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Dispatch 3: The ship's first encounters with icebergs

Feb 15, 2019


The World’s Carolyn Beeler is on a ship bound for Antarctica on an expedition looking into the fate of one of the frozen continent's biggest glaciers. What they learn could tell us a lot about how quickly sea levels around the world will rise.

It's sobering work, but it does have its moments of just plain joy, like the ship's first encounters with icebergs as it was about to cross the Antarctic Circle.


Waves crash against and smooth the base of the iceberg.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 


Observers reckoned the iceberg to be maybe twice as tall as their ship. The flat top of the tallest point was likely part of the surface of the ice shelf from which the iceberg calved off.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Tall white iceberg recedes to the stern of the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

The iceberg recedes to the stern of the Nathaniel B. Palmer. The ship is on its way to study why and how fast Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier may melt.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Related: Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out and Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Dispatch 1: Gearing up and shipping out

Feb 14, 2019


The icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer is setting out this southern summer on a seven-week scientific expedition to Antarctica’s massive Thwaites Glacier. The voyage marks the beginning of a five-year international effort to try to find out how quickly the glacier may melt in a warming world, and what that could mean for global sea levels.

The World’s Carolyn Beeler is onboard and will be reporting on the expedition. Her first dispatch comes from the port of Punta Arenas, Chile, on the Strait of Magellan.


The icebreaker Nathaniel B. Palmer, chartered by the US National Science Foundation, is shown. The ship is the length of a football field and dwarfs a nearby cruise ship.     


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Before boarding the Palmer, passengers and crew visit the gear warehouse to get outfitted for the extreme weather that awaits them in Antarctica.

Before boarding the Palmer, passengers and crew visit the gear warehouse to get outfitted for the extreme weather that awaits them in Antarctica.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 


The gear comes only in men’s sizes, so there’s some trial and error for women to get a good fit. All told, Carolyn Beeler was issued three jackets, five pairs of warm or waterproof pants, steel-toed rubber boots, ski goggles, a neck warmer, multiple pairs of gloves and a hat.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

USTED ESTA AQUI-YOU ARE HERE. A map in the port orients visitors. Relevant distance for people headed to the Palmer: Antarctica, 3,838 km, or roughly 2,400 miles.

Usted esta aqui means "you are here." That's what the marker at the bottom of this booth says. The map in the port orients visitors, showing the relevant distance for people headed to the Palmer: Antarctica, 3,838 km, or roughly 2,400 miles.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Related: What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Not a mannequin. The World's Carolyn Beeler in her more-or-less well-fitting parka on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Punta Arenas.

Not a mannequin. The World's Carolyn Beeler is pictured in her more-or-less well-fitting parka on the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer in Punta Arenas, Chile. 


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

The Nathaniel B. Palmer, underway from Punta Arenas, Chile.

The Nathaniel B. Palmer is underway from Punta Arenas, Chile.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

Next up: Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

A new book suggests AI and robots will take jobs — but make the world better

Feb 13, 2019


Richard Baldwin's newest book "The Globotics Upheaval: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work" has some dire predictions.

"What's going to happen with this globalization and service sector automation, is many tasks — chores that people do now — will be done either remotely or automatedly and we will need fewer people to do the same amount of work," Baldwin told The World. "So there will be a displacement of jobs."

But Baldwin, a professor of international economics at the Graduate Institute in Geneva and the author of "The Great Convergence: Information Technology and the New Globalisation," says there is hope at the end of the process.  

"It's just that we have to get from here to there," he said. 

Related: Seniors are the evangelists of Finland's new AI strategy

Baldwin talked through some of the major themes of his book with The World's Marco Werman. 

Computer technology has advanced at an incredibly rapid rate, even in just a few years. 

The front cover for Credit:

Courtesy Richard Baldwin

"Machines now — I mean computers, can see — they can talk," he said. "They can listen. They can translate, they can generate outputs, they can understand subtle patterns and they couldn't do that in 2015."Marco Werman: So AI's going to get more muscular. You're also seeing platforms, I gather, like eBay and Alibaba turning into places where you don't just purchase goods and stuff. You also buy skilled professional services. What does that look like and do you see this happening already?

Oh yes. So Upwork — that's the largest one. It went public last year. And what they do, like eBay but for services, they help people who want to hire, say, for example, a logo designer or a translator or copyeditor, they help them find them somewhere in the world, pay them, manage them and have the whole product delivered. This is services.

Maybe the easiest way to think about it is freelancing gone global. Now, the way you can see this is already done in a big way is in industries like web development, where it's very common that a coordinator will get online people sitting in different countries — somebody doing the coding, somebody doing the user experience, somebody doing the graphic designs — and they're on the screen all day long working in some sort of virtual office, producing a really top quality website very, very quickly and for much less money than if it all had to be done in California or Germany or someplace like that. And I'm just projecting that this will spread to many other activities because ultimately there's a huge cost savings to be made by hiring lower-cost foreign service providers.

It will open up this international wage competition that we've never really seen before in the service sector. What's going to happen with this globalization and service sector automation, is many tasks — chores that people do now — will be done either remotely or automatedly and we will need fewer people to do the same amount of work. So there will be a displacement of jobs. That's the process. It's not like all of a sudden, an automated robot will take over the job of, say, a journalist like yourself or a professor like me.

You write about what some countries are doing to plan for this scenario. Denmark — what are they doing to prepare?

So the Danish model is they let firms hire and fire freely, whatever you want. But then the government stands ready to do whatever is necessary to get the displaced worker a new job. If they have to move cities, they give them support for that, if they need some income support in the meantime, they do that. Retraining, looking after the workers not the jobs. And it's one of the reasons why, in Denmark, they're willing to accept globalization and automation. They embrace it, in fact, because they know eventually everybody will have a fighting chance of winning — it won't just always be the displaced workers paying the adjustment costs.

Related: Saudi Arabia has a new citizen: Sophia the robot. But what does that even mean?

That suggests some progress, but I've got to say it's easy to imagine the dystopian scenario where humans are figuratively and literally prisoners of robots. One of the arguments you make, is that ultimately you think this can all be a good thing for society. So, how and why?

I'm a pessimist in the short run and an optimist in the long run. We will do the things that artificial intelligence and tele-migrants can't do. AI is very bad at the most human skills. So dealing with unknown situations, managing people, motivating people, ethics, creativity. Those are things that computers have trouble doing and so, our jobs of the future will be filled with those more human tasks. So I view this AI and the tele-migration as a good thing once we can get through the transition. People's jobs will be more interesting because all the robotic repetitive stuff will be done by machines. Things that can be done remotely will be done remotely and allow us to do things where we actually have to be together. So, ultimately, I think it will be a very, very good thing.

It's just we have to get from here to there.

Related: Meet Pegg, a gender-neutral robot assistant

In that transition, I can imagine what you're predicting could well make a lot of powerful people unhappy. Do you see governments falling because of this upheaval or are governments more likely to take advantage of the upheaval for their own power?

Well, I think the move for populism is no way near over. We're in a situation where it's almost like a powderkeg. People are feeling fragility and vulnerability and anger from the last wave of globalization and automation. And into this, we're going to throw this explosive pace of digital technology which will bring globalization and automation to a whole new set of people who've never seen it before — white-collar workers, professional workers — and I think they will be angry and wouldn't be surprised if we get a backlash that has a political element to it. Who knows exactly what the backlash will be against, but the common denominator of all this is digital technology.

Read an excerpt from "The Globotics Upheaval" 

From THE GLOBOTICS UPHEAVAL: Globalization, Robotics, and the Future of Work by Richard Baldwin. Copyright © 2019 by Richard Baldwin and published by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.

Architecture's 'Lego' trend: Build rooms halfway across the world, then snap together

Feb 12, 2019 4:52


In the age of hyperglobalization, it seems that pretty much anything can be outsourced. Well, not anything. I mean, you couldn’t build an American hotel or apartment building in China or Eastern Europe, right?

In the city of Newton, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, large boxes — 65 feet long and 13 feet wide — dangle in the air from a 600-ton crane. They’re being stacked on top of each other like Legos.

“They fit together like Lego blocks.”

Architect Arthur Klipfel

“They fit together like Lego blocks,” said architect Arthur Klipfel, who is developing the 68-unit apartment complex. "One box has the bedroom in it. The other box has a living-dining-kitchen in it."

Workers use ropes to help guide a modular unit shown suspended in air by a crane.

Workers help guide a modular unit onto an apartment complex under construction in Newton, Massachusetts.


Diego Lopez/The World

Klipfel also designed the “modulars” — independent pieces that are fitted together to form a building. His company, Green Staxx, allows architects to choose from his library of more than 20 standardized boxes.

“The boxes can come with the kitchen cabinets, the flooring, all the bathroom fixtures, the prime coat of paint, the electrical,” said Gwen Noyes, Green Staxx’s chief operating officer and Klipfel’s spouse.

For the project in Newton, the modular work was done 350 miles north, in a Québec factory operated by RCM Group. Here's a company video explaining how RCM builds modulars.

“[Construction workers are] working in a controlled environment, ” Noyes said. "The factory is beautiful. They have year-round work, and they don't have to deal with the weather."

Gwen Noyes is shown wearing a gold-colored hard hat with her named on the back while taking a photo.

Gwen Noyes, Green Staxx’s chief operating officer, takes a photo of a modular unit being lowered onto an apartment complex under development in Newton, Massachusetts.


Steven Davy/The World

While Noyes is happy with her Canadian partners, she’d also like to have more options to build closer to their projects. Right now, however, there just aren’t modular factories nearby that can accommodate the scale of the Newton project. And so, the finished boxes are trucked down through Canada, through the woods of Maine, then on to eastern Massachusetts.

There are lots of variables affecting cost. The developers can pay rural Canadian carpenters somewhat less than Boston-area workers. But delays on the roads and in staging yards can add up if workers and equipment are left waiting at the job site. 

But the real cost savings to building a building off-site in a Canadian factory is speed.

"If a project saves four months, you're saving an incredible amount of money," Klipfel said. 

Noyes and Klipfel see factory-built modulars as an affordable, quick solution to housing shortages in Boston and cities across the globe. Their prefabricated designs are also built green, with insulation and energy-efficient heating and cooling built in.

A worker is shown from below standing on an orange platform of a hydraulic crane.

A worker stands on the platform of a hydraulic crane during the construction of a modular apartment building.


Steven Davy/The World

Modulars have been around since after World War II. But with improved technology and logistics, developers are taking the idea more seriously.

“It’s absolutely a trend,” said Stephani Robson, a senior lecturer at the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell University. “In fact, I think it’s going to be the way many hotels will be built going forward.”

Robson points to a hip, Dutch boutique hotel brand, citizenM, which recently opened a property in New York. The rooms were constructed in Poland.

“Building modular helps us to create a very constant quality of rooms,” said Maarten de Geus, the project architect for citizenM’s hotels. 

In Poland, the modular boxes are fitted with pretty much everything, including mattresses and television, said de Geus, who is with Dutch firm Concrete.

Here’s one limitation though: size.

“CitizenM has a very small bedroom, it’s just the width of a bed,” de Geus said. “It really is a room within the size of a sea container.”

Visualize that: You’re spending the night in a shipping container, but with a bed, desk and bathroom. (You have to climb off the foot of the bed; the sides touch the walls.) The rooms do look sleek and modern — and comfortable — but may not be for everyone.

A modular apartment unit from CitizenM is shown on a factory floor being moved using a forklift.

A modular apartment unit from citizenM is moved using a forklift.


Courtesy of Richard Powers/Concrete Architectural Associates and citizenM

That’s one major limitation with most modular buildings — architects just can’t get that creative.

“The issue is that the pieces themselves have to conform to whatever the transportation infrastructure can handle,” Robson said. “But that doesn’t mean we won’t see some innovations where we can build a larger guest room out of multiple components.” 

Another limitation is distance. One architect I spoke with said when you’re building rooms in factories halfway across the globe, you just can’t keep a close eye on quality controls, and that can lead to serious issues. For example, if a small plumbing error is made with a hotel room built offsite in a faraway factory, the mistake can be magnified 300 times before it’s corrected. 

But this story isn’t just about architectural innovation; it’s also about jobs that are shifting across the globe. On the West Coast of the US, some modular units are being constructed in China.  

“We know there’s no stopping progress,” said Justin Weidner, chief of staff at the Carpenters Union, which has 500,000 members in the US and Canada. “[But] traditionally this has been a trade and a career where you didn’t have to worry about offshoring. But with modular construction, that’s definitely a concern. However, it’s coming. People are always looking for ways to be more efficient and productive, and this is one of the ways they’re using.”

And Weidner also sees opportunity — more modulars means more construction. And the Carpenters Union has already forged relationships with some factories building them.

“There will be lots of jobs, they’ll just happen to be in factories instead of on job sites,” Robson said.

The question is: Where will those jobs be? For a new Boston hotel, for example, will the rooms be built in Poland or New England?

Venomous yellow scorpions are moving into Brazil’s big cities – and the infestation may be unstoppable

Feb 11, 2019


I live in São Paulo, the biggest city in Brazil, home to some 12 million people — 20 million if you count the outskirts, which have been sprawling for three decades.

That makes it a good place to observe the phenomenon I research: complex social problems. In academia, this concept refers to problems like corruption, crime and traffic — problems that, in practice, cannot be solved. They must simply be mitigated or managed.

São Paulo is a dense city, with scarce green space and little to no animal life — squirrels, no raccoons, not even a lot of birds. So I was astonished when, in January, I learned that scorpions had infested my neighborhood.

It turns out, people across the city and São Paulo state were having the same problem with these dangerous, venomous bugs. Statewide, scorpion stings have increased threefold over the last two decades.

Four kinds of scorpion live across Brazil, but historically only in rural areas. São Paulo residents are urbanites. We have conquered nature — or so we thought.

A dense cityscape at night

The city of Sao Paulo has a sprawling metropolitan area of nearly 20 million people, Brazil, June 8, 2017.


Nacho Doce/Reuters

Brazil’s urban scorpions

Brazil’s scorpion infestation is the perfect example of how unpredictable modern life has become. It is a hallmark of what those of us in the complex problems field call a “VUCA” world — a world that’s volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous.

Some 2.5 billion people worldwide, from Mexico to Russia, live with scorpions, which generally prefer hot and dry habitats.

But Brazil’s cities also provide an excellent habitat for scorpions, experts say. They offer shelter in sewage networks, plenty of water and food in the garbage that goes uncollected, and no natural predators.

Scorpions, like the cockroaches they feast on, are an incredibly adaptable species. As the weather in Brazil gets hotter due to climate change, scorpions are spreading across the country — including into its colder southern states that rarely, if ever, had reports of scorpions prior to this millennium.

The number of people stung by scorpions across Brazil has risen from 12,000 in 2000 to 140,000 last year, according to the health ministry.

Most scorpion stings are extremely painful but not fatal. For children, however, they are dangerous and require urgent medical attention. Eighty-eight people died from their wounds in 2017, Brazil’s O Globo newspaper reports, highlighting the lack of adequate medicare care available in small towns. Many of the dead are children.

In Americana, a city with about 200,000 inhabitants in São Paulo state, teams that perform night searches for scorpions captured more than 13,000 last year — that’s the equivalent of one scorpion for every 15 people.

Worse yet, the species terrorizing Brazilians is the highly dangerous yellow scorpion, or tityus serrulatus. It reproduces through the miracle of parthenogenesis, meaning a female scorpion simply generates copies of herself twice a year — no male participation required.

Each instance of parthenogenesis can spawn up to 20 to 30 baby scorpions. Though most will die in their first days and weeks of life, ridding Brazilian cities of scorpions would be a herculean, if not downright impossible, task.

Wicked problems in a crazy world

Brazil’s urban scorpion infestation is a classic “wicked problem.”

This term, first used in 1973 by design theorists Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber, refers to enormous social or cultural problems like poverty and war — problems with no simple or definitive solution, and which arise at the intersection of other problems.

Wicked problems are a symptom of numerous other related problems, both natural and human-made. In this case, Brazil’s urban scorpion infestation is the result of poor garbage management, inadequate sanitation, rapid urbanization and a changing climate.

It is likely too late to stop the spread of scorpions across Brazilian cities.

In a VUCA world, my academic research and other problem-solving studies show, wicked problems should be identified and confronted as soon as possible, using an array of responses.

In a VUCA world, the more resources you throw at problems, the better. That could mean everything from public awareness campaigns that educate Brazilians about scorpions to exterminator task forces working to control their population in urban areas. Scientists should be involved. Brazil’s national public health system will need to adapt to this new threat.

Brazil’s government appears to be ill-equipped to tackle the scorpion infestation.

Despite dogged press coverage, federal health officials have barely spoken publicly about Brazil’s urban scorpion problem. And, beyond some rather tepid national and state-level efforts to train health officials in scorpion risk, authorities seem to have no plan for fighting the infestation at the epidemic level it is heading towards.

Nor are cities likely to see any federal money dedicated to fighting this scorpion infestation: Brazil has been in a deep recession since 2015, and public health budgets have been slashed.

Venomous yellow scorpions, I fear, have already claimed their place alongside violent crimebrutal traffic and other chronic problems that urbanites in Brazil must cope with daily.

Hamilton Coimbra Carvalho, Researcher in Complex Social Problems, Universidade de Sao Paulo

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

Dispatch 2: Crossing the Drake Passage

Feb 11, 2019


The World’s Carolyn Beeler is riding along on a scientific expedition to explore the effects of climate change on the vulnerable Antarctic ice sheet.

But to get there, the research ship — a National Science Foundation-chartered icebreaker called the Nathaniel B. Palmer — first has to cross one of the roughest and most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world — the Drake Passage, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans to the east and west, and the tips of South America and the Antarctic Peninsula to the north and south. It makes life onboard challenging — for first-timers and veterans alike.

Related: What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Seasickness patches, acupressure wristbands and crystallized ginger are shown on a table.

To help ward off seasickness on the rough crossing, Carolyn boarded the Nathaniel B. Palmer armed with seasickness patches, acupressure wristbands, bags of crystallized ginger and instructions to keep her eyes firmly on the horizon as much as possible. The multipronged strategy seems to have helped. Three days out, she says, they’re “keeping my stomach remarkably happy.”    


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Waves are shown crashing against the side of the ship and spilling water on to the deck.

Huge waves crash up onto the deck of the Nathaniel B. Palmer as it crosses the Drake Passage.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Every couple seconds, gravity pulls everyone in a different direction on the ship. The hallways run uphill one second and downhill the next. Doors fly open as soon as you turn the handle, or become heavy as lead. Sometimes, you feel like you're being pressed into the floor.

Computers are lashed down aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer...

Computers, heavy equipment and many other things are lashed or bolted down aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer ... 


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Inside the ship, desk chairs are shown knocked over on their side.

... But 20-foot swells take their toll on everything else onboard that can move.


Carolyn Beeler/The World

Related: An unexpected challenge on Antarctica: Measuring snowfall


Condiments knocked askew in the Palmer’s dining room hint at sometimes bigger mayhem as the ship pitches and rolls. “We had a lot of things crash to the floor today,” said Chef Julian Isaacs a few days into the crossing to Antarctica. “Mainly utensils and stuff like that… we were quick to pick them up, throw them in the sink, secure them real quick.”


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

How to build a countrywide AI strategy? Finland is turning its seniors into evangelists.

Feb 8, 2019


In many ways, Hely Lyly is your typical grandma. She's retired, sings in a chorus, takes fitness classes, participates in a book club and spends a good chunk of her day taking care of her grandchildren.

These days, though, Lyly, 68, has a new gig — as an artificial intelligence evangelist.

“AI is now my new hobby,” Lyly said, chuckling.

Related: Meet Pegg, a gender-neutral robot assistant

Lyly is one of nearly 100 senior volunteers mentoring their peers on the fundamentals of AI. The mentorship program is just one component of Finland’s national AI strategy, which focuses heavily on getting Finns without a technical or computer science background comfortable with AI.


Seniors attend a training on AI in Finland. The Nordic country is focusing on educating its citizens, and empowering them to participate in discussions that will shape the country's policies in the future.


Credit Pauli Isoaho

Back in October 2017, Finland became the first European country to release a national AI strategy. It plans to release its final report in March of this year. 

Related: In Finnish experiment, robots teach language and math classes

To become an AI evangelist, Lyly had to go through a 12-week training that included lessons on the basics of AI, the ethics of AI — even some programming.

“I really learned that AI can help — especially seniors — a lot.”

“I really learned that AI can help — especially seniors — a lot,” Lyly said. “Because with age, different kinds of limitations — when it comes to physical things like vision or hearing problems — start to increase.”

There are apps and gadgets powered by AI that alleviate those problems, Lyly said, including digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, as well as certain navigation and translation apps. To get that message out, Lyly and her cohort have been visiting community centers, public libraries and other spaces where seniors tend to congregate.

Related: What can AI learn from non-Western philosophies?

“I think it's really great to have the seniors teaching each other because everybody learns at the same time from each other,” said Taru Tuomola, who works at Leppävaaran Elä ja Asu-Seniorikeskus, a senior community center and living facility in Espoo, Finland.

#seniotekoälymentorit Hely ja Sissi + Vilperi #robo puhumassa #tekoäly ja #robotti asioista. @Omnia_AI_Lab @Omniasome @Uudenmaanliitto #100senioritekoälymentoria #älykäsuusimaa #espoontyöväenopisto

— Pauli Isoaho (@isoahopauli) December 14, 2018

Tuomola described a recent training mentorship session at the facility. It began, she said, with a tai chi lesson from a small robot.

“It brought a lot of joy here. … [The seniors] were very interested and surprised about it,” Tuomola said.

In the hours that followed, seniors also got a chance to familiarize themselves with artificial intelligence and its practical applications.

Lyly says this work has challenged some of her own perceptions about seniors.

“I had a certain bias, I think, before I started to discuss [AI] with seniors. I thought that maybe they don't know that much, but they know. But this is not true. They know a lot.” 

“I had a certain bias, I think, before I started to discuss [AI] with seniors," Lyly said. "I thought that maybe they don't know that much, but they know. But this is not true. They know a lot."

So far, these visits have reached more than 300 seniors in Finland’s Espoo area, according to Omnia AI Lab, the adult education center that trains seniors to become mentors. They’re hoping to soon expand the program nationwide. To facilitate that expansion, Omnia says it’s building an AI showroom truck that will tour around Finland.

Finland knows that when it comes to AI, it can’t compete with China and the US — two countries vying to become global AI superpowers. Instead, the Nordic country is focusing on educating its citizens and empowering them to participate in discussions that will shape the country's policies in the future.

The Finnish government is also challenging at least 1 percent of its population to take a free, online AI introductory course and is working with private companies to get people around the country enrolled.

“We keep citizens at the center … of [our] AI strategy,” Maikki Sipinen, who’s part of a team driving Finland's AI strategy at the Ministry of Economic Affairs, wrote in an email. “While tapping into the potential AI holds, we need to make sure nobody is left behind in this transformation.”


Senior AI mentors meet every monday at Omnia AI Lab and learn to program humanoid robots. 


Courtesy Heidi Rajamäki-Partanen

Lyly agrees.

“My mother is 80 years old, and I have seen how difficult it is to live in this society if you don’t use digital services.” 

“My mother is 80 years old, and I have seen how difficult it is to live in this society if you don’t use digital services,” she said.

Lyly admits she hasn’t been able to get her mother excited about AI.

But she says her own adult kids, and her grandkids, are now turning to her to learn all about AI.

Why stop at plastic bags and straws? The case for a global treaty banning most single-use plastics

Feb 7, 2019


Single-use plastics are a blessing and a curse. They have fueled a revolution in commercial and consumer convenience and improved hygiene standards, but also have saturated the world’s coastlines and clogged landfills. By one estimate, 79 percent of all plastic ever produced is now in a dump, a landfill or the environment, and only 9 percent has been recycled.

This growing legacy poses real risks. Plastic packaging is clogging city sewer systems, leading to flooding. Abandoned plastic goods create breeding grounds for mosquitoes, and can leach toxic additives such as styrene and benzene as they decompose. Single-use plastics are killing birds and harming marine life.

I study international environmental law with a focus on marine ecosystems. In my view, land-based pollution from single-use plastics is a slow-onset disaster that demands a global response.

A riverbank filled with plastic bags

Plastic bag litter along the Jukskei River, Johannesburg, South Africa. 


NJR ZA/Wikimedia Commons

One attractive strategy is pursuing a legally binding phase-out of most single-use plastics at the global level. I believe this approach makes sense because it would build on current national and municipal efforts to eliminate single-use packaging, and would create opportunities for new small and medium-sized businesses to develop more benign substitutes.

Single-use plastic bans

About 112 countries, states and cities around the world have already imposed bans on various single-use plastic goods. Of these measures, 57 are national and 25 are in Africa. And the list of these restrictions continues to grow.

Most of these bans target thin single-use plastic carrier bags or imports of non-biodegradable bags. Some, such as the one in Antigua-Barbuda, include other single-use or problematic items, such as foam coolers and plastic utensils. A few — notably, Kenya’s plastic bag law — impose stiff punishments on violators, including jail time and fines of up to $38,000.

Groups of states are starting to enact regional policies. The East African Legislative Assembly has passed a bill to ban the manufacture, sale, import and use of certain plastic bags across its six member states, with a combined population of approximately 186 million people. And in October 2018 the European Union Parliament approved a ban on a number of single-use plastic items by 2021, along with a requirement to reduce plastic in food packaging by 25 percent by 2025 and cut plastic content in cigarette filters 80 percent by 2030.

Most of these bans are quite new or still being implemented, so there is limited research on how well they work. However, researchers at the United Nations who have reviewed 60 “national bans and levies” estimate that 30 percent of these measures have reduced consumption of plastics.

Plastics manufacturers contend that better recycling is the most effective way to reduce the environmental impact of their products. But many factors make it hard to recycle plastic, from its physical characteristics to insufficient market demand for many types of recycled plastics. In many instances, single-use plastics can only be recycled, optimistically, 10 times before their fibers become too short to be reprocessed.

Lessons from other global bans

Several global bans and product phase-outs offer lessons for a treaty banning single-use plastic goods. The most successful case is the 1987 Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. This treaty phased out production and use of chlorofluorocarbons in a variety of products, including refrigerators and spray cans, after they were shown to harm Earth’s protective ozone layer.

Today, scientists predict that stratospheric ozone concentrations will rebound to 1980 levels by the middle of this century. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montreal Protocol has prevented millions of cases of skin cancer and cataracts from exposure to ultraviolet radiation. In 2016 nations adopted the Kigali Amendment, which will phase out production and use of hydrofluorocarbons, another class of ozone-depleting chemicals.

Why has the Montreal Protocol worked so well? One key factor is that every nation in the world has joined it. They did so because alternative materials were available to substitute for chlorofluorocarbons. The treaty also provided financial support to countries that needed help transitioning away from the banned substances.

Where countries trying to reduce use of these chemicals fell short of their goals, the Protocol provided institutional support rather than punishing them. But it also included the option to impose trade sanctions on nations that refused to cooperate.

Another pact, the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, banned or severely limited production and use of certain chemicals that threatened human and environmental health, including specific insecticides and industrial chemicals. Today 182 nations have signed the treaty. Concentrations of several dangerous POPs in the Arctic, where global air and water currents tend to concentrate them, have declined.

Nations have added new chemicals to the list and created “elimination networks” to help members phase out use of dangerous materials such as PCBs. And producers of goods such as semiconductors and carpets that use listed chemicals are working to develop new, safer processes.

Even though the United States has not signed the Stockholm Convention, US companies have largely eliminated production of the chemicals that the treaty regulates. This shows that setting a global standard may encourage nations to conform in order to maintain access to global markets.

Other international bans have been less successful. In 1989, seeking to reduce the slaughter of elephants for their tusks, parties to the Convention in Trade of Endangered Species banned ivory sales by ending trade in African elephant parts. Initially demand for ivory fell, but in 1999 and 2008 treaty states allowed African nations to sell ivory stockpiles to Japan and China, ostensibly to fund conservation. These two sales reignited global demand for ivory and created unregulated domestic markets that stimulated high levels of poaching.

An opportunity to lead

What lessons do these treaties offer for curbing plastic pollution? The Montreal Protocol shows that bans can work where substitute products are available, but require reliable monitoring and the threat of sanctions to deter cheating. The Stockholm Convention suggests that industries will innovate to meet global production challenges. And struggles to curb the ivory trade offer a cautionary message about allowing exceptions to global bans.

I believe the rapid spread of single-use plastic bans shows that enough political support exists to launch negotiations toward a global treaty. Emerging economies such as Kenya that are aggressively tackling the problem are especially well placed to take a lead at the UN General Assembly in calling for talks on stemming the tide of plastic pollution.

Lise Meitner — the forgotten woman of nuclear physics who deserved a Nobel Prize

Feb 7, 2019


Nuclear fission — the physical process by which very large atoms like uranium split into pairs of smaller atoms — is what makes nuclear bombs and nuclear power plants possible. But for many years, physicists believed it energetically impossible for atoms as large as uranium (atomic mass = 235 or 238) to be split into two.

That all changed on Feb. 11, 1939, with a letter to the editor of Nature — a premier international scientific journal — that described exactly how such a thing could occur and even named it fission. In that letter, physicist Lise Meitner, with the assistance of her young nephew Otto Frisch, provided a physical explanation of how nuclear fission could happen.

It was a massive leap forward in nuclear physics, but today Lise Meitner remains obscure and largely forgotten. She was excluded from the victory celebration because she was a Jewish woman. Her story is a sad one.

What happens when you split an atom

Meitner based her fission argument on the “liquid droplet model” of nuclear structure — a model that likened the forces that hold the atomic nucleus together to the surface tension that gives a water droplet its structure.

She noted that the surface tension of an atomic nucleus weakens as the charge of the nucleus increases, and could even approach zero tension if the nuclear charge was very high, as is the case for uranium (charge = 92+). The lack of sufficient nuclear surface tension would then allow the nucleus to split into two fragments when struck by a neutron — a chargeless subatomic particle — with each fragment carrying away very high levels of kinetic energy. Meisner remarked: “The whole ‘fission’ process can thus be described in an essentially classical [physics] way.” Just that simple, right?

Meitner went further to explain how her scientific colleagues had gotten it wrong. When scientists bombarded uranium with neutrons, they believed the uranium nucleus, rather than splitting, captured some neutrons. These captured neutrons were then converted into positively charged protons and thus transformed the uranium into the incrementally larger elements on the periodic table of elements — the so-called “transuranium,” or beyond uranium, elements.

Some people were skeptical that neutron bombardment could produce transuranium elements, including Irene Joliot-Curie — Marie Curie’s daughter — and Meitner. Joliot-Curie had found that one of these new alleged transuranium elements actually behaved chemically just like radium, the element her mother had discovered. Joliot-Curie suggested that it might be just radium (atomic mass = 226) — an element somewhat smaller than uranium — that was coming from the neutron-bombarded uranium.

Meitner had an alternative explanation. She thought that, rather than radium, the element in question might actually be barium — an element with a chemistry very similar to radium. The issue of radium versus barium was very important to Meitner because barium (atomic mass = 139) was a possible fission product according to her split uranium theory, but radium was not — it was too big (atomic mass = 226).

illustrated image of an atom splitting

Nuclear fission of uranium 235. 


Stefan-Xp/Wikimedia Commons

Meitner urged her chemist colleague Otto Hahn to try to further purify the uranium bombardment samples and assess whether they were, in fact, made up of radium or its chemical cousin barium. Hahn complied, and he found that Meitner was correct: The element in the sample was indeed barium, not radium. Hahn’s finding suggested that the uranium nucleus had split into pieces — becoming two different elements with smaller nuclei — just as Meitner had suspected.

As a Jewish woman, Meitner was left behind

Meitner should have been the hero of the day, and the physicists and chemists should have jointly published their findings and waited to receive the world’s accolades for their discovery of nuclear fission. But unfortunately, that’s not what happened.

Meitner had two difficulties: She was a Jew living as an exile in Sweden because of the Jewish persecution going on in Nazi Germany, and she was a woman. She might have overcome either one of these obstacles to scientific success, but both proved insurmountable.

Meitner had been working as Hahn’s academic equal when they were on the faculty of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute in Berlin together. By all accounts they were close colleagues and friends for many years. When the Nazis took over, however, Meitner was forced to leave Germany. She took a position in Stockholm, and continued to work on nuclear issues with Hahn and his junior colleague Fritz Strassmann through regular correspondence. This working relationship, though not ideal, was still highly productive. The barium discovery was the latest fruit of that collaboration.

Hahn knew that including a Jewish woman on the paper would cost him his career in Germany. So he published without her.

Yet when it came time to publish, Hahn knew that including a Jewish woman on the paper would cost him his career in Germany. So he published without her, falsely claiming that the discovery was based solely on insights gleaned from his own chemical purification work, and that any physical insight contributed by Meitner played an insignificant role. All this despite the fact he wouldn’t have even thought to isolate barium from his samples had Meitner not directed him to do so.

Hahn had trouble explaining his own findings, though. In his paper, he put forth no plausible mechanism as to how uranium atoms had split into barium atoms. But Meitner had the explanation. So a few weeks later, Meitner wrote her famous fission letter to the editor, ironically explaining the mechanism of “Hahn’s discovery.”

Even that didn’t help her situation. The Nobel Committee awarded the 1944 Nobel Prize in Chemistry “for the discovery of the fission of heavy nuclei” to Hahn alone. Paradoxically, the word “fission” never appeared in Hahn’s original publication, as Meitner had been the first to coin the term in the letter published afterward.

A controversy has raged about the discovery of nuclear fission ever since, with critics claiming it represents one of the worst examples of blatant racism and sexism by the Nobel committee. Unlike another prominent female nuclear physicist whose career preceded her — Marie Curie — Meitner’s contributions to nuclear physics were never recognized by the Nobel committee. She has been totally left out in the cold, and remains unknown to most of the public.

An elderly white woman sits between two white men presenting an award.

This photograph was taken at Meitner's home in Cambridge, UK, when she received the Enrico Fermi award for 1966, shared with Hahn and Strassmann. Presenting it is Glenn T. Seaborg, Chairman of the US Atomic Energy Commission, and on the left is Professor Otto Frisch.


IAEA/Flickr Commons

After the war, Meitner remained in Stockholm and became a Swedish citizen. Later in life, she decided to let bygones be bygones. She reconnected with Hahn, and the two octogenarians resumed their friendship. Although the Nobel committee never acknowledged its mistake, the slight to Meitner was partly mitigated in 1966 when the U.S. Department of Energy jointly awarded her, Hahn and Strassmann its prestigious Enrico Fermi Award “for pioneering research in the naturally occurring radioactivities and extensive experimental studies leading to the discovery of fission.” The two-decade late recognition came just in time for Meitner. She and Hahn died within months of each other in 1968; they were both 89 years old.

Commentary: The border wall problem few of us are talking about? Climate change.

Feb 7, 2019


Fog rolls in over the mountains as night falls in Buena Vista, a small town in Guatemala with a spectacular view over the Sierra de los Cuchumatanes. The land here is studded with boulders and blanketed by yellow daisies and lavender. At this altitude, there are few trees and almost no water. Families rely on rainwater for drinking, washing and agriculture. When the rains don’t come or they come in torrents, people suffer.

The harsh conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather are putting added stress on poor families and pushing up migration in an area where locals estimate nearly half of the 250 households have already seen someone leave.

Related: Climate change is the overlooked driver of Central American migration

At a community meeting I attended here in the Guatemalan highlands in August 2017 as part of an international reporting fellowship, I asked how many men were thinking of migrating. Most smiled uncomfortably. With a little prodding from the head of the community council, nearly every man in the room raised his hand. The unforgiving land only allows for one crop a year, they said, and if it fails, farmers quickly start accumulating debt.

While many Americans have been engaged in recent debates over Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, I’ve been thinking about the families I met in Guatemala. I’ve also been thinking about climate change and how it’s increasingly threatening communities in Central America and beyond.

While many Americans have been engaged in recent debates over Donald Trump’s proposed border wall, I’ve been thinking about the families I met in Guatemala. I’ve also been thinking about climate change and its increasing threat to communities in Central America and beyond.

When mentioning border security in his State of the Union address, the president focused on threats and heightened fears held by citizens in a country where fear is the source of so many problems.

Related: Commentary: Trump’s immigration blame game

But so little of the discussion hinges on what life is like for the people who are migrating and why they would risk their families, their security, their very lives to cross the US border.


The harsh conditions and increasingly unpredictable weather in the highlands of Huehuetenango are putting added stress on poor families and pushing up migration in an area where locals estimate nearly half of the 250 households have already seen someone leave.


Sara Schonhardt/The World 

There is talk of gangs and violence and poverty or political instability — all real drivers of migration. But seldom is there mention of the inability to grow food or make a living off the land. Unsurprisingly, climate change was absent from the State of the Union.

Related: Guatemala’s changing climate is forcing families to leave their homes, livelihoods

Climate change is just one part of it. Farming is also threatened by land conflicts, agribusiness and extractive industries and infrastructure developments like dams that impact water, deforestation and natural disasters. But many of these things are integral to the environment, and they all impact food security.

It’s not just about the economy

Back in 2017, Susana Carrillo Pablo de Calmo stood in her potato field high in the inhospitable hills of Huehuetenango and started to sob as she talked about her husband leaving. He migrated to the US in March 2016 to pay off loans used to plant crops that continually failed. He ended up milking cows near Los Angeles. At least, that’s what Susana thought. They spoke by phone each week, and at that time he was sending money back every month.

Traditionally, men in Guatemala have migrated internally in search of work — to the capital or coffee or sugarcane plantations. But climate change has also hit those operations.

Years of prolonged drought in an area known as the dry corridor that snakes through Guatemala, into El Salvador and Honduras, has reduced people’s ability to grow food and driven up the need for humanitarian assistance, forcing many families to turn to migration as a coping strategy.

A study by the World Food Program released in August 2017 found that younger and more vulnerable people are leaving due to a lack of work and food. A drought that started in 2014 caused a significant increase in irregular migration to the US, the study says. Yet, when food shortages drive migration, families left behind can become even more vulnerable to poverty and food insecurity.


Huehuetenango in the Guatemalan highlands has suffered from a lack of water and deforestation in recent years. A coffee-growing region, many plantations have also been hit by weather-related disease. Guatemala is consistently among the countries most at risk from extreme weather events, such as droughts, landslides and hurricanes, according to the Global Climate Risk Index. That makes it hard for subsistence communities that rely on rain-fed agriculture to get by. 


Sara Schonhardt/The World 

More and more women are now migrating, too, some with entire families driven by a lack of livelihood options. Many are fleeing domestic violence. Some are also escaping a fate that includes forced marriage or sexual trafficking.

The women who stay fight battles of their own.

Related: Guatemalan women transform their town one brushstroke at a time

Left to do the work of two people, they care for five, six, 11 children; tend to chickens, goats and other livestock; look after the crops; and collect wood for the stove and water. If a harvest fails due to a lack of rain or disease, they must find ways to make ends meet.

In Huehuetenango, a poor, overlooked province given its high population of Indigenous people, severe frost has stung. An early cold snap ruined Susana’s potato crop in 2016, and it was only through money her husband sent back that she was able to repay her debts. She’s doing a job that’s not hers, she says.

All but one of Eulogia Matias’ four sons have migrated to the US, the youngest going three years ago just after getting married. Despite missing her children, Eulogia says she worries more about what would happen if they returned.

“The soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so what will they do?” 

Eulogia Matias’

“The soil is not as fertile as it used to be, so what will they do?” she asks.

Finding ways to mitigate the impacts of extreme weather is important, say scientists, because climate change isn’t going away — and neither is migration.


All but one of Eulogia Matias’ four sons have migrated to the US, the youngest leaving three years ago just after getting married. Despite missing her children, Eulogia says she worries more about what would happen if they returned.


Sara Schonhardt/The World 

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of scientists convened by the United Nations, produced a report released last October that says rising global temperatures will lead to an increase in fatal heat waves, water and food shortages and wildfires and coastal flooding. Without urgent action to address the causes of those disasters, more than 140 million people could be internally displaced by the middle of this century, according to a 2018 World Bank report.

Solutions to such problems need to come from national governments since the poorest are often the most vulnerable to climate impacts and too often, don’t have the money or resources to immigrate. But the global community will also increasingly be called on for humanitarian outreach. Both sides will need to focus on adaptation so populations can try to navigate climatic changes that are not going away.

Yet, these are not discussions we’re having when it comes to border security. Worse, perhaps, the Trump administration has walked back environmental standards and safeguards and announced it would pull out of the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

The media is partially at fault for continuing to cover Trump’s press conferences and statements as though nothing else in the world is happening. Too few resources go toward telling the stories of women like Susana and Eulogia or explaining the roots of the challenges they’re facing. Focusing on security alone overlooks some of the main causes of out-migration. Perhaps if we looked beyond our borders, we might have a better idea of why we’re dealing with a crisis there in the first place.

Sara Schonhardt traveled to Guatemala as a 2017 fellow with the International Reporting Project.

Germany to restrict Facebook's data gathering activities

Feb 7, 2019


Germany, where privacy concerns run deep, has ordered Facebook to curb its data collection practices in the country after a landmark ruling on Thursday that the world's largest social network abused its market dominance to gather information about users without their consent.

Germany is in the forefront of a global backlash against Facebook, fueled by last year's Cambridge Analytica scandal in which tens of millions of Facebook profiles were harvested without their users' consent.

The cartel office objected in particular to how Facebook pools data on people from third-party apps — including its own WhatsApp and Instagram — and its online tracking of people who aren't even members through Facebook "like" or "share" buttons.

"In future, Facebook will no longer be allowed to force its users to agree to the practically unrestricted collection and assigning of non-Facebook data to their Facebook accounts," cartel office chief Andreas Mundt said.

Facebook said it would appeal the decision by the Federal Cartel Office, the culmination of a three-year probe, saying the antitrust watchdog underestimated the competition it faced, and undermined Europe-wide privacy rules that took effect last year.

"We disagree with their conclusions and intend to appeal so that people in Germany continue to benefit fully from all our services," Facebook said in a blog post.

In its order, the cartel office said it would only be allowed to assign data from WhatsApp or Instagram to Facebook if users consented voluntarily. Collecting data from third-party websites and assigning it to Facebook would similarly require consent.

If consent is withheld, Facebook will have to substantially restrict its collection and combining of data. It should develop proposals to do this within 12 months, subject to the outcome of appeal proceedings, the regulator said.

If Facebook fails to comply, the cartel office could impose fines of up to 10 percent of the company's annual global revenues, which grew by 37 percent to $55.8 billion last year.


German Justice Minister Katarina Barley welcomed the ruling. "Users are often unaware of this flow of data and cannot prevent it if they want to use the services," she told Reuters. "We need to be rigorous in tackling the abuse of power that comes with data."

The German anti-trust regulator's powers were expanded in 2017 to include consumer protection in public interest cases where it could argue that a company — such as Facebook — had so little competition that consumers have no effective choice.

Facebook has an estimated 23 million daily active users in Germany, giving it a market share of 95 percent, according to the Cartel Office which considers Google+ — a rival social network that is being closed down to be its only competitor.

The next most popular social media sites in Germany are Pinterest and Google's YouTube.

Facebook said the cartel office failed to recognize the extent of competition it faced from YouTube or Twitter for users' attention, and also said the regulator was encroaching into areas that should be handled by data protection watchdogs.

Brussels-based anti-trust lawyer Thomas Vinje of Clifford Chance said the decision had potentially far-reaching implications. "It's limited to Germany but strikes me as exportable and might have a significant impact on Facebook's business model," he said.

The European Commission said: "We are closely following the work of the Bundeskartellamt both in the framework of the European Competition Network and through direct contacts."

"The European legislator has made sure that there is now a regulation in place that addresses this type of conduct, namely the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)," it added.

As part of complying with the GDPR, Facebook said it had rebuilt the information its provides people about their privacy and the controls they have over their information, and improved the privacy 'choices' that they are offered. It would also soon launch a 'clear history' feature, it said.

The cartel office's Mundt also expressed concern over reports that Facebook, which counts 2.7 billion users worldwide, plans to merge the infrastructure of its Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram services.

Facebook has said that discussions on such a move are at a very early stage.

By Douglas Busvine/Reuters

Additional reporting by Andreas Rinke, Matthias Inverardi, Nadine Schimroszik and Foo Yun Chee; Editing by Keith Weir and Georgina Prodhan.

Climate change is the overlooked driver of Central American migration

Feb 4, 2019


As people from Guatemala and Honduras continue to seek sanctuary in the US for a variety of reasons, including violence and poverty, another factor driving their migration has gotten much less attention: climate disruption.

Many members of the migrant "caravans" that made headlines during the 2018 US midterm elections are fleeing a massive drought that has lasted for five years.

The drought has hit harder in some places than in others, says John Sutter, senior investigative reporter for CNN, who went to rural Honduras to report on climate change and immigration. In the area of Central America known as the "dry corridor," for example, drought is not uncommon. But, Sutter says, some of the climate scientists he spoke with say they are seeing unprecedented effects.

If the rains don’t fall, crops simply don’t grow.

“In particular, spring rains, which are incredibly important for corn crops — a staple in this region — just haven't been coming,” Sutter reports. “They're almost completely missing when you look at the average rainfall by the month. It's partly that rains have decreased; it’s partly that they've shifted and are no longer falling in the seasons when they have been so useful to farmers in the past. But it's been very troubling and created a lot of hardship.”

Honduran house

The spring rains in Central America are crucial to the growth of the corn crop, which itself is crucial to the Central American diet. For the last five years, the rains have either arrived in the wrong season or sometimes not at all.


André Schütte/Wikimedia Commons

Many people who live in the dry corridor of Central America are subsistence farmers, completely reliant on what they grow for their survival. Unlike in the US and parts of Europe, there is no crop insurance or other programs to tide farmers over in bad years. Often, there are no irrigation systems, either. So, if the rains don’t fall, crops simply don’t grow.

“If you have year after year after year — and, at this point, essentially five years of very bad drought conditions — then that's when conditions can lead to hunger and starvation.”

John Sutter, CNN investgative reporter

“If you have one bad year and the rains don't fall, that creates a certain stress,” Sutter says. “If you have year after year after year — and, at this point, essentially five years of very bad drought conditions — then that's when conditions can lead to hunger and starvation.”

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization says 2 million people in the region are at risk for hunger, Sutter points out.

“I think that's [something] people underestimate about the caravan, or any migration story, really, when you hear about it: It has to be really bad for you to want to flee a problem,” Sutter says. “There’s an incredible attachment to a sense of home and place, especially among people who are farmers, who are attached to the land. It's a big deal to think about leaving. That gives you a hint at how intense the situation is for many farmers.”

While President Donald Trump claims that caravans of migrants heading from Central America to the US are an “invasion” of “gang members and very bad people,” his own commissioner of the US Customs and Border Protection says that crop failure is one of the main drivers of migration.

“Migration stories are always complex. ... It's not untrue that violence is driving people out; it’s not untrue that poverty is driving people out. But it is also true that climate change and severe drought are causing people to move from Central America, and from other [regions].

John Sutter, CNN investigative reporter

“Migration stories are always complex,” Sutter says. “It's not untrue that violence is driving people out; it’s not untrue that poverty is driving people out. But it is also true that climate change and severe drought are causing people to move from Central America, and from other [regions]. And I think that we have to look at that in a clear-eyed way and think about what that means.”

He adds: “I wish the administration, or really anyone in Washington, would talk about this issue of migration in terms of climate change, because the projections for how many climate migrants or climate refugees there will be in the world are uncertain, and we're not preparing for that.”

If anything, Sutter says, the United States and some European countries are doing the opposite. They are putting up walls and barriers and trying to slow the movement of people — fully knowing that climate change is going to push people out their homes.

The United States has done more than any other country to cause global warming, while many of the people suffering from the worst effects of this warming have done little, if anything, to cause it, Sutter points out.

“I think it's a really important moral question we need to ask ourselves: We’re causing this hardship in parts of the world many of us may never travel through or see, but it’s real and it's causing repercussions, one of which is that people are on the move to try to make ends meet, to try to make a livelihood,” Sutter says. “It doesn't invalidate the other stories that we've heard about the caravan, but it certainly complicates them.”

Many climate experts believe the big, industrialized countries — the US, Europe, China — owe it to these people to tell this part of the story to the world.

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

Why I can’t quit Facebook: I want to click 'love' when I see refugees' big milestones

Feb 4, 2019


These days it seems everyone is starting to #DeleteFacebook after a series of data privacy scandals. I’ve considered it, too. But there’s one reason I can’t quit: I’d lose my main window into the lives of refugees I’ve met as a journalist covering global migration.

There’s a special intensity to this beat. You spend time with people who are on a literal odyssey, one filled with uncertainty, frustration, boredom and minor triumphs. You might spend a few hours together at a border crossing or a few days hanging out and breaking bread in a camp as they figure out what’s next. You inevitably form a bond over this strange turning point in their lives, puncturing the professional distance between journalist and source.  

And then they move on.

Because of Facebook, I’ve been able to watch the milestones of refugees long after parting ways. I’ve seen photos of families reuniting after war and bureaucracy kept them apart for years. I’ve hit the “love” button as people checked in to new countries after weeks or months in transit, followed by marriage engagements, new baby announcements or “first snows.” I’ve seen them mourn relatives and friends who’ve died in their home countries. Over time, their posts switch from their native languages to German, French and English as they integrate into their new homes.

Related: We asked listeners why they can't quit Facebook. Here's what you said.

From 2014 to 2017, I was a reporter based in Greece, Turkey and Lebanon, covering Syria’s exodus and Europe’s refugee crisis. The people I met had few possessions and a burning drive to reach safe northern European countries where they could restart their lives. Apps like Facebook and WhatsApp were their lifelines: It’s how they kept in touch with family and friends who’d been scattered across the region and found smugglers who would take them to Europe by boat — or plane if they could afford pricey fake passports.

Facebook was the only constant — the social media platform virtually everyone had that was accessible from any smartphone.

A reporter and teenage male sitting cross-legged on the ground for an interview

The World reporter Tania Karas interviewing Waris, a teen Afghan refugee, in Athens, Greece in 2015. They keep in touch via Facebook. 


Tania Karas/The World

“When you’re a refugee, everyone around you is changing their numbers and switching countries. Facebook is how we keep track of each other,” my Syrian friend Eizeddin Ghosn, 29, told me last month via Facebook Messenger. In 2015, we met in Idomeni, a tiny Greek border village that had become a temporary tent city for 14,000 refugees. He’d traveled there from Yabroud, a town outside Damascus, that was once a rebel stronghold.

“Of course, we’re aware of the Facebook data and privacy issues,” said Ghosn, who is now an electrical engineer living in Amsterdam. “But for us, worrying about that would be a luxury.”

While reporting, Facebook became a critical tool for me to keep track of transient sources. It was more reliable than most other forms of communication. Cellphone theft was rampant in refugee camps, so phone numbers could be useless. Apps like Viber and WhatsApp made it tricky to save old contacts if you get a new phone or new SIM card.

So I “friended” everyone I interviewed. Almost immediately, a fuller picture of my sources emerged on my screen. I’d met them in some of their darkest moments — living in squalid camps or sleeping on the streets — but their Facebook photos gave me insight into their old lives. I saw them smoking hookahs in Damascus, or sipping coffee with a view of Aleppo’s famous citadel before the war. It was yet another reminder that “refugee” was just one slice of their identities. The refugee-crisis prism through which I shared their stories with the world was a narrow one.  

Forced migration comes with bureaucratic hurdles that seem insurmountable to refugees having to contend with hostile governments. I wrote about many of these problems as a journalist. Facebook is where I saw their resolutions unfold. Two years ago, I cheered when Ensaf, a Syrian teen girl I interviewed in Greece in 2016, posted a photo of herself and her dad on a plane to Germany, where they finally reunited with her mom and brother after more than a year apart. A few months later, they posted photos of the whole family skiing for the first time.

A Facebook post announcing a new baby.

Facebook is where The World reporter Tania Karas learned Najah, a young Syrian mother she interviewed in 2016, was pregnant with her second child.



There have been other milestones, too. Facebook is where I learned Najah, a young Syrian mother who traveled alone to Europe with her baby girl, Amira, was pregnant with her second child. It’s where 14-year-old Mohammad from Afghanistan checked in to the Eiffel Tower in Paris in 2016. That was two months after I met him in Patras, Greece, where he was caught trying to stow himself in a lorry headed for Italy.

And every November, I get a Facebook Memories reminder about the death of 6-year-old Rand, a Syrian girl whose family I profiled after she was killed by an oncoming train hours after they arrived in Greece.

A teenager standing beneath the Eiffel tower

Mohammad, an Afghan teen refugee, stands beneath the Eiffel Tower in Paris after repeated attempts trying to reach Europe. Facebook is where The World reporter Tania Karas learned he had made it.



There’s a cruel irony in relying on Facebook to keep in touch with refugees. The same platform that connects us fueled one of the largest and most horrific human displacements in recent history in Myanmar. In mid-August 2017, I set out to write a profile of Chicago’s Rohingya Muslim refugee community and found my sources glued to their Facebook apps. They despaired as their feeds filled with violent images from home, where a brutal ethnic cleansing campaign had just begun. They witnessed their villages razed and families killed via Facebook Live — and later, it was revealed that Myanmar military officials used Facebook to incite hate against the Rohingya minority. It was heartbreaking to watch as members of Chicago’s Rohingya Cultural Center used the same platform to find out if loved ones had survived, and later, to raise money for aid. A full circle of hate — incitement, brutality, displacement and awareness-raising — started and ended with Facebook.

And of course, Facebook rumors have been behind anti-refugee attacks in Germany, which took in over 1 million refugees in the past few years. Facebook played in an enormous role in accelerating Europe’s refugee crisis in the first place — it helped spread German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s August 2015 “refugees welcome” speech far and wide — and viral Facebook posts also spurred some Central Americans to join recent migrant “caravans” to the United States. The tool that aids human migration is simultaneously a public square tainted by hate speech that drives people further apart.

But for now, I can’t delete it. It’s where I’ve built an ecosystem of contacts that don’t easily transfer to any other social network. It’s challenged the imaginary boundary between myself and my sources, prompting me to view them on a person-to-person level. The process of migration, like social media, is ephemeral. For better or worse, Facebook is where I get to see what happens next in their stories.

Facebook is a persuasion platform that’s changing the advertising rulebook

Feb 1, 2019


Facebook — the social network that started in a Harvard dorm room 15 years ago — has evolved into a media and advertising giant. It’s helped create a new age of precise consumer insights. With over 2 billion users worldwide, Facebook can offer granular data about each and every one of them to advertisers — not just demographics but the very narrowly defined interests, conversations and interactions they have on the platform. Advertisers try to leverage all that information into online purchases by directly targeting consumers with messages meant to stand out as they scroll through a newsfeed.

As a media and advertising psychology scholar, I’ve been researching Facebook and its effects on persuasion for the past 12 years. Long gone are the days of brands offering consumers meticulously crafted messages with mass appeal that provide strong arguments or important cues to get them to change their attitudes and behaviors.

Related: In Myanmar, fake news spread on Facebook stokes ethnic violence

Facebook has driven an ongoing digital revolution within the advertising industry, redefining the persuasive process advertisers have traditionally known. Now people communicate differently on and because of Facebook and other social media services. And their buying behaviors have changed too.

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo

Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Facebook logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018.


Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo via Reuters

Facebook’s not so social anymore

My collaborative research suggests that people’s motivations for using Facebook have shifted over the years. People used to visit for online socialization and interpersonal communication. But now their reasons are more passive, having to do with the desire to be entertained and the simple fact that checking Facebook is convenient.

Facebook users, for the most part, have moved from being hyperactive — endlessly posting about the ins and outs and ups and downs of their lives — to being, simply put, habitual lurkers.

There are two reasons. First, Facebook has reinvented itself repeatedly over the past 15 years with updates to its look and feel as well as functionality.

Second, users’ perceptions of Facebook have changed. The size of a typical “friends” network has increased immensely. For many, the Facebook experience has shifted from simulating a high school reunion with a few handfuls of invitees to an outdoor rock concert with a huge audience.

The connection with one’s strong ties — your close friends — still remains. But people are gravitating toward using Facebook to see what’s out there, grab a smile or a laugh and then move on with their lives. Sure, there’s always the political rants, that obscene post by a college friend or other messages that make your eyes roll — but for the most part, people use Facebook because it entertains them and it’s part of their daily ritual. Research suggests this pattern holds in the United States and other countries, such as Taiwan.

It’s automatic

A few years ago, some graduate students and I brought college student volunteers into our lab. We asked them to use Facebook while we recorded where their eyes traveled on the screen and how they responded psychophysiologically in terms of their heart rate, skin conductance level and facial electromyography muscle activation. Researchers have long associated these biological measures with psychological processes that could indicate attention, emotional arousal and what psychologists call emotional valence — that is, pleasant versus unpleasant emotions.

We were trying to understand the psychophysiological responses that precede specific behaviors on Facebook, such as pressing the “like” button as well as sharing or commenting on someone else’s post. These behaviors have emerged over the years as indicators of online advertising and marketing effectiveness. Traditional advertising concepts like return on investment have been replaced by return on engagement.

We found that prior to pressing the “like” button, participants exhibited a particular pattern of heart rate activation and skin conductance level — the same one that characterizes an orienting response. This is a brief, automatic “What is it?” reaction to an external stimulus or a change in the environment. It’s the same response you have, without much conscious effort, when someone enters the room or calls your name. It makes perfect sense that pressing “like” would have similar characteristics. Who, when scrolling through an endless newsfeed, pauses to think long and hard about whether to “like”? Very few!

facebook on a phone

A smartphone user shows the Facebook application on his phone in the central Bosnian town of Zenica. 


Dado Ruvic/Reuters

The fact that people press the “like” button in this automatic mode is significant for multiple reasons. First, the nature of the Facebook environment offers multiple bits of information at any particular moment, all competing for your attention. Specific bits that do catch your attention may be lucky enough to be rewarded with a behavior — a “like” or a “share.”

And from an advertising perspective, these automatic behaviors are important. Other studies my colleagues and I conducted found that expressing intentions to like, share and comment on something were strong positive predictors of participants’ readiness to enact relevant behaviors offline. It makes sense: if you “like” a bunch of woolen socks online, maybe you’re getting closer to investing in some new warm gear.

Targeted ads push you to act

The way people interact with Facebook is changing how they can be persuaded to think about or do a particular thing.

With tons of information presented at the same time, your brain is forced to decide quickly what’s relevant or interesting. Facebook and other social media services take advantage of this – pushing you to slip easily from thought to behavior. It emphasizes your impulses and decreases the opportunities for you to think more thoroughly about your perceptions, attitudes and decisions.

Think about seeing a product on Facebook, “liking” or “sharing” it, then immediately clicking the ad to place the product in a shopping cart on Amazon. Just like that, within a few seconds, you’ve moved from noticing a product and indicating an attitude online to that same product being purchased and marked for shipping to your doorstep.

This is a vastly different process from seeing an ad on TV, then having to get into your car or take the bus to travel to the brick-and-mortar store, picking the advertised product from the pile, holding it in your hands and taking it to the register for purchase.


A cellphone user looks at a Facebook page at a shop in Latha street, Yangon, Myanmar.


Ann Wang/Reuters

Of course not every single exposure to an ad on Facebook and other social media ends up with a conversion to purchase. There is a lot that does not end up in the shopping cart.

But having the infrastructure to facilitate these types of impulsive behaviors has ramifications for other areas of persuasion. Take alcohol use and overuse as an example. How does this thought-behavior connection pan out when someone with a high risk of alcohol abuse sees a message from a friend or a marketer on Friday night promoting drinking? Or when a college student sees his friends posing with green beer mugs on St. Patrick’s Day on Facebook? Would that prompt him to get that nth drink that would raise his blood alcohol concentration level to a risky one? Our research on the effects of branded alcohol posts suggests this is plausible.

Changing consumer habits combined with companies’ abilities to target them with personalized messages streamed to their mobile devices mean advertisers and marketers are in a new environment. People mindlessly scroll, clicking automatically. Messages come at people nonstop, trying to convert them into consumers by exploiting those habits. And even at times when that conversion likelihood is low, brands can just try again, and again, and again and again.The Conversation

Saleem Alhabash, Associate Professor of Advertising + Public Relations, Michigan State University

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

European colonization of the Americas killed 10 percent of world population and caused global cooling

Jan 31, 2019


While Europe was in the early days of the Renaissance, there were empires in the Americas sustaining more than 60 million people. But the first European contact in 1492 brought diseases to the Americas which devastated the native population, and the resultant collapse of farming in the Americas was so significant that it may have even cooled the global climate.

The number of people living in North, Central and South America when Christopher Columbus arrived is a question that researchers have been trying to answer for decades. Unlike in Europe and China, no records on the size of Indigenous societies in the Americas before 1492 are preserved. To reconstruct population numbers, researchers rely on the first accounts from European eyewitnesses and, in records from after colonial rule was established, tribute payments known as “encomiendas.” This taxation system was only established after European epidemics had ravaged the Americas, so it tells us nothing about the size of pre-colonial populations.

Related: Ignored and deported, Cree 'refugees' echo the crises of today

Early accounts by European colonists are likely to have overestimated settlement sizes and population to advertise the riches of their newly discovered lands to their feudal sponsors in Europe. But by rejecting these claims and focusing on colonial records instead, extremely low population estimates were published in the early 20th century which counted the population after disease had ravaged it.

On the other hand, liberal assumptions on, for example, the proportion of the Indigenous population that was required to pay tributes or the rates at which people had died led to extraordinarily high estimates.

Our new study clarifies the size of pre-Columbian populations and their impact on their environment. By combining all published estimates from populations throughout the Americas, we find a probable Indigenous population of 60 million in 1492. For comparison, Europe’s population at the time was 70 to 88 million spread over less than half the area.

The Great Dying

The large pre-Columbian population sustained itself through farming — there is extensive archaeological evidence for slash-and-burn agriculture, terraced fieldslarge earthen mounds and home gardens.

By knowing how much agricultural land is required to sustain one person, population numbers can be translated from the area known to be under human land use. We found that 62 million hectares of land, or about 10 percent of the landmass of the Americas, had been farmed or under another human use when Columbus arrived. For comparison, in Europe 23 percent and in China 20 percent of land had been used by humans at the time.

This changed in the decades after Europeans first set foot on the island of Hispaniola in 1497 — now Haiti and the Dominican Republic — and the mainland in 1517. Europeans brought measles, smallpox, influenza and the bubonic plague across the Atlantic, with devastating consequences for the Indigenous populations.

A llama on Incan steps in the Andes mountains

A llama near the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu in Cusco, Peru, Dec. 2, 2014.


Enrique Castro-Mendivil/Reuters

Our new data-driven best estimate is a death toll of 56 million by the beginning of the 1600s — 90 percent of the pre-Columbian Indigenous population and around 10 percent of the global population at the time. This makes the “Great Dying” the largest human mortality event in proportion to the global population, putting it second in absolute terms only to World War II, in which 80 million people died — 3% of the world’s population at the time.

Related: Climate change is contributing to the migration of Central American refugees

A figure of 90 percent mortality in post-contact America is extraordinary and exceeds similar epidemics, including the Black Death in Europe — which resulted in a 30 percent population loss in Europe. One explanation is that multiple waves of epidemics hit Indigenous immune systems that had evolved in isolation from Eurasian and African populations for 13,000 years.

Native Americas at that time had never been in contact with the pathogens the colonists brought, creating so-called “virgin soil” epidemics. People who didn’t die from smallpox, died from the following wave of influenza. Those who survived that succumbed to measles. Warfare, famine and colonial atrocities did the rest in the Great Dying.

Global consequences

This human tragedy meant that there were simply not enough workers left to manage the fields and forests. Without human intervention, previously managed landscapes returned to their natural states, thereby absorbing carbon from the atmosphere. The extent of this regrowth of the natural habitat was so vast that it removed enough CO₂ to cool the planet.

Related: Thwaites Glacier can help predict global sea level rise

The lower temperatures prompted feedbacks in the carbon cycle which eliminated even more CO₂ from the atmosphere — such as less CO₂ being released from the soil. This explains the drop in CO₂ at 1610 seen in Antarctic ice cores, solving an enigma of why the whole planet cooled briefly in the 1600s. During this period, severe winters and cold summers caused famines and rebellions from Europe to Japan.

A graph showing temperature over time

Global temperatures dipped at the same time as the Great Dying in the Americas.


Robert A. Rohde/Wikipedia

The modern world began with a catastrophe of near-unimaginable proportions. Yet it is the first time the Americas were linked to the rest of the world, marking the beginning of a new era.

We now know more about the scale of pre-European American populations and the Great Dying that erased so many of them. Human actions at that time caused a drop in atmospheric CO₂ that cooled the planet long before human civilization was concerned with the idea of climate change.

Such a dramatic event would not contribute much to easing the rate of modern global warming, however. The unprecedented reforestation event in the Americas led to a reduction of 5 parts per million CO₂ from the atmosphere — only about three years’ worth of fossil fuel emissions today.

An unexpected challenge on Antarctica: Measuring snowfall

Jan 28, 2019


Any explorer who makes it to the planet’s southernmost continent quickly learns how to battle the wind. It howls through the unpaved street of McMurdo Station — the largest US research outpost on the continent. Here, the wind is a foe fiercer than even the cold. It is common for 100-mph winds to whip snow, blindingly, across the open ice. And this wind has posed a challenge for scientists hoping to model the future of the continent, and of our planet. 

    View this post on Instagram         

Knowing how much snow accumulates in Antarctica is key to understanding future sea level rise. But it turns out, there's no good way to measure snowfall on the continent. It's too windy. @NOVAPBS’s science editor, Caitlin Saks, was just in Antarctica with Scott Landolt, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Mark Seefeldt, of the @cuboulder who are trying to figure out a good way to measure snowfall. Here, the wind is a foe even fiercer than the cold. It is common for 100-mph winds to blindingly whip snow across the open ice. And this wind has posed a challenge for scientists hoping to model the future of the continent and our planet. Go to the link in our bio to read more about why snowfall measure is crucial to our understanding of how Antarctica’s ice mass will change in the coming decades. Video by Caitlin Sacks.

A post shared by The World (@pritheworld) on Jan 29, 2019 at 1:48pm PST

In particular, the blowing wind obfuscates a seemingly simple measurement: How much snow is falling on the continent? Scott Landolt, of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and Mark Seefeldt, of the University of Colorado Boulder, are out to solve this problem. 

Related: What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

According to Landolt, “Antarctica and Greenland are really the last frontiers when it comes to snowfall precipitation measurement.”

The amount of snowfall is an important parameter used in modeling how the Antarctic continent’s mass of ice will change in the coming decades. As the planet warms, the margins of the continent are melting three times faster than just one decade ago. But a warmer climate also means that there is more moisture in the air, and that could mean more snow precipitating out onto the continent. That snow, in turn, compacts into ice and becomes locked in the continent’s interior. 

a man in a red coat stands on top of a large research instrument

Researcher Scott Landolt services an instrument designed to measure snowfall in Antarctica.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

Professor David Holland of NYU, who is not involved in the project, explains that this measurement is important because, “it is one part of the equation in terms of the total volume of the Antarctic ice sheet. Is it getting bigger or smaller? Snowfall is certainly how it becomes larger.”

Related: Antarctica needs humans to protect it. It also needs humans to stay away. What's a potential visitor to do?

While total precipitation can be estimated indirectly from computer models, satellite measurements and digging snow pits, until now there has been no way to regularly measure how much snow is actually falling on the continent. In science-lingo, this is called “ground truth” — the reality of what is happening on the ground. 

a man in a red coat stands at the bottom of a tall white pole

Researchers Scott Landolt and Mark Seefeldt set up an automatic snowfall measuring system in Antarctica.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

Seefeldt explains, “If we're able to show more ground truth to what the models are showing, then we are able to provide more validity to what's going to happen in the future climate.”

The challenge of building a snowfall measuring system is twofold: First, an instrument must be devised to buffer the effects of the merciless winds. Second, this system must work on its own, without a human to service it during the long winter, when the continent is plunged into 24 hours of darkness and the temperatures can easily fall below -50 degrees Fahrenheit — and that’s without the wind-chill.  

Landolt and Seefeldt developed a system that is at once simple and high tech. The primary instrument is what amounts to a bucket that collects and weighs the snow. The weight of the snow, not depth, is what matters. 

Landolt says, “What we're really trying to do is look at how much water is actually being added in to the frozen component of the ice shelf and the ice sheets to offset what is being melted into the oceans.” 

Surrounding the instrument are two concentric circles of metallic fins. These act as wind baffles to disrupt the horizontal wind flow and allow the sensor to capture the vertical snowfall. The research team dubs these cacophonous fins their “Antarctic wind chimes.” 

Metallic fins encircle a man in a red coat

Researcher Scott Landolt services an instrument designed to measure snowfall in Antarctica. Metallic fins encircle the snow collection sensor to dampen the effect of windblown snow.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

To help corroborate the data, a suite of other instruments also monitors the snowfall by measuring properties such as windspeed, particle size and height of the snow below the instrument. They have even deployed video cameras to give a visual on the storm.

The set-up is automatic, and all the data are remotely transmitted back to the States, allowing the researchers to monitor Antarctic snowstorms from the comfort of their desks. Power is supplied by a mere sixteen 12-volt batteries. In Antarctica, where energy costs are considerable, the whole system has been designed to operate on an average of only 3 watts —  less than a traditional incandescent nightlight.

The system was first deployed during the 2017-2018 Antarctic summer field season (which is winter in the US). This season, Seefeldt and Landolt returned to service the four measurement sites. While they are successfully measuring snowfall during certain events, there is much work to be done. They aim to improve the quality of the data so that they can have a reliable and continuous record of snowfall for an entire season. 

“The hope is we're able to add more sites and in more critical locations,” Seefeldt says. 

David Holland claims that such a network could improve weather models. 

two rows of metallic fins encircle a sensor

High-tech, yet simple: Two rows of metallic fins, or wind baffles, encircle a snowfall measuring sensor. The baffles disrupt the effects of windblown snow.


Caitlin Saks/The World 

“In the south, around Antarctica, there is very little weather input to initialize the weather models for forecasting,” says Holland. “So, the more data you put in, the better the weather forecasting. It is just a direct benefit to the global weather forecasting to have data in sparse places.” 

As for climate predictions, Seefeldt has his sights set on West Antarctica: “Measuring precipitation there is much more critical to understanding mass balance than it is where we're currently located.”

West Antarctica is the theater where scientists predict the most dramatic changes in ice mass will play out this century. Much of the ice there is at risk of catastrophically destabilizing and melting away. This could happen fast — potentially, much more quickly than the gradual pile-up of snow inland — and it would have dire implications for sea level.

While the question of the balance of snow-gain versus ice-loss is crucial for a better understanding of Antarctica’s future, few scientists believe that a snowier Antarctica could counteract the effects of a warming ocean as it steadily eats away at the margins of the southern continent. 

You can find more reporting on Antarctica from Caitlin Saks' on NOVA

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1713552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

Brazil dam collapse death toll rises to 60, hundreds still missing

Jan 28, 2019


Grief over the hundreds of Brazilians feared killed in last week's mining disaster has quickly hardened into anger as victims' families and politicians say iron ore miner Vale SA and regulators have learned nothing from the recent past.

By Monday, firefighters in the state of Minas Gerais had confirmed 60 people dead in Friday's disaster, in which a tailings dam broke sending a torrent of sludge into the miner's offices and the town of Brumadinho. Nearly 300 other people are unaccounted for, and officials said it was unlikely that any would be found alive.

Members of rescue team carry a body

Members of rescue team carry a body recovered after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019. 


Adriano Machado/Reuters

Shares of Vale, the world's largest iron ore and nickel producer, plummeted 21.5 percent in Monday trading on the Sao Paulo stock exchange, erasing $16 billion in market cap. 

Related: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Brazil's top prosecutor, Raquel Dodge, said the company should be held strongly responsible and criminally prosecuted. Executives could also be personally held responsible, she said.

Brazil's Vice President Hamilton Mourao, who is acting president since Monday morning when Jair Bolsonaro underwent surgery, also said the government needs to punish those responsible for the dam disaster.

Members of a rescue team search for victims in a sea of red mud

Members of a rescue team search for victims after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 28, 2019. 



Adriano Machado/Reuters 

In a tweet, Brazilian Senator Renan Calheiros asked Justice Minister Sergio Moro "how many people should die before federal police changes Vale management, before key evidence disappears." Moro is a previous judge in charge of Brazil's largest-ever corruption probe.

One of Vale's lawyers, Sergio Bermudes, told newspaper Folha de S. Paulo that the executives should not leave the company and that Calheiros was trying to profit politically from the tragedy.

Related: For illegal loggers in the Brazilian Amazon, 'there is no fear of being punished'

Vale Chief Executive Fabio Schvartsman said during a visit to Brumadinho on Sunday that facilities there were built to code and equipment had shown the dam was stable two weeks earlier.

The disaster at the Corrego do Feijao mine occurred less than four years after a dam collapsed at a nearby mine run by Samarco Mineracao SA, a joint venture by Vale and BHP Billiton, killing 19 and filling a major river with toxic sludge. 

a rescue team member cries into his hands

A member of rescue team reacts, upon returning from the mission, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019.


Adriano Machado/Reuters 

While the 2015 Samarco disaster dumped about five times more mining waste, Friday's dam break was far deadlier, as the wall of mud hit Vale's local offices, including a crowded cafeteria, and tore through a populated area downhill.

"The cafeteria was in a risky area," Renato Simao de Oliveiras, 32, said while searching for his twin brother, a Vale employee, at an emergency response station.

Related: A 'Third Way' to save the Amazon: make trees more valuable

"Just to save money, even if it meant losing the little guy... These businessmen, they only think about themselves," said Oliveiras. 

As search efforts continued on Monday, firefighters laid down wood planks to cross a sea of sludge that is hundreds of meters wide in places, to reach a bus in search of bodies inside. Villagers discovered the bus as they tried to rescue a nearby cow stuck in the mud.

an ox stuck in red mud and covered with red mud

An ox is seen on mud after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian miner Vale SA burst, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019. 


Adriano Machado/Reuters

Longtime resident Ademir Rogerio cried as he surveyed the mud where Vale's facilities once stood on the edge of town.

"The world is over for us," he said. "Vale is the top mining company in the world. If this could happen here, imagine what would happen if it were a smaller miner." 

Nestor Joseacute de Mury said he lost his nephew and coworkers in the mud.

"I've never seen anything like it, it killed everyone," he said.

Safety debate

The board of Vale, which has raised its dividends over the last year, suspended all shareholder payouts and executive bonuses late on Sunday, as the disaster put its corporate strategy under scrutiny.

"I'm not a mining technician. I followed the technicians' advice and you see what happened. It didn't work," Vale CEO Schvartsman said in a TV interview. "We are 100 percent within all the standards, and that didn't do it."

a closeup of a young boys face peering through a fence

A boy looks at members of rescue team, as they return from the mission, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 27, 2019.


Adriano Machado/Reuters 

Many wondered if the state of Minas Gerais, named for the mining industry that has shaped its landscape for centuries, should have higher standards.

"There are safe ways of mining," said Joao Vitor Xavier, head of the mining and energy commission in the state assembly. "It's just that it diminishes profit margins, so they prefer to do things the cheaper way; and put lives at risk."

Related: 'Our wealth is the forest': Indigenous tribes are the last best hope for the Amazon

Reaction to the disaster could threaten the plans of Brazil's newly inaugurated president to relax restrictions on the mining industry, including proposals to open up indigenous reservations and large swaths of the Amazon jungle for mining.

Indigenous people stand on the banks of a flooded river

Indigenous people from the Pataxo Ha-ha-hae tribe look at Paraopeba river, after a tailings dam owned by Brazilian mining company Vale SA collapsed, in Sao Joaquim de Bicas near Brumadinho, Brazil Jan. 25, 2019.


Funai/Handout via Reuters

Mines and Energy Minister Bento Albuquerque proposed in an interview late on Sunday with newspaper O Estado de S. Paulo that the law should be changed to assign responsibility in cases such as Brumadinho to the people responsible for certifying the safety of mining dams. 

"Current law does not prevent disasters like the one we saw on Brumadinho," he said. "The model for verifying the state of mining dams will have to be reconsidered. The model isn't good."

The ministry did not immediately respond to questions about the interview.

German auditor TUV SUD said on Saturday it inspected the dam in September and found all to be in order.

Brazil's new president targets Amazon rainforest, Indigenous peoples

Jan 28, 2019


On his first day in office, Brazil’s recently elected President Jair Bolsonaro — sometimes called the Trump of the Tropics — shifted regulation of Indigenous lands in the Amazon rainforest to the Ministry of Agriculture, an agency known to favor development over sustainability and Indigenous rights.

Critics say this is a dangerous move. Many Brazilians worry it will lead to increased deforestation, weaken Amazon protections and give Indigenous people less control over their ancestral lands.

“It’s a bit like giving the fox the keys to the hen house. ... [President Bolsonaro] really threw the advantage to those interests that want as little forest land as possible to be under Indigenous control.”

Dan Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist for the Earth Innovation Institute

“It’s a bit like giving the fox the keys to the hen house,” said Dan Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist for the Earth Innovation Institute. “He really threw the advantage to those interests that want as little forest land as possible to be under Indigenous control.”

Related: The Amazon used to be a hedge against climate change. Those days may be over.

Brazil has long debated how much control Indigenous groups should have of their ancestral land. Bolsonaro’s solution, Nepstad says, was to take the responsibility of defining and officially demarcating Indigenous territories away from FUNAI, the National Indian Foundation, which is specifically designed for that purpose.

For some years, FUNAI has been defining the appropriate boundaries of Indigenous territories, which are then formally demarcated as off-limits to development, Nepstad explains. Now MAPA, the agricultural ministry, will be responsible for this. “The concern is that the many Indigenous territories that are in the queue will now be dead in the water and, worse, that some that are quite far along the process could actually be reversed,” Nepstad said.

Brazil has one of the world’s most diverse populations of Indigenous people — around a million people who speak a couple hundred different languages. Other groups have been living in the forests for a century or more, including communities of escaped slaves.

Brazil has one of the world’s most diverse populations of Indigenous people — around a million people who speak a couple hundred different languages. Other groups have been living in the forests for a century or more, including communities of escaped slaves.

President Bolsonaro recently tweeted: “Less than 1 million people live in those places, isolated from the real Brazil. They are exploited and manipulated by nonprofits. Together, we will integrate those citizens and give value to all Brazilians.”

To some, this sounds like President Bolsonaro thinks he's doing Indigenous peoples a favor by integrating them into Brazilian society. Nepstad and others disagree.

In Brazil, Nepstad said, “there is a whole narrative that Indigenous people are primitive, malnourished, undereducated, [and] they don't get proper health care. In many cases, that's true. But I would point the finger at the federal government for the lack of services, more than the fact that Indigenous people are controlling their own destiny.”

Related: Will Brazil's women writers lose progress under far-right President Bolsonaro?

Among Indigenous people, there is a hunger for a better income, so they can keep their communities healthy and their customs and ceremonies alive, Nepstad says. Indigenous leaders say now that they have more control of their own territory, they need economic alternatives in order to thrive.

“There is a whole narrative that Indigenous people are primitive, malnourished, under-educated, [and] they don't get proper health care. In many cases, that's true. But I would point the finger at the federal government for the lack of services, more than the fact that Indigenous people are controlling their own destiny.”

Dan Nepstad, executive director and senior scientist for the Earth Innovation Institute

Environmental issues loom large over these land rights debates. The Amazon is already a stressed ecosystem and researchers warn of a tipping point: After a certain amount of deforestation, not enough forest will remain to maintain a thriving rainforest ecosystem. Nepstad believes this tipping point is not far off. Eighty percent of the original Amazon forest is still intact, and the science indicates that the tipping point for irreversible damage lies somewhere between 65 and 80 percent.

Many research studies find that the best way to protect rainforest is to empower the Indigenous people living there. Maps of a healthy rainforest and Indigenous populations overlap almost exactly.

Despite his deep concerns, Nepstad remains optimistic. One of the bright spots right now, he says, is a new set of partnerships between the organizations that represent Indigenous groups and state governments within Brazil.

He says he has seen “amazing progress” in bringing Indigenous leaders into the policy process. Even as Bolsonaro weakens FUNAI, he believes these state-level partnerships provide hope that Indigenous people will be a stronger voice in the policies that define the future of their region.

He also sees the debate shifting among the populace as more people begin to see the dangers of climate change. Despite the deniers and the rhetoric that claims that addressing climate change holds back the economy, Nepstad says, people are recognizing the advantages of saving the forests.

“When forests are falling, your kid has a much higher likelihood of having bronchitis. When forests are being burned, airports are closed and transmission lines are getting burned. There is a growing sense that Brazil has made a huge achievement and [a desire to] consolidate that achievement and really be proud of the Amazon. I think if conservation strategies tap into that hope, Brazil will contain the Bolsonaro presidency,” he said. 

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

Historian: Technology and politics has always been dysfunctional in the US

Jan 23, 2019


Throughout his presidency, President Donald Trump has taken to Twitter with his spin on every twist and turn. So it might be tempting to believe that the relationship between technology and politics in our country’s history had never been this dysfunctional before.

Not quite so, if you consider the arguments of Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard University who, not surprisingly, takes the long view. Our political and communication systems have seen consistent cycles of utopian and dystopian visions around technology, she says and that is the consequence of too much “faith in technological change to fix political problems,” dating all the way back to the very founding of the country.

According to Lepore, the author of “These Truths: A History of the United States,” the framers of the Constitution thought of the document itself as a machine designed for ultimate political performance, “that would go on and on and on indefinitely, without breaking down.”

Abolitionist Frederick Douglass had high hopes for steamships and telegraphs in the mid-19th century. He also had great faith in photography as a democratic art form with the potential to “help end slavery,” according to Lepore.

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

Furthermore, Douglass thought photography could end racial discrimination because, “if people could be depicted accurately and not in racist caricatures, nobody could believe the lie of racism,” she says. Lepore now sees echoes of Douglass’ beliefs in the struggles of the activist movement, Black Lives Matter.

As new technologies rolled on to the scene, including radio and television, Lepore says that standards were introduced to require balanced coverage of different political views, but these were eventually tossed aside. She points to the Fairness Doctrine established by the Federal Communications Commission in 1949, and later repealed during President Ronald Reagan’s administration. More deregulation followed in 1996 when President Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act.

Subsequent debate about how best to keep our inventions in check have often come too late, Lepore argues, and she has a theory about why that is. It involves what she calls “the mad scientist.” It is not a term of endearment.

Related: Lawmakers want to know about Facebook's operations beyond the US

“The mad scientist moves from being a chemist in the 19th century, to a biologist in the beginning of the 20th century. Then the mad scientist is a physicist and now the mad scientist is a computer scientist.”

“It’s whatever thing we have thought was so great and gonna save the world and when we find out it’s not going to save the world, then we start having ethical conversations.”

Will those ethical conversations, and hopes of healing our divisions, become more difficult, now that we all inhabit our own technological bubbles, fueled by Facebook, Twitter, and cable news? Lepore doesn’t offer any predictions but with history as our guide, it doesn’t look so good.  

Elizabeth Ross is senior producer at Innovation Hub. You can follow her on Twitter: @eross6. This story originally appeared on the Innovation Hub. 

What Thwaites Glacier can tell us about the future of West Antarctica

Jan 23, 2019


Editor's note: The World’s Carolyn Beeler will be aboard the Nathaniel B. Palmer for a seven-week research expedition to Thwaites Glacier this January through March. Follow along with her journey on The World, and on Instagram, @pritheworld. Have a question about Thwaites Glacier, Antarctica, life on the ship or anything else? Send a voice memo or email to, or leave her a message at 857-285-4157. 

Scientists this winter began a race against time to better understand a massive, and unstable, glacier that could change the world’s coastlines within decades.

An international group of researchers launched a five-year, roughly $50 million project to study Thwaites Glacier, a remote, and notoriously foul-weathered, glacier in the middle of West Antarctica.

“It’s about the size of the island of Great Britain,” said Ted Scambos, a University of Colorado scientist and co-leader of the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration.

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

“That’s a huge area. When you add something like a half a mile to a mile of ice over all of that … that’s what we’re going to pick up and put into the ocean.”

A map of West Antarctica shows the location of Thwaites Glacier

Source: Quantarctic, Norwegian Polar Institute, International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration


Alex Newman/The World

And because of the nature of the bedrock underneath it, if Thwaites starts to collapse, it could go fast, contributing roughly 2 feet of global sea level rise in as little as 50 years, Scambos said.

“That’s the problem. Having sea level rise is not nearly as big an issue as having it rise rapidly, faster than we’re able to react or plan or build,” Scambos said. “And so, that’s why Thwaites becomes really important because it could be a real, turbo-charging effect for how fast sea level rises around the world.”

The ultimate goal of the Thwaites project, which Scambos has been championing for years, is to develop more accurate global sea level rise models so coastal residents and governments have enough time to plan for future changes.

Related: An environmental newspaper fights for press freedom in the Russian Arctic

In cities like Miami, perhaps the American city most vulnerable to sea level rise, infrastructure decisions are made as early as 50 years out.

“Ultimately, the challenge is to understand the melting of the Antarctic ice so that we can better predict sea level rise over the next few decades and century.”

Karen Heywood, oceanographer, University of East Anglia

“Ultimately, the challenge is to understand the melting of the Antarctic ice so that we can better predict sea level rise over the next few decades and century,” said Karen Heywood, an oceanographer at the University of East Anglia involved with the research.

A ‘phenomenal effort’

The research is being funded by the US and Britain’s government scientific agencies, and over the next five years, eight teams of researchers, each led by one British and one American scientist, will try to answer key questions about the glacier. They include how much changing ocean circulation patterns and warming temperatures are melting the underside of the glacier; how “pinning points,” or ridges in the ocean floor underneath the land-based portion of the glacier will impact its destabilization;  and how to forecast or model a potentially rapid collapse at the face of the glacier.

So far this winter, hundreds of thousands of pounds of fuel and equipment have been airlifted to Thwaites in 35 trips by American military transport planes outfitted with skis and delivered by British ships to the floating sea ice on the edge of Antarctica.

“It’s a phenomenal effort on the part of both countries, UK and the US,” Scambos said.

The supplies will be stored on the ice next winter — Antarctica's summer — when the season on top of the glacier starts in earnest.

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

Under the ice shelf 

But studies at the glacier’s face and the ocean underneath it begin in just a few weeks, aboard a US research vessel with ice-breaking capabilities called the Nathaniel B. Palmer.

Karen Heywood, from the University of East Anglia, is co-leading a project that will focus this season on how much warming ocean water underneath the floating lip of the ice shelf is melting the glacier’s underside. Right now, no one knows exactly how deep the giant, underwater cave underneath the edge of Thwaites is, or what the ocean floor beneath it looks like.

“Under the ice shelf itself, we know almost nothing at the moment.” 

Karen Heywood, oceanographer, University of East Anglia

“Under the ice shelf itself, we know almost nothing at the moment,” Heywood said.


The Nathaniel B. Palmer US ice breaker, carrying scientists and a British robot submarine, docks at a port in Punta Arenas in southern Chile, Jan. 6, 2009, before a trip to Antarctica. The submarine will dive under an ice shelf in Antarctica to seek clues to world ocean level rises in one of the most inaccessible places on Earth. 


Alister Doyle/Reuters 

On the research cruise, one of Heywood’s collaborators, a Swedish researcher named Anna Wahlin, will test a robotic submarine called a HUGIN that will eventually navigate under that floating ice shelf.

“There’s never been any measurements or any instruments sent underneath the Thwaites Glacier ice shelf, and that’s really why it’s so exciting,” Heywood said.

Heywood’s team will also be tagging seals with sensors that will collect and transmit temperature and salinity data back to researchers for up to a year.

Another research group, co-led by the University of Houston’s Julia Wellner, will map the ocean floor using sonar technology and collect sediment cores to learn how ice reacted when it met warm water in the past.

“Did it [destabilize], did it take a step back when warm water reached it in the past,” Wellner said. “Or, was it somehow able to withstand those past warm-water incursions?"

A third research team will visit islands near Thwaites to search for organic material, such as penguin bones and seashells, to better understand historic sea level fluctuations in the area.

Research results are expected to start trickling out before the end of the year.

Thwaites, a 'lynchpin'

That data could help predict the future not just of Thwaites, but of the entire Mexico-sized, West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“Thwaites is sort of in this lynchpin position,” Scambos said. “And if we lose Thwaites, it’s sort of like taking the middle out of this ice sheet. And that means that the other areas of the ice sheet are also going to collapse.”

A complete collapse of West Antarctica would push sea levels up 10 to 11 feet, Scambos said. That would likely take centuries but it could happen more rapidly.

“The worst case could be 100 years from now, that you would get that much water into the ocean. We don’t have high confidence in that. It could be that we have longer; it could be that we don’t have that long,” said Richard Alley, another collaborator on the project from Penn State University.

“We’re not sure yet what is the ‘black swan,’ the absolute worst thing that could happen at Thwaites.” 

Richard Alley, Penn State University

“We’re not sure yet what is the ‘black swan,’ the absolute worst thing that could happen at Thwaites,” Alley said. “We’re really hopeful that this five-year research collaboration will give us a lot of insight into [that].”

Scientists have known how important Thwaites is for years, but “there’s still not as much data on it as we’d like because it is so hard to access, even by Antarctic standards,” Wellner said.

The novelty of doing research in such a remote location and the urgency of the problem they’re trying to solve makes the research exciting, she said. But it also adds pressure to the 100-plus scientists involved with the project.

“There’s this big push that we need answers soon,” Wellner said. “There’s not more pressure to get it right than normal, but there’s more pressure to be quick about it.”

A teen scientist helped me discover tons of golf balls polluting the ocean

Jan 22, 2019


Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans has become a global environmental crisis. Many people have seen images that seem to capture it, such as beaches carpeted with plastic trash or a seahorse gripping a cotton swab with its tail.

As a scientist researching marine plastic pollution, I thought I had seen a lot. Then, early in 2017, I heard from Alex Weber, a junior at Carmel High School in California.

Alex emailed me after reading my scientific work, which caught my eye, since very few high schoolers spend their time reading scientific articles. She was looking for guidance on an unusual environmental problem. While snorkeling in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary near the town of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Alex and her friend Jack Johnston had repeatedly come across large numbers of golf balls on the ocean floor.

As environmentally conscious teens, they started removing golf balls from the water, one by one. By the time Alex contacted me, they had retrieved over 10,000 golf balls — more than half a ton.

four pictures of golf balls found at the bottom of the ocean

Dense aggregations of golf balls littering the sea floor in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, California.


Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

Golf balls sink, so they don’t become eyesores for future golfers and beachgoers. As a result, this issue had gone largely unnoticed. But Alex had stumbled across something big: a point source of marine debris — one that comes from a single, identifiable place — polluting federally protected waters. Our newly published study details the scope of this unexpected marine pollutant and some ways in which it could affect marine life.

Cleaning up the mess

two women in scuba suits collect golfballs

Alex Weber and Jack Johnston collecting golf balls from the sea floor.


Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

Many popular golf courses dot the central California coast and use the ocean as a hazard or an out-of-bounds. The most famous course, Pebble Beach Golf Links, is site of the 2019 US Open Championship.

Alex wanted to create a lasting solution to this problem. I told her that the way to do it was to meticulously plan and systematically record all future golf ball collections. Our goal was to produce a peer-reviewed scientific paper documenting the scope of the problem, and to propose a plan of action for golf courses to address it.

Alex, her friends and her father paddled, dove, heaved and hauled. By mid-2018 the results were startling: They had collected nearly 40,000 golf balls from three sites near coastal golf courses: Cypress Point, Pebble Beach and the Carmel River Mouth. And following Alex’s encouragement, Pebble Beach employees started to retrieve golf balls from beaches next to their course, amassing more than 10,000 additional balls.

In total, we collected 50,681 golf balls from the shoreline and shallow waters. This represented roughly 2.5 tons of debris — approximately the weight of a pickup truck. By multiplying the average number of balls lost per round played (1-3) and the average number of rounds played annually at Pebble Beach, we estimated that patrons at these popular courses may lose over 100,000 balls per year to the surrounding environment.

The toxicity of golf balls

Modern golf balls are made of a polyurethane elastomer shell and a synthetic rubber core. Manufacturers add zinc oxide, zinc acrylate and benzoyl peroxide to the solid core for flexibility and durability. These substances are also acutely toxic to marine life.

When golf balls are hit into the ocean, they immediately sink to the bottom. No ill effects on local wildlife have been documented to date from exposure to golf balls. But as the balls degrade and fragment at sea, they may leach chemicals and microplastics into the water or sediments. Moreover, if the balls break into small fragments, fish, birds or other animals could ingest them.

a sea otter holding a golfball

A sea otter holding a golf ball at one of our study sites. 


Alex Weber, CC BY-ND

The majority of the balls we collected showed only light wear. Some could even have been resold and played. However, others were severely degraded and fragmented by the persistent mechanical action of breaking waves and unremitting swell in the dynamic intertidal and nearshore environments. We estimated that over 60 pounds of irrecoverable microplastic had been shed from the balls we collected.


Thanks to Alex Weber, we now know that golf balls erode at sea over time, producing dangerous microplastics. Recovering the balls soon after they are hit into the ocean is one way to mitigate their impacts. Initially, golf course managers were surprised by our findings, but now they are working with the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary to address the problem.

Alex is also working with managers at the sanctuary to develop cleanup procedures that can prevent golf ball pollution in these waters from ever reaching these levels again. Although her study was local, her findings are worrisome for other regions with coastal golf courses. Nonetheless, they send a positive message: If a high school student can accomplish this much through relentless hard work and dedication, anyone can.The Conversation

Matthew Savoca, Postdoctoral researcher, Stanford University

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

'Vaccine hesitancy' is on the WHO's list of 10 threats to global health in 2019

Jan 21, 2019


Every year, the World Health Organization releases a list of what they believe are the top 10 threats to global health. This year, the list included a few new additions like "weak primary health care" and what WHO calls "vaccine hesitancy" or the "reluctance or refusal to vaccinate despite the availability of vaccines."

WHO outlines work to eliminate cervical cancer through HPV vaccines as a goal for the year. 

Air pollution and climate change were also identified as global health threats. 

The World's Marco Werman sat down with WHO's Tarik Jasarevic in Geneva, Switzerland, to talk about why some of the top 10 made it on the list. You can read the full list of issues here

Marco Werman: People like lists. It makes things easier to understand. This is kind of a life- and -death list, though. How do you make the decision to put a threat on the list for 2019? What are the factors? 

Tarik Jasarevic: It’s not really a ranking list. We wanted to show the range of health risks that the human population is facing these days. So, this is not an exhaustive list. And it really ranges from outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, to noncommunicable diseases to humanitarian crises to weak health systems. 

Yes, so the threats range from air pollution and climate change to HIV. Could any of these threats actually be real in 2019? Like, influenza. Do you see any potential outbreak on the horizon? 

When it comes to influenza, we know for sure that there will be a new pandemic. But we don't know when, and we don't know how severe it will be. We know that influenza viruses are changing. We always have new strains, and we just don't know how severe the new strain will be. 

What we need to do is basically two things: One is what we are already doing — preparing the seasonal vaccine so that we protect people based on our calculations on what combination of viruses should be dominant in the coming months for either northern or southern hemisphere. More importantly, we need to be ready. We need to raise preparedness in all countries, so once we get this pandemic, we are able to quickly detect this strain of influenza virus and prepare vaccines quickly and use those vaccines. 

There are obviously other things that we have been fighting for years, like HIV. We made huge progress but unfortunately, still 1 million people die every year of HIV/AIDS, despite the progress we made in putting people on antiretrovirals.  

There's been a big reaction to "vaccine hesitancy" making the WH0's 10 threat issues list for 2019. It's really anti-vaxxers being on the list. Not getting your kids vaccinated, that's a largely personal choice, isn't it? 

Well, people do not vaccinate their children for various reasons. It's not so simple, really, to put everyone in the same category. People don't do it sometimes because of inconvenience to access vaccines. Sometimes, it's complacency. Sometimes, it's a lack of confidence (in vaccines).  What we really have to do is remind everyone that vaccines do prevent between 2 and 3 million deaths a year. And further, 1.5 million children could be saved if the immunization coverage would be optimal. We see the return of diseases. And while it is maybe normal, though unfortunate, that we see this in conflict areas and in humanitarian crises, when the immunization coverage goes down, we see a re-emergence of diseases like diphtheria and polio, as we have seen in Syria, Yemen or Bangladesh. But we also see the rise of measles, for example, by 30 percent globally — and in countries who are not really in a humanitarian or conflict context. So, it is important that we all understand the importance of vaccines. 

So, we know that in the US, an outbreak of measles has occurred, as well. As far as parents opting or choosing not to vaccinate their kids, is that a uniquely American or Western trend? 

No, we have seen this in different areas of the world. Locally, there could be some resistance for all sorts of reasons. To give you an example, we are doing the Ebola response in DR Congo and in some instances, people may not want to accept interventions for all sorts of rumors, or fears because of misconceptions. And this can happen in any society, really. 

One thing that really struck me, Tarik, is that a lot of the threats on this list actually seem fairly manageable but we as individuals or groups of people don't seem to have a handle on them. Is that fair? 

Well, it depends. For example, when it comes to air pollution — this is closely linked to climate change — we know that nine out of 10 people are breathing polluted air. And air is polluted because of the use of fossil fuels. And we know that 7 million people die due to the diseases that can be linked to environmental health risks. And this is something, really, that we just started working to find solutions for. We hosted the first global air pollution conference this year. But we know that more has to be done. 

Air pollution and climate change is a massive thing to tackle. I mean, what can the WHO do about that? 

We are part of a global UN community, and wider as well, trying really to make sure that everyone understands that this will have a concrete impact. Some may think that it's a very conservative estimate, that climate change up to 2050 can provoke at least 250,000 additional deaths per year. That’s due to malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, heat, stress and all sorts of health conditions. 

But again we need really to ... work with countries to try to see how their system can be adapted. For example, look at one of the things on the list is a dengue fever. And why is dengue fever on the list? Dengue fever has been there for a long time. It is because of a climate change that we are seeing a vector that is transmitting dengue but also some other vector-borne diseases in areas that we have not seen before. And then more and more people are getting at risk of vector-borne diseases simply because vector, such as a mosquito, is moving to new areas because of a climate change. And people who don't have immunity are more likely, obviously, to get infected. 

So, as you say, this list isn't a ranking, per se. Is the idea then to draw people's attention to these threats, that perhaps they might not have been thinking about? 

I think that the intention is to say, "Look how wide the range of health threats is." It really goes from what you see on TV, such as Ebola outbreak, to things that you don't maybe hear so much about, but like noncommunicable diseases, kills 70 percent of people. 

Seventy percent of people who die every day will die from noncommunicable diseases, such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, hypertension. And we know what the risk factors are: tobacco, alcohol, lack of physical activity, and inappropriate nutrition as well as air pollution. So, we have to tackle all these issues. From highly killing pathogens like Ebola to something that is linked to a lifestyle like noncommunicable diseases — to something that exists for a long time, like HIV and dengue. And then we really need to look into the underlying issue — and that's the strength of health systems. Because what WHO is saying is that we want universal health coverage. We want every individual on this planet to be able to access basic health care at an affordable cost, including accessing the medicines at affordable cost. Now, this cannot happen without strong primary health care systems. And we have also seen that when you have an outbreak of a highly infectious pathogen — like hemorrhagic fevers, Ebola, Lassa fever or yellow fever — that only systems that are strong enough can really quickly detect and respond to outbreaks of these pathogens.

So, basically, we want countries to invest in their health systems.

Is there anything that you'd recommend for each of us as individuals to take on as an immediate action? 

Well, I think what individuals should be doing is really following the advice of health authorities because health authorities are in the position to provide really credible and scientifically based advice on what persons should be doing. For example, we mention antimicrobial resistance. This is about people using antibiotics in a responsible way, so we slow down this process of pathogens mutating and becoming resistant to medicines. 

In other words, follow your doctor's advice. 


This interview was condensed and edited for clarity. 

Take a dip in the woods: Scientists say ‘forest bathing’ is good for you

Jan 19, 2019


When is the last time you took a walk in the woods? Numerous studies suggest that taking in the peaceful atmosphere of a forest can have significant health benefits. Now, the practice of “forest bathing” is becoming more popular around the world.

“The first forest bathing started in Japan in the 1980s as a form of preventative health care,” said Moshe Sherman, a medical qi gong therapist who leads regular forest bathing outings. “The idea is that in order to balance the stress of urban life, we need to expose ourselves to nature. It's very simple: Just get yourself into nature and be present.”

Related: Getting outside is a prescription for better health

The Japanese tradition in which practitioners spend meditative time breathing in nature is known as shinrin-yoku. It differs from walking or hiking in subtle but significant ways, Sherman says.

“We don't have a destination in mind, and we don't rush. Just like when we take a bath in hot water, we settle in and relax,” he said. “We can talk, but it's not a time to talk about work, like we might during a walk with a friend, or to complain about relationships. It’s a time to go inward.”

“The idea is that in order to balance the stress of urban life, we need to expose ourselves to nature. It's very simple: Just get yourself into nature and be present.”

Moshe Sherman, medical Qi Gong therapist , forest bathing guide

The idea is to bring the healing energy of nature into ourselves in every way. The Japanese term shinrin-yoku literally means “to bring in the forest.” “We bring it in through our eyes; we bring it in through our ears — hearing the sounds. We bring it in through feeling, whether it's feeling the weather or touching a leaf,” Sherman explained. 

In the urban environment, people often put up what Sherman calls “energetic shields” to protect themselves from the battering of city life. Being out in the forest is a chance for those shields to come down, he says.

“Forest bathing” has been widely researched, mostly in Asia and Europe, Sherman notes. A review published in the summer of 2017 analyzed 143 research studies and noted the likely benefits of forest bathing to the human cardiovascular system, the respiratory system and, perhaps most importantly, to the immune system. One 20-minute session of forest bathing led to an increase in a type of white blood cell called NK cells, or natural killer cells — cells that protect humans from viruses and even from tumor formations.

Plants and trees give off organic compounds called phytoncides, which help protect them from parasites and disease. These compounds are also beneficial for human health, according to some research. “When we're around trees, and we're around plant life, we're breathing those in,” Sherman said. 

Scientists, and Sherman, too, have also noted the psychological benefits of the practice.

Related: How working the land is helping US war veterans heal

“People usually feel more relaxed, more present, and when you start to talk to people, you realize that they're processing some heavy stuff that they're going through in their lives,” Sherman said. “It helps them with that. People report feeling better overall. People are chatty, which is always a good sign after a healing session or after a group event when people feel chatty. It means the energy is flowing; it means they're feeling uplifted and feeling open to sharing and receiving.”

What’s more, once you’ve learned how to forest bathe, you can do it anytime.

“It’s more fun when you do it with a group, but you can do it yourself once you know how to do it,” he said. “It's like that saying: ‘Give a person a fish, they eat for a day; teach them how to fish and they can eat forever.’ I think forest bathing is so essential to modern life and to creating balance and health in the modern environment.”

This article is based on a report by Kara Holsopple of The Allegheny Front that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood.

National parks and public lands suffer during US government shutdown

Jan 19, 2019


When the United States government began a partial shutdown on Dec. 22, 2018, many national parks were left open without adequate personnel.

All across the country, facilities on public lands and at national monuments are critically understaffed when furloughed employees stay home, which leads to a host of problems: overflowing trash cans, illegal off-road driving, poaching of animals and plants, and theft of artifacts, as well as safety risks for park visitors.

Former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell experienced a government shutdown when she worked in the Obama administration. At that time, parks and monuments closed to protect them from harm. She calls the Trump administration’s decision to keep them open “incredibly unwise.”

“It leaves the assets that remind us of our history and our past vulnerable to vandalism, souvenir taking and bad action,” Jewell says. “The number of law enforcement people that are still on staff can't possibly be the eyes and ears that the National Mall or other parks need to make sure that these places are protected.”

The Interior Department is responsible for more than 400 sites, including national parks and historic buildings and structures. Other conservation areas, including the National Forest system, are run by the Department of Agriculture. Jewell says that department is also facing problems.

“I’m really feeling sick about the message the shutdown sends to the men and women who work for the federal government about their value.

Sally Jewell, former US secretary of the interior

Related: What’s the economic impact of a government shutdown?

“The campgrounds are not getting service, the restrooms aren't getting cleaned; people will get lost on the trails, dogs are going off leash in areas where that's not allowed, which impacts wildlife,” she says. “So, really, it's very much the same situation for the US Forest Service as it is for the National Park Service and the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies that oversee public lands. They all have vulnerabilities and they're all being impacted."

Without appropriate staff in place, poachers can more easily take plants or animals from the parks, which undermines the overall ecosystem and the sustainable use of those products within the ecosystems, Jewell says. At Joshua Tree National Park, for example, trees have been cut down and visitors have driven their vehicles off-road, inflicting permanent damage on the sensitive cryptobiotic crust. “It will stay with those imprints of tires or footprints for hundreds of years,” Jewell says. “These are the kinds of things that people may or may not recognize, but that damage is being done right now.”

During the 2013 shutdown, people poached old growth trees from Olympic National Park. It’s difficult enough to police this type of activity with full staffing, Jewell says, so “there’s no possible way that people can police something like that with limited capacity. This is, I'm sure, happening throughout our national forests and our national parks right now.”

The shutdown does not just increase the risk to assets the park protects and to the people who visit them, Jewell adds. It also causes a break in the collection of data for much of the science that takes place in the parks. Some of this loss of data could have profound effects on research results.

Related: This busy LA immigration court is now a ‘ghost town’ in wake of government shutdown

But perhaps the biggest long-term impact of the shutdown is on the morale of the employees — the fact that when they eventually go back to work, they will be faced with cleaning up the mess.

“When your career has been built around protecting these resources, understanding them, removing invasive species and educating people who come and visit, to come back multiple weeks later after a shutdown and to be faced with the visual and the olfactory [effects] and the deep, personal sense of offense you would feel when you walk in there — it is just demoralizing,” Jewell says. “We need people to want to be public servants, to be appreciated for being public servants. That is hard to quantify but very, very damaging with a shutdown of this nature.”

She adds: “I’m really feeling sick about the message the shutdown sends to the men and women who work for the federal government about their value. I'm sick about the impact on the science that we're not going to get back. I am sick about the poaching that I know is going on, the vandalism that I know is going on, the artifacts that I know are being slipped into people's pockets, the work that would be done to help protect our forests from fires, the work that would be done to reduce the risk of invasive species.”

Jewell says that during her time at Interior, she saw how deeply people cared about public lands — and this sentiment occurred across the political spectrum. “They want to see these place preserved and protected, not just for now, but for the generations to follow,” Jewell says.

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

Trump reveals missile defense strategy with eye on North Korea

Jan 17, 2019


President Donald Trump unveiled a revamped US missile defense strategy on Thursday that called North Korea an ongoing and "extraordinary threat," seven months after he declared the threat posed by Pyongyang had been eliminated.

The plan, which also detailed concerns about the burgeoning capabilities of Iran, Russia and China, called for developing space-based sensors to detect incoming enemy missiles and exploring space-based weapons to shoot down missiles among other steps to shield the United States.

The open acknowledgment in the Missile Defense Review of US plans to counter Russian and Chinese technological advances likely will alarm those nations. It marked a departure from the approach taken by Republican Trump's Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, to tamp down concerns by major nuclear powers about expanding US missile defenses.

"Our goal is simple: To ensure we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace," Trump said at the Pentagon.

Trump did not mention the North Korean missile threat in his remarks. But acting US Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan called North Korea's missiles a "significant concern."

"While a possible new avenue to peace now exists with North Korea, it continues to pose an extraordinary threat and the United States must remain vigilant," the report said.

For Trump, who is trying to revive efforts to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear arsenal, the report's release came at an awkward moment. Senior North Korean envoy Kim Yong Chol was headed for Washington on Thursday for expected talks with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday and a possible encounter with Trump, a person familiar with the matter said. 

The talks could lead to an announcement of plans for a second Trump summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un after their meeting last year in Singapore, the source told Reuters.

Trump wrote on Twitter after the June 2018 summit that there is "no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea."

Space-based sensors 

The Missile Defense Review recommended studying experimental technologies including space-based weaponry that might be able to shoot down enemy missiles, a throwback to former President Ronald Reagan's 1980s "Star Wars" initiative.

It called for investments in space-based sensors that can better detect and track incoming missiles, and perhaps counter super-fast hypersonic technology, an area in which China has made major advances and Russia is actively working.

"The US will now adjust its posture to also defend against any missile strikes including cruise and hypersonic missiles," Trump said.

The document also pointed to projects by US defense industry giants including Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin and Boeing Co.

"We are committed to establishing a missile-defense program that can shield every city in the United States. And we will never negotiate away our right to do this," Trump said.

A senior Russian legislator, Viktor Bondarev, said after Trump's announcement that the new US strategy would ramp up global tensions, according to Interfax news agency.

The United States previously announced plans to increase the number of ground-based interceptors over the next several years, hiking the number positioned at Fort Greely, Alaska to 64 from 44. Greely, the report said, "has the potential for up to an additional 40 interceptors." The United States is looking at an additional site to host missile interceptors as well.

Trump specifically mentioned Iran's capabilities. The report said Iran possesses the largest ballistic missile force in the Middle East.

"Its desire to have a strategic counter to the United States could drive it to field an ICBM," the report said, referring to an intercontinental ballistic missile.

US officials have said American missile defenses are primarily designed to counter attacks from countries with more-limited arsenals like North Korea, which US intelligence officials believe is still advancing its nuclear program despite a halt to missile launches last year.

Pentagon officials contend that American missiles defenses are too few to effectively counter a major first-strike on the US homeland by an advanced nuclear power like Russia or China. Washington hopes those countries will instead be deterred from attacks by America's nuclear arsenal.

The 'Green New Deal' started with six angry college grads. Now, they're recruiting an army of young people.

Jan 14, 2019


If you’ve heard of the buzzy, new climate plan the Green New Deal, it’s probably been linked to progressive star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

“This is going to be the Great Society, the moonshot, the civil rights movement of our generation,” the freshman representative from the Bronx said of the Green New Deal at a climate change town hall in December. “That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”

In November, Ocasio-Cortez sketched out her vision to create a massive green jobs and infrastructure program to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions within a decade and guarantee any American who wants one a job along the way. Like just about everything Ocasio-Cortez does, the idea got a lot of attention.

Related: New Chinese policy is forcing people to think: Is there a better way to recycle?

But it didn’t start with her.

The concept of a “green” version of the Depression-era, New Deal policy has been floated by everyone from The New York Times’ Thomas Friedman to the United Nations over the past decade or so.

But in its current form, it’s the brainchild of the Sunrise Movement, a youth activist group that's been working with Ocasio-Cortez since before she got elected.

Sunrise was founded about a year and a half ago by six recent college graduates, veterans of organizing climate campaigns from their campuses.  

“All of us were feeling this sense of unease and frustration that the hurricanes were getting bigger, the fires were getting bigger ... but our movements weren’t growing with them,” said Varshini Prakash, one of Sunrise’s six co-founders, who organized a successful fossil fuel divestment campaign at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.

Sunrise Movement launched in July 2017 with a big idea: the Green New Deal, a series of proposals to move America off fossil fuels fast by creating millions of green jobs.

“We really see it as not just a climate policy, but a socio-economic project to rival some of the greatest projects in American history,” Prakash told The World.  

Related: The world struck a major climate deal in Poland. So, what’s in it?


The ambitious idea landed on the national stage in November, when members of the group staged a sit-in in the office of the presumptive Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Interest in the group has soared since then. According to Sunrise, it has added 100 local chapters since November, and roughly 1,300 people joined the group’s first strategy videoconference of the new year. 

In that Jan. 10 call, leaders outlined their plan for 2019, which includes fanning out across the country to recruit new members, demonstrating outside of Democratic primary debates and organizing to get candidates elected that support their vision. 

“Everybody who is not with us, we need to kick out in 2020 and elect champions who are going to stand for the Green New Deal,” Sunrise co-founder Will Lawrence said during the call. “And if we do that, we have a window of opportunity to actually pass this thing in 2021.”

So far, likely Democratic presidential contenders including Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker have supported the idea.

That’s even though the Green New Deal’s goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions in America by 2030 may well be impossible. A recent UN report found a goal half that ambitious on a global, rather than national scale, would require unprecedented change in nearly every aspect of life.

“The goal of carbon neutrality in 10 years is not technically feasible, for a host of different reasons,” said Harvard professor and climate change expert Dan Schrag. "But to me, that’s missing the point of the excitement of the Green New Deal. The activism and enthusiasm, partly triggered by Ocasio-Cortez, seems to tie the climate problem in with a variety of other issues — including jobs for all, living wages, health care for all — and that coupling is a new twist in this story, and I think it’s really exciting.”

The Green New Deal is an idea, not a fully fleshed-out policy proposal, so there’s no official budget estimate attached. Sunrise itself estimates the program would cost “trillions.”

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

But activists like longtime Washington, DC, environmental campaigner Ben Weiss say they have to aim high.

“It’s the role of outside organizations to push the system as far as it can go,” Weiss said.

Sunrise wants to do that by assembling what it calls an “army” of young people to get supporters of the Green New Deal elected in 2020.

“We’re pissed off that our leaders have failed to do something about [climate change],” Prakash said, “and we’re going to be left dealing with the repercussions of their inaction. So, we have to be the ones to do it if anything’s going to happen.”

Sunrise's tone is decidedly optimistic, but its messaging and the personal stories its members share includes a healthy dose of outrage. And that isn't unique to young Americans. It’s echoed by young activists all over the world right now.

Fifteen-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg stole the show at the December UN climate talks in Poland when she told the assembled world leaders that they were “not mature enough to tell it like it is.”

“We have not come here to beg world leaders to care,” she said. “We have come here to let you know that change is coming, whether you like it or not.”

Sunrise’s Prakash says it’s no coincidence that young people around the world sound as if they’ve read from the same playbook.

“This is a global fight, honestly, to protect the future of human civilization, and I think that’s how our generation really sees it, which is why we’re seeing people rise up in every corner of the world.”

The question now is whether the buzz surrounding the Green New Deal will eventually lead to action in Washington, and beyond.

Countering Russian disinformation the Baltic nations’ way

Jan 10, 2019


As the new Congress begins, it will soon discuss the comprehensive reports to the US Senate on the disinformation campaign of half-truths, outright fabrications and misleading posts made by agents of the Russian government on social media in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

After years of anemic responses to Russian influence efforts, official US government policy now includes taking action to combat disinformation campaigns sponsored by Russia or other countries. In May 2018, the Senate Intelligence Committee endorsed the concept of treating attacks on the nation’s election infrastructure as hostile acts to which the US “will respond accordingly.” In June, the Pentagon unleashed US Cyber Command to respond to cyberattacks more aggressively, and the National Cyber Strategy published in September 2018 clarified that “all instruments of national power are available to prevent, respond to, and deter malicious cyber activity against the United States.”

Related: Ukrainian Orthodox Church gains independence from Moscow: ‘We have been waiting for this’

There are already indications that Cyber Command conducted operations against Russian disinformation on social media, including warning specific Russians not to interfere with the 2018 elections. However, low-level cyberwarfare is not necessarily the best way. European countries, especially the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, have confronted Russian disinformation campaigns for decades. Their experience may offer useful lessons as the US joins the battle.

The Baltic experience

Beginning in 1940 and continuing until they declared independence in the early 1990s, the Baltic countries were subjected to systematic Russian gaslighting designed to make people doubt their national history, culture and economic development.

The Soviets rewrote history books to falsely emphasize Russian protection of the Baltic people from invading hordes in the Middle Ages, and to convey the impression that the cultural evolution of the three countries was enabled by their allegiance and close ties to Russia. Even their national anthems were rewritten to pay homage to Soviet influence.

Soviet leaders devalued Baltic currencies and manipulated economic data to falsely suggest that Soviet occupation was boosting the Baltic economies. Further, Soviet authorities settled ethnic Russians in the Baltic countries, and made Russian the primary language used in schools.

Related: Russia’s shadow armies: Soldiers, mercenaries or volunteers?

Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic countries, the Russian Federation has continued to deliver disinformation to the region, making extensive use of Russian-language social media. Some themes characterize the Baltic people as ungrateful for Soviet investment and aid after World War II. Another common message criticizes Baltic historians for “falsification of history” when really they are describing the real nature of the Soviet occupation.

A massive Russian attack

After independence, and as the internet grew, Estonia led the way in applying technology to accelerate economic development. The country created systems for a wide range of government and commercial services, including voting, banking and filing tax returns electronically. Today, Estonia’s innovative e-residency system is being adopted in many other countries.

These advances made the Baltics a prime target for cyberattacks. In the spring of 2007, the Russians struck. When Estonia moved a monument memorializing Soviet soldiers from downtown Tallinn, the country’s capital, to a military cemetery a couple of miles away, it provoked the ire of ethnic Russians living in Estonia as well as the Russian government.

Bronze Soldier of Tallinn

The relocation of the Bronze Soldier of Tallinn sparked a Russian cyberattack on Estonia in 2007.


Keith Ruffles/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

For three weeks, Estonian government, financial and media computer systems were bombarded with enormous amounts of internet traffic in a “distributed denial of service” attack. In these situations, an attacker sends overwhelming amounts of data to the targeted internet servers, clogging them up with traffic and either slowing them down or knocking them offline entirely. Despite concerns about the first “cyber war,” however, these attacks resulted in little damage. Although Estonia was cut off from the global internet temporarily, the country’s economy suffered no lasting harm.

Related: Trump's business history with Russia is a long and colorful one

These attacks could have severely damaged the country’s financial system or power grid. But Estonia was prepared. The country’s history with Russian disinformation had led Estonia to expect Russian attacks on computer and information systems. In anticipation, the government spearheaded partnerships with banks, internet service providers and other organizations to coordinate responses to cyberattacks. In 2006, Estonia was one of the first countries to create a Computer Emergency Response Team to manage security incidents.

The Baltic response

After the 2007 attack, the Baltic countries upped their game even more. For example, Estonia created the Cyber Defense League, an army of volunteer specialists in information technology. These experts focus on sharing threat information, preparing society for responding to cyber incidents and participating in international cyber defense activities.

Related: What's the deal with Vladimir Putin calendars?

Internationally, Estonia gained approval in 2008 to establish NATO’s Cooperative Cyber Defense Center of Excellence in Tallinn. Its comprehensive research into global cyber activities helps identify best practices in cyber defense and training for NATO members.

In 2014, Riga, the capital of neighboring Latvia, became home to another NATO organization combating Russian influence, the Strategic Communications Center of Excellence. It publishes reports on Russian disinformation activities, such as the May 2018 study of the “Virtual Russian World in the Baltics.” That report analyzes Russian social media activities targeting Baltic nations with a “toxic mix of disinformation and propaganda.” It also provides insight into identifying and detecting Russian disinformation campaigns.

Baltic elves” — volunteers who monitor the internet for Russian disinformation – became active in 2015 after the Maidan Square events in the Ukraine. And the Baltic nations have fined or suspended media channels that display bias.

The Baltic countries also rely on a European Union agency formed in 2015 to combat Russian disinformation campaigns directed against the EU. The agency identifies disinformation efforts and publicizes accurate information that the Russians are seeking to undermine. A new effort will issue rapid alerts to the public when potential disinformation is directed against the 2019 European Parliament elections.

Will the ‘Baltic model’ work in the US?

Because of their political acknowledgment of threats and actions taken by their governments to fight disinformation, a 2018 study rated Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania the three European Union members best at responding to Russian disinformation.

Some former US officials have suggested adopting similar practices, including publicizing disinformation efforts and evidence tying them to Russia. The Senate Intelligence Committee has called for that too, as has the Atlantic Council, an independent think tank that focuses on international affairs.

The US could also mobilize volunteers to boost citizens’ and businesses’ cyberdefenses and teach people to identify and combat disinformation.

Related: How a sanctioned Russian bank wooed Washington

Disinformation is a key part of Russia’s overall effort to undermine Western governments. As a result, the battle is ever-changing, with Russians constantly trying new angles of attack and target countries like the Baltic nations identifying and thwarting those efforts. The most effective responses will involve coordination between governments, commercial technology companies and the news industry and social media platforms to identify and address disinformation.

A similar approach may work in the US, though it would require far more collaboration than has existed so far. But backed by the new government motivation to strike back when provoked, the methods used in the Baltic states and across Europe could provide a powerful new deterrent against Russian influence in the West.The Conversation

Terry Thompson, Adjunct Instructor in Cybersecurity, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

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

Clean up your cyber-hygiene — 6 changes to make in the new year

Dec 31, 2018


Data breaches, widespread malware attacks and microtargeted personalized advertising were lowlights of digital life in 2018.

As technologies change, so does the advice security experts give for how to best stay safe. As 2019 begins, I’ve pulled together a short list of suggestions for keeping your digital life secure and free of manipulative disinformation.

Related: Can the US protect its power grid from hackers?

1. Set your boundaries and stick to them

As part of my research, I’ve recently been speaking with a number of sex workers in Europe about their digital security and privacy. One consistent thing I’ve heard from them is, “The best way to stay safe is to set boundaries.” Decide — on your own, and in advance — what data you’re willing to share with apps and online services, and stick to those limits.

That way, when the latest new app asks you for permission that oversteps what you’re willing to share, you’ll be more prepared to answer. Also set limits on the online discussions you’re willing to participate in; bow out when a discussion is hurting more than helping you. It’s even useful to set boundaries for how much time you’re willing to spend on digital security — which could be an endless task.

2. Burst your filter bubble

People who get their news primarily — or exclusively — from social media are subjecting themselves to the whims of the algorithms that decide what to display to each user.

Because of how these algorithms work, those people are likely to see articles only from news sources they already like and tend to agree with. This isolation from people with other views, and from evidence that might challenge particular perspectives, contributes to unprecedented levels of partisanship and disagreement in modern society.

Free online tools like AllSides and Purple Feed are some places that show news reports and social media posts from differing political perspectives and identify information that’s generally agreed upon across the political spectrum.

3. Manage your passwords

The biggest threat to password security is no longer the strength of your passwords but the fact that many people reuse the same passwords for all, or many, of their accounts. Researchers are busy designing notifications to tell you when one of these reused passwords has been leaked to the world, but it’s safer to use different passwords, especially for your most valuable accounts.

You can use password manager software. Or, use the original low-tech method, writing your passwords down on paper. Believe it or not, it’s much safer to write them down than reuse the same password everywhere. Of course, this is true only if you’re sure the people you live with or frequent visitors to your home won’t try to get into your accounts.

Related: Hackers find the processing power they need for mining for cryptocurrencies through ‘cryptojacking’

4. Turn on multi-factor authentication

Adding an additional step for logging in to your most important social media, email and financial accounts can add lots of protection. Multi-factor authentication systems are best known for texting you a six-digit code to type in as part of your login process. While any multi-factor authentication is better than none, text messages can fairly easily be intercepted or spied on. An even safer route is to use a special code-generating app on your phone.

People who change phones or SIM cards often, or who want additional protection, might consider using a physical key that plugs into your computer to authorize a login. They can take a bit more time to set up initially but then work much faster than most other methods.

5. Delete apps you don’t use

Smartphone apps track where you are very closely, and share your location data with advertising and marketing companies.

Just carrying a phone in your pocket can give tracking companies clues to where you go and how long you stay, and technical details about your phone can offer clues to your identity.

If you don’t use an app anymore, uninstall it from your phone. If you need it again, you can always reinstall it quickly — but in the meantime, it won’t be tracking you around the world and around the web.

Related: Russian hackers targeted US conservative think-tanks, says Microsoft

6. Keep the apps you do use up-to-date

Software companies don’t always know about all the vulnerabilities in their programs — and when they issue updates users don’t always know if they’re fixing a major problem or something minor. The top piece of advice experts give is to keep your software up-to-date on your computers and your mobile devices.

Having spent 2018 worrying about how hackers, corporate executives and hurried programmers might be trying to exploit your data and your cognitive and digital vulnerabilities, resolve to be more secure in 2019.The Conversation

Elissa Redmiles is a PhD student in computer ccience at the University of Maryland.

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

Venezuelans fear 'Fatherland Card' may be a new form of social control

Dec 28, 2018


When Reuters revealed in November 2018 that the Venezuelan government had contracted with the Chinese company ZTE to develop a national biometric identification system, public reactions were mixed.

The report stirred outrage both in Venezuela and internationally. But for those who have closely followed the Venezuelan government as it has tightened its grip on people's data and communications, the report represented yet another chapter in a very long story.

The report confirmed suspicions and denunciations made months ago, increasing fears that the alliance with ZTE will bring Venezuela closer to the implementation of a social credit score system similar to what is used in China. This system would determine which citizens have access to basic services based on their political allegiances. It also prompted the US government to initiate investigations into the role of ZTE in Venezuela.

How is the Fatherland Card used?

The Reuters story pointed to the participation of ZTE  in the development of a monitoring system whose primary tool is the “Carnet de la Patria”, or Fatherland Card. This identification card captures multiple pieces of personal data coupled with a unique and personalized QR code. It also serves as a digital wallet within an electronic payment system.

The government has strongly promoted the Fatherland Card as a way to facilitate multiple public services. The card can be requested voluntarily and free of charge. During this process, whoever wants to get a Fatherland Card must answer questions about their social and economic status.

Those who have the card gain access to food and medicine, which have become dangerously scarce amid Venezuela's political and economic crisis. They can also access certain government bonds and gasoline discounts, which are newly important. After decades of reasonable local rates, gas prices are now competitive with international rates.

In principle, the Fatherland Card was introduced as a way to streamline the state-administered distribution of food. More recently, the card has been integrated into state processes for accessing legal and personal documents, which can be extraordinarily difficult to obtain in Venezuela.

It is estimated that more than 70 percent of Venezuelans are already carrying the Card. And although many of them identify themselves as followers of chavismo (the political ideology of president Nicolás Maduro's predecessor, Hugo Chávez), Venezuelans who identify as opponents of the dominant political ideology have also registered with the system in order to access personal documents.

The benefits of the Card have accumulated over time. At the beginning of 2018 (a month and a half after the presidential elections), Nicolás Maduro announced that the Card would be required for access to housing bonds and pension payments.

Front side of the

The front of the Carnet de la Patria, or "Fatherland Card" with personal data and photo, normally appearing in the upper right corner, removed. 


Jamez42/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA 4.0

The Fatherland Card and social control

Some experts say the Fatherland Card has other objectives. Fiorella Perfetto of Caraota Digital maintains that the signing of contracts between the Venezuelan telecommunications company and ZTE in February 2017 is part of a larger scheme that was formulated by former President Hugo Chávez with China at the beginning of the mandate.

In 2016, technologist and writer Omar Castro analyzed a number of tweets related to the issue, remarking on people who compared the Card with ration cards:

In the end it is the people who will continue to finance the economy, it is not a question of financial devices […] What are the implications of this card?

The Card was also the focus of criticism during the 2017 regional and municipal elections, as well as the 2018 presidential elections.

Many voters reported that when they arrived at the polls, there was a “Fatherland Card booth” a few meters away from the polling station. Voters who had a Fatherland Card were encouraged to register at the booth and were promised special access to food and subsidy bonuses if they did so.

Voters who did not have a Fatherland Card had different experiences. Some were encouraged to sign up for the system, while others were coerced to do so. A few even reported that they were told they could not vote if they did not sign up for the Fatherland Card.

At the same time, opposition campaign workers in Maturín reported that three polling places did not allow citizens to vote if they did not present a Fatherland Card.

The Card is intended to address the country's limitations on access to cash, hyperinflation and the serious lack of food and medicine. But it can also be seen as part of a wide-ranging state effort to control information, whether private or public. This has also included internet outages, attacks on online media, and the continuous censorship of media not aligned with the government and due to lack of paper, among other resources.

Victor Drax, from Caracas Chronicles, an independent media collective, commented on what a monitoring system like this may mean for those who use it — and for those who do not:

Remember what we’ve been saying about the 'carnet de la patria' as an instrument of oppression? Reuters just published a thorough investigation about the thing, and it’s so fucking perverse, it’s baffling […] You know what this means? After you get on the system, the State can come directly to you and say 'I know your mother needs medicine. I have it, and you’ll only get it if you do what I want.' This is how the State knows what to do when the time comes to exploit us.

series of pieces published online by local and international media, as well as online conversations, continue to make it clear that the card is only one in a long series of efforts to isolate the nation and control the population. They show that these efforts did not begin with Nicolás Maduro's government and permeate in ways that cannot yet be fully understood.

Following the same ideas, Drax concludes: 

Now you see why Nicolás [Maduro] has been so desperate to get everyone on board with the Fatherland Card […] To say that this tramples over the Constitution is an understatement, especially after 20 years of chavismo. Want to know the best part?

This all came from Hugo Chávez himself.

Laura Vidal is the Latin America editor with Global Voices.

This article is translated by Alexis Faber and republished from Global Voices with Advox under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article. 

Almost all countries have fallen short on climate change commitments

Dec 27, 2018 9:21


The Paris agreement set a goal of limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius over pre-industrial levels. Climate Action Tracker measures countries’ progress toward meeting this goal and the latest report finds that just two countries, The Gambia and Morocco, currently have policies that meet the 1.5-degree target.

Scientific evidence shows that a 2-degree warmer world will be far more disastrous for civilization than a world that warms by 1.5 degrees or less.

Climate Action Tracker’s Yvonne Deng notes that the group’s ratings take into account the unique situations of each country.

Related: From the Amazon to the Arctic, The World’s biggest environmental stories of the year

“When you look at the overall emission reductions that we need to see globally, it doesn't mean that every country has to reduce their emissions,” she explains. “Countries that are still developing need to be allowed to increase their emissions from current levels. Countries that have already developed really need to look at decreasing emissions.”

When it comes to global emission reductions across different counties, wealthy countries simply need to do more than their poorer counterparts.

There are various approaches to figuring out how to share global emission reductions across different countries, Deng says. One approach looks at per capita emissions and tries to calculate reductions between now and some future date; another approach factors in what some countries have already emitted to further their own development; a third approach says that wealthy countries simply need to do more than their poorer counterparts.

Climate Action Tracker looks at “the whole range of possible emission levels per country, in any of these approaches,” Deng says, “and then determines what we call the ‘fair share range’ of emission reductions — and that informs our rating scale.”

In addition to rating each of the countries’ commitments under Paris, Climate Action Tracker also uses what they call their CAT Thermometer, a tool that measures global temperature rise under various scenarios. For example, they’ve calculated that if countries do what they've committed to doing under the Paris agreements, the world will see a rise of about 3 degrees Celsius by the end of this century.

“The good news,” Deng says, “is that we have almost all the technologies available that we need for this. … [T]he challenge really is in getting them out there and getting them scaled up. So, this is a political problem. It's a question of willingness to do it. It's not a question of figuring out how to do it technically; that would be even scarier. But we know how to do it.”

Related: The world struck a major climate deal in Poland. So, what’s in it?

Most countries have not yet met their commitments under the Paris climate agreements, and Climate Action Tracker rates a small group of countries as “critically insufficient or highly insufficient.” These include Russia, Ukraine, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the US.

Deng notes that in the US, state and local level governments are working to find ways to reduce emissions, but at the federal level, under the Trump administration, there is not only a lack of action but a reversal of direction.

Morrocco’s former environment minister, Hakima El Haite, finds this inexplicable.

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

“I’ll be very frank,” El Haite says. “When you see America withdraw from the Paris agreement, I'm not only disappointed, I'm feeling that politicians are not taking their responsibilities seriously. The United States was a leading country during the negotiation, and now, as President Trump decided to withdraw from the Paris agreement, they are still blocking the negotiation. This is not right.”

Morocco has been on a path to a low-carbon economy for decades, El Haite points out. She says her country has understood since 1964 that climate change is a problem they need to address. What’s more, she points out, the whole of Africa accounts for only four percent of global carbon emissions.

“The ones who are impacting the world are the fuel producers and industrial developers,” she says.

“Those countries should lead the negotiations. I’m thinking about the United States, Russia, China, Europe, et cetera. So, I'm really feeling disappointed — as a Moroccan, as an African, as a citizen of the world — and feeling that those who are blocking the negotiation now are not taking responsibility. Many millions and millions of people will die because of this decision.”

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

Japan to resume commercial whaling after pulling out of IWC

Dec 26, 2018


Following an announced withdrawal from the International Whaling Commission (IWC), Japan said on Wednesday it plans to resume commercial whaling starting in July in its waters and exclusive economic zone while ending its controversial hunts in the Antarctic.

Australia and New Zealand welcomed the decision to abandon the Antarctic whale hunt, but expressed disappointment that Japan would engage in any killing of the ocean mammals.

The decision, some experts said, allows Japan to save the money it spends to support Antarctic whaling while taking a tough pro-whaling stance — a matter of national pride for some conservatives.

But doubts exist about whether Japanese commercial whaling can be economically viable, especially as fewer people than ever are eating whale meat, they said.

"From July 2019, after the withdrawal comes into effect on June 30, Japan will conduct commercial whaling within Japan's territorial sea and its exclusive economic zone, and will cease the take of whales in the Antarctic Ocean/the Southern Hemisphere," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in a statement announcing the decision.

"The whaling will be conducted in accordance with international law and within the catch limits calculated in accordance with the method adopted by the IWC to avoid negative impact on cetacean resources," Suga said.

Japan, which says most whale species are not endangered and that eating whale is part of its culture, has long campaigned without success for the IWC to allow commercial whaling.

Some influential lawmakers' constituencies include whaling communities, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's election district is home to the whaling port of Shimonoseki.

The decision to withdraw from the IWC followed its latest rejection of Japan's bid to resume commercial whaling at a September meeting, which Suga said showed it was impossible to bridge the gap between whaling advocates and anti-whaling members.

The resumption of commercial whaling is an unusual decision for Japan, which stresses multilateralism in its diplomacy, and it sparked swift criticism from environmental groups and others who believe all whales should be protected.

'Out of step'

"The declaration today is out of step with the international community, let alone the protection needed to safeguard the future of our oceans and these majestic creatures," international conservationist group Greenpeace said.

"The Japanese government needs to recommit to the IWC and prioritize new measures for marine conservation."

Yoshie Nakatani, an official at the foreign ministry's fisheries division, said Japan would still attend IWC meetings.

"It's not like we are turning our back on the IWC and abandoning international cooperation," she said. "There is no change to our country's respect for the rule of law and multilateralism."

New Zealand Foreign Minister Winston Peters welcomed Japan's decision to halt Antarctic whaling but said he was disappointed with the decision to resume any commercial whaling.

"Whaling is an outdated and unnecessary practice. We continue to hope Japan eventually reconsiders its position and will cease all whaling in order to advance the protection of the ocean's ecosystems," Peters said in a statement.

Australia urged Japan to return to the IWC.

"Australia remains resolutely opposed to all forms of commercial and so-called "scientific whaling," its environment minister, Melissa Price, and foreign minister, Marise Payne, said in a statement.

Japan has long defied such protests to conduct what it calls scientific research whaling, having repeatedly said its ultimate goal was to whale commercially again.

In 2014, the International Court of Justice ruled that Japan should halt its Antarctic whaling.

Japan suspended its hunt for one season to re-tool its whaling program with measures such as cutting the number of whales and species targeted, but resumed hunting in the 2015-2016 season, capping its Antarctic catch with a quota of 333 whales annually.

Japan began its so-called scientific whaling in 1987, a year after an international whaling moratorium began. Its aged whaling mothership is in need of a costly replacement or refit.

Much of the meat ends up in shops, even though most Japanese no longer eat it. Whale consumption accounted for 0.1 percent of all Japanese meat consumption, according to the Asahi newspaper. That works out to 35 grams per person per year, according to a whale meat shop owner Koichi Matsumoto.

"We ate whale meat in the old days but there are lots of other things to eat now," said a 75-year-old woman shopper.

"But if we don't explain internationally that whales are increasing ... people won't understand," she added.

The ever-dwindling demand means an uncertain outlook for Japan's whaling.

"It could persist as a small-scale activity. There are still whale meat restaurants and I think some people will keep eating a small quantity," said Yoichiro Sato, a professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

"(But) if it's too expensive, people will not eat it. As an industry, its prospect is very grim."

By Linda Sieg and Kiyoshi Takenaka/Reuters

Additional reporting by Mayuko Ono and Kaori Kaneko; Writing by Linda Sieg; Editing by Darren Schuettler, Robert Birsel.

From the Amazon to the Arctic, The World’s biggest environmental stories of the year

Dec 24, 2018


1. China stopped taking much of the US’s recycling

At the beginning of 2018, China set much stricter purity standards for the recycling it accepts and stopped taking two dozen different types of solid waste entirely. Mountains of recycling that used to be sold to Chinese recycling firms piled up in American cities, and cities and companies worked toward more efficient recycling programs.

A man in a vest stands next to a wall of baled paper products, about 12 feet tall and several hundred feet long.

Ben Harvey of E.L. Harvey & Sons has stored about 3,000 bales of paper in the past month that he’d normally be shipping to China. At $60 a bale, it equals about $180,000 of unsold product, about 10 percent of the company’s revenue. 


Jason Margolis/The World 

2. Cape Town avoided “Day Zero” and the city’s water kept flowing

After three years of drought, residents of Cape Town, South Africa feared the city’s reservoirs would reach such critically low levels that the city would turn off the taps. To avoid reaching “Day Zero,” Cape Town instituted stringent water consumption restrictions that had residents gathering around watering holes to fill up jugs and prompted one local radio journalist to file eight water reports a day. The city’s water-saving campaign worked, and Day Zero was eventually pushed back indefinitely. But the episode was seen as an example of what life might look like in the future as parts of the globe grow increasingly drought-prone.

Cape Town residents gather to collect water at a spring with makshift spigots ear Table Mountain. It's one of dozens of open springs across the city where residents come to collect extra water to add to their meager daily quota of 13 gallons.

Cape Town residents gather to collect water at a spring with makshift spigots near Table Mountain. It's one of dozens of open springs across the city where residents come to collect extra water to add to their meager daily quota of 13 gallons.


Daniella Cheslow/The World

3. The people of the Arctic continued to feel the impacts of climate change most acutely

The 4 million people who live in the Arctic are feeling the effects of rapid climate change more quickly than anywhere else on earth, The World reported in a special series. An Alaskan village is falling into the sea and Arctic permafrost is starting to thaw. But as the landscape around them changes, the people of the arctic are pushing for sustainability and adapting to a new normal as new business opportunities open up at the top of the world.

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

4. British and American scientists launched a campaign to understand melting on a massive Antarctic glacier

Science agencies in the US and the UK in April announced they would spend the next five years researching Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier, which is roughly the size of Florida and could contribute up to three feet of sea level rise if it were to collapse completely. Ice melting on Thwaites already contributes about four percent of global sea level rise, an amount that’s nearly doubled since the 1990s.

5. In the US, climate action was driven by cities, states and private businesses 

As the federal government cut regulations aimed at limiting greenhouse gas emissions, cities, states and private businesses continued to lead the transition to a greener economy. In September, California Governor Jerry Brown convened a global climate summit that attracted heads of state and business leaders from around the world and extracted a slew of new commitments from them, from transitioning to zero-emission vehicles to protecting forests.

Around the world, Starbucks and McDonalds launched an initiative to make their cups fully recyclable and compostable, the nation’s leading coal state looked toward wind, and PepsiCo and Levis are worked to conserve water in their manufacturing processes.

6. One year after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico still struggled to recover

The first anniversary of Hurricane Maria arrived in Puerto Rico in September on an island still recovering from the devastating storm. Some residents had just gotten power back in their homes, and even as much of the island’s agricultural sector had rebounded, Puerto Rico’s coffee industry remained devastated. The island’s national forest was re-growing, but Maria highlighted concerns about the ecosystem’s ability to survive increasingly intense storms. Residents and officials recognized that while life on the island had reached a new normal, a year after Maria, Puerto Rico was still not prepared for another big storm.

houses with blue tarp roofs in Puerto Rico

Blue tarp roofs are still common in Barranquitas, in central Puerto Rico.


Carolyn Beeler/The World 

7. Concerns mounted for the future of the Brazilian Amazon

As illegal logging and a “tipping point” threaten the Amazon’s ability to capture and store carbon, a new president in Brazil has promised to exploit the rainforest and roll back protections for it. Scientists are warning that as the forests fail, they’re losing their ability to regulate Earth’s climate and protect us from the impacts of rising emissions.

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

8. Kids took center stage in the fight against climate change

Young people will feel the biggest impacts of climate change as they grow up in a warming world, and in 2018 they became some of the most visible campaigners for efforts to cut carbon emissions. A lawsuit brought by 21 young people who argue the US government violated their constitutional rights by supporting the continued use of fossil fuels wound its way through the courts. Kids and teenagers staged a massive climate march in Washington in July. And 15-year-old Greta Thunberg was a sensation at the UN climate talks in Poland in December when she told adults they “are not mature enough” to face the climate crisis head-on.

A young girl stands in front of a government building holding a sign in Swedish. Translated, it says:

Greta Thunberg, 15, holds a placard reading "School strike for the climate" during a demonstration about climate change outside the Swedish parliament in Stockholm, Sweden, on Nov. 30, 2018.


Hanna Franzen/TT News Agency via REUTERS   

9. The world learned just how fast it has to act on climate change

A landmark United Nations report published in October upped the ante and sped up the clock in the fight against climate change. It found that limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels would significantly reduce risks from drought, extreme heat, heavy rainfall during hurricanes, and sea level rise. Meeting that target, the report found, is still technically feasible but would require “unprecedented” changes in nearly every sector, and a halving of carbon emissions by 2030. Currently, the world is on track to exceed even the 2 degree Celsius target written into the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

10. The Paris climate agreement stayed alive for another year

Delegates at a UN climate summit in Poland in December agreed on a “rulebook” that governs how countries will track and report their carbon emissions under the Paris climate agreement. But to the disappointment of low-lying island nations and developing countries, the US and other oil-rich countries blocked language “welcoming” the UN report outlining the benefits of keeping global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Some of the world’s most vulnerable nations worry that means new targets for carbon emission cuts due by 2020 won’t be as ambitious as they’d hoped.

These fourth graders penned climate change poetry inspired by our coverage

Dec 21, 2018


We hear from a lot of listeners of The World and visitors to our website and social media feeds.

But those comments are usually brief, often anonymous, and it can be hard to know if what we do every day really makes an impact out there beyond our studios.

Well, a little while ago, we got a note from a listener that knocked our socks off.

It came from John Rogers, a fourth-grade teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary School, a public school in East Boston.

“Thought this would make you happy to hear what an impact your news program is having on the youth of our city,” Rogers wrote.

The note included a picture of a young girl named Ana Camile Valdez and a copy of a poem she’d written.

A child's illustrations decorate the border of a page that is a poem about the Amazon

Fourth grader Ana Camile Valdez created this poem after hearing about a story The World did about climate change. 


Courtesy of Curtis Guild Elementary School

And the story of Ana’s poem begins with The World.

The class has a morning meeting every day. There’s a daily greeting, a quote that the kids will discuss and a quick game.

And Rogers also shares news of the school and news of the world.

One morning back in October, he talked about a story he’d heard on The World the night before.

It was about the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and how scientists are finding that climate change is stressing the forest, and maybe making it less able to absorb carbon dioxide pollution. And how that, in turn, might be making climate change even worse.

A young girl holds a photo of her poem with her illustrations on it in her school classroom and smiles at the camera

Fourth grader Ana Camile Valdez poses with the poem she wrote about climate change. 


Steven Davy/The World

After the meeting, the class got on with its day. No further mention of the news, the Amazon or climate change.

But the next morning, Ana’s poem appeared on Rogers’ desk.

He already knew how great his kids were but this kind of stunned him.

“I felt really impressed that a student took that initiative herself," Rogers said. "[We were] heavy into a poetry unit … but to take it upon herself to write a reflection poem that talks about global warming and standing up for the environment. And it was this beautiful poem about how we have to act now and that the future is ours and we have to make a difference.”

That’s when Rogers sent us his note and invited us to visit his class.

A young girl sits at a school table and reads while a man holds a microphone next to her and records her reading.

Ana Camile Valdez read her poem to host Marco Werman while The World's Livable Planet editor Peter Thomson recorded her. 


Steven Davy/The World

And it turns out that Ana’s poem was only the beginning of the story of these remarkable fourth graders and their engagement with our show.

“It was almost like a wave had begun,” Rogers said. “We all wrote global warming poems.”

And there were others: poems about a mom and her kid teargassed by border patrol agents at the US-Mexico border. Poems about the economic inequality exposed by the "yellow vest" protests in France. Poems about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and freedom of the press. One about a Japanese man who spent 50 years in jail for a crime he didn’t commit.

Also, these being fourth graders, the death and global influence of the man who created SpongeBob SquarePants.

Most of these are heavy topics. But Rogers says the kids can handle it.

“I think fourth grade is always a grade when they come so young and leave like little adults,” he said. “And learning about sad stories or scary stories, I think, just helps motivate that maturity. And poetry, I think, is the perfect vehicle to have them reflect on it, because it takes away some of the barriers of traditional essay writing."

    View this post on Instagram         

A little while ago we got a note from a listener that knocked our socks off. John Rogers, a fourth-grade school teacher at Curtis Guild Elementary in East Boston, sent us a photo of one of her students and a poem she wrote. . As part of his morning routine with his students, Rogers discusses world news. Back in October, he shared one of The World’s stories about the Brazilian Amazon which inspired Ana Camile Valdez to write a “Global Warming Poem.” . Ana’s poem kind of blew us away, so host @MarcoWerman and environment editor Peter Thomson visited the school to meet Ana and the rest of Mr. Rogers’ class. First things first, Ana read her poem. . Global Warming Poem. By Ana Camile Valdez The world is getting hotter day after day. But do you ever wonder why? This is why: Cars, buses, trains and deforestation is messing up the air. They affect the air, and we have to remember trees help us breathe. But now the trees in the rainforest are doing the opposite. They are not cleaning the air. Instead of revering carbon tree may contribute! . Air is what we breathe. That is what we need. Our future in jeopardy But that can all change. Let’s start protecting our planet today. . Ana explained to host @MarcoWerman why the story prompted her to write her poem. “I am also a human being, so I really care about the earth. And really it’s mindblowing how we just destroyed our earth… But we can still change. It’s not too late.” . Video by @stevendavy Amazon story by @sameatonpix With support from @pulitzercenter

A post shared by PRI's The World (@pritheworld) on Dec 21, 2018 at 12:07pm PST

As for Ana, the girl who got this all rolling with that first poem, she says she was motivated by a simple impulse.

“I’m also a human being, so I really care about the Earth,” she said. “And like, really it’s like, mind-blowing how we just destroyed our Earth. But we can still change, it’s not too late."

Ana and her fourth-grade classmates at the school were inspired by us here at The World, and by Rogers, their teacher.

But man, have we been inspired by them.

A man high fives a child in a school classroom.

Host Marco Werman high-fives a fourth-grader at Curtis Guild Elementary School in East Boston.


Steven Davy/The World

Rewilding war zones can help heal the wounds of conflict

Dec 20, 2018


Where the Iron Curtain once divided Europe with barbed wire, a network of wilderness with bears, wolves and lynx now thrives.

Commemorating 100 years since the end of World War I, people wear poppies to evoke the vast fields of red flowers which grew over the carnage of Europe’s battlefields. Once a human conflict has ended, the return of nature to barren landscapes becomes a potent symbol of peace.

These tragedies, which force people away from a place, can help ecosystems replenish in their absence. Though rewilding is typically considered an active decision, like the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park, abandoned rural land often returns to wilderness on its own accord.

Today, as people vacate rural settlements for life in cities, accidental rewilding has meant large predators returning to areas of Europe, long after they were almost made extinct.

Sudden changes, such as the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster in 1986, result in wildlife recolonizing exclusion zones in previously developed areas.

Warfare can also result in human exclusion, which might benefit wildlife under specific conditions. Isolation and abandonment can generate wild population increases and recoveries, which has been observed in both terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems.

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

The strange link between war and wildlife

Fish populations in the North Atlantic benefited from World War II as fishing fleets were drastically reduced. Fishing vessels were requisitioned by the navy, seamen were drafted and the risks of fishing due to enemy strikes or subsurface mining deterred fishermen from venturing out to sea.

As a result, the war essentially created vast “marine protected areas” for several years in the Atlantic Ocean. After the war, armed with faster and bigger trawlers with new technology, fishermen reported bonanza catches.

A more gruesome result of World War II allowed opportunistic species such as the oceanic whitetip shark to flourish, as human casualties at sea proved a rich and plentiful food source.

Warship wrecks also became artificial reefs on the seabed which still contribute to the abundance of marine life today. The 52 captured German warships that were sunk during World War I between the Orkney mainland and the South Isles, off the north coast of Scotland, are now thriving marine habitats.

Exclusion areas — or “no mans lands” — which remain after fighting has ended, may also help terrestrial ecosystems recuperate by creating de facto wildlife reserves. Formerly endangered species, such as the Persian leopard, have re-established their populations in the rugged northern Iran-Iraq frontier.

An uneasy post-war settlement can create hard borders with vast areas forbidden to human entry. The Korean Demilitarised Zone is a 2.5 miles by 155 miles strip of land that has separated the two Koreas since 1953. For humans, it is one of the most dangerous places on Earth, with hundreds of thousands of soldiers patrolling its edges. For wildlife, however, it’s one of the safest areas in the region.

Today, the zone is home to thousands of species that are extinct or endangered elsewhere on the Korean peninsula, such as the long-tailed goral.

Miraculously, even habitats scarred by the most horrific weaponry can thrive as places where human access is excluded or heavily regulated. Areas previously used for nuclear testing, such as the Marshall Islands in the Pacific Ocean have been recolonized by coral and fish, which seem to be thriving in the crater of Bikini Atoll, declared a nuclear wasteland after nuclear bomb tests in the 1940s and 50s.

War — still good for nothing

For all the quirks caused by abandonment, warfare overwhelmingly harms human communities and ecosystems with equal fervor. A review of the impact of human conflict on ecosystems in Africa showed an overall decrease in wildlife between 1946 and 2010. In war’s aftermath, natural populations were slow to recover or stopped altogether as economic hardship meant conservation fell by the wayside.

Humans often continue to avoid a “no mans land” because of the presence of land mines. But these don’t differentiate between soldiers and wildlife, particularly large mammals. It’s believed that residual explosives in conflict zones have helped push some endangered species closer to extinction.

However, where possible, accidental rewilding caused by war can help reconcile people after the fighting ends by installing nature where war had brought isolation. There is hope that should Korea reunify, a permanently protected area could be established within the current demilitarized zone boundaries, allowing ecotourism and education to replace enmity.

Map showing European Green Belt that traces the original route of the Iron Curtain. 

Today’s European Green Belt traces the original route of the Iron Curtain. 


Smaack/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY-SA

Such an initiative has already succeeded elsewhere in the world. The European Green Belt is the name for the corridor of wilderness which runs along the former Iron Curtain, which once divided the continent. Started in the 1970s, this project has sprawled along the border of 24 states and today is the longest and largest ecological network of its kind in the world. Here, ponds have replaced exploded landmine craters and forests and insect populations have grown in the absence of farming and pesticide use.

Where war isolates and restricts human movement, nature does seem to thrive. If, as a human species, we aim for a peaceful world without war, we must strive to limit our own intrusions on the natural paradises that ironically human warfare creates and nurture a positive legacy from a tragic history.The Conversation

Antonio Uzal is a senior lecturer in wildlife conservation at Nottingham Trent University.

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

If you recycled all the plastic garbage in the world, you could buy the NFL, Apple and Microsoft

Dec 18, 2018


This year, I served on the judging panel for The Royal Statistical Society’s International Statistic of the Year.

On Dec. 18, we announced the winner: 90.5 percent, the amount of plastic that has never been recycled. Okay — but why is that such a big deal?

Related: New Chinese policy is forcing people to think: Is there a better way to recycle?

Much like Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” competition, the international statistic is meant to capture the zeitgeist of this year. The judging panel accepted nominations from the statistical community and the public at large for a statistic they feel shines a light on today’s most pressing issues.

Last year’s winner was 69. That’s the annual number of Americans killed, on average, by lawn mowers — compared to two Americans killed annually, on average, by immigrant jihadist terrorists and the 11,737 Americans killed annually by being shot by another American. That figure, first shared in The Huffington Post, was highlighted in a viral tweet by Kim Kardashian in response to the proposed migrant ban.

This year’s statistic came into prominence from a United Nations report. The chair of the judges and RSS president, Sir David Spiegelhalter, said: “It’s really concerning that so little plastic has ever been recycled and, as a result, so much plastic waste has leached out into the world’s environment. It’s a great, growing and genuinely world problem.”

Related: Mountains of US recycling pile up as China restricts imports

Let’s take a closer look at this year’s winning statistic. About 90.5 percent of the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste produced since mass production began about 60 years ago is now lying around our planet in landfills and oceans or has been incinerated. If we don’t change our ways, by 2050, there will be about 12 billion metric tons of plastic waste.

When the panel first began looking at this statistic, I really didn’t have any comprehension of what billions of tons of plastic means. Based on a study from 2015 and some back of the envelope calculations, that’s the equivalent of 7.2 trillion grocery bags full of plastic as of 2018.

But again, I still didn’t quite have a feel for how much that actually is. People tend to use distance measurements to compare numbers, so I tried that. Assuming that a grocery bag of plastic is about 1 foot high, if you stacked the grocery bags, you could go to the moon and back 5,790 times. That’s starting to feel a bit more real.

In fact, if you could monetize all of the plastic trash clogging up our environment — including the 12 percent that is incinerated — you could buy some of the world’s biggest businesses.

Assuming it costs 3.25 cents to produce a plastic bottle, we can estimate that a grocery bag contains about US$1 of plastic material production. (I took a grocery bag and filled it with 31 bottles.) So 7.2 trillion grocery bags is the equivalent of a cool $7.2 trillion.

What can you buy with that? Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Walmart, Exxon, GM, AT&T, Facebook, Bank of America, Visa, Intel, Home Depot, HSBC, Boeing, Citigroup, Anheuser-Busch, all the NFL teams, all the MLB teams and all the Premier League Football teams.

Related: As China gets tough on recycling, will America get cleaner?

In other words, if someone could collect and recycle all the unrecycled plastic on earth, this person would be richer than any individual on the planet.

One of the most difficult aspects of statistics is putting the numbers into a context that we can wrap our heads around, into a format that means something to us. Whatever it is that speaks to you, all I can say is that this speaks to me. It’s clearly time to clean up our act.The Conversation

Liberty Vittert, Visiting Assistant Professor in Statistics, Washington University in St Louis

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

Who is responsible for migrants?

Dec 18, 2018


President Donald Trump tends to portray migrants as a foreign problem that has suddenly — and unfairly — been “dumped” at America’s doorstep.

Migration “is a way they get certain people out of their country and dump in the US,” he wrote on Nov. 25 about a caravan of mostly Honduran women, children and young men seeking asylum in the United States.

He is not alone. The flow of refugees and asylum-seekers from poor countries to the United States border is often attributed, incorrectly, to domestic unrest in a far-off nation. Some Americans blame far-off governments for not being “willing to take care of their own country’s problems,” as one New York Times reader commenting on the migrant caravan put it recently.

This one-sided view of migration ignores the global forces that bind our world together, my research on immigration policy shows.

The extreme violence, environmental disasters and grinding poverty that drives people from places like Guatemala, Honduras and Afghanistan are largely the results of global phenomena like colonialism, climate change and trade.

Seen through an international lens, both migrant-sending and migrant-receiving countries share responsibility for the people displaced by globalization.

Related: US officials reject blame for migrant girl’s death. Advocates point to Trump’s asylum policies.

Colonialism and its consequences

It’s no coincidence that immigration routes today follow the same path European colonizers did — but in reverse.

France invaded Algeria in 1830 and kept it as a colony until 1962. Today, the largest immigrant group in France is Algerians.

And while Britain today may wish to close its borders, in 1948 it invited citizens of former British colonies into the country to help the United Kingdom rebuild after World War II. Indians and Pakistanis are now the second- and third-largest immigrant groups in the United Kingdom, after Polish people.

The Central Americans looking to the United States for refuge are following a similar historical pattern.

Technically, the United States was never an empire. But its government consistently intervened in Latin American domestic affairs during the late 20th century, installing and even removing leaders across the region.

In the 1980s, hoping to beat back Communism, the US funded and armed authoritarian regimes in Central America as they battled leftist guerrillas. These decadeslong civil wars killed thousands and displaced hundreds of thousands.

War also killed the region’s economy. Average income in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua was actually lower in 1990 than it had been in 1980.

Regional instability caused mass migration to the United States. Between 1981 and 1990 almost 1 million Salvadorans and Guatemalans entered the United States clandestinely.

Related: The razor wire that separates Europe from Africa might be coming down

Trade, poverty and cheap immigrant labor

Economic links between richer and poorer countries have also spurred mass migration.

More international trade in recent decades has brought jobs and improved living standards in some countries — among them Chile, China and South Korea —preventing migration by creating the economic conditions that allow people to stay put.

Strategic agricultural aid to developing countries, too, has reduced emigration from some rural countries, according to a recent study in the journal World Development, which analyzed data from 103 countries that received aid from 1995 to 2010.

But international commerce has also unleashed migration elsewhere.

Mexican immigration to the US surged after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 1994. The deal increased Mexico’s manufacturing sector substantially — but it hurt farmers by opening Mexican markets to subsidized US agricultural products.

Unable to compete with these cheap imports, hundreds of thousands of Mexican farmers lost their jobs. By 2006, an estimated 2 million peasants had been pushed out of rural areas in Mexico. Many of these displaced farmers migrated to the US, where they found jobs in the construction, agricultural and restaurant sectors.

Today, Hispanics make up around a quarter of workers in those industries. The same low-wage immigrant labor helps to keep manufacturing afloat in the US despite the otherwise high costs of doing business.

Trump insists only that cheap imports from developing countries threatens US industry. The realities of migration are more complex and nuanced than that.

Related: Venezuelan engineers flee to Argentina but find few jobs await

Climate refugees

Climate change is another global problem contributing to the migration crisis.

Global warming-related problems like rising sea levels and extreme weather have their origins in the Industrial Revolution in Europe 150 years ago. But their impacts are hitting poor countries first and hardest.

Residents of small Pacific islands such as Kiribati and Tuvalu must abandon their homes because coastal erosion is pushing people inland, creating conflicts over the scarce remaining dry land.

Even Central American migration is linked in part to climate change. Changes in temperature and rainfall across the region have damaged the coffee and maize crops over the past decade. Some farmers who’ve lost their rural livelihood joined the caravan earlier this year.

And though China has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, people in rich countries still use a disproportionate share of global resources.

Per capita carbon emissions in high-income countries is about 30 times higher than in low-income countries because people in the richer countries have bigger and more air-conditioned homes, eat more meat and drive and fly more.

Such statistics raise serious doubt about who, exactly, should take responsibility for modern climate refugees.

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

Stopping migration before it starts

Rich countries are not to blame for every problem that drives migration from poor countries.

Corrupt, predatory and violent leaders in Central America, Syria, Pakistan and many other places are also accountable for creating hazardous conditions in their countries.

And Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake, which destroyed the nation’s capital and sent thousands fleeing for their lives, had nothing to do with climate change.

Still, too much political rhetoric out of Washington offers a simplistic, one-sided view of migration. A more balanced debate might help policymakers take measures that might actually address the problem, rather than just casting blame on poor countries and closing borders.

Other countries increasingly agree. On Dec. 10, 164 nations signed the Global Compact for Migration, the world’s first-ever comprehensive international agreement. It assigns shared responsibility for hosting migrants in ensuring their human rights are respected and addressing the root causes of displacement.

The United States was not one of them.The Conversation

Felipe A. Filomeno is an assistant professor of political science and global studies at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

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

Native American Congresswoman-elect Deb Haaland is ready to get to work

Dec 18, 2018 9:22


On Nov. 6, Deb Haaland, from the Pueblo of Laguna tribe in New Mexico, became one of the first two Native American women to be elected to Congress.

Congresswoman-elect Haaland previously chaired New Mexico’s Democratic party. Sharice Davids of the Ho-Chunk Nation in Kansas is also an incoming freshman in the House of Representatives. Both women are Democrats.

Haaland says she is “honored and humbled” by her election. “I realize the weight that I will carry,” she says. “After 240-plus years of not having representation, Native women finally have representation in our Congress.”

Haaland was in Washington, DC, recently for orientation week and she participated in a press conference for the "Green New Deal," a platform that is getting a lot of attention.

“There are a number of legislators who are committed to it,” she says. “Part of that is making sure that the Democrats come up with a viable — I want to say hardcore — renewable energy infrastructure plan.”

"I think we have to be very strong on this issue,” Haaland maintains. “There are still climate deniers out there and it's up to us to really push this issue, to make sure that we're building relationships around an infrastructure plan that everybody can get behind. When we've seen all of these hurricanes, droughts and the fires in California, we have a responsibility to these communities to be a leader in fighting climate change and moving toward renewable energy.”

For Haaland, environmental and climate justice are closely linked to Indigenous rights.

Related: Standing Rock activists: Don't call us protesters. We're water protectors.

She went to Standing Rock in 2016 to add her voice to “the water protectors” protesting the Dakota Access pipeline. Many sacred sites and traditional homelands of Indian tribes are not within their current tribal boundaries, but that does not mean that they shouldn't have a voice in how those lands are developed, Haaland says.

“That land was Indian land long before it wasn’t,” she points out. “I feel like we need to make sure that Indian tribes have a seat at the table, that they have a voice in how this land is getting developed and in how things are moving forward. I really feel strongly that environmental review should include a voice for tribes in any area. And if they are traditional, sacred lands, we should find a way to respect that as a country and as a government.”

Haaland says she also plans to work hard on voting rights when she gets to Congress. When the effects of climate change really begin to hit, she says, the people who can't afford to move or rebuild will suffer the most. “We have to ensure that these folks, the underrepresented people in our country, actually do have a voice,” she says.

Haaland is excited to be part of the incoming group of women and people of color who made history in the 2018 elections by reaching national office.

Related: After midterms, women fill a new-look Congress 

“I think it's going to make a huge difference in environmental stewardship,” she says. “There are so many of us who want a Green New Deal, who campaigned on that. A lot of us will stand together to make sure that we're working on that. But there are also other voices. There's an incoming freshman, Lucy McBath, whose son was killed by gun violence. She turned her grief into activism. She ran for a seat in Congress and won.”

“All these voices together are going to help us live in a new world and fight for the issues in an effective way to make sure that we are getting things done,” she concludes.

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

Why don't environmentalists vote?

Dec 18, 2018


According to the Environmental Voter Project, 20.1 million US registered voters say the environment or climate change is a top issue. But only a small portion of these "super-environmentalist" voters actually turn up at the ballot box to vote. What’s going on?

“The truth is, we don't know why these environmentalists aren't voting,” says Nathaniel Stinnett, founder of the project. “We know that people who are likely to really care about the environment are also more likely to be young, African American, or Latino. And those three groups, historically, vote less often than the overall population. But that's only part of the story.”

The Environmental Voter Project considers someone a “super-environmentalist” if that person is an already-registered voter who lists the environment as either their first or second most important issue.

The problem is, even though there are 20.1 million registered voters who say they care about the environment, they don't always show up on election day.

“The problem is, even though there are 20.1 million who are already registered, they don't always show up on election day,” Stinnett says. “In 2014, only 4.78 million of those 20 million voters bothered to vote. During the last midterm elections, 44 percent of registered voters showed up to vote, but only 21 percent of environmentalists.”

“What's really interesting,” he continues, “is when we look just at Latinos, those who care about the environment vote less often than other Latinos. Or if we look just at young people, the people who care about the environment vote less often than other young people. So, there's something else going on there.”

While Stinnett acknowledges that nobody really knows for sure why these people tend not to vote, he does have a couple of educated guesses.

If you have a public record of not voting, why on Earth would a politician care about you? 

"Who you vote for is secret, but whether you vote or not is public information,” he says. “So, the first thing any campaign does is look at who votes and who doesn’t. And they only spend their time and money talking to good voters. All these environmentalists who are saying, ‘Politicians don't care about me’ are absolutely right. If you have a public record of not voting, why on Earth would a politician care about you? So, I think what's going on here is that politicians make a very clear choice to not spend any time or money talking to, or caring about, people who don't vote. And environmentalists, by and large, don't vote.”

There are also demographic correlations, Stinnett says. While the common stereotype of an environmental voter as “a yuppie wearing Patagonia fleeces or hopping out of their Prius in the suburbs was accurate 20 or 30 years ago, it's not accurate now.”

“Environmentalists are far more likely to be African American, to be Latino, to live within five miles of an urban core, or to make less than $50,000 a year,” Stinnett says. “What this means is that environmentalists are much more likely to have voting barriers thrown up in front of them. I think it's important that the environmental movement understand that when certain states and certain counties make it harder for minorities or poor people to vote, that disproportionately affects environmental voters.”

While the data is not complete, exit polls indicate that during the 2018 midterms, roughly twice the number of environmentally-focused voters came out to vote as in 2014, Stinnett notes.

Related: The US midterms 'blue wave' has mixed results for the environment

“It's not apples-to-apples,” he says, “but clearly the data shows that something is changing. Either more of our existing environmentalists turned out to vote, or there are some existing voters whose priorities are changing. Maybe they didn't care about the environment two years ago or four years ago, but now they care about it a lot more.”

Stinnett predicts these numbers will rise again during the 2020 election year, especially during the Democratic presidential primary.

Related: Here’s why many young voters see climate change as THE issue in 2016

Climate voters and environmental voters are going to be an enormous constituency.

“Climate voters and environmental voters are going to be an enormous constituency,” he says. “I would go so far as to say that maybe 20 percent of the people who vote in the Democratic presidential primary could end up listing climate and the environment as either their number one or number two issue. This is an enormous constituency that could be mobilized if someone focused their messaging on climate change.”

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

The 'right to repair' movement wants you to be able to fix your own stuff

Dec 18, 2018


America’s throw-away culture has expanded in the last decade from everyday products and food to include consumer electronics — from iPhones to big-screen TVs. In response, a "Right to Repair" movement is now advocating for laws that allow people to fix the things they own.

In October, Right to Repair won a major victory: The Library of Congress and the US Copyright Office modified rules to allow consumers to hack into embedded software as needed for repair and maintenance. But, as Nathan Proctor, director of the Right to Repair campaign of the Public Interest Research Group, explains, there’s still much more work to do.

“When you can't fix something, it means that it ends up in the waste stream before it might normally need to,” Proctor says. “As our world has gotten more and more computerized, it's getting more and more difficult for people to maintain the things in their lives. This is true of our smartphones and our dishwashers and even of tractors and other ag equipment.”

Electronic waste is one of the most rapidly growing parts of the waste stream, Proctor says. The UN estimates that 60 million tons of electronic waste is generated each year. That’s the equivalent of 125,000 jumbo jets. Americans throw out 416,000 smartphones every day.

Related: Starbucks tries to save 6 billion cups a year from the trash ... with help from McDonald's

“We buy these incredible $800 computers, which are very useful … and we treat them as if they're essentially disposable,” he says. “Ten years ago, it would have been unthinkable to buy a phone, keep it for one year and then upgrade to another phone.”

The companies who make these products don’t want consumers to be able to fix them on their own. They’d rather make money from servicing them or from persuading you to buy a new one. This extends to things like farming equipment that have become increasingly more complex over the years.

Not so long ago, most farmers could either repair their own equipment or could keep their equipment going using local help, Proctor points out. If they couldn't fix it, there was somebody close by who could. As the equipment became increasingly reliant on software, this became more and more difficult.

Then, in 2015, the Library of Congress issued an exemption to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for agricultural equipment, specifically saying that farmers had the right to modify software if it interfered with their ability to repair their device.

“Almost overnight John Deere updated their terms of service for using a tractor … to basically make any modification to the software to be a violation of those terms of service,” Proctor says.

With smartphones, as almost any consumer knows, one of the main problems is that the batteries are so difficult to replace.

Related: New Chinese policy is forcing people to think: Is there a better way to recycle?

“They are held in with adhesive. The instructions for how to properly switch them out are not being provided by the manufacturers anymore and the original replacement batteries are no longer being sold by the manufacturer,” Proctor explains. “You have to go through an authorized provider to get that battery service. And a lot of times, if you take it to that provider, they will just try to sell you a new phone."

Proctor’s model Right to Repair bill includes access to five things he says are necessary for repair: replacement parts; specialized tools needed for repair; diagnostic software; manuals or schematics; and firmware.

“If you have all five of those things, then you can fix it,” Proctor says. “We think of them like a five-legged stool, which means that if it is missing one leg, it's still stable, but it's much more stable with all five legs,” Proctor says.

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

The world struck a major climate deal in Poland. So, what’s in it?

Dec 17, 2018


By the time the final meeting of this year’s global climate summit was gaveled into session in Katowice, Poland, it was past 9 p.m. on Saturday. Exhausted negotiators were more than 24 hours past their deadline, and workmen were already starting to disassemble the conference venue around them.

But Michał Kurtyka, the Polish official presiding over the meeting, told delegates it was worth it. 

“You have worked on this package for three years,” he said. “Every single step forward is a big achievement. And through this package, you have made a thousand little steps forward, together. You can feel proud.”

Soon after, nearly 200 countries unanimously agreed to new rules governing international action on global warming — and kept alive an international effort to combat climate change that has often seemed on rocky ground.

The accord is a follow-up to the breakthrough 2015 Paris Agreement, in which countries committed to keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. The “rule book” adopted in Katowice sets out how countries should measure their greenhouse gas emissions, report on emissions cuts and hold each other accountable.

“The rule book puts meat on the bones of Paris, enabling it to operate,” said Sue Biniaz, who was the state department’s top lawyer on climate change for decades and helped draft the Paris Agreement. “It would have been hard to imagine this extensive a rule book a few short months ago.”

That’s in part because of the political backdrop. President Donald Trump has said he will pull the US out of the agreement as soon as he can, in 2020, and delegates worry that Brazil’s new president could follow the US out the door. Meanwhile, key members of the European Union, including the UK, Germany and France are distracted by politics at home. And the US and China, who together drove the Paris Agreement, are in a standoff over trade.

Related: US a wild card as climate negotiators race to meet Friday deadline

“Who would have thought five years ago that you would have China, the US, Brazil and Europe all committing to a binding set of rules?” said Jennifer Morgan, the head of Greenpeace International.

But for Morgan and many others, the agreement in Katowice did not go far enough. Advocates pointed out that pledges made by countries so far won’t cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement. Morgan said it was a major failure that the final agreement didn’t include a strong commitment that countries would increase their ambitions as fast as the current science indicates is necessary to avoid the worst warming.

“A rule book alone is not going to get us there,” Morgan said. “We have a climate emergency right now. And I expect leaders to take that seriously and go beyond their comfort zones to stand up for the most vulnerable in their own countries and around the world.”

A crowd in a dark conference room watches a screen with a man that has a gavel and a sign that says

Michał Kurtyka, the Polish official presiding over this year's meeting, looked visibly relieved as he gaveled the final meeting into session. "It's been a long night," he said, to laughter. 


Rachel Waldholz/The World

What’s in it?

Under the Paris Agreement, countries must set a goal for cutting greenhouse gas emissions — and then every five years, they must report on what they’ve achieved, compare global progress to the overall goals of the Paris Agreement and make new pledges to reduce emissions even more.

The agreement was designed to ratchet up emissions cuts over time. But that process only works if countries can hold each other accountable, said Camilla Born, of the climate think tank E3G.

The Katowice package sets that framework, creating standards for reporting emissions. The agreement also includes transparency guidelines so that countries can verify each other’s progress — guidelines that the US and China were credited with jointly negotiating.

It also solved one of the long-running points of contention in climate talks by ensuring that all countries — developed and developing countries alike — will eventually face the same reporting standards. China and developing nations had resisted a common standard for years, arguing that it was unfair to hold them to standards they might not have the capacity to meet.

“The fact that we have one set of rules is really important,” Born said, adding that it lets countries essentially compare apples to apples.

The agreement also includes a process for rich countries to increase the amount of money they will pay to help poorer countries adapt to climate change. Developing countries say current commitments are still nowhere near enough, but Born said it’s a start.

“They’ll provide greater clarity and predictability on that finance,” Born said. “What that means is developing countries can plan to deliver climate action with the certainty that money will come and help them do that.”

What’s not in it?

Many countries were infuriated when the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait blocked language “welcoming” a recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that concluded the world must limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius or face catastrophic impacts. Ultimately, the final agreement included weaker language, welcoming the “timely completion” of the report.

Speaking for a coalition of the world’s least developed countries, Ethiopia’s representative said the US and its allies were seeking to undermine science that indicates more ambitious action is needed.

“It is unfathomable that while women, men and children all over the world suffer at the hands of climate change, a small handful of parties refused to welcome the science that confirms the devastation we are already experiencing in our countries,” he said. 

The final agreement also postponed key decisions on how to set up markets for trading international carbon credits after Brazil demanded changes that other nations argued would create accounting loopholes.

“No rules are better than bad rules, and that’s what we went with,” said E3G’s Born.

A digital camera is held up over the heads of others and the screen lights up as it takes a photo of those assembled on the stage at the front of the room

Reporters scrambled to take a photo as the heads of delegation for nearly 200 countries stood on stage after passing the final agreement.


Rachel Waldholz/The World

What’s next?

The next big milestone will come in September 2019. That’s when UN Secretary-General António Guterres plans to convene a meeting rallying countries to step up their targets under the Paris Agreement. Advocates hope countries will announce more ambitious pledges at the meeting.

In a statement read by UN climate chief Patricia Espinosa, Guterres told delegates, “Climate change is still running faster than us.”

Having agreed to the rule book, Guterres wrote, countries must turn their attention to redoubling their efforts: “From now on, my five priorities will be: ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition, ambition.”

A Google affiliate is planning a ‘smart’ neighborhood in Toronto. Local opposition is growing.

Dec 17, 2018


A little over a year ago, Daniel Doctoroff, Chairman and CEO of Sidewalk Labs, Google's sister company, took the stage at a town-hall-style meeting in Toronto, Canada.

It was the first in a series of forums co-hosted by Sidewalk Labs to keep the Toronto community in the loop about what they wanted to create there: a neighborhood built from "the internet up."

“We started with a thought experiment, basically,” Doctoroff told the crowd during that November 2017 meeting. “If you could create a city, or a district, or a neighborhood in the internet era, what would it be? We brought together experts from all over the world."

And they became convinced, Doctoroff said, that they could “take truly visionary urban planning, mix it together with cutting-edge technology” and begin to alleviate some of the biggest headaches that come with living in a city: traffic, unaffordable housing, pollution and threats to public safety.

“We then decided that what we wanted to do was find the best place to partner to try and explore these ideas,” Doctoroff said. “And out of the entire world, the single place that we thought was the best was Toronto.”

In the deal, Sidewalk Labs got a unique opportunity to test out its ideas about data-rich living IRL — in real life — in Toronto.

Just a few months before, the Google affiliate had responded to a request for proposals put out by a Canadian agency looking for a partner to come up with a plan and funding for a 12-acre parcel of land on Toronto’s Eastern Waterfront. It won.

An illustration of tall buildings next to a river in a dense city

In the Quayside site plan documents, Sidewalk Toronto shows a dense city with many kinds of infrastructure — high rises, pedestrian crossings and more. 


Courtesy Sidewalk Toronto, Quayside site plan

In its initial vision plan, released to the public in October 2017, Sidewalk Labs imagined a futuristic neighborhood “with connectivity designed into its very foundation.” It would have everything from self-driving shuttles to buildings created from sustainable materials to delivery robots and drones and adaptive traffic lights that would predict traffic patterns. It would be data-driven and that data would be used to improve almost every aspect of everyday life.

Related: Google workers around the world protest its corporate culture

That utopian urban dream sounded more like a nightmare to many in the Toronto area, including David Murakami Wood, an associate professor at Ontario’s Queen’s University, who researches smart cities, security, and surveillance.

“I do not think that tech corporations are the appropriate organizations to be managing our cities,” Murakami Wood said.

He recounts the period when Sidewalk Labs first arrived in Toronto with resentment: an American company with ties to Silicon Valley had parachuted in to disrupt a city that didn’t want to be disrupted.

“It felt like ... being lectured by a load of New Yorkers about how Toronto could be better,” Murakami Wood said.  “I think that put a lot of people’s backs up in Toronto.”

(Sidewalk Labs is headquartered in Manhattan, and Doctoroff spent seven years as deputy mayor of New York City starting in 2001.)

But what most bothers Murakami Wood and many others opposed to this project is how Sidewalk Labs ended up in Toronto.

The agency that chose Sidewalk Labs as its partner in this project is not a government agency. Waterfront Toronto is a public corporation, created by the governments of Toronto, Ontario, and Canada in the early 2000s. Its mandate is to develop an 800-acre expanse of land that sits on the edge of Lake Ontario. Sidewalk Labs won the bid to come up with plans for a small slice of that parcel.

“That is not the way things should be done. There should be a participatory process which comes from the bottom up, it should be dealt with through democratic processes,” Murakami Wood said.

Waterfront Toronto has repeatedly stood by its selection process. But criticism of it has been growing in recent weeks.

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

In a report released earlier this month, Ontario’s auditor general slammed Waterfront Toronto for its handling of the selection process, writing that the agency gave Sidewalk Labs access to more information than other bidders and that it entered into an agreement with the company “without sufficient due diligence and provincial involvement.”

The project is also raising a lot of concerns about data collection and privacy.

“We are in no way ready to manage this type of project where it's being discussed as a smart neighborhood where there's gonna be sensors and data collection everywhere,” said Bianca Wylie, a Toronto resident and the founder of the advocacy group Tech Reset Canada. “We never talked about having a smart city. We never talked about being the test bed for a company that's a Google affiliate.”

Wylie and others involved with Tech Reset Canada have been holding a series of discussions around what this project would mean for Toronto.

In the wake of intense backlash since releasing its first plan last year, Sidewalk Labs has tried to walk back some of the features that would make this smart neighborhood, well, smart. But there are still a lot of questions about how the data of those who live and work in the neighborhood — as well as those who visit — would be collected and used.

Related: EU launches new data privacy rules amid enforcement uncertainty

Several people have distanced themselves from the project or outright quit over these concerns.

Ann Cavoukian, Ontario’s former privacy commissioner who now heads the Privacy by Design Centre of Excellence at Ontario’s Ryerson University, is one of them. Cavoukian was approached early on to become a consultant on this project.

“I was delighted because I wanted it to be a smart city of privacy, not a smart city of surveillance,” she said.

Cavoukian is not against data collection. But she worried that in this smart city environment, there would be no real opportunity for people to opt out of having their data collected.

“You would know ... who's going where ... license plate numbers, individuals going from point A to [point] B at what times of day. It would be unthinkable,” she said. “So because of that, I said all the data collected from sensors and other technologies must be de-identified or anonymized at source — meaning, the minute it's collected, you have to scrub it for all personal identifiers, and then you can use the data but it won't be about any identifiable individuals, it'll just be generic data.”

Sidewalk Labs agreed to de-identify all data collected. But the company told Cavoukian it couldn't guarantee everyone else involved in the project would do the same.

“And the minute I heard that I knew I had to resign,” Cavoukian said. “I had to do it because I had to make a statement that this was not acceptable.”

Sidewalk Labs is expected to release its final master plan for the neighborhood in the spring of 2019. Some critics in Toronto say there’s nothing that can be done to change their minds and that they want to see the project scrapped altogether.

Related: The new DHS plan to gather social media information has privacy advocates up in arms

“We see absolutely no reason to push the reset button and restart this process,” said Kristina Verner, vice president of innovation, sustainability, and prosperity for Waterfront Toronto.

Verner says she wishes critics understood one thing: This is not a done deal.  

It may turn out that Waterfront Toronto decides not to move forward with Sidewalk Lab's plan for the neighborhood.

Regardless of what happens, though, the experience in Toronto shows just how tricky it can be to bring a smart city online.

As Sumatran rhinos face extinction, scientists come to their rescue

Dec 15, 2018


Indonesia’s Sumatran rhino is one of the most critically endangered species in the world, with less than 80 of them left in the wild. Back in the 1980s, scientists hatched a plan to save the Sumatran rhino with a captive breeding program. The program was a flop.

Now, a coalition of conservation organizations, including National Geographic, is hoping to learn from these mistakes and start a new initiative to breed the Sumatran rhino.

Freelance writer Jeremy Hance wrote a series about the plan for the online magazine Mongabay.

“I first met my first Sumatran rhino in 2009,” he says. “I was in Sabah, in Borneo, and I went and met a rhino named Tam. I was told before I met Tam that he was very sweet and kind of like a giant cat, and I thought, ‘That's ridiculous.’ So, I get there — and he is. He’s rubbing up against the bars next to me. He's in this beautiful sanctuary in the rainforest. He's snorting at me, he's whistling at me. Spending time with this animal face-to-face, I just kind of fell in love and I've been following this story obsessively ever since.”

Sumatran rhino Indonesia Sumatran Rhinoceros Rosa in the Sumatran Rhino Sanctuary, Way Kambas, Sumatra, Indonesia. Credit:

Wikimedia Commons

Sumatran rhinos are the oldest rhinos on Earth and they're “the weirdest,” Hance says. They are the smallest, they have a flank of reddish hair, they live in the rainforest and they love spending time in the mud.

The Sumatran rhino is also related to the extinct Wooly rhino and is the last rhino in their particular genus.

“It's also the most vocal of rhinos. So, it will sing to you,” Hance says. “Researchers compare its voice and the sounds it makes to whales and dolphins.”

Sumatran rhinos are so endangered because they’ve been hunted for tens of thousands of years by humans and they are still being poached in the wild for their horns.

They have also lost much of their habitat to deforestation. But the most critical reason may just be that there are so few left.

“They're not mating in the wild and they're not having babies,” Hance explains. “Basically, the population gets so small that, even though there's some habitat left, there are just not enough of them to replenish the population.”

Making matters worse, Indonesia is an archipelago of islands, so the rhinos that still exist are separated geographically.

Sumatran rhino population map Fewer than 80 Sumatran Rhinos exist in the wild. They live in fragmented habitats on Indonesian islands of Borneo and Sumatra. Credit:

World Wildlife Fund

Hance’s story for Mongabay focused mainly on the botched effort in the 1980s to save the Sumatran rhino from extinction by trying to breed them in captivity. Having had success with White, Black and Indian rhinos, the scientists believed they could be equally successful with this rhino, so they decided to capture some and place them in various facilities in Malaysia, Indonesia, the US and the UK.

“What happened from that was a total disaster for about two decades, until they finally achieved some success,” Hance says.

A lot of things went wrong. The scientists weren't feeding them correctly, there were accidents during capture, there was disease.

“Basically, it took scientists, zookeepers and conservationists about 10 to 20 years to figure out how to feed them right, how to care for them and what diseases were cropping up,” says Hance.

Even worse, they could not get the females to become pregnant, Hance says. For the first 17 years, there were no babies. Terry Roth, an employee at the zoo, discovered that female rhinos do not ovulate under certain conditions, apparently. They are what Hance calls “induced ovulators,” and when Roth figured this out, they were able to achieve a successful pregnancy that produced a rhino baby in 2001. 

Now, conservationists and biologists have a new plan to save the Sumatran rhino. The Sumatran Rhino Rescue is a consortium of various conservation groups, including National Geographic, Global Wildlife Conservation and the International Rhino Foundation. They plan to once again try to breed the rhinos in captivity.

Right now, only two proven breeders live in captivity and the rhino is still disappearing from the wild, Hance explains.

“So, the idea is, if we can go into the field, capture a few healthy females and maybe a couple of more males, we can supplement the captive breeding program and make that a success, and then ensure that the species doesn't go extinct,” he says.

Hance says he is cautiously optimistic about the new effort because he says “we’ve done this before.”

“The European bison went extinct in the wild — down to 12 animals — and they brought it back and now there are 4,000 in Europe,” he notes. “So, we can do this. This is not impossible. We just need the money, the support and collaboration. Things are going to go wrong. It's not going to go perfectly. I'm sure there will still be tragedies. But, having met some of these baby animals when I visited the sanctuary in Indonesia — and met the people who take care of them every day — that’s what makes me optimistic.”

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

Converting forests into palm oil plantations is 'total devastation' for the planet

Dec 15, 2018


Demand for palm oil is booming. It’s a common ingredient in a wide variety of foods and household products, from cookies, bread and chocolate to soap and shampoo. But, as it turns out, the conversion of tropical forest into land for palm oil plantations, has created huge risks for the entire planet.

ProPublica reporter Abrahm Lustgarten has reported on the hidden forces shaping global demand for plant-based fuel. He says some of the problems created by palm oil plantations can be traced back to a law called the Energy Independence and Security Act, which was passed by the US Congress in 2007.

The law was meant to decrease the United States’ reliance on petroleum oil, Lustgarten says, and it did do a couple of good things for the environment. It increased the fuel efficiency standards of automobiles, for example. But it also mandated that the US replace a certain amount of gasoline with ethanol from corn and sugar, and replace a certain amount of diesel fuel with vegetable oils, mainly from soybeans — measures which were supposed to help American farmers and reduce carbon emissions.

Related: These Burmese palm oil workers say they're trapped on plantations

The conversion of tropical forest land into palm oil plantations has resulted in a net increase in carbon emissions.

But despite hopes that biodiesel fuels, including those made from palm oil, would become a carbon-friendly replacement for fossil fuels, scientists say the conversion of tropical forest land into palm oil plantations has resulted in a net increase in carbon emissions.

“Indonesian farmers who grow palm oil also contributed to the biodiesel supply,” Lustgarten explains, “but as soybean oil supplies around the world were used up to support biodiesel in the United States, the food industry, which uses vegetable oils for lots of different purposes, went to palm oil instead. So, palm oil demand increased dramatically as the soybean oil on the market disappeared.”

Then, palm oil became a key ingredient for biodiesel and the destruction of the tropical rainforest in Indonesia increased dramatically. “It’s total devastation,” Lustgarten says.

Hands hold red palm oil fruits.

A worker shows palm oil fruits at a plantation in Chisec, Guatemala, Dec. 19, 2018.  


Luis Echeverria/Reuters

When the forest is cleared, the ground is laid bare in rows of long puddles that can stretch for a half to a full mile, created by groundwater that comes up through the peatland soil.

“It's a marsh. It's just a huge expanse of brown mud,” Lustgarten says.

The forest and the underlying peatland are a huge carbon bank, but as soon as it is cleared, it begins to release its carbon. As the land dries out, the rate of release increases, and if it's burned, which often happens after it's dried out, then that release rate increases exponentially, Lustgarten explains.

As Lustgarten reported in his story for ProPublica, the clearing of peatland that has already occurred in Indonesia up to this point is equivalent to operating 70 new coal-fired power plants.

“It's a regular source of emissions and it lasts for many months, many years, even a century, depending on the piece of land and the exact habitat,” Lustgarten notes.

Palm oil use for biodiesel is three to five times worse for the climate than burning petroleum diesel.

US and European researchers unanimously agree that palm oil use for biodiesel is much worse for the climate than burning petroleum diesel, Lustgarten says. If there is any debate at all, it’s about how much worse. Those estimates range from three to five times worse.

In addition, there are enormous ecological and biodiversity impacts from palm oil, Lustgarten adds.

Related: Jar wars: The Italian plot to weaken Nutella

“You're taking one of the most robust and diverse natural environments on the planet and replacing it with a monoculture crop that basically displaces everything that used to be there,” he explains. “Then, you're using fertilizer and chemicals to support that crop, and it's really devastating. Many, many species are impacted — among them, famously, is the orangutan, whose habitat is right in the middle of the palm oil plantation areas that we were in, in Borneo. That's the most vivid example of the loss of species.”

Indonesia made carbon reduction commitments under the Paris climate agreements and officials say they're concerned about their climate emissions and about climate change, in general, Lustgarten says. Ironically, however, they are pushing their own biofuel mandates, making themselves their largest customer for palm oil-based biodiesel.

“They argue that this is going to be one of the strategies for meeting their commitments in Paris, and they don't accept measures which say that palm-based biodiesel is worse for the climate and worse for carbon output than just burning petroleum,” Lustgarten explains. “They're on a path that's going to lead in the opposite direction, despite their professed concern for the climate that’s shared with us.”

The risk for the planet is enormous, Lustgarten says. Tropical peatland habitat in Indonesia and other places equals a full 20 percent of all the land-based carbon stock on the planet.

“When you have the United Nations and other institutions warning that we have about a decade left to get control over our global emissions rates of increase, ignoring the one-fifth of planetary supply of carbon in Indonesia is really sort of a perilous game,” he says.

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

British Parliament wants to shut down extremist content online — at what cost?

Dec 14, 2018


The United Kingdom Parliament’s intelligence and security committee published a report last month titled, "The 2017 Attacks: What needs to change?"

The title is a reference to the five major terrorist attacks that took place in London and Manchester last year.

"There has been an enormous growth in the volume of extremist material that can be found online," part of the report reads. "Studies have shown that almost all attack planners between 2012 and 2017 have downloaded, shared or consumed radical and extremist media of some kind."

It has asked some websites to remove content or make them password protected — including one such site in the US called, which was started by Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. (According to the site, is Zelin's personal project and is not associated with the institute.)

Zelin declined to comment for this story, but a description on the site calls it "a clearinghouse for Sunni jihadi primary source material."

He told The Financial Times that in the past two years, he has received multiple requests from the UK government to shut down the site.

Nikita Malik, Director of the Centre on Radicalisation and Terrorism in the UK, says this is part of a wider campaign by the British government to crack down on extremist content online.

"We're looking at a problem that is much bigger than one specific website," she says, "but the Jihadology website is being targeted because it is an archive of ... propaganda material."

Malik says he has no doubt that the material on the site has helped academics in their research. "But from the government's point of view, we don't want to make that too easily accessible to a civilian who might be consuming it for more sinister purposes."

The debate about how to handle extremist material online is nothing new, says Elliot Zweig, deputy director of the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) in Washington, DC.

"For over 10 years now, there's been a contentious debate about whether terrorist content should be allowed to remain unharmed for potential research and intelligence value or whether it should be taken down so as to minimize the harm."

Zweig believes this type of content should be kept under wraps.

"We decided since the beginning that we’re thoroughly and firmly in the camp of advocating not making this content publicly available for the supposed benefit of researchers," he says." If a researcher wishes to study this issue, I believe they have an ethical responsibility first and foremost to not cause further harm."

MEMRI also tracks online extremist content but it doesn't make it publicly accessible. Researchers have to request it and in some cases pay for it. ( only charges for translation services.)

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

But Seamus Hughes, deputy director of the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, thinks online radicalization is much more complicated than watching a few videos online.

"The idea is if you watch an ISIS video, you’re going to become an ISIS supporter ... I am an example of why that doesn’t happen," he explains. "I spend hours a week looking at ISIS propaganda. [Becoming radicalized] is more interactive. You’re talking to recruiters. You’re getting a sense of their ideology. You’re not just doing this one-way intake of propaganda."

Seamus says he uses for his research. And in fact, it was through this site that he was able to identify an ISIS fighter.

"In one case, I had a law enforcement source tell me about an American who was featured in a video beheading soldiers," he says. "And I didn’t have the video because it came out very quickly and it was removed. But because of Jihadology, I was able to weave through all of his filings and figure out that it was Zulfi Hoxha, who was the first known American to be beheading people. And without the video, I wouldn’t have been able to crack the case."

Seamus wrote about Hoxha, the son of an Albanian-American pizza-shop owner from New Jersey, for The Atlantic.

Related: China exports its restrictive internet policies to dozens of countries, says Freedom House

Tabitha Mwangi, a counter-terrorism researcher in Nairobi, Kenya, thinks the conversation needs to change "from 'Do we shut down the website or not?' to "How can we support Aaron [Zelin] and people like him?""

She was just 8 years old when the 1998 twin attacks on the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania took place. "So I grew up knowing about these bunch of bad guys who tried to blow up the building my mom was in."

The bad guys turned out to be members of al-Qaeda, the same group that carried out the 9/11 attacks on the United States, just three years later.

Mwangi became obsessed with al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations and went on to study counter-terrorism in school.

"It’s very difficult to get the information unless you know where to look." 

She uses Jihadology to get information mostly about al-Shabab because that is the group that has affected Kenya the most, but also the Islamic State and others.

If we are serious about understanding these groups and their inner workings, we need to know how they operate, Mwangi says. 

Related: How we can use 'digital fingerprints' to keep terrorist messaging from spreading online

But in the end, Nikita Malik, the UK-based researcher thinks there should be a balance.

"We shouldn’t have a beheading video being advertised on the side of a campaign on Facebook," she says. "These things are common sense. On the other end of the spectrum, we don’t want to end up becoming a country where censorship is too much, like China or some Middle Eastern countries where people feel unable to express their dissent against regimes."

What the Jihadology story comes down to is this: How do we regulate the digital space without compromising freedom of speech and access to information?

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story referred to as a company. It is an independent research project.

The Trump administration continues to undercut its own climate report

Dec 14, 2018


The latest National Climate Assessment, assembled by 13 federal agencies, expressed the most serious warnings yet about the current climate impacts in the US and the likely scenarios in decades to come, yet the administration that created it seems to be doing its utmost to act contrary to its findings.

Since the report’s release, the administration has advocated at the UN climate meetings in Poland for increased use of fossil fuels and announced plans to ease Obama-era rules aimed at limiting carbon emissions from coal-fired power plants.

All 13 federal government agencies that participated in the report are members of the US Global Change Research Program created by Congress in 1990. Many outside experts also contributed and the report was reviewed by the National Academy of Sciences.

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

According to Harvard professor John Holdren, the chief science adviser to President Obama who also oversaw the work behind the 4th Climate Assessment until President Trump came into office, none of the agencies or other participants requested any changes to the report.

“It's to be admired that they elected not to try to change the content,” Holdren says.

And to the surprise of many observers, the White House made no effort to intervene or water down the report’s conclusions. But that may not be the case next time: EPA administrator Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist, has indicated he is not happy with the report and may intervene in the future.

On the flip side, Holdren wonders whether we may be approaching a tipping point at which public concern over the effects of climate change could force policy changes.

There's going to come a tipping point where the public's demand for action is going to become irresistible.

“Each additional report is a weakening of the administration's position and, ultimately, it's going to have to topple,” Holdren says. “There's going to come a tipping point where the public's demand for action is going to become irresistible. I don't know exactly when that tipping point is going to happen. But what we're seeing is report after report, each one more dire than the last, about what climate change is already doing and what it will do.”

Related: This 10-year-old was already suing the government over climate policy. Then climate change really hit home.

What’s more, he says, the report reinforces what people are already experiencing in their own lives: unprecedented wildfires in the West; damaging droughts in the Southwest; record-breaking rains and flooding along the East Coast.

“What people are experiencing and what they're seeing on their TV screens and on their computer screens and on their iPads all are converging to send the message that this is real, it's damaging, and it's going to keep getting worse until we take very serious action to address it,” Holdren says.

Ultimately, he believes, those convergences and the fact that the incentives to act are getting bigger and the remedies are getting cheaper will result in demand from voters for new policies aimed at curbing climate change.

Holdren comes to this issue from a unique place: He wrote his first articles about climate change in 1969.

In 1969, it was already becoming apparent that we were headed in a very dangerous direction. 

“At that time, it was already becoming apparent that we were headed in a very dangerous direction,” he says. “There were many others pointing out early on how dangerous the additions of greenhouse gases, of heat-trapping gases to the atmosphere, would become. Scientists have known about it for a long time. But there has been until recently, very little action.”

Holdren is dismayed to see nearly all of President Obama’s actions on climate change being undone by the current administration.

“Trump is trying to reverse everything Obama put in place about emissions reductions, about adaptation, preparedness and resilience,” Holdren says. “And we are losing time that we cannot afford to lose. ... We’re now so far down the track toward truly disastrous climate change that it's going to take Herculean efforts to avoid catastrophe.”

He sees some cause for optimism in America's Pledge movement: Twenty-two states, hundreds of cities and universities, more than 1,000 businesses and many civil society organizations have joined together to pledge action to meet the commitments the US made in the Paris climate agreement.

Related: UN climate warning: Immediate change needed to preserve 'life as we know it'

Holdren would advise the incoming House Democrats to legislate some changes that will slow the accelerating pace of emissions. He says three major things are needed:

First, a price on carbon that escalates over time; second, a large increase in funds for research and development and demonstration of advanced energy technologies, which will help the US reduce its emissions even more deeply; third, a variety of measures making adaptation, preparedness and resilience mandatory across the government's departments and agencies.

“President Obama issued executive orders that required every department and agency in the federal government to take climate change adaptation, preparedness and resilience into account in every program, every project every budget,” Holdren notes. “Trump has rolled all that back. Congress should put it back again.”

Seventy percent of  Americans agree that climate change is real ... but there is still not the sense of urgency which would compel action.

Holdren would also like Congress to boost efforts at climate change education.

“We need a public that understands more thoroughly how serious this problem is,” he says. “Seventy percent of the Americans agree that climate change is real, it’s caused by humans, it’s damaging [and that] the federal government should do more about it. But there is still not the sense of urgency which would compel action.”

The Obama administration had also begun working with medical schools, nursing schools and schools of public health on the public health impacts of climate change. It worked with the National Park Service to provide materials on how climate change is affecting our national parks.

“We should be doing all that and more to educate the public,” he maintains. "And Congress could insist that that needs to happen.”

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

New Chinese policy is forcing people to think: Is there a better way to recycle?

Dec 14, 2018


For years, the model for global recycling was pretty simple: throw it in a bin, then let China deal with the mess. But no longer. It’s been a year since China got tough with American cans, bottles and paper. And the changes are still reverberating up and down the recycling chain. 

At the Mohawk paper mill in Cohoes, New York, just north of Albany, paper engineer Paul Graver walks past stacks of what look like really soft, white cardboard.

“This would be a soft wood, like pine and spruce,” he says. 

The sheets of fiber are put in a big blender and mixed with hot water. “It's about the consistency of oatmeal,” Graver explains.

After a process of drying, adding starch and various coatings, as well a few other cool tricks, this mill can churn out 150 tons of paper a day. Mohawk produces high-grade stuff for stationary, photo books and marketing materials. But if they’re running a batch using recyclables and there’s just a little bit of contamination in there, it can ruin Graver’s day. 

“All it takes is one sheet of cardboard mixed in with all the white paper, those little brown fibers will be viewed as a contaminant,” Graver says. “And you can't make nice, bright white paper out of stuff that's full of contaminants.”

The papermaking process, in brief

Early in the process, pulp fiber has a consistency and look that’s similar to oatmeal. Here, Paul Graver with Mohawk, holds an example.

Early in the process, pulp fiber has a consistency and look that’s similar to oatmeal. Here, Paul Graver with Mohawk, holds an example.  


Jason Margolis/The World

Further along in the process, water is drained and starch is mixed in with the fiber to give a sheet strength. Fiber comes out of a pressured tank, flowing out like a wet paper towel.

Further along in the process, water is drained and starch is mixed in with the fiber to give a sheet strength. Fiber comes out of a pressured tank, flowing out like a wet paper towel. More water is removed using gravity, vacuum drainage and a variety of presses.


Jason Margolis/The World 

Each working day, the Mohawk mill in Cohoes, New York, produces about 150 tons of paper.

The Mohawk mill in Cohoes, New York, produces about 150 tons of paper each working day. 


Jason Margolis/The World

Mohawk paper engineer Paul Graver examines a new batch of paper looking for impurities.

Mohawk paper engineer Paul Graver looks for impurities in a new batch of paper.


Jason Margolis/The World 

So how do those contaminants get into a batch at Mohawk in the first place? 

It all starts with you and me. The vast majority of us who recycle in the United States throw it all — cans, bottles, paper, whatever — into one bin to be hauled off by a truck. This is called "single stream" recycling. 

“People put things in the bin that can’t really be recycled. The industry has started calling that ‘Wishcycling,’” says Susan Collins, president of the Container Recycling Institute in Southern California. “A quarter of what we put into those recycling bins doesn’t get recycled, either because it was improperly placed in the bin in the first place or because it cross-contaminates other materials in the bin.”

And that’s what China doesn’t want to deal with anymore. (Recycling is sorted at a materials recovery facility, or MRF, before being sent for reprocessing in China — or wherever they're being processed.)

Related: Mountains of US recycling pile up as China restricts imports

But recycling doesn’t have to be so contaminated. Consider paper and pulp engineer Jay Hunsberger’s experience living in Sweden.

“I had had a couple of different bags I would have in the house, and I would put tin and metal, or those types of things in one. I would put colored glass in one and clear glass in another … There was a light bulb one, a battery one,” says Hunsberger, vice president of sales and marketing with Sustana, a Wisconsin-based company that takes in used paper and turns it into pulp fiber.

But c’mon, Hunsberger’s experience in Sweden … that’s Sweden.

“You do it as part of your cycle of errands. I’ll go from here to the post office,” says John Spencer, who piles bags of recycling into his car to haul off to the Massachusetts town of Wellesley’s Recycling & Disposal Facility, roughly 10 miles west of Boston.

Spencer walks with his recycling to stations with poster-sized photos of four types of plastic, six types of paper, metals and other random objects. He’s got a lot of stops to make.

“Today, I’m doing one, two, three, four,” he says counting his bags. Eventually, he gets to 12. “I’m coming back to do 13 total.”

Even though it’s literally a dump, Wellesley’s operation is clean and well organized. But isn’t doing all of this a huge pain in the you-know-what?

“Oh, I love doing it. It’s what you should do,” says Spencer. “It’s the right thing to do, and people take pleasure where they can.”

Whatever floats your boat.

Still, Chris Wood, who was dropping off her cans and bottles, disagrees: “No, it’s a pain, it’s a pain.”

But Wood does it because she believes that Wellesley’s system is better for the environment. Also, she doesn’t have to pay taxes for curbside recycling, the town doesn’t have to pay extra money for the disposal of contaminated recycling that goes to landfill, and Wellesley makes decent money off of its paper, cans, and bottles because they’re significantly cleaner than single stream recycling.

“In any given year, we’re averaging about $400,000 for the sale of recyclable product,” says Jeff Azano-Brown, superintendent of the Wellesley Recycling & Disposal Facility.

Nationwide, contamination rates for single-stream recycling are alarmingly high — perhaps as high 33 percent by some estimates. In Wellesley, contamination rates for most types of recycling begin at about 5 percent. The downside of the system used in Wellesley or Sweden: single stream recycling makes things so easy that recycling rates typically run higher. 

The recycling center in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has large posters guiding residents were to deposit their items.

The recycling center in Wellesley, Massachusetts, has large posters guiding residents where to deposit their items.


Jason Margolis/The World

Wellesley is a small, affluent suburb that began recycling way back in the early 1970s. It’s fair to say, it’s an outlier. Still, even Wellesley’s pristine recycling stream isn’t clean enough for China’s new standard: 0.5 percent contamination. (Technically, Wellesley could get contamination rates that low, but investing in extra machinery, time and manpower wouldn't currently be worth the cost.) The new Chinese policy is named “National Sword.”

“Since National Sword, we haven't been moving material to China,” says Azano-Brown. But the town has plenty of other willing buyers like Indonesia, Malaysia, Canada and New York.

Good for Wellesley. But having a backup plan after China isn’t an option for a lot of municipalities.

“Nobody wants contaminated materials. They can’t use contaminated material to make a fine product,” says Susan Collins of the Container Recycling Institute. “If you have really, really clean recyclables that your community is producing, you’re going to be the first choice for the buyers.”

So as bales of cans, bottles, and papers pile up, China’s get-tough-policies are forcing communities across the globe — from California to Australia to Europe — to rethink recycling.  

Related: As China gets tough on recycling, will America get cleaner?

The company Sustana is trying to raise the bar even higher, working with companies like Starbucks to employ what’s called a “closed loop” system.

Jay Hunsberger says in an ideal world, we’d buy a cup of coffee, “and then the consumers take that cup and throw it back in a bin before they leave, or [recycle it] somewhere else. That then gets collected, shipped back to us.”

Cleaner recycling won’t just take improved logistics though — it will take a major mental shift. For decades, we’ve been taught that recycling is a money loser, but we do it for the environment.

But the Swedes and residents of Wellesley can show us something: If cardboard, cans and bottles are treated like real commodities and not just trash, that can be worth some real money.

US a wild card as climate negotiators race to meet Friday deadline

Dec 13, 2018


It’s crunch time at the global climate conference in Katowice, Poland, and in the hallways and conference rooms, among sleep-deprived delegates and activists, there’s a palpable worry.

The deadline for this year’s climate summit is tomorrow, and negotiators still haven’t resolved many of the most important issues. That’s led to concern that the summit could fail to deliver, not only on what was promised in Paris three years ago, but the greater commitments that most here say is needed now, as the dangerous realities of climate change become more clear.

It’s a concern that’s shared at the highest levels. UN Secretary General António Guterres flew in to Katowice on Wednesday to deliver what he called “a dramatic appeal” — to tell the countries gathered here that they are running out of time.

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

“To waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last, best chance to stop runaway climate change,” Guterres told delegates. “It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.”


 Journalists crane to get a view as protesters turned the US event Monday into pandemonium. 


Rachel Waldholz/The World 

Negotiators here have a daunting task. Three years ago, in Paris, nearly every country on Earth agreed to slash carbon pollution with the goal of limiting global warming to no more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. That’s about 1 degree beyond where we already are.

But they left the details of how to do that to be worked out later. That’s what this meeting is supposed to deliver: the Paris “rule book,” including decisions on how countries must calculate greenhouse gas emissions and how much money rich countries will devote to developing countries to help cope with climate change.

Since the Paris Agreement was signed, the stakes have only gotten higher. Scientists say there are clear signs that climate change is already making storms, floods, fires and droughts worse. A new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, concluded that warming must be limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst impacts — like the loss of nearly all the world’s coral reefs, species extinction and rapid sea level rise.

Related: Smothered by smog, activists are urging Poland to reconsider coal

That means the world must not only meet its Paris commitments — which most countries are not on track to do — but also raise those pledges significantly.

So far, negotiators have not mustered the will to do that.

Wells Griffith

White House energy and environment adviser Wells Griffith hosted the only official US event of the conference: a panel touting new technologies in coal, gas and nuclear power.


Rachel Waldholz/The World 

One wild card in the discussions is the US. President Donald Trump has promised to pull the US out of the Paris Agreement as soon as he can, in November 2020.

But until then, the US is still at the negotiating table — even as Trump administration officials criticize the process.

“The president has made it clear that under his leadership, the United States will not subject its citizens to agreements that hamstring our economic growth, prosperity or national security,” White House energy adviser Wells Griffith told participants earlier this week.

Griffith hosted the only official US event at the conference, which was devoted to innovations in coal, gas and nuclear power. He made it clear that the US is opposed to any limits on the use of fossil fuels, and played down the threat of climate change.

“Alarmism should not silence realism,” Griffith said.

Many here think it’s the US that’s refusing to face reality. American negotiators antagonized many countries when they joined forces with Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait to block the conference from “welcoming” the IPCC’s report, insisting instead that the conference merely “take note.” The position was read as a refusal to accept the report’s findings.

The Trump administration has also refused to pay what the US already promised to help poorer nations respond to the climate crisis. That has infuriated developing countries who say that the US, as the largest historical emitter, bears much of the responsibility for global warming while they will bear many of the consequences.

On Tuesday, Ralph Regenvanu, the foreign minister of the Pacific island nation of Vanuatu, said publicly what many people here are saying privately: The Americans are blocking progress. Negotiators for the US and other rich countries will be condemned by history, he said.

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

“Whether you welcome, or note, or shamelessly ignore the science altogether, the fact remains that this is catastrophic for humanity,” Regenvanu said. “Party negotiators blocking meaningful progress should have much on their conscience.”


A sign in the entrance to the COP24 climate conference attracts the Instagram crowd.


Rachel Waldholz/The World 

It’s impossible to say yet what the American impact on the final outcome here will be. Past negotiators say that discussions often kick into high gear only in the very last days. But observers say perhaps even more important than what the US is doing is what it’s not doing: providing leadership.

“I don’t think there’s really any substitute for the US when it comes to its ability to pull the world together and be a counterpart for China,” said Sue Biniaz, who helped draft the Paris Agreement and was a State Department climate lawyer for decades until she left last year.

Biniaz says the Paris Agreement was only possible because the US and China — the world’s two largest emitters — came to an agreement ahead of time, and the American government under former President Barack Obama put its full weight behind the push for an accord. She says there’s no equivalent leadership this time around. That’s especially true as major European players, like France, Germany and the UK are distracted by politics at home.

“Others can step in in various ways, but I don’t think the sum of the parts are as big as the whole of the role that the US used to play,” Biniaz said.

But despite the public statements and actions of the American delegation, many say that things are somewhat different behind the scenes.

Biniaz says many of the negotiators are actually the same career officials who worked on the Paris deal under the Obama administration — and in many cases, they are pursuing the same goals, including one global standard for reporting and tracking emissions.

“My perception would be that the US delegation is conducting itself in a workmanlike way, no more or less than any other negotiating team,” Biniaz said. “In that regard, it’s kind of like business as usual.”

But for many delegates here, anything short of a breakthrough is unacceptable.

Mohammad Nasheed is the former president of the Maldives, an island nation in the Indian Ocean. In a passionate address today, he reminded the audience that for his country, the stakes are existential.

“We are not prepared to die,” he said. “The Maldives has no intention of dying. We are not going to become the first victims of the climate crisis. Instead, we are going to do everything in our power to keep our heads above water.”

Nasheed was a star of the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit in 2009. Though the Paris Agreement raised his hopes over the last decade, he says not much has really changed.

“Carbon emission keeps rising and rising and rising, and all we seem to be doing is talking and talking and talking,” Nasheed said.

Still, he said, it’s not too late to avoid catastrophic warming.

“We can still do it,” Nasheed said. And “every country at this summit will have hell to pay if we don’t.”

Crackdown in Beijing: ‘Using Twitter is more dangerous than street demonstrations’

Dec 12, 2018


Authorities in Beijing have launched a nationwide crackdown on mainland Chinese Twitter users.

The Dec. 5 release of 42 testimonies collected by China Change, a Chinese human rights advocacy site, details the ordeals of hundreds of Twitter users who have been detained and interrogated by national security police officers since September 2018. In most cases, police have asked — if not forced — these users to delete their posts or accounts.

Although Twitter is blocked in mainland China, many netizens use circumvention tools, such as VPNs (virtual private networks) to visit the social media platform, get in touch with friends or access uncensored information and news.

In 2016, there were an estimated 10 million Twitter users in mainland China. A majority of the users used the site as a news-gathering tool, and refrained from making comments — but some were outspoken, actively making critical comments when retweeting news to their friends.

Mainland Chinese authorities have arrested Twitter users in the past, but there was no clear pattern or evidence of a strategic crackdown. Incidents were sporadic and random, like the 2012 arrest of a mainland Chinese Twitter user who made a joke about the collapse of the Great Hall of the People's Congress.

The current crackdown is a new and more worrisome development. It is happening nationwide and is not restricted to a specific online incident or act. The number of Twitter users who have been directly threatened is estimated to be in the hundreds or even more.

Related: For Hong Kong dissidents challenging China, ‘it feels like 1984’

According to a report from Radio Free Asia, cybersecurity authorities have detained and interrogated dissenting Twitter users from all over China including Beijing, Chongqing, Guangdong, Shandong, Fujiang, Hubei and other provinces. Some have been placed on administrative detention for 10 days. One user who refused to cooperate with cybersecurity officers was arrested and may soon face prosecution.

There is no official information about the Twitter crackdown. But the documentation efforts of China Change have allowed us to read testimonies of arrested Twitter users and their friends, providing an overview of the latest social media crackdown in the country.

Crackdown on ‘political rumors’

Twitter user @Xybaiyun2018 was arrested by some 30 domestic security officers on October 31. He was then beaten and detained for 10 days. The police found his Twitter password and deleted all of his content. During the interrogation, the police officers said that reposting of “political rumors” was illegal. They emphasized @Xybaiyun2018's retweeting of posts by Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire accused of corruption, who fled to the United States in 2014 and is known for tweeting allegations of corruption within the Chinese Communist party.

@Xybaiyun2018 asserted that all his tweets had not violated China's anti-rumor law, which dictates that any message containing a “rumor” and shared more than 500 times can be subject to prosecution. The law says that any piece of information that does not come from official government channels can be considered a rumor.

The blogger has long tweeted anonymously using his mobile phone. He believes that the police identified him by way of mobile surveillance technology.

Related: In autocratic China, leakers beware

‘Using Twitter is more dangerous than street demonstration’

The Twitter crackdown covers not only recent posts and events by users. According to @asn_213, police were able to trace the online activities of dissenting Twitter users over the past five years:

They printed all the stuff from 5-6 years ago regarding the same-city meal gatherings [part of the New Citizens Movement], and they also printed all of my tweets and retweets. They said these were evidence of my criminal activities. At 10 p.m., their political officer interrogated me again, giving me a notice for 15-day administrative detention. It describes me as defaming the national leaders and attacking the current political system on Twitter.

Another Twitter user @419041838 disclosed to his friend that he was arrested, interrogated and threatened and that several thousands of his tweets were deleted. The whole process was videotaped. He said in a chatroom:

You guys still don’t get it: using Twitter is very dangerous, more dangerous than street demonstrations.

Since Twitter is not accessible in China, it does not have much capacity to affect domestic politics. This makes it difficult to see why authorities are pursuing such a crackdown. Sources from the Chinese Human Rights website Weiquan Wang said that the crackdown may have been precipitated by the second plenary session of the 19th CPC Central Committee at the end of November 2018.

Perhaps cybersecurity authorities wanted to make sure that no dissenting voices would undermine Xi Jinping’s public image in or outside of China.

While the aim of the crackdown cannot be validated, Chinese authorities have demonstrated that they can identify and locate dissenting Twitter users inside China. It indicates that Chinese cybersecurity agencies’ capabilities now allow them to extend their surveillance power and threaten users of overseas social media platforms like Twitter, but also other major players such as Facebook, Instagram, and or mobile messaging tools like LINE and WhatsApp.

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

Several made-in-China apps such as WeChat, Weibo and Alipay, which all have a reputation of disrespecting the privacy of their users, now have an increasing presence outside of China. Some are worried that this could enable Chinese cybersecurity authorities to extend their reach and threaten overseas Chinese communities.

The recent cancellation of an art exhibit by Australia-based Chinese political cartoonist Badiucao in Hong Kong last month and the suspension of his activities on Twitter have shown that such developments may portend more ominous acts of repression.

Oiwan Lam is a contributor with Global Voices.

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

Cockroaches corralled by the millions in China to crunch waste

Dec 12, 2018


In the near pitch-dark, you can hear them before you see them — millions of cockroaches scuttling and fluttering across stacks of wooden boards as they devour food scraps by the tonne in a novel form of urban waste disposal. 

The air is warm and humid — just as cockroaches like it — to ensure the colonies keep their health and voracious appetites. 

Expanding Chinese cities are generating more food waste than they can accommodate in landfills and cockroaches could be a way to get rid of hills of food scraps, providing nutritious food for livestock when the bugs eventually die and, some say, cures for stomach illness and beauty treatments. 

On the outskirts of Jinan, capital of eastern Shandong province, a billion cockroaches are being fed with 50 tons of kitchen waste a day — the equivalent in weight to seven adult elephants. 

The waste arrives before daybreak at the plant run by Shandong Qiaobin Agricultural Technology Co, where it is fed through pipes to cockroaches in their cells. 

Shandong Qiaobin plans to set up three more such plants next year, aiming to process a third of the kitchen waste produced by Jinan, home to about 7 million people. 

A nationwide ban on using food waste as pig feed due to African swine fever outbreaks is also spurring the growth of the cockroach industry.

"Cockroaches are a bio-technological pathway for the converting and processing of kitchen waste," said Liu Yusheng, president of Shandong Insect Industry Association. 

Cockroaches are also a good source of protein for pigs and other livestock. "It's like turning trash into resources," said Shandong Qiaobin chairwoman Li Hongyi. 

"Essence of cockroach"

In a remote village in Sichuan, Li Bingcai, 47, has similar ideas. 

Li, formerly a mobile phone vendor, has invested a million yuan ($146,300) in cockroaches, which he sells to pig farms and fisheries as feed and to drug companies as medicinal ingredients.  

His farm now has 3.4 million cockroaches. 

A man holds a cockroach home as several bugs drop onto the floor. There are more homes on shelves.

Li Bingcai shows cockroaches at his farm in a village in Changning county, Sichuan province, China, on Aug. 11, 2018.


Thomas Suen/Reuters

"People think it's strange that I do this kind of business," Li said. "It has great economic value and my goal is to lead other villagers to prosperity if they follow my lead."

His village has two farms. Li's goal is to create 20. 

Elsewhere in Sichuan, a company called Gooddoctor is rearing 6 billion cockroaches. 

"The essence of cockroach is good for curing oral and peptic ulcers, skin wounds and even stomach cancer," said Wen Jianguo, manager of Gooddoctor's cockroach facility. 

Researchers are also looking into using cockroach extract in beauty masks, diet pills and even hair-loss treatments. 

At Gooddoctor, when cockroaches reach the end of their lifespan of about six months, they are blasted by steam, washed and dried, before being sent to a huge nutrient extraction tank. 

A man in a white uniform walks past two large stainless steel vessels.

A staff member walks among tanks that extract essence from cockroaches at a facility operated by pharmaceutical company Gooddoctor in Xichang, Sichuan province, China, on Aug. 10, 2018.


Thomas Suen/Reuters

Asked about the chance of the cockroaches escaping, Wen said that would be worthy of a disaster movie but that he has taken precautions. 

"We have a moat filled with water and fish," he said. "If the cockroaches escape, they will fall into the moat and the fish will eat them all."

Five reasons why 2018 was a big year for paleontology

Dec 12, 2018


A lot happened in the world of paleontology in 2018. Some of the big events included some major fossil finds, a new understanding of our reptile ancestors and a major controversy whose outcome could rewrite human history. The Conversation Africa asked Julien Benoit to discuss five important moments in paleontology you may have missed during 2018, and what they mean — particularly for Africa and its place in the story of human origins.

1. A contested thigh bone

The year started with a bang. In January Roberto Macchiarelli, a professor of human paleontology, accused his colleague Michel Brunet of totally misrepresenting an important piece of evidence in the story of human evolution. The evidence in question is a femur — a thigh bone found in northern Chad in 2001. Macchiarelli believes that the femur belonged to Toumaï (Sahelanthropus tchadensis), a species which his opponent argues is the earliest known example of a human ancestor, dating back around 7 million years.

But Macchiarelli insists the femur belonged to a quadrupedal ape, not a bipedal hominin. It’s an important distinction. Before the discovery of Toumaï, it had long been believed that humankind originated in Eastern Africa. Toumaï solidly roots the human family tree on the western side of the continent. But if it turns out not to be a hominin, evolutionary history shifts once more.

2. Out of Africa

Homo sapiens originated from a single, common ancestor that lived in Africa 300,000 years ago. Then, between 100,000 and 80,000 years ago, Homo sapiens left the continent and began to spread out across the world.

Our African origins have been demonstrated countless times by genetic analyses and fossil evidence.

But what’s known as the multiregional model has persisted. Its proponents suggest that modern humans don’t have a single origin. Instead, we evolved independently of each other from different pre-human populations. Asians originated from the Asian Homo erectus, Europeans from the neanderthal man, and Africans from the African Homo heidelbergensis.

It’s a theory ripe with racist undertones and has enjoyed decreasing support in the past few decades.

Those who backed the model pointed out that modern Asian populations and Asian Homo erectus all had unique shovel-like incisors. This was considered a sign of common ancestry.

In April, the final nail was hammered into the theory’s coffin. Genetic analysis showed that this trait of the incisors was merely a side effect of adaptation to a cold environment.

The gene that controls for the shovel-like incisors also coincidentally decreases the number of sweat glands and enriches mothers’ milk with fat. These two features can be crucial for survival during an Ice Age.

Because of the genetic connection between these traits, Homo erectus and Asian modern humans would have incidentally evolved similar incisors by evolving these adaptations against cold in a parallel manner. This means the shovel-like incisors were not inherited by Asian Homo sapiens from a Homo erectus ancestor: they were acquired because of the cold environment.

It’s yet more proof that humankind’s family tree is solidly rooted in Africa.

3. A seriously big dinosaur

We’ve long known that gigantic dinosaurs roamed ancient African landscapes. The Paralititan, from Egypt, weighed around 60 tons. Brachiosaurus, from Tanzania, was among the tallest dinosaurs that ever lived; another Tanzanian specimen, Diplodocus, was among the longest.

The meat-eating Spinosaurus, found in Niger and North Africa, was even bigger than its iconic North American cousin Tyrannosaurus rex.

But when and where did gigantism among dinosaurs first evolve? Ledumahadi mafube, from South Africa, sheds new light on this question. The 200 million-year-old dinosaur weighed around 12 tons, making it the earliest dinosaur to pass beyond the 10 ton threshold. Later, dinosaurs would become even bigger. But in its time, Ledumahadi mafube was a giant among dwarfs.

4. Reimagining reptiles

Mammals evolved from an unexpected source: reptiles, and specifically a group of “mammal-like reptiles” called the cynodonts.

One of the biggest differences between mammals and reptiles today is their reproductive biology. Most reptiles lay eggs and show little to no parental care, whereas most mammals give live birth to younglings and provide them with extensive parental care.

We haven’t known whether cynodonts were more like mammals or reptiles in this respect — until 2018. Scientists in the US studied the fossil remains of an adult cynodont dating back 190 million years, and found preserved with the skeletons of 38 babies.

That’s a huge clutch size; one that’s never encountered in mammals but is typically found among some reptiles that lay eggs. The scientists also argue that it’s unlikely that the adult mother cynodont could have produced enough milk or provided enough parental care to raise so many babies.

This suggests that cynodonts must have had a reptilian reproductive biology, and helps us to understand these important human ancestors a little better. It also means that South Africa’s extensive fossil record, which has so far been interpreted to propose that cynodonts cared for their young, might need a complete reinterpretation.

5. A four-legged find

In June, it was announced that two species of fossil amphibians new to science had been found in South Africa.

The two represent the oldest evidence of four legged land-dwelling animals, called tetrapods, on the African continent: a missing link between fish, amphibians and reptiles. Historically, the search for tetrapod ancestry overlooked Africa. This puts the continent on the map when it comes to seeking evidence for how the transition of life from sea to land occurred.The Conversation

Julien Benoit, Postdoc in Vertebrate Paleontology, University of the Witwatersrand

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

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.   


Judge halts Keystone XL pipeline, citing ‘complete disregard’ for climate

Dec 2, 2018 10:16


A  year and a half after President Donald Trump reversed an Obama administration decision to block TransCanada’s Keystone XL pipeline, a federal district judge in Montana has halted the project again, citing an insufficient review of the project's environmental impact. 

In his ruling, Judge Brian Morris said “the Trump administration completely disregarded the climate effects of building the Keystone pipeline,” according to Vermont law professor Pat Parenteau.

“The Trump administration dismissed, with barely a paragraph in the decision document they issued, the whole idea that the pipeline would be contributing to climate change and the judge said that's not good enough,” Parenteau explains. “[He said], ‘You really do have to take into account the growing body of science that we all know and you have to explain why it makes sense, given that, to authorize yet another major piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that will take 40 years to pay off.’”

Morris is a former justice on the Montana Supreme Court and is considered a “very moderate judge,” Parenteau adds. “He’s hardly a radical environmentalist. There are some judges on the federal bench who are more pro-environment ..., but Judge Morris isn’t in that same category.”

The oil market has changed drastically since TransCanada first proposed Keystone XL, so, in some respects, Parenteau notes, the ruling could provide the company with a reason to put off the project or cancel it completely.

Related: The Keystone XL pipeline gets a victory, but with a question mark

“If it's true that the market for this oil has gotten really weak, you kind of wonder if maybe they aren't doing TransCanada a favor by giving them a chance to rethink whether it makes sense to continue with this, at least at this point in time,” Parenteau says. “It’s interesting that we haven't heard a huge outcry yet.”

During the pipeline's initial review process, the US State Department, which made the final decision on the pipeline, concluded that with oil prices so high, approval of the pipeline would not affect climate change one way or the other because the crude oil would have reached the market with or without it.

Now that oil prices have declined significantly and don’t seem to be rebounding, some oil marketers and economists believe that, without the pipeline, the heavy crude from Canada won’t reach the markets — which means that approval of the pipeline would now contribute to climate change.

Along with changing economics and the project's effect on climate change, the plaintiffs and the judge cited other issues, such as the risk of spills and damage to cultural resources.

“The Indigenous Rights Network is concerned because these pipelines run through a lot of what we call ‘Indian country,’ where native people have a large number of burial sites, archaeological resources and cultural resources,” Parenteau explains. “And, as with the Dakota Access Pipeline case, the tribes are insisting on greater respect, a higher level of security, and a higher level of maintenance and monitoring on these pipelines. … They’re pushing hard for much tighter regulation of the pipelines than we've seen, historically.”

Related: Native American tribes unite to fight the Keystone pipeline and government 'disrespect'

A supplemental Environmental Impact Statement typically takes about a year, including time for public comment, Parenteau notes. If he had to make a guess, he would say that the project ultimately will not go forward.

“We've been dealing with this issue for eight years or more and it feels to me — and it’s just a feeling — that history is against this pipeline,” he says. “It feels to me like this is a turning point. We'll see.”

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

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

The logo for the Podcast Threshold

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 current