People's World

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  1. Last week left a bittersweet taste in the mouths of environmentalists. On Jan. 25 the Obama administration proposed new protections for large portions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR), which, if approved, would be a huge win. Two days later, however, the administration released its new five-year offshore drilling plan, which opened up more of the Atlantic coast and the Arctic Ocean to dirty fossil fuel development - and potential disaster. The new protections for the refuge, at least, would mark a historical achievement. According to the U.S. Department of Interior, which is recommending the protections, the measures could become one of the largest conservation efforts "since Congress passed the visionary Wilderness Act over 50 years ago." The Department's recommendation is that millions more acres of the refuge, including the Coastal Plain, be declared "wilderness." What that means is it will enjoy the highest level of protection possible for public lands. Mining, drilling, road development, and the construction of permanent structures - all of these things will be prohibited, effectively preserving the area and its ecosystem. The issue, however, is that only Congress has the power to make a "wilderness" designation, and given the fact that the Senate just approved the Keystone XL pipeline on Jan. 29, sending it to President Obama's desk for a likely veto, the likelihood of their cooperation on this matter is doubtful. The President, however, challenged Congress to move on the issue. "I'm going to be calling on Congress to take it a step further," he said from Air Force One during a trip to India. "Designating ANWR as a 'wilderness' so that we can make sure that this amazing wonder is preserved for future generations." "Designating vast areas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge as wilderness reflects the significance this landscape holds for America and its wildlife," said Interior secretary Sally Jewell. "Just like Yosemite or the Grand Canyon, the ANWR is one of our nation's crown jewels, and we have an obligation to preserve this spectacular place for generations to come." Republicans seized the chance to attack the development, with Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, saying he and others will "defeat their lawless attempt to designate ANWR as a wilderness, as well as their ultimate goal of making Alaska one big national park." He claimed it was an example of Obama "thumbing his nose at the citizens and [putting] Alaska and America's energy security in serious jeopardy." But the pro-corporate need not have worried; on Jan. 27, the Obama administration catered to them with the release of its proposed 2017-2022 Outer Continental Shelf Oil and Gas Leasing Program. The draft plan includes 14 potential lease sales, 10 of which are in the Gulf of Mexico, which is still nursing wounds left by the remnants of the infamous 2010 BP Oil Spill. Three areas off the coast of Alaska (the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas and the Cook Inlet) would also be sold for oil exploration, after Shell's numerous efforts to infiltrate the area in the face of impassioned opposition from environmental groups. The final area to be sold would include parts of the Atlantic including coastal parts of Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. This plan is "risky wherever we do it," said Bob Deans, spokesperson for the National Resources Defense Council. "Oil travels a long way. It doesn't respect boundaries." In a press release issued by the council, executive director Peter Lehner added, "This takes us in exactly the wrong direction. It will expose the Eastern Seaboard, much of the Atlantic, and most of the Arctic to the hazards of offshore drilling. It ignores the lessons of the disastrous BP blowout, the growing dangers of climate change, and the promise of a clean energy future." This plan "would put our beaches, wetlands, and all they support at grave and needless risk, imperil coastal communities and economies, and anchor our future to the diry fossil fuels of the past." So the glimmer of hope offered by the proposal for ANWR protections was rather tempered, most activists feel, by the dark news that came two days afterward. For many, this surely feels like a classic case of 'two steps forward and three steps back.' Noting that the plan puts the Alaskan areas in particular at serious risk, Tim Donaghy, a senior research specialist with Greenpeace USA, concluded, "Alaska native communities depend on the ocean for their livelihood, not to mention the whales, walruses, seals, birds, and fish that make up one of the few remaining pristine ecosystems on the planet. Crude oil is something that simply can't be put back in the bottle once it has been spilled. The only way to win is not to drill."
  2. After Shell proved, through blunders and its infamous reputation, that it is not fit to drill in the Arctic, Aug. 17 brought news that the Obama administration had granted them approval to do just that. The troubling development came just days after President Obama announced he would visit Alaska to discuss the impact of climate change on the region. Now, as the oil corporation further destroys the already-disrupted Arctic sea ice, the problem of global warming can only grow worse. The move is especially bewildering for many, as the president has declared Alaska to be "the frontlines of our fight against climate change." For a place of such importance, it hardly seems like an opportune time for the administration to greenlight a venture that will wreak environmental havoc, but that is what has come to pass. Even so, the approval has not gone unnoticed by activists. Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Marissa Knodel said, "When Obama visits the Arctic this month, he must face the communities he is sacrificing to Shell's profits." Greenpeace executive director Annie Leonard added, "The president cannot have it both ways. Announcing a tour of Alaska to highlight climate change days before giving Shell the final approval to drill is deeply hypocritical." In an official report, however, Greenpeace seemed to suggest that the brunt of the blame does not lie with Obama, but rather, with the greed-driven company that seeks to ravage the Arctic. They noted that the president "has used his executive power to show climate leadership before. Earlier this year, he vetoed the Keystone XL pipeline in response to a nationwide public outcry, demanding the U.S. no longer champion policies and projects that accelerate climate change. "The world is watching Shell right now. [They have] a history of ineffective equipment. In 2012, one of Shell's Arctic rigs ran aground and became stuck in Dutch Harbor. The technology does not exist to effectively clean up an oil spill in the icy and unpredictable waters. This is a disaster waiting to happen." The imbalanced and contradictory approach the Obama administration seems to be taking in regard to environmental matters is confusing. That has grown more so with today's news that the EPA, which was responsible for the recent mishap resulting in a large mine waste spill, has proposed new regulations aimed at cutting methane emissions by 40 to 45 percent (from 2012 levels) over the next ten years. The rules would apply to new or modified sources of oil and natural gas and require energy companies to find and fix leaks and take careful steps to limit emissions. And yet, experts seem to point out that this is not quite cause for celebration. Up in the Arctic, when Shell starts breaking up ice in its exploration for oil, more methane will be released into the atmosphere - enough, perhaps, to render the curbing of emissions from other manmade activities a moot point. Merritt Turetsky, a biology professor at the University of Guelph, Ontario, remarked, "Permafrost carbon feedback is one of the important and likely consequences of climate change, and it is certain to trigger additional warming. Even if we ceased all human emissions, ice would continue to thaw and release carbon into the atmosphere." Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune said, "Granting Shell the permit to drill in the Arctic was the wrong decision, and the fight is far from over. The people will continue to call on President Obama to protect the Arctic and our environment." And the opposition to Shell's drilling is composed of more than just environmental activists. Hillary Clinton released a statement on the matter in the form of a tweet, saying, "The Arctic is a unique treasure. Given what we know, it's not worth the risk of drilling." Brune added, "She's exactly right. Everything we know about dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic indicates it imperils a national treasure and is guaranteed to make our climate crisis worse. Allowing Shell to use unproven technology in the Arctic is a recipe for disaster and toxic to any climate action legacy."
  3. The latest ecological disaster has left Colorado's Animas River a sickly orange and yellow, after an accident on Aug. 5 sent at least three million gallons of mine waste gushing into the water. The spewage came from the abandoned Gold King Mine, and occurred when an EPA mining safety team used equipment to - ironically enough - reduce pollution emanating from the disused site. Now the sludge is spreading, and it reached New Mexico on Aug. 10, flowing from the Animas into the San Juan River there, as officials struggled to gain control of the situation. The wastewater contains toxic heavy metals including lead, which can harm fetal development and cause vision impairment and kidney disease, and arsenic, which at high levels could cause paralysis, blindness, and cancer. The contamination was apparently the very thing EPA workers were attempting to treat before inadvertently unleashing it upon the environment. "The project was intended to pump and treat the water and reduce metals pollution flowing out of the [Gold King] Mine," EPA spokesman Rich Mylott confirmed. There has been no drinking water contamination, because utilities shut down their intake valves in time to prevent the plume from reaching their systems. Farmers also closed the gates on their irrigation ditches to preserve their crops. But the same could not be said for the wildlife that will surely be adversely affected, including local fish; the EPA has warned boaters and anglers to stay far away from the water for this reason. Meanwhile, New Mexico health officials were outraged that the EPA did not tell them about the plume until a day after it reached the cities of Aztec and Bloomfield, causing a last-minute scramble to cut off the river's access to water treatment plants in those areas. As it is, the EPA has released very little information, and virtually nothing in the way of updates, concerning New Mexico's share of the problem. "We're having a real problem getting the EPA to tell us what's in this stuff," said Don Cooper, emergency manager for San Juan County. "We're just kind of shooting in the dark and telling people to stay away from it." Though EPA officials are reportedly continuing to conduct tests to determine the health and environmental impacts of their mistake, nothing has yet been said about a cleanup. In fact, it would seem that experts are hoping for the situation to resolve itself; the agency's coordinator Craig Myers said, "It's hard to know what's going to happen [to the Animas River] as more river flows join it. It is diluting. The sludge of contaminants is going to be settling out in places." But for affected residents and concerned environmentalists, pollution, sadly, is more readily available than answers. What is apparent is that the EPA's initial estimate of the amount of spillage - one million gallons - has proven to be wrong, as the U.S. Geological Survey has clarified that the incident sent at least two million gallons more into the Animas. Kim Stevens, director of advocacy group Environment Colorado, remarked, "This is a really devastating spill. We've been hearing from rafting companies and other businesses that rely on the river that if they can't get their clients out on the river in the next couple of days, they may have to shut down their doors." And then, of course, there's the impact to the livelihoods of fishermen to consider. She added, "The fish population is especially very sensitive to water contamination, and we really won't be able to see what the impacts are until all of the pollution has run its course. Time will tell." The poisoned water also runs through sensitive indigenous peoples' territory, and the Navajo Nation people have said they will not stand for the toxification of their land. Nation president Russell Begaye stated, "They're not going to get away with this. The EPA was right in the middle of the disaster and we intend to make sure the Navajo Nation recovers every dollar it spends cleaning up this mess and every dollar it loses as a result of injuries to our precious natural resources." And things are only going to get worse, at least in the short term, because the next stop on the mine waste's tainted tour is Utah. The orange and yellow wastewater is still wending its way through the San Juan River, which eventually joins Lake Powell over in the Beehive State. Officials in the adjacent town of Montezuma are making preparations by shutting off water pumps there, and the same is being done in the neighboring town of Aneth. Trouble, of a most toxic variety, is most certainly brewing. "There are people who want to know, 'Okay, what's going to happen now? Are you going to fix this?' " said Michele Truby-Tillen, a spokesperson for New Mexico's San Juan County Office of Emergency Management. And above all, she said, as health concerns worsen, one question nags at the backs of people's minds: "How are we going to protect our families?"
  4. From the vantage point of a few days out, the Paris climate summit looks set for success - at least by the metrics we've learned to use for these types of meetings. The main target for COP21, which is set to open on November 30, is to garner solid commitments aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and setting a strict bar to keep global warming from passing the 2°C mark. At first glance, this sounds a lot like the goals of previous climate meetings that ended up going nowhere. The 2009 Copenhagen meeting of 115 world leaders, for instance, was at first seen as a big opportunity to reverse climate change. Even before it ended though, the summit was widely panned as a failure. Most of its major goals for reducing CO2 emissions had to be dropped before a final communiqué could even be signed. But Paris could be different. For the first time, leaders from the advanced capitalist countries and those of the emerging economies seem to be on the same page when it comes to the urgency of slowing climate change. Governments are declaring - in advance - their commitment to legally-binding targets and timelines for emissions reduction. That's a real advance compared to previous climate talks where there were only vague recognitions of climate change and pledges to do more. If governments stick to their commitments and follow through with real reductions, then Paris will be worth marking down as progress. Reasons for optimism So why are things shaping up so differently for COP21? A number of major political and economic developments portend a significant shift from what happened at Copenhagen. After several years of wavering, President Obama forcefully rejected the Keystone XL pipeline in early November. By shutting down the plan to build a 1,700 mile pipeline to pump Canadian tar sands oil from Alberta down to Texas Gulf coast refineries, Obama helped set the stage for the discussions that will take place at COP21. On the day of his decision, Obama declared, "If we're going to prevent large parts of this earth from becoming not only inhospitable but uninhabitable in our lifetimes, we're going to have to keep some fossil fuels in the ground." He continued, "America is now a global leader when it comes to taking serious action on climate change...approving that project would have undercut that global leadership, and that is the biggest risk we face: not acting." Secretary of State John Kerry's comments at the time made it even clearer that the Administration had the upcoming Paris summit on its mind when making the decision. "The United States cannot ask other nations to make tough choices to address climate change if we are unwilling to make them ourselves," he said. "Denying the Keystone XL pipeline is one of those tough choices." The symbolic importance of Keystone should not be underestimated. Stopping the pipeline was the biggest victory that the environmental movement has achieved in the U.S. in many years. It was proof that organized action could have an impact on policy debates. But even more than that, it has sent the most powerful signal possible to other governments that America takes climate change seriously and is prepared to act. By pulling the plug on a pipeline that would have carried some of the world's dirtiest oil to market, Obama demonstrated that the U.S. is willing to be a serious partner in international efforts to tackle global warming. Presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have both praised the President's decision. Political developments in Canada have also contributed to a changed atmosphere for the Paris talks. The new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, was sworn in just days before Obama announced his decision. Though ostensibly a supporter of the Keystone pipeline, Trudeau was publicly against his predecessor Stephen Harper's aggressive lobbying on behalf of the TransCanada Corporation that planned to build it. Trudeau put up no real resistance to Obama's decision. After Harper's loss, the changing of the guard in Canada has been swift. Trudeau moved the environment portfolio out of the Ministry of Natural Resources, which under Harper had prioritized tar sands exploration. Instead, he created a new Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change. The new foreign minister, Stephane Dion, previously led the Liberal Party on a "Green Shift" platform in 2008 and recently declared that climate change is the "worst threat we are facing this century." The scuttling of Keystone has also gone a long way, especially among developing countries, to begin reversing the image of the U.S. as one who preaches but does not practice. It was preceded by the historic U.S.-China clean energy agreement last year, in which both countries agreed to move toward more renewables. The fact that the world's two biggest polluters have already hammered out an understanding before they arrive in Paris bodes well for a positive outcome. China has long argued that the U.S. had its industrialization heyday and yet continues to produce more emissions per capita than any other nation. The new trend of cooperation between Obama and President Xi signals that the U.S. may be recognizing Chinese criticisms. Taking on the role of leader among developing economies, China has set a target of 20percent clean energy by 2030 and announced a few weeks back that it was implementing a national cap and trade carbon market beginning in 2017. In Britain, meanwhile, the Conservative government of David Cameron has declared its intention to shut down its last coal-fired power plants by 2025. The country which pioneered the fossil-fueled Industrial Revolution of early capitalism is now on board with the changing international climate discussion. The divisions in big oil Where is the credit due for the major turnarounds on the climate issue by these leading governments? Recognition first of all goes out to the environmental and labor movements who have come together to push for stronger climate policies, as well as to the activists and governments of poor and developing countries who are already feeling the effects of climate change. It is also necessary, however, to look at how divisions among the major energy companies are producing cracks in the coalition opposed to climate action. At a gathering of the world's top oil executives - the OPEC International Energy Seminar - in Vienna earlier this summer, major divisions over how to respond to COP21 and the growing commitment to environmental action were revealed. While world oil prices are down over the last several months, no one believes that oil and coal will not continue to be major parts of the world's energy mix. This means that although the market outlook for producers of the dirtiest oil, like TransCanada, may be dimming, all the companies agreed that they will of course continue to invest heavily in their respective sectors. Where the façade of unity begins to break down, however, is on the issue of long-term prospects. The major European oil companies - Royal Dutch Shell, BP, Total, Eni, BG Group, and Statoil - released a joint statement at the meeting calling for the development of a global carbon pricing system. The CEO of Shell, Ben van Beurden, told the meeting that the global energy system is experiencing "a transition from the traditional model based on oil and coal to a progressively cleaner, less carbon-intensive model." With an eye toward long-term profitability and market opportunity, these companies are already beginning to think about a post-fossil fuel future. The head of Exxon Mobil, Rex Tillerson, took a completely opposite stance. In a strongly-worded warning to his fellow executives, Tillerson said that carbon pricing would destroy economic growth. He declared, "It is very important for governments that make those choices to live with the economic consequences." The imperatives of the short-term thinking inherent to the obsession with quarterly reports and shareholder returns seem to be motivating Exxon Mobil's perspective. The model of a carbon pricing market being debated by these oil executives is a complicated one that has all kinds of shortcomings of its own, not least of which is its in-built inequalities for developing and developed economies. This is not the most important thing to take note of at the OPEC Executives conference though. The most important thing to pay attention to is the fact that big oil is divided and this leaves an opening for progressives to pressure their governments. It has been said that powerful enemies can be vanquished, but only by the most "thorough, careful, attentive, skillful, and obligatory use" of any, even the smallest, of rifts among that enemy. These divisions among big oil are ones that need further attention and study. Stumbling blocks remain While there is reason to be optimistic about the Paris summit, it will not be smooth sailing. The recent terrorist attacks in the French capital have greatly altered the terrain in which the talks will take place. The recent downing of a Russian military plane by Turkish forces further threatens to overshadow the environmental focus that governments had earlier put so much of their efforts into. The heavy focus on security also means that the atmosphere surrounding the conference will probably be very different than anticipated. The dynamics of debate outside of the meeting hall look to be radically changed as French President Francois Hollande has banned demonstrations and public protests by environmental groups. How this will affect the wide range of civil society parallel conferences and events that were planned to take place alongside COP21 is uncertain. It could mean that only the voices of governments and the most well-funded green groups will be heard. That is why it's all the more important to have progressive news coverage and analysis from on the ground in Paris. Back here in the U.S., meanwhile, Republicans in the Senate are doing all they can to sabotage the Paris talks before they even begin. On November 24, they passed two resolutions aimed at blocking EPA regulations that would impose stricter emissions targets on power plants. The President will certainly veto the resolutions, but the main political goal is to undermine Obama at the Paris talks. The Republican plan is to make it look like Obama will be unable to carry through his pledges. West Virginia GOP Senator Shelly Moore Capito admitted as much when she said foreign diplomats "will take away a message from this vote...the general support for the direction he's going is weak at best." Many of the major oil companies, like Exxon Mobil and TransCanada, will also certainly be on the job the morning after the summit concludes to try to water down and derail any commitments that threaten their profits and investment plans. Lobbyists in Washington, Ottawa, and many other capitals will be hard at work to put a check on the drive to halt climate change. COP21 has the potential to be big. Just like the lobbyists of big oil will be doing though, progressive activists and the climate justice movement will have to roll up their sleeves and get down to work if they want to make the pledges of Paris a reality.
  5. As the country continues to endure the effects of climate change, wildfires are hardly a new phenomenon on the West Coast. For drought-ridden California, however, the blazes have now caused massive destruction and at least one death. And with 700,000 acres burned so far this year, there's no end in sight for the inferno. For firefighters and victims, the numbers behind the blazes represent an uphill battle. The largest of the disasters are the Valley fire and the Butte fire, which have burned 67,000 and 71,660 acres, respectively. The former is 15 percent contained, the latter 37 percent, and at least 23,000 people have been displaced by both combined. In total, at least 751 homes have been destroyed. It was the Valley fire that caused one death - Barbara McWilliams, a 72 year-old woman with multiple sclerosis who couldn't get out of her home, according to fire officials. The Valley fire, located in Lake County, began on Sept. 12, while the Butte fire, in Jackson and Amador County, started Sept. 9. And these, while the largest and most fearsome, are only two of a dozen currently ripping through the Golden State. Workers fighting the fires hope that rain today might bring some relief. Though an end to the state's ongoing drought is not yet in the cards, the cool weather system could play a part in further containing some of the blazes. Veteran firefighter Bob Cummensky, part of the initial team that fought the Valley fire in Middletown, remarked, "It's such a beautiful area, and it's changed forever. This [town] is my best friend's home." Though he has fought fires for nearly five decades, he said he's never seen anything of this magnitude. The fire's expansion in every direction, and the challenging topography across which it has spread, have not made matters easier. "It's a 100-year fire in a 100-year drought. It goes against everything I've ever learned about fire behavior." The fire is certainly abnormal; its smoke has even created a rare type of cloud called a pyrocumulus, which was photographed Sept. 11 by climate scientist Peter Gleick and tweeted as he flew past it at 30,000 feet. These clouds also create a new problem, because they can trigger firestorms, which may produce lightning that can, in turn, start another fire. It's an unpredictable situation that has kept officials on the defensive. "We've had wildfires in California since the beginning of time," said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services. "But what we're seeing now that's different is the extreme rapid spread of the fires, and extreme volatility." Middletown was amongst the hardest-hit areas in Lake County, with phrases like "completely devastated" and "everything's gone" reverberating throughout the community. And the fire, which has burned far more than just forest land, has a decidedly urban bent: an apartment complex with more than 100 units was reduced to ash; flames licked at power lines and melted street signs; and shells of burned out cars conjured up images of apocalyptic disaster films. California Gov. Jerry Brown once again tied the problem to climate change, stating, "There is no doubt that we need to de-carbonize our modern economy. We have sharpened what the debate is because there are vast amounts of officials who say it isn't true. This will smoke it out. Fires are not political. Climate change is not political. It is real. This is serious stuff. Firefighters need to be careful, but so do people. It's going to get worse." Specifically, however, the wildfires were exacerbated by the drought, which in turn was caused by the output of greenhouse gases that are contributing to global warming. The trees killed so far by the drought - of which there were at least 12 million - were more prone to ignite, and a heavy presence of bark beetles, which further decimate trees, helped make conditions that much worse. Scott Stephens, a fire science professor at UC Berkeley, said forests have also grown denser over the last 100 years, forcing trees to compete for increasingly limited amounts of water and rendering them more susceptible to bark beetle infestations. It also means that when a small fire starts, it spreads from one tree to another more quickly and rapidly spins out of control. "If this drought continues for another two years or longer, I expect this mortality to move throughout the state," he remarked. "Forests that once burned frequently with low to moderate intensity fires are the most susceptible." Joe Casola, deputy director of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group, explained that on the West Coast, this year's combination of warm winter weather, low snowpack, hot summer, and outbreak of relentless brushfires is "a good preview of what climate models tell us will soon be commonplace. These are the conditions we're likely to be facing several decades from now and going forward."
  6. As President Obama visits Arctic Alaska, the first president to do so, he is speaking about the many impacts that climate change is already causing there, from rising seas to melting permafrost collapsing homes. Because the arctic is heating faster than the rest of the planet, climate change is a bigger issue for Alaska, for residents of towns close to the water, for tribes dependent on traditional fishing for their livelihood, for rapidly melting glaciers. As part of his trip, Obama gave an opening address to the GLACIER Conference in Anchorage, Alaska. He stated that the U.S. recognizes its role in creating the problem and responsibility to take part in solving it. He noted that no nation is moving fast enough, and condemned leaders who gamble by taking no action on the dire future due to climate change are "not fit to lead." Obama faces severe criticism during the trip from environmental groups who accuse him of hypocrisy, since at the same time he is calling for action to address climate change, his administration has just given final permission to Shell Oil to drill in the Arctic. During his trip, native groups and allies rallied to demand no drilling in the Arctic. Shell's plans have been confronted by many activists, the kayaktivists in Seattle to bridge danglers in Portland, both trying to stop Shell ships and rigs from being able to leave port to go to the Arctic. Groups are mounting petition campaigns and public relations efforts to organize opposition to Shell's plans (sign one petition here.) The record of the Obama administration on environmental issues, while mixed, stands in contrast to the previous, George W. Bush administration. Obama's positive steps include major support for developing renewable energy in the stimulus bill, efforts by the EPA to regulate new and existing power plant carbon emissions, increased mileage standards for cars and trucks, the agreement with China on projected reductions in emissions, and many more. Negative actions include support for major increases in fracking, in offshore oil drilling, and refusing to kill the Keystone XL pipeline (which has also not been approved). The administration faces opposition from the right, in Congress and elsewhere, for the plan of the EPA to regulate carbon emissions as pollution harmful to human health. Republicans in Congress continue efforts to defund the EPA, to force approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, to undercut any climate agreements, to deny the basic science of climate change, and more. Obama's current tour is part of the run-up to UN-sponsored climate negotiations to take place in December in Paris. The agreement signed between the US and China on carbon reductions has increased expectations that this conference will have more concrete results than many previous UN conferences on climate. In addition to these government-to-government negotiations, there is a growing movement to divest from fossil fuel corporations, which just had a big victory in California. A growing factor on the world stage is the efforts of Pope Francis and other important religious leaders to add a moral dimension to how the issue is framed, and to bring their not inconsiderable political capital to bear on the negotiations. Each particular battle is but one part of the longer struggle to transform our energy economy, our economy as a whole, how things are produced, packaged, and distributed. The direction of these struggles is ultimately to challenge the system, but in the meantime, we need all the allies, temporary or partial though they are, to make changes right now. These current battles lay the basis for future, more basic victories. Obama has moved U.S. policy into the column of those tackling climate change, though in an uneven and partial way. But winning smaller victories now is key to winning more later.
  7. Islamic leaders from 20 countries yesterday called for rapid transition from a world economic order based on fossil fuel to one powered by renewable energy. Wael Hmaidan, international director of Climate Action Network (CAN), described the declaration adopted by 60 prominent Islamic scholars and religious leaders at the two-day International Islamic Climate Change Symposium as a potential "game changer." "It challenges all world leaders, and especially oil producing nations," Hmaidan said, "to phase out their carbon emissions and supports the just transition to 100 percent renewable energy as a necessity to tackle climate change, reduce poverty and deliver sustainable development," according to a CAN report. As part of a worldwide groundswell, the declaration urges governments to deliver a new international climate agreement in Paris this December that guarantees limiting global warming above pre-industrial levels to 2, but preferably 1.5, degrees Celsius. The declaration makes the moral case, based on Islamic teachings, for the 1.6 billion Muslims and people of all faiths worldwide to take urgent climate action. The declaration is in sync with the much lauded Encyclical by Pope Francis released two months ago. For its part, the Vatican has enthusiastically endorsed the Islamic declaration. "The climate crisis needs to be tackled through collaborative efforts, so let's work together for a better world for our children, and our children's children," declared Din Syamsuddin, chairman of the Indonesian Council of Ulema. Speakers at the Symposium included three senior UN officials, scientists, NGO leaders and academics. Also attending were religious leaders from many other faith traditions. Pope Francis' activism, especially since the release of his Encyclical in June, has energized people of faith who have long advocated for the environment. Since June, the World Council of Churches, Unitarian Universalists, Union Seminary, and the Episcopal Church have all divested from fossil fuels. As of Aug. 13, 403 rabbis had signed a Rabbinic Letter on the Climate Crisis, calling for vigorous action to prevent worsening climate disruption and to seek eco-social justice. In a related action, in July more than 180 evangelical Christian leaders signed a letter backing President Barack Obama's plan to reduce carbon emission from power plants. The Climate Change Symposium Declaration urged "well-off nations" and oil producing states to "re-focus their concerns from unethical profit from the environment, to that of preserving it and elevating the condition of the world's poor." Among other notable demands, the declaration called on the people of all nations and their leaders: "To set in motion a fresh model of wellbeing, based on an alternative to the current financial model which depletes resources, degrades the environment, and deepens inequality."Prioritize adaptation efforts with appropriate support to the vulnerable countries with the least capacity to adapt. And vulnerable groups, including indigenous peoples, women and children.The declaration further called on the corporations, finance, and business sector: "To shoulder the consequences of their profit-making activities, and take a visibly more active role in reducing their carbon footprint and other forms of impact upon the natural environment;"Change from the current business model which is based on an unsustainable escalating economy, and to adopt a circular economy that is wholly sustainable;"Assist in the divestment from the fossil fuel driven economy and the scaling up of renewable energy and other ecological alternatives."
  8. For climate change activists who were looking to shore up the three-legged stool of support for arguments supporting the science of climate change and hoping to shape policies to mitigate climate change impacts, it was an extremely pleasant surprise that a fourth leg was added to the climate change education and advocacy stool. Thank you Pope Francis! Those three legs included the science community, grassroots and environmental organizational support and advocacy, and the political community and process. But now we have another powerful support beam to shore up efforts to educate, advocate and broaden support. Religion. Pope Francis has conveyed a moral, ethical, spiritual, and communal message that cleverly, but deliberately uses logic, facts, and scientific reasoning to support education, policies and actions on climate change. It has the further potential to reach a distant audience who was either indifferent or skeptical because religion has often been used by climate change deniers as an excuse as to why we "shouldn't worry, God will take care of all." Pope Francis' encyclical on the environment or "On Care For Our Common Home" has revealed that religion, all along, was really intertwined with scientific study and findings with respect, to the planet that sustains all of life as we know it. The pope's weight and gravitas on climate change is more than raising awareness to the flock, and potentially bringing around 1.2 billion Catholics, or neutralizing some of the denier's religious arguments against recognizing climate change. Pope Francis' statement on the conditions, and actions needed on climate change is a marriage and consummation of morality and science. And frankly it's just plain exciting that a pope recognizes the moral crisis that faces humankind that's tied up in politics and economics. Of course this pope has been refreshingly turning heads since his tenure started. Pope Francis is connecting the dots of climate change through science, economics, and calling for a moral and just response, not simply proportional. Francis has put our entire economic model and ethos on trial. His encyclical on protecting the earth has as many references to science as religion and condemns our economic activity and lack of proper urban planning as a primary source of the devastation we're unleashing on our planet. In bringing it home to the masses, the pope reminds us that it's the poor and working class that will bear the burden of climate change impacts. Drought in some places, flooding in others lead to dislocation, famine and war. We're already seeing those impacts and scenarios play themselves out in places like Syria, over 1 million Syrians have been forced to relocate due to drought impacts on crop yields, turning Syria from a commodity exporter to importer that led to huge escalations in food prices and exacerbated by negligent and harsh responses from the Bashar al-Assad government, fueling the Syrian Civil War. These conditions and realities surrounding global warming haven't been lost on institutions like the U.S. Defense Department, which late last year issued a report stating that climate change was a "threat multiplier," which could create civil unrest, the spread of disease, and destabilize susceptible places and regions, and poses an "immediate risk" to national security. When you have both the U.S. Defense Department and the pope agreeing on the science and impacts of global warming, you would think you have something irrefutable. But here we go again. The nonscientists, intent on undermining the truth and any responsible action and responses to climate change, are still on the move. Fox News minions have already declared the Pope the "most dangerous person on the planet." And Fox's Republican Party field of presidential candidates is only too proud and happy to carry that message into the presidential primaries. Jeb Bush said the pope should really just butt out of politics (except when church and state stand side by side on other social matters dear to Republicans) and matters of science. Bush said it's "arrogant" to raise the scientific consensus of global warming. Bobby Jindal, another Republican presidential candidate and climate change denier who previously had warned his own party of being the "stupid party," now seems quite prophetic about the likes of Jeb Bush, himself, and pretty much the entire Republican presidential field and party followers when it comes to climate change. And that makes perfect sense. Pope Francis is appealing to a higher power or reason, logic, and enlightenment views to address the most pressing challenge that humans have faced in their existence. Francis' scathing and insightful statements on our economic model and philosophy are consistent with this environmental encyclical. Unfettered capitalism, driven by greed, selfish interests, disdain for the poor, disrespect of the planet, the pillaging of natural resources benefitting the very few, coupled with the lack of heart, mind, and will to realize that we have not only the responsibility, but the means to correct this ill that, would not only preserve humanity, but ensure it thrives in an egalitarian way, will be memorialized in failure, that this current generation failed to recognize and act to save the human population. The pope wonderfully summarizes the policy aspects of climate change and an optimistic way forward. "We know that technology based on the use of highly polluting fossil fuels - especially coal, but also oil and, to a lesser degree, gas - needs to be progressively replaced without delay. Until greater progress is made in developing widely accessible sources of renewable energy, it is legitimate to choose the less harmful alternative or to find short-term solutions. But the international community has still not reached adequate agreements about the responsibility for paying the costs of this energy transition. In recent decades, environmental issues have given rise to considerable public debate and have elicited a variety of committed and generous civic responses. Politics and business have been slow to react in a way commensurate with the urgency of the challenges facing our world. Although the post-industrial period may well be remembered as one of the most irresponsible in history, nonetheless there is reason to hope that humanity at the dawn of the twenty-first century will be remembered for having generously shouldered its grave responsibilities." As Pope Francis inspires us to think through how humans act upon the world and themselves both justly and unjustly, he at last has brought a voice into the discussion around climate change that is merging the voices of science, religion, and politics. He reminds us that humans have socially created and engineered religion and politics, while science ultimately rules. Maybe the pope is saying that God is nature, or the environment. Regardless, we have a powerful moral figure who brings science and enlightenment thinking into a problem that has the ability to destroy us or compel us to come together to realize our finest moment.
  9. As drought-stricken California struggles to meet the mandatory water use restrictions Gov. Jerry Brown announced earlier this month, the governor is urging a sharp increase in fines for the worst violators, and moving to help local water agencies conduct environmental reviews more quickly. On Apr. 28, Brown called for legislation to sharply increase fines up to a maximum $10,000 for the worst violations of the conservation orders. The current maximum fine is $500 per day. Also under Brown's proposal, wholesale and retail water agencies, as well as city and county governments, will be able to issue penalties. They could enforce both local water restrictions and restrictions ordered by the State Water Resources Control Board. Monetary penalties would go toward local conservation efforts. In a separate action, Brown directed state agencies to help local water agencies cut the amount of time needed to comply with state-required environmental reviews. The proposed new penalties come amid continuing debate about Brown's unprecedented April 1 executive order mandating that over 3,000 urban water districts in the state cut their water use by an overall 25 percent this year compared with 2013. The order also directs the state to provide financial help to homeowners shifting to drought-resistant landscaping, and rebates for new water-efficient appliances. The order focuses mainly on urban water uses like lawns, parks, public medians and golf courses, which take up less than a quarter of water use by people in the state. "I would hope that we don't see this in some punitive way, but that we see the challenge ... the climate is getting warmer, the weather is getting more extreme and unpredictable, and we have to become more resilient, more efficient and more innovative," the governor said then. A major bone of contention is the omission from the April 1 order of any mandatory or voluntary conservation targets for agriculture, which uses nearly 80 percent of water not designated for environmental conservation. Instead, irrigation districts were told to develop drought management plans and monitor groundwater levels, and the State Water Resources Control Board was told to go after illegal and wasteful water users. In exempting agriculture from cutbacks, Brown has sided with farmers who say they have already suffered four years of drought as well as sharp cutbacks by state and federal water providers, resulting in more land left fallow and lower income for the agriculture industry. Thousands of farm workers have also been put out of work. Many water and conservation experts say agriculture should be included in the cutbacks. An often-cited issue is increasing pumping of groundwater, which in some Central Valley areas has already caused the land to sink measurably. Until 2014, California was the only western state not regulating groundwater withdrawals, and the new regulations don't become fully effective until 2022. Another issue is planting of highly profitable but water-guzzling crops like almonds. Many farmers also continue to use flood irrigation rather than the much more efficient drip irrigation. Some environmentalists also call for limiting water use on land used to raise crops for animal feed. The debate takes place against the background of an antiquated allocation system that gives priority, and lower rates, to holders of "senior" water rights - those claimed before California established a permit process in 1914 - with holders of "junior" rights claimed after that time receiving less. Though California is the country's largest agricultural producer and employs over 400,000 people, the industry accounts for just 2 percent of the state's gross domestic product. Meanwhile, cities facing the sharpest cutbacks are pleading for exemptions because they have invested in recycled or desalinated water, or face great demands for water during extreme summer temperatures, or rely on local sources rather than state resources. Also sharply debated is the governor's failure to include the oil and gas industry in his mandatory restrictions. Environmentalists estimate that more than two million gallons of fresh water are used daily to stimulate oil wells through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and related processes. The oil industry contends that such drilling produces more water than oil, and much of that water is provided to farmers. But environmentalists also point out that earlier this year, California's Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources required oil companies to shut down 12 wastewater wells in the Central Valley because they are located close enough to underground wells for drinking or agricultural water to threaten contamination. Another 176 wells are undergoing investigation, and over 2,500 more wells are in areas that were never approved for wastewater injection. Zack Malitz of the social action organization CREDO told Reuters earlier this year, "Gov. Brown is forcing ordinary Californians to shoulder the burden of the drought by cutting their personal water use while giving the oil industry a continuing license to break the law and poison our water. Fracking and toxic injection wells may not be the largest users of water in California, but they are undoubtedly some of the stupidest."
  10. As California continues to endure historic drought conditions, this and strong Santa Ana winds are two factors contributing to vicious and more frequent wildfires. Dry conditions are expected to continue this week, and in the southern part of the state, the National Weather Service has predicted conditions that will cause fires to quickly grow out of control. One such brushfire occurred on Apr. 18, forcing mandatory evacuations near LA and having scorched 1,020 acres by Apr. 20, when it was 55 percent contained. And the worst, experts say, could be yet to come. The Apr. 18 incident was the result of an unattended cooking fire, and was, of course, exacerbated by the arid conditions, growing from 30 to 175 acres in just three hours. Even as evacuation orders have been lifted and the wildfire is now 60 percent contained, heavy, low-lying smoke is still expected to cling to surrounding areas throughout the early part of this week, causing potential visibility and breathing issues on roadways, according to CalFire. Fires like this are a problem, said meteorologist Brett Rathbun, who remarked, "The excessive drought across California can cause fires to spark even easier because the ground is so dry and lacks moisture." "We don't know when the drought will end," said Felicia Marcus, chair of the California State Water Resources Control Board. "Californians need to step up. We don't even know if it will rain much in the next year." After four years of steadily worsening drought, as climate change continues to rear its ugly head, it's time for Californians to "make real lifestyle changes," which means, above all, adhering to water restrictions. But even such measures won't stop the problem of wildfires, especially if conditions continue to become drier. And according to Benjamin Cook, a climatologist at the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York, that's exactly what's going to happen. He said, "Climate change is going to lead to overall much drier conditions toward the end of the 21st century than anything we've seen in probably the last 1,000 years." And rain won't save us, added Noah Diffenbaugh, a climatologist at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif. That's because the hotter weather means whatever water falls to the ground is going to evaporate that much more quickly. "We're on the cusp in California of having every year be a warm year, which means that when low precipitation does occur, there's going to be a much higher risk that that low precipitation produces drought." "There are a lot of opportunities to deal with these potentially significant droughts in the future," said Cook. "But we just need to be a little bit proactive about it and we need to plan ahead." In particular, said Diffenbaugh, issues like California water policy, water management, and infrastructure need to be changed to accommodate the climate that exists today. Those systems "were built in an old climate," he noted. "And the reality is, we're in a new climate." Howard Kunreuther, professor of operations and information management at Wharton University in Pennsylvania, said this megadrought could serve as a harsh wake-up call to Californians, including Angelinos, who might become more aware of the importance of water conservation. "People forget how water is used in many different ways," he said. "The minute you bring up a point like that, people pay attention, and recognize that the things they do today could be beneficial for things that happen in the future that they hadn't really thought about." Part of the problem, he noted, is that, while another enormous wildfire "is not necessarily going to happen tomorrow, it could happen a few months from now. But it isn't on people's agenda to think about it, and they normally don't think about the water tied into the forest fires." You can "start constructing scenarios as to what could happen," but "how do you get those people to take those scenarios seriously?" "This isn't something that's going to be solved overnight," he concluded. "But taking steps along the lines of conserving [water] will be a way to deal with [the drought]. The more people do that, the more they will benefit."
  11. During what is now California's worst drought in at least 1,200 years, agencies are ambivalent over how to convince Angelenos to cut water usage. Potential options include everything from educating residents to rationing, fines, and threats. While a recent executive order was issued by Gov. Jerry Brown requiring a 25 percent cut in water use from 2013 levels, communites are left to struggle with how exactly to achieve that goal. Part of the solution may be getting the wealthy to cooperate with working class people. Retired resident Dorothy, 65, has lived in LA's Palms neighborhood for 11 years. She told the People's World, "For people who have a decent salary, life is quite comfortable. But we do have a big problem with the water. Unless we cut consumption by a quarter or even a third, we could end up with a real disaster. And so far, many people are not doing their part to save water, despite what they say. They're just going about business as usual. And bottled water and those types of solutions are sometimes out of reach for the poor." The woman, who emigrated from Germany, said she never ceases to be amazed by how people come along to make a quick buck off of every crisis. She referred to the recent trend of lawn-painting companies - organizations that dye the dried lawns of the upper class a healthy shade of green to keep up appearances. One such company is LawnLift, started by 45 year-old mortgage broker Jim Power, who said, "Most homeowners have no clue how to water their lawns" anyway. According to the LA Times, Escondido resident Sean McDaniel, holding his two pet poodles and gesturing at his emerald lawn, said, "I painted the lawn two days ago." One can buy a 32 oz. bottle of this lawn paint from LawnLift's website for the not-so-low price of $45.95. "It's all well and good that the wealthy are having their lawns painted green," Dorothy remarked, "but that's not a solution." Newsha Ajami, director of Urban Water Policy at Stanford University's Water in the West program, said communities need to employ a wide range of conservation measures, rather than just expecting residents to act on their own. She said that levying fines for wasting water is likely a fast way to change behavior. "You need to quickly get to the point," she said. Jonathan Parfrey, a former LA Department of Water and Power commissioner and executive director of Climate Resolve, added, "We need to soak the rich for soaking their lawns. You gotta price water accordingly so it gets their attention." One extreme, said Beverly Hills resident Daniel Fink, could be curbing lawn-watering entirely for a while. "California is in the fourth year of the worst drought, and has about a year's worth of stored water left," he said. "But one wouldn't know it looking at all the still-green lawns. We have to stop watering our lawns. The water just isn't there anymore. I know that would be unpopular, but is it better to wait until the taps run dry?" This drought, Dorothy lamented, "is one example of how we're all going to suffer from climate change."
  12. The first UN negotiating session preparing for a climate deal this fall just wrapped up in Geneva. The draft is the next step in a long process of negotiation and bargaining on the way to a treaty to finally replace the expired Kyoto Accords. The negotiations were given a boost last fall by A U.S.-China deal on limiting carbon pollution. This set the stage for more serious negotiations involving all parties, with many issues still outstanding. For the first time, the treaty is expected to include targets for both developed and developing countries. Historically, the developed countries have emitted the most carbon pollution, and so have contributed the most to the build-up of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. This cumulative build-up is the cause of the global warming the world is already experiencing. However, currently, several developing countries are emitting the most carbon pollution, led by China and India. The Kyoto Accords included only the developed countries, and they expired in 2012. For several years before that expiration, and ever since, efforts to create a binding climate treaty have floundered. The U.S.-China deal raised hopes of finding new ways to include all countries in the process, and marked a major step in China's negotiating posture, and also marked a major step in the US posture, calling for major steps by both countries to limit carbon pollution. This UN process also takes place against rising demonstrations calling for climate action, most importantly the People's Climate March in NYC in September, 400,000 strong. Solidarity actions that weekend around the world added another 200,000 to the count. Many other kinds of ongoing organizing are taking place, building a multi-faceted movement. Last weekend, 350.org and many other groups staged Global Divestment Days, calling on universities, pension funds, and public funds to be divested from fossil fuel companies. Norway became the first country to pledge divestment from its wealth fund, dumping billions in investments in fossil fuel companies, though it still has billions more to go. Republicans and some Democrats in Congress have pushed through a bill trying to force Obama to okay the Keystone pipeline project, a bill he had promised to veto. Other battles are being waged over EPA rules for new and existing power plants. In addition to the growing climate action movement, these negotiations take place against the backdrop of increasingly dire predictions about the results of climate change. 2014 was the hottest year on record. NASA scientists predict that large parts of the U.S. will experience multi-decades-long massive droughts later this century. The UN negotiations are scheduled to wrap up at a major conference in Paris in November and December of 2015. While a major international treaty would be an important step forward in the fight against catastrophic climate change, the treaty will certainly not be enough by itself. Enough carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases have accumulated in the atmosphere to guarantee increasing impacts, on top of the ones already seen: increased forest fires, rising sea levels, more extreme weather events, extreme flooding and droughts, changes in weather patterns impacting agriculture, wildlife, and disease zones, glacial and ice sheet melting, and increased species extinction, to mention some.
  13. The fires from Monday's derailment of a train carrying crude oil in Fayette County, West Virginia, continued to burn Tuesday morning, and emergency shelters for hundreds of people who had to evacuate after the derailment remain open. "A CSX train, hauling 107 tank car loads of Bakken Shale crude oil from North Dakota to a transportation terminal in Yorktown, Virginia, derailed in Adena Village near Mount Carbon and Deepwater West Virginia about 1:30 p.m. Monday," according to the Charleston Gazette and Staff writer Ken Ward Jr. At least one house was set ablaze and numerous tank cars either burned or exploded. West Virginia Rivers Executive Director Angela Rosser reported: "Witnesses saw a gigantic fireball raise to the snow-filled heavens. This is the second terrible trauma in as many years to his the Kanawha River valley. Last January a chemical spill from coal industry connected Freedom Industries storage tanks endangered the water of 300,000 people for weeks. It's time to ask you town or county or state -- what is on the rail cars travelling through our community??" Bakken crude has shown to be a volatile form of crude requiring highly flammable chemicals in its transport from North Dakota and other shale gas and oil fields. According to Lynn Cook in the Wall Street Journal, this risk is well known to oil and transport companies. "Data released by a lobbying group for oil refiners confirmed that crude from the Bakken shale in North Dakota is very volatile and contains high levels of combustible gases..." Now, who is surprised at this reaction from that group? "The crude," which has been linked to no less than four fiery rail accidents in a year, "is no more dangerous to ship than oil from other shale regions and is being correctly loaded and transported under existing federal rules. New rules aren't warranted," the group, the American Fuel and Petrochemical Manufacturers, said Wednesday. Federal Railroad Administration workers were only able to get within 50 yards of the derailed cars late Tuesday morning, according to the agency. Some of the rail cars were still on fire, and local emergency responders were still in charge of the scene. Flames also burned power lines in the area, knocking out electricity to about 900 customers in the midst of frigid sub-freezing temperatures. According Appalachian Power spokeswoman Jeri Matheney, reported in the Gazette, "electricity has not yet been restored because repair crews are having trouble accessing the extent of the damage. About 2,400 people were evacuated or displaced by the train derailment, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency." Investigators the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration are also already at the scene, and more staff are on the way. Because of the unknown quantities of spill from the exploded or burnt cars, or tank cars in the river, Officials in Montgomery, downriver from the accident, were told to shut down their water intake as a precaution. Reduced water intakes from the Kanawha river have forces water conservation restrictions. One person was treated for smoke inhalation, officials said, but, miraculously, no other injuries have been reported. Kelley Gillenwater, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection, said that the fires were keeping DEP officials from being able to fully examine the site of the derailment to determine what sort of containment and cleanup is going to be needed. Full details of water sampling being done by the state were not immediately available, but Gillenwater said that so far the results had come back "non-detect." Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin declared a state of emergency in Fayette and Kanawha counties after the derailment. Tomblin scheduled a news conference with federal and state officials at 2 p.m. Tuesday at the Montgomery Fire Department. In April 2014, a train carrying crude oil on the same North Dakota-Virginia route derailed in Lynchburg, Virginia. In July 2013, a 74-car train carrying Bakken Shale crude oil derailed in Quebec, Canada, setting off fires and explosions that killed 47 people. On Saturday, at least seven rail cars carrying crude oil caught fire in Northern Ontario after a train traveling from Alberta to eastern Canada derailed, according to media reports. What's riding through your town ready to send you to hell?
  14. A nuclear power plant near the town of Brattleboro, Vermont is being shut down thanks to local environmental activism. The Vermont Yankee plant ceased splitting atoms on Dec. 29 after more than 42 years of activity. The victory is one that will surely bring relief to activists and citizens alike, as the plant's reactor was the General Electric Mark I, the same design as that of Fukushima, which infamously melted down and exploded, spewing radiation into the atmosphere. Due to a hefty push-back in 2010 from Citizen's Awareness Network, the Vermont Senate voted 26 to 4 on Feb. 24 that year to phase Vermont Yankee out of operation after 2012. That has now come to pass, but it was largely the result of activists raising awareness of the possible negative health effects of the reactor. At the time of the vote, the plant was leaking radioactive tritium into the air following the collapse of a cooling tower back in 2007. The structural dismantling of the plant, meanwhile, will not be completed until 2040. The plant is owned by Entergy, a corporation that has a history almost as toxic as the fossil fuel it deals with. The company has a number of alleged misdeeds including stealing overtime wages from workers, overcharging customers, and having a general lack of regulatory oversight that likely contributed to the 2007 mishap. A similar fiasco recently occurred at the Browns Ferry nuclear plant near Athens, Alabama, from which a leak of radioactive water released tritium into the environment sometime during the week of Jan. 5. The Tennessee Valley Authority, which operates the plant, maintained that the leak was quickly stoppered and no significant public risk was presented. One could be forgiven, however, if he or she still had qualms about the integrity of the reactors, particularly as the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined that the plant's three units are at some risk from potential earthquakes. In the midst of climate change, that serves only to exacerbate already existing concerns. The plant has long been in the crosshairs of Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation, a group representing concerned citizens, environmentalists, and workers. Garry Morgan, a retired U.S. Army medical officer who has monitored radiation around Browns Ferry for the group, remarked, "Any leak of radionuclide contaminant into the environment indicates a failure of oversight and/or attention to detail, maybe both, on the part of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the Tennessee Valley Authority." He added that cancer mortality rates have increased by 20 percent above the U.S. average since Browns Ferry began generating power in 1974. The problem of leaking tritium, which is a radioactive form of hydrogen, does not end there. According to the Associated Press, the contaminant has leaked from at least 48 reactors - and perhaps as many as 65 - across the U.S., and often ends up in groundwater. This information was taken by AP from Nuclear Regulatory Commission records as part of their coverage on the matter. Furthermore, tritium from at least three of those sites - two in Illinois and one in Minnesota - has actually seeped into the drinking wells of residential homes, said the report. In conclusion, while one plant with Fukushima-type reactors has been defeated, others remain, and are contributing to environmental toxicity. Greenpeace noted, "The world is still running more than 400 inherently dangerous nuclear reactors. Millions of people are at risk. Nuclear energy is not a necessary evil, because affordable, safer, and cleaner energy solutions exist. They are only a matter of political choice."
  15. An organization called Idaho for Wildlife hosted a hunting derby between Jan. 1 and Jan. 4 that resulted in the deaths of two dozen coyotes for the mere purposes of obtaining their fur or for taxidermy. The Idaho event came on the heels of a wolf killing in Utah during Dec., in which "Echo," the first wolf seen wandering about the Grand Canyon in 70 years, was likely the victim after crossing state lines and being mistaken for a coyote. The two tragedies added up to what was a very bad holiday season for wild canines. The Humane Society's Idaho director Lisa Kauffman called the event, which occurred in Salmon, Idaho, a "wolf massacre." Though no wolves were killed, in which more than 125 hunters competed for cash prizes for whoever killed the most coyotes. Though Idaho for Wildlife did have some positive-sounding aims - they noted "we tailor it around this time of year for family, to let the kids get out to learn to hunt, gun safety, and survival skills" - the purpose of hunting coyotes remains questionable as, despite the group's claims to the contrary, coyotes are not terribly fierce or problematic predators. The event also gave hunters ample opportunity to kill wolves anyway, as is legal in Idaho - the wolf kills simply would not be worth any "prizes." Many animal rights activists feel that hunts like these toe a dangerous line, as many wolves are mistaken for coyotes and accidentally killed, the most recent case being in Utah on Dec. 28. The wolf, which was believed to be the same one photographed near the Grand Canyon earlier last year, is part of a species that was only just removed from the Endangered Species List in 2011 (as many feel, against better judgment). Kauffman decried the hunting of coyotes in Idaho, as it was done for pure sport. She remarked, "Rewarding shooters, including young children, with prizes takes us back to an earlier era of wanton killing that so many of us thought was an ugly, ignorant, and closed chapter in our history." Brian Ertz, president of nonprofit animal rights advocacy group Wildlands Defense, said, "People honestly believe that sterilizing the landscape of 'predators' will enrich their economy and preserve their culture." But "Americans in general are becoming more compassionate toward non-human animals, and our appreciation of ecology and the contribution of wildlife communities is growing. This awareness and compassion threatens any culture that predicates itself on an appalling disregard for the suffering of sentient beings."
  16. The latest in a long series of UN-sponsored talks is convening in Lima, Peru, for two weeks of negotiations. The goal is to lay the basis for a climate treaty deal in Paris in November 2015. The last international agreement, the Kyoto Accords, expired in 2012; all subsequent efforts to replace it have failed thus far. The recent bilateral agreement between the Obama administration and the Chinese government set targets for limiting and then reducing greenhouse gas emissions. For the first time, China agreed to set a peak for its greenhouse gas emissions in 2030 and to reduce them in the decades following. China's reluctance to set such targets in the past has been a key stumbling block to reaching an international agreement, more significant since China became the world's largest emitter of carbon pollution in the last few years. This bilateral agreement has given new impetus to the likelihood of using the UN process to reach a new and more far-reaching agreement. Similarly, the foot-dragging of U.S. negotiators has been another key roadblock to an international agreement. New steps taken by the Obama administration include the agreement with China, which sets a target of serious reductions by 2025 for the U.S.; new EPA rules for new and existing power plants limiting their carbon pollution; continued commitment to renewable energy which started with the 2009 stimulus bill; and heightened attention in Obama's 2013 Inaugural and State of the Union speeches. While the bilateral agreement by itself is not enough, it does lay the basis for both the US and China to play a more positive role in international negotiations. This gathering takes place against the backdrop of continuing increases in temperature worldwide. There is a developing three-part alliance bringing pressure to reach an international agreement on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The three parts of this de facto alliance are: - First, the massive environmental movement demanding action on climate change, highlighted by the 400,000 strong September People's Climate March in New York City, alongside support marches around the world of many more tens of thousands of protesters, totaling over 600,000. - Second, the continuing signs from the natural world that climate change is real, is affected by human activity, and is already causing destruction and economic losses. - And third, the growing realization by policymakers and some economic heavyweights that action must be taken. These three forces have combined to create an atmosphere of excitement in the international negotiations, a welcome shift from the failures of previous gatherings in Bali, Cancun, and Copenhagen. There are significant issues and problems facing the negotiations, including many related to India. Moreover, given the rapidly developing problems from climate change, including some unexpected ones, the danger of approaching tipping points, and the sometimes apocalyptic uncertainties of climate change, it is highly unlikely that even the most aggressive agreement possible will adequately address the need for a worldwide shift to renewable energy, and will not touch the need for a fundamental restructuring of the capitalist world economy.
  17. The Keystone XL pipeline is down, but not out

    After receiving a total of 59 votes in the Senate - 45 Republican, 14 Democratic - a bill that would approve Keystone XL came one vote shy of its needed support on Nov. 19, putting a stopper on the troubling project for now. The victory settled the nerves of environmentalists and spared President Obama the task of vetoing the legislation, as he was likely to have done. Though the GOP has vowed to renew the fight to push the project through, those who value the safety of nature and people, including indigenous groups throughout the U.S., can now celebrate a moment of triumph. Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., staked her hopes of winning a fourth Senate term on the Keystone measure, engaging in frantic last-minute lobbying, especially trying to acquire the needed votes from her fellow Democrats - the majority of whom, alongside Obama, wholly oppose the bill. "I'm going to fight for the people of my state until the day that I leave," Landrieu claimed. Her efforts were seen by many as unwise, especially as her state - a long-embattled victim of Big Oil in its own right - had nothing to gain from the project's approval, as the pipeline would not go through Louisiana, and would thus create no jobs there. This is a particularly important point, as it rendered her statement rather hollow. For the Republican Party's part, they will gain an additional eight or more Senate seats in 2015, and are expected to seize that opportunity next year to try and ram the legislation through once more. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who will become Senate Majority Leader in January, said, "I look forward to the new Republican majority taking up and passing the Keystone 'jobs bill' early in the New Year." The GOP's language surrounding the bill, which emphasizes job creation and support for working families, is alarmingly misleading, as several labor unions pointed out yesterday. This is because it will not generate the job numbers that Republicans suggest, and moreover, will pose a risk to the environment that most Democrats, and the President, agree is not worth taking. Nevertheless, the GOP will likely try again in January or February, and might even try and integrate the measure into a broader bill that Obama would find harder to veto. Landrieu asked, "What is everybody upset about?" from the Senate floor on Nov. 18, adding, "We already have 2.6 million miles of pipe in America." But environmental activists and those affected by the oil industry have been answering that question since the project's inception back in 2008. "If she wants this pipeline so badly, it can go through her front yard and not any one of ours," said Karthik Ganapathy, communications manager for environmental advocacy group 350 Action. "For somebody that had the Gulf oil spill and the devastation it brought to her state, she should understand how important it is that we don't have these types of environmental disasters," added Art Tanderup, a Nebraska farmer and member of the Cowboy Indian Alliance, a group uniting workers and Native Americans against the pipeline. Environmental groups are excited about this temporary victory, but it is tempered by an ongoing sense of uncertainty. Still, many believe the President will make the right decision, despite Republican efforts to fight him tooth and nail on this issue. "Since day one, the decision on the Keystone XL pipeline has belonged to President Obama," said Sierra Club executive director Michael Brune. "And he has repeatedly said he will reject this pipeline if it contributes to the climate crisis. As there is no doubt that it does, we remain confident that is precisely what he'll do."
  18. During President Obama's visit to China, both countries announced a new climate change agreement that effectively takes away one of the right wing's major arguments against action to curb global warming. For the first time, China has agreed to set a limit on the amount of greenhouse gases it will emit by 2030, increasing its reliance on renewable energy. This is significant for two reasons-one, China is now the largest emitter of carbon dioxide emissions in the world, and two, the US government and conservatives have used China's previous unwillingness to set such limits as an excuse to avoid any and all binding targets on U.S. emissions. The U.S., as part of this agreement, sets ambitious goals for reductions in carbon pollution by 2025. The bilateral agreement is also significant because it comes in advance of UN sponsored climate talks in Paris in the fall of 2015, aimed at forging a binding international treaty on climate change. Bill McKibben, founder of 350.org, notes both the historic nature of the agreement and also its limitations, in his commentary on Huffington Post. He points out that this agreement comes barely more than a month after the giant People's Climate March in New York City on Sept. 21. This massive outpouring set the pace for the upcoming struggles over environmental issues. He also notes that this agreement by itself is no reason to slow down or stop the mass struggle for more aggressive climate action. And have no doubt that there will bee sharp struggles. Mitch McConnell, the likely new Senate majority leader in 2015, has already announced that he opposes the new deal; that he will oppose the efforts of the EPA to regulate new and existing power plant carbon pollution and that he places a high priority on Congress passing legislation to approve the Keystone XL pipeline. Some Democrats propose a vote to approve the Keystone pipeline during the lame duck session to boost the chances of Mary Landrieu winning re-election to the Senate from Louisiana. The battles over climate change and other environmental issues will play a larger role in electoral and legislative struggles, and we can already see glimpses of splits in the ruling class. A new study confirms that the opposition by conservatives is not some kind of general rejection of science, it is a reaction against the steps needed to find solutions. That reinforces the points made author Naomi Klein in her new book, "This Changes Everything" that right-wing politicians recognize climate change as being a challenge to the capitalist system. The new agreement will only escalate the intensity of right-wing opposition to any and all steps to tackle climate change, greenhouse gas emissions, and all forms of carbon pollution. But it offers renewed hope for a serious international agreement to replace the expired Kyoto Accords.
  19. Rare rhino death as poaching worsens

    The extremely rare northern white rhino - a subspecies of white rhino - may soon disappear. One of the last males, a 34 year-old rhino named Suni, died from natural causes on Oct. 17, at a nature reserve in Kenya, leaving just six northern white rhinos (only one of them male) remaining worldwide. Its close cousin, the southern white rhino, is also severely threatened. The low numbers are themselves largely a product of the relentless rhino poaching that occurs across Africa, and which has driven the animals as a whole to the brink of extinction. And the problem is getting worse. Back in 2009, Suni was one of eight of its species at the Kenyan Ol Pejeta Conservancy as part of a last-resort effort to save its kind. To date, these rhinos have not fared well in captivity. But after all, experts point out, it's not as though they're exactly doing too well in the wild: according to some conservationists, a free-roaming rhino is killed for its horn every nine hours. "It's a shame the [northern white rhino] subspecies got to that point," said Matthew Lewis, the World Wildlife Fund's senior program officer for African species conservation. Corralling surviving rhinos in that type of nature reserve represents "the worst-case scenario in trying to bring back a subspecies. Its story is a fantastic lesson on what not to do, and how we need to avoid getting to this point with other rhinos." So what to do? The answer, most would say, is to continue to support efforts to stop poaching, which is the primary cause of the decline of rhinos, as well as elephants and other animals. "That we've lost the subspecies is a statement of just how bad off animals are across Africa," said Stuart Pimm, a conservation ecologist at North Carolina's Duke University. "It's a measure of the fact that rhinos are being massively poached and in trouble wherever they are. It also means we're losing this distinctive, important animal within the savanna ecosystem. It's not just another charismatic animal; it's also a species that has a very clear ecological role, and we need to be very worried that we lost that." Large demonstrations took place Oct. 4 in 136 different cities, with activists calling for an end to rhino and elephant poaching, and seeking to draw greater attention to the issue in the eyes of the public. "There's a lot of talk, but we need to see more action," said Simon Jones, founder of nonprofit group Helping Rhinos. "We need more rangers on the ground and we need more campaigns in countries where ivory and rhino horns are sold." Among those actions was a march that took place that day in Johannesburg, South Africa. One of the organizers, Dex Kotze, remarked, "We have to do this for future generations. The youth today are making a statement globally, in 136 cities, that it's their heritage that is being killed. South Africa, home to the world's largest rhino populations, has seen at least 700 killed so far this year. We are also here protesting against the political leaders of the world, who do not have the guts and political will to make appropriate changes in their laws." Organizers there debuted a list of objectives, which included the demand for a global ban on the trade in ivory and rhino horns, stricter penalties for poachers who are caught, and better, more coordinated international cooperation in stopping what has arguably developed into a flourishing underground criminal industry.
  20. California may soon follow in the footsteps of its largest city: On Aug. 29, the state Senate voted 22-15 in support of a statewide ban on plastic bags. The bill, SB 270, will phase them out in grocery stores and pharmacies beginning in July 2015, and in convenience stores one year later, with the goal of making California a plastic bag-free state by the end of 2016. The legislation, which passed both houses of the state legislature, must now be signed by the governor. If that happens, the state will achieve a historical victory for the environment. The good news? The governor plans to sign it. "I probably will sign it, yes," said Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. "In fact, I'll tell you why I'm going to sign it; there are about 50 cities with their own plastic bag ban, and that's causing a lot of confusion," he remarked, referencing the similar plans in place in areas like Los Angeles and San Francisco. "This is a compromise. I'm taking into account the needs of the environment, the needs of the economy, and the needs of the grocers." In agreement was Senator Kevin de León, a Democrat from Los Angeles, who stated, "SB 270 is a win-win for the environment and for California workers. In crafting this compromise, it was imperative to me that we achieve the goals of doing away with single-use plastic bags, help change consumer behavior, and importantly, support and expand California jobs." That last note clashes with the words of Republicans, who have opposed the ban, claiming it will cause job losses for bag manufacturers. But such an assertion suggests a misunderstanding of the legislation, which will not do away with non-plastic bags; compost bags and paper bags will continue to be available, albeit for a ten-cent fee per bag. There is a strategy to that, as well: The goal is to encourage the use of recyclable and biodegradable materials and to give California manufacturing a boost by encouraging the continuous production of such bags. Hardly a jobs killer. Leslie Tamminen, director of Seventh Generation Advisors, a sustainability and clean energy advocacy group based on Native American philosophy, said, "Data from the over 121 local plastic bag bans [in California] has proven that bans are effective at reducing litter and changing consumer attitudes, and have refuted industry's claims of apocalyptic impacts on jobs and poor communities. A state plastic bag ban saves taxpayers huge amounts of money spent on litter cleanup, and protects the environment." It's worth noting that other nations have already moved forward on this issue, with the U.S. current lagging behind; Ireland, Taiwan, South Africa, Bangladesh, and Australia all have heavy taxation or outright bans of plastic bags, according to National Geographic. It is likely the countries have recognized the severe ecological threat presented by plastic bags, which non-profit environmental group Heal the Bay referred to as "urban tumbleweeds." Charles Tyler, a professor at the University of Exeter School of Biosciences in the UK, added, "Scientists have shown that some of these chemical compounds from plastics," which affect human health, "are getting into the environment and are in some environments at concentrations where they can actually produce biological effects in a range of wildlife species." David Barnes, a marine scientist with environmental research group the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, England, said scientists have linked the uptick in plastic bag consumption with a dramatic increase in the deaths of sea life over the years. He remarked, "One of the most ubiquitous and long-lasting recent changes to the surface of our planet is the accumulation and fragmentation of plastics. Plastic bags have gone from being rare in the late 80s and early 90s to being almost everywhere." Today, "even in [some of] the remotest of environments, there is plastic floating on the sea surface. ... And I bet [plastic bags] will be washing up in Antarctica within the decade."
  21. Wildfires have been blazing on all summer, and the latest of them is occurring in Oregon, near the Columbia River Gorge. Owners of 140 homes have already evacuated, and despite the efforts of 400 firefighters, the flames have continued to spread over five square miles. Meanwhile in northern Idaho, another brushfire has burned across 64 square miles and destroyed five structures. But efforts to combat the blazes may be fruitless, because the money to fight them is running out. Tom Vilsack, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, said Aug. 5 that the U.S. Forest Service's annual budget for fighting wildfires is rapidly dwindling; in fact, it may run out by the end of the month. The fires, on the other hand, will keep burning. He suggested they were in the midst of a catch-22, as when the Forest Service's funding runs dry, it will need to dip into other projects designed to help prevent future wildfires, in order to put out the ones currently blazing. Specifically, about $400-500 million will be taken away from such projects, putting the future in jeopardy in terms of further disasters. Vilsack, who is lobbying for an extra $615 million for the Forest Service to fight wildfires this year and next, remarked, "When we begin to run out of money, we have to dip into the very programs that will reduce the risk of these wildfires over [a longer period of] time." And those accounts aren't the only ones that suffer; in the past, they have also had to draw from other programs not related to wildfires. Such a transfer occurred in 2012, when the funding for road repairs in Arkansas' Ouachita National Forest was instead used to contend with fires throughout the U.S. The fire in Idaho, called the Big Cougar Fire, is only 15 percent contained, and 200 more structures in its path risk becoming damaged or destroyed unless firefighters can contain it further. Resources are being used while there's still funding for them, and include four helicopters, four fire engines, and three dozers. Isolated thunderstorms are expected, but those are unpredictable; rain could help quell the flames, but lightning could spark an entirely new blaze. One of the reasons the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture are so hot and bothered over the depletion of yearly wildfire money is due to the likelihood that there will be many more fires. In the past, a depletion of funding by the end of August might have been manageable, but global warming has changed that. Wildfires are now likely to occur much later in the year than August. "The really amazing thing is that we don't just see an increase in one or two regions," said Philip Dennison, a geographer at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City. "We're seeing it almost everywhere - in the mountain regions, in the Southwest... That tells us that something bigger is going on, and that thing appears to be climate change." This increases the risk for firefighters as well - even more reason why sufficient funding is necessary. Robert Bonnie, undersecretary for natural resources with the Department of Agriculture, explained, "Fire behavior is more extreme now. We're seeing larger fires. We're seeing fires where we have more houses and people. That makes them more dangerous and more difficult to fight." The money isn't there because the Republican controlled Congress isn't doing anything to put it there, according to a report by U.S. News. A bill to overhaul the way wildfire fighting is funded was introduced by Rep. Mike Simpson, R-Idaho - and then promptly abandoned by him. Simpson gave no explanation why. Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, a nonprofit group that helps families of firefighters killed in the line of duty, said, "Because of these fires, we lose our watersheds, we lose our hunting ranges, we lose our homes. These fire seasons are not going away, and for them to not fund wildfires... I'm just disgusted with them."
  22. On August 4, scientists from the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium released their annual measurement from the Gulf of Mexico's dead zone - in part, the product of the infamous 2010 BP oil spill. The results were troubling. The area of oxygen deprivation in the sensitive ecosystem has been estimated at 5,008 square miles this year. Though the current exacerbation of the issue is due to nitrogen and phosphorous pollution - the product of fertilizer runoff and wastewater discharges from treatment plants - the dead zone's creation is largely owed to the spill that poisoned the Gulf four years ago, flooding it with 170 million gallons of oil. In particular, the Gulf's coral community is suffering, according to a new study by scientists at Penn State University in State College, Pa. Using 3D seismic data from the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and identifying 488 habitats within a 25-mile radius of the original spill site, they found that coral life there shows extensive lingering damage from the spill, suggesting that the disaster's footprint is much more severe than initially thought. "This study very clearly shows that multiple coral communities, up to 13.7 miles from the spill site and at depths over 5,905 feet, were impacted by the spill," said Charles Fisher, co-author of the study and professor of biology at Penn State. "One of the keys to coral's usefulness as an indicator species is that the coral skeleton retains evidence of damage long after the oil that originally caused the damage is gone." Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist and director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, remarked, "The BP oil spill could have been much worse, but the caution is that we still don't fully know the true extent of the damage. But there were likely acute impacts before the oil disappeared, and in fact, some of the oil that did come ashore continues to be suspended in the environment." Lead researcher of the Penn State study, Helen White, said most experts had previously linked coral damage to the oil spill, but added, "Now we can say it was definitely connected to the spill." The paper the scientists published elaborated, reading, "Coral colonies are vital oases for marine life in the chilly ocean depths. The injured and dying coral today has bare skeleton, loose tissue, and is covered in heavy mucus and brown fluffy material." And experts have spotted yet another piece of the spill's aftermath, which is its effect on insects, many of which play a vital role in maintaining the integrity of the ecosystem. Louisiana State University entomologist Linda Hooper-Bui said the real damage to bugs was likely done when Hurricane Isaac hit in 2012 and stirred up oil that had lain dormant on the ocean floor. This, said Hooper-Bui, affects the insects and spiders living in the marsh grasses nearby, some of which form the base of the area's food chain. Michael Blum, director of the Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research, said, "During the spill, we were asking how long it would take to recover, and the prevailing notion was that we were looking at relatively short recovery times when focusing on coastal marsh and coastal ecosystems." Essentially, that it would "rebound in one to three years and in five years there'd be no indications of the spill. But four years on, there's still a pretty distinct signature of a response to the oil." Samantha Joye, a University of Georgia marine biologist, added that it could be a long time before scientists really have a handle on the ripple effect of the spill; the coral degradation, decline in insect population, and continuing growth of the dead zone are merely several aspects of the issue that have recently come to light. She said, "The long-term ecosystem impacts from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill are only beginning to be realized. Some areas have recovered well, but others remain significantly impacted. And the problem with this is that the [effects] are so heterogenerously distributed that long-term, system-scale monitoring is required to truly quantify the impacts."
  23. Since humans evolved from apes and climbed down from the trees we have altered nature through our activity. This is especially so since the rise of capitalism and its ruthless, destructive global exploitation of nature. In her book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, New Yorker staff writer Elizabeth Kolbert clearly and passionately describes how human destruction of ecological systems is today causing the sixth great mass extinction of biological species, including possibly the human species itself. In the words of scientist Paul Ehrlich, "In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches." Over its 4.5 billion years of existence, the Earth has evolved through many geologic periods. We are now in a new one - what is called the Anthropocene, or human caused, era. Dutch chemist Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize winning scientist who helped discover ozone depleting compounds, developed the term. Crutzen observed human activity has so altered Earth that it constitutes a new geologic age. Humans have transformed land surfaces, soil, rivers, oceans, and most importantly, have altered the atmosphere through a combination of greenhouse gas emission and deforestation. "Because of these (human caused) emissions," Crutzen said, global climate is likely to "depart significantly from natural behavior for many millennia to come." In popular language, Kolbert recounts how scientists came to understand extinction and discovered five previous mass extinction events. These include the end-Ordovician extinction caused by an ice age; the end-Permian extinction or Great Dying, which emptied the Earth of 96 percent of species; and the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction about 65 million years ago that did in the dinosaurs. A sixth extinction is occurring before our eyes. Species are dying at a rate 1,000 times faster than pre-human habitation. "It is estimated that one-third of all reef-building corals, a third of all freshwater mollusks, a third of sharks and rays, a quarter of all mammals, a fifth of all reptiles, and a sixth of all birds are headed toward oblivion," writes Kolbert. Kolbert documents pioneering scientific research of the current disappearance of species. She trudges through jungles in Panama with scientists studying the mass disappearance of amphibians, in particular the Panamanian golden frog. What's crashing frog populations is fungus called Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, which spread worldwide. Scientists speculate the fungus migrated through international shipping. Kolbert accompanies scientists to caves in upstate New York and Vermont in search of what are killing millions of bats. Up to 90 percent of brown bats have succumbed to a cold loving fungus accidentally imported from Europe. The fungus is spreading and causing mass die offs of other varieties of bats. The author then introduces us to scientists researching the effect of climate change on flora and how slight changes in global temperature can make life inhospitable to plant species. To illustrate global warming's "equally evil twin," or ocean acidification, we visit Castello Aragonese, a tiny island the product of volcanic activity in the Tyrrhenian Sea near Naples. Underwater vents around the island emit 100 percent carbon dioxide gas, which dissolves in the water. Scientists clearly see the effects of C02. Approaching the vents, life disappears. This mimics macro changes in the world's oceans. Atmospheric greenhouse gases exchange with ocean water that cover 70 percent of the Earth's surface. Historically, about one third of all greenhouse gases, primarily carbon dioxide, have been dissolved into the vast oceans raising the acidification level. Atmospheric C02 concentration levels are higher than at anytime in the last 800,000 years. By the end of the century the oceans are projected to be 150 percent more acidic than at the beginning of the industrial revolution. Acidification levels are reaching a "tipping point" where conditions will become inhospitable to most forms of life. Already coral reefs are disappearing. Kolbert discusses what's called the "New Pangaea." Pangaea is the original global land expanse, when all the present day continents were connected and a single fauna and flora evolved. Plate tectonics caused the landmasses to separate into the present day continents. Fauna and flora evolved separately into unique species. "Invasive species" are nothing new. Beginning with modern human migration out of Africa, the continents have been exchanging fauna and flora. Many scientists speculate modern humans drove to extinction other archaic human species that existed simultaneously including the Neanderthals, which apparently we Homo sapiens also mated with. With modern trade and transport, species are being exchanged worldwide at an accelerating rate leading to the "New Pangaea." Kolbert helps us understand that unless we act now, the human species can also be a victim of the sixth extinction. At the very least humanity will deal with the effects of climate change far into the future and many biological species will disappear. Large parts of the human family, mainly the poorest and those living in the most ecologically fragile and vulnerable regions are facing an existential threat by drought and rising sea levels. Reading the book, one is struck by the ability of humans to grasp their situation and act to change it. Climate awareness is growing and with it action to halt the discharge of greenhouse gas emissions. Also growing is awareness that the capitalist exploitative system and its drive for profits is incompatible with sustainability. Humanity faces its biggest collective challenge - its very existence. We must not only deal with the impact of the climate crisis on nature and society today, we must be about winning a sustainable society for the future. We must face it with the "fierce urgency of tomorrow." The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. Henry Holt and Company, 2014, 336 pp (hardcover).
  24. For some time, the bee population has been steadily declining worldwide, and this is most directly attributed to the negative impact of pesticides. Now, there's a lot of buzz around a recent study by Dutch researchers, which has found that the toxic chemicals we use are having a ripple effect farther up the food chain, causing insectivorous birds to rapidly decline in number. The study was the collaborative effort of researchers with the Radboud University Institute of Water and Wetland Research, the Dutch Center for Field Ornithology, and Birdlife Netherlands. In a joint statement, the researchers declared, "Neonicotinoid insecticides have adverse effects on non-target invertebrate species. Invertebrates constitute a substantial part of the diet of many bird species during the breeding season and are indispensible for raising offspring. In the Netherlands," for example, "local bird population trends were significantly more negative in areas with higher surface-water concentrations of imidacloprid," a type of pesticide. "At imidacloprid concentrations of more than 20 nanograms per liter, bird populations tended to decline by 3.5 percent on average, annually," they continued. The overall results of the study, they said, shows "that the impact of neonicotinoids on the natural environment is even more substantial than has recently been reported and is reminiscent of the effects of persistent pesticides in the past. Future legislation should take into account the potential cascading effects [of insecticides] on ecosystems." Neonicotinoids are interesting in that their origins lie with two corporations already strongly linked with outright for-profit environmental destruction: Royal Dutch Shell and Bayer. These insecticides, which are chemically similar to nicotine, were first developed and used in the 1980s by the Shell, and in the 1990s by the German chemical and pharmaceutical company. In 2009, on the specific neonicotinoid called imidacloprid that the Dutch researchers referenced, Bayer made a profit of over one billion alone, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. There is, however, a loss occurring, albeit an ecological one, not a financial one. Such was the conclusion of the Task Force on Systemic Pesticides, which conducted another recent report on the matter. They explained, "Neonicotinoids persist for months and in some cases years, and environmental concentrations can build up. This effectively increases their toxicity by increasing the duration of exposure of non-target species. The effects of exposure [in wildlife] range from instant and lethal to chronic." Effects could include "altered feeding behavior and reduced food intake [in birds], reduced foraging in bees, and altered tunneling behavior in earthworms." Dr. David Gibbons, head of the Center for Conservation Science at the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, remarked, "This elegant and important study provides worrying evidence of negative impacts of neonicotinoid insecticides on birds. Usage of these pesticides has been particularly high in some parts of the Netherlands. Monitoring of pollution in soils and waterways is urgently required, as is further research into the effects of these insecticides on wildlife."
  25. Will Germany really ban fracking?

    The German government says it will soon move to ban fracking in the country until 2021, which would make it the latest nation (after France and Bulgaria) to eliminate the destructive natural gas drilling process. In a press briefing, Economy Minister Sigmar Gabriel and Environmental Minister Barbara Hendricks noted that legislation will be drawn up and approved in the final half of the year. "There won't be fracking of shale gas or coal gas for economic reasons in the foreseeable future," confirmed Hendricks. However, one can read in between the lines and see that there is still room for exploitation by natural gas corporations. Case in point: there are a number of "special circumstances" which would allow fracking to circumvent the legislation. An example is that the law's language states that "unconventional" fracking cannot take place more than 3,000 meters below the surface - but "conventional" fracking can. While this will still effectively prevent fracking from, in most cases, contaminating groundwater, it will not prevent it from triggering small earthquakes. Political parties including the Green Party have reacted with strong criticism; the chairman of the Greens' parliamentary group, Oliver Krischer, went as far as to call it a "fracking-enabling law," recognizing the distinction between this potentially deceptive proposal and an actual fracking ban - "a regulation that does not allow fracking in Germany and without loopholes that are as big as a barn door." Hubertus Zdebel of the Left party agreed, noting, "Fracking must be banned in Germany without any exceptions. To say that there is a fracking ban in the paper is window dressing. They want to enforce a regulation which mostly allows fracking under the guise of an alleged ban." Citing estimates obtained from the Federal Institute of Geosciences and Natural Resources, he added, "The planned restrictions will still allow the exploitation of half of all unconventional natural gas deposits in Germany." He also said there are other potential risks associated with allowing deep fracking, including uncontrolled methane gas emissions. Francisco Szekely, writer for EnergyBiz, remarked that the legislation is likely a play to quell environmentalists' fears while also reducing Germany's dependency upon Russia for gas imports. He said, however, "This decision is not a sustainable solution. The temporary relief of geopolitics should not be achieved at the long-term cost of environmental degradation. To put our economy and our world on a path to sustainability, governments and companies need to focus on doing real good for society and not just doing less harm, as seems to be the case" with this fracking issue. "With evidence of climate change becoming clearer than ever," he added, Germany should be "thinking carefully before allowing fracking in their territory. Moreover, whatever short-term promise fracking offers is also taking our sense of urgency away from transitioning to more renewable sources of energy such as wind and solar power." So in short, one might conclude, Germany's "fracking ban" may be little more than a smoke-and-mirror tactic. Said Szekely: "To quote Albert Einstein, 'We cannot solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.'"