Bringing climate reporting to local newsrooms

Inaugural MIT Environmental Solutions Initiative Journalism Fellows reflect on their experiences telling local climate stories.
Read the full story at MIT News.

Three Questions on Energy Justice with Yiran He

ESI’s newest member is Yiran He, a research assistant who studies equity issues in economic development and energy transitions. Yiran joins ESI from the MIT Technology and Policy Program, where she is a first-year masters student with an undergraduate degree in Materials Science and Engineering and Science, Technology and Society. She previously worked on the MIT-Harvard Roosevelt Project in the area of the clean energy transition and regional economic and community development. Here, she will expand our research on various equity issues facing policymakers in planning for a just economic and energy transition.

To introduce Yiran, we asked her three questions about energy justice and transitions.

How does a focus on energy justice play a part on the path to a low-carbon economy?

Due to global economic and social forces, the world is already moving toward lower carbon emissions in many sectors. With a market shift toward cleaner sources of energy, and cleaner forms of manufacturing, it is essential that communities deeply engaged in changing industries are not left behind, or left out of conversations.

What has your research on energy transitions in different parts of the U.S. taught you about tailoring energy policies to the needs of specific areas?

First of all, tailoring policies to specific areas is necessary. Every region has a different history and different existing assets, which can include longstanding ties to, and deep expertise in, specific industries. Furthermore, finding the right combination of policies for specific areas requires collaboration with and commitment from partners with close regional ties and vested interest in the region’s future.

What kinds of regional partners does ESI need to engage with to make the most productive strides toward a just transition?

Transitions are about more than energy sources, and a smooth and just transition must include a diverse array of voices. Industrial, non-profit, academic, community development, and governmental actors, focused on a spread of topics including energy, workforce issues, education and training, and economic development, will all be part of a conversation in planning the pathway toward a low-carbon economy.

Two Basins in 2050

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

Picture the Klamath Basin in March, as the summer of 2050 looms on the horizon. It’s been a warm, dry winter. Only specks of white remain on the mountaintops, streams languish with no snowmelt to surge their riffles and forests and grasslands already thirst for moisture. What will the experience of drought in the basin feel like if we do nothing to change the way we manage it? And what could it look like if the watershed’s stakeholders right the ship?

Plucked from a slew of possible futures, below are two scenarios the Klamath and its communities could face by the mid-21st Century. Though fictional, they are based on the impacts associated with a specific degree of warming determined by climate and economic modelers. Representative Concentration Pathways, or RCPs, are socioeconomic models that describe four different trajectories of carbon emissions, each resulting in a specific average temperature increase by the end of this century. Researchers can then use those trajectories to model the behavior of the atmosphere, assessing future impacts like extreme heat, fire danger, snowfall and more.

Both of these scenarios exist within RCP 4.5, which projects a global average temperature increase of about 3.24˚F by the end of this century relative to the period between 1986 and 2005 (for comparison, the Klamath Basin has already warmed by about 1˚F since the mid-20th century). For this to occur, global carbon emissions must peak by around 2040 and decline rapidly over the following 30 years to half of what they were in 2000.

Climate modelers consider RCP 4.5 a middle-of-the-road pathway. It emits more carbon and results in worse impacts than the best-case-scenario model that has become the goal for the 2015 Paris Agreement, but it’s not as catastrophic (or even as unlikely) as RCP 8.5, the worst-case pathway that more than doubles the increase in global temperatures by 2100.

For that to occur, humans would have to continue increasing fossil fuel use and emissions, despite market forces driving down the price of renewable energy even in the absence of robust climate policies.

In the Klamath Basin, future impacts based on RCP 4.5 and 8.5 only differ toward the end of this century, with the latter being more intense. For the purposes of imagining the Klamath Basin in 2050, both scenarios result in roughly the same outcome because previous emissions will have already locked in a certain level of warming by then.

In both of these futures, the annual average temperature of the basin will be 51.9˚F, nearly 4˚ warmer than it was in 2000. Each summer, the atmosphere will draw nearly an inch more water from plants than it used to, requiring that much more precipitation to replace it. Soils are 7% drier, and three fewer inches on average of snow-water equivalent are available to make it into streams and lakes by April 1. The average number of “extreme” fire danger days has increased by five each fire season because wildlands have become so parched.

But this isn’t a doomsday scenario — or at least it doesn’t have to be. The sparsely populated Klamath Basin can’t single-handedly reverse global emissions trends, but it can control how it responds to their related impacts. Though the first future described in “The Lone Farmer” could be considered the “bad” future, while the second described in “Lodgepole and Ponderosa” could be considered “good,” neither is any more likely than the other, and neither is set in stone.

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.

Blockage

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

On November 5, 1922, in the volcanic scrublands just south of the Oregon-California border, a group of people gathered on a hill above the Klamath River to celebrate a newly minted, 126-foot wall of concrete.

A local band played “America the Beautiful” and the American flag unfurled from a flagpole on the dam. Soldiers fired a salute from atop the mountain. The attendees had a picnic and local officials made speeches praising the utility bringing large-scale hydroelectric power generation to the area. At the time, the Siskiyou Daily News called the project “one of the largest hydroelectric power plants in the world,” able to produce 12,500 kilowatts of energy.

At the end of the event, the daughter of the California Oregon Power Company’s board chairman flipped a switch, turning the generator on and feeding the power of the Klamath River into the regional grid. Copco Dam was officially in operation.

The newspaper paraphrased a Yreka judge who told a romantic story of development in the region, of how white American settlement had progressed the area by leaps and bounds. Horses had been upgraded to oxen and then to cars in a matter of decades. And thanks to the booming development of hydropower, the sky would be the limit.

“It is but a matter of a few years until we will be coming to the Copco picnics and future dedicatory ceremonies flying through the air,” the article read.

But one community’s progress was another’s decline. The dam almost perfectly bisected the Klamath Basin, and due to its height, it wasn’t feasible to construct fish passage infrastructure at the dam. Salmon lost access to hundreds of miles of spawning habitat in the tributaries to Upper Klamath Lake.

A June 1921 article in the Klamath Evening Herald had pointed out that the watershed was at a crossroads. Would it become a major hydropower-producing stream or California’s salmon stronghold?

“Along with it is the problem (of) whether the need for electricity ranks higher in the law than a food supply for the Indians,” the article read.

Fast forward 100 years, and the Klamath is known for neither an abundance of hydropower nor an abundance of salmon.

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.

Heal the People, Heal the Land

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

Most people in the Klamath Basin agree that restoring streams, wetlands and forests is a more effective way to revive species and communities than fighting over a dwindling water supply.

Re-empowering nature to store and filter water doesn’t often require anyone to give up their share of it.

But first, stakeholders must meaningfully address the basin’s uncomfortable history and reconcile two cultures that seem at odds with each other. Until farmers, ranchers and tribal members can agree on how to do that, many say there’s little hope for eliminating the physical chokepoints that harm the watershed.

In August 2021, the Klamath Falls Equity Task Force presented recommendations to city council on how to promote equity in the area. One of the first items was recognizing the role of racism in the Klamath Basin water crisis.

“Our water crisis still exists, in part, due to racism against the Tribes and that racism against the Tribes still exists, in part, due to our water crisis,” wrote the task force.

At the city council meeting where the task force made its recommendations, several Klamath tribal members made public comments about how they’ve experienced anti-Indigenous behavior in the basin.

“There are communities worldwide that deal with drought, but this is one of the only communities where drought is really just focused around racism and blaming the Tribes for what’s going on, when really what we’ve been doing is rearranging the chairs on the Titanic,” said Klamath tribal council member Willa Powless. The city has since disbanded the equity task force and has not carried out its recommendations related to the Klamath Basin water crisis.

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.

Fish and Chips

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

It had been three years since Brook Thompson caught a salmon.

Growing up on the Yurok Reservation in Klamath, Calif., she used to eat it year-round — canned, smoked, boiled, pattied — benefitting from Chinook salmon’s exceptionally high protein and omega-3 fatty acid content. But the rest of Thompson’s diet consisted of flour, sugar, pasta and the occasional canned fruit or vegetable, all provided by the federal government. There was (and still is) no grocery store in Klamath. The only fresh food comes from the river.

“I didn’t get a lot of good food growing up,” said Thompson, who has Yurok and Karuk ancestry. Doctors even considered her malnourished until she moved to Portland for college. Now in a graduate environmental engineering program at Stanford University, she has access to healthier foods and grocery stores and is able to eat a balanced diet.

But Thompson said Whole Foods salmon can’t nourish her like the river can. The spiritual practice of catching a salmon near the mouth of the Klamath, cleaning it and putting it on ice can’t be replicated over a fish counter. To her, the fish just taste better at home.

“Our culture is really energy-based,” Thompson said. “You want to put that good spirit and energy into your food, and you feel that when you eat it. You put that back into yourself. Salmon tastes so bad everywhere else. I don’t know how people like it.”

Beyond nourishing its people, the salmon run can also nourish the economy of the Yurok Reservation, which has a median income of about $11,000. Thompson said a good commercial fishery could allow some tribal members to buy Christmas presents for their relatives, school supplies for their kids and even gas for their cars to be able to get to the nearest grocery store half an hour away in Crescent City.

Recently, the Yurok commercial fishery processing building at the foot of Requa Hill, along the Klamath’s estuary, has sat empty more often than not. For decades, and especially since 2015, the Klamath River fishery has been in sharp decline.

Between 2016 and 2020, the annual harvest of fall Chinook salmon has averaged fewer than 5,000 for a tribe that has more than 6,000 members. Between 1989 and 2015, tribal members had caught an average of nearly 24,000 fish a year.

“The fish are kind of the canary in the coal mine. Salmon are telling us that things aren’t working,” said Barry McCovey, the Yurok Tribe’s fisheries director and a Yurok tribal member. “Things haven’t been good for a long time — the system has been disconnected and thrown out of balance for generations — but things have gotten worse exponentially.”

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.

The Lake in the Sky

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Alex Schwartz was originally published as part of the Project Klamath interactive website by the Herald & News, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

Giiwas has endured continuous change. It began its life as a massive mountain frosted with glaciers, until a volcanic battle turned it into a barren chasm.

Now it sports a mosaic of ancient conifers, open meadows and kaleidoscopic cliffs cradling a vast cobalt lake — Crater Lake, as most call it today.

Standing on the rim of the caldera, it’s hard not to think about the millions of years of geologic luck that led to this place.

Tectonic plates beneath North America and the Pacific Ocean collided at just the right angle to force magma through the Earth’s crust, providing the molten fuel to create a vast volcanic plateau. Gently sloping shield volcanoes formed on top of it, followed by the snow capped cones of the High Cascades a few hundred thousand years ago. Glaciers, some a thousand feet thick, carved deep canyons into the mountain’s slopes as recently as 10,000 years ago.

Fire took over again roughly 7,700 years ago, when a cataclysmic eruption (or, as the Klamath story says, a battle between two powerful spirits) collapsed Mt. Mazama’s summit, spewing gas, pumice and ash hundreds of miles and obliterating the lush forests that surrounded the mountain.

Water allowed life to return to the hollowed volcano. No longer a mountain, Mt. Mazama became a 7,000-foot rain bucket, trapping precipitation blown in from the Pacific Ocean. Storms brought rain and snow to the nutrient rich volcanic soils. Over thousands of years, the caldera filled with water and became a tranquil, sapphire pool fringed by verdant trees. Various Indigenous groups in the area who had witnessed the eruption, including the Klamath and Modoc, began to consider the lake a deeply spiritual place.

In 1902, the land became one of the United States’ first national parks, largely shielding it from development.

But Crater Lake National Park, as beautiful and protected as it is today, is not immune to a warming atmosphere. Neither is the 16,000-square-mile Klamath Basin, upon which the flooded caldera sits like a crown jewel.

The weather station at the park’s headquarters has shown a rise in average temperature of about 1˚F since the mid-20th Century. That may not seem like much, but it’s already having a measurable effect on the park’s ecosystems.

Continue reading on the Project Klamath website.

Who is leading the fight for inclusion in the climate change debate? (Spanish-language)

ESI’s Marcela Angel spoke to Forbes Colombia about our natural climate solutions program, which works with afro-descendant communities in Latin America to co-produce climate adaptation and mitigation solutions. Read the story.

Scientists and musicians tackle climate change together

Discussion at MIT explores ways the music industry can help in the battle to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Read the full story at MIT News.

Trouble in the wind: Offshore turbine farms complicate fishing, shrimping

This story by ESI Journalism Fellow Tristan Baurick was originally published in the Times-Picayune | New Orleans Advocate, where it appears with additional photos and resources.

POINT JUDITH, R.I. – Robert Ballinger watches every inch of a long green net as it unfurls from a spool on the back of this boat, the Lena Pearl, one of dozens of fishing vessels packed into a tiny harbor in America’s smallest state. He’s concentrating, looking for any tears or debris that might cause trouble next time he’s trawling off the coasts of Rhode Island and Massachusetts.

He’d prefer to focus on small problems like these and ignore the big one on his mind: the growing array of wind turbines sprouting along the coast. He wouldn’t have much issue with them, he said, if they didn’t happen to work best in the same deep, wind-swept waters where he finds his most lucrative catch.

“Where they want to put those turbines is right where all these are during the summer,” he said, grabbing a squid from the deck and giving its slimy, silvery body a frustrated squeeze. “And the amount they want to put in — it’s mind-boggling. It will change the entire squid season.”

Squid is to Rhode Island what lobster is to Maine and shrimp is to Louisiana. More than 22 million pounds are landed each year, making it by far Rhode Island’s biggest fishery, and almost all of it comes through the harbor at Point Judith. Ballinger fishes a variety of species — whiting, fluke, butterfish — but he makes half his money catching squid between July and October.

The country’s first offshore wind project, the Block Island Wind Farm, was built about 14 miles south of here in 2016. A much larger one, known as Vineyard Wind, is set to begin construction about 40 miles to the east, near Martha’s Vineyard.

By the end of the decade, some 2,000 turbines could be clustered along the coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina, according to the Biden administration, which is expediting wind farm permitting to reach its goal of generating 30,000 megawatts from offshore wind by 2030.

Where offshore wind advocates see one of the best options for curbing climate change, fishers see a maze of obstacles that will make their jobs tougher and more dangerous.

“Wind farms are getting a tremendous political push, whereas the people who fish are being crushed,” said Greg Matarones, president of the Rhode Island Lobstermen’s Association.

Now, offshore wind developers are starting to turn their attention to the Gulf of Mexico, where the offshore oil and gas industry has cultivated a ready and willing workforce and easily adaptable ports and other infrastructure.

But the Gulf is also the source of 70% of the country’s shrimp. Of the more than 200 million pounds of shrimp netted in the Gulf each year, much of it was caught in the waters off the Louisiana and Texas coasts. These prime fishing waters happen to overlap with the areas of the Gulf that have the greatest potential for wind energy development.

So the conflicts in the East may soon be headed south, said Acy Cooper, a Venice shrimper and president of the Louisiana Shrimp Association.

“We have the same concerns as the guys up there on the East Coast,” he said. “We know the (wind farms) are coming, but we don’t know where and how much ground is going to be taken from us.”

Ballinger has a warning for Gulf fishers: “They better hope the wind farm companies screw this up so bad here that they don’t ever come down to the Gulf.”

Fishing the turbine forests

With just five turbines, the Block Island Wind Farm is tiny compared with the projects in the construction pipeline. It was installed relatively close to shore and on the kind of rocky sea bottom trawlers avoid.

But there’ve been plenty of problems with the transmission line that carries electricity from the turbines to the mainland. Despite promises it would be buried, large sections sit exposed on the seafloor.

Orsted, the Danish energy company that owns the farm, has placed blocks and mats on the exposed sections, but these protections pose snag hazards for drag netters in what Ballinger said was a “sweet spot” for squid.

“I’ve wrecked two nets on it, and various other guys have wrecked nets on it,” he said.

Near Ballinger’s boat, squid fisher Sam Tucker and his three-person crew were offloading a ripped net. It likely wasn’t damaged by the cable because he and other fishers now avoid it.

Fixing the net will cost Tucker four fishing days and $10,000.

“The net looks rugged, but it’s fragile and temperamental,” Tucker said. “It’s like an underwater kite.”

Ever try flying a kite in a forest? That’s what it will be like to fish among the 62 turbines Vineyard Wind initially plans to build across 65,000 acres of prime squid fishing grounds, Tucker said. Slaloming through the turbines is a dangerous prospect, even if they’re installed a mile apart.

Throw in the 79 additional turbines planned for phase two, as well as the development of neighboring wind energy lease areas that cover five times as much ocean, and it could spell the end of the fishery, Tucker said.

Lobster fishers might be hit even harder. Turbines act as artificial reefs, sometimes fostering a profusion of mussels and other creatures. That can be a good thing, but not for lobsters. Reefs tend to increase the concentrations of black sea bass, a voracious eater that’s spreading north into the waters off New England as ocean temperatures rise.

“The sea bass love to eat baby lobsters,” said Matarones, of the Lobstermen’s Association. “They’re like vacuum cleaners. When they find a spot, they go at it till there’s nothing left.”

Lobster fishers already say they’re being boxed in by a host of new federal fishing restrictions aimed at saving the critically endangered North Atlantic right whale. Numbering fewer than 400, the whales are vulnerable to entanglement in fishing gear, particularly the buoy lines of lobster traps.

Closing off large areas of whale habitat while allowing a proliferation of wind turbines leaves little room for fishers.

“Wind farms are a good idea, but they can’t displace the people making a livelihood out here,” Tucker said. “There’s a better way.”

‘They’re trying to win us over’

For Tucker, the better way would be for wind energy developers to work closely with fishers and take their concerns seriously.

Vineyard Wind wouldn’t comment for this story, but the trade group American Clean Power defended the company’s efforts to “coexist with the commercial fishing industry,” including modifying turbine layouts, hiring fisheries liaisons and fishers to staff survey vessels, and funding cooperative research with fisheries groups.

It’s true wind energy companies have held several meetings and gathered a lot of input, but it amounted to little for fishers, said Annie Hawkins, executive director of the Responsible Offshore Development Alliance, a group that advocates for the fishing industry.

“We put in hundreds and hundreds of hours of work with (wind farm developers), and then it’s totally dismissed,” she said. The process seemed merely for show. “It’s to check a box and move on,” Hawkins said.

Last month, the group filed notice of intent to sue the federal government over its approval of the Vineyard Wind project. The group argues that the Vineyard Wind development will impede safe navigation for fishing boats and establishes a template for other projects that will also harm the fishing industry.

The U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, which oversees offshore energy leases, had considered the advocacy group’s request for 4-mile-wide transit lanes through the wind farm but recently abandoned the requirement.

The approved 1-mile gaps between turbines is too narrow for fishing and search-and-rescue operations, the advocacy group said in its notice. It also alleges the Vineyard Wind project violates federal law that requires a “fair return” for leases in federal waters.

The federal government is charging Vineyard Wind $3 per acre and no royalties from energy production. That’s in sharp contrast to the starting bid of $25 per acre and production royalties required from oil and gas leases.

Still, the struggles on the East Coast might not carry over to the Gulf, said Mike Celata, the Gulf region director for the federal agency. By the time leasing happens in the Gulf, the process will be improved and refined, he said.

Celata pledged to begin discussions with Gulf shrimpers and other commercial fishing groups well before the lease sale process begins in 2025.

“A lesson we’ve learned is we want to meet early and often,” he said. “We’ve committed to that.”

Cooper, of the Louisiana Shrimp Association, commended the agency for already starting to make the rounds at Gulf fishing industry meetings.

“They’re trying to win us over,” he said.

The agency has promoted the idea that wind farms won’t be any worse for fishing than the 3,500 offshore oil and gas structures already in the Gulf, not to mention 27,000 miles of underwater pipelines, most of which are inactive or abandoned.

Cooper agrees shrimpers are accustomed to the Gulf’s industrial obstacle courses, but it doesn’t mean they like it. The introduction of offshore wind infrastructure increases navigational challenges.

“There are a lot of platforms and all that, and we’ve been dealing with them a long time,” he said. “But wind farms are a whole new ballgame.”

The Southern Shrimp Alliance has taken the bold step of asking the agency to ban wind energy leases in almost all areas where shrimping activity occurs. Its proposed restricted area, laid out in an 11-page letter to the agency, stretches between Port Isabel, Texas, to Gulf Shores, Alabama — including the entire Louisiana coast — and, in some areas, extends well beyond 100 miles from the coast.

If wind leasing is permitted in this area, the alliance urged the agency to pay special attention to how transmission lines can affect shrimpers, particularly the ones who fish close to shore. About 87% of the Gulf’s more than 11,000 shrimp vessels are small, shallow-water boats that ply state-managed waters.

Although the gusts in these areas aren’t strong enough to attract big wind farms, shrimpers will still have to worry about snagging their nets on transmission lines running between deep-water turbines and mainland substations.

The alliance asked that the agency establish programs to compensate shrimpers for “the inevitable loss or damages” to nets and other gear.

Taking a lesson from all the old oil and gas infrastructure that’s been allowed to rust in the Gulf, the alliance also urged the agency to require wind developers to put aside money for removing turbines and transmission lines once they’re shut down or knocked out of commission by storms.

Gulf shrimpers say much is at stake beyond their livelihoods. The fishery is an economic engine for the region, generating almost $800 million per year for hundreds of shrimp dealers and processors, as well as grocers and restaurants that rely on the potent marketability of wild-caught shrimp.

East Coast fishers say they tried the same tactic but quickly learned their talk of millions of dollars goes unheard when the energy industry speaks of the billions to be made with offshore wind.

“Why won’t they negotiate with fishermen?” said Tucker, the Rhode Island squid fisher. “Because people are making a killing off turbines. They don’t have to worry about us.”