Equilibrium & Sustainability

Equilibrium/Sustainability — Mars may start ‘terraforming itself’


Today is Monday. Happy New Year, and welcome back to Equilibrium, a newsletter that tracks the growing global battle over the future of sustainability. Subscribe here: thehill.com/newsletter-signup

A magnetic shield “upwind” of Mars could protect the planet from the solar particles that continually strip away its atmosphere, allowing future pioneers to create a situation “where your blood doesn’t boil if you walked out on the surface,” retiring NASA scientist Jim Green told The New York Times.

Protecting the fragile atmosphere from the magnetic onslaught would cause the pressure to increase, according to Green. 

“Mars is going to start terraforming itself,” he said. “That’s what we want: the planet to participate in this any way it can.”

The rising pressure means that “the temperature goes up,” allowing the possibility of a world where colonists can “begin the process of growing plants in the soils,” according to Green. A similar system might work for scalding Venus, where a physical shield shades the planet from light, driving its temperature down, he added.

Today we’ll look at inhospitable weather conditions here on Earth, with an unprecedented wind and firestorm devastating nearly 1,000 homes in Boulder, Colo., Sharon’s resident county (she and her family are luckily fine, minus some external roof damage from a downed tree). Then we’ll travel to Europe, where the continent is divided into a bitter feud between partisans of nuclear energy, natural gas and none of the above.

For Equilibrium, we are Saul Elbein and Sharon Udasin. Please send tips or comments to Saul at selbein@thehill.com or Sharon at sudasin@thehill.com. Follow us on Twitter: @saul_elbein and @sharonudasin

Let’s get to it.


Winter wildfire flays Colorado’s Front Range

Residents of Boulder County are scrambling to recover from the wreckage of an unprecedented suburban firestorm that burned down about 1,000 homes and required thousands of residents to flee the area this weekend.

At least 991 structures were destroyed by the Marshall Fire —which began on Thursday amid wind gusts of up to 100 mph — while an additional 127 structures incurred damage, according to a preliminary report from the Boulder County Sheriff. One of three missing individuals was found on Sunday, while authorities were still searching for the two others and investigating the precise cause of the fire, according to local media reports.  

First words: “It’s been a devastating few days here for everyone in Boulder County, and certainly for our state, as we grapple with an unprecedented situation and the most destructive fire in our state’s history,” Rep. Joe Neguse (D-Colo.), whose home district includes Boulder County, told Equilibrium.

Where exactly did the damage occur? The City of Louisville — about 10 miles east of Boulder — incurred the most destruction, with 553 structures ruined. Meanwhile, 332 structures crumbled in the Town of Superior — about 8 miles southeast of Boulder — and 106 were destroyed in Unincorporated Boulder County, the sheriff reported. 

Relief is coming: So widespread was the damage that President Biden approved a Colorado disaster declaration on Saturday, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local recovery efforts in Boulder County.

What kind of aid? The Biden administration’s declaration makes federal funding available to individuals through grants for temporary housing and home repairs and low-cost loans to cover uninsured property losses through a designated Disaster Assistance site operated by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), according to the White House. 

Together with Sens. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.) and John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), Neguse said he pressed for that individual assistance to be included. His office has aggregated all the pertinent information on its website.

Federal funding is available not only to individuals, but also to state and eligible local governments, and to certain nonprofit organizations and statewide hazard mitigation measures on a cost-sharing basis, the White House said.



Roberto Camacho Barranco and Vanezza Villegas Arreola said they won’t be able to take advantage of the temporary housing grants, even though they have now lost the home they purchased just one week ago. 

Falling through the cracks: The couple and their 6-year-old son, Matías, moved from Mexico to Superior just last year for Camacho Barranco’s engineering job. But despite having started the green card application process, they are on an H-1B specialty occupation visa — meaning they do not qualify for assistance through FEMA. 

“We can do nothing … to expedite it because it’s been waiting for more than six months now,” Camacho Barranco told Equilibrium, while driving home after a trip away for the holidays.

Thankful for insurance: The couple and their son began renting their house in Superior this February. They recently decided to buy that house from their landlord — closing on it just last week, Camacho Barranco said. Because they were not home during the firestorm, they only know that their house didn’t make it, and they are grateful that they had insurance. 

A community in shock: Longtime members of the wider Boulder County community, including the district’s congressman, are still reeling from the shocking devastation that unfolded over the past several days. 

“Last year we had the largest wildfire and the second largest wildfire both happen in our district simultaneously,” said Neguse, referring to the Cameron Peak and East Troublesome fires of summer 2020. 

“What made this fire so different, and so uniquely disruptive is that it raged through suburban neighborhoods,” he added.

Did climate change play a role? Probably, at least in part. Although winds are known to be strong in this region of Colorado, gusts surpassed 100 mph on Thursday, according to the National Weather Service, which also emphasized the “the recent record dryness.” 

“We had a very dry, crispy Front Range coming into the end of December,” Jennifer Balch, a fire scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder, told Equilibrium.

Last words: “The fact that I’m talking about a winter wildfire, which should be an oxymoron, to me is a signal that part of what we’re dealing with here is climate change,” she said. 

To read the full story, please click here.


Stark debate over renewable energy splits EU

France and Germany — backed by rival camps of E.U. member states — are facing off over the future of the continent’s renewable energy policy. 

That comes after a draft proposal from the European Commission last weekend labeled both natural gas and nuclear energy as “green” under certain conditions. If passed, the new designation promises to unlock a flood of investment to new gas and nuclear plants, and it’s already unleashed bitter criticism.

First words: “We consider nuclear technology to be dangerous,” German government spokesman Steffen Hebestreit told reporters on Monday, according to The Associated Press.

Germany, “expressly rejects” the new proposal, Hebestreit said, citing risks over the storage of spent nuclear fuels,.

Behind the quote: At issue is the E.U’s new green “taxonomy” list, which clarifies which energy sources will qualify for preferential investment under the new Green Deal, The New York Times reported. 

After a year of wrangling, a draft E.U. plan would allow certain natural gas and nuclear plants to qualify, potentially unlocking “trillions” in new investment and building the next generation of E.U. natural gas and nuclear infrastructure — even though neither source has traditionally qualified for environment, social and governance funding, the Times reported.

What changed? Expedience — and lobbying. The continent’s pro-gas and pro-nuclear groups argue that wind, solar and other renewables are too intermittent to guarantee cheap, reliable power, according to Euronews.

Is that true? It’s not clear. Last week, for example, we featured a Stanford study that suggested circuits of batteries could fill the gap — but at least for right now, the assumption is that modern grids depend on thermal plants, whether powered by nuclear energy or fossil fuels, that can boil water as needed to generate “base load” power to stabilize the grid.


Like any good compromise, this one has made people from all camps angry. Germany’s new government, in particular, leads a group of German-speaking countries — like Austria and Luxembourg — that are angry at its neighbor France’s push to meet its carbon commitments by relying on nuclear power.

Why? Waste disposal, mostly, as well as a fear of nuclear disaster that has colored German energy politics for decades, forming a key part of the Green party platform. That fear gained mainstream support after the meltdown at Japan’s Fukushima led former Chancellor Angela Merkel in 2011 to set 2022 as the final date for the decommissioning of Germany’s nuclear plants, the AP reported.

That timetable meant that even as European energy costs soared this winter, Germany shut down three of its remaining nuclear plants — with the remaining three to shut down this year, according to the Agence-France Presse.

If it does, Germany will have to meet 13 percent of its power needs someplace else, the AP reported.

Where will that power come from? Germany’s government hopes it will come from natural gas, Reuters reported Sunday. Such a move would pit the country against a French-led alliance that includes former Soviet-bloc states like Poland, Bulgaria and the Czech Republic, all of which are relying on new nuclear power to cut their dependence on coal.

For the gas side, the E.U. is considering giving the “green” designation to new plants that — provided they go in before 2030 — both keep carbon dioxide emissions below 270 grams per kWh and replace more polluting infrastructure, Euronews reported. 

And after 2030? That number drops to 100 grams per kWh, which would be “unattainable with current technologies,” Euronews added. 

But this leaves out two problems: First, that the emissions from gathering and transporting natural gas can often destroy the climate case for the fuel, however clean it is at the smokestack, Inside Climate News reported.

Second, and far more immediately, however, is the fact that soaring gas prices have driven many countries, including Germany, to burn more coal — which has even meant razing more villages for an enormous open-pit lignite coal mine, The Washington Post reported in October.

Last words: If natural gas is classified as green, “the entire climate leadership of the European Union is down the drain,” with potentially global consequences, Danish Green lawmaker Bas Eickhout told the Times.

“If Europe starts calling an investment in gas green, then what exactly is the reason for the African Union not to go fully into gas as well?” Eickhout asked.


Monday Miscellanies

Faulty prenatal tests may be good news, Tesla opens a store in Xinjiang and Desmond Tutu chooses an environmentally friendly form of cremation.
Prenatal tests for frightening diseases have an 85-percent error rate
  • “Grave predictions” that an unborn child has a rare prenatal illness “are usually wrong,” — at least when they come from at-home tests delivered by a new array of startups and major companies like Labcorp, according to The New York Times.
  • But despite their stratospheric false positive rate, the tests claim a level of certainty that they don’t deliver. “They advertise their findings as ‘reliable’ and ‘highly accurate,’ offering ‘total confidence’ and ‘peace of mind’ for patients who want to know as much as possible,” the Times reported.
Tesla courts controversy with showroom in Xinjiang, China
  • “In 2022, let us together launch Xinjiang on its electric journey,” the Austin, Texas-based automaker wrote on Chinese social media platform Weibo, announcing the opening of a new showroom in the Western Chinese region, The Wall Street Journal reported.
  • As many as a million Uyghurs are being held in internment camps as part of a government assimilation program. These circumstances have forced Western companies to either abandon the area, angering China, or stay there, angering lawmakers, investors and activists outside China, the Journal reported.
Desmond Tutu ‘cremated’ with water in green burial
  • By Desmond Tutu’s own request, the body of the late archbishop and anti-apartheid leader was broken down by “aquamation,” or alkaline hydrolosis, which avoids the flames and greenhouse gas emissions of cremation, The Washington Post reported.
  • A new frontier in the “green burial” movement, aquamation uses a heated, high-pressure solution of water and strong alkali to break a body down to sewer-safe slurry and brittle bones within three to four hours.


Please visit The Hill’s sustainability section online for the web version of this newsletter and more stories. We’ll see you on Tuesday.

Tags Joe Biden Joe Neguse John Hickenlooper Michael Bennet

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