EPA finalizes Trump administration’s coal-friendly climate plan

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Today, the EPA finalized the Trump administration’s Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) plan, effectively rolling back Obama-era policies to address climate change. The Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan (CPP) set national goals for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. States could decide how to meet those goals, but the targets were strict enough that many states were expected to close coal plants. As NPR reports, the Trump administration’s approach will be to regulate the emissions of individual power plants in order to help them stay in business longer.

The Trump administration hopes its plan will support rural communities that rely on coal industry jobs. ACE gives states more authority to set emissions reductions standards and claims it will promote investment in “clean coal.” Like Obama’s plan, ACE aims to cut carbon pollution from the power sector by around 30 percent from 2005 levels, but those emissions have already declined 28 percent since 2005.

The Obama administration’s plan was stalled in court — and Trump later signed an executive order to dismantle it. The Trump administration’s plan could go into effect in 30 days, but it will likely face similar legal challenges before it’s implemented. Already, New York State Attorney General Letitia James’ office tweeted that it intends to sue the EPA over the plan, and The New York Times expects a “flurry of legal challenges.”

Even if ACE can clear those legal hurdles, it’s not clear if Trump’s efforts will provide enough of a lifeline to keep the remaining coal-fired plants open. By the Sierra Club’s count, 52 plants have either shut down or announced plans to shut down since Trump was elected. Most close because electricity from natural gas and renewable energy sources is less expensive to produce. Plus, philanthropists like Michael Bloomberg have committed millions to closing the remaining coal-fired power plants. So, even with a plan to keep wheezing coal facilities open longer, the Trump administration may not succeed.

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Climate justice and environmental ethics in tech, with Amazon engineer Rajit Iftikhar

Nearly 8,000 Amazon employees, many in prestigious engineering and design roles, have recently signed a petition calling on Jeff Bezos and the Amazon Board of Directors to dramatically shift the giant company’s approach to climate change.

By deploying a kind of corporate social disobedience such as speaking out dramatically at shareholders meetings, and by engaging in a variety of community organizing tactics, the “Amazon Employees for Climate Justice” group has quickly become a leading example of a growing trend in the tech world: tech employees banding together to take strong ethical stances in defiance of their powerful employers.

The public actions taken by these employees and groups have been covered widely by the news media. For my TechCrunch series on the ethics of technology, however, I wanted to better understand what participating actively in this campaign has been like some of the individuals involved.

How are employees in high-pressure jobs balancing their professional roles and responsibilities with being actively, publicly in defiance of their employers on a high-profile issue? How do leaders in these efforts explain the philosophy underlying their ethical stance? And how likely are their ideas to spread throughout Amazon and beyond – perhaps particularly among younger tech workers?

I recently spoke with a handful of the Amazon employees most actively involved in the Employees for Climate Justice campaign, all of whom inspired me– in similar and different ways. Below is the first of two interviews I’ll publish here. This one is with Rajit Iftikhar, a young software engineer from New York who moved to Seattle to work for Amazon after earning his Bachelor’s of Engineering in Computer Science from Cornell in 2016.

Rajit Iftikhar

Rajit struck me as a humble and precociously wise young man who could be a role model — though he seems to have little interest in singling himself out that way — for thousands of other software engineers and technologists at Amazon and beyond.

Greg Epstein: Your personal story has been key to your organizing with Amazon Employees for Climate Justice. Can you start by saying a bit about why?

Rajit Iftikhar: A lot of why I care about climate justice is informed by me having parents from another country that is going to be very adversely affected by [climate change]. Countries like Bangladesh are going to suffer some of the worst consequences from climate change, because of where the country’s located, and the fact that it doesn’t have the resources to adapt.

Bangladesh is already feeling the effects of climate crisis; it is much harder for people to live in the rural areas, [people are] being forced into the cities. Then you have the cyclones that the climate crisis is going to bring, and rising sea levels and flooding.

So, my background [emphasizes, for me] how unjust our emissions are in causing all these problems for people in other countries. And even for communities of color within our country who are going to be disproportionately impacted by the emissions that largely richer people [cause].

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UK proposal would eliminate greenhouse gas emissions by 2050

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AP Photo/Kirsty Wigglesworth

The UK is setting firmer environmental targets in the wake of large-scale climate protests. Outgoing Prime Minister Theresa May has proposed legislation that would cut greenhouse gas emissions to zero by 2050 — the “first major economy to do so,” she claimed. The country already has a law requiring an 80 percent emissions cut by that point, but this is clearly more ambitious.

The proposal doesn’t include specifics on achieving that goal, but the Committee on Climate Change recently made recommendations that include staples like clean power and electric vehicles as well as CO2 capture, more efficient buildings and planting more trees.

While this is significant and could spur other countries to follow suit, there are a number of concerns with the implementation. To start, there’s a requirement for a review within five years to ensure that other nations are taking “similarly ambitious action” and that UK industries aren’t facing “unfair competition.” If other countries drag their heels, the UK might use hat as justification for reneging on its commitment.

And while the measure appears to have broad support in Parliament, May won’t be there to see it through. It’s easy to make big promises if you won’t be held accountable for any setbacks. It doesn’t help that the British government recently hiked taxes on solar panel installations, either. How is the UK going to achieve its objectives if residents have a disincentive to adopt solar power?

There are also questions as to whether or not the goal is aggressive enough. The EU is also planning to be climate neutral by 2050, but recent scientific studies from the UN and other groups suggest climate change is worse than expected. It wouldn’t help much to reach zero emissions by 2050 if there are already serious environmental problems years earlier. The UK and other countries may have to accelerate their timetables to minimize the damage, assuming it isn’t too late.

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Puffins are dying in large numbers in the Bering Sea

A tufted puffin sits on St Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, Alaska.
A tufted puffin sits on St Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, Alaska.
Image: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images

Puffins are dying in worryingly large numbers in Alaska and scientists say it could be directly linked to climate change.

According to a new study published in PLOS ONE, there’s been a mass die-off of tufted puffins and crested auklets on St. Paul Island, one of the Pribilof Islands in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Alaska.

Between Oct. 2016 and Jan. 2017, over 350 bird carcasses were recovered by tribal and community members, many washed up on beaches, the study reports. Tufted puffins made up 87 percent of the total, when in previous years, they only made up one percent of recovered birds.

The puffins were mostly adult birds, suffering from the onset of molt — a regular, rather stressful shedding and regrowth of feathers that increases the birds’ nutritional needs during the process. 

But how did they die? Starvation.

Tufted puffins like these little guys are dying of starvation in great numbers in the Bering Sea.

Tufted puffins like these little guys are dying of starvation in great numbers in the Bering Sea.

Image: De Agostini/Getty Images

It’s the puffins’ death from a lack of food that’s truly concerned the study’s authors, a team helmed by Timothy Jones, a researcher with the University of Washington’s citizen science project, COASST.

The authors observed that the tufted puffins of the Bering Sea feed on fish and other marine invertebrates, which, in turn, feed on plankton. But the puffins’ prey is becoming less abundant. 

Where did the puffins’ food go?

Rising sea temperatures caused by global warming have caused marine ecosystems and food webs to go through significant changes, with some species reducing in abundance, including fish like pollock and crustaceans like krill on the southern Bering Sea shelf. And who eats pollock and krill? Tufted puffins and crested auklets, respectively.

These changes within marine ecosystems have already lead to mass mortality events (MMEs) in seabirds — the study notes two for the north Pacific due to ecosystem shifts between 2013 and 2017. In fact, they’re becoming so frequent that they’re one of the most important indicators of the effects of accelerated climate change.

“Large-scale shifts in climate have been punctuated by large mortality events of marine birds.”

“Large-scale shifts in climate have been punctuated by large mortality events of marine birds,” the study reads. “As abundant, visible, upper-trophic organisms, seabirds have been proposed as indicators of marine ecosystem shifts due to climate, with documented effects of climate variability on both reproduction and adult survival.”

The Bering Sea sits at high latitude between the north Pacific and Arctic Oceans. The Arctic is the most rapidly changing region on Earth, and the Bering Sea embodies these drastic changes. In March, the Bering Sea was nearly ice-free, months ahead of schedule. It was the lowest extent in the 40-year satellite record. Atmospheric conditions from 2014 onwards, the study notes, have caused less winter sea ice and higher water temperatures. 

In fact, temperatures in northern Alaska are rising faster than anywhere else in the U.S. And that’s incredibly bad news for the tufted puffin population.

The power of citizen science

Aside from being a wake-up call to the devastating, real effects of climate change on our natural world, the study is a testament to the power of community observation in dramatically affected areas.

“This paper is a successful application of citizen science in the real world,” said co-author Lauren Divine from the Aleut Community of St Paul Island Ecosystem Conservation Office, who noted the role island residents played in collecting the birds and providing data for COASST.

“Without the positive and mutually beneficial relationship built over years of collaboration, this massive die-off of tufted puffins would have gone unreported in the scientific community.”

Nonetheless, it’s not a good week for our fellow creatures in the animal kingdom. 

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Parents and teachers want climate change taught in schools

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An exclusive poll from NPR and market research organization Ipsos says more than 80 percent of American parents want their kids to learn about climate change. The poll also found that 86 percent of teachers agree with the sentiment. 

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