You’ve heard a lot about the link between climate justice and social justice. Be it from across the social media world and here on Animalia. It’s because the people who are threatened the most by the adverse effects of climate change are the marginalized communities who also have contributed the least to the problem. It’s a wicked and cruel reality we need to acknowledge and address in all of our climate solutions.
That reality is highlighted by a recent report in National Geographic showcasing the inequities in tree canopy cover and that link to extreme heat and public health.
The study looked at a stretch of Vermont Avenue less than 8 miles long that traverses through 4 very different neighborhoods and looked at temperatures on a warm summer day back on July 3rd.
That’s more than 10 degree difference and 100K median income distance less than 8 miles apart on the same street.
LONG STANDING HOUSING INEQUITIES
There is a lot of history here to unpack, but let’s try and give you the cliff note version.
- There was a highly racist practice called Redlining used to outline set neighborhoods back in 1939 based on class and color of residents.
- This practice was used for many things, from allocating state and city public funding to qualifying for home loans to zoning restrictions.
- The wealthy, white areas received better mortgage rates, allowing them to buy larger more spacious homes and got subsidies and more public funding for caring for things like trees
- The poorer, diversified areas were less loan friendly forcing them to live in denser, concrete communities with less public funding
This system was never fully changed or corrected. As a result, a neighborhood like Pico-Union which has a much higher rate of BIPOC residents don’t have something as seemingly innocuous as tree canopy cover.
Only, tree canopy cover is anything but innocuous. Because everything and everywhere is getting hotter year by year, trees provide a much needed cooling effect by creating shade and increasing ground moisture. Tree canopy cover can lower air temperatures by as much as 9F and surface temperature by 45F.
Seeing that a 4-day long heat wave increases risk of death by 25%, avoiding these heat waves is a big deal. Trees help neighborhoods do that.
WHAT IS BEING DONE
20% of the trees in all of Los Angeles cover just 1% of the population. Trees are sparse in lower income neighborhoods because they are under-resourced, they need to make room for lots of cars and street parking, and they were removed to increase arial surveillance via helicopter.
These areas are densely populated and still very, very underfunded. So what can we do?
We can and should plant every tree we can. But the reality is there is only so much space to do so, and trees take time to grow and develop. They also require lots of care. 75% of trees planted in the name of climate justice around the world never make it past age 3. Good news is there are great organizations helping here such as Tree People in LA.
There are other things we can do as well to prioritize shade and cooling and make room for trees long-term.
- Reorienting neighborhoods away from cars and towards biking, walking, and public transport.
- Creating shade from taller buildings lined with green vegetation
- Rebuilding things like streetlights and bus stations around shade and greenery
- Inserting laws for rights to shade and cool for commercial and residential building, as has been previously inserted for rights to natural sunlight
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DANGEROUS PRECEDENT WITH OREGON FIRES
You probably have seen the headlines out of Oregon. The Bootleg Fire is now the 4th largest in the Beaver State since 1900. Covering the southern area of the state per the map below, the fire is now 600 square miles strong, roughly the size of Los Angeles, and sits at just 30% contained, meaning the 2,000+ firefighters on the scene have a long way to go.
If you followed our coverage of the record setting California fires last summer, you know our warning that wildfires are going to get a lot worse, likely for a long time, before they get better. They are going to be more widespread and more violent.
However, there is an entirely new element of this Oregon fire that needs to be called out and processed. It’s ability to create its own weather that feeds its growth.
NOW WHO’S IN CONTROL OF WHO?
Weather has always been a major driver of wildfires. Dry lightning storms are one of the leading ignitors of fires, and heavy winds are what allow them to move along faster than firefighters can put them out.
Very rarely though have meteorologists seen active wildfires dictate weather.
The Bootleg fire is leading to the formation of pyrocumulus clouds. These are clouds caused by massive amounts of smoke from wildfires. These could then carry with them incredibly strong winds and lightning, which of course, feeds the wildfires even more, creating a viscous cycle near impossible to break.
Now, there have been pyrocumulus clouds before, this isn’t something completely novel. Just last year California had one too, leading to a fire tornado. Just see the video below on how terrifying these are.
The alarming thing here is the frequency and ease to which these clouds are forming. If they become a routine part of wildfires going forward, it’s going to be that much harder to get out in front of this issue and contain them in a reasonable time frame.
WHY DIDN’T ANYONE RAKE THE FOREST FLOOR?
Ok, sorry we couldn’t resist one more opportunity to call back to Trump’s hilariously phrased question last summer as he stood out in the forest looking more out of place than the Hamburglar at a vegan restaurant.
In fairness, he’s right that forest management, or lack thereof, has been an issue in many places. There are things we can do to remove dry debris, thin trees, and create natural fire breaks. Only, this time, Oregon did. In many of the areas that the Bootleg fire is blazing, this preparation work was done.
It’s just that the intensity of the conditions keeps escalating at a pace we can’t keep up with. Southern Oregon and California are in the middle of a historic drought. Couple that with the record setting heat wave the region faced just 3 weeks ago that dried up vegetation even more, and you have yet another new precedent for wildfires. And if we prepare based on this year, next year will bring new challenges.
This is why we have to stop pretending that the larger threats of global warming and climate change are years out. They are here. Now. They are destroying ecosystems and communities. The damage of the Oregon fire is reaching as far as New York City, where their Air Quality Index for particulate matter rose to 170 this week, a dangerous level driven by the ash and soot moving across the country.
We have to plan for 2022 not based on 2021, but based on the worst case models for 2030. This is not meant to drive fear and panic, it’s meant to drive action.
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WHAT WE KNOW ABOUT THE MYSTERIOUS EAST COAST SONGBIRD EPIDEMIC
Scientists and researchers are currently trying to figure out the cause for a mass songbird epidemic that has plagued and startled the East Coast. The District of Columbia along with 12 other East Coast states have seen thousands of young songbirds mysteriously go blind, become shaky, and ultimately die. Blue jays, American robins, European Starlings, common grackles, Carolina wrens, gray catbirds, cardinals, house finches, sparrows and many more have all been affected. The diverse number of species and significant number of individual cases has ornithologists puzzled and racing to identify the cause.
Come the start of June, cases began to dwindle in a few states such as Maryland and Virginia, while new cases continue to be reported in other states. With this being said, it is important to note that determining total cases and numbers across different states remains tricky, as each state has their own system for data collection, some of which are more robust than others.
At this time the definitive cause of illness and death has yet to be determined for these birds, however a few diseases have been ruled out given the process of elimination. Some of those include salmonella, chlamydia, avian influenza, West Nile and various herpes viruses. Researchers have also confirmed that there have been no reported cases of transmission to humans, farmed birds or any other animals.
Researchers have tested some of the deceased birds and did find mycoplasma bacteria in some of the samples- however this is not necessarily unusual for these types of birds and is not consistent with the neurological symptoms that they are showing. The neurological symptoms are also accompanied by blindness, which is a super unusual combination. This suggests the disease at fault could be a new pathogen or even multiple factors working in tandem.
When thinking of any environmental factors or changes that could be responsible, they naturally thought of the Brood X cicadas that emerged this year. These cicadas only emerge once every 17 years and are often a yummy snack for birds, so researchers thought there was a good chance that the timing was not coincidental to the epidemic.
And while there are at least 5 different cicada hypotheses, they are becoming increasingly less likely given inconsistent locations and timing. One of the leading theories suggests that a fungus produced by about five percent of cicadas and produces a psychedelic toxin called cathinone was responsible. Again though, timing and location pokes some reasonable holes in these theories. For example, the geographic range of the bird epidemic is far larger than the range of the Brood X emergence, and researchers do not believe the birds living within the emergence zone flew out of it. Brood X cicadas also died in mid to late June, while birds are still falling sick even in July.
Luckily, birds are pretty resilient and cases of the mysterious disease do seem to be dwindling, however the cause of this endemic is still extremely important to identify. Once ill, there appears to be no treatment for the birds leaving wildlife centers with no choice but to euthanize them and relieve them of their suffering. This has obviously been very emotionally tolling on the staff at these wildlife centers, not to mention the birds who are blind and frightened. In addition to all that, another center recently reported it received six hawks that displayed similar symptoms, and while experts are not sure if they are related, it certainly reinforces how vital it is to identify the source.
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CARBON PRICES IN EUROPE HOLDING STEADY ABOVE $50
For the last couple of months, the price of carbon in the EU has held steady above $50 per metric ton. That’s a big deal. $50+ per ton was a target for the Paris Climate Agreement by 2020 with a goal of $80. Many proponents of the carbon pricing system believe we need to reach $100 in order to meaningfully reduce emissions via this methodology.
In the US, things are still a bit behind. For example the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative of 11 northeastern states has the carbon price at just $11 per metric ton. In other parts of the world it’s even lower. The EU has been leading the charge for some time now on their carbon pricing system, and continues to showcase a pathway for others to follow.
HOW CARBON PRICES WORK
Carbon pricing is a free market system meant to address emissions caps. You can think of them a bit like a tax. Companies have to pay for the carbon they emit above certain baseline industry and/or regional standards in the form of buying carbon credits. These credits are often offered either from governments or NGOs doing valuable environmental work, such as reforestation.
This is a system championed by climate focused conservatives since it leaves the work to the free market vs. hard regulations. Although many liberals and progressives support it as well. We support carbon pricing here at Animalia, but acknowledge that, like anything else, it’s one of many tools we need to use to address climate change, nowhere near a silver bullet.
So why have prices been going up? Primarily because of the rebound of the economy and continued pledges country by country to reduce emissions. Many private corporations endorse this approach since it puts them in a lot more control than, say, being told they can’t sell a highly pollutant product.
There is evidence of effectiveness. In the 90s, the US put a cap and trade system on sulfur dioxide, and SO2 emissions dropped 43% over just over a decade.
CARBON PRICING CHALLENGES
Carbon pricing is not without its challenges as well.
For one, there is a lot of room for maneuvering on both sides of the market. Those selling carbon credits may or may not be having the true environmental and carbon reducing impacts they claim – these things are rarely audited with heavy diligence.
Likewise the companies buying them essentially can meet net zero goals without actually changing their product or services, such as an energy company avoiding renewables, and staying on fossil fuels but paying for it with carbon credits. That is why we need to keep pushing prices higher, to the point where buying credits, i.e. paying this free market carbon tax, is less efficient than actually producing less carbon in the first place.
There is also the challenge of uniformity and fidelity. In a perfect world, there would be one unified global price for carbon that is reflective of a country’s total emissions, state of its economy, and public health. Such a system is a mere pipe dream given our inability to even collaborate globally on fighting a pandemic. Until the leaders of the most powerful nations in the world realize that we are all on the same team when it comes to saving this planet, such global cooperation is hard to come by.
So we need systems like the EU to keep growing and proving out if this can be effective, so others can follow. And we need countries to ask not what others are doing comparatively, but what we we doing to do our part and lead by example.
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Some Dope Upcycled Jackets and Totes
Here is a company making some upcycled jackets and totes called Arc’Teryx
Now, they still sell original source products with synthetic, petroleum derived fabrics. But at least they are putting real effort into upcycling, and hopefully as soon as non-petroleum derived fibers are ready at scale from folks like Kintra, they will make the switch over.
Most of all, they aren’t actively engaged in greenwashing like North Face.
Drone Army Vs. Ocean Plastic Pollution
Our world’s dirtiest confession is no secret: We have a massive plastic problem. Our oceans are no exception to this problem, and some may even argue that the problem is worse there than on our lands, given the high volume and direct impact plastic pollution has on marine life and its ecosystems. Many animals such as seabirds, turtles, fish, whales, rays and others often find themselves tangled in ocean plastic waste, which can often be fatal if left untangled. Some animals, like turtles, will even mistake certain plastics for food, ingest it and suffer severe health issues resultantly. And those are just the BIG plastics. Our oceans also contain microplastics, or tiny little pieces of fragmented plastic less than 5mm in length. They enter natural ecosystems from a variety of sources, including cosmetics, clothing, and industrial processes, and make their way up the food chain (yes, eventually ending up in human bodies). It’s estimated that there are 14 million tons of microplastic on the ocean floor alone.
The Mighty Impact of Microplastics
And unfortunately none of that data even begins to scratch the surface. As many as 91 million metric tons of litter entered the oceans between 1990 and 2015, as much as 87% of which was plastic, according to research. An estimated 5.25 trillion particles of litter are currently floating in the oceans today. Recent funding and focus has been primarily allocated towards banning single use plastics, however many conservationists point out that there has already been a lot of damage done that needs addressing, too.
So, what is being done to solve this plastic problem? The answer is similar to that of many other world issues…. robots, of course! While around 80% of ocean plastic pollution projects are focused on monitoring only, the remaining 20% are aimed at the actual clean up. Still, the number of methods has increased exponentially recently, with 73% of all methods having been developed in the past four years alone. So you can say there has been a huge tech boom in the ocean clean-up sphere, which is great, although we do have to note that the plastic problem was reasonably understood by the late 1980’s, and we are just now seeing action (better late than never?).
Ok, so now for the whole robot/drone part. With new funding and much needed focus on the plastic pollution problem, the robot army is resultantly rising. Various robots have been developed recently, all with the purpose of clearing plastic from our oceans. Note: this mainly tackles the large plastics, and not microplastics.
Among these inventions is the sea garbage bin, which is a giant plastic-collecting barrier, and a marine drone that floats and collects garbage through a wide opening that mimics the mouth of a whale shark.
Another litter clearer is the BeachBot, a garbage collecting rover (designed after the Mars rover), that collects small trash like cigarette butts, single use utensils or plastic caps from beaches.
While these robots sound great (and kind of adorable?), many can’t help but wonder how much of a dent these will truly make in the insane mass of plastic in our oceans. Plastic production and waste accumulates faster than the inventions to reduce it. By some calculations, it would take about a century to remove 5% of plastics currently in the oceans using only clean-up devices.
We have a feeling this is just the beginning of robot solutions like this being implemented to assist with environmental issues. And while we look forward to seeing further developments, we also simultaneously continue to stress that the world also needs some serious behavior changes from a preventative standpoint if we ever want a chance of actually tackling the plastic.