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945 Toxic Waste Sites at Risk of Disaster From Climate Crisis

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945 Toxic Waste Sites at Risk of Disaster From Climate Crisis
An EPA sponsored cleanup of the toxic Gowanus Canal dredges a section of the canal of industrial debris on Oct. 28, 2016 in Brooklyn. The Gowanus is a Superfund site from years of industrial waste spilling into the water, and it is listed in GAO's report to be at risk from a climate disaster. Andrew Lichtenstein / Corbis / Getty Images

The climate crisis has put at least 945 designated toxic waste sites at severe risk of disaster from escalating wildfires, floods, rising seas and other climate-related disasters, according to a new study from the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO), as the AP reported.


The country's most contaminated spots that pose an imminent threat to human health or the environment are designated Superfund sites. That means cleaning them up is a national priority. The EPA has identified more than 500 contaminants at Superfund sites, including arsenic, lead and mercury.

However, the GAO found that efforts to secure the toxic waste have weakened as the Trump administration plays down their threat, according to the AP.

Senate Democrats responded to the report in a letter to the EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler demanding an explanation for agency leaders' "failure to embrace addressing climate change as a strategic objective," according to the Washington Post.

"We believe that EPA's refusal to implement GAO's recommendations could result in real harm to human health and the environment as the effects of climate change become more frequent and intense," the lawmakers wrote to Wheeler, as the Washington Post reported.

The GAO report looked at 1,571 Superfund sites and found that six out of 10 are vulnerable to extreme weather caused by the climate crisis. The GAO produced an interactive map that shows each of the 945 vulnerable sites. It is color-coded to show if the site is threatened by wildfires, hurricanes, storm surge, sea-level rise, or coastal and river flooding, as the Verge reported.

The study recommended that the EPA start incorporating the climate crisis into its decision making for toxic waste sites and its risk assessments for the Superfund sites.

The EPA however has continued to deny the climate crisis as a threat to the Superfund sites, according to the GAO report. The EPA does not include the climate crisis in its agency-wide policies, which stops the EPA from tackling the risks at contaminated sites as the planet heats up and extreme weather events increase in frequency, duration and intensity, as Inside Climate News reported.

The EPA issued a statement that was largely dismissive of the report. The statement also managed to avoid mentioning climate change.

"The EPA strongly believes the Superfund program's existing processes and resources adequately ensure that risks and any effects of severe weather events, that may increase in intensity, duration, or frequency, are woven into risk response decisions at non-federal [National Priorities List] sites," EPA Assistant Administrator Peter Wright said in a statement Monday, as the AP reported.

The GAO decided to look into the safety of Superfund sites after Hurricane Harvey in 2017 brought record rains to Houston and caused one toxic site to spring a leak, as BuzzFeed News reported. Floodwaters there eroded an "armored cap" that sealed off dioxins and other toxins linked to cancer and nerve damage. In the wake of the storm, officials tested that water sediment. They found that dioxin levels in the sediment were 2,000 times above what the EPA allows, according to the Houston Chronicle.

"We can no longer ignore the fact that the climate crisis is here and it's in our backyard," Sen. Kamala Harris, a California Democrat and one of the members of Congress that pushed GAO to investigate the issue, said in a statement emailed to BuzzFeed News. "This report underscores that protecting our communities requires us to demand that the EPA incorporates climate change into its cleanup plans for current and future Superfund sites."

The EPA's refusal to take the climate crisis into account has not only angered lawmakers, but also baffled experts.

"The report raises critical issues that are not being addressed," said Nancy Loeb, director of the Environmental Advocacy Center at Northwestern University's Pritzker School of Law, who was not involved in the GAO study, to the Washington Post. "It's a huge shortcoming not to take climate change into consideration."

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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