Talking Points : Autumn 2016

News in Brief

aerial photo of a shoreside atomic powerplantphoto by Marya FigueroaIn June, Pacific Gas and Electric announced an agreement to close down California’s Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant, and replace the plant’s generating capacity with renewable power.

High Voltage

End of Nuclear in California

It’s going to be lights out for nuclear power in California. In June, Pacific Gas and Electric, the utility that operates the Golden State’s last remaining nuclear power plant in Diablo Canyon, announced an agreement with several environmental and labor groups to close down the plant when its federal operating license expires in 2025.

The announcement effectively brings to an end California’s contentious relationship with nuclear power more than half-a-century after it began. The plant, which is located on a seaside cliff on the California Central Coast near San Luis Obispo, currently provides 160 megawatts of electricity for Central and Northern California – enough to power more than 1.7 million homes. Under the deal, the utility agreed not to renew Diablo Canyon’s license. Closing the plant should be cheaper than operating the facility through 2044 as planned, PG&E said in a statement. The utility says the plant’s generating capacity would be replaced by “a cost-effective, greenhouse gas-free portfolio of energy efficiency, renewables and energy storage.”

Many environmental and anti-nuclear groups have long campaigned for the shutdown of Diablo Canyon, especially because it is surrounded by several earthquake fault lines. (The plant, incidentally, created controversy within the environmental movement too – disagreements over whether or not to support it and nuclear power in general led to the fracturing of the Sierra Club and the formation of Friends of the Earth in 1969.)

Calls to shutter the plant gathered further strength in 2011 following the Fukushima nuclear meltdown in Japan.

Recognition by California’s largest utility, which generates 20 percent of its electrical output from Diablo Canyon, that nuclear power can no longer compete economically with wind, solar, and hydroelectric generation sends a strong signal nationwide that the economics of power generation are tilting away from nuclear power.

“We’re in a new economic era in which renewables are cheap and getting cheaper, and there’s no place anymore for nuclear,” Daniel O. Hirsch, director of the program on environmental and nuclear policy at UC Santa Cruz, told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re no longer faced with a choice between plutonium and carbon.”


Ivory Trade: A Win and a Setback

In June, as part of an ongoing effort to prevent elephant poaching, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced a near-total ban on the ivory trade, a move that will make it much harder to buy and sell ivory in the United States.

While ivory imports have been banned in this country since 1990, under previous regulations ivory that had been brought into the US prior to 1976 – the year that African elephants were first listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species or CITES – to still be freely traded within US borders.

Under the new rules, which took effect in July, interstate sales are restricted to antiques that are more than 100 years old, and to products containing small amounts of ivory, such as musical instruments. The new rules come at a time when the African elephant is in the midst of a poaching crisis – some 30,000 elephants continue to be killed every year for their tusks – and wildlife conservationists worry that within a decade or so there will be no African elephants left in the wild.

The ban marks another step toward fulfilling President Obama’s 2013 executive order on combating wildlife trafficking. But, as is often the case, the devil is in the details. This still isn’t a total ban on all ivory trade, which some conservationists say is what’s really required to protect the elephants. According to National Geographic, intrastate ivory sales will still be legal. Ivory donations, or gifts, across state lines will be permitted. And hunters will still be allowed to import ivory trophies, though the new rules restrict imports to two trophies per hunter, per year. Such imports were previously unrestricted.

Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, the European commission announced in July that it opposes a total ban on the global ivory trade, instead endorsing sustainable management of African elephant populations in Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa, and Botswana, where elephant populations are growing. African wildlife officials were shocked by the announcement, and fear that the EU will derail listing of the African elephant under Appendix I of CITES – which lists species threatened with extinction. A coalition of 29 African nations have been pushing hard for an Annex I listing for all African elephants, a designation that would outlaw the international ivory trade.

Andrew Seguya, director of Uganda’s Wildlife Authority, put it bluntly when speaking with The Guardian: “If the EU prevents an Annex I listing, it will be the beginning of the extinction of the African elephant for sure.”

Temperature Gauge

The Thawing Dead

photo of reindeer browsingphoto by Ola Dration

Recent events in Russia sound more like the plot of a cli-fi novel than the makings of a news headline: An isolated corner of Siberia has been hit with a deadly anthrax outbreak, and the culprits, it seems, might be a reindeer corpse and record high temperatures.

Siberia experienced record heat this summer, which melted permafrost in the region. Scientists have not yet confirmed the source of the outbreak, but a prominent hypothesis is that as the permafrost thawed, so did a buried reindeer, releasing the long-dormant anthrax bacteria that had killed it some 75 years ago.

As the Journal went to press, dozens of people had been hospitalized, one child had died, and more than 2,000 reindeer had been infected. Russian authorities had sent troops trained for biological warfare to contain the situation.

Some scientists warn that this type of scenario will become more common with climate change, and that more than just anthrax could be released. “We don’t really know what’s buried up there,” Birgitta Evengard, a microbiologist at Umea University in Sweden, told NPR. “This is Pandora’s box.”

Up Above

Healing Air

With all the bad news these days, it feels like a gift to hear something positive about the state of the Earth. This year, that gift comes all the way from Antarctica where new research indicates that the ozone hole is healing.

The research, published in the journal Science, found that the seasonal hole, which begins to form over Antarctica every spring, shrank by roughly 1.5 million square miles between 2000 and 2015.

When the ozone hole was discovered in 1984, the global community acted quickly, enacting the 1987 Montreal Protocol just three years later. The treaty, which was signed by almost every country, phased out the use of chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs. (CFCs release chlorine and bromine, which react with ozone when exposed to sunlight.)

But while this is all great news, the healing process isn’t over yet. The hole isn’t expected to completely heal until mid-century.

“Think of it like a patient with a disease,” Dr. Susan Solomon, lead author of the study, and an atmospheric chemist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, told The New York Times. “First it was getting worse. Then it stopped – it was stable but still in bad shape.” Now, she says, “it’s getting just a little bit better.”

Though the process will be a long one, this is still good news for humans. Stratospheric ozone absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Increased exposure to ultraviolet radiation leads to increased rates of skin cancer, among other health problems.

According to David Fahey, who was not involved with the study but is a research physicist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the findings reinforce that the Montreal Protocol has been a resounding success. “It stands head and shoulders above any other environmental treaty,” he said.

Now if only we could all come together as successfully on climate action!


Deep Sea Heritage

photo by NOAA Okeanos ExplorerA jellyfish in Marianas Trench Marine National Monument. UNESCO wants to add deep-sea
ecosystems to its list of World Heritage sites.

UNESCO wants to add deep-sea ecosystems, including sunken coral islands, floating rainforests, and giant undersea volcanoes to its list of World Heritage sites, given their “outstanding universal value.” Such sites can’t currently be included in the list because they are found in the high seas, outside of any national jurisdiction.

In a report released in August, UNESCO and the International Union for Conservation of Nature recommended five ocean biodiversity hotspots worthy of recognition: the Costa Rica Thermal Dome in the Pacific Ocean; the White Shark Café, the only known gathering point for white sharks in the Pacific Ocean; the Sargasso Sea in the Atlantic Ocean; the Lost City Hydrothermal Field, with its 60-meter high carbonate monoliths (also in the Atlantic); and the Atlantis Bank, a sunken fossil island in the subtropical waters of the Indian Ocean.

All of these sites face various threats, be it from climate change, deep seabed mining, navigation, or plastic pollution, and could benefit from the recognition and protection of the World Heritage Convention, the report says.

Including high-seas sites in the program, however, will require adjusting the nominating and approval process, which currently allows countries to propose sites only within their own borders.


Constipated Clouds

photo of a road leading to a stormphoto by Brian KhouryNew research shows that an overabundance of aerosols can increase the lifespans of storm clouds, leading to more extreme storms.

Aerosols may be making thunderstorms bigger and more frequent. New research shows that an overabundance of aerosols – those tiny particles in the atmosphere that come from natural sources such as dust or volcanic eruptions, and from manmade sources like fossil fuel burning – can increase the lifespans of storm clouds by helping them grow larger and by delaying rainfall. The end result, according to a study led by climate scientists from the University of Texas, is more extreme storms when the rain finally does come.

“A cloud particle is basically water and aerosols. It’s like a cell. The aerosol is the nucleus and the water is the cytoplasm,” explains climate scientist Sudip Chakraborty, who led the study. “The more aerosols you have, the more cells you get. And if you have more water, you should get more rain.”

But what the researchers found was that when there is an abundance of aerosols in the air, as happens in places with lots of industrial or agricultural pollution, the same amount of water vapor gets absorbed by a larger number of aerosols. This means a larger, stronger structure of connected particles that can better support the weight of water, which in turn allows the cloud system to last longer – by as much as 3 to 24 hours – and become more powerful before it begins to dissipate into rain.

The study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in June, is the first to confirm the theory that aerosols can impact the lifespans of large thunderstorm systems called “mesoscale convective systems.” These storms are complex, often violent systems that can span several hundred kilometers and are the primary source of rain over the tropics and the mid-latitudes.

The research team, which also included scientists from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the University of Colorado, Boulder, analyzed data from 2,430 convective cloud systems and found that the amount of aerosols in the air could account for around 20 percent of the variability in a cloud system’s lifetime over South Asia and Latin America.

The idea that aerosols and extreme storms could be connected “has long been proposed,” the researchers noted, “but we have not known whether that increase is significant on global and regional scales.”

Around the World

A Dangerous Calling

Around the world, grassroots activists are putting their lives on the line to defend their forests, rivers, and local communities from exploitation. According to the latest report by Global Witness, a nonprofit that exposes human rights abuses driven by the exploitation of natural resources, 2015 was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists. The report documents 185 killings across 16 countries last year, a 60 percent increase from 2014 and an average death rate of more than three people per week.

The murders were tied to everything from encroaching agribusiness plantations, to construction of hydroelectric dams, logging, and above all, mining projects. Almost 40 percent of those who lost their lives defending the land last year were from indigenous people’s groups. As startling as these numbers are, they are likely an underestimate – the report does not account for unconfirmed or unreported deaths. Globally, there simply isn’t adequate monitoring and reporting of environment-related murders. Nor do the numbers account for the lesser acts of violence or threats against activists and their families, which are almost certainly more prevalent than assassination.

Unfortunately 2016 has already proven deadly as well: The year started off with the horrific murder of well-known Indigenous Lenca leader Berta Cáceres, followed soon after by the assassination of two other members from her organization, the Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (or COPINH). It is clear that this rapidly growing human rights crisis isn’t going to slow down any time soon unless there’s urgent intervention on a global scale.

graphic map of the world, with numbers on spots where there was trouble

1 Brazil

Brazil topped Global Witness’s list with 50 murders of environmental and land activists in 2015, nearly double the number in 2014. The majority of the killings took place in the Amazon states of Maranhão, Pará, and Rondônia, where plantations and ranches are encroaching on land held by rural communities and hitmen are hired to silence those who speak out against the loss of land and environmental destruction.

2 Philippines

Of the 33 environmental activists who were killed in the Philippines in 2015, 22 were indigenous leaders from the Lumad community, which has been defending its lands from mining and agribusiness companies in Mindanao, Philippines. Local organizations estimate that more than 500,000 hectares of land in Mindanao are affected by mining applications, and that some 700,000 hectares are being converted into plantations.

3 Colombia

Twenty-six activists were confirmed murdered in Colombia in 2015, among them nine members of indigenous groups. Paramilitary groups working with local business leaders and politicians are suspected in many of the killings, which have been tied to agribusiness, mining, and other extractive industries.

4 Nicaragua

In 2015, at least 12 activists were killed in Nicaragua. Those living along the country’s Caribbean coast, where armed settlers have encroached on the land, face particularly high risks. An estimated 3,000 people have fled violence in the region.

5 Democratic Republic of the Congo

Only 13 killings were confirmed in all of Africa in 2015. Of those, 11 were of park rangers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This low number likely reflects a lack of information and reporting from isolated parts of the continent where communities face displacement by logging, agriculture, extractive industries, and infrastructure projects.

Call of the Wild

Sex in the Windy City

Everyone loves a good love story. And that’s exactly what scientists have given us with a new study on Chicago’s faithful peregrine falcons.

photo by John W. IwanskiA peregrine falcon makes a stop in downtown Chicago.

In their natural habitat, peregrine falcons, which mate for life, live rather isolated lives, nesting on remote cliff ledges far from other couples. However, due to urban sprawl, more and more of these raptors have settled down in Midwestern urban neighborhoods, building nests on manmade structures like skyscrapers. Like most city dwellers, this puts them in rather close proximity to their neighbors.

Researchers with Chicago’s Field Museum and the University of Illinois, Chicago wondered if these altered conditions might be impacting mating habits. “They’re in much closer proximity to each other than they’d be in a more rural environment, and we thought they might be more promiscuous with more potential mates nearby,” John Bates, co-author of the study and associate curator of birds at The Field Museum, said in a statement.

The scientists used DNA testing and field observations to assess the behavior of 35 falcon pairs in Chicago, and to determine whether the urban birds were as faithful as their country counterparts. As Mongabay reported, they found that only one falcon stepped out on his partner during the study period, and they believe he had a good excuse: He had lost his mate.

It’s comforting to know that, in a world severely impacted by human development, some things remain constant.


Carbon Alchemy

Scientists have been struggling for years to figure out a safe and cost-effective way to capture and sequester carbon dioxide underground as a way to combat global warming. Now, a power plant in Iceland may have found a solution: Turn the gas into stone.


Disappearing Kelp forest

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has made international headlines in recent years, often due to the destruction heaped upon it by climate change. However, while the Great Barrier Reef has been receiving all this attention, a lesser-known Australian reef has also been suffering the effects of warming waters, though much more quietly.

New research indicates that the Great Southern Reef, a rocky, shallow reef along the Australia’s Midwestern coast, used to be known for its dense kelp forests. But in December 2010, an extreme heat wave decimated the kelp, killing 43 percent of the forest. The research, published in the journal Science, found that five years later the forest had yet to recover.

The kelp forests, known for their biodiversity, formed the foundation of the reef ecosystem. Where kelp was lost, so were fish and other species that depend on kelp, and over the past five years, the region has experienced a significant ecosystem shift. Turf seaweed, often found in warmer waters, has taken over, as have subtropical and tropical species like parrotfish and rabbitfish, typically found in coral reefs.

Unfortunately, this may be just the beginning of climate-induced ecosystem shifts.

Researchers at Iceland’s Hellisheidi power plant, the world’s largest geothermal power facility, have shown for the first time that carbon dioxide emissions can be pumped into the earth and changed chemically to a solid within months – radically faster than anyone had predicted. The finding may help address a fear that so far has plagued the idea of capturing and storing CO2 underground: that buried emissions could seep back into the air or even explode out into the atmosphere.

Under a pilot project called Carbfix, scientists and engineers at the plant pumped carbon dioxide produced by the facility during the power generation process into the volcanic rock underneath the power station, and sped up a natural process where the basalts react with the gas to form carbonate minerals, which make up limestone.

The researchers were amazed by how fast all the gas turned solid – 95 percent of the injected carbon was solidified in under two years, instead of the hundreds or thousands of years predicted by previous studies. A study describing the method appeared in the journal Science in June.

“This means that we can pump down large amounts of CO2 and store it in a very safe way over a very short period of time,” says Martin Stute, a hydrologist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory who was part of the research team. “In the future, we could think of using this for power plants in places where there’s a lot of basalt – and there are many such places.” Basically all the world’s seafloors are made of the porous, blackish rock, as are about 10 percent of continental rocks.

One potential challenge for the new technique is that it requires large amounts of water: 25 tons for each ton of CO2 buried. But Sigurdur Gislason, a University of Iceland geologist and study coauthor, says seawater could be used for this process, which would be in plentiful supply at coastal sites where there is also lots of basalt. Separation and injection of CO2 in most other projects – which usually involve pumping pure CO2 into sandstone or deep salty aquifers – has been estimated to cost about $130 a ton. The Carbfix method costs only $30 a ton, though the Iceland operation has an advantage in that it largely uses the plant’s existing infrastructure to re-inject the solution and doesn’t bother purifying the CO2. Fossil-fuel plants might not be able to do it as cheaply, and inland operations might struggle to procure enough water for the process.

Another concern is that subterranean microbes might break down the solid carbonate to methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Microbiologists are currently studying underground microbes at the Carbfix site to investigate how they might interact with the carbonate.

photo by Hildur lngvarsdottir, Reykjavik EnergyA geodesic dome covers a borehole at Iceland’s geothermal Hellisheidi power station. Researchers at the Hellisheidi plant may have figured out a safe and cost-effective way to capture and sequester carbon dioxide underground.

Temperature Gauge

Climate Claims New Victim

The world has reached yet another unfortunate climate change milestone: The Bramble Cay melomys, a small rodent found on a small island on the Great Barrier Reef, has become the first mammal recorded to become extinct due to climate change.

photo by Rebecca Diete and Luke Leung, UNIVERSITY OF QUEENSLANDA melomys from the Torres Strait, which researchers say closely resembles its extinct Bramble Cay relative.

In a June report released by the University of Queensland and the Queensland government, researchers recommended that the Bramble Cay melomys’ status officially be changed from endangered to extinct, writing that the extinction was due “solely (or primarily) to anthropogenic climate change.”

Bramble Cay melomys are believed to have been endemic to Bramble Cay, a small coral island off the north coast of Queensland, Australia with a maximum elevation of three meters above sea level. In 2014, researchers conduced a six-day survey of the outpost, but didn’t spot a single rodent. The melomys were last seen in 2009.

The report concludes that rising sea levels likely caused the island to be inundated several times during the past decade, killing the melomys and ruining their habitat. Between 1993 and 2014, sea levels rose at nearly twice the global rate in the waters around Bramble Cay.

“I am of absolutely no doubt we will lose species due to the increasing pressures being exerted by climate change,” John White, an ecologist from Deakin University in Australia who was not involved in the study, told The Guardian. “Species restricted to small, low lying islands, or those with very tight environmental requirements are likely to be the first to go.”

However, there may be some small hope for the Bramble Cay melomys. Some scientists hypothesize that the melomys arrived at the Australian cay from Papua New Guinea and it’s possible that the rodent may survive there, yet to be discovered.

No Comment

Calling Out Climate Deniers

Climate denial can be lucrative business. If you’re the Wall Street Journal, that is. In June, the Journal made a cool $36,528 running an advertisement calling out its own anti-climate-science stance.

The Journal’s editorial pages are well known for their conservative, climate-denying content, which seems to be precisely why the Partnership for Responsible Growth, a nonprofit that promotes a price on carbon, approached the newspaper with a 12-page ad series. The first ad in the series targets the Journal’s editorial board.

“Exxon’s CEO says fossil fuels are raising temperatures and sea levels,” read the headline of the ad, which ran in June. “Why won’t the Wall Street Journal?

The newspaper agreed to publish the advertisement, at a premium. The $36,000 price tag was higher than that for the subsequent ads, which cost the partnership $27,309 each. The reason for the price hike? Any advertiser challenging a Journal stance pays the paper’s “standard” ad rate. Prices for other ads can be negotiated and discounted.

The Journal’s editorial pages have been rife with climate-denial for decades. According to a study by the nonprofit, the newspaper has published 201 editorials on climate change since 1997. Not a single one has acknowledged fossil fuels as a cause of global warming. And since 1995, only 14 percent of guest editorials have reflected mainstream climate science.

“We’re not really trying to convert or attack the paper,” George Frampton, co-founder and chief executive of the Partnership for Responsible Growth, told the Washington Post. “We’re trying to reach out to a business audience in a medium that never tells them the science is basically settled and that this is a national-security and economic problem… I’d say if the Journal won’t cover it, we’ll pay to have them cover it.”

You Gotta Be Kidding

An Upside of Oil Spills?

Apparently, oil spills can good for the environment.

In July, Washington State held hearings regarding a massive proposed oil-by-rail terminal in Vancouver, Washington. The facility, which would handle an estimated 360,000 barrels of crude oil a day, would vastly increase the number of oil trains passing through the Evergreen State, and as a result, increase the risk of oil train derailments and spills.

But according to the oil industry, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, industry reps argue, spills could bring benefits not only to the Washington State economy, but also to the environment.

“The Draft Environmental Impact Statement identifies many economic impacts arising from an accident associated with project operations, but fails to recognize economic activity that would be generated by spill response,” Todd Schatzki, vice president of the economic consultancy, Analysis Group, wrote in pre-trial testimony. The consultancy was commissioned by Tesoro Savage Petroleum Terminal LLC, the company behind the terminal proposal, to produce an economic report on the terminal project. “When a spill occurs, new economic activity occurs to clean-up contaminated areas, remediate affected properties, and supply equipment for cleanup activities. Anecdotal evidence from recent spills suggests that such activity can be potentially large,” he added.

photo of a diving duckphoto by Carrie LandersAt a July hearing on a proposed Washington oil-by-rail terminal, industry reps tried to make the
case that oil spills can be good for the environment.

And the benefits don’t stop there. Evidently, wildlife in particular has a lot to gain when oil trains derail. Take wildlife in the Columbia River, for example, which borders much of the train route and is one of the most important fisheries for both Oregon and Washington. According to Gregory Challenger, another witness for Tesoro-Savage, if a fishery closes, fewer fish get caught, which is a good thing. What is more, Schatzki says, fisheries wouldn’t be especially impacted, because fisherfolk would simply opt to avoid the spill area.

Benefits extend beyond fish. Challenger also emphasized that after the 2004 Athos 1 spill, which released 264,000 gallons of crude oil into the Delaware River, the duck-hunting season was forced to close early.

“There [was] an estimate of 3,000 birds affected by the oil, and 13,000 birds not shot by hunters, because of the closed season,” Challenger said during his testimony. “We don’t get any credit for that, but it’s hard to deny that it’s good for birds to not be shot.”

As ThinkProgress reported, the witnesses didn’t mention the deep economic losses often caused by spills, the long-term impact on some fish populations, or the fact that seabirds are especially vulnerable to spills. But, of course, those facts aren’t quite as convenient.

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