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In Review: War of the Whales

A gripping tale of how two environmentalists took on the US Navy to save our ocean’s giants

Joshua Horwitz has come up with an outstanding book about whales, the environment, and the clash between whales and the US Navy. Deeply researched over six years, this well paced and exciting book is both an education in whale and acoustic science and in how environmental issues grow from relative obscurity to become front-page news.

photo of a beached whale, two people examining it showing the scalephoto by Aleria Jensen, NOAA/NMFS/AKFSC (Wikimedia Commons)Whales rely on their acute and highly specialized hearing for communication, navigation, and detecting predators. Underwater sonar pulses used in during Naval exercises disorients and sometimes leads to their death.

War of the Whales is also one of the best books I’ve read that shows how environmentalists and scientists actually work, and how they often can work in tandem to address important issues that would otherwise be ignored by political decision-makers. Most books about the environment will focus on individuals who are interviewed about what should be done, but few authors actually get into the daily nitty-gritty of environmental advocacy – the planning, the choices, the implementation of strategy and the evaluation of the outcome, and then what comes next. And, as noted, Horwitz makes it interesting and involving – the tension in the book never lets up.

War of the Whales opens on a beach in the Bahamas, where researcher Ken Balcomb, one of the world’s authorities on whales, including little-studied beaked whales, is startled to find one of the whales he knew wash up on the beach in front of his house (Balcomb takes photos of whales dorsal fin and back and uses these to identify individuals).  There have been previous strandings of beaked whales, but usually only one at a time between long intervals of years. This whale was one of more than a dozen others of several different species that washed up around the same morning on different beaches in the Bahamas.

Similar large strandings had been recorded previously in Europe and often associated with sea trials run by various world navies, including the US Navy, but the difference was that this time Balcomb was able to remove several of the whales’ heads and preserve them in freezers. An autopsy of the heads proved, for the first time, that the trauma these whales encountered came from sound – specifically underwater sonars booming at immense levels. The …more

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All Together Now!

Environmental organizers busy laying plans for the People’s Climate March

If everything goes according to plan, the People’s Climate March could be the largest climate demonstration in the United States to date. On September 20 and 21, waves of citizens will descend on New York City to show public support for the UN "Solutions Summit" and to demand immediate action to staunch greenhouse gas emissions. I'll be joining them — traveling with a group of protesters on a train from Washington, DC to New York as I cover the march for Earth Island Journal — and last week I attended an organizing meeting in DC to see what I should expect.

Santa Rita MountainsPhoto by Bjorn Philip BeerThe diverse and large turnout at a march organizers' meeting in Washington, DC, indicates that the September demonstration in New York has a broad, populist appeal.

As I arrived in the capital, a few big questions occupied my mind. How will this march be different from past climate-related mobilizations? Can this effort succeed in moving the needle of elite and public opinion? Will it lead to drastic emissions reductions?  

What is different about the People’s Climate March became apparent the moment the crowded meeting began. The gathering took place in the basement of the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, just one stop on an “Organizers Tour” that is traveling up the East Coast spreading the word about the march Paul Revere-style. The assembled group was as varied as it was large. I expected a young crowd, yet there were dozens of silver-haired retirees. Some attendees were policy wonks at major environmental organizations who wanted to participate in a more hands-on way. Others were activist types who had recently been arrested in non-violent direct actions in the DC area. For every seasoned activist I spoke with, there was someone who was taking to the streets for the first time in their lives.

The diversity of this organizers' meeting is mirrored at the national level. Paul Getsos spoke on behalf of the organizing committee for the national People’s Climate March and described a broad coalition of groups that has already emerged. As of this writing, 150 leaders in the faith community in New York have committed to turning out their congregations. Although labor and enviros have their occasional differences, 20 labor unions have already pledged to put boots on the ground. I …more

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The Anti-Label Lobby

Industry lobbying boils over in bid to block labeling of genetically engineered food

Companies and organizations opposed to labeling foods that contain genetically engineered ingredients disclosed $9 million in lobbying expenditures that made reference to GE labeling in the first quarter of 2014 – nearly as much as they spent in all of 2013.

The burst of lobbying by food and biotechnology companies was partly designed to muster Congressional support for legislation that would block states from requiring GE labeling on food packages. That bill, dubbed the Deny Americans the Right to Know (DARK) Act by advocates of GE labeling, was introduced on April 9 by Rep. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.).

In May, Vermont became the first state to enact legislation to require GE labeling, although industry has filed suit in an effort to block it. Connecticut and Maine have passed GE labeling laws that would go into effect if other northeastern states pass similar legislation.

Oregon and Colorado voters will consider GE labeling ballot initiatives this fall, and labeling bills have been introduced in 30 other states in 2013 and 2014.

Food and biotechnology companies and organizations disclosed $9.3 million in lobbying expenditures in 2013 that made reference to GE labeling and $9 million in the first quarter of 2014 alone. The forms cite lobbying on GE labeling as well as other policy issues.

In particular, the Grocery Manufacturers Association disclosed $1.2 million in lobbying expenditures that made reference to GE labeling in the first quarter of 2014. The Association's member organizations separately disclosed another $4.3 million in lobbying expenditures that made reference to GE labeling in the first quarter, including $3.9 million by beverage giants Coca-Cola and Pepsi.

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Food industry lobbying in Congress dwarfed that of supporters of GE labeling, who disclosed $1.6 million in lobbying expenditures that made reference to GE labeling in 2013 and just over $400,000 in the first quarter of this year – just one-eighth as much as the opponents. Advocates of GE labeling are supporting legislation introduced by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) that would require GE labeling nationwide.

Several companies that produce genetically engineered seeds and herbicides – including Monsanto, Syngenta and Dow AgroSciences – did not report lobbying specifically on either piece of legislation on their 2013 disclosure forms or in the first quarter of 2014. Instead, their reports …more

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Safety Clearance of Sendai Nuclear Power Plant Doesn’t Reassure Residents

Starting this fall, nuclear power could once again be part of Japan’s long-term energy mix

For most of the three-and-a-half years since the accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant forced over 150,000 people from their homes and overturned the broader population’s faith in the “myth of nuclear safety,” the country’s 48 nuclear reactors have stood idle. This is not a sign that Japan has taken a fundamental turn away from nuclear power, as Germany has. Rather, the past several years have been a kind of probation period, during which both government and industry have scrambled to apply the “lessons of Fukushima” well enough to restart at least some reactors with renewed assurances of safety. Now, that is on the verge of happening.

Sendai nuclear power plantPhoto courtesy IAEA ImagebankKyushu Electric, the operator of the Sendai nuclear power plan, claims it has made enough changes to meet new safety standards implemented after the Fukushima disaster.

Earlier this month, Japan’s Nuclear Regulatory Authority (NRA) gave a preliminary nod of approval to the restart of the Sendai Nuclear Power Plant in Kagoshima Prefecture, on Kyushu island about 600 miles southwest of Tokyo. The draft decision is in response to an application from Kyushu Electric, the plant operator, claiming it has made enough changes to meet new safety standards implemented after the Fukushima disaster. However, several steps remain before Sendai’s two reactors can be turned back on: a month-long public comment period, final approval from the NRA, and agreement from local politicians. All this looks likely to proceed smoothly – which means that by this fall, nuclear power could once again be part of the country’s long-term energy mix.

The critical question, of course, is whether Japan has truly grasped the lessons of Fukushima.  Is the Sendai plant safe? If an accident does happen, will the local population be able to escape unharmed? Has the government made the institutional changes necessary to even answer those questions competently? Long-time anti-nuclear activist Aileen Mioko Smith argues the answer is “no” on all counts.

“The NRA is not following its own guidelines, and in other areas it hasn’t put into place proper regulations. The decision-making process to assure safety is very vague, and who takes final responsibility is completely vague,” says Smith, who directs the citizen’s organization Green Action Japan. Indeed, NRA chairman Shunichi Tanaka has repeatedly emphasized that his organization’s role is not to ensure safety, but merely to …more

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Ocean Acidification Is an Imminent Threat for Alaska Fishing Communities

Communities in southeast and southwest Alaska face the highest risk, says NOOA-led report

Keeping Alaska’s fisheries wild and sustainable is going to be a serious challenge in the years ahead as our oceans become more acidic, and that in turn, is going put many Alaskans’ subsistence way of life at risk, says a new report.

Many of the nutritionally and economically valuable marine fisheries in the state are located in waters that are already experiencing ocean acidification, says the report, “Ocean Acidification Risk Assessment for Alaska’s Fishery Sector” that was published online today in the journal Progress in Oceanography.

Bering Sea Crab FishermenPhoto by Meg J/FlickThe Bering Sea crab fisheries are among the most at risk from ocean acidification.

“How bad is it? The short answer is, we don’t know,” says National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration oceanographer Jeremy Mathis, one of the lead writers of the report, which was coauthored by researchers from the University of Alaska and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Alaska has one of the most productive commercial fishing economies in the world. The state’s fishing industry supports more than 100,000 jobs and brings in roughly $5 billion a year in revenue. Think: pollock, Bristol Bay’s famous sockeye salmon, and crab from the Bering Sea. Apart from that, about 17 percent of Alaskans (around 120,000 people) rely on subsistence fishing for most, if not all, of their dietary protein. Fishery-related tourism also brings in $300 million annually.

The state’s fisheries management model — with its focus on sustained yields and public participation in the regulatory process — is widely recognized as an example of successful natural resource stewardship. But now climate change is posing new and unknown challenges to this model.

The impact of ocean acidification is far worse in Alaska’s waters because the coastal waters here are cold, and cold water can absorb more carbon dioxide, Mathis told the Earth Island Journal. Also, unique ocean circulation patterns in the region bring naturally acidic deep ocean waters to the surface here. The study focused on assessing the impact on Alaska Native communities because “the fisheries really are the lifelines of these communities,” Mathis says. “We want to start thinking about the implications and help them figure out what they can do to prepare for what’s coming.”

The researchers say that red king crab and tanner crab — two important Alaskan fisheries — grow more slowly and don't survive as well in …more

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Federal Coal Leasing Undermining Obama’s Climate Goals

Coal mining on public lands could wipe out power plant reforms, Greenpeace report finds

A report published today by Greenpeace highlights a growing contradiction in government policies on one of the dirtiest of fossil fuels: coal. In June, the Obama administration announced a plan to crack down on carbon dioxide emissions from power plants. Meanwhile, the federal Bureau of Land Management has continued to quietly lease publicly owned coal seams to mining corporations at deeply discounted prices. These rock-bottom rates have helped drive a push for expanded exports of American coal, and they risk wiping out the benefits of President Obama's new greenhouse gas controls.

coal minePhoto by eastcoalfax/FlickrThe Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of coal on public lands, roughly equivalent to more than 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon when burned.

"Without major changes, the federal coal leasing program will continue to undermine federal, state, and international efforts to reduce carbon pollution," said the report, Leasing Coal, Fueling Climate Change.

The president's power plant rules are expected to cut 500-million metric tons of climate-changing carbon dioxide a year by 2030. But the Greenpeace report concluded that under the Obama administration, the Bureau of Land Management has leased 2.2 billion tons of coal on public lands, roughly equivalent to more than 3.9 billion metric tons of carbon when burned. About 98 percent of the leases are on public land in just two states — Wyoming and Montana, home to the massive Power River Basin coal deposits.

"This [climate change] is a huge crisis that the president of the United States has said we're working to address, and at the same time you have this relatively low-profile program that is undermining these larger goals," said Joe Smyth, a Greenpeace spokesperson.

The Obama administration has touted the climate change mitigation benefits of America's recent shale gas rush, noting that, when burned, natural gas releases only half as much CO2 as coal. But the president's all-of-the-above energy policy — which has promoted the development of shale oil, shale gas and coal alongside renewables — risks a double-whammy for the climate. Not only does natural gas development cause leaks of methane (another powerful greenhouse gas, which some scientists warn may make burning natural gas worse for the climate than relying on coal), but much of the coal that was burned domestically in the past is now being shipped abroad, where its low price could undermine …more

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Time in the Wilderness Supplies Lessons for (Planetary) Survival

In celebration of the Wilderness Act’s 50th anniversary

Ah, summertime — the season for getaways to the great outdoors. Maybe that means a lazy float trip down the Russian River, a weekend at the beach, or camping at the nearest state park. If you're especially intrepid, getting away might involve strapping on a pack and striking out into one of California's 149 designated wilderness areas.

John Muir Wilderness Area Photo by V.H.S./FlickrThe United States has more land protected as wilderness than any other country. Yet the
wilderness ideal is also experiencing unprecedented challenges.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Wilderness Act. The watershed law established a legal definition of wilderness as an area that retains its "primeval character" and where "the imprint of man's work [is] substantially unnoticeable." Today, some 110 million acres of land across the United States are protected as wilderness, an achievement unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Yet the wilderness ideal is also experiencing unprecedented challenges. The strains of accommodating 7 billion people on Earth are making wilderness areas and other preserves ever more isolated. The far-reaching effects of global climate change are disrupting the natural cycles of even the most remote places. The tug of our technologies requires extra effort to disconnect from the noise of civilization.

It has become fashionable in environmentalist circles to say that the garden, rather than the wilderness, offers the best metaphor for understanding how humans can coexist with the rest of nature. As a co-founder of San Francisco's largest urban farm, I agree the garden supplies a bounty of teachable moments about environmental sustainability. And I also agree with the poet Gary Snyder's observation that "wilderness can be a ferocious teacher." A foray into the remote wilderness — whether for a single night or an entire week — offers a unique wisdom found nowhere else.

For starters, the wild provides a crash course in humility. Go beyond road's end to where the motor and the engine cannot reach, and you'll be reminded of the self-flattery of human technology. The presence of other apex predators — mountain lions, bears, wolves — is a bracing tonic, evidence of how the wild naturally resists human desires. In the wilderness, we're forced to consider that we're not as all-knowing and as all-powerful as we may think, and that we should be more cautious in believing we can (or should) …more

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