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California’s Disappearing Dream

How the drought, hotter temperatures, and a booming population continue to shape the Golden State’s environmental future

The highest mountains in the West run north-to-south through the Mediterranean latitudes and just 150 miles from the Pacific Ocean – a remarkable stroke of geologic luck that has made California one of the richest ecological and agricultural regions on the continent. These mountains accumulate deep snow in the winter, which in turn feeds cold rivers that flow through the hot, dry months.

photo of an arid landscapephoto by Gordon / FlickrCalifornia is entering its sixth year of drought. Research indicates that the drought has been made worse by climate change.

But the unique conditions that California’s native fish, its farms and its cities depend on are acutely threatened by climate change. In 2015, virtually no snow fell in the Sierra Nevada.

Droughts occur naturally, but research indicates the current drought in the American West has been made worse by climate change and that future droughts will be exacerbated by the warming planet. A 2015 paper published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters calculated that climate change has made California’s current drought as much as 27 percent worse than it would otherwise have been. In 2015, Stanford researchers, led by associate professor of earth sciences Noah Diffenbaugh, predicted that extremely hot years in California will increasingly overlap with dry spells in the future. Greenhouse gases, the scientists reported, are pushing this trend. Diffenbaugh explained to The New York Times that, even if precipitation remains ample, warmer winters in the future will mean less water stored away as snow – historically the most important reservoir in the state.

As water supplies shrink, the human population is booming. By 2050, the agencies that manage and distribute California’s water will be answering to the needs of roughly 50 million people as well as the state’s enormous agriculture industry. Current squabbles over California’s water will escalate into blistering fights, and native salmon – once the main protein source for the West Coast’s indigenous people – will probably vanish in the fray as the Sacramento and San Joaquin river system is tapped to the max for human needs. Other native fishes, too, like green sturgeon, will almost certainly dwindle or disappear. 

The atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases will manifest in other ways, too. Disruption of ocean currents could reduce the upwelling of cold bottom water so critical for California’s coastal ecosystem. California’s shoreline will erode as sea level rises, threatening coastal real estate, roads, and public space. In 2009, the Pacific Institute released a report predicting …more

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Local Laws Ban Front Yard Food Gardens in Cities Across the US

Restrictions require residents to rip up vegetables or face fines, jail time

If sustainability starts at home, then so too do rules that determine just how sustainable you can be in your home life. Farmers can rely on their own crops and livestock for food, compost, clothing, and a host of other solutions. Gardens can be a great place for homeowners to help feed a family and use composted waste. Even other less obvious homebased pursuits can feed into sustainability efforts.

photo of trawlersphoto by Carol NorquistGrowing food in home gardens has exploded in popularity in recent years, but gardeners around the US face a dizzying number of bewildering restrictions.

For example, brewing beer — whether from ingredients grown at home or obtained at a farm or store — can help reduce packaging and transport costs, help out local farmers keen to receive spent grains, and give homebrewers the ultimate control over what they’re drinking. The explosion of homebrewing in America in recent decades is a great example of how federal rules can affect your home. Before 1978, it was illegal for Americans to brew beer at home. That year, President Jimmy Carter signed into law a bill that allowed Americans to make beer (and wine) at home, so long as they didn’t sell it. In addition to letting Americans brew beer at home for the first time since Prohibition, the law is credited with helping to set in motion the explosion of craft brewing in this country, as many of yesterday’s homebrewers went on to become today’s commercial craft brewers. Although the ban on homebrewing is one of the best known examples of a prohibition on producing one’s own food at home, many arguably more sustainable food practices — ones far more mundane than brewing beer — are banned at home by a tangled web of local rules.

Growing food in home gardens is among the easiest, most popular, and most personal ways to promote and consume sustainable food. It’s also a practice that’s exploded in popularity in recent years. A 2009 report by the National Gardening Association found that nearly one third of American households raises some combination of fruits and vegetables at home. A 2014 report by the same group found that the number of edible gardens had grown since the earlier report by 17 percent.  A 2012 report by the New York Times noted that home food gardens are a byproduct of the “growing interest in sustainability.”

Despite the mushrooming popularity of raising food at home, gardeners around …more

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Thousands of Chinese Ships Trawl the World, So How Can We Stop Overfishing?

The UN has pledge to ensure healthy, productive oceans, but demand for fish has never been higher

When I was in Senegal in 2003, the few Chinese vessels fishing along the coast from Mauritania to Liberia were unseaworthy rust-buckets, existing off what licenses they could cadge.

Then in the past five years shining new trawlers appeared on the horizon, churned out by subsidized Chinese shipyards, earning their owners handsome subsidies if they travel outside China, where they run on subsidized fuel and exploit subsidized freight rates to get their frozen cargo back home. There seem to be unlimited funds available to buy licenses to fish in ways that are far from transparent — and which have long been exploited by other Far East fleets and resourceful members of the European Union.

photo of trawlersphoto by Rene LeubertTrawlers off the coast of Namibia. China has the largest distant water fleet in the world, with some 3,400 vessels fishing in the waters of nearly 100 countries.

China’s distant water fleet is now the largest in the world, with about 3,400 vessels fishing in the waters of nearly 100 countries. Researchers estimate that nearly 75 percent of all the fish it caught came from African waters with almost 3 million tons from West Africa.

And there is, as far as we can see, a problem. Scientists working for the University of British Columbia, using a new way of estimating the size and value of catches, reported this year that just 9 percent of the millions of tons of fish caught by the Chinese in African waters is officially reported to the UN. All nations have to report annual catches to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.

Once, if you wanted to understand how global trends in food consumption were affecting the health of the ocean, you would travel to different countries, stand on the fish dock and watch the boats come and go. Now you get a far better grasp of what is going on from a computer program that tracks fishing vessels by satellite. Focus in on West Africa and you will notice the extraordinary upsurge in the number of Chinese trawlers fishing there in the past four years. The program displays the routes of more than 400 industrial vessels, 220 of them from China — more than any other nation.

Zoom in on the coast of mainland China itself and you will understand why the Chinese fleet ranges across the world from the south Pacific to the Caribbean to bring home the …more

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Rescued Animals Find Refuge in New Middle East Reserve

First lions, tigers, and bears transferred to region’s largest wildlife sanctuary in Jordan

The October opening of the largest-ever animal sanctuary of its kind in the Middle East offered a rare sign of hope amid the many ongoing conflicts in the region. Jordan’s Al Ma’wa Wildlife Reserve is now home to its first residents: seven lions, two tigers, and a Syrian brown bear. All ten animals were rescued from lives in captivity elsewhere in the Middle East — and transferred to the sanctuary by Four Paws, a Vienna-based animal welfare nonprofit.

photo of brown bearPhoto courtesy of Al Ma’wa for Nature and Wildlife A Syrian brown bear was among the first animals transferred to Al Ma’wa, the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Middle East.

The plan was long in the making — animal welfare advocates have struggled for years to address inhumane treatment of captive animals in the region, as well as a strong illegal wildlife trade. “It was an idea for all these years,” said Amir Khalil, an Egyptian-born veterinarian and director of emergency response for Four Paws. “Now it is a reality. The animals are there. We’re happy and proud. We were able to move mountains.”

Subsequent construction will see the sanctuary expand from its current 70 hectares to 140 hectares, which is “far larger than any similar establishment in the region,” Four Paws said in a statement.

Working with Princess Alia of Jordan, the sister of King Abdullah II, and her namesake, the Princess Alia Foundation, Four Paws culminated a six-year planning process with a three-day animal transfer, moving the large mammals from a smaller sanctuary, the New Hope Centre near Jordan’s capital city, Amman, to the larger reserve sanctuary near Souf, 45 kilometers to the north. The first Al Ma’wa animals were darted and anesthetized before being placed in “very heavy” crates, Khalil said. The crates were, in turn, placed on trucks and escorted by police for the hour-and-a-half long drive between the two reserves.

A pride of five lions were the first animals to be moved. A day later, they were joined by two tigers and Balou, the Syrian brown bear. All of these animals had been rescued from captivity, Khalil said. Two more lions arrived on the third day; they had been rescued from the Al Bisan zoo in the northern Gaza Strip in late 2014. Al Bisan lost 80 percent of its animals during a war between Israel and Hamas earlier that year, as zoo staff struggled to keep the animals healthy.

Asked what would have happened …more

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In India’s Remote Delta Region, Women Document Their Daily Struggle with Climate Change

As rising seas swallow islands, turn farmlands fallow, everyday life becomes a challenge

A UNESCO World Heritage site, the low-lying Sunderbans delta region by the Bay of Bengal is one of the most visible victims of the ravages of climate change in India.

An archipelago of several hundred islands of varying size, the Sunderbans stretches nearly 186 miles across the Indian state of West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is part of the world’s largest delta (30,888. sq miles) system formed from sediments deposited by three rivers – the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna – as they empty into the Bay of Bengal. It is also home to one of the world’s largest mangrove forests.

photo of a woman standing in water, jug balanced on her headPhoto by Lakshana Debnath“This is a common sight in the smaller islands of the Sunderbans,” says photographer  Lakshana Debnath. “Portions are perennially waterlogged as some of the breaches still remain for the water to gush in during high tides. The women have to repeat this choice quite a few times. every day. The water level is considerably higher (sometimes chest high) during monsoons.”

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change had warned nearly a decade ago that areas like the Sunderbans would be among the first to bear the brunt of climate risks caused by sea level rise and salt-water intrusion into farmlands and underground aquifers.

Sea levels in this area are rising at twice the global average, submerging islands, destroying homes and livelihoods. Women and children are especially at risk. Loss of farmable land, rising salinity in soil and groundwater, has led to men migrating in search of work. As a result, the workload on women has increased – they have to tend the fields, run the household and care for family members. This often limits their mobility and increases their vulnerability to factors like sudden weather-related natural disasters. 

A unique project has enabled the women in the Sunderbans to put together their stories about living with climate change in a vulnerable region. The women documented their lives as a part of a participatory research project that taught them how to wield cameras.

photo of a woman digging in sandPhoto by Parul Bhakta“Crab collection is the main livelihood of a substantial portion of women islanders living near the forest zones,” Parul Bhaktra, one of the women who participated in the project, says. “Sometimes they travel back and forth daily around 15 times a month. Most of them have …more

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Taking On Environmental Racism in Nova Scotia

Ongoing research project raises awareness of the issue while mobilizing affected residents to action

When an activist working on environmental racism first met with Ingrid Waldron in 2012 and asked her to become involved with his efforts, Waldron was hesitant. A sociologist and assistant professor of nursing at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, she didn’t know much about environmental racism. The term describes situations where industrial polluters and environmental hazards — such as landfills, trash incinerators, or coal plants — are disproportionately placed near low-income or minority communities.

photo of a landscapePhoto (CC BY-SA): Silver Donald Cameron An aerial view of a landfill in Lincolnville,  which is an African Canadian community in Nova Scotia.

“I was hesitant to take on a project, as it wasn’t an interest of mine,” Waldron says. “But I thought about it more. It seemed challenging. It would be political, and there would be an opportunity to make real change in communities. Those things excited me.” The researcher decided to say yes.

Four years later, The ENRICH Project (Environmental Noxiousness, Racial Inequities, and Community Health) still consumes Waldron. As director of the project, she leads a team of fourteen community members, seven academic researchers, three research staff — including Dave Ron, the activist who got the whole project started — and 10 students, all determined to investigate and address environmental racism in African Nova Scotian and Mi’kmaw communities. (Also known as Mi’kmaq, members of this First Nations people were the first inhabitants of the Atlantic provinces of Canada. Today, there are 13 Mi’kmaw communities in Nova Scotia.)

Cases of environmental racism have been documented around the world, with one of the first high-profile cases occurring in the 1980s in Warren County, North Carolina, when a hazardous waste landfill was constructed in the small, predominately African-American community. In many situations, inexpensive land combined with a community’s perceived lack of power to resist leads industry to build environmental hazards in such communities.

Using research to mobilize communities

“We’re looking at the issue from a research perspective, and using that research and data to mobilize communities to action,” Waldron says. The project’s activities range from a youth arts and education project to a series of workshops hosted in 2013 and 2014 to hear residents’ concerns and encourage action. A filmmaker documented those events and created a film called In Whose Backyard?

In these workshops, Waldron and others on the team met with people in affected communities, including those in Lincolnville, an African Nova Scotian community settled by Black Loyalists in in 1784. Residents …more

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Paris Climate Deal Thrown into Uncertainty by US Election Result

Many fear Donald Trump will reverse the ambitious course set by Barack Obama and withdraw the US from the accord

Just days after the historic Paris agreement officially came into force, climate denier Donald Trump’s victory has thrown the global deal into uncertainty and raised fears that the US will reverse the ambitious environmental course charted under Barack Obama.

photo of coal plantphoto by Pembina InstituteAn oil sands facility in Canada. Environmental groups are worried about what a Trump presidency means for international climate action.

International environmental groups meeting at the UN climate talks in Morocco said it would be a catastrophe if Trump acted on his pledge to withdraw the US from the deal, which took 20 years to negotiate, and to open up public land for coal, oil, and gas extraction.

Trump has called climate chance a “hoax,” placing him virtually alone among world leaders on the validity of the science. The real estate magnate has promised to embark upon a four-year process of withdrawing the US from the Paris deal and has targeted the “billions and billion and billions” given to UN climate programs and clean energy development.

Domestically, Trump has promised to reboot America’s ailing coal industry, as well as expand gas and oil drilling, despite the fact the growth of natural gas use has caused the downturn in coal.

He also plans to scrap Barack Obama’s signature Clean Power Plan, which is the main policy designed to lower US emissions.

Recent analysis by Lux Research estimated that a Trump presidency would raise US greenhouse gas output by 16 percent by the end of his second term, should he get one, compared to a Hillary Clinton administration. Such a shift could prove key in not only pushing the world towards dangerous climate change but also dissuading other nations from making the required cuts in emissions.

Green groups have urged the president-elect, as the leader of the second greatest greenhouse gas emitter, to act in the interests of all the world.

 “The new president must protect the people he serves from climate chaos. No personal belief or political affiliation can change the stark truth that every new oil well and pipeline pushes us all closer to catastrophe. The administration has moral and legal obligations to meet international commitments,” said May Boeve, head of climate campaign group 350.org.

Christian Aid warned that any attempts by Trump to ditch the Paris deal would be an act of “economic self-sabotage.”

“The global transition to a zero-carbon economy will not …more

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