Talking Points: Autumn 2020

News in Brief


Blocked Pipelines

Over a summer that has heaped mostly gloomy news upon us, the gains environmental and citizens’ groups have made in the struggle against several high-profile oil and gas pipeline projects in the US have offered some cheer.

Photo by Leslie Peterson
This summer has been one of setbacks for the fossil fuel industry. Three major pipeline projects have faced delays, and a fourth, the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, was cancelled. Photo by Leslie Peterson.

On July 5 Dominion Energy Inc. and Duke Energy Corp announced that they were canceling the $8 billion Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) project, citing concerns over economic viability. A day later, a federal judge ordered the Dakota Access pipeline, which transports oil from North Dakota’s Bakken region to Midwest and Gulf Coast refineries, to shut down and be emptied out because the US Army Corps of Engineers had failed to do an adequate environmental impact study.

The same day, the US Supreme Court blocked construction on the proposed Keystone XL line, which would transport crude from Canada’s tar sands, until a deeper environmental review is done. And in August, the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality rejected a proposed extension of the Mountain Valley Pipeline.

All four pipelines have been subject to years of protests and legal challenges by citizens’ groups, and environmental and Indigenous rights activists over environmental and public health and safety concerns.

A US appeals court, however, ruled on July 14 that Dakota Access can continue to operate while the court considers the shutdown order. But taken together, this series of setbacks shows that efforts to block these pipelines are bearing fruit.

For environmental advocates, the cancellation of the ACP represents the most important admission of defeat on the part of the fossil fuel industry.

The proposed project –– a 600-mile-long, 42-inch-wide pipeline that would have carried 1.5 billion cubic feet of gas from eastern West Virginia to southern North Carolina –– was one of dozens of pipelines proposed by developers to increase the capacity to move natural gas out of Appalachia. It would have crossed the Allegheny and Blue Ridge Mountains, cut through 13 miles of the George Washington National Forest, and crossed the popular Appalachian Trail, threatening cherished public lands, endangering federally listed species, and jeopardizing nearby rivers that millions of American citizens depend upon for drinking water.

Construction of the ACP was halted in 2018, after a federal appeals court vacated permits issued by the US Forest Service and ruled that the agency did not have the legal authority to grant the pipeline a right of way to cross the Appalachian Trail. But on June 15, 2020, the US Supreme Court overturned the lower court’s decision in favor of the pipeline company.

Despite the favorable Supreme Court decision, the developers decided to scrap the project because of ongoing delays, uncertainty about costs, and the potential for future legal challenges.

“If anyone still had questions about whether or not the era of fracked gas was over, this should answer them,” said Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune the day the cancellation was announced. “Today’s victory reinforces that united communities are more powerful than the polluting corporations that put profits over our health and future.”

The same could be said for the other projects as well. Indeed, these developments are hopeful steps towards a sustainable energy future.

This summer environmental advocates celebrated major setbacks for the Keystone XL pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, as well as the cancellation of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline.


Curtains for Mink Farms

While the world has reckoned with the steep human toll of Covid-19 over the past few months, nonhuman victims have been suffering largely out of the media spotlight. Those victims include mink farmed for their fur in the Netherlands, where the coronavirus has been spreading rapidly among the small mammals. In June, the Dutch parliament took action on the fur farm outbreaks, voting to close down the country’s mink industry.

In response to coronavirus outbreaks on several mink farms, the Dutch Parliament voted to close the mink industry in the country by the end of the year. Photo by Network for Animal Freedom.
In response to coronavirus outbreaks on several mink farms, the Dutch Parliament voted to close the mink industry in the country by the end of the year. Photo by Network for Animal Freedom.

The parliament passed several motions, including one that would prohibit reopening the 17 mink farms that have already been closed due to coronavirus spread, one that would effectively result in the closure of all mink farms in the country by the end of the year, and another that would compensate mink farmers for their financial losses. The motions would close the industry ahead of a nationwide ban on mink farming that was to go into effect in 2024, but must still be approved by the Dutch government.

“Keeping thousands of mink in crowded, filthy, and stressful conditions is a recipe for extreme animal suffering and biological disasters,” Brigit Oele, program manager for Fur Free Alliance, told Sentient Media. “We welcome today’s vote by Dutch MPs to shut down mink fur farms in the Netherlands and prioritize welfare concerns over the industry’s interests.”

The vote follows the spread of the disease from farmworkers to mink. According to Dutch government reports, mink then passed it back to humans. Since coronavirus began to spread on the fur farms this spring, more than 600,000 mink have been culled. Others have succumbed to the virus.

The Netherlands is among only 24 countries that still allow mink farming and one of the top producers of mink fur. Other large producers like Denmark, Poland, and China have yet to experience similar coronavirus spread on fur farms. But animal rights advocates hope they will take a cue from the Netherlands and shut the industry down.


Saving Wildlife, Accidentally

The pandemic has slowed the hubbub of the modern world. Many of us have cut travel plans and eliminated commutes. Which means that fewer cars buzz along highways. According to researchers at the University of California, Davis, between March and April total vehicle miles traveled in the United States declined by 71 percent.

A new study suggests that reduced traffic during the pandemic has resulted in fewer animals being killed by vehicles. Researchers are calling this period of curtailed travel the “anthropause.” Photo by Glen Carrie.
A new study suggests that reduced traffic during the pandemic has resulted in fewer animals being killed by vehicles. Researchers are calling this period of curtailed travel the “anthropause.” Photo by Glen Carrie.

In a June paper published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, a team of wildlife researchers have coined this period of reduced travel the “anthropause,” explaining that it is an opportunity, through our absence, to better understand how we typically impact wildlife.

For many animals, the anthropause has presented a chance to roam without consequence. A pride of lions was found sunbathing on a road typically busy with traffic in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. Jackals in Tel Aviv began venturing from urban parks in broad daylight. Wood frogs in Maine have had a better chance surviving their road-crossing migration.

The effects of the anthropause can most clearly be seen in roadkill data, as reduced traffic has meant fewer animals killed by cars. Researchers at the UC Davis Road Ecology Center have determined that wildlife-vehicle collisions in the US declined by anywhere from 21 to 56 percent in the first month of lockdowns.

In this way, the anthropause could save as many as 50 cougars in the state of California alone this year, as well as potentially hundreds of millions of mammals, birds, and insects around the world. As Fraser Shilling of the Road Ecology Center told The Atlantic, the pandemic-induced traffic respite has become “the biggest conservation action that we’ve taken,” albeit unintentional.

“Humans and wildlife have become more interdependent than ever before,” write the authors of the anthropause paper, explaining that, notwithstanding the tragic circumstances, now is the time to study this complex human-wildlife relationship — and determine how we can best resume human activity while minimizing harm to wildlife in a post-pandemic world.


Broader Vision

Hummingbirds seem to live in another dimension. Their wings flutter at imperceptible speeds. Their hearts beat up to 12 times faster than ours. And, according to a June study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, they can see colors beyond human perception. “Humans are color-blind compared to birds and many other animals,” Princeton ornithologist Mary Caswell Stoddard said in a statement. “Hummingbirds reveal that they can see things we cannot.”

The research is in: Hummingbirds can see colors humans cannot. Photo by David Kish.
The research is in: Hummingbirds can see colors humans cannot. Photo by David Kish.

The human eye uses three types of cones — attuned to red, blue, and green light — to distinguish around a million different shades. Hummingbirds, alongside many types of reptiles and fish, have a fourth cone sensitive to ultraviolet light.

Stoddard and a team of researchers put this extra cone to the test. At the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Gothic, Colorado, they set up a series of experiments in an alpine meadow to “train” wild broad-tailed hummingbirds (Selasphorus platycercus) to locate sugar water using light-emitting diode (LED) cues. The research focused on “nonspectral” color combinations, or hues created from separate parts of the color spectrum. For instance, purple is a mixture of red and blue light, which are separated on the ROYGBIV wavelength sequence. It is the only nonspectral color that humans can see. Birds, however, can see up to five.

The team programmed LED tubes to display nonspectral combinations like “ultraviolet+green” next to a feeder with sugar water, while adjacent tubes displayed the corresponding “pure” color, like green, next to a feeder with plain water. No matter the configuration, the hummingbirds were able to distinguish between ultraviolet+green and green, even though these two lights looked identical to the researchers. The team then repeated the experiment with other nonspectral combinations, such as ultraviolet+red, ultraviolet+yellow, and so on, with similar results.

“The colors that we see in the fields of wildflowers at our study site, the wildflower capital of Colorado, are stunning to us,” said co-author David Inouye, a biologist at the University of Maryland, in a statement. “But just imagine what those flowers look like to birds with that extra sensory dimension.”


Big Money, Big Voice

Ninety-seven percent of climate scientists agree that climate change is occurring and caused by human activity. But that’s not the message the public hears. According to a recent study, climate change deniers receive twice the coverage in national newspapers as people with pro-climate action messages.

To come to this conclusion, Brown University sociologist Rachel Wetts analyzed three decades’ worth of climate-related press releases from businesses, governmental agencies, and advocacy organizations. She then examined which messages were published in widely circulated news outlets like USA Today and The New York Times. Her results: Opponents of climate action saw 14 percent of press releases cited in national news. Climate policy advocates, 7 percent.

Wetts also questioned the source of these releases. Large businesses, Wetts found, are more likely to gain media attention than scientific organizations, leading her to ask the rhetorical question: Who carries the most prominent voice in the US debate on climate change?

“Journalistic norms of balance and objectivity have distorted the public debate around climate change,” Wetts writes in the paper that was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, “while providing evidence that the structural power of business interests lends them heightened visibility in policy debates.”


Headed for History

With only 400 left in existence, the North Atlantic right whale has now been officially listed as critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Of the remaining whales, only 100 are breeding females, putting the risk of extinction in even starker relief.

aerial photo of whales at sea
Of the remaining North Atlantic right whales, only 100 are breeding females, putting the risk of extinction in even starker relief. Photo by FWC-Fish and Wildlife.

“The right whale has been heading downhill for ten years now,” Justin Cooke, the IUCN assessor for the right whale and an ambassador for the International Fund for Animal Welfare, said in a statement. “We’ll lose this species unless we can continue to reduce all vessel interactions with right whales and ensure that only whale-safe fishing gear is used.”

The Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER) recently called out President Trump’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for not doing all it can to prevent the whale’s demise. “Its extinction is entirely preventable,” PEER Science Policy Director Kyla Bennett said in a statement. “NOAA has powerful tools to protect the North Atlantic right whale, but it is choosing not to use them.”

NOAA has been sued for its failure to close some parts of the North Atlantic to fishing and for not reducing the number of vertical lobster lines in the water. Currently, whales must navigate about 900,000 lines during lobster season. While boat strikes and fishing gear are the main causes of right whale fatalities, climate change and off-shore drilling pose additional risks.

North Atlantic right whales reside in the western North Atlantic Ocean — migrating between feeding grounds in the Labrador Sea and wintering areas off of Georgia and Florida. So-named because they were long considered to be the right whales to hunt (they float when killed, swim within sight of shore, and are docile), the cetaceans have been commercially hunted since the eleventh century. Still spotted in American and Canadian waters, particularly south of Martha’s Vineyard, their numbers have dwindled dramatically since 2017. If robust conservation action isn’t taken soon, the right whale may soon appear in the history books.


Big Oil Bankrolls Cops

In Detroit, Marathon Petroleum Corporation, America’s largest oil-refining company, has long been accused of environmental racism. The company generates pollution that has been shown to disproportionately affect the health of communities of color. It now appears that the company is also supporting local police groups: Marathon’s security coordinator serves on the board of Detroit’s police foundation, and the company often sponsors police events.

According to an investigation by the Public Accountability Initiative (PAI), this close association between industrial pollution and the police isn’t unique to Detroit. In Houston, New Orleans, Chicago, Seattle, and other cities across the nation, companies like Chevron, Shell, Valero, and Wells Fargo (which bankrolls fossil fuels) often back police foundations — private entities set up to raise money for police training, weapons, surveillance tech, and other equipment.

For many, PAI’s report is a clear indication of how police violence intersects with climate justice. “Many powerful companies that drive environmental injustice are also backers of the same police departments that tyrannize the very communities these corporate actors pollute,” says the report.

For others, the report reveals the fossil fuel industry’s centrality in a system of racial violence. “Racism was stamped into America’s DNA,” Robert Bullard, a Texas Southern University sociologist and the “father of environmental justice,” told The Guardian. “America is segregated, and so is pollution.”


Muzzle Up

In June, Iowa legislators passed yet another law that seeks steep penalties for animal right activists and whistleblowers who secretly document activities at factory farms.

The penalty provision is part of a broader farm bill that Governor Kim Reynolds signed into law on June 10. It says anyone who enters, without permission, a location where a “food animal” is kept or where meat is sold or processed, is trespassing. The first-time offense is punishable by up to two years in prison and a fine of up to $6,250. Each additional offense could bring up to five years in jail and a fine of up to $7,500.

Animal rights advocates could now face up to two years in prison for first-time trespassing offences on Iowa factory farms. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Rawpixel.
Animal rights advocates could now face up to two years in prison for first-time trespassing offences on Iowa factory farms. Photo by Carol M. Highsmith/Rawpixel.

The law came at a time when livestock farmers were in crisis and about 40 percent of the country’s pork processing plants, including several in Iowa, were shut down because they had become Covid-19 hotspots. It also followed close on the heels of the release of an undercover video by animal rights activists of a mass pig cull at an Iowa farm that couldn’t send the animals to a slaughterhouse due to pandemic-related disruptions.

Iowa has over 10,000 concentrated animal feedlots (CAFOs), also known as factory farms. This is the third time lawmakers in Iowa have attempted to enact what animal rights activists call “ag-gag” laws in an effort to stem the flow of undercover videos and photos by activists of inhumane conditions on these farms. The first, originally proposed in 2012, was struck down as unconstitutional in January 2019, and the second is still being contested in court.

This latest law, too, will likely face legal challenge from environmental and community organizations. Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement Action (CCI Action), a group that has long fought factory farms in the state, has already said it will oppose the law in court. “When elected officials put corporate interests over our First Amendment rights, we are forced to sue the very government that is supposed to represent us,” Adam Mason, CCI Action’s state policy organizing director, said in a statement. The group points out that Iowa’s factory farms produce over 22 billion gallons of toxic liquid manure that is dumped untreated on farm fields across the state, contributing to over 760 impaired waterways.

Ag-gag bills have been proposed or passed in several states since 2011, but as the industry watchdog group Food and Water Watch notes, most have been defeated in the legislature or later found to be unconstitutional. Just two days after the Iowa bill was signed into law, a federal court struck down a similar 2015 ag-gag law in North Carolina — which allowed employers to sue whistleblowers and undercover investigators who record images or collect data or documents without permission — ruling that several of its provisions are unconstitutional and violate the First Amendment.


Declining Green

The coronavirus pandemic has drawn worldwide attention to something experts have been telling us for decades: Habitat destruction, particularly tropical deforestation, increases the likelihood of zoonotic diseases spreading to humans. While the coronavirus has not been definitively linked to deforestation, other diseases like Ebola, dengue, and Zika have.

The impacts of this deforestation extend far beyond the spillover of zoonotic disease. Loss of forests, which hold some 80 percent of the world’s amphibian species, 75 percent of bird species, and 68 percent of mammals, leads to loss of biodiversity. Forests also have an immense capacity to absorb and store carbon, which makes them essential to the fight to stem the climate crisis. Tropical primary forests are particularly valuable when it comes to both biodiversity and carbon storage.

Regulatory and reforestation efforts have slowed the global rate of net forest loss in recent years, but the global deforestation rate remains alarmingly high — between 2015 and 2020, it was 10 million hectares per year. We’ve lost a total of 420 million hectares of forest cover since 1990, of which 80 million hectares was primary forest. The bulk of those losses are due to agricultural expansion. Here are a few of the countries with the highest rates of forest loss.

Sources: ABC, Climate Change News, Food and Agriculture Organization, Mongabay, Science, World Resources Institute, World Wildlife Fund, Yale Environment 360

1 Australia

After years of decreasing deforestation rates, forest loss is increasing in Australia once again, particularly around Queensland where landowners are mowing down trees to make space for livestock pasture. The skyrocketing land-clearing rate has earned Australia the unique distinction of being the only developed country to make the World Wildlife Fund’s 2018 deforestation watch list, based largely on estimates that the country could lose an additional 3 million hectares of forest by 2030.

2 Brazil

South America’s largest country lost 1.3 million hectares of primary forest in 2019, far more than any other tropical country. Much of that was in the Amazon rainforest, which experienced a 30 percent increase in deforestation in the period between July 2018 to July 2019, compared to the same period the previous year. Aside from 2016 and 2017, when fires decimated Brazilian forests, 2019 marked the highest rate of primary forest loss for the country in more than a decade. Many have pointed to President Jair Bolsonaro’s anti-environmental stance as a reason for the spike.

3 Democratic Republic of Congo

The Congo Basin rainforest is the second largest tropical forest in the world, behind only the Amazon. Half of it lies within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which has seen high deforestation rates in recent years. In 2019, the Central African nation experienced its third highest primary forest loss on record, at 475,000 hectares, a slight decline from 2017 and 2018, making it the country with the second highest tropical primary forest loss by area. The majority of primary forest loss in the DRC stems from small-scale agriculture, which is used to feed nearby communities and tends to be rotational, meaning cleared lands are eventually left to regrow. But there is evidence that some of the loss is also tied to largescale logging, mining, and agriculture.

4 Indonesia

While Indonesia still has one of the highest rates of primary tropical forest loss in the world, there’s some room for optimism: In 2019, forest loss decreased there for the third year in a row, marking one of the lowest deforestation rates for the country since the early 2000s. The decrease is attributed to increasing enforcement of rules against burning and land clearing, as well as a moratorium on clearing forested lands for logging and palm oil plantations.

5 Russia

With nearly half of its land forested, Russia has more tree cover than any other country. But only some 3 percent of its forests are protected, and logging — an increasing amount of it illegal — is leading to significant forest loss. As are wildfires. This year alone, fires have burned through more than 10 million hectares of Russian forest so far. Compared to deforestation related to industrial agriculture, these losses are more likely to be temporary as forests regrow. But as climate change increases the frequency of fires in Russia, they could have significant impacts on both biodiversity and climate mitigation efforts.


Burning Up

A hundred degrees Fahrenheit is hot anywhere. Above of the Arctic Circle, where summer temperatures are usually around 50 degrees F or lower, it can be world altering. This summer, the Far North saw wildfires in Siberia, smoky skies in Alaska, and immoderate sea ice decline in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and much of the Russian north coast. In June, the town of Verkhoyansk in eastern Siberia logged 100.4 degrees F, marking the highest temperature recorded in the Arctic, during a heatwave that persisted across the region. And in July, much of Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapsed into the ocean.

“The Arctic is heating more than twice as fast as the global average, impacting local populations and ecosystems and with global repercussions,” the World Meteorological Organization Secretary-General Petteri Taalas said in a July statement. The agency reported that this summer’s persistent heat in the Arctic can be explained by a “vast blocking pressure system” and a “northward swing of the jet stream” bringing warm air and above-average temperatures northward. “Such extreme heat would have been almost impossible without the influence of human-caused climate change,” it said.

The Arctic is warming faster because sea ice and snow, which reflect heat since they are white, are melting, exposing darker ocean and land surfaces that absorb more of the sun’s heat. And the hotter the planet, the more sea ice declines. As sea ice declines, the exposed ocean surface absorbs even more heat, lending to a positive feedback loop — and record-breaking temperatures, more intense wildfires, and subsequent air pollution year by year.

Permafrost thaw can also accelerate changes, from releasing greenhouse gases to eroding coastlines. A massive oil spill this summer in Russia, for instance, can be blamed in part on melting permafrost.

“It’s a taste of the future predicted for Russia if we burn quickly through our fossil fuels,” Tamsin Edwards, a climate scientist at King’s College London, wrote in The Guardian.


It’s Raining Plastic

Here’s a bummer: Even remote wilderness areas are no longer plastic free.

Researchers have found that more than 1,000 tons of tiny plastic microparticles, transported by wind and rain, fall down upon national parks and national wilderness areas in the western United States each year. That’s the equivalent of over 120 million plastic water bottles.

The findings, published in the June 12 issue of Science, were based on an analysis of rainwater and air samples collected over 14 months from 11 protected areas in the western US.

“The number was just so large, it’s shocking,” the study’s lead author Janice Brahney, an environmental scientist at Utah State University, said in a statement.

The plastic materials were mostly microfibers from clothing and industrial materials that were only visible with magnification. Microplastics were already known to accumulate in wastewater, rivers, and the world’s oceans, and thanks to this new research, we now know that they also accumulate in the atmosphere. “Several studies have attempted to quantify the global plastic cycle but were unaware of the atmospheric limb,” Brahney said. “Our data show the plastic cycle is reminiscent of the global water cycle, having atmospheric, oceanic, and terrestrial lifetimes.”


Big Foot

In the United States our homes generally have large carbon footprints. But there’s a subset of American homes whose footprints are far larger than even the high average. Any guesses?

In the US, affluent homes generate up to 25 percent more greenhouse gases than homes in poorer neighborhoods. Photo by Design Pics / Alamy Stock Photo.
In the US, affluent homes generate up to 25 percent more greenhouse gases than homes in poorer neighborhoods. Photo by Design Pics / Alamy Stock Photo.

According to a recent study ranking carbon footprint data from 93 million homes across the US, affluent homes generate up to 25 percent more greenhouse gases than homes in poorer neighborhoods. In some especially wealthy suburban areas, the study found greenhouse gas emissions up to 15 times higher than in lower income neighborhoods nearby. Larger, wealthier homes’ greater use of fossil fuel-powered lighting, heating, and cooling systems accounts for the majority of this disparity.

The study, published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, explains that approximately a fifth of greenhouse gas emissions in the US come from residential power use. If considered as a country, US household emissions alone would represent the world’s sixth-largest source of greenhouse gas emissions when compared to total emissions from other nations.

“Although houses are becoming more energy efficient, US household energy use and related greenhouse gas emissions are not shrinking,” Benjamin Goldstein, a researcher at the University of Michigan and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “This lack of progress undermines the substantial emission reductions needed to mitigate climate change.”

The research findings suggest that addressing home-related emissions in the US could go a long way towards fighting the climate crisis. If the electrical grid were to be decarbonized, the study found, the residential housing sector could meet the country’s 28 percent emission reduction target by 2025, as outlined under the Paris Climate Agreement. However, in order to meet the 80 percent reduction target by 2050, grid decarbonization will not be sufficient. As the report states, “Meeting [the 2050] target will also require deep energy retrofits and transitioning to distributed low-carbon energy sources, as well as reducing per capita floor space and zoning denser settlement patterns.”

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