Frontlines

Climate Coup

Here’s one for the “good news” category: In April, Germany’s highest court ruled in favor of youth climate activists, ordering the federal government to strengthen a 2019 law that requires the country to rein in its carbon emissions. In what climate activists have hailed as a landmark decision, the court found that lack of clear emissions-reductions targets past 2030 placed an undue burden on younger generations.

photo of border young people demonstrating, placards
In April, youth climate activists celebrated a big win when Germany’s highest court ruled in their favor and ordered the government to strengthen its 2019 Climate Change Act. Photo by Jorg Farys-Fridays for Future.

“The appellants, some of whom are still very young, have had their liberties violated by the challenged provisions,” the court wrote in the ruling. “To preserve fundamental liberty, the legislature should have made provisions to mitigate this burden.”

The 2019 law, known as the Climate Change Act, requires Germany to reduce its carbon emissions by 55 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. It also sets a goal of reducing carbon emissions to almost zero by 2050. While the law includes specific provisions for meeting the 2030 goal, it does not include any for the 2050 one. Decisions about how to reduce emissions past 2030, and which interim goals to set, were left to be decided in 2025. The young plaintiffs believed that was too late, arguing that the delay would violate their right to a humane future.

The court agreed, writing in a statement: “These future obligations to reduce emissions have an impact on practically every type of freedom because virtually all aspects of human life still involve the emission of greenhouse gases and are thus potentially threatened by drastic restrictions after 2030.”

Under the ruling, the German government has until the end of 2022 to set clear emissions targets and tools for 2031 onwards.

The lawsuit was brought by nine young people, ages 15 to 24, along with environmental organizations including Friends of the Earth Germany and Fridays for Future. One of the youth, well-known climate activist and Fridays for Future member Luisa Neubauer, celebrated the win on Twitter: “Today, the German constitutional court has decided that climate justice is a fundamental right. Today’s inaction mustn’t harm our freedom and rights in the future.”

So far, few lawsuits urging stronger government action on the climate crisis have been successful. According to Christoph Bals, executive director of the environmental nonprofit Germanwatch, the German court’s decision could change that. As he said to the New York Times, “This ruling will be a key reference point for all climate lawsuits pending around the world.”

Findings

Toxic Neighbors

It’s no secret that toxic pollution can have devastating impacts on human health. But a first-of-its-kind study puts a number on just how devastating those impacts can be.

According to researchers with the University of Houston and University of Texas at Austin, living in close proximity to a federal Superfund site or other hazardous waste sites decreases life expectancy on average by about two months. In communities with other contributing socioeconomic factors, it can decrease life expectancy by nearly 15 months. And in communities that are close to more than one toxic site, life expectancy can be reduced by several years.

“The existence of a Superfund site reduces land and property values, meaning poorer communities are more likely to live near a site than wealthier people,” said Amin Kiaghadi of UT-Austin, one of the lead authors of the study. “Poorer populations tend to have less insurance coverage, poorer-quality diet, and are more susceptible to underlying health conditions — rendering them even more vulnerable to the potentially harmful chemicals emanating from Superfund sites.”

The researchers looked at nearly 12,000 current, proposed, or former Superfund sites nationwide, as well as other toxic sites not overseen by the EPA. The findings, published in Nature Communications, add to the large body of evidence documenting the inequitable distribution of environmental burdens.

Findings

A Former and Future Green Arctic

The Arctic is looking progressively greener. Scientists and Arctic residents can see these changes in real time each year, as the region’s temperatures climb toward the expected nine degrees Fahrenheit above pre-industrial levels by the end of the century. But what will these landscape changes look like by that time? Where is the Arctic headed?

photo of a lake, boat and people
Mud cores from a lake in northeastern Arctic Canada suggest a period of Arctic greening during the last interglacial period, when the region was as warm as it is expected to be in 2100. Photo Courtesy of University of Colorado.

In a small lake on Baffin Island, in northeastern Arctic Canada, a team of scientists have been looking to the Arctic’s past to illustrate a likely future. From an inflatable raft, University of California, Santa Cruz paleoclimate scientist Sarah Crump collected mud cores from the lake bed using a 30-foot cylindrical pipe. These mud cores contained a vertical timeline of ancient plant DNA, which Crump’s team took to a lab for analysis.

In a study published in March in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Crump and her coauthors show evidence in these cores of Arctic greening during the last interglacial period, 125,000 years ago, when the region was as warm as projections for 2100. Specifically, they found DNA of dwarf birch, a knee-high shrub characteristic of the low Arctic tundra, much farther south than Crump’s research area.

There are many potential impacts of plants like the dwarf birch shifting north. The dark green of the shrub, for instance, absorbs more heat than white snow, which can cause a positive temperature feedback. Thus, according to the study, dwarf birch’s reclaiming its northern range could be both a consequence and a catalyst for increasingly rapid climate change.

“We have this really rare view into a particular warm period in the past that was arguably the most recent time that it was warmer than present in the Arctic,” Crump said in a news release. “That makes it a really useful analogue for what we might expect in the future.”

Table Talk

Seaweed Relief

Some people try Pepto Bismol. A group of scientists at University of California, Davis, however, skipped the over-the-counters and gave a seaweed diet a shot. For cows, that is. And it helped.

The researchers found that putting a small amount of seaweed in cattle feed cut the methane released from the cows’ burps and flatulence. For cattle fed seaweed over a five-month period, the methane emissions decreased by 82 percent, their study’s findings, published in PLOS One, revealed.

photo of cows in a pasture
Including a small amount of seaweed in cattle feed significantly cuts the methane released from the cows’ burps and flatulence. Photo by Ritzo ten Cate.

“We now have sound evidence that seaweed in cattle diet is effective at reducing greenhouse gases and that the efficacy does not diminish over time,” Ermias Kebreab, director of the World Food Center at UC Davis, told The Guardian.

In the US, agriculture makes up a tenth of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Much of that comes from methane — a shorter lived but much more heat-trapping gas than carbon dioxide — released by cows. Many climate advocates note that cow methane is a major reason why reducing meat consumption can be an effective way to reduce agriculture emissions. But the UC Davis researchers say that there are ways to make cattle husbandry more climate friendly. One of those is seaweed supplements.

The algae species in question is Asparagopsis taxiformis, a red marine grass commonly found in warm and temperate coastal waters. This red seaweed has not yet been commercially farmed at a scale large enough to support feed production, but some researchers have already started looking to aquaculture. “There is more work to be done, but we are very encouraged by these results,” says Breanna Roque, a UC Davis PhD student and study coauthor.

Call of the Wild

Wolves in Crosshairs

Looks like it’s going to be open season on wolves again. In early May, Idaho Governor Brad Little signed a bill that will allow hunters, trappers, and private contractors to kill 90 percent of the state’s 1,500 or so wolves. This followed a similar bill in Montana signed by Governor Greg Gianforte in late April to eliminate 85 percent of the state’s wolves, which currently number about 1,200.

“This type of uncontrolled slaughter is what led to the original listing of gray wolves and will have broad ecosystem impacts,” Jocelyn Leroux, of the Western Watersheds Project, said in a statement.

Both bills cite wolf predation on big game populations and livestock as reason for increasing the hunt quota. But conservationists and wolf advocates say the threat to livestock is blown out of proportion. Chris Servheen, a former federal wildlife biologist and current vice president of the Montana Wildlife Federation, for instance, notes that on average, wolves kill 0.004 percent of the states’ cattle and sheep. As for elk and deer, many of these ungulate populations are currently numbering higher than management targets, despite the presence of wolves.

“Nonsensical anti-wolf bills are what we get when we have legislators making wildlife management policy,” Servheen wrote in the Missoulian. “Leave wildlife management to the biologists, not the politicians.”

Temperature Gauge

Dry Again

On April 21, California Governor Gavin Newsom made an emergency drought declaration for Sonoma and Mendocino counties from the dry bed of Lake Mendocino. “I’m standing currently 40 feet underwater,” he said, “or should be standing 40 feet underwater … The hots are getting hotter, and the drys are getting dryer.” Less than three weeks later, he expanded the emergency declaration to include 41 of the state’s 58 counties.

The Folsom Lake Marina, located in the Sierra Nevada foothills, was dry and boatless during California’s last drought from 2012 to 2016. The state is bracing for another dry period. Photo by Robert Couse-Baker

Lake Mendocino currently stands at 43 percent capacity, and it’s not unique among reservoirs across the state. At the beginning of April, which is the end of California’s wet season, state officials announced that snow accumulation in the Sierra Nevada was 40 percent below average. For two years in a row, the wet season did not bring enough rain or snow to fill reservoirs or groundwater reserves. Now, experts are saying that these signs point to another period of drought for the Golden State. And according to some, California is not fully prepared for the dry months, let alone years, to come.

California’s last major drought occurred only a few years ago, from 2012 to 2016. During that time, wells in rural communities went dry, cities restricted water usage, farmers were forced to idle fields, and millions of trees died. Record-breaking wildfire seasons followed.

While many communities are still reeling from this last drought, state and federal agencies have already begun rationing for another period of water scarcity. The California Department of Water Resources cut back its water allocation to farms and cities, and the US Bureau of Reclamation announced that many farms will not be receiving water at all this year.

A new drought in California means a heated scramble for water supplies — as well as hotter conditions for potential megafires. “That to me signals we’re going to need the whole system to change,” Nicola Ulibarri, a water management researcher at the University of California, Irvine, told The Guardian.

Upwell

Patience Pays

The common cuttlefish, a relative of squids and octopuses, is proving to be one of the brainiest ocean inhabitants. Past studies have shown that the cephalopod depends on memory to find prey. But now we are learning that cuttlefish can also exercise self-control, a trait that’s usually associated with the higher intelligence of primates.

underwater photo of a cuttlefish
New Research shows that cuttlefish have the ability to exert self-control. Photo by Richard James.

A recent study has proved that cuttlefish can pass the “marshmallow test” — the famous psychological test on delayed gratification. In the 1960s, psychologists at Stanford University led an experiment where they presented children with a marshmallow and gave them the option to eat the treat immediately or wait 20 minutes and receive two. The experiment has since been repeated with other species, including apes, corvids, and parrots, to measure the animals’ abilities for complex decision-making.

“Self-control is thought to be the cornerstone of intelligence,” Alex Schnell, a psychology researcher at the University of Cambridge and lead author of the cuttlefish study, told Live Science.

Schnell’s team used seafood munchies instead of marshmallows. The cuttlefish were first presented with Asian shore crab (a less preferred treat) but learned that waiting would give them access to their more preferred live grass shrimp. “Why cuttlefish evolved the ability to exert self-control is a bit of a mystery,” Schnell said, though the researchers say it may be linked to their hunting behavior, which entails weighing the right moment to strike prey in order to avoid their own exposure to predators.

Around the World

Mapping the Known Unknown

On his 90th birthday in 2019, naturalist Edward O. Wilson told National Geographic that he had one “modest wish”: for us to explore, identify, and protect every species on Earth. From a conservationist standpoint, his request seems self-evident — of course all life deserves protection — until you consider that many of the world’s species don’t receive formal protection simply because we do not know they exist.

“The most striking fact about the living environment may be how little we know about it,” Wilson had written a few years earlier in a New York Times opinion piece, noting that only 20 percent of Earth’s species have been formally described and classified. (Some estimates say it could be lower than 1 percent.)

A new world map, created by Mario Moura, a biologist at Brazil’s Federal University of Paraíba, and Walter Jetz, a biologist at Yale University, provides a legend for fulfilling Wilson’s birthday request. Using metrics to calculate the “discovery potential” of certain regions, the map highlights the likelihood of finding new species, broken down into four terrestrial vertebrate classifications: mammals, birds, amphibians, and reptiles. This data adds to a “Map of Life” Jetz published in 2012 that charts hotspots of known biodiversity. Now, according to this new study, published in Nature Ecology & Evolution, the map points to the “known unknown” as well.

“At the current pace of global environmental change, there is no doubt that many species will go extinct before we have ever learned about their existence and had the chance to consider their fate,” Jetz says. “I feel such ignorance is inexcusable, and we owe it to future generations to rapidly close these knowledge gaps.”

graphic map of the globe

Here are a few of the regions highlighted in the map.

1 Tropical Andes

The mountains of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru boast high rates of endemism due to extreme elevations. According to the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, these mountains contain 30,000 known species of vascular plants and the largest variety of birds, mammals, and amphibians in the world — more than half of which are found nowhere else. A third of the region’s bird species are endemic. Moura and Jetz’s map suggests that exploring for birds in new areas and using new genetic tools could shed even more light on the nature of speciation.

2 Amazon and Atlantic Forests

It goes without saying that scientists have only scratched the surface of South America’s Amazon and Atlantic forests. In 2017, the World Wildlife Fund and the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development released a report that cataloged 381 new species identifications during a two-year study period — a new species every two days. “The richness of animal and botanical biodiversity in the Amazon is unparalleled,” wrote the report’s authors. “And the researchers, scientists, and managers eager for the pursuit of knowledge, continue to struggle to discover what is in the Amazon and to protect this immense treasure that exists on the planet.”

3 Iran

While many of the hotspots for species discovery lie in the tropics, Moura and Jetz point to the arid regions of Australia, Argentina, and, especially, Iran as key regions for reptile diversity and endemism. One reason for the discovery potential is that scientific access has been historically limited in some of these desert ecosystems, but Moura and Jetz point out that reptiles represent the class with the most global discovery potential. Signs for such discovery point to the desert.

4 Madagascar

Earlier this year, scientists in Madagascar announced the discovery of a new species in the rainforest on the northern edge of the island. Brookesia nana is a nano-chameleon and, the size of a sunflower seed, it might be the smallest reptile on Earth. While the global discovery potential for reptiles far outweighs other terrestrial vertebrates, there’s a surprising thing about Madagascar: Scientists are still discovering mammals there too. Last year, they discovered a new species of mouse lemur — not the first new mammal discovery on the island in recent years, and certainly not the last.

5 Sri Lanka

At the tail end of 2019, herpetologists in Sri Lanka introduced three new gecko species discovered in the damp granite caves in the forested center of the island nation. This announcement capped a year in which Sri Lanka’s endemic biodiversity was further illuminated: Scientists introduced 50 new species that year alone — many of them rare and threatened.

6 Philippines

Globally, the discovery potential for birds is lower than the other vertebrate taxa, but the Philippines is a proven hotspot of colorful, rare, endemic birds. The South Philippine Dwarf Kingfisher, for example, was first described by ornithologists 130 years ago, but it was photographed for the first time just last year — hinting at the secrecy of the archipelago’s winged population. “Philippine avian endemism is gravely underestimated,” one study noted in 2010.

High Voltage

Big Oil’s Big Talk

Well, stranger things have happened for sure, but when American Petroleum Institute (API), the oil and gas industry’s largest trade group, endorsed putting a price on carbon emissions in March, we couldn’t help but be a tad skeptical. Wasn’t this the same group that had long been resisting any regulatory action on climate change?

The group, however, didn’t make any mention of how high the carbon tax should be. The standard $40 a ton of emissions price that had been touted for years now has been debunked as woefully inadequate. The real amount that would actually spur behavior change is likely twice or thrice as much, according to climate economists.

Clearly, the announcement was in response to President Joe Biden pausing new oil leases on public lands and his administration’s sweeping infrastructure proposal that focuses on curbing greenhouse gas emissions and transitioning to clean energy. Big oil has seen the writing on the wall and is making an effort to talk the talk.

As Kassie Siegel, director of the Center for Biological Diversity’s Climate Law Institute, told the Washington Post: “Nobody should fall for the oil industry’s new PR ploy, which will do nothing to fight the climate emergency ... API is trying desperately to distract the Biden administration from the crucial work of keeping polluting fossil fuels in the ground.”

Temperature Gauge

Sky High

While the Covid-19 pandemic has drastically curbed airline travel during the past year, flying remains a flashpoint in climate discussions. Scientists have sworn off air travel, activists have opted to sail rather than fly to climate summits, and the Swedes have even coined a term, “flygskam,” or “flight shame,” to refer to the targeting of those who continue to fly.

photo of private jets
The bulk of global flying-related carbon emissions can be traced to a relatively small group of frequent flyers, new research shows. Photo by Thomas Hawk.

Wherever you fall on the flight-shame spectrum, new research makes one thing clear: It’s not the occasionally flying masses who are to blame for the bulk of aviation-related emissions, but rather the jet-setting global elite.

A report released in March by United Kingdom-based climate charity Possible lays out just how big of a carbon footprint a small group of frequent flyers is leaving. In the United States, for example, some 12 percent of people take 66 percent of all flights. In France, 2 percent of the population accounts for 50 percent of flying. And in India, 1 percent of households take 45 percent of flights.

Globally, the picture is perhaps even starker. Some 80 percent of people have never taken a flight in their lives, meaning that 20 percent of the population is responsible for all flight-related emissions. What’s more, just 10 countries account for 60 percent of all flying, the US, China, and the UK among them.

Why does it all matter? Well, in non-pandemic years, flying accounts for roughly 5 percent of all warming activities. Which means that a small group of enthusiastic flyers is having an outsized impact on our planetary crisis.

Possible offers one potential solution to the problem: a frequent flyer tax. The tax would not apply to an individual’s first flight of the year, but to all subsequent ones. And it would increase with each additional flight. “A progressive tax on aviation would treat frequent flying as the luxury habit it is,” Alethea Warrington, a campaigns manager at Possible, told The Guardian.

Frontlines

Anti-Dam Activist Murdered

In March, 41-year-old Indigenous Lenca anti-dam activist Juan Carlos Cerros Escalante was gunned down in front of his children in Nueva Granada, Honduras. Escalante led Communities United, a local group fighting to stop construction of the El Tornillito dam on the Ulúa River in the northwestern reaches of the country.

“We condemn the killing of yet another comrade and activist,” Betty Vásquez, coordinator of the Santa Barbara Environmental Movement, told the Associated Press.

“It is not conceivable, it is not right, that they criminalize people, persecute people, and later kill them for defending the land. We consider this a political assassination.”

Honduras is among the most dangerous countries in which to be an environmental activist. According to the nonprofit Global Witness, at least 12 Indigenous rights and environmental activists were killed in the country in 2020. More than 120 were killed between 2010 and 2017, including Berta Cáceres, a Lenca activist who was murdered in 2016, a year after she was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize for her activism against another dam project.

Findings

Planetary Shift

The more we learn about climate change, the more we learn about how it’s impacting just about everything on our planet, including, it turns out, the direction and speed of “polar drift.”

What exactly is polar drift? It’s the movement of the north and south poles, which are constantly shifting. That movement — which impacts the axis on which Earth spins — is influenced by a variety of factors, including water distribution on Earth’s surface and molten iron in Earth’s core.

photo of flags at the South Pole
Melting glaciers impact more than just sea levels, it seems. New research shows that glacial melt in the 1990s redistributed enough water to change the direction and speed of polar drift, and thus changed the very axis on which Earth spins. Photo by Christopher Michel.

In a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters, researchers explain that glacial melting due to global warming redistributed enough water to turn the direction of polar drift from southward to eastward in the 1990s. It also increased the average rate of drift by 17 times above the average rate between 1981 to 1995.

“It tells you how strong this mass change is,” University of Zurich climate scientist Vincent Humphrey, who was not involved with the study, said in a statement. “It’s so big that it can change the axis of the Earth.”

The researchers used data on glacier loss and groundwater pumping to estimate how terrestrial water storage changed. While they found that glacial melt — which resulted in water loss from the polar regions — was the primary driver of polar movement, unsustainable water usage elsewhere also played a role. Significant changes in water mass in places like California, northern Texas, and the region around Beijing — all known for significant agricultural water use — stood out in particular.

The good news? The shift in Earth’s axis doesn’t have an immediate impact on life on Earth. At this point, the biggest implication might be a change in the length of day by a few milliseconds.

future tense

Mutant Mosquitoes

In April, biotech firm Oxitec released a batch of genetically engineered mosquitoes into the open air in the Florida Keys, making it the first such release in the US. The experiment tests a method for suppressing populations of wild Aedes aegypti mosquitoes, which can carry diseases such as Zika, dengue, chikungunya, and yellow fever, and are increasingly resistant to insecticides.

Oxitec’s mosquitoes are genetically altered to pass “self-limiting” genes to their offspring. When these altered mosquitoes breed with wild ones, the resulting generation does not survive into adulthood, thus reducing the overall population.

But some scientists say they want to see clearer proof that this technology is even necessary. Other critics want a fairer process in deciding to release the mosquitoes. “What’s the most upsetting is that the very people that are going to be most impacted ... have like the smallest voice in how these choices are made,” US molecular biologist and bioethicist Natalie Kofler told Undark magazine.

Update

No Peace in Salween

In late March, two fighter jets from the Myanmar military dropped bombs and fired bullets into a village in the Salween river basin on the border of Myanmar and Thailand, killing three villagers and wounding seven. The next morning, four jets returned to the basin and attacked other villages, scattering thousands of fleeing residents into the jungle and across the Thai border.

aerial photo of a village in a tropical forest
In March, the Myanmar military launched an aerial attack on several villages in the Salween Peace Park, which is managed by the Indigenous Karen people. Photo courtesy of KESAN.

The airstrikes were part of a series of orchestrated attacks on the Indigenous Karen people following a military coup in the country’s capital on February 1 that has led to months of violence and turmoil. The villages were all located within the Salween Peace Park, a 1.3-million-acre refuge the Journal reported about last year. The park was conceived and managed by the Karen to conserve both Indigenous self-determination and the region’s rich biodiversity.

High Voltage

Bridge to Bad Health

Natural gas is often lauded as a “relatively clean burning fossil fuel,” and “bridge fuel” that’s a cleaner and safer energy source than coal. But as coal plants are being phased out, natural gas has taken over as a top air polluter — one that now leads to more deaths than coal in some states.

In a study published in early May in Environmental Research Letters, researchers found that air pollution from natural gas in buildings and industrial boilers causes more deaths in 19 states than burning coal. These results were part of a larger study comparing the health impacts of fine particulate matter air pollution — which can cause respiratory and cardiovascular diseases — from various fuels like coal, wood, and gas.

According to the study, particle exposure caused between 47,000 to 69,000 premature deaths in the US in 2017 alone. A vast majority of these deaths are attributed to fuel sources like natural gas and biomass. In a far-ranging list of states including California, Mississippi, and Massachusetts, gas-related deaths surpassed those associated with coal — a significant shift from a decade earlier.

“Switching out one combustion fuel for another is not a pathway that gets you to a healthy energy system,” Jonathan Buonocore, a Harvard University public health researcher and lead author of the study, told Gizmodo. “In order to continue to reduce impacts from air pollution, the strategy for how we regulate air pollution has to change.”