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The Bay Area samples what life is like in Asian megacities — and for some of its own residents

As you might have heard, those of us who live in the Bay Area are breathing air this week that rivals Beijing’s, thanks to the fires raging across Northern California. West Oakland deals with bad air quality all the time, so I reached out to some folks there seeking perspective.

Margaret Gordon, a local grassroots activist, suggested I talk to Eryk Maundu. He’s a techie-turned-urban farmer who takes a data-driven approach to agriculture, and he had an inkling before most of us that something very bad was happening to the Bay Area’s air.

Just last week, he put up some new air quality sensors around his food plots. They registered a huge spike in contamination levels on Sunday night — three times worse than when he had tested the sensors around some friends who smoke. “I never thought I’d see it go higher than that,” he told me.

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Maundu thought he might have to throw the sensors out, until news broke Monday morning of wildfires tearing through Napa and Sonoma counties, about 50 miles north of San Francisco. Within the next few days, all of us in the Bay Area could see the same thing Maundu’s sensors were telling him: Our air was unhealthy to breath.

“The numbers are off the charts,” says Walter Wallace with the Bay Area Air Quality Management District. The big health concern: Particulate matter carried by the smoke sticks to our lungs and can cause breathing and other health problems. “It’s so small that our bodies can’t defend against it.”

Suddenly, everyone in the region is getting double dose of what the air is like in parts of West Oakland, where one of the country’s busiest ports brings in a steady stream of truck traffic, nearby highways ferry tens of thousands of cars every day, and asthma rates are some of the highest in the state. On Thursday, the air quality throughout Oakland was second-worst in the nation behind Napa, where fires raged.

NASA Earth Observatory

More than 20 blazes consumed more than 200,000 acres of land statewide, largely north of the Bay Area, where at last count 31 people have died, close to 500 are missing, and 90,000 have been displaced. The largest of the fires, the so-called Tubbs fire, which is primarily raging in Sonoma County, was just 25-percent contained as of Friday morning, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fires have destroyed homes and businesses in the region north of San Francisco often called “wine country.” In the Bay Area — which includes Oakland, where I live — we have been told to stay indoors. It’s a tall order in a part of the country where the predictable weather and the natural beauty begs residents to be outside. And our current predicament may continue through this weekend.

Anthony LeRoy Westerling, an environmental engineering professor at the University of California, Merced, says that wildfires are bigger, more frequent, and burn for longer now than they did in the 1980s. You’ll never guess what Westerling concludes is behind this phenomenon: A warmer climate that dries out forests. And more fires means more destruction where they burn and more intolerable air downwind.

The smoke blowing into the Bay Area has prompted a run on 3M N95 Particulate Respirator masks and air purifiers. Many who have the means have taken spontaneous road trips south or east to flee the particulate matter readings hovering around five times normal. Others are reporting headaches and respiratory problems. I suffered from childhood asthma, and spending about 10 minutes outside without a mask, breathing in air that smells like a campfire, made my lungs feel heavy.

All of this sent me to the Ace Hardware on 3rd St and Martin Luther King Jr. Way in West Oakland, where I joined a flow of customers buying N95 masks that sold for $2 a piece (I bought 12). The store has sold tens of thousands of masks in the past few days, struggling to try to keep up with demand.

“Yesterday morning was the big push, and then today has been even bigger,” the store’s general manager, Brian Altwarg, told me on Thursday. “And from what I see on the news, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Florine Mims has lived in the area for nearly 60 years, and she arrived at the Ace around 2 pm on Thursday, riding and then pushing her electric wheelchair after its battery lost its charge. She has a number of health problems, including asthma, and hoped getting a mask would bring her some relief.

“They gave me two,” she says about the N95 masks she carried out of the store. “I’m hoping they’ll help me breathe better.”

Mims, and a significant percentage of West Oakland residents, are the group most at risk over the remaining days if fire containment, a change in wind direction, or rainfall doesn’t help clear out the noxious air, says John Balmes, a medical doctor and environmental health scientist at the University of California, Berkeley.

“A week of exposure to this level, it’s going to affect people with preexisting asthma, but it won’t cause their asthma to stay bad,” Balmes says. “They have bad pollution all the time in a lot of the megacities in Asia.”

While the regular air quality readings in West Oakland don’t quite rival those in places like Beijing or New Delhi, its residents are used to living with pollution. The community recently filed a federal civil rights complaint against the port of Oakland and the city for discriminating against the largely black part of town by allowing more development to creep into the area and ignoring pleas to monitor air quality.

For now, though, the experience of breathing in dirty air is a shared burden for people in the Bay Area. And that’s an irony that isn’t lost on those living in West Oakland, like Margaret Gordon.

“This whole thing with the fire was a real equalizer for everybody,” she says.

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The Bay Area samples what life is like in Asian megacities — and for some of its own residents

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Puerto Rico could see ‘significant epidemics,’ health experts warn.

A new report from the International Energy Agency surveys the growth of hydropower, wind, and other forms of renewable energy and finds they’re catching up to coal (still the world’s largest source of electricity). At this rate, renewables are expected to provide 30 percent of power generation by 2022.

Hydropower provides the most renewable energy, but the growth is in solar. One wrinkle, though: It can be misleading to focus on the number of panels installed, because solar only works when, ya know, the sun shines. So keep in mind that, while the graph below shows how much new “capacity” we are adding to the system, only a portion of that gets turned into electricity.

IEA

Denmark is leading the way on clean energy installations (shocking, I know). The Scandinavian country currently generates 44 percent of its electricity from wind and solar, and by 2022 it’s on track to get 77 percent from the same sources. (VRE, used in the graf below, stands for “variable renewable energy” — the term of art for wind and solar plants that we can’t switch on as needed.)

IEA

If renewables keep growing as forecast, we’re going to need bigger electrical grids (to move electricity from places where it’s generated in excess to places where it’s needed) and better ways to store energy.

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Puerto Rico could see ‘significant epidemics,’ health experts warn.

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Hurricane Irma flattens homes and causes power outages in the Caribbean.

One would think that the demise of ticks and tapeworms would be cause for celebration (especially if your introduction to parasites was, as in my case, an encounter with zombie snails at a mercilessly young age).

But hold the party, say researchers. After studying 457 species of parasites in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection, mapping their global distribution, and applying a range of climate models and future scenarios, scientists predict that at least 5 to 10 percent of those critters would be extinct by 2070 due to climate change–induced habitat loss.

This extinction won’t do any favors to wildlife or humans. If a mass die-off were to occur, surviving parasites would likely invade new areas unpredictably — and that could greatly damage ecosystems. One researcher says parasites facilitate up to 80 percent of the food-web links in ecosystems, thus helping to sustain life (even if they’re also sucking it away).

What could save the parasites and our ecosystems? Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: “Reduce carbon emissions.”

If emissions go unchecked, parasites could lose 37 percent of their habitats. If we cut carbon quickly, they’d reduce by only 20 percent — meaning the terrifying (but helpful!) parasites creating zombie snails will stay where they are.

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Hurricane Irma flattens homes and causes power outages in the Caribbean.

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Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, keeps getting stronger

Just days after Hurricane Harvey brought historic rainfall to parts of Texas and Louisiana, another potentially catastrophic hurricane looms in the Atlantic.

Hurricane Irma rapidly strengthened over warmer than normal ocean waters on Tuesday into a Category 5 storm with estimated wind speeds of 185 mph — the strongest ever measured in the Atlantic Ocean.

On its projected path through the northern Caribbean, Irma could inflict an almost unimaginable blow. From the National Hurricane Center’s description of Category 5 damage: “A high percentage of framed homes will be destroyed, with total roof failure and wall collapse. Fallen trees and power poles will isolate residential areas. Power outages will last for weeks to possibly months. Most of the area will be uninhabitable for weeks or months.”

Quite simply, meteorologists never expected a storm like Irma. The storm appears to have exceeded (or is about to exceed) the maximum theoretical strength for a hurricane in its environment — an estimate based on current water temperature and other conditions.

Irma has grown in size amid nearly ideal circumstances for intensification over the past several days. On social media, hurricane experts pondered whether or not it should be considered a Category 6 — which it would qualify for if the traditional five-tiered Saffir-Simpson scale were extrapolated for wind speeds as strong as Irma’s.

People in Irma’s path have never experienced a storm this strong, and a direct hit could rewrite history for entire islands. The storm packs a punch that’s stronger than Andrew or Katrina, two of the most notorious recent hurricanes. In Antigua, one of the islands in Irma’s direct path, the national meteorological service lapsed into prayer.

As meteorologists marveled at the storm from afar, hurricane hunter aircraft sent back jaw-dropping photos from inside the eye. Earthquake scientists in the Caribbean noticed the hurricane’s winds and waves registering on seismographs as it neared the Leeward Islands, an incredible example of Irma’s strength.

Long-range forecast models have repeatedly projected Irma making landfall in South Florida this weekend, though the hurricane could still veer off on a range of possible paths as it approaches the U.S. mainland.

Preparations are already underway in Florida, a historical hurricane hotspot. Somehow, the state has avoided a Category 3 or higher landfall for more than a decade. The last storm to hit Florida at Irma’s current intensity was the “Labor Day” hurricane of 1935 — the strongest hurricane to ever strike the U.S. coast.

The state has transformed since the most recent Category 5 hurricane, Andrew, hit in 1992. Miami alone has added 600,000 new residents in that time, and the state’s storm-buffering wetlands have degraded amid a push for urbanization. In the past 25 years, 1 in 10 new homes in America were built in Florida, during a slow spell for hurricane landfalls. That lucky streak now appears to be coming to an end.

What’s more, Irma’s projected path up the spine of the peninsular state poses a unique challenge: If hurricane-force winds are wide enough to affect both coastlines simultaneously — which they’re expected to be — where will people evacuate to? It’s nearly inconceivable to think of millions of people traveling northward out of Irma’s path.

So far, the state is preparing in an orderly fashion. The Florida Keys expect to begin a total evacuation on Wednesday. Miami has shifted to an “all hands on deck” preparedness level, and is considering evacuating its most vulnerable residents. Florida Governor Rick Scott announced he will activate the entire Florida National Guard later this week. President Trump approved emergency declarations for Florida, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, which will help speed preparations and aid.

But before Irma reaches Florida, it’ll pass over — or dangerously close to — much of the northern Caribbean: Barbuda, Anguilla, the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and the Bahamas. The northern coasts of the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Cuba could also feel significant impacts as Irma passes by.

Wherever it strikes, the hurricane’s impact will be worsened by the rising seas and heavier downpours associated with climate change. There’s still a chance the storm could curve safely out to sea after its trip through the Caribbean, but those odds are quickly slipping.

Should the hurricane make landfall in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, or Florida, it will set a regrettable record — the first-ever back-to-back U.S. landfalls of Category 4 or higher storms.

Hurricane Harvey’s catastrophic impact in Texas and Louisiana now ranks as the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. (Hurricane Katrina cost an estimated $150 billion in 2017 dollars, and the Texas governor’s office estimates Harvey could cost $180 billion.) A recent study examined the possibility of a Category 5 hurricane strike in downtown Miami. It calculated that damages from that nightmare scenario could cost upward of $300 billion.

As improbable as it may seem, two of the worst hurricanes in U.S. history might hit in the span of just two weeks.

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Irma, the strongest Atlantic hurricane in history, keeps getting stronger

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Harvey is changing the way we feed people during disasters

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

Each hurricane season, Brian Greene calls in reinforcements in the form of tractor-trailers. Long before a particular system is swirling on the horizon, Greene, the president and CEO of the Houston Food Bank, dispatches 40-plus hauls of disaster-relief supplies to local shelters so each outfit will have a stockpile of water, granola bars, and cleaning supplies. The idea is to get out ahead of any storm, and then hunker down. “That’s our normal plan,” Greene says. “And it looked pretty good.” But Tropical Storm Harvey wasn’t normal.

Under normal circumstances, hurricanes don’t hold steady overhead. “They’re not supposed to do that. They go 15 or 20 miles an hour. They hit you and move on and then you assess and then begin the follow-up work,” Greene says. But Harvey continued to assail the city for days, throwing a wrench in the food bank’s plans.

In a normal catastrophe — to the extent that any crisis is normal — “you’ve got maybe a 24-hour period where you’re shut down,” Greene says. In this case, the food bank was snarled for days — not because it had flooded, but because nearby roads had turned to rivers with white-capped waves. With the paved arteries clogged by churning water, supplies had to stay where they were.

On Tuesday, for instance, Celia Cole’s hands were tied. As the CEO of Feeding Texas, Cole was fielding calls from places that had run down their supplies. An assisted-living facility reached out: They were swamped by floodwaters and the patients and staff were out of food. Not even the largest vehicles on hand could make it through the water, Cole says. “It’s awful to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t help you.’”

Seven of the 21 food banks in the Feeding Texas network were affected by the storm. By Wednesday, water had begun to recede in some areas, and people began streaming to local food banks and pantries. But the work was just beginning.

The immediate aftermath of a storm is often much-publicized and scored with desperation: Picture cameras panning across grocery stores with bare shelves and glass doors fastened shut against the rain; shivering crowds and interminable lines snaking across a parking lot pitted with puddles. In these tellings, a storm’s consequences are like broken bones — clean, complete, emergent. The Washington Post reported that some stores were looking to turn a quick buck on the trauma, gouging prices on basic necessities like water, which was selling for as much as $8.50 a bottle. But across the food system, the impacts may be more like hairline fractures, partial and enduring.

That’s because the busiest time for disaster relief isn’t while winds are howling and rain is pelting down in sheets, Greene says. It’s after. And that’s also when donations might slow from a stream to a trickle, and when the landscape of need is murkiest.

The problem is, in the past, cities’ resilience plans haven’t considered the food system. That’s starting to change, Erin Biehl, the senior program coordinator in the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health program, told me earlier this month. Biehl is the lead author of a new report that surveys the blueprints various cities have laid out to respond to disasters that could shock all aspects of the food system, from warehouses to packaging facilities and bodegas. Now and for the foreseeable future, Houston will be reckoning with the very conditions Biehl and her collaborators outlined.

One of the primary takeaways from the CLF report is the paramount importance of connected networks. In the wake of disasters, the first major food hurdle is “figuring out who’s got what and who needs what,” says Roni Neff, the director of the CLF’s Food System Sustainability & Public Health research program. Greene experienced that challenge while working at food banks in New Orleans when Katrina swept through. “One of the most frustrating parts was how communication utterly, utterly broke down,” he says. Drenched landlines were unreliable, and cell towers were finicky. “It took weeks before we even found our staff,” Greene adds.

Now, in Houston, the team has outsourced and centralized contact information and plans at the state level, and stored it on the cloud. They leverage extensive communication networks to stay in touch with 600 partner organizations, including churches and community centers. “Everything we do is a collaboration,” Greene says. “Everything.” Feeding Texas also has a disaster coordinator on staff, who works out of the state’s department of emergency management.

In Houston, trucks are arriving from all over the state, and from others, too. “North Texas is already sending aid to shelters and at the conference center in Houston. Those were all part of a very coordinated network and everybody is standing by to respond,” Cole says. Corporations are pitching in to boost supply. Greene says Kellogg’s is dedicating 125 truckloads of cereal to the relief squad.

The Houston Press and Chronicle maintained running lists of restaurants and stores that were creaking open their doors amid the risk of flooding, or mobilizing as hubs of relief efforts. Some served free meals to first responders; others solicited donations of blankets, diapers, baby formula, and single-serving, packaged snacks and ferried them to the George R. Brown Convention Center, which is sheltering residents displaced from their homes.

Many families will have long-term needs, too. The melee delayed the start of the school year — and, by extension, the meals that students would have received in the cafeteria. Submerged businesses may be closed for weeks or months, slashing the paychecks of workers who earn hourly wages. In turn, their food budgets may be precariously slim. “If you’re on the margin and you just lost a quarter of the month’s income, you’re in trouble,” Greene notes. Staring down crumbling walls and blooming mold, it’s hard to decide how to allocate thin resources. People will struggle for a toehold as they repair their lives. “We’re anticipating what’s going to be sort of like a refugee crisis once people are actually able to get out of Houston,” Cole says.

On the policy side, one intervention is a temporary stretching of SNAP benefits. In anticipation of the deluge, the Texas Health and Human Services Commission put in a statewide waiver request on Aug. 26. Through Sept. 30, SNAP benefits can be used toward hot, ready-to-eat food items that are usually exempted from the program. The change may be a lifeline in Galveston. The island city was lashed with more than 22 inches of rain, and 37,371 of its residents received SNAP benefits in 2011. In the event that the food system is still shaken a month from now, a USDA official says the department will consider extending the waiver upon request from the state.

Neff wonders whether some repercussions might be even more wide-ranging. Reports of drowned fields and escaped livestock raised questions about the effects on farmers and the meat industry. With some refineries flooded or otherwise damaged, Neff says, fuel prices might rise, cutting into grocery stores’ margins and perhaps leading to mark-ups for consumers.

That all remains to be seen. The next challenge is scaling up, and doing so accurately. Outside of storm season, the Houston Food Bank moves about 350,000 pounds of food a day, six days a week. That number balloons when the bank springs into crisis mode. After Hurricane Ike struck, the food bank shuttled 500,000 pounds a day. This time around, “we just say, ‘OK, this is a lot bigger. Call it a million,’” Greene says. From there, the food bank has to tinker with its regular operations. How many additional forklifts do they need? How many more trucks?

It’s difficult to anticipate the magnitude of a storm — and what will be required to respond to it — before it’s baring its teeth. From a distance, Greene says, it’s tricky to imagine what damage might follow. Afterward, even from the ground, it’s hard to deduce a precise need from a quick survey of wreckage. “We won’t really know how this will pan out until it’s over,” Greene says.

So the best estimate is just that — but, ideally, a generous one. “There’s a big Katrina lesson. Whatever you do, do not fail people now when they need you most,” he adds. “So if you overshoot, you deal with the consequences of that — but the consequences of undershooting are far worse.”

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Harvey is changing the way we feed people during disasters

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Trump’s Harvey aid donation is a drop in the bucket compared to the storm’s real price tag.

On Thursday, explosions and black plumes of smoke were seen coming from a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, 15 miles east of Houston’s city center.

Arkema, the company that owns the plant, said there was nothing they could do to prevent further explosions. The volatile chemicals stored onsite need to be refrigerated at all times to prevent breakdown, but flooding from Harvey cut the plant’s power. The “only plausible solution” now is to let the eight containers, containing 500,000 pounds of organic peroxides, explode and burn out, Arkema CEO Rich Rowe said at a press conference on Friday.

That’s bad news for Arkema’s neighbors. On Thursday, 15 public safety officers were taken to the hospital after breathing in acrid smoke from the plant. After local officials took a peek at Arkema’s chemical inventories, they ordered everyone within a 1.5-mile radius of the plant to evacuate. We don’t know precisely what’s in the noxious fumes, as Arkema has refused to release details of the facility’s chemical inventories.

In the worst-case scenario documented in the company’s 2014 risk-management plan, the air pollution coming from the plant could put the 1 million people living within 20 miles radius in danger. That seems unlikely — but then again, Harvey has outdone plenty of worst-case scenario predictions so far.

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Trump’s Harvey aid donation is a drop in the bucket compared to the storm’s real price tag.

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On Katrina’s 12th anniversary, Harvey pours down on New Orleans.

As floodwaters peak and recede over the coming weeks, there will be lots of standing water for disease-transmitting mosquitoes to breed and multiply, the Atlantic reports.

West Nile virus has plagued Texans since 2002, and there were 22 cases of Zika in the state in 2017. Those numbers could increase sharply if mosquito populations spike. In New Orleans, West Nile cases doubled the year after Hurricane Katrina flooded much of the city. (Oh, and mosquito populations are already on the rise thanks to climate change.)

There are other dire health effects from the storm. Floodwater often carries untreated sewage, gasoline, and debris, all of which can cause injury and illness when people come into contact with it. Even after water recedes, tainted carpet and drywall can harbor mold and mildew, another serious health threat.

And, in an unfortunate twist, unmonitored emissions and chemical leaks among the refineries and plants in Houston’s extensive industrial district on Monday caused officials to issue a shelter-in-place warning for residents downwind of a breached pipeline.

All of this will take a greater toll on Houston residents sidelined into vulnerable neighborhoods — mostly communities of color who were already suffering before Harvey made headlines. For them, the storm is far, far from over.

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On Katrina’s 12th anniversary, Harvey pours down on New Orleans.

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As Keystone XL’s fate is decided, activists descend on Nebraska.

Apparently, U.S. Department of Agriculture staff are now supposed to say “weather extremes” instead.

In emails obtained by the Guardian from the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), a unit of the USDA, a department director told employees to make the following phrasing replacements in their work: “reduce greenhouse gases” with “build soil organic matter, increase nutrient efficiency”; “sequester carbon” with “build soil organic matter”; and “climate change adaptation” with “resilience to weather extremes/intense weather events.”

Basically, any reference to climate change or CO2 is a no-no.

Employees were understandably confused, and some were against the change — including one employee who expressed a desire to maintain scientific integrity. But the USDA insisted that it’s not intending to obscure data and studies, and that similar procedures had been executed under other administrations.

Surprise, surprise — these new procedures began days after Trump’s inauguration. The first email obtained by the Guardian, sent by NRCS Deputy Chief for Programs Jimmy Bramblett on Jan. 24, advised of the new administration’s “shift in perspective” with regard to climate change.

That perspective appears to be: Don’t mention it.

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As Keystone XL’s fate is decided, activists descend on Nebraska.

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Fossil fuel execs to Texas: Don’t target trans people.

Oh, and by the way, did you know there’s an EPA museum?

The one-room exhibit opened in Washington, D.C., just before Trump’s inauguration. The displays tell the history of the EPA while highlighting big Obama-era steps towards combating climate change, like the implementation of the Clean Power Plan and the signing of the Paris Agreement.

In light of Trump’s decisions to ditch both, the EPA as displayed isn’t looking quite Trump-y enough. A career EPA official told the Washington Post that, in addition to a coal display, plans are underway to add controversial EPA administrator Anne Gorsuch to the exhibit and expand on Trump areas of interest like the Superfund program. The Clean Power Plan and Paris Agreement displays are already scheduled for removal.

If you want a preview of the changes, current EPA officials have already put up a poster board that includes a photo of Pruitt shaking hands with miners and description that calls Trump’s approach to the EPA “back to the basics.” What basics are those, you might ask? We were wondering the same thing.

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Fossil fuel execs to Texas: Don’t target trans people.

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These 21 kids taking on Trump could be our best hope for climate action

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These 21 kids taking on Trump could be our best hope for climate action

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