This is the Nov. 25, 2021 edition Boiling Point, a weekly newsletter that discusses climate change and the environment of California and the American West. Sign up hereGet it delivered to your inbox
Good morning and welcome, Boiling point! I hope that whatever your life might normally look like — phone calls, meetings, endless emails — you can take a break this weekend, eat some delicious food and spend time with loved ones.
The climate crisis doesn’t take Thanksgiving off, and neither does this newsletter. But this week we’re doing something different.
As I’ve written previously, people often ask me how I stay hopeful, given the scary stuff my colleagues and I write about — deadly heat waves, devastating fires, fast-rising seas, and underlying many of those problems, political inaction and corporate greed. As journalists, we’re so focused on telling these stories that we rarely take time to stop and reflect, and share how we stay afloat.
To celebrate Thanksgiving, I asked my colleagues covering environmental issues what gives them hope.
Here’s what they had to say.
LILA SEIDMAN, breaking news
A National Park Service official wept recently when he described how a grove containing giant sequoias trees was likely. saved from devastating fire damageBecause of the precautions taken to protect them in a matter of minutes.
Many majestic trees can be found in the area. perished, the official was deeply concerned for the giants — and resolved to keep fighting for their survival.
Reporting on California’s devastating wildfires, unyielding drought, and other climate change-driven catastrophes in California, it is a common experience to witness the deep love people have for California’s natural wonders. It’s heartening to see this emotional bond inspire individual and collective action to protect these marvels. I’m hopeful this bodes well for the larger fight against climate change.
EVAN HALPER, Washington, D.C. correspondent
Politicians love to talk about environment justice. People who live in fence-line communities often find those words hollow. The state’s stark economic divide, unique geography and large concentrations of heavily polluting facilities have created a public health crisis that too often feels intractable to the low-income Californians who suffer disproportionately from it.
California has come up with a new approach to dealing with these inequalities. CalEnviroScreen is a tool that has been refined and turbocharged. It can be used to identify the most polluted census tracts. The state uses the data to direct funding to hard-hit communities — and to force local officials to consider the history of toxic air and economic hardship before allowing more pollution.
Cities and counties ignore the mapping tool at their own peril. California’s attorney general is watching, filing legal actions against local governments that approve heavily polluting projects in communities already struggling with some of the state’s lowest air quality and highest poverty rates. CalEnviroScreen inspired officials from the state to join the fight to stop a toxic cement factory located in Vallejo. This mega-warehouse is next to a school in Inland Empire as well as an Amazon air cargo hub.
IAN JAMES water
Michael Bogan, an ecologist, met me on the Santa Cruz River in Tucson a few months back. He was carrying a net, a bucket, and some samples of aquatic invertebrates like giant water bugs and snails.
We sloshed through the stream, passing thickets of cattails, and arrived at Bogan’s study site, where blue dragonflies were hovering over a clear pool. None of this — not the water, the plants or the bugs — existed a few years ago.
The riverbed was largely dry throughout the past century except for rainstorms that sent runoff into the channel. In 2019, Tucson began to release treated wastewater near downtown. That decision has brought back a flowing stream, and it’s teeming with insects, birds and other wildlife.
When I reported on the river’s resurgence and Bogan’s research documenting the new ecosystem, I felt hopeful seeing that even a small amount of water, when used in this way, can have a dramatic effect and create a space for nature to flourish.
RUSS MITCHELL, autos
I rarely look to material objects for inspiration. This is the case with the pickup truck.
At a time of climate crisis, there’s no way to significantly reduce tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases without a major shift to electric vehicles. Well-to-do urbanites with large stock portfolios have turned to Tesla and other cutting-edge cars with enviro cred, but it’s going to take something more mainstream to lure in Americans as a whole.
That could be something. Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck. Gasoline and diesel F-150s have ranked as the country’s best-selling motor vehicles for decades. Ford is doing everything possible to make the Lightning feel like a pickup truck. This includes maximizing its benefits in torque, worksite electrical generation, and operational costs savings.
Ford is swamped by orders for the Lightning, which goes to market next year. Chevy and Ram are also planning electric pickups. Success is not assured, but if electric pickup trucks get snapped up in places like Kansas, Nebraska and California’s Shasta County, the transition to electric vehicles could prove unstoppable.
ALEX WIGGLESWORTH – wildfires
The outlook can be bleak when it comes to wildfires across the Western U.S. Climate change, forest management decisions and the continued development in high-risk regions are making wildfires more difficult to control.
As I am reporting on these issues, I also get to meet so many experts who have dedicated their lives to understanding these dynamics and finding ways to improve them. That’s what gives me hope. These problems are being addressed by some of our brightest minds, including scientists, land managers, and fire officials. I’m always grateful when they take the time to share their work with me.
ROSANNA XIA – coast and ocean
It’s been encouraging to see so much of the pandemic-era scientists back in their labs, and out on the water, continuing all their field work that was halted during the first year. I’m grateful for this research that continues to help us understand the ocean and the future of our planet.
STUART LEAVENWORTH, Boiling Point editor
The United States accounts for 4% of the world’s population and — according to a 2019 report — 12% of its garbage. Although it may not seem like a lot, it is. There’s enormous potential in dramatically reducing U.S. waste and realizing the benefits: Less plastic washing onto beaches. Fewer landfills are created. Fewer greenhouse gas emissions.
To change wasteful practices, you need to engage people and make those choices easy, stylish, fun, and fashionable. That’s why my Instagram feed includes sites such as Bea Johnson’s zerowastehome, #goingzerowaste and, separately, Kathryn Kellogg’s going.zero.waste.
These influencers are among many others trying to change the outlook on home life. They go beyond reuse and recyclingThe Buy Nothing MovementA future that sees families growing more food, decluttering and giving gifts that mean something because they made them.
The supply chain crisis has shown the dangers of mass dependence on imports and retail consumption. While the zero-waste dream may sound elusive, it is part and parcel of the solution.
HAYLEY Smith, breaking news
Writing about California’s climate crisis can be grueling. Some stories this past year broke my heart like fires that threatened to consume me. giant sequoia trees startling images of our state’s dwindling reservoirs.
Others gave me hope. I was covering Lake Tahoe for the Caldor fire, I’d often approach people on the street or in their driveways. Almost without fail — and even as ash fell from the sky and thick black smoke choked the air — they would take time to tell me about their families, their lives and their fears. Sometimes they’d give me coffee or invite me to their homes.
These interactions fill me up with gratitude. I don’t know whether California (or the world) will be able to prevent the worst effects of climate change, and in fact many have already begun. But despite what can seem like a growing divide, I feel optimistic each time I am reminded that people are generous, people are kind, and people are willing to work together even when it feels like it’s all falling apart.
SUSANNE ROUST, environmental investigations
I sense a caring and concern where I didn’t even two years ago — in part because of the pandemic.
Keep in mind those few weeks. nobody was driving? Or flying? It was so clear. It was alive and sweet, according to many. They couldn’t get enough of it. We were able from San Francisco Bay Area to see individual redwoods at Santa Cruz Mountains. Everything was so clean. And then there were the sounds: We could hear birds, tree frogs and wind — without the constant hum of traffic, grind of leaf blowers and thudding, pounding and cranking of construction.
Everybody kind of “woke” up to the natural beauty around them — and I think it has stuck.
When you add to that the visceral calamities our warming planet has dropped on us recently — record-breaking heat waves, fires, bad air, drought and even that crazy atmospheric river dump that struck Northern California in October — I sense a sentiment of action and urgency where I didn’t before.
This gives me hope.
I guess it’s weird to be thankful for a pandemic and waves of climatic destruction. But having endured them, I do think they’ve produced something meaningful. And I’m thankful for that.
And what about me? I’m thankful to all of you who read Boiling PointEngage with these important issues and make it a priority. It gives me hope that so many people not only want to learn about this stuff — even when the stories are scary — but also take the time to share feedback, ask questions, and most importantly use our journalism to try to make positive change.
We are grateful. Keep it up!
On that note, here’s what’s happening around the West:
California’s attorney general is partnering with local activists to fight Amazon warehouses, oil refineries and other industrial polluters in low-income communities that already breathe terrible air. The environmental justice initiative could be a model for the nation, with the Biden administration looking to replicate the state’s CalEnviroScreen mapping tool, my colleagues Evan Halper and Anna M. Phillips report. Also watch this video by The Times’ Jackeline Luna to hear from Inland Empire residents forced to breathe heavily polluted air, courtesy of the companies meeting our insatiable demand for speedy delivery of goods.
For cooler temperatures and better working conditions, many California farmworkers moved to Oregon during the summer for decades. The planet is heating up and Oregon is scorching like never before. fewer are making the trekPriscella Vega reports from The Times. It’s not just warmer weather reshaping the Pacific Northwest — this year the region went from deadly heat to devastating floodsThis sounds like climate change in just a few short months. Julia Rosen, High Country News reporter, reports that extreme heat snaps can be caused by science. deadlier for some plants and animals than long-term warming.
Many of the major rivers and streams that flow through Colorado River originate from national forests. The U.S. Forest Service is failing to protect its streams and allowing water diversion that is not sustainable. It also fails to review permits that have expired for decades or years. USA Today Network investigation led by the Coloradoan’s Jacy Marmaduke. Also see this companion story by the Arizona Republic’s Caitlin McGlade showing how ranchers, cities and others pressure the Forest Service not to impede or even measure their water use, and more reporting from JacyA unique deal between Montana and the federal government has helped to protect streamflows in Montana. This gives those waterways a buffer from climate change.
OUR PUBLIC LANDS
Recent wildfires in Sierra Nevada may have resulted in the death of up to 3,600 giant sequoias. Somewhere between 3% and 5% of the world’s remaining sequoias were likely killed, my colleague Lila Seidman reports — and yes, that’s on top of the 14% of the sequoia population that may have been killed by last year’s Castle fire. It’s not great. Read on for something more positive this piece by LilaRare Sierra Nevada red foxes survived the Dixie Fire, showing remarkable resilience to climate change.
The Mojave Desert Land Trust has protected over 100,000 acres in California. The Desert Sun’s Erin Rode wrote about what the group’s new leaders see as the biggest challenges for desert ecosystems, including the growing number of solar and wind farms. According to Brandon Reynolds, the threat of desert tortoises from renewable energy development is just one. writes for KCRW.
After President Trump tried to reverse Obama-era protections and cut back on them, the Biden administration has taken another shot at saving the greater Sage grouse.These colorful birds used to be abundant in the West. However, their numbers have declined as oil and gas drilling, grazing and other pressures have decimated their habitat. Details here from the AP’s Matthew Brown.
OIL AND GAS POLUTION
21% of diesel emissions in Los Angeles come from boats used for sport fishing, whale-watching, and other daily trips. Ports are a major cause of cancer in the local area.The state regulators are cracking down by requiring cleaner engines, my colleague Hugo Martín reports. A oil sheen was also seen along the coast. reportedIt is located in the same area as the recent Huntington Beach Oil Spill. residual leak from the same damaged pipeline, The Times’ Matthew Ormseth reports. Federal officials are still at work. boarded a second ship that’s under investigation for possibly causing last month’s spill, Richard Winton reports.
The world’s largest public relations firm, Edelman, pledged to start taking climate change seriously after facing pressure from activists.The company has since been sold. unveiled its climate plans, Chief Executive Richard Edelman is defending his firm’s fossil fuel industry clients, telling Axios’ Ben Geman, “We work with oil majors. I’m proud of our work. I think that bigger question over time is, how we can help them express their transitions.” I’m guessing climate activists weren’t pleased to hear that. See also my piece from earlier this yearClean Creatives campaign urging PR firms not to work for the fossil fuel sector.
Nevada’s biggest utility, Southwest Gas, is pushing back hard against efforts to promote all-electric homes, much like Southern California Gas. Here’s the story from the Nevada Independent’s Daniel Rothberg, featuring a cameo by Carl Icahn.
THE ENERGY TRANSITION
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador — often referred to as AMLO — has attempted to push his country away from renewable energy and toward state-owned coal and crude oil plants. But despite President Biden’s clean energy ambitions, he’s unlikely to press his Mexican counterpart to make climate a priorityChris Megerian, Kate Linthicum, and Kate Linthicum report for The Times. That’s because Biden’s administration, for better or worse, sees reducing migration as a higher diplomatic priority.
Bill Gates wants to build a new type of nuclear reactor at a soon-to-be-shuttered coal plant in Wyoming — and get it done super fast, at least for a nuclear plant.The TerraPower-founded Gates has a lot to offer in terms of reducing climate emissions and the potential for power generation. more safely, cheaply and flexibly than traditional nuclear plants, per the Seattle Times’ Hal Bernton and Inside Climate News’ Judy Fahys. However, critics are skeptical that the plan will work as planned.
Eye-opening new reporting shows how China has come to dominate the Congo’s vast supplies of cobalt, a metal crucial to electric vehicle batteries. The country is at the forefront of a growing geopolitical battlefield over the clean energy transition, the New York Times’ Dionne Searcey, Michael Forsythe and Eric Lipton report. Here’s more reporting from the same folks showing how American indifference allowed China to take over some of the world’s biggest cobalt deposits from a U.S. company.
Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed a new president of the California Public Utilities Commission. It’s his senior energy advisor, Alice Reynolds, and she’ll replace outgoing president Marybel Batjer on Dec. 31, the San Francisco Chronicle’s J.D. Morris reports. Reynolds will have her work cut out for her, with wildfire safety and utility power lines being the agency’s highest-profile concern. Southern California Edison even warned this week that it might turn off power. nearly 100,000 customers on ThanksgivingHayley Smith, my colleague, reports on how to reduce the risk that its infrastructure is set on fire. San Diego Gas & Electric issued a similar warning.
House Democrats passed Biden’s “Build Back Better” package, which includes about $500 billion in tax incentives and grants to speed the transition to clean energy.It now moves to the Senate, where a total lack of Republican support means it needs “aye” votes from all 48 Democrats and two independents to pass, The Times’ Jennifer Haberkorn reports. The infrastructure bill that passed Congress could have made changes to the 150 year-old mining law which allows companies to extract lithium, gold, silver, copper, and copper from public lands, without having them pay royalties. However, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto objected to the bill and Congress was forced to pass it. passed up another chance to reform the General Mining LawCody Nelson is a writer for High Country News.
Chuck Sams was unanimously confirmed by the Senate as the first Native American director in the National Park Service. Details hereKurt Repanshek from National Parks Traveler. A Government Accountability Office report revealed that more than half of the employees at the Bureau of Land Management headquarters are Black. either retired or quit rather than accept the move to Colorado forced on them by the Trump administration, the Washington Post’s Joshua Partlow reports.
A FINAL THING
Read anything you can about Thanksgiving. this story by my colleagues Faith E. Pinho and Gina Ferazzi. They followed two young hikers as they trekked three of America’s longest trails — the Appalachian, the Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest — in a single calendar year, during a pandemic. The hikers were faced with a wildfire evacuation and a charging bear. They also had to contend with an E.coli infection.
Jackson Parell, 21, a 21-year-old hiker, made this comment that impressed me more than the physical and mental challenges they faced. “At the end of the day, there was a lot that went into this that had nothing to do with our will and desire for it to happen. A lot of it had to do with the luck and privilege that we’ve been blessed with.”
It would be a good thing if we all were to be so aware of our blessings.
We’ll be back in your inbox next week. If you enjoyed this newsletter please forward it to your friends or colleagues.