Talking Points: Winter 2020

News in Brief


The Mass Species Swap

ICYMI: We’re in the midst of the sixth mass extinction, and we humans are responsible.

If it sounds bad, that’s because it is. Earlier this year, the UN’s Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services released a dire report clarifying the extent of this planetary crisis. Around one million species of plants and animals on Earth face extinction — an unprecedented loss scientists and activists are racing to curb.

photo of a fish underwater
We’re in the middle of a large-scale geographic biodiversity reorganization. The swapping in and out of species is happening everywhere, but is occurring at a faster pace in certain marine environments than in terrestrial ones. Photo by Klaus Stiefel.

Now it appears that changes in biodiversity over time are a lot more complicated than we thought. The findings of a new study, published in Science, indicate that at the local level, the actual number of species in a place are holding steady or even going up. So, what’s going on?

It turns out that every decade or so, almost 30 percent of all species are being swapped out for other species in any given ecosystem. The relative constancy of species numbers actually masks changes in their identities. These findings have led scientists to question whether species richness (the number of species living in a given area) is actually a misleading metric for biodiversity. The global biodiversity crisis isn’t just about loss — it’s about a large-scale reshuffling.

As McGill researcher and study coauthor Andrew Gonzalez put it, “The Earth is going through a great geographic reorganization of its biodiversity in response to human activities and climate change. Given what we know it is likely this will continue for decades to come.”

The researchers also noted that, while this reorganization is happening everywhere, in some environments, it’s happening much more quickly. For instance, the turnover in tropical marine hotspots is twice as fast as on land.

Will clarifying these temporal and spatial differences in biodiversity change help refine conservation planning across ecosystems? We hope so.


A Weighty Issue

Microplastics, it seems, are pretty much everywhere these days.

They’re in our water, our air, and yes, our soils. And evidence of potential repercussions is mounting, including for the humble earthworm.

New research indicates that worms in microplastic-polluted soils don’t do as well as their non-plastic-ingesting relatives. Specifically, scientists found that worms in soil contaminated with high density polyethylene (HDPE), which is commonly used to make bags and bottles, lost 3 percent of their body weight over 30 days, while worms in HDPE-free soil gained 5 percent of their body weight over the same amount of time.

The researchers aren’t entirely sure how microplastics contribute to weight loss, but suspect it could be related to digestion, including, as Bas Boots, lecturer in biology at England’s Anglia Ruskin University and lead author of the study, put it, “obstruction and irritation of the digestive tract, limiting the absorption of nutrients and reducing growth.”

Given worms’ role in soil ecosystems, the findings, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, raise some alarm for the health of soils across the world that are the foundation for our agricultural lands, forests, and grasslands.


The Cost of Enlightenment

For centuries, ayahuasca, a psychotropic plant brew, has been central to shamanic rituals across much of South America’s rainforest region. Today, it’s a life-altering, mind-opening trip that’s sought out by thousands of tourists chasing the holy grail of highs, one that’s turned a traditional Amazonian healing ceremony into a booming industry.

photo of pople gathered around a pile of leaves, guitar in evidence
Commercialized ayahuasca tourism is apparently contributing to the trade in jaguar body parts as tourists get up-sold on products that supposedly enhance the experience. Photo by Flickr user Upslon.

Ayahuasca tourism has been criticized on many levels. The tea’s main ingredients, the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna leaves (Psychotria viridis) are now wildly over-harvested, destabilizing an already fragile Amazon ecosystem. And of course, the whole practice smacks of Westerners appropriating — and commodifying — the spiritual practices of other cultures, yet again.

As Mongabay reports, there’s another reason to be wary: it turns out that commercialized ayahuasca tourism is a driver of trade of jaguar body parts. Recent research, published in the journal Conservation Science and Practice this October, found that pendants made from jaguar canine teeth, jaguar skin bracelets, jaguar paws, and other jaguar products are being sold to tourists to supposedly enhance the ayahuasca experience.

Jaguars are listed as nearly threatened on the IUCN Red List, and their population is already at risk because of habitat destruction, trophy hunting, and retaliatory killings by ranchers. Jaguar body parts are also highly sought after by the Chinese market; the study found that the recent ayahuasca boom has heightened this demand.

Unless stronger regulations on ayahuasca tourism and wildlife trafficking are enforced soon, researchers and conservationists fear we will lose more jaguars as we try to find ourselves.


photo of oily sand, cleanup underway
Photo courtesy Aracaju Municipal Press Office

Since early September, oil has mysteriously been washing up on beaches across northeastern Brazil. Locals say the toll on wildlife — and the fishing industry — has been high. But in a Facebook Live event in November, Brazilian Secretary of Aquaculture and Fisheries Jorge Seif Júnior said otherwise, suggesting there’s little risk to fish. “The fish is an intelligent animal,” he explained. “When it sees a blanket of oil, it flees.”


Slick Move

This past summer, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) made a big announcement: After mulling the possibility since 2016, the bureau confirmed that it would be moving its headquarters from Washington, DC to Grand Junction, CO. Then, in September, the Interior Department doubled down on the plan. Not only would the BLM headquarters be vacating the capital, their new Colorado office would be located in a building shared with oil and gas companies, including Chevron and Laramie Energy, and the industry trade group West Slope Oil and Gas.

“To say it’s concerning is an understatement,” Jim Ramey, state director for the Wilderness Society, told the Denver Post. “It really struck me that on the same day as an international climate change strike, the BLM has no shame announcing that it’s going to set up shop with fossil fuel companies.”

The BLM, a bureau of the US Department of the Interior, manages some 250 million acres of public lands, mainly in the West. The move is being touted as an opportunity to put BLM officials closer to the land they are responsible for, and — ironically, given the new office space — farther from special interests.

But critics have pointed out that, even before the announcement, only a paltry 4 percent of BLM staff were located in Washington, and that the move could result in the loss of career employees hesitant to uproot their lives.

As Michael Saul, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, put it: “Putting the BLM office in the same building as the West Slope Oil and Gas Association makes it clear that [Interior Secretary Bernhardt] means to make it absolutely clear to BLM staffers that if you’re not putting oil and gas first, you’re not loyal to the mission.”


Farewell to Fur

California has been ahead of the pack when it comes to ending the controversial fur trade. After signing a bill to ban the trapping of animals for their fur this summer, in October, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a second bill banning the sale of fur products in the Golden State.

The new law, which will go into effect in 2023, makes it illegal to sell or make clothing from fur, though it includes exceptions for religious and cultural practices. It also bans the use of most animals in circus performances.

“California is a leader when it comes to animal welfare, and today that leadership includes banning the sale of fur,” Newsom said in a declaration when he signed the bill. “But we’re doing more than that. We are making a statement to the world that beautiful wild animals like bears and tigers have no place on trapeze wires or jumping through flames.”

The statewide law follows several local bans on fur sales, including in San Francisco, Berkeley, and Los Angeles.


Suits Pile Up Against Big Oil

This fall, Hawai‘i officially jumped into the climate liability fray. In late October and early November respectively, the City of Maui and the City and County of Honolulu announced that they would both sue fossil fuel companies for their contribution to the climate crisis.

“The evidence is piling up that just as big tobacco misled the public and policymakers about the danger of smoking, big oil waged a decades-long deception campaign and covered up the origins of today’s climate crisis,” Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell said of the decision.

With these plans, Maui and Honolulu join the ranks of more than a dozen cities, counties, and states suing fossil fuel companies to recoup some of the costs associated with the climate crisis. Hawaii’s infrastructure is particularly vulnerable to climate-related sea-level rise, and global warming is expected to increase the risk of drought and wildfire. As Hawaii News Now reported, this year, some 23,000 acres have burned in Maui County, nearly six times more than last year.

The Honolulu suit is part of a joint effort between Mayor Caldwell and the City Council, and is expected to name Chevron, Royal Dutch Shell, and ExxonMobil, among several other oil and gas companies, as defendants. Maui will likely name similar corporate actors.

“This lawsuit is about accountability,” Maui Mayor Michael Victorino said at a press conference announcing the decision. “Fossil fuel companies knew — their own experts warned them — about the potentially ‘severe’ or ‘catastrophic’ effects of doing business as usual, and the damage that could be caused by producing, marketing, and selling their products. We can no longer allow fossil fuel companies to shift the cost of paying for the effects of sea level rise and climate change to our taxpayers.”


Karmic Rebuke

On the night of November 12, as the historic lagoon city of Venice was battling the worst flooding in half a century, the council for the northeastern region of Veneto — which includes Venice and is headquartered in the city — rejected proposed budget amendments to tackle climate change. Mere minutes later, floodwaters reportedly rushed into the council’s chambers on Venice’s Grand Canal.

Photos uploaded to Facebook by Andrea Zanoni, deputy chairman of the council for the northeaster region of Vento's environment committee, show the council chambers flooding just minutes after council failed to pass measures to tackle climate change.
Photos uploaded to Facebook by Andrea Zanoni, deputy chairman of the council for the northeaster region of Vento’s environment committee, show the council chambers flooding just minutes after council failed to pass measures to tackle climate change.

Sharing pictures of the council chamber in Ferro Fini Palace as it was filling up with water, Andrea Zanoni, the Democratic party’s deputy chairman of the council’s environment committee, wrote on Facebook: “Ironically, the chamber was flooded two minutes after the majority League, Brothers of Italy, and Forza Italia parties rejected our proposals to tackle climate change.”

Amendments to the 2020 budget proposed by the center-left Democratic party included measures to fund renewable energy sources, replace diesel buses with less polluting ones, scrap polluting stoves, and reduce the impact of plastics, Zanoni said. The environmental campaigner took particular aim at Luca Zaia, the Veneto president and League politician, for presenting a budget that contained “no concrete plan to tackle climate change.”

The council’s president, the League’s Roberto Ciambetti, rejected Zanoni’s accusations in a statement to CNN. “Beyond propaganda and deceptive reading, we are voting (for) a regional budget that spent 965 million Euros over the past three years in the fight against air pollution, smog, which is a determining factor in climate change,” he said.

Venice, a UNESCO World Heritage site, was hit with the unprecedented flood thanks to a combination of seasonal high tides, heavy rainfall, and ongoing subsidence of the city. Reuters reports that a nearly 6-foot tide sent waist-high water flowing through St. Mark’s Square, cast the city’s world-famous gondolas onto walkways, and threatened its medieval, Baroque, and Renaissance art and architecture. The city has about 50,000 residents, but about 20 million tourists visit every year.

The Italian government declared a state of emergency in the city on November 14. In a Facebook post Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte called the damage to the city a “blow to the heart of our country.”


Conflict Over Blue Gold

It’s sometimes said that water is worth its weight in gold. While that may not be strictly true in an economic sense, it’s hard to think of any other natural resource as vital to life as simple H2O. (Well, air maybe!) Our reliance on water for everything from quenching our thirst, to agriculture, industry, and energy production, becomes all the more obvious in water-scarce times, when conflict over freshwater resources can quickly escalate.

Water-based conflicts are nothing new — humans have been fighting over finite resources for millennia. But in a warming world, they are poised to become more common, making efforts to improve water management, efficient water use, and water equity all the more urgent across the globe. Here are just a few examples of recent water-based conflicts compiled in the Pacific Institute’s Water Conflict Chronology, which has been tracking water-related conflicts since the 1980s.

map graphic

Sources: Pacific Institute, Reuters, Al Jazeera, Times of India, Water Education Colorado, Circle of Blue, Amnesty International

1 Mali

This year, hundreds of civilians in central Mali have been killed in conflicts between nomadic Fulani herders and the Dogon ethnic group. The conflict is rooted in ethnic tensions, but has been exacerbated by disputes over land and water, and may be escalating as droughts become longer and more frequent in the region. Tens of thousands of people have fled their homes to escape the violence, and are now living in tent encampments. (Water- and land-based disputes between farmers and pastoralists have been reported in Chad and Kenya this year as well.)

2 India

This June, India experienced one of its longest heatwaves in recent history. Dozens of people died as temperatures in parts of the country reached 123 degrees F. Some regions are now dependent on tankers to meet their water needs during the dry months. For example, in the western state of Maharashtra, more than 6,000 public and private tankers bring water to 15,000 villages daily. During the heatwave, multiple conflicts broke out at water distribution sites around the country, some of which resulted in serious injuries. With some 600 million Indians now facing acute water shortages, more conflicts seem likely.

3 United States

The Colorado River has long been a flashpoint when it comes to decision-making over limited water resources in the American West. The river’s water is diverted to quench the thirst of tens of millions of people, and to irrigate millions of acres of cropland. This August, tensions over the river escalated when suspected eco-activists caused some $1 million in damage to a water collection system on Berthoud Pass in central Colorado. The collection system is part of a larger network of canals, pipelines and more that divert water from the upper Colorado to population centers in the Front Range. Plans to divert more water from the upper Colorado River, as well as the Fraser River, have also been met with lawsuits from environmental groups like the Sierra Club and WildEarth Guardians.

4 Mexico

In the Mexican state of Morales, environmental activists have been fighting a thermal-electric plant and pipeline that they worry will contaminate local water supplies. In February, the controversy over the project came to a head with the murder of project-opponent Samir Flores Soberanes. The People’s Front in Defense of the Land and Water for the states of Morelos, Puebla, and Tlaxcala alleges Flores Soberanes was killed because of his activism against the plant. (Late last year, two vocal opponents of a dam in western Guatemala were also murdered near the hydroelectric project they opposed.)

5 Iraq

Last year, more than 100,000 people were hospitalized in Iraq after drinking contaminated water in the southeastern city of Basra. The crisis led to steep increases in water costs — which hit the city’s poorest residents the hardest — and led to widespread protests. At least 15 people died during the protest, many at the hands of security forces. Basra isn’t alone when it comes to water conflicts in Iraq: Water shortages prompted the government to ban the planting of summer crops across the country last year, inflaming protests as well.


Big Banks Go Green

It’s not always easy being green, but a bunch of big banks are giving it a try. In September, 130 banks representing some $47 trillion in assets took the major step of adopting the new “UN Principles for Responsible Banking.” By signing on to the principles, the banks agree to align their businesses with the goals of the Paris Climate Agreement and UN Sustainable Development Goals.

“A banking industry that plans for the risks associated with climate change and other environmental challenges can not only drive the transition to low-carbon and climate-resilient economies, it can benefit from it,” Inger Andersen, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), said in a statement after the banks signed the document. “When the financial system shifts its capital away from resource-hungry, brown investments to those that back nature as solution, everybody wins in the long-term.”

This responsible banking initiative was launched just ahead of the UN Climate Action Summit in New York. The core principles were developed through a partnership between 30 founding banks and the UNEP Finance Initiative. Among other things, they encourage lenders to set targets to increase positive impacts, and reduce negative impacts, on the environment; encourage clients to adopt sustainable practices; and ask them to be transparent about progress towards these goals.

“Ultimately, banks that are not in line with their commitments and do not make progress can be stripped of their signatory status,” Simone Dettling, banking team lead for the Geneva-based UNEP Finance Initiative, told Reuters.


Not Lost Yet

photo of a smaill deer-like animal
Until recently, the silver-backed chevrotain had been presumed lost — the last confirmed sighting had occurred in 1990. New camera trap footage, however, indicates that the animal has managed to hang on in a region of Vietnam ravaged by poaching. Photo by Southern Institute of Ecology/Global Wildlife Conservation/Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research/NCNP

With species dying out all around us on a daily basis, news of an assumed-extinct creature reappearing out of the blue is always a thing to celebrate. So members of the global conservation community were all a-cheer in early November when news broke that the silver-backed chevrotain, a tiny deer-like species not seen by scientists for nearly three decades, had been photographed recently in a forest in southern Vietnam.

Also called the Vietnamese mouse-deer, the silver-backed chevrotain was listed as one of the world’s “most wanted” mammals. Like other assumed lost species that haven’t been spotted for decades — such as the Himalayan quail in India, the New Zealand greater short-tailed bat, and Venezuela’s scarlet harlequin frog — conservationists have long suspected that this species might not yet be extinct.

First described by British zoologist Oldfield Thomas in 1910 based on four dead specimens, the silver-backed chevrotain was last seen, dead again, in 1990, when a team of Russian researchers obtained a specimen from Vietnamese hunters. But it now appears that the animal has somehow managed to hang on in a region of Vietnam ravaged by poaching.

There are 10 known species of chevrotain in the world, primarily located in Asia. Despite their nickname, chevrotains are neither mice nor deer, but the world’s smallest ungulates (hoofed mammals). Typically weighing less than 10 pounds, they are shy and solitary creatures who appear to walk on the tips of their hooves and have two tiny fangs.

After a number of interviews in recent years with local villagers and government forest rangers who reported seeing a gray chevrotain — rather than the more common, reddish-brown lesser chevrotain — researchers with Global Wildlife Conservation and its partners, Southern Institute of Ecology and Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, set three camera traps for five months in the area of southern Vietnam where locals indicated they may have seen the animal. The cameras recorded 280 sightings of the animal within nine months. The team’s findings were reported in the November 11 issue of the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

“For so long this species has seemingly only existed as part of our imagination. Discovering that it is, indeed, still out there, is the first step in ensuring we don’t lose it again, and we’re moving quickly now to figure out how best to protect it,” An Nguyen, a conservation scientist at the Leibniz Institute and lead author of the journal report, said in a statement.

Like all ostensibly lost species, conservationists know very little about the silver-backed chevrotain. The researchers will now have to determine how large, and stable, this population of the Vietnamese mouse-deer is, the wider distribution of the species, and the threats to its survival.


Trump v. California (and the climate)

photo of power plant
In October, the Trump administration took aim at a 2013 agreement between California and Quebec that limits the amount of greenhouse gases that industrial and power plants can emit. Photo by Ian D. Keating.

Trump’s barbs and snipes against California have been unrelenting (just scroll through his Twitter feed). But hostilities between the president and the nation’s largest state have recently escalated.

In October, the US Justice Department sued California, for — wait for it — trying to ensure clean air. According to CNN, prosecutors claim that the state’s 2013 environmental agreement with Quebec, Canada, bypassed federal authority. The cap-and-trade system between the two regions limits the amount of greenhouse gases that industrial and power plants can emit — a move that would probably be lauded if the country weren’t helmed by a climate change denier.

In a statement released by the Justice Department, Assistant Attorney General Jeffrey Bossert Clark accused the Golden State of veering outside of its “proper constitutional lane” and undermining “the President’s ability to negotiate competitive agreements with other nations.”

The suit is just the latest in a long string of salvos geared towards dismantling California’s progressive environmental policies. Trump recently revoked the state’s authority to set its own vehicle emission standards. He’s pushing to drill for oil off the California coast, and his fracking plan threatens one million acres of the state’s public land. Earlier this year, the administration cancelled nearly a billion dollars in funding for California’s high-speed rail project, calling it a “green disaster.” And in early November, as wildfires blazed in the northern and southern parts of the state, he yet again took to Twitter to criticize California’s forest management, threatened to cut federal firefighting aid, and repeated his old trope about how Governor Gavin Newsom “must ‘clean’ his forest floors regardless of what his bosses, the environmentalists, DEMAND of him.”

Thankfully, Newsom isn’t backing down. He described the Justice Department suit as part of a “political vendetta against California, our climate policies, and the health of our communities,” noting that the state’s cap-and-trade program has served as a model for similar policies around the world.”


High Steak Debate

“New guidelines: No need to reduce red or processed meat consumption for good health.”

No, that’s not a headline grabber from some beef industry shill, it’s from a press release for a review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine this past September.

The press release announced that a “panel of experts” from seven countries had conducted a series of systematic reviews and concluded — contrary to nearly all other existing guidelines — that most adults could continue to eat red meat and processed meat at current levels. The evidence of any impacts on heart disease, diabetes, or cancer outcomes was too weak to suggest cutting back, they claimed.

The resulting outrage was widespread. Scores of nutrition experts, including food policy advocate Marion Nestle, noted that this contradicted decades of observational studies, including the latest recommendations from the US Dietary Guidelines, the EAT Lancet commission, and the World Health Organization. (It turns out that the panel used a research-rating system that discounted previous nutrition studies to arrive at its controversial findings.)

Others noted that red meat consumption isn’t just about human health, either. The environmental impact of meat production is well established, but the panel chose to overlook it entirely, not to mention the killing of more than 150 billion animals for food every year. We know that meat and dairy provide just 18 percent of the world’s calories, but produce 60 percent of the agricultural sector’s greenhouse gas emissions. If we’re trying to limit warming and ensure a livable planet for future generations, then we’d do well to skip the steak a bit more often, and pile our plates with plant-based foods.


India Shelves Plastics Ban

photo of plastic garbage
This past summer, India announced a nationwide ban on several single-use plastic items. They reversed course only two months better. Photo by Flickr user Apercoco.

Less than two months after announcing a countrywide ban on six different single-use plastic products, the Indian government has backtracked, saying it will rely instead on voluntary measures to reduce plastic pollution.

Just this summer, India made the much-celebrated announcement that it would implement a nationwide ban on six single-use plastic items, including bags, cups, and straws. The ban was meant to be imposed on October 2, the 150th birth anniversary of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi. However, when October 2 rolled around, the government back-tracked, saying it wouldn’t impose a blanket regulation on those products after all.

Officials indicated that the policy reversal was made in response to industry concerns. “There was a conscious decision within the government not to hit businesses hard for now and discourage use of plastic only on a voluntary basis,” said a government representative who asked not to be identified due to government rules.

The six-item ban was meant to be part of a larger effort to rid the country of single-use plastics by 2022. For now, it seems, India will rely on education and recycling initiatives to reduce its plastic footprint — a heavy lift, given the 14 million tons of plastic used annually there.

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