The Earth911 Reader summarizes the week’s sustainability, recycling, and science news, making it easy for you to stay up-to-date. Be sure not to miss this week’s opportunities to support environmental and sustainability projects.
Hotter Climates May Turn Dog Ticks Into People-Eaters
Sure, people worry about climate change and do very little to prevent it, but ask anyone if they’d like to be attacked by dog ticks, and they’ll be ready to act. A new study from the University of California Davis suggests that warmer climates may create an evolutionary opportunity for the tick to change its appetite and go after humans, Grist reports. Ticks were allowed to choose dogs’ blood or people in a controlled environment. As temperatures increased, the ticks started to prefer to feed on a human — first, ick. A tick’s taste for human blood could ignite pandemics if diseases jump species and more incidence of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, a flu-like illness that peaked at 6,248 cases in 2017 — up from 495 in 2000. It seems we’re already getting warmer and more delicious to the ticks.
Loss of Predators Accelerates Climate Damage, Their Reintroduction Can Relieve Impacts
Scientific American reports on recent studies demonstrate that reintroduction of predator species can offset the climate-related damage caused by the explosion in prey populations that thrive in their absence. The Bigelow Laboratory for Ocean Sciences in Maine released a study about the impact on the ecosystem when predators are lost. For example, when sea otters abandon a territory, prey species, such as sea urchins, grow uncontrolled and devastate both seaweed forests and the limestone on which seaweed grows. Reintroducing otters would slow the environmental damage. Likewise, wolf reintroduction in the West has stabilized elk populations and, mainly, elk deaths necessary to providing carrion for other local species. The study provides a framework for assessing the complex interrelationships that determine the pace of climate-related damage from species loss.
Only 2% of Florida’s Coral Reefs Are Intact
A recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) report found that while U.S. coral reefs are generally in good condition, Florida’s reef ecosystem has nearly collapsed. Only two percent of the state’s coral cover remains intact. Ocean warming and acidification are the primary culprits, as they have contributed to diseases that ravage corals. Over-fishing is also a contributing factor. “It used to be mostly water quality … but now it’s pretty well accepted that it’s predominantly climate change,” Jennifer Koss, director of the NOAA coral reef conservation program, told The Guardian. The lost reefs could cost Florida up to $8 billion in lost jobs and environmental services as tourists head elsewhere to see corals (and destroy them). Ultimately, only a global response to climate change will revive corals, said Erinn Miller of the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Fl. State solutions cannot counter the overwhelming impact of warming seas.
Geoengineering Would Not Stop Global Warming, Researchers Find
The hazy, dreary vision of Bladerunner depicts the pumping particles into the atmosphere to counter global warming. The technology, called geoengineering, has been seriously discussed by scientists and climate experts for decades. Phys.org reports that two new studies from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology concluded that geoengineering would not halt global warming because greenhouse gases would continue to build up, heating the planet instead of cooling the atmosphere. Base on computer simulations, the two studies found that reflective particles in the air would not prevent the loss of high-altitude stratocumulus clouds, which provide a critical shield against solar radiation. Reducing greenhouse gases by eliminating fossil fuel combustion, limiting agricultural and home emissions remain the only sure way to reverse climate change.
Greenland’s Glaciers Are Melting Faster Than Expected
Phys.org reports on new research from the Technical University of Denmark that found three glaciers in Greenland are melting faster than worst-case predictions have estimated. The glaciers have already lost more than 2.9 billion tons of ice and raised sea levels by 8 millimeters. If they melt entirely, just these three glaciers, the Kakobshavn Isbrae, Kangerlussuaq, and Helheim Glaciers, will contribute 1.3 meters (4.2 feet) to current sea levels. That is enough flood parts of the San Francisco Bay Area, including parts of Marin and Sonoma Counties, Huntington Beach near Los Angeles, large parts of Houston and Miami, and most of New Orleans. Use the NOAA Sea Level Rise Viewer to see the potential impact that Greenlands melting ice can have near you.
Explore the Economics of Carbon Capture
Grist provides a comprehensive introduction to carbon capture technology and, in particular, direct air capture systems that suck CO2 from the atmosphere. It profiles Peter Eisenberg, a former Bell Labs scientist. He cofounded Global Thermostat, a pioneer in direct air capture, building its first commercial system in Huntsville, Alabama. Global Thermostat claims it can remove carbon at the cost of about $150 a ton at the outset and much less when it reaches large-scale deployment. Listen to our interview with Eisenberg’s cofounder, Graciela Chichilnisky, to learn more about the complicated but promising technology behind direct air capture.
Team Trump Will Sell Off Parts of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
In a last-minute bid to subvert environmental law and draw the ire of conservationists to feed his base’s appetite for “liberal” humiliation, President Trump this week offered oil and gas companies their choice of drilling locations in the coastal regions of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The land sale, which will undoubtedly face legal challenges, could happen in the last few days before Trump leaves office. Once the deals are complete, retracting the property rights the fossil fuel companies acquire through this process will be difficult, at best. Alaska Public Media explains the region, the cost and consequences of drilling, and the organizing opposition. Grist also explores how fraught President-elect Joe Biden’s road to restoring environmental protections will be. We are witnessing an act of deliberate environmental vandalism and, if Trump refuses accountability, consumers can punish the companies that participate in the Arctic drilling with boycotts and stock divestments.
There’s a New 1% Problem: Fliers Are Major CO2 Emitters
Frequent fliers, who fly more than 35,000 miles a year and account for approximately one percent of the world’s population, are responsible for half of all airlines-related CO2 emissions, a new study from Linnaeus University in Sweden. The Guardian reports that only 11% of humans flew on an airliner in 2018. The COVID-induced pause in air travel, which fell 50% this year, is an opportunity to recalibrate travel emissions. Currently, airlines enjoy approximately $100 billion in intrinsic subsidies because they do not pay for the environmental damage done by the industry’s 1-billion ton C02 footprint. By pricing carbon impacts into airfares, national governments can reshape demand for air travel and reduce emissions, the researchers. They respond to airline complaints that they would make travel unaffordable with: “A lot of travel is going on just because it’s cheap.”
Human Diets Could Prevent Climate Solutions
Even if humanity eliminates its dependence on fossil fuels for energy this year, its diet could prevent halting global warming of 2°C, according to a new study from the University of Oxford. A shift to more plant-based foods, particularly proteins, is necessary to reduce CO2 emissions enough to prevent Earth’s exceeding the Paris Accord goal of holding temperatures to 1.5°C. According to Science Magazine, that may not be enough, as other non-food industries must make changes to their carbon footprints to ensure a safe passage to net-zero living.
Northern Countries Will Be on Thin Ice After Climate Change
We’ve told you about the ticks already in this issue, now let’s talk about falling through the ice on your local frozen lake during warmer winters, The Conversation reports. Thinner ice is inevitable, an international team of researchers has proven by studying more than 4,000 winter drownings in the Northern Hemisphere. Canada, which already experiences the most winter drownings, could see a steep rise in deaths because its culture values being outdoors in the winter, whether ice fishing or playing a game of hockey. In other northern countries where ice fishing and skating are banned, there are far fewer deaths than in Canada. Oh, Canada, how we love your hockey. But, please, stay off the thin ice.
U.S. EPA Calls for 50% Recycling Rate in 2030
As the pandemic impacts recycling rates, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says fell in 2018 to 32.1%, EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler is setting an aggressive goal for 2030, Waste Dive reports. He called for the U.S. to recycle 50% of solid waste by the end of this decade. That’s a move that would catapult the nation into the top five recycling rates globally — we are currently in 25th place. Meanwhile, back in reality, state and municipal governments face budget crises that will force recycling to stand on its own financially. The trends do not bode well for Wheeler’s goal, which was announced as part of its preparation for America Recycles Day. What would it take to make 50% recycling possible? Based on our experience at Earth911, two essential elements are clear recyclability labeling and nationally consistent standards for how recyclables should be prepared and placed into the system at curbside. The new National Recycling Policy does not make a priority of national standards. Listen to our interview with the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries’ Vice President of Advocacy, Renee Adler, for more about the National Recycling Strategy.
U.S. National Recycling Rate Fell to 32.1% in 2018
Resource Recycling reports on the EPA’s new report on the state of U.S. recycling rates, which fell to a disappointing 32.1% of municipal solid waste (MSW). The amount of waste generated climbed by 8.1% in 2018 to 4.91 lbs. per person a day — the EPA attributed the increase to a change in how food waste is measured. Paper and paperboard accounted for the largest share of MSW at 23.1%, followed by food (21.6%), plastic (12.2%, yard waste (12.1%), metals (8.8%), and rubber, leather, and other textiles (8.9%). What’s striking about this list is that most of these materials are eminently recyclable. A few items are recycled at very high rates: 99% of lead-acid batteries and 96.5% of cardboard boxes are recycled in the U.S, followed by steel cans (78%) and aluminum cans (50.4%) — less than 40% of all other materials are processed. Interestingly, glass is recycled more than aluminum, steel, and plastic packaging in Europe but trails here in the U.S.
Colorado’s Recycling Rate Fell to 15.9% in 2019
To give you an idea about the wide range of recycling rates in America, consider Colorado. The famous outdoor playground saw state recycling rates fall from 17.2% in 2018 to 15.9% in 2019 while sending 6.1 million tons of MSW to landfills, Recycling Today reports. Yet, some Colorado recycle much more effectively, pointing to a failure of state policy-making. In Aspen, Boulder, Durango, Fort Collins, and Loveland, located across the state, recycling rates are about 50%. The mountain and rural regions in Colorado have already exceeded the state’s 2021 recycling goals. Let’s hope that we can use this year’s America Recycles Day as an opportunity to restart the conversation about trash and recycling. It’s time for a change.
IN ACTIONS YOU CAN TAKE
Stop Big Oil From Destroying the Arctic Refuge!
President Trump’s bid to sell off drilling rights in a Delaware-size region in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge can be stopped with legal action. Take a moment to consider donating to the Friends of the Earth Action fund to fight the sale of 1.6 million acres of pristine wilderness to fossil fuel companies. Friends of the Earth asks for $27 per donor to file suits and fight this despicable act of environmental vandalism.
Support the Rocky Mountain Institute in 2021
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) is a powerhouse of innovative thinking about the environment and sustainability founded by Amory Lovins. The non-profit is raising funds for its 2021 budget to continue delivering research about net-zero and, just this week, Whole-System Zero-Emissions Demonstration (WS-ZED) strategies for achieving a sustainable and prosperous economy. If you are interested in social and environmental justice, RMI is a stand-out organization worthy of support. We urge you to consider donating today.
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