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Americans Love Avocados. It’s Killing Mexico’s Forests. Illegal deforestation for avocado crops points to a blood-soaked trade with the United States involving threats, abductions and killings.

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A hillside seen from the air shows a large avocado field with reservoirs dotting the area.
Avocado fields and nearby reservoirs on the outskirts of Uruapan, Mexico. Avocado plants are popping up in places that are supposed to be off-limits to forest removal.

 

Americans Love Avocados. It’s Killing Mexico’s Forests.

Illegal deforestation for avocado crops points to a blood-soaked trade with the United States involving threats, abductions and killings.

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By Simon Romero and Emiliano Rodríguez Mega

Photographs by César Rodríguez

Reporting from Patuán and other sites around the state of Michoacán where deforestation is advancing.

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First the trucks arrived, carrying armed men toward the mist-shrouded mountaintop. Then the flames appeared, sweeping across a forest of towering pines and oaks.

After the fire laid waste to the forest last year, the trucks returned. This time, they carried the avocado plants taking root in the orchards scattered across the once tree-covered summit where townspeople used to forage for mushrooms.

“We never witnessed a blaze on this scale before,” said Maricela Baca Yépez, 46, a municipal official and lifelong resident of Patuán, a town nestled in the volcanic plateaus where Mexico’s Purépecha people have lived for centuries.

Map locates Patuán and several other small towns and villages in the Michoacán state of Mexico.

MEXICO

JALISCO

Zacapu

Ziracuaretiro

Zirahuén

Villa Madero

Patuán

Uruapan

MICHOACÁN

50 MILES

U.S.

MEXICO

Gulf of Mexico

Area of

detail

Mexico City

Pacific

Ocean

GUAT.

500 MILES

By The New York Times

In western Mexico forests are being razed at a breakneck pace and while deforestation in places like the Amazon rainforest or Borneo is driven by cattle ranchinggold mining and palm oil farms, in this hot spot, it is fueled by the voracious appetite in the United States for avocados.

A combination of interests, including criminal gangs, landowners, corrupt local officials and community leaders, are involved in clearing forests for avocado orchards, in some cases illegally seizing privately owned land. Virtually all the deforestation for avocados in the last two decades may have violated Mexican law, which prohibits “land-use change” without government authorization.

Since the United States started importing avocados from Mexico less than 40 years ago, consumption has skyrocketed, bolstered by marketing campaigns promoting the fruit as a heart-healthy food and year-round demand for dishes like avocado toast and California rolls. Americans eat three times as many avocados as they did two decades ago.

South of the border, satisfying the demand has come at a high cost, human rights and environmental activists say: the loss of forests, the depletion of aquifers to provide water for thirsty avocado trees and a spike in violence fueled by criminal gangs muscling in on the profitable business.

ImageA man is held aloft by a tractor arm, allowing him to cut avocados down from a tree.
A laborer cutting avocados in the state of Michoacán last month. Demand for avocados grown in Mexico has led to the destruction of forests, the depletion of aquifers and a spike in violence fueled by drug cartels.
A man is held aloft by a tractor arm, allowing him to cut avocados down from a tree.
ImageAn aerial view shows many tree trunks on the forest floor.
Trunks of trees burned in a forest fire are cut in Ziracuaretiro, Mexico. Loggers raze forests to clear space for avocado plants.
An aerial view shows many tree trunks on the forest floor.

And while the United States and Mexico both signed a 2021 United Nations agreement to “halt and reverse” deforestation by 2030, the $2.7 billion annual avocado trade between the two countries casts doubts over those climate pledges.

Mexican environmental officials have called on the United States to stop avocados grown on deforested lands from entering the American market, yet U.S. officials have taken no action, according to documents obtained by Climate Rights International, a nonprofit focused on how human rights violations contribute to climate change.

In a new report, the group identified dozens of examples of how orchards on deforested lands supply avocados to American food distributors, which in turn sell them to major American supermarket chains.

Wildfire Tracker  The latest updates on fires and danger zones in the West, delivered twice a week. 

Fresh Del Monte, one of the largest American avocado distributors, said the industry supported reforestation projects in Mexico. But, in a statement, the company also said that “Fresh Del Monte does not own farms in Mexico,” and relied on “industry collaboration” to ensure growers abided by local laws.

In western Mexico, interviews by The Times with farmers, government officials and Indigenous leaders showed how local people fighting deforestation and water theft have become targets of intimidation, abductions and shootings.

Like deforestation elsewhere, the leveling of Mexico’s pine-oak and oyamel fir forests reduces carbon storage and releases climate-warming gases. But clear-cutting for avocados, which require vast amounts of water, has ignited another crisis by draining aquifers that are a lifeline for many farmers.

One mature avocado tree uses about as much water as 14 mature pine trees, said Jeff Miller, the author of a global history of the avocado.

“You’re putting in deciduous forests of a very water hungry tree and tearing out conifer forests of not so very water hungry trees,” Mr. Miller said. “It’s just wrecking the environment.”

In parts of Mexico already on edge over turf wars among drug cartels, forest loss is fueling new conflicts and raising concerns that Mexican authorities are largely allowing illegal timber harvesters and avocado growers to act with impunity.

As soon as avocado orchards pop up in deforested areas, illegal wells appear nearby with water transported to orchards through a labyrinthine system of plastic pipes that often pilfer the water supplies of farmers growing traditional crops like tomatoes or corn.

Avocados have been consumed for thousands of years in the region, whose temperate hillsides of porous volcanic soil offer optimal growing conditions. But producing the fruit on an industrial scale for export dates only to the 1990s, when Mexico pressured the United States to end its ban on avocado imports, after opening its own market to American corn.

ImageA view down to workers sorting avocados on a conveyor belt.
Avocados being processed in a packing house in Uruapan. Avocado consumption in the United States has soared since Mexico began exporting them to the American market.
A view down to workers sorting avocados on a conveyor belt.
ImageA woman is handed a plastic bag of avocados at a market.
Michoacán is known as the ancestral cradle of the avocado in Mexico.
A woman is handed a plastic bag of avocados at a market.

Mexico now accounts for nearly 90 percent of all avocado shipments to the United States. In Michoacán, the avocado industry employs more than 300,000 workers in the state of 4.8 million, according to government figures.

The powerful association representing the Mexican avocado industry acknowledged deforestation was a problem, but said it was being addressed, including training and equipping forest fire brigades to provide early warnings when fires are started.

“Nobody wants this economic generator that is the Michoacán avocado to end,” said the association’s director, Armando López Orduña.

But in practice, some law enforcement officials say local corruption leads to major forest loss. Last month, an official with the Michoacán state prosecutor’s office for environmental crimes met with two reporters for The Times.

The official, who requested anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the environmental unit had been warned by supervisors not to investigate avocado orchards bigger than about 12 acres, even if a complaint was lodged. In turn, the official said, owners needed to pay bribes to supervisors, with amounts based on an orchard’s size.

José Jesús Reyes Mozqueda, the state environmental prosecutor, did not respond directly to the bribery accusations, but said the office had conducted numerous probes into claims of illegal deforestation related to avocados.

In Michoacán, more than 25,000 acres of avocado orchards authorized for export to the United States are on lands that were covered in forest as recently as 2014, according to environmental geographers from the University of Texas at Austin.

(An orchard must be inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for a packinghouse to process its avocados for export, though inspections focus on pest control, not on the land’s legal status.)

ImageA car drives under a sign that reads in Spanish, “Bienvenidos a Uruapan Capital Mundial Del Aguacate.”
A sign reads “Welcome to Uruapan, avocado capital of the world” at the town’s entrance. Mexico now accounts for nearly 90 percent of all avocado shipments to the United States.
A car drives under a sign that reads in Spanish, “Bienvenidos a Uruapan Capital Mundial Del Aguacate.”
ImageThree young men with crates for avocados in the back of trucks.
In Michoacán, the avocado industry employs more than 300,000 full- and part-time workers in the state of 4.8 million.
Three young men with crates for avocados in the back of trucks.

In 2021, Mexican environmental officials sent a letter to a regional manager for the U.S. Agriculture Department proposing amending an agreement governing the export of Mexican avocados to ensure they did not come from illegally deforested land.

But nothing happened. “It was ignored,” said Daniel Wilkinson, a senior adviser at Climate Rights International.

An Agriculture Department spokesman said “the lack of response to this letter is a ministerial oversight, and not an indication of policy intent.”

U.S. authorities did, however, change the agreement to authorize Jalisco — Mexico’s second-largest avocado producing state — to start exporting the fruit in 2022.

With little outside help, local anti-deforestation activists say they often find themselves waging a lonely and dangerous campaign.

An activist from the village of Villa Madero in Michoacán, who asked not to be identified out of safety concerns, described how in 2021 he was abducted and beaten by kidnappers before being released.

Purépecha leaders from Zirahuén, another Michoacán town, recounted how in 2019 gunmen from a local criminal group broke into their homes and abducted them after the leaders opposed the carving parcels of community-held lands to establish avocado orchards.

“The avocados you’re eating in the United States are bathed in blood,” said one kidnapping victim, a Purépecha man who said he had a weapon pointed at his head and asked not to be identified for fear of his safety.

In another episode that occurred near the Michoacán city of Zacapu, one man who said he had been threatened, Donaciano Arévalo, took the rare step of insisting on being named.

After buying nearly 50 acres of land, Mr. Arévalo said he discovered that men with chain saws were cutting down trees to grow avocados on his parcel, which had been sold without his knowledge.

When he failed to dislodge the squatters, he filed a complaint in 2020 with the local prosecutor’s office describing being threatened by armed men.

“I felt my heart pounding in my chest,” Mr. Arévalo, 60, recounted. “And I said, ‘These guys are going to kill me or they’re going to disappear me or they’re going to hand me over to the criminals.’”

ImageA man stands in a forest of small pine trees.
After buying nearly 50 acres of land in the area, Donaciano Arévalo said he discovered in 2016 that men with chain saws were cutting down trees on his parcel to make way for avocado plants.
A man stands in a forest of small pine trees.
Image
An environmental activist placing flowers on an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Activists in this area say they have been threatened.
An environmental activist placing flowers on an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe. Activists in this area say they have been threatened.

Still, despite the killings of two local property association leaders, Mr. Arévalo pressed ahead with his case to reclaim his land. “I haven’t stopped because it’s the only thing that I was going to leave for my children,” he said.

In Patuán, where the forest burned down last year, townspeople tried mobilizing against deforestation, setting up a 24-hour checkpoint at the town’s entrance to keep out trucks with avocado plants.

But staffing the checkpoint proved time consuming and the effort was abandoned after three months.

The trucks, avocado plants and offers of bribes started rolling in.

“People come to me,” said José León Aguilar, a municipal trustee who grows avocados. “‘You know what, Mr. Commissioner, I offer you 40,000, 50,000 pesos. Let us work.’”

“All this that is happening is our fault, because we are accomplices,” Mr. Aguilar continued. At the same time, he seemed to disavow doing anything illegal. “I never lent myself to bad things,” he said.

Even as the avocado trade is tainted by environmental abuses, violence and corruption, it is likely to continue booming. A study last year estimated that the amount of land in Michoacán used for avocado crops could increase by more than 80 percent by 2050.

“We’re aware that we cannot collapse the state economy,” said Alejandro Méndez, Michoacán’s environmental secretary. “But we are also aware that if we don’t stop this we are going to be left with nothing.”

ImageBlackened trees on a hillside.
Trees that were burned during a forest fire and will likely have to be cut down.
Blackened trees on a hillside.

Simon Romero is a correspondent in Mexico City, covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. He has served as The Times’s Brazil bureau chief, Andean bureau chief and international energy correspondent. More about Simon Romero

Emiliano Rodríguez Mega is a reporter and researcher for The Times based in Mexico City, covering Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean. More about Emiliano Rodríguez Mega

A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 29, 2023, Section A, Page 4 of the New York edition with the headline: U.S. Appetite for Avocados Is Eating Away at Mexico’s Forests. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe

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Gas Stoves, Health and Climate Change ("They" are coming for our gas stoves because gas stoves are a health hazard!)

Americans love their gas stoves. It's a romance fueled by a decades-old "cooking with gas" campaign from utilities that includes vintage advertisements, a cringeworthy 1980s rap video and, more recently, social media personalities. The details have changed over time, but the message is the same: Using a gas stove makes you a better cook.

But the beloved gas stove has become a focal point in a fight over whether gas should even exist in the 35% of U.S. homes that cook with it.

Environmental groups are focused on potential health effects. Burning gas emits pollutants that can cause or worsen respiratory illnesses. Residential appliances like gas-powered furnaces and water heaters vent pollution outside, but the stove "is the one gas appliance in your home that is most likely unvented," says Brady Seals with RMI, formerly Rocky Mountain Institute.

The focus on possible health risks from stoves is part of the broader campaign by environmentalists to kick gas out of buildings to fight climate change. Commercial and residential buildings account for about 13% of heat-trapping emissions, mainly from the use of gas appliances.

Those groups won a significant victory recently when California developed new standards that, once finalized, will require more ventilation for gas stoves than for electric ones starting in 2023. The Biden administration's climate plan also calls for government incentives that would encourage people to switch from residential gas to all-electric.

 

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As Cities Grapple With Climate Change, Gas Utilities Fight To Stay In Business

The gas utility sector sees the focus on possible health effects of stoves as a growing threat to its survival, and it's critical of groups raising the issue. In commenting on the new California standards, Ted Williams of the American Gas Association (AGA) called these groups "organizations who are first and foremost interested in electrification for climate concerns." He said they "have glommed onto indoor air quality as being a soft spot in the issue of direct use of natural gas."

The gas utility industry is fighting to preserve its business by downplaying existing science on gas stoves and indoor air quality. It points out that federal regulators have declined to regulate gas stoves more stringently. And it is investing in a range of campaigns to remind customers that cooking with gas is cheaper.

This battle is aimed at influencing your decision the next time you buy a new cookstove.

Environmental epidemiologist Josiah Kephart studies pollution from cooking. He says it's his family's highest priority to get rid of their gas stove and replace it with a less-polluting electric one.

Jeff Brady/NPR

An epidemiologist reconsiders his gas stove

Josiah Kephart is an environmental epidemiologist at Drexel University in Philadelphia who researches indoor air pollution from cookstoves in Latin America. On a sunny summer morning we met in his kitchen to test the pollution from his family's gas stove.

If you have an electric stove, the energy for cooking may come from fossil fuels, but the combustion happens at a power plant far away, Kephart says. "When you have a gas stove, that combustion is actually occurring right in your kitchen — you can see the blue flame down there," he says. "There is no smoke-free combustion."

The most common pollutants from gas stoves are nitrogen dioxide (NO2), carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. Advocates now are mostly focused on NO2, which the Environmental Protection Agency says is a toxic gas that even in low concentrations can trigger breathing problems for people with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

To learn how much NO2 Kephart's gas stove releases, NPR rented an air monitor.

Kephart has two young children, and research, including this 1992 study, shows that kids who live in a home with a gas stove have about a 20% increased risk of developing respiratory illness.

A nitrogen dioxide air monitor in Josiah Kephart's kitchen shows 0.159 parts per million, or 159 parts per billion. That's above the World Health Organization hourly guideline of 106 ppb.

Jeff Brady/NPR

At first, the air monitor shows background levels in Kephart's kitchen are about 24 parts per billion (ppb). That's expected for a home with a gas stove, but still higher than the World Health Organization (WHO) annual average guideline of 5 ppb. The EPA does not have standards for indoor NO2 levels.

Kephart starts by boiling a pot of water and baking blueberry muffins. "So this is supposed to be a very normal scenario of cooking a meal in the kitchen: We have the oven on 375 and one stove burner on," he says.

After 12 minutes, the monitor starts to spike, showing NO2 levels of 168 ppb. "So now we have exceeded the [WHO] hourly guideline of 106 ppb by about 50%," says Kephart. "If you have kids or any sort of lung condition, this is at a level where, in the literature — in the science — we have seen people start to have these changes in their lungs that could give them worse symptoms or could worsen their disease."

After half an hour, the air monitor shows 207 ppb — nearly twice the WHO guideline.

There is no hood over Kephart's stove to vent the pollution outside. Instead, like many Philadelphia row houses, there's an old room fan high up in a wall. It vents outside, but even after Kephart turns it on, NO2 levels remain high. Kephart says that's because the fan is about 6 feet away.

 

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We head upstairs to check NO2 levels in his children's bedroom. At first, levels are low because the bedroom door is closed and a window is open to let in fresh air. With the door open, just a few minutes later the levels rise to 109 ppb, exceeding the WHO guideline.

Kephart's family moved into this row house about a year ago, and his wife likes cooking on a gas stove. But, he says, "It's our highest family priority to get it out and to get an electric stove."

He says it's not a given that having a gas stove in your home will make you sick or lead to asthma. It's a risk calculation. "If you have a large kitchen with really up-to-date ventilation systems," he says, "and you have a healthy body, this may not be your biggest concern or the biggest risk to your health."

But when it comes to his children, Kephart is extra cautious. "It doesn't make any sense to me to add to the risk of them developing asthma or other respiratory diseases by having this source of pollution right inside our house," he says.

No federal agency regulates gas stove emissions

Federal agencies, including the EPA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), say they are paying attention to the gas stove pollution issue. But none has moved to regulate potentially harmful emissions, a point the gas industry emphasizes to dismiss concerns about possible health effects of stoves.

"Someone's going to have to claim this issue and really make a change, because I think as more consumers learn about it, you feel upset," says Seals with RMI.

RMI and three other environmental groups issued a report last year labeling gas stove emissions a threat to human health. They called on policymakers to regulate them more strictly and provide incentives for Americans to switch to electric.

 

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Research into the possible health effects of residential stoves isn't news to the gas industry.

For decades, gas utilities themselves and their powerful trade group, the AGA, have conducted their own research on stove pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide. That work even led to new ways of reducing NO2 pollution, such as this patent for inserting a metal rod into the flame to lower the temperature and reduce NO2 emissions. In 1990, a big step was getting rid of pilot lights that burn 24 hours a day. Still, it's not possible to entirely eliminate emissions when burning an unvented fossil fuel in your home.

Now, the gas utility industry sees this growing research on health effects of stoves as an existential threat. The AGA responded to the RMI study by pushing back. It released public fact sheets to counter the report and rebuttals to individual articles in The Wall Street JournalThe Atlantic and on The Weather Channel.

Internally, the AGA developed a response plan that lays out a timeline for rebutting the RMI report. The timeline was obtained by the environmental watchdog group Climate Investigations Center through a public records request and shared with NPR.

The AGA planned a new research project comparing emissions from electric stoves to gas ones. Vice President for Communications Jennifer O'Shea offered no details about the results so far. "We continue to focus on this important issue to ensure that consumers understand the benefits and safety around cooking with gas," she said in an email. "We will keep you posted as we have new data to share."

 

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The AGA responds to indoor air quality concerns for gas stoves by pointing out that cooking fumes come from all types of stoves. While those can be a significant source of air pollution, scientists specifically identified homes with a gas stove as a risk for children in the 1992 study. The AGA dismisses the research as a literature review of other studies. But the World Health Organization cites the study and others in developing its most-recent indoor air pollution guidelines.

Your stove just needs to vent

To reduce NO2 emissions in your home, the EPA suggests using an exhaust fan above your gas stove that's vented to the outdoors. The AGA says that while all gas-fired residential cooking ranges are designed to operate without outdoor ventilation, installing one can improve indoor air quality.

In the absence of federal oversight, California is taking action. The California Energy Commission (CEC) has approved standards that would require extra ventilation for gas stoves over electric ones. Smaller living spaces would require even stronger hoods for gas stoves because pollutants reach unhealthy levels faster.

If the rules take effect as planned in 2023, the CEC staff believes they would be the first requirement of this kind in the nation. The rules also would be a significant win for the environmental groups trying to raise concern about the effects of gas stoves on indoor air quality.

In comments to the CEC, the AGA was critical of the proposed standards, saying such decisions should be made at the federal level and through voluntary standards organizations. But federal agencies are moving slowly on this issue, and scientists say the world needs to take dramatic steps now to avoid the worst effects of climate change, including reining in gas use.

The climate connection to your stove

The gas line out the back of your stove is connected to a production and supply chain that leaks methane from start to finish.

Gas stoves emit pollution into your house and they are connected to a production and supply system that leaks the powerful greenhouse gas methane during drilling, fracking, processing and transport.

Meredith Miotke for NPR

"Methane, which is what natural gas is made of, just really wants to leak," says Seals with RMI. That's a problem because methane is a much more potent greenhouse gas than even carbon dioxide, though it doesn't linger in the atmosphere nearly as long.

President Biden's climate plan includes a goal to cut the carbon footprint of buildings in half by 2035 through incentives to retrofit homes and businesses with electric appliances and furnaces.

The AGA says methane emissions from gas utilities account for 2.7% of all greenhouse gas emissions, and they've declined nearly 70% since 1990, even as utilities have added customers. But the rest of the supply chain also leaks methane, including drilling, fracking, processing and transport. Some equipment is designed to vent, but much of the gas that escapes is unintentional and has been linked to tree deaths in places such as Boston and Philadelphia.

In recent years, natural gas has been credited with reducing carbon dioxide emissions as cleaner-burning gas power plants replaced coal ones. The overall gas industry, including big oil companies with natural gas holdings, has worked to reduce emissions and supported efforts to more strictly regulate methane emissions. But to avoid the worst consequences of climate change, scientists say most of the world's fossil fuels, including nearly half of the gas reserves, will have to stay in the ground.

 

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Biden's plan also sets a goal of net-zero emissions across the economy by 2050. A growing list of studies, such as ones from Princeton UniversityLawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and the National Academy of Sciences, find that meeting that goal will require electrifying buildings, making appliances more efficient, and powering them mostly with emission-free sources like renewable energy.

AGA President and CEO Karen Harbert often says her industry wants to be part of solving the climate problem and has developed a position statement on the issue. "If the goal is to reduce emissions, we're all in," she told NPR earlier this year. "If the goal is to put us out of business, not so much."

 

Natural Gas Companies Have Their Own Plans To Go Low-Carbon

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Harbert's industry also says it's developing cleaner alternatives, including so-called renewable natural gas from landfills and manure, that can be mixed with hydrogen and run through the existing utility pipeline network.

The gas stove is a "gateway appliance"

To encourage more people to ditch natural gas, environmentalists are focusing on the gas stove. At first it may seem like an odd choice because other gas-burning devices in the home consume more fuel, notably furnaces.

But the stove is seen as a "gateway appliance" that drives the building of a vast fossil fuel infrastructure from wellhead to home. Talk to builders and real estate agents and many will say buyers want a gas stove. And gas utilities have helped fuel that assumption.

"We have to start talking about electrifying our buildings, and it's just really not that sexy to talk about your water heater, but you probably can talk to your friends about their stove," says RMI's Seals. And once the switch to an electric stove happens, the thinking is that people will be more likely to switch water heaters, dryers and furnaces too.

It's not just environmental groups signing on to widespread electrification. The New England Journal of Medicine recently published an opinion piece by three physicians who recommended that "new gas appliances be removed from the market," along with ending industry subsidies and banning new gas hookups in buildings.

The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, wants the federal government to offer incentives to switch from gas to electric appliances, water heaters and furnaces. The group says that to meet the goal of limiting global warming to under 3 degrees Fahrenheit, switching to electric appliances has to happen now, because if new gas appliances replace old ones, they can last, and keep polluting, for decades. Earth has already warmed about 2 degrees Fahrenheit since the mid-1800s.

Jane Stackhouse points to the electric heat pump (left) that replaced a gas furnace and to a more efficient electric water heater (right). Her utility bills are about the same, but now she also has air conditioning for extra warm days made worse by climate change.

Jane Stackhouse

She got rid of gas for her grandchildren

Jane Stackhouse of Portland, Ore., is among a small group of people who already have chosen to disconnect from their local gas utility. She did this last year after Republican state lawmakers successfully blocked a climate-focused "cap and trade" bill.

In response, Stackhouse says she decided that "I had control over this duplex that I own, and so I started looking for a contractor who would make me all electric."

She replaced the gas stove, furnace and fireplace in each unit, then installed more efficient electric water heaters. For both sides of the duplex it cost her more than $35,000. She says her utility bills remained about the same even though she added air conditioning to deal with increasingly hot summers in Portland.

Stackhouse says it makes her verklempt to think about how climate change will affect her grandchildren's lives: "It was my wee contribution to helping clean things up."

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