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First climate-related extinction confirmed

The Bramble Cay melomys. Photo: Queensland government

On Monday the Australian government has recognized the first known demise of a mammal because of human-induced climate change. In a statement released by federal Environment Minister Melissa Price, the status of the Bramble Cay melomys (a small rodent) was moved from endangered to extinct. As CNN reported, the Bramble Cay melomys inhabited a small coral island on the Great Barrier Reef, measuring about five hectares (12 acres) and located in the Torres Strait, between Queensland state and Papua New Guinea. The almost certain cause of its extinction was sea level rise that destroyed its habitat.

CNN further explained that several hundred of the rodents were believed to occupy the island in the 1970s. But their population rapidly declined thereafter. By 1992, the population had dropped so sharply that the Queensland state government classified the species as endangered. The mammal had not been seen for almost 10 years and was initially pronounced extinct after “exhaustive” conservation efforts failed, according to a report published by the University of Queensland in 2016. The federal policy director for the Wilderness Society, Tim Beshara, said that “The Bramble Cay melomys was a little brown rat, but it was our little brown rat and it was our responsibility to make sure it persisted. And we failed.”

Why This Matters: The Bramble Cay melomys is likely the first of many species who will become extinct as a result of a warming planet. As humans, our “habitats” are changing as well but we have a little bit more recourse in the sense that we can turn on the air conditioning or build seawalls. Animals cannot adapt to climate change in the same way and often their habitats are changing quite rapidly. That’s why campaigns like 30 by 30, in which 13 conservation organizations are urging world leaders to protect 30% of the Earth’s surface to be protected by 2030, are so important. Habitat loss is a major driver of animal extinction and Australian Senator Janet Rice, chair of the Senate inquiry into Australia’s animal extinction crisis, said the country already had the worst mammalian extinction rate in the world, and one of the highest overall extinction rates.

Go Deeper: S/o to Ali Velshi and Stephanie Ruhle for covering this story on their MSNBC show, climate change warrants major coverages on cable news!

Drill Baby Drill In the Everglades

Photo: Susan Stocker, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

The Florida Everglades may soon be the site of new oil and gas drilling operations.  A Miami real estate developer has, after a four-year legal battle, received a permit to drill an exploratory oil well in the Everglades, just west of populous Broward County suburbs.  The developer applied for a permit to drill on on five acres in the Everglades in 2015, but the Florida Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) denied the application because there is less than a 25% chance of finding sufficient oil to warrant a drilling operations, according to the Tampa Bay Times.  The DEP has a longstanding policy to deny oil and gas permits in areas like the Everglades, which is in the process of being restored — the land is located in one of the South Florida Water Management District’s three conservation areas. 

Why This Matters:  Florida’s Republican Governor, Ron DeSantis, opposes offshore oil and gas drilling and promised during his Gubernatorial campaign to continue Everglades restoration.  So it makes no sense for him to support oil and gas drilling in another of the state’s important tourism drivers, the Everglades. The harm caused by an oil leak or spill in the Everglades would be devastating and harm an area that has been the recipient of hundreds of millions of dollars in restoration funding.  As one Palm Beach County Commissioner put it, “If our beaches are important enough to protect from drilling, why aren’t our Everglades?”

One Partisan Thing: Yale Climate Maps Reveal Extent of Divide

For all of us “green” nerds who are fascinated by the politics of climate change, not to mention all those Democratic candidates for President, the Yale Program on Climate Communications has a great data visualization site that will provide endless hours of entertainment.  Check out their partisan climate opinion survey results for 2018, and the map visualization tool that shows climate opinion by party down to the Congressional district.  As you can see from the blue map above (and the color coding is a bit counterintuitive for party affiliation) only 35% of Republicans in the U.S. believe that climate change is caused by human activities, as compared to 79% of Democrats.  Here is a surprising and hopefully statistic.  52% of Republicans agree with the statement that environmental protection is more important than economic growth.  A whopping 85% of Democrats agree with that statement.  So candidates take note, a clean environment is a winning issue with most voters!

White House To Form Committee To Deny Climate National Security Risk

Photo illustration: Phil Plait, SyFyWire.com

Three weeks ago, and for the second year in a row, the Director of National Intelligence, former Republican Senator Dan Coats, testified to Congress that environmental degradation and climate change are global threats to U.S. national security stating that they are, “likely to fuel competition for resources, economic distress, and social discontent through 2019 and beyond.”  Now, the White House National Security Team is planning to push back — it has called a meeting of the Deputies of several Cabinet agencies tomorrow to discuss creating a “committee” to look at the question of whether climate change poses a national security threat, according to documents leaked to The Washington Post.

  • Specifically, this year’s National Intelligence Assessment, a compilation of the threat information that can be made public by the government, said, “Climate hazards such as extreme weather, higher temperatures, droughts, floods, wildfires, storms, sea level rise, soil degradation, and acidifying oceans are intensifying, threatening infrastructure, health, and water and food security. Irreversible damage to ecosystems and habitats will undermine the economic benefits they provide, worsened by air, soil, water, and marine pollution.’
  • Just last month the Defense Department reported to Congress that climate change is “a national security issue,” said that rising seas, wildfires and other such disasters are likely to create more severe problems for the military in the coming years, and pointed to several dozen military installations around the nation already are experiencing climate impacts.

Sally Yozell, Director of the Environmental Security Program at the Stimson Center, a defense think tank, said “climate change is an accelerant for humanitarian and natural disasters, with the potential for conflict and insecurity particularly in developing nations lacking governance.  It’s unconscionable to question our intelligence community, whose experts understand this growing threat to U.S. national security.”  The committee will be established by Executive Order and called the Presidential Committee on Climate Security, and will allegedly be led by William Happer, a National Security Council staffer.  According to The Post, Happer is a former professor of physics at Princeton University and does not believe that carbon emissions linked to climate change should be viewed as a pollutant.

Why This Matters:  The intelligence agencies are not easily intimidated or bullied — they will stick to their guns that climate change is a threat regardless of what the new committee says.  But both the Assessment and the DoD Report hardly do the topic justice.  Yes, there are many security threats around the world, but climate change is buried in the Intelligence Assessment and while the language is accurate that there are grave risks, the level of detail and rigor around the level of risk is not on par with the other threats evaluated.  Maybe that was done to avoid this kind of push back from the White House. But these assessments need to be credible and climate change is given short shrift, and that is not good for our preparedness to meet this growing threat.

Toxic coal ash poisoning Texas groundwater at 100% of power plants

Photo: Environmental Integrity Project

Coal ash is an incredibly toxic byproduct of coal-derived energy that activists have pushed for years for regulators to address and are now finally having success. Water contamination from coal ash ponds (the pits where the sludge is stored) is widespread and we’re learning more about the extent of the pollution constantly. In fact, a recent analysis by the Environmental Integrity Project revealed that toxic coal ash pollutants are leaking into groundwater surrounding 100 percent of Texas’s power plants for which data are available, with unsafe levels of arsenic, cobalt, lithium, and other pollutants seeping from the ash dumps.

As Earth Justice (an analyst of the EIP data) recently reported, industry groundwater monitoring data made publicly available for the first time in 2018 thanks to a new requirement in federal coal ash regulations reveal multiple contaminants leaching from 16 of 16 coal-fired power plants in Texas to which the new rules apply. The analysis concluded that concludes that both the fossil fuel industry and Texas regulators have consistently failed to protect Texas groundwater. Environmental Integrity Project attorney Abel Russ, an author of the report, said that “We found contamination everywhere we looked, poisoning groundwater aquifers and recreational fishing spots across the state, this confirms that dumping large volumes of toxic waste in poorly-lined pits is a terrible idea. The problem is, unfortunately, going to get even worse unless Texas power plants change the way they dispose of coal ash.”

U.S. coal plants produce around 100 million tons of ash every year from hundreds of sites across the country. For much of the last century, many utilities dumped this waste into unlined landfills and waste ponds, even though the lack of a barrier between the coal ash and groundwater left them vulnerable to leaks and contamination of underground water supplies. Only in recent years has the true scope of coal ash’s threat come into public view.

Why This Matters: After the disastrous TVA Kingston Fossil Plant spill poured 1.1 billion gallons of coal ash flurry across Eastern Tennessee, the Obama administration worked to strengthen rules regarding how the toxic substance should be stored and handled. The Trump administration, on the other hand, has worked to weaken and delay implementation of those rules which puts millions of Americans in jeopardy.  Just this week it was revealed that coal ash has was dumped into a South Carolina river and earlier in February it was revealed that the Tennessee Valley Authority would be passing along the costs of the fallout of the Kingston spill onto its customers. Not only do we need more stringent regulations but this also underscores the need to transition to renewable energy which doesn’t produce toxic waste as a byproduct that needs to be stored somewhere.

 

Climate change increases risk of food-borne illness

As climate change continues to warm our planet, the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that governments around the world must take increased precaution to ensure food safety–something that has not received enough political attention. U.N. agencies and the African Union recently met in Ethiopia at an international food safety conference and made the following statement:

With an estimated 600 million cases of foodborne illnesses annually, unsafe food is a threat to human health and economies globally. Foodborne diseases in low- and middle-income countries costs at least $100 billion a year, with this cost exceeding $500 million for 28 countries, according to a recent World Bank study. Ongoing changes in climate, global food production and supply systems affect consumers, industry and the planet itself: food safety systems need to keep pace with these changes. The burden of unsafe food disproportionally affects vulnerable and marginalized people and poses sustainability and development challenges.

From Reuter’s reporting: Cristina Tirado-von der Pahlen, director of international climate initiatives at California’s Loyola Marymount University, told the conference that “It is known that temperature increase as a result of greenhouse gas emissions may increase food contamination and food-borne diseases.” But her research found that only three countries mentioned food safety in their national action plans for adapting to climate change, prepared under U.N. negotiations. Environmentalists have often warned that the world’s crop production system is vulnerable to contamination because of excessive use of pesticides and non-organic agro-chemicals. And when it comes to climate change, the global food system is responsible for 20 to 30 percent of planet-warming emissions, sparking calls for plant-based diets and new farming methods.

Furthermore what’s really gross is that warming global temperatures will increase fly populations which will spread disease. Additionally, another key food safety concern is that climate change could lead to a hike in mycotoxins, compounds produced by fungi that can cause acute effects, including death, as well as chronic illnesses such as cancer from long-term exposure.

Why This Matters: Climate change will not affect all countries and all food systems equally. As the WHO explained, some regions are projected to have an increase in food production; however, generally, the projected climate change is foreseen to have a negative impact on food security, especially in developing countries. The effects of climate change on food security and consequently nutrition are closely linked to effects on food safety and public health and must be considered together. This goes to show that climate change doesn’t just mean hotter summers, stronger hurricanes and sea level rise, it will (and already has started to) affect just about every aspect of our lives but especially for people who already live at the margins of economic stability.

DC Gets Winter Storm Impact Scale Courtesy of Capital Weather Gang

The Washington Post’s forecast radar for 7 a.m. Wednesday (Blue is snow, purple is sleet, pink is freezing rain, and green is rain.)  Image: PivotalWeather.com/PivotalWeather.com

The Washington Post’s Capital Weather Gang has created a scale to rate the winter storms that always seem to snarl travel and impact schools and businesses in the region.  Rather than gauging a storm by the number of inches of snow, the Weather Gang scale rates the storm’s impact. Here are the five levels of impact they plan to use in forecasting local winter storms:

  • Category 1 = A Nuisance — untreated roads are slick and school delays are possible
  • Category 2 = Disruptive — roads are slick, school closings and delays are likely, government operations adjusted, some flight delays
  • Category 3 = Significant storm — roads have ice or snow buildup, some are impassible, school closings likely, government operations adjusted, flights are delayed and some are canceled
  • Category 4 = Major storm — roads impassible or very hazardous, school closings are certain, the government is closed or impacted, significant airport and transit delays
  • Category 5 = Crippling/Historic Storm — travel difficult to impossible for days, schools closed for days, government shutdown for at least a day, airports and mass transit closed

Washington, D.C. seems to have a challenging time dealing with snow — particularly because the city is often located on the “rain/snow” line of winter weather, making it hard to predict and susceptible to a “winter mix” of snow, sleet, and icy rain.  As Jason Samenow, who came up with the idea and the scale explains, when it comes to a winter storm, its severity depends on a number of factors such as “how cold it is before, during and after the storm, how long the storm lasts, and how hard the precipitation falls” (and I would add if there are multiple types — the rain-snow combo is particularly tough).

And for those of you reading this in the DC region, just an FYI, The Weather Gang predicted that today’s winter storm would be a Category 2-3, depending on where you are in the area, with more disruption the farther north and west of the city you are.  The Gang intends to also evaluate the storms after the fact to see how they and the scale did.

Why This Matters:  With climate change, extreme weather is going to get more difficult to predict — and snowstorms may not “act” the way they have in the past.  So rating a winter storm by its impact rather than the traditional measures of snowfall totals is a good idea, in our view.  Maybe this impact scale should be used in other areas of the country.  We need more and better tools like this one to deal with the complexity of storms in the future.  This sounds like a smart adaptation to us.

To Go Deeper into the Whacky Weather This Week:  The jetstream’s windspeed hit a U.S. record over New York on Monday at more than 230 mph over Long Island.  It was moving so fast across the U.S. that the Capital Weather Gang reported that a Virgin Atlantic flight from Los Angeles to London peaked at a whopping 801 mph Monday evening 35,000 feet over Pennsylvania. “[N]ever ever seen this kind of tailwind in my life as a commercial pilot,” tweeted Peter James, a jet captain.  And for those of you who are into nerdy details — that is faster than the speed of sound.

Bonus:  For laughs, watch how one DC school announced yesterday before the first flake fell that they would be closed today.

Image: The Washington Post and Flight Aware

Learning to Live With Coyotes in the City

Researchers from Utah State University in 2016 surveyed wildlife officials in 105 urban areas around the country and they found that 96 of the cities have coyotes in their midst.  Conflicts between humans and coyotes are rising in large urban areas across the country, and particularly in the West.  But those conflicts are not what you would expect.  Some urban areas hold “contests” in which hunters are allowed to “clean out” an area of its coyotes, and others allow trapping and/or poisoning them.  Wildlife experts say that none of these methods are effective in eliminating coyotes, which are territorial animals, and when one is eliminated the next one will move into the territory of the first.

For western states, what is happening in New Mexico typical:

  • The state legislature is moving a bill that makes it a misdemeanor to organize a coyote-killing contest and a lesser misdemeanor to participate in one.
  • According to the Albuquerque Journal, 20 to 30 coyote-killing derbies are typically organized across New Mexico every year, with participants using calling devices to lure coyotes into range.
  • These contests often award prize money or new firearms for the most coyotes killed or the biggest coyote killed.
  • The State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard issued an executive order last month that bars coyote-killing contests on 9 million acres of New Mexico state trust land, but of course it does not cover private land.
  • Critics believe the N.M. bill will prevent them from protecting their pets and property, but according to the Urban Coyote Initiative, urban animal control officers have learned through a lot of experience that this is not only a lot harder to do than it sounds, but it does nothing to reduce the number of coyotes living in an area. In fact, it has the opposite effect.

Wildlife advocates are hoping to educate the public that they should not fear coyotes — they will not attack humans.  Coyotes have a natural fear of humans.  The worst thing to do, however, is to feed them because they will lose that fear and even become aggressive if they are being fed.

Why This Matters:  Humans are more of a threat to coyotes than the other way around.  The best thing to do is to leave them alone, and reduce their access to trash/food, which is one of the major causes of conflicts with humans.  Cities are beginning to make a concerted effort to educate the public about what to do if a coyote moves into their neighborhood.  Ironically, large urban areas are increasingly home to coyotes, since they are less likely to be killed or removed in cities than they are in many rural areas. So education in cities is more important than ever.  

For a coyote chuckle, enjoy this video of the antics of Looney Tunes’ Wile E Coyote.

Feel the Bern on Climate Change Again

Senator Bernie Sanders threw his hat into the ring yesterday for the Democratic nomination, and he turned to climate change about halfway through his launch video, saying that he is “running for President because we need to make policy decisions based on science, not politics.  We need a President who understands that climate change is real, is an existential threat to our country and the entire planet, and that we can generate massive job creation by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuel and into energy efficiency and sustainable energy.”  The Washington Post reported that he intends to introduce a Green New Deal bill of his own in a few months that will contain more details than the resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey.

Senator Sanders has introduced a great deal of climate and clean energy legislation in recent years.  Here are the most significant of his bills on climate change and clean energy:

  • The Climate Protection and Justice Act, to tax carbon and methane emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas at the source of production, and to use the revenue to make historic investments in energy efficiency and sustainable energy.
  • The Low-Income Solar Act would help ensure that all Americans can benefit from the energy and cost savings of solar, by providing grants to low-income families to offset the upfront costs of residential solar arrays, and by improving access to community solar projects.
  • The End Polluter Welfare Act would end subsidies to the huge fossil fuel companies that have long benefited from decades of generous tax breaks, subsidized leases and loan programs.
  • The Residential Energy Savings Act would fund energy efficiency financing programs that help homeowners and residents invest in energy efficiency retrofits.
  • The Clean Energy Workforce Just Transition Act to help retrain workers and make investments in a 21st century economy, including clean energy technologies, broadband infrastructure, and entrepreneurial hubs in regions most impacted by the shift away from fossil fuels.

Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is also a candidate, put out a video yesterday via Twitter endorsing the Green New Deal and the need for bold action on climate change, saying “We need real, structural change to protect our environment – and we need it now.”

Why This Matters: With Bernie Sanders now in the race, the Green New Deal is firmly in the mix of issues that will be discussed and debated by the Democratic candidates for President.  The conversation is changing already – this is no longer a second-tier issue.  But the debate needs to go from platitudes to policy proposals.  And that will keep the issues of climate change and environment on the front pages until election day.  We at ODP intend to focus on the Green New Deal and what all the candidates think it should contain.  Keep reading us for the best information and analysis of all things GND.  

One cool thing: world’s oldest junior ranger

Photo: Cheryl Stoneburner

The News Eagle reported yesterday that on a recent visit, a 103-year-old woman became a junior ranger for Grand Canyon National Park. Rose Torphy is three years older than the park! The junior ranger program is open to anyone aged four or older and encourages people to learn about preserving and protecting national parks. While Torphy and her daughter Cheryl Stoneburner visited the park, she admired the wheelchair access which let her overlook the canyon and asked to be sworn into the program at the gift shop. “She just had her 10th great-great-grandbaby, so she’s happy the Grand Canyon is being protected and will be there for all the generations to see,” said Stoneburner.