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Our Daily Planet: MS River Rolls On, Bye Coal, Red Cross Prepares for the Worst, Bird Brains, Intv w/Jess Phoenix, and our Hero OFW + Bonus Pic
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Friday, March 16th, 2018

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Taming the Mighty Mississippi?

The Mississippi River is the backbone of our nation, running nearly its entire length, dividing east and west, and serving as a floating highway carrying 300M tons of goods a year - mostly agricultural products coming and going from the midwest, as well as transporting much of the nutrient pollution entering the Gulf of Mexico.  On Wednesday, the Washington Post published a beautiful and poignant long-form piece about that state of the Mississippi River, exposing how efforts to control the River are barely keeping up with the challenges, particularly as the times and the climate change.  Managed by the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Mississippi River Commission (civilians appointed by the President), there are many competing interests and uses, from flood control to transportation, recreation to agriculture. It is an impossible job to maintain the River for all these uses and balance the competing and powerful interests.  

No summary could really do this reporting justice. It divides the River's "story" into its parts -- the upper, middle and lower thirds, each with unique challenges and opportunities.  The upper third is struggling to adapt to the reality that its antiquated system of locks is a relic of the past, with recreation being a bigger draw today.  The middle section is where the river is trained into a wide channel for transporting agriculture.  And in the lower third, the river is just a beast - hard to contain within its levees as it rushes to the Gulf of Mexico, with communities building up their defenses against the rising waters and thereby pushing the flooding on to neighbors. Reading about these water management issues begs the question - what do we do about the River now?  Is the nation willing to rebuild the river as a massive national infrastructure project -- or should we let it go back to a more natural state as much as we can? 

Why This Matters:  The Mississippi River is important to tens of millions of people in a huge swath of the middle of our nation -- and it impacts nearly everyone in the nation -- either by delivering food or oil and gas to the entire U.S. But its locks and levies are aging badly.  The Trump Administration's infrastructure proposal envisions piecemeal solutions to what needs updating -- driven by local public-private partnerships that could end up privatizing some of the major public uses of the River.  That frightens most of the current users -- and unites them in opposition.  But that is not a solution.  And, getting any fixes through Congress will be nearly impossible.  In the meantime, it just keeps rolling along.

To Go Deeper: Go online and read the Post story and watch the incredible videos.  And to get the full picture, also read this New York
Times/Times-Picayune story and watch its videos from two weeks ago about the mouth of the River in Louisiana, and how the way the River is managed is causing the Louisiana coast to sink into the ocean.  
Photo: Michael S. Williamson  The Washington Post

 Climate Change

Red Cross Uses Weather Analytics to Prep for Disasters

As we reported yesterday, climate-related extreme weather events are increasingly possible to foresee, such as the recent spate of blizzards in the Northeast or heavy rains from last summer's hurricanes.  The science of the attribution of extreme climate-related storms and other events is rapidly advancing, making better storm preparation possible.  

Grist reports that the Red Cross is working with meteorologists and academics to better understand how climate change is exacerbating extreme weather events. The hope is that this will help them get the goods and people in place ahead of time in order to minimize the loss of life, rather than just providing aid post-disaster.  “Forecast based financing” would funnel funds to disaster preparedness efforts in the places most vulnerable to the effects of climate change. “This finance gets triggered when a forecast of a potential extreme event is issued, and automatically activates measures before the impacts are felt,” Maarten van Aalst, director of the Red Cross Red Climate Center, told Inside Climate News.  For example, when a typhoon struck the Philippines in 2013, killing more than 6,000 people, more than 90 percent of the deaths were caused by the storm surge. Knowing how much more extreme and frequent such flooding will be in a warmer world with rising sea level is critical to building the kinds of shelters and issuing the kinds of warnings that can save lives.

Why This Matters:  As Inside Climate News explains, if relief organizers understand how often extreme events are expected and how intense these will be, then they can better determine where to stockpile emergency supplies and to design shelters that can withstand extreme conditions intensified by global warming.  And the Red Cross can direct funds to the right places, where the worst disasters are expected.  While this is a global concern, it is also increasingly important for the United States -- as it might have helped Puerto Rico get back on its feet faster had there been better prepared for last summer's devastating hurricanes. 



The Presque Isle power plant in Marquette, Michigan is slated to close in 2020. 
Photo: Michigan Municipal League
New Energy Reality: Coal is in Shut Down Mode

Last week at the annual energy industry conference CERAWeek, Energy Secretary Rick Perry said that it would be "immoral" to dictate that people live without fossil fuels.  But apparently, the energy industry is going its own way, shutting down coal power plants in record numbers.  E&E Daily studied the trends and Energy Department data and found that 11.9 GW of coal capacity is slated to close in 2018. That is almost double the 6 GW that closed in 2017, and it's only eclipsed by the 19.5 GW closed in 2015 and 13.5 GW closed in 2016, respectively.

Even more closures are likely to be announced soon; the average coal unit retired between 2010 and 2016 was 57 years old and listed a capacity of 166 megawatts. By contrast, E&E News found that the plants on the chopping block this year are newer (their average age is 45) and have an average capacity of 412 MW. More than half of those retirements were announced after President Trump beat Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. The closures make clear the challenges facing President Trump and congressional Republicans, who have launched a concerted effort to prop up the industry. Competition from natural gas remains stiff, with no apparent uptick in gas prices in sight. And renewables, which are improving on cost and performance, continue to eat up coal's market share.

Why This Matters:  Efforts by President Trump and Congressional Republicans to slow the growth of renewable energy and prop up the aging coal industry are, pardon the pun, tilting at windmills.  On Thursday, a Republican Congressman introduced legislation to provide coal plant operators a tax credit of up to 30 percent on their operations and maintenance expenses, but that bill is going nowhere fast.  Similarly, the Energy Department proposed subsidizing coal plants for storing fuel on-site, only to have independent regulators in the Energy Department reject the plan.  The public is demanding that when local utilities shutter aging plants, they replace them with 21st-century options that run on natural gas, wind and solar.  

To Dig Deeper Into Replacing Coal: We recommend this Energy News Network article about replacing an aging coal power plant on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan with natural gas, wind, and possibly even solar power.  



Photo courtesy of Jess Phoenix for Congress
This Week's Interview: Jess Phoenix, Geologist and Candidate for Congress in CA-25

Jess Phoenix is a geologist, volcanologist, founder of the non-profit Blue Print Earth, and in 2017 announced that she was running as a Democratic candidate in California's 25th district against Republican representative Steve Knight. We got a chance to chat with Jess about why she thinks Congress needs more scientists and how we overcome the current war on facts. 

ODP: What do you view as the most tangible detriment of this Administration’s war on science and dismissiveness of experts?
JP: Aside from the obvious things, like the rollbacks of environmental protections and regulations that we’ve seen, it’s more damaging to our society on a long-term scale. I think when you have people saying that objective truth doesn’t exist, it creates a very dangerous situation. Because it’s saying that no one is an expert and everyone’s opinion is as good as somebody else’s fact and that’s not right because there are very specific facts that we can test, measure and observe. These are the natural laws that govern our world. I like to point out to people when they say “evolution is just a theory” or we “haven’t proven climate change”, well guess what, gravity is technically a theory. Creating a dominant cultural narrative of anti-facts and “fake news” is poisoning the truth and the light that exists in our society
ODP: How do we overcome this Administration’s denial of climate science to ensure that our children and young people continue to value it?
JP: We’re teaching children that there is no objectivity, it’s all something that you can shape, that you can twist and manipulate to get whatever answers you want. Unfortunately, that’s not how science works at all. What we have to do is one, elect scientists into office (that would be a good step), but in addition, we need to keep getting science out in front of people. We have more tools now than ever before to do that, we have more people’s voices in the conversation. We see many more scientists who are women, who are people of color, and that come from traditionally underrepresented backgrounds developing platforms as science communicators. Through podcasts and regular radio shows, tv shows, YouTube channels, or personal channels, people are communicating their messages more than ever and making sure that these messages reach children.
 ODP: How do you see climate change affecting your district and the people that call it home?
JP: Climate change is impacting every corner of our planet, that’s just the nature of a global shift. In my district, it’s Northern LA county so Simi Valley, Santa Clarita, Lancaster, and Palmdale. We are in more mountainous more desert environments than LA proper. In all of these areas, we have seen fires throughout our district for the past few years. Last year we had the Rye Fire and we were next to the Creek Fire and the Thomas Fire which was adjacent to us and the biggest in CA history. We’re seeing flash flooding. The flash floods last July forced people to be rescued from their vehicles by helicopters. This extreme weather isn’t necessarily “climate change” but because of the changing climate, we’re going to see more and more extreme weather events.
ODP: Why do we need more scientists in Congress?
JP: Having people in Congress that actually represent different aspects of our society is key. Right now, Congress is 80 plus percent lawyers and business people which is a very narrow subset of society. I say this with affection for lawyers, my brother is a lawyer, my dad was a lawyer, this is nothing against them. Congress is supposed to be the people’s house, and scientists have so much valuable input not just on their own area of expertise but how to use scientific problem-solving to make our world a better place. We really need those voices in Congress. It’s a unique perspective and it really brings a lot of objectivity to our decision-making and it allows us to base our policies on evidence and I think that is what’s going to help us solve problems like climate change and other big-picture issues that we haven’t been able to fix before like healthcare or immigration.
ODP: What’s the coolest thing you’ve gotten to experience as a geologist?
JP: The simple answer would be, standing above a lava lake full of 2000-plus degree lava where things are exploding left and right and that’s pretty amazing and it’s something that you can’t forget once you’ve experienced it. But I will say, what I love about geology is that you can look at mountains, valleys, river beds, the sea floor, and you can actually understand how it came to be that way. Geologists are basically just detectives trying to unravel the story of a given environment and that to me is the absolute coolest. There are volcanos and those are cool and I’ve done work at the bottom of the ocean and that’s all really neat but I think it’s just the overall skill set that you get as an earth scientist that makes it so amazing.
ODP: Since it’s Women’s History Month, what advice do you have for girls who want to pursue a career in science? How can parents help?
JP: Studies have shown that girls typically start to lose interest in science and math when they’re in middle school and I tell every girl that’s coming up on the middle school years that yes you can be a scientist and in fact you already are. Every time you ask questions about the world around you, you show your curiosity and you are being a scientist because you are trying to uncover facts and the truth. And if you can’t ask a person, look it up online, ask somebody. Somebody out there has probably wondered the same thing as you so you’re never alone when you’re asking questions. And for parents, encourage your kids’ curiosity no matter what. You don’t have to know the answer to everything but help them find out. It’s the curious people that are going to help push back against the anti-facts culture that we’re seeing. Curiosity is how we cure that.


Who You Callin' a Bird Brain?

A study published in the journal Science reveals that we've been underestimating the intelligence of birds. Because birds have relatively small brains have we've assumed that they aren't very smart, but nothing could be further from the truth. As Nat Geo reported, "The more we study bird intelligence, the more those assumptions are breaking down. Studies have shown, for instance, that crows make tools, ravens solve puzzles, and parrots boast a diverse vocabulary."

Members of the corvid family (songbirds including ravens, crows, jays, and magpies, to name a few) are among the most intelligent birds, though common ravens may have the edge on tackling tough problems, according to Kevin McGowan, an expert on crows at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Ravens can even pre-plan tasks, which is a behavior previously thought to be unique to humans and their relatives. While crows are nearly as intelligent as ravens, McGowan stresses that crows are able to remember human faces, and recall if particular people are threats and are warier of new people than ravens. 

Read more here about insights into African grey parrots, cockatoos, and great-tailed grackles, it was a really fascinating article. 

Why This Matters: It's amazing to think that ravens performed better in some tool-usage tests than monkeys, who were always deemed to be far more intelligent beings. Understanding the capabilities of animals helps us better define intelligence and value the abilities animals have that we'd previously overlooked. 



Photo: Jamie Margolin
Hero of the Week: 16-year-old Climate Activist Jamie Margolin

Jamie Margolin is a high school sophomore in Seattle and recently wrote an op-ed for Refinery29 about her work to ensure that lawmakers do something about climate change. As she puts it, "We are tired of waiting for adults to take action on the problems that are threatening our lives." She founded an organization called  Zero Hour after President Trump vowed to pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement. Noting, "I am proud to say we have grown into a strong, diverse movement of students spanning from coast to coast. We are a movement of activists who will not take no for an answer." 

As part of their action, on July 21st, 2018 members of Zero Hour are going to join a march in Washington, D.C. and all over the country for common sense climate change legislation. She adds, "This mobilization is only the beginning. We mobilize to bring to the world’s attention how much climate change impacts my generation. We are centering youth and climate in the national conversation, and then taking that momentum to create real change. Just like the students of Parkland, the youth of America cannot afford to wait any longer for adults to protect our right to the clean and safe environment."

Why This Matters: We've witnessed students all over the country mobilize and change the conversation about gun reform after the Parkland shooting, and adults have been listening. Gen Z students have been able to send a unified message that they don't want to live in a country where they have to live in fear of gun violence, and hopefully, they can bring the same momentum to the climate movement. These young people are the next generation of voters and they're working to inform their peers, their parents, and the nation that the status quo isn't going to cut it. 

Stay Updated: Follow along @ThisIsZeroHour and if you'd like to contribute to the Youth March click here.
We leave you this week with a photo of a centuries-old Joshua tree that Monica snapped in Joshua Tree National Park on Thursday. Thanks so much for reading Our Daily Planet.  Have a great weekend and we will be back on Monday!
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