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5 Ways Climate-Denier-in-Chief Spells Doom for the Environment

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By Reynard Loki

If the world's governments don't prevent the planet's surface temperature from increasing more than 2 C, then life on Earth will become a difficult proposition for many humans, animals and plants. Glaciers will melt, sea levels will rise, crops will fail, water availability will decrease and diseases will proliferate. Some areas will experience more wildfires and extreme heat; in others, more hurricanes and extreme storms. Coastal cities and possibly entire nations will be swallowed by the sea. There will be widespread social and economic instability, leading to regional conflicts.

Considering that the U.S. is the world's second biggest emitter behind China, accounting for 16 percent of cumulative global greenhouse gas emissions, the climate decisions President Donald Trump and the Republican-controlled Congress make will be critical for future generations. But he has shown no sign that he's remotely interested in tackling what climate scientist James Hansen calls "humanity's greatest challenge."

Contrary to the view of the international scientific community, Trump has called climate change a "con job" and a "myth." In 2012 he tweeted that "the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive." He cited cold winter weather as evidence that global warming isn't real, tweeting during a 2014 winter blizzard, "The entire country is freezing—we desperately need a heavy dose of global warming and fast! Ice caps size reaches all time high."

So, what could America's newly elected climate-denier-in-chief do to undermine action on the climate threat? Here are five ways President Donald J. Trump could spell doom for the planet.

1. Dismantle the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Trump said would get rid of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the agency created in 1970 by President Richard Nixon that has become the nation's main federal lever for mitigating the impacts of climate change. "Environmental Protection, what they do is a disgrace," he told Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace in October of last year. "Every week they come out with new regulations. They're making it impossible."

When Wallace asked him who would protect the environment, Trump replied, "We'll be fine with the environment. … We can leave a little bit, but you can't destroy businesses." During the GOP presidential debate on March 3, he hammered the EPA again, saying he would "get rid of [EPA] in almost every form. We are going to have little tidbits left but we are going to take a tremendous amount out."

But he has since backtracked, saying in September that he'll "refocus the EPA on its core mission of ensuring clean air, and clean, safe drinking water for all Americans." Still, his more moderate tone should offer little solace for environmentalists. Last month at a roundtable in Boynton Beach, Florida, he committed to cutting EPA regulations "70 to 80 percent."

The person currently running the EPA working group on Trump's transition team—and a leading candidate to become the agency's next administrator—is Myron Ebell, the director of energy and environment policy at the conservative think tank Competitive Enterprise Institute, who the Financial Times called "one of America's most prominent climate-change skeptics." Ebell, whose work has been funded by some of the nation's worst polluters, like Murray Energy, the nation's largest coal mining company, said, "I would like to have more funding [from big coal] so that I can combat the nonsense put out by the environmental movement."

2. Reopen Shuttered Coal Mines

Among all fossil fuels, coal is the dirtiest. When it's burned, it produces more pollution than oil, gasoline and natural gas. And though we burn 8 billion tons of coal every year to fuel around 33 percent of the nation's electricity generation, the industry has been slumping in the face of low natural gas prices and sluggish growth in electricity demand.

In January, the coal industry received a major blow when Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued a federal moratorium on the issuing of new coal mining leases on public lands across the U.S. as her department conducts a review of the program, the first in more than three decades.

The death knell of the coal industry has been good news for environmentalists and renewable energy advocates, but a Trump regime may breathe new life into coal. One of his top candidates to replace Jewell is oil industry executive Forrest Lucas, co-founder of Lucas Oil. During his victory speech after securing the GOP presidential nomination in May, Trump said, "Let me tell you, the miners in West Virginia and Pennsylvania ... they're going to start to work again, believe me. You're going to be proud again to be miners."

While it is unlikely that President Trump can completely reverse the steady decline in coal jobs, which has taken place over decades, he can instruct his Interior Secretary to end Jewell's lease moratorium. He can reverse Obama's clean air and water initiatives that the coal industry views as job killers. He can push coal subsidies through Congress in the form of direct spending, low-interest loans and loan forgiveness, tax breaks and tax exemptions, and discounted royalty fees for the right to mine on federal land.

3. Pull the U.S. Out of Paris Climate Agreement

The U.S. is the world's second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China. The nation's pledge to the Paris climate agreement, which aims to keep the global surface temperature increase to a maximum of 2 C to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, is to avoid 22 billion tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions between 2016 and 2030. That amounts to about a fifth of the total of all the nations that have signed the accord.

The problem with the Paris agreement is that it is a non-binding treaty; there is no punishment for nations that don't meet their carbon reduction target. In May, when Trump outlined his energy policy in a prepared speech in Bismarck, North Dakota, he castigated "draconian" climate rules, pledging to "cancel" the Paris climate agreement and withdraw funding for climate-related United Nations programs.

What would happen if Trump pulled America out of the accord, something he could technically accomplish in several ways?

"I think the rest of the world would be less likely to take action on their own part and do their own share," said Andrew Jones, co-director of Climate Interactive, a Washington, DC-based think tank.

4. Approve the Keystone XL Pipeline

Last November, following a seven-year review, President Obama rejected the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, which would transport crude oil from the oil sands in Alberta, Canada, through Montana and into Nebraska.

In August of last year, Trump tweeted, "If I am elected President I will immediately approve the Keystone XL pipeline. No impact on environment & lots of jobs for U.S." With Trump set to enter the White House in January, the pipeline plans have been resuscitated as TransCanada, the company behind the proposed 1,179-mile pipeline, announced plans on Wednesday to meet with the president-elect's camp. "TransCanada remains fully committed to building Keystone XL," Mark Cooper, a spokesman for the company, said in a statement emailed to the Huffington Post. After conducting environmental impact review, the U.S. State Department said it was likely that the pipeline, which crosses thousands of rivers and streams, including several major rivers like the Yellowstone and Platte, would experience spills.

"I want it built, but I want a piece of the profits," Trump said in May. "That's how we're going to make our country rich again."

5. Reduce Investment in Clean Energy

Speaking in November of last year in Newton, Iowa, Trump said "wind is a problem," calling it "a very expensive form of energy." However, the fact is that in some parts of the nation, like Texas and in particular Iowa—the state that generates the highest amount of wind power as a percentage of its total energy portfolio—wind energy is cheaper than coal or gas-powered energy.

According to projections by the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average rate for new combined cycle natural gas-fired plants (which use both a gas and a steam turbine) going online in 2018 will be around $48 per megawatt hour (MWh). The agency said that the 2018 unsubsidized rate for onshore wind farms will be $51.9/MWh, but with subsidies, that rate drops to $34/MW—cheaper than gas.

Speaking in Fresno in May, Trump said, "I know a lot about solar. I love solar," but added that there are "a lot of problems with it. One problem is it's too expensive."

He's right on that front, as solar power is pricier than wind, with the U.S. Energy Information Administration projecting the cost for solar in 2018 at $71/MWh without subsidies and $53.5/MWh with subsidies. But abandoning solar installations today will stifle the downward trend in cost: Since 2011, the price of a solar panel has declined an impressive 60 percent.

Today, around 209,000 American workers fill solar-related jobs in more than 8,000 companies. That's more than double the number of solar workers in 2010. By 2020, the number of solar workers is expected to more than double, with 420,000 Americans employed in the industry. Government subsidies in solar, which was around $24 billion from 2014 to 2018, helped lower costs by at least 10 percent a year.

Together, wind and solar generate less than 5 percent of America's electricity. But renewable energy advocates argue that we have the technology to move the nation to 100 percent clean energy in the coming decades. "For the first time in human history, we're actually at a place, technologically speaking, where we can make this transition," actor/activist Mark Ruffalo told Mother Jones in 2014.

But Trump has signaled the opposite: investing more in fossil fuels and less in renewable energy. The biggest wind power tax credit has already expired, while the most important solar power tax credit is set to expire at the end of this year. Trump is unlikely to renew them.

Is There Any Hope?

Could President Trump surprise freaked-out environmentalists and be green? If we've learned anything this election season, it's not to be surprised by anything Trump says. On the campaign trail, has has shown he can change his views, for better or worse, or at least be fluid with them—when it suits his purpose.

In May, for example, Politico reported that the billionaire's application for permission to erect coastal protection at his seaside golf resort, Trump International Golf Links & Hotel Ireland, in County Clare, explicitly cited the consequences of global warming as the main justification for building the sea wall. The zoning application noted that the wall was necessary to protect the course from "global warming and its effects." And during the first presidential debate in September, Trump denied ever saying that climate change was a Chinese hoax (though his tweet saying that is still on his Twitter feed).

The fact remains that executive power is balanced by Congress and the Supreme Court. "Trump would find himself hemmed in by the built-in limitations on presidential power. One of these is Congress," said John Sides, an associate professor of public policy at George Washington University. "There are others—including divided government, bureaucratic inertia and public opinion. He would be no different than any other president in this respect."

Looking past the next four years, there is some promise: Young voters between the ages of 18 and 25 overwhelmingly voted for a non-Trumpian vision.

"I know the youth voted for the future that so many of us yearn for. A future where there is a greater sense of shared abundance and responsibility to one another, our nation and our planet," said John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, in an email. "This fills me with enormous hope. Without a doubt, the ushering in of Trump is belied by our future generations speaking loudly and clearly that they intend to bring forward a better world."

Time to Redouble Efforts

While the Trump presidency gives much to worry about when it comes to the health of the planet, many green leaders joined Horning in striking a hopeful tone, seeking to mobilize more action on climate change and the environment.

"Fear may have won this election, but bravery, hope and perseverance will overcome," said Annie Leonard, the executive director of Greenpeace USA. She called on those who didn't vote for Trump to "use this moment to re-energize the fight for the climate and the fight for human rights around the world."

Wenonah Hauter, the executive director of Food & Water Watch, called Trump's victory a "major disaster." In a statement, she said:

"Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration will likely be filled with people who will benefit financially from more fracking, more industrial agriculture and factory farms, and expanded deregulation masquerading as trade policy. The people he has indicated will be in his cabinet are the same people who have advocated policies that are destroying our climate and creating a society marked by stratification and racial prejudice."

But Hauter also offered a motivational spark, saying, "We must redouble our efforts to build a movement that holds our elected officials accountable—and that provides a counterweight to the big business interests that continue to look out only for profits."

That could mean working more on a local level, where the long arm of Washington, DC, doesn't reach, through state- or city-wide initiatives. On Election Day, for example, voters in Monterey County, California's fourth-largest oil-producing county, passed Measure Z to ban fracking. Golden State voters also narrowly passed Prop 67, which bans grocery stores and selected retail outlets from handing out single-use plastic bags. Voters in Alabama passed ballot measure SB260, a statewide amendment that will end the practice of spending revenues generated at state parks for purposes other than maintaining the parks. Plus, many cities and states will continue their own carbon emission reduction plans.

Environmentalists' Toughest Test

Donald Trump's most enduring legacy as president may be the lasting damage he does to the environment. If you're concerned about that, the next four years promises to be a rough ride, but now is the time to get involved in the fight for the health of the planet and all the creatures who call it home.

As Greenpeace's Leonard pointed out, "Millions of people around the world have all the power we need to combat climate change and create a just world for everyone." While she may be right, that sentiment is set to face its toughest test yet: The 45th president of the U.S.

Reposted with permission from our media associate AlterNet.

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Brazilians living in The Netherlands organized a demonstration in solidarity with rainforest protectors and against the president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro on Sept. 1 in The Hague, Netherlands. Romy Arroyo Fernandez / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Tara Smith

Fires in the Brazilian Amazon have jumped 84 percent during President Jair Bolsonaro's first year in office and in July 2019 alone, an area of rainforest the size of Manhattan was lost every day. The Amazon fires may seem beyond human control, but they're not beyond human culpability.

Bolsonaro ran for president promising to "integrate the Amazon into the Brazilian economy". Once elected, he slashed the Brazilian environmental protection agency budget by 95 percent and relaxed safeguards for mining projects on indigenous lands. Farmers cited their support for Bolsonaro's approach as they set fires to clear rainforest for cattle grazing.

Bolsonaro's vandalism will be most painful for the indigenous people who call the Amazon home. But destruction of the world's largest rainforest may accelerate climate change and so cause further suffering worldwide. For that reason, Brazil's former environment minister, Marina Silva, called the Amazon fires a crime against humanity.

From a legal perspective, this might be a helpful way of prosecuting environmental destruction. Crimes against humanity are international crimes, like genocide and war crimes, which are considered to harm both the immediate victims and humanity as a whole. As such, all of humankind has an interest in their punishment and deterrence.

Historical Precedent

Crimes against humanity were first classified as an international crime during the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II. Two German Generals, Alfred Jodl and Lothar Rendulic, were charged with war crimes for implementing scorched earth policies in Finland and Norway. No one was charged with crimes against humanity for causing the unprecedented environmental damage that scarred the post-war landscapes though.

Our understanding of the Earth's ecology has matured since then, yet so has our capacity to pollute and destroy. It's now clear that the consequences of environmental destruction don't stop at national borders. All humanity is placed in jeopardy when burning rainforests flood the atmosphere with CO₂ and exacerbate climate change.

Holding someone like Bolsonaro to account for this by charging him with crimes against humanity would be a world first. If successful, it could set a precedent which might stimulate more aggressive legal action against environmental crimes. But do the Amazon fires fit the criteria?

Prosecuting crimes against humanity requires proof of widespread and systematic attacks against a civilian population. If a specific part of the global population is persecuted, this is an affront to the global conscience. In the same way, domestic crimes are an affront to the population of the state in which they occur.

When prosecuting prominent Nazis in Nuremberg, the US chief prosecutor, Robert Jackson, argued that crimes against humanity are committed by individuals, not abstract entities. Only by holding individuals accountable for their actions can widespread atrocities be deterred in future.

The International Criminal Court's Chief Prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, has promised to apply the approach first developed in Nuremberg to prosecute individuals for international crimes that result in significant environmental damage. Her recommendations don't create new environmental crimes, such as "ecocide", which would punish severe environmental damage as a crime in itself. They do signal, however, a growing appreciation of the role that environmental damage plays in causing harm and suffering to people.

The International Criminal Court was asked in 2014 to open an investigation into allegations of land-grabbing by the Cambodian government. In Cambodia, large corporations and investment firms were being given prime agricultural land by the government, displacing up to 770,000 Cambodians from 4m hectares of land. Prosecuting these actions as crimes against humanity would be a positive first step towards holding individuals like Bolsonaro accountable.

But given the global consequences of the Amazon fires, could environmental destruction of this nature be legally considered a crime against all humanity? Defining it as such would be unprecedented. The same charge could apply to many politicians and business people. It's been argued that oil and gas executives who've funded disinformation about climate change for decades should be chief among them.

Charging individuals for environmental crimes against humanity could be an effective deterrent. But whether the law will develop in time to prosecute people like Bolsonaro is, as yet, uncertain. Until the International Criminal Court prosecutes individuals for crimes against humanity based on their environmental damage, holding individuals criminally accountable for climate change remains unlikely.

This story originally appeared in The Conversation. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Author, social activist and filmmaker Naomi Klein speaking on the one year anniversary of Hurricane Maria on Sept. 20, 2018. Erik McGregor / Pacific Press / LightRocket / Getty Images

By Natalie Hanman

Why are you publishing this book now?

I still feel that the way that we talk about climate change is too compartmentalised, too siloed from the other crises we face. A really strong theme running through the book is the links between it and the crisis of rising white supremacy, the various forms of nationalism and the fact that so many people are being forced from their homelands, and the war that is waged on our attention spans. These are intersecting and interconnecting crises and so the solutions have to be as well.

The book collects essays from the last decade, have you changed your mind about anything?

When I look back, I don't think I placed enough emphasis on the challenge climate change poses to the left. It's more obvious the way the climate crisis challenges a rightwing dominant worldview, and the cult of serious centrism that never wants to do anything big, that's always looking to split the difference. But this is also a challenge to a left worldview that is essentially only interested in redistributing the spoils of extractivism [the process of extracting natural resources from the earth] and not reckoning with the limits of endless consumption.

What's stopping the left doing this?

In a North American context, it's the greatest taboo of all to actually admit that there are going to be limits. You see that in the way Fox News has gone after the Green New Deal – they are coming after your hamburgers! It cuts to the heart of the American dream – every generation gets more than the last, there is always a new frontier to expand to, the whole idea of settler colonial nations like ours. When somebody comes along and says, actually, there are limits, we've got some tough decisions, we need to figure out how to manage what's left, we've got to share equitably – it is a psychic attack. And so the response [on the left] has been to avoid, and say no, no, we're not coming to take away your stuff, there are going to be all kinds of benefits. And there aregoing to be benefits: we'll have more livable cities, we'll have less polluted air, we'll spend less time stuck in traffic, we can design happier, richer lives in so many ways. But we are going to have to contract on the endless, disposable consumption side.

Do you feel encouraged by talk of the Green New Deal?

I feel a tremendous excitement and a sense of relief, that we are finally talking about solutions on the scale of the crisis we face. That we're not talking about a little carbon tax or a cap and trade scheme as a silver bullet. We're talking about transforming our economy. This system is failing the majority of people anyway, which is why we're in this period of such profound political destabilisation – that is giving us the Trumps and the Brexits, and all of these strongman leaders – so why don't we figure out how to change everything from bottom to top, and do it in a way that addresses all of these other crises at the same time? There is every chance we will miss the mark, but every fraction of a degree warming that we are able to hold off is a victory and every policy that we are able to win that makes our societies more humane, the more we will weather the inevitable shocks and storms to come without slipping into barbarism. Because what really terrifies me is what we are seeing at our borders in Europe and North America and Australia – I don't think it's coincidental that the settler colonial states and the countries that are the engines of that colonialism are at the forefront of this. We are seeing the beginnings of the era of climate barbarism. We saw it in Christchurch, we saw it in El Paso, where you have this marrying of white supremacist violence with vicious anti-immigrant racism.

That is one of the most chilling sections of your book: I think that's a link a lot of people haven't made.

This pattern has been clear for a while. White supremacy emerged not just because people felt like thinking up ideas that were going to get a lot of people killed but because it was useful to protect barbaric but highly profitable actions. The age of scientific racism begins alongside the transatlantic slave trade, it is a rationale for that brutality. If we are going to respond to climate change by fortressing our borders, then of course the theories that would justify that, that create these hierarchies of humanity, will come surging back. There have been signs of that for years, but it is getting harder to deny because you have killers who are screaming it from the rooftops.

One criticism you hear about the environment movement is that it is dominated by white people. How do you address that?

When you have a movement that is overwhelmingly representative of the most privileged sector of society then the approach is going to be much more fearful of change, because people who have a lot to lose tend to be more fearful of change, whereas people who have a lot to gain will tend to fight harder for it. That's the big benefit of having an approach to climate change that links it to those so called bread and butter issues: how are we going to get better paid jobs, affordable housing, a way for people to take care of their families?

I have had many conversations with environmentalists over the years where they seem really to believe that by linking fighting climate change with fighting poverty, or fighting for racial justice, it's going to make the fight harder. We have to get out of this "my crisis is bigger than your crisis: first we save the planet and then we fight poverty and racism, and violence against women". That doesn't work. That alienates the people who would fight hardest for change.

This debate has shifted a huge amount in the U.S. because of the leadership of the climate justice movement and because it is congresswomen of colour who are championing the Green New Deal. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaibcome from communities that have gotten such a raw deal under the years of neoliberalism and longer, and are determined to represent, truly represent, the interests of those communities. They're not afraid of deep change because their communities desperately need it.

In the book, you write: "The hard truth is that the answer to the question 'What can I, as an individual, do to stop climate change?' is: nothing." Do you still believe that?

In terms of the carbon, the individual decisions that we make are not going to add up to anything like the kind of scale of change that we need. And I do believe that the fact that for so many people it's so much more comfortable to talk about our own personal consumption, than to talk about systemic change, is a product of neoliberalism, that we have been trained to see ourselves as consumers first. To me that's the benefit of bringing up these historical analogies, like the New Deal or the Marshall Plan – it brings our minds back to a time when we were able to think of change on that scale. Because we've been trained to think very small. It is incredibly significant that Greta Thunberg has turned her life into a living emergency.

Yes, she set sail for the UN climate summit in New York on a zero carbon yacht ...

Exactly. But this isn't about what Greta is doing as an individual. It's about what Greta is broadcasting in the choices that she makes as an activist, and I absolutely respect that. I think it's magnificent. She is using the power that she has to broadcast that this is an emergency, and trying to inspire politicians to treat it as an emergency. I don't think anybody is exempt from scrutinising their own decisions and behaviours but I think it is possible to overemphasise the individual choices. I have made a choice – and this has been true since I wrote No Logo, and I started getting these "what should I buy, where should I shop, what are the ethical clothes?" questions. My answer continues to be that I am not a lifestyle adviser, I am not anyone's shopping guru, and I make these decisions in my own life but I'm under no illusion that these decisions are going to make the difference.

Some people are choosing to go on birth strikes. What do you think about that?

I'm happy these discussions are coming into the public domain as opposed to being furtive issues we're afraid to talk about. It's been very isolating for people. It certainly was for me. One of the reasons I waited as long as I did to try and get pregnant, and I would say this to my partner all the time – what, you want to have a Mad Max water warrior fighting with their friends for food and water? It wasn't until I was part of the climate justice movement and I could see a path forward that I could even imagine having a kid. But I would never tell anybody how to answer this most intimate of questions. As a feminist who knows the brutal history of forced sterilisation and the ways in which women's bodies become battle zones when policymakers decide that they are going to try and control population, I think that the idea that there are regulatory solutions when it comes to whether or not to have kids is catastrophically ahistorical. We need to be struggling with our climate grief together and our climate fears together, through whatever decision we decide to make, but the discussion we need to have is how do we build a world so that those kids can have thriving, zero-carbon lives?

Over the summer, you encouraged people to read Richard Powers's novel, The Overstory. Why?

It's been incredibly important to me and I'm happy that so many people have written to me since. What Powers is writing about trees: that trees live in communities and are in communication, and plan and react together, and we've been completely wrong in the way we conceptualise them. It's the same conversation we're having about whether we are going to solve this as individuals or whether we are going to save the collective organism. It's also rare, in good fiction, to valorise activism, to treat it with real respect, failures and all, to acknowledge the heroism of the people who put their bodies on the line. I thought Powers did that in a really extraordinary way.

What are you views on what Extinction Rebellion has achieved?

One thing they have done so well is break us out of this classic campaign model we have been in for a long time, where you tell someone something scary, you ask them to click on something to do something about it, you skip out the whole phase where we need to grieve together and feel together and process what it is that we just saw. Because what I hear a lot from people is, ok, maybe those people back in the 1930s or 40s could organise neighbourhood by neighbourhood or workplace by workplace but we can't. We believe we've been so downgraded as a species that we are incapable of that. The only thing that is going to change that belief is getting face to face, in community, having experiences, off our screens, with one another on the streets and in nature, and winning some things and feeling that power.

You talk about stamina in the book. How do you keep going? Do you feel hopeful?

I have complicated feelings about the hope question. Not a day goes by that I don't have a moment of sheer panic, raw terror, complete conviction that we are doomed, and then I do pull myself out of it. I'm renewed by this new generation that is so determined, so forceful. I'm inspired by the willingness to engage in electoral politics, because my generation, when we were in our 20s and 30s, there was so much suspicion around getting our hands dirty with electoral politics that we lost a lot of opportunities. What gives me the most hope right now is that we've finally got the vision for what we want instead, or at least the first rough draft of it. This is the first time this has happened in my lifetime. And also, I did decide to have kids. I have a seven year old who is so completely obsessed and in love with the natural world. When I think about him, after we've spent an entire summer talking about the role of salmon in feeding the forests where he was born in British Columbia, and how they are linked to the health of the trees and the soil and the bears and the orcas and this entire magnificent ecosystem, and I think about what it would be like to have to tell him that there are no more salmon, it kills me. So that motivates me. And slays me.

This story was originally published by The Guardian, and is republished here as part of the Covering Climate Now partnership to strengthen the media's focus on the climate crisis.

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