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Our Daily Planet: Air Wars in Courts, Partisan Divide on Climate Widens and One Hot Thing!
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Thursday, March 29th, 2018

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Air Wars Grind On in Court

Courts are becoming the front lines in the war to implement the Clean Air Act and to mitigate the impacts of climate change.  On Monday, several large environmental groups sued the EPA for revoking a policy that had been in effect for nearly 25 years, which said that all "major" sources of air pollution, like power plants or factories, would always be regulated according to stricter standards, even if they took steps to reduce pollution. In January, the agency announced the change, arguing that the old policy was "a longstanding disincentive for major sources of pollution to implement voluntary pollution abatement and prevention efforts, or to pursue technological innovations that would reduce emissions,"   A new study of the impacts of this major roll back, that was released on Monday, examined 12 industrial polluters in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and Minnesota and concluded that the EPA rule change would allow them to release four times the amount of toxic air pollutants, according to a press release by the authors. The study further found that more than half of the potentially-impacted communities were disproportionately African American or Latino and had poverty rates more than double the U.S. average.

And in California, Climatewire reports that the cases against the major oil and gas companies that have been brought by eight separate cities and counties are winding their way through both state and federal courts.  The oil and gas companies have been seeking to keep these lawsuits in federal court because they believe their chances of success are better under federal law.   The cities and counties have been trying to keep cases going in both state courts and in federal courts, hoping for success in either one.  Two federal judges in San Francisco ruled differently on this issue -- one said the issue of climate change is global and kept the cases in his court, while another said that federal law doesn't apply and sent a second group of cases down to state court.  In state court, the cities and counties can make claims under California law that they cannot make in federal court.  

Why This Matters:  When it comes to climate change and toxic air pollution, courts are grappling with novel legal issues, that are increasingly technical and scientific.  Cases are being heard at the state and federal level, and all over the country, and are likely to result in many different and sometimes conflicting rulings.  This means it will be many years, perhaps even decades, before the law is settled.  That's a long time to wait for clean air and climate mitigation.  


Lake Pontchartrain, Louisiana  Photo: Bill Quigly, NOLA

Toxic Algae Strikes LA and FL

Major portions of Lake Pontchartrain are covered with wave-like layers of algae that may be made up of toxic cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, which is harmful to both humans an animals.  Researchers at Louisiana State University believe that the blooms could have been caused by the torrent of nutrient-rich Mississippi River water that officials from the Army Corps of Engineers diverted into Lake Pontchartrain via the Bonnet Carre Spillway to ease pressure on area levees. The Spillway was opened in order to avoid flooding in early March -- the Mississippi rose because of rain and melting snow in upper river basins -- sending hundreds of thousands of cubic feet per second of water tumbling into the lake. Unusually high temperatures in February likely also contributed to the bloom formation. 

Meanwhile, the state of Florida is asking the Corps of Engineers for permission to build a new reservoir in the Everglades to help combat algae blooms on the state's east and west coasts.  Just as in Louisiana, algal blooms have been caused by the discharge of nutrient-rich water from Lake Okeechobee into the Caloosahatchee River and Indian River Lagoon when heavy rains threaten to overflow the lake.  E&E Daily reports that the State's plan includes the creation of a new, 6,500-acre stormwater treatment marsh to help remove nitrogen and phosphorus from Okeechobee water before it moves into the Everglades system.

Why This Matters:  Algae blooms like this eventually die and settle to the bottom, but even then they can still harm other wildlife. Microbes that help the algae decay rob the water of oxygen, which can lead to fish kills and dead zones similar to those seen in the Gulf of Mexico most years.  Algae blooms should be avoided -- even boating through one can be dangerous if water containing the algae is sprayed upward. In humans, the algae can cause rashes, as well as stomach, liver and respiratory problems. Green infrastructure projects, like the one Florida proposes, are critical to minimizing the impacts of nutrient runoff to lakes, wetlands, and even the ocean in a warming climate.  We will need more of them in the future.  


Fred Abels on his Iowa farm. USDA photo: Lance Cheung

Farmers Need Conservation Funding, Will The Farm Bill Deliver?

Civil Eats recently wrote a great piece about farmers in America that want to implement better conservation practices on their farms but need help from the USDA. EQIP and CSP are the two largest “working lands” conservation programs offered by the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Combined with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which pays farmers to take land out of production for 10 or 15 years in favor of permanent grasslands and wildlife habitat, the USDA’s conservation portfolio impacts more than 100 million acres nationwide while deploying billions of dollars of taxpayer funding.These practices aren’t just designed to improve farms for their own sake—although they can do that. They’re also the frontline against some of the United States’ most pressing environmental problems.

From nitrogen pollution in our waterways to loss of biodiversity, the way farmers farm has far-reaching impacts on the environment. Both CSP and EQIP help farmers develop climate smart practices that store more atmospheric carbon in the ground.

In a political climate where the president is calling for cuts to conservation funding, it's unclear if willing farmers will get the help they need from USDA. The conservation programs are funded by the federal farm bill (which is passed about every 5 years) and of the $56 billion authorized in the last bill just 6 percent of the bill’s funding is set aside to promote conservation practices through the bill’s “Conservation Title.” The current five-year farm bill expires at the end of September, creating a deadline for House and Senate farm bill negotiators, farm groups, and conservation advocates to pass a new bill.

Why This Matters: We're learning more about the importance of maintaining soil health. According to Phys, the impacts of soil degradation can be far-reaching, including loss of soil fertility, destruction of species habitat and biodiversity, soil erosion, and excessive nutrient runoff into lakes. CSP and EQIP are programs that both Republicans and Democrats agree are important at a time where bipartisanship seems like a lost art. On March 22nd, Senators Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Mike Lee (R-UT) introduced the EQIP Improvement Act, a bill that would reshape EQIP to make is less costly and more efficient in its conservation aims. 


 Climate Change

Data: Gallup Chart: Axios Visuals
Partisan Divide on Climate Change Grows

A newly-released Gallup poll shows that in the past year fewer Republicans (roughly one thrid) say that climate change is occurring and humans are causing it. On the other hand, 9 in 10 Democrats have remained steadfast in their belief of anthropogenic climate change and that its effects are already being felt. 

This year 45 percent of participants said global warming would pose a serious threat in their lifetimes, which is the highest overall percentage recorded since Gallup began asking the question in 1997. 

Why This Matters: In the past year the Trump administration has worked to undo President Obama's legacy on climate, driving further the notion that a commitment to abating climate change comes at the direct cost of American jobs. As Gallup noted, "With Trump reversing many of his predecessors' policies aimed at curbing global warming, Democrats are feeling a greater sense of urgency about the issue, while Republicans have either remained as skeptical as they had been in the past or have become more so"


Post-Harvey Recovery Has Not Been the Same for All Houstonians 

The Wall Street Journal put together an eye-opening video that shed light on the immense disparities of post-Hurricane Harvey recoveries amongst Houston's residents. There was a stark class disparity in how quickly recovery efforts came to higher and lower-income families. 

As WSJ wrote, "Six months after the storm, many Houston-area families are still struggling to rebuild their "homes, and their lives. The storm left many homeless and others without income. Those without a safety net were hit particularly hard, and many have had to make tough decisions about how to move forward."

(We highly recommend you watch the video above)

Why This Matters: Hurricane Harvey displaced 30,000 people but lower-income Houstonians were affected disproportionately, as is the case with most natural disasters. As Brookings explains, there are several reasons for this:

First, lower-income Americans are more likely to live in neighborhoods or buildings more susceptible to storm shocks. Substandard infrastructure in affordable housing units and low-income communities place residents at greater risk to the effects of a severe storm. Second, poorer families are less well insulated against the economic shock that often accompanies the physical one. In the eight counties most severely-affected by Hurricane Harvey, only 17 percent of homeowners held flood insurance policies, which are more commonly held by wealthier households.Third, more affluent people can more easily relocate to safer areas, whereas lower-income people are often stuck. 


Video by Erik Storm of Kilauea EcoGuides
One Hot Thing
Have you ever wondered what it is like to be inside an inferno?  Now you can see first hand.  This video was shot by a GoPro camera that was smothered with molten lava and survived.  We hope it is warm -- but not this warm -- wherever you are!   
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