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Americans have planted so much corn that it’s changing the weather

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This story was originally published by Atlas Obscura and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Corn farmers in eastern Nebraska have long claimed weather patterns are changing, but in an unexpected way.

“It’s something I’ve talked about with my dad and granddad many times,” says fifth-generation corn farmer Brandon Hunnicutt. Along with his father and brother, the 45 year old lives in the 400-person village of Giltner and grows about 2,000 acres of corn each year. From above, the area looks like a blip of homes surrounded by an expansive grid of circular fields. Though Brandon’s grandfather is retired, he takes an active interest in the business. “Contrary to what you’d think should be happening, both him and my dad swear up and down [that] droughts used to come more often and be a lot worse,” says Hunnicutt. “Considering it’s been 30 years since we had a really bad one, I’ve started kind of taking them at their word.”

This is not the only noticeable development — University of Nebraska climatologists say the growing season has gotten 10-14 days longer since 1980. Hunnicutt now waits until the first weeks of November to pilot his 40-foot-wide, dump-truck-sized combine through the farm’s widely arching, seemingly endless rows of corn — enough to cover 800 city blocks.

Though subtle, the Hunnicutts have noticed these changes and more.

“To be successful in this business, you’ve got to pay close attention to the weather,” explains Brandon. In the past 20 years, on top of the above, he’s noted a gradual decrease in 100-degree days during the summer. “That missing digit isn’t something you overlook,” he asserts with a laugh. “High temperatures create a lot of anxiety. If they go on long enough, they’ll scorch your corn and put a hurtin’ on your bottom line!”

A 2018 report issued by climate researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology claims to have solved the mystery and verified farmers’ suspicions: Namely, that large-scale corn production has changed the weather.

Over the past 70 years, farmers in America’s midwestern Corn Belt have made vast leaps in production. From 1950 to 2010, annual harvests increased by more than 400 percent, jumping from 2 billion to 10 billion bushels. In addition to making the area the world’s most productive agricultural region, climate scientists at MIT say the boom has created its own weather patterns.

“We studied data from the past 30 years and found that the intensification of corn production has increased average summer rainfalls by about 35 percent and decreased [average summer] temperatures by as much as one degree Celsius,” says former MIT researcher Ross E. Alter, now a research meteorologist with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Alter was the lead author of a 2018 report published in the journal of the American Geophysical Union that demonstrated how land use has impacted the region’s climate more than greenhouse gas emissions. “What makes these findings so fascinating is that, while global temperatures have risen, areas like eastern Nebraska have actually cooled,” continues Alter, referring to yearly averages. “We think it’s likely heavy agriculture counteracted rising summer temperatures that might have otherwise resulted from increasing greenhouse gases.”

In other words, the human-made shift has been helpful. By increasing yields, farmers have unintentionally created weather patterns that seem to be protecting their crops and helping them grow more corn. (Of course, burning fossil fuels to plant, cultivate, harvest, process, and ship farm products has been shown to be a major contributor to rising levels of greenhouse gases.)

Though similar effects have to some degree been observed in the rice-growing regions of eastern China, the report marks the first time the effects of agriculture on regional climate change in the central U.S. have undergone comprehensive analysis. The findings document the most significant human-made regional climate shift in world history.

“On a global level, this research is important because it proves the influence of agricultural intensification is really an independent problem from greenhouse gas emissions,” explains Alter.

By comparing observed historical trends in the Corn Belt’s climate to those predicted by a variety of global simulations used by the World Climate Research Program, which coordinates climate research sponsored by various international organizations, the report showed the models were inaccurate for the region (they predicted summer temperatures would rise and rainfall would increase by just four percent). Though the WCRP models accounted for greenhouse gas emissions and other human and natural factors, they did not consider agricultural intensification.

“Our findings are a bit different from what people thought about the mechanisms of climate change,” says Alter. He believes that accurately simulating and understanding climate change at the local level will require a look at cases of agricultural intensification like Nebraska’s corn boom.

But how, specifically, has growing more corn changed the climate? Associate Nebraska State Climatologist Al Dutcher says it’s complicated.

On one hand, it has to do with what Hunnicutt and other farmers refer to as “corn sweat.” This happens when photosynthesis boosts the amount of water vapor in the air.

“When a plant’s pores, called stomata, open to allow carbon dioxide to enter, they simultaneously allow water to escape,” writes Kimberly Hickok, who covers climate change for Science Magazine and reviewed the report. Known as transpiration, the process cools the plant and surrounding air, and increases the amount of water going into the atmosphere and returning as rainfall. As Hickok notes, “the cycle may continue” as that additional rainwater evaporates back into the atmosphere and causes rainfall on other farms and towns downwind.

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Put another way: More corn means more transpiration. Which, in turn, produces slightly cooler temperatures and increased precipitation. The fact that corn is a non-native species boosts the effect.

“The predominant native vegetation in central and eastern Nebraska is grass,” explains Dutcher. Farmers have replaced the area’s vast seas of grass with more than 9 million acres of corn, which transpires at a rate 20 percent higher than indigenous grasses. “Agriculture is literally funneling moisture into the atmosphere, and all that humidity has created a kind of protective bubble against rising temperatures.”

Dutcher and Hunnicutt say growing more corn — and thus, creating more transpiration — would have been impossible without advances in farming efficiency. The introduction of high-yielding varieties, better irrigation, and soil management techniques, along with the ability to use computer sensors to closely monitor field conditions, have all contributed to soaring yields.

“One of the biggest factors is the widespread use of cover crops, crop residue management, and no-till farming methods,” writes University of Nebraska-Lincoln Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources extension engineer Paul Jasa. Together, the practices have erased the need for conventional tillage, dramatically increased organic matter in the soil, reduced evaporation and runoff, and lowered summer surface temperatures. “With time, the [native clay-based] soil has become much healthier and better at retaining water,” Jasa continues. “This has made crops more resilient to traumatic weather events and, in general, much more productive.”

Hunnicutt says automated irrigation has helped boost overall production and allowed him to grow corn in pivot corners where his grandfather could not. Upward of 340 acres that formerly yielded nothing now contribute as much as 180 bushels per acre. In his tenure as a farmer, full-field yields have grown by more than 50 bushels an acre.

“I can get minute-to-minute weather predictions and tell you moisture levels anywhere in our fields just by glancing at my phone,” says Hunnicutt. “In the 1950s, my grandad was using a Farmers’ Almanac. Back then, if they thought the soil was too dry, they just dumped water on it. Now, I know exactly what my plants need and when to apply it.”

As might be expected, Alter’s report has a dark side. And that dark side has global implications.

“In terms of the Corn Belt, the degree of agricultural intensification we’ve seen in the last 30 years isn’t sustainable,” he says. “It’s projected to soon come to an end and may even decline.” And if that happens, the mitigating effect of agriculture will disappear, and global temperatures will rise even faster.

Though studies have yet to be conducted around the world, Alter says that areas that have experienced substantial agricultural intensification have likely experienced similar benefits: more rainfall and cooler average temperatures during the summers. Like Nebraska, the effects have probably masked negative changes and will eventually be overwhelmed.

“I know some of the anti-climate change folks will probably poo-poo this, but it’s something my family takes very seriously,” says Hunnicutt. “We’ve been in this business for five generations, and I hope to see my children and grandchildren carry on that tradition. We’re doing everything we can to reduce fuel consumption and increase efficiency. Our hope is these [mitigatory effects] will give us enough of a window to make adjustments and prepare for what’s coming.”

In the meantime, he hopes the world gets its act together and curbs emissions before it’s too late.

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The smoke’s gone, but hearts and lungs still may be in danger months after wildfires

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This story was originally published by Reveal and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

Three days after the Camp Fire erupted, incinerating the Northern California town of Paradise and killing 85 people, Katrina Sawa found herself struggling to breathe.

But Sawa wasn’t anywhere near Paradise. She lives almost 100 miles away in Roseville, a suburb northeast of Sacramento. Sawa puffed on her emergency asthma inhaler over and over again.

“Usually, I use it once a month,” said Sawa, a 48-year-old business coach who has had asthma since she was 13. “After using it four times in one day, I knew it was time to go to urgent care.” There, doctors had her inhale a powerful steroid medication to soothe her inflamed airways.

For two weeks after the fire ignited, the air in Northern California, stretching as far as 200 miles from the flames, was so full of smoke that it was deemed unhealthy to breathe, especially for people with heart and respiratory ailments.

But the health problems Sawa and others experienced while the blaze raged are just the beginning of effects that could plague people from Sacramento to the San Francisco Bay Area long after the smoke clears.

An analysis of hospital data by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that emergency room visits surged several months after a previous large wildfire was extinguished.

Three to five months after the 37,000-acre Tubbs Fire in Napa and Sonoma Valleys in October 2017, the region’s emergency rooms treated about 20 percent more patients for respiratory and cardiac ailments compared with previous years, according to the analysis, which used state data. At the time, the Tubbs Fire was the most destructive in California history, killing 22 people and destroying nearly 6,000 structures.

Seven of nine hospitals in Napa and Sonoma counties reported either significantly or slightly more cardiovascular and respiratory cases from January through March 2018 compared with the same period in 2016 and 2017. For instance, at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center in Sonoma County’s largest city, emergency room visits for respiratory problems jumped by 570, or 37 percent, from January through March 2018 compared with the same period in 2017. Twenty miles down Highway 101 at Petaluma Valley Hospital, heart cases increased by 61 patients, or 50 percent.

Medical experts say these findings raise troubling questions about the long-term health effects of wildfires, which, worsened by drought and global warming, are raging across the West.

The life-threatening effects of smoke disproportionately harm the elderly, children, and low-income people of color. More than 2.3 million adults and 644,000 children in California have asthma and another 1.7 million suffer from heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and California Department of Public Health. Adult asthma rates are highest for multiracial people and African Americans, while heart ailments tend to afflict the state’s poorest and least educated residents across all racial groups.

Reveal’s analysis does not take into account other factors that might have driven up the emergency room visits, such as other pollutants or the weather. But the conclusion is in line with a growing body of research that has found more people suffer respiratory problems and heart attacks within days of being exposed to wildfire smoke.

“The uptick in ER visits is very consistent” with scientific research about smoke, said Kari Nadeau, director of Stanford University’s Sean N. Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research.

John Balmes, a pulmonologist and professor at the University of California San Francisco who studies air pollution, is not surprised that emergency room visits increased three months after the wine country fire.

“People with asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and other lung diseases could have persistent exacerbations,” he said, adding that inhaling ash could have longer-term consequences, too. The effects of smoke months or years after a fire are not well understood.

There was only a slight increase in immediate emergency room visits during the days when last year’s Tubbs Fire burned. That’s because two of the largest hospitals were evacuated and a third was destroyed. As a result, the analysis was based on the period three to five months later, using data from California’s Office of Statewide Health Planning and Development.

Busier ERs in Bay Area, Sacramento

This month’s Camp Fire — the deadliest and largest in California history — was more than four times bigger than the Tubbs Fire. Throughout much of the Bay Area and Sacramento area, the smoke was so intense and widespread that many people wore masks, stayed indoors and bought air purifiers. At least two Northern California hospitals have reported busier ERs due to smoke from the fire, which burned 153,000 acres in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada.

Robin Scott, director of the emergency department at Adventist Health Clear Lake, reported a 43 percent increase in respiratory diagnoses when the smoke hung over the region compared with the two previous weeks.

In Berkeley, 160 miles from the fire, Sutter Health’s Alta Bates Summit Medical Center treated “increasing numbers of patients with chief complaints that appear to be connected to the poor air quality,” including “asthma, eczema, respiratory illness — as well as worsening heart conditions like congestive heart failure and chest pain,” said Ronn Berrol, medical director of the emergency department.

Other hospitals in the region, however, reported small increases, while some, including Kaiser Permanente in Oakland, reported no increases.

“There has been a slight uptick in terms of patients coming through our ER with respiratory issues. Most have been quickly treated and discharged,” said William Hodges, director of communications at Dignity Health in Sacramento. “I would say the impact has been minimal at most.”

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Francesca Dominici, a biostatistics professor at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said understanding the health effects is critical because climate change is making fires more frequent, ferocious, erratic, and long lasting.

Dominici was on a team of researchers that published a study last year that collected data from wildfires across the West between 2004 and 2009 and compared it with hospitalizations of elderly residents. About 22 percent more African Americans 65 and older were hospitalized for respiratory problems on smoky days than on non-smoky days. For elderly women of all races, respiratory hospitalizations increased more than 10 percent on smoky days, and for elderly men, 4 percent.

Five of the 10 largest wildfires in California history have occurred in the last two years, and many of the state’s largest population centers have been exposed to smoke repeatedly.

Dominici said the impacts are likely cumulative.

“More people are becoming susceptible to air pollution because they have been breathing bad air from previous wildfires,” she said. “For these people, the risk of adverse health effects is going to be even larger than the rest of the population.”

U.S. Environmental Protection Agency researchers, in a study published in April, examined more than a million emergency room visits during California’s 2015 fire season and found a 42 percent increase in heart attacks among adults over 65 on days with dense wildfire smoke. They also found increases in strokes and other cardiovascular effects.

The EPA researchers expressed a willingness to speak about their research, but the agency would not grant permission.

Tiny particles harm hearts, lungs

A major health concern is the makeup of the smoke. Fires emit clouds of fine particles known as PM2.5. For decades, researchers have shown that whenever these tiny particles — which largely come from vehicles and other sources of fuel combustion — increase in the air, deaths and hospitalizations from heart attacks and respiratory problems rise. The particles can irritate airways, travel deep into the lungs and disrupt the heart.

In addition, fires can emit toxic gases from a variety of sources, including oil, metals, and pesticides.

Among the estimated 19,000 buildings destroyed in the Camp Fire were gas stations, two grocery stores, eight schools, and a hotel.

“When you’re breathing smoke from that wildfire,” said Stanford’s Nadeau, “you’re breathing paint thinner, Drano, plastics, heavy metals, and burned leaves, which are very similar to tobacco.”

The long-term effects of breathing this cocktail are unknown.

In Palo Alto, 200 miles from the Camp Fire, pediatrician Kellen Glinder said he has seen a marked increase in number of children with breathing problems during each of California’s recent wildfires.

On Friday, after rain cleared much of the wildfire smoke, the waiting room at the Palo Alto Medical Foundation, a clinic where Glinder works, wasn’t as busy as it was in previous days. Several children sat or crawled around as a television played Toy Story overhead. But Glinder said he still was treating kids affected by the smoke.

About one third of the 20 children he treated each day during the fires — six to eight kids per day — had conditions the smoke exacerbated, Glinder said.

“We (saw) a lot of things hidden under the guise of a cold that wouldn’t have gotten worse unless the air quality was so bad,” he said.

In August, when the Mendocino Complex Fire blazed through the state, Glinder treated more patients with asthma and other conditions. And last year, the Santa Rosa fires brought similar health concerns.

“Each forest fire is going to have its own particular combination of chemicals, depending on what’s getting incinerated and blowing our way,” he said. “With this particular fire, I saw a lot more … skin irritation, headaches, and nausea than I had seen in prior forest fires.”

The waiting room had a box of miniature paper masks for the kids, decorated with Mickey Mouse heads. Glinder, however, said such flimsy masks are ineffective at protecting people from smoke’s particles and gases; they are designed to contain germs from colds and flu.

Like the elderly, children are particularly sensitive to soot and smoke.

“Children’s lungs are still growing, their nervous systems are still growing,” Glinder said. “That makes them more susceptible to these pollutants.”

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The smoke’s gone, but hearts and lungs still may be in danger months after wildfires

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Bitcoin: Are we really going to burn up the world for libertarian nerdbucks?

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The continued growth of power-hungry Bitcoin could lock in catastrophic climate change, according to a new study.

The cryptocurrency’s growth, should it follow the adoption path of other widely used technologies (like credit cards and air conditioning), would alone be enough to push the planet to 2-degree C warming, the red line value the world agreed to in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

Bitcoin essentially converts electricity into cash, via incredibly complex math problems designed to eliminate the need for government-sponsored currencies. It’s made a lot of bros rich over the past few years, but it’s also raised some significant concerns about the ethics of sucking up excess energy on a finite planet.

The libertarian nerdbucks account for only a tiny fraction (0.033 percent) of global transactions right now, but its rapid growth and already sizable energy usage are worrisome. This latest study, from researchers at the University of Hawaii-Manoa, adds to the pile of evidence that Bitcoin needs to cut down dramatically on energy use — or risk taking down our chances for a clean energy future with it.

The Hawaii researchers looked at every single Bitcoin that was “mined” in 2017 and the mix of fuel used to create the electricity that powered the huge computer farms that produced each of them. Unlike past calculations, they put a stronger emphasis on the types of computer processing equipment, factoring in older, less-efficient models still in routine use by Bitcoin miners. Through this analysis, they found that Bitcoin is likely already producing more than double the greenhouse gases of previous best estimates. That means that despite its infinitesimal reach, the global Bitcoin network already uses a lot of electricity — about as much as the entire country of Austria.

“Currently, the emissions from transportation, housing and food are considered the main contributors to ongoing climate change,” said Katie Taladay, one of the paper’s authors, in a statement. “This research illustrates that Bitcoin should be added to this list.”

Earlier this month, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued its starkest warning yet about what a world that’s 1.5 or 2 degrees warmer than pre-industrial levels would be like, saying that civilization itself is at stake if the world fails to reduce emissions by half before 2030.

The entire world has somewhere between 250 and 750 billion tons of remaining carbon that can enter the atmosphere before a 2-degree world becomes inevitable. This includes everything: Every factory, every airplane, every tractor delivering hay to cattle on every ranch, every light in every building everywhere in the world.

The Hawaii study found that Bitcoin alone could use that entire budget in 22 years if it grows at the slowest rate of widely used technologies. And it could use it up in just 11 years — by 2029 — if it grows at a rate equal to the fastest-uptake technologies.

Or, Gaia willing!, Bitcoin could crash and burn or remake itself to use vastly less energy, according to the Hawaii team. The authors are clear that they’re not predicting exactly what will happen, only imagining the stakes of the worst-case scenario — with Bitcoin as ubiquitous as microwave ovens, with no significant changes to its algorithm to get more energy efficient.

There are glimmers of hope that have emerged in 2018 that Bitcoin could be heading for that first crash and burn scenario. After rising in value more than 300 percent in a little over a month late last year, Bitcoin has given up all those gains and stagnated for most of 2018. Lower prices for Bitcoin have given its proponents less of an incentive to invest in expanding the network.

And the Hawaii team pointed to tweaks to the overall system that could reduce energy usage. One of those modifications, building a Bitcoin mining system based on trust rather than continuing to escalate a computational arms race, has already been championed by some of the more ethical cryptocurrency activists. Bottom line: This is a solvable problem. And our future depends on us solving it.

What’s absolutely clear in a world like this is that we can’t afford to waste our precious time and energy on things (like Bitcoin) that aren’t directly related to decarbonizing the global economy as quickly as possible.

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China said it was done with these coal plants. Satellite imagery shows otherwise.

Newly released satellite photos appear to show continuing construction of coal plants that China said it was cancelling last year, according to CoalSwarm.

“This new evidence that China’s central government hasn’t been able to stop the runaway coal-fired power plant building is alarming,” said Ted Nace, head of CoalSwarm, the nonprofit research network which analyzed and released the satellite images. “The planet can’t tolerate another U.S.-sized block of plants to be built.”

Experts said the images provide credible evidence that China is still building more coal-fired plants than its government claims. Take a look at these shots, the first from January 2017 and the second from this February.

Before…Planet Labs / CoalSwarm…and afterPlanet Labs / CoalSwarm

China burns more coal than the rest of the world combined. The dirty fossil fuel has powered the country’s rapid economic expansion over recent decades, the main reason China is the world’s largest polluter ahead of the United States. This is a problem China wants to fix — and it’s retiring the worst sources of pollution while bringing great gobs of cleaner power online. The country has pledged to begin reducing its rising greenhouse gas emissions no later than 2030. It can’t do that while also burning a lot more coal.

In January 2017, China announced that it was canceling more than 100 coal plants across 13 provinces. At the time, a researcher familiar with Chinese politics said that regional officials might try to skirt the central government’s order.

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“Some projects might have been ongoing for 10 years, and now there’s an order to stop them,” Lin Boqiang, an energy policy researcher at Xiamen University in southeastern China, told the New York Times. “It’s difficult to persuade the local governments to give up on them.”

Burning more coal is bad news for the climate and people’s lungs. But if new coal plants replace older, dirtier ones, “it actually could be good news,” said David Victor, a professor at the University of California, San Diego.

Most of the pictures CoalSwarm released show plants that are much more efficient than the Chinese average, Victor said. Of course, it would be better news for the climate if they were replacing those old coal plants with zero-carbon power.

Ultimately, China’s ability to cut carbon emissions will will depend on how quickly the economy transforms from dirty industrial manufacturing to “less carbon-intensive service sector growth,” said Peter Masters, who watches China’s energy moves for the research firm Rhodium Group.

In other words, China’s past economic growth came from building things like iPhones but future growth could come from designing and marketing their own gadgets. If China’s next wave of workers are designers, economists, and architects, rather than factory workers, it won’t necessarily need a surge of coal power.

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China said it was done with these coal plants. Satellite imagery shows otherwise.

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A more inclusive Global Climate Action Summit can stop us from ‘losing Earth’

Nathaniel Rich has driven much of the summer’s national conversation on climate change with his blockbuster New York Times Magazine piece, “Losing Earth.” Sprawling over more than 66 pages and drawing on more than 18 months of research, Rich tackles the failure of efforts 30 years ago to tackle global warming.

It’s masterful as a piece of storytelling, but Rich’s narrative centers on the unheeded warnings of a small, elite group of scientists and activists. As a result, he misses crucial context and ultimately draws deeply flawed conclusions. And those shortcomings could have serious implications for efforts currently underway to address the still ongoing climate crisis.

What Rich left out is that the mainstream environmental movement – the ecosystem of big green organizations and funders – consistently excluded and failed to provide resources to organizations representing those most vulnerable to climate change: communities of color and low-income communities.

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“There can be no understanding of our current and future predicament,” Rich writes, “without understanding why we failed to solve this problem when we had the chance.”

Who exactly is “we” in Rich’s take? Certainly he’s not implicating all of humanity for ignoring a few brave heroes — especially when a key constituency of the environmental movement was seldom included at the table.

Rich’s striking omission is on my mind as we gear up for the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco. The summit will bring together a broad coalition of leaders – representing “states, regions, cities, companies, investors, and citizens” – who remain committed to the Paris Agreement and staving off the worst effects of climate disruption. It is an enormous opportunity for catalyzing sustained action in the face of a lack of leadership at the federal level.

But at this massive table of stakeholders, equity-focused movement leaders are largely still fighting for more meaningful seats at the forum — and are instead holding satellite events.

Rich writes that preventing the worst effects of rising temperatures “will take more than good works and voluntary commitments; it will take a revolution. But in order to become a revolutionary, you need first to suffer.”

Communities of color and low-income communities have been suffering. They have the most at stake in a warming world. But too many decisions about how to reverse our course continue to be made, as in Rich’s narrative, within the most exclusive, least diverse circles: the top levels of government, big green NGOs, the C-Suite, and science-based organizations.

The shallow engagement of traditionally excluded communities is the Achilles’ heel of the movement. In 1990 – the year following the period of Rich covers in his reporting – a group of leaders from the more grassroots, people of color-led wing of the movement famously wrote a letter to the 10 most prominent environmental organizations of the time.

The letter decried the groups’ dismal diversity records and their engagement with polluters at the expense of communities of color. “It is impossible for you to represent us in issues of our own survival when you are accountable to these interests,” the leaders write. “Such accountability leads you to pursue a corporate strategy towards the resolution of the environmental crisis, when what is needed is a people’s strategy which fully involves those who have historically been without power in this society.”

In 2014, a generation after that prophetic letter, Green 2.0 — a campaign guided by a diverse, intergenerational working group — collaborated with celebrated environmental movement scholar Dorceta Taylor to take stock of representation in mainstream environmentalism. Its research made headlines for the sad reality that the boards and top executives guiding the movement remained overwhelmingly white, even as the country grew steadily more diverse.

Yes, decades ago a small group of individuals alone was not capable of addressing the climate crisis. However, I remain optimistic that today we – in the fullest sense of the word – are up to the challenge. Transformative change requires a people-centered movement demanding action.

Grassroots organizations, though under resourced, have been rolling up their sleeves to ensure that a transition from dirty to clean energy sources is fair and equitable. Jobs to Move America, for example, is working with labor partners in California to ensure that those manufacturing electric buses are paid living wages. The NAACP is building bridges with international climate justice leaders. And People’s Action in Chicago is fighting to ensure that low-income communities benefit from solar energy policies.

Transformative change will require that our strategies rely on a more powerful political force that combines both the grassroots and the grass tops. As one example among many, a coalition of community-level and mainstream organizations saved California’s landmark global warming bill in 2010 when oil interests tried to brand it a job killer. Equity-focused groups ensured that a meaningful chunk of the billions raised as a result of the legislation would benefit those most affected by climate change.

The task ahead is to harness what the full movement has to offer locally, regionally, and at a national scale. We must focus not only on the necessary transition to a low-carbon future but ensure that the benefits of a transition away from fossil fuels flow to everyone. Research shows that the clean energy economy continues to gain in strength, creating jobs and wealth-building opportunities that can produce shared prosperity.

Some philanthropic foundations, have been evolving to support greater inclusion of diverse leaders and equity-focused solutions at policy-shaping events like the upcoming climate summit in California and driving more funding to people of color-led organizations. (And of course, many funders and NGOs are working on their own leadership diversity.) But many of the largest environmental philanthropies need to accelerate their efforts to match the urgency of the climate crisis.

The stories we tell ourselves about what went wrong will shape the remedies of the future. Apple’s entertainment arm has optioned Nathaniel Rich’s New York Times story – a welcome opportunity to share the tale of our climate crisis with broader audiences beyond the paper’s subscribers. My hope is that this version and other efforts that build on “Losing Earth” will offer a more accurate and inclusive history – one that reflects the contributions of a broader swath of activists and leaders – and guide us toward the right solutions.

Danielle Deane-Ryan is director of the Inclusive Clean Economy program at the Nathan Cummings Foundation. Her multi-sector experience includes serving as the first executive director of Green 2.0 and as a senior advisor to the Obama Administration at the Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

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The Secret Life of Lobsters – Trevor Corson


The Secret Life of Lobsters
How Fishermen and Scientists Are Unraveling the Mysteries of Our Favorite Crustacean
Trevor Corson

Genre: Nature

Price: $1.99

Publish Date: October 13, 2009

Publisher: HarperCollins e-books


In this intimate portrait of an island lobstering community and aneccentric band of renegade biologists, journalist Trevor Corson escorts the reader onto the slippery decks of fishing boats, through danger-filled scuba dives, and deep into the churning currents of the Gulf of Maine to learn about the secret undersea lives of lobsters. This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

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The Secret Life of Lobsters – Trevor Corson

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Wisconsin’s catastrophic flooding is a glimpse of the Midwest’s drenched future

An entire summer’s worth of rain has fallen across a broad swath of the Midwest in recent days. The resulting record floods have wrecked homes and altered the paths of rivers, in one case destroying a waterfall in Minnesota. The worst-affected region, southwest Wisconsin, has received more than 20 inches of rain in 15 days– more than it usually gets in six months.

Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin declared a statewide emergency last week, mobilizing the Wisconsin National Guard to assist flood victims if necessary. The Kickapoo River in southwest Wisconsin rose to record levels — as high as six feet above the previous high water mark — producing damage that local emergency management officials described as “breathtaking.”

In the tiny Wisconsin town of Gays Mills, this is the third catastrophic flood in 10 years. After floods a decade ago, about a quarter of the residents left, and the town was partially rebuilt on higher ground. But this time around is even worse — with almost every home in the town damaged.

Is there a connection to climate change? Well, a warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapor, and the region’s main moisture source — the Gulf of Mexico — has reached record-warm levels in recent years, helping to spur an increase in precipitation intensity. Since the 1950s, the amount of rain falling in the heaviest storms has increased by 37 percent in the Midwest.

But there’s more to it than that. Decades of development have also paved over land that used to soak up rainwater. Earlier this year, Wisconsin took controversial steps to loosen restrictions on lakeside development.

Madison, home to the state’s flagship university, has seen the brunt of the flooding so far. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s center that specializes in studying lakes is itself flooded. “This is what climate change looks like,” Adam Hinterthuer, the center’s spokesperson, wrote in a blog post. On Twitter, the center posted maps of recent floods alongside projections for the worst expected floods later this century. They matched remarkably well.

For Eric Booth, a climate scientist at the university, the whole thing is almost too much to comprehend. His research project on small stream water temperatures was washed away by the flooding. “The scale of what is happening is absolutely unbelievable to witness,” Booth wrote in an email. Booth’s own calculations showed that rainfall over the past 30 days is an approximately 1-in-1,000 year occurrence, assuming a stable climate. (That, obviously, isn’t a good assumption anymore.)

Flooding in the Madison area has boosted lake levels to all-time highs, reigniting a more than 150-year dispute between boaters (who like lake levels high to avoid damage to their boats), conservationists (who want to avoid damage to sensitive shoreline ecosystems and wetlands), and property owners downstream (whose land gets flooded when water is released too quickly). That conflict has creeped into Madison’s mayoral election, where candidates have called for a new lake management plan in the face of more frequent extreme storms.

By late this century, on a business-as-usual path, those storms could nearly double in frequency, according to University of Wisconsin research. As an editorial earlier this summer in the Des Moines Register said, “Climate change never feels more real than when you’re dragging wet carpet from a flooded basement.”

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Wisconsin’s catastrophic flooding is a glimpse of the Midwest’s drenched future

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Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf


Reader, Come Home
The Fate of the Reading Brain in a Digital World
Maryanne Wolf

Genre: Science & Nature

Price: $12.99

Publish Date: August 14, 2018

Publisher: Harper


From the author of Proust and the Squid, a lively, ambitious, and deeply informative epistolary book that considers the future of the reading brain and our capacity for critical thinking, empathy, and reflection as we become increasingly dependent on digital technologies. A decade ago, Maryanne Wolf’s Proust and the Squid revealed what we know about how the brain learns to read and how reading changes the way we think and feel. Since then, the ways we process written language have changed dramatically with many concerned about both their own changes and that of children. New research on the reading brain chronicles these changes in the brains of children and adults as they learn to read while immersed in a digitally dominated medium. Drawing deeply on this research, this book comprises a series of letters Wolf writes to us—her beloved readers—to describe her concerns and her hopes about what is happening to the reading brain as it unavoidably changes to adapt to digital mediums. Wolf raises difficult questions, including: Will children learn to incorporate the full range of “deep reading” processes that are at the core of the expert reading brain?Will the mix of a seemingly infinite set of distractions for children’s attention and their quick access to immediate, voluminous information alter their ability to think for themselves?With information at their fingertips, will the next generation learn to build their own storehouse of knowledge, which could impede the ability to make analogies and draw inferences from what they know?Will all these influences, in turn, change the formation in children and the use in adults of “slower” cognitive processes like critical thinking, personal reflection, imagination, and empathy that comprise deep reading and that influence both how we think and how we live our lives?Will the chain of digital influences ultimately influence the use of the critical analytical and empathic capacities necessary for a democratic society?How can we preserve deep reading processes in future iterations of the reading brain?Who are the “good readers” of every epoch? Concerns about attention span, critical reasoning, and over-reliance on technology are never just about children—Wolf herself has found that, though she is a reading expert, her ability to read deeply has been impacted as she has become, inevitably, increasingly dependent on screens. Wolf draws on neuroscience, literature, education, technology, and philosophy and blends historical, literary, and scientific facts with down-to-earth examples and warm anecdotes to illuminate complex ideas that culminate in a proposal for a biliterate reading brain. Provocative and intriguing, Reader, Come Home is a roadmap that provides a cautionary but hopeful perspective on the impact of technology on our brains and our most essential intellectual capacities—and what this could mean for our future.

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Reader, Come Home – Maryanne Wolf

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5 Things Besides Sunscreen That Are Bad for Coral Reefs

Coral Reef Awareness Week, in the third week of July each year, was created to highlight the importance of coral reefs and the need to protect them. Coral reefs only cover 0.2 percent of the ocean floor, but these amazing ecosystems support around 2 million species of marine plants and animals. In addition, more than 500 million people throughout the world rely on coral reefs for food and income.

Coral reefs have been on the earth for about 500 million years. But in the past few decades, coral reefs have been dying at an alarming rate. It?s estimated that 19 percent of the world?s coral reefs are already dead, and 60 percent are currently at risk. If global action is not taken to stop this decline, all coral reefs will be in danger by 2050.

You may have heard about how sunscreen can be toxic to coral reefs, but many other factors also impact the health of coral reefs. Let?s look at some of the worst threats coral reefs currently face.

1. Climate Change

Research suggests that climate change is quickly becoming the most significant threat to coral reefs today.

A coral reef is actually a community of hundreds to thousands of corals, which are small, delicate animals that are easily disrupted by changes in their environment. Each tiny, soft-bodied coral secretes a hard outer skeleton of limestone to keep itself safe. The accumulation of these skeletons creates a coral reef.

This process has been going on uninterrupted for thousands of years and has created the massive coral structures we know today. But corals also form an incredible partnership with a type of algae known as zooxanthellae to keep this cycle going. Zooxanthellae are single-celled algae that can live within the corals? soft tissues, where they photosynthesize in a way similar to plants. The corals can then feed off the products of the algae?s photosynthesis and continue to grow and thrive.

It?s been observed that a rise in ocean temperatures of only one or two degrees can disrupt this unique partnership. When oceanwater heats up, the zooxanthellae start producing toxins, which forces the corals to eject the algae back into the ocean. Without the zooxanthellae, corals lose a vital food source and slowly die. This process is known as coral ?bleaching? because the colorful, living algae and corals are gone, leaving only the white limestone skeletons behind.

Climate change is causing a rise in overall ocean temperatures, as well as increasing the likelihood of localized temperature spikes. A chilling example of this was a ten-month long stretch of abnormally warm water around Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean from July 2015 to April 2016. In the months following the temperature spike, 90 percent of the reef?s corals died.

Another deadly trend fueled by climate change is ocean acidification. Every day, 90 million tons of carbon pollution is released into our atmosphere. About one-third of that carbon is absorbed by our oceans, which is gradually altering the chemistry of seawater and making it more acidic. The chemical changes make it more difficult for corals to acquire the nutrients they need to survive, causing a slower decline than bleaching, but with a similarly fatal end.

2. Over-Fishing

Global demand for fish continues to increase, both for food and for the pet trade. Over-harvesting of fish to meet this demand is taking a toll on biodiversity and the ecological balance of coral reefs. Physically damaging fishing methods, such as trawling or using dynamite or cyanide in the water, can also damage or completely destroy coral reefs.

3. Pollution

Pollution affects our entire planet, including our oceans. A 2013 study found that fine airborne particles, produced largely by human industrial activities, actually block sunlight from reaching corals, which impacts photosynthesis and growth. Researchers examined coral reefs in Panama and Belize and found their growth rates have been slowing down since the 1950s because of this reduction in sunlight.

In addition, the 8 million tons of plastic that enter the world?s oceans each year disrupt countless numbers of marine plants and animals, including corals, who will eat tiny plastic pieces thinking they?re food. Many other sources of pollution, such as oil spills, sewage and agricultural runoff, also take a toll on coral reefs.

4. Human Activities

Irresponsible human recreation, such as careless swimming, snorkeling or diving, can damage coral reefs. Boating can also hurt coral reefs through noise pollution, dropping anchors on sensitive areas or collisions with wildlife.

Human coastal development is another threat. Sensitive marine areas are being dredged and disturbed to construct airports and buildings on land reclaimed from the sea. Also, building marinas, fish farms and other water-based structures can disrupt nearby coral reefs.

5. Disease

The frequency of coral disease appears to be on the rise, primarily by infection from bacteria, fungi or viruses. Scientists believe this is largely due to the increased environmental and physical impacts corals are currently facing, which weakens their natural defenses.

For example, an Australian study looked at the effect of permanent offshore visitor platforms that had been constructed within the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. Researchers found that coral disease was up to 18 times more likely in reefs with platforms compared to undisturbed reefs.


The World Resources Institute has a great video summarizing their Reefs at Risk report, which examined the state of the world?s coral reefs and what we can do to bring them back to health. Check it out below.

Related on Care2

10 of the Most Endangered Species on Earth
How You Can Help Protect the World?s Wildlife
10 Surprising Facts About Turtles

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

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5 Things Besides Sunscreen That Are Bad for Coral Reefs

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From clean energy to racial justice, the Carolinas are tackling environmental challenges.

The prevailing wisdom is that U.S. air pollution has been on a steady decline since the 1970s. That’s not exactly the case, a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveals.

Starting in 2011, progress on cleaning up air pollution stalled — and in some places, smog levels actually increased. The U.S. saw a 7 percent drop in nitrogen oxides between 2005 to 2009, followed by just a 1.7 percent fall from 2011 to 2015.

The EPA had projected a 30 percent decrease in nitrogen oxides between 2010 and 2016. That’s a big difference. Researchers from the U.S., China, Japan, Canada, and the Netherlands compared surface and satellite measurements of air pollutants to the EPA’s emissions estimates, and they were surprised by the discrepancies, which indicate that the EPA data paints an unrealistically rosy picture of our air quality.

The research is less clear about why smog hasn’t improved much in recent years. It could be that we’re past the point of seeing dramatic change after landmark policy changes like the Clean Air Act took effect. Diesel trucks and industry pollution are likely culprits, too.

What’s cause for more alarm are two factors making it even harder to tackle air pollution: the Trump administration and climate change.

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From clean energy to racial justice, the Carolinas are tackling environmental challenges.

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