Scientists have known for a while that fine particle exposure increases the risk of cardiovascular disease, respiratory illness, and even cancer. New research adds another frightening risk to that list: brain aging.
A new study, published in the Annals of Neurology, estimated pollution exposure levels for 1,403 older women from 1999 to 2006. Researchers collected data on exposure to PM 2.5 (fine particulates that penetrate deep into the lungs) and used MRI scans to measure brain volume. What they found was worrisome, particularly for those living near busy roads or industrial areas: Each increase of 3.49 micrograms per cubic meter of air in fine particle pollution exposure was associated with a 6.23 cubic centimeter decrease in brain white matter, which is important for cognition. This loss is equivalent to one to two years of brain aging.
The findings remained the same even after adjusting for geographic region, age, education, income, and physical activity, among other factors. Some of the biggest sources of fine particle pollution are fires, agricultural emissions, car and truck emissions, and industrial emissions.
“This tells us that the damage air pollution can impart goes beyond the circulatory system,” lead author Dr. Jiu-Chiuan Chen, an associate professor at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California, told The New York Times. “Particles in the ambient air are an environmental neurotoxin to the aging brain.”
In what may be the most charming effort yet to help endangered pollinators, Oslo is building a first-of-its kind “bee highway” through the city. The wildlife corridor though the Norwegian capital will include a network of bee-friendly food and shelter stops, with highway “infrastructure” built everywhere from rooftop gardens to local cemeteries.
photo Zsófi Deák
The highway will address a common challenge for city-dwelling bees: Nectar and pollen-rich flowers are often scarce where concrete is plentiful. By increasing the number of flowering plants in Oslo, pollinator proponents hope to facilitate passage through the city. The goal is ultimately to have a pollinator station every 250 meters.
“We are constantly reshaping our environment to meet our needs, forgetting that other species also live in it,” Agnes Lyche Melvaer, head of Bybi, the environmental group leading the project, told The Guardian. “To correct that we need to return places to them to live and feed.”
The situation for bees is less dire in Norway than it is in the US and other European countries. Nonetheless, a third of Norway’s 200 wild bee species are considered endangered.
Local government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and businesses have all joined the effort to give a boost to bees. One Norwegian company contributed $51,000 to help build a bee way-station on its office-building terrace, including flowering plants and two beehives.
Melvaer thinks the project could set a precedent for pollinator efforts elsewhere: “If we manage to solve a global problem locally, it’s conceivable that this local solution will work elsewhere too.”
The Internet went ballistic in July over the killing of Cecil, a much-loved, 13-year-old lion that lived in Zimbabwe’s Hwange National Park. So bitter was the vitriol against Walter J. Palmer, the Minnesota dentist allegedly responsible for the act, that he had to shut down his website and Facebook page, then his dental practice, and ultimately go into hiding.
Palmer and his companions apparently baited Cecil out of the protected area at night and shot him with a crossbow. The wounded lion escaped, but the trophy hunters spent 40 hours tracking him down and eventually shot him in the head, then decapitated and skinned him. As this issue went to press, Palmer’s whereabouts were still unknown, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was investigating the circumstances surrounding the lion’s killing, and Zimbabwe was calling on the White House to extradite Palmer, who now faces illegal hunting charges.
Cecil’s death is tragic in itself, but far more disheartening is the fact that such “hunts” are rather routine. They are part of the all-too-common trend of trophy hunting, especially by American tourists, that is contributing to the decline of lion populations in Africa.
The International Union for the Conservation of Nature estimates that trophy hunters legally kill more than 600 lions each year. Cecil’s killing would have been perfectly legal had the lion not been living in a protected area. (Palmer paid some $50,000 for a legal lion-hunting permit.) Given that there are only about 30,000 lions left in Africa, this represents an annual loss of roughly 2 percent of the total lion population to legal hunting.
Wealthy American tourists account for the majority of lions killed for sport in Africa. A 2011 report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare found that between 1999 and 2008, 64 percent of all African lions killed for sport were shot by Americans. And that number is rising: “Of these trophies, the number imported into the US in 2008 was larger than any other year in the decade studied and more than twice the number in 1999,” the report found.
photo Richard Markham / ACIAR
As global temperatures continue to set records and extreme weather events are increasingly attributed to climate change, it’s obvious that global warming is no longer a distant threat. It is upon us – here and now. No one understands this better than those living in island communities.
In June, representatives from six South Pacific island nations – Vanuatu, Kiribati, Tuvalu, Fiji, the Solomon Islands, and the Philippines – signed the People’s Declaration for Climate Justice, which calls out the current impact and future threats of climate change. The declaration vows to hold big polluters responsible for climate change and, most importantly, to bring an international legal case investigating the human rights implications of rising global temperatures.
“As the people most acutely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, we will not let the big polluters decide and assign our fate,” the declaration reads. “Our rights and ability to survive must not be dictated by the continued addition to the burning of fossil fuels.”
In our Summer issue we reported on the poaching crisis in Africa, which is driven in large part by Asian demand for ivory and organized crime networks. Since the issue came out, preliminary results from the Great Elephant Census, the largest aerial survey of African elephants since the 1970s, have been released.
The findings are mixed. In just the past five years, Tanzania has lost 60 percent of its elephants. The number of elephants there dropped from 109,051 in 2009 to 43,330 in 2014. The results were nearly as bleak for Mozambique: The country reported a 48 percent decline in elephants in the past five years, from 20,000 elephants in 2009 to 10,300 last year.
But the news isn’t all bad. The census found a six-fold increase in Uganda’s elephant population, which rose from an estimated 800 elephants in the 1990s to 5,000 elephants today. Although some of this increase has been attributed to elephant migration – elephant herds have fled fighting in war-torn South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – the rest can be attributed to government action. “Uganda is proof that when it’s done right, conservation can secure elephants,” Paul Elkan, a director at the Wildlife Conservation Society, told New Scientist.
Although surveys are not yet complete, preliminary results in Botswana, Namibia, and Gabon indicate modest increases in elephant numbers.
More encouraging news: In May, China announced that it would “eventually” shut down its domestic ivory trade, a step that could help significantly stem global demand for ivory. And in a continued effort to discourage poaching, US officials destroyed more than a ton of ivory in June in New York’s Times Square.
While there has been significant progress in reducing the number of dolphins being killed in Taiji, Japan for meat – thanks to dogged vigilance by Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project’s Save Japan Dolphins Campaign – fishermen in the coastal town continue to capture and export dolphins to other countries to be used for entertainment. Between September 2009 and August 2014, 354 dolphins were exported to 12 countries, according to Kyodo News. By far the biggest buyer was China, which purchased 216 dolphins captured in Taiji. Other major markets include Ukraine (36 dolphins), South Korea (35 dolphins), and Russia (15 dolphins).
Due to a 10-year-long campaign by IMMP and other organizations, in May Japanese aquariums and zoos that are members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums voted to stop sourcing dolphins from Taiji, a major economic blow to the dolphin hunters. Taiji hunters will still be able to export live dolphins and sell live dolphins to Japan’s aquariums and swim-with-dolphins tourist facilities that are not members of the Japanese association.
To learn more visit: www.SaveJapanDolphins.org
In June, Pope Francis made international headlines when he released an eloquent and impassioned encyclical on the global environment. Titled Laudato Si, or “Praise Be to You” (a name which comes from a famous text by St. Francis of Assisi in which he praised God for the gifts of nature), the letter made a clear link between the appetites of global consumer capitalism and the degradation of the environment. The pope wrote, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all,” and later warned, “Whatever is fragile, like the environment, is defenseless before the interests of a deified market.”
Here in the US, Republican politicians who have dismissed global warming science were quick to brush away Pope Francis’s letter. While many Republicans have long argued for a larger role for faith in society, some of them now argue against connecting faith to public policy.
Former Florida governor and presidential candidate (and devout Catholic) Jeb Bush: “I hope I’m not going to get castigated for saying this by my priest back home, but I don’t get economic policy from my bishops or my cardinals or my pope.” Religion “ought to be about making us better as people, less about things [that] end up getting into the political realm.”
Texas Representative Joe Barton, a senior member of the Energy and Commerce Committee: “I don’t want to be disrespectful, but I don’t consider him [Pope Francis] an expert on environmental issues.”
Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, chair of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee: “I don’t agree with the pope. I’m not a Catholic, but I’ve got a lot of friends who are, who are wondering, ‘Why all of a sudden is he involved in this?’ I don’t have the answer for that.”
Iowa Representative (and Catholic) Steve King: “When you talk about unpredictable science, I have to ask where’s the nexus between that and the theology of the Vatican? I’ve studied the science … and I doubt the pope is going to embrace my position. But this is science, not theology.”
In a way, the pope already had a rejoinder for such voices. As he wrote in the encyclical, “There are too many special interests, and economic interests easily end up trumping the common good and manipulating information so that their own plans will not be affected.”
Since the technique was first developed in the late 1940s, radiocarbon dating has become an essential tool for researchers in the fields of archaeology, forensics, earth science, and art forgery detection, among many other disciplines. Wood, bone, leather, hair, pottery, iron, and ice cores are some of the many materials that can be dated using the method. The proximate age of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Stonehenge, and Ötzi the Iceman were all determined using radiocarbon dating.
But now, thanks to runaway carbon dioxide emissions, the efficacy of this important scientific tool is in jeopardy.
According to a study published in July in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, emissions from fossil fuels are artificially raising the carbon age of the atmosphere. This means that when objects from today are radiocarbon dated, they will appear older than they actually are. The study reports that by 2050 contemporary clothes could have the same radiocarbon date as, say, a wool cloak worn at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Carbon dating works by measuring the amount of carbon-14 versus non-radioactive carbon (C) found in an object. Fossil fuels are so old that all of their carbon-14 is already decayed. So as fossil fuel emissions swirl into the air, they flood the atmosphere with non-radioactive carbon. “If we are adding non-radioactive carbon – and that’s what’s happening with fossil fuels – we get this dilution effect,” Heather D. Graven, a physicist at the Imperial College of London and author of the study, told the BBC.
Normally, radiocarbon dating has a 300-year margin of error. According to the new study, by the end of this century the margin of error could exceed 2,000 years.
Scientific accuracy – chalk it up as yet another reason to get serious about tackling carbon emissions. “If we reduced fossil fuel emissions, it would be good news for radiocarbon dating,” Graven said.
Hydrologists have long warned that human activities such as irrigation for agriculture, mining, and manufacturing are depleting Earth’s groundwater supplies quicker than they are being replenished. Now, disturbing new research confirms that we are pushing many underground aquifers to dangerous tipping points.
A June study in the journal Water Resources Research warned that 21 of the world’s 37 largest aquifers aren’t being recharged fast enough to meet the demands of agriculture and industry. The findings – which were based on NASA satellite imagery from 2003 to 2013 – concluded that significant segments of Earth’s population are consuming groundwater so fast that they are in danger of running out. It takes millennia for aquifers to fill up. In many places, humans are extracting that water at a rate far beyond natural replenishment.
“The water table is dropping all over the world,” Jay Famiglietti, a senior water scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and one of the principal investigators of the report, said. “There’s not an infinite supply of water.”
Located underneath Saudi Arabia and Yemen, this groundwater reserve is the most stressed on the planet. In a little more than 40 years, about 80 percent of the aquifer has been mined with almost no replenishment. Some 60 million people depend on the aquifer for their water needs.
Heavy groundwater pumping for irrigating crops and pasturelands has left the Indus Basin badly stressed. Underlying Pakistan and northwestern India, this basin has one of the highest population densities of any of the major aquifers in the study. More than 200 million people would face some kind of water scarcity if the aquifer were completely depleted.
Many of the highly stressed aquifers are located in poorer nations – the Central Valley Aquifer in California is the exception. California’s huge agricultural industry is dependent upon massive groundwater withdrawals. The state’s recent drought has worsened the situation. In a typical year, 40 percent of the state’s water comes from underground sources. In the past few years that number has jumped to 60 percent due to the lack of precipitation.
Northwestern Australia is sparsely settled and there is very little agriculture there, yet the Canning Basin has the third-highest depletion rate. The culprit? Water-intensive industries such as gold and iron ore mining, along with oil and gas extraction.
Some good news: On the eastern, more populated, side of the Australia, the Great Artesian Basin remains fairly healthy. While many rural communities and farmers depend on the basin’s groundwater, the rate of extraction is sustainable, thanks in part to public policies that encourage groundwater recharge.
We’ve known for a while that climate change and unchecked carbon dioxide emissions mean big trouble for the world’s oceans. After all, the world’s oceans suck up roughly 93 percent of the heat that our greenhouse gas emissions are trapping in the atmosphere, and that’s bound to have consequences.
A new study published in Nature Climate Change predicts that those consequences could be massive. According to the study, climate change could cause a once-in-three-million-years reshuffling of ocean biodiversity, and all by the end of this century.
The study examined changes in ocean biodiversity during three different periods: the mid-Pliocene, roughly 3 million years ago, when greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere were similar to today’s levels and temperatures were two to three degrees warmer; the last ice age, 20,000 years ago, when global temperatures were several degrees cooler than they are today; and 1960 to 2013, during which Earth began to warm due human-caused climate change. The findings? If emissions do not slow, and global temperatures warm by 4.8°C by 2100, 70 percent of the world’s ocean could experience changes unheard of since the Pliocene.
As temperatures increase, many aquatic species will leave the tropics and head towards the poles. Species already living in the cooler pole waters will suffer from an onslaught of new species. “The biodiversity in the polar region is low,” Grégory Beaugrand, an ocean researcher at the French National Center for Science Research and lead author of the report, told CBS News. “When temperatures increase, this will allow more species to colonize the region.”
If warming can be limited to 2°C – the current political target – the reshuffling would be much more moderate, though biodiversity changes would still be three times greater than those seen in the past 50 years. “What we have found is that if we constrain global warming by less than 2°C, ocean changes will be relatively benign on the global scale,” Beaugrand told Climate Central. “But if we are above this threshold, we will have a huge reorganization of marine biodiversity.”
Or, as Sarah Moffitt, a postdoctoral research at the University of California, Davis’s Bodega Marine Laboratory, said, “[The study] shows us there are real differences between moderate warming and severe warming.”
Early, aggressive action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will yield substantial economic and public health benefits, the Obama administration announced in a report released in June. The peer-reviewed report, prepared by the Environmental Protection Agency, assessed two scenarios: one in which countries collectively act to hold global average temperature rise below 2°C, and one without action. In the United States, the action scenario would result in 57,000 fewer deaths from poor air quality and 12,000 avoided deaths from extreme temperatures by the end of the century. By the same year, 2100, climate action would result in 720 to 2,200 fewer bridges rendered structurally deficient as a result of extreme weather; up to 7.9 million fewer acres of land destroyed by wildfires; as much as $11 billion in avoided damage to the agriculture sector; and an estimated $3.1 billion in avoided damages and adaptation costs from sea level rise and storm surge.
“What is hopeful about this report is that it once again shows not just that we need to act now, but that there are real economic dividends to acting early and acting aggressively, particularly for our economy,” White House climate adviser Brian Deese, told reporters on a press call. “The motivation for this is to try to use science to tell people what the future looks like, and what the future looks like both in not taking action and in taking action, so that they can make choices for themselves about whether or not they feel they want to weigh in on what their future looks like,” EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, added.
China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas emitter, accounting for 25 percent of global emissions of heat-trapping gases. If there is any hope of holding global average temperature rise below 2°C, China must ratchet its emissions trajectory downward, the sooner the better. Under a historic agreement reached with the Obama administration last November, China pledged to peak its greenhouse gas emissions “around 2030” and to “make best efforts to peak early.” A paper published in June by the Grantham Research Institute on Climate Change and the Environment at the London School of Economics and Political Science found that China’s greenhouse gas emissions are likely to peak by 2025, and perhaps even earlier. The paper was written by Fergus Green and Lord Nicholas Stern; Stern is the author of the landmark 2006 report “Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.”
“This earlier-than-expected peak is the product of a fundamental structural shift occurring in China’s economy and in central government policy,” Green wrote in a blog post at The Interpreter. “China’s old model of growth – based on enormous investment in heavy industries like steel, cement, and coal-fired power – is no longer sustainable. It is giving way to a ‘new normal’ of lower but better-quality growth, involving a rise in domestic consumption, a reduction in investment, and an industrial pivot toward services and higher-tech manufacturing. This means China’s energy use will grow much more slowly than in the previous decade, as we have begun to see over the last year.… This important shift in China gives the world a fighting chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.”
Curious about climate change? You’re not alone. A new data visualization tool, dubbed “A World of Change,” depicts what people in 20 of the world’s major cities have been Googling about global warming, oceans, and air pollution, among other environmental subjects. Aggregating data from 2004 through 2015, the tool provides information about which cities’ residents have been asking the most questions, and how curiosity has waxed and waned during the past decade.
So what types of questions do people have for Google when it comes to global warming? It depends on who’s asking.
If only Google had a good answer for that last one.
Environmentalists and some local government officials in Florida were outraged when they discovered that a football-field-long stretch of protected mangrove trees was illegally razed to make way for – wait for it – a boat show.
photo Jim Reid, USFWS
Leaders in the city of Key Biscayne have been fighting the National Marine Manufacturers Association, demanding it relocate its planned February 2016 Miami International Boat Show, which will attract some 100,000 people to the Miami Marine Stadium during its five-day run. Opponents of the show were made even angrier when they learned that a contractor working for the city of Miami hacked away the stretch of mangroves, which are a crucial part of the marine ecosystem. In a letter to the US Army Corps of Engineers, local environmental groups said that staging the show in such an environmentally sensitive area could violate federal laws including the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act.
“You’ve got sea grasses, corals, manatees, all sorts of protected birds,” said Mayra Peña Lindsay, the mayor of Key Biscayne and a staunch boat show opponent.
Miami officials, who support the boat show, promised to replant the mangroves, which will take at least five years to grow back. “It was an isolated incident,” Miami Mayor Tomás Regalado said of the tree destruction.
For its part, the boat show organizers tried to play up the outdoor recreation aspects of boating. “Boaters are some of the original conservationists,” a spokeswoman for the National Marine Manufacturers Association told Reuters.
It has the makings of a climate change fairy tale. On May 29, the CEOs of Europe’s largest oil and gas firms – BG Group, BP, Eni, Royal Dutch Shell, Statoil, and Total – sent a letter to Christiana Figueres, the UN’s top climate change official, announcing their support for putting a price on carbon. The CEOs wrote that they “recognize … the importance of the climate challenge” and “acknowledge that the current trend of greenhouse gas emissions is in excess of what the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says is needed to limit the temperature rise to no more than 2 degrees above pre-industrial levels. The challenge is how to meet greater energy demand with less CO2. We stand ready to play our part.”
Before lavishing too much praise on the European oil majors for their come-to-Jesus moment on carbon pricing, it’s worth asking: What’s in it for them? And, what – or, in this case, who – is missing? It turns out that the support for carbon pricing has a lot to do with those companies’ vested interest in gas as fuel. In a speech at the World Gas Conference, in Paris, a day after the joint carbon pricing announcement, Shell CEO Ben van Beurden said: “Gas plants are cheaper to build and quicker to build than coal plants. And gas-fired power becomes even more attractive when you take the costs of tackling climate change and air pollution into account. The quicker the world turns from coal to gas and renewables, the lower these costs will be. In Europe, gas-fired power-plants have been mothballed or decommissioned over the last few years. Why? Well, a large amount of subsidized renewables has entered the energy system. And, from a short-term financial perspective, coal-fired power has been cheaper than gas.”
When burned to generate electricity, natural gas emits half as much carbon dioxide as coal. Gas producers are eager to grab market share from their vulnerable, higher-carbon competitor, and a global price on carbon would be a useful cudgel. Notably absent from the European oil majors’ missive were signatures from US oil giants ExxonMobil and Chevron. The companies were invited to join but declined, an industry source told Reuters. “It’s clear that there is a difference of views on each side of the Atlantic,” Total CEO Patrick Pouyanné said.
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