Our Favorite Environmental Journalism of 2017
By Joe Sandler Clarke and Unearthed reporters
From the finest American journalism chronicling the worst excesses of the Trump administration to international stories showing the impact of climate change on the developing world, here are the stories we wish we had written this year.
On our changing climate
This striking New York Times piece is one of those rare pieces of journalism that communicates an issue so effectively and with such clarity that the reader is able to immediately grasp the complex science that too often makes environmental journalism impenetrable.
The perfect storm – Reveal
Hurricane Harvey pummelled Houston in August, and Reveal reporter Neena Satija was there to document the city's unpreparedness for the storm. This piece is a follow-up to Hell and High Water, the extraordinary 2016 joint investigation by ProPublica, The Texas Tribune and Reveal.
We were crying out for a piece of forensic reporting setting out the links between climate change and this summer's storms in the Caribbean and southern America, and Umair Irfan delivered. This is the kind of explanatory journalism Vox excels at.
Another piece on the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. This cover story from Bloomberg Businessweek gives an insight into what a natural disaster looks like in one of America's most important economic areas. As Sims herself said, this is an article about "what justice looks like in a changing climate."
Stories that connect climate change with real human consequences should be the gold standard of environmental reporting. This piece from the Observer does just that, showing how increased droughts and floods are forcing farmers in sub-Saharan Africa to give away their daughters to stay out of poverty.
'Not a single thing was dry': Mumbai's residents count the cost of floods – The Guardian, Amrit Dhillon and Carlin Carr
Devastating floods in South Asia made for one of the most dramatic environmental stories this year. In this piece, Mumbai residents talk to the Guardian about facing up to the torrential rains.
Rich countries are providing aid to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But how much is being spent? Who is spending it? And where is the money going? Back in October, Carbon Brief set out to answer these questions. A month later, they also mapped how multilateral climate funds spend their money.
Under Trump, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has slowed actions against polluters, and put limits on enforcement officers – New York Times, Eric Lipton @EricLiptonNYT and Danielle Ivory @danielle_ivory
While the president's agenda has largely floundered in Congress, EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt's efforts to undo Obama-era environmental rules have happened at a rapid pace. This New York Times piece sets out just what the agency has been up to in the first year of the Trump presidency.
Why the scariest nuclear threat may be coming from inside the White House – Vanity Fair, Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis has done some amazing work chronicling the Trump administration. We could easily have picked his piece on the administration's actions against scientists in the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But with the news dominated by fears over North Korea, this look at U.S. nuclear policy at home was timely and fascinating.
With Puerto Rico and the Gulf Coast devastated by hurricanes this year, Kyla Mandel reported on the Trump administration's efforts to cut support for American communities at the forefront of climate change.
Bombs in your backyard – ProPublica
It turns out that the U.S. military spends more than a billion dollars a year cleaning up sites it has contaminated with explosives and toxic chemicals. Some of these areas are near schools and residential neighborhoods. We know this because ProPublica went ahead and mapped them.
On the shifting energy system
This was the year the world got serious about green energy, and this feature from Time magazine tells the story of how China became a leader in renewable energy. We liked this line from Sang Dajie, a former coal miner who now works on the world's largest floating solar farm: "The coal mine was very hot and the air was bad. But here I feel safe. The new energy is safe."
The story behind this days-long traffic jam in Mongolia – Quartz, Johnny Simon
China may be leading the world on renewable energy, but it still loves coal. This photo gallery was a clear illustration of the country's energy conundrum.
Activist and journalist Bill McKibben reported on how American start-ups are competing with Chinese and European firms, and homegrown companies, to provide cheap, reliable power to a continent where fossil fuels have failed to spark development.
The town that disappeared – BBC News, Jenny Norton
Across Russia, hundreds of small towns have been abandoned in the past ten years as coal mining becomes increasingly unviable in the country and the fallout from the collapse of the Soviet Union continues.
Russia-backed hackers try to hijack Britain's power supply – The Times, Aaron Rogan and Mark Bridge
Amid the flurry of concern about hacking in the U.S. election, The Times reported in June that Russian hackers attacked networks running the national grid in the UK. A couple of days later, Motherboard, Vice's sister tech publication, reported that GCHQ believed the hackers had already compromised UK energy sector targets.
On the new and persistent threats to the environment
Series: So I can breathe – BBC World Service
There have been plenty of air pollution stories in the media over the last 12 months, but this series of programs broadcast across BBC platforms in March caught our eye for reporting on solutions to the global crisis.
Vladimir's Venezuela: Leveraging loans to Caracas, Moscow snaps up oil assets – Reuters, Marianna Parraga and Alexandra Ulmer
Venezuela's economy is unravelling and, as this special report from Reuters in August shows, the country's socialist government is taking increasingly drastic measures to survive.
2017 saw even more scientific research linking bee deaths with controversial pesticides called neonicotinoids. This piece in Politico methodically and forcefully lays out how chemical giants Bayer and Syngenta have lobbied EU politicians for years to weaken regulations.
With Indian mining company Adani seeking support for a controversial coal project on the edge of the Great Barrier Reef, the company's boss Gautam Adani visited Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull in April. As BuzzFeed reported, his visit was wildly cheered on by a bunch of definitely real Indian tweeters who all believed that Adani would bring coal jobs to Queensland.
A fight for Brazil's Amazon forest – Financial Times, Sue Branford
Since Michel Temer became president in August 2016, Brazilian politics has been dominated by rollbacks for key environmental and Indigenous protections. In September, as part of the FT's 'Brazil: the Road Ahead' series, Sue Branford reported on the new scramble for natural resources in the Brazilian Amazon.
Protecting the environment is an increasingly dangerous thing to do. This research by Global Witness found that in 2016, 200 environmental activists and others protecting their land from destructive industries were killed—and the rate only increased in 2017. This story launched The Defenders, an ongoing collaboration between the Guardian and Global Witness tracking such killings.
Reposted with permission from our media associate Unearthed.
By Matthew J. Landry and Heather Eicher-Miller
When university presidents were surveyed in spring of 2020 about what they felt were the most pressing concerns of COVID-19, college students going hungry didn't rank very high.
Why It Matters<p>This is not just a matter of growling stomachs. This is a straight-up education and health issue.</p><p>When students don't really know if they'll be able to get enough to eat, it can lead to a series of problems that make it harder to stay in school. For instance, it can affect <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177%2F1359105318783028" target="_blank">academic performance</a> and <a href="https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">sleep quality</a>. It can also lead to <a href="https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105318783028" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">poor mental and physical health</a> outcomes for college students.</p><p>Food insecurity can also result in disrupted eating patterns if there is <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6627945/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">not enough food or the variety</a> or <a href="https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-019-6943-6" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">quality of what someone eats</a> is low.</p>
Campus Food Pantries<p>Previous strategies by <a href="https://www.gao.gov/assets/700/696254.pdf" target="_blank">colleges and universities</a> to fight hunger in their student bodies have varied widely. They include campus food pantries, emergency cash assistance and nutrition education through noncredit classes or workshopse.</p><p>These strategies were put to the test during the spring 2020 semester, when nearly <a href="https://hope4college.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Hopecenter_RealCollegeDuringthePandemic.pdf" target="_blank">three in five students</a> said they had trouble meeting their own basic needs during the pandemic.</p><p>College food pantries saw <a href="https://www.utrgv.edu/newsroom/2020/05/01-utrgv-student-food-pantry-seeing-recent-increase-in-demand-during-covid-19.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">big increases</a> in demand. Others said they <a href="https://www.theprospectordaily.com/2020/09/22/uteps-food-pantry-is-running-out-of-food/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">were getting less donated food</a>. This made it even harder to meet the rising food needs of students.</p><p>Campus food pantries largely rely on local or regional food banks, which have been dealing with <a href="https://www.indystar.com/story/news/local/2020/10/04/indiana-food-banks-call-more-food-stamps-meet-publics-need/3523683001/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">greater demand</a> than they are able to meet during the pandemic.</p><p>The many students who are attending college remotely will, of course, have less access to campus resources like food pantries.</p>
Federal Help<p>Other potential ways to get more food are government programs like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/recipient/eligibility" target="_blank">Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program</a>, known as SNAP. Yet the majority of able-bodied students are not eligible. Long-standing restrictions, like the <a href="https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/students" target="_blank">college SNAP rule</a>, prevent full-time students from receiving these benefits.</p><p>Such regulatory hurdles were created under the assumption that most students can rely on their parents to get enough to eat. However, college students have vastly different levels of financial support. Some students can rely on their parents for everything and others cannot rely on their parents for anything.</p><p>Decreased reliance on parental financial support is <a href="https://ir.library.louisville.edu/jsfa/vol47/iss3/5/" target="_blank">especially common</a> for first-generation students and students of color, who now make up <a href="https://1xfsu31b52d33idlp13twtos-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Race-and-Ethnicity-in-Higher-Education.pdf" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">45% of enrolled college students</a>.</p><p>Under normal circumstances, many college students might rely on part-time jobs to pay for their food.</p>
Short-Term Solutions<p>Universities and colleges can make it a priority to ensure students are aware of all available campus resources and services. They can also potentially help students apply for federal assistance benefits.</p><p>Campus food pantries are not a fully effective and efficacious solution for the scale of college food insecurity, but they can be a good interim solution to increase access to food for students.</p><p>Campuses without food pantries can start one, making use of resources the <a href="https://cufba.org/resources/" target="_blank">College and University Food Bank Alliance</a> provides. Schools with food pantries can try to get them to <a href="https://www.swipehunger.org/5campuspantry/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">reach more students</a>.</p><p>Universities and colleges can also lean on one another for support. The <a href="http://wp.auburn.edu/endchildhungeral/alabama-campus-coalition-for-basic-needs/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Alabama Campus Coalition for Basic Needs</a> is a great example of this. It brings together 10 universities across the state of Alabama collectively working to address student food insecurity.</p>
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Plain Naturals is making waves in the CBD space with a new product line for retail customers looking for high potency CBD products at industry-low prices.
Is More CBD Really Better?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODQyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzMzYxMDMzN30.6B08i5QYW_Iq5bUf3qtm8oK8o6FKsRUZ74gdakgJ_TY/img.jpg?width=980" id="0ef5b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bac86abf3ce246742b18b0dc4052f4dd" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Plain Naturals offers a 5000mg CBD oil tincture in 30ml bottle for $99.99.<p>Consumers have gotten used to paying high prices for low amounts of cannabidiol. Plain Naturals is beginning to change that. There are myriad <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> showing that low doses of CBD (less than 50mg per day) are ineffective for many users. And many clinical <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> have shown effective dosages of 100 - 800mg per day to be effective for many conditions ranging from <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">anxiety and depression to Parkinson's disease and cancer</a>. And several <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5569602/%23:~:text=Chronic%2520use%2520and%2520high%2520doses,be%2520well%2520tolerated%2520by%2520humans.&text=Nonetheless%252C%2520some%2520side%2520effects%2520have,vitro%2520or%2520in%2520animal%2520studies." target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer nofollow">studies</a> published by the National Institutes of Health have shown up to 1500mg per day to be consistently "well-tolerated" by adults. </p><p>Now it is always recommended to begin with a lower dosage and increase until an effective dose has been reached. But the advantage of starting with a higher potency CBD oil is that it is much easier to use less to start with and increase over time than to buy very low dose CBD oil and ultimately end up buying more and more stronger products. To start at 50mg per dose of a 5000mg oil, you would simply use ⅓ dropper or about 10-12 drops.</p>
The Truth About CBD Product Potency<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDU2ODMyNC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyNDc2NTg1N30.OAm3iOTO_pKZLXi7KdJ7n0DGOFMdOmIYuG4ArGooFC4/img.jpg?width=980" id="d657c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ee016a81b29caa699b9185b64ce345d6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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By Dr. Kate Raynes-Goldie
Of all the plastic we've ever produced, only 9% has been recycled. So what happened to all that plastic you've put in the recycling bin over the years?
Triangle of Mistruths<p>The myth created around plastic recycling has been one of simplicity. We look for the familiar triangle arrows, then pop the waste in the recycling bin so it can be reused.</p><p>But the true purpose of those triangles has been misunderstood by the general public ever since their invention in the 1980s.</p><p>These triangles were actually created by the plastics industry and, according to a report provided to them in July 1993, <a href="https://www.npr.org/transcripts/912150085" target="_blank">were creating "unrealistic expectations"</a> about what could be recycled. But they decided to keep using the codes.</p><p>Which is why many people still believe that these triangular symbols (also known as a <a href="https://sustainablepackaging.org/101-resin-identification-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">resin identifier code</a> or RIC) means something is recyclable.</p><p>But according to the American Society for Testing and Materials International (ASTM) – which controls the RIC system – the numbered triangles "<a href="https://www.astm.org/Standards/D7611.htm" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">are not recycle codes</a>." In fact, they weren't created for the general public at all. They were made for the post-consumer plastic industry.</p><p>In other words, the symbols make it easier to sort the different types of plastics, some of which cannot be recycled – <a href="https://www.ecobin.com.au/understand-recycling-codes/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">depending on the recycling facility</a>.</p><p>"Unfortunately, just placing your plastic into the recycling bin doesn't mean it will get recycled," says Lara Camilla Pinho. She is an architect and lecturer at the UWA School of Design who is researching novel uses of plastic waste.</p><p>"The recycling system is complicated and often dictated by market demand. Not all plastic is recyclable. We cannot recycle plastic bags or straws for example."</p>
Behind the Scenes<p>So, what makes recycling plastics so difficult?</p><p>"Essentially, there are two types of plastics – thermoplastics and thermosets. While thermoplastics can be re-melted and re-molded, thermosets contain cross-linked polymers that cannot be separated meaning they cannot be recycled," says Lara.</p><p>"Even thermoplastics have a limit to the amount of times we can recycle them, as each time they are recycled they downgrade in quality."</p><p>Even when plastics are recyclable, it is <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/oct/13/war-on-plastic-waste-faces-setback-as-cost-of-recycled-material-soars" target="_blank">often more costly</a> than simply making new plastics.</p>
Sugar, Seaweed and Mushrooms<p>If the conventional recycling system isn't working, what else can we do with all the plastic we've created?</p><p>Lara is looking for ways to add value to recycled plastics such as using it in the design and development of architectural products. She hopes to use these architectural products to help underserved communities that are disproportionately affected by plastic waste.</p><p>In addition to recycling, we also need to find ways to reduce our use of virgin petroleum-based plastics.</p><p>Bioplastic is one such product that has been getting a lot of hype over the last few years. And although they're better than petroleum-based plastics, bioplastics also come with their own <a href="https://phys.org/news/2017-12-truth-bioplastics.html" target="_blank">set of challenges</a>.</p><p>"There are already a lot of bio-based alternatives to plastic, such as bagasse – a byproduct of sugar cane processing," says Lara.</p><p><a href="https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/the-mycelium-revolution-is-upon-us/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mycelium</a>, a type of fungi we most often associate with mushrooms, are also providing an interesting plastic alternative.</p><p>"In the field of architecture, mycelium is starting to be used as an alternative to plastic insulation, but also as compostable packaging and bricks," says Lara.</p><p>"The bricks take around five days to make and are strong, durable, water resistant and compostable at the end of their use."</p><p><a href="https://www.arup.com/news-and-events/hyfi-reinvents-the-brick" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Hy-Fi Tower</a>, created by <a href="http://www.thelivingnewyork.com/living_about.html" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">The Living</a>, is an example of a building made from these bricks.</p><p>And finally, there's seaweed.</p><p>"[Seaweed is] cheap and can reproduce itself quickly without fertilizers. In architecture, there is use for seaweed as an alternative to plastic insulation but also as cladding," says Lara.</p>
More Money, More Problems<p>While all these alternatives are great, the main cause of our plastic dilemma is not scientific or technological, but economic.</p><p>As long as it remains <a href="https://engineering.mit.edu/engage/ask-an-engineer/why-is-it-cheaper-to-make-new-plastic-bottles-than-to-recycle-old-ones/" target="_blank">cheaper to create new plastics</a> from fossil fuels rather than from bioplastics or from recycling, we're going to be stuck with plastic garbage islands floating in our oceans.</p><p>The true cost to our health and our environment has yet to be included in the equation. But once it is, maybe that is when the real shift will happen.</p>
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