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Climate Point: Climate change disrupts life from the Hopi Reservation to Louisiana

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Welcome to Climate Point, your weekly guide to climate, energy and environment news from around the Golden State and the country. In Palm Springs, Calif., I’m Mark Olalde.

Let’s talk wildfires, as the West’s fire season is technically winding down, even if the lines between this, rainy season and everything else are blurring due to climate change. Arizona Republic reporter Debra Utacia Krol takes us to Northern California in a fascinating piece looking back on the lessons learned, or perhaps ignored, in this record-breaking year of blazes. 

In September, an inferno ripped through Happy Camp, the capital of the Karuk Tribe, killing two people. Could this have happened specifically because land managers ignored Indigenous firefighting knowledge?

Krol tells us about an emerging research field called pyrogeography, which is “the study of historic, present-day and future wildfire distribution and effects of ecologies and societies.” It suggests that returning to historical styles of forest management, including burns like those the Karuk Tribe once oversaw, could save other Western towns in the future.

Here’s some other important reporting:

MUST-READ STORIES

Protecting climate denial. E&E reports that social media site Parler — which has gained popularity recently as a safe space for unchecked, right-wing conspiracy theories — is growing quickly and providing another channel for climate denialism. More than just a fringe website, Parler was bankrolled by the Mercer family, who are ardent supporters of President Donald Trump, have given vast sums of money to conservative causes and partly funded the far-right Project Veritas, which tries to secretly record and smear journalists, nonprofits and other targets.

Salmon salvation. In a compelling read about humans’ impact on the natural world, the Adirondack Explorer dives into the fight to save salmon populations in the Boquet River. A somewhat successful first step, perhaps unsurprisingly, involved removing a dam. But that alone hasn’t been enough to see sustainable levels of salmon reproduction, and biologists are now “tinkering” to find a solution. “What it took to kill off the native salmon is a simple story compared to the convoluted journey required to bring them back,” journalist Ry Rivard writes.

Cover your tracks. Utility company Georgia Power is in the market for land deals that appear, at first, to be head-scratchers. In a new investigation, Georgia Health News, in partnership with ProPublica, uncovered how the utility has spent more than $15 million buying land that’s downstream of its unlined coal ash ponds that “frequently leak contaminants into groundwater.” Coal ash, which is the gunk left over after running a coal-fired power plant, is much safer in lined landfills, public health experts say, but moving the waste into such impoundments can cost companies many millions of dollars. It’s easier to have a buffer zone and forestall cleanup. The company said its sites had no impact on drinking water but didn’t respond directly to the findings.

POLITICAL CLIMATE

Oil well shortcuts. Golden State oil regulators ignored their own regulations and issued improper permits for hundreds of new wells last year, according to an audit by the state Department of Finance that dropped just before Thanksgiving, The Desert Sun’s Janet Wilson reports. Meanwhile, The Ventura County Star writes that California oil drillers are fighting to tank attempts by county-level officials to impose regulations that would update decades-old permits that were approved before modern environmental laws were written.

No cleanup insurance? At the federal level, Courthouse News Service reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has finalized a rule that will not call for insurance policies “for multiple industries that include gas, coal, oil and chemical manufacturing.” Environmental groups have argued for years that a section under the law that created the Superfund program also mandated certain heavy industries put aside money to clean up their messes. The EPA disagreed, raising worries that costly environmental reclamation costs could fall to taxpayers.

Just a drop. The AP reports that, due to an exceptionally dry start to the rainy season, water agencies around California received a mere 10% of the water allocation they requested from the state. The agencies in question supply 27 million people and 750,000 acres of agriculture, and this is the second year in a row that the first allocation was only one-tenth the initial ask.

THE IMMEDIACY OF CLIMATE CHANGE

Harvesting disappointment. The Arizona Republic is out with new, required reading on the very real impacts of climate change. Reporter Ian James and photographer David Wallace traveled to the Hopi Reservation to chronicle how all-important corn is becoming increasingly “stunted and meager” as hot, dry weather withers crops. For the Hopi, corn is more than food — it holds cultural significance. Now, they’re fighting to keep the harvest alive.

Disaster in the Arctic. Earlier this year, melting permafrost caused oil infrastructure to fail in Russia within the Arctic Circle, spilling 21,000 tons of diesel oil into a river. The Moscow Times reports that a consultant hired to investigate what happened at the site, owned by metals company Nornickel, was barred from entering the area for months after the disaster. When they finally got in, they found warming temperatures mixed with company failings made the disaster “inevitable.” (If you want to brush up on what happened back in late May, USA Today has the details here.)

Climate refugees. The Advocate reports that more than three months since Hurricane Laura hit Louisiana, more than 2,000 people are still displaced, costing the government hundreds of millions of dollars in disaster relief money. As climate change fuels larger storms, these numbers will almost certainly increase. In related news, USA Today reports on a new United Nations report that found “the world is still far from meeting its climate goals.” At the current trajectory, we’re set to release more than twice the greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 than what is allowed for within the Paris Agreement’s goals. Climate change’s impacts fall on a continuum — it’s not all or nothing — but the report indicates we need to move much faster to limit the fallout.

AND ANOTHER THING

Sunny bee. I know I read and share a lot of doom-and-gloom, so let’s kick this one with some solutions. InsideClimate News is out with a look at some new Yale Center for Business and the Environment research that encourages planting native grasses and wildflowers around solar installations. The practice appears to be a big win-win. “Pollinator-friendly solar can boost crop yields, increase the recharging of groundwater, reduce soil erosion and provide long-term cost savings in operations and maintenance,” they wrote. “The research also found that by creating a cooler microclimate, perennial vegetation can increase the efficiency of solar panels, upping their energy output.”

Scientists agree that to maintain a livable planet, we need to reduce the atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration back to 350 ppm. We’re above that and rising dangerously. Here are the latest numbers:

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at [email protected] You can sign up to get Climate Point in your inbox for free here. And, if you’d like to receive a daily round-up of California news (also for free!), you can sign up for USA Today’s In California newsletter here. Do your part; wear a mask, please! Cheers.

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