China builds world’s biggest solar farm in journey to become green superpower

The Guardian reports: High on the Tibetan plateau, a giant poster of the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, guards the entrance to one of the greatest monuments to Beijing’s quest to become a clean energy colossus.

To Xi’s right, on the road leading to what is reputedly the biggest solar farm on earth, a billboard greets visitors with the slogan: “Promote green development! Develop clean energy!”

Behind him, a sea of nearly 4m deep blue panels flows towards a spectacular horizon of snow-capped mountains – mile after mile of silicon cells tilting skywards from what was once a barren, wind-swept cattle ranch.

“It’s big! Yeah! Big!” Gu Bin, one of the engineers responsible for building the Longyangxia Dam Solar Park in the western province of Qinghai, enthused with a heavy dose of understatement during a rare tour of the mega-project.

The remote, 27-square-kilometre solar farm tops an ever-expanding roll call of supersized symbols that underline China’s determination to transform itself from climate villain to green superpower.

Built at a cost of about 6bn yuan (£721.3m) and in almost constant expansion since construction began in 2013, Longyangxia now has the capacity to produce a massive 850MW of power – enough to supply up to 200,000 households – and stands on the front line of a global photovoltaic revolution being spearheaded by a country that is also the world’s greatest polluter. [Continue reading…]

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As Trump takes power, scientists scramble to secure wildlife data

Jimmy Tobias writes: In recent weeks, archivists, academics, and other ardent information activists have frantically sought to preserve and protect federal climate science before Donald Trump takes power in Washington. Leading the way is the University of Pennsylvania’s DataRefuge project, which is conducting a nationwide campaign to save and copy massive government data sets that contain critical information about our changing climate. Leaders of this effort fear that such data could disappear from federal websites when the president-elect’s administration gains control of government agencies.

But climate science isn’t the only potential victim. DataRefuge organizers, along with allies like the Union of Concerned Scientists, are equally worried about other forms of federal environmental research.

“There is no reason to think its efforts would be restricted to climate data alone,” says Gretchen Goldman, the research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy.

Goldman stresses the vulnerability of wildlife science, particularly research by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service that pertains to endangered, threatened, or otherwise imperiled species. [Continue reading…]

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Air China ‘puts FedEx to shame’ by banning shark fin cargo

The Washington Post reports: Air China has become the first airline in mainland China to ban shark fin cargo, marking a dramatic shift in attitudes toward trade in endangered wildlife here and throwing a lifeline to shark populations threatened with imminent extinction.

The news, released late Friday, came just a week after China also announced plans to ban its domestic ivory trade, a landmark decision of vital importance in ending an epidemic of elephant poaching in Africa.

It marks the country’s gradual transformation from being the biggest source of the problem — as the largest market in illegal wildlife products — to becoming a major part of the solution.

“Scientists estimate that fins from up to 73 million sharks a year are used for shark’s fin soup, with much of the trade in shark fin destined for China,” said Alex Hofford, a wildlife activist from conservation group WildAid in Hong Kong, which applauded Air China for taking “an ethical stance” to help protect sharks and oceans. “It’s a bold move, and this is likely to have a huge and lasting impact on shark populations and marine ecosystems worldwide.”

Hofford said the decision by China’s national flag carrier “puts FedEx to shame” — the U.S. multinational courier company has resisted repeated calls to take a similar step, despite a petition signed by 300,000 people, and an appeal from a coalition of animal welfare conservation groups who expressed concerns that its service could be used to carry fins of endangered shark species. That would be a violation of the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES).

Courier company United Parcel Service bowed to pressure to ban shark fin shipments in August 2015, acknowledging concerns about authorities’ enforcement capabilities and the adequacy of visual inspections to determine whether shark fins being shipped belonged to endangered species. Rival DHL took a similar step in 2014.

FedEx did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment. [Continue reading…]

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Roads have sliced the world into 600,000 pieces

Nathaniel Scharping writes: Ever since our ancestors cut rough paths through the wilderness, humanity has been laying down trails. From footpaths to highways, a global network of roads binds communities and facilitates the exchange of goods and ideas. But there is a flip side to this creeping tangle of pathways: The roads that bring us closer also serve divide ecosystems into smaller parcels, turning vast expanses into a jigsaw of human mobility.

In a study published in Science, an international team of researchers attempted to quantify the extent to which roads have sliced up the globe. They used data from OpenStreetMap, a crowd-sourced mapping project, to chart how much land is covered by roads. For the purposes of their project, they defined a roadway as everything within a kilometer of the physical road itself (studies have shown measurable impacts on the environment extending out at least that far).

They estimated that roughly 20 percent of land is occupied by roads, not including Greenland and Antarctica. Although that leaves 80 percent as open space, this land is far from whole. Transected by highways and streets, the road-free areas are cut up into some 600,000 individual parcels. Half of these are less than a square mile, while only 7 percent span more than 60 square miles. The true impact of roads seems to be the gradual tessellation of once-cohesive landscapes. [Continue reading…]

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With new monuments in Nevada, Utah, Obama adds to his environmental legacy

The Washington Post reports: President Obama on Wednesday created new national monuments in a sacred tribal site in southeastern Utah and in a swath of Nevada desert, after years of political fights over the fate of the areas.

The designations further cement Obama’s environmental legacy as one of the most consequential — and contentious — in presidential history. He has invoked his executive power to create national monuments 29 times during his tenure, establishing or expanding protections for more than 553 million acres of federal lands and waters.

Environmental groups have praised the conservation efforts, but critics say they amount to a federal land grab. Some worry that the new designations could fuel another armed protest by antigovernment forces inspired by the Cliven Bundy family, such as the takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon this year.

Obama’s newest designations include two sprawling Western landscapes that are under threat, yet also where local residents are deeply divided on how the land should be used.

In Utah, where the federal government owns about two-thirds of the land, the designation of another 1.35 million acres to create the Bears Ears National Monument undoubtedly will prove polarizing.

For the first time, Native American tribes will offer management input for a national monument through an inter-tribal commission. Five tribes that often have been at odds — the Hopi, Navajo, Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute and Pueblo of Zuni — will together have responsibility for protecting an area that contains well-preserved remnants of ancestral Pueblo sites dating back more than 3,500 years.

“We have always looked to Bears Ears as a place of refuge, as a place where we can gather herbs and medicinal plants, and a place of prayer and sacredness,” Russell Begaye, president of the Navajo Nation, said in a call with reporters Wednesday. “These places — the rocks, the wind, the land — they are living, breathing things that deserve timely and lasting protection.” [Continue reading…]

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Humans have been altering Earth for millennia, but only now are we wise to what we’re doing

David Grinspoon writes: As a planetary astrobiologist, I am focused on the major transitions in planetary evolution and the evolving relationship between planets and life. The scientific community is converging on the idea that we have entered a new epoch of Earth history, one in which the net activity of humans has become an agent of global change as powerful as the great forces of nature that shape continents and propel the evolution of species. This concept has garnered a lot of attention, and justly so. Thinking about the new epoch – often called the Anthropocene, or the age of humanity – challenges us to look at ourselves in the mirror of deep time, measured not in centuries or even in millennia, but over millions and billions of years. And yet much of the recent discussion and debate over the Anthropocene still does not come to terms with its full meaning and importance.

Various markers have been proposed for the starting date of the Anthropocene, such as the rise in CO2, isotopes from nuclear tests, the ‘Columbian exchange’ of species between hemispheres when Europeans colonised the Americas, or more ancient human modifications of the landscape or climate. The question in play here is: when did our world gain a quality that is uniquely human? Many species have had a major influence on the globe, but they don’t each get their own planetary transition in the geologic timescale. When did humans begin changing things in a way that no other species has ever changed Earth before? Making massive changes in landscapes is not unique to us. Beavers do plenty of that, for example, when they build dams, alter streams, cut down forests and create new meadows. Even changing global climate and initiating mass extinction is not a human first. Photosynthetic bacteria did that some 2.5 billion years ago.

What distinguishes humans from other world-changing organisms must be related to our great cleverness and adaptability; the power that comes from communicating, planning and working in social groups; transmitting knowledge from one generation to the next; and applying these skills toward altering our surroundings and expanding our habitable domains. However, people have been engaged in these activities for tens of thousands of years, and have produced many different environmental modifications proposed as markers of the Anthropocene’s beginning. Therefore, those definitions strike me as incomplete. Until now, the people causing the disturbances had no way of recognising or even conceiving of a global change. Yes, humans have been altering our planet for millennia, but there is something going on now that was not happening when we started doing all that world-changing. [Continue reading…]

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Obama bans drilling in parts of the Atlantic and the Arctic

The New York Times reports: President Obama announced on Tuesday what he called a permanent ban on offshore oil and gas drilling along wide areas of the Arctic and the Atlantic Seaboard as he tried to nail down an environmental legacy that cannot quickly be reversed by Donald J. Trump.

Mr. Obama invoked an obscure provision of a 1953 law, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act, which he said gives him the authority to act unilaterally. While some presidents have used that law to temporarily protect smaller portions of federal waters, Mr. Obama’s declaration of a permanent drilling ban from Virginia to Maine on the Atlantic and along much of Alaska’s coast is breaking new ground. The declaration’s fate will almost certainly be decided by the federal courts.

“It’s never been done before,” said Patrick Parenteau, a professor of environmental law at the University of Vermont. “There is no case law on this. It’s uncharted waters.”

The move — considered creative by supporters and abusive by opponents — is one of many efforts by Mr. Obama to protect the environmental policies he can from a successor who has vowed to roll them back. The president, in concert with United Nations leaders, rushed countries to ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change, putting the multinational accord into force in record time, before Mr. Trump’s inauguration.

Environmentalists are already drawing comparisons between Mr. Obama’s use of the 1953 law to ban new drilling to what critics and opponents called his novel and audacious efforts to craft new climate change regulations: He turned to an obscure, rarely used provision in the 1970 Clean Air Act to write sweeping regulations that would require states to shift their electricity systems from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources. [Continue reading…]

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Scott Pruitt, Trump’s climate-denying EPA pick, is worse than you think

Jay Michaelson writes: Every scientist not on the corporate dole is upset about Scott Pruitt, Donald Trump’s pick to head the Environmental Protection Agency.

Like Betsy DeVos, who wants to destroy public education, and Jeff Sessions, who wants to destroy the Voting Rights Act, Pruitt is against the very laws he will soon be in charge of enforcing.

And the more you know about environmental law, the more you know that the Oklahoma attorney general and his minions could be way, way, way worse at the EPA than pundits and scientists have said. Yes, he’s a climate denier. Yes, he’s sued the EPA five times to prevent regulations (and lost every time). And yes, he has openly defied court orders on same-sex marriage and abortion, investigated the Humane Society for daring to back an animal welfare law, and opined that public schools should distribute religious materials to children. But he’s about to enjoy free rein to gut environmental regulations, without Congress or the courts to stop him.

That’s because environmental laws are deliberately broad, delegating massive authority to the EPA, which then has broad discretion to determine how to implement them. If you think about it, this makes sense. Congress isn’t populated by scientists but by politicians. So they set policy goals — clean air, clean water, toxin-free environments — and leave it up to the experts to determine how to meet them.

Most of the nuts and bolts of environmental law have thus been created not by Congress but by generations of EPA regulations and implementations. Clean air standards for factories, thresholds for pesticides in fuels or toxic chemicals in detergents and fuels, pollution levels for rivers — all of these, and many more, exist in regulations contained in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Usually, it’s conservatives who have complained about this. First, of course, they tend not to like anything that restricts unfettered capitalism, and environmental law certainly does that. Second, they tend not to like big government and unaccountable bureaucracy, and reams of agency-generated regulations are exactly that. And they tend to be wary of executive power in general.
Thus, for the last 40 years, corporations, industry groups, conservative think tanks, and Republican lawmakers have sued the bejeezus out of the EPA (and other agencies), challenging just about every regulation the agency puts out.

And usually, they have lost. Over several decades, the Supreme Court has tended to side more with the EPA than with its challengers. There have been exceptions — one of Justice Antonin Scalia’s last opinions required the EPA to limit mercury emissions only when it is cost-effective for corporations to do so. But in general, the court has observed that the “enabling statutes” passed by Congress deliberately cede authority to the EPA. Without congressional authority, the EPA couldn’t make up regulations and decide how to enforce them. But with it, the agency can.

Now the shoe is on the other foot. Now it’s arch-conservatives who will be controlling the EPA, with exactly the same level of authority as the environmentalists who preceded them. [Continue reading…]

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The Holocene hangover: it is time for humanity to make fundamental changes

Fredrik Albritton Jonsson writes: As a child growing up in the early 1980s, I often daydreamed of space exploration and interstellar frontiers. The leap into outer space seemed tantalizingly close. In the science fiction stories I read, the chronology of the future was also the potential biography of adulthood. One story projected a settlement on Mars in 1995; another depicted the grim labor of asteroid mining a decade later; a third imagined an encounter with alien artifacts in the Alpha Centauri system after 2020. The common thread in these stories, easily intuited even by an 11-year-old, was the lesson that the Earth was not our home.

Now the science fiction dream of leaving the planet behind appears to be coming true. One of the most striking effects of climate change — often remarked upon by writers — is its power to unsettle our basic understanding of the modern world. Our planet is changing into a strange and unstable new environment, in a process seemingly outside technological control. The fossil fuels that once promised mastery over nature have turned out to be tools of destruction, disturbing the basic biogeochemical processes that make our world habitable. Even the recent past is no longer what we thought it was. Scientists are telling us that the whole territory of modern history, from the end of World War II to the present, forms the threshold to a new geological epoch.

Our new planet is emerging quickly. The global climate is only one of nine earth system processes under threat. Land use is changing rapidly thanks to urbanization, agriculture, and population pressure. The rate of biodiversity loss is increasing in many ecosystems. Acidification is affecting marine biodiversity as well as the capacity of oceans to absorb carbon dioxide. The supply of fresh water in many regions is deteriorating. Aerosol loading and ozone depletion threaten the stability of the earth system’s atmosphere. Industrial agriculture has perturbed the global nitrogen and phosphorus cycles. Finally, chemical pollution may pose a risk not just at the local or regional level but also worldwide. Indeed, the planet’s biosphere bears so many marks of anthropogenic influence that it no longer possible to uphold the age-old distinction between the realm of wilderness and the world of human habitation.

To call attention to this unprecedented danger, the atmospheric chemist Paul Crutzen and the ecologist Eugene Stoermer in 2000 proposed a new name for the geological epoch we inhabit: the Anthropocene. For the first time, humans have become the prime drivers of the planetary climate. We have left behind the relatively stable pattern of natural variability that governed the environment in the Holocene epoch, beginning some 11,700 years ago. In the original formulation, Crutzen and Stoermer picked 1784 as the origin of the new epoch: the year of James Watt’s patent for a steam engine with a separate condenser. Britain’s early transition into the fossil fuel economy marked the end of the Holocene. More recently, the Working Group on the Anthropocene, established to validate the epoch in formal stratigraphic terms, has shifted the chronology of the Anthropocene from the Industrial Revolution to the Great Acceleration—the economic boom after World War II. [Continue reading…]

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Stephen Hawking: This is the most dangerous time for our planet

Stephen Hawking writes: As a theoretical physicist based in Cambridge, I have lived my life in an extraordinarily privileged bubble. Cambridge is an unusual town, centred around one of the world’s great universities. Within that town, the scientific community that I became part of in my 20s is even more rarefied.

And within that scientific community, the small group of international theoretical physicists with whom I have spent my working life might sometimes be tempted to regard themselves as the pinnacle. In addition to this, with the celebrity that has come with my books, and the isolation imposed by my illness, I feel as though my ivory tower is getting taller.

So the recent apparent rejection of the elites in both America and Britain is surely aimed at me, as much as anyone. Whatever we might think about the decision by the British electorate to reject membership of the European Union and by the American public to embrace Donald Trump as their next president, there is no doubt in the minds of commentators that this was a cry of anger by people who felt they had been abandoned by their leaders.

It was, everyone seems to agree, the moment when the forgotten spoke, finding their voices to reject the advice and guidance of experts and the elite everywhere.

I am no exception to this rule. I warned before the Brexit vote that it would damage scientific research in Britain, that a vote to leave would be a step backward, and the electorate – or at least a sufficiently significant proportion of it – took no more notice of me than any of the other political leaders, trade unionists, artists, scientists, businessmen and celebrities who all gave the same unheeded advice to the rest of the country.

What matters now, far more than the choices made by these two electorates, is how the elites react. Should we, in turn, reject these votes as outpourings of crude populism that fail to take account of the facts, and attempt to circumvent or circumscribe the choices that they represent? I would argue that this would be a terrible mistake. [Continue reading…]

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Dino-killing asteroid may have punctured Earth’s crust

Live Science reports: After analyzing the crater from the cosmic impact that ended the age of dinosaurs, scientists now say the object that smacked into the planet may have punched nearly all the way through Earth’s crust, according to a new study.

The finding could shed light on how impacts can reshape the faces of planets and how such collisions can generate new habitats for life, the researchers said.

Asteroids and comets occasionally pelt Earth’s surface. Still, for the most part, changes to the planet’s surface result largely from erosion due to rain and wind, “as well as plate tectonics, which generates mountains and ocean trenches,” said study co-author Sean Gulick, a marine geophysicist at the University of Texas at Austin.

In contrast, on the solar system’s other rocky planets, erosion and plate tectonics typically have little, if any, influence on the planetary surfaces. “The key driver of surface changes on those planets is constantly getting hit by stuff from space,” Gulick told Live Science. [Continue reading…]

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How industrialization brought about the decline of vertebrate species

Nathan Collins writes: With climate change and deforestation threatening biodiversity around the world, it’s fair to wonder just how rapidly threatened species have been declining, and when exactly those declines began. The answer is bleak: Among threatened vertebrates, rapid losses began in the late 19th century, and numbers have since declined by about 25 percent per decade, according to a new study.

“Although preservation of biodiversity is vital to a sustainable human society, rapid population decline (RPD) continues to be widespread” across plant and animal populations, Haipeng Li and a team of Chinese and American biologists write in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Understanding the severity and origins of these population losses could help conservationists protect endangered species and possibly help promote public awareness of the threat, the researchers argue. But there’s a problem: Good data on plant and animal population sizes only goes back about four decades, and populations surely declined prior to that.

Fortunately, modern biologists have a way to circumvent that: DNA. [Continue reading…]

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