Talking Points: Spring 2021

News in Brief

UPDATE

White House Gone Green

President Joe Biden has wasted no time turning the White House 180 degrees from the direction Trump was leading it — particularly when it comes to climate change and the environment. Early in Biden’s term, the new administration has made a point to start overturning Trump-era environmental policies, realigning the federal government with science-based decision-making, and taking actionable steps on climate.

photo of border wall construction
President Biden’s climate agenda leans heavily on environmental justice. His day-one orders included pausing oil leasing in the Arctic Refuge and halting border wall construction — both projects that threatened culturally important and ecologically fragile lands. Photo by Jerry Glaser.

On day one, Biden signed more than a dozen executive orders — many of them in direct response to Trump’s denialism when it came to the climate crisis (as well as the Covid-19 pandemic and systemic racism). The first of those orders reentered the US in the Paris Agreement, putting the country back in the international pact to stem global warming. Trump had pulled the US out of the agreement in 2017, claiming the pact would impair the US economy. But experts have long warned of the cost of doing nothing about the climate crisis. In 2020 alone, climate events caused $60 billion in damages in the US, more than any other nation.

“The United States continues to be one of the world’s largest emitters of greenhouse gases,” White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said hours into Biden’s term. “We need to put in place policies and take steps to address that.”

Biden’s climate agenda also leans heavily on social and environmental justice. His day-one orders included pausing oil and gas leasing in the Arctic and halting construction on Trump’s border wall — both projects that threatened culturally important and ecologically fragile lands. He also revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed 1,200-mile system designed to carry crude oil across the US-Canada border through Indigenous lands.

A week into his administration, Biden announced another order that put a hold on oil and gas leasing on public lands and offshore waters as part of his commitment to conserve 30 percent of US lands and oceans by 2030. Part of this order also emphasizes the Biden administration’s investment in clean energy, particularly in places like Louisiana’s “cancer alley” where the oil industry has disproportionately polluted Black communities.

“He’s rebuilding trust with vulnerable communities, frontline communities, and with the federal family,” National Wildlife Federation’s Mustafa Ali, who served in the EPA’s environmental justice office under Obama, told Inside Climate News. “These orders serve as a north star for the direction the federal government will be moving in.”

Also on Biden’s to-do list: reviewing Trump’s hundreds of environmental rollbacks, including changes to the National Environmental Policy Act and rules on emissions standards. Fun fact: Columbia University’s “Climate Deregulation Tracker” has been rebranded as the “Reregulation Tracker” to document the current administration’s damage control.

UPWELL

Betting on Blue Gold

As has long been expected, water has finally joined gold, oil, and other commodities traded on Wall Street — a dark testament to how scarce this life-sustaining natural resource is expected to become in the future. The country’s first-ever water futures market launched on the Chicago Mercantile Exchange (CME) in early December with $1.1 billion in contracts tied to water prices in California.

A futures contract is an agreement to buy or sell an asset, in this case water, at a specific time in the future at an agreed-upon price. What this means is that now farmers, hedge funds, and municipalities will be able to make calculated bets on the future price of water and water availability in the Western states, which have been ravaged by prolonged dry seasons and extreme wildfires in recent years. The contracts are meant to protect the needs of big water consumers — like pistachio and almond farmers and electric utilities — against water price fluctuations. They will aslo act as a scarcity gauge for investors worldwide.

The United Nations has long warned that human-driven climate change is leading to severe droughts and more flooding, making water availability increasingly less predictable. Water conflicts are already intensifying all over the planet.

Those backing the introduction of water futures argue that it can help to more efficiently align supply and demand. Two billion people now live in nations plagued by water problems, and almost two-thirds of the world could face water shortages in just four years. Tim McCourt, global head of equity index and alternative investment products at CME, told Bloomberg News, “The idea of managing risks associated to water is certainly increased in importance.”

But while Wall Street players are looking at water trading as “a hot topic” to watch out for, environmentalists and human rights activists greeted the news with dismay. Many fear that turning this vital natural resource — access to which should be a basic human right — into a traded commodity incentivizes capitalizing on water-scarcity to make money.

They point out that fluctuating prices on the trading floor may indirectly affect the prices charged to consumers and could even make it profitable for water producers to lower the supply. They also worry that this move, especially if taken up by other global markets, could further fuel the movement to privatize water resources. (See “River of Discords”)

“What this represents is a cynical attempt at setting up what’s almost like a betting casino so some people can make money from others suffering,” Basav Sen, climate justice project director at the Institute for Policy Studies, told Earther. “My first reaction when I saw this was horror, but we’ve also seen this coming for quite some time.”

TEMPERATURE GAUGE

The Beacons Are Lit

In December, the government of New Zealand declared a climate change emergency, joining 32 other nations that have formally acknowledged the global crisis that Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called “one of the greatest challenges of our time.”

Ardern. Photo by Nevada Halbert.
Jacinda Ardern. Photo by Nevada Halbert.

The motion followed the warmest winter on record in New Zealand, when scientists logged temperatures 1.14 degrees Celsius above average. New Zealand has witnessed an “alarming trend in species decline and global biodiversity” due to such change, says the emergency motion, which also recognizes the economic and public health repercussions of failing to act on climate.

Ardern told parliament that, as part of the motion, the public sector will become carbon neutral by 2025. The motion also emphasizes New Zealand’s past climate legislation. Last year, it passed a law that commits the nation to reduce its carbon emissions to zero by 2050.

Some experts have criticized the motion as not doing enough. Robert McLachlan, a professor of applied mathematics at New Zealand’s Massey University, wrote in The Conversation that New Zealand is already well behind on its commitment to reduce emissions. He pointed out that on a list of 43 industrialized nations, New Zealand is among 12 that have increased net emissions in the last few decades.

FINDINGS

Instagramable, but Unhealthy

Proceed with caution if you’re using a wood burning stove to keep your home warm. Researchers in the United Kingdom recently discovered that wood burners triple the level of harmful pollution particles inside homes. The pollution exposure spikes significantly when stove doors are opened periodically to load wood.

The researchers used pollution monitors in people’s homes to assess indoor particle levels before and after a wood stove had been used. On average, using the burner contributed to particle levels between 27 and 195 micrograms per cubic meter of air. The World Health Organization limit for particulate matter is 25 micrograms over 24 hours. This study follows a 2019 review in the journal Chest that linked these types of particle levels to a wide range of health issues, from asthma to cardiovascular diseases, particularly in younger and older people.

Photo by Felipe Valduga.
Photo by Felipe Valduga.

“Every time you open the door, you reduce the stove to an open fire and particulate matter floods into the home,” Rohit Chakraborty, a researcher at the University of Sheffield who led the study, told The Guardian. In the new report, published in December in the journal Atmosphere, Chakraborty and his coauthors advise that wood burners be sold with a health warning and be minimally used around children and seniors.

CALL OF THE WILD

No Help for the Monarch

In a blur of orange and black, monarch butterflies flutter in our parks and backyard gardens. The monarch is one of the most easily recognized butterfly species, famous for its wing pattern, its seasonal migration, and the breathtaking spectacle of its hibernation, when millions of the humming insects create living curtains hanging off trees in the mountain forests.

In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service put the monarch butterfly on a waiting list for federal protection. Scientists say that wait could cost us the species. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson-USFWS.
In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service put the monarch butterfly on a waiting list for federal protection. Scientists say that wait could cost us the species. Photo by Joanna Gilkeson-USFWS.

But the monarch also hovers on the brink of extirpation. In Mexico, conservationists have been killed for trying to protect the iconic butterfly. The Trump administration, however, decided that the imperiled monarch is unworthy of protection. In December, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that the protection for monarchs under the Endangered Species Act is “warranted, but precluded by high priority actions.” That’s a gentle way of saying that the monarch butterfly has been put on a waiting list for federal listing, without protections.

Historically, monarch butterflies enjoyed free rein of much of the United States and Mexico, laying their eggs on milkweed plants often found in backyards, pastures, roadsides, and farm fields. Each year, they migrate. East of the Rockies, monarchs head for Mexico and Florida; in the American West, they overwinter on the central and southern coasts of California. But over the past few decades, their populations have dramatically declined. In 2020, fewer than 2,000 were counted in California — a steep fall from the more than one million counted in 1997. The eastern population has decreased by up to 85 percent. Without protection, scientists say, these populations face imminent collapse.

The federal decision means that the butterfly’s status will be reviewed annually until a listing is either proposed or denied. But scientists warn that the delay could cost us the iconic species. “Forty-seven species have gone extinct waiting for their protection to be finalized,” Tierra Curry, a scientist at the Center for Biological Diversity, said in a statement. “Monarchs are beautiful, they play important roles in nature and culture, and their migrations are jaw-dropping. We owe them and future generations an all-in commitment to their recovery.”

CALL OF THE WILD/UPWELL

Life and Death of Ocean Giants

Mixed news from the world of our ocean giants: Way too many gray whales are being found in poor health or dead along the west coast of Mexico, the US, and Canada. Meanwhile, there have been an “encouraging” number of sightings of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales off the southeastern US coast.

In mid-January, when the first gray whales from the eastern North Pacific population started to arrive in the breeding lagoons in Baja California, Mexico from their high latitude feeding grounds, observers reported several emaciated individuals. This has raised concern among scientists that the unusual mortality event that started in January 2019, which so far has resulted in 378 confirmed gray whale deaths and possibly many more unrecorded ones, is entering its third year.

A dead gray whale beached in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, in March 2019. It’s unclear why so many North Pacific gray whales are dying, but starvation due to lack of prey in their warming Arctic feeding grounds could be a contribting factor. Photo by Fabian Rodríguez-González.
A dead gray whale beached in Laguna San Ignacio, Mexico, in March 2019. It’s unclear why so many North Pacific gray whales are dying, but starvation due to lack of prey in their warming Arctic feeding grounds could be a contribting factor. Photo by Fabian Rodríguez-González.

It’s not exactly clear why the whales are dying, but a new international study published in the journal Marine Ecology Progress Series says that starvation due to lack of prey in their Arctic feeding grounds is likely a contributing cause.

Fredrik Christiansen of Aarhus University in Denmark, lead author of the study, says that access to food in the Bering Sea is to blame. “It appears that a large number of gray whales are leaving their feeding grounds already in a poor nutritional state and by the time they have completed the breeding season in Mexico they have depleted their energy reserves and starve to death,” he said in a statement.

The North Pacific population of gray whales numbered around 27,000 as of 2016. Their abundance in the region after being driven to near extinction by past whaling is considered a conservation success story. Researchers now fear that mass die-offs like this may become more frequent in the future as waters continue to warm up due to climate change, threatening the survival of this population of grays.

Meanwhile, on the other eastern end of the continent, wildlife officials reported an “encouraging” number of sightings of critically endangered North Atlantic right whales off the Georgia and Florida coasts in January, including at least 13 new calves, three born to first-time mothers. This is the best calving season the species has had in years, and with more than two months in the calving season remaining, officials were hopeful that more calves were on the horizon.

Scientists estimate that only around 356 right whales were alive at the end of 2019. Of those, fewer than 70 adult females are left.

The new sightings offer some hope for this critically endangered species, especially since, like their Pacific cousins, North Atlantic right whales have been experiencing an unusual mortality event, with 32 confirmed mortalities and 14 serious (non-survivable) injuries in US and Canadian waters since 2017. According to Defenders of Wildlife, these deaths have stemmed from two human threats: entanglements in commercial fishing ropes and vessel strikes.

“While these births are an encouraging sign, the continued threats underscore that we still have to redouble our efforts to protect these vulnerable babies and their mothers,” Jane Davenport, senior attorney at Defenders of Wildlife, warned in a statement.

AROUND THE WORLD

Time’s Up for Old Dams

About one-sixth of the world’s river discharge — enough to cover Australia’s landmass under a meter of water — is stored in the reservoirs behind large dams. But chances are, those dams are old and operating well beyond their design life, according to a new United Nations report.

The twentieth century saw a boom in the construction of large dams — defined as 15 or more meters in height or impounding more than 3 million cubic meters of water. There are 58,700 of these dams around the world, mostly built between 1930 and 1970. The life expectancy of large dams ranges from 50 to 100 years. That means that most large dams are now approaching or have surpassed their expiration date and pose a threat to ecosystems and nearby communities. Climate change has also accelerated the dam aging process. It’s time to talk about removing old dams on a large scale. “Dam decommissioning should be seen as equally important as dam building in the overall planning process on water storage infrastructure developments,” the UN report says.

So far, most dams that have been removed are small, but the process has already begun for some large dams. Here are some large dams that have been at least partially removed, or are under consideration for removal.

Source: United Nations

1 The Glines Canyon and Elwha dams (Washington, USA)

The Elwha River hosted a thriving ecosystem until the early 1900s, when a logging boom warranted the construction of two large hydroelectric dams to power the region. Through the rest of that century the Elwha’s salmon, trout, and lamprey suffered, with impacts on the economy and culture of the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe. Finally, after decades of advocacy, the dams were removed in phases starting in 2011, marking the largest dam removals in US history.

2 Mactaquac Dam (New Brunswick, Canada)

Built in 1968, Mactaquac Hydroelectric Generation Station is a 55-meter-high, kilometer-long dam that provides a fifth of New Brunswick’s energy generating capacity. It was supposed to last one hundred years, but a concrete expansion problem shortened its service life by four decades. Now officials are considering removing the dam and restoring the river, though refurbishing the dam is still an option.

3 The Poutès Dam (France)

The Loire Valley’s Poutès Dam has produced electricity since World War II, but concerns for the river’s endangered Atlantic salmon spurred what the UN report calls an “innovative partial removal.” In 2019, crews began work to lower the dam’s height from 17 meters to four meters and add both a fishway and a channel to allow sediment to pass downstream.

4 Kariba Dam (Zimbabwe & Zambia)

The largest manmade reservoir in the world sits behind the 128-meter-high Kariba Dam, downstream from Victoria Falls. Completed in 1960, the dam’s reservoir footprint displaced about 15,000 people and countless wildlife species, but today, Kariba Dam is a significant source of hydroelectricity and water for the Zambezi river basin region. In 2015, officials discovered erosion damage near the dam’s foundation, threatening the dam’s stability. If the dam fails, the damage would be catastrophic to crops and three million people in the floodplain. Removing the dam has been deemed too risky and costly, however, so the World Bank has loaned $300 million towards its repairs, despite the dam’s advanced age.

5 Mullaperiyar Dam (Kerala, India)

The British built Mullaperiyar Dam in Kerala state in 1895. It had an intended lifespan of 50 years, but a century later the dam is still in use, despite serious structural flaws. The dam puts 3.5 million people at risk if it were to fail — a possibility since the dam is located in a seismically active region. Repairing or decommissioning the dam has been considered, but the conversation has sparked heated debates that have stalled the project. The dam’s fate is currently working through the courts.

6 Arase Dam (Japan)

In 2010, the Kumamoto Prefecture government decided to remove Arase Dam after decades of continuous complaints from residents of the nearby village of Sakamoto. The dam had been producing electricity for the region since 1954, but it has impacted the river’s fish harvest, as well as seaweed and fish harvest in the downstream estuary in the Yatsushiro Sea. Arase Dam was the first dam removed in Japan. A few years after the removal, scientists observed significant ecosystems improvements in the Kuma River, including increased populations of crabs and fish.

HIGH VOLTAGE

Denmark Grounds Oil

This is a huge victory for the climate movement: Denmark has announced that it will end oil exploration in the North Sea, with the aim of phasing out all extraction by 2050, becoming the first major oil-producing nation to take such a drastic keep-it-in the-ground measure.

The new rules mean companies will be barred from receiving new licenses to explore and extract oil and gas resources. Previously issued licenses will remain valid until 2050.

“We are now putting a final end to the fossil era,” Danish Minister for Climate Dan Jorgensen said while making the announcement in early December. “We’re the European Union’s biggest oil producer, and this decision will therefore resonate around the world.”

Denmark has been positioning itself as a frontrunner fighting climate change, with one of the world’s most ambitious climate targets of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 70 percent by 2030 compared to 1990 levels and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Both targets have been passed into law, but its oil production had presented a dilemma. Denmark has earned billions of dollars from its North Sea oil since the 1970s, and that, in large part, helped finance Denmark’s generous welfare state, the BBC reports.

The country has 55 drilling platforms on its territory, across 20 oil and gas fields, mostly on its west coast. In 2019 it pumped 103,000 barrels a day. About 4,000 jobs depend on the sector.

In recent years, Denmark has faced mounting pressure to cut back production as the EU seeks to become carbon-neutral within the next 30 years. It has also been facing criticism for not taking more ambitious steps to reach its climate goal. This latest decision now sends a stronger message.

“We want to be climate neutral in 2050. And if we are to have any credibility in that, then this is a necessary decision,” Jorgensen said. The decision will cost Denmark about 13 billion kroner ($2.12 billion), according to estimates by the energy ministry. Jorgensen says that the country plans to make up for lost revenue and jobs by developing carbon capture and storage technologies and investing heavily in the country’s growing offshore wind sector.

The decision was applauded by some environmentalists, though some had hoped for a faster phase-out timeline. “Denmark is a small country but has the potential to punch above its weight and pave the way for the necessary transition to green, renewable energy,” Helene Hagel, a policy expert with Greenpeace Denmark, said in a statement.

Now it’s time for other major oil nations to follow suit, quickly.

CALL OF THE WILD

The Disappeared

The smooth handfish, the pass stubfoot toad, the Hawai’i yellowwood. These are just a few of the species of plants and animals that were declared extinct in 2020. They’ve disappeared in the face of various threats like habitat destruction, farming and livestock, irrigation, and climate change. Also on the list: 32 orchid species in Bangladesh, 22 frog species in Central and South America, and 15 species of freshwater fish endemic to a lake in the Philippines.

Photo by Benjamin Tapley via Arkive.
Twenty-eight percent of the species listed on IUCN’s Red List face extinction. The pass stubfoot toad, cousin of the pebas stubfoot (pictured) was among species declared extinct in 2020. Photo by Benjamin Tapley via Arkive.

In December, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released an updated assessment of its “Red List,” which is an inventory of Earth’s at-risk biodiversity. The list includes nearly 130,000 plant and animal species and their conservation status. Twenty-eight percent of them face the risk of extinction.

“The growing list of extinct species is a stark reminder that conservation efforts must urgently expand,” Bruno Oberle, IUCN’s director general, said in a statement. The IUCN update also specified that a third of the world’s oak trees are threatened with extinction, as well as all freshwater dolphin species, and nearly half of the flowering plants in the protea family, which includes three species of macadamia.

The update did include some good news. Several imperiled species, including the European bison and the Oaxaca treefrog, have recovered significantly, thanks in large part to local conservation efforts. But on the IUCN Red List, these exceptions sit close to the rule in the current biodiversity crisis. “We need to recognize what we’ve lost, or potentially lost,” writes journalist John Platt in The Revelator. “We can mourn them and vow to prevent as many others as possible from joining their ranks.”

UPDATE

Shell Blamed for Niger Spills

For 13 years, a group of Nigerian farmers has been seeking reparations from Royal Dutch Shell for lost income as a result of oil spills that had contaminated land and waterways in the Niger Delta region. This past January, their suit against the oil giant’s Nigerian subsidiary finally bore fruit — a Dutch court ruled that the company was responsible for the oil pipeline leaks that had polluted the delta and ordered it to pay unspecified damages to farmers.

Friends of the Earth, the environmental group that was coplaintiff in the case, said the ruling exceeded all expectations and marked the first time a multinational had been instructed by a Dutch court to uphold a duty of care for foreign operations.

In 2008, four farmers and Friends of the Earth brought the case to the Court of Appeal in The Hague, where Shell has its joint global headquarters. The spills addressed by the court case occurred between 2004 and 2007, but pollution from leaking oil pipelines remains a major problem in the Niger Delta.

In its ruling, the court sided with farmers and environmentalists on most of their legal claims. It said Shell had not proven “beyond reasonable doubt” that the oil spills had been caused by sabotage, rather than poor maintenance. “This makes Shell Nigeria responsible for the damage caused by the leaks,” the court said.

Although only the company’s subsidiary, SPDC, was found to be directly responsible, the ruling could open the door for more environmental cases against oil companies.

“This is fantastic news for the environment and people living in developing countries,” Donald Pols, head of Friends of the Earth Netherlands, told Reuters. It creates legal grounds to “take on the multinationals who do them harm.”

THE BIG OPEN

Dry Hole

The oil and gas industry has been lobbying to have Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) opened up for drilling for decades. In January, that finally happened. The Trump administration made good on its promise to the industry and held the first-ever lease sale in the refuge’s coastal plain, after rushing the environmental review.

But the auction was a dud. “It was, in the oil industry terms, a dry hole. A bust,” Larry Persily, a journalist and oil and gas expert, told Alaska Public Media. “No one’s going to see any oil coming out of ANWR.”

The sale garnered $14 million, well below predicted estimates that ranged from $1 billion to $2.2 billion. Only half of the 22 available leases received bids — from just three parties — one of which was the state of Alaska itself. A global recession, low oil prices, and pressure from environmental and Indigenous activists explain the low turnout.

Only three parties showed up for the first-ever oil lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One of them was the state of Alaska itself. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS.
Only three parties showed up for the first-ever oil lease sale in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. One of them was the state of Alaska itself. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky for USFWS.

Alaska, through its economic development corporation, snagged most of the leases with the hope that these tracts would go to future developers. The other two bidders were small private companies. On his last day in office President Trump finalized these leases, totaling more than 400,000 acres, for oil exploration. But just a day later, as part of his day-one executive orders, President Joe Biden placed a moratorium on “all activities of the Federal Government” relating to oil and gas leasing in the refuge. Biden’s order also requires the US Department of Interior to conduct a new review of the potential environmental impacts of the oil-leasing program. Environmentalists have responded with a sigh of relief.

IN MEMORIAM

Conservation Martyrs: Virunga Rangers

On January 10, a Sunday, six rangers working at Virunga National Park in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo were killed in an ambush by a local militia group. All six rangers — Surumwe Burhani Abdou, Alexis Kamate Mununaenda, Regan Maneno Kataghalirwa, Eric Kibanja Bashekere, Innocent Paluku Budoyi, and Prince Nzabonimpa — were between the ages of 27 and 30, Mongabay reports.

The attack was the deadliest since April of last year, when 12 rangers and five civilians were killed in the worst episode of violence in the park’s history, highlighting, yet again, how extremely steep the cost of species conservation work can be in some parts of the world.

Virunga, which sits on the forest-covered volcanoes of central Africa, is the continent’s most biodiverse national park. It hosts some 218 species of mammals, including eastern chimpanzees, savanna elephants, lions, and over half the global population of endangered mountain gorillas.

The lives of the 700 or so rangers who patrol the 3,000-square-mile park are constantly at risk from dozens of armed groups that are still fighting over the control of land and natural resources in eastern Congo. Many these groups are remnants of militias that fought in civil wars around the turn of the century that resulted in millions of deaths from conflict, hunger, and disease. Most of the 4 million people living in the vicinity of the protected area languish in dire poverty, surviving on subsistence farming, raising livestock, and fishing.

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