Trump EPA OKs 'Emergency' to Dump Bee-Killing Pesticide on 16 Million Acres
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported last week that in 2018 it issued so-called "emergency" approvals to spray sulfoxaflor—an insecticide the agency considers "very highly toxic" to bees—on more than 16 million acres of crops known to attract bees.
Of the 18 states where the approvals were granted for sorghum and cotton crops, 12 have been given the approvals for at least four consecutive years for the same "emergency."
Last year the EPA's Office of the Inspector General released a report finding that the agency's practice of routinely granting "emergency" approval for pesticides across millions of acres does not effectively measure risks to human health or the environment.
"Spraying 16 million acres of bee-attractive crops with a bee-killing pesticide in a time of global insect decline is beyond the pale, even for the Trump administration," said Nathan Donley, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity. "The EPA is routinely misusing the 'emergency' process to get sulfoxaflor approved because it's too toxic to make it through normal pesticide reviews."
Under the Federal Insecticide, Fungicide, and Rodenticide Act, the EPA has the authority to approve temporary emergency uses of pesticides, even those not officially approved, if the agency determines it is needed to prevent the spread of an unexpected outbreak of crop-damaging insects, for example. But the provision has been widely abused.
That widespread abuse was chronicled in the Center for Biological Diversity's recent report, Poisonous Process: How the EPA's Chronic Misuse of 'Emergency' Pesticide Exemptions Increases Risks to Wildlife. The report concludes that emergency exemptions for sulfoxaflor are essentially a backdoor authorization allowing for its ongoing use on millions of acres of crops where exposure to pollinators through contaminated pollen is high. In fact, the so-called "emergencies" cited are routine and foreseeable occurrences.
Previously, in response to a lawsuit by beekeepers, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals vacated the EPA's original registration of sulfoxaflor in 2015. The EPA's new 2016 registration for sulfoxaflor—purportedly designed to ensure essentially no exposure to bees—excluded crops like cotton and sorghum that are attractive to bees.
A compilation of federal register notices indicates that sulfoxaflor was approved on 16.2 million acres of cotton and sorghum crops in 2018 on an emergency basis. Emergency approvals were granted in Alabama, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi, North Carolina, New Mexico, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia.
"The EPA is far too eager to find loopholes to approve harmful pesticides when it should be focusing on keeping people and wildlife safe from those pesticides," said Donley. "The routine abuse of emergency exemptions has to stop."
A recent study published in Nature found that sulfoxaflor exposure at low doses had severe consequences for bumblebee reproductive success. The authors cautioned against the EPA's current trajectory of replacing older neonicotinoids with nearly identical insecticides like sulfoxaflor.
A major study published earlier this month found that more than 41 percent of the world's insect species are on the fast track to extinction, and that a "serious reduction in pesticide usage" is key to preventing their extinction.
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The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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