by mapping a wider range of ecological stress points, such as biodiversity loss, agricultural expansion, urbanization, and soil erosion. It also focuses more on what is happening at the local level now, rather than projecting geo-planetary trends into the future.

“We’re looking at things that affect people in their daily lives. They’re things that are happening today,” said Peterson. “There is a positive message as it expands the range of options for action. It is not just at an international level. Mayors can also make a difference by addressing soil erosion, or putting in place social policies that place less stress on the environment, or building up natural coastal defenses.”

Rocha has spent 10 years building a database of tipping points, or “regime shifts” as he calls them. He urges policymakers to adopt a similar interdisciplinary approach so they can better grasp what is happening.

“We’re trying to connect the dots between different research communities,” said Rocha. “Governments also need to look more at interactions. They should stop compartmentalizing ministries like agriculture, fisheries, and international relations and try to manage environmental problems by embracing the diversity of causes and mechanisms underlying them. Policies need to match the scale of the problem.”

“It’s a little depressing knowing we are not on a trajectory to keep our ecosystem in a functional state,” Rocha continued, “but these connections are also a reason for hope; good management in one place can prevent severe environmental degradation elsewhere. Every action counts.”

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There’s a greater risk of ‘domino effect’ with planet’s tipping points, study says

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The EPA airbrushed away 6 million cars to make your gas mileage worse

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When President Donald Trump’s administration argued last August that they were going to save 1,000 lives a year by axing gas mileage rules, you pretty much knew it was BS. Now the same expert the administration relied on to make the claim has helped dismantle the argument in hilarious detail.

Let’s be honest here: Everything below will only confirm your initial impression that the administration’s arguments were hollow. Still, it’s satisfying to see what happened when experts took the time to scrutinize them.

The lead author of this critique — just published in Science — is the economist the EPA cited most frequently in making the case for rolling back the fuel standards, Antonio Bento, a professor at the University of Southern California. Bento and ten other researchers found that the administration’s justification “has fundamental flaws and inconsistencies,” and “is misleading.” For instance, they found that the EPA simply wished away 6 million cars, which made the regulatory rollback look at least $90 billion cheaper for Americans.

To grasp how nutty this is, you have to understand that the Trump administration’s basic argument was that fuel economy standards raise the price of new cars. So instead of buying new ones, people keep driving their old cars longer. That risks lives, they claimed, because new cars have better safety features. But if we scrapped fuel standards, people would be more likely to buy new cars, and therefore less likely to die.

To make the numbers support this line of argument, the EPA had to say that rolling back the standards would lead to 6 million fewer cars on the road by 2029. But the idea that making cars cheaper will lead to fewer cars on the road is, as the experts put it, “simply inconsistent with basic economic theory.”

(If you want to get into the weeds, there are more eyerollers in the full study.)

As it happens, Politico reported this week that EPA staffers disputed the agency’s analysis and that the agency will revise its estimates.

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The EPA airbrushed away 6 million cars to make your gas mileage worse

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We broke down what climate change will do, region by region

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Look, at this point, even the most stubborn among us know that climate change is coming for our asses. We really don’t have much time until the climate plagues we’re already getting previews of — mega-wildfires, rising sea-levels, superstorm after superstorm — start increasing in frequency. The 4th National Climate Assessment says all that and much more is on its way.

Here’s the thing: Not all regions in the U.S. are going to experience climate change in the same way. Your backyard might suffer different climate consequences than my backyard. And, let’s be honest, we need to know what’s happening in our respective spaces so we can be prepared. I’m not saying it’s time to start prepping your bunker, but I would like to know if my family should consider moving to higher ground or stock up on maple syrup.

Luckily, that new report — which Trump tried to bury on Black Friday — breaks down climate change’s likely impacts on 10 specific regions. Unluckily, the chapters are super dense.

Silver lining: We at Grist divvied up the chapters and translated them into news you can actually use.


Ahh, the Northeast, home to beautiful autumn leaves, delicious maple syrup, and copious amounts of ticks bearing disease. What’s not to love? A lot, according to this report.

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Our region is looking at “the largest temperature increase in the contiguous United States” — 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit by the time 2035 rolls around. We’re going to be slammed with the highest rates of sea-level rise in the whole damn country, and we’re going to have the highest rate of ocean warming. Urban centers are particularly at risk (remember Superstorm Sandy?). And if you’re a fan of snuggling up beside the fire in your Connecticut mansion (or whatever), be warned that winters are projected to warm in our region three times faster than summers. That means delayed ski seasons and less time to tap maple trees.

Things are gonna be rough on us humans, but dragonflies and damselflies — two insects literally no one ever thinks about, but that flourish in healthy ecosystems — are pretty much doomed. The report says their habitat could decline by as much as 99 percent by 2080.

Sea-level rise, flooding, and extreme weather poses a mental health threat to Northeasterners. Impacted coastal communities can expect things like “anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.” But it’s not all bad: The assessment portends more intense (read: Instagram-able) fall foliage and more forest growth.

Zoya Teirstein


If, like me, you love your filthy, dirty South, you’ll be pleased to hear that summer thunderstorms, skeeters, ticks, and hot, muggy weather aren’t going anywhere! (Actually, don’t be pleased. This is serious.)

Southerners are accustomed to warm days followed by warm nights, but as the heat continues to turn up, those nights just might be our downfall. Urban and rural areas alike can expect to sweat through up to 100 additional warm nights per year by the end of this century. Hot, sticky nights make it harder for us to recover from the heat of the day. This is especially bad in parts of many Southeastern cities, where residents suffer from the “heat island effect.”

“I think it’s really important to look at the heat-related impacts on labor productivity,” says chapter author Kirstin Dow, a social environmental geographer at the University of South Carolina. Under one scenario, the Southeast could see losses of 570 million labor hours, amounting to about $47 billion per year — one-third of the nation’s total loss. What’s more, Dow says, “Those changes are going to take place in counties where there’s already chronic poverty.”

Warming waters will also push the infamous lionfish closer to the Atlantic Coast. In addition to being invasive, this freaky-looking fish is venomous, and swimmers and divers can expect more encounters (and stings) as the climate brings them closer to our beaches.

Claire Elise Thompson


For someone who doesn’t like donning heavy clothing during the winter, the Caribbean has the perfect weather: year-round warm days with ocean breezes. Climate change, according to the report, means we can’t have nice things.

In the near future, the Caribbean will experience longer dry seasons and shorter, but wetter rainy seasons. To make matters worse: During those arid periods, freshwater supplies will be lacking for islanders. And since islands (by definition) aren’t attached to any other land masses, “you can’t just pipe in water,” says Adam Terando, USGS Research Ecologist and chapter author.

The report confirmed something island-dwellers know all too well: Climate change is not coming to the Caribbean — it’s already there. And it’ll only get worse. Disastrous storms the likes of Hurricane Maria — which took the lives of nearly 3,000 Puerto Ricans — are expected to become more common in a warming world.

Another striking result: Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands are projected to lose 3.6 percent and 4.6 percent of total coastal land area, respectively, posing a threat to critical infrastructure near its shores. The tourism industry will have to grapple with the disappearance of its beaches. Even notable cultural sites aren’t safe: Encroaching seas threaten El Morro — a hulking fortress that sits majestically on the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

“Our island is trying to limit its emissions — but we’re not big emitters,” lead chapter author Ernesto L. Diaz, a coastal management expert at Puerto Rico’s Dept. of Natural and Environmental Resources, tells Grist.

Paola Rosa-Aquino


What’s in store for the Midwest? Oh hello there, crop diseases and pests! Hold onto your corn husks, because maize yields will be down 5 to 25 percent across the region by midcentury, mostly due to hot temps. And soybean hauls will decline more than 25 percent in the southern Midwest.

Beyond wilting crops, extreme heat puts lives at risk. The Midwest may see the biggest increase in temperature-related deaths compared to other regions, putting everyone from farmworkers to city-dwellers at risk. In one particularly bad climate change scenario, late-21st-century Chicago could end up seeing 60 days per year above 100 degrees F — similar to present-day Las Vegas or Phoenix.

The Great Lakes represent 20 percent of freshwater on the world’s surface, but lately, they’re looking … not so fresh. Climate change and pollution from farms are leading to toxic algae blooms and literally starving the water of oxygen.

But hey, there’s a silver lining. Midwesterners (myself included) have developed a bad habit of leaving their homeland for other parts of the country. That trend may reverse. “The Midwest may actually experience migration into the region because of climate change,” Maria Carmen Lemos, a Midwest chapter author and professor at the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability, said in a statement. So while you may have to reconsider your ice-fishing plans, Midwesterners, it could be a whole lot worse.

Kate Yoder

Northern Great Plains

The Northern Great Plains is far from any ocean. Water melts off mountain snowpack, slowly trickles down glaciers, and pools up in basins. The largely arid region is dominated by thirsty industries like agriculture, energy extraction, and tourism. There’s a byzantine system of century-old water rights and competing interests.

Or as my dad, a Montana cattle rancher, puts it: “Whiskey is for drinking. Water is for fighting.”

Residents might want to steel themselves with a little bourbon as climate change will escalate those water woes, according to the report. Winters will end earlier and snow could decline as much as 25 to 40 percent in the mountainous regions.

It’s not just some far-off problem for cross-country skiers and thirsty critters. The authors point to the behavior of the mountain pine beetle as one example of a climate-influenced tweak that’s had devastating impact. Warmer winters and less precipitation have enabled the bugs to kill off huge swaths of forest in the region.

Lest you think what happens in the Dakotas stays in the Dakotas: While only 1.5 percent of the U.S. population lives in this region, it contributes nearly 13 percent of the country’s agricultural market value.

It’s culturally critical, too: The area is home to 27 federally recognized tribes that are already experiencing climate threats such as a lack of access to safe water and declining fisheries.

Darby Minow Smith

Southern Great Plains

The Southern Great Plains flips between heat waves, tornadoes, drought, ice storms, hurricanes, and hail. The weather is “dramatic and consequential” according to the report. It’s “a terrible place to be a hot tar roofer,” according to me, a former Kansas roofer. In a warmed world, none of this improves. Well, maybe the ice storms.

The region will continue to have longer and hotter summers, meaning more drought. Portions of the already shrinking Ogallala Aquifer, which is critical to a huge western swath of the region, could be completely depleted within 25 years, according to the report.

Texas’ Gulf Coast will face sea-level rise, stronger hurricanes, and an expanded range of tropical, mosquito-borne diseases like dengue and Zika. It’ll also experience more intense floods. Many of the region’s dams and levees are in need of repair and aren’t equipped for the inundations.

One of the chapter’s lead authors, Bill Bartush, a conservation coordinator with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, tells Grist that how landowners handle the extremes of water management will be key to climate adaptation. Given the region’s high rates of private land ownership, it’s essential to get them on board.

In weirder news, the region’s Southern Flounder population is declining because the fish’s sex is determined by water temperature. Warmer winters mean more males. It’s like a terrible reboot of Three Men and a Baby, but with more flounder and no baby.

Daniel Penner


The Pacific Northwest has more rain in its winter forecast. That might not sound unusual for a region known for its wet weather, but more winter rain — as opposed to snow — could impact the region’s water supply and entire way of life.

Most of the Northwest relies on melting mountain snow for water during the summer. Climate change will replace more of that snow with rain, which flows downstream right away rather than being stored on mountainsides until the temperatures warm. Less snowmelt during hot summers could damage salmon habitat, dry out farms, harm the region’s outdoor industry, and increase wildfire risk.

“It’s like our tap is on all the time,” said Heidi Roop, a research scientist at the University of Washington Climate Impacts Group, which helped author the chapter.

The report forecasts a lot of change in the Northwest, including flooding and landslides. But rainy winters? That’s one thing that’s not going away anytime soon.

Jesse Nichols


“I am large. I contain multitudes,” Walt Whitman said of himself. But he could have very well said it of the Southwest, where stretches of desert give way to soaring, snow-capped mountains. Yet this might not be the case for long. Climate change threatens all of this beautiful ecological diversity, as well as the 60 million people who call this area home, including 182 tribal nations.

The hottest and driest corner of the country is already suffering from heat waves, droughts, and increased wildfires. As a result, the Southwest, to put it bluntly, is running out of water. With water at already record low levels and a population that continues to grow, the region is working on a recipe for water scarcity.

“Lake Mead, which provides drinking water to Las Vegas and water for agriculture in the region, has fallen to its lowest level since the filling of the reservoir in 1936 and lost 60 percent of its volume,” coordinating chapter author Patrick Gonzalez, a climate scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Grist.

In the coming years, temperatures in this region will soar. Droughts, including megadroughts lasting 10 years, will become commonplace. Agriculture will take a steep hit, causing food insecurity. Expect those lovely desert sunsets to take on an unsettling pink, as the snow-capped mountains grow bald.

Greta Moran


In Alaska, water is life, life is shellfish, shellfish is power. But, alas, climate change is about to do a number on the state’s marine life, food webs, and species distributions. According to the climate assessment, ocean acidification is expected to disrupt “corals, crustaceans, crabs, mollusks,” as well as “Tanner and red king crab and pink salmon.” Lots of indigenous peoples rely on that variety of marine life.

The largest state in the country is already ground zero for climate change. Thawing permafrost means structures are literally sinking into the ground all over the state.

What does a temperature increase really mean? Well, under the worst-case scenario, the coldest nights of the year are projected to warm 12 DEGREES F by midcentury.

I know I said water, either frozen or liquid, is the name of the game in Alaska, but the report says the state should expect more wildfires in the future, too. Under a high-temperature-increase scenario, as much as 120 million acres could burn between 2006 and 2100. That’s an area larger than California.

Oh yeah, and the report says there’s going to be an increase in “venomous insects.” Cheers.

Zoya Teirstein

Hawaii and the Pacific Islands

This region houses 1.9 million people, 20 indigenous languages, countless endemic (one-of-a-kind) flora and fauna species, and the freaking Mariana Trench (the world’s deepest point).

Pacific island communities can expect to grapple with the usual climate change suspects: rising sea levels, weird rainfall patterns, drought, flooding, and extreme temperatures. But all those things have unique implications for supplies of island drinking water. In short, like those who live in the Caribbean, these communities’ ability to survive depends on protecting their fresh water.

Extremes in the weather patterns El Niño and La Niña could double in the 21st century, compared to the previous one. El Ninos bring drought, which means Pacific communities have to desalinate water to make up for dwindling rainfall. But rising sea levels contaminate groundwater supplies and aquifers, which basically means Pacific Islanders have it coming from all sides.

Wait, there’s more. Too much freshwater is bad, too. Under a higher-warming scenario, rainfall in Hawaii could increase by 30 percent in wet areas by the end of the century. Think that’s good for dry areas? Think again! Projections suggest rainfall decreases of up to 60 percent in those. So more rain where rain isn’t needed and less rain where it’s dry. Great.

To end things on a sad note — because why the hell not — the National Climate Assessment states that “nesting seabirds, turtles and seals, and coastal plants” are going to be whacked by climate change. 🙁

Zoya Teirstein

See original article here – 

We broke down what climate change will do, region by region

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