Talking Points: Summer 2024

News in Brief


Extreme Cruelty

Some things are just plain wrong, and this is one of them. Rather than acting to protect vulnerable outdoor workers from the rising threat of extreme heat, in March, the Florida legislature did exactly the opposite: It passed a bill preventing local lawmakers from adopting any such protections at the city or county level. The new law, which takes effect in July, will impact some 2 million construction, agricultural, and other outdoor workers in the Sunshine State.

“This legislation is cruel,” Oscar Londoño, executive director of the worker advocacy group WeCount! told The Guardian after the law was passed. “Every single year, it’s going to get hotter and hotter. Many more workers’ lives are going to be at risk. We will see fatalities, because of what Florida Republicans chose to do this week.”

Outdoor workers
Outdoor workers in the United States are at much greater risk of death from extreme heat than the general population, but the Florida legislature has passed a bill that prevents cities and counties from creating protections for these workers, many of whom are Black and Latino. Photo bu Lance Cheung / US Department of Agriculture.

While the federal government requires employers to protect workers against “recognized hazards,” the requirement is rarely enforced when it comes to extreme heat. OHSA is currently developing federal standards for heat and humidity — which could include requirements around, for example, water breaks, rest, and access to shade — but those may be years off.

The ban appears to be the result of industry pressure, which grew following a campaign to enact protections for farmworkers and constructions workers in Florida’s Miami-Dade County. In November of last year, the vote on those protections was delayed, and just a few days later, state lawmakers introduced legislation for the statewide ban.

In the United States, outdoor workers — many of whom are Black and Latino — face a much greater risk of death from extreme heat than the general population. Between 2011 and 2021, at least 436 people died from heat exposure on the job in the US. Tens of thousands more suffered injury or illness. And in the absence of fast and robust action to address the climate crisis, that risk will only grow.

Jeff Goodell, author of The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet, perhaps put it best in an X (formerly Twitter) post: “Insane, inhuman, racist, but not at all surprising. Florida state Senate passing a bill *ensuring* that the heat will kill outdoor workers. This is 19th century stuff, as barbaric as kids working in coal mines.”


Big Climate Win for Swiss Seniors

Climate-related victories can feel few and far between. But recently, a group of some 2,000 Swiss women earned a win worth celebrating: In April, the European Court of Human Rights (EHCR) ruled that the government of Switzerland had violated their rights by failing to adequately address the climate crisis.

In the lawsuit, the Senior Women for Climate Protection Switzerland, or KlimaSeniorinnen Schweiz, argued that they were particularly vulnerable to climate change due to their gender and age; all are 64 years or older. Specifically, they made the case that they are at greater risk of suffering health impacts and dying during heatwaves. As such, the Swiss government’s failure to meet its own greenhouse gas reductions targets violates their human rights, including rights to life and health. The court agreed.

A landmark ruling in Switzerland sided with senior women who claimed they were not being protected against climate risks. Photo by Shervine Nafissi / Greenpeace.
A landmark ruling in Switzerland sided with senior women who claimed they were not being protected against climate risks. Photo by Shervine Nafissi / Greenpeace.

The ruling is a landmark victory for the movement, one that not only requires the Swiss government to step up its efforts to tackle the climate crisis, but that could also open a floodgate of litigation against the 46 nations that are members of the Council of Europe.

“We expect this ruling to influence climate action and climate litigation across Europe and far beyond,” Joie Chowdhury, a lawyer with the Center for International Environmental Law, told The Guardian.

The lawsuit was among the first three climate cases to be brought in front of the EHCR. It was considered alongside two others, one brought by Portuguese youth against 32 European nations, and another brought by a former French mayor against France. Those two cases were thrown out by the court. Legal experts say the KlimaSeniorinnen case represents a huge victory. So huge it was hard for some of the women to process. “We keep asking our lawyers, ‘Is that right?’” Rosmarie Wydler-Wälti, one of the leaders of the Swiss women, told Reuters. “And they tell us, ‘It’s the most you could have had. The biggest victory possible.’”


What the Crawfish Say

Lithium-ion batteries have become ubiquitous and remain a key piece of a greener future. But researchers are finding signs that lithium could also be an environmental menace. That’s because it can build up in living creatures. How do we know? Because the crawfish tells us so.

In findings presented at the American Chemical Society’s 2024 spring meeting, researchers said they had found lithium accumulation in crawfish, a staple of Southern cuisine.

Led by Joseph Kazery, a biology professor at Mississippi College, the research explores how aquatic organisms absorb lithium from their surroundings. “Crawfish can take up large amounts of lithium dissolved in water,” Kazery explained. “Because other creatures, including people, eat crawfish, looking at them allows us to see how lithium moves through the food chain, and potentially into us.”

The National Institutes of Health warn that lithium consumption can be toxic, eventually leading to coma, brain damage, or death. If lithium contamination grows amid surging battery demand and lax disposal practices, its toxic effects on human health and the environment will intensify. The research also found greater accumulation correlated with warmer seasons, which means a warming climate could present a double whammy.

Flip Side

Some Animals Still Like Us

Remember the “nature is healing” talk during the pandemic? And anecdotes about animals thriving as we hunkered indoors? Well, it turns out that not all of nature likes a world without humans. Such is the conclusion of a unique global study that used data collected during the Covid-19 lockdowns to look at how wildlife fares with and without human activity.

“Bigger herbivores — plant-eating animals like deer or moose — tend to become more active when humans are around, while meat-eaters like wolves or wolverines tend to be less active, preferring to avoid risky encounters,” the researchers said in a statement about their study, which was published in Nature Ecology and Evolution in March. “Urban animals like deer or raccoons may become more active around people, as they get used to human presence and find food like garbage or plants, which they can access at night. But animals living farther from cities and other developed areas are more wary of encountering people.”

Contrary to popular pandemic narratives, not all animals thrived while humans hunkered indoors. Photo by Nagara Oyodo.
Contrary to popular pandemic narratives, not all animals thrived while humans hunkered indoors. Photo by Nagara Oyodo.

The pandemic provided a unique opportunity to study wildlife and their responses to humans (or their absence), according to the study’s lead author, Cole Burton, an associate professor of forest resources management at the University of British Columbia (UBC). “And contrary to the popular narratives that emerged around that time, we did not see an overall pattern of ‘wildlife running free’ while humans sheltered in place,” he said. “Rather, we saw great variation in activity patterns of people and wildlife, with the most striking trends being that animal responses depended on landscape conditions and their position in the food chain.”

Kaitlyn Gaynor, a UBC biologist and co-author, said the study points to the importance of designing conservation strategies for specific species, taking into account their reactions to human activity. For animals that thrive in our absence, she wrote, “we may consider setting aside protected areas or movement corridors free of human activity.”

With other animals, though: meh, not so much.


Mean, Unclean, Not Green

Astroturfing is bad for the environment — and not just metaphorically. New research suggests that athletes playing on artificial turf may be exposed to higher levels of toxic PFAS, or “forever chemicals,” than those who play on real grass, raising concerns about the safety of these fields. Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances are released from fake grass blades and can be inhaled, ingested, absorbed through the skin, or enter through open wounds, according to public health advocates.

One small study, released in March by the nonprofit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER), tested a group of six-year-old soccer players (and their coach) on artificial and natural turf, finding higher PFAS levels on those who played on artificial turf. The dangers may not end there. PEER also warns that many artificial fields are made from shredded tires, which are toxic and can contain “dangerously high levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, chromium, mercury, and a number of dangerous hydrocarbons, with potential toxicity to children and athletes.”

Despite such concerns, the use of artificial turf continues to rise. For example, 71 percent of top-tier NCAA Division I football schools opted for artificial surfaces in 2023, up from about 40 percent in 1973. FieldTurf, a leading artificial turf company, claims over 25,000 installations worldwide, promoting safety and performance for athletes.

So far, artificial fields have avoided environmental regulation for PFAS, but the US Environmental Protection Agency is showing signs of cracking down on these harmful chemicals. It recently proposed the first drinking water standards for PFAS, which would require water utilities to reduce contamination from the chemicals.

urban futures

Decongesting Manhattan

Editors’ note: In early June, after the summer magazine went to press, news broke that New York Governor Kathy Hochul is trying to delay the city’s congestion pricing plan.

In a major victory for public transit activists, New York City appears poised to become the first metropolis in the country to enact congestion pricing. In April, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board approved a plan to charge drivers $15 to enter the city’s central business district during peak hours.

“New York has more traffic than any other place in the US, and now we’re doing something about it,” Janno Lieber, the MTA’s chief executive officer, said at a press briefing after the vote.

New York City hopes to join other international cities that have limited traffic in their most congested areas by charging drivers a fee to enter the city’s central business district. The pricing scheme is slated to start in June. Photo by Mark A. Hermann /MTA.
New York City hopes to join other international cities that have limited traffic in their most congested areas by charging drivers a fee to enter the city’s central business district. The pricing scheme is slated to start in June. Photo by Mark A. Hermann /MTA.

The scheme — which includes exemptions for low-income households and cars carrying people with disabilities — is meant to reduce traffic and air pollution in the Big Apple, as well as increase use of public transit. It is expected to reduce the number of cars in Lower Manhattan by roughly 17 percent.

It also aims at modernizing the city’s bus, rail, and subway systems — the estimated $1 billion that the program will bring in annually are to be spent on mass transit upgrades. That includes repairing old equipment, making subway stations more accessible, and adding new cars to commuter rail lines.

Though slated to start at the end of June, it’s not quite a done deal. The Federal Highway Administration must still approve the pricing scheme. Not to mention that there are currently seven lawsuits challenging the plan in federal courts in New York and New Jersey. Any of those suits — which raise concerns over the costs as well as whether the tolls will increase traffic in other neighborhoods — could result in changes or delays to the plan, or even block it.

Pending these challenges, New York could soon join cities like London and Singapore that have implemented tolls in urban areas. And it might even serve as inspiration for other cities in the US to adopt similar initiatives.

“We are the first in the nation but not the last,” MTA board member Neal Zuckerman told The Gothamist ahead of the vote. “The interesting story will be what cities are going to come next.”


A Viral Friend to Frogs

Frogs and toads are currently in a fight for survival, battling a deadly fungus known as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd). The fungus has been devastating amphibian populations around the world since the late 1990s. More than 500 species are facing decline as result, and 90 are on the brink of extinction.

But an end to the pandemic may be in sight. Researchers from the University of California, Riverside (UCR) have found a virus capable of infecting the fungus, which could lead to a bioengineered solution to the problem and help control Bd’s spread. Their finding was published recently in Current Biology.

Researchers have found a virus that could help fight off a bacterial infection that is imperiling frogs and toads around the world. Photo by Stephanie Leblanc.
Researchers have found a virus that could help fight off a bacterial infection that is imperiling frogs and toads around the world. Photo by Stephanie Leblanc.

“Frogs control bad insects, crop pests, and mosquitoes,” said Mark Yacoub, a doctoral student in microbiology and one of the paper’s authors. “If their populations all over the world collapse, it could be devastating.”

The discovery of the virus, christened BdDV-1, emerged from a broader investigation into Bd’s genetics that revealed sequences within the fungi’s genome suggestive of a viral presence. “We wanted to see how different strains of fungus differ in places like Africa, Brazil, and the US, just like people study different strains of Covid-19,” says UCR microbiology professor Jason Stajich.

What they found were sequences that did not match the fungi’s DNA, leading to the discovery of the virus. The researchers suspect the virus modulates Bd’s behavior, reducing spore production. But there’s a caveat: While fungal strains with the virus produce fewer spores, potentially slowing their spread, Stajich said, they “might also become more virulent, killing frogs faster.”


Biden Blocks Alaska’s Ambler Road

In a bid to show conservation chops ahead of the presidential election, the Biden administration in April all but killed the long-controversial Ambler Road project proposal in Alaska. The project, led by the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), sought to cut a 211-mile industrial route through pristine wilderness in Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in order to access copper and zinc deposits in Northwest Alaska.

In its environmental analysis of the project, the Interior Department’s Bureau of Land Management (blm)opted for “no action,” effectively denying AIDEA a right-of-way across federal lands. The agency cited the potential for irreversible harm to wildlife, particularly the iconic caribou herds crucial to local sustenance. Alaska’s Republican senators, Dan Sullivan and Lisa Murkowski, decried the decision as harmful to the state’s economic growth and resource development.

The 211-mile Ambler Road project has been on the table for years, threatening some of Alaska’s most pristine wilderness areas rich in wildlife and essential to populations of caribou. In April, the US Interior Department essentially killed it. Photo by Ilya Katsnelson.
The 211-mile Ambler Road project has been on the table for years, threatening some of Alaska’s most pristine wilderness areas rich in wildlife and essential to populations of caribou. In April, the US Interior Department essentially killed it. Photo by Ilya Katsnelson.

The same day, the Biden administration also announced increased protection for 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, nearly half of the reserve. The Voice of the Arctic Iñupiat, a pro-development advocacy organization representing Indigenous groups, called the decision “insulting,” Alaska Public Radio reported.

But other Indigenous groups, as well as conservationists, lauded both decisions. “That caribou were heard over cash is a really big deal,” China Kantner, an activist from the anti-road group Protect the Kobuk, told the station.

Evansville Chief Frank Thompson thanked the BLM for its twin decisions. “Today is a great day,” he said. “Our future looks bright without the threat of 168 trucks driving by per day. Without increased pressures on our subsistence resources.”


Dismantling Dams

Our planet is crisscrossed by millions of miles of freshwater rivers and streams. Those rivers and streams, in turn, are blocked by hundreds of thousands of dams. While exact figures are hard to come by, it’s estimated that some 800,000 dams currently clog our waterways, more than 50,000 of which are “large” dams more than 15-meters in height. As a result, some two-thirds of the worlds longest rivers — those running more than 1,000 kilometers — are no longer free-flowing, and the flow of countless smaller streams and rivers has been altered.

Given that these dams can provide useful services — electricity, irrigation water, and flood protection to name a few — the pace of dam construction globally remains high. Currently, an estimated 3,700 new dams are either planned or under construction, many of them in South America and Asia.

But dams, especially large ones, also disrupt aquatic ecosystems. They devastate freshwater fish populations, contribute to climate change, displace communities, and require expensive maintenance. Which is why there is a growing movement to remove them, particularly in parts of Europe and North America.

Here are a few of the countries on the frontlines of the dam removal movement.

graphic depicting the continents of the Earth

Sources: American Rivers, BBC, Conservation Action Trust, Dam Removal Europe, International Rivers, Mongabay, Nature, The Guardian, Wild Salmon Center

1 Spain

Western Europe leads the world when it comes to dam removals, and Spain is leading Western Europe on this front. Of an estimated 325 dam removals across Europe in 2022, some 133 were in Spain. Its leadership could help the European Union reach new freshwater-restoration goals, which include restoring 25,000 kilometers of free-flowing rivers by 2030.

2 France

France is home to one of Europe’s largest dam removal projects to date: the dismantling of two large dams on Normandy’s Sélune River between 2019 and 2023. The removal freed some 37 miles of the waterway, and opened up migration routes for Atlantic salmon, European eels, and lampreys, which had been blocked since the dams’ construction in the 1920s. Since the removal, all three species have made their way upstream once again. Overall, France is one of Europe’s top dam removers, with 45 removals in 2022, putting it behind just Spain and Sweden.

3 United States

An estimated 92,000 dams block rivers across the United States. But increasingly, those dams are coming down: Some 2,000 have been removed since 1912, with 80 removals in 2023 alone. Those 80 removals include smaller projects in places like Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Kentucky. But it also includes the removal of Copco #2, the first of a massive four-part dam removal project on the Klamath River in Northern California and Southern Oregon. The freeing of the Klamath River — the biggest dam removal project in the world — is the result of decades of advocacy by the Yurok tribe on behalf of the river, its salmon, and Native rights.

4 Japan

Though Asia is better known right now for building dams than for dismantling them, Japan has taken down a handful of dams in recent years. The biggest project was the removal of the Arase Dam on the Kumagawa River in the country’s southwestern Kyushu island, which began in 2012. Brought about by local organizers who pointed to the benefits removal would bring for the environment as well as fisheries, the project was completed in 2018. The following year, two dams were also taken down in Hokkaido¯’s Shiretoko National Park — a UNESCO World Heritage Site — as part of an effort to restore salmon runs. These removals signal a potential turning point in the country, which has roughly 3,000 dams.

5 South Africa

Currently, dam removal work in South Africa is focused on restoring natural flows in Kruger National Park, which has nearly 100 concrete dams, weirs, and earthen dams, some dating back to the early 1900s. These structures were initially built to provide reliable water supplies for animals throughout the park. But over time, managers saw they were doing more harm than good, contributing to overgrazing, erosion, and dangerous eutrophication while also blocking fish migrations. Park managers have worked to remove many of these structures over the past two decades, and activists in Ethiopia and Kenya are now hoping to replicate the strategy.

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