Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Harlem leaders demand environmental equality

AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews

Community activists in the Harlem neighborhood of Manhattan are calling on New York City to do more to make sure that they aren’t left out of climate adaptation plans.

Such solutions developed in the neighborhood would echo across the African diaspora, the head of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce told a panel discussion kicking off Harlem Week, local newspaper AM New York Metro reported.  

“What we do in Harlem translates to Cicero, Illinois, to Roxbury, Massachusetts, to Kingston Jamaica, to Southside Chicago, to Nigeria and to South Africa,” the chamber’s CEO Lloyd Williams said.

Harlem residents already suffer from widespread environmental injustice, speakers told the event.

Temperatures across New York reflect the city’s already stark inequalities. Last August, a New York Times investigation found that a street on Manhattan’s upper West side measured 84 degrees. Meanwhile a street in East Harlem — less than three miles away across Central Park — measured 115 degrees.

Those discrepancies layer atop others — like high rates of asthma among children in Harlem compared to the rest of the country.

Redressing these sorts of environmental inequalities is key to the climate resilience of the city as a whole, environmental activist Peggy Shepard said at the event. 

Doing so requires not just policy but measurement and enforcement, according to Shepard.  

“There really should be no surprise that scientists tell us the most vulnerable places will be the first and worst hit by climate change and extreme weather events,” she said.

Welcome to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. We’re Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Send us tips and feedback. Subscribe here.

Today we’ll head way-south to survey why Antarctica’s massive ice sheets may be melting faster than expected. Then we’ll examine one state’s new climate law and look at “zombie coal plants” and how they’re impacted by Dems’ reconciliation bill.

Antarctica’s rapidly melting ice shelves

Antarctica’s ice shelves may be melting much faster than scientists previously anticipated — a phenomenon that could ultimately accelerate sea level rise, a new study has found. 

Warm water gets trapped: Researchers at the California Institute of Technology and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory deployed a new model showing how dense, warm ocean water can get trapped along Antarctica’s icy coast and speed up melting.

  • Their model, detailed in Science Advances on Friday, homes in on a “narrow ocean current” adjacent to the coast that the authors described as “often-overlooked.”
  • The authors simulated how rapidly flowing freshwater — melted from the ice shelves — can trap that warm ocean current at the base of the ice and hasten the melting process.  

Surpassing current models: “If this mechanism that we’ve been studying is active in the real world, it may mean that ice shelf melt rates are 20 to 40 percent higher than the predictions in global climate models,” co-author Andy Thompson, a professor at Caltech, said in a statement.  

What are ice shelves? They are outcroppings of the Antarctic ice sheet, located where ice juts out from the land and floats on top of the ocean, the authors explained.  

  • Ice shelves serve as a protective buffer for mainland ice — preventing the entire ice sheet from flowing into the ocean.
  • As the climate warms and melts the ice shelves, these buffers could lose their ability to block the flow of the ice sheet into the ocean.  

Both poles are melting: The study’s release comes amid a high-traffic week for research on the Earth’s poles.  

  • Scientists showed on Thursday that the Arctic, too, is warming at a more rapid pace than previously assumed, as The Hill reported.
  • Another research team revealed on Wednesday how humans could potentially thwart the worst impacts of climate change on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.  

West Antarctic especially at risk: The Caltech-NASA researchers, however, focused their study on the West Antarctic Peninsula.  

Because this icy mass protrudes out of higher polar latitudes into lower, warmer altitudes, it has undergone the most dramatic changes due to climate change, they explained. 

To read the full story, please click here.  

Massachusetts enacts pivotal climate law

Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker (R) on Thursday signed into law a major climate bill aimed at accelerating the state’s clean energy transition.

  • The legislation will expand offshore wind and solar, as well as allow some cities to ban the use of fossil fuels in new and renovated buildings, according to The Boston Globe.
  • Baker signed off on the bill after weeks of speculation that he was considering a veto, due to his disapproval for the fossil fuel bans, the Globe reported. He backed the bill after changes, including over offshore wind procurement.
  • “I continue to want us to be a pretty big player in that space because it’s a sustainable way to create a lot of jobs, for a very long time,” he told the Globe.  

What’s in the bill? A main focus of the law is to expand the offshore wind industry — and to do so in a way that equitably distributes environmental and financial benefits, NPR affiliate WBUR reported.

  • The bill eliminates a “price cap” that required every new wind project to deliver cheaper power than previous ventures.
  • Investor-owned utilities will no longer play a role in bid selection, which will be in the hands of the Department of Energy Resources.
  • Also in the bill are provisions for wind energy job training. 

Solar gets some updates too: The biggest shift for solar energy is the elimination of a rule that allowed only one solar facility per property to benefit from net metering, according to WBUR.

  • Net metering is a billing tool that allows consumers to offset consumption by selling excess electricity generated from their own solar panels back to the grid.
  • The legislation also more than doubles the amount of electricity for which homeowners can get paid. 

Among the bill’s other provisions are mechanisms for improving energy storage, investments in the electricity grid and a determination that wood-burning biomass is not a renewable energy source, WBUR reported. 

Dems hope climate bill kills off ‘zombie coal plants’

Democrats’ sweeping climate, health care and tax bill contains a powerful climate-saving measure that helps get rid of so-called “zombie coal plants,” Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.) told Equilibrium. 

Casten said the bill, which House Democrats passed on Friday, aims to fix the issue of “coal plants on the grid right now that are out of money and uneconomic but cannot be shut down.”

“Now we have the tool to do that,” he said. 

What’s a ‘zombie coal plant’? The term is used by critics to describe coal plants that would no longer be economically profitable in a competitive market, where wind and solar energy could underprice them, according to IEEE Spectrum, the magazine of the world’s largest engineering organization.

  • Some plants have resisted closure in the face of competition from cheaper sources by signing deals with crypto firms, which require massive amounts of power to mine digital currency, the nonprofit Ohio Valley Institute reported.
  • But others, Casten noted, are still open because they can’t be shut down without charging utilities — and their customers — huge penalties. 

In areas where a single company controls the entire electricity supply chain, prior deals can keep coal plants running long past the point of profitability, critics say.

“There’s lots of parts of the country where the free market would shut that plant,” Casten said.

How the reconciliation bill factors in: The Inflation Reduction Act includes funding for an office to oversee loans enabling the buyout and closure of these plants, according to the Congressional Research Service.

  • These programs would allows the Department of Energy to issue loans paying off the coal plants’ contracts — and to secure those loans with bonds to be paid back by ratepayers.
  • Under this plan, ratepayers still pay to buy out coal plants — but they do so “over a longer period of time that will allow you to shut down the whole plant, not have a sudden spike in the price of power,” Casten said.

Not everyone is pleased: Senators across the aisle criticized the loan measure as part of a “partisan reckless tax and spend spree would raise taxes in a recession, exacerbate the Biden inflation spiral, and kill jobs,” according to a statement from the Republican Policy Committee.


A federal judge in Montana ruled Friday that coal leases on federal land must be halted pending environmental review.

  • The ruling reinstates an Obama-era rule overturned by Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke under the Trump administration.
  • The case pitted the Northern Cheyenne Tribe and the nonprofit Citizens for Clean Energy against the Department of the Interior and the state of Wyoming. 

Permitted but not mandatory: “Coal mining represents a potentially allowable use of public lands, but BLM is not required to lease public lands,” District Judge Brian Morris said in a statement last week, according to The Associated Press. 

Cheyenne Tribe is triumphant: “We are thrilled that the court is requiring what we have always asked for: serious consideration of the impacts of the federal coal leasing program on the Tribe and our way of life,” President Serena Wetherelt of the Northern Cheyenne said in a statement. 

Follow-up Friday

In which we revisit some of the subjects we’ve covered this week.  

South Korea to outlaw ‘Parasite’ apartments

  • Record rains in South Korea’s capital of Seoul killed three this week as floodwaters poured into semi-basement apartments, highlighting the city’s yawning hydraulic gap between rich and poor. The government has now announced that it would phase out the apartments — a national symbol of inequality made internationally famous by Oscar-winning film “Parasite,” The Guardian reported. 

Catholic Church touts Inflation Reduction Act for addressing climate change 

  • We explored how the religious nonprofits stand to benefit from the Inflation Reduction Act. On Friday, the U.S. Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development welcomed the legislation, praising its ability to cut greenhouse gas emissions and address environmental concerns, Vatican News reported.  

European Space Agency head warns of economic damage from heatwaves, drought  

  • This summer, Europe has battled a dangerous combination of heat and drought. The head of the European Space Agency warned on Friday that the economic fallout from these conditions could dwarf the continent’s looming energy crisis, Reuters reported. 

Please visit The Hill’s Sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you next week.


Tags Antarctica Charlie Baker clean energy Climate change coal industry environmental justice Inflation Reduction Act wind energy
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