Heat records and climate accords: How did the environment fare in 2023?

From drought in Spain to floods in the Horn of Africa and wildfires in Canada, 2023 was marked by some alarming environmental disasters. However, it wasn’t all bad news – the past few months have seen some significant advances in the fight against climate change.

The hottest year in history

It was hot this year, sometimes very hot – temperatures reached 53°C in Death Valley in the United States, 55°C in Tunisia, and 52°C in China

Even after summer, the mercury did not drop to regular levels with September, October and November all experiencing unusually warm temperatures. The news everyone anticipated finally came in early December: 2023 was the hottest year in recorded history.

For the period from January to November, the average global surface temperature was 1.46°C above the pre-industrial era. It was also 0.13°C above the average of the previous hottest year, 2016. The combined effects of the El Nino climate phenomenon in the Pacific and climate change are to blame.

Oceans suffered from extreme heat

The heat was not confined to land; the planet’s oceans also experienced frighteningly high temperatures. March, April, May, June, July, August, September and October all recorded their hottest maritime temperatures ever.

On July 30, the average global ocean surface temperature reached an unprecedented 20.96°C, according to the European climate monitoring service, the Copernicus Institute. Just a month later, the Mediterranean Sea set its daily heat record, with a median temperature of 28.71°C, according to the main Spanish maritime research centre.

Read moreWorld’s oceans set new temperature record, EU data says

These repeated new records indicate an increasing frequency of marine heatwaves, something that could have dramatic impacts on biodiversity.

Both poles melting at rapid rates

In February, towards the end of the summer in the southern hemisphere, the Antarctic ice sheet reached an alarmingly low level before growing back at an unusually slow pace over the winter.

The ice sheet’s surface in September was 16.96 million km2, the lowest sea ice maximum since measurements began by a wide margin, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC)

At the other end of the globe, the Arctic experienced its warmest summer on record, with an average temperature of 6.4°C. Both regions are affected by the “polar amplification” phenomenon which mean they warm faster than lower latitudes, partly due to the melting of the ice sheet and ocean warming.

Long periods of drought

The year was also marked by a series of severe droughts. France, for instance, recorded no significant rainfall for the 32 consecutive days between January 21 and February 21 – “the longest period since records began in 1959”, according to the Copernicus Institute.

In Spain, parts of the population had to deal with a lack of rain for more than 100 days, sparking frustration and raising tensions with neighbouring Portugal over water use.

The European Union was far from the only affected territory. In early June, Iran warned that 97% of the country lacked water due to a lack of rain. A historic drought that has had serious consequences for agriculture since 2020 continued in the Horn of Africa.

Unprecedented wildfires

With drought comes fire. Some 6,400 fires burned 18.5 million hectares of Canada’s famous forests – more than twice the previous record of 7.6 million hectares set in 1989 – giving the country its worst fire season ever recorded.

Images of an orange and apocalyptic New York skyline went viral after smoke from the Canadian wildfires made its way south, polluting air and disrupting traffic.

The Statue of Liberty is covered in haze and smoke caused by wildfires in Canada, in New York on June 6, 2023. © Amr Alfiky, Reuters

Across the Atlantic, thousands of tourists had to be evacuated from the Greek island of Rhodes due to forest fires in what was the European country’s largest evacuation operation ever.

Rains intensify

Episodes of drought were followed by intense rains, often causing floods. In early August, a month’s worth of rain fell in less than 24 hours in Slovenia, killing three people and causing an estimated €500 million of damage.

In the Horn of Africa too, drought gave way to torrential rains, killing more than 300 and displacing two million people, according to the UN. 

In Libya, several thousand people died, and tens of thousands were displaced due to floods in the eastern part of the country.

Serious flooding also occurred in the United States, Japan, Nepal, China, and even France, which experienced historic autumn rainfall in the Pas-de-Calais region.

Fossil fuels mentioned in a COP final text

For the first time, a United Nations Climate Conference (COP) – held in early December in Dubai – concluded with a text calling for a “transition away” from the primary driver of climate change, fossil fuels. 

However, the text has been criticised for its many shortcomings by environmental NGOs and activists, notably for favouring carbon capture technologies and presenting gas as a “transitional energy”. 

Renewable energies made headway

Renewable energies advanced at full speed in 2023. Mainly driven by solar and new photovoltaic capacities, renewable energies are expected to produce 4,500 GW of power in 2024, equivalent to the combined electrical production of the United States and China, according to a report by the International Energy Agency.

In the EU, this momentum is expected to be boosted by a new “Renewable Energy Directive” which set a binding target of achieving 42.5% renewable energy by 2030, compared to the current 22%. Following COP28, EU member states also committed to tripling the production of renewable energy.

An EU law on nature restoration and biodiversity

There was also good news for forests, meadows, lakes, rivers, and corals. After months of tension and hours of negotiations, the European Parliament and EU states reached an agreement in November on a nature restoration bill. The stated goal is to restore 20% of the EU’s land and seas by 2030, and all degraded ecosystems by 2050 – representing 80% of total natural habitats.

Watch moreMeeting Dr Jane Goodall: A global champion for the environment

While the text is less ambitious than it was originally supposed to be, especially regarding restoration obligations for agricultural land, it raised hopes at a time of grave biodiversity loss.

The first treaty on the protection of international waters

After 15 years of discussions, in June, the UN officially adopted the High Seas Treaty, a first of its kind aimed at protecting international waters and preserving marine life.

International waters begin where the exclusive economic zones (EEZ) of states end – up to a maximum of 200 nautical miles (370 km) from the coasts – and are therefore not under the jurisdiction of any state. Although they constitute nearly half of the planet and more than 60% of the oceans, international waters have long been ignored in environmental efforts. Today, only about 1% are subject to conservation measures.

The new treaty will facilitate the creation of marine protected areas. The text is expected to come into effect in 2025, at the next UN Ocean Conference in France.

Is a treaty against plastic pollution in the works?

The good news may not end with 2023. Representatives from 175 countries have been developing a legally binding agreement on plastic pollution. This is a significant challenge as plastic, derived from petrochemicals, can be found everywhere – from the depths of the oceans to the tops of our planet’s highest mountains.

Read moreTackling plastic pollution: ‘We can’t recycle our way out of this’

However, there is a divergence of views on plastic pollution. Some are calling for a binding treaty aimed at “restricting and reducing the consumption and production” of plastic, while others argue for a focus on better waste management.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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No respite for fragile ecosystems as late-summer heatwave pummels France

A protracted heatwave crawling across much of Europe has brought scorching temperatures to France this week, dealing a further blow to ecosystems already weakened by drought – while also putting human health at risk. 

French authorities placed large swaths of southern France on the highest heat warning level – a “red alert” – on Wednesday as temperatures shot past 40°Celsius (104°F), shattering seasonal records. 

Meteorologists have spoken of a “heat dome” weather pattern settling over the country, with a period of stable high pressure leading to torrid conditions and a lack of wind. 

France as a whole experienced its hottest day ever recorded in the period after August 15 on Monday, according to the national weather service Météo France, which described the current heatwave as “intense, long-lasting” and occurring “particularly late in the season”.  

Since 1947, only six heatwaves have been recorded in France after the August 15 mark, all of them this century.  

“While heatwaves are not exceptional, what is surprising is that they should happen so late,” said climatologist Pascal Yiou, saying it was likely a consequence of climate change

“You would normally get these types of temperatures between July 15 and August 15 – not after that,” he added.

Threat to forests, vines and crops 

The latest heatwave is a new blow to fragile ecosystems across Europe, coming on the heels of a summer marked by widespread drought and devastating wildfires in Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain. 

While France has experienced relatively few forest fires this summer compared to last year, experts have flagged a heightened risk in the coming days, particularly in the country’s south. 

“These high temperatures come at the end of a cycle, when trees are already weakened by the stress of the summer season,” said Serge Zaka, an expert in the ecological impact of climate change. 

“This is normally the time when trees start getting a little respite,” Zaka added. “Instead, they are drying up further, meaning they become even more flammable.”  

Météo France’s daily forest bulletin placed much of southeast France at high risk of fire on Wednesday. Local authorities have also closed most forest parks to the public as a precautionary measure. 

The unseasonal heat comes at a critical time for farmers in areas famed for their wines and fruit production.  

“As with the forests, this time of year usually marks the end of a cycle for vines and other fruit trees such as apples, pears, peaches and kiwis,” Zaka explained. “It’s the time when the grape harvest and picking begin. But the plants suffer if temperatures continue to exceed 35°C.” 

The heatwave has forced these wine growers in the Ardèche area of south-central France to harvest their grapes at night.
The heatwave has forced these wine growers in the Ardèche area of south-central France to harvest their grapes at night. © Clotaire Achi, Reuters

In places where temperatures are reaching 42°C, such as the wine-growing Rhône Valley, crops are already showing signs of weakness. 

“Leaves exposed to the sun are turning brown and fruit is burning,” Zaka said. “It’s too early to draw any conclusions, but there will certainly be yield losses.” 

The heat could also affect sunflowers and maize, he warned, while leading to a fall in the milk yield of dairy cows that are particularly sensitive to high temperatures.

“What’s most worrying is that this will be another blow to crops and ecosystems after a catastrophic 2022 and two difficult years before then,” Zaka said. “With each new extreme weather event, they emerge a little weaker.” 

Water stress

The heatwave is also likely to exacerbate an ongoing drought that has left businesses and households grappling with water shortages.  

According to the latest figures from the French Geological and Mining Research Bureau (BRGM), 72% of water tables remained below normal seasonal levels last month. Nearly 90 municipalities in the south are currently without drinking water and have to be supplied by tankers.   

On Monday, the government ordered 15 industrial sites to cut back the amount of water they use to operate. Part of a wider water-saving plan unveiled earlier this year, the measure is designed to reduce groundwater and river abstraction in France by 10% by 2030.   

Meanwhile, local authorities in several French departments have announced tighter rules on water use, including restrictions on nautical sports and bans on watering gardens, parks and golf courses. 

Electricity operator EDF, which runs France’s nuclear power stations, has also issued warnings about its plants on the Rhone River amid concern that the water they rely on to cool the reactors is getting too hot.

Nuclear reactors use vast quantities of cooling water before dumping it back into rivers at much higher temperatures, potentially damaging local ecosystems.  

France’s nuclear plants are legally required to slow down their output when the water temperature crosses a certain threshold – a risk EDF has so far ruled out.  

‘Cannot lower our guard’

The heatwave’s impact on human health – both physical and mental – is another concern as millions return to work and schools prepare to reopen following the summer break. 

“When the outside temperature rises, our body needs to adapt to ensure its temperature remains at around 37°C,” said Bruno Megarbane, head of the intensive care unit at Lariboisière Hospital in Paris. “That involves using certain regulatory mechanisms, such as sweat.” 

However, extreme heat can cause such mechanisms to fail among vulnerable people, including children, the elderly and those with cardiovascular problems, putting them at risk of heat strokes.

Across Europe, at least 62,000 people died “prematurely” as a result of record heat in 2022, including more than 5,000 in France, according to a study published last month in the journal Nature Medicine.  

“Fortunately, since 2003 we have understood the need for preventive measures to cope with extreme heat,” said Megarbane, referring to the severe heatwave 20 years ago that was blamed for tens of thousands of deaths across Europe.  

Such measures include the creation of cooling areas in cities, adapting work hours to avoid the hottest hours, and cancelling certain outdoor events. 

“This late spell of heat is a reminder that we cannot lower our guard now that the summer holidays are over, and that we must be ready to put such measures in place at any time,” Megarbane said. 

He also warned of the possible repercussions on people’s mental health, noting that heatwaves lead to sleep deprivation, “with negative effects on memory and concentration”. 

He said other ailments – including “growing anxiety, parasitic thoughts and mood disorders” – all threaten to become more acute as heatwaves grow in frequency and intensity. 

This article was translated from the original in French.

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Maui wildfire: Death toll hits 89 as authorities expect number to rise

As the death toll from a wildfire that razed a historic Maui town reached 89, authorities warned Saturday that the effort to find and identify the dead was still in its early stages. It’s already the deadliest US wildfire for over a century.

Crews with cadaver dogs have completed just three per cent of the search area, Maui Police Chief John Pelletier said.


“We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles and it is full of our loved ones. And we’ve got 89 so far. Today we identified two,” noting that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

He spoke as federal emergency workers picked through an ashen moonscape left by the fire that razed the centuries-old town of Lahaina. Teams marked the ruins of homes with a bright orange X for an initial search and HR when they found human remains.

Pelletier said that identifying the dead is extremely challenging because “we pick up the remains and they fall apart… When we find our family and our friends, the remains that we’re finding is through a fire that melted metal.”

Dogs worked the rubble, and their occasional bark – used to alert their handlers to a possible corpse – echoed over the hot and colourless landscape.

“It will certainly be the worst natural disaster that Hawaii ever faced,” Gov. Josh Green remarked Saturday as he toured the devastation on historic Front Street. “We can only wait and support those who are living. Our focus now is to reunite people when we can and get them housing and get them health care, and then turn to rebuilding.”

At least 2,200 buildings were damaged or destroyed in West Maui, Green said, of which 86 per cent were residential. Across the island, he added, the damage was estimated at close to $6 billion. He said it would take “an incredible amount of time” to recover.”

At least two other fires have been burning in Maui, with no fatalities reported thus far: in south Maui’s Kihei area and in the mountainous, inland communities known as Upcountry. A fourth broke out Friday evening in Kaanapali, a coastal community in West Maui north of Lahaina, but crews were able to extinguish it, authorities said.

Green said the Upcountry fire had affected 544 structures, of which 96% were residential.

Emergency managers in Maui were searching for places to house people displaced from their homes. As many as 4,500 people are in need of shelter, county officials said on Facebook early Saturday, citing figures from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Pacific Disaster Center.

Pelletier said the police are bringing in more dogs, but the search for remains is still in the early stages.

He encouraged those with missing family members to go to the family assistance centre.


“We need you to do the DNA test. We need to identify your loved ones,” Pelletier said. He noted that the death toll is likely to grow and “none of us really know the size of it yet.”

Those who escaped counted their blessings, thankful to be alive as they mourned those who didn’t make it.

Retired fire captain Geoff Bogar and his friend of 35 years, Franklin Trejos, initially stayed behind to help others in Lahaina and save Bogar’s house. But as the flames moved closer and closer Tuesday afternoon, they knew they had to get out. Each escaped to his own car. When Bogar’s wouldn’t start, he broke through a window to get out, then crawled on the ground until a police patrol found him and brought him to a hospital.

Trejos wasn’t as lucky. When Bogar returned the next day, he found the bones of his 68-year-old friend in the back seat of his car, lying on top of the remains of the Bogars’ beloved 3-year-old golden retriever Sam, whom he had tried to protect.

Trejos, a native of Costa Rica, had lived for years with Bogar and his wife, Shannon Weber-Bogar, helping her with her seizures when her husband couldn’t. He filled their lives with love and laughter.


“God took a really good man,” Weber-Bogar said.

The newly released death toll surpassed the toll of the 2018 Camp Fire in northern California, which left 85 dead and destroyed the town of Paradise. A century earlier, the 1918 Cloquet Fire broke out in drought-stricken northern Minnesota and raced through a number of rural communities, destroying thousands of homes and killing hundreds.

The wildfires are the state’s deadliest natural disaster in decades, surpassing a 1960 tsunami that killed 61 people. An even deadlier tsunami in 1946, which killed more than 150 on the Big Island, prompted the development of a territory-wide emergency alert system with sirens that are tested monthly.

Hawaii emergency management records do not indicate the warning sirens sounded before fire hit the town. Officials sent alerts to mobile phones, televisions and radio stations, but widespread power and cellular outages may have limited their reach.

Fueled by a dry summer and strong winds from a passing hurricane, the wildfires on Maui raced through parched brush covering the island.


US Fire Administrator Lori Moore-Merrell said the Lahaina fire moved quickly. “It was a low-to-the-ground fire. It was grass-fed by all evidence that we could observe today,” she said.

“It outpaced anything firefighters could have done in the early hours,” she said, adding that it moved horizontally, structure to structure and “incredibly fast.”

The most serious blaze swept into Lahaina on Tuesday and destroyed nearly every building in the town of 13,000, leaving a grid of grey rubble wedged between the blue ocean and lush green slopes.

Maui water officials warned Lahaina and Kula residents not to drink running water, which may be contaminated even after boiling, and to only take short, lukewarm showers in well-ventilated rooms to avoid possible chemical vapor exposure.

The danger on Maui was well known. Maui County’s hazard mitigation plan updated in 2020 identified Lahaina and other West Maui communities as having frequent wildfires and several buildings at risk. The report also noted West Maui had the island’s second-highest rate of households without a vehicle and the highest rate of non-English speakers.

“This may limit the population’s ability to receive, understand and take expedient action during hazard events,” the plan stated.

Maui’s firefighting efforts may have been hampered by limited staff and equipment.

Bobby Lee, president of the Hawaii Firefighters Association, said there are a maximum of 65 county firefighters working at any given time, who are responsible for three islands: Maui, Molokai and Lanai.

Green said officials will review policies and procedures to improve safety.

“People have asked why we are reviewing what’s going on and it’s because the world has changed. A storm now can be a hurricane-fire or a fire-hurricane,” he said. “That’s what we experienced, that’s why we’re looking into these policies, to find out how we can best protect our people.”

Riley Curran said he fled his Front Street home after seeing the oncoming fire from the roof of a neighbouring building. He doubts county officials could have done more, given the speed of the onrushing flames.

“It’s not that people didn’t try to do anything,” Curran said. “The fire went from zero to 100.”

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‘We are alone’: Villages ravaged by fire last summer speak out

As fires ravage Europe for yet another summer, what has become of the villages that saw their homes reduced to ashes last year?

Disaster struck again just ten years after a huge fire devastated the municipality of Bejís, in eastern Spain.

Last summer, the southern European country was experiencing a string of heat waves and the forest was very dry, something that worried the local residents.

On 15 August a fire broke out in one of the other villages near Bejís, which itself is home to some 373 people. 

“The air was very hot so at night it became uncontrollable. It was as if they had put more fire to the fire,” María José Madrid, the mayor of Bejís, told Euronews.

Neighbours paid close attention to the fire as it advanced, and saw a ribbon of flames dancing directly towards them. 

“It was coming at an incredible speed towards the village, so we immediately ordered the evacuation. That was the hardest moment: seeing everyone leave and not knowing if there would be anything left when we returned. We felt helpless,” she adds.

In total, 15,000 people – both from Bejís and the surrounding villages – were evacuated, and the fire took a month to extinguish.

An area the size of around 16,500 football pitches was burned to cinders. 

Almost a year later, the road leading to the village still shows a desolate landscape. Kilometres of mountain reduced to ashes and rows of black skeletons that were once pine trees.

Financial support to mitigate the damage, compensate people for their losses and rebuild what has been burnt is only arriving now, one year later.

The Valencian regional government has provided €1.2 million, but the town council has not been able to apply for any kind of support from the central government as they would have to pay back part of what they receive and this is something the small village can’t afford.

In the mayor’s own words, help has been much needed, but it “will never be enough”.

For local residents, financial support has come too late as the town hall was overwhelmed. “We couldn’t cope with all the demands, we are a small town, we only have two administrative workers”.

What lessons have been learned one year later?

The fire, caused by lightning, was “impossible to prevent”, but the ferocity could have been avoided.

“The mountain was very dirty. Years ago the pine trees were planted very close to each other, this made it impossible to clean the area,” says the mayor.

After the fire, the level of awareness was high. Given the lack of resources, Ángel Gil, along with other villagers from Bejís, started an association called Oriwa, which is cleaning up the mountains.

“At the moment of truth, we are on our own. Administration is very slow and the money doesn’t arrive,” the villager from Bejís told Euronews.

“If our association didn’t exist, no one would clean the land. The regional government focused on urgent things, such as cutting, felling and restoring the areas used by people,” he adds.

Local people, like Ángel, are trying to do what institutions can’t so that they won’t see again their land consumed by flames.

The idea of megafires scares them: “Fires are getting stronger and stronger, more and more powerful”.

Sources from the regional government of Valencia consulted by Euronews confirmed the trend. “We are faced with a phenomenon which, because of its frequency and intensity, has become one of the biggest environmental problems facing our mountains”.

The reasons behind it are heat waves, drought and the exodus from rural areas, as regional authorities point out.

But the big question is: what has been done to protect the forests after the fires. Neither the regional government nor the local authorities have yet answered this question.

It remains a “great challenge” for them.

France: the aftermath of the most devastating fires

“135 hectares of the land I own burned.”

Nathalie Morlot was affected by the biggest wildfires seen in France in the last 30 years, when her municipality was hit by flames.

Just like Spain, France’s forcests faced a catastrophic summer in 2022. 

More than 27,000 hectares burned throughout the summer in the south west, and a total of 36,750 residents were evacuated, while the region and its inhabitants are still crippled by fear of it happening again.

“Some of the pines in those areas were planted 60 years ago by my grandparents — now, there is nothing left of them”, Nathalie tells Euronews.

After the fires burned some of her family estate, Nathalie found herself demoralised, with an estimated loss of around €800,000. 

Although her insurance compensated for €135,000 of the losses, she says that the worst part is knowing that lands that will be reforested now will only potentially benefit her grandchildren.

A budget of €7.6 million is earmarked for upgrading tracks and ditch networks, and installing surveillance cameras: but reforesting desolate landscapes will take time.

“It takes two generations for a forest to regenerate. And that is, if no more fires erupt in the next 10 years” says Philippe Barbédienne, advisor for SEPANSO, an association in charge of protection and development of nature in the region.

According to him, too much time elapses between the discussions of the government and the moment when the measures trickle down to the grassroots – leading to more chances for wildfire to occur again.

‘We are fed up’

“A year later, we’re fed up. We have been pretty much on our own in managing the crisis and its aftermath” says Anna, a local resident of la Teste-de-Buch.

Locals are unhappy with the treatment national and regional politics gave their region, Nouvelle-Aquitaine, following the devastating wildfires. President Macron pledged last year to reforest but to comply with safety recommendations, this will not start until the end of 2024.

For Nathalie, the most pressing issue to be worked upon for authorities should be prevention.

“As locals, we do care about our region a lot. But we see that this is not necessarily true for tourists”, says Anna.

“We had rules implemented following the wildfires, which every local abided by. But as soon as tourists started to flock in the region, all security measures seemed to have vanished”, she adds.

Local residents, she says, were a secondary consideration, as tourists are a big financial windfall for the region.

“As soon as tourists arrived, authorities closed their eyes on safety rules”.

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California To Do Socialism On Electric Bills To Spur Clean Power Transition. ‘Yes! YES!’ Say Sickos.

California electric bills are some of the highest in the USA, but in the next few years, as part of the state’s efforts to decarbonize the power sector, California will start charging high-income residents a higher basic rate for electricity while reducing basic charges for lower-income customers. At the same time, the state’s three big for-profit utilities would reduce the metered cost of electricity use, making it more affordable for people to switch from gas heat and stoves to electric, and rewarding energy efficiency and the adoption of rooftop solar.

Rich people aren’t happy, of course, because why should they pay more so non-rich people can have more affordable power? Well, because you can, and spreading out the costs of decarbonization benefits everyone. You’ll benefit (really, you and all future generations on the planet will benefit) from everyone pumping less carbon into the atmosphere. The sooner, the better, for all of us.

A short ‘splainer, via the Guardian:

Electricity bills are made up of fixed costs as well as fees that vary based on the amount of electricity residents use. Last year, the state passed a law giving the California public utilities commission a 1 July 2024 deadline to determine a fixed charge for household electric bills based on people’s income.

The new income-based electricity bills could hit residents’ mailboxes as soon as 2025. Based on proposals currently under consideration, residents who make more than $180,000 a year could pay about $500 more annually on their electricity bills, while Californians who make less than $28,000 annually could save up to $300 a year. The law is part of the state’s answer of how to equitably transition away from carbon as an energy source.

One of the reasons California electricity is so expensive is that utilities have higher costs for paying off damage done by wildfires that were caused by their crappy maintenance. (And climate change.) Those costs have been passed on to all utility customers in the form of higher electricity prices based on use, which has made methane gas (you know it as “natural”) stoves, heaters, and water heaters more attractive, especially to lower income ratepayers. High electricity costs may also be a disincentive to adoption of electric vehicles, although even California’s higher electric rates are a huge savings over gassing up an internal combustion vehicle.

(Yes, yes, even better to seize the costs of wildfires directly from PG&E shareholders, at gunpoint maybe, but piracy remains illegal unless you’re a pirate with a PAC.)

As the Washington Post (gift link) explains

That’s where the new law, which passed last summer as part of a larger energy bill, comes in. First proposed by researchers at the University of California at Berkeley and the nonprofit Next 10, the plan would split utility costs into two buckets: Fixed charges, which everyone has to pay just to be connected to the grid, and variable charges, which depend on how much electricity you use. Proponents say that the creation of fixed charges would cover things like wildfire preparedness and grid updates — and would also lower electricity costs based on usage. In theory, that would make it easier to convince Californians to electrify.

Adjusting the monthly fixed charges based on income helps overcome the regressive nature of having all ratepayers pay the same fixed charge, said UC Berkeley economist Meredith Fowlie, one of the proposal’s co-authors. “If you can mimic an income tax, it’s less regressive,” she said.

This is where we make you watch this video from Tabs this morning, which explains why it’s pretty bogus when for-profit utilities claim that home solar increases electricity costs for the poor. That’s only a problem when utilities react to customers adopting solar by imposing the same higher monthly user fees on everyone to “make up” for the revenue they don’t reap from selling power to people who are making their own with home solar.


As video host Matt Ferrell explains, higher monthly fees with lower rates for use can actually leave lower income people paying a proportionally higher amount for electricity while more well-off customers pay less for electricity even if they don’t reduce their usage. While Ferrell doesn’t discuss California’s plan for income-based monthly user fees in the video, it stands to reason that progressive user fees based on income would cover the utility’s fixed costs more equitably, while still helping home solar pay off through reduced use of power. Maybe a little piracy?

UC Berkeley prof Severin Borenstein, another co-author of the Next 10 report, didn’t use the words socialism or redistribution in explaining it to the Guardian, but that was the gist of the plan for shifting costs from rates to progressive user fees.

Everybody can’t put in solar if we’re paying for all of these other costs through per-kilowatt-hour charges. That just gets you into a death spiral where prices go higher and higher. And we know who will be the last people that have solar. It will be poor people.

So hell yes, this sounds like a good idea: Rich people pay a little more, less-wealthy people pay a little less (and can afford an ebike or a down payment on home solar) and while we’re at it let’s do a second climate bill that subsidizes ebikes, funds wider energy efficiency upgrades in low-income housing, and more community solar for low income neighborhoods, too.

Here comes the part where I remind you to stop by Friday for Part 4 of our Wonkette Book Club, where we’re reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s 2020 climate novel The Ministry for the Future. More on the book club and this week’s reading (Chapters 51 through 69, nice) here!

[Guardian / Designing Electricity Rates for an Equitable Transition (Next 10) / WaPo (gift link) / Newser / Undecided with Matt Ferrell on YouTube]

Yr Wonkette is funded entirely by reader donations. If you can, please help with a $5 or $15 monthly donation, so we can continue singing the body politic electric.

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A quarter of Americans live with polluted air, with people of color and those in Western states disproportionately affected, report says | CNN


About 1 in 4 people in the United States – more than 119 million residents – live with air pollution that can hurt their health and shorten their lives, according to a new report from the American Lung Association. People of color are disproportionately affected, as are residents of Western cities.

Since President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Air Act in 1970, emissions of outdoor air pollutants have fallen 78%, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency. But Wednesday’s 2023 State of the Air report, which focuses on ozone and particle pollution, shows that millions put their health on the line every time they step outside.

To capture pollution levels at the county level, researchers analyzed data collected by the EPA’s Air Quality System, a repository of ambient air quality data from more than 10,000 monitors. They characterized the hourly average ozone concentration and the 24-hour average particle pollution concentration for 2019-21 at each monitoring site and factored in year-round pollution information from the EPA.

There were significant improvements in some areas. Generally, 17.6 million fewer people were breathing unhealthy air than in last year’s report, due largely to falling levels of ozone in some regions.

Ozone pollution is the main ingredient in smog. It comes from cars, power plants and refineries. Exposure to ozone can immediately exacerbate asthma symptoms, and people with long-term exposure to higher levels face a significantly higher risk of death from respiratory diseases than those who live with cleaner air.

Around 25% more counties got an A grade in the report for lower levels of ozone pollution. Some of that improvement can be attributed to the Clean Air Act, according to Katherine Pruitt, author of the report and the American Lung Association’s national senior director for policy.

Emission controls have helped, she said, as has the country’s continuing move away from its reliance on coal for its energy needs. Even something simple as the increase in the number of people who work from home has played a role.

“The Biden administration has set themselves a good, strong to do list of things that will help with environmental justice and climate protection,” Pruitt said. “They’re moving kind of slow, though. So we’d like them to pick up the pace.”

Despite the progress, not everyone was lucky enough to live in a county with good ozone levels. More than 100 million people live in counties that get an F for ozone smog, the report says.

Western and Southwestern cities are the most ozone-polluted, with 10 of the 25 most-polluted cities in California. New York, Chicago and Hartford, Connecticut, were the only three on that list east of the Mississippi River.

The five metropolitan areas with the worst ozone pollution are Los Angeles-Long Beach, California; Visalia, California; Bakersfield, California; Fresno-Madera-Hanford, California; and Phoenix-Mesa, Arizona.

Particle pollution, the other form of pollution tracked in the report, still seems to be a significant issue for the US.

Often hard to see, particle pollution is a mix of solid and liquid droplets that may come in the form of dirt, dust, soot or smoke. Coal- and natural gas-fired power plants create it, as do cars, agriculture, unpaved roads, construction sites and wildfires.

Particle pollution is so tiny – 1/20th of a width of a human hair – that it can travel past your body’s usual defenses.

Instead of being carried out when you exhale, it can get stuck in your lungs or go into your bloodstream. The particles cause irritation and inflammation and may lead to respiratory problems. Exposure can cause cancer, stroke or heart attack; it could also aggravate asthma, and it has even been associated with a higher risk of depression and anxiety, studies show.

The new report says the number of people living in counties with failing grades for daily spikes of particle pollution was the highest it has been in a decade. Nearly 64 million live with these kind of unhealthy spikes in counties that get failing grades.

One driver of the high amounts of particle pollution are the wildfires that have consumed hundreds of thousands of acres. In 2021 alone, there were 14,407 fires, many in the West, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. There used to be a wildfire season, experts say, but now they happen year-round.

Those fires are why the regions with the highest concentrations of air pollution are largely in the West.

When the American Lung Association started producing its report in 2004, 106 counties in 30 states got failing grades for daily spikes in particle pollution. Fewer than half were in eight states west of the Rocky Mountains. Today, 111 counties in 19 states got Fs for spikes in particle pollution, and all but eight counties are in the West, the report says.

Urban centers in the Rust Belt and the industrialized East had gotten the most failing grades in the early 2000s, but many have cleaned up and now get passing grades.

Bakersfield, California, displaced Fresno as the metropolitan area with the worst short-term particle pollution, but Fresno did not suddenly develop cleaner air. That city still had the most-polluted label for year-round particle pollution, tied with Visalia, in the agricultural San Joaquin Valley.

Los Angeles is still the city with the worst ozone pollution, according to the report, as it has been for all but one of the years included in the report.

California has some of the more progressive environmental legislation in the country, but the climate crisis has not been kind to the state, said Tarik Benmarhnia, an air pollution and wildfire researcher at the University of California, San Diego, who did not work on the new report.

“All these cities like Bakersfield and Visalia are in a valley near the forests that are seeing big fires. There’s also intense agricultural and industrial work there, so they unfortunately have all the worst conditions for air pollution,” Benmarhnia said.

There are some newcomers to the list of the 25 areas with the most particle pollution, including Denver and Fargo, North Dakota. Reno, Nevada; Yakima and Spokane, Washington; and Boise, Idaho; all made the worst list this year.

San Luis Obispo, California; Portland, Oregon; and Seattle and Bellingham, Washington; all moved off the list of worst 25 cities.

Residents in the cities ranked worst for particle pollution are living with more of it, the report says. In the top 25 cities with the worst air, the average number of days residents were exposed to high levels of fine particle pollution increased to a weighted average of 18.3, up from 16.5 in last year’s report.

East of the Mississippi, Pittsburgh and Lancaster, Pennsylvania, were the two worst metropolitan areas in the country, posting more days high in fine particle pollution in this year’s report.

Not everyone experiences pollution the same way in the US. Regardless of the region, communities of color bear the brunt of the problem.

Specifically, although people of color make up 41% of the overall US population, they are 54% of the nearly 120 million people living in counties with at least one failing grade for unhealthy air. And in the counties with the worst air quality, 72% of the 18 million residents are people of color, the report said.

Other research has also shown this trend. On maps that lay out areas with high levels of air pollution and where communities were redlined – areas where Black people were forced to live – they line up perfectly, Pruitt said.

“Then, the other aspect is, when you have a community of color that is a voluntary community, people aren’t forced to live there, those are communities that tend to have less of a voice, so decision makers place polluting sources in those communities because there’s not as much howling by people with power when they do. So those communities get the highways; they get the landfills; they get the fence lines,” she said.

There’s a myth that only poor communities live with disproportionate pollution levels, says Chris Tessum, a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department of the University of Illinois. Tessum, who was not involved in the new report, says race really is the determining factor.

“The thinking is that people with more money will buy better property, which has lower air pollution and that’s just the way of the world or whatever, but that’s just kind of emphatically not, not true,” he said.

Communities need to play a key role in making decisions to help clean air, Tessum said.

“People that have the power will use that power to benefit themselves and not the people that have been historically overburdened,” he said.

The new report says government and residents can make a difference. One suggestion is to leverage Inflation Reduction Act funding to help reduce emissions at ports and to invest in zero-emission heavy-duty vehicles and in infrastructure that would improve air quality monitoring.

States can also use the Clean Air Act authority to adopt the California zero-emissions standards for cars and trucks, the report says.

At the federal level, agencies must finalize stronger limits on air pollution to truly protect public health and advance environmental justice, the report says, including standards to move the country toward zero-emissions vehicles. The EPA also has to set stronger national standards for particle pollution and ozone, the researchers say.

Pruitt said she knows firsthand how better policies can work. She said growing up before the Clean Air Act, pollution was so high that she could see it every time she stepped outside. Today, the pollution is not nearly as visible.

“I’m in my mid-60s, and of course, air pollution was very tangible when I was young, but these days, thank goodness it isn’t. Most people don’t see it,” she said. Unless a person has a lung condition, they may not even feel it.

But just because you can’t see it or feel it doesn’t mean it’s not there. Pruitt encourages people to remember that no level of pollution is safe. The World Health Organization estimates that the combined effects of ambient air pollution and household air pollution are associated with 6.7 million premature deaths annually.

“People don’t really recognize that what they’re breathing is impacting their health,” Pruitt said.

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