Rebels imposed environmental rules remote rainforest regions, government struggling to fill power vacuum
Colombia is currently in the midst of a peace process with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest guerrilla group. Praised as the end of the Western Hemisphere’s longest-running armed conflict — which began in 1964 and has cost the lives of more than 265,000 Colombians and left over 7 million displaced — 7,000 members of the FARC have since left the jungle and turned over their weapons as part of the peace deal. The Colombian government began negotiations to end the conflict with the FARC in 2012, and by June 2016, both the government and the rebels reached a bilateral ceasefire, officially ending the violence between the two parties. The FARC officially demobilized in February 2017, though the process began in 2016.
According to the independent conflict monitor group Cerac, the ceasefire between the government and the guerrillas has already prevented an estimated 2,800 deaths, but environmental advocates worry that it may have an unintended consequence: that the power vacuum left by the demobilized FARC guerrillas will lead to further destruction of the Amazon rainforest.
photo courtesy of Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the North and the East Amazon
In July, Colombia’s Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (IDEAM) announced that deforestation shot up 44 percent in Colombia in 2016 compared to 2015, with the heaviest deforestation taking place in territories formerly controlled by the guerrillas.
Over the course of the 2016, IDEAM says that 178,597 hectares — 690 square miles — of forests around the country were destroyed, primarily by large-scale agriculture, logging, coca cultivation, road infrastructure projects, illegal mining, and human-caused forest fires. Authorities are particularly concerned for the country’s Amazon region, where 34 percent of all deforestation took place last year.
The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest. It covers more than 2 million square miles and houses at least 10 percent of the planet’s known species. Furthermore, the Amazon rainforest absorbs approximately 1.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide each year, making it one of the world’s most important carbon sinks and an invaluable buffer against human-caused climate change. Roughly 6 percent of the Amazon rainforest is found in Colombia.
Protecting people and planet from Big Oil the will require citizen action on a much greater scale
A version of this article originally appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle.
Five years ago, my wife and I moved to Richmond, CA and soon learned about the local emergency response protocol known as “shelter in place.”
When large fires break out in Bay Area refineries, like the century old Chevron facility near our house, first a siren sounds. Then public officials direct everyone nearby to take cover inside. Doors must be closed, windows taped shut, if possible, and air conditioning turned off.
Photo by Daniel Parks
August 6 is the fifth anniversary of such self-help efforts in Richmond. On that day in 2012, we looked up and saw an eruption worthy of Mount Vesuvius. Due to pipe corrosion and lax maintenance practices, a Chevron processing unit sprang a leak. The escaping petroleum vapor reached an ignition source. This led to a raging fire that Contra Costa County (home to four refineries) classified as a “Level 3 incident,” posing the highest level of danger.
Nineteen oil workers narrowly escaped death at the scene of the accident. It sent a towering plume of toxic smoke over much of the East Bay and 15,000 refinery neighbors in search of medical attention for respiratory complaints. While local property values took a hit, Chevron stayed on track to make $25 billion in profits that year.
Hunkering down at home and hoping for the best — or going to see the doctor — is no substitute for addressing a problem of this scale at its source. The Chevron fire became a wake up call for citizen action to make California refineries safer for their own workers and less harmful to air quality, community health, and the environment in general.
Since August 2012, labor and community organizers have used lobbying, litigation, regulatory intervention, electoral politics, and strike activity to pursue these goals. There has been some safety enforcement progress, modest financial concessions by Big Oil, and related promises to behave better in the future. Yet, thanks to Big Oil’s legal and political clout in our nation’s second largest oil refining state, the wheels of environmental justice turn much too slowly.
On the plus side, after the 2012 fire, Chevron quickly pleaded “no contest” to six criminal charges filed by state and local prosecutors, agreeing to pay $2 million in fines and restitution. It was also …more
Researchers are racing for answers following 10th confirmed death this summer
Researchers are scrambling to figure out why one of the world’s most endangered whale species is dying in “unprecedented” numbers, after at least 10 north Atlantic right whales have been found floating lifelessly off the coast of Canada.
The first whale carcass was reported in early June. Within a month, another six reports came in, leaving researchers reeling. This week, after several carcasses washed up on the shores of western Newfoundland, Canadian officials confirmed that the number of whale deaths had risen to at least 10, making 2017 the deadliest year for the whales since researchers began tracking them in the 1980s.
Photo courtesy of NOAA Photo Library
“This is a huge blow to the recovery of the north Atlantic right whale,” said Moira Brown of the Canadian Whale Institute. “This is an animal that maybe numbers 500 animals.”
The north Atlantic right whale — which lives along the eastern seaboard of Canada and the US and can reach up to 16m (50ft) in length — has struggled since being nearly hunted to extinction by whalers in the late 18th century.
Brown described the string of deaths as unprecedented. “We’re now looking at having lost about 2.5 percent of the known population. And it’s at least double — if not slightly more — than the number of calves born this year.”
Scientists are frantically carrying out tests on two other, rapidly decomposing whale carcasses to determine whether they are among the whale deaths that have been previously counted. If not, the tally could rise in the coming days.
With no obvious causes for the deaths, a team including federal scientists, pathologists and veterinarians have been racing against time to figure out what is happening. Necropsies have been carried out on several of the whales — using a backhoe to enter the large animals — in hopes of finding clues before the carcasses decompose.
The preliminary findings suggest some of the whales might have collided with vessels. “We have three animals with evidence of blunt trauma and one was entangled in snow crab gear, so we know there are some human activities that are involved,” said Brown.
In recent years, researchers have noticed the whales moving into …more
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 by Christina Biasi
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
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 by Mike Mozart
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
From Washington to Texas, climate refugees detained in contaminated jails are victims of environmental injustice
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 by Seattle Globalist
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
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 courtesy of An Inconvenient Sequel
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