1) A look into the challenges we face transitioning to clean energy amid the Biden Administration’s cancelling of two leases for copper mines in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness
2) Citizen wins a major suit against a giant plastics company, setting a precedent for nurdles and plastic waste
3) Why meteorologists are better positioned than anyone else to talk their communities about the threats of climate change
At the end of January, the Biden Administration cancelled two leases for copper mines in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness in Minnesota. These mine leases, to be powered by Chilean mining giant Antofagasta (which sounds like a pasta dish, but we digress), were cancelled by Obama and then granted again by Trump and no cancelled by Biden on the grounds that mining here would eventually cause acid-mine drainage and the leakage of toxic metals into the local water system. Given the Boundary Waters are home to thousands of species including the endangered gray wolf and Canada lynx, as well as serving as a critical ecosystem for local communities, this seems like a big win.
However, it’s estimated that the Boundary Waters Wilderness sits on top of four billion tons of copper and nickel, one of the largest untapped mining opportunities in the world, sitting on two key minerals needed for our clean energy transition. And herein lies the rub.
There is a major standoff brewing between environmentalists focused on protecting biodiversity collapse and clean energy advocates needing the minerals many protected ecosystems are sitting on in order to get off fossil fuels. It’s hard not to want both to succeed, however there are trade-offs that will need to be made as we move ahead.
This is not just impacting mineral mining, but also the transmission lines needed to move clean energy from it’s more distant sources (distant in terms of proximity to dense urban areas) to where it’s needed most. We saw this play out last year when the state of Maine shot down a corridor for moving 1,100 megawatts of hydropower into New England on the grounds that the corridor itself would cause environmental damage.
MINERAL NEEDS TO ELECTRIFY OUR LIVES
Electricity is king. Or queen. Lord? Lordette? Ok, electricity is really important. Sorry about that.
We are essentially electrifying every part of our lives right now – from energy to data centers to currency. With all that increased load, we desperately need to get off of fossil fuels and power this via renewables.
Well there is no way to do that without batteries. Lots of them. Batteries need key minerals ranging from lithium to nickel to copper to cobalt. We need these minerals for other aspects of our energy transition as well – from building solar panels to building wind turbines.
In a detailed study from the International Energy Agency, in order to meet Paris Agreement climate goals, we will need 40% more copper and rare earth elements, 60-70% more nickel and cobalt, and 90% more lithium. Even with the emissions from mining these materials, these energy sources are far far cleaner than burning goal or natural gas. However we can’t only look at direct emissions alone, we also have to factor in potential short and long term environmental damage done in their extraction which has domino effects on our climate and net emissions as well.
To further complicate things, many of these key minerals are also highly concentrated in terms of location and geopolitical control, which potentially creates a lot of political tension in the years ahead and underscores the need for global cooperation on the climate crisis. The Democratic Republic of Congo owns 70% of the world’s cobalt production, and China 60% of rare earth minerals, for example.
So what can be done here? How do we balance the needs to produce the minerals needed for clean energy while also protecting our environment and biodiversity? Well, here are a few things to keep in mind:
- Recycling – this is key. For starters, tens of millions of EV batteries are going to start to reach the end of life after 2030. We need advancements in technology to recycle and reuse as much of these products as we can. Same goes for all applications of these minerals
- Nuclear – yet another case here for nuclear, as it is not as mineral intensive outside of uranium (but produces a lot more power per unit of uranium). Nuclear still has a waste issue before we race at it too aggressively.
- Sustainable Standards – when we do mine for these minerals, we need to use best practices to mitigate the environmental damage. And this means holding a very high standard as well for which companies are allowed to mine going forward. Folks with a bad track record should not be given leases.
- Partnership with local communities – collaboration with local communities in these efforts has to go beyond “we’ll add some jobs”. These projects need to be done as a true partnership with local involvement from the get go.
- Precision monitoring – as these projects get underway, environmental damage such as metal leakage into nearby water needs to be tightly monitored every step of the way and dealt with in real time if it crosses certain thresholds, not measured years later after the damage has already been done
- International cooperation – we should not have monopolies in terms of private or national control of these minerals. We need international systems governance to ensure fair standards and practices are being kept up when mining these minerals
The challenge here in many ways lies at the crux of what we do here at Animalia, since we are staunch advocates for putting equal force behind solving our climate and biodiversity crises.
What we have to keep in mind is we can not take a one size fits all approach. Meaning we must not always air on the side of prioritizing the minerals needed for our clean energy transition, or always air on the side of prioritizing local environmental protection in its purest form.
There are sustainable ways to mine these minerals, and in cases where there is unavoidable collateral damage to the environment, that needs to be evaluated case by case.
Which brings us to that very evaluation piece. When modeling a potential mineral mining project, we should not only look at the emissions it saves in the form of clean energy vs. the emissions given off directly in the extraction and processing. We must also look at the emissions resulting in environmental damage – for example hydro dams can lead to degradation driving methane release, and deforestation we know limits natural carbon sinks – as well as social costs to local communities or things like water quality.
These models are hard to get right. In fact, we will never get them exactly right. However, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. No model is perfect. As British statistician George E.P. Box said “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
We need more useful, comprehensive models when evaluating these projects, so we can make decisions more on data over emotions.
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MAJOR VICTORY IN THE FIGHT AGAINST NURDLES!
Your first question we’re guessing….what the heck is a nurdle? And why are we so excited about defeating them?
Nurdles are responsible for roughly 1/4 of the world’s micro-plastic pollution. They are very tiny – less than 5mm in diameter – plastic pellets that are sort of the building block of many common plastic products. In production, millions of these little pellets get discarded and tossed aside, and typically dumped into local water systems. These micro plastic dumps are rarely monitored or looked at in much detail, allowing massive chemical companies such as Formosa Plastics in Texas to get away with this highly pollutive behavior.
That is until a retired shrimp boat captain named Diane Wilson had something to say about it.
In her local town in Texas she was noticing these plastic pellets showing up in and around the Matagorda Bay ecosystem, home to dolphins, alligators, sea turtles and over 400 bird species. She traced their origin to the discharge system from Formosa’s plants. In March of 2019, she collected 46 million of these pellets and drove them straight to the federal court. Quite literally. Talk about determination.
A few years later, the federal court slapped a $50M fine on Formosa and its having ripple effects all over the plastic industry. Everyone is on high nurdle alert thanks to Diana’s victory over Formosa and reigning in their nurdle waste for fear of similar fines coming their way.
THE MICROPLASTIC DILEMMA
While much of the world has woken up to the problems of plastic use, be it in the form of straws or bags, micro plastics have grown in scope.
An estimated 230,000 metric tons of nurdles alone are dumped into the ocean each year. Perhaps the biggest source of micro plastics remains in synthetic and “recycled” clothing. Ever see ads for hoodies made from recycled plastic bottles as an environmental step forward? Hogwash. Those products when washed release thousands of micro plastics every cycle. That then ends up in our water system.
Once in the oceans and rivers, nurdles essentially act as toxic sponges. They absorb and collect bacteria, acting sort of like rafts for things like E coli or cholera. They are then consumed by fish and other marine life. Fish we eat as well. Take a look at this photo below of a fish found dead, suffocated from plastic nurdles.
Plastic production globally is actually increasing. Oil and gas companies are turning more and more to plastics to offset potential revenue loss from the crack down on fossil fuel energy. Plastic demand is still going up around the world, a major culprit in the US being food delivery apps that have by some estimates increased plastic waste by 10% due to more take out containers popping up all over the country.
Microplastics however remain the hardest issue to regulate because they are by-products of so much of our day to day lives. In 2020, more than 700 million nurdles spilled from one cargo ship on the Mississippi River.
So it’s good to see Formosa getting its due here. They continue to be monitored and penalized as well. Since the settlement, they’ve racked up $4M in new fines. The concern though is this is somewhat of a rounding error for them financially. Still, every bit of consequence matters in shifting behaviors over time.
First of all, way to go Diane Wilson. She was a one woman wrecking crew taking on a chemical giant and she one. Hell to the yeah. And that $50M? She created a trust to support local research efforts, conservation projects, and supporting local fishermen.
Another great organization to highlight is Nurdle Patrol. Over 5,000 citizen scientists and researchers have come together to create a real time map of nurdle monitoring nationwide. This is exactly the type of work we need to hold big chemical companies accountable.
The headway we were making in reducing plastic waste came to a halt in 2020 due to the pandemic sending us all in quarantine and plastic consumption shooting back up as a result. Oil and gas companies are leaning into plastic in a big way right now as well. ExxonMobil and the Saudi petrochemical conglomerate SABIC just jointly fired up a giant new plastic complex near Corpus Christi.
Every win matters to push back against this. We can’t just ask consumers to use less plastic and put it on the individual. Efforts like Diana’s go a long way in moving the needle in the right direction.
Moving the needle on nurdles…I kind of like that.
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HOW METEOROLOGISTS CAN HELP OUR CLIMATE CRISIS
One of the biggest, if not the biggest, challenges in our fight to solve the climate crisis is not government policy, capital, or technology….its communications. While communications around the climate crisis have improved in recent years, there is still a big gap between how urgent of a situation this is vs. how urgent it is perceived, if perceived as a challenge at all. 1/3 of Americans today still don’t see this as a crisis. And that matters big time when it comes time to vote, because that 1/3 can be the difference in putting someone in a local or state or national office that prioritizes this issue vs. looks past it.
A majority of that 1/3 are older, 45 and over. That demographic is not seeing the same messaging across social media that folks younger are seeing. So the best person, and maybe the only person, that can change their mind on climate is the local meteorologist.
This is because for an overwhelming majority of older citizens, the meteorologist is the only scientist they regularly hear from. Well, until the coronavirus came around and medical science has been back on the forefront. Certainly though they aren’t hearing from climate scientists, as those folks don’t really have a platform and frankly aren’t great at communicating even when they do.
However they do still watch local TV news. Local papers may have dried up business wise, but local TV news set a record $184 billion in revenue in 2020. One segment they never miss – the weather report. You all know the joke about older folks and talking about the weather. Heck even middle aged people love weather banter. And for anyone younger who finds that to be a bore, don’t worry, you too one day will start talking about weather without even realizing it!
So are meteorologists out there talking about climate? Do they see it as big of a crisis as climate scientists do? After all, lets remind ourselves that weather and climate are not one in the same. Weather is what is happening right now. Climate reflects weather trends over long periods of time. Do the meteorologists today acknowledge human induced climate change or do they think it’s a natural cycle? Crisis, or just part of the norm?
BIG TIME SHIFTS
We had to dig a bit to find some actual published studies on this matter. Don’t worry, we found them!
So let’s go back to 11 years ago. A 2011 study found that on average, only 19% of meteorologists believed that human activity has had significant impacts on the changing climate. Only 19%! Yikes. Although to be fair, where were you on this topic 11 years ago? Heck I live and breathe it now and I was nowhere near it myself.
Take this video from Vice News interviewing a very popular meteorologist from Alabama who flat out refuses to talk climate on air. He doesn’t deny that some of it is human induced, possibly, but he’s not going to be an advocate for it either.
Well good news, fast forward to 2020 and that 19% has become 80%!. That’s right, thanks to the advancement in climate awareness and due to some fantastic work from organizations such as Climate Central, today over 80% and counting of meteorologists agree that human activity is driving climate change.
Climate Central has a division, aptly named Climate Matters, that distributes regular reports, graphics, videos and more from their climate science team to over 500 local news stations reaching over 90% of American media markets.
But do they see it as a problem? Well that seems still split 50/50. Of those that don’t see it as a major negative, it’s roughly split between half who are just not sure and half (25%) don’t see it as a crisis. So only slightly better than the overall US average.
This presents both a problem and an opportunity. The problem being that we need to get all meteorologists on board. The opportunity being as we do, we’ll be able to reach a lot more older Americans with a lot of voting power in maybe the only way possible.
You might think, why would a meteorologist, a weather scientist, not totally buy into the climate crisis? Well for one, there has always been some controversy over the role of climate change in specific storms. Meteorologists very fairly get frustrated when a social media post or CNN (yes they do this) goes out and blames the entirety of a hurricane on climate change. That’s not true. Hurricanes have been around for, well, forever. What is true is that they are growing wetter and more intense on average, due to warming temperatures allowing clouds to hold more water and warmer sea levels allowing them to pick up more steam as they race towards a coastline. But now, the baseline existence of the storm itself is not only due to climate change.
When it comes to things like heat waves, droughts, and wildfires, there is a bit more alignment across all of the meteorology community that global warming plays a role.
Another factor is personal political beliefs. Scientists are humans. Humans have beliefs. Humans have emotions. Emotions can trump reason. This happens to all of us. Those emotions can be magnified based on feedback. For example if you are a meteorologist in an area in the country where there is less public support for recognizing the climate crisis, you are likely to solicit negative responses.
Which is what makes this next video so dog garn inspiring. This meteorologist, Amber Sullins, has been sousing the horn for years on climate despite some of the hate mail she receives for it.
There is no understating the importance of local meteorologists being critical pillars for climate communications given the unique demographic they reach.
It’s an art form weaving in this messaging into weather coverage. Too much and you’ll create confusion and panic and frustration. Too little and nothing will stick. This is tricky. We need more folks like Amber and they need to be sharing what’s working or not working with the rest of the meteorology community.
Climate Central is playing a hugely valuable role here as well. Sort of like mission control for arming these local stations with information and shareable content. Let’s take a look at this recent example here provided around the Winter Olympics. Since 1950, the location for the Winter Games has increased in temperature nearly 9F! Which explains why this past Winter Games were the first ever with 0% natural snow. It was all artificial in Beijing.
If we want to avoid an artificial atmosphere to get by day to day, we are going to need to stabilize this climate and slow global warming. Meteorologists can really help! We need them crossing paths and collaborating more with climate scientists so rather than being talked “to”, they are spoken “with” in this process. We need local news producers to also recognize this opportunity and make it a priority as well.