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Climate Point: Earth is spinning faster, and a manatee holds a political message

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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.

Also welcome to the final Climate Point with Donald Trump as president. Next week, President-elect Joe Biden will be inaugurated, undoubtedly setting off a whirlwind of activity in the District, as Democrats try to undo four years of rollbacks to environmental laws. Even as Trump became the first president ever impeached twice and even as Democrats took control of Congress, the administration continued targeting these laws (more on that later).

However, political infighting isn’t the only thing running hot with Biden preparing to take office. As USA Today’s Doyle Rice writes: “Global warming didn’t take the year off in 2020.” In a year with massive wildfires and hurricanes, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said 2020 was also the second-hottest year in recorded human history, only slightly behind 2016. It also was the 44th consecutive year with temperatures sustained above the 20th-century average.

And these patterns of rising temperatures are becoming ever-clearer around the country and the world. As just one example, Scott Fallon at The Record in New Jersey writes that “the first two decades of the 21st century have included 15 of the 21 warmest years in New Jersey.”

Here’s some other important reporting…

MUST-READ STORIES

Parting shots. Reuters reports that the push to prioritize extractive industries is set to continue right up until the inauguration. On Friday, the Trump administration is poised to approve several controversial land swaps, including for a lithium mine in Nevada and a copper mine in Arizona that has seen years of opposition from Native American groups.

New Year’s resolutions. I know it feels like this year has gone on for, well, years, but it’s still the middle of January. Any chance you’re sticking with your yearly resolution? If yours has anything to do with the environment — even something as simple as planting some herbs on your windowsill — I’d like to recommend my USA Today Network friends over at the Indianapolis Star, Sarah Bowman and London Gibson. They produce a series called “Scrub Hub” to answer readers’ questions, and this week they took on several timely, at-home dilemmas. In one installment, they explain how to keep plants alive during the winter (because I know you all started hoarding succulents to get through the stay-at-home orders), while in a second, they provide tips for how you can “be more environmentally friendly in the new year.”

The final frontier. Do you feel like the Earth is spinning out of control these days? Well, it actually is spinning faster, USA Today reports. Apparently, the 28 fastest days on record — this is something we started tracking in 1960, I have learned — all came in 2020. And in other space news from our newspaper chain’s mother ship (get it?), USA Today also reports that NASA is building a new telescope to extensively map galaxies as well as study the Big Bang.

POLITICAL CLIMATE

Making budget news cool again. Perhaps digging into a state budget isn’t your idea of fun, but when it’s California — which is one of the largest economies in the world — you find all sorts of gems. After an unexpected tax windfall, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom released the first salvo in the annual budget negotiations, publishing a more than $225 billion budget proposal. Among other highlights, he suggested spending $1.5 billion to build out the Golden State’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure, incentivize middle-class earners to purchase zero-emission vehicles and otherwise prop up alternatives to internal combustion engine vehicles. It’s already receiving pushback, but even a scaled-down version of his plan could help grease the wheels for a major transportation transition.

Blue struggling to go green. New Mexico continues grappling with its identity as a Democratic state that relies on oil and gas revenue. So, why did the state sign onto a lobbying effort to get Baja California to approve a natural gas export facility in Mexico? In another important piece of reporting, NM Political Report discovered that a letter Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham signed in support of the project was drafted specifically at the request of the gas company in question and some politicians didn’t sign the letter until after the company paid its dues to a part-governmental, part-industry group. The governor’s office told the publication that she’s leading the charge on greening the Land of Enchantment, but they didn’t respond to specifics regarding the gas company’s involvement in the lobbying effort.

Birthing extremism. Elsewhere in the West, High Country News took a look at the recent riots at the U.S. Capitol to study how land rights battles laid the groundwork for actions that are being likened to domestic terrorism. Reporter Carl Segerstrom draws parallels between these riots and past run-ins between the federal government and ranchers Ammon and Cliven Bundy. In a thought-provoking read, he writes that the West “isn’t the only place where anti-government sentiment festers, but here the wounds are open, frequently endured and historically recent.”

STALLED MOMENTUM

Fuel inefficiencies. California and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have been locked in legal battles over vehicular fuel efficiency standards throughout much of the Trump presidency. With that backdrop, the EPA found in a new report that “gas mileage for new vehicles dropped and pollution increased in model year 2019 for the first time in five years,” AP writes.

Cascadia’s climate catastrophe. In another intriguing read, InvestigateWest and Grist dug into the forces at work in Oregon, Washington and British Columbia — liberal forces that promised action on climate change. They also had the momentum and natural resources such as abundant hydropower needed to step away from climate-warming fossil fuels. So why, until the COVID-19 pandemic temporarily took cars off the road and planes out of the sky, were emissions emanating from those three jurisdictions continuing to rise? It’s an important story of how insufficient political will and the specter of job losses, among other factors, partially paralyzed a movement.

Getting in under the wire. As the Trump administration rushed to lock in pro-industry policies ahead of Biden taking the White House, so too did oil companies push to protect their future business, AP reports. Their analysis found that “energy companies stockpiled enough drilling permits for western public lands to keep pumping oil for years.” The months immediately surrounding the election saw the highest number of oil drilling approvals during Trump’s entire term, including nearly 1,400 drilling applications on federal land alone.

AND ANOTHER THING

Have a (sea) cow, man. In a week of too much news, one seemingly small act of environmental harm broke through the churn. Someone in Florida etched “TRUMP” in the back of a manatee, immediately drawing all sorts of criticisms and hot takes online. While it’s a single animal in question, the outpouring of anger over the act raises important questions about the importance of wildlife protection and how and when we sound the alarm about humans’ impact on the natural world. USA Today reports.

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. Mask up!! Cheers.

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