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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that some wildlife species are evolving much more rapidly in response to the warming climate? -- D. Gould, Hendersonville, NC

It’s amazing to think that climate change is causing animals to evolve faster than they would otherwise, but the science speaks for itself. Researchers from Australia’s Deakin University found evidence of so-called “shapeshifting” in recent years in direct response to warming temperatures across habitat ranges.

Indeed, several species of Australian parrots have four-to-10 percent bigger bills than their ancestors before the industrial revolution, correlating directly with rising temperatures due to human-induced global warming. Dark-eyed juncos in North America also evolved bigger bills as temperature extremes ramped up across their range. Mammalian shapeshifting also includes longer tails in wood mice and increased leg and tail sizes in masked shrews over the 150 years—all likely adaptations to warming habitats.

Another study found that climate change has sped up the rate of natural selection for mosquitos that lay their eggs inside carnivorous pitcher plants. Mosquito larvae that hatch in the spring have adapted to an earlier spring by opening sooner than they did a quarter-century ago to feed on more dead insects.

While these types of adaptations may benefit the species under study, climate change is likely negatively affecting many more which cannot adapt fast enough to keep up. For example, Scotland’s feral sheep have become smaller due to warmer weather in the winter that no longer necessitates larger, thicker coats. And polar bears, which have evolved thick fur coats and layers and layers of fat to keep them warm out on the Arctic tundra and swimming between ice floes, are likely another evolutionary loser in the age of climate change. As ice caps melt and ice floes become fewer and farther between, these majestic white guardians of the Arctic are unlikely to adapt quickly enough to keep up with the fast-moving changes to their environment and are thus likely headed for extinction unless we can turn things around ASAP.

According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a quarter of all species may face extinction as a result of global warming, an estimate based on studies on the range of species and whether a species has adapted to new conditions of temperature, rainfall and more. Researchers then projected future ranges of to determine whether the range will shift faster than a species can move and adapt. Species that fail to adapt quickly enough will be trapped in degrading habitat and as such are much more likely to go extinct.

While warming temperatures increased gene flow and evolution among some species during the Pleistocene era, the current reality of climate change paints a different picture. “The present human-caused climate change will not lead to similar extensive mixing and adaptation of populations,” says Eeva Furman of the Finnish Environment Institute. “Partly because movements of most species are greatly hindered in human dominated landscapes, and partly because the present climate warming is extremely rapid in comparison with Pleistocene climate fluctuations.”

CONTACTS: Shape-shifting: changing animal morphologies as a response to climatic warming, bit.ly/shapeshifting-wildlife; Climate Change Could Change Rates of Evolution, journals.plos.org/plosbiology/article?id=10.1371/journal.pbio.1001015; Climate change is speeding up evolution, mice study finds, cantechletter.com/2017/11/climate-change-is-speeding-up-evolution-mice-study-finds/; First Comes Global Warming, Then an Evolutionary Explosion, https://e360.yale.edu/features/first_comes_global_warming_then_an_evolutionary_explosion.

Dear EarthTalk: What’s the latest on efforts to force Procter & Gamble to stop using virgin forest fiber for its toilet paper products?

-- P. Brody, Boulder, CO

Strolling down the toilet paper aisle, one is faced with a grave decision: 3-ply or ultra-plush? For consumers, factors like price, size and comfort always come to mind first while consuming this household product, yet why do we fail to prioritize the environmental impact of toilet paper?

The average American household consumes an average of three rolls of toilet paper per week, or an annual average of 100 pounds of the stuff, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), a leading non-profit environmental group. Procter and Gamble (P&G), like other major companies have continued to employ traditional toilet paper production processes that devastate forests, earning the company an F grade for all its tissue brands according to a recent report from NRDC.

P&G sources northern bleached softwood kraft (NBSK), the primary softwood pulp in most U.S. tissue products, from Canada’s boreal forest. An indispensable global carbon sink (a natural environment that absorbs carbon from the atmosphere), the boreal forest constitutes 25 percent of the planet’s remaining intact forest and contains twice as much carbon as the world’s oil reserves.

Although P&G promised in a 2020 resolution to begin eliminating deforestation from its supply chains, the company actually increased logging and production of NBSK from Canada’s boreal forest in 2021. This excessive logging has prompted a continual collapse of this vital ecosystem, where the forest now emits more carbon into the atmosphere than it absorbs.

In Canada, the logging industry alone accounts for more than 26 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year, substantially more than the total emissions from passenger cars and trucks. Rather than making a change to sourcing and production methods, P&G is busy deflecting the responsibility of sustainability upon consumers—as with other common products like cars or straws.

“As the climate crisis worsens, the tissue industry’s continued reliance on a devastating ‘tree to toilet pipeline’ has become only more untenable,” said Shelley Vinyard, NRDC’s boreal corporate campaign manager. “Major corporations like P&G must start responding to the pressure and accept their own, much larger, role in the climate catastrophe.”

Though consumers can certainly make a difference by selecting bamboo-based or recycled fiber toilet paper, the weight of the responsibility falls upon large corporations. Forests have no voice against the exploitations of the logging industry, so companies like P&G must stop taking half-measures and turn their resolutions into reality.

CONTACTS: Your Favorite Toilet Paper May Be Making Climate Change Worse, motherjones.com/environment/2021/09/your-favorite-toilet-paper-may-be-making-climate-change-worse/; Procter & Gamble heirs say company's ‘production is coming at a terrible price to the planet’, cbsnews.com/news/procter-gamble-relative-call-for-change.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the “Climate Pledge” that Seattle’s new hockey arena is named after all about? -- E. Howard, Washington, DC

When Seattle’s new sports and concert arena opened its doors to the public in October 2021, many were left scratching heads as to what the heck the building’s name was about. It turns out that hometown e-commerce juggernaut Amazon bought the naming rights and decided to use the opportunity to raise awareness for the Climate Pledge. The Climate Pledge calls on companies to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2040, a decade earlier than called for under the terms of the Paris climate accord. Amazon co-founded the Climate Pledge with organizer Global Optimism in 2019, and immediately became the first signatory. Cut to the present and 200 other companies—including Procter & Gamble, Hewlett Packard, Visa and PepsiCo—have since signed on.

Seattle’s Climate Pledge Arena is indeed an apt showpiece for what signatory companies hope to achieve. The new building—home to the National Hockey League’s expansion team, the Seattle Kraken, as well as Women’s National Basketball League, The Seattle Storm—was designed by architect Jason McLennan. As founder of the International Living Future Institute (ILFI), McLennan helped set the standard for how buildings in the carbon-constrained days ahead will likely operate. Indeed, ILFI’s Living Building Challenge certifies “net-zero” buildings and others at the extreme end of the sustainability spectrum while advocating for the tightening of standards for new construction as to emissions reduction/elimination and energy efficiency across the U.S. and beyond.

At Climate Pledge Arena, rooftop solar panels account for most if not all energy needs. No fossil fuels are used within, making it the first net-zero arena of its size in the world. Ditching fossil fuels inside makes transportation to and from the arena the largest contributor to its overall carbon footprint. Amazon is stepping up and paying for carbon offsets through the non-profit Nature Conservancy, which purchases and expands agricultural and forest lands that serve as carbon sinks. Also, fans who purchase tickets through Climate Pledge Arena’s app can download free public transit ride vouchers to get there and back.

Reusing rainwater is a big part of meeting Living Building Challenge goals, and Climate Pledge Arena was designed from the ground up to utilize a series of chutes and gutters to channel Seattle’s prodigious rain water into cisterns that then feed the arena’s ice making processes and all other on-site water needs.

Another aspect of the arena’s green appeal is that 75 percent of the ingredients for food and drinks served come from sources within a 300-mile radius of the facility, significantly cutting down on “food miles” emissions. Single-use plastics are a no-no; vendors must stick to aluminum or biodegradable/compostable containers, straws, cutlery and to-go packaging. All paper products must contain at least 30 percent post-consumer content while cans, bottles and other non-compostables get recycled. Given there will be no “trash” created inside the arena, visitors will have to get used to seeing only composting and recycling bins for their waste.

Only time will tell whether these green features will become standard in other arenas and new buildings elsewhere moving forward. Environmental advocates among others are sure hoping so.


CONTACTS: Climate Pledge Arena: Sustainability,
climatepledgearena.com/sustainability; “Climate Pledge Arena goes on offense with sustainability goals,” kuow.org/stories/Climate-pledge-arena-goes-on-offensive-with-climate-goals; The Climate Pledge, theclimatepledge.com.

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//earthtalk.org. Send questions to: question@earthtalk.org


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