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Why We Celebrate Rivers

From the Amazon to the Mekong, from the Balkans to the Andes, civil society networks have sprung up to defend our planet's arteries

The Chong people consider the Areng River at the foot of Cambodia’s Cardamom Mountains a sacred inheritance from their ancestors. The river sustains lush forests with rare elephant, tiger, and crocodile species. The Chong people fish, grow rice, and gather roots and mushrooms on the river banks. They say that piles of money could not replace their river if it were destroyed by a dam.

men and women by a riverPhoto courtesy of International RiversMen and women from the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum participate in a ceremony by the Indus River in Pakistan to launch their 14-day campaign for the International Day of Action for Rivers.

The Chong people are not alone in revering their river. We call our rivers Father Rhine and Mother Ganges. The Mekong, Nile and Zambezi are venerated as Rivers of Life. In India, rivers like the Yamuna and Narmada are worshipped as goddesses. Rivers feed us, connect us, and give us a sense of identity. This is why we celebrate them with an International Day of Action for Rivers on March 14 every year.

Scientists confirm what our ancestors knew from experience. Rivers connect land, freshwater, and marine ecosystems. They host some of the world’s most diverse plant and animal communities. Rivers sustain much of our agriculture, and their fisheries nourish millions. Their sediments protect our coastlines against erosion by the sea, and pull carbon out of the atmosphere. Healthy rivers act as natural buffers that balance ever more serious floods and droughts.

We often ignore that we depend on rivers for our long-term prosperity. We are damming them, polluting them, and sucking them dry. Some rivers don’t even reach the sea anymore. Between 10,000 and 20,000 freshwater species are at risk of extinction or have already died out. Because their migration routes have been cut, the survival of 24 of the world’s 26 majestic sturgeon species is threatened or near-threatened.

Rivers and other wetlands are more strongly affected by the loss of species than any other major ecosystem. Even so, they are currently faced by a dam-building boom of unprecedented proportions. No less than 3,700 hydropower dams are under construction or in the pipeline right now around the world. They include the Stung Cheay Areng Dam on Cambodia’s sacred Areng River.

From the Amazon to the Mekong, from the Himalayas to the …more

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Fukushima’s 4th Anniversary Brings Hope

A renewable energy revolution soars amid radioactive ruins

The catastrophe that began at Fukushima four years ago today is worse than ever.

But the good news can ultimately transcend the bad — if we make it so.

An angry grassroots movement has kept shut all 54 reactors that once operated in Japan. It’s the largest on-going nuke closure in history. Big industrial windmills installed off the Fukushima coast are now thriving.

Anti-nuclear protest in JapanPhoto by Takeshi Garcia An angry grassroots movement has kept shut all 54 reactors that once operated in Japan. It’s the largest on-going nuke closure in history

Five US reactors have shut since March 11, 2011. The operable fleet is under 100 for the first time in decades.

Ohio’s Davis-Besse, New York’s Ginna, five reactors in Illinois and other decrepit American nukes could shut soon without huge ratepayer bailouts.

Diablo Canyon was retrofitted — probably illegally — with $842 million in replacement parts untested for seismic impact. Already under fire for illegal license manipulations and an avoidable gas explosion that killed eight in San Bruno in 2010, Pacific Gas & Electric has plunged into a legal, economic and political abyss that could soon doom California’s last reactors.

Meanwhile, Germany is amping up its renewable energy generation with a goal of 80 percent or more by 2050.

France — once nuke power’s poster child — has turned away from new reactor construction and is moving strongly toward renewables.

Worldwide the Solartopian revolution is ahead of schedule and under budget. Predictions about its technological and economic potential are being everywhere exceeded.

More than twice as many Americans now work in solar as in coal mines. As the head of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund recently put it: “We are quite convinced that if John D Rockefeller were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy.”

Even America’s Tea Party has developed a green wing promoting renewables.

Vital focus now centers on battery breakthroughs needed to escalate rooftop solar, electric cars and other post-nuke game-changers.

But there’s plenty of bad news. The State Secrets Act of Japan’s authoritarian Abe regime renders unreliable all “official” information from Fukushima. Grassroots nuclear campaigners are under serious attack.

At least 300 tons …more

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The Big Haze: China’s Great Leap Backwards

In Review: Under the Dome

Viewed more than 200 million times online since its late February release, a hard hitting anti-pollution documentary went viral in the Peoples Republic — until China’s so-called “Great Firewall” removed the compelling Internet sensation from Chinese websites. The self-financed Under the Dome is created and presented by Beijing-based investigative reporter, TV/radio host, and author Chai Jing. Complications surrounding her daughter’s birth inspired Chai to make this reportedly $167,000 nonfiction film that energetically tackles China’s energy status quo, pulling no punches. Her documentary, and the government’s suppression of it, is a case study of the current state of the Chinese environmentalist movement, which has previously used film as an organizing tool.

Smog in ShanghaiPhoto by John ChandlerSmog in Shangai. Under the Dome investigates the enormous air pollution crisis in China, which is industrializing at a rapid pace.

Jing borrowed the title of her documentary from a CBS sci-fi mini-series with the same name starring Dean Norris (based on a Stephen King novel), wherein a mysterious, transparent force field descends on an American town, cutting it off from the outside world. In Jing’s doc this malevolent power becomes the rampant air pollution generated by China’s largely unregulated fossil fuel industry.

Audiences will be familiar with Under the Dome’s cinematic style: As in 2006’s Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, wherein Al Gore made a power point presentation about climate change, Jing, too, presents an ecology-themed audio-visual work before a live audience. Clad in a white shirt and blue jeans, the confident, well-spoken journalist stands in front of a large screen, flanked by flat screen monitors, and narrates in Chinese the eyebrow raising 103-minute presentation before a crowd of young people sitting on the floor.  Under the Dome utilizes previously shot material in China, London, and Los Angeles, including Jing’s interviews with government and energy industry officials, scientists, regulators, etc., as well as original animation, archival footage, and well-made montages.

Jing makes no bones about her eco-stance, setting the tone of her agitprop film early on by proclaiming: “This is a battle between me and air pollution.” Under the Dome includes harrowing images and information as Chai investigates the enormous air pollution crisis of a China which, she asserts, is industrializing at the fastest pace of any developing nation in history, accomplishing in only 30 years what it took other countries a century to do. …more

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Monterey Bay Abalone Farm Shows What Sustainable Aquaculture Can Be Like

As world demand for seafood continues to grow, so does demand for green aquaculture practices

At the end of Fisherman’s Wharf #2 in Monterey, California there is a small building which houses the Monterey Abalone Company. In the morning chill, a smell of fresh fish and salt hangs in the mist. This the same wharf John Steinbeck walked while looking for a boat to take him and Ed “Doc” Ricketts to the Sea of Cortez in 1940. The small office inside is lined with counters that are cluttered with papers, shells, and instruments. In the deck there is a hatch that opens into a gaping hole. A wood ladder leads down under the pier. It’s dark and dripping under the wharf. There’s an odor that is both fishy and animal. A pathway of planks leads to the end of the pilings. Pigeons coo overhead, while barks and splashes come from the darkness where the planks disappear. As you walk towards the noises, large shapes emerge and the lugubrious California sea lions, startled, raise their heads in defiance. They grunt, lumber off like overweight men on short crutches, and dive into the water.

hands holding an abaloneMonterey Abalone Company farms abalone in cages suspended in the water under Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey, California.

Unbeknownst to the tourists sauntering overhead, there is a sea farm with 150,000 abalone under the boardwalk of the wharf. Down here, sturdy mesh cages hang in the sea from the network of beams. There are 150 to 6,000 abalone per cage, depending on the size of the shells within. A system of pulleys and ropes is in place to lift the cages out of the water. The enclosures protect the abalone from the marauding sea otters who constantly circle in search of snacks. A worker pulls a cage up, opens the lid, and inside are rigid plastic sheets with abalone stuck fast on their surfaces. The capacity of this abalone farm is 300,000 shellfish.

Worldwide aquaculture production has skyrocketed over the past two decades, while capture fisheries have leveled off. In 2011, aquaculture production surpassed marine harvest fisheries, and it shows no sign of slowing down. Currently more that 50 percent of seafood destined for human consumption is cultured. At the same time, there has been growing alarm about the impact of aquaculture, especially about the use of chemicals and antibiotics, introduction of diseases to wild populations, pollution and damage to natural habitats. Since world …more

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USDA Has Approved GE Non-Browning Apples. Is the Public Ready for Them?

The gene silencing technique used to develop Arctic apples hasn’t been thoroughly studied, critics say

I’ve been eating a lot of apples these days, mostly as part of my daily serving of salad. The fruit slices offer a perfect crisp and juicy counterpoint to the softer greens. Usually, I pre-slice the apples for my lunch salad. The slight browning that occurs as the slices oxidize from being exposed to air has never bothered me, but evidently some consumers find it unappetizing. Every year tens of tons of apples end up in in the trash, much of it due to browning and bruising. So does that mean there’s a market for genetically modified apples that don’t brown when cut?

Woman at a table with an apple and cutleryPhoto by daniellehelm/FlickrGetting people to warm up to genetically engineered apples might not be as easy as the company that created them envisions.

Neal Carter, founder and president of Okanagan Specialty Fruits, thinks so. Carter’s small British Columbia-based company has created transgenic versions of the ubiquitous Golden Delicious and Granny Smith apples, which don’t brown even when cut and left in the open for hours.

“By developing non-browning apples, we hope to create a consumption trigger for apples while simultaneously reducing food waste,” Carter said in an email interview. “Consumers increasingly demand convenience and consuming more calories from snacks, so we want to emulate the consumer trigger that ‘baby’ carrots initiated for carrots when they doubled carrot consumption simply by making them more ‘snackable.’”

Last month, the US Department of Agriculture approved Okanagan’s two GE varietals — called Arctic Golden and Arctic Granny — for commercial cultivation. “We expect to have small quantities of fruit available for test markets in late 2016, with increasing amounts of fruit becoming available each successive year in a slow, steady, market introduction,” Carter says.  The last step that remains is a voluntary safety consultation with the Food and Drug Administration, which should get done soon. According to Okanagan, the apples will be labeled as Arctic®, but will not be labeled as genetically engineered.

The USDA approval — which would allow the transgenic apples to be planted and sold without specific oversight — was a big disappointment for environmental and consumer groups who say we don’t know enough about the unintended consequences of the relatively new kind of genetic engineering technique, called “gene silencing,” used to create these apples. (The USDA approval, incidentally, came …more

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Goodbye CA Coastal Fog, Goodbye Redwoods

Loss of fog, linked to urban heat islands, imperils coastal ecosystems

In Southern California they call it the “June Gloom” — the gray layer of heavy fog that drapes itself across much of Los Angeles in late spring. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, we just call it “summer”: The months-long cycle of overcast mornings and chilly evenings that supposedly* prompted Mark Twain to complain that “The coldest winter I ever saw was the summer I spent in San Francisco.” While coastal California’s summer fog has long annoyed residents and tourists alike, the regular rush of cool, wet air helps sustain coastal ecosystems, including the state’s iconic redwoods. Now, thanks to human development, that weather phenomenon is at risk.

Morning Fog, Bixby Creek Bridge, CAPhoto by Don GrahamMorning fog at Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, CA. California ecosystems — from chaparral slopes to the oak-studded prairie grasslands to the towering redwoods — have evolved to rely on water they get from coastal fog.

According to a story published last week in the journal Geophyiscal Research Letters, coastal fog in the Los Angeles region is on the decline. In the last 60 years, according to researchers, summer fog in the LA area has decreased by 63 percent. The culprit? The so-called “urban heat island effect” — a phenomenon in which the ambient temperature of cities is much higher (especially at night) than in surrounding undeveloped areas because of all the heat that builds up in our streetscapes of concrete and asphalt.

“We used cloud data from the last 67 years, and we can see that there have been huge declines in fog that have happened and that should continue happening,” says Park Williams, a researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. Williams based his findings on detailed, sometimes hourly, weather readings from Southern California’s many airports, and matched that against census data on population density to chart development across the region. He and his colleagues were then able to demonstrate a link between the heat island effect and the diminishment of coastal fog. “This is a really solid process that is going on, and we have enough confidence to predict that it will continue.”

Beachgoers might be pleased by the findings. More sunny days, what’s not to like? But Williams and other scientists caution that most coastal California ecosystems — from chaparral slopes to the oak-studded prairie …more

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Climate Change: Why The Guardian is Putting Threat to Earth Front and Center

Editor Alan Rusbridger explains the thinking behind the newspaper's major series on the climate crisis

A version of this article appeared in the Friday, March 6 issue of The Guardian.

Journalism tends to be a rear-view mirror. We prefer to deal with what has happened, not what lies ahead. We favor what is exceptional and in full view over what is ordinary and hidden.

Famously, as a tribe, we are more interested in the man who bites a dog than the other way round. But even when a dog does plant its teeth in a man, there is at least something new to report, even if it is not very remarkable or important.

Polar BearPhoto by Smudge 9000/FlickrA polar bear in the wilderness of the Svalbard Islands in the Arctic Ocean.

There may be other extraordinary and significant things happening — but they may be occurring too slowly or invisibly for the impatient tick-tock of the newsroom or to snatch the attention of a harassed reader on the way to work.

What is even more complex: there may be things that have yet to happen — stuff that cannot even be described as news on the grounds that news is stuff that has already happened. If it is not yet news — if it is in the realm of prediction, speculation, and uncertainty — it is difficult for a news editor to cope with. Not her job.

For these, and other, reasons changes to the Earth’s climate rarely make it to the top of the news list. The changes may be happening too fast for human comfort, but they happen too slowly for the newsmakers ‑ and, to be fair, for most readers.

These events that have yet to materialize may dwarf anything journalists have had to cover over the past troubled century. There may be untold catastrophes, famines, floods, droughts, wars, migrations and sufferings just around the corner. But that is futurology, not news, so it is not going to force itself on any front page any time soon.

Even when the overwhelming majority of scientists wave a big red flag in the air, they tend to be ignored. Is this new warning too similar to the last? Is it all too frightening to contemplate? Is a collective shrug of fatalism the only rational response?

The climate threat featured very prominently on the home page of The Guardian on Friday even though nothing …more

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