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by Roddy Scheer & Doug Moss

Dear EarthTalk: What’s on the Supreme Court’s docket in terms of cases with any bearing on nature, wildlife or the environment? Historically has the Court tended to be friend or foe to the environment? – S. Jackson, Miami, FL

There has been little consistency in Supreme Court rulings on environmental protection over the years, mainly because such protections are not directly addressed in the Constitution. That said, all of the Court’s recent decisions have leaned conservative. In June of 2022, the Court ruled 6-3 in West Virginia v. EPA that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did not have the ability to regulate carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. This decision gutted many regulations designed to fight climate change. However, Congress’ subsequent passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in November 2022 circumvented the contentious ruling by specifically earmarking funding for domestic energy production and renewable energy. The bill defines CO2 as a pollutant, which puts these emissions back under the EPA’s purview.

Several cases on the Court’s docket with environmental tie-ins are likely to be decided in 2023. To wit, in Sackett v. EPA, Chantell and Michael Sackett are suing the EPA for ordering them to cease building an unpermitted house on a lot which contains wetlands. The Sacketts argue that this is “overreach” since their proposed home, although next to a tributary of Idaho’s Priest Lake, is intended to be a few hundred feet from the lake itself. The EPA says that the wetlands are under its jurisdiction because of the “significant nexus” test to determine how federal waters would be impacted by development. This test can be hard to define and understand because hydrology varies in different locations. The Court seems likely to try to create a new measurement, which could have consequences far beyond rural Idaho.

Another as yet undecided case is National Pork Producers v. Ross, concerning California’s Animal Farm Confinement Initiative, which prohibits the knowing sale of pork from facilities that confine sows in less than 24 square feet. The initiative is designed to prevent animal cruelty and decrease the risk of zoonotic (animal to human) diseases. The National Pork Producers Council argues that this is, in effect, regulation of pork production outside the state, in violation of the Constitution's “dormant commerce” clause. The 2023 ruling will have ramifications for animal welfare, but it may also open up challenges to states’ environmental regulations depending on the Court’s interpretation.

Several historic cases have had significant impacts on environmental policy. One was 1920’s Missouri v. Holland, in which the Court ruled that an international treaty protecting some migratory birds did not violate the 10th amendment, overruling states’ rights in the process. Another landmark environmental case is 1972’s Sierra Club v. Morton in which the Court rejected a Sierra Club lawsuit to block the development of a ski resort at Mineral King in the Sierra Nevada mountains as the plaintiff did not allege any direct injury. Justice William O. Douglas wrote a famous dissent which still inspires environmental and animal rights advocates to this day arguing that ecological features should be given the protection of legal personhood.

CONTACTS: Supreme Court curbs EPA’s power to regulate carbon emissions from power plants, www.hsph.harvard.edu/news/features/the-supreme-court-curbed-epas-power-to-regulate-carbon-emissions-from-power-plants-what-comes-next/; Supreme Court Poised to Scrap U.S. Waters Test, bnanews.bna.com/environment-and-energy/supreme-court-poised-to-scrap-us-waters-test-attorneys-say; Giving Bodies of Water their Day in Court, studentorgs.kentlaw.iit.edu/ckjeel/2021/04/05/legal-personhood-the-growing-movement-to-give-bodies-of-water-their-day-in-court/.

Dear EarthTalk: What are some of the best apps out there for helping identify plants and/or wildlife? -- J. Moser, Summertown, SC

Not surprisingly in this day and age, you don’t need a PhD to identify plants and animals out in the natural world. All you need is a smartphone and an app.

One of the best known and most downloaded of this new breed of ID apps is iNaturalist, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and National Geographic. You can use it to take a photo of a plant or animal and get a list of possible species based on your location. And if that doesn’t work, you can escalate to a community of expert naturalists via the app to help identify more obscure species.

If footprints are all you have to identify wildlife passing through your area, check out the iTrack Wildlife app. To use it, simply input a few basic descriptors (size of the track, number and shape of toes, claws visible or not, etc.) and then get back a list of likely matches. The app is also searchable offline if you’re beyond cell range.

Bird enthusiasts will appreciate Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Merlin Bird ID. You can upload a photo and/or enter information about the bird you saw, such as its size, location, and colors observed, and the app uses artificial intelligence (AI) to give you back a list of possible species.

Meanwhile, the Birdnet app, also from Cornell’s ornithologists, utilizes recordings of birdsong to tell you which avian species are nearby. When you launch Birdnet, it records the noise in your surroundings and can zero in on a specific chirp or call to identify which bird is making it. So far, the app has cataloged more than 1,000 of the most common bird species in North America and Europe.

Want to identify that creepy crawly making its way across the path? Picture Insect uses AI to match the insect you have photographed against its database of insect photos contributed by some three million users to make a match and let you know just what you’re dealing with. Likewise, the company behind Picture Insect (Glority) also offers Picture Fish, Picture Bird, Picture Mushroom, Picture Animal and Picture This (for plants), all of which use AI to help ID different types of living things from your photos.

Meanwhile, the LeafSnap app, developed by the Smithsonian Institution, Columbia University and the University of Maryland, uses visual recognition technology to identify thousands of plants, flowers, fruits and trees from user-submitted photos of leaves. LeafSnap’s developers report that the app can recognize 90 percent of all known flora species on the planet. You can download the app to your phone and make use of it even without an Internet connection.

Another app beloved to help identify plants and trees is PlantSnap, which uses machine learning technology and AI to determine the species of the plant, flower or shrub pic you have just snapped. The Colorado-based start-up behind this app has collected upwards of 475 million plant images in its database which it has leveraged to identify more than 650,000 plants for users around the world.

CONTACTS: iNaturalist, inaturalist.org; iTrack Wildlife, naturetracking.com/itrack-wildlife/; Merlin ID, merlin.allaboutbirds.org; BirdNet, birdnet.cornell.edu; Glority, glority.com; PlantSnap, plantsnap.com; LeafSnap, leafsnap.app.

Dear EarthTalk: Why haven’t the governments of the world come together to ban or limit the production of plastics globally like they’ve done to reduce ozone depleting chemicals in the 1980s and greenhouse gasses more recently? -- Peter B., Wallingford, CT

Plastic, originally hailed for its longevity and hygienic single-use properties, is one of the newest battlegrounds for environmentalists and world governments. Though bans of some forms of plastic exist in more than 60 countries around the world, a global ban has proven to be elusive. In 2019, 170 countries voted to “significantly reduce” their use of plastic by 2030 at the United Nations’ Environmental Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. This agreement, though, was non-binding, and mostly targeted ‘throw-aways’ such as plastic bags, ignoring other forms of plastic pollution so as to serve more as a band-aid than a cure to this prolific problem.

The global scale of plastic pollution is mind-boggling, but necessary to understanding the importance of a world-wide ban. Microplastics can give a sense of how entrenched plastic has become in the interwoven web that is our global food system. According to the United Nations’ Environment Programme (UNEP), microplastics—pieces of plastic smaller than 5mm—can easily be ingested by animals such as fish, and end up on people’s dinner plates because of the prevalence of pollution in the world’s oceans. Plastic can take 1,000 years to decompose, meaning that every piece of plastic that has ever been created still exists, and only continually gets smaller and smaller. National Geographic reports that even the Mariana Trench, the deepest spot in the world’s oceans, has not been spared. A plastic bag found down there, far removed from any human activity, shows just how widespread plastic pollution is globally.

The sheer ubiquity of plastic has meant that even well-meaning and well-executed previous bans on plastics on a regional scale have hardly made a dent. The World Economic Forum notes that Canada’s ban on single-use plastic, for example, promises zero plastic waste there by 2030, echoing the non-binding agreement of the United Nations in 2019. However, environmental advocates worry that 2030 is too far away a goal, and that may be part of the reason why, on March 2, 2022, the United Nations Environmental Assembly passed the world’s first international and legally-binding agreement to end plastic pollution fully by 2024. Inger Anderson, Executive Director of UNEP, lauded the deal as “the most significant environmental multilateral deal since the Paris Accord.”

This treaty calls for regulation on the “full life-cycle” of plastic, from production to decomposition, and is the first of its kind to unite 173 nations in combating plastic pollution. “Against the backdrop of geopolitical turmoil, the UN Environment Assembly (UNEA) shows multilateral cooperation at its best…pollution has grown into an epidemic,” says Espen Barth Eide, Norway’s minister for climate and environment, and president of UNEA. “With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure.”

Coming to a consensus around this agreement represents a unifying moment in world history for stepping towards a greener and healthier Earth. Of course, the treaty will take some time to be adopted widely, so proactive steps like using reusable bags and phasing out single-use plastics are still important when looking at decreasing our global use of plastics.

CONTACTS: Toward A Global Plastics Treaty, https://www.undp.org/ghana/publications/towards-global-plastics-treaty-0; Global Plastics Treaty Now! https://engage.us.greenpeace.org/onlineactions/l8QA7ZmGwEyiBE9ZXpwInw2; Stop Plastic Pollution, https://www.nrdc.org/issues/stop-plastic-pollution.


Dear EarthTalk: The Endangered Species Act has been around for five decades. How successful has it been in protecting and restoring threatened and endangered species? – A.J. Munson, Bern, NC

The Endangered Species Act (ESA) has been successful in preventing the extinction of hundreds of wildlife species and in promoting the recovery of thousands more since its inception in 1973. Some of the species that have been successfully recovered and removed from the list of threatened and endangered species include American alligators, bald eagles, peregrine falcons and humpback whales.

According to the Center of Biological Diversity, a leading U.S.-based non-profit with the simple mission of “saving life on Earth,” the ESA has protected more than 1,600 species in the U.S., preventing the extinction of 99 percent of the species listed under it. Without the ESA, at least 227 species would likely have gone extinct by now since the law’s passage in 1973. In addition, 110 species have seen tremendous recovery since being protected by the act.

The ESA also supports conservation outside the U.S., as the federal government uses the law to enforce the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), a global agreement between nations to regulate trade on species under threat. Examples of the ESA’s reach beyond U.S. borders is in helping save giant pandas as well as several species of tiger.

However, it’s important to note that the ESA has not been successful in all cases, and some species have not recovered as expected or have even gone extinct despite being protected under the Act, especially in more recent years. There are many factors that can affect the success or failure of species recovery efforts, including habitat loss, climate change, disease and human activities. But researchers from Columbia and Princeton concluded that one threat looms even larger: lack of adequate funding for conservation efforts.

Their October 2022 study found that, since 1985, ESA funding has decreased by almost 50 percent when measured on a per species basis. Furthermore, they uncovered that the average wait time for a species to be listed has almost doubled over the decades from 5.9 years during the 1990s to some 9.1 years more recently. The upshot is that by the time a species receives protection, it may have already reached extremely low population levels to the point where the ESA may be ineffective.

Overall, the ESA has played a crucial role in the conservation of threatened and endangered species in the U.S., and it continues to be a key tool for protecting and recovering these species. This groundbreaking piece of legislation, now in its 50th year, has done incredible things for American wildlife. It has protected species of plants and animals and brought them back to sustainable population numbers. However, a few success stories don’t make the act perfect. There is still work to be done to improve the ESA’s effectiveness and ensure that it can preserve the species that we all love and know today.

ESA, https://www.fws.gov/law/endangered-species-act; Center for Biological Diversity, https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/; U.S. Endangered Species Act undermined by inaction and inadequate funding, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0275322.

Dear EarthTalk: Which of the EV models now available in the U.S. provide the most bang for the buck? Is now a good time to finally make the upgrade from my internal combustion car?

-- P. Bronson, Tampa, FL

With some 43 new battery-powered electric vehicles (EVs) debuting in the U.S. this 2023 model year, not to mention the continued production and sales of 32 previous EV models, there has never been a better time to make the switch from your internal combustion gas guzzler to something greener. The increased competition among carmakers for your EV dollars means lower prices all around; indeed 14 different EVs sport sticker prices of $40,000 or below.

Cheapest of them all is still the Nissan Leaf, with an manufacturer’s suggested retail price (MSRP) of $27,400. While this is the only EV for sale in the U.S. with a sticker price under $30k, the trade-off is less range; the Leaf will only get you about 149 miles per full charge, making it perfect for short commutes or jaunts around town but not so good for road trips. (Nissan also offers a Leaf “Plus” model with a bigger battery array that sells for $5,000 more but gets you 226 miles between charges.)

The next cheapest EV is Chevrolet’s Bolt, with a sticker price of $31,500 and a range of 259 miles; given this longer range, this little hatchback by one of America’s great carmakers might just be the best bang-for-buck option out there. Chevy is also offering a Bolt EUV model which gives customers a roomier interior for $2,000 more than the base Bolt, but with slight range trade-off (247 miles between charges).

Other good options for cost-conscious EV buyers include Hyundai’s Kona Electric ($34,000; 258-mile range), Subaru’s Solterra SUV ($37,000; 285-mile range), Kia’s Niro EV ($39,990; 239-mile range). Also under $40k but with less range include Hyundai’s Ioniq Electric sedan ($33,245; 170-mile range), Mazda’s MX30 crossover ($33,470; 100-mile range), and Mini Cooper’s EV ($33,900; 114 mile range).

Of course, these MSRPs don’t factor in tax rebates and other financial incentives. In the U.S., EV buyers still qualify for up to $7,500 in tax credits. The amount varies depending on your tax bracket and other factors including where the vehicle in question was built. Some state governments and municipalities offer their own incentives for EV buyers. Get the full run down for your location via the Database of State Incentives for Renewables & Efficiency (DSIRE), a free and comprehensive resource on federal, state and regional incentives supporting renewables and energy efficiency across the U.S.

Going electric is definitely a step in the right direction for the environment given how much less pollution is caused by charging your car up with electricity as opposed to filling ‘er up with gas. But if you think you’re doing Mother Nature a favor by turning in or selling a perfectly good gas car so you can upgrade, you might want to think twice. The overall environmental impact of producing your brand-new EV far outweighs that of continuing to drive a gas car around. But if it’s really time to upgrade or you just need a car now, buying an EV is the smart and responsible way to go.

CONTACT: DSIRE, https://www.dsireusa.org.


Dear EarthTalk: I hear that world population just topped eight billion. Is this growth wreaking havoc on the environment/climate and what is the prognosis for population growth globally over next few decades? -- Peter. W., Albuquerque, NM

Global population has indeed reached eight billion, but it won’t remain there for long. Lower mortality rates and longer life expectancies have contributed to elevated population numbers. Although richer countries have lowered their birth rates in recent decades, poorer countries—specifically those in sub-Saharan Africa—continue to have high birth rates. Whether or not we will be able to support a continually growing population is still a hotly debated topic.

Many analysts still subscribe to philosopher Thomas Malthus’ hypothesis, first postulated in a 1798 essay, that humans’ ability to provide more and more resources will always be overwhelmed by ever-increasing population growth numbers. But others believe that growing population numbers can be supported with proper and effective resource allocation. Regardless, a growing population coupled with climate change will have an impact on resource availability and distribution.

Population projections are inherently tricky. It’s impossible to account for every scenario that could be a determinant over the course of a century. The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat (UNPD) projects that human population will pass 10 billion by 2100. However, a convergence of population forecasts created by the Wittgenstein Centre projected a global population of 8.79 billion by 2100 after an initial peak of 9.73 billion in 2064. This projection is vastly lower than UNPD’s projections due to their different modeling approaches.

The Wittgenstein Centre’s models arrived at different population totals based on variables such as fertility, mortality and migration pattern changes. The models predicted a lower total fertility rate (TFR) as access to education and contraception for childbearing people increased. A low TFR will have long term impacts on the overall global population. A reduced global population would reduce carbon dioxide output and lower resource needs and stresses, but climate change will continue to have consequences that will affect resource availability for decades to come even if we are successful at reining in emissions.

Social programs and systems will need to adapt as populations age and access to contraception and education increases. Age gaps will expand in countries with low TFRs. Labor forces will decrease, social security and universal healthcare systems will become strained and economic growth will be lowered as a result. These factors create a daunting task to support a growing global population, but it is possible.

Global population numbers do put a large strain on the environment, so it is important to elect policymakers who support a sustainable future with commitments to reduce fossil fuel emissions and who uphold and encourage reproductive education and healthcare for everyone, especially childbearing people. Whether our future will be some sort of Malthusian hell or a global garden where most of us receive the nourishment and resources needed to survive is still anybody’s guess.

CONTACTS: The Global Population Will Soon Reach 8 Billion—Then What?, un.org/en/un-chronicle/global-population-will-soon-reach-8-billion-then-what; Fertility, mortality, migration, and population scenarios for 195 countries and territories from 2017 to 2100, thelancet.com/journals/lancet/article/PIIS0140-6736(20)30677-2/fulltext#seccestitle10.

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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