Talking Points: Spring 2024

News in Brief


Cost of War

The planet-warming emissions from the first two months of the Gaza war exceeded the annual carbon footprint of more than 20 climate-vulnerable nations, according to new research. Almost all of the 281,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide produced in the initial 60 days following Hamas’s attack on Oct. 7 is linked to Israel’s bombardment and invasion of Gaza. The emissions are equivalent to burning 150,000 tons of coal. Nearly half of the total CO2 emissions originated from United States cargo planes transporting military supplies to Israel.

Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed up to 30,000 Palestinians since it began following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,200 people. According to new research, it also produced some 280,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in just the first two months. Photo by Ali Hamad/APA Images.
Israel’s campaign in Gaza has killed up to 30,000 Palestinians since it began following the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which killed more than 1,200 people. According to new research, it also produced some 280,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide in just the first two months. Photo by Ali Hamad/APA Images.

The analysis, which has not been peer reviewed but is likely an underestimate, includes CO2 emissions from various activities, including aircraft missions, tanks, fuel usage, bomb production, and explosions. It does not factor in other warming gases like methane. And it does not account for the emissions that have occurred since early December.

Hamas rockets fired into Israel during this period resulted in around 713 tons of CO2 emissions, equating to burning about 300 tons of coal.

“This study is only a snapshot of the larger military boot print of war … a partial picture of the massive carbon emissions and wider toxic pollutants that will remain long after the fighting is over,” said Benjamin Neimark, a senior lecturer at the University of London and co-author of the research, which was published by the Social Science Research Network in partnership with researchers at the University of Lancaster and the US-based Climate and Community Project. “The military’s environmental exceptionalism allows them to pollute with impunity, as if the carbon emissions spitting from their tanks and fighter jets don’t count. This has to stop, to tackle the climate crisis we need accountability.”


Power Hungry

It’s been just over a year since OpenAI publicized its Chatgpt, unleashing just one form of artificial intelligence into the public sphere. Now AI seems to be everywhere, so it’s worth asking, how much energy will AI need?

It’s hard to tell exactly, mostly because Big Tech isn’t exactly forthcoming with numbers. But in January, the International Energy Agency published an energy forecast through 2026, giving us a glimpse into AI’s power hunger. Data centers, cryptocurrencies, and artificial intelligence consumed about 460 terawatt hours of electricity worldwide in 2022, almost 2 percent of total global electricity demand. That could more than double by 2026.

Right now, AI is somewhat limited by material realities: A single company, NVIDIA, has 95 percent of the market share on the chips that power the process, and it can only make so many. Other companies are sure to join the fray, building more and more chip fabrication plants. nvidia gives us a good idea of current power use. The company shipped 100,000 servers in 2023, according the iea, enough to draw 7.3 terawatt hours annually. By 2026, the agency says, AI could consume “at least ten times its demand in 2023.”

Much of that power demand comes from the more than 8,000 data centers now operating globally. One third of these are in the US, where they account for 4 percent of the nation’s energy demands.


Climate Swings Politics

Attention all politicians: The data is in. A win or loss at the polls might just come down to climate policy. In the 2020 US presidential election, voter concerns over climate change may have played a pivotal role in Joe Biden’s win, according to new research that points to a potential shift across the political spectrum.

Climate change is no longer a non-factor for voters. Researchers say Joe Biden’s victory was helped by voters’ concerns over climate issues. Photo by Phil Roeder.
Climate change is no longer a non-factor for voters. Researchers say Joe Biden’s victory was helped by voters’ concerns over climate issues. Photo by Phil Roeder.

The study, led by environmental economist Matthew Burgess and colleagues at the University of Colorado in Boulder, gathered data from various polls to assess opinions on climate change. They found a significant majority of voters expressing concern about climate change, with climate-concerned voters outnumbering non-concerned voters by nearly two to one.

Climate concern is no longer limited to Democrats and independents; younger and moderate Republicans also express concern. Still, the researchers found Democrats had an electoral advantage in 2020 due to their stance on the issue. “We estimated that this advantage was probably large enough to give them the White House in 2020,” Burgess told Anthropocene magazine.

The researchers used statistical methods and machine-learning approaches to analyze polling data, suggesting that climate concern was a predictor of voting behavior in both 2016 and 2020, though more so in the latter election. They found that Biden had a significant advantage among voters who rated climate change as “very important,” especially among independents. According to an Electoral College simulated by the researchers, climate concern could have shifted the popular vote by 3 percent or more. Without the shift, Donald Trump may have won.

The research underscores the potential impact of climate concern in close elections and suggests that even if many voters don’t have climate change as a top priority, strong climate positions can offer political advantages. How the climate crisis is framed may still differ between the two parties, but as the US moves toward the 2024 general elections, perhaps more candidates will give the issue the credence it deserves.


Fox in the Henhouse

The United Nations’ annual climate talks have long had a credibility problem, thanks to the fossil fuel industry’s overwhelming influence on the international negotiations that seek to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. Last year’s talks, cop28, hosted by a petrostate, the United Arab Emirates, and chaired by the chief executive of the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company, further eroded that credibility.

Yet, here we are again with another oil industry veteran slated to chair this year’s talks in yet another petrostate.

Azerbaijan, host for 2024’s cop29, has selected Mukhtar Babayev, the country’s ecology and natural resources minister — and a former executive at the country’s state-run oil company — to lead the UN’s flagship climate conference this November. The decision has reignited the old debate over the role the fossil fuel industry should play in global climate talks.

Critics say both the selection of Azerbaijan as host country and Babayev’s appointment raise questions about efforts to ensure commitment to a global phase-out of fossil fuels.

Azerbaijan’s economy relies heavily on oil and gas production, which made up more than 92.5 percent its export revenue in 2023. A recent investigation by the watchdog group Global Witness shows that the oil giant BP and its partners have invested $35 billion in oil and gas production by the country’s government since 2020. Additionally, Babayev’s ties to the oil industry run deep — before joining politics, he spent 26 years working for the State Oil Company of the Azerbaijan Republic (Socar). Though he hosted the former Soviet state’s first ecology conference, as The Guardian points out, his focus seems to be on remediating sites damaged by petrochemical extraction, not on cutting back oil production.

Many climate advocates are now calling for “a substantial overhaul” of the cop system, which has allowed countries like Saudi Arabia, Russia, and the US to single-handedly block decisions that otherwise would have passed. The decisions at the talks should be made by supermajority rather than the full-consensus system now in place, they say.

Other activists are wondering if it’s time to stop focusing their efforts on cop summits. “Is there a point at which legitimate climate advocates cease legitimizing cop?” Tara Houska, founder of the Indigenous climate advocacy group Giniw Collective, wondered in an X (formerly Twitter) post on January after news of Babayev’s appointment broke. “It’s more than clear this gathering has been fully co-opted by fossil fuels. Is directing our energy to fighting over a conference worthwhile?”


New Cat on the Block

Recent trail camera footage from Southern Arizona’s Huachuca Mountains captured the image of a new wild jaguar, marking the eighth documented individual of the species in the Southwest over the past 30 years.

The number of jaguars spotted in the US Southwest in the past 30 years is now up to eight. Photo by US Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region.
The number of jaguars spotted in the US Southwest in the past 30 years is now up to eight. Photo by US Fish & Wildlife Service Southwest Region.

The Center for Biological Diversity analyzed images taken by what the group called “a wildlife enthusiast,” using the jaguar’s rosette, or spot, patterns to confirm the new individual. Russ McSpadden, a conservation advocate for the group, called the discovery “a moment to celebrate.”

Jaguars once thrived across the US Southwest and have been documented in historical records from Southern California to the Grand Canyon and as far east as Louisiana. More than 150 years of development, habitat loss, and predator control destroyed these populations, however, and US jaguars were classified as endangered in 1972. (They were delisted in 1980 and relisted in 1997.) “After being nearly wiped out these majestic felines continue to reestablish previously occupied territory despite border wall construction, new mines, and other threats to their habitat,” McSpadden said. “We’re extremely lucky to live near such magnificent creatures, and we’ve got to do everything we can to protect our shared landscape.”

The appearance of a new jaguar points to the resilience of the species and the health of a breeding population on the Mexican side of the border, in the state of Sonora.


Green Genes

We’ve long known that our surroundings impact our physical health. Now, we’re getting a better picture of how they impact our genes as well.

Environmental factors like greenspace and parks can have positive impacts on the genetic regulators of cell growth and aging, research shows. Photo K8.
Environmental factors like greenspace and parks can have positive impacts on the genetic regulators of cell growth and aging, research shows. Photo K8.

Researchers examining the “exposome,” the full spectrum of environmental exposures we encounter in our lives, have pinpointed specific impacts on telomeres, the regulators of cell growth and aging. Greenspace exposure, such as a neighborhood park, they found, made for longer telomeres, which are associated with longer lifespan and improved health — at least in many cases.

The team, led by S. Scott Ogletree, a researcher at the open space Research Center at the University of Edinburgh, analyzed data from the 1999 to 2001 National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (nhanes). They cross-referenced responses from the 7,800-plus survey participants with census data to estimate neighborhood greenspace. “We found that greater greenspace exposure in one’s neighborhood was associated with longer telomere lengths when considering individual and risk factors, suggesting a positive effect of living in greener neighborhoods,” they wrote in the December issue of Science of the Total Environment. “However, this relationship became non-significant when contextual factors, such as air pollution and deprivation, were included in the analysis. These findings highlight a complex relationship between greenspace and telomere length, warranting further research to explore contextual factors in detail.”

Overall, health benefits associated with green neighborhoods could be negated by pollution. They also appeared to be outweighed by other factors in low-income and segregated areas.

“In essence, while living in a green neighborhood appears to have positive effects on genes and health, it’s not a straightforward relationship,” the researchers wrote. “More research,” they said, could “unravel the intricate details of how our environment influences our genetic health.”


Not Keeping It in the Ground

If there’s one thing we know by now, it’s that we need to keep fossil fuel reserves in the ground in order to limit global warming to anywhere close to 1.5°C. We also need to start shutting down existing operations. But instead of acting on that knowledge, countries around the world have big plans to keep extracting oil and gas.

Research by Oil Change International indicates that new oil and gas projects planned by just 20 countries between 2023 and 2050 would emit some 173 billion tons of carbon pollution, or as much as the lifetime emissions from 1,100 new coal plants. Those 20 countries, should they proceed with their plans, would be responsible for almost 90 percent of emissions from new development over that period, and would almost certainly ensure that we pass 1.5°C threshold, sending our planet into a chaotic climate future.

Countries with the biggest expansion plans include five developed nations that, together, are responsible for a major chunk of historical carbon emissions, and that also have the financial capacity to move us away from fossil fuels.

image of world map with numbers pointing out different countries.
New oil and gas projects planned by just 20 countries between 2023 and 2050 would emit some 173 billion tons of carbon pollution, or as much as the lifetime emissions from 1,100 new coal plants.

Source: Oil Change International

1United States

The United States — which has emitted more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere than any other nation — accounts for more than a third of projected oil and gas expansion through 2050. The bulk of new projects are planned for the Permian Basin and the US Gulf Coast, where low-income and bipoc communities are already overburdened by fossil fuel pollution. Should new projects proceed as planned, the resulting emissions would be equivalent to the lifetime emissions of 454 coal plants or 13 years of domestic emissions at current rates. They would also cause the country’s overall oil and gas production to increase, rather than decrease, through at least 2030.


Currently among the top oil and gas producers in the world, Canada isn’t on track to ratchet-down production. Instead, it is poised to trail only the US in terms of new oil and gas development by 2050. Based on current plans, the country would be responsible for 10 percent of new development over that time, equivalent to the lifetime emissions of 117 new coal plants. Among G-20 countries, Canada provides the most public funding for oil and gas projects.

3 Australia

Australia holds the distinction of being one of the top fossil fuel exporters in the world. Though the country ranks eighth as far as total planned oil and gas development goes — surpassed by countries like Russia, Iran, and China — it ranks third among Global North nations. Planned fossil fuel expansion in Australia between now and 2050 would result in carbon pollution equivalent to lifetime emissions of 25 new coal plants. Australia has suggested it would be willing to host the UN climate talks in 2026 along with Pacific Island states, but Pacific leaders say they aren’t interested unless Australia turns a new page on extraction.

4 Norway

Norway leads Europe both in terms of current oil and gas production and planned new developments. Globally, the country ranks 12th for planned fossil fuel development by 2050. Rather than slowing down exploration, the country has been ramping up recently, handing out the same number of exploration licenses between 2012 and 2021 as it did in the half-century before that.

5 United Kingdom

The UK’s oil and gas industry is focused on the North Sea, where the country has been extracting fossil fuels since the 1970s. The British government continues to approve new projects there, despite opposition from environmentalists and scientists. The country ranks 18th in terms of overall oil and gas expansion plans, but 5th by Oil Change International as far as its historical contribution and economic capacity to phase out fossil fuels.


Deep Divide

For the past several years, the global community has been scrambling to figure out how to regulate deep sea mining in international waters, or even whether to permit it at all. But that wrangling has no bearing on domestic waters, and amid all the drama, one country has decided to proceed on its own.

In January, Norway became the first country to approve deep sea commercial mining in waters under its jurisdiction. The parliament voted 80-20 to open up an area larger than Britain, most of it in the Arctic, to exploration by mining companies. Following exploratory activities, companies will be able to apply for mining permits.

The decision, which comes amid a rush for metals like manganese, cobalt, and copper for use in green-energy technologies, was highly controversial. Some 120 EU lawmakers signed a letter in November urging the Norwegian Parliament to oppose the plan. More than 800 scientists have also signed a separate letter calling for a global pause on deep sea mining until its environmental impacts are better understood.

“The sheer importance of the ocean to our planet and people, and the risk of large-scale and permanent loss of biodiversity, ecosystems, and ecosystem functions, necessitates a pause of all efforts to begin mining of the deep sea,” that letter states.

Norway’s decision clashes with those of other European nations, including France, the UK, Finland, and Germany, all of which have called for either a ban or moratorium on deep sea mining. But it is not alone in its ambitions. As Mongabay reports, other countries, including the Cook Islands, China, and Japan, are also eyeing domestic waters for mining. The United States is also preparing to expand its territorial waters in the Arctic Ocean, off the coast of Alaska, a claim that appears motivated at least in part by the prospect of deep sea mining.


Smokey Threat

When it comes to wildfire in the Western United States, the bad news keeps piling up. New research indicates that fires are transforming a benign form of chromium, trivalent chromium, into its toxic counterpart, hexavalent chromium. The hazardous metal is known to increase cancer risk in humans when ingested or inhaled.

Recent California wildfires turned benign metals toxic, new research shows, with implications for firefighters and public health. Photo by Joanne Francis.
Recent California wildfires turned benign metals toxic, new research shows, with implications for firefighters and public health. Photo by Joanne Francis.

Both forms of chromium are found naturally in the environment, but hexavalent chromium typically poses a threat to people through industry-related exposures. The new study, published in Nature Communications in December, suggests that may be changing: As the severity and frequency of wildfires increase due to global heating, hexavalent chromium released into the air and soil may pose a growing threat to wildland firefighters and nearby communities.

The research team focused its inquiry on four reserves in California’s North Coast Range, all of which recently burned, and all of which have soil rich in trivalent chromium. They compared soil samples from non-burned areas in the reserves to those from areas that had burned, and found hexavalent chromium levels were 6.5 times higher in areas that had burned at high heat for extended periods. Their findings build on a 2019 study by an Australian team confirming that high-heat fires can convert trivalent chromium into hexavalent chromium.

“Our study suggests far more attention should be paid to wildfire-modified chromium, and we presume additional metals as well, to more thoroughly characterize the overall threats wildfires pose to human health,” Alandra Lopez, lead study author and a postdoctoral scholar at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, said in a statement.

While the study focused on Northern California, its findings have broader implications: Chromium-rich soils are found across much of the Western US, as well as in Australia, Brazil, Europe, Indonesia, and South Africa.

The researchers emphasized that hexavalent chromium is particularly worrisome when it becomes airborne, as it might in wildfire smoke, as compared to other possible exposure pathways, such as ingesting it in drinking water. When inhaled, it is linked to an increased risk of lung cancer. “Toxicologists are really clear on that,” Scott Fendorf, senior study author a professor in the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, told The Hill. “If you had the choice, you want to drink it before you breathe it. And not that they suggest either one.”


A Ban that Works

The evidence is in: Bag bans make a big dent in plastic use. According to a new report published by Environment America, Frontier Group, and US Public Interest Research Group Education Fund (PIRG), bans reduce the use of single-use bags by an average of about 300 bags per person per year. The cumulative numbers are even more encouraging: The researchers found that a bag ban in New Jersey, for example, cut use by some 5.5 billion plastic bags a year.

Bag bans reduce the use of plastic bags by an average of 300 bags per person per year. Photo by Markus Spiske.
Bag bans reduce the use of plastic bags by an average of 300 bags per person per year. Photo by Markus Spiske.

The researchers focused on bans in the states of New Jersey, Oregon, and California, and the cities of Vermont, Philadelphia, Portland, and Santa Barbara. Currently 12 states and some 500 cities have bans in place. They found that, hand-in-hand with reducing the use of single-use bags, bans also reduce bag-related litter by a third or more and increase the overall use of reusable bags.

Of course, some bans are more effective than others. As Grist reports, in some places, like California, bans have facilitated the replacement of thinner plastic bags with thicker “reusable” ones.

Still, the results are clear. “The bottom line is that plastic bag bans work,” Faye Park, president of the US PIRG Education Fund, said in a statement. “People realize quickly it’s easy to live without plastic bags and get used to bringing a bag from home or skipping a bag when they can.”


Self Help

A relationship perfected over 100 million years is falling apart: Some flowers are learning to do without bees. As loss of habitat and pesticide use crash bee and other pollinator populations across the world, some plants are taking the business of reproduction into their own hands and evolving to self-pollinate more often.

Researchers from the French National Centre for Scientific Research and the University of Montpellier found that field pansies (Viola arvensis) are evolving to be less attractive to insects. The scientists’ genetic analysis comparing modern-day field pansies to older ones grown from seeds collected in previous decades revealed that the modern pansies are 10 percent smaller and produce 20 percent less nectar than flowers growing in the same fields 20 to 30 years ago. They are also less frequently visited by insects.

Field pansies typically use bumblebees to sexually reproduce. But they can also use their own pollen to fertilize their own seeds, a process called selfing. The scientists found that the use of selfing has increased significantly, by about 27 percent, in these flowers.

“We were surprised to find that these plants are evolving so quickly,” lead author Samson Acoca-Pidolle, a doctoral researcher at the University of Montpellier, told The Guardian.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal New Phytologist in December say this evolutionary change could have serious consequences. It may set off a negative feedback loop causing insect declines to accelerate: As the flowers shrink and cut down nectar production in response to fewer pollinator visits, the diminishing numbers of insects have even less nectar overall to feed on. Additionally, selfing could also make plant populations more inbred and thus more vulnerable to extinction, especially in the face of further environmental change driven by human activity.

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