New Policies Emerge In The Wake Of Climate-Connected Disasters

11:26 minutes

president biden comforts a white woman as they look on to wreckage and debris from hurrican ida. both of them are wearing masks a small group of people stand behind them
President Biden surveying damage caused by Hurricane Ida in New Jersey on September 7, 2021. Credit: Office of Governor Phil Murphy/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0

This week, people across the United States continued to be reminded of the results of a shifting climate—with people in the Gulf states still recovering from Ida,  northeastern states dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Ida-induced flooding, and western states battling wildfires and smoke.  

With climate-related disasters as a backdrop, President Biden announced a goal of shifting some 45% of U.S. energy production to solar power by 2050.

Kendra Pierre-Louis, senior reporter for the Gimlet-Spotify podcast How to Save A Planet, joins Ira to talk about those stories and more, including new calculations of the importance of minimizing fossil fuel extraction, to a successful sample collection effort on Martian soil. 

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Segment Guests

Kendra Pierre-Louis

Kendra Pierre-Louis is a senior reporter for Gimlet/Spotify’s How to Save a Planet podcast.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Saying patience is wearing thin, President Joe Biden announced his biggest push to get more Americans vaccinated. It’s a plan that goes much further than any federal action so far.

JOE BIDEN: This is a pandemic of the unvaccinated, and it’s caused by the fact that, despite America having unprecedented and successful vaccination program, despite the fact that, for almost five months, free vaccines have been available in 80,000 different locations, we still have nearly 80 million Americans who have failed to get the shot.

IRA FLATOW: He’s requiring vaccination for millions of federal employees and contractors, as well as 17 million health workers at facilities that receive federal dollars. But President Biden’s plan would also extend into the private workforce.

JOE BIDEN: My job as president is to protect all Americans. So tonight, I’m announcing that the Department of Labor is developing an emergency rule to require all employers with 100 or more employees, that together employ over 80 million workers, to ensure their workforces are fully vaccinated or show a negative test at least once a week.

IRA FLATOW: Biden said that many large companies already require vaccines, including United Airlines, Disney, Tyson Foods, and even Fox News, as he put it. In other news, people across the US continued to be reminded of the results of a shifting climate, with people in the Gulf states still recovering from Ida, Northeastern states dealing with the aftermath of Ida-induced flooding, and Western states battling wildfires and smoke. And with those climate-related disasters as a backdrop, President Biden’s other big announcement of the week was a goal of shifting some 45% of US energy production to solar power by 2050.

Here to talk about that and other stories from the week in science is Kendra Pierre-Louis. She’s senior reporter at Gimlet-Spotify’s How to Save a Planet podcast. Welcome back to Science Friday.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Thanks so much for having me, Ira.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s start with those oil and chemical spills after Hurricane Ida. Where are they? How bad are they?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, so the Coast Guard has received something like 350 reported oil spills after Hurricane Ida. We don’t know how big they are yet. We do know that there have been some oil-covered birds that have turned up near Belle Chasse, Louisiana, and that those spills have been confirmed both by satellite imagery and overland flights. But exactly where these oil spills are coming from and how big they are, they’re still sussing it out, unfortunately.

IRA FLATOW: Well, there are so many chemical and petro plants in that region. Mustn’t there be some protocol for this type of disaster?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: There are protocols for it. And usually, what seems to happen is there is a significant hurricane or other storm, and then the standards get elevated or it turns out that businesses didn’t follow the standards that they were held to. So like, as you hinted, this isn’t the first time that this has happened. There were significant oil spills after Hurricane Ivan in 2004, and one of the oil spills that came out of that one, the Taylor oil spill, is actually still ongoing. It’s the longest oil spill in US history.

IRA FLATOW: Huh. So this shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, then.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: No. And actually, it’s a double whammy, right, both because you have this hurricane becoming a trigger for these kinds of oil spills, but on the flip side, oil and gas extraction makes the impact of these hurricanes worse. For example, we know in Louisiana that they’ve lost something like 2,000 square miles of wetlands, and these wetlands act as a buffer when a hurricane comes through. There’s a really great article from 2014, I think called Louisiana loses its boot, and it’s all about the fact that the way we think Louisiana is shaped is actually no longer true because it’s lost so much of its wetlands. And about a third of that loss can be attributed to oil and gas.

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s turn to the wildfires in the West. What’s the latest out there?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Sure. So nationwide, as of this year, there have been a little bit over 43,000 fires and a little bit over 5 million acres burned. And nationwide, our national wildlife preparedness level is at a five, which is the highest level. And you said the words out West, and it’s true, a lot of our attention has been focused on the West, especially in California, for good reason. California has a lot of people, and the fires there have been truly catastrophic.

But it’s not just been the West that’s been on fire this year. It’s also been the Great Plains. It’s also been the upper Midwest. You know, right now, fires are burning not just in California, but in Minnesota, in Montana, in Washington state. And the thing that is really concerning is, like, actually, if you look at the fires year-to-date, this is not a record-setting year. But the reason it’s been somewhat so catastrophic is because so many of these fires have hit where people live.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah, we hear comments about the sizes of these fires. I always wonder, is that the best way to be thinking about their severity and impact?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: No, it’s actually– you talk to wildfire experts, and it kind of grates on them sometimes because a very large fire in a place where nobody lives and nobody’s recreating is– it’s just a fire. And ideally, they’ll work and they’ll contain that fire so it doesn’t spread to where people live, but in some cases, because so much of the US is a fire-adapted ecosystem, which means fire is supposed to be there intermittently, it might actually be a good thing to have a large fire burn through if it’s in the right place and at the right time, and if the conditions are correct. But when we sort of just emphasize the size of the fire, it can make us demonize fire, which means that it makes it harder for wildland managers to do the things that they need to do in the off-season, which is set more fires.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, yeah. Both the hurricane and the fires, as we’ve said, remind us about the changing climate. I know there’s a study out in the journal Nature this week looking at the implications of trying to keep to this 1.5-degree Celsius of warming number. Walk us through that, if you can.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: So this 1.5-degrees C number kind of began with low-lying island nations. The more familiar number is probably 2 degrees C. And they were like, hold on, wait a minute, the Paris Climate Agreement essentially says that nations will work to keep their emissions below 2 degrees Celsius, with the hope or the aim of keeping it below 1.5 degrees C. And a couple of years ago, because of these low-lying island states, they put out a report that discovered that 1.5 degrees C was actually more catastrophic than people thought it would be.

So the difference between 1.5 degrees C and 2 degrees C is a difference between an Arctic that has ice most of the year and an Arctic that’s more ice-free. It’s the difference between having coral reefs and mostly not having coral reefs. And in the case of some of these nations, it’s the difference between existing and not existing. And so this report found that, in order to keep us below 1.5 C, that nearly 60% of current oil and fossil methane gas, also known as natural gas, and 90% of coal reserves must stay in the ground by 2050.

IRA FLATOW: Hm. With all that, leaving the oil in the ground, this week President Biden announced ambitious solar goals, a blueprint from the Energy Department to dramatically scale up solar. And we’re talking scale up big-time here.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, solar, which is currently about 3% of the country’s electricity, they want it to be 45% of the country’s electricity over the next three decades. So by 2050, they want solar to be 45% of the nation’s electricity mix. And I’ll be honest, when I first saw that number, my instinct was, where are they going to get this land from? But the report actually addresses that, and they say that to get to that goal will require about 5% of the land in the lower 48, and that land required could be met in a number of ways.

So like, one of the cool things or interesting things about solar is you don’t have to put it on prime land. You can put it on marginal land. You can put it on land that’s a little bit too wet for traditional agriculture. You can put it on land that– brownfields, for example, that can’t be used for other things. And so they’re saying that, by doing it with that approach, you avoid some of these conflicts between higher use values for land and solar. There was one other cool thing that they did mention, though, which was the idea of installing solar on water bodies, which I thought was really interesting.

IRA FLATOW: Floating solar.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Floating solar.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, some people already doing that. And of course, you have all these rooftops, right?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, and something I’ve also been looking at is mixing solar with agriculture. So you can put it on a farm and harvest underneath the solar panels, or you can put animals to graze underneath the solar panels. And mixing that use in that way allows you to mix ag and solar, and it provides a little bit of extra income for the farmers.

IRA FLATOW: And why such an emphasis on solar? I mean, we have other renewables, like wind.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, so I think it’s about allocating the money. Wind is already very financially lucrative, and there’s already a really big push for wind and for offshore wind. Also, one of the big issues with offshore wind that’s occurring right now, the permitting is really difficult, and I don’t think we’ve quite figured out the secret sauce to make it such that you can put permitting in place and make it a kind of a plug-and-play process. And I think solar is a little bit further along in that.

IRA FLATOW: That makes sense. You’ve been doing some reporting recently, I know, on the intersection of climate and gender. But it’s not the usual who is hit hardest type of discussion, is it?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: No, it’s more looking at the importance of why we need women at the table. And there are all sorts of kind of really interesting data that you can pull, such as the fact that, when a society is more gender-equitable, they find that, relative to their gross domestic product, relative to their GDP, they have lower emissions. And there are lots of theories as to why that is, but what we find kind of across the board is that negotiations go smoother and that emissions are lower when there’s more gender parity.

IRA FLATOW: I love that. Finally moving off the planet, some news about drilling on Mars.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yes. That, to me, is so cool. We have samples. We’re going to come back with Martian samples of Mars.

IRA FLATOW: How did we do that?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Perseverance, the cute little rover that looks like Wall-E to me.

IRA FLATOW: Well, didn’t it try to drill back, and then failed to get up a sample before?

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: Yeah, Perseverance failed the first time, but succeeded the second, living up to its name. And I think the plan is for it to go to a few more sites before sending back, I believe, a total of eight samples. And I’m really excited at the idea of what you can do when we really know what a sample of Mars is like. And I understand that the real goal is to sort of search for extraterrestrial life, but it’s really cool. So we’ll have some Mars samples to go with our lunar rocks.

IRA FLATOW: And people shouldn’t get too excited too quickly because we have no mission yet to go pick up those samples.


IRA FLATOW: I mean, we talk about them, and they’re planning for it, but there’s no spaceship out there in space going to pick them up tomorrow and bring them back, I guess is the point I’m making.

KENDRA PIERRE-LOUIS: I mean, come on. Baby steps.

IRA FLATOW: OK, I’ll take it for this kind of weekend for some good news like that. Thank you, Kendra.


IRA FLATOW: Kendra Pierre-Louis is senior reporter at Gimlet-Spotify’s How to Save a Planet podcast, taking time to talk with us today. When we come back after our break, new research into inflammation and Alzheimer’s.

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