Western states under extreme drought made worse by climate change are a giant tinderbox - and one expert says it's time to minimize possible fire sources by burying power lines.
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Above-ground transmission lines have been mostly an eyesore, but as climate change has worsened the risk and devastation from wildfires, Engineering Consultant with Resilient Analytics Paul Chinowsky said power lines should never be the possible source.
He said vegetation or heavy winds can cause lines to touch each other and create a spark.
"You've got equipment that really wasn't designed to handle the extreme temperatures and environmental conditions we have today," said Chinowsky.
Chinosky said the major hurdle is cost - estimated at $4 million or more for each mile of "undergrounding."
California's Pacific Gas & Electric utility recently agreed to pay more than $55 million dollars to avoid criminal prosecution for that state's 2021 Dixie wildfire sparked by aging power lines.
PG&E also has announced a multibillion-dollar effort to bury 10,000 miles of power lines.
Chinowsky said he believes the adversarial relationship that sometimes develops between local governments and their utility company needs to change. He said more cooperation is necessary to ease what would likely be higher rates for customers.
"Because this change is going to save homes," said Chinowsky. "It's going to save property. If we don't change it, we're never going to get it done and we're just going to keep reliving these very destructive wildfires."
Wildfires are now more frequent and intense and fire seasons last longer. That has led some building homes or structures near or within Western forests to use fire-resistant materials.
But Chinosky said the "new normal" is here to stay, and reducing risk is key.
"We'll always have some risk," said Chinowsky. "You can't eliminate all risk. You're not going to eliminate lightning strikes. But if we can eliminate risks that we have control over, it's going to save a lot of people a lot of unhappy times."
New Mexico's recent fire - the largest in the state's history - was not caused by above-ground power lines, but rather ignited by U.S. Forest Service workers using drip torches during a prescribed burn to thin dense woodlands.
Next week, trade negotiations resume in Sweden between the U.S. and the European Union, and advocates are urging all parties to sign a "Climate Peace Clause."
In recent years, multiple nations, including the U.S., have used outdated trade agreements to try to stop other countries from favoring their own renewable energy sector.
Ilana Solomon, spokesperson for the nonprofit Trade Justice Education Fund, said the trade challenges are a major obstacle to ambitious climate policy and a livable future.
"In the context of a climate emergency where countries must be putting in place ambitious climate policies, it's madness to have governments using trade rules to threaten action on climate change," Solomon asserted.
Right now, several countries are threatening to challenge the electric vehicle tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act in the U.S., and other climate policies in the carbon border adjustment mechanism in the EU So far, no countries have committed to signing a climate peace clause. Thus far, courts have proclaimed climate policies from eight states to be in violation of trade agreements.
Solomon argued governments need to form a pact to refrain from using dispute resolution mechanisms and trade and investment agreements to challenge other countries' climate policies.
"We will be delivering thousands of petitions from concerned members of the public who want to see the U.S. and the EU agree to a climate peace clause in the upcoming trade talks," Solomon added.
The office of U.S. Trade Representative Katherine Tai did not respond to a request for comment.
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A coalition of grassroots groups is turning to Colorado voters in an effort to phase out all new oil and gas leases by 2030.
Kate Christensen - an organizer with Safe and Healthy Colorado - said even after state lawmakers passed legislation mandating that oil and gas regulators prioritize the protection of public health and the environment, they continue to permit hundreds of wells - many right in the middle of highly populated areas already in violation of Environmental Protection Agency ozone pollution limits.
"And that is why we need a ballot initiative," said Christensen, "because every other move hasn't got us the results that we need for our climate crisis, and for our air quality, and for our water. Nothing else has worked, we have to do this."
Leading global scientists have repeatedly warned that fossil fuels cannot continue to be extracted and burned if we are to avoid catastrophic climate change.
The Colorado Oil and Gas Association says if voters approve the measure, there will be significant job losses and higher fuel prices. They argue even if permits stop, the demand for oil and gas won't.
Christensen pointed to a recent report which found the oil and gas industry in Colorado contributes less than 1% of the state's total employment. And she said the industry's own research shows there are ample oil and gas reserves to meet future demand.
"The International Energy Association - not a green group, just an energy group," said Christensen, "came out with a report last year that said we have already extracted all the fossil fuels we need to extract to make a transition to renewables by 2050."
Christensen said setting a timeline for phasing out drilling permits is critical for communities that are dependent on fossil fuels to build an exit strategy and get the support they need to transition to the new clean-energy economy.
If the coalition can collect 125,000 signatures to make the 2024 ballot, she said the effort could embolden people in other states.
"There's only a few people who are really profiting off of this," said Christensen. "Most of us are not seeing the benefit of oil and gas production. We're just getting the asthma, we're just getting the wildfires. What this could do is encourage other states to pass ballot initiatives along the same lines."
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By Marianne Dhenin for Next City.
Broadcast version by Edwin J. Viera for New York News Connection reporting for the Solutions Journalism Network-Public News Service Collaboration
The new schoolyard at PS 184M Shuang Wen, a grade school in Manhattan’s Chinatown, features new play equipment, a yoga circle, a stage and basketball and tennis courts.
It also has a porous turf field that can capture an estimated 1.3 million gallons of stormwater runoff, according to New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The turf field sits atop infiltration basins, reservoirs capable of holding large volumes of stormwater. These basins, paired with a grass-roof gazebo, a student-run rain garden and a slew of new trees, can help New York City better absorb extreme precipitation, which is becoming more frequent and severe with climate change.
“Green infrastructure intercepts stormwater before it can reach a catch basin and allows it to be naturally absorbed into the ground,” explained a representative from DEP. “This creates additional capacity in the sewer system and helps to reduce flooding.”
Urban planners, architects and designers around the world are looking to make cities spongier — using nature-based solutions to better absorb water. In dense cities like New York, where open space is scarce, officials are rethinking a neighborhood mainstay: the school playground.
“Carving out the space, the actual acreage to create a new park can sometimes be cost prohibitive,” said Danielle Denk, director of the Community Schoolyards Initiative at Trust for Public Land (TPL). “But if there’s a schoolyard, that’s land that is often not used to the greatest advantage, and when it can be transformed … it becomes a really smart strategy for park creation.”
Cities across the country have begun to uproot asphalt in favor of lush, green schoolyards — or at least porous turf. TPL has helped transform more than 200 schoolyards — upgrades including adding play spaces and shaded areas — in New York City over the last 30 years with financial support from various city agencies and nonprofits. The Berkeley, California-based non-profit Green Schoolyards America has been collaborating with schools on similar projects around the globe for over a decade. And last year, Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) introduced the Living Schoolyards Act, a bill that would direct federal resources toward greening school grounds. Several states, including California, Colorado and Maryland, have introduced similar legislation or guidelines.
According to TPL, most of the 90,000 public schoolyards — spanning some two million acres — nationwide are covered in asphalt, a combination of petroleum products that creates runoff when it rains and bakes in the sun.
Concrete and asphalt contribute to urban heat islands, increasing average daytime temperatures by as much as seven degrees in hot weather. Green plots of land in cities do the opposite, reducing surrounding temperatures by up to seven degrees. That can mean the difference between life and death during heat waves — which are increasing in severity and frequency as the planet heats up.
Shuang Wen Public School was a perfect candidate for an update. Located in a floodplain near the East River, its schoolyard was underwater after Superstorm Sandy struck in 2012.
Nine years later, when Hurricane Ida tore through the city, “there was not even a puddle after the tremendous amount of rain that we had,” said Mary Alice Lee, TPL’s New York City Playgrounds Director.
Schoolyards can do more than absorb rainwater and cool neighborhoods. They can also help close the park equity gap nationwide: One hundred million Americans, including 28 million kids, do not live within a ten-minute walk from a park or green space. Communities of color and low-income neighborhoods have even less access to green spaces.
“Schoolyards are an important way to create access to a park,” said Denk. “When they’re open to the community after hours, they can serve so many needs.” Studies show that access to green spaces supports physical and mental health.
Officials appear to be taking note. According to TPL, in 2022, at least 73 of the nation’s 100 largest cities opened schoolyards after hours to the general public, up from just 44 cities in 2018.
Schoolyard improvements are good for students, too.
Studies have linked vegetation in schoolyards to better school-wide academic performance, even after controlling for significant confounding factors like student poverty and minority status. Researchers suggest these improvements in academic achievement may be thanks to green schoolyards’ ability to decrease stress and mental fatigue, increase physical activity, and foster more creative play during recess.
Shuang Wen principal Jeremy Kabinoff said the new playground has allowed administrators to create clubs and host events that would not have been possible before: new tennis and track programs, a soccer league and an outdoor Halloween festival that drew more than 1,000 attendees last year.
When COVID-19 restrictions forced classroom closures, Shuang Wen was able to move classroom learning and other events outside into a still-comfortable learning environment. Kabinoff said the new facilities, including the stage, “gave students the opportunity to experience an authentic graduation experience as well, especially since COVID-19 eliminated many in-person events.”
Shuang Wen students helped design the new schoolyard through discussions, surveys and votes. Denk from TPL, who has worked with dozens of schools to upgrade yards, said students get just as excited about green infrastructure as new playground equipment. She fondly remembers an example from a group of 4th-grade students in Philadelphia.
“We learned all about water quality issues, flooding in the city, combined sewer overflows, and how the city is working to address it and how it’s a big challenge,” she says. “The students came back feeling very empowered to work on a solution in their schoolyard.”
When the time came for students to decide between expanding their playground or building a rain garden to help manage stormwater, the students chose the rain garden. “That is exciting to me,” says Denk. “When students are given the chance to do the right thing for their environment and their community, they will choose that, and that motivation carries forward in terms of how they see themselves as environmental actors and in relation to climate change.”
Marianne Dhenin wrote this article for Next City.
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