For Many Reporters Covering Climate, Population Remains the Elephant in the Room
By Wudan Yan
In June, New York Times journalist Andy Newman wrote an article titled, "If seeing the world helps ruin it, should we stay home?" In it, he raised the question of whether or not travel by plane, boat, or car—all of which contribute to climate change, rising sea levels, and melting glaciers—might pose a moral challenge to the responsibility that each of us has to not exacerbate the already catastrophic consequences of climate change. The premise of Newman's piece rests on his assertion that traveling "somewhere far away… is the biggest single action a private citizen can take to worsen climate change."
But that's not true. In 2017, Seth Wynes of Lund University in Sweden and Kimberly Nicholas of the University of British Columbia estimated the carbon emissions that various individual lifestyle choices would have. The foremost way to reduce climate change, their report said, would be to have one fewer child (which would otherwise annually contribute an additional 58.6 tons of carbon dioxide, on average in developed countries, according to the researchers' estimates). The runner-ups were living car free (2.4 tons of carbon dioxide per year), and not taking one transatlantic flight (1.6 tons of carbon dioxide per year).
Newman told me that, although he fact-checked his article meticulously, neither he nor his editors caught the error on which he established the premise of his story. (In emailed comments, Newman wrote that not having a child "wasn't in the story simply because it did not occur to me while I was writing the story," though he questioned whether one should consider having a child "a single action." "It's the millions of activities that occur in the life of that human you've created that generate the CO2," he wrote. "To me it doesn't seem fair to compare taking a flight—a self-contained event that occupies only a few hours—with an entire lifetime of carbon emission.")
On the heels of Newman's piece, The Guardian published an interactive story focused exclusively on how much carbon dioxide is emitted per flight. A month on from Newman's story, Quartz published a story titled, "If you care about your impact on the planet you should stop flying." For that story, Quartz replicated a graph from the Wynes and Nicholas study, but failed to include the impact that not having another child would have. When I asked the reporter, Natasha Frost, why Quartz decided to omit part of the data, she said the graphing software couldn't fit the data properly on the graph.
If any article is only talking about flying less, or eating less meat, "it's borderline dangerous and misleading," Erica Gies, an independent journalist who has written about population and her personal decision not to have children, says. "Or the writer is ill-informed, doesn't want to look at the reality, or open themselves up to the personal attack that is writing about it."
If not having another child saves more than 20 times more carbon per year, why aren't more journalists talking about human population in proportion to the climate impact that it can have?
Environmentalists believe that overpopulation is how we arrived at our current climate crisis. To explain the impact humans have on the environment, they use the formula I = PAT: the human impact on the environment (I) is the product of population (P), affluence (A), and technology (T). "Changing population is the one factor—the one that's most movable — that will have the most impact," activist and documentary filmmaker Terry Spahr says.
Environmental activist Bill McKibben, who, in 1999, wrote Maybe One about his decision to have just one kid due to the climate crisis, believes population is not discussed as much because population growth is not immediate and birth rates in America are already at an all-time low. "If indeed we have a decade to make transformative change, there are other things"—such as taking on the giant institutions of the fossil fuel industry—"that are more crucial," McKibben told me.
The issue of population was more widely discussed in the 1970s, after biologist Paul Ehrlich wrote The Population Bomb, a warning that the world population was spiraling out of control. Population growth then led India to implement a program to forcibly sterilize men, and China to introduce its one-child policy.
Around the same time, mainstream environmental organizations in the U.S. such as the Sierra Club, World Wildlife Foundation, and Audubon Society, all embraced policies and platforms that would limit population growth. (The Sierra Club, for instance, believed that the population of the U.S. should be stabilized by limiting immigration.) But they eventually got rid of it. "It got twisted by people," says Spahr. That is, "if you believed in population policies, you were racist, or colonialist, imperialistic, or a believer in euthanasia and all kinds of crazy things." As a result, says Spahr, population control "lost its presence as a real, viable and important part of the conversation."
That backlash can intimidate writers keen to discuss how population and reproductive choice are tied into climate impact. Ash Sanders, who recently published an essay in BuzzFeed about why she chose not to have children, was initially nervous to pitch the story for those very reasons.
Gies wrote her first piece about population control for Forbes in 2011. For a long time, she says, it felt like no one else was willing to write about it.
"I got a lot of shame," she says. "People told me: if you're so concerned, you should kill yourself. And having a child in most cultures is an automatic good, so people hear you criticizing them and their choices when you talk about your own choices." But at the same time, Gies says, she received heartfelt messages from people who felt similarly, supported, and seen.
Although journalists are reaching a consensus on the gravity of the climate crisis, there is no such consensus on how to link the issue of population with climate change—or whether the link should be made at all. Talking about not having children, Frost says via email, raises "complicated ethical questions about the difference between actions where if everyone took them, the world would likely be a better place (like not eating meat), and ones where everyone doing them would make the world worse (like not having children, if you think the human race is a valuable thing to protect)."
David Roberts, an environmental journalist with Vox wrote in a 2017 article that he refused to talk about overpopulation because it was morally and politically fraught. In that article, he explains that discussing things such as empowering women would be an indirect way to get at population. (I.e., if you educate women on family planning and give them opportunities for income, they will opt to have fewer children.)
Gies, meanwhile, says population needs to be discussed directly. "That's the problem: we haven't been talking about it directly," she says.
Spahr says he's seen the conversation about population and climate change become more public over the last five years. Prince Harry recently announced that he and his partner, Meghan, will only be having two children because of climate change (although having two children will merely hit the replacement rate and not actually reduce climate impact). In February, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked whether or not it's ethical to have children given the climate crisis.
Given the urgency of crisis, says Sanders, "we need to attack climate change from so many different structural and cultural angles. I don't think population is the silver bullet, but I think it's the one tool we have that we're not talking about enough. I think there are ways to have this conversation ethically that will lead to freedom and choice."
The #planet cannot accommodate the "alarming rate" of human #overpopulation and our unsustainable use of natural resources. Experts agree that human population growth must end quickly for the planet and all of its inhabitants to survive.https://t.co/ntfUk9eH72— InDefenseOfAnimals (@IDAUSA) October 11, 2018
Wudan Yan is an independent journalist in Seattle, Washington. Her work has appeared in California Sunday Magazine, Discover, Harper's, High Country News, The New Yorker, The New York Times and The Washington Post, among others.
Editor's Note: This article has been updated for clarity.
This story originally appeared in Columbia Journalism Review. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
- Essential Oils: 7 Common Questions Answered - EcoWatch ›
- 9 Ways to Boost Your Immune System - EcoWatch ›
- 15 Impressive Herbs with Antiviral Activity - EcoWatch ›
- Brazil Using Pandemic as Smokescreen for New Attacks on the ... ›
- In 'Totalitarian' Move, Brazil's Bolsonaro Removes Death and Case ... ›
- Brazil Passes 50,000 Coronavirus Deaths as Global Cases Top 9 ... ›
By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="6bd9fda1316965a9ba24dd60fd9cc34d"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/3KaMnkmf0tc?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
- Solar Employs More Workers Than Coal, Oil and Natural Gas ... ›
- The Truth About Natural Gas: A 'Green' Bridge to Hell - EcoWatch ›
- Why Natural Gas Is a Bridge Fuel to Nowhere - EcoWatch ›
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
- Here's How to Clean Your Groceries During the COVID-19 Outbreak ... ›
- EPA Warns Against Fake Coronavirus Cleaners - EcoWatch ›
- What to Do if There's a Disinfectant Shortage in Your Area - EcoWatch ›
For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.
- Trump Neglects Climate Change in State of the Union While ... ›
- House Democrats Hold First Climate Change Hearings in More ... ›
- If the Democratic Party Is Serious About Climate Change, They Must ... ›
Bayer's $10 billion settlement to put an end to roughly 125,000 lawsuits against its popular weed killer Roundup, which contains glyphosate, hit a snag this week when a federal judge in San Francisco expressed skepticism over what rights future plaintiffs would have, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
- Judge Blocks California From Putting Cancer Warning on Roundup ... ›
- Bayer Settles Roundup Cancer Suits for Over $10 Billion - EcoWatch ›
By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
- Elephant Poaching Is on the Rise in Botswana, Study Confirms ... ›
- In 'Conservation Disaster,' Hundreds of Botswana's Elephants Are ... ›
- Botswana Auctions Off First Licenses to Kill Elephants Since Ending ... ›