'This Changes Everything' Including the Anti-Fracking Movement
[Editor's note: Naomi Klein’s new book on climate change is launching tomorrow. It’s not an endlessly ringing alarm bell. It’s a navigation system for our time—equipped with flashlights to illuminate the road ahead. There is a message here for everyone, says Sandra Steingraber, including those caught up in the fight against fracking and all its metastasizing infrastructure.]
Among its many demonstrations, This Changes Everything, reveals how the grassroots anti-fracking movement is right where it should be—except for decades-old backroom deals between Big Green groups and the oil and gas industry that hold the movement down like a cartoon ball and chain.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, let me start again: You need to read Naomi Klein’s new book, This Changes Everything, which delivers a message so big that the title alone pushes both the author’s name and the subtitle (“Capitalism vs. the Climate”) right off the front cover.
All your friends and loved ones need to read the book, too, and that fact alone can end all further thinking about holiday gifts.
And if you live anywhere near Washington DC, you are lucky because those gifts can come as autographed copies. On Friday, Sept. 19, Klein is reading and signing at Sidwell Friends Meeting House as part of a book-launch event that is hosted by the inimitable Politics and Prose Bookstore and co-sponsored by Food & Water Watch and 350.org—both member organizations of Americans Against Fracking. [Full disclosure: I’m the science advisor for AAF.]
After she signs her last book, the author is heading to New York City for the People’s Climate March—presumably along with much of her audience, as next Sunday’s march for climate justice is on course to deliver an equally outsized and powerful message.
In other words, this is the book that speaks to our time.
Simply put, This Changes Everything is a literary enactment of the old adage that every crisis is an opportunity in disguise. For Klein, the crisis—and she rightly sees it as a moral one—is the ongoing destruction of our agriculture-enabling, freshwater-providing, weather-regulating, life-nurturing climate system, which is under attack by heat-trapping gasses that are the unpriced, unregulated, untaxed, unmonitored consequences of a global economic system that runs amok on fossil fuels.
(Amok—from the Malay language: sudden mass assault following a period of brooding; now more widely viewed as an episode of psychopathological behavior).
The opportunity is to remake that economic system, which, even before it went berserk on Earth’s climate, wasn’t really meeting human needs very efficiently or very equitably—for all the reasons Klein has explicated in her previous two best-selling books, No Logo and The Shock Doctrine.
(Berserk—from the Old Norse: bear-skin-clad warrior, frenzied by battle, who believes himself invulnerable; now more widely understood as crazed, reckless, defiant violence … that believes itself invulnerable.)
The best science available, says Klein correctly, shows that 80 percent of the world’s oil, gas and coal reserves need to stay in the ground for us to attain even a break-even chance of avoiding multiple planetary tipping points. These lie just ahead, like so many landmines that could, if triggered, blow us into uncharted, civilization-ending territory.
So, what about disciplining the current economic system until it becomes responsive to the findings of climate science? Sort of like … hmm … anger management counseling for pro-football players who punch out their women?
Answer: Such attempts invariably fail.
In chapter after chapter, Klein walks us, tour guide-style, through a veritable museum of these failures. The double-crossed U.S. Climate Action Partnership. The star-crossed 2009 UN Climate Summit in Copenhagen. The stultifying shell games of cap-and-trade. The bait-and-switch Pickens Plan. The abandoned Virgin Earth Challenge. The half-abandoned Kyoto Accord. And, my personal favorite: the Center for Sustainable Shale Development, which is the love child of the natural gas industry and the Environmental Defense Fund. (“The very name makes it clear that it will not be questioning whether ‘sustainable’ extraction of fossil fuels from shale is possible in the age of climate change.”)
The fundamental problem, Klein tells us right away, is this:
[W]e have not done the things that are necessary to lower emissions because those things conflict with deregulated capitalism … our economic system and our planetary system are now at war. Or, more accurately, our economy is at war with many forms of life on Earth, including human life. What the climate needs to avoid collapse is a contraction in humanity’s use of resources; what our economic model demands to avoid collapse is unfettered expansion. Only one of these sets of rules can be changed, and it’s not the laws of nature.
To put a finer point on the essential quarrel between the reigning economic ideology and the irreducible needs of the ecological world, Klein observes that the business model of the fossil fuel industry is predicated on burning five times more fossil fuels—all of it used as collateral with Wall Street—than our climate models tell us is compatible with a living planet.
To be sure, Naomi Klein is not the first to point all this out. Bill McKibben ran these numbers in his now iconic 2012 essay in Rolling Stone, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math.” And, in a larger way, environmental writers—Elizabeth Kolbert (Field Notes from a Catastrophe), and Dianne Dumonowski (The End of the Long Summer) are just two—have been thoughtfully exploring the collision between insatiable growth and finite resources since at least 1972 (Club of Rome, The Limits to Growth).
Indeed, the gap between how many tons of carbon we can still ignite without burning down our planetary house and how many tons the largest corporations in the world already have on their balance sheets as proven reserves against which they borrow, bet, stake their fiduciary responsibility to shareholders, and otherwise make the financial world go ‘round (the former would be “80 percent less than what we are burning now” and the latter, “a whole shitload more than that”) gave rise to the now-popular notion of stranded assets and carbon bubbles. The conversation around those topics animates the fossil fuel divestment campaign and did not start with Klein.
But at least two elements set Klein’s book apart and make it essential reading for all those new to these issues, as well as those of us who feel steeped in them already.
One is an uncanny sense of zeitgeist. Klein offers science, economic analysis and political solutions to climate change—and exposes false solutions for what they are—at just the moment when a mass climate justice movement is awakening and seeking just those things that she provides here. This Changes Everything is both a mirror of that movement and its midwife. Unlike so many other chroniclers of the climate crisis, Naomi Klein is not ahead of her time. And that’s a very good thing.
Second, Klein’s deft command of diverse material—from climate debt to austerity measures, from indigenous rights to corporatization of the Big Green groups, from geoengineering to impacts of oil spills on fertility, from the psychology of climate denial to the lessons of the abolitionist and civil rights movements—help reveal not only how entrenched and multi-causal the problem but also where lie possible and multiple points of intervention.
[Aside: you really need to read the chapter titled “Dimming the Sun.” Here, Klein reports on a meeting of elite engineers, during which men with PhDs seriously contemplate the pros and cons of shooting pollution into the stratosphere in order to dim the sun’s rays, along with other maneuvers—like dumping iron into the ocean to prompt plankton to absorb more carbon dioxide. Manipulating the global environment to make it less of a greenhouse is increasingly viewed in policy circles as a sensible workaround to abject lack of progress on the “just stop emitting greenhouse gases” front. Having myself heard an Environmental Protection Agency research scientist say just a few months ago, that geoengineering, rather than mitigation, was the focus of his own work now, I assure you that this is a real trending thing.]
Because climate change is revealed by Klein as the misbegotten monster of a flawed economic model, readers see how the climate movement can—and must—join forces with other wide-awake, already organized movements that also have a serious issue with globalized, boom and bust, water-destroying, air-polluting extractivist projects—along with the elected officials for which the fossil fuel industry serves as ventriloquist. Among them: indigenous nations, labor unions, faith communities, farmers and anti-poverty campaigns:
With many of the biggest pools of untapped carbon on lands controlled by some of the poorest people on the planet, and with emissions rising most rapidly in what were, until recently, some of the poorest parts of the world, there is simply no credible way forward that does not involve redressing the real roots of poverty.
In other words, the path to get off carbon—which requires reinvesting in local economies, local infrastructure and public transportation; rebuilding democracy; creating sustainable jobs; curtailing corporate power; and recapitalizing rural America—also happens to be the way forward for income and racial equality. In Klein’s words, it’s the “unfinished business of liberation.”
That’s a convenient truth. And it’s meticulously footnoted.
Based on its commodious length and ambitious scope, it would be easy to call This Changes Everything a “sprawling” book. It’s not. It’s too smoothly designed and tightly drafted to sprawl. All its through-lines, sub-plots and thematic elements are finely woven. Indeed, each chapter deserves its own review.
Instead, I’ll circle back to where I began—to the ball and chain—and highlight the sections of the book devoted to fracking. These not only contain important reportage for those of us on the frontlines of this fight but are also among the best-written sections of the book.
The historical chapter called “Fruits not Roots” examines why and when many Big Green groups cozied up to natural gas and still, to this day, in spite of all manner of damning evidence, cannot issue a full-throated condemnation of fracking as villainous for the climate. The stage was set, says Klein, during the pro-corporate conversions of environmental groups and their supporting foundations during the 1980s. Market-based solutions and partnerships with industry groups, rather than lawsuits, bans and confrontations, became the favored strategies. Green groups began going after low-hanging fruits that offered winnable victories to show to funders—but no chance of actually solving the problem—rather than striking boldly at root causes.
Klein does not really examine how the gas industry began to market itself as the “white meat” of fossil fuels or what role the environmental community played in providing green cover for that narrative, but what she does make clear is the industry itself—in the early 1980s—came up with the metaphorical claim that gas was a “bridge” to a clean energy future, and, then, the mainstream environmental community, at the dawn of the Clinton years, began to echo that pitch.
Just how deep into the fossil fuel tank many Big Green groups plunged becomes clearer as Klein follows the money. The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Environmental Defense Fund are all selected out for mention here.
All together, This Changes Everything holds the Big Greens accountable for redirecting public attention away from the need for big, systemic change and toward lifestyle and consumer approaches to climate change—complete with on-line carbon calculators—that did little to actually lower emissions. What’s worse, this appeal to green shopping choices—
may have even played a role in weakening public belief in the reality of human-caused climate change. [Perhaps] because the ‘solutions’ to climate change proposed by many green groups in this period were so borderline frivolous, many people concluded that the groups must have been exaggerating the scale of the problem. After all, if climate change really was dire … wouldn’t the environmental movement be asking the public to do more than just switch brands of cleaning liquid …? Wouldn’t they be trying to shut down the fossil fuel companies?
The excerpt above will likely be flagged as one of the most controversial passages of the book: Klein lays the blame for widespread climate change denial at the feet of the environmental community!
But as a biologist and educator working actively on climate change during the 1990s, I think Klein is exactly right. I watched many readers and students first become deeply affected by the evidence for global warming and then retreat back into indifference once they realized it was only about light bulbs and carbon offsets for purchase after all. And backing up Klein and me both is the excellent 2007 book, Shopping Our Way to Safety, by sociologist Andrew Szasz, who demonstrates how a focus on shopping and self-protection actually undermines the goal of meaningful, systemic environmental reform.
To speak of undermining: to me, the most tragic tale told in This Changes Everything is concerns the devolution of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF).
Taking up Rachel Carson’s unfinished work after her death from breast cancer, EDF began as a pugnacious “sue the bastards!” shop of the 1970s. Against all odds, and after years of uncompromising work—EDF succeeded in winning an enduring national ban—first on DDT and then on PCBs.
By contrast, in its current incarnation, EDF is as an open collaborator with the gas industry. Far from seeking to ban this carcinogenic, accident-prone industry, EDF and its allies have actively expanded its market.
In 2012, EDF shocked the fracking activist community by accepting from Bloomberg Philanthropies a grant of $6 million to advocate for model regulations for fracking (i.e. industry proposals dressed up in Sunday clothes), even though there is no scientific evidence to say that regulations can make fracking safe for people and the climate. Meanwhile, EDF undercuts the work of grassroots fracking abolitionists while professing to represent the reasonable environmental center.
More recently—and just in time for the People’s Climate March—EDF has clarified its position and its language. Fracking holds no hope for actually solving the climate crisis, blogged Mark Brownstein, EDF’s vice president and chief counsel, last week. And natural gas is not a bridge, it’s an exit ramp. But EDF remains realistic. It doesn’t see the oil and gas industry going away anytime soon. So, when in Rome:
Someone has to fight for those rules—and that’s what EDF is doing aggressively, every day. Sometimes that means sitting across the table from energy companies. And that kind of engagement wouldn’t be possible if we were simultaneously calling for bans and moratoria.
Seems to me that’s just the sort of rationalization Eldridge Cleaver had in mind when he intoned, “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.” (Do you agree, Naomi?)
Oh, hang in there a few more years, EDF, and watch your exit ramp become a boat launch.
I have just a few quarrels with This Changes Everything. I wish Klein had turned her formidable intellect on the fossil fuels that aren’t burned but rather become feedstocks for the petrochemical industry. What is the plan for our materials economy in a fossil fuel-free world? (Okay, I’ll take up that question and research it myself).
And I found myself wincing when she characterized grassroots activists as die-hard volunteers who pass the hat to raise cash. It’s so much harder than that. I work with people who have taken out second mortgages on their homes in order to fight fracking, who have cashed out their retirement, who have spent their kids’ college fund. If you want to hold press conference in Albany with a bunch of angry farmers, somebody has to charter the bus. Somebody lays their credit card down. I’ve been that person.
These are small complaints. This Changes Everything is a wonderful book narrated by a likeable, really smart and sometimes funny author who makes her readers feel smart, too. It provides us sufficient reasons for the imperative to recreate our economic world in ways that align it with our physical world and our only home. And, in broad strokes, it shows us how.
We have to do it right away, and all of us are required to help.
There is no guarantee it will work, but all the other alternatives are worse.
In the end, my reaction to this big book was not so unlike my reaction to the New York City subway system the first time I confronted it as a transplant from Peoria. “Wow.” I thought. “This is complicated. This is useful. This is scary. This is fantastic.”
(Fantastic—from the Greek: to imagine, to have a vision.)
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Japan will release radioactive wastewater from the failed Fukushima nuclear plant into the Pacific Ocean, the government announced on Tuesday.
The water will be treated before release, and the International Atomic Energy Agency said the country's plans were in keeping with international practice, The New York Times reported. But the plan is opposed by the local fishing community, environmental groups and neighboring countries. Within hours of the announcement, protesters had gathered outside government offices in Tokyo and Fukushima, according to NPR.
"The Japanese government has once again failed the people of Fukushima," Greenpeace Japan Climate and Energy Campaigner Kazue Suzuki said in a statement. "The government has taken the wholly unjustified decision to deliberately contaminate the Pacific Ocean with radioactive wastes."
The dilemma of how to dispose of the water is one ten years in the making. In March 2011, an earthquake and tsunami in northeastern Japan killed more than 19,000 people and caused three of six reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant to melt down, The New York Times explained. This resulted in the biggest nuclear disaster since Chernobyl, and the cleanup efforts persist more than a decade later.
To keep the damaged reactors from melting down, cool water is flushed through them and then filtered to remove all radioactive material except for tritium. Up until now, the wastewater has been stored on site, but the government says the facility will run out of storage room next year. Water builds up at 170 tons per day, and there are now around 1.25 million tons stored in more than 1,000 tanks.
The government now plans to begin releasing the water into the ocean in two years time, according to a decision approved by cabinet ministers Tuesday. The process is expected to take decades.
"On the premise of strict compliance with regulatory standards that have been established, we select oceanic release," the government said in a statement reported by NPR.
Opposition to the move partly involves a lack of trust around what is actually in the water, as NPR reported. Both the government and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which operates the plant, say that the water only contains tritium, which cannot be separated from hydrogen and is only dangerous to humans in large amounts.
"But it turned out that the water contains more radioactive materials. But they didn't disclose that information before," Friends of the Earth Japan campaigner Ayumi Fukakusa told NPR. "That kind of attitude is not honest to people. They are making distrust by themselves."
In February, for example, a rockfish shipment was stopped when a sample caught near Fukushima tested positive for unsafe levels of cesium.
This incident also illustrates why local fishing communities oppose the release. Fish catches are already only 17.5 percent of what they were before the disaster, and the community worries the release of the water will make it impossible for them to sell what they do catch. They also feel the government went against its promises by deciding to release the water.
"They told us that they wouldn't release the water into the sea without the support of fishermen," fishery cooperative leader Kanji Tachiya told national broadcaster NHK, as CBS News reported. "We can't back this move to break that promise and release the water into the sea unilaterally."
Japan's neighbors also questioned the move. China called it "extremely irresponsible," and South Korea asked for a meeting with the Japanese ambassador in Seoul in response.
The U.S. State Department, however, said that it trusted Japan's judgement.
"In this unique and challenging situation, Japan has weighed the options and effects, has been transparent about its decision, and appears to have adopted an approach in accordance with globally accepted nuclear safety standards," the department said in a statement reported by The New York Times.
But environmentalists argue that the government could have found a way to continue storing waste.
"Rather than using the best available technology to minimize radiation hazards by storing and processing the water over the long term, they have opted for the cheapest option, dumping the water into the Pacific Ocean," Greenpeace's Suzuki said.
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Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier is referred to as the doomsday glacier because every year it contributes four percent to global sea level rise and acts as a stopper for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. If the glacier were to collapse and take the sheet with it, that would raise global sea levels by around 10 feet. Now, a study published in Science Advances on April 9 warns that there is more warm water circling below the glacier than previously believed, making that collapse more likely.
"Our observations show warm water impinging from all sides on pinning points critical to ice-shelf stability, a scenario that may lead to unpinning and retreat," the study authors wrote. Pinning points are areas where the ice connects with the bedrock that provides stability, Earther explained.
The new paper is based on a 2019 expedition where an autonomous submarine named Ran explored the area beneath the glacier in order to measure the strength, salinity, oxygen content and temperature of the ocean currents that move beneath it, the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration explained in a press release.
"These were the first measurements ever performed beneath the ice front of Thwaites glacier," Anna Wåhlin, lead author and University of Gothenburg oceanography professor, explained in the press release. "Global sea level is affected by how much ice there is on land, and the biggest uncertainty in the forecasts is the future evolution of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet."
This isn't the first instance revealing the presence of warm water beneath the glacier. In January 2020, researchers drilled a bore hole through the glacier and recorded temperature readings of more than two degrees Celsius above freezing, EcoWatch reported at the time.
However, Ran's measurements were taken earlier and allow scientists to understand the warmer water's movement in more detail. Scientists now know that water as warm as 1.05 degrees Celsius is circulating around the glacier's vulnerable pinning points.
"The worry is that this water is coming into direct contact with the underside of the ice shelf at the point where the ice tongue and shallow seafloor meet," Alastair Graham, study co-author and University of Southern Florida associate professor of geological oceanography, told Earther. "This is the last stronghold for Thwaites and once it unpins from the sea bed at its very front, there is nothing else for the ice shelf to hold onto. That warm water is also likely mixing in and around the grounding line, deep into the cavity, and that means the glacier is also being attacked at its feet where it is resting on solid rock."
While this sounds grim, the fact that researchers were able to obtain the data is crucial for understanding and predicting the impacts of the climate crisis.
"The good news is that we are now, for the first time, collecting data that will enable us to model the dynamics of Thwaite's glacier. This data will help us better calculate ice melting in the future. With the help of new technology, we can improve the models and reduce the great uncertainty that now prevails around global sea level variations," Wåhlin said in the press release.
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By Jessica Corbett
Lead partners of a global consortium of news outlets that aims to improve reporting on the climate emergency released a statement on Monday urging journalists everywhere to treat their coverage of the rapidly heating planet with the same same level of urgency and intensity as they have the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since Covering Climate Now (CCNow) was co-founded in 2019 by the Columbia Journalism Review and The Nation in association with The Guardian and WNYC, over 460 media outlets — including Common Dreams — with a combined reach of two billion people have become partner organizations.
CCNow and eight of those partners are now inviting media outlets to sign on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which begins: "It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here. This is a statement of science, not politics."
The statement notes that a growing number of scientists are warning of the "climate emergency," from James Hansen, formerly of NASA, to the nearly 14,000 scientists from over 150 countries who have endorsed an emergency declaration.
"Why 'emergency'? Because words matter," the CCNow statement explains. "To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could 'render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable,' warned a recent Scientific American article."
CCNow's initiative comes after U.S. government scientists said last week that "carbon dioxide levels are now higher than at anytime in the past 3.6 million years," with 2020 featuring a global surface average for CO2 of 412.5 parts per million (PPM) — which very likely would have been higher if not for the pandemic.
As Common Dreams reported last week, amid rising atmospheric carbon and inadequate emissions reduction plans, an international coalition of 70 health professional and civil society groups called on world leaders to learn from the pandemic and "make health a central focus of national climate policies."
"The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us that health must be part and parcel of every government policy — and as recovery plans are drawn up this must apply to climate policy," said Jeni Miller, executive director of the Global Climate and Health Alliance.
CCNow also points to the public health crisis as a learning opportunity, describing the media's handling of it as "a useful model," considering that "guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example)."
"We need the same commitment to the climate story," the statement emphasizes.
Journalism should reflect what science says. https://t.co/MCbSRQMFch— The Nation (@The Nation)1618240621.0
CCNow executive director Mark Hertsgaard echoed that message Monday in The Nation, for which he serves as environment correspondent. He also addressed reservations that some reporters may have about supporting such a statement:
As journalists ourselves, we understand why some of our colleagues are cautious about initiatives like this Climate Emergency Statement, but we ask that they hear us out. Journalists rightly treasure our editorial independence, regarding it as essential to our credibility. To some of us, the term "climate emergency" may sound like advocacy or even activism — as if we're taking sides in a public dispute rather than simply reporting on it.
But the only side we're taking here is the side of science. As journalists, we must ground our coverage in facts. We must describe reality as accurately as we can, undeterred by how our reporting may appear to partisans of any stripe and unintimidated by efforts to deny science or otherwise spin facts.
According to Hertsgaard, "Signing the Climate Emergency Statement is a way for journalists and news outlets to alert their audiences that they will do justice to that story."
"But whether a given news outlet makes a public declaration by signing the statement," he added, "is less important than whether the outlet's coverage treats climate change like the emergency that scientists say it is."
Editor's Note: Common Dreams has signed on to the Climate Emergency Statement, which can be read in full below:
COVERING CLIMATE NOW STATEMENT ON THE CLIMATE EMERGENCY:
Journalism should reflect what the science says: the climate emergency is here.It's time for journalism to recognize that the climate emergency is here.
This is a statement of science, not politics.
Thousands of scientists — including James Hansen, the NASA scientist who put the problem on the public agenda in 1988, and David King and Hans Schellnhuber, former science advisers to the British and German governments, respectively — have said humanity faces a "climate emergency."
Why "emergency"? Because words matter. To preserve a livable planet, humanity must take action immediately. Failure to slash the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will make the extraordinary heat, storms, wildfires, and ice melt of 2020 routine and could "render a significant portion of the Earth uninhabitable," warned a recent Scientific American article.
The media's response to Covid-19 provides a useful model. Guided by science, journalists have described the pandemic as an emergency, chronicled its devastating impacts, called out disinformation, and told audiences how to protect themselves (with masks, for example).
We need the same commitment to the climate story.
We, the undersigned, invite journalists and news organizations everywhere to add your name to this Covering Climate Now statement on the climate emergency.
- Covering Climate Now
- Scientific American
- Columbia Journalism Review
- The Nation
- The Guardian
- Noticias Telemundo
- Al Jazeera English
- Asahi Shimbun
- La Repubblica
Reposted with permission from Common Dreams.
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Scientists consider plastic pollution one of the "most pressing environmental and social issues of the 21st century," but so far, microplastic research has mostly focused on the impact on rivers and oceans.
Plastic waste breaks down into smaller pieces until it becomes microscopic and gets swept up into the atmosphere, where it rides the jet stream and travels across continents, the Cornell Chronicle reported. Researchers discovered this has led to a global plastic cycle as microplastics permeate the environment, according to The Guardian.
"We found a lot of legacy plastic pollution everywhere we looked; it travels in the atmosphere and it deposits all over the world," Janice Brahney, lead author of the study and Utah State University assistant professor of natural resources, told the Cornell Chronicle. "This plastic is not new from this year. It's from what we've already dumped into the environment over several decades."
In the study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers tested the most likely sources of more than 300 samples of airborne microplastics from 11 sites across the western U.S. To their surprise, the researchers found that almost none of the atmospheric microplastics came from plastic waste in cities and towns. "It just didn't work out that way," Professor Natalie Mahowald from Cornell University, who was part of the research team, told The Guardian.
It turns out that 84 percent of atmospheric microplastics came from roads, 11 percent from oceans and five percent from agricultural soil dust, the scientists wrote.
"We did the modeling to find out the sources, not knowing what the sources might be," Mahowald told the Cornell Chronicle. "It's amazing that this much plastic is in the atmosphere at that level, and unfortunately accumulating in the oceans and on land and just recirculating and moving everywhere, including remote places."
The scientists say the level of plastic pollution is expected to increase, raising "questions on the impact of accumulating plastics in the atmosphere on human health. The inhalation of particles can be irritating to lung tissue and lead to serious diseases," The Guardian reported.
The study coincides with other recent reports by researchers, who confirmed the existence of microplastics in New Zealand and Moscow, where airborne plastics are turning up in remote parts of snowy Siberia.
In the most recent study, scientists also learned that plastic particles were more likely to be blown from fields than roads in Africa and Asia, The Guardian reported.
As plastic production increases every year, the scientists stressed that there remains "large uncertainties in the transport, deposition, and source attribution of microplastics," and wrote that further research should be prioritized.
"What we're seeing right now is the accumulation of mismanaged plastics just going up. Some people think it's going to increase by tenfold [per decade]," Mahowald told The Guardian. "But maybe we could solve this before it becomes a huge problem, if we manage our plastics better, before they accumulate in the environment and swirl around everywhere."
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By Michel Penke
More than every second person in the world now has a cellphone, and manufacturers are rolling out bigger, better, slicker models all the time. Many, however, have a bloody history.
Though made in large part of plastic, glass, ceramics, gold and copper, they also contain critical resources. The gallium used for LEDs and the camera flash, the tantalum in capacitors and indium that powers the display were all pulled from the ground — at a price for nature and people.
"Mining raw materials is always problematic, both with regard to human rights and ecology," said Melanie Müller, raw materials expert of the German think tank SWP. "Their production process is pretty toxic."
The gallium and indium in many phones comes from China or South Korea, the tantalum from the Democratic Republic of Congo or Rwanda. All in, such materials comprise less than ten grams of a phone's weight. But these grams finance an international mining industry that causes radioactive earth dumps, poisoned groundwater and Indigenous population displacement.
Environmental Damage: 'Nature Has Been Overexploited'
The problem is that modern technologies don't work without what are known as critical raw materials. Collectively, solar panels, drones, 3D printers and smartphone contain as many as 30 of these different elements sourced from around the globe. A prime example is lithium from Chile, which is essential in the manufacture of batteries for electric vehicles.
"No one, not even within the industry, would deny that mining lithium causes enormous environmental damage," Müller explained, in reference to the artificial lakes companies create when flushing the metal out of underground brine reservoirs. "The process uses vast amounts of water, so you end up with these huge flooded areas where the lithium settles."
This means of extraction results in the destruction and contamination of the natural water system. Unique plants and animals lose access to groundwater and watering holes. There have also been reports of freshwater becoming salinated due to extensive acidic waste water during lithium mining.
But lithium is not the only raw material that causes damage. Securing just one ton of rare earth elements produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste, and has devastated large regions of China, said Günther Hilpert, head of the Asia Research Division of the German think tank SWP.
He says companies there have adopted a process of spraying acid over the mining areas in order to separate the rare earths from other ores, and that mined areas are often abandoned after excavation.
"They are no longer viable for agricultural use," Hilpert said. "Nature has been overexploited."
China is not the only country with low environmental mining standards and poor resource governance. In Madagascar, for example, a thriving illegal gem and metal mining sector has been linked to rainforest depletion and destruction of natural lemur habitats.
States like Madagascar, Rwanda and the DRC score poorly on the Environmental Performance Index that ranks 180 countries for their effort on factors including conservation, air quality, waste management and emissions. Environmentalists are therefore particularly concerned that these countries are mining highly toxic materials like beryllium, tantalum and cobalt.
But it is not only nature that suffers from the extraction of high-demand critical raw materials.
"It is a dirty, toxic, partly radioactive industry," Hilpert said. "China, for example, has never really cared about human rights when it comes to achieving production targets."
Dirty, Toxic, Radioactive: Working in the Mining Sector
One of the most extreme examples is Baotou, a Chinese city in Inner Mongolia, where rare earth mining poisoned surrounding farms and nearby villages, causing thousands of people to leave the area.
In 2012, The Guardian described a toxic lake created in conjunction with rare earth mining as "a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world."
Local residents reported health issues including aching legs, diabetes, osteoporosis and chest problems, The Guardian wrote.
South Africa has also been held up for turning a blind eye to the health impacts of mining.
"The platinum sector in South Africa has been criticized for performing very poorly on human rights — even within the raw materials sector," Müller said.
In 2012, security forces killed 34 miners who had been protesting poor working conditions and low wages at a mine owned by the British company Lonmin. What became known as the "Marikana massacre" triggered several spontaneous strikes across the country's mining sector.
Müller says miners can still face exposure to acid drainage — a frequent byproduct of platinum mining — that can cause chemical burns and severe lung damage. Though this can be prevented by a careful waste system.
Some progress was made in 2016 when the South African government announced plans to make mining companies pay $800 million (€679 million) for recycling acid mine water. But they didn't all comply. In 2020, activists sued Australian-owned mining company Mintails and the government to cover the cost of environmental cleanup.
Another massive issue around mining is water consumption. Since the extraction of critical raw materials is very water intensive, drought prone countries such as South Africa, have witnessed an increase in conflicts over supply.
For years, industry, government and the South African public debated – without a clear agreement – whether companies should get privileged access to water and how much the population may suffer from shortages.
Mining in Brazil: Replacing Nature, People, Land Rights
Beyond the direct health and environmental impact of mining toxic substances, quarrying critical raw materials destroys livelihoods, as developments in Brazil demonstrate.
"Brazil is the major worldwide niobium producer and reserves in [the state of] Minas Gerais would last more than 200 years [at the current rate of demand]," said Juliana Siqueira-Gay, environmental engineer and Ph.D. student at the University of São Paulo.
While the overall number of niobium mining requests is stagnating, the share of claims for Indigenous land has skyrocketed from 3 to 36 percent within one year. If granted, 23 percent of the Amazon forest and the homeland of 222 Indigenous groups could fall victim to deforestation in the name of mining, a study by Siqueira-Gay finds.
In early 2020, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro signed a bill which would allow corporations to develop areas populated by Indigenous communities in the future. The law has not yet entered into force, but "this policy could have long-lasting negative effects on Brazil's socio-biodiversity," said Siqueira-Gay.
One example are the niobium reserves in Seis Lagos, in Brazil's northeast, which could be quarried to build electrolytic capacitors for smartphones.
"They overlap the Balaio Indigenous land and it would cause major impacts in Indigenous communities by clearing forests responsible for providing food, raw materials and regulating the local climate," Siqueira-Gay explained.
She says scientific good practice guidelines offer a blueprint for sustainable mining that adheres to human rights and protects forests. Quarries in South America — and especially Brazil — funded by multilaterial banks like the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group have to follow these guidelines, Siqueira-Gay said.
They force companies to develop sustainable water supply, minimize acid exposure and re-vegetate mined surfaces. "First, negative impacts must be avoided, then minimized and at last compensated — not the other way around."
Reposted with permission from DW.