Obama to Make Historic Visit to Hiroshima as U.S. Quietly Upgrades Nuclear Arsenal
President Obama will become the first serving U.S. president to visit Hiroshima, Japan, later this month. The White House said Obama will not apologize for dropping an atomic bomb on the city toward the end of World War II. The attack on Aug. 6, 1945, caused massive and widespread destruction. Shock waves, radiation and heat rays took the lives of some 140,000 people. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 74,000 people.
President Obama is expected to tour the site of the world’s first nuclear attack with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. Obama’s Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes said that Obama’s time in Hiroshima will "reaffirm America’s longstanding commitment—and the president’s personal commitment—to pursue the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons."
Obama’s visit comes as a report by the Alliance for Nuclear Accountability has revealed the U.S. has been quietly upgrading its nuclear arsenal to create smaller, more precise nuclear bombs as part of a massive effort that will cost up to $1 trillion over three decades. We speak with Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action.
Here’s the transcript of the interview:
Amy Goodman: It’s great to be back in New York, though we are still on the road. The White House has announced President Obama will become the first serving U.S. president to visit the Japanese city of Hiroshima later this month. But officials said he will not apologize for what happened on August 6, 1945, when the United States dropped the first nuclear weapon in history on the civilian population of Hiroshima. The attack destroyed the city. Shock waves, radiation and heat waves took the lives of some 140,000 people. Three days later, the U.S. dropped a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki, killing another 74,000 people. President Obama is expected to tour Hiroshima with Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe. On Tuesday, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said Obama will not issue an apology.
Press Secretary Josh Earnest: The president intends to visit to send a much more forward-looking signal about his ambition for realizing the goal of a planet without nuclear weapons. This also is an opportunity for the visit to highlight the remarkable transformation in the relationship between Japan and the United States.
Amy Goodman: Despite the administration’s call for the elimination of nuclear weapons, the United States is pursuing a 30-year, $1 trillion program to modernize its nuclear weapon arsenal by designing bombs with smaller payloads. Retired General James Cartwright recently told The New York Times, quote, "what going smaller does is to make the weapon more thinkable," unquote.
To talk more about the significance of Obama’s Hiroshima visit, we go to Washington, DC, to speak with Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action.
Kevin, welcome to Democracy Now! Your response to President Obama going to Hiroshima and the press secretary making clear he would not apologize for the dropping of the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Kevin Martin: We’re very glad that the president is going to Hiroshima, but we don’t want it to be just another pretty speech where he talks about some day maybe having the right conditions to move towards eliminating nuclear weapons. He’s done that before. He has some accomplishments to show for his presidency, which we can talk about, but, for now, we want him to go with concrete actions. He’s got a bit of time left in his administration and he needs to take concrete action to further that goal. And we can talk about various steps.
As far as the apology is concerned, the hibakusha, the A-bomb survivors, are not asking for it. The Japanese government is not asking for it—for all kinds of reasons. The administration has ruled it out. And I think while I personally would like to see an apology, what might be more meaningful is if he meets with hibakusha and asks their forgiveness for not doing more during his term in office to move towards the elimination of nuclear weapons. But if he will take some concrete steps, then that apology—or that asking forgiveness would be unnecessary.
Amy Goodman: Can you talk about what you are demanding?
Kevin Martin: First of all, as you just mentioned, this 30-year, $1 trillion cockamamie plan—a colleague of ours called it a "trillion-dollar train wreck"—to totally upgrade all of our nuclear weapons complex, from the research laboratories to new warheads to new missiles, bombers, submarines, I can’t think of a worse misappropriation of our tax dollars. And predictably, every other nuclear-weapon state has followed suit, saying that they are going to upgrade their nuclear weapons, as well. It totally shreds any credibility that the United States has on nonproliferation. So that would be the first thing, is cancel that.
There are a lot of other steps that he could take: taking our nuclear weapons off of hair-trigger alert, separating the warheads from their delivery systems, initiating negotiations for the elimination of nuclear weapons globally, initiating talks on a Middle East zone free of weapons of mass destruction, taking unilateral executive action that doesn’t require a long treaty process—negotiations with Russia and then Senate ratification, which would be very difficult. We could cut our reserve nuclear weapons, get rid of a bunch of those. But even the current deployed nuclear weapons, we could go down to a thousand or fewer, as the Pentagon has suggested in the past and the U.S. actually wanted to do with Russia and then challenge Russia to reciprocate. Those are just some of the steps that would be meaningful and worth a trip to Hiroshima.
Amy Goodman:: I want to turn to the words of Kenzaburo Oe, the acclaimed Japanese novelist, recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. When Democracy Now! was in Japan in 2014, I interviewed Kenzaburo Oe and asked him if President Obama should apologize for the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Kenzaburo Oe: [translated] I am not seeking an apology, whether from the president or from any kind of person, in regards to this issue. And I believe the fact that humanity did create these nuclear weapons is a crime that all of humanity is responsible for. And I believe this is an issue of a much greater scale than any individual politician could make an apology for. I believe that it would have great meaning if Obama, for example, was to come to Hiroshima and hear the experiences or the testimony of the survivors. But I don’t believe that what we should be seeing here is an apology from someone on behalf of the United States’ people for dropping the bomb.
So I believe that if Mr. Obama were to come to the memorial ceremonies in Hiroshima or Nagasaki, for example, what he could do is come together with the hibakusha, the survivors and share that moment of silence and also express considering the issue of nuclear weapons from the perspective of all humanity and how important nuclear abolition is from that perspective—I think, would be the most important thing and the most important thing that any politician or representative could do at this time. I believe that the issue or the experience of nuclear weapons is something too large for any individual to apologize for and it’s the responsibility of all humanity to take on board. So rather than an apology, I believe that what’s important is to call for an expression of the will and the dedication to create a world free of nuclear weapons. And so, if any influential U.S. politicians or, for example, even French, were to come to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that is what I would like to hear.
Amy Goodman: That’s the acclaimed Japanese author, Kenzaburo Oe, recipient of the 1994 Nobel Prize for Literature. I interviewed him in Japan in 2014. I also want to turn to the words of a Hiroshima survivor I spoke to during that same trip. Koji Hosokawa was 17 years old when the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. His 13-year-old sister Yoko died in the bombing. He gave us a tour of the city, speaking to us near the A-Bomb Dome in Hiroshima, one of the few structures in the city that survived the atomic blast.
Koji Hosokawa: [translated] The A-bomb was dropped in Hiroshima and also one in Nagasaki. And I think that atomic bombs were dropped not just on our cities, but on the whole human beings. And so, I have many things to talk about, about my experience of the A-bomb, but if the next one, the third A-bomb is to be dropped, then the Earth will be annihilated. I want people to understand, this is going to be—you know, the Earth is going to be annihilated. So whenever I talk, I want them to understand this.
The Peace Memorial Park, until the A-bomb, people lived here. Everything was destroyed. Everyone died around this area. The Peace Memorial Park is a beautiful park today, with so many trees. But later, they planted small trees and after decades these trees became bigger and now a very beautiful park today. So, I tell the visitors about this, too. I want them to understand people lived here. Please tell the people that people used to live here. War makes everyone crazy.
Amy Goodman: That’s Koji Hosokawa, 17 years old when the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on his city of Hiroshima. His 13-year-old sister Yoko died in the bombing. He was speaking to us next to the A-Bomb Dome, one of the few structures in the city that survived the blast. I want to end by asking you, Kevin Martin, head of Peace Action—you’ve been to Hiroshima. You’ve met with Hiroshima survivors, both in Hiroshima as well as in your home state of New Jersey. Will President Obama meet with hibakusha, Hiroshima survivors?
Kevin Martin: I certainly hope so. I mean, I think he should. I think he needs to hear their stories, listen to their wisdom, listen to their sense of forgiveness, which is just awe-inspiring, as far as I’m concerned. And only thing that the hibakusha want—and, of course, many of them are very elderly—is to see the abolition of nuclear weapons, so that this never happens to anyone again.
I was in New Jersey just a few weeks ago for a dinner that New Jersey Peace Action had. And I was honored to meet again—I had met her years ago—Shigeko Sasamori, who was 13 years old when the bomb was dropped. She was a Hiroshima maiden who was brought to the United States for surgery and adopted by Norman Cousins, American peace activist. And she said she’ll be in Hiroshima and she wants to sneak through the security line and meet President Obama and shake his hand and not let go until he promises to eliminate nuclear weapons. I can’t imagine that they’re going to stop this diminutive 84-year-old grandmother. But hearing those stories could be transformative for this president, who already is committed to nuclear disarmament but just hasn’t done enough during his presidency to move us toward that goal.
Amy Goodman: And the significance of it being Prime Minister Shinzo Abe who will take him around, the prime minister of Japan? When we were in Japan, I interviewed the prime minister at the time of the Fukushima meltdown, Naoto Kan, who was a big supporter of nuclear power before the meltdown, now is one of the leading proponents in the world against nuclear power and weapons. What about Shinzo Abe’s relationship with Obama and his role in renuclearizing Japan?
Kevin Martin: Abe is terrible. He’s a nightmare for the people of Japan and the people of the region. He’s a militarist. He’s in league with the United States in terms of the so-called Asia-Pacific pivot to try to encircle and isolate China and Russia. And one of the worst things he’s doing is shredding Article 9 of the Japanese Constitution, the so-called pacifist part of the Constitution. So, he has to, I think, pay lip service to the goal of nuclear weapons abolition. I think most Japanese national politicians have to do that. But he’s no ally at all, as far as I’m concerned or the Japanese peace groups or Japanese survivors are concerned.
Amy Goodman: Kevin Martin, president of Peace Action, thanks so much for being with us. We’ll link to your piece in CounterPunch headlined "President Obama Should Meet A-Bomb Survivors."
This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, we look at a delegate chosen by the Trump organization to represent Trump in California. They say it was a database mistake that the white supremacist was chosen. We’ll look deeper. And then we’ll talk about "Madness"; we’ll talk about what happens to mentally ill prisoners in a prison here in the United States. Stay with us.
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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.