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Can Trophy Hunting Save the Endangered Markhor Goats?

A controversial program in Tajikistan tests the idea

The sun was beginning to fade in the frigid evening sky. It was the end of a long day of counting the endangered wild goats of southern Tajikistan. Known as the markhor, these goats are distinguished by their Merlin-esque beards and twisting, towering horns. The rare goats are difficult to spot amid the crags and gulches of the Pamir Mountains, but conservationist Tanya Rosen Michel's is practiced at the art, and she eventually honed in on them.

Turkmenian markhorPhoto by Marie HalelSome conservationists believe that protecting the snow leopard and its prey, the Turkmenian marcher goat would require some form of hunting.

Michel is the snow leopard program coordinator for Panthera, a wildcat conservation group that was surveying the markhor with help from the Tajik Committee on Environmental Protection, the Forest Agency and Academy of Sciences, and the German Development and Cooperation Agency. The March survey was an effort to understand how the markhor population affects those of its primary predator, the equally endangered snow leopard.

The tally this year totaled 1,300 markhor – the highest count in more than two decades. In the 1990s, the population plummeted to a tenuous 350 animal due to a civil war that devastated livestock and fueled poaching. After the war, as normal food sources rebounded and local conservation efforts were enacted to protect the markhor, their numbers began to rise. So, too, did snow leopard sightings.

As Michel peered through her scope, she noticed the herd, which had been casually grazing on grass, tapping the cold ground feverishly and crowding together. Scanning the landscape, Rosen spotted the source of distress – a snow leopard tiptoeing towards the heard in hopes of meal. For almost half an hour the snow leopard attempted stealing upon the herd from different angles. It then lay down behind a juniper tree in hopes of calming the herd, which sensed the predator's presence. Without success, "the ghost of the mountains," turned tail and faded into the fog.

It is clear to Michel and her colleagues that the fate of these two animals is intimately linked. Snow leopards cannot thrive without the markhor – and the markor cannot thrive without a concerted human effort at conservation. Michel also realized that it was going to take a sizeable, and perhaps counterintuitive effort, to defend both species. To protect the snow …more

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Federal Judge Overturns Kaua‘i GMO, Pesticide Regulatory Law

Ordinance 960 preempted by state law, says ruling; appeal likely

A federal judge yesterday overturned Kauai’s new law regulating the transgenic seeds industry on the Hawaiian island, ruling that it was preempted by state law and was therefore invalid. The ruling is a setback for activists and citizens fighting to protect local residents and the environment from exposure to the heavy doses of toxic pesticides that the biotech companies use on their fields year round.

A GM corn field in KauaiPhoto by Ian UmedaA GE corn field in Kaua‘i. Community activists and Kaua‘i residents impacted by pesticide exposure from genetically engineered crop fields promise to keep the fight going.

“Obviously I would have preferred a different ruling…  I will recommend to my client that we appeal to a higher court,” Earthjustice attorney Paul Achitoff said in an interview Monday evening. The legal nonprofit has intervened in the case to defend the county’s law.

The Kaua‘i County law, Ordinance 960, was passed in November after surviving a veto by Kauai Mayor Barnard Carvalho. The law, which received widespread support within the community, requires agricultural companies and large farms to disclose the type and volume of pesticides they are spraying and the location of their genetically modified crop fields. It also requires the companies to set up buffer zones between fields growing GM crops and public places like schools, hospitals, and parks.

The four global pesticide and genetically engineered seed corporations that have large operations on the island — Pioneer-DuPont, Syngenta, and Agrigenetics Inc (a subsidiary of Dow Chemical), and BASF Plant Science — had challenged the new law in federal court, arguing that it arbitrarily targets GE seed farming operations on Kaua‘i and tries to regulate activities over which counties have no jurisdiction.

Ruling on the lawsuit yesterday, US Magistrate Judge Barry Kurren concluded that the pre-existing Hawai‘i Pesticide Law preempted the Kauai ordinance and that only state government had the authority to regulate the seeds companies.

“This decision in no way diminishes the health and environmental concerns of the people of Kaua‘i,” Judge Kureen wrote in his decision. “The Court’s ruling simply recognizes that the State of Hawaii has established a comprehensive framework for addressing the application of restricted use pesticides and the planting of GMO crops, which presently precludes local regulation by the County.”

The biotech companies issued a joint statement yesterday saying they were pleased with judge’s decision.


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Passive Carbon Capture Can Clean Up Our Air, But the Technology Lacks Popular Support

Other significant challenges include cost and figuring out where to store the captured carbon

Trees are great filters. Wind, sunlight and photosynthesis enable trees to “scrub” carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, while replenishing it with oxygen, which almost every life form needs to survive. But there simply aren’t enough trees around to scrub out the surplus carbon we have in our atmosphere right now which is steadily changing the delicate balance of life on Earth.

passive carbon capture in a labPhoto courtesy Columbia UniversityKlaus Lackner (right), a geophysics professor at Columbia University, conducts a passive carbon capture experiment at an university lab.

Human beings have put an estimated 450 – 500 gigatons of carbon into the air, primarily by burning fossil fuels, according to James L. Buizer, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment at the University of Arizona. Each year we pump another 30 billion tons of carbon dioxide into the air. The United Nations projects human population will surpass 9 billion by 2050, so energy use will only increase.

Researchers across the world have been working to develop technologies that can remove this excess carbon from the air. One such technology — passive carbon capture — holds much promise, but skepticism about the process and lack of support from policymakers have slowed the development of what could be a cost-effective approach.

‘It’s not magic’

To people proposing sustainable energy alternatives and lifestyle changes, removing CO2 seems pointless. Removing a substantial amount of carbon from the air requires a great deal of it to be filtered. Heating, cooling, or pushing air through a filtration process requires the use of energy, thereby creating more carbon emissions.

But some scientists have demonstrated that carbon can be passively removed from the air without creating further emissions. Klaus Lackner, a geophysics professor at Columbia University and his team have developed a “fake tree” carbon collector.

An early effort used plastic “leaves” coated in resin that traps carbon particles in the air. The newer passive carbon-capture devices look more like furnace filters with straw-like tubes dotted with holes, packed closely together inside a metal frame. The devices necessary to collect one ton of carbon per day would fit into a standard shipping container that, once opened, would require approximately 60 square meters of area. Set up in a location facing into a slow wind, the devices would come into contact with carbon in the …more

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Employing Humor to Make Climate Science Digestible

In Review: The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change

Just six years ago, Gallup estimated that 61 percent of Americans grasped the reality that human activities cause global warming. Today, that number has slipped to 57 percent. In this climate of decreasing public acceptance, we need persuasive, knowledgeable advocates explaining the human book cover thumbnailcauses of global warming in elegant, digestible, and, most importantly, acceptable ways to counter the relentless disinformation war being waged by the fossil fuel industry.

One creative tool to help increase awareness and understanding of how human activities cause climate change is The Cartoon Introduction to Climate Change, a new graphic book illustrated by Grady Klein, and written by Yoram Bauman, who describes himself as “The World’s First and Only Stand-Up Economist.” Together, these two bring a modicum of levity to the task of conveying the basics of climate change, an otherwise dour topic. With a comedic touch, and a small cast of characters cracking jokes in the background, they elucidate the basics of climate science, predictions of future warming, and possible solutions. Drawing heavily from the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, Klein illustrates numerous infographics to help readers visualize complicated processes and associated statistics.

page from a graphic bookKlein & BaumanWith a comedic touch, and a small cast of characters cracking jokes in the
background, Bauman and Klein elucidate the basics of climate science,
predictions of future warming, and possible solutions. Click to enlarge.

Bauman’s background as an economist comes through clearly in his analysis, exemplified by his seven Chinas theory. The seven billion humans who occupy the planet at this time can be split into five groups of 1.4 billion, roughly the size of China’s population, he explains. The Rich Countries make up just one of those Chinas but are responsible for half of all resource consumption and half of all human-caused greenhouse gas emissions. Global economic development is rapidly transforming poor people in the other four Chinas into middle class consumers who look to the Rich Countries as role models. If they follow in the footsteps of the Rich Countries, global resource consumption and greenhouse gas production will multiply two-and-a-half times without any population growth. But, population growth will likely take us up to 10 billion people before the end of the century, which adds …more

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Is China Turning the Corner on Environmental Protection?

Growing health concerns have spurred significant changes to the Middle Kingdom’s environmental law and policy.

Most of the news we hear about China’s environment is depressing, filled with references to the country’s dirty air, water, and soil. Some of it is downright apocalyptic, accompanied by images of environmental destruction that remind me of Dr. Seus’ illustrations in The Lorax. These scenes are the result of lax environmental protection, combined with rapid economic development and fast-paced population growth. Lately, however, a few positive changes in policy and rhetoric have caught my eye, leading me to wonder if China is changing its tune when it comes to the environment.

Commuters wearing face masks in NanjingPhoto by Markus SpringCommuters in Nanjing, as in other polluted Chinese cities, often wear facemasks to protect themselves from the smog. Concerns about public health are motivating Chinese officials to crackdown on air pollution.

Back in March of this year, for example, Premier Li Keqiang declared that China would “resolutely declare war on pollution as we declared war against poverty.” Shortly thereafter, in April, the country announced significant reforms to the national Environmental Protection Law (EPL). When first enacted 25 years ago, the law was more aspirational than it was substantive. The new amendments, however, incorporate several significant changes that give the law teeth.

One such change is the system for fining polluters. Previously, pollution fines were a one-shot deal, regardless of how long the pollution continued. Under the EPL amendments, fines will accumulate so long as the pollution continues. Fines may now be large enough so as to actually dissuade would-be polluters. “One of the major changes is that [the EPL amendments] increase the sanctions for pollution in ways that might conceivably make a difference if properly enforced,” says Rachel Stern, an assistant professor of law and political science at Berkeley Law, who specializes in environmental regulation and activism in China.  

The law also expands the range of public interest organizations that can bring a suit against polluters by providing certain organizations with standing (the right to sue). “The big change from my perspective… is that the law allows standing for NGOs to bring public interest lawsuits, ” Stern says. “And that is a really, really interesting change.” However, only nonprofits that are registered with the city-level governments or higher in China, and that have specialized in environmental protection for five years, will be permitted to bring suits. …more

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Major Companies Using Palm Oil Commit to Addressing Worst Industry Abuses. But is It Enough?

Only continued consumer pressure will ensure that food and cosmetics industries deliver on their promises

In late July, agribusiness giant Cargill announced a sweeping set of changes to the company’s palm oil policies, promising a commitment to “build a traceable and transparent palm oil supply chain” to “end egregious practices such as deforestation, expansion onto peatlands, and the exploitation of Indigenous peoples, workers, and local communities.”

Cargill�s Problems With Palm OilDavid Gilbert/RANCompanies responsible for more than half of global palm oil trading have now made public commitments to address the rampant environmental and human rights abuses associated with palm oil production.

Taken together with recent moves from other industry giants like Wilmar and Golden-Agri Resources, it means that companies responsible for more than half of global palm oil trading have now made public commitments to address the rampant environmental and human rights abuses associated with palm oil production. Traders are joined by well-known consumer brands like Nestlé, Unilever, General Mills, Mondelēz, Kellogg, Safeway, Hershey, Mars, L’Oreal, and Proctor & Gamble.

The need for reform cannot be overstated.

Its high yield compared to other oils makes palm oil a cheap alternative for companies looking to manage costs. As a result, production of palm oil has doubled since 2000, making it the most widely traded vegetable oil in the world. Though many consumers are unaware of its presence, palm oil is found in over half the products on grocery store shelves in the United States, in everything from Snickers bars to shampoos.

This popular oil carries a nasty price, though: widespread use of forced and child labor, land grabs, destruction of habitat for endangered species like orangutans and elephants, not to mention the long term impact on climate change. When old growth rainforests are cut down to plant palm, sequestered carbon is released. Tropical deforestation accounts for 10 percent of global carbon emissions. Palm oil is a main driver of tropical deforestation. In short: palm oil production is bad for the planet, people, and animals.  (Generally speaking, if you’re eating it in a candy bar or potato chips, it’s bad for you, too).   

The announcement to make good from one of the largest players in the business is positive news, to be sure. It’s a sign that years of pressure from consumers and activists are finally yielding fruit. But don’t break out the celebratory candy bar …more

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Climate Change-Fueled Forest Loss in Colorado Shows Need for More Wilderness Protections

Connected preserves especially important as pine beetle continues to wreak havoc

As conservationists prepare to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act, there’s also a measure of hand-wringing occurring as some people question whether wilderness protections even make sense given the new challenge of climate change.

For land preservationists here in Colorado, the answer to that question is an unambiguous YES. As the planet warms the need for wilderness designation is more important than ever, especially as ecosystems confront unprecedented threats.

pine bettle infested lodgepole forestAll photos by Steven DeWittMany forests in Colorado are being impacted by epidemic insect infestations.

In the Central Mountains of Colorado, citizens have come together in an effort to add and expand areas they feel need wilderness designation. The proposed wilderness areas were chosen after a comprehensive evaluation of their ecological values including wildlife habitat, free-flowing streams, clean lakes, and old growth forests. Congressman Jared Polis is reintroducing his Eagle and Summit County Wilderness Preservation Act this year and Senator Mark Udall is introducing his Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act in 2015. Udall's wilderness proposal incorporates 235,773 acres, 12 new stand alone areas and 17 additions to existing wilderness areas in Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties including the Holy Cross, the Eagles Nest and the Maroon Bells.

Historic logging roads in Colorado mountainsOld logging roads are once again being used to harvest timber in lodgepole pine stands killed by mountain pine beetles.

Many of the forests included in the proposed wilderness areas have been or are currently being impacted by historic epidemics of insect infestations and disease as a result of human-generated climate change. The loss of these forests is having cascading impacts on the biodiversity of the ecosystems.

This spring and early summer, I visited a number of the areas included in the Central Mountains Outdoor Heritage Act, both on the ground and in the air. Having previously photographed many of these forests for The Lodgepole Project, I wasn’t surprised to see the widespread devastation Colorado’s lodgepole pine forests have suffered from the mountain pine beetle epidemic.

What did surprise me was the ease of accessibility into the impacted forests via historic logging roads. Take, for example, Spraddle Creek and Freeman Creek, two proposed expansions to the Eagle’s Nest Wilderness Area north of Vail. Both areas were selected for wilderness expansion …more

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