Ed Yong, Excellent Explainer

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Davis Huber

A little over seven years ago the great science writer Ed Yong first came to my attention, and he has featured dozens of times in these pages ever since, never failing to enlighten me. When I saw his recent work on giraffes in the Atlantic I neglected to post it here, but I am correcting that now. It is important work, and I now know he has taken leave from his book-writing assignment from which that story is derived. He has taken leave so he can explain to us something much more pressing. I learned that in his conversation here:

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I recommend listening to him talk about reporting his most recent work, which he says is the most important work he has done to date.

Cars & Carbon

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A Mini Electric car next to the production line at the BMW plant in Cowley, near Oxford. Photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

When the smoke clears, we will need to get back to key environmental issues. Thanks to the Guardian for this news, in that regard:

Electric cars produce less CO2 than petrol vehicles, study confirms

Finding will come as boost to governments seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions

Electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than petrol cars across the vast majority of the globe – contrary to the claims of some detractors, who have alleged that the CO2 emitted in the production of electricity and their manufacture outweighs the benefits.

The finding is a boost to governments, including the UK, seeking to move to net zero carbon emissions, which will require a massive expansion of the electric car fleet. A similar benefit was found for electric heat pumps. Continue reading

Bag Snaggers, Inc., We Hardly Knew Thee

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Photograph from Alamy

You can count on these pages continuing to feature these kinds of stories, that remind us of what still can and must be done, or simply provide a daily dose of charm:

My Old Nemesis: Plastic Bags

On Earth Day, 2019, when New York’s Governor, Andrew Cuomo, signed a bill banning single-use plastic bags, he said, “You see plastic bags hanging in trees, blowing down the streets, in landfills, and in our waterways, and there is no doubt they are doing tremendous damage.” It is true that nowadays people do see plastic bags in trees. But they didn’t used to—not because the bags weren’t there but because the people didn’t see them. I believe I am the first person who actually saw bags in trees—that is, noticed them in any official way. Twenty-seven years ago, I wrote a short article for this magazine about plastic bags and other debris in the trees of New York City. Once I started noticing the bags, I couldn’t stop, and I soon passed the affliction on to my friends Bill McClelland and Tim McClelland. Noticing bags in trees changed our lives. Continue reading

Coal’s Final Days

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A coal-fired power plant in Neurath, Germany. The country has pledged to phase out coal by 2038. INA FASSBENDER/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Fred Pearce, as always for his environmental reporting, and to Yale e360 for this unexpected news that coal is not headed for a renaissance (as some politicians would have us believe):

As Investors and Insurers Back Away, the Economics of Coal Turn Toxic

Coal is declining sharply, as financiers and insurance companies abandon the industry in the face of shrinking demand, pressure from climate campaigners, and competition from cleaner fuels. After years of its predicted demise, the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel may finally be on the way out.

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Demolition of the coal-fired Nelson Dewey Generating Station in Cassville, Wisconsin in December 2017. The power plant closed in 2015. NICKI KOHL/TELEGRAPH HERALD VIA AP

Any day now, New York State will be coal-free. Its last coal-fired power station, at Somerset on the southern shore of Lake Ontario, will shut for good as the winter ends. Remember when Donald Trump promised to bring back coal? Well, three years on, coal’s decline is accelerating — in the United States and worldwide. Continue reading

McKibben’s Latest Venture

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A swarm of locusts north of Nairobi, Kenya, in January. The U.N. described an outbreak of desert locusts as a threat to food security. Photograph by Tony Karumba / AFP / Getty

We need more information, better quality information, and the most relevant information on climate issues. A newsletter, maybe? Bill McKibben is on it:

WELCOME TO THE CLIMATE CRISIS NEWSLETTER

We’re eight weeks into the new decade, and, so far, we’ve had the warmest January ever recorded. (Indeed, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said that 2020 is more than ninety-eight per cent likely to be one of the five warmest years ever measured, with a nearly forty-nine-per-cent chance to set a new annual record.) We’ve seen the highest temperature ever measured on the Antarctic continent, and also record swarms of locusts descending on the Horn of Africa, a plague which scientists assure us will “become more frequent and severe under climate change.”

I’m calling this new newsletter—and welcome aboard—The Climate Crisis because this is what a crisis looks like. Continue reading

Small Steps Could Lead to Big Impacts

A Chinese labourer sorting out plastic bottles on the outskirt of Beijing. Photograph: Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images

With over a billion consumers, even with exemptions these bans will hopefully have relevant impacts. Thanks once again to the Guardian for bringing these actions to our attention.

China moves to phase out single-use plastics

Plastic bags to be banned in all major cities by end of 2020, says state planner

China is stepping up restrictions on the production, sale and use of single-use plastic products, according to the state planner, as it seeks to tackle one of the country’s biggest environmental problems.

Vast amounts of untreated plastic waste are buried in landfills or dumped in rivers. The United Nations has identified single-use plastics as one of the world’s biggest environmental challenges.

The national development and reform commission and the Ministry of Ecology and Environment, which issued the policy, said plastic bags would be banned in all of China’s major cities by the end of 2020 and banned in all cities and towns in 2022. Markets selling fresh produce will be exempt from the ban until 2025. Continue reading

Questions, Answers & Plans For Managing Environmental Challenges

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Experts have identified oceans as a key battleground in the fight to protect humanity’s natural ‘life support system’. Photograph: Christian Loader/Alamy

The plan provides one possible answer, its execution is an important question:

UN draft plan sets 2030 target to avert Earth’s sixth mass extinction

Paris-style proposal to counter loss of ecosystems and wildlife vital to the future of humanity will go before October summit

Almost a third of the world’s oceans and land should be protected by the end of the decade to stop and reverse biodiversity decline that risks the survival of humanity, according to a draft Paris-style UN agreement on nature.

To combat what scientists have described as the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, the proposal sets a 2030 deadline for the conservation and restoration of ecosystems and wildlife that perform crucial services for humans.

The text, drafted by the UN Convention on Biological Diversity, is expected to be adopted by governments in October at a crucial UN summit in the Chinese city of Kunming. It comes after countries largely failed to meet targets for the previous decade agreed in Aichi, Japan, in 2010. Continue reading

Stop Funding Arctic Drilling

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‘The Arctic refuge is not just a piece of land with oil underneath. It’s the heart of our people; our food security, way of life and very survival depends on its protection.’ Photograph: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Thanks to the Guardian for this op-ed by Bernadette Demientieff:

Goldman Sachs agreed to stop funding Arctic drilling. Will other banks join them?

If banks destroy our homeland, they’ll have the Gwich’in Nation, and the millions of Americans who stand with us, to answer to

Last fall, I traveled more than 4,000 miles from my home in Alaska to meet with major banks and urge them to help protect the Arctic national wildlife refuge from destructive oil drilling and exploration. In all the years I’ve worked to defend this place, we’ve been focused on trying to make our voices heard by leaders in the White House or in Congress, and I never thought I’d be sitting in a conference room on the 43rd floor of Goldman Sachs’ global headquarters in downtown New York, talking about the Arctic refuge. Continue reading

Countries Where Troubles Are Left Behind

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Illustrations by Peter Arkle

Since finishing my doctoral work in the mid-1990s I have been working for and in emerging or re-emerging tourism destinations. I do not have time to comment on this now, but quick appreciation out to Tariro Mzezewa for this story, How to Rebrand a Country.

Having worked in two of the three countries she features, and having proposed work in the third (learning quite a bit about Rwanda for that proposal, nearly a decade prior to Seth’s work there this year) I will have more to say on this when time permits:

Colombia, Rwanda and Croatia were seen as dangerous and conflict-ridden. Now they top travel bucket lists. How other countries can follow their lead, in seven steps.

Twenty years ago, an opinion writer for The New York Times described Colombia as a country dominated by “drug killings, paramilitary massacres, guerrilla kidnappings, death squad murders and street crime.”

Five years before that, a 1994 Washington Post article grappled with the question of whether people would want to visit war-torn Croatia. “Only the more intrepid will consider a trip,” the article stated.

And a New Yorker article the same year described the genocide in Rwanda as being so dangerous that foreigners providing aid never went beyond the airport perimeter. One street was described as a place “where everything is shot up and every building is riddled.”

In the years since, conflict and strife have receded, with infrastructure rebuilt and economies recovering. And through a combination of marketing, social media and development — and with the fading associations of discord that come with the passage of time — these three countries are now booming tourist destinations, topping travel rankings, bucket lists and flooding Instagram feeds…

Read the whole story here.

Bill McKibben Does The New Math

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An oil field near McKittrick, California. DAVID MCNEW/GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Mr. McKibben, as always and to Yale e360 as the forum provided him, for more scientific evidence about the singular challenge facing all of us:

New Climate Math: The Numbers Keep Getting More Frightening

Scientists keep raising ever-louder alarms about the urgency of tackling climate change, but the world’s governments aren’t listening. Yet the latest numbers don’t lie: Nations now plan to keep producing more coal, oil, and gas than the planet can endure. Continue reading

America’s Best Idea Needs Help

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Heather McGrath/Redux

Thanks to Jon Waterman, a former park ranger and the author of National Geographic’s Atlas of the National Parks, for this note of caution:

CARBONDALE, Colo. — Deep inside Alaska’s six-million-acre Denali National Park and Preserve, I could see miles of space beneath my feet as I stood on the summit of the tallest mountain in North America. The startling view from the 20,310-foot Denali of rugged wilderness spreading out in all directions, plus the challenge of climbing it, were just two of the many wonders and adventures that I’ve experienced in America’s national parks.

I recently finished writing a book for National Geographic, Atlas of the National Parks, based on extensive research, a lifetime of exploring the parks and several years in the 1980s working as a ranger in two of them, Denali and Rocky Mountain in Colorado.

I meant the book as a celebration of the 103-year-old national park system, and it is. But what I also discovered was an operation in deep trouble, with some parks degraded by ruinous overcrowding; invasions of nonnative plants and animals that are upending delicate ecological balances; and a warming climate that is melting glaciers and withering away the rare yuccas that give their name to Joshua Tree National Park. Continue reading

Convenience & Connivance

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‘I think we’ve taken convenience and just turned it into a monster,’ said Shaymah Ansari.
Photograph: Francis Gardler/AP

I acknowledge it has not been easy to eliminate plastic from my life. Plastic is everywhere. It is ubiquitous in developing economies as well as in more developed economies. But since recycling is costly, then at least radically reducing its use is important. So consider how seductive convenience is, and how conniving companies can be:

US recycling event is cover for enormous volume of plastic pollution, say critics

America Recycles Day promoted by EPA is brainchild of not-for-profit backed by companies that produce plastic products

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 Packaging for plastic food items that cannot be accepted for recycling. Photograph: Emily Holden/The Guardian

America’s government-backed national recycling awareness day is being used as cover by large corporations that are churning out enormous volumes of plastic that end up strewn across landscapes, rivers and in the ocean, critics have said.

The second annual America Recycles Day event on Friday is being vigorously promoted by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as a way to encourage Americans to recycle more.

But critics point out that the initiative is the brainchild of Keep America Beautiful, a not-for-profit founded and backed by large companies that produce vast quantities of plastic products that end up as pollution.

Current backers include Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Pepsico, and Altria, the tobacco giant formerly known as Phillip Morris. Decades of campaigns by the group have emphasized individual responsibility for plastic recycling, which data reveals to be a largely broken system. Continue reading

Really, E.P.A.?

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Matthew Brown/Associated Press

Of all the knuckle-headed ideas, this headline says knuckle louder than most:

E.P.A. to Limit Science Used to Write Public Health Rules

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is preparing to significantly limit the scientific and medical research that the government can use to determine public health regulations, overriding protests from scientists and physicians who say the new rule would undermine the scientific underpinnings of government policymaking.

A new draft of the Environmental Protection Agency proposal, titled Strengthening Transparency in Regulatory Science, would require that scientists disclose all of their raw data, including confidential medical records, before the agency could consider an academic study’s conclusions. E.P.A. officials called the plan a step toward transparency and said the disclosure of raw data would allow conclusions to be verified independently. Continue reading

Mr. Trash Wheel Is Going Strong

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Since 2014, Mr. Trash Wheel has collected approximately twelve hundred and thirty-three tons of trash and debris that otherwise would have flowed into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Photograph by Nicholas Kamm / AFP / Getty

Thanks to a writer who never disappoints for this update to an inspiring story we lost track of:

The Promise of Mr. Trash Wheel

By Carolyn Kormann

John Kellett, the former director of Baltimore’s Maritime Museum, used to cross a footbridge over Jones Falls, the largest tributary feeding into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, every day on his way to work. “When it rained, there was a river of trash flowing down,” he told me. He had spent twenty years working on the harbor, primarily in environmental education and shipbuilding, and had a deep knowledge of its hydrodynamics and history. City officials, he told me, “said they were open to ideas, so I started sketching.” He drew plans for a machine powered by an old-fashioned water wheel—a technology that had once been a staple throughout the city—designed to intercept trash at the mouth of Jones Falls, which is the main source of harbor pollution. A prototype was installed in 2008. By 2014, Kellett’s invention was reborn as Mr. Trash Wheel—a fifty-foot-long machine, weighing nearly a hundred thousand pounds, that resembles a friendly mollusk, with giant, googly eyes and its own Twitter account.

Five years later, Mr. Trash Wheel has spawned three replicas around Baltimore—Professor Trash Wheel, Captain Trash Wheel, and another that was announced last week but has yet to be named or installed in the water. Continue reading

Moderating Methane

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Cristina Byvik

During June and July last year we were in residence on a dairy farm, and the prospective benefit of cows having seaweed added to their diet came to my attention. Today another briefing on this topic, from Rowan Walrath writing in Mother Jones, notifies me that this idea is making progress:

One day in January 2014, police rushed to a farm in Rasdorf, Germany, after flames burst from a barn. They soon discovered that static electricity had caused entrapped methane from the flatulence and manure of 90 dairy cows to explode.

Headline writers had a field day. But the incident pointed to a serious problem: Ruminant livestock, mostly cattle, account for 30 percent of all global methane emissions, pumping out 3 gigatons of the gas every year in their burps, farts, and manure. Methane is an especially potent greenhouse gas: During its 12-year lifespan after being released, it traps 84 times as much heat as carbon dioxide, and its effect on global warming over a century is 34 times that of CO2. According to the United Nations, reducing methane emissions from cows could be one of the quickest ways to slow climate change. Continue reading

250 Miles Of Protected Bike Lanes, At Long Last

Today, good news from New York City resulting from some extended bad news. Instead of putting the headline and the photo from the news story (tragedy), we have placed the video above to digest before reading the news below:

Riding a bicycle in New York City is often a harrowing journey across a patchwork of bike lanes that leave cyclists vulnerable to cars. The dangers came into focus this year after 25 cyclists were killed on city streets — the highest toll in two decades.

Now Mayor Bill de Blasio and the City Council have agreed on a $1.7 billion plan that would sharply expand the number of protected bike lanes as part of a sweeping effort to transform the city’s streetscape and make it less perilous for bikers.

Its chief proponent, Corey Johnson, the City Council speaker, calls it nothing less than an effort to “break the car culture.’’

Such ambitions show how far New York has come since around 2007 when the city, under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, started aggressively taking away space for cars by rolling out bike lanes and pedestrian plazas. Continue reading

Citizen Science Deepdive

By collecting images and GPS data from citizen divers, scientists can get a better sense of the health of the entire Great Barrier Reef. (Damian Bennett)

Citizen Science has been a common thread for us on this site, linking creatures of land, sea and air as subjects of study. Marine Ecosystem citizen science has especially  fascinated us in terms of the creative thinking applied to problems of invasive species.

The collaborative goal of documenting such a vast ecosystem as the Great Barrier Reef, and using creative solutions to combat threats to this wonder of the natural world is inspiring, to say the least.

Massive Citizen Science Effort Seeks to Survey the Entire Great Barrier Reef

Only about 1,000 of 3,000 individual reefs have been documented, but the Great Reef Census hopes to fill in the gaps

The majority of individual reefs that make up the Great Barrier Reef have not been directly surveyed. (Damian Bennett)

In August, marine biologists Johnny Gaskell and Peter Mumby and a team of researchers boarded a boat headed into unknown waters off the coasts of Australia. For 14 long hours, they ploughed over 200 nautical miles, a Google Maps cache as their only guide. Just before dawn, they arrived at their destination of a previously uncharted blue hole—a cavernous opening descending through the seafloor.

After the rough night, Mumby was rewarded with something he hadn’t seen in his 30-year career. The reef surrounding the blue hole had nearly 100 percent healthy coral cover. Such a find is rare in the Great Barrier Reef, where coral bleaching events in 2016 and 2017 led to headlines proclaiming the reef “dead.”

“It made me think, ‘this is the story that people need to hear,’” Mumby says.

The expedition from Daydream Island off the coast of Queensland was a pilot program to test the methodology for the Great Reef Census, a citizen science project headed by Andy Ridley, founder of the annual conservation event Earth Hour. His latest organization, Citizens of the Great Barrier Reef, has set the ambitious goal of surveying the entire 1,400-mile-long reef system in 2020.

“We’re trying to gain a broader understanding on the status of the reef—what’s been damaged, where the high value corals are, what’s recovering and what’s not,” Ridley says. Continue reading

Sumatra & Creative Conservation

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Traditional houses in West Sumatra. Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

Finding this story by Mike Ives, with Topher White getting up into the trees for a good purpose, brightens the day just a little bit:

Using Old Cellphones to Listen for Illegal Loggers

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Topher White installing a solar-powered listening unit in a rainforest on the Indonesian island of Sumatra in July. Ulet Ifansasti for The New York Times

PAKAN RABAA, Indonesia — This village in West Sumatra, a lush province of volcanoes and hilly rain forests, had a problem with illegal loggers.

They were stealing valuable hardwood with impunity. At first, a group of local people put a fence across the main road leading into the forest, but it was flimsy and proved no match for the interlopers. Continue reading

When A Company Says One Thing And Does Another

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Eric Schmidt being interviewing on Bloomberg in 2014. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

We usually introduce a story for context. No introduction needed (or possible) in this case, just thanks to the Guardian for sharing it:

The obscure law that explains why Google backs climate deniers

Company wants to curry favour with conservatives to protect its ‘section 230’ legal immunity

Revealed: Google made large contributions to climate change deniers

When Eric Schmidt was asked on a radio show in 2014 why Google was supporting an ultra-conservative climate-denying pressure group in Washington, the then chairman of the internet giant offered an unequivocal response: it was wrong and Google was not going to do it again.

Continue reading

Kids Saying It The Way Kids Say Things

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Thanks to Alex Kalman for the story and to Mmuseumm for the photos:

Children Lead the Way: A Gallery of Youth-Made Climate-Strike Signs

signs-4-BIO.jpgWhen is skipping school more important than attending? When is a child’s design more effective than a professional’s? When are children more responsible than adults? On September 20th, millions of children, led by the activist Greta Thunberg, took to the streets to protest the world’s inaction on climate change. Here are some of the signs made by children who participated in the New York City march. Inspiring and confrontational, these signs provide a visual counterpoint to the individual voices of our children as they plead with the powers that be to act, and act responsibly.

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See the entire collection here.