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Finding Opportunity in Crisis: 3 Essential Reads About Environmental Solutions

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Finding Opportunity in Crisis: 3 Essential Reads About Environmental Solutions
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By Jennifer Weeks

From climate change to omnipresent plastic waste, 2019 delivered a lot of discouraging environmental news. Several special reports this year from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change documented how global warming is altering the planet's lands, forests, oceans and frozen regions.


Another U.N. report warned that the Earth is losing species at an alarming rate, with around 1 million animal and plant species facing extinction. Key causes include changes in land use, such as clearing forests for agriculture; unsustainable fishing rates; climate change; pollution; and the spread of invasive species.

Governments may seem unable or unwilling to confront these challenges, but scholars are proposing innovative solutions. Here are three articles that we published this year that put forth responses to urgent environmental challenges.

1. Cooling the Planet and Saving Species

Climate change and biodiversity loss are interconnected problems that together can seem overwhelming. But in a study published in April, 18 scientists proposed a "Global Deal for Nature" that can help avert both catastrophic climate change and mass extinction.

The plan identifies about a thousand "ecoregions" on land and sea that each contain unique ensembles of species and ecosystems, and also help curb climate change by storing carbon.

"Our plan would require a budget of some US$100 billion per year. This may sound like a lot, but for comparison, Silicon Valley companies earned nearly $60 billion in 2017 just from selling apps," Arizona State University conservation scientist Greg Asner, a co-author of the report, wrote for The Conversation. "Today, however, our global society is spending less than a tenth of that amount to save Earth's biodiversity."

"Forests, grasslands, peatlands, mangroves and a few other types of ecosystems pull the most carbon from the air per acre of land," Asner noted. "Protecting and expanding their range is far more scalable and far less expensive than engineering the climate to slow the pace of warming. And there is no time to lose."

2. Stemming the Tide of Plastic Trash

Global markets for scrap material, including recyclables, have been in turmoil since early 2018, when China — which was importing a large share of the world's scrap — shut that window almost completely. This year other Asian countries followed suit, saying they would no longer accept materials they were ill-equipped to handle.

These shocks have left U.S. scrap dealers searching for markets. Many are sending plastics – the hardest materials to recycle — to landfills.

Alarmed by these developments and the growing scale of plastic waste, many communities and businesses are intensifying the search for new solutions.

"Recycling authorities have launched public education campaigns, and investment in recycling infrastructure is on the rise," reported Kate O'Neill, professor of global environmental politics at the University of California, Berkeley. "There is palpable energy at trade meetings around improving options for plastics recycling. Chinese companies are investing in U.S. pulp and paper recycling plants, and may extend into plastics."

This process won't be quick, since it also requires action at the global level to connect national policies. And reducing production and use of plastic remains key. "But as one Asian country after another shuts the door on scrap exports, it is becoming increasingly clear that business as usual will not solve the plastic pollution challenge," O'Neill wrote.

3. A New New Deal for U.S. Farmers

Severe weather, corporate consolidation in agriculture and a trade war with China put heavy pressure on U.S. farmers in 2019. Farm bankruptcies are at historic highs, and many experts wonder where the next generation of farmers will come from.

Social scientists Maywa Montenegro of the University of California, Davis, Annie Shattuck of Indiana University and Joshua Sbicca of Colorado State University see this convergence as an economic, environmental and social crisis for farming communities. In response they propose a "just transition" to a system that cuts carbon emissions from agriculture, makes farmers less vulnerable to the effects of climate change and delivers economic justice to rural communities.

"Two elements are essential: Agriculture based in principles of ecology, and economic policies that end overproduction of cheap food and reestablish fair prices for farmers," they assert.

To picture what such a transition would look like, they point to New Deal agriculture policies adopted in the 1930s that directed public investments to rural communities, set price floors for crops and paid farmers to adopt conservation policies. This system was largely scrapped after World War II in favor of rules that promoted large-scale commodity production and maximized output. Today, the authors argue, farmers are locked into an economic model that is "unsustainable for farmers, eaters and the planet."

But in political and agricultural circles, new proposals are emerging for reducing corporate power in agriculture and restoring parity for farmers — payment that reflects production costs. Redirecting an industry this large is a long, slow process, but Montenegro, Shattuck and Sbicca asserted that "if policymakers can envision a contemporary version of ideas in the original New Deal, a climate-friendly and socially just American agriculture is within reach."

Reposted with permission from The Conversation.

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A Michigan bald eagle proved that nature can still triumph over machines when it attacked and drowned a nearly $1,000 government drone.

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By Tara Lohan

Warming temperatures on land and in the water are already forcing many species to seek out more hospitable environments. Atlantic mackerel are swimming farther north; mountain-dwelling pikas are moving upslope; some migratory birds are altering the timing of their flights.

Numerous studies have tracked these shifting ranges, looked at the importance of wildlife corridors to protect these migrations, and identified climate refugia where some species may find a safer climatic haven.

"There's a huge amount of scientific literature about where species will have to move as the climate warms," says U.C. Berkeley biogeographer Matthew Kling. "But there hasn't been much work in terms of actually thinking about how they're going to get there — at least not when it comes to wind-dispersed plants."

Kling and David Ackerly, professor and dean of the College of Natural Resources at U.C. Berkeley, have taken a stab at filling this knowledge gap. Their recent study, published in Nature Climate Change, looks at the vulnerability of wind-dispersed species to climate change.

It's an important field of research, because while a fish can more easily swim toward colder waters, a tree may find its wind-blown seeds landing in places and conditions where they're not adapted to grow.

Kling is careful to point out that the researchers weren't asking how climate change was going to change wind; other research suggests there likely won't be big shifts in global wind patterns.

Instead the study involved exploring those wind patterns — including direction, speed and variability — across the globe. The wind data was then integrated with data on climate variation to build models trying to predict vulnerability patterns showing where wind may either help or hinder biodiversity from responding to climate change.

One of the study's findings was that wind-dispersed or wind-pollinated trees in the tropics and on the windward sides of mountain ranges are more likely to be vulnerable, since the wind isn't likely to move those dispersers in the right direction for a climate-friendly environment.

The researchers also looked specifically at lodgepole pines, a species that's both wind-dispersed and wind-pollinated.

They found that populations of lodgepole pines that already grow along the warmer and drier edges of the species' current range could very well be under threat due to rising temperatures and related climate alterations.

"As temperature increases, we need to think about how the genes that are evolved to tolerate drought and heat are going to get to the portions of the species' range that are going to be getting drier and hotter," says Kling. "So that's what we were able to take a stab at predicting and estimating with these wind models — which populations are mostly likely to receive those beneficial genes in the future."

That's important, he says, because wind-dispersed species like pines, willows and poplars are often keystone species whole ecosystems depend upon — especially in temperate and boreal forests.

And there are even more plants that rely on pollen dispersal by wind.

"That's going to be important for moving genes from the warmer parts of a species' range to the cooler parts of the species' range," he says. "This is not just about species' ranges shifting, but also genetic changes within species."

Kling says this line of research is just beginning, and much more needs to be done to test these models in the field. But there could be important conservation-related benefits to that work.

"All these species and genes need to migrate long distances and we can be thinking more about habitat connectivity and the vulnerability of these systems," he says.

The more we learn, the more we may be able to do to help species adapt.

"The idea is that there will be some landscapes where the wind is likely to help these systems naturally adapt to climate change without much intervention, and other places where land managers might really need to intervene," he says. "That could involve using assisted migration or assisted gene flow to actually get in there, moving seeds or planting trees to help them keep up with rapid climate change."


Tara Lohan is deputy editor of The Revelator and has worked for more than a decade as a digital editor and environmental journalist focused on the intersections of energy, water and climate. Her work has been published by The Nation, American Prospect, High Country News, Grist, Pacific Standard and others. She is the editor of two books on the global water crisis. http://twitter.com/TaraLohan

Reposted with permission from The Revelator.

An illustration depicts the extinct woolly rhino. Heinrich Harder / Wikimedia Commons

The last Ice Age eliminated some giant mammals, like the woolly rhino. Conventional thinking initially attributed their extinction to hunting. While overhunting may have contributed, a new study pinpointed a different reason for the woolly rhinos' extinction: climate change.

The last of the woolly rhinos went extinct in Siberia nearly 14,000 years ago, just when the Earth's climate began changing from its frozen conditions to something warmer, wetter and less favorable to the large land mammal. DNA tests conducted by scientists on 14 well-preserved rhinos point to rapid warming as the culprit, CNN reported.

"Humans are well known to alter their environment and so the assumption is that if it was a large animal it would have been useful to people as food and that must have caused its demise," says Edana Lord, a graduate student at the Center for Paleogenetics in Stockholm, Sweden, and co-first author of the paper, Smithsonian Magazine reported. "But our findings highlight the role of rapid climate change in the woolly rhino's extinction."

The study, published in Current Biology, notes that the rhino population stayed fairly consistent for tens of thousands of years until 18,500 years ago. That means that people and rhinos lived together in Northern Siberia for roughly 13,000 years before rhinos went extinct, Science News reported.

The findings are an ominous harbinger for large species during the current climate crisis. As EcoWatch reported, nearly 1,000 species are expected to go extinct within the next 100 years due to their inability to adapt to a rapidly changing climate. Tigers, eagles and rhinos are especially vulnerable.

The difference between now and the phenomenon 14,000 years ago is that human activity is directly responsible for the current climate crisis.

To figure out the cause of the woolly rhinos' extinction, scientists examined DNA from different rhinos across Siberia. The tissue, bone and hair samples allowed them to deduce the population size and diversity for tens of thousands of years prior to extinction, CNN reported.

Researchers spent years exploring the Siberian permafrost to find enough samples. Then they had to look for pristine genetic material, Smithsonian Magazine reported.

It turns out the wooly rhinos actually thrived as they lived alongside humans.

"It was initially thought that humans appeared in northeastern Siberia fourteen or fifteen thousand years ago, around when the woolly rhinoceros went extinct. But recently, there have been several discoveries of much older human occupation sites, the most famous of which is around thirty thousand years old," senior author Love Dalén, a professor of evolutionary genetics at the Center for Paleogenetics, said in a press release.

"This paper shows that woolly rhino coexisted with people for millennia without any significant impact on their population," Grant Zazula, a paleontologist for Canada's Yukon territory and Simon Fraser University who was not involved in the research, told Smithsonian Magazine. "Then all of a sudden the climate changed and they went extinct."

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A quality engineer examines new solar panels in a factory. alvarez / Getty Images

Transitioning to renewable energy can help reduce global warming, and Jennie Stephens of Northeastern University says it can also drive social change.

For example, she says that locally owned businesses can lead the local clean energy economy and create new jobs in underserved communities.

"We really need to think about … connecting climate and energy with other issues that people wake up every day really worried about," she says, "whether it be jobs, housing, transportation, health and well-being."

To maximize that potential, she says the energy sector must have more women and people of color in positions of influence. Research shows that leadership in the solar industry, for example, is currently dominated by white men.

"I think that a more inclusive, diverse leadership is essential to be able to effectively make these connections," Stephens says. "Diversity is not just about who people are and their identity, but the ideas and the priorities and the approaches and the lens that they bring to the world."

So she says by elevating diverse voices, organizations can better connect the climate benefits of clean energy with social and economic transformation.

Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.