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City Hall vs. Big Oil

Podcast takes listeners to Richmond, CA, where organizers are mobilizing for a sustainable future

Smackdown: City Hall vs. Big Oil is the 4th episode in Stepping Up podcast, which tells the stories of people who are responding in unique and unexpected ways to the daunting crisis of climate change. Perhaps the most compelling form of climate activism today is local electoral politics. With climate deniers holding the highest offices in the land, many Americans are getting involved in city and county elections, working from the ground up for a clean and carbon-free environment.

Andres Soto is one of them.

photo of Richmond refineryPhoto by Michael Moore The Chevron refiery has been in Richmond for more than a centruy, but a 2012 explosion and subsequent fire drew renewed attention to the health and safety issues associated with the operation .

Smackdown takes us to Richmond California, a mid-sized American city with a large Latino and Black working class population. At 62, Soto has spent his whole life in the Mexican American neighborhoods of Richmond and surrounding towns. His powerful build belies a sweet personality. Music is his passion and he leads his hot Latin jazz band, the Bay Breeze, on his saxophone.

But organizing for a sustainable Richmond is Soto’s mission. Working to protect the town from toxic pollution as head of the Richmond chapter of Communities for a Better Environment, he joins with residents of all races and classes. The local Chevron oil refinery looms large over this pursuit.

Established in 1905, the Chevron refinery has been in Richmond for more than 100 years. And the city has been run as a company town for most of its history, with Chevron doling out jobs and holding sway over local politics. Pollution stemming from this refinery is legendary — the facility spews particulate matter into the air and dumps waste into toxic pools. Processing 240,000 barrels of crude oil daily, it is also contributing heavily to global warming. And it is one of five big refineries hugging this piece of the East Bay shoreline.

In 2004, Andres helped establish the Richmond Progressive Alliance, or RPA. The goal was to turn city politics on its head, creating a local government that would work on issues such a police relations, housing, and education. It would also challenge Chevron’s hegemony over the town. The RPA won big that year and continued to build a strong, left-leaning government over the next ten years. They called for higher taxes on Chevron, stricter control of flaring, and …more

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Facing Climate and Water Pressures, Farmers Return to Age-Old Practice

Just 5 percent of California farmers use cover cropping, but that's likely to change as researchers start to track many benefits

This spring in California several orchards around Solano and nearby counties sported a new look: lush carpets of mixed grasses growing as tall as 3 feet beneath the trees’ bare branches. By summer the scene will change as farmers grow and harvest their nut crops, but the work of the grasses will continue unseen.

photo of cover cropPhoto by USDA NRCS South Dakota Cover crop seedlings push through the soil wheat stubble on a South Dakota farm. Despite the many ecological benefits, only 3 percent of farmers currently use cover crops nationwide.

Today just 5 percent of California growers are using cover crops — and 3 percent nationwide — but that’s likely to change.

Cover cropping, an agricultural technique as old as dirt, is taking root in California. Used to enhance soil nutrition and improve the growth of plants, it fell out of favor after World War II when the practice was replaced by the use of chemical fertilizers.

Farmers have used off-season plantings for millennia to build soil and keep it from blowing or washing away. Like their predecessors, walnut and almond growers are using these seasonal noncash crops to hold in moisture and provide habitat.

Farmers are also returning to the practice to curb the effects of a changing climate. As hotter and drier conditions hit most of the state, Central Valley growers are planting grasses and legumes under their trees to increase the carbon and nitrogen in their soils. And as implementation of the state’s new drought-driven groundwater regulation approaches, they are testing the ability of cover crops to increase the amount of water stored in the ground that grows their nuts and vegetables.

“Folks are really thinking hard about where their water comes from, and they’re thinking about carbon, too — things that are new in terms of farming systems in relationship to the world,” said Wendy Rash, a district conservationist with the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service.

She is part of a loose coalition of growers, scientists, and conservationists working to expand the use of cover crops and identify the places where they can provide the greatest ecological benefit at the lowest cost to the farmer. Some are weighing the economic advantages and risks, some the potential for effecting agricultural policies.

Among these efforts is an ambitious project aimed at a seemingly incongruous goal: river restoration. The Freshwater Trust, a Portland-based conservation group, …more

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Could Worms and Bacteria Offer a Solution to Plastic Pollution?

Research suggest that plastic-eating caterpillars and mutant enzymes could help break down trash

Each year, the world produces 300 million tons of plastic — an incredibly resilient synthetic product that pollutes every corner of the globe. Plastics are regularly ingested by wildlife on land and at sea, and eventually end up in the food on our plates.

photo of plastic on beachPhoto by Bo Eide Hard-to-break-down plastic waste poses threats to wildlife and humans alike. Scientists, however, think wax worms may hold some clues as to how to degrade this troubling type of trash.

In 2012, Federica Bertocchini, a developmental biologist at Spain's Institute of Biomedicine and Biotechnology of Cantabria, accidentally uncovered some wax worms while managing her beehives. Wax worms are the larvae of Galleria Mellonella, or the greater wax moth. They are commonly found in beehives, where the moth lays her eggs and the larvae feed on the wax produced by the bees — hence, the caterpillar's common name.

Bertocchini cleaned out her hives and placed the wax worms in a plastic bag, setting them aside for disposal. But when she returned to the bag later, the caterpillars had eaten their way out, creating multiple holes.

In order to make sure the wax worms were not just chewing holes in the bag but were actually digesting the plastic, Bertocchini designed a simple experiment: She mashed up the larvae and applied the resulting paste to polyethylene plastic bags. This would test whether or not the enzymes produced in the caterpillars' stomachs, or possibly the bacteria living within and on their bodies, could truly break down the plastic. After half a day, approximately 13 percent of the plastic had disappeared.

Like plastic, wax is a polymer consisting of a complex string of carbon atoms. "Since they eat wax," Bertochhini told National Geographic, "they may have evolved a molecule to break it down, and that molecule might also work on plastic.”

To explore her findings further, Bertocchini teamed up with biochemists Paolo Bombelli and Christopher Howe at the University of Cambridge to analyze the chemical composition of plastic as it reacted to wax worm paste. More specifically, the researchers used spectroscopy to look at how the polyethylene absorbed or reflected infrared radiation during the reaction. This analysis showed that some of the plastic was converted into ethylene glycol — a sign that it was being genuinely degraded.

"It’s extremely, extremely exciting, because breaking down plastic has proved so challenging," Bombelli told The Telegraph. When his team …more

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Elite Rock Climbers Push for Public Lands Protection on Capitol Hill

In 62 separate meetings, athletes and advocates asked politicians to protect the great outdoors

Alex Honnold was stuck in traffic.

The world’s most renowned rock climber was due on Capitol Hill for a US Senate reception with other top climbers from around the country, who had descended en masse on Washington to lobby for greater protections for public lands.

photo of climberPhoto by tony puyol / Flickr Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, organizers invited rock climbers to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

Honnold, the subject of an upcoming film documenting his ropeless climb last year of the 3,000 ft El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, had run out for a quick meeting with the National Park Service. But then he hit Washington’s notorious rush hour.

“It’s taking Alex longer to get here from the Department of the Interior than it takes him to climb El Cap,” quipped Phil Powers, CEO of the American Alpine Club, which organized the climbers’ lobbying event with the not-for-profit Access Fund.

Galvanized by the rollback of public lands by the Trump administration, and empowered by the roaring growth of the outdoor recreation industry, organizers had invited the athletes to Washington for a day of meetings with members of Congress and agency heads.

In 62 separate meetings, 13 teams of athletes and advocates made their ask of politicians and regulators: protect public lands by supporting funding for things like land and water conservation, firefighting, research, and staffing. Resist future attempts to remove federal protections from public lands. And support the sensible acquisition of new public lands to preserve irreplaceable ecosystems.

While the outdoor industry has lobbied legislators along similar lines for years, the Trump administration’s decision last year to radically shrink Bears Ears national monument and halve the Grand Staircase-Escalante monument has sharpened focus on what is at stake.

“The political climate around outdoor recreation and public lands has changed dramatically in just the last year,” Brady Robinson, executive director of the Access Fund, told The Guardian.

So the call went out to California, Colorado, Washington state, Utah, New Hampshire and other outdoor playgrounds. And on Thursday, some of the biggest names in rock climbing turned up in a hearing room in the Russell Senate office building, which was suddenly filled with backpacks by Patagonia, North Face, Osprey, Burton, and Jansport, rather than briefcases.

photo of el capitanPhoto by more

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Catch and Release Is No Fun for the Fish

A once-impassioned angler rethinks his relationship with sport fishing

There was a time in my life when fly-fishing was my life. I was a true fish bum. My entire existence revolved around the “sport.” I fished more than 150 days a year and had an unhealthy obsession with wild and native trout. There was something enchanting about those beautifully speckled, mysterious creatures. Their habits, their history, their habitats — all this intrigued me. I didn't neglect the warm water species, either: the bass, pike, muskies, walleye, carp, catfish, and so on. I owned a respectable collection of fly-rods. I tied my own flies and was damn good at it. My bookshelf was filled with fly-fishing books. I had hundreds of pictures of myself holding my “trophies,” and was proud of the 2-foot wild brown trout, the 20-inch smallmouth, the gorgeous little native brookies, the 30-inch walleye. But as time went on, something changed within me. It was a gradual change — a slow raising consciousness, if you will. I fought it at first, and even tried to block it out, but eventually I had to face it. I knew what I was doing was wrong.

photo of ticksPhoto by smuzz / Flickr Most fishermen and fisherwomen truly care about fish and the habitats in which they live. But sports fishing inflicts pain on the fish who are caught.

What was I doing? I was having fun, which is a poor excuse for torturing a living creature. This is the part where most people roll their eyes and sigh at the crazy “animal rights extremist” and say something like, “it's just a fish.” What exactly does that even mean? So, because it's a fish, it deserves no respect or empathy?

Let’s go back to that word, “torture.” Torture: The action or practice of inflicting severe pain on someone as a punishment or to force them to do or say something, or for the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. For the pleasure of the person inflicting pain. That right there is a good description of sport fishing. Now to be clear, I am not saying that all fisherman are sick people who knowingly and deliberately go out to torture or injure fish. On the contrary, I would say the exact opposite is true. Most fisherman are good people who truly do care about  fish and the habitats in which they live. But the fact of the matter is that sport fishing has become such a cultural norm …more

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How Artists and Neighbors Converted a WWII Bomb Site into a Medicinal Garden

London community found a way to protect a rare parcel of rewilded land

It was a fenced-off World War II bomb site that had rewilded, and a team of London artists decided it was the perfect place to grow a medicine garden. The site is in the middle of a social housing complex in the Bethnal Green neighborhood of Tower Hamlets, a London borough that has become the UK’s second most densely populated local authority, the basic unit of local government.

photo of London medicinal gardenPhoto courtesy of Michael SmytheThe Bethnal Green Nature Reserve is home to more than 30 edible or medicinal plants indigenous to London.

For the artists, the hardest part of getting the project off the ground turned out to be finding space. Before they found the old bomb site, they spent 2010 to 2012 in negotiations over another piece of land in Tower Hamlets. But it was “the size of a garage” and involved eight different landowners, said Michael Smythe, the founder of Nomad Projects, an independent art commissioning foundation that focuses on socially relevant public art. Then their funders got antsy.

That’s when one artist reached out to Margaret Cox, the chair of the nearby Teesdale & Hollybush Tenants and Residents Association, which had taken stewardship of the 1-acre parcel, known as Bethnal Green Nature Reserve, in the late 1990s. The association maintained the space by removing litter and planting. Cox, who is 62 now and has lived in the neighborhood since she was 9, said she had been visiting and caring for the land for the past 18 years. She referred to herself as its “mum.”

Cox said there were always concerns that the reserve, which is partly owned by the local government of Tower Hamlets, would be developed. Tower Hamlets is experiencing a housing crisis: The borough has the highest poverty rate in London, yet, at the same time, property values and rents have been going up. According to the Tower Hamlets council, 19,000 families are on a waiting list for 1,800 affordable housing slots.

Adding to those concerns, reported Vice in 2016, then-Mayor Boris Johnson had a history of overriding the decisions of local London councils, including Tower Hamlets, to greenlight development projects.

“The mayor’s plan at the time was to build, build, build without any consciousness of the impact that it has,” Cox said.

Smythe and Cox saw the partnership between artists and local stewards as a chance to protect the space. Smythe in particular …more

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The EPA Says Burning Wood to Generate Power Is ‘Carbon-Neutral.’ That’s Not True.

Converting forests into fuel will not help us avoid disaterous climate change

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt recently told a group of forestry executives and students that from now on the US government would consider burning wood to generate electricity, commonly known as forest or woody biomass, to be “carbon neutral.”

photo of biomass energy facilityPhoto courtesy of PSNH Biomass power doesn't introduce new carbon into the system, but it does transfer carbon from forests to the atmosphere, where it contributes to climate change.

The executives, who had gathered at an Earth Day celebration in Georgia, greeted the news with enthusiasm. But I did not.

Biomass does not introduce new carbon into the system, as its supporters point out. Yet it does transfer carbon from forests to the atmosphere, where it traps heat and contributes to climate change.

As a scientist and the coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report on renewable energy, I have concluded from extensive scientific studies that converting forests into fuel is not carbon neutral. I have also been working with many other scientists to inform governments about the potential for forests to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, and the climate perils of burning wood and forestry waste at an industrial scale for electric power.

Turning forests into fuel

Energy can be renewable. Or sustainable. Or carbon neutral. Or some combination. These terms are often used interchangeably, but they mean quite different things. Wind power and solar energy clearly have all three attributes. What about bioenergy — the heat released from burning wood and other plants?

Trees can eventually grow to replace those that were felled to produce wood pellets that are burned to produce electricity. That makes biomass very slowly renewable, if the replacement trees actually do grow enough to absorb all the carbon dioxide previously discharged.

Environmentalists generally oppose forest biomass because it contributes to climate change while disrupting important ecosystems and the biodiversity they support. They also object to this source of energy because it appears that burning biomass releases pollutants that endanger public health.

The scientists who study climate change, the global carbon cycle and forest ecology tend to reject the notion of biomass carbon neutrality. Some forest economists and forestry scientists, however, support the notion of carbon neutrality, depending on the circumstances.

Carbon accounting

To settle this debate, many of my colleagues and I believe it is essential to accurately account for all …more

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