Talking Points: Autumn 2022

News in Brief

Black Gold Rakes It In

We’ve known for some time now that the fossil fuel industry is reaping massive profits at the expense of our environment and global climate. But now, we know just how exceptional those profits are.

According to a new analysis of the industry’s earnings, oil and gas companies, along with petrostates, have made an average of $1 trillion every year in pure profits since 1970. That’s $2.8 billion per day.

“I was really surprised by such high numbers — they are enormous,” Aviel Verbruggen, the author of the analysis and an energy and environmental economist at the University of Antwerp, Belgium, told The Guardian. “It’s a huge amount of money. You can buy every politician, every system with all this money, and I think this happened. It protects [producers] from political interference that may limit their activities.”

Oil and gas companies bring in profits of around $2.8 billion per day, a new study finds, underscoring the economic power that advocates for a clean-energy future are up against. Photo by Extinction Rebellion.
Oil and gas companies bring in profits of around $2.8 billion per day, a new study finds, underscoring the economic power that advocates for a clean-energy future are up against. Photo by Extinction Rebellion.

The study relied on World Bank data regarding oil and gas “rents,” a term that refers to the unearned profits associated with oil and gas sales after production costs have been deducted. Though the study is yet to be published, in July experts with the University College London, the London School of Economics, and the thinktank Carbon Tracker confirmed its findings.

“Over the last 50 years, companies have made a huge amount of money by producing fossil fuels, the burning of which is the major cause of climate change,” said Paul Ekins, a professor at University College London. “At the very least these companies should be investing a far greater share of their profits in moving to low-carbon energy than is currently the case.”

Unfortunately, things don’t exactly seem poised to change. The industry’s profits are expected to reach $2 trillion in 2022, twice as high as the annual average over the past half-a-century. What’s more, remaining fossil fuel reserves represent an estimated $100 trillion in potential additional profits, profits that fossil fuel companies and petrostates will have to forego if we are to contain the climate crisis. So far, they have shown little willingness to do so.

Call of the Wild

Fluttering on the Edge

The iconic orange and black migratory monarch butterfly — among the most beloved insects in North America — is now officially endangered: In July, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature added migratory monarchs — a subspecies of the monarch butterfly known for its mind-blowing annual migration — to its Red List of Threatened Species.

photo of a monarch butterfly
The monarch butterfly is officially endangered. Photo by C Watts.

It’s not hard to see how the IUCN came to this decision. There are two populations of migratory monarchs, and both have suffered stunning population declines in recent decades.

The western population — which migrates from overwintering sites along the Pacific Coast in California and Mexico to breeding grounds west of the Rocky Mountains — is barely holding on. Its numbers plummeted an estimated 99.9 percent between 1980 and 2021, from some 10 million butterflies to just under 2,000. The eastern population — which travels up to 2,500 miles from overwintering sites in Mexico to breeding grounds in the Midwestern US and southern Canada — declined by an estimated 84 percent between 1996 and 2014.

“It’s been so sad to watch their numbers decline so much, so anything that might help them makes me happy, and I think that this designation might help them,” Karen Oberhauser, a conservation biologist at the University of Wisconsin who contributed to the assessment, told The New York Times. “Although it’s sad that they need that help, that they’ve reached the point where this designation is warranted.”

The IUCN cited several factors that have contributed to the butterfly’s rapid decline, including deforestation, extensive agricultural use of pesticides and herbicides, which are responsible for killing butterflies as well as milkweed, the only plant monarchs eat and lay their eggs on, and climate change.

THE FOREST & THE TREES

Hurts to Laugh

Wish we could laugh at this: In July, a Dutch company Land Life that sells forest carbon offsets accidentally set off a wildfire in Spain that burned tens of thousands of acres and led to the evacuation of some 20,000 people in five neighboring towns.

Land Life said in a press release that the fire began on July 18 at one of its sites in the Ateca region in Aragon, Spain, when one of its contractors was using an excavator to “prepare the soil to plant trees later this summer,” accidentally setting off sparks that ignited nearby vegetation.

The company said no one has been injured in the fire; however, according to a report in Vice, the fire burned through at least 34,500 acres of land. This is not the first forest fire caused by Land Life — on June 20, it sparked another wildfire that wiped out 49 acres. But local officials criticized Land Life for working in the middle of the day during peak wildfire season and at a time Spain was experiencing a grueling heatwave.

While planting trees is definitely good for the planet, it’s now well established that forest carbon offsets, which allow companies to continue polluting as long as they pay to save or plant forests somewhere, is basically a version of greenwashing. So, as journalist Molly Taft points out in Gizmodo, there is a “deep irony” in “a company scrambling to plant seedlings in a climate-ravaged hellscape so that other companies can claim carbon offsets — and then setting a fire because it’s too damn dry.”

Temperature Gauge

American Humidor

Summers in the US aren’t just getting hotter, they are also getting sweatier. That’s because climate change is having an impact on temperature and humidity, and a combination of high humidity and extreme heat multiplies heat-related health risks in many places, according to a new analysis by Climate Central, an independent consortium of scientists and communicators.

photo of a tv aerial at sunset
A combination of high humidity and extreme heat is multiplying heat-related health risks in many places in the United States, says study. Photo by Michael Levine-Clark.

“When it comes to heat, focusing on air temperature alone misses the changes in humidity — and underestimates how our warming planet affects our health and weather extremes,” the report notes, pointing out that an accurate measure in air temperature and humidity, called equivalent temperature, shows more change than measurements of dry heat alone.

The group’s research shows where many parts of the country are facing muggier summers. Heat maps using equivalent temperature demonstrate that much of the US, especially the Midwest, is experiencing greater danger. “These increases in equivalent temperature mean greater heat-related health risks for vulnerable populations, including children, older adults, athletes, outdoor workers, and communities of color,” the group says.

The North Central and Midwest regions “have seen relatively modest increases in summer air temperatures since 1950 compared with other US regions,” the report notes. “But based on equivalent temperature, those regions have experienced an exceptional rise in humid heat and its associated risks.”

Other regions of the country facing higher equivalent temperatures include the Northern Plains and coastal California. Extreme heat represents a cause of preventable death and illness. The Centers for Disease Control notes that extreme summer heat is increasing, causing 700 deaths, 9,200 hospitalizations, and 62,000 trips to the emergency room each year.

FUTURE TENSE

Bio-Cement

Around the world, cement and steel form an unrivaled duo when it comes to construction. Unfortunately, together they create a lot of greenhouse gas emissions, due mostly to the processes that create them. But researchers in Colorado have found a way to green-up that footprint: biological cement.

Engineers at the University of Colorado Boulder teamed up with the Algal Resources Collection at the University of North Carolina Wilmington and the National Renewable Energy Lab to produce cement formed from algae.

Typical construction cement is based on limestone burned at high temperatures — a process that is responsible for 7 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions. In this new method researchers have invented, microalgae grow the limestone, pulling carbon dioxide from the air as they do so. This creates a carbon-negative method of producing a main ingredient in cement.

Researchers estimate that if worldwide cement production were replaced with this method, it would save 2 gigatons of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere and pull an additional 250 million tons of carbon dioxide out. “We see a world in which using concrete as we know it is a mechanism to heal the planet,” says Wil Srubar, lead principal investigator on the project and associate professor at CU Boulder’s Materials Science and Engineering Program.

TEMPERATURE GAUGE

Hotter Earth. Sicker Earth

Global warming exacerbates the spread of diseases; researchers have known that for a while. But until now there had been no comprehensive documentation of just how far-reaching the impact could be. A new study that sought to close this gap in knowledge found that more than half of all the known diseases that infect humans have been worsened by changes in climate.

photo of a child inside a mosquito net
A recent study found that a vast majority of diseases that are dangerous to humans, such as malaria, will spread wider under a warming global climate. The authors warn that the spread of these diseases could outstrip humanity’s capacity to adapt. Photo by U.S. AID Kenya and East Africa.

Researchers led by the University of Hawai‘i at Manoa’s department of geography reviewed scientific literature for 375 infectious diseases in relation to a list of 10 climate hazards, from heat waves and drought to flooding and changes in ocean patterns, to learn how these diseases were affected. They found that nearly 60 percent of these diseases, 218 in all, were aggravated by climate hazards that also hampered people’s ability to cope with severe ailments. Only 16 percent, nine in all, were diminished. Others benefited at times and suffered at others.

Malaria, for example, is often exacerbated by climate conditions benefiting mosquitoes that carry the disease, including rain or floods, but is often slowed during drought. And while cholera is helped by drought and floods — both of which are increasing as the planet warms — it spreads faster during drought.

The authors of the study, published in the August issue of Nature Climate Change, noted that the number of diseases and their pathways were “too numerous for comprehensive societal adaptations, highlighting the urgent need to work at the source of the problem: reducing [greenhouse gas] emissions.”

“This study underscores how climate change may load the dice to favor unwelcome infectious surprises,” Dr. Aaron Bernstein, interim director of the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard School of Public Health, who was not involved with the research, told the Associated Press. “But of course it only reports on what we already know, and what’s yet unknown about pathogens may be yet more compelling about how preventing further climate change may prevent future disasters like Covid-19.”

Around the World Map

Refuse, Rethink, Redesign

“Reduce, reuse, recycle” has been a mantra of the environmental movement for decades, a catchy phrase reminding us that resources are finite and encouraging us to tread a bit more lightly on Earth. Still, our consumption and waste generation have continued to grow, prompting the zero waste movement to build on this concept and work to shift our focus from end-of-life waste solutions like recycling towards a broader rethinking of what we use and how we use it. In the process, the movement has expanded the three “Rs,” adding principles like refuse, rethink, redesign, along with materials recovery, and rot.

Faced with rising environmental and climate footprints, a growing number of cities around the world are now finding inspiration in the zero waste concept — and setting their own ambitious zero-waste goals. To reach them, cities are adopting a range of strategies, from mandatory recycling and composting programs to disposal fee systems to repair and resale centers. Here are a few of cities leading the way on the quest towards a zero waste future.

graphic depicting the continents of the Earth

Sources: Alliance to End Plastic Waste, Balkan Green Energy News, C40 Knowledge Hub, Down to Earth, Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives, Gulf News, Mashable, TimeOut, World Economic Forum, Zero Waste Europe

1 Capannori, Italy

Capannori’s zero waste journey began way back in 1997, when locals mounted a fight against the construction of an incinerator in their town. A decade later, the Tuscan city became the first in Europe to adopt a zero waste goal, setting 2020 as a deadline. Since then, the government has implemented a door-to-door waste collection system, introduced a “pay as you throw” fee system, created a zero waste research center, and opened a facility for repair and resale of used items. Though Capannori hasn’t yet become fully zero waste, its efforts launched a movement. Today, 462 other European cities have set their own zero waste goals, 326 in Italy alone. Earlier this year, Capannori celebrated another first — it became the first city in Italy, and third in Europe, to receive the continent’s official Zero Waste Cities Certification.

2 Dubai, United Arab Emirates

In 2018, nearly two dozen cities signed the Advancing Towards Zero Waste Declaration, put forward by the C40 global network of mayors. Dubai was one of them. The city, just one of two in the Middle East to sign the declaration, has set an ambitious goal of achieving zero landfill waste by 2030. To that end, the municipality has made waste separation mandatory and recently increased waste disposal fees for non-recyclables. It has also launched public education campaigns, including a “think twice when you shop” initiative.

3 Kamikatsu, Japan

In a country better known for high per-capita plastics use and low recycling rates, Kamikatsu has taken a different path. The small town in northwestern Japan became the country’s first municipality to adopt a zero waste goal — and it did so nearly two decades ago. Locals separate their waste into 45 different recycling types. By 2016, Kamikatsu had achieved an 81 percent recycling rate. Non-recyclable household items are sent to a local shop where they are available free to neighbors. The town has also gotten creative in tackling certain challenging waste items — for example, new parents are given free reusable diapers to encourage a shift away from single-use alternatives.

4 Pune, India

Informal waste pickers have played a pivotal role in Pune’s waste reduction trajectory. These collectors — nearly all women — traditionally pick recyclables from overflowing roadside containers as the municipal government struggles to keep up with waste collection. They sell the recyclables to make a living. In 1993, hundreds of workers came together in Pune to form the country’s first waste pickers union and push for improved working conditions. In the process, they drew attention to the city’s waste-management challenges, implemented a system for source separation and door-to-door waste collection, and a program to divert organic waste from landfills. By 2012, unionized workers were collecting waste from nearly half the city. That same year, they launched a formal zero-waste program in several neighborhoods to reduce trash as much as possible.

5 San Francisco, USA

In the United States, San Francisco was an early leader on zero waste. The City by the Bay became the first large municipality in the country to announce a zero waste goal back in 2002. Among other measures aimed at reducing waste, San Francisco began requiring that food vendors use recyclable or compostable food containers by 2007, banned certain single-use plastic bags that same year, made recycling and composting mandatory in 2009, and has pushed for statewide measures that would hold producers responsible for their product waste.

While it had to extend its original zero wastwe timeline from 2020 to 2030, by 2012 the city had already managed to divert 80 percent of city waste from landfills, among the highest diversion rates in the world.

Findings

Recycle Rhetoric

At least 20 states now support a controversial method of plastic “recycling” that may do more harm than good, a new analysis finds.

“Chemical recycling,” which often involves the high-heat destruction of plastic materials, has been gaining ground thanks to lobbying by the American Chemistry Council. The plastics industry group has been encouraging states to enact laws that “relax pollution regulations and/or provide subsidies” for processing facilities, according to a report by the nonprofit Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives (GAIA), a network of environmental activists that opposes the practice.

The new practice follows a decrease in plastic recycling nationwide, especially since 2018, when China stopped importing plastic waste. The process, sometimes called “advanced recycling,” breaks down plastics through pyrolysis, gasification, and solvolysis, creating new forms of air pollution, toxins and greenhouse gases. GAIA notes that some states like Oregon and Minnesota have stymied the practice by refusing to classify such processes as recycling.

FUTURE TENSE

Space Rides Heat Earth

Once a far-off vision entertained by science fiction writers and TV series, space travel for civilians is the newest form of tourism — at least for the ultra-wealthy — and it is quickly becoming one of the most striking illustrations of how the 1 percenters contribute to extreme pollution and climate change.

Space tourism could become a major source of greenhouse gas pollution and ozone depletion, especially when the impact of rocket launches are accounted for in the stratosphere. Photo by Jenny MCB.
photo of the launch of a rocket

It’s not just that a single 11-minute space flight releases at least 75 tons of carbon per passenger — nearly five times the average annual carbon footprint for a person in the US. A recent study confirmed that, if projections for the industry’s growth prove correct, space tourism could quickly lead to significant global warming while depleting the ozone layer. The study, published in the journal Earth’s Future, focused on the black carbon, or soot, that is released by combusting rocket fuel, which absorbs sunlight and releases thermal energy, contributing to global warming.

At lower altitudes, black carbon falls from the sky, only staying in the atmosphere for days or weeks. But rockets in space emit black carbon and other chemicals directly into the stratosphere, where it remains for up to four years. That makes black carbon from rockets almost five hundred times more destructive to the climate than all other sources of soot combined.

Rockets also run on solid, chlorine-based fuels, which release ozone-destroying chlorine into the stratosphere, as well as nitrogen oxides and other chemicals that deplete Earth’s ozone layer. Currently, black carbon emissions and ozone depletion from rockets occur at relatively low rates, but as the (currently virtually unregulated) industry ramps up, space tourism is poised to have a significant impact on climate change.

“We should think very carefully about regulating this industry before it gets out of hand,” Robert Ryan, a researcher at University College London and the study’s lead author, told Inside Climate News. “It would be a real shame for humanity to look back in 50 or 100 years when we’ve got thousands of rocket launches a year and think, ‘If only we’d done something.’”

FINDINGS

Worse than Tailpipes

When you think about pollution from cars, you’re likely thinking about what comes out the exhaust pipe. But new research shows that car tires may actually be the bigger culprit when it comes to particle pollution.

photo of a pile of used tires
Photo by Rolfe Kolbe.

Emissions Analytics, an independent emissions testing company, studied the particles produced by tire wear, and found that tires produce almost 2,000 times more particle pollution than is emitted from the exhaust pipes of modern cars. “Tires are rapidly eclipsing the tailpipe as a major source of emissions from vehicles,” Nick Molden, at Emissions Analytics, told The Guardian. “Tailpipes are now so clean for pollutants that, if you were starting out afresh, you wouldn’t even bother regulating them.” But while tailpipes have gotten cleaner over the years, thanks to regulations, tires remain virtually unregulated across the world, including in the US and European Union.

The researchers found that car tires produce over one trillion ultrafine particles for every kilometer driven, and that every year, 300,000 tons of tire rubber are released from vehicles in the US and UK. To make matters worse, as cars get heavier, tire wear increases. All cars are getting heavier on average, but electric vehicles are even heavier than conventional ones, though they are expected to become lighter relatively quickly.

The synthetic rubber used to make tires is usually derived from crude oil and contains hundreds of carcinogenic compounds. So, it’s not surprising that the particles released from tire wear contain a range of toxins, including known carcinogens.

FINDINGS

Today’s Acid Rain

If you are in the habit of sticking out your tongue to taste those first drops of rain or flakes of snow, stop! Rainwater and snowmelt across the globe are no longer safe to drink due to the persistence of cancer-causing “forever chemicals,” warns a group of researchers at the University of Stockholm in Sweden. The researchers found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, in rainwater in most locations on the planet, including Antarctica.

photo of someone hiding under an umbrella in a rainstorm
Under new guidelines, “forever chemicals” in precipiation should be considered dangerous. Photo by Edgardo W. Olivera.

As the dangers of PFAS are better understood, safety guidelines around exposure have changed. Under these more stringent, developing guidelines, no environmental precipitation should be considered safe, the researchers say.

“There has been an astounding decline in guideline values [i.e., the permissible amount] for PFAS in drinking water in the last 20 years,” Ian Cousins, the lead author of the study and professor at the Department of Environmental Science, Stockholm University, said in a statement. The safety guideline for cancer-causing perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA, for example, has declined by 37.5 million times in the US, he said. “Based on the latest U.S. guidelines for PFOA in drinking water, rainwater everywhere would be judged unsafe to drink.”

PFAS are characterized by chemical bonds that do not break down easily and were used in nonstick, waterproof and stain-repellent products, such as DuPont’s Teflon. They persist in the environment and are associated with cancer, learning disorders, behavioral disorders, infertility, immune system compromise, and pregnancy complications.

“The vast amounts that it will cost to reduce PFAS in drinking water to levels that are safe based on current scientific understanding need to be paid by the industry producing and using these toxic chemicals,” Dr. Jane Muncke, managing director of the Food Packaging Forum Foundation in Zürich, Switzerland, who was not involved in the research, said in a statement. “The time to act is now.”

call of the wild

Balancing Fail

It’s hard not to giggle watching a video of the adorable pumpkin toadlet (of the genus Brachycephalus) jump. Or rather, try to. The tiny frog’s leap starts as you might expect, with the amphibian using the power of its back legs to launch itself into the air. But things quickly start to go wrong. Almost as soon as it is airborne, the miniature frog — which is native to Brazil’s Atlantic Forest and is about the size of a honeybee — seems to lose all control, spinning off kilter before landing with a crash on its head, or its side, or its back.

photo of a tiny toad
Nobody’s perfect, especially not the pumpkin toadlet, which is famously bad at jumping. On the other hand, the tiny species is great at crash landing. Photo by Gaby Fachinelli.

The frog’s inability to control its trajectory is so complete that it captured the attention of a team of Brazilian and American researchers, including Confetti. And now they think they can point to the culprit behind the toadlets’ crash landings: the size of their vestibular system, the fluid-filled canals in vertebrates’ inner ears that help us keep our balance and stabilize our moving bodies.

The team took on the difficult task of finding the miniature frogs, which spend most of their time under leaves on the forest floor. After caputring members of four different species of pumpkin toadlet, they quickly confirmed that, yes, the frogs are terrible at sticking their landings. They then did CT scans of 147 different frog species, including pumpkin toadlets, for comparison and found that pumpkin toadlets had the smallest canals of any adult vertebrates. “Even though the canals are as big as they can possibly be relative to their heads, they’re still not big enough for the liquid to move at a rate that would allow them to maintain balance,” Edward Stanley, an associate scientist at the Florida Museum of Natural History and study co-author, told Mongabay. The researchers findings were published in Science Advances in June.

With the mystery of the frogs’ clumsy jumping solved, the pressing question becomes whether and how they will survive in the Atlantic Forest, the vast majority of which has been lost agriculture.

environmental justice

Seattle Audubon

The Seattle chapter of the National Audubon Society has voted to change its name, part of an ongoing reckoning among conservation groups with racist legacies.

The Seattle chapter, one of 450 nationwide, voted in July to drop the name associated with John James Audubon, who not only owned and sold enslaved Black people but also explicitly opposed abolition. Further, Audubon’s naturalist work appropriated observations of birds by Black and Indigenous people, the Seattle chapter noted on its website.

“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values,” Claire Catania, the executive director of the Seattle chapter, said in a statement. “Our members, volunteers, and staff are focused on a future where the perspectives and contributions of all people are valued — especially those who have been systemically excluded. The challenges facing humans and birds alike demand that we build a radically inclusive coalition to address them.”

The society’s national group has also been considering a name change for over a year, but hasn’t made an official decision yet.

A new name for the Seattle chapter was expected by October 2022, but following the vote, the organization’s website simply featured a strikethrough of Audubon’s name.

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