The other day, I saw a story on CNN that the current administration has approved leasing plans for oil drilling in the Coastal Plain area of Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR). Rather than just the Area 1002 (roughly 2000 acres) that was set aside for potential oil exploration when the refuge was established, it seems like the whole Coastal Plain area (1.5 million acres) will be up for grabs. This will be devastating for wildlife. For example, there is a caribou herd that relies on the Coastal Plain area for their calving and summer feeding grounds. This decision to open the whole area to drilling will result in reductions in the caribou population and the predators and indigenous peoples that rely on the caribou. The World Wildlife Fund has a quick summary of the reasons we shouldn’t allow drilling in ANWR and the Center for American Progress has a summary of why we shouldn’t drill from energy and economy standpoints. The Gwich’in people (the original inhabitants of the land) also advocate strongly against drilling. One last link for you, Scientific American has a story on the environmental impact statement prepared by the government. By their own emission, drilling will contribute to extinctions of wildlife in the refuge. The Arctic ecosystem is already severely impacted by global warming. Do we have to double down on human impacts with more drilling? This is the time to move away from fossil fuels, not try to find more sources of them.
Now for some rare good news, on July 6 a federal judge ordered a shutdown of construction and operations on the Dakota Access Pipeline for a full environmental and cultural impacts review. This has been a four-year legal battle between the Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux tribes and the US Army Corps of Engineers and Dakota Access, LLC. This press release from Earth Justice (the group representing the Sioux tribes) detailing the ruling and giving the history of the struggle. There are many issues with the Dakota Access Pipeline (and the similar Keystone Pipeline and Keystone XL) but I will just address the issues with what the pipelines are transporting and the fact that pipelines are prone to spills and other leakage.
These pipelines bring or are slated to bring tar sands oil from Canada down to refineries in the United States. Extraction and refinement of oil from tar sands results in 50% higher carbon dioxide emissions than conventional oil (see this brief explanation) and extensive habitat destruction (which is of course followed by massive biodiversity loss). If we rely on tar sands oil as our conventional sources of oil are rapidly depleted, we will accelerate and exacerbate global warming.
This picture shows what the natural boreal habitat should look like and what the landscape looks like after clearcutting and sand extraction. In his documentary “Before the Flood” Leonardo DiCaprio likens the tar sands landscape to Mordor in Lord of the Rings. Photo credit: © Greenpeace/John Woods
While oil companies tout pipelines as the safer alternative to train or truck transport, it turns out that the Keystone Pipeline has frequent spills/leaks. Twenty one spills of varying sizes (sometimes underreported) occurred between 2010 and 2019. Oil spills threaten drinking water supplies and are toxic for wildlife. Despite this record of spills, the current White House administration approved the Keystone XL extension in March of 2019.
But let’s stay focused on the good news! The Dakota pipeline has beens stopped (for now). We are at a critical juncture in our nation’s history. These past four years have been devastating for the environment (and devastating for human rights in this country, and devastating for international relations, and...I could go on and on). I don’t think I’m being dramatic when I say that the future of our nation and the world depends on the election of Joe Biden in November. That’s my action suggestion for today. Vote for Joe Biden (and democratic candidates down the ticket) in November. Only if the democrats control the White House and Congress can we start to undo the damage that the orange occupant (I can’t bear to say or write his name; he doesn’t deserve acknowledgement) of the White House has done.
Vote for Biden and Harris on November 3rd! (or vote early if your state allows it)
While we have been immersed in news of the global COVID pandemic the Great Barrier Reef has experienced a major bleaching event for the third time in five years. The reef experienced the hottest water temperatures on record since people started keeping reef temperature records in 1900. The Guardian has a short summary article that is worth a read.
For those of you who are asking, what is bleaching? Why is it bad? Here is a little primer on corals and bleaching. Corals are a tiny colonial animal. They are related to anemones and jellyfishes, so they have tiny tentacles with stinging cells. That’s not really the important part.
Corals have soft bodies made of two tissue layers. Microscopic algae (single-celled organisms) called Zooxanthellae live inside the cells of the inner layer. The Zooxanthellae are photosynthetic and provide corals with most of the energy they require for living. They are also responsible for giving corals their colors (all those photosynthetic pigments). The rest of the nutritional needs of the coral are met by capturing plankton with their tentacles. While the corals themselves are soft-bodied, they do make what is referred to as a skeleton. This is a hard base of calcium carbonate that the coral sits anchored in. This must be continuously maintained and built up. The coral expends energy to do this.
Corals are like Goldilocks (reference to Goldilocks and the Three Bears children’s story...do people read this to their kids anymore? Am I dating myself?). They have very specific environmental needs. We’ll use temperature as an example. The corals need water that is not too cold, not too warm, but just right. If the water gets too warm (hello global warming!) the Zooxanthellae malfunction and stress the coral out. The coral then kick the Zooxanthellae out of their cells. When the Zooxanthellae are gone, the corals lose their color and appear white, hence the term “coral bleaching.” Here’s a great animation about bleaching if you want to know more details. The corals can live for a little while without their Zooxanthellae because they can still capture plankton with their tentacles and live off of stored energy. But eventually they can’t survive without all the energy the Zooxanthellae provide, so they die.
Why should people care about corals dying? Coral reefs provide shelter and food for thousands of other species of marine organisms, most of which are not found in other ecosystems and many of which may produce compounds that could be used medicinally. This abundant wildlife supports ecotourism in many parts of the tropics and subtropics; reefs are estimated to generate $1 million per kilometer. Coral reefs also provide food for people (nearly 1 billion people are estimated to rely on reef ecosystems for food) and are important buffers to storm wave energy that could damage coastlines.
There is some hope that corals will become more resistant to bleaching. There are some kinds of Zooxanthellae that can tolerate higher temperatures than others. These Zooxanthellae have been found to become more common on reefs after bleaching has occurred (see Baker et al and Stat & Gates). This suggests that corals can switch to a more advantageous type of Zooxanthellae. Some researchers have even experimented with “planting” corals on reefs that have the resistant Zooxanthellae living in them. But even those heat-resistant Zooxanthellae have their limits with experimentally demonstrated high bleaching levels above 33°C. This recent heat wave on the Great Barrier reef saw temperatures of 31°C. What will the sea surface temperatures be in 10 years? By 2050? If even the most thermally tolerant corals and their zooxanthellae are subjected to temperatures over 33°C, reefs are likely to become a relic of the past and with them all the benefits that we get from the reef biodiversity.
So, what can we do about it? You know the drill! Look back at my old posts for a myriad of personal actions you can take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and advocate for legislative change. Most importantly, you can vote in November. We need a sea change in the government of this country. Clearly the current administration needs to go, as they have been systematically dismantling all environmental regulations in this country and consistently denying that climate change is happening (here’s a link to that climate change deregulation tracker again, just for fun. Clearly we also need to get people who understand the seriousness of the climate crisis in control of Congress. Generally, that means you should vote for Democrats and not for Republicans. It’s funny how things have changed in the past 40-something years. It was under the Republican Nixon administration that all the great environmental legislation of the 1970s was passed. George H.W. Bush even campaigned on the promise to protect Americans from the threat of climate change in 1988 (of course, the tune changed during his administration, but there was a point when he acknowledged the dangers). Now the Democrats are the party of climate change action. If Democrats control both the House and the Senate, we could get some climate change legislation passed. So, vote Democrat whenever possible. And yes, no politician is perfect, but we need some that will at least do no more damage than has already been done (that’s the low bar) and ideally some that will start to make significant progress to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (that’s the high bar...let’s shoot high).
These are unsettled times. In recent weeks I have discussed the "tragedy of the commons" concept with my environmental science class. Today on the morning news, one reporter was in a supermarket showing off the barren shelves. He noted that people should just buy what they need, not all the hand sanitizer or all the soap, because by buying more than you need for the time being, you are putting someone else at risk because they can't get their hands on sanitizer or soap. Tragedy of the commons, sort of. Definitely an "everyone for themselves" scenario playing out in the markets.
People are panicking. This is a time for common sense, not panic. Practice social distancing. Cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze. Wash your hands thoroughly (get under those fingernails and in all the crevices!) and frequently with soap. [Simplified science note: most viruses, including COVID-19 are covered in a layer of lipids. These help the virus to stick to surfaces (think sticky oil on a pan). Scrubbing with soap breaks up that lipid layer so that viruses can be rinsed off your hands with water.] If you feel at all symptomatic or think you may have been exposed, stay at home and definitely stay away from your older relatives and friends, or people who have pre-existing conditions that put them at risk (cardiac issues, asthma, immune deficiencies, etc).
Also remember to take care of your mental health. Keep yourself busy and on a schedule. Read, maybe enjoy some Netflix or similar, exercise, and eat healthy. For exercise, get outside for a walk. Feel the sunshine on your face, it makes a big difference. Many fitness studios are offering virtual classes. I've got a class scheduled for every day this week. It will be nice to see the people I usually see and will take my mind off being stuck at home during the day by myself for three weeks. I'm going to schedule some virtual lunches with friends and colleagues. Lastly, turn the news off. Maybe watch a bit in the morning, but you know it's just going to be the same stress-inducing news over and over all day. That can have a big impact on your psyche.
On a science note, here's a video on how and why novel viruses (COVID-19, SARS) will likely continue to originate in China. With population growth and climate change (see "They're coming" post 8/2/19), we can expect more pandemics in the future. Here are a couple of articles that touch on this: Scientific American and Vox.
A couple of headlines caught my eye this morning, here's one:
I'll address the human tragedy later. The stories about koalas and kangaroos are really tugging at my heart strings. On one island alone (Kangaroo Island), it's estimated that 30,000 koalas have died, and many others are suffering from burns. This video and this one are just a couple of the many sad videos showing the plight of the wildlife. The article that goes with the headline above notes that koalas are not at risk of extinction from these fires, but many other species that are endemic to Australia and some of its unique habitats are. These are organisms that live no where else in the world.
The conservative Australian government is just now acknowledging that climate change has created the conditions that are fueling these fires. Extended drought and extreme heat are prolonging and intensifying fire seasons around the world, Australia is just the most recent tragic example. In the coming decades, there will be some places in the world that will become unlivable because of fires, heat, and drought. People who live in those places now are going to have to move. Combine those populations with the ones that will have to move away from coastlines, and the migration numbers become staggering and almost unbelievable. Not to mention the economic disaster that will unfold for countries that have to support domestic and international refugees and the food shortages that will get increasingly worse. These fires should be a major wake up call for the Australian government and the world that the time is now to take drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I'm not going to hold my breath though. The question is, how many tragedies will it take? In the meantime, I'm going to continue to do all I can do in my own life and encourage others to do the same.
My hope is that you read the title of this blog post as Oprah would when she is announcing something she is excited about. If you didn't, do that now before reading any further.
OK, you might know at this point that I hate plastics and I love science. The hating plastics comes through rather bluntly, so that is obvious, but the loving science may be a bit more subtly conveyed with the use of facts and figures. Anyways, one of my colleagues recently sent me a link to a story of the teenager that won the grand prize at this year's Google Science Fair. He found a way to bind up microplastics in the ocean with iron compounds and then remove the mixtures with magnets. SCI-ENCE!
I encourage you to read the story. There is still work to do before we go ahead and throw a bunch of ferrous compounds into the ocean and pass giant magnets over it (such as making sure that the ferrous compounds don't do their own damage in the ocean, you don't want to try to solve one problem and then create another....I could talk for days about examples of that!), but I love that a young person is working on tackling this problem using basic principles he learned in high school chemistry. What I love even more is the last line of the article. You'll have to read it for yourself. But if we could get all the young people together on that sentiment, we'd really be able to make some progress.
In what has now become a film classic, the world was introduced to the fascinating lives of emperor penguins. Who doesn't love watching penguins waddle along, heads bobbing side to side with the effort? I love that they look like the longest receiving line at a black tie event, that image being shattered by the ones that get tired of marching and slide along on their bellies for awhile. Then, as if the feat of marching 60-100 miles on what might be some of the shortest legs per body size was not enough, the females turn around after passing an egg off to the males, marching back 60-100 miles while the males endure the burnt of an Antarctic winter by walking around in a massive group huddle for months all while holding their egg on top of their feet. Emperor penguin parents might be the most dedicated in the world.
Now emperor penguins appear to be marching towards extinction. A recent study by a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute predicts that if climate change continues on the current track, these magnificent birds (which have persisted as a species for approximately 60 million years, p.s. way longer than modern humans have been around, 300 times longer to be exact-ish) could disappear forever by the end of this century. Most people will not be impacted by the loss of penguins. They'll be sad for a bit because penguins are so cute and Happy Feet etc., but they have other more pressing concerns. Of course, penguins don't impact our daily lives, but I believe strongly we have to question the morality of allowing what will likely be a mass extinction event this century, because, newsflash, emperor penguins are not the only species at high risk due to climate change (see my post from 5/14/19 "Biodiversity crisis"). For all those out there who champion the preservation of life, don't you think that should include all life, not just human life?
The good news of course is that the United States is fully committed to the Paris Agreement, making great strides at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, encouraging the development of renewable energy technologies...oh wait, that was a dream I had. In real life, the democracy-undermining, science-denying White House inhabitants started the process of removing our country from the Paris Agreement this week. Of course this is just a formality, they have been wrecking the environment in every way possible since day one of this administration (remember this deregulation tracker?). Now is the time for drastic actions, not "business as usual", and certainly not the time for rolling back the little progress that had been made. I reiterate that every person should do as much as she or he can on a personal level, plus everyone should be encouraging (or even nagging) their elected officials to do everything they can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Skim through these blog entries for ideas of personal actions you can take. You need to get fired up, because our planet is on fire.
Since composting is going so well for me at home, I decided to carry that over into school. The cafeteria at school already has composting, but I do my best to avoid the cafeteria at lunchtime. It’s a madhouse. So I put a small bin in the refrigerator in the Science Department’s lunch/printing & copying center/makeshift office space (space is at a premium, so we use rooms for many purposes) for food scraps and a separate bin next to the fridge for paper towels and tissues. So far some people are using the bins, but we’re not near 100% yet. I may have to start weekly reminder e-mails. One of my colleagues has started a worm composting bin in his classroom, so we’re competing for food scraps. Not a bad problem to have!
I also put a bin in my classroom for tissues and paper towels. Right next to the tissue box and hand sanitizer. I think it’s really important to model sustainable behaviors for students. Eventually my hope is that these behaviors become routine for them.
Today I did my weekly grocery run and as usual brought a bunch of reusable produce bags. Two of them I filled with brown rice and pistachios from the bulk bins. I wrote in my 7/2 entry that I've started to buy some things in bulk, but didn't elaborate. I've been happy to find that two local groceries (I'm not going to name drop here because I don't necessarily want to advertise for anyone) carry all the grains I like in bulk (and organic!) plus lots of nuts, some raw, some roasted, and nutritional yeast (which I use a lot in "cheese" sauces and on salads for the B vitamins). As a vegan, I eat a fair amount of whole grains, probably at least a serving a day, so that packaging was adding up. Buying in bulk has been easy and I've been reusing glass jars to store the grains etc. in. So it feels like a double win. I also found some glass food storage jars at my local thrift shop, so there has been no need to go and buy new stuff. I'm feeling good about this. It's definitely an ingrained practice at this point (no pun intended).
Side note: In a couple of those other reusable produce bags I put some locally grown organic kale and local peaches. The biggest peaches ever! See picture below in my palm for scale. I love the summer for MANY reasons, but the variety of fresh, local produce is right up there near the top. Eating a plant-based diet is best for the planet of course but buying local stuff is another piece of the solution so that transportation-related pollution is reduced.
“We believe in science. We believe in climate change.” These were statements that US Representative Katherine Clark opened with at a Green New Deal Town Hall last night in Framingham, MA. She and Senator Ed Markey spoke about the Green New Deal and took questions from the audience. Not all the questions were on topic, but it was clear from the standing-room only situation that people are anxious for a change of course in this country.
The theme of science was carried on by Markey. He made it clear that the Green New Deal is first and foremost rooted in science. Science published by our government agencies in the fall of 2018 (over Thanksgiving, with no fanfare from the White House of course) and by the IPCC around the same time, warning of catastrophic consequences (e.g. 10 feet of sea level rise by the end of the century) if we don’t take extreme action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. Markey also made it clear that the Green New Deal was also heavily influenced by FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” (sometimes referred to as the “Economic Bill of Rights”) which speaks of economic equity for all. A goal of the Green New Deal is to provide jobs, opportunities to increase energy efficiency, and increase environmental quality for all. He provided concrete examples of how to get this work done, including paying for many of the programs by revoking the tax cuts for the super wealthy, which would bring in trillions of dollars. Of the tax cut he said “They didn’t need it. They didn’t deserve it.” So true. Our country has gone into a deficit again, in part due to these tax cuts. I don’t understand why people never remember this pattern: Republican presidents run up the deficit, Democratic presidents tend to end their terms with budget surpluses. But I digress.
One question from an audience member was “The House is passing lots of legislation (about climate change, etc) but that legislation doesn’t make it to the Senate floor for votes. What are you planning to do about this?” To which both Markey and Clark agreed that Mitch McConnell needs to be voted out of office in 2020. He has refused to bring any climate change (or gun control) legislation to a vote (and let’s not forget he refused to hold confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court at the end of Obama’s term...another digression). Markey had a long answer, including that the Democrats will “create a legislative graveyard to run against the Republicans in 2020.” Clark simply summed it up in this way “Ditch Mitch.” (If you want to help on that front, you could donate to the Democratic National Party or directly to McConnell’s opponent, a veteran fighter pilot, Amy McGrath.)
Another audience member noted that animal agriculture is a huge producer of greenhouse gases and one of the most environmentally destructive industries. (I was happy that she got a lot of applause; as you know, I feel that this issue needs much more attention.) She noted that if everyone went to a plant-based diet tomorrow, global warming would stop. Clark and Markey acknowledged the contribution but of course softened the message. Clark said just reducing your meat intake by 20% has a big impact and Markey mentioned the Impossible burger. I wish someone had referenced the recent IPCC report that indicated the benefits of a plant-based diet for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and feeding the world (see the summary in a BBC report).
Another audience member brought up a piece of legislation called “We the People” that will create an amendment to the Constitution that will overturn the Citizens United ruling by the Supreme Court which says that corporations are people and thus can contribute to political campaigns. Markey stated that this was one of the worst rulings in the history of our country. He promised that he would introduce the legislation in the Senate (it’s already in Committee in the House, Clark is a cosponsor). I recommend writing to your legislators to encourage them to support this amendment. Corporations lobby against environmental regulations so that they can make more money. They should not be able to buy the votes of politicians with campaign donations.
Overall, I was glad I went. I learned a lot about my legislators and was heartened to see so many people turn out to support climate change legislation. Now I know a bit more about the Green New Deal so that I can answer student questions about it. I also met some members of “Renewable Natick” who are doing great work on the local scale. Plus, there were some great sound bites:
“There are no emergency rooms for sick planets.” (Clark, quoting Markey)
“Don’t underestimate the power of your vote to change course. We have to change course on this issue.” (Clark)
“If he (Trump) wins, it’s a death sentence for the planet.” (Markey)
“We know the NRA holds the Republican party in a vise-like grip.” (Markey...a few times he digressed a bit to gun control issues, the crowd didn’t mind.)
On the local news this morning I saw a report about the increasing incidence of mosquitoes found to be carrying the EEE virus in Massachusetts. EEE (Eastern equine encephalitis) is a virus that infects the body first and may infect the brain. It has many symptoms and is fatal to approximately one third of people who have the infection progress to the brain. Those that recover could have permanent neurological damage. Scary stuff. Read more about it on the CDC website. Not all mosquitoes carry the virus, but since it’s hard for anyone but an entomologist to distinguish between mosquitoes, you should try to avoid all of them.
Avoiding mosquitoes is getting harder. This is thanks to, you guessed it, climate change. Tropical and subtropical mosquitoes are expanding their ranges north and south as conditions improve for them in temperate areas. Here in New England for example, our summers are getting longer (not astrologically of course, but the warm period is expanded) and our winters are erratic, temperature-wise. We have also been getting more intense precipitation and that trend will likely continue into the future (IPCC 5th Assessment, National Climate Assessment). Longer summers means that mosquito populations can reproduce more often, there is greater hatching success, and higher biting rates (Scientific American). Populations can migrate over those extra generations to new areas. Data shows that the Asian tiger mosquito, known to carry over 30 viruses including EEE, yellow fever, dengue fever, and Zika, are expanding into the Northeast. This tropical mosquito is likely to make it all the way up into Maine by the last quarter of the century.
So, what to do? We can’t stop them from coming. That ship has sailed thanks to our fossil-fueled selfish behavior and refusal to change. Here are some things you have probably heard a million times: avoid being outside during mosquito-laden hours such as those between dusk and dawn, wear long-sleeves and pants (very comfortable in the summer), and make sure there is no standing water for eggs to be laid in. Often the response of local governments is to spray pesticides and encourage the personal use of bug spray products that contain deet. While the EPA deems deet safe to use, I am wary of anything that comes with all these warnings:
Let’s talk about pesticides for a bit. Many pesticides kill helpful insects such as pollinators and mosquito predators. In terms of human health, many pesticides are endocrine disrupters. They cause problems for reproductive systems. Pesticides also tend to bioaccumulate and biomagnify in food chains, particularly aquatic food chains. This could lead to reduced predator populations and increased exposure to pesticides by humans who eat fish. For more on this, see my previous post about microplastics (7/2/19). So needless to say, I’m not a fan of blanket-spraying of pesticides, which is what many towns do when something like West Nile or EEE is detected in local mosquitoes.
Chemical-free alternatives to keeping your environs mosquito-free include putting up bat houses in your yard (if they are still around where you live, bats have some problems of their own...too much of a digression for this post) and saturating your outdoor seating areas with citronella candles and plants that repel mosquitoes like. Plus there are lots of “natural” alternative bug sprays. I’ve tried a lot of the “natural” sprays and lotions and I like Burt’s Bees Herbal Insect Repellent the best. It works well and smells good.
But of course we have to circle back to the Big Picture. We have to deal with more and more mosquitoes and other insect disease vectors because of global warming. Healthcare costs are going to increase, more pesticides will be put into the environment, we might even see the reemergence of malaria in this country. It’s time for drastic action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For that we need to have a sea change in the political leadership of our country and a sea change in the behavior of individuals. On the politics front, of course we need an administration in the White House next time around that cares about the environment and the future of humanity, that goes without saying, but there are also a lot of old-guard politicians across both parties in the House and Senate that are beholden to fossil fuel companies and other big industries that lobby against climate change action. Those legislators need to be replaced with a new generation of future-thinking ones. People who care more about the future of humanity and the rest of the natural world and less about enriching themselves with money and power. (Side note: the current White House gang has managed to do a lot of damage to the environment on the DL. Fortunately Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law is tracking these setbacks. Click here for some depressing shit.)
On the individual level, you all know what you need to do. (If not, see my previous posts for suggestions!) Spread the word. We need more people talking about making change and also showing change through their actions. Change catches on. Think about how many places carry vegan foods now. When I ask if something is vegan in a restaurant now, people know what that means. That was not the case even a decade or less ago. When I was in high school, I was the only vegetarian, let alone vegan, and I got made fun of a few times by some ignorant peers. Now, typically a handful of my students are vegan and a dozen or so, at least, are vegetarian every year, and many more talk about eating fewer animal products for the sake of the environment; keep in mind I only see a small fraction of the school’s population. Change happens. Not nearly fast enough so far, but any progress is still progress, so I have to keep a bit of optimism alive.
Commentary on environmental news/issues plus thoughts and stories about my journey to lower my environmental footprint and raise my voice.
-Another vegan environmentalist