Germany, one of the world’s biggest coal consumers, might soon be moving away from the dirty fossil fuel. Now normally we would wholeheartedly peg this in the “good news” category, but unfortunately, this positive development comes with some caveats.
On January 26, the country’s coal commission recommended the nation phase out coal by 2038. The commission has outlined a plan that calls for retiring roughly a quarter of the country’s coal fleet by the end of 2022, spending $46 billion to support mining-reliant regions over the next two decades, and preserving parts of the Hambach Forest, where a German utility’s lignite mine sparked protests and court challenges last year.
“This is an historic accomplishment,” Ronald Pofalla, chairman of the 28-member coal commission, told reporters after a 21-hour negotiating session that concluded at 6 a.m. on January 26. The breakthrough ended seven months of wrangling between parties as diverse as unions, industry reps, energy utilities, government actors, and environmentalists, all of whom are part of the commission. “It was anything but a sure thing. But we did it,” Pofalla said.
While the announcement marks a significant shift for a country that has been defaulting on its target of reducing emissions to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, the phaseout plan falls short of meeting the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s benchmarks for emission reductions.
An analysis by the nonprofit Carbon Brief suggests that the if the current phaseout plan were put in place, Germany’s coal capacity would barely fall faster than a business-as-usual pathway over the next decade. This is because aging coal-fired power stations would be expected to retire by then anyway. Only after 2030 does the coal commission’s proposal start to significantly start to reduce more emissions than under the business as usual scenario.
Martin Kaiser, executive director of Greenpeace Germany and a member of the coal commission, says though the plan is “quite significant,” the 2038 phaseout date is “unacceptable” and climate activists would continue pushing for an earlier phaseout date. “We made it very clear that we are not putting consensus on that one,” he told E&E News. “But in general, I think the entry into the phaseout of the coal is what we needed now.”
The big green organizations have known for some time that they have a diversity problem. But that hasn’t quite translated into addressing it. In fact, a new report by Green 2.0 — an initiative dedicated to increasing racial diversity in the environmental field — indicates that diversity at large environmental nonprofits and foundations is actually declining.
According to the “diversity report card,” which was based on self-reported 2017 and 2018 data from the top 40 nonprofits and top 40 foundations in the US, environmental foundations in particular are getting low marks when it comes to diversity. The number of people of color holding senior staff positions at green foundations, for example, saw a drastic drop from 33 percent to 4 percent between 2017 and 2018. Full-time staff and board positions saw declining diversity as well. Environmental nonprofits fared a bit better — the percentage of people of color in senior staff positions rose slightly in the sector, though boards and other staff became whiter on the whole.
“Communities of color bring to bear experience and perspective on both problems and pathways to power building,” Green 2.0 Executive Director Whitney Tome said in a press statement. “As an organization, we plan to take a more aggressive approach to calling out the environmental movement for their lack of diversity. This is just the beginning. Environmental groups are now on notice.”
Women are doing a bit better than people of color when it comes to representation in the movement. They hold the majority of full time staff positions at both foundations and nonprofits. They also hold the majority of senior staff positions, though this percentage is low relative to overall organizational makeup. Men still hold the majority of board positions, and their representation on boards actually grew between 2017 and 2018.
UP IN THE AIR
We all have some idea of how smoke from wildfires impacts public health, but what does it do to plant health? Is that even something we should be concerned about? It appears that we should. Apparently, particle pollution from big wildﬁres, similar to those that ravaged parts of California recently, aﬀect the growth of forests and crops hundreds of kilometers from the fire impact zones.
A new study that examined the effects of two byproduct pollutants of wildﬁres — ozone and aerosols — has found that these pollutants impact plant growth and productivity even in areas that are seemingly unaﬀected by the destructive natural disasters. “Globally, over the past decade, ﬁre ozone pollution reduced plant productivity substantially more than estimated drought losses,” says Nadine Unger of the University of Exeter’s mathematics department, who conducted the study with Professor Xu Yue of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in Beijing.
Using computer models, together with a vast array of existing datasets, to assess the separate and combined eﬀects of ﬁre pollutants from 2002 to 2011, the researchers found that these substances signiﬁcantly reduced a plant’s capacity for photosynthesis — the process by which plants use sunlight to synthesize foods from carbon dioxide and water — even in areas hundreds of kilometers downwind from the wildfire. Their research, which was published in the journal Nature Communications in December, found that crops and vegetation in sub-Saharan Africa were particularly vulnerable to ﬁre ozone pollution damage.
The study suggests that the ecological impact of fire-related air pollution is far greater than previously thought, potentially impacting crop production that is crucial to the survival of remote rural communities.
Imagine making the long journey to Northern Europe all the way from Africa, hunting around for a place to build a home in hopes of raising young ones, finding a nice cozy spot, and settling in, only to have the irate original occupant of the place return and slash you to death and proceed to eat your brains. That’s the grim story playing out for many male pied flycatchers as our warming world shifts the onset and intensity of seasons across the world.
The pied flycatcher, a small migratory bird that spends winters in Africa and returns to Europe in spring to breed, is known to build its nest on top of the previously constructed nest of a resident woodland bird in Europe — the great tit. The behavior, which has been dubbed “nest take-over,” can sometimes lead to fatal conflicts when improperly executed. Pied flycatchers are often able to drive great tits away from their nesting sites by flying around them as they are attempting to settle into a nest. But, if a flycatcher manages to enter a nest that hasn’t yet been abandoned, the bigger, stronger great tit will kill it and eat its brains.
While great tits typically breed two weeks earlier than pied flycatchers, there are some years when, due to seasonal variations, the breeding periods of both species overlap, and when that happens, the birds are in direct competition for resources, which includes not just nests, but also their key food source when they are raising their young — caterpillars.
Now, according a new study published in Current Biology in January, climate change is causing an uptick in the frequency of this overlap and leading to an increasing number of nest-seeking male flycatchers being killed by male great tits guarding their nests.
The study, by University of Groningen biologists, analyzed ten years’ worth of data on flycatcher fatalities in great tit nest boxes in the Netherlands and found that ﬂycatcher fatalities were higher in mild winter years.
Milder winters, one result of climate change, increase the survival rates of great tits, so the number of breeding great tits is higher in those years, explains Jelmer Samplonius, lead author of the study. More great tits mean fewer empty nests and, therefore, more competition for the flycatchers. “Both species need to time the birth of their young with a peak in the availability of caterpillars,” Samplonius says. This peak is linked to the appearance of the first leaves on trees, and higher average temperatures mean that this period has shifted to earlier in the year.
While both birds are responding to this shift in seasonal patterns — greater tits by laying their eggs earlier during warmer winters or building their nests later during colder springs, and pied flycatchers by migrating to Europe earlier — the flycatcher’s adaptation is not as good as that of the great tits.
The researchers found the biggest problems occur in colder springs, when tits start building their nests relatively late but the flycatchers still arrive early. “In this situation, the overlap in breeding time is greatest, and so is the number of conflicts,” Samplonius says, noting that in some years great tits killed up to 10 percent of male flycatchers inside a nesting box in just two weeks of competition.
Interestingly, the researchers found that these murders didn’t seem to have an impact on pied flycatcher populations, yet. That’s because the males killed were usually those that arrived late in the season (and tried to make their way into tit-occupied nests) and often wouldn’t have found females to breed with anyway. But, of course, that could change.
Yet another one for the “worse than you thought” pile that seems to be growing by the day: The world’s oceans are warming much faster than previously thought. Specifically, researchers say they are heating up 40 percent faster than the UN International Panel on Climate Change estimated in 2013.
Prior to this analysis, published in January in the journal Science, climate models had consistently projected larger increases in ocean temperatures than those detected in observational studies, a source of frustration to climate scientists. The new analysis compiled information from four recent studies, three of which essentially correct for calibration errors and biases resulting from older temperature-measuring equipment. The results confirm that oceans are warming at a rate consistent with modeling. Which means they are getting hot: Though 2018 was not the hottest year on record for surface temperatures — it was the fourth hottest — it was the warmest for ocean temperatures, disproving the notion that climate change is slowing down any time soon.
“If you want to see where global warming is happening, look in our oceans,” says Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper. “Ocean heating is a very important indicator of climate change, and we have robust evidence that it is warming more rapidly than we thought.”
So far, oceans have provided an important climate buffer, slowing surface warming by absorbing an estimated 93 percent of greenhouse gases emitted by humans. But that buffering comes with a cost. As ocean temperatures increase, sea levels rise due to thermal expansion of the water. Warming waters also contribute to the melting of glaciers and ice sheets. (Researchers have just discovered a massive underwater cavity in Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier that is almost 1,000 feet tall and roughly two-thirds the area of Manhattan.) Other repercussions include loss of ocean life, reorganization of marine ecosystems, and increasing frequency of devastating storms similar to Hurricane Florence in 2018.
The silver lining, perhaps, is that the analysis provides some clarity. As Hausfather says, “The fact that these corrected records now do agree with climate models is encouraging in that is removes an area of big uncertainty that we previously had.”
CALL OF THE WILD
There’s more than one creature in the world that tends to bury its head in the sand — including the current US president, who prefers to ignore the unpleasant reality of climate disruption. Now, that kind of attitude is hardly inspiring, but then again, some folks find inspiration in the oddest of places. So it has come to pass that Donald Trump is the inspiration behind the name bestowed upon a newly-discovered, blind, ground-burrowing, worm-like, limbless amphibian in Panama.
The creature’s name, Dermophis donaldtrumpi, was chosen by sustainable building materials company EnviroBuild, which paid $25,000 to name it as part of a fundraiser for the conservation group Rainforest Trust.
On EnviroBuild’s blog, the group’s co-founder Aidan Bell compared the amphibian’s habit of burrowing its head in the sand to the president’s behavior in regard to climate change. “The amphibians live almost entirely underground, believed to have lost their limbs at least 60 million years ago, as an adaptation to burrowing. Burrowing its head underground helps Donald Trump when avoiding scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change,” he wrote.
Bell believes the name is fitting because Dermophis donaldtrumpi, like other amphibians, is “particularly susceptible to the impacts of climate change and is therefore in danger of becoming extinct as a direct result of its namesake’s climate policies.”
This is not the first time an animal has been named after Trump. In 2017, a new moth species discovered in California and Mexico was christened Neopalpa donaldtrumpi because of the yellowish-white scales on its head that bore a striking resemblance to the president’s hair.
But as advocates of all things living, we can’t help but wonder — did these poor critters really deserve to be named after a bumbling despot?
For years — decades, really — we’ve known we need to curb our greenhouse gas emissions. That to continue burning so many fossil fuels would eventually lead to devastating climate chaos. That eventually, we’d reach a point of no return when it came to heating our planet. And yet, in December, scientists announced that our global carbon dioxide emissions are still growing.
In a report released by the Global Carbon Project, researchers estimated that all told, carbon emissions increased by about 2.7 percent in 2018, following on the heels of a 1.6 percent increase in 2017. Before that, the world had seemed poised, finally, for progress on climate change — emissions had plateaued for three straight years.
Scientists described the increasing emissions rate in 2018, much of which can be attributed to increasing oil use, as a “speeding freight train,” The New York Times reports. “We’ve seen oil use go up five years in a row,” said Rob Jackson, an earth system science professor at Stanford and lead author of an editorial about the study’s findings published in Environmental Research Letters. “That’s really surprising.”
Unfortunately, emissions may continue to rise. As Jackson writes, “additional increases in 2019 remain uncertain but appear likely because of persistent growth in oil and natural gas use and strong growth projected for the global economy.”
The 2018 jump can be traced in part to increasing emissions in several key countries, including China, India, and the United States. Indeed, an analysis released by the Rhodium Group in January estimates that emissions in the US increased by 3.4 percent in 2018. That represents the largest increase since the 2010 recession and the second largest emissions increase in the country in two decades.
Earlier in 2018, scientists gave us some other dire numbers: We have until just 2030 to dramatically reduce emissions if we want to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and thus avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Given recent trends in global emissions, it might be hard to hold out hope that we’ll get there. But there’s always a chance 2019 will be the year global emissions trajectories begin to dip.
It’s no news that Trump plays a little fast and loose with the facts, particularly when it comes to things like the environment, immigration, and his own accomplishments. By now we also know that he won’t go down in history books at an especially pro-science president. But exactly how frequently has he parted ways with or even attacked science since he became president? According to the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), at least 80 times.
In a January report, the group documents dozens of incidents in which Trump has shut scientists out of decision-making processes, suppressed scientific studies, and politicized scientific grants. They outline how his administration has ignored climate science, undercut essential environmental and public health protections, restricted the ways in which federal scientists communicate with the public, and censored scientific language.
“The administration is trying to accomplish its goals by pushing science out of the process,” Jacob Carter, UCS research scientist and lead author of the report, said in a press statement. “After two years, it’s clear that this administration values neither the work of federal scientists nor the health and safety of the public. Science is being silenced, in a truly unprecedented way — and we’re all paying the cost.”
Though the administration’s science suppressing instincts can be seen across various agencies working on everything from taxes to LGBTQ rights, the report points to two agencies as particularly notable: the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of the Interior. According to the report, Trump’s appointees to these agencies “stand out for their glaring conflicts of interest and their hostility to the science-based mission of their agencies.” (Read “On Thin Ice)
Scientists, advocates, and politicians have been doing what they can to push back against this sustained attack on science. And as UCS suggests in a hopeful ending to an otherwise dark report, perhaps the new Congress can serve as a check on the Trump administration by doing all it can to protect the environment and promote public health over the next two years.
In a decision that has rallied pipeline protesters and Dr. Seuss fans alike, a federal appeals court in Virginia quoted The Lorax in its ruling rejecting a key United States Forest Service (USFS) permit for the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline. In December, the court issued a 60-page decision excoriating the Forest Service for giving in to industry interests and falling short of its duty to steward public lands.
“We trust the United States Forest Service to ‘speak for the trees, for the trees have no tongues,’” wrote Judge Stephanie D. Thacker, quoting Dr. Seuss’s classic 1971 book The Lorax, in the decision. “A thorough review of the record leads to the necessary conclusion that the Forest Service abdicated its responsibility to preserve national forest resources.”
The Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a multibillion-dollar project led by Dominion Energy, would carry natural gas from West Virginia to North Carolina, and was slated to cross both the George Washington and Monongahela national forests. Though the USFS initially raised environmental questions about the project, these serious concerns “were suddenly, and mysteriously, assuaged in time to meet a private pipeline company’s deadlines,” the opinion states.
As The Washington Post reports, though initially asked to submit ten possible routes for the pipeline, in late 2016 Dominion submitted just two to the Forest Service. Both routes passed through National Forest land and crossed the Appalachian Trail — an apparent effort to avoid alternative routes that would require crossing the trail on land managed by the National Park Service. The Park Service had made clear that it would not approve an Appalachian Trail crossing without congressional support.
In approving the pipeline the USFS had violated both the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Forest Service Management Act, the court said. What’s more, the judges held that the Forest Service does not have the authority to approve an Appalachian Trail crossing as the trail is part of the national parks system.
Thacker’s opinion followed on the heels of another 4th Circuit decision that suspended several US Fish and Wildlife Service permits for the pipeline due to concern about how the project would impact four endangered species: the Indiana bat, clubshell mussel, Madison cave isopod (a freshwater crustacean), and the rusty-patched bumblebee. That suspension required a temporary halt to all work on the pipeline.
Dominion has indicated that it will appeal the decision. But for now, at least, those fighting the pipeline can celebrate — they’ve delayed one more cog in the US’ seemingly ever-expanding climate-warming machine.
AROUND THE WORLD
Americans just experienced the longest federal government shutdown in United States history. Throughout the 35-day funding lapse, which stretched from late December 2018 through late January 2019, some 800,000 federal employees were either furloughed or worked without pay. That included most National Park Service employees. Nonetheless, the National Park system remained open, a policy departure from other recent shutdowns. Visitors were free to tour national parks free of charge, and free of supervision or guidance.
The result? In many cases, trashed national treasures. Even the most responsible park-goers need to dispose of recyclables or use restrooms from time to time, a reality that quickly led to overflowing trash bins and filthy toilets. Less responsible visitors wreaked more havoc — reports abounded of hikers exploring off trail, cars exploring off-road, and in some cases, blatant vandalism to public lands.
Here are how some of the country’s national parks fared during the shutdown.
Sources: Minnesota public radio, The Guardian, Voyageurs National Park Association, National Park Service, The Washington Post, Slate, SF Gate, National Parks Traveler, The Sacramento Bee
Joshua Tree National Park, California
This Southern California treasure garnered some of the biggest parks-related headlines during the shutdown. Park Superintendent David Smith reported illegal camping, off-road vehicle use, vandalism, and human waste issues. Photos of chopped down Joshua trees circulated widely on the web, as did images of vulnerable trees strung with festive holiday lights. Local good Samaritans did what they could to collect trash, stock bathrooms with toilet paper, and advise tourists on best practices, but there’s only so much they could do.
Experts warn that the damage to the park’s delicate desert landscape could be long-lasting. “What’s happened to our park in the last 34 days is irreparable for the next 200 to 300 years,” former Park Superintendent Curt Sauer told The Guardian.
Isle Royale National Park, Michigan
In Isle Royale National Park, scientists have been studying the relationship between surging moose populations and declining wolf numbers for decades. Their ongoing, 60-year project has become the world’s longest running predator-prey relationship study. Every year, researchers head to the island for seven weeks of winter research and data collection. When federal funding lapsed, the National Park Service told researchers they would not be permitted to access the park. The timing couldn’t have been worse because four new wolves were introduced to the island last fall to bolster the canid population on the island, which had dwindled to two by 2017.
Thankfully, when the shutdown ended in late January, researchers were able to quickly proceed to the park, though they probably won’t be able to collect a full seven weeks of data. In the meantime, the polar vortex happened, and taking advantage of an ice bridge that formed between Isle Royale and the mainland, one reintroduced female wolf returned to mainland Minnesota on Jan 31. The researchers, however, are moving ahead with plans to introduce additional wolves to the park this winter.
Shenandoah National Park, Virginia
Like Isle Royale, research in Shenandoah National Park suffered during the shutdown when ecologists were prevented from collecting water samples for their federally funded watershed study. The missing samples represent the first data gap since the study, which examines how forests are recovering from the effects of acid rain, began in the early 1980s.
The shutdown could also have lasting impacts on local wildlife. Shenandoah has one of the highest black bear densities in North America, for example, and locals worry that overflowing trash cans could attract bears, habituating them to parts of the park highly trafficked by humans. That, in turn, could lead to human-bear conflicts.
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Often listed among the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, Grand Canyon National Park is among the US’ most visited national parks. Good thing that it’s among the most prepared as well. In early 2018, when the federal government flirted with a shutdown, Arizona Governor Doug Ducey issued an executive order to run the park with state funds in the event of a federal funding lapse. That order came in handy during the winter shutdown, allowing Grand Canyon National Park to continue offering trash services, restroom maintenance, and certain other limited services.
Voyageurs National Park, Minnesota
It’s virtually impossible to close Voyageurs National Park — there are just too many access points. During the shutdown, that posed a safety hazard given that most winter recreation in the park — including skiing, ice fishing, and snowmobiling — occurs on frozen lakes.
The park received special funding from a local nonprofit during the shutdown, which helped pay for a few staff to groom trails, assess ice safety, and keep the visitors center open for two weekends, though emergency and rescue services remained limited during the shutdown.
Compiled by Cindy Xin
CALL OF THE WILD
Everyone likes a good spy story, right? Well a few years ago, the international community got a great one.
Between 2016 and 2018, dozens of staff at the United States embassy in Cuba reported a range of maladies, from nausea, to vertigo, to headaches. The illnesses followed what staff described as loud, piercing sounds. The US responded to the strange reports by blaming Cuban secret agents for mounting sonic attacks, and by promptly removing most embassy staff from the island. Well, it seems this response may have been a bit hasty. New research suggests that the “sonic weapons” might have been crickets.
To be a bit more specific, in a study presented at the annual meeting of the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology in January, researchers reported that the mystery noises reported by embassy staff were the echoing sounds of the Indies short-tailed cricket. The Indies cricket is known to live in the Florida Keys, Jamaica, and Grand Cayman, but the two-person research team — composed of Alexander Stubbs of the University of California, Berkeley, and Fernando Montealegre-Z of the University of Lincoln in England — suggested that the invertebrate may live in Cuba as well. (Cuban scientists themselves suggested a similar insect-related theory for the “attacks” in 2017, though they pointed to the Jamaican field cricket as the likely culprit.)
The scientists came to their conclusion by comparing recordings of the embassy sound to recordings of the sounds of hundreds of insects. They didn’t find a perfect match, however, until they accounted for the echo that would likely accompany a recording made indoors, as was likely the case with the embassy one. That’s when they matched the sonic footprint with the call of the Indies cricket, which “matches, in nuanced detail, the … recording in duration, pulse repetition rate, power spectrum, pulse rate stability, and oscillations per pulse,” they wrote in their analysis.
The researchers have been careful to note that they can’t rule out an attack of some sort, cricket-related or not. They’ve simply demonstrated that the sound reported by embassy staff was, most likely, that of a nonnative insect.
Japan has finally dropped all pretense of killing whales for “scientific research” and announced it will resume hunting whales for meat this July, in defiance of the 1986 global ban on commercial whaling that helped bring many whale species back from the brink of extinction.
The Japanese government’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in December that the country’s fleet would confine its hunts to Japanese territorial waters and exclusive economic zone, and would end its annual expeditions to the Southern Ocean, which have received consistent opposition over the years from other nations and conservation groups. He also said that the country would leave the International Whaling Commission in June.While this leaves the Southern Hemisphere free of whaling for the first time in centuries, it’s bad news for whales in Japan’s national waters, which stretch for 1.7 million square miles around the country’s coastlines.
Word is that Japanese whalers aren’t happy with the decision, since the end of government-funded “research” whaling could mean the end of the subsidies they had been receiving so far. The whalers need these subsidies because there isn’t much of a market for whale meat left in Japan, says Dave Phillips, executive director of Earth Island’s International Marine Mammal Project. In fact, a great deal of the meat from past hunts ended up sitting in freezer warehouses due to lack of demand. Additionally, he points out, contamination of whale meat will also be a problem for the government, as whales in the Northern Hemisphere are exposed to more chemical pollutants, like mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), than their counterparts in Antarctica.
The move also leaves Japan vulnerable to economic sanctions from the US under the Pelly Amendment — which allows the US president to embargo any and all fisheries products from countries that violate conservation treaties, in this case, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. There is also the Packwood/Magnuson Amendments of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which allows the president to block foreign fleets from access to US fisheries if their country is seen to have reduced the effectiveness of an international conservation program.
However, it will be up to the Trump administration to issue such sanctions. Given how Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has been cozying up to Trump, that seems unlikely at the moment.
In the long run though, Japan might have just shot itself in the foot on this matter, says Phillips. For the sake of the whales, let’s hope he’s right.
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