Talking Points: Winter 2024

News in Brief


Arctic Drilling Slowdown

The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) has long been a battleground between conservationists and the fossil fuel industry. It is one of the last pristine wilderness areas in the United States, home to polar bears, caribou, and countless bird species, including tundra swans, snow geese, golden eagles, ospreys, and loons. In September, these species — and the climate — caught a break, as the Biden administration announced the cancellation of seven drilling leases in the refuge, along with increased protections across 13 million acres in the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska’s North Slope.

flowers in an arctic landscape
As the world continues its trend toward more renewable energy, oil and gas exploration in places like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge becomes harder for the fossil fuel industry to justify. Photo by Danielle Brigida.

“With climate change warming the Arctic more than twice as fast as the rest of the planet, we must do everything within our control to meet the highest standards of care to protect this fragile ecosystem,” Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said. The cancellation of drilling leases is part of a broader strategy to combat climate change, and the new decision will protect traditional ways of life for Alaska Natives, she said. “President Biden is delivering on the most ambitious climate and conservation agenda in history. The steps we are taking today further that commitment, based on the best available science and in recognition of the Indigenous knowledge of the original stewards of this area, to safeguard our public lands for future generations.”

Proponents of drilling have argued that energy exploration in ANWR would have provided a much-needed economic boost, creating jobs and generating revenue for the state. However, as the world economy continues its shift toward renewable energy, that argument holds less sway. Meanwhile, Alaska’s tourism and fishing industries, which rely on clean environments, will benefit from the decision.

The decision, however, follows the March approval of the ConocoPhillips Willow project, an $8 billion drilling program in the National Petroleum Reserve that is expected to produce 600 million barrels of oil, a move that disappointed climate activists and environmental groups. Furthermore, the decision is not permanent. It was a part of a federal rulemaking process and includes provisions for a review every five years on whether to expand drilling or expand protections — ensuring that battles over the Arctic are far from over.


Criminalizing Speech

In yet another blow to the right to protest, on Sept. 5, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr filed racketeering charges against 61 people allegedly involved in the movement to stop “Cop City,” a militarized police training facility planned for just outside Atlanta. The charges, which have been widely condemned as an attack on free speech, could leave activists facing steep fines and up to 20 years behind bars.

Photo by Chad Davis.

The proposed facility would be the largest of its kind in the country, featuring a mock city for police training activities, dozens of shooting ranges, a Black Hawk helicopter landing pad, and more. Its construction would result in the destruction of greater Atlanta’s largest green space, Weelaunee Forest (also known as the South River Forest), located in a predominantly Black community. Anti-Cop-City activists have been protesting the project since late 2021, pointing to both the environmental and racial justice harms it would bring.

Carr filed the charges under the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, and cites common advocacy activities like “mutual aid” and “collectivism” as evidence of criminal conspiracy in the 109-page indictment. Activists had anticipated the charges — the Atlanta Solidarity Fund, an organization that supports those arrested at protests, released a statement back in February noting that RICO indictments “may be forthcoming.”

“As we see in the indictment, the act of mutual aid, the acts of our connectedness, are seen as a threat,” Mary Hooks, an Atlanta-based organizer and activist in the Movement for Black Lives, told The Intercept. “But these things are exactly what we need for our safety and what we need in the face of rising fascism.”

This isn’t the first attempt by state actors to criminalize protest against the proposal. Prosecutors previously charged 43 Stop Cop City activists with domestic terrorism. They have also charged activists with money laundering, criminal trespass, and felony intimidation, and in January of this year, state troopers shot forest defender Manuel “Tortuguita” Páez Terán 57 times, killing him, in the process of clearing a protest camp in the forest.


Not Smart On Energy

To the many emerging issues with generative Artificial Intelligence, add energy consumption. A new study shows that using generative AI applications such as Chatgpt, MidJourney, and dalle-e, which create new visual or text content in response to prompts, could lead to a massive increase in power use over the next few years, undermining global emissions-reduction efforts.

The combination of training large AI models and making them generate content in response to live queries “makes AI relatively energy intensive if you compare it to a standard Google search,” Alex de Vries, author of the study published in the journal Joule, told Insider. Adding generative AI to a Google search, for example, increases its energy use more than tenfold, the study found.

De Vries, who’s a PhD candidate at the VU Amsterdam School of Business and Economics, warned that the rapid acceleration of AI development and use could see the industry’s energy consumption spike, in just a few years, to match levels produced by an entire country. “Given the expected production in the coming few years, by 2027 newly manufactured AI devices will be responsible for as much electricity consumption as my home country, the Netherlands,” he said.

“Everyone should be pretty mindful about whether or not they really need to be trying to put AI into their applications,” de Vries said. “It’s not a miracle cure for everything.”


Changing Minds

If you had any lingering doubts about the impact that Greta Thunberg and her now-global Fridays for Future school climate strikes have had on our society, put them to bed. New research shows that nearly a third of Switzerland’s citizens switched to more eco-friendly daily habits as a direct result of the strikes, which Thunberg launched in the fall of 2018 as a solo sign-holder outside the Swiss parliament.

Greta Thunberg began her school strikes for the climate as a lone individual, sparking a movement that has influenced countless others. Photo by Svante Thunberg.

Researchers with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology surveyed more than 1,200 people between the ages of 18 and 74 in late 2019, about a year into the strikes. Thirty percent of respondents — none of whom had participated in the movement themselves — said they had made changes to personal behaviors since the protests had started, most commonly with respect to transportation choices, purchasing decisions, and recycling. Changes included swapping out cars for bikes for daily commutes, avoiding non-essential flying, choosing organic products, dialing-down overall consumption, and reducing plastics use. Some also reported changes in “public behaviors” such as political activism and social communication, though the rates for these changes were significantly lower.

The study was published in September in Sustainability Science.

“Our findings showed that people have become more aware of how their behavior affects the environment and that significant shifts are under way at an individual level,” Livia Fritz, the study’s lead author, told “We also saw that changes made at the individual level can lead to broader societal change provided they’re supported by political action at the same time.”

The findings are buoying — and not just for those of us who are Greta fans. For one, they make clear that meaningful change is already underway. They also make clear the power of protest to help us correct course on climate action.


Exxon Expands

The world may be burning but drill we must. That’s clearly the mantra for ExxonMobil, which in October announced a deal to acquire shale driller Pioneer Resources for $60 billion, its largest buyout since acquiring Mobil Oil two decades ago.

The deal will expand Exxon’s holdings in the Permian Basin, a massive oilfield straddling the border between Texas and New Mexico that accounted for about 18 percent of all US natural gas production in 2022. The merger still needs to be approved by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), but according to Bloomberg, Exxon plans to produce two million barrels per day in the Permian Basin by 2027, which would make it the largest driller there.

“As the world looks to transition and find lower sources of affordable energy with lower emissions, fossil fuels oil and gas are going to continue to play a role over time,” ExxonMobil CEO Darren Woods said during an interview with CNBC. Then he tacked on the usual buzzwords-laden greenwashing spiel about how Exxon and Pioneer will be able to use their combined capabilities to drive down emissions.

Political pressure has been building on the FTC, which polices antitrust violations, to investigate the merger, but industry watchers are skeptical that the agency will do much to block the deal. It’s likely going to fall on civil society, yet again, to try to protect our environment, and our communities, from corporate self-interest.


Proper Nouns

Naming has long been considered a uniquely human endeavor. Sure, we know that certain other animals, such as parrots and bottlenose dolphins, sometimes call to individuals in their species by imitating the unique sounds they make, but human names are more arbitrary — they aren’t imitations of the sounds typically made by the name’s owner. Instead, like most human language, our names are generally reflections of something more abstract and usually communicate values and ideas based on specific cultures.

New research shows that elephants may assign sounds to each other in behavior that looks a lot like naming. Photo by Diana Robinson.

But now it seems that at least one other species names its individuals in this arbitrary way as well. Researchers have found evidence that the wild savannah elephants of Kenya call out to each other using individual “names” or what they call specific “vocal labels.”

Behavioral ecologist Michael Pardo of Colorado State University, who led the study, says his team’s findings potentially “blur the line” between “what we think is unique to human language versus what is found in other animal communication systems.”

Pardo and his colleagues spent hours recording 625 elephant calls and rumbles in the wild at two separate locations in Kenya — the greater Samburu ecosystem in the north, and the Amboseli National Park in the south. Some of these rumbles were greeting rumbles, which occur when elephants see each other again after some time apart. The researchers separated out the greeting rumbles and used a machine-learning model to correctly predict which specific elephant a particular rumble was directed towards. The results, they say, suggest that certain rumbles were specific to individual receivers. In fact, when the researchers played recordings of some of these vocal label rumbles to 17 wild elephants, the elephants moved more quickly toward the sound of their own “names” and were faster in making responding calls as well.

The research is not yet peer-reviewed, but if the results can be corroborated, it would have far-reaching implications on our understanding of animal communication and the evolution of language.


Global Exposure

At this point, the “forever chemicals” known as PFAS are pretty much inescapable. Wherever scientists look for them, it seems, they find them. That includes in the bodies of hundreds of species around the world, from pandas, to owls, to zooplankton.

That’s not great news, given what we know about this family of chemicals. In humans, the chemicals — used for decades in clothing, food wrappers, cleaning products, plastic, and much more — increase cancer risk, reduce immune-system responses, decrease fertility, and impact neurodevelopment. While the effects on wildlife have not been as thoroughly studied, PFAS have so far been found to impact animals’ immune systems, hormones, and fertility.

Though PFAS are often concentrated around industrial areas, they are easily dispersed by the wind, waterways, and ocean currents. This means that nowhere is free of these contaminants. Widespread PFAS exposure is particularly worrisome given the many other threats wildlife currently face, including habitat loss, pollution, and human-caused climate change.

In September, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released a new map compiling data from more than 200 studies to show the tremendous scale at which human use of PFAS chemicals is impacting animals around the globe. Confirmed exposures were concentrated in the United States, Western Europe, China, and Australia, with notably few cases in South America, Africa, and the Middle East, a disparity that may simply reflect a dearth of research rather than a lack of exposure. Combined, these studies confirm PFAS contamination in more than 600 species across all seven continents.

“The PFAS crisis is global,” Alexis Temkin, a toxicologist at EWG, said in a statement. “Like humans, wildlife are exposed to multiple PFAS at a time, through diet, air, water, and soil, highlighting the need to tackle these persistent and toxic chemicals as a class.”

Here are some of the “hotspots” where studies have found large numbers of contaminated species.

graphic depicting the continents of the Earth

1 United States

The United States has far more documented cases of PFAS contamination in wildlife than any other country. Many of these cases have been documented by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which regularly tests fish in rivers and streams across the country for contaminants. The EPA’s tests have shown that nearly all fish in US rivers and streams are contaminated with PFAS chemicals at high levels.

But contamination in the US isn’t limited to freshwater fish. PFAS have been detected in a wide range of other animals, including endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles, endangered green turtles, and vulnerable loggerhead sea turtles off the coast of North Carolina; northern cardinals in Georgia; and endangered sea otters off the California coast. One study of American alligators found evidence of immune system impacts tied to exposure, including a higher occurrence of skin lesions and slow-to-heal wounds.

2 Norway

In and around mainland Norway, forever chemicals have been found in Eurasian eagle-owls, white-tailed eagles, wolves, moose, harbor porpoises, killer whales, and more. In Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago about halfway between Norway and the North Pole — far from any manufacturing centers — researchers have detected high PFAS levels in a variety of wildlife, including polar bears. “What those researchers found was that polar bears have the highest level of PFAS of all wildlife species in the Arctic, comparable to concentrations of people who work in or live near a PFAS manufacturing plant in China,” Catharina Vendl, a wildlife health researcher at the University of New South Wales, Sydney, told The Revelator.

3 Australia

PFAS have been detected in a number of birds in Western Australia, including gray teals, Pacific black ducks, and pink-eared ducks. Elsewhere in the country, the chemicals have been discovered in marine mammals like sea lions and fur seals, mollusks like giant mud crabs and eastern school prawns, and reptiles like freshwater short-necked turtles. One study of waterfowl in Tasmania confirmed the forever chemicals in ducks, indicating PFAS had reached the remote environment via air and ocean currents. While the chemicals were detected in waterfowl, accumulation levels were, as the researchers put it, “among the lowest in the world.”

4 China

Endangered species like the golden snub-nosed monkey, the red panda, and the giant panda all suffer PFAS contamination in China. Researchers there found that animals living in or near urban and industrial areas have higher levels of contamination than those living in more rural ones.

5 Italy

Within Northern Europe, Italy stands out for confirmed cases of PFAS contamination within freshwater fish. In Northern Italy, the chemicals have been detected in European eel, river herring, shad, brown trout, European perch, and more. Studies show that contamination in European lake fish tends to be higher in more urbanized watersheds.


Boundaries Breached

New research suggests that the melting of West Antarctica’s ice shelves is likely to speed up significantly in coming decades — regardless of efforts to curb global warming. The study warns that accelerated melting will inevitably contribute to rising sea levels, threatening coastal communities worldwide.

The authors of the study, published in Nature Climate Change in October, write that humanity has “lost control” over the fate of the ice shelves, which stabilize and contain the flow of glaciers into the ocean. West Antarctica has already seen an increase in ice loss in recent years, and experts say its massive ice sheet may be nearing a tipping point.

The findings echo a broader concern: that the planet’s critical life-support systems are becoming overwhelmed. In a separate study published in Science Advances in September, researchers warn that six of nine safe “planetary boundaries” have been surpassed, thanks to pollution, climate change, and the destruction of natural systems. These boundaries include essential global systems of climate, water, and biodiversity.

The studies underscore the need for nations to phase out fossil fuels, adopt sustainable agricultural practices, and bring the planet’s systems back into safer operating zones.

Working from home may have some environmental benefits, but it also comes with unforeseen tradeoffs, such as higher home energy use.


Working Green

It looks like the work-from-home trend is here to stay — but is it a boon for the environment? US workers now spend about a third of their time working from home. (That’s down from about 60 percent in May 2020, at the height of pandemic lockdowns, and up from 7 percent in January 2019, prior to the outbreak). Whether fully remote, or hybrid, the WFH trend, as it’s known, could be a big benefit for the environment, according to a study released earlier this year, but it will be up to businesses and individuals whether it will be.

Working from home may have some environmental benefits, but it also comes with unforeseen tradeoffs, such as higher home energy use. Photo by Garett Mizunaka.

Researchers from Cornell and Microsoft published a study in September claiming that remote work could cut a person’s carbon footprint by up to 58 percent. But that figure depends on many factors, well beyond the reduction in carbon use from not commuting. After all, working from home entails increased use of information technology, less-efficient energy use and waste removal, and, in fact, an increase in non-commuting drive times.

“Our study also suggests that achieving the environmental benefits of remote work requires proper setup of people’s lifestyle, including their vehicle choice, travel behavior, and the configuration of home and work environment,” the researchers wrote in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US.

For example, while WFH may relieve traffic congestion in high-density areas, it also means more workers can move to low-density commuting zones, resulting in further drive distances and less access to public transit. Work from home requires extra space at home, leading to higher energy consumption, more food consumed, and more waste, which is processed with less energy efficiency than in commercial buildings.

In other words, hard facts are telling us once again that there is no magic bullet. It is up to individuals (and companies) to leverage the new working conditions to better the environment.

Table Talk

Bye, Red Dye

Peeps, candy corn, Fruit by the Foot — for anyone with a sweet tooth, these candies likely ring a nostalgic bell. Unfortunately, they also all contain Red Dye No. 3, a petroleum-derived product that has been linked to increased cancer risk.

Under a new California law, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October, Red Dye No. 3, along with three other food additives found in cereals, soda, candy, and more, will be banned in food products in the Golden State starting in 2027. The bill makes California the first state in the country to bar these four additives — which include brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate, and propylparaben — all of which are banned in the European Union (though Red Dye No. 3 is still permitted in candied cherries).

Red Dye No. 3 was prohibited in cosmetics in the US more than three decades ago following studies linking it to cancer. As NPR reports, brominated vegetable oil and potassium bromate can negatively impact the respiratory and nervous systems, and propylparaben has been linked to reproductive health problems.

In addition to protecting California consumers, the law could have a far wider reach. As The New York Times reports, it ramps up pressure on the Food and Drug Administration to scrutinize food additives at the federal level. Practically speaking, it is also likely to result in the removal of food additives from products across the country because as California goes, so goes the nation.


Key to Whale Deaths

Since 2019, gray whales in the northeastern Pacific Ocean have been washing up dead in large numbers. As of Sept. 26, 688 whales have been found dead in what scientists have termed an Unusual Mortality Event (UME). Until recently, it was unclear what was causing the die-off, but new research indicates that inadequate food supplies caused by a lack of sea ice in the Arctic is the likely culprit.

Gray whales migrating south between their summer feeding grounds in the Arctic and wintering lagoons in Mexico. Photo by NOAA Fisheries/SWFSC/MMTD.

In fact, the researchers found there have been three UMEs in the past 36 years — beginning in 1987, 1999, and 2019 — all caused by a shift in the delicate balance of ice in the Arctic, which leaves the marine mammals without enough food. The team’s findings were published in the journal Science in October.

During each of these die-offs, including one that began in 2019 and is ongoing, the gray whale population was reduced by up to 25 percent over just a few years, the study notes.

Eastern North Pacific gray whales have the longest migration of any mammal. They migrate more than 12,000 miles each year along the Pacific Coast, from the warm waters off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, in the winter months, to the cold, food-rich waters of the Arctic to feed in the summer months.

The researchers found that the first two die-offs were caused by too much ice blocking the whales from accessing their traditional summer feeding grounds. The current mortality event, however, is attributed to the lack of robust ice, which means less algae is growing beneath ice sheets and falling to the sea floor. This, in turn, has led to a fall in the population of the whales’ prey, small shrimp-like crustaceans called amphipods, because of a lack of nutrients and changes to the habitat they need.

Between 2016 and 2023, the population of eastern North Pacific gray whales has declined by nearly half, from a high of 27,000 to about 14,500 today, according to the most recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“These are extreme population swings that we did not expect to see in a large, long-lived species like gray whales,” study lead author Joshua Stewart, an assistant professor at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, said in a statement.

The unfavorable Arctic conditions that led to two die-offs in the 1980s and the 1990s were not permanent, and the population quickly rebounded as conditions improved. The current mortality event has gone on twice as long as the 1987 and 2019 events.

“We are in uncharted territory now,” Stewart said. “The most recent mortality event has slowed and there are signs things are turning around, but the population has continued to decline. One reason it may be dragging on is the climate change component, which is contributing to a long-term trend of lower-quality prey.”

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