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Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Warming Arctic Pose Global Threats

Impact of the potent greenhouse gas is poorly understood, revealing an urgent need for further research

Despite the many gases in our atmosphere, studies of greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change have primarily focused on carbon dioxide and methane. Although carbon dioxide exists at much higher concentrations, the global-warming potential of other gases, molecule for molecule, is often staggeringly more potent. One of those gases is nitrous oxide, which is now being released from a warming Arctic and contributing to the earth’s warming.

photo of permafrostphoto by Christina Biasi Thawing permafrost in Eastern Siberia. Research indicates that nitrous oxide emissions from the Arctic have been underestimated, and that as permafrost thaws, releases of the potent greenhouse gas may be high.

Nitrous oxide as a driver of climate change is usually absent from mainstream discourse, yet it has been well-established that human activity is a major source of emissions of this greenhouse gas that has 300 times the warming potential of carbon dioxide over a hundred year time span. Evidence is building that nitrous oxide emissions from natural sources may be increasing due to elevating global temperatures. For example, Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland (UEF) recently investigated nitrous oxide emissions from Arctic peatlands following permafrost thaw. Their findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, indicate that current nitrous oxide emissions from the Arctic have been underestimated, and that future release is potentially high as the permafrost thaws.

“Not only carbon dioxide and methane, but also nitrous oxide needs to be considered in research on climate feedbacks from Arctic ecosystems,” says Christina Biasi, research director at UEF. “We believe that nitrous oxide plays a bigger role than currently suggested, especially in a future warmer world.”

With Arctic lands expected to warm by 5.6 to 12.4 degrees Celsius by 2100, there’s reason for concern about melting permafrost. It’s estimated that more than 67 billion tons of nitrogen stocks are stored in the upper three meters of permafrost soil, a vast sum accumulated over thousands of years through the nitrogen cycle. Some of that nitrogen already exists in the form of “old” nitrous oxide, built up during the permafrost formation, while other mineralized nitrogen interacts with microbes to produce “new” nitrous oxide.

Because nitrous oxide is such a potent greenhouse gas, a little goes a long way in terms of its warming effect in the atmosphere. This is worrisome in the context of rising global temperatures and increasing emissions. While it’s currently held that our …more

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New ‘Monsanto Papers’ Fuel Debate Over Possible Chemical Cover Up

Documents shed light on corporate influence over regulatory bodies, says lawfirm that released them

Four months after the publication of a batch of internal Monsanto Co. documents stirred international controversy, a new trove of company records was released early Tuesday, providing fresh fuel for a heated global debate over whether or not the agricultural chemical giant suppressed information about the potential dangers of its Roundup herbicide and relied on US regulators for help.

photo of Roundup Photo by Mike MozartAttorneys suing Monsanto on behalf of people alleging that Roundup caused them to become ill posted more than 75 documents for public viewing.

More than 75 documents, including intriguing text messages and discussions about payments to scientists, were posted for public viewing early Tuesday morning by attorneys who are suing Monsanto on behalf of people alleging Roundup caused them or their family members to become ill with non-Hodgkin lymphoma, a type of blood cancer. The attorneys posted the documents, which total more than 700 pages, on the website for the law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, one of many firms representing thousands of plaintiffs who are pursuing claims against Monsanto. More than 100 of those lawsuits have been consolidated in multidistrict litigation in federal court in San Francisco, while other similar lawsuits are pending in state courts in Missouri, Delaware, Arizona and elsewhere. The documents, which were obtained through court-ordered discovery in the litigation, are also available as part of a long list of Roundup court case documents compiled by the consumer group I work for, US Right to Know.

It was important to release the documents now because they not only pertain to the ongoing litigation, but also to larger issues of public health and safety, while shedding light on corporate influence over regulatory bodies, according to Baum Hedlund attorneys Brent Wisner and Pedram Esfandiary.

"This is a look behind the curtain," said Wisner. "These show that Monsanto has deliberately been stopping studies that look bad for them, ghostwriting literature and engaging in a whole host of corporate malfeasance. They [Monsanto] have been telling everybody that these products are safe because regulators have said they are safe, but it turns out that Monsanto has been in bed with US regulators while misleading European regulators."

Esfandiary said public dissemination of the documents is important because regulatory agencies cannot properly protect public and environmental health without having accurate, comprehensive, and impartial scientific data, and the documents show that has not been …more

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US Is Locking Immigrants in Toxic Detention Centers

From Washington to Texas, climate refugees detained in contaminated jails are victims of environmental injustice

graphic depicting a prison

In April, the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma, Washington, again made headlines after more than 100 immigrant detainees launched a hunger strike to protest the conditions inside the for-profit immigration jail.

The demands reflected many of the concerns originally raised by detainees when they went on strike in 2014: abuse from guards, maggoty food, inadequate access to medical care and exorbitant commissary prices, to name a few. The detainees were also protesting the fact that they were running the prison's basic services for wages of just $1 a day, some reportedly receiving only a bag of chips in exchange for waxing the prison's floors.

Conditions at the immigration jail have drawn in local climate activists and other allies, who, in 2015, blockaded three exits where buses and vans usually carry out detainees for deportation. The activists' interest in the jail is not only grounded in concerns about basic human rights — it's also about environmental justice.

The 1,500-bed immigration jail, operated by the private prison giant GEO Group, sits adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for over three decades. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) took over the site in the early 1990s as part of its Superfund cleanup of the tar pits, which included monitoring groundwater wells, and stockpiling and capping contaminated soils, according to the News Tribune, Tacoma's main newspaper. Today, the site is still dotted with drainage ditches, retention ponds and a capped waste pile.

photo of Tacoma Immigrant Detention Center Photo by Seattle GlobalistTacoma’s Northwest Detention Center is adjacent to a federal Superfund cleanup site where a coal gasification plant leeched toxic sludge into the soil for more than three decades. The detention center is just one of several immigrant jails located in contaminated areas in the US.

The site is just one of several distinct Superfund cleanup sites in the industrial district known as the "Tideflats," encompassing the city's port and multiple railroad facilities. Another cleanup site in the Tideflats is located around the former ASARCO copper smelter, which, according to the News Tribune, emitted lead and arsenic from its nearly 600-foot-tall smokestack for decades, contaminating the area's water, sediments, and upland areas in the process.

The area is so polluted that the city designated it unfit for residents — except, that is, for Northwest's immigrant detainees. Eager …more

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Al Gore Returns with Portrait of a Planet Imperiled by Extreme Weather and Extremist Deniers

In Review: An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

Frankenstein, Dracula, and Freddy Krueger move over — sounding at times like an Old Testament prophet, Al Gore is back with a spine-tingling big screen depiction of a world on fire that’s at times scarier than a horror movie. In fact, during an address to “Climate Leader” trainees an outraged Gore comments that his righteous rage makes him sound like he’s “on fire.”

photo of an Inconvenient Sequel Photo courtesy of An Inconvenient SequelIn An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore takes viewers across the globe from Greenland (pictured) to Florida to India.

Considering that An Inconvenient Truth scored Oscars in the Best Documentary and Original Song (for Melissa Etheridge’s “I Need to Wake Up”) categories, earned Gore a  shared Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, plus did boffo box office, many may have expected, in the grand Tinseltown tradition, that a sequel was inevitable. Indeed, Gore might seem similar to those superheroes in endless Hollywood remakes and spin-offs, as he intrepidly globetrots from one global warming hot spot to another. But there’s another far more salient reason for shooting a follow-up: As An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power dramatically shows, the climate crisis depicted a decade ago in 2006’s trendsetting Truth not only continues but has gotten much worse. And although Sequel, unlike its predecessor, isn’t a cinematic visualization of Gore’s much-vaunted slide show lecture, it is nevertheless full of facts and figures — including many that may make your eyes pop and hair stand on end. 

The gallivanting Gore takes us across the globe in Sequel. First, the former senator, vice president and presidential candidate is off on the road to Greenland, investigating glacial melt. Next, he alights in Miami, where the streets are awash in seawater due in part, a wader-wearing Gore states, to the ice he witnessed melting in the Great White North and pouring into the ocean. Commenting on Florida’s climate denying GOP Gov. Rick Scott, Gore asks: “I wonder how the governor can slosh through this and say, ‘I don’t see anything’?”

Gore’s peregrinations take him to India (an important plot point for the film’s denouement) and Tacloban where, in a heartrending sequence, the ex-veep commiserates with survivors of Typhoon Haiyan, which in 2013 devastated the Philippines with winds moving at an astonishing 196 miles per hour. He visits a cemetery filled with white crosses atop the graves of many of the 6,300-plus people killed by the deadly typhoon. At one point the beleaguered Gore muses, …more

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More and More Greeks Are Moving Out of Cities and Starting Over as Farmers

A beekeeper, an olive farmer, and a mushroom grower share their stories

The seminars offered at the Syngrou Ranch — home of the Athens Institute of Agricultural Sciences — are in high demand, proving that agriculture is trending in Greece. “This semester, we have 699 students enrolled in 24 seminars on 19 different topics,” says Georgos Balotis, director of the Institute of Agricultural Sciences. “A third of our students study to become apiarists.” This makes beekeeping the most popular subject. “The world of the bees is fascinating and beekeeper is a profession you can do in addition to other pursuits,” Balotis explains. This is why so many residents of Athens find this type of work so appealing. “We currently have five beekeeping courses,” he continues, “but our classes on winegrowing, arboriculture, olive culture and aromatic plants are also very popular.” Interest in these seminars peaked in 2013. “During that academic year, we had 400 prospective beekeepers and a total of 2,600 enrolled students.”

photo of Olive farmer in Greecephoto by Kostas Katrios Leonidas Kanalis, 31, harvesting olives. Kanalis turned to farming after losing his his restaurant during the economic crisis.

Vassilis Gionis: “When I’m out in nature, I lose track of time.”

When Vassilis Gionis signed up for a honey-making seminar, he was not looking for an additional source of income, but rather for a way to unwind from his stressful life as an engineer. Today, he is a professional beekeeper in the Prefecture of Ilia on the Peloponnese. Vassilis had been working since his college days and found himself at the verge of burnout. “I was working for two different companies as an engineer. At one point, I worked for two and a half months straight without a single day or weekend off,” he remembers.

“So I started blocking certain afternoons off so I could attend the class,” he says. “And I enjoyed the classes, even though I had been up and running around since six in the morning.” Beekeeping is a family tradition handed down from his grandfather, who used to keep bees to provide honey for the family. Vassilis even got his recently retired mom to attend the class. “Each week she would get on the bus and come to Athens for three days,” he proudly reports. Mother and son both loved the course.

photoname Photo courtesy of Vassilios Gionis Vassilis Gionis harvesting honey. He left a career in engineering to become
a beekeeper.

On a field trip to a beekeeping operation …more

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The Environmental Impact of Essential Oils

A look at how resource-intensive essential oils are made and disposed of

Essential oils have enjoyed a boom in sales over the last decade as Western consumers search for alternatives to chemical-laden products that are toxic both to their bodies and to the planet. Since the first recorded essential oil blend was recorded in Egypt in 1,500 BC, people around the world have been using essential oils for their perceived medicinal properties. A market research study by Grand View Research estimates that the global essential-oils market is expected to reach $11.67 billion by 2022. Such a high level of demand raises two vital questions: Where are all these essential oils coming from, and what is their impact on the environment?

photo of essential oil bottles Photo by Kate WareEssential oils, which are popularly used for their perceived medicinal properties, require significant quantities of plants for production.

To begin with, in order to produce a single pound of essential oil, enormous quantities of plants are required: 10,000 pounds of rose petals, 250 pounds of lavender, 6,000 pounds of melissa plant, 1,500 lemons, and so forth. Due to a variety of factors, large amounts of produce are needed to produce oils. For example, some oils are more difficult to extract because instead of being externally secreted by the plant, the oils are stored in tiny cavities or ducts within the plant. Other oils provide small yields in general. For example, Bay Leaf can be expected to provide a 3 percent yield during distillation, whereas Rose Petals typically provide only a .006 percent yield. According to Nicole Nelson, marketing corrdinator for herbal distribution retailer Mountain Rose Herbs, “Weather can also greatly affect the amount of oil that a plant produces from year to year.” 

In light of this, it’s important to understand how plants for these resource-intensive products are farmed. The majority of popular essential-oils companies source their raw materials from corporate farms that turn out large quantities of plants. As with the cultivation of products on many large farms, pesticide usage is common. And there are currently no organic certifications specifically for essential oils, which large companies like YoungLiving and DoTerra cite as a reason for foregoing organic certification all together.  In the end, consumers are left largely on their own when it comes to discovering which pesticides are used on crops that are used for essential oils — especially since most companies aren’t voluntarily giving up that information.

One solution to large, corporate farming is wild harvesting, but this too has its …more

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Dozens of Laotian Elephants ‘Illegally Sold to Chinese Zoos,’ Says Wildlife Investigator

Laos accused of breaking CITES treaty to protect endangered species, China of encouraging live animal trade

Dozens of elephants from Laos are being illegally bought by China to be displayed in zoos and safari parks across the country, according to wildlife investigator and film-maker Karl Ammann.

photo of elephants in Laos Photo by Garrett ZieglerElephants at the Elephant Conservation Center in Sayaboury, Laos. Wildlife investigator and filmmaker Karl Ammann says he stumbled upon an illicit trade in elephants between Laos and China earlier this year.

According to Ammann, so-called captive elephants in Laos sell for about £23,000 before being walked across the border into China by handlers or “mahouts” near the border town of Boten. Thereafter they are transported to receiving facilities, which buy them from the agents for up to £230,000 per animal. “That is a nice mark-up,” says Ammann, “and makes it exactly the kind of commercial transaction which under CITES rules is not acceptable.”

Ammann and his crew stumbled on the illicit trade between Laos and China earlier this year, while investigating the sale of 16 Asian elephants from Laos to a safari park in Dubai. None of the elephants had the necessary permits for export. The translocation was stopped by a direct order from the new Laotian prime minister at the last moment, while an Emirates Airlines Cargo 747 was already on the tarmac in Vientiane, the country’s capital.

“We then looked into the background of these elephants and met with several of the owners of the elephants, as well as the local agent who arranged this sale,” explains Ammann. Delving deeper, he and his investigative team discovered that the trade in live elephants from Laos mainly involved China, with almost 100 animals ending up in Chinese zoos and facilities.

Many mahouts told Ammann on camera that their elephants are captive-bred but have been sired by a wild bull elephant. To avoid stud costs, mahouts in Laos tie captive-bred females to trees in the forest so that they can be mated with wild bulls. Under Cites Appendix I, an elephant with a wild parent in an uncontrolled setting is not considered captive-bred and therefore may not be sold commercially.

Almost 100 Asian elephants are believed to have been sold from Laos to China over the past couple of years. Chunmei Hu, an animal welfare advocate in China, says she has already established that six zoos — all government-owned — have a confirmed 38 elephants from Laos, with 50 more likely to be Laotian. …more

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