Talking Points: Winter 2021

News in Brief


Feds Weapon Use Challenged

Tear gas. Rubber bullets. Pepper spray. Smoke grenades. These are some of the weapons federal agents used against Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon this summer. They are also the focus of an October lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of five environmental groups.

photo of a armored soldier holding a weapon in a smoky outdoor space
A new suit alleges that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consider the environmental and human health impacts of a variety of chemical weapons, including tear gas and pepper spray, that federal agents used against Black Lives Matter protestors in Portland, OR. Photo by Alex Milan Tracy / SIPA USA / Alamy Live News.

The suit alleges that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consider the environmental and human health impacts of these weapons prior to their use, and as a result, violated the National Environmental Policy Act.

The health risks associated with these weapons aren’t anything to shrug at. As the lawsuit spells out, exposure to tear gas has been linked to acute respiratory illness, eye injuries, chronic pain, neurodegeneration, and menstrual cycle disruption. Exposure to the chemicals in smoke grenades has been linked to kidney and liver damage, nausea, vomiting, and even cancer, The Intercept reports.

In addition to the risks posed to people, many of the chemicals used in these weapons are known to cause harm to aquatic environments. Given the high quantities in which they’ve been used in Portland, it’s no surprise that local sampling shows residues from these chemical have been washing into Portland’s storm drains. Environmentalists are concerned that from there, they are washing into the Willamette River.

“The large volumes of tear gas and other chemical weapons that federal officers recklessly and thoughtlessly unleashed in Portland is yet more evidence of the Trump administration’s racist disregard for public health and a safe living environment,” Kelly Simon, interim legal director of ACLU Oregon, said in a statement. “So we will see them in court, again.”

A new suit alleges that the Department of Homeland Security failed to consider the environmental and human health impacts of a variety of chemical weapons, including tear gas and pepper spray, that federal agents used against Black Lives Matter protestors in Portland, OR.

Temperature Gauge

Heat Wilts Learning

By now, we know beyond a reasonable doubt that climate change is impacting everything from our homes, to our health, to our infrastructure. Now, new research shows, it’s impacting how our children learn as well.

According to a study published in Nature Human Behavior in October, rising temperatures are depressing student achievement across 58 different countries. Specifically, for every additional day of 80-plus degree Fahrenheit weather, standardized achievement scores go down, indicating that exposure to warmer weather harms learning.

In the United States, at least, that negative impact isn’t evenly distributed. Drilling down into school-district level data, the researchers found that while higher temperatures correlated with lower scores for students of color, the same was not true for their White peers.

“The same amount of outdoor heat makes certain classrooms hotter, just because their buildings are lower quality,” Joshua Goodman, one of the study authors and an associate professor at Boston University, told The New York Times. “Low-income students are in school buildings that have worse HVAC and ventilation systems.”

For the US component of their study, the researchers looked at more than 270 million standardized test scores for elementary and middle school students between 2009 and 2015. Black, Latino, and low-income students who experienced more hot days in the year before their test had lower scores than those with fewer high-temp days.

“Heat seems to negatively impact all students but the effects appear to be much worse for more vulnerable students,” said Patrick Beher, a study co-author and postdoctoral scholar at Stanford University. “As a result, it seems likely that increasing heat exposure may exacerbate existing educational inequalities.”

Call of the Wild

A Win for Wolves

Wolves may be coming back to Colorado soon. During the November election, voters in the state approved Proposition 114, a ballot measure which tasks state wildlife officials with devising a plan by the end of 2023 to reintroduce gray wolves to the Western Slope — the region of the state west of the Continental Divide.

photo of a wolf in a snowy forest
Coloradans passed a ballot measure in November mandating the reintroduction of gray wolves in the state, making it the first voter-led initiative of its kind. Photo by MacNeil Lyons / NPS.

Once found throughout North America, wolves were vilified by settlers and hunted to near extinction in the Lower 48. Proposition 114 represents part of the push from conservationists to reintroduce the species to much of its former habitat. “Reintroducing wolves will restore Colorado’s natural balance,” Jonathan Proctor of Defenders of Wildlife told National Geographic.

The measure, which passed by a narrow half of 1 percentage point, marks the first time a state has voted on wolf reintroduction. And its narrow win shows how divided the idea remains. While conservation groups supported it, ranchers, hunters, and the Colorado Farm Bureau opposed the measure.

The mandate also comes on the heels of an October decision from the US Fish and Wildlife Service to remove federal protections for gray wolves. The Trump administration cited successful conservation of the species as the reason for the delisting, but the true incentive seems to be placating the livestock industry, which claims that killing wolves is the only way to safely manage predator-livestock conflict — despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

Now, the big question remains how the Colorado wolf reintroduction will be done. The ballot language requires that Colorado Parks and Wildlife hold public hearings as it puts together a plan for reintroduction, which will require input from conservationists and ranchers alike.


Animal Planet in Freefall

In its recent Living Planet Report 2020, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) released a staggering figure that reveals the extent to which our relationship with nature is broken: In the last 50 years, global wildlife populations have declined by 68 percent, with no signs of the decline slowing down.

“As humanity’s footprint expands into once-wild places, we’re devastating species populations,” WWF’s US President and CEO Carter Roberts said in a statement. “But we’re also exacerbating climate change and increasing the risk of zoonotic diseases like Covid-19.”

The report cites the Living Planet Index, a compilation of population and habitat data for more than 25,000 populations of mammals, birds, fish, amphibians, and reptiles. The index matches wildlife declines with habitat destruction around the globe. Some areas have been affected worse than others. In the tropical regions of the Americas, for instance, biodiversity has declined by nearly 95 percent.

Other recent biodiversity reports reinforce the WWF’s findings. In August, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity reported that the world did not achieve any of the biodiversity targets agreed upon in 2010 at a meeting in Aichi, Japan. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom called the 2010s a “lost decade for nature.”

It’s telling, says the WWF report, that this “lost decade” ended with a global pandemic that has killed more than a million people, witnessed devastating wildfires in both hemispheres, and seen significant ice declines at both poles, as well as other climate impacts. It doesn’t take a data-driven report to see that something is imbalanced.


Japan’s Drawdown Pledge

In October, a month into his term as Japan’s Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga boosted his country’s commitment to tackling the climate crisis by announcing that Japan will be carbon neutral by 2050. “I declare we will aim to realize a decarbonized society,” Suga said in his first policy address to members of parliament.

photo of a train going through coastal Japan, hill of coal in the background
Japan has announced that it intends to be carbon neutral by 2050, well ahead of its earlier pledge to reach carbon neutrality by the end of the century. Photo by 4563_pic / Flickr.

This goal represents a shift in the Asian nation’s climate response. Japan, the fifth largest emitter of carbon dioxide according to the International Energy Agency, had previously vowed to reduce its emissions by 80 percent by 2050, with the promise of carbon neutrality before the end of the century.

Now, the 2050 net-zero deadline puts Japan in the same ambitious camp as the European Union (which announced a bloc-wide goal to be carbon neutral by 2050 last December), and several other countries. In September 2020, President Xi Jinping also pledged to make China, the world’s largest carbon emitter, carbon neutral by 2060.

There’s still the question, however, of how Japan intends to reach its goals. Despite the country’s plan to close down older, inefficient coal-fired power plants in coming years, Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry Hiroshi Kajiyama recently told reporters that “cleaner” coal will remain an integral part of Japan’s energy portfolio. In his policy address, Suga mentioned that Japan would focus research on carbon recycling and solar technology. Kajiyama later told reporters that plans for Japan’s 2050 goal would be drawn up by the end of the year.

Either way, Japan’s goals represent a larger shift in the global response to the climate crisis, which threatens the nation’s economy as well as biodiversity and public health. As Suga told parliament, “Responding to climate change is no longer a constraint on economic growth.”

Unstable Future

This one is a sinker. According to a new paper published in Nature in September, even if the world’s nations met their Paris Climate Accord emissions goals to limit global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius, it might to be too late to save most of our coastal cities from rising sea levels.

photo of an iceberg
The Antarctic ice sheet has reached a critical tipping point that makes a massive amount of ice cap melt almost certainly irreversible. Photo by Daniel Enchev.

That’s because the Antarctic ice sheet has reached a critical tipping point, making a massive amount of ice cap melt almost certainly irreversible. That melt, researchers say, will eventually cause a global sea level rise of about two and a half meters.

The study, conducted by a team at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, explains that though the ice sheet, which has existed in its current form for some 34 million years, will take beyond the end of this century to melt that much, it is going to be very difficult to reverse the melting trend. That’s because of the ice sheet’s “hysteresis behavior.”

Basically, when the ice sheet melts, the surface sinks and it is, at the same time, exposed to warmer air. Reforming the ice in order to keep the sheet stable thus requires colder temperatures than those required previously. But chances of the air there cooling beyond historical levels are pretty much nil. In other words, the ice sheet’s instability has hit a downhill slope — it’s in a feedback loop that now guarantees rising sea levels.

Potsdam Institute researchers conducted this study at a time when both Antarctic and Arctic ice caps have displayed tremendous stress due to climate change. Just a week before the study was published, the US National Snow and Ice Data Center reported the second-lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record, following a series of summer heat waves that brought record-breaking temperatures to parts of Siberia.

Last February, scientists in Antarctica recorded temperatures higher than 20 degrees Celsius for the first time, signaling the change we can expect on an increasingly unstable ice sheet that holds half of the planet’s freshwater — no matter how well we manage to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

“We get enormous sea level rise [from the Antarctic melting] even if we keep to the Paris Agreement, and catastrophic amounts if we don’t,” Anders Levermann, a climate scientist and co-author of the study, told The Guardian.

around the world

Super High Risk

The United States’ 1,500-plus Superfund sites are more than a little anxiety inducing. Contaminated with dumped, abandoned, or improperly managed hazardous waste, these toxic locations pose a real and present risk to communities across the country. Unfortunately, at many of these sites, climate change is amplifying that risk.

According to the US Government Accountability Office, 945 of the country’s Superfund sites face threats from climate change due to their vulnerability to flooding, sea level rise, hurricanes, increased precipitation, or wildfires. An investigation by InsideClimate News, the Texas Observer, and NBC News found that 49 of the threatened sites face a so-called “triple threat” from climate change: They are in 100-year flood plains, regularly flood, and are vulnerable to hurricanes.

Yet, despite the mounting risk, the Trump administration backed away from Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) efforts, implemented under President Obama, to consider the impacts of climate change on Superfund site management and remediation. In fact, the EPA’s current five-year strategic plan doesn’t reference climate change at all when it comes to Superfund sites.

“Removing climate change from strategic planning makes Superfund sites vulnerable now and into the future,” Judith Enck, a former EPA Region 2 administrator, told Inside Climate News. “It’s like going down a steep hill with failing brakes.”

Hopefully, President-elect Joe Biden will reverse course in January. In the meantime, here are five climate-vulnerable Superfund sites putting communities at risk.

graphic map of the United States

1 Barret, Texas

The San Jacinto Waste Pits are located in the majority-Black town of Barret, Texas. Built in the 1960s to dump pulp and paper waste, they are known to be contaminated with cancer-causing dioxins and furans. The pits were capped with concrete in 2011, but the cap didn’t stop the site from leaching contaminants when it was flooded during Hurricane Harvey in 2017. Following the hurricane, the EPA found dioxins in the river at 2,300 times the recommended levels. Shortly after that, the EPA approved a plan to remove dioxin-contaminated waste from the site. However, several years later, the project is yet to start.

2 Brunswick, Georgia

From the 1920s through the mid-1990s, various industrial facilities, including a petroleum refinery and a plant that produced chlorine and caustic soda, operated across the 800-plus-acre LCP Chemical site in Brunswick, Georgia. Added to the Superfund list in 1996, the LCP site — the majority of which sits on coastal marshland — is frequently flooded with seawater. Flooding releases toxic chemicals, including mercury and polychlorinated biphenyls, posing a health risk to residents who eat local seafood. That fact is all the more worrisome given that LCP Chemical is also on the climate “triple threat” list. The EPA’s remediation plan for the site includes placing a six-inch layer of sand over toxic sediment at the site. Experts say the plan doesn’t account for sea level rise.

3 Newark, New Jersey

New Jersey holds the unfortunate distinction of having more Superfund sites than any other state in the country. Almost all of its whopping 114 sites are vulnerable to climate change, including one in Ironbound, a densely populated low-income neighborhood in Newark. (Newark alone has three other Superfund sites.) The Superfund site includes a former Diamond Alkali chemical plant that produced DDT, Agent Orange, and other toxic products throughout the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, as well as waterways into which chemicals from the plant leached: the lower Passaic River and Newark Bay. High levels of the dangerous toxin dioxin have been detected at the site. While the facility has since been capped, a long stretch of the river remains unremediated.

4 Bainbridge, Washington

The Wyckoff wood-treating facility operated in Washington’s Puget Sound for some 85 years, contaminating soils, groundwater, and sediment at the bottom of Eagle Harbor with creosote and other chemicals. Several cleanup projects have been completed at Wyckoff-Eagle Harbor Superfund site, but further remediation is required. Under President Obama, regional EPA officials had begun to develop climate-smart remediation plans for the area, which is vulnerable to both flooding and sea level rise, as well as for other Superfund sites in the region. Those plans were waylaid during the Trump administration.

5 Redding, California

Climate change puts 234 Superfund sites across the country at heightened risk from wildfires. One of those is the 4,400-acre Iron Mountain Mine site outside of Redding, California, which was for years mined for iron, gold, silver, copper, zinc, and pyrite. The underground mine, tailing piles, and an open mine pit all remain at the site, which is considered one of the most toxic mining sites in the world. In 2018, the Carr Fire came dangerously close to the site, highlighting the risk faced by the former mine and other toxic sites as climate change increases the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Golden State. Had firefighters not been able to defend the Iron Mountain Mine, the fire could have caused a toxic explosion and destroyed the nearby water treatment plant used to clean acid mine drainage.

Other Sources: Associated Press, Environmental Protection Agency, San Francisco Chronicle.

Table Talk

Microplastics on Your Plate

Visuals of marine life choking on plastic pollution caused by humans have become commonplace. Now, we are coming full circle as humans ingest microplastics via seafood.

New research from India adds to the growing body of evidence that humans are ingesting plastic with their seafood. Photo by Per-Olof Forsberg

Microplastics, plastic particles less than 5 millimeters in length, are entering edible parts of fishes meant for human consumption, Indian scientists from Cochin University of Science and Technology and Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Kochi, Kerala have found. Their study, published in the journal Environmental Pollution, is the first from India examining the prevalence of microplastics in edible parts of fish, the authors say.

In India, many people depend on seafood for nutrition. India is also the second-largest fish producer in the world and a major exporter of seafood, meaning contaminated fish caught there could pose a hazard both locally and globally.

Microplastics have for some time been found in the guts and gills of pelagic fish all over the world, and the researchers’ findings were in line with this trend: They found microplastics in the inedible parts of over 41 percent of fish in their study. However, it was the prevalence of microplastics in the edible parts of the fish, like the muscle and skin, that was more surprising. Of the 270 fish studied, the scientists found that 7 percent had microplastics in parts that humans consume. This was across nine commercially important species.

The findings add to the growing body of evidence that humans are ingesting at least some plastic with their seafood.

Some 4.8 to 12.7 million tons of plastic enter the oceans every year. As ocean plastic pollution continues to accumulate, microplastics may emerge as a food safety issue, the authors note, though the health impacts of consuming them remain poorly understood. What we do know is that given their small size and often invisible presence, it is hard to screen fish for microplastics. Which means the best way to limit our fish-related plastic consumption — aside from not eating fish — is to stop plastic pollution at the source.

– Mahima Jain


Born Free

There be free-born babies! After several unsuccessful attempts, this past October, a pair of red-and-green macaws produced three hatchlings in Argentina’s Iberá National Park, a vast protected area in the northeastern province of Corrientes. The hatchlings are the first members of their species to be born in the wild in the South American country in 150 years.

photo of a colorful parrot, hatchling inset
A pair of red-and-green macaws produced three hatchlings in October in Argentina’s Iberá National Park, the first of their species to be born in the wild in the country in 150 years. Photo by Matias Rebak

According to Rewilding Argentina Foundation, the organization responsible for reintroducing the macaw species (Ara chloropterus) into its natural habitat in 2019, the return of the bird, which has been extinct in the wild throughout Argentina, is also a key step in restoring native forests to this valuable ecosystem.

“Macaws are seed dispersers for many plant species, especially those with larger seed pods,” Sebastian Di Martino, conservation director at Rewilding Argentina, said in a statement. “They fly great distances and can disperse seeds in a huge range. This is particularly important in Iberá, where vegetative islets are isolated by a matrix of wetlands difficult for other seed dispersers to cross.”

Rewilding Argentina started the reintroduction process in 2015 with once-captive macaws that had never flown before. They required extensive training to live in the wild. So far, 15 macaws have been set free in the national park, which was created in 2018 with the help of land donations made by Tompkins Conservation, in collaboration with local and national authorities.


Mink Cull

On November 4, Denmark announced that it would cull the country’s entire farmed mink population — some 15 to 17 million animals — after 12 people were reportedly infected with a mutated coronavirus strain that spread from minks in fur farms. Minks are the only animal known to both catch the virus from humans and transmit it back to them. Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen said the cull was necessary because the mutation could stymie efforts to develop an effective human vaccine.

Less than a week later, after noting that the government did not have legal authority to carry out a cull of healthy animals, Danish lawmakers proposed a formal law to ban mink farming in the country until 2021. The new law would also allow the government to carry out the remainder of the cull, which was already underway.

The cruel irony that these animals are meant to be killed for their fur anyway isn’t lost on animal rights activists. With more than a thousand farms, Denmark is the world’s largest producer of mink fur. Animal advocates point out that the virus compromises the welfare of farmed mink, who are already living under stressful conditions.

Many experts have questioned the sustainability of factory-like animal farms in the face of the coronavirus outbreak and inevitability of more pandemics in the future. They note how interspecies disease transmission threatens humans and animals alike and could also pose a threat to food security. “What if we get a zoonotic disease that affects pigs in the next pandemic? Or chickens?” Joanna Swabe of Humane Society International told The Guardian. “So far it’s just luck that we are talking about mink rather than food animals.”


Bat Sense

The climate is changing. And — as we are witnessing with the youth climate movement these days — the young ones understand what that means, even if the grownups often don’t. It appears that this holds true even among some of our flying-mammal friends. Researchers have found that young male noctule bats are the first of their species to adjust to the realities of a warming world, while older generations are slower to adapt.

photo of a bat in flight
Noctule bats’ wintering range has been moving north in recent years, seemingly led by younger generations. Photo by Matteo De Stefano / MUSE.

Noctule bats (Nyctalus noctula), one of the largest European bat species, typically migrate some 1,000 to 1,800 kilometers between their summer foraging-and-roosting grounds in the north to their southern winter-hibernation grounds. But in recent years, apparently led by their younger generations, the bats’ wintering range has been moving north.

Researchers from Berlin’s Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Germany, Ukraine’s Bat Rehabilitation Center of Feldman Ecopark, and the Ukrainian Independent Ecology Institute conducted a long-term study in the Ukranian city of Kharkiv to understand if the northward shift in the species’ wintering range was the consequence of adult bats moving further north for hibernation year after year, or if the shifts were done by juvenile bats from successive generations.

“We showed that the northwards move of the hibernation area of the common noctule occurs over several generations of juveniles,” Christian Voigt, head of the Department of Evolutionary Ecology at Leibniz-IZW, said. “Especially young males, who usually migrate further from their birthplace than young females, are leading the way when colonizing new hibernacula.” Their finding was published in the scientific journal Biology Letters.

Since common noctules have a short life span, a high reproduction rate, and can disperse over long distances, they may be able to adjust relatively quickly to global warming, even if the wintering area only changes gradually from generation to generation. Unfortunately, for species with lower reproduction rates and a limited migratory potential of the young — the majority of European bat species — the future might not look as favorable in the face of a warming world.


Toxic Poop

The verdict is in: Our use of toxic agricultural pesticides and flame-retardants doesn’t just pollute our air and water and harm human health, it also poses a threat to the animals we share our planet with.

photo of a pair of baboons
Photo by Rod Waddington.

A recent study published in Environmental Science and Technology found toxic chemicals in the poop of several different primate populations around the world, specifically: captive baboons in the US, wild howler monkeys in Costa Rica, and wild baboons, chimpanzees, red-tailed monkeys, and red colobus monkeys in Uganda. Researchers said they were surprised by the number of different chemicals found in the primate feces, as well as the high levels of certain chemicals.

“We think a lot about habitat disturbance, logging, and hunting as threats to these species, while pollution has been overlooked,” Michael Wasserman, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of anthropology and human biology at Indiana University, told Environmental Health News.

The researchers tested for 50 different pesticides — including both legacy chemicals like DDT and those now in use like chlorpyrifos — and nearly 70 flame-retardants. Most of the chemicals they detected in the primate feces samples have been linked to health risks in both humans and animals, from hormone disruption to developmental problems to impacts on the immune system.

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