How an Army of Ocean Farmers Is Starting an Economic Revolution
By Bren Smith
I'm a fisherman who dropped out of high school in 1986 at the age of 14. Over my lifetime, I've spent many nights in jail. I'm an epileptic. I'm asthmatic. I don't even know how to swim. This is my story. It's a story of ecological redemption.
I was born and raised in Petty Harbour, Newfoundland, a little fishing village with 14 salt-box houses painted in greens, blues and reds so that fishermen could find their way home in the fog. At age 14 I left school and headed out to sea. I fished the Georges Banks and the Grand Banks for tuna and lobster, then headed to the Bering Sea, where I fished cod and crab. The trouble was, I was working at the height of the industrialization of food. We were tearing up entire ecosystems with our trawls, chasing fish further and further out to sea into illegal waters. I personally have thrown tens of thousands of pounds of by-catch back into the sea.
It wasn't just that we were pillaging. Most of my fish was going to McDonald's for their fish sandwiches. There I was, still a kid, working one of the most unsustainable forms of food production on the planet, producing some of the most unhealthy food on the planet. But God how I loved that job! The humility of being in 40-foot seas, the sense of solidarity that comes with being in the belly of a boat with thirteen other people working 30-hour shifts and the sense of meaning and pride in helping to feed my country. I miss those days so, so much.
But then in the early 1990s the cod stocks crashed back home. Thousands of fishermen were thrown out of work, boats beached, canneries shuttered. This situation created a split in the industry: The captains of industry, who wanted to fish the last fish, were thinking 10 years down the road, but there was a younger generation of us thinking 50 years out. We wanted to make our living on the ocean. I want to die on my boat one day—that's my measure of success.
So we all went on a search for sustainability. I ended up in Northern Canada on an aquaculture farm. At that point aquaculture was supposed to be the great solution to overfishing, but when I got there I found more of the same, only using new technologies to pollute local waterways with pesticides and pumping fish full of antibiotics. We used to say that what we were growing was neither fish nor food. We were running the equivalent of Iowa pig farms at sea.
So I kept searching and ended up on Long Island Sound, where there was a program to attract young fishermen back into the industry by opening up shell-fishing grounds for the first time in 150 years. I signed up, leased some grounds from the state of New York and remade myself as an oysterman. I did this for seven years. Then the storms hit. Hurricane Irene and Hurricane Sandy thrashed the East Coast. Two years in a row the storms buried 90 percent of my crops in three feet of mud and 40 percent of my gear was washed away in a sea of death. At the same time, lobster were being driven northward by warming waters and acidification was increasing faster than at any other time in 300 million years, killing billions of oyster seed up and down the American coast.
Suddenly I found myself on the front lines of a climate crisis that had arrived 100 years earlier than expected. For a long time I'd seen climate change only as an environmental issue because environmentalists were always framing it in terms of birds, bears and bees, but I'm a fisherman. I kill things for a living. I grew up shooting moose out of my kitchen window. I never thought climate change had anything to do with my life. But it does. From my vantage point, climate change is not an environmental issue at all—it's an economic issue. It turns out there will be no jobs on a dead planet.
Vertical Underwater Farming
After my farm was destroyed, it was clear to me that I had to adapt because I was facing a serious threat to my livelihood. I began to reimagine my occupation and oyster farm. I began experimenting and exploring new designs and new species. I lifted my farm off the sea bottom to avoid the impact of storm surges created by hurricanes and started to grow new mixes of restorative species. Now, after 29 years of working on the oceans, I've remade myself as a 3D ocean farmer, growing a mix of seaweeds and shellfish for food, fuel, fertilizer and feed.
That's how I got to where I am today. Now let's dive in and take a look at the farm and deconstruct why it's designed the way it is. Imagine a vertical underwater garden with hurricane-proof anchors on the edges connected by floating horizontal ropes across the surface. From these lines kelp and Gracilaria and other kinds of seaweeds grow vertically downward next to scallops in hanging nets that look like Japanese lanterns and mussels held in suspension in mesh socks. Staked below the vertical garden are oysters in cages and then clams buried in the sea floor.
If you look for my farm from ashore, there's almost nothing to see, which is a good thing. Our underwater farms have a low aesthetic impact. That's important because our oceans are beautiful pristine places and we want to keep them that way. Because the farm is vertical, it has a small footprint. My farm used to be 100 acres; now it's 20, but it produces much more food than before. If you want “small is beautiful," here it is. We want ocean agriculture to tread lightly.
Our 3D farms are designed to address three major challenges: First, to bring to the table a delicious new seafood plate in this era of overfishing and food insecurity. Second, to transform fishermen into restorative ocean farmers. And third, to build the foundation for a new blue-green economy that doesn't recreate the injustices of the old industrial economy.
Eating Like Fish and Transforming an Entire Workforce
First: food production. As ocean farmers, we reject aquaculture's obsession with monoculture, an obsession similar to that of modern land farming. Our goal is diversity. It's a sea-basket approach: We grow two types of seaweeds, four kinds of shellfish and we harvest salt. But with more than 10,000 edible plants in the ocean, we've barely scratched the surface. We eat only a few species and we grow basically none in the U.S. We intend to de-sushify seaweed and invent a new native cuisine, not around our industrial palate of salmon and tuna but around the thousands of undiscovered ocean vegetables that are right outside our back door.
Native seaweeds are an excellent source of vitamin C, calcium and iron. It might surprise those of you on the hunt for Omega-3s to learn that many fish do not create these heart-healthy nutrients by themselves—they consume them. By eating the plants fish eat, we get the same benefits while reducing pressure on fish stocks. So it's time that we eat like fish.
This is our opportunity to rearrange the seafood plate by moving ocean plants and bivalves to the center and wild fish to the edges. Ocean greens such as kelp are not small boutique crops. We can grow incredible amounts of food in small areas: 25 tons of greens and 250,000 shellfish per acre in five months. If you were to create a network of our ocean farms totaling the size of Washington state, you could feed the planet.
This is zero-input food that requires no fresh water, no fertilizer, no feed and no dry land. And as the prices of fertilizer, water and feed go up, zero-input food is going to be the most affordable food on the planet. The economics of it will drive us to eat ocean greens. The question is, will it be delicious food or will it be like being force-fed cod liver oil? As farmers, it's our job to grow this new cuisine. It's the chef's job to make it tasty.
Ocean farming isn't just about food. It's about transforming an entire workforce, transforming fishers into restorative ocean farmers. My job has never been to save the seas; it's to figure out how the seas can save us. I say that because millions of years ago Mother Nature created two technologies designed to mitigate our harm: shellfish and seaweeds. Oysters filter up to 50 gallons of water a day, pulling nitrogen—the cause of our oceans' spreading dead zones—from the water column. Our farmed kelp, called the sequoia of the sea, soaks up five times more carbon than land-based plants. Seaweeds are a powerful source of zero-input biofuel; we can produce 2,000 gallons of ethanol per acre—that's a 30 times higher yield than soybeans and five times more than corn. According to the Department of Energy, if you were to take a network of our farms equaling half the size of the state of Maine, you could replace all the oil in the U.S.
Our farms function as storm-surge protectors, breaking up wave action to reduce the impact of hurricanes and rising tides. And they serve as artificial reefs, attracting more than 150 species of aquatic life. Sea horses, striped bass and grey seals come to eat, hide and thrive on our farms. My farm used to be a barren patch of ocean, now it's a flourishing ecosystem. As fishermen, we're no longer pillagers, hunting the last fish. We are a new generation of climate farmers who have joined the fight to restore our planet. We're trying to break down the seawalls that separate our land-based and ocean-based food systems. Even the best land-based farms pollute, sending nitrogen into our waterways, so we use our kelp to capture that nitrogen, turn it into liquid fertilizers and send it back to organic farmers to grow their wonderful vegetables. When the nitrogen then runs back into Long Island Sound, we capture it again.
The idea is to build a bridge between land and sea in order to close the loop between our food systems. Too often our thinking stops at the water's edge. A bridge is needed.
The Blue-Green Economy
Our goal is to build a just foundation for the blue-green economy. Saving the seas is not enough. There is 40 percent unemployment in my hometown. I wouldn't be doing this work unless it created jobs for my people, unless it opened up new opportunities for the folks who depend on our oceans to make a living.
Our old economy is crumbling. Cell service is limited in much of the country, I can't get decent healthcare or a healthy meal. The old economy is built on the arrogance of growth at all costs, profiting from pollution and the refusal to share economic gains with 99 percent of Americans. But out of the ashes of the old economy, together we have the opportunity to build something based on new-economy principles of collaboration, community-driven innovation, shared profits and meeting social needs. Because ocean agriculture is still in its infancy, we have the unprecedented opportunity to build a model from scratch and learn from the mistakes of industrial agriculture and aquaculture. This is our chance to do food right.
For this to happen, our team at GreenWave, an organization created to build out the new ocean agricultural system and replicate it, is working to address three major questions: First, how do we replicate and scale our farming model so that it doesn't become a carbon copy of industrial factory farming? Second, how do we build the infrastructure to create new ownership models to ensure that farmers capture the value chain and that the principles of equity and social justice are woven into the fabric of the ocean economy? Third, how do we create new kinds of economic relationships among growers and buyers and consumers?
We addressed the first question of farm replication and scale, not by patenting or franchising—those are tools of the old economy—but by open-sourcing our farming model so that anybody with 20 acres, a boat and $30,000 can start their own farm. One of our new farmers is a third-generation lobsterman who was unemployed because climate change had pushed lobsters northward. We got him up and running, growing and selling the first year.
Among our other farmers are a former Alaskan salmon fishermen, an Iraq war veteran and a Latino family whose ancestors were driven off their farmlands in Mexico. We replicate and scale by specifically designing our farms to require low capital costs and minimal skills. We seek simplicity, not complexity. We believe that replication is driven by setting low barriers to entry so that people from all walks of life can grow and prosper with us. At the same time, our farmers receive start-up grants, access to free seed, gear donated by Patagonia and two years of free consulting from GreenWave. What is most important, we guarantee to purchase 80 percent of their crops for the first five years at triple the market rate.
We intend to create stable and secure markets that give our beginning farmers time to learn the trade and to scale up their farms. They keep farming because they know they'll get paid well for what they grow. Our vision is hundreds of small-scale ocean farms dotting our coastlines, surrounded by conservation zones. Imagine a Napa valley of ocean merroirs dotting our coastlines.
We envision 3D farms embedded in wind farms, harvesting not only wind but also food, fuel and fertilizers. We envision using shuttered coal plants—like the one closing in Bridgeport, Connecticut—for processing animal feed and salt. We want to repurpose the fossil-fuel and fishing industries so that they will protect rather than destroy our oceans.
Getting Out of the Boutique Food Economy and Recreating an Industry
One of our new farmers, a 65-year-old fisherman whose family has fished off Rhode Island for 300 years, put it this way: “The last thing we want to do with 3D farming is recreate the fishing industry."
For too long, farmers and fishermen have been caught in the beggar's game of selling raw commodities while others soak up the profits. Too many of us are locked into the boutique food economy, selling as CSAs and at farmers markets, with the majority of us not making an adequate living and having to hold down multiple jobs to make ends meet. But now, in our unexplored oceans, we have a chance to plan ahead and to build an infrastructure in the right way.
Instead of repeating history, we're building infrastructure from seed-to-harvest-to-market. We're starting nonprofit hatcheries so our farmers can access low-cost seed. We're creating ocean seed banks so the Monsantos of the world can't privatize the source of our food and livelihoods. We cap the price of a sublease at $50 an acre per year so low-income ocean farmers can access property.
But by “property" we do not mean privatization. Our farmers don't own their patch of ocean; they own only the right to grow shellfish and seaweeds there, which means that anyone can boat, fish or swim on their farms. I own the right to farm but not the property and this keeps my farm a shared community space. We're also building in levers of community control. Leases are up for review every five years so if I'm farming unsustainably, my rights can be revoked.
At the same time, we're building the country's first farmer-owned seafood hub, which is not only a place to process, package and ship the raw commodities we raise, but also a space to leverage the unique qualities of our seaweeds.
Pushing Injustice Off the Table
If we provide our communities with the right mix of low-cost, open-source infrastructure, our hub will become an engine for job creation and the basis for inventing new industries. It will also be an engine for food justice and a place where we embed good jobs, food access and nutrition into the structure of ocean agriculture. This means, for example, working with local grassroots groups like CitySeed in New Haven, Connecticut, to ensure that low-income folks can use food stamps at double face value at our Community Supported Fisheries (CSFs) and our Beyond Fish retail store. It also means using our hub as a hiring hall where local workers can find jobs on our farms, in our start-ups and in our kitchens.
The final challenge is how to rearrange the relationships between those of us who produce food and those who buy it. Failure would be to recreate the power dynamics of the old economy. Just as we need to rearrange what's on our dinner plates by moving ocean greens to the center, we need to move farmers, food workers, communities and protection of the planet to the center of our plate. We're putting farmers and buyers on equal footing by negotiating with institutions to guarantee forward contracts so we get paid before we grow and if our crops fail, then both the farmer and the buyer share the loss. It's time for everyone to share the risk in the risky business of growing food in the era of climate change and globalization.
The relationship between farmer and buyer has to go even deeper. Reformatting the food system is going to be costly. It's going to be complex. Simply using purchasing power will not be enough. Anchor institutions such as hospitals, universities, wholesalers and retailers have a new role, a new set of responsibilities in the new economy. They have a duty to invest aggressively in our farmers, our infrastructure and our communities. This involves donating a portion of their profits and their endowment to building hatcheries, seafood hubs, logistical and transport systems, incubation and research and development. This will mean less profit for the private sector and a lower rate of return for universities. But it will also mean more value in terms of social and environmental good.
The New Economy: Rethinking the Politics of No
Finally, we are insisting that markets reward the positive externalities of our farms. We're working in places like Connecticut to include ocean farmers in existing nitrogen trading programs. New farms are being built in polluted areas like Bridgeport and the Bronx River to soak up the nitrogen and carbon, pull out heavy metals and rebuild reefs. Instead of food, these farms provide ecosystem services. While others pollute, we restore—and as farmers, we should be paid for the positive externalities of our work. In the new economy, markets should reflect the environmental benefits we provide.
In 1979, Jacques Cousteau, the father of ocean conservation, wrote: “We must plant the sea and herd its animals using the ocean as farmers instead of hunters. That is what civilization is all about—farming replacing hunting." Cousteau's dream is frightening to some environmentalists. The idea of hundreds of ocean farms dotting our coastlines and 3D farms embedded in wind farms is unsettling to many because of the scale. As a result, environmentalists do everything they can to protect the oceans from any and all forms of economic development. They shield themselves with a “politics of no." I'm sympathetic to these fears, especially given the history of industrial aquaculture in the 1980s; yet in the era of climate change, it's an illusion for environmentalists to think they can save our seas by relying on a conservation strategy alone while continuing to ask the oceans to feed our hunger for wild seafood.
Conservation represents its own form of climate-change denial. We all know it's real, but the true significance, the implications and the urgency haven't sunk in. Drought and extreme weather are expected to make U.S. corn prices go up by 140 percent in the next 15 years alone, while agriculture is responsible for one-third to one-half of all carbon emissions and uses 80 percent of the fresh water in some areas, making it the primary cause of droughts, rising food prices and food insecurity.
If there is one lesson we should learn from the 2015 water wars in California, it's that our food system is going to be driven out to sea. Yes, we need marine parks, but we could set aside the entire world's oceans and our ocean ecosystems would still die. Conservation alone is not environmentalism.
The climate crisis demands that we use our fears as a catalyst for change. For the first time in generations, we have an opportunity to grow food the right way, provide good middle-class jobs, restore ecosystems and feed the planet. This is our chance to recruit an army of ocean farmers to grow a new climate cuisine that is both beautiful and hopeful so that all of us can make a living on a living planet.
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.