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‘Building Artificial Glaciers Is an Enterprise of the Future’

A conversation with “ice stupa” creator Sonam Wangchuk

The spectacular arid Himalayan region of Ladakh, which lies northwest of India’s capital New Delhi, has seen a pronounced decline in snowfall and warmer and earlier springs in recent decades. This means the snow melts before the short growing season, reducing the amount of water farmers can access over the summer. To help farmers overcome this water shortage, Sonam Wangchuk, a local environmental engineer, is creating small artificial glaciers, or “ice stupas,” by freezing stream water vertically in the form of huge ice towers, or cones, of heights ranging from 15 to 50 meters. These ice towers look very similar to the local Buddhist shrines and can be built right next to the villages where the water is needed.

photo of ice stupa photo by Lobzang DadulAn ice stupa near Phyang village in the Himalayan region of Ladakh. These small artificial glaciers can provide water to farmers in early summer.

Wangchuk was among five people from across the globe who bagged an award for enterprise in November 2016 following this innovation. He says the ice stupas or “small glaciers” need very little effort and investment and can be created for all the villages that need water for agriculture and other uses in early summer. He says that, fortunately or unfortunately creating artificial glaciers will be an occupation and enterprise of the future given the impacts of climate change.

Athar Parvaiz: Could you describe how did the idea of storing water in ice stupas strike you?  

Sonam Wangchuk:  Ladakh is a cold high-altitude desert in the Great Himalayan mountain ranges where people especially the farmers face acute water shortages during the early crop-growing period between April and May. Global warming and shrinking glaciers has made things worse and has left little water available to farmers.

I truly believe that access to water in the desert landscapes around many high-altitude towns and villages of Ladakh could be improved if the huge seasonal outflows of glacial water could be frozen in a way that it melts gradually in spring to be available to the villagers when they need the water, the most.

I was inspired by the experimental work of a fellow Ladakhi engineer, 80 year old Aba Chewang Norphel.  Aba Norphel had created flat ice fields at heights of 4,000 meters and above. But villagers were reluctant to climb that high to maintain them. It was a tantalizing situation: a logical water supply solution was available, but faced challenges.

So, I …more

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March Madness in the Beltway

This past month, the Trump administration made speedy work of environmental deregulation

The United States is only 72 days into Donald Trump's presidency, and is already witnessing drastic changes to environmental policy and regulation. With so much information out there, it is too easy for important changes to get lost in the shuffle. Here are some of the biggest environmental changes from just the past month.

photo of power plant emissionsPhoto by Rich, Flickr From proposing deep funding cuts to environmental agencies to beginning the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan, Trump spent much of March rolling back environmental regulations.

Budget cuts to environment-focused government agencies — In the 2018 budget blueprint released in mid-March, the Trump Administration outlined large cuts to agencies that regulate environmental policy and protection in the US. Major cuts included funding for the Interior Department, which would see its lowest budget in 21 years, and for the Environmental Protection Agency, which would have its funding cut to the lowest level ever, according to a New York Times report. The budget is now in Congress’s hands, where it will be voted on by the committees that oversee spending for different agencies. Congressional Democrats, along with many Republicans, have made clear their opposition to the blueprint.

Dismantling the Clean Power Plan — Earlier this week, Trump signed an executive order that begins the process of dismantling the Clean Power Plan. The CPP is the signature climate policy of the Obama administration, aimed at helping the US meet its emissions reduction targets outlined in the Paris Climate Agreement by closing coal-fired power plants and scaling up clean energy production. The executive order directs the Environmental Protection Agency to review and rewrite the plan. The agency will almost certainly face legal challenges.

Coal leasing on federal land — The same order that targets the Clean Power Plan also addresses a moratorium on coal leasing on federal lands, instituted last year. Trump’s executive order, issued on March 28, made it possible for Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke to lift the moratorium. Zinke promptly did so on March 29. He also issued a directive for the Department of the Interior to abandon a review of the federal coal leasing program, which began in 2015.

Fracking deregulation — President Trump’s far-reaching March 28 order also addresses fracking regulations issued in 2015. The order directs the Interior Department to reanalyze the rule, which regulates many aspects of fracking, including the design of wells …more

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Judge Neil Gorsuch: Friend or Foe of the Environment?

Supreme Court nominee has a sparse record when it comes to environmental cases, but many public interest groups are worried

Next week, the Senate is expected to vote on whether to put Judge Neil Gorsuch on the highest court in the United States. If confirmed, Gorsuch would fill a Supreme Court seat left vacant by the death of Antonin Scalia more than a year ago, a seat that senate Republicans blocked President Obama from filling last year. And a seat that will likely shape the court for decades to come. So, in a tumultuous political time,  one in which environmental policies are under attack in Washington, what exactly would a Gorsuch confirmation mean for the environment?

photo of supreme courtPhoto by Geoff Livingston Many green groups are concerned about Judge Gorsuch's record on procedural issues that could impact environmental cases.

The answer is, well, a little tricky. Gorsuch, currently a judge on the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in Colorado, doesn’t have an extensive record when it comes to environmental law. By virtue of geography, those environmental cases that have come before him generally have had more to do with public lands than, say, federal regulations pertaining to fuel efficiency standards or power plant emissions, issues that are generally litigated in DC.

Based on those cases that have come before him, however, many environmental advocates are worried.

Denise Grab, a senior attorney with the New York University School of Law’s Institute for Policy Integrity, agrees that there could be some cause for concern for public interest groups, particularly with respect to procedural issues.

“One of the potential biggest concerns for environmental groups who are looking at [Gorsuch’s] record are some of his rulings on standing and other procedural rulings,” Grab says. “He has in previous cases required an atypically high bar” for environmental groups to have their cases heard.

Standing is a legal principle that requires a person or group to show they are sufficient impacted by the issue at hand to bring a suit in the first place. It requires showing some kind of concrete injury. Some kinds of injury are easy to establish — damage to your property causes economic harm, for example. Harm suffered due to lack of enforcement of the Clean Air Act or the Endangered Species Act is less straightforward, though environmental groups routinely, and successfully, make the case.

Gorsuch has also argued against the right of public interest groups to intervene in cases, a common practice that allows environmental organizations to join the defense when government regulations are being challenged. The …more

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Battle Lines Being Drawn Over Keystone XL Again

Pending Nebraska permit could prove a deal-breaker; Environmentalists and Indigenous groups promise direct action, legal resistance

On March 23, ironically almost 27 years to the day following the historic Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, Donald Trump issued a presidential permit to Canadian company TransCanada for its controversial Keystone XL pipeline, formally restarting a fight over the pipeline that first kicked off when it was first proposed in 2008.

photo of XKL protestPhoto by Jow Brusky Activists are gearing up for a renewed fight against the controvesial Keystone XL pipeline now that President Trump has issued a permit to Transcanada for the project.

Those opposing the pipeline had scored a major victory in November 2015 when President Obama rejected the project saying it wouldn’t help the economy or increase the United States’ energy security. A change in leadership, however, has fueled a move away from clean energy and fighting climate change and to the embrace of a fossil fuel-driven economic agenda.

After campaigning on the issue and subsequently loading his government with climate change deniers and a former oil company executive, it was little surprise that President Trump turned back the climate clock to revisit Keystone XL. Just four days after taking office, he signed an executive order fast tracking Keystone XL, giving secretary of state and former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson 60 days to make a decision on the pipeline.

The 1,179-mile long pipeline is expected to transport 830,000 barrels of bitumen per day from the Athabasca tar sands in Alberta, Canada, to an existing pipeline in Steele City, Nebraska, from where the crude will be moved to it refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

However, it’s unlikely that work on the pipeline will begin anytime soon. The project faces further battles on a number of different fronts, including opposition from environmentalists and Indigenous groups based on their treaty rights, court challenges to the secretary of state review, as well as at the grassroots resistance in the state of Nebraska.

“The President approved it this morning and turned to the CEO of the Canadian company supposed to build it and asked, ‘When does construction start?’” Bill McKibben, co-founder of the environmental group, said during a March 23 teleconference. “And the answer to that is never. This is going to be fought at every turn.”

The argument against the pipeline can be broken down to a few simple words: too much risk for too little reward. (The …more

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Trump Begins Tearing up Obama’s Years of Progress on Tackling Climate Change

Fossil fuels to the fore as president signs orders to review clean power plan, lift ban on coal leases and discard expert thinking on true cost of carbon emissions

Update, 12:45 p.m. March 28: Trump signed the executive order that will trigger a review of the Clean Power Plan, President Obama's signature policy to address climate change, late this afternoon. This article has been updated to reflect this development.

Donald Trump launched a major assault on Barack Obama’s climate change legacy on Tuesday with a series of orders that undermine America’s commitment to the Paris agreement.

Asked by The Guardian if Trump accepted the science of manmade climate change, a senior White House official replied: “Sure, yes, I guess, I think the president understands the disagreement over the policy response and you’ll see that in the order … We’re taking a different path.”

Build Bridges, Not Walls - No Time to Deny Climate Change - important messages from two protesters outside the US Embassy in LondonAlisdare Hickson / FlickrTrump, who has called global warming a 'hoax', has criticized the power-plant rule and others as placing an unnecessary burden on American workers and the struggling US coal industry.

Trump will sign executive orders and presidential memoranda that suspend, rescind or review several measures that were central to Obama’s effort to combat global warming. They include a review of the clean power plan, which restricts greenhouse gas emissions at coal-fired power plants.

Trump, who has called global warming a “hoax,” has criticized the power-plant rule and others as placing an unnecessary burden on American workers and the struggling US coal industry.

The official acknowledged the orders’ effects would not be immediate, especially in view of legal challenges. “I would bet a good deal I’m sure there’ll be litigation … Whether that’s three years, two years or one year, I don’t know. It’s going to take some time.”

The US agreed to cut its greenhouse gas emissions 26-28 percent by 2025 compared to 2005 levels under the Paris agreement. Obama’s clean power plan is the chief policy designed to lower US emissions. In 2015 it was billed as the strongest action ever on climate change by a US president but criticized for targeting coal-fired power plants.

Richard Lazarus, an environmental law expert at Harvard University, said: “It was launched before Paris for a reason. Everyone knew if the United States didn’t make a serious commitment, Paris wouldn’t happen. It’s now an open question how the rest of the world is going to respond if the United States eliminates a linchpin of its commitment.”

Trump will also aim to wipe out Obama’s climate action …more

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Can a Public Image Makeover Save the Mauritius Fruit Bat?

Conservationists are working to recast perceptions of native pollinators in the wake of controversial culls

Earlier this year I visited Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean famous for its powdery white sand beaches and beautiful seascapes. Lying within the tropical belt, sunsets in Mauritius sneak up quickly and end suddenly. They also coincide with a special event every evening: the ghostly silhouettes of Mauritian fruit bats beginning their nightly forays across the island’s tropical forests. Like shadows, the bats’ twilight migrations are magical and otherworldly. These might also be at risk due to ongoing culls of the vulnerable species. Local conservationists are working hard to ensure the evening spectacle is maintained for decades to come.

photo of Mauritius Fruit Bat photo by Jacque De Speville The government has carried out several culls of the Maritius fruit bat over the past few years. Conservationists say the culls put the vulnerable species at risk.

With wings that can span two-and-a-half feet, Mauritian fruit bats are huge. Also known as the Mauritian flying fox, these mega-bats are the largest endemic mammal on Mauritius. The bats used to live on the nearby island of Reunion, but became extinct there at the beginning of the nineteenth century due to deforestation and hunting. The remaining population on Mauritius is classified as vulnerable by the IUCN.

Mauritian fruit bats forage long distances every night and feed on a variety of fruits, both native and non-native. As they traverse the island, they disperse seeds in their droppings, which in turn help spread and germinate new fruit trees. Additionally, the fruit bats’ nightly travels help pollinate many of the plants they feed on, bolstering fruit production. As Mauritius’s only endemic mammal, the bats play a vital role in the health of the island’s native trees and plants, many of which are threatened and endemic as well.

However, in spite of the multiple ecosystem services the bats provide, many local farmers perceive them as pests and raiders of their fruit trees, particularly mango and litchi crops. (There is little evidence that the bats cause more damage to the island's fruit trees than factors such as weather, over-ripening, or birds.) The Mauritian government has taken a similar position, asserting that fruit bat populations have grown large enough for the species to become a pest, and that action is necessary to maintain ecological balance and protect economically important agricultural operations..

In 2015, in the face of international outcry (including a statement by the IUCN), the government controversially culled 20,000 of the …more

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Building a Thin Green Line Along the West Coast

From California to British Columbia, environmentalists are gearing up for an epic fight against fossil fuel infrastructure

Despite a string of victories in the last few years limiting the expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure on the West Coast, Donald Trump’s presidency shows it was never going to be easy to defeat the oil and gas industry.

In two months, Trump has moved to revive the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline routes that had been blocked by the Obama administration, expedite environmental reviews for infrastructure projects, and reverse fuel efficiency standards for automobiles. He is expected to reverse environmental regulation policies established under President Obama, including the Clean Power Plan, and will not likely adhere to the commitments of the Paris Climate Agreement.

photo of fossil fuel protestPhoto courtesy of Backbone Campaign Activists came together in Seattle last year to demand climate action. The West Coast is likely to play a vital role in determining the fate of the fossil fuel industry.

Republicans in Congress have followed suit, voting to kill two regulations passed in the waning days of the Obama administration: the Stream Buffer Rule, which prohibits coal companies from dumping toxic waste into an estimated 6,100 miles of streams; and a Bureau of Land Management rule that directs energy companies to capture natural gas from drilling operations on public lands rather than allowing them to burn or vent it into the atmosphere, where it’s heat-trapping potential is 84 times that of carbon dioxide.

For now, the situation is “scary,” says Mia Reback, a climate justice organizer with 350 PDX in Portland, Oregon. At the same time, she said, Trump has sparked “a groundswell of people coming into the climate justice movement who are looking to strategically and thoughtfully take action to create political change.” At her organization alone, orientation attendance has increased tenfold since the election.

All along the West Coast, environmentalists are gearing up for an epic fight. Advocates of a clean energy economy talk of building a “thin green line” from California to British Columbia to protect and improve on gains against the spread of fossil fuel infrastructure so that the production, use, and export of oil, coal, and natural gas steadily decline.

The fronts in this war are multiplying—along pipelines and rail lines, in the courts and media, through finance and all levels of government—even as an emboldened fossil fuel industry tries to roll back gains for climate justice and revive …more

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