Trees have their own songs

Ed Yong writes: Just as birders can identify birds by their melodious calls, David George Haskell can distinguish trees by their sounds. The task is especially easy when it rains, as it so often does in the Ecuadorian rainforest. Depending on the shapes and sizes of their leaves, the different plants react to falling drops by producing “a splatter of metallic sparks” or “a low, clean, woody thump” or “a speed-typist’s clatter.” Every species has its own song. Train your ears (and abandon the distracting echoes of a plastic rain jacket) and you can carry out a botanical census through sound alone.

“I’ve taught ornithology to students for many years,” says Haskell, a natural history writer and professor of biology at Sewanee. “And I challenge my students: Okay, now that you’ve learned the songs of 100 birds, your task is to learn the sounds of 20 trees. Can you tell an oak from a maple by ear? I have them go out, pour their attention into their ears, and harvest sounds. It’s an almost meditative experience. And from that, you realize that trees sound different, and they have amazing sounds coming from them. Our unaided ears can hear how a maple tree changes its voice as a soft leaves of early spring change into the dying one of autumn.”

This acoustic world is open to everyone, but most of us never enter it. It just seems so counter-intuitive—not to mention a little hokey—to listen to trees. But Haskell does listen, and he describes his experiences with sensuous prose in his enchanting new book The Songs of Trees. A kind of naturalist-poet, Haskell makes a habit of returning to the same places and paying “repeated sensory attention” to them. “I like to sit down and listen, and turn off the apps that come pre-installed in my body,” he says. Humans may be a visual species, but “sounds reveals things that are hidden from our eyes because the vibratory energy of the world comes around barriers and through the ground. Through sound, we come to know the place.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s assault on the Antiquities Act signals trouble for national parks and monuments

Adam Markham writes: Without the Antiquities Act, now under attack by the Trump administration as part of its strategy to roll-back environmental protections and open public lands to increased exploitation for coal, oil and minerals, we might never have had the benefit of the Grand Canyon, Olympic or Acadia national parks.

The Antiquities Act of 1906 gives the president of the United States the power to designate lands and waters for permanent protection. Almost every president since Teddy Roosevelt has used the Act to place extraordinary archaeological, historic and natural sites under protection and out of reach of commercial exploitation.

Many sites originally designated as national monuments were later upgraded by Congress to become national parks, including Bryce Canyon, Saguaro and Death Valley. In many cases in the past, the Antiquities Act allowed presidents to protect vital natural and cultural resources when congressional leaders, often compromised by their ties to special interests representing coal, oil, timber and mining industries, were reluctant or unwilling to act.

A new Executive Order signed by President Trump on April 26th, 2017 puts this important regulatory tool for conservation and historic preservation at risk. The clear intention of the Executive Order is to lay the groundwork for shrinking national monuments or rescinding their designation entirely, in order to open currently protected public lands for untrammeled growth in coal, oil and minerals extraction. [Continue reading…]

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Scientists keep increasing their projections for how much the oceans will rise this century

The Washington Post reports: A report by a leading research body monitoring the Arctic has found that previous projections of global sea level rise for the end of the century could be too low, thanks in part to the pace of ice loss of Arctic glaciers and the vast ice sheet of Greenland.

It’s just the latest in a string of cases in which scientists have published numbers that suggest a grimmer picture than the one presented in 2013 by an influential United Nations body, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new Snow, Water, Ice and Permafrost in the Arctic report presents minimum estimates for global sea level rise by the end of the century, but not a maximum. This reflects the fact that scientists keep uncovering new insights that force them to increase their sea level estimates further, said William Colgan, a glaciologist with the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland, who contributed to the sea level rise section.

“Because of emerging processes, especially related to the Greenland ice sheet and the Antarctic ice sheet, it now looks like the uncertainties are all biased positive,” Colgan said.

The assessment found that under a relatively moderate global warming scenario — one that slightly exceeds the temperature targets contained in the Paris climate agreement — seas could be expected to rise “at least” 52 centimeters, or 1.7 feet, by the year 2100. Under a more extreme, “business as usual” warming scenario, meanwhile, the minimum rise would be 74 centimeters, or 2.43 feet. [Continue reading…]

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For the first time on record, human-caused climate change has rerouted an entire river

The Washington Post reports: A team of scientists on Monday documented what they’re describing as the first case of large-scale river reorganization as a result of human-caused climate change.

They found that in mid-2016, the retreat of a very large glacier in Canada’s Yukon territory led to the rerouting of its vast stream of meltwater from one river system to another — cutting down flow to the Yukon’s largest lake, and channeling freshwater to the Pacific Ocean south of Alaska, rather than to the Bering Sea.

The researchers dubbed the reorganization an act of “rapid river piracy,” saying that such events had often occurred in the Earth’s geologic past, but never before, to their knowledge, as a sudden present-day event. They also called it “geologically instantaneous.”

“The river wasn’t what we had seen a few years ago. It was a faded version of its former self,” lead study author Daniel Shugar of the University of Washington at Tacoma said of the Slims River, which lost much of its flow because of the glacial change. “It was barely flowing at all. Literally, every day, we could see the water level dropping, we could see sandbars popping out in the river.” [Continue reading…]

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Trump’s words could jeopardize his environmental rollbacks, too

Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump’s words may come back to haunt him in court as he moves to roll back regulations that fight climate change, just as they did when he tried to ban travel from six predominantly Muslim countries.

Environmentalists are scrutinizing Trump’s tweets and the phrasing of presidential orders, looking for evidence that an action is driven by politics or that a review of regulations is being carried out with a specific outcome in mind. That could be used in a lawsuit to argue that the process is a sham and violates federal law governing rulemaking.

“If there’s anything that suggests that it’s a politically motivated decision instead of a rationally based decision, that’s always something we put before the court,” said Abigail Dillen, vice president of litigation for climate and energy at Earthjustice. “Explosive statements” in a White House order “can and will be used against them,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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California upholds auto emissions standards, setting up face-off with Trump

The New York Times reports: California’s clean-air agency voted on Friday to push ahead with stricter emissions standards for cars and trucks, setting up a potential legal battle with the Trump administration over the state’s plan to reduce planet-warming gases.

The vote, by the California Air Resources Board, is the boldest indication yet of California’s plan to stand up to President Trump’s agenda. Leading politicians in the state, from the governor down to many mayors, have promised to lead the resistance to Mr. Trump’s policies.

Mr. Trump, backing industry over environmental concerns, said easing emissions rules would help stimulate auto manufacturing. He vowed last week to loosen the regulations. Automakers are aggressively pursuing those changes after years of supporting stricter standards.

But California can write its own standards because of a longstanding waiver granted under the Clean Air Act, giving the state — the country’s biggest auto market — major sway over the auto industry. Twelve other states, including New York and Pennsylvania, as well as Washington, D.C., follow California’s standards, a coalition that covers more than 130 million residents and more than a third of the vehicle market in the United States.

“All of the evidence — call it science, call it economics — shows that if anything, these standards should be even more aggressive,” said the board member Daniel Sperling, a transportation expert at the University of California, Davis. [Continue reading…]

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The hidden risks of Trump’s EPA cuts: Birth defects, bad air

Bloomberg reports: President Donald Trump pledged during the 2016 campaign that he would only “leave a little bit” of federal rules that protect human health and the environment. Now about 50 former officials of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are firing back in a lengthy analysis that details, program by program, what amounts to a starvation diet for the EPA.

Calling themselves the Environmental Protection Network, they worked through both Republican and Democratic administrations. The group’s members are putting aside their differences over policies and programs to stop what they say “appears to be nothing less than a full-throttle attack on the principle underlying all U.S. environmental laws—that protecting the health and environment of all Americans is a national priority.”

Even before formally registering as a nonprofit organization, the network has put together a 50-page analysis of the president’s proposed EPA budget, based partly on the White House’s fiscal 2018 budget blueprint. The blueprint, released on March 16, sketched out top-line cuts of 31 percent of the agency’s budget and 21 percent of its staff. The new administration’s targeting of the agency requires an independent, expert assessment of what’s happening there, the group says. [Continue reading…]

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U.S., in reversal, issues permit for Keystone oil pipeline

The New York Times reports: During his presidential campaign, Donald J. Trump repeatedly hailed the Keystone XL pipeline as a vital jobs program and one that sharply contrasted his vision for the economy with that of Hillary Clinton.

“Today we begin to make things right,” President Trump said Friday morning shortly after the State Department granted the pipeline giant TransCanada a permit for Keystone construction, a reversal of Obama administration policy.

The pipeline would link oil producers in Canada and North Dakota with refiners and export terminals on the Gulf Coast. It has long been an object of contention, with environmentalists saying it would contribute to climate change and the project’s proponents — Republicans, some labor unions and the oil industry — contending that it would help guarantee national energy security for decades to come.

When President Barack Obama rejected the project in late 2015, he said it would undermine American leadership in curbing reliance on carbon fuels. [Continue reading…]

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Trump expected to pick coal lobbyist as EPA deputy

Politico reports: President Donald Trump is expected to tap Andrew Wheeler, a coal lobbyist and former aide to Sen. Jim Inhofe, to be deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, sources familiar with the hiring process told POLITICO.

Sources cautioned that the decision has not yet been finalized, but they said Wheeler is expected to get the job. It’s unclear when Trump will make the announcement, but one source said it could be weeks before Wheeler is officially tapped.

Wheeler worked as an EPA staffer earlier in his career. He later joined Inhofe’s Senate office and then spent more than a decade as a Republican staffer on the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, where he worked on several major pieces of legislation, including the 2005 and 2007 energy bills.

He has worked at the law firm Faegre Baker Daniels since 2009. He now co-leads the firm’s energy and natural resources practice.

Wheeler is a registered lobbyist for Murray Energy, the nation’s largest privately owned coal company, which regularly filed lawsuits against the Obama administration over its environmental regulations.

As a lobbyist, Wheeler may need to obtain a waiver to serve at the EPA.

Trump signed an executive order in January that bars registered lobbyists from participating in “any particular matter” on which they lobbied in the past two years. Those lobbying restrictions last for two years from the time the person joins the administration. [Continue reading…]

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Even deeper cuts being discussed for EPA

Axios reports: The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t fighting the White House’s initial budget that proposes to cut the agency’s budget by about $2 billion — or roughly 25% — and reduce the agency’s workforce by roughly 3,000 employees.

Climate change programs would be gutted under the proposal and the workforce attached to these programs would be cleared out of the agency — in line with the aggressive vision of EPA transition head Myron Ebell.

The Trump Administration, in fact, is now discussing making even deeper cuts to the EPA, according to a source privy to the White House’s internal deliberations. Senior Trump officials consider the EPA the leading edge of the administration’s plans to deconstruct the administrative state. [Continue reading…]

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By 2030, half the world’s oceans could be reeling from climate change, scientists say

The Washington Post reports: More than half the world’s oceans could suffer multiple symptoms of climate change over the next 15 years, including rising temperatures, acidification, lower oxygen levels and decreasing food supplies, new research suggests. By midcentury, without significant efforts to reduce warming, more than 80 percent could be ailing — and the fragile Arctic, already among the most rapidly warming parts of the planet, may be one of the regions most severely hit.

The study, published Tuesday in the journal Nature Communications uses computer models to examine how oceans would fare over the next century under a business-as-usual trajectory and a more moderate scenario in which the mitigation efforts promised under the Paris Agreement come into effect. In both scenarios, large swaths of the ocean will be altered by climate change.

Nearly all of the open sea is acidifying because of greenhouse gas emissions. But the researchers found that cutting greenhouse gas emissions could significantly delay future changes, giving marine organisms more time to migrate or adapt. [Continue reading…]

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EPA head stacks agency with climate change skeptics; science office removes ‘science’ from its mission statement

The New York Times reports: Days after the Senate confirmed him as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt appeared at the Conservative Political Action Conference and was asked about addressing a group that probably wanted to eliminate his agency.

“I think it’s justified,” he responded, to cheers. “I think people across the country look at the E.P.A. the way they look at the I.R.S.”

In the days since, Mr. Pruitt, a former Oklahoma attorney general who built a career out of suing the agency he now leads, has moved to stock the top offices of the agency with like-minded conservatives — many of them skeptics of climate change and all of them intent on rolling back environmental regulations that they see as overly intrusive and harmful to business.

Mr. Pruitt has drawn heavily from the staff of his friend and fellow Oklahoma Republican, Senator James Inhofe, long known as Congress’s most prominent skeptic of climate science. A former Inhofe chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, will be Mr. Pruitt’s chief of staff. Another former Inhofe staff member, Byron Brown, will serve as Mr. Jackson’s deputy. Andrew Wheeler, a fossil fuel lobbyist and a former Inhofe chief of staff, is a finalist to be Mr. Pruitt’s deputy, although he requires confirmation to the position by the Senate. [Continue reading…]

The New Republic reports: When President Donald Trump took office in late January, his administration began tweaking the language on government websites. Some of the more prominent changes occurred on Environmental Protection Agency pages — a mention of human-caused climate change was deleted, as was a description of international climate talks. The shifts were small, but meaningful; many said they signaled a new era for the EPA, one in which the agency would shy away from directly linking carbon emissions to global warming and strive to push Trump’s “America First” message.

Those initial tweaks were documented by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative, a group of scientists and academics who spend their free time tracking changes to about 25,000 federal government webpages. On Tuesday, they shared their latest finding with the New Republic: The EPA’s Office of Science and Technology Policy no longer lists “science” in the paragraph describing what it does.

“This is probably the most important thing we’ve found so far,” said Gretchen Gehrke, who works on EDGI’s website tracking team. “The language changes here are not nuanced—they have really important regulatory implications.” [Continue reading…]

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The coming clean-air war between Trump and California

The Atlantic reports: In the weeks after the election of Donald Trump, friends and journalists called Deborah Sivas with roughly the same question: How bad could things get?

Sivas is a professor of environmental law at Stanford University, and she has decades of experience working as a litigator for environmental-rights groups. She knows how hostile new presidents can overturn green protections and she knows how lawsuits from friendly states and nonprofits can shore up those rules.

So when reporters asked about the fate of signature Obama-era issues—the Clean Power Plan, the Paris Agreement, the Dakota Access pipeline—she replied that they should focus on an issue with less name recognition. It seemed likely, she said, that the Trump administration and its allies in the car industry would attack California’s ability to regulate greenhouse-gas pollution from car tailpipes.

This may sound niche. But if Trump revoked the special federal waiver that gives California this power, it could hinder the ability of the United States to address climate change for decades to come, she said.

It now appears that her instincts were correct. On Saturday, The New York Times reported that Scott Pruitt, the new administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, was exploring how to withdraw this waiver from California. The announcement could come later this week, when the Trump administration begins to roll back nationwide regulations on pollution from car tailpipes. [Continue reading…]

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Massive permafrost thaw documented in Canada, portends huge carbon release

InsideClimate News reports: Huge slabs of Arctic permafrost in northwest Canada are slumping and disintegrating, sending large amounts of carbon-rich mud and silt into streams and rivers. A new study that analyzed nearly a half-million square miles in northwest Canada found that this permafrost decay is affecting 52,000 square miles of that vast stretch of earth — an expanse the size of Alabama.

According to researchers with the Northwest Territories Geological Survey, the permafrost collapse is intensifying and causing landslides into rivers and lakes that can choke off life downstream, all the way to where the rivers discharge into the Arctic Ocean.

Similar large-scale landscape changes are evident across the Arctic including in Alaska, Siberia and Scandinavia, the researchers wrote in a paper published in the journal Geology in early February. The study didn’t address the issue of greenhouse gas releases from thawing permafrost. But its findings could help quantify the immense global scale of the thawing, which will contribute to more accurate estimates of carbon emissions.

Permafrost is land that has been frozen stretching back to the last ice age, 10,000 years ago. As the Arctic warms at twice the global rate, the long-frozen soils thaw and decompose, releasing the trapped greenhouse gases into the air. Scientists estimate that the world’s permafrost holds twice as much carbon as the atmosphere. [Continue reading…]

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The EPA used to enjoy bipartisan support

Kendra Pierre-Louis reports: The White House is preparing to reduce the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 25 percent, according to reports published earlier this week by Reuters and The Washington Post. In addition to targeting climate change related programs by 70 percent, the administration plans to eliminate 20 percent of EPA employees.

An agency whose total operating budget is .2 percent of the federal budget—and whose mandate is protecting human health and the environment—doesn’t seem like an obvious choice for fiscal reduction. After all, most Americans, regardless of political affiliation, tend to support environmental protections. Increasingly, Americans even agree on climate change, with 70 percent of Americans believing that climate change is real, according to Yale’s Program on Climate Change Communication. In fact, there are only two counties in the country—Grant County, West Virginia and Emery County, Utah—where less than half of residents believe in climate change.

But while the depths of the White House’s proposed cuts are unusual, that a Republican administration would move to curtail the EPA surprises no one who has paid even casual attention to 21st century American politics. Yes, the EPA was created by a Republican president, but bipartisan support of clean air and water proved to be a 20th century trend. Increasingly, the EPA’s mission of protecting human health and the environment has been bifurcated along political lines. So much so, in fact, that you might assume that support of the EPA has always been a liberal battlecry. But you’d be wrong.

“Under Reagan,” said former EPA employee Eric Schaeffer, “environmental issues were more regional than partisan. If you were John Dingell from Detroit, well, you were dragging your feet on car and truck standards. On the other hand, Dingell was great on enforcement and on hazardous waste legislation.”

“There was Guy Molonari, a Republican from Westchester,” Schaeffer added, “if you’ve ever seen pictures of Frankie Vallens and the Four Seasons, he looked like him. He always had this kind of satiny jacket, big white hair. He was very green—the environment was a big issue for him.”

Schaffer joined the EPA under George H.W. Bush and served through both of Clinton’s terms into George W. Bush’s administration. In 2001, Attorney John Ashcroft awarded Schaeffer, then the director of the EPA’s office of regulatory enforcement, the Justice Department’s John Marshall Award for public service for his work on settling oil refinery cases. And yet, this dedicated public servant only lasted a short time into George W. Bush’s administration. He wasn’t the only one. [Continue reading…]

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The green movement is talking about racism? It’s about time

Brentin Mock writes: Facing a new White House administration led by Donald Trump, environmental leaders recently signed an accord pledging their allegiance to civil rights and social justice. Among the signatories are several leaders of the Sierra Club, including its executive director, Michael Brune, who in recent years has steered the organization toward rather bold stances on a range of issues that aren’t traditionally recognized as “green.” In 2013, its board of directors voted that the organization should advocate for immigrant rights. The following year, the Sierra Club endorsed and defended the Black Lives Matter movement. Since President Trump came into office, the organization’s resolve has only strengthened, as Brune indicated in a November 18 blog post: “I’m proud of how the Sierra Club has begun to address the intersection of climate with inequality, race, class, and gender, and I guarantee that we’ll go even deeper.”

This shift toward racial justice matters has not been universally accepted among the Sierra Club’s ranks and may even have cost it a few members. Those who disapprove have often expressed sentiments amounting to “racism is not the environmental movement’s responsibility.” But Brune says the organization won’t be backing off anytime soon, a position he forcefully defended on the group’s blog. He will assure his members, he tells me, “that we are continuing to protect wildlife and wild places, and this is how we can best do that in the 21st century.”

What Brune is acknowledging is the darker legacy of the green movement. Some may believe that environmentalism has little to do with social justice issues, but the mission of the Sierra Club, and many conservation groups like it throughout the late-19th century and most of the 20th century, was anything but race neutral. In many ways, racial exclusivity actually shaped the environmental mission, which is what makes the Sierra Club’s leap toward civil rights advocacy such a radical move. It’s important not because a network like Black Lives Matter needs environmentalists, but because environmentalists need black lives. Given the history of conservationists elevating endangered plant life over endangered people of color, it is environmentalism’s soul that most needs saving. [Continue reading…]

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