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Ditch the deodorant, save the planet?

When Monsanto introduced a new kind of seed that wouldn’t die when exposed to the herbicide dicamba, it triggered a crisis in the southeastern United States. Farmers planted the seed and started spraying dicamba, and it worked great! Except that it drifted onto other farmers’ fields and killed their crops.

And the dramatic plot twists keep coming. One farmer gunned down another in a confrontation over his withered crops. Then, states began to restrict the use of dicamba, with Arkansas completely banning it last summer.

Monsanto wasn’t happy about that. In the latest development, the agribusiness company sued the Arkansas State Plant Board, which regulates pesticides. It also sued each of the individual board members — who, for the record, are just local, agriculture-minded folks who volunteer their time.

One board member, Terry Fuller, told NPR’s Dan Charles: “I didn’t feel like I was leading the charge. I felt like I was just trying to do my duty.”

But farmers on the other side of the debate, who think the ban is way too strict, are demanding at least limited access to dicamba. What a mess.

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Ditch the deodorant, save the planet?

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We’re calling BS on Scott Pruitt’s excuse for flying first-class.

When Monsanto introduced a new kind of seed that wouldn’t die when exposed to the herbicide dicamba, it triggered a crisis in the southeastern United States. Farmers planted the seed and started spraying dicamba, and it worked great! Except that it drifted onto other farmers’ fields and killed their crops.

And the dramatic plot twists keep coming. One farmer gunned down another in a confrontation over his withered crops. Then, states began to restrict the use of dicamba, with Arkansas completely banning it last summer.

Monsanto wasn’t happy about that. In the latest development, the agribusiness company sued the Arkansas State Plant Board, which regulates pesticides. It also sued each of the individual board members — who, for the record, are just local, agriculture-minded folks who volunteer their time.

One board member, Terry Fuller, told NPR’s Dan Charles: “I didn’t feel like I was leading the charge. I felt like I was just trying to do my duty.”

But farmers on the other side of the debate, who think the ban is way too strict, are demanding at least limited access to dicamba. What a mess.

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We’re calling BS on Scott Pruitt’s excuse for flying first-class.

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Polar ice is lost at sea

Our planet reached another miserable milestone earlier this week: Sea ice fell to its lowest level since human civilization began more than 12,000 years ago.

That worrying development is just the latest sign that rising temperatures are inflicting lasting changes on the coldest corners of the globe. The new record low comes as the planet’s climate system shifts further from the relatively stable period that helped give rise to cities, commerce, and the way we live now.

So far, the new year has been remarkably warm on both poles. The past 30 days have averaged more than 21 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal in Svalbard, Norway — the northernmost permanently inhabited place in the world. Last month, a tanker ship completed the first wintertime crossing of the Arctic Ocean without the assistance of an icebreaker. Down south in the Antarctic, sea ice is all but gone for the third straight year as summer winds to a close.

The loss of Earth’s polar sea ice has long been considered one of the most important tipping points as the planet warms. That’s because as the bright white ice melts, it exposes less-reflective ocean water, which more easily absorbs heat. And that, sorry to say, kicks off a new cycle of further warming.

According to research published last fall, that cycle appears to be the primary driver of ice melt in the Arctic, effectively marking the beginning of the end of permanent ice cover there. The wide-ranging consequences of this transition, such as more extreme weather and ecosystem shifts, are already being felt far beyond the Arctic.

Data from NSIDC and NASA

There is just 6.2 million square miles of sea ice on the planet right now, about a million square miles less than typical this time of year during the 1990s, and a few tens of thousands of square miles less than just last year, which had marked the previous record low. This level of detail about the remotest parts of the planet is available thanks to our relatively newfound vantage point from space. Satellites monitoring the poles gather sea-ice data, and records only go back to 1978. But it’s a near certainty that ice levels have not been this low in a long, long time.

Proxy evidence from microscopic fossils found on the floor of the Arctic Ocean provides proof that sea ice levels there are the lowest in centuries and perhaps much longer. There’s evidence from ancient plant material in far northern Canada that the Arctic has not been as warm as it currently is for at least 44,000 years. For the Antarctic, sea ice is more variable and no reliable ancient reconstructions currently exist — though there’s convincing evidence that there was less sea ice there about 128,000 years ago. For context, humans first mastered agriculture about 12,000 years ago in the Middle East, once temperatures stabilized near the end of the last ice age.

The middle of February is the usual time of the annual low for the planet’s sea ice (the Antarctic almost always has more ice than the Arctic, because there’s less land mass in the way); lately, however, the February lows have been much lower than normal on both poles. The Arctic and the Antarctic mostly operate as separate entities in the Earth’s climate system, but at the moment they’re in sync — a bit of a puzzle for researchers.

According to Zack Labe, a sea ice researcher at the University of California-Irvine, thinks there might be more than one cause. Arctic sea ice has been declining rapidly for decades, which Labe and other scientists are sure is the result of human-caused warming.

Antarctic ice, by contrast, began falling in 2016, which suggests the drop could be connected to natural swings in the climate. “It is too early to say whether losses in the Antarctic are representing a new declining trend,” says Labe.

Although the loss of sea ice is troubling, the overall pace of change is even worse. Global temperatures are rising at a rate far in excess of anything seen in recent Earth history. That means, in all likelihood, these latest records were made to be broken.

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Polar ice is lost at sea

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Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure plan takes aim at the environment

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Trump’s $200 billion infrastructure plan takes aim at the environment

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Roses are red, violets are blue, America to coal: I might dump you.

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Roses are red, violets are blue, America to coal: I might dump you.

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African Americans will pay a steep price for Trump’s new solar tariff

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

Last week, a 30 percent tariff that President Donald Trump tacked onto imported solar panels kicked in. Industry experts are predicting it will end up costing the U.S. 23,000 solar jobs in 2018 alone. There’s still a lot of uncertainty about how precisely the new tariff will impact domestic solar panel sales and jobs, but GTM Research expects it to slow the residential solar market by nearly 10 percent between now and 2022. That could affect the number of solar jobs in the future, especially where the power drill hits the rooftop — more than three-fourths of solar jobs in the U.S. are in demand-side sectors such as installation.

The United States was enjoying a 168 percent growth rate in solar jobs since 2010, according to the 2017 Solar Jobs Census report released last week. African Americans in particular have seen a burst in solar workforce participation over the past few years, constituting 7.4 percent of the workforce in 2017, compared to 6.6 percent the year before and 5.2 percent in 2015.

This, of course, is hardly proportional to the general working-age black population, but African Americans were the only racial group to see their share of the solar workforce significantly expand between 2016 and 2017 — every other group, save for whites, saw a drop.

In fact, the entire solar industry saw a decline in jobs last year, losing an estimated 9,800 jobs from 2016. This was the first year the solar census recorded a drop-off since it began tracking job numbers in 2010. The anomalous solar jobs increase found among African Americans is driven in part by the widening list of jurisdictions with large black populations that have adopted new solar policies — states like New York, New Jersey, Tennessee, and Washington, D.C., according to the report.

The National Solar Foundation

The depression found otherwise across the industry can be attributed to the cool-down in solar projects in states like California and Massachusetts, where solar already had a stronghold. There was a surge in solar power development in 2016, when there was something of a panic about federal solar tax credits expiring that year (Congress later extended those tax credits).

However, the solar market was rattled once again in 2017 when two solar power manufacturing companies, the bankruptcy-headed Suniva and SolarWorld Americas, petitioned the U.S. International Trade Commission (ITC) to adjust the prices of imported solar panels via tariff because they claimed they couldn’t compete. This is what triggered Trump’s decision in January to levy the tariff, based on an ITC ruling in September that sided with the two companies.

The Solar Energy Industries Association took umbrage, saying that such tariffs would not save those two solar companies from bankruptcy, but would “create a crisis in a part of our economy that has been thriving.” The trade group was joined in opposition by organizations that tilt conservative and promote free-market policies, such as the American Legislative Exchange Council, whose International Relations and Federalism Task Force director Karla Jones wrote before the ITC decision:

Over 38,000 solar workers are employed in manufacturing positions at firms domestically making solar components like inverters, racking systems and more. Guess what happens if one doubles the price of solar panels in America? This thriving industry will quickly succumb to tough competition from natural gas, coal and other forms of energy. Those 38,000 manufacturing jobs might disappear if artificially high input costs price the entire industry out of existence. Just ask the domestic steel industry, which blends tens of thousands of domestic jobs after the last successful Section 201 petition slapped tariffs on imported steel.

Since Trump followed through on the tariff, one major question has been whether it would impact urban-scale projects, especially with the spread of solar power developments for low-income households and community-shared distribution. Also, will the steady growth in employment for African Americans in urban centers now be blunted due to the expected rise in solar panel costs?

As the NAACP recently noted in the launch of its new Solar Equity Initiative, low-income households spend more than twice as much of their take-home wages on lighting and heating their homes than do middle-class and wealthy households, and nearly 70 percent of African Americans live within 30 miles of a coal-fired power plant. Which means they live with those plants’ air pollution. Scaling up and pricing down solar costs could help alleviate those problems.

It’s too early to tell what impact this will have on city-located solar jobs with the tariff just kicking in this week. The bulk of the cost of solar projects is mostly in labor, permitting, and installation, even for systems in low-income areas. The cost of panels is usually less than 15 percent of the total cost of these kinds of projects. Still, the future is somewhat uncertain for some organizations that have committed to spreading solar to poor families.

One organization grappling with this issue is Civic Works, a Baltimore nonprofit. It just completed the pilot phase of a new solar initiative that installed solar panels on the rooftops of 10 houses in several low-income communities, including Sandtown-Winchester, the neighborhood where Freddie Gray, who had asthma, was arrested before he was later found dead in police custody.

A loan from the City of Baltimore’s Energy Initiative Loan Program gave the nonprofit the capital to cover all the upfront costs of solar installation on the houses it’s serving. Civic Works will receive additional help from the 30 percent federal solar tax credit to recoup some of those costs, which is generally how low-income solar is financed. Many of the nonprofit’s workers are people who’ve been incarcerated and unemployed. However, nonprofits usually are working on very thin-margin budgets in this game, and can’t afford anything even a little financially surprising.

“Our suppliers have told us, ‘Don’t worry, we have tons of solar panels already,’ so it’s not something that’s going to affect us immediately, but it will down the line,” said Earl Millett, Civic Works’ chief operating officer. “To get the project done that we just did at the end of 2017, we needed everything to pull together perfectly, and we still had just a little wiggle room in the economics.”

Millett continued: “The economics are tough to work out with any solar project, though, and doing it on low-income homes adds an extra complexity. But it’s something people are working to overcome, because having a large segment of our population miss out on the benefits of solar just because they’re low-income residents shouldn’t be acceptable.”

Anya Schoolman, executive director of Solar United Neighbors of D.C., said the the real impact of the tariff will be felt on large utility-scale solar projects, like the fields of panels you might find on undeveloped land or in a desert. Solar United Neighbors has been working to spread community solar and also embarked on a project to rest solar panels on the roofs of 220 low-income households in D.C., at no cost to the homeowners.

“The tariffs are going to be an issue, but it’s one of the smaller variables,” said Schoolman. “We have many other variables to consider such as permitting costs [and] interconnection costs, which are what the utility companies charge, and those things end up making a bigger difference.”

However, the blow to the larger utility-scale solar projects is not insignificant. According to Schoolman, those projects, some of which are now on hold because of the tariff, were just beginning to compete with coal and natural gas. The 2017 Solar Jobs Census found that 86 percent of surveyed solar businesses said the tariff would negatively impact their company. The census also reported that 78 percent of project developers and 70 percent of companies that do installations would decrease their solar activities under new trade restrictions. This was all before Trump imposed the tariff. Since then, one major solar project in Texas has been stalled, according to Utility Dive.

The tariff directly affects only jobs in the manufacturing industry, which account for roughly 15 percent of the solar industry. The installation sector, by comparison, accounts for roughly 52 percent of the industry. Neither Millett nor Schoolman thought the tariff would have any real impact on installation jobs in their programs, at least not immediately, despite the prospect of panel prices slightly rising. Both the installation and manufacturing sectors experienced job losses in 2017, according to the Solar Jobs Census.

Stacey Danner, who ran a company that financed solar panels for low-income households in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, said he didn’t understand why Trump would kick the solar industry while it was down with this tariff.

“If you’re talking about jobs and building the industry, then this isn’t the way to do it because you’re throwing workers from thriving businesses in a nascent industry out,” he said. “Now they are back at square one, which puts them back on unemployment and back on welfare rolls. And I thought that what this was what Trump’s policies were supposed to prevent?”

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African Americans will pay a steep price for Trump’s new solar tariff

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The Trump administration brought a climate change policy back from the dead.

Here’s how humanity could all but ensure its own demise: Dig up all the coal we have left and burn it, warming the planet 4 to 6 degrees C.

But that worst-case scenario doesn’t match up with what’s really happening in the world, Justin Ritchie, lead author of a new study published in Environmental Research Letters, told Grist.

That’s because money spent on climate change measures goes further than it did 30 years ago. Plus, baseline trends show greenhouse gas emissions are on the decline. Most studies underestimate the effect these factors have on global decarbonization.

The study indicates that the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement are more achievable than previously projected — but that’s not to say humanity isn’t in deep trouble.

It’s not “4 to 6 degrees bad,” Ritchie says. “It’s 3 degrees bad. You can’t say we don’t have to worry about implementing policies, we do. But it’s not going to reach the truly catastrophic scenarios.”

Another recent study published in the same journal shows that if all the coal plants currently planned actually get built, humanity could blow past the Paris goal of limiting warming to 2 degree C above pre-industrial levels.

Ritchie said his research doesn’t counteract that finding. “There’s a whole range of scenarios that can occur,” he says. “What our paper is trying to do is look at that whole range and how can we design policies that are more robust.”

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The Trump administration brought a climate change policy back from the dead.

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In Pruitt’s world, climate change isn’t such a ‘bad thing’

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

Scott Pruitt, the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, has suggested that global warming may be beneficial to humans in his latest departure from mainstream climate science.

Pruitt, who has previously erred by denying that carbon dioxide is a key driver of climate change, has again caused consternation among scientists by suggesting that warming temperatures could benefit civilization.

The EPA administrator said that humans are contributing to climate change “to a certain degree,” but added: “We know humans have most flourished during times of warming trends. There are assumptions made that because the climate is warming that necessarily is a bad thing.

“Do we know what the ideal surface temperature should be in the year 2100 or year 2018?” he told a TV station in Nevada. “It’s fairly arrogant for us to think we know exactly what it should be in 2100.”

Pruitt said he wanted an “honest, transparent debate about what we do know and what we don’t know, so the American people can be informed and make decisions on their own.”

Under Pruitt’s leadership, the EPA is mulling whether to stage a televised “red team, blue team” debate between climate scientists and those who deny the established science that human activity is warming the planet.

President Trump has also repeatedly questioned the science of climate change, tweeting during a cold snap in December that the U.S. “could use a little bit of that good old Global Warming that our Country, but not other countries, was going to pay TRILLIONS OF DOLLARS to protect against.”

The EPA itself is unequivocal that warming temperatures, and resulting environmental changes, are a danger to human health via heatwaves, smoke from increased wildfires, worsening smog, extreme weather events, spread of diseases, water-borne illnesses, and food insecurity.

This array of health-related challenges has prompted the medical journal The Lancet to state that tackling climate change will be “the greatest global health opportunity of the 21st century.”

National security experts, including those at the Pentagon, have also warned that climate change is set to create a sprawling humanitarian challenge, as millions of people look to escape failing crops, inundated land, drought, and conflict.

Research has pointed to some potential benefits in certain areas of the world, such as areas of the Arctic opening up to agriculture and shipping as frozen soils thaw and sea ice recedes. Deaths from severe cold are also expected to drop, albeit offset by rising mortality from heatwaves.

Human civilization has, until now, developed in a relatively stable climate. Rising temperatures, of around 1 degree Celsius since the Industrial Revolution, are pushing humanity into an environment it has never previously experienced. The last time sea surface temperatures were as high as now was around 120,000 years ago, when sea levels were up to 9 meters higher than today’s average.

“As the evidence becomes ever more compelling that climate change is real and human-caused, the forces of denial turn to other specious arguments, like ‘it will be good for us,’” said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State University.

“There is no consistency at all to their various arguments other than that we should continue to burn fossil fuels.”

Since being installed by Trump to lead the EPA, Pruitt has overseen the repeal or delay of dozens of environmental rules, including the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to curb greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants.

“There was a declared war on coal, a war on fossil fuels,” Pruitt said in his Nevada interview. “The EPA was weaponized against certain sectors of our economy and that’s not the role of a regulator. Renewables need to be part of our energy mix, but to think that will be the dominant fuel is simply fanciful.”

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In Pruitt’s world, climate change isn’t such a ‘bad thing’

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The Energy Department expects no decline in America’s carbon emissions by 2050.

Which, by the way, is melting.

“This discovery is a game-changer,” said Paul Schuster, lead author of a new study that quantified the total mercury in the Arctic’s frozen permafrost.

And it’s a lot of mercury! To be precise, 793 gigagrams — more than 15 million gallons — of the stuff is currently locked up in frozen northern soils. That’s by far the biggest reservoir of mercury on the planet — almost twice the amount held by the rest of the world’s earth, oceans, and atmosphere combined.

This wouldn’t be a problem if the permafrost stayed, well, permanently frosty. But, as previous research has outlined, it’s not.

Mercury is a toxin that can cause birth defects and neurological damage in animals, including humans. And mercury levels accumulate as you go up the food chain, which is why king-of-the-jungle species like tuna and whale can be unsafe to eat in large quantities.

As thawing permafrost releases more mercury into the atmosphere and oceans, the implications for human health are troubling. Locally, many northern communities rely on subsistence hunting and fishing, two sources of possible mercury contamination. Globally, the toxin could travel great distances and collect in distant ecosystems.

As if we didn’t already have enough reasons to want permafrost to stay frozen.

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The Energy Department expects no decline in America’s carbon emissions by 2050.

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California makes big money from its carbon pricing program. Who gets it?

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California makes big money from its carbon pricing program. Who gets it?

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