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.
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
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…]
The Washington Post reports: Political people in the United States are watching the chaos in Washington in the moment. But some people in the science community are watching the chaos somewhere else — the Arctic.
It’s polar night there now — the sun isn’t rising in much of the Arctic. That’s when the Arctic is supposed to get super-cold, when the sea ice that covers the vast Arctic Ocean is supposed to grow and thicken.
But in fall of 2016 — which has been a zany year for the region, with multiple records set for low levels of monthly sea ice — something is totally off. The Arctic is super-hot, even as a vast area of cold polar air has been displaced over Siberia. [Continue reading…]
By David Farrier, Aeon, October 31, 2016
Late one summer night in 1949, the British archaeologist Jacquetta Hawkes went out into her small back garden in north London, and lay down. She sensed the bedrock covered by its thin layer of soil, and felt the hard ground pressing her flesh against her bones. Shimmering through the leaves and out beyond the black lines of her neighbours’ chimney pots were the stars, beacons ‘whose light left them long before there were eyes on this planet to receive it’, as she put it in A Land (1951), her classic book of imaginative nature writing.
We are accustomed to the idea of geology and astronomy speaking the secrets of ‘deep time’, the immense arc of non-human history that shaped the world as we perceive it. Hawkes’s lyrical meditation mingles the intimate and the eternal, the biological and the inanimate, the domestic with a sense of deep time that is very much of its time. The state of the topsoil was a matter of genuine concern in a country wearied by wartime rationing, while land itself rises into focus just as Britain is rethinking its place in the world. But in lying down in her garden, Hawkes also lies on the far side of a fundamental boundary. A Land was written at the cusp of the Holocene; we, on the other hand, read it in the Anthropocene.
The Anthropocene, or era of the human, denotes how industrial civilisation has changed the Earth in ways that are comparable with deep-time processes. The planet’s carbon and nitrogen cycles, ocean chemistry and biodiversity – each one the product of millions of years of slow evolution – have been radically and permanently disrupted by human activity. The development of agriculture 10,000 years ago, and the Industrial Revolution in the middle of the 19th century, have both been proposed as start dates for the Anthropocene. But a consensus has gathered around the Great Acceleration – the sudden and dramatic jump in consumption that began around 1950, followed by a huge rise in global population, an explosion in the use of plastics, and the collapse of agricultural diversity.
The Sixth Extinction: Two-thirds of global wildlife population expected to be lost by the end of this decade
Marco Lambertini, Director General,WWF International, writes [PDF]: The evidence has never been stronger and our understanding never been clearer. Not only are we able to track the exponential increase in human pressure over the last 60 years — the so-called “Great Acceleration” and the consequent degradation of natural systems, but we also now better understand the interdependencies of Earth’s life support systems and the limits that our planet can cope with.
Take biodiversity. The richness and diversity of life on Earth is fundamental to the complex life systems that underpin it. Life supports life itself. We are part of the same equation. Lose biodiversity and the natural world and the life support systems, as we know them today, will collapse. We completely depend on nature, for the quality of the air we breathe, water we drink, climate stability, the food and materials we use and the economy we rely on, and not least, for our health, inspiration and happiness.
For decades scientists have been warning that human actions are pushing life on our shared planet toward a sixth mass extinction. Evidence in this year’s Living Planet Report supports this. Wildlife populations have already shown a concerning decline, on average by 58 per cent since 1970 and are likely to reach 67 per cent by the end of the decade. [Continue reading…[PDF]]
Erich Pica, President of Friends of the Earth Action, writes: Friends of the Earth Action endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president a year ago but today we are encouraging our members and supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton for president. While we align with many facets of the Green Party platform, we do not support Green Party candidate Dr. Jill Stein for president.
We have vigorously disagreed with Sec. Clinton on many issues. We have fought over the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Trans Pacific Partnership, her interventionist foreign policy, her support for fracking, her ties to fossil fuel lobbyists and her neo-liberal economic platform. Yet without equivocation, we would rather have Hillary Clinton in the White House and push like hell for her to create better policy than fight Donald Trump to save basic human rights and centuries-old social agreements.
Urging our members and supporters to vote for Hillary Clinton does not constitute what Dr. Stein describes as being trapped in the two-party “duopoly.” Our assessment comes from a deep political and strategic analysis: Dr. Stein and the Green Party are not credible standard barriers for the progressive movement or Sen. Sanders’ Revolution. [Continue reading…]
Bill McKibben writes: It’s an odd feeling to be working for the election of someone you know dislikes you and your colleagues. I’ve spent a good chunk of this month trying to register voters on campuses in Pennsylvania and Ohio — registering them to vote against Donald Trump, which means pushing for the election of Hillary Clinton. It wasn’t how I wanted to spend the fall—I’d much rather have been campaigning for Bernie Sanders.
It didn’t get any easier when Wikileaks released a tape of Clinton talking to backers in the building-trades unions about the environmental work so many of us (including much of the rest of organized labor) have been engaged in for the last few years. “They come to my rallies and they yell at me and, you know, all the rest of it. They say, ‘Will you promise never to take any fossil fuels out of the earth ever again?’ No. I won’t promise that. Get a life, you know.”
I know the young people Clinton was talking about, and they weren’t demanding she somehow wave a wand and stop the fossil-fuel age overnight. They were asking her about the scientific studies showing that we can’t actually keep mining and drilling new supplies of coal, oil, and gas if we’re going to meet the temperature targets set with such fanfare in Paris last year. They were asking her to support the “Keep It In the Ground” Act introduced by Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon and endorsed by a passel of other senators, from Barbara Boxer of California to Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. (Oh yeah, and that guy Bernie.) They were also asking her to take a stand against fracking, since new studies demonstrate quite clearly that the release of methane from the use of natural gas makes climate change worse. Publicly, she hemmed and hawed. When Bernie said in a debate that he was against fracking, period, Clinton said, “By the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.” That was a pretty weak hedge to begin with, but we now know that privately she reassured the building trades unions: “My view is, I want to defend natural gas…. I want to defend fracking.”
Truth be told, these aren’t revelations. All of us working on climate issues have known this is how Clinton feels; she set up a whole wing of the State Department devoted to spreading fracking around the world. She’d favored the Keystone Pipeline from the start, and it was abundantly clear that only Sanders’s unexpected success in the primaries convinced her she’d have to change. (And it was only his refusal to endorse her until after the platform was agreed upon that made the platform into the fairly progressive document that it is, on climate and other issues). Still, it stings to see in black and white exactly how little regard she has for people fighting pipelines, frack wells, coal ports. Though truth be told, that was no huge surprise either: Politicians are forever saying they want people engaged in the political process, but most of them really just want people to vote and then go home.
So why are many of us out there working to beat Trump and elect her? Because Trump is truly a horror. He’s man who looks at fourth-grade girls and imagines that he’ll be dating them in ten years. He’s a racist. He knows next to nothing and lacks the intellectual curiosity to find out more. He’s a bully. He’s almost a cartoonish villain: If a writer invented a character this evil, no one would believe them. But he’s very nearly president.
Because environmentalists are not just concerned about the climate — we have allies and friends whom we support. And on some of those issues Clinton actually seems sincere: She clearly cares about women’s issues and understands that we are a nation of immigrants. [Continue reading…]
Many Americans value environmental protection and want to see more of it. But Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate, is drawing only 1 to 3 percent in recent polls, even in an election where many voters dislike the major candidates and are looking for alternatives.
Stein certainly has worked to differentiate herself from the two major party candidates. In July she asserted that electing Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton – probably the choice of most pro-environment voters – would “fan the flames of … right-wing extremism,” and be as bad as electing Donald Trump.
Huffington Post reports: Dead and dying are two very different things.
If a person is diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, their loved ones don’t rush to write an obituary and plan a funeral. Likewise, species aren’t declared extinct until they actually are.
In a viral article entitled “Obituary: Great Barrier Reef (25 Million BC-2016),” however, writer Rowan Jacobsen proclaimed ― inaccurately and, we can only hope, hyperbolically ― that Earth’s largest living structure is dead and gone.
“The Great Barrier Reef of Australia passed away in 2016 after a long illness,” reads the sensational obituary, published Tuesday in Outside Magazine. “It was 25 million years old.”
There’s no denying the Great Barrier Reef is in serious trouble, having been hammered in recent years by El Niño and climate change. In April, scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies found that the most severe coral bleaching event on record had impacted 93 percent of the reef.
But as a whole, it is not dead. Preliminary findings published Thursday of Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority surveys show 22 percent of its coral died from the bleaching event. That leaves more than three quarters still alive ― and in desperate need of relief.
Two leading coral scientists that The Huffington Post contacted took serious issue with Outside’s piece, calling it wildly irresponsible. [Continue reading…]