21 November 2020
A number of organizations are attempting to protect forests with initiatives focused on replanting and conservation.
Something that speaks volumes about the environment's low-level standing in American politics is how the environment wasn't spoken about in volumes at this week's Democratic National Convention.
First, a little digression. This week's Democratic Convention, and presumably next week's Republican gathering, are absent the traditional crowds. Scripted "spontaneous applause" breaks and balloon drops are out. For the Dems at least, they substituted a political infomercial. It was at times slickly-produced and inspirational; at other moments I suspected that Jerry Lewis was about to spring back to life with an oversized telethon check.
On Wednesday, climate change got its five minutes of increasingly intense sunshine. It was a montage featuring young activists and their partial remedies for a crisis that, unlike the deep but hopefully transitory tragedy of COVID-19, is already locked in for decades to come. The star of the brief climate cavalcade was Alexandria Villaseñor, the 15 year-old New Yorker being cast as America's homegrown Greta Thunberg. The only office-holder who focused on clean energy and its promise of new jobs was New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham
For most of the four-night vote-cast, rising party stars shared the spotlight with party veterans: Three ex-presidents, two ex-first ladies, failed 2020 presidential candidates, and multiple senators, representatives, governors. None, save for Grisham and California Gov. Gavin Newsome, focused on climate change.
One that might have is Al Gore, who was absent from the Convention. Not only has science and reality vindicated his four decades of advocacy on climate, but, long before 2016, he was the poster child for losing the Presidency by winning the vote but not the Electoral College. Gore has since been recognized with an Oscar and a piece of a Nobel Peace Prize, but never by his own party.
He's also been reviled by climate deniers and turned into a caricature by Republicans, all for being right about the multiple existential threats. Another reason for the Party to hear from Gore: His experience with denial and contempt for science is prologue for the rampant denial now in full bloom with the coronavirus pandemic. If contempt for science is a hallmark of America's COVID-19 failures, Al Gore has a story to tell us all.
In Thursday's acceptance speech, Joe Biden listed climate as one of four simultaneous crises, along with COVID-19, the economy, and race relations. "It's not only a crisis, it's a tremendous opportunity" for economic growth, he said.
Biden's speech took place in America's lowest-lying state, Delaware. I did a little eyeball research on Google Earth, where Amtrak's recently-renamed Joe Biden Wilmington Station is six feet above the current sea level—just like the clubhouse at Trump's Mar-a-Lago golf resort.
The Republicans meet next week, where we'll likely be treated to a few anti-regulatory, anti-science, climate-denying screeds.
Maybe after that, we'll get to see who's all wet. Maybe both parties. Maybe all of us who live near a coastline.
Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences. Contact him at email@example.com or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.
On April 26, our President suggested that reporters who earned "Noble" (sic) Prizes for reporting on "the Russian hoax" return their awards. The President should have caught his own misspelling, since he'd be a perennial contender for the Nobel Prize in Twitterature, if it weren't a Fake Award.
He also should have known that it's the Pulitzer Prizes, not the Nobels, for which journalists compete. And this year, a Pulitzer went to one of his favorite purveyors of "fake news" for reporting on another of his favorite "hoaxes," climate change. Multiple Washington Post journalists shared the Explanatory Journalism Pulitzer for a multi-part series on climate change impacts.
Four more of what we now call "legacy" media were 2020 Pulitzer finalists reporting on science/environment themes. What the President likes to call the "failing" New York Times failed once more. Fifteen of its stories on the Trump Administration's own failures to follow science at EPA, NOAA, the Interior Department and other agencies earned Finalist honors in the Public Service category.
Nestor Ramos of the Boston Globe was a feature writing finalist for a report on the devastating climate impacts on the oversized sandbar known as Cape Cod. The Wall Street Journal staff were Investigative Pulitzer finalists for series on the California utility giant PG&E and its culpability in causing the wildfires that erased the town of Paradise, California. Editorial writer Jill Burcum of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune was an opinion finalist for a piece on proposed nickel mines near the Boundary Waters Canoe area on the Canadian border.
A winner and four finalists is a pretty good haul for a beat that many, including its practitioners, consider to be long-neglected. In recognizing the Post, the Pulitzer jury called the work a "groundbreaking series." Good? Absolutely. Thorough? Thoroughly. Deserving reporters, editors and support staff? Yes. Both the Post and the New York Times have been assembling all-star teams on the beat for several years.
But groundbreaking, it's not. Traditional newsrooms, nonprofits, and even broadcasters have been breaking this ground for quite a while now. The Pulitzer Board has recognized groundbreaking work on the environment most years for the past three decades.
Several years ago at a meeting organized by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, I introduced Mark Schleifstein as having shared in two Pulitzers at the Times-Picayune for his work on Louisiana's battery of environmental threats, from Hurricane Katrina to Gulf fisheries to vanishing wetlands. The veteran environment reporter smiled quietly and corrected me by holding up three fingers. He's also been a finalist twice more.
Sadly, environmental journalists might sweep the field in the as-yet imaginary Pulitzer category I'd like to see. Reporters whose work predicted coalfield catastrophes, chemical calamities, hurricane horrors and other disasters would be prime candidates for the Pulitzer Prize for I-Told-You-So. I wrote about this for Ensia in 2017.
What's the moral of this story? There are several, take your pick. Environmental stories are sort of like critically-successful films that only play in 30-seat art cinemas in college towns and Bohemian neighborhoods. They deserve better. Despite the dire straits that so many newspapers are in, cutting your special beat reporters is cutting your relevance to your community. TV news operations should follow CNN and NBC and restore the environment, or climate change, as a full-time beat.
These Pulitzer-worthy environmental stories, and thousands more, look smart today and with precious few exceptions, will look even smarter in 20 years. When that happens, don't say I didn't tell you so.
Peter Dykstra is our weekend editor and columnist. His views do not necessarily represent those of Environmental Health News, The Daily Climate or publisher, Environmental Health Sciences. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org(opens in new tab) or on Twitter at @Pdykstra.
Over the years, I've visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial dozens of times. It's hard to believe its striking design – a low, chevron-shaped wall of polished black granite containing the names of 58,000 Americans killed in the war – was once controversial.
The Wall captures the war's sadness, but with a note of sorry-ness thrown in. For decades, Vietnam vets, some now bedraggled and in their seventies, have stood guard at the Memorial for the tragically wrong notion that their MIA buddies are still alive in Hanoi prisons.
These guys, bless their hearts, always remind me that firmly-held beliefs often cannot be killed, even with the strongest contrary evidence or in the complete absence of confirming evidence.
Climate deniers hold such beliefs. Ten years ago this month, they launched their best effort at a Pearl Harbor attack on climate scientists. They claimed a victory that, despite a decade-long torrent of contrary evidence, they still claim today.
The theft of thousands of emails from the University of East Anglia's Climate Research Unit yielded a handful of messages between scientists that could be spun and willfully misinterpreted to suggest that the scientific near-consensus that climate science was a cynical and fraudulent scam.
In one particularly intemperate email, climate scientist Ben Santer muses about "beat(ing) the crap out of" Pat Michaels, a go-to scientist for climate deniers. Another appears to suggest that scientists conspired to use a "trick" to hide evidence that the earth was not warming.
The immediate impact of the emails was to run news coverage of the Copenhagen Climate Summit off the rails. The crucial world meeting started a few weeks after news of the email hack broke. Rather than unite around a message of urgency, climate scientists were on the defensive. ClimateGate played a role in Copenhagen's failure to reach a significant global agreement on climate action.
And deniers were suddenly working double shifts in the manufacture of doubt, their signature product. Suddenly, ClimateGate was "the worst scientific scandal of all time," with prominent climate scientists cast as corrupt and conspiratorial.
Multiple investigations cleared the scientists of anything worse than a few poor choices of words in a few purloined emails. But multiple layers of exoneration hasn't stopped the Denial-o-Sphere from waving the bloody flag years later.
Police determined that the email hack was indeed a crime, but closed the investigation in 2012 without identifying suspects. Deniers have been repeatedly shamed in the past decade, notably by news reports that Exxon has ignored its own scientists on climate peril for decades; activists' sleuthing that some scientists, like Harvard's Willie Soon, were skewing their research to please fossil fuel funders; and of course the self-inflicted shaming of the Heartland Institute, who planned a series of billboards comparing climate action advocates to terrorists.
But like that hardy perennial horror flick character that springs back to life after you thought it was dead, climate denial is hard to kill.
The good news is that the hardest-core climate deniers appear to be walled off from reality, deeply embedded in a fact-free belief system. They no longer draw substantial attention from major media, with the predictable exceptions of Fox News, talk radio, and a few others.
The bad news is that, bolstered by ClimateGate and other myths, denial is alive and well in the White House, the Senate leadership, and virtually every key cabinet department. It's also enjoying a rebirth in key national governments like Brazil's.
That doesn't stop me from hoping, every day, that they're somehow right and the world's scientists and governments are embarrassingly wrong. I'd gladly be remembered as the world's biggest jackass if it meant that we're spared the climate miseries that surely await us.
It would be a whole lot cheaper and safer that way, assuming we don't stay hopelessly addicted to fossil fuels. If there were the slightest chance of the stubborn adherents to climate denial being right, I'd be happy to see every climate scientist and advocate, and every journalist who takes them seriously, look bad. It's a small price to pay for still having Miami.
I've made it to most of the Society of Environmental Journalists' 29 annual conferences, but not this one.
SEJ is the Jimmy Carter of non-profits – overlooked in real-time, but looking better and smarter with each passing year. This year's conference wraps up Sunday in Fort Collins, Colo (follow the action on social media via #SEJ2019).
SEJ's first national conference took place in 1991. It's now older than many of its members. At least one or two of its current Board members were fetuses back then. Most of its charter members are in their sixties, seventies, or beyond. Or gone. The membership used to be weighted toward full-time environment writers for daily newspapers. Now, the core is freelance journalists (though I've been trying to push the frequently more accurate term "subsistence journalists").
The beat has been re-energized in such legacy media giants as the Washington Post and New York Times. But SEJ's strength also lies in a proliferation of new sites doing dynamic investigative work and vivid storytelling.
Here are but a few:
A collection of long-reads on environmental issues in the American South. The year-old startup is the work of Lyndsey Gilpin, who seeks to fill in the gaps in a region vastly underserved in environmental reporting and storytelling.
Two years ago, the Arizona-based advocacy group Center for Biological Diversity launched a news site, The Revelator. Its well-told stories on species, habitats, and politics rapidly became a must-read.
When a startup site wins a Pulitzer, as Inside Climate News did six years ago, it suddenly no longer looks like a startup. But publisher David Sassoon's masterful adherence to an ambitious business plan can stand as a model for all others. It turns 12 years old this month.
Another Pulitzer winner, MIT's Deborah Blum, puts out a stream of big-think pieces at Undark. Its tagline: Truth, beauty, science.
There are too many other quality sites to mention, but here are four more that shouldn't be ignored: The solution-oriented theme of Ensia; the urban-ish tone of CityLab; the food-oriented scoops of FERN; and the saltwater stories of Hakai Magazine.
One recent casualty in the perilous world of nonprofit publishing is Pacific Standard, whose deep dives into environmental stories will be missed. Its main funder pulled the plug in August.
With climate change finally breaking through as a frontline issue for virtually all news outlets, and a zillion other plagues – ocean plastics, glyphosate, water quality, Trump's regulatory purge – making waves, our beat is poised to rise in prominence for the worst of all reasons: Out home planet is literally a hot mess.
We also press forward with an uncomfortable form of vindication: The planet is indeed warming up, and despite some strong efforts, getting dirtier. Species are indeed disappearing. So are habitats, from Arctic ice to tropical forests. Just like SEJ members and others have been reporting for decades.
The beat continues to face traditional foes: Indifference or timidity on the part of some bosses; the shaky financial footing for all journalism; well-heeled, slick, and often unprincipled interests who like to portray our news as Fake News.
But the beat goes on, and it's more crucial than ever.
In 2010, billionaire hedge-fund investor Tom Steyer took a giant step back from Wall Street, quitting his firm and pledging his fortune to a slate of charitable causes, notably the existential threat posed by climate change. And the money flowed –
to energy research projects and NGO'S focused on raising awareness, or raising hell, over inaction on climate change.And he was making progress—until he announced that he was joining the bloated field of Democratic presidential hopefuls.
In November 2016, Donald Trump's stunning victory over Hillary Clinton changed everything for America, and for Steyer. Only months into the Trump presidency, Tom Steyer became more ubiquitous than plaque psoriasis ads on cable news broadcasts, starring in his own 30-second calls to impeach Donald Trump. He poured a reported $10 million into the campaign.
Steyer was calm, almost shy, in firmly describing Trump's "clear and present danger." Response to the www.Needtoimpeach.com petition was impressive. Combined with efforts from Moveon.org and other groups, Steyer delivered 10 million petition signatures to Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib in early 2019.
But since climate denial is not an impeachable offense, it marked a major departure for Steyer.
He spent millions on broadcast ads, promoting the petition while paradoxically shipping the sales checks to reward cable news outlets – notorious delinquents on climate coverage. Steyer even spent a reported $700,000 on ad placement in Fox & Friends, the morning show said to be a must-watch for Trump.
As late as January, Steyer waved off questions about his own presidential ambitions. Then, earlier this month, he cannonballed into the crowded Democratic pool to join the two dozen already treading water there. In his announcement video, Steyer laid out the challenges in classic Liberal fashion. Climate change rated two lines of the four-minute piece.
To me, Steyer has swapped out any claim to moral authority for an exercise in both narcissism and futility. In all likelihood, the late-arriving Steyer won't even qualify for the ludicrous spectacle of marching hopefuls out to podiums in groups of ten, with each candidate getting less than ten minutes to make their case to America.
To advocates of action on climate change, this has to be tragic: Steyer has turned his firehose of climate philanthropy on himself. Meanwhile, several presidential hopefuls whose prospects are scarcely better than Steyer's could instead be focused on chasing climate deniers out of the Senate.
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock could challenge Republican Sen. Steve Daines next year. (You forgot Bullock was running for President, didn't you?) Ex-Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper could run against incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner – despite the fact that Gardner's 10% lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters makes him one of the greenest GOP Senators.
Two of the Big Blue Wave could challenge Texas incumbent Sen. John Cornyn—Beto O'Rourke or Julian Castro. And South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigeig would have two opportunities to unseat either of Indiana's two Republican Senators, but they wouldn't face reelection until 2022 and 2024, respectively.
If Tom Steyer doesn't burn off his enthusiasm or his cash supply on his D.O.A. vanity presidential run, he could fund them all, help topple Mitch McConnell's Senate stranglehold and guide the U.S. to right its sunken ship of state on climate.
Two years ago, a Sherpa mountaineering guide came across a chilling sight on the Tibetan approach to Mount Everest: The frozen hand of an unsuccessful climber, exposed.
Nearly 5,000 men and women have reached the summit of the world's tallest mountain. An estimated 300 died trying, or, more frequently, died on the descent. Two-thirds of those bodies have never been recovered. But as Everest warms with the rest of the world, its snow- and ice-cover lessens, and dwindling glaciers move more quickly, Nature is giving up thawing corpses. Stephen King must surely be taking copious notes.
"Because of global warming, the ice sheet and glaciers are fast melting, and the dead bodies that remained buried all these years are now becoming exposed," guide leader Ang Tshering Sherpa told the BBC. The Sherpas have tried to bring the bodies down off the mountain, but every effort is delayed: A frozen corpse weighs about twice as much as a thawed one.
But wait! There's more! Since the duo of Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay first conquered the mountain in 1953, the mountain has become a veritable conga line of climbers during the weeks-long window of good weather each spring. And the masses have left masses of abandoned gear, oxygen tanks, and a "fecal time bomb" behind. Tons of human waste, also presumably unfreezing, now adorn the path to the Top of the World. Good times.
A study led by Columbia's Lamont-Doherty Observatory has accessed declassified spy-satellite photos of the Himalayas to estimate that ice and snow melt there has roughly doubled since 1975. Spy satellites? That's not because Everest has become a high-altitude sh*t-show. Himalayan snowmelt slakes the thirst and waters the crops of nearly a billion people in Bangaladesh, India, Pakistan, and parts of China. Snow-less Himalayas would be an existential threat to that huge population. If you want to know why climate change is a global security issue, here's Exhibit A.
It's not the first time that Cold War sleuthery was turned into unintended service for climate science. For twenty years, University of Washington scientists have accessed declassified logs of both U.S. and Russian nuclear submarines as they conducted routine patrols beneath Arctic ice. A routine function of such patrols was to measure the thickness of Arctic sea ice -- the better to poke through said ice and blast the world to smithereens.
The data show a steady and alarming loss of ice thickness over half a century. Since the mid-seventies, satellites have provided a reliable measure of the demise of Arctic ice. But we can thank the American and Soviet navies for providing an extended record of climate change – slow motion mutually assured destruction, 21st century style.
Save for one word, Walter Brooke (1914-1986) had an unremarkable career as a Hollywood bit player, usually as a mid-level military officer fighting Indians or Nazis.
But in the 1967 film The Graduate, Brooke slung his arm around the shoulder of a young Dustin Hoffman and offered a vision of the future:
Half a century later, Brooke's career advice looks more and more like an albatross around the necks of humanity – and for that matter, around the necks of albatrosses.
In 1950, 17 years before Brooke's career counsel, the world produced an estimated two million metric tons of plastic. By 2015, that had jumped to 380 million metric tons – more than humanity's own weight in plastic.
Trash floating in Lake Jackson, south of Atlanta, after a rain
An estimated 150 million metric tons of plastic now swirl in our waterways:
Marine litter spoiling the view in Norway.
You can't say we weren't warned.
On April 5, 1989, a team of NOAA scientists presented an ominous, peer-reviewed work on the mounting dangers of ocean-borne plastic debris. Not surprisingly, their warnings went unheeded by all but a handful of marine scientists and activists.
I was feeling good about myself finding the 30 year-old plastics paper, and I mentioned it in the weekly segment I do for Public Radio International's Living On Earth. Then, the sleuths at a very useful web publication called The Revelator found others from the 1970's. That's how long we've known about the crisis we've been building.
Darrell Blatchley, director of D'Bone Collector Museum Inc., pulls plastic waste from the stomach of a Cuvier's beaked whale that washed ashore in Compostela Valley, in the Philippines.
Last week, an item worthy of the Guinness Book of World Records washed in from the Philippines, where the carcass of a Cuvier's beaked whale (really more an oversized dolphin than a great whale) yielded 88 pounds of plastic bags.
Like so many other environmental ills, the plastic pollution of the oceans is something we've known about for decades. Like climate change or ocean acidification, the solutions to plastics pollution are daunting. They don't involve the shutting of a lone drainpipe or smokestack. They involve altering the consumptive mindsets of nearly all of us about how we produce, consume, and dispose of plastics.
We've developed the ability to alter the acid/alkaline chemistry of the vast oceans, and we're filling them up with things inimical to life. Now all we have to do is develop the ability to stop ourselves.
Here's a trailer from "The Smog of the Sea," a new documentary on ocean plastics featuring musician Jack Johnson
Here are the responses we've gotten so far from politicians about our study that found Pennsylvania families living near fracking wells are being exposed to high levels of harmful industrial chemicals.
By connecting the dots between medical symptoms and patterns of injustice, we move from simply managing suffering to delivering a lasting cure.
EHN.org scientific investigation finds western Pennsylvania families near fracking are exposed to harmful chemicals, and regulations fail to protect communities' mental, physical, and social health.
Middle-aged men in Pennsylvania's fracking counties die from heart attacks at a rate 5% greater than their counterparts in New York where fracking is banned.