Forty-thousand heat records have already been broken this year across the U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Here in Fredericksburg, Va., the signs of an unbalanced climate system have been felt in recent years not just in heat waves, but increasingly in the form of unusually severe wind storms. This past weekend’s storm brought 80 mph wind gusts that snapped three trees in our backyard like pretzels, even though they were each a foot thick. Once again, my insurance company is teaching me new weather terminology to explain the latest climate disasters. A few years ago, the term was “micro-bursts” (not quite tornadoes, but similar impact). Now it is “derecho” (not quite hurricanes, but similar impact).
Whatever you call it, we need to face up to the fact that our weather has turned dangerous because our climate is breaking down. Virginia has had 27 national disaster declarations due to storms in the past 20 years, three times as many as the prior 20 years. Meanwhile, wildfires and droughts are threatening people and wildlife elsewhere in the nation, particularly in the West, including the National Wildlife Federation’s staff in Colorado. More than two million acres have burned in U.S. wildfires already this year. Global warming has created longer wildfire seasons in the West due to heat and drought (warmer winters have also allowed pests to flourish, killing large numbers of pine trees that add fuel to the fires).
The current heat wave and climate disasters shouldn’t be catching us by surprise. Since the year 2000, we have witnessed nine of the ten hottest years ever recorded, according to NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, which tracks global surface temperatures. The first three months of this year has been the warmest first quarter ever in the U.S., and March was an alarming 8 degrees warmer than average. As the planet heats, weather patterns are destabilized. Warm air sucks more water from the ground and holds more water (about 4 percent more for every 1 degree F increase in temperature). That’s one of the reasons our warming planet has been creating historic droughts out West and dumping torrential rains in the Midwest (in Iowa, for example, there have been four “100-year” flood events in the past 5 years and 17 emergency disaster declarations for floods in the past two decades).
Scary Weather is a Warning: We Need to Act
For the moment, we are paying attention to the weatherman, and the weather is scary. But the media is still asleep at the switch when it comes to reporting the real story: What is causing this climate to unravel? The U.S. National Academy of Sciences completed an exhaustive review of scientific research and concluded more forcefully than ever in a landmark 2011 report that pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is destabilizing our climate. Here is how they put it in scientific terms:
“Climate change is occurring, is very likely caused primarily by the emission of greenhouse gases from human activities, and poses significant risks for a range of human and natural systems. … The sooner that serious efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions proceed, the lower the risks posed by climate change, and the less pressure there will be to make larger, more rapid, and potentially more expensive reductions later.”
Clear enough? If not, here is a strong hint of what is going on: In the past 50 years, we have added one trillion tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere from burning coal, oil and natural gas (Source: U.S. Department of Energy). Over this time, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased 23 percent, from 322 ppm to 397 ppm (Source: Mauna Loa Record, Scripps CO2 Program).
We can’t do anything about yesterday’s weather, but we need to be responsible stewards of the world we shape for our kids and future generations. We want to pass on a natural world full of abundant wildlife, but wildlife species are increasingly at risk as climate change threatens the very existence of thousands of species. Pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes is loading the dice and increasing the likelihood of more frequent and increasingly severe storms and heat waves. If we don’t talk about the source of the problems, then we can’t do anything about it. The decisions we make today will shape the future for generations to come. Why? Because much of the heat-trapping carbon pollution we put into the atmosphere will increase CO2 levels for centuries and even millennia. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's 2007 report on the state of climate science:
“About 50 percent of a CO2 increase will be removed from the atmosphere within 30 years, and a further 30 percent will be removed within a few centuries. The remaining 20 percent may stay in the atmosphere for many thousands of years.”
So What Can We Do?
All we lack is the determination and leadership to change course on energy. We need more businesses to provide better energy options than are currently available to families. Some companies are out in front, including automobile manufacturers who have embraced goals of doubling the fuel economy of their vehicles by 2025. But other companies, such as Dominion Power here in Virginia, are dragging their heels and doing more to block the march to cleaner energy than help.
The best and first solution to reduce our “carbon footprint” on the planet is to stop wasting energy. Energy has long been taken for granted by consumers and businesses alike; we waste far more of it than we need to. We need to each do our part and pay more attention to how we use energy. But we also need to get more ambitious as a nation to bring to market the abundant ideas and technologies engineers and entrepreneurs have to cut energy waste.
To supply the energy we need, we have to rapidly accelerate the switch away from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as wind, geothermal and solar—energy sources that don’t pollute and don’t run out. These homegrown energy sources create jobs installing and maintaining the technologies. America already has 2.7 million clean economy jobs building a healthier environment, and clean energy is one of the fastest growing sources of good paying jobs in the nation. In addition, we depend on America’s great outdoors for 6 million jobs in the outdoor recreation industries, contributing $730 billion to the U.S. economy.
Wishful thinking won’t make this happen. America has vast wind, solar and geothermal resources, and the affordability and efficiency of renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar have been improving by leaps and bounds. But solar, wind and geothermal still account for less than 3 percent of U.S. electricity. The growth of these industries is being held back by the entrenched fossil fuel energy companies who are quite happy selling us coal and oil. American families and businesses spend $3 billion every day on oil, coal and natural gas.
It’s up to each of us to do what we can, but we won’t get the change we need unless we hold the politicians we elect accountable to make sure that energy companies everywhere are doing their fair share. Congress continues to dole out billions of dollars to oil companies while vital tax credits for renewable energy are set to expire at the end of this year.
But there is one bright spot that could mark a turning point in whether we are getting serious about carbon pollution. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed clean air standards to limit industrial carbon pollution from new power plants. Polluters are launching a fierce counterattack and spending lavishly on lobbying and campaign contributions. One thing you can do right now is to join the more than two million Americans who have written the EPA to support their new carbon standards. More Americans have supported this rule than any other federal rule in history.
It’s only a start, but standing up now for a better future is the right thing to do. And who knows? Perhaps we can get some wind at our backs to take us where we need to go.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Alexandra Rowles
Oregano is a fragrant herb that's best known as an ingredient in Italian food.
However, it can also be concentrated into an essential oil that's loaded with antioxidants and powerful compounds that have proven health benefits.
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By Emily Grubert
Natural gas is a versatile fossil fuel that accounts for about a third of U.S. energy use. Although it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants than coal or oil, natural gas is a major contributor to climate change, an urgent global problem. Reducing emissions from the natural gas system is especially challenging because natural gas is used roughly equally for electricity, heating, and industrial applications.
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What RNG Is and Why it Matters<p>Most equipment that uses energy can only use a single kind of fuel, but the fuel might come from different resources. For example, you can't charge your computer with gasoline, but it can run on electricity generated from coal, natural gas or solar power.</p><p>Natural gas is almost pure methane, <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/" target="_blank">currently sourced</a> from raw, fossil natural gas produced from <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/where-our-natural-gas-comes-from.php" target="_blank">deposits deep underground</a>. But methane could come from renewable resources, too.</p><p><span></span>Two main methane sources could be used to make RNG. First is <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/inventory-us-greenhouse-gas-emissions-and-sinks" target="_blank">biogenic methane</a>, produced by bacteria that digest organic materials in manure, landfills and wastewater. Wastewater treatment plants, landfills and dairy farms have captured and used biogenic methane as an energy resource for <a href="http://emilygrubert.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/eia_860_2017_map.html" target="_blank">decades</a>, in a form usually called <a href="https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/biomass/landfill-gas-and-biogas.php" target="_blank">biogas</a>.</p><p>Some biogenic methane is generated naturally when organic materials break down without oxygen. Burning it for energy can be beneficial for the climate if doing so prevents methane from escaping to the atmosphere.</p>
Renewable Isn’t Always Sustainable<p>If RNG could be a renewable replacement for fossil natural gas, why not move ahead? Consumers have shown that they are <a href="https://www.nrel.gov/analysis/green-power.html" target="_blank">willing to buy renewable electricity</a>, so we might expect similar enthusiasm for RNG.</p><p>The key issue is that methane isn't just a fuel – it's also a <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/ghg_report/ghg_overview.php" target="_blank">potent greenhouse gas</a> that contributes to climate change. Any methane that is manufactured intentionally, whether from biogenic or other sources, will contribute to climate change if it enters the atmosphere.</p><p>And <a href="http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aar7204" target="_blank">releases</a> <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wasman.2019.07.029" target="_blank">will happen</a>, from newly built production systems and <a href="https://theconversation.com/why-methane-emissions-matter-to-climate-change-5-questions-answered-122684" target="_blank">existing, leaky transportation and user infrastructure</a>. For example, the moment you smell gas before the pilot light on a stove lights the ring? That's methane leakage, and it contributes to climate change.</p><p>To be clear, RNG is almost certainly better for the climate than fossil natural gas because byproducts of burning RNG won't contribute to climate change. But doing somewhat better than existing systems is no longer enough to respond to the <a href="https://doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2923" target="_blank">urgency</a> of climate change. The world's <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/chapter/spm/" target="_blank">primary international body on climate change</a> suggests we need to decarbonize by 2030 to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.</p>
Scant Climate Benefits<p><a href="https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/ab9335/meta" target="_blank">My recent research</a> suggests that for a system large enough to displace a lot of fossil natural gas, RNG is probably not as good for the climate as <a href="https://investor.southerncompany.com/information-for-investors/latest-news/latest-news-releases/press-release-details/2020/Southern-Company-Gas-grows-leadership-team-to-focus-on-climate-action-innovation-and-renewable-natural-gas-strategy/default.aspx" target="_blank">is publicly claimed</a>. Although RNG has lower climate impact than its fossil counterpart, likely high demand and methane leakage mean that it probably will contribute to climate change. In contrast, renewable sources such as wind and solar energy do not <a href="https://www.eia.gov/environment/emissions/carbon/" target="_blank">emit climate pollution directly</a>.</p><p>What's more, creating a large RNG system would require building mostly new production infrastructure, since RNG comes from different sources than fossil natural gas. Such investments are both long-term commitments and opportunity costs. They would devote money, political will and infrastructure investments to RNG instead of alternatives that could achieve a zero greenhouse gas emission goal.</p><p>When climate change first <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/1988/06/24/us/global-warming-has-begun-expert-tells-senate.html" target="_blank">broke into the political conversation</a> in the late 1980s, investing in long-lived systems with low but non-zero greenhouse gas emissions was still compatible with aggressive climate goals. Now, zero greenhouse gas emissions is the target, and my research suggests that large deployments of RNG likely won't meet that goal.</p>
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The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a list of 431 products that are effective at killing viruses when they are on surfaces. Now, a good year for Lysol manufacturer Reckitt Benckiser just got better when the EPA said that two Lysol products are among the products that can kill the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
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For all its posturing on climate change, the Democratic Party has long been weak on the actual policies we need to save us from extinction. President Barack Obama promised his presidency would mark "the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow," and then embraced natural gas, a major driver of global temperature rise, as a "bridge fuel." Climate legislation passed in the House in 2009 would have allowed industries to buy credits to pollute, a practice known to concentrate toxic air in black and brown neighborhoods while doing little to cut emissions.
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Bayer's $10 billion settlement to put an end to roughly 125,000 lawsuits against its popular weed killer Roundup, which contains glyphosate, hit a snag this week when a federal judge in San Francisco expressed skepticism over what rights future plaintiffs would have, as the San Francisco Chronicle reported.
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By Charli Shield
When an elephant dies in the wild, it's not uncommon to later find its bones scattered throughout the surrounding landscape.
Elephant Burial Grounds<p>Highly social creatures that form deep familial bonds, elephants have long been observed gathering at the site where a peer or family member has died — often spending hours, even days, quietly investigating the bodies or the bones of other dead elephants.</p><p>Although the popular idea that dying elephants are instinctively drawn to special communal graves — so-called "elephant graveyards" — is a myth, their tendency to go out of their way to visit the bones and tusks of the deceased isn't unlike human rituals at graveyards, says animal psychologist Karen McComb.</p><p>"They spend a lot of time touching and smelling skulls and ivory, placing the soles of their feet gently on top of them, and also lifting them up with their trunks," McComb, who's been studying African elephants for 25 years in Kenya's Amboseli National Park, told DW.</p><p>The most striking part of watching an elephant experience loss, Poole recalls, is the quietude. She still remembers one of the first elephant deaths she witnessed; a mother who birthed a stillborn calf. That elephant stayed with its baby for two days, trying to lift it and defending it from vultures and hyenas.</p><p>"I was so struck by the expression on her face and her body. She looked so dejected. It was really like, 'Oh God, these animals grieve…'. It was just so different," Poole told DW. </p>
Witnessing Emotions in Animals<p>Not all scientists are comfortable concluding that elephants grieve. Among the more than 30 reports of elephant reactions to death that Wittemyer co-reviewed in <a href="https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10329-019-00766-5" target="_blank">a study published in November 2019</a> were accounts of "enormous variation and nuance" he says. "It can be incredibly involved and intricate for extended periods or can be relatively cursory checks."</p><p>In Wittemyer's own experience, it can be difficult not to attribute some kind of emotional experience to the more involved interactions between elephants and their dead.</p><p>He shares the story of an "extraordinary event" involving the death of a 55 year-old matriarch in Kenya in a protected area that happened to be near his place of work. She was visited by multiple unrelated families while she was dying, including another matriarch that exerted such enormous effort attempting to lift her to her feet that she broke her tusk, which Wittemyer says, is "like breaking a tooth." </p><p><span></span>"It was a remarkable example of this heightened emotional state, it was very clearly a very stressful interaction," he says.</p>
A Different Sensory World<p>One factor that limits our ability to fully grasp the way elephants process and respond to loss is our markedly different sensory experiences of the world.</p><p>An elephant's world is fundamentally olfactory — based on smell. Ours is visual. Previous <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25053675/" target="_blank">research</a> has shown elephants possess the most scent receptors of any mammal, and can <a href="https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/17949977/" target="_blank">use smell</a> to discern the difference between different human tribes from the same local area.</p><p>That could explain why elephants exhibit such interest in sniffing the bones and tusks of others, as a <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1617198/" target="_blank">2005 study</a> from McCombs highlighted. When presented with the skulls and ivory of long-dead elephants and those from other large herbivores, including rhino and buffalo, McCombs and her team found elephants approached and were specifically attracted to the remains of their own species. </p><p>Without access to the smells an elephant picks up on, Wittemyer says "an enormous amount of stuff" could be missed by humans when studying these behaviors.</p>
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