Frontlines

Crimes Against the Planet

Genocide. War Crimes. Crimes against humanity. Crimes of aggression. These offenses can all be prosecuted within the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Destruction of the Amazon? Oil spills in the Arctic? The spewing of methane from fracking fields? None of these qualify as internationally recognized crimes. But if a determined group of lawyers has anything to say about it, they soon might.

In June, a panel of lawyers proposed the first formal definition for ecocide, marking a major step in the movement to make the destruction of the planet an internationally recognized crime. Photo Bogusz Bilewski / Greenpeace Polska.
In June, a panel of lawyers proposed the first formal definition for ecocide, marking a major step in the movement to make the destruction of the planet an internationally recognized crime. Photo Bogusz Bilewski / Greenpeace Polska.

In June, a panel of 12 lawyers proposed the first formal definition for ecocide as “unlawful or wanton acts committed with knowledge that there is a substantial likelihood of severe and either widespread or long-term damage to the environment being caused by those acts.” The proposal marks an important step in the movement to criminalize destruction of the planet.

“The four existing international crimes focus on the wellbeing of human individuals and groups … and rightly so,” Philippe Sands, an international human rights attorney and co-chair of the panel, said in a virtual press conference. “We don’t in any way wish to diminish those vastly important crimes. But what is missing is a place for our natural world.”

The campaign for such a law has picked up steam recently and gained prominent supporters. French President Emmanuel Macron has thrown his support behind an international law against ecocide, as has Pope Francis.

However, any effort to add ecocide to the Rome Statute, which governs the International Criminal Court, will take years. And even if added, the law will have its limitations. For one, top polluters like the United States, China, and India are not members of the court, and thus not within its jurisdiction.

Still, advocates are hopeful it could one day be used to hold executives of polluting companies to account. And even if actual trials were few and far between, Jojo Mehta, chair of the nonprofit Stop Ecocide Foundation, thinks such a law could still change behaviors. As she explained to the Financial Times, having the crime of ecocide on the books could simply raise the prospect of legal risk enough to change corporate decision-making processes.

Or as Sands put it: “Ecocide is about law in the service of our planet, a means of changing consciousness and of harnessing the idea and ideals of international justice for the greater good.”

Findings

Vanishing Lake

In January 2020, Roland Warner, a glaciologist at the University of Tasmania, was examining satellite imagery of the Amery Ice Shelf, the third largest ice shelf in Antarctica, when a large sinkhole caught his attention. He looked back at past satellite images and noticed that on June 9, 2019, a massive lake, twice the size of San Diego Bay, covered by a thick insulating ice lid, had formed there, likely from decades of meltwater flow. When Warner clicked to the next image, June 11, the lake had disappeared.

The lake’s sudden disappearance may be a cause for concern. In a study published this June in Geophysical Research Letters, Warner and his coauthors attribute the vanishing act to “hydrofracturing,” a process in which the weight of the meltwater bursts through the ice shelf and drains to the ocean. While this process isn’t new, a drainage of this speed and size has never been observed.

The key takeaway, however, is that the surfaces of Antarctica’s ice shelves are becoming more unstable due to climate change. Hydrofracturing had a hand in the 2002 collapse of the Larsen B Ice Shelf, which made clear just how quickly ice shelf collapse can occur in the twenty-first century. According to the paper, the rate of surface melting on Antarctica’s ice shelves is “projected to double by 2050,” which will likely contribute to more and faster collapses, and rising sea levels.

Call of the Wild

Killing Spree

Bloodlust for wolves is dismayingly high in this country.

Case in point: In February this year, Wisconsin had to end its first public wolf-hunt season in years after just three days because hunters killed at least 216 wolves in around 60 hours, far surpassing a threshold of 119 set by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The hunt came after the Trump administration removed wolves from the Endangered Species Act last winter, leaving states to manage their own wolf populations.

photo of a wolf
Hunters and poachers killed more than 300 wolves in Wisconsin between April 2020 and April 2021, or about a third of the state’s entire wolf population. Photo by R. Warrin.

Now, researchers are saying that as a result of the hunt, and poaching, which has taken out about 100 more wolves, Wisconsin may have lost up to a third of its gray wolf population in the past year.

In a new study published in early July, scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison estimated that between 313 to 323 wolves were likely killed by humans between April 2020 and April 2021. Adrian Treves, a professor at UW-Madison and a lead author of the study, said the figures should raise concerns about further hunting seasons in the state.

Wisconsin had initially planned to open its first hunt in six years in November 2021, but a pro-hunting group sued and won a court order to allow the hunt to go forward in February, reports Huffington Post. Many of the additional wolf deaths came from what’s known as “cryptic poaching,” when hunters hide evidence of the killings. Researchers estimate about 695 to 751 wolves are left in the state, down from at least 1,034 last year.

The researchers estimate the wolf populations could recover in one or two years if there were no further hunts. But Wisconsin state law requires a wolf hunt to go ahead every year between November and February in the absence of a federal prohibition against it. In mid-August, state wildlife officials authorized the killing of 300 more wolves for the 2021 fall hunting season, more than doubling biologists’ recommendation of a 130-wolf kill limit.

Findings

Damaged Lungs

Given the way things have been going, it had to come to pass: Earth’s famous “lung” is now malfunctioning.

A study published in Nature in July calculates that the Amazon rainforest — which has long played a key role in keeping a check on the climate crisis by acting as a carbon sink — is now a driver of global warming. The forest is emitting more than 1.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, largely due to fires, many of which have been deliberately set to clear land for beef and soy production. But the researchers found that even without fires, the southeastern portion of the rainforest, which has been experiencing hotter temperatures and droughts, has become a source of carbon emissions, rather than a sink.

aerial photo of a logged forest in the tropics
The Amazon — which contains about 2.8 million square miles of jungle, representing more than half of the tropical rainforest remaining on Earth — is now emitting more carbon than it can absorb. Photo by Felipe Werneck / Ibama.

“The first very bad news is that forest burning produces around three times more CO2 than the forest absorbs,” lead study author Luciana Gatti, a researcher at Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, told The Guardian. “The second bad news is that the places where deforestation is 30 percent or more show carbon emissions 10 times higher than where deforestation is lower than 20 percent.”

Limiting deforestation is key to addressing this dangerous carbon-emissions trend. However, researchers are not sure if the trend can actually be reversed or whether we may be reaching a tipping point on climate change.

Some 60 percent of the Amazon lies within Brazil, and the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, has actively promoted exploiting it. As a result, deforestation in the Amazon has surged to a 12-year high this year, and in June fires hit their highest level since 2007.

The study’s authors are calling for a “global agreement to save the Amazon.” Some European nations have already indicated that they will block an EU trade deal with Brazil — which exports much of the timber, beef, and soy produced in the Amazon — unless Bolsonaro takes steps to curb the destruction of the rainforest.

No Comment

During a House committee virtual hearing in June, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) asked if the US Forest Service can solve climate change by altering “the course of the moon’s orbit or the Earth’s orbit around the sun.”

“Obviously, that would have profound effects on our climate,” he said.

Call of the Wild

Allowing Extinction

In the Gulf of California, near the Colorado River Delta, the last remaining individuals of the world’s smallest cetacean swims in increasingly unsafe waters. Vaquita marina, Spanish for “little cow of the sea,” have been in a steep decline in their habitat, where they get caught and killed in gill nets intended for other fish. Only ten or so vaquitas remain in a fishing-free “zero tolerance” zone.

But in July, the Mexican government officially abandoned the zero-tolerance policy, replacing it with a sliding scale of punishments for boats found in the zone. Conservationists fear that the looser restrictions spell doom for the critically endangered porpoise. “It appears that fisheries authorities want to drive the vaquita to extinction,” an anonymous conservation expert told the Associated Press.

In recent years, the vaquita has swum at the center of a tense tug-of-war between endangered species protection and the local fishing economy. The porpoise’s fate is entwined with another endangered species, a large fish called the totoaba, targeted by a black-market fishery for its swim bladder. A delicacy in China, the totoaba’s bladder might fetch as much as $8,500 per kilogram. Because of their small size, vaquitas are particularly susceptive to the large-gauge nets used to catch big totoabas.

Since 1997, when a survey first showed that the vaquita population was plummeting, scientists and conservationists have worked with Mexican officials to save the porpoise. They tried phasing out gill nets, developing vaquita-safe equipment to reduce bycatch, and restricting fishing in areas where vaquitas had been spotted. But these efforts have dragged on without firm implementation or enforcement.

The hardline environmental group Sea Shepherd has also gotten involved, hauling out illegal gill nets and driving small fishing boats away from vaquita habitat. In January, fishermen rammed their boat into one of Sea Shepherd’s vessels, the Farley Mowat, and tossed gasoline bombs onto the vessel’s bow. According to the Associated Press, fishermen claim that they have not received due compensation for lost fishing income.

As vaquita numbers approach zero, the “zero tolerance” zone was a last-ditch effort to save the species from extinction. Abandoning this policy just might be tossing in the towel on the poor vaquita.

Findings

Not-So-Light Impact

There’s nothing funny about this news: Young clownfish are living shorter lives due to light pollution.

A team of researchers studying orange-fin anemonefish — a type of clownfish — on coastal reefs in French Polynesia found that young fish exposed to artificial light were 36 percent more likely to die than those living farther from the coast, and thus farther from nighttime lights. And even those that survived didn’t get by unscathed — they grew 44 percent slower than clownfish farther from the coast.

underwater photo of a clownfish hiding in an anemone
Young clownfish exposed to artificial light are 36 percent more likely to die than those who aren’t exposed, new research finds. Photo by Andreas März.

The scientists, who spent more than 18 months studying the fish, aren’t sure why the exposed animals suffered shorter lives and reduced growth rates but think it might be related to physiological impacts of nighttime light.

“Basically, these fish are just really tired, not being able to lower their activity levels at night,” Stephen Swearer, one of the study authors and a professor of marine biology at the University of Melbourne, told The Guardian. “They may then behave in ways that mean they have less energy to avoid predation.”

Swearer said more research is needed on the impacts of light pollution on marine life. In the meantime, he suggests better regulation of artificial light in coastal areas to reduce the harmful effects. “We can make sure populations of species that we care about have refuge from that stressor,” he said.

Around the World

Weather Extremes

On June 28, Portland, Oregon recorded temperatures of 116 degrees, the highest in the city’s history and nearly matching the highest in Las Vegas, Nevada, in the middle of the Mojave Desert. More than 100 Oregonians died, leading officials from Multnomah County (which includes Portland) to declare the heat wave a “mass casualty event.” Temperatures climbed even higher farther north. British Columbia logged the highest temperature ever recorded in Canada, while Washington State and the Northwest Territories also broke records. A series of wildfires then erupted. One of them virtually wiped the town of Lytton, British Columbia off the map.

The Northwest heat dome responsible for these record-shattering temperatures was a one-in-a-thousand-year event. But scientists have reported that climate change has made this type of heatwave 150 times more likely since the pre-industrial era. Later this century, a heatwave of this caliber could occur once every five to ten years.

Of course, western North America isn’t alone. This summer, heatwaves also gripped northern Scandinavia, the Arabian Peninsula, Russia, East Asia, and much of the American Southwest. And high temperatures aren’t the only symptom of global warming. From droughts and wildfires to tropical storms, floods, and tornadoes, extreme weather events around the world have illustrated the increasingly catastrophic impact of the climate crisis.

Alongside the Northwest heatwave, here are just a few other examples of how climate change is spurring extreme weather across the map.

1 Dry American West

According to the US Drought Monitor, more than 99 percent of the American West was abnormally dry at the height of summer, with more than 94 percent experiencing drought. On July 9, California’s Death Valley recorded temperatures of 130 degrees Fahrenheit, which could be the highest reliably recorded temperature on Earth. The dry conditions also sparked an early fire season. By the end of June, the US had seen 30,000 wildfires, up 25 percent from 2020.

2 Flooded NY Subways

In early July, Tropical Storm Elsa inundated the East Coast with heavy rains, flash floods, and dramatic winds. In Manhattan, viral videos showed New Yorkers wading through storm runoff to catch a train while water cascaded down stairwells and flooded platforms — a grim reminder that much of our public infrastructure is no longer adequate for the world in which we now live.

3 Rhineland Deluge

In mid-July, dozens of people lost their lives in the German states of Rhineland-Palatinate and North Rhine-Westphalia as flash floods followed heavy rainfall that covered much of Western Europe. It also flooded the London Underground and parts of Belgium, France, and Switzerland. “We will be faced with such events over and over, and that means we need to speed up climate protection measures,” said Armin Laschet, the Prime Minister of North Rhine-Westphalia and a candidate to succeed Chancellor Angela Merkel.

4 Czech Twister

On June 24, a tornado tore through villages and left five people dead in the South Moravia region of the Czech Republic. The twister was the most powerful on record in the Czech Republic, and, according to scientists at Austria’s Central Institute for Meteorology and Geodynamics, climate change had a hand in the disaster. The swing from a cold spring to significantly hot June transferred latent energy into the atmosphere, and stirred up the extreme storm, they say. Though the jury is still out on how exactly climate change affects tornado behavior, recent research shows that tornado clusters are becoming more frequent as the planet warms.

5 Turkish Flamingo Die-off

In central Turkey, tens of thousands of flamingos hatch each year at a colony at Lake Tuz, which has been designated as a specially protected area since 2001. But this year, thousands of the newborn flamingos died. The culprit: a drought caused by a combination of loosely regulated irrigation practices and climate change.

6 Taiwan’s Extremes

Earlier this year, Taiwan experienced its worst drought on record, which nearly drained its reservoirs and strained the country’s water-intensive microchip-manufacturing industry. In late June, however, the rainy season brought torrential rains that filled reservoirs and threatened floods. “What’s next is the potential challenge of combined disasters in the face of extreme weather,” Economy Minister Wang Mei-hua told Bloomberg Green. “So we need to adjust our operating mode from focusing on fighting against droughts to preventing both droughts and torrential rain simultaneously.”

7 China’s 1,000-Year Flood

In China’s Henan province, torrential rains in mid-July resulted in devastating flooding that caused dozens of deaths. Some hundred thousand people had to be evacuated in Zhengzhou, an industrial and transport hub, where rail and road links were disrupted. The Zhengzhou weather bureau reported that the three days of rain matched a level seen only “once in a thousand years.”

Findings

Climate Goals

In July, the European Union announced an ambitious plan to cut net greenhouse gas emissions by 55 percent from 1990 levels by 2030. The EU’s “Fit for 55” package includes a wide range of proposals such as taxing jet fuel, banning fossil-fuel powered cars within 20 years, and implementing the world’s first import levy for highly polluting products like steel, cement, and fertilizers.

“We do it to give humanity a fighting chance,” EU climate policy chief Frans Timmermans said while announcing the plan.”

Turning the plan into legally binding regulations, however, will require approval by the EU’s 27 member states and the European parliament, which could take years. Opposition is already expected from industries like airlines and vehicle manufacturers, and from poorer member states whose citizens face steep price rises.

The added rub: The plan is still inadequate. To meet the EU’s “fair share” quota under the Paris Agreement, the reduction should be 58 percent. And even that is likely not enough given the latest IPCC climate report, which estimates global temperatures will surpass 1.5 degrees Celsius over the next two decades. But as Kate Mackenzie of Bloomberg Green notes, “rather than being preoccupied with shortcomings and political wrangling, we should cheer that the EU took a big step in the right direction. Then get back to work finding ways to take even bigger steps, quickly.”

Future Tense

Cloud Shocked

Earlier this year, a heavy rain fell in the desert city of Dubai, which averages just a few inches of precipitation per year. But the downpour was no surprise to a group of University of Reading engineers, who had started the rain with the push of a button.

photo of a damp street, tall buildings
Earlier this year, researchers sent unmanned, electrical-charge-shooting drones into clouds over Dubai to stir up a rainstorm. Photo by Ramy Alaa.

According to footage released in July from the United Arab Emirates (UAE) weather agency, the rain was part of a cloud-seeding test in which researchers sent unmanned, electrical-charge-shooting drones into clouds to stir up the storm. The electricity from the drones essentially causes small droplets in clouds to fatten up enough to fall. The fatter droplets also ensure that the rain will pour heavily enough to replenish the water table, rather than evaporate before reaching the ground.

The goal is to keep Dubai livable as the climate crisis increases the average temperature in a place with sweltering summers often over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. And UAE isn’t the first country to turn to geoengineering to stave off the impacts of climate change. China is currently researching a similar project in the Himalayas, while Thailand has made it rain to alleviate smog. Indonesia has actually seeded clouds with particles to stop raining during a period of destructive flooding.

But some experts call such projects a “risky distraction” from tackling the true causes of climate change. “Our research shows that nearly all proposed geoengineering strategies fail a fundamental test: Do they reduce emissions and help end our reliance on fossil fuels?” Carroll Muffett, president of the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL), told DeSmog. In 2019, CIEL published a report saying that geoengineering climate solutions enables continued fossil fuel use.

In UAE, these electricity drones may be able to replenish the country’s dwindling aquifers, but shocking clouds doesn’t address the fact that the UAE has one of the highest rates of water consumption per capita in the world.

Update

Pushback Against Thacker Pass Mine Continues

As protesters continue to gather at a lithium mine site at Thacker Pass in northern Nevada, efforts to halt the mine have also been moving through the courts. To recap, in January the US Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved a mine operated by Vancouver-based Lithium Americas at the largest known lithium deposit in the US. The lithium would be used for lithium-ion batteries for green-energy battery storage and electric vehicles. (Read our Summer 2021 cover story, “The New Gold Rush.”)

In late May, four environmental groups filed a preliminary injunction in federal court to halt construction activity scheduled for as early as June. These four groups had previously sued the BLM for fast-tracking the mine’s approval. Their injunction says that mining activity would destroy wildlife habitat, but in late July, the Reno federal district court judge denied the injunction motion.

Then, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh Wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain joined the lawsuit filed by the environmental groups and filed their own injunction, which cites the National Historic Preservation Act and asks the court to halt digging without tribal consent. Thacker Pass is the site of a nineteenth-century massacre of Indigenous people. Building the mine at Thacker Pass, according to the affidavit filed by the tribes, “would be like building a lithium mine over Pearl Harbor, Arlington National Cemetery, or the Gettysburg Battlefield.” A hearing is expected to occur in coming months.

Meanwhile, people from Indigenous groups from across the state have also periodically convened at the federal courthouse in Reno to protest the lithium mine, while protesters continue to occupy the site.

Call of the Wild

Good from Afar

Getting out in nature has more than a few benefits for humans. It can provide a chance to unwind, help cultivate a conservation ethic, and improve our physical and mental health. But those benefits to the soul come at a cost.

Researchers have long known that human presence in parks and reserves impacts wildlife. Animals may run away, spend less time eating, abandon dens, and experience physiological changes like increased heart rates when humans are near. What they didn’t know, until recently, was that animals can suffer disruptions even when humans are rather far away.

photo of a backpacker in a mountain meadow
It’s not just close encounters with humans that can disturb wildlife. According to researchers, larger birds like hawks can be affected by humans some 400 meters away, and large mammals like moose may alter their behavior even when humans are more than a half-mile from them. Photo by David Volkert.

A recent review of more than 300 articles, published in Nature Conservation, found that small mammals can be impacted when humans are about 50 meters away, and small birds at 100 meters. Larger birds like hawks are affected at an even greater distance: 400 meters. And large mammals like moose may alter their behavior when humans are a whopping 1,000 meters — more than a half mile — from them. In general, the bigger the animal, the greater the distance at which they may be impacted by humans.

Much of the research the scientists reviewed looked at the distance between wildlife and either humans or trails. But some looked at other factors too, like crowding at parks, the volume of conversations, and the use of motorized vehicles. Some of these findings, too, were surprising.

For example, it’s not just motorized activities that have a significant impact on wildlife. As the research team wrote in The Conversation: “It’s harder for animals to detect quiet humans, so there’s a better chance that they’ll be surprised by a crosscountry skier than a snowmobile, for instance. In addition, some species that have historically been hunted are more likely to recognize — and flee from — a person walking than a person in a motorized vehicle.”

The researchers’ advice? Keep your distance, respect trail closures, and volunteer to help maintain undisturbed areas. And if you really want to see some wildlife, plan to take your binoculars.

Findings

Toxic Beauty

The research is in: Toxic PFAS chemicals aren’t just in our food packaging, nonstick pans, and cleaning products. They are also in the makeup we apply directly to our faces.

According to a study published in June in Environmental Science and Technology Letters, per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS — commonly referred to as “forever chemicals”— are present in many brands of lipstick, mascara, and foundation. That, despite the fact that most of the products tested don’t list PFAS as among their ingredients.

“Lipstick wearers may inadvertently eat several pounds of lipstick in their lifetimes,” Graham Peaslee, senior study author and a professor of physics at the University of Notre Dame, said in a statement. “But unlike food, chemicals in lipstick and other makeup and personal care products are almost entirely unregulated in the US and Canada. As a result, millions of people are unknowingly wearing PFAS and other harmful chemicals on their faces and bodies daily.”

The researchers tested 231 cosmetic products sold in the US and Canada for fluorine, which can indicate the presence of PFAS. They found high fluorine levels in many of the products, and conducted further analysis on those with the highest levels. All the products that underwent additional analysis had a least four concerning PFAS chemicals. Many of these items were advertised as “long-lasting” — PFAS chemicals are used to make them more durable.

PFAS, which can be ingested, as well as absorbed through the skin, are associated with a number of serious health impacts, including cancer, harm to the reproductive system, and metabolic changes. They do not break down in the environment. They also accumulate in the human body.

“This should be a wake-up call for the cosmetics industry,” said David Andrews, a senior scientist at the Environmental Working Group. “Some PFAS chemicals are highly toxic at very low doses, so no PFAS should be used in personal care products.”

Soon they may not be. Also in June, Senator Susan Collins (R-Maine) introduced the No PFAS in Cosmetics Act, which, as its name implies, would ban the use of PFAS in cosmetics. Soon after, Representative Debbie Dingle (D-Michigan) introduced similar legislation in the House.

Upwell

Seed by Seed

How about some good news from the coast? On Virginia’s Eastern Shore, a team of scientists has successfully restored around 9,000 acres of seagrass meadow after a 20-year effort, making it the largest seagrass restoration project in the world.

underwater photo of seagrass
Scientists have restored some 9,000 acres of seagrass off the US East Coast as part of the largest seagrass restoration project in the world. Photo by Claire Fackler.

In the 1930s, the US East Coast was hit by a wasting disease that killed swaths of eelgrass, which provides habitat for marine life, purifies water quality, protects coastlines from erosion, and stores a significant amount of carbon. Some researchers have also found that eelgrass traps and stores ocean plastics. By the end of the twentieth century, only small remnants of eelgrass remained in Virginia’s coastal bays.

In the late 1990s, Robert Orth, a now-retired marine biologist at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, dug up some of the remaining seagrass and transplanted it to barren areas. His transplants survived, but this process wasn’t scalable, so in 2001, he conscripted help from fellow scientists to scatter seagrass seeds from a moving boat. Researchers at the Nature Conservancy and the University of Virginia got involved, along with an army of volunteers. In the last 20 years, the team has sown nearly 75 million seeds.

In a paper he coauthored early in this project, Orth called seagrass the “ugly duckling” of coastal conservation, in contrast to “charismatic coral reefs.” Now, coastal restoration projects around the world see Virginia’s coastal bays as an example. “We’ve been using their science as a yardstick,” Richard Unsworth, a biologist at Swansea University, Wales who is restoring seagrass along the Welsh coast, told Reasons to be Cheerful. It may be seed-by-seed, but Virginia’s coast is evidence that restoring the ocean is indeed possible.