Talking Points : Spring 2017

News in Brief


Setback at Standing Rock

photo of a snowy camp in twilight, colorful flags and teepees evidentphoto Dark Sevier/FlickrActivists are flocking back to the camps by the Cannonball River after Trump’s memorandum telling the Army Corps to speed up the Dakota Access pipeline approval process.


Ireland Leads the Way

Ireland recently took a big stride forward on climate action. In January, the Irish parliament passed a bill that would completely divest the country from fossil fuels. If signed into law, as is expected, the bill would make Ireland the first nation to withdraw all public money from fossil fuel companies. The divestment effort would be implemented over five years.

Divestment advocates applauded the vote.

“With a climate skeptic recently inaugurated into the White House, this move by elected representatives in Ireland will send out a powerful message,” Éamonn Meehan, executive director of Trócaire, a Catholic charity that led the divestment campaign, said in a statement. “The Irish political system is now finally acknowledging what the overwhelming majority of people already know: That to have a fighting chance to combat catastrophic climate change we must phase out fossil fuels and stop the growth of the industry that is driving this crisis.”

The struggle against the controversial Dakota Access oil pipeline received a major setback on January 24 when President Trump signed an executive memorandum paving the way for the 1,172-mile pipeline to move forward. Trump’s directive asked the US Army Corps of Engineers to move quickly with the environmental review of the pipeline, which is supposed to deliver fracked oil from North Dakota’s Bakken shale to markets in the US Midwest and Gulf Coast. (Trump signed another memorandum reviving the Keystone XL pipeline project that had been cancelled by Obama in 2015.)

Two weeks later, on February 7, the Army Corps announced that it would go ahead and issue a critical easement that would allow the pipeline to be built underneath Lake Oahe, the primary source of drinking water for the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe. The Army Corps had declined to issue this easement last December, saying that the project needed further environmental review. Now it seems the agency is ready to scrap the ongoing environmental review process.

The Standing Rock Sioux, who have been opposing the project along with Native and non-Native allies and environmental groups, say that they are “undaunted” in their commitment to fight the pipeline in court. “We are a sovereign nation and we will fight to protect our water and sacred places from the brazen private interests trying to push this pipeline through to benefit a few wealthy Americans with financial ties to the Trump administration,” Dave Archambault II, chairman of the tribe, said in a statement, after the Army Corps announcement. Jan Hasselman, an attorney with Earthjustice, the nonprofit group representing the tribe, said that the easement could not be legally granted without further review and consideration of alternative crossing locations.

Since Trump signed the executive memo, solidarity protests and actions against the pipeline have again gathered steam. In early February, the cities of Seattle, WA and Davis, CA voted to pull more than $3.1 billion in investments from Wells Fargo Bank, which is a major funder of the pipeline.

Meanwhile, many Native Americans and activists who had left opposition campsites near the Standing Rock reservation in December are making their way back – a move that has escalated tensions between water protectors and law enforcement.

High Voltage

Winds of Change

The United States reached a new renewable energy milestone in December with the powering-on of the nation’s first offshore wind farm. The new operation, developed by energy company Deepwater Wind, will power homes on Block Island, a small vacation destination off the coast of Rhode Island. Prior to the wind farm’s opening, all wind power in the US had been generated by land-based turbines.

photo of wind turbinesphoto National Renewable Energy LabThe Block Island Wind Farm in Rhode Island, the first offshore wind farm in the United States, could mark a turning point for offshore wind energy in the country.

The Block Island Wind Farm is small: It consists of five turbines that can provide electricity to some 17,000 homes. Still, the turbines will meet roughly 90 percent of the island’s electricity needs, and some additional power will be fed back to the grid, a Deepwater Wind spokesperson told The New York Times. The operation is estimated to provide 1 percent of Rhode Island’s electricity, and reduce carbon dioxide emissions by approximately 40,000 tons per year.

“This is a historic milestone for reducing our nation’s dependence on fossil fuels, and I couldn’t be more thrilled that it’s happening here in the Ocean State,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in a statement.

The US is home to some 50,000 land-based wind turbines. But despite the promise of strong and steady ocean winds, offshore farms have been slow to take off. They are more expensive to construct than their land-based counterparts. Regulation of the seafloor is also complicated, and projects often face opposition by those who want unobstructed ocean views.

By comparison, Europe is home to thousands of offshore turbines.

Advocates hope the Block Island project will mark a turning point in the United States. Indeed, other states are currently looking into offshore wind operations, and studies by the Department of Energy suggest that thousands of offshore turbines could someday dot the US coast.

China Cuts Back on Coal

While President Donald Trump is on a mission to revive the USA’s long-suffering coal industry – realities of marketplace economics be damned – over in China the country’s National Energy Administration has suspended 103 coal power projects that were planned or already under construction.

Before you go cheering on the Chinese for their green move, a clarification: The move isn’t related to environmental concerns or the country’s much-publicized pollution problems. The projects were cancelled because China is grappling with a coal overcapacity crisis.

The country’s five-year-plan for its power sector calls for an increase in coal-fired power capacity from 920 gigawatts to 1,100 GW by 2020. But if all 103 planned plants were to be completed, China’s capacity would go up to 1,250 GW during the same period, creating a huge, unnecessary surplus of coal power.

While it’s clear that China is not actually abandoning coal, environmental groups are still welcoming the decision to shut down so much planned capacity for one of the dirtiest fossil fuels. “Stopping under-construction projects seems wasteful and costly, but spending money and resources to finish these completely unneeded plants would be even more wasteful,” Greenpeace told Reuters.

Besides, the country does continue to be the world’s biggest investor in renewable energy. In 2015, it accounted for nearly 40 percent of global renewable capacity increases, building some 20,000 new wind turbines in that year alone. As Greenpeace researcher Lauri Myllyvirta told The New York Times: “The key thing is that yes, China has a long way to go, but in the past few years China has come a very long way.”

Powering Down

The aging Indian Point nuclear power plant just north of New York City will close within four years under a deal agreed upon by Governor Andrew Cuomo and Entergy, the Louisiana-based utility company that runs the plant.

The agreement, announced in early January, brings to an end the 15-year campaign to close the plant down. New York State and Riverkeeper, an environmental group that has fought Indian Point, have agreed to drop safety and environmental claims against the aging nuclear plant, which came online in the 1970s. Cuomo has long argued that the plant, which he called “a ticking time bomb,” should be shuttered to protect the millions of people living nearby.

More than 17 million people live within 50 miles of the Westchester County facility, which sits alongside the lower Hudson River about 30 miles north of New York City, the nation’s most populous metropolis.

Under the agreement, the plant will shut down its two nuclear reactors, Unit 2 and Unit 3, in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Entergy has also agreed to make repairs and safety upgrades, as well as allow inspections of the plant starting this year. Company officials said the price of fighting lawsuits, recent court decisions, and low energy prices had made keeping the plant online untenable for the long term.

The shuttering of Indian Point is part of a nationwide trend to close aging nuclear power plants that have come under increasing scrutiny because of the safety risks they pose. California reached a similar agreement last year with the state’s largest utility provider, Pacific Gas and Electric, to close the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is located about halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco.

However, these closures don’t necessarily portend the end of nuclear power in the United States. As The Christian Science Monitor notes, New York has, at the same time, authorized up to $7.6 billion in ratepayer-financed subsidies to keep three other aging nuclear plants operating upstate. And over in Tennessee, the nation’s first nuclear facility to come online in 20 years, Watts Bar Unit 2, started to supply power to southern Tennessee homes last October. New reactors are also being built in the neighboring states of Georgia and South Carolina.

The Great Outdoors

Vertically Challenged?

photo of a mountain rangephoto Chris Brown

Does Mount Everest not stand quite as tall anymore? Apparently there are some theories going around that the world’s tallest peak might have shrunk a bit during the devastating earthquake that hit Nepal in 2015.

Satellite readings have suggested the impact of the 7.8 magnitude earthquake, which killed thousands of people and reshaped the landscape of the Himalayan state, may have reduced Everest’s height – officially recorded by India and Nepal as 8,848 meters (29,029 feet) – by somewhere between a few millimeters and an inch.

Since there’s some doubt within the scientific community about whether this is indeed true, India has decided to send a team to find out. The country’s surveyor-general, Swarna Subba Rao, has said that the expedition, which would include about 30 scientists and surveyors, will be conducted jointly with the Nepalese government.

“We’re preparing our people, acclimatizing them, training them in mountaineering,” he told The Guardian, adding that the expedition would take place when weather conditions were right and staff were ready.

The precise height of Mount Everest has been the subject of controversy, including over whether the figure should include the peak’s snow cap or just the rock underneath. The new, updated height would be used to assist in scientific studies and to determine the position of the underlying tectonic plates, Subba Rao added.

Call of the Wild

Vaquitas on the Brink

photo of a small porpoise on the transom of a boatphoto Christian Faesi © Omar VidalAccording to a recent acoustic study, vaquita numbers decreased by nearly half to just 30 individuals between 2015 and 2016.

In February, the conservation community got some sad news: Scientists announced that only 30 vaquitas – small porpoises endemic to the northern part of the Gulf of California – remain in the wild. The finding, published in a report by the International Committee for the Recovery of the Vaquita (CIRVA), indicates that vaquita numbers declined by almost half between 2015 and 2016.

The main cause of death of these small marine mammals is entanglement in gillnets used to fish for totoaba, an endangered fish species that also lives only in the Gulf. Demand for totoaba bladders, which in parts of Asia are believed to have medicinal properties, increased sharply around 2011. Since then, vaquita numbers have fallen by 90 percent.

“This shocking new report shows that vaquitas are on the verge of vanishing forever,” Sarah Uhlemann, international program director for the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “We will lose this wonderful little porpoise from our planet – and soon – unless Mexico finally gets serious about banning gillnets and actually enforces the law.”

Mexico did temporarily ban gillnets in the northern Gulf in 2015. But CIRVA found that, despite the ban, which is set to expire in April, there has been continued use of gillnets. “There is a critical need for more effective enforcement of existing fisheries regulations,” they wrote in the report.

The scientists used acoustic monitoring to estimate numbers for the notoriously shy species, placing monitors throughout the vaquita range to detect the clicking noises the mammals make when hunting. The number of clicks per day dropped 44 percent between 2015 and 2016.

CIRVA has recommended a controversial program to capture and enclose some of the vaquitas with the hope that they will breed in captivity, though the group admits that “it is unclear whether vaquitas can be captured safely.”

The plight of vaquita and the totoaba underscores the importance of instituting a permanent gillnet ban in the Gulf.

Around the World

Going Clean

Renewable energy has made big strides over the past few years as municipalities and countries alike have made pledges to go green, and to do so relatively quickly.

In the US, for example, a handful of cities are already generating all of their power from renewable sources, including Burlington, Vermont; Aspen, Colorado; and Greensburg, Kansas. Others, like San Francisco and New York, have announced ambitious plans to follow suit.

Countries, too, are committing to the transition, and are expanding their use of solar and wind power, though the energy mix often does include more controversial renewable sources like biomass, big hydropower, and nuclear energy. In fact, at the 2016 Marrakech Climate Conference, 47 countries particularly vulnerable to climate change pledged to move entirely to renewables by 2030 to 2050 at the latest. Here are just a few of the nations that have made ambitious energy transition commitments so far, or that have already made big strides when it comes to going clean and green.

graphic map of the world

1 China

China isn’t exactly known for its clear skies and clean water. As of late, however, the country has emerged as a potential climate change leader, particularly when it comes to clean energy. In January, the National Energy Administration announced plans to create 13 million clean energy jobs and invest $361 billion in renewable energy by the end of the decade. There is still work to be done though. Even given these commitments, clean energy is expected to provide only 15 percent of China’s power by 2020, while coal will account for more than half of the country’s energy consumption.

2 Germany

In 2011, following the Fukushima disaster in Japan, Germany announced that it would phase out its nuclear energy program by 2022. The country has made great strides in its renewable energy program, producing so much wind energy that at one point last year the state asked renewable energy companies to power-off some of their turbines – they were producing too much energy for the power grid. The country also has more solar capacity than any other European nation. Germany already gets almost a third of its electricity from renewable sources, and aims to produce 50 percent of its electricity from renewables by 2030.

3 Uruguay

Uruguay has become a world leader on renewables. Renewables make up 55 percent of the South American nation’s overall energy mix, including transport fuels, and approximately 95 percent of its electricity comes from renewable sources. Though much of Uruguay’s energy generation comes from hydropower, which can carry negative environmental and social impacts of its own, the country has not expanded its hydropower system for more than two decades. Renewables growth has come instead from wind and solar, as well as more controversial biomass plants.

4 Sweden

Sweden hopes to be among the first fossil fuel-free nations, and has committed to getting 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2040. The Nordic nation currently gets about 52 percent of its energy from renewables. While increasing clean energy output, Sweden also plans to reduce reliance on nuclear energy. The country is increasing support instead for solar and wind energy, as well as improved energy storage and smart grids.

5 Nicaragua

In Central America, Costa Rica gets most of the accolades when it comes to renewable energy – 98 percent of the nation’s energy came from renewable sources in 2016. Less attention is given to its northern neighbor, Nicaragua, which has pledged to generate 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2027. As of 2015, nearly 50 percent of Nicaragua’s domestically generated energy already came from solar, small hydro, wind, geothermal, and biomass.

6 Morocco

Host to last year’s COP22 talks, Morocco is leading the way on green energy in Africa. In 2016, the country achieved 35 percent renewable energy production and it’s now well on its way to its 43-percent-by-2020 goal. Morocco has also joined other vulnerable nations in a pledge “to meet 100 percent domestic renewable energy production as rapidly as possible.”


Hope for Elephants

In a move that attracted widespread praise, China ended 2016 with an announcement that it would ban its domestic ivory trade by the end of 2017. The country is the world’s largest market for ivory, and conservationists say the move could be a game-changer for African elephants targeted by poachers.

According to state-run news agency Xinhua, the ban will be rolled out over the next 12 months. Specifically, all commercial processing and sale of ivory will be banned by the end of March, and all trade will be banned by the end of the year. The fully implemented ban will require the closure of the country’s 34 ivory-processing facilities and 143 designated trading venues. The government will also beef up law enforcement efforts and implement a public education campaign to raise awareness about the importance of protecting elephants and other wildlife. Some reports indicate that China will also help to retrain traditional ivory carvers in alternative crafts., another state-run website, called the decision a “monumental win for elephants.”

International environmental groups agreed. “This is great news that will shut down the world’s largest market for elephant ivory,” Aili Kang, executive director of Wildlife Conservation Society Asia, said in a statement. “[It] will help ensure that elephants have a fighting chance to beat extinction.”

The international ivory trade was banned in 1989 under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, but many countries, including China, have continued to allow trade in ivory purchased before the ban. Most big green groups argue that the legal trade serves as a cover for the illegal market in new ivory, which is fed by poachers.

Indeed, African elephant populations have been decimated in recent years, primarily due to poaching. A 2016 survey by the Great Elephant Census estimated that 144,000 African savanna elephants were killed for their ivory between 2007 and 2014, roughly 30 percent of the population. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that just 415,000 elephants remain in the wild, down from as many as 3 to 5 million in the early twentieth century.

The Chinese government announced in 2015 that it would end its domestic ivory trade, but hadn’t provided a timeline for the phase out. The United States, which is among the world’s largest ivory markets, announced a near-total ban on its domestic trade in June 2016.

Here’s to hoping that 2017 will be a turning point in the battle to save one of the world’s most iconic

Call of the Wild

Protection for Bees

In January, the humble rusty patched bumble bee became the first bee in the continental United States to receive federal protection.

photo closeup of a bee on a flowerphoto Dan MullenThe rusty patched bumblebee is the first bee in the continental US to receive protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Bombus affinis’s inclusion in the country’s endangered species list means the US Fish and Wildlife Service has to develop and implement a recovery plan for this fuzzy pollinator.

The rusty patched bumble bee is not only an important pollinator of prairie wildflowers, but also of cranberries, blueberries, apples, alfalfa, and numerous other crops.

Once common from Minnesota to Maine and south through the Appalachian Mountains, the species has been lost from 87 percent of its historic range since the late 1990s – a decline that’s largely been attributed to pathogens, increased use of pesticides, and habitat loss. Since 2000, it has been found in only 13 states and Ontario, Canada.

“Addressing the threats that the rusty patched bumble bee faces will help not only this species, but countless other native pollinators that are so critical to the functioning of natural ecosystems and agriculture,” Rich Hatfield, senior conservation biologist at the Xerces Society, said in a statement after the listing was announced. The Society had petitioned the USFWS to declare the species endangered.

No Comment

Green Threat

“The environmental movement is, in my view, the greatest threat to freedom and prosperity in the modern world.”

Myron Ebell, director of global warming and international environmental policy at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, at an event in London hosted by the Global Warming Policy Foundation, a climate-sceptic think tank.

The rusty patched bumble bee is already listed as “endangered” under Canada’s Species at Risk Act and as “critically endangered” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List.

Last October, the Fish and Wildlife Service added seven species of yellow-faced bees native to Hawaiʻi to the endangered species list, making them the first bee species in the US to receive this kind of protection.

However, since President Trump has placed a freeze on all new regulations introduced during the Obama era that hadn’t yet taken effect, some conservation groups are still worried about the fate of the bee. But The Guardian reports that the USFWS is still developing a recovery plan and doesn’t expect the delay to cause the bee to go extinct.


Dora Explores the Philippines?

In January, the children’s television network Nickelodeon announced controversial plans for its popular Dora the Explorer character: Along with other cartoon TV characters like SpongeBob SquarePants, Dora was headed for a proposed 1,000-acre underwater theme park on the Philippines’ Palawan Island, complete with underwater restaurants, lounges, and “vivid views of the world beneath the ocean.”

Fortunately for Palawan’s underwater ecosystem, Gina Lopez, secretary of the Philippines’ Department of Environment and Natural Resources, was quick to speak out against the project. “If the underwater theme park would cause the destruction of corals, right away, I will say no way,” Lopez said in statement. “I will never allow our biodiversity to be killed for money that some people want to make.”

Palawan is one of the country’s most pristine islands. Often referred to as the Philippines’ “last ecological frontier,” it is home to a protected coral reef system, two UNESCO World Heritage sites, and a subterranean river. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition, launched by environmental groups, to stop the development.

Though the initial project announcement was more than clear that the project would be the “world’s first undersea attraction,” the developer has since downplayed the underwater components. The company has yet to secure the necessary government approvals for the project, and Lopez maintains that “whatever decision that the DENR will make shall be … anchored on social justice, which means that the marine resources of Palawan should benefit the greater majority.”


Good Old Mom

photo of an albatross with a chick, the adult bird has an identity bandphoto Kiah Walker/USFWS VolunteerSixty-six-year-old Wisdom, pictured above with the chick she hatched in early 2016, is expected to become a mom again this year.

At about 66 years old, Wisdom – the world’s oldest-known, banded, wild seabird – is ready to be a mom again. She was sighted on December 3, 2016 incubating an egg at the Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to 70 percent of the world’s Laysan albatross and the largest colony of multiple albatross species on Earth. The new chick was expected in February, but there was no report of whether it had hatched when the Journal went to press.

Wisdom returns to the refuge each year to nest and raise her chicks, and has nurtured between 30 and 35 babies since being banded in 1956 at an estimated age of 5. Laysan albatrosses mate for life, but because of Wisdom’s seemingly unusual longevity, she’s had several different mates. Her current mate, Akeakamai, like all albatross partners, takes turns incubating the egg while she forages for food at sea, most likely within the newly expanded Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Call of the Wild

Seeing Double

It appears that we haven’t been telling our feathered friends apart too well. New research suggests that there are about 18,000 bird species in the world – nearly twice as many as previously thought.

The research, led by the American Museum of Natural History and published in the online journal plos one, focuses on “hidden” avian diversity – birds that look similar to one another, or were thought to interbreed, but are actually different species.

“We are proposing a major change to how we count diversity,” Joel Cracraft, an author of the study and a curator in the American Museum of Natural History’s Department of Ornithology, said in a statement. “This new number says that we haven’t been counting and conserving species in the ways we want.”

Birds are traditionally thought of as a well-studied group, with more than 95 percent of their global species diversity estimated to have been described. Most checklists used by bird watchers, as well as by scientists, say that there are roughly between 9,000 and 10,000 species of birds. But those numbers are based on what’s known as the “biological species concept,” which defines species in terms of which animals can breed together. “It’s really an outdated point of view, and it’s a concept that is hardly used in taxonomy outside of birds,” said the study’s lead author George Barrowclough, an associate curator in the museum’s ornithology department.

For the new work, the researchers examined a random sample of 200 bird species through the lens of morphology – the study of the physical characteristics like plumage pattern and color, which can be used to highlight birds with separate evolutionary histories. This method turned up, on average, nearly two different species for each of the 200 bird species studied. They also conducted a second analysis of intraspecific genetic-data variations from 437 traditional avian species and found an average of 2.4 evolutionary divergences per species. These findings, they say, suggest that bird biodiversity is severely underestimated, and is likely closer to 18,000 species worldwide.

The authors argue that future taxonomy efforts in ornithology should be based on both methods. “It was not our intent to propose new names for each of the more than 600 new species we identified in the research sample,” Cracraft said. “However, our study provides a glimpse of what a future taxonomy should encompass.”

Increasing the number of species has implications for preserving biodiversity and other conservation efforts. “We have decided societally that the target for conservation is the species,” said Robert Zink, a co-author of the study and a biologist at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. “So it follows then that we really need to be clear about what a species is, how many there are, and where they’re found.”

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