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by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss

From the Editors of E - The Environmental Magazine

Dear Earthtalk: What ever happened to the radical environmental group Earth First!? Are they still around and what other groups are leading the charge when it comes to so-called “radical environmentalism” these days? —Betty Jones, Irvine, CA

Car bomb injuries, prison terms, and death were among the perils protestors with the Earth First! (EF!) movement faced throughout the 1990s. EF! formed in 1979, in response to what they called an increasingly corporate, compromising and ineffective environmental community. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, small EF! groups throughout the U.S. and other countries took part in protests that may have included road blockades, activists locking themselves to heavy equipment, tree-sitting, destruction of machinery and tree-spiking. Tree-spiking, which was advocated by EF! co-founder Dave Foreman in his book Ecodefense, involves hammering a nail into the trunk of a tree to discourage logging as a result of chain saw destruction. In 1987, California mill worker George Alexander was nearly killed when the bandsaw he was operating was shattered by a possible tree spike. This led many EF! groups to reject this form of “ecotage” entirely.

In 2008, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) stated that they consider eco-terrorists, along with animal rights extremists, among the most serious domestic terrorist threats in the United States today. One group the FBI specifically named was the Earth Liberation Front (ELF), who they consider to be a “loosely-organized movement whose adherents engage in crimes like arson, fire bombings, vandalism, intimidation, assaults, stalking, etc.” ELF, which formed in 1992, received national attention in 1998 after they burned down a Vail Ski Resort in Vail, Colorado that resulted in an estimated $26 million in damages.

“Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive,” FBI Director Robert S. Mueller said. “There’s a clear difference between constitutionally protected advocacy – which is the right of all Americans – and violent criminal activity.”

A study published in 2014 revealed that attacks related to eco-terrorism from 1970 to 2012 reached a peak of 163 incidents a year by 2001, but after 2003, the frequency declined, and by 2012, there were next to none. The decline in attacks coincided with stricter post-9/11 law enforcement policies against acts of eco-terrorism.

Today, groups like Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd Conservation Society — while not attempting illegal acts that earn them the label of an FBI domestic terrorist threat — still gain widespread publicity for their bold and aggressive tactics to achieve their campaign goals. Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd, dispels accusations that they are an eco-terrorist organization, however, stating that they have no basis in fact. Watson has said that Sea Shepherd is not a protest organization, but rather an interventionist organization that intervenes against illegal activities, like the poaching of whales from a whale sanctuary.

“I was invited to give a lecture at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia in August 2009 where one agent remarked that Sea Shepherd walked a very fine line with the law,” Watson detailed on the group’s website. “My answer was, and he did not dispute it, is that there is nothing wrong with walking a fine line as long as the laws are not broken.”

CONTACTS: Earth First!, www.earthfirst.org; Greenpeace, www.greenpeace.org; Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, www.seashepherd.org.

Dear EarthTalk: Why are there stretches of thousands of miles of interstate systems in this country with barren medians? What are the obstacles to planting trees or other vegetation in those areas?
  --James Logan Cockerham, Middletown, OH
The idea of beautifying highway medians with plantings goes back five decades when Lady Bird Johnson pushed the Highway Beautification Act through Congress in 1965. Today, Americans are starting to think about undeveloped land alongside and between roadways as a low cost and widely dispersed strategy for carbon sequestration. Researchers from the Western Transportation Institute (WTI) at Montana State University report that roadside soils and vegetation on federal lands alone are already capturing almost two percent of total U.S. transportation carbon emissions. WTI adds that the land alongside America’s four million miles of public roadways already maintained by federal, state and local governments could be planted with vegetation optimized for storing atmospheric carbon dioxide and could serve as valuable “banks” for meeting ambitious carbon sequestration goals set at the recent Paris climate accord.

At a talk at 2015’s North American Congress for Conservation Biology in Missoula, Montana, WTI’s Rob Ament reported that shrubs, grasses and other plants already along roads in U.S. national parks, wildlife refuges and other public lands currently are currently sequestering some seven million metric tons of carbon a year—equivalent to taking some five million cars off the road—all without trying to optimize the mix of plants and management practices for carbon storage. Ament advocates that land management authorities and departments of transportation research ways to enlist medians and other public lands in the fight to stave off cataclysmic global warming.

Of course, maintaining highway medians and other forlorn stretches of roadside for carbon sequestration may be more easily said than done, especially since drought across the American West has reduced water budgets for land management and transportation authorities to the bare minimum. While this winter’s El Nino weather pattern has restored many depleted aquifers, water is still likely more valuable than some precious metals and will probably remain scarce for years to come.

Despite the drought, California’s Department of Transportation (Caltrans) is currently looking into just how much carbon sequestration could be possible by optimizing the state’s median and roadside plantings.  “Highway roadsides may be an overlooked and undervalued component of the department’s resources available to reduce greenhouse gases and assist in meeting California Air Resources Board compliance goals,” says Doug Brown, a Senior Landscape Architect with Caltrans. “When managed properly, trees are proven cost-effective mitigation measures that sequester carbon.” He adds that increasing tree cover also reduces the heat-island effect by shading impervious surfaces. 

Much of the information we already have about vegetation management strategies that optimize carbon sequestration, says Brown, is focused on large tracts of forest land, not on smaller tracts such as along roadsides. He concludes that we need to do much more research to figure out ways to better utilize these roadside green spaces without depleting groundwater reserves. Planting highway medians with carbon-sucking plants may not be the only solution to global warming woes, we need all the help we can get.

CONTACTS: Western Transportation Institute, www.westerntransportationinstitute.org; North American Congress for Conservation Biology, www.scbnacongress.org; Caltrans, www.dot.ca.gov.

Dear EarthTalk: How can I tell if the green certifications and labels on all kinds of products these days are legitimate or just ‘greenwashing’? --Paul Bass, New York, NY

As sustainability becomes more mainstream, more and more products today advertise their green credentials—with many displaying third-party certifications on their labels. But how can consumers know which certifications are legit? 

Americans’ confidence in green labels reached a low in 2011 when the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) busted “Tested Green” for selling unverified environmental certifications backed up by unqualified “experts” at supposedly independent firms that were actually owned by the same person. Tested Green used its website and mass e-mails to drum up more than 100 customers—and six figure revenues—falsely claiming to be the “nation’s leading certification program with over 45,000 certifications in the United States.” According to the FTC, the company never tested any of the companies it certified and instead awarded use of its label and a link to a “certification verification page” on its website for any customer willing to spend $189.95 on a “Rapid” certification, or $549.95 for a “Pro” certification.

Tested Green is far from the only such case the FTC has pursued. The agency has investigated thousands of cases of misleading green labeling and works hard to ferret out and shut down offenders. “It’s no secret that consumers want products that are environmentally friendly, and that companies are trying to meet that need,” says Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Bureau of Consumer Protection. “But companies that don’t have evidence to support the environmental claims they make about their products erode consumer confidence and undermine those companies that are playing by the rules.”

The FTC also hopes to stem the rising tide of greenwashing through publication of its free Green Guides, which help companies understand the general principles that apply to all environmental marketing claims, how consumers are likely to interpret particular claims and how to substantiate such claims, and how to back up claims to avoid deceiving consumers. First released in 1992 and revised most recently in 2012, the latest version incorporates guidance on the use of third-party certification seals and claims about carbon offsets and “renewable” materials and energy sources.

For their part, consumers should investigate any green certification labels they see on products to ascertain whether or not they are valid. Some of the certifications we know we can all trust include the federal government’s USDA Organic label for organically produced food, the ENERGY STAR label for energy efficient electronics and appliances; independent agency certifications from Cradle to Cradle for manufacturers, the Rainforest Alliance for coffee and other tropical agricultural goods, the Forest Stewardship Council for timber and wood producers, and the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED program for construction and building. Perhaps the granddaddy of all third-party eco-certifications is Green Seal, which has certified thousands of businesses, government agencies and nonprofits since its inception in 1989 and essentially started the green labeling movement.

While some regional, industry and proprietary labels may be valid as well, buyers should be wary of any certifications they haven’t heard of or can’t verify via a quick check online. One way to find out if an eco label is legit is by checking it out on the Ecolabel Index, the largest global directory of sustainability oriented certification labels, currently tracking 463 ecolabels in 199 countries across 25 industry sectors.

CONTACTS: FTC Green Guides, www.ftc.gov/news-events/media-resources/truth-advertising/green-guides; Ecolabel Index, www.ecolabelindex.com.

Dear EarthTalk: What has been the environmental impact of the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal?    -- Emily Warden, Philadelphia, PA

An analysis by The Guardian last September 2015 revealed that affected VWs in the U.S. are likely emitting between 10,392 and 41,571 tons of toxic nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the air every year, based on typical annual mileage counts. If those vehicles had complied with federal pollution standards, they would have emitted just 1,039 tons per year. Researchers believe Volkswagen has added between 10 and 40 times more NOx pollution into our atmosphere than the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers safe for people to breathe. According to the Guardian, the 11 million affected diesel-engine VWs on the road worldwide could be emitting some 237,161 to 948,691 tons of NOx emissions annually. In contrast, Western Europe’s biggest electrical power station emits just 39,000 tons each year.

Meanwhile, a study released in October 2015 by public health researchers from Harvard and MIT found that 59 Americans will die prematurely from the excess pollution caused by Volkswagen having cheated emissions tests in the U.S. Researchers calculated the amount of extra particulate and ozone pollution put out by the rigged vehicles between 2008 and 2015 to arrive at their conclusions—and recommend that VW prevent another 130 early U.S. deaths by recalling all affected cars in the U.S. by the end of 2016. The health implications in Europe are even more troubling given that half of the passenger cars on the road there are diesels (including eight million affected VWs), compared to just three percent in the U.S.
According to a tentative deal reached between the U.S. government and Volkswagen in April 2016, Americans may be able to breathe a sigh of relief soon. VW tentatively agreed to compensate some 500,000 U.S. customers who own 2-liter diesel-engine vehicles (including certain Jetta, Golf, Beetle and Passat models) that were rigged to cheat emissions tests. While details are not finalized, VW reportedly has committed to either buying back or fixing the cars to meet emissions standards and providing “substantial compensation”—$5,000 each is a figure floating around the rumor mill—to affected car owners. This deal doesn’t apply to the 90,000 3-liter diesel-engine vehicles in the U.S. implicated in the scandal, let alone the 10+ million other affected vehicles worldwide, but it does establish a precedent and some guidelines which should direct VW’s compensatory efforts moving forward in Europe and beyond.

Environmental groups aren’t letting Volkswagen off-the-hook just yet, and not only because the company hasn’t agreed to any specifics yet. “The final settlement needs to fix or remove all of the polluting cars still on the road, make whole the consumers who trusted the vehicles were lower-polluting, and compensate for the pollution the faulty cars created,” says Kathryn Phillips, the Sierra Club’s California director. It’s unclear if there is any nod to Phillips’ last requirement—a key sticking point for greens intent not to let the German automaker off the hook—in the as-yet unreleased agreement.

For its part, VW isn’t taking the scandal lightly, recently announcing that it was setting aside $18.2 billion—more than double the amount it originally anticipated—to help fix the situation amid an environment of overall declining sales. Hopefully VW is now committed to solving the problem and will stay on the right side of regulators moving forward, but who knows how many other large industrial companies are skirting rules and spewing dangerous levels of pollution into our skies, land and water? 

CONTACTS: “VW scandal caused nearly 1m tonnes of extra pollution, analysis shows,” The Guardian, http://bit.ly/1MostqE; “Impact of the Volkswagen emissions control defeat device on US public health,” Environmental Research Letters, http://bit.ly/1WLgj1C; Sierra Club, www.sierraclub.org.

EarthTalk® is produced by Roddy Scheer and Doug Moss and is a registered trademark of Earth Action Network, a 501(c)3 non-profit. For more information, or to make a donation, check out www.earthtalk.org. Send questions to:question@earthtalk.org 

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