Talking Points : Summer 2018

News in Brief

Talking Points

photo of poppies in a fieldphoto Jesse Wagstaff In April, the EPA announced that it would lower Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and SUVs, prompting a California-led coalition of 17 states and the District of Columbia to file a lawsuit challenging the plan.

Up in the Air

Revving Up Resistance

In the latest salvo in the ongoing battle between the Trump administration and the Golden State over climate change regulations, a California-led coalition including 16 other states and the District of Columbia sued the administration in early May over its plans to scrap Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars and suvs.

“The state of California is not looking to pick a fight with the Trump administration, but we are ready for one, especially when the stakes are so high for our families, our health, and the planet,” California Attorney General Xavier Becerra said at a news conference announcing the move.

The lawsuit, filed in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, called the US Environmental Protection Agency’s effort to weaken fuel efficiency standards unlawful and a violation of the Clean Air Act. The EPA had said in April that it would revise the standards, which administrator Scott Pruitt called “too high.”

The landmark 2012 fuel economy rules were a key part of a joint effort by the Obama administration and California officials to combat global warming. Under those rules, vehicles would have to get 36 miles of real-world driving per gallon (55 miles per gallon under test conditions), about 10 miles over the existing standard, by 2025.

“These standards represent the biggest single step any nation has ever taken to tackle the problem of global warming,” Dan Barker, director of Safe Climate Campaign and a well-known clean vehicles advocate, told Earth Island Journal. “If not weakened by Mr. Trump and his allies, they will save 6 billion tons of CO2 [over the life of the program]. That’s more than most countries emit in multiple years.”

Rolling back the standards would not only make it impossible for the US to achieve its Paris Climate Accord goals, but would also set a terrible example for the rest of the world, Barker said. “Already, I’ve heard from colleagues in Europe that the German automakers are beginning to argue that because the US standards are going to be weakened, they need to weaken the European standards. So this could really create a race to the bottom that would be devastating for the climate.”

While it’s not clear whether the EPA will actually make good on its threat to change the standards, the lawsuit could strengthen California’s legal hand if that were to happen.

“This is a preliminary challenge. It’s a shot across the bow,” Jody Freeman, a professor of environmental law at Harvard University who advised the Obama administration, told The New York Times. “It sets the table to challenge the agency’s reasons for rolling back the rule, if they go ahead and do it.”


Mercury Rising

To eat fish, or not to eat fish? This question has long popped-up within public health circles as experts have weighed the benefits and detriments associated with eating certain seafood. On the one hand, fish provide a healthy and widely available protein source. On the other, fish – particularly large ones at the top of the food chain – are often packed with mercury.

photo of fish in a net underwaterphoto Hani AmirThe amount of mercury pulled out of the oceans by industrial fishing operations has steadily increased since the 1950s, meaning coastal communities may be ingesting it at unsafe levels.

New research may shift the balance in favor of avoiding seafood. According to a team from the University of Montreal’s Department of Biological Sciences, the amount of mercury that industrial fishing operations are pulling out of the oceans via fish has steadily increased since the 1950s. As a result, many coastal and island nations’ residents may be ingesting mercury at unsafe levels.

There are several threads contributing to the mercury problem. Humans have released massive amounts of mercury into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. This mercury ends up in oceans and rivers where it is absorbed by sea life and bioaccumulates in creatures at the top of the marine food chain. At the same time, advances in industrial fishing technology have allowed us to pull more and more fish from the sea to satisfy growing consumer demand for seafood.

“The global marine catch totals 80 million tons of fish per year, which means that we are also pulling out increasingly large amounts of mercury,” says Professor Marc Amyot, who supervised the study led by postdoctoral fellow Raphaël Lavoie and published in Scientific Reports.

Lavoie used data on the amount of mercury extracted by industrial fishing operations between 1950 and 2014, along with information about the weekly consumption of seafood in 175 countries between 1961 and 2011, to estimate per capita ingestion of methylmercury. Methylmercury is an especially toxic form of mercury that can penetrate the blood-brain barrier and impact cerebral development, especially in children and fetuses.

Of the industrial fishing areas listed by the Food and Agriculture Organization, the Northwest Pacific currently exports the most fish, and the most methylmercury. The Western Central Pacific holds second place, while the Indian Ocean ranks third. “Together, these three fishing areas exported 60 percent of the mercury resulting from global seafood production in 2014,” Lavoie says.

His findings indicate that people living in 66 of the 175 countries studied may be exposed to methylmercury levels unsafe for fetal development, and that those in the Maldives, Kiribati, Iceland, Malaysia, Lithuania, and Japan are among the most at risk. In the Maldives, mercury consumption between 2001 and 2011 was estimated at more than 14 times safe levels.

“From 2001 to 2011 the populations of 38 percent of the 175 countries we analyzed would have been exposed to weekly doses of methylmercury far above the maximum safe level of consumption for fetal development,” Lavoie says. “Many of these populations are in coastal and island nations, especially developing countries.”

Lavoie and Amyot believe that their estimates are probably conservative, and hope the research will assist with efforts to reduce mercury exposure, particularly among children and pregnant women, who are most at risk.

Table Talk

Unexpected Trade Toll

Intensive food production comes with a steep environmental price tag. It can erode and deplete our soils, pollute our waterways, and encroach on important wildlife habitat. Common sense, then, would suggest that importing food from afar might protect landscapes closer to home. Soybeans produced in Brazil shouldn’t take a toll on Chinese landscapes, right? Not necessarily.

photo of a person portioning tofuphoto Tianjia LiuResearchers have found that changes surrounding food imports can have unexpected impacts on local environments. For example, as China began importing more soy from abroad, local farmers converted to growing crops like corn, which take a higher toll on the land.

Researchers with Michigan State University (MSU) have found that the type and amount of food imported to a country can impact the decisions local farmers make about what crops to grow, and that the replacement crops they opt for may be more ecologically damaging. As a result, environmental impacts associated with food production aren’t so much displaced as they are exchanged, they report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“This study underscores the need to pay attention to both sides of international trade, not rely on conventional wisdom,” says Jianguo “Jack” Liu, director of MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability and lead study author. “Unless a world is examined in a systemic, holistic way, environmental costs will be overlooked.”

In their quest to uncover the environmental impacts of global food trade, Liu’s team focused on soybeans. Demand for soybeans has skyrocketed in China in recent years. But rather than increasing production at home, much of the demand is being met by Brazilian farmers, who are converting rainforest to cropland to keep pace with growing appetites, and undercutting Chinese farmers on the market. As a result, many Chinese farmers are switching from soy to crops like rice and corn that can take a higher toll on the environment, particularly in the form of nitrogen pollution.

As Betsy Von Holle, director of the National Science Foundation’s Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems program, which funded the study, puts it: “If the importing country switches from a more sustainable crop, such as soybeans, to one that needs more water and nutrients, such as corn, the nitrogen pollution that results can harm the environment of the importing country.”

Soybeans, of course, are just one small part of the global picture. With all types of food crops crossing our borders every day, the impact of the international food trade may hit us closer to home than we once thought.

Flip Side

Climate Warriors ≠ Eco Warriors

If you had to make a guess at who your most eco-friendly friend or neighbor is, you might choose the one who understands climate science and is the strongest supporter of government action on global warming. But chances are, you might guess wrong.

A report published in April in the Journal of Environmental Psychology found that climate change skeptics are more likely to behave in eco-friendly ways than those who are highly concerned about the issue.

The report was based on a study by a University of Michigan-led research team that followed more than 400 Americans for a year, categorizing each participant as either “skeptical,” “cautiously worried,” or “highly concerned” about climate change, based on their beliefs. The team found that participants with the greatest concern about anthropogenic climate change were least likely to engage in four environmentally minded behaviors: recycling, buying “green” products, using reusable shopping bags, and using public transportation. On the other hand, participants who expressed doubt in climate change “were most likely to report engaging in individual-level, pro-environmental behaviors.”

In addition to reporting on the four eco-friendly behaviors, participants were asked about their climate policy preferences, which followed more expected patterns: Those most concerned about climate change were most likely to favor policy action – like stronger fuel economy standards – while skeptics were least likely to favor policy interventions.

As Pacific Standard reports, the psychological phenomenon of “moral licensing” may explain the lack of pro-environment individual action by climate believers. For example, climate advocates may be donating to climate causes or educating themselves about global warming-related issues, and as a result, may feel it is alright to engage in less-altruistic activities, like driving their cars to work or tossing their recyclables in the trash.

Another possibility is that climate-minded folks don’t equate behaviors like plastic recycling and eco-friendly product use with climate change – that they see these as distinct environmental issues.

Either way, the researchers determined that “belief in climate change does not appear to be a necessary or sufficient condition for pro-environment behavior.” Meaning that for those looking to increase use of reusable bags and public transportation, climate warriors might be the most important people to target.

Call of the Wild

Shedding Fur

photo of a person at a waterfront wearing a fur garmentphoto Russell MondyIn March, San Francisco became the largest US city to ban the sale of fur and fur products.

Fur may be an increasingly taboo fashion choice, but it is still a legal one across most of the world. Except in San Francisco. In March, San Francisco supervisors banned the sale of fur and fur products, making the progressive urban hamlet the largest city in the US to do so.

“The sale of fur products in San Francisco is inconsistent with the city’s ethos of treating all living beings, humans and animals alike, with kindness,” Katy Tang, the SF supervisor who led the charge for the ban, said in a statement. “There’s no humane way to raise an animal to peel its skin off.”

Animal welfare advocates, unsurprisingly, have praised the decision. “This historic act will usher in a new wave of animal rights legislation across the globe,” Wayne Hsiung, co-founder of the animal rights organization Direct Action Everywhere, said in a statement.

The ban, which does not include second-hand fur items, takes effect January 1, 2019, though retailers will have until January of 2020 to sell their existing inventory. The regulation follows several other animal rights victories in San Francisco, including a ban on performances by exotic animals and a requirement that pet stores sell only rescue cats and dogs.

Two other California cities – West Hollywood and Berkeley – have enacted similar bans on fur sales. And in recent years, a growing list of high-end fashion companies – including Versace, Gucci, and Hugo Boss – have adopted fur-free policies. As real-world regulation meets runway activism, it seems faux will soon be the only fashionable way to go.

Around the World

Running on Empty

Cape Town captured global attention last spring when news broke that the South African city was about to run out of water in a matter of months. Since then, stringent restrictions on water usage have pushed back the crisis to 2019, but the city’s plight underscored the growing pressure on our world’s finite freshwater resources.

In many cities, people hardly give a second thought to how and when they get their water. Concerns about water quality notwithstanding, for the most part, people simply turn on the tap to quench their thirst, take a shower, or water their garden. But as urban populations boom and climate change alters precipitation cycles, cities and towns across the world, from North America to Africa to Asia, are watching their water reserves plummet. Some are beginning to plan for water-scarce futures, while others have already been forced to contend with present-day water scarcity. Many are also dealing with a host of related problems, including leaking water supply systems, water theft, and even land subsidence due to over-drafting of underground aquifers.

The list of cities simultaneously contending with diminished water reserves and increasing water demand is likely to grow over the years to come. Here are a handful of the cities already on the frontlines of the global water crisis.

graphic depicting the continents

1 Cape Town, South Africa

Cape Town has been counting down to “day zero” – the day the city’s taps will run dry – since last spring. Though the day zero estimate has been pushed back several times, in large part due to strict water-use limits, officials warn that it could still hit sometime next year. The city’s water crisis has been attributed to urban population growth combined with a record drought, potentially exacerbated by global warming.

Cape Town is doing what it can to prepare. When the reservoirs serving the city hit 13.5 percent capacity, the city will shut off the taps to homes and businesses, though hospitals and schools will still receive water. Cape Town’s 4 million residents will then begin lining up at some 200 emergency water stations across the city to collect water rations under watch of armed guards. In 2014, the city’s six reservoirs were full, a stark reminder about how quickly water reserves can be depleted during drought.

2 São Paulo, Brazil

Before Cape Town grabbed international headlines, São Paulo faced a high-profile water emergency of its own. In 2015, the city’s primary reservoir fell below 4 percent capacity. Pipes began drawing in mud, and tap water flow was intermittently cut off in homes across the city, with some receiving just a few hours of water twice a week. At one point, the city of nearly 22 million was estimated to have just 20 days’ worth of water left.

Though much-needed rain alleviated the crisis at the last minute, the city isn’t really out of the woods. The metropolitan area loses some 31 percent of treated water to leaks and thefts, and experts say that climate change, pollution, and severe deforestation put the city at increased risk for drought in the future.

3 Jakarta, Indonesia

Less than half of Jakarta’s residents have access to tap water in their homes, leaving many with no choice but to dig their own wells. These wells are sucking local aquifers dry. As the aquifers are drained, the city is sinking, putting it at even greater risk from sea level rise. Currently, some 40 percent of the city lies below sea level.

4 Mexico City, Mexico

Many of Mexico City’s 21 million residents are already contending with water scarcity. An estimated 20 percent of the city can access tap water for only a few hours a week, leaving many residents no option but to pay for expensive water delivery trucks.

The issues facing Mexico City are complex. The city’s sprawling concrete foundation inhibits rainwater from filtering down and replenishing the underground aquifers upon which it is built. Rising urban temperatures are leading to higher water evaporation rates from its water bodies, and some 40 percent of the city’s water is lost to leaks and theft. At the same time, as the city drills deeper and deeper to tap underground water stores, it is contributing to its own subsidence.

Climate change, which will mean heavier intense rains interspersed with longer droughts, adds another challenge to the city’s complicated water puzzle.

5 Phoenix, Arizona

Phoenix gets less than eight inches of rainfall a year. The desert city receives most of its water from the Colorado River, via Lake Mead, but as Rocky Mountain snowfall plummets, the river is drying up. Phoenix isn’t alone in its predicament: In 2017, the US Department of Agriculture estimated that two thirds of Arizona already faces severe to extreme droughts. But as Phoenix plans for continued growth in the absence of any water use restrictions or official drought response plans – and in the face of global warming – it seems to be perilously overextending itself.

6 Melbourne, Australia

Last year, water managers in Melbourne, Australia warned that population growth and drought could lead to chronic water shortages by 2028. The city is looking at increasing the capacity of its desalination plant, improving water recycling programs, and reducing water use.

High Voltage

The Solar State

California has been upping its renewable energy game as of late. Already a nationwide leader on solar, in May the state’s energy commission took things a step further, unanimously approving new standards requiring solar panels on all new homes starting in 2020.

Some cities, including San Francisco, already mandate solar for new residential projects. But if the new regulations are given final approval by the state Building Standards Commission, as expected, California will become the first state to do so. The mandate will apply to residential buildings up to three stories high.

“This is just a milestone. There’s a hell of a lot of work to do between now and 2020,” California Energy Commission Chairman Robert Weisenmiller told KQED radio. “The bottom line is we’re going to stay focused on making this happen, and happen smoothly.”

The solar requirement is expected to increase upfront building costs, but will result in long-term utility bill savings. It will also help California meet its ambitious greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets.


Cover Up at the Beach

photo of sunscreen on a sandy beachphoto Sean NakamuraBeginning in 2021, Hawaiʻi will no longer allow the sale of sunscreens
containing two coral-harming chemicals.

For those lucky enough to visit the Hawaiian Islands, the list of essential items is normally pretty short. Most tourists can get away with as little as a swimsuit, a pair of flip-flops, and an outfit or two. And sunscreen, copious amounts of sunscreen. Sunscreen that ultimately washes off when visitors are wading, swimming, and snorkeling in Hawaiʻi’s clear blue waters, leaving a sheen of residue in their wake.

Well, visitors will soon have to be more careful about just which types of sunscreen they are using. In May, Hawaiʻi passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing two harmful chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, which “have significant harmful impacts” on the state’s marine environment. Both chemicals are used in the majority of sunscreen brands sold in the Aloha State. Hawaiʻi is the first state to pass such a ban, which will take effect in January 2021.

The amount of sunscreen entering the water isn’t insignificant. Oʻahu’s Hanauma Bay, for example, receives some 2,600 visitors every day. A 2017 study conducted at the popular tourist spot estimated that the visitors leave behind 412 pounds of sunscreen on a daily basis.

The chemicals targeted by the ban can cause significant harm to corals and other marine life. In particular, exposure to these chemicals is known to lower the temperature at which corals die, exacerbating the dangers of global warming and associated coral bleaching. Oxybenzone, an endocrine disrupter, can turn male fish into females. It can be toxic to a variety of organisms, including coral, sea urchins, and algae. Ultimately, by harming coral and algae, these chemicals can have major impacts on entire reef systems.

“This is the first real chance that local reefs have to recover,” scientist Craig Downs, executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, whose research indicates that 14,000 pounds of sunscreen end up in the world’s coral reefs annually, told the Associated Press. “Lots of things kill coral reefs, but we know oxybenzone prevents them from coming back.”

While some critics have called the bill a feel-good measure that glosses over bigger threats to reefs, most others seem to think it could spur meaningful action on reef protection around the world.

“Hopefully other jurisdictions will look at this legislation and follow suit,” says Donna Mercado Kim, the Democratic state senator who introduced the bill.

Coral reefs need all the help they can get these days. Grabbing a tube of nontoxic sunscreen really doesn’t seem like too much to ask the millions of tropical vacationers who enjoy the islands’ white sand beaches and cool waters every year.

No Comment

In March, more than 350 Hindu priests gathered in the city of Meerut in northern India for a nine-day prayer ceremony asking the gods above to deliver them from the scourge of air pollution.

To propitiate the gods, the priests burned some 50,000 logs of mango wood, weighing a total of 55 tons, in large fire pits, along with 13.2 tons of sesame seeds, 7 tons of rice, and thousands of pounds of ghee (clarified butter).

“Our scriptures dictate that a hawan [prayer ceremony around a sacred fire] helps purify the air and if we keep doing this, air pollution will reduce considerably. We are doing our bit towards mankind, flora and fauna and the environment,” Girish Bansal, vice president of the group, the Shri Ayutchandi Mahayagya Samiti, told The Indian Express.

Om Prakash, one of the presiding religious heads at the venue, said: “The smoke from the hawan is not harmful because of ingredients used – desi [local] ghee has come from desi cows … This is not like the smoke from factories, it’s pure. It’s also because of the chanting.”

According to the World Health Organization, 14 of the 20 most polluted cities in the world, in terms of air pollution, are in India, and a recent study in the journal The Lancet linked air pollution to 2.5 million deaths in the country in 2015.


Ground-Shaking Discovery

photo of elephants on a green savannahphoto AfricamediaElephants vocalizations can travel longer distances through the ground than they can through the air, according to new research. The surprising finding may offer a new way to track elephant behavior from afar.

Most of us have heard the bellowing call of an elephant, if not in person, in a wildlife film or even an iconic Lion King scene. These calls play an important role in communication for the social animals. But as many an elephant expert might tell you, these giant mammals also communicate through low-frequency noises. New research published in Current Biology adds yet another dimension to our understanding of elephant communication, indicating that these vocalizations can actually travel longer distances through the ground than they can through the air.

For three weeks last year, researchers used earthquake-detecting devices to monitor wild elephants in Kenya. The geophones, as they are called, work much like seismographs, translating vibrations into electronic signals. Placed in the field, they allowed the team to identify unique “seismic signatures” associated with various elephant behaviors, including walking, running, snorting, and grunting, and thus detect elephant activities from afar.

The researchers were surprised to find that vibrations caused by the different vocal sounds the elephants made were actually easier to pick up than those caused by movement, and that those vibrations could travel almost four miles, nearly twice as far as the two-mile range of trumpet calls.

“We found that the forces generated through elephant calls were comparable to the forces generated by a fast elephant walk,” says Beth Mortimer, a biologist at the Universities of Oxford and Bristol and lead author of the study. “This means that elephant calls can travel significant distances through the ground and, in favorable conditions, further than the distance that calls travel through the air.”

The researchers found that by recording and categorizing the vibrations, they could figure out what the animals were doing. Because elephants often make warning calls and run in the face of danger, the new monitoring strategy might eventually lead to the development of a new alarm system for detecting elephant behaviors, such as panic calls. This information could be used as a means to catch and deter poachers. Given the pachyderm’s rapidly depleting numbers, this could be an important life-saver for the species.

Call of the Wild

Beginning of the End?

aerial photo of an adult right whale and calfphoto Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, taken under NOAA research permit #15488Researchers didn’t spot a single right whale calf during this year’s birthing season, adding to alarm about the species’ long-term chances of survival.

Scientists are sounding the alarm for right whales. When the whales’ 2018 calving season came to a close in late March, the species apparently hadn’t had a single successful birth. Unfortunately, this is just the latest bad news for the critically endangered species.

“It’s a pivotal moment for right whales,” Barb Zoodsma, who oversees the National Marine Fisheries Service’s right whale recovery program in the US Southeast, told the Chicago Tribune. “If we don’t get serious and figure this out, it very well could be the beginning of the end.”

Right whales spend much of the year up north, in waters off the coast of the northeastern US and Canada. In the winter, however, pregnant whales migrate south to give birth in the warmer waters off the coasts of Georgia and Florida. Researchers tracking right whale population numbers use airplanes to survey these waters for mother-calf pairs every year. This season, for the first time since the flights began in 1989, they didn’t spot a single baby whale.

There’s good reason to be worried. The total number of right whales is estimated at around 450, with just 100 female whales of breeding age. Last year, the species suffered a tremendous setback, with an estimated 17 premature deaths. Several of these were linked to collisions with ships or entanglement in fishing gear. It is believed that only 5 calves were born last year, well below the yearly average of 17.

“It is truly alarming,” said Philip Hamilton, a scientist at Boston’s New England Aquarium who has studied right whales for 30 years. “Following a year of such high mortality, it’s clear the population can’t sustain that trajectory.”

Other researchers say the numbers might not be quite as bad as they seem. It’s possible that calves were born elsewhere, perhaps off the coasts of Virginia and the Carolinas, an area that isn’t scouted by researchers. Others say there could be a spike in births next year, making up for the low numbers, a phenomenon that has been observed following other low-birth years for the species.

Conservation groups sued the US federal government earlier this year for its failure to protect the endangered marine mammals, calling for greater regulation of the fishing industry. Advocates have also pushed for further restrictions on ship speed through the whale’s range to minimize the chance of deadly collisions. And some fishermen are taking it upon themselves to test gear that might prove less dangerous, including ropeless lobster pots.

What’s clear is that the clock is ticking for these marine mammals, and robust protective measures can’t come soon enough.

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