Can California rebuild with a better plan for the fires that will come again?
The 2017 Northern California wildfires, which have damaged or destroyed over 8,000 homes and buildings, scorched more than 200,000 acres, displaced 100,000 and killed at least 42 people, are, as Governor Jerry Brown put it: “one of the greatest tragedies California has ever faced.”
Photo by tonynetone/Flickr
The scale of this human tragedy is unprecedented but not inexplicable given the increasing number of homes that are being built next to wilderness areas. California is the third-largest state in the country but it’s also heavily populated. Many homes here are situated at what’s called the “wildland-urban interface” — areas where natural landscapes and manmade structure meet, making it easy for wildfires to spread into suburban and ex-urban communities.
What’s more, our changing weather patterns are likely to make such fires more frequent. As Climatewire reported, global warming will make vegetation drier, increase the chance of lightning strikes, extend the warmer seasons and even intensify winds such as the Diablo winds — the dry, nearly hurricane-force winds (also called Santa Ana and Sundowner) that blow from the interior towards the California Bay Area coast during fall. All of these are triggers for wildfires, which have long been a natural part of the California landscape.
Now, with massive re-construction looming after devastating losses, can California re-build with a better plan for the fires that will come again?
Chad Hanson, a forest ecologist who specializes in wildfires in the American West is clear in his response: It's an enormous mistake to simply rebuild without real introspection. "We have always had fires, even big fires," says Hanson, who is also the director of Earth Island Institute’s John Muir Project. "These ecosystems need fire, and we have a lot of people living in areas where fires must occur."
In other words, there's a reason that fire is one of nature’s key elements. To accept fire's necessary role in the ecosystem, it has to be thought of as necessary as wind or rain. That's not to say that immense fires should be allowed to run rampant; rather, Hanson proposes three key steps to help prevent the massive infrastructure destruction of the recent Northern California fires: create a defensible space around homes, make …more
The battle for Mosul has left the city shrouded in smog
The smoke that billowed from the burning oil fields was so thick it blocked out the sun. By the time I reached Qayyarah, where Islamic State fighters had set fire to 19 oil wells, a film of black soot had settled over the Iraqi town like toxic snow. Even the sheep had turned black.
Photo by NASA
Pools of thick oil ran in the streets. In the sky above the town, the black smog mixed with white fumes from a nearby sulphur plant that the jihadists had also set on fire as they retreated. The plant burned for months, spewing as much sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere as a small volcanic eruption. Hundreds of people were hospitalized.
The fires may have been extinguished, and Isis ousted from the city, but the environmental devastation caused by the battle for Mosul will linger for decades. The destruction of hospitals, weapons factories, industrial plants and power stations has left behind a toxic cocktail of chemicals, heavy metals and other harmful waste. Many of these pollutants are mixed up with unexploded bombs and mines in the vast amount of rubble generated by the fighting.
Our team has already found high levels of lead and mercury in Mosul’s water and soil. This is the toxic legacy of one of the fiercest urban battles of the modern age.
When we measure the brutality of war, we often count the dead bodies, the destroyed homes and the lives upended by violence. Rarely do we pause to consider the environmental devastation that wars cause. In the din of battle and the rush to treat and shelter its survivors, the toxic legacy of war is often ignored — as is the long-term damage to the health of millions of people forced to live amid the pollution.
There is nothing new in the waste generated by war. Parts of Belgium and France are still suffering from the contamination of heavy metals used in the weapons of the first world war. In Vietnam, the herbicide Agent Orange, sprayed to strip trees of foliage that gave the enemy cover, has caused birth defects, cancers, skin disorders and mental disability.
When bombs fall, the environment suffers. In Colombia, which hosts 10 percent of the planet’s biodiversity, half a century of war …more
As insect numbers plummet worldwide, inaction isn't an option
From time to time, insects make the news. For example, the bark beetle has snagged headlines as its range has increased due to warming temperatures, leading to the decimation of large tracks of North American forests. Other wild invertebrates, like the western bumblebee, have attracted attention due to a pronounced decline in numbers. However, what has now come to light is that insects as a whole biological class — and including the most commonplace species — have been disappearing. Buzzing bugs likes flies, wasps, moths, and butterflies, once taken for granted in their ubiquitousness, are vanishing.
Photo by Dan (catching up), Flickr
In October, the journal PLOS published a study finding a 76 percent decline in flying insect biomass in Germany’s natural areas over a 27-year period, from 1989 to 2016. Researchers from Radboud University, University of Sussex, and Entomological Society Krefeld measured the changes in total biomass by setting Malaise traps — tent-like structures used to trap insects — in 63 nature protection areas. Researchers found the pattern of decline to be similar across the different locations. The changes in biomass varied between the seasons, with an 82 percent decline in mid-summer, when insects numbers are usually at their highest.
Prior to conducting the study, the research team was aware of documented declines in abundance of single insect species, but posited total insect biomass as an indicator of overall ecological health. Ultimately, the results of their study far exceed the average estimated decline of vertebrate species globally — a 58 percent decline — reported by the World Wildlife Fund’s 2016 Living Planet Report, which tracked the change in abundance of many living organisms between 1970 and 2012. This report and others that make reference to the sixth mass extinction currently underway, in which the planet is losing species at an unusually high rate, often focus on the loss of vertebrate species. The PLOS study indicates that invertebrates could be facing even steeper losses.
“Loss of insect diversity and abundance is expected to provoke cascading effects on food webs and jeopardize ecosystem services,” wrote the study’s authors. “The widespread insect biomass decline is alarming, ever more so as all traps were placed in protected areas that are meant to preserve ecosystem functions and biodiversity.”
As insects are a crucial …more
New initiative highlights on-the-ground climate solutions that uplift women’s leadership
On Louisiana’s Gulf Coast, journalist, activist, and mother of six Cherri Foytlin is a tireless fighter for climate justice, taking on huge entities threatening the health and ecosystems of Gulf Coast communities. She leads the L’eau Est La Vie (Water is Life) Camp, a floating community hidden away within Louisiana’s wetlands that is challenging the Bayou Bridge pipeline, a project of Energy Transfer Partners, the company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline. A flotilla of handmade rafts, some laden with arresting Indigenous art structures, is home base for the next phase of the resistance inspired by Standing Rock.
Photo by Emily Arasim/Women's Earth & Climate Action Network
A world away, Marshallese Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner, has found that the spoken word is her most potent weapon in confronting existential climate change. The 29-year-old poet, writer, performance artist, and journalist wowed an audience of 120 heads of state at the opening of the UN General Assembly in 2014 with her impassioned delivery of “Dear Matafele Peinem,” a poem that pledged to her baby daughter that the Marshall Islands would not only survive the threats of climate change but go on to thrive.
Zimbabwean peasant farmer Elizabeth Mpofu is well tested by her nearly forty years working for the betterment of smallholder farmers and on behalf of women’s rights. Smallholder farming, she says, is the key to restoring the balance of the Earth and creating long-lasting resilience in the face of climate change impacts. Mpofu serves as general coordinator of the International Coordination Committee for La Via Campesina, an international peasants’ movement that includes more than 200 million global members. Zimbabwe’s fast-track land reform of the early 2000s made Mpofu a land owner and a believer in the political efficacy of direct action. She also believes in the power of women. “In most regions where Via Campesina is present,” she says, “the leaders are women. Women are actively involved in formulating our own policies. We are building the capacity of women within the organization from the ground up.”
Despite countless global studies that attest to women’s unique vulnerabilities and life-saving ingenuity in the face of climate change impacts, CNN and Media Matters have reported that only 15 percent of those interviewed in the media coverage of …more
America's largest meat producer must clean up its act and incentivize improvements in livestock feed production
What comes to mind when you think of Tyson Foods? A chicken nugget? A big red logo?
How about the largest toxic dead zone in US history? It turns out the meat industry — and corporate giants like Tyson Foods — are directly linked to this environmental catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, and many others.
Photo by NOAA’s National Ocean Service
Industrial-scale agriculture to support America's livestock is the number one source of water pollution in the country. But while industrial agriculture to feed animals raised for meat is currently resource-intensive and ecologically destructive, it doesn't have to be. Solutions exist which, if adopted, would allow the meat industry and agricultural corporations that sustain it to reduce their impact on water and the planet.
That's why Mighty Earth has launched the Clean It Up, Tyson campaign in order to hold this industry accountable to our communities and the environment. Corporations can and should respect the health and well-being of their customers, and the landscapes that allow them to profit. Considering America's current political climate, and the increasing severity of environmental problems across the globe, collective action and corporate-targeted campaigns like this one have never been more urgent.
In a country with five times as many livestock animals as humans, it takes a lot of land to grow feed for the meat that ends up on consumers' plates. Over a third of America's agricultural land is dedicated towards the production of corn and soy, but humans consume less than 10 percent of this, according to Mighty Earth's campaign report. The vast majority is consumed by livestock.
What many people don't realize is that this livestock feed production is controlled by a very small number of large and powerful corporations, making huge upstream profits, but creating massive downstream pollution. These companies — ADM, Bunge, Cargill (often referred to as the ABCs) — don't have much of a public reputation, as they don't sell directly to individual consumers. Under our current regulatory system, they're also not responsible for their run-off or excess fertilizer use, both of which are classified as "non-point source" pollution. In other words, soil erosion and run-off from enormous swaths of America's crop fields are washing into the …more
Where we begin after wildfire
For the past four years, I have spent much of my time documenting wildfires and post-fire wildlands in California — strikingly beautiful forests, shrublands, and grasslands that are full of life. On the night of October 8, 2017, the wildfires of Sonoma and Napa Counties came close to home.
Photo by Ginger Gillogly
Driving along Highway 12, my friend Paul Lamb and I witnessed flames cresting over a ridgeline to the north, somewhere in Napa County. We stopped while a fire truck raced past, followed by another. The Diablo winds were strong enough to blow my car door open as I emerged (I later learned the gusts were reaching 60 miles an hour that night). Wind filled the darkness with sound; the distant red glow on my camera screen was silent. Within minutes, the glow had grown into full, bright flames, flowing down the hill. “It’s coming closer,” Paul warned as we drove on. A few hours later, Highway 12 was closed along with sections of Highways 101, 121, and 128, and 29. “Fire was running downhill like a river,” my friend Maria Alvarez, a plant ecologist, described the view of burning grasslands from her hilltop home in Cotati.
The flowing river was an illustration of what fire scientist Dominick DellaSala described as a “top down effect” at a senate briefing about wildfire, held during the second week of October 2017 while the Napa and Sonoma fires were burning. Hot, dry weather, and dry winds are top-down drivers, expected to increasingly dictate the terms of wildfire with the current climate change trends, while vegetation (“fuels”) and terrain are bottom-up drivers — increasingly overridden by the top-down drivers. “In a changing climate, we’re going to see more of the top-down drivers in some regions,” DellaSala predicted. Acreages burned could also rise in the future.
That same night of October 8, the Tubbs and Nunn wildfires of Napa and Sonoma Counties quickly crossed the wildland-urban interface (WUI), and transitioned into tragic urban fires, destroying homes and displacing people by the thousand. Friends and friends of friends lost their homes. “Make no mistake, Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott said,” this is a serious, critical, catastrophic event.”
“This is not a classic wildfire situation; this is really an urban conflagration,” Max Moritz, a fire scientist at UC Santa Barbara, cautioned on Democracy Now! “There’s …more
Environmental groups celebrate, call on Mexico to drop case against US
After several negative rulings against the United States for its strong standards for the Dolphin Safe tuna label, the World Trade Organization yesterday agreed that the US is in compliance with WTO Free Trade regulations. Environmental groups, including the International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), are celebrating the ruling, calling it a big victory for dolphins.
Photo by Charles Chandler
“As the organization that established the popular Dolphin Safe label, we are very pleased with this decision,” said IMMP Associate Director Mark J. Palmer. “Governments and tuna industries such as Mexico should reconsider their actions of sanctioning the chasing, netting, and killing of thousands of dolphins and adopt the US standards of no setting of nets on dolphins to catch tuna,” he said.
Yesterday’s decision — the latest development in a long-running trade dispute between the two countries that dates back to the establishment of the Dolphin Safe tuna label in 1990 — reverses several prior WTO rulings, including one in April of this year, that said that Dolphin Safe tuna-labeling regulations unfairly discriminated against Mexico by restricting its access to US markets.
The US standards for use of the Dolphin Safe label require that the tuna fishing vessels not encircle any dolphins with nets.
Until recently, some of the strictest labeling restrictions only applied to tuna fishing in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Ocean (ETPO) — a large marine region running from Southern California to Peru and extending out into the Pacific Ocean almost to Hawai’i — where schools of tuna tend to swim along with dolphins.
Mexico, the United States, and several other countries in the region used to allow their tuna industry to deliberately target, chase, and surround the dolphins with nets in order to get to the tuna.
Fishermen in this region use speedboats to herd dolphin pods, which are herded for miles until they are exhausted. Then they use massive, mile-long purse seine nets to surround the exhausted dolphins and the tuna that swim beneath. Many dolphins die from injuries, physiological stress, and drowning. Meanwhile, baby dolphins, who are often left behind during the chase, starve or are eaten by predators. The same pod of dolphins can be chased and netted again and again. More than 7 million dolphins have died after being trapped in nets since this fishing …more