Over the past year, Amazon has significantly expanded its warehouses in Southern California, employing residents in communities that have suffered from high unemployment rates, The Guardian reports. But a new report shows the negative environmental impacts of the boom, highlighting its impact on low-income communities of color across Southern California.
The report, from the People's Collective for Environmental Justice (PCEJ) and students from the University of Redlands, shared with The Guardian, is meant to serve as an "advocacy tool to help raise awareness related to the warehouse industry's impacts on Southern California's air pollution issues," Earthjustice noted.
California's Inland Empire, 60 miles east of Los Angeles, has emerged as one of the largest "warehousing hubs" in the world in just the past few decades, according to Grist. Since establishing its first warehouse in the region in 2012, Amazon has become the largest private employer in the region, where 40,000 people now work in Amazon warehouses, picking, packing, sorting and unloading, as well as driving trucks and operating aircrafts, The New York Times Magazine reported.
"The company is so enmeshed in the community that it can simultaneously be a TV channel, grocery store, home security system, boss, personal data collector, high school career track, internet cloud provider and personal assistant," The New York Times Magazine added.
In just the last year, Amazon has tripled its delivery hubs in the region due to the demand for online shopping during the COVID-19 crisis. But despite the economic boom, heavy air pollution mainly from trucks going in and out of the warehouses infects nearby communities, the new research showed, according to The Guardian.
The research found, for example, that the populations living within a half-mile of the warehouses are 85 percent people of color, while California's overall population is 64 percent people of color, The Guardian reported. The research also found that communities with the most Amazon warehouses nearby have the lowest rates of Amazon sales per household.
"Amazon has boomed in 2020 and tripled the amount of money it's making, and it is happening at a cost to the folks who live in these communities," Ivette Torres, a PCEJ environmental science researcher and analyst, who helped put the research together, told The Guardian.
The research also demonstrated that the top 10 communities with the most warehouses in the region also experience pollution from other facilities, like gas plants and oil refineries, Earthjustice wrote in a statement.
"The Inland Empire, probably more than any region in the United States, has disproportionately [borne] the brunt of the environmental and economic impact of goods movement, and Amazon is driving that now in the Inland Empire," Jake Wilson, a California State University, Long Beach, professor of sociology, told Grist.
Last year, the San Bernardino International Airport Authority ratified a decision to allow an air cargo facility development at the airport, allowing Amazon to operate more flights out of the region, Grist reported.
Among the local residents to oppose the decision was Jorge Osvaldo Heredia, a resident of San Bernadino in Southern California since 2005. "This whole region has been taken over by warehouses," Heredia told Grist, and commented on the "horrible" air quality in the city on most days. "It's really reaching that apex point where you can't avoid the warehouses, you can't avoid the trucks," he added.
Advocates who published the research are pushing on the South Coast Air Quality Management District, a local air pollution regulatory agency, to move forward with the Warehouse Indirect Source Rule, which would require new and existing warehouses to take action to reduce emissions locally each year, The Guardian reported. Some solutions include moving towards zero-emissions trucks and mitigation fees.
"Last year, we saw some of the worst air quality, with wildfires adding to it, and the trucks were still in and out of our communities. So this is a huge change that we need right now, and that we actually needed yesterday," Torres concluded, according to The Guardian.
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."
- What the Industry Doesn't Want You to Know About Fracking ... ›
- Final EPA Study Confirms Fracking Contaminates Drinking Water ... ›
- Pennsylvania Fracking Water Contamination Much Higher Than ... ›
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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.
Climate change, activities that contribute to it, and dams pose grave threats to America's rivers, according to American Rivers.
The annual report ranks the county's 10 rivers most endangered by human activity that also have a critical decision point coming in the next year that could change the river's fate.
Four dams are choking the Snake River — earning it the top spot in the report — obstructing salmon and posing an existential threat to Native American tribes in the region who depend on the fish for food, culture and their identities.
Advocates are calling on President Biden to remove the federal dams and revitalize the river and its ecosystem.
Toxic coal ash pollutes the Lower Missouri, which also is experiencing an increase in climate-driven flooding, putting it second on the list, while Iowa's Raccoon River, at number nine, faces threats from industrial agriculture.
Between them are rivers befouled by sewage, polluted or threatened by mining, and otherwise dammed or mismanaged.
"Rivers are among the most degraded ecosystems on the planet, and threats to rivers are threats to human health, safety and survival," American Rivers head Tom Kiernan said.
"If we want a future of clean water and healthy rivers everywhere, for everyone, we must prioritize environmental justice."
For a deeper dive:
By Nina Sevilla
"Food desert" has become a common term to describe low-income communities — often communities of color — where access to healthy and affordable food is limited or where there are no grocery stores. Living in Tucson, Arizona, in the Sonoran Desert, taught me that despite its common usage, "food desert" is an inaccurate and misleading term that pulls focus from the underlying root causes of the lack of access to healthy food in communities. The language we use to describe the issues can inspire solutions, so we should follow the lead of food justice leaders who urge us to reconceptualize "food deserts" as "food apartheid" by focusing on creating food sovereignty through community-driven solutions and systemic change.
The term "food desert" emerged in the 1970s and 80s, but in the past decade has really caught on, and is now a common concept in economic and public health fields. The racial demographics of the areas described by this term are most often Black and Latino. When comparing communities with similar poverty rates, Black and Latino neighborhoods tend to have fewer supermarkets that offer a variety of produce and healthy foods, and have more small retail (i.e. convenience and liquor) stores that have fewer produce options than in predominantly white neighborhoods.
Despite its prevalence, the term "food desert" has come under scrutiny for two reasons:
- It obscures the vibrant life and food systems in these communities.
- It implies that these areas are naturally occurring.
Sonoran Desert. Bob Wick / Bureau of Land Management
First, the word "desert" typically conjures up dramatic images of vast arid landscapes with little to no vegetation and water. Common uses of the word describe the absence of life or activity, but most deserts are full of adapted plants and have sustained human and animal populations for centuries. I fell into the trap of this misconception when I moved to Tucson. I thought it was going to be devoid of all life, but when I got there, I realized that the Sonoran Desert in Arizona, like most deserts, can be quite abundant, especially when they have the right resources.
Using the word "desert" to imply a location's inferiority as a desolate place writes off the people who live there, as well as the flora and fauna that are actually present in deserts. The term "food desert" obscures the presence of community and backyard gardens, farmer's markets, food businesses, and other food sharing activities that exist in these areas. As farmer and activist Karen Washington points out, "food desert" is an outsider term, used by people who do not actually live in these areas. She says, "Number one, people will tell you that they do have food. Number two, people in the 'hood have never used that term... When we're talking about these places, there is so much life and vibrancy and potential. Using that word runs the risk of preventing us from seeing all of those things."
Students harvest vegetables from a school garden. State Farm via Flickr
Second, by using the term "desert" one is implying that food deserts are naturally occurring. Deserts are classified by amount of precipitation an area receives, so they are dictated by weather patterns — forces beyond human control. Though increasing desertification due to climate change is exacerbated by human activities, for the most part, deserts are naturally occurring. Food deserts, in contrast, are not naturally occurring. They are the result of systematic racism and oppression in the form of zoning codes, lending practices, and other discriminatory policies rooted in white supremacy. Using the term desert implies that the lack of healthy and affordable food is somehow naturally occurring and obscures that it is the direct result of racially discriminatory policies and systematic disinvestment in these communities.
Building more grocery stores won't necessarily make things better. Sometimes grocery stores are unaffordable to their surrounding communities. Sociologists have started using the term "food mirage" to describe the phenomenon when there are places to buy food, but they are too expensive for the neighborhood. And, as Karen Washington and research from Johns Hopkins University highlight, people who live in the places labeled "food deserts" most of the time do have food, but often the food they can afford is fast food or junk food. People who work in public health have come up with another term for areas with easier access to fast food and junk food than to healthier food: "food swamps." Rather than simply building grocery stores, some of these communities need stable jobs and a livable wage to change their access to healthier food.
A Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) redlining map from the 1930's that labeled "hazardous" majority Black areas of Nashville, Tennessee in red. HOLC
Swamp, desert, mirage... all these sound like places to stay away from. Language is important and using these terms prevents us from naming and addressing the root causes and making systemic change. Many groups are now using the term "food apartheid" to correctly highlight the how racist policies shaped these areas and led to limited access to healthy food. Apartheid is a system of institutional racial segregation and discrimination, and these areas are food apartheids because they too are created by racially discriminatory policies. Using the term "apartheid" focuses our examination on the intersectional root causes that created low-income and low food access areas, and importantly, points us towards working for structural change to address these root causes.
Corona Farmers Market, Queens, New York City. Preston Keres / USDA
Getting at the root causes is not a small task — naming them is the first step, and there are many different routes to take from there. Fortunately, there are many organizations already working on different aspects of addressing food apartheid, from building alternative food system models to providing ideas for policy reform. Organizations like The Ron Finley Project, the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network, and Whitelock Community Farm are strengthening regional food systems through urban and small-scale farming. SÜPRMARKT, Mandela Grocery, and other nonprofits are creating affordable, organic grocery stores, and re-thinking the grocery store model through co-ops. HEAL Food Alliance offers a comprehensive policy platform to address food apartheid root causes and build a better food system. As an example of transformative policy change, the Navajo Nation passed a tax on unhealthy food to fund community health initiatives in 2014. Ultimately, strong policies are necessary to ensure that no neighborhood experiences food apartheid and to redistribute power to remove systems of oppression.
A major component of power is economic capital — a reparations map maintained by Soul Fire Farm offers an easy way to start supporting efforts across the U.S. to more fairly allocate land and money and work toward repairing historical inequities based on race. In addition to economic capital, power is also control over your decisions and the choices you make. To address this, movements of food sovereignty seek to bring power back to the people. The Declaration of Nyéléni asserts that food sovereignty is the right of all people to design and influence their own food systems and the right to healthy, culturally appropriate, and sustainably-produced food.
The food sovereignty movement and the phrase "food sovereignty" were created by La Via Campesina, the largest international peasant movement. The term and movement have since expanded across the globe and into urban areas. I have encountered the term used to describe urban farming in large cities, like Baltimore, and to describe indigenous peoples reclaiming their native foodways. I have also heard people question if food sovereignty is the right term to cover these vast topics. I believe the words we choose help us see the way forward and if we are serious about transformative change, we should explore food sovereignty seriously.
In a similar way that using the term "food apartheid" can help us identify and address the root causes of the geographies that lack access to healthy food, highlighting "food sovereignty" as a call to action directly addresses the power dynamics at play in the food system. This term focuses the lens on how our modern, globalized food system does not value the rights of peasant and small-scale farmers anywhere and how in most cases the major decisionmakers are multinational corporations. The organization A Growing Culture says "there is no genuine food security without food sovereignty." They continue, "We must stop seeing food security as the pathway to eradicating hunger. It reduces food to an economic commodity, when food is the basis of culture, of life itself. Food sovereignty is the pathway to imagining something fundamentally different."
As we look forward and imagine a fundamentally different system that nourishes all people and the planet, we have a wealth of knowledge and examples to draw upon, as well as rich terminology to describe the challenges communities are facing and our goals for the future. Any efforts to achieve — and ways we discuss — a better, more equitable, food system should address root causes, redistribute power, and be guided by people with lived experience in food apartheids. Food security is more than proximity to a grocery store; it should be about food sovereignty — the right of all people to have a say in how their food is grown and the right to fresh, affordable, and culturally appropriate food.
Reposted with permission from Natural Resources Defense Council.
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.
That's the conclusion of a new report released Tuesday from the UN Environment Program and ocean justice non-profit Azul, titled Neglected: Environmental Justice Impacts of Plastic Pollution.
"Plastic pollution is a social justice issue," report coauthor and Azul founder and executive director Marce Gutiérrez-Graudiņš said in a press release. "Current efforts, limited to managing and decreasing plastic pollution, are inadequate to address the whole scope of problems plastic creates, especially the disparate impacts on communities affected by the harmful effects of plastic at every point from production to waste."
The report provides several examples of how plastics harm vulnerable communities, according to UN News.
Production: Plastics come from oil, and oil extraction can be a highly damaging and polluting process. Indigenous communities are displaced for oil drilling, fracking pollutes drinking water and oil refineries pose a health risk to the African American communities along the U.S. Gulf Coast.
Use: Women are more likely to be exposed to toxins from the use of plastic, which is predominant in domestic and feminine products.
Disposal: Improperly disposed of plastic ends up in marine ecosystems, where it threatens the livelihood of those who rely on fishing to survive and threatens the health of those who consume it by mistake in their seafood. In addition, people who make a living waste picking are disproportionately exposed to its toxins.
"The impact of plastics on vulnerable populations goes well beyond inefficient and sometimes non-existing waste management systems," report lead author and senior research fellow at the Center for the Blue Economy Juliano Calil said in the press release. "It starts with issues related to oil extraction, through toxic environments and greenhouse gas emissions, and it even impacts water distribution policies."
The report authors noted that plastic use had only increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and was becoming part of a "triple emergency" along with the climate crisis and biodiversity loss, UN News said.
To address these problems, the report favored several solutions. These included more studies into the health impacts of plastic; better monitoring of plastic waste; bans on single-use plastics; and more investment in waste management, recycling and reuse.
In a press call announcing the report, authors also spoke in favor of an international treaty to bring plastic pollution and production to an end, as Gizmodo reported. David Azoulay, the director of the Center for International Environmental Law's health program who did not help write the report, said its emphasis on human rights could help provide a framework for such a treaty.
"Considering rights-based approaches," he told Gizmodo, "is a very important step to developing a treaty that actually develops solutions."
By Jake Johnson
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus made clear Wednesday that while President Joe Biden's roughly $2.3 trillion infrastructure proposal is a welcome start, they believe the final package must be far more ambitious if it is to truly transform America's fossil fuel-dominated energy system and bring the country into line with crucial climate targets.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) said in an appearance on MSNBC late Wednesday that ideally the top-line number would be around $10 trillion in spending on core infrastructure, renewable energy, healthcare improvements, and other key priorities over the next decade, a level of investment the New York Democrat presented as necessary to match the scale of the crises facing the country.
"That may be an eye-popping figure for some people," said Ocasio-Cortez, a leading Green New Deal advocate. "But we need to understand that we are in a devastating economic moment, millions of people in the United States are unemployed, we have a truly crippled healthcare system, and a planetary crisis on our hands — and we're the wealthiest nation in the history of the world. So, we can do $10 trillion."
The chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), issued a similar message in a statement released just ahead of Biden's speech in Pittsburgh, where he sketched the broad outlines of his plan and promised "transformational progress in our effort to tackle climate change with American jobs and American ingenuity."
"We believe this package can and should be substantially larger in size and scope," said Jayapal. "During his campaign, President Biden committed to a '$2 trillion accelerated investment' over four years on climate-focused infrastructure alone... Today's proposal, which includes many other priorities such as care jobs, will invest half that amount — roughly $2 trillion over eight years — or 1% of GDP. It makes little sense to narrow his previous ambition on infrastructure or compromise with the physical realities of climate change."
The Washington Democrat went on to voice her caucus' preference for a single, sweeping package encompassing infrastructure spending and health insurance expansions, child care and long-term care, and other measures, rather than two separate pieces of legislation. Biden is expected to unveil the healthcare-focused portion of his package — titled the American Families Plan — some time this month.
"We believe that our country is ready for an even bolder, more comprehensive, and integrated plan that demonstrates the size, scope, and speed required to aggressively slash carbon pollution and avoid climate catastrophe; create millions of good, family-sustaining, union jobs; improve Americans' health and safety; reduce racial and gender disparities; and curb income inequality by making the wealthy and large corporations finally pay their fair share in taxes," said Jayapal.
Now is the time to go BIG. https://t.co/1qmtnhXPFy— Rep. Pramila Jayapal (@Rep. Pramila Jayapal)1617226200.0
In his remarks late Wednesday afternoon, Biden stressed the urgency of "bold" action on climate and characterized his proposal as "a once-in-a generation investment in America," but environmentalists and progressive lawmakers said major improvements are needed to align the actual package with the president's lofty rhetoric.
As Common Dreams reported, climate groups are expressing concern that the package in its current form falls well short of what's needed to meet Biden's commitments to slash U.S. carbon emissions by 50% by 2030, end fossil fuel subsidies, transition to 100% clean electricity by 2035, and ensure clean water for all.
"It's not enough," Evan Weber, political director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said of the current package. "Set ambitious national targets. Rally the nation. Treat it like it's an emergency. And most importantly: tell the truth about the severity of the crisis... It's the only way to close the gap between the politics of now and what's needed."
Given Democrats' narrow majorities in both the House and Senate, progressive lawmakers have significant leverage over the size and scope of the final package, which will likely be pushed through the filibuster-proof budget reconciliation process amid Republican opposition. Whether the CPC is willing to use its power to force dramatic changes to the legislation remains to be seen.
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), the CPC whip, said in a statement Wednesday that "in addition to the proposals the president laid out, we must use this moment to dramatically lower drug prices, expand Medicare to millions of people, make college more affordable, strengthen the care economy, provide a roadmap to citizenship for our immigrant communities, address the housing crisis, and make much bolder investments in green jobs."
"Now is not the time to remain beholden to a bankrupt, unpopular ideology that allows the richest people in the world to continue paying next to nothing in taxes, while millions starve in our streets," Omar added. "Now is the time to be bold, to tackle the once-in-a-millennium challenge of the climate crisis, and to ensure that we as a country at long last live up to our promise of justice for all."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
U.S. Military Ordered 'Clandestine Burning' of Toxic Chemicals in Low-Income Neighborhoods, Study Finds
By Kenny Stancil
New research conducted by environmental justice scholars at Vermont's Bennington College reveals that between 2016 and 2020, the U.S. military oversaw the "clandestine burning" of more than 20 million pounds of Aqueous Fire Fighting Foam in low-income communities around the country — even though there is no evidence that incineration destroys the toxic "forever chemicals" that make up the foam and are linked to a range of cancers, developmental disorders, immune dysfunction, and infertility.
"In defiance of common sense and environmental expertise, the Department of Defense (DOD) has enlisted poor communities across the U.S. as unwilling test subjects in its toxic experiment with burning AFFF," David Bond, associate director of the Center for the Advancement of Public Action at Bennington College, said in a statement earlier this week.
Noting that scientists, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and even Pentagon officials have warned that "burning AFFF is an unproven method and dangerous mix that threatens the health of millions of Americans," Bond characterized the decision of the military to dump huge stockpiles of AFFF and AFFF wastewater into "a handful of habitually negligent incinerators" as a "harebrained" operation as well as a manifestation of environmental injustice.
"In effect," he added, "the Pentagon redistributed its AFFF problem into poor and working-class neighborhoods."
After months of compiling and analyzing data — obtained last year from the Pentagon and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation — the team from Vermont launched an interactive website this week that publicizes for the first time the results of their investigation into all known shipments of AFFF to hazardous waste incinerators in the U.S.
The Bennington College researchers summarized their findings as follows:
- Over 20 million pounds of the toxic firefighting foam AFFF and AFFF wastewater was incinerated between 2016-2020;
- The U.S. military, the EPA, and state regulators all expressed serious concern about the ability of incineration to destroy the toxic chemicals in AFFF during this time;
- Six incinerators were contracted to burn AFFF. Each is a habitual violator of environmental law. Since 2017, three of the incinerators were out of compliance with environmental law 100% of the time while the other incinerators were out of compliance with environmental law about 50% of the time;
- 35% of known shipments of AFFF (7.7 million pounds) was burned at the Norlite Hazardous Waste Incinerator in Cohoes, New York, located within a densely populated urban area and less than 400 feet from a public housing complex. Norlite burned 2.47 million pounds of AFFF and 5.3 million pounds of AFFF wastewater, which likely was burned in violation of its Resource Conservation and Recovery Act permit;
- 40% of the national stockpile of AFFF (5.5 million pounds) was sent to "fuel-blending" facilities where it was mixed into fuels for industrial use. It is not clear where the AFFF-laden fuel went next, although the DOD contract stipulates incineration should be the endpoint; and
- 970,000 pounds of AFFF was burned overseas.
AFFF contains contaminants known as perfluoroalkyl and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS); exposure to trace amounts of these synthetic chemicals is associated with a variety of detrimental health effects, and some have argued that PFAS are so risky that they not only endanger public health but threaten to undermine human reproduction writ large.
Jane Williams, chair of the Sierra Club's National Clean Air team stressed: "We simply must stop burning PFAS compounds."
"Attempting to burn these forever chemicals can generate highly toxic emissions which endanger the health of nearby communities," she said. "Burning also releases gases which are powerful climate forcing chemicals."
According to Williams, "EPA and DOD are both pursuing advanced technologies that can more effectively destroy these compounds without causing these unacceptable impacts."
The pursuit of alternative disposal methods raises the question, posed by the researchers on their website: "If incineration is an unproven means of destroying these toxins, is burning AFFF solving the problem or simply emitting it into the poor communities that so often surround incinerators in the U.S.?"
According to the researchers, the military rushed to burn more than 20 million pounds of AFFF over the past four years because they feared the substance "would be classified as a toxic chemical (and with that designation, would require new safeguards and introduce new liability)."
In a column published Thursday in The Guardian, Bond explained:
While some states file suit against the manufactures of AFFF, the fingerprints of the U.S. Armed Forces are all over the scene of the crime. When federal scientists moved to publish a comprehensive review of the toxic chemistry of AFFF in 2018, DOD officials called that science "a public relations nightmare" and tried to suppress the findings.
Beyond damning internal emails, the military is still in possession of a tremendous amount of AFFF. As the EPA and states around the U.S. begin to designate AFFF a hazardous substance, the military's stockpiles of AFFF are starting to add up to an astronomical liability on the military's balance sheet. Perhaps thinking the Trump administration presented an opportune moment, the Pentagon decided to torch their AFFF problem in 2016.
Despite AFFF's extraordinary resistance to fire, incineration quietly became the military's preferred method to handle AFFF. "We knew that this would be a costly endeavor, since it meant we'd be burning something that was engineered to put out fires," Steve Schneider, chief of Hazardous Disposal for the logistics wing of DOD, said in 2017 as the operation got underway.
As the military was sending AFFF to incinerators around the country, the EPA, state regulators, and university scientists all warned that subjecting AFFF to extremely high temperatures would likely conjure up a witches brew of fluorinated toxins, that existing smokestack technologies would be insufficient to monitor poisonous emissions let alone capture them, and that dangerous chemicals might rain down on surrounding neighborhoods. Weighing out its own liability against the health of these communities, the Pentagon struck the match.
Judith Enck, former EPA regional administrator, said the data compiled by the Bennington College team demonstrate that "we have a national problem on our hands."
"Congress needs to throw cold water on the Pentagon's mad dash to burn toxic firefighting foam. There is no evidence that incineration destroys AFFF," she added, calling for "a national ban on burning these forever chemicals."
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
When back-to-back hurricanes struck Central America last November, families in the region were already facing a food shortage, violence and economic decline from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Four months later, people affected by Hurricanes Eta and Iota are struggling to recover, and the impacts of the storms are just beginning to be felt by agriculture communities, prompting some experts to link climate change to the recent surge in migrants arriving at the US-Mexico border, Vox reported.
"The hurricanes were... the last in the series of what was a devastating year," Meghan López, the International Rescue Committee's regional vice president for Latin America, told CNN. "To have the pandemic on top of that, to have aid to the region cut, all of these things create this pressure cooker where there's no escape valve... And the only escape valve is to try to flee the terrible situation people are living in... People are making desperate decisions."
The hurricanes left "200 people dead and another 5.3 million people in need of assistance, including more than 1.8 million children," according to UNICEF, Vox reported. They also came at the same time as harvest, causing some regions to lose 40 percent of corn crops and 65 percent of bean crops.
"(Hurricane) Eta – plus the pandemic – left us with nothing," a Honduran father told CNN, after being deported by U.S. authorities to Reynosa, Mexico.
When major storms have hit the region in the past, farmers tended to move to urban areas for better employment opportunities, said Kayly Ober, a senior advocate and program manager for the Climate Displacement Program at Refugees International. Yet due to the pandemic, these same opportunities haven't been available, Vox reported.
The pandemic is also limiting opportunities at the border, where an increasing amount of unaccompanied minors are being held beyond legal limits in facilities because the Department of Health and Human Services has run out of space to house people, CNN reported.
In the U.S., political leaders are struggling to determine the best approach to solving the border crisis. "Politically, it's never the "right time" for immigration reform," Veronica Escobar, a Democratic representative from El Paso, Texas, wrote in a recent opinion piece published in The New York Times. "The good news is that we now have an administration willing to work on the issue."
On Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced that Vice President Kamala Harris would lead the way in addressing immigration issues on the southern border. Harris' approach will focus on slowing the flow of migrants by determining "the root causes" of why people are coming north in the first place, POLITICO reported.
While running for president, Biden "proposed spending $4 billion over four years to tackle violence, climate change and government corruption in the Northern Triangle region — comprised of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras," POLITICO reported. Ober told Vox that the Biden administration is putting too much emphasis on stopping migrants from coming north, rather than viewing it "with a humanitarian lens."
Other experts have criticized the U.S. for its lack of international aid, leaving migrants with no other choice but to come north. "Many families have nothing to go back to and are now left with little options to survive," Laurent Duvillier, a spokesperson for UNICEF's Latin America and Caribbean regional office, told Vox. "Unless more humanitarian support is provided to Central American countries affected by these tropical storms, unless conditions are created in communities for people to be able to stay, it is expected that more families will migrate north in search for a better future for their children."
The state of Virginia is taking a stand against single-use plastics.
Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order Tuesday designed to phase out the use of non-reusable plastics at state institutions, including colleges and universities. The order comes the same week that Northam signed a law banning polystyrene food containers in the state, as the Richmond Times-Dispatch reported.
"From landmark investments in renewable energy to bold action to tackle the climate crisis, Virginia is at the forefront of innovative efforts to protect our environment, and addressing the problem of plastic pollution is an important part of this work," Northam said in a press release announcing the order. "As a large producer of solid waste, the Commonwealth must lead by example and transition away from single-use disposable plastics to create a cleaner, more sustainable future for all Virginians."
Many plastics are not actually recyclable, as comedian John Oliver detailed just this Sunday in a segment reported on by EcoWatch. In the U.S., less than nine percent of plastics are recycled, while 91 percent end up in landfills or incinerators, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics. This is a problem in Virginia specifically as well, where the amount of solid waste either burned or landfilled has increased from two million to almost 23 million tons a year since 2011.
To reverse this trend, Northam is requiring all state agencies, colleges and universities to stop the use of unnecessary single-use items within 120 days. These items include plastic bags, food containers, plastic straws and cutlery and water bottles. In addition, state agencies will need to submit plans for phasing out all other non-medical single-use plastics by 2025. There will be short-term exceptions for plastics necessary for medical or public safety uses and long-term exceptions for medical or emergency plastics.
The order was announced as part of the 31st annual Environment Virginia Symposium hosted by the Virginia Military Institute. One of the major concerns about plastics is that they can enter rivers and oceans when improperly disposed of, harming marine life and eventually working their way up the marine food web back to humans. The group Clean Virginia Waterways found that plastic made up 83 percent of the trash found on the state's beaches.
"This bold leadership from Governor Northam's administration to phase out single-use plastic items from the Commonwealth's state agencies and universities will go a long way to setting an example on how to reduce a major source of waste and pollution in Virginia's coastal waters as well as our streams, rivers and agricultural fields," the group's executive director Katie Register wrote in a statement.
In addition to merely phasing out plastics, the order targets solid waste in other ways. It tasks the state Secretary of Natural Resources with investigating ways to keep waste out of landfills period, through measures such as increasing composting and innovative forms of recycling.
"Nobody wants to live next to a landfill, and historically, they have been sited in places that disproportionately impact underserved populations and communities of color," Director of the Department of Environmental Quality David Paylor said in the press release. "This is a significant environmental justice issue, and the less waste we produce, the fewer landfills we will need."
Outside environmental organizations also touted the environmental justice benefits of phasing out plastics.
"Virginia cannot protect the health of Virginians and ensure environmental justice without eliminating its reliance on plastics. Single-use plastics cause long-lasting damage to our environment and waterways and impacts the health of vulnerable communities and people of color the hardest," Sierra Club Virginia Director Kate Addleson said in a statement reported by CBS19. "Executive order 77 is an encouraging first step to combat the issue of plastic pollution at its source. Virginia should continue to embrace policies that phase out SUPs in order to preserve our climate, safeguard our water, and protect the health of Virginians."
To this end, this week also saw the signing of House Bill 533, which mandates the phase-out of all polystyrene food containers by 2025. Virginia follows Maine, Maryland and Vermont in passing such a measure; a New York state ban will also go into effect in 2022, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"Our leaders have chosen to put the planet over plastic," said Elly Boehmer, state director of Environment Virginia, in a statement responding to the bill's signing.
By Jonathan Levy
During a presidential election debate on Oct. 22, 2020, former President Donald Trump railed against Democratic proposals to retrofit homes. "They want to take buildings down because they want to make bigger windows into smaller windows," he said. "As far as they're concerned, if you had no window, it would be a lovely thing."
What a difference five months makes. While replacing your big windows with small ones is not on the Biden-Harris administration's agenda, increasing home energy efficiency is. Addressing these and other housing issues is critical for three of the new administration's immediate priorities: ending the COVID-19 pandemic, addressing climate change and tackling racial and economic inequality.
As an environmental health researcher, I have studied ways in which inadequate housing influences health and disproportionately affects low-income families and communities of color. In my view, retrofitting low-income housing in particular is a high-leverage way to tackle some of our nation's most pressing health, social and environmental challenges.
Housing Shapes Everything
The pandemic has spotlighted how directly housing affects people's health. It's intuitively clear that physical distancing is hard if your family lives in a few rooms. And studies have shown that crowded indoor environments, including houses and apartments, are high-risk settings for contracting COVID-19.
Housing also is a substantial contributor to climate change. About 20% of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions come from residential energy use. Large homes generally use more energy, but lower-income homes are often less energy-efficient, which makes them costly to heat and cool.
One recent survey found that between spring 2019 and spring 2020, 25% of low-income American households were unable to pay an energy bill. Families may be forced to cut necessities like food or medicine to pay energy bills, or endure unhealthy temperatures. As changing climate lengthens summer, and there are more scorching hot days, those who lack air conditioning or can't afford it are in danger.
Racial inequities in housing aren't random. For generations, discriminatory policies kept Black and other minority households from purchasing homes in many neighborhoods. There are large racial gaps in both homeownership rates and the availability of high-quality housing across the country.
Maintenance is key to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development's Healthy Home Principles. HUD
Potential Policy Solutions
Now, for all of these reasons, housing is in the political spotlight. The Biden-Harris presidential platform included home energy efficiency retrofits. The new American Rescue Plan Act, which President Biden signed into law on March 11, includes housing provisions meant to forestall an eviction crisis and to reduce energy insecurity. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia Fudge has pledged to prioritize fair housing.
These efforts are all related. Energy-efficiency investments in low-income housing have broad ripple effects, including financial relief for residents, lower carbon emissions and healthier indoor environments.
But there are key questions. Will agencies address these issues as siloed challenges or in an integrated way? And will federal leaders and members of Congress see strategic investments in housing as a strategy that offers broad societal benefits?
The State of Low-Income Housing
Data from the American Housing Survey demonstrates some of the challenges low-income households face. Many of the more than 30 million Americans who live below the poverty line crowd into smaller, older homes. Often these dwellings have structural deficiencies like pest infestation, mold, peeling paint and exposed wiring.
Living in these environments creates health risks from exposure to lead paint, allergens and indoor air pollution. The economic challenges of the pandemic, with people spending much more time at home, have heightened these risks.
Poor conditions also plague many chronically underfunded public housing developments. Given how vulnerable many public housing residents are, I see upgrading these buildings as critical.
The Benefits of Energy Efficiency
Well-designed energy-efficiency measures provide economic, health and climate benefits in single-family and multifamily homes, including in low-income housing. My research demonstrates both the promise and potential pitfalls of various measures.
For example, better insulation lowers electricity and fuel consumption. In turn, this saves money, improves outdoor air quality and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
However, upgrades can be done well or badly. We found that weatherization alone, without other improvements, may actually increase indoor air pollution in low income, multifamily housing, especially in homes where people smoke or cook frequently with gas stoves. That's because steps like adding insulation and sealing cracks trap indoor air pollutants inside. Coupling weatherization with steps such as adding kitchen exhaust fans and high-efficiency particle filters in heating and air conditioning systems produces healthier results.
Welcome @SecFudge! https://t.co/K4Ang2domg— HUDgov (@HUDgov)1615414820.0
Are There Win-Win-Win Scenarios?
If better housing saves money, makes residents healthier and more comfortable, improves air quality, decreases greenhouse gas emissions and reduces racial disparities, why don't we have more of it?
One reason is that those who pay for improvements – landlords or government agencies – often aren't the ones who directly benefit from living in a less drafty home with cleaner air. Likewise, it's rare for health care providers to consider housing upgrades as an approved clinical intervention.
But that could change. A recent study showed that providing stable, affordable housing improved physical and mental health for both children and adults. Green building strategies have been shown to improve health, lessen asthma symptoms and reduce health care costs. Healthier kids miss less school and earn better grades.
Strategic federal investments could ultimately save taxpayers money and improve health. A 2020 study showed that federal rental assistance – which helps families afford better housing – led to reduced emergency department visits for asthmatic children, saving money for the Medicaid system. Subsidized energy efficiency upgrades also increase property values, which helps address long-standing racial disparities in wealth.
The Department of Housing and Urban Development typically gets little notice from the public, especially amid a global pandemic when Americans are focused on vaccinations and the economy. But Secretary Fudge has an opportunity to spotlight housing as a lever for improving health, the environment and economic and racial equity. All without shrinking anyone's windows.
Jonathan Levy is a professor and chair of the Department of Environmental Health, Boston University.
Disclosure statement: Jonathan Levy receives funding from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Federal Aviation Administration, the Barr Foundation, and Google.org.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
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The term "urban forest" may sound like an oxymoron. When most of us think about forests, we may picture vast expanses of tall trunks and dappled sunlight filtering through the leaves, far from the busyness of the city. But the trees that line city streets and surround apartment complexes across the U.S. hold great value, in part because of their proximity to people.
"Per tree, you're getting way more value for an urban tree than a tree out in the wild," says Mark McPherson, founder and director of a Seattle nonprofit called City Forest Credits. In an increasingly urbanizing world, cities are, after all, "right where people live and breathe and recreate."
Trees—and urban trees in particular—provide enormous benefits. For starters, they're responsible for producing oxygen and removing CO2 and other pollutants from the air. Urban forests in the U.S. remove an estimated 75,000 tons of air pollution per year. They reduce the impact of falling rain and encourage that water to soak into the ground, reducing flooding and erosion as well as preventing pollution from entering waterways. And the shade they provide isn't just good for picnics; trees absorb heat and release water vapor that cools the surrounding air. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that trees reduce the energy consumption needed to cool homes in the U.S. by more than 7%.
To find out just how much one tree can do, you can even estimate the value of the benefits of a specific tree near you using this calculator developed by a collaboration of tree experts and nonprofits.
The trouble is that these benefits are not equitably distributed. "Nationally, there's a trend for trees to follow wealth," says Leslie Berckes, the director of programs for Trees Forever, a nonprofit environmental group that works with communities across Iowa and Illinois to plant and care for trees. She says wealthier communities tend to have more trees for a variety of reasons, including racist housing practices. "Redlining left a lot of scars on communities, one of those being less green space, less tree cover," Berckes says.
And the results are life-threatening. In the absence of trees, these urban areas tend to be concrete—either buildings or sidewalks or streets. These impervious surfaces absorb heat during the day and then release it at night, preventing the relief of cooling temperatures, and creating urban heat islands. "People are getting sick or dying from heat," Berckes says, "and their utility bills are going up. … Heat is the biggest killer from [a] natural disaster perspective."
Building Community by Planting Trees
To better support the health of these communities, Berckes' organization employs local teenagers to plant and care for trees. Trees Forever pays a starting rate of $10 an hour—higher than the state's minimum wage of $7.25—and then bumps it up to $15 an hour for crew leaders. In addition, Trees Forever provides teens with professional development resources such as resume-building, mock interviews, financial literacy courses, stress management tools, and shadowing professionals in green jobs. Although COVID-19 has paused some of these activities, the organization sees this multifaceted support as an investment in a local workforce that will then have the knowledge and skills to continue the important work of tree-planting for building healthier communities.
Dawud Benedict, 18, has been planting trees with Trees Forever since the fall of 2020. He applied after hearing about a friend's positive experience working with the organization. "It just sounded nice to do something more for Des Moines area," he says. The work has taught him to appreciate trees and their benefits to the community and the world, he says, as well as to work together as a group. He enjoys being able to drive past work sites and point out trees that he helped plant in his community. "I feel like I'm making a bigger impact," he says.
In recent years, Trees Forever has endeavored to put equity at the center of their work through training and education, though Berckes admits that a lot more work must be done. "Our own staff is all White," she says. "Iowa is a predominantly White state. When we go to work with some of these small towns, I bet the percentage of White people is 80 to 90-or-more percent." Much of the group's outreach has historically focused on door-knocking and connecting with groups like neighborhood associations, churches, and local businesses. But Trees Forever's traditional methods weren't reaching Hispanic residents who moved to these communities to work in the meatpacking industry. So to make access to the benefits of urban trees more equitable, the organization is working to overcome language barriers and meet these community members where they are.
West Des Moines is home to three Microsoft data centers, and two more are slated for construction starting in 2021. In the corporation's efforts to invest in communities that house its data centers, it funded Trees Forever's work in 2019. And in 2020, the collaborative piloted a project that promises to put equity first.
The project, called the Impact Scorecard, is being rolled out in West Des Moines as well as Phoenix. The creator of the scorecard, Mark McPherson, says Microsoft was looking for high-impact projects, and his organization, City Forest Credits, developed a way to measure the impacts of trees on equity, human health, and the environment.
"As a society, we have not found a way to put natural capital on the balance sheet as an asset," he says. "There's no asset value to the trees; only an expense item." As such, trees necessarily fall to the bottom of many city's budgets, or off of them altogether. "Urban trees don't just store carbon, they reduce stormwater, they improve air, they provide energy savings in terms of heating and cooling. They can, if done right, tremendously advance environmental justice—they provide human health benefits, biodiversity, bird and pollinator habitat, slope stability, and the list goes on. They are like utilities," McPherson says. "They provide incredible services."
Those services are immensely valuable to cities. They reduce the costs of doing all kinds of other work, including stormwater management, air purification, and water retention.
Sure, some carbon markets put a dollar value on capturing CO2. But the problem, McPherson found, was that carbon markets couldn't capture any of the values of urban forests specifically. Carbon credits are typically sold by the ton for huge acreages of forest. In the city, an individual tree isn't going to store enough carbon to make a blip on these particular charts, but it has incredible value for countless lives.
So he teamed up with his older brother, Greg McPherson, a scientist emeritus with the U.S. Forest Service who founded the Center for Urban Forest Research. In the '90s, he moved to Chicago to figure out how to quantify the value of the services that trees provide to the city, and he continues to refine benefit-cost analyses for trees.
The Impact Scorecard is the latest outcome of this work. It aims to get corporations and other private funders to underwrite the costs of doing important community-led work through the planting of urban forests.
"That's a critical part of environmental justice," explains Mark McPherson, who, as a White man, says he works hard to avoid the tropes of White saviorism. "Not just, you beam in from your NGO office and plant trees," but rather "to actually have these projects led by the local community."
Letting Communities Lead
That's what drives the work of Lydia Scott, director of the Chicago Region Trees Initiative. This partnership brings together 14 organizations—from the Morton Arboretum to the U.S. Forest Service, the Chicago Parks Department to the Chicago Department of Public Health—to leverage resources and expertise in support of the urban forest in and around Chicago. She says trees can help reduce crime, improve property values, and reduce temperatures.
To let communities lead, though, members of the initiative had to be willing to listen. Some neighborhoods, for example, didn't want trees or actively removed them to prevent obstructing street lights because of safety concerns. Police departments, too, sometimes cite a need for open lines of sight on sidewalks and in parks. "This was an eye-opener for us," Scott says. It all comes down to having the right tree in the right place. That's why her organization works within communities to show the value of trees and evidence of the ways trees can support a different dynamic.
But unlike a forest on public lands or a reservation, urban forests can't be managed as a whole. Urban areas are a mix of public and private lands, so to plant trees requires the buy-in of a greater number of stakeholders.
"We know trees have a dramatic impact on quality of life," Scott says. They are critical infrastructure in communities and should be protected and budgeted as such, she says, but they are rarely recognized for the value and services they provide. All too often she hears that "trees are a luxury we handle after everything else." With COVID-19, being outside is more important than ever, and people are seeing and appreciating trees in a whole new way. But in some ways the work is made harder, Scott says. City budgets are tight and meeting basic needs like housing and safety is necessarily taking priority.
Here's where the scorecard comes in. It matches communities who want to invest in their tree cover with private funders, such as corporations who want to make investments that have a measurable impact. That impact is broken down into three categories that emphasize the value of urban trees specifically: equity, human health, and environmental benefits.
Mark McPherson says that urban forests are unique because they connect global atmospheric benefits with ecosystem benefits and resilience and mitigation benefits. "Very seldom do you get a climate action that fits all of those," he says.
To look at the benefits of trees at scale, the Chicago Region Trees Initiative developed a map that breaks it down by neighborhood, indicating the percentage of land covered by impervious surfaces, the percentage of tree cover, and the financial benefit those trees provide the community. It also includes location-specific information on air quality, heat, flooding, and vulnerable populations.
Screenshot from the Chicago Region Trees interactive map page.
Take, for example, the La Grange Park area of south Chicago. It has 47% tree cover and 30% impervious surfaces. The calculator estimates the community gains more than $750,000 a year from these trees. In contrast, Bedford Park, just to the south, has only 7% tree cover and 59% impervious surfaces. Their benefit from these trees is $300,000. But the calculator also estimates that the community could reasonably boost that tree canopy to as much as 65% of the neighborhood's land area—a ninefold increase—which would also up their benefits.
Scott says the priority communities don't always track exactly on racial or socioeconomic lines. In fact, the two neighborhoods with the fewest trees, according to their assessment, were actually quite well-off financially, so the initiative decided to focus its efforts elsewhere. These communities have the resources available to make change but choose not to.
Instead, the initiative is prioritizing projects that put health and equity at the center. An assessment of educational facilities, for example, identified a list of 24 schools and 24 day cares in Chicago within 500 feet of an expressway. The initiative is doing air-quality testing and planting vegetative buffers as a means of improving air quality at each of these facilities. (A 2013 study found that adding a row of trees between a roadway and nearby houses reduced pollution levels in the houses by 50%.) By using the Impact Scorecard, funders have third party verification of the health, equity, and environmental benefits of the project.
"The trees in our neighborhoods tell a story about our society—one of equity," Mark McPherson says. The story we're trying to craft, he says, is one in which living in a city is healthy, equitable, and connected with nature.
BREANNA DRAXLER is the environmental editor at YES!, where she leads coverage of climate and environmental justice. An award-winning journalist with nearly a decade of experience editing, reporting, and writing for national magazines, she won a 2020 National Magazine Award for a collaborative climate action guide that she published with Audubon Magazine. Breanna also writes, reports and edits for National Geographic online, Grist, and Audubon Magazine, among others. She serves as a board member for the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Northwest Science Writers Association. She also has a Master's degree in environmental journalism from the University of Colorado Boulder. Breanna is based out of Seattle, but has worked in newsrooms on both coasts and in between. Her previous staff positions include editing at bioGraphic, Popular Science, and Discover Magazine. She speaks English and French.
Reposted with permission from Yes! Magazine