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America Can’t Afford to Be a Climate Loner

Leaving the Paris Agreement would isolate the country

Last year was full of contradictions. Climate action made substantial strides forward, with momentum building on many fronts: The Paris Agreement went into effect with record-breaking speed; countries amended the Montreal Protocol to phase-down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), the most potent class of greenhouse gases; and the world created a global market-based mechanism to reduce CO2 emissions from civil aviation, to name just a few.

photo of Eiffel Tower during Paris Climate TalksPhoto by Yan Caradec/FlickrThen the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has raised concerns about whether the country will pull out of the Paris climate agreement. 

Then the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States suddenly raised doubts about whether the country will continue to play a leadership role and cooperate with other nations on climate policies. President Trump’s derisive comments about climate change and the equivocation (at best) that his cabinet appointees have shown for international climate policies could put the United States at odds with the world.

But at this critical juncture, America should not become a climate isolationist. The rest of the world appears determined to press ahead in tackling climate change’s threats to humanity’s future. There are many good reasons the United States should not pull out of the international climate action movement.

Diplomatic Isolation

America's most steadfast allies and trade partners support the Paris Agreement. One-hundred and ninety four countries joined the Agreement; only three did not (Syria, Nicaragua and Uzbekistan). Many of the 130 heads of government who came to Paris in December 2015 emphasized the wide-ranging impacts of climate change on health, well-being and security, and ultimately, each of the countries that joined the Agreement did so in their own self-interest. 

As countries worked to create the Agreement, the landscape of global diplomacy was forever altered, with climate change breaking out of its historical silo to become an issue as central to international diplomacy as trade and security. This has also been reflected in the G7 and G20, where climate change has come to the center of the agenda.

Withdrawing from this wave of cooperation risks much. Countries are now clearly assessing each other’s contributions to the stability of the global climate regime as a strong measure of whether they are good partners more broadly. If the Trump administration doesn’t honor its international commitments on climate change, they very well may find it difficult to engage countries on the new administration’s priority issues.

We’ve been here …more

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Safeguarding the Karnali River

Nepal's last free-flowing river is threatened by a massive dam

Megh Ale (pronounced “Ah-lay”) is a patient man. His eyes twinkle, the corners almost always turned up into a soft smile. He used to be a monk before he started his rafting, adventure travel, and river conservation endeavors. Patience is a virtue in Nepal if you are a river conservationist, but a sense of alarm is also present in Ale’s face and voice. The country has about 6,000 rivers and streams, and every single river is dammed except one. That’s right — one.  

Now that final free-flowing river, the Karnali, is also threatened. Ale is trying to save it.

Karnali Riverphoto by Gary WocknerThe Karnali, Nepal's last free-flowing river, faces threats from several proposed dams.

The Karnali River begins in the Himalaya Mountains on the Nepal-side of the Tibet border across from holy Mt. Kailish. The spiritual center for four eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Bon — Mt. Kailish is believed to be where the Hindu’s Lord Shiva lives and sits in a state of perpetual meditation. But the Karnali River itself seems to never meditate. It rages and flows down the canyons of Western Nepal in a constant state of motion, its glacier-fed blue-green waters glistening in the sun.

We visited in the first week of November 2016, which is the dry season in Nepal. Led by Ale and his team at his rafting company, Ultimate Descents, 21 of us international adventurers from 10 different countries launched an 8-day raft trip on the Karnali as the inaugural “Karnali River Waterkeeper Expedition” This expedition wasn’t just about rafting. Organized in cooperation with the “Nepal River Conservation Trust,” which Ale co-founded in 1995, and the international Waterkeeper Alliance, which Ale began collaborating with in 2016, this adventure was about protecting the Karnali.

On our first day at the put-in (the starting point for the rafting trip), five of us woke up early and drove 18 miles upstream to the proposed dam site of the “Upper Karnali River Dam” in the village of Daab. GMR, the private Indian engineering firm that proposes to build a 520-foot tall hydroelectric dam on the river, has built a small headquarters in Daab, their six new modern buildings contrasting dramatically with the traditional mud and slash-roofed homes of the villagers.

Karnali Riverphoto by Gary WocknerBefore embarking on the rafting trip, the author and four fellow rafters snuck down to the river near the dam builders’ headquarters …more

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Trump Administration Tells Federal Agencies to Halt Communications

President has banned EPA employees from 'providing updates on social media or to reporters,' say reports

Editor's Note: It is not uncommon for new administrations to assume swift control of government communications. Still, the extent of the limitations imposed by the Trump Administration, paired with the fact that they seem targeted at agencies working on environmental policy, has many scientists and environmentalists alarmed.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture have been placed under de facto gag orders by the Trump administration, according to documents obtained by news organizations.

photo of TrumpPhoto by Gage Skidmore/FlickrAt least five federal agencies have been ordered silent by the Trump administration in as many days.

The president has banned EPA employees from “providing updates on social media or to reporters,” according to interagency emails first obtained by the Associated Press, and barred them from awarding new contracts or grants as well. Trump is reportedly planning massive cuts and rollbacks for the agency.

This follows similar guidance to USDA employees, who were instructed in an internal memo obtained by Buzzfeed not to release “any public-facing documents” including “news releases, photos, fact sheets, news feeds, and social media content” until further notice. Specifically the request was made to employees of the Agricultural Research Service, the USDA’s primary research wing, which is heavily involved in research regarding climate change.

In a statement Tuesday, the USDA called the email sent to staff “flawed” and said the proposed policy would be replaced. “This internal email was released without departmental direction, and prior to departmental guidance being issued,” the statement read. “ARS values and is committed to maintaining the free flow of information between our scientists and the American public.”

The two blackouts reported on Tuesday bring to at least five the number of federal agencies which have been ordered silent by Trump in as many days. In his briefing on Tuesday, Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer said he needed to look further into the matter before making any comment.

Over the weekend, the Department of the Interior’s social media privileges were briefly suspended by the president after the National Park Service published a picture comparing Trump’s inauguration crowd to that of Barack Obama in 2009.

The tweet has since been deleted, and the NPS Twitter account has apologized for tweeting it.

“They had inappropriately violated their own social media policies,” Spicer told reporters on Tuesday. “There was guidance that was put out to the department to act in compliance with the rules that were set forth.”
Around the …more

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Trump Greenlights Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines

Environmentalists, indigenous activists vow to 'resist with all of their power’

President Donald Trump signed executive orders this morning paving the way for both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipeline projects to move forward. Both projects have been fiercely opposed by indigenous and environmental activists, who have so far been successful in stalling them — Keystone XL was cancelled by Obama in January 2015, and the Dakota Access pipeline has been on hold since December 4, 2016, when the Army Corps of Engineers denied it a permit to drill under the Missouri River in Cannonball, North Dakota.

photo of Water Protectors at Standing RockPhoto by Leslie Peterson/FlickrThe Standing Rock Sioux have been organizing against the Dakota Access pipeline for months. The executive orders challenge their hard-fought wins against the project.

The DAPL order will have immediate implications in North Dakota, where the Standing Rock Sioux tribe, along with native and non-native allies, has been protesting the completion of the 1,172-mile Dakota Access pipeline. Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the project, has been waiting to complete the final 1,100-foot piece of the pipeline, which threatens both clean water resources and Native American sacred sites in the region. (Trump is known to have had investments in Energy Transfer Partners. His team says he has divested from the company, but has not offered evidence of that.)

According to the Washington Post, the Keystone XL pipeline order reverses President Obama’s 2015 decision to reject the pipeline based on its climate impact and his determination that it wouldn’t help the economy or increase energy security in the US. TransCanada, the company heading the massive pipeline project, is expected to use eminent domain to seize property for its completion.

Trump also signed three additional executive orders to expedite environmental review of "high priority infrastructure projects."

The executive orders are clear setbacks for the environmental movement, which had gained momentum during the Obama administration. “Donald Trump has been in office for four days, and he’s already proving to be the dangerous threat to our climate we feared he would be,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement. 

But advocates aren’t giving up.

“[T]hese pipelines are far from being in the clear,” Brune added. “The millions of Americans and hundreds of tribes that stood up to block them in the first place will not be silenced, and will continue fighting these dirty and dangerous projects.” 

Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace, echoed this sentiment: “A powerful …more

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Gaps in Lead Screening Policies Across States Put Our Children at Risk

Elevated lead exposure in a significant number of US children is going undetected, says report

Until a few weeks ago, I’d not considered the problem of lead contamination as something I should worry about personally. This, despite the fact that I live in a house built in the 1930s with old doors and windows with lead paint. We replaced those a few years ago and the renovations were done in keeping with US Environmental Protection Agency guidelines. So that, I thought, was the end of it. Lead in the water supply, which I’d researched when the Flint, Michigan crisis began became public, wasn’t much of an issue in the California Bay Area.

child palying with toy truck in backyardPhoto by Support PDX/FlickrLead contaminiation comes from not just from old paint and water infrastructure. Particles from leaded gasoline, which was phased out more than 30 years ago, still linger in the soil and air around us. Private properties, especially old homes and rental units, still have some of the highest lead levels.

But then, just as 2016 drew to a close, I read the Reuters investigation that found almost 3,000 communities across the United States with lead contamination worse than Flint. The investigation, based on a review of public health data from 21 populous states, found that many of these lead hotspots are receiving little attention or funding for clean ups or health screening. Soon after, on January 9, I came across another report, this time by Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families (SCHF), a coalition of 450 health and environmental groups, which pointed out that there is no uniform nationwide policy for screening children for lead contamination across the country.

Lead is a well-known toxin that can have serious health impacts, particularly on the development of the brain and nervous system. Its impact on children is associated with problems that are extremely costly to society, including learning disabilities, socialization issues, and violent behavior. Lead residue is ubiquitous in our environment, especially in urban areas. While the metal has been banned from household paint and gasoline for some time, there are numerous remaining sources of exposure, including paint in older housing, water service lines and plumbing, contaminated soil, and several continuing commercial uses.

“The highest risk areas are where you have a confluence of old housing and low income residents who may not have the resources to maintain the property so you end up with deteriorated lead-based paint and bare soil, which can also then create lead dust that children are exposed to,” …more

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Outgoing EPA Chief Gina McCarthy Reveals Fears Trump Administration Will Halt Climate Action

EPA staff are ‘nervous’ after the president-elect promised to reduce the environment agency to ‘tidbits’

There is “nervousness” among Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) staff that Donald Trump’s incoming administration will sideline science and reverse action on climate change, according to the agency’s outgoing administrator, Gina McCarthy.

photo of Gina McCarthyPhoto by Chesapeake Bay Program, FlickrGina McCarthy admitted EPA staff are nervous that Donald Trump's administration will reverse action on climate change, but said that the administration will face resistance if it rejects climate science. 

McCarthy told The Guardian that the Trump administration would face resistance from multiple fronts if it ran counter to a widespread shift to renewable energy, as well as scientific opinion, by rejecting climate science and attempting to bolster the fossil fuel industry.

Trump has promised to reduce the EPA to “tidbits” and has nominated the Oklahoma attorney general, Scott Pruitt, to run the agency. Pruitt has sued the EPA 14 times over its pollution regulations, has questioned established climate science and has been criticized by environment groups for his ties to oil and gas interests.

“People at the EPA will be respectful of the new administration but they will continue to do their jobs,” said McCarthy, who was appointed by Barack Obama in 2009 to head the regulator. “I would not be telling the truth if I said there was no sense of nervousness. There is a sense of nervousness that the new administration will take decisions not in line with the science.”

“If they don’t take notice of the science, we will be back to where we were before the last president. We’ve done everything we can to not only reduce greenhouse gases but also send the world a message about the seriousness of the issue. I hope the rest of the world realizes that the vast majority of people here accept that seriousness and that we will remain part of the international action regardless of what the new administration does.”

Trump has previously threatened to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement but Rex Tillerson, his pick for secretary of state, said last week that the new administration still wanted a “seat at the table” during the climate talks.

EPA action to reduce emissions appears more likely to be axed, however, with the new president expected to dismantle the Clean Power Plan, which sets emissions standards for coal-fired power plants, and do little to enforce regulations that curb pollutants from mining and transportation.

But McCarthy said even if the federal government reverses course on climate change, progress will …more

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Medical Waste Poses a Serious Environmental and Public Health Threat in Pakistan

Lack of enforcement of hazardous waste disposal regulations a major factor

Imdadullah Khan routinely rifles though a garbage bin in front of Lady Reading Hospital, in Peshawar, Pakistan. “I am looking for used syringes, drips, needles in the garbage so that I can sell it and earn money for my family,” says the 25-year-old waste-picker, who has been engaged in this business for 15 years. Khan earns about $5 a day by selling what reusable medical refuse he collects from garbage dumps across the city to scrap dealers.

little girl sitting by garbage filled pondPhoto by Ryan RyanIn Pakistan, where solid waste management is already a matter of major concern, unsafe disposal of medical waste is further exacerbating the problem.

Khan wasn’t aware of the grim fact that he’s at high risk of contracting a lethal disease just by dint of his profession. According to Pakistan’s environment ministry, the country’s healthcare facilities generate nearly 250,000 pounds of medical waste per day. Much of this untreated waste is dumped at regular municipal garbage sites, leaving waste-pickers like Khan extremely vulnerable to exposure to infectious diseases and toxins.

The management of medical waste — refuse generated by hospitals, laboratories, clinics and other healthcare institutions that may be contaminated by blood, body fluids, radioactive materials, or other potentially infectious materials —requires special care and attention. It’s usually recommended that all medical waste materials be segregated at the point of generation, and appropriately treated and disposed of safely. But, in Pakistan, where solid waste management is already a matter of major concern, unsafe disposal of medical waste is further exacerbating the problem, impacting the environment and health of tens of thousands of people.

According to WWF Pakistan, very little of the country’s medical waste is handled according to international standards. Part of the problem is that that Pakistan doesn’t have a well-established waste segregation system and most healthcare facilities, whether public or private, either don’t have adequate knowledge about how to dispose of medical waste or don’t bother follow standard guidelines.

Medical waste from healthcare institutions is often being dumped in the open and mixed with municipal waste, says Rahman, an environmentalist and retired professor of Department of Environmental Sciences, University of Peshawar. He says that such unregulated dumping of medical waste not only pollutes the environment, but also contributes to the spread of certain diseases by exposing health care workers, waste handlers, patients and the community at large to toxins and infections such as hepatitis, diarrhea, food-borne illnesses, skin infections, tuberculosis, and …more

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