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Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

Got Drinking Water? Watch Climate Change Turn It Toxic.

Posted by Richard Conniff on August 7, 2017

The algae bloom that ate Lake St. Clair. (Photo: NASA/NOAA)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

It is a painful lesson of our time that the things we depend on to make our lives more comfortable can also kill us. Our addiction to fossils fuels is the obvious example, as we come to terms with the slow motion catastrophe of climate change. But we are addicted to nitrogen, too, in the fertilizers that feed us, and it now appears that the combination of climate change and nitrogen pollution is multiplying the possibilities for wrecking the world around us.

A new study in Science projects that climate change will increase the amount of nitrogen ending up in U.S. rivers and other waterways by 19 percent on average over the remainder of the century — and much more in Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | Tagged: , , , , | 3 Comments »

Can Synthetic Biology Save Species?

Posted by Richard Conniff on July 20, 2017

(Illustration: Luisa Rivera)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

The worldwide effort to return islands to their original wildlife, by eradicating rats, pigs, and other invasive species, has been one of the great environmental success stories of our time.  Rewilding has succeeded on hundreds of islands, with beleaguered species surging back from imminent extinction, and dwindling bird colonies suddenly blossoming across old nesting grounds.

But these restoration campaigns are often massively expensive and emotionally fraught, with conservationists fearful of accidentally poisoning native wildlife, and animal rights activists having at times fiercely opposed the whole idea. So what if it were possible to rid islands of invasive species without killing a single animal? And at a fraction of the cost of current methods?

That’s the tantalizing – but also worrisome – promise of synthetic biology, a Brave New World sort of technology that applies engineering principles to species and to biological systems. It’s genetic engineering, but made easier and more precise by the new gene editing technology called CRISPR, which ecologists could use Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Cool Tools, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Why Don’t Green Buildings Deliver on Promised Energy Savings?

Posted by Richard Conniff on May 25, 2017

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360
Not long ago in the southwest of England, a local community set out to replace a 1960s-vintage school with a new building using triple-pane windows and super-insulated walls to achieve the highest possible energy efficiency. The new school proudly opened on the same site as the old one, with the same number of students, and the same head person—and was soon burning more energy in a month than the old building had in a year.The underfloor heating system in the new building was so badly designed that the windows automatically opened to dump heat several times a day even in winter.  A camera in the parking lot somehow got wired as if it were a thermal sensor, and put out a call for energy any time anything passed in front of the lens.  It was “a catalogue of disasters,” according to David Coley, a University of Bath specialist who came in to investigate.Many of the disasters were traceable to the building energy model, a software simulation of energy use that is a critical step in designing any building intended to be green. Among other errors, the designers had

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The Planet Cannot Stand This Presidency

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 21, 2017

Akikiki

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

Heroic acts to preserve our national heritage often take place off the battlefield. In the 1890s, for instance, a handful of people, mostly friends of Theodore Roosevelt, stepped forward to protect the American bison as it was about to be butchered into extinction. Likewise, the conservationist Rachel Carson and her followers saved the bald eagle and other species from poisoning by pesticides in the 1960s and ’70s.

We cannot, of course, expect this type of heroism on behalf of wildlife from the Trump administration. On the contrary, the challenge is to figure out which of the many species the administration is gleefully stripping of protection now stands in the most immediate danger. Will the greater sage grouse go extinct as the administration works to unravel a compromise protection plan already agreed on by all parties? Will freshwater mussel species vanish because coal companies Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Leave a Comment »

As Ethiopia Reclaims the Nile, Egypt Dwindles

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 6, 2017

The Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s largest, is now nearing completion. (Photo: Zacharias Abubeker/AFP/Getty Images)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

Though politicians and the press tend to downplay the idea, environmental degradation is often an underlying cause of international crises.  For instance, deforestation, erosion, and reduced agricultural output set the stage for the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.  And prolonged drought pushed rural populations into the cities at the start of the current Syrian civil war. Egypt could become the latest example, its 95 million people the likely victims of a slow motion catastrophe brought on by grand-scale environmental mismanagement.

It’s happening now in the Nile River delta, a low-lying region fanning out from Cairo roughly a hundred miles to the sea. About 45 or 50 million people live in the delta, which represents just 2.5 percent of Egypt’s land area. The rest live in the Nile River valley itself, a ribbon of green winding through hundreds of miles of desert sand, representing another 1 percent of the nation’s total land area. Though the delta and the river together were long the source of Egypt’s wealth and greatness, they now face relentless assault from both land and sea.

The latest threat is a massive dam scheduled to be completed this year on the headwaters of the Blue Nile, which supplies 59 percent of Egypt’s water. Ethiopia’s national government has largely self-financed the $5 billion Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), with the promise that it will generate 6,000 megawatts of power. That’s a big deal for Ethiopians, three-quarters of whom now lack access to electricity. The sale of excess electricity to other countries in the region could also Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Environmental Issues, Food & Drink | 1 Comment »

How Cleaning Up Coal Pollution Helped Beat My Daughter’s Asthma

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 28, 2017

A coal-fired power plant in Kentucky

Today’s the day the Trump Administration makes its bid to set the coal industry free, against all the basic research demonstrating that this will be terrible for both the climate and the health of the American people.  It reminds me of a time, not so long ago, when wiser Republicans saw the value of basic research, and genuinely worked to make America a better country. I wrote what follows for the National Academy of Sciences, so its not a personal piece. But as I wrote, I was remembering that my daughter Clare had asthma all the time she was growing up in the 1990s and early 2000s.  And as the the Clean Air Act Amendment of 1990 gradually came into effect, sharply reducing pollution from coal-fired power plants, Clare’s asthma went away.  That’s an experience many other families have shared, without ever stopping to think that they owed their improving health to basic research by–of all people–economists.

by Richard Conniff/National Academy of Sciences

On the morning of June 13 1974, readers of The New York Times swirled their coffee and mulled the front-page headline, “Acid Rain Found Up Sharply in East.” A study in the journal Science was reporting that rainfall on the eastern seaboard and in Europe had become 100 to 1000 times more acidic than normal—even “in occasional extreme cases,” said the Times, “as acidic as pure lemon juice.” The analogy was a little misleading: Lemon juice is not nearly as corrosive as the nitric and sulfuric acids then raining down on the countryside. But it was enough to make acid rain a topic of anxious national debate.

Both the recognition of the problem and the eventual solution to it would be products of basic research, the one in physical science, the other in social science, neither directed at any narrow purpose. The journey from problem to solution would be tangled and difficult, across unmapped scientific and political territory, over the course of decades. Along the way, it would become apparent that acid rain was more serious than anyone suspected at first, threatening the health of tens of millions of Americans. The solution, when it came, would demonstrate the potential of basic research to be literally a lifesaver.

The authors of the Science study hadn’t set out to find acid rain. Their long-term project was aimed merely at understanding how forest ecosystems work, down to the chemical inputs and outputs. But the first rain sample they collected in the summer of 1963, at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire, was already surprisingly acidic. By the early 1970s, after almost Read the rest of this entry »

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To End Bushmeat Hunting, Let Them Eat Chickens

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 18, 2017

(Photo:Jeannie O’Brien/Flickr)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

The idea that the humble chicken could become a savior of wildlife will seem improbable to many environmentalists. We tend to equate poultry production with factory farms, downstream pollution and 50-piece McNugget buckets.

In much of the developing world, though, “a chicken in every pot” is the more pertinent image. It’s a tantalizing one for some conservationists because what’s in the pot there these days is mostly trapped, snared or hunted wildlife — also called bushmeat — from cane rats and brush-tailed porcupines to gorillas.

Hunting for dinner is of course what humans have always done, the juicier half of our hunter-gatherer origins. In many remote forests and fishing villages, moreover, it remains an essential part of the cultural identity. But modern weaponry, motor vehicles, commercial markets and booming human populations have pushed the bushmeat trade to literal overkill — an estimated 15 million animals a year taken in the Brazilian Amazon alone, 579 million animals a year in Central Africa, and onward in a mad race to empty forests and waterways everywhere.

A study last year identified bushmeat hunting as the primary threat pushing 301 mammal species worldwide toward extinction. The victims include bonobo apes, one of our closet living relatives, and Grauer’s gorillas, the world’s largest. (The latter have recently lost about 80 percent of their population, hunted down by mining camp crews with shotguns and AK-47s. Much of the mining is for a product integral to our cultural identities, a mineral used in

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Here’s an Eyeful About Why We Need Wildlife Sanctuaries

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 9, 2017

Two young tuskers play-jousting in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, India (Photo: Anuradha Marwah)

Two young tuskers play-jousting in the Corbett Tiger Reserve, Uttarakhand, India (Photo: Anuradha Marwah)

Wildlife refuges and sanctuaries are the best hope for many wildlife species in a world that is rapidly being overwhelmed by humans.  The Sanctuary Asia web site holds an annual photo contest and these are Read the rest of this entry »

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How Nations Wreck their Natural World Heritage Sites

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 2, 2017

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Michael Amendolia/Greenpeace)

Aerial view of the Great Barrier Reef. (Photo: Michael Amendolia/Greenpeace)

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

By any standard, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is one of the wonders of the blue planet, half the size of Texas and home to 400 types of coral, 1,500 fish, and 4,000 mollusks. When UNESCO named it a Natural World Heritage Site in 1981, it praised the reef not just for “superlative natural beauty above and below the water,” but also as “one of a few living structures visible from space.”

Since then, half the reef’s coral cover has died, a victim of bleaching, predatory starfish, cyclones, and human disturbance. You might expect its World Heritage status, marking it as one of the crown jewels of the Earth, would elicit a worldwide campaign to protect and conserve it. Instead, in the face of intense lobbying by an Australian government intent on avoiding embarrassment, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee declined in 2015 even to add the reef to its list of sites that are “in danger.”

That failure to make much difference to conservation may be more the rule than the exception for Natural World Heritage Sites, a new study Read the rest of this entry »

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The Deadly Myth of Clean Coal

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 27, 2017

coal_pile_npsWith Donald Trump promising to promote “clean coal,” this piece from 2008 is timely again. Profitable lies, like cats, seem to have multiple lives. Not coincidentally, much of China and Europe are both now struggling with heavy pollution due in large part to coal burning.

by Richard Conniff/Yale Environment 360

You have to hand it to the folks at R&R Partners. They’re the clever advertising agency that made its name luring legions of suckers to Las Vegas with an ad campaign built on the slogan “What happens here, stays here.” But R&R has now topped itself with its current ad campaign pairing two of the least compatible words in the English language: “Clean Coal.”

mountaintop-removal“Clean” is not a word that normally leaps to mind for a commodity some spoilsports associate with unsafe mines, mountaintop removal, acid rain, black lung, lung cancer, asthma, mercury contamination, and, of course, global warming. And yet the phrase “clean coal” now routinely turns up in political discourse, almost as if it were a reality.

The ads created by R&R tout coal as “an American resource.” In one Vegas-inflected version, Kool and the Gang sing “Ya-HOO!” as an electric wire gets plugged into a lump of coal and the narrator intones: “It’s the fuel that powers our way of life.” (“Celebrate good times, come on!”) A second ad predicts a future in which coal will generate power “with even lower emissions, including the capture and storage of CO2. It’s a big challenge, but we’ve made a commitment, a commitment to clean.”

Well, they’ve made a commitment to advertising, anyway.  Read the rest of this entry »

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