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Airplane Contrails the Hidden Climate Culprit

Image: Larry MacDougal / AP file

by Miro Korenha and Alexandra Patel

Airplane contrails have long been the subject of a variety of exuberant conspiracy theories, including that of governments spraying toxic chemicals into the air to induce mass sterilization and mind control. Though you shouldn’t pay attention to most of the conspiracy theories, there are real dangers associated with trails of airplane engine exhaust. According to a study in the Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics journal, contrails exacerbate climate change by trapping heat that radiates from the Earth’s surface.

What’s Happening?: Contrails form when water vapor in the air latches on to the soot particles in airplane engine exhaust and can only form at high altitudes. While low-level clouds have a net cooling effect, contrail-formed clouds contribute to warming. As air traffic increases in the foreseeable future, the global warming effect of the aviation industry is predicted to triple by 2050. With new technologies, airplanes are also expected to reach higher altitudes, thus increasing the frequency in which contrails are formed.

By the Numbers:

– In just 2005, aviation already accounted for 5 percent of global warming, with the effect of contrails being the largest contributor. 

– Aviation is one of the fastest-growing sources of carbon emissions

– A 2011 study suggested that the net effect of contrail clouds contributes more to atmospheric warming than all the carbon dioxide (CO2) produced by planes since the dawn of aviation.

Why This Matters: According to a scenario tested during the study, a 50% reduction in airplane soot emissions could result in a 15% decrease in the warming effect of contrails. This can be done by bringing about changes in the type of jet fuel that is used in favor of more efficient and environmentally friendly alternatives. Unfortunately, in the United States, we’re falling short of this goal as GHG emissions from our air travel increased by 3.4% in 2018. Technology will have to advance, such as in the case of greener jet fuel, but in the meantime, we should all take steps to either limit our air travel or make it as sustainable as possible when we do have to travel. 

Go Deeper: Read this piece going around green Twitter called, We Have to Stop Meeting Like This: The Climate Cost of Conferences. It’s also the reason why teen climate activist Greta Thunberg is sailing to UN Climate Action Summit in New York. 


Trump Administration Will Allow Off-Road Vehicles in Much of Bears Ears Monument

The Cave Towers of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.       Photo: Katherine Frey, The Washington Post

After having shrunk the Bears Ears National Monument drastically, the Administration announced last Friday a new management plan for what remains of the monument and, according to CBS News, the agency chose the plan that only closes about 42 square miles to off-road vehicles rather than the option that would have closed nearly 184 square miles. The Bureau of Land Management’s plan for the Bears Ears National Monument argued that the historic sites most at risk will remain off-limits from off-road vehicles, but environmental and Native American groups cried foul because lawsuits are still pending challenging the monument’s downsizing.

Why This Matters:  The Trump Administration continues to race ahead with development on sensitive and vulnerable sacred sites for Native Americans — historical and cultural treasures that should be preserved for future generations of all Americans, but especially for the Tribes for whom this land is sacred. And they have summarily removed Tribes from the monument’s stakeholder management board.  The rationale for the decision is to enhance recreational opportunities and ensure access to traditional uses — but dirt bikes and dune buggies are not compatible with preservation and appreciation of the culture and history within the remaining monument. Only 15% of the original monument remains, and now it will be criss-crossed with tracks from joyriders and hunters for whom this land means nothing.  Disturbed forever.  

Like Robbing Your Grandmother

Native American leaders were angry.  “It’s like seeing that your grandmother’s house has been robbed,” said Carleton Bowekaty co-chair of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, in a statement. “These lands are sacred to us and they are being destroyed — sometimes inadvertently — by people who don’t understand our culture and way of life.”

  • Native America groups had petitioned the government for years and finally in 2016 President Barack Obama created Bears Ears National Monument to protect sacred lands that are home to ancient cliff dwellings and other artifacts.
  • After taking office, President Trump reviewed 27 monuments and decided to downsize Bears Ears by about 85 percent to 315 square miles.
  • Now only 42 square miles of the 315 miles remaining will have full protection.  Hundreds of thousands of Americans wrote in protesting this plan.
  • The unprotected areas of the monument will also now be available to be cleared so that it can be used for cattle grazing as well.

Adding insult to injury, the plan, according to The Washington Post, also removes five Native American tribes from the management board of a monument they fought to designate.

To Go Deeper: This Washington Post story about what remains of Bears Ears is worthy of your time.

California’s Summer of the Great White

Image: CA Academy of Sciences

Great white sharks have always lived off the coast of California but this summer they’re showing up in staggering numbers, leaving beaches with “swim at your own risk” signs. Great whites have been spotted in Half Moon Bay, Monterey Bay and even for the first time in known history in the San Francisco Bay when a fisherman inadvertently hooked an 8-foot shark near Alcatraz Island. In fact, sitings of the biggest sharks this summer have been visible from planes, flown both by commercial pilots and sheriffs in helicopters who recently spotted a 13-15 food great white off Bodega Bay.

What’s Going On?: As the Guardian explained, “juvenile great whites typically reside in the balmy waters of southern California, near the US-Mexico border. But the fish have increasingly wandered north in the past few years, leading to frequent sightings in the Monterey Bay since 2014. Scientists suspect the warming temperatures of the ocean may play a role in the sharks surprising movements.”

  • While most sharks are cold-blooded, great whites are partially warm-blooded so younger sharks who can’t regulate their body temperature as well tend to congregate in warmer water thus as ocean temperatures warm their range can expand.

Swimming Deeper: A deadly warm patch of water off the coast of California known as the Blob along with recent El Niño years have kept juvenile sharks in a “nursery” in Monterey Bay and since juvenile sharks tend to return to hunting grounds they’re familiar with, scientists are speculating that the bay may become a new birthing area for great whites.

Why This Matters: Does this mean that people shouldn’t swim in California beaches? No (because the chance of a great white encounter is still very low), but if you’re planning on swimming, surfing, or kayaking you should keep a couple of things in mind about great whites and how they might interact with humans. As the California Academy of Sciences explained, only 99 unprovoked attacks by sharks (all or nearly all have involved the white shark, Carcharodon carcharias), resulting in 9 fatalities, have occurred in California history. Climate change will change and likely expand the territory of the great white off the West Coast and as our planet warms we’re going to have to manage how we interact with migrating wildlife.




Wild Weather Shortens Penultimate Stages of Tour de France

Imagine 155 of the most elite bicycle racers in the world barreling through the Alps, rounding hairpin turns next to steep rock faces, heading directly into a hailstorm in the valley below, with ice pellets thicker than the tires on their bikes blanketing the roadway.  The organizers of the Tour de France made the only decision they could on Friday — to stop it immediately for the safety of the riders.  Egan Bernal was crowned the winner of the Tour de France on Sunday, riding into Paris on a beautiful evening, but the outcome of the race was arguably changed because of the bizarre weather — including the hailstorm and also heavy rain and mudslides that blocked the road and forced another rare decision — a shortening of Saturday’s stage as well.

Why This Matters:  We often think of winter sports like skiing being impacted by warming, but not a summer classic like the Tour de France race.  It is extremely rare for any stage of the Tour to be cut short, much less for one to be halted abruptly mid-stage.  The extreme heat in France earlier in the week — which did not halt the race — apparently was the perfect set up for the wild weather that forced the organizers to make the adjustments.  According to Bob Henson of Weather Underground, “The storms were kicked off by an approaching cold front and upper-level low, and the extreme heat in France appears to have teamed up with low-level moisture to increase the atmospheric instability,”  adding that  “Wind shear also favored the development of hailstorms.”  It is just another way in which severe weather likely caused by the warming climate is impacting global events even in the world of sports.

One for the History Books

This year’s Tour de France will likely be remembered for its unlikely winner and the weird weather that snatched victory away from a Frenchman.  As a result of the shorter race, the French rider who held the lead going into Friday’s climb up the Alps fell out of contention, and Columbian Egan Bernal ultimately won.

Sunday’s final stage by tradition was more of a pedestrian ride until a sprint at the home stretch in Paris, so Bernal, one of the youngest ever to win the prestigious race and the first South American, was able to savor the victory.

H/T to John A for this one.

One Green Thing: Baltimore’s Green Cred

The Rawlings Conservatory in Baltimore. Image: Stonehill Farm

Over the weekend President Trump wrote some really nasty/racist things about our neighboring city of Baltimore. A city that we know to be beautiful and full of cultural activities that rival any other metro area. In fact, one of the coolest things about Baltimore is the myriad of parks and gardens that you’ll find there. From Sherwood Gardens to the Rawlings Conservatory, Baltimore is teeming with verdant spaces and stunning spots to literally help us all stop and smell the roses. Baltimore is also home to our favorite “plant doctor” and major source of Insta-inspiration, Hilton Carter, whose awesome book has helped me (Miro) make my thumb a little greener. We’re thinking of you Baltimore, your people, and encourage all our readers to go visit Charm City!

It’s Shark Week (!!!), Congress Should Vote to Protect Sharks

Shark Week premiered last night and as the tv phenomenon enters its 31st year of killer ratings, this year there will be an emphasis on how human activities are killing sharks, most notably through shark finning. While Shark Week dazzles tv audiences, our partners at Oceana have been hard at work in Congress ensuring that the United States is completely removed from the shark fin trade by helping the movement of the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. Because what would Shark Week be without healthy populations of sharks worldwide?

What’s the Deal?: As Jackie Savitz, Oceana’s Cheif Policy Officer, explained in her recent op-ed for USA Today, “while shark finning is already illegal in U.S. waters, shark fins are still being bought and sold throughout the United States, many from countries with no protections against finning.” And surprisingly in such a polarized political climate, the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act is popular and bipartisan–having gained its 220th cosponsor this month. While the bill has passed the Senate, it now needs to come up for a vote in the House where it has a good chance of passing.

Swimming Deeper: We need federal action on shark finning because while 12 states have already banned the sale of shark fins, fins begin appearing in neighboring states that don’t have as stringent of laws. A federal ban on the buying and selling of shark fins would stop this regulatory patchwork and would streamline law enforcement. Also worth noting is that 8 in 10 Americans support a nationwide shark fin ban, what other issue garners such unanimous support?

Why This Matters: Shark Week has become a pop culture phenomenon and has educated the American public on the plight sharks face around the world. While the programming itself is great, Shark Week is also an opportunity to become aware of legislative action that can make a tangible difference for the survival of endangered shark species. Living every week like it’s Shark Week means remembering that the fight to save sharks spans the entire year.

Check out the awesome Shark Week 2019 schedule: 

Shark Week 2019 includes more than 20 hours of original programming.


Gillibrand and Steyer Roll Out Detailed Climate Plans

Last week Democratic Presidential candidates Tom Steyer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand both issued impressively detailed and comprehensive climate change plans.  Senator Gillibrand rolled out her plan on Medium, calling it a climate change “moonshot” and pledging to phase out fossil fuels and be carbon neutral by 2050 or sooner and promising to spend $10T of public and private funds to do it, with a strong emphasis on addressing climate change on farms and in rural areas, cleaning our air and water including PFAS contamination in drinking water, and helping front line communities and displaced workers.  Steyer’s $2T plan is also ambitious and strategic, with an emphasis on justice-based actions to clean our air, to drive us toward clean energy and climate-smart infrastructure investments, to reach carbon neutrality by 2045, pushing power down to communities to drive solutions, and promising that the U.S. will also lead the world and build in resilience.

Why This Matters:  With each new plan, the candidates are refining and improving the ideas and the overall debate on climate change within the Democratic Party — taking it beyond bumper sticker slogans and putting more meat on the bones of what a Democratic governing agenda would look like with climate action at the center of it.  As Mike Allen said in Axios on Saturday, this is climate change’s crucial moment.  Climate change IS changing our daily lives – in ways small and also cataclysmic, and knowing that it will only get worse, perhaps the groundswell for action will grow large enough to make a difference in the U.S. and around the globe.  We hope so.  Because all these issues matter, and now they matter to more and more of the public, and our leaders see that and are responding.  Hallelujah!

Gillibrand’s Climate Moonshot

Gillibrand has 7 top-line planks in her climate plan.

  • Net Zero carbon emissions no later than 2050, and zero-carbon, clean electricity by 2030.
  • Put a price on carbon ($52/mt) and use that money to fund clean energy transition, and hold polluters accountable.
  • Build a green jobs economy with a fund to help displaced workers, and to bring jobs to rural and hard-hit areas that are in decline and manufacturing jobs are now scarce.
  • Prioritize rural advancement of climate solutions, make sure front line community members are at the table in building the new economy, change our food systems, and make the energy grid more resilient.
  • Lead a clean energy international space race to get the world to go net-zero on carbon emissions.
  • Protect clean air, clean water and public lands, including ending fracking and drilling on public lands and cleaning up our unsafe drinking water supplies.

Steyer’s Justice-Centered Climate Framework

Tom Steyer has spent several years funding efforts to move to clean energy and address climate change and now as a candidate he has a detailed framework that builds on that experience with five planks.

  • Justice-based pollution reduction targets and actions, including net-zero carbon emissions by 2045 and safe and healthy air by 2030.
  • A people-powered economy driven by grassroots planning and a civilian climate corps, that will give communities the tools and resources they need to build the clean energy and healthy climate transformation from the ground up.
  • Transform the extraction economy into a regenerative economy by ending the giveaways of public resources to polluters and instead protect federal lands and natural resources and expand national parks and monuments.
  • Invest in America by funding climate-smart infrastructure by spending $2T in public money and galvanizing trillions more in private investment for clean transportation, water, operational systems, the energy grid, farms and rural development, building retrofits, maintenance, affordable housing, universal broadband, and more.
  • Climate-secure America by building resilience to disasters, protecting our troops and national security, and restoring America’s global leadership on climate change action.

Flesh-Eating Bacteria On Rise Due To Climate Change

This summer the number of cases of people who are made ill by a flesh-eating bacteria called vibrio vulnificus that stops blood circulation, causing muscle tissue to die and skin to decay is increasing around the country — and the cause is believed to be climate change.  People Magazine reports that the bacteria is found in warm ocean and brackish water typically in the South Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico where the water stays warmer than 55 degrees year round, but it is spreading to other regions and is persisting longer in other areas where waters stay warm for a longer time, according to a study by New Jersey researchers published in June in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Why This Matters:  Though it is rare, this bacterial infection can be prevented — people with compromised immune systems who also have cuts or scrapes or other types of open wounds should avoid warm saltwater or brackish water, hot tubs and swimming pools and should not eat uncooked shellfish because they could be exposed to the bacteria and have difficulty fighting the infection off.  This is another type of climate change danger that we will need to educate the public about and be prepared to treat more often and in more places (see map below).  “It is important for physicians — who may have never seen this infection before in their medical practice — to have some awareness,” a co-author of the study said.

Symptoms of the Bacterial Infection

Catching the infection early is the key to successful treatment.  According to the Tamba Bay Times

  • “Usually, swelling occurs right away and blisters can form over the wound site. Those blisters will turn black and blue over time as tissue and skin begins to die.”
  • “Those who have the infection will feel flu-like symptoms of fever, dizziness and cold sweats right away. Severe complications are common, like sepsis, shock and organ failure.”
  • “Multiple surgeries are fairly common to remove infected tissue, as are long courses of potent antibiotics.’

It Can Be Deadly

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warn that even if they are treated, one in three patients die from the bacterial infection. Since 2010, the CDC believes that between 700 and 1,200 people a year have contracted the infection in the United States. But the number of cases has increased in Florida this year, and it has spread up the Eastern seaboard into the Chesapeake Bay and now the Delaware Bay.   The infection begins to spread within 12 to 24 hours and can be quite painful — the bacteria release toxins into the tissue over time, causing it to die and decay, so it is necessary to seek treatment quickly because if it infects organs it will cause them to shut down.

Graphic: Martin Schwartz, People

The Week Ahead: July 29-August 2

The Senate has its last week of session before a long August recess, while the House of Representatives hit the road on Friday.  The swamp will be drained for a few weeks anyway!  President Trump has not yet announced his vacation plans.  CNN and New York Times reporter Michael Shear say the President will head out of town at some point but “isn’t happy about it” — apparently the President said, “I like working.”   Maybe he will avoid the beach — it is Shark Week after all (more below).  And if you want a Swamp (of the DC variety) Deep Dive, you can watch this 4-part series on MSNBC that started last night.

Debate and Rally:  Washington will slow to a halt and all eyes will turn to the midwest this week.  CNN’s two nights with the 20 top Democratic candidates are Tuesday and Wednesday in Detroit – we will preview it for you tomorrow.  Meanwhile, on Wednesday, the President and Vice President will hold a Keep America Great rally in Cincinnati.  Tweet storms and media frenzy to follow.

Once You Tire of Sharks:  Discovery will premier a 6-episode series called Serengeti next Sunday (August 4) at 8 pm.  Narrated by Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, the show “follows the interconnected stories of a cast of savannah animals over one year, in a bold new dramatized natural history format.” The Lion King for real?  To read more, here’s a NY Times interview with Nyong’o on why she did the series.

ICYMI:  The Supreme Court (in a 5-4 decision along political lines) late last Friday handed a loss to the environmental groups challenging the President’s border wall, allowing its construction to continue with funds repurposed from other projects even as the President’s action continues to be challenged in court.  The lower courts had stopped construction until the case could be heard on the merits, but the Supreme Court lifted the stay because if construction had stopped the funding would have expired before the case could be heard.  See SCOTUSblog for a deeper dive.

One of America’s Oldest Power Companies Commits to Go Carbon-Free

Image: GE Renewables

New Jersey’s largest energy company, PSEG, recently announced that it will go carbon-free by 2050 after 116 years of relying on fossil fuels to generate energy. As CNN reported, the $30 billion utility provider is on track to slash carbon emissions by 80% by 2046, compared with 2005 levels. And PSEG, which also serves more than a million customers on Long Island, is setting an ambitious goal of getting down to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

How?: PSEG Chairman, President and CEO Ralph Izzo said in a letter to stakeholders that there’s “no magic bullet that can get us to a 100 percent carbon-free future,” but that coal and gas-fired plants will not be the answer. The energy company will also “continue to explore opportunities in solar, offshore wind and emerging technologies,” along with energy efficiency resources. Additionally, starting next year PSEG will issue an annual report on sustainability and climate using the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures framework.

Going Further: A friction point that has existed for utilities coming under public pressure to reach 100% renewable energy has been the fact that they don’t want stranded assets–such as profitable fossil fuel plants that they have on their books. This commitment is significant because PSEG has vowed to sell “all remaining interests in coal-fired power plants, and has no plans to build or acquire new fossil-fueled generation” though it will keep its nuclear assets.

 Why This Matters:  The state of New Jersey has made a commitment to achieving 100% clean energy utilization by 2050 and along with the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico nine states have now set a goal to move away from energy sources that generate greenhouse gases. However utilities are not always on board with the clean energy goals made by states and cities and as Utility Drive explained, where utilities don’t get involved, economic growth is lost and utilities lose customers to nontraditional electricity providers–like community solar. But when they are involved, collaboration leads to innovation that helps localities meet their goals more quickly and cost-effectively. Xcel Energy was the first major utility to commit last year to go carbon-free and hopefully, this momentum will help set the standard for the role that utilities will play in our clean energy future–as friend, not foe.