Climate Point: Biden to anoint a climate envoy, and GM abandons Trump

Mark Olalde, USA TODAY

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.

I'm wishing you a happy Thanksgiving, as we wander our way through another week that saw COVID-19 numbers skyrocket and President Donald Trump somewhat admit that Joe Biden won the election (USA Today has more on that story if you still hadn't heard).

Now, with transition money unlocked, the Biden administration can officially get to work. As Trump's loss becomes clearer, some of his supporters are jumping ship, including automaker General Motors. The company had initially sided with his administration in an important legal battle with California that would decide vehicular fuel efficiency standards. In its announcement, the car company pledged to double down on electric vehicles. It's worth noting, though, that its flip only came after it waited for the election results and waited for five other automakers to take California's side. The Detroit Free Press has the story.

Here's some other important reporting ...

MUST-READ STORIES

Saving the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are acting strangely. One of the most important sources of fresh water in the world, they're under threat from agricultural runoff-fueled algal blooms and invasive species like Asian carp. Then came 2020, and Lake Michigan witnessed record high water levels for eight months this year, levels that swallowed beaches and ripped up shoreline infrastructure. The Chicago Tribune is out with a new, prolific series that digs into the state of each of the five lakes. Especially for anyone in the Midwest, it's a must-read that swings from discussing an estimated $500 million in erosion and flooding damage to analyzing cultural changes brought to northern towns reliant on winter tourism.

Radioactive legacy. A new story from The Seattle Times highlights the cautionary tale of a hazardous waste treatment facility near the Columbia River in Washington. Because the private facility can treat radioactive waste without oversight from the Department of Energy or labor groups, accidents have gone unnoticed. The report draws into question whether the company should play a role in cleaning up the nearby Hanford site, one of the most polluted places in America.

King Coal runs away. Another week, another story of coal's demise. This time, though, it's important to note how the coal industry is forced to be honest in the face of imminent collapse. The regulatory rollbacks requested of the Trump administration by coal companies were meant to save jobs, they said. That didn't pan out, so how are companies staying afloat? They're breaking promises made to workers, St. Louis Public Radio reports. Peabody Energy, one of the largest remaining coal mining companies, is looking to save $174.5 million by no longer covering medical expenses and life insurance for many retired miners.

Donald Trump wears a coal miner's hat at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 5, 2016.
Donald Trump wears a coal miner's hat at a rally in Charleston, West Virginia, on May 5, 2016.

POLITICAL CLIMATE

“Good riddance.” The Pebble Mine appears to finally be dead. The massive, proposed gold and copper mine that would've yielded billions of dollars in metals has been hotly contested for years because it also could have impaired the world's largest wild sockeye salmon fishery in Alaska. The move came after Trump's son, Donald Trump Jr., made it publicly known that he liked the fishing grounds there. The Anchorage Daily News has the story on an environmental victory that had Nelli Williams, the Alaska director of Trout Unlimited, saying, "Good riddance."

Sea change. The official stance of the U.S. government is about to shift to acknowledging the reality and seriousness of climate change. USA Today reports that Biden has selected John Kerry, a former senator and secretary of state, to act as a special climate change envoy. It will be a Cabinet-level position, although will not need a Senate up-vote. Kerry is a center-left pick who worked on the Paris Agreement, and the combination of the role and the selection has environmentalists generally in approval.

Hoosier State's future. The Indianapolis Star reports on a long-awaited governmental report that could help guide the state's energy future. The non-binding report is now in the hands of the Indiana Legislature, but the research argues that it's important to encourage renewables, that fossil fuels might be needed to help support the portfolio, that more metrics and goals are needed to advance the state's energy portfolio, and that the task force should take two more years to study things like paying to retire coal-fired power plants. The study passed on an 11-4 vote and didn't include specific benchmarks, so it remains to be seen whether the effort will accomplish anything.

WATER WORLD

Jeff Arnold, a fish biologist for the National Park Service at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, drives down the Colorado River to the Four Mile Bar, which is where he suspects a lot of anglers to be fishing for brown trout. "It's going to take a lot of people to get this done," he says. "We need the public and local anglers to do their part, as well."
Jeff Arnold, a fish biologist for the National Park Service at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, drives down the Colorado River to the Four Mile Bar, which is where he suspects a lot of anglers to be fishing for brown trout. "It's going to take a lot of people to get this done," he says. "We need the public and local anglers to do their part, as well."

Bounty fishers. The Arizona Republic is out with a new piece examining "Arizona's incentivized harvest of brown trout." This specific variety of trout is predacious and has a taste for endangered, native fish swimming around the Colorado River. So, wildlife agencies are paying $25 a head for every brown trout caught. For anglers, the idea of getting paid to catch their own dinner sure tastes good.

Forever and a day. Nonprofit newsroom CalMatters is out with a two-part story on PFAS, a class of substances known as "forever chemicals" because they persist indefinitely in the environment and are believed to play a role in cancer and other serious illnesses. In part one, they examine the implications of finding PFAS in nearly 150 public water systems throughout the Golden State. In part two, they study how individual water systems deal with chemicals in their wells.

No denying it. Charleston, S.C., flooded a record 89 times last year, a number that federal figures show could jump to 180 times per year in the next 25 years. Higher tides and more intense rainstorms are to blame, and the city is now considering walling off its historic waterfront from its city center in response, AP reports.

Rob Kramer removes debris from a drain as tidal flooding inundated many downtown streets in Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 27.  Just weeks after historic rains drenched the state, more flooding along the South Carolina coast brought another round of astronomical high tides often called king tides.
Rob Kramer removes debris from a drain as tidal flooding inundated many downtown streets in Charleston, S.C., on Oct. 27. Just weeks after historic rains drenched the state, more flooding along the South Carolina coast brought another round of astronomical high tides often called king tides.

AND ANOTHER THING

Collateral damage. "The cedar tree is a source of national pride in Lebanon," NPR writes. But, it could be the latest climate change victim. Higher temperatures and worse droughts are bringing wildfires to elevations where the trees thrive, and they need action to address greenhouse gases if they're going to stick around long-term.

Ok, one more thing. It's Thanksgiving, after all, so I would be remiss if I ignored my parents' tradition of forcing the family to go around the dinner table and talk about what we're thankful for. In writing this newsletter, I'm thankful for the hard-working environmental journalists keeping important stories in the light and the pressure on people in power. In the USA Today Network, you should check out these names if you don't read them already: Janet Wilson and Elizabeth Weise in California, Ian James, Debra Utacia Krol, Erin Stone and Anton L. Delgado in Arizona, Sarah Bowman and London Gibson in Indiana, Scott Fallon in New Jersey, Emre Kelly in Florida and many more.

I also have to mention the type of environmental reporting getting me through this protracted pandemic: podcasts about the ideological and occasionally deadly battles over natural resources. Stuck on the couch with a turkey hangover? I recommend Texas Monthly's Boomtown, Oregon Public Broadcasting's Timber Wars, Critical Frequency's Drilled, Montana Public Radio's Richest Hill and Oregon Public Broadcasting's Bundyville.

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:

Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue spiraling upward.
Atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations continue spiraling upward.

That’s all for now. Don’t forget to follow along on Twitter at @MarkOlalde. You can also reach me at molalde@gannett.com. 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. Wear a mask, and get tested, please! Cheers.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Climate Point: Biden to anoint a climate envoy, while GM abandons Trump