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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Given the economic slowdown around the world due to the coronavirus in 2020, was there a positive impact on climate change? -- M. Stiles, Meriden, CT

The coronavirus pandemic has certainly led to a decrease in industrial activity and resulting greenhouse gas emissions during its reign over the planet in 2020. A recent study by German researchers calculated that global carbon dioxide emissions fell by about eight percent over the past year. While this is no doubt a good result from an otherwise bad situation, the researchers warn it represents nothing but a small drop in the bucket compared to what we still need to accomplish—even bigger annual emissions drops every year for decades to come—to avert cataclysmic climate change.

According to study co-author Ralf Sussmann, we would need to achieve zero emissions around the world by 2055 to limit global warming at 1.5ºC. The declining rate of greenhouse gas emissions during the global pandemic would not only need to be upheld, it would need to be amplified to achieve zero emissions. Sussmann and other study authors stated that to achieve these reductions “political measures have to be taken to directly initiate fundamental technological changes in the energy and transport sectors.”

Despite the drop in emissions over this past year, 2020 will likely go down in history as the year things started to really accelerate with regard to climate change’s effects. Recent increases in both the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are consequences of global climate change. “Global warming can contribute to the intensity of heat waves… Increasing temperatures mean a longer wildfire season,” reports the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. “Global warming also increases water vapor in the atmosphere, which can lead to more frequent heavy rain and snowstorms.” This means stronger hurricanes and flooding.

In 2020, extreme weather events plagued people around the world amid the pandemic. In the U.S. alone, Americans witnessed orange skies clouded with smoke and a number of powerful hurricanes coming from the Atlantic. Globally, there have been record high average temperatures, double the activity of a normal hurricane season, the hottest temperature ever reliably recorded in human history (54ºC), the most costly damages from flooding to date in China, record low Arctic sea ice, and the strongest tropical cyclone to hit land that has ever been recorded (Super Typhoon Goni). These abnormally extreme weather events are all indicators of the accelerating effects of climate change on our planet.

Even though climate change continues to worsen, in small ways all over the world nature has taken this economic slowdown as a chance to breathe. For example, the murky waters of Venice’s canals became clearer than they had been in decades—and sea life even returned to the city’s urban waterways. While global warming has not stopped because of the global pandemic, we have learned that Mother Nature responds positively to our improved behavior (even when not intended), which gives environmental advocates hope to keep on working. It’s now up to every one of us to make significant changes in our own orbits—perhaps by keeping up our slower and more stationary existences even after we have a grip on coronavirus—if we hope to mitigate and reverse the effects of climate change.

CONTACTS: “Can We Measure a COVID-19-Related Slowdown in Atmospheric CO2 Growth?” mdpi.com/2072-4292/12/15/2387; “Global warming is contributing to extreme weather events,” nationalacademies.org/based-on-science/climate-change-global-warming-is-contributing-to-extreme-weather-events.

Dear EarthTalk: Given the existential threat to their industry, what are ski resorts, gear makers and professional skiers and snowboarders doing to fight global warming? -- J. Simms, Rutland, VT

It’s undeniable that climate change has been affecting and continues to threaten the winter sports and tourism industries. Colder regions around the world are experiencing a steady decline in snowfall and snowy months. In the classic tale of Frosty the Snowman, Frosty promises to come back next winter when the cold returns. But as global average temperatures continue to climb, will Frosty keep coming back?

The SNOTEL network has kept detailed records of snow at high elevations since the 1960s. Based on their data, scientists have determined a 10-20 percent average loss in the annual maximum snow water equivalent (the amount of water stored in snow packs) during that time because of global warming. They have also recorded a one-to-two-week loss in days with snow cover in these regions since the 1970s.

“Warmer winter temperatures also affect the characteristics of accumulated snow on the ground, including snow depth, how long the snow stays on the ground, and snow ‘slushiness,’” reports the group Protecting Our Winters (POW) in a report produced in conjunction with gear retailer Recreational Equipment, Inc. (REI). Of course, more slushiness and less powder are not ideal for winter sports enthusiasts.

Whether it’s skiing, snowboarding or just rolling around in the snow, there are many of activities that rely on the cold. One study found that 20 million Americans participate in winter sports annually, generating $20.3 billion dollars in the winter sports tourism industry. This industry supports over 191,000 jobs.

So, what’s the industry doing to address these changes? The National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) has taken on global warming via its Climate Challenge program. promoting education around global climate change, creating more sustainable slopes, and furthering outdoor business climate partnerships.

Winter sports athletes have also been advocating for climate action. Before the 2014 Winter Olympics, 75 decorated Olympic skiing and snowboarding medalists wrote to President Obama calling for more ambitious action on climate change; they continue to advocate for climate action to this day. Additionally, “sustainability” was recently announced as one of the three pillars of Olympic Agenda 2020.

Last but not least, Protect Our Winters (POW) has been a huge player in pushing for climate action. “We find things in deep winter or at high altitude elevations that we don’t find anywhere else, that speak very directly to our connection to nature and to the human soul...” POW’ executive director, Mario Molina, tells Yale Climate Connections. POW rallies athletes, scientists, business leaders and others to advocate for policies that protect climate and has resources for advocacy, education, donating and volunteering.

CONTACTS: Olympic Agenda 2020, Olympic.org/olympic-agenda-2020; NSAA,
nsaa.org/NSAA/Sustainability/Climate_Change/NSAA/Sustainability/Climate_Change.aspx?hkey=a9a435c0-411c-4d11-86e3-00b15bdefaae; POW, protectourwinters.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Are hunters really the biggest conservationists in America? – Joe W., Raleigh, NC

Hunters do play a large part in conservation efforts across the U.S. through their taxes, licenses and donations. In fact, the National Wildlife Refuge System itself was founded by a hunter: President Theodore Roosevelt. That being said, the mere act of hunting alone is not conservation.

While one can conserve an animal’s pelt, meat, or the memory of that animal, shooting and killing an animal, of course, does not mean that it has been conserved. However, hunters take action outside of hunting in order to maintain the species’ health, environments and numbers in which they hunt. In this regard, not all hunters are conservationists, but many become conservationists through hunting.

Most of the U.S. government’s funding for conservation comes from hunters. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service raises money for wetland habitat protection through its program called “Duck Stamps.” Federal Duck Stamps are required to be purchased by all waterfowl hunters, but they can also be bought by anyone who would like to contribute to conservation. Since their creation in 1934, Duck Stamps have helped conserve nearly six million acres of habitat. They also serve as a free pass into any national wildlife refuge that charges an entry fee. Additionally, according to the Rocket Mountain Elk Foundation (RMEF), hunters pay $796 million a year towards conservation programs through their state licenses and fees. RMEF is largely made up of hunters, and along with other similar groups, they estimate that they have added around $440 million a year to conservation efforts. Another federal tax on guns, ammo, bows and arrows generates $371 million a year towards conservation.

A survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service showed that the percentage of Americans who hunt has halved over the past 50 years, and that the decline continues to accelerate. Because hunters provide much of the funding to government conservation programs, the decreasing popularity of the pastime is taking a toll on efforts by state and federal agencies to implement wildlife habitat restoration plans and related activities for the benefit of wildlife.

There are some who see this decline in hunting as a positive. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), for example, published a detailed article citing the main reasons why they believe sport hunting is cruel and unnecessary. They point out that a substantial percentage of animals hunted are shot but not killed causing an unnecessary amount of pain and suffering. Additionally, they argue that while natural predators maintain the balance of an ecosystem by killing the sickest and weakest individuals, sport hunters often try to aim for large, healthy animals for better bragging rights.

It is undeniable that hunters contribute to conservation efforts, but the sport and act of hunting itself has proven to be a controversial subject for many.

CONTACTS: Duck Stamps, fws.gov/birds/get-involved/duck-stamp.php; Hunting is Conservation – Paid for by Hunters, rmef.org/elk-network/hunting-conservation-paid-hunters/#:~:text=Through%20state%20licenses%20and%20fees,arrows%20to%20help%20fund%20conservation; Why Sport Hunting is Cruel and Unnecessary (PETA), peta.org/issues/wildlife/wildlife-factsheets/sport-hunting-cruel-unnecessary/

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the last minute changes the Trump administration has wrought that are hurting the environment and efforts to battle global warming? And will the Biden administration be able to undo them? -- Tim Jeffries, Sarasota, FL

President Joe Biden has ambitious plans to make up for lost time with climate remediation and encouragement of the clean energy sector—including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord that Trump withdrew the U.S from in 2017. Biden will also be looking to clean up some shorter-term environmental messes left by the Trump White House in its final days.

One of the more egregious of Trump’s last minute anti-environment moves is the “Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s Strengthening Transparency in Pivotal Science Underlying Significant Regulatory Actions and Influential Scientific Information Rule,” a mouthful, for sure and innocent-sounding, perhaps: It stipulates that publicly released scientific data should take preference over studies that keep their data confidential.

But, according to The Washington Post, many researchers and academic organizations say that the criteria “will actually restrict the EPA from using some of the most consequential research on human subjects because it often includes confidential medical records and other proprietary data that cannot be released because of privacy concerns.” Says Chris Zarba, former director of the EPA’s Science Advisory Board, in the same Post article: “It sounds good on the surface. But this is a bold attempt to get science out of the way so special interests can do what they want.”

Another change pushed through by Trump at the last minute is a significant reduction in environmental and safety requirements for Arctic oil exploration. Native tribes there are especially incensed by this move, and have taken to social media in droves to win support against it. Given the sheer volume of public opposition, it will likely take many weeks before any auctions for these drilling rights leases could be finalized, thus giving the Biden administration a chance to take action before a disaster takes place.

Similarly, Trump has also just proposed to strip protections from millions of acres of California’s desert to open up mining projects, which would destroy native ecosystems and conservation lands. California Democratic Senator Dianne Feinstein has already pledged to “work with the new administration to immediately block this rule change” which jeopardizes a bi-partisan desert conservation plan years in the making that carefully balances recreational use, energy production and preservation.

On the bright side, President Biden has already issued executive orders for the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, to direct federal agencies to consider revising vehicle fuel economy and emissions standards, and to cancel permits for the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. After cleaning up Trump’s mess, which could take anywhere from weeks to years, Biden also aims to implement his own omnibus climate package similar to the proposed Green New Deal. Biden’s plan calls for increasing electric vehicle usage, expanding wind and solar energy markets, creating millions of new jobs in sustainable energy, and paving the path to 100 percent clean energy by 2050.

CONTACTS: Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution & Environmental Justice, joebiden.com/climate-plan.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss for the 501(c)3 nonprofit EarthTalk. See more at https://emagazine.com. To donate, visit https://www.earthtalk.org . Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org





 


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