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Archive for the ‘Environmental Issues’ Category

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 »

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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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Dollars for Duck Penises: Why Taxpayer-Funded Basic Science Matters

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 26, 2017

(Photo: Michal Cizek/Getty Images)

(Photo: Michal Cizek/Getty Images)

I’m re-publishing this piece from 2014 because it seems relevant to the current war on scientific research.

by Richard Conniff/Takepart.com

In 2009, a presidential wannabe named Bobby Jindal stood before the cameras to denounce the federal government for frivolous spending, and he got off what passes among politicians for a clever sound bite, targeting a $140 million science program to monitor volcanoes: “Instead of monitoring volcanoes, what Congress should be monitoring is the eruption of spending in Washington, D.C.”

Jindal was apparently too young to remember the Mount Saint Helens eruption in 1980, which flattened a blast zone 19 miles out from the volcano, killed 57 people, and caused $2.7 billion in damage. (Oh, it happened in some place called Washington. Never mind.) Though he is governor of Louisiana, Jindal also seemed to be unaware that studying potential natural disasters is a good way to save lives and minimize destruction.

This is how it always seems to go with lamebrain politicians and the scientists struggling to understand the natural world. But nobody gets it worse than Read the rest of this entry »

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In Beijing and Washington, A Breath of Foul Air

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 21, 2017

Airport ad for a way to breathe in Beijing. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

Airport ad for a way to breathe in Beijing. (Photo: Richard Conniff)

by Richard Conniff/The New York Times

When friends cautioned me about Beijing’s notorious air pollution recently, ahead of my first visit there, I brushed it off. It was an old story, and having grown up in northern New Jersey in the era of unregulated industrial air pollution and open garbage burning on the Meadowlands, I figured I could handle it. But I began to have second thoughts on the flight in from the north, when we crossed a mountain ridge and the clear air turned instantly to dense smog. It was still 20 minutes to touchdown.

After a day or two in the city, I felt as if I had taken up cigarettes. Same burned-out feeling at the back of the throat, with bits of airborne grit catching on the epiglottis. Same clearing of the throat by soft coughing. It got worse over the weekend, when regulations limiting cars on the road don’t apply. Coming back into the city on a Sunday afternoon was like a slow apocalypse. The air was a filthy brownish gray, and pedestrians, many of them wearing white face masks, walked hunched over as if through a rainstorm. Buildings emerged ghostlike from the haze a half-mile ahead and vanished again behind.

But I was a novice. It turned out that this was a relatively normal winter day for Beijing, with the air quality index at just 269. That’s rated “very unhealthy” by the World Health Organization, and many times worse than the maximum safe exposure level, but nowhere near those headline-making, sky-darkening days when the Beijing index has topped 700.

Back in New Jersey, the air quality index was generally under 50, and it reminded me how lucky we are to have relatively strong laws and regulations to protect our air. These are the same protections that President Donald J. Trump loudly promised during his campaign to undo on his first day in office. Indeed, the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives this month passed a Regulatory Accountability Act, which will give the new president power to roll back an array of governmental regulations, including 50 years of environmental protections — with as little public notice as possible. It could undermine even the Clean Air Act of 1972 and for the first time oblige regulators to put corporate profits ahead of public health.

The disingenuous logic of this attack

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Sorry, Cat Lovers, TNR Simply Does Not Work

Posted by Richard Conniff on January 10, 2017

“Cat eating a rabbit” (Photo: Eddy Van 3000)

While this site is on a bit of a hiatus, I am re-posting this 2014 piece on the feral cat fight.

by Richard Conniff

Various estimates say that anywhere from 20 to 100 million feral cats roam the United States. Together with pet cats that are allowed to wander free, they kill billions of birds, mammals, and other animals every year.

Every time I write about the need to deal with this rapidly worsening problem, certain readers argue for a method called TNR, which stands for “trap, neuter, and release,” or sometimes “trap, neuter, and return.” So let’s take a look at how it might work.

TNR is an idea with enormous appeal for many animal welfare organizations, because it means cat shelters no longer have to euthanize unwanted cats: They just neuter and immunize them, then ship them back out into the world. It’s a way to avoid the deeply dispiriting business of putting animals down, not to mention the expense of feeding and caring for the animals during the usual waiting period for a possible adoption. And it enables animal shelters to put on a happier face for donors: “We’re a shelter, not a slaughterhouse.”

TNR advocates generally cite a handful of studies as evidence that this method works. The pick of the litter is a 2003 study that supporters say shows TNR enabled the University of Central Florida to reduce the feral cat population on its Orlando campus by 66 percent. On closer examination, though, what that study showed was that

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Conservation and Extinction, Environmental Issues | Tagged: , , , | 6 Comments »