Ecuadorians 40+ Year Fight Against Chevron Continues Into 2014
By Adam Chimienti
“This is the Court of Chancery … which gives to monied might the means abundantly of wearying out the right, which so exhausts finances, patience, courage, hope, so overthrows the brain and breaks the heart …" — Charles Dickens, Bleak House
The court proceedings in the case of the 21st century, between multinational oil giant Chevron and the Ecuadorian Amazon communities affected by oil contamination, are reminiscent of the muddled legal saga around which Dickens' Bleak House is centered. As with the parties in the 1853 novel, the plaintiffs have been denied justice over the course of many years. Their plight will continue into 2014.
Of course, this could've been the year when one of the world's most profitable corporations realized that it was no longer worth dragging its feet and finally figured out a way to rectify the damage that Texaco (acquired by Chevron in 2001) committed while exploiting the major oil reserves in the country beginning in the late 1960s.
This could've been the year when U.S. judges rebuked Chevron and discouraged any further attempt to deny the damage the company is responsible for.
This was the year when Ecuador's Supreme Court reduced the judgment back to the original amount of $9.5 billion, less the punitive damages applied after Chevron refused to apologize.
This was also the year when proceedings in other countries took some interesting turns, like the recent decision in the Ontario Court of Appeal, lifting the hopes of the affected populations. This latest ruling, which overturned an earlier decision that Chevron Canada's assets are not directly owned by the U.S. corporation, will likely result in the case being brought before the Supreme Court of Canada.
Chevron relies on armies of lawyers and its allies in the press to confound the issues. Yet, in this peculiar case, there is so much more than meets the eye. For example, Chevron has capitalized on the Ecuadorian government's hypocrisy when it comes to environmental matters. In 2013, it became increasingly evident that the progressive environmental language in the 2008 constitution is not nearly as essential as the extractive agenda of President Rafael Correa's administration.
This 21st century struggle reveals what is and what is no longer possible in the battle over resources and life, between the excessively wealthy and their victims.
Here are eight essential elements of the case you should understand.
1. The History of Texaco in Ecuador
Texaco was first invited to Chevron in the early 1960s and began exploring for oil in 1964 in the Lago Agrio region of northeastern Ecuador. During roughly two decades of extraction and major profits, a consortium initially consisting of Texaco and Gulf Oil, with a 25 percent share later acquired by the Ecuadorian state oil company, CEPE (now Petroecuador) built a pipeline to carry crude across the Andes for export. Texaco, which was widely regarded as a world leader in the oil business, did not use costly techniques such as re-injecting wastewater underground. Instead, much of its waste was pumped into unlined pits and crude oil was poured everywhere, including the streets of Lago Agrio.
In the late 1980s, several earthquakes would cause extensive damage to the pipeline and lead to organizing efforts by indigenous groups and environmental activists. Those living near the oil-drenched forests were emboldened by support they received throughout the country and around the world.
These complex networks developed quickly and in November 1993, shortly after Texaco departed the South American nation, affected Ecuadorian citizens began to seek legal action in New York. That first lawsuit was eventually thrown out due to jurisdictional matters. Despite complaints by the plaintiffs that Ecuador's courts were ill equipped to handle such a case, Texaco, then acquired by Chevron in 2001, was happy to have the case moved to Ecuador and praised the court system there in a series of affidavits. The New York court required that the oil giant submit to the jurisdiction and judgment of the Ecuadorian court, although many argue Chevron believed it would be successful in controlling the outcome there.
2. The Record Judgment
The new case Aguinda vs. Chevron began in May of 2003 and ended Feb. 14, 2011, when the Lago Agrio court found Chevron guilty of the contamination and required an apology. The $8.6 billion for an environmental remediation and services to address the various needs of the communities, based largely on a 1999 study by the Spanish doctor Miguel San Sebastian, doubled to more than $18 billion after the company failed to apologize, and later increased to $19 billion in July 2012.
Chevron has repeatedly stated that the plaintiffs will never receive a dime of the company's vast assets, estimated at around $244 billion. The firm has spent significant sums of money fighting the judgment it believes is fraudulent, asserting that the state oil company is responsible for the remaining pollution in the forest.
Most recently, the judgment has been cut in half to $9.5 billion by the Ecuadorian Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Lago Agrio judge who passed down the verdict in 2011, Nicolas Zambrano, has been depicted as corrupt for allowing the verdict to be ghostwritten in return for an alleged $500,000 kickback from Donziger's legal team. Chevron's star witness Alberto Guerra, the former judge who presided over the case and now claims he helped negotiate the bribery scheme involving Zambrano, corroborated this claim. Hardly credible himself, Guerra has admitted to extensive bribery schemes in the past and is now openly being paid by Chevron to live in the U.S. with “$10,000 a month in living expenses, a $2,000 monthly housing allowance, health insurance coverage for himself and family members, a leased automobile, payment for an independent attorney, payment for an immigration attorney and moving expenses."
3. The Legal Proceedings
There are now six cases in as many countries and on three different continents.
- The original Aguinda vs. Chevron case recently made its way before the Ecuadorian Supreme Court where the judge removed the punitive damages, cutting the judgment by half. Chevron has no assets in the country and therefore the plaintiffs are forced to look elsewhere to seize company property to sell.
- The first attempt to seek assets abroad was in the Ontario Superior Court in Canada. In early May of this year, a Canadian judge found that the subsidiary, Chevron Canada, could not be subject to the Ecuadorian ruling. However, a three-judge panel in the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the decision in December. Justice James MacPherson drew attention to the confidence of Chevron, referring to a comment about the company's willingness to “fight this until hell freezes over" and then “fight it out on the ice." The Canadian judge then wrote, “Chevron's wish is granted. After all these years, the Ecuadorian plaintiffs deserve to have the recognition and enforcement of the Ecuadorian judgment heard on the merits in the appropriate jurisdiction. At this juncture, Ontario is that jurisdiction."
- The Argentine Supreme Court also weighed in on the matter, overturning a lower court's decision to freeze Chevron Argentina's assets there, thereby clearing the way for a major shale oil investment by Chevron. Plaintiffs have indicated they would appeal this ruling.
- Brazil's Superior Tribunal of Justice is also considering the case, although Chevron's extensive production there (33,000 bpd of crude) is a factor.
- Chevron vs. Donziger et al, is a racketeering or RICO case that was heard from Oct. 15 through late November in the Southern District of New York. Steven Donziger, the lead adviser to the Ecuadorian plaintiffs in Aguinda-turned defendant, unsuccessfully attempted to get Kaplan removed for bias and now the U.S. judge is set to deliver his verdict in early 2014. This case has already featured remarkably broad subpoenas including access to email data from firms such as Google, Microsoft and Yahoo!, 600 hours of video footage from an award-winning documentary, and a failed attempt to acquire environmental NGO Amazon Watch's internal documents and testimony. Donziger's legal team will likely appeal the unfavorable verdict they expect to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit.
- Finally, the Permanent Court of Arbitration at the Hague is hearing Chevron vs. Ecuador to determine whether Ecuador's government should have intervened to stop the Aguinda trial from proceeding due to a Bilateral Investment Treaty (BIT) signed with the U.S. in the 1990s. The Ecuadorian government points out that the treaty was signed in 1993, went into effect in 1997 and can not retroactively apply to the damages caused by Texaco when they left the country in 1992.
There may soon be additional litigation before courts in Colombia, Panama and Venezuela.
4. The Lawyers
Steven Donziger has been the lead adviser for the plaintiffs since the first trial in New York against Texaco. The Manhattan attorney, once a basketball cohort of President Obama, is depicted as having an ego that may be too big for his own good. He is often the most high profile name directly involved in the case, serving as a lightning for Chevron and its supporters in the financial press. Paul Barrett, a chief reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek, who recently finished up a book on the trial, also finds Donziger a colorful character through which to explain this case. Unfortunately, this focus ignores many of those whose lives have been deeply affected.
It appears much more difficult for Chevron to malign the name of the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, Pablo Fajardo. Along with his Ecuadorian colleague Luis Yanza, Fajardo won the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2008 and he was the CNN “Hero of the Year" in 2007. Both Fajardo and Yanza hail from the Oriente and have spent much of their lives in communities that have been affected by irresponsible oil drilling practices.
Meanwhile, Patton Boggs, a prominent U.S. law and lobbying firm, joined the plaintiffs' legal team in early 2010. They immediately began planning the best way to effect a settlement but that seems unlikely. In fact, the battle has only become nastier as Gibson Dunn, Chevron's LA-based firm retained in 2009, has portrayed Patton Boggs and the entire Ecuadorian legal team as guilty of defrauding Chevron. One legal ethics expert pointed out that, “Patton Boggs is a firm of recognized standing. This is accusing them of fraud, and that's going to be bitterly fought."
5. The Media and the Documentarian
Donziger also worked to attract allies through media outlets. His strategy was to land favorable coverage in major news outlets such as BBC Newsnight, 60 Minutes and others. In 2007, the Vanity Fair's annual “Green Issue" featured a lengthy piece about the case attracted celebrities and other moneyed interests to the cause. Some notable entertainers, such as Sting and his wife Trudie Styler, have remained involved and continue working on related environmental issues in Ecuador.
However, this strategy backfired somewhat when the 2009 documentary Crude, directed by Joe Berlinger, produced unintended consequences. Throughout much of the footage and in the final film, Donziger was again a focus and the attorney had a bad habit of embarrassing, if not potentially incriminating, himself on camera. In one troubling scene, the international NGO Amazon Watch's founder Atossa Soltani responds to a plan by Donziger to assemble an “army" (Soltani points out that this is an especially troubling term in military coup-plagued Ecuador) of protesters. She asks about the likelihood of Berlinger's video footage being subpoenaed saying “I just want you to know it's illegal to conspire to break the law." Donziger more or less dismissed her concerns about possible subpoenas, yet within months, Chevron had obtained the footage and their own high-priced army of lawyers set about examining and distributing it.
Well-versed in public relations itself, Chevron created its own views and opinions website devoted to the case, which served as a blog/aggregate for news reports and right-wing commentary. Forbes (where Donziger himself was published), The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg Businessweek, Fortune (CNN), and other publications that followed the case tended toward Chevron's side of the story, while other major news outlets like The New York Times, Washington Post and San Francisco Chronicle are more nuanced in their approach.
6. The Governments
One of Chevron's main contentions is that Texaco's agreement to remediate its share of concessions with the Ecuadorian government in the mid-1990s exonerates the multinational from any environmental damages. These arrangements took place under President Sixto Duran Ballen, a dual U.S./Ecuadorian citizen who had been advancing neoliberal reforms begun in the previous decade. Many Ecuadorian observers close to the case believe the Duran Ballen government's numerous corruption indictments effectively nullified the remediation and note that Chevron was released before remediating a single site. Furthermore, as many critics of neoliberalism have pointed out, the Washington Consensus and the conditional assistance programs from International Financial Institutions (IFIs) came about as a result of coercion and corruption often involving the U.S. and other Western governments.
In the early 1970s, Henry Kissinger, fresh from his role in “making the Chilean economy scream", was personally involved in negotiations and disputes between the Texaco consortium and the government in Quito. At that time, the military regime in power depicted itself as revolutionary and nationalist, promising progressive policies. Coinciding with a shift to markedly increased dependence on the oil sector, oil prices began an upward climb that would last into the early 1980s. Since Ecuador was one of the newest and smallest members of OPEC at the time, it perceived a hostile approach on the part of the U.S. government and feared it was going to be made an example of for other countries.
Three decades later, a lobbyist for Chevron would argue that "We can't let little countries screw around with big companies like this-companies that have made big investments around the world." A la Dickens, this corporate mentality obscures the more compelling realities of this case.
7. The Scientists
In early 2013, Chevron claimed a victory when the Colorado-based scientific consulting firm Stratus withdrew their support for the plaintiffs. The environmental experts disavowed the environmental damages assessment conducted by Richard Cabrera. In his role as an independent court-appointed expert, Cabrera was reportedly in close contact with the plaintiffs and their allies at Stratus and this was corroborated by videos subpoenaed from Berlinger. Cabrera's report, allegedly ghostwritten by the plaintiff's allies, is portrayed as lacking in requisite scientific credibility.
Considering the immense destruction of Amazonian habitat, such an assessment may not even be possible. Kelly Swing, a professor working via Boston University in a research station in Yasuni National Park, offered among the most poignant explanations I have heard regarding oil contamination in northeastern Ecuador. Swing explained to me that this region is among the most biodiverse, or megadiverse, in the world. This is due to the Andean-Amazon corridor (with it's abundance of fresh water) as well as the proximity to the equator.
Look at a map however, and you'll quickly notice that the section of Yasuni where Dr. Swing and others are doing their research is well over 100 kilometers south of the equator, meaning that the richest biodiversity in Ecuador (and the world) was likely in the same region that was first reached by missionaries and then oil companies. “We may have already lost the pinnacle of species [near Lago Agrio] without even noticing," Dr. Swing lamented.
Confounding the situation, the government in Quito announced this summer that it has no choice but to move ahead with oil exploration in Yasuni, sparking widespread protests from students, environmentalists and indigenous organizations. Under the Correa Administration, poverty has declined significantly as a result of increased social spending. However, in exchange for what amounts to under two weeks worth of global oil usage in Yasuni's reserves, many more hectares of Ecuador's remaining virgin rainforests will be compromised if the government proceeds with its ambitious extractive agenda.
8. The Affected Population
At a press conference in the Amazon in September, Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa, held up an oil-soaked hand and addressed the camera as if there were Chevron executives directly behind it:
“I believe that this is an exemplary case, not only of the injustice but of the immorality of the world order, world institutions, where everything is on the side of capital, where there is a total supremacy of capital, of multinationals over people, over societies, over nations, and this inspires us and drives us and helps us to see much more clearly the mission to reform this world order as much as possible to be on the side of justice."
While this sounds impressive, many of the affected in the Lago Agrio region direct their complaints at state-owned firms Petroecuador and Petroamazonas. Several farmers in the region explain that water is the most critical issue facing the people of the Lago Agrio region. Many believe that the government isn't seriously addressing the contamination despite the government's own irresponsible practices.
A question remains: Is the Correa administration, celebrated as progressive around the world, simply another government that puts the rights of indigenous peoples and the environment after the needs for capital and investment? Many activists here would say yes.
While the Ecuadorian government now appears ready to use its resources to join in the plaintiffs' struggle, its critics can't help but notice that these efforts come on the heels of the controversial decision to move forward on exploiting the oil blocks in the Yasuni-ITT region. It is likely that the government will have considerable difficulty maintaining the guarantee that state oil companies or their foreign partners can avoid causing similar damage to the people and habitats of the rainforest. Factored alongside various other environmentally destructive megaprojects being planned or carried out to advance development, such political moves and cynical attitudes are to be expected.
Ecuador, like many other developing countries, is in a difficult position regarding its own future. Its government, despite the revolutionary rhetoric and unorthodox views of its leftist president, is mired in the paradigm of extracting and exporting natural resources with all its attendant problems. Texaco, in its decision-making several decades back set the stage here for a long, drawn-out tragedy. An increasing dependency on fossil fuels, will wreak further damage that cannot be quantified nor qualified. Genuine remediation is a rather difficult goal to achieve.
In a visit to New York in September, Ecuador's Minister of Minister of Foreign Affairs Ricardo Patino recently argued that ChevronTexaco is responsible for the destruction of the vast swaths of rainforest and diseases and deaths of many Ecuadorians. These are serious charges. Chevron will continue to convey the message that this is all a scheme by Ecuador to extort funds from its famously deep pockets. These statements demonstrate for posterity how legal battles over environmental destruction fall far short of responsible action and how complex arrangements within the highly centralized corporate/nation-state structures plague the periphery.
Today, debates about fracking, tar sands, exploiting oil in extreme locations such as the Arctic and the future of nuclear energy are unavoidable. The enduring lesson from the willful destruction of the Ecuadorian Amazon will prove to be more about a system of capital, extraction and laws that is thoroughly flawed and broken. It is clear that the system is currently incapable of remediating the destruction it makes. Just what would Dickens make of this bleak 21st century story?
Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.