Next week marks the second Earth Day of the coronavirus pandemic. While a year of lockdowns and travel restrictions has limited our ability to explore the natural world and gather with others for its defense, it is still possible to experience the wonder and inspiration from the safety of your home.
Here are three new films to watch this Earth Week that will transport you from pole to pole and introduce you to the scientists and activists working to save our shared home.
Where to Watch: Apple TV+
When to Watch: From April 16
The coronavirus pandemic has brought home the stakes of humanity's impact on the environment. But the lockdowns also proved how quickly nature can recover when humans give it the space. Birds sang in empty cities, whales surfaced in Glacier Bay and capybara roamed the South American suburbs.
The Year Earth Changed captures this unique year with footage from more than 30 lockdowned cities between May 2020 to January 2021. Narrated by renowned wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the film explores what positive lessons we can take from the experience of a quieter, less trafficked world.
"What the film shows is that the natural world can bounce back remarkably quickly when we take a step back and reduce our impact as we did during lockdown," executive producer Alice Keens-Soper of BBC Studios Natural History Unit told EcoWatch. "If we are willing to make even small changes to our habits, the natural world can flourish. We need to learn how to co-exist with nature and understand that we are not separate from it- for example if we closed some of our beaches at for a few weeks during the turtle breeding we see that it can make a huge difference to their success. There are many ways that we can adapt our behavior to allow the natural world to thrive as it did in lockdown."
Where to Watch: San Francisco International Film Festival
In 1989, Will Steger led an international team of six scientists and explorers to be the first humans to cross Antarctica by dogsled. Steger and his team weren't just in it for the adventure. They also wanted to draw attention to the ways in which the climate crisis was already transforming the icy continent and to rally support for the renewal of the Antarctic Treaty, which would keep the continent safe from extractive industries.
In After Antarctica, award-winning filmmaker Tasha Van Zandt follows Steger 30 years later as he travels the Arctic this time, reflecting on his original journey and once again bringing awareness to changes in a polar landscape. The film intersperses this contemporary journey with footage from the original expedition, some of which has never been seen before.
"Will's life journey as an explorer and climate activist has led him not only to see more of the polar world than anyone else alive today, but to being an eyewitness to the changes occurring across both poles," Van Zandt told EcoWatch. "But now, these changes are happening in all of our own backyards and we have all become eyewitnesses. Through my journey with Will, I have learned that although we cannot always control change, we can change our response. I feel strongly that this is a message that resonates when we look at the current state of the world, as we each have power and control over how we choose to respond to hardships, and we all have the power to unite with others through collective action around a common goal."
After Antarctica is available to stream once you purchase a ticket to the San Francisco International Film Festival. If you miss it this weekend, it will screen again at the Minneapolis St. Paul International Film Festival from May 13 to May 23.
Tasha Van Zandt
Where to Watch: Virtual Cinema
While many films about the climate crisis seek to raise awareness about the extent of the problem, The Race to Save the World focuses on the people who are trying to stop it. The film tells the story of climate activists ranging from 15-year-old Aji to 72-year-old Miriam who are working to create a sustainable future. It follows them from the streets to the courtroom to their homes, and explores the impact of their advocacy on their personal lives and relationships.
Emmy award-winning documentary filmmaker Joe Gantz told EcoWatch that he wanted to make a film about climate change, but did not want to depress viewers with overwhelming statistics. Instead, he chose to inspire them by sharing the stories of people trying to make a difference.
"Unless millions of people take to the streets and make their voices heard for a livable future, the politicians are not going to get on board to help make the changes needed for a sustainable future," Gantz told Ecowatch. "I think that The Race To Save The World will energize and inspire people to take action so that future generations, as well as the plants, animals and ecosystems, can survive and thrive on this planet."
Check back with EcoWatch on the morning of Earth Day for a special preview of this inspiring film!
By Jeff Goodell
The Earth's climate has always been a work in progress. In the 4.5 billion years the planet has been spinning around the sun, ice ages have come and gone, interrupted by epochs of intense heat. The highest mountain range in Texas was once an underwater reef. Camels wandered in evergreen forests in the Arctic. Then a few million years later, 400 feet of ice formed over what is now New York City. But amid this geologic mayhem, humans have gotten lucky. For the past 10,000 years, virtually the entire stretch of human civilization, people have lived in what scientists call "a Goldilocks climate" — not too hot, not too cold, just right.
Now, our luck is running out. The industrialized nations of the world are dumping 34 billion tons or so of carbon into the atmosphere every year, which is roughly 10 times faster than Mother Nature ever did on her own, even during past mass extinction events. As a result, global temperatures have risen 1.2 C since we began burning coal, and the past seven years have been the warmest seven years on record. The Earth's temperature is rising faster today than at any time since the end of the last ice age, 11,300 years ago. We are pushing ourselves out of a Goldilocks climate and into something entirely different — quite literally, a different world than humans have ever lived in before.
How hot will the summers get in India and Pakistan, and how will tens of thousands of deaths from extreme heat impact the stability of the region (both nations have nuclear weapons)? How close is the West Antarctic ice sheet to collapse, and what does the risk of five or six feet of sea-level rise mean for people living in mobile homes on the Gulf Coast? The truth is, no one knows for sure. We are in uncharted terrain. "We're now in a world where the past is no longer a good guide to the future," said Jesse Jenkins, an assistant professor of engineering at Princeton University. "We have to get much better at preparing for the unexpected."
By all indications, President Biden and his team understand all this. And it's hard not to feel that after 30 years of dithering and denial and hypocrisy, the fight to save the climate has finally begun in earnest. In the 2020 election, nearly 70 percent of Biden's voters said climate change was a top issue for them. Biden has staffed his administration with the climate A-team, from Gina McCarthy as domestic climate czar to John Kerry as international climate envoy. He has made racial and environmental justice a top priority. And perhaps most important of all, he sees the climate crisis as an opportunity to reinvent the U.S. economy and create millions of new jobs.
"I think in Obama's mind, it was always about tackling the climate challenge, not making the climate challenge the central element of your economic policy," says John Podesta, a Democratic power broker and special adviser to President Obama who played a key role in negotiating the Paris Agreement. "Biden's team is different. It is really the core of their economic strategy to make transformation of the energy systems the driver of innovation, growth, and job creation, justice and equity."
Of course, there have been hopeful moments before: the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, when the nations of the world first came together to limit CO2 emissions; the success of Al Gore's documentary An Inconvenient Truth in 2006; the election of Obama in 2008 ("This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal," Obama said in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination that year); the Paris Agreement in 2015, when China finally engaged in climate talks. But all of these moments, in the end, led to nothing. If you look at the only metric that really matters — a graph of the percentage of CO2 molecules in the atmosphere — it has been on a long, steady upward climb. More CO2 equals more heat. To put it bluntly, all our scientific knowledge, all the political speeches, all the activism and protest marches have done zero to stop the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels.
But hope rises again. The economic winds are lifting Biden's sails: The cost of wind and solar power has plummeted by 90 percent or so over the past decade, and in many parts of the world it's the cheapest way to generate electricity. Meanwhile, fossil-fuel dinosaurs are tottering: Big Coal is collapsing in real time and may disappear from American life in the next decade or so. ExxonMobil lost $22 billion last year and in August was delisted from the S&P 500. GM, long the staunch fossil-fuel loyalist of the U.S. auto industry, has pledged to go all-electric by 2035.
Globally, the signs of change are equally inspiring. Eight of the 10 largest economies have pledged to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. China, by far the world's largest carbon polluter in terms of raw tonnage (on a per capita basis, the U.S. and several other countries pollute far more), has promised to become carbon neutral by 2060. Some 400 companies, including Microsoft, Unilever, Facebook, Ford, Nestlé, and Pepsi, have committed to reduce carbon pollution consistent with the United Nations' 1.5 C target, which scientists have determined is the threshold of dangerous climate change. Many of these same companies are now calling on the Biden administration to cut overall U.S. carbon pollution by at least 50 percent below 2005 levels by 2030, a goal consistent with the 1.5 C target.
Big Money is also waking up to the risks and benefits of climate action. In his annual letter to investors, Larry Fink, the CEO of BlackRock, which manages $7.8 trillion in assets, challenged companies "to disclose a plan for how their business model will be compatible with a net-zero economy." In her confirmation hearing, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen called climate change "an existential threat" and promised to create a team to examine the risks and integrate them into financial policy-making.
Still, these are only baby steps in a very long journey. And the clock is ticking. "When it comes to the climate crisis," says futurist Alex Steffen, "speed is everything." Every molecule of carbon we dump into the atmosphere is another molecule of carbon that will warm the climate for centuries to come, and in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, reshape the world we live in. The changes we are making are not reversible. If we magically stopped all carbon pollution tomorrow, the Earth's temperature would level off, but warm seas would continue melting the ice sheets and seas would keep rising for decades, if not centuries (last time carbon levels were as high as they are today, sea levels were 70 feet higher). Ocean acidification, caused by high CO2 levels, is already dissolving coral reefs and is having a major impact on the ocean food chain. Even after emissions stop, it will take the ocean thousands of years to recover.
Cutting carbon fast would slow these changes and reduce the risk of other climate catastrophes. But despite the world's newfound ambition, political leaders are not moving anywhere near fast enough. Even the goal of holding future warming to 2 C, which is a centerpiece of the Paris Agreement and considered the outer limits of a Goldilocks climate for much of the planet, is nearly out of reach. As a recent paper in Nature pointed out: "On current trends, the probability of staying below 2 C of warming is only five percent." If all countries meet the commitment they made in the 2015 Paris Agreement and continue to reduce emissions at the same rate after 2030, the paper argued, the probability of remaining below 2 C of warming rises to 26 percent ("As if a 26 percent chance was good," Swedish climate wunderkind Greta Thunberg pointed out in a tweet).
The great danger is not climate denial. The great danger is climate delay. Instead of pushing for changes tomorrow, world leaders and CEOs like to make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2050. And then in 2050, they will make virtuous-sounding statements about what they will do in 2070. Climate scientist Zeke Hausfather calls this the "empty radicalism" of long-term goals.
What's needed is action now. As climate envoy John Kerry put it at the World Sustainable Development Summit in February: "We have to now phase out coal five times faster than we have been. We have to increase tree cover five times faster than we have been. We have to ramp up renewable energy six times faster than we are. We have to transition to [electric vehicles] 22 times faster."
As an example of the seriousness of Biden's near-term ambition, he has proposed transitioning to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, which means goodbye natural-gas plants, goodbye coal plants, and hello electric cars and battery storage. It's an astonishingly ambitious proposal, one that would require a remaking of the digital backbone of America at a breakneck speed. It will create hundreds of thousands of jobs, but if Biden is serious about getting it done, it will require retooling permitting laws and the environmental-review process that often stalls big infrastructure projects.
Demanding action now will also require shutting down the international financing schemes that support fossil fuels. China, Japan, and South Korea all claim to be doing their part in making carbon reductions at home, while at the same time they are financing 70,000 megawatts of coal power in places like Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Indonesia. In addition, state-run oil companies in places like China, Indonesia, and Saudi Arabia are on course to spend more than $400 billion over the next decade to expand oil infrastructure and exploration.
The goal of net-zero emissions is also problematic. "Net zero" is not the same thing as zero. It means that carbon pollution is either eliminated or offset by other processes that remove carbon from the atmosphere, such as forests or machines that capture CO2. Some of these offsets and technologies are more legit than others, opening the door to scams that claim to eliminate more carbon than they do.
In a way, the economic chaos caused by the pandemic has created a historic opportunity for the Biden administration. As one White House adviser tells me, "If you are going to pump billions of dollars into the economy, why not use those dollars to help us transition away from fossil fuels?" This is one of the central ideas behind Biden's $2 trillion infrastructure bill, which is now being negotiated in Congress. The bill includes a wide variety of climate-related initiatives, shaped around the twin pillars of Biden-era policy: clean-energy jobs and climate justice.
Already the pushback is fierce, especially in states that have benefited from the fracking boom. "The climate fight going forward is really about natural gas," says Leah Stokes, author of Short Circuiting Policy, an analysis of how special interests have derailed clean-energy policy for 30 years. Shortly after Biden issued his first round of executive orders aimed at the climate crisis, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott held a press conference in the middle of the gas fields "to make clear that Texas is going to protect the oil-and-gas industry from any type of hostile attack launched from Washington, D.C." In Florida, two bills were introduced that would preempt local governments from implementing plans to lower carbon pollution. In California and New York, residents are fighting transmission lines for offshore wind farms. Republicans, along with stalwart fossil-fuel allies like the Heritage Foundation, recently convened a private retreat in Utah to plot ways to "reclaim the narrative" on climate, while Republican Senators like Tennessee's Marsha Blackburn continue to recycle tired old rants about how the Paris Agreement is destroying American jobs.
None of this is surprising. And the fight will only get bigger and more ruthless as the clean-energy transition accelerates. Fossil fuels are emblematic of a culture, a way of life, a political hierarchy, and an empire of wealth that will not go quietly into the night.
Even among climate activists and progressives, there is wide disagreement about the best path forward. In Pennsylvania, Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who supports Biden's climate goals, sees natural gas as indispensable. "You can't turn off natural gas in our society, at least in the Northeast of the United States at this time," Lamb tells me. "You just can't do it." Lamb advocates investments in expensive and unproven technology like carbon capture that could extend the life of fossil fuels. Then there are the eternal battles over nuclear power as a source of clean energy, which Lamb also supports. Others, like UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen, remain skeptical: "If low-cost, reliable, entirely safe nuclear can prove itself out, this is wonderful. . . . But there's a lot of big ifs."
More important, the fight for a stable climate is increasingly inseparable from a fight for justice and equity. Catherine Coleman Flowers, who was on a task force that helped shape Biden's climate policy during his campaign, grew up and works in Lowndes County, Alabama. "I see a lot of poverty here," Flowers says. "And I see a lot of people who suffer from the impacts of climate change — whether it is heat, or disease, or poor sanitation and polluted drinking water. You can't separate one from the other. They put sewage lagoons next to the houses of poor people, not rich people. They put oil pipelines through poor neighborhoods, not rich ones."
Internationally, rich nations of the world pledged to "mobilize" $100 billion by 2020 through the U.N.'s Green Climate Fund to help developing nations adapt to climate change. But only about $10 billion materialized. The U.S. was among the worst actors: Of the $3 billion President Obama promised, he funded only $1 billion before Trump canceled further payments (Biden has promised to make good on the commitment, and then some).
Whatever happens with Biden's climate and energy initiatives, we're living in a new world now. The faster we cut carbon, the more manageable the changes will be. But change is coming. The biggest fights of the future are less likely to be about natural gas and nuclear power than about sea walls and migration policies. "Adaptation is not sexy," says Alice Hill, who was an adviser to the Obama administration. "But it is inevitable." As climate impacts escalate, dangerous techno-fixes, such as solar geoengineering, which involves spraying particles into the stratosphere to reflect away sunlight and cool the planet, will likely become more tempting and more divisive, perhaps further diluting the will to quickly cut carbon pollution.
For more than 30 years now, scientists and politicians have been aware that our hellbent consumption of fossil fuels could push us out of the Goldilocks zone and force humans to live in a world we have never inhabited before. As Biden's push for climate action gets real, we will learn a lot about how serious human beings are about living on this planet, and how far the powerful and privileged are willing to go to reduce the suffering of the poor and vulnerable. If political leaders don't take the climate crisis seriously now, with all they know, with all they have been through already, will they ever? "Climate advocates keep saying, 'This is it, this is it, this is it,'" warns Podesta. "But this really is it. If we don't amp up and accelerate the energy transformation in this decade, we're goners — really goners."
This story originally appeared in Rolling Stone and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
The bright patterns and recognizable designs of Waterlust's activewear aren't just for show. In fact, they're meant to promote the conversation around sustainability and give back to the ocean science and conservation community.
Each design is paired with a research lab, nonprofit, or education organization that has high intellectual merit and the potential to move the needle in its respective field. For each product sold, Waterlust donates 10% of profits to these conservation partners.
Eye-Catching Designs Made from Recycled Plastic Bottles
waterlust.com / @abamabam
The company sells a range of eco-friendly items like leggings, rash guards, and board shorts that are made using recycled post-consumer plastic bottles. There are currently 16 causes represented by distinct marine-life patterns, from whale shark research and invasive lionfish removal to sockeye salmon monitoring and abalone restoration.
One such organization is Get Inspired, a nonprofit that specializes in ocean restoration and environmental education. Get Inspired founder, marine biologist Nancy Caruso, says supporting on-the-ground efforts is one thing that sets Waterlust apart, like their apparel line that supports Get Inspired abalone restoration programs.
"All of us [conservation partners] are doing something," Caruso said. "We're not putting up exhibits and talking about it — although that is important — we're in the field."
Waterlust not only helps its conservation partners financially so they can continue their important work. It also helps them get the word out about what they're doing, whether that's through social media spotlights, photo and video projects, or the informative note card that comes with each piece of apparel.
"They're doing their part for sure, pushing the information out across all of their channels, and I think that's what makes them so interesting," Caruso said.
And then there are the clothes, which speak for themselves.
Advocate Apparel to Start Conversations About Conservation
waterlust.com / @oceanraysphotography
Waterlust's concept of "advocate apparel" encourages people to see getting dressed every day as an opportunity to not only express their individuality and style, but also to advance the conversation around marine science. By infusing science into clothing, people can visually represent species and ecosystems in need of advocacy — something that, more often than not, leads to a teaching moment.
"When people wear Waterlust gear, it's just a matter of time before somebody asks them about the bright, funky designs," said Waterlust's CEO, Patrick Rynne. "That moment is incredibly special, because it creates an intimate opportunity for the wearer to share what they've learned with another."
The idea for the company came to Rynne when he was a Ph.D. student in marine science.
"I was surrounded by incredible people that were discovering fascinating things but noticed that often their work wasn't reaching the general public in creative and engaging ways," he said. "That seemed like a missed opportunity with big implications."
Waterlust initially focused on conventional media, like film and photography, to promote ocean science, but the team quickly realized engagement on social media didn't translate to action or even knowledge sharing offscreen.
Rynne also saw the "in one ear, out the other" issue in the classroom — if students didn't repeatedly engage with the topics they learned, they'd quickly forget them.
"We decided that if we truly wanted to achieve our goal of bringing science into people's lives and have it stick, it would need to be through a process that is frequently repeated, fun, and functional," Rynne said. "That's when we thought about clothing."
Support Marine Research and Sustainability in Style
To date, Waterlust has sold tens of thousands of pieces of apparel in over 100 countries, and the interactions its products have sparked have had clear implications for furthering science communication.
For Caruso alone, it's led to opportunities to share her abalone restoration methods with communities far and wide.
"It moves my small little world of what I'm doing here in Orange County, California, across the entire globe," she said. "That's one of the beautiful things about our partnership."
Check out all of the different eco-conscious apparel options available from Waterlust to help promote ocean conservation.
Melissa Smith is an avid writer, scuba diver, backpacker, and all-around outdoor enthusiast. She graduated from the University of Florida with degrees in journalism and sustainable studies. Before joining EcoWatch, Melissa worked as the managing editor of Scuba Diving magazine and the communications manager of The Ocean Agency, a non-profit that's featured in the Emmy award-winning documentary Chasing Coral.
By Asher Rosinger
Imagine seeing a news report about lead contamination in drinking water in a community that looks like yours. It might make you think twice about whether to drink your tap water or serve it to your kids – especially if you also have experienced tap water problems in the past.
In a new study, my colleagues Anisha Patel, Francesca Weaks and I estimate that approximately 61.4 million people in the U.S. did not drink their tap water as of 2017-2018. Our research, which was released in preprint format on April 8, 2021, and has not yet been peer reviewed, found that this number has grown sharply in the past several years.
Other research has shown that about 2 million Americans don't have access to clean water. Taking that into account, our findings suggest that about 59 million people have tap water access from either their municipality or private wells or cisterns, but don't drink it. While some may have contaminated water, others may be avoiding water that's actually safe.
Water insecurity is an underrecognized but growing problem in the U.S. Tap water distrust is part of the problem. And it's critical to understand what drives it, because people who don't trust their tap water shift to more expensive and often less healthy options, like bottled water or sugary drinks.
I'm a human biologist and have studied water and health for the past decade in places as diverse as Lowland Bolivia and northern Kenya. Now I run the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Pennsylvania State University. To understand water issues, I talk to people and use large datasets to see whether a problem is unique or widespread, and stable or growing.
An Epidemic of Distrust
According to our research, there's a growing epidemic of tap water distrust and disuse in the U.S. In a 2020 study, anthropologist Sera Young and I found that tap water avoidance was declining before the Flint water crisis that began in 2014. In 2015-2016, however, it started to increase again for children.
Our new study found that in 2017-2018, the number of Americans who didn't drink tap water increased at an alarmingly high rate, particularly for Black and Hispanic adults and children. Since 2013-2014 – just before the Flint water crisis began – the prevalence of adults who do not drink their tap water has increased by 40%. Among children, not consuming tap has risen by 63%.
To calculate this change, we used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, a nationally representative survey that releases data in two-year cycles. Sampling weights that use demographic characteristics ensure that the people being sampled are representative of the broader U.S. population.
Racial Disparities in Tap Water Consumption
Communities of color have long experienced environmental injustice across the U.S. Black, Hispanic and Native American residents are more likely to live in environmentally disadvantaged neighborhoods, with exposure to water that violates quality standards.
Our findings reflect these experiences. We calculated that Black and Hispanic children and adults are two to three times more likely to report not drinking their tap water than members of white households. In 2017-2018, roughly 3 out of 10 Black adults and children and nearly 4 of 10 Hispanic adults and children didn't drink their tap water. Approximately 2 of 10 Asian Americans didn't drink from their tap, while only 1 of 10 white Americans didn't drink their tap water.
When children don't drink any water on a given day, research shows that they consume twice as many calories from sugary drinks as children who drink water. Higher sugary drink consumption increases risk of cavities, obesity and cardiometabolic diseases. Drinking tap water provides fluoride, which lowers the risk of cavities. Relying on water alternatives is also much more expensive than drinking tap water.
A4: Choosing to drink fluoridated tap water over sugar-sweetened beverages to quench thirst is vital to protecting… https://t.co/3tm8wuWjeZ— Oral Health Watch (@Oral Health Watch)1600795750.0
What Erodes Trust
News reports – particularly high-visibility events like advisories to boil water – lead people to distrust their tap water even after the problem is fixed. For example, a 2019 study showed that water quality violations across the U.S. between 2006 and 2015 led to increases in bottled water purchases in affected counties as a way to avoid tap water, and purchase rates remained elevated after the violation.
The Flint water crisis drew national attention to water insecurity, even though state and federal regulators were slow to respond to residents' complaints there. Soon afterward, lead contamination was found in the water supply of Newark, New Jersey; the city is currently replacing all lead service lines under a legal settlement. Elsewhere, media outlets and advocacy groups have reported finding tap water samples contaminated with industrial chemicals, lead, arsenic and other contaminants.
Many other factors can cause people to distrust their water supply, including smell, taste and appearance, as well as lower income levels. Location is also an issue: Older U.S. cities with aging infrastructure are more prone to water shutoffs and water quality problems.
It's important not to blame people for distrusting what comes out of their tap, because those fears are rooted in history. In my view, addressing water insecurity requires a two-part strategy: ensuring that everyone has access to clean water, and increasing trust so people who have safe water will use it.
As part of his proposed infrastructure plan, President Joe Biden is asking Congress for $111 billion to improve water delivery systems, replace lead pipelines and tackle other contaminants. The plan also proposes improvements for small water systems and underserved communities.
These are critical steps to rebuild trust. Yet, in my view, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency should also provide better public education about water quality testing and targeted interventions for vulnerable populations, such as children and underserved communities. Initiatives to simplify and improve water quality reports can help people understand what's in their water and what they can do if they think something is wrong with it.
Who delivers those messages is important. In areas like Flint, where former government officials have been indicted on charges including negligence and perjury in connection with the water crisis, the government's word alone won't rebuild trust. Instead, community members can fill this critical role.
Another priority is the 13%-15% of Americans who rely on private well water, which is not regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. These households are responsible for their own water quality testing. Public funding would help them test it regularly and address any problems.
Public distrust of tap water in the U.S. reflects decades of policies that have reduced access to reliable, safe drinking water in communities of color. Fixing water lines is important, but so is giving people confidence to turn on the tap.
Asher Rosinger is an assistant professor of biobehavioral health, anthropology, and demography and director of the Water, Health, and Nutrition Laboratory at Penn State University.
Disclosure statement: Asher Rosinger receives funding from the National Science Foundation on an unrelated project. This work was supported by the Ann Atherton Hertzler Early Career Professorship funds, and the Penn State Population Research Institute (NICHD P2CHD041025). The funders had no role in the research or interpretation of results.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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By Jake Johnson
A federal appeals court on Tuesday dealt the final blow to former President Donald Trump's attempt to open nearly 130 million acres of territory in the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans to oil and gas drilling.
Though the Trump administration appealed the ruling, President Joe Biden revoked his predecessor's 2017 order shortly after taking office, rendering the court case moot. On Tuesday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals agreed to dismiss the Trump administration's appeal.
"Because the terms of the challenged Executive Order are no longer in effect, the relevant areas of the [Outer Continental Shelf] in the Chukchi Sea, Beaufort Sea, and Atlantic Ocean will be withdrawn from exploration and development activities," the court said in its order.
Erik Grafe of Earthjustice, which represented a coalition of advocacy groups that challenged Trump's order, said in a statement that "we welcome today's decision and its confirmation of President Obama's legacy of ocean and climate protection."
"As the Biden administration considers its next steps, it should build on these foundations, end fossil fuel leasing on public lands and waters, and embrace a clean energy future that does not come at the expense of wildlife and our natural heritage," Grafe continued. "One obvious place for immediate action is America's Arctic, including the Arctic Refuge and the Western Arctic, which the previous administration sought to relegate to oil development in a series of last-minute decisions that violate bedrock environmental laws."
VICTORY: 9th Circuit ends fight over President Trump's illegal attempt to open up 128 million acres of Atlantic & A… https://t.co/TvYVt2F1jO— Earthjustice (@Earthjustice)1618347073.0
In January, Biden ordered a temporary pause on new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters, a decision environmentalists hailed as a positive step that should be made permanent.
"We call on President Biden to keep his promise: a full and complete ban on fracking and fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Full stop," Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones said at the time. "The climate crisis requires it and he promised it."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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The bill, SB467, would have prohibited fracking and other controversial forms of oil extraction. It would also have banned oil and gas production within 2,500 feet of a home, school, hospital or other residential facility. The bill originally set the fracking ban for 2027, but amended it to 2035, The AP reported.
"Obviously I'm very disappointed," State Sen. Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), one of the bill's two introducers, told the Los Angeles Times. "California really has not done what it needs to do in terms of addressing the oil problem. We have communities that are suffering right now, and the Legislature has repeatedly failed to act."
The bill was introduced after California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would sign a fracking ban if it passed the legislature, though his administration has continued to issue permits in the meantime, Forbes reported. Newsom has also spoken in favor of a buffer zone between oil and gas extraction and places where people live and learn, according to the Los Angeles Times. The latter is a major environmental justice issue, as fossil fuel production is more likely to be located near Black and Latinx communities.
Urban lawmakers who want California to lead on the climate crisis supported the bill, while inland lawmakers in oil-rich areas concerned about jobs opposed it. The oil and gas industry and trade unions also opposed the bill.
This opposition meant the bill failed to get the five votes it needed to move beyond the Senate's Natural Resources and Water Committee. Only four senators approved it, while Democrat Sen. Susan Eggman of Stockton joined two Republicans to oppose it, and two other Democrats abstained.
Eggman argued that the bill would have forced California to rely on oil extracted in other states.
"We're still going to use it, but we're going to use it from places that produce it less safely," Eggman told The AP. She also said that she supported the transition away from fossil fuels, but thought the bill jumped the gun. "I don't think we're quite there yet, and this bill assumes that we are," she added.
Historically, California has been a major U.S. oil producer. Its output peaked in 1986 at 1.1 million barrels a day, just below Texas and Alaska, according to Forbes. However, production has declined since then making it the seventh-most oil-producing state.
Still, California's fossil fuel industry is at odds with state attempts to position itself as a climate leader.
"There is a large stain on California's climate record, and that is oil," Wiener said Tuesday, according to The AP.
Wiener and Democrat co-introducer Sen. Monique Limón from Santa Barbara vowed to keep fighting.
"While we saw this effort defeated today, this issue isn't going away," they wrote in a joint statement. "We'll continue to fight for aggressive climate action, against harmful drilling, and for the health of our communities."
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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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France moved one step closer this weekend to banning short-haul flights in an attempt to fight the climate crisis.
A bill prohibiting regional flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of less than two and a half hours passed the country's National Assembly late on Saturday, as Reuters reported.
"We know that aviation is a contributor of carbon dioxide and that because of climate change we must reduce emissions," Industry Minister Agnes Pannier-Runacher told Europe 1 radio, according to Reuters.
The measure now has to pass the French Senate, then return to the lower house for a final vote. It would end regional flights between Paris's Orly airport and cities like Nantes and Bordeaux, The Guardian explained. It would not, however, impact connecting flights through Paris's Charles de Gaulle/Roissy airport.
The bill is part of a legislative package which aims to reduce France's emissions by 40 percent of 1990 levels by 2030, Reuters reported. It is a watered-down version of a proposal suggested by France's Citizens' Convention on Climate, BBC News explained. This group, which was formed by President Emmanuel Macron in 2019 and included 150 ordinary citizens, had put forward a ban on flights that could be replaced with an existing train journey of under four hours.
However, the journey length was lowered after protests from KLM-Air France, which had suffered heavy losses due to the coronavirus pandemic, and regions who were concerned about being left out of national transit networks, as The Guardian explained.
"We have chosen two and a half hours because four hours risks isolating landlocked territories including the greater Massif Central, which would be iniquitous," transport minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari said, as The Guardian reported.
However, some environmental and consumer groups objected to the changes. The organization UFC-Que Choisir compared plane routes with equivalent train journeys of under four hours and found that the plane trips emitted an average of 77 times more carbon dioxide per passenger than the train journeys. At the same time, the train alternatives were cheaper and only as much as 40 minutes longer.
"[T]he government's choice actually aims to empty the measure of its substance," the group said, according to The Guardian.
The new measure also opens the French government to charges of hypocrisy. It bailed out Air France-KLM to the tune of a seven-billion euro loan last year, though it did require the airline to drop some domestic routes as a condition. Then, days before the measure passed, it more than doubled its stake in the airline, BBC News reported. However, Pannier-Runacher insisted to Europe 1 radio that it was possible to balance fighting climate change and supporting struggling businesses.
"Equally, we must support our companies and not let them fall by the wayside," she said, as Reuters reported.
This is not the first time that climate measures and aviation bailouts have coincided in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Austrian Airlines replaced its Vienna-Salzburg flight with additional train service after it received government money dependent on cutting greenhouse gas emissions, BBC News reported.
The number of flights worldwide declined almost 42 percent in 2020 when compared with 2019. It is expected that global aviation may not fully recover until 2024, according to Reuters.
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Biden Refuses to Shut Down Dakota Access Pipeline, Despite Campaign Pledges on Tribal Relations and Climate
By Jessica Corbett
Indigenous leaders and climate campaigners on Friday blasted President Joe Biden's refusal to shut down the Dakota Access Pipeline during a court-ordered environmental review, which critics framed as a betrayal of his campaign promises to improve tribal relations and transition the country to clean energy.
"Biden's inaction to protect our fragile ecosystems, natural resources, traditional medicines, and Indigenous rights is a clear sign that this administration is the exact opposite of the climate leadership narrative they promised to lead during his campaign," said Tasina Sapa Win Smith of the Cheyenne River Grassroots Collective.
Brooke Harper, campaign strategist for the environmental group 350.org, declared that "the Biden administration missed a huge opportunity today to take a step towards ensuring a livable future for everyone in this country."
"The Dakota Access Pipeline violates treaty rights and endangers land, water, and communities," Harper said. "The climate crisis is here; we can no longer afford to build polluting, dangerous fossil fuel pipelines and delay a just transition to 100% clean energy. In solidarity with Indigenous water protectors, we call on President Joe Biden to stop the Dakota Access pipeline, Line 3, and all new fossil fuel projects immediately. If Biden wants to be a climate leader on the world stage, he needs to start at home."
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg, who ordered the environmental impact assessment last year, held a hearing Friday afternoon so the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could provide an update on whether the Biden administration planned to allow the pipeline known as DAPL to continue operating without a federal permit.
After Ben Schifman, an attorney for the government, shared that the Army Corps of Engineers would not shut down the pipeline at this time but "is essentially in a continuous process of evaluating," Boasberg granted the 10-day continuance. The DC-based judge is expected to decide whether he will order DAPL to shut down by April 19.
The pipeline carries oil from North Dakota, through South Dakota and Iowa, to Illinois. Although the project was denied permission to cross beneath Lake Oahe on unceded ancestral tribal lands by former President Barack Obama — under whom Biden was vice president — former President Donald Trump swiftly reversed course and allowed the project to proceed.
Indigenous water protectors and environmentalists have been fighting against the pipeline for years — opposition that's been met with forceful crackdowns by private security and law enforcement. Since it began operating in 2017, DAPL and the communities through which it runs have been plagued by repeated leaks.
The climate crisis is the greatest threat we face as a nation and a planet. Today I led a letter with… https://t.co/2PuYkQChxE— Rep. Ilhan Omar (@Rep. Ilhan Omar)1618001676.0
"For hundreds of years, our people have faced unwelcome and deadly incursions upon our homelands," said Phyllis Young, Standing Rock organizer for the Lakota People's Law Project and former tribal liaison to the Oceti Sakowin protest camp. "Today's decision is disappointing and demonstrates a lack of understanding by Washington politicians for Indigenous sovereignty."
"We will do our very best to see this pipeline removed, our water protected, and our sacred lands healed," Young said. "We will replace fossil fuels with renewable energy. One bad decision can't change that. We're dedicated to providing a better future for the generations to come. We've been fighting for our lives for centuries, and we aren't going to stop now."
Chairman Mike Faith of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe said Friday that "we are gravely concerned about the continued operation of this pipeline, which poses an unacceptable risk to our sovereign nation."
"In a meeting with members of Biden's staff earlier this year, we were told that this new administration wanted to 'get this right,'" Faith noted. "Unfortunately, today's update from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers shows it has chosen to ignore our pleas and stick to the wrong path."
Joye Braun, an Indigenous Environmental Network (IEN) DAPL frontline organizer and citizen of the Cheyenne River Sioux Nation, said that "it is imperative that the Biden administration shut down DAPL now."
"The Army Corps of Engineers should not twist the rule of law to favor big oil interests and further spit on the nation-to-nation relationship between tribal nations and the U.S. government," Braun continued. "The Biden administration needs to do the right thing and stop this illegal pipeline."
"Why allow something illegal to continue?" Braun asked. "Set the example, honor the treaties, and show that the rule of law is greater than oil corporate interests. We will no longer accept being the sacrificial lamb for corporate raping of our Mother Earth and her water."
According to CNN, Earthjustice attorney Jan Hasselman, who has represented Standing Rock in its legal challenge against DAPL for several years, called the administration's inaction on Friday "a continuation of a terrible history."
"This pipeline is unsafe and operating in violation of federal law. Meanwhile, Energy Transfer is seeking to double capacity, which would make DAPL twice as dangerous," Hasselman added in a statement, referring to one of the pipeline's owners. "Yet the Biden administration's decision here is to do nothing."
"It's hard to see how we'll ever transition away from fossil fuels or show the rest of the world that we're serious about tackling climate change, if we are just going to shrug and look away when the fossil fuel industry brazenly ignores tribal concerns and tramples our federal environmental laws and safety regulations," the attorney said.
We are not backing down, @JoeBiden. We will #ShutdownDAPL. Respect us, or expect us.— Indigenous Environmental Network (@Indigenous Environmental Network)1617997041.0
"The Leaders Summit on Climate will underscore the urgency — and the economic benefits — of stronger climate action," said a White House statement about the event. "It will be a key milestone on the road to the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) this November in Glasgow."
In a statement Friday, Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune noted that "Biden campaigned and was elected on the boldest climate platform ever. Minutes after being sworn in, Biden began taking real, meaningful climate action. Less than a week into office, the president issued a memorandum on strengthening tribal consultation."
"Yet, President Biden's actions today fail to live up to the climate and tribal commitments he made," Brune said, adding that the decision to not shut down DAPL doesn't align "with the bold action he has taken since taking office."
"The Dakota Access Pipeline is a dirty, dangerous, illegally constructed pipeline that has continued to threaten tribal sovereignty and our collective right to clean water and a healthy, sustainable climate," he said. "Continued and expanded reliance on crude oil is not compatible with the president's own climate commitments, including the ones we expect him to make in weeks' time at his climate summit."
"The climate crisis demands that President Biden and his administration seize every opportunity to confront it," he concluded. "Today's decision is deeply disappointing, and we expect the courts to rightfully put an end to the Dakota Access Pipeline, just as we expect the president's future actions to meet his rhetoric and commitments."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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2020 was the largest wildfire season in California's modern history, according to state agency Cal Fire. And, as the climate crisis continues to increase fire risk, there are concerns that 2021 could be just as devastating.
To adapt to this new normal, California leaders Thursday announced a more-than half a billion dollar plan to prevent and prepare for wildfires.
"The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier. There's a new reality," California Gov. Gavin Newsom said as he announced the plan, as The Mercury News reported. "If you don't believe in climate change, if you don't believe in science, you believe your own damn eyes. Something is happening as it relates to the issue of climate that's exacerbating conditions and making the challenge of wildfire suppression and prevention that much more ominous."
CA isn't waiting until peak wildfire season to protect our communities. We proposed more than $1B for wildfire res… https://t.co/OBCLeb4DKN— Office of the Governor of California (@Office of the Governor of California)1617919919.0
The $536 million Wildfire Prevention and Resiliency package earmarks $350 million for forest management, including vegetation thinning, as well as $25 million to help homeowners pay for prevention measures on their properties, The Guardian reported. Newsom also touted the importance of adapting controlled burning techniques that were practiced for centuries by the state's first inhabitants. These smaller, necessary fires were suppressed by European settlers, contributing to the buildup of dried vegetation that has fueled historic blazes in recent years.
The new measure is an arrangement with California state lawmakers and has been introduced in both the House and Senate, according to The Mercury News. It is expected to pass Monday and be signed by Newsom next Tuesday. It builds on Newsom's pledge last week to hire around 1,400 new firefighters.
"For every dollar we spend on wildfire prevention, our state saves $6 to $7 in damage. But it's not just about saving money – this is about saving Californians' lives, their homes, and their livelihoods," Senate President Pro Tempore Toni G. Atkins (D-San Diego) said in a statement. "We've already had a wildfire break out in the San Gabriel mountains this month, and we're heading into a summer of hot, dry weather with another drought upon us."
Indeed, San Francisco is in the midst of its second driest two-year stretch in recorded history, according to The Mercury News. The state's rainy season this winter was the third driest on record and the snowpack of the Sierra Nevada mountains was just 59 percent of its historic average as of April 1.
This leads experts to predict another devastating fire season. California Natural Resources Secretary Wade Crowfoot warned reporters thursday that summer of 2021 promised "more of the same," as NBC News reported.
"The science is clear: Warming winter temperatures and warming summer temperatures are creating more dangerous and challenging wildfire conditions," he said. "Clearly much more needs to be done on a proactive, upfront basis to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire."
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A grizzly bear searches for salmon. Scott Suriano / Moment / Getty Images
A flurry of bills has recently been introduced to Montana's state legislature that reduces restrictions on the killing of grizzly bears and wolves — two predators which have historically struggled to survive in the state.
One such bill is SB 98, put forward by Republican Sen. Bruce Gillespie, which would expand the state law allowance for killing grizzly bears. Currently, Montanans can kill grizzly bears if they are caught in the act of killing their livestock, according to CBS News. But the new bill — which has already passed the state Senate — would mean grizzly bears could be killed if they were "believed to be 'threatening' a person or livestock." The bill also states that grizzly populations have "recovered" and should be taken off the federal endangered species list.
Other bills include SB 314, which would allow all but 15 breeding pairs of wolves to be killed, and HB 224, which would legalize the use of neck snares to hunt wolves.
With Montana's first Republican governor in 16 years, Greg Gianforte, and a Republican-controlled legislature, the bills represent "a political sentiment," according to Rep. Tom France, a Democrat and retired regional executive director for the National Wildlife Federation, The New York Times reported, adding that Montana's State Legislature is now saying, "We don't live by federal laws and aren't going to pay attention to them."
Proponents of bills like the ones aimed at limiting wolf numbers feel they have "no voice" when it comes to keeping the predators away from eliminating their game, like elk and deer, State Senator Bob Brown, a Republican who introduced one of the bills, said at a hearing, according to The New York Times.
"We can't sit by and allow our game — the thing that feeds so many families — to be taken off the table," he added.
Activists and wildlife advocates have opposed the bills, calling them a series of "bad bills" that "declare war on wolves, bears and other carnivores," according to a statement by Kitty Block, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States. "These bills — all put forward by just three lawmakers, Rep. Paul Fielder, Sen. Bob Brown, and Sen. Bruce Gillespie — also seek to usurp biologists, including the state's wildlife agency," Block wrote.
In 1975, the grizzly bear was listed on the Endangered Species Act when only about 800 to 1,000 of remained, The New York Times reported. Today there are an estimated 1,800 in the Lower 48 — a successful recovery attributed to restrictions on hunting and poaching.
Sen. Gillespie, however, said the state's grizzly management is currently "stuck in a time capsule," according to the Montana Free Press. "They long ago hit the target of 300 [grizzlies]... That means there are many times more conflicts [and] attacks — life-and-death conflicts," he added.
Despite popular conception, fatal grizzly bear attacks are extremely rare — only one person dies on average every three years in the lower 48, according to National Geographic. But as human and grizzly bear populations continue to expand, things might get "interesting," James Jonkel, a biologist for Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks who manages bears in and around Missoula, told National Geographic.
According to biologists, the problem will not be a lack of space across Montana, Wyoming, Colorado and even California, but rather of "social acceptance," National Geographic reported.
A new survey of Montana residents by Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks (FWP) and the Human Dimensions Lab at the University of Montana shows that Montana residents "overwhelmingly hold positive attitudes toward grizzly bears," the Sierra Club wrote in a statement. Eighty-five percent agree that grizzly bears "are part of what makes Montana special" and 81 percent enjoy knowing grizzly bears exist in the state, even if they never see one.
The survey, however, also shows that this acceptance declines when surveying people who live and work on agricultural-ranching landscapes. "Survey responses reveal remaining public misconceptions about the role of hunting in preventing conflicts between bears and people," the Sierra Club wrote. These misconceptions include the knowledge that hunting could resolve human-and-bear conflict or scare the bears away — both claims that have been refuted by grizzly bear experts.
Instead, experts recommend prevention measures like electric fencing, carcass removal and removing food and items that may attract bears in order to avoid future conflict and achieve a "'self-sustaining grizzly population' that Montanans favor," the Sierra Club concluded.
Amazon illegally fired two employees after they publicly criticized the company for its lack of action on climate change and its failure to protect warehouse workers from the novel coronavirus, the National Labor Relations Board determined.
Emily Cunningham and Maren Costa were highly visible members of the small group of Amazon employees who in 2018 called for Amazon to do more to address climate change, and eventually got 8,700 colleagues to sign on to their efforts. They were fired last April, not long after their group of about 400 employees spoke out, in intentional and public violation of Amazon's tightened down internal policies clamping down on employee criticism.
Cunningham and Costa allege they were fired in retaliation for their activism. If they and Amazon do not settle the case, the NLRB will accuse Amazon of unfair labor practices and the case will go before an administrative law judge. Also this week, the NLRB will be counting votes to see if Amazon's 6,000 Alabama warehouse employees will unionize, a potentially major change for the company's notoriously exploitative labor practices.
As reported by The Associated Press:
Cunningham said the ruling proves that they were on the right side of history.
"Amazon tried to silence us," said Cunningham. "It didn't work."
Because of the ruling, Amazon could be forced to offer Cunningham and Costa their jobs back, pay them back pay and reimburse them for expenses related to losing their jobs.
Cunningham and Costa, who were user-experience designers at Amazon, were the two most prominent voices among a group of workers who wanted the company, which has a giant carbon footprint, to take more steps to combat climate change and to stop doing business with oil and gas companies. They held protests and spoke to the media about their concerns.
About a year ago, Cunningham and Costa planned a call between Amazon warehouse and office workers to talk about unsafe conditions in the e-commerce giant's warehouses. Before it could happen, Amazon fired both women. An Amazon executive quit in protest, saying he couldn't stand by as whistleblowers were silenced.
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Contaminated Military Bases 'Are No Place' for Kids, Advocates Warn as Biden Ramps up Detention Capacity
By Kenny Stancil
In a move that was condemned by environmental justice advocates on Friday, President Joe Biden's administration earlier this week sent 500 unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors to Fort Bliss — a highly contaminated and potentially hazardous military base in El Paso, Texas — and is reportedly considering using additional toxic military sites as detention centers for migrant children in U.S. custody.
"We are extremely concerned to hear of plans to detain immigrant children in Fort Bliss. Military bases filled with contaminated sites are no place for the healthy development of any child," Melissa Legge, an attorney at Earthjustice, said in a statement.
"We recognize that the humanitarian situation at the border needs to be addressed in humanity, compassion, and expediency," Legge continued. "Part of that requires keeping children away from toxic military sites."
"While we are hopeful that the Biden administration will keep children safe, we remain vigilant and ready to continue protecting detained minors in toxic facilities," she added. "Immigrant children under the care of the federal government should not be in cages, let alone toxic sites in military bases."
The Biden administration announced last week that facilities at Fort Bliss "would serve as temporary housing for up to 5,000 unaccompanied minors," the El Paso Times reported Tuesday. The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said "it will reserve the Fort Bliss accommodations for boys ages 13 to 17. Military personnel won't staff the site or provide care for the children, who are in the custody and care of HHS."
There are 17,641 unaccompanied asylum-seeking minors in U.S. custody as of Tuesday, according to ABC News. Over 5,600 children are being held in overcrowded facilities run by Customs and Border Protection (CBP), which falls under the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), while more than 12,000 are under the supervision of HHS.
Although DHS is supposed to transfer minors to the HHS's Office of Refugee Resettlement within 72 hours — after which children are housed in one of more than 200 HHS-approved shelters in 22 states until they can be placed with a family member or another suitable sponsor — thousands have been stuck for far longer than legally allowed in squalid conditions.
As the El Paso Times noted, HHS characterized Fort Bliss as "an 'emergency intake site' and a temporary measure to quickly remove the children from the custody of the Border Patrol."
Earthjustice argues that the Biden administration's plan to use military bases — many of which the group says "are known to be riddled with toxic hazards from past military operations, spills, storage of toxic chemicals, unexploded ordnances, and firing ranges" — to expand its capacity to temporarily detain unaccompanied children is no solution.
According to Earthjustice: "130 military bases and installations are considered priority Superfund sites by the Environmental Protection Agency. There are currently 651 Department of Defense and National Guard sites potentially contaminated by toxic chemicals known as PFAS, short for per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. PFAS don't easily break down, and they can persist in your body and in the environment for decades."
Several of the military sites being considered by the Biden administration "are contaminated with potentially hazardous pollutants and some are even located on or near Superfund sites," Earthjustice said.
The organization continued:
Superfund sites under consideration for housing children in immigration custody include the Homestead Detention Facility in Homestead, Florida, Moffett Field in Mountain View, California, and Joint Base San Antonio in Texas. Many of the sites remain inadequately remediated and still contaminated. Without proper environmental reviews, there is no way to guarantee these sites are safe for children, potentially exposing them to toxic chemicals that could have lifelong health impacts.
Fort Bliss is no exception. Earthjustice, along with partners including Alianza Nacional de Campesinas and the National Hispanic Medical Association, released hundreds of documents of searchable documents and an expert analysis of previous plans for construction of a temporary detention center for children and families at Fort Bliss. These records document several problems with the project, including that the Army did not adequately investigate to determine what types of waste had been disposed of at the site, that the methods used for testing the soil samples were inadequate or never completed, and that samples taken after the supposed clean-up still had concerning levels of pollution. Additionally, illegal dumping on the site may continue to this day. As a result, there is now even greater uncertainty about the environmental hazards at the site and a greater need for thorough testing, analysis, and cleanup.
"We are deeply concerned about the decision to open temporary detention facilities for minors at Fort Bliss and the potential health risks to the minors detained in tents there," said Dr. Elena Rios, president of the National Hispanic Medical Association, a client in Earthjustice's 2018 FOIA lawsuit regarding the base.
"Based on what we found in our Fort Bliss investigation in 2018," she added, "there are still present toxins from past landfills, which means children could be forcibly exposed to toxicity linked to cancer and development defects."
Despite the GOP's dehumanizing and misleading narrative that a "border crisis" is afoot, there has not been an uncharacteristic "surge" in migrants entering the U.S. at the southern border, but rather a predictable bump in border crossings that typically happens at this time of year, augmented by the arrival of people who would have come in 2020 but could not due to the clampdown on immigration during the Covid-19 pandemic, as The Washington Post reported last week.
An HHS statement on the transfer of migrant children to the military base in El Paso said that "the use of the Fort Bliss facility will have no impact on the Department of Defense's ability to conduct its primary mission or on military readiness."
The deference to militarism is telling. According to Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), it is impossible to understand the arrival of asylum-seekers at the U.S.-Mexico border without taking into account the role played by U.S. imperialism.
Earlier this week, as Common Dreams reported, the two progressive lawmakers made the case that the root causes of migration from Central America and Mexico to the U.S. can be found in decades of interventionist foreign policy, profit-maximizing trade and carceral policies, and the climate crisis — all driven by the pursuit of capitalist class interests.
Citing the U.S. government's "flagrant disregard for the health of those in custody," Earthjustice called for "the immediate halt of any plans to place children in such unsafe facilities, the securing of safe and suitable housing for children while they are required to remain in the care of the Department of Health and Human Services, and the development of solutions that do not involve placing children on or near toxic sites, military sites, or in detention-like settings."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.