Tag Archives: environment

Quietly, Surely, We’re Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

Mother Jones

This story was originally published by High Country News and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

U.S. Forest Service research ecologist Bob Keane has studied whitebark pine, a coniferous tree of the high country, for more than thirty years. Still, when asked to describe a whitebark to someone who’s never seen one, he takes a breath and pauses for a moment. “Gosh,” he says.

The shape of the tree is very distinctive, Keane says. Instead of growing cone-shaped like other conifers, whitebarks branch like hardwoods. “A lot of the undergrowth is very small, so you see these open park-like stands of beautiful spreading trees,” he says. This shape is an adaptation that shows Clark’s nutcrackers flying past that a tree below has many nutritious cones and might be worth a travel stop.

Clark’s nutcrackers cache thousands of whitebark seeds, dispersing the pine across the high country, where the tree is a keystone species. Whitebark pine is one of the first trees to break ground after a fire, thanks to those nutcrackers, and it stabilizes soil and snowpacks at timberline. Living a millennium or more, whitebarks shape the West’s high mountain ecology in countless ways.

But the whitebark is going extinct and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (the agency) hasn’t given the species federal protection under the Endangered Species Act. In April 2017, two conservation organizations from Montana lost a lawsuit against the agency for its failure to list the pine. No one—not the plaintiffs, defendants, or panel of judges from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals—questioned the precariousness of the tree’s fate. At question was how the agency prioritized which species it protects. Species, the court ruled, could be passed over because the agency didn’t have the necessary funds. As the story of whitebarks demonstrates, extinction has as much to do with politics as it does with biology.

The whitebark pine is an iconic tree of the West’s high mountains, ranging from Wyoming’s southern Wind Rivers to northern Alberta and British Columbia. In the fall, in a whitebark pine forest, “there are tons of cones and it is alive with animals, just alive,” Keane says. “You don’t see that with subalpine firs.” Researchers have found that whitebark cones feed more than 100 animal species and, in Glacier National Park, 40 percent of the understory plants in whitebark pine communities grow only there. The tree’s fatty, protein-rich seeds are an important food for Greater Yellowstone grizzlies; when the seeds run short, the bears eat more meat.

The whitebark pine faces intertwined threats that have killed the trees across much of their historic range. In 1910, Gifford Pinchot imported white pine blister rust, a fast-moving European fungal disease that kills whitebarks, to the West in a tree shipment.

And a century of fire suppression has imperiled whitebarks, too. The shade-intolerant trees rely on fire to open areas; without fires, trees such as subalpine firs shade out whitebarks. Often, Keane says, permanently stunted pines linger in the shadows of those new neighbors. “You’ll see an overstory of subalpine fir, but an understory of tiny whitebark pine saplings that are probably older than the canopy,” he says.

Meanwhile, native mountain pine beetles have taken out swaths of whitebark pines weakened by overcrowding and drought; a 2009 beetle outbreak killed whitebarks across more than 3,000 square miles. Exacerbating blister rust’s spread, wildfire suppression, and pine beetle outbreaks is an ever more pervasive threat: “The fourth big one is climate change and how climate change is interacting with all of these things, ” says Amy Nicholas, endangered species listing coordinator for the agency’s Wyoming field office.

Conservationists have requested federal protection for whitebark pines under the ESA for more than 25 years, beginning in 1991. In 2011, the Fish and Wildlife Service found that the pine was likely to go extinct across much of its U.S. range in as little as 100 years, or less than two generations. Yet instead of listing whitebark pine as endangered, the agency listed the tree as a “candidate” species, essentially waitlisting the species for help.

The reason came down to a funding shortage: listing whitebark pine as endangered would have required the agency to devote resources to saving it. Without enough money to care for all disappearing species, the agency focuses on listing species that are part of legal settlements, for example.

As a candidate species, whitebark pine got a listing priority number, based on how likely it is to go extinct. In 2011, whitebark pine received one of the highest priority rankings, yet other species were being federally protected and whitebark pine was not.

Two Montana-based conservation organizations—WildWest Institute and Alliance for the Wild Rockies—sued the agency, arguing that by prioritizing candidate species ranked lower than whitebark pine, the Fish and Wildlife Service wasn’t following its own guidelines for deciding which species to protect. The conservation groups felt species should be given help in order of biological need.

The court ruled in favor of the agency. While pointing out that current policies on listing seemed inadequate when “dealing with the potential life or death of an entire species,” the court concluded that the agency was not required to make decisions based on its candidate species ranking system. “Scarce funds and limited staff resources may prevent FWS from taking immediate final action to list or delist a species,” the presiding judge wrote.

According to Patrick Parenteau, a Vermont Law School professor, the agency often makes listing decisions based on finances. “This is a systematic problem that the Fish and Wildlife Service has had for decades,” Parenteau says. He points to persistent resistance from Congress and some Republican administrations to fully fund the service’s endangered species listing program.

Financial considerations do not factor into whether a species gets listed, but rather in what order and when, agency biologist Craig Hansen says. “The listing budget is given to us by Congress and has an annual cap,” Hansen says. “We can’t pull funds from other programs to list.” The service’s funding woes have led to a backlog of organisms waiting to be listed, such as northern California’s Sierra Nevada red fox, which in 2016 included just 29 remaining adults.

These rust-resistant baby whitebarks are part of the U.S. Forest Service’s collaboration with NGOs trying to save the species. Bob Keane

In 2016, to stop the constant backlog of candidate species waiting to be listed as threatened or endangered, the Obama administration drafted a streamlined process that prioritized the most imperiled species backed by the best available science. It wasn’t adopted by the Trump administration.

Matthew Koehler, executive director of plaintiff WildWest Institute, grows frustrated talking about the whitebark case. Koehler believes the funding shortage that stalled the whitebark’s listing is part of a strategy by Congressional members in both parties to tie the service’s hands. “Then, the same members of Congress complain that the ESA doesn’t work or that it moves too slow,” he says.

Indeed, this past February, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., led a Senate hearing to “modernize the Endangered Species Act,” arguing in a statement that the ESA has not been successful enough and causes economic harm.

Funding is only one of the ESA’s difficulties, though. Court battles also stymie species’ recoveries. For each species, a listing decision takes years, followed by litigation from whoever opposes the outcome. “It isn’t just a bunch of scientists sitting around a table saying ‘let’s list this species,” says Parenteau. And still, species such as the whitebark disappear.

And then there’s climate change. Congress wrote the ESA in the 1970s, long before scientists understood the profound ways in which greenhouse gases affect species and their homes. The ESA is designed to address discrete problems: overgrazing, point-source pollution, exurban development. In its revision of ESA listing guidelines, the Obama administration acknowledged as much: the agency could have put off working on species endangered by climate change, including whitebark pine, since it has less power to help them.

With our existing environmental laws, whitebarks may yet survive in the northernmost parts of their range in Canada, Parenteau says. “But in the southern part of its range, unless we get serious about climate mitigation, it’s probably doomed anyway,” he says.

In any case, listing isn’t necessary for the feds to take action: Almost all whitebarks occur on federal public land, where the government can take steps to protect the species without listing, Parenteau says.

Indeed, having given up on the ESA for now, the WildWest Institute is seeking other pathways to whitebark protection. The organization is supporting a bill introduced to Congress to designate public lands in the northern Rockies where whitebarks live as wilderness. “We see wilderness designation as a way to protect that entire ecosystem,” Koehler says.

When pressed to make predictions for the longterm, Keane says areas where whitebarks used to flourish will probably eventually burn. By then, though, there will be no source trees left for birds to find seeds to spread to freshly burned areas. Instead, he imagines, shrub herblands will grow.

Still, unlike Parenteau, Keane is optimistic about the climate extremes that whitebarks can survive, if the trees get help. He’s part of a new collaboration between the U.S. Forest Service and two NGOs – American Forests and the Whitebark Pine Ecosystem Foundation—that’s working to restore whitebarks in the West. The group’s even developing rust-resistant seedlings. “Whitebark pine doesn’t even start optimum cone production until it’s 200 years old,” he says. “What we want to make sure is what we’re doing now, 100 years from now we will see the fruits of our labors.”

“If we do nothing,” Keane says, “we are making sure that it will be so low on the landscape, we will probably name the ones we see, there will be so few of them.”

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Quietly, Surely, We’re Losing a Whole Pine Species En Masse and Nobody Gives a Damn

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The Truth About Meal-Kit Freezer Packs

Mother Jones

People love to complain about the wastefulness of meal-kit delivery companies like Blue Apron and Hello Fresh. The baggies that hold a single scallion! The thousands of miles of shipping! The endless cardboard boxes! Those problems are annoying, but ultimately they’re not environmental catastrophes: The baggies don’t take up all that much landfill space, the cardboard boxes are recyclable, and it’s not clear whether shipping meal kits is less efficient than transporting food to grocery stores and then to homes.

But there is a much better reason to criticize meal-kit companies—and as far as I can tell, few people are talking much about it. That’s surprising, because it’s actually the biggest (or heaviest, at least) thing in every meal-kit box: the freezer packs that keep the perishables fresh while they’re being shipped. Blue Apron now sends out 8 million meals a month. If you figure that each box contains about three meals and two six-pound ice packs, that’s a staggering 192,000 tons of freezer-pack waste every year from Blue Apron alone. To put that in perspective, that’s the weight of nearly 100,000 cars or 2 million adult men. When I shared those numbers with Jack Macy, a senior coordinator for the San Francisco Department of the Environment’s Commercial Zero Waste program, he could scarcely believe it. “That is an incredible waste,” he said. The only reason he suspects he hasn’t heard about it yet from the city’s trash haulers is that the freezer packs end up hidden in garbage bags.

Given that many meal-kit companies claim to want to help the planet (by helping customers reduce food waste and buying products from environmentally responsible suppliers, for example), you’d think they would have come up with a plan for getting rid of this ever-growing glacier of freezer packs. Au contraire. Many blithely suggest that customers store old gel packs in their freezers for future use. Unless you happen to have your own meat locker, that’s wildly impractical. I tried it, and in less than a month the packs—which are roughly the size of a photo album—had crowded practically everything else out of my freezer. Two personal organizers that I talked to reported that several clients had asked for a consult on what to do with all their accumulated freezer packs.

As Nathanael Johnson at Grist points out, Blue Apron has also suggested that customers donate used freezer packs to the Boy Scouts or other organizations. I asked my local Boy Scouts council whether they wanted my old meal-kit freezer packs. “What would we do with all those ice packs?” wondered the puzzled council executive. (Which is saying a lot for an organization whose motto is “be prepared.”)

The meal-kit companies’ online guides to recycling packaging are not especially helpful. (Blue Apron’s is visible only to its customers.) Most of them instruct customers to thaw the freezer packs, cut open the plastic exterior, which is recyclable in some places, and then dump the thawed goo into the garbage. (Hello Fresh suggests flushing the goo down the toilet, which, experts told me, is a terrible idea because it can cause major clogs in your plumbing.) The problem with this advice is that it does not belong in a recycling guide—throwing 12 pounds of mystery goo into the garbage or toilet is not recycling.

To its credit, Blue Apron is the only major meal-kit service to offer a take-back program: Enterprising customers can mail freezer packs back to the company free of charge. But Blue Apron spokeswoman Allie Evarts refused to tell me how many of its customers actually do this. When I asked what the company does with all those used freezer packs, Evarts only told me, “We retain them for future use.” So does that mean Blue Apron is actually reusing the packs in its meal kits, or is there an ever-growing mountain of them languishing in a big warehouse somewhere? Evarts wouldn’t say.

Now back to that mystery goo, which, in case you’re curious, is whitish clear, with the consistency of applesauce. Its active ingredient is a substance called sodium polyacrylate, a powder that can absorb 300 times its weight in water. It’s used in all kinds of products, from detergent to fertilizer to surgical sponges. One of its most common uses is in disposable diapers—it’s what soaks up the pee and keeps babies’ butts dry. When saturated with water and frozen, sodium polyacrylate thaws much more slowly than water—meaning it can stay cold for days at a time.

Meal-kit companies assure their customers that the freezer-pack goo is nontoxic. That’s true. But while sodium polyacrylate poses little to no danger to meal-kit customers, it’s a different story for the people who manufacture the substance. (Meal-kit companies typically contract with freezer-pack manufacturers rather than making their own.) In its powdered state, it can get into workers’ lungs, where it can cause serious problems. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted in 2011 that workers in a sodium polyacrylate plant in India developed severe lung disease after inhaling the powder. Animal studies have shown that exposure to high concentrations of sodium polyacrylate can harm the lungs. Because of these known risks, some European countries have set limits on workers’ exposure to sodium polyacrylate. Here in the United States, some industry groups and manufacturers recommend such limits as well as safety precautions for workers like ventilation, respirators, and thick gloves. But on the federal level, neither the Occupational Safety and Health Administration nor the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health have any rules at all. (The companies that supply freezer packs to Blue Apron and Hello Fresh did not return repeated requests for information on their manufacturing processes.)

Beyond the factory, sodium polyacrylate can also do a number on the environment. In part, that’s because it’s made from the same stuff as fossil fuels—meaning that making it produces significant greenhouse gas emissions, a team of Swedish researchers found in 2015 (PDF). It also doesn’t biodegrade, so those mountains of freezer packs sitting in the garbage aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

So to review: Freezer packs create an epic mountain of garbage, and their goo is not as environmentally benign as meal-kit companies would have you believe. So what’s to be done? One place to start might be a greener freezer pack. That same team of Swedish researchers also developed a sodium polyacrylate alternative using biodegradable plant materials instead of fossil fuels. A simpler idea: Companies could operate like milkmen used to, dropping off the new stuff and picking up the old packaging—including freezer packs—for reuse in one fell swoop.

A little creative thinking might go a long way—yet none of the companies that I talked to said they had any specific plans to change the freezer-pack system (though Hello Fresh did say it planned to reduce its freezer pack size from six pounds to five pounds). And when you think about it, why should they fix the problem? Heidi Sanborn, head of the recycling advocacy group California Product Stewardship Council, points out that the current arrangement suits the meal-kit providers just fine. “It’s taxpayers that are paying for these old freezer packs to sit in the landfill forever,” she says. “Companies are getting a total freebie.”

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The Truth About Meal-Kit Freezer Packs

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Nobody Knows Anything, Washington DC Edition

Mother Jones

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From President Trump’s press office:

From President Trump’s budget chief:

Tomorrow’s headline: EPA chief says “protecting the environment” not the “primary aim of this agency.”

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Nobody Knows Anything, Washington DC Edition

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Trump Has No Idea What He Just Did or the Backlash That Awaits

Mother Jones

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The negotiations leading up to the Paris climate accord involved years of delicate diplomacy and thousands of voices offering guidance. President Donald Trump’s handling of the decision to leave was the polar opposite.

Despite claiming that he’s been “hearing from a lot of people,” Trump doesn’t appear to have any more detailed knowledge of climate change or the 2015 deal now than when he first pledged to cancel it on the campaign trail. The “lots of people” he’s heard from include a disproportionate number of climate change deniers, even though there are far more leaders in industry and on both sides of the aisle advocating for the US to remain in the agreement. They have argued that the Paris deal is important to the US, not just for its environmental merits, but also so that the country is not excluded from the rest of the world, both economically and politically.

His months of hints and delays on a decision have drawn more than one comparison to The Bachelor reality show, but one with the highest of stakes. He recently went to the strongest US allies at the G-7 without a clear answer, leading the G-6 to isolate the US when it issued its communiqué that reaffirmed the agreement. As Washington Post columnist Greg Sargent noted, Trump’s nationalist case to exit Paris “does not allow space for recognition of what the Paris deal really is, which is constructive global engagement that serves America’s long term interests, as part of a system of mutually advantageous compromises.”

Trump doesn’t have any sense of the backlash that’s coming for him and the US now that he’s kickstarted the process of pulling out, which won’t be official for another three years. Two factors will especially hurt the US: First, the world has been dealing with the US as an unreliable partner on climate change for more than two decades, and leaders still well remember the other times the US reversed course on its promises; second, the world has never been more aligned in favor of action, making climate change a much bigger factor in the US relationship with its allies in non-climate related issues—from trade to defense to immigration—than it once was.

Trump officials might have taken note of the consequences of US inconsistency with the 1997 Kyoto climate treaty. President Bill Clinton signed the treaty, which had binding targets, but never submitted it to the Senate for ratification. In 2001, Bush officials declared Kyoto dead and withdrew the US from the agreement. International backlash ensued. Some in the Bush administration, which like Trump’s was split on how to handle Kyoto, came to regret how it was handled for the damage it did to the standing of the US in the world.

“Kyoto—this is not talking out of school—was not handled as well as it should have been,” Bush’s Secretary of State* Colin Powell said in 2002. “And when the blowback came I think it was a sobering experience that everything the American president does has international repercussions.”

In her 2011 memoir, then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice detailed the reaction Bush faced in meetings with European leaders. Because of the way the administration handled the abrupt withdrawal, “we suffered through this issue over the years: drawing that early line in the sand helped to establish our reputation for ‘unilateralism.’ We handled it badly.” Rice called it a “self-inflicted wound that could have been avoided.”

US withdrawal also shifted the power dynamics across the world and gave Russia, which signed the agreement, greater leverage in international affairs. Russia’s ratification became pivotal to the treaty entering into force, and in turn, it used its ratification to gain Europe’s backing to enter the World Trade Organization, even while the US still had outstanding concerns. President Vladimir Putin noted in 2004 that the “EU has met us halfway in talks over the WTO and that cannot but affect positively our position vis-a-vis the Kyoto Protocol.” Paris has already met the threshold needed to go into effect, but Russia is still pursuing a similar role and reaffirmed its commitment to the Paris accord today, seasoned with some light trolling: “Of course the effectiveness of implementing this convention without the key participants, perhaps, will be hindered,” a Kremlin spokesperson told CNN. “But there is no alternative as of now.”

We’re decades away from the Kyoto treaty now, but many experts expect a US exit from Paris not to weaken the world’s resolve in addressing climate change as much as it will create a power vacuum other countries might be eager to fill. Andrew Light, a senior fellow with the World Resources Institute, says it is “definitely going to hurt the US with respect to other countries sitting down and negotiating on anything the US is interested in.” Light, who was a State Department climate official in the Obama administration, argued, “We’re creating a vacuum in parts of the world where we have very clear security interests, not just climate, but security in North Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. It creates an opening that China, the EU, and even India can step in and fill.”

Conservatives have issued similar warnings.

In a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, George Shultz, a former Cabinet member of the Reagan and Nixon administrations, and Climate Leadership Council’s Ted Halstead wrote, “Global statecraft relies on trust, reputation and credibility, which can be all too easily squandered. The United States is far better off maintaining a seat at the head of the table rather than standing outside. If America fails to honor a global agreement that it helped forge, the repercussions will undercut our diplomatic priorities across the globe, not to mention the country’s global standing and the market access of our firms.”

It’s little surprise that Trump’s own secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, agrees, preferring the US to retain a seat at the table.

To find the kind of momentum it eventually gained to enter into force in record time, negotiators in Paris had to bridge differences between developing and industrialized nations. “One of the great achievements of Paris, but sometimes overlooked, is it gave a very strong signal that climate change is no longer an isolated area of diplomacy,” Light says. For example, climate change and renewable energy became building blocks in the US relationship with India, leading eventually to a bilateral commitment on climate change in the run-up to Paris.

While the US retreats, other nations are going to be building bridges with China as it curbs its sizeable greenhouse gas footprint. That’s already happening: This week, the EU and China engaged in a climate summit where they signaled their “highest political commitment” to Paris, just as Trump pulls out. This will also not help the US president in his much-vaunted fight against terrorism. He’s losing goodwill not just with Europe, but with partners in developing nations that stood to benefit from the $3 billion commitment the US had made to climate finance—another commitment that Trump won’t deliver on. That means losing one of the main ways the US has built friendly relationships with countries that can otherwise be fraught with tension. Former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy offers China as an example: “The South China Sea. Human rights. Trade. Currency manipulation. When U.S.-China relations are discussed we often ascribe these issues some level of tension. However, our countries’ cooperation has historically been more cordial and productive in one area: environmental protection.”

Union of Concerned Scientists’ Director of Strategy and Policy Alden Meyer, a longtime expert on the UN climate process, compared the US to the cartoon character Lucy in the Peanuts comic strip, always taking away the football from Charlie Brown at the very last moment. The rest of the world is likely to become weary of the US constantly taking away the ball when it comes time to negotiate tough issues like trade and terror, which Trump has sought to champion.

Or as United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres put it this week, countries all over the world have only two options on climate: “Get on board or get left behind.”

* Corrected

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Trump Has No Idea What He Just Did or the Backlash That Awaits

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The Question Sean Spicer Hasn’t Asked the President

Mother Jones

You’d think President Donald Trump’s opinion of climate change might inform the decision he promised to make on the Paris climate accord this week, following meetings with G7 leaders who pressured him to keep the US engaged. But it seems his team doesn’t know what his position actually is.

At a White House briefing on Tuesday, here is Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s response to a reporter’s question about whether Trump believes human activity is contributing to global warming: “Honestly, I haven’t asked him. I can get back to you.

The reporter then asked if he feels as if Trump is still trying to make up his mind. “I don’t know,” Spicer responded.

Though Spicer didn’t hint at what his boss will ultimately decide, he mentioned that Trump and Environmental Protection Agency Chief Scott Pruitt met on Tuesday. That might be a bad sign, as Pruitt has been leading the Trump administration’s “leave” contingent.

It’s not just Spicer who’s sent mixed signals about whether Trump still thinks global warming is a “total, and very expensive, hoax,” as he’s tweeted.

During a press briefing in late March, when Trump was rolling out his anti-climate executive orders, a reporter asked a senior White House official whether the president accepted that humans contribute to climate change. “Sure. Yes, I think the president understands the disagreement over the policy response,” he replied. But pressed further, he couldn’t fully explain Trump’s position, his advisers, or his own, for that matter. “I guess the key question is to what extent, over what period of time,” he said. “Those are the big questions that I think still we need to answer.”

His advisers have recently suggested that Trump’s views on the Paris deal and climate change were, in the words of economic adviser Gary Cohn, “evolving,” though they’ve offered little evidence of what those views now are. “I think he is learning to understand the European position,” Cohn said during the G7 meetings last week. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, who acknowledges climate change as a threat, claimed Trump was “curious about why others were in the position they were” on the Paris deal, and that he was “wide open” on the issue.

Regardless what Trump thinks of the Paris agreement, he’s been clear that his policy choices won’t reflect the best available science. Our timeline of Trump’s comments on global warming should give you a better idea of the ebbs and flows of his position since 2009.

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The Question Sean Spicer Hasn’t Asked the President

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