By Jeff Turrentine
The COVID-19 pandemic has redefined our priorities. Everyone right now is — or should be — concerned first and foremost with keeping themselves, their loved ones, and their communities safe. And when nearly the entire world shifts into triage mode, as it has over the past several weeks, it's hard for many of us to focus on anything else beyond making it through the day and preparing for the next one.
But there are some people who look out at a nation of frightened, grief-stricken, or otherwise preoccupied souls and see an opportunity to get away with something they otherwise wouldn't be able to. A fair number of these opportunists, alas, work within the Trump administration. And over the past few weeks, these officials have been busy checking items off of the fossil fuel industry's wish list — and hoping that most of us won't notice.
It's hard to pick the most egregious example of recent administrative wrongdoing; each is horrible in its own special way. So let's just start with the most brazen. On March 26, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that it would be easing enforcement of a wide swath of legally mandated environmental protections during the COVID-19 crisis, citing "consequences [that] may affect the ability of an operation to meet enforceable limitations on air emissions and water discharges, requirements for the management of hazardous waste, or requirements to ensure and provide safe drinking water." Henceforth, if a regulated business can plausibly blame the pandemic for its noncompliance with monitoring or reporting obligations, the EPA will waive any fines and/or civil penalties for violators. Rules that require the monitoring, recording, and reporting of emissions and pollution data have for decades been one of the few ways that Americans could learn about how industrial activity is affecting their communities and their health. Now, should a facility decide that it would rather not be so transparent, it doesn't have to be.
For how long, you ask? Well, for as long as the pandemic lasts. And how long might that be — from an official, governmental standpoint? Right now, we have no idea. Meanwhile, the scientific and public health communities are buzzing over an alarming new report from the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health that suggests COVID-19 may be more deadly in populations that have faced higher long-term exposure to fine-particle air pollution. Inviting industry to spew more air pollution into our communities right now certainly isn't the best way for the EPA to respond to this historic public health crisis.
The agency's announcement of this indefinite relaxation of environmental protections came only three days after the American Petroleum Institute — the ridiculously powerful trade association that lobbies for the interests of our nation's oil and gas industry — sent a letter to EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler pleading for the same. Other industries with oversize carbon footprints that received similar "relief" weren't even necessarily asking for it. Five days after the EPA's move, on March 31, President Trump decided that the time was right to finalize his rollbacks of Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. Even though most automakers had already come to terms with the previous mandate of increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025 — several were even embracing a similar plan — the president saw fit not only to lower the annual increase in fuel efficiency from 5 percent to 1.5 percent, but also to give automakers more time to reach this weaker threshold.
So, what's in it for consumers? Higher fuel costs, lower air quality, and more climate change. By the Trump administration's own estimates, the rollback could result in drivers purchasing nearly 78 billion more gallons of gas per year, increasing atmospheric CO2 by 867 million metric tons.
That the U.S. government is taking advantage of the public's distraction to push through agenda items that would, under normal conditions, be hotly debated or even aggressively opposed is what makes these anti-environment stunts so galling. In Alaska, where Governor Mike Dunleavy has issued a stay-at-home order and cracked down on travel within the state, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is proceeding as planned with a major expansion of the ConocoPhillips Willow project. This would add up to five new drilling sites and more than 260 miles of pipeline to the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska on land adjacent to the Native Alaskan Nuiqsut community, which is already surrounded on all sides by oil fields. The next stage of the project, as it happens, is the public review process. With workplaces shuttered, travel banned, schools closed, grocery-store shelves depleted, and everyday life for Alaskans massively disrupted, the BLM (with the hearty support of ConocoPhillips) has nevertheless seen fit to place this expansion in the "business as usual" category.
"As we look to public and private health experts to end this pandemic, the BLM recognizes that it has important, statutory duties to perform," a spokesperson for the agency recently told E&E News. It would be one thing if the White House was sincerely trying to conduct the people's business while the people themselves were temporarily incapacitated. But in a handful of agencies, at least, that's not what seems to be happening. What's being conducted during this terrible crisis seems to be more along the lines of unfinished business — or even funny business. Memo to the executive branch: Bad faith is a bad look.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
By Jeff Turrentine
From day to day, our public health infrastructure — the people and systems we've put in place to keep populations, as opposed to individuals, healthy — largely goes unnoticed. That's because when it's working well, its success takes the form of utter normalcy.
Never mind that a vast number of people from a wide variety of fields — science, medicine, law, engineering, education, advocacy, and public policy — must work tirelessly (and often thanklessly) to grace our everyday lives with that blissful sense of normalcy. If you pour and drink a glass of tap water, head outside to take in some fresh air, then come home and prepare dinner, you can thank a public health worker for making every step of that routine healthier.
But there are times when we suddenly become very aware of just how well our public health systems are, or aren't, working. Today, in the midst of a pandemic, we're living through one of these moments. Our public health infrastructure is being tested. And as the COVID-19 crisis continues to intensify, it has become glaringly apparent in most parts of the country that this infrastructure is underfunded and overstressed.
A Washington Post article from two weeks ago, written before "social distancing" became part of our lingua franca, explored some of the reasons why. Because public health infrastructure targets the entire populace, the article observed, its mission "has been consistently overlooked in a country that puts a premium — and spends more money per capita than any other — on treating individual sick people. Its victories are soon taken for granted." The author cites figures from a 2019 paper published in the American Journal of Public Health showing that our country's investment in public health is currently $19 per person annually. According to experts in the field, that's $13 less than what it should be.
Meanwhile, we Americans spend, on average, almost $11,000 per person annually on treatments for the various diseases and conditions that routinely befall us. When people complain about the oppressive costs of health care, it's this back-end spending that they're talking about. But guess what? The country could lower these costs significantly by making smarter investments at the front end — i.e., spending more to protect the health of the public as a whole.
"There's a real need for people to see how the public health agenda directly protects everyone's well-being by addressing the root causes of disease and early death," said Vijay Limaye, an environmental health scientist at NRDC's Science Center. Investments in public health also help to make individuals more resilient. As an example, Limaye noted that "our country's progress on cleaning up air pollution has sharply reduced the burden of disease, including heart and lung conditions that put certain people at higher risk of severe illness from the coronavirus."
And right now, as local and state officials struggle to persuade some in their communities to heed the warnings against gathering in groups, another aspect of our public health infrastructure has risen in importance: communication. Few Americans knew what "flatten the curve" or "social distancing" meant three weeks ago. But thanks to creative, relentless messaging and the power of the internet and social media, Limaye said, "we're able to get the word out about the urgent need to slow down the rate of infections and better equip our health-care professionals on the front lines."
Though President Trump and some state officials have expressed impatience with social distancing measures that have closed businesses and caused unemployment to soar, there's little question that these are effective strategies for slowing transmission rates. Kinsa, a health technology company that makes digital thermometers and tabulates data on its customers' readings and reported symptoms, said the number of people exhibiting flulike symptoms such as fever began dropping precipitously and immediately after social distancing rules went into effect in places like New York City and Northern California. The same data set also reveals that incidences of flulike illness increased in cities and regions that were late in taking action, such as South Florida.
In the gap between those two trajectories, we see the difference between a robust, nimble public health response and an ill-prepared or hesitant one. And when you compare nations, the importance of early and accurate data collection — combined with powerful, consistent messaging — becomes even more apparent. South Korea was hit hard by the coronavirus in late February and early March, at one point reporting almost 1,000 new cases in a single 24-hour period. But thanks to a national strategy that has emphasized testing, social distancing, self-isolation, and GPS- and cell-phone-aided tracking and communication, this country of almost 52 million people reported only 64 new cases on Monday.
That's how public health infrastructure is supposed to work in the midst of a pandemic. "Other countries like South Korea are miles ahead of the United States on early and aggressive disease tracking and targeted health-risk communication, using things like location-based phone applications," Limaye said. "It's time that we harness 21st-century tools to better protect our citizens. In the year 2020, the public demands timely, transparent, and trusted information. There's simply no excuse for delays or deficiencies in reporting testing and health data."
But that, of course, would require a much greater investment than what America is currently making. In the 2019 paper on public health spending mentioned above, the authors recommended creating a $4.5 billion public health infrastructure fund that could generate new, permanent resources for state and local governments across the country. That probably sounded like a lot of money to any legislators who bothered to read the report when it came out. But now lawmakers are hashing out the final details of a $2 trillion relief package designed to save an economy that's been ravaged by the rapid spread of a dangerous communicable disease.
Let's hope it helps. And let's hope that all of us come to understand the importance of social distancing, hand washing, and other strategies for combating the spread of the coronavirus — strategies brought to you by the highly informed, highly dedicated public health professionals who are always looking out for us, 24/7, whether we're struggling through a pandemic or just going about our day.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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Through net metering programs, homeowners who have installed solar energy systems can get utility credits for any electricity their panels generate during the day that isn't used to power home systems. These credits can be "cashed in" to offset the cost of any grid electricity used at night.
Where net metering is available, solar panels have a shorter payback period and yield a higher return on investment. Without this benefit, you only save on power bills when using solar energy directly, and surplus generation is lost unless you store it in a solar battery. However, net metering gives you the option of selling any excess electricity that is not consumed within your home.
Generally, you will see more home solar systems in places with favorable net metering laws. With this benefit, going solar becomes an attractive investment even for properties with minimal daytime consumption. Homeowners can turn their roofs into miniature power plants during the day, and that generation is subtracted from their nighttime consumption.
What Is Net Metering?
Net metering is a billing arrangement in which surplus energy production from solar panels is tracked by your electricity provider and subtracted from your monthly utility bill. When your solar power system produces more kilowatt-hours of electricity than your home is consuming, the excess generation is fed back into the grid.
For homeowners with solar panels, the benefits of net metering include higher monthly savings and a shorter payback period. Utility companies also benefit, since the excess solar electricity can be supplied to other buildings on the same electric grid.
If a power grid relies on fossil fuels, net metering also increases the environmental benefits of solar power. Even if a building does not have an adequate area for rooftop solar panels, it can reduce its emissions by using the surplus clean energy from other properties.
How Net Metering Works
There are two general ways net metering programs work:
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your utility company, and a credit is posted to your account that can be applied to future power bills.
- The surplus energy produced by your solar panels is measured by your home's electricity meter. Modern power meters can measure electricity flow in both directions, so they tick up when you pull from the grid at night and count down when your solar panels are producing an excess amount of electricity.
In either scenario, at the end of the billing period, you will only pay for your net consumption — the difference between total consumption and generation. This is where the term "net metering" comes from.
How Does Net Metering Affect Your Utility Bill?
Net metering makes solar power systems more valuable for homeowners, as you can "sell" any extra energy production to your utility company. However, it's important to understand how charges and credits are managed:
- You can earn credits for your surplus electricity, but utility companies will not cut you a check for the power you provide. Instead, they will subtract the credits from your power bills.
- If your net metering credit during the billing period is higher than your consumption, the difference is rolled over to the next month.
- Some power companies will roll over your credit indefinitely, but many have a yearly expiration date that resets your credit balance.
With all of this in mind, it is possible to reduce your annual electricity cost to zero. You can accumulate credit with surplus generation during the sunny summer months, and use it during winter when solar generation decreases.
You will achieve the best results when your solar power system has just the right capacity to cover your annual home consumption. Oversizing your solar array is not recommended, as you will simply accumulate a large unused credit each year. In other words, you cannot overproduce and charge your power company each month.
Some power companies will let you pick the expiration date of your annual net metering credits. If you have this option, it's wise to set the date after winter has ended. This way, you can use all the renewable energy credits you accumulated during the summer.
Is Net Metering Available Near You?
Net metering offers a valuable incentive for homeowners to switch to solar power, but these types of programs are not available everywhere. Net metering laws can change depending on where you live.
In the U.S., there are mandatory net metering laws in 38 states and Washington, D.C. Most states without a mandate have power companies that voluntarily offer the benefit in their service areas. South Dakota and Tennessee are the only two states with no version of net metering or similar programs.
If net metering is available in your area, you will be credited for your surplus energy in one of two ways:
- Net metering at retail price: You get full credit for each kilowatt-hour sent to the grid. For example, if you're charged 16 cents per kWh consumed, you'll get a credit of 16 cents per kWh exported. This type of net metering is required by law in 29 states.
- Net metering at a reduced feed-in tariff: Surplus electricity sent to the grid is credited at a lower rate. For example, you may be charged 16 cents per kWh for consumption but paid 10 cents per kWh exported. Feed-in tariffs and other alternative programs are used in 17 of the states where retail-rate net metering is not mandatory.
Note: This is just a simplified example — the exact kWh retail price and solar feed-in tariff will depend on your electricity plan.
The Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE) is an excellent resource if you want to learn more about net metering and other solar power incentives in your state. You can also look for information about solar incentives by visiting the official websites of your state government and utility company.
Other Financial Incentives for Going Solar
Net metering policies are one of the most effective incentives for solar power. However, there are other financial incentives that can be combined with net metering to improve your ROI:
- The federal solar tax credit lets you claim 26% of your solar installation costs as a tax deduction. For example, if your solar installation had a cost of $10,000, you can claim $2,600 on your next tax declaration. This benefit is available everywhere in the U.S.
- State tax credits may also be available depending on where you live, and they can be claimed in addition to the federal incentive.
- Solar rebates are offered by some state governments and utility companies. These are upfront cash incentives subtracted directly from the cost of your solar PV system.
In addition to seeking out solar incentives available to you, you should compare quotes from multiple installers before signing a solar contract. This will ensure you're getting the best deal available and help you avoid overpriced offers and underpriced, low-quality installations. You can start getting quotes from top solar companies near you by filling out the 30-second form below.
Frequently Asked Questions: Solar Net Metering
Why is net metering bad?
When managed correctly, net metering is beneficial for electricity consumers and power companies. There have been cases in which power grids lack the capacity to handle large amounts of power coming from homes and businesses. However, this is an infrastructure issue, not a negative aspect of net metering itself.
In places with a high percentage of homes and businesses using solar panels, surplus generation on sunny days can saturate the grid. This can be managed by modernizing the grid to handle distributed solar power more effectively with load management and energy storage systems.
How does net metering work?
With net metering, any electricity your solar panels produce that isn't used to power your home is fed into your local power grid. Your utility company will pay you for this power production through credits that can be applied to your monthly energy bills.
Can you make money net metering?
You can reduce your power bills with net metering, using surplus solar generation to compensate for your consumption when you can't generate solar power at night and on cloudy days. However, most power companies will not pay you for surplus production once your power bill has dropped to $0. Normally, that credit will be rolled over, to be used in months where your solar panels are less productive.
On very rare occasions, you may be paid for the accumulated balance over a year. However, this benefit is offered by very few electric companies and is subject to limitations.
By Jeff Turrentine
Back in 2017, a few weeks before Donald Trump became the most powerful individual in the world, a New Yorker cartoon by Will McPhail did what the best New Yorker cartoons do: It made you laugh, and then — once you stopped laughing — it made you think. Trump had just won the presidency in part by redefining populism as the belief that experience and expertise should count for far less than ideology and intensity. Without mentioning him by name, and without even making reference to politics for that matter, McPhail managed to capture the frustration and anxiety that millions were feeling.
One from this week's @NewYorker. Hello politics, my names Will. https://t.co/5LfNYnOgMA— Will McPhail (@Will McPhail)1483360496.0
More than that, though, the cartoon — like the 2016 election itself — seemed to augur the widening of a troubling cultural fissure. (Note how most of the cartoon mutineer's fellow passengers are raising their hands in support of him.) On one side of this divide are those Americans who continue to put their faith in experts. On the other are those who've had quite enough of the people who know what they're doing, thank you very much, and think it's high time to give someone else a chance.
For the past three years, this antagonism toward expertise has been put into practice across the federal government, with the purging of military experts from a Pentagon advisory panel, the firing of cybersecurity experts from the Department of Homeland Security, and the ousting of members of the National Security Council's pandemic response team — a decision that now seems momentous as the country scrambles to address the growing number of COVID-19 infections.
Scientific expertise has been especially devalued. As the Washington Post reported in January, "hundreds of scientists across the federal government … have been forced out, sidelined, or muted since President Trump took office," in a mass exodus "fueled broadly by administration policies that have diminished the role of science." Currently, 20 percent of high-level scientific appointee positions are vacant, with some of the biggest losses being felt among soil scientists, hydrologists, and experts in chemistry and geology. Nearly 700 scientists have left the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) over the past three years, the Post notes; so far, the administration has only replaced half of them.
One way that the administration has carried out this unprecedented purge of talent is through the relocation of personnel within agencies. Last week, the Hill reported that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has now lost more than half of its Washington, DC–based employees, who were slated to move to western states as part of a larger relocation effort that also includes shifting the agency's headquarters to Grand Junction, Colorado. According to internal numbers obtained by the Hill, 87 BLM staffers opted to quit rather than make the move, leaving only 80 employees who say they will relocate.
As I wrote last summer, when the relocation plan was first announced, many people — including several former BLM directors — believed that these resignations are all part of a strategy to weaken the agency to the point where it eventually just dissolves. A defunct BLM would potentially cede its responsibilities and assets to individual states that would welcome the opportunity to control the hundreds of millions of acres currently under the agency's purview. One of these former directors, Steve Ellis, told the Hill last week that the loss of so many top-level BLM employees, in whom so much institutional memory and specialized knowledge reside, represents "a huge brain drain … there is a lot of really solid expertise walking out the door."
When experts become enemies, science itself becomes suspect. Last week, the Trump administration also doubled down on a proposed rule that would make it far easier for the EPA to disregard findings from public health studies in its policy making. Despite widespread condemnation from scientists and public health experts — many of whom voiced their concerns during a public-comment period that drew more than 600,000 responses, the overwhelming majority of which were negative — the EPA has decided not only to keep the rule but to expand it, making it even more attractive to industry polluters and more dangerous to everyday Americans. If EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler has his way, the agency would be able to ignore solid, peer-reviewed scientific studies simply because they don't make all their underlying data publicly available — information such as private health records of participants. The EPA's selection criteria would be advantageously murky and, perhaps most disturbingly, it could apply the rule retroactively, allowing it to reject huge amounts of research that underpin current environmental protections, such as air pollution limits.
We've never needed science — or scientists — more than we do right now. From climate change to coronavirus, people all over the world are looking to experts for answers to questions that aren't academic but urgent. At a time like this, leadership is defined by the ability to acknowledge expertise, accept facts and science, and plan accordingly. To reject the insight and input of experts at this moment, or any moment, isn't populist. It's perverse. Ideology can draw huge crowds, harden divisions, and drive people to extremes. But it can't fly a plane.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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By Jason Bittel
When you walk into the tropical rainforest room at the National Aviary in Pittsburgh, the first thing you'll probably notice are the hyacinth macaws perched in mango trees. The feathers of these massive parrots are so impossibly blue that the birds look like birthday party piñatas. And the first thing you'll likely hear is the trill of the much tinier laughing thrushes as they swoop from tall cacao plants to the indoor-jungle floor. But watch out for Gus! He's the blue-headed great argus pheasant who likes to commandeer the walkway while unfurling his four-foot-tall fan of feathers in an attempt to woo female pheasants.
In all, there are 90 tropical birds in this lush and misty room, representing 32 species from all over the world. But in the midst of all this avian splendor, there's one bird you aren't likely to set eyes upon: the Guam rail. They're in there — I just doubt you'll spot one.
"We can't make a liar out of me," said Kurt Hundgen, the aviary's director of Animal Collections as he scours the understory looking for the small, dirt-colored birds. Not seeing any, Hundgen purses his lips and whistles out a few short calls of rail-speak. "There are nine rails in here!" he laughs. None answer his calls.
Unfortunately, the rail is even more difficult to find in its native habitat on the Micronesian island of Guam. Impossible, actually. This is because sometime in the mid-1900s, brown tree snakes made their way onto the island, likely stowed away in cargo delivered by a U.S. Navy supply ship. And once these lithe, narrow-necked serpents made landfall, they started gobbling up every native species in sight. Prior to the snakes' arrival, Guam had no large predators that would eat eggs or chicks. So it took just a few decades before 9 of Guam's 11 native species of forest-dwelling birds disappeared for good down the snakes' gullets. In 1987, the Guam rail was added to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's (IUCN) ignoble list of species considered extinct in the wild.
But there is some good news. Just before the species left this world entirely, scientists managed to capture 21 rails and create a captive breeding program on Guam and at several mainland American institutions, including the National Aviary. The breeding program has performed so well that new populations of Guam rails have been reintroduced to the nearby islands of Cocos and Rota. These islands never had rails, but they also don't have any snakes, which makes them ideal sanctuaries for Guam rails. And with just 60 birds on Cocos and 200 on Rota, Hundgen says there are no indications that the birds are becoming an invasive species themselves.
To date, Pittsburgh has provided 39 birds. That's more than any other Association of Zoos and Aquariums institution, Hundgen points out proudly.
The IUCN announced at the end of last year that the continued survival of the breeding program's birds justified relisting the species as critically endangered — a step up from extinct in the wild. Guam rails are only the second bird in history to accomplish this feat. The other is the California condor, North America's largest bird. The condor's numbers plummeted in the last century due to poaching, lead poisoning, and habitat loss. If not for extreme conservation interventions, both the California condor and the Guam rail would no longer be around.
The rails were lucky in that they breed well in captivity, but reproduction is just part of the story. To successfully reintroduce an animal to the wild, you also have to prepare it for what it will face there. Hundgen believes Pittsburgh's tropical enclosure has been especially beneficial on that score. The rails' wild-like tropical rainforest habitat is 80 feet long, 40 feet wide, and 60 feet tall, allowing them to constantly interact with other birds as well as to practice defending their territories from other rails — just like they would do in a real forest.
As if to demonstrate this visually, an aviculturist named Danielle Minkus appears below the raised walkway where Hundgen and I are talking and starts flinging handfuls of mealworms into the leaf litter. Almost immediately, half a dozen long-legged birds with black and white underbellies begin to materialize from the dark understory. They find and snatch up the mealworms Minkus tosses so quickly, I find myself wondering how a snake would ever be able to catch one of them.
But that would be underestimating the brown tree snake. These suckers can grow longer than 10 feet, are excellent climbers, and pack a venomous bite. Most unfortunately, they have next to nothing keeping their numbers in check on Guam.
"At one point, there were so many snakes on Guam that they were causing electrical outages on a daily basis," says Scott Boback, an animal ecologist at Dickinson College. This happens when a large snake turns itself into a living conductor by trying to move between a power line and a tree branch.
Oddly, acetaminophen is the snake's kryptonite, with just a small dose able to disrupt its blood's ability to carry oxygen. Scientists like Boback have found that dropping pills glued to dead mice from helicopters flying over fenced-off areas can actually put a considerable dent in the local snake populations. Still, as Boback showed in a recent study, when just a handful of snakes remain, it is nearly impossible to find them. Which means it may never be safe for the Guam rail to return to Guam.
So prevention on the rails' new islands is "absolutely paramount," said Boback. To that end, the U.S. Geological Survey has installed snake-proof fencing all around the port on Rota — the only such structure on Earth.
To contribute to the effort of returning these birds to the wild has been rewarding, said Hundgen, but we shouldn't lose sight of just how much time, effort, and money it takes to bring a species back from the brink. "You can bring a species back. It can happen," he said, as the aviary's nine rails disappear back into the underbrush. "But it's 35 years later. It took 35 years to get that."
Honestly, it's incredible that we still have Guam rails at all, Hundgen said. "It'll probably go down in the conservation history books."
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
Well, he told us he would do it. And now he's actually doing it — or at least trying to. Late last week, President Trump, via the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Land Management, announced that he was formalizing his plan to develop lands that once belonged within the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in southern Utah. The former is a stunningly beautiful, ecologically fragile landscape that has played a crucial role in Native American culture in the Southwest for thousands of years; the latter, just as beautiful, is one of the richest and most important paleontological sites in North America.
The Trump administration would allow drilling, mining, and other highly disruptive forms of development to take place on millions of acres that are of immense and unquestionable scientific, cultural, and religious significance. This significance is what compelled President Bill Clinton to designate Grand Staircase-Escalante a national monument back in 1996, and what led President Barack Obama to bestow the same designation on Bears Ears two decades later.
On the one hand, the new plan comes as no surprise: In December 2017, Trump reduced the size of Bears Ears by roughly 85 percent, and Grand Staircase-Escalante by half. On the other hand, it came as a huge surprise, in that a great many legal experts contend that Trump's resizing of the monuments is illegal, and, furthermore, believe that the courts — which are still in the midst of determining the move's legality — are likely to agree.
Normally, when your big plans are tied up in litigation and could come crashing down at any moment with the sweep of a judge's gavel, you err on the side of prudence and resist the urge to forge ahead. Not this president. In a phone call with reporters last week, Casey Hammond, the Interior Department's acting assistant secretary for land and minerals management, revealed the thinking behind his boss's decision. "If we stopped and waited for every piece of litigation to be resolved," he said, "we would never be able to do much of anything around here."
Talk about saying the quiet part out loud. The administration can't possibly know how the courts will rule, which leaves just one explanation: It doesn't care how they will rule. Procedural due process may be fine for others, Trump and his Interior Department have concluded, but it's just not their thing. They're not going to wait around for some judge to tell them what they can or can't do.
But let's set the legal question aside for a moment, and instead explore the moral question that applies. For the tribes and pueblos of the region, Bears Ears is hallowed ground, and has been for many centuries. In the words of Jim Enote, CEO of the Colorado Plateau Foundation, the land "is a touchstone for the Zuni people. The Zuni people go to the Bears Ears area to pay respect to our ancestors in a way that is not very different from people going to a cemetery and paying respect to their family members." In Obama's proclamation designating Bears Ears a national monument, he spent more than 4,000 words vividly detailing the history and grandeur of the land, linking its sacredness to its pristine natural beauty. Federal protection, he wrote, would "preserve its cultural, prehistoric, and historic legacy and maintain its diverse array of natural and scientific resources, ensuring that the prehistoric, historic, and scientific values of this area remain for the benefit of all Americans."
Can you imagine the Trump administration — or any administration, for that matter — redrawing, by executive fiat, the boundaries of Arlington National Cemetery or the Lincoln Memorial to accommodate the desires of drilling, mining, and other extractive industries? It's unthinkable. And yet this administration exhibits no compunction about grievously assaulting the lands, culture, and religious practices of Native Americans. "When the monument was reduced, it made us think, again, we have given so much to this nation and we are receiving so little in return," Enote told National Geographic magazine.
The decision goes well beyond disrespect. It's desecration. It's an act openly contemptuous of both the five tribes' heritage and that of all Americans. These lands, and the stories that they tell and the ways of life they sustain, are part of our country's collective story and they deserve protection.
Trump's plan's also, like so many of his other gambits, legally unsound. If President Trump believes that recklessly moving forward on this act of administrative vandalism is going to somehow intimidate the courts or the coalition that has risen up in defense of Bears Ears and Grand-Staircase Escalante, he's in for a surprise.
Jeff Turrentine is the Culture & Politics columnist at NRDC's onEarth. A former reporter for The Washington Post, he has also written for Slate, The New York Times, and The Los Angeles Times.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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By Jeff Turrentine
By fourth or fifth grade, most American schoolchildren have learned about the water cycle. They come to appreciate water's elegant efficiency as it moves from phase to phase: journeying from sea to sky to land and back out to sea again, supporting all life on earth along its transmutative path. I still smile at the memory of my own daughter excitedly sharing with me what she'd discovered about the water cycle at school, the way her voice rose as she informed me that "all the water is connected!" The idea that the substance making up the world's creeks, streams, rivers, lakes and oceans was the very same stuff — literally, the same molecules — as what she found in her bath, or in a snowman, or coming out of a water fountain ... well, it just blew her little mind.
My daughter, now 10, is both smart and intellectually curious, and I'm as proud of her as I can be. But it unnerves me to think that she understands the fundamentals of hydrology better than President Trump or U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew Wheeler. What else but ignorance could be behind the Navigable Waters Protection Rule, the Trump EPA's most recent act of environmental policy nullification? There's just no way to interpret this egregious attack on water safety that doesn't point to a fundamental misunderstanding of how water operates within an ecosystem. Unless, of course, Trump and Wheeler do understand the science and simply don't care, having decided that appeasing corporate polluters is more important to them than protecting the nation's waterways, including the increasingly vulnerable sources of our drinking water.
Wait. Hold on a second.
OMG: Could that actually be the case?
In 2015, President Obama's EPA issued the Clean Water Rule (sometimes known as the Waters of the United States Rule, or WOTUS for short), a long-overdue updating of the 1972 Clean Water Act that reflected new science showing how important streams and wetlands are to the larger system of so-called navigable waterways, a group that includes rivers and lakes. The decision to clarify the rule so that the act would protect smaller, non-navigable waterways acknowledged the intimate connections among waterways of all kinds. And while a 10-year-old kid might not be able to parse the legal and technical language behind the Clean Water Rule, at the conceptual level it's simple enough for a child to understand: Water is constantly flowing or seeping, meaning that if you introduce pollution at one point along the way, the pollution will flow or seep as well.
Land developers, manufacturers and Big Agriculture — among other interested parties for whom polluting streams and wetlands has been a normal part of doing business — hate the Clean Water Rule, and as soon as it was announced lent their support to numerous lawsuits designed to kill it. When Donald Trump became president, he promised to overturn it. And now he and Wheeler are trying to replace it with the speciously titled Navigable Waters Protection Rule.
If you're not a corporate polluter or a politician in cahoots with one, there's nothing to like about this rule. Even the EPA's own scientists hate it. In a draft letter sent to Wheeler late last year, the head of the agency's Science Advisory Board (SAB) pronounced it to be "in conflict with established science ... and the objectives of the Clean Water Act," and furthermore that it "decreases protection for our Nation's waters" and has the potential to "introduc[e] substantial new risks to human and environmental health." Michael Honeycutt, the SAB's chair and the letter's author, seemed particularly bothered by the EPA's inattention to the established science supporting "the connectivity of waters," specifically "the connectivity of ground water to wetlands and adjacent major bodies of water."
To put it another way, the EPA is basically being accused — by its own team of scientific advisors, no less — of watershed denial. By stripping federal protections from nearly half of America's wetlands and millions of miles of streams, the Trump administration is openly broadcasting its lack of faith in the science that underpins both the Clean Water Rule and the Clean Water Act that came before it. In place of that science, Trump and Wheeler are proposing a new foundation for our country's water safety policy: the desire of home builders, golf course developers, oil and gas companies, mining concerns and other industries to dispose of their waste by using it to fill in wetlands or by dumping it into nearby streams, creeks and gullies.
Even though it's right there in front of us, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that at the root of the word ignorance is the word ignore. The kind of ignorance on display by Trump and Wheeler here isn't synonymous with unawareness. It's not describing a passive state. This is the kind of ignorance that requires you to avert your eyes and cover your ears, to make calculations and decisions. You have to decide, just for example, that the public interest is better served by allowing corporate farmers to dump millions of gallons of pesticide and fertilizer into local streams (which lead into rivers, which lead into bays and gulfs and oceans) than it is by asking them to come up with other, safer places to dump their waste — or better yet, to make less waste in the first place. You have to decide that it's better to let land developers pave over wetlands, destroying both wildlife habitat and natural water-filtration systems, than it is to ask them to let the wetlands be.
And you have to decide to forget whatever lessons you may have learned back in the fourth grade — lessons about how water always finds other water, about how connected all water is to itself and to us.
But just as water will flow, truth will out. We'll all be discovering that truth soon enough.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
By Jason Bittel
High up in the mountains of Montana's Glacier National Park, there are two species of insect that only a fly fishermen or entomologist would probably recognize. Known as stoneflies, these aquatic bugs are similar to dragonflies and mayflies in that they spend part of their lives underwater before emerging onto the land, where they transform into winged adults less than a half inch long. However, unlike those other species, stoneflies do their thing only where cold, clean waters flow.
In fact, these flies live pretty much exclusively downstream from glaciers, snowfields, and frigid alpine springs, and they have evolved a nifty suite of antifreeze compounds to make it all possible. It's a pretty cool trick — one that has helped the insects survive for hundreds of millions of years in frigid conditions that have sent others packing. But what makes these insects special may also be their undoing — and soon.
In November, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service added the western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier) and the meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana) to the Endangered Species List, both under the designation of threatened. And while the two species are extremely sensitive to pollution, as all stoneflies are, another very significant risk factor is what triggered the listing.
"All of the glaciers in Glacier National Park are expected to be gone by 2030," said Noah Greenwald, director of endangered species for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD). Like, all of them all of them. Ten years from now. And without giant chunks of ice to chill their streams and supply life-sustaining meltwater, the stoneflies cannot exist.
"In 1900, there were 150 glaciers in Glacier National Park," said Greenwald. "There are now 25."
According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the disappearance of the park's glaciers could also bring more wildfires to the region and negatively affect native trout species, which have also evolved to live in cold water. But climate change cometh first for the stoneflies, and that right soon.
From left: meltwater lednian stonefly (Lednia tumana); a scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey looks for aquatic insects in an alpine stream at Glacier National Park.
How, you may wonder, would an Endangered Species Act listing help these seemingly doomed species?
Well, the act would have previously required the FWS to designate critical habitat for the stoneflies. But the Trump administration announced changes this summer that allow the agency to opt out of declaring critical habitat in cases when "it may not be prudent" — as the FWS phrased it in the stoneflies' entry into the Federal Register. Cases, ahem, linked to climate change, for instance.
This is akin to saying climate change is a problem without a solution. But there is a scientific solution, of course. We need to cut carbon emissions. As much and as quickly as possible. The fact that the Trump administration hasn't made any meaningful effort to do so does not mean that it is impossible by definition. Or that we should simply give up on the stoneflies and their habitat, and so, so much more.
The CBD and the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation have been petitioning for the western glacier stonefly's listing since 2010, and WildEarth Guardians has been pushing for federal protections for the meltwater lednian stonefly since 2007. And while the non-designation of critical habitat is disappointing, Greenwald said the FWS still must develop a recovery plan for both species, though it's unclear at this stage what that will look like. But the listings are important for another reason as well.
Clockwise from top: a meltwater stonefly at Glacier National Park; close-up of two meltwater lednian stoneflies; close-up of western glacier stonefly (Zapada glacier)
Glacier NPS / Flickr. Western glacier stonefly: Joe Giersch / USGS
"Listing provides information to people," said Greenwald. "Really, it raises the alarm bells in terms of climate change."
Of course, the stoneflies themselves have a stake in all of this too. Every species has an inherent right to exist, and what's more, their loss would ripple throughout the ecosystems they inhabit. Stonefly nymphs shred leaf material and other aquatic detritus, which helps unlock nutrients and facilitates their spread throughout the ecosystem. Stoneflies also serve as yummy snacks for amphibians, other insects, and the trout that fishermen lust after. And after the adults emerge from their cool waters to breed, they die, providing yet another buffet for other critters. In short, stoneflies are a critical base layer of the local food web.
In the end, the real story of the stoneflies is one of urgency. The extinctions and other climate-fueled changes scientists keep warning us about aren't like some far-off, Nostradamus predictions. They'll be here before we know it. In fact, we are already watching them unfold.
"I think for anyone out there who's really doubting how rapidly our world is changing, how serious the threat climate change is, they should pay attention to these stoneflies," said Greenwald.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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By Jeff Turrentine
To celebrate the 50th birthday of one of America's most important environmental laws, President Trump has decided to make a mockery out of it.
On the first day of January 1970, President Richard M. Nixon signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In doing so, he formally acknowledged that the federal government bears a responsibility to "assure for all Americans safe, healthful, productive, and esthetically and culturally pleasing surroundings," and moreover that "each generation [serves] as trustee of the environment for succeeding generations." While other important environmental laws of the era were about protecting specific natural resources, such as water or air or biodiversity, NEPA was about establishing a covenant between the American people and its elected officials. Its wording makes clear that the government is "to use all practicable means" to achieve the goal of ensuring a clean, safe environment.
In practice, NEPA is the law that compels the federal government to consider the environmental consequences of any major project that it hopes to undertake. This is where the "practicable means" known as an environmental impact statement (EIS) comes in. As its name suggests, an EIS is a report, typically a large and thorough one, that examines the potential environmental impacts of a proposed project from all conceivable angles. So well regarded is the concept underlying NEPA — simply put, that governments owe it to their citizens to study the risks of doing something before they do it — that more than 160 nations have adopted similar standards for environmental review, leading many to call NEPA the Magna Carta of environmental law.
Last week, 50 years and eight days after Nixon signed NEPA into law, Trump announced his intention to shatter this covenant between the government and the governed. His administration is proposing changes to NEPA that would dramatically reduce the length and scope of the environmental review process, let polluting industries "review" themselves, limit input from the American public, exempt many infrastructure projects from review altogether, and — perhaps most disturbingly — allow agencies to ignore the fact that certain projects would contribute to climate change. Any one of the proposed changes would be a cause for concern. Taken together, they add up to an unconscionable hollowing-out of NEPA and a wholesale abandonment of the principle at its foundation.
The president's ostensible reason for gutting NEPA is to speed up the process for building out America's infrastructure — think roads, bridges, dams, airports, sewer systems and railroad tracks, but don't forget that the category also includes mines, offshore drilling rigs and oil pipelines. According to the administration, the current review system is too drawn out, too expensive and otherwise so onerous that it's suppressing much-needed construction and holding America back. Our country's infrastructure, President Trump told reporters last week, "used to be the envy of the world, and now we're like a third-world country. It's really sad." To sell the idea that infrastructure projects are somehow being (in his words) "tied up and bogged down by an outrageously slow and burdensome federal approval process," he asserted that "it can take more than 10 years to build just a very simple road. And usually you're not able to even get the permit."
That would indeed be a serious problem in need of immediate fixing, were it true.
It is not. But the good news is that if Trump is sincerely interested in discovering the truth, it's right there to be found in his own executive branch! According to the White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ), the NEPA-created agency that oversees the review process, nearly 95 percent of the more than 50,000 federal projects that are subject to environmental review annually are granted a categorical exclusion — meaning that they've been deemed so low-risk that they can proceed with only a minimal version of review. Less than 1 percent of all projects are considered risky enough to merit a full-on EIS. And the average amount of time it takes these projects to complete the EIS is less than five years. As to the question of expense, a 2003 NEPA report determined that an EIS typically cost anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million: not chump change, perhaps, but hardly bank-breaking given the contingency budgets of most large-scale infrastructure projects.
So why, then, would President Trump paint such a misleading picture of NEPA and seek to place new caps on the size and scope of environmental reviews?
Because polluting industries — the chemical and fossil fuel industries, in particular — want him to. In November an ad hoc group of industry-affiliated organizations sent a letter to CEQ Chair Mary Neumayr, asking her to "modernize" NEPA along the very lines that the president proposed just seven weeks later. Among the letter's 34 signatories were some conspicuous names: the American Chemistry Council, the American Coke and Coal Chemicals Institute, the American Fuel & Petrochemical Manufacturers, the American Gas Association, the American Petroleum Institute, the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, and the Independent Petroleum Association of America. (Other signatories included groups representing the lumber, mining and fertilizer industries.)
One portion of the November letter stands out for the masterful way that it couches a genuinely menacing request in the gentlest of language. "NEPA provides important safeguards to ensure that major federal actions and approvals carefully consider environmental impacts," the signatories acknowledge. "We believe however, the scope of NEPA analysis should be focused on information specifically related or consequential to the federal action at hand, as opposed to an overly broad and exhaustive analysis of all issues, without regard to significance."
How happy those writers must have been, then, to come across this sentence in the Trump administration's proposal: Effects should not be considered significant if they are remote in time, geographically remote, or the product of a lengthy causal chain. Under current NEPA rules, a project's potential for contributing to climate change — the ultimate "product of a lengthy causal chain" — is absolutely worthy of consideration in deciding whether a project warrants review. But this requirement has proved to be a major hindrance to the developers and users of one type of project in particular: oil and gas infrastructure, the pipelines and refineries that transport, store, or process those dirty fossil fuels that, when burned, release the gases that are dangerously warming our world.
Polluting industries asked for a new, weaker NEPA. And now the Trump administration is trying to give it to them — even if that means reneging on a 50-year-old promise to the American people and endangering future generations all over the world.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
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By Jeff Turrentine
At first glance, the images seem more like nightmares than real life. Blood-red skies that appear to have seeped into the earth below, staining it hellishly. Cyclone-like whirls with columns of flame at their centers. People and animals huddled close together on a beach, ready to jump into the ocean should the encroaching fires reach their makeshift camp and leave them with no choice.
New years are supposed to augur new beginnings: the chance for all of us to reconsider our priorities, refresh our spirits, and recommit to goals yet unreached. But the images coming out of Australia — where bushfires have destroyed more than 12 million acres, killing at least 26 people and perhaps as many as a billion animals — make it difficult to greet 2020, or the new decade, with optimism about the fight against climate change. The personal accounts of those who have endured the fires, which were exacerbated by drought and record-high summer temperatures, use words like "apocalyptic," "dystopian," and "Armageddon" — language that connotes not only devastating loss but also a stark finality.
Occurring simultaneously with the Australian bushfires but receiving far less coverage is the massive flooding in and around the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, which as of this writing has already displaced hundreds of thousands of people and killed at least 66. In a normal world, where an entire continent wasn't burning so violently that the smoke was visible from outer space, Indonesia's floods would easily count as the biggest climate change story of the new year. But we've now reached the point where there are bound to be multiple climate-related disasters happening around the world at the same time. Paradoxically, the more frequent these events are, the less likely any individual one of them is to command our full attention — even though the very fact of this increased frequency is undoubtedly the most important story of our lifetimes.
Australians and Indonesians are suffering almost unimaginably right now. But in addition to pain, there's fury. And in that fury, there's hope that the people of the world will demand more from their leaders. Visiting the fire-ravaged New South Wales town of Cobargo last week, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison was met with open hostility by residents, angered by what they saw as the government's lackadaisical response to a disaster that began back in September and is expected to go on for several more months. (He also did himself few favors by jetting off to Hawaii with his family at the height of the crisis.) But for many Australians, Morrison's greatest transgression has been his stubborn refusal to connect the protracted length and deadly intensity of Australia's fire season to climate change — a topic he would rather avoid, given his close relationship with his country's fossil fuel industry. In 2017, while serving as Australia's treasurer, he addressed Parliament while holding a lump of coal, proudly showing it off to the lawmakers and urging them to not be "afraid" of it. Morrison isn't a climate denier, exactly; when asked about it, he'll acknowledge that climate change exists. He's more of a climate hypocrite: someone who's willing to concede the point, rhetorically, all so that he can deflect attention from the dirty energy policies that are demonstrably contributing to his country's current miseries. In fact, Australia has earned the dishonor of being ranked dead last out of 57 countries recently evaluated for how well they're fighting climate change at the policy level.
Meanwhile, Indonesians are directing their fury at their government's inability to respond quickly and forcefully enough to a single, inescapable truth: Jakarta is sinking. According to the World Bank, the city could well be at 16 feet below sea level in just five more years. Last August, in a move that stunned the world, Indonesia's leaders revealed that they would be transferring the nation's capital to Borneo. While many government workers may have been relieved to hear the news, the announcement did little to quell the fears of the other nine million or so people who live in and around Jakarta and who lack the resources to pack up and leave. Wealth inequality is rampant in Indonesia; climate change is showing us what it looks like. One photograph on Twitter taken during the recent flooding distills the magnitude of this problem simply and breathtakingly. The aerial image shows both an upscale, resort-style hotel and the much poorer residential neighborhood separated from it by the resort's security fence. The hotel appears untouched by the flooding; the adjacent neighborhood, however, is almost completely underwater. The reason: The hotel — like most new developments that cater to tourists and elites — is elevated several feet above street level. The tweeter's terse caption: "If you think [the] gap isn't real, think again."
If you think gap isn't real, think again. https://t.co/I8qM0sdSyg— Sakinah Ummu Haniy (@Sakinah Ummu Haniy)1577851030.0
If 2019 was the year that climate consciousness hit its tipping point, thanks in large part to the efforts of Greta Thunberg and the youth climate strikers, then 2020 is already shaping up to be the year that we fully absorb the message these activists have been struggling to impart: Policies matter. The people of Australia and Indonesia need immediate disaster relief. (Learn more about how you can help them here and here.) But once they've gotten it, they need something else: governments that will work to prevent future disasters by enacting climate policies that cut carbon emissions, hasten the end of coal and other dirty fossil fuels, preserve and improve infrastructure, encourage cities to adapt to a new slate of inevitable challenges, and ensure that the negative effects of climate change aren't borne disproportionately by the poor and politically marginalized.
The images coming out of Australia and Indonesia right now are hard to look at. But we can't afford to look away.
By nearly every credible account, 2020 is the last year we have to get things right. The horror we're witnessing in just these first weeks is a reminder that there's no time to waste — and definitely no time to indulge governmental hypocrisy or lassitude. This is the year that the people hold their leaders to account. It has to be.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
By Courtney Lindwall
President Trump says fulfilling the country's commitment to the Paris climate agreement would be bad news for the U.S. economy, but the growing tally of business leaders pledging to take action anyway suggests otherwise. These businesspeople understand that while climate action costs money, climate change costs far more.
More than 2,200 businesses and investors have signed on to the "We Are Still In" pledge — even as Trump moves ever-closer to official U.S. withdrawal. The group standing behind the 2015 climate deal represents a whopping 70 percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP), and thousands more have joined other corporate climate and sustainability programs, such as the We Mean Business coalition and the Science-Based Targets Initiatives.
And while many corporations are still contending with their own outsize roles in creating the climate crisis (along with other environmental and social woes), many are already on their way to implementing the changes necessary to meet their carbon emissions targets.
Tech superpower Apple, for instance, is now running all of its facilities in 43 countries on 100 percent clean energy — in some cases sending surplus energy from its solar farms back to the local grid. Apple is also securing commitments from its suppliers to switch to renewables. Over in the fashion industry, sneaker giant Nike has committed to diverting 99 percent of its footwear manufacturing waste from landfills, making certain products with recycled plastic bottles, and reducing carbon emissions across its global supply chain by 30 percent by 2030.
Such commitments multiply daily, even as the Trump administration's rollbacks of the most important federal climate policies continue try to steer America in a different direction: backwards. Here are just a few of the reasons companies are opting to move forward instead.
Trump often says that the Paris Agreement "punishes" the U.S., particularly its businesses, but he outright ignores the far more destructive economic force of climate change. According to a recent study from the National Bureau of Economic Research, a business-as-usual high-emissions scenario (like the one Trump touts) could result in a 7.2 percent drop in GDP per capita worldwide by the end of the century. Disruptions to global supply chains are already upon us, and as carbon pollution continues to collect in our atmosphere, more will come. Experts predict far-reaching impacts to the infrastructure that supports nearly all businesses, such as extreme weather affecting the transportation of raw goods and rising sea levels swamping the fiber-optic cables essential to the internet.
Of course, climate change will also jeopardize specific industries, such as winter sports (see: decreases in snowfall), and products, like your morning cup of coffee. In fact, it's little wonder that Starbucks has also signed on to We Are Still In. Climate change may bring increasingly irregular growing seasons (and skyrocketing prices) for coffee beans on top of increased sick days for field workers exposed to extreme heat. Such concerns would apply to almost any business dependent on either agriculture or a global workforce, or both. According to a 2011 National Academy of Sciences report, for every additional degree Celsius that the planet warms, we can expect a 5 to 15 percent reduction in total crop yield.
While many corporations have spewed more than their fair share of carbon pollution, several are now taking the opportunity to have a supersize impact on emissions reductions. Look at the world's two biggest retailers: Amazon and Walmart. Amazon says it will go carbon neutral by 2040, 10 years ahead of the Paris goals, and recently made moves to start transitioning its fleet of delivery trucks to electric vehicles. Soon after Trump took office, Walmart announced its Project Gigaton initiative, which set the ambitious goal of lowering the company's global carbon emissions — by pressing for action on the part of its suppliers — by one billion metric tons before 2030. Walmart has since reported that it's on track to meet its goal, which is no small feat: the entire U.S. emitted 6.5 billion metric tons of carbon in 2017.
Climate action is no longer seen as the enemy of economic progress. While the clean energy industry has known this for a while, the notion is (finally) catching on in other corners of the economy — and most excitingly it's creating opportunities for market-disrupting innovation.
Take electric vehicles (EVs). While Trump fights the auto industry's progress in manufacturing cleaner cars and trucks, countries such as China are investing in zero-emission vehicle technology at warp speed. According to a recent report by JP Morgan Research, China is expected to account for nearly 60 percent of all global EV sales by next year, and many Chinese businesses (the ride-sharing company Didi Chuxing, for example) are eager to profit while they help the world progress. The same goes for the folks behind other innovations — like plant-based faux meats, and energy-efficient fabrics made from coffee grounds, and petroleum-free plastics, and delivery vans fueled by food waste and ... you get the idea. A poll by the data firm Nielsen showed that 81 percent of consumers feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. The sustainability economy is booming — and climate-conscious Gen Z'ers and millennials are ready to buy accordingly.
At their best, corporate climate pledges open business practices up to public accountability and mark a first step toward real-life emissions cuts. At their worst, they provide a greenwashed shield behind which polluting companies can hide their status quo behaviors. Procter & Gamble, for one, boasts about the forest-friendly sourcing and certifications of its Charmin toilet paper (the company has no climate pledges to speak of). But in practice, P&G has been clear-cutting one of the world's most important carbon sinks, Canada's boreal forest, in the name of softer TP.
We are all in this climate crisis together, which is why it's crucial to make sure our leaders and retailers keep their promises. Presidents have power, but so do corporations. Corporations have power, but so do consumers.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
By Jeff Turrentine
Years ago, my wife and I decided to while away an idle summer afternoon in her Texas hometown by driving our infant daughter to a neighborhood park. We pulled into the empty lot, liberated the baby from her car seat, and made our way somewhat warily through this public yet noticeably deserted space toward its small, forlorn playground. If the grass had ever been green there, it wasn't any longer; the punishing South Texas sun had dried it into a brittle yellow hay. There were few trees next to the playground equipment, and no shade of any kind to be found, so any metal or even plastic surface was searingly hot to the touch. The slide was a nonstarter. I flinched and had to let go immediately when I grasped the chains of the baby swing. The water fountain didn't work. We lasted all of five minutes before returning to the car.
As much as I'd like to forget it, this experience came rushing back to me when I read an article this week in The Conversation. In it, coauthors Julian Bolleter and Cristina E. Ramalho, an assistant professor and a research fellow at the University of Western Australia, respectively, make the case for something they call "greenspace-oriented development." The concept is similar to the much more well-known urban planning concept of transit-oriented development, which holds that communities reap substantial social, economic, and environmental benefits when they place commercial and residential development within walking distance of transportation hubs such as train stations, bus stops, or light rail stations. Bolleter and Ramalho believe that adding green space to this equation can boost these benefits significantly. They also think it has the potential to do more. By creating better urban parks, they say, cities can curb urban sprawl by giving residents what they often claim to be seeking when they flee cities for the low-density suburbs and exurbs: a connection with nature.
"Over the last century, in all regions of the world, the expansion of urbanized land has outpaced the growth of urban populations, resulting in unprecedented urban sprawl," Bolleter told me when I asked him to elaborate on his theory. "We need to work with the underlying desire for suburban living, around the world, in attempting to deliver density in these cities; otherwise our efforts will just waste a lot of time and money."
Encouraging more transit-oriented development is important, Bolleter believes. (The optimal urban green space, in his view, should be no more than a 5-minute bike ride or 15- to 20-minute walk from public transit.) But if cities want to maintain or increase density and stimulate urban infill, they have another powerful tool at their disposal to make density more attractive to people living in city centers and inner-ring suburbs. In the article, the authors suggest "redesigning parks to increase the naturalness, ecological function and diversity of active and passive recreational uses, which in turn can support higher-density urban areas."
That means thinking of urban and suburban parks as much more than big public lawns with a playground, a few picnic tables, and maybe a soccer field (if you're lucky). It means thinking of them as "multifunctional, mutable, and messy," in Bolleter's memorable phrasing — authentic oases from city life, where winding paths through forested landscapes lead to burbling creeks or meadows filled with native wildflowers; where you might stand a real chance of spotting a beaver or a fox; or where you might happen upon a group of neighbors tending a bounteous community garden. It means creating actual opportunities for escape into nature — for the kind of spirit-restoring connection with trees, water, and wildlife that all humans need.
Bolleter, who's a licensed landscape architect in addition to being the codirector of the University's Australian Urban Design Research Centre, is quick to list the many benefits that come with such connection. Regular immersion in the sort of green settings that he champions can vastly improve people's quality of life, he says, "first, by promoting physical activity; second, by reducing exposure to stress factors and providing an environment for physiological and mental recovery that delivers coping resources to deal with life; third, by promoting social interaction and a sense of community; and fourth, by providing a healthy, comfortable urban environment. Overall, these pathways lead to multiple health and well-being benefits that play out across an individual's life span."
Additionally, if people living in city centers and dense suburbs had greater access to nature, so the theory goes, they might be less inclined to drift farther and farther away in search of their own slice of manicured, green lawn. Winners in this scenario include not only the residents who are healthily and happily communing with nature, but also municipalities that are able to more efficiently distribute their services and resources. Another winner, of course, is the environment: Limiting sprawl means reducing car dependence (and the tailpipe emissions and traffic jams that come with it), preserving habitat and biodiversity, and even decreasing risks for flooding and runoff-related water pollution.
People's preferences for the suburbs and exurbs don't automatically denote a rejection of what more densely populated urban areas have to offer. "The problem has been that we generally haven't delivered density in a form that resonates with suburbanites," Bolleter says. Green space–oriented development can help correct that problem by providing people already living in dense communities, or cities and suburbs that want to increase their density, with "a multifunctional, communal backyard" capable of "replacing many of the functions typically found in suburban gardens, such as the ability to grow food, have pets, and entertain and relax in private—and in nature."
Just don't forget the shade trees, please. And the working water fountains. Especially in Texas.
Reposted with permission from onEarth.
By Jason Bittel
Authorities in Hong Kong intercepted some questionable cargo three years ago — a rather large shipment of shark fins that had originated in Panama. Shark fins are a hot commodity among some Asian communities for their use in soup, and most species are legally consumed in Hong Kong, but certain species are banned from international trade due to their extinction risk. And wouldn't you know it: this confiscated shipment contained nearly a ton of illegal hammerhead fins.
But all that hammerhead contraband should never have made it to China in the first place. Because after the cargo left Panama, it made a stop in Houston, where trade in shark fins of any species, endangered or not, is forbidden. And while the ship's bill of lading didn't specify any illegal species onboard, it did note the presence of dried seafood, including fish maws, shark fins, and shark tails. U.S. Fish and Wildlife officials in Houston could have inspected such cargo to ensure it complied with state, federal, and international regulations — but nobody did. (We'll get to why in a moment).
This isn't a problem only in Houston. That 2016 Panama shipment is just one of dozens discovered by NRDC (onEarth's publisher) in a recent report titled, Unintentional Partner: How the United States Helps the Illegal Shark Fin Market.
In their research, the report's authors made Freedom of Information Act requests; sought information from foreign conservation partners such as OceanaPeru and Costa Rica–based MarViva; and conducted interviews with various U.S. agencies, including Customs and Border Protection, the Food and Drug Administration, the Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Marine Fisheries Service, and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. They learned that shark fins move through the U.S. by air, land, and sea. They pass through huge international ports like Los Angeles, Miami, and Seattle as well as landlocked airports like those in Atlanta and Memphis. They even make pit stops in places like Pipersville, Pennsylvania. The smuggled fins tend to come from the waters off Central and South America, and most are destined for Hong Kong.
From 2010 to 2017, the U.S. unintentionally played middleman to somewhere between 650 and 772 tons of shark fin exports, accounting for as many as 1.29 million sharks. (The exact number of sharks is difficult to determine, since most of the records NRDC managed to obtain expressed shipment size by weight, not individual parts, and different conditions translate into different weights per piece. Frozen fins weigh more than dried fins, for example).
"When we let these shark fin shipments pass through our borders without monitoring them, the U.S. becomes a weak link," says report coauthor Elizabeth Murdock, director of the NRDC's Pacific Oceans Initiative.
It doesn't have to be this way. The U.S. has a stronger legal framework and more regulatory resources than most of the world. If anything, we should be one of the strongest links in the fight against a black market trade that threatens marine biodiversity.
Back in 2000, the U.S. banned shark finning, the practice of cutting a shark's fins off and then dumping the animal back into the ocean. But it is still legal in many states to catch a shark, bring it back to shore, and cut it up into parts including fins, steaks, and other marketable items. (Possessing or selling shark fins is not always illegal — just when the fins come from species protected by the Endangered Species Act or the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora).
Each year, tens of millions of sharks wind up on hooks and in nets, many of which belong to Americans. According to NRDC's report, the number of sharks we land each year makes us the seventh-largest shark-fishing nation in the world. Still, scientists seem to agree that the U.S. is doing a pretty good job of managing its shark populations. A study published in 2017 in the journal Current Biology listed America's Alaskan skate, blacktip shark, and spiny dogfish fisheries (among others) as "bright spots of sustainable shark fishing." Indeed, countries such as the U.S., Australia, Canada, and New Zealand are leading the world when it comes to harvesting sharks in ways that don't drive them toward extinction. However, the unfortunate fact remains that the vast majority (91 percent) of the world's shark fisheries are unsustainable.
Silky shark. NOAA / Teachers at Sea Program
For instance, a study of Hong Kong's market, published last year in Conservation Letters, found that silky sharks were the second-most commonly sold species there from 2014 to 2016. The animals are considered vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. And close behind the silkies, ranking fourth and fifth, were scalloped hammerheads (endangered) and smooth hammerheads (vulnerable). All three species are listed under Appendix II of CITES, which strictly regulates their trade. The study also found evidence of illegal hammerhead fins in 46 out of 46 sampling events in Hong Kong.
The U.S. obviously can't control what happens in every market all over the world. But we could be doing more to watch over what's moving in and out of our own ports.
Part of the answer is logistics, says Murdock. Better communication among agencies like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Customs and Border Protection, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could help. Some budgetary improvements could also be made — currently, wildlife shipments are mandated to funnel through just 17 U.S. ports that have the appropriate inspection personnel.
But honestly, a lot of the problem comes down to wording.
As cargo, shark fins are not required to route through one of those 17 ports if they are not "unloaded." If that's the case, those fins can move along without a second glance. At the same time, products that qualify as "seafood" are also exempt from special port inspection unless the species involved requires a permit under the Endangered Species Act (which lists only the two hammerhead species mentioned above) or CITES (which lists only 14 of the more than 400 shark species known to science). The hammerhead fins in Hong Kong were listed as "dried seafood," which is one of the reasons why they were able to pass through Houston without closer inspection.
Murdock says sharks slip through a legal loophole because they qualify as both wildlife and seafood. This makes shark products even more difficult to regulate than, say, elephant ivory or rhino horn. "It's not a new problem," says environmental consultant David Shiffman, a marine conservation biologist at Arizona State University, "but it's one that doesn't get a lot of attention."
"One of the things is just how it's coded," Shiffman says. "In some countries shark is counted as 'seafood, frozen,' and in some cases it's 'shark fins,' and in some cases it's shark fins from a particular species. But it's not consistent from country to country, and it's not necessarily consistent from year to year, and that makes it really hard to keep track of this stuff."
So how do we help close these loopholes? Murdock says routing all shark fin shipments through the ports where officials have capacity to inspect them properly should become standard operating procedure. (This measure alone wouldn't stop every illegal wildlife shipment; Houston, after all, is one of those ports). A full-on federal ban against the shark fin trade wouldn't hurt either, she says. (Twelve states, such as Texas and California, have so far banned the shark fin trade within their borders). Other recommendations from the report are more international in scope, including ratcheting up the existing CITES resolutions; improving enforcement of fishing laws in nations where the shark products typically originate; and generally more, more, and still more partnerships between countries.
"It's clear that it's only going to get solved through international collaboration, because some of the countries from which these shipments are coming have a lot less capacity for law enforcement and inspections and monitoring than the United States does," says Murdock. So by stepping up efforts on our own shores, we can also help keep things on the up-and-up all over the world.
Shiffman says the report "has some excellent recommendations of what we should do about this," but he'd really like to see more data on how prevalent the problem is. And so would Murdock. She and her colleagues have had to scratch and claw for roughly two years to bring as many cases to the surface as they have.
"We're confident that this is just the tip of the iceberg," says Murdock. "It's just hard to know how big the iceberg is."
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