Talking Points : Winter 2017

News in Brief

photo of smokestacksphoto Kris Krüg / DeSmogBlogWhen atmospheric carbon dioxide levels didn’t drop below 400 ppm in September, the month they are typically at their lowest, scientists warned that they wouldn’t fall below that threshold again in our lifetimes.

Temperature Gauge

Point of No Return

Yet another unhappy milestone crossed. For the first time since before the Ice Age, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere failed to drop below 400 parts per million this summer and scientists are saying they are never going to fall below that threshold again in our lifetimes.

Typically, carbon dioxide levels go up and down each year, reaching their highest concentrations in May. They decrease again in the fall as plants in the northern hemisphere absorb this potent greenhouse gas through photosynthesis during the growing season. The lowest level of CO2 in the atmosphere usually occurs around the last week of September. Carbon levels in the Earth’s atmosphere first crossed the 400 ppm threshold back in May 2013, but didn’t hold steady at that level through the rest of the summer and fall. This year, they did.

According to measurements taken at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s observatories at Mauna Loa and at the South Pole, CO2 levels remained above the 400 ppm level all summer and through September.

“By November, we will be marching up the rising half of the cycle, pushing toward new highs and perhaps even breaking the 410 ppm barrier,” Ralph Keeling, director of the CO2 Program at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, told USA Today. Keeling is the keeper of his father’s famed “Keeling Curve,” the longest continuous record of atmospheric carbon dioxide on Earth.

While the 400 ppm mark is in some ways a symbolic milestone, most climate scientists agree that crossing it poses serious climate ramifications.

Paleoclimate research suggests that the last time CO2 levels were this high, during the mid-Pliocene warm period about three million years ago, sea levels were as much as 65 feet higher than today.

What’s especially troubling about the current scenario is that the rate of CO2 increase is more than 100 times faster than anything observed in the ice core record, which goes back 800,000 years, says Pieter Tans, lead scientist of NOAA’s Global Greenhouse Gas Reference Network. This high rate of increase will continue as long as fossil fuel consumption remains at its current level worldwide.

For most of human evolution, CO2 levels hovered around 278 ppm. They began increasing in the 1850s with the start of large-scale deforestation around the world, and again in the 1950s with a dramatic increase in the burning of fossil fuels. “About 85 percent of all fossil fuel consumption since the start of the industrial revolution took place during my lifetime,” Tans says.

“We’re in new territory for human beings,” says Bill McKibben, whose climate change initiative was named after the 350 ppm threshold considered by many scientists to be the upper limit of safe CO2 levels in the atmosphere. “The only question now is whether the relentless rise in carbon can be matched by a relentless rise in the activism necessary to stop it.”

Call of the Wild

First Flight

photo of a condor flyingphoto Pacific Southwest Region USFWSIn October, a California condor chick born in Pinnacles National Park survived its first flight
from the nest, a feat not accomplished in the park in more than 100 years.

California condors just achieved a milestone: For the first time in more than a century, a chick hatched in the wild in Pinnacles National Park has survived its first flight from the nest.

California condors have travelled a long, hard road. In 1982, their population bottomed-out at just 22 individuals, primarily due to habitat loss, lead poisoning, and hunting. In a bold effort to save the large scavengers, biologists captured all surviving California condors and began a captive breeding program.

The effort has paid off. Offspring from the breeding program have been released back into the wild and populations have slowly grown. As of 2015, there were 435 condors globally, 268 of them in the wild.

Since the reintroduction program began, wild condors have successfully fledged in other parts of the US, including in Central and Southern California and Arizona, as well as in Baja California in Mexico. In Pinnacles, however, no young condor had successfully left the nest since the 1890s – of the six eggs previously laid in the park, some failed to hatch, while other young condors died from predation or injury before taking flight.

“It’s significant,” Steve Kirkland, California condor program coordinator with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, told The Mercury News of the chick’s flight. “Self-sustaining reproduction in the wild is the primary goal.”


Parrots Protected

It’s good to see that sometimes when an alarm is sounded, it spurs action. The United Nations has banned global trade in wild African grey parrots, one of the world’s most popular pet birds, which have virtually vanished from their native habitats in West Africa due to poaching and habitat loss.

The move follows an early 2016 warning by scientists from BirdLife International and Manchester Metropolitan University that revealed that about 90 to 99 percent of the species’ wild population in Ghana had been lost since 1992, and that the same pattern likely held true across its natural habitat in central and western Africa.

Demand for African greys, which are known for their intelligence and ability to mimic human speech, has remained high even though the international trade in wild birds was outlawed in the 1990s. Captive-bred greys can sell for more than $1,400 each on the Internet.

At the UN’s Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species meeting in Johannesburg on October 1, the parrot was placed on the convention’s “Appendix I” list that outlaws all international trade in animals facing possible extinction.

So far, the female youngster, born in April, is staying close the nest and practicing her flying. “Her parents will help her learn how to fly and where to feed and how to interact with the other wild birds out there,” said Rachel Wolstenholme, condor program manager at Pinnacles National Park.

A 2013 law bans the use of lead hunting ammunition in California beginning in 2019, a step that could go a long way toward permanent recovery of the iconic species. In the meantime, conservation groups are handing out lead-free ammunition to California hunters in the hopes that the Pinnacles’ first fledging chick, and others like her, can survive well into adulthood.


Feeding Extinction

The rapid extinction of wildlife across the world is usually blamed on habitat loss, agricultural expansion, environmental destruction, and climate change. Now, researchers are pointing to yet another factor: We are literally eating many of our fellow nonhumans to extinction.

A new study, published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, says some 300 wild mammal species in Asia, Africa, and South America are being driven to extinction by humanity’s voracious appetite for bushmeat.

Bushmeat, or wild animal meat, has long been a food source for many rural communities in these countries. However, in our increasingly globalized world, the demand for bushmeat among urbanized populations around the world has created an unprecedented crisis for many critically endangered species.

The animals at risk range from large – grey ox, Bactrian camels, bearded and warty pigs – to small – golden-capped fruit bat, black-bearded flying fox, and Bulmer’s fruit bat. Hunting endangers more primate species than any other group: 126, including the lowland gorilla, chimpanzee, bonobo, and many species of lemurs and monkeys. The loss of large mammals could lead to long-lasting ecological changes, including overpopulation of prey and higher disease risks, the researchers said. Similarly, the loss of smaller mammals would impact crucial ecological functions like seed dispersal, pollination, and insect control.

The study – the first-ever global assessment of the impact of human hunting and trapping of land mammals – found that overhunting of mammals was concentrated in countries with poorer populations.

photo of a butchered crocodile, flies in attendancephoto Ollivier Girard for Center for International Forestry ResearchCrocodile and antelope meat for sale at the Moutuka Nunene market in Lukolela,
Democratic Republic of Congo. An estimated 300 mammal species are being hunted
to extinction to feed the bushmeat trade.

Trade of bushmeat is largely illegal but can be very profitable for local people who often lack other sources of income. According to the Jane Goodall Institute of Canada, a bushmeat hunter can earn about $300 to $1,000 annually – significantly more than the average household income in regions where it is prevalent. The meat is sold in rural and urban markets and among logging company employees, who can easily export the bushmeat with other extracted forest products. In 2010, for example, a team of scientists found that about five tons of bushmeat was being smuggled weekly in tourist luggage through the Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

The researchers – who based their findings on an analysis of data on the IUCN Red List – noted that “an estimated 89,000 metric tons of meat with a market value of about $200 million are harvested annually in the Brazilian Amazon, and exploitation rates in the Congo basin are estimated to be five times higher.” They warn that if major changes aren’t made to limit human consumption and killing of these animals, many of them could reach the point of extinction.

photo of many sattelite-type dishes covered with mirrorsphoto Brahma Kumaris / india one A solar thermal power plant in Rajasthan, India. Renewables are finally overtaking coal as the biggest source of new power capacity globally.

High Voltage

Renewables Power Up

Last year was a big one for clean energy: For the first time in history, renewables overtook coal as the number one source of new power capacity worldwide.

According to an October report by the International Energy Agency (IEA), a clean-energy membership organization, renewables accounted for more than 50 percent of new power capacity globally in 2015, a 15 percent increase from 2014.

These gains can be attributed primarily to new solar and wind installations. In fact, the report found that globally some 500,000 solar panels are installed every day. In China – which leads the world in renewable energy growth – two wind turbines are completed every hour. Paolo Frankl, renewable-energy division chief at IEA, told Climate Central, “2015 was a record year for renewables,” noting that last year alone 153 gigawatts of new renewable-power generating capacity came online.

The IEA also revised its renewable energy projections upward based on strong policy support for renewables in countries like the United States, China, India, and Mexico, as well as fast-dropping costs for renewables. The agency now expects renewable-electricity generating capacity to grow by 42 percent by 2021, up from its previous projection of 36.5 percent, led by growth in the US and China.

Call of the Wild

Hands Off

Animal-centric tourism abounds these days. The determined tourist can travel to Thailand to pet tigers, to Sri Lanka to ride elephants, and to Mexico to swim with whale sharks. These experiences are astoundingly popular, despite the fact that the animals are often drugged, mistreated, or simply overwhelmed by over-eager tourists and overcrowded attractions.

In October, TripAdvisor – the world’s largest travel website – took a strong stance against these types of “bucket-list” travel experiences, announcing that it will no longer sell tickets to tourist attractions that put people in contact with wild, captive, or endangered animals. The travel giant is also launching an animal welfare education portal.

“TripAdvisor’s new booking policy and education effort is designed as a means to do our part in helping improve the health and safety standards of animals, especially in markets with limited regulatory protections,” TripAdvisor CEO Stephen Kaufer said in a statement.

Animal welfare organizations welcomed the policy change. “We applaud TripAdvisor taking this stance, helping to raise awareness,” Stephanie Shaw, a spokesperson for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, told The Guardian.

But the policy could go further. Though TripAdvisor won’t sell tickets to places that allow human-contact with animals, it will still list them. It will also continue to sell tickets to places like SeaWorld, infamous for keeping orcas and other marine mammals captive.

“We hope it will only be a matter of time before TripAdvisor will also come to realize that it has to end sales to all cruel wildlife attractions, such as SeaWorld,” Steve McIvor, CEO of World Animal Protection, said of the decision. “Until then we will provide the best education we can on TripAdvisor’s website to steer people away from cruel venues like these.”

Around the World

Hold Your Breath

Clean air is exceedingly hard to come by these days. In fact, in 2015, only one in 10 people around the world breathed clean air. Globally, we’re paying a steep price for this. According to a recent World Health Organization report, an estimated one in nine deaths across the world are linked to indoor and outdoor air pollution. In 2012, that meant that more than 6 million deaths were tied to dirty air.

The WHO report assessed particulate pollution in 103 countries and estimated the associated health impacts. The researchers focused on PM2.5, fine particles that are 2.5 micrometers or smaller in diameter. These include nitrates, sulfate, and black carbon, all of which have been linked to heart and lung problems in adults, and to acute lower respiratory infections in children.

They found Asia, Africa, and the Middle East had the poorest air quality. Health outcomes, however, were worst in WHO’s Western Pacific region, which includes China and experienced 1.1 million pollution-linked deaths in 2012, and Southeast Asia, with nearly 800,000 deaths. Globally, 90 percent of pollution-related deaths occurred in middle-income nations, and health outcomes were best in the Americas, Western Pacific, and the Eastern Mediterranean regions. The United States fared pretty well. It had the 12th best pollution rating, and was within the top 25 countries in terms of health.

The health impacts extend to children as well. Another report, this one by UNICEF, estimated that of the millions of deaths linked to air pollution annually, 600,000 are of children.

Here are a few of the best and worst places to live when it comes to air pollution.

1 Ukraine

Ukraine has the highest per-capita pollution-related mortality rate in the world, with 120 deaths for every 100,000 people. The high rate is likely linked to long-term heavy industry in the region. Nine out of the top 10 highest per-capita death rates were in Eastern European and former Soviet countries, including Bulgaria, Belarus, and Bosnia and Herzegovina.

2 Russia

When it comes to total deaths, Russia ranks third, with 140,000 deaths in 2012. Per capita, the country ranks fourth globally, with 98 deaths per 100,000 people.

3 China

China has long had a bad reputation when it comes to air quality, and the WHO report confirmed why. The country is among the top 20 with the highest PM2.5 levels. Unfortunately, it tops the list in terms of total deaths – in 2012 alone, more than 1 million people in China died from polluted air. That’s 76 per every 100,000 people. China recently installed the world’s largest air purifier in Beijing, but it will take more serious measures to truly curb high particulate pollution levels throughout the country.

4 India

India was second only to China in total pollution-related deaths – more than 600,000 people died due to dirty air in 2012. It ranked tenth when it came to median PM2.5 levels, surpassing China on this count. In November, residents of the capital city of New Delhi struggled with air so toxic that the Indian government declared an emergency situation and local schools were closed for several days.

5 Sweden

At just 0.4 victims for every 100,000 people, Sweden has one of the lowest pollution-related death rates in the world. In fact, the only countries with better health grades were several island-states in the Pacific.

6 Fiji

Hands down, the South Pacific is the best place to be when it comes to air pollution. Fiji, Brunei, Darussalam, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Vanuatu, and New Zealand all have per capita death rates between 0 and 1 per 100,000 people.

Table Talk

Follow the Money

If we listen to Big Ag companies, we are led to believe that the grain we grow and the cows we raise in the United States play a crucial humanitarian role throughout the world. Sure, industrial scale agriculture may carry a toll for the environment and human rights, but it also helps us fulfill our obligation to poor and hungry communities struggling across the globe, the argument goes. Industrial agriculture is something of a moral imperative, right?

No Comment

American Equality

On October 28, a federal jury found all seven defendants involved in last winter’s six-week armed occupation of Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge not guilty of conspiring to impede federal workers from doing their job at the refuge by force, threat, or intimidation.

During the 41-day occupation of the isolated bird sanctuary in rural eastern Oregon – which ended on January 26, 2015 – the militia had with them more than 30 guns and at least 17,000 rounds of live ammunition. (The FBI found 1,700 spent casings at the refuge.) The occupiers, led by ranchers Ammon and Ryan Bundy, had vowed that if the government were to try to remove them from the refuge it would risk a “conflagration so great, it cannot be stopped, leading to a bloody, brutal civil war.”

On the same day the Bundy militia was acquitted, law enforcement officers, dressed in riot gear and firing bean bag rounds, arrested nearly 150 unarmed, mostly indigenous oil pipeline protesters out by the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota.

Wrong. Sustainable food system advocates have long challenged this line of thought, arguing that Big Ag does little to ease the suffering of the hungry, and that the malnourished are better served by efforts to improve the productivity of small farmers the world over. A new Environmental Working Group (EWG) report now adds more evidence to their claims.

Published in October, the EWG report found that very little US-grown food reaches the people who need it the most. In fact, 86 percent of the value of all American food exports goes to countries where the majority of people are well fed, including Canada – the number one recipient of US food exports, China, Mexico, and the EU. Less than 1 percent goes to the 19 most food-insecure countries, nations like Haiti, Swaziland, Liberia, and Yemen.

What is more, over half of all agricultural exports to the top 20 destination countries are composed of meat, dairy products, and animal feed. As the EWG report puts it, these exports “chiefly meet the demand for more meat and more diverse diets from already affluent countries, or those with growing personal wealth.”

In other words, US food exports follow the money and end up in places where people can afford them.


A Seat at the Conservation Table

September was a big month for indigenous peoples’ rights. Long-excluded from the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) highest decision-making body, Indigenous peoples’ organizations were finally welcomed into the fold with the creation of a new category of membership for the IUCN’s Members’ Assembly. Membership in the IUCN – which encourages nations around the world to conserve the diversity and integrity of nature – is composed primarily of government agencies and nongovernmental organizations.

photo of 2 menphoto Toby McLeodMolu Kulu Galgallo (right), a spiritual elder of the Gabbra people of Kenya, and his
interpreter Ali Gufu Ibrai in Hawai’i for the 2016 World Conservation Conference where
indigenous groups were finally welcomed to the IUCN’s Members’ Assembly.

The decision to include indigenous peoples’ groups, made at the World Conservation Congress in Hawaiʻi, marks the first time a new membership category has been created in the IUCN’s history. It was praised by indigenous leaders, who have long argued the need for an indigenous perspective within the broader conservation movement.

Inger Andersen, IUCN Director General, underscored the significance of the decision. “Indigenous peoples are key stewards of the world’s biodiversity,” he said in a statement. “By giving them this crucial opportunity to be heard on the international stage, we have made our Union stronger, more inclusive and more democratic.”

Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, UN Special Rapporteur on Indigenous Rights, called attention to the importance of indigenous peoples’ lands in a statement released at the start of the Congress: “Conservation organizations often fail to take into account why the forests are still standing. Often it is the indigenous people who have lived there since time immemorial who protected and preserved these lands. Indigenous people and local communities are the best proven stewards of their traditional lands and resources, and respecting their rights is critical amid the climate crisis.”

The IUCN also passed a motion highlighting the importance of sacred natural sites long-conserved by indigenous communities. Specifically, Motion 26 “calls on the business community to respect all categories of protected areas, including sacred lands of Indigenous peoples, as ‘no-go’ areas for environmentally damaging industrial activities and infrastructure development, to withdraw from those activities in these areas, and not to conduct future activities in protected areas.”

That wasn’t all. Indigenous groups celebrated yet another victory with the IUCN’s passage of Motion 48, which focuses on conservation of primary forests. The motion encourages governments, private companies, and international organizations not only to conserve forestland, but also to “meaningfully engage and support indigenous peoples and local communities in their efforts to conserve primary forests.”

This long-overdue recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights and the role indigenous communities often play in conserving our natural heritage could not have come soon enough. Globally, undeveloped lands are under siege from industry, and research increasingly shows the disproportionate level of physical and cultural violence faced by indigenous communities protecting their land. By giving indigenous peoples a seat at the table, the IUCN is one step closer to helping us all protect what is left of our natural heritage.

Up In the Air

Much More Methane

Here’s one for the worse-than-you-thought news category. New research shows that fossil fuel production results in far more methane emissions than previously estimated.

photo K. HambrightFossil fuel production results in 20 to 60 percent more methane emissions than previous estimated, according to new research. The research also found that flatulent cows and rotting landfills are to blame for the ongoing methane spike first detected in 2007.

Researchers, pulling together the biggest database yet of worldwide methane emissions, have found that after natural sources were discounted, emissions of this potent greenhouse gas from fossil fuel production were 20 to 60 percent greater than existing estimates. Their finding, which was published in the journal Nature in October, could complicate calculations about the speed of climate change and the best ways to address it.

The two-year study by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado also found that biological sources – including flatulent cows and rotting landfills – are to blame for the ongoing, massive methane spike first detected by NOAA in 2007.

However, as scientists and policymakers scramble to understand the implications of this new research, it might help to focus on two bits of positive news buried within this finding.

First, the researchers also found that methane emissions from the fossil fuel industry are not growing. Instead, they have remained relatively constant over the past three decades despite dramatic growth in natural gas production. Stefan Schwietzke, a scientist at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the study, says that this might be due to efforts by natural gas producers to improve practices and limit waste. “There has been anecdotal evidence for a while that the oil and gas industry improved their efficiency. Our data confirms this anecdotal evidence on a global scale,” Schwietzke told The Guardian.

Second, though methane plays a significant role in global warming – its effect on climate change is 25 times greater than carbon dioxide – it disappears from the atmosphere much more quickly. Which means acting to curb methane emissions now could have a big payoff.

Table Talk

Unsavory Alliance

The courtship had been going on for a while, but when Monsanto and Bayer finally announced their $66 billion merger in September, it still sent shudders through the food and farming community.

The merger, which is subject to regulatory approval in Germany and the United States, would create one of the largest agrichemical companies in the world and has sparked fears of further corporate takeover of global food systems.

The two companies are already among the biggest agrichemical corporations in the world, with US-based Monsanto accounting for 26 percent of the global seeds market and the Germany-based Bayer providing roughly 17 percent of the world’s pesticides. Together, the companies are expected to control 29 percent of the world’s seeds and 24 percent of the world’s pesticides.

The announcement came amid several high-profile mergers in the industry, including the still-to-be-approved $130 billion merger between Dow Chemical and DuPont, as well as ChemChina’s acquisition of Syngenta, a Swiss firm. (Incidentally, Monsanto had tried to buy Syngenta last year, but was rebuffed.) If all three mergers are okayed by regulators, Mother Jones reports, the three conglomerates – Bayer-Monsanto, ChemChina-Syngenta and Dow-Dupont – will control 59 percent of the world’s patented seeds and 64 percent of all pesticides.

Should the Bayer-Monsanto merger go through, it would not only eliminate competition for certain seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides, but also allow two of the most powerful corporations in their fields to develop seeds and genetically engineered traits that work only with chemicals they manufacture. They could thereby further tighten their stranglehold on conventional farmers by creating expensive, package-like products.

“Without question, this deal, which strengthens the ties between Big Pharma, Big Food and Big Biotech, will hurt farmers and consumers – not to mention an ecosystem already on the brink,” Katherine Paul, associate director of the Organic Consumers Association, wrote in a web post after the merger was announced.

Predictably, both corporations touted the merger as a move that would help increase innovation and efficiency, improve “the lives of growers and people” and help “feed the world.”

But not too many are buying that spin. Even Nasdaq published a report on the merger that highlighted numbers collated by showing that Monsanto and Bayer are two of the biggest spenders among agrichemical corporations when it comes to lobbying. The two companies together have spent about $120 million on lobbying in the last decade. Both forked over millions to prevent labelling of foods that contain genetically modified organisms.

Given the sheer size of this merger, it’s certain to receive intense scrutiny by domestic and international regulators. Several congressional hearings and investigations are already in the offing. Industry watchers say that’s really when lobbying efforts will begin to pay off.

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