Talking Points: Autumn 2023

News in Brief


Covered No More

California recently reached a new, and unenviable, milestone: The state’s largest property insurer, State Farm, announced in late May that it would stop offering new coverage for business or personal property throughout the state. A big part of the reason? Climate change.

a burned neighborhood
State Farm and other insurance companies will no longer offer property coverage in California, in part due to increasing wildfire risks. Photo by Oregon Department of Transportation.

In pulling out of California, State Farm pointed to the increasing risk of catastrophic damage from wildfires, which are becoming both more frequent and more intense as the climate warms. The company also cited high rebuilding costs in the notoriously expensive state. Soon after, in early July, Farmers Insurance, the second-largest provider of homeowners insurance in the state, placed a cap on the number of policies in California, citing the same reason.

These two companies aren’t the only insurers to look at the numbers and decide they just don’t add up in the Golden State. Allstate, the state’s fourth largest property insurance provider, quietly paused offering new homeowner, condominium, and commercial insurance policies in California in 2022. Chubb and American International Group stopped renewing policies for certain high-value California homes last year as well. And for years, insurers have been declining to renew coverage for homeowners in regions with particularly high wildfire risk.

“The cost to insure new home customers in California is far higher than the price they would pay for policies due to wildfires, higher costs for repairing homes, and higher reinsurance premiums,” an Allstate spokesperson told the San Francisco Chronicle in reference to the company’s decision.

California isn’t the only state to face these issues — Florida and Louisiana have both experienced insurer pull-outs in recent years. In fact, as WESH 2 reported, Farmers Insurance Group stopped offering new coverage in Florida in June, and AAA pulled out in July, making them the 16th and 17th insurance companies to leave the state since 2020.

As former California insurance commissioner Dave Jones told Vox, “We’re steadily marching toward an uninsurable future, not just in California but throughout the United States.”

For now, homeowners who can’t get insurance through the private market can find coverage through pricier state-run programs. But it’s clear that we need to start thinking hard about where we build, when we might need to retreat, and how we help the most vulnerable communities navigate rising disaster risks alongside rising recovery costs.


Divestment Benefits

Doing the right thing does pay dividends: New research shows that had eight major US public pension funds, which face popular pressure to decarbonize their investments, divested from fossil fuels a decade ago, they would not only have reduced their carbon footprint, but they would also have been $21 billion richer today.

A study by the University of Waterloo, Canada, in partnership with, analyzed the public equity portfolios of the pension funds — including California Public Employees’ Retirement System, California State Teachers’ Retirement System, and New York State Teachers’ Retirement System — to determine the effect that divesting from their energy holdings would have had. Taking into account the recent changes in the performance of the energy sector, it estimated that the funds, which collectively represent assets for approximately 3.4 million people, would have seen a return on their investments that was 13 percent higher on average had they divested.

Another analysis of the funds by the same research team found that divesting 10 years ago would have reduced their carbon footprint by 279 million metric tons — the equivalent of the energy use of 35 million homes per year.

“Influential investors, like these large public pension funds, can bring about positive change on a few fronts,” Dr. Olaf Weber, professor in the School of Environment, Enterprise and Development at Waterloo and one of the authors of the study, said in a statement. “Energy divestments can create higher returns for the funds, which leads to higher returns for the beneficiaries and reduced exposure to climate risks. Consequently, it leads to safer pensions.”


Breathing Room

a river and rainforest
Brazil is seeking to once again offer robust protection for the Amazon rainforest, following years of exploitation that seriously damaged the “lungs of the Earth.” Photo by Neil Palmer / CIAT.

Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has vowed to end the destruction of the Amazon rainforest, changing course from his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, under whom the “lungs of the Earth” suffered major setbacks.

In June, Lula announced an “action plan” to stop the deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon by 2030. “I’m committed to resuming Brazil’s global leadership in mitigating climate change and controlling deforestation,” Lula said in a speech marking the launch of the plan. “Brazil will once again become a global reference in sustainability.”

The announcement followed a string of other green initiatives at the center of Lula’s policy-making. In April, Lula announced the legal recognition of six Indigenous territories, reversing yet another Bolsonaro policy. In May, he secured $100 million in funding from the United Kingdom for the Amazon Fund. Reuters reported that by April, Lula’s initiatives had decreased deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon by 68 percent, compared to the year before. Still, Brazil faces huge challenges in curtailing deforestation, especially because agricultural interests retain much political power in the country.

However, Lula says he is moving forward. His “Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon” calls for better regulations around land titles, improved forest management in rural areas, and the use of satellites to track criminal activity, such as illegal logging and ranching. “Mainly because of the Amazon rainforest, Brazil is largely responsible for the world’s climate battles,” Lula said in announcing the plan. “Stopping deforestation in the Amazon is also a way to reduce global warming. I’m aware of the scope of the challenge of ending deforestation by 2030, but this is a challenge we’re determined to achieve.”


Plastics Promise

Some 14 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. Photo by Naja Bertolt Jensen.

Life in plastic ain’t fantastic — the world is finally getting that. And finally accepting that plastic pollution is a global problem that requires a unified, global response. Which is why, in June, some 170 countries agreed to prepare a “zero draft” text of a legally binding agreement on tackling plastic pollution by November.

The treaty has an unusually ambitious timescale for globally binding agreements. The next round of talks in Kenya are scheduled for this fall, ahead of the publication of the zero draft, and the final agreement is planned for late 2024. If that happens, countries are expected to incorporate the treaty into national laws in 2025.

“This mandate was hard fought for, but at least provides a clear direction of travel towards starting to draft the plastics treaty in earnest,” Christina Dixon, ocean campaign leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency, told The Guardian.

Globally, some 400 million tons of plastic waste are produced each year. About 14 million tons of this ends up in our oceans. Plastic waste, which has now infiltrated some of the planet’s most remote and pristine areas, has a wide range of impacts on the environment, wildlife, and human health, including choking and starving wildlife, worsening flooding by blocking waterways, and exacerbating air pollution.

Eliminating plastic pollution will require a radical rethink of how this material is produced, used, and disposed of, and that, in turn, will require setting up reliable and effective compliance mechanisms. And as the editors of Nature pointed out in a recent editorial: “So far, however, the negotiations do not include a specific plan to hold countries accountable for the pledges and promises they make on behalf of their plastics producers, exporters and recyclers. It is clear that this must change — and fast.”


Brazen Birds and Other Mischief Makers

a nest of wiry spikes
Researchers in Europe have discovered that certain birds are adept at creating nests out of anti-bird spikes. Photo by Auke-Florian Hiemstra.

If life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. But if life gives you anti-bird spikes, you make a nest. At least that’s what you do if you’re a carrion crow or a Eurasian magpie. These birds surprised researchers from two Dutch institutions who described the nests in the scientific journal Deinsea.

“These are the craziest bird nests I’ve ever seen,” said Auke-Florian Hiemstra, a biologist who studies nests at one of the institutions, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, in a statement. “Just when you think you’ve seen it all after half a century of studying natural history, these inventive crows and magpies really surprise me again,” said Kees Moeliker, director of the Natural History Museum Rotterdam and co-author of the scientific publication.

The researchers first discovered a magpie nest in the courtyard of an Antwerp hospital, where the birds had used 1,500 spikes and 50 meters of anti-bird wire to create what Hiemstra describes as “an impregnable fortress.” Similar magpie behavior has been recorded in Belgium and Scotland, but similarly constructed crow’s nests have been found only in the Netherlands.

The discovery of the nests comes during a summer of animal brazenness, in Europe and beyond. Sailors off the coast of Spain have reported an uptick in attacks on yachts by orcas, in what some researchers believe could be a learned behavior from past trauma. Meanwhile, in the beach breaks off the coast of San Diego, California, surfers recently reported a seal pup that has been climbing on boards and taking free rides, and farther up the coast, in Santa Cruz, California a female sea otter has been aggressively “boardjacking” surfers’ wave-riders.


Mining Pause

As demand rises for raw materials needed for green energy, mining companies are looking deep in the ocean, to the seafloor. But for now, at least, plans for deep-sea mining will have to wait: At a July meeting, the UN-affiliated Council of the International Seabed Authority (ISA) failed to approve deep-sea mining regulations, stalling potential operations in the short term.

Deep-sea mining involves the extraction of critical minerals and metals required for battery production, such as cobalt, nickel, and rare-earth elements. Opponents of the practice say not enough is known about its impacts on marine ecosystems, nor about the costs and willingness of companies to undertake proper remediation, and more than 20 ISA member states have called for a pause or moratorium. Mining companies say the practice could do less environmental damage than land-based operations.

“What seems crystal clear is that the majority of states feel very uneasy about a license being granted before the regulations are in place, enough scientific research is done, and the effective protection of the marine environment can be ensured,” Jessica Battle, an ocean expert at the Worldwide Fund for Nature, told Reuters. The ISA will meet again next year to try to determine how to regulate deep-sea mining going forward.


Permission to Move

The Biden administration is changing the way the federal government works to save endangered species. In June, the US Fish and Wildlife Service proposed a new rule that will allow federal agencies to relocate endangered species to save them from a changing home environment.

The plants and animals must be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but once designated, they can be moved to nonnative habitat — an act once off-limits in conservation. The rule, which will be finalized later this year, also applies to native species threatened by nonnative species.

Ecologists have long warned against such solutions, as they create potential threats to ecosystems, but the realities of a changing climate have changed the rules. “The impacts of climate change on species habitat are forcing some wildlife to new areas to survive, while squeezing other species closer to extinction,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said in a statement. “The Interior Department is committed to using all of the tools available to help halt declines and stabilize populations of the species most at-risk. As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, these new revisions will help strengthen our efforts to conserve and recover imperiled species now and for generations to come.”

The adjustment reflects realities of climate change that were not present when the act was drafted or in subsequent updates. State officials from Montana, New Mexico, and Arizona were unhappy with the decision, warning of the threat such “invasive species” might pose to new habitats, according to Some conservationists welcomed the outcome.


Air Trackers

hedgehog in leaves
Researchers are getting help tracking animals by their environmental DNA, through information captured in air quality monitors. Photo by Piotr Łaskawski.

Wildlife biologists, who often spend long hours tracking animals on foot and searching for glimpses of them on camera-trap footage, may have a new and unexpected tool to add to their toolkit: air pollution monitoring stations.

According to a study published in Current Biology in June, filters in air quality monitors, which are used in urban and wild places all over the world to detect pollutants, can capture significant amounts of environmental DNA, genetic material shed by living organisms through skin, fur, feathers, scales, and more. Examining filters from sensors in the United Kingdom — one near Edinburgh and one in London — the researchers found they had captured the DNA of 180 different organisms, including plants, birds, insects, mammals, and fungi. They found DNA from animals like badgers, owls, newts, and hedgehogs, and both wild and cultivated plants, including oak, ash, nettles, soybean, and cabbage.

“Existing and established air quality networks are potentially a huge untapped source of biodiversity data,” Andrew Brown, a principal research scientist with the UK’s National Physical Laboratory and one of the study authors, said of the findings. “These networks continually sample particulate matter, and we now have the ability to make use of this in a whole new way.”

While the data won’t help with population counts or the exact location of species, it could, among other things, help track the decline of certain animals, alert us to the presence of endangered plants or animals, and capture the arrival of new nonnative ones.

“The potential of this cannot be overstated,” said lead author Joanne Littlefair, of Queen Mary University of London. “It could be an absolute game changer for tracking and monitoring biodiversity.”

The research builds on scientists’ growing understanding that environmental DNA pulled from the soil, water, and air can provide valuable insights into ecosystem health. However, there are still plenty of unanswered questions, including how long the environmental DNA lasts in air filters, optimal collection intervals, and whether scientists might be able to collect samples from old filters, which are sometimes saved for decades. (The Edinburgh filters they analyzed were eight months old, and had DNA for a similar number of species to the newer London ones.)

As they work to find answers, study author Elizabeth Clare, a professor at York University Toronto, is clear about one thing: “Until we truly understand their ecological value, we’ve got to stop throwing them away,” she told Nature.

no comment

“Long-eared bats? I hope white-nose syndrome wipes all of them out.”

– Congressman Ralph Norman of South Carolina during a July 25 House Rules Committee hearing on whether to strip Endangered Species Act protections from northern long-eared bats and lesser prairie-chickens.


Circled Out

New efforts by the European Union to reduce landfill waste could take away an important food source for the endangered Egyptian vulture. Photo by Rod Waddington.

Even circular economies can, at times, leave some stakeholders out of the loop. Efforts to reduce landfill waste in Europe, for instance, could have an unintended consequence: further endangering rare Egyptian vultures.

The European Union is planning to cut trash sent to municipal landfills — which are a major source of methane, a powerful greenhouse gas — to 10 percent by 2035, down from 25 percent in 2016. But researchers are predicting that less trash would mean less carrion for the birds that eat it, and in northern Spain, that could mean the reversal of the comeback of Egyptian vultures.

The waste-reduction effort could take away a key food source for the Egyptian vulture, whose “food networks were vulnerable to the elimination of the main feeding areas in landfills,” Catuxa Cerecedo-Iglesias, a researcher at the University of Barcelona, recently told Anthropocene Magazine. The landfills are especially important for carrion eaters today, as modern development has reduced their food sources elsewhere.

Cerecedo-Iglesias tracked 16 birds via GPS in 2018 and 2019, finding 44 sites where they gathered, from Barcelona to the Pyrenees. The sites included “vulture restaurants,” which are sites where carcasses are intentionally left out for birds. Among all the sites, however, the landfills acted as “central hubs” for the birds, Cerecedo-Iglesias reported in a study in Movement Ecology.

As landfills shrink, the birds would benefit from more sites with carcasses, the research suggests. Egyptian vultures are endangered globally, but their populations in northern Spain have so far avoided the fate of other similar birds that have gone extinct in Europe.


Mending Perks

hands and a sewing kit
France plans to pay its citizens for clothes and shoes they repair. Photo by Kris Atomic.

For those of us who agonize over throwing out ripped shirts and worn-down shoes because they end up in landfills, France is offering a path forward. The European nation will launch a bonus scheme in October that will pay citizens to repair their clothes and shoes.

France says the plan is aimed at reducing clothing waste — an estimated 700,000 tons of clothing is thrown away in the country every year — along with helping those doing the mending, creating jobs, and reducing fast fashion. The fashion industry is one of France’s biggest sectors, accounting for some €66 billion ($73.5 billion) in sales last year and thousands of jobs.

The bonus will come in the form of a discount of $6.68 to $23.38 per item on the cost of mending in workshops or at cobblers that have joined the scheme. The French government will contribute €154 million ($171.5 million) to fund the program over five years.

French Secretary of State for Ecology, Bérangère Couillard, says the government was committed to tackling “fast fashion” and encouraging consumers to buy more “virtuous” products and repair them, rather than buying new items, the bbc reports. As part of this effort, France is also implementing new labeling rules starting January 2024 that will require manufacturers to list, among other things, the water footprint and chemicals used in making the clothing, as well as the risk of microplastic pollution.

Around the World

Battery Boom

Lithium is having a moment. An essential metal in batteries — including those used for electric vehicles, electric bikes, and general energy storage — it is in higher demand than ever as the world races to decarbonize. Production is increasing exponentially to meet that demand: It is expected to triple from 540,000 tons in 2021 to 1.5 million tons by 2025, and to double again to 3 million tons by 2030.

Currently, just two countries produce the vast majority of the global lithium supply: Australia and Chile. But as the green energy revolution picks up speed, countries around the world are looking to capitalize on their lithium reserves. That means that more and more communities are coming face-to-face with the prospect of lithium extraction in their backyards, be it from hard-rock mining or the evaporation of brine, the two methods by which lithium is currently obtained.

Both methods have environmental costs due to water use, land and water contamination, air pollution, habitat destruction, and more, and can take an associated toll on public health. Which is why lithium mining has found itself at the center of a broad debate about how much we are willing to sacrifice in the name of the green energy revolution, and whether there might be ways to transition away from fossil fuels while minimizing other harms to people and the planet.

Here are a few of the countries with the biggest existing and projected lithium operations.

graphic depicting the continents of the Earth

Sources: Sources: Associated Press, Business and Human Rights Resource Center, Investing News Network, Mining Technology, NS Energy, Reuters, Statista, Visual Capitalist, World Economic Forum

1 Australia

The nation down under currently produces more lithium than any other country, an estimated 53 percent of the global supply. It is also home to the largest lithium mine in the world, Greenbushes, which in 2021 alone produced 20 percent of the global lithium supply. Greenbushes and the country’s other five lithium operations are hard-rock mines, meaning they create deep, open pits in the earth and cause significant water contamination and dust pollution.

Nearly all the lithium extracted in Australia is exported to China for processing, though Australia is looking to boost domestic processing capabilities.

2 Chile

It’s impossible to talk about lithium without talking about Chile. The South American nation is currently the second largest lithium producer globally. It is also among the countries with the biggest total lithium reserves, behind Bolivia and Argentina, with which it forms the so-called “lithium triangle.” (Argentina is the fourth biggest producer globally, but Bolivia’s resources are as-of-yet largely untapped.)

Chile’s lithium is extracted primarily from brine under salt flats in the Atacama Desert. This is a water-intensive process — miners pump brine into ponds on the land’s surface, where the water slowly evaporates, leaving behind the lithium. As a result, rivers and lakes in the Atacama are disappearing and Indigenous communities losing their water sources.

This spring, Chilean President Gabriel Boric announced plans to nationalize the industry, citing economic and environmental benefits.

3 China

China was a distant third in lithium production in 2022, coming in well behind Australia and Chile. Still, it has significant reserves of the metal, which it is trying to tap. The country also plays a major role in global lithium markets. It has billions in lithium mining projects under development in countries around the globe, and processes and refines more lithium than any other country in the world. It also dominates the battery market, producing more than 75 percent of the world’s lithium-ion batteries.

4 Mexico

Chinese-owned company Banacora Lithium discovered what might be the world’s single largest lithium deposit in the world in Sonora, Mexico, back in 2018. After granting a number of mining concessions in the years that followed, in 2022 the Mexican government nationalized the industry.

Sonora residents are wary of what could come based on what they’ve seen of lithium extraction elsewhere, as well as their own experiences with mining. A network of community groups and organizations officially came out in opposition to the Banacora project in 2020. The Banacora mine was expected to open in 2023, but as of yet there is no commercial lithium production in Mexico.

5 United States

Back in the 1990s, the United States was the world’s top lithium producer. These days, it holds only a small share of the market. That could change with the construction of North American’s largest lithium mine in Nevada’s Thacker Pass.

Indigenous and environmental groups have fiercely opposed the project, arguing that it will permanently degrade the local environment. But the mine, which is a major component of the Biden Administration’s plan to develop domestic sources of metals essential to green energy production, seems all but certain to be built. It cleared a key legal hurdle this summer and construction has already begun on what will ultimately become a 1,000-acre, open-pit mine.


Shifting Earth

Sometimes it seems there really is no limit to humans’ impact on the planet. The latest indication of our far-reaching footprint? Earth’s tilt. New research shows that we have extracted so much groundwater from subsurface aquifers we have altered the very axis on which the Earth spins.

Scientists came to this finding by looking at shifts in the location of Earth’s rotational pole, which can move due to factors like changing ocean currents and atmospheric pressures. Modeling movement of the pole, they found that groundwater extraction between 1993 and 2010 led it to move some 2.6 feet. Humans withdrew more than 2,150 gigatons of groundwater during that 17-year period, much of it in western North America and northwestern India.

While the movement of molten rock in Earth’s mantle played the biggest role in shifting the pole — and with it, Earth’s axis — the researchers found that groundwater extraction was the second most important factor over that time. Their findings were published in June in Geophysical Research Letters.

This isn’t the first time scientists have found that humans changed Earth’s tilt: Back in 2013, the same research team found that rapidly melting glaciers were redistributing water in a way that also shifted its axis.

“We have affected Earth systems in various ways,” Ki-Weon Seo, lead study author and a professor at Seoul National University in South Korea, told CNN. “People need to be aware of that.”


Protection, Finally

joshua trees
The iconic western Joshua tree has become the first species to receive legal protection in California due to its extreme vulnerability to climate change. Photo by Elliott Engelmann.

The imperiled western Joshua tree, subject of conservation efforts for decades, is finally set to receive some permanent protection. In June, California lawmakers passed the Western Joshua Tree Conservation Act, which was tacked on to the state budget as a trailer bill. Once signed into law by Governor Gavin Newsom, it will make the Joshua tree the first species to receive legal protection in the state due to its extreme vulnerability to climate change.

The act bans the unauthorized removal and killing of these spiny-crested plants native to California’s eastern desert region. It also requires the development of a conservation plan and creates a fund to protect the species.

Joshua trees have been around since the Pleistocene era, 2.5 million years ago, and can live up to 200 years, but these ancient beings are now severely threatened by climate disruption. Recent climate models predict that the trees may vanish from the state by 2100.

Environmentalists have long been seeking state and federal endangered species protections for these trees, but those efforts have been held up due to opposition from developers, solar power firms that want to set up large-scale facilities in the desert, and local officials in Southern California. According to The Guardian, “about 40 percent of the tree’s range is on private lands, in rapidly growing desert communities.”

The new law comes after the California Fish and Game Commission postponed a decision on whether to list the species under the state’s Endangered Species Act and the Biden administration declined to protect the trees under the federal Endangered Species Act.

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