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We just got our disaster bill and it was $306 billion

Highways turned into rivers with white-capped waves in Texas. Wildfire smoke reddened the sky in California. And the country’s signature “amber waves of grain” were parched by drought, leaving farmers with fields of gray, cracked soil in Montana.

In all, the United States was hit by 16 weather events last year that cost more than $1 billion each, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calculated. Piece them together, and you get the story of a climate transformed by human activity — and a country racked by wild weather that cost us a record-shattering $306 billion.

That price tag is four times more than average over the past decade, adjusted for inflation. It was nearly off the charts.

2008, 2011, 2012, and 2017 experienced one or more tropical cyclones.Grist / Amelia Bates / NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

Last year blew past the previous record for disasters, $215 billion, set in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina struck. The priciest natural disasters tend to be hurricanes, which explains why 2017 was so different. Harvey, Irma, and Maria were three of the five most expensive hurricanes in U.S. history, and they all hit in one year. The three accounted for 87 percent of the bill. 

Western wildfires racked up $18 billion in damages, tripling the price tag of the previous worst wildfire year, 1991.

Severe storms, flooding and drought afflicted people across the country. But the Northeast was the only region spared from a disaster that caused $1 billion or more in damages.

NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information

Given how much time we’ve devoted to talking about climate change’s fingerprints on everything, you’d suspect its criminal record would be well-documented. Although it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how climate change affects a particular storm or heatwave, scientists are getting better at untangling the connection. For example, researchers calculated that the chances of a Harvey-esque storm hitting Texas was made six times more likely because of climate change.

Oh, and did we mention that last year was the third-hottest on record? Thank goodness it’s over. But don’t get excited — extreme weather is already creeping in to the new year. In just the first nine days of 2018, the weather has already dealt us deadly mudslides and a bomb cyclone.

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We just got our disaster bill and it was $306 billion

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Let’s hold off on praising China’s new carbon-pricing market

This week, China announced it has launched a nationwide carbon-trading market, with the intent of slowing down its growing climate footprint and capping its emissions as soon as possible.

Most news coverage has labeled the move as a major development in the global fight against climate change. Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who has devoted his post-political career to fighting warming, hailed the announcement as “a tipping point in the climate crisis.”

However, some close observers in China and elsewhere suggest we pump the brakes on celebrating this week’s news. Several critical details of the Chinese plan are still outstanding, they say. Most importantly: We still don’t know what the “cap” on its cap-and-trade plan will be, how emissions permits will be distributed, or what they will set the target carbon price to.

The Guardian reports that the Chinese government has been toying with the idea of nationwide carbon trading for more than a decade, so the revelation doesn’t come out of nowhere. And as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, any effort to limit the country’s pollution is hugely important.

But Emil Dimantchev, a climate policy researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote earlier this year that it’s premature to call China’s new policy ambitious without the details of the trading scheme being in place. In a series of tweets this week following the announcement, Dimantchev doubled-down on that assessment.

“The policy is still missing the crucial features that will determine whether it will be a success,” he tweeted.

Separate reporting by Beijing-based carbon-market analyst Stian Reklev revealed that for its first two years the new Chinese system will only involve simulated trades. That, obviously, will have no impact on emissions in China or elsewhere.

“It’s clear the market is nowhere near ready to be launched, and they’re only doing this because [Chinese President] Xi Jinping promised the market would start in 2017,” Reklev tweeted this week.

The World Bank currently tracks 47 carbon-pricing initiatives worldwide that are either already in existence or set to open soon. The only one even remotely the size of China’s proposed market is the European Union’s Emissions Trading Scheme — a hugely complex system with mixed success, which covers about 4 percent of global emissions. Other carbon trading platforms in Washington, California, and in the northeastern U.S. police an additional 1 percent or so of global emissions — but none of them caps pollution across the entire economy of the states involved.

If China’s market eventually covers its whole economy, it would be responsible for about 30 percent of global emissions, more than double all currently existing carbon markets combined. So the higher China sets its carbon price, the more of an impact it will have on emissions elsewhere. A high price on Chinese carbon could motivate other pricing schemes around the world to raise their targets.

The world needs ambitious climate policy from China in order to meet the agreed-upon Paris goals of limiting global warming — especially with the United States’ government in the process of plopping itself on the sidelines.

This step from China is without question in the right direction. But the fact that the scheme is still apparently in the design phase should be a sign that the Asian behemoth may not yet be the planetary savior many are hoping for.

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Let’s hold off on praising China’s new carbon-pricing market

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France’s ban on oil drilling could keep 5 billion barrels in the ground.

For a country that already imports 99 percent of its oil, France’s decision to end all new oil development and phase out existing projects by 2040 may not seem all that meaningful. The Guardian called it a “largely symbolic gesture.”

But actually, as geoscientist Erik Klemetti noted, France is committing to keeping a massive oil reservoir in the ground. The Paris Basin, a region in northern France, may contain nearly as much underground petroleum as the huge Bakken Formation in North Dakota. Extracting that oil and gas would require extensive fracking.

Klemetti calculates that France could extract 100 years worth of oil for the country by fully exploring the Paris Basin — which could contain, according to the top estimate, 5 billion barrels of oil. At current oil prices (around $58 per barrel), that’s worth about $290 billion.

Instead, France decided to say au revoir to oil and gas altogether.

Earlier this year, the country also announced it would ban internal combustion engines by 2040. With decisions like these, France is positioning itself on the right side of history. And it’s sending a message to a world that’s floundering on climate change: A more just and prosperous future is possible, and it doesn’t require the dirty fuels of the past.

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France’s ban on oil drilling could keep 5 billion barrels in the ground.

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New York just blew a $390 billion-shaped hole in the fossil fuel industry.

For a country that already imports 99 percent of its oil, France’s decision to end all new oil development and phase out existing projects by 2040 may not seem all that meaningful. The Guardian called it a “largely symbolic gesture.”

But actually, as geoscientist Erik Klemetti noted, France is committing to keeping a massive oil reservoir in the ground. The Paris Basin, a region in northern France, may contain nearly as much underground petroleum as the huge Bakken Formation in North Dakota. Extracting that oil and gas would require extensive fracking.

Klemetti calculates that France could extract 100 years worth of oil for the country by fully exploring the Paris Basin — which could contain, according to the top estimate, 5 billion barrels of oil. At current oil prices (around $58 per barrel), that’s worth about $290 billion.

Instead, France decided to say au revoir to oil and gas altogether.

Earlier this year, the country also announced it would ban internal combustion engines by 2040. With decisions like these, France is positioning itself on the right side of history. And it’s sending a message to a world that’s floundering on climate change: A more just and prosperous future is possible, and it doesn’t require the dirty fuels of the past.

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New York just blew a $390 billion-shaped hole in the fossil fuel industry.

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Donald Trump is threatening to end federal relief to Puerto Rico — on Twitter, of course.

In a memo leaked last week, Department of Homeland Security adviser Tom Bossert recommended White House staff pivot to a “theme of stabilizing” with regard to messaging around the humanitarian crisis in Puerto Rico.

President Trump, however, appears to have missed that particular update. On Thursday morning, he threatened to pull federal relief workers from the devastated island just three weeks after Maria made landfall.

Meanwhile, most of Puerto Rico is still without power, hospitals are running out of medical supplies, and clean water remains scarce.

Trump isn’t the only prominent Republican refusing to recognize the severity of the crisis. In an interview with CNN on Thursday morning, Representative Scott Perry, a Pennsylvania Republican, accused host Chris Cuomo of fabricating reports of the severity of the disaster.

“Mr. Cuomo, you’re simply just making this stuff up,” Perry said. “If half the country didn’t have food or water, those people would be dying, and they’re not.”

45 Puerto Rican deaths have been officially confirmed so far, and reports from the ground indicate the unofficial number of deaths due to the storm is higher.

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Donald Trump is threatening to end federal relief to Puerto Rico — on Twitter, of course.

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The Male Brain – Louann Brizendine, M.D.

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The Male Brain

A Breakthrough Understanding of How Men and Boys Think

Louann Brizendine, M.D.

Genre: Life Sciences

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: March 23, 2010

Publisher: Potter/TenSpeed/Harmony

Seller: Penguin Random House LLC


From the author of the groundbreaking New York Times bestseller The Female Brain, here is the eagerly awaited follow-up book that demystifies the puzzling male brain. Dr. Louann Brizendine, the founder of the first clinic in the country to study gender differences in brain, behavior, and hormones, turns her attention to the male brain, showing how, through every phase of life, the "male reality" is fundamentally different from the female one. Exploring the latest breakthroughs in male psychology and neurology with her trademark accessibility and candor, she reveals that the male brain: -is a lean, mean, problem-solving machine. Faced with a personal problem, a man will use his analytical brain structures, not his emotional ones, to find a solution.  -thrives under competition, instinctively plays rough and is obsessed with rank and hierarchy. -has an area for sexual pursuit that is 2.5 times larger than the female brain, consuming him with sexual fantasies about female body parts. -experiences such a massive increase in testosterone at puberty that he perceive others' faces to be more aggressive. The Male Brain finally overturns the stereotypes. Impeccably researched and at the cutting edge of scientific knowledge, this is a book that every man, and especially every woman bedeviled by a man, will need to own.

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The Male Brain – Louann Brizendine, M.D.

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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.

When Hurricane Irma scraped its way up the Florida peninsula, it left the state’s electrical grid in pieces. Between 7 million and 10 million people lost power during the storm — as much as half of the state — and some vulnerable residents lost their lives in the sweltering days that followed. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of electrical workers from around the country rushed to the Sunshine State to repair damaged substations, utility poles, and transmission lines.

But in Palm Coast, on Florida’s eastern seaboard, midway between Daytona and St. Augustine, Jim Walden never lost power. As he and his wife listened to debris clattering off their roof, 24 solar panels and 10 kilowatt hours of battery storage kept their lights on and their refrigerator cool. Over the ensuing days, as electric utilities struggled to return power to Florida’s storm-wracked communities, the only thing Walden and his wife missed was their air conditioner (which would have drained their batteries too quickly).

“It worked flawlessly,” Walden says of his solar-plus-storage system. “We had plenty of power for the fans to keep us cool and the lights when you walk into the bathroom at night. The wife would even run her hairdryer off of it.”

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Walden’s setup — which draws power from the sun during the day and dispenses it at night, with or without the help of the grid — is an illustration of how we might reimagine our electrical system to be more modular, resilient, and renewable-powered. We’ve already been struggling with the question of how to build (or rebuild) our grids to better accommodate solar- and wind-generated energy. But this month’s run of record-making Atlantic hurricanes has made finding an answer — one that will help us better weather the storms of the coming century — even more urgent.

Questions about reliability have dogged renewable energy from the beginning. Simply put, when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you’re not getting any energy from those sources. Our grid, by contrast, is set up to provide constant, unwavering power around the clock. We’re only just starting to address the challenge of reconciling these two basic facts in one functional system. (Hint: The solution involves batteries). But according to a Department of Energy report, wind and solar power have not made the U.S. power grid less reliable, even as the amount of renewable energy loaded onto it has shot up.

But the grid is getting less reliable overall. Thanks to perpetual delays in updating old infrastructure, the United States sees more power outages per year than any other developed country — costing an annual $150 billion in lost productivity.

And it’s likely to get worse before it gets better. Even as Florida’s lights turn back on, the Atlantic keeps serving up hurricanes like Maria, which left all of Puerto Rico in darkness that could last as long as six months. Overall, the average number of annual weather-related power outages doubled from 2003 to 2012, a Climate Central report found.

One basic improvement the United States could make to its power grid is moving power lines from above-ground utility poles to protected underground conduits. This is how Germany rebuilt its grid after World War II, and now it suffers very few outages, says Blake Richetta, the U.S. VP for German clean-energy company sonnenBatterie. The country has fewer than 12 minutes of blackout per customer per year, compared to the 244 minutes that plague Americans.

But moving America’s 300,000 miles of transmission lines underground would be an epic investment of time and labor — just the sort of massive infrastructure project we’ve been putting off.

Florida utilities did invest in some storm-hardening of their power infrastructure in the past decade, replacing wooden poles with concrete ones and placing them closer together as a response to hurricane damage in 2004 and 2005. The state’s largest investor-owned utility, Florida Power & Light, spent $3 billion on improvements over the last decade, including an $800-million smart-grid project completed in 2013 with backing from the Department of Energy. The initiative involved deploying more than 4.5 million smart meters, sensors, and flood monitors, all networked together to give the utility real-time information on how power is moving around the grid.

Those moves helped lessen the damage Irma caused, according to Florida Power & Light CEO Eric Silagy. During the hurricane, several power substations were able to shut down when flooding monitors indicated equipment was at risk, saving the utility several days of work and possibly millions in equipment repair.

Still, Silagy’s company had to deploy around 20,000 workers in camps across the state to patch power plants and transmission lines in the days after the storm. And a utility spokesperson told ABC News that parts of the electrical grid on Florida’s west coast will require a “wholesale rebuild.”

“This is going to be a very, very lengthy restoration, arguably the longest and most complex in U.S. history,” VP of Communication Rob Gould said.

Clearly, Florida — and the rest of the country — still needs to do much more. And according to Jim Walden, it’s going to require a change in attitude for many Americans.

“It’s amazing to me that we live in the Sunshine State, and it’s hard to get people interested in solar power whatsoever,” he explains.

Walden himself got interested because he wanted to save money on his electric bill. Later, with the help of a $7,500 federal tax incentive, he installed his own battery storage to become more self-sufficient, especially during power outages.

The solutions to our collective energy troubles, however, will also need to be collective. One way that could look is scaling up from individual battery-powered homes to networked storage hubs that could act as regional power sources, flexibly responding to the changing demands of the grid.

As one urban resilience expert, Thaddeus Miller, told ProPublica, increasing the defenses of our cities and systems will require deeper changes than any we’ve embraced so far. “Fundamentally, we must abandon the idea that there is a specific standard to which we can control nature,” he said.

That means, for instance, changing the way we think about resilient infrastructure. Rather than working to prevent flooding at all times with high-investment levees and reservoirs, we could work to build facilities that are better at weathering flooding without being totally compromised. These “safe-to-fail” approaches would leave less of a mess after a storm blows through.

Because storms are going to blow through places like Florida, and they’re likely going to get stronger.

“We lose electricity quite often here, believe it or not — there are thunderstorms that can come up and knock power out,” Walden says. “Just to have electricity during those times is a great comfort.”

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Hurricanes keep bringing blackouts. Clean energy could keep the lights on.

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Can we still avoid the worst of climate change? Maybe.

Less than two weeks after the second-biggest earthquake in Mexico’s history, a second quake hit, causing more than 200 deaths and toppling buildings around the country.

The 7.1-magnitude earthquake struck Tuesday afternoon just a few hours after Mexico City held earthquake drills to mark the anniversary of the country’s deadliest shock in 1985.

“It’s very horrendous,” Guillermo Lozano, humanitarian and emergency affairs director for World Vision Mexico, told the L.A. Times. “Most of the people were at work and children were at school.”

The soft soil underneath Mexico City tends to amplify the damage from quakes. The megalopolis is built on ancient lakebed filled with wet clay deposits that experts compare to jello. When seismic waves pass through, the lakebed jiggles, causing even more violent shaking aboveground.

Seismologists say it’s unlikely that Tuesday’s quake is related to the 8.1-magnitude one that shook the country Sept. 8, since they struck hundreds of miles apart and occurred weeks, not minutes, apart.

It’s been a hectic month for North America, from hurricanes to wildfires. But unlike intense superstorms, at least earthquake devastation is one thing we can’t blame ourselves for, right?

Well, it’s more complicated than you might think.

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Can we still avoid the worst of climate change? Maybe.

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Hurricane Irma’s power leaves Florida powerless

One of the most powerful hurricanes ever to make U.S. landfall has left millions of people across Florida without power.

As of Monday morning, nearly 60 percent of the entire state — close to 6 million customers — had lost electricity. That’s the largest outage in Florida history and one of the country’s biggest ever.

Restoring power could take weeks, or longer. A spokesperson for Florida Power & Light, the state’s biggest utility, said recovery from the storm would require a “wholesale rebuild” of the electrical grid.

The damage to the state’s electrical infrastructure was just one form of devastation left in Irma’s wake, as the United States faces its second hurricane catastrophe in as many weeks.

An unusually large hurricane, Irma left an exceptional swath of damage on both Florida coasts and nearly everywhere in between. By one metric, this single storm packed an entire season’s worth of destructive power.

Some of Irma’s worst impacts were well-removed from the center: Miami looked like “a watery war zone” at the height of the storm, with residents warily eyeing rising floodwaters in the heart of downtown.

In Jacksonville, at the far northeast corner of Florida, Irma set a new coastal flood record, beating the one set during 1964’s Hurricane Dora.

In Naples, near where Irma made its second landfall in southwest Florida after initially striking the Keys, winds reached as high as 142 mph. The city set an odd mark: The ocean rose nearly 10 feet in eight hours, the quickest rise ever recorded there.

As Irma’s center passed close by, strong winds blew the ocean away from land, exposing the seabed, and then the water quickly rushed back in as winds changed direction and the storm moved north. The effect led to surreal scenes and even prompted a special warning from the National Weather Service to gawkers along the shore.

As is so often the case with these storms, Irma could have been worse: A last-second 50-mile jog inland likely prevented higher storm surge across cities on Florida’s western coast, including Tampa.

Still, the combination of damage from Harvey and Irma will probably total in the hundreds of billions of dollars.

And it’s still peak hurricane season. Hurricane Jose skirted the northeast corner of the Caribbean over the weekend, prompting a full-scale evacuation of the tiny island of Barbuda — which Irma almost totally destroyed just four days earlier.

The latest weather models show that Jose could make a loop in the central Atlantic this week, and then possibly head toward the East Coast. One thing’s for sure: In a year when it’s become clear that “natural” disasters aren’t natural any more, we can’t say we weren’t warned.

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Hurricane Irma’s power leaves Florida powerless

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How to watch the eclipse without trashing the Earth

The moon will pass in front of the sun on Aug. 21, cutting a swath of shadow across the country and blocking our nearest star for about two minutes in the middle of the day. Millions of Americans are traveling just to stand in the passing darkness.

The problem is, all those humans (as many as 7 million by one estimate) could do a lot of damage. The official eclipse website compares the event to “20 Woodstock festivals occurring simultaneously across the nation,” which sounds rambunctious indeed. Max Yasger’s farm took more than a month to clean up.

So here are some tips for making your Great American Eclipse as low-impact and environmentally friendly as possible.

Watch out for cars

As small towns prepare for a once-in-a-lifetime level of crowding, the potential for real emergency is high. Traffic jams are predicted for Charleston, South Carolina, and Salem, Oregon, which could make it harder for emergency services to respond to accidents in the hours surrounding the solar eclipse. Plus, hours of inhaling all those exhaust fumes take a toll on your health.

Taking a plane, train, or automobile? Looks like it’s time to research some carbon offset plans. If not, consider giving yourself and the planet a break by taking a bike or bus to your viewing site.

Where there’s smoke, there’s fire

It’s wildfire season in the West, which means popular eclipse viewing sites in Oregon — where as many as a million visitors are headed — could be near an active blaze. Multiple wildfires are burning in the state.

Officials expect small fires from eclipse enthusiasts, whether from careless campers or from cars pulling over into tall, dry grass at the edge of the road. The long, wet winter has given way to a hot, dry summer, which means conditions are prime for wildfire. Even a few small fires could get out of control quickly, and evacuation routes will be clogged with tourist traffic.

All of this means officials have placed the risk of a major wildfire emergency at “moderate to high.” One fire scientist wrote: “In short, I fear a disaster; an eclipse apocalypse. I really hope I’m wrong.”

Yikes. You should check wildfire conditions near you before you head to your viewing site. And if you’re camping out for the eclipse, abide by any fire bans and make sure to put out all fires completely. For more information, the Oregon Department of Transportation has a complete guide on how to avoid starting a fire here.

Don’t be trashy

With so many eclipse chasers flocking to small towns and campgrounds along the eclipse route, a lot of garbage will be left behind. Residents of Jackson Hole, Wyoming, are already calling for volunteers to help tidy up. Some towns are putting trash cans and port-a-potties near major access routes, but even these emergency facilities are sure to be overwhelmed. Pro tip: Take your trash with you; bonus points for separating out the recyclables. Basically, don’t make a mess wherever you are. You know, just like any other day.

Be remote

Of course, the lowest-impact way to watch the solar eclipse is from afar. Even though only 14 states will experience the total eclipse of the sun, all of the lower 48 will see some degree of partial eclipse. So pick up some eclipse glasses (even more important if you’re not in the path of totality) and go stand outside on Monday.

NASA will also live-stream the entire event from multiple space crafts and weather balloons, ensuring you get a prime view, minus the traffic jams and carbon emissions. Just pretend you planned it this way all along.

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How to watch the eclipse without trashing the Earth

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