By Simon Montlake
For more than a decade, Susan Jane Brown has been battling to stop a natural gas pipeline and export terminal from being built in the backcountry of Oregon. As an attorney at the nonprofit Western Environmental Law Center, she has repeatedly argued that the project's environmental, social, and health costs are too high.
All that was before this month's deadly wildfires in Oregon shrouded the skies above her home office in Portland. "It puts a fine point on it. These fossil fuel projects are contributing to global climate change," she says.
Jordan Cove, the $10-billion liquefied natural gas (LNG) project that Ms. Brown is trying to stop, has yet to break ground. But environmental lawsuits and permitting delays aren't the only barriers. A calamitous crash in natural gas prices and a glut of LNG capacity have cast doubts over its commercial viability and, more broadly, the easy promise of converting abundant U.S. gas into a global commodity and geopolitical tool.
"There's too much oil. There's too much gas. There's not enough demand," says Clark Williams-Derry at the liberal-leaning Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.
Still, even if projects like Jordan Cove are shelved, several other LNG terminals on the Gulf Coast already have all their permits and are waiting to secure financing. Their expansion over the next five years would make the U.S. the world's largest LNG producer, creating jobs at home and opening new markets in energy-hungry Asia.
For a future Biden administration, that's a wrinkle in any serious climate plan. Once built, these LNG plants would potentially lock in decades of heat-trapping emissions that are already hurling the planet toward a hotter, less stable future. "Once you build the infrastructure it's there, and it gets run on a different economic basis than if it's not there," says Mr. Williams-Derry, who tracks the LNG industry.
Proponents say natural gas is cleaner than the coal that it replaces both in the U.S., where it now produces around 40% of electricity, and in countries like India and China. That makes it a "bridge fuel" to a fully renewable energy future that hasn't yet arrived, says Fred Hutchison, president and CEO of LNG Allies, an industry group. "Gas can continue to be part of a low-carbon energy system globally," he says.
He predicts that LNG firms would be comfortable with a Biden presidency. "He's got a great affinity for working people and labor, and labor is very much on board with regards to LNG," he says.
On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden has gotten heat over his support for hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which left-leaning Democrats oppose but which is seen as important for winning Pennsylvania, a battleground state in November's election. Far less attention has been paid to where the oil and gas goes, and whether support for LNG exports is compatible with Mr. Biden's clean-energy agenda and plans for tackling climate change.
"It's not going to save the climate if we're just exporting our emissions overseas," says Collin Rees, a campaigner for Oil Change U.S., an environmental nonprofit.
Moderates Feeling the Heat
If elected, Mr. Biden has vowed to stop new drilling for oil and gas on federal land and in federal waters and to rejoin the 2015 Paris climate accord that President Donald Trump gave notice of quitting. He would reinstate Obama-era regulations of greenhouse gas emissions, including methane, the largest component of natural gas.
The Biden climate platform also states that all federal infrastructure investments and federal permits would need to be assessed for their climate impacts. Analysts say such a test could impede future LNG plants and pipelines, though not those that already have federal approval.
Climate change activists who pushed for that language say much depends on who would have oversight of federal agencies that regulate the industry. Some are wary of Biden's reliance on advice from Obama-era officials, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is now on the board of Southern Company, a utility, and a former Obama environmental aide, Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of Cheniere Energy, an LNG exporter.
In a letter sent earlier this month, Mr. Rees and other signatories urged Mr. Biden to ban "all fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, and representatives" from any future administration.
That Obama-era moderates are under fire over their climate bona fides is a measure of rising leftist clout in the Democratic coalition. It also reflects how the climate debate has shifted since Biden was in office, in response to extreme weather events and troubling scientific findings. This includes research into lifecycle emissions from natural gas production and methane leaks and flaring that muddies the argument that it's a transition fuel to a carbon-free future.
"We've gotten more proof on the science that switching to gas is not enough," says Mr. Rees.
The Push for U.S. Fuel Exports
As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that pushed hard for global climate action while also promoting U.S. oil and gas exports to its allies and trading partners. As fracking boomed, Obama ended a 40-year ban on crude oil exports. In Europe, LNG was touted both as an alternative to coal and as strategic competition with Russian pipelines.
That much, at least, continued with President Trump. Under Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the agency referred to liquified U.S. hydrocarbons as "freedom gas."
Mr. Trump has also championed the interests of coal, oil, and gas while denigrating the findings of government climate scientists. He rejected the Paris accord as unfair to the U.S. and detrimental to its economy, but has offered no alternative path to emissions cuts.
Still, Trump's foreign policy has not always served the LNG industry: Tariffs on foreign steel drove up pipeline costs, and a trade war with China stayed the hand of Chinese LNG importers wary of reliance on U.S. suppliers.
Even his regulatory rollbacks could be a double-edged sword. By relaxing curbs last month on methane leaks, the U.S. has ceded ground to European regulators who are drafting emissions standards that LNG producers are watching closely. "That's a precursor of fights that will be fought in all the rest of the developed world," says Mr. Hutchison.
Indeed, some oil-and-gas exporters had urged the Trump administration not to abandon the tougher rules, since they undercut their claim to offer a cleaner-burning way of producing heat and electricity. "U.S. LNG is not going to be able to compete in a world that's focused on methane emissions and intensity," says Erin Blanton, a senior research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.
Stepping on the Gas
In July, the Department of Energy issued an export license to Jordan Cove's developer, Canada's Pembina Pipeline Corp. In a statement, Energy Secretary Dan Brouillette said the project would provide "reliable, affordable, and cleaner-burning natural gas to our allies around the world."
As a West Coast terminal, Jordan Cove offers a faster route to Asia where its capacity of 7.8 million tons of LNG a year could serve to heat more than 15 million homes. At its peak, its construction would also create 6,000 jobs, the company says, in a stagnant corner of Oregon.
But the project still lacks multiple local and state permits, and its biggest asset – a Pacific port – has become its biggest handicap, says Ms. Blanton. "They are putting infrastructure in a state where there's no political support for the pipeline or the terminal, unlike in Louisiana or Texas," she says.
Ms. Brown, the environmental lawyer, says she wants to see Jordan Cove buried, not just mothballed until natural gas prices recover. But she knows that it's only one among many LNG projects and that others will likely get built, even if Biden is elected in November, despite growing evidence of the harm caused by methane emissions.
This story originally appeared in Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Stephanie Hanes
Earlier this month, health care experts from across the United States gathered to address hundreds of journalists and policymakers by webinar. But their focus was not testing, nor vaccines, nor "herd immunity." It was not even COVID-19, really. Instead, their focus was climate change.
"While many see issues like climate change and biodiversity loss as far from what's going on right now … I see this as the time to talk about it," said Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School. "Climate solutions are, in fact, pandemic solutions."
A few days later, economists and policy experts with the World Resources Institute held their own panel discussion. The message was similar, and the audience one of the largest in the organization's history. The experience of and response to COVID-19, proclaimed expert after expert, was intricately tied to climate.
Indeed, increasing numbers of researchers and policymakers, scientists and health care practitioners, are looking at the coronavirus through an ecological lens. Whether they are focused on consumer behavioral shifts, changes in emission outputs, or policy decisions that might help or hurt long-term goals for green infrastructure, they are seeing in this moment a pivotal chance to address climate change.
"As we respond to the very imminent economic and health crisis, can we also tackle the climate and sustainability crisis?" asked Manish Bapna, WRI's managing director and executive vice president.
There have been a number of short-term environmental shifts connected with how the world is coping with the pandemic. China's carbon emissions dropped 18% between the beginning of February and mid-March, according to data compiled by the website CarbonBrief. Pollution over India has decreased dramatically, according to satellite images from NASA's Earth Observatory. And in the U.S., a dramatic decrease in air travel, as well as a drop in vehicular travel, has also lowered emissions.
But many of these changes are temporary, researchers say, and may barely register on any long-term analysis of global carbon emissions. The drop in China's carbon output, for instance, came alongside a lockdown over much of the country and a related plunge in factory operations. As the country reopens, says Fang Li, chief representative of the World Resources Institute in Beijing, emissions are expected to rebound along with the economy. After the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, Dr. Fang and others point out, global emissions grew rapidly.
Renewing a Focus
For many climate advocates, this is a reason to push green initiatives now. Environmentalists worry that unless policymakers focus on climate as part of their economic packages, the pandemic could lead to policy shifts that would undermine years of hard-won climate victories. Indeed, the Trump administration in late March announced that it would weaken Obama-era fuel standards that mandate increased fuel efficiencies for automobiles. It also announced last month that the Environmental Protection Agency will not enforce environmental regulations during the pandemic.
"What we have to worry about is whether ... policy changes are going to be long term or short term," says Christopher Jones, director of the CoolClimate Network at the University of California, Berkeley. "If we roll back standards and they remain in place when the economy comes back, we are going to have a real problem."
Researchers say that a green economic stimulus package could both help the U.S. ensure long-term sustainability and rebound from the crushing economic impact of the pandemic. (More than 26 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since March 15, according to the U.S. Labor Department.) Many environmentalists look at the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the stimulus package signed by President Barack Obama in 2009, as an example of how government initiatives can spur climate-friendly industry. That bill, which earmarked some $90 billion to promote green energy, is widely credited with launching the widespread renewable energy sector in the U.S.
"Economic measures should focus on climate as well as jobs and livelihood," Mr. Bapna said during the WRI panel.
But as Kenneth Gillingham, a professor at Yale University and a research fellow at the National Bureau of Economics Research, points out, the pandemic itself has slowed renewable energy efforts.
"There's a slowing down of building new solar farms, of new wind facilities," he says. "Some projects are hitting the pause button. Other projects may not happen for a long time."
And while there is hope for a green renewal, he suspects the future will be a good deal more nuanced.
"Entirely rebuilding our economy as a green economy? It's a wonderful vision, but I don't believe that's what we'll likely see," he says.
But a move toward environmental sustainability, says Dr. Bernstein, is going to be crucial not only for combatting a climate crisis, but for helping some of the people most impacted by the coronavirus. As he points out, both the pandemic and the impacts from climate change disproportionately affect people of color and other marginalized groups.
There is, he and others say, a hopeful lesson to be taken from the massive lifestyle and economic shifts seen across the globe in response to COVID-19. For years, popular wisdom has said that people simply would not engage in the sort of behavior changes necessary to fight climate change; that they wouldn't stop traveling, wouldn't stop consuming, wouldn't sacrifice material comforts and help save others who are most immediately at risk from climate change. Now, the response to the pandemic suggests otherwise.
"We are able to mobilize the entire global economy and population for an imminent threat," says Dr. Jones. "Both climate change and this pandemic both affect the most vulnerable. But everybody is willing to make personal sacrifices to protect the most vulnerable. I think that's quite new."
The question, he and others say, is whether people will be able to see climate change as a similarly "imminent threat," deserving of action. While climate researchers look at the world's increasingly frequent and severe natural disasters and see a direct connection to human behavior, research shows that most everyday people still feel disconnected from both the impacts and causes of climate change.
"We don't experience risk properly," says Katharine Hayhoe, professor and director of the Texas Tech University Climate Science Center.
But with the coronavirus, researchers say, there is a chance to shift.
"It can make people feel that what was previously unthinkable is plausible," Dr. Jones says. "They know what the experience feels like."
This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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Each product featured here has been independently selected by the writer. If you make a purchase using the links included, we may earn commission.
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.
By Lynn Freehill-Maye
When Jackie Augustine opens a chicken coop door one brisk spring morning in upstate New York, the hens bolt out like windup toys. Still, as their faint barnyard scent testifies, they aren't battery-powered but very much alive.
These are "solar chickens." At this local community egg cooperative, Geneva Peeps, the birds live with solar power all around them. Their hen house is built under photovoltaic panels, and even outside, they'll spend time underneath them, protected from sun, rain, and hawks.
Geneva Peeps is one of the many experiments in agrivoltaics, or co-locating solar panels and food production, being undertaken around the United States. The practice had already been happening in countries like the United Kingdom and Uruguay. Over the past few years, more pilot programs have been set up in states like New York. And with photovoltaic capacity projected to more than double (again) over the next five years, some developers are exploring whether agrivoltaics may ease concerns about farmland being given over to solar production.
"You're seeing farmers sell off land and transition it to solar," says Greg Barron-Gafford, an associate professor at the University of Arizona who studies the impacts of large-scale land-use change. "Our hope is this could allow us to keep more food production in areas that need energy production."
Finding the Right Pairing
Agrivoltaics doesn't just include chickens. Other livestock also can roam around solar panels, and some researchers are experimenting with planting crops, too.
Animals that graze around solar fields offer several benefits, proponents of agrivoltaics say. Not only does their manure enrich the soil, their munching keeps plants from growing too tall and shading the panels. Another win: They lower vegetation maintenance costs, reducing the need for lawn mowers or landscapers.
Pilot agrivoltaic programs have tried many grazers – with varying success. The chickens at Geneva Peeps, for example, aren't grazing powerhouses. Founder Jeff Henderson admits that he still has to fire up the lawn mower sometimes.
When solar panels are elevated for them to roam beneath, cows do better, as shown in a University of Massachusetts pilot. But the higher materials cost of raising panels has kept "solar cattle" from taking hold yet. Goats have been tried, too, but they sometimes jump on panels and chew wires.
The winner among livestock so far has been calm, eat-anything-and-everything sheep. In fact, most of the members of the American Solar Grazing Association, founded in 2017, are shepherds. (Honeybees can be part of the mix with sheep, too.)
Researchers, like Dr. Barron-Gafford at the University of Arizona, are also studying how well crops grow under panels.
Dr. Barron-Gafford noticed that in the desert, saguaro cactuses spend their first 10 to 15 years growing in the shade of mesquite trees. Surmising that shade from solar panels could benefit crops, too, he has studied how agrivoltaic setups affected food yields and water usage in dryland areas. Among his findings: Chiltepin pepper plants yielded three times as much fruit, and tomatoes twice as much, under photovoltaic panels. They required less irrigation, and temperatures under panels where crops were growing were lower, too.
"You're seeing more and more solar installations out in rural areas," Dr. Barron-Gafford says. "We're seeing here that putting solar overhead can provide a consistent energy source, can reduce the water you need to use, and that food is giving back to your solar by helping keep it cool [through transpiration]."
Seeking Common Ground
Still, tensions remain between solar and agriculture. Farmers who lease the land they grow crops on often worry about their landlords renting it out to someone else, including solar farms. And rural residents may want to see their area hold onto its farming heritage. A California developer, Cypress Creek Renewables, riled up rural New York in 2016 when it mass-mailed farmers seeking leases on 20-plus acre fields.
Lewis Fox, co-founder of the American Solar Grazing Association, has found that involving animals helps solar skeptics lower their defenses. He'll bring lambs to a project open house and find locals open up a bit more. Often, he says, they find it reassuring that local land can stay in agriculture, even if solar is added.
"Solar in general is unfamiliar to people, and if you hear there's a large development coming to your town, people naturally get defensive, a little suspicious," Mr. Fox says. "There's support, but also a lot of concern. Once people come out to a site and see it being grazed, it kind of clicks. A well-managed grazing program on a site is very productive. It's not just throwing a few sheep out and letting them go wherever for a season. We can raise a lot of meat on an acre of raised panels. It's a serious form of agriculture."
Still, Mr. Fox has seen friends in the dairy industry lose leased land. Agrivoltaics can't ease all those tensions, he concedes. "I don't think setting up grazing contracts is going to paper over issues of people losing leased land," he says. "It's definitely important that developers are good actors working in ethical ways."
Another key to being received better, some solar developers say, could be not to "co-locate" solar and agriculture on the exact same parcels of land. "Instead of 100 acres of prime farmland, we should work with four farmers and use 25 acres of marginal farmland each," suggests Bill Jordan, founder and CEO of Jordan Energy & Food Enterprises LLC, an Albany-based company that specializes in on-farm photovoltaic placement.
Mr. Jordan argues that solar can actually help save farms more easily if panels are situated on the property's wetter, hillier farmland, or on roofs. "There's a lot of solar going in – it could push farmers out of farming, or diversify the family farm," he says.
First Came the Chickens
Mr. Henderson didn't know about agrivoltaics when he founded Geneva Peeps in 2015. His goal was simply to help local families raise chickens. Backyard coops aren't allowed in the Finger Lakes town of Geneva, New York, but he found industrial-zoned land where they'd be permitted.
Forty families now share weekly chicken-care shifts of 10 to 15 minutes. Ms. Augustine pedals over for her shift, and with her bike helmet still on, checks the hens' food and water. In return, she and fellow members get a dozen or more eggs at a time.
The year after launching, Mr. Henderson installed 44 kilowatts' worth of solar panels, both powering the operation and producing excess for the grid through net metering. There wasn't enough room on the chicken coops to install rooftop panels, but he did have more than an acre of land – more than 180 egg-layers really needed. Mr. Henderson wasn't aware of any similar farms combining solar and chickens, but he figured the project could be a local sustainability model.
"We knew they could all coexist together because there's no reason you can't have solar panels and chickens," Mr. Henderson says. "One of the hopes is this will give people an idea of a way you could do it."
This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Amanda Paulson
Just off Highway 880 at the edge of Hayward, the cityscape changes abruptly. Businesses and parking lots give way to large swaths of pickle grass and pools of water stretching out to the eastern edge of the San Francisco Bay.
On a recent sunny, windy March day – just before COVID-19 sent the Bay Area into lockdown – Dave Halsing stood on the trails at Eden Landing Ecological Reserve and pointed out what used to be old industrial salt ponds. He noted how they're gradually being restored into a rich mosaic of tidal wetlands and other ecosystems in the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.
Little by little, he explains, over 15,000 acres of salt ponds – largely ecological dead zones that had been transferred from industrial companies to the state – are being brought back to functional ecosystems. They provide important habitat for species like the Western snowy plover and California least tern, add recreational trails for Bay Area residents, and provide flood protection for the San Francisco Bay – a needed adaptation in an era of rising seas. "It's inspiring but challenging," says Mr. Halsing, the executive project manager.
The work to restore the Bay Area's tidal marshes is just one example of a strategy that has been gaining attention in the past few years from climate change experts. Often described as "nature-based climate solutions," this strategy encompasses a wide range of conservation and restoration approaches involving trees, mangroves, soil, and marshlands.
Many current projects – like the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project – have locally targeted goals: improved habitat for species or resilience to climate change-related events like hurricanes, floods, or fire. But investing in such approaches at a large scale has another potential benefit, too, say experts: harnessing the natural ability of trees, plants, and soil to store carbon.
"Nature figured out how to solve the toxic carbon dioxide problem 3 billion years ago when it invented photosynthesis, and we're trying to invent similar processes now to solve carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. So why not use nature," explains Peter Ellis, a forest carbon scientist with The Nature Conservancy, who co-authored a landmark study in 2017 showing that natural climate solutions could accomplish about one-third of the mitigation work required in the next decade to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
Could Planting One Trillion Trees Actually Work?
Those promoting natural climate solutions emphasize that it's just one piece of a puzzle that also requires a major shift away from fossil fuels and carbon-based energy. But many experts are seeing these natural solutions as low-hanging fruit that have yet to be tapped at a large scale.
In January, the World Economic Forum launched the ambitious One Trillion Trees initiative, with the goal of planting and conserving 1 trillion trees around the globe in the coming decade. Even President Donald Trump signed on.
The initiative has received some criticism, even among climate activists, who worry it's overly simplistic, takes emphasis off of the energy shift that needs to happen, and will encourage poorly conceived projects that might perpetuate other environmental issues.
And some climate experts have argued that the claims made by natural-solutions proponents in general are lofty and overly optimistic – that they couldn't come close to reducing carbon dioxide at the magnitude some studies have found.
But those debates, ultimately, are unproductive, says James Mulligan, a senior associate in the World Resources Institute's food, forests, and water program. Climate solutions, he notes, aren't a zero-sum game. Nature-based solutions won't ever be enough on their own, says Mr. Mulligan, but they have some big upsides, particularly that most are relatively low cost, some have more bipartisan appeal, and many are "win-win," with none of the "losers" that can be a byproduct of other strategies.
"The question for me is: would this help? And the answer is yes," says Mr. Mulligan. "Do I think we can restore a trillion trees to the planet? Probably not. ... In the U.S., our analysis shows we could restore 60 billion trees to the American landscape." That, he says, would be a "tall order," but would remove about a half a gigaton of CO2 per year.
"That's a meaningful wedge," he says. "And that's just one nature-based solution."
Protection Before Planting?
All trees – and all nature-based solutions – aren't created equal. And many advocates stress that it makes sense to focus on the ecosystems with the most to offer, or the methods that yield the biggest dividends.
"We need to protect first, to hold the line," says Mr. Ellis of The Nature Conservancy, explaining that he views good management of existing ecosystems as being even more important than restoration.
Certain ecosystems, like mangroves and peatlands, are of vital importance to conserve, says Will Turner, senior vice president of global strategies for Conservation International. In those ecosystems, the soil stores so much carbon that losing much more of it in coming years would be devastating, he says.
But to Dr. Turner, conservation and restoration are two sides of a coin, both necessary. Protecting critical ecosystems like tropical forests and mangroves that are being destroyed at a steady rate is crucial in terms of reducing current emissions, he says. But removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is also necessary, if there is any hope of keeping warming below 2 degrees Celsius.
"We have a long way to go before we have any technology that is capable of removing CO2 from the atmosphere at scale except trees," says Dr. Turner. "We'd be foolish not to invest incredibly heavily in regrowing forests."
Despite all the potential of natural climate solutions, most of the examples being tried so far are at a relatively small scale.
WRI's plan for 60 billion trees planted in the U.S. over the next 20 years, Mr. Mulligan notes, would require about $4 billion a year in federal subsidies. But many of these efforts are "happening at the pace and scale of the conservation sector," he says. And that figure, while relatively modest in terms of government spending, is far beyond what the nonprofit community can handle.
Dr. Turner, of Conservation International, agrees. What the conservation community has done well, he says, is shown how these projects can work, how technology can be used to monitor and verify emissions reductions, and how financial mechanisms can allow governments or corporations to invest in these strategies.
Discovering an Ecosystem in Every Backyard
Meanwhile, part of the beauty of nature-based solutions, Dr. Turner says, is that – while some may certainly have more payoff than others in terms of climate mitigation – "there is something that can happen anywhere. Every community has an option to protect a forest or grow a forest or protect a grassland, or to better manage grazing lands so you can get greater carbon stored in the soil."
And many of those solutions – like the marsh restoration taking place in the San Francisco Bay – offer significant local benefits that go far beyond potential emissions reduction: habitat for endangered species, cleaner air and water, recreation opportunities for residents, flood risk mitigation at a time of rising seas.
In the Bay Area, emissions mitigation isn't a real driver of the restoration work, and the carbon market for wetlands isn't as robust as that for forests. But that doesn't mean those benefits don't exist, says Letitia Grenier, co-director of the Resilient Landscapes Program for the San Francisco Estuary Institute.
In her role at the institute, Dr. Grenier looks for creative ways to harness the natural benefits of ecosystems in ways that work for both people and nature – and they are plentiful, she says.
"One of the things climate change has shown us is that we live in ecosystems," says Dr. Grenier. "Not only do we impact ecosystems, but our ecosystem impacts us." In many instances, she says, when she looks at, say, a large watershed, the system is essentially broken. Too many discordant elements have been introduced.
"Suddenly, our system is not working for us," says Dr. Grenier. "Climate change is creating the realization of that, and the opportunity to fix it."
This story originally appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.
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By Amanda Paulson
When Denis Hayes decided to join an environmental teach-in, he had no idea he was about to help launch a movement that would endure for half a century.
The year was 1969 and "there were things that were ripping America apart," Mr. Hayes recalls. He was a student at Harvard University and headed to Washington to offer help to Sen. Gaylord Nelson, who was planning the first Earth Day, scheduled for April 22, 1970.
Before long, Mr. Hayes had dropped out of Harvard and moved to Washington to be the organizer of the event. He found a surge of people eager "to find some things that hold us together," he says.
And it worked. Some 20 million people participated in the first Earth Day events, held in nearly every town and city in the United States. At the marquee event in New York, Fifth Avenue closed from Union Square to Central Park.
"I had never imagined addressing a crowd that would be so large I could not see the far edge of it," recalls Mr. Hayes. "It was like looking out at the ocean. The crowd extended over the horizon."
That moment was just the beginning. What started as a single day grew into a sustained movement that drew both Democrats and Republicans and launched a slew of legislation, from the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency to the adoption of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Toxic Substances Control Act, and the Superfund program.
The 50th Earth Day celebration this spring is global and – due to the emergence of COVID-19 – virtual. The focus of the event has shifted, from pollution to climate change. But the spirit remains the same.
Mr. Hayes recently looked back on that first Earth Day, its legacy, and lessons for today's activists. Here are some excerpts, edited for clarity and length, from that interview.
What Did the First Earth Day Change?
If you had gone around the United States in 1969 asking people what they thought about the environment, people mostly wouldn't have known what you were talking about. By the middle of 1970, something like 75% of all Americans called themselves environmentalists. There was a set of values – that had sort of been there and implicit, but not wrapped up together in any kind of definable boundary – that came to reshape the culture.
I grew up in a community that was dominated by a paper mill. It cranked out uncontrolled sulfur dioxide and hydrogen sulfide that became acid rain. And that was thought of as the smell of prosperity. We changed that.
There are now people who have chosen to live in a particular kind of location for environmental reasons. Who chose their automobile or bus commute for environmental reasons. There are people like me who chose to have one child for environmental reasons. Politicians got elected and defeated for environmental reasons. All of that happened in a relatively clear chain in the aftermath of Earth Day.
What Parallels Do You See With Today’s Environmental Activism?
In 1970, if you looked at a smokestack, you saw really ugly clouds of smoke coming out. With climate, of course, with CO2 – you can't see it, you can't smell it, you can't taste it. But what you can see are the effects of it. All of that makes it tangible and visible to people in a way that allows you to have a fair amount of momentum. And then, of course, you have the kids.
Social movements are almost always driven by youth. Historically, young has meant 20 or 22 or 25. Today, it's often 15 or 16. They have this intuitive sense that the world is getting bad at an accelerating pace and they want to do what they can to stop it. Part of what we're doing with Earth Day is answering the question Greta [Thunberg] always asks: Where are the adults?
We're going to be throwing some adults into the mix, who have filed some lawsuits, who know how to prepare legislation, who have worked with the technologies and know what you can do and what would be defying scientific principles. It has to be a broad societal effort, but to get the whole thing launched, as it has been, by the very young has really been a godsend.
What Role Can Environmental Activists of the 1970s Play Today?
I don't want to overstate this, but there was an idealism that was pretty widespread in the '60s and '70s. And those of us who were there then have now moved into positions of some power, some influence. Some have retired and now have some leisure. I'm seeing a fair amount of evidence that that idealism is starting to resurface.
That idealism came from the young and is beginning to spread to the old, to the seniors who have this fair amount of remaining authority over the economy. It's been less effective with the politicians. But where in 1970 it was environmentalists working hand in glove with politicians to try to put some constraints on the irresponsible behavior of the corporations, there's a trace now of environmentalists working with the most enlightened corporate leaders to put some constraints around the politicians.
How Do You Find Optimism?
My biggest worry about the kids is that most of what they're facing are these gloom-and-doom stories, which are all very real. But they have to also recognize that there are well-founded reasons for hope.
You will never be able to generate a movement if you don't have hope. You can't have a civil rights movement unless you think you can prevail. You won't have an anti-war movement unless you think you can end the war.
And you won't have a climate movement unless you can build a safe, healthy, resilient, beautiful society that isn't dependent on fossil fuels.
A number of things have changed faster than anybody thought was possible: the rapidly declining costs of solar technologies, of offshore wind technologies, of battery technologies, of electric vehicles.
Hope is often an act of will. I have a daughter, and my daughter has a daughter, so now I have a granddaughter. I can't dodder off into my twilight years hopeless. There has to be an ability to have society make the necessary choices.
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When United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres decided to hold a high-level climate summit in conjunction with this year's General Assembly kicking off next week, he was well aware of the paradox of his initiative.
In essence, he would be calling on the world's leaders to take part in a decidedly multilateral event addressing what many experts and ordinary people – especially the world's youth – consider to be the most urgent issue facing humanity. Yet he would be doing so at a time when global impulses have turned sharply away from multilateral action.
Mr. Guterres' answer was to try to tap into global trends rather than fight them.
Rather than trying to get the U.N.'s 193 member states – big and small, rich and poor, developed and developing – to agree to the same goals, Monday's summit will focus on individual countries: how each is addressing the climate crisis, and how each can do more.
Whether it's big carbon emitters acting to reduce their footprint, or small contributors to the problem taking big steps to adapt to the impact of climate change, the focus will be on the actions that countries are taking – to mitigate the human activities leading to rising temperatures, and, increasingly, to adapt to the impact.
Instead of a blame game, more chronicling of the dire consequences of climate change, or pursuit of global accord on a crisis that more of humanity is experiencing firsthand each year, the idea is to encourage action.
Thus Monday's summit will showcase the most promising innovations for limiting the projected global temperature rise, highlight best practices and progress in adapting to what's already happening, and encourage their wider implementation.
"Paris is an agreement negotiated among member states, and it is a great achievement," says Luis Alfonso de Alba, the secretary-general's special envoy for the climate summit, referring to the 2015 international climate accord aimed at curtailing global carbon emissions and thus limiting the rise in global temperatures. "But we are not any longer at the stage of negotiation," he says. "Now we are at the stage of implementation, and in implementation the role of multilateralism is very different."
The focus now is less on talk and more on action, "finding ways for all the members of the U.N. family to coordinate much better and turn to implementation," Mr. de Alba adds, "in an effort that goes country by country and encompasses all regions of the world."
Aides to Mr. Guterres say the U.N. leader is "well aware" of the turn against conventional multilateralism and the challenge that presents to efforts to address any global issue. Yet while U.N. officials note with a certain sense of relief that Monday's summit will not rise or fall based on a negotiated outcome or any one country's participation, they also underscore the urgency of the crisis that compelled the secretary-general to find a way to keep climate at the top of the global agenda.
"It's quite evident the political will is still lacking – if you compare [today] to where we were at the time of Paris, it's not at its best," says Mr. de Alba, a Mexican diplomat whom Mr. Guterres tapped in part because of his experience with climate diplomacy as far back as the failed 2009 Copenhagen summit.
"That lack of political will is one of the reasons for this summit," he says. "We need to correct that."
New Commitments Required
But not with a big come-together negotiating session. Instead, Mr. Guterres sent out invitations to world leaders offering them a turn on the coveted U.N. global stage – but only if it is for the purpose of making new commitments to the climate fight: new emissions reductions, mitigation actions such as reforestation, or commitments to implement innovative ideas for adapting to the impacts of climate change.
The focus on action coincides with Mr. Guterres' call for countries to update – meaning above all to increase – their Paris agreement commitments, known in U.N. bureaucratese as NDCs, or "nationally determined contributions."
Over the past months that Mr. Guterres has dispatched his climate summit envoy around the world to galvanize global action, the urgency of the crisis has become only more evident. Scientific reports are finding even faster global temperature increases than anticipated, and accelerated polar ice-sheet melting is leading to faster ocean-level rises. The frequency of once-in-a-generation severe weather events has accelerated.
Yet despite the seemingly daily onslaught of bad and even frightening news, Mr. de Alba has infused his globe-trotting with specific language that highlights the positive arguments for taking action and the motivational aspects of addressing a global existential crisis by tapping into the human spirit.
He speaks of the "opportunities of action." For example: the economic activity generated by a shift to renewable energy resources, the rising living standards that can accompany developing countries' efforts to shift to sustainable development, and the benefits for all, including private enterprise, of spreading the "tools for climate action" to all corners of the globe.
"There are opportunities associated with changing the trajectory we are on, and governments need to be more aware of that and more active in implementing the tools for climate action," Mr. de Alba says.
Asked for examples, he cites two without hesitation: how solar and wind energy-production projects have enabled developing countries to take electricity to some of their more remote and least-served areas, enabling more children to attend lighted schools (and to study after the sun goes down) and small farmers to become more efficient and productive; and how in the decade since the Copenhagen summit, renewable energy sources have gone from the distant and prohibitively expensive ideal to the less expensive option (compared with fossil fuels) for a rapidly growing portion of humanity.
"We see that a virtuous cycle is developing," he says, "where [governments] are looking at the opportunities and benefits for their people" in taking aggressive action to reduce emissions and to adapt to the changes already occurring.
Another encouraging sign that Mr. de Alba says has justified promoting the climate action summit in positive and encouraging terms rather than with dire and depressing admonitions is the development of a global youth movement for climate action. In recognition of that movement, the U.N. will hold a youth climate summit Saturday that will draw activists as young as teenagers from across the globe who are imagining and implementing ways of addressing climate change at the grassroots level.
Aides to Mr. Guterres say he remains "sanguine" in part because of the way nongovernmental actors – from civil society and youth activists to private businesses – are pressing sometimes lagging governments to do more. They note the U.N. chief likes to cite the case of the United States – a major emitter where states and municipalities are joining large corporations, environmental activists, and climate scientists to take action, even as the federal government lags behind.
As a good emissary should, Mr. de Alba reflects the chief's goals and outlook, including his optimism.
Yes, after some initial post-Paris successes, global carbon emissions are again on the rise. And yes, signals are flashing that the wide-ranging effects of climate change are strengthening and accelerating. As Mr. Guterres told journalists at the U.N. recently, "We are in a race, and right now we're losing that race."
That's why the U.N. chief insisted on calling a climate action summit even if the global winds have turned against multilateral action, Mr. de Alba says.
But the conviction that the race can still be won, through action and redoubled commitment by every country, is also what justifies a sense of optimism, he says.
Howard LaFranchi has been the Monitor's diplomacy correspondent in DC since 2001. Previously, he spent 12 years as a reporter in the field; serving five years as the Monitor's Paris bureau chief from 1989 to 1994, and as a Latin America correspondent in Mexico City from 1994 to 2001.
This story originally appeared in Christian Science Monitor. It is republished here as part of EcoWatch's partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.