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EarthTalk®

by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss


Dear EarthTalk: I hear emperor penguins are on the brink of extinction… How did they get there and what can we do to save this species? -- J.W., Westport, CT

Two words explain the decline of Emperor penguins: climate change. Like many wildlife species across the globe, Emperor penguin populations have been declining for years due to the repercussions of a warming planet, such as melting sea ice and rising oceans. According to a 2021 population survey and assessment in Global Change Biology, “If Sea ice declines at the rate projected by climate models under current energy system trends and policies … almost all [Emperor penguin] colonies would become quasi-extinct by 2100.”

Antarctica is not escaping climate change at all. It's warming, it's melting, it's contributing to sea-level rise,” Tim Naish of the Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) tells Newshub.

Scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and the non-profit Oceanites estimate that approximately 238,000 breeding pairs of Emperors, or 595,000 adult birds, live in Antarctica. Although these numbers have held relatively steady over the past several decades, new studies warn that the penguins’ future is tied directly to that of the sea ice on which they depend; as the ice melts, so too do the penguins’ chances of survival.

Emperor penguins are not the only Antarctic species with uncertain futures. As a sentinel species of the Southern Ocean—the proverbial canary in the coalmine—declines-in Emperor populations indicate larger ecosystem disruptions that affect other wildlife, as well. Krill, a small shrimplike animal that floods the Southern Ocean, serves as a major food source for baleen whales, seals and fish, as well as penguins. But krill populations have been declining in recent decades and may decline by as much as 30 percent by the year 2100.

One way to save Emperor penguins is to study how they adapt to their changing habitats. “??In contrast to what people think, the Emperor penguin is a species very poorly studied,” Céline Le Bohec from the Hubert Curien Pluridisciplinary Institute in Strasbourg, France tells Popular Science. “...any data, especially from the sea, is exciting and precious.”

Scientific research recently got a boost in the form of a yellow data-gathering robot that roams among the Emperor colony. ECHO’s data will allow researchers to “define and map marine biological ‘hotspots’ and Marine Protected Areas,” Le Bohec said. Such information may prove invaluable to informing where and how to implement conservation efforts.

Additionally, any actions that reduce climate change will eventually help the Emperors and all Antarctic wildlife. Reducing our carbon footprint and plastic waste present two immediate opportunities. Eating less fish and cutting down on krill oil may also help. Many fish farms use krill scooped from Antarctica for fish food. Krill fishing not only reduces the penguins’ food source, but can also catch hungry whales, seals and penguins in the fishing nets. Finally, non-profit organizations that protect penguins and their habitats are always in search of additional funding—a small donation can’t hurt!

CONTACTS: Penguins International: How Can You Help Penguins, penguinsinternational.org/2020/03/22/how-can-you-help-penguins/; Pew Charitable Trust’s Protecting Emperor Penguins, pewtrusts.org/-/media/assets/2014/10/ccamlr/protecting_emperor_penguins_fact_sheet.pdf.

Dear EarthTalk: Is climate change actually good for the economy, given all the clean-up/restoration jobs severe weather is creating and the employment surges in green energy? – P.B., New Haven, CT

Strangely enough, climate change does produce jobs and boost the economy as we struggle to make ourselves more resilient to its ravages. Some would argue that the renewable energy sector owes much of its success to the climate crisis. According to the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, renewable energy use has increased by 90 percent since 2000, around when the climate crisis became mainstream.

Now the industry is worth billions of dollars and provides hundreds of thousands of jobs. According to a report by Advanced Energy Now, U.S. clean energy investment increased by 20 percent from 2018 to 2019, reaching a competitive value of $78.3 billion. Meanwhile, a 2020 report by the National Association of State Energy Officials found that wind and solar energy were responsible for some 544,000 jobs in 2019, whereas the fossil fuel industry was only responsible for 214,000 jobs.

Legislation produced in response to climate change can also boost the economy and provide jobs. In a blog post released by the White House, the federal government outlines the importance of investing in infrastructure associated with transportation and power not only as a means of combating climate change but also to strengthen the economy. Their infrastructure brief released in November 2021 refers to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, legislation that focuses $1.2 trillion towards infrastructure that improves everything from power grids to public transportation.

There are also those who clean up and restore locations destroyed by natural disasters like hurricanes, which according to the Environmental Defense Fund have increased in frequency by three times since 1900 because of the climate crisis.

However, despite all the economic positives associated with the climate change response, the environmental and public health “risks” still far outweigh the potential economic “benefits.” According to a study published in the peer-reviewed journal Science, the U.S. gross domestic product, a measure of economic health, will face an annual loss of one-to-two percent, with worst-case scenarios costing as much as 10 percent, if the federal government fails to enact stronger measures to combat climate change. And things aren’t looking any better globally: Insurance giant Swiss Re estimates that climate change is on track to reduce global economic output by as much as 14 percent overall by 2050.

The economic costs associated with climate change are so great that even insurance companies, not scientists, are warning people. According to consultants Capgemini and the financial industry body, EFMA, insurance claims from natural disasters have increased by 250 percent over the past 30 years, an increase they believe is due to climate change. Moreover, less than 10 percent of insurers are preparing adequately, meaning the industry will be hit harder if the effects of climate change become more severe.

But the future may not be all doom and gloom. In the same report, Swiss Re states that if we can limit global temperature increases to two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, economic losses by 2050 will only reach a maximum of five percent!

CONTACTS: Swiss Re’s “It's time to take action on climate change,” swissre.com/risk-knowledge/mitigating-climate-risk/its-time-take-action-on-climate-change.html; “Estimating economic damage from climate change in the United States,” science.org/doi/10.1126/science.aal4369

Dear EarthTalk: Are oil companies actually taking steps to cut emissions overall or are their claims mostly just “greenwashing"?

– J.B.S., Waukesha, WI

It’s no secret that the climate crisis is intensifying and the world is looking for solutions. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stated in its latest report that we are facing a “code red” for humanity if we are unable to make substantive changes. According to the IPCC we must cut our carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions in half by 2030 in order to secure a livable future. Even though there has been a push for emissions reduction, global emissions are not showing signs of declining.

As top contributors of pollution, oil companies are under a microscope. In response to increased pressure, many have begun to make promises that they are working towards being part of the solution. The scientific journal PLOS One reports that major oil companies are using terms like "climate," "low-carbon" and "transition" more frequently in their reports and claim that they are striving to go “carbon neutral.”

Carbon neutral is as much of an oxymoron as there can be when applied to oil companies, which begs the question: How do they plan to accomplish this goal? One way they are trying to achieve net-zero emissions is by investing in nature-based carbon credits. Essentially, they are pledging money to plant trees that absorb the CO2 equivalent of the output of their company.

While this solution seems simple enough, common criticisms of oil companies’ responses are that net-zero promises are solely based on facility operations and not on the fuel sales themselves; additionally, oil companies have continued to invest in more acreage for the express purpose of extracting more oil—thereby showing their true priorities. Researchers at Tohoku University and Kyoto University conclude that transitioning to clean energy is not occurring because investments and actions by oil companies simply do not match the public promises they are making.

It's important to understand that nature-based credits come with complications. It takes years for trees to mature so it’s often unclear how much CO2 they’ll absorb. In addition, the lifespan of these trees is not a guarantee either: With increasingly warm and dry conditions, there is an increased likelihood that these trees could die due to drought or fire, in which case the carbon offset becomes worthless.

So, are oil companies simply greenwashing? Some have made minor efforts but it is not nearly enough. That being said, it is important to know how we as individuals can still make a difference. Divesting from oil companies will help reduce the amount of money going towards these polluters. Even if you are not giving money directly to oil companies, your money can indirectly exacerbate the problem. Doing your due diligence to make sure that your bank is not funding oil companies along with other investments in your portfolio can make a world of difference. Reallocating money to make sure you are investing in a clean energy future will help to take the fate of our planet out of the hands of big oil companies.

CONTACTS: “Oil company responses to climate change,” theguardian.com/environment/ng-interactive/2022/may/11/fossil-fuel-carbon-bombs-climate-breakdown-oil-gas; Nature-based Carbon Offsets, eenews.net/articles/booming-offset-industry-could-cut-co2-or-just-line-pockets/; Oil Company Greenwashing, npr.org/2022/02/16/1081119920/greenwashing-oil-companies; How to start divesting, greenamerica.org/fight-dirty-energy-grow-clean-energy/divest-reinvest/getting-started-divestment.

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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