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Where have all the climate activists gone?

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Where have all the climate activists gone?

On November 13, 2018, a group of nearly 200 activists gathered outside Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office, just south of the Capitol Building, and knocked on the door. Without waiting for an answer, they entered and began chanting and singing protest songs. 

The crowd was made up of representatives of the roughly year-old Sunrise Movement, and the sit-in at the Minority Leader’s office served as a bit of a coming-out party. One by one, the activists, mostly high school and college students, gave Pelosi’s staff letters demanding a Green New Deal and massive investment of cash into clean energy and initiatives for environmental justice. They were joined by Congresswoman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; 50 members of the group were eventually arrested.

Sunrise Movement activists stage an influential sit-in in Representative Nancy Pelosi’s office in 2018.

The event was one of just hundreds of demonstrations that took place during the most active period of climate protest in United States history. Following the inauguration of President Donald Trump — who entered office pledging to roll back dozens of environmental regulations — and the release of yet-another terrifying United Nations climate report, global warming activism exploded across the country. In April 2017, millions protested in a nationwide “March for Science”; the following year, schoolchildren and teenagers across the world, inspired by Swedish activist Greta Thunberg, began skipping school to protest the climate crisis. Meanwhile, youth-led groups like the Zero Hour and Sunrise led walk-outs, marches, and sit-ins — inspiring thousands of young people to take to the streets. 

But over the past couple of years, the volume of such activism seems to have been turned down. Massive marches and demonstrations have given way to smaller gatherings in Washington, D.C. and New York; some activists have shifted from sit-ins and chanting to working for think tanks or environmental NGOs. Even as heat waves and droughts roast the country — and the United Nations climate reports become more and more dire — the nation and media seem focused on the pandemic, inflation, and the war in Ukraine. For the time being, activists are making fewer headlines. 

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For many, the past year feels like a betrayal: They rallied around President Joe Biden, despite reservations about his progressive credentials, and have seen few results. Climate legislation has stalled in the Senate, with the midterms threatening the Democrats’ slim majority. Liv Schroeder, a communications director for Zero Hour, said that the last year had demonstrated, more than anything else, that “party alignment does not guarantee climate action.”

a large group of people march in the street holding a large yellow banner that says biden no compromises no excuses

Hundreds of young climate activists march to the White House in June 2021 to demand that U.S. President Joe Biden work to pass the Green New Deal into law. Similar rallies used to attract thousands of protestors. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Activists are now struggling to figure out what comes next. Should they focus on mass protests ahead of the upcoming midterm elections, or pressure Congress to get things done as the months tick down? After the legislative failure of the past 18 months, will it even be possible to motivate young voters? 

“I feel upset and terrified and angry,” said Lauren Maunus, the legislative director of the Sunrise Movement. “All of the promises that were made have not been delivered to us.”


It is not surprising that, over the past two years, climate protests seem to have died down. COVID-19 threw the movement off-balance, forcing protests, marches, and strikes online. The murder of George Floyd galvanized hundreds of thousands of protestors — including many of the same young people who had previously been marching for the climate — but the focus was rightfully on racial justice, not the overheating planet. 

Part of the change was also the presence of a Democrat in the White House. Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies activism and social movements, says that when a supportive party comes into power, many protest groups struggle to shift from “outsider” tactics — marching in the streets and holding sit-ins — to “insider” tactics, like lobbying members of Congress and helping to craft policy. Movements can also splinter, as traditional lobby groups eschew protest to focus on the inside track, leaving activists on their own. 

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“It’s absolutely harder to get people in the streets when you have a Democrat in power,” Fisher said. “You end up with all these left-leaning groups who are tentative to push too hard when they have a Democrat in the White House, and especially when you have a Democratic majority in the Congress.” 

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And early in 2021, with Trump out of office and President Joe Biden’s initial, $3.5 trillion climate and spending plan – known as Build Back Better – in the works, there seemed to be less reason to protest and agitate for change. Biden’s early climate promises were quickly fulfilled: He rejoined the Paris Agreement on climate change and set a goal to cut U.S. carbon emissions by 50 to 52 percent by 2030. 

But as the legislative process began, activists began to get “increasingly twitchy,” as Fisher described it. The Build Back Better plan was whittled down to just half its original size, to $1.75 trillion, and had no guarantee of passing a Senate with the slimmest of Democratic majority. Despite calling the package a “minimum bandaid” for the climate crisis, Sunrise members lobbied their representatives to hold off on passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill until the much bigger package made it through Congress. When that didn’t work, and Democratic Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia continued to withhold his support for Build Back Better, activists chanted outside his houseboat and arranged a 14-day hunger strike outside of the White House – a rare demonstration after a year of relative quiet. 

a protester wearing a joe manchin cutout mask holds puppets dressed like Chuck Schumer and Joe Biden

A demonstrator wears a photograph of Senator Joe Manchin while playing a political puppet-master in Washington, D.C. in October 2021. Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

Protest, however, is a blunt instrument — and unlikely to move a longtime senator heavily financially supported by the fossil fuel industry. On December 19, Manchin appeared on Fox News to formally withdraw his support from the package. “I cannot vote to continue with this legislation,” he said. “I’ve tried everything humanly possible.” 

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In March 2022, Audrey Lin, a campaign manager for Sunrise, wrote an open letter to the members of the organization. “We were able to keep the pressure up on Democrats, and we changed the narrative around the stakes for climate legislation,” she wrote, “but in the end, it wasn’t enough.”


Over the past few months, as Democrats have discussed passing a climate-only reconciliation bill, the climate movement that made a name for itself with million-person marches has remained outwardly quiet. Several protests occurred around the country for the week of Earth Day, but they drew crowds of hundreds, not thousands. And inside-the-beltway efforts to force Biden’s hand have fallen by the wayside. When I spoke to activists for this story, few seemed enthusiastic or optimistic about the possibility of a $300 to $500 billion bill — some form of the climate portion of Build Back Better — passing Congress. Manchin’s name hardly came up. 

Part of the issue is that the movement’s tactics don’t translate well to the current situation: a recalcitrant senator spending time in backroom negotiations, a country distracted by war, inflation, and gun violence. Protesting, at its best, can create the conditions necessary for policy to pass; the work of creating — and compromising — on that policy, however, is often left to other groups.

Marcela Mulholland, the political director for the progressive think tank Data for Progress and a former Sunrise Movement member, argues that criticisms of demonstration-based activist groups ignore what they accomplished — and what they intended to accomplish. “No one at Sunrise is claiming to be a technocrat,” she said. “This is a group of young people who are scared of climate change, and they are doing moral protests to raise the salience of the issue.” When I asked her whether Sunrise should be doing more to encourage the passage of a climate-only bill, she said, “‘Climate compromise’ — it doesn’t have the same ring to it. You’re not going to put that on a T-shirt.” 

Youth activists participate in a “No Climate, No Deal” rally in Lafayette Square in Washington, D.C. in 2021. Caroline Brehman / CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

Many activists, somewhat battered by the last 18 months, are refocusing on the upcoming elections. “We have been doubling down as a movement, trying to elect people in office who are going to fight” for the climate, Maunus, the Sunrise legislative director, told Grist. Sunrise has zeroed in on races in Texas, supporting the progressive candidates Jessica Cisneros and Greg Casar. They are also working to ensure that the “Squad” of Ilhan Omar, Ocasio-Cortez, and other progressive representatives stay in power. 

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Zero Hour, Schroeder said, is also working on rebuilding and mobilizing for the upcoming elections: planning protests and working to elect climate-friendly candidates. “I’m hoping we’re going to see a lot of change in Congress.” 

But it’s hard to imagine that — after the disappointments of the last two years — climate activists and young people will come out for the midterm elections with the same level of strength and enthusiasm. Saad Amer, a climate activist and the co-founder of the voting rights project Plus1Vote, says that many young people are becoming disillusioned and frustrated with the political process. “Voters are actively asking: ‘What is there for me?’” he said. “‘I marched for Black Lives Matter, why haven’t we passed the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act? I marched for climate justice, where is Build Back Better?’” 

Still, Amer points out, protests and actions are continuing to happen, even if there is less media coverage and attention for them. “I know because I’m still organizing them,” he said. 

Saad Amer (center with bullhorn) participates in a “March to the Polls” protest in 2021. Reagan Petrehn

Fisher, who has spent 20 years studying climate policy and social movements, is also disillusioned. In a recent paper, she argued that without a truly massive social movement — some political scientists have argued that it will take approximately 3.5 percent of a country’s population — it is unlikely that we will see more substantive action on climate change. The surge of activism over the past few years, she says, was substantial — but not nearly enough. “It’s really unfathomable to think that anything is going to change anytime soon,” she said. “Until something really motivates a huge critical mass of Americans.”

Will that happen? There are signs, perhaps. Heat waves, droughts, and wildfires are becoming increasingly impossible to ignore — even for Republicans in Congress. Living in the American West has become an unending series of weather disasters, some of which turn the sky orange and the landscape black. Even in the best case scenarios for climate change, the world will continue warming by at least another half of a degree Celsius. That will mean even more disasters, more protests, and more anger.

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Many of the activists who devoted their lives to climate change for the past few years are tired and frustrated. “It’s definitely extremely demoralizing,” Mulholland said. “But the thing with climate change is that we just don’t have the luxury of giving up. As long as climate change continues being a problem, there will be young people who are pissed about it.” 


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Science

Global Warming Causes Fewer Tropical Cyclones

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Global Warming Causes Fewer Tropical Cyclones

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But having fewer hurricanes and typhoons does not make them less of a threat. Those that do manage to form are more likely to reach higher intensities as the world continues to heat up with the burning of fossil fuels.


Scientists have been trying for decades to answer the question of how climate change will affect tropical cyclones, given the large-scale death and destruction these storms can cause. Climate models have suggested the number of storms should decline as global temperatures rise, but that had not been confirmed in the historical record. Detailed tropical cyclone data from satellites only go back until about the 1970s, which is not long enough to pick out trends driven by global warming.


The new study worked around those limitations by using what is called a reanalysis: the highest-quality available observations are fed into a weather computer model. “That’s something which gets us close to what the observation would have looked like,” essentially “filling in the gaps,” says study co-author Savin Chand, an atmospheric scientist at Federation University Australia. This gives researchers a reasonably realistic picture of the atmosphere over time, in this case going back to 1850. Chand and his team developed an algorithm that could pick out tropical cyclones in that reanalysis data set, enabling them to look for trends over a 162-year period.

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They found the 13 percent global decrease in tropical cyclones over the period of 1900 to 2012, compared with 1850 to 1900 (the latter is widely considered a pre-global-warming reference period). There was an even larger decline of about 23 percent since around 1950, around the time global temperatures started to noticeably rise. The declines vary in different parts of the ocean. For example, the western North Pacific saw 9 percent fewer storms, and the eastern North Pacific saw 18 percent fewer over the 20th and early 21st centuries. And the North Atlantic results indicated a peculiar trend, showing an overall decrease over the past century—but with an uptick in recent decades. That shorter-term increase could be linked to natural climate variations, better detection of storms or a decrease in aerosol pollution (because aerosols have a cooling effect, and tropical cyclones thrive on warm waters).


The study provides crucial ground-truth information for evaluating climate model projections of further future changes in cyclone frequency, says Kimberly Wood, a tropical meteorologist at Mississippi State University, who was not involved with the paper.


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Chand and his colleagues link the decrease in tropical storm frequency to changes in atmospheric conditions that constrict convection—the process where warm, moist air surges upward in the atmosphere, which allows tropical cyclones to develop from small weather disturbances that act as the “seeds.” The researchers think those changes are caused by warming-driven shifts in global atmospheric circulation patterns. “It’s a pretty holistic view,” Wood says of the analysis.


But even if there are fewer tropical cyclones overall, a larger proportion of those that do form are expected to reach higher intensities because global warming is also raising sea-surface temperatures and making the atmosphere warmer and moister—the conditions these storms thrive on. “Once a tropical cyclone forms,” Chand says, “there is a lot of fuel in the atmosphere.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR(S)

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    Andrea Thompson, an associate editor at Scientific American, covers sustainability. Follow her on Twitter @AndreaTWeather Credit: Nick Higgins

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    The effect of breast cancer screening is declining

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    The effect of breast cancer screening is declining

    Screening for breast cancer has a cost. This is shown by a Danish/Norwegian study that analysed 10,580 breast cancer deaths among Norwegian women aged 50 to 75 years.

    “The beneficial effect of screening is currently declining because the treatment of cancer is improving. Over the last 25 years, the mortality rate for breast cancer has been virtually halved,” says Henrik Støvring, who is behind the study.

    According to the researcher, the problem is that screenings lead to both overdiagnosis and overtreatment, which has a cost both on a human level and in terms of the economy.

    Overdiagnosis and overtreatment

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    When the screening was introduced, the assessment was that around twenty per cent of the deaths from breast cancer among those screened could be averted. While this corresponded to approximately 220 deaths a year in Denmark 25 years ago, today the number has been halved.

    The study shows that in 1996 it was necessary to invite 731 women to avoid a single breast cancer death in Norway, you would have to invite at least 1364 and probably closer to 3500 to achieve the same result in 2016.

    On the other hand, the adverse effects of screening are unchanged.

    “One in five women aged 50-70, who is told they have breast cancer, has received a ‘superfluous’ diagnosis because of screening — without screening, they would never have noticed or felt that they had breast cancer during their lifetime,” says the researcher.

    One in five corresponds to 900 women annually in Denmark. In addition, every year more than 5000 women are told that the screening has given rise to suspicion of breast cancer — a suspicion that later turns out to be incorrect.

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    Peaceful, small nodes — but in who?

    Henrik Støvring notes that the result is not beneficial for the screening programmes. According to him, the Norwegian results can also be transferred to Denmark. Here, women between 50 and 69 are offered a mammogram screening every second year. This is an X-ray examination of the breast, which can show whether the woman has cellular changes that could be breast cancer.

    The Danish screening programme became a national programme offered to all woman in the age group in 2007 — three years after the Norwegians. Approx. 300,000 Danish women are invited to screening for breast cancer every year.

    According to the researcher, the challenge is that we are not currently able to tell the difference between the small cancer tumours that will kill you and those that will not. Some of these small nodes are so peaceful or slow-growing that the woman would die a natural death with undetected breast cancer, if she had not been screened. But once a cancer node has been discovered, it must of course be treated, even though this was not necessary for some of the women — we just do not know who.

    “The women who are invited to screening live longer because all breast cancer patients live longer, and because we have got better drugs, more effective chemotherapy, and because we now have cancer care pathways, which mean the healthcare system reacts faster than it did a decade ago,” says Henrik Støvring.

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    Story Source:

    Materials provided by Aarhus University. Original written by Helle Horskjær Hansen. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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    Thin-film photovoltaic technology combines efficiency and versatility

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    Thin-film photovoltaic technology combines efficiency and versatility

    Stacking solar cells increases their efficiency. Working with partners in the EU-funded PERCISTAND project, researchers at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) have produced perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells with an efficiency of nearly 25percent- the highest value achieved thus far with this technology. Moreover, this combination of materials is light and versatile, making it possible to envision the use of these tandem solar cells in vehicles, portable equipment, and devices that can be folded or rolled up. The researchers present their results in the journal ACS Energy Letters.

    Perovskite solar cells have made astounding progress over the past decade. Their efficiency is now comparable to that of the long-established silicon solar cells. Perovskites are innovative materials with a special crystal structure. Researchers worldwide are working to get perovskite photovoltaic technology ready for practical applications. The more electricity they generate per unit of surface area, the more attractive solar cells are for consumers

    The efficiency of solar cells can be increased by stacking two or more cells. If each of the stacked solar cells is especially efficient at absorbing light from a different part of the solar spectrum, inherent losses can be reduced and efficiency boosted. The efficiency is a measure of how much of the incident light is converted into electricity. Thanks to their versatility, perovskite solar cells make outstanding components for such tandems. Tandem solar cells using perovskites and silicon have reached a record efficiency level of over 29percent, considerably higher than that of individual cells made of perovskite (25.7percent) or silicon (26.7percent).

    Combining Perovskites with CIS for Mobility and Flexibility

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    Combining perovskites with other materials such as copper-indium-diselenide (CIS) or copper-indium-gallium-diselenide (CIGS) promises further benefits. Such combinations will make it possible to produce light and flexible tandem solar cells that can be installed not only on buildings but also on vehicles and portable equipment. Such solar cells could even be folded or rolled up for storage and extended when needed, for example on blinds or awnings to provide shade and generate electricity at the same time.

    An international team of researchers headed by Dr. Marco A. Ruiz-Preciado and tenure-track professor Ulrich W. Paetzold from the Light Technology Institute (LTI) and the Institute of Microstructure Technology (IMT) at KIT has succeeded in producing perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells with a maximum efficiency of 24.9percent (23.5percent certified). “This is the highest reported efficiency for this technology and the first high efficiency level reached at all with a nearly gallium-free copper-indium diselenide solar cell in a tandem,” says Ruiz-Preciado. Reducing the amount of gallium results in a narrow band gap of approximately one electron volt (eV), which is very close to the ideal value of 0.96eV for the lower solar cell in a tandem.

    CIS Solar Cells with Narrow Band Gap- Perovskite Solar Cells with Low Bromine Content

    The band gap is a material characteristic that determines the part of the solar spectrum that a solar cell can absorb to generate electricity. In a monolithic tandem solar cell, the band gaps must be such that the two cells can produce similar currents to achieve maximum efficiency. If the lower cell’s band gap changes, the upper cell’s band gap has to be adjusted to the change, and vice versa.

    To adjust the band gap for efficient tandem integration, perovskites with high bromine content are usually used. However, this often leads to voltage drops and phase instability. Since the KIT researchers and their partners use CIS solar cells with a narrow band gap at the base of their tandems, they can produce their upper cells using perovskites with low bromine content, which results in cells that are more stable and efficient.

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    “Our study demonstrates the potential of perovskite/CIS tandem solar cells and establishes the foundation for future development to make further improvements in their efficiency,” says Paetzold. “We’ve reached this milestone thanks to the outstanding cooperation in the EU’s PERCISTAND project and, in particular, thanks to our close cooperation with the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research.” Important groundwork was done in the CAPITANO project funded by Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Climate Action (BMWK).

    Story Source:

    Materials provided by Karlsruher Institut für Technologie (KIT). Note: Content may be edited for style and length.

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