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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: If Neil Gorsuch is confirmed to fill the vacant seat on the Supreme Court, what will be the implications for environmental and climate policy? -- Jim Metcalf, Newark, DE
 
Environmental leaders aren’t particularly jazzed about Neil Gorsuch as Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the vacancy left on the U.S. Supreme Court following the death of Antonin Scalia in February 2016. For starters, the name Gorsuch brings back bad memories of the 1980s when Anne Gorsuch (Neil’s mother) slashed federal environmental funding by 22 percent as head of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under Ronald Reagan. Greens at the time accused her of placating polluters and trying to dismantle the very agency she was hired to run. (And it’s deja vu all over again at the EPA with Scott Pruitt now at the helm.)

But it would be unfair to judge a son based on his mother’s doings some four decades ago. Nevertheless, environmentalists aren’t finding much to like from Neil Gorsuch either. According to Billy Corriher of the Center for American Progress, Judge Gorsuch made his way onto candidate Trump’s radar as a potential Supreme Court nominee in August 2016 after writing a “controversial manifesto arguing that it should be easier for corporations and individuals suing federal agencies to have courts strike down regulations and overrule decisions by experts at agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency.” Gorsuch contends that the judiciary should be able to overrule how federal agency experts interpret how a given law should be implemented. In the case of global warming, the Obama EPA interpreted carbon dioxide as a harmful pollutant worth regulating under the Clean Air Act based on the recommendations of the very agency experts Gorsuch would potentially seek to overrule.

Like Trump’s cabinet picks, Gorsuch favors the shrinking of federal bureaucracy and an increased reliance on the states to handle their own problems. This antipathy toward federal regulations is another reason Gorsuch could be a disaster for the climate in the case he casts the deciding vote on the Supreme Court against implementing the Clean Power Plan, an Obama-era effort to ratchet down carbon emissions from the utility sector by moving away from coal. Without the Clean Power Plan—currently cooling its heels in judicial review and likely headed for the Supreme Court later this year—there’s little hope of the U.S. meeting its Paris climate accord emissions reduction commitments.

Another concern is Gorsuch’s historically dismissive posture toward the standing of public interest groups as plaintiffs (defined as their right to file suit given direct injury or harm). According to EnviroNews, Gorsuch dismissed a 2015 case brought by a hunters and anglers group against the Forest Service for allowing motorcycles to access trails in Colorado’s San Juan National Forest due to lack of direct harm. Likewise, he barred three leading environmental groups from joining a 2013 suit regarding where off-road vehicles could travel in New Mexico’s Santa Fe National Forest.

Greens, still hopeful that the judiciary can be the last check on the conservative-dominated legislative and executive branches, are crossing their fingers that Democrats can block Gorsuch and send the Trump administration back to the drawing board for someone more to their liking.

CONTACTS: Center for American Progress, www.americanprogress.org; Clean Power Plan, www.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/clean-power-plan-existing-power-plants; EnviroNews, www.environews.tv.


Dear EarthTalk: What is meant by “environmental justice” and how is it under assault in the new Trump administration?       -- Mike Garner, New Orleans, LA

Environmental justice is defined by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income, with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.” In layperson’s terms, it means making sure specific groups of people don’t bear a disproportionate burden from potential and existing environmental threats.

Traditionally, we think of situations like the siting and construction of a pollution-spewing factory in or near a low-income minority community as an example of an environmental injustice. Some recent examples ripped from the headlines include the lead contamination of the water supply of predominantly African-American Flint, Michigan, and the siting of the potentially hazardous Dakota Access Pipeline adjacent to sacred and ecologically sensitive Standing Rock Sioux tribal land.

“The federal government has recognized for decades that air and water quality are especially poor in low-income areas and communities of color, and some of that imbalance stems directly from government permitting decisions, such as where to allow the dumping of toxic materials,” reports the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading environmental advocacy non-profit.

Environmental justice has been a hot topic lately as it relates to who bears the brunt of climate change impacts. According to EPA research, city dwellers and the poor are among the Americans most likely to suffer from climate change. NRDC points out that 24 to 27 percent of urban African-Americans, Latinos and indigenous people in the U.S. are now living below the poverty line, compared with only 13 percent of urban whites—meaning that minority groups are at the greatest risk from the heat waves, bad air, stronger storms and other negative consequences of a warming climate.

The federal government has been working on environmental justice issues since at least 1992 when then-President George H.W. Bush created a White House office dedicated to “environmental equity.” Bill Clinton took up the mantle when he assumed the presidency in 1994 and issued Executive Order #12898 calling for the federal government to identify and address “disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of its programs, policies and activities on minority populations and low-income populations.” Clinton’s order created the Interagency Working Group on Environmental Justice to coordinate and oversee implementation of the rule across different federal agencies, and spawned the Environmental Justice Small Grants Program, which has awarded upwards of $24 million since then in funding to more than 1,400 community-based and tribal organizations working in communities facing environmental justice problems. 

But that all is likely to change now that Donald Trump has proposed slashing the EPA’s overall budget by $2 billion and cutting funding for environmental justice programs specifically by 78 percent, from $6.7 million to just $1.5 million. “These cuts are a direct attack on low-income communities and communities of color everywhere who are on the front lines of toxic pollution,” says NRDC’s environmental justice head Al Huang. 

CONTACTS: EPA Environmental Justice, www.epa.gov/environmentaljustice; NRDC, www.nrdc.org.


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the Paris climate accord as it stands won’t be enough to stave off cataclysmic global warming anyway, even if the U.S. and the other participating countries honor their commitments? -- Astrid Taylor, Williams, MA

To date, 197 countries have signed onto 2015’s landmark Paris climate accord (“The Paris Agreement”), which aims to limit global warming to less than 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100 through voluntary emissions reduction plans. But skeptics argue that even if all participating countries follow through with their promised cuts, we may still come up short in leveling off global warming as needed. 

Researchers working on the Climate Action Tracker, a tool used to monitor climate action and global efforts to meet Paris Agreement goals, found that with current and planned emissions reduction policies, we are on track to hold the global mean temperature down to approximately 2.8°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100—not the 2°C environmental leaders are hoping we can achieve. For some context, the current global average mean temperature hovers around 1°C above pre-industrial levels, but climatologists expect the warming to accelerate as a result of a century’s worth of carbon dioxide (CO2) built up in the atmosphere. If we keep up our current pace of emissions up without any checks, climate models suggest the global average mean temperature will rise about 3.6°C by 2100.

Meanwhile, others think we are even further from achieving our goals. Blogger and Skeptical Environmentalist author Bjorn Lomborg calculates that, even if each of the Paris signatories keeps its emissions reduction promises, we can only expect a negligible reduction in global mean temperature, that is, only 0.17°C lower by 2100, but still well above what climatologists consider safe and sustainable. “Paris is being sold as the summit where we can help ‘heal the planet’ and ‘save the world’,” says Lomborg. “It is no such thing.”

What such negative extrapolations don’t factor in is that the Paris Agreement leaves room for participating nations to adjust their emissions reduction goals moving forward. Indeed, setting more ambitious targets mid-stream is baked into the agreement. Negotiators figure that improving technologies and the reduced cost of renewables in the coming years will help drive down emissions more than we can count on at this point, and getting more nations on-board now is the top priority. To wit, the U.S. has promised “deep, economy-wide emission reductions of 80 percent or more by 2050” while the European Union has likewise pledged to slash its own emissions by 80 to 95 percent of 1990 levels by 2050.

But are such lofty goals achievable? Stockholm University’s Johan Rockström thinks so, but only if we’re careful how we get there. Lead author on a recent paper on the topic in Science Magazine, Rockström argues that we need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from utilities and industry around the world in half every decade until 2050 while also cutting out net greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture and deforestation altogether. Meanwhile, we’ll have to significantly scale up efforts to sequester CO2. According to Rockström, if we can remove five gigatons of CO2 from the atmosphere every year until 2050—almost double what the world’s trees and soils already do naturally—we might be able to get in striking distance of the 2°C goal.

CONTACTS: Bjorn Lomborg’s “Impact of Current Climate Proposals,” onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1758-5899.12295/full;  Climate Action Tracker, www.climateactiontracker.org; “A Roadmap for Rapid Decarbonisation,” http://science.sciencemag.org/content/355/6331/1269.full.


Dear EarthTalk: Who are some of the greener movie stars out there today and what are they doing to fight for the planet? -- Stacey DiGiorno, Chevy Chase, MD

While a handful of Hollywood A-listers—Robert Redford, Meryl Streep and Ed Begley Jr., to name a few —have been actively campaigning for the environment for decades, a new wave of green celebrities is using star power to help convince millions of fans around the world to live greener lifestyles and speak up for environmental protections and climate mitigation.

Leonardo DiCaprio continues to distinguish himself as one of the greenest stars out there. He started the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation in 1998 with the mission of protecting the world’s last wild places, and has since then channeled millions of dollars in grants toward various direct action initiatives and awareness-raising campaigns all over the world. His 2007 documentary, The 11th Hour, features interviews with a variety of leaders and luminaries in documenting the grave environmental problems facing the planet’s life systems, while his 2016 film, Before The Flood, focuses on the environmental impacts of global warming on different locales around the world. Last December, DiCaprio met with then-President-Elect Trump to discuss the importance of the U.S. remaining committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and honoring its commitments as part of 2015’s Paris climate agreement. 

Another big star that’s gone green is Arnold Schwarzenegger. The Terminator earned his environmental cred during his six years as California’s governor when he shepherded legislation through a hostile state legislature establishing the most stringent emissions reduction mandates in the nation, and issued executive orders to up the energy efficiency requirements for existing and new state government buildings. He also helped pave the way for the introduction of automobiles powered by emissions-free fuel cells by building the beginnings of a hydrogen refueling network across California. Schwarzenegger has been outspoken about the need for state and local governments to take the lead in the battle against global warming—a message that never resonated more clearly than now with climate-denier Donald Trump in the White House.

Mark Ruffalo may have played The Hulk in Marvel Comics’ Avengers movies for good reason: He’s pretty green—and resource extractors don’t like him when he’s angry. The A-list actor is outspoken against the environmental and health ills of fracking, a technique that recovers gas and oil from shale rock by drilling down into the Earth to direct a high-pressure water mixture at the rock to release the gas inside. He founded the non-profit Water Defense in 2009, and later went on to join engineering professor Mark Jacobson, banker and solar executive Marco Krapels and filmmaker/activist Josh Fox to launch The Solutions Project, which aims to help move the U.S. to 100 percent renewable energy. He has also been active alongside the Standing Rock Sioux in fighting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota.

Some other movie stars for the environment include Edward Norton, Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Daryl Hannah, Pierce Brosnan, Charlize Theron, Matt Dillon, Matt Damon, Julia Roberts, Will Ferrell, Tom Hanks and George Clooney. At least you can feel better about going to the movies now that you know the stars on the screen are using some of the money they are making at your expense to help the planet.

CONTACTS: Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, www.leonardodicaprio.org; Water Defense, www.waterdefense.org; Solutions Project, www.thesolutionsproject.org.


Dear EarthTalk: Even though pesticides may take an environmental toll, isn’t it worth it given how many more mouths we can feed thanks to their use? -- Mickey Jurowski, Palatine, IL

The advent of new technologies coming out of World War II led agricultural researchers to start experimenting with new classes of chemicals they could use to boost agricultural production. As human populations swelled, these “advances” were applied around the world so farmers could grow more food to feed the hungry masses and stave off widespread famine. This transition from essentially organic farming practices to what we now consider “conventional” (that is, aided by chemicals) has been dubbed “The Green Revolution.” But “green” in the name doesn’t mean it’s been good for the environment.

Chemical fertilizers are synthetic or inorganic materials added to soil to aid in plant life. Pesticides kill insects or other organisms that are harmful to crops, while herbicides kill any unwelcomed vegetation that may affect their growth. According to data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), American farmers use upwards of a billion pounds of pesticides every year. Meanwhile, the United Nations reports that globally we use about five times that.

Indeed, the widespread adoption of these synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides has done a great job at boosting crop efficiency to feed more and more of us. For example, India was on the brink of a mass famine in the 1960s due to rapid population growth. Using the techniques of the green revolution, Indian farmers were able to grow enough produce and rice to stave off widespread starvation. Another advantage of pesticide use in India and elsewhere has been the prevention of disease, because pesticides kill insects carrying viruses that could be passed onto the crops.

However, pesticides not only kill the pests but also the natural enemies of those pests. In nature, everything is balanced out. Indeed, there is no free lunch, as pests respond to treatment by breeding stronger offspring that are resistant to these chemicals, and with natural predators gone, these pests will quickly multiply, which is why the need for pesticides to kill these pests keeps increasing. 

Furthermore, persistent organic pollutants, also known as “POPs,” are highly toxic pesticides and chemicals that do not decompose. They poison non-target organisms in the environment because they are passed through the food chain (bioaccumulate). Consumption of POPs disrupts the endocrine system and is linked to cancer and infertility in humans. Pesticides also take a toll on our environment, contaminating water and soil. Along with insects, pesticides are also toxic to fish, birds, frogs and more. 

Pesticide use is very controversial and should be taken seriously. While here at home, the EPA has banned many pesticides that are harmful to our environment and our health (though the battle for safer food rages on), in many other countries agricultural oversight and environmental regulations are non-existent or unenforced. Fortunately, we can all be part of the solution by eschewing conventionally grown foods and opting for organic varieties whenever we can. While growing your own food is one sure way to know that what you’re eating is safe, you can also find an increasingly large amount of organic food in your local supermarket, let alone at a Whole Foods near you. Another great way to eat healthier and organic is to shop at local farmers’ market. Find one near you by searching the free online database maintained by the non-profit Local Harvest.

CONTACTS: EPA, www.epa.gov/agriculture/agriculture-organic-farming;
Local Harvest, www.localharvest.org/farmers-markets/; Whole Foods, wholefoods.com.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of the nonprofit Earth Action Network. To donate, visit WWW.EARTHTALK.ORGSend questions to questions@earthtalk.org  



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