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Forecast this 4th of July: Fireworks with a chance of lead exposure

The coronavirus may have canceled many of this weekend’s organized Fourth of July fireworks displays, but that doesn’t mean people aren’t celebrating at home. Roadside fireworks stands are seeing an explosion of business, and firework complaints are cropping up across the country. In Boston, police calls regarding illegal fireworks were 23 times higher this year compared to last year — and that was in May. In New York in the first few weeks of June, such calls were up 236 times over the same period last year.

Bill Weimer, vice president of the retailer Phantom Fireworks, says he’s been “knocked over” by this season’s booming fireworks sales. “The demand and the business we’ve seen so far has been the strongest early fireworks season I’ve seen in my years of involvement in the fireworks business,” he told CNN.

The immediate dangers from exploding fireworks — injury and fires — are high on many public officials’ minds. But as the Fourth draws near and Independence Day partygoers snatch up the nation’s supply of sparklers, StarFires, and Raging Zombies, health experts have pointed to another troubling side effect of the pyrotechnics displays: a spike in air pollution.

They’re specifically worried about particulate matter — tiny dust and soot particles that may cause human health and environmental problems. A 2015 study in the journal Atmospheric Environment found that the average level of particulate matter across the United States increased a whopping 42 percent on the Fourth of July, and the Environmental Protection Agency warns that exposure to particulate matter may cause significant respiratory problems. For people with preexisting heart or lung conditions, it can even lead to premature death.

This week, a new study published in the journal Particle and Fibre Toxicology adds to the layers of concern. Not only is particulate matter bad in general, but the study found that the emissions from fireworks may pose unique health risks. After collecting particulate matter released by 12 types of commercially available fireworks, the study’s authors found high levels of toxic metals like copper and strontium in five of them.

Most of these metals are technically allowed in fireworks, said Terry Gordon, the lead author of the study and a professor of environmental medicine at NYU Langone Health. In fact, those metals are responsible for producing the fireworks’ vivid colors. But that doesn’t mean people should be inhaling them.

Krystal Pollitt, an environmental health scientist at the Yale School of Medicine who was not involved with the new study, says that when people breathe in metal particles like the ones let off by fireworks, it can cause cells to experience “oxidative stress.” This disrupts normal cellular signaling and metabolic processes and, if left unchecked, it can lead to cell damage and even cell death.

“Oxidative stress is a mechanism that underlies a lot of different diseases,” Pollitt told Grist, including a number of respiratory conditions. It is also implicated in kidney and liver failure, as well as neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s.

Gordon and his team were looking for signs of oxidative stress — and that’s what they found when they exposed human lung cells in a lab to the metal-containing particulate matter from the fireworks. Some types of fireworks, like the so-called “Saturn Battery 1,” caused a stronger reaction than others. Meanwhile, cells that were exposed to a control sample of black carbon — a common and relatively innocuous component of particulate matter —showed no signs of oxidative stress.

The researchers later confirmed the damaging effects of the particulate matter in live cells by conducting an experiment on mice. After injecting a subset of the fireworks particles into the mice’s lungs, they found that the particles with higher concentrations of toxic metals caused greater inflammation.

Gordon said he was most surprised to find that emissions from two of the fireworks contained dangerous levels of lead, despite the fact that lead is not allowed in consumer fireworks. One type of firework, called the “Black Cuckoo,” produced particulate matter with lead concentrations greater than 40,000 parts per million.

“That means it was 4 percent lead, which is outrageous,” Gordon told Grist. Even though the industry says it follows rigorous testing procedures to prevent this kind of contamination, he added, either regulators or manufacturers appear to be failing to keep it out of consumer fireworks. “To me, it’s almost criminal activity,” he said.

The American Pyrotechnics Association, an industry group, expressed concern about the fireworks’ metal content, saying the contaminated products should not have gotten past routine regulatory testing. “All consumer fireworks imported into the U.S. are prohibited from containing any form of lead,” the group’s executive director Julie Heckman told Grist. However, she added that the study did not provide detailed information on the fireworks or their manufacturers, making it difficult to determine where the oversight occurred.

Though Gordon’s study focused on small-scale fireworks displays — the kind you might have in your backyard — he said his results raise questions about the safety of larger shows. Gordon suspects that big firecrackers use many of the same chemicals as the little guys, and big displays produce much greater amounts of particulate matter. Plus, air pollution from big celebrations can blanket urban areas and linger for days.

Although some of the largest Fourth of July fireworks shows won’t be happening this year — events in New Orleans, Orlando, Minneapolis, most of southern California, and elsewhere have been canceled — others are plowing ahead. Macy’s NYC fireworks show, the largest pyrotechnics display in the country, is going on as a series of short, unannounced displays to prevent crowding. And after a 10-year moratorium on pyrotechnics at Mount Rushmore due to fire danger, the Trump administration is planning to bring “THE BIG FIREWORKS” back to the national monument, along with an anticipated crowd of 7,500 people.

These events raise obvious concerns about spreading the coronavirus through person-to-person contact, but the danger posed by pollution remains unclear without more research on the population-wide toxicological effects of exposure to firework-generated particulate matter.

“We don’t know what the risks could be,” Gordon said, calling for more research. But until we know more, he says it could be worth it to investigate alternative ways of celebrating Independence Day. Laser shows, he noted, are bright and colorful without the toxic emissions.

For the time being, he recommends that viewers exercise caution, whether they’re staying home to detonate a Lava Blaster or heading to a big pyrotechnics show. “If I’m in a fireworks celebration and the wind’s blowing right at my family and me,” he told Grist. “I’m not a happy camper.”

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Forecast this 4th of July: Fireworks with a chance of lead exposure

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Natural history museum to host anti-natural honoree Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, known for his strong anti-environmental policies and intention to open up the Amazon rainforest to increased deforestation, will be one of the guests of honor next month at a gala at, wait for it, the American Museum of Natural History.

On May 14th, the New York museum, whose permanent collections include the hall of biodiversity and the hall of North American forests, is scheduled to house the black-tie event, put on by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce. Each year, the organization honors two “persons of the year” — one Brazilian, one American– who have advanced economic ties between the two countries. While the American honoree has not yet been announced, Bolsonaro is slated to take the Brazilian slot, Gothamist reports.

But the irony of lauding a man who has repeatedly aired racist, homophobic and misogynist views all the while rolling back environmental protections in the Amazon at a venue dedicated to the natural world has not been lost on advocates or fans of the museum.

“The fact that American Museum of Natural History would accept an event for something so counter to their own values, they should be ashamed themselves,” Priscila Neri, a Brazilian activist with the New York City-based human rights organization WITNESS, told Gothamist. “In a moment when there’s been a rise of authoritarianism around the world, they’re giving a positive nod to a man who is rolling back human rights protections and scientific knowledge.”

Bolsonaro, dubbed the “Trump of the Tropics,” has undertaken an aggressive campaign of deforestation and mining that indigenous groups have likened to an “institutionalization of genocide in Brazil.”

The Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce has close ties to the Bolsonaro regime. Earlier this week, Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ted Helms struck a $9 billion deal with Bolsonaro’s government to sell oil production rights, and the organization’s president and board chairman, Alexandre Bettamio, was reportedly one of Bolsonaro’s choices to run the country’s state-run bank.

To be fair to the American Museum of Natural History, the pro-Bolsonaro event is external, meaning the Museum is only acting as a venue; the event was also booked at the before the honoree was announced.

Roberto Lebron, a spokesperson for the museum, told Gothamist that the event “does not in any way reflect the Museum’s position that there is an urgent need to conserve the Amazon Rainforest, which has such profound implications for biological diversity, indigenous communities, climate change, and the future health of our planet.”

Museum representatives also tweeted that they are “deeply concerned” and are exploring their options.

Credit – 

Natural history museum to host anti-natural honoree Jair Bolsonaro

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A love letter to Scott Pruitt

The EPA lost its top grifter Thursday afternoon, as Scott Pruitt tendered his resignation to President Donald Trump. We don’t know, right now, which straw broke the camel’s back — it could’ve been the tens of thousands of dollars he spent on first class flights, the secret calendar he used for private meetings with industry representatives, or maybe he just couldn’t take getting yelled at in a restaurant by a woman and her bemused toddler. (Trump told reporters on Air Force One there was “no final straw.”)

Whatever led to Pruitt quitting, that boy is gone. BOY. BYE.

Scott Pruitt was likely the most scandal-ridden, brown-nosing, oil-loving, climate-denying administrator to ever walk the halls of the EPA. Here’s the thing, though: We’re gonna miss him. Before you get mad and bring your toddlers to Grist HQ, hear us out.

Most of the time, the things that go on in the federal government, however consequential they may be, seem to bore Americans to tears. (Just look at voter turnout stats for midterm elections.) Whether you liked it or not, Scott Pruitt made the public pay attention. Fancy lotions, tactical pants, Chick-Fil-A? That’s drama. Secret phone booths? A 24/7 security detail? That’s intrigue. Getting your aides to pay for your hotel rooms? That’s petty. Pruitt was a veritable scandal-factory of his own making, and the wrongdoings were so juicy we literally couldn’t look away! I mean, the dude spent over 1,500 taxpayer dollars on a dozen fountain pens. Pens!

As time went on, it began to seem like Pruitt didn’t actually care about how many bridges he burned, how many federal investigations were launched, or even whether other members of the GOP were calling for his resignation. But we cared! The scandals were so egregious, so bizarre, so shallow and grasping, that people kept digging and digging to see what else the guy was up to. And each ethical misdeed focused attention on the work he led: dismantling decades of environmental regulations, cutting EPA staffing numbers to below Reagan-era levels, and striking mentions of climate change from the agency’s website.

People got mad! They marched, wrote letters, signed petitions, and sent the EPA multiple copies of Global Warming for Dummies.

No wonder the administration rails against “fake news.” Real journalism was able to take down a Trump loyalist.

Now, someone else wears the tactical pants at the EPA. His name is Andrew Wheeler. He’s been the agency’s deputy administrator since April, and we haven’t heard a peep out of him. Under his leadership, we’re probably in for far less scandal. But you can bet he’ll keep rolling back regulations.

Wheeler is a former coal lobbyist who has taken hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from Murray Energy — a company owned by that guy who sued John Oliver for libel after the comedian called him a “geriatric Dr. Evil” on his HBO show. Wheeler also worked for Jim Inhofe, the Oklahoma senator who brought a snowball onto the Senate floor to prove that global warming isn’t real.

The fact of the matter is that the new EPA chief could very well be worse for the environment than Pruitt. And with an administrator who doesn’t have a taste for grifting at the helm, some of those assaults on the environment, coated in propriety and due process, might slide by under the media’s radar.

So, yeah. Thanks, Pruitt. Thanks for stepping in it so many times, for sparking more than a dozen ethics investigations, for creating so many distractions you ended up drawing attention to the environment. (Hey, that’s our job!) Thanks for making people get mad. Here’s to hoping they stay mad.

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A love letter to Scott Pruitt

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The Orlando Mass Shooter Checked Facebook for News of His Attack As He Killed

Mother Jones

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The massacre in Orlando stands as a grim case in many respects, not least the hateful targeting of the LGBT crowd at the Pulse nightclub, and the highest death toll from a mass shooting in modern US history. Equally dark is that the case builds on some disturbing trends related to the means and motives now seen in mass shootings. One is that the attacker struck with an assault rifle and high-capacity magazines—marking the sixth of nine mass shootings in just the past year alone to be carried out with firearms tantamount to weapons of war.

The other disturbing trend lies with how the perpetrator, Omar Mateen, used digital media. He searched online for inspiration from recent attackers before he struck. And then, as he was unleashing carnage inside the club, he sought to learn if the media was covering the killing in real time.

According to Republican Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, head of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security, Mateen “used Facebook before and during the attack to search for and post terrorism-related content.” Johnson detailed authorities’ knowledge of Mateen’s online activity in a letter sent Wednesday to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, in which Johnson called for the company to hand over data connected to the attacker.

As Mateen shot scores of people and held others hostage, according to Johnson’s letter, he searched online for ‘Pulse Orlando’ and ‘Shooting’ during the prolonged siege of the club. (Presumably he did so on a smartphone, though that isn’t detailed in the letter.) Meanwhile, just weeks before the massacre, Mateen researched the couple who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and committed the massacre in San Bernardino last Decemeber—suggesting that he wanted to follow in their footsteps.

These behaviors underscore a growing concern among leaders in the field of threat assessment that digital technology has compounded the danger of future attacks. As I reported in a Mother Jones cover story last fall, there is emerging forensic evidence showing that social media has both exacerbated a copycat effect and become a prime tool for mass shooters seeking infamy.

Last August in Virginia, an enraged ex-television reporter carried out what was dubbed “the first social media murder”: He gunned down two of his former colleagues on live television while filming it with a camera of his own. He then posted the footage on Twitter and Facebook as he fled, shortly before dying in a police pursuit.

Less than 48 hours after the massacre in Orlando last Sunday, a 25-year-old man in France stabbed an off-duty police officer and his female companion to death, and then proceeded to film himself live on Facebook from inside the couple’s home. He declared his allegiance to the Islamic State and pondered what he might do with their terrified 3-year-old son, who was in the background. (The boy apparently remained physically unharmed after police raided the home and killed the attacker soon thereafter.)

“This is so much what we thought would happen, this increasing use of social media,” says Reid Meloy, a forensic psychologist and threat assessment expert who consults for the FBI and foreign security agencies. “I think we’re going to see more of this movement toward real-time broadcasting of these events, or individuals looking for the level of coverage of the events in real time.” Digital media offers a big platform for attackers to feed their pathological narcissism, he explains, “fulfilling their desire to be seen and to gain notoriety.”

Orlando epitomizes just how difficult it can be to untangle motive in a mass shooting, especially with so-called lone wolves (a term Meloy and others suggest is unhelpful to mitigating the copycat problem.) Was it a terrorist attack? A hate crime? The act of a disturbed person secretly struggling with his sexual identity? Quite possibly it was all of the above—and we may never really know, as security expert and author Peter Bergen wrote this week.

Many mass shooters display behaviors that fall along a spectrum of the criminal, clinical, and ideological, explains Meloy. Investigators are still piecing together a picture of Mateen’s background and his pathway to the Pulse nightclub. But while the term “terrorism” obviously applies to the massacre, Mateen’s stated allegiance to a violent extremist group—he’d also boasted about Al Qaeda and Hezbollah in the past—may have been more related to the clinical than the ideological.

Becoming a “school shooter” has long been a kind of apex for disturbed young men who gravitate toward going on a gun rampage. Many cases—attacks carried out as well as others averted—have included evidence of the perpetrators aspiring to “do a Columbine.” Now, we may be facing an even more grandiose and chilling phenomenon. “If they pledge to ISIS, in their minds it burnishes their reputations even more because they become a part of a larger and much more frightening movement,” says Meloy. “They also garner much more attention as soon as they pledge allegiance, whether during the fact or just before it.”

The ability of ISIS to exploit deep-seated grievance, rage, and self-loathing in potential recruits has been well documented. Though there still may be much that we don’t know about the Orlando and San Bernardino attackers, there are some astonishing parallels in the two young men: a history marked by personal rage and domestic violence, the abandonment of a young child to go on a suicidal mass-murder mission, and their taking up the ISIS banner shortly before striking.

With the San Bernardino massacre, the perpetrators’ abandonment of their baby struck many as the most incomprehensible detail. In Orlando, observes Meloy, it may well have become a new point of identification for a copycat. “You’ve got a young man who was willing to sacrifice his life and his role as a father—probably for a variety of disturbed reasons, possibly including self-loathing as a homosexual—to satisfy the hatreds and to seek the glory that he’s somehow searching for online, before and while the attack is occurring.”

“I’m truthfully far more interested in the posts from before,” Sen. Johnson said on NPR’s Morning Edition, “to see if there’s anything possible we could’ve learned to prevent this attack, as opposed to what a sick person, a deranged person was actually doing online while he was slaughtering our fellow citizens.”

Beyond the toxic brew of motive and any further details that may emerge about the attack planning, the whole world is now very familiar with Mateen’s selfies—including the next potential mass shooter. For threat assessment professionals, all of it is troubling new evidence as they continue to focus on stopping the next one.

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The Orlando Mass Shooter Checked Facebook for News of His Attack As He Killed

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Here Are 58 Million Reasons to Care About California’s Drought

Mother Jones

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Researchers used laser-imaging technology mounted to a plane to map the tree health of California’s forests after four years of drought. They found that things may soon get a lot worse: Up to 58 million trees are near death, and further drought conditions could kill them, releasing stored carbon into the atmosphere, destroying ecosystems and ruining a vital aspect of California’s water system. Courtesy of Greg Asner

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

The past four years of punishing drought have badly hurt California’s forests. Rain was scarce, the days were too hot, and this year’s wildfire season was the worst anyone has seen in years, burning up nearly 10 million acres across the West. For the first time, a team of researchers has measured the severity of the blow the drought dealt the trees, uncovering potential future destruction in the process. The resulting paper, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, is a rich visual testament to just how much California needs its trees and how close the state is to losing 58 million of them.

A team at the Carnegie Institution for Science, led by ecologist Greg Asner, used a laser-guided imaging tool, more properly referred to as high-fidelity imaging spectroscopy (HiFIS), mounted on a plane to sweep over California, taking snapshots that revealed how much water content the forest canopy had lost over time. In these images, the trees that appear red and orange are severely depleted of water. Light trees, in shades of tan, are trees under “drought stress” resulting from this past year’s dry season. The trees colored in blue are “doing okay,” Asner says.

In this image of a section of the southern Sierra Nevada in northern California, the red trees are severely depleted of water and at risk of dying if drought conditions recur. The light-colored trees are showing drought stress, and the blue trees are “doing OK,” according to ecologist Greg Asner. Courtesy Greg Asner

In total, the team found that up to 58 million large trees, shown in red, have been heavily impacted by the drought. If the drought recurs, or if the El Niño keeps the heat turned up in the region, Asner says these trees will likely die. New tree growth would also be suppressed, leaving room for shrublands or grasslands to take over, destroying the current ecosystem of plants and animals entirely. That poses a host of new questions for wildlife management and conservation. “For example,” Asner says, “if we’re going to lose habitat, what does that mean for bear populations?”

Losing these trees also means unleashing a torrent of greenhouse gases. A significant amount of carbon is stored in tree trunks and would be released back into the atmosphere, adding to the state’s emissions, which contribute to climate change. Asner is currently working to calculate how much emissions the death of these trees could cause, but “it’s going to be substantial,” he says.

What’s more, a vital part of California’s water system would be lost. Forest soil acts as a sponge for the freshwater that melts off snowy mountains, holding the water and allowing it to “basically leak out” over time, “giving us that ability to have a more constant amount of water flowing out of the mountain system over the dry summer months,” says Asner. Forests’ ability to hold water is why, in part, they feel cool. Walking through scrubland, in contrast, is a hot experience, largely because its much drier soil does not hold water. If California loses those 58 million trees, the snowmelt and rainfall would pass through the landscapes they previously occupied without being trapped, becoming susceptible to quick evaporation, Asner explains. “We can expect that this critical water mediating service will be impacted.”

Another 888 million trees, or about 41,000 square miles of California forest, are drought-stressed. While not as urgently severe, stress is still dangerous. The dreaded bark beetle, which infests trees and almost always kills them, has been thriving in the warmer climate, Asner says, and these weakened trees are a prime target. “During drought, when trees are stressed, they’re more susceptible to infestation. The interaction between the bark beetle, the tree, and climate—we’re just figuring it out now.”

This image of Tejon Ranch in Southern California is an example of how terrain can spell life or death for trees in drought. Up on the mountain ridges, the soil dries out faster because water runs off, draining quickly, leaving many of the trees there under medium to severe drought stress. The gully in this picture is not a river—the blue hues are trees in good health because they’ve received the residual moisture that ran off the now-parched ridges. Courtesy Greg Asner

The three-dimensional renderings from the laser-mounted plane revealed a dappled landscape of tree health across the state. “The problem is geographically complex,” Asner says. “It’s not like the whole forest went down evenly in its water content.” For example, on steep terrain, where any water that might be available would quickly drain off, trees typically did worse. In valleys, where the water pools, trees are typically healthier.

This image of Sequoia National Park shows a mix of tree damage and tree health. “The giant sequoias are doing pretty well” and are mostly pictured in blue, Asner says, but the firs and pines in the forest are hurting and shown in lighter colors. Courtesy Greg Asner

Meanwhile, places where there are stressed or severely water-depleted trees are far more likely to be the sites of future wildfires. Asner hopes these maps will help California understand the “good, the bad, and the ugly” about the state of its forests and help agencies make informed decisions about where to put resources when it comes to anticipating wildfires next season—where to thin forests in places that are most likely to become tinderboxes, for example, especially the ones that butt up against places where people live. He also hopes it will help the state better plan its prescribed burns to revitalize patches of forest that can be saved.

With so much at stake, Asner says, “it’s important that we understand what we’re losing.”


Here Are 58 Million Reasons to Care About California’s Drought

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Can the Paris Climate Deal Save This Tiny Pacific Island?

Mother Jones

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

You’ve probably never heard of Nauru. But you might want to learn its name. It may not be around much longer.

Nauru is a speck in the South Pacific. It’s the tiniest island nation and the third smallest nation in the world. At roughly 8 square miles and with just over 10,000 residents, Nauru isn’t exactly a political heavyweight on the world stage. But Nauru is sinking, drying out, and generally in peril due to the ever-accelerating effects of climate change. And it may spark a debate at the Paris climate talks currently underway about what to do with populations on the verge of becoming climate refugees with literally nowhere to go.

Nauru is not your typical drowning-island scenario. What used to be a Pacific island oasis is now, by many accounts, a physical example of how quickly paradise can be destroyed. In the early 1900s, a German company began strip-mining the interior of the island for phosphate, the main component of agricultural fertilizer. Then came Japan, which occupied the country during World War II, and continued the phosphate mining. The U.S. bombed Japan’s airstrip on Nauru in 1943, preventing food supplies from entering the island. Less than a year later, Japan deported 1,200 Nauruans to work as forced laborers on a nearby island—only 737 of them survived the ordeal to be repatriated after the war just three years later. After the war, Australia took control of the country, and phosphate mining resumed as an Australian enterprise, before mining rights were transferred to Nauru when the nation became independent in 1968.

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For more than three decades after that, Nauruans enjoyed the second highest per-capita GDP of any nation in the world. Western food arrived on the island, where topsoil is scant and little food is grown locally. Now, “instant noodles, soda and anything in a tin” are the staple foods on Nauru, according to NPR. Rates of Type 2 diabetes are high, and until recently, Nauru held the title of the nation with the highest obesity rate. Nearly 40 percent of Nauruan men are obese, four times the global average.

But in the early 2000s, the phosphate ran out. By that time, 80 percent of the sland’s land area had been strip-mined. In a This American Life report from 2002, journalist Jack Hitt described peering into the interior of the island as “one of the scariest things I’ve ever seen.”

“Almost all of Nauru is missing, picked clean, right down to the coral skeleton supporting the island…it’s all blindingly white,” he said.

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Today, almost all of Nauru’s economy is based on foreign assistance and income generated by a controversial Australian detention center, sometimes referred to “Australia’s Guantanamo,” used to detain refugees seeking asylum in Australia. Refugees from Syria, Iraq, and other war-torn nations have been held there for years under what critics say are harsh conditions; the center has sparked a human rights debate in Australia.

Meanwhile, the complete destruction of the island’s interior has severely limited Nauruans’ ability to adapt in the face of climate change. People can only live on a thin strip around the perimeter, which means, unlike many other island nations, there’s nowhere to move to even temporarily avoid sea level rise, explains Koko Warner, a lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Fifth Assessment Report and an expert on climate change-related human migration. According to a survey of Nauruans she and colleague Andrea Milan recently conducted for United Nations University, 40 percent of households on the island say they’ve already experienced sea level rise in the last ten years.

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Nauruans’ precarious coastal living makes them uniquely vulnerable to extreme storms, which scientists predict climate change will make make more severe in the region. “A one-degree change in the path of the cyclone could make all the difference,” Warner says.

Nauru’s other big problem is drought. The country has no clean groundwater nor does it have any lakes or rivers to supply freshwater, according to Warner and Milan’s report. The rainy seasons have become irregular, and more than half of Nauruans say they’re concerned about drought.

What does that mean for the future of Nauru? “In the coming five-to- 10 years, barring a massive cyclone, life will probably continue more or less the same. But pushing beyond 10 years, real uncertainty arises,” Warner says. One thing is certain: Without freshwater stores, and without the ability to migrate within their own country, Nauruans will have to go somewhere; 30 percent of the island’s population, according to Warner’s survey, say they’d likely migrate if drought, sea level rise, and flooding worsens.

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Already, the neighboring island nation of Kiribati has leased land on Fiji in anticipation that its residents will become climate change refugees. Nauru hasn’t followed in Kiribati’s footsteps—and only one quarter of Nauruans say they have the financial means to make migration possible themselves.

“Without improved access to international migration, some Nauruans will be ‘trapped’ by worsening environmental conditions, declining well-being and no opportunity to either migrate or generate income necessary for adapting,” Warner and Milan wrote. There must be a way, Warner says, for a country to learn how to best make migration possible, and there must be an international structure in place for such a country to seek funding for it.

But the impact of a warming planet on human migration needs were, until recently, largely absent from international climate change talks, Warner says. Now, nations are beginning to pay attention: The European Commission’s webpage for the Paris climate talks, for example, calls it a “crisis in the making,” noting that the “greatest single impact” of climate change “could be on human migration, with millions of people displaced by shoreline erosion, coastal flooding and agricultural disruption.”

It remains to be seen if the final document to come out of the Paris talks—expected to emerge Saturday—will include language that addresses migration, but Warner is hopeful. “‘Human mobility,'” she says. “The words need to be in there.”


Can the Paris Climate Deal Save This Tiny Pacific Island?

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7 Fascinating Facts About Bats

Mother Jones

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Silhouetted against an orange harvest moon, fluttering out of a haunted house, or circling Count Dracula’s cape: We often think of bats as creepy, especially this time of year.

But actually, these maligned creatures are crucial to many ecosystems—and our economy. What’s more, they’re in trouble. A few important facts to know about our winged, insect-munching friends:

Bats flying at sunset Umkehrer/Shutterstock

Bats save us billions of dollars a year. Bats eat their bodyweight in insects every night. In 2011, researchers at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville used modeling techniques to calculate how much bats’ amazing insect-eating abilities are worth to US farmers. The estimates included the value of prevented crop damage from pests that bats eat, as well as the amount of money farmers would have to spend on pesticides to do the same job. They came up with a wide—but staggering—range: between $3 billion and $53 billion dollars a year.

A few years later, Josiah Maine, then a graduate student at Southern Illinois University’s Cooperative Wildlife Research lab, decided to test out those estimates on the most important American crop: corn. Maine’s team set up enclosures around corn fields that let in insects but prevented bats from entering and foraging, and then measured how that corn fared compared with corn in fields where bats could eat insects to their hearts’ desire—and found 50 percent more fungal growth and crop damage in the enclosed corn. They then estimated the cost of damage per acre and extrapolated it across all the acres of corn grown in the world. The total price tag? More than $1 billion per year, not including the cost of downstream environmental damage caused by increased pesticide use.

Long-eared bats eat insects that damage crops. De Meester/ZUMAPRESS

Bats prevent disease. A common misconception is that most bats carry rabies and other diseases. In fact, the vast majority of bats don’t have rabies, and out of more than 1,300 species of bats, only three suck the blood of other animals (and only one of other mammals). On the other hand, bats eat insects that spread diseases we really should be worried about. According to David Blehert, who leads the US Geological Survey’s Wildlife Disease Diagnostics Lab, bats play an important role controlling the spread of West Nile virus.

Without bats, there would be no tequila. Many species of bats pollinate plants. After they use their insanely long tongues to feast on the sweet nectar of flowers, pollen collects on their muzzles, which they spread from the male part of the flower to the female part of the flower.

More than 300 species of plants depend on bats to survive in many tropical and desert ecosystems. These include plants that humans eat, like the agave used to make tequila, as well as banana, peach, and mango trees.

Bats help save forests. Fruit-eating bats also play a crucial role in rejuvenating clear-cut rainforests. After a rainforest ecosystem is decimated, the first step toward rebuilding is the spreading of seeds by the poop of fruit-eating birds, bats, and other animals. But bats, which cover large distances to forage for fruit at night, do the best job at spreading “pioneer” plants, the flora that first begin to grow after clear cutting.

In North America, bats are in big trouble. Bats are dying in unprecedented numbers in the eastern United States and Canada, thanks to a terrifying fungal disease. Nearly 6 millions bats have perished in the past decade, including more than 90 percent of the populations of some species.

The recent bat troubles began about a decade ago, when a nasty fungus called Pseudogymnoascus destructans (Pd) found its way into caves full of hibernating bats in upstate New York. Unlike bacteria and other pathogens, this fungus thrives in cold temperatures and finds an ideal host in the sleeping bats. It creeps onto their muzzles and spreads on the skin covering their wings, irritating them and causing them to wake and move before they are supposed to. This disrupts their energy conservation and fat storage, causing bats to die before hibernation is over or leave their caves too early and starve outside.

Perhaps most frightening of all, the fungus has spread very quickly: Since 2006 when wildlife biologists first identified it in New York, it has appeared in 26 states and five Canadian provinces. Just last month it arrived in yet another state, Wyoming, although it has yet to claim bat lives there. (Bats don’t start dying until a year or more after the fungus arrives in their caves.) White-nose syndrome has affected half of the 47 bat species in the United States, including the once ubiquitous little brown bat and the northern long-eared bat, which is now a threatened species.

A little brown bat affected by white-nose syndrome US Fish and Wildlife Service

Scientists test the wings of a little brown bat for white-nose syndrome in Tennessee. Amy Smotherman Burgess/ZUMAPRESS

Some researchers are trying are trying to save bats by manipulating their microbiomes. Blehert says scientists have started to make progress preventing white-nose syndrome’s spread. They discovered that once the fungus enters a cave’s soil it persists for long periods of time, allowing it to travel on the shoe of a spelunker or on the wing of a bat. Scientists and recreational cavers have begun to take precautionary measures to decontaminate clothes and equipment.

Researchers are also looking into more dramatic ways to fight the disease, including innovative vaccination efforts and cutting-edge biological control methods that manipulate the microbes on a bat’s skin so its microbiome develops a resistance to the pathogen. Researchers have found that bats’ immune systems, which largely shut down during hibernation, do not notice to the invasion of Pd fungus, allowing the pathogen to easily out-compete the microbes on bats’ skin that normally fight off germs. Scientists are trying to introduce new organisms to bats’ microbiome that could resist the fungus.

Because of white-nose syndrome, the northern long-eared bat is now a threatened species. Bruno Manunza/ZUMAPRESS

The US government is starting to care about bats. The kind of research needed to counteract white-nose syndrome can be extremely complicated and often costly. Organizations like the Nature Conservancy and bat expert Merlin Tuttle’s Bat Conservation International have made funding available to study white-nose syndrome, but the disease is not going away anytime soon and there is always a worry about how sustainable such funding will be.

Luckily, the US government has also stepped in. At the end of last month, the US Fish and Wildlife Service announced that it was giving another $2.5 million in grants for white-nose syndrome research. Since 2008, the agency has donated nearly $24 million to federal, state, and nongovernmental organizations to study and prevent the disease.

Researchers like Blehert and Maine also hope the new findings showing bats’ economic value will encourage support from spheres outside of wildlife conservation. “It’s not only ethical, but there is an economic incentive to conserve bats too,” Maine told me. “For a lot of people, this latter argument is really persuasive.”

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7 Fascinating Facts About Bats

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Congress Is Blocking Legal Weed in DC—and Maybe Causing a Spike in Murders

Mother Jones

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With John Boehner’s impending retirement, there isn’t much lingering fear that Congress will fail to pass the spending bills needed this week to avert a government shutdown. But in the process of keeping the government open, Congress will yet again trample on local governance in Washington, DC. Unless the legislative language is altered at the last minute before final passage, Congress will renew a rider from the last near-shutdown deal that prohibits the city government from spending any funds to set up a legal market for marijuana—as in Colorado and Washington State—despite the fact that DC voters approved, by an overwhelming majority, a ballot measure last fall to legalize weed.

There are a whole host of reasons the city government and voters would prefer a market where marijuana is sold in approved storefronts just like liquor. As Colorado has shown with its regulated system, bringing drug sales out of the black market can be a boon for tax revenue, with the state set to collect about $125 million this year from marijuana sales taxes. And before the ballot initiative last year legalized personal possession of small quantities of the drug, studies had shown that black residents of DC were 8.05 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than white residents, even though blacks and whites smoke pot at equal levels nationally.

But over the course of the past year, the DC government has found yet another reason to push for a fully legalized system: the role alternative, synthetic drugs might be playing in a rising murder rate.

Like many cities across the country, DC saw a sharp uptick in the number of homicides over the summer, which has continued into fall. Once the so-called murder capital of the United States, DC has steadily reduced its crime rate in recent years. But there have been 120 murders in DC in 2015, compared to just 80 at this time last year.

Analysts have yet to settle on a persuasive explanation for the spike in murders in many major American cities. DC’s city government has pointed to several possible causes. Perhaps it’s guns with larger magazines, making more shootings lethal. Or maybe it’s a glut of past offenders repeating. But there is one explanation that city officials have seemed surest about: an increase in synthetic-drug usage that has caused people to act erratically and sometimes violently.

Synthetic marijuana first hit DC head shops about five years ago, sold alongside pipes and bongs as a legal substitute for cannabis. Back then, drugs like K2 and Spice were milder cannabinoids that produced similar effects to marijuana. “They were much safer when they were legal than when they became illegal,” says Adam Eidinger, the author of last year’s ballot initiative to legalize marijuana and owner of Capitol Hemp, a local head shop that sold synthetic drugs when they were legal. But once the government banned the substances that produced the high, manufacturers went underground, experimenting with different strains of chemicals. The spiraling arms race to tweak formulas and stay ahead of regulators produced a far more dangerous substance, which in its current iteration induces more a high more like PCP than the mild cannabinoids of a few years ago.

Proponents of marijuana legalization avoid referring to the new product synthetic marijuana, as it’s commonly called. “Marijuana users should be outraged over this slanderous and fraudulent reference to the cannabis plant,” Jon Gettman wrote for High Times. “These drugs do not contain cannabinoids, natural or synthetic, and are in no way related to marijuana and/or the cannabis plant.”

“Often referred to as synthetic marijuana, this drug is not at all like marijuana, and the effects are very different,” DC police chief Cathy Lanier said in August. “It is an extremely dangerous drug and if not addressed federally, we will have a public health crisis on our hand as its use continues to expand.” She noted that 30 percent of police departments in major cities had reported more violent crime being committed by people under the influence of synthetic drugs.

In June, Mayor Muriel Bowser introduced emergency legislation to impose harsh penalties on stores caught selling the synthetic drugs: an automatic 96-hour shutdown for police to investigate the first offense, with a second offense prompting a 30-day closure and a $10,000 fine.

It’s not always clear that synthetic drugs are behind the crimes, as police struggle to test suspects and instead rely on visual clues to pin crimes on these drugs. In August, the NYPD held a press conference warning of the terrors of “weaponized marijuana” that had turned people into crazed criminals ready to wreak havoc on the streets. The presentation included a video a naked man trying to punch his way through a fence and then turning on a cohort of cops, and pointed to it as evidence of the perils of synthetic marijuana. But as Gothamist noted shortly afterward, the clip was actually pulled from an old episode of Cops. The footage, from 12 years earlier, showed a Des Moines man high on PCP, not K2. The footage still made it onto a CNN segment warning America about synthetic marijuana.

Although no one has conclusively traced the murder spike to synthetic drugs, usage of the drugs is certainly on the upswing this year—often with dangerous effects. DC recorded 439 trips to emergency rooms due to synthetic drugs in June alone.

DC officials and activists think the problem wouldn’t be so severe if Congress hadn’t interceded to block implementation of a legal market. “It would depend on the cost of the marijuana, entirely,” says David Grosso, a member of the DC Council and a longtime proponent of a tax-and-regulate system. “If it’s accessible and not expensive and not hard to get a hold of, then I think you’d probably see less synthetic drugs.”

Eidinger puts it more categorically. “There would be no demand for synthetic drugs if marijuana could be bought at any corner store in the city the same way alcohol is sold,” he says.

In November 2014, 70 percent of DC voters backed Initiative 71, a ballot measure that legalized possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and home cultivation in the capital. Shortly after the initiative passed, the DC Council drafted legislation to regulate the sale of marijuana like alcohol. In November, a council committee approved a bill that would have set the rules for production and sales taxes on marijuana. DC appeared set to follow Colorado and Washington in having legal dispensaries.

This prospect raised the ire of the Republican majority in Congress. Rep. Andy Harris, whose Maryland district sits on the eastern shore of the Chesapeake Bay, far from DC, had long challenged the District’s political autonomy, previously attempting unsuccessfully to prevent the city from lowering fines for marijuana possession. Shortly after the referendum passed, as part of a deal to avert a government shutdown Harris and his GOP colleagues in Congress barred the DC government from spending any funds on the legalization of marijuana. “The fact is, the Constitution gives Congress the ultimate oversight about what happens in the federal district,” Harris said at the time.

While the DC Council found a way around that spending prohibition to implement the exact text of the ballot measure, Harris’ rider has prevented DC from advancing toward a real legal market. That’s left the city in a limbo state. Instead of a fully legal market, DC currently has a hybrid system whereby possession of marijuana is legal but buying or selling it is not. Some enterprising individuals have entered what the Washington Post recently termed the “gray market,” starting clubs or selling other goods that just so happen to come with a free bonus gift of some weed. But for the most part, DC’s marijuana market is still operating just like every other black market in country, just a little bit more out in the open when it comes to possession, but still sold with the risk of arrest.

“Congress has failed us,” says Grosso. “They continue to block this effort. The people of the District of Columbia deserve this kind of a marketplace, and we don’t have the opportunity to do that.”


Congress Is Blocking Legal Weed in DC—and Maybe Causing a Spike in Murders

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Underground bomb shelter converted into hydroponic farm in London (Video)

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Air pollution at home could lower kids’ GPAs

Air pollution at home could lower kids’ GPAs

By on 28 Aug 2015commentsShare

It’s a safe bet that most kids who make excuses for bad grades are just totally full of it. Couldn’t upload your homework because the internet was down? Nice try. The latest video in your YouTube series went viral, and you just had to spend all night responding to comments? You’re not that important. Dog ate your homework? Stop it. But if a kid says her GPA is a touch low because her home is shrouded in toxic air pollution, maybe listen to her.

In a recent study published in the journal Population and Environment, researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso reported that kids living in highly polluted areas tended to have lower GPAs than their peers — and that’s after the researchers accounted for the child’s age, race, and sex, their family’s household income, and the mother’s education level, age during pregnancy, and English proficiency.

Previous studies have shown correlations between students’ academic performance and air pollution levels around schools, but this is the first to look at home environments, where students likely spend most of their time. The researchers conducted the study using data from the EPA’s National Air Toxics Assessment and the academic records of 1,895 fourth and fifth graders around El Paso. The overall differences in GPA were small, the researchers reported, but the association with home toxicity was strong, and that’s cause for concern:

Effects appear to be insidious, since they are mild, unlikely to be perceived, and, hence, unlikely to be addressed in any way. It would be important to note that seemingly trivial effects on children’s development may translate into substantial impacts throughout the life course, in terms of physical and mental health and personal success (e.g., lifetime earnings).

How exactly these pollutants influence a child’s academic performance is a bit murky. Sara E. Grineski, an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at UTEP and one of the study’s coauthors, said in the press release that there could be a few things going on here:

“Some evidence suggests that this association might exist because of illnesses, such as respiratory infections or asthma. Air pollution makes children sick, which leads to absenteeism and poor performance in school. The other hypothesis is that chronic exposure to air toxics can negatively affect children’s neurological and brain development.”

The primary sources of the harmful pollution came from what the researchers called “non-mobile road sources” — things like trains, construction vehicles, and airplanes. That the researchers separated out these various sources of pollution is another reason that this study is unique compared to previous research that just looked at pollution in aggregate:

While point (e.g., factories) and on-road mobile (e.g., freeways) sources of air pollution have received the most attention in the policy and academic arenas, the contribution to non-road mobile sources to the overall pollution burden is increasingly being recognized nationwide. For example, new evidence suggests that the particle pollution generated from the Los Angeles International airport extends over 10 km and is of the same general magnitude as the entire freeway system in Los Angeles, California, USA (Hudda et al. 2014).

Since low-income and minority neighborhoods tend to be the most popular dumping grounds for air pollution compared to their more affluent counterparts, this is clearly a job for — oh, sorry. It’s just that environmental justice gets violated so often these days that it seems like it should have its own superhero by now — a Superman to its Metropolis, a Batman to its Gotham. Do you think we could get Captain Planet to spearhead an Environmental Justice League?


Study Links Air Pollution to Children’s Low GPAs

, UTEP News.


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Air pollution at home could lower kids’ GPAs

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