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Our Daily Planet: Plastic Straw Bans Gain Steam, Air Pollution Causes Preterm Births, And Cool New Climate Satellites!
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By: Monica Medina and Miro Korenha

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Thursday, May 24th, 2018

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Premature Births Drop When Coal and Oil Plants Shut Down

A new study, published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, analyzed premature births by mothers who lived close to eight coal- and oil-fired plants across California in the year before the facilities were shut down, and in the year after, when the air was cleaner. As Inside Climate News reported, the researchers discovered that the rate of premature births dropped from 7 to 5.1 percent after the plants were shuttered, between 2001 and 2011. The most significant declines came among African American and Asian women. The results reinforce just how harmful air pollution is to human health and underscore the urgency of switching to clean sources of energy. Oil and coal power plants emit dangerous fine particulate matter (or PM 2.5), nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxides, benzene, lead, and mercury--which are carcinogens or can cause lung damage. 

Why This Matters: Another newly-released study that analyzed babies and mothers in Boson, and which we reported on last Wednesday, found that exposure to air pollution in the womb led to hypertension in children, which can lead to an increased risk of heart disease later in life. Joan Casey, a post-doc at UC Berkeley and lead author of the California study said the findings from the two studies are related. "We know that preterm birth isn't the end of the outcomes for a child that is born early," she said. Opponents of stricter pollution regulations argue that they will be too cumbersome and costly for industries to comply with, such as the Obama Administration's Clean Power Plan. But mounting evidence keeps revealing that our failure to lower air pollution is endangering the lives of Americans and especially children.  What's the cost of that?


California Encourages Cover Crops to Create Carbon Sinks 

   California is using funds from its carbon cap-and-trade program to pay farmers to capture carbon on a large scale using an amazingly simple technique -- planting cover crops. In April, trucks full of fertilizer arrived at California farmer Doug Lo’s almond orchards and spread composted manure around his trees - his is one of fifty farms getting $50,000 from the state of California to try to pull greenhouse gas from the air.  He then planted clover, a "cover crop" to cover the ground in between the tree trunks, an agricultural practice that was looked down upon until recently.  In theory, these techniques will pull an impressive 1,088 tons of carbon out of the atmosphere every year, not to mention improving the soil quality.

This is doubly important for certain farmers in California -- farmers whose crop grows on trees. Trees are a long-term investment -- good for decades, not just a seasonInvesting in new trees is not done lightly, particularly when the exact impacts of climate change in places like California are not easy to precisely predict.  A lot of the country’s tree crops grow in California, which produces two-thirds of the fruits and nuts for the United States. The same is true of grape vines, which bear abundant fruit for about 25 years.  So anything that mitigates the risks for many farmers who are making these long-term gambles on orchard crops that are highly sensitive to climate change is a good thing.  Planting 
cover crops improves the quality of the soil because it can absorb and hold more water after heavy rains, and it is also better habitat for worms, beetles, and thousands of microbes. And this is a virtuous circle because healthier soil has a greater capacity to store carbon, as well as to help the trees withstand the vagaries of climate change. 

Why This Matters:  This experiment by the state of California is exactly what more states should be doing to prepare for climate change.  We will need to think pro-actively about adaptation in order to minimize its most harmful impacts.  The fact that trees and grape 
vines are a fifty-year investment requires farmers to think ahead to protect that investment both now and in the future.  And if by doing this, they actually also help to reverse climate change by reducing the amount of carbon in the atmosphere, it is a double benefit.

To Go Deeper: There are two great stories in Grist that you can find here and here.



 Climate Change

Great Wall Louisiana New Orleans Hurricane Katrina levee   Photo: Council on Foreign Relations
New Orleans Levees At Risk of Failure

The Army Corps of Engineers conducted to two separate evaluations of the New Orleans levee system and determined that much of the metro area's population is at risk of levee failures during stronger, less frequent storms -- 200-year events or stronger.  With hurricane season set to start next week, and the first strong storm already brewing in the Gulf of Mexico, the report is chilling news, particularly in the face of climate change. The levee system reviews raise troubling issues about the ability of much of the system to withstand surges caused by a major storm and question the ability of local levee districts to keep up with costly maintenance between storms, which is required to maintain eligibility for the National Flood Insurance Program, according to the New Orleans Times-Picayune. 

The Corps annually inspects the regional levee system in Louisiana, and results show that it's not just the catastrophic storms that threaten businesses and residents.  According to the 2016 and 2017 inspections, the most recent reports available, all of the levee system's segments on the east and west banks of the Mississippi were ranked "minimally acceptable," which is the middle category among three rankings, as reported Tuesday by the Times-Pic.

Why This Matters:  The federal government spent billions of dollars to create a state of the art system of levees and flood control to ensure that nothing like the devastation of Hurricane Katrina could happen again.  But it seems that even the  Corps of Engineers admits that much of the metro New Orleans area's population is at risk of levee failures during 200-year storm events or stronger. Frighteningly, a storm of that strength could cause $47B in economic damages and kill nearly 1,000 people if storm surge overtopped east bank levees, the Corps estimated, and almost 3,000 (twice as many as who perished in Katrina) if those levees break before being overtopped, which unleashes a furious wall of water similar to what some areas faced during Katrina.  Given what climate forecasters are saying about how hurricanes in the future will be stronger and with heavier rainfall, the worst could happen much sooner.


Straw Bans Picking Up Steam

We promise we are not straw obsessed, every day another company or city or both announces that they are on the verge of banning them, which is great news. Yesterday, a straw ban bill was introduced in New York City by City Councilman Rafael Espinal of Brooklyn that would require restaurants, bars, food courts and other establishments to eliminate plastic straws and drink stirrers and instead use environmentally-friendly alternatives like metal and paper straws. New York would not be the first, but it would be the biggest city to put a ban in place. Miami Beach and Seattle have already enacted bans on plastic straws over concerns about ocean pollution. The bill would fine businesses between $100 and $400 for violating the ban. The Council is also considering a ban on the sale of disposable plastic bottles in public areas like parks and beaches.

Meanwhile, the Board of Directors of McDonald's is set to vote today on whether to ban straws in all its 36,000 restaurants worldwide.  A group called SumOfUs has collected more than 480,000 names on an online petition calling on McDonald's to stop using plastic straws. The group estimates McDonald's hands out millions of single-use plastic straws a day, and only about 10% of them are recycled. McDonald's is moving ahead in the United Kingdom and replacing plastic straws with paper versions in some restaurants in a test this month, and will only give straws to customers who request them. McDonald's already has pledged to make all customer packaging from renewable, recycled or certified sources by 2025, up from 50%. It also will institute recycling at all its restaurants by 2025.

Why This Matters:  This straw ban movement is clearly picking up steam.  We hope it will continue to do so. If collectively we can break our straw habit, we can certainly find substitutes or learn to live without other plastic items too -- such as bags,
bottles, and utensils.  
NBC News Report: McDonald's Under Pressure to Eliminate Straws



We promised to keep you posted when environmental groups plan to make concerted efforts to educate Members of Congress about particular conservation issues.  June 5-7, the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation is holding its annual conference called Capitol Hill Oceans Week or "CHOW," which culminates in a Hill day to educate members about all the important issues impacting the health of our oceans.  You can learn more about the conference here

Why This Matters:  Our oceans are under threat by plastic and other pollution, overfishing, and loss of habitat such as coral reefs.  World Ocean Day is June 8, and a March for Oceans is being organized for June 9th in D.C. and other cities around the U.S. and abroad.  It is important to use events like these to raise awareness with elected leaders and the public too.


Wily Coyotes Taking Over 

Coyotes have been around for thousands of years and were thriving in the Western United States when European settlers first arrived. These settlers (and their descendants) tended to make a lot of bad decisions, including killing off apex predators such a wolves and mountain lions. Because of this, coyotes were able to expand their range all the way up to Alaska and further southward into Central America (where cameras traps have recently even spotted them in Panama). 

After shortsighted efforts to kill coyotes' natural predators, people have used very gruesome measures to control their thriving populations. Through incredibly cruel "coyote roundups,"  participants lure out coyotes, shoot them with assault rifles, and discard their carcasses. As Yale E360 noted, you may legally kill most “varmints” whenever you want and in any quantity you want. And, because few of these animals are officially designated as “game,” hunting regulations prohibiting “wanton waste” don’t apply — you can just let them rot where they drop. (was anyone else bothered by that coyote scene in Billions the other day?)

Roland Kays, a research associate professor at North Carolina State University and the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, said that  "unlike mountain lions, wolves and bears that were hunted to near-extinction in state-sponsored predator-control programs, coyotes do not give in easily. Coyotes are the ultimate American survivor. They have endured persecution all over the place. They are sneaky enough. They eat whatever they can find — insects, smaller mammals, garbage."

Why This Matters: As people continue to build further into habitats of apex predators (and if the Trump administration follows through on its proposed rule to strip away protections for bear cubs and coyote pups) it's likely that coyotes will be even more present where people live. The hunting of coyotes also pushes them to seek refuge in cities (like DC's Rock Creek Park or NYC's Central Park) as hunting and trapping don't generally occur in urban areas. Humans are makers of their own misery in this case. 



One Cool Thing: Meet NASA's Super Cool Climate Change Satellites

On Tuesday, NASA successfully launched a pair of satellites collectively known as GRACE-FO (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-On mission) as a replacement for the two GRACE satellites currently in orbit. With updated technology from the original GRACE satellites, the new pair will measure changes in Earth’s gravitational field to monitor melting glaciers, rising seas, droughts and possibly even help predict earthquakes. That would be out of this world! 

In other satellite news,  another recently-launched satellite, NOAA's GOES-17, which monitors weather and provides images of hurricanes, wildfires, eruptions and other natural disasters, has been experiencing cooling problems.  The infrared sensor instrument is not cooling properly and NOAA expects it will take months to make necessary repairs. 
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