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Conservation Science for a Healthy Planet

Category Archive: Of Interest

  1. Ignoring Science at Our Peril- Opinion

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    By JANE E. BRODY MARCH 12, 2018  read full NYTimes piece here

    Ignore the warnings of scientists at your peril. That is a very valuable lesson our nation can learn from a horrific weather-related tragedy that befell London in 1952, bathing the city in toxic smog that claimed the lives of thousands of people. Had London acted as had been suggested after a nearly identical disaster struck Donora, Pa., four years earlier, many deaths could have been avoided.

    The yellow-brown “killer fog,” as it came to be called, reduced visibility to two feet. Thousands of tons of sulfurous coal smoke and diesel fumes were trapped over a 30-mile area by a cold, moist temperature inversion, covering London with a blanket of poisonous air. In less than a week, the fog killed about 4,000 people, and another 8,000 died prematurely in the months that followed.

    British scientists had been warning of such a disaster, but alas, the protective measures they suggested were approved by lawmakers but never implemented. To make matters worse, the government ignored its meteorologists’ warning that an extraordinarily dense fog was about to descend on London.

    It took nearly four years for Parliament to pass the Clean Air Act of 1956 that restricted the burning of coal in urban areas and helped homeowners convert from coal to less harmful ways to heat their homes.

    The parallels of this catastrophic weather event to current concerns about climate change are hard to ignore. Already as the world’s climate warms, there has been an increase in devastating droughts and life- and property-destroying wildfires, mudslides and floods.

    Continue reading the main story

    All the while the polar and Arctic ice caps are melting and, despite dire warnings from highly reputable scientists, the current administration is taking little action to protect its citizens from future climactic disasters that scientists say are sure to come. Instead, there has been a push to bring back coal and rescind regulatory measures that helped to clean the air and water of pollutants.

    Likewise, a loosening of regulations and appointments of agency administrators with strong ties to the industries they oversee threaten the safety and healthfulness of the foods and beverages we consume and feed to our most vulnerable: children, the elderly and those with compromised immunity. Agencies tasked with protecting public health are under fire and working with diminished resources.

    Must it take a calamity, like an outbreak of food poisoning that kills tens of thousands or a deadly epidemic of an infectious disease, to awaken Congress to the dangers that lie ahead and goad it to protect the citizens it was elected to serve?

    History is filled with examples of scientifically sound guidance that was ignored or pilloried by those in power. In the late 1990s, for example, half a dozen major health agencies, including the Department of Health and Human Services, endorsed a national needle exchange program to curb the spread of H.I.V./AIDS. But President Bill Clinton rejected the advice, and the resulting H.I.V. infections cost the health care system as much as half a billion dollars.

    Last March, Scott Pruitt, newly appointed to head the Environmental Protection Agency, rejected the previous administration’s proposal to ban agricultural use of a Dow Chemical Company pesticide, chlorpyrifos. The agency’s scientific advisory panel had concluded in 2016 that children risked irreversible brain damage and neurodevelopmental problems from very low levels of exposure to food residues of the chemical, which continues to be widely used on fruits and vegetables.

    In hopes of bolstering the coal industry, Mr. Pruitt, who has rejected established climate science, has also scrapped regulations in the Clean Power Plan put in place by the Obama administration to minimize heat-trapping pollution. A warming trend in sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic in recent decades has been strongly associated with the spread of potentially deadly marine pathogens like Vibrio cholerae, the cause of cholera, and V. parahaemolyticus, a cause of food poisoning, and could lead to widespread outbreaks.

    Food safety measures are also in jeopardy. Enforcement has been delayed indefinitely of crucial rules in the Food and Drug Administration’s Food Safety Modernization Act, enacted seven years ago with bipartisan support to protect consumers from exposure to dangerous pathogens like salmonella and E. coli. Some of those who harvest, package and store foods produced on farms are now exempt from the act’s rules to prevent contamination of the food supply. Yet, each year 48 million people in this country are sickened, 128,000 are hospitalized and 3,000 die from preventable food-borne diseases.

    The lax food safety rules of the European Union should be a lesson to heed. France and its allies are currently reeling under massive recalls of baby formula and other products contaminated with salmonella, a crisis said to stem from weak regulations that allowed tainted products to make their way into supermarkets and pharmacies even weeks after the problem was discovered.

    Nutritional depletion from rising concentrations of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas in the atmosphere, is another risk to the healthfulness of the American food supply, according to some experts. Dr. Samuel S. Myers, principal research scientist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and colleagues linked significant reductions in zinc, iron and protein in staple grain crops like rice and wheat and smaller reductions in protein in legumes to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air.

    The researchers demonstrated these effects by growing 41 different varieties of staple crops under conditions likely to exist by 2050 unless there is a major decline in carbon dioxide pollution.

    In an interview, Dr. Myers explained that even a small reduction in the protein content of grains could increase carbohydrate consumption and raise the risk of metabolic diseases like diabetes and heart disease that already endanger our overweight population.

    Efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to fight global warming can provide not only long-term benefits for public health but also have immediate health “co-benefits,” according to Dr. Andy Haines of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

    An increase in walking and cycling instead of a reliance on fuel-powered vehicles, for example, would help to counter diabetes, heart disease, stroke and other chronic ailments linked to a sedentary lifestyle. A shift to “environmentally more sustainable healthy diets,” he notes, would not only help to counter greenhouse gases but also lead to reductions in all-cause mortality.

  2. A Bottom-Up Approach to Groundwater Sustainability

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    • Innovative approaches to addressing groundwater deficits from charges for going over assigned water budgets and water trading to groundwater bank accounts are working in CA’s Kern County.
    • Emphasizing approaches that let growers decide what’s best for them—whether it’s helping them put unused water into a market or compensating them for using their land for recharge– is a key strategy to achieving groundwater sustainability.

    Lori Pottinger February 28, 2018 read full post from the Public Policy Institute of CA (PPIC) here

    California’s Sustainable Groundwater Management Act (SGMA) requires communities with ongoing groundwater deficits to bring their aquifers into balance in the coming years. This will be a difficult and complex process, but it’s also an opportunity to devise workable solutions at the community level. We talked to Eric Averett of the Rosedale–Rio Bravo Water Storage District about groundwater management innovations being tried in his Kern County district and lessons learned that might have wider application.

    …Eric Averett: The most challenging area is managing and mitigating impacts associated with demand reduction. Rather than mandating that individual landowners reduce demand, our district has pursued a path that we think gives individuals greater flexibility. The idea is that every acre will be assigned a water budget based on what the district can provide or considers sustainable. If a landowner uses more than that amount, it triggers a water charge. The district will use those funds to develop water supply programs or purchase land from willing sellers to retire it from production. Either way, this system doesn’t take anything away from landowners’ ability to manage their own water, it just gives them more options.

    Another important area we’re looking at is water trading within our district’s boundaries. We’ve implemented a pilot study that empowers landowners to act as buyers or sellers in managing their water resources. We think water trading will be an essential tool to getting aquifers into balance and maximizing the value of the resource. For example, during a drought, a small grower with row crops may find greater value in fallowing a field and selling the water. At the same time, a grower who may be short of water and facing the loss of a permanent crop may enter the market as a buyer. If we don’t find a way to create these buy/sell opportunities, we strand the asset.

    A third area we’re working on is creating individual groundwater bank accounts for landowners. We have a number of landowners who’ve committed to make their land available for recharge in exchange for a portion of the recharged water being credited to their account. Alternatively, some landowners have acquired a source of water and asked the district to use it for recharge on their behalf. Both types of programs were tested successfully in 2017, and we look forward to expanding the concept.   Ultimately, we’re looking at ways the district can assist landowners in becoming sustainable and mitigating SGMA impacts….

  3. The World Is Embracing SUVs. That’s Bad News for the Climate.

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    By Hiroko Tabuchi Mar 3 2018 Read full NYTimes article here

    SUVs and “crossovers” made up more than one in three cars sold globally last year, nearly tripling their share from just a decade ago, according to a new report. Drivers in China, Australia and elsewhere are buying SUVs because of lower gas prices and higher incomes—which is slowing progress in reining in carbon emissions….

    …Between 2005 and 2008, the average fuel economy of new cars worldwide improved by about 1.8 percent a year, according to the United Nations’ Global Fuel Economy Initiative. But since then, that pace has slowed to 1.1 percent in 2015, the latest data available, far below the near 3-percent clip needed to simply stabilize emissions from the world’s car fleet….

  4. Suburban sprawl worse than urban growth for CO2 emissions

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    March 5, 2018 University of Utah Read full ScienceDaily article here

    Atmospheric scientists report that suburban sprawl increases CO2 emissions more than similar population growth in a developed urban core…

    …The research team concluded that population growth does not directly correlate with growth in CO2 emissions. Other factors, specifically the types of neighborhoods where population is growing, are much bigger factors.

    “In the more urban area, there’s population growth there, but it’s in the mature part of the city, not associated with growth in CO2,” Mitchell says. But it’s this population growth in rural areas that is seeing an increase in CO2 emissions. If you add more people into downtown Salt Lake City, they’re going into an existing place.”…

    Logan E. Mitchell, et al. Long-term urban carbon dioxide observations reveal spatial and temporal dynamics related to urban characteristics and growth. PNAS, 2018 DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1702393115

  5. Smartphones and data centers harm the environment, study shows

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    • Data centres and smartphones will be the most damaging information and communications technologies to the environment by 2040, according to new research
    • For every text message, for every phone call, every video you upload or download, there’s a data centre making this happen. Telecommunications networks and data centres consume a lot of energy to serve you and most data centres continue to be powered by electricity generated by fossil fuels. It’s the energy consumption we don’t see…

    March 1, 2018 McMaster University Read full ScienceDaily article here

    …[Scientists] studied the carbon footprint of consumer devices such as smartphones, laptops, tablets, desktops as well as data centres and communication networks as early as 2005…. Not only did they discover that software is driving the consumption of information and communications technologies (ICT), they also found that ICT has a greater impact on emissions than we thought and most emissions come from production and operation.

    ….Among all the devices, trends suggest that by 2020, the most damaging devices to the environment are smartphones. While smartphones consume little energy to operate, 85% of their emissions impact comes from production. A smartphone’s chip and motherboard require the most amount of energy to produce as they are made up of precious metals that are mined at a high cost….

    …”Communication and data centres have to go under renewable energy now. The good news is Google and Facebook data centres are going to run on renewable energy. But there needs to be a policy in place so that all data centres follow suit. Also, it’s not sustainable to have a two-year subsidized plan for smartphones.”…

    Lotfi Belkhir, Ahmed Elmeligi. Assessing ICT global emissions footprint: Trends to 2040 & recommendations. Journal of Cleaner Production, 2018; 177: 448 DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2017.12.239

  6. 12 Emerging Global Trends That Bring Hope for 2018

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    Feb 2018 Read full The Nature Conservancy article here

    …New environmental leaders are stepping up across different sectors and geographies; new sources of financing are starting to close the gap in conservation funding; collective governance is emerging to better manage precious resources. Without minimizing the task ahead, we want to point to some trends that are unlocking investment for nature and offering hope for a sustainable future. Download our one-pager here.

    1. High Time for the High Seas

    Could the biggest thing to happen for the environment in decades be in the middle of the ocean?

    2. A New Prescription for Public Health

    A tree a day keeps the doctor away?

    3. Following the Money to Global Impact

    What happens when investing for good meets financial reward?

    4. New Faces Tackling Climate Change

    Who will step up on this generation’s main stage?

    5. Natural Climate Solutions: the Year’s Top Carbon Technology

    Solving for future carbon emissions is one thing; removing carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere is another. Can we do both today?

    6. Soil—Believe it or Not—is a Hot Topic

    Here’s the dirt: this year, soil is on trend.

    7. Engineering Our Way Out of Crisis—with Nature’s Help

    The trillion-pound (£) elephant in the room? Infrastructure.

    8. Big Data and the Dawn of a Conservation Revolution

    A welcome disruption? The tech industry is setting its sights on a new sector: conservation.

    9. More Companies Are Getting Serious About Global Green Goals

    What to do with SDGs and two degrees?

    10. Clean Energy Is Powering The Future—Now Where to Put It?

    Our clean energy future is arriving faster than we thought.

    11. To Redefine Green Design, Cities Are Thinking Bigger—AND Smaller

    Cities still strive for LEED buildings and light rail—but also a better walk down the block.

    12. Oh, and One More Thing—More

    More investment, more research, more accountability, more heroes.

  7. Providing for 7 billion. Or not.

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    • After looking at data on quality of life and use of resources from some 150 countries, they found that no nation currently meets the basic needs of its citizens in a sustainable way.
    • Only Vietnam came close to meeting both measures of providing the basics of a good life without excessive cost in resources.
    • The United States provides a relatively high quality of life but fails on every measure of sustainability in the study. For example, it emits 21.2 metric tons of carbon dioxide per person per year, while the study’s sustainability threshold is 1.6 metric tons.

    By John Schwartz Feb 15 2018 read full NY Times article here

    Can we provide good lives for the seven billion people on Earth without wrecking the planet? Daniel O’Neill of the University of Leeds and colleagues asked this enormous question in a recent paper in the journal Nature Sustainability and on an accompanying website.

    Their answer is uncomfortable. After looking at data on quality of life and use of resources from some 150 countries, they found that no nation currently meets the basic needs of its citizens in a sustainable way. The nations of the world either don’t provide the basics of a good life or they do it at excessive cost in resources, or they fail at both….

    Providing a good quality of life to everyone on the planet would require “two to six times the sustainable level for resources,” Dr. O’Neill said. “Something has to change.”

    …The conclusions have caused a stir, especially in conservative circles. National Review denounced the paper as a call for “global wealth distribution,” saying “the goal clearly is a technocracy that will undermine freedom, constrain opportunity, not truly benefit the poor, and materially harm societies that have moved beyond the struggle for survival.”…


    Daniel W. O’Neill, Andrew L. Fanning, William F. Lamb and Julia K. Steinberger. A good life for all within planetary boundaries. Nature SustainabilityFeb 2018
    Humanity faces the challenge of how to achieve a high quality of life for over 7 billion people without destabilizing critical planetary processes. Using indicators designed to measure a ‘safe and just’ development space, we quantify the resource use associated with meeting basic human needs, and compare this to downscaled planetary boundaries for over 150 nations. We find that no country meets basic needs for its citizens at a globally sustainable level of resource use. Physical needs such as nutrition, sanitation, access to electricity and the elimination of extreme poverty could likely be met for all people without transgressing planetary boundaries. However, the universal achievement of more qualitative goals (for example, high life satisfaction) would require a level of resource use that is 2–6 times the sustainable level, based on current relationships. Strategies to improve physical and social provisioning systems, with a focus on sufficiency and equity, have the potential to move nations towards sustainability, but the challenge remains substantial.
  8. Peru Moves to Protect ‘One of the Last Great Intact Forests’

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    • While the United States may be weakening protections for wilderness, the creation of Yaguas National Park protects millions of acres from development and deforestation.

    February 14, 2018 JoAnne Klein  read full NY Times Magazine article here

    The remote rain forests in Peru’s northeast corner are vast — so vast that the clouds that form above them can influence rainfall in the western United States. The region contains species, especially unusual fish, that are unlike any found elsewhere on Earth. Scientists studying the area’s fauna and flora may gain insights into evolutionary processes and into the ecological health and geological history of the Amazon.

    Now the area has become home to one of the Western Hemisphere’s newest national parks. Yaguas National Park will protect millions of acres of roadless wilderness — and the indigenous people who rely on it — from development and deforestation….

    …Peru’s new park, on the other hand, joins a network of parks and reserves recently created to preserve territory in South American countries, including Ecuador, Chile and Colombia.

    “Nowadays we’re trying to think big,” said Avecita Chicchón, who leads the Andes-Amazon Initiative, part of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. “You need these large areas to be connected.”

    In Peru and elsewhere, political leaders, bolstered by strong civil society initiatives, are recognizing the current effects of climate change and their role in mitigating them in the future. They are setting aside large parcels of land in part to fulfill commitments made as part of the Paris climate agreement. And local and indigenous groups, finally getting a legal say in the process, have also provided critical support….

  9. NASA Earth Observatory: Pyeongchang and the Olympics

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    • Tree-covered slopes were cleared for ski runs and other infrastructure,

    February 12 2018  see satellite photos and full article here

    Since the Winter Olympics were first held in 1924, they only have been hosted twice in Asia, both times in Japan. This year the games will find a new home in South Korea, in the northeastern cities of Pyeongchang and Gangneung….

    The development of Olympic venues at Mount Gariwang—particularly the Alpensia and Yongpyong ski resorts—came with some cost and controversy. Tree-covered slopes were cleared for ski runs and other infrastructure, though Olympic organizers have promised to re-plant much of the area after the games are completed. Environmental and cultural advocates lamented the loss of ancient and sacred forests, but Olympic organizers pointed to a rule that Alpine ski events must be held on slopes that stand at least 800 meters above sea level, and Mount Gariwang was identified as the only site that could meet that requirement….

  10. Scientists Should be Encouraged to Speak Out about Public Issues (Scientific American editorial)

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    • Society suffers when scientists are discouraged from speaking out

    Feb 2018 Issue  Read the full Scientific American Editorial

    Scientists should be speaking up about all sorts of science-based issues that affect our lives. Especially now, when Trump administration officials tell us that climate change is debatable and that killing African elephants can benefit the herd, scientists should be constantly exposing misinformation, bogus alternative facts and fake science.

    Unfortunately, the greatest obstacle to informing the public may be the very universities that many scientists work for.

    When Scientific American editors talk with Ph.D. students, postdoctoral researchers and early-career scientists, they often tell us that an adviser or senior department member has instructed them not to write blogs or articles for the general public, speak at public events or talk with reporters and to stay away from social media. In a 2016 survey of 61 chairs of U.S. and Canadian medical departments, only 23 percent said it was important for faculty to participate in blogs hosted by medical journals. Never mind personal blogs and those in the media…..