Talking Points : Winter 2015

Energy Matters

Nuclear Waste – It’s what’s for dinner!

For as long as we’ve been producing nuclear waste, we’ve been wondering what to do with it. Now, researchers from the University of Manchester believe they may have found the answer: hazardous-waste-eating bacteria that can survive in highly toxic conditions.

In a recent study, published in the Multidisciplinary Journal of Microbial Ecology, the UK-based research team explains that they discovered bacteria living underground at a severely contaminated industrial site in England. The site is not radioactive, but the soil is extremely alkaline, much like the soil at nuclear waste sites. Although waste-eating bacteria have been discovered previously in more pristine conditions, this is the first time they have been discovered in toxic soil.

The researchers are particularly excited about the discovery because the bacteria like to eat isosaccharinic acid (ISA), which is often produced when groundwater reacts with concrete-encased nuclear waste. ISA, in turn, can react with toxic radioactive isotopes, making them more soluble. And soluble radioactive waste is a bad thing. Remove (or eat) the ISA, and the whole nuclear waste situation becomes more stable.

Next step? Researchers plan to study how the bacteria can survive in such toxic soils, and what impact they can have on radioactive materials.

According to one recent survey, 39 percent of people living a half-mile from a gas well reported having upper-respiratory problems.

Sore Throat? Blame Fracking

The evidence against fracking continues to mount. A new study has found that people living close to natural gas wells are more than twice as likely to have health problems than those living farther away.

photo of a flare at a fracking operationphoto Sarah Craig/Faces of Fracking

The study was conducted in Washington County, Pennsylvania, which has 600-plus natural gas wells. Researchers went door-to-door to survey 492 residents for the study, and the results were startling. Thirty-nine percent of people living less than 0.6 miles away from a well reported having upper-respiratory problems like coughing, itchy eyes, and nosebleeds; in comparison, 18 percent of people living more than 1.2 miles from a well experienced such symptoms. And more than four times as many people living within 0.6 miles of a well reported having skin rashes compared to those living more than 1.2 miles from a well (13 percent and 3 percent respectively).

Researchers were quick to caution that the peer-reviewed study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives, does not prove that fracking is the culprit. “It’s more of an association that a causation,” Dr. Peter Rabinowitz, a former Yale School of Medicine researcher who now teaches at the University of Washington School of Health, told the New Haven Register. “We want to make sure people know it’s a preliminary study.… To me it strongly indicates the need to further investigate the situation and not ignore it.”

Call of the Wild

And Then There Were None …

A new report from the World Wildlife Fund warns that human activities – mostly habitat destruction due to our relentless resource demands – have killed more than half of the wildlife on the planet since 1970.

Number Crunching

What’s in a Name?

The Millennial Generation – roughly defined as those who are between the ages of 18 and 33 today – is among the most obsessively watched demographic cohorts in US history (which probably makes sense for the children of the famously self-absorbed Baby Boomers). There are reams of studies and public opinion polls gauging what Millennials like and dislike, how they act, how they vote, where they’re headed. Add to the mix this provocative finding: While Millennials rank relatively high on surveys asking about opinions on the environment, they are loath to call themselves “environmentalists.”

In general, Millennials are a rather green group – not surprising given that they were raised on reports of a fizzling ozone layer and an overheated planet. Millennials overwhelmingly believe in global warming; 75 percent of them say humans are responsible for the warming of the planet, according to a poll from the Clinton Global Initiative. They want something done about the climate crisis; a survey from earlier this year, conducted on behalf of the Youth Engagement Fund and the Project for a New America, found that 76 percent of Millennials said the government should be doing more to “protect the environment from pollution.” They’re even willing to pay for it; that same Clinton Global Initiative poll found that more than two-thirds of Millennials said they are willing to pay more for products from “sustainability-focused companies.”

Just don’t call them “environmentalists.” A Pew Research Center poll has found that just 32 percent of Millennials would describe themselves that way – lower than any other cohort, including their grandparents, many of whom don’t believe in manmade climate change.

What gives? According to the Pew results, Millennials are “detached from institutions, networked with friends.” They are more distrustful of people than other generations and “unattached to organized politics.” In short, they might want to save the planet but they’re not going to join a group to do so.

The findings represent a significant challenge to environmental organizations, which have built their power around creating large membership lists. A new label isn’t going to help – not if the goal is to enlist a label-averse generation. So somehow, someway, green groups (as well as most other progressive organizations) will have to convince Millennials to take political action and to feel they’re doing it all on their own or with a close group of friends – just as a good, twenty-first-century “social entrepreneur” would.

In the 40 years between 1970 and 2010, the populations of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, and fish fell by 52 percent, the WWF said in its “2014 Living Planet Report.” The decline in wildlife numbers was much sharper than previously reported. A similar WWF report from two years ago put the decline at 28 percent.

“There is a lot of data in this report and it can seem very overwhelming and complex,” Jon Hoekstra, chief scientist at WWF, said in a statement releasing the findings. “What’s not complicated are the clear trends we’re seeing – 39 percent of terrestrial wildlife gone, 39 percent of marine wildlife gone, 76 percent of freshwater wildlife gone – all in the past 40 years.”

The greatest losses occurred in tropical regions, mostly South America. And while biodiversity has slightly increased in wealthier countries, it is plummeting in poor countries, with low-income nations seeing their wildlife populations decrease by an average of 58 percent. As the WWF noted, this is because the wealthy countries have essentially outsourced their environmental destruction to poor nations. “High-income countries use five times the ecological resources of low-income countries, but low-income countries are suffering the greatest ecosystem losses,” said Keya Chatterjee, WWF’s senior director of renewable energy and footprint outreach.

The drivers of this massive wildlife decline are not surprising. Deforestation, overfishing, a dramatic loss of habitat due mostly to the expansion of agriculture, and rising temperatures linked to global climate change are contributing to wildlife loss. At the same time, excess concentrations of reactive nitrogen from farming operations are degrading rivers, lakes, and oceans. “More than 60 percent of the essential ‘services’ provided by nature, from our forests to our seas, are in decline,” the report said.

This grim news received a solid dose of media coverage, and for several days the Internet was full of headlines about the WWF report. Depressing, to be sure, but at least the public got the message.

Unfortunately, some of the coverage of the report failed to make clear the connection between cause (civilization’s overweening appetites) and effect (dead animals). Here’s a typical description of the report’s findings, from TIME: “Vertebrate species populations have dropped by more than half over the course of 40 years, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund.” Similar passive voice constructions appeared on wire service and network news stories. Wildlife around the world “fell” or “declined” or, in this choice construction, “have seen their numbers plummet.”

The problem here is that wildlife dying is not due to some inexorable force of nature like an asteroid. We humans are more than just passive bystanders to the situation; we’re causing the problem. If we’re ever going to be able to effectively reverse the loss of biodiversity, we need to face facts plainly: As our numbers grow, we’re diminishing the rest of the world.

Flight Plan

As the sixth mass extinction in Earth’s history unfolds around the globe, birds have shown themselves to be remarkably resilient. Since they can fly – and therefore usually have larger ranges than many other critters – avian species seem to be more adaptable to pressure from habitat loss and invasive species. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, while nearly a half of amphibians and a quarter of mammals are threatened with extinction, about 14 percent of birds are at risk of being wiped out. When trouble comes calling, many birds are able to fly out harm’s way.

shaded map of the US and Canada showing actual and projected rangesrange in 2000 shown, in 2080 shown shifted northWinged Migration: Common Loon

But now, trouble is catching up with bird species as climate change challenges their ability to respond to habitat shifts. An exhaustive report by the National Audubon Society warns that more than half of the bird species in North America will be at risk from habitat loss by the end of this century. There are 588 bird species on the continent. According to the Audubon report, 314 of those species will lose more than half of their current range by 2080. While some birds will manage to adapt, some will struggle, and others might disappear if they cannot find suitable habitat in a warming world.

Writing in The Washington Post, Audubon president David Yarnold and the organization’s chief scientist, Gary Langham, warned about what is likely to happen unless greenhouse gas emissions are halted:

“Imagine: Within two generations, nine states could discover that their state birds are at risk. Our national emblem, the bald eagle, brought back from the brink of extinction when we banned the pesticide DDT, faces the prospect of a nearly 75 percent decrease in its current range in the next 65 years. The graceful white trumpeter swan, the friendly backyard brown-headed nuthatch and the coastal black skimmer could lose more than 99 percent of their current ranges. Dozens more species face similarly shocking declines.”

And the list goes on. By 2080, the common loon, emblem of Canada and the state bird of Minnesota, will no longer be all that common in Eastern Canada or around the Great Lakes. The Baltimore oriole will no longer nest in the mid-Atlantic. The bobolink, a grassland songbird, could be pushed northward into the boreal forests of Canada, a landscape to which it is unsuited.

photos of 3 birdsphoto Danny Barron, Kelly Colgan Azar, Laura GoochCommon Loon (Gavia immer), Bobolink (Dolichonyx oryzivorus), Baltimore Oriole (Icterus Galbula)

The outlook may even be worse than Audubon reports. The researchers did not examine the climate change effects on bird habitat in Central and South America, where many US and Canadian birds spend the winters.

What is to be done? Audubon recommends new conservation measures to create protected areas within key flyways, what the organization calls “bird strongholds.” And we need to finally, belatedly get serious about climate change. “The greatest threat our birds face today is climate change,” Langham says. The new report and its distressing conclusions are, he says, like “a punch in the gut.”

Table Talk

A Nice Serving of Propaganda

In October, the Chinese government, worried about strong public resistance to genetically modified crops, launched a major media campaign to convince its citizens that GM foods are safe.

For close to a decade, China has been importing millions of tons of GM soybeans annually, mostly to feed its massive stock of pigs and to produce vegetable oil. But the country doesn’t grow any GM crops itself, in part because of public fears about the technology. Many Chinese were upset when, earlier this year, a TV exposé revealed that GM rice had been sold for human consumption at supermarkets in Hubei province in violation of Chinese law.

Yet Chinese officials in Beijing are convinced that GM technology will be essential to help feed the world’s largest population. The combined TV, newspaper, and Internet campaign is designed to swing public opinion 180 degrees. In a statement, the agriculture ministry pledged to create “a social atmosphere which is beneficial for the healthy development of the genetically-modified industry.”

Sounds like a line straight out of – wait for it – Animal Farm.


Follow the Money

Launched just three years ago,’s Divest from Fossil Fuels campaign is showing signs of impressive momentum. The global climate justice group likes to compare its effort to convince universities, churches, and governments to sell their fossil fuel stocks to the divestment campaign of the 1980s targeting South African apartheid. Some observers – including allies – have said the strategy isn’t very, well, strategic since the carbon barons will be able to find capital elsewhere. But a number of big time investors are listening to the environmental group and are pulling their money out of fossil fuels.

Some 181 institutions and local governments and 656 individuals representing more than $50 billion in wealth have publicly committed to divest from fossil fuels. The list includes cities such as San Francisco and Providence, Rhode Island, as well as Stanford University, which in May announced it would no longer make direct investments in companies that mine coal for electricity generation. (For the record, Earth Island Institute has a longstanding policy prohibiting investments in fossil fuel and nuclear companies.)

The divestment campaign received a huge boost when, on the eve of the People’s Climate March in September, the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a prominent philanthropy, announced it was pulling out of fossil fuel investments. Yes – the Rockefellers, the heirs to the Standard Oil fortune.

Stephen Heintz, president of the fund, said the move to divest from fossil fuels would be in line with oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller’s wishes. “We are quite convinced that if he were alive today, as an astute businessman looking out to the future, he would be moving out of fossil fuels and investing in clean, renewable energy,” Heintz said in a statement.

So: What’s your money doing?

photo of climate marchers photo of climate marchersphoto Shadia Fayne Wood, Heather Craig

We Are the Ones We’ve Been Waiting For

The turnout blew away organizers’ expectations. The constellation of environmental and social justice groups behind the September 21 People’s Climate March in New York City were hoping to enlist at least 100,000 people to participate in their mass mobilization. At least three times as many people – an estimated 311,000 marchers, as reported by The New York Times – turned out for what all observers agreed was the largest climate demonstration in history. The gathering was so huge that thousands of people weren’t able to complete the march route, and were asked to disperse to side streets as the sun began to set.

photo of many demonstrators filling a wide avenue photo of demonstrators, some in American Native tribal attirephoto Shadia Fayne Wood, Heather Craig

But the People’s Climate March – which was complemented by demonstrations worldwide, including large-scale marches in Berlin, London, Delhi, and Sydney – wasn’t exceptional due only to the quantity of people who showed up, but also the quality of the marchers. In all of its vibrant diversity, the march looked like New York City. There were young people and old people, black people, brown people, white people, queer folks and straight. The march included large contigents of trade unionists, Indigenous people, Christians, Jews, and Muslims. In an unmistakable political statement, young people of color from New York environmental justice organizations marched at the front. The message was clear: Global warming will impact all of us, the poor and the marginalized first and most.

In an old tale about social change, a Hopi elder says: “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.” When it comes to tackling the climate crisis, the success of the September 21 march shows that – finally – we’ve arrived.


Blue Whales Rebound

flukes of a whale soundingphoto Tom Benson

California’s blue whale population has rebounded to historic numbers after the marine mammal was hunted to near-extinction decades ago, according to new research by the University of Washington. Scientists estimate that the whale population – now at about 2,200 individuals – is back to 97 percent of its historic height, following the end of commercial whaling off the California Coast in the mid-1960s. This is the only population of blue whales in the world known to have recovered from whaling; this bit of bright news doesn’t reflect a broader recovery of the world’s largest animal in other parts of the globe. But scientists say the recovery does indicate that, with careful management and conservation measures, populations of cetaceans can rebound elsewhere as well.

Ozone Hole Healing

The ozone hole is healing thanks to global action. Back in the 1980s, the world recognized that our use of certain chemical compounds, especially chlorofluorocarbons, was creating a massive hole in the fragile layer of ozone gas in the atmosphere that protects all living things on Earth from the most harmful wavelengths of ultraviolet light. The 1987 Montreal Protocol, ratified by all 197 United Nations member-states, phased out the use of such ozone-depleting substances, found mainly in old refrigerators and fire extinguishers. Now, nearly three decades later, the hole has finally stopped growing and the ozone layer is actually thickening, according to a new report by the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Programme. It will, however, take another decade before the hole, located over the Antarctic, starts actually shrinking. The success of the Montreal Protocol shows that the world can come together to deal with environmental threats. Now can we please get on with a binding global agreement on carbon emissions?

Positively Dylan

Folk music has long celebrated the idea that good work isn’t made in a vacuum. It’s a genre that appropriates freely from any useful influences it sees. No one knows the power of a borrowed line like Bob Dylan. “It’s an old thing,” he told Rolling Stone in 2012. “It’s part of the tradition. It goes way back.”

It looks like some Swedish scientists got the memo. For the past 17 years, researchers at the Karolinska Institutet have been slipping Dylan lyrics into the titles of their reports, book introductions, and editorials. Over the years the pastime has grown into a serious bet between five institute researchers: Whoever gets the most Dylan quotes into their work before retirement gets treated to lunch. And with contenders like “Tangled Up in Blue: Molecular Cardiology in the Postmolecular Era,” and “Dietary Nitrate – a Slow Train Coming,” the competition is fierce, if fiercely nerdy.

It started with professor Jon Lundberg and Eddie Weitzberg’s article, “Nitric Oxide and Inflammation: The Answer Is Blowing in the Wind.”

“We both really like Bob Dylan, so when we set about writing an article concerning the measurement of nitric oxide gas in both the respiratory tracts and the intestine… the title came up and it fitted [sic] there perfectly,” Eddie Weitzberg told the KI Magazine of Science.

Although the contest is mostly playful – lightening the mood in papers about serious subjects – Dylan’s presence does more for the researchers than offer a break from the intellectual heavy lifting of research. “Good music is innovative, like Bob Dylan’s,” said contender Konstantinos Meletis. “And the same thing applies to good research. A researcher must also try to find new and different paths.”

On the Hill

Pay to Play

Put on the defensive by a surge of grassroots efforts demanding labeling of foods containing genetically modified ingredients, agribusiness companies and major food processors have dramatically increased their spending on political lobbying.

A report by the Environmental Working Group finds that the Grocery Manufacturers Association, biotech seed companies Monsanto and DuPont, and food makers including Coca-Cola and Pepsi nearly tripled their lobbying expenditures between 2013 and 2014. The increased political spending coincides with a citizens’ push for disclosing GM ingredients on food packaging. In May, Vermont became the first state to pass a mandatory GM labeling law, and more than 20 other state legislatures have considered similar legislation. In November, voters in Oregon and Colorado considered GM labeling initiatives; both referenda failed, though the Oregon vote was very close.

According to the EWG report, in the first six months of 2014, opponents of GM labeling laws spent $27.5 million on political lobbying. In comparison, those same companies spent $9.3 million on lobbying in all of 2013. The political spending by Big Food and Big Ag dwarfs the lobbying expenditures by proponents of GM labeling. In the first half of 2014, labeling advocates spent $1.9 million on lobbying, up slightly from $1.6 million in 2013.

The Grocery Manufacturers Association disputed the findings in the EWG report, calling it “grossly misleading,” and said the money spent on GMO issues is far less than what the group reported. “The GMO issue is a very important issue without a doubt, but so is food safety and so is international trade,” Mike Gruber, a VP for the association, told Reuters.

Perhaps. But it’s worth noting that the jump in lobbying occurred alongside increased activity on Capitol Hill to head off GM labeling efforts. In April, Representative Mike Pompeo, a Kansas Republican, introduced a bill under which federal guidelines on food labeling would pre-empt any state rules. If the Pompeo bill were to become law, states would be blocked from instituting GM labeling laws. For the major food companies that have built their businesses around GM foods, that $27.5 million would be money well spent.

Around the World

Climate Chaos

Scientists have long warned that we are on the brink of a climate disaster, but they have been hesitant to link specific weather events to global warming. That is, until now. In a new synthesis report published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society, scientists examined the links between climate change and 16 of the most extreme weather events of 2013. They discovered a direct link between climate change and eight of those events, finding that the extreme weather was both more likely and more intense due to global warming. Take a look at how climate change played a role some of 2013’s craziest weather from Michigan to Tokyo.


Acid Attack

Humans may be afraid of sharks, but it looks like sharks have one more reason to fear humans. Two studies indicate that ocean acidification caused by the absorption of carbon dioxide can change the way sharks eat and sleep.

When it comes to eating, a good sense of smell is essential to sharks. Unfortunately, researchers found that dogfish sharks can’t smell as well in acidic water, and this loss of smell makes it more difficult for them to track and attack prey.

A second study – this one involving catsharks – linked ocean acidification with unusual nighttime behavior and found that higher carbon dioxide levels spurred sharks to swim continuously for long periods of time during the night, rather than in their typical short bursts. Researchers are unsure what caused this change, but speculate that the sharks may have been searching for less-acidic water.

Saving the Sea

In a big win for the ocean, the Obama administration announced in September that it is expanding the Pacific Remote Island Marine National Monument to create the largest marine monument in the world. The marine preserve will grow to 490,000 square miles, six times its former size and three times the size of California.

Scuba Diving Tanks Coral Health

Scuba diving might appear to be harmless form of recreation, but it turns out that diving may not be as sustainable as thought. Researchers in Koh Tao, Thailand surveyed more than 10,000 corals at 10 reefs sites looking for signs of coral disease such as white syndrome and brown band disease, as well as other coral health indicators like bleaching. They found that coral at popular dive sites fared much worse than those at other sites. Only 45 percent of the coral at popular diving areas was in healthy condition. In comparison, roughly 79 percent of the corals were healthy at sites with few divers.

Dumping, mining, and commercial fishing will be off-limits within the monument; limited recreational fishing will be permitted. The protected area will provide refuge to several endangered species, including sooty terns, beaked whales, silky sharks, oceanic whitetip sharks, manta rays, corals, and five types of sea turtles.

The preserve, located between Hawai‘i and American Samoa, surrounds a remote island chain. The entire chain is protected within 50 miles of the shoreline. Obama’s declaration extends protections surrounding three parts of the chain to 200 miles offshore. Environmental groups had hoped the expanded protections would extend to the entire chain, for a total area of 782,000 square miles.

Still, environmentalists were elated. “What has happened is extraordinary,” Elliott Norse, founder and chief scientist of the Marine Conservation Institute, said when speaking with National Geographic. “It is history-making. There is a lot of reason we should be celebrating right now.”

The designation was made under the Antiquities Act, which the president can use to protect unique areas both on land and at sea. The expanded preserve is much larger in area than all land-based national parks in the US combined.

The Forest and the Trees

Preserving Peru’s Forests

Peru is a land of stunning tropical forests, incredible biodiversity, and vibrant forest-dependent communities. It has also come face-to-face with rising deforestation rates, losing an estimated 100,000 hectares of forest a year to agriculture and mining in recent years.

A September letter of intent outlining agreements made by Peru with Germany and Norway aims to change that by making the country carbon neutral with respect to deforestation and agriculture by 2021. How will they accomplish that? In large part, through financial incentives. Norway has promised Peru $300 million for verified deforestation reductions, with payments set to start in 2017. And Germany has pledged to maintain ongoing financial support to the South American nation.

In a statement regarding the letter of intent, Peru’s President Ollanta Humala admitted that there would be a “challenging transition phase,” but also noted that “there is growing evidence that economic growth and environmental protection can be combined.”

A Declaration for the Forest

September was a big month for forests. At the UN Climate Summit in New York, scores of countries, companies, and nonprofit organizations came together in a rare show of unity to sign the New York Declaration on Forests. Signatories pledge to halve worldwide deforestation by 2020, and eliminate it completely by 2030.

Ending global deforestation would be an unprecedented boon to climate mitigation, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by an estimated 4.5 to 8.8 billion tons per year by 2030. That’s a lot of carbon dioxide, equivalent to the annual emissions of as many as 1.8 billion cars.

“The New York Declaration aims to reduce more climate pollution each year than the United States emits annually, and it doesn’t stop there,” UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement. “Forests are not only a critical part of the climate solution – the actions agreed [upon] today will reduce poverty, enhance food security, improve the rule of law, secure the rights of indigenous peoples and benefit communities around the world.”

The participation of major companies – including Unilever, Cargill, and Asia Pulp and Paper – is particularly promising, as tropical deforestation is driven in large part by private palm oil, cattle, soy, and timber interests. However, Brazil was notably absent from the group of signatories, an ominous sign given the country’s control over much of the Amazon.

Cargill: No More Tree Cutting

In September, the agricultural behemoth Cargill committed to zero deforestation across all of its products, including cattle, sugar, soy, and cocoa. This pledge extends an earlier commitment by the company to eliminate deforestation in palm oil production.

Agriculture is the single biggest driver of tropical deforestation, with cattle ranching ranking first when it comes to forest loss. And Cargill isn’t the only company to take note. Wilmar, an agricultural giant based in Singapore, committed to zero deforestation last year, as have dozens of additional companies over the past several months.

“We know we can do it,” Cargill CEO David MacLennan said in a press release. “Our stakeholders demand it. And it is the right thing to do.”

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