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UN compact recognizes climate change as driver of migration for first time

Dec 11, 2018


Millions of people have to move each year due to natural disasters and the impacts of climate change. Droughts that kill crops in Somalia. Rising seas that erode riverbanks in Bangladesh. Increasingly powerful storms all over the world.

Many call these displaced people “climate refugees.” But legally, there’s no such thing.   

The UN’s 1951 refugee convention specifies that only those who have “a well-founded fear of being persecuted because of his or her race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion” qualify as a refugee.

That convention was signed shortly after World War II, when climate change wasn’t on anyone’s radar.

And today, experts say it’s impractical to try to rewrite that convention.

“We don’t think that climate migrants should be made into climate refugees and be part of the refugee convention,” said Nina Birkeland, an expert on disaster displacement and climate change at the Norwegian Refugee Council.

Birkeland argues reopening the UN refugee convention as nationalism and anti-immigrant sentiments sweep across the US and Europe might actually make things worse for the very people the refugee convention aims to protect.

“We know there’s a lot of suspicion, a lot of negativity around people on the move,” Birkeland said. “So, if you try to negotiate that again, we think this will be kind of a dead-end.”  

That means “there is no formal, legal protection for these affected people,” said Anwarul Chowdhury.

Chowdhury is a former ambassador for Bangladesh and former UN undersecretary representing the world’s most vulnerable nations. He says legal protections for climate migrants are lacking even as their numbers are expected to swell.

“Things have changed since 1951, when the refugee convention was adopted, which needs to be taken into account,” Chowdhury said.

A World Bank report released this spring estimated climate change could drive more than 140 million people to migrate internally within Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America and South Asia alone by midcentury. The UN estimates a similar number might be displaced globally just by desertification by 2045. And it’s already happening: Years with higher temperatures are already causing spikes in asylum applications to European Union countries, recent research has found.

But for the first time this week, the international community is taking a step toward recognizing climate migrants.

officials at podium

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres attends the Intergovernmental Conference to Adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakesh, Morocco, Dec. 10, 2018.


Abderrahmane Mokhtari/Reuters

On Monday and Tuesday, leaders from 164 countries formally adopted the UN Global Compact for Migration at a meeting in Marrakesh, Morocco.

Two years in the making, it’s the first global agreement defining a common approach to migration.

And it’s the first time a major migration policy addresses climate change, says University of Liège environmental migration expert François Gemenne.

“The simple fact that there is a section on climate change is in itself quite a novelty,” Gemenne said.

The document identifies climate change as a driver of migration and suggests countries work together to start planning for people who move due to natural disasters and climate change.  

“And it also restates the need to tackle the causes of climate change and to support adaptation in developing countries so that people are not forced to migrate in relation to climate change,” Gemmenne said.

But will it work?

But the document has limitations. It’s voluntary and nonbinding, and it caused controversy across Europe over the past few weeks. Several EU countries joined the US and Australia in opting not to adopt the document.  

So, it remains to be seen if, or how, the 34-page framework will translate into actual policy changes, like more humanitarian visas for those displaced by drought or rising seas.  

“It is difficult to say,” Gemenne said. “It will all depend on what the governments will do.”

Still, climate migration experts see this as an important first step.  

“In the current context, when migration is an increasingly divisive issue, I think that it is quite remarkable that countries can agree on a kind of common basis of cooperation on migration,” Gemanne said.

But in the end, climate migration experts argue, the real key to tackling this crisis is limiting global warming in the first place.

Smothered by smog, activists are urging Poland to reconsider coal

Dec 11, 2018


Andrzej Guła walks his bike across the famous medieval square in the center of Krakow, in southern Poland. The square is bustling with tourists, packing into coffee shops and restaurants to escape the cold. A crew is putting up Christmas lights.

Guła grew up here, and he takes clear pride in his hometown.

“Krakow is a beautiful town, it’s historic,” he says. “It has just one big problem.”

That problem? Smog.

Krakow has some of the worst air quality in Europe — and it’s not alone in Poland. This time of year, as the weather gets cold, Polish cities suffer from smog levels that can rival notoriously polluted places like Beijing. The European Environment Agency estimates that each year, more than 45,000 Poles die prematurely because of poor air quality.

On a bad day, Krakow can see a thick, acrid haze reminiscent of the fog that hung over many 19th century cities in the early days of industrialization. And the main source of that smog is the same as it was back then: coal. Millions of people in Poland still heat their homes with it. It’s not uncommon to see black or brown smoke rising from chimneys, a sign of the old coal boilers cranking away inside.

Related: Poland is a coal country. But for how long? 

This is the other legacy of a fuel that is in the news these days — mostly for its climate impact. Just an hour from Krakow, representatives from around the world are meeting in the city of Katowice for this year’s global climate summit. In the hallways and conference rooms, one thing tops the agenda: how to phase out coal, the most carbon-intensive major fuel source. But Poland, which is hosting the conference, is deeply dependent on coal and an unapologetic coal producer.

Or at least, it has been. But now, a grassroots movement might be nudging this coal country away from coal.

That’s in part because of the work of Andzrej Guła.

Guła notes that the Polish government doesn’t even bother issuing air quality alerts until pollution is well above international standards. He jokes the government must think Poles are special.

“We have iron lungs, you know,” he says. “We are specially designed for breaking this heavy smog!”

A man poses in front a screen for a photo.

In 2012, Andrzej Guła, pictured above, and several friends founded Krakow Smog Alert to raise awareness of the city's smog problem.


Rachel Waldholz/The World

Today we’re lucky. The freezing wind blowing across the square is also sweeping the smog out of the city. But Guła says, when it’s bad, it’s really, really bad.

“You feel it, you see it,” he says. “When you go back home, your clothes stink.”

The saying here is, the smog gets so bad, you can bite it. And for years, Guła says, people just took bad air for granted. That’s the way things were.

But then in 2012, Guła decided he’d had enough.

“It was November, I remember, very bad November,” Guła says. “Me, together with a group of friends, we said, we can’t stand it anymore, so we need to do something about it.”

They started a Facebook page, where they’d post air quality numbers, tracking the levels of particulate matter, one of the harmful elements of smog. The page hit a nerve. Hundreds of people started to follow it. In the spring of 2013, when the group called for protests, people flooded into the streets.

They formed an organization called Krakow Smog Alert to push for change — and the campaign got results. In 2013, the city of Krakow approved a law banning solid fuels like coal and subsidizing residents who replace their old, coal boilers. The ban will go into effect in 2019. Ahead of the deadline, many of the city’s buildings have already switched away from coal.

But Krakow’s smog problem hasn’t gone away. Many of the old boilers are still in place and surrounding cities and towns still burn as much coal as ever. The smoke from them often settles over Krakow.

Meanwhile, outrage about smog has recently gone national.

a large banner hangs from a government building with cartoon images of a politician with his eyes, ears and mouth covered.

Greenpeace activists install a large banner featuring images of Poland's Environment Minister Maciej Grabowski and the slogan "Smog poisons us, why minister does not react?" on the Environment Ministry building in Warsaw in 2015. 


Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Robert Tomaszewski is an energy analyst at the think tank Polityka Insight. He remembers the moment the smog debate captured national headlines: January 2017, when a record-breaking smog hit Warsaw, Poland’s capital.

“We woke up and outside … it was really huge fog,” he says. “The smell of air was terrible, and people started to ask themselves, ‘What is happening?’”

Unusually cold temperatures had prompted a spike in coal burning and the resulting smog made news around the world.

Tomaszewski remembers covering his face with a scarf for his daily commute. “It was really hard to get to work and not breathe this air,” he says.

But it wasn’t just the level of smog in Warsaw that was new. The crisis coincided with the spread of smartphone apps that allowed people to check air quality. For the first time, they could find out what they were breathing. And when they did, they saw particulate matter spiking.

Tomaszewski says checking the apps is now part of daily life here.

“My wife checks the air pollution before she goes with the child on a walk or jogging,” he says.

Tomaszewski says that awareness is just beginning to change the perception of coal in a country that has long embraced it.

Along with heating homes, Poland gets almost 80 percent of its electricity from coal. Those power plants have pollution controls so they aren’t major contributors to smog. But they still release climate-warming carbon dioxide. A recent survey found that Poles are concerned about that too.

“They are saying they care about climate change, they don’t want coal,” Tomaszewski says. “Seventy-two percent of Poles are saying coal should not be the main fuel of our energy sector.”

Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has strong ties to the coal industry and insists coal will remain a key part of the nation’s energy mix. But the smog crisis has forced the government to declare air quality a priority. This year, it set up a fund to help households switch from coal heat to cleaner fuels.

Przemysław Hofman is a top air quality official. He says the new initiative is a major investment. Overall, the government plans to spend more than $25 billion dollars over the next decade to eliminate sources of smog.

“It's definitely the first of this scale,” Hofman says, speaking through an interpreter.

But the government plan does not include a commitment to meeting European Union air quality standards. Hofman says the administration is focused on eliminating sources of pollution, not pursuing a set goal.

“We don't have levels that we want to reach in 10 years,” he says.

For Andrzej Guła in Krakow, it’s a step forward, but it’s still not enough. He’d like to see regułations banning the sale of low-quality coal for homes, among other changes.

Still, Guła says there’s no going back, now that people know what they — and their kids — are breathing.

His youngest daughter, who is in elementary school, recently asked her parents to get her a new anti-smog mask — but a fashionable one.

“She wanted to have this mask, and she wanted the nice mask,” he says with a laugh. For her, it’s just a fashion accessory.

Guła would like to see the day when that’s no longer true. That’s why he started this work.

“Because I wanted to solve my problem,” he says. “It’s my problem and a problem of my family. I thought if I wanted to stay in Krakow, I must do something about that.”

Insects slipping into the US are causing billions of dollars in damage

Dec 10, 2018 6:17


From a distance, the hemlock trees by the Wappinger Creek in Millbrook, New York, look just fine. But forest ecologist Gary Lovett knows better. He pulls back the twigs and exposes some tiny, white fluffy balls.

“These are the protective coating that’s created over the top of the hemlock woolly adelgid, a tiny aphid-like insect,” said Lovett. 

“They’re very tiny, so one of them won’t bother the tree. But when we have millions and millions of them on a tree, it eventually kills the tree,” explained Lovett, who is with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, about a two-hour drive north of New York City.

The hemlock woolly adelgid, native to East Asia, is slowly killing trees from Maine to Georgia. It’s among the latest in a line of invasive pests slipping into the US.

A man wearing a tan hat and blue jacket examines a tree in a forest.

Gary Lovett with the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies examines a hemlock tree infected by the hemlock woolly aldelgid, an insect that feeds by sucking sap and eventually killing trees.  


Jason Margolis/The World 

The pests can arrive on wooden pallets. This basic technology — the pallet that can be scooped up with a forklift — revolutionized international shipping back in World War II. Problem is, pests can burrow into the wood. Pests also hide on plants that are imported.

So, Congress added an amendment in the 2018 Farm Bill, which appears close to passage, to try and prevent this and strengthen regulating and reporting of invasive pests. The bill was offered by Republican John Faso of New York, whose office did not agree to interview requests. Faso was also voted out of office in November’s election.

Related: The 2018 farm bill stirs conflict and controversy

“I would categorize this as a small step forward, but it’s the first step forward,” said Lovett, who provided guidance to Faso’s office on the amendment.

Lovett offered tepid praise for the amendment because it got watered down — there’s nothing in the language about wooden pallets now.

Pallets are an $11.5 billion American business and the industry didn’t want more regulation. International rules were already established a dozen years ago — called ISPM 15 — and shipping pallets are now either treated with heat or fumigated.

“I believe in the system, I know that it is effective and I know that the compliance rates are really high,” said Brent McClendon, president of The National Wooden Pallet and Container Association. “I know that our governments — all of our governments, both here in the US and abroad — work very hard to have comprehensive inspections at the perimeter and really protect against invasive species.”

More than 180 countries participate in the agreement, and McClendon said compliance rates are “well north of 99 percent.”

Still, each year some 13 million containers, stacked high with wooden pallets, are shipped to the US. And Lovett said inspectors can’t possibly ensure all of those are clean: “You can imagine, they're looking for a bug inside a board, in a pallet, in the bottom of a shipping container.”

Wooden shipping pallets can transport pests. Standards established a dozen years ago have helped prevent the outbreak of a major pest infestation in the US, but many are worried that protections are insufficient.

Wooden shipping pallets can transport pests. Standards established a dozen years ago have helped prevent the outbreak of a major pest infestation in the US, but many are worried that protections are insufficient.  


Jason Margolis/The World

All it takes are a few bad pallets. So, Lovett argues for ditching wood pallets and replacing them with other materials, like recycled plastic or composite wood materials such as plywood or oriented strand board. One problem: those alternatives cost more.

But according to some studies, invasive pests are costing the US economy close to $5 billion a year. Trees don’t just die in forests, they die in cities and our yards.

Related: As Eastern hemlock trees die off, an art installation creates space for reflection and mourning

“Most of the cost is being borne by homeowners and by local governments, municipalities,” Lovett said.

Consider the nearby city of Poughkeepsie, New York, which has a problem with the emerald ash borer, another invasive pest native to Asia, infecting its ash trees.

Poughkeepsie city administrator Mark Nelson brought up a computer map with about 300 dots, color-coded ash trees owned by the city. Red and yellow dots mean the emerald ash borer has found a new host.

“I think it’s safe to say that of the city-owned trees, 90 percent are infected,” said Nelson.

The city has to pay to take the trees down, or eventually, they’ll die and fall. (You could imagine the horror story lawsuits were that to happen.) So the city recently took down 50 ash trees. The cost: $82,000.

That might not sound like much, but for a small city with a big deficit, Nelson said, it’s a lot. Trees also improve property values and air quality and provide shade. They matter a lot to a city.

Multiply Poughkeepsie’s problem across thousands of communities like it.

“Can municipalities fight this fight? And the answer is clearly no,” Nelson said.

By the time a pest is already here, “it’s kind of too late,” said Keri VanCamp who manages nearby Vassar College’s 500-acre Farm & Ecological Preserve. “We dump a lot of resources into trying to control things that should’ve been prevented in the first place.”  

The Preserve has many dying ash trees and VanCamp is experimenting with breeding more pest-resistant trees, as well as biocontrols like importing a wasp native to Asia.  

“It’s a stingless wasp so you don't have to worry. It lays its egg inside the emerald ash borer egg and the larva of the wasp essentially eats the inside of the eggs,” said VanCamp.


A couple of problems though. The wasp is only partly effective. And releasing foreign wasps on a large scale would also be too expensive, and that could potentially introduce new problems.

So eventually, many of the ash trees in the eastern US will die and new species will take their place. VanCamp said there’s nothing wrong with change. Plant and tree species have always migrated and humans have helped with that, intentionally or not. Today, however, we’re moving things at an alarming rate.

“Someone described it to me once as like a snow globe, all the species are the little flakes,” VanCamp said. “Humans have most recently just shaken it up and all that snow is flying and species are landing all over the place. It's creating these kinds of interactions that we don't know what the response is going to be.”

And the whole ecosystem here — the animals, the birds, the fish, the soil — is built around native trees. When a “foundation species” tree like hemlocks disappear, everything about the forest changes.

Ash logs are piled in a chipping yard in southeast Michigan, where the pest first appeared in 2002.

Ash logs are piled in a chipping yard in southeast Michigan, where the pest first appeared in 2002.


David Cappaert/

Back by the stream in Millbrook, Gary Lovett said the only way to protect our forests and urban canopies is for politicians to get tough, to prevent pests from arriving here in the first place.

“I’m not much of a politician, but this is a situation where we’re getting a raw deal on trade,” Lovett said. He said not only are some of our trading partners tipping the balance of trade in goods bought and sold, "but they're also sending us nasty bugs along with it.”


Poland is a coal country. But for how long?

Dec 7, 2018 6:22


At first glance, the building at Floriana 7 doesn’t seem particularly remarkable. It sits in a nondescript neighborhood in Katowice, Poland, right next to the railroad tracks. But outside, on a small sign, there’s a recognizable red script. It’s the logo for Solidarity, the storied trade union that helped bring down Poland’s communist government in 1989.

Inside, Kazimierz Grajcarek greets visitors to his office in Polish, with a joke and a smile.

Grajcarek fought with Solidarity in the 1980s, rising to join its leadership. These days, the union is smaller, but it remains a political force. And among the workers it represents are many coal miners — a powerful constituency in Poland, which is deeply dependent on coal.

That has put Grajcarek at the center of a fierce debate: What is the future of coal in Poland? In the age of climate change, should this coal country leave coal behind?

For Grajcarek, the answer is simple: absolutely not.

A man with white hair sits at a desk.

Kazimierz Grajcarek sits at his desk in his office in Katowice. Grajcarek heads up a coalition of unions who disagree with the idea that Poland should transition away from coal. 


Rachel Waldholz/The World

“If global climate policy will run in this manner,” Grajcarek said, speaking through an interpreter, “then we are wasting one of the most beautiful gifts of the Earth.”

But others say Poland has no choice, that an energy transition is on its way, whether the country’s leaders admit it or not.

This fight has come right to Poland’s doorstep. Just blocks from Grajcarek’s office, Katowice is hosting this year’s global climate summit. Representatives from around the world have descended on this city in the historic heart of Polish coal country to negotiate a follow-up to the landmark Paris Agreement of 2015, which committed the world to reduce greenhouse gases.

Related: As latest UN climate change summit looms, delegates have plenty of work to do

Negotiators are meeting in the shadow of a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluding the world has just over a decade to cut emissions nearly in half or risk catastrophic warming. That means ending most use of coal by the middle of the century, the report concludes. Coal is the most carbon-intensive major energy source.

It’s a complicated message for this year’s host country. Poland’s economy runs on coal. It supplies nearly 80 percent of the nation’s electricity. Much of the country still use it to heat their homes. The nation still has about 100,000 coal miners here, and mining unions like Solidarity are close allies of the ruling Law and Justice Party.

Then there’s the psychological power of coal: here, coal is insurance.

A group of men wearing hard hats and dark grey clothes stand in front of posters depicting miners at work

Miners are seen inside Wieczorek Coal Mine in Katowice, Poland, in November 2018. About 100,000 are employed as coal miners in Poland. 


Kacper Pempel/Reuters

“Why [is coal] so important?” Grajcarek asked. “Because it gives us energy independence. We have so much, that if we were to consume at the present rate, we’d be completely self-sufficient” for years to come.

Its domestic reserves mean that Poland doesn’t have to rely on its neighbors — and former occupiers — Russia and Germany for energy.

Grajcarek argues that technology can make coal climate-friendly. And he bristles at the idea that coal is a particularly Polish problem. He ticks off the names of countries that produce more — Australia, Germany, Russia, the US, China — and asks why should Poland quit coal when other countries are still mining.

That question is a big part of the global climate summit. The IPCC report said the world has to zero out carbon emissions by the middle of this century to avoid warming of more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and the worst impacts of climate change.

Related: David Attenborough: Global warming is 'our greatest threat'

To meet that goal, a recent analysis from the think tank Climate Analytics said Poland and other members of the European Union must phase out coal in less than 15 years. 

But the Polish government insists coal will remain a big source of energy for decades to come.

An old brick building that used to be a mine is now a museum.

The Silesian Museum in Katowice is a symbol of the region’s diversification away from coal. It hosts an impressive art collection as well as a history of the area, all on the grounds of a reclaimed coal mine.


Rachel Waldholz/The World

Just this week, as the climate summit began in Katowice, President Andrzej Duda told miners he wouldn’t allow anyone to “murder” the nation’s coal industry.

That’s why some worry that Poland might use its role as the host of this year’s summit to resist an ambitious agreement on carbon pollution. 

The Polish official in charge of the meeting said that fear is unfounded. Michal Kurtyka, the vice minister of the environment, said his country’s reliance on coal can actually help it forge a deal.

“This puts us in a unique position to understand very different motivations and very different situations all around the world in terms of climate policy,” Kurtyka told reporters in October.

The challenge facing this year’s conference is huge. Countries must agree on a “rule book” to put the Paris Agreement into action. That includes sticky subjects like how to measure a country’s emission cuts and how much money rich countries should pay developing countries to help them deal with the impacts of climate change.

Related: Pulling out of Paris, Trump says climate deal ‘punishes the United States.’ Really?

Kurtyka said Poland understands what’s at stake.

“Paris are the principles, Katowice is the implementation,” He said. “So in this regard, without Katowice, there is no Paris.”

Activists agree. But they worry about a weak outcome here.

“If the Polish presidency will not find ways to bridge large gaps between different sides of negotiations, we may not succeed,” said Urszula Stefanowicz, who runs a group of NGOs called the Polish Climate Coalition. She said the government is selling its own citizens short by not preparing for the inevitable.

“Our government, I think, makes this mistake, of not talking to the people in the region and the miners honestly,” Stefanowicz said.  “It seems like a lack of respect, treating them as children, telling them, ‘Everything will be fine, nothing will change, you don’t have to worry.’”

But, she said, it won’t be fine.

“Changes have to come. And to make it socially just and secure, they have to be planned.”

Planned or not, those changes may already be on the way.

“It’s not actually a question if Poland will get rid of coal, but when,” said Joanna Maćkowiak Pandera, the head of Forum Energii, an energy think tank in Warsaw.

Clouds of smoke and steam rise into the sky from smokestacks

Smoke and steam billows from Belchatow Power Station, Europe's largest coal-fired power plant operated by PGE Group, near Belchatow, Poland.


Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Maćkowiak Pandera said Poland’s coal industry faces a suite of challenges. Mining here is becoming more expensive — in fact, Poland is now importing some coal from Russia. European Union climate policies are hiking up the cost of emitting carbon dioxide. Grassroots environmental activism is growing, including a grassroots anti-smog campaign that has gained traction in recent years. And the price of renewable energy is dropping.

“I think energy transition is the direction the Polish energy sector will move, with or without the support of decision-makers, because you cannot stop global megatrends,” Maćkowiak Pandera said.

Agreement on that point comes from a surprising direction — Poland’s state-controlled utilities.

“What we are seeing and the government should also see, is that the pressure from the global economy on Polish industry will be such that if we don’t change the mix to less carbon-intensive, we might lose some business,” Monika Morawiecka, an executive at PGE SA, Poland’s biggest power company, recently told reporters.

Morawiecka said she can start to imagine a future without coal, in part because renewable energy is no longer out of reach for Poland.

“Previously we were saying, ‘Look, this is all very nice and beautiful, these wind farms and solar panels, but we cannot afford them,’” Morawiecka said. “Now, we are saying, ‘OK, now we can afford them’ so now we can move towards this path.”

The big concern is what that will mean for workers. Morawiecka said her company alone employs 42,000 people. 

The Polish government is starting to think about this, too. At the climate conference, Poland is emphasizing the idea of a “just transition” to a low-carbon future — one that takes into account the needs of communities that depend on fossil fuels.

A candle labeled

In a gift shop at the Silesian Museum in Katowice, visitors can pick up coal-themed keychains, jewelry, Christmas decorations and a tongue-in-cheek candle.


Rachel Waldholz/The World

But in Katowice, the region’s coal identity is still on proud display. At the gift shop in the city’s Silesian Museum, you can buy coal-themed earrings or Christmas decorations. A tongue-in-cheek candle advertises “the smell of the city,” a reference to the ubiquitous coal smoke from heating homes.

Related: Polish artists turn coal into ‘black gold’ as the mining industry shifts

And Kaszimir Grajcarek, of Solidarity, said he isn’t ready to consider any transition.

“If I admit we must implement a ‘just transition,’ then I’d have to admit what is going on in Poland now is unjust,” Grajcarek said. “And that’s not the case.”

Nearly swallowed by the sea, a small island in Tanzania fights against climate change

Dec 7, 2018


First, the encroaching sea started eating away at homes and killing crops on the small island of Kisiwa Panza. Then the rising tides began bringing up the dead.

For over 25 years, rising seas linked to climate change have caused repeated flooding on this islet that lies within the marine-managed area known as the Pemba Channel Conservation Area in the Tanzanian archipelago, saturating the land with saltwater.

Islanders say banana trees that used to produce enough fruit to sell by the boatload to Pemba and other neighboring islands have become barren and died.

Farmers tried planting rice and cassava instead — but nothing would grow in the salt-poisoned soil, they say.

Then the water reached some of Kisiwa Panza's graveyards. People found themselves scrambling to protect the remains of their friends and families.

"We collected the bones, took them to another site in a wheelbarrow and dug them new graves," said Saida Ali Faki, a 35-year-old farmer.

But today, the graveyards lay undisturbed, the houses stand dry and the banana trees are back.

Since 2017, two new concrete seawalls have protected residents from flooding.

And as the walls hold back the water, people are also planting mangrove forests to strengthen the island's natural defenses.

With the help of these two defense systems, the people of Kisiwa Panza say they have hope they can stop the rising sea from destroying their island.

Faki remembers a time before the protection was put in place when she could only grow enough to feed her eight children once a day.

This year, she planted maize and greens on a small patch of land that used to be regularly swamped with seawater.

"Now the wall is built, I expect to get more crops," she said.

Related: As seas warm, small island states face a dangerous future

Expanding oceans

Small islands like Kisiwa Panza bear the brunt of climate change, experts say.

The United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that global sea levels could rise by close to 3 feet or more by 2100 due to melting ice and the expansion of oceans as they warm.

A recent study led by the United States Geological Survey, a government agency, showed that in the coming decades, "wave-driven flooding" — when large waves and storm waters wash over an area — could make thousands of low-lying tropical islands uninhabitable.

"My fear is that the small islands and other islands intruded by sea-level rise will be submerged," said Mwalimu Khamis Mwalimu, head of Pemba Island's environment department.

In an effort to stop Kisiwa Panza from being swallowed by the sea, the Tanzanian government built two 80-foot-long seawalls on the island in 2017, with support from UN agencies and international environmental funds.

The construction of the walls is part of a broader climate change adaptation project led by UN Environment and the UN Office for Project Services.

By combining seawalls with a push to rehabilitate wave-slowing mangrove forests and coral habitats, the project aims to help defend Tanzanians in coastal communities against the destructive effects of saltwater flooding.

So far, seawalls have gone up at seven sites on Tanzania's mainland and the islands, including the commercial capital Dar es Salaam, which has a 1.5-mile-long barrier protecting businesses and residences.

"I think [the walls] have been very beneficial," said Cletus Shengena, a senior economist in the environment division of Tanzania's vice president's office.

Before the walls went up, many people had to abandon their houses and land due to flooding, Shengena noted.

Now, "with these seawalls, people have gone back," he said — and some are able to farm their land again.

Related: An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way.

The mangrove defense

Another key part of protecting the islands is strengthening mangrove forests along the coasts.

Juma Ali Mati, chairman of the local environmental organization JSEUMA, said for the past decade his group been encouraging people to plant mangroves along Kisiwa Panza's coast.

Mangroves act as a buffer against coastal erosion and flooding while they absorb carbon from the air, experts say.

According to Mati, islanders first started noticing the impact of rising sea levels in the early 1990s. Many now believe reforestation is the answer to saving the island.

Taking walks out to the mangrove forests to collect seeds and plant them in the sand has become a part of island life, Mati said.

Those efforts are now getting help from the United Nations-backed adaptation project, which is providing people with seeds and tools and showing them how to set up nurseries to raise mangrove seedlings.

Related: One man is planting mangroves in Indonesia to stave off tragedy

Gaining ground

The farmers on Kisiwa Panza say the efforts to protect the island are already bearing fruit.

Mati said before the walls were built, the encroaching seawater had caused his banana yields to fall from about 150 bunches per harvest to as few as 20.

In the year since the wall went up, he has managed to produce around 50 bunches per harvest.

"Since we have constructed this seawall, we can harvest again," he said. "Before, we were trying and getting nothing."

Some experts, however, warn against relying on seawalls as a permanent fix.

For one thing, said Lizzie Yarina, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Urban Risk Lab, the walls need to be regularly checked and fortified to combat erosion caused by the combination of saltwater and relentlessly lapping waves.

"Seawalls can be problematic because they're built by people who might not be around long-term," she said. Sometimes, "there is not the local capacity to maintain them over time." 

Seawalls can also have the negative effect of pushing the problem of erosion and flooding to nearby areas that aren't protected, Yarina said.

Related: Japan erects barriers to the sea, leaving some uneasy

It is an issue that worries Faki.

As she watched her children head off to plant more mangrove seeds, the farmer said she feels islanders are starting to gain ground in their fight against the rising waters. But she knows there is still a long way to go.

Faki would like to see the government provide more stopgaps to protect both the living and the dead.

"If the other areas that have the same problem don't get walls and people don't plant mangroves, the problem of graveyard destruction will continue," she said.

Marinating in plastics

Dec 6, 2018 21:12


A few months ago, Cullen Potter graduated from the University of South Alabama Children’s and Women’s Hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit. Born at 13.9 ounces, Cullen spent his first five months in an incubator, hooked to a ventilator, an IV bag and a feeding tube, which supplied him with enough oxygen and nutrition to survive and grow. Aside from the soft blankets he laid on, Cullen spent his first few months entirely surrounded by plastics.

“Neonatology, like much of modern medicine, owes a huge debt to the advent of plastics,” says Susan Freinkel, the author of "Plastics: A Toxic Love Story." In the book, Freinkel chronicles the history of plastics and explores how the material has changed — and even saved — so many lives.

Up until the 1950s, Freinkel says that most medical equipment in hospitals was made of glass. Even blood used to be collected and stored in glass bottles, which Freinkel says wasn’t the greatest system.

“IV bags [were] a dramatic and huge innovation,” she says.

Unlike glass, these flexible blood bags were durable and malleable. But the biggest selling point, according to Freinkel, was that they were made from vinyl, which doctors presumed to be a chemically stable material that wouldn’t damage blood cells.

“The new technology revolutionized the way blood was used,” says Freinkel, and it has been employed by hospitals and the US military ever since.

But in the 1970s, concern grew about vinyl’s health consequences. Epidemiological studies suggested that the material contained a chemical — vinyl chloride gas — that was dangerous and potentially deadly. Rolling Stone magazine named one of the factories where the material was manufactured “a plastic coffin.” Despite growing mistrust, Freinkel discovered that, because there was no federal mandate against it, most hospitals continued to use vinyl for years afterward and some still do.

The problem, according to Freinkel, isn’t that there is one sinister chemical in plastics, but a stew of unvetted substances that we’re marinating in.

“But it’s difficult for individuals to encase themselves in a world where they’re not exposed to this stuff,” she argues.

Indeed, plastics do have a valuable place in our lives. Freinkel says that they’ve helped us design colorful worlds and develop new technologies. They’re light, cheap, and at this point, we can’t live without them.

Despite the recent backlash against plastics and various bans, Freinkel says, “We can ban every single plastic straw [or] bag in existence today, and that’s an infinite fraction of all the plastic that is out there.”

Instead of abandoning plastics, she suggests we find more efficient strategies to recycle and reuse them.

“This is stuff we’ve made from fossil fuels and scraped from the ground at great expense, effort, and political debate. And it just seems stupid to waste or landfill it.”

A version of this story originally appeared on Innovation Hub

New internet laws in Russia — and US tech giants’ acquiescence — spell trouble for dissenting voices

Dec 6, 2018


A 2017 law regulating online activity and anonymous speech went into effect in Russia at the beginning of this month.

The law on “information and information technology” stipulates what content search providers are legally allowed to show. Russia's Federal Service for Supervision of Communications, Information Technology and Mass Media, or Roskomnadzor, known as the "censorship ministry," already maintains a registry of banned websites, created in 2012. 

The list of banned sites ranges from online gambling to extremist material and information on the use of narcotics. Search engines are now prohibited from showing these sites in their search results.

To facilitate the implementation of the registry, Russian agencies created the Federal State Information System to act as a bridge between the registry and search providers. These search providers are now legally mandated to connect to this system through an application program interface, or API so that banned websites will automatically be filtered out.

Yandex, Russia's largest search engine has connected to the API, but Google has so far not complied with these new requirements, which may leave it subject to a petty fine — by Google's standards — of up to around $10,000.

The law also dictates when and how a user can anonymously use the internet, such as through Virtual Private Networks, or VPN software that allows users to mask the origin of their traffic through servers in other countries, thereby avoiding locally-based content restrictions and censorship.

Related: Russia wants to build a 'parallel internet' in 2018

Google has been censoring search results in Russia on the basis of local laws for quite some time. Links to popular Russian torrent sites disappeared over a year ago from both Yandex and Google as Roskomnadzor deemed the sites illegal.

Google has also been accused of over-complying with censorship requests from the Russian government, such as removing YouTube videos posted by opposition figure Alexey Navalny, and most recently, blocking a controversial rapper’s music video.

Several years ago, Google moved some of its servers to Russia in accordance with laws compelling companies to store their data on Russian citizens on Russian soil. With some servers now in Russia, the authorities have a more direct means of forcing the company to comply with local law.

Users have long suggested using VPNs to go around these types of measures, but the law’s provisions took this into account as well: VPN providers must block the sites, or face being blocked themselves. But this may be easier said than done. The Russian government banned Telegram earlier this year, but the app is still up and running and being used all across Russia without a VPN.

Similar attempts to block VPN services could face limited success, due to their decentralized infrastructure. This leaves the threat of a fine as the most salient option at Roskomnadzor's disposal against VPNs and search providers that do not connect to the new federal system.

While the proposed fine may seem paltry from the perspective of massive tech companies like Google, sources close to Russian tech operations have said that amendments are in the works to drastically increase fines. Rather than capping the fines at $10,000, the new rules allegedly peg the fines at 1 percent of the company’s earnings.

While regular internet users don’t have to worry about such excessive fines, they too could soon face other repercussions for anonymously using the internet. Roskomnadzor has spearheaded new rules that require messaging apps to identify users based on their mobile provider. This, in effect, ties a user’s phone number to their personal identity.

Apps like Signal and Telegram pride themselves on allowing a user to communicate anonymously if they so wish. By obligating such apps to verify a user’s identity with their service provider, the Russian government is attempting to crack down on dissent and what they see as criminal activity. Telegram voluntarily registered with Roskomnadzor in 2017, which makes them liable under the new law. Signal does not keep servers in Russia and may run the risk of being banned for non-compliance with the rule, but it also has a relatively small user base in Russia.

Related: Russian authorities want to ban Telegram in the country. But it's not going as well as they had hoped.

Aleksandr Zharov, head of Roskomnadzor, stated plainly:

The ability to communicate anonymously on messaging apps makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to investigate crimes. The government’s current decree is a necessary step in creating a safe communication environment for both citizens and the state as a whole.  

In many instances, the ability to post content online anonymously is a major draw for users. Being able to express an opinion or expose injustices without using one's identity is now more important than ever, seeing as how people have been facing criminal charges simply for posting memes

The consequences of de-anonymizing a user have unfolded in various scenarios. After last month’s suicide attack at a Federal Security Service office, Russia's domestic intelligence agency, the administrator of an anonymous Telegram channel was arrested for spreading messages glorifying the attacker. It is unknown if Telegram cooperated with law enforcement to expose this user, but if messaging apps start to follow these new rules, more prosecutions can be expected along with an outright drop in dissenting voices online.

These new laws and rules, along with the plethora of other laws regulating the collection of online users’ data, make it difficult to use online platforms to voice discontent in Russia.

Related: This Google engineer was asked to create a censored version of Google News for China. He refused.

At a time when both online and public spaces face increasing limitations on expression in Russia, further restrictions should worry Russians and non-Russians alike. Though individual users can take measures to protect their accounts, such as using two-factor verification, there is little they can do to protect themselves from backdoor transmission of their data to the authorities.

Christopher Moldes is a contributor with Global Voices.

This article is republished from Global Voices as part of RuNet Echo and Advox under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article

While small dairy farms close, this mega-dairy is shipping milk to China

Dec 5, 2018


In 2006, Stephanie Doane moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to a small, rural community in the high desert of Nevada.

Smith Valley seemed like the perfect place for the photographer to write and capture beauty with her lens and then later retire. An untamed river winds through the valley, carpeted with wind-swept grasses, trees, and flowering bushes. About 85 miles southeast of Reno, it’s home to deer and sage grouse. In the distance, the Sierra Mountains and other snow-capped mountain ranges frame the view.

Living in Smith Valley is like stepping back in time. There are no Starbucks, Costcos, or Walmarts. Residents have to drive 30 miles to shop. Fields of alfalfa stretch across the valley and ranchers tend small herds of cattle and sheep. In the morning, roosters crow.

“My wife describes it as coming to Brigadoon — a magical place in Scotland where life stands still,” said Jim Kinninger, another retiree who moved to Smith Valley about 15 years ago from San Luis Obispo, California. “The only traffic is a herd of cattle in the road,” he added, “or ranchers parked in the middle of the street talking.”

But that’s beginning to change.

Four years ago, a large dairy cooperative built a state-of-the-art dry milk production plant in Fallon, Nevada, about 80 miles from Smith Valley. The plant was designed for exports, mainly to China. It’s part of a strategy by the Dairy Farmers of America, a cooperative of 13,000 members, to keep the industry growing.

“We believe the future of the US industry is [in exports],” said Jay Waldvogel, the cooperative’s senior vice president of strategy.

Related: Iowans get a giant ad from China in their Sunday newspaper

But the growth in sales to China has come with a price at home. As plants geared toward foreign sales like the one in Fallon have appeared, the dairies feeding them have expanded their herds. A dairy big enough to be considered a mega operation — it now has 8,000 cows — moved from California to Smith Valley in 2014. With it came odor, flies, dust, noise, and glaring industrial lights at night. And while the dairy produced for export has been sold by some as a boon for rural areas, it also has the potential to divide communities.

A woman stands with her back turned against a mountain landscape.

Stephanie Doane came to Smith Valley to enjoy the natural world.


Kimberley Hasselbrink/Civil Eats

How a plant changes a landscape

“The lights are so bright that people have to have blackout blinds on windows,” Doane, who lives five miles from the farm, said during a recent phone conversation. “I stepped out my door and it smelled like a sewer right now,” she added.

Nevada, like the rest of the country, protects the right to farm in a statute that shields farmers from nuisance lawsuits. Nevertheless, Smith Valley Dairy still has to abide by water and waste regulations under Nevada’s Division of Environmental Protection, keeping waste and manure contained to its site. But it faces no special use permits, despite its designation as a concentrated animal feeding operation.

Agriculture interests carry political weight in Nevada. One of the reasons that Dairy Farmers of America picked Fallon for its first export plant was for policy and financial considerations.

According to the coop’s fact sheet about Fallon, “Nevada is an ideal location for dairy farmers looking to start or expand an operation. It’s got ample water, low feed costs, state and local incentive programs, no corporate or personal income taxes, and agriculture-friendly regulations.”

And yet, beyond benefiting the plant’s owners, there’s little evidence that the plant has had a positive economic impact on the area. In Fallon, farming and fishing only account for 2 percent of the economy and 1.5 percent of the jobs. If it’s reflective of the rest of the country, the jobs that exist are more than 50 percent likely to be held by immigrants.

Meanwhile, the lax tax environment has also attracted retirees like Doane. And many of them don’t want to live next to mega-operations like Smith Valley Dairy.

Doane and other locals, including several who spoke to Civil Eats off the record, have formed a group, Save Our Smith Valley, or SOS, and created a Facebook group. The nonprofit, which Doane joined, has held meetings to rally support against the dairy. They’ve also tried to get the state to block the plant, appealing to the Nevada State Environmental Commission to challenge the dairy’s wastewater discharge permit. They’ve even filed a lawsuit.

They’ve faced an uphill battle.

An older man stands between two horses.

While Nevada's lax tax environment has been a draw for dairy farmers, it has also attracted retirees. But Smith Valley locals don't want to live next to mega-dairy farms, and are working to rally support against the plant.


Kimberley Hasselbrink/Civil Eats

A growing thirst for US dairy

Traditionally, Chinese people have eaten little dairy. But in recent decades, the country’s appetite for animal protein has grown. That’s led to increased US beef exports to China. It also prompted a Chinese holding company to buy a leading US pork producer, Smithfield Foods, in 2013 for $4.7 billion.

That purchase sparked worries in the US about the country’s food security and safety, stemming, in part, from a dairy scandal that embroiled Chinese producers.

In 2008, six babies died and 300,000 were sickened in China by tainted infant formula. It contained melamine, normally used to make plastics, concrete, or fire-retardant additives. With a high nitrogen content, melamine masquerades as protein when added to milk products. Common tests measure nitrogen to gauge protein content.

To meet the growing demand for infant formula in China, middlemen watered down thousands of gallons of milk to stretch the supply and then bulked it up with melamine to make it appear as if it had more protein. Melamine is not meant to be eaten. It’s not as harmful to adults, but poses a big threat to children, causing bladder and kidney stones and bladder cancer.

The scandal caused widespread outrage, both at home and abroad, deepening doubts about the safety of Chinese food. The government cracked down, executed two men, and convicted more than 20 others. It also tightened regulation of the industry.

The scandal eroded people’s trust in China’s dairy industry and created an opening for US dairy.

With more than 1 billion people, China represents a big opportunity for the industry. In 2017, the US dairy industry sold $577 million in dairy products to China, nearly a 50 percent increase over the previous year. In terms of volume, exports rose 26 percent, making China the industry’s second-biggest market. Exports to Mexico, the top market, barely rose 2 percent.

Add to that the fact that Tom Vilsack, the former agriculture secretary under President Obama, joined the US Dairy Export Council as president and CEO in 2017, boosting the industry’s profile abroad.

Vilsack, who was also a two-term Iowa governor, has spoken widely about the health of rural economies and said he took the position at the US Dairy Export Council because it would give him “the chance to continue [his] work in advocacy for farmers and agriculture generally, and for rural America.” He sees expanded agricultural exports as a way to “aid large farms and ranches.”

“In an effort to meet the demand of 18 million children being born every year in the country, the Chinese began to look at ways they could complement and supplement their own dairy industry through exports,” Vilsack told Civil Eats.

That demand coincided with an effort in the US to seek dairy export markets. As farms have consolidated, the size of the average dairy operation has also grown considerably. The number of dairy farms dropped by 88 percent between 1970 and 2006, and the industry continues to hemorrhage small producers, while total milk production rose and average milk production per farm increased by a magnitude of 12.

“About 15 years ago, the dairy industry in the US was primarily focused on the domestic market,” Vilsack said. “But it became clear that the dairy industry was going to produce more product … So the industry began to look at potential export markets.”

US dairy producers built a relationship with Mexico and Canada, its partners in the North American Free Trade Agreement. China, with its rising middle class and concerns over the safety of domestic milk, was an obvious market.

Related: After months of being targeted by Trump, Canadian dairy farmers angry at terms of trade deal

The European Union is currently the biggest dairy exporter to China, according to the US Department of Agriculture, with a share of nearly 50 percent. New Zealand follows, with a 33 percent share of the market. Australia has nearly 7 percent, followed by 6 percent for the US.

Milk powder, which is easy to ship and can be used for beverages, infant formula and other items, accounts for the biggest share of China’s dairy imports, according to the US Dairy Export Council. That’s where the Dairy Farmers of America comes in. The group invested nearly $100 million in the Fallon plant, which turns 1.5 million pounds of milk daily into 250,000 pounds of whole milk powder, said Waldvogel.

“Quite a bit goes to China,” he said. The plant also ships to Mexico, other parts of Latin America, and Southeast Asia. “Everything we make in Fallon right now has a home overseas.”

The Fallon plant was the coop’s first experiment in building a plant solely for export. “The intent was to get a foot in the water for exports,” Waldvogel said. “The domestic milk production growth is about twice the rate of domestic consumption growth, which means the US has to become a better exporter.”

When the Fallon plant proved a success, Dairy Farmers of America built a $200 million milk powder plant in Garden City, Kansas, which was completed last year. It can process 4 million pounds of milk a day, turning it into about 500,000 pounds of dry whole milk. The plant produces both whole and skim milk powder.

Much of the production has gone to countries in the Southern Hemisphere, where the US has long shipped dairy products. The plant is still working on meeting the specifications required to sell to customers in China. “You get the protein and fat exactly the way the customer wants it and then you dry it down,” Waldvogel said.

To make its products, the dairy industry separates cow’s milk into cream and skim milk components and then recombines them in various proportions to achieve the desired fat content. Even whole milk is made that way. Leftover skim milk would have to be dumped if not used. When dried, it’s easily shipped to China, for example.

Milk powder exports make sense in a long-term business plan, said Andrew Novakovic, an agricultural economist at Cornell University in New York. They open up new markets by serving as an introduction to a suite of dairy products, he said, like cheese, ice cream and yogurt, which are higher-value items.

“The powder plants are subject to considerable scale economies,” Novakovic said. “If you are going to build one, go big.”

Environmental concerns

Big is precisely the problem with Smith Valley Dairy, the retirees say. The 8,000 cows produce a lot of milk, but they also excrete over 30,000 tons of manure annually. Seepage from manure lagoons at mega-dairies can contaminate groundwaterkill fish, and even force the closure of bodies of water like Tillamook Bay in Oregon. Last year, nearly 200,000 gallons of liquid manure escaped from a storage tank at a dairy that sells to the Tillamook County Creamery Association, which makes Tillamook cheese. The waste flowed across several people’s properties to a slough, ending up in a river that carried it to the bay. Oregon officials shut the bay to fishing for a week and fined the dairy nearly $20,000.

Smith Valley Dairy has not been cited for spillage, but some of the residents still worry about their water quality.

“We’ve tried to get the [Nevada Division of Environmental Protection] to monitor more closely,” Doane said. “There’s a single aquifer for the whole valley — we’re all on wells. If anything goes down into the groundwater and pollutes it, we’re done.”

Opponents said they tried to contact the dairy but were met with silence.

Dirk Vlot, the dairy’s manager, appealed to locals when the dairy opened by co-publishing an op-ed in a local newspaper. It said the dairy was environmentally responsible, took care of its animals, and tried to address local concerns. It read in part:

For example, we’ve minimized the brightness of the required lighting on our property to prevent disruption to our neighbors, and we work with environmental engineers to determine best practices for waste disposal and manure management. ... We are installing monitoring wells, a state-of-the-art manure separator, and a flush system on concrete — all to be more environmentally friendly and protect local air and water quality.

When contacted by Civil Eats, Cole Vlot, an owner, declined to elaborate.

“I’m not sure if I feel comfortable giving any information,” Vlot said. “Dairymen are demonized.”

Business is not good right now, he said, with the Trump administration’s trade war with China. In April, the US started imposing $34 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods. China responded with $34 billion worth of tariffs against US imports. They include double-digit tariffs against whole milk and skim milk powder, the largest US dairy export to China.

The Trump administration taxed another $16 billion in Chinese goods in August and recently announced another $200 billion worth of tariffs on Chinese goods. China responded — with another $60 billion in tariffs against the US.

A dairy farm is seen through mountain brush.

Dairy Farmers of America invested nearly $100 million in the Fallon, Nevada, plant, which turns 1.5 million pounds of milk daily into 250,000 pounds of whole milk powder. Residents worry that the dairy farm will have adverse consequences for the environment.


Kimberley Hasselbrink/Civil Eats

Vilsack recently visited China to make sure that “people understand that the US dairy industry is committed to a relationship with China, Chinese consumers and Chinese industry.”

“We see this as a long-term relationship that we hope grows over time,” Vilsack said, “notwithstanding the challenges that our two countries currently have.”

No one knows how the trade war will turn out, but if it lasts a long time, it could affect dairy farmers, Vilsack told Civil Eats.

“I’m not worried because the dairy exports for the first six months of this year reached record levels — we had the best months we’ve ever had,” Vilsack said. “But I do worry about our farmers.” Those on the edge might not survive the trade war, he said.

The export council has looked to other countries to diversify exports. In the meantime, the opponents to Smith Valley Dairy have taken their case to court.

Fourteen residents filed a complaint in the Third Judicial District Court of Lyon County against the dairy and Vlot. Seeking an unspecified amount of damages, the complaint says the operation continues to be a nuisance, with “offensive odors, emissions, particulate matter, lights, noise and in some cases flies,” causing “substantial” annoyance.

Related: Urban ranching: A socialist commune's response to Venezuela's crisis

The suit says the county has repeatedly cited the dairy for violating its outdoor lighting code and that the US Food and Drug Administration noted violations of pest control in 2016. An FDA inspection report Civil Eats obtained through a public record request cited the dairy for overuse of “an approved human or animal drug above an established safe level, safe concentration or tolerance.” The drug, sulfamethoxazole, is an antibiotic that’s used to treat or prevent infections.

Residents know they won’t shut the existing dairy. But they’re not giving up the fight against more mega-dairies moving in. A post in June on their Facebook page called for support: “Who has the most at stake? People trying to earn a living in agriculture, using methods that are proving to be unsafe for the environment and the people who live in the neighborhood, or the individuals whose lives are being changed against their will, who were living in the area before the unsafe farming practices were implemented?”

The two sides have built their cases and await their day in court when residents hope to sway a jury to support their complaints against Smith Valley.

The trial is scheduled for early next year.

Why the rise of populist nationalist leaders rewrites global climate talks

Dec 5, 2018


The election of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil not only marks the rise of another populist nationalist leader on the world stage. It’s also a turning point for the global politics of climate change.

When the new president takes office in January 2019, by my estimate at least 30 percent of global emissions will be generated from democracies governed by populist nationalist leaders.

As climate policymakers meet at this week’s UN climate conference in Poland (a country itself governed by a populist nationalist party) people who care about achieving the Paris Agreement goal should push for and develop new strategies for advancing policies to reduce emissions within countries headed by these leaders.

Populism and cutting national emissions

What is populist nationalism? Although both populism and nationalism are contested terms, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, offers this tidy synthesis of the characteristics associated with populist nationalists leaders in democracies.

Firstly, these leaders define “the people” narrowly to refer to a single national identity which is oftentimes anti-elitist. Secondly, they promote policies which are popular among their selected people, or base of support, in the short term but may not be in the long-term economic, social or environmental interests of the country. Thirdly, populist nationalists are expert at capitalizing on their supporters’ cultural fears about a loss of status in society.

Over the past five years there have been several populist electoral victories in countries that are among the highest emitters of greenhouse gases. This includes the US, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Poland and the Philippines. While these regimes each represent a different brand of populist nationalism, they exhibit the basic characteristics I’ve just described.

From my perspective as a scholar focused on global energy and climate policies, it’s clear that the political structure of populist nationalism makes introducing policies to reduce, or mitigate, emissions in democracies difficult.

Mitigation policies require leaders to expend short-term political capital for long-term economic and environmental gains. However, populists have shown a particularly strong disinterest for doing so , particularly if those short-term costs would affect their prioritized group of the people.

Perhaps the clearest example of this is President Donald Trump’s unwinding of the Clean Power Plan. It may bring short-term benefits to his base, which includes coal miners and related interests, but it is not aligned with long-term energy market trends in the US toward natural gas, wind and solar for generating electricity and away from coal.

Resistant to global pressure

Secondly, as several country-level case studies have shown, developing policies to reduce national emissions is often a top-down and elite-driven activity. This is particularly true in high-emitting middle-income democracies like Mexico or Indonesia. In these countries, mitigation policies, like carbon taxes, have not emerged by way of large scale social movements but by top-down policy processes supported by international donors and nongovernment actors. In these countries, climate mitigation is at risk of being overridden by policies with more popular appeal.

In a forthcoming paper on Mexico, a colleague and I investigate incoming President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s mitigation policy. The López Obrador’s administration has publicly committed to reduce emissions through a little-known set of carbon pricing policies, while at the same time responding to a popular demand to reduce fuel prices by increasing domestic oil refining. In the contest between the top-down mitigation policy and the widespread popular demands for low gasoline prices, it is likely that the latter will take priority.

A third issue relates to the international governance of climate mitigation. Under the Paris Agreement, governments are asked to progressively ratchet up their emission reduction goals. This mechanism assumes political leaders will respond to international pressure to increase their ambition. However, populist nationalists have shown that they are not motivated by international reactions to their climate policies.

Take Indonesian President Joko Widodo, for instance, who was elected into office in 2014. As I have described elsewhere, one of his first moves in office was to shut down a $1 billion mitigation policy program funded by the Norwegian government. This decision to close the agency breached the bilateral agreement between Indonesia and Norway, and points to the disregard shown by some of these leaders to international political pressure.

As these short anecdotes suggest, the mechanism by which populist nationalists hold and retain political power makes it difficult to introduce climate mitigation policies. Their interest is to prioritize short-term programs which favor their select group of the people, rather than longer-term mitigating policies which have widespread economic and environmental benefits. Also, because they don’t comply with traditional norms of international relations, it will not be possible to coerce this group into meeting the Paris Agreement goals.

However, there are some ways countries that want to make reach consensus on global climate policies can better engage these leaders.

Ways to engage

As a starting point, it is important to emphasize the short-term benefits of climate mitigation policy to populists.

I believe policymakers and advocates would be well-served in drawing attention to how clean energy may bring multiple short-term benefits to the people on whose support these leaders rely, including lowering domestic air pollution, low cost energy, improved health outcomes and less reliance on foreign fuel imports. Indeed on some of these points, Bolsonaro, has recently said that he will increase the country’s hydropower and nuclear capacity.

Further, recent research suggests the cultural dimension of populist nationalism is of central importance. Rather than reducing emissions and tackling global climate change, it may be better to frame mitigation as part of a large-scale effort toward modernization; that is, modernizing energy systems, transportation systems and infrastructure. A narrative built around modernization, highlighting the economic and societal benefits for all, may resonate more with the disaffected middle classes who have led the rise of populist nationalism.

At the international level too there may be some approaches to ensuring the international governance regime continues in the face of this current wave of populist nationalism. As scholars David Victor and Bruce Jones have recently argued, it may be useful to form small groups — or clubs — of countries which share similar interests to focus on clean technology and policy innovation. Focusing on shared interests within small clubs may work better than trying to push populist nationalists to comply with broad international agreements.

Populist nationalist leaders, like Bolsonaro, are the consequence of deeply entrenched economic, political and cultural shifts that have occurred in democracies over decades. These leaders, in other words, are likely to be a feature of democratic politics for some time into the future.

To continue to make progress on global climate agreements, I think it’s crucial that negotiating countries meet national populist leaders on their own terms for ongoing attempts to save the climate.The Conversation

Arjuna Dibley, Graduate Fellow, Steyer-Taylor Center for Energy Policy and Finance, Stanford University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

PHOTOS: Up close and personal with Greenland’s massive ice sheet

Dec 4, 2018


This story is part of our series The Big Melt. It comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

Greenland’s ice sheet seems to stretch out forever. It slowly rises from the edge of the ocean to more than 10,000 feet in the center. Some of the ice is more than a hundred thousand years old and all of it originally fell here as snow. The research team shown here are trying to figure out just how this mountain of ice is moving into the sea, and how fast.

As we warm the planet, we're knocking this ice sheet out of balance — it’s losing more ice than it’s gaining. And that has big implications for rising sea levels. Six hundred million people live in coastal areas less than 32 feet above sea level. As the Greenland ice sheet melts away, an awful lot of those people are going to have to find somewhere else to live. That's a recipe for intense societal disruption — hunger, disease and conflict.

Related: As Greenland’s ice sheet melts, scientists push to learn ‘how fast’

Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell  are shown bundled in artic-ready clothing and walking across the ice.

"Team Radar" at work. Students Rosie Leone, Aidan Stansberry and Ian MacDowell spent most of their five days on the ice using radar to map the bed — the rock and soil hundreds of feet below the ice sheet — which can affect the movement of the ice sheet.


Amy Martin/Threshold

A winding flow of water is shown on the Greenland ice sheet

Some of the surface of the Greenland ice sheet melts every summer, forming streams, rivers and lakes that often empty into holes and fissures. This is a normal process, but as humans warm the planet, surface melt is increasing and more water is flowing off the ice sheet than is accumulating. If the entire ice sheet melted, it would cause sea level to rise roughly 23 feet, inundating coastal areas around the world.


Amy Martin/Threshold

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper is shown knealing next to a deep crack in the ice sheet called a crevasse.

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper examines a deep crack in the ice sheet called a crevasse. His team of researchers is studying how the ice sheet moves, how quickly it might melt into the sea as the planet warms up, and how meltwater flowing into openings on its surface might contribute to that.


Amy Martin/Threshold

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper's students are working on mapping the ice sheet bed with radar.

How does the shape of the underlying bed change how this enormous ice cube moves? That’s one of the questions this team is trying to answer. But the Greenland ice sheet is 10,000 feet thick in the center. “You can't go there. You can't see it. It's really hard to put instruments there,” Harper says. That’s why he has his students working on mapping the bed with radar. “We're just doing basic research trying to understand more about how the ice moves,” he says.


Amy Martin/Threshold

Glaciologist Joel Harper's team stays in tents right on the Greenland ice sheet

The work these scientists are doing intersects with a basic fact of human psychology: change is hard, and the faster the change, the harder it is. “It's all about the rate,” glaciologist Joel Harper says, and whether society will have more time or less to respond to a drastic rise in sea levels. “You know, if it takes three or four millennia to get a large amount of melt from Greenland into the ocean that's a completely different societal issue if its a century, or two, or three.”


Amy Martin/Threshold

The crew gathered is shown lounging in chairs for meals in a tent on the ice.

The crew gathered for meals in a tent on the ice. University of Montana graduate student Rosie Leone says doing field work with her mentors is great experience for her future career in the sciences. She’s aiming to work as a hydrologist.


Amy Martin/Threshold

University of Wyoming glaciologist Neil Humphrey works on one of the tiny sensors the team sent down through a bore hole to collect information about the ice sheet bed.

University of Wyoming glaciologist Neil Humphrey works on one of the tiny sensors the team sent down through a bore hole to collect information about the ice sheet bed. The Arctic may seem remote, Humphrey says, but changes here affect the whole planet. “We're talking about raising sea level 10, 20 feet. You're going to displace hundreds of millions of people. They're going to be upset. They're going to want to go somewhere better. A guaranteed way to end up needing to fight wars is to have millions of people displaced and angry ... This seems like a disaster that one might want to avoid.”


Amy Martin/Threshold

After five days of intense work, the team from the universities of Montana and Wyoming team packed up all the tents, food and gear, and waited for the helicopter to come pick them up.

Workdays are long on research trips to the Greenland ice sheet. After five days of intense work, the team from the universities of Montana and Wyoming team packed up all the tents, food and gear, and waited for the helicopter to come pick them up. It was one of the only moments when the team had time to relax and take in the wonder of the place.


Amy Martin/Threshold


The logo for the Podcast Threshold

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

Read more in The Big Melt series: 

An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic
As the Arctic warms up, a 'new ocean' is bringing new commerce to the top of the world
Ice is us: Alaska Natives face the demise of the Arctic ice pack
The Arctic's Sámi people push for a sustainable Norway
Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.
An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way. 
In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic
Take our Arctic quiz.   


David Attenborough: Global warming is 'our greatest threat'

Dec 3, 2018


British broadcaster and environmentalist David Attenborough on Monday urged world leaders meeting in Poland to agree to ways to limit global warming in order to tackle "our greatest threat in thousands of years." 

Known for countless nature films, Attenborough has gained prominence recently with his "Blue Planet II" series, which highlighted the devastating effect of pollution on the oceans.

"Leaders of the world, you must lead," said the naturalist, given a "people's seat" at the two-week UN climate conference in the Polish coal city of Katowice, alongside two dozen heads of state and government.

"The continuation of our civilizations and the natural world upon which we depend is in your hands," he said.

Related: Even a slight increase in global warming could be catastrophic, experts warn

The world is currently on course to overshoot by far the limits for global warming agreed in the landmark 2015 Paris accord on climate change — intended to prevent more extreme weather, rising sea levels and the loss of plant and animal species.

The Katowice talks are billed as the most important UN conference since Paris, coming ahead of an end-of-year deadline to agree on a "rule book" enforcing action.

Yet political and UN leaders have been struggling to inject urgency into two weeks of haggling on how to move on from fossil fuels to give practical effect to the Paris accord.

Related: Polish artists turn coal into ‘black gold’ as the mining industry shifts

Representatives of some of the most powerful countries and biggest polluters were conspicuous by their absence, and the United States is quitting the UN climate process.

To maximize the chances of success in Poland, technical talks began on Sunday, a day early, with delegates from nearly 200 nations debating how to meet the Paris target of limiting global warming to between 1.5 and 2.0 degrees Celsius. 

'Wave of optimism has broken'

Michal Kurtyka, Poland's deputy environment minister and president of the talks, said that without success in Katowice, Paris would not be a success, as it had only decided what was needed, not how it could be done.

Moreover, the wider political environment had changed.

"The wave of optimism and global cooperation that carried us to and through Paris has now crested, broken and is now tumbling," he told delegates.

He nevertheless took heart from a G20 statement at the weekend when the leading industrialized nations — except the United States — reaffirmed their commitment to implementing the Paris deal.

A series of reports in the run-up to the Katowice conference have made clear the widening gap between high-level rhetoric and actual work to cut emissions, which have continued to rise.

"It is hard to overstate the urgency of our situation," UN Secretary-General António Guterres said.

"Climate change is running faster than we are and we must catch up sooner rather than later before it is too late."

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

Attenborough told the delegates: "Right now, we are facing a man-made disaster of global scale. Our greatest threat in thousands of years. Climate Change."

Yet expectations for Katowice are low.

The host nation Poland is committed to coal, the most polluting of fossil fuels. It is calling for a "just transition" to provide help for communities dependent on fossil fuels.

Riots in Paris at the weekend, partly in protest at fuel taxes, also illustrate the conundrum: How do politicians introduce long-term environmental policies without inflicting costs on voters that may damage their chances of re-election?

To contain warming at 1.5 C, man-made global net carbon dioxide emissions will need to fall by about 45 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach "net zero" by mid-century, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. 

Delegates at the talks said sticking points were likely to include finance and the level of scrutiny associated with monitoring individual nations' emissions.

The UN has a goal of raising $100 billion every year from 2020 for climate action. To inject momentum, the World Bank Group on Monday said it would provide a further $200 billion over five years from the start of the next decade.


As Greenland’s ice sheet melts, scientists push to learn ‘how fast’

Dec 3, 2018 13:31


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

You might’ve read about it, heard about it, seen pictures of it, but nothing can prepare you for your first encounter with the Greenland ice sheet.

Mine comes while exploring outside the small town of Ilulissat, on the edge of a fjord on Greenland's west coast. The sun is sparkling on Disko Bay opposite a steep, rocky hill. I’m following a boardwalk that snakes through a marshy field and down toward the shore, where I come upon a sign you'd only see on the edge of an ice sheet.

“Extreme danger,” it reads. “Do not walk on the beach. Death or serious injury might occur. Risk of sudden tsunami waves caused by calving icebergs.”

Duly noted, I think. Not going to the beach. Instead, I head up the hill.

People walk up a hill to the edge of the Greenland ice sheet, which is ice and show as far as the ice can see along the horizon.

It took awhile for reporter Amy Martin to register what she was seeing as she first caught sight of the Greenland ice sheet: not actually mountains, but 3,000-foot-high peaks of solid ice.


Amy Martin/Threshold

For a few minutes, all I can see is grey, weathered rock. But then I come around a curve, up over a little rise, and suddenly there it is, right in front of me: A range of massive white peaks, unlike anything I've ever seen.

I’m stunned. All I can do at first is laugh. It takes a while for my brain to register what it is I’m seeing — not actually mountains, but 3,000-foot-high peaks of solid ice.

It looks like it can't even be real.

With every step, I can see farther, and more. Miles and miles of ice, jagged in some places, smooth in others. It looks a like it's made of sugar or meringue. And the ice chunks are so big that they make their own shadows and shapes. It reminds me of the outline of a big city — like the skyline of Manhattan, made out of ice.

The ice sheet seems to stretch out forever, slowly rising from the edge of the ocean where I am to more than 10,000 feet in the center. The Greenland ice sheet is as big as Alaska, and some of the ice is more than 100,000 years old. All of it originally fell here as snow.

Everything about this ice is fascinating to me. I want to touch it — and walk on it. But like the beach below, it's super dangerous here at the edge. The ice is shifting and cracking. So I have to wait.

A bright red helicopter lands on the flat ice and snow while people help unload gear from it.

A research team unloads their gear at their study site on the Greenland ice sheet. The team is studying ice sheet dynamics, or the ways the ice sheet moves over the rock beneath it.


Amy Martin/Threshold

On the ice

A few days later a helicopter settles onto an endless expanse of white. My companions and I, three students and three professors, are pounded by the wind as we climb out. We’re the only splotches of color out here — it’s ice as far as we can see in all directions.

This is a research trip, and this team of scientists gets to work immediately. But I’m in awe of everything I see, hear and feel. The ice beneath us looks like frozen beer foam. It’s pockmarked with shallow holes, like honeycomb. Some of the holes are tiny, some large enough to lose your foot in, and they're all filled with freezing cold water.

“Half of what we're walking around on is not ice,” says Joel Harper, a glaciologist from the University of Montana, one of the people leading this trip. “It's holes. Filled with water.”

In the summertime up here, melt water courses through holes and cracks and flows deep into the ice. Suddenly I really get how all this ice is a massive storehouse of fresh water.

“Yeah, there's a lot of it here,” Harper says. “If you took all this ice and converted it to water and added it to the ocean, sea level would come up seven meters.”

Whoa, I’m thinking. Seven meters is roughly 23 feet. Adding that much water to the ocean would flood cities around the world, from Mumbai to New York, and displace millions of people. And it might well happen. It’s already starting to happen.

Related: If the Greenland ice sheet melts, what happens to New York City? This reporter went to find out.

The good news, Harper says, is we're not going to lose the whole ice sheet all at once. But he and this team are trying to figure out just how this mountain of ice is moving into the sea, and how fast. It's a field of study called ice sheet dynamics, and the first step in understanding it is to grasp the fact that this ice really is dynamic. It moves.

“It's flowing like a fluid,” Harper tells me. And just like with any other fluid, gravity pulls it from high to low. So, in this case, from the middle of Greenland out to the edges, where it either melts in warmer temperatures or calves off into the ocean as icebergs.

Melting and calving at the edge of an ice sheet is normal, but — and this is a big but — normally the ice being lost at the edges is replaced at roughly the same rate by new snow falling in the middle.

Not anymore, though.

“Problem is,” Harper says, “we're having more mass loss than we are gain at the moment.”

As we warm the planet, we're knocking this ice sheet out of balance — it’s losing more ice than it’s gaining. That’s one of the reasons sea levels are rising these days, he says. But the huge challenge for Harper and other scientists is to try to figure out what might happen here under these new conditions. Is the ice more likely to melt at a steady pace, or in pulses? What role does the melt on the surface play? What happens if the ice sheet begins to break apart?

“This is where the motion part that we're working on really comes to play,” Harper says.

A river of fresh icemelt carves its way through the Greenland ice sheet.

Melt water flows into holes and fissures on the surface of the Greenland ice sheet every summer. Before humans started warming the planet, water melting off the ice sheet was roughly balanced by the accumulation of new snow. But climate change is altering that balance, and Greenland is now losing more water than its gaining.


Amy Martin/Threshold

Team Radar

I’m not the only one on this trip who’s up on the ice sheet for the first time.

“Ah, I guess I'm in it now,” grad student Rosie Leone tells me with a wry laugh when I ask her what she was thinking when the helicopter dropped us off and flew can't back out. “Sorta trapped!”

This is a daunting place to spend five days. And it’s not like she’s got the most interesting job here. Leone and undergrad Aidan Stansberry, both also from the University of Montana, are part of what I call Team Radar.

“Basically,” Stansberry tells me, “we ... drag this radar around to map the bed.”

The bed is what the ice is sitting on top of. It can be made of different kinds of rock, soil, or sediment, it can be flat in one part and hilly in another. And part of what the team is trying to figure out is what happens when you combine all of that variability with the enormous weight of the ice sheet. How does the shape of the bed change how this thing moves?

To make the map of the bed, the students walk in straight lines a certain number of meters, stop, send down a radar pulse, log the data, and do it again. And again. And again. In the wind and the cold. All day long. It’s an important part of the work up here but, Leone says, it’s “a little boring, because we're just walking and placing it down.”

She’s being nice. It's not a little boring. It's super boring. But Team Radar does get an occasional break. Like when Harper takes us all out to meet a moulin.

The belly of the beast

Harper warned us early on about these things called moulins — holes you can fall into on the ice sheet, never to be seen again. They're pretty spooky, but they're also intriguing portals into the belly of this massive beast. Because as we learned when we arrived, this ice isn't a solid block from top to bottom. There are pools and rivers and lakes on the surface, but also inside and underneath it. Moulins are one of the ways water gets down inside, but Harper says we don't yet have a detailed understanding of how the water moves once it gets there, and how that might affect the overall movement of the ice sheet.

We follow a winding blue stream, one of the many that form from melt water on the ice sheet in the summer. After a while, the sound turns from a trickle into a rush and we see it disappear into a big hole in the ice.

It’s incredible and incredibly dangerous.

You do not want to fall into that hole, Harper says. You would almost certainly never come back out.

We follow his advice and keep our distance.

But the moulin isn’t the only window here into the ice sheet’s deep interior. A little way off there’s a crevasse — a deep crack in the ice — and a spot where it's safe enough for me to lay down on my belly and peer right down into it.

A man in a fluorescent vest steps over a large crack in the ice sheet.

University of Montana glaciologist Joel Harper steps over a deep crack in the ice sheet called a crevasse. 


Amy Martin/Threshold

The ice fades from white to blue to a mysterious, glistening black. And an eerie rumble emanates from the depths. It feels like there could be some mythical creature living down there, or that this whole Leviathan could itself be alive. That's one of the things that makes the Greenland ice sheet so mind-blowing. It's made of this very familiar substance — it's just ice, after all — but it's at a scale that's so different, it almost feels alien. It's not very often that we have a chance to encounter a discreet object this huge. Let alone get close enough to it to hear its voice.

And that voice may be carrying a warning because Harper says what happens down at the bottom of the ice sheet is just as important as what happens up here on the surface.

Questions needing answers

“Twenty years ago, there was some debate as to whether or not water” — this surface melt we see — “could find its way to the bottom of the ice sheet ... whether it could even get through a kilometer of really cold ice,” he tells me. “Since then we've learned that it absolutely does. But now we're stuck with two new problems. One is, how? We don't have that figured out entirely. And the second is, well, what are the impacts of that? What does it do to the sliding motion of the ice sheet?”

Related: In Greenland, a climate change mystery with clues written in water and stone

Harper and his team are searching for answers to these questions. Other researchers are pursuing related questions. What they all learn about the fate of this ice sheet could tell us a lot about the future of the whole world.

And Harper says it’s not just about potential sea level.

“Ice itself is a big part of the climate system,” he says. “Ice actually influences how the climate system works.”

One of the ways it does that is through albedo — the way the white ice reflects solar energy away from the Earth, back out into space. Right now, that process helps keep the earth comfortably cool for humans.

But when the ice here turns to water, it turns from a light surface that reflects heat to a dark surface that absorbs it. It’s the same thing that’s happening as sea ice melts on the Arctic Ocean. And that change just adds to the warming we’re already causing. That's why there's some urgency here, to get a better understanding of the processes that are turning this big hunk of planet-cooling ice into water.

“What really matters here is how fast,” Harper says. “If it takes three or four millennia to get a large amount of melt from Greenland into the ocean, that's a completely different societal issue [than] if it’s a century, or two, or three.”

Seeing and hearing all this water move around up here really brings home that Harper’s team and I are standing on a pivot point of our future. The Greenland ice sheet is spectacularly beautiful and unreal. It almost feels like another world. But even though most of us don't think about it much, it is a key part of this planet, something that has helped regulate Earth’s temperature for all of human history.

As our pollution warms the planet up, that key role is starting to diminish. And, Joel Harper says, people very far away will start to notice.

“Even if you live in the southern latitudes somewhere,” Harper says, “if there's a big change in the poles, it will impact how the climate system works, and will ultimately work its way down to impacting you.”

Some 600 million people live in coastal areas less than 10 meters above sea level. That's 32 feet. As the Greenland ice sheet melts away, an awful lot of those people are going to have to find somewhere else to live. That's a recipe for intense societal disruption — hunger, disease and conflict.

That’s what lies in the uncertainty about Greenland’s future. That's how the science Harper and his team are doing here intersects with questions that have huge implications for all of us, wherever we live.

The logo for the Podcast Threshold

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

Read more in The Big Melt series: 

An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic
As the Arctic warms up, a 'new ocean' is bringing new commerce to the top of the world
Ice is us: Alaska Natives face the demise of the Arctic ice pack
The Arctic's Sámi people push for a sustainable Norway
Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.
An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way. 
In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic
Take our Arctic quiz.   


Polish artists turn coal into ‘black gold’ as the mining industry shifts

Nov 29, 2018


When the Wieczorek mine, one of the oldest coal mines in Poland, closed in March, Grzegorz Chudy noticed for the first time the neighborhood was vibrant with trees in the full bloom of spring. The smell was heady.

"It was incredible. You never knew all those trees were there," he told Reuters in his art studio in a housing estate for mining families in the southwestern Polish city of Katowice.

"The smell wasn't there while coal was being transported on trucks. The dust covered it up."

The Wieczorek mine in Katowice, with its towering brick shaft, is among dozens closing down throughout Poland, home to one of the most polluted coal mining regions in Europe.

From Sunday, Katowice will host a round of United Nations climate talks, during which nearly 200 countries will attempt to agree on rules on how to shift the world economy away from fossil fuels to curb rising temperatures.

The meeting comes as the World Meteorological Organization warned on Thursday that global temperatures were on course to rise by 3-5 degrees Celsius this century, overshooting a global target of limiting the increase to 2 C.

Reaching an agreement on how to implement ambitious fossil fuel cuts at the talks could be tough. Fears over the impact on industry have divided the European Union and heightened trade tensions between the United States and China.

Related: Donald Trump sees the future in coal. China sees the future in renewables. Who’s making the safer bet?

Poland has had a painful and difficult experience with the economic transition from coal. Even as it counts down to Sunday, it announced plans for a new coal mine in the south of the country.

Its government drew support in part from those with an emotional attachment to the job security, social fabric and national pride associated with mining that overlooked the downsides for health and the planet. 

The issue resonates especially with older Poles who remember deadly anti-communist protests in the early 1980s when the miners emerged as heroes.

Related: Britain built an empire out of coal. Now it’s giving it up. Why can’t the US?

Black gold

Chudy, 36, whose paintings often depict the life and architecture of Nikiszowiec, is one of hundreds of people who have moved to the area, drawn by its industrial feel and affordable housing. 

Built to house the families of miners at the start of the 20th century, Nikiszowiec was designed as a self-sufficient neighborhood with its own communal bread ovens and pigsties, as well as a bath house for miners and laundry facilities.

In the years after communist rule ended in Poland in 1989 and the mining sector started to shrink, the area became notorious for crime and poverty. 

Such problems have all but disappeared as the area has become gentrified, and the bold decision to hold the climate talks in the region could also help shift opinions.

Above: Hands stained with coal hold a silver ring that has a piece of coal as the center stone. Below: A man works on a canvas near a window looking on to brick buildings.

Above: Jeweler Katarzyna Depa, 26, holds a silver ring with coal at her atelier in Katowice, Poland, Nov. 26, 2018. Below: Artist Grzegorz Chudy, 36, paints at his atelier in Nikiszowiec district in Katowice, Nov. 7, 2018.


Kacper Pempel/Reuters

Related: A Wyoming town looks beyond coal ... to new uses for coal

Those in the artistic community say their work could only exist with the inspiration provided by decades of mining.

"For me using coal in a different way than it used to be, which was energy, shows its completely new face, so we can call it our new, cool black gold," said Katarzyna Depa, who makes jewelry from coal.

But for those with mining in the blood, moving on is harder and the smell of coal dust is as sweet as blossom.

Above all, they miss the community spirit even if it meant shared danger and hardship.

"The atmosphere used to be much better," miner Krzysztof Zawisza said. "On Friday or Saturday evening people were coming out to sit on the banks, drink some beer, have a barbecue. Now I do not know most of those who have come here."

GM closures: Oshawa, Ontario, needs more than ‘thoughts and prayers'

Nov 27, 2018


All eyes in Canada have turned to Oshawa, Ontario, following the announcement by General Motors that it will end auto manufacturing in the city after more than a century of production.

In the coming days, we will hear about community resilience and the inevitability of market forces. Some of those impacted will be asked to share their feelings and politicians of all stripes will send their thoughts and prayers to the nearly 3,000 autoworkers who will be out of work. Then we will all move on.

GM workers have been part of the heart and soul of Oshawa for generations - and we’ll do everything we can to help the families affected by this news get back on their feet. Yesterday, I spoke with @GM’s Mary Barra to express my deep disappointment in the closure.

— Justin Trudeau (@JustinTrudeau) November 26, 2018

Does any of this sound familiar? It should. We have been living this story for decades. North America is filled with former mine, mill and factory towns. Some were once synonymous with the departing company or the products that they produced. If we were to put all of these de-industrialized cities on a map, it would be crowded with hurt and heartache.

Among the most famous are the former auto towns of Flint, Michigan, which is still living with the poisoned half-life of deindustrialization decades later, and the “Motor City” itself. Detroit lost a staggering 180,000 manufacturing jobs in a devastating seven-year period from 1978 to 1984. The city’s population plunged from 1.8 million in 1950 to just 700,000 today.

A similar story has unfolded in Canada. Windsor, Ontario, was devastated in 1951 when Ford decided to relocate its auto-assembly plant to Oakville, located outside of Toronto. Entire regions now feel the pain.

Related: GM to slash jobs and production in North America, drawing criticism from Trump and unions

In my home region of Northern Ontario, for example, there are now more than 20 former mill towns with names like Iroquois Falls, Red Rock, Marathon, Elliot Lake, Fort Frances, Smooth Rock Falls and Sturgeon Falls.

I have been interviewing displaced industrial workers from Canada and the United States since the early 1990s. A plant closing is about much more than lost paychecks. It shatters people’s sense of belonging and identity. Long-term workers, in particular, lose a social structure in which they find validation.

The human cost of job loss can be enormous, leading to depression, failing marriages or health and even suicide.

It’s like being run over

Gabriel Solano, a GM worker in Detroit, explained what was lost the first time a plant closed under him:

There are things I can’t discuss ... I lost a part of me. Me, as a person who said, ‘I have a goal and have a dream.’ To come home, I no longer have a job. The wife looks at you. You’re looking at this baby, you’re looking at this house and you’re realizing ‘you know what? Something’s missing and it’s part of me.’ I don’t so much feel that I was missing GM but I was missing a part of me. Something internal. It’s hard to explain because it’s an emotion. It’s a feeling. Because it took all of those years to build this emotion and this feeling and then, it’s not there. So, you end up with a blank in your life. There is a blank. Yes, there is.

Gabriel Solano closed out three GM plants before his life was cut short by an early death.

One time he was even transferred into another assembly plant two weeks before it, too, closed.

Each time left its scars.

Solano said:

You see the train coming, you’re on the track. ‘It’s going to stop.’ ‘It’s not coming.’ You hear the whistle and you feel the vibration. And then next thing you know you’ve been run over. And you still don’t even believe it after its run over you and a hundred cars have run past.

The sense of betrayal runs deep in working-class communities. They feel betrayed by their employers, their unions, their governments, sometimes even by their own communities.

Another displaced worker said:

I heard about the closure on television on the 6 o’clock news. Then, a couple weeks later they phoned me up and said ‘you got a 35-year pin that we have here. We’d like to give it to you.’ I said ‘ok.’ He said, ‘meet us at the front gate.’ You know, everything was closed so the fellow, our superintendent at the time, he gave me the 35-year pin. You can picture a chain linked fence, he handed it to me through the fence. ‘Here is your 35-year pin.’

Oshawa did not need to close

From a historical perspective, the Oshawa closure is completely unnecessary.

Had the provisions of the 1965 Canada-US Auto Pact not been traded away by our leaders to get a free trade deal in the 1980s, GM would have been unable to close the plant because the Big Three automakers were required to produce as many vehicles as they sold in Canada. There were also Canadian content rules in place for auto parts.

Instead, since then, GM has closed one plant after another, starting with its Toronto-area Scarborough van plant in 1993, followed in 2004 by its assembly plant in Sainte-Thérèse, Quebec, the Oshawa truck plant in 2008 and the Windsor transmission plant in 2010. GM’s Canadian operations are now limited to two communities in southern Ontario — an assembly plant in Ingersoll and an engine plant in St. Catharines.

General Motors of Canada has been part of Oshawa since 1918. Had the Canadian and Ontario governments placed more stringent conditions on the $3 billion bailout of GM in 2009, the Oshawa plant might have been saved.

For example, in 1979-80, the federal and Ontario governments helped bail out Chrysler on the condition that it re-invest hundreds of millions into its Canadian manufacturing plants. The result was the reindustrialization of Ontario at a time when plants were closing in the United States.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra at a press conference with a blue background.

General Motors CEO Mary Barra at a press conference at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Michigan, Jan. 16, 2018. 


Rebecca Cook/Reuters

Had the Canadian and Ontario governments not quietly sold off all their shares in GM (at a heavy loss) in 2016 that they acquired as a result of the bailout, then we might still have had the needed leverage to convince GM not to abandon Oshawa. National Unifor President Jerry Dias, the union president who represents the Oshawa autoworkers, said as much at the time. The union had used what negotiating power it had, pushing the Big Three to reinvest in Canada — but, without backup, it was not enough.

Related: After months of being targeted by Trump, Canadian dairy farmers angry at terms of trade deal

Industrial workers are thought to inhabit the past, not the present — even though the world hasn’t deindustrialized.

There is a depressing inevitability to plant closings that prevent us from responding with more than platitudes. We have come to accept the structural violence of industrial plant closure as a fact of life. They have become normalized to such an extent that we may not even recognize plant closings as a form of violence.

A packed meeting of GM workers at UNIFOR Local 222 in Oshawa, Ontario.

GM workers gather for a meeting at UNIFOR Local 222 near the General Motors' assembly plant in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada, Nov. 26, 2018. 


Carlos Osorio/Reuters

Decades of internalized despair have broken out into open revolt against political “elites” across the deindustrialized world. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump as US president (thanks to the five Rust Belt states that flipped from Obama to Trump) and the rise of right-wing populism are all tied to working-class rage.

So far, Canada has largely escaped this political tumult. But if our own political parties continue to fail working people, this too will change.The Conversation

Steven High is a professor of history at the Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (COHDS) at Concordia University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

International lawmakers seek global regulations for social media

Nov 27, 2018


For the first time in decades, the UK and nine other countries convened at the British House of Commons as an opportunity to address issues around disinformation, fake news, electoral interference and data misuse — all things Facebook has been used for to disrupt democracies around the world.

Related: For years, activists in Southeast Asia warned Facebook that content on the platform could lead to real-life violence. Then it did. 

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg declined several invitations to attend the hearing and instead sent Richard Allan, another top Facebook executive. Needless to say, the panel of lawmakers were less than thrilled. 

9 countries.
24 official representatives.
447 million people represented.

One question: where is Mark Zuckerberg?

— Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee (@CommonsCMS) November 27, 2018

"We've never seen anything quite like Facebook where, while we were playing on our phones and apps, our democratic institutions, our form of civil conversation, seem to have been upended by frat boy billionaires from California," said Canadian representative Charlie Angus. "So Mr. Zuckerberg's decision not to appear here at Westminster [Britain's parliament], to me, speaks volumes."

Angus was among the two dozen reps at this morning's hearing who were very eager to get face time with the company. One member of parliament from Singapore said her team was willing to travel halfway around the world for the opportunity.

Canadian representative Angus said that at this point, Facebook has "lost the trust of the international community," and that it can no longer be left to police itself — it needs to be regulated.

Some countries already have regulations in place to prevent bad actors from misusing Facebook and other platforms.

Related: Brazil fights online misinformation during election season

Germany has one of the strongest laws when it comes to fake news and disinformation. Big tech companies that operate there are required to take down this type of content quickly or they face a fine.

And when it comes to issues of data and privacy, the EU has some of the strongest regulations — like the General Data Protection Regulation, which was put into place in 2016.

But those gathered at the House of Commons seemed to agree that it's still not enough.

One of the people who spoke today was Brazilian politician Alessandro Molon. His country recently had a federal election where they saw an extreme level of fake news and disinformation spread through WhatsApp, the messaging platform owned by Facebook. Viral misinformation included an anti-vaccination hoax about yellow fever and false instructions on when to vote

Related: Angry at status quo, Brazil’s voters open a door for the far right

"The same democracy that allowed social media to flourish should now be protected by social media," Molon said. "There is, however, a unique challenge. The internet doesn't respect borders. Which poses a challenge to national legislation."

Irish politician Hildegarde Naughton proposed that perhaps Facebook and other social media platforms need regulation on a global level.

"... We should be accountable for you," Facebook's Allan responded. "We should tell you what we've done and if you're unhappy, you should have the power to take sanctions against us. I completely accept that principle."

Facebook seems more open than ever to regulation. Allan did say he doesn't think Facebook should be held legally responsible for everything on its platforms, but added that the idea that Facebook should be exempt from everything is "out of date.”

One idea suggested by Naughton was a set of regulations through the United Nations or another intergovernmental agency, but it's unclear what that set of global standards would be. What is clear: a piecemeal approach to regulating social media is nearing an end.

The first genome edited babies are here. What happens next?

Nov 27, 2018 5:57


Just before hundreds of scientists, ethicists, and policy makers from around the world gathered in Hong Kong to discuss the future of genome editing, a Chinese scientist, He Jiankui, claimed to have created the world’s first genome edited babies — twin girls named Lulu and Nana.

While the details about the exact procedure are still unknown, the girls’ genomes were allegedly altered when they were embryos using in vitro fertilization and CRISPR-Cas9, a revolutionary genome editing tool, to make them immune to contracting HIV.

Related: 4 things you wanted to know about gene editing

The research has not been published and has not been verified by peer review.

If true, He’s claims would be a wild leap for science and medical ethics, but the fact is, this was inevitable and even predictable, despite an apparent disregard for all global scientific and ethical norms.

The timing of the announcement reeks of being a calculated attempt to make headlines ahead of the summit — which China pulled out of at the last minute — and the news created an uproar around the world.

There is seemingly a global consensus that CRISPR is not yet precise enough, nor tested enough, to use on human embryos. I agree with others who have called the moves “reckless” in the face of ethical and regulatory ambiguity about how to handle genetic changes that can be passed onto future generations, even for medical reasons.

In a YouTube video, He said that the twin girls were “healthy like any other babies,” and described his reasoning for choosing to “knock out” the CCR5 gene, which is a naturally occurring mutation known to create HIV immunity in some populations.

He is slated to discuss his work on Wednesday at the Second International Genome Editing Summit currently underway in Hong Kong.

Scientist He Jiankui shows

Scientist He Jiankui shows "The Human Genome," a book he edited, at his company Direct Genomics in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, China Aug. 4, 2016. 


Stringer/Third party/Reuters 

What does this mean?

At the moment, there are more questions than answers about the CRISPR’d babies.

Did He have ethical approval? The hospital He claims to have worked with has opened an investigation.

Why has He been on leave from his university position for several months? He says he left voluntarily in February to focus on research, but the University has condemned the news and insisted they had no knowledge of the procedure.

Why modify this gene, when there are other ways to prevent HIV? Washing sperm, for one, minimizes the risk of passing on the virus significantly, not to mention that modern antiretrovirals suppress the virus so much, it’s highly unlikely for it to be passed.

Was there truly informed consent? Materials provided by He suggest that he billed the edits as an AIDS vaccine trial, which is misleading. So it is unclear if, or to what extent, the parents understood the procedure and that their girls would be the first edited children — and that if something went wrong, it might be irresponsible for them to reproduce, because edits to the human germline will be heritable.

("Human germline" are the genes that will be passed on to children or future generations.)

George Church, a CRISPR pioneer known for his controversial work on woolly mammoth revival, told the Associated Press that the attempt to engineer immunity to HIV was “justifiable.” He is one of the only defenders of the work.

Eric Topol of the Scripps Institute called the experiment “rogue human experimentation” and told the AP that He’s research was “far too premature.”  

The news could potentially force the hands of regulators to choose whether to go ahead with sanctioning germline modification, and how, at this week’s conference in Hong Kong. This seems to be, in part, one reason He decided to publicize his work.

“I feel a strong responsibility that it’s not just to make a first, but also make it an example," He said ahead of the conference. "Society will decide what to do next.”

explainer on how gene editing works Is there a societal responsibility to engage with genome editing?

Engineering babies, even for therapeutic reasons, creates a morass of regulatory and ethical questions. There is wide agreement that social considerations, such as issues of access and social justice, must be at the fore of any efforts to regulate germline editing.

After the first International Genome Editing Summit in 2015, two reports laid out the scientific, ethical and regulatory challenges of germline editing. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics’ report from the UK’s national bioethics body, insisted that germline editing should not “increase disadvantage, discrimination or division in society.”

Shockingly, according to the MIT Technology Review, He claimed that his ethical basis for performing the edits on the babies was the 2017 NASEM report, written by experts in the US. It does not have the force of law and is not meant to be taken as a regulatory framework. Plus, that report strongly says that “heritable germline editing is not ready to be tried in humans.”

The wails of those who are afraid of the “slippery slope” to the inevitable age of “designer babies” are nothing new. Despite this experiment, which some called “monstrous,” there will be a time that editing embryos will be acceptable. We are nearly there. And we already select babies based on their traits.  

Technologies such as pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD), which is legal in the US, allow doctors to select the “healthiest” or “best” embryos for implantation after IVF, and can also be used for sex selection. A report this month announced another test for embryos that would screen for disease risks that could result in lower IQs.

There is already a crisis of medical tourism when it comes to using advanced assisted reproductive technologies. Fertility treatments are a booming business — and not every technique is available, or legal, everywhere.

During a panel at the Hong Kong summit this week, experts were unsure whether surrogacy laws could be used to prosecute French parents who create genetically engineered babies. An Indian representative explained that laws are different between territories there. The UK and Singapore both have licensing structures for clinics and labs that want to research human embryo editing, but implantation of embryos is illegal. The US was not represented, but any research on embryo editing is in violation of laws related to unapproved therapies, and funding for embryo research is banned by Congress.

But if there is one thing that’s clear, it is that parents who are desperate for healthy, genetically related children will pay exorbitant prices to get them, regardless of legality.

What next?

When you think about it, it makes sense — a Pew survey found that while many Americans would be in favor of editing embryos for health reasons, 73 percent said they expected genome editing technologies “will become available before they have been fully tested or understood” and “these enhancements could exacerbate the divide between haves and have-nots.”

The trend for fertility tourism shows no signs of abating, and with germline modification suddenly on the menu, more CRISPR babies are sure to be on the horizon.

But this doesn’t need to be the end of the world.

With proper regulation, transparency and oversight, scientists could, over the next few years, research safe and efficacious ways to eliminate many fatal diseases using genome editing.

There must also be an informed public debate about what is allowed and what isn’t. And equitable access to medical use must be at the very top of the list when policymakers consider how to regulate these treatments.

However, at this point, it’s simply no longer appropriate to push this critical medical research overseas or underground.

This is a mistake.

By placing a moratorium on or banning research into safe germline editing, we will all but guarantee that only the wealthiest among us, with the means to travel and pay for the procedure, will be the only ones with “designer babies.”

Alex Pearlman is a bioethicist and journalist in Boston who writes about the intersection of human rights and emerging technologies.

GM to slash jobs and production in North America, drawing criticism from Trump and unions

Nov 27, 2018 1:55


General Motors said on Monday it will cut production of slow-selling models and slash its North American workforce because of a declining market for traditional gas-powered sedans, shifting more investment to electric and autonomous vehicles.

GM's actions add up to the biggest restructuring for the US No. 1 carmaker since its bankruptcy a decade ago and mark a turning point for the North American auto industry. US automakers have enjoyed nearly a decade of prosperity since the 2008-2009 financial crisis and the government bailouts of GM and the former Chrysler Corp.

GM's announcement immediately drew criticism from US President Donald Trump, highlighting the political risks facing GM.

He demanded the automaker find a new vehicle to build in Ohio and added that he had told GM Chief Executive Mary Barra he was unhappy with her decision to cut production at an Ohio factory. Ohio will be a key state in the 2020 presidential campaign.

"I have no doubt that in the not too distant future, they'll put something else. They better put something else in," Trump, who has pushed for more manufacturing jobs throughout his almost two years in office, said.

GM did not immediately comment on Trump's remarks, but the company noted it has other facilities in Ohio including a transmission plant in Toledo and metal center in Parma.

GM and its rivals are facing rising bills for technological transformation, increased risks from US trade policy and investors reluctant to fund their traditional product strategies.

Barra on Monday portrayed the decision to put five North American factories on notice for potential closure and cut nearly 15,000 jobs as necessary to keep the company strong as it plows money into new technology and new businesses such as robo-taxi services.

"This industry is changing very rapidly," Barra said during a press briefing. "These are things we are doing to strengthen our core business."

GM shares rose as much as 7.8 percent following the announcement and were nearly 6 percent higher at $37.97 in mid-afternoon trading. Shares of Detroit rivals Ford Motor and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles also rose — outpacing the broader market.

GM plans to halt production next year at three assembly plants: the Lordstown small-car factory near Youngstown, Ohio; the Detroit-Hamtramck complex in Detroit, Michigan; and the Oshawa, Ontario, assembly complex near Toronto. It will also stop building several models now assembled at those plants, including the Chevrolet Cruze, the Chevrolet Volt hybrid, the Cadillac CT6 and the Buick LaCrosse. The Cruze compact car will be discontinued in the US market in 2019, although GM may continue building it in Mexico for other markets, Barra said.

Plants in Baltimore, Maryland, and the suburban Detroit community of Warren, Michigan, both of which make powertrain components, have no products assigned to them after 2019 and are at risk of closure, GM said. The company said it will also close two unidentified factories outside North America.

"We are right-sizing capacity for the realities of the marketplace," Barra said.

Related: Over half of new car sales in Norway are electric or hybrid vehicles

GM is also moving to cut capital spending overall, even as it says it will double the resources dedicated to electric and self-driving vehicles over the next two years.

GM last year promised to launch a fleet of 20 new battery electric vehicles in North America by 2023, along with at least 10 new electric vehicles in China by 2020. The expenditures to bring those vehicles to production will start to hit with new batteries and body architectures designed to generate profits.

GM also is ramping up hiring at its GM Cruise autonomous vehicle unit, pushing to overcome technical challenges and make good on a plan to launch a robo-taxi service next year.

Even with the higher spending on electric and autonomous vehicles, GM plans to reduce overall annual capital spending to $7 billion by 2020 from an average of $8.5 billion a year during the 2017-2019 period. The automaker has come under pressure from investors to return more cash in the form of share buybacks and dividends.

Related: US debt is eclipsing the rest of the world. So, where have the deficit hawks gone?

Cost pressures on GM and other automakers and suppliers have increased as demand has waned for traditional sedans. The company has said tariffs on imported steel, imposed earlier this year by the Trump administration, have cost it $1 billion.

Barra did not link Monday's cuts to tariff pressures but said trade costs are among the "headwinds" GM faces as it deals with broader technology change and market shifts.

GM's actions provoked anger from political figures on both sides of the US-Canada border, and from its main North American unions.

The United Auto Workers, which represents US workers, vowed to fight the cuts. "General Motors' decision today ... will not go unchallenged by the UAW," said Terry Dittes, the union's vice president in charge of negotiations with GM. Some UAW workers could land jobs at other GM factories, but many will face uncertain futures unless GM reverses course.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said he spoke with Barra and expressed "deep disappointment."

In the United States, Trump's economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, was scheduled to meet with Barra on Monday.

GM said it will take pre-tax charges of $3 billion to $3.8 billion to pay for the cutbacks, but expects the actions to improve annual free cash flow by $6 billion by the end of 2020.

Smaller workforce

GM's North American salaried workforce, including engineers and executives, will shrink by 15 percent, or about 8,000 jobs. The company said it will cut executive ranks by 25 percent to "streamline decision making."

Even as GM is moving to lay off salaried staff, the company is hiring. At GM's Detroit headquarters on Monday, there were signs directing people to a "new hire orientation" meeting.

Barra said GM can reduce annual capital spending by $1.5 billion and increase investment in electric and autonomous vehicles and connected vehicle technology because it has largely completed investing in new generations of trucks and sport utility vehicles. Some 75 percent of its global sales will come from just five vehicle architectures by the early 2020s, which means GM can reduce the people and capital required to keep its product portfolio updated.

Related: Trump’s NAFTA revisions — designed to help the US auto industry — could have the opposite impact

Unlike Japanese automakers Nissan, Honda and Toyota, which rely on a more flexible system where they make multiple vehicles at a single plant, GM has too many factories that make just a single model.

The collapse in sales of compact and midsize sedans has hit certain GM models harder than rival Japanese brands. Sales of the Honda Civic are down 11 percent through the first 10 months of 2018. But sales of the Chevrolet Cruze are off 22 percent.

The Hamtramck and Lordstown assembly plants are currently operating on one shift. A rule of thumb for the automotive industry is that if a plant is running below 80 percent of production capacity, it is losing money. GM has several plants running well below that, and Barra said North American operations overall were operating at 70 percent capacity. Consultancy LMC estimates that Lordstown operates at just 31 percent of production capacity in 2018.

Through the UAW, workers at Lordstown have worked to improve quality, cut the number of union locals to make it easier for GM to negotiate and agreed to the outsourcing of some jobs, in a bid to persuade the automaker to add more models to its factory line.

Trump won Ohio in 2016 campaigning on bringing manufacturing jobs back to America.

"So far, President Trump has been asleep at the switch and owes this community an explanation," US Representative Tim Ryan, a Democrat whose district includes Lordstown, wrote on Twitter.

So far, President Trump has been asleep at the switch and owes this community an explanation. We tried to get his attention on this issue two years ago. He promised us that his massive corporate tax cut would lead to dramatic reinvestments in our communities. (5/8)

— Congressman Tim Ryan (@RepTimRyan) November 26, 2018

At the same time, many of GM's plants producing its higher-margin trucks and SUVs are running on three shifts, with some running six and sometimes seven days a week to keep up with demand. Some displaced GM car plant workers could find jobs at truck factories, GM officials said.

Rivals Ford and Fiat Chrysler have both curtailed US car production. Ford said in April it planned to stop building nearly all cars in North America. Fiat Chrysler moved even earlier to discontinue most of its sedans.

Mexico wants internet access for all. Getting everyone online could reduce poverty, too.

Nov 26, 2018


The internet has been a right in Mexico since the nation’s constitution was amended in 2013 to guarantee universal online access.

Yet just 47 percent of households there reported having internet in 2016 — the most recent data available.

To get more citizens online, the government of President Enrique Peña Nieto has invested nearly $1 billion in its “Mexico Conectado” initiative since 2013, adding broadband connections to libraries, schools, hospitals and other public facilities nationwide, particularly in poor and rural areas.

Ensuring that all Mexicans have access to the internet would do more than just making good on the constitution’s unfulfilled promise — it would also give the country’s economy a boost, my research shows.

Related: In Mexico, e-commerce comes to the corner store

Internet access helps people escape poverty

Forty-three percent of Mexicans lived in poverty in 2016, according to the most recent data from the Mexican Institute of Statistics and Geography. That’s down just 3 percentage points from 2010.

Poverty rates have changed relatively little in Mexico over the past 20 years, despite ambitious anti-poverty programs offering cash assistance, food, health care and educational opportunities to the poorest families.

With its digital inclusion strategy, Mexico hopes to nudge social mobility upward. That’s because internet access and poverty reduction are strongly connected, as my study of 92 developing countries, including Mexico, confirms.

The internet is now all but essential to economic mobility in a digital world.

Students study and learn online. Unemployed people need the internet to find and apply for jobs. Factory workers use it to organize for better labor rights. Online trainings teach corporate employees new skills, helping them get promoted or change fields. Online resources can help farmers plan for weather changes.

Internet access makes it easier to move up in life for other reasons, too. Social media connects people to others outside their immediate circle, for example, and gives them information about their rights as citizens.

Acknowledging the link between technology and poverty reduction, the United Nations made one of its global development goals for 2030 to “significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet.”

Digital divide between rich and poor

In the United States, about 95 percent of people have access to the internet. Rates are similar in Germany, Sweden, Argentina and other wealthy countries.

Yet billions of people worldwide — the vast majority of them poor, many of them in India and China — still lack internet access. Last year was the first time that more than half the global population had access to the internet, according to Internet World Statistics.

In Mexico, 63 percent are considered internet users. The roughly 50 million people who remain offline are also generally the country’s poorest residents.

In Baja California Sur, one of Mexico’s richest states, for example, 75 percent of households had internet connections in 2016. But just 13 percent of households in Chiapas, a southern state where three-quarters of the people live in poverty, were connected to the internet. In neighboring Oaxaca state, where poverty is also very high, only 20 percent of households are online.

Mexico’s government understands that the digital divide between rich and poor is a problem for the country’s social and economic development. In 2013 it became the first country in the world to make internet access a constitutional right with government deemed provider of access.

Recent court rulings in France and Costa Rica have determined that the government cannot restrict internet access. But Mexico is unique in holding its government responsible for providing that service, as it would water service or public education.

Two independent regulatory bodies, the Federal Economic Competition Commission and the Federal Telecommunications Institute, were created to enforce the 2013 law.

Related: Workers in Mexico's border factories say they can barely survive, so they're turning to unions

Getting Mexico online

A reform that broke up business magnate Carlos Slim’s communications monopoly in 2013 aided in this effort by reducing prices for data plans on mobile phones and wireless connections at home. This helped more lower- and middle-class Mexicans get online.

But internet penetration is still scarce in the country’s poor rural south.

To help those communities, the government has created some 7,200 computing hubs offering free internet access and instructors to help visitors with basic skills like navigating the web, making resumes and the like.

The focus on computer literacy acknowledges that first-time internet users and older Mexicans may need hands-on help to benefit from the economic opportunities available online.

In heavily Indigenous parts of Mexico, the teachers’ challenge is greater.

Related: Mexico has its first Indigenous woman candidate for president

I interviewed staff and visitors at a public computer learning center in the Oaxacan mountain village of Tlahuitoltepec, where locals speak Mixe. This Mesoamerican language is used by some 100,000 people across the Mexican states of Oaxaca, Chiapas, Tabasco and Veracruz, yet there are few websites in Mixe and it is not among the languages Google translates.

Instructors in such places struggle simply finding enough Indigenous-language content online to make surfing the web rewarding and fun.

An estimated 35 percent of Oaxaca residents speak Indigenous languages. The proportion is similar in neighboring Chiapas. For many of the Mexicans who live in the areas with lowest internet penetration, then, Spanish is a second language. Others don’t speak it at all.

My findings suggest that language remains a barrier to the country’s digital inclusion strategy.

Related: Indigenous candidate offers voice, unity to Mexico's long-silenced native people

Getting students online

Mexico also has work to do when it comes to students.

Since 2013, over 5,000 rural public schools have gotten internet connections and 710,000 tablets were distributed to classrooms as part of the government’s Mexico Conectado program.

Students are also big users of the new government-funded computing hubs.

Related: A protest over education has turned into a movement in Mexico

Even so, only half of all Mexican public elementary schools have internet connections, according to a recent government report.

Getting all citizens online in this sprawling developing country, as Mexico’s government is constitutionally required to do, will be a massive challenge.

But my research indicates that bridging the digital divide will pay off economically in the long run. Giving the poorest Mexicans internet access provides more opportunity to move out of poverty. And that’s good for the entire country.The Conversation

Related: Mexican women lead initiatives to rescue native tongues

Jack J. Barry is a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Connecticut.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Clashing with Trump, US government report says climate change will batter economy

Nov 26, 2018


Climate change will cost the US economy hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century, hitting everything from health to infrastructure, according to a government report issued on Friday that the White House called inaccurate.

The congressionally mandated report, written with the help of more than a dozen US government agencies and departments, outlined the projected impact of global warming on every corner of American society in a dire warning that is at odds with the Trump administration's pro-fossil-fuels agenda.

Related: Why the military isn’t tracking climate change costs

"With continued growth in emissions at historic rates, annual losses in some economic sectors are projected to reach hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the century — more than the current gross domestic product of many US states," according to the report, the Fourth National Climate Assessment Volume II.

Global warming would disproportionately hurt the poor, broadly undermine human health, damage infrastructure, limit the availability of water, alter coastlines, and boost costs in industries from farming, to fisheries and energy production, the report said.

But it added that projections of further damage could change if greenhouse gas emissions are sharply curbed, even though many of the impacts of climate change — including more frequent and more powerful storms, droughts and flooding — are already underway. "Future risks from climate change depend primarily on decisions made today," it said.

The report supplements a study issued last year that concluded humans are the main driver of global warming and warned of catastrophic effects to the planet.

Related: Hear these voices from the front lines of climate change

The studies clash with policy under President Donald Trump, who has been rolling back Obama-era environmental and climate protections to maximize production of domestic fossil fuels, including crude oil, already the highest in the world, above Saudi Arabia and Russia.

White House spokeswoman Lindsay Walters said the new report was "largely based on the most extreme scenario, which contradicts long-established trends by assuming that ... there would be limited technology and innovation, and a rapidly expanding population."

The government's next update of the National Climate Assessment, she said, "gives us the opportunity to provide for a more transparent and data-driven process that includes fuller information on the range of potential scenarios and outcomes."

Trump last year announced his intention to withdraw the United States from the 2015 Paris Deal agreed to by nearly 200 nations to combat climate change, arguing the accord would hurt the US economy and provide little tangible environmental benefit. Trump and several members of his cabinet have also repeatedly cast doubt on the science of climate change — arguing that the causes and impacts are not yet settled.

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

Environmental groups said the report reinforced their calls for the United States to take action on climate change.

"While President Trump continues to ignore the threat of climate change, his own administration is sounding the alarm," said Abigail Dillen, president of the environmental group Earthjustice. "This report underscores what we are already seeing firsthand: Climate change is real, it's happening here, and it's happening now."

Previous research, including from US government scientists, has also concluded that climate change could have severe economic consequences, including damage to infrastructure, water supplies and agriculture.

Severe weather and other impacts also increase the risk of disease transmission, decrease air quality, and can increase mental health problems, among other effects.

Thirteen government departments and agencies, from the Agriculture Department to NASA, were part of the committee that compiled the new report.

An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic

Nov 25, 2018 10:27


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

If you want to keep watch on what’s going on in the Russian Arctic, there might be no better perch than Kirkenes, Norway. It’s a tiny town in the country’s far northeast, on a section of the Arctic Ocean that Norway shares with Russia, known as the Barents Sea. And it’s where Thomas Nilsen lives and edits an online newspaper called The Barents Observer.

The paper keeps a close watch on the Russian Arctic because it’s part of the neighborhood, and because there’s a lot at stake there, for Russians and the rest of us.

“We have to remember that half of the Arctic is Russia,” Nilsen said. “And half of Russia is Arctic. And the majority of the population living in the circumpolar Arctic actually are [in Russia].”

A man stands for a portrait in front of a painted wall that says Barents Observer

Journalist Thomas Nilsen poses for a photo in the offices of The Barents Observer in Kirkenes, Norway. The newspaper publishes in both English and Russian and covers environmental issues in the Russian Arctic. Nilsen recently found out he was no longer welcome in Russia and he's been fighting the decision in Russian courts.


Amy Martin/The World

There’s also a lot going on as the region warms up. If you’ve heard about something happening with climate change elsewhere in the Arctic, it’s happening in Russia, too — thawing permafrost, sea ice loss, deforestation, disruption of Indigenous communities; the list goes on and on.

In fact, in true Russian style, these stories are often bigger and more dramatic there than anywhere else. In Siberia, for instance, thawing permafrost has caused methane to build up and explode out of the soil, opening up huge craters and sometimes releasing ancient anthrax spores.

Resource development in the area is heating up, too, along with all the risks that can come with it. The world's biggest, liquefied natural gas plant is in north-central Siberia, threatening the future of the Nenets, an Indigenous reindeer herding culture. There are huge oil and gas projects in the eastern part of the country, too, plus offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. And some of the biggest companies in the Russian Arctic are also some of the region's worst polluters.

These are big stories, but outsiders, and many Russians, almost never hear about them. The Russian Arctic is a place that needs a lot more journalists asking a lot more questions. It's a place that needs people like Nilsen.

“We can help the rest of the world understand what’s happening up here by our reporting,” Nilsen said. “To go to the oil field or ... talk to the people living in the countryside or in the Russian Arctic, the Indigenous peoples on the tundra and so on.”

A man wearing a dark fur feeds a herd of reindeer in the snow.

A man feeds reindeer at a reindeer camping ground about 155 miles south of Naryan-Mar in Nenets Autonomous District, Russia, on March 4, 2018. The Indigenous Nenet tribe is one group threatened by expanded drilling in the Russian Arctic.


Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Nilsen has devoted much of his life to that kind of work. He’s been crossing the border to report on the western Russian Arctic for 30 years. But he says he’s not going back anytime soon. In March 2017, when he was on what he says was an ordinary trip into Russia, he was stopped at the border.

“[I was] taken aside, brought into a back room with a lot of officers who very politely, but still very strong, told me that I am no longer wanted in Russia,” he said. 

Nilsen says he was told he poses a threat to Russia's national security, but exactly what kind of threat was a complete mystery to him.

“There was just a message coming up on ... the passport control computer when I tried to enter,” he said. “So, I had to hitchhike back a few hundred meters back to the Norwegian side of the border and have not been in Russia since then.”

The expulsion came as something of a shock.

A changing Arctic Logo: The Big Melt

“I have all my papers in order, my journalist visa, my accreditation to work as a reporter in Russia,” Nilsen said. “I've not even got a speeding ticket in Russia over this 30 years ... I haven't violated any visa regulations or any other Russian laws or regulations, not one single time.”

A few days later, the Russian embassy in Oslo issued a press release saying Nilsen was on a so-called “stop list,” meaning he was no longer welcome in the country, although still without explanation.

But Nilsen was unwilling to let the matter rest. He took the FSB — the Russian security service — to court. “To find out why I am denied entry to Russia,” he said. “And secondly, to get back my right to do my job as a journalist on Russian territory.”

Much like its Soviet predecessor, the KGB, the FSB has a shocking amount of power and operates mostly in secret. Just figuring out that the FSB was responsible for his expulsion took three court cases, Nilsen says. Eventually though, with help from a lawyer in Moscow, his case got a hearing. Of course, since he was banned from the country, he wasn't allowed to be there for any of it.

But he says the judge in the case did a good job.

“They listened to both parties’ arguments and so on,” he said. “But then came the surprise. The ruling by the court was kept secret. The arguments and the reasons why I am not allowed to enter Russia is kept secret from my lawyer ... that is a clear violation of the Russian constitution.”

Nilsen appealed the ruling all the way to the Russian Supreme Court, but the court ruled for the FSB. It said Nilsen does pose a threat to Russia, and that the FSB doesn’t have to reveal what that threat is.

Again, Nilsen didn’t stop pushing back. He's taking the case all the way to the European Court of Human Rights.

With so much secrecy, Nilsen can’t say for sure what his expulsion is all about, but he has a hunch.

“Every society that has leaders who are on the paths of totalitarian systems are afraid of the freedom of speech,” he said. “They are afraid of free journalism. So, I think that the main reason why the media in Russia and also the Barents Observer here, covering cross-border issues with Russia, is under attack is because they’re afraid.”

Afraid, perhaps, because there's a lot that people could be angry about in the Russian Arctic. In one region, waste from a nickel mining company has heavily contaminated more than a thousand square miles of forest. An outside watchdog group has twice listed the area as one of the top 10 most polluted places in the world. Meanwhile, near Murmansk, just across the border from Norway, one recent study found dangerously high levels of heavy metals in local residents.

Cranes rise over a seaport at sunset. The water is glowing a bright orange.

A general view shows cranes in the city of Murmansk, the Barents Sea port in the Arctic Circle, Russia on Aug. 2, 2017. A recent study has found dangerously high levels of heavy metals in local residents.


Sergei Karpukhin/Reuters

Almost all of the big companies moving into the Russian Arctic have close ties to President Vladimir Putin's regime, and they don't take kindly to reporters trying to hold them accountable — especially reporters like Nilsen who are attempting to inform actual Russians.

Some outside journalists still travel throughout Russia, and report on corruption and repression, but The Barents Observer is one of the very few that publishes in Russian, with the express intention of trying to provide independent journalism to the Russian people themselves. Nilsen says the outlet has thousands of readers within Russia.

His expulsion wasn’t the first time The Barents Observer has been harassed by the Russian government, he says, even though the publication is tiny, with a full-time staff of two. In 2014, officials accused the Observer of being a mouthpiece for the Norwegian government and the FSB directly requested that Norwegian officials close the paper down.

“The Norwegian officials responded that, 'Ah, that's not the way it work[s] in Norway,'” Nilsen said. “We have the media freedom and authorities never interfere.”

For Nilsen, this fight is about a lot more than his own freedom to report in Russia.

Putin began cracking down on independent journalism almost immediately after being elected in 2000, and ever since, reporters who write critical stories have had a tendency to die under mysterious circumstances. A few months ago, three Russian journalists were murdered, and when an activist tried to investigate their deaths — and potential Kremlin connections — he was poisoned but survived. The Committee to Protect Journalists lists Russia as No. 11 on its Global Impunity Index, meaning that it's rare for anyone to be held accountable when Russian journalists are killed or attacked.

All of this violence and intimidation of the media has huge implications for Russians first and foremost, but Nilsen says it also matters to anyone who wants to try to understand the Russian Arctic. He says the media is needed there to serve its traditional role of ferreting out corruption and highlighting marginalized voices.

“The most untold stories that we really want to [do] are the consequences for the locals living in areas where big oil is moving in, or where the military start to rebuild their facilities,” he said. “The media's role of being the voice of like, Indigenous reindeer herders, that is what I'm most scared that we are lacking ... and that is that is what journalism is all about. It's about being inside and being able to see a story from different perspectives and that is the more difficult [thing] to do today in northern Russia.”

But Nilsen remains hopeful that things can change in the Russian Arctic.

A large bobble-type doll has a paper sign that reads,

The nevаlyashka doll in the offices of The Barents Observer has a sign on it that says, "Try to tip over freedom of expression and see what happens.” It's the staff's symbol of hope. “You can try to tip over free journalism,” editor Thomas Nilsen said, “but we will always come up again.”


Amy Martin/The World

“The day we lose the hope, then it’s a kind of game over,” he said. “So, of course, we do have hope.”

Nilsen and his colleagues have created a symbol of that hope — and their determination — in the offices of The Barents Observer in Kirkenes. It’s a slightly dressed-up version of a plastic Russian doll called a nevаlyashka, with huge green eyes and a red, round body.

If you try to knock it down, the doll bobs back up.

“You cannot tip it over,” Nilsen said. 

Observer staffers stuck a sign on the belly of the doll that says, “Try to tip over freedom of expression and see what happens.”

“You can try to tip over free journalism,” Nilsen said, “but we will always come up again.”

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

Read more in The Big Melt series: As the Arctic warms up, a 'new ocean' is bringing new commerce to the top of the world and Ice is us: Alaska Natives face the demise of the Arctic ice pack and The Arctic's Sámi people push for a sustainable Norway and Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care. and An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way. and In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic or take our Arctic quiz.   

A pioneering ‘rewilding’ project in England transforms a 200-year-old family farm

Nov 24, 2018 17:36


When writer Isabella Tree, and her husband, Charlie Burrell, inherited an estate in West Sussex, England, they assumed they would continue to farm, as generations of family had before them. But the intensive agriculture of their predecessors grew increasingly difficult and they decided that farming was no longer a viable option. So they began to mull over another idea: Give the land back to nature and let it take its course.

Isabella Tree’s recent book, "Wilding," is the story of how the land transformed after she and Burrell made this bold and heart-wrenching decision.

“It is a very, very difficult thing to do,” Tree says. “Going from intensive management, where you're really manipulating everything and tidying up and managing the land to the nth degree, to just sitting back and letting go is a massive mind swing.”

Related: A bold plan to slow the melt of Arctic permafrost could help reverse global warming

Tree and Burrel inherited the land in the 1980s from Burrell’s grandparents. It had been intensively farmed since World War II.

“We simply assumed that's what we would continue to do for the rest of our lives — carry on the family tradition and farm,” Tree says. “But when we took over the farm, it was already losing money hand over fist. So, we kept buying bigger machines, throwing more pesticides, more fertilizer, more nitrates. We built bigger dairies and changed our types of cows to higher milk-yielding cows.”

Eventually, it all became too overwhelming and the couple sold all their farm equipment and leased the land to a contract farmer. “It was a very, very black day,” Tree says.

“We are part of a long tradition of the family owning this land. Charlie's ancestors have been here since the Nash castle was built 220 or so years ago. For us, it really isn’t an option to sell. We feel we're stewards of this land and we can't just sell up and move out. So — to look forward to the future — we really had to think of something else — do something with the land rather than against it.”

Related: 'Rewilding' activists aim to bring back some long-extinct beasts to Europe

Contract farming also proved unprofitable, in part because the land sits on heavy clay, which makes farming difficult. The Old Sussex dialect has more than 30 different words for mud, Tree points out. “Even our contract farmer was very willing to give up when we found an alternative,” Tree says.

One of the first steps was to introduce herbivores to the land that could survive outside all year round without supplementary feeding and fend for themselves even in a harsh or wet winter, Tree explains.

They chose old breeds: Old English Longhorn; Exmoor ponies, one of the UK’s oldest breeds of horse; Tamworth pigs, another old breed closely related to Iberian swine; and they added fallow deer and red deer to the small number of roe deer already on the land.

Exmoor ponies

A string of Exmoor ponies.


Charlie Burrell, Knepp Estate Castle/The World 

“We’re not trying to recreate the past in any way,” Tree says. “We’re just trying to use a bit of inspiration from the past and recognize that herbivores in a landscape can trigger extraordinary natural processes — the way they trample and root, the way they rip branches. The red deer will debark trees. So, you’re really letting them manage the landscape for you.”

And that landscape has since changed dramatically. On a hot, sunny day, Tree says, the first thing you notice on a walk around Knepp Estate is the sound of insects — crickets, grasshoppers, bees, hover flies and many more.

“It's thick with insects,” Tree says. “If you go out there on a bicycle, you have to wear sunglasses because you're getting insects in your eyes.”

There is also a “surround-sound” of birdsong. Among the thickets of thorny scrub, there is a patchwork of water meadows running into open grazed areas, along with mature oak trees — all of it a haven for insects and birds.

Turtledove on a branch.

Turtledoves have returned to Knepp Estate, along with other iconic birds like the Nightingale and the Cuckoo bird.


Charlie Burrell, Knepp Estate Castle/The World 

Remarkably, Tree and Burrell didn’t re-introduce any of these creatures to the land, apart from the free-roaming animals. “They've all found us on their own,” Tree says.

Knepp now has 13 of the 18 breeding species of bat in the UK. One of them, the Bechstein's bat, is extremely rare. Peregrine Falcons, which typically nest on cliffs and in church steeples, now nest in one of their trees. Nightingales, a species usually associated with woodland, have taken up residence in Knepp’s exploding hedgerows and thorny scrub.

“They're choosing a very different habitat because it's suddenly available to them,” Tree explains.

Related: With no-fishing zones, Mexican fishermen restored the marine ecosystem

Because of Knepp’s size and proximity to a densely populated area of southeast England, they can’t introduce predators to the environment. So, by necessity, they must cull the herds of herbivores — the only real intervention they practice. This has produced an additional benefit: 70 tons a year of “wonderful, sustainable, ethical, pasture-fed organic Longhorn beef and venison and pork,” Tree says. “Because there are so few inputs — no agricultural buildings or supplementary feeding — we’re actually making profits! Whereas before, when we were farming, we rarely made a profit.”

Their neighbors among the adjoining farms initially reacted skeptically to the new venture next door. Like Tree and Burrell, the cultural ethos instilled in them was that every inch of land should be producing food. Over the last few years, however, this has begun to change.

“Post-Brexit, people are really worried about the future,” Tree says. “They've also seen how extraordinary the successes have been at Knepp. I think those successes, compounded by the fact that we're looking at the loss of EU subsidies, are making people rethink. We have a lot of landowners, farmers, policymakers and conservationists now pouring into Knepp to look at what we're doing, and to see if they can replicate something on their land.”

Tree also points out that the UK is facing another kind of farming crisis: “We have 100 harvests left before we have no topsoil in which to grow anything,” she explains. “It really is a terrifying thought. But rewilding, as we've seen from Knepp, can restore soil.”

But can rewilding be profitable for everyone? It’s hard to know. Tree and Burrell have been creative. Aside from the income stream generated by selling meat, they now rent out defunct agricultural buildings and have built a thriving “eco-tourism” business, which includes camping and luxury "glamping" which brings in around $385,000 a year. 

The wonderful thing about rewilding, Tree says, is that you never know how it might turn out.

Related: How a family is transforming its cranberry bog from environmental liability to climate change buffer

“We would love to see beaver back at Knepp,” she says. “They would be a fantastic contributor to hydrological engineering that would produce wonderful results for biodiversity. Maybe one day … we’ll see the English government accepting that bison could be back. Perhaps we'll even see wild boar breaking through our perimeter fence. By law, we can't release them, but we know they're in the vicinity. So, if they arrive here, they’ll be allowed to stay. It's just a question of hoping that our delightful Tamworth pigs will entice them in.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Megafires are becoming increasingly common in California and climate change is a leading factor

Nov 24, 2018 6:36


The Camp and Woolsey fires in November 2018 engulfed hundreds of thousands of acres of land in a matter of hours and so far have claimed a record number of lives. And according to climate change scientists, the fire situation in California is likely only to worsen over time.

Of the 20 largest wildfires in California, 15 of them have occurred since the year 2000. One of the reasons is that temperatures have been rising since the start of the 21st century, says Glen MacDonald, director of the White Mountain Research Center and professor of geography at UCLA.

As temperatures go up, the spring fire season starts earlier, the winter fire season goes later and the fuels become drier and drier during the summer period.

“We're into a 365-day-a-year fire season — especially in southern California,” MacDonald says. “And we've had some pretty good fires that have come up in December, January and February, and then they start off very early in the spring.”

California Governor Jerry Brown called this level of fire activity the “new abnormal” for his state. MacDonald says he, too, once used that term, but now he thinks it’s actually misleading.

Related: Forest fire surge may be blamed more by human touch than changing climates

“It makes it seem that this is the way it's going to be. But the fact is, according to all the various climate models and linked fire climate models, this is not the way it's going to be,” he explains. “It’s going to be worse by the time we get to 2100. I think we have to understand that right now, the train is not in the station, it's moving, and it's moving to a place we don't want to go.”

President Donald Trump recently made a statement saying that the wildfires resulted from "gross mismanagement of the forest,” and he threatened to withhold federal funding for California as a result. Like all the firefighting leadership in California and across the country, MacDonald reacted to this statement with “dismay and disappointment at comments that were ill-informed and insensitive.”

Related: A perfect storm of factors is making wildfires bigger and more expensive to control

“They're ill-informed because, for instance, the fire down here has nothing to do with forest management,” he explains. “There's no science behind that comment in this particular instance, whatsoever. And it's disheartening to hear our national leadership — instead of standing by the state and offering comfort to a large part of the country that is really suffering — taking a cheap political shot. … I think the general public, as well, is really, really disheartened by that."

The big question is, what can California do to prepare for a future of more devastating fires? It won’t be easy, MacDonald suggests, but there are some helpful steps the state can take.

“I think there are things that we can do in terms of how we manage our yards, our landscaping, the materials we use for our homes,” he says. “It seems very intrusive for the government to tell you what you can and can't plant in your garden, but that can make all the difference in the world to your house surviving or your neighbor's house surviving.”

Related: The US Forest Service is being overwhelmed by all the fires it must fight

“We're not going to [eliminate] these fires from the landscape,” he adds. “First of all, that would not be possible, and secondly, for many of the vegetation types, fires are a normal part of the ecosystem process. But there are things we can do to further decrease our vulnerability. I’m not saying they're cheap and I'm not saying that people are going to like them, but I think we really have to look at that hard now.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Spotify's Palestinian launch puts local artists on the map

Nov 22, 2018


Palestinian musicians are fast reaping dividends from their presence on Spotify, which launched its internet streaming service in the Middle East and North Africa last week.

"The Arab hub provides a unique platform that brings the full spectrum of Arab culture and creativity, past and present," said Suhel Nafar, a musician from the Israeli city of Lod who serves as the music streaming service's senior Arab music and culture editor. 

Related: This Ramadan tradition is under threat in Jerusalem

Spotify is the first major streaming company to launch a program specific to the occupied Palestinian territories, allowing local artists to reach new global audiences despite local challenges.

"As Palestinian artists, we face a lot of restrictions. Some cannot travel to perform in another country," said Bashar Murad, a Palestinian singer based in East Jerusalem, an area that Israel captured, along with the West Bank, in a 1967 war.

Related: Israel-Gaza border ignites in most serious fighting since 2014 war

He said Spotify is helping him to get his music heard.

"After the launch, my monthly followers [on Spotify] increased from 30 to something like 6,500," Murad added.


However, the lack of high-speed cellular services in the West Bank and Gaza Strip will limit the app's on-the-go use.

"I will have to be at home or at a cafe or a place where there is a good internet connection to be able to upload my songs to Spotify," said Mohammed Al-Susi, a rap artist from Gaza who registered for Spotify last week. 

The Palestinian territories are the only Arab market included in Spotify's regional launch that lacks 4G broadband infrastructure, although some consumers use speedier networks in neighboring Israel. The West Bank launched a 3G service in late 2017, but Gaza only has a 2G service.

Related: A botched Israeli raid on Gaza prompts dozens of retaliatory rockets fired into Israel

Once Gaza has 3G, "it will be something great. Better than posting my songs on Facebook and having to see people's comments. It is purely a venue for music," Susi said. 

Spotify has been unofficially available in the West Bank and Gaza for several years via accounts registered in Israel or other markets and accessed through a virtual private network, or VPN. Spotify launched in Israel in March.

Still, having a music and social service specific to the Palestinian territories is "something significant", said Murad.

"Despite the restrictions, we can unite on social media," he said.

As the Arctic warms up, a 'new ocean' is bringing new commerce to the top of the world

Nov 19, 2018 13:30


This story is part of our series The Big Melt. It comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

Richard Beneville never figured to end up in Alaska. He was a song and dance man in New York City.

“My ambition all my life has been the theater,” he said. “Give me a microphone and a top hat and a pair of tap shoes. I started tap dancing when I was 6.”

But Beneville developed a drinking problem. His family intervened and sent him to live with his brother in Alaska.

He never looked back. Thirty-six years later, he’s found himself in a job he could never have imagined back in New York.

“I'm mayor of Nome. And it's a kick in the ass!”

Nome is a town of about 3,800 people on the southern side of the Seward Peninsula, the knob of land way out on Alaska's western coast that forms the eastern side of the Bering Strait between the US and Russia.

A changing Arctic Logo: The Big Melt

“This is a cool town,” Beneville said, adding, “a really cool town. And it's a cool time to be mayor because so many exciting things are happening.”

Things like “the opening of the Arctic. I mean, we could start there,” he said.  

Related: Ice is us: Alaska Natives face the demise of the Arctic ice pack

“What's happening is the increased accessibility of going through the Bering Strait for a longer period of time each year because of climate change and the opening up of what is referred to by many as a new ocean. And that would be the Arctic.”

The Arctic Ocean has always been largely impassable for most ships, locked up in ice year-round. But with climate change, the Arctic region is warming up faster than any other part of the planet. Polar ice is receding quickly, especially in the summer months, which means more ships are able to come to the region, including more and bigger cruise ships. Tourism is booming in many Arctic communities, with cruise companies offering trips to watch polar bears, go dogsledding and even view receding glaciers before they disappear.

“If people can get there, they'll go,” Beneville said. “Tourism according to Dicky!”



This NASA illustration shows the difference between the average Arctic ice cover at the end of the summer melt season in 1981-2010 and at the same time in 2018. Arctic ice cover varies from season to season and year to year but on average it's declining quickly.


NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Not all Arctic communities are excited about that. Many towns up here are tiny, so it doesn't take many visitors to overwhelm the locals. Ships full of tourists can also bring pollution and disrupt wildlife. But cruise ships can bring a lot of money, too, and Beneville welcomes them to Nome.

“It's an opportunity for us to shine — not just Nome, but the region,” he said.

In 2016, a ship called the Crystal Serenity became the first large cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, the fabled route over Alaska and through the high Arctic Canadian archipelago. It took 32 days, and Nome was one of its first stops.

“Now, we have a cruise that begins in Seward, Alaska,” Beneville said. It “comes up, spends — as I say, you know, 800 people come to tea — and then goes on across Northwest Passage, Greenland, and down the eastern coast, Nova Scotia, all of that, and then ends in New York City. Well, now, that really is an interesting thing.”

Beneville wants to deepen Nome's port, so even more big ships can dock there. And he's hopeful those ships will bring more than tourists. He sees a future with Nome as a major way station, with ship traffic driving growth in population, jobs and prosperity.

Related: An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way.

He's not blind to the downsides of climate change here. But, as mayor, Beneville’s job is helping his community, and he says if he can harness the forces of climate change to do that, he will.

It's a confusing mix of threat and opportunity here in Nome, and it's part of a story that’s unfolding all around the Arctic.

shipping routes Melting ice, breaking ice 

Halfway around the world, captain Pasi Järvelin stands on the bridge of the icebreaker Polaris in Helsinki, Finland. Icebreakers are like the offensive line of the ship world. They power through the ice-cutting paths for research boats, oil tankers, military ships — basically, any craft hoping to travel through polar oceans may need help from an icebreaker.

The bridge of the Polaris is so far above the deck that you take an elevator to get there. It’s sleek and modern, with huge, tinted windows and dozens of screens all around. And the captain’s seat rolls forward and locks into place when the seas get rough or the ice piles up all around the ship.


The icebreaker Polaris in port in Helsinki, Finland. “I'm often asked, ‘Well, the ice is melting, who needs icebreakers?’” says Tero Vauraste, CEO of the state-owned company that owns the ship. But he says icebreakers are actually a growth business as the polar ice becomes less predictable.


Amy Martin/The World 

“It's a quite masculine job, yes, I would say,” Järvelin said with a chuckle. “It's very exciting, and I like icebreaking a lot.”

A lot of people in Finland like icebreaking.

Related: In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic  

“We dare to say that we are the world champion in icebreaking,” said Tero Vauraste, the CEO of Arctia, a state-owned icebreaker company that owns and operates the Polaris. “There are approximately 130 icebreakers in the whole world, and around two-thirds of those have been designed and built in Finland.”

And Vauraste says icebreakers are actually a growth business these days.

“I'm often asked, ‘Well, the ice is melting, who needs icebreakers?’” he said. “But it's actually vice versa … There is less ice, but it doesn't mean that the conditions get easier. They actually are more variable.”

As conditions change, icebreakers are leading the way through the Arctic Ocean, breaking open new trade routes at the top of the world.

If you're looking to cross the Arctic by ship right now, you basically have three options.

One is the route Richard Beneville described — the Northwest Passage through the high Canadian archipelago.

On the other side of the globe, there's the Northern Sea Route along the Arctic coast of Russia and Scandinavia. Russia is actively developing this route as a way of connecting Europe to Asia and making money from the ships that pass by.

But if sea ice continues its precipitous decline, as it’s likely to do, ships might someday be able to avoid both of these routes and use a third one — the Transpolar Sea Route, more or less straight across the top of the world.

And as in Nome, this new access likely will bring more ships.

“There will be [an] increase in the transit traffic, increase in tourism,” Vauraste said. “And of course, the great investment potential, which is worth one trillion. One trillion dollars … spread around the Arctic.”


"I like icebreaking a lot" says Polaris captain Pasi Järvelin. “Like they say in ‘Titanic,' I'm the king of the world!” 


Amy Martin/The World 

But all that potential cash isn’t just about traveling through the Arctic.

The Arctic is not a park to be preserved

A 2008 report from the US Geological Survey found that the Arctic is the biggest area of unexplored petroleum deposits left on the planet, with huge potential reserves both onshore and under the sea. Countries and companies around the world are eyeing those deposits, trying to figure if or when or how they might go after them.

Canada currently bans offshore oil and gas development in its part of the Arctic. The US had a similar ban put in place by former President Barack Obama, but it was overturned by President Donald Trump. In late October, the US gave provisional approval for a project off the North Slope of Alaska that could produce the first oil to be extracted from US Arctic federal waters.

“But the biggest investment potential is in the Russian areas,” Vauraste said. “About 20 percent of the Russian [gross domestic product] is coming from the Arctic areas.”

Vauraste says Russia is already extracting huge amounts of natural gas in northern Siberia, then liquefying it, putting it into tankers and shipping it to Europe and Asia along the Northern Sea Route.

And fossil fuels aren't the only resources in the Arctic. There are also valuable minerals and metals. Which raises a tough question — is there a danger in profiting off of the global disaster that is climate change?

“I'm not going there,” he said. “Because I'm saying that the Arctic is not a park to be preserved. Nor is it a dirty area where big nasty companies conduct their dirty business. But it's an area where you need to have a holistic approach on whatever you do.”

Vauraste says holistic means thinking not just about profit but also about environmental impacts and the people who live in the Arctic.

But is there a holistic, environmentally sound way to extract oil and gas? There are certainly ways to drill that are more or less damaging, but even if we don't spill a drop in the process, we'll still burn it. And that just speeds up the warming of the Arctic, a process that’s already moving fast.

Related: Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.

“The ice is receding and melting in the Arctic Ocean. It will probably be gone in 20 or 30 years for summertime,” said René Söderman, who heads up Arctic policy initiatives for Finland's foreign service and serves on the Arctic Council, a forum for collaboration between the eight Arctic countries and six Indigenous organizations.

And as the ice cover declines, Söderman says interest in the region is growing quickly, not just among neighboring countries.

“You just have to look at the globe and see who might have interests to deal with when that happens,” he said. “Not only the US and Russia. China very recently published its Arctic strategy.”

But Söderman says it would be wrong to characterize all of this activity as simply a mad dash to cash in on the Arctic as climate change makes it more accessible. He says there's also a lot of cooperation and negotiation in the region. Arctic Council members have agreed to help each other out on search and rescue missions and potential oil spills. They also collaborate on all kinds of scientific projects.

“So, from this point of view, you could maybe say that the Arctic Council is a confidence-building measure,” Söderman said.

That will be important, because if — or when — the Arctic becomes fully navigable in the summer, it could bring waves of change and not just in the way goods are shipped around the world. Observers say it could rearrange alliances between nations and shift the basic geopolitical order of the whole planet.

There are also big concerns about pollution. Any oil spilled from drilling or ships would be extremely hard to remove from frigid Arctic waters.

That’s something that definitely worries Söderman.

“What is concerning is that when that ice recedes from the Arctic Ocean, probably it will mean more traffic on the sea routes, and that will increase the risk of environmental accidents,” he said.

A whole new world is opening up in the Arctic as the ice recedes. There are dangers and opportunities. And for many people, like Polaris captain Jarvelin, there’s the thrill of blazing trails through a new frontier.

“Like they say in ‘Titanic,’” Jarvelin said about when he’s breaking up ice, “I'm the king of the world.”

You know your captain is confident when he has no qualms about referencing the “Titanic” while standing on his ship. 

The greatest challenge here in the changing Arctic, though, may not come from the ice, but the lack of it. We need polar ice to help keep the planet cool. But as the Arctic warms and the ice melts, the process triggers lots of feedback loops — processes in which warming creates new conditions that just contribute to more warming. And this is another one — the warming Arctic is giving us access to more of the very fossil fuels that are causing the warming.

In the long run, climate change will almost certainly be humankind's most expensive folly ever. But as economist John Maynard Keynes famously said, in the long run, we're all dead. And in the meantime, there are lives to be lived and money to be made in a changing Arctic.

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold.

The logo for the Podcast Threshold

After his life's work burned, audio recordist links California fires to the 'extinction of whole habitats'

Nov 19, 2018 5:35


As the deadly Camp Fire continues to blaze, the death toll rises and a choking smoke hangs over much of northern California.

It’s the second bad wildfire year in a row for Californians, and residents spared the worst impacts of this fire are being forced to relive losses that came with last year’s.

Among them is Bernie Krause, a prolific audio recordist who has been capturing the sounds of habitats around the world for 50 years for his company Wild Sanctuary

black and white photo of Bernie Krause

Bernie Krause has been recording the sounds of wild habitats for 50 years.


Chris Chung, Santa Rosa Press Democrat, courtesy of Bernie Krause

His Sonoma County home and everything in it was destroyed in a matter of hours late one night last October, after gusting winds brought the deadly Nuns Fire to his property outside of Glen Ellen, California.

“For the first time in my life, I realized that we were staring global warming in its malevolent eye,” Krause said. He saw the 10 acres of oak forest that surround his home catch fire in what seemed like an instant. 

“There wasn’t any place that we could look that we couldn’t see the fire,” Krause said. “It was spontaneous and everywhere.” 

Krause and his wife Kat escaped with their lives, driving over melting asphalt and through a wall of fire to safety. 

But much of his life’s work was destroyed when Krause’s home studio went up in flames. The walls of that studio and its closets were lined with old reel-to-reel tapes, digital recordings and 50 years’ worth of notebooks.

“All of the metal on the reels of tape melted,” Krause said. “It was obliterated, it was all ash.” 

One complete copy of Krause’s archive survived. He’d stored it in France just months before the fire broke out. 

But the symbolism is hard to ignore. Krause’s recordings, which capture how humans are degrading the natural world, were themselves destroyed in a wildfire that’s fueled, in part, by man-made climate change. 

“Well over 50 percent of my archive comes from habitats that are either altogether silent or they can no longer be heard in any of their original forms now,” Krause said. “In other words, this is extinction of whole habitats.”  

The rainforest habitat in Sumatra where Krause recorded orangutans bellowing is mostly gone, he says, the trees largely logged. 

The family of elephants that a colleague of Krause’s recorded drinking from a swamp in the Central African Republic were later poached. 

And an Alaskan breeding ground is growing quieter, Krause says, as climate change renders the area less hospitable for the migratory birds that have long used it.   

Flames threaten once again 

Today, little more than a year after fire took their home and almost all of their belongings, the flames are again closing in on Krause and his wife Kat.

The deadly Camp Fire is about 120 miles away from the temporary home they’re renting in Sonoma. Smoke hangs thickly over their house and the surrounding vineyards.

“We can hardly see the ridgeline, which is about a half a mile across the valley where we live, and I’m coughing from the smoke,” Krause said.

 The sun burns a dystopian red overhead.  

“It’s a very eerie kind of reddish-orange, from sunrise to sunset,” Krause said. 

And Krause, whose ear is finely tuned to pick up the sounds of nature, has noticed how quiet it is outside. Typically, fall evenings in this part of California are loud with cricket song.

But now, it’s almost silent outside. 

“Normally there’s hundreds of crickets out here vocalizing,” Krause said when he stepped out of his house on a recent evening. “But not tonight. Not any night since these fires.” 

Krause said this fire feels like deja vu after what he went through last fall, but the same feeling comes over him during many recording trips these days. 

room destroyed by fire

Bernie Krause's studio after a 2017 California wildfire destroyed his home. 


Courtesy of Bernie Krause

“I’m getting a lot of that every time I go out into the field now,” Krause said. “I see the habitats changing, when I go back to them, they’re subtly changing in some places and radically changing in a lot of others. And that’s where I am not optimistic.” 

Krause worries many people aren’t linking the apocalyptic scenes of wildfires in California to climate change, even though scientists say they are related. California is warming up and drying out.  

“But I am hopeful,” Krause said, “that there is some young kid out there who will have an idea how to get some serious, no-fooling-around action about eliminating the use of fossil fuels.” 

For now, Krause and his wife are closely watching the fire. The couple plans to evacuate if it gets within 50 miles of their house.  

Already, their emergency bags are packed and waiting by the front door. 

Zinke announces new leases for offshore wind power on both US coasts

Nov 19, 2018 10:02


On Oct. 18, amidst a host of ethics and corruption investigations, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke made a surprising announcement: Beginning Dec. 13, his department will begin to auction leases for offshore wind power in Massachusetts, with California and Rhode Island soon to follow.

Mr. Zinke is now subject to more than a dozen different investigations concerning his actions as head of Interior. Bobby McEnaney, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, says the allegations run from relatively minor, like forcing his employees to walk his dog, to deeply troubling, like a boat trip he took to the Channel Islands during which he was accompanied by political donors and failed to notify the department.

Secretary Zinke is also being investigated for his role in the decision to reduce the size of two national monuments in Utah, a plan which happens to benefit one of his political allies, a uranium mining company.

“What we see with Ryan Zinke and this administration is an effort to please the oil and gas and other industry developers,” McEnaney says. “He has said directly to oil and gas developers at conferences, ‘I serve you. I am here for you.’”

So, when Zinke, speaking of wind power, declared that “harnessing this renewable resource is a big part of the Trump administration's 'Made in America' energy strategy,” he took many people by surprise.

“The Trump administration has been anti-renewable energy and pro-coal and dirty energy, but Zinke is from Montana and they have a lot of wind power up there,” says Joseph Romm, a former deputy assistant energy secretary in the Clinton Administration and founder of “He seems to understand that wind power is the fastest growing form of clean energy in this country and around the world.”

Previous offshore wind projects in Massachusetts have faced strong opposition from local residents, but these new leases have a better chance, Romm says. They are being offered in a different area than the Cape Wind project, which was controversial, and the technology has improved such that many of the concerns about offshore wind have diminished. At the same time, the economic benefit of wind power has greatly increased because the costs have been dropping so quickly.

California is in the process of working with the Department of Interior to develop an offshore leasing plan, but California’s coastline requires different technologies than typical wind turbines.

On the East Coast of the United States, the continental shelf slopes gradually, whereas in California the continental shelf drops off very sharply, Romm explains. So, wind turbines off the West Coast will have to be placed in deep water, disconnected from the ocean floor. This means they have to float and floating turbines have been more challenging. But the last couple of years have seen tremendous advances in this technology, Romm says.

In addition, the new turbines are bigger and taller than older ones, which allows them to harness steadier winds. “Literally, the wind is available as much as you get from a typical natural gas power plant,” Romm explains. “The technology has gotten better and the ability to operate in deep water is really opening up the possibilities of offshore wind, not just off the coast of the United States, but around the world.”

While Zinke’s plan is a good step, it's “clearly just a drop in the ocean, as it were, compared to the much larger attack on clean energy and clean power that the administration has launched,” Romm notes.

It's also worth remembering, Romm says, that the only wind project currently operating in the US, off the coast of Rhode Island, took many years to get through all of the legal requirements. “I think there's every reason to be very positive about the direction here, but the fact is, the United States has been very slow,” he adds.

The Trump administration has also been unwilling to recognize that offshore wind projects are big job creators, Romm says.

“With traditional power plants, most of the jobs are in the building of the power plant,” he explains. “In the case of wind, rather than building a power plant and just sticking fuel in it, you're actually manufacturing the wind turbines, which generates really high-paying jobs. Then you need the maintenance jobs. One of the fastest-growing jobs in the entire United States is wind power technicians.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

The US midterms 'blue wave' has mixed results for the environment

Nov 19, 2018 9:59


The 2018 US midterm elections ushered in a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives — along with new Democratic governors — who pledge to act on climate change. It also ushered out some climate-denying Republicans.

Yet overall, the elections had mixed results for the environment, despite the Democratic successes, says Peter Dykstra, an editor with Environmental Health News and

For example, two almost identical clean energy initiatives in the states of Arizona and Nevada had different outcomes.

In Arizona, Tom Steyer, the billionaire activist, was responsible for much of the $23 million spent to support an initiative to pass a clean energy measure that would have required state utilities to use 50 percent clean energy by the year 2030. The initiative lost primarily because utility companies spent even more money — about $30 million.

In Nevada, however, a similar measure that requires 50 percent clean energy by 2030 passed and money was not quite as big a factor, Dykstra says.

Florida passed a measure that would ban offshore drilling in state waters, while voters in the state of Colorado rejected a measure that would have restricted oil and gas drilling on state-owned land. In Washington State, a proposed tax on carbon was defeated by “an absolute avalanche of fossil fuel industry money,” Dykstra says.

Marsha Blackburn, a Tennessee congresswoman and Tea Party darling, won the election as a US senator, replacing retiring Republican Bob Corker. Blackburn is best known in environmental circles for leading an effort in 2012 against energy-efficient light bulbs on behalf of an incandescent light bulb manufacturer in her district.

On the other hand, another Tea Party hero, Congressman Dave Brat from Virginia, lost his re-election bid. Brat became a phenomenon four years ago when he challenged and defeated Eric Cantor in the primary for a congressional district in suburban Richmond, Virginia. Cantor was house majority leader and thought of as a potential future speaker of the house, yet Brat came of out of nowhere, beat him in the primary and then won the general election.

Brat served four years in Congress, compiling a lifetime League of Conservation Voters score of 1 percent. He was defeated by a Democrat named Abigail Spanberger, also an unknown in politics.

Among the anti-environment GOP remembers now gone: California Republican Dana Rohrabacher, an avid surfer and an equally avid opponent of the Clean Water Act and other measures to protect the ocean; Darrell Issa, a retiring Southern California congressman who pushed to investigate climate scientists; and Lamar Smith, the veteran Texas congressman who recently chaired the House Science Committee and, says Dykstra, used it as “sort of a chamber of inquisition for climate scientists.”

Smith is being replaced by Chip Roy, another Republican climate change denier. Roy has called concern about climate change “hysteria” and expressed doubt about humanity’s contribution to the problem.

Another Texas Republican, "Smokey Joe" Barton, retired and was replaced with a new GOP member. Barton got his nickname from environmentalists because he was a close friend to all manner of polluters. “Joe Barton’s claim to fame was demanding that President Obama apologize to BP for being so mean to them over the 2010 Gulf Oil spill,” Dykstra explains.

Carlos Curbelo, a Republican from South Florida who started and co-chaired the Climate Solutions Caucus, also lost his re-election bid, and, in Illinois, a Democratic scientist named Sean Casten was elected, which Dykstra says has environmentalists and other scientists excited.

“There's been a push for the past year or so to get scientists more involved in politics and to have some actually run for office,” Dykstra explains. “Casten has postgraduate degrees in molecular biology and in engineering. He's also a successful entrepreneur in clean energy. He took on a six-term congressman named Peter Roskam in the Chicago suburbs.”

“Roskam had already been under environmental criticism for ignoring pollution from a local factory,” Dykstra continues. “Casten came in with a new voice for suburbs ready for a change. Expect him to be a loud, well-educated, role model of a successful clean energy entrepreneur in the House of Representatives.”

In Maine, a Democrat is replacing Governor Paul LePage, whose most famous environmental moment came when he dismissed the risks of BPA, the potential endocrine disruptor, by saying the worst case would be that "some women may get little beards." Maine’s new governor is now a woman, Janet Mills.

Not so long ago, the environment was a bipartisan issue, Dykstra notes. A Republican president, Richard Nixon, started the EPA. In his 2008 campaign for president, Senator John McCain advocated for strong action to slow global warming.

“It's hard to say when we'll get back to that, or if we'll get back to that,” Dykstra says. “All we know is that we're not there now and it's going to be a long road ahead. And if the two parties want to define themselves on differing environmental values, we’ll be headed in the wrong direction again.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

After Maria, Puerto Rican women farmers work together to build resilience

Nov 14, 2018 5:10


High in the mountains of Puerto Rico, a group of women struggles to keep their balance as they drive pickaxes deep into the earth of a hillside guava orchard. They’re digging a narrow trench called a swale on the steep terrain of this 7-acre farm.

It’s a low-cost, low-impact way to retain rain water and reduce erosion in a place where both can be a challenge.

With a swale “you end up storing most of your water in the soil itself, so the plants can access it whenever they need it,” said Daniella Rodríguez Besosa, who has her own farm nearby. Besosa is part of a group called the Circuito Agroecológico Aiboniteño — all farmers, mostly women — who’ve been working together since Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017 to help each other’s farms recover and become more sustainable.

Maria “was an eye-opener for a lot of people,” Besosa said. “It was also a call to action. Nobody else is going to help us; we need to help ourselves.”

Farms in Puerto Rico were devastated during Hurricane Maria. It’s been estimated that 80 percent of the crops on the island were destroyed, and $1.8 billion of damage was done to agricultural infrastructure.

“The best part from this hurricane crisis was this, that we get to organize to help each other recover,” said Janette Gavillan, the owner of the guava orchard the Circuito is working on.

Related: In a Puerto Rico neighborhood still waiting for power, this community kitchen is like ‘therapy’


Janette Gavillan says the collective effort is helping prepare her small farm to stand up better to future storms.


Paige Pfleger/The World

Gavillan is a retired chemistry professor and is relatively new to farming. But she says working with the Circuito has taught her ways to be more sustainable.

“I’m getting ready this time, not for [another] hurricane [but] for the farm, for the benefit of the whole ecosystem,” Gavillan said. 

Since Maria, the Circuito’s members have come to see sustainability as synonymous with resilience and independence. They hope that if they’re able to rely only on themselves, they’ll be better prepared for the next big storm, or at least be better able to recover.

There’s science to back up that hope. When researchers from the US, Colombia and Germany studied farm damage after extreme weather events like hurricanes, they found that diversified, small farms suffer less damage than large, single-crop farms.

Related: It may be getting harder for Puerto Rico’s national forest to recover from storms

A few miles from Gavillan’s farm, Jessica Collazo works a small plot dotted with baby chicks and thin beds of fruits and vegetables. The plateau on which it sits drops off and disappears as if swallowed by the valley below, giving Collazo a panoramic view of what looks like a mountain paradise beyond.

After Maria, though, things weren’t so serene. Collazo and her husband support their family by selling their produce at local markets, but she says after Maria, they had to start from zero.


Jessica Collazo says the brigade of local farmers helped the small farm she runs with her husband recover after the family was “left with nothing” after Hurricane Maria.


Paige Pfleger/The World

“We were left with nothing,” Collazo said. The storm washed her crops, seeds and soil over the side of the mountain.

The brigade of local farmers helped her clear fallen trees and get new seeds. Circuito members also built banks on the edges of the mountain and dug swales that Collazo hopes will reduce the damage from the next hurricane.

“On my own, that would take me months,” Collazo said. “But with help, it took only a few hours.”

Collazo hopes the expertise and extra hands of the Circuito members will help her family reach its goal of building a completely self-sustaining farm. She says she wants to dig her own well so she doesn’t have to depend on the government for water, and install solar panels so she doesn’t have to rely on the local electric utility.

Related: Hurricanes blew away Puerto Rico's power grid. Now solar power is rising to fill the void.

Those changes are already in place at Besosa’s farm in Aibonito. Besosa installed solar panels and a rain catchment system after Maria. She says the farm had already diversified its crops, so in the days after Maria, they still had fresh food.

“We felt like the richest people in the world,” Besosa said. “To actually have greens on our plate was such a luxury.” And by sharing the foundations of sustainable farming, Besosa says she hopes she can help her community feel as rich as she did when the next hurricane comes.


Farmer Daniella Rodríguez Besosa says Hurricane Maria "was also a call to action. Nobody else is going to help us, we need to help ourselves.”


Paige Pfleger/The World

Greece's refugee crisis creates a strain on an already fragile ecosystem

Nov 13, 2018


As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, the influx of nearly 1 million refugees and migrants passing through Greece has had a devastating effect on its environment and economy, particularly during the summers when tourism's high season is in full swing. 

The refugee crisis has exacerbated the damage on Greece's already fragile environment, leaving many Greeks worried that tourism — its largest industry — will suffer even more after getting hit hard by the debt crisis that began in 2009. 

Nearly 60,000 refugees remain stranded in Greece, according to UNHCR data, and are spread out between three main islands — Lesbos, Chios and Samos — where they face abhorrent conditions, as well as mainland Greece in the cities of Athens and Thessaloniki, where the most environmental damage exists. 

“The pollution between Turkey and the Greek islands is really beyond everybody’s imagination, and the island of Lesbos has been at the epicenter,” explained Emmanuel Nisiotis, long-time resident and business owner on the island of Lesbos. “This is not a new thing, but now we’ve reached a point where it’s very, very serious.” 

The refugee crisis reached a head in the fall of 2015 and spring of 2016 with upward of 5,000 refugees and migrants arriving daily. Yet, in 2016, Greece also raked in 32.8 billion euros, or around 19 percent of the GDP, from tourism alone. In 2017, that number rose to 35 billion euros or 20 percent of the GDP. 

According to the World Travel & Tourism Council, this income will rise by 5.3 percent in 2018 and increase 3.7 percent annually to 52.8 billion euros to about 23 percent of the GDP by 2028. But fear still remains as refugee camps have put a strain on an already fragile ecosystem that Greek tourism depends on more than ever. 

Refugees packed on a boat in the sea.

Refugees arrive by boat to the Greek island of Lesbos. 


Fahrinisa Campana/The World 

Related: Greece seeks to speed refugee processing, ease camp overcrowding

Nisiotis, 64, and his Greek American wife, Nikki Blissary, 52, have been living and working on the island of Lesbos for the past 30 years. Until two years ago, they owned a cafe but had to close shop due to a dip in business that coincided with the influx of refugees to the island. They are now working on launching an environmental nongovernmental organization, Clean Wave, to combat environmental issues caused by the refugee crisis as well as years of apathy by local Greeks.

“The population obviously — amongst this economic depression — hasn’t really paid any attention to what has been going on,” said Nisiotis during a phone interview. “No one really wants to do anything about nature, which is understandable, because they have to make a living, but is also not understandable because we are part of nature,” he continued.

Clean Wave is part of a growing number of environmental nonprofits and dedicated individuals who have seen the potential to transform the devastation into job creation as an example of better environmental practices — on Lesbos in particular as well as throughout Greece. 

Clean Wave, once officially launched, aims to fight poor environmental practices and lack of awareness among Greeks and incoming refugees through educational programs. 

“Everybody ... polluting these waters or anywhere around the world has to be stopped primarily through education. We have to educate people — there’s no other means to stop them,” explained Nisiotis. “Policing every single thing and every single fishing boat and every single refugee is impossible. Even if we clean for another 1,000 years we won’t make a difference [if we don’t change]."

Related: Greece exits bailout, but 'shackles and the asphyxiation continue'

Organizations like Clean Wave and The Dirty Girls — a small organization that collects, washes and reuses heavy-duty UNHCR blankets — are fighting an uphill battle. 

The Dirty Girls co-founder Alison Terry-Evans explained, “Nobody — not the government, not the NGOs, nobody — wants to pay for the washing of the blankets,” which she says she and a small team of international volunteers and local laundries wash to hospital standards and are cheaper to wash than to throw out and replace. 

“I have to raise the funds from donors all over the world, and we are talking about at least 1 million euros at this point in time.” According to her calculations, The Dirty Girls have saved and reused over 700 tons of material that otherwise would have ended up in a landfill.

In most refugee camps across Greece, food is served three times daily by the military in plastic containers, with plastic eating utensils and plastic water bottles, Terry-Evans explains. For example, at Moria camp on Lesbos, three meals a day times 9,000 residents produces 27,000 plastic containers. 

These plastic containers are not recycled because Lesbos has never had a recycling center. Instead, the camp dumps them into a landfill every single day. Terry-Evans points out that despite the existence of numerous environmental education and awareness programs targeting the refugee population, the lack of an existing infrastructure in Greece to deal with the problem of excessive use of non-recyclable plastics compounds the growing problem. 

This is just the tip of the iceberg, according to Terry-Evans. All the used life jackets and rubber dinghies littering the shores of the main islands where refugees commonly arrive also need a place to go. 

“The whole issue of solid waste management is really big,” stated Demtres Karavellas, chief executive officer of the World Wide Fund for Nature in Greece. Based in Athens, the WWF has attempted to prevent and reverse environmental degradation in the region since 1969. “We have gone from a situation where we’ve had several hundreds of illegal landfill sites to a situation of a few of these, but still [the issue] is there. There’s tons to be done on this in terms of the whole ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ circle and what that means.” 

Upcycling: a way forward

Upcycling programs have popped up as one solution to the lack of adequate recycling centers on the islands. Organizations like Lovest — a Greek upcycling social enterprise started in early 2016 — and Mimycri, a German organization started in 2015 by two Germans who were volunteering on the island of Chios, have focused on clearing the islands of thousands of discarded life jackets and rubber dinghies by turning them into usable products, such as backpacks, book covers and jewelry. 

“‘Lovest’ actually comes from a very simple combination of ‘life vest’ and of course ‘love,’” explained Jai Mexis, an award-winning architect and co-founder and director of Odyssea, under which the ‘Lovest’ initiative falls. “It has to do with the symbolic representation of transforming a product that was discarded on a beach into a product of value and something that carries more than just the material it’s made of.”

Lovest quickly expanded from a small beach cleanup initiative into something much bigger, providing “employment opportunities to people in need, be they local or guest [refugee/migrant] communities,” said Mexis. By employing refugees in the upcycling process, as well as low-income and vulnerable Greeks, Lovest is tackling two issues at once: cleaning seas and beaches of nondegradable materials, and creating jobs in an economy where the youth unemployment rate reached approximately 38 percent in July 2018.  

Lovest's profits go directly back into “different social projects like a mobile medical unit or a playground from recycled materials that the mayor of Chios asked us for,” explained Mexis. 

The organization recently partnered with Aegean Rebreath, an independent Greek organization consisting of a handful of volunteer deep-sea divers whose mission is to clean Greece’s polluted seabeds. 

“Mostly everyone is really aware of the [coast], and some actions are taking place there,” explains Giorgos Sarelakos, founder of Aegean Rebreath, over coffee in downtown Athens. “However, nobody knows what’s happening beneath the surface.”

This year, Aegean Rebreath removed eight tons of debris — fishing nets, metal and other trash — from the seabed surrounding Athens alone.

But Sarelakos admits that the problem with environmental issues in Greece is large and complex. “In order to address the problem, you need to have multidimensional activities. We are currently setting up some clean-up and collection stations — marine litter collection stations — on the islands,” Sarelakos added. 

“But we don’t only do cleanups. We do training in schools, training with fisherman, and we have awareness, impact and engagement [programs]. We do capacity-building with the municipalities, and now we are trying to start research on nano plastics, which have entered the food chain and our bodies.” 

“What’s happened in this country over the period of this [economic] crisis is that on the one hand, people locally have become a lot more alienated from the system, because they feel that they’ve been let down," WWF's Karavellas notes. “In a sense, it’s led to a lot more solidarity at the local level. Over the last few years, a number of really cool grassroots groups have come together and they are taking on more responsibility ..." 

But is the trend scalable from local to national or even global? “How can we make this a real turning point for the country?" Karavellas wonders. 

Refugees wrapped in gold reflective blankets to stay warm.

Refugees warmed by heated blankets as they arrive in Lesbos, Greece. 


Fahrinisa Campana/The World

Like many others in this field, Sarelakos sees the potential of children in the fight for a cleaner environment. “Kids are very interested in this and they realize the problem. However, there’s a lack of culture concerning government, local authorities and people. We need a new culture, and there has to be a change in the way we talk about the environment.”

Stavros Mirongiannis, manager of the Kara Tepe Refugee Camp on Lesbos Island, agrees. “Our kids are the future so we try to communicate to the kids that they must protect the Earth, that it’s in their hands.”

Still, Kara Tepe produces over 3,000 black plastic food containers every day, thrown in the landfill only a few kilometers down the road from the camp, highlighting the crisis of implementation when it comes to environmental initiatives. “Greece has a strong law, but we don’t enforce it,” said Mirogiannis. 

An opportunity for change

While the current refugee crisis and 10-year economic crisis has been challenging, Karavellas hates to see this as a justification for inaction on environmental issues. “I do think it’s still being used as an excuse, either directly or indirectly," he says.   "The mindset isn’t where it should be. We are still in crisis management mode rather than thinking [about the future]. Karavellas acknowledges that youth are more interested in environmental issues but wonders how that can translate into political action.

Rachel LeClear, a long-time volunteer on the island of Lesbos, is one of many individuals and organizations who see the current refugee crisis as an opportunity for change. 

“If you look at the level of skill and experience, people are resources,” she said during a Skype interview in August. “And if you look at the materials that are washing up on shore and the creativity people have in making something beautiful or functional out of it, all of this is an opportunity. It’s just a matter of how society reacts to it that makes it possible to capitalize off this opportunity,” she continued.  

Related: Refugee women in Greece are moving forward. But many men around them are not.

LeClear has participated in large beach cleanups that make it possible for organizations like Lovest and Mimycri to get their hands on reusable materials needed to make their products. Now, instead of throwing hundreds of life jackets and rubber dinghies into the already staggeringly large landfill — dubbed “life jacket cemetery” —upcycling organizations arrange to collect these materials after a beach cleanup. 

Orange life jackets in a heap.

Life jackets and rubber dinghies fill already staggeringly large landfills dubbed "life jacket cemetery." 



Fahrinisa Campana/The World

Long-time residents of the island, Nisiotis and his wife both believe in the potential of these smaller initiatives, and they also believe that it wasn’t by chance that they got into this type of work. Although their own business closed its doors due to the refugee crisis and a lack of tourism, they remain hopeful about their new organization, Clean Wave, and, more importantly, about the future of Lesbos.

“Beyond the politics and the history behind the refugee crisis, and the pollution, I think Lesbos could set an example,” Nisiotis explained. “It’s hard-hit by the economic crisis, tourism has been hard-hit with businesses closing, and pollution is only one part of it. We believe that Lesbos should be the example.”

Meanwhile, Karavellas and others are adamant about the need for an immediate mindset shift: “... We need a new way of looking at the environment — [in] times of crisis for a country like Greece, [the environment] is a critical competitive advantage of the country,” Karavellas stated. "... Now is the time for a vision and we need to think about the crisis as a time for change."

As Nisiotis sees it, Lesbos “would be a good unification point to have refugees and locals interacting for something that is unique — clean up after a mess that no one is particularly responsible for, yet everyone is [responsible for].”

While Greece continues to struggle out of its crippling financial and ongoing refugee crises, upcycling programs that also employ refugees and migrants may be paving the way forward for a cleaner and more prosperous Greece.

Editor's note: This version corrects Alison Terry-Evans's name and clarifies that The Dirty Girls has a co-founder. 

How a forest became Germany’s poster child for a coal exit

Nov 13, 2018 5:42


The German energy company RWE “made a big mistake,” according to energy researcher Patrick Graichen.

RWE owns the Hambacher Forest in the western German state of North Rhine-Westphalia, an old-growth oak and beech forest 25 miles from Cologne. It’s home to owls, dormice and the endangered Bechstein’s bat, but for RWE, it’s not what’s in the forest that counts, but what’s under it: lignite or “brown coal,” the source of 23 percent of Germany’s electricity. (Anthracite or “black coal” makes up another 13 percent). 

For decades, RWE has been slowly razing the forest and surrounding towns to expand its adjacent coal mine, which is among Europe’s largest producers of lignite coal and greatest sources of carbon dioxide pollution. And earlier this fall, the company moved to start cutting a new section that protesters have been occupying.

Related: Germany talks a good game on climate, but it's still stuck on coal

The activists had been living in homemade treehouses in an effort to block RWE from clear-cutting, and after a yearslong standoff, things came to a head when RWE called in federal police to evict the tree-sitters and destroy their camps. Activists were arrested, and in the melee a journalist fell from a tree and died. 


Climate activists gather in the Hambacher Forest to protest Germany's continued use of heavily polluting coal.


Marcus Teply/The World 

The events sparked a public outcry here, in part because Germany has officially decided that coal’s days are numbered. 

In recent years, Germany has staked much of its national identity and reputation on its Energiewende or national transition to cleaner energy sources as part of its effort to fight climate change. The country now produces 35 percent of its electricity with renewables and has cut carbon emissions 28 percent from 1990 levels

But to meet its future climate targets, Germany needs to make far greater cuts, and that means phasing out coal-fired power plants, which are a major source of the greenhouse gas pollution that’s linked to atmospheric warming. In February, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government agreed for the first time to set a firm deadline to close down the coal-power industry. A government commission is now working out the details and is expected to announce its recommendations by the end of the year. 

That made it an awkward time for RWE to push forward on cutting down Hambacher Forest, said Graichen, director of the climate think tank Agora Energiewende

“They thought, while at the same time, while the coal commission was debating about the future of coal, they could go on doing business as usual,” Graichen said. “And of course, that was the key trigger to mobilize the environmental movement in Germany.”

Related: In Germany, miners and others prepare for a soft exit from hard coal

Over several weeks this fall, Hambacher Forest became an unexpected poster child for Europe’s anti-coal movement. Local families joined climate activists at the forest for nature walks, picnics and protests. Rallies drew tens of thousands of demonstrators from across Europe. And the rallying cry, “Hambi bleibt” (“Hambi stays”), went viral on social media, garnering support from as far away as Australia and the United States, and inspiring a nearby counterprotest by coal workers to adopt the slogan, “Hambi muss weg” (“Hambi must go”).

For its part, RWE says it’s not trying to fight the future.

“We know there is a coal exit,” said RWE spokesperson Guido Steffen. The company, which owns both coal mines and power plants, is also making the switch to renewables. But Steffen says Germany still needs coal for now because renewables aren't reliable enough yet. 

Plus, he says, Hambacher Forest and the coal underneath it are RWE property.

“We have permits; we had court cases that stated [expanding] Hambach Mine is all right,” Steffen said. 

Related: Britain built an empire out of coal. Now it’s giving it up. Why can’t the US?

The potential effect of the battle over Hambacher Forest on the coal commission’s decisions is still unknown, although Steffen admits that commission members “will not be unimpressed by the protests.” A Nov. 1 midterm report focused on plans for helping transition local economies in coal regions but it left discussions of an exit date for the final report, which is due in December.

After a recent court ruling blocking further cutting in the Hambacher forest, protesters built new tree houses to resume their occupation of the forest.

After a recent court ruling blocking further cutting in the Hambacher forest, protesters built new tree houses to resume their occupation of the forest.


Marcus Teply/The World

Leaks to German media have indicated the commission is weighing an exit date in roughly 20 years, between 2035 and 2038 — a decade sooner than RWE wants, but not soon enough for environmental groups.

Graichen says, if nothing else, the Hambacher Forest protests made it clear that Germany is paying attention — and expecting a solution to its coal problem. “Failure would be a disaster for German politics,” he said. 

No matter what the commission decides, though, for now, Hambacher Forest is out of the woods. In a surprise twist last month, a German court ruled in a lawsuit brought by Friends of the Earth Germany (BUND) that RWE can’t cut any more trees there until 2020 at the earliest

And the protesters have returned and built new treehouses in the forest.

Ice is us: Alaska Natives face the demise of the Arctic ice pack

Nov 12, 2018 15:06


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

David Leavitt has spent a lifetime watching ice, and how it's changing.

“Long time ago … good ice all the time,” he says.

Leavitt is 88 and lives in Utqiagvik, Alaska, once known as Barrow, the northernmost city in the US, on the shore of the Arctic Ocean.

Leavitt grew up in the region, hunting with his family and living the seminomadic life that for thousands of years was the hallmark of his Iñupiat people, one of the Indigenous groups of the North American Arctic.

A changing Arctic Logo: The Big Melt

Sea ice is a big part that life. At least, it used to be.

“Really, not good ice anymore,” Leavitt said, straining to find the right English words to describe the change he’s seen. “Yeah, ice isn't ah, you know, it's not good anymore.” 

Related: The Arctic's Sámi people push for a sustainable Norway

When he was a child, Leavitt says, the ocean would freeze in October. But now, sometimes it's not even frozen in December. The ice also lasted longer back then. He says it often wouldn't melt until July.

“Come up here for the Fourth of July with a dog team,” Leavitt said, recalling the days when he would take a dogsled to summer celebrations on the ice.

His eyes lit up as remembered the scene.

But, he repeated, “Not anymore. You know, you know, that ice is not good anymore.”

David Leavitt

“Long time ago, good ice all the time,” says 88 year-old David Leavitt, who has spent a lifetime watching and working on the sea ice near Utqiagvik, Alaska. Now, he says, “really, not good ice anymore.”


Amy Martin/The World 

It’s not good anymore because the Earth is warming up fast, and it’s warming fastest in the Arctic. The Native communities of northern Alaska have been watching that happen for decades.

“It was a gradual change and then it accelerated,” said Gordon Brower, who also lives in Utqiagvik.

Related: Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.

Like Leavitt, Brower remembers when it was normal for the sea ice here to stick around well into the summer and build up from year to year.

“In the ’70s, you had multiyear ice, all the way up to the 1980s,” he said. “And to me, that's a vivid memory, because that's when I was very active as a young person.

“And then from the ’80s to the ’90s, another era of change in the ice. And then from the ’90s to today, a much more accelerated pace, because the retreat is so extensive. You would see probably retreats in the ’70s [of] maybe 15, 20 miles. But today, you're looking at a retreat of ice for hundreds of miles.”

Brower remembers this so clearly because he spent a lot of time living on the ice, learning how to hunt whales, something that he knows many other Americans don’t look kindly on.

“I know it's not a very big thing to talk about down states,” he said, referring to the Lower 48, “about catching whales and killing them. But we have been doing that for thousands of years to survive. That's the only way we could have survived here.”

Related: An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way.

Whales have always been a crucial food source along the harsh and isolated Arctic coast. Even today, food that’s shipped into grocery stores here can be wildly expensive, so the ability to hunt whales really matters. That’s why Indigenous communities in Utqiagvik and across the Arctic fought hard for the right to keep their subsistence hunt when most commercial whaling was banned a few decades ago.

Brower says people here use every part of the whale, and they share the food throughout the community. To be part of a crew providing this food was — and still is — a major source of pride.

Gordon Brower

Gordon Brower, grew up hunting whales from camps on the sea ice near Utqiagvik, Alaska. In his youth it was normal for the ice to stick around well into the summer and build up from year to year.


Amy Martin/The World 

“The whale brings on a festival of its own,” Brower said. “Everybody gets new garments and clothing, and sometimes people get married and other things happen.

“It feels good because a whale means so much. Because there's the widows; there's the ill; there's the children; there's the ability to make food manageable for a large community. It makes me feel good that I'm doing a service for my community.”

The whales hunted here are mostly bowheads, which can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh 100 tons. Brower learned how to hunt whales as a child, and he says a big part of that education involved learning about sea ice.

“Our camps were sometimes 15 miles out” on the ice, he said. “We would live offshore for up to a month trying to harvest these marine mammals.”

Related: In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic  

The hunting parties would bring food and shelter but they didn’t need to bring fresh water because they could get that from the ice itself. This is one of the things Brower learned — as sea ice gets older, it squeezes the salt out. So, if you have ice that's five or 10 years old, you can melt it and drink it.

But, he said, “You don't see that anymore. And now, you're going to bring your own water from shore to your camp offshore, because you're not seeing these glaciated-type ice that develops over long periods of time that are salt-free.”

And that’s not the only change out on the ice.

thin ice

These days it's often more dangerous out on the ice in Utqiagvik, Alaska. 


Amy Martin/The World 

“It's considerably, I think, more dangerous,” Brower said. “You're not as sure-footed on the ice anymore.”

In many communities up here, more people are falling through the ice now when they’re whaling or traveling, especially on snowmobiles. Loss of sea ice affects all kinds of animals, too — the polar bears that we hear so much about, but also narwhals, walruses, seals, even birds. They’re all being affected as the sea ice recedes.

And people much farther away are watching.

“The health of the ice cover is not very good,” said Mark Serreze, the director of the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

“Since the dawn of this, of the modern satellite record [in] 1979, it's [been] decreasing in all months,” Serreze said. “In September, especially. September is the end of the melt season in the Arctic, and that's when the biggest trends have been occurring. Something like 13 percent per decade. It's tremendous.”

Sea ice grows in the winter, when the Arctic is very cold and dark, and then dies back every summer, when the region gets pounded by nonstop sunlight. But for all of human history, there's always been some Arctic sea ice that doesn’t melt in the summer — the thick, multiyear ice that Gordon Brower talked about.

And like Brower, Serreze says there's much less of it now.

“It's getting so warm now that it's hard to form all this really old, thick, multiyear ice, and some of [it] just melts away,” Serreze said. “But we really can't regenerate it anymore.”

That means sea ice in the Arctic is getting thinner while also covering a smaller area. And that is a very big deal because one of the most important things polar ice does for everyone on Earth is reflect sunlight and heat back into space.

Scientists call it “albedo” — how reflective something is. And Serreze says sea ice in the Arctic is “one of the of the higher albedo surfaces of our planet” —a giant, reflective shield, bouncing heat away from us.

As sea ice starts to melt, though, the Arctic reflects less solar energy and absorbs more of it. And that leads to a scary feedback loop: Less sea ice means more of the Arctic is mostly dark ocean. That dark surface absorbs more heat, which leads to more ice loss, and the process just feeds back on itself.

This is one of the reasons why the Arctic is warming up so fast.

But it’s not the end of the story of what’s changing as Arctic sea ice disappears.

The temperature difference between the cold Arctic and the warmer temperate zones is what drives the northern jet stream, the huge river of wind that flows around the northern hemisphere. As the Arctic warms and the temperature difference diminishes, some scientists think the jet stream may be getting out of whack, sometimes sending Arctic blasts south and heat waves north.

There’s still a lot to learn about all of these processes and other impacts of sea ice loss, but there’s one bottom line: Arctic sea ice has helped keep the Earth's climate running in a more or less predictable way for thousands of years, and as humans warm up the planet, we're making it harder for the ice to do that for us.

Which is why when Sheila Watt-Cloutier talks about Arctic people, she could be talking about all of us.

“Our lives depend on the ice, the cold and the snow,” said Watt-Cloutier, the former head of the Inuit Circumpolar Council, which advocates for the many different Inuit groups across the north.

It’s just that the people who live in the Arctic see and experience it far more directly than the rest of us. And that means much of the knowledge that people in the region have long relied on doesn’t serve the current generation here.

“Many of our elders are saying, ‘We are teaching you the traditional knowledge that we have been taught over millennia about safety, about the conditions of what is out there on that ice and snow,’” Watt-Cloutier said. “But they say there is a disclaimer now as a result of climate change, where many of our elders have said, ‘This is what I’m teaching you … however’ — and that’s the disclaimer here — “the rules are changing.””

Watt-Cloutier is from eastern Canada, thousands of miles from Utqiagvik, but she says the changes in the Arctic affect all of the 150,000 Inuit people who live here, in eastern Russia, Alaska, Canada and Greenland.

“It isn’t just the ice and the polar bear that we would be losing, but all of the wisdom [that] would go with that ice, as well. And that’s the fear that we have,” she said. “Our culture is so connected to everything that is around us, including the ice. And the ice, of course, is our life force. And as that starts to go, it minimizes our ability to live as Inuit as we’ve known it for millennia.”

That deep and tight connection was on display during a recent performance of traditional Iñupiaq dancing and drumming in Utqiagvik. The performers’ movements were all about hunting — they mimicked the paddling of the skin boats on the waves, and the careful leaps from one ice floe to another.


Residents say the Arctic Ocean icepack off Utqiagvik, Alaska is receding far earlier on average than in decades past, and forming later. They also say the ice is often less stable when it is in place.


Amy Martin/The World 

And they evoked the tight bond in this hunting culture between the human hunters and the animals, including the whales.

But even as they still need whales and have continued their subsistence hunting, people in Utqiagvik have also become part of the global cash economy. These days, they need textbooks, computers and hospital equipment. And in this part of Alaska, a lot of that cash comes from just one source.

“The Arctic is an oil and gas province,” said Gordon Brower. “We don't have any other horse to ride up here.”

Fifty years ago, one of the largest oil fields in North America was discovered east of Utqiagvik, in Prudhoe Bay. Brower says local people knew then that it would mean big changes in their community, so they worked to forge agreements that would help preserve their culture while using the income from fossil fuel development to fund schools, hospitals, roads and more.

“We needed to do something so we were not completely overtaken and assimilated but to find a way to balance and coexist,” Brower said.

Since then, natural gas and coal have also been found in the region. The money earned from taking all of those fossil fuels out of the ground has transformed life up here, but it's come at a cost, because those are the same things that, fed into the global economy, are causing the climate to warm up and the ice to melt away.

It’s an irony that’s not lost on people here.

“If you're thinking about, am I contradicting myself in trying to balance oil and gas development with what's going on today with the ice extent retreat, the [thawing] permafrost,” Brower said. “I don't know. But I know we're going to adapt, and we've still got to preserve the whale and do our best” to feed people.

Utqiagvik’s dilemma is the dilemma we're all facing. We're all drinking from the same oil well, even as it slowly disrupts everything around us. Oil, gas and coal are woven into the fabric of our entire lives, but the pollution from those fuels threatens all of us.

Some of the damage from that pollution is already baked in, but we know enough to be able to limit it — around the globe, and here in the Arctic. The first step, Mark Serreze says, is facing facts.

“We understand the basic science here,” Serreze said, adding, “We have got this nailed down. Climate change is real, and it is us.”

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold.

Threshold producer Nick Mott contributed to this story. 

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A judge has halted construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline

Nov 9, 2018


In a major setback for TransCanada Corp., a federal judge in Montana halted the construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline on Thursday.

US District Court Judge Brian Morrison halted the $8 billion, 1,180 mile pipeline, the grounds that the US government did not complete a full analysis of the environmental impact of the project.

The ruling is a victory for environmentalists, tribal groups and ranchers who have spent more than a decade fighting against construction of the pipeline that will carry heavy crude to Steele City, Nebraska, from Canada’s oilsands in Alberta.

Morris' ruling late on Thursday came in a lawsuit that several environmental groups filed against the US government in 2017, soon after President Donald Trump announced a presidential permit for the project.

Morris wrote in his ruling that a US State Department environmental analysis "fell short of a 'hard look'" at the cumulative effects of greenhouse gas emissions and the impact on Native American land resources.

He also ruled the analysis failed to fully review the effects of the current oil price on the pipeline's viability and did not fully model potential oil spills and offer mitigations measures.

In Thursday's ruling, Morris ordered the government to issue a more thorough environmental analysis before the project can move forward.

"The Trump administration tried to force this dirty pipeline project on the American people, but they can't ignore the threats it would pose to our clean water, our climate, and our communities," said the Sierra Club, one of the environmental groups involved in the lawsuit.

Trump supported building the pipeline, which was rejected by former President Barack Obama in 2015 on environmental concerns relating to emissions that cause climate change.

Trump said the project would lower consumer fuel prices, create jobs and reduce US dependence on foreign oil.

By Brendan O'Brien/Reuters

Reporting by Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Christian Schmollinger.

Midterm elections bring big wins for women, Democrats, but splits Congress

Nov 7, 2018


Nearly all the votes are tallied. What happened: Democratic voters in suburban and exurban areas across the country helped the party claim more than the 23 seats they needed to take control of the US House of Representatives. Meanwhile, Republicans added to their Senate majority by flipping seats in Indiana and Missouri, and Ted Cruz held off a charge by Beto O’Rourke in Texas.  

But what does it mean?

Today on The World, we looked at how women — a lot of them — broke records and how the environment may fare under a divided government as well as a few other big ways the new Congress is poised to be different from the last. 

A record number of women ran — and won

According to the Center for American Women and Politics, 237 women ran for 435 House seats. As of this reporting, 96 of those women won their races. Currently, there are 84 women serving in the House. In the Senate, 22 women will serve.

Related: After midterms, women fill a new-look Congress

Voters still fell victim to disinformation campaigns 

President Donald Trump signed an executive order just two months ago imposing sanctions on countries and other actors who seek to meddle in US elections in response to interference by Russia in the 2016 election — something Trump has reversed his position on several times. So, what about Tuesday’s elections?

We spoke to Renée DiResta, director of research at New Knowledge, and head of policy at Data for Democracy, about the kinds of disinformation campaigns that voters were likely to encounter.  

“The Russians were very much involved in the midterms again this year,” DiResta explained. “They've never really gone away … What we see is the increasing promotion of overt propaganda — sites that are known to be attributed to Russian state interests.  

DiResta said Russian meddlers work via “covert operations,” where they use social media to amplify existing stories. “They create ‘persona accounts’ … [and] use those accounts to influence people online.”

The Iranians took a different approach.

‘“[They] reached out to the American left thinking that amplifying [their messages] would benefit them,” DiResta said. “They sought out groups and people most ideologically aligned and decided to amplify their voices in the hopes of influencing the electorate. We saw them repurposing memes from sites like Occupy Democrats.”

Americans have gotten better at spotting disinformation online since the 2016 elections, but they still are not great at it.

“We're having an interesting conversation about propaganda in our country right now in the sense that there are still large numbers of people who believe that the Russian operation was really just — you know, a vast conspiracy by the left — that it's not a real thing that happened,” said DiResta.

What’s in store for the future of fake news and foreign interference in US elections?

“I think we're going to see less of the 2016 playbook … and much more infiltration of groups,” DiResta predicted. There is an opportunity to infiltrate these more closed communities to exert influence over communities that already do have some distribution and some audience.”

“One of the biggest vulnerabilities is actually groups because that's where like-minded people tend to cluster,” DiResta said.

A mixed result for immigration-watchers

Those who favor more restrictive immigration policies see high-profile Republican wins and the hold on the Senate majority as a mandate for their candidates’ platforms. At the federal level, though, the split in Congress gives a new check on the most restrictive parts of Trump’s immigration agenda.

Democrats are “in a position to conduct oversight hearings — on things like family separation, for example — and hold federal agencies accountable for their practices: How are dollars being spent by DHS [the Department of Homeland Security]? How are people being treated in detention?” said Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigration advocacy group.

At the state and local level, initiatives that protect immigrants fared well in races around the country, including a failed challenge to “sanctuary laws” in Oregon and sheriff's races fought largely on whether or not officers cooperate with all federal immigration agency requests. 

The midterms also prompted Trump to shake up his Cabinet, starting with the resignation of Attorney General Jeff Sessions. Sessions will be temporarily replaced by the Justice Department Chief of Staff Matthew Whitaker; a new attorney general will need to be confirmed by the Senate. The attorney general holds considerable power over immigration issues, including oversight of the backlogged immigration court system.

Climate tax and renewable energy fail at the ballot box

Tuesday’s midterm elections also saw mixed results for climate action.

A number of environmental ballot measures across the country failed, including what would’ve been the first climate tax nationwide, in Washington state; a renewable energy mandate in Arizona; and a measure to curb fracking in Colorado.

Each of those races had tens of millions of dollars pouring in from environmental advocates and fossil fuel interest groups alike.

A ban on offshore drilling in state waters in Florida, however, passed, and voters favored a Nevada renewable energy target but it has to go through another vote before it takes effect. (Nevada’s constitution requires that amendments be approved in two consecutive elections.)

“The ballot initiative votes are a big wake-up call, that, on local and state levels, we still have a lot of work to do,” said Thanu Yakupitiyage, a spokesperson for 350 Action, a group pushing for climate action. “We have to be targeting the fossil fuel industry and holding them to account. And I think that’s one of the major things mayors and governors can do.”

Going into the election, a dozen Democratic gubernatorial candidates pledged to get their states to 100 percent renewable energy by the midcentury. A number of those candidates won their races, including four that flipped their states from Republican to Democrat (Colorado, Illinois, Wisconsin and Michigan).

Those states that now have governors that support a full transition to renewables by 2050 currently emit about one-fifth of the country’s energy-related carbon emissions.

Additionally, some climate deniers were voted out of the House — and a climate change denier will no longer be heading up the House science committee, while several candidates who ran on climate action were voted in.

“This is massive,” Yakupitiyage said. “It was an extraordinary victory that the House flipped back to Democrat and that Lamar Smith is no longer chair of [the science] committee. And we’ll be working really closely with our Democratic allies in Congress. They need to be making climate change a top issue.”

She cited the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report released in October describing the urgency of the problem. Scientists say we need to get to zero carbon emissions by 2050 if we want to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). But right now, only a minority of US states have aspirational plans to get there.

Carolyn Beeler, Karolina Chorvath, Lydia Emmanouilidou, Allison Herrera, Tania Karas, Jonathan Kealing, Amanda Leigh Lichtenstein, Peter Majerle, Alex Newman, Anna Pratt and Angilee Shah contributed to this report.

Mining bitcoin uses more energy than mining gold

Nov 5, 2018


Cryptocurrencies have an image problem. 

For the past few years, cryptocurrency networks like bitcoin have gained a reputation as energy hogs, eliciting headlines comparing their energy consumption to that of mid-sized countries.

Now, a new analysis shows mining bitcoin uses more energy, dollar for dollar, than mining gold.

“It was definitely surprising,” environmental engineer Max Krause said of his findings, published today in the journal Nature Sustainability.

“We found mining a dollar’s worth of bitcoin consumed three times as much energy as mining a dollar’s worth of gold.”

Kraus and co-author Thabet Tolyamat analyzed how much energy computers running four top cryptocurrency networks used to unlock — or digitally mine — new currency. They then compared those figures to the energy required to physically mine metals including gold, copper, platinum and aluminum.

They found bitcoin mining requires more energy per dollar than mining copper and platinum but considerably less than mining aluminum.

The three other cryptocurrencies Krause and Tolyamat analyzed, Ethereum, Litecoin and Monero, required less energy than bitcoin but still more than most metals.  

Kraus said he wanted to compare cryptocurrencies to more familiar commodities to help people better understand how much energy they consume.  

"If we hope to use cryptocurrencies in the future as a separate currency from a dollar or a euro, are we willing to invest this much energy?” Krause asked. "[That's] what we're posing as a question." 

Cryptocurrency “miners” use special hardware to run computations that add to a digital ledger and unlock new currency. The process is highly competitive and energy intensive.

David Malone from the Hamilton Institute at Ireland's Maynooth University says some cryptocurrency networks are seriously looking at revamping the process miners use to unlock new coins so it uses less energy.  

“There’s a lot of effort going into this area,” says Malone, who published one of the earliest analyses of bitcoin’s energy footprint.

But Malone says bitcoin, the largest network and the most energy intensive in this study, is not among them.

“For bitcoin, I think the situation is actually slightly grim,” Malone said. “I think the only thing that will reduce the energy usage of bitcoin itself in the near future is likely to be a crash in value of bitcoin or something like that.”

Krause’s paper does highlight one reason for optimism: unlike traditional mining, cryptocurrency mining can happen anywhere in the world. If miners move server farms from countries powered heavily by fossil fuels to countries powered by renewables, that could significantly lower their carbon footprint. 

Facebook's Cameroon problem: stop stoking hate

Nov 5, 2018


A video link posted on Facebook on June 20 showed a man cooking human body parts in a pot over a wood fire.

In Cameroon, the footage went viral. Some Facebook users said the man was a cannibal and that the video was shot in the country's English-speaking west, where separatist insurgents are fighting to create a breakaway state.

Local websites quickly debunked this notion. The man in the video was not a separatist fighter or cannibal, and the body parts were not real. The clip was taken on a Nigerian film set and uploaded to Instagram on June 17 by make-up artist Hakeem Onilogbo, who uses the platform to showcase his work.

But the video's rapid spread raises questions about Facebook's ability to police millions of posts each day and crack down on hate speech in a country where internet use is rising fast, social media are used for political ends and the company has no permanent physical presence.

The day the link was posted on Facebook, a member of the government brought the video to the attention of international diplomats in the capital, Yaounde, via the WhatsApp messaging service, according to messages seen by Reuters.

Five days later, Cameroon's minister for territorial administration cited it as justification for an army clampdown against the secessionists that was already underway in the Anglophone regions.

Related: As gang violence escalates in Cameroon, residents are 'not safe anymore'

The minister, Paul Atanga Nji, compared the rebellion — over decades of perceived marginalization by the French-speaking majority —  to an Islamist insurgency waged by the Nigeria-based militant group Boko Haram which has killed 30,000 people.

"Boko Haram committed atrocities, but they did not cut up humans and cook them in pots," the minister said in comments broadcast on state television and widely reported in Cameroon.

Nji did not respond to requests for comment. Government spokesman Issa Tchiroma Bakary said that in the future, the government would work to verify information before commenting.

Facebook said the video had not been reported by users and that it could not comment further on the clip. It was no longer available on the site by late October.

A senior Facebook official said tackling misinformation in Cameroon was a priority for the company, which acknowledges more needs to be done.

"We're prioritizing countries where we've already seen how quickly online rumors can fuel violence, such as Myanmar and Cameroon," said Ebele Okobi, Facebook's director of public policy for Africa. 

Under fire

Facebook is under fire for carrying misleading information, including in the United States and Britain, and over posts against the Muslim Rohingya minority in Myanmar which have had deadly consequences.

Sri Lankan authorities briefly banned Facebook this year because the government said it was fueling violence between Buddhists and Muslims. In India, messages on Facebook-owned WhatsApp have been linked to attacks on religious minorities.

In Cameroon, Facebook has been used both to incite violence and to make threatening posts.

Simon Munzu, a former United Nations representative, said he was the target of death threats on Facebook after it was announced in July that he would help organize negotiations in the separatist conflict. Afraid, Munzu went to stay with friends.

Facebook removed the posts in October after it was made aware of them by Reuters, saying they violated company standards.

Esther Omam, who runs a nongovernmental organization (NGO) called Reach Out, hid at a church and then fled to the Francophone region after receiving death threats from separatists following a peace march which she led, she told Reuters.

"The crisis has destroyed my life and my family," she said. "I cannot work anymore. My family is divided. My husband is elsewhere, my children are elsewhere."

Facebook has no staff operating permanently in Cameroon and says it monitors the country from Britain and the US. It has an Africa-focused team that frequently visits the region, and has partnered with NGOs and civil society in Cameroon in recent months to combat hate speech.

This included paying several thousand dollars to civil society groups to help organize training sessions for journalists to spot falsehoods online, representatives from two groups involved told Reuters. Some groups also flag offensive posts to Facebook.

Facebook has removed pages and accounts related to the separatist conflict, and is working to slow the spread of kidnapping videos, the company said.

It declined to say how many people it had helping it in Cameroon, how much money it had so far invested or how many posts it had taken down.

Reuters found dozens of pages posted in recent months showing graphic images in Cameroon, some of which were months old.

One Facebook user on July 18 posted a picture of the decapitated body of a Cameroonian policeman lying in a gutter and said the image gave him joy.

The same day, separatist spokesman Ivo Tapang applauded the killing of two Cameroonian soldiers and linked to a website raising funds for guns, ammunition and grenade launchers. Tapang did not respond to requests for comment.

Related: Cameroon opposition candidate Maurice Kamto declares victory despite ruling party's denial

A Facebook spokeswoman said the company was unaware of the posts before Reuters pointed them out but that they were both removed after review. It is against Facebook rules to celebrate suffering or crowdfund for arms, she said.

Facebook has artificial intelligence that it uses globally to detect problematic posts. But in Cameroon, it does not have a consortium of fact-checking companies to monitor posts — as it does in the US.

Leading civil society figures in Cameroon say Facebook needs more resources and faces an increasingly difficult task as internet use grows.

"It is not possible to stop misinformation on Facebook," said Maximilienne Ngo Mbe, executive director of REDHAC, a civil society group that has organized training sessions and flags indecent posts to Facebook.

Related: English speakers from Cameroon are joining Syrian refugees on migrant boats

No easy fix

The number of people with internet access in Cameroon rose from 0.86 million in 2010 to 5.9 million in 2016, about a quarter of the population, according to the International Telecommunications Union, a UN agency.

The government shut down the internet in English-speaking regions for three months last year because of the unrest.

After service resumed in April 2017, Facebook was the main outlet for people speaking out against the army crackdown, in which soldiers razed villages and shot dead unarmed civilians.

But misleading and hateful posts have persisted, groups that monitor posts say, echoing issues Facebook sees worldwide.

Related: Facebooks admits shortcomings as it confronts hate speech in Myanmar

Facebook is not the only service facing a battle to tackle misinformation and hate speech. Offensive videos and images are posted on Twitter or transmitted by WhatsApp.

WhatsApp cannot view private, encrypted conversations, a WhatsApp spokeswoman said, so detecting hate speech there is harder. A Twitter spokeswoman said it prohibits the promotion of violence and encourages users to flag those posts.


Strict Amazon protections made Brazilian farmers more productive, new research shows

Nov 5, 2018


Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s new president, will make many decisions during his four-year term, from combating violence to stimulating a stagnant economy.

Those decisions will have large impacts on Brazilians, who remain deeply divided over the controversial election of this far-right populist.

But some of Bolsonaro’s decisions will affect the entire world, namely his promises to cut environmental protections in the Brazilian Amazon.

Related: A 'Third Way' to save the Amazon: make trees more valuable

The Amazon’s uncertain fate

The Amazon is the world’s largest tropical rainforest and a major global food exporter.

The Amazon basin also provides the rains that nourish Brazil’s productive croplands to the south — a breadbasket for the world. The rainforest’s destruction could cause large-scale droughts in Brazil, leading to nationwide crop losses.

An estimated 9 percent of Amazonian forests disappeared between 1985 and 2017, reducing the rainforest’s ability to absorb the carbon emissions that drive climate change.

Deforestation is largely due to land clearing for agricultural purposes, particularly cattle ranching.

Cattle production has an extremely low profit margin in the Brazilian Amazon. It also requires a massive amount of land for grazing. Both factors drive Amazonian farmers to continuously clear forest — illegally — to expand pastureland.

Today, 12 percent of the Brazilian Amazon, or 93 million acres — an area roughly the size of Montana — is used for agriculture, primarily cattle ranching but also soybean production.

Deforestation decreased substantially from 2004 to 2014 thanks to strict environmental protections passed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2004. His Workers Party cracked down on the illegal land clearing in the Amazon, making Brazil a world leader in rainforest protection.

But deforestation in the Amazon has begun to climb again recently.

The current president of Brazil, Michel Temer, a conservative who entered office in 2016 during a deep recession, has loosened enforcement of federal anti-deforestation laws, slashed the environmental ministry’s budget and opened the Amazon to mining.

Satellite data reveal that between August 2017 to 2018, 1.1 million acres of Brazilian Amazonian forest were cleared — the highest deforestation rate since 2007.

President-elect Bolsonaro has promised to further slash environmental protections in Brazil, saying that federal conservation zones and hefty fines for cutting down trees hinder economic growth.

Specific plans include eliminating protections for indigenous territories that safeguard forests from private developers and reducing fines for illegally clearing land.

Bolsonaro also wants to dismantle Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, which enforces environmental laws.

Brazil’s agricultural innovations

The president-elect’s deregulatory agenda is supported by the Bancada Ruralista, a powerful congressional caucus that defends Brazilian agribusiness interests.

Despite the lobby’s stance that regulation hurts business, Brazil’s strict environmental laws have actually helped Amazonian farmers, my recent research shows.

From 2004 to 2014, Brazil’s federal government employed a host of tactics to reduce Amazonian farmers’ incentives to clear land. It increased penalties for deforestation, making it far more expensive to create new grazing land. Simultaneously, it offered state-subsidized, low-interest financing for farmers who adopted more sustainable practices.

Related: The Amazon's carbon tipping point

Those policies encouraged innovations that have made Amazon farmland much more productive. In a co-authored study published in October in the journal Global Environmental Change, my colleagues and I found that food production in the Amazon has substantially increased since 2004.

Amazonian farmers are now planting and harvesting two crops — mostly soybean and corn — each year, rather than just one. This is called “double cropping.”

Our study found that land in double cropping areas of Brazil’s most important agricultural state, Mato Grosso, increased from 840,000 acres in 2001 to more than 10.6 million acres in 2013, boosted by improved environmental laws. 

Farmers are getting richer

Environmental regulation of the Brazilian Amazon has helped farmers improve business in other ways too, our research found.

Improved pasture management in Mato Grosso state led the number of cattle slaughtered annually per acre to double, meaning farmers are producing more meat — and therefore earning more money — with their land.

Ranchers who add crops into pasture areas can more than quadruple the amount of beef produced because cattle raised in integrated crop and livestock systems gain weight more quickly. That spares remaining Amazonian forests from deforestation.

These sustainable ranching practices also reduce the greenhouse gases associated with beef and leather production. Better nourished cows are slaughtered sooner, meaning fewer burps per cow per lifetime, leading to lower methane emissions.

Brazil’s progressive environmental protections have even pushed corporations that operate in the Amazon to adopt more sustainable practices.

Since 2006, hundreds of multinational food and timber companies, including Cargill and Nestle, have adopted “zero-deforestation commitments” — pledges that they will never again source products from farmers who continue to deforest their land.

The commitments started in the Brazilian Amazon and have since extended to all forests on the planet, including the Indonesian and Malaysian rainforests.

Brazilian law, which restricts Amazonian farmers from clearing more than 20 percent of their land and requires them to federally register their property for monitoring, has made it easier for zero-deforestation companies to drop producers who cut down trees.

Related: For illegal loggers in the Brazilian Amazon, 'there is no fear of being punished'

Saving the Amazon

Strong environmental protections are necessary to save the Amazon, protecting Brazil and the world from the loss of this critical, fragile habitat.

If Brazil’s next president dismantles its environmental laws, corporations could abandon their zero-deforestation standards in the Amazon. That could have ripple effects in other threatened habitats worldwide.

Far from being bad for business, Brazil’s Amazonian protections help sustain the country as a global breadbasket.

If Bolsonaro scraps them, he won’t just imperil a legendary rainforest. He’ll hurt Brazilian farmers, too — and the consumers worldwide who depend on them.The Conversation

Rachael Garrett is an assistant professor of the human dimensions of global change at Boston University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A new study strongly suggests eating a diet of organic foods can lower cancer rates

Nov 3, 2018 7:52


A major study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association has found what many people have long suspected: Eating organic food appears to reduce the risk of cancer.

Among some 69,000 people tracked by French scientists over several years, those whose diets contained more organics had about 25 percent fewer cancers overall, with 35 percent fewer breast cancers in older women and a more than 70 percent reduction in lymphomas.

The findings suggest — but do not prove — that pesticides and other chemical residues found in food cause cancer. But there is no reason to wait for more research when it comes to making food choices, says Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. The results confirm that a “cleaner set of ingredients, closer to nature, with fewer additives and less processing,” can play a role in reducing cancer rates, Cook said. 

“The fact that several cancers showed a marked decrease [in an organic diet] tells me that organic food is probably targeting the mechanisms that are associated with those cancers,” Cook said. “And there are other chemicals in nonorganic food — chemical dyes, colorings, flavorings — that simply are not allowed in organic food manufacturing. That — in addition to pesticides — may be another reason why there are lower cancer rates amongst these mostly women [in this study] who are eating more organic food.”

Cook would like to see organic food production scaled up. Organic foods are still a tiny percentage in most people's diets. On the other hand, Cook emphasizes that eating conventional fruits and vegetables is not a bad thing. The real problem in our diets is processed foods and additives.

Related: As demand for organics grows, the US relies more on imported products

“If I can give my little boy a conventional apple, I'm going to give him that as opposed to a pile of cookies or some chips,” he said. “A plant-based diet is desirable. … We want people to think holistically about their health and their diet, and in order to do that we have to recognize that not everyone can find or afford organic food.”

While this study focused on cancer, it made Cook wonder about the insights scientists might get if they performed a similarly large study that looked at organic food’s connection to other common maladies — neurological diseases, ADHD, early onset Alzheimer’s and other types of damage to the nervous system.

Related: Kerala’s making an ambitious pledge to go organic

“There are a lot of pesticides in use and in the food supply that have a particular health endpoint associated with them, while with others it is cancer,” he said. “So, I think the overarching message here is that when we look at a large population like this and ask a lot of smart, thoughtful questions about eating habits, we emerge with a fresh understanding of the benefits of having a diet that is clean.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Gaza's water crisis is 'a ticking time bomb'

Nov 3, 2018 18:31


In the Middle East's Gaza Strip, a narrow piece of contested land where three out of four people are refugees, unsafe drinking water has led to a worsening health crisis. Gazan children suffer from diarrhea, kidney disease, stunted growth and impaired IQ. 

Twenty years ago, 85 percent of Gaza’s drinking wells were too contaminated for human consumption. Today, that figure is 97 percent.

Local tap water is too salty to drink because the aquifer below Gaza has been over-pumped so severely that seawater is flowing in. Two-thirds of Gazans get water delivered by truck. Desalinated water is pumped into rooftop tanks via hoses. But the desalinated water is unregulated and because this water has virtually no salt, it’s prone to fecal contamination. When children drink this water, they get diarrhea.

Repeated bouts of diarrhea can lead to stunting and developmental problems, including a measurable impact on IQ. Late last year a British medical journal found an “alarming magnitude” of stunting among Gazan children.

A boy with dark hair fill a jug of water at a tap provided by a mosque

Children drink and fill water jugs at a mosque in Gaza City. 


Abdel Kareem Hanna/The World

“If you really want to change the lives of people, you have to solve the water issue first,” says Adnan Abu Hasna, a spokesperson for UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. “Otherwise, you will see a huge collapse of everything in Gaza.”

“It's a ticking time bomb,” agrees Gidon Bromberg, director of EcoPeace Middle East, based in Tel Aviv. “We have a situation where two million people no longer have access to potable groundwater. When people are drinking unhealthy water ... disease is a direct consequence. Should pandemic disease break out in Gaza, people will simply start moving to the fences of Israel and Egypt, and they won't be moving with stones or with rockets. They’ll be moving with empty buckets, desperately calling out for clean water.”

Assigning blame for the plight of Gazans is not exactly simple. Take the fact that only three percent of Gaza’s drinking water wells are actually drinkable. Is that because Gaza’s citrus farmers pumped too much? Or because Israeli agricultural settlers depleted a deep pocket of fresh water before they left Gaza in 2005? Or the simple fact that Gaza’s population quadrupled in a matter of weeks when towns and villages fell to Israel in 1948?

Food- and water-borne diseases have also been a concern — the power is shut off for 20 hours a day. Are Israel and Egypt to blame for withholding fuel deliveries? Or Israel, for bombing water and sewage infrastructure in Gaza during the 2014 war? Or the fight between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which deprives Gazans of critical medicines? Israel’s economic blockade of Gaza contributes to worsening poverty, skyrocketing unemployment and child malnutrition, according to several human rights groups. 

A peace deal could have connected Gaza to the West Bank, where the vast Mountain Aquifer is big enough to end Gaza’s water crisis. As it is, there is no peace. The two Palestinian territories are splintered. And Israel has effective control over all the water.

Critics say Israel could solve the whole problem by simply implementing power lines into Gaza. But Israeli officials say they are already sending water to Gaza and to do more would be rewarding Gaza’s bad actors.

Related: Gaza now has a toxic 'biosphere of war' that no one can escape

“What's going on in Gaza is a real catastrophe,” says Ori Shor, spokesperson of the Israeli Water Authority. “The situation there is unbearable. But it's also frustrating, at least from our point of view, because it's a bit difficult to help someone who doesn't want to help themselves. The problem in Gaza is really that Hamas does nothing to try even to solve the problem.”

Shor says Israel is providing more than twice the amount of water they are obligated to provide based on current agreements. But that amount is just a fraction of the clean water Gazans need every day.

Fifteen family members in Gaza sit in the living room with a red heart spray painted on the cream-colored wall.

Fifteen members of the Nimnim family at home in the Beach refugee camp. 


Abdel Kareem Hanna/The World 

Related: The situation in Gaza is so desperate that some are predicting another war

As the situation in Gaza continues to deteriorate, humanitarian groups estimate that Gaza will become uninhabitable by 2020 — barely a year from now. To avoid that, international relief agencies and the Palestinian Water Authority are working on a network of big sewage and desalination plants.

Donors have pledged $500 million to build out this network. But one large obstacle remains: On most days, Gaza has electricity for only four hours, which makes running these projects almost impossible.

“At this time, we don’t have [enough electricity], but we hope,” says Kamal Abu Moammar, manager of the Southern Gaza Desalination Plant. “Many of our ministers say they will solve this problem. But we don't know when. Or how.”

This article is based on a report by Sandy Tolan reporting from the Gaza Strip that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

The Arctic's Sámi people push for a sustainable Norway

Nov 2, 2018 12:10


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

Here’s what a couple thousand extremely happy Norwegians look like: a long, jubilant river of men and women wearing traditional, colorful outfits called bunads and waving little red, white and blue Norwegian flags. It’s a stream of color flowing through the snowy streets of the high Arctic town of Longyearbyen, on the archipelago of Svalbard, as a band plays the Norwegian national anthem.

The marchers are celebrating Norwegian National Day. It’s an unabashed display of national pride in a country not always comfortable with the idea.

“I know some people may think that it's like, ah ... nationalistic,” said 26-year-old Kari Ellingsen. “But it's not Norway for Norwegian[s] … It's sort of, Norway for everyone. And I think it's like a celebration of … human rights and freedom of speech.”

A changing Arctic Logo: The Big Melt

Those are values that Norwegians hold high. The Economist magazine currently ranks Norway as the most democratic country in the world, and Reporters Without Borders puts it at No. 1 on its World Press Freedom index.Norway is also among the richest countries in the world, mostly because of its massive offshore oil and gas reserves. But despite their national pride, that reliance on petroleum money is something many Norwegians have grown uneasy with. “Why should we just keep pumping up oil and … pretending to be [morally] superior to everyone, going, like, ‘Oh, we're the happiest people in the world,’ while we're drowning in oil?” asked Isalill Kolpus, a 27-year-old high school teacher in the Arctic city of Tromsø.

A few days before, the Norwegian government had opened up more than a hundred new areas for offshore oil and gas exploration, a move that dismayed Kolpus.“I don't get it,” she said. “It's such a bad choice.”

Norway doesn't actually use much of the petroleum it pumps out from under the seafloor. Instead, it exports the oil and gas and uses the income to provide free health care and education and save for the future.

Related: Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.

And the country wants that future to be more sustainable than the present. For its own energy needs, Norway relies mostly on much cleaner renewables. It also has set some ambitious climate policy goals, like aiming to phase out the sales of all new gas and diesel vehicles by 2025. Kolpus supports those initiatives, but she thinks Norway is trying to have it both ways — a reputation for environmental leadership and fossil fuel wealth. She says it's time for the country to make a choice. “If we just make the decision and just go, ‘No, no more,’” and don't open any more oil rigs, she said, “then we are forcing ourselves to look in the other direction.”

For Kolpus, one of those other directions should be toward her own roots. She’s Sámi, one of the Indigenous people of northern Scandinavia, and she believes that the rest of Norway could learn a lot from her people about how to shape a more sustainable future.

But she says there's a long tradition of Norway ignoring or outright silencing Sámi voices.

Norwegian parade

Marchers celebrate Norwegian National Day in the town of Longyearbyen, in the Svalbard archipelago.


Amy Martin/The World 

“What is Norway?” Kolpus asked. “Norway is Vikings, and farmers, and the bunad. Everything Norwegian is this. And what did we decide was not Norwegian? Sámis.”

The Sámi are descendants of some of the very first people to enter the Scandinavian peninsula more than 10,000 years ago. They developed nine different languages and traded with each other across their Arctic homeland, which they call Sápmi.

Much more recently, other groups like the Vikings migrated into the region from the south. They built kingdoms that eventually became the nations of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia, and as borders went up across Sápmi, Kolpus says her ancestors were viewed with suspicion.

“There was this thought that to create a nation, you have to have one language. ... One language, one nation, one people,” she said. “That means if it's not Norwegian, it doesn't really fit our project right now. It's like, ‘It's not that convenient that you have a double identity. You have to choose one, and please choose the Norwegian one.’”

Related: In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic  

Sámi music and spiritual traditions were declared sinful, and Sámi children were forced to attend boarding schools. It was a colonization and Christianization process that will sound painfully familiar to many Native Americans and other Indigenous communities around the world, and it’s a legacy that carries on even today, often internalized among Sámi themselves.

“My grandmother, she has never really said that we are not Sámi,” said Susanne Amalie Langstrand-Andersen, who helps organize an annual celebration of Sámi culture in the mountains of northern Norway, called Márkomeannu. “But 10 years ago when we went to the store, she would not speak Sámi in the store in any way, because other people could hear her.”

Kolpus recalls a similar sentiment in her family when she was growing up. No one talked about the fact that they were Sámi.

“It's such a weird thing,” she said, “because I've always known because my last name [is] an old Sámi name. And so I've always known, and I've always heard my grandmother and my grandfather talking Sámi. But I didn't really realize it or understand it until I was like 18.”


“Me, I'm like what you call a ‘city Sámi, or like, an ‘asphalt Sámi,’ is like the derogatory term," says Isalill Kolpus, who teaches high school in the Arctic city of Tromsø. “But... the part of me that cares about the environment is two sides of the same story.”


Amy Martin

That was when one of her cousins started wearing a gakti, the traditional Sámi dress. It was part of an awakening to her own culture.

“And I was like, ‘Oh, oh, that's right. We're ... we're actually Sámi.’”

Later, Kolpus received her own gakti from an elderly relative.

Related: These Sámi women are trying to keep their native Skolt language alive

“It's the most beautiful piece of clothing I've ever seen,” she said. “I think it's 80 years old, but it's like the colors are still so ... vivid.”

Kolpus started sharing pictures of herself wearing the gakti on social media and sometimes writing posts in Sámi.

Lots of people were supportive, but not all. She says she started getting passing comments from friends, like, “‘Oh, she's Sámi now.’ Which you hear a lot when you when you're a part of the Sámi population who are reclaiming. You hear a lot of, “Oh, you're Sámi now.” And you go, ‘No, no, I've always been Sámi.’”

Like Kolpus, Langstrand-Andersen often wears the gakti. But when she’s not wearing it, she could be mistaken for any other Norwegian, and that’s one of the complexities of being Sámi — you can hide your heritage if you want to. You can blend in.

The flip side is that sometimes you’re not recognized as Indigenous even when you want to be. And these days, a lot of Sámi want that recognition.

“I have been traveling to a lot of international UN meetings, and I always get that question — ‘Are you really Indigenous?’ — because I'm white,” said Langstrand-Andersen. She says she even gets the question from other Indigenous people. “And I can understand them because they have a different story about colonization.”

But things are changing. Sámi people are increasingly making themselves seen and heard in all sectors of society.

“There [is] really a fighting spirit in Sápmi now,” Langstrand-Andersen said. “You see that through art and music, that most of the art and music is about that we are still here. It's very political, most of the art and the music, and nearly every cultural expression right now. Maybe you couldn't see that as much 10 years ago.”

For Kolpus, reclaiming her Sámi identity has meant becoming more politically involved, especially around environmental issues.

Even that, though, means negotiating stereotypes.

“A lot of people say, ‘Oh you're Indigenous, and you must be in touch with nature,’” she said. “Yeah, maybe. But I hope that I would care about the same issues even if I wasn't Sámi. But it's a fact that a lot of Sámi culture is intertwined with nature, and a lot of our expressions are based in how we used to live very close to nature. And some of us still do.”

Kolpus says Sámi communities are fighting the expansion of mines, railroads, logging operations and even wind farms that could disrupt local reindeer-herding operations.

Related:This family is already being hurt by climate change. They might also be hurt by a solution.

She says many Sámi people are very concerned about the impacts of oil and gas development, as well. Among other things, climate change caused by carbon pollution from fossil fuels produced by Norway and other countries is harming Sámi reindeer herders, because the warming Arctic has brought more rain in the winter. That means more ice, which reindeer can’t dig through to find the lichens and plants they need to survive.

But it’s not just rural Sámi who are concerned about the impacts of climate change and other environmental problems.

Reinås Nilut

At 24, Anne Henriette Reinås Nilut is the youngest member of the Sámi Parliament of Norway. “People think that Indigenous people and Sámi people are something we read about in a history book,” she says. “But it's not." To make her point, she shows off her MacBook laptop bearing a sticker with a Sámi version of Rosie the Riveter.


Amy Martin

“Me, I'm like what you call a ‘city Sámi,’” Kolpus said, “or like, an ‘asphalt Sámi,’ is like the derogatory term. But we have a lot of issues that affect us as a people, as a culture; at the same time, it affects nature. In that way, my Sámi identity and the part of me that cares about the environment is two sides of the same story.”

As more Sámi reclaim their cultural identity, many of them see their situation in a global context. They’re connecting with other Indigenous movements, like the anti-pipeline protesters at Standing Rock in the US.

There are also Sámi parliaments in Sweden, Finland, Norway and Russia, with varying degrees of power.

“We have information about the entire planet,” said Anne Henriette Reinås Nilut, the youngest member of the Sámi Parliament of Norway, at 24. “And that demands of us that we change the way we think and that we learn to think holistically.”

Reinås Nilut carries around a MacBook laptop bearing a sticker with a Sámi version of Rosie the Riveter.

“People think that Indigenous people and Sámi people are something we read about in a history book,” she said. “But it's not. It's so important to let the Indigenous people of the world tell the rest of the world how to live with nature instead of against nature.”

As one example, Reinås Nilut says instead of fixating on our national identities, we need to start thinking of ourselves as one species with common interests and a shared fate.

“This way this world is organized, that does not fit with the Indigenous thought. ... We are people, living on a planet,” she said. “We have different ways of living, but none of us are above or superior to another group of people who have another way of living.”

This is not to say Reinås Nilut believes the Sámi have all the answers. She says just like any other group of people, there's great diversity of opinion and approach within the Sámi community. And she warns against reducing the Sámi or any Indigenous group to some kind of mystical heroes whose ancient wisdom is going to save the rest of us from environmental disaster.

Her message is more practical than that.

“Just look around you. The big society is clearly not doing a great job of taking care of this planet. Of course, we should listen to Indigenous people. Of course,” she said. 

For Reinås Nilut, being Indigenous is as much about building the future as it is about honoring the past. And she says it’s foolish to think we’re going to solve climate change using the same ways of thinking that created the problem. In her opinion, we have to open up to other worldviews.

“This holistic way of thinking that exists today ... it's very much alive in the Indigenous groups. I think that's the only way forward.”

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

The logo for the Podcast Threshold

Google workers around the world protest its corporate culture

Nov 1, 2018


Thousands of Google employees and contractors staged brief midday walk-outs on Thursday at offices across Asia, Europe and North America to protest sexism, racism and unchecked executive power in their workplace.

At Google's global headquarters in Mountain View, California, hundreds of employees streamed into a courtyard. One large cardboard placard held by a worker said "Not OK Google," a reference to the "OK Google" phrase used to activate Google's voice-operated assistant.

In New York City, women and men filed out of Google's office and silently walked around the block for about 10 minutes. A few held sheets of paper with messages including "Respect for Women."

“This is Google. We solve the toughest problems here. We all know that the status quo is unacceptable and if there is any company who can solve this, I think it is Google,” said Thomas Kneeland, a software engineer who said he has been at Google for three years.

Two blocks away, a larger crowd of people that appeared to number a thousand or more, including Google employees and New Yorkers not working for the company, filled a small park. Some held larger signs than those at the Google office, with more confrontational messages including "Time's Up Tech."

Google employees have been getting a lot of emails from managers and colleagues to participate in the walkout recently, Kneeland said. Just around 11 a.m., people started forming groups to leave the building. “We had engineers on our team bring their pagers since they were on-call, but that’s how we thought of the walkout. It’s important.”

A few hundred people quietly sandwiched on a pedestrian median near San Francisco's ferry building listened to a fellow employee yell from a megaphone, urging people to cheer as she called out different Google office buildings in the city in a sort of roll call of protest.

Organizers said demonstrations spanned dozens of Google offices globally. The actions follow a New York Times report last week that said Google in 2014 gave a $90 million exit package to Andy Rubin after the then-senior vice president was accused of sexual harassment.

Rubin denied the allegation in the story, which he also said contained "wild exaggerations" about his compensation. Google did not dispute the report.

The report energized a months-long movement inside Google to increase diversity, and improve treatment of women and minorities.

Those issues have been top of mind since the 2016 election of US President Donald Trump, a Republican, stunned Silicon Valley, where liberal and libertarian policies are popular.

Tech workers have become more vocal to protest both the president's and their companies' stances on immigration, defense and discrimination. Workers have said that they are driven by the sense that the technology pioneers employing them should be standard-bearers on socioeconomic issues too.

Related: This Google engineer was asked to create a censored version of Google News for China. He refused.

In a statement late on Wednesday, the Google walkout organizers called on Google parent Alphabet Inc. to add an employee representative to its board of directors and internally share pay-equity data. They also asked for changes to Google's human resources practices intended to make bringing harassment claims a fairer process.

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai said in a statement that "employees have raised constructive ideas" and that the company was "taking in all their feedback so we can turn these ideas into action."

Global action

Hundreds more filed out of its European headquarters in Dublin shortly after 1100 local time, while organizers shared photographs on social media of hundreds more leaving Google offices in London, Zurich, Berlin, Tokyo and Singapore.

Irish employees left a note on their desks that read: "I'm not at my desk because I'm walking out with other Googlers and contractors to protest sexual harassment, misconduct, lack of transparency, and a workplace culture that's not working for everyone," national broadcaster RTE reported.

Google employs 7,000 people in Dublin, its largest facility outside the United States.

Google workers here in Dublin walk out in protest against sexism, racism and unchecked executive power in the company #GoogleWalkout

— Cathal Curry (@CurryCathal) November 1, 2018

The dissatisfaction among Alphabet's 94,000 employees and tens of thousands more contractors has not noticeably affected company shares. But employees expect Alphabet to face recruiting and retention challenges if their concerns go unaddressed.

Much of the organizing earlier this year was internal, including petition drives, brainstorming sessions with top executives and training from the workers' rights group

Since its founding two decades ago, Google has been known for a motto of "don't be evil," a dictum preserved in its worker code of conduct, and its transparency with employees about corporate strategy.

But organizers said Google executives, like leaders at other companies affected by the #metoo movement, have been slow to address some structural issues.

"While Google has championed the language of diversity and inclusion, substantive actions to address systemic racism, increase equity, and stop sexual harassment have been few and far between," organizers stated.

They said Google must publicly report its sexual harassment statistics and end forced arbitration in harassment cases. In addition, they asked that the chief diversity officer be able to directly advise the board. 

A solid red Texas district could turn blue — and climate change may be a factor

Nov 1, 2018 5:35


Texas’ 7th Congressional District in western Houston and its suburbs has been a Republican stronghold since the 1960s when George HW Bush held the seat. But this year, the race — in one of the wealthiest districts in Texas — is a dead heat. One of the issues is Houston’s ongoing recovery from Hurricane Harvey and future threats from climate change.

Hurricane Harvey was the second costliest natural disaster in US history — $125 billion in damage. When the storm hit last year, flood waters rose up to about three feet in neighborhoods like Meyerland in southwest Houston.

“It’s got about 4,000 homes and 95 percent flooded and maybe only a few hundred did not,” says Art Pronin, president of the Meyerland Democrats, driving around the area.

The Houston neighborhood of Meyerland during Hurricane Harvey.

The Houston neighborhood of Meyerland during Hurricane Harvey.


Courtesy of Meyerland Democrats

Meyerland has flooded multiple times in recent years due to its proximity to a creek, or bayou as the locals call it, that can overflow during severe rainfall events. Pronin says residents have been repeatedly promised infrastructure improvements, but they feel forgotten.

“Still got a mortgage, stuck in a house that has flooded multiple times, can't sell it,” says Pronin. “There’s just this mounting sense of agony out here, because another Harvey, another flood, and I’m not sure what will hang on here.”

Pronin wants the flow of federal dollars sped up to help reduce the impact from future floods. He’s also worried about the growing influence of climate change in making big storms even bigger. But the man who represents this area in Congress, a nine-term Republican incumbent, John Culberson, has long questioned the scientific consensus on climate change.  

“To this day, even after Harvey, John Culberson will not admit to man-made climate change,” says Pronin.

Culberson’s Democratic challenger Lizzie Fletcher, an attorney who has never held political office, forcefully acknowledged the reality of climate change.

The Houston Climate Forum showed that #TX07 voters agree—climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing our world today, and we're ready for an advocate who will prioritize addressing what we can do about it.

— Lizzie Pannill Fletcher (@Lizzie4Congress) January 28, 2018

But that was during the Democratic primary. Today, she still talks about flooding, but you won’t find any mention of climate change on her campaign website.

Her campaign rejected interview requests to discuss the matter, as did John Culberson’s.

Like Fletcher, Culberson has been talking about flooding in his campaign, highlighting his work pushing aid in Congress for Houston's recovery after Harvey.

It’s an honor to have @MattressMack supporting my campaign, because of my record helping Houston after Hurricane Harvey. Watch our new ad today! #TX07

— John Culberson (@johnculberson) September 29, 2018

But nationwide polls show that climate change just isn’t a big deal for most voters. And in conservative Texas, avoiding talk of climate science altogether ... it’s not unusual.

“I'd say people are a little bit wary of using the term,” says Anne Olson, president of the Buffalo Bayou Partnership, a nonprofit that oversees a 10-mile stretch of a creek that flooded last year.

But Olson says Harvey was definitely a wake-up call: “Climate change is something that I just think now people in Houston are realizing is something that is going to affect Houston in the future." 

And the topic doesn’t have to be taboo.

“If you’re practical about it and not hysterical, and have concrete solutions, then I think people will listen,” says Bill White, a former Democratic mayor of Houston. (His home also flooded last year during Harvey, by the way.)

During White’s mayoral tenure, 2004 to 2010, he talked up energy efficiency. And Houston, a city that runs on oil and gas money, invested heavily in renewable power. White adds that voters were more than OK with that: “Not sort of bragging, but I was re-elected by 91 percent here.”

Still, talking about these issues in Texas can get you in trouble.

“For Mayor White, he’s not Governor White because in 2010 he ran a gubernatorial campaign against Rick Perry, and Perry attacked him on his environmental record, and he lost by 13 points,” says political scientist Mark Jones at Rice University’s Baker Institute.

This year, Jones says the congressional race in west Houston and the suburbs is really a referendum on President Donald Trump, and that’s why this deep red district is competitive for the first time in 50 years. So, Jones thinks Lizzie Fletcher’s cautious approach toward climate change is wise.  

“Houston is the energy capital of the world, it’s the fossil fuel energy capital of the world. So you’re not likely to win a lot of votes really trumpeting climate change. People who truly believe in climate change and believe it’s a problem, they’re already voting for Lizzie Fletcher.”

Jones says Fletcher doesn’t want to give Republicans who are leaning toward her any reasons not to vote for her, for instance stoking fears that her environmental policies could adversely affect their livelihoods.

For environmentalists, they get how the climate game is played in Texas and why Fletcher has backed off the climate issue.

“It's disappointing and it's smart politics. The energy corridor goes right through her district. So I understand the complexity of it. I want her to get elected,” says Sandy Spears, a preschool teacher in Houston and climate activist with the group

Spears has held handmade signs about climate change over the freeway overpass and hosts teach-ins on climate science. A few years ago, her story was unthinkable.

“I was born and raised Republican,” says Spears. “And then I realized where the money was coming in and kind of my heroes, they became fallen heroes, and I thought: ‘They're looking straight in the camera and saying something that is not true, and I know that they know the science.’”

Sandy Spears, right, and her daughter Caroline Spears have been going door to door in the weeks leading up to the election, highlighting the climate stances of various politicians running for office in Texas.

Sandy Spears, right, and her daughter Caroline Spears have been going door to door in Houston, highlighting various candidate’s stances on climate change.


Jason Margolis/The World 

Now, Spears is going door to door supporting candidates who she thinks get it on climate change. This year, they're all Democrats including Lizzie Fletcher. Spears says she’s seeing progress in her work. Before Harvey, many people used to ignore her.

“Now I have people come up and whisper, ‘Yeah I think climate change is true.’ So at least they’re admitting it now.”

And in this razor-thin congressional election — polls are calling it a tossup — it’s possible those whisperers could make the difference.

China exports its restrictive internet policies to dozens of countries, says Freedom House

Nov 1, 2018


China's restrictive internet policy and digital surveillance have spread worldwide over the last two years; the government is training countries with emerging markets about surveillance processes and Chinese companies are furnishing the tools, a democracy watchdog group's annual report says.

Freedom House, whose main financier is the US government, said in its report on Wednesday that China's export of "digital authoritarianism" had become a major threat to sustaining democratic governance in some countries.

Freedom House research director Adrian Shahbaz said that governments had begun justifying increased censorship and diminished digital privacy protections by saying the policies combat the spread of fake news and help catch criminals.

In effect, countries are using the curbs to violate human rights, he said.

Related: The risks of a new Cold War between the US and China are real: Here's why

Freedom House said China has been leading the charge. It has hosted seminars on cyberspace management since early 2017 with representatives from 36 out of 65 countries tracked by Freedom House, including nations in the Middle East and Southeast Asia. The 65 countries represent 87 percent of the world's internet users, the group said.

Discussions with Chinese officials preceded new cybersecurity measures in Vietnam, Uganda and Tanzania over the last year, Freedom House said after reviewing Chinese state media articles and government press releases.

Meanwhile, Chinese technology companies have provided or are set to provide internet equipment to at least 38 of the tracked countries and artificial intelligence systems for law enforcement in 18 countries, the report said.

"Beijing has been on a clear charm offensive to woo government officials and media elites," Shahbaz said. "Officials in Beijing hope to cultivate allies to follow its lead on global internet policy."

Related: This Google engineer was asked to create a censored version of Google News for China. He refused.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said the accusations made in the report were "unprofessional and irresponsible" and had "no foundation in fact." He did not elaborate.

To be sure, declining internet freedom has been a consistent global trend for nearly a decade. And Chinese foreign investment and influence efforts are not new.

But Freedom House said the threat to human rights has grown in severity as powerful technology becomes more accessible to governments and their people.

As fake news on social media has become a deadly problem, governments are using it as an "opening wedge for censorship," Michael Chertoff, the group's chairman and a former US secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, told reporters by phone.

Related: How a diplomatic crisis among Gulf nations led to a fake news campaign in the United States

Thirteen countries, including Rwanda and Bangladesh, prosecuted people this year for allegedly spreading false information, Freedom House said.

Chertoff said governments should emphasize "digital hygiene" education and called on multinational firms to take a stand against governments going too far.

Freedom House senior officials said they were dismayed that the United States under President Donald Trump had emboldened attacks on democratic media and limited net neutrality, adding to the global trend.

India unveils the world’s tallest statue, celebrating development at the cost of the environment

Oct 31, 2018


On Oct. 30, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the world’s largest statue, the "Statue of Unity" in Gujarat. At 182 meters or 598 feet tall (240 meters or 787 feet including the base), it is twice the height of the Statue of Liberty and depicts India’s first deputy prime minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel.

The statue overlooks the Sardar Sarovar Dam on the Narmada River. Patel is often thought of as the inspiration for the dam, which came to international attention when the World Bank withdrew its support from the project in 1993 after a decade of environmental and humanitarian protests. It wasn’t until 2013 that the World Bank funded another large dam project.

Like the dam, the statue has been condemned for its lack of environmental oversight and its displacement of local Adivasi or Indigenous people. The land on which the statue was built is an Adivasi sacred site that was forcibly taken from them.

Read more: India's development debate must move beyond Modi

The "Statue of Unity" is part of a broader push by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to promote Patel as a symbol of Indian nationalism and free-market development. The statue’s website praises him for bringing the 'princely states' into the Union of India and for being an early advocate of Indian free enterprise.

The BJP’s promotion of Patel also serves to overshadow the legacy of his boss, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru’s descendants head India’s most influential opposition party, the Indian National Congress.

The statue was supposed to be built with both private and public money, but it attracted little private investment. In the end, the government of Gujarat paid for much of the statue’s $416.67 million price tag.

The Gujarat government claims its investment in the statue will promote tourism, and that tourism is “sustainable development”. The United Nations says that sustainable tourism increases environmental outcomes and promotes local cultures. But given the statue’s lack of environmental checks and its displacement of local populations, it is hard to see how this project fulfills these goals.

The structure itself is not exactly a model of sustainable design. Some 5,000 tonnes of iron, 75,000 cubic meters of concrete, 5,700 tonnes of steel, and 22,500 tonnes of bronze sheets were used in its construction.

Critics of the statue note that this emblem of Indian nationalism was designed by a Chinese architect and the bronze sheeting was put in place by Chinese labor.

The statue’s position next to the controversial Sardar Sarovar Dam is also telling. While chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, Modi pushed for the dam’s construction despite the World Bank’s condemnation. He praised the dam’s completion in 2017 as a monument to India’s progress.

Both the completion of the dam and the statue that celebrates it suggest that the BJP government is backing economic development over human rights and environmental protections.

The statue’s inauguration comes only a month after the country closed the first nature reserve in India since 1972. Modi’s government has also come under sustained criticism for a series of pro-industry policies that have eroded conservation, forest, coastal and air pollution protections, and weakened minority land rights.

India was recently ranked 177 out of 180 countries in the world for its environmental protection efforts.

Despite this record, the United Nations’ Environmental Program (UNEP) recently awarded Modi its highest environmental award. It made him a Champion of the Earth for his work on solar energy development and plastic reduction.

The decision prompted a backlash in India, where many commentators are concerned by the BJP’s environmental record.

Read more: Bridges and roads in north-east India may drive small tribes away from development

Visitors to the statue will access it via a 5-kilometer boat ride. At the statue’s base, they can buy souvenirs and fast food, before taking a high-speed elevator to the observation deck.

The observation deck will be situated in Patel’s head. From it, tourists will look out over the Sardar Sarovar Dam, as the accompanying commentary praises “united” India’s national development successes.

But let’s not forget the environmental and minority protections that have been sacrificed to achieve these goals.The Conversation

Ruth Gamble is a David Myers research fellow at La Trobe University and Alexander E. Davis is a New Generation Network fellow at La Trobe University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Doomed Indonesian plane with 189 on board had asked to return to base

Oct 29, 2018


Lion Air flight JT610 flying with 189 people on board out of Indonesia crashed into the sea on Monday as it tried to circle back to the capital, Jakarta.

Flight JT610, with an almost new Boeing 737 MAX 8, was en route to Pangkal Pinang, capital of the Bangka-Belitung tin mining region. Rescue officials said they had recovered some human remains from the crash site, about 9 miles off the coast.

Indonesia is one of the world's fastest-growing aviation markets, but its safety record is patchy. If all aboard have died, the crash will be the country's second-worst air disaster since 1997, industry experts said.

A graphic showing the flight path for Lion Air JT610 out of Indonesia.

The pilot had asked to return to base (RTB) after the plane took off from Jakarta. It lost contact with ground staff after 13 minutes.

"It's correct that an RTB was requested and had been approved but we're still trying to figure out the reason," Soerjanto Tjahjono, head of Indonesia's transport safety committee, told reporters, referring to the pilot's request.

"We hope the black box is not far from the main wreckage so it can be found soon," he said, referring to the cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder.

Search and rescue agency head Muhmmad Syaugi told a news conference earlier that no distress signal had been received from the aircraft's emergency transmitter.

Yusuf Latief, spokesman of national search and rescue agency, said there were likely no survivors.

At least 23 government officials, four employees of state tin miner PT Timah and three employees of a Timah subsidiary, were on the plane. A Lion Air official said one Italian passenger and one Indian pilot were on board.

The plane went down in waters about 98 to 115 feet deep. Items such as handphones and life vests were found, along with body parts.

Ambulances were lined up at Karawang, on the coast east of Jakarta, and police were preparing rubber dinghies, a Reuters reporter said. Fishing boats were being used to help search.

Edward Sirait, chief executive of Lion Air Group, told reporters the aircraft had had a technical problem on a flight from the resort island of Bali to Jakarta but it had been "resolved according to procedure."

Sirait declined to specify the nature of the issue but said none of its other aircraft of that model had the same problem. Lion had operated 11 Boeing 737 MAX 8s and it had no plan to ground the rest of them, he said.

The accident is the first to be reported involving the widely sold Boeing 737 MAX, an updated, more fuel-efficient version of the manufacturer's workhorse single-aisle jet.

Privately owned Lion Air said the aircraft had been in operation since August, was airworthy, with its pilot and co-pilot together having accumulated 11,000 hours of flying time.

'Be patient'

Safety experts say nearly all accidents are caused by a combination of factors and only rarely have a single identifiable cause.

The flight took off in clear weather at around 6:20 a.m. and was due to have landed in Pangkal Pinang at 7:20 a.m.

Distraught relatives of those on board arrived at the airport in Jakarta and Pangkal Pinang.

"Be patient, pray the best for papa," one woman arriving at Jakarta airport told a sobbing girl.

The woman declined to speak to reporters.

President Joko Widodo told a news conference authorities were focusing on the search and rescue, and he called for the country's prayers and support.

The effort to find the wreckage and retrieve the black boxes represents a major challenge for investigators in Indonesia, where an AirAsia Airbus jet crashed in the Java Sea in December 2014.

Under international rules, the US National Transportation Safety Board will automatically assist with the inquiry, backed up by technical advisers from Boeing and US-French engine maker CFM International, co-owned by General Electric and Safran.

Boeing was deeply saddened by the loss, it said in a statement, and was ready to provide technical assistance for the investigation.

Data from FlightRadar24 shows the first sign of something amiss was around two minutes into the flight, when the plane had reached 2,000 feet.

It descended more than 500 feet and veered to the left before climbing again to 5,000 feet, where it stayed during most of the rest of the flight.

It began gaining speed in the final moments and reached 397 mph before data was lost when it was at 3,650 feet.

Indonesia's worst air disaster was in 1997, when a Garuda Indonesia A300 crashed in the city of Medan, killing 214 people.

Founded in 1999, Lion Air's only fatal accident was in 2004, when an MD-82 crashed upon landing at Solo City, killing 25 of the 163 on board, the Flight Safety Foundation's Aviation Safety Network says.

In April, the airline announced a firm order to buy 50 Boeing 737 MAX 10 narrowbody jets with a list price of $6.24 billion. It is one of the US planemaker's largest customers globally.

By Fergus Jensen and Tommy Ardiansyah/Reuters

Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Cindy Silviana, Gayatri Suroyo and Fransiska Nangoy, Bernadette Christina in Jakarta, Jamie Freed in Singapore and Tim Hepher in Hong Honk; Writing by Ed Davies; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel.

Florida's 'red tide' could help turn the state blue

Oct 28, 2018 11:14


An ecological disaster could be shaping Florida’s political races this November.

Large swaths of toxic, green algae blooms and so-called “red tide” blooms have infested shorelines, killing marine life, harming humans and stifling the tourism industry. Critics blame Governor Rick Scott, who is running for a US Senate seat, for not doing enough to control this ecological crisis, while Scott says his opponent, incumbent Democratic Senator Bill Nelson, is at fault.

Until recently, Scott held a narrow lead in most polls over Senator Nelson, but lately, Nelson has edged slightly ahead. It's possible that anger over the algae crisis could influence the election, according to Michael Grunwald, Politico senior reporter and author of the book, "The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida and the Politics of Paradise."

“This is a rough time for Governor Scott, or as he's now becoming known on social media, ‘Red Tide Rick,’” Grunwald says. “Generally, when you're a politician, you don't want to be a meme and you definitely don't want that meme to involve scum.”

Scott has been governor for eight years and this ecological meltdown is happening on his watch, Grunwald says. As a Tea Party Republican, part of his push for promoting Florida's economy has been to dismantle some environmental regulations, particularly for nutrients infecting Florida’s waterways.

Nutrients are not a positive thing in this context. High levels of nitrogen and phosphorus washing into the water from agricultural lands, leaky septic systems and fertilizer runoff are causing the massive algae blooms.

As governor, Scott signed a law repealing inspections of septic tanks that have been sending some of these nutrients into the waters — he specifically asked the federal government for relief from nutrient standards, Grunwald explains.

“He has really gutted some of the environmental agencies that were doing enforcement and regulation of the nutrients in the water,” he says. “There is a pretty plausible case that keeping nutrients out of the water has not been his top priority — and that nutrient pollution is creating these really serious environmental and economic problems.”

Related: One small Florida city tries to adapt to climate change, mostly alone

Florida is currently dealing with two different types of algae blooms. One is a kind of “neon-green guacamole glop that is toxic and has been linked to cancer and various testicular problems,” Grunwald explains. The other is a rust-colored ocean tide that is washing up on Florida’s shorelines along with millions of dead fish. This is bad for Florida in a number of significant ways.

“Florida's environment really is its economy,” Grunwald says. “The reason we have 20 million people living here and 100 million annual tourists visiting is because it's a really beautiful place. And when you can't breathe at the beach, when you can't go into the water, when the sparkling estuaries that are considered the most biodiverse in North America are covered with this blanket of foul-smelling green scum, that's not really popular.”

Scott is spending $20 million of his own money on campaign ads trying to blame Senator Nelson for the problem — an implausible argument, Grunwald says, since the state government is in charge of Florida’s water quality.

Grunwald thinks the issue may be hurting Scott, even in conservative areas along the coasts. 

“People are really mad. People don't like slime in their backyard,” Grunwald says. “Now, do Republicans end up coming out and voting for Scott anyway, just because he's a Republican or because they like what he says about taxes or because they don't like Chuck Schumer? That's certainly possible. But every election and every statewide election in Florida is close. Governor Scott won both of his races by one point.

“So, this is a situation where if the slime flips a few voters or if it persuades a few voters to leave the Rick Scott space blank, that could really spell the difference between losing and winning,” he concludes. 

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Warming ocean waters turned Hurricane Michael into a superstorm

Oct 28, 2018 9:29


When Hurricane Michael came ashore in the Panhandle of Florida on Oct. 10, it shredded buildings with the sheer force of its Category 4 winds and swept away entire neighborhoods with an 8- to 12-foot storm surge.

Michael was the third strongest hurricane ever to make landfall in the continental United States. Fortunately, it passed through fairly quickly and dropped less rain than other recent major hurricanes such as Florence, Harvey, Irma and Maria. Only the Labor Day hurricane of 1935 and Hurricane Camille in 1969 had lower barometric pressures, a key measure of hurricane strength.

Even some storm experts were surprised by how Hurricane Michael intensified from Category 1 to Category 4 in just 24 hours. But, according to Michael E. Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science and director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, we can expect more of this type of phenomenon as the oceans continue to warm.

Hurricane Michael intensified so quickly, Mann says, because it encountered sea surface temperatures in the low 80s Fahrenheit — between 2 to 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial sea surface temperatures. And this is no fluke.

Ocean waters have warmed about 1 degree Celsius globally. As a result, ocean levels have risen between half a foot and a foot along Florida’s Gulf Coast and on the US East Coast.

Related: Even a slight increase in global warming could be catastrophic, experts warn

“Sea level rise adds to the storm surge of every single storm that makes landfall,” Mann says. “In the case of Superstorm Sandy, in 2012, it added a foot to that 13-foot storm surge. One foot might sound like a modest amount, but it meant 25 more square miles of coastal flooding. It meant several billion dollars worth of additional damage. Same thing with Florence making landfall in North Carolina — sea level rise added about a foot to that storm surge.”

Warmer ocean temperatures also lead to what scientists call rapid intensification, as with Hurricane Michael. “We have seen this now so many times, where a storm balloons from a minor tropical storm to a major hurricane over the course of a day or two,” Mann says. “That only happens over very warm seas.”

The science is clear on the relationship between warm waters and the damage caused by these rapidly intensifying storms, says Mann. Each degree Fahrenheit of ocean warming translates into a 7 percent increase in maximum wind speed. While 7 percent may sound modest, the destructive potential of a storm increases by three times the increase of its wind speed.

“A 7 percent increase in wind speed is a 21 percent increase in the destructive potential of the storm,” Mann explains. “That's with one degree Fahrenheit ocean warming. With Hurricane Michael, those temperatures were 2 to 3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. If you do the math, that means it was probably twice as destructive as it would have been in the absence of human-caused warming.”

In addition, each half degree Celsius adds 4 percent more moisture to the atmosphere, which increases the potential for torrential rains, like those that occurred during Hurricane Florence.

Related: Why the military isn’t tracking climate change costs

The recent International Governmental Panel on Climate Change report has added to the global concern about humanity’s ability to mitigate the worst effects of a warming planet.

“I'm certainly frightened of the possibility that we will not act in time,” Mann says. “I hold out cautious optimism that we will. And let me be specific: Do I hold out much optimism for stabilizing warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius? No, I don't at this point. Do I still see stabilizing warming below 2 degrees Celsius as possible? I do, but we need to dramatically reduce our carbon emissions — not 10 years from now — now.”

“It isn't a cliff that we go off of at 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius,” he explains. “It's much more like a minefield that we walk out onto and the further out onto that minefield, the more likely it is that we set off these devastating detonations. And that is why we have to limit the warming as much as we possibly can.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. Here’s why we should all care.

Oct 26, 2018 11:18


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

On a lovely summer day in northern Sweden, Mathilda Nyzell is rowing a boat across a lake, as flocks of birds circle in the sky.

“We have so much fun in the boat when me and Jenny go out,” Nyzell says.

Nyzell and her colleague Jenny Gåling are master's students at Stockholm University. They’re here in Abisko, Sweden, to study Arctic permafrost — soil that’s been frozen year-round for at least two years — and the gases that seep out into the atmosphere when it thaws. Specifically, they’re measuring the gas bubbling up from sediment in lakes like this one, which dots the landscape here.

Related: In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic 

These scientists love the research process and the places it takes them — places like this lake. But the data they’re collecting tell a very sobering story. 

One of the main gases bubbling up and out of this lake is methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. As our human-caused carbon pollution causes the planet to heat up, that warming is thawing out Arctic permafrost, which, in turn, is triggering an increase in natural carbon emissions from places like this.

In other words, all around the Arctic, climate change caused by human pollution is causing even more of the same greenhouse gases to move from once-frozen soil into the atmosphere. 

For researchers around the world, that is a very frightening change, because there is a lot of carbon in that soil.

“The amount of the amount of carbon that's stored in [Arctic permafrost soil], it's twice the amount that we have in the atmosphere,” says Joachim Jansen, lead researcher on this project and a doctoral student at Stockholm University. “And so if that will all be released into the atmosphere, that would mean a huge climatic change.”

Related: An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way.

This is a statistic worth remembering, so let’s put it another way: If all the carbon currently in the atmosphere could fit into one bucket, all of the carbon currently frozen in Arctic permafrost would fill two buckets of the same size. 

Nobody knows how much of that carbon will actually end up in the atmosphere or how quickly. That’s why these researchers are here.

Two female student researchers in a row boat on a lake.

Mathilda Nyzell and Jenny Gåling, master's students at the Stockholm University, trade off rowing while they collect data from methane traps.


Amy Martin/The World

Not far from the lake, ecosystem ecologist Gesche Blume-Werry stabs the soil with a long steel rod called a permafrost probe to find out how much of the soil in this spot is frozen or not.

At first, the probe makes a sort of hollow sound as it pushes into the soft soil. About a foot down, though, it hits something that sounds like a big rock.

“This is frozen soil,” Blume-Werry says.

And in that soil, there's all kinds of stuff — plants, dead animals and other organic material that Blume-Werry says was buried and frozen during the last ice age, roughly 11,000 years ago. 

She pulls the probe back out and touches it. In just a few seconds, the end has become really cold — so cold that it's uncomfortable to touch — just from brief contact with the permafrost less than a foot below. 

Permafrost can be anywhere from a meter to a kilometer thick. It can be very cold or just barely frozen. But all around the Arctic, it's starting to thaw. 

Pine trees lean at strange angles in a dense forest

Trees are askew in this "drunken forest" in Fairbanks, Alaska. This phenomenon is caused by the permafrost thawing beneath the trees. 


Ashley Cooper/Corbis via Getty Images

You might’ve seen some of the pictures of the local impacts of this transition from rock-hard to squishy soil — roads that are sinking and buckling, homes shifting and cracking, and trees tilting at awkward angles, giving rise to the label “drunken forests.” In fact, there's a line of telephone poles next to the meadow where Blume-Werry is working, including one that also looks a little drunk.

“That is probably standing in an area where the permafrost is just disappearing now,” she says. “So they will have to redo that soon.”

These changes are a big deal for people who live in the Arctic. In many northern cultures, cellars dug into the permafrost have been a reliable way to store food for generations — nature’s freezer. Now, people can't always trust that their food won't spoil. 

Thawing permafrost affects newer kinds of infrastructure too — buildings, water mains, sewage drains, even cemeteries. Communities are scrambling to adapt as the ground literally shifts beneath them. 

But the impact is far more than local. All that organic material in the permafrost has a lot of carbon in it. That's what “organic” means — organic chemistry is carbon chemistry. And for thousands of years — all of recorded human history and then some — that carbon has been locked up. Put in the freezer, you might say.

Now, Blume-Werry says, “we are unfortunately kind of taking the plug out of the freezer, and it's starting to thaw.”

When that happens, all the frozen organic material in permafrost finally starts to decompose. Microbes spring into action and start chowing down on the remains of those plants and animals. 

“Microbes are eating it," Blume-Werry says. "And then they emit carbon."

That’s how the carbon moves from the permafrost into the atmosphere. As the microbes begin breaking down the buried organic material, they transform its carbon molecules into gas — methane or carbon dioxide — which then float up into the atmosphere and help trap heat from the sun. 

It is a long, slow process, but it’s starting to reactivate around the Arctic as the region rapidly warms up. These scientists are trying to help figure out how quickly it’s happening here, right now, and what might happen in the years ahead.

Back at the lake, Nyzell steers her rowboat close to an odd contraption floating in the water. It’s a big funnel, sitting upside down with a big syringe sticking up from the skinny end. If the thing looks homemade, Jansen says, that’s because it is. 

“The way we make them float is by using pool noodles,” he says. 

Colorful foam pool noodles are wrapped around a clear container with handwritten markings on it

Scientists often make their own instruments in the field, like these methane traps, which are made with pool noodles. "So we got a whole box of those ... it's kind of weird when you buy them," says Joachim Jansen, a PhD candidate at Stockholm University.


Amy Martin/The World

The contraptions are gas traps, designed to capture bubbles floating up from the lake bottom below. Nyzell rows up to one of them so Jansen can reach over the side of the boat and suck out the gas that’s accumulated in it with a syringe.

“We [have] about seven milliliters of gas, most of which will likely be methane,” he says.

Jansen’s team will measure the actual methane concentration of the sample later in the lab.

A man holds a piece of scientific equipment over a lake

 Joachim Jansen, a PhD candidate at Stockholm University, checks a methane trap.


Amy Martin/The World

The team has placed 40 of these bubble traps on this lake, and a bunch more nearby, which they check multiple times a week, all summer long. That’s a lot of effort just to understand how much methane is coming off this one small area, this year, under very local weather and ecological conditions. 

Groups of other scientists are at work elsewhere around the Arctic studying sites that are wetter or drier, colder or warmer, with more or less vegetation. They're all trying to understand just how quickly the billions of tons of carbon locked up in all of the Arctic’s permafrost might be released.

It’s a massive challenge, but Jansen says it’s vital to understand what may happen to the Earth’s climate, with temperatures that could rise by as much as 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century.

“The scary part is that we don't know what an extra four degrees of warming will do to this huge amount of carbon that's stored here in the permafrost,” Jansen says. “And we are trying to actively figure that out.”

The complexity of the Arctic system makes it hard to pin down the exact amount of greenhouse gas emissions coming from the soil here. 

A finger points to the size of small Arctic plants growing above the surface

Gesche Blume-Werry says Arctic plants keep the bulk of their bodies buried in the soil, which means permafrost soil is full of lots of dead roots. Those roots become a source of carbon for hungry microbes when permafrost thaws.


Amy Martin/The World 

But Jansen says part of the difficulty is also because humans have never warmed the planet up like we are now, so we have nothing to compare it to. At least from the perspective of our species' short history, we're in what climate scientists call a “no analog” situation. A massive global experiment.

“There's a knob that we turn on that big Arctic permafrost machine that we don't know what it does,” Jansen says. “And until we actually figure out what it does, it may be a good idea to stop turning the knob.”

The worry is not just about that possible 4 Celsius warming, though. Just one degree of warming, Blume-Werry says, can make “all the difference in the world.”

In many parts of the Arctic, she says, permafrost has already thawed enough to start emitting carbon. In other places, the frozen soil is right on the cusp of that pivot point, where a change of just one or two degrees can transform it from frozen to thawed, from something that stores carbon to something that emits it.

“And that is something that scientists are really worried about because there are many thresholds that you might cross there,” Blume-Werry says. “We might tip the scales of these really large exchanges, then we can have really dramatic consequences.” 

That’s why protecting the Arctic is about more than saving the polar bear, Blume-Werry says. 

“I think a lot of people — when they think about climate change — they're like, yeah, you know some plants will disappear, and the polar bear, yeah, it's cute,” she says. "But it's also about us surviving as a species, because if it gets much warmer, the way that we have evolved, with our agriculture … the food we eat and where we live, it's just not adapted [to a much warmer world]."

We don't know how close we are to a massive release of carbon from frozen Arctic soils, but we do know that every bit of carbon humans emit into the atmosphere gets us closer to that point. The pollution from our vehicles, businesses, and power plants will cause more carbon to be emitted from thawing permafrost.

Scientists call it a positive feedback loop: More carbon in the air leads to more warming, which leads to the release of more carbon, and the process just builds on itself. 

Another thing we know is that we don't get a second chance at this. If our pollution triggers a huge release of carbon from Arctic soils, we've put ourselves at the mercy of processes we can’t control, and that will dramatically reshape the Earth's climate and our own civilizations. 

Still, despite the deep concern, project leader Jansen believes there’s time to dial things back.

“We have an ability to say stop, of course we do,” he says. “We have choices, especially in the Western world, in the rich world. We have choices, and therefore we have a responsibility.”

One way to act on that responsibility, Jansen says, is to try to better understand the massive experiment we're conducting on the Arctic. 

“That's my part,” he says. “That's what we do here. And the other part is acting on what we already know, which is [to] stop putting so much greenhouse gases in the atmosphere … I think we have a responsibility, and I think we can act. Absolutely.”

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

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World hunger is on the rise again, and climate change is a culprit

Oct 22, 2018


World hunger has risen for a third consecutive year, according to the United Nations’ annual food security report. The total number of people who face chronic food deprivation has increased by 15 million since 2016. Some 821 million people now face food insecurity, raising numbers to the same level as almost a decade ago.

The situation is worsening in South America, Central Asia and most regions of Africa, the report shows. It also spotlights a troubling rise in anemia among women of reproductive age. One in 3 women worldwide is affected, with health and developmental consequences for them and their children.

From 2005 to 2014, global undernourishment was on the decline. But the rate of decline continuously eroded, like a car moving forward at an ever-decreasing speed. Several years ago it stopped altogether, and world hunger started to climb once more. Among the factors driving this reversal was climate change.

While malnutrition and food insecurity begin at the household level, hunger is everyone’s business. The damage wrought by hunger on communities can provoke regional instability and conflict that can extend beyond impacted areas. For example, drought and crop failures in Central America are among the drivers of immigration across the US border.

Related: Drought doesn't cause famine. People do.

Climate, weather and crops

The causes of food insecurity are complex and interrelated. In our recent book, “How to Feed the World,” a collection of essays from leading researchers, we review pressing challenges. Among them, climate change emerges as a troubling problem that influences all others.

Earth’s climate has swung into and out of ice ages since the dawn of time. In the last 50 years, however, things have changed. Average global temperatures have increased ever more quickly, with new recorded highs in 2014, then again in 2015, and again in 2016.

Climate change is also increasing the severity and frequency of extreme weather events, such as powerful storms and droughts. As a result, some regions of the world are getting wetter, including the northern US and Canada, while others are becoming drier, such as the southwestern US. In the US Midwest, heavy rainfalls events increased by over a third from 1958 to 2012.

Agriculture is one of the industries most exposed and vulnerable to climate change. Crops and livestock are extremely sensitive to temperature and precipitation. A late spring frost can be devastating, and a heat wave during the flowering stage can result in sharply reduced yields. In short, agriculture is the “Goldilocks industry"  — the weather should not be too hot or too cold, and rainfall must be “just right.”

Producing enough food for everyone in the world depends heavily on climate. This means that it will be impossible to curb hunger without preparing for and adapting to climate change.

The importance of agricultural research

Climate change renders generational and historical information about farming less valuable. What worked before may no longer apply in an altered climate. When historical knowledge no longer works, farmers must rely on other sources of information, such as meteorologists, agronomists and other scientists, as well as the development of new sustainable technologies.

Farmers in the most advanced economies, including the US, already rely heavily on scientific knowledge, which is often mediated by the private sector or by local extension services. However, farmers in the poorest countries — which in many cases will suffer the most severe impacts from climate change — rarely have access to such knowledge.

Even in wealthy countries, these adjustments are costly. And public funding for agricultural research and development has been declining for a decade in the US. The poorest countries in the world account for just 3 percent of global spending on agricultural research. Without investments into sharing research discoveries, many advances in wealthier countries will not be transferred to low-income nations.

Climate change’s pervasive influence

Climate change also intensifies other stresses on global food production. Consider the critical role of water. Meat consumption alone accounts for an estimated 22 percent of global water use, and this need will increase in a hotter world. Climate change also alters rainfall patterns: Some places will have too little water to farm, while others may have enough but find that it falls at the wrong time, or arrives less frequently but in larger rainfall events.

Even seemingly disparate factors like international trade are affected by climate change, with serious ramifications for food security. As climate change drives permanent shifts in the geography of world agricultural production zones, international trade will emerge as an important resiliency mechanism for reducing hunger and for enhancing equal access to food.

For instance, a 2012 heat wave and drought prompted major losses in corn harvests in the US. Producers in the Southern Hemisphere adjusted to the shortfall, which served to moderate price increases in the US. This was only possible because of international trade.

US corn yield, bushel per acre, 1985-2012

Widespread drought caused heavy losses for US corn farmers in 2012. 


USDA/Creative Commons BY-ND

An effective response to climate change will also be critical to making progress on a host of other food security challenges, such as curbing food loss, improving nutrition and promoting sustainable production systems. Food-producing nations will need creative policies and new technologies to meet these challenges successfully.

Adapting to new conditions

Climate change is anticipated to force more than 100 million people into extreme poverty by 2030. Adapting to climate change is a key way to combat this – and technology can help.

For instance, precision agriculture can leverage computers, global positioning systems, geographic information systems and sensors to provide the data necessary to give each tiny parcel of land on a field exactly the inputs it needs. And a resurgent interest in the use of the time-honored technology of cover crops may mitigate climate change impacts.

We can go even smaller in our measurements with the emergence of nanotechnology. Aside from making field sensors smaller and more compact, nanotechnologies can also help improve how fertilizers and pesticides are released. By putting chemical inputs into tiny capsules or in gels, it is possible to control when and how these inputs are released to make them more effective, and at the same time reduce chemical emissions and runoff.

But ultimately, it is up to individuals. Around the world, people must wield their social power to encourage mitigation of climate change and promote investments in technologies for adaptation. We need everyone at the table contributing to a food-secure future.The Conversation

Jessica Eise is a Ross fellow at the Brian Lamb School of Communication Doctoral Program at Purdue University and Kenneth Foster is a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Kerry wants us to respect US democracy — by voting for a cleaner planet

Oct 21, 2018 13:01


As secretary of state under President Barack Obama, Kerry made climate change one of his top priorities and later played a key role in the success of the Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Now, as the Trump administration walks back climate policies and the world grapples with dire warnings from scientists, Kerry says human society and life itself are imperiled.

Still, Kerry prefers to remain optimistic and he sees many reasons to feel that way.

“First of all, living without optimism would be miserable. I don't want to be miserable,” he says.

"But, more importantly, I see what's happened in my lifetime. … [W]e’re doing amazing things on this planet. We're breaking new barriers every day, in terms of science, in terms of our understanding of things. We are living better. We have a higher standard of living, notwithstanding the poor and the homeless. The severe poverty rate when I was in college was 50 percent of this world. Today, it's less than 10 percent, for the first time in history. We brought 450 million people out of poverty in China, 400 million in India. Fifteen years ago, South Korea was an aid-recipient country. Today, it's a donor country.

“So, I see this transformation taking place,” he continues.

"We’re curing diseases we never thought we would ever cure — smallpox, tuberculosis, polio. We're doing an amazing job with cancer now. With the human genome project, we have the ability to give specialized cancer treatment. People are living longer and living better. So, the challenge remains, but the ability to meet the challenge is absolutely clear to all of us."

Nevertheless, he says, societies must organize themselves better. “We're not making our democracy ... work effectively and we've learned through history that the alternatives aren't pretty,” he cautions.

"We don't want a monarchy, we don't want a dictatorship, we don't want socialism or communism. I think democracy — our democracy — has unleashed the greatest creativity and the greatest freedom, but people have to respect it by going out and voting — 54.2 percent is not acceptable."

Kerry says because he was lucky enough to come back from the Vietnam War alive and whole, he felt he had an obligation to use every day to its maximum. “It was a gift,” he says. “Other guys didn't get that gift and I thought we owed it to them and their legacy, as well as to ourselves and our own value system, to live a life of purpose, to do something.”

He still feels that way. He still wants to work to achieve important goals, such as beating back the threat of climate change.

“I'm not willing to just throw up my hands and say, ‘Someone else is going to take care of this,’ because that's just not responsible,” Kerry says.

"We buy insurance to make sure that if our home burns down, we're going to be able to rebuild it. We buy car insurance to fix the wreck and life insurance [to make sure that] in the event somebody loses a life, the family is OK. Why aren't we buying insurance against the death and destruction that will come with increased storms and increased climate change?"

Environmental concerns are not new to Kerry. As lieutenant governor of Massachusetts, Kerry made his mark working on the problem of acid rain. This work taught him an important lesson, he says, that “... reasonable people with a reasonable purpose in public life are able to work together — Republican and Democrat — in order to do things that are good for American citizens.”

Together with Governor John Sununu of New Hampshire and Governor Richard Celeste of Ohio, Kerry put together an approach — a conservative approach, he notes, drawn up by the American Enterprise Institute — to use the economic market to solve an environmental and public health problem.

“There was a market incentive for [businesses] to buy and trade sulfur, which reduced the amount of sulfur,” Kerry explains. “We got acid rain under control through that system. Then, when I was in the Senate, I was able to use that [system] and put it into the Clean Air Act. So, it became part of the national program. You don't hear about acid rain now.

“We could do the same thing with climate change if we had leadership that was willing to recognize that the biggest market on this planet is the energy market,” Kerry continues.

"There are four to five billion users. That number will rise to about nine billion users in the next 30 years because that's going to be the population of the world. We have the ability, through the deployment of sustainable, renewable, alternative energy, to limit our emissions and to control climate change."

Kerry says he plans to stay involved and engaged with global issues. He is working with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington on international conflict issues. As a fellow on global affairs at Yale University, he’s teaching courses on American power in the 21st century and the tools of diplomacy. And he continues to travel and talk about his new book, Every Day is Extra, which, unlike his previous books on policy, focuses on his personal journey:

"This book talks about my faith, my family, my divorce; it talks about growing up in a war and opposing the war; it talks about losing the presidency of the United States by one state and how you turn around and come back from that. I got a really nice note from a guy who had been running for office and he lost. He wrote me about how he had been reading my book, about how I processed that loss and what I decided to do, and he has found it really helpful. That I love. That really means something to me."

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Even a slight increase in global warming could be catastrophic, experts warn

Oct 21, 2018 10:16


A special report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) on Oct. 8, 2018, spells out the need to move quickly to curtail global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels.

Keeping below the “aspirational” 1.5 degrees goal spelled out in the Paris Climate Agreement is going to be tough, but the impact of failure will be even tougher, says Princeton professor Michael Oppenheimer, who for years has been a lead author for IPCC reports.

“[A]ny sane person would take away a very, very sobering message upon reading this report,” Oppenheimer says.

The effects of climate change are already here. They are projected to worsen over time and the point at which the…possibility of very big impacts starts to increase markedly is not toward the end of this century, but very close, a matter of a decade or two away, if we do nothing — or more or less nothing, like we're doing now — to reduce the emissions of the greenhouse gases that are causing the problem.

The IPCC produces thorough assessments of all scientific knowledge on climate change every six years or so. In between these major assessments, it produces quick and pointed assessments on specific pieces of the problem called special reports.

The special report just released focused on one specific question: At which level should we restrain warming in order to prevent entering a danger zone, where the risks become so high that we may not be able to cope as a species?

In 2015, when the government called for this special report, many scientists doubted that there would be much difference between the impact of 1.5 degrees or 2 degrees. They realized through their research, in regards to extreme heat and flooding, there are actually big differences, Oppenheimer says.

Already, there are places, particularly islands in the Pacific and megacities all around the world, for which the incidence of the benchmark hundred-year storm or hundred-year flood event increases markedly even by 1.5 degrees. At that level, what is today a hundred-year event becomes a yearly event. Think about that. We don't deal with those kinds of events effectively now, even though they’re very rare. What happens when they're happening all the time?

Protesters hold up a sign

Protesters march to urge politicians to act against climate change, in Paris, France, Oct. 13, 2018.


Philippe Wojazer, Reuters

The report says that nations of the world have a dozen years or so — until 2030 — to reach a net zero output in carbon emissions. Oppenheimer believes this is no longer achievable, but he also believes the media has over-emphasized this aspect of the report.

The framing that we have 12 years left or else is counterproductive; it will just scare people. The report doesn't frame it that way ... The reality is, at every step you do the best you can, and if you don't quite make the target, you try to do a little better in the next decade or the next couple of decades.

“The world doesn't come to an end because of this. The risk just increases markedly and it becomes very, very hard to cope, eventually,” he stresses.

That doesn't mean societies will completely disintegrate. Some will. Sea level rise is going to destroy some coastal societies, particularly in small island states. But it will make life miserable, expensive and uncomfortable for the rest of us.

Contrary to what most people think, Oppenheimer adds, the report finds that the challenges of limiting the threats of climate change are not primarily technological. The real obstacles are social and political. The central question, he says, is how societies can organize to become more efficient and independent of fossil fuels.

Related: Global warming: What happens if we do nothing? 

Societies must reinvent themselves. In the US, for instance, a widely accepted pattern of development automatically guarantees high energy use.

At the most general level, this means abandoning fossil fuels as primary energy sources — halting the use of coal for electric power production as soon as possible and reducing and eventually eliminating our dependence on petroleum-based products like gasoline.

The even bigger challenge, according to Oppenheimer, is that there is already so much carbon dioxide in the atmosphere that even if we slow down rapidly and eliminate our dependence on fossil fuels, we will eventually need to find a way to remove some of that carbon from the atmosphere.

“Not immediately,” he says, “but as we get toward mid-century, it seems we're going to need a way to suck the carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere — and people are working on that.”

While acknowledging the dire realities the world faces, Oppenheimer points to signs of hope: diminishing reliance on coal, particularly in the US; increasing penetration of renewable energy into the market; and rapid development in battery storage capacity. He also says:

If you step back and look at human history, human beings are very clever at creating dangerous messes and then almost as good at cleaning them up afterward.

The most promising analogy is the nuclear arms race.

We haven't put the genie back in the bottle and something could still go wrong, but we significantly reduced the risk of a large-scale nuclear exchange, which would essentially make the Earth uninhabitable. You can look at that and ask, ‘Well, is that encouraging?’ And I think, yes, it is. Human beings are smart sometimes and are able to see their mistakes and act collaboratively — as countries in the same soup — to get out of the soup.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Kavanaugh’s track record on environmental law favors business over climate change protections

Oct 21, 2018 9:37


Newly confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who brings a long record of pro-business and anti-regulatory opinions from his tenure on an appeals court, will likely tip the high court’s balance in favor of narrower interpretations of environmental law.

Kavanaugh’s confirmation centered more on allegations of sexual assault and temperament than his judicial record. But a close look at his rulings during his dozen years on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals reveals strong and well-crafted opinions that restrain government action on pollution and wild habitat safeguards.

The DC Circuit Court is the second most important court in the country, after the Supreme Court. Kavanaugh has written about 300 opinions, of which perhaps a quarter either dealt directly with environmental law or concerned administrative law — that is, issues that relate to how government agencies like the EPA interpret and implement legislative statutes.

Kavanaugh styles himself after the late Justice Scalia, who called himself a textualist or a strict constructionist, explains Vermont law professor Pat Parenteau.

“He looks to the text of a statute when he's asked to interpret it, and if the text isn't clear enough, oftentimes he will rule against an agency's interpretation,” Parenteau says.

"In the environmental arena, that oftentimes means that rules written to increase the level of protection for public health and the environment don't often fit squarely within the plain text of a statute," Parenteau continues. "Statutes are [often] general and vague. Agencies try to interpret them as best they can."

Kavanaugh believes government agencies require explicit direction from Congress when it comes to writing rules that impose costs on American businesses, so he tends to rule against environmental laws that offer broad protections to public health or the environment, Parenteau says.

While still on the Circuit Court, for example, Kavanaugh ruled that EPA does not have the authority to require a substitute chemical used in refrigerants and fire prevention devices that have been found to be a potent greenhouse gas. EPA had adopted the use of this chemical because it doesn't deplete the ozone layer but then decided that substituting a greenhouse gas for an ozone-depleting gas was not good policy.

“Kavanaugh looked at the language of the Clean Air Act and said, ‘No, EPA's authority is limited to substituting one ozone deplete for another, but it can't take climate change into account when it looks at alternatives,’” Parenteau explains.

"That's an example of a very strict approach to interpreting the law, the net result of which is that a virulent greenhouse gas is now on the market that was supposed to be a remedy for ozone depletion — but now it's going to cause climate change."

With Justice Neil Gorsuch and now Kavanaugh solidifying the conservative wing of the court, any close statutory or constitutional questions that might have previously come down 5 to 4 in favor of broader environmental protections will likely swing the other way, Parenteau says.

Consequently, in terms of the US government's ability to address the threat of climate change in the coming years, “we have to be realistic," Parenteau believes. 

“If we're going to make any progress on climate change in the United States, it's going to have to come through the legislative process,” he maintains.

"That means a change in the makeup of Congress, both the House and the Senate. Under the current majority, there really is no realistic hope, I don't believe, of meaningful action on climate change," Parenteau says. "It's going to take a major change in electoral politics in the United States. We may begin to see some of that in the mid-term elections in November. Frankly, I hope we do, but time is short and I don't think we can rely on the courts in the United States … to deliver the kind of relief we need."

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Sewage surveillance is key in the fight against polio

Oct 19, 2018


The world is at the brink of eradicating polio. Only three countries now have ongoing transmission: Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. And in 2017, there were only a couple dozen cases of paralytic wild polio reported worldwide – a massive decrease from the estimated 350,000 cases reported across 125 countries in 1988. Development of the polio vaccine and global vaccination efforts are at the heart of this monumental public health achievement.

Epidemiologists typically detect polio transmission based on reported cases of acute flaccid paralysis (AFP). The World Health Organization certifies a country as polio-free if there are no reports of AFP for three years. But AFP is a severe outcome that occurs in a very small fraction of polio infections. It’s just the tip of the iceberg — one case of AFP indicates substantial underlying polio transmission in a population.

This is why now, as the world approaches the final stages of polio eradication, environmental surveillance becomes key. Looking for poliovirus in sewage is more sensitive than counting up cases of AFP. It can detect virus shed in the feces of non-paralyzed people infected with polio – what epidemiologists call the silent circulation of polio.

Environmental microbiologists have studied pathogens in sewage for decades, but its use as a public health surveillance tool is relatively new. As epidemiologists who specialize in modeling the spread of disease, we wondered if we could estimate the intensity of infection in a population by analyzing counts of virus in its sewage. The discovery of polio transmission in Israel in 2013 — the first in that country since 1988 — provided a way for us to test whether our model, coupled with environmental surveillance data from different parts of the world, could be used to assess how much silent transmission is still happening globally.

Characterizing a polio outbreak in Israel

Given all the progress made toward polio eradication, it was disturbing to realize polio was actively being transmitted in Israel in 2013. A sewage surveillance system — set up in 1989 by the Israeli health department to detect poliovirus — sounded the alarm. The Ministry of Health worked quickly to vaccinate the public, and fortunately none of the infections resulted in paralysis.

To track polio in human waste in Israel, samples are automatically collected from sewage trunk lines and treatment plants approximately weekly. Back at the country’s Central Virology Laboratory, they’re checked for poliovirus.

Most of the positive sewage samples during the 2013 outbreak came from the Negev region of Israel, and most of those from predominantly Bedouin communities. Based on molecular characteristics of the virus isolated from the sewage, scientists know that the virus originated in Pakistan, then traveled into the region, diverging into Egypt, Israel and Syria. For a virus, even tightly guarded geopolitical borders are fluid.

To understand what kept the polio transmission going, we needed to better characterize Bedouin movement patterns. Where people travel provides pathways for them to potentially spread the virus. For example, larger Jewish communities such as Beer Sheva are economic hubs; Bedouins from communities throughout the region travel there daily. In addition, many communities send children to regional schools, another potential hub of transmission.

Poor sanitary conditions provide an important route for the poliovirus to move from host to host — remember, infected people excrete viable virus in their feces. Epidemiologists knew surprisingly little about the water and sanitation infrastructure of these Bedouin communities, beyond that they were highly variable and often poor compared to nearby Jewish communities. 

Creating a model for how polio spreads

The Central Virology Laboratory and Ministry of Health recognized the potential in their data, but no one had developed a theory to convert environmental surveillance into public health metrics. Because of our experience in modeling environmentally transmitted infectious diseases, we met with Central Virology Laboratory and Ministry of Health officials on the ground during the later stages of the epidemic and began collaborating on a new approach to the problem.

A mathematical model allows epidemiologists to use what we know about a situation’s underlying biological mechanisms to better interpret or extract more information from data. We knew a number of things in this case: the relative levels of poliovirus in various communities’ sewage over time, the coverage of the vaccination campaigns, and the differences in transmission between the wild virus and the attenuated vaccine virus. Our goal was to come up with a model that would explain how the disease was transmitted through the population in Israel that would match the observed changes in sewage polio levels over time.

Using new analytical methods, we estimated that in Rahat, the largest predominantly Bedouin community that sustained significant transmission, 56 percent of the at-risk population — primarily children under 10 — was infected.

Positive polio samples from the environment only alert public health officials that transmission is happening. Our model provides additional information about how many people were infected. Without a model, researchers would have no way of estimating the extent of the outbreak — the poliovirus in the sewage could have been collected from many people shedding a little or a few people shedding a lot. But because outbreaks follow recognizable patterns, the dynamic changes in polio concentration can actually tell us a lot about how the disease is moving through the population.

There is always uncertainty in model predictions, so corroboration with multiple data sources is important. In this outbreak, we were able to compare to crude estimates of infection based on community stool samples.

Monitoring environment for silent transmission

As we approach the final stages of polio eradication, environmental measures will become the only feasible way to detect polio transmission. And this silent spread of the virus must be halted to fully eradicate the disease. Waiting until there’s a paralytic case means there’s a lot of polio around and containing it with vaccination efforts becomes more difficult.

Environmental surveillance efforts are growing in all three polio-endemic countries. Indeed, since the success seen in Israel in identifying and quickly containing transmission by administering the oral polio vaccine, many countries have begun to implement polio environmental surveillance. WHO is working toward developing organized environmental surveillance standards akin to the well-established standards for AFP. 

Beyond polio, environmental surveillance can and should be extended to other infectious diseases shed into sewage — enteroviruses, typhoid and cholera are prime candidates. Epidemiologists can then use modeling approaches to translate surveillance data to describe population patterns, allowing public health officials to respond rapidly to outbreaks.The Conversation

Marisa Eisenberg is an associate professor of complex systems, epidemiology, and mathematics at the University of MichiganAndrew Brouwer is a research investigator in epidemiology at the University of Michigan, and Joseph Eisenberg is a professor and chair of epidemiology at the University of Michigan.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Why the military isn’t tracking climate change costs

Oct 19, 2018 4:01


Hurricane Michael aimed squarely at Tyndall Air Force Base when it hit the Florida panhandle last week. The storm left destruction in its wake, and evidence of just how vulnerable US military assets are to the impacts of climate change.

The Air Force says every home on the 29,000-acre base was significantly damaged and service members stationed there have not been allowed to move back yet.

Michael’s winds knocked out power, smashed buildings into piles of lumber, destroyed runways and flipped over cars. It tore roofs off airplane hangers, and damaged F-22 stealth fighter jets worth more than $300 million each.  

Fighter jets

F-22 fighter jets, pictured in a 2015 photo, were damaged at Tyndall Air Force Base during Hurricane Michael in October of 2018. The New York Times reports 17 jets were left there to weather the storm, but the Air Force is not confirming an exact number. 


Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters

More than a week after the storm hit, officials are still surveying the damage. But when they’re done, the repair costs will not be added to any running tab of military spending related to extreme weather or climate change.

Because that doesn’t exist.

Neither do comprehensive estimates of how much climate change impacts — like increasingly severe storms, rising seas, flooding or drought — will cost the military in repair, rebuilding or adaptation costs.

“I think that it is fair to say that the military does not know what the costs of climate change will be going forward,” said John Conger, who oversaw energy, installations and the environment for the Department of Defense under the Obama administration and is now head of the Center for Climate and Security.

At least some parts of the government think they should.

Last year, the Government Accountability Office recommended the branches of the armed services start tracking the costs of extreme weather and climate change at all their installations.

“We think it’s important to capture the distinction between a normal maintenance or repair versus the consequence of a severe storm so that it helps to guide future adaptation projects,” said GAO’s Brian Lepore, who wrote the report for the watchdog agency.

Without tracking these costs, the GAO argues, the Defense Department won’t have the information it needs to work climate-related spending into future budgets.

Lepore argues it’s a lot easier to justify the cost of an adaptation project like strengthening a hangar roof if military officials know how much they’ve spent repairing hangar roofs in the past — not to mention the expensive aircraft that sit inside them —  and how much more they might need to spend in the face of increasingly intense storms.

And it’s not just about the money.

“We don’t have military bases because it’s nice to have them,” Lepore said. “We have military bases to support a military mission, and if the base is out of commission, by definition it’s not supporting that military mission.”  

The Department of Defense responded to the watchdog agency’s 2017 call to track climate and extreme weather costs by writing that “associating a single event to climate change is difficult and does not warrant the time and money expended in doing so.”

Department of Defense spokeswoman Heather Babb added in an email to The World that the department is currently reviewing its climate resilience policies. Today, it plans and designs facilities to address local weather and environmental conditions, and considers climate change in its installation planning.

But climate resilience is “a cross-cutting consideration” across the military, not a specific program.

“For that reason, we do not have a specific funding line or account,” Babb wrote.

But the science of attributing specific damages to climate change, and projecting climate risks going forward, has become increasingly common.

In the past handful of years, scientists have grown more confident in attributing specific elements of extreme weather to climate change. They still don’t usually say a specific drought or hurricane was caused by climate change, but they do routinely calculate how much climate change may have contributed to specific weather events. They’ve found that an individual heatwave was twice as likely because of climate change, for example, and that at least 15 percent more rain fell during a hurricane due to climate change.

Trevor Houser, a partner at the economic research company Rhodium Group and co-founder of the Climate Impact Lab, says combining that new science with big economic data allows firms like his to estimate how much climate change will cost investors, insurance companies and government agencies.

“Right down to a building level, [we can] estimate how much more likely it is that a given building experiences extreme weather events now than it was 30 years ago, and how much more likely it will be in the future, and what the price tag is,” Houser said.

Projecting how much damage climate change is currently causing the Department of Defense’s roughly 5,000 sites covering nearly 30 million acres worldwide wouldn’t be cheap. But Houser says it’s quite doable.

“I don’t know exactly what it would cost,” Houser said, “but I’m guessing it would cost them less than, you know, half of a wing of one F-16 fighter.”

An Alaskan village is falling into the sea. Washington is looking the other way.

Oct 19, 2018 14:06


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

The sun never really sets on summer nights in the far north, and the endless twilight makes Shishmaref, Alaska, something of a kids’ paradise. 

“There's a lot of kids,” says 8-year-old Walter Nayokpuk, emerging from a swirling kid mosh pit in a wide spot of sand between some houses. “And we can be free!”

Related: In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic 

Free to roam in this Iñupiat village of about 600 people on a barrier island near the Bering Strait, just shy of the Arctic Circle. 

There's a church, a school, two stores and around 150 houses. For kids, it is a very safe place to play, and grow up.

But the paradox of Shishmaref is that it might be both one of the safest and one of the most dangerous places to live in America today: This small community is ground zero for climate change in the Arctic.

Shishmaref is the only town on Sarichef Island. And everywhere you go, you can see the waves and hear the constant roar of the ocean. The island is only about a quarter of a mile wide and it's getting smaller. 

Waves crash into rocks. A house stands in the background.

Waves from the Chuckchi Sea splash the seawall on the coast of Shishmaref.


Nick Mott/The World

“It's changed a lot,” says Kate Kokeok, who grew up in Shishmaref and now teaches kindergarten here. 

In decades past, Kokeok says, the sea ice around the island served as a kind of buffer, protecting it from the wind and waves when winter storms blew in.

But these days the ice is forming later and later.

“It was always frozen at the end of October,” Kokeok says. “It no longer is.”

That means the fierce winter waves that used to break on the ice far away from shore now slam directly into the island. At the same time, the permafrost beneath the town is thawing as temperatures rise, weakening its foundation. 

The combined effect is a quickly receding coastline.

And that’s left Kokeok with a lot of memories of places that are now under water. 

“Like, where the seawall is now, that's where we used to have our playground,” she says. “Down that way, that's where like 10 to 15 houses were. And, like, the last house that's there now? There was a house next to it, a road, and then another house ... You can see how much land was lost there.”

The sun sets into the ocean along a rocky seawall

A midnight sunset over the seawall in Shishmaref.


Nick Mott/The World

A lot of that land was lost in a storm in 1997, and then another in 2005. People gathered in the windy darkness to get the residents out and save as many of their belongings as possible. 

After that 2005 storm the US Army Corps of Engineers built a new, stronger seawall. Kokeok says that probably saved even more houses.

But the seawall is just a temporary fix. Without the barrier of the ice, eventually, the ocean is going to wash this island away. 

The people of Shishmaref know they're not safe here, and two years ago, they voted to move the village to the mainland. In fact, the community has voted to relocate three times — in 2016, in 2002 and way back in 1973. People in Shishmaref were worried about erosion even then, although, at the time, no one knew how much climate change would accelerate the process. 

A flyer says

A flyer invites residents to a screening of "The Last Days of Shishmaref." Someone has added a handwritten "Do Come!" to the flyer. 


Nick Mott/The World

They do now. According to a study conducted by a researcher at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, tiny Sarichef Island lost an average of seven and a half feet of land a year to erosion between 2003 and 2014. 

And as the island shrinks and the sea ice recedes, the risks steadily rise. When major storms blow in, residents have nowhere to run. Shishmaref is not connected to any roads, and in a raging storm planes or boats would have a very hard time getting here. 

Of course, climate change is only adding to a problem that already existed in Shishmaref — it was always vulnerable to erosion, making it a risky place for a permanent settlement. 

So why was it there to begin with?

It’s a question Kelly Eningowuk, who heads the Anchorage-based Inuit Circumpolar Council in Alaska, hears a lot.

“I've heard something to the effect of, ‘These dumb Eskimos, why did they build their community on a barrier island?’” Eningowuk says. “The fact of the matter is, because [that’s where] the church and the Bureau of Indian Affairs school was built.”

Eningowuk grew up in Shishmaref and says until a hundred years or so ago there was no permanent village on Sarichef Island. Her ancestors lived all along this part of the coast, and while they used the island frequently, they didn't live there year-round.

“They were kind of semi-nomadic. We didn't have permanent settlements.”

But all of that changed in the early 1900s when the US government and the Lutheran church came to coastal Alaska and built churches and schools. It was an extension of the colonization process that had already swept through the lower 48 states. Alaska Native people were told they had to send their kids to the new schools or risk having them taken away. 

So over time, the population of this part of the coast concentrated on Sarichef, and the process of “development” committed them to a spot that turned out to be very dangerous.

“They don't have any way to get out of harm's way right now,” says Joel Clement, a scientist and policy analyst who used to work at the US Department of the Interior. “So they're in a tough spot in the fall with the storm season — and the storm season is expanding. That's the top-level thing I worry about.”

Clement was one of the people leading the federal government's effort to help Shishmaref and other coastal Alaskan communities under the Obama administration. When he was hired in 2010, the federal government had already issued two reports — in 2003 and 2009 — describing the threat in no uncertain terms. 

The reports said more than 30 villages, including Shishmaref, were in “imminent danger.” 

The worst-case scenario, Clement says, is that “a storm comes in and forces them off that land this year.”

At the Department of the Interior, Clement set out to get federal agencies to help protect people in coastal Alaska from the threats of rapid climate change. Shishmaref and other towns were already engaged in planning their own solutions, but the sticking point was money — moving a whole town is a complicated and expensive affair. One federal study pegged the cost of moving Shishmaref at $179 million. 

Shishmaref doesn't have that kind of money. They barely have any kind of money. Forty percent of people here live below the poverty line and many homes don’t even have running water.

But Congress was not supportive of helping with the move. Many members weren’t — and still aren’t — willing to accept that human-caused climate change is even real. 

So, Clement says, “finding dollars was very difficult.” 

Then in 2016, President Obama signed an executive order protecting marine resources in the Bering Sea and setting up a new structure for helping Arctic communities respond to climate change. 

Clement was optimistic that the move would finally bring meaningful action for Shishmaref. While it came just before Obama left office, Clement was confident it would stand under the new Trump administration. 

“Despite all the anti-climate change rhetoric out of these new folks, I wasn't worried about climate change adaptation [efforts],” Clement says, because they were addressing very visible issues. "People are being directly impacted by climate change. It's not a model, it's not a theory, it's fact. And, of course, I was being very naive.”

But less than four months into the new administration, President Trump revoked Obama's executive order. The project was dead.

Clement was shocked.

“It was a clear shot across the bow,” he says, “that, hey, it doesn't matter whether you are working on reducing greenhouse gas emissions or protecting people in peril. Anything that has a whiff of climate change to it has to stop.”

A few months later, Clement got reassigned to a totally unrelated job for which he had no qualifications. And he wasn’t alone. He found out that dozens more senior Interior Department executives had been reassigned.

“I realized ... I was part of a purge,” he says.

Clement found a lawyer and filed a whistleblower complaint, which is still pending. He also wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post and started speaking publicly about what's at stake — not just his and his colleagues’ jobs, but the people of many coastal Alaskan communities. 

“Government should be scrambling to try and find ways to get people out of harm's way,” he says. “It's what government does.”

And Clement says the crisis facing Shishmaref and other Alaskan villages is just a hint of what’s to come.

If the federal government effectively tells these communities they’re on their own, he says, “they'll be saying the same thing to Miami pretty soon … What happens up there in the face of climate change is an important bellwether for what's going to happen in the rest of the coastal areas of the United States.”

“We are all American citizens,” he says, “and we have some expectation that we're not on our own ... That's one of the things that makes this country great.”

The Interior Department did not respond to two separate requests for comment.

Children are silhouetted against the setting sun as they play basketball.

 Children on Shishmaref play basketball late in the evening on the village's playground. 


Nick Mott/The World

Clement says at least one coastal Alaskan village is likely to be wiped out within the next 10 years. It could be Shishmaref, and it doesn't take much imagination at all to picture it — the winds wailing, the waves rising, and the frigid water rolling and crashing over the island on a dark winter night. 

It's a nightmare scenario. And it's completely possible. 

So in the absence of federal help, why don't people just leave on their own? If not as a whole village, then at least as individuals and families? 

Clement says that would amount to the “cultural death” of these communities. 

“Each one of these villages is its own distinct culture, [they have] their own distinct dialect,” he says. “To ask them to just assimilate into another village somewhere is to ask them to let go of their culture entirely, which I think is just a horrible thought.”

It’s hard to find anyone in Shishmaref who disagrees with this. People here want to stay together. 

“Lot of us like to take care of our community first and then ourselves last, you know?” says Shishmaref Vice Mayor Stanley Tocktoo.

The sun sets behind a wooden home

Rays of sunlight spill over a  Shishmaref home as the midnight sun sets over the Chuckchi Sea. 


Nick Mott/The World

People here rely on each other for all of the essentials of life. They visit each other when they're sick, they take care of each other's kids. They depend on subsistence hunting to feed their families and share that food with elders and others who can't go out and hunt themselves. And they know that their future depends on keeping those relationships intact. 

“[That’s] just the way our community is, you know?” Tocktoo says. “It comes from family ties, I guess. This community's like a real big family.”

Tocktoo is on the search and rescue team here and knows better than anyone just how bad things could soon get. He is frustrated by the indifference in Washington.

“We're Americans too, you know,” he says. “We don't have to be treated like a third world country.”

And, he adds, “I can't believe our president don't believe in climate change."

But the story of Shishmaref is more than just a story about the impacts and inequities of climate change. It’s a case study on how climate change can't be understood in isolation from history and politics. 

The community is here in large part because outsiders wanted to exert control over Indigenous Alaskans and their way of life. The US government was very effective when it wanted to make people settle in this particular place, but now that it's clear they need to relocate, it's so far proven completely ineffective in helping them to get out. 

One of the climate change buzzwords right now is resilience. That's something the people of Shishmaref are already experts in — they've been practicing it for a long, long time. What they're asking for is basically the right to keep their community together so they can continue to practice resilience. 

They just call it by a different name. Taking care of each other. 

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold

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What’s the EPA’s changing relationship with science?

Oct 19, 2018


During his 2016 campaign, President Donald Trump talked about dismantling the Environmental Protection Agency. Now we’re seeing how that promise is playing out with his chosen appointees, their interpretation of laws and rollbacks of regulations.

Under Trump, we’re seeing a different vision of what role science itself should play in guiding the creation of rules and regulations. As the Trump administration moves to deregulate, what role does science play? And what’s the EPA's changing relationship with science?

The World's Carolyn Beeler moderated a panel exploring these questions at The Forum at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Friday, Oct. 19, 2018.

What does Trump's energy independence policy mean for science at the EPA? We'll explore this question and more @ForumHSPH LIVE at Friday, Oct. 19 from 12-1 p.m. ET.

— PRI's The World (@pritheworld) October 18, 2018

Panelists included:

Wendy Jacobs
Emmett clinical professor of environmental law, and director, Harvard Law School Emmett Environmental Law and Policy Clinic

Gina McCarthy
Professor of the practice of public health in the Department of Environmental Health, Harvard T.H. Chan School, and former administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under Barack Obama

William Ruckelshaus
Strategic director, Madrona Venture Group, and first and fifth administrator of the EPA under Richard Nixon

Tom Udall
US senator, Democrat, New Mexico

This Google engineer was asked to create a censored version of Google News for China. He refused.

Oct 18, 2018 7:30


This week, Google finally confirmed that the company is exploring expanding its products into China and that Google has been working on a version of its search engine that would comply with Beijing’s strict censorship rules. 

For months, Google dodged questions about the existence of the controversial project, which was first reported by The Intercept in August 2018. The project — codenamed Dragonfly — has been met with significant backlash within and beyond Google. 

“It’s very early. We don’t know whether we would or could do this in China, but we felt it was important for us to explore,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Monday during a conference hosted by Wired in San Francisco.  

“It’s a wonderful, innovative market. We wanted to learn what it would look like if Google were in China. So that’s what we’ve built internally,” Pichai said, adding that the internal efforts have so far been promising. “It turns out, we'll be able to serve well over 99 percent of the queries.”

Pichai on China:
- says the firm never really left China anyway
- “99%” of searches would still get through
- taking long term view

Goes without saying - that 1% contains an awful lot.

— Dave Lee (@DaveLeeBBC) October 16, 2018

Google already has some idea of what a China expansion would look like; it previously operated its flagship search engine and other products in China, before pulling out over censorship and security concerns in 2010.

1/ Google is working on a new search engine code-named "Dragonfly" that will aid China's effort to censor information from its citizenry.

As a former Google engineer I wanted to share some information on what it's like to be inside Google as these decisions are made

— Vijay Boyapati (@real_vijay) October 15, 2018

Vijay Boyapati was an engineer with Google News between 2002 and 2007. In 2006, as Google was expanding its products into China, Boyapati was tasked with creating a censored version of Google News but refused. A year later, he left the company. He’s since moved to Seattle, and founded Visan, Inc. He spoke to The World’s Marco Werman about what it was like to be inside the company as it was first entering the Chinese market. 

Vijay Boyapati: It was early 2006 and I was an engineer on Google News. Google had launched Web search in China and they wanted to expand their product offerings and Google News was one of the products that they wanted to launch in China. So the task of writing the code to launch Google News in China was given to me and it was immediately clear when the requirements were given to me that there were a number of censorship requirements and I immediately felt very uncomfortable with working on it. 

Marco Werman: What were some of the things that were being asked to be censored? And this was China asking Google to do the censoring, correct? 

That's right. So entire news sections were to be removed from the product. So the world section was to be removed. They even — not immediately but later on — they asked us to remove the business section as well. 

That's a lot — world news and business news. 

Yeah. Any story that came under those categories was to be removed and certain topics were not allowed either — stories on human rights and things of that nature. And they also had a requirement that if there was a particular story that they didn't like, we would be able to remove it from our site within 15 minutes. And the thing that really troubled me at the time was the idea that someone would have the courage to write about something important and then we would censor it. So I refused to work on it. 

What happened to you and your position at Google after that?

I was not fired. I continued on Google News but they assigned me to a different project because they knew about my unwillingness. I continued to work at Google for about another year after that. 

How were people at Google talking about the whole dilemma internally?

I think a lot of people had accepted the rationale from management that it was a good thing for us to go into China because on the whole, we would be increasing access to information. And I think a lot of people believed that this would have a democratizing effect on China. And I really, strongly objected to that. Google had to go speak in front of Congress in 2006 because of the censorship. And one congressman said something like, "You say that you're going to go into China and change China by building products. But China has already changed you." I thought that was a really eloquent way of saying that Google's internal culture had been compromised by these requirements to censor our products. 

In 2010, Google pulled some of its products from China over censorship and security concerns. What prompted that?

I was no longer there at that stage, but from what I understood it was a change of heart by Sergey Brin, who is one of the co-founders of Google. Sergey had grown up in the Soviet Union and so had direct personal experience growing up under an oppressive regime. And I think over time the requirements that China had on Google's products became more stringent. And I think at some point he thought it was too much and he exerted his influence and said, "We need to leave China. We're compromising our values and we need to leave." And I think it's a little unfortunate that Sergey does not seem to have as much influence now. He's not part of Google's management. So I think that moral voice in Google's upper management has been lost. I think current management at Google feels like they've left too much money on the table and they want to go back in. 

What's at stake if Google builds a censored version of its search engine for China now?

The reason I brought this up and I tweeted about this was that I wanted to provide context and to show that this had come up at Google before and what it was like being inside Google when this happened. And when I was there, I thought it was morally wrong for two reasons: One was that there had been no internal debate about it in terms of Google News — the product I'd worked on. And so I wanted to bring that up because I thought it was the wrong move for Google. If a journalist does have the courage to write about something controversial and Google was asked to censor them. And as someone who’d worked on the product, you'd have the knowledge that someone's voice had been silenced by something that you built. And that makes me deeply uncomfortable. 

At the Wired conference this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said, "Any time you do work in countries across the world you're always balancing a set of values. We are providing users access to information, freedom of expression user privacy, but we also follow the rule of law in every country." Do you think it's possible for Google to strike a balance here — the right balance? 

I think the company should have a core set of principles that it sticks to and it should articulate those and say there is a line that we will not cross. I mean, saying that you will follow the rule of law is not good enough. What if the rule of law is the rule of law of Nazi Germany or Saudi Arabia? There has to be some moral line that you will not cross over. And that's the problem I have with this rationalization of ‘Well, this is what the law is in China so we're just going to follow the law.’ I think we need to step back and think about what should we do that we think is right. I honestly don't think they've done that. I don’t think they've said, "Here's a core set of moral positions which we will not compromise on. And if a country asks us to cross the line we'll say no and we will leave the country and we will not come back until they allow us to work within our own set of principles."

You appealed on Twitter to current Google employees who have been asked to work on censored products to "stand up against these requests, as I did in 2006, and make it known that Google's willingness to censor is immoral." So what’s your pitch to these employees at Google?

I think we should all have a set of moral principles and have a line that we wouldn't cross ourselves. And if the company that we’re working for tells us that we need to do something and it crosses that line, we should refuse. It's a very hard thing to do and I understand that it's not possible for everyone to potentially risk their career doing something like this. But I think it's important to at least stand up and say, "I don't think this is right."

Editor’s note: Questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity. 

'Leaf peeping' is huge in New England. Will climate change alter tourism?

Oct 18, 2018 5:54


Take a stroll around Boston right now and there are plenty of trees to gawk at and admire.

“The branches are turning kind of a brilliant yellow, orange and red, and that's what makes this tree so amazing,” says Richard Primack, a professor of plant ecology at Boston University, looking at a Norway maple in Newton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. “It doesn't just turn one kind of color, it turns lots of different colors.”  

Each fall, warm days and cool nights signal to New England’s maples, ash trees and honey locusts: It’s time to start changing colors.

“The chlorophyll starts to break down and the tree starts to reabsorb the nutrients into the twigs. And what this does is it exposes the yellow and the red pigments, which have always been there but have been hidden by the chlorophyll," Primack says. 

In New England, fall foliage is glorious. And big business. The yellow, orange and bright scarlet leaves are a multi-billion dollar industry for the regional economy, bringing millions of visitors annually from across the globe. To Primack, New England offers the most spectacular fall foliage in the world.

“People acknowledge this. In Europe or in Asia, people just don't have this kind of amazing fall foliage,” says Primack. “There isn't this variety of color and variation of color from year to year.”

The 34-mile Kancamagus Highway, a path cut through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, is one of the most popular leaf peeping spots in New England.

The 34-mile Kancamagus Highway, a path cut through New Hampshire’s White Mountain National Forest, is one of the most popular leaf peeping spots in New England.


Jason Margolis

But climate change is altering the “leaf peeping” season, as it’s called in New England. The peak of fall foliage season lasts only about two or three weeks and is shifting as New England warms up. Fifty years ago, peak season would’ve been just about over by now in Boston.

“Now, we don't really have a peak of fall foliage until the middle of October or maybe even the third week of October. So this is really kind of a big change in the fall foliage season caused by climate change,” says Primack.  

Biologist Richard Primack with Boston University examines the leaves of a Norway maple in the Boston suburb, Newton, Massachusetts.

Biologist Richard Primack with Boston University examines the leaves of a Norway maple in the Boston suburb, Newton, Massachusetts.


Jason Margolis

Biologists are tracking this through manual observation, meteorological stations, satellite imagery, and a network of digital cameras, the so-called PhenoCam network run by ecologist Andrew Richardson out of Northern Arizona University.

Primack says there’s also another way to track changes — local businesses that have kept historical records. “There are restaurants, there’s actually one famous restaurant called Polly's Pancakes in New Hampshire.”

Polly’s Pancake Parlor opened in Sugar Hill, New Hampshire, back in 1938. The tiny town, population 570, overlooks New Hampshire’s White Mountains.

“The restaurant was started by my grandmother, Polly Dexter, and her husband, Sugar Bill Wilfred Dexter,” says third-generation owner Kathie Aldrich Côté, “Sugar Bill from Sugar Hill.”

Côté keeps an overflowing binder stuffed with weathered, hand-written papers going back to the 1930s.  

“These lists are attendance records basically broken down by the hour of every single day. And we also would track the weather when the first snowfall was on the mountain tops and when the first snowfall was on the ground. And my mother also kept records of when the leaves started to change,” says Côté.

Knowing precisely when the leaves peak is critical for businesses in New Hampshire — and for visitors planning a trip. Many people consult the pancake house’s historical log online before planning a getaway.

According to Côté’s logs, a pattern emerges since the mid-1970s: leaf peeping season extends a week to two weeks later, backing up what the biologists have found. Also, the leaves are starting to change earlier. Warmer, drier summers may be causing this. So, these days foliage season is actually longer.

And more popular than ever. 

"We actually broke a record,” says Côté, talking about the Columbus Day weekend. “We hit 800 people, which is from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.”

Kathie Aldrich Côté, owner of Polly’s Pancake Parlor, grills up pancakes prepared from homemade batter recipes.

Kathie Aldrich Côté, owner of Polly’s Pancake Parlor, grills up pancakes prepared from homemade batter recipes.


Jason Margolis

So that’s this season, but …

“I worry about the long-term,” says Christopher Bellis, owner of the Cranmore Inn, a bed-and-breakfast originally built during the Civil War in North Conway, New Hampshire. He’s worried about how things will change as his two kids grow up and the climate shifts.

Individual trees don’t get up and move, of course, but the classic New England forests and ecosystems, as a whole, may shift over time as the climate changes. And even in the here-and-now, the milder climate is a mixed blessing.

“It may be good for my foliage business. But climate change is not necessarily good for my winter business,” says Bellis.

North Conway is a ski town, and like all businesses around the area, Bellis’ Inn also relies on cold, snowy weather. And that’s a worry as winters in the northeast have become steadily warmer and less predictable.

When it comes to fall leaves, less predictable seasons combined with weather apps — even leaf peeping apps — means people are waiting until the last minute to book rooms. 

“And then they all drive up for the weekend or they come up for a day trip or they'll come up for one or two nights,” says Jen Kovach, co-owner of the Snowvillage Inn, a bed-and-breakfast with mountain views in Eaton, New Hampshire.  

Jen Kovach and Kevin Flynn, co-owners of the 17-room Snowvillage Inn, located in Eaton, New Hampshire. The main lodge was a New England country house built in 1902.

Jen Kovach and Kevin Flynn, co-owners of the 17-room Snowvillage Inn, located in Eaton, New Hampshire. The main lodge was a New England country house built in 1902.  


Jason Margolis

All of this can make her life stressful, planning staffing and supplies on short notice. It’s far from an existential business threat — nearly 3 million tourists came to New Hampshire last fall, visiting from around the world. But Kovach sees warning signs.

“We serve local maple syrup for breakfast and I want that to continue, but they're saying that the maples are a little bit distressed and that’s upsetting.”

Maple syrup is a big part of the local economy. The trees aren’t just pretty to look at when the leaves change — when the weather gets too hot, it’s harder for the maple trees to produce sugar. Warmer weather is also allowing insect pests to flourish, putting forests at further risk.

Right now, the changes are slow moving. Still, Kovach says we all need to be paying attention.  

“We notice those subtle changes, like maybe there's different birds here. But it doesn't affect enough people to maybe recycle a little bit more or change the kind of car they drive or whatever else,” says Kovach. “We live up here because it's beautiful and we are surrounded by nature. You kind of fall in love with the maple trees in your area.”

So have countless others. Right now, New England’s leaf peeping economy remains robust. But at some point, climate change and its slow-moving impacts on the forests here will take a toll.  That is, unless, the world takes drastic action soon to tackle the problem.

As Eastern hemlock trees die off, an art installation creates space for reflection and mourning

Oct 17, 2018 7:10


Eastern hemlock trees, conifers that were once the giants of the lumber business, are disappearing. A series of art installations along an interpretive trail in the 4,000-acre Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, gives creative expression to this long and complicated story.

 “Hemlock Hospice” is a collaborative work by Harvard Forest senior ecologist Aaron Ellison and artist David Buckley Borden.

The Harvard Forest is known as the “wired woods.” It’s a hotspot for scientific research on topics ranging from soil warming to atmospheric carbon exchange. At first glance, the forest looks like a typical New England forest. But look more closely and you notice all the hemlock trees are dead or dying.

Climate change is spurring the hemlock wooly adelgid (HWA), an invasive insect, to move further north. The insect kills hemlock trees by sucking out their sap. Spindly, bare branches are strewn about the ground and the decaying, gnarled trunks moan as they lean over one another.

“As most folks know, hospice care is end-of-life or end-of-term care ... designed to have a more dignified close to one’s life,” Borden says. “But it’s also intended to benefit the living, so they can have a positive experience — as much as one can when experiencing the loss of an individual or a species or an ecosystem.”

Ellison studies how ecological systems fall apart and how they put themselves back together again. This ecosystem first fell apart more than 300 years ago.

“This was an old-growth forest when Europeans showed up in this landscape in the 1600s and early 1700s,” Ellison explains.

"They didn’t have chainsaws and they didn’t have power tools," Ellison says, "but they had a lot of strength and a lot of willpower to make it something that we could use. So, they very assiduously cut down all the forest."

Over time, Eastern forests, including hemlock trees, grew back. Today there is actually more forest cover in New England than there was in colonial days.

The hemlock’s modern troubles started in 1951 when the HWA was introduced in Virginia. The HWA has left a wake of dead hemlocks from Georgia to Maine, and it will continue marching north as climate change creates new habitats for it. Already, it has reached southwestern Nova Scotia.

One of Borden’s works along the trail is called “Insect Landing.” Borden says the piece is a “prompt to talk about the introduction of the insect.”

“We talk about how the insect was introduced on nursery stock from Japan in the 1950s and how, over the course of the last 40 or 50 years, it slowly migrated north with climate change,” Borden says.

"People often talk about climate change in terms of the big storms, rising tides, mega-fires, and they’re all valid," Borden says. "But this is just as impactful. It’s kind of a slow creeper, if you will."

Ellison says he wants the installations to get both visitors and scientists thinking about these issues. Back in 2004, researchers tried to mimic the way the HWA kills hemlocks, to see how the ecosystem would respond.

“We took chainsaws and knives and cut rings around the bark and into the wood to cut off the flow of sap,” Ellison explains. “In these two experimental plots, we killed about 2,000 trees in 45 minutes.”

The results are printed on the side of a woodshed. It’s a graph that reads “Lifeline of a Dying Hemlock.” The plummeting red and black lines depict the amount of sap running through a hemlock trunk.

“The graph shows us the difference in sap flow between a tree that we didn't cut and a tree that we did cut,” Ellison says. "It’s just like watching an EKG of someone in the intensive care unit as their heart rate goes down."

This got Ellison thinking about the ethics of his work. “I like to try and use this as a way to talk to my scientific colleagues about how we really have to think about what we are doing to the organisms we study,” he explains.

"We killed these trees to understand how this forest would respond. We learned a lot by doing that. We respected what we're doing and we published our data. That’s how [information] gets out. But we do have an impact on our forests in order to understand this."

One of the last installations on the trail shows the future of this forest: a mossy hemlock stump and next to it, a healthy black birch tree. Ecologists believe birches will one day replace hemlocks here.

The woods will change and it won’t look like a colonial settlement or the hemlocks’ deathbed. But Borden and Ellison hope “Hemlock Hospice” will create a space for visitors to remember the hemlocks long after the exhibit ends.

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Mobile money transfers have taken off in Somalia, but it's a risky business

Oct 17, 2018


A recent World Bank report showed that Somalia has one of the most active mobile money markets in the world, outpacing most other countries in Africa. It’s even superseded the use of cash in the country of 14 million people. Victor Owuor asked Tim Kelly, an information and communications technology policy specialist at the World Bank and the report’s author, to explain the findings and what they mean for the country.

Why is mobile money so successful in Somalia?

Mobile money initially started as a simple exchange of airtime credit between users. Over 10 years ago, mobile network operators formalized this by offering mobile money services. It was quickly perceived as a convenient and safe way of making transactions and storing money.

Unlike Kenya’s famous Mpesa mobile money transfer services, Somalia’s transfers are mainly available in US dollars. Though the companies offering mobile money services are mobile network operators, as in Kenya, they are increasingly forming part of large conglomerates that also offer banking and money transfer services.

In Somalia, mobile money transactions are worth about $2.7 billion a month.

Several factors have encouraged the impressive uptake of mobile money:

Many Somalis own mobile phones — about nine out of 10 Somalis above the age of 16 own one.

Nearly 60 percent of Somalia’s population is nomadic, or semi-nomadic, and move around a great deal to find adequate grazing and water for their livestock. So mobile money suits their lifestyle and is also used to facilitate trade.

Concerns over the high prevalence of fake money, absence of monetary regulation, capacity, and limited access to traditional banking services also make mobile money an effective substitute for cash.

Today, mobile money also facilitates vast remittance flows which are critical to most Somali households due to a lack of opportunities in the Somali labor market. Taking advantage of this trend, remittance companies are increasingly partnering with mobile operators to transfer funds directly to recipients’ mobile money accounts.

How many people are using it and what is it mostly used for?

Our household survey data suggest that about 73 percent of Somalis above the age of 16 use mobile money services at least once a month — though most use it a few times a month, and high-income earners use it a lot more. About 155 million mobile money transactions take place every month.

It’s used for a wide range of things.

One of the most common is to pay bills for purchases between $2 and $300. Mobile money is thus far more widely used than cash. Two-thirds of those surveyed use it to pay for items like water, electricity and charcoal. A third claim to use it to buy groceries, durable goods and livestock.

Close to 40 percent use mobile money to pay their children’s school fees. It’s also frequently used to send money to friends and family.

We also found that it’s being used to save money.

Currently, transactions made are mainly person-to-person payments, but there is growing uptake among businesses. We have seen that receiving salaries through mobile money has, for example, been an important factor in encouraging further uptake.

What have been the benefits and the risks of this growth?

Somalia lacks a strong formal banking system. Only about 15 percent of the population has a bank account. Mobile money has helped to expand financial inclusion.

For vulnerable groups, it’s a convenient and fast way to access money quickly. And because it’s viewed as faster and safer than cash handouts, many aid agencies use it to reach remote villages.

As most shops accept mobile money, it also offers beneficiaries more flexibility and avoids a requirement to travel, which can, in turn, minimize the risk of security incidents.

Nevertheless, there are some considerable risks in the mobile money system. The biggest is a lack of regulation which makes the system fragile and fragmented.

It is also vulnerable to money laundering and terrorism financing. This is because there is a weak “know your customer” compliance, in line with global banking standards, meaning few SIM cards and mobile money accounts are registered using a valid form of identification. Ultimately, this results in limited accountability and tractability.

Another risk is the fact that there’s no assurance that the funds will always be available, as they would be in a normal bank account. That’s because there’s no guaranteed parity between the mobile money balances held by mobile operators and those held in individual and business accounts.

Transfers in Somalia are predominantly available in US dollars, which isn’t healthy for the country’s economy. This is changing — for example, neighboring Somaliland obliges sums under $100 be made in Somali shillings.

The industry also remains largely untaxed, meaning it fails to help raise critical government revenue.

How is mobile money in Somalia different from other African countries?

A few things are different.

Banking, telecommunications and money transfers are so closely intertwined that it's resulted in the emergence of two large conglomerates, with partnerships between a mobile network operator, bank and money transfer organization. This is not really the case elsewhere in Africa.

Also, operators have adopted a different business model based on indirect revenue generated from other services — like selling airtime. They are therefore able to offer mobile money between users as a “free” service (without transaction charges or taxes). This is not the case in many other countries in the region.

Another factor that’s different is the virtual absence of regulatory supervision despite the fact that mobile network operators control vast sums in circulation.

Operators also rely on their own distribution network, not external agents (as they do in Kenya). This means that coverage is more limited.

Victor Odundo Owuor is a senior research associate with the One Earth Future Foundation at the University of Colorado.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Two recent EPA decisions threaten children's health, experts say

Oct 17, 2018 6:56


In September, the Environmental Protection Agency, without explanation, placed Dr. Ruth Etzel, head of its Office of Children’s Health Protection on administrative leave, while announcing plans to roll back mercury regulations for coal-fired power plants.

The almost simultaneous actions have raised grave concerns among public health advocates that under President Donald Trump's EPA, children's exposure to environmental hazards has taken a back seat to short-term industry profits. 

The Office of Children’s Health Protection is tasked specifically with keeping vulnerable kids safe from environmental exposures. Some are concerned that Dr. Etzel’s removal is the first step in closing the office. The EPA has already said it plans to close its Office of the Science Advisor.

Dr. Etzel has advocated strongly within the EPA to protect children’s health, with little success. She told CBS news that neither former EPA administrator Scott Pruitt nor its current administrator, Andrew Wheeler, agreed to meet with her even once.

Numerous scientific studies have shown that mercury emissions can lead to brain damage in children. And while the Obama-era rule targeted mercury for its effect on children, it also reduced soot and other pollutants, which scientists estimate will prevent more than 10,000 excess deaths a year among adults.

In recent weeks, the Office of Children's Health Protection at the EPA has been arguing against the rollback of mercury emissions standards.

“The EPA worked very over the last decade to put rules in place to reduce emissions of mercury from power plants [and] the Office of Children's Health Protection was very much involved in that process,” says pediatrician and epidemiologist Philip Landrigan, who helped create the office and is the founding director of the Global Health Initiative at Boston College.

“[The office argued] that mercury emissions needed to be controlled to protect the health of America's children, now and in the future,” he says. “I think any effort to roll back those rules is fundamentally wrong. It's immoral and it's basically sacrificing America's future for somebody's short-term profit.”

Related: Coal plant emissions damage infant DNA, a new study shows

Landrigan, who recently wrote a New York Times op-ed about the EPA's actions, calls The Office of Children's Health Protection “a vital watchdog within EPA. Children, he says, are an “extremely vulnerable group within the population, because of their biology, and they have no voice of their own. They count on us, the adults in the population, to speak up for them and to protect them.”

“So, I see walking away from the protection of children's health as being very damaging to America,” he continues.

I think children deserve our special protection. But, even leaving that off the table, it's just not wise for the future health, stability and security of this country.

The office Landrigan helped create focused initially on protecting children against toxic pesticides. It pushed the risk assessors within EPA to incorporate "child protective safety factors" into pesticide standards. It also worked to protect children from lead and mercury poisoning and encouraged the air pollution office to set air standards low enough that they protect children's health.

The Office of the Science Advisor, like the Office of Children's Health Protection, is a watchdog, Landrigan adds: 

It provides advice to the administrator and the senior staff. It guides them to make decisions that are based on evidence and based on science, as opposed to other factors, such as short-term political gain or profit. If that office is dissolved, then I would argue that EPA, which is supposed to be a science-based organization, is going to be flying without a radar.

Landrigan says the Trump administration’s actions are “part of a consistent pattern that reflects industry's longstanding goal to eliminate or weaken the office” — and this angers him.

“I'm a pediatrician. I've devoted my professional life to protecting children against environmental hazards,” he says. “I'm also a father and a grandfather. It really angers me to see very carefully crafted protections for children's health that have been put into place with meticulous care over the span of two decades being ripped away in a weekend.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

In Iceland, a shifting sculpture for a changing Arctic  

Oct 15, 2018 11:51


This story comes to us through a partnership with the podcast and radio program Threshold, with funding support from the Pulitzer Center.

On the island of Grímsey, off the northern coast of Iceland, stands an enormous concrete sphere nine feet in diameter, grey and pockmarked, with a big hole in the center. It looks like something that might’ve been flung from the slingshot of a mythological Nordic giant. It is wonderfully weird.

It’s called Orbis et Globus (Latin for “Circle and Sphere”) and it was placed here to mark the line drawn on the map that defines the Arctic Circle. Simply put, everything north of here, to the top of the planet, is the Arctic — the part of the world that falls into at least 24 hours of darkness for at least one day a year, the Northern Hemisphere’s winter solstice.

But there’s a twist. That line on the map appears fixed, and in most people’s minds, it is. But the sculpture was designed to move. And it has to be moved, every year.

Because it turns out that the Arctic Circle will not sit still — which is news to a lot of people.

Across the Arctic, on this same line in spots all around the world, there are fixed signs marking the Arctic Circle, which draw tourists who take pictures, and maybe buy souvenirs. And that’s the way it was for years on Grímsey Island, too, the only habitable spot in Iceland currently touched by the Arctic Circle. Tourists would typically fly in, head to a modest aluminum sign, take pictures and head back out.

A yellow metal sign with the words

One of the signs on Grímsey Island denotes the Arctic Circle, though the circle itself moves from year to year and is currently moving off Grímsey Island entirely.


Amy Martin/The World

That’s the way it was, that is, until Kristinn Hrafnsson and Steve Christer got involved. Hrafnsson’s an artist and Christer’s an architect, both from Iceland's capital, Reykjavík, and in 2013, they heard about a competition to make a public art piece marking the Arctic Circle on Grímsey. As Kristinn looked into it, he got intrigued by one small detail about the project.

“I stumbled across a small number [showing that] the Arctic Circle is moving 14 centimeters a year,” Hrafnsson says, “and I found this rather strange. So I thought, ‘let's search this out.’”

The shifting Arctic

That research led Hrafnsson to a third character in this story — Thorsteinn Saemundsson, an astronomer who’s now retired from the University of Iceland. He specializes in the effect of the Sun on the Earth.

Saemundsson told Hrafnsson and Christer that it was true, that the Arctic Circle is moving. And the reason is that the tilted axis of the Earth is itself moving—slowly rocking up and down between 22 and 24-and-a-half degrees latitude. Saemundsson says this movement happens in a predictable cycle.

A changing Arctic Logo: The Big Melt

“This period is about 40,000 years,” Thorstein says. “20,000 years in one direction and 20,000 years back.”

The phenomenon is called axial tilt, and it slowly changes the amount of the planet that goes into total darkness and total daylight every year.

As the Earth’s axis gets slightly closer to straight up and down, the Arctic Circle shrinks. As it gets more tilted, the circle spreads out. Right now, we're somewhere in the middle of that cycle, heading closer to straight up and down.

That means the Arctic Circle is moving north, and for Iceland, it means that the circle is slowly slipping away.

In 2013, the local government decided the simple Arctic Circle marker on Grímsey was due for an upgrade and launched a competition to design a new marker. The competition noted that the Arctic Circle was in fact moving — 14 centimeters a year, the official notice said.

But when Hrafnsson and Christer consulted with Saemundsson, he told them it was actually moving a whole lot more than that — an average of 14 meters a year on Grímsey. At that rate, the Arctic Circle will only touch the island for a few more decades, until 2047. After that, the circle will leave all of Iceland behind for thousands of years, until the Earth's axial tilt slowly brings it back.

Three men stand shoulder to shoulder for a photo

The team behind Orbus et Globus: artist Kristinn Hrafnsson, astronomer Thorsteinn Saemundsson and architect Steve Christer.


Amy Martin/The World

When they found this out, Hrafnsson and Christer realized they had a decision to make. They could ignore the science of how the Arctic Circle actually works, and just make another stationary monument in the same old place. Or they could let this new information reshape their whole idea for the monument.

Ultimately they decided the complicated facts were much more interesting than the nice, easy fiction.

A large grey sphere sits on a grassy hill by a sea

The sphere is about nine feet wide and weighs eight tons — making it heavy enough to withstand Grímsey’s winds.


Amy Martin/The World

New design for a new understanding of the Arctic

“Everything is changing, everything's on the move,” Hrafnsson says.

That presented opportunities to think creatively.

“So we had lots of different ways of representing this moment,” Christer says. “And then gradually it crystallized into something as simple as a ball, because it's something you can move. And it also represents [the planet] we're on, because everything that we're talking about or thinking about is actually affected by balls.”

OK, so, some kind of ball. Something that rolls. But also, something that doesn't roll too much, because Grímsey is a windy place.

“It has to have a certain presence, a certain physicality, a certain weight,” Christer says.

So — an enormous, eight-ton ball.

“It's bigger than us,” Christer says. “That was the thing that we realized, it had to be big enough to be something that you couldn't put your arms around. Even if five people link their arms, they'd be having trouble. So it's something you can't contain. It has its own life and does its own thing. And we just have to follow.”

Wherever it goes. Because it’s even more complicated.

“Even though we know it's going north this summer,” Christer says, “it will [also] go south.”

It turns out that the Arctic Circle isn't only moving in one direction.

Along with that 40,000-year sway in the Earth’s axis, there's a much smaller, faster wobble happening as well. Saemundsson says this one is caused by the tug of the moon’s gravity.

“And it is a period of about 18.6 years,” he says.

What it all adds up to is this: The movement of the Arctic Circle isn't a straight line. It's a squiggle — a big line moving in one direction, with a bunch of smaller little zig-zags.

With, Saemundsson adds, one last complication.

“There's one factor that comes into this, which people seldom think about," he says. "And that is the movement of the Earth's crust. This is something we can't predict very accurately.”

Pieces of the Earth's crust are also constantly on the move. The planet’s plates slowly drift over time, so the exact coordinates of the Arctic Circle on the landscape also drift in an irregular way.

An inscription at the center of a monument in the shape of a grey concrete sphere

The hole in the center of Orbis et Globus is slightly stained with red rust.


Amy Martin/The World

Embracing complexity

As you learn all this, your heart kind of goes out to Hrafnsson and Christer and the organizers of the competition for the new marker. It seemed like a simple challenge—make a monument to the Arctic Circle on this tidy little line that human beings have drawn around the top of the Earth. But the deeper these two went into it, the more complex it became.

“But I think that's also something you accept,” Christer says. “As you get older you realize that you don't have a grasp on everything. The older you get, the more you realize you don't know.”

It happens to all of us — a moment when we learn something that makes everything so much harder and more complicated than we thought. And then we have to decide if we're going to take that in or turn away.

And it happens a lot with climate change, something that’s changing the very nature of the Arctic far faster than the Arctic Circle itself is shifting. As we learn about how our own actions are affecting the climate, it can get so overwhelming for some of us that we'll grab onto any alternative story, anything that helps us just turn away.

And one of those stories is actually related to this story — the narrative that says the planet is heating up not because of the carbon pollution we’re pumping into the atmosphere but because of those changes in axial tilt, and other natural processes.

It’s an alluring idea, but it’s just not true.

Yes, the Earth's climate does change naturally. The planet has always fluctuated between ice ages and warmer periods, and changes in axial tilt are part of what drives that. But those changes play out over tens or even hundreds of thousands of years, while the warming we're experiencing now is happening at lightning speed in comparison — we can measure it in decades.

And the cause of that warming is clear — it's us. Burning fossil fuels moves carbon into the atmosphere, and that traps more heat.

This is a fact. So we have a choice. Do we try to push it aside, so that we don't have to change? Or do we accept the truth, as difficult as it might be? When it came to making this Arctic Circle monument, Hrafnsson and Christer chose option No. 2. They opened themselves up to the more complicated truth.

“This is a moving thing,” Hrafnsson says about Grimsey’s new Arctic Circle marker. “It follows the circle, which is nothing you can touch or see. And that's interesting, that the object is following this idea.”

It’s not so much about the huge weird ball itself, which was ultimately rolled out in 2017.

“The piece itself is the movement,” Christer says.

We humans don't really like change. We like sharp lines, and firm definitions. But the actual, physical world doesn't work this way. It's hard to find a straight line in nature. Instead, there are curves, twists, and blurred boundaries. And always, always, change.

"Everything moves. Everything. Nothing excluded," says Hrafnsson.

Even, it turns out, the Arctic Circle. And an eight-ton ball of concrete, both of which are scheduled to leave Grímsey Island in 2047.

That year, Christer says, “is when Kristinn and I go up there with our [walkers] and kick it into the ocean.”

So the question we started with here is what is the Arctic. The answer? Anything above a zig-zaggy line, which fluctuates between 65-and-a-half and 68 degrees north.

Which is so messy and complicated. There's really nothing about the Arctic that obeys our rules.

Amy Martin is the executive producer of the podcast and radio program Threshold The logo for the Podcast Threshold

Indonesia's double disaster exposes earthquake lessons not learned

Oct 12, 2018


The young man standing atop a mound of grey mud and debris on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, waiting for an excavator he hoped would dig out the bodies of his parents, voiced the exasperation many feel in his earthquake-plagued country.

"This is something that happens all the time in Indonesia. Why aren't we getting better at handling it?" Bachtiar cried as the machine clanked through the ruins of someone's kitchen in the city of Palu.

A 7.5-magnitude earthquake on Sept. 28 triggered a tsunami and extensive soil liquefaction, a phenomenon that turns soft soil into a seething mire, killing 2,073 people, according to the latest official estimate. Up to 5,000 more may be missing.

"In every disaster, there's always a lesson to be learned," Sutopo Purwo Nugroho, spokesman for the national disaster mitigation agency, said this week.

Nugroho conceded that Indonesia's preparedness for disasters and capacity to respond still fall woefully short, not least because public funding is so low. He said the country's disaster response budget is currently 4 trillion rupiah ($262 million) a year, equivalent to 0.002 percent of the state budget.

"We should not forget that there will be many disasters to come. It needs budget," he said. "We need to learn from Japan as they are consistent in preparation."

Critics say that, despite improvements at a national level in disaster management since a devastating Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004, local authorities often lack know-how and equipment, and so rescue efforts are delayed until the military can reach the area.

Also, a lack of education and safety drills means people don't know how to protect themselves when an earthquake strikes.

Palu was Indonesia's second earthquake disaster of 2018. In August, the island of Lombok was rocked by quakes that flattened villages and killed more than 500 people.

It was also only the latest in a string of deadly tsunamis to hit the archipelago in 2005, 2006 and 2010. But none of those compare with the 2004 tsunami that killed some 226,000 people in 13 countries, more than 120,000 of them in Indonesia alone.

Indonesia straddles the southwestern reaches of the Pacific Ring of Fire and is practically defined by the tectonic plates that grind below its lush islands and blue seas.

The archipelago is strung out along a fault line under the Indian Ocean off its west coast. Others run northwards in the Western Pacific, including those under Sulawesi.

Volcanoes that dot the islands have brought fiery destruction and remarkable fertility, but rapid population growth over recent decades means that many more people are now living in hazardous areas.

'New science'

The biggest — and most unexpected — killer in Sulawesi was soil liquefaction, a phenomenon where intense tremors cause saturated sand and silt to take on the characteristics of a liquid.

The liquefaction swallowed up entire neighborhoods of Palu.

With communications and power down, rescuers focused first on Palu's tsunami-battered beachfront in the north and on collapsed hotels and shopping centers in its business district.

Roads to the south, where the city has spread out as it has grown, were initially impassable — damaged or blocked by debris.

So it took days for rescuers to reach the neighborhoods of Balaroa, Petobo, and Sigi, where traumatized survivors said the ground came alive when the quake hit, swallowing up people, vehicles and thousands of homes.

Liquefaction is a fairly common characteristic of high-magnitude earthquakes, but the Indonesian government says there is still insufficient understanding of the phenomenon and how to reduce exposure to it.

"Liquefaction is a new science. There are no guidelines on how to handle it," Antonius Ratdomopurbo, secretary of the Geological Agency at the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Resources, told reporters this week.


A tsunami warning system set up after 2004 failed to save lives in Sulawesi: it emerged too late that, due to neglect or vandalism, a network of 22 buoys connected to seabed sensors had been inoperable since 2012.

With power and communications knocked out in Palu, there was no hope of warning people through text messages or sirens that tsunami waves of up to six meters (20 feet) were racing towards the city.

But that highlights what some experts say is the most important lesson: No one in a coastal area should wait for a warning if they feel a big quake.

"The earthquake is the warning," said Adam Switzer, a tsunami expert at the Earth Observatory of Singapore. "It's about education."

Unlike in quake-prone Japan and New Zealand, earthquake education and drills are only sporadic in Indonesia, so there is little public awareness of how to respond.

"The problem in tsunami early warning systems is not the structure ... but the culture in our communities," said Nugroho.

That culture includes a resilience that emerged within days as the people of Palu picked up the pieces of their lives.

"Palu is not dead," is daubed on a billboard by the beach.

Eko Joko, his wife and two children have been salvaging wood and metal to reconstruct their flattened beachfront shop-house.

"I tell my family they have to be strong, not scared, so that I can be strong," said Joko, 41.

"This disaster has not destroyed us."

By Kanupriya Kapoor/Reuters

Additional reporting by Bernadette Christina Munthe in Jakarta; Editing by Robert Birsel and John Chalmers.

Russian space rocket fails in mid-air, two-man US-Russian crew lands safely

Oct 11, 2018


US astronaut Nick Hague and Russian cosmonaut Alexei Ovchinin landed safely on Thursday after making an emergency landing in Kazakhstan when a rocket on their Soyuz spacecraft failed in mid-air.

Rescue crews raced to locate them on the Kazakh steppe quickly linking up with them,  NASA, the US space agency.

The Soyuz capsule carrying them separated from the malfunctioning rocket and made what is called a steep ballistic descent with parachutes helping slow its speed. Paratroopers parachuted to the rescue site, TASS news agency reported.   

Neither man needed medical treatment and NASA TV said both were fine.

The problem occurred when a booster rocket on the Soyuz-FG launch vehicle, launched from the Soviet-era cosmodrome of Baikonur in the central Asian country, failed in some way, NASA said.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Borisov, quoted by Interfax, said the problem occurred when the first and second stages of the booster rocket were in the process of separating.  

Footage from inside the Soyuz showed the two men being shaken around at the moment the failure occurred, with their arms and legs flailing.  

Rescue crews were quick to reach the site where Hague and Ovchinin came down, Russian news agencies said.

"Rescue forces are in communication with Nick Hague and Alexei Ovchinin and we are hearing that they are in good condition," NASA TV said.

Russia immediately suspended all manned space launches, the RIA news agency reported, and Roscomosmos chief Dmitry Rogozin said he had ordered a state commission to be set up to investigate what had gone wrong.

The failure is a setback for the Russian space program and the latest in a string of mishaps.

In August, a hole appeared in a Soyuz capsule already docked to the ISS which caused a brief loss of air pressure and had to be patched. Rogozin has said it could have been "sabotage."

International Space Station crew members are shown in their space suits standing on a yellow ladder.

International Space Station crew members, astronaut Nick Hague of the US and cosmonaut Alexey Ovchinin of Russia, board the Soyuz MS-10 spacecraft.


Yuri Kochetkov/Pool via Reuters

US space plans

For now, the United States relies on Moscow to carry its astronauts to the ISS which was launched 20 years ago. NASA tentatively plans to send its first crew to the ISS using a SpaceX craft instead of a Soyuz next April.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the most important thing was that the two men were alive.

The ISS, launched in 1998, is a habitable artificial satellite in low Earth orbit which is used to carry out scientific and space-related tests. It can hold a crew of up to six people.  

"Rescue services have been working since the first second of the accident," Rogozin wrote on Twitter. "The emergency rescue systems of the MS-Soyuz spacecraft worked smoothly. The crew has been saved."   

A Reuters reporter who observed the launch said it had gone smoothly in its initial stages and that the failure of the booster rocket must have occurred at higher altitude.

In November last year, Roscosmos lost contact with a newly-launched weather satellite — the Meteor-M — after it blasted off from Russia’s new Vostochny cosmodrome in the Far East. Rogozin said at the time that the launch of the $39.02 million satellite had been due to an embarrassing programming error.

By Shamil Zhumatov/Reuters

Reporting by Olzhas Auyezov in Kazakhstan and by Christian Lowe, Tom Balmforth, Polina Nikolskaya, Polina Ivanova in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Richard Balmforth.

Barrier islands are natural coast guards that absorb impacts from hurricanes and storms

Oct 10, 2018


When storms like Hurricane Michael make landfall, the first things they hit often are barrier islands – thin ribbons of sand that line the US Atlantic and Gulf coasts. It’s hard to imagine how these narrow strips can withstand such forces, but in fact, many of them have buffered our shores for centuries.

Barrier islands protect about 10 percent of coastlines worldwide. When hurricanes and storms make landfall, these strands absorb much of their force, reducing wave energy and protecting inland areas.

They also provide a sheltered environment that enables estuaries and marshes to form behind them. These zones serve many valuable ecological functions, such as reducing coastal erosion, purifying water and providing habitat for fish and birds.

Many barrier islands have been developed into popular tourist destinations, including North Carolina’s Outer Banks and South Carolina’s Hilton Head and Kiawah. Islands that have been preserved in their natural state can move with storms, shifting their shapes over time. But many human activities interfere with these natural movements, making the islands more vulnerable. 

Islands on the move

Barrier islands are made of sandy, erodible soil and subject to high-energy wave action. They are dynamic systems that constantly form and reform. But this doesn’t necessarily mean the islands are disappearing. Rather, they migrate naturally, building up sand in some areas and eroding in other areas.

New islands can form out in the ocean, either because local sea level drops or tectonics or sediment deposition raises the ocean floor. Or they may shift laterally along the shore as currents carry sediments from one end of the island toward the other. On the East Coast, barrier islands usually move from north to south because longshore currents transport sand in the same direction.

And over time many barrier islands move landward, toward the shore. This typically happens because local sea levels rise, so waves wash over the islands during storms, moving sand from the ocean side to the inland side.

Building on shifting sands

Building hard infrastructure such as homes, roads and hotels on barrier islands interrupts their lateral migration. Needless to say, beach communities want their dunes to stay in place, so the response often is to build control structures, such as seawalls and jetties.

This protects buildings and roads, but it also disrupts natural sand transportation. Blocking erosion up-current means that no sediments are transported down-current, leaving those areas starved of sediment and vulnerable to erosion.

Many sandy tourist beach towns along the East Coast also turn to beach nourishment – pumping tons of sand from offshore – to replace sand lost through erosion. This does not interrupt natural sand transportation, but it is a very expensive and temporary fix.

For example, since the 1940s Florida has spent over $1.3 billion on beach nourishment projects, and North Carolina has spent more than $700 million. This added sand will eventually wash away, quite possibly during Hurricane Florence or the next hurricane to hit the coast, and have to be replaced.

What kind of protection?

In some cases, however, leaving barrier islands to do their own natural thing can cause problems for people. Some cities and towns, such as Miami and Biloxi, are located behind barrier islands and rely on them as a first line of defense against storms.

And many communities depend on natural resources provided by the estuaries and wetlands behind barrier islands. For example, Pamlico Sound — the protected waters behind North Carolina’s Outer Banks — is a rich habitat for blue crabs and popular sport fish such as red drum.

Unmanaged, some of these islands may not move the way we want them to. For example, a storm breach on a barrier island that protects a city would make that city more vulnerable.

In Mississippi, a string of uninhabited barrier islands off the coast separates Mississippi Sound from the Gulf of Mexico. Behind the islands is a productive estuary, important wetlands and cities such as Biloxi and Gulfport. Because the Mississippi River has been dredged and enclosed between levees to keep it from spilling over its banks, this area does not receive the sediment loads that the river once deposited in this part of the Gulf. As a result, the islands are eroding and disappearing.

To slow this process, state and federal agencies are artificially nourishing the islands to keep them in place and preserve the cities, livelihoods and ecological habitats behind them. This project will fill a major breach cut in one island by Hurricane Camille in 1969, making the island a more effective storm buffer for the state’s coast.

When to retreat?

Geologically, barrier islands are not designed to stay in one place. But development on them is intended to last, although critics argue that climate change and sea level rise will inevitably force a retreat from the shore.

Reconciling humans’ love of the ocean with the hard realities of earth science is not easy. People will always be drawn to the coast, and prohibiting development is politically impractical. However, there are some ways to help conserve barrier islands while maintaining areas for tourism activities.

First, federal, state and local laws can reduce incentives to build on barrier islands by putting the burden of rebuilding after storms on owners, not on the government. Many critics argue that the National Flood Insurance Program has encouraged homeowners to rebuild on barrier islands and other coastal locations, even after suffering repeated losses in many storms.

Second, construction on barrier islands should leave dunes and vegetation undisturbed. This helps to keep their sand transportation systems intact. When roads and homes directly adjacent to beaches are damaged by storms, owners should be required to move back from the shoreline in order to provide a natural buffer between any new construction and the coastline.

Third, designating more conservation areas on barrier islands will maintain some of the natural sediment transportation and barrier island migration processes. And these conservation areas are popular nature-based tourism attractions. Protected barrier islands such as Assateague, Padre, and the Cape Cod National Seashore are popular destinations in the US national park system.

Finally, development on barrier islands should be done with change in mind and a preference for temporary or movable infrastructure. The islands themselves are surprisingly adaptable, but whatever is built in these dynamic settings is likely soon or later to be washed away. 

Anna Linhoss, Assistant Professor of Agricultural and Biological Engineering, Mississippi State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

'Hope to hopelessness': Will government step up after second storm? 

Oct 9, 2018


Dianne Powell is living a recurring nightmare.

In October 2016, Hurricane Matthew filled her brick house with rainwater — up to her waist. The storm inundated her town, engulfing homes and highways and causing $4.8 billion worth of damage statewide.

Editor's note: This story is part of the Center for Public Integrity’s “Abandoned in America” series, which profiles communities connected by their profound needs and sense of political abandonment at a time when President Donald Trump’s administration has declared the nation’s war on poverty “largely over and a success."  Part I: How ‘The Wall’ could kill a Texas city

She rebuilt. Then Hurricane Florence struck and swamped her home again.

Powell is faced again with the wrenching process of mending what two storms destroyed within two years. She’s unsure how she’ll pay for repairs.

On a September afternoon after the latest flood waters had receded, she carefully stepped over her loose floorboards, buckled and haphazard against walls sporting a new foot-high yellowish-brown watermark.

As Powell surveyed the interior of her new home now damaged — the burgundy walls, the matching wine-patterned kitchen towels and curtains — she lamented what could have been.

“It was all so pretty,” she said with a sigh.

Powell’s is the story of countless residents of Robeson County, whose families, friends, neighbors and congregations provided support after Hurricane Matthew when the government’s pathways to recovery left many overwhelmed, left behind or never heard.

a woman's home flooded twice in 2 years

To the left, Dianne Powell steps into her home for the first time since it was rebuilt after Hurricane Matthew. On the right, Powell begins to pack up after Hurricane Florence flooded her home for a second time.


Ashley Balcerzak/CPI

And they wonder: Will it be any better this time around?

From a place that feels worlds away from Washington, DC, navigating a federal bureaucracy has proven difficult at best, and especially fraught for those who need it the most.

Robeson County was already struggling when Hurricane Matthew hit, and it hadn’t gotten back to that already-low baseline when Hurricane Florence rolled through the region.

It’s among the poorest (with 30 percent of residents living below the poverty line), unhealthiest and most dangerous counties in North Carolina, beset with issues more typical of inner-city neighborhoods despite its status as a largely rural community of a little more than 130,000 people. The hurricanes’ flooding displaced thousands from their homes and cut off access to their medicine. Looters waded into rushing water filled with snakes and alligators, breaking into liquor stores and houses, nabbing electronics and jewelry, residents said.

“All a storm does is wash to the forefront the problems that already exist in that county, in all counties,” said Cliff Harvell, disaster response superintendent with the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.

In interviews this summer and fall before and after Hurricane Florence many residents said they found attention and assistance for their problems on the local level, but didn’t feel that same support from their federal lawmakers.

What they said they saw and experienced were a handful of speeches, inflated promises, delayed funds and not enough repaired homes.

Struggle with FEMA

After Hurricane Matthew, Powell struggled for months to secure government assistance, but received confusing and conflicting information over the course of a dozen meetings with Federal Emergency Management Agency officials. Exasperated, she eventually stopped trying to rebuild her home with FEMA aid.

“You work all your life, you have a decent home. And you go in front of FEMA and they sometimes look like they couldn’t care less, or like they think you’re lying,” said Powell, 64, in July. “It was just so painful. I said forget it.”

Powell’s cousin suggested another route for help: the Baptist church. Using her savings, some flood insurance money and a $20,000 low-interest Small Business Administration disaster loan, a church recovery group finished fixing Powell’s home in July 2018 — in just a few months — using volunteer labor.

Even before Hurricane Florence, FEMA officials explained they do the best they can amid calamities such as these, and that it’s the “nature of disaster” that some people will be lost in the process.

“Unfortunately, there are times when not every need is met, but our staff works really hard to try and avoid that,” said Libby Turner, the federal coordinating officer for Hurricane Matthew at FEMA, when asked about Powell’s plight and the struggles of those like her. “And it’s sad, there are times when I stumble because it just makes me want to write [their names] down and go find them.”

Now, it’s unclear how much federal aid Robeson County will receive for Hurricane Florence, as the dollar figures change by the hour while the recovery process just begins to take shape.

a dilapidated house in north carolina

A dilapidated home in Lumberton, North Carolina.


Ashley Balcerzak/CPI

As of Oct. 8, Robeson County residents received $5.9 million in state and federal grants to help rebuild or to cover other storm-related expenses, according to FEMA. And Gov. Roy Cooper announced in late September that Robeson would be one of 28 North Carolina counties to get a share of $18.5 million from the US Department of Labor to hire state residents to do recovery and cleanup work.

For Hurricane Matthew, FEMA doled out more money to Robeson County than any other county in North Carolina for public projects and to help people rebuild, according to FEMA data. And the Small Business Administration offered Robeson residents and businesses more than $21 million in low-interest disaster loans, the second-largest amount in the state, though the agency doesn’t release data on how much of that available amount people actually borrowed.

Dozens of other government agencies also aid communities’ recovery in the wake of a hurricane. They help, but it’s also challenging, if not nearly impossible, for many people to navigate such a system in the midst of post-disaster chaos.

“The disaster recovery process has been more traumatic for some than the trauma of the disaster itself,” said Mac Legerton, co-founder of the social justice nonprofit Center for Community Action, which is involved in hurricane recovery efforts, among other issues.

Not connecting to Washington

Robeson County’s disconnect with Washington, DC, began accelerating in the early 1990s. It was then that President Bill Clinton implemented the North American Free Trade Agreement, which beginning in 1994 tore down trade barriers between the US, Canada and Mexico — and arguably hastened the decline of local industry and sent local jobs overseas. Robeson County lost more than 8,700 manufacturing jobs from 1993 to 2003, according to an analysis of North Carolina Employment Security Commission data.

This came around the same time the federal government was waging war on tobacco, the region’s cash crop. The county had 17,000 acres of tobacco farms in the 1980s. But that dwindled to only 2,000 acres a few decades later after President George W. Bush signed the Tobacco Reform Act in 2004. The program deregulated the industry and paid out farmers who formerly grew the crop.

This economic hardship — disdain for NAFTA, in particular — contributed to why a majority of Robesonians voted for President Donald Trump, only the second Republican president to carry the county in more than 100 years. Trump railed against the trade deal during his campaign and finalized a new deal Sept. 30 called the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, which notably affects car manufacturing, dairy products and labor unions. It’s expected to take effect in 2020, if Congress approves the deal.

downtown lumberton, north carolina

Downtown Lumberton, North Carolina.


Ashley Balcerza/CPI

Political tumult continued into the 2018 midterms as the county’s congressman, Republican Robert Pittenger, became the first incumbent nationally that voters booted out this election cycle. Former Baptist preacher Mark Harris snagged the nomination by 828 votes and will face Democrat Dan McCready, a solar energy executive, in November.

But only one-third of Robeson’s 75,000 registered voters cast a ballot in the primary, highlighting a major disconnect — at both ends — between Robeson and the federal government. It’s to be seen if either candidate will inspire this politically detached population to vote for him in a pivotal election where every ballot matters — especially when hundreds of residents are still in shelters.  

Despite desperately needing hurricane recovery help and economic stimulation, Robesonians don’t take advantage of the usual routes to reach politicians that could change their fortunes, whether through the ballot box or by contributing money to political campaigns, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis.

In Robeson County, about 3,100 fewer people voted during the 2016 presidential election than during the 2012 presidential election. The drop, residents said, can partly be attributed to the community still reeling from Hurricane Matthew a month before Election Day 2016.

Only about 53 percent of Robeson’s registered voters voted during the 2016 general election. That’s the second lowest participation rate out of all North Carolina counties, behind only Onslow County. And when looking at the number of votes cast in 2016 compared to voting age citizens, Robeson ranks among the lowest counties in the entire United States, according to a Center for Public Integrity analysis of Census Bureau and OpenElections data.

Averaged out, Robeson residents donated about 75 cents a person to politicians, parties and political groups, making the county also one of the least generous in terms of political giving. With a $31,000 median income — barely half that of the average US household — that’s not necessarily surprising. But politicians don’t often fundraise in areas that don’t generously contribute money, and therefore, may not show up as often as they might if the area was flush with cash.

Municipalities in Robeson County, as well as the county itself, could hire lobbyists to advocate for their interests in Washington, DC. Robeson County spent about $20,000 on federal-level lobbying efforts for “community facilities” in 2017 and has yet to report any lobbying expenditures worth more than $5,000 this year, according to congressional records. Lumberton and Maxton, a small Robeson County town, reported lobbying in small amounts earlier this decade, but no Robeson towns appear to have paid K Street firms in the past few years.

Pittenger does not have a physical district office in Robeson County, and he rarely advertises in-person office hours or visits to the region. Pittenger hosted two public town hall meetings in Robeson County since 2016, according to congressional data service Legistorm data and Pittenger’s office.

Pittenger’s last Lumberton town hall in August 2017 didn’t go smoothly, Lumberton city councilmen Chris Howard and John Cantey said. Pittenger struggled to answer questions about Hurricane Matthew aid and residents criticized his comments supporting Trump’s speech about racial violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Pittenger appeared at 16 events across his district and four “virtual” town halls where people could call in, tweet at or message Pittenger, over that time period, according to Legistorm data and Pittenger’s office.

“Congressman Pittenger has spoken up on behalf of Robeson County at every opportunity in the preparation, disaster, and recovery phases, and he will continue to do so through his last day in office,” Jamie Bowers, Pittenger’s deputy chief of staff and communications director, said in an email.

Though residents felt underwhelmed by the response from their politicians, their federal delegates say they fought for funding and provided support on multiple fronts.

Bowers said Pittenger is in frequent contact with local leaders and passed on requests to the appropriate government agencies, advocated for Robeson aid with House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and House Majority Whip Steve Scalise and pushed the Department of Housing and Urban Development to send a representative to Robeson County.

A spokesman for Republican Sen. Thom Tillis said Tillis surveyed the damage in Robeson County days after Hurricane Matthew hit, and “spearheaded” the effort with Sen. Richard Burr to grant more than $400 million in federal funds for the state during Hurricane Matthew and pass a bill with $1.14 billion for Hurricane Florence. This billion dollars includes a provision helping communities that were hit hard by both hurricanes Matthew and Florence.

Tillis’ staff keeps in contact with Robeson County officials, and his DC office hosted county leaders to hear about their needs, spokesman Daniel Keylin said. Tillis and Burr met with Trump and Cooper in Havelock, North Carolina, visited people affected by Hurricane Florence and both shared information about hurricane preparedness and how to apply for aid.

Some groups are making progress in working the system: Robeson County’s Native American Lumbee tribe continues to lobby the federal government for full federal recognition that would open up additional funding streams to the tribe, an effort Pittenger, Burr and Tillis support.

Though it has not yet achieved the goal, the tribe is making headway in other areas: The Trump administration invited Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin Jr. to attend the 2017 inauguration and festivities, and North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper hired Godwin’s son, Quinn, as his regional outreach liaison officer. Pittenger and the candidates vying for his seat all marched in the Lumbee Homecoming Parade in July, appealing to this mass of voters in one of the most diverse rural counties in the US.

Demographically, Robeson is 30 percent white, a quarter black and almost 40 percent Native American. It’s also home to a small but growing Hispanic community.

“Sen. Burr was personally engaged as Florence hit,” said Lumbee Tribal Chairman Harvey Godwin, Jr. “He has my cell phone number, we talked every day, and he brought in an Indian American liaison to help tribal members and businesses get help.”

Godwin said that although the Lumbee population could “do a lot better” with turning out to vote, it is beginning to recognize its potential.

“We’re a big voting bloc that can influence an election and are finally able to realize that power,” Godwin said. “In the past, we never got the return on investment for our support, but we will hold them accountable for their promises now. I think that’s more powerful.”

But overall, large pockets of the population are not tuned in to political matters.

“When I’ve been canvassing … I ran into people that don’t understand if their county has an election and when is the next election, or if they’re a Democrat or Republican,” said Adrienne Kennedy, a community organizer who door-knocked for the Democratic Party. “You gotta bring them up from that.”

But it’s hard to know who to vote for when you have more pressing problems, like trying to get back into your home.

Missed deadlines

Some local politicians, such as Lumberton City Councilman Columbus “Chris” Howard Jr., face the same situation as their constituents: waiting to rebuild and feeling disconnected from Washington. Every few moments during a tour of the town this summer, Howard pointed to a house he drove past, explaining where the owner is now or the status of the rebuilding process.

“I know the people — I’ve been here for 40 years,” he said. “This person was in the shelter with us. This house is supposed to be torn down and rebuilt. She has a second mortgage, so she can’t afford to do anything. This fella here has gotten into his house within about 12 months.”

a hurricane-ravaged house in north carolina


Lumberton City Councilman Chris Howard, Jr. surveys damage at his home, which was destroyed during Hurricane Matthew.


Ashley Balcerzak/CPI

Although pumps helped suck away the more than a foot of water that fell on Lumberton, remnants of the destruction still speckled the streets over the summer almost two years later.

A concrete foundation with no structure on top.

Depiped toilets placed on porches.

The shuttered West Lumberton Elementary School.

Entire culs-de-sac of public housing without a car in the driveway or inhabitant to be seen.

Countless numbers of “Thank you Jesus” signs.

Piles of white silt from the Lumber River and sand from under Interstate 95 covered residents’ yards. (“It looked like fresh snow. Or a beach,” one resident said.)

That was before Hurricane Florence. A week after the second major hurricane hit, truck-sized pumps running nonstop for days extracted most of the floodwater, leaving reflective puddles throughout Lumberton.

The most immediate relics of Hurricane Florence were the enormous toppled trees — roots and all pulled from the ground — and the strong stench, of decaying leaves or rotten eggs and meat. A gray blanket of flaky muck covered gardens and lawns and grass, giving most plants an appearance of decay. Mosquitoes swarmed the town, breeding in the pools of water left behind.

Howard himself couldn’t escape either storm. As tempest-tossed residents fled for higher ground during Hurricane Matthew, burglars stole most of his family’s valuables, such as his wife’s jewelry and their flat-screen TV.

His house, after being treated for mold after Hurricane Matthew and mostly stripped out with the help of $11,000 from FEMA, served as storage for his furniture and landscaping supplies. That was until Hurricane Florence rendered most items beyond saving.

Howard and his wife, Gennifer, bought and moved into her parents’ house as the couple waited for the FEMA-funded project to tear down, then rebuild, their home.

Then Hurricane Florence arrived. And FEMA officials couldn’t answer his questions if that work would ever start.

“It’s confusing to me when I went to ask [FEMA]. Nobody knows anything, you can’t give me no answers,” Howard said. “I’m through with this house. I want them to buy it. There was hope. Hope to hopelessness. This dream is gone.”

The Howards moved back into their home on Spruce Street after 20 days in a hotel, an expense they could no longer afford. There is still no air conditioning and hot water.

“We still don’t have all the money promised to us from the last storm,” Howard said. “So how long will it take us for Florence? Five years? More?”

Politicians are still scuffling over perceived mismanagement of relief money earmarked for Hurricane Matthew recovery.

Republicans accuse Cooper, the Democratic governor, of holding hostage federal funds necessary to rebuild the region. As of April 2018, the state had not spent any of a $236 million grant awarded the previous fall from the Department of Housing and Urban Development community development block grant program, according to an investigation by WBTV. Federal agencies and lawmakers pass down disaster funds to the state, which then has the responsibility of spending or passing them to local entities.

“It is deeply concerning that these federal disaster dollars are not being released when many North Carolina families are still living in temporary housing,” Republican US Sens. Burr and Tillis and Reps. Walter Jones, Virginia Foxx, Richard Hudson, David Rouzer, George Holding and Pittenger wrote in May in a joint letter to the governor. “Any further delay may also have unacceptable consequences on any future disaster aid requests.”

“We are confident that North Carolina will have sufficient federal funding appropriated by Congress to assist with the long-term recovery efforts, and we are hopeful the state learned valuable lessons from the slow pace of Matthew [community block grant] spending,” Tillis spokesman Daniel Keylin said in an email to the Center for Public Integrity.

A July WBTV investigation found that although North Carolina and South Carolina received block grant funds around the same time, South Carolina — also hit by Hurricane Matthew — put 145 families into homes and sent out 459 award letters. Only one family in North Carolina received a check.

After a June deadline passed without any construction, North Carolina House Speaker Tim Moore, a Republican, reconvened the House Select Committee on Disaster Relief in July to investigate the holdup. Cooper’s office said that when Hurricane Florence hit, more than a dozen construction projects were in the works and $295,850 had been awarded to 24 families in Robeson County through the community block grants.

“The state has already begun contacting people who experienced flooding by both Matthew and Florence to learn about additional damage and update awards,” Ford Porter, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email. He said Cooper is in contact with Trump and FEMA and HUD officials to make sure the state receives assistance as quickly as possible.

This HUD grant, to be sure, is just one source of money from the federal government. FEMA gave Robeson County $26 million for public projects, such as debris removal and rebuilding public buildings or services for Hurricane Matthew, and will begin accepting proposals for Hurricane Florence in the coming weeks. The agency also promised almost $26 million in “individual assistance” grants in Robeson for Hurricane Matthew, which cover housing-related expenses and other things such as medical care, child care or household items.

“Following two 500-year floods, the state must emphasize the need to rebuild smarter and more resilient — particularly in communities at risk of flooding,” Porter said. “Local, state and federal partners came together to prepare and respond to Hurricane Florence. Now we must continue to pull together to quickly deliver assistance and support to the survivors of this storm.”

Voting: the last thing on their minds

Hundreds of Robeson County residents remain in shelters, unclear when they can return to their homes.

Local and state elections officials, meanwhile, say they have plans in place to make sure those who are displaced know where to vote or have the forms they need to request an absentee ballot. 

absentee ballot voting

Board of Elections officials say Robeson County residents can request absentee ballots to be sent to any address, including this Lumberton High School shelter.


Ashley Balcerzak/CPI

The North Carolina State Board of Elections mailed out thousands of absentee ballot request forms, are surveying polling sites to make sure they are usable (three polling sites in Robeson County had to be moved due to mold and other hurricane damage in 2016) and sent a letter “summarizing election deadlines and requirements” to the governor and statehouse leaders. It also updated its website with information about how to vote after Hurricane Florence. Many are skeptical of these strategies.

“Do you think you’re going to open up your mail and look at something from the Board of Elections, needing your vote?” Howard said. “What is more important to you at that period of time? Not that.”

Lumberton Councilman John Cantey Jr. said, “Mostly it’s gonna be your Democratic voters that are lost because these people are in shelters. They in Fayetteville, they in Charlotte, they with family and friends, they moved out, moved away.”

Red Cross shelter supervisor Jennifer Seely said despite the circumstances, she registered to vote many people at the Lumberton High School shelter. She encouraged others to call their representatives to express anger that they were flooded again.

After Hurricane Matthew, the Democratic Party sued and successfully got the deadline extended five days in 2016.

So the Rev. T. Anthony Spearman, North Carolina NAACP’s president, sent a letter on Oct. 1 to Cooper and elections officials requesting “immediate action to ensure that those suffering from this disaster are not denied access to the polls.” Specifically: he asked that they extend the voter registration deadline at least five days, to Oct. 17, for hurricane-ravaged counties, including Robeson.

“We know from past experiences in this state and others that, without swift intervention by the state, natural disasters can disrupt and deny voting opportunities,” Spearman wrote.

Two days later, on Oct. 3, Cooper signed bills that pushed back the voter registration deadline for hurricane-hit counties by three days to Oct. 15, in addition to providing other Hurricane relief measures, such as $50 million for immediate relief efforts.

The race for North Carolina’s District 9

With Pittenger, the three-term incumbent, out of the picture, Robeson County’s next congressional representative — Republican or Democrat — will be a resident of Charlotte, North Carolina’s largest city.

Republican Mark Harris is a former Baptist preacher who committed to joining the ultra-conservative House Freedom Caucus.

Democrat Dan McCready is a former Marine and solar farm company executive endorsed by the moderate Blue Dog Democrats

a politican works the crowd at a shelter

Democrat Dan McCready, running for a US congressional seat, visits a Lumberton shelter and thanks the nurses for their long hours on Twitter.


@McCreadyForNC Twitter post

Starting in Lumberton, it takes about two-and-a-half hours and half a tank of gas to reach the outskirts of Charlotte. North Carolina’s 9th District spans eight counties, some in part, and the nominees live in Charlotte, in Mecklenburg County, the southeast sliver of which is included in the district after North Carolina redistricting in 2016.

One Robeson resident, the executive director of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church, Steve Taylor, described the disconnect he felt from his next congressional representative by asking, “What does Charlotte have to do with me?”

This seat hasn’t been occupied by a Democrat since the mid-1960s, although it’s covered different swaths of the state over the years. But as Democrats attempt to ride a blue wave and take control of Congress, North Carolina’s District 9 increasingly seems to be within the party’s reach. And in August a federal court ruled the district map unconstitutional, saying it was gerrymandered in Republicans’ favor, though the map won’t be redrawn until after the 2018 midterms.

The Cook Political Report rates the race as a toss-up, and Sabato’s Crystal Ball says it leans Democratic. McCready has outraised Harris by almost threefold through the first half of the year, $2.7 million to $930,000.

McCready also has national help. House Majority PAC, a super PAC that aims to elect Democrats into Congress, has so far spent almost $340,000 to produce online ads criticizing Harris’ support of the Trump tax overhaul, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics and the FEC. Democratic nonprofit group Patriot Majority USA released a similar ad about the tax plan, spending almost $305,000. Outside groups spent the most money in this race compared to any other in North Carolina.

Harris received some last-minute ammunition: Donald Trump Jr., the president’s son, headlined a fundraising luncheon this month for Harris in Charlotte along with Freedom Caucus Chairman Mark Meadows.

Harris, despite nabbing only 597 primary election votes in Robeson, a county where a majority of registered voters are Democrats, said he has hope for more support in the general election. He said Robeson is seeing dramatic changes, such as electing state Sen. Danny Britt Jr., the first Republican to represent Robeson since Reconstruction. (Several Democratic voters said they’d voted for Britt because of his hands-on help during Hurricane Matthew.) He also pointed to Robeson’s 86 percent support in a 2012 vote on a state constitutional amendment Harris pushed that would have defined marriage as being between a man and a woman.

While his campaign website exclusively focuses on national issues, Harris told the Center for Public Integrity he hopes to boost Robeson County’s economy with transportation and infrastructure projects.

McCready, for his part, has been courting Robeson County’s Lumbee residents. He marched in the Lumbee Homecoming Parade in July with a large banner printed with “Full federal recognition now!” to appeal to the local Native American vote.

“The politicians in Washington have paid a lot of lip service to the Lumbees but haven’t gotten the job done,” McCready said in an interview with the Center for Public Integrity.

Politicians simply showing up means a lot to Robeson County residents.

Many Lumberton residents told local papers they felt excited when Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter, visited a local Baptist church on Oct. 3 and spent 12 and a half minutes serving meals to waiting cars.

But Lumberton locals said they didn’t see enough of their federal representatives after Hurricane Matthew, and have yet to see much of them or the candidates since Hurricane Florence.

The Harris campaign organized a food drive for eastern North Carolina, according to his Twitter account. McCready said he visited a Lumberton shelter and brought bottled water to the town and to nearby Pembroke.

“After having spent time with folks on the ground in the aftermath of Florence and over the campaign, I can say that nowhere in the country has [a place] been forgotten by Washington politicians more than Robeson County,” McCready said. “They deserve better.”

Burr’s office said Burr met with the mayors of Spring Lake and Lumberton and toured the regions at the end of September. Tillis’ office sent a representative to Lumberton and Allenton in the beginning of October and plans to visit Lumberton to survey damage soon.

Many pointed to Cooper’s tour of Lumberton after Hurricane Florence hit, a day after the governor met with President Trump.

“The president said he would be 100 percent there for us for the long haul,” Cooper said at the time. “So I'm going to take him at his word, and hold the federal government to that. We know that we're going to need significant help. This is going to be a multibillion-dollar effort."

One of the reasons they supported Trump during the 2016 election, some residents said, is because they saw a Trump bus in town and Trump volunteers, including Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara, handing out water bottles to survivors.

“We didn’t see Hillary’s bus,” said Kennedy, the community organizer, who voted unenthusiastically for Clinton. She feels hopeful about McCready, who she has spoken with through her connections with the North Carolina Justice Center.

“I wish politicians would be like an undercover boss, and just camp out,” Kennedy said, referencing the popular television show. “The boss made the initiative to go down low, to see what were the nuts and bolts.”

‘I’ve got to live’

Dianne Powell’s life fundamentally changed after Hurricane Matthew.

She had recently retired from her job as a jail guard with the county sheriff’s department. Instead of spending her new free time traveling, she spent the next two years tending to her ailing father, his lungs deteriorating because of mold inhalation — an aftereffect of Hurricane Matthew.

On the Saturday after Hurricane Florence dumped feet of rain on Lumberton, Powell’s father, Pernell, died.

Pernell Powell was 88 years old, two weeks shy of his next birthday. Dianne slept beside him as he slipped away. Doctors said he suffered from an enlarged heart, pneumonia and cirrhosis of the liver.

“He was a good man and father, and always visited the sick,” Powell said. “People would ask him when he was in the hospital, ‘What you doing in that bed, you’re supposed to be out visiting!’ He said, ‘Oh, it’s my turn now.’”

Powell sighed as she started packing items from her damaged house to take to her second storage unit — “One for Matthew, one for Florence.” She’s currently staying with friends across town.

The same Baptist organization that helped Powell rebuild her first house has already started helping her prepare her new — and newly damaged — house for repairs.

FEMA officials last month also reached out to Powell.

“They left a message on my phone: ‘Dianne, we’re referring you to take out an SBA loan.’

“I already took one out for Matthew,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “I can’t afford to take another one out. I’ve got to live.”

UN climate warning: Immediate change needed to preserve 'life as we know it'

Oct 8, 2018 4:04


Keeping the Earth's temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius means making rapid, unprecedented changes in the way people use energy to eat, travel and live or we risk even more extreme weather and loss of species, a UN report said on Monday.

Meeting 1.5C (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, rather than the 2C target agreed at global climate talks in Paris in 2015, would have "clear benefits to people and natural ecosystems," the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) said on Monday.

Without real change, the world is not even on course to reach the 2C target, experts said.

Related: 'Our wealth is the forest': Indigenous tribes are the last best hope for the Amazon

UN World Meteorological Organization (WMO) Secretary-general Petteri Taalas told reporters in Geneva: "There is clearly need for a much higher ambition level to reach even a 2-degrees target, we are moving more toward 3 to 5 [degrees] at the moment."

The past 18 years have been the warmest on record since the 1850s when measurements began, he said. Scientists attribute the temperature rises and extreme weather mainly to greenhouse gases including carbon dioxide from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas.

The IPCC report said at the current rate of warming, the world's temperatures would likely reach 1.5C between 2030 and 2052 after an increase of 1C above pre-industrial levels since the mid-1800s.

Related: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Meeting the 1.5C target would keep the global sea level rise 0.1 meter (3.9 inches) lower by 2100 than a 2C target, the report says. That could reduce flooding and give people on the world's coasts, islands and river deltas time to adapt.

The lower target would also reduce species loss and extinction and the impact on ecosystems, the report said.

"Even the scientists were surprised to see ... how much they could really differentiate and how great are the benefits of limiting global warming at 1.5 compared to 2," Thelma Krug, IPCC vice-chair, told Reuters.

The IPCC met last week in Incheon, South Korea to finalize the report, prepared at the request of governments in 2015 to assess the feasibility and importance of limiting warming to 1.5C.

The report is the main scientific guide for governments on how to implement the 2015 Paris Agreement, agreed by nearly 200 nations, and will be debated at the Katowice Climate Change Conference in Poland in December.

Related: If the Greenland ice sheet melts, what happens to New York City? This reporter went to find out.

US President Donald Trump withdrew the United States from the accord last year, invoking concerns for the US economy, and has espoused pro-fossil fuel policies. But US states, led by California and many cities, are living up to their commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions, WMO's Taalas said.

"The USA is on the right track to reduce its emissions, you have already been reaching 50 percent of the pledges the Obama administration was having on the table as part of the Paris Agreement," he said, and cited companies such as electric vehicle maker Tesla as helping to bring about change.

To contain warming at 1.5C, manmade global net carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions would need to fall by about 45 percent by 2030 from 2010 levels and reach "net zero" by mid-century. Any additional emissions would require removing CO2 from the air.

Renewable energy

The report said renewable energy would need to supply 70-85 percent of electricity by 2050 to stay within a 1.5C limit, compared with about 25 percent now.

Using carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, the share of gas-fired power would need to be cut to 8 percent and coal to under 2 percent. There was no mention of oil in this context in the summary.

If the average global temperature temporarily exceeded 1.5C, additional carbon removal techniques would be required to return warming to below 1.5C by 2100.

But the report said the efficacy of measures, such as planting forests, bioenergy use or capturing and storing CO2, were unproven at a large scale and carried some risks.

The report also urges individuals to act, such as by reducing consumption of meat and dairy products, driving electric vehicles or taking public transport and demanding and buying low-carbon products.

The effects of not meeting the 1.5C target would mean huge changes to the world. The lower level would mean the Arctic Ocean would be free of sea ice in summer only once per century not at least once a decade under the higher target. Coral reefs would decline by a still unsustainable 70 percent to 90 percent instead of being virtually wiped out under the higher target.

"The report shows we only have the slimmest of opportunities remaining to avoid unthinkable damage to the climate system that supports life as we know it," said Amjad Abdulla, IPCC board member and chief negotiator for an alliance of small island states at risk of flooding as sea levels rise.

The report came as Americans William Nordhaus and Paul Romer, pioneers in adapting the western economic growth model to focus on environmental issues, won the 2018 Nobel Economics Prize on Monday.

After Hurricane Maria, farmers in Puerto Rico struggle to rebuild

Oct 6, 2018 11:54


In Puerto Rico, volunteers and farmers are working together to rebuild after Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico’s small agriculture sector.

Even before Hurricane Maria roared across the island, Puerto Rico imported roughly 85 percent of its food. After the storm, that number shot up to about 95 percent imported food — if you could get it. Road closures and shuttered grocery stores left many Puerto Ricans with no choice but to skip meals and live on canned and shelf-stable food for weeks and months.

Nine months after the storm, one of the only places to find locally grown food on the island was at farmers' markets like the one in Rincón, on Puerto Rico’s west coast.

Sonia Carlo, whose farm is slowly recovering from the storm, now brings pineapple, papaya, mushrooms, and kale to the market. Sonia says things are just starting to turn around for her family and the farm. They are finally harvesting again and her farm-to-table restaurant, Sana, opened a few weeks ago.

But Hurricane Maria devastated their lives and destroyed their home. Carlo had to send her three children to Florida to live with family while she and her husband lived in their car and rebuilt the battered farm.

“All of our production — years of tropical trees, like mango trees and passionfruit trees — died [or] were blown away,” Carlo says. “We had trees that were a hundred years old that totally perished. Since the hurricane was a cyclone, it brought some salt water and some sand with it. It looks like someone threw herbicide on everything in its path.”

Across the island, tall fruit trees were the most heavily damaged food crop. Underground root vegetables did okay. Ground plants like pineapples were among the first to recover and fast-growing vegetables like salad greens were also easy to restart. Visitors came to Puerto Rico after the hurricane with suitcases full of seeds to donate to farmers.

Carlo says they actually could have started growing again relatively quickly, but since they had no electricity and no gas, they couldn't operate the water pump to irrigate the farm. “It was just trying to scrape up anything,” Carlo says. “Waiting ten hours for gas, just to grow food. It was very uncertain.”

In Las Marías, an agricultural area known for growing oranges, farmers Domingo Antonio Romano and his wife Nilsa Romano went through a similar trauma. After the hurricane, Las Marías was cut off from the rest of the island for two months and relied on supplies airlifted in by helicopter.

Before the hurricane, Antonio and his wife mostly grew coffee, mango, and orange trees on their small farm — the very crops most impacted by the storm. They used to have 20 orange trees; now they have one.

“Ninety percent of our farm was destroyed, but it was really like 100 percent because with the hurricane no one could come here to harvest,” Antonio says.

Antonio and his neighbors waited months before the roads were cleared and electricity restored. He says during that time, he and his neighbors came to rely on each other for help.

“Before Maria, there was forest everywhere. After Maria, the trees came down and we could see our neighbors and we got to know each other,” he says. “After the hurricane, there was a lot of empathy between the people, and everybody helped each other. And the bees! We had to feed them. After the hurricane, there were no flowers, so we put out sugar water for them."

Antonio says it would have been impossible for him to rebuild alone. But he’s not alone. Five volunteers from a grassroots, nonprofit group called El Departamento de la Comida (the Food Department) are here to camp out on the farm for a week to clear land, plant crops, fix fences and repair the roof, among other tasks. 

The Food Department organizes groups of volunteers called brigades and dispatches them all over the island. As many as 20 people at a time descend on a farm for a week, bringing with them seeds, tools, building supplies and the collective strength to revive all aspects of a working farm. 

Edan Freytes, the leader of the brigade on Antonio’s farm, says they do this work because farmers are critical to Puerto Rico's advancement. “Agriculture is the backbone of the country,” he says. “And it’s the most damaged sector. I think it’s the sector we need most to help, because it got the worst loss."

Nilsa Romano says she’s happy to have the volunteers here. The work they do in a week would have taken her and her husband months. But beyond the physical help, she is grateful for the emotional support and the encouragement the volunteers bring.

“It’s very emotional for me because I was very depressed. It was a very traumatic experience,” Nilsa Romano says. “For months, we were without water, electricity and a roof and we were alone. With this group here, I’m just so grateful.”

The Food Department has set a goal to send brigades like this to 200 farms across Puerto Rico, large and small, organic and commercial. They want to support domestic agriculture in any form.

Carlo, from the Rincón farmer’s market, says she had similar support, not from an organized group but from friends, neighbors, and strangers who volunteered their time to help her rebuild.

“What really got us through everything was the community,” she says. “We had a commitment to our community, especially in Rincón. People just said, ‘What do you need? I’ll help you. You need hands?’ And we said, ‘Yeah, we need people.’ And that gave us strength to keep growing and producing.”

“I'm working seven days a week, but I'm doing it with a smile on my face because I know it's for the good of everything,” she says. “I know this is my journey in life and this is what we're going to be doing. No matter how many hurricanes come, we’ll still bounce back. Nothing is going to keep me out. Not even a category five hurricane.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Bayer faces billion-dollar losses related to legal claims of deadly Roundup herbicide

Oct 6, 2018 9:51


Pharmaceutical and chemical giant Bayer has shed some $20 billion in market value in the weeks since a California court ordered it to pay $289 million in damages to plaintiff Dewayne Lee Johnson, related to his use of the herbicide Roundup.

Jurors found that Monsanto, now owned by Bayer in a $66 billion merger, had acted with malice and negligence in failing to warn Johnson, a former school groundskeeper, about the cancer risks associated with Roundup and its key ingredient, glyphosate. Johnson is now suffering from late-stage non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

The German-based company Bayer merged with Monsanto in June 2018, just two months before the California jury ruled unanimously in favor of Mr. Johnson. Now, Bayer is on the hook for the $289 million in damages.

Carey Gillam, a journalist who has reported extensively on Monsanto, places the blame for Bayer’s predicament on executives who failed to properly warn their shareholders that this potential liability existed.

“Investors were stunned by this very large verdict,” Gillam says.

"And, of course, there are thousands of other lawsuits making very similar claims that will rely on similar evidence," Gillam says. "We're talking about billions of dollars in potential payouts and damages. At some point, if these things continue to snowball and the plaintiffs continue to win, there will be settlement talks. The numbers that I've already heard tossed around are 3 to 5 billion dollars."

Gillam notes that the verdict is part of “a building of concern around the world” about the health effects of glyphosate. Various cities and states across the US as well countries throughout the world have already taken steps to restrict or ban glyphosate products and now that trend is likely to accelerate.

“Every bit of news on this obviously causes heightened concern with consumers,” Gillam says. “We’re seeing some retailers talk about pulling these [products] from their store shelves. This is definitely resonating around the world.”

Monsanto has asked for a new trial and also requested the judge to reduce the damage award. Gillam believes there is little chance that either of these things will happen, in part because the judge was “very favorable and generous to Monsanto” during the trial, agreeing to withhold incriminating information about Monsanto from the jury. 

“They didn't want people to know about a ban in Europe on one of the key ingredients [glyphosate] in the Roundup products. The judge sided with them on that,” Gillam explains.

"They didn't want people to know that California had ordered companies to start putting warning labels on Roundup and other glyphosate products. The judge sided with them on that. A lot of information like that was kept from the jury and still, they came up with this huge verdict against Monsanto."

Monsanto attorney Kirby Griffis had made his name defending tobacco companies and helped Monsanto employ deceptive strategies to hide the connection between tobacco and lung cancer, Gillam says. Monsanto wanted to prevent any comparisons to the tobacco industry during the trial and the judge largely sided with them on this, too.

Nevertheless, the jury found enough scientific evidence to connect Monsanto's Roundup herbicide to Mr. Johnson’s cancer, and also found that Monsanto had acted with malice and negligence by refusing to warn people of the direct connection between glyphosate products, cancer, and a range of other illnesses, as evidenced by independent scientific studies.

Related: Inside Monsanto’s day in court: Scientists weigh in on glyphosate’s cancer risks

Like the tobacco companies, Monsanto has long been aware of these connections, Gillam says.

“This wasn't about banning glyphosate,” she explains.

"It was about warning consumers about known risks and Monsanto didn't do any of that. They did the opposite. They tried to suppress that information, tried to hide it and tried to discredit scientists who raised those warning bells."

The jury also seemed moved by the fact that Mr. Johnson had called Monsanto himself and never received an answer, Gillam adds.

“He'd been diagnosed with cancer [and] he was worried about whether or not he should continue his job, whether he should continue spraying these products and Monsanto never got back to him and they never warned him,” Gillam says. “The jury really seemed to take issue with that.”

Asked for comment, Bayer responded in part: “Bayer stands behind its glyphosate-based products and we are confident that the company will ultimately prevail in this litigation based on the extensive body of favorable science.”

For Bayer’s full statement, please visit Living on Earth’s website at

This story is based on an interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Charles Darwin's 'tree of life' gets a new look

Oct 6, 2018 18:56


New scientific research, based on ideas from more than 60 years ago, is complicating Charles Darwin’s view of evolution as a “tree of life.”

Darwin, who wrote On the Origin of Species, postulated that life on Earth evolved from ancient species that diverged over time — like tree branches from a single trunk. Since then, scientists have focused on the inherited characteristics of diverging species as genes passed down and sometimes mutated from one generation to the next.

Beginning in the 1970s, however, research indicated that Darwin’s theory didn’t fully explain evolution. Scientists identified a whole new category of life called archaea — creatures that exist somewhere between single-celled bacteria and multi-cellular creatures like humans.

More recently, scientists have discovered "horizontal gene transfer," a phenomenon which alters genomes across species — further complicating the picture.

Author David Quammen tells the story of this new evolutionary understanding in his book, "The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life."

“The tree of life as the image of evolutionary history on Earth ... has been radically challenged and revised in the last 40 years because of discoveries from genome sequencing — a kind of evidence that Darwin and most biologists in the 20th century didn't have,” Quammen explains. “Those challenges have been astonishing and counterintuitive and have re-shaped what we thought we knew about the history of life on Earth.”

Quammen says this revolution has challenged three categorical ideas: The idea of species as a unitary thing (similar creatures who only interbreed with one another); the idea of an individual as a unitary and discrete thing; and the idea that the tree of life represents the history of life on Earth.

“It turns out that all three of those ideas, those categories, are wrong in important ways,” Quammen says.

Central to Quammen's book is the story of scientist Carl Woese, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois who Quammen calls “probably the most important biologist of the 20th century that nobody has ever heard of.”

Life's original organisms

Woese's discovery of a "third kingdom" of wholly separate and distinct life forms on Earth appeared in a story on the front page of The New York Times on Nov. 3, 1977. Woese's "third kingdom" organisms are what we now call archaea.

“Before that, we thought there were basically two kinds of life, bacteria and everything else,” Quammen explains. “Bacteria were simple cells. Everything else was composed of complex cells, with cell nuclei — animals, plants, fungi, humans.” Woese’s discovery of a third kind of life was the beginning of a sequence of discoveries that have led to a new understanding of evolution.

“These were creatures that had been taken for bacteria for decades and decades,” Quammen says. “Ever since people started looking at microbes through microscopes, they thought that these things were bacteria.”

Woese painstakingly sequenced their genomes and found that, in fact, they were not bacteria, but rather a distinct form of life more similar to humans, animals, and plants.

Many of these newly-discovered creatures live in extreme environments like hot springs or thermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. One group of organisms called the Lokiarchaea lives near vents at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, almost 10,000 feet down, between Norway and Iceland.

Quammen says scientists now believe that Lokiarchaea “are the descendants of our original ancestors". Complex creatures are more likely descendants from archaean organisms living at the bottom of the sea than from the bacteria passed through the "tree of life."

Woese's discovery led scientists to question the possibility that these organisms originated somewhere other than Earth and survived interstellar space. NASA funded Woese's work to find out, Quammen says.

“They thought that his work might shed light on the problem of exobiology: the possibility of the existence of life on other planets, other star systems, other places around the universe.”

Divergence, convergence, resistance

In the Darwinian tradition, genes are passed vertically from parent to offspring and the “limbs on the tree” diverge from other branches.

Haeckel tree of life

The “tree of life” as depicted by Ernst Haeckel, a German scientist who helped popularize Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution. In this English version of Haeckel’s tree from his book The Evolution of Man (1879), “man” sits at the top of the tree, the pinnacle of evolution.


Ernst Haeckel, American Philosophical Society Museum/Wikimedia commons.

“The tree is still mostly right,” Quammen says. “It captures some big patterns, but there are exceptions … The discoveries that flowed from Woese's work and his methodology, including the prevalence of ... horizontal gene transfer — genes moving sideways across boundaries — represent convergence. The real history of life is a history of lots and lots of divergence, complicated by a lesser but very significant amount of convergence — genes moving sideways, branches of life coming back together. That’s why I titled my book "The Tangled Tree.”

The theory of horizontal gene transfer surprised Quammen when he first came across it in 2013. “What? That's impossible. That’s just not supposed to happen!" he thought. 

“We're talking about genes moving…from one unrelated species of life into another — horizontally as opposed to vertically,” he explains. “This was sideways movement of genes so that a gene from a bacterium is showing up in an animal, a gene from a virus is showing up in an animal, a gene from one kind of animal is showing up in a completely different kind of animal. How can that happen? The short answer is an infection. One scientist called this infective heredity.”

Horizontal gene transfer is almost routine among bacteria, Quammen says, and this is essential to understanding the spread of antibiotic resistance.

“Bacteria don't have their genomes locked up inside cell nuclei,” he explains. “Their genome is a single strand of DNA and it floats free in the cell, and occasionally one bacterium sends out a little tube to another bacterium and DNA travels through that tube into the other bacterial particle. But it doesn't have to be the same species of bacteria, which is what makes this horizontal gene transfer so scrambling and so consequential.”

This means that resistance to an antibiotic evolves two ways: Bacteria A can gradually become resistant to Antibiotic 1 through incremental mutations; or Bacteria A can instantly pass the resistance gene to Bacteria B, C, D, E, F, and G through horizontal gene transfer, and may receive other resistant genes the same way.

A problem arises through Darwinian mutation and natural selection but spreads quickly across the planet through horizontal gene transfer, Quammen explains. 

In fact, thousands of Mitochondria, a type of organelle or cells that package energy, existing in human cells are actually descended from “captured bacteria.” “They have DNA in them, but it's essentially not human DNA; it’s bacterial DNA,” Quammen says. 

Today's discoveries reinforce microbiologist Lynn Margulis' 1967 theory of endosymbiosis positing human mitochondria as captured bacteria. Most people thought she was crazy, Quammen says, but when Woese's methodology came along, she was proven right.

Who are we?

Based on these new discoveries, Quammen says humans are not “individuals" in the ways we are accustomed to thinking. 

"Our individuality is a compounding of other creatures and DNA that has come to us by several different routes,” Quammen explains. “One route is through lineal descent, through our line of animal ancestors. And DNA has also come into us by horizontal gene transfer — come into us sideways, come into us by infection.”

“We are ‘individuals’ who represent the phenomenon of mixing, as well as the phenomenon of linear evolution that has shaped life on this planet,” Quammen concludes. “I think that's a humbling thought, but it's also an inspiring thought. It connects us even more closely with all other kinds of life and with the history of life on this planet.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Brazil fights online misinformation during election season

Oct 4, 2018 5:09


During presidential debates, the Rio offices of Brazilian fact-checking organization Aos Fatos, which translates to "To The Facts," turn into something akin to a war room. Different task forces swiftly transcribe, research and publish verifications on comments made by the larger-than-life candidates in one of the country’s most unpredictable elections in decades.

“He just invented 200 million Brazilians!” chuckled a fact-checker when candidate Cabo Daciolo, a firefighter-turned-Congressman, said 400 million Brazilians —  around 200 million greater than the country’s population — live in extreme poverty. Other verifications were more difficult, sending checkers swimming through census and government health data.

Presidential candidate Cabo Daciolo talks with journalists

Presidential candidate Cabo Daciolo talks with journalists as he arrives to attend a televised debate in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Sept. 26, 2018. 


Nacho Doce/Reuters

This election, Aos Fatos’s work is being amplified by a new partner: Facebook. It is part of the social media giant’s push to assure users it is taking misinformation campaigns in elections seriously. In September, Facebook announced it was dedicating its own “War Room” in Menlo Park to preventing election interference in the US and Brazil — the latter, one of its five biggest markets.

In the past year alone, viral misinformation on Brazilian social media has included an anti-vaccination hoax about yellow fever, false instructions on when to vote and false claims that Brazilian authorities gave a Venezuelan company information that would allow it to defraud the election.

Related: Activists in Myanmar welcome Zuckerberg’s pledge to clamp down on hate speech. But is it enough?

Brazil’s elections have become a laboratory for big tech companies slowly taking responsibility for misinformation campaigns on their platforms. False information can spread on social media like wildfire in the country, where 66 percent of voters have WhatsApp accounts and 58 percent have Facebook accounts, according to an Oct. 2 study by polling group Datafolha. The study found supporters of extreme-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro, the current leader in the polls, share political news on social media more than supporters of any other candidate. Bolsonaro has rallied supporters around an idea that traditional media are biased against him for what he calls his “politically incorrect” comments — praising Brazil’s dictatorship and supporting racist, sexist, and homophobic positions.

a woman working in a kitchen watches the tv over her shoulder

A worker watches an interview on television with presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro at a bar in São Paulo, Brazil, Oct. 4, 2018. 


Nacho Doce/Reuters

Facebook (WhatsApp's parent company), Google and Twitter have all announced measures to stop deceitful accounts and news during Brazil's elections — Facebook and Google even signing a memorandum with election authorities committing to “combat disinformation generated by third parties” — but some researchers say they could and should be doing more.

Related: How social networks can save lives when disasters strike

“If they have this machine for boosting content, then they should be accountable for that,” said Yasodara Córdova, who studies misinformation at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy.

Facebook's work against election interference in Brazil focuses “on three main fronts," said Facebook Brazil public policy director Mônica Rosina. These include removing misinformation, reducing its reach and educating users, she said. In the last three months, Facebook has taken down over 200 pages in Brazil. That included “a network that was using fake accounts to sow division and share disinformation,” Rosina told press on a call last month.

To reduce false information’s reach, Facebook counts on denunciations from users and partnerships with third-party fact checkers certified by the Poynter Institute’s International Fact-Checking Network. In Brazil, these are Aos Fatos, Lupa and Agence France-Presse. Once a fact-checker flags a link as false, Facebook says it ranks the information lower in its news feed and users who attempt to share it will first have to click past a message directing them to the fact-check. Globally, Rosina says this reduces the travel of links rated as false by 80 percent on average.

Facebook’s user education is done through initiatives like Messenger bots programmed by Aos Fatos and Lupa, where users receive advice about checking information they think may be false.

Related: How a diplomatic crisis among Gulf nations led to a fake news campaign in the United States

candidates standing in a line on a stage

Presidential candidates (left to right) Ciro Gomes, Guilherme Boulos, Geraldo Alckmin, Marina Silva and Fernando Haddad pose ahead of a televised debate in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, Oct. 4, 2018. 


Ricardo Moraes/Reuters

“I’m always looking things up on the fact-checking sites,” said Débora Pio, a 31-year-old researcher at a Rio nonprofit, “and I’ll check them on their chatbots, too. But I’m in the minority of voters.”

Pio says her mother and aunt, for example, do not seek out those tools. She says they frequently forward information, without checking it, on WhatsApp — Brazilians’ top method of sharing political news, according to Datafolha.

To tackle false information on WhatsApp and other social networks, Google and Facebook have funded Comprova, a partnership between 24 media organizations that checks viral information. It is also backed by Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

Related: With presidential elections looming, Brazilian migrants in Portugal ramp up political activism amid chaotic scenario back home

Córdova, a developer for Comprova, says that though WhatsApp is more difficult to monitor than other forms of social media, “As far as I’ve seen, WhatsApp is a place that circulates pieces of information that also circulate in one way or another on Facebook and Twitter.”

She said this makes it all the more important for sites where false information is visible — like Facebook and Twitter — to be transparent about their reasons for leaving something up versus taking it down.

Comprova just issued a fact-check on a hoax about sex education in public schools, a hot-button topic for Brazil’s right, that has been circulating on both Brazilian WhatsApp and Facebook for two years, Córdova said.

It’s a criticism also repeatedly levied by the International Fact-Checking Network’s Alexios Mantzarlis, who said in one tweet, “It’s great that Facebook is seeking to ground decisions on outside research and communicating it. Greater still would be if they let outside researchers look at their data and accept independent rigorous recommendations.”

Facebook recently announced that it would be sharing some data with academic researchers through a partnership called Social Science One, where researchers can apply to conduct studies for which results will not have to be pre-approved that will not be pre-reviewed by the company prior to publication.

On Twitter, fake and roboticized accounts have played a role in online debate about major Brazilian political events since 2014, according to Marco Ruediger, director of the Department of Public Policy Analysis at the Getulio Vargas Foundation (FGV). Ruediger’s team detected over 3,000 robot accounts tweeting about Brazil’s election in the last week of September alone. Over 70 percent of their engagement, calculated the researchers, came from a network of bots supporting Bolsonaro.

Twitter has removed many bots named in FGV’s research, and on Oct. 1 published stricter rules against fake accounts, later saying in a statement, “we will continue to remain vigilant in the enforcement of our policies in Brazil.”

“I think the only way to deal with this is to widen transparency about it,” said Ruediger. Before Brazil’s presidential runoff vote on Oct. 28, he will meet with election authorities to evaluate efforts so far. Though much online misinformation constitutes a crime in Brazil, he says little has been litigated because regulators are still trying to understand the issue.

On Sunday, Brazilians go to the polls for the first round of voting. “More than any before, this is Brazil’s information bubble election,” said Pio. “I think we’ll be studying the results for years.

Britain says Russian military intelligence behind host of global cyber attacks

Oct 4, 2018


In a British assessment based on work by its National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), the Russian military intelligence (GRU) was cast as a pernicious cyber aggressor which used a network of hackers to spread discord aimed at undermining Western democracies to the global chemical weapons watchdog.

GRU, Britain said, was almost certainly behind the BadRabbit and World Anti-Doping Agency attacks of 2017, the hack of the  Democratic National Committee (DNC) in 2016 and the theft of emails from a UK-based TV station in 2015.

The Netherlands said it had caught four GRU officers red handed as they tried to hack into the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons from a hotel next door in April.

"The GRU’s actions are reckless and indiscriminate: they try to undermine and interfere in elections in other countries," said British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt.

"Our message is clear — together with our allies, we will expose and respond to the GRU’s attempts to undermine international stability," Hunt said. Britain believes the Russian government is responsible for the attacks.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, told a news briefing that the British accusations were the product of someone with a "rich imagination."

"It's some kind of a diabolical perfume cocktail (of allegations)," the Tass Russian news agency quoted Zakharova as telling reporters.

Though less well known than the Soviet Union's once mighty KGB, Russia's military intelligence service played a major role in some of the biggest events of the past century, from the Cuban missile crisis to the annexation of Crimea.

Russian cyber power?

Though commonly known by the acronym GRU, which stands for the Main Intelligence Directorate, its name was formally changed in 2010 to the Main Directorate of the General Staff (or just GU). Its old acronym — GRU — is still more widely used.

It has agents across the globe and answers directly to the chief of the general staff and the Russian defense minister. The GRU does not comment publicly on its actions. Its structure, staff numbers and financing are Russian state secrets.

The GRU traces its history back to the times of Ivan the Terrible, though it was founded as the Registration Directorate in 1918 after the Bolshevik Revolution. Vladimir Lenin insisted on its independence from other secret services.

British Prime Minister Theresa May has said GRU officers used a nerve agent to try to kill former double agent Sergei Skripal, who was found unconscious in the English city of Salisbury in March. Russia has repeatedly denied the charges.

After the Skripal poisoning, the West agreed with Britain's assessment that Russian military intelligence was to blame and launched the biggest expulsion of Russian spies working under diplomatic cover since the height of the Cold War.

According to a presentation by the head of the Netherlands' military intelligence agency, four Russians arrived in the Netherlands on April 10 and were caught with spying equipment at a hotel located next to the OPCW headquarters.

At the time, the OPCW was working to verify the identity of the substance used in the Salisbury attack. It was also seeking to verify the identity of a substance used in an attack in Douma, Syria.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB spy, said on Wednesday that Skripal, a GRU officer who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain's MI6 foreign spy service, was a "scumbag" who had betrayed Russia.

Britain said the GRU was associated with a host of hackers including APT 28, Fancy Bear, Sofacy, Pawnstorm, Sednit, CyberCaliphate, Cyber Berkut, Voodoo Bear and BlackEnergy Actors.

"This pattern of behavior demonstrates their desire to operate without regard to international law or established norms and to do so with a feeling of impunity and without consequences," Foreign Secretary Hunt said.

The United States sanctioned GRU officers including its chief, Igor Korobov, in 2016 and 2018 for attempted interference in the 2016 US election and cyber attacks.

Australia and New Zealand backed the United Kingdom's findings on the GRU.

"Cyberspace is not the Wild West. The International Community — including Russia — has agreed that international law and norms of responsible state behavior apply in cyberspace," Australia's Prime Minister Scott Morrison said.

"By embarking on a pattern of malicious cyber behavior, Russia has shown a total disregard for the agreements it helped to negotiate," Morrison said.

By Guy Faulconbridge and Anthony Deutsch/Reuters

Additional reporting by Stephanie van den Berg and Colin Packham; Editing by Stephen Addison.

'Our wealth is the forest': Indigenous tribes are the last best hope for the Amazon

Oct 3, 2018 8:15


Claudio da Silva, thickset, his bare chest traced with blue-black lines of body paint, wields a chainsaw not to cut down trees but to destroy a wooden timber hauler used by a band of illegal loggers. Da Silva is a member of the Amazon’s Guajajara tribe in the Brazilian state of Maranhão and the leader of an armed group of Indigenous forest protectors called the Guardians of the Forest.

Illegal logging and land clearing continue to eat away at the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforest. But the guardians and others like them in Brazil are pushing back.

On a summer day, da Silva and the guardians prepare to patrol the Caru River, a narrow strip of muddy water marking the boundary of the Guajajara’s 700-square-mile forest reserve. The land is protected on paper, but it’s under constant threat.

An Indigenous Man wearing beads, his chest decorated with red and black paint, sits in a speedboat. There are two men in camouflage behind behind him.

Claudio da Silva and the Guajajara Guardians of the Forest ride up the Caru River to investigate a report of illegal cutting on Guajajara land.


Sam Eaton/The World

“If we go looking in our territory, we always find illegal things going on,” da Silva says before we leave.

And sure enough, as we make our way up the river in speedboats, da Silva spots a dugout canoe on the bank on the Guajajara side. We pull up alongside it, jump out and move quickly up a narrow path into the dense forest. There are fresh machete cuts in the brush. And then we hear the sound of men’s voices coming toward us. The guardians crouch down for an ambush, their rifles loaded.

A man in camouflage points at something on the river bank. He holds a long rifle in his hand.

A member of the Guardians alerts da Silva to a small canoe on the side of the river. 


Sam Eaton/The World

Three boys are on their knees in the jungle, with their hands clasped behind their heads.

The Guajajara find three boys, who confess to cutting virgin timber for charcoal.


Sam Eaton/The World

The Guardians shout commands as three boys appear, with barking dogs at their heels. Soon, the boys are kneeling, with hands behind their heads. They’re from the settlement across the river. The youngest is 14; the other two are in their 20s. They confess to cutting virgin timber to make charcoal, a valuable product in this impoverished region of Brazil.

The guardians eventually send the boys back to their homes across the river with a warning to the others: Don’t come back.

“This is a war,” da Silva says. “The invaders want confrontation. The hunters, the loggers, the farmers, they’re all armed. We can die at any time.”

Men wearing camouflage stand in a line.

Guardians assemble before heading out to investigate a report of an illegal marijuana farm. Their job is dangerous: more than 140 people have been killed in Brazil defending land since 2015.


Sam Eaton/The World

Da Silva isn’t exaggerating. Brazil has become the deadliest country in the world for land defenders like him, with more than 140 people killed since 2015.

And Maranhão, where the Guajajara live, is perhaps the most dangerous part of the country, with more attacks on Indigenous groups here in 2016 than anywhere else.

Just after this visit, the body of one of da Silva’s fellow guardians from an Indigenous territory just south of here was found dumped along a riverbank.

Da Silva himself says he has received dozens of death threats. But for him, it’s worth the risk.

“For the Indigenous, our wealth is the forest,” he says. “It’s not gold or whatever else is there. What we want is the forest itself.”

It’s a wealth that extends far beyond the Guajajara’s land and even the rest of the Amazon. Indigenous groups protecting their forests are providing an invaluable service for all of us: helping soften the impact of climate change.

“Fifty-six percent of the carbon dioxide we are throwing into the atmosphere is removed back to the ocean, and to the forest,” says Carlos Nobre, Brazil’s leading climatologist. “This is a tremendous ecosystem service. Very few people have a vague idea what that means, or even of its existence.”

Or the fact that deforestation may be driving the entire Amazon, and the services it provides to all of us, to an alarming tipping point. After decades of sucking up huge amounts of CO2 pollution from the atmosphere, the process seems to have stopped and maybe even reversed.

If that’s happened, or when it does, that would mean the end of one of the planet’s most powerful buffers against even more dangerous climate change.

“So, if we lose even part of that, that means that we have to find ways to remove carbon and also, to decrease emissions from fossil fuel much more rapidly,” Nobre says.

Many activists say Indigenous groups like the Guajajara are the last, best hope for saving the Amazon and other tropical forests. And there’s evidence to back that up. Numerous scientific studies have found that the best way to protect forests is to empower the people who live in them, granting them land rights and legal standing. When Indigenous people live in the forests, deforestation rates remain low, which results in carbon sequestration and cleaner water.

But it’s a David-vs-Goliath battle. Protected Indigenous lands cover nearly a quarter of the Amazon. But powerful economic forces are testing tribes like the Guajajara’s resolve — from big ag, mining and logging — to the global demand for meat and soy.

And the extractive industries have allies in the Brazilian government. Congressman Nilson Leitão is a leader in the powerful agribusiness lobby, called the ruralistas. Leitão says Brazil shouldn’t be protecting Native lands from modern enterprise.

“Brazil’s debt with the Indian is not over land,” he says.

Under his leadership, the ruralistas and their ally, President Michel Temer, have stopped the process for creating new Indigenous reserves, defunded the agency charged with protecting the rights of Indigenous people and pushed to open existing Indigenous territories to agribusiness and mining.

“Most Indians live on government grants. Instead, they should be able to exploit their land, and make money,” Leitão says.

Brazil’s Indigenous groups generally see this rhetoric as self-serving. And they’re fighting back.

Last spring, more than 3,000 Indigenous people descended on the capital, Brasília for a week of rallies and marches. It was the largest Indigenous mobilization in Brazil’s history.

A young man rubs red paint on his body

 A member of the Guajajara tribe applies body paint in preparation for a protest.


Sam Eaton/The World

Women in headdresses and beads link arms in a line during a protest

A recent protest in the capital Brasilia was the largest gathering of Indigenous people in Brazil's history.


Sam Eaton/The World

“We’ve always lived in a war in Brazil,” says Sonia Guajajara, head of the Articulation of Indigenous Peoples of Brazil and a vice presidential candidate who helped organize the event. “The colonization period was marked by deaths, murders and extermination, and this hasn’t stopped. It requires our constant resistance.”

In the Caru Indigenous Territory, da Silva calls the regional office of the military police for backup. The guardians have discovered a possible marijuana plantation on their land.  

“Confronting drug traffickers is the most dangerous kind of raid,” da Silva says.

The next day, eight heavily armed policemen arrive. It’s most likely a rare show of support, da Silva says, because an American journalist is along for the ride.

We enter the forest up the river and head up a path with assault rifles and bulletproof vests, checking for trip wires and booby traps. Before long, we find a planted field, but it’s not pot. It’s cassava, planted by land-grabbers after they cleared the trees for charcoal.

The guardians cut and burn the cassava. The forest will take decades to recover.

“Sometimes, when we see the trees cut down, we feel rage,” da Silva says. “But we also have a heart, so sometimes we pity the outsiders, too. They wrecked what they had and now they want to wreck what we have. This is why we keep fighting, so that this doesn’t happen.”

A barechested man wearing beads and body paint sits in a motorboat as it speeds through a muddy river

"Sometimes, when we see the trees cut down, we feel rage," says Guajajara Guardians of the Forest chief Claudio da Silva. "This is why we keep fighting, so this doesn't happen."


Sam Eaton/The World

Why Indonesia's tsunamis are so deadly

Oct 3, 2018


The magnitude 7.5 earthquake and subsequent tsunami that struck Indonesia days ago have resulted in at least 1,200 deaths.

Authorities are still gauging the extent of the damage, but it’s clear the earthquake and tsunami had a devastating effect on the Sulawesi region, particularly the city of Palu.

It’s not the first time earthquakes have caused mass destruction and death in Indonesia. The tsunamis that follow are particularly damaging. But why?

A combination of plate tectonics in the region, the shape of the coastline, vulnerable communities and a less-than-robust early warning system all combine to make Indonesian tsunamis especially dangerous.

Tectonic plates

Indonesia covers many complex tectonic environments. Many details of these are still poorly understood, which hampers our ability to predict earthquake and tsunami risks.

The biggest earthquakes on Earth are “subduction zone” earthquakes, which occur where two tectonic plates meet.

In December 2004 and March 2005, there were a pair of subduction zone earthquakes along the Sunda Trench offshore of the west coast of Sumatra. In particular, the magnitude 9.1 quake in December 2004 generated a devastating tsunami that killed almost a quarter of a million people in countries and islands surrounding the Indian Ocean.

Related: Survivors scavenge for food and water as Indonesia death toll continues to rise

But only looking out for these kinds of earthquakes can blind us to other dangers. Eastern Indonesia has many small microplates, which are jostled around by the motion of the large Australia, Sunda, Pacific and Philippine Sea plates.

The September quake was caused by what’s called a “strike-slip” fault in the interior of one of these small plates. It is rare — although not unknown — for these kinds of quakes to create tsunamis.

The fault systems are rather large, and through erosion processes have created broad river valleys and estuaries. The valley of the Palu River and its estuary in which the regional capital Palu is located have been formed by this complex fault system. Studies of prehistoric earthquakes along this fault system suggests this fault produces magnitude 7-8 earthquakes roughly every 700 years.

The sea floor shapes the wave

Another important factor for tsunamis is the depth and shape of the sea floor. This determines the speed of the initial waves. Strong subduction zone earthquakes on the ocean floor can cause the entire ocean water column to lift, then plunge back down. As the water has momentum, it may fall below sea level and create strong oscillations.

The bulge of water moving outward from the centre of a earthquake maybe of limited height (rarely much more than a metre), but the mass of water is extremely large (depending on the surface area moved by the earthquake).

Tsunami waves can travel very fast, reaching the speed of a jet. In water 6,500 feet deep they can travel at 435 miles per hour, and over very deep ocean can hit 620 miles per hour.

When the wave approaches the shallower coast, its speed decreases and the height increases. A tsunami may be three feet high in the open ocean but rise to 15-30 feet at the coast. If the approach to the shoreline is steep, this effect is exaggerated and can create waves dozens of yards high.

Despite the fact that the waves slow down near the coast, their immense starting speeds mean flat areas can be inundated for miles inland. The ocean floor topography affects the speed of tsunami waves, meaning they move faster over deep areas and slow down over submarine banks. Very steep land, above or below water, can even bend and reflect waves.

The coastlines of the Indonesian archipelago are accentuated, in particular in the eastern part and especially at Sulawesi. Palu has a narrow, deep and long bay: perfectly designed to make tsunamis more intense, and more deadly.

This complex configuration also makes it very difficult to model potential tsunamis, so it’s hard to issue timely and accurate warnings to people who may be affected.

Get to high ground

The safest and simplest advice for people in coastal areas that have been affected by an earthquake is to get to higher ground immediately and stay there for a couple of hours. In reality, this is a rather complex problem.

Hawaii and Japan have sophisticated and efficient early warning systems. Replicating these in Indonesia is challenging, given the lack of communications infrastructure and the wide variety of languages spoken throughout the vast island archipelago.

After the 2004 Indian Ocean disaster, international efforts were made to improve tsunami warning networks in the region. Today, Indonesia’s tsunami warning system operates a network of 134 tidal gauge stations, 22 buoys connected to seafloor sensors to transmit advance warnings, land-based seismographs, sirens in about 55 locations, and a system to disseminate warnings by text message.

However, financing and supporting the early warning system in the long term is a considerable problem. The buoys alone cost around $250,000 each to install and $50,000 annually for maintenance.

The three major Indonesian agencies for responsible for earthquake and tsunami disaster mitigation have suffered from budget cuts and internal struggles to define roles and responsibilities.

Lastly, the Palu tsunami event has highlighted that our current tsunami models are insufficient. They do not properly consider multiple earthquake events, or the underwater landslides potentially caused by such quakes.

No early warning system can prevent strong earthquakes. Tsunamis, and the resulting infrastructure damage and fatalities, will most certainly occur in the future. But with a well-developed and reliable early warning system, and better communication and public awareness, we can minimize the tragic consequences.

With earthquakes that occur very close to the beach — often the case in Indonesia — even an ideal system could not disseminate the necessary information quickly enough. Indonesia’s geography and vulnerable coastal settlements make tsunamis more dangerous, so we need more and concerted efforts to create earthquake- and tsunami-resilient communities.The Conversation

Anja Scheffers is a professor at Southern Cross University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

A 'Third Way' to save the Amazon: make the standing forest itself more valuable

Oct 3, 2018 7:42


This is the last in a four-part series, The Amazon's Carbon Tipping Point
Day 1: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.
Day 2: For illegal loggers in the Brazilian Amazon, 'there is no fear of being punished'
Day 3: 'Our wealth is the forest': Indigenous tribes are last best hope for the Amazon

For decades, most of the million smallholder farmers who migrated to the Amazon basin from other parts of Brazil knew how to do one thing: clear the forest and raise cattle. But when Carlos Andretti moved to Mato Grosso state with his family a decade ago, he had different plans.

“When I bought this place, everything was pure sand,” he says.  

Andretti says his 60-acre plot bordering pristine Amazon rainforest had been cleared by the previous settler for a cattle ranch, but it was so degraded that the topsoil had all washed into the river.

“I arrived here and planted the trees to restore the land,” Andretti says, embracing a very different approach to farming known as agroforestry.

Woman sort brazil nuts at a table. Behind them are large plastic bags of sorted nuts.

 Women sort Brazil nuts at the COOPAVAM Brazil nut factory near Juruena, in the stat of Mato Grosso. The cooperative is building a local value chain for Brazil nuts, which can make the trees that produce the nuts more valuable — and protects the forest.


Sam Eaton/The World

He went to work restoring the soil. He planted 5,000 peach palms to produce hearts of palm, along with coffee, teak trees and dozens of varieties of fruits and vegetables.

Today, much of his land is forest again. In the center of his plantation, the canopy is so thick the sun barely reaches the soil, keeping it moist even on the hottest days. The transformation has broken the usual destructive cycle of “cut, plant, graze and abandon” in the Amazon.

Andretti is proud of what he’s accomplished. But he says his decision to go with this more sustainable model was purely economic.

“Because the land is not big enough, cattle ranching is the least profitable thing you can do here, even if I had restored the pasture for grazing,” he says.  

A man walks through a dense, leafy area.

Carlos Andretti disappears into the peach palms he planted as part of his “agroforestry” plan for restoring his property.


Sam Eaton/The World

Andretti says the peach palms alone are netting him more than three times what he’d make in cattle because he can plant so many without degrading his land — and it’s an income that will only grow as his plot matures.

“I’m producing an income to support my family and helping the environment, helping to capture carbon.”

Restoring the environment is crucial. For decades, the Amazon has sucked up a huge portion of the carbon dioxide pollution that we’re pumping into the atmosphere. Without it, climate change would be even worse than it already is. But there’s growing evidence that as development eats away at the forest, it’s losing its ability to do that.

Andretti’s method is part of a broader, new approach to preserving the Amazon — something Brazil’s leading climatologist, Carlos Nobre, calls the “Third Way.”

“The Third Way,” he says, “is an attempt to see an economic alternative for the Amazon based on the biological assets of the forest.”

Nobre says the conservation movement is failing to save the Amazon. And he says efforts to persuade industries like agriculture, logging and mining to find greener ways of doing business are also hitting a dead end.

“For a long time, most people, including myself, we thought that it was worth educating the agribusiness sector for sustainable ways of carrying out their business,” he says. “However, in practice, the agricultural frontier continued expanding.”

The lure of skyrocketing global demand for beef and soy, along with political efforts in Brazil to roll back hard-won environmental protections, are powerful incentives to continue expanding agriculture into the Amazon. It’s “making it very difficult for police and law enforcement agents to fight that,” Nobre says.  

At this rate, he says, more than half of the Amazon could be lost by 2050. And that would do more than just cut into the region’s ability to capture global carbon pollution. Nobre says it would turn the region into a massive source of carbon that would basically lock the planet onto a path of runaway global warming.

“Everything is at risk now.”

A tree rises into the canopy

A Brazil nut tree rises high into the canopy in the forest. 


Sam Eaton/The World

This is why Nobre is pushing this Third Way, to try to save the forest by making standing trees more valuable than cleared land. It’s an idea that’s starting to catch on.

The Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Territory sprawls over 400 square miles of pristine rainforest in Mato Grosso. On a recent day, Chief Joaquim Crixi of the Munduruku tribe strikes a round brass bell hanging from a tree with a stick to announce a community meeting. Paulo César Nunes is coming for a visit. He’s an agronomist who set up a pilot project called Sentinels of the Forest. It works with the Munduruku and others to build a stronger market for the Brazil nuts that grow wild in the forest.

“If we want to save the Amazon, we need to invest in this kind of value chain,” Nunes says. “We need to add value to the work of the people who’ve been helping to keep this forest standing for millennia.”

Raimundo Maniwari is one of those people. He remembers tagging along with his dad to collect Brazil nuts when he was a child. These days, they ride motorbikes into the forest to gather nuts from the same trees. Back then, he says, “we’d gather the best ones, just to eat.” Maniwari says they also picked some to sell. But the middlemen, usually white farmers, often cheated them.

A man sits on the forest floor with a machete in his hand. There is a bag of Brazil nuts to his right.

Raimundo Maniwari uses a machete to harvest Brazil tree nuts. His community earns up to ten times as much selling the nuts to a new processing cooperative than they earned selling to middlemen.


Sam Eaton/The World

Now, by selling to Nunes’ project, they’re getting up to 10 times the price they used to get. Maniwari says that’s brought big changes to the village.

“Everyone who works with the Brazil nut has managed to improve their house,” he says. “They also bought motorbikes, stoves, things like that. So, it’s a definite advantage.”

Nunes is trying to leverage that advantage to scale up an industry that could save this forest from the encroaching agricultural frontier. The Brazil nuts Nunes buys from the Indigenous groups end up at a state-of-the-art Brazil nut factory, called COOPAVAM. It’s owned by a cooperative of small farmers near Juruena in Mato Grosso.

At COOPAVAM, lines of women crack piles of nuts by hand before machines turn them into energy bars, sold to Brazil’s schools, and into oil for the eco-friendly cosmetic giant, Natura Brasil. Nunes says he’s helping COOPAVAM build a value chain for Brazil nuts from scratch.

“When you take a kilo of Brazil nuts from the forest and process it into products like oil, it has 20 times the added value — a value that stays here in the local economy,” he says.  

That doesn’t just change people’s pocketbooks — it changes their minds.

Workers sit a tables with machines in front of them to crack open Brazil nuts.

COOPAVAM's nut cracking room is the first stop for Brazil nuts at the new processing factory.


Sam Eaton/The World


A brown paste oozes out of a press as a human hand uses a knife to scrape it

Some Brazil nuts are ground into a meal for energy bars that are sold to Brazil's schools.


Sam Eaton/The World

Thin strand of oil run out of metal pipes into a trough below

Other Brazil nuts are crushed for their oil, which can be used in cosmetics.


Sam Eaton/The World

“Everyone involved in the project wants to plant more trees, not cut them down,” says Luzirene Lustosa, the cooperative’s president. “Because they’re seeing that this business can work — it is working.”

Lustosa came from a family of miners who deforested the land here. She says people only believe in what they can see.

Of course, there are big challenges. One is just the simple problem of raising capital. Backers of this Third Way, like Carlos Nobre, say banks aren’t interested in financing the sustainable uses of the forest — simply because they haven't seen it succeed yet.

"There is almost a philosophical question about whether this is feasible," he says. "So we have also to fight that bias."

A bias, he says, that’s unjustified. Look at açaí, the tiny, purple Amazonian berry that’s quickly become an almost $2 billion a year industry, and is overtaking timber as the second-most valuable product in the region.

But easier credit alone won’t be enough to help the Third Way go toe-to-toe against the enormous global forces driving rising demand for meat, grain and timber. That’s one reason 17 major philanthropies this fall pledged to invest nearly half a billion dollars in sustainable land use and Indigenous rights programs in the world’s shrinking tropical forests. And for the Munduruku, it came just in time.

Maniwari says the Apiaká-Kayabi Indigenous Territory is surrounded by farms and cattle ranches. He says all that cleared land has already changed their climate.

“Today, the seasons are changing,” he says. “The wind is hotter and drier.”

These changes are a little window into what’s happening around the world. Maniwari worries about the changes and about the next generation of the Munduruku. If the economic incentives driving deforestation don’t eventually shift, he wonders if they’ll have the strength to continue protecting their land.

But all this land represents an opportunity for local residents and the planet. Restoring and protecting forests here could deliver one-third of the global emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris climate agreement targets for limiting global warming.

In the Munduruku village, children adorned in beads and brightly colored feathers sing a traditional song blessing the Brazil nut harvest. Maniwari says with the higher prices they’re getting for Brazil nuts, the Munduruku feel empowered to continue to protect their patch of the Amazon.

For now, the Third Way is working.

Members of the Munduruku village sing a song blessing the Brazil nut harvest.

 Members of the Munduruku village gather to bless the Brazil nut harvest.


Sam Eaton/The World

In Puerto Rico, neighbors turn to each other in Maria's aftermath

Oct 3, 2018 19:08


When Christine Nieves and her family emerged from their home after Hurricane Maria struck, the forest outside their house looked like a giant chainsaw had come through, cutting the tops off everything and stripping the sides off the trees.

“It was like a bomb exploded,” Nieves says. “It was like all the movies that you’ve seen of Armageddon, of destruction, of the end of days. And the fact that the communication collapsed meant that we couldn’t hear the government, but we couldn’t hear each other. All we had was the people next to us.”

All over the island, communities like Humacao were isolated. FEMA and the government were slow to respond, so people turned to their neighbors for help.

Before the hurricane, the dense forest had in some cases blocked their view of each other. People might not know there was a house across the street or down the way. But after Maria turned the lush forest into match sticks, neighbors could see each other for the first time — and came to rely on one another.

“The people in this area started to understand that the government is not going to respond and save them, that it’s actually going to be their neighbors having the machetes ready, knowing how to disinfect a wound,” Nieves says. “That’s one of the things that they saw the most — wounds that could have been disinfected actually ended up in amputations. They had to cut off so many feet because people were wearing flip-flops in standing water that had infections and they didn’t have something like iodine or something easily [bought] over-the-counter disinfecting the wound at the right time.”

According to a recent report, the hurricane caused nearly 3,000 deaths. Most of these deaths were not from wind and rain, however, but from the isolation that followed the storm. Cut off from the outside world, many people died from treatable infections, unsafe water and accidental electrocution.

Nieves is the director of Proyecto Apoyo Mutuo (the Mutual Aid Project), based in a community center at the very top of a mountain in Humacao. She says residents of the island now understand that education, preparedness and community organizing will be necessary to prepare for the next hurricane.

Most of the residents of Humacao are older — retirees who live alone and have been without electricity since the hurricane. At the home of Gloria Vasquez, a downed electrical wire grazes the top of a car parked in front of her house.

Vasquez is 70. She lived most of her life in the Bronx, where she worked for 50 years, mostly as a hair dresser. She saved her money all those years to retire in her native Puerto Rico. She bought a three-bedroom cement house that sits on the side of the mountain overlooking a valley.

Before the hurricane, Vasquez says she could see only the dense forest in her yard and an avocado tree taller than her house. Now, she can see clear to the ocean some 40 miles away. She says she couldn’t have imagined that Puerto Rico could ever look like this. Vasquez has accepted her lost trees and the broken landscape, but she’s still struggling to deal with day-to-day life, living alone without electricity.

“It’s hard,” she says. “Sometimes I sit there and I cry because I need the light, you know? I don’t have a fridge to cool my stuff. I have diabetes and I need to put my insulin in the fridge.”

A woman named Sandra, who lives in her neighborhood, gave Vasquez a key to her house and lets her keep her medication in her refrigerator. Sandra has a generator.

Like Gloria Vasquez and Sandra, locals are looking to each other for solace and sustenance amidst the isolation and destruction. At the mountain-top community center in Humacao, half a dozen older women gather every week, Monday to Friday, to cook for their neighbors.

A sign out front indicates when they’ll be cooking and says, “Aceptamos donativos solidarios — we accept solidarity donations.” For $5, anyone can buy a homemade lunch of rice, beans and meat and maybe some fruit, if one of the ladies has extra papaya or pineapple coming up at home.

A woman named, ironically, Maria says coming here to feed the community is a type of therapy for her. She gets out of her lonely, dark house for the day and cooks with her friends. They chat about family and argue like sisters. Life feels normal again.

This theme of resilience and working together is everywhere in post-Maria Puerto Rico. About nine months after the storm, a local musician named Hurray for the Riff Raff produced a song called “Pa’lante,” in part about recovery on the island. The music video shows scenes of a hurricane-ravaged community and tells the story of a young family trying to work through it.

Related: In song and video, 'Pa'lante' depicts Puerto Rico's resilience

Pa’lante is truncated from the Spanish phrase “para adelante," which literally means “move forward,” but Christine Nieves says it means much more than that now.

“‘Pa’lante means we’re going to keep moving forward, we’re going to keep rising, and we’re going to keep fighting,” she says. “It’s about connecting with the root. We’ll look back at this moment in history and I think it’ll [feel like] a huge fork on the road in what it does to the Puerto Rican psyche.

“The conclusion at the end of this disaster that we’re still living in is that we were the ones who could respond,” Nieves declares. “We were the ones that were capable of saving lives. It was community members who were capable of doing that. So: pa’lante. We keep doing, we keep building.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Survivors scavenge for food and water as Indonesia death toll continues to rise

Oct 3, 2018


Hungry survivors of an earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia said on Wednesday they were scavenging for food in farms as President Joko Widodo made a second visit to the area to ramp up aid efforts five days after disaster struck.

The official death toll from the 7.5 magnitude quake that hit the west coast of Sulawesi island last Friday rose to 1,407, many killed by tsunami waves it triggered.

But officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead have come from Palu, 930 miles northeast of Jakarta, and losses in remote areas remain unknown, as communications are down, and bridges and roads have been destroyed or blocked by landslides.

National disaster mitigation agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said most of the aid effort had been concentrated in Palu, where electricity supply has yet to be restored.

But rescue workers have begun to reach more remote areas in a disaster zone that encompasses 1.4 million people.

Johnny Lim, a restaurant owner reached by telephone in Donggala town, said he was surviving on coconuts.

"It's a zombie town. Everything's destroyed. Nothing’s left," Lim said over a crackling line.

"We're on our last legs. There's no food, no water."

In another part of Donggala district, which has a population of 300,000 people, Ahmad Derajat, said survivors were scavenging for food in fields and orchards.

"What we're relying on right now is food from farms and sharing whatever we find like sweet potatoes or bananas," said Derajat whose house was swept away by the tsunami leaving a jumble of furniture, collapsed tin roofs and wooden beams.

"Why aren't they dropping aid by helicopter?" he asked.

Aid worker Lian Gogali described a perilous situation in Donggala, which includes a string of cut-off, small towns along a coast road north of Palu close to the quake's epicenter.     

"Everyone is desperate for food and water. There's no food, water, or gasoline. The government is missing," Gogali said, adding that her aid group had only been able to send in a trickle of rations by motorbike.

Underlining a growing sense of urgency, President Widodo made his second visit to the disaster zone, putting on an orange hard hat to talk to rescue workers at a collapsed hotel in Palu.

"What I've observed after returning now is heavy equipment has arrived, logistics have started to arrive although it's not at maximum yet, fuel has partly arrived,” Widodo told reporters.

No word on remote areas

Widodo, who will seek re-election next year, called on Tuesday for reinforcements in the search for victims, saying everyone had to be found. He repeated that on Wednesday, after inspecting what he called an "evacuation" effort at the Hotel Roa Roa, where he said some 30 people lay buried in the ruins.

Yahdi Basma, a leader from a village south of Palu hoping to get his family on a cargo plane out, said Widodo had no idea of the extent of the suffering.

"The president is not hearing about the remote areas, only about the tsunami and about Palu," he said.

"There are hundreds of people still buried under the mud in my village ... There is no aid whatsoever which is why we're leaving."

At least seven cargo planes arrived at Palu airport earlier on Wednesday carrying tonnes of aid, some bedecked in the red and white national colors and stamped with the presidential office seal declaring: "Assistance from the President of Republic of Indonesia.”

The quake brought down hotels, shopping malls and thousands of houses in Palu, while tsunami waves as high as six meters scoured its beachfront shortly afterwards.

About 1,700 houses in one neighborhood were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid, and hundreds of people are believed to have perished, the disaster agency said.

Indonesian Red Cross disaster responders said the village of Petobo, just south of Palu, which was home to almost 500 people, had been "wiped off the map."

"They are finding devastation and tragedy everywhere," Iris van Deinse, of International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, said in a statement.

Nearby, rescue workers, some using an excavator, were searching for 52 children missing since liquefaction destroyed their bible study camp. Bodies of 35 of the children have been found.

Aircraft, tents, water treatment facilities and generators were the main needs for survivors including more than 70,000 displaced people, according to the national disaster mitigation agency spokesman.

Sitting on the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, Indonesia is one of the world's most vulnerable countries to quakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Physics Nobel for laser pioneers includes first woman in 55 years

Oct 2, 2018 4:15


A trio of American, French and Canadian scientists won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physics on Tuesday for breakthroughs in laser technology that have turned light beams into precision tools for everything from eye surgery to micro-machining.

They include the first female physics prize winner in 55 years.

Canada's Donna Strickland, of the University of Waterloo, becomes only the third woman to win a Nobel for physics, after Marie Curie in 1903 and Maria Goeppert-Mayer in 1963.

Arthur Ashkin of Bell Laboratories in the United States won half of the 2018 prize for inventing "optical tweezers" while Strickland shares the remainder with Frenchman Gerard Mourou, who also has US citizenship, for work on high-intensity lasers.

"Obviously we need to celebrate women physicists because we are out there and hopefully in time it will start to move forward at a faster rate," Strickland told a news conference by telephone, shortly after learning of the prize.

The Nobel prizes have long been dominated by male scientists, and none more so than physics.

Strickland is the first female Nobel laureate in any field in three years. The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said last year it would seek to more actively encourage nominations of women researchers to begin addressing the imbalance.

Related: Scientists behind game-changing cancer immunotherapies win Nobel medicine prize

Her win comes a day after Europe's physics research center CERN suspended an Italian scientist, Alessandro Strumia, for telling a seminar at the organization's Swiss headquarters last week that physics was "invented and built by men."

Jim Al-Khalili, professor of theoretical physics at Britain's University of Surrey, said on Twitter it was "delicious" that Strickland had won the Nobel prize just days after Strumia's "misogynistic" comments.

The inventions by the three scientists date back to the mid-1980s and over the years they have revolutionized laser physics.

"Advanced precision instruments are opening up unexplored areas of research and a multitude of industrial and medical applications," the academy said on awarding the nine million Swedish crown ($1 million) prize.

Oldest winner

Ashkin's work was based on the realization that the pressure of a beam of light could push microscopic objects and trap them in position. A breakthrough came in 1987 when he used the new optical tweezers to grab living bacteria without harming them.

Ashkin is the oldest ever Nobel prize winner — but the 96-year-old is still busy with fresh research.

"I am busy working right now, writing an important paper on solar energy," he told Reuters in a telephone interview.

"I'm surprised," Ashkin said about winning the prize. "A guy called me up on the phone and woke me up."

Mourou and Strickland's research centered on developing the most intense laser pulses ever created by humans, paving the way for the precision instruments used today in corrective eye surgery and industrial applications.

The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace have been awarded since 1901 in accordance with the will of Swedish business tycoon Alfred Nobel, whose discovery of dynamite generated a vast fortune used to fund the prize.

Physics is the second of this year's crop of prizes and comes after the medicine prize was awarded on Monday for discoveries about how to harness and manipulate the immune system to fight cancer.

However, for the first time in decades no Nobel Prize for literature will be given this year after a scandal over sexual misconduct allegations saw a string of members leave the board of the Swedish Academy that awards it.

Indonesia steps up hunt for survivors as quake toll passes 1,200

Oct 2, 2018


The death toll rose above 1,200 on Tuesday on Sulawesi island in Indonesia and looting fueled fears of lawlessness after a devastating earthquake and tsunami. Indonesian President Joko Widodo has called for reinforcements in a desperate search for survivors.

Officials fear the toll could soar, as most of the confirmed dead had come from Palu, a small city 930 miles northeast of Jakarta, while some remote areas have been cut off since Friday's 7.5 magnitude quake triggered tsunami waves.

"There are some main priorities that we must tackle and the first is to evacuate, find and save victims who've not yet been found," Widodo told a government meeting to coordinate disaster recovery efforts on the west coast of Sulawesi.

He said he had ordered the national search and rescue agency to send more police and soldiers into the affected districts, some cut off by destroyed roads, landslides and downed bridges.

The official death toll surged to 1,234, the national disaster agency said. Nearly 800 were seriously injured.

The Red Cross said the situation was "nightmarish" and reports from its workers venturing into one cut-off area, Donggala, a region of 300,000 people north of Palu and close to the epicenter, indicated it had been hit "extremely hard".

A video of Donggala, broadcast by the Antara state news agency, showed widespread destruction, including flattened buildings and a ship that had been hurled into port buildings by the tsunami.

"What we need is food, water, medicine, but to up now we’ve got nothing," said an unidentified man standing in ruins.

Four badly hit districts of Sulawesi, one of the archipelago nations five main islands, have a combined population of about 1.4 million.

In Palu, tsunami waves as high as 20 feet smashed into the beachfront, while hotels and shopping malls collapsed in ruins. Some neighborhoods were swallowed up by ground liquefaction, which happens when soil shaken by an earthquake behaves like a liquid.

About 1,700 houses in one neighborhood have disappeared beneath the mud, with hundreds of people believed buried, the national disaster agency said.

Before-and-after satellite pictures show a largely built-up neighborhood just south of Palu's airport seemingly wiped clean of all signs of life by liquefaction.

Among those killed were 34 children at a Christian bible study camp, a Red Cross official said.

Leaving and looting

More than 65,000 homes were damaged and more than 60,000 people have been displaced and are in need of emergency help.

Thousands of people have been streaming out of stricken areas. Commercial airlines have struggled to restore operations at Palu's damaged airport but military aircraft have taken some survivors out. Many more want to leave.

Authorities have said a navy vessel capable of taking 1,000 people at a time would help with the evacuation.     

The government has ordered aid supplies to be airlifted in but there's little sign of help on Palu's shattered streets and survivors appeared increasingly desperate.

A Reuters news team saw a shop cleared by about 100 people, shouting, scrambling and fighting each other for items including clothes, toiletries, blankets and water.

Many people grabbed diapers while one man clutched a rice cooker as he headed for the door. Non-essential goods were scattered on the floor amid shards of broken glass.

At least 20 police were at the scene but did not intervene. The government has played down fears of looting saying disaster victims could take essential goods and shops would be compensated later.

Indonesia is all too familiar with earthquakes and tsunamis. A quake in 2004 triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean that killed 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

It has said it would accept offers of international aid, having shunned outside help earlier this year when an earthquake struck the island of Lombok.

State port operator Pelindo IV said a ship carrying 50 tons of supplies including rice, eggs, noodles, mineral water and baby milk had arrived in Palu on Monday. It was unclear if the aid had been distributed.

'Buried fast'

Power has yet to be restored and aftershocks have rattled jangled nerves. But rescuers in Palu held out hope they could still save lives.

"We suspect there are still some survivors trapped inside," the head of one rescue team, Agus Haryono, told Reuters at the collapsed seven-storey Hotel Roa Roa as he pored over its blueprints.

About 50 people were believed to have been caught inside the hotel when it was brought down. About nine bodies have been recovered from the ruins and three rescued alive.

Elsewhere, on the outskirts of Palu, lorries brought 54 bodies to a mass grave dug in sandy soil.

Most of the bodies had not been claimed, a policeman said, but some relatives came to pay respects to loved ones at the 165 ft trench.

Rosmawati Binti Yahya, 52, was still looking for her missing daughter. But her husband was among the victims laid in the grave.

"It's OK if he's buried in the mass grave, it's better to have him buried fast," she said, as the stench from decomposing bodies filled the air.

By Kanupriya Kapoor and Fathin Ungku/Reuters

Additional reporting by Agustinus Beo Da Costa, Maikel Jefriando, Tabita Diela, Gayatri Suroyo, Fransiska Nangoy, Fanny Potkin, Ed Davies and Fergus Jensen in Jakarta; Writing by Robert Birsel; Editing by Nick Macfie and Simon Cameron-Moore.

Scientists behind game-changing cancer immunotherapies win Nobel medicine prize

Oct 1, 2018


American James Allison and Japanese Tasuku Honjo won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine on Monday for game-changing discoveries about how to harness and manipulate the immune system to fight cancer.

The scientists' work in the 1990s has since swiftly led to new and dramatically improved therapies for cancers such as melanoma and lung cancer, which had previously been extremely difficult to treat.

"The seminal discoveries by the two laureates constitute a landmark in our fight against cancer," the Nobel Assembly at Sweden's Karolinska Institute said as it awarded the prize of nine million Swedish crowns ($1 million).

Allison and Honjo showed releasing the brakes on the immune system can unleash its power to attack cancer. The resulting treatments, known as immune checkpoint blockade, have "fundamentally changed the outcome" for some advanced cancer patients, the Nobel institute said.

Medicine is the first of the Nobel Prizes awarded each year. The prizes for achievements in science, literature and peace were created in accordance with the will of dynamite inventor and businessman Alfred Nobel and have been awarded since 1901.

The literature prize will not be handed out this year after the awarding body was hit by a sexual misconduct scandal. A Swedish court on Monday found a man at the center of the scandal guilty of rape and sentenced him to two years in jail.

Revolutionized cancer treatment

Allison's and Honjo's work focused on proteins that act as brakes on the immune system — preventing the body's main immune cells, known as T-cells, from attacking tumors effectively.

Allison, a professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, worked on a protein known as CTLA-4 and realized that if this could be blocked, a brake would be released.

"It immediately occurred to me, and some of the people in my lab, that maybe we can use this to unleash the immune system to attack cancer cells," Allison told a news conference after getting the prize.

Honjo, a professor at Kyoto University since 1984, separately discovered a second protein called PD-1 and found that it too acted as an immune system brake, but with a different mechanism.

The discoveries led to the creation of a multibillion-dollar market for new cancer medicines.

Bristol-Myers Squibb's CTLA-4 therapy Yervoy was the first such drug to win approval, in 2011. However, it is medicines targeting PD-1 blockade that have proved a bigger commercial hit, led by Merck & Co's Keytruda in 2014.

These and rival drugs from Roche, AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Sanofi now offer new options for patients with melanoma, lung and bladder cancers.

Sales of such medicines, which are given as infusions, are expected to reach some $15 billion this year, according to Thomson Reuters consensus forecasts. Some analysts see eventual revenues of $50 billion.

Honjo, who is now 76, told a news conference in Tokyo he was honored to get the Nobel, but his work was not yet done.

"I would like to keep on doing my research ... so that this immune treatment could save more cancer patients," he said.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe congratulated Honjo in a phone call, telling him: "I believe the achievements of your research have given cancer patients hope and light."

Allison told a news conference he was in a "state of shock" hours after learning from his son that he had won a Nobel prize.

"As a basic scientist, to have my work really impact people is just one of the best things," he said. "I think it's everybody's dream. And I've been lucky enough to do work that is benefiting people now."

Commenting on the award, Kevin Harrington, a professor at the Institute of Cancer Research in London, said the work had revolutionized cancer treatment.

"We’ve gone from being in a situation where patients were effectively untreatable to having a range of immunotherapy options that, when they work, work very well indeed," he said in a statement. "For some patients we see their tumors shrink or completely disappear and are effectively cured."

For illegal loggers in the Brazilian Amazon, 'there is no fear of being punished'

Oct 1, 2018


This is the second in a four-part series, The Amazon's Carbon Tipping Point
Day 1: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Last October, a mob of angry miners paraded through the streets of Humaitá, in Brazil’s northwestern Amazonas state. They were headed for the local office of Brazil’s environmental agency, called IBAMA, which polices deforestation in the Amazon. Agents there had recently shut down an illegal mining operation in a nearby forest reserve. This was payback.

In an instant, the field office and six IBAMA trucks went up in flames. The agents escaped unharmed.

This was no spontaneous eruption of violence. IBAMA officials say it was started by the town’s mayor and several other local politicians who hosted a barbecue with free alcohol and then encouraged the miners to attack IBAMA. They were arrested but later released.

‘There is no fear of being punished’

IBAMA agent Evandro Carlos Selva says when you’re in the business of stopping illegal deforestation “there is always conflict with the local population.” A mob burned one of Selva’s IBAMA trucks last year near his office in Mato Grosso, and he’s dodged threatening ambushes.

The office of Environmental protection officer Evandro Carlos Selva in Humaitá, Brazil is stuffed with boxes full of fines for illegal logging, most of which, he says, were never paid.

The office of Environmental protection officer Evandro Carlos Selva in Humaitá, Brazil is stuffed with boxes full of fines for illegal logging, most of which, he says, were never paid.


Sam Eaton/The World

“Working in this region, there is obviously risk,” he says, “but we transfer that fear into caution.”

Mato Grosso is Brazil’s third-largest state. It lies on the southern edge of the Amazon forest, dead center in Brazil’s so-called arc of deforestation, where illegal logging is rampant.

Selva says his office has just four agents to patrol an area the size of Florida. Three of them are set to retire next year, and Selva says they’re unlikely to be replaced after the Brazilian government last year cut the Ministry of the Environment’s budget, which funds IBAMA’s operations, by 43 percent.

“Truthfully, we are in a collapse situation, compromising even our most routine work,” he says.

The budget cuts have been blamed on Brazil’s economic crisis, but they were pushed by President Michel Temer, who’s an ally of the powerful agribusiness interests in Congress.

These ruralistas, as they’re called, dominate Brazil’s political agenda even as the vast majority of the country’s population lives in cities and towns.

But budget aside, Selva says here in the Amazon region, few comply with deforestation laws, anyway.

“Because there is no fear of being punished,” he says.

The room in the back of Selva’s office offers a window, perhaps, into why. It’s full of shelves stacked floor-to-ceiling with green and blue folder boxes.

Piles of boxes contain folders of mostly unpaid fines for deforestation violations, Selva says.

Piles of boxes contain folders of mostly unpaid fines for deforestation violations, Selva says.


Sam Eaton/The World

“All of these are fines,” Selva says. “Fines for deforestation, illegal timber mills, transporting illegal timber, invading Indigenous lands.”

He grabbed one and brought it to the desk.

“From the fines we apply, only 10 percent are paid,” he says.

Last March, Brazil’s government forgave more than $2 billion in past fines, granting amnesty to land-grabbers and sending a powerful signal to land-grabbers that they won’t be held accountable for breaking the law.

The signal seems to have been received. Deforestation rates jumped almost 30 percent in 2016, eased up somewhat last year and seem to be rising steeply again this year.

A large truck passes on the road outside.

“Meat,” Selva says, meaning a cattle truck.

He says that’s the easiest way to identify what stage of deforestation an Amazon town is in. Just look at the trucks: logging trucks for the first stage; cattle trucks for the second, once the trees are gone; and finally, soy trucks.

A herd of cows moves through deforested land.

A herd of cows moves through deforested land.


Sam Eaton/The World

A single tree remains on a stretch of former rainforest converted to pastureland.

A single tree remains on a stretch of former rainforest converted to pastureland.


Sam Eaton/The World

‘It’s the laws that are blocking us’

In northern Mato Grosso’s agricultural boomtown, Sinop, about a thousand grain trucks a day head north on BR-163 to the soybean export warehouses on tributaries to the Amazon River, to feed the booming international demand for soy. Sinop’s brief history includes all the stages of Amazon deforestation: from a logging town in the ’70s to cattle ranches in the ’80s to today’s mechanized soy plantations. These are the places that have brought wealth to some early settlers, like Jaime Farinon.

“We came here to clear the land, to turn this abandoned land into a productive area,” he says, looking out over his 8,000-acre soy farm that was once dense Amazon rainforest.

A giant combine harvester, the same kind used on the mechanized soy farms in the US, drives by. Farinon taps a cigarette and lights up. He came here in the last days of Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1980s. He says he’s nostalgic for that era.

“We were cheated by the next government when Brazil became a democracy.”

Big tractor trailer trucks kick up red dust as they pull toward building.

Soy trucks kick up dust as they approach a warehouse in Mato Grosso.


Sam Eaton/The World

He’s referring to a change in Brazil’s environmental laws. Before, Amazon landowners had to keep the forest standing on half their land, but after the dictatorship that was increased to 80 percent.

“It’s the laws that are blocking us,” Farinon says.

But things are looking up for him and other ruralistas. President Temer and the ruralistas are doing their best to dismantle those laws, pushing legislation to weaken forest protections and revoke the land rights of Brazil’s Indigenous and traditional communities. And a new ruralista-aligned candidate is a leading contender in next week’s presidential election. Jair Bolsonaro is a tough-talking, right-wing populist who’s often referred to as Brazil’s Donald Trump. And like Trump, he’s promised to pull out of the Paris climate accord if elected. Farinon is a fan.

A man poses in front of heavy farm machinery.

Jaime Farinon owns an 8,000-acre soy farm that was previously Amazon rainforest. He’s nostalgic for the days of Brazil’s military dictatorship and its much looser laws on deforestation.


Sam Eaton/The World

“Maybe we’ll manage to get a Trump here, too, to align this country,” he says.

It’s a prospect many environmentalists and Indigenous rights defenders say could send deforestation rates in the Amazon soaring again. This, just as scientists are increasingly alarmed that tree cutting and other changes to the Amazon are starting to have global effects. For decades, the vast forest has helped suck up huge amounts of CO2 pollution from the atmosphere. But recently, that process seems to have stopped, maybe even reversed. And that threatens one of the planet’s most powerful buffers against even more dangerous climate change.

Nara Baré, who heads the Coordinator of Indigenous Organizations from the Brazilian Amazon, one of the largest Indigenous organizations in South America, says that the ruralistas’ motives are simple: “To expand agribusiness and to expand large enterprises that are focused on the Amazon.”

Some ruralistas deny that deforestation is a problem in Brazil. They insist that agriculture is not the villain when it comes to climate change.

“The environmentalist movement wants to break the development in Brazil,” says Ilson Redivo, the head of the rural farmers union in Sinop and also a soy farmer. “My property needs to be lucrative, so if the world wants me to maintain 80 percent of my property in native forest, the world should help me pay for that.”

Meanwhile, the forest continues to fall. And IBAMA agent Evandro Selva says these days, his job of preventing deforestation is a little like trying to dry a block of ice with a towel.

“You dry it here, and then in a bit, it is melting again. And then you have to do it all over again until the ice is completely gone.”

Or in this case, the forest.

A man stands at the foot of a long staircase. To his right, piles of dried soybeans fill the inside of a grain silo.

Dried soybeans pile up in a silo in Sinop.


Sam Eaton/The World

The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Sep 28, 2018 9:04


In a pristine patch of tropical rainforest in the central Amazon north of Manaus, a group of Brazilian scientists unloads boxes of heavy instruments from a truck and disappears down a thin path into the trees. As I walk with them, my clothes are instantly soaked from the humidity. A chorus of insects drowns out the sound of our footsteps. The forest is a tangle of leaves and vines competing for the little sunlight that streams through the thick canopy high above our heads.

Half a century ago, the Amazon covered an area about the size of the lower 48 United States. Since then, more than 16 percent of that area has fallen to loggers, miners and land-grabbers. Direct human impacts like these have long defined the battle to save the rainforest. But Carlos Quesada, with Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research, says a new threat is looming.

“The forest is responding to the atmosphere,” he says. And the atmosphere is changing. Chainsaws and cattle are still eating away at the forest’s perimeter, but carbon dioxide coming out of tailpipes and smokestacks thousands of miles away is altering tropical forests on a much larger scale.

A thick canopy of trees stretches out underneath dark grey storm clouds

Brazil holds one-third of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest and until recently it absorbed as much CO2 pollution every year as the amount produced by all the cars on the planet. Now scientists fear that deforestation and climate change are pushing the forest to a tipping point beyond which it will actually release more CO2 into the atmosphere than it captures.


Sam Eaton/The World

“So, in areas completely remote, far away from people's influence, the forest is changing. Forests that are pristine — they are suffering.”

Forests just like this one. Quesada and his colleagues head farther into the forest to explain.

The first research plot we reach looks almost like an emergency room for the forest. Every tree is laden with wires and sensors, instruments, brightly colored nylon ribbon for the purposes of identifying and measuring everything from photosynthesis and evapotranspiration rates to tree growth.

Two trees are covered in instruments strapped to their bases

Scientists from Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research say this research plot in the Amazon north of Manaus is the most studied patch of tropical forest in the world. Instruments wired to trees record real time data on everything from evapotranspiration to tree growth.


Sam Eaton/The World

We climb up a 130-foot aluminum research tower toward the canopy. Halfway up, research assistant Juliane Menezes sets up a key piece of equipment called an infrared gas analyzer. She carefully places a living leaf, still attached to the tree, inside a red, glowing chamber, pushes some buttons, and the machine pumps higher concentrations of CO2 onto the leaf’s surface. “Then we take the measurement and download all the measurements of the day into our computers to model the photosynthesis,” she says.

Plants use photosynthesis to turn CO2, or carbon dioxide, into food. And there’s a lot more of it in the atmosphere these days. Over the last 200 years, humans have pushed CO2 levels higher than they’ve been in almost a million years. This experiment is basically tracking, at a micro level, what that means for the world’s tropical forests.

A tower of steel rises out of the dense jungle into the sky

Research towers in pristine Amazon forest allow scientists to access every layer of the tree canopy in order to document the forest's carbon cycle and how it’s changing.


Sam Eaton/The World

Quesada says all of this extra CO2 is causing global temperatures to rise on the one hand, “but on the other,” he says, “high CO2 can also stimulate growth.” Growth in trees like the ones we’re standing among. And for years, that’s what’s been happening. The Amazon and many other forests have been absorbing a lot of that extra CO2 and converting it into leaves, branches and trunks. Essentially capturing and storing pollution that would otherwise heat up the atmosphere even more. Quesada says, until recently, the Amazon was hungrily absorbing the equivalent of the CO2 pollution from every car on the planet, every year.

But even a huge forest like this one can only capture so much CO2 before it reaches other biological limits. And Quesada says the Amazon appears to have done that, and stopped sucking up extra CO2.

“So, we are changing the atmosphere,” he says. “The atmosphere is changing the climate system. And the climate system and the higher levels of CO2 are changing how the forest behaves.”

In fact, a few years back, for the first time on record, it actually released more carbon than it absorbed. It flipped from what’s known as a “carbon sink” to a source of carbon.

“It’s probably saying, ‘OK, that’s enough now — you guys stop.’”

Which, Quesada says, presents a frightening scenario.

“The Amazon was buying you some time that it is not going to buy anymore,” he says, because once that environmental service of absorbing extra CO2 from the atmosphere stops, all that extra carbon will instead accumulate in the atmosphere, driving global temperatures even higher at a much faster rate. “We will really start to feel it,” he says.

And Quesada says that’s just here, in pristine forest. In Brazil’s so-called “arc of deforestation,” along the southern and eastern edges of the forest that mark the advance of logging and agriculture, the impacts are much greater.

“You have already a fragile system that may be on the edge,” Quesada says, “and then you bring on fragmentation, deforestation, cattle ranching, illegal logging.”

He says all those activities usually bring fires, as well. And then there’s the impact of climate change itself. “So, you imagine on top of this, a future climate that is drier and hotter. So, this could really be a tipping point in the future of the Amazon,” Quesada says.

A tipping point for the Amazon’s ability to absorb that extra carbon from the atmosphere, and, possibly, for the Amazon itself. A terrifying runaway climate change scenario laid out in the so-called “Hothouse Earth” paper, published last August in Proceedings of the Natural Academy of Sciences.

“It’s very serious,” says Brazil’s leading climatologist, Carlos Nobre. “We are dangerously approaching irreversibility.”

Instruments and wires are strapped to the base of a tree in the jungle.

The Amazon’s sprawling forest, nearly the size of the lower 48 United States, stores an estimated 150 billion to 200 billion tons of carbon. Scientists worry that a potential die back of the Amazon triggered by climate change and deforestation would start releasing much of that carbon into the atmosphere and trigger runaway climate change.


Sam Eaton/The World

Nobre and a colleague, Thomas Lovejoy of George Mason University, have determined that the combined effects of deforestation, fires, hotter, drier temperatures and increased CO2 in the atmosphere are pushing the Amazon system to the brink. He says if deforestation continues at its current pace, more than half of the Amazon could begin to die off, releasing massive new amounts of carbon into the atmosphere.

“So not to really take any risks, not to take the risk of exceeding some of these tipping points, we advocate that deforestation should not exceed 25 percent,” he says.

That 25 percent threshold doesn’t leave a lot of wiggle room. By many accounts, deforestation here is still rising, even accelerating. But Nobre says it’s crucial to put on the brakes if we’re going to meet the Paris climate agreement’s target of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

“If we want to pursue the Paris Agreement,” Nobre says, “we are going to live in a world in which emissions will have really to be net zero all over the planet, because the carbon sinks will decline over time. It's a very different world in the future.”

Tall metal towers rise out of the ground, like trees, in this illustration.

An artist's rendering of Carlos Quesada’s proposed experiment to install circles of towers in pristine Amazon forest that would blow a constant mist of higher CO2 concentrations over the forest. The project has not received funding.


Courtesy INPA

At Carlos Quesada’s Amazon research plot, he says this is the time when science matters more than ever. But Brazil has been struggling through an economic crisis, and the budget of the entire National Institute for Amazonian Research has been cut by almost half.

“We don't have the funds guaranteed to do this research.”

Quesada is hoping to install circles of giant towers around patches of forest here and then blow a constant stream of higher CO2 concentrations over the trees to mimic future conditions. He says understanding how these forests will react to high CO2 is critical to predicting the Amazon’s impact on climate change, good or bad.

“It's like a glimpse of what the atmosphere will be 50, 100 years from now. To understand if you still have forests later on or not,” he says.

Knowing this now could give Brazil, and all of us, time to plan ahead and adjust our ways of life.

Quesada says building those towers here and running experiments over the years would cost somewhere in the range of $15 million, a small investment that would answer arguably one of the biggest questions facing humanity — can we save the Amazon, so it can help save us? But, for now, he and his team continue to do their research on a shoestring budget, measuring the forest’s response to climate change one leaf at a time.

This reporting project is a partnership with The Nation magazine and PBS NewsHour with support from the Pulitzer Center and the Society of Environmental JournalistsFund for Environmental Journalism.

Quake, deadly tsunami hit Indonesian island

Sep 28, 2018


A tsunami caused deaths when it hit a small city on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi on Friday after a major quake, collapsing buildings and cutting off power, officials said, although the exact number of casualties was not clear.

The tsunami up to six feet high struck beaches as dusk fell in Palu, a sleepy but growing tourist resort, and the nearby fishing town of Donggala, closest to the epicenter of the quake, officials said. 

More than 600,000 people live in Palu and Donggala.

"The earthquake and tsunami caused several casualties ... while initial reports show that victims died in the rubble of a collapsing building," National Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho told reporters. "The number of casualties and the full impact is still being calculated." 

Sutopo said the disaster caused a power outage that cut communications in Donggala and surrounding areas. The Communications Ministry is working to repair 276 electricity base stations.

Officials said aftershocks, the communications breakdown and the power outage made it hard to coordinate rescue efforts.

"The situation is chaotic," Dwikorita Karnawati, who heads Indonesia's meteorology and geophysics agency, BMKG, told Reuters. "People are running on the streets and buildings have collapsed. There is a ship washed ashore."

BMKG had earlier issued a tsunami warning but lifted it within the hour.

Amateur footage shown by local TV stations, which could not immediately be authenticated by Reuters, showed waters crashing into houses along Palu's shoreline, scattering shipping containers and flooding into a mosque in the city.

The national search and rescue agency will deploy a large ship and helicopters to aid the operation, said agency chief Muhammad Syaugi, adding he had not been able to contact his team in Palu. 

The armed forces and police will also provide troops and equipment to support the emergency response, officials aid.

Oil company Pertamina said its fuel depot in Donggala had been damaged in the incident though there was no oil spill. Fuel tanks had shifted in the quake and ship loading facilities were disabled among other damage.

There were no reports of damage to producing oil and gas fields in the area, according to the energy ministry.

Palu, hit by a 6.2 magnitude quake in 2005 which killed one person, is a tourist resort at the end of a narrow bay famous for its beaches and water sports. 

In 2004, an earthquake off the northern Indonesian island of Sumatra triggered a tsunami across the Indian Ocean, killing 226,000 people in 13 countries, including more than 120,000 in Indonesia.

Palu airport was closed.

The area was hit by a lighter quake earlier in the day, which destroyed some houses, killing one person and injuring at least 10 in Donggala, authorities said.

The US Geological Survey put the magnitude of the second quake at a strong 7.5, after first saying it was 7.7. 

"Aftershocks are still continuing," Nugroho said.

"Communication has been crippled at this time, causing difficulties in coordination and reporting with the region."

Indonesia sits on the Pacific Ring of Fire and is regularly hit by earthquakes.

A series of earthquakes in July and August killed nearly 500 people on the holiday island of Lombok, hundreds of kilometers southwest of Sulawesi.

It may be getting harder for Puerto Rico’s national forest to recover from storms

Sep 28, 2018 6:24


Grizelle González has worked in El Yunque National Forest in eastern Puerto Rico for 26 years. The US Forest Service ecologist did research there as an undergraduate, then as a graduate student, and now heads the long-term research project in the 30,000-acre tropical forest.

So, when González visited El Yunque just a few days after Hurricane Maria hit in September of 2017, she was shocked.

“It’s like a bomb hit,” González said. “All you could see were like toothpicks, standing or on the ground. ... It was all brown, there were no leaves.”


Winds blowing 130 miles an hour blasted the steep mountain slopes of El Yunque, stripping the palm trees and giant ferns of their leaves. The lush green landscape turned brown and silent, with no birds chirping or leaves to rustle in the wind.

“It was scary,” González said. “You get very depressed. It’s like, oh, there’s so much death.”

Many roads in El Yunque National Forest remain closed a year after Hurricane Maria.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Just a few days after the storm, the power and water at González’s home were still out and it was what she calls a dark period for many Puerto Ricans. But tiny buds and fragile green shoots were already starting to sprout in El Yunque.  

“It’s almost like nature shows you the way of recovery,” González said. “If nature is recovering, you can recover, too.”

Hurricanes can be good for forests in some ways

Research that González’s team has done at El Yunque shows hurricanes can be good for a tropical forest in some ways. Leaves and branches that get knocked to the ground fertilize the soil and supercharge new plant growth.

Almost a year after Hurricane Maria, the green had returned to El Yunque and birds chirped over González’s head as she expertly navigated the rough terrain of the forest’s paths. But to her trained eye, the landscape looked totally different than it did before Hurricane Maria. 

trees with vines growing

The canopy at El Yunque National forest is sparser than it used to be, but branches are slowly growing back. 


Carolyn Beeler/The World

She stops in a place where the overhead canopy is largely gone, and the tropical sun beats down on her and the surrounding plants. 

“Before, if you can picture it, there was complete canopy cover here; it would be completely lush and feel very dark,” González said. “You could not see the sky at all.”

More than 1 in 10 trees in the forest died after Hurricane Maria. Many lost most of their branches. A few palms in the patch of forest where González stopped had just a few fronds right at the top, like a tree from a Dr. Suess book.

Today, ferns and grasses that are no longer overshadowed by taller trees crowd the understory in areas where the forest floor used to be clear. 

“That’s how we see that some species, called the pioneer species, start growing,” González said. “What we see here is a natural process of regeneration.”

Climate change may interrupt the natural process of regeneration

But humans may be interrupting this natural process of regeneration. Climate change is expected to make big storms more intense, and it’s unclear how forests like El Yunque will react.

Rebuilding a landslide

An earth-mover rebuilds a hillside in El Yunque National Forest that was washed out during Hurricane Maria. Roads that had been cut into the forest contributed to landslides during and after Hurricane Maria. 


Carolyn Beeler/The World

“If the forests get these hurricanes at a pace that is [every] 50 or 60 years, it’ll probably be enough time for them to recover,” González said, adding “but if the hurricanes keep coming at a shorter interval, like 10 years, then the forest might not have the time to recover.”

González said eventually, if climate change causes decreased rainfall and increased temperatures as projected in Puerto Rico, El Yunque could transform from a rainforest into a dry forest.

El Yunque's importance to the island’s water supplies

That’s a problem not just for the forest itself, but for the people who rely on the water that runs through El Yunque.

“It’s a huge source of water for much of the island,” said Jessica Chappell, a PhD candidate at the University of Georgia who’s studying the hydrology of El Yunque.

“Twenty percent of the population relies on water that comes from El Yunque,” she said. “What that actually means is that 20 percent of the water that’s used falls within the forest and then it goes into streams and it’s treated and taken to the people.”

sign with a town name, Barcelona

Barcelona is a small community near the entrance of El Yunque National Forest.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

In the coming decades, if the water stops flowing through El Yunque altogether, surrounding communities will be in trouble.

But even today, deluges like those unleashed by Hurricane Maria are causing short-term problems. Heavy rains overwhelm the forest’s ability to naturally filter water through leaves, moss and soil.

Downhill from El Yunque, Maria is spurring changes to water management practices

There’s an example of how heavy rains are impacting water access in a small community just outside the main entrance of El Yunque.  

The faucets in the village of Barcelona run with water piped directly from a small pool in the forest, and after Maria, broken pipes and a clogged reservoir completely blocked the flow of water for six days.  

“We were all stuck,” said Liza Pérez Sanjarjo, head of Barcelona’s community board. “If the community didn't act together quickly, we weren't going to have water ... so the entire community got together.”

Woman outside her home

Liza Pérez Sanjarjo is shown on her porch in Barcelona, Puerto Rico, just outside the entrance of El Yunque National Forest.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

They cleared the reservoir and repaired pipes, but even when the water started flowing again, it ran brown for a few days. It looked like chocolate, Pérez Sanjarjo said.

So after immediate repairs were completed following Hurricane Maria, Pérez Sanjarjo organized a water committee that has distributed water filters and has begun to think about ways to keep the community’s water supply clean after big downpours.

“I recognize that these issues aren’t going to get better because of climate change," Pérez Sanjarjo said. "I'm worried about the quality of life in my community. And I understand that if we ... don't take charge of our resources, nobody's going to come from outside to help us.”

Changes to Barcelona’s water system will help that community in the short term.

But how the forest might react to climate change in the long term is an open question, one that Grizelle González continues to study with her research team at El Yunque National Forest.

“As these events become stronger or more frequent, I think it’s important that we are in the forest describing the condition and how it’s recovering,” González said, “because we don’t know if another system is to hit before this forest has a chance to recover, what’s going to happen in the long term.”

El Yunque is one of the most studied tropical forests in the world. So what Gonzalez and her colleagues can gather from decades of records will provide a window into how tropical forests around the world will fare in the future.

The weird world of one-sided objects

Sep 27, 2018


You have most likely encountered one-sided objects hundreds of times in your daily life — like the universal symbol for recycling, found printed on the backs of aluminum cans and plastic bottles.

This mathematical object is called a Möbius strip. It has fascinated environmentalists, artists, engineers, mathematicians and many others ever since its discovery in 1858 by August Möbius, a German mathematician who died 150 years ago, on Sept. 26, 1868.

Möbius discovered the one-sided strip in 1858 while serving as the chair of astronomy and higher mechanics at the University of Leipzig. (Another mathematician named Listing actually described it a few months earlier, but did not publish his work until 1861.) Möbius seems to have encountered the Möbius strip while working on the geometric theory of polyhedra, solid figures composed of vertices, edges and flat faces.

An animation of ants crawling along a Möbius strip, inspired by M.C. Escher’s artwork.

A Möbius strip can be created by taking a strip of paper, giving it an odd number of half-twists, then taping the ends back together to form a loop. If you take a pencil and draw a line along the center of the strip, you’ll see that the line apparently runs along both sides of the loop.

The concept of a one-sided object inspired artists like Dutch graphic designer M.C. Escher, whose woodcut “Möbius Strip II” shows red ants crawling one after another along a Möbius strip.

The Möbius strip has more than just one surprising property. For instance, try taking a pair of scissors and cutting the strip in half along the line you just drew. You may be astonished to find that you are left not with two smaller one-sided Möbius strips, but instead with one long two-sided loop. If you don’t have a piece of paper on hand, Escher’s woodcut “Möbius Strip I” shows what happens when a Möbius strip is cut along its center line.

While the strip certainly has visual appeal, its greatest impact has been in mathematics, where it helped to spur on the development of an entire field called topology.

A topologist studies properties of objects that are preserved when moved, bent, stretched or twisted, without cutting or gluing parts together. For example, a tangled pair of earbuds is in a topological sense the same as an untangled pair of earbuds, because changing one into the other requires only moving, bending and twisting. No cutting or gluing is required to transform between them.

Another pair of objects that are topologically the same are a coffee cup and a doughnut. Because both objects have just one hole, one can be deformed into the other through just stretching and bending.

a mug morphs into a cup gif

A mug morphs into a doughnut. 


Wikimedia Commons

The number of holes in an object is a property which can be changed only through cutting or gluing. This property — called the “genus” of an object — allows us to say that a pair of earbuds and a doughnut are topologically different, since a doughnut has one hole, whereas a pair of earbuds has no holes.

Unfortunately, a Möbius strip and a two-sided loop, like a typical silicone awareness wristband, both seem to have one hole, so this property is insufficient to tell them apart — at least from a topologist’s point of view.

Instead, the property that distinguishes a Möbius strip from a two-sided loop is called orientability. Like its number of holes, an object’s orientability can only be changed through cutting or gluing.

Imagine writing yourself a note on a see-through surface, then taking a walk around on that surface. The surface is orientable if, when you come back from your walk, you can always read the note. On a nonorientable surface, you may come back from your walk only to find that the words you wrote have apparently turned into their mirror image and can be read only from right to left. On the two-sided loop, the note will always read from left to right, no matter where your journey took you.

Since the Möbius strip is nonorientable, whereas the two-sided loop is orientable, that means that the Möbius strip and the two-sided loop are topologically different.

gif of a mobius strip

When the GIF starts, the dots listed off clockwise are black, blue and red. However, we can move the three-dot configuration around the Möbius strip such that the figure is in the same location, but the colors of the dots listed off clockwise are now red, blue and black. Somehow, the configuration has morphed into its own mirror image, but all we’ve done is move it around on the surface. This transformation is impossible on an orientable surface like the two-sided loop.


David Gunderman

The concept of orientability has important implications. Take enantiomers. These chemical compounds have the same chemical structures except for one key difference: They are mirror images of one another. For example, the chemical L-methamphetamine is an ingredient in Vicks Vapor Inhalers. Its mirror image, D-methamphetamine, is a Class A illegal drug. If we lived in a nonorientable world, these chemicals would be indistinguishable.

August Möbius’s discovery opened up new ways to study the natural world. The study of topology continues to produce stunning results. For example, last year, topology led scientists to discover strange new states of matter. This year’s Fields Medal, the highest honor in mathematics, was awarded to Akshay Venkatesh, a mathematician who helped integrate topology with other fields such as number theory.The Conversation

David Gunderman is a PhD student in applied mathematics at the University of Colorado and Richard Gunderman is a chancellor's professor of medicine, liberal arts and philanthropy at Indiana University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The once-vibrant waters of Basra are now undrinkable and fetid

Sep 26, 2018


Once dubbed the “Venice of the Middle East” for its canals, Iraq's crumbling port city of Basra is slowly dying of thirst.

Crisscrossed waterways that earned it comparisons with the Italian city are now filthy pools of stagnant water.

Its vibrant freshwater lifeline, the Shatt-al-Arab river that runs through it, is now so polluted it threatens the lives of the more than 4 million inhabitants of Iraq's second city.

"It now causes death. It is highly polluted. Different pollutants can be found in the river, including germs, chemicals, toxic algae coupled with unprecedented concentrations of salt almost like that of seawater, rather, it is indeed seawater," said Shukri al-Hassan, Marine Science lecturer at Basra University.

According to Hassan, contamination levels of Shatt-al-Arab have increased four-fold over the past 10 years and are increasing, putting more and more people at risk.

Lethal mix

Daily life also features open sewers and streets filled with fetid piles of garbage. In response, furious residents recently staged some of the biggest protests in years.

Many contrast their impoverishment with the oil wealth the province provides to the federal government's coffers.

State officials blame a public funding crisis wrought by years of low oil prices for the hardship in a city that was a magnet for Middle Eastern tourists until the early 1980s.

Local resident Raad Shabout Dhahar said the water crisis is just one of many problems that have left his 17-member family, including two wives, his mother and 14 daughters, in despair.

"It has become even harder because if one used to earn 10,000 Iraqi dinars ($8.43) a day, one can spend five thousand on food and save the other five, while now, we really started to feel the pinch," he said.

"Before a quantity of 500 liters of water was enough for us as we used it for drinking only. We did not use it for washing our faces and clothes and we did not use it for bathing. But now, the 500 liters are used also to wash our faces and bodies, too."


Located where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers merge near the Gulf at Iraq’s marshy southern tip, Basra is one of the few cities in the Middle East without an effective water treatment system.

It had an advanced sanitary infrastructure in the 1960s but that broke down decades ago, turning waterways into cesspools whose stench is compounded by the hot desert climate.

Residents said the water crisis has added to misery caused by shattered infrastructure because of years of under-investment, first under Sunni leader Saddam Hussein and then successive Shi'ite-led governments.

Much of Iraq suffered destruction in a string of ruinous wars since the 1980s. But Basra was especially hard hit as a city on the front line of the war with Iran, only a few dozen kilometers across the Shatt-al-Arab delta to the east.

The city has yet to recover.

Basra residents say salt seeping into the water supply has made it undrinkable and sent hundreds to hospital.

Some 90,000 people have been admitted to hospital, according to the head of Basra's health department, Riyadh Abdull Amir, with as many as 4,000 a day seeking treating this month.

Resident Aqeel Shakir Abdul Majeed had little hope for the future as he waited to pay for fresh water.

"How can poor people afford it? How can those who do not have money afford it," he said. "Will they steal to get money? I do not know what to do."

To improve water supply, the central government is building a major water treatment plant and a desalination complex thanks to a Japanese loan.

The project was expected to be completed by the end of the year, but the departure of Japanese experts due to threats during protests has delayed the process.

If the Greenland ice sheet melts, what happens to New York City? This reporter went to find out.

Sep 26, 2018


The night Superstorm Sandy hit New York City, I was stationed at NPR’s deserted New York bureau. I was there as the backup. If WNYC were to lose power, I would go live on the air with essential, perhaps lifesaving information for our listeners.  

Our skeleton crew stood speechless at times that night, watching the wind blow torrential rain sideways. We heard an eerie pop followed by what looked like fireworks. Apparently, a transformer blew and the city’s iconic skyline went dark — the power was out below 34th street.

This was no ordinary storm.

“Hurricane Sandy was the worst natural disaster that ever hit New York City,” said Daniel Zarrilli, New York’s senior director of climate policy and programs.

Forty-four people died. Economic losses totaled $19 billion.

The flooding was unprecedented. In lower Manhattan alone, previous flood records were exceeded by about 4 feet. When I finally returned to my Brooklyn apartment a few days later, my husband, Kent, filled me in — the ceiling of our top floor walkup had leaked again — and he was still cleaning up bits of drywall and water stains from the wood floor of our living room/kitchen area.

A man stands on an escalator looking down into a flooded subway station

Vice President and Chief Maintenance Officer Joseph Leader inspects a flooded stairwell down to a platform beneath street level at the South Ferry-Whitehall Subway Terminal in lower Manhattan on Oct. 31, 2012, just days after Superstorm Sandy. The station reopened in June 2017, nearly five years after the storm.


Mike Segar/Reuters

Millions of gallons of salt water filled up buildings, basements, and subway tunnels, including the one that I ride to get from Brooklyn to Manhattan.

Some train lines were closed for months after the storm.

And now, more than five years later, some of them still aren’t fixed. One crosstown train that also carried about 400,000 daily riders between Manhattan and Brooklyn is shutting down for more than a year beginning in January 2019, for repairs and improvements linked to Sandy.

Floodwaters fill an underground subway tunnel

Tunnels flooded throughout New York City subway system. Some lines were shut for years and in 2019, the L train from Brooklyn to Manhattan will be closed for more than a year to fix Sandy-related damage.


MTA handout via Reuters

But while the city is fixing all the stuff that broke down the last time, what about the next storm? Because all the experts keep telling us there will be a next time, that Sandy was just a climate change foreshadow of what’s to come for this part of the country.

But where is all this water coming from? Why are we seeing so much more flooding in New York City and other parts of the east coast?

Listen to the three-part series

Part 1

Rising seas in Greenland and NYC PRI's The World Wednesday, September 26, 2018

A New Yorker freaked out by the destructive 2012 Hurricane Sandy, wants to know what's ahead for NYC in a world of warming temperatures and rising seas. So she signs on to a research trip to Greenland in hopes of getting a fix on what the huge melting ice sheet might have in store. Janet Babin reports in the first of her three-part series.

Part 2

Climate change clues in Greenland PRI's The World Thursday, September 27, 2018

Scientists used to think that the Greenland ice sheet wouldn't melt even if the world warmed up significantly. Now a group of researchers isn't so sure, and they're hunting around for more clues to what may lie ahead for the huge island and for us. Janet Babin reports in the second of her three-part series on Greenland, New York and climate change.

Part 3

Greenland's future, our future  PRI's The World Friday, September 28, 2018

In part three of her series, reporter and New Yorker Janet Babin finishes up her week with a research team in Greenland and heads home to ponder her city's uncertain future as the huge ice sheet melts.

I decided to dig in and search for answers. I’ve covered science and innovation for Marketplace and other public radio stations, so I naturally turned to my reporter’s instincts. I applied for and received a competitive grant from the venerable Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. I was selected for a fellowship at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, or WHOI, on Cape Cod, where I spoke to key researchers who have been studying the world’s ice sheets and sea levels for decades. Sea level is rising globally as human pollution helps the atmosphere to warm up, and some of that extra heat transfers to the oceans, causing the water itself to expand. The warmer atmosphere is also causing ice to melt around the world and flow into the sea — from glaciers, and from the polar ice caps in Antarctica and Greenland.

But that sea level rise isn’t uniform.

“The northeastern US is an area where, what we call regional sea level, is rising three to four times faster than the global average,” explains WHOI glaciologist Sarah Das.

Das says that’s partly because of a very local phenomenon. “The land of the Eastern Seaboard of the United States is actually in these places subsiding.”

But she says it’s also because ocean currents in the region are slowing down.

To figure out why, Das and other scientists look to the Greenland ice sheet for raw data.

“It's an archive of how climate has changed in the past and in the long past — you know, a hundred thousand years,” said Joel Harper, a glaciologist at the University of Montana.

He relies on the ice sheet to get highly detailed information on temperature and precipitation changes in the northern hemisphere.

Meltwater released from the ice sheet is also affecting the east coast. Harper said the fresh water is changing the salinity of the ocean and that, in turn, is changing ocean circulation patterns. That could affect New York’s precipitation and climate.

“The ice sheet influences the atmosphere and influences the oceans and actually helps drive how the climate system works,” Harper added.

Clearly what's happening in Greenland isn't staying in Greenland. So I decided to try to get there myself, to see first hand this important contributor to New York’s sea level rise, and join scientists trying to see into its future.

It took some time, but I finally lined up an excursion.

Eventually I was able to hop onto a C-130 plane, courtesy of the New York Air National Guard — there are no direct flights to Greenland from the states — then onto an Air Greenland helicopter paid for by the National Science Foundation, before being dropped onto a crusty moonscape about a mile from the Greenland ice sheet.

A woman wearing a headset smiles from inside a helicopter.

The reporter snaps a selfie on the helicopter to Greenland.


Janet Babin/The World

Camping under the midnight sun

The fire engine red chopper feels bigger than it looks. The terrain we’re flying over looks unforgiving. But I’m reassured by the chipper French pilot giving me instructions to buckle up and not touch the door handle unless he says so.

After an awe-inspiring sprint across Baffin Bay, we sidle right up to ancient peaks of rocky quartz. These are some of the oldest rocks on earth. They jut upwards in craggy peaks that make for a harrowing helicopter ride. At one point it looks like we are heading straight towards them!

But the pilot pulls up last minute and gives me a smile. Just another day for him!

After about 45 minutes, we land on a pebbly slope, next to a pristine blue lake.

A red helicopter is landed on the edge of a blue lake on a rocky shoreline. Hills in the distance are covered in white ice.

The helicopter touches town on the edge of the Greenland ice sheet in Southwest Greenland.


Janet Babin/The World

“You know how to open the door?” the pilot asks me.

“Oh, we’re allowed to?” I ask. (Before he’d said not to touch it!)

“Yes, now,” he answers.

So I step out onto the edge of the Greenland ice sheet.

It’s a stunning sight. The ice rises up and spreads out flat, like a mirror.

I’m immobilized by the view, but the four researchers I’m here with are already on the move, searching for a campsite.

“We have fresh water, a flat place to put our tents,” says Jason Briner of the Paleoclimate lab at the University at Buffalo. "We’re close enough to the lake so that that we can get our gear and boats to the water. Yeah, it’s good!”

Briner and Nicolas Young of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University are joined by University at Buffalo Ph.D. students Brandon Graham and Allison Cluett.

Briner has been coming here with his students for a decade or so to collect rocks and lake sediments, pieces of Greenland that can date back thousands of years.

“The samples we’re collecting are helping us understand how the ice sheet has changed in the past,” Briner explains. “It allows us to get a longer-term glimpse of how the ice sheet responds to climate change.”

From these samples, Briner and Young know the Greenland ice sheet used to be bigger than it is now.

Certain chemical and biological properties of the rocks and lake bed can help the researchers understand how the ice sheet melted in the past, and what earth’s climate was like back then.

“If we can reconstruct in detail how the ice sheet may have behaved during previous warm periods, the hope is that it gives us some preview on what the ice sheet might do in the next 100, 200 years and beyond,” Young explains.

If we know what the ice sheet’s going to do, we can be a lot more certain how much the ocean’s going to rise. But getting a good fix on that is taking years of sampling.

That’s why these guys and lots of other researchers keep coming back here.

But before we get to the science, we’ve got to set up our homes for the week — individual tents for sleeping and a big mess tent for eating and gathering together as a group.

I wondered why we all slept in single tents, but the group assured me that spending 14 hours a day together hiking and working was enough — we all needed our privacy. They were right. 

A woman's booted foot is framed by the walls of her tent as the golden sunlight spills over rocky terrain.

The reporter takes a photo of her boots from inside her tent at dusk.


Janet Babin/The World

Surrounded on three sides by the ice sheet, sitting atop these barren high plains with shrub grass and rocks, it’s hard to find a soft, flat spot for camp. It feels like we’re in a wind tunnel, as the gales form on the ice sheet then barrel down through the treeless plains and frigid lake water and fast-moving streams.

I get a quick lesson in tent setup: how to hammer stakes and plop heavy rocks down on tent corners. I’ve never been the outdoorsy type.  

Don’t get me wrong — I’m incredibly drawn to nature. But as an undersized, only child who studied ballet as a kid, I was incessantly teased for being scrawny and weak. As a result, I never did this kind of stuff. I just stood by, embarrassed by my ineptitude. But I’m about to break free of my past here.

“Does that go on top of this then?” I ask.

“Yeah, that’s called a rain fly,” Briner tells me patiently.  

He also gives me tips for staying warm overnight. Daytime temps are around 50 degrees or warmer, but at night it will dip below freezing and that’ll be exacerbated by the ceaseless wind off the ice sheet.  

We have a quick dinner as the all-day sun dips low in the sky.

Back in my solo tent, I double up my socks, zip up my sleeping bag on loan from the National Science Foundation, and listen for caribou and Arctic fox. I’m sort of hoping for a hot flash, but it doesn’t come. I shiver myself to sleep, thinking, "I am going to do this, no matter what." 

One man pours water into a pot and another starts a fire atop dirty snow

Student Brandon Graham and University at Buffalo geologist Jason Briner make hot chocolate on the Greenland ice sheet.


Janet Babin/The World

‘... the data are hard to refute …’

Despite Briner's tips, nighttime in the summer here takes some getting used to. Even though the sun slips below the horizon for a while, it does not get dark. But as Briner warned, it does get cold. Between the light and the chill, I sleep badly our first night out, so the coffee brewing when I arrive in the mess tent the next morning is a very welcome thing.

There’s also oatmeal and toast — some of the comforts of home to get us moving on this first full day of the expedition. Before we head out, though, Briner needs to check in by satellite phone with the federal contractors who are providing logistical support. And while he does, I’m reminded of some of the advice they sent me in their prep sheets for this trip.

“An agitated musk ox will sway its head from side to side,” read one tip. Steer clear! And: “If an Arctic fox attacks, fight back and defend yourself.”

This is why I brought along my first ever Swiss Army knife, which everyone on this trip really does carry with them.

After the call, Briner makes the announcement: it’s time — time for our first full day of fieldwork. We head out into the wind, on the hunt for rock and lake sediment samples.

The researchers need those bits of Greenland to help improve our understanding of how the ice sheet here has changed over time, and where it might be headed as the world quickly warms up.

That’s crucial because there’s a huge amount of ice in Greenland, enough to raise global sea levels by around 25 feet if it all melted. How much and how fast it will melt is a gigantic question mark. And it’s taken on even more urgency after a recent discovery.

Not long ago, scientists thought the ice sheet here had stayed more or less intact over the last few million years, that it grew and shrank through cool and warm periods, but that overall, Greenland stayed locked up in a huge block of ice.

But a couple of years ago Briner and some colleagues published new research that points to a very different conclusion, one that took Briner aback.

“I was really surprised,” he says. “But the data are hard to refute.

The data comes from new measurements of some old bedrock collected 25 years ago from beneath the thickest part of the Greenland ice sheet.

The team used improved technology to analyze the rock. They isolated grains of quartz and found some unexpected isotopes — tiny variations in the elements that make up the rock.

“The only way those isotopes can get there,” says Briner’s expedition co-leader Nicolas Young, of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, “is if the ice sheet has completely disappeared and exposed that bedrock site.”

Exposed it to cosmic rays, from space. Cosmic Rays are constantly buffeting the earth, but they don’t penetrate ice very well.

“And so based on these measurements,” says Young, who collaborated with Briner and others on that research, “we thought that it was extremely likely that the ice sheet disappeared at least once if not more times during the past few million years.”

In other words, all this ice seems to have melted before, during warm periods not unlike the one we’re already heading into.

That conclusion challenges what we thought we knew about the history of Greenland. It also suggests something else: That computer models showing that the ice sheet Greenland won’t completely melt in the future could be wrong.

That is a very scary thought. But it resonates with what some other scientists are seeing too. They say that Greenland’s changing very quickly these days — Antarctica too — and sometimes in ways that they hadn’t expected.

So now, Young says, “the concern is, are we reaching some threshold in our climate system where we’ve triggered that runaway melt and runaway ice sheet demise?”

It’s the big question, but the answer remains unclear. Among other things, scientists are pretty sure that the last time the earth was just a bit warmer than it is today, Greenland’s ice sheet did not melt away.

So what gives? We still just don’t know. That’s why these guys are here. The more samples we can collect this week, the more data there will be to help understand Greenland’s past and perhaps get a clearer view of our future.

A woman picks something off a rock as a ice field glitters in the background

Researcher Allison Cluett with the Univeristy at Buffalo selects samples from atop a rock. 


Courtesy Jason Briner

With supplies in our packs, we trudge over lichen-covered boulders, up and down treeless hills, until suddenly there it is, just sitting on the open ground, a geologist’s dream of a rock sample — lots of that key mineral quartz that they’re looking for, clean and easy to get.

Young hops onto the 10-foot tall boulder, grabs an electric saw and rough-cuts a section. Then he delicately coaxes off a slim layer with a hammer and chisel, labels it and stashes it in his pack. And we head off in search of the next big rock.

This goes on well past lunchtime, as far as I can tell, but we’re nowhere near done. And no one else appears tired, just me.

We also have to collect sediment samples from the bottom of a glacial lake, another piece of the ice sheet puzzle.

“The layers of mud that accumulate in lake bottoms, we can read like the pages of a book almost,” Briner says. “It’s a library of information.”

The mud contains silt and organic matter that hold clues to things like temperature and vegetation going back thousands of years.

Three people stand on a bright red raft in the middle of a lake.

Scientists used a catamaran to gather mud core samples.


Courtesy Jason Briner

We head out onto the water on a motorized raft. The lake is turquoise, and frigid. When I dip my hand in, it comes out nearly numb.

We anchor in the deepest part of the lake. Briner and Young stand in the wind near the center of the raft and push a ten-foot plastic tube into the bottom of the lake, and I try not to think about what would happen if I fell off this flimsy sheath.

When they pull the tube up, it’s filled with layers of grey muck.

“It’s a good core,” Briner says, but when he tries to measure how much silt the tube collected, his tape measure keeps slipping. Turns out it’s broken.

Briner casts about for an on-the-fly fix. A hair tie maybe?

I’ve got a bunch. They’re like my zip ties, I tell him.

I give him one and it does the trick. Hair tie to the rescue! I have officially earned my keep on this expedition.

I’m exhausted as we head back to camp, but elated. I’ve somehow managed to do my small part for climate change science.

‘... this ice that we’re standing on is thousands of years old …’

We spend five days camping and collecting samples on what’s called the margin — the nearly barren area about a mile from the actual ice sheet. It’s covered in ancient rocks, with a few shrubs and Arctic flowers here and there, but not much vegetation. Although this is my first camping trip since I was a little kid, I am beginning to feel like pro.

We’ve slept in tents through the midnight sun, anchored catamarans in icy lakes and trudged up and down the glacial moraines searching for rock samples.

For most of the last few days, Briner and his colleagues have been sampling older rocks, hoping their chemistry and location will provide clues to the history of Greenland — how warm or cold was it at particular times throughout history and how much ice was there. But today, we stopped to sample the younger glacial rocks and debris, called moraines, that settled out as the ice sheet receded.

A man kneels on rock at the edge of the Greenland ice sheet.

One of the researchers kneels on the rocks near the edge of the ice sheet.


Janet Babin/The World

“It’s like an analog or an example of what the landscapes we normally study would have looked like thousands of years ago and so it’s actually really useful for us to calibrate our eye and to understand the processes of how moraines get deposited,” he says.

The team first wants to map the area to find the safest path, so it pulls out a drone. It sounds like a toy airplane, controlled by a remote device. Drones are revolutionizing field work — they can map topography in minutes that would have taken hours to figure out on foot.

Now, it’s time to step onto the ice shelf.

With the drone info in hand, we begin to angle our ascent over the steep terrain that’s covered with loose rocks. We climb in a vertical line, making sure to keep distance between each other in case a loose rock dislodges. The wind doesn’t help.  

I’m doing all this while holding a big microphone and wearing clunky headphones. There’s also a fancy camera around my neck and I’m stopping to snap photos from time to time. It wasn’t long before I lost my balance.

Part way up, I fell for the first time all week. I quickly lost the expensive headphones — I’m not even exactly sure when they came off. Then, I watched as my special low-glare sunglasses ended up in a crevasse. I was embarrassed about this, like it somehow reflected a lack of sportsmanship or hiking ability.

It took a lot of effort; some of the trails were uphill climbs over rock piles. Then we’d get to a rushing river of ice sheet meltwater and have to cross it.

But after a last push, we’re finally on the ice sheet itself, as opposed to just camping next to it. It looks kind of like it does on a globe — blindingly white and uniform. Upon close inspection though, the ice is covered in soot and is somehow porous.  

“First of all, how cool is it that we’re standing on the Greenland ice sheet?” Briner said. “We’re standing on bare ice, so if you walk around, you can hear the crunch because this ice that we’re standing on is thousands of years old, it might be 10,000 years old, and it comes from deep within the ice sheet.”

A clear piece of ice is held between a person's fingertips

Up close, the ice on the ice sheet is dirty and porous. It cracks underfoot as researchers walk on the surface.


Janet Babin/The World

We walk around just to hear the crunching sound, take in the majesty of the ice. We cautiously peer into the arctic blue crevasses that sound like the inside of a conch shell times a thousand. Briner said it’s possible that some of them lead all the way down to the bottom of the ice.

Briner hopes all this geologic history we’re gathering will help create better computer models of Greenland’s future in a warming world so we can better predict how much ice will melt, how fast, and what it all means for sea level rise in cities like New York.

As the wind picked up, we realized we had to get back to camp. We crossed back over the rushing waterfalls and fast moving glacial lakes. We stepped gingerly over piles of rock debris left behind by the retreating ice sheet. 

After a few hours, we make it back to camp. We’re tired, punchy and hungry.

“Should we order pizza?” joked Briner.

We all laugh and know that’s impossible — we’re hundreds of miles from even the smallest village or town, let alone a pizza joint.

“That would be $12,000 pizza,” said Young, factoring in the cost of a helicopter.

We all ponder how we’d go about expensing that pizza. When we look up, Briner has a present for everyone: cold cans of beer! After seven days without creature comforts, we all start clapping and toast to a successful trip.

The next morning we ship out.

Briner and the other researchers are heading off to a site in another part of Greenland, and I’m heading back to New York via Iceland.

‘... the first data ever that keeps me awake at night …’

It takes months, sometimes more, for samples collected in Greenland to get worked over in the lab. So the research team from the trip is still analyzing its data for any new conclusions about the ice sheet. It will be months still before there are any new clues about what might be ahead for my city.

Meanwhile, though, I’m still wrestling with the impact of some of the team’s earlier findings. And remarkably, so are they.

“It’s the first data ever that keeps me awake at night at times because it is so alarming,” said Joerg Schaefer at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.

Schaefer is one of Briner’s lead collaborators in the Greenland work.

In 2016, the team concluded that Greenland has been nearly ice-free for a substantial part of the last million years. In a climate similar to today’s, the ice sheet all but completely melted away.  

It’s not what we thought we knew about Greenland, Schaefer said.

“We don’t understand this,” Schaefer said. “We don’t have a model or any kind of process understanding how this can happen. And given the extreme warming of the Arctic at the moment that’s going on and given these really strong signs of the Greenland ice sheet that we observe today from modern observations, this is a really scary story.”

A total melting of the Greenland ice sheet would raise sea levels by roughly 25 feet. Schaefer says he’s not scared that will happen again anytime soon. Other researchers aren’t sure it will happen at all. But Schaefer says even half a foot of sea level rise from Greenland is possible by the end of the century. That, he says, would be a “disaster for society.”

But it would still be a creeping disaster, one too slow to register in most people’s daily lives — except when the coast gets hit by big storms.

After I came back from Greenland, I moved out of Brooklyn to Wall Street. Dozens of buildings in this part of town flooded. Some lost power and elevator service. And subways stations in this area of downtown were closed — in some cases, for months. The trains are up and running, but not much has changed.

A few towers have moved their electrical systems to higher floors. The city has rebuilt some parks to hold more water during storms.

And there’s talk of bigger changes. The US Army Corps of Engineers recently began holding public meetings on whether to build berms, seawalls and storm surge barriers along New York’s shoreline.  But those plans would take decades and billions of dollars to implement.

I went to Greenland to try to get a better fix on how the future of the ice sheet could affect my city. But what I learned is that while details will continue to evolve, we know enough already that we should be doing a lot more to protect coastal cities from climate change and sea level rise.  

If I thought the trip would allay my fears, I was wrong. Seeing the ice up close made me realize the vastness of the world’s loss.

Like my neighbors, I’m nervous about the next storm — how the flooding could keep getting worse while our government focuses on the smaller picture. I contemplate where I could move, but east coast options are limited. In New York City, just about every neighborhood could be impacted.

Each new storm, I wonder if I’ll be isolated, holed up in some broadcasting studio again, or out in the field following another disaster. Every subway ride I’m careful to bring a filled water canteen, aspirin, contact lens solution. Will I have to report on immediate impacts of potentially higher flood waters? I want to be prepared — it’s what adulting is about — being prepared, right?

And then I remember the Greenland findings that now keep scientist Joerg Schaefer up at night. We have a lot more to learn and lot more to prepare for.

A wooden memorial star is seen hanging from a tree as heavy machinery excavate land in Breezy Point in Queens, New York, six months after the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in April 2013.

A wooden memorial star is seen hanging from a tree as heavy machinery excavate land in Breezy Point in Queens, New York, six months after the landfall of Superstorm Sandy in April 2013.


Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

Editor’s note: This story was produced in part thanks to a reporting grant from the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources and with material support from the National Science Foundation and the New York Air National Guard.

Sixteen rotors and a cloud of dust: Philippine inventor unveils 'flying sports car'

Sep 26, 2018


A Philippine inventor has unveiled what he calls a flying sports car that represents the future of transport, riding it out of a warehouse toward a cheering crowd, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake.

Former dancer and camera operator Kyxz Mendiola flew and hovered for a few minutes in a single-passenger contraption powered by the "multicopter" technology commonly used in small unmanned drones.

"It was amazing," Mendiola told Reuters after what he said was the first public test flight of his invention. "All the hard work paid off. Everything worked perfect."

Mendiola's machine, the "Koncepto Milenya," can fly as high as 20 feet and speed up to 37 mph, but its maiden flight lasted just a little over 10 minutes.

He said it took a long time to save up the funds for the components of the single-seater powered by six lithium-ion batteries whose passenger steers with a portable radio frequency controller.

"Press a button and it will go up, then push the stick forward, it goes forward. It's very smart, that's why I'm saying it has a lot of potential," Mendiola said.

The machine, which can carry up to 220 pounds, could shave hours off trips in cities like the capital, Manila, crippled by chronic traffic problem, Mendiola felt.

"When we have to go somewhere about an hour's drive, this can take you there in five minutes," he said.

An added safety feature is that the craft's 16 rotary motors allow it to keep flying, even if one or two fail, he added.

An Australian company, Star8, is partnering with Mendiola to develop the vehicle after a video featuring it went viral on social media.

Star8's Chief Executive Jacob Maimon said he wanted to mass produce it and market it in Australia, Europe and Hong Kong, after helping Mendiola perfect the machine.

"We will get there very fast now, what with the help that we can give him," he added.

Some refugees use Grindr to find love — and money

Sep 24, 2018


On a hot, summer afternoon at Yiasemi, a tourist-packed cafe in Athens’s historical district, Lawrence Alatrash, a gay, Syrian refugee sits hunched over a cellphone, scrolling through photos on Grindr. Alatrash identifies as nonbinary (neither male nor female) and sometimes goes by the pronouns "they/them/their." (For this piece, Alatrash says he's OK being referred to as "he/his/him," as he says he is not totally defined by any particular pronouns.)

Check out our series about gender-neutral pronouns: From ‘Mx.’ to ‘hen’: When ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ words aren’t enough. 

Grindr is a popular dating app for gay, bisexual and transgender men and has made the queer dating scene easier for millions of people in nearly 200 countries around the world. However, the app is partially or entirely banned in Iran, Saudi Arabia, Indonesia and Turkey, the last of which is a common transit point for refugees coming from the Middle East and North Africa on their way to Europe.  

Alatrash fled his homeland in 2012, not only because of the developing Syrian civil war but also because of safety concerns due to his sexual orientation and gender identity. At 25 years old, he now has the freedom to openly express his queer self for the first time in his life. 

According to UNHCR, more than 1 million refugees and migrants from countries in the Middle East and North Africa have entered Europe since the summer of 2015. The exact number of LGBTQ refugees is hard to specify because many are still afraid to reveal their sexual orientation for safety concerns.  

Related: Refugees asking for asylum in Canada argue the US is no longer safe

When Alatrash first arrived in Greece, his mother, who was with him, knew nothing about his sexual orientation, and he continued to feel isolated and alone. Still afraid to open up to his own community, Alatrash started using Grindr to connect with the local gay scene. 

Weeks after his arrival, Alatrash started dating a Greek man he met on the app. For a little less than a year, Alatrash and this man openly dated. And although the relationship has since ended, never before had Alatrash had the freedom to kiss another man or hold his hand in public. “Honestly, I was more excited about being able to hold another man’s hand in public than the individual himself,” Alatrash said. 

In May 2017, Alatrash received asylum in Greece. He immediately started looking for full-time employment and a way to continue his studies, which had been cut short by the war. Less than a year later, he was awarded a full scholarship for gifted refugees to attend Deree, the American College of Greece. 

In June 2018, just over one year since receiving asylum, he started working part-time as an interpreter for Refugee Legal Support in their downtown offices. Alatrash was finally receiving a salary. Slowly, he was rebuilding his life. 

Still, life in the Greek capital was not easy. Although the UNHCR was providing housing for him and his mother, as well as a monthly cash card of 150 euros ($176.40), he still wasn’t able to make ends meet. The quickest and easiest solution to this problem was to start working as an escort again. At 16, Alatrash started selling sex in his home country and continued to do so during the year that he lived in Istanbul while trying to save up money for passage to Greece for himself and his mother.   

Related: Syrian revolution changed how women are viewed in the workplace

For the first months in Greece, while he was living in a refugee camp, Alatrash stopped working as an escort, instead focusing on adjusting to a new reality. Once Alatrash was able to move out of the camp and into his own place, he had to find a way to cover his increased expenses. So, he resumed selling sex. However, instead of frequenting the common public places, Alatrash was back on Grindr — this time to meet potential clients. 

“I went one time to Pedion tou Areos, but I felt unsafe there because it’s very dangerous at night,” explained Alatrash, referring a to park in central Athens where refugees and migrants commonly sell sex. He says he prefers to work less for more money on Grinder "because in the park, you also work more but for less money." 

In a good month, with the money he receives from the UNHCR and his salary from RLS, he would only make 350 euros ($411.56). Now, using Grindr, he can make upwards of 150 euros ($176.38) per client. With Grindr, the lowest he has ever made for a particular service was 50 euros ($58.78), whereas in public spaces in downtown Athens, the most he could hope for would be 20 euros (23.51) per client. 

His target group is also different on Grindr than in the park. Older, wealthier men who wouldn’t be seen frequenting a public place looking for sex are often willing to pay more for discretion and sticking to the privacy of their own homes.  

Almost from the beginning of the refugee crisis, hundreds of refugees and migrants were turning to prostitution that was later labeled as “survival sex.” Although the UNHCR doesn’t have an official definition, “the difference is that prostitution is a legal term that can be a crime or a regulated profession, while survival sex is a term derived by sociologists to describe a situation where a refugee or other person is pushed into something as a way to survive,” explained Leo Dobbs, UNHCR’s senior communications officer.  

Related: In refugee camps on Lesbos, single men can feel stuck

What used to be an exchange achieved by frequenting parks and public spaces where refugees gather has now transformed into a matter of a few swipes on a dating app, text messages or a quick phone call. And although survival sex is not new in the refugee community, the means through which it is achieved has evolved. 

Although Alatrash has a very close relationship with his mother — his father died before he was born and she raised him alone — he has hidden from her his Grindr activity as well as his sexual orientation. “She knows that I’m feminine; she knows that I’m different; but I’m not sure she knows that I like boys,” he explained. Still, Alatrash says his mother is his biggest supporter.  

Even though his mother has always been ahead of her time for Middle Eastern standards — having a son out of wedlock and raising him as a single mom — Alatrash is still hesitant to reveal too much to her. “She knows that I love her so much, and I know that she loves me so much. There’s no need to open the discussion.” 

Dangers remain for gay refugees

In July of this year, one day after his mother was relocated from Greece for Holland, Alatrash's life was turned upside down. While walking home from a dinner party with friends, he was brutally attacked on a crowded street in downtown Athens, an area well-known for its refugee and migrant presence. He was beaten and gang-raped by three refugees — fellow Syrian men he had never seen before.  

Since then, he’s been afraid to leave his house. He can’t sleep at night due to nightmares, and his job performance is suffering. And although he is seeing a therapist and seeking legal help — he filed a police report and sought medical attention after the attack — he's finding it difficult to cope.  

Lawrence Alatrash shows a photo of himself brutally beaten, which he took with his mobile phone after he was attacked and raped by three other Syrian refugees in downtown Athens, Greece.

Lawrence Alatrash shows a photo of himself brutally beaten, which he took with his mobile phone after he was attacked and raped by three other Syrian refugees in downtown Athens, Greece. Photo taken on Sept. 10, 2018. 


Demetrios Ioannou/PRI

A few days after he was raped, an aggressive bus driver kicked Alatrash off of the bus for wearing what he described as an “inappropriate shirt showing his boobs.” This latest humiliation hit Alatrash hard. He went home and tried to kill himself by ingesting a handful of pills.

“I started thinking that maybe all these religions are correct, and that this is my punishment for being who I am. I haven’t thought like this since I was 16,” he said. After ingesting the pills, Alatrash sat on the floor of his apartment waiting for it to “all finally be over.” But 10 minutes later, he went to the bathroom, threw up and called a friend to come over to his house. “I love myself, and I really didn’t want to hurt myself, but I hate all of this that is surrounding me.” 

Related: Refugee women in Greece are moving forward. But many men around them are not.

Despite the fact that he loves Greece, has a stable job and a scholarship to a prestigious university in Athens and can rely on a close group of friends, the events of the past few weeks have led Alatrash to make one of the most difficult decisions in his life: to leave Athens for a new life in Berlin — something that one year ago he would never have considered doing.  

“I no longer feel safe here with the people who raped me roaming free,” rapists from the same country he risked his life to flee only a few years ago.   

Alatrash says he is not giving up, however. Moving to Germany is just an opportunity for him to start a new page in what has so far been a turbulent life. In Berlin, a more LGBTQ-friendly city — it even has a shelter for LGBTQ refugees — he plans on pursuing a career in theater and fine arts, his passions. He will also continue making shirts under the brand Gender Panic, which he and a group of queer friends created. He hopes to expand the brand in the future. 

Greece, for Alatrash, seemed like the land of new beginnings. He came seeking safety and a better life. And although he was unable to find it entirely, he doesn’t regret his decision to leave Syria for Europe. “The best thing my country did for me was the war,” he explained. “I know this is selfish to say with all the killing, which I’m not supporting at all, but for me and a lot of LGBT people, without this war and revolution, we would be trapped our whole lives.” 

In Nigeria, Shell’s onshore roots still run deep

Sep 23, 2018


Royal Dutch Shell wants to reweight its footprint in Nigeria to focus on oil and gas fields far offshore, away from the theft, spills, corruption and unrest that have plagued the West African country's onshore industry for decades.

But for the company that pioneered Nigeria's oil industry in the 1950s, the Niger Delta remains as important — and problematic — as ever.

While Shell has cut onshore oil production and sold some onshore assets, it continues to invest in others. In fact, onshore production has risen in recent years as a share of Shell's output in Nigeria, an analysis of company data over the past decade shows.

Much of the increase comes from less polluting gas, used mainly in power generation, which Shell thinks will be key to the transition to lower carbon energy. Gas made up 70 percent of onshore production in 2017, up from 47 percent in 2008. 

The company still controls thousands of miles of pipelines connecting inland fields to coastal terminals through its subsidiary, Shell Petroleum Development Co of Nigeria (SPDC), however.

So while SPDC has cut oil production in the Delta by 70 percent since 2011, when it first started reporting data on spills, the incidence of spills and theft from pipelines has fallen at a much lower rate and has picked up again recently, the data shows.

Shell's Nigeria Country Chair Osagie Okunbor hinted it was a sensitive balancing act.

"We are too big just to see ourselves as 'there is a problem and we have to run.' That is not what we are thinking of doing," he told reporters on a media trip to the country in July. "But at the same time, we don't want to spread our footprint."

Two pipeline spills in 2008 in the small community of Bodo in Ogoniland are emblematic of the problems in the Delta, a vast maze of creeks and mangrove swamps crisscrossed by pipelines and blighted by poverty and oil-fueled violence.

On a speedboat trip to the site of a clean-up operation launched by Shell last year, a makeshift oil refinery stood idle on a charred landing. The ground was soaked with oil, the air heavy with petrol fumes and slicks glistened in the water nearby. There were few signs of birds or fish.

So far this year, 85 crude spills have been recorded, already higher than the previous two years. In 2016, militant attacks pushed the volume of spills to more than 30,000 barrels, a high since 2011. 

Oil theft from SPDC rose to around 9,000 barrels per day (bpd) in 2017 — a loss of nearly $180 million for the year — from 6,000 bpd the year before.

Despite all the problems and costs, however, Nigerian onshore operations generate billions of dollars annually.

Shell does not break down profits by country, but a report on payments to governments that the company publishes annually showed it paid around $1.1 billion in royalties, taxes and fees to the Nigerian government in 2017.

That means Shell earned more than $4 billion from oil and gas production in Nigeria in 2017 — about 7 percent of its total global output.

A Shell spokesman declined to comment on the specifics of Reuters' data analysis. 

The Nigerian Petroleum Ministry declined to comment.

Shell has shown it can shut down if it is not making money. It stopped producing oil completely in Iraq last year after half a century in the country, although it retains substantial gas operations.

"It's hard to think Shell would stay put onshore and weather all the problems if the assets didn't offer decent returns," said Aaron Sayne, a financial crime lawyer working at the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI). "To some extent, the onshore must still be worth the trouble." 

An aerial photo shows oil spills in a river delta

An overview of the Niger delta where signs of oil spills can be seen in the water in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, on Aug. 1, 2018.


Ron Bousso/Reuters

Theft and spills

Shell remains central to Nigeria's economy and society. SPDC — operated by Shell with a 30 percent stake while the Nigerian National Petroleum Co has 55 percent, France's Total has 10 percent and Italy's Eni has 5 percent — is the country's largest oil joint venture, employing thousands.

The Anglo-Dutch giant's operations drew unwelcome attention in the early 1990s when residents of the Delta's Ogoni region called for fairer distribution of oil wealth and compensation for spills. The government cracked down and in 1995 executed nine protest leaders, including prominent writer Ken Saro-Wiwa, prompting Shell to end production in the area forever. 

It retained control of the Trans-Niger Pipeline, however, and nearly a quarter of a century later, little seems to have changed on the ground.

In 2015 Shell accepted responsibility for operational faults that caused the 2008 spills that dumped tens of thousands of oil barrels into creeks around Bodo, and paid a settlement of 55 million pounds to villagers.

Dozens of spills since, including one by a barge carrying stolen oil that sunk in July, are frustrating remediation efforts, clean-up officials said.

"You clean it up, you walk away, somebody goes back there and does the same thing. It's like going around in circles," said Ogonnaya Iroakasi, Ogoni restoration project supervisor and an SPDC member.

Around 80 percent of the spills are a result of sabotage, Shell data shows.

Shell has taken a number of steps to improve the situation in the area, including training youth to start up businesses and funding local community patrols, campaigns to raise local awareness and even a local radio station.

But critics say it is not enough. 

"I am not minimizing the challenge of re-pollution but Shell are not doing enough to solve it," said Daniel Leader, the Bodo community's lead UK lawyer. "The pipelines are not equipped with the most basic leak detection technology and Shell is simply not present on the ground in these communities." 

Local residents are frustrated as the slow process stops many from fishing, one of the main sources of income. Much of the anger is focused on Shell but Eni has also struggled to cope in recent years. Since starting to report data to authorities in 2014, the Italian company has recorded more spills than Shell, according to Amnesty International.

"Please, don't give up on us ... I hope that you guys here can force Shell to do the right thing," Michael Porobunu, chairman of Gokana council of chiefs, told the clean-up crew and reporters on his porch.    

Off the coast

SPDC has sold 10 of the 27 field licenses in the Delta it held in 2010, mostly to local companies. It has applied to renew the remaining licenses, which expire next year.

The divestments are a reminder of another cost of doing business in Nigeria — corruption. Shell has filed a criminal complaint against a former senior employee over suspected bribes in the $390 million sale of oil mining license 42 to local firm Neconde in 2011.

Offshore operations are an attractive alternative to the Delta in many ways. The Bonga field 75 miles off the coast is one of Shell's prized assets since starting up in 2005.

The giant tanker, with a drilling platform that pumps 225,000 barrels of oil and 210 million cubic feet of gas per day from a field one km below, won the company's "asset of the year award" in 2016 for its safety and reliability.

Many risks remain. In 2016, the Trans-Forcados pipeline was shut down for months after militants detonated a bomb at its sub-sea section. Shell and Eni face bribery allegations in a Milan court over the 2011 purchase of an offshore license. Drilling offshore is also more expensive and technically complex.

Shell and its partners will decide next year on whether to develop a new offshore field, Bonga Southwest.

"Such an investment will reopen the window for the next wave of investment in deep water Nigeria," Bayo Ojulari, managing director of Shell Nigeria Exploration and Production Company, said in Lagos.

Puerto Rico's tropical forests are showing resilience after Hurricane Maria

Sep 22, 2018 14:04


When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico in 2017, the direct hit turned a green island brown. Vast areas of forest were stripped of their leaves and branches. From mangroves to cloud forests, every ecosystem on the island was devastated by the massive storm.

NASA scientist Doug Morton had a bird’s-eye view of the effects of the storm on the island’s tropical forests, with cameras from the Goddard Space Flight Center. “It’s almost like you took a tropical rainforest and you turned it into a New England woodland in December, because you stripped all of the leaves off almost all of the trees,” Morton says. “The canopy literally went from green to brown.”

Related: This Puerto Rican town rebuilt after Maria but it's still not ready for another storm

But there is also good news. Forests that evolved in the hurricane belt have ways to cope and are slowly coming back.

El Yunque National Forest is a gold mine of scientific research. Government scientists, like biologist Maria Rivera, have been maintaining research plots here for decades. She has been visiting El Yunque once a week to collect data for the last 18 years. But she says she was shocked when she first saw the forest after the hurricane went through.

“My first reaction was a bomb [had gone off] inside the forest,” she says.

Related: Puerto Rico’s eroding beaches spell trouble for coastal dwellers

Most of the park is still closed to visitors and many roads remain impassable, with branches and tree limbs scattered about. Some deforested hillsides are still unstable. The ground is bare except for rocks and dead trees. Everything is brown, twisted and gnarled or pulled out from the ground. It almost looks like a forest fire went through.

At the very top of Luquillo mountain, in a cloud forest some 3,500 feet above sea level, the temperature is at least 20 degrees cooler than just a mile or so down the mountain. The forest has an ethereal quality. Wispy clouds settle around the trees like a damp blanket.

Related: A year after Maria, Puerto Rican college students find home – on the island and off

This area gets upwards of 200 inches of rain a year and is typically dripping with life. Rivera says that before the hurricane struck, nearly every surface in this forest was covered with moss and epiphytes growing in the crook of trees. Today it is nearly bare.

But recovery is how nature works, Rivera says.

The short, stout trees evolved to cope with high winds at the top of the mountain. They were a small target to begin with; when the hurricane blew through, they simply dropped their leaves and weathered the storm. Very few trees here were actually uprooted and killed.

Still, when Rivera came here about six months after the hurricane, she says she was stunned to see how the trees had responded. All the trees had flowers, she says. “It was very pretty. Not many leaves, but when I saw the flowers, I said, ‘Wow, this is great!’”

All across the island, trees set flowers and fruit outside their usual season. It’s a stress response and a survival mechanism to pass on their genes. In a closed-canopy forest, the competition for sunlight can be fierce. After a hurricane opens new space, however, trees are in a race to drop seeds and fill that vacated spot.

Just a few minutes down the mountain is the palm area — a completely different ecosystem. From above, the closed canopy of a tropical forest typically looks a bit like broccoli from above. This forest looks more like spears of asparagus. The trees have mostly grown their leaves back, but they are skinny, with very few branches.

Maria says that’s how the palm trees were able to survive the hurricane. Because palm trees have no branches, the hurricane winds just passed through the skinny palm trees. But if a palm loses the branches at the very top, it dies, which is what happened to about 50 percent of the trees on the island. They were decapitated. The dead trees still standing look like matchsticks.

Five minutes further down the mountain is yet another ecosystem, called a tropical dry forest. Here, temperature are much hotter than up in the cloud forest. Many of the tree trunks in these forests were twisted out of shape by Maria’s high winds. Yet the area is turning green again. There are new branches, new leaves. “The recovery was very fast here,” Rivera says.

During the storm, the old, weak branches broke off, but healthier parts of the trees stayed intact and their leaves have quickly grown back.

The most heavily damaged ecosystem is the mangrove forest, on the coast, where the hurricane first made landfall. The mangrove forest is hot and sunny. Rivera says the ground was still covered in 10 inches of water the first time she came here after the hurricane.

“When I came here the first time, I thought all were dead,” Rivera says. “They didn’t have leaves. They didn’t have new growth.”

Mangroves live at the salty edge of the sea. They thrive in saltwater and are designed to withstand strong winds, so researchers were surprised to see that nearly all of the mangroves looked dead after Hurricane Maria came through. Those biologists surmise that the saltwater and sand blown against the mangroves had essentially burned all the leaves and branches.

But mangroves evolved to live in this harsh coastal environment in a region prone to hurricanes. In fact, some green shoots poke out from around the base of a tree that seems dead. “Not all are dead,” Rivera says. “They continue.”

The mangrove forest was the most devastated ecosystem on Puerto Rico, but given enough time, it will recover. And since no other plant can easily grow in this harsh ecosystem, they have no competition. Indeed, adding to the shoots on existing trees, a carpet of foot-tall mangrove saplings covers the sandy ground.

The recovery of Puerto Rico’s forests shows the value of a long-term study. Ariel Lugo, director of the International Institute for Tropical Forestry, says hurricanes can have both positive and negative effects on an ecosystem. Forest regrowth is exceptionally high following a devastating hurricane.

“The productivity of the forest right now is higher than it was before the hurricane,” Lugo says. “The first five years after Hurricane Hugo was the fastest primary productivity that we've ever measured in the forest.”

Lugo worries, however, about the slow pace of the mangrove recovery — specifically, that they likely won’t be there when the next hurricane strikes.

“So, what is going to absorb the energy of the hurricane?” he asks. “Well, it’s going to be absorbed by human structures and it’s going to be absorbed by other parts of the landscape, and so we’re liable to see more landslides and greater floods.”

In the long term, Lugo thinks the storm will be a recalibration. Fit plants and animals will survive. Older, weaker, less adapted and invasive species will not. He estimates that the forests will need roughly 60 years to recover completely.

The impacts of the hurricane raise enough questions to keep scientists like Maria Rivera busy for decades. But, for Rivera, her work is more than just collecting data. She says seeing the devastation of the forest she knows so well was difficult at first.

“The first reaction was to cry,” she says. “I’ve worked here for 27 years. It was the first time I’ve seen that devastation. But now is different. For me now, when I see the trees, when I see the green area, the feeling is different. I’m happy for that. I’m very happy.”

This article is based on a story that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

A new book tells the stories of people coping with a changing American shoreline

Sep 22, 2018 14:16


Many Americans would like to believe that climate change is a problem of the future. But as ocean levels rise, coastal communities from Louisiana to Staten Island to Pensacola, Florida are contending with higher floods, stronger hurricanes and saltwater intrusion. Some are even being forced to retreat to higher ground.

Writer Elizabeth Rush set out to document some of the stories of people caught in these rising tides in her new book, "Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore."

“I wanted to write this book from their perspective,” Rush says. “To go on the ground in coastal communities, specifically in the United States, and to ask folks living on the front lines of sea level rise, ‘What is it that woke you up to this reality and what are you doing to rise to the challenges that it presents?’"

Rush says that when she started writing “Rising,” she had the idea that coastal communities were typically affluent areas, but this is only partially true. In fact, she says, many of the places now flooding due to sea level rise sit on top or alongside of tidal wetlands, “which have long been viewed as wastelands … unfit for human development.”

These are some of the last places to get developed and housing prices often are lower because flooding problems already exist. These areas, where flooding has worsened nearly every year, are often lower-income communities of color.

“Pensacola, Florida, was tidal wetlands, swampy marshland, and it was one of the main destinations that runaway slaves sought out,” Rush explains. “Part of the reason they [did] was because those wetlands acted as a sort of invisibility cloak. Wetlands are easy to defend and difficult to attack, and the land itself tends to not be very coveted. … Some of the people who are feeling the ocean’s gathering force now are those who have historically been economically and socially disadvantaged in this country."

While researching and writing the book, Rush became friends with Chris Brunet, a resident of Isle de Jean Charles, about an hour and a half southwest of New Orleans. The coast of Louisiana is losing ground at a stunning rate, Rush points out. Since around 1950, an area in size equal to the state of Delaware has disappeared underwater.

The Isle de Jean Charles has lost over 90 percent of its landmass in the past 50 years. It is inhabited by a group of people who are Biloxi, Chitimacha, Choctaw, and Acadian — indigenous groups that were displaced when they fled colonial violence and “ended up on the soggy fringes of the state of Louisiana, in part because that land wasn't necessarily that desirable to begin with,” Rush says. “They've lived there for a couple of hundred years.”

In 2016, Rush saw a front-page headline in The New York Times that referred to the United States' "first American 'climate refugees.'” It was a story about the island and a $48 million grant it had received to relocate as a group. Rush called Brunet and asked, “Are you leaving?” “I can still hear his voice in my mind,” Rush says. “He said, ‘We're not celebrating, but we are going.’”

In photographs from his childhood, Brunet’s home is surrounded by pasture. Cows are grazing and his mother is growing okra, cantaloupe and persimmons. Now, 50 years later, due to sea level rise and other compounding factors, the land has disappeared under the tide.

Rush visited the island a couple of months later and says the realization that “this land was really going to disappear and that the human history of folks living in it wasn’t going to be grounded in that place anymore” totally changed her perspective.

Rush heard about a similar scenario that was playing out in a community named Oakwood Beach on the eastern coast of Staten Island, an area profoundly devastated by Hurricane Sandy. Months after the storm, Oakwood Beach began a public campaign to have the state use disaster recovery funds to purchase and demolish their homes. “They didn't feel safe living there any longer,” Rush says. “They had been flooding worse and worse, year after year.”

Rush cautions that her focus on low-income communities shouldn’t give a false sense of comfort to affluent communities who think money can help them escape the rising tides or delay the pain past their lifetimes.

While it’s true, she says, that, “if you have enough money, you can build up on stilts, you can pay for the insurance, you can sort of build a buffer around yourself that might make you seem lifted above that vulnerable position, both metaphorically and physically, the reality is those homes are deeply dependent upon all of the different kinds of infrastructure that service them — roadways, gas pipelines, electric lines and telecommunication lines.”

Miami Beach, for example, is spending hundreds of millions of dollars on sea level rise-ready infrastructure, installing flood pumps and raising roadways. But that largely wealthy community is, “in ways that we don't often pay attention to, deeply linked to many of the surrounding communities, as well as to the lower-income communities and the working-class communities,” Rush points out.

“Those folks … work in the public sector; they are sanitation workers, they work in the hotels, they work in the restaurants,” Rush says. “I think that the idea that we can just lift the wealthy above the high tide line and nothing will change is just fundamentally flawed. We are all in this together and the sooner we can wrap our heads around that the better, I think.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Here's what you need to know about carbon pricing

Sep 21, 2018


Carbon pricing is like good dental hygiene: It involves a bit of pain and expense but provides many benefits, including saving money, for years to come. Increasingly US politicians across the spectrum are beginning to see both the necessity and benefits of good carbon hygiene.

This backgrounder provides basic information on the why and what of carbon pricing, its impacts on emissions and the economy, and who in the world is doing it.

Why price carbon?

It’s commonly accepted that those who produce pollution should pay to prevent damage to human health, property or the environment. Burning fossil fuels (oil, coal and gas) produces carbon dioxide, the main driver of climate change. Climate change in turn creates societal costs by increasing the intensity of extreme weather events, contributing to flooding and forest fires, raising sea levels, acidifying oceans, increasing biodiversity losses, increasing the spread of vector-borne diseases like dengue, and much more.

By increasing the cost of activities that produce carbon, carbon pricing incentivizes practices that reduce emissions, makes fossil fuels more expensive relative to low-carbon fuels, encourages energy efficiency and makes nonpolluting forms of energy more cost competitive.

There are two main ways to put a price on carbon: by levying a carbon tax and by using a cap-and-trade approach.

Carbon tax

A carbon tax puts a price on the CO2 emitted. Governments set a price per metric ton based on the estimated societal costs of that carbon and apply it to power utilities, oil companies and other industries that emit CO2.

In addition to disincentivizing CO2 emissions, a carbon tax also generates revenue. In many cases, the governments either distribute the revenue to taxpayers or use it to fund clean energy programs and help those who might lose their jobs in the transition to a low-carbon economy.

British Columbia returns its carbon tax revenues to the public via income tax cuts. Mexico’s and Chile’s modest carbon taxes ($5 per metric ton) fund social programs. In Sweden, which has had a carbon tax since 1991, 50 percent of the revenue stays with the government, and the rest is returned to the public through income tax cuts.

Researchers participating in the Stanford Energy Modeling Forum modeled 39 different carbon tax scenarios for the US with carbon prices of $25 or $50 per metric ton (1.1 tons) starting in 2020 and rising at 1 percent or 5 percent per year until 2050. All resulted in substantially fewer carbon emissions at modest economic costs that are offset by the avoided costs of climate damage and health savings from reduced air pollution.

A $40 per ton carbon tax could put nearly $2,000 in the pockets of a family of four in a single year. Supported by four major oil companies, including Exxon, the Climate Leadership Council is lobbying for a US national carbon tax. Its plan would return the carbon tax revenue to taxpayers as a dividend. A $40 per ton carbon tax could put nearly $2,000 in the pockets of a family of four in a single year, based on a Treasury Department report on a similar plan. And, despite higher energy prices, about 70 percent of Americans would see their after-tax income increase.

And that dividend would grow as carbon prices rise to a projected $50–$450 per metric ton in order to reduce carbon emissions to 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050.

“Our polling shows Americans are two-to-one in favor of our carbon dividend plan, and millennials favor it four-to-one,” says Ted Halstead, the council’s founder and CEO.

A new study by leading economists in the journal Nature suggests that a check in the mail for households has advantages over tax cuts or green spending. The poorest households would benefit most through a carbon dividend payment system, the study concluded.

“Carbon pricing will not work unless people clearly see what they are getting out of it,” co-author Cameron Hepburn of the University of Oxford said in a press release.

Cap and trade

A cap-and-trade approach to carbon pricing is bit more complicated. It sets a cap on the total amount of carbon an industry is allowed to emit. Companies are given or sold annual carbon emission permits that decrease over time. A company with emissions below the cap can sell its permits to another company whose emissions exceed its cap, thus avoiding a penalty. This creates a supply-and-demand marketplace without governments setting a carbon price (although some may set a floor or ceiling on the permit price).

If the price of pollution permits or the penalty for exceeding the cap is high enough, companies will invest in low-carbon solutions. However, if they are too low, not much happens. This largely has been the case since the European Union created the world’s first cap-and-trade system in 2005. Many free permits were given to get industries on board. Coupled with the 2008 financial crisis, this kept the permit price well below $10 per metric ton until reforms were put into place in 2017. In addition, the system covers less than 50 percent of the region’s carbon emissions. The entire system is being revised to tighten emission limits, reduce handouts of free permits and pull excess permits off the market if their price falls too low. Revisions will take effect in 2021.

California has had a cap-and-trade system since 2012. Its permit price has averaged less than $15 per metric ton the past few years. And, like nearly all cap-and-trade systems (as well as carbon tax systems), some sectors of the economy are exempt. Roughly 85 percent of California’s emissions are covered, which is one of the highest in the world.  

Comparisons difficult

Every carbon tax and cap-and-trade system is uniquely designed to fit local circumstances, making comparisons difficult. Generally, since cap and trade puts a ceiling on emissions that lowers over time, it offers more predictability about reaching a specific emissions reduction target. A carbon tax provides stable carbon prices so industry and entrepreneurs can make investment decisions without having to worry about fluctuating changes in the cost of carbon.

However, a new IMF working paper has modeled how the two systems might work for G20 countries. The analysis suggests that when a carbon tax covers carbon emissions from a country’s fossil fuel supply, it will raise substantially more revenue than today’s cap-and-trade plans. And it would be better at cutting emissions since the tax would apply to all emission sources, not just large industrial emitters such as power plants. In addition, the paper concludes that carbon pricing reduces deaths from local air pollution due to fuel combustion by roughly the same proportion as the CO2 reduction, making it worth implementing even if climate change weren’t an issue.

Not enough

According to the World Bank Group publication “State and Trends of Carbon Pricing 2018,” 45 national and 25 subnational jurisdictions currently have a carbon pricing structure in place, with prices ranging from less than $1 to $139 per metric ton. In addition, more than 1,300 companies use or plan to use carbon pricing this year or next, with prices ranging from $0.01 to $909 per metric ton. Companies don’t actually pay this price, but use it as a hypothetical or shadow price in their accounting to prepare for the day when a real carbon price is in place.

The Carbon Pricing Leadership Coalition estimates that carbon prices will have to be between $50 and $100 per metric ton by 2030 for countries to meet their Paris Agreement emission reduction targets without other emission reduction policies. This would generate considerable resistance from affected industries and be difficult for governments to put in place across all sectors, some energy economists say.

International energy experts writing in the journal Nature Climate Change suggest a package of climate policies to complement a carbon price that includes boosting energy efficiency, switching to low-carbon fuels (such as from coal to gas), increasing renewable energy and removing carbon through practices such as planting trees and changing some agricultural practices. Their conclusion: A well-planned climate policy package that includes a carbon price is the way to achieve an efficient, just and publicly acceptable decarbonization transition. View Ensia homepage

A version of this story originally appeared on Ensia.

Documentaries capture the impact of Hurricane Maria on Puerto Ricans' health

Sep 21, 2018 8:09


Alberto Rodríguez has designed an impressive power system for his home in Puerto Rico. A wind turbine and solar panels lead to batteries that are then converted to power for the home.

But Rodríguez isn't trying merely to keep the lights on — he's trying to keep his wife, Mirella, alive. Mirella suffered a stroke about a month after Hurricane Maria came ashore last year. Maria knocked out power to their home, and so if Mirella was to come home from the hospital, Rodríguez had to find a way to generate a stable power supply.

So he did.

The Rodríguez's story is just one of several stories captured in Andrea Patiño Contreras's series of short documentaries, produced for Univision, about some of the Puerto Ricans who survived Hurricane Maria and how it’s affected their health. Contreras spoke with The World's Marco Werman about the people she met in Puerto Rico.

Marco Werman: Let's start with the story about this couple, Alberto and Mirella. How did you meet them and how were they impacted by Hurricane Maria?

Andrea Patiño Contreras: So we met Alberto and Mirella doing our reporting in the region where Hurricane Maria made landfall. It was one of the hardest-hit regions on the island. And when we were there, we had heard about this man who had built this incredible electrical system to keep his wife alive. We started asking neighbors about them and we ended up at their place. They were hit pretty hard, as were many people in their neighborhood — in that region. By the way, when we went there in July they had just gotten electricity back a few weeks before that. So it was about 10 months that they were without electricity. Pretty difficult, especially for someone taking care of a woman who's very sick.

So Mirella, what happened to her?

She had a stroke a month after Maria made landfall. She had already had two strokes in the eight years before that. So this was her third and the worst. She was in pretty bad shape — she actually had four small heart attacks during that time. The last one, it took doctors nine minutes to revive her. So by the time all of that happened, they were pretty certain she wasn't going to live for much longer.

The doctors basically told him, 'OK, you can take her now home under this hospice program, because she's not going to live much longer. But for that we need you to have electricity 24/7 so that she can use all the machines she's depending on and so she can have A/C so that she's comfortable. But they didn't have electricity. So that was a challenge for him. So he had to come up with his system.

I mean, it's such a reminder of how much we take electricity in this country for granted. What was Alberto's plan?

So, he had a generator but that was not enough. He couldn't run that 24/7 because it's very loud and very expensive. It's not feasible for the neighborhood — everyone can listen to it. So he basically came up with this system. He knew a little bit about wind power and solar energy. So he decided to utilize that. He created a whole small electrical grid that basically feeds Mirella's machines. With his family, he started innovating and putting all these pieces together. It was very hard to find, for instance, batteries. He would have to drive to San Juan one day and then the next day his son would go try to find another battery. Slowly, they were able to put together eight batteries and then create this whole system for Mirella's machines exclusively. And right now they don't depend on the electrical system at all. Because they know the electrical grid is very, very fragile. If there is another storm — even if it's not a hurricane — it could put it down. That's why they want to keep this innovative system in place.

So a kind of silver lining to this story — Alberto's kind of independent from the grid. How about Mirella — how's she doing now?

She's doing well, within the limitations that she has right now. As I mentioned before, she was expected to live for only a couple of weeks after she was released back in November. It's been almost a year, it will be in November. And he says that she has improved a little bit. I mean, she's never going to go back to the way she was. He talked about, when we interviewed him, the immense love he feels for her. She's been his companion for 45 years. They have two sons, they have grandkids together and [he said] it was his turn to be a really good partner to her. And of course it's not easy. It has really changed their lives, their routines. He's her main caretaker. She's in bed 24 hours a day and he's with her most of the time. So it has really changed this family.

It's a three-minute documentary and I was tearing up. I mean, it really ought to become an arthouse film. It's so powerful — but so is the person in this other video you produced. It's also very moving. So this woman, her name is Nieves.

When it rains she feels panic. She's terrified she wants to run away and her heart starts racing. And these are feelings that came after living through Hurricane Maria.

What did she actually experience during the hurricane?

During the hurricane, she was in her home with her mother and her baby daughter and her house flooded very badly. When she started seeing the water coming through the doors, she basically panicked and she describes this feeling of being completely frozen and not being able to move at all. She had just recently given birth to her baby daughter. So she was also going through a lot of overwhelming feelings and trying to be a new mother.

The story of her baby, this newborn still in the crib saved by a neighbor. Explain what happened.

So when she was standing there freezing, she describes that she was hearing her neighbors kind of knocking on her door and knocking through the windows, telling her to open the door. And at some point it kind of clicked and she opened the door. One of the neighbors came in running and picked up the baby daughter and then she and woman kind of reacted and realized she needed to get out and try to get as many things as she could for the basic needs for the baby. And luckily they were able to get out safely. She lost most of her things. When we saw her a couple of months ago she still didn't have a bed. She didn't have a lot of basic things that she needed, but she felt very grateful that she had been able to get out alive with her mother because in that town in particular a few people died. They drowned.

Well, as you explained, four feet of floodwater went through her house. So it makes sense that a life-changing event like Maria could be traumatic and is still traumatic. Do we know how many Puerto Ricans were diagnosed or reported that the hurricane affected their mental health?

So those numbers are actually very difficult to get. There is a Puerto Rican entity that deals with mental health and addiction. And we met with the director, Suzanne Roig Fuertes. They have acknowledged that there was an increase in suicide, by about 18 to 20 percent, more or less. But other conditions, like post-traumatic stress disorder, depression — those are really, really hard numbers to get. They're very hesitant to speak about those numbers and make the correlation between the suicides and Hurricane Maria. However, we did speak to a number of psychiatrists and doctors who, based on their experiences and anecdotal evidence, they knew that anxiety and stress and depression were on the rise.

Nieves has felt very frustrated and, in fact, she has thought about committing suicide a couple of times. When we're talking to her, she described that these thoughts would come to her mind, but then she would immediately think of her baby and she doesn't want to leave her alone. And that would kind of keep her going. So her baby certainly became her main motivation and her strength to really keep going.

You can really hear how it's very complex for her, just in her voice, even if you don't understand Spanish. How are health care workers in Puerto Rico dealing with these cases of depression and PTSD? Are there qualified psychologists and social workers across the island?

There is a lack of doctors in general. That's a crisis that was happening before the hurricane. Mental health doctors are not one of the ones that are leaving at the highest rates on the island, but it is still hard. Some of the hospitals we visited, they were saying some of their patients need to wait weeks or for months to get an appointment. Certainly a challenge and I think we're probably going to see more of these conditions coming up in the next few months.

What struck you most about your reporting in Puerto Rico and the people you met who are coping.

I think a few things. One of the most powerful things we saw when we were reporting, I think, was that people were extremely, not only resilient, but resourceful as well. I think Alberto is a great example of that. People, when they faced the circumstances, they were very quick to come up with solutions. We noticed a lot of community-based solutions — a lot of localized responses. That's partly because the central government was not able to respond in time and properly. People were very, very resourceful and very community oriented. I think Puerto Ricans are proud of that. And you could tell that people had helped each other tremendously through this difficult time.

See a video about another Puerto Rican, Adrián.

Hurricane kids: What Katrina taught us about saving Puerto Rico's youngest storm victims

Sep 20, 2018


The catastrophe that followed Hurricane Maria’s landfall in Puerto Rico, on Sept. 20, 2017, affected all of Puerto Rico’s 3.3 million citizens.

Everyone lost power for weeks. Half of all Puerto Ricans went without electricity until Thanksgiving. Thirty-five percent celebrated Christmas in the dark. Several thousand would not see their power restored until August 2018.

Hurricane Maria’s death toll of 2,975 ranks it among the deadliest natural disasters in United States history.

Among the survivors of the storm, one group has proved especially vulnerable: Puerto Rico’s children.

The children of disasters

An estimated 657,000 people under the age of 18 lived in Puerto Rico when Hurricane Maria hit. All experienced the intensity of the storm and its disruptive aftermath.

Research shows that children exposed to disaster may go on to suffer a host of problems, including emotional disturbance, increased stress, behavioral problems, academic troubles and greater risk of illness.

Related: Puerto Rico’s eroding beaches spell trouble for coastal dwellers

It’s been 13 years since Hurricane Katrina slammed the US Gulf Coast, killing 1,800 people and leaving behind a chaotic and dangerous disaster zone. Over a million people were forced to flee their homes. Evacuees scattered across the United States, from Dallas to New York.

We met hundreds of young Katrina victims while conducting research for the 2015 book “Children of Katrina,” co-authored with disaster researcher Lori Peek. The book followed a group of children between the ages of 3 and 18, primarily from New Orleans, for seven years.

Their stories offer critical lessons about how Maria’s youngest survivors can be better supported through the trauma of the hurricane and its aftermath.

What Katrina taught us

Very few children simply “bounced back” after Hurricane Katrina. After the initial period of post-storm disruption and struggle, children tended to follow one of three paths.

Some eventually found stability. They had strong family ties, reliable housing, good health, regular school attendance, supportive friendships and engaging extracurricular activities.

Other young storm victims entered what we called a “fluctuating trajectory” after Katrina. They experienced both stability and turbulence — sometimes at the same time.

For example, kids might be healthy and well housed. But, if they were living far from home — and, sometimes, from a parent — they might be distressed and getting into trouble in their new school. The ups and downs lasted for months or years.

These kids didn’t recover smoothly from Katrina. But they didn’t completely break down, either.

Some children never rebounded after the storm.

Many in this group started out in unstable settings: They came from poor, often tenuously housed families. These vulnerable children already faced difficult futures.

Katrina accelerated, intensified and solidified their challenges, triggering a downward spiral that remained serious even a decade after the storm.

After perilous evacuations from the flood zone, some children landed in unfamiliar cities. There, they struggled to make friends or even experienced hostility at schools hosting high numbers of Katrina refugees.

Other children were left homeless by Katrina. Their diets were unhealthy and unsteady. They became depressed.

Kids in this group lost years of schooling or dropped out entirely.

Schools are key to success

Disasters threaten kids’ ability to grow and thrive. They depend on adults and communities to help them survive.

Examining why Katrina’s children recovered fully, partially or not at all can inform strategies for helping young Puerto Ricans today.

School was a powerful stabilizing force in many children’s lives, our research found.

Related: A year after Maria, Puerto Rican college students find home – on the island and off

Though some New Orleans schools closed after Katrina and over 4,000 teachers were dismissed, the remaining open facilities helped students establish a regular daily routine.

a chart

The authors followed children affected by Katrina for seven years and found that they typically followed one of three paths: their lives declined markedly, they found stability or they fluctuated between instability and stability. 


Alice Fothergill/University of Vermont

School also gave them access to caring peers and helpful adults. Teachers in New Orleans counseled their students and encouraged them to get involved in extracurricular activities.

A few public schools used a curriculum designed specifically to help students process the disaster, using art, writing and therapy.

Social workers and school counselors, both in New Orleans and elsewhere, were a crucial support system for Katrina victims.

Schools also gave kids the opportunity to help other kids, which we found was an important path toward healing. This confirms studies documenting that youth experience positive mental health effects from assisting others.

Resources of survival

The centrality of school in Katrina recovery does not bode well for the children of Puerto Rico.

In the year since Maria, our research team visited dozens of communities across the island to compile data on the status of utilities, services and conditions. Our ongoing disaster research indicates that the future of Puerto Rico’s children is at stake.

This summer, after a tumultuous 2017 school year that began with Hurricane Maria, 265 of Puerto Rico’s 1,100 schools were closed due to dropping enrollment and education budget cuts.

The move destabilized the lives of thousands of children, who started the 2018 academic year in a different building with new teachers and, oftentimes, many challenges at home.

We recently experienced the closure of a school first-hand. In June we learned from concerned parents and teachers at Luis Muñoz Rivera Elementary School that the school would shutter. Parents protested outside the facility for weeks.

By late July, parents were confused because they still did not know which schools their kids would attend, how to get there or if services for special needs children would be available.

Schools in rural areas like Mayemel were the most likely to be shuttered in Puerto Rico’s downsizing. Such closures affect many of the same students who suffered most acutely from shortages of food, electricity, internet, clean water and other critical services for months after the storm.

Resources matter

Based on our research in New Orleans, this is cause for serious concern.

For some Puerto Rican children, Hurricane Maria was a prolonged crisis that exacerbated serious pre-existing problems like poverty, hunger or lack of stable housing.

According to the Census’ American Community Survey, 57 percent of Puerto Rican children live in poverty, versus just 21 percent of children on the mainland.

Now, some of these vulnerable kids have also lost their schools, which in New Orleans proved such a critical stabilizing factor.

Related: In Puerto Rico's coffee country, 'We have to motivate the farmers to come to the soil again'

School was not the only factor influencing children’s recovery after Katrina.

The New Orleans children most likely to land on their feet were those with employed and educated parents.

Such families were able to navigate the maze of multiple bureaucracies necessary to receive government assistance, insurance payouts, disaster aid, critical recovery information and the like. Their had strong social networks that could provide temporary housing and job opportunities.

We did identify a small group of less well-off children who survived the storm’s aftermath thanks to robust support from helpful teachers, counselors and shelter workers, well-funded schools, government relief programs and nonprofits like Habitat for Humanity.

Children in Puerto Rico are unlikely to benefit from such resources.

The island’s slow-moving financial crisis – which resulted in a May 2017 bankruptcy – had already forced the government to slash public services before Maria.

As a result, the island has ever fewer doctors, guidance counselors, sports leagues and programs like those that provided crucial recovery support to Katrina’s less well-off victims.

an aerial view of a neighborhood in puerto rico

Puerto Rico’s Juana Matos community after Hurricane Maria.


Jenniffer Santos-Hernández

Who to target

We fear many Puerto Rican children will see their life chances diminished by Hurricane Maria.

Those most at risk now are the youngsters who’ve experienced cumulative struggles: kids from poor and isolated communities that received little disaster assistance after Maria and where local schools have closed.

Lessons from Katrina tell us that, to recover from this acute trauma, such children will need well-funded public services and community support, both immediately after the storm and for years to come.

But the island’s development shows mixed outcomes and the coming years present a disconcerting financial situation.

Alice Fothergill is a professor of sociology at the University of Vermont and Jenniffer Santos-Hernández is a research professor at the Centro de Investigaciones Sociales at the University of Puerto Rico Rio Piedras.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This Puerto Rican town rebuilt after Maria but it's still not ready for another storm

Sep 20, 2018


Barranquitas, a rural region of 30,000 people in central Puerto Rico, gets its name from the terrain. Barranca roughly translates to ravine or gully, and the steep slopes here meant the area was especially hard-hit by Hurricane Maria.

Countless landslides blocked roads for weeks. Streets weren’t completely cleared of mud and debris until long after green returned to the lush valleys, three months after the hurricane.

Related: Puerto Rico’s eroding beaches spell trouble for coastal dwellers

“This area was full of mud and trees,” Barranquitas resident Israel Matos told The World as he pointed to a busy intersection at the bottom of a hill a few miles from his house.

“It was above that,” he said pointing to a tall tree, “about 10 feet.”

hill that used to be a landslide

A massive landslide at this site in Barranquitas, Puerto Rico, pushed mud and debris into a major intersection and blocked the roads after Hurricane Maria.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Impassable roads here and across Puerto Rico exacerbated other problems. FEMA didn’t reach Barranquitas with the first emergency water supplies until two weeks after the storm and utility crews couldn’t get here either. 

“The power company was telling the mayor, ‘We cannot get to Barranquitas because the roads are blocked. The big trucks cannot get through,’” Matos said.

Related: Some of the last Puerto Ricans without power got it today. Now, work to build a stronger grid must begin.

Matos didn’t get power back until February, and that’s only because he and nearly 20 neighbors hired a private crew to restring roughly two miles of power lines and prop up utility poles.

“We had to do it ourselves,” he said. “We cannot wait for the government.” 

Water was — and remains — a problem

When the power went out, so did water for Matos and his neighbors. They live on hills overlooking the surrounding valleys and water has to be pumped up to their homes from the water treatment facility that’s downhill and miles away. 

House on top of a hill

Israel Matos’ home, which was without power until February 2018.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Matos has a 6,000-gallon underground cistern in his front yard to guard against frequent water outages. But after Maria, even that wasn’t enough.

“By mid-November, it was so low that I decided to carry water from an aqueduct,” Matos said.

The fact that Israel Matos’ personal preparations weren’t enough for this storm is a testament to the enormous infrastructure damage it caused. As former head of the National Weather Service’s Puerto Rico office, Matos was likely one of the island’s most prepared citizens ahead of Hurricane Maria. His job used to be to stand behind a podium before big storms and urge the public to prepare. 

“From my point of view as [a] meteorologist, I knew that a storm with that intensity will [wreak] havoc on the island," Matos said. "And I expected that. But what I didn't expect was that the response was so late. It was very frustrating."

As frustrated as Matos was, he was still one of the lucky ones. His house was damaged, but not badly. Just down the hill, one of his neighbor’s homes was destroyed.

woman standing with valley in background

Migdalia Rosado Sánchez on her property in Barranquitas, a town in central Puerto Rico hard hit by Hurricane Maria and landslides that followed.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Migdalia Rosado Sánchez has pictures of her old house with just a single wall standing after Maria. Her tin roof was blown off the house and the metal sheets slid underneath her nearby car.

“It was like they placed a bomb inside … I lost everything that I had,” Sánchez said. “I spent months not accepting it. It was horrible."

After Maria, Sánchez stayed with her daughter’s family while they ate canned food and hauled water from the river to bathe.  

“There wasn't any water or electricity. We had to buy a flashlight, candles, a little lamp, canned food,” she said. “There wasn't any way to cook because there wasn't power. We had to set up a little stove to prepare food.”

In major ways, Barranquitas is no more ready for a storm than it was a year ago

Today, the valleys of Barranquitas are still dotted with blue tarp roofs. The scars of landslides are visible in patches of raw, orange earth on nearly every hillside. But people are also rebuilding homes, and day-to-day life has returned largely to normal.

houses with blue tarp roofs in Puerto Rico

Blue tarp roofs are still common in Barranquitas, in central Puerto Rico.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Still, a year after Maria, the town is in some ways no better equipped to handle a big storm than it was a year ago.

The power grid is still a fragile patchwork of temporary fixes like the ones Matos and his neighbors arranged. The Puerto Rican power authority itself admits the island’s electricity infrastructure is weak, and has no timeframe laid out for work to strengthen the grid against future storms.

Water also remains an issue. Most of the stations that pump water up the mountains of Barranquitas don’t have generators, so when the power goes, so does the water for at least a third of the town’s 30,000 residents.

There are more generators on the island now, about 600 from FEMA compared to 80 prior to the storm, but they’re concentrated at hospitals and near other key infrastructure. The Puerto Rican Aqueducts and Sewer Authority says only about half of the more than 2,000 facilities that require electricity, including sewage and water treatment plants and pump stations, have generators right now. There are no plans to locate generators at all their facilities, as it would be cost prohibitive, officials say.

Roads remain a key vulnerability

Rural roads also remain a vulnerability in Barranquitas and across Puerto Rico, where it is estimated Maria’s downpours caused more than 40,000 landslides that destroyed infrastructure and local ecosystems.

Arelis Díaz Rivera, interim head of the local emergency management office in Barranquitas, said work crews have cleared debris from roughly a dozen streams and rivers to improve drainage and combat future landslides, but they remain inevitable.

leanding utility pole along a road in Puerto Rico

The electric grid remains vulnerable all over Puerto Rico, including in Barranquitas. 


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

“That's the nature of our town,” Díaz Rivera said, “Steep cliffs, ravines, we're surrounded by mountains and cliffs — which, when it rains a lot, cause landslides.”

The municipality got two new earth-movers since Maria, bringing the total up to three. Díaz Rivera says they should help the town clear roads more quickly after future storms. But she says the town really needs two more excavators to adequately respond to blocked roads.

FEMA’s Mike Byrne says access to rural towns may be the island’s biggest vulnerability a year after Maria.

“That is probably our biggest risk,” said Byrne, who is coordinating the federal government’s disaster response in Puerto Rico. “That transportation, that last mile.”

One of FEMA’s responses to that issue has been distributing more emergency stockpiles closer to where people need them.

“We had one warehouse last year, I now have five. I have probably 17 times the amount of water, four or five times the amount of food,” he said. “And we’ve put them in the communities."

Barranquitas now has FEMA food and water stockpiled in the basketball stadium in the center of town.  

Is Puerto Rico preparing for climate change?

Immediate changes like these are welcome to Israel Matos. But he hopes with most of the short-term recovery work done, the conversation in Puerto Rico around resilience can turn to the long-term, and preparing for the new reality of rising seas and stronger storms.

“Climate change is not coming. It’s already here. And the administration needs to focus on that and plan for that,” Matos said, referring both to Washington and San Juan. “That is not happening, it’s very frustrating.”

new house on a hill

Migdalia Rosado Sánchez’s new home, built in concrete to replace a wood house destroyed during Maria.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Meanwhile, many Puerto Ricans have lost faith in their government’s ability to respond to disasters and are taking preparedness into their own hands, installing solar panels for power and stock-piling food and water in their own homes.

When The World visited Matos’ neighbor Migdalia Rosado Sánchez last month, her new home was almost ready for her to move in. It’s made of concrete instead of wood, the better to withstand future hurricanes.

London police say 'serial cat killer' does not exist

Sep 20, 2018


A feared serial cat killer who for three years was believed to have mutilated pets across London does not exist, and foxes or other wildlife were probably to blame, police said on Thursday.

Hundreds of suspected incidents were reported to police raising widespread concern that a single figure — dubbed the "M25 Cat Killer" or the "Croydon Cat Killer" after the capital's orbital motorway and the south London town where the mutilations were first recorded — was responsible.

But, police said that after a thorough examination of the evidence and investigation of corpses in six suspected cases, officers had found nothing to indicate human involvement.

"Officers working alongside experts have concluded that hundreds of reported cat mutilations in Croydon and elsewhere were not carried out by a human and are likely to be the result of predation or scavenging by wildlife," London police said.

The police investigation began in November 2015 after reports from Croydon of mutilated cats missing their heads and tails. Many other distraught owners came forward with similar stories and British newspapers speculated that the cat killer might move on from animals to humans.

However, local animal charity, the South Norwood Animal Rescue League (SNARL) carried out 25 post-mortems on suspected victims which indicated the cause of death was blunt force trauma suggesting the cats were most likely run over by a vehicle and the mutilations occurred after death.

Closed circuit TV footage in three cases showed foxes carrying parts of the dead animal, including one which took a cat's head into a school playground in Catford, south London. Further tests on six cases that still appeared suspicious concluded the cats had also been victims of scavenging.

"Such apparent spates of cat mutilations are not unknown in the UK and elsewhere," the police statement said. "Officers were aware of a spate of reported mutilations some 20 years ago which were eventually attributed to predation by wildlife."

Puerto Rico has not recovered from Hurricane Maria

Sep 19, 2018


Puerto Rico was in crisis long before Hurricane Maria hit on Sept. 20, 2017.

For years, this US territory had been struggling with debt, economic crisis and drought. In May 2017, the government defaulted on US$73 billion in loans and declared bankruptcy.

Then Hurricane Maria slammed the island with 155-mph winds and coastal flooding that rose to six feet within 30 minutes of landfall. The storm caused the longest power blackout in US history.

Sixty-four Puerto Ricans died during Maria and an estimated 2,975 Puerto Ricans perished from hurricane-related problems in the five months afterwards — many from treatable chronic illnesses because the power outage prevented them from getting antibiotics, insulin and other medical care.

To say that the island of 3.3 million has not yet recovered — from the damage or the trauma — is an understatement. One year after Maria, nearly every pillar of Puerto Rican society remains devastated.

Here’s a snapshot of Puerto Rico today, based on my academic research and visits to family who stayed on the island both during and after the hurricane.

1. The economy

A few months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico’s government proposed significant changes to the fiscal plan put in place in 2017 by the federally appointed financial management board that has run Puerto Rico’s economy since its bankruptcy.

In light of Puerto Rico’s post-disaster needs, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló sought to ease some cuts to education and public services while still paying down Puerto Rico’s $73 billion debt.

But the oversight board objected, calling certain proposals “inconsistent” with the fiscal board’s mandate to restructure the Puerto Rican economy.

The ongoing austerity measures have complicated Puerto Rico's attempts to recover economically from Maria.

Small businesses, the island’s main job creators, are struggling. Roughly 8,000 of Puerto Rico’s 45,000 small employers have closed up shop over the last year.

Four in 10 Puerto Ricans reported losing a job in the storm’s aftermath.

Related: In Puerto Rico's coffee country, 'We have to motivate the farmers to come to the soil again'

Maria also destroyed nearly all agricultural production in Puerto Rico.

Overnight, farmers who were already struggling with climate change and lack of agricultural workers saw nearly 80 percent of their crops destroyed — a $780 million loss.

There is one bright spot: For the first time since 2013, unemployment on the island is below 10 percent because rebuilding has created so many construction jobs. Those positions, however, are temporary.

Puerto Rico’s economy isn’t expected to stabilize for another five years.

2. Health care

All of Puerto Rico’s 93 clinics and hospitals have reopened since Maria.

But its health care sector remains devastated by the storm.

An estimated 500 to 700 physicians and surgeons out of roughly 10,000 on the island have left since Hurricane Maria.

According to Dr. Wendy Matos, executive director of the University of Puerto Rico’s faculty practice plan, most health service providers in Puerto Rico are privately owned. That means the bad news about shuttered small businesses and mass unemployment applies to the island’s health care sector.

Just before Maria hit, the Urban Institute think tank found that 72 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities lacked adequate primary care services in relation to their population and health risk.

The storm did not improve coverage. Today, just 20 health centers in Puerto Rico — roughly one-fifth of all medical facilities — provide primary and preventative care services.

3. Electricity

Eleven months after Hurricane Maria knocked out Puerto Rico’s power, the island’s department of energy announced on Aug. 15, 2018 that electricity was fully restored.

Early on in the blackout, many Puerto Ricans hoped the power crisis would lead Puerto Rico to build a cleaner, more sustainable power grid. The island generates almost half of its electricity by burning oil or diesel.

Related: Some of the last Puerto Ricans without power got it today. Now, work to build a stronger grid must begin.

Instead, the island’s power authority struggled just to function, churning through three directors and five chief executives in the past year.

Some residents grew so tired of waiting for their lights to come on that they repaired power lines themselves.

On June 20, 2018, Gov. Rosselló signed a controversial bill putting the island power authority up for sale, saying it would allow the island to “jump into new energy models.”

Many islanders feared that privatizing the public utility would worsen its existing problems with mismanagement and corruption. Environmentalists counter the move actually stunts any hope of a green energy shift.

Half of the authority’s board members resigned in protest.

4. Education

Education is another of Hurricane Maria’s casualties.

This past summer, Puerto Rico closed 283 schools — about a quarter of all public primary educational facilities — due to dropping enrollment.

Related: A year after Maria, Puerto Rican college students find home – on the island and off

Almost 39,000 fewer students registered for the 2018 school year, according to Puerto Rico’s Department of Education, presumably because their families emigrated.

The Department of Education says that its $300 million deficit, which existed prior to the hurricane, did not drive the school closures.

5. Democracy

Hurricane Maria has brought new urgency to an old debate about Puerto Rico’s status as a United States territory.

The island is home to an estimated 2.5 million voting-age American citizens who cannot vote for any representatives in Congress.

Though lawmakers in Florida, New Jersey and New York have tried to advocate for Puerto Ricans’ needs since Maria, island residents are effectively “disenfranchised,” says Gov. Rosselló.

Many commentators have observed that Puerto Ricans’ lack of political representation may explain why the island’s recovery has lagged, equating its territorial status with second-class citizenship.

But the number of Puerto Ricans who can vote in federal elections is growing. An estimated 135,000 Puerto Ricans have moved to Florida, New York, Texas and Pennsylvania since Maria.

Voter advocacy groups are connecting with these new Latino voters ahead of the upcoming midterm congressional elections.

On Sept. 7, a federal judge ordered 32 Florida counties to ensure Puerto Ricans can cast ballots in Spanish.

Before Maria, politicians may have found it easy enough to disregard Puerto Ricans. Now, they represent an angry and energized electorate in some of the country’s most important swing states.The Conversation

Lauren Lluveras is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis at the University of Texas at Austin.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Puerto Rico’s eroding beaches spell trouble for coastal dwellers

Sep 18, 2018 5:50


Rosa Elena Mastache Dominguez, 54, comes from a family of fishermen. Some four generations back, her ancestors claimed a little piece of shoreline on the north-central coast of Puerto Rico. They built a house on the black-speckled sand, looking out onto palms and blue-green water.  

“My grandparents grew up here, my grandparents raised my parents here, my parents raised us [here],” she said.  

The tight-knit community, now known as La Boca, has a deep a connection to the land here. Many families have been there for generations and feel that their way of life and history lie on that beach. So it was all the more shocking when Hurricane Maria struck last September.

Related: A year after Maria, Puerto Rican college students find home – on the island and off

The storm changed the landscape; Maria’s waves clawed away at the sand, reducing the width of the broad, flat beach by approximately 90 percent. But it wasn’t just that the familiar landscape disappeared — it left La Boca defenseless. 

“The beach works as a buffer of all the energy from the swells and the storm waves,” said geologist Maritza Barreto. 

Without it, the community became vulnerable to storms. 

But Maria didn’t directly damage the beachfront homes. That came later, in February, when another weather system brought huge waves. Without the beach to protect them, Mastache and her neighbors watched nervously as the water washed in.  

Related: In Puerto Rico's coffee country, 'We have to motivate the farmers to come to the soil again'

“We never thought the sea would reach us,” she said. “Never.” 

But it did.

Rosa Elena Mastache Dominguez looks out of a door in her family home that now opens up to the beach

Rosa Elena Mastache Dominguez looks out of a door in her family home. The door once led to bedrooms and bathroom but the entire back of the house collapsed when a storm washed in. 


Irina Zhorov/The World 

At Mastache’s home about four months later, clothes hung on a line and the driveway was neatly swept. Her parents had built up the modest home into a cement structure with several bedrooms and bathrooms. When she unlocked the door, the smell of Clorox mixed with ocean rushed out. The home was empty.  

Related: Some of the last Puerto Ricans without power got it today. Now, work to build a stronger grid must begin.

“The sea split the house in half,” she said, pointing to a crack running up one wall and down the next.

Where the entire back of the house used to be, there was nothing. The waves scooped sand from underneath it until whole rooms collapsed. The family moved out and closed the gaping hole with a metal sheet. 

Their neighbors helped buy a pile of rocks to reinforce the foundation. Mastache peeked through a broken wall at a worker riding a small machine as he maneuvered between jagged slabs of cement. Just beyond, a neighbor’s bathroom, walls and all, lay in the sand.  

Related: With government sidelined, citizen scientists test water quality in Puerto Rico

Six houses and a handful of businesses were damaged in La Boca, but the problem repeats all over the island. 

Even before Maria, more than half of Puerto Rico’s beaches were eroding, partly because building on the coast can disrupt natural cycles of sand movement. 

That’s a problem when nearly everyone lives along the coasts.   

“Most of the economic activity of Puerto Rico occurs also in the coastal areas, mostly in the San Juan metropolitan area,” said Ernesto Díaz, Director of the Puerto Rico Coastal Zone Management Program. All the electric power stations are located on the coast, along with sanitary infrastructure, power lines and fiber optic cables. 

Related: California emerges as a leader at climate summit 

He says erosion is a natural process. Sea levels also vary naturally over time. But human actions have sped those things up. 

“So if sea level rise is increasing at an accelerated pace, and we’re losing beaches also at an accelerated pace, and we humans made ourselves vulnerable by building so close to the coastline, obviously what were formerly natural processes are now social problems,” Díaz said.   

Today, Puerto Rican law prohibits construction on beaches. Some developers still manage to do it but many of the structures on the coast were built before the laws passed. That includes places like the Mastache family’s house in La Boca. It’s been there for about 100 years.   

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

As these beachside properties succumb to the weather, or just time, people are not supposed to rebuild them.

an excavator truck in front of the rubble of e building

The low income community of La Boca bought rocks to shore up what remained of their homes and to reinforce washed away foundations. People there said without help from the government, they had no choice but to rebuild their homes, even though rebuilding on the beach is in many cases illegal in Puerto Rico. 


Irina Zhorov/The World 

When Díaz heard that the community is rebuilding, he sat up straight. “If people are dumping rocks to protect properties as we speak they are doing so illegally,” he said.   

Mastache knows all this. But she says the government hasn’t told them to stop rebuilding. Enforcement is notoriously lax. 

She adds that no one is helping them to relocate, either. 

The weather system that ultimately damaged homes in La Boca wasn’t a federally declared disaster, so people here don’t qualify for the emergency money that other families received after Maria. Mastache says without aid, many in her low-income community don’t have the option of moving.   

“If the government comes and says, ‘you have to leave, here’s this much money for you to get out,’ that’s one thing,” she said. “But if they don’t tell you anything, you have to fix what you have.”  

She also acknowledges there’s a good chance that the house, even if it’s rebuilt, will be wrecked again by the sea.   

And yet, she says the affected families all want to return.  

Before leaving the house, Mastache pointed to a handwritten Bible passage she tacked up on the mint green wall outside. It’s from Job 1:21 and read: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away.”  

As she locked up the front door, another door that once led to a bedroom flew open. Through it, she looked out at the ocean waves breaking in the near distance.  

This reporting was made possible by the Fund for Environmental Journalism of the Society of Environmental Journalists.  

Hear these voices from the front lines of climate change

Sep 17, 2018


Billions of people all over the globe are already feeling the impacts of climate change — from the deserts of Somaliland to the peat bogs of northern Canada. Here are some stories from the front lines of climate change that we gathered at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco in mid-September (listen to each person talk by clicking the audio players below the images).

Related: California emerges as a leader at climate summit

1. Shukri Haji Ismail, minister of the environment and rural development for Somaliland

Shukri Haji Ismail is shown in a pink shawl with dark-rimmed glasses.

Shukri Haji Ismail (Somaliland)


Elena Graham/PRI

PRI's The World Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Shukri Haji Ismail, minister of the environment and rural development for Somaliland, said climate change has impacted Somaliland in ways “you wouldn’t believe.”

“We have experienced nine episodes of drought from 1996 until 2017. It affected the livelihoods of millions of people. Thousands and thousands of livestock died, 80 percent of Somaliland’s livestock,” Ismail said. “So many people became destitute; so many people became displaced; so many people migrated from the rural areas to the urban areas.” More than 10 camps for displaced people are now in the capital of Hargeisa. 

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

“I believe that the international community will come together. They are coming together now,” Ismail said. She’s optimistic that international funders will implement programs that can increase resilience to drought and other weather-related events in places like Somaliland. “I have to have hope because they have hope in us,” she said of displaced people in Somaliland.

2. Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation member, co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action (no audio)

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger is shown with a pink, short-sleeved shirt and glasses.

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger (Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, Alberta, Canada)


Elena Graham/PRI

Eriel Tchekwie Deranger, a member of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation and co-founder of Indigenous Climate Action, comes from the Peace-Athabasca Delta in northern Alberta, Canada. The peat bogs there have been drying as temperatures rise and rainfall decreases, transforming the land into tinder and drying up lakes and tributaries.

“There are tributaries that used to lead to fishing or hunting grounds that no longer exist,” Deranger said. A major lake that her people used to fish in is now too shallow for a boat to pass through. “[It’s] really impeding our ability to continue cultural lifestyles … some of these places are burial grounds, so it’s not just impacting our quality of life, it’s impacting the spiritual well-being of our people."

Related: Researchers explore a pesticide link to asthma in farmworkers' children

Deranger is pushing for solutions to climate change that are centered in communities and Indigenous knowledge and focus on reconnecting people to their land. We need, she said, “to find ways to address not just whether or not we can purchase food at the grocery store, but address the spiritual well-being of our communities.”

3. Alicia Rivera, community organizer for Communities for a Better Environment 

Alicia Rivera is shown holding a yellow flag during a demonstration in San Francisco, California.

Alicia Rivera (Los Angeles, California)


Elena Graham/PRI

PRI's The World Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Alicia Rivera is a community organizer with Communities for a Better Environment in the Wilmington neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

“The Wilmington community, they are mostly low income, so the heat waves are very detrimental because they cannot afford air-conditioning. And because they are still close to the refineries and to oil extraction, they have to shut their windows. So, the heat has impacted them, especially this year,” Rivera said.

Rivera emigrated from El Salvador to escape the civil war there in 1980, but she still has family in the country who tells her that it hasn’t been raining there. “Definitely, the impacts of climate change are being felt on the other side of the border, and right here in the United States,” she said.

4. Leo Cerda, Kichwa Indigenous group member 

Leo Cerda is shown adorned with Indigenous wears.

Leo Cerda (Kichwa Indigenous group in the Ecuadorian Amazon)


Elena Graham/PRI

PRI's The World Tuesday, September 18, 2018

When asked how climate change was impacting his community, Leo Cerda, a member of the Kichwa Indigenous group in the Ecuadorian Amazon, said what he's actually most worried about is fossil fuel extraction.

"In our territories, we depend solely on our resources, our water, our rivers, our land, our territories, and we are directly impacted by climate change because the fossil fuels are being extracted from our communities," Cerda said. "I think it's about time to make policy changes, and decision-makers need to change into green, renewable energy. So, the United States just withdrew from the Paris Agreement, and I think it's a huge step back, but the United States is not the only country in the world. Small communities, small cities, states can start to do something to stop burning fossil fuels and start to find a way in which we can all live in a better planet with better solutions, green solutions, that are not affecting our communities."

5. Jayathama Wickramanayake, UN secretary general's envoy on youth 

Jayathama Wickramanayake is shown with long dark hair and an orange flowing shirt.

Jayathama Wickramanayake (Sri Lanka)


Carolyn Beeler/PRI

PRI's The World Tuesday, September 18, 2018

The UN Secretary General's Envoy on Youth Jayathama Wickramanayake grew up in Sri Lanka, where livelihoods are dependent on agriculture. “Over the years, the raining patterns have changed,” she said, “and often on the TV, growing up, I would see news about farmers killing themselves because they couldn’t produce enough crops to feel their children.”

Today, part of Wickramanayake’s job is to make sure young people’s voices are heard in climate-related conversations at the UN. “The idea is to really get young people as equal partners,” rather than beneficiaries of programs they have no input in creating, Wickramanayake said. When discussing climate change with the young people she works with, she said it’s an issue that’s deeply personal to many of them.

“I have not met a young person who does not believe in climate change or who does not take climate change seriously,” Wickramanayake said. “I have seen young people questioning the clothes they wear, questioning the products they eat, the products they use, questioning the way they travel to work or school. So, in that sense, I think there is a strong consciousness in young people that we shouldn’t leave the world the way we found it; we should make it a better place for our children or for the future generations to live.”

6. Leeanne Enoch, Queensland minister for environment and the Great Barrier Reef, Quandamooka member

Leeanne Enoch is shown in a portrait photograph wearing a white jacket.

Leeanne Enoch (Queensland, Australia)


Elena Graham/PRI

PRI's The World Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Leeanne Enoch, the Queensland minister for environment and the Great Barrier Reef, and also a Quandamooka woman, is the first Aboriginal woman ever elected to the Queensland Parliament in Australia.

Australia’s second-largest state has seen the impact of persistent drought for many years “and of course, we’ve also seen back-to-back, consecutive mass-bleaching episodes of the Great Barrier Reef, which has been the most frightening thing that we’ve seen, not just in Australia or Queensland, but all across the world,” Enoch said.

The Queensland government has been working with farmers to improve the quality of the water that runs off onto the reef, to help the coral deal better with the impacts of climate change. The regional government is also developing climate change transition and adaptation plans over the next few years.

“For me, that is our big challenge, is to find the thriving balance in a changing world, and to know our role in that,” Enoch said. “I stand here with 3,000 generations behind me, understanding that we are but a speck in time, but our speck in time is absolutely critical for the 3,000 generations ahead of us.”

Hong Kong, southern China clean up after super typhoon Mangkhut

Sep 17, 2018 4:26


The financial hub of Hong Kong began clearing up on Monday after being battered by one of the strongest typhoons in recent years, with financial markets and offices operating as normal.

Super typhoon Mangkhut, with hurricane-force winds well over 200 kilometers per hour (124 miles/h), had barreled past the northern tip of the Philippines, killing at least 50 people. It then skirted south of Hong Kong and the neighboring gambling hub of Macau, before making landfall in China.

Parts of Hong Kong and Macau were severely flooded, though there were no immediate reports of fatalities. China Central Television, the state broadcaster, said four people had been killed in Guangdong, China's most populous province of over 100 million residents.

Reuter chart

The state broadcaster also said flood warnings had been issued for 38 rivers in the neighboring region of Guangxi, while 12 coastal monitoring stations reported their biggest-ever waves. It also said more than 13,300 hectares of farmland had been damaged.

As many as 2.45 million people in Guangdong province had been relocated on Sunday night, the official Xinhua news agency reported. 

The China Meteorological Administration said the typhoon, dubbed "King of Storms," swept west to Guangxi province at 6 a.m. (2200 GMT on Sunday) and weakened to a "tropical storm." It forecast the storm to hit the regions of Guizhou, Chongqing and Yunnan on Monday.

The meteorological administration said Mangkhut was one of the 10 biggest storms to hit southeast China since 1949 — when records began — with wind speeds at around 162 km/h.

A pedestrian wades through waist-high floodwaters in a white poncho

A pedestrian wades through waist-high floodwaters on a street amid heavy rainfall as Typhoon Mangkhut hits Zhongshan, Guangdong province, China Sept. 16, 2018. 



Across Hong Kong, authorities strived to clear roads of debris, including toppled trees and bamboo scaffolding. Some buildings, including the One Harborfront office tower, had many windows smashed after a day in which some of the city's skyscrapers had swayed with the ferocious gusts.

"Yesterday's storm was very strong. Even for a person of my weight, I was about to be blown down by the wind which made me very scared," said a 70-year-old resident surnamed Fung.

"It was very serious this time."

Stock and financial markets opened as normal on Monday in Hong Kong and the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen.

a flooded park with a woman in front

A park is flooded by seawater after Typhoon Mangkhut hit Hong Kong, China Sept. 17, 2018. 


Ken Tung/Reuters

Some transport services remained suspended, though flights in the region were slowly resuming after a shutdown on Sunday, stranding many thousands of passengers.

In Macau, badly hit by a super typhoon last year, authorities were much more prepared this time, ordering casinos to close late on Saturday night as the storm approached.

Casinos were operational again early on Monday though authorities were still struggling to restore power to some of the 20,000 households that suffered power cuts.

Macau gambling stocks were down in early Monday trade.

How social networks can save lives when disasters strike

Sep 17, 2018


Soon after my family moved to New Orleans in the summer of 2005, we heard Mayor Ray Nagin’s first warnings about Hurricane Katrina. With two young children, a job I hadn’t started yet and little in the way of savings, my wife and I couldn’t wrap our heads around leaving our freshly furnished home to spend money on a hotel in some distant city. So we ignored the call for evacuation.

As our neighbors began to pack up and head out, we figured they were overreacting. Then relatives began to make increasingly frantic phone calls and Kathy, a member of our religious community, dropped by at midnight to persuade us to leave. We got in our van around 3 a.m., some 12 hours before the rain began to fall.

Many deaths that occur due to flooding, fires, hurricanes, mudslides and other disasters could be prevented if more people left vulnerable areas in time — as my family did at the last minute. But people don’t always move, even after the authorities order their evacuation and warn them about imminent risks.

Related: Why hurricane forecasters can’t ‘politicize’ storm warnings even if they wanted to

Since evacuating from New Orleans in 2005, I have traveled to vulnerable communities around the world to study how people get through and bounce back from major catastrophes. Through research in Japan, India, Israel and the Gulf Coast, I have sought to capture the factors that create resilience.

Given that evacuation almost always saves lives, I wanted to understand why people often don’t leave in the face of danger. To do so, I teamed up with colleagues, including some who work at Facebook, to analyze evacuation patterns based on information that people shared publicly on social media before, during and after hurricanes. We found that social networks, especially connections to those beyond immediate family, influence decisions to leave or stay in place before disasters.

Insights from social media

Many communities that are vulnerable to disasters put a lot of resources into providing residents with early warnings. For example, in Montecito, California, during the January 2018 mudslides, local authorities and disaster managers tried to warn residents through channels that included emails, social media alerts, press releases and deputies going door to door. Despite these efforts, not all residents evacuated, and nearly two dozen lost their lives.

Traditionally, much emphasis has been placed on the role of physical infrastructure preparedness during a crisis. But in light of findings about the importance of social capital during crises, our team wanted to better illuminate human behavior during these events.

Related: If you shelter in place during a disaster, be ready for challenges after the storm

To understand evacuation behavior, social scientists have typically asked survivors weeks or even years after an event to recall what they did and why. Other researchers have waited at rest stops along evacuation routes and directly interviewed evacuees fleeing oncoming hurricanes or storms. We wanted to better capture nuances of human behavior without having to rely on memory or catching people as they stopped for gas and coffee.

We want to keep you in the loop with all of the info you need in Summit County. Sign up at for messages relating to evacuation notices, utility outages, water main breaks, wildfires, floods and hazardous materials spills. #SumCO #COReady #ExploreSummit

— SCSOPIO (@SummitSheriffCO) July 5, 2018

To do so, we worked alongside researchers from Facebook using high-level, aggregated and anonymized summaries of city-level data before, during and after a disaster to construct the outcome variables “Did you evacuate?” and “If you did, how soon after the disaster did you return?”

Facebook engages in numerous academic collaborations across engineering, business and research disciplines. We believe that our research team is among the first to study the movement of so many people across multiple disasters using geolocation data.

Tight local networks may encourage staying put

Based on research showing that social ties provide resilience to people during crises, we suspected that social capital might be a critical factor in helping people decide whether to stay or go. By social capital, we mean people’s connections to others and resources available to them through their social communities, such as information and support.

Some aspects of these resources are reflected through social media. With this in mind, we set out to study whether attributes of people’s social networks impacted evacuation behavior.

We looked at three different types of social ties:

Bonding ties, which connect people to close family and friends Bridging ties, which connect them through a shared interest, workplace or place of worship Linking ties, which connect them to people in positions of power.

Our research — forthcoming in a peer-reviewed journal — indicates that, controlling for a number of other factors, individuals with more connections beyond their immediate families and close friends were more likely to evacuate from vulnerable areas in the days leading up to a hurricane.

We believe that this happens for several reasons. First, people with more bridging ties have far-reaching social networks. Those networks, in turn, may connect them to sources of support outside of areas directly affected by disasters. Second, people with more bridging ties may have built those networks by moving or traveling more, and thus feel more comfortable evacuating far from home during a disaster.

Linking ties are also important. Our data showed that users whose social networks included following politicians and political figures were more likely to evacuate. This may be because they were more likely to receive warning information and trust authority figures disseminating that information.

In contrast, we found that having stronger bonding ties — that is, family and friends — made people less likely to evacuate leading up to a hurricane. In our view, this is a critical insight. People whose immediate, close networks are strong may feel supported and better-prepared to weather the storm.

One North Carolina woman, trying to explain why she wasn’t leaving her vulnerable coastal home as Hurricane Florence approached, told a reporter that she didn’t want to leave family and friends unprotected. And staying in place could have positive outcomes, such as a higher likelihood of rebuilding in existing neighborhoods.

But it is also possible that seeing relatives, close friends and neighbors decide not to evacuate may lead people to underestimate the severity of an impending disaster. Such misconceptions could put people at higher immediate risk and increase damage to lives and property.

This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 16, 2018.

Danaë Metaxa, a PhD student in computer science at Stanford University, and Paige Maas, a data scientist at Facebook, contributed to this article.The Conversation

Daniel P. Aldrich is a professor of political science, public policy and urban affairs and director of the security and resilience program at Northeastern University.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

US Defense Secretary warns of Russian meddling in Macedonia referendum

Sep 17, 2018


Speaking after talks in Skopje with Macedonia's leaders, US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis accused Russia on Monday of attempting to influence the outcome of a referendum in Macedonia.

The referendum involves Macedonia changing its name, opening the way for it to join NATO and the European Union.

Mattis also said the United States was looking to expand cybersecurity cooperation with the small Balkan country.

Macedonians will vote on Sept. 30 on a deal reached in June with neighboring Greece that would change the country's name to the Republic of Northern Macedonia. Athens insisted on the change in return for lifting its opposition to Skopje joining NATO and the EU.

"We do not want to see Russia doing there (in Macedonia) what they have tried to do in so many other countries," Mattis  told reporters traveling with him to Skopje, apparently referring to Washington's concerns about Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election and other polls.

"No doubt that they have transferred money and they are also conducting broader influence campaigns," Mattis said, adding it was unclear how effective Moscow's efforts had been.

Russia denies the charges of meddling but strongly opposes Macedonia's plan to join NATO. Its ambassador in Skopje has said the country could become "a legitimate target" if relations between Russia and NATO deteriorate further.

In July, Greece expelled two Russian diplomats and barred two other people from entering the country for trying to bribe officials and foment demonstrations to thwart the deal with Macedonia.

Russia denied Athens's allegations and responded in kind by expelling Greek diplomats.

'Malicious cyber activity'

Mattis is the latest in a string of Western leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, to visit Macedonia and urge its citizens to back the name deal.

"... [W]e plan to expand our cybersecurity cooperation to thwart malicious cyber activity that threatens both our democracies," Mattis said, with Macedonia's prime minister and defense minister standing next to him.

Mattis also met Macedonia's President Gjorge Ivanov, who opposes the name deal.

NATO has invited Macedonia to begin accession talks with the alliance, but says it must first change its constitution and adopt the new name. The EU has also said it would set a date for Macedonian accession talks pending implementation of the deal.

Recent opinion polls suggest a majority of Macedonians will support the name deal, though nationalists oppose it. Several thousand Macedonians rallied on Sunday in Skopje in support of the deal and of NATO and EU membership.

"There is no alternative for the Republic of Macedonia then integration into NATO and EU," Prime Minister Zoran Zaev said on Monday, standing beside Mattis.

Washington is concerned that Russia is sowing disinformation with the aim of suppressing voter turnout in the referendum and creating an impression that the United States is not committed to the region.

"Our approach to disinformation is not to try to counter every single argument ... We show by our senior-level visits, our presence, we show by highlighting our cooperative activities," Laura Cooper, deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, told reporters before the Mattis trip.

The United States spends nearly $5 million a year in security assistance for Macedonia and since 1991 has provided about $750 million in total assistance. Macedonia has a few dozen troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led mission.

US officials believe Russia accelerated its disinformation campaign in southeast Europe in 2014, the same year it annexed Crimea from Ukraine.

"What is in some ways frustrating and maddening about it is, it is so cheap, what they are doing, and it is so effective," said Heather Conley, director of the Europe program at the CSIS think tank in Washington.

"This requires sustained American and European engagement, it (southeast Europe) is a pretty fragile place."

By Idrees Ali/Reuters

Reporting by Idrees Ali; Editing by Gareth Jones.

'Beaver Believers' say dam-building creatures can make the American West lush again

Sep 16, 2018 17:29


Beavers, the largest rodents in North America, are sometimes seen as pests. But a growing cohort of self-styled “Beaver Believers” is celebrating the dam-building creatures as a keystone species on which entire freshwater ecosystems depend.

In his 2018 book, "Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter," author Ben Goldfarb examines the history, ecology and physiology of beavers — and describes why some landowners are welcoming beavers to help store water and revitalize streams in the increasingly arid American West.

So, what does it mean to be a “Beaver Believer?”

“The Beaver Believers are a tribe of scientists, land managers, farmers and ranchers — really anyone — who believes that restoring these incredible little ecosystem engineers can help us deal with all kinds of environmental problems,” Goldfarb says. “The Beaver Believers are people like me who have come to recognize that this is an incredibly important animal that we should cooperate with in landscape restoration.”

When beavers build their dams, they create ponds and wetlands; they help store water for farms and ranches; they help filter out water pollution, which improves water quality; they create habitat for many kinds of fish and wildlife that we care about; they slow down floods; and their ponds can act as fire breaks.

European fur traders came to North America in the early 1600s and set about trapping out beavers from every single stream, river, lake and pond they encountered, Goldfarb says. Along with timber and cod, the beaver pelt was the most important natural resource in the New World.

“Beavers made the Massachusetts Bay Colony possible, from one standpoint,” he says.

At the time, as many as 400 million beavers inhabited North America. By the year 1900, after three centuries of unabated trapping, their population was down to around 100,000 in all of North America.

With the beavers gone, their dams broke down and many of their ponds and wetlands drained. In old trappers’ accounts, they describe crossing places considered desert today, like eastern Wyoming or areas of Utah, and finding ponds, wetlands and beavers everywhere, Goldfarb points out.

“It was once a much lusher landscape,” Goldfarb says. “We also drained lots of wetlands for agriculture, and, of course, climate change is fueling drought, so trapping out beavers was certainly not the only thing contributing to drought in the American West. But we eliminated the animal that was keeping North America hydrated.”

These days, beavers are typically viewed as nuisances. There is strong disagreement over whether they should be allowed to live on private land, where they can flood the landscape and cut down trees.

“Even the most devout Beaver Believer is not naive about the problems that beavers can cause,” Goldfarb says. “They're hard animals to live with. They're meddlers, just like we are, and they do cut down valuable timber and they clog up road culverts.”

The traditional response is to eliminate the beavers, which can temporarily alleviate problems. But, Goldfarb says, beavers are attracting fans in the agricultural community.

Goldfarb writes about a cluster of ranchers in northeastern Nevada who were ranching in overgrazed ecosystems. The group agreed to reduce some of the grazing pressure, which helped vegetation, including willow, recover. This basically invited back the beavers, Goldfarb explains. The ranchers' first impulse was to get rid of the beavers, but they decided to let them stay, Goldfarb says.

The beavers built dams and created ponds and wetlands, which had two big impacts. First, they provided an on-site water source for cattle in the arid northeast Nevada landscape. During times of drought, when other ranchers had to truck water to their livestock, these ranchers had water on their land.

Secondly, aside from the visible water in a beaver pond, there is also water being forced into the ground, raising the water table and sub-irrigating the surrounding grasslands.

“There are ranchers who have seen fantastic grass production increases thanks to the return of beavers and have become beaver believers for that reason. Because if you're a rancher, grass is money,” Goldfarb says.

NV streams wet and dry

Two streams near Elko, NV: Trout Creek on the left and Cottonwood Ranch on the right, where beaver live. The ranch owner planned to kill the beavers because, “that’s what you do,” until he noticed that they diverted water into the region.


Courtesy of Sarah Koenigsberg

A lot of people Goldfarb spoke to advocate using contraptions called flow devices, which are pipe and fence systems that can pass water through a beaver dam or through a road culvert and regulate the height of the pond. This technique can “strike a compromise between human and rodent,” Goldfarb says, “where there's enough water for the beavers to persist, but not so much that your road or backyard is totally submerged."

Beavers might even be able to help humans cope with some of the consequences of climate change — wildfires, heat waves and drought. Goldfarb describes, for example, a pond he visited in the Methow Valley in Washington State.

“The Methow is a very dry place that has been hammered with fire in the last several years,” he says.

At this particular pond, one side had been totally scorched and the other side remained green.

“It was clear the fire had hit the pond and basically hadn't proceeded any further,” Goldfarb says. But, he adds, “the ability of beavers to act as firebreaks is one of those things that hasn't really been quantified in any kind of meaningful way.”

As for drought, researchers are asking how much beavers can help compensate for the loss of glacial melt and snowpack that are so important in the American West.

“We know that beavers can take seasonal streams and turn them perennial,” Goldfarb says. “We know they're storing lots and lots of water, but how much of that water is reaching downstream users? To what extent can they compensate for some of these catastrophic climate impacts? We just don't know the answers to these questions yet.”

Research on beavers and their potential to mitigate the impacts of climate change is happening right now all over the American West, Goldfarb says. “I think the next the next five to 10 years will have some really interesting results on the ‘beavers-as-climate-adaptation-tool’ front.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Deadly super typhoon hits China after wreaking havoc in the Philippines

Sep 16, 2018


A super typhoon made landfall in China's Guangdong on Sunday, the country's most populous province, after wreaking havoc in Hong Kong and Macau and killing potentially more than 50 people in the Philippines.

Packing winds of more than 125 mph, tropical cyclone Mangkhut is considered the strongest to hit the region this year, equivalent to a maximum Category 5 "intense hurricane" in the Atlantic.

That's more powerful than the maximum sustained winds of 90 mph when Hurricane Florence roared into North Carolina in the United States on Friday.

The eye of Mangkhut, the Thai name for Southeast Asia's mangosteen fruit, skirted 62 miles south of Hong Kong but the former British colony was still caught in the typhoon's swirling bands of rain and gale-force winds.

Hong Kong raised its highest No. 10 typhoon signal at midmorning as ferocious winds uprooted trees and smashed windows in office and residential buildings, some of which swayed in the gusts, residents said.

"It swayed for quite a long time, at least two hours. It made me feel so dizzy," said Elaine Wong, who lives in a high-rise tower in Kowloon.

Water levels surged 12 feet in some places, waves swamped roads and washed up live fish, washing into some residential blocks and a mall in an eastern district.

"It's the worst I've seen," resident Martin Wong told Reuters. "I've not seen the roads flood like this, [and] the windows shake like this, before."

The plans of tens of thousands of travelers were disrupted by flight cancellations at Hong Kong's international airport, a major regional hub. Airlines such as flagship carrier Cathay Pacific canceled many flights last week.

In the Philippines, casualties reported by various agencies on Sunday evening indicate the death toll from the impact of Mangkhut could exceed 50, with most killed in landslides in or near mountainous areas of the Cordillera region.

Francis Tolentino, an adviser to President Rodrigo Duterte and head of the government's disaster coordination, said the latest number of casualties was 33 dead and 56 missing.

But the head of the military's Northern Luzon Command, Emmanuel Salamat, told Reuters that at least 19 more were killed in landslides in one part of Benguet province.

The 19 who died were part of a bigger group of 43 people, likely miners, and those who were still alive were feared to be trapped in an old mining bunkhouse that had collapsed under rubble, according to Tolentino.

Search and rescue missions were ongoing, and a local mayor in Benguet, Victorio Palangdan, said he feared the number killed there could be more than 100.

Separately, the coastguard said it had recovered the bodies of three people.

In Macau, which halted casino gambling late on Saturday and put China's People's Liberation Army on standby for disaster relief help, some streets were flooded.

"The suspension is for the safety of casino employees, visitors to the city, and residents," said authorities in the world's largest gambling hub, who faced criticism last year after a typhoon that killed nine and caused severe damage.

'King of Storms'

The typhoon, dubbed the "King of Storms" by Chinese media, made landfall in Haiyan town at 5 p.m. local time, packing winds of more than 100 mph, weather officials said.

Ports, oil refineries and industrial plants in the area have been shut. Power to some areas were also reduced as a precaution. In Shenzhen, electricity supply to more than 130,000 homes was cut at one point on Sunday.

The storm has fueled concern about sugar production in Guangdong, which accounts for a tenth of national output, at about 1 million tonnes. China sugar futures rose last week on fears for the cane crop.

Guangdong is also China's most populous province, with a population of more than 100 million.

No deaths have been reported so far.

More than 2.45 million people have been relocated and over 48,000 fishing boats called back to port in the province. Work at more than 29,000 construction sites has been suspended.

State television showed scenes of crashing waves, innundated streets and trees half-bent by the strong winds as Mangkhut unleashed its power.

The Shenzhen airport, shut since midnight, will be closed until 8 a.m. on Monday. Flights have also been canceled in Guangzhou and the island of Hainan, China's southernmost province.

High winds and swells also hit Fujian province north of Guangdong, shutting ports, suspending ferry services and cancelling more than 100 flights. Waves as high as 24 feet were sighted in the Taiwan Strait, the official Xinhua news agency reported.

Traveling at 19 mph, Mangkhut will continue on its northwesterly track, bringing heavy rain and winds to the autonomous region of Guangxi early on Monday.

It is expected to weaken into a tropical depression when it reaches southwestern Yunnan province the early hours of Tuesday.

(Reporting by James Pomfret, Anne Marie Roantree, Farah Master and Enrico dela Cruz; Additional reporting by Julia Fioretti and Bobby Yip in HONG KONG, Manolo Serapio Jr, Manuel Mogato and Martin Petty in MANILA, and Ryan Woo and Meng Meng in BEIJING; Editing by Clarence Fernandez/Himani Sarkar and Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Deadly Florence causes massive flooding in the Carolinas

Sep 15, 2018


Tropical Storm Florence trudged inland on Saturday, flooding rivers and towns, toppling trees and cutting power to nearly a million homes and businesses as it dumped huge amounts of rain on North and South Carolina, where five people have died.

Florence diminished from hurricane strength as it came ashore on Friday, but forecasters said the 350-mile-wide storm's slow progress across the two states could leave much of the region under water in the coming days.

The National Hurricane Center said the storm would dump as much as 30 to 40 inches of rain on the southeastern coast of North Carolina and part of northeastern South Carolina, as well as up to 10 inches in southwestern Virginia.

"This storm is relentless and excruciating," North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper told CNN late on Friday. "There is probably not a county or a person that will not be affected in some way by this very massive and violent storm."

At 8 a.m. EDT, the hurricane center said Florence had maximum sustained winds near 50 miles per hour and continued to produce catastrophic flooding in the Carolinas. It said it was located about 35 miles west of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and forecasters predicted a slow westward march.

"Gradual weakening is forecast while Florence moves farther inland during the next couple of days, and it is expected to weaken to a tropical depression" by Saturday night, the center said in a bulletin.

On Thursday, Florence was a Category 3 hurricane on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale with 120-mph winds. It was downgraded to Category 1 before coming ashore on Friday near Wrightsville Beach close to Wilmington, North Carolina. The hurricane center downgraded Florence to a tropical storm later in the day.

About 10 million people could be affected by the storm.

A mother and baby were killed when a tree fell on their home in Wilmington. The child's injured father was hospitalized. In Pender County, a woman died of a heart attack. Paramedics trying to reach her were blocked by debris.

Two people died in Lenoir County. A 78-year-old man was electrocuted attempting to connect extension cords while another man died when he was blown down by high winds while checking on his hunting dogs, a county spokesman said.

In New Bern, at the confluence of the Neuse and Trent rivers in North Carolina, the storm surge overwhelmed the town of 30,000.

Officials in New Bern, which dates to the early 18th century, said more than 100 people were rescued from floods and the downtown are was under water by Friday afternoon. A spokesman for the town said between 60 and 75 people were awaiting rescue on Saturday morning.

New Bern's mayor told CNN that 4,200 homes were damaged in the city.

Resident Jay Manning said he and his wife watched with alarm as water filled the street.

"We moved all the furniture up in case the water comes in but the water seems to be staying at the edge of the driveway," he said, adding that if the wind picks up and the rain keeps coming, that could change. "My wife's in a panic right now."

Dan Eudy said he and his brother were awakened on Thursday night by the sound of a boat ramming against his front porch.

Eudy said his family stayed in their home partly to protect their house. "And we had no belief it would be as significant an event as it was," he said. "This is a 500- or 1,000-year event."

Authorities in North Carolina said nearly 814,000 customers were without power. The figure for South Carolina was 170,000 customers.

More than 22,600 people in North Carolina were housed in 150 shelters statewide, including schools, churches and Wake Forest University's basketball arena. In South Carolina there were 7,000 people staying in shelters, according to the state's emergency management office.

Atlantic Beach on North Carolina's Outer Banks islands had already received 30 inches (72 cm) of rain, the U.S. Geological Survey said, while more than 25 inches (63 cm) have fallen in the Newport, Morehead City area since Thursday.

The White House on Saturday said President Donald Trump had approved making federal funding available in some counties. Trump, who spoke with state and local officials on Friday, plans a visit to the region next week.

Florence is expected to turn west and then north moving through the Carolinas and the Ohio Valley by Monday, the hurricane center said.

(Additional reporting by Gene Cherry in Raleigh; Scott DiSavino and Gina Cherelus in New York; Makini Brice in Washington; Andy Sullivan in Columbia, South Carolina; Brendan O'Brien in Milwaukee; and Jason Lange in Washington; writing by Will Dunham; editing by Jason Neely and Chizu Nomiyama)

California emerges as a leader at climate summit

Sep 14, 2018 5:36


When President Donald Trump pulled the US out of the Paris climate change agreement last summer, cities, states and business leaders quickly tried to jump into the leadership void.  

Chief among them was California Gov. Jerry Brown, who announced just weeks later he would gather leaders from around the world for a high-level climate summit in San Francisco.

“I know President Trump is trying to get out of the Paris Agreement, but he doesn’t speak for the rest of America,” Brown said in a video announcing the summit.  

Related: Scientists say 25 years left to fight climate change

“We in California, and in states all across America, believe it’s time to act. It’s time to join together, and that’s why at this climate action summit we’re going to get it done.”

Brown’s mission since then has been to spur action at the city, state, local and business levels to make up for the lack of leadership in Washington as President Trump reverses key climate policies.

He, along with philanthropist and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have launched America’s Pledge, which has secured commitments from thousands of sub-national actors to cut carbon pollution. 

But the biggest test of how much a state governor can really lead on a global problem like climate change came this week as Brown convened the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. 

Heads of state, ministers, CEOs  

By the time the curtain raised on the summit, Gov. Brown had assembled a group of high-level international leaders and regulars at UN climate negotiations. 

Heads of state from Fiji, Barbados and the Marshall Islands were there, as were environment ministers from national governments, including Norway, Costa Rica, and New Zealand, and the CEOs of big multi-national companies like Starbucks, L’Oréal and Unilever. 

Perhaps the most significant sign of Brown’s international clout was the size of the Chinese delegation at the summit.

“The fact that China sent a very high-level delegation to California, that was huge,” said Angel Hsu, an expert on China’s environmental policy at Yale. 

Hsu pointed out the symbolism of having China’s top climate negotiator in attendance.  

“Minister Xie Zhenhua has led the Chinese delegation for many years at these international negotiations,” Hsu said.

partnership between China and the US paved the way for the Paris agreement under President Obama. Now, with President Trump having turned his back on climate action, Hsu said Brown seems to be the American half of that key relationship.  

“It almost is like China and the US, they haven’t missed a beat in this bilateral partnership on climate change because California has really stepped in to fill the role,” Hsu said.  

What does California’s leadership mean? 

But California is just a state. It can’t officially negotiate at the UN as part of the Paris agreement process, which is still seen as the backbone of global climate action. 

So how much do its efforts matter in a practical sense? 

“It matters,” said Ji Zhou, head of the Energy Foundation China. He points out that California’s economy is bigger than most country’s.  

“The top-five economy in the world, and also so many states, they continue to follow the Paris agreement,” Zhou said. “This is sort of encouraging.” 

Sowing the seeds of action

Leading up to this week’s summit, Gov. Brown announced a slew of new climate policies to sow the seeds of action, including an ambitious law committing California to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045, and an even more ambitious executive order committing the state to full carbon neutrality by the same year. 

At the summit, Brown extracted dozens of new promises from states, cities and businesses to cut their own carbon pollution. Ten new states and countries committed to phasing out coal use entirely, more than two dozen governments and businesses set targets for zero-emission vehicles, and 73 cities pledged to go carbon neutral by 2050. Promises were made to green ports, protect forests, and invest in battery storage for renewable power.  

No one has tallied up the combined impact all these high-profile new commitments could have, but most summit attendees seem to agree that Gov. Brown’s actions have helped reinforce collective resolve. 

“To me, Gov. Brown is a climate hero,” said Todd Stern, the head US climate negotiator in Paris. 

“I think that this summit’s been very useful,” he said. “It’s a demonstration of activism, it’s a demonstration of will, it’s a demonstration of engagement by all sorts of sub-national players, and I think that’s all been tremendously useful."

But, Stern added, “it doesn’t fill the gap of the absence of the United States at a national level.” 

‘It doesn’t fill the gap’

Here’s just one example of why: Gov. Brown and former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg released a report this week showing that the voluntary promises made by more than 3,000 cities, states, business and non-profit organizations as part America’s Pledge will get the US less than half the way to the pollution cuts it promised in the Paris agreement. This was billed as a success story by the two leaders, and the report also contained a roadmap to getting the US much closer to its Paris goal. But it also points to the limitations of working with so-called sub-national actors, which include just 17 US states. 

Unlike that patchwork approach, federal policies like the Clean Power Plan would have cut emissions in all 50 states. 

“The US federal government can drive action all around the entire country, not just state-by-state,” Stern said. 

Piecemeal solutions make it harder to reach a national climate goal, which in turn makes it harder for a nation — or a state like California — to push others to work harder to fight climate change. 

Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that even the Paris commitments to capping rising temperatures are still too high to avoid a climate calamity.

That may be why Gov. Brown compared the task ahead to climbing Everest more than once during the summit. 

“Everywhere you look there’s a challenge,” Brown said. “We’re at the basecamp of Mount Everest and we’re looking up to say, ‘There’s where we’ve got to go.’ It’s about that difficult.”

The real reckoning on how successful Brown has been on pushing climate action will likely come after he’s out of office, in 2020, when countries have to up the ante on their carbon-cutting pledges and make the next round of national commitments under the Paris agreement.  

With government sidelined, citizen scientists test water quality in Puerto Rico

Sep 13, 2018 8:09


When Hurricane Maria struck Puerto Rico, water utilities were shut down, making access to safe drinking water one of the most pressing issues across the island. So, a citizen science group in Rincón, Puerto Rico, rallied to help test drinking water sources.

Rincón, on the west coast of Puerto Rico, is a mecca for surfers and beachgoing tourists. The town has a quaint square with gourmet coffee shops and a farmers market.

After the hurricane, Rincón didn’t have reliable drinking water for several months. The incidence of waterborne disease increased greatly. There was a sharp rise in gastrointestinal issues, scabies and leptospirosis — a bacterial infection caused by fresh water contaminated with rat urine.

Steve Tomar, who has lived in Rincón for more than 40 years, was in a position to help. Tomar is vice chairman of the Rincón chapter of the Surfrider Foundation and director of the Blue Water Task Force, which tests ocean water quality near the beaches.

“Immediately after the storm, people were asking, ‘Can you do something about checking the wells and springs?’” he says. “We said, ‘Well, we’re not set up for it but, yeah, we can do this.’ Within three weeks after the hurricane, we [were] up and running, as opposed to the government agencies. It was like three months at the earliest before they started responding.”

Without a functioning central water authority and with all the stores having sold out of bottled water and soda, locals had to resort to natural water sources like springs, wells and streams. For the vast majority of the island, Tomar says, residents had to draw what water they could and hope for the best. No one had any idea if the water from these sources was safe.

Initially, the only tests Tomar had on hand were for enterococcus, a hardy bacteria that can survive in a marine environment. Once they were able to get the right supplies, they tested for other contaminants, including bacteria from fecal matter.

They began with a small stream in a park near downtown Rincón. “This literally was where everybody who lived in downtown Rincón had to come for their water,” he says. “This was the only source they had.”

The team quickly branched out to include much of the surrounding area. They also gave an expedited training course to Boy Scout groups and anyone else interested in learning how to do water quality testing. Within a few months, they tested most of the informal water sources within a six-hour radius. (After six hours, a sample can no longer be accurately tested.)

Tomar’s team put up color-coded signs — green, yellow and red — to notify people of their results. “Boil for a minute, boil for 5 minutes, and boil for 20 minutes,” Tomar explains. “Quite frankly, I wouldn’t be drinking it in the first place because if you’re finding that much bacteria, you’re probably also going to [find] a whole suite of other problems that [indicate] you wouldn’t want to use this for potable water.”

One year later, Tomar still repeats sampling every few weeks to monitor bacteria counts. On site, volunteers can test for temperature, nitrates, chlorine, sediments and other contaminants. They have to take samples back to the lab in the Surfrider office to test for the things that can really make people sick, including coliform, enterococcus bacteria and E. coli.

Tomar says he was reluctant to take on testing of drinking water in the past because he feared stepping on the toes of government agencies and the public health services. After the hurricane, this was no longer an issue. “And, of course, you do it, because this is the community,” he adds. “These are your people, so whatever you can do to keep them healthy and informed, you do it.”

Surfrider’s Blue Water Task Force is the largest citizen science program in Puerto Rico. Tomar says it was relatively easy to transition the skills volunteers developed for testing ocean water into testing drinking water. He sees value in that beyond water safety.

“In a lot of ways, I think the major benefit of these community-based science programs is developing skill sets in the community,” he says. “An educated populace is, of course, a populace that’s better able to take care of their own resources.”

This article is based on a report that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

Study: Climate change will bring more pests, crop losses

Sep 13, 2018 7:07


A new study finds that global warming will bring with it an increase in agricultural pests, which will lead to significant crop loss across the globe.

Scientists have already raised grave concerns about the effects of climate disruption on global agriculture. Research has shown that rising temperatures can reduce nutrient quality in staple grains, and that droughts and flooding can reduce yields. The recent report adds an additional worry.

The new findings make “intuitive and scientific sense,” based on what scientists already know about insects, says Michelle Tigchelaar, a research associate at the University of Washington and a co-author of the study.

Insects are ectotherms.

“This means that as the global temperature rises, their body temperatures rise, and so they will eat more. Essentially, their energy use goes up,” she says.

And as temperatures rise, more insects will survive through the winter and reproduce at faster rates.

Put those two things together and the result is a larger insect population that will need to eat more to survive.

The unique part of the study, Tigchelaar says, was that it was the first time scientists quantified how big these impacts could be.

“What's surprising about these results is that this is not an insignificant contribution to future crop losses,” she says. “It is not going to be the dominant factor of how climate impacts crops, but it is not insignificant and will definitely aggravate the problem.”

The insect boom will primarily affect the world’s main staple crops — corn, wheat and soy. Wheat will likely see the largest crop losses, Tigchelaar says, because it is grown in temperate climates, where the study predicts the largest rise in numbers of insects will occur.

To put a figure on it: Two degrees of global warming could double the volume of wheat that is currently lost to pests.

“Our projections show that those crop losses could be on the order of several hundred million tons,” Tigchelaar says. “Combined with the other impacts of climate change on food production, these impacts are tremendously important, especially for the more than four billion people on this planet who depend critically on staple crops for their sustenance. Households that spend the majority of their income on food will be extremely vulnerable to price shifts.”

The nations of the world can take some steps to prevent or at least mitigate these crop losses, the most obvious one being to limit climate change, Tigchelaar says. Farmers and farm policy specialists should also look into new pest management strategies, as well as investments in crops that are more resilient against heat and pests.

“Breeding strategies [will be] an important part of any solution to climate change, but they're not going to be able to get us there alone,” Tigchelaar says. “Crop scientists have been trying for several decades to breed crops with increased resistance to heat, with little to no avail. That means that farming practices and perhaps what we eat are going to have to change.”

The good news from the research is that “a lot of the projected impacts of climate change on agricultural crops are interconnected,” Tigchelaar says.

“Solving climate change, solving pest impacts and solving the food crises that we're facing here in the United States might have common solutions around better land management practices and better public health policies,” she says. “If this kind of work can galvanize those kind of changes, that would be a really positive impact.”

This article is based on an interview that aired on PRI’s Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

The fake doctor who saved thousands of babies

Sep 11, 2018 18:20


Lucille Horn had no recollection of what was possibly the most important period of her life.

How could she? She was just a few weeks old. But as a premature baby, the months following her birth were fraught.

“My father said I was so tiny he could hold me in his hand,” Horn told StoryCorps in 2015.  “I think I was only about 2 pounds. I was too weak to survive.”

At the time of Horn’s birth, in the early 20th century, many hospitals lacked neonatal incubators. And while many doctors considered preemies a lost cause, one man was dedicated to saving their lives.    

Related: What Chicago is learning from Cuba when it comes to fighting infant mortality

“[My father] said, ‘I’m taking her to the incubator in Coney Island,’” Horn said. “The doctor said, ‘There’s not a chance in hell that she’ll live.’ [My father] said, "But she’s alive now!" He hailed a taxi cab and took me to Dr. Couney’s exhibit, and that’s where I stayed for about six months.”

That man was Dr. Martin Couney, whom Dawn Raffel writes about in her new book, “The Strange Case of Dr. Couney: How a Mysterious European Showman Saved Thousands of American Babies.” And Dr. Couney’s methods were strange, even by today’s standards. He would take babies and put them in incubators that were on public display.

“People would pay a quarter to look at 2-pound babies in incubators right next door to the sword swallowers and the strippers at Coney Island and Atlantic City,” Raffel says.

While his methods were unconventional, charging people to gawk at these babies funded their care. And it seemed like Couney was the only one doing this work at the time. Raffel says hospitals didn’t just have the necessary incubators to keep preemies alive, and they were without other resources, too, like skilled nurses and breast milk.  

Related: Fire at a maternity ward in Baghdad kills 12 premature babies

Raffel also says that Americans, at the time, viewed premature babies as a social burden. Medical journals referred to them as “weaklings.” Doctors considered them a lost cause. Not Couney.

“He was always saying that he was trying to make propaganda for preemies,” Raffel says.  “He wasn’t just trying to convince the medical establishment. He wanted the public to see and understand that these children could be saved.”  

Couney himself had an unusual backstory. His birth name was Michael Cohn. And despite his title, he wasn’t actually a doctor. Indeed, Raffel says that it was probably a self-appointed title to give his work more authority. And she points out: Who was going to fact-check him?  

“He could get away with this because there was no internet, no long-distance phone calls. He was sort of a reporter’s dream. If you’re a features reporter on a deadline, you’re just going to write down what he said.”

Plus, people were seeing results. No official records survive, but there are estimates that Couney saved the lives of more than 7,000 premature babies. And Raffel says that he stayed in children’s lives, even after they left the incubator. He would get invited to the weddings and high school graduations of his survivors.

Lucille Horn remembers going to visit one of Couney’s incubator shows long after she was one of his display babies. She was living proof that his life’s work wasn’t in vain.

“I went over and introduced myself to him,” Horn said. “And there was a man over at one of the incubators looking at his baby. Dr. Couney went over to him and tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Look at this young lady. This is one of our babies. And that’s how your baby is going to grow up.’”

A version of this story originally appeared at Innovation Hub

If you shelter in place during a disaster, be ready for challenges after the storm

Sep 11, 2018


Many people will likely decide to stay put despite evacuation orders ahead of Hurricane Florence. And if history is any guide, they may not be fully thinking through the problems they’ll face in the aftermath.

I conducted a research survey in Harris County, Texas, which contains much of metro Houston, after the city was flooded by Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, and found a common thread. Few respondents who stayed in place during the storm planned in advance for coping with extended service interruptions, such as road closures, power and water outages and communications interruptions.

I am a civil engineer and study interactions between people and infrastructure in disasters. In this survey I wanted to understand how different sub-populations prepare for and adjust to service disruptions during these events.

Related: One year later, a family affected by Harvey is still trying to put pieces back together

Hurricanes don’t always prompt mandatory evacuations, and even when they do, many people choose not to go. My results show that planning for losing key services, potentially for days or weeks, should be part of preparing to weather storms in place. And cities should keep their most vulnerable residents in mind as they make decisions about storm-proofing critical infrastructure systems, such as power and water.

No electricity, no phone, no toilet

Harvey flooded sewers, closed roads, downed power lines and interrupted telecommunications services across southeast Texas. Unlike tornadoes, which can selectively level one neighborhood and leave another unscathed, hurricanes are perversely egalitarian. In Houston, tony and disadvantaged neighborhoods alike bore the brunt of Harvey.

2018-09-11-houstonmap.png a map of road closures during tropical storm harvey in houston

Road closures in Houston during Harvey. 


Ali Mostafavi/CC BY-ND

Most residents in hurricane-prone areas know to store food, stock up on water, check their flashlights and radios and plan for evacuations. But I found that relatively few Houstonians were ready for infrastructure service disruptions.

file-20180823-149466-zpf10m.png Self-reported hardships due to power outages during Harvey. Credit:

 Ali Mostafavi/CC BY-ND

My survey was conducted three month after Harvey and included 750 Harris County residents. They rated sewer, water, electricity and communications as the most important household services, and found sewage backing up into homes from overwhelmed public water systems to be the most onerous disruption. Even households with individual on-site septic systems experienced septic tank overflow due to flooding.

Related: Report: FEMA wasn't ready for Hurricane Maria, destruction in Puerto Rico

Loss of potable water, which affected hygiene, drinking and food preparation, was the next greatest hardship. Electricity and telecommunications outages tied for third place, followed by road closures due to fallen trees, debris and flooding.

My students and I found that 53 percent of the people we surveyed were not well prepared for service disruption. Even the 47 percent who had laid in provisions to weather the storm had not thought specifically about service outages. Most people who self-identified as prepared underestimated the extent and length of service disruptions, and many ran out of stored food and water. A whopping 80 percent of households who were without power after the storm had not even considered the possibility of extended outages.

2018-09-11-mobility.png Self-reported hardships due to road closures during Harvey.

Self-reported hardships due to