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In a Dammed and Diked Mekong, a Push to Restore the Flow

Yale Environment 360 - Wed, 05/08/2024 - 05:46

Facing increasing land subsidence, saltwater intrusion, and flooding linked with development, Vietnam has committed to changing its approach to managing the Mekong Delta. New initiatives call for retrofitting dikes and dams to restore flood regimes, using nature as a guide.

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Categories: H. Green News

Microsoft employees spent years fighting the tech giant’s oil ties. Now, they’re speaking out.

Grist - Wed, 05/08/2024 - 01:45

For nearly a decade, Holly Alpine (née Beale) loved working at Microsoft. Shortly after finishing college, in July 2014, she landed a job there as a technical account manager. Less than four years later, Alpine was leading a program that invests in environmental projects in the communities where Microsoft’s data centers are located. She was also helping organize a worker-led sustainability group called the Sustainability Connected Community, which would grow to nearly 10,000 Microsoft employees worldwide by late 2023.

But at the end of last year, Alpine reached a painful decision: She could no longer ethically work at Microsoft. On January 24, 2024, Alpine sent an email to Microsoft president Brad Smith, CEO Satya Nadella, and several other senior company officials, letting them know why. 

Writing on behalf of herself and a colleague who resigned at the same time, Alpine told the tech giant’s top brass that the two were quitting in “no small part” due to Microsoft’s work for the fossil fuel industry aimed at automating and accelerating oil extraction.

“This work to maximize oil production with our technology is negating all of our good work, extending the age of fossil fuels, and enabling untold emissions,” Alpine wrote in the email. “We are both deeply saddened to be so let down by a company we loved so much.” (Alpine’s colleague asked Grist not to identify them, citing concerns over how it might affect their future employment prospects in the tech industry.)

Alpine’s blunt resignation letter didn’t come out of nowhere. For years, she was one of the faces of an internal, employee-led effort to raise ethical concerns about Microsoft’s work helping oil and gas producers boost their profits by providing them with cloud computing resources and AI software tools. Former Microsoft employees and sources familiar with tech industry advocacy say that, broadly speaking, employee pressure has had an enormous impact on sustainability at Microsoft, encouraging it to announce industry-leading climate goals in 2020 and support key federal climate policies. But convincing the world’s most valuable company to forgo lucrative oil industry contracts proved far more difficult. Eventually, Alpine decided speaking up internally wasn’t enough.

Read Next Microsoft’s ambitious climate goal forgets about its oil contracts

This spring, Alpine spoke with Grist for her first on-the-record interview describing her experience advocating for change inside Microsoft. By speaking out publicly despite her concerns about legal risks, Alpine hopes to place additional pressure on her former employer to address the emissions it is enabling through technology partnerships with fossil fuel companies. Alpine’s account, along with those of other former Microsoft employees, as well as internal documents current and former employees shared with Grist, offer a rare glimpse into how tech industry workers are applying behind-the-scenes pressure to hold their bosses accountable on climate change.

“My resignation was driven in part by the realization that the tech industry, including Microsoft, is increasing the profitability and competitiveness of these fossil fuel giants and perpetuating their existence when they should be phased out,” Alpine told Grist. “It became apparent after years of internal efforts … that Microsoft was unwilling to enact meaningful change.”

A Microsoft spokesperson told Grist that the company’s employees are “core to our sustainability mission” and that executives engage with employee groups, like the Sustainability Connected Community that Alpine helped establish, “on a regular basis as part of an ongoing dialog.”

The Microsoft company logo is seen during the 2021 SmartCity Expo World Congress, an international event focused on innovative and sustainable cities. Paco Freire / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

“The energy transition is complex and requires moving forward in a principled manner. We believe that technology has an important role to play in helping the industry decarbonize, and that requires balancing the energy needs and industry practices of today while inventing and deploying those of tomorrow,” the spokesperson added. “And we continually monitor our emissions, accelerate progress while increasing our use of clean energy to power data centers, purchasing renewable energy and other efforts to meet our sustainability goals of being carbon negative, water positive, and zero-waste by 2030.”

It’s true that Microsoft is taking numerous steps to address the sustainability of its own operations. But for years, the company has also furnished fossil fuel giants with cloud computing services and specialized software tools powered by machine learning and AI in order to streamline and automate their operations. These digital technologies help companies discover oil faster, squeeze more from existing wells, and boost productivity across their operations in order to stay cost competitive in an age of cheap renewable energy. The digital services market for oil and gas is “immense,” as a 2020 report by oil industry analysts at Barclays put it, with the potential to unlock $150 billion in yearly savings for producers. 

Over the past seven years, Microsoft has announced dozens of new deals with oil and gas producers and oil field services companies, many explicitly aimed at unlocking new reserves, increasing production, and driving up oil industry profits.

In 2017, Alpine and former Microsoft employee Drew Wilkinson came together to organize a small group of workers who shared a passion for sustainability and wanted to make positive changes at Microsoft. In early 2018, that group was folded into the company’s formal Connected Communities program, which provides employees with support and resources to organize volunteer communities based on shared interests. The mission of the Sustainability Connected Community — to make sustainability part of everybody’s job at Microsoft — resonated with workers around the world, and the group quickly grew to several thousand members. 

In the group’s first few years, tech companies’ oil and gas contracts became a focal point for climate-concerned workers across the tech industry. As they organized and began pressuring their bosses to take action on climate, news outlets started calling out Big Tech for creating AI technology aimed at accelerating oil production. 

Sustainability Connected Community employees on Microsoft’s campus in Redmond, Washington, on the day of the 2019 global climate strike. Courtesy of Drew Wilkinson

At an employee town hall in September 2019, a Microsoft worker asked Nadella, the company’s CEO, if he believed that helping oil companies extract more fossil fuels was an ethical use of the company’s technology. Nadella responded by stressing that fossil fuel companies are actively investing in the energy transition, according to a meeting transcript that was manually recorded by employees present at the time. Nadella’s response implied that by helping oil companies be more productive and achieve cost savings, Microsoft was enabling them to put more resources into emissions-reducing innovations. 

“To me his answer was borderline gaslighting,” Wilkinson told Grist. “Those of us in the sustainability community were like, ‘The work you’re doing is not to help them transition. The work you’re doing is to help them find and extract and burn more oil.’”

As concerns over the company’s fossil fuel work mounted, Microsoft was gearing up to make a big sustainability announcement. In January 2020, the company pledged to become “carbon negative” by 2030, meaning that in 10 years, the tech giant would pull more carbon out of the air than it emitted on an annual basis. The news generated a wave of positive media attention and was met with cheers from the Sustainability Connected Community, Wilkinson said.

“The initial reaction was like, ‘Holy sh–t, this is awesome,’” Wilkinson told Grist. “All this pressure we put on the company” — not just around the oil contracts, but sustainability more broadly — “worked.” 

The group’s concerns over Microsoft’s fossil fuel business “died down” for a while, according to Wilkinson: “Those of us who had been organizing on it back in 2019 were like, ‘Let’s wait and see what they do. Let’s give them a chance.’”

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella delivers a speech during an event named Microsoft Build AI Day in Jakarta in April 2024. Adek BERRY / AFP voa Getty Images

For nearly two years, employees watched and waited. Following its carbon negative announcement, Microsoft quickly expanded its internal carbon tax, which charges the company’s business groups a fee for the carbon they emit via electricity use, employee travel, and more. It also invested in new technologies like direct air capture and purchased carbon removal contracts from dozens of projects worldwide. But Microsoft’s work with the oil industry continued unabated, with the company announcing a slew of new partnerships in 2020 and 2021 aimed at cutting fossil fuel producers’ costs and boosting production. 

For Alpine, Wilkinson, and other employees, the incongruity between Microsoft’s climate goals and its efforts to enable oil extraction was too big to ignore. In late 2021, a small group of employees involved in the Sustainability Connected Community came together to craft a memo for Microsoft’s leadership calling attention to the climate impact of the company’s fossil fuel business. By customizing its cloud computing technology for oil and gas companies, Microsoft was “enabling far more emissions than we offset or remove,” employees asserted — yet those indirect emissions were not included in the company’s internal carbon accounting. The employees calculated that a single deal with Exxon Mobil to expand production in Texas and New Mexico by up to 50,000 barrels per day could enable carbon emissions adding up to 640 percent of the company’s carbon removal target for 2021.

“We believe we must hold ourselves accountable for the enabled emissions of our technology,” reads the memo, a copy of which was shared with Grist. “Our principled approach and leadership can — and should — set an industry standard.”

Read Next The overlooked climate consequences of AI

The memo goes on to outline more than a dozen recommendations for the company, including advocating for policies that align with 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming, measuring the emissions increases (or reductions) enabled by Microsoft’s technology, and ceasing to develop custom software tools aimed at increasing oil extraction.

In December 2021, Alpine, along with two other employees who asked Grist not to identify them, held a meeting with Smith and Lucas Joppa, who was then Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, to discuss the memo and present their recommendations. The meeting felt “really positive,” Alpine told Grist, adding that Smith expressed agreement with most of the employees’ recommendations and even appeared surprised that one of them — adding environmental impacts to Microsoft’s internal principles governing the responsible use of AI — hadn’t already been implemented. Smith, Alpine said, even offered to assemble a small team to further explore the concept of environmentally responsible AI principles. A former Microsoft employee familiar with the company’s responsible AI standards told Grist the idea was investigated but never went anywhere; the company’s responsible AI principles still do not include sustainability.

Microsoft and Joppa declined to comment on the meeting.

Brad Smith, vice chair and president of Microsoft, speaks at the ”New Strategies for a New Era” keynote at the Mobile World Congress 2024 in Barcelona, Spain, in February 2024. Joan Cros / NurPhoto via Getty Images

Alpine told Grist she left the meeting “hopeful that things would change.” And several months later, in March 2022, Microsoft issued a blog post outlining a series of principles that would guide its future work with the energy industry. The so-called energy principles included expanding work on initiatives focused on low and zero-carbon energy and helping energy customers develop “effective net-zero commitments.” Perhaps most significantly, the principles stated that Microsoft would only develop specialized tools for oil and gas extraction for companies that had agreed to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 or sooner.

“We were really excited when [the principles] were first published,” Alpine told Grist. “They were published, we were told, in part because of our advocacy, which felt really good.” 

But the more Alpine and others asked questions about the principles, the more they felt let down. Microsoft’s pledge to only develop custom fossil fuel extraction technologies for companies with a net-zero target only covered the emissions associated with producing the fuels, known as Scope 1 and Scope 2 emissions. Oil and gas companies weren’t being asked to zero out the emissions associated with burning fossil fuels, known as Scope 3 emissions, which can represent upwards of 85 percent of their total emissions. 

What’s more, oil companies simply had to put forth a net-zero target. Microsoft wasn’t requiring them to do anything to show they were on track to meet it.

Requiring a net-zero target only for Scope 1 and 2 emissions brushes aside the vast majority of the problem, which is the emissions that result from burning the fossil fuel companies’ products,” said Bill Weihl, founder of the nonprofit advocacy group ClimateVoice and a former sustainability director at Facebook and Google. “And a 2050 target, with no intermediate targets that would demonstrate a real commitment to shifting toward clean energy, is essentially meaningless.” Microsoft declined to comment on these concerns.

Read Next Global corporations’ climate pledges are ‘misleading,’ not credible

In November 2022, the Sustainability Connected Community held a call with Darryl Willis, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of energy, to discuss the principles. According to a meeting transcript generated by Microsoft Teams, employees peppered Willis with questions about what the principles meant and how Microsoft was implementing them, including which standards Microsoft would use to judge energy companies’ net-zero pledges, whether Microsoft was bringing up Scope 3 emissions in conversations with energy industry clients, and whether Microsoft had a plan to transition its energy division revenue away from fossil fuels. 

Willis acknowledged that there was “a lack of standards” around Microsoft’s net-zero requirement, and that including emissions from the burning of fossil fuels in companies’ net-zero targets was “going to be a journey.”

“It’s hard, it’s big, it’s complicated,” Willis told employees on the call, according to the transcript. “But I think it’s not unrecognized as a necessity.”

Darryl Willis, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of energy, left, greets Crown Prince Haakon of Norway at Microsoft Conference Center in April 2024 in Redmond, Washington. Mat Hayward / Getty Images

On the call, Willis committed to providing employees with updates on net-zero requirements as Microsoft continued to implement the principles. He also committed to providing a breakdown of the energy division’s revenue across six different sectors, from oil and gas extraction to low- or zero-carbon energy, as well as an analysis of personnel resources assigned to extractive industries versus renewable energy. Finally, Willis agreed to share a plan for how Microsoft’s energy division would transition its revenue toward low-carbon energy.

Alpine says she held several additional meetings with senior energy division and sustainability officials at Microsoft over the following year, and that Willis joined the Sustainability Connected Community for another call in November 2023. But the promised updates and analyses never materialized. At a December 2023 meeting with energy executives, Alpine says she was told that Microsoft was not responsible for defining net-zero for their customers, as there’s no global standard. (Microsoft declined to share any additional information with Grist concerning its net-zero standards for energy sector clients or any of the other commitments Willis made to employees in 2022.)

Read Next Microsoft quietly supported legislation to make it easier to fix devices. Here’s why that’s a big deal.

A few weeks later, Alpine came across a LinkedIn blog post Microsoft technical architect Azam Zaidi had written in April 2023 about the company’s work on oil and gas industry automation. Microsoft’s cloud services division, Azure, Zaidi asserted, was “at the heart” of the fossil fuel industry’s digital transformation,“enabling faster and more accurate decision-making and unlocking previously inaccessible reserves.”

“With Azure,” Zaidi concluded, “the future of oil and gas exploration and production is brighter than ever.”

“That was really a nail in the coffin for me,” Alpine said. 

In her January resignation email to Smith, Alpine quoted Zaidi’s post directly. “Facilitating a ‘future of oil and gas’ that ‘is brighter than ever’ goes against everything that we stand for, and everything we thought this company stands for as well,” Alpine wrote. 

Melanie Nakagawa, Microsoft’s chief sustainability officer, responded to Alpine the next day, thanking her for her “continued advocacy for sustainability.” Microsoft, Nakagawa wrote, is continuing to “uphold and adhere” to the energy principles, which the Sustainability Connected Community “had a role in shaping.”

Melanie Nakagawa, chief sustainability officer at Microsoft, speaks at Web Summit 2023. Hugo Amaral / SOPA Images / LightRocket via Getty Images

Weihl of ClimateVoice says it’s important to recognize that Microsoft employees “have been very effective internally on several fronts,” including encouraging the company to publicly voice its support for the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, which earmarked hundreds of billions of federal dollars toward clean energy. Last fall, Weihl said, employees at Microsoft launched an internal campaign targeting the company’s membership in trade associations that oppose climate policy, like the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Earlier this year Microsoft released an audit of its trade associations showing their alignment (or lack thereof) on climate policy, which Weihl called “a big step toward accountability.” 

Wilkinson, who started his own climate consulting business after he was laid off from Microsoft in early 2023, has maintained contact with many former colleagues in the Sustainability Connected Community. When it comes to addressing the emissions Microsoft enables within the fossil fuel industry, “the work is continuing,” he said. 

Alpine isn’t sure what’s next for her career-wise, but she’s considering focusing on coalition-building around the emissions that tech corporations enable, or sustainable food production. In the meantime, she’s keeping the heat on Microsoft by speaking out publicly about her time there.

Weihl is optimistic about what Microsoft employees — and former employees — can do if they continue to raise a ruckus. 

“The energy principles open a door,” he said. “So do the commitments Willis made. Employee pressure made that happen. It’s now up to employees … to keep the pressure on and make sure those principles and those commitments aren’t just window dressing.”

Correction: This story originally misidentified the structure of Holly Alpine’s work leading a program that invests in environmental projects in the communities where Microsoft’s data centers are located.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Microsoft employees spent years fighting the tech giant’s oil ties. Now, they’re speaking out. on May 8, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

One way or another, new EPA rules will stop pollution from coal-fired emissions

Grist - Wed, 05/08/2024 - 01:30

A quarter of the annual greenhouse gas emissions in the United States come from electricity generation. The biggest polluters in the sector are the country’s coal-fired power plants — decades-old facilities that emit enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and other pollutants into the air. Federal regulators and policymakers have spent years coming up with a plan for minimizing emissions from fossil fuel-run power stations. The Environmental Protection Agency finally unveiled the results of that work last week: a historic suite of rules that aim to prevent 1.4 billion metric tons of carbon pollution by 2047, the equivalent of annual emissions from 328 million gas cars.

The new rules were finalized under multiple laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. In addition to cutting carbon emissions, they are expected to vastly reduce air, water, and soil pollution from fossil fuel-fired power plants by preventing toxic discharge into rivers and streams, better controlling coal ash pollution, and reducing toxic mercury emissions. 

Of the four new rules, one in particular sets a new precedent by being the first to require the implementation of carbon capture and storage, or CCS, in order for certain existing plants to continue operating. Some of the facilities that fall under the rules are the more than 200 coal-fired power plants across the country that collectively account for more than half of the energy sector’s carbon emissions. Per the regulations, the companies operating these facilities have three options: they can capture 90 percent of their emissions and keep running past 2039, capture a smaller share of emissions and close by 2039, or continue operating normally and retire by 2032.

Carbon capture and storage is a complex, multi-site process that involves trapping the gas at the point of emission and piping it underground to a well where it is injected for long-term storage. And so some climate advocates fear that the rule will only prolong the lives of power plants that run on fossil fuels. 

Other critics of the EPA’s rules doubt the technology’s effectiveness, and point out that it has never been deployed on a commercial scale. Despite the hundreds of millions in tax incentives that the Biden Administration allocated to spur the development of CCS, there are currently no operations in the US that capture a substantial portion of a facility’s emissions. The fossil fuel giant Occidental Petroleum quietly abandoned its largest CCS facility in Pecos County, Texas, last October, selling it for a fraction of its construction cost. Elsewhere, Chevron’s massive operation on Barrow Island off the coast of Western Australia is successfully capturing carbon, but challenges in the underground storage system has led it to only store 1.6 million tons per year, under half its capacity.

Still, some other climate advocates say the rule fits well into their overall strategy: Capturing and storing carbon is such an expensive endeavor that some of the country’s oldest and biggest emitters, they hope, will choose to shut down rather than operate under the new rule. 

“This is a regulation that on its face appears to be mostly about CCS,” said Emily Grubert, a civil engineer and environmental sociologist at the University of Notre Dame. But Grubert believes that the rule can be harnessed for other ends: “The goal of the climate movement is for it to be about plant retirement.”

Grubert told Grist that it is unlikely many of the operators of these plants will elect to retrofit their facilities with CCS, since adopting the technology can cost companies over $1 billion. 

“I don’t want to see carbon capture put on the coal plants. The U.S. coal fleet is very old,” Grubert told Grist. “When you talk about putting multibillion-dollar investments on these plants, that almost certainly guarantees that they will stay open longer than they would have otherwise.”

Advocates who live in communities near CCS infrastructure along the Gulf Coast in Texas and Louisiana applauded some aspects of the new rule, but worried about the safety of the new technology. Capturing and storing carbon involves a complex network of industrial equipment, underground pipelines, and injection wells, each of which has their respective risks. When a pipeline carrying carbon dioxide ruptured in Mississippi in February 2020, dozens of people were rushed to the hospital after experiencing shortness of breath. A similar incident occurred with an Exxon Mobil-owned pipeline in southwest Louisiana last month. With the EPA’s recent decision to grant industry-friendly Louisiana the authority to approve new carbon dioxide wells, advocates worry that the majority-Black communities that live alongside much of the South’s fossil fuel infrastructure will have yet another pollution hazard in their midst. 

“We’re looking at a perfect storm,” said Beverly Wright, the executive director of the New Orleans-based Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. “You have this new shiny object that’s gonna solve all our problems by pumping the carbon into the ground. But whose ground?” 

Read Next

Existing coal plants have until 2032 to implement CCS and reduce their carbon emissions by 90 percent or shut down. Some politicians have indicated their determination to fight these requirements and keep the country’s coal fleet running without emissions-reducing technology. When the rules were initially proposed last year, a group of Republican attorneys general led by Patrick Morrisey of West Virginia wrote EPA Administrator Michael Regan a letter saying the regulations would “kill jobs, raise energy prices, and hurt energy reliability.” Last week, Morrisey threatened to challenge the EPA’s finalized decision in court. Separately, Shelley Moore Capito, a Republican senator from West Virginia, said she planned to draft a resolution opposing the rules. But beyond the potential legal and congressional challenges, CCS technology will have to develop substantially over the next decade to be used on a commercial scale.

Nonetheless, Grubert told Grist that it’s important not to discount CCS entirely. While solar and wind farms can replace the country’s rundown coal plants, there are currently few alternatives to clean up major emitters like cement manufacturing plants. In her ideal scenario, the new EPA rules will encourage the coal plants to go offline within the next decade, while spurring investment in other sectors where capturing carbon might be necessary in the interim, to minimize climate warming emissions. 

“Begrudgingly, I think we do need to be able to” implement some CCS, Grubert said. “Having a regulatory framework and a regulatory environment that ensures that carbon storage is safe and well communicated to people is a good idea.”

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This story was originally published by Grist with the headline One way or another, new EPA rules will stop pollution from coal-fired emissions on May 8, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Road row in protected forest exposes Kenya’s climate conundrum 

Climate Change News - Wed, 05/08/2024 - 01:17

Kenyan environmentalists have overtaken the government again in a fifteen-year legal battle to stop the expansion of a road inside the Aberdare Forest, where wider tensions between economic development and protection for nature and the climate are playing out.  

Conservationists have challenged the road construction project in the East African nation’s courts since 2009, arguing it threatens the region’s rich ecosystem and wildlife. But in January, President William Ruto declared his government would proceed with the works, a decision critics said undermined his climate-friendly image on the global stage. 

The road – now a rough dirt track punctuated with mounds of elephant dung – dissects the Aberdare Forest in central Kenya, cutting through an expanse of dense woods mingled with thick bamboo and colourful alpine vegetation. It also crosses the mountainous Aberdare National Park, a haven for wildlife including lions, antelope and elephants. 

The government wants to widen and tarmac the picturesque road to connect the two agricultural counties of Nyandarua and Nyeri, which it says would reduce local travel time and the cost of farm produce while boosting tourism. 

Environmentalists argue that the potential negative consequences for the forest, biodiversity and climate change far outweigh the purported benefits.   

“I don’t feel that this is what we want to offer to the Kenyan people in terms of connectivity,” Christian Lambrechts, executive director of conservation trust Rhino Ark, told journalists during a trip to the Aberdare Forest in Nyeri County.  

“We feel that this road is not justifiable from a socioeconomic standpoint. It will cut the Aberdare ecosystem into two, and lead to road user-wildlife conflicts.”   

Rhino Ark Executive Director Christian Lambrechts addresses journalists in Nyeri County, Kenya, during a media tour of Aberdare Forest and National Park on February 29, 2024. (Photo: Joseph Maina)

Threat to wildlife and water

In March, the East African Wild Life Society – in response to Ruto’s decision to press ahead with the project – filed a fresh petition to a local court in Nyeri. It ordered the road’s construction to be put on hold, pending a hearing in early June. 

Conservationists are calling for the government to upgrade an alternative road instead, which largely skirts around the forest, saying it will still cut travel time while protecting wildlife and the Aberdare ecosystem that is vital for the water cycle. 

Enock Ole Kiminta, CEO of KeNAWRUA, a national organisation bringing together local water user associations, told Climate Home that expanding the Ihithe-Ndunyu Njeru road in the Aberdare Forest would destroy almost 400 hectares of indigenous forests and 327 water springs. 

It would also negatively impact close to 70 percent of local biodiversity, including endangered birds and animals, and elephant breeding areas, he added.   

“And yet the president appears to be saying, ‘To hell with you – go to court. We don’t care what the courts will say; we’ll still go ahead and do it’,” Kiminta said, before the latest suspension of the project.    

A scene in the Aberdare National Park, central Kenya, pictured on March 1, 2024 (Photo: Joseph Maina)

In January, the National Environment Management Authority approved the road’s construction in a surprise move, after earlier opposing it, and issued a license for the roadworks to the Kenya National Highways Authority (KeNHA).   

It did, however, give instructions to reduce the road’s width from 40 metres to 25 metres in sections traversing the Aberdare Forest and the Aberdare National Park.  

On a tour of the region that month, Ruto asked a local crowd if they wanted the road’s expansion to proceed or to wait for the court’s final decision. After gaining their backing, Ruto instructed government officials to allocate funds to push ahead immediately.   

Neither KeNHA nor the Kenya Wildlife Service responded to requests for comment for this article.  

International accolades  

Kenyan climate policy experts told Climate Home the Aberdare case symbolises a wider disconnect between Ruto’s vocal support for greater climate action on the global stage and decisions by his government that threaten natural ecoystems and carbon sinks at home.   

Ruto has pushed for more climate finance for the African continent and hosted the African Climate Summit last September in Nairobi, which secured $23 billion in funding for green projects for the continent.  

Last November, he made it onto Time Magazine’s list of the 100 most influential leaders driving business to real climate action. 

He also rolled out an ambitious plan in 2022 to plant 15 billion trees in Kenya by 2032, in a bid to reach 30% tree cover, with all ministries urged to allocate funds for the initiative.  

Loss and damage board speeds up work to allow countries direct access to funds

“His right hand doesn’t know what his left is doing,” said Kiminta. “He’s not being honest when he’s out of the country speaking all about climate change in rosy terms and doing something different on the ground.”   

While attempting to plant billions of trees, the Kenyan authorities have also been dishing out permits to timber dealers, Kiminta added. 

According to the Global Forest Watch monitoring service, tree loss in Kenya increased to 11,000 hectares in 2023, of which about 10,000 hectares was natural forest. That rise followed a two-year decline in 2021 and 2022, when the country recorded its lowest deforestation levels since 2001. 

Failed effort to lift logging ban  

The Aberdare row is not the first time Ruto has pitted himself against the justice system over decisions involving forests.  

Last July, less than two years after coming to power, he unilaterally lifted a six-year logging ban in the country’s forests, saying it would benefit local economies – sparking a legal backlash.  

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) petitioned against the move, saying it disregarded the crucial role forests play in mitigating climate change, preserving biodiversity and safeguarding vital ecosystems. 

“It may be for lack of vision, foresight, or even commitment to sustainable development, but it is by all means a blow to Kenya’s environmental conservation efforts and international standing,” wrote Faith Odhiambo, the current LSK president, in a post on Twitter.   

The LSK argued the public had not been involved in the process leading to the decision to lift the ban, as stipulated in the constitution – and in October succeeded in its push for the Environmental and Lands Courts to void the president’s directive.  

Farmers tilling land cleared from the forest in Kinale on March 7, 2024 (Photo: Joseph Maina)

Indigenous rights 

Another row erupted last year over the Mau Forest Complex in Kenya’s Rift Valley, following an effort by the government to evict indigenous communities who have resisted such attempts for years.   

The evictions are part of an official strategy to protect Kenya’s principal water catchment areas, with speculation the latest round may also have been tied to a deal with UAE-based firm Blue Carbon to generate carbon credits for use under the Paris Agreement on climate change. 

The Mau – Kenya’s largest forest – has been the theatre of drawn-out conflict between the government and forest communities, particularly the Ogiek, a minority ethnic group that lays claim to the forest as its ancestral land.  

The African Court on Human and Peoples’ Rights determined in 2022 that the state had violated the Ogiek’s rights over a substantial period and directed it to adopt appropriate measures to prevent the recurrence of abuses.   

But in a surprise twist last October, the government embarked on another forceful eviction of forest communities, including the Ogiek.    

Damaris Bonareri, an advocate of the High Court of Kenya and senior programme advisor for legal affairs at the Kenya Human Rights Commission, told Climate Home the Ogiek people are protected by the constitution and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights

“According to our constitution, the Ogiek have a right to be in that forest. The president is wrong,” she added, noting that Ruto has spoken about the country’s judiciary in ways that could turn public opinion against it. 

Indigenous lands feel cruel bite of green energy transition

The president has publicly defended his green agenda, and often ties climate change and its causes to the extreme weather hitting the country, including torrential rains that have caused severe flooding and landslides in recent weeks, killing around 230 people. 

“We must be careful on environmental issues,” Ruto told a political rally in March in Kericho, one of four counties covered by the Mau Forest, stressing that his administration would not permit people to graze animals or cultivate crops in forests. 

“You have heard about climate change. Kenya was almost destroyed by adverse weather conditions just the other year and it was because of environmental degradation,” he said.

(Reporting by Joseph Maina; editing by Megan Rowling)

The post Road row in protected forest exposes Kenya’s climate conundrum  appeared first on Climate Home News.

Categories: H. Green News

The surging demand for data is guzzling Virginia’s water

Grist - Wed, 05/08/2024 - 01:00

Every email you send has a home. Every uploaded file, web search, and social media post does, too. In massive buildings erected from miles of concrete, stacked servers hum with the electricity required to process and store every byte of information that modern lives rely on.

In recent years, these data centers have been rapidly expanding in the United States. But the gargantuan facilities do more than keep cloud servers running — they also guzzle absurd amounts of water to run cooling systems that protect their components from overheating. Now, as artificial intelligence applications become ubiquitous, they’re using more water than ever.

Northern Virginia is the data center capital of the globe, where more than 300 facilities process nearly 70 percent of the world’s digital information, a job that requires ever more electricity. A utility that serves the area, Dominion Energy, announced during a May 2 earnings call that the industry’s demand for electricity had more than doubled in recent years. The week before that call, Google announced a billion-dollar expansion of three Virginia facilities, following a $35 billion investment by Amazon Web Services in the same area last year. State lawmakers and environmental groups have begun worrying about what this industry boom means for the area’s supply of water.

“Some of these data centers will use resources equivalent to a small city for energy and water,” said Ann Bennett, chair of data center issues in the Sierra Club’s Virginia chapter. “They are being built on a scale that we just haven’t seen in the past.”

Large data centers are resource hogs, using as much as 5 million gallons of water a day. Big companies, such as Google, Microsoft, and Meta, have faced public backlash for sucking up groundwater in regions plagued by droughts, such as in Arizona. But warming temperatures and more heat waves are driving increased water scarcity even in states that are not used to shortages. Last summer and fall, Virginia suffered a monthslong drought. The worst of the dry spell was in the same watershed as “data center alley,” part of Loudoun County where thousands of technology companies make use of the greatest concentration of data centers in the world, in an area the size of 100,000 football fields. 

“I think as we look towards climate change and drought, somebody has to start asking these questions about how that impacts water supply and future increasing need,” said Kyle Hart, a program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association in Alexandria, one of the groups involved in the recently formed Virginia Data Center Reform Coalition. Many environmental advocates say that because companies often don’t divulge details about their water use, calling attention to these issues is a challenge.

Amazon data centers being built 50 feet from residential houses in the Loudoun County, Virginia. Jahi Chikwendiu / The Washington Post via Getty Images

Data centers rank among the top 10 water-consuming industries in the United States, according to a 2021 study from Virginia Tech that looked at their environmental cost. And the next generation of technology will only make these facilities thirstier, as servers that run AI algorithms generate more heat. Compared with traditional computing, the average neural network needs six times more kilowatts per rack. And AI scales exponentially: Large-scale algorithms, used by the likes of Google, Amazon, and Microsoft, consume at least 100 times more computing power and process millions of more data points than simpler kinds of machine learning.

To crunch all those bytes, tech giants are seeking out more data centers. Information about how many servers are being used for AI applications is not publicly available, but according to polling by Forbes, more than half of businesses use AI in some capacity. Amazon Web Services, which has 85 data centers in northern Virginia alone, offers hundreds of AI applications to its clients. 

In Virginia, the scramble to stake land for data centers has some residents concerned. In December, local officials in Prince William County approved a $40 billion land-development project that will turn the county into the world’s largest data center hub. The public debate took 27 hours and drew nearly 400 citizens who raised questions about water availability, effect on the grid, and noise pollution. 

Dozens of climate advocacy and historical preservation organizations formed the Virginia Data Center Reform Coalition at the end of last year over concerns that data centers were being built without prior understanding of the consequences. Julie Bolthouse, director of land use at Piedmont Environmental Council, one of the members of the coalition, says without more information about the resources these facilities consume, it’s difficult to draw a line from data centers to water issues. “We just don’t know. And that’s the biggest problem: We need more transparency around this industry,” she said. “And yet we’re approving them because of the promise of increased revenue.”

“Data centers are really secretive about their operational details,” said Md Abu Bakar Siddik, an engineering doctoral student who co-authored the Virginia Tech study. In 2022, Google became the first company to publicize its data centers’ water use following a lengthy legal battle in The Dalles, Oregon. While a handful of other tech giants, like Microsoft, have followed suit, most companies remain tight-lipped.

Ben Townsend, head of infrastructure and sustainability at Google, says the tech giant has some of the most sustainable data centers in the industry. And if a drought hit the area, Townsend said that Google would work with the local utilities “well in advance to understand what behaviors need to be taken to best support the watershed.”

Last month, Bolthouse learned from a Freedom of Information Act request that data centers serviced by the Loudoun water utility had increased their use of drinking water by more than 250 percent between 2019 and 2023. The documents also showed that water usage peaked during the summer months when the risk of drought is the highest. 

Recycled water is being used in some data centers, such as in a Google facility in Georgia. But Siddik says fresh water is usually necessary to keep cooling systems running smoothly. 

Members of the Virginia Data Center Reform Coalition during a press release last December. Hugh Kenny / Piedmont Environmental Council

Shaolei Ren, an engineering professor at University of California, Riverside, said that instead of returning the water to a city wastewater system, like the one connected to your drains at home, many data centers use cooling methods that rely on evaporation. A study he co-authored last year found that just training Open AI’s flagship product, GPT-3, might have directly evaporated more than 700,000 liters of clean fresh water. “Whether the water is recycled, saline, or fresh water, afterwards the water is just gone,” Ren said.

Some Virginia lawmakers have tried to hold companies accountable for their impact on the environment. In February, Josh Thomas, a Democrat in the Virginia House of Delegates, introduced several data center reform bills, including one that would require counties to conduct water studies before approving new developments. Although the legislation made it through the Virginia House in February, the Senate vote was eventually postponed until 2025, effectively killing it. According to Thomas, industry groups lobbied against the bill. By the time he reintroduces it during next year’s legislative session, lawmakers and the Data Center Reform Coalition expect an environmental impact study, commissioned by Virginia, will be complete.

“I think it’s very fair to paint a picture of a very obstinate industry that is opposed to any type of check on its growth,” Thomas said. “If we don’t do something quickly, there may be a tipping point where anything we do might not have an impact.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the location of a data center in which Google is using recycled water. This post has also been updated to clarify that Google disclosed its data centers’ water use across the U.S. in 2022, not in one location. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The surging demand for data is guzzling Virginia’s water on May 8, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

'End fossil fuel funding' implore Imperial students

Ecologist - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 23:40
'End fossil fuel funding' implore Imperial students Channel News brendan 8th May 2024 Teaser Media
Categories: H. Green News

Offset Schemes Failing to Benefit Forest Communities, Report Finds

Yale Environment 360 - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 06:54

Increasingly, businesses are writing off their carbon emissions by funding the conservation of forests. A new report finds that while such schemes have made “limited” progress in curbing deforestation, they have largely failed to alleviate poverty in forest communities.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

Protesty zemědělců: omezit je potřeba trhy, ne ochranu přírody

Green European Journal - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 02:55

Zájmy zemědělců a ochrany přírody proti sobě postavila neoliberální volnotržní politika Evropské unie. Účinná zelená politika by neměla jít proti zemědělcům, ale naopak se s nimi spojit proti nadvládě neoliberálních elit a korporací.

Představte si, že máte práci, ve které nikdy nemáte ani jediný den volna. Práci, v níž poskytujete společnosti naprosto základní, nedocenitelnou službu, a navzdory tomu hromadíte dluhy v milionech korun. Práci, ve které nikdy pořádně nevíte, kolik dostanete. Práci, kterou manistreamová média buď ignorují, nebo očerňují.

Práci, v níž běžné postupy ohrožují vaše zdraví. Práci, kde si nevyděláte dost na důchod a kde vám hrozí, že až do penze odejdete, nebude vaše místo mít kdo převzít, protože pro mladé je spojená s nízkou kvalitou života. Vítejte v zemědělství. Takhle dnes vypadá prakticky všude v Evropě, a nejen v Evropě.

Není tedy těžké pochopit, proč v posledních týdnech vlny protestů evropských zemědělců zasáhly Evropu od Bruselu po Madrid a Varšavu. Na titulních stránkách novin se objevily záběry traktorů blokujících dálnice a centra měst, kejdy vylévané na supermarkety, policistů postříkaných hnojem a zasypaných vejci. Zemědělci rázně zvedají svůj hlas, požadují důstojnost, podporu svého živobytí, životaschopnost malých farem a volají: „Žádní zemědělci, žádné jídlo!“.

V Bruselu mnoho lidí v ulicích demonstrovalo proti dohodám o volném obchodu, které podrývají ceny jejich plodin a ohrožují tak jejich živobytí. V Polsku, Německu a Rumunsku zemědělci zase odmítají příliv levného ukrajinského obilí. Také v Indii vyšli zemědělci opět do ulic a brání se nejnovějším pokusům o zrušení cenových regulací, bez nichž bude jejich již tak nuzné živobytí ještě hubenější.

Všechny tyto protesty je třeba vidět nikoli jako pouhé ojedinělé incidenty, ale spíše jako projevy celosvětově sdílené frustrace a rozčarování ze systému, který upřednostňuje zisk a konkurenci před lidmi. Vyvolávají důležité debaty o regulaci trhů, spravedlivých cenách, obchodních dohodách a budoucnosti produkce potravin. V Evropě se blíží jednání o dohodě s jihoamerickým obchodním blokem Mercosur, která s sebou nese hrozbu dalšího oslabení evropských zemědělců a zhoršení problémů, jimž čelí.

Místo smysluplné odpovědi na legitimní protesty těch, kdo nás všechny živí, však evropská politická elita v panice z blížících se voleb reaguje symbolickým obětováním politik na ochranu přírody. Evropská komise již nemilosrdně zařízla plány na omezení používání pesticidů, hodila do koše strategii pro udržitelnou produkci potravin a rozvolnila kritéria pro ochranu přírody i pracujících, která musí zemědělci dodržovat, aby mohli žádat o dotace v rámci Společné zemědělské politiky.

Hlavní problém jsou trhy, ne ochrana přírody

Tato reakce jde zcela mimo podstatu problému. Velká část zemědělců bojuje právě proti deregulaci: konkrétně proti volnotržním dohodám nastolujícím nerovnou hospodářskou soutěž, proti zaplavování trhů levnými produkty z dovozu a proti rušení podpory domácí produkce.

Škrtání ekologických opatření nijak nepomůže zemědělcům vypořádat se s prudce rostoucími náklady na vstupy a půdu, klesajícími výkupními cenami, nekalými praktikami obchodníků, systémem dotací zvýhodňujícím velké agrokorporace. Nepomůže jim s dluhy a nejistotou, které je dusí, ani s nadměrnou silou maloobchodních a potravinářských gigantů, kteří zisk z jejich práce vysávají.

Nijak nezmění systém dlouhodobého vykořisťování, kvůli kterému mají zemědělci v Evropské unii dlouhodobě o čtyřicet procent nižší příjmy než zbytek populace. Odkládání naléhavých a nezbytných opatření na ochranu ekosystémů, na kterých jsou přitom i sami zemědělci závislí, naopak ve veřejné debatě jen posílí falešné krajněpravicové narativy o nevyhnutelném střetu zájmů zemědělců s opatřeními na ochranu klimatu.

Nelze popřít, že některé zemědělské skupiny proti ekologickým opatřením skutečně protestují, což ekologická hnutí staví před nepříjemné otázky. Je rovněž zjevné, že první návrhy Evropské komise v rámci Zelené dohody pro Evropu skutečně obsahovaly nedostatky. Pokud chceme zemědělce získat pro přechod k udržitelnějšímu modelu potravinářství a zemědělství, je třeba změnit přístup.

Přesto platí, že ve své podstatě se zájmy zemědělců a ochrany přírody prolínají. Zemědělci a zemědělští dělníci jsou prvořadými oběťmi znečištění průmyslových potravinářských systémů. Závažné zdravotní dopady vystavení pesticidům při práci, které jsou příliš často ignorovány nebo zatajovány, souvisejí s rozvojem nejrůznějších onemocnění, od respiračních onemocnění až po různé druhy rakoviny.

Sami zemědělci a zemědělští dělníci by tedy z postupného ukončení používání škodlivých pesticidů měli prospěch jako první. Také pokud jde o dopady změn klimatu, patří zemědělci mezi první oběti. Například záplavy, sucha a bouře v roce 2022 zničily přibližně deset procent produkce italských zemědělců, což způsobilo ztráty ve výši 6 miliard eur.

Zájmy zemědělců tedy nejsou jaksi z podstaty protichůdné snahám o ekologickou transformaci nebo zkracování dodavatelských řetězců. Tuto mylnou představu šíří ve vlastním zištném zájmu lobby velkých agrokorporací a politické strany snažící se vytěžit maximum z nadbíhání každé aktuální vášni — a ochotně ji papouškují některá média.

Skutečně neudržitelná a neospravedlnitelná je snaha prosazovat ekologická a klimatická opatření v kontextu volnotržní politiky, která znemožňuje zemědělcům konkurovat za rovných podmínek a nutí je bojovat o život v nekalé konkurenci a záplavě levného dovozu.

Až příliš často jsou v tuto chvíli náklady na plnění ekologických regulací uvaleny na zemědělce, zatímco zbytek společnosti čeká, že z nich bude těžit, aniž by se na nich musel podílet. Pokud nebude proměna zemědělství samotnými zemědělci chápána jako spravedlivá, selže. Zemědělci nežádají o almužny. Žádají o uznání a docenění své zásadní role pro celou společnost — a nic menšího si nezaslouží.

Cestou vpřed je dialog

Nic není ztraceno, zemědělce pro sociálně i ekologicky zodpovědnou politiku získat lze. Plány na spravedlivou transformaci sektoru zemědělství je třeba formulovat přímo se samotnými zemědělci a se spotřebiteli, kteří s nimi sympatizují. Prvním nutným krokem vpřed je přitom plně vzít na vědomí nespravedlnost a mocenskou nerovnost v jádru dnešního uspořádání potravinových systémů.

Místo ustupování argumentům, které stavějí zemědělce proti ochráncům přírody či spotřebitelům, je naopak třeba se spojit a spolupracovat v zájmu vybudování potravinového systému, který zajistí zemědělcům spravedlivou odměnu, společnosti odolné zásobování potravinami, a přírodě respektování jejích mezí.

Taková politika bude muset jít nutně přímo proti nerovným podmínkám, utvářeným volnotržními mezinárodními dohodami a velkými korporacemi. Při správném druhu veřejné podpory, spoluutvářeném za účasti samotných zemědělců a širší veřejnosti, může být přechodu na udržitelné potravinové a zemědělské systémy pro zemědělce ekonomicky výhodný. Studie provedené například ve Francii ukazují, že agroekologické farmy mají obecně lepší střednědobé ekonomické výsledky než ty, které užívají konvenční postupy.

Společná zemědělská politika by se musela změnit tak, aby upřednostňovala raději ekologickou udržitelnost, spravedlnost, a ekonomickou jistotu pro všechny zemědělce.

V opožděné reakci na rozsah hněvu zemědělců nyní Evropská komise pořádá řadu dialogů se zemědělci a občanskou společností. Ty by mohly být užitečným fórem pro zahájení rozhovorů potřebných k obnovení důvěry. Byly by však účinné pouze tehdy, pokud by Komise skutečně naslouchala obavám zemědělců bez ohledu na velikost a umístění jejich podniků, a ne jen několika vlivným skupinám, jak je obvyklé.

Přitom by také bylo nezbytné připustit si nepříjemné pravdy o volnotržních dohodách i nekalé konkurenci a prospěchářství korporací a obchodních řetězců. Do rozhodování by se museli konečně zapojit i přímo drobní zemědělci. Rozhodovací procesy i finanční prostředky by se musely decentralizovat tak, aby se rozhodnutí o proměnách hospodaření v krajině přiblížila přímo místům, jichž se týkají.

Jen dialog a hluboká spolupráce mezi zemědělci, zemědělskými dělníky, venkovskými komunitami a občany by mohly vytvořit společné vize a společné plány pro cesty k spravedlivému a udržitelnému potravinovému systému. Aby vrátila zemědělce z ulic k jednacímu stolu, musela by být Zelená dohoda především spravedlivou dohodou.

K tomu by však bylo třeba překonat dvě dlouhodobé překážky. Za prvé, namísto přehodnocování ekologické politiky by musela Evropská komise přehodnotit svou politiku obchodní. Za druhé, Společná zemědělská politika by se musela změnit tak, aby upřednostňovala ne maximální produkci zemědělského zboží pro trhy, ale raději ekologickou udržitelnost, spravedlnost, a ekonomickou jistotu pro všechny zemědělce.

Ne volný, ale spravedlivý obchod

Evropská politika liberalizace zemědělských trhů a bilaterálních volnotržních dohod mimoevropskými státy už desetiletí vystavuje evropské zemědělce nekalé hospodářské soutěži. Produkce potravin přitom není hospodářské odvětví jako každé jiné — s jídlem nelze nakládat prostě jako se zbožím. Je to základní lidská potřeba a tak by se s ní mělo zacházet.

Achilovou patou Zelené dohody i  „Z vidlí na vidličku“ je právě tento neoliberální kontext, v kterém byly uvedeny. Evropská komise si usmyslela, že bude dělat ekologickou transformaci, která nijak neovlivní její obchodní politiku. Teď vidíme, že to není udržitelné.

Je načase vrátit se k argumentům, že skutečně efektivní a sociálně spravedlivá ekologická transformace není možná bez změny globálního ekonomického systému, včetně architektury obchodních dohod a finančního sektoru.

V některých sektorech zavedla Evropská komise „uhlíkové clo“ — v podstatě uhlíkovou daň, uvalenou na dovozové produkty s vysokou uhlíkovou náročností, jako je cement, elektřina, hliník, hnojiva či fosilní paliva, aby tak kompenzovala náklady domácích producentů na přechod k bezemisním zdrojům.

Je příznačné, že tento mechanismus však nebyl uplatněn v zemědělství, které tak zůstalo vydáno napospas nekalé konkurenci ze zemí s nižšími ekologickými standardy. Strategie „Z vidlí na vidličku“ zůstala v tomto ohledu vágní a bezzubá. Nekvalitní dovoz i nadále podrývá evropským zemědělcům výkupní ceny a ti jsou tak zranitelní vůči výkyvům na trzích — jako byl ten, který způsobil dovoz laciného obilí z Ukrajiny.

Spravedlivá Zelená dohoda by tak měla zahrnovat mimo jiné ekologická cla. Nutné je zásadní přehodnocení dohody s blokem Mercosur nebo i její úplné opuštění. „Zakleknout“ je třeba na nekalé prospěchářské praktiky agrochemických podniků, výrobců hnojiv a dalších dodavatelů zemědělských vstupů. Intervenovat je třeba ve všech částech dodavatelských řetězců tak, aby se zemědělcům zajistily spravedlivé ceny, odrážející skutečné náklady udržitelné produkce.

Mnohem důrazněji je třeba zasahovat proti neférovým obchodním praktikám, zneužívání postavení na trhu ze strany korporací a praktikám maloobchodních řetězců, které svými nákupními politikami sdírají zemědělce z kůže — inspirovat se lze ve Španělsku, které v reakci na protesty prostě zakázalo nakupovat za menší než výrobní ceny.

Jiná Společná zemědělská politika

Společná zemědělská politika nutně potřebuje reformu, která by řešila nerovnosti, chudobu a ekologické škody, jimiž evropští zemědělci trpí. Společná zemědělská politika je jedním z pilířů evropské integrace již od jejích počátků v šedesátých letech. Původně byla zamýšlena jako jedna z odpovědí na nedostatek potravin po druhé světové válce.

Jejím cílem bylo zvýšit potravinovou bezpečnost, podpořit produkci a zajistit zemědělcům lepší příjmy. Zaměřovala se především na cenové regulace a dotace na klíčové komodity, jako jsou obiloviny, mléčné výrobky a cukr. I když tyto politiky zpočátku dosahovaly svých cílů, vedly zároveň k nadprodukci, poškozování životního prostředí i nespravedlivému vnucování přebytků na trhy globálního Jihu, kde tvořily nekalou konkurenci místní produkci.

V průběhu následujících desetiletí se Společná zemědělská politika v zájmu více „tržní orientace“ zaměřila na poskytování paušálních dotací zemědělcům na základě hektarů obhospodařované půdy, čímž zvýhodnila velké podniky. Menší balík byl k dispozici také na financování rozvoje venkova a podmíněných „ekologizačních“ opatření.

V současné době z této největší rozpočtové položky EU neúměrně profitují největší zemědělské podniky, specializované na průmyslové zemědělství a živočišnou výrobu, takže malé a rodinné farmy se potýkají s problémy. Osmdesát procent dotací plyne pouhým dvaceti procentům zemědělců.

Tváří v tvář ekologické krizi, důsledkům pandemie, válce na Ukrajině, rostoucím nákladům na život, budoucímu vstupu zemědělské Ukrajiny do Evropské unie a nakonec i dnešním protestům zemědělců je zjevné, že tento model již nemůže obstát. Váhavá implementace Zelené dohody v tomto kontextu základní obrysy evropské zemědělské politiky nijak nezměnila — jen přidala celé situaci na složitosti.

Lobbying velkých korporací ekologické reformy zpomalil a zdeformoval, a přispěl tak k narůstající nejistotě. Hradit náklady na byrokracii spojenou se současným systémem a konkurovat v modelu nízkonákladové velkovýroby, upřednostňujícím úspory z rozsahu a kapitálově náročné formy výroby, si mohou dovolit pouze velké zemědělské podniky.

Absence jakékoliv „vize“ — slovy bývalého komisaře pro zemědělství — pozitivní změny vede k tomu, že iniciativu přebírají zájmové skupiny přisáté na většinu prostředků z dotací, zatímco ohrožení živobytí drobných zemědělců politikou deregulace a volného obchodu se ignoruje.

Komise nyní navrhuje, že ekologické požadavky v rámci Společné zemědělské politiky zmírní tím, že je učiní pouze dobrovolnými. To by bylo fatální selhání politického vedení. Namísto lpění na selhávajícím modelu bychom potřebovali odvážnou vizi pozitivní budoucnosti evropského zemědělství a férovou politiku přechodu k ní.

To by ale znamenalo jít za rámec zjednodušujících frází o inovacích, digitalizaci a modernizaci zemědělství, které jen nahrávají trendu k stále větším a větším zemědělským podnikům. Zemědělská politika by měla místo toho garantovat zemědělcům spravedlivé výkupní ceny, zajistit transparentnost v dodavatelských řetězcích, zdravé potraviny a podporu agroekologickému zemědělství — politiku, která bude chytře odměňovat malé i velké zemědělce ne za to, kolik půdy vlastní, ale za to, jak se o ni starají.

Taková reforma by měla být součástí širšího procesu proměny evropského potravinového systému zdola nahoru, a to tak, že se jeho ústředními principy stanou sociální spravedlnost, ekologická udržitelnost a lidské zdraví.

Také strategie „Z vidlí na vidličku“ by se měla vrátit ke svým počátkům a usilovat o skutečně vnitřně propojenou, celistvou potravinovou politiku, která bude sérií promyšlených kroků proměňovat evropské i světové potravinové systémy.

Protesty zemědělců bychom měli vnímat jako důsledek mnoha let politických selhání. Jsou výzvou k tomu, abychom přehodnotili náš přístup k potravinovým systémům a upřednostnili blahobyt zemědělců a venkovských komunit spolu s odolností našeho zemědělství a životního prostředí.

Stojíme na prahu důležitých evropských voleb a rozhodnutí, která učiníme, ovlivní budoucnost našeho potravinového systému pro další generace. Zvolme si solidaritu místo hledání obětních beránků, spolupráci místo kulturních válek a budoucnost, v níž budou zemědělci prosperovat společně s komunitami, v nichž žijí, a s půdou, kterou spravují.

Categories: H. Green News

Generation desenchantee? Les jeunesses Europeennes a l’heure de choix d’avenir

Green European Journal - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 02:33

À l’approche des élections de juin, les institutions et les forces politiques de l’UE courtisent la jeune génération pour qu’elle vote. Mais cinq ans après que les jeunes Européens se sont mobilisés autour de la crise climatique et ont poussé en faveur d’un Green Deal européen, la perception est celle d’une jeunesse désengagée, alourdie par de multiples crises et par l’incertitude quant à l’avenir. Cette image est-elle exacte et y a-t-il encore un espoir de la changer ?

Cette année 2024, entre les 6 et 9 juin, les Européens retournent aux urnes pour élire leur Parlement, initiant le grand jeu politico-diplomatique qui doit aboutir au renouvellement de la Commission européenne et aux nouveaux équilibres au sommet des institutions européennes. Alors que les différentes familles politiques s’organisent, au niveau européen comme national, la Commission européenne publie une série de propositions et d’actions « pour donner aux jeunes plus de poids dans les décisions qui les concernent ».  

Études d’impact du point de vue en fonction de l’âge, stratégie globale pour la jeunesse, extension des mécanismes de participation, affichages dans les espaces publics la Commission courtise les soutiens de la jeunesse. Il faut donner envie d’Europe. Rendre les politiques communes à la fois plus concrètes pour les citoyens européens et plus pertinentes pour les plus jeunes d’entre eux. 

Les signaux sont clairs : à Bruxelles, on semble penser que les clés des élections européennes sont dans les mains des 18-25 ans – et même plus jeunes, puisque dans certains ​​Etats membres, la majorité politique est fixée à 16 ans pour les élections européennes, comme en Allemagne ou en Belgique depuis cette année. Les esprits chagrins diront bien sûr que tout cela est inutile tant la jeune génération semble se désintéresser du jeu politique et des institutions, où elle est manifestement sous représentée par rapport à ses aînés. 

Plusieurs signaux, ces dernières années, expliquent cependant cette attention particulière pour la jeunesse qui – à l’instar de ses aînés, qui furent jeunes dans les années 1980 – cherche parfois refuge dans l’indifférence. 

2019 – Enthousiasme et démocratie 

En 2019, ce sont les jeunes qui avaient créé la surprise. Passée de 42,6% à 50,6% en moyenne pour l’Union à 28, la participation aux élections européennes enregistrait une hausse – significative – pour la première fois depuis le passage à l’élection au suffrage universel direct, en 1979, et le premier vote européen de la génération d’après-guerre.  

Selon les résultats des enquêtes post-électorales, en particulier l’Eurobaromètre dédié, la mobilisation avait été générale, traversant toutes les catégories socio-professionnelles, les âges, l’ensemble des attitudes (pro ou anti) vis-à-vis de la construction européenne – et les différents Etats membres de l’UE11.  

Dans un contexte de bouleversements géopolitiques profonds causés par le Brexit et l’élection de Donald Trump en 2016, ce regain d’intérêt pour la démocratie européenne avait en outre bénéficié de deux facteurs. D’une part, une remarquable dramatisation des enjeux, servie par un choc des récits aussi simple et efficace que ces scénarios hollywoodiens où se distinguent sans peine les « héros et vilains » 2.  

Car s’il était normal que les visages d’Emmanuel Macron ou d’Angela Merkel connaissent une forte notoriété en dehors de leurs frontières, ce n’était pas évident qu’il en soit de même pour un Premier ministre hongrois, un ministre de l’intérieur italien, un simple député polonais chef de parti, un hâbleur britannique au langage fleuri ou la présidente d’un vieux mouvement d’extrême droite français. Dans un ironique paradoxe des conséquences, la popularité des figures anti européennes et des partis de la droite radicale eurosceptique venait contribuer encore plus fortement à l’européanisation de nos scènes politiques nationales. 

Mais en 2019, l’autre souffle de la démocratie européenne était celui de la jeunesse. 

Avec les plus forts différentiels de participation (+14 pour les moins de 25 ans ; +12 pour les 25-39 ans entre 2014 et 2019), les jeunes générations, et les primo-votants, avaient particulièrement bien contribué à interrompre la grande tendance décennale à l’abstention pour ces élections continentales, considérées comme secondaires ​par la science politique​, comme par les citoyens. Ce taux d’abstention s’étant vu d’autant plus accentué par les élargissements successifs à des pays d’Europe ​​centrale où la participation électorale est restée historiquement basse depuis le rétablissement la fin du système de parti unique. 

Portée par le mégaphone de la jeune Greta Thunberg dans les enceintes officielles, la “génération climat” avait saisi l’occasion de faire entendre sa voix. Après avoir battu le pavé des métropoles européennes pour exiger de leurs aînés une meilleure prise en compte des enjeux de leur avenir, les jeunes activistes des Fridays for Future avaient fini par convaincre une partie de leur classe d’âge de se rendre aux urnes. Surprenant les spécialistes de l’opinion par leur nombre et leurs choix, les jeunes Européens avaient offert principalement aux Verts européens un résultat historique, et 10 per cent des sièges au Parlement européen

Sensibles au message porté par les citoyens, aux enquêtes d’opinion qui avaient précédé les élections, et aux potentialités économiques suscitées par une croissance verte, les dirigeants européens avaient donc mis la transition écologique au cœur de leur agenda politique pour la nouvelle mandature. Et la nouvelle présidente de la Commission européenne prenait solennellement d’ambitieux engagements pour une Europe climatiquement neutre en 2050

Le Pacte vert, en quelque sorte, c’était eux, les jeunes de 2019. 

Colère et dépressions 

Cinq ans plus tard, la donne a changé.  

Premièrement, la crise sanitaire et les confinements successifs ont eu raison des mobilisations climatiques – et en grande partie du moral de la jeunesse européenne. De la France à la Pologne, en passant par l’Italie où les effets dévastateurs se firent sentir en premier, les études soulignent toutes les profonds aspects traumatiques, en particulier sur les plus fragiles, dans les couches les plus défavorisées de la population. La jeunesse allemande, dont les cohortes avaient grossi les rangs des électeurs écologistes en 2019 puis en 2021, a été profondément affectée, devenant une sorte de « Génération Reset » pour certains observateurs. A l’échelle européenne, l’étude Eurofound de 2021 des « impacts du Covid-19 sur la jeunesse de l’UE » s’inquiète de la santé mentale des jeunes européens autant que de leur précarité économique.  

En outre, la remise en cause politique du Pacte vert et donc des capacités d’action publique dans la lutte contre le dérèglement climatique alourdit d’autant plus ce syndrome d’éco-anxiété dont souffrent déjà majoritairement les jeunes Européens, soulignée plusieurs études, dont la plus complète et inquiétante reste celle menée à l’échelle globale par la revue médicale The Lancet en 2021. 

Deuxièmement, à mesure que ses effets économiques se font sentir dans les foyers et les entreprises, d’autant renforcés par l’inflation et la hausse des prix de l’énergie, le Pacte Vert se heurte à une remise en question de plus en plus aiguë. Depuis les Pays-Bas en 2019 jusqu’aux manifestations spectaculaires de l’hiver 2023-2024, les tracteurs des agriculteurs européens en détresse sont venus remplacer les lycéens et étudiants manifestants du climat. Mais ce mouvement de colère du monde agricole qui a saisi toute l’Europe n’est qu’un symptôme de plus d’une tension plus profonde, dont les Gilets Jaunes en France ou les inquiétudes des secteurs économiques les plus concernés sont autant de jalons. En écho aux alertes des organisations syndicales européennes, ce mouvement ne fait que cristalliser les limites de l’acceptabilité sociale des politiques de la transition écologique. Dont une partie des forces politiques européennes ont décidé de faire leur cheval de bataille pour les prochaines élections.  

Troisièmement, les dérèglements du monde pèsent sur les jeunes Européens. La guerre menée par la Russie de Vladimir Poutine aux confins de l’UE a évidemment un impact plus immédiatement émotionnel sur les populations d’Europe ​​centrale, en particulier en Pologne et dans les pays Baltes, qu’à l’Ouest. Mais elle n’est pas sans effets anxiogènes non plus en Allemagne ou en France par exemple. 

Enfin, le sentiment croissant d’une inégalité économique structurelle et d’être injustement écarté de la prospérité promise aux générations précédentes pèse aussi sur les perspectives de la jeunesse. Selon les chiffres de la Commission européenne elle-même, le taux des 15-29 ans en risque de pauvreté ou d’exclusion sociale dans l’UE était de 25,4%, en 2020, et le taux de privation matérielle sévère des 15-29 ans était passé de 5,4% en 2019 à 6,5% en 2020. Certes, la situation post-Covid s’est quelque peu améliorée, particulièrement en Espagne où le taux d’emploi des jeunes retrouve un niveau jamais atteint depuis 2008 et les débuts de la crise des dettes souveraines. Mais c’est encore le sentiment d’inégalités persistantes, d’incertitude économique et de précarité financière qui domine en grande partie la jeunesse européenne quand on lui donne la parole en France, en Allemagne, à Chypre, ou en Pologne

Au fond, si le sentiment qui domine est le monde politique se révèle impuissant, ou rétif, à répondre à leurs légitimes aspirations à un monde meilleur, plus juste envers eux et plus écologique, la question d’aller voter peut se poser. Et si oui, pour quoi, pour qui ?    

2024 – Espérances ou désaffections ? 

C’est une des lois de la démographie, les jeunes ne le restent pas. Les années passent, le monde change et, avec lui, l’air du temps. Une jeunesse en remplace une autre. On peut se demander quelle jeunesse va déposer son bulletin dans l’urne pour les élections européennes de 2024. 

Le tableau un peu sombre qui précède se trouve reflété, en grande partie, dans les aspirations de la jeunesse européenne pour les élections de 2024, mais en un contrepoint positif. Malgré leurs limites, les enquêtes Eurobaromètre offrent des enseignements intéressants sur les dynamiques qui mobilisent les jeunes citoyens européens. Ainsi, quand pour Eurobaromètre il leur est demandé, en 2022, quelles priorités l’Union européenne devrait poursuivre pour leur génération, c’est la paix (37%) puis les opportunités économiques (33%), la lutte contre la pauvreté et les inégalités (32%) et celle contre le changement climatique (31%) qui s’imposent.  

A l’automne 2023, dans le Parlemeter (Eurobaromètre spécial Parlement européen reproduit ci-dessous), les réponses montrent que le​​ contexte de guerre s’est un peu atténué. Le changement climatique y fait jeu égal avec la lutte contre la pauvreté et l’exclusion (36%) au sommet des priorités de la jeunesse ainsi que « le futur de l’UE », en contraste avec les générations plus âgées pour lesquelles la santé ou la croissance économique restent primordiales.​​ On notera d’ailleurs que dans cette enquête pour aucune des cohortes, jeune ou moins jeune, l’immigration ne parvient à atteindre plus de 18%, bien loin du podium des préoccupations ; alors que dans l’enquête de juillet 2023, les chiffres atteignaient 24%, une volatilité qui souligne l’aspect artificiel de l’objet médiatique construit pour nourrir les destinées électorales des exploiteurs de paniques morales. 

La participation politique des jeunes générations ne repose plus sur les mêmes comportements que leurs aînés. Le vote n’y est plus central.

Ce qu’on peut déjà constater c’est que certaines caractéristiques de 2019 persistent. Les jeunes Européens attendent beaucoup de l’Union européenne pour leur avenir. Ils se sentent Européens de façon écrasante par rapport à leurs aînés (81% et 76% soit 10 à 15 points de plus – cf. ci-contre), et savent que c’est au niveau de l’Union que se joue la partie. 

Mais comme leurs prédécesseurs, ils restent aussi très sceptiques sur le monde politique. Déjà abondamment analysée par la science politique, il s’agit d’une tendance lourde, qui remonte au début des années 2000. Le déclin de la participation politique est général dans les démocraties occidentales. Il est cependant encore plus marqué dans les jeunes générations. Pour de nombreuses raisons, les jeunes se sont progressivement détournés de la politique et des structures traditionnelles. Mais ils ont d’autant augmenté leur participation à la politique de protestation, souligne une étude récente pour le Parlement européen. Qu’il s’agisse d’une évolution des systèmes de valeurs, d’une défiance croissante dans les appareils d’Etat et les institutions, ou d’un effet pervers des technologies de communication et des réseaux sociaux, une chose est certaine : la participation politique des jeunes générations ne repose plus sur les mêmes comportements que leurs aînés. Le vote n’y est plus central – quitte à en subir les paradoxales conséquences, comme la jeunesse espagnole révoltée des Indignados dont le boycott des élections législatives de 2011 avait à l’époque privé les sociaux-démocrates d’une partie de leur électorat et porté au pouvoir la droite du Partido Popular

« Moins collectivistes et plus individualistes, axés sur les causes, les jeunes Européens s’engagent dans des organisations à but unique et dans d’autres formes d’engagement qui n’exigent pas un engagement à long terme et sont plus susceptibles d’être membres de groupes informels, de participer à des politiques de protestation et de se concentrer sur des questions spécifiques ou sur des questions d’intérêt général » insiste​​ Tomaž Deželan​, Professor of Political sciences at the University of Ljubljana. 

Juin 2024 – quelle jeunesse, pour quelle Europe ? 

A moins de deux mois du scrutin européen, la question se pose donc : les jeunes Européens pèseront-ils encore de façon aussi significative qu’en 2019 sur les résultats en juin prochain ? Et si oui, avec quelles priorités ? 

Même quand ils se mobilisent, les jeunes Européens votent nettement moins que leurs aînés. Leur participation reste inférieure en général. Et dans les enquêtes Eurobaromètre, leur intérêt pour l’élection à venir reste mitigé, à peine 50% pour les 15-24 ans – mais 60% pour les 25-39, supérieur à toutes les autres cohortes, ce qui laisse supposer que l’intérêt exprimé par les votants de 2019 est un acquis. Dans le « Parlemeter » de 2023, 56% des 15-24 déclarent cependant qu’ils sont certains d’aller voter. Et 67% des 25-39 ans, qu’on retrouve aux mêmes niveaux que leurs aînés.  

En outre, leurs sensibilités semblent avoir quelque peu évolué. Les urgences écologiques, les anxiétés économiques et une certaine frustration à l’égard d’un monde politique qui leur paraît impuissant ou sourd nourrissent un désir de radicalité. C’est ce qui explique l’attraction notable exercée par les mouvements radicaux, partout en Europe, sur les citoyens les plus jeunes. En Pologne, par exemple, la volatilité de l’électorat a toujours été une conséquence des mobilisations ponctuelles de la jeunesse. La méfiance des jeunes Polonais à l’égard de leur classe politique et dirigeants nationaux s’exprime aussi bien dans les flambées récurrentes de votes en faveur de candidats ou de partis anti-establishment, comme le « mouvement Palikot » en 2011 (Ruch Poparcia Palikota) libéral-libertaire ou l’aventure « Kukiz-15 » de 2015, d’une rock-star populiste d’extrême droite, pour n’en citer que quelques-uns. ​​Les jeunes forment également le gros des troupes dans les mouvements sociaux comme les Czarny Protest (manifestation noire) de 2016 pour la défense des droits fondamentaux des femmes. Mais le besoin de radicalité peut les amener aussi à soutenir des revendications identitaires. En juin 2024, ils s’apprêtent d’après les sondages à voter à plus de 10% pour l’extrême droite, en plus des 25-29% pour le PiS. En Italie, les Fratelli d’Italia de la cheffe du gouvernement Giorgia Meloni restent très populaires à 29% des intentions de votes – en 2022, elle était arrivée première chez les 25-39 et deuxième chez les 18-24 ans. En France, les enquêtes d’opinion donnent le Rassemblement national en tête dans toutes les tranches d’âge, et très largement premier chez les plus jeunes (18-34 ans) – un sondage IFOP et un autre Yougov en janvier 2024 confirment cette tendance.  

Les urgences écologiques, les anxiétés économiques et une certaine frustration à l’égard d’un monde politique qui leur paraît impuissant ou sourd nourrissent un désir de radicalité.

​​​Au fond, la jeunesse est à ce sujet, plutôt représentativ du mouvement est général : toutes les projections soulignent une poussée nette des mouvements de droite radicale et extrême, représentées par les deux groupes politiques ECR et ID au Parlement européen. Une projection du think-tank ECFR donne la victoire aux populistes anti-européens des deux côtés du spectre, qui devraient arriver en tête ou en deuxième dans une majorité d’Etats membres, 18 précisément. Des projections qui concordent avec celles des autres agrégateurs de tendances : les droites radicales et extrêmes devraient connaître une très forte progression, au détriment principalement des écologistes et des centristes libéraux – c’est-à-dire de ceux qui avaient principalement bénéficié de la mobilisation en 2019. 

Pour interpréter les dynamiques de ces élections européennes, l’intellectuel bulgare Ivan Krastev propose de considérer le spectre politique européen sous un autre angle que les clivages gauche/droite, et pro-/anti-intégration européenne. Il y aurait dans les sociétés européennes différentes « tribus de crise », dont les membres ont été agrégés par un vécu traumatique commun, au cours des événements clés survenus ces dernières décennies. ​​Suivant cette grille de lecture, l’Allemagne et l’Autriche sont les seuls pays dont les citoyens choisissent « l’immigration » comme le problème qui les a le plus affectés, expliquant la dynamique du parti d’extrême-droite AfD et son succès chez les jeunes électeurs mais aussi le potentiel succès du nouveau parti de gauche ​​populiste de Sarah Wagenknecht. En France et au Danemark, le changement climatique reste la crise la plus marquante. Les Italiens et les Portugais souffrent des turbulences économiques mondiales. En Espagne et en Roumanie, la pandémie de covid-19 est le principal traumatisme. Et sans surprise, les Estoniens et les Polonais sont d’abord marqués par la guerre en Ukraine et la menace russe.  

La fragmentation est générale. Au fond, c’est une évidence, mais il vaut mieux bien en prendre la mesure :  il n’y a pas une mais des jeunesses européennes. Celle qui s’inquiète pour le climat se résoudra peut-être à surmonter ses griefs à l’égard du système pour voter en faveur des partis écologistes ou centristes comme en 2019. Mais celle dont la mobilisation pourrait bien changer les équilibres politiques de l’Union européenne, si elle se rend aux urnes en juin 2024, semble pour l’instant plutôt hésiter entre le repli abstentionniste et le vote pour des figures extrémistes – quitte à renforcer au Parlement européen les rangs de ceux qui portent une vision purement nationale, régressive et illibérale de la construction européenne.  

Il y a là un message de colère et de détresse, que les institutions et les familles politiques attachées aux progrès du projet européen doivent entendre. Soyons lucides : une simple communication institutionnelle EU for You ne sera pas suffisante pour inverser la tendance. Il serait plus pertinent de réunir des conventions citoyennes de la jeunesse, décentralisées – autrement dit, pas à Bruxelles – consacrées aux inquiétudes révélées par les études d’opinion.  

La campagne a juste commencé. Il n’est pas trop tard pour essayer d’offrir à la jeunesse une tribune et lui permettre d’embrasser l’avenir avec une confiance renouvelée. 

  1. Cette augmentation concernait 19 d’entre eux, avec les habituelles disparités entre les pays où le vote est obligatoire (Belgique, Luxembourg, Bulgarie, Chypre et Grèce) et ceux où la participation est structurellement plus faible (Slovaquie, Tchéquie, Slovénie) qui cependant enregistraient eux aussi une hausse. 
  2. En Pologne (+22 pts), en Roumanie (+19), en Hongrie (+14), en Espagne (+17), en Allemagne (+13), en France (+10), où les progressions étaient les plus marquées, les plus ardents adversaires de la construction européenne comme ses partisans les plus sincères, avaient rallié leur électorat chez eux et stimulé leurs adversaires en dehors. 
Categories: H. Green News

A Disaffected Generation? The Youth Vote and Europe’s Future 

Green European Journal - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 02:05

In the run-up to the June elections, EU institutions and political forces are courting the younger generation to cast their vote. But five years after young Europeans mobilised around the climate crisis and pushed for a European Green Deal, the perception is that of a disengaged youth, weighed down by multiple crises and uncertainty about the future. Is this picture accurate and is there still hope to change it?

When EU citizens elect a new European Parliament in June this year, a delicate diplomatic dance will begin as a fresh Commission is appointed and new power dynamics emerge at the top of Europe’s institutions. Just ahead of political families hitting the campaign trail in Europe and at home, the Commission published a series of proposals to “give young people a greater say in the decisions that affect them”.  

With age-based impact assessments, a youth strategy, broader participation mechanisms, and advertising campaigns, the Commission is actively courting Europe’s youth. It wants to make Europe more appealing, to make common policies more tangible for European citizens and more relevant to the youngest among them.  

Brussels clearly believes that the outcome of the European elections will be decided by 18-25-year-olds (or younger, now that the voting age has been lowered to 16 for European elections in Germany, Austria, Belgium, Malta, and Greece). Pessimists will of course say this is pointless, given the younger generation’s lack of interest in (European) politics and institutions, where they are under-represented compared with older generations.  

A number of recent signs explain this focus on Europe’s youth who, like the generation before them when they were young in the 1980s, often retreat into indifference. 

2019: Enthusiasm and democracy 

In 2019, young voters were the surprise. Rising from 42.6 per cent in 2014 to 50.6 per cent for the bloc as a whole, turnout in the last EU elections increased for the first time since the switch to direct universal suffrage in 1979, when the post-war generation participated in the first European poll. Surveys after the election showed that turnout rose across the board, regardless of social class, age, attitude towards the EU, or nationality.  

Besides the geopolitical upheaval caused by the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016, there were two additional factors behind this renewed enthusiasm for European democracy. First, the stakes were dramatically illustrated by a clash of narratives, with heroes and villains as clear as any found in a half-decent Hollywood script. Indeed, while it was normal for the likes of Emmanuel Macron or Angela Merkel to be well-known beyond their countries’ borders, the same could not be said for a Hungarian prime minister, an Italian interior minister, a Polish party leader, a blustering Brit, or the head of an old French far-right movement. In an ironic paradox of unintended consequences, the popularity of anti-European figures and far-right Eurosceptic parties helped to Europeanise domestic politics. 

Second, youth stepped up their participation. With the largest turnout differentials (+14 per cent for under 25-year-olds and +12 per cent for 25-39-year-olds between 2014 and 2019), younger generations and first-time voters played a key role in reversing the decades-long trend towards abstention from EU elections, regarded as second order by political scientists and citizens alike. This abstention rate had been exacerbated by successive enlargements that brought into the fold Eastern European countries where electoral turnout has remained historically low since the end of the one-party system. 

Spurred on by a young Greta Thunberg addressing European and global assemblies, “generation climate” seized the opportunity to make their voice heard. After taking to the streets of Europe’s cities to demand their elders properly address threats to their future, the young activists of Fridays for Future and other movements managed to convince some of their cohort to go out and vote. Surprising opinion pollsters with their numbers and votes, young Europeans handed a historic result to Europe’s Greens, who won 10 per cent of seats in the European Parliament

Keenly aware of the message delivered at the ballot box, the opinion polling conducted before the elections, and the economic potential offered by green growth, European leaders placed the green transition at the heart of the policy agenda for the new term. And the new President of the EU Commission solemnly made ambitious pledges for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. In a way, the European Green Deal was the 2019 youth’s doing. 

Anger and pessimism 

Five years later, everything has changed. First, the pandemic and successive lockdowns thwarted climate marches – and sapped the spirit of Europe’s youth. From France to Poland and Italy, where the devasting effects of Covid-19 were first felt, studies have highlighted the pandemic’s profoundly traumatic impact, especially on the most vulnerable and most deprived in society. Germany’s youth, who swelled the ranks of Green voters in 2019 and 2021, were hit particularly hard, becoming a sort of “Generation Reset” for some observers. At European level, Eurofound’s 2021 report on the impact of Covid-19 on young people in the EU raised concerns about mental health and economic insecurity.  

Second, as the pandemic’s economic effects were increasingly felt by households and businesses – exacerbated by inflation and soaring energy prices – the Green Deal ran into growing opposition. From the events in the Netherlands in 2019 to the spectacular protests in the winter of 2023-2024, demonstrations by struggling European farmers have taken the place of protests by climate-anxious school and university students. But the wave of rage that has swept through Europe’s farming communities is, like the Yellow Vests in France, just one more symptom of deeper tensions and fears felt in the sectors most affected by green policies. Echoing the warnings of European trade unions, these protests have brought into sharp focus the socially acceptable limits of green transition policies. And some European political movements have made this issue the centrepiece of their campaigns for the forthcoming elections.  

Meanwhile, the pushback against the Green Deal and with it the capacity for government action against climate change only exacerbates the eco-anxiety that a majority of young Europeans already suffer from.  

Third, the world’s crises are weighing on young Europeans. The war waged by Vladimir Putin’s Russia on the EU’s border has had a more immediate emotional impact on the people of Eastern Europe – especially in Poland and the Baltic states. But it is a source of anxiety in countries like Germany and France too. 

On top of this, the growing sense of structural economic inequality and being unfairly denied the prosperity promised to previous generations is also clouding young people’s outlook. According to EU Commission figures, 25.4 per cent of 15- to 29-year-olds in the EU were at risk of poverty or social exclusion in 2020, and the rate of severe material deprivation in that age group rose from 5.4 per cent in 2019 to 6.5 per cent in 2020. Undoubtedly, the situation post-Covid has improved, particularly in Spain, where youth employment has reached its lowest level since 2008 and the start of the sovereign debt crisis. But a sense of persistent inequality, economic uncertainty, and financial insecurity dominate when Europe’s youth are interviewed, be it in France, Germany, Cyprus or Poland

When the prevailing mood is that the political class is unable – or unwilling – to respond to their legitimate aspirations for a world that is better, greener, and fairer towards them, Europe’s younger generation may wonder whether it is worth voting at all. And if it is, for whom and for what? 

Hope or disaffection? 

Young people do not stay young forever. As the years pass, the world changes, and with it the zeitgeist, too. One young generation is replaced by another. So the question is: what youth will cast their vote in the 2024 European elections? 

Younger generations’ political participation is no longer expressed through the same behaviours as their elders. Voting is no longer central.

The gloomy picture painted above is, to a large extent, reflected in the aspirations of Europe’s youth for the 2024 elections, albeit as a positive counterpoint. When asked what priorities they expect the European Union to pursue for their generation in a 2022 Eurobarometer survey, preserving peace (37 per cent), creating job opportunities (33 per cent), fighting poverty and inequalities (32 per cent), and combating climate change (31 per cent) came out on top.  

The responses to an autumn 2023 Parlemeter survey show that the context of war has faded. Combating climate change and fighting poverty and exclusion (36 per cent) are, along with the future of Europe, young people’s top priorities, which contrasts with older generations, for whom health and economic growth are most important. 

The persistence of certain preoccupations from 2019 is already apparent. Young Europeans expect a lot from the EU for their future. They feel overwhelmingly European compared to their elders (81 per cent for 15-24-year-olds and 76 per cent for 25-39-year-olds, or 10 to 15 percentage points more than older cohorts), and know that it is what happens at EU level that really matters. 

But, like their predecessors, they remain highly sceptical about the world of politics. This stark trend, amply analysed by political science, dates back to the beginning of the 2000s. There has been a general decline in political participation across Western democracies, and this has been particularly pronounced among younger generations. For many reasons, young people have gradually turned their backs on politics and traditional political representation. Meanwhile, they have increasingly turned to the politics of protest. Whether it is down to shifting value systems, growing distrust of the state and institutions, or the perverse effects of communications technologies and social media, one thing is certain: younger generations’ political participation is no longer expressed through the same behaviours as their elders. Voting is no longer central, even if it means suffering paradoxical consequences: Spain’s young and angry Indignados showed as much when their boycott of the 2011 general election deprived social democrats of a crucial part of their vote, enabling the right-wing Partido Popular to take power. 

Young Europeans are “less collectivist and more individualist, cause-oriented, engage in single-issue organisations and other forms of engagement that do not require long-term commitment, and are more likely to be members of informal groups, participate in protest politics and focus on specific issues or political causes” insists Tomaž Deželan, Professor of Political sciences at the University of Ljubljana. 

Which youth? Which Europe? 

With the European elections less than two months away, the question remains: will the continent’s youth have the same impact on results as they did in 2019? And if so, what will their priorities be? 

Even when young Europeans are mobilised, they vote significantly less than older generations. Furthermore, according to Eurobarometer polling, their interest in the coming election remains mixed: it stands at barely 50 per cent for 15- to 24-year-olds, yet rises to 60 per cent for 25 to 39-year-olds, higher than all other cohorts, which suggests that the interest shown by 2019 voters remains. That said, in the 2023 Parlemeter, 56 per cent of 15- to 24-year-olds said that they will definitely vote, as did 67 per cent of 25- to 39-year-olds, which places them on a par with older cohorts. 

Furthermore, their preoccupations seem to have shifted. Environmental crises, economic anxieties, and a certain frustration with a political world that appears impotent or deaf to their demands are fuelling an appetite for radicalism. This explains the appeal of radical movements to Europe’s youngest citizens. 

In Poland, for example, electoral volatility has always been a result of one-off youth mobilisations. Young people make up the bulk of social movements like the 2016 Czarny Protest (“black protests”) in defence of women’s rights. But the need for radicalism and young Poles’ mistrust of their political class and national leaders has also been expressed by repeated bouts of voting for anti-establishment candidates or parties, like the libertarian Palikot Movement (Ruch Poparcia Palikota) in 2011, or the far-right populist Kukiz-15 party led by rockstar Paweł Kukiz in 2015. According to opinion polls, more than 10 per cent of young people intend to vote for the far right in June 2024, while 25-29 per cent say they will support the national-conservative PiS. In Italy, Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Fratelli d’Italia remains extremely popular at 29 per cent, after coming first among 25- to 39-year-olds and second among 18- to 24-year-olds in the 2022 general election. In France, the Rassemblement National is polling first in every age group, and has a commanding lead among the youngest voters

Environmental crises, economic anxieties, and a certain frustration with a political world that appears impotent or deaf to their demands are fuelling an appetite for radicalism.

Young voters are fairly representative of this general shift: all forecasts point to a clear upswing in support for the radical and far right, represented by ECR and ID groups in the European Parliament. The European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank, is forecasting large gains for anti-European populists at both ends of the political spectrum, who are expected to come first or second in 18 out of 27 member states. This is consistent with other polls of polls: the radical and far right are set to surge, principally at the expense of greens and liberal centrists – the biggest winners in 2019. 

To interpret the dynamics of these elections, Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev proposes an alternative to the conventional framing of Left/Right cleavages and pro/anti-European integration stances. He argues that European societies contain different “crisis tribes” whose members have in common a shared trauma suffered during key events of the past few decades. Germany and Austria, for example, are the only countries whose citizens choose immigration as the issue that has most affected them, which explains the rise of the far-right AfD party and its support among young voters, as well as the potential success of Sarah Wagenknecht’s new left-wing populist party. In France and Denmark, citizens point to climate change as the most impactful crisis, while the Portuguese and Italians mention global economic turmoil. In Spain and Romania, the Covid-19 pandemic is the principal trauma. And, unsurprisingly, Estonians and Poles feel most affected by the Ukraine war and the Russian threat.  

Society is fragmented politically, and Europe’s youth are not a monolith. Young people who are worried about the climate may set aside their grievances with the system and vote for Green or centrist parties, as they did in 2019. But others seem torn between staying at home or voting for extremists – even if that means bolstering the ranks of those advocating a purely nationalist, regressive, and illiberal vision of European integration.  

Therein lies a message of anger and distress that institutions and political families invested in the European project would do well to heed. It will take more than the EU for You advertising campaign to reverse this trend. A better idea would be to organise young citizens’ conventions that are decentralised (i.e. not held in Brussels) and devoted to the concerns highlighted by opinion polling.  

The elections are drawing near, but it may not be too late to give young people a voice so they can embrace the future with renewed confidence.

Categories: H. Green News

Nature can’t run without parasites. What happens when they start to disappear?

Grist - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 01:45

When Chelsea Wood was a child, she would often collect Periwinkle snails on the shores of Long Island. 

“I used to pluck them off the rocks and put them in buckets and keep them as pets and then re-release them,” Wood said. “And I knew that species really well.”

It wasn’t until years later that Wood learned that those snails were teeming with parasites. 

“In some populations, 100 percent of them are infected, and 50 percent of their biomass is parasite,” Wood said. “So the snails that I had in my bucket as a child were not really snails. They were basically trematode [parasites] that had commandeered snail bodies for their own ends. And that blew my mind.”

Wood, now a parasite ecologist at the University of Washington, sometimes refers to parasites as “puppet masters,” and in many cases, it’s not an exaggeration. Some can mind-control their hosts, for example, causing mice to seek out the smell of cat pee. Others can shape-shift their hosts, physically changing them to look like food. And their ripple effects can reshape entire landscapes.

Estelle Caswell / Grist

For centuries, people have thought of parasites as nature’s villains. They often infect people and livestock. In fact, parasites are by definition bad for their hosts, but today, more scientists are starting to think about parasites as forces for good.

“I don’t think anyone is born a parasitologist. No one grows up wanting to study worms,” Wood said. “Somewhere along the way, I like to say, they got under my skin. I just fell in love with them. I couldn’t believe that I’d gotten that far in my biology education and no one had ever mentioned to me that parasites are incredibly biodiverse, ubiquitous, everywhere.”

On a cloudy August morning, Wood took me to Titlow Beach in Washington state, one of her team’s research sites. Back in the 1960s, one of Wood’s research mentors had sampled shore crabs here. At the time, the area was very industrial and heavily polluted. But when researchers, including Wood, came back to collect samples half a century later, the beach had transformed. The water was cleaner and the shorebirds had returned, but those weren’t the only promising signs: The crabs were now full of trematode worms, a type of parasite that jumps between crabs and birds.

Chelsea Wood kneels to search for shore crabs at a beach in Tacoma, Washington. She will later dissect the crabs to search for parasites. Jesse Nichols / Grist

The parasites were a sign that the local shorebirds were doing great, Wood explained. 

As scientists have learned more about parasites, some have argued that many ecosystems might actually need them in order to thrive. “Parasites are a bellwether,” she said. “So if the parasites are there, you know that the rest of the hosts are there as well. And in that way they signal about the health of the ecosystem.”

To understand this counterintuitive idea, it’s helpful to look at another class of animals that people used to hate: predators. 

For years, many communities used to treat predators as a kind of vermin. Hunters were encouraged to kill wolves, bears, coyotes, and cougars in order to protect themselves and their property. But eventually, people started noticing some major consequences. And nowhere was this phenomenon more apparent than in Yellowstone National Park.

In the 1920s, gray wolves were systematically eradicated from Yellowstone. But once the wolf population had been eliminated from the park, the number of elk began to grow unchecked. Eventually, herds were overgrazing near streams and rivers, driving away animals including native beavers. Without beavers to build dams, ponds disappeared and the water table dropped. Before long, the entire landscape had changed.

In the 1990s, Yellowstone changed its policy and reintroduced gray wolves into the park. “When those wolves came back in, it was like a wave of green rolled over Yellowstone,” Wood said. This story became one of the defining parables in ecology: Predators weren’t just killers. They were actually holding entire ecosystems together.

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“I think there’s a lot of parallels between predator ecology and parasite ecology,” Wood said.

Like the gray wolves in Yellowstone, scientists are just starting to recognize the profound ways that ecosystems are shaped by parasites.

Take, for example, the relationship between nematomorphs, a type of parasitic worm, and creek water quality. The worms are born in the water, but spend their lives on land inside of bugs, like crickets or spiders.

A nematomorph worm swims in a beaker in Chelsea Wood’s office in Seattle

At the end of their lives, nematomorphs need to move back to the water to mate. Instead of making the dangerous journey themselves, they trick their infected hosts into giving them a ride by inducing a “water drive,” an impulse on the part of its insect host to immerse itself in water. The insect will move to the edge of the water, consider it for a little while and then jump in — to its own death, but to this parasite’s benefit.

The story doesn’t end there. In a way, the entire creek ecosystem relies on a worm trying to hitch a ride to the water. Fish eat the bugs that throw themselves in the water. In fact, one species of endangered trout gets 60 percent of its diet exclusively from these infected bugs. “So essentially, the parasite is feeding this endangered trout population,” Wood said.

With less of the threat associated with hungry fish, the native insects in the stream can thrive, eating more algae and thereby giving the creek clear water.

Parasites make up an estimated 40 percent of the animal kingdom. Yet, scientists know next to nothing about millions of parasite species around the world. The main parasites that scientists have spent a lot of time studying are the ones that infect farm animals, pets, and people. 

Many of these alarming parasites, like ticks or the parasitic fungus that causes Valley Fever, are expected to increase due to climate change. But no one actually knows what climate change means for parasites, broadly — or how any big change in parasites might reshape the world. “There’s this general sense that infection is on the rise, that parasites and other infectious organisms are more common than they used to be,” Wood said. “At least for wildlife parasites, there really isn’t long-term data to tell us whether that impression that we have is real,” Wood said. “We had to invent a way to get those data,” Wood said.

Wood had an unconventional idea of where to look: a collection of preserved fishes locked away in a museum basement.

Chelsea Wood holds a jar of preserved fish from the University of Washington Fish Collections. Jesse Nichols / Grist

The University of Washington Fish Collections is home to more than 12 million samples of preserved fishes, dating all the way back to the 1800s. But the thousands of jars lining the collection shelves also contain something else: all the parasites living inside the fish samples. 

“So much has been discovered from museum specimens that we tucked away at one time, and then pulled off the shelf 100 years later,” said Wood. “It’s really remarkable to get to peer back in time the way that you do when you open up a fish from a hundred years ago. It’s the only way that we’ll know anything about what the oceans were like, parasitologically, that long ago.”

Chelsea Wood dissects fish samples in her lab at the University of Washington. Jesse Nichols / Grist

Wood and her team spent over two years opening up jars and surgically dissecting the parasites from within. Under microscopes, they identified and counted the parasites before returning everything for future study. In the end, they found more than 17,000 parasites.

Looking at the number of parasites found in fishes over time, the researchers found a mix of winners and losers, but there was one big class of parasites that was unequivocally declining: complex parasites, the kinds that need several different host species in order to survive. That type of parasite declined an average of 10 percent each decade, the team found.

Jesse Nichols / Grist

In Wood’s investigation, there was only one factor that perfectly explained the decline in parasites: It wasn’t chemicals or overfishing. It was climate change. It made a lot of sense: Complex parasites can only survive if everyone one of those host species are around. If just one type of host goes missing? “Game over. That’s it for that parasite,” Wood said. “That’s why we think that these complex life cycle parasites are so vulnerable: because things are shifting, and the more points of failure you have, the likelier you are to fail.”

Wood said that, before this study, researchers had no idea climate change was wiping out this important class of parasites.

Chelsea Wood holds a jar of fish that her lab dissected for a study published in 2023. Jesse Nichols / Grist

“It’s likely a collateral impact,” she said. “We don’t even have a handle on how many parasites there are in the world, much less the scale of parasite biodiversity loss right now. But the early indications are that parasites are at least as vulnerable as their hosts, and potentially more vulnerable.”

Wood says that it’s important for people to understand that parasites play huge and complex roles in nature, and if we ignore what we can’t see, we risk missing out on understanding how the world really works. “We all have a reflexive distaste for parasites, right? We take drugs, we apply chemicals, we spray, Wood said. “Our argument is that parasites are just species. They’re part of biodiversity, and they’re doing really important things in ecosystems that we depend upon them for.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Nature can’t run without parasites. What happens when they start to disappear? on May 7, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Stop seed saving restrictions in UK trade deals

Ecologist - Tue, 05/07/2024 - 00:00
Stop seed saving restrictions in UK trade deals Channel News Catherine Early 7th May 2024 Teaser Media
Categories: H. Green News

Sound of Whale Song Signals Antarctic Blue Whales May Be Making a Comeback

Yale Environment 360 - Mon, 05/06/2024 - 05:42

A nearly two-decade study of whale songs recorded in the Southern Ocean suggests that blue whales, the largest creatures ever to have roamed the Earth, may be recovering in Antarctica after being hunted to the edge of extinction.

Read more on E360 →

Categories: H. Green News

Arizona wants to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon. Tribal nations are fighting back.

Grist - Mon, 05/06/2024 - 01:45

Earlier this year, Arizona lawmakers sued the Biden administration over the newly created Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni — Ancestral Footprints of the Grand Canyon National Monument — arguing that the establishment of national monuments should be state matters and calling the move a “land grab.” Now, the Hopi, Havasupai, and Navajo Nation, whose ancestral lands overlap with the national monument, have intervened in the case and joined with the federal government to protect the area.

“Even if the Tribal Nations and federal government share similar goals and legal positions in this litigation, the United States cannot adequately represent the Tribal Nations’ sovereign interest,” the tribes’ intervention stated. 

The nearly 1-million-acre national monument protects areas tribes called home before being forcibly removed by the federal government, as well as places where tribal citizens hunt, pray, and gather foods and medicines. The area is also important for wildlife migration routes and potential burial sites. 

If successful, Arizona’s lawsuit would open Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni to more economic development, and specifically, livestock grazing and uranium mining. Currently, there is only one uranium mine in operation within the boundaries of the national monument. The lawsuit argues that limiting mining of uranium around the Grand Canyon will make the U.S. more dependent on acquiring it from foreign countries for energy purposes.

Arizona’s lawsuit is focused specifically on the Antiquities Act. Passed in 1906 to protect areas of scientific and historical significance, President Biden used the act to create Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni after decades of Indigenous advocacy focused on protecting the Grand Canyon from uranium mining. According to Arizona, the national monument ties up too much land, impacting revenue generation that could affect funding for schools as well as the economies of small towns in the area who have also joined in the suit against the federal government.

“Under the Constitution, Congress is the policy making branch of government that decides how federal land is used,” Kim Quintero, a spokesperson for the Arizona Legislature. “Not presidential edicts.” 

“When you think about Baaj Nwaanjo I’tah Kukveni and the creation of this monument, it’s an immensely important place for the tribal nations,” said Mathew Campbell, a member of the Native Village of Gambell in Alaska, and legal counsel for the Havasupai Tribe and the Hopi Tribe. “The tribes fought very hard for the establishment of the monument and are here to defend it.”

Last year, a federal judge in Utah dismissed a similar lawsuit filed by states challenging the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante — two national monuments recently created through the Antiquities Act with strong tribal ties. In that case, District Judge David Nuffer held that the Antiquities Act gives the president authority to create monuments and that the courts have no power to dispute it. That case is now in appeal. 

But Kim Quintero of the Arizona Legislature says their case is different. She cites a 2021 lawsuit where a group of commercial fishermen challenged President Obama’s use of the Antiquities Act that protected around 5,000 miles of ocean floor off the coast of New England, and put a ban on fishing. 

While the Supreme Court declined to review the case, Chief Justice John Roberts indicated interest in looking at the size of monuments, writing that “the scope of the objects that can be designed under the Act, and how it measures the area necessary for their proper care and management, may warrant consideration — especially given the myriad restrictions on public use this purely discretionary designation can serve to justify.”

Quintero says the Arizona Legislature is banking on the Supreme Court taking the case. If successful, she said there will be other avenues for tribes to utilize in protecting the area.

“Tribal members, like other members of the public, can petition Congress to pass laws to protect areas of federal land they believe should be protected,” said Quintero.

Nine conservation organizations including the Grand Canyon Trust, Center for Biological Diversity, and Sierra Club have signed on to protect Baaj Nwaavjo I’tah Kukveni. “The conservation groups are very much following the lead of the tribes,” said Michal Toll, staff attorney for the Grand Canyon Trust. “These are their ancestral homelands.”

Mathew Campbell said it will likely take months before the intervention is ruled on by the court and years before the lawsuit is settled. 

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Arizona wants to mine uranium near the Grand Canyon. Tribal nations are fighting back. on May 6, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Movement power: unity and autonomy

Ecologist - Sun, 05/05/2024 - 23:00
Movement power: unity and autonomy Channel Comment brendan 6th May 2024 Teaser Media
Categories: H. Green News

How the Miccosukee Tribe plans to stop oil drilling in the Everglades once and for all

Grist - Sun, 05/05/2024 - 06:00

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

Within a thicket of the Big Cypress National Preserve, established a half-century ago to protect the marshes and sloughs here that make up a vital part of the Florida Everglades, a series of wells extracts oil from more than two miles underground.

The oil field is situated deep within a pine forest of the preserve — the first in the country — which channels more than 40 percent of the water flowing into Everglades National Park and shelters iconic and imperiled species like the fabled ghost orchid and Florida panther, the official state animal. The wells penetrate thousands of feet beneath an underground aquifer, an important drinking water source, and draw up oil from the so-called Sunniland trend, a reserve stretching across southwest Florida from Miami to Fort Myers, although most of the reserve is situated beneath Big Cypress.

For decades, oil production has endured in this corner of the fragile Everglades, a watershed that spans much of the peninsula and is the focus of a $21 billion federal and state restoration effort, one of the most ambitious in human history. Big Cypress is among some 10 percent of federally protected lands nationwide where the government owns the surface terrain while private entities retain the mineral rights underneath.

“Big Cypress National Preserve is very sacred to us,” said Talbert Cypress, elected chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, a federally recognized tribal nation located in the Everglades. “We have a lot of ceremonial grounds that have been in Big Cypress National Preserve, burial grounds, places where we gather our traditional medicine. So just seeing that sort of damage in a place that really matters to us a lot, it’s sad to see it.”

Now the Miccosukee, longtime environmental stewards in Florida who notably helped steer stringent water quality standards for their sacred “river of grass,” have a plan for phasing out oil drilling within Big Cypress.  

The tribe has joined with WildLandscapes International, a nonprofit land conservation group, to engineer a multimillion-dollar deal with the Collier family, which owns the vast majority of the mineral rights beneath the preserve. If the agreement is finalized, the family would give up the mineral rights associated with some 465,000 acres to the federal government.

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“Unfortunately I cannot share. It’s under a non-disclosure,” said David Houghton, director of WildLandscapes International, when asked about the details. “The deal includes all the lands that the Colliers own the mineral rights on, minus what they currently have under lease.”

The proposal comes amid interest in expanding oil exploration and development within Big Cypress, even as rising global temperatures associated with fossil fuel emissions represent yet another threat to the Everglades, a watershed responsible for the drinking water of some 9 million Floridians. Most recently a Texas oil and gas company submitted a permit application to the National Park Service for two new sites within the preserve.

“We think we’ve got a deal here. We don’t know that, but we think,” Houghton said. “We’ll get a number, and that number either will work or it won’t — and I think it will.” 

Liquid tar

The Everglades are Florida’s most important freshwater resource. The watershed spans central and south Florida, encompassing the Kissimmee River, Lake Okeechobee, sawgrass prairies to the south, and Florida Bay. It includes several federal- and state-protected lands including the Everglades Headwaters National Wildlife Refuge, Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, Big Cypress National Preserve, and Everglades National Park. Various efforts over the last century to drain the Everglades, the largest steered by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, have made modern Florida possible and left the river of grass drastically altered. 

Inside Climate News

The Humble Oil and Refining Company, a predecessor of Exxon Mobil, discovered oil in Southwest Florida in 1943, after the governor and cabinet at the time offered a $50,000 reward to those who first found oil in the state.

Today, Florida is responsible for less than 0.04 percent of the nation’s oil production, according to a report the Conservation Economics Institute, a nonprofit research organization, prepared for the Natural Resources Defense Council. The industry employs fewer than a thousand members of the state’s workforce and accounts for $25.4 million or 0.0002 percent of its gross domestic product. A separate study by the American Petroleum Institute concluded the oil and natural gas industry contributes nearly $22.1 billion to the Florida economy and supports nearly 266,800 jobs.

The vast majority of the state’s oil production occurs in the Panhandle, according to the Conservation Economics report. The two oil fields within Big Cypress, Bear Island and Raccoon Point, together were responsible for 585 barrels a day in 2020, about one-seventh of the state’s daily total. Oil was discovered at Bear Island, which is located partially within the preserve, in 1972, before the preserve was established, and production began a year later. At Raccoon Point, southeast of Bear Island, oil was detected in 1978. Production began in 1981, and the field was expanded in 1992.

Big Cypress was established in 1974. Two years later, the Collier family, for whom Collier County, where a large portion of the preserve is situated, is named, conveyed 76,790 acres to the National Park Service to help create the preserve, with the family maintaining the underground mineral rights. The Colliers can trace their family tree to the early 20th century advertising magnate Barron Gift Collier, at the time the largest landowner in Florida. In 1996, the family conveyed an additional 83,000 acres to the National Park Service to expand Big Cypress. Today, Big Cypress encompasses more than 700,000 acres, including much of the western Everglades.

In 2003, the federal government agreed to purchase the Colliers’ mineral rights for $120 million, but the purchase fell through. At the time, various appraisals valued their mineral rights beneath Big Cypress, the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge, and Ten Thousand Islands National Wildlife Refuge at between $5 million and $475 million.

The oil here is of the heavy-sour variety, with a consistency of liquid tar, according to a website of the Collier Resources Company, which manages the family’s mineral holdings. When refined, the oil is used in auto, aviation and diesel fuels, lube oils, and asphalt. Edward Glab, director of the Global Energy Security Forum in the School of International and Public Affairs at Florida International University, characterized the oil as not high-grade or worth a lot of money. Multiple phone calls to the Collier Resources Company were not returned.

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“To me it makes no sense drilling for oil anywhere in the Everglades,” Glab said. “It just doesn’t because the reserves are simply not going to be there to justify that sort of investment.”

“It’s a lot of trouble for something that’s not producing a ton of oil, and it’s not like premium-grade oil. It’s like machinery oil, the kind used for heavy machinery,” said Cypress, chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. “For us, when we see the amount of work that goes into the extraction, the damage that they do, it doesn’t seem worth it.”

Acidizing rather than fracking is more likely to be used in Florida to extract oil because of the state’s geology, which is characterized by porous limestone that harbors underground aquifers, according to the Conservation Economics report. Acidizing involves injecting the oil-bearing rock formations with a mixture of acid, water, and other chemicals, dissolving the formations and allowing the oil to flow more easily to the well. Some 93 percent of the state’s population depends on groundwater for drinking water, far more than any other state in the nation.  

Wastewater from such techniques can contain pollutants and threaten the groundwater, although the Collier family says multiple precautions are taken throughout the drilling process to protect the sensitive environment here, according to the Collier Resources Company website. For instance, to safeguard the aquifers, a series of steel casings and thick layer of cement surround all oil-producing wells. At the well sites a limestone pad is constructed with a berm around it to prevent stormwater runoff from carrying pollutants into the environment. The pads also include a liner to protect the groundwater. The Collier family website also says water sampling has revealed no evidence of groundwater contamination.

But spills have occurred. A spill at Raccoon Point in October 2018, caused by corrosion in a production well, released 2,000 gallons of wastewater mixed with oil. The operator at the time, under lease with the Collier family, said the fluids stayed within a bermed area, and most of the fluids were recovered, according to a Florida Department of Environmental Protection report.

“There’s just so many potential damages that can happen here, and when it’s such a small amount of oil that’s being produced it does not make economic sense,” said Evan E. Hjerpe, executive director of the Conservation Economics Institute and author of the report. “It’s kind of an antiquated or artifact of previous times, and it would benefit the public much greater to move forward without having these potential risks going on.”

“The reason we survived”

For hundreds of years, the Miccosukee people hunted, fished, and held religious ceremonies among the soaring cypress swamps and sweeping sawgrass prairies of Big Cypress. During the First and Second Seminole Wars, in the first half of the 19th century, they were pushed deep within the watery wilderness and found sanctuary on the tree islands scattered here.

Raccoon Point (pictured) together with Bear Island were responsible for 585 barrels of oil a day in 2020, about one-seventh of Florida’s daily total. National Parks Conservation Association / LightHawk

“We have a mother-child relationship with the Everglades because it helped us survive the removal era as well as the termination era, and so without it we would not exist as a sovereign entity. We would have either been annihilated or removed to the West,” said Curtis Osceola, chief of staff for the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida. “Our land is the reason we survived. It is the reason why we’re here, and so we have a duty to the land that once protected us. And so that’s what it is to be Miccosukee, is to serve and protect the lands of our environment.”

Today, most of the 600-member tribe lives on tribal lands within Everglades National Park, although some 100 to 200 Miccosukees, members of the Seminole Tribe of Florida, and other Native people of Miccosukee and Seminole heritage live in 15 villages within Big Cypress. About eight of the communities, as well as a school, are situated downstream from Raccoon Point, raising concerns that spilled oil could flow in their direction, affecting surface water and the underground aquifer, which some residents have tapped with residential wells. Osceola said back when Big Cypress was established and the Collier family maintained the underground mineral rights, the Miccosukees were left out of the negotiations.

“Part of our culture tells us that the land should rest, and those fluids beneath the land should go undisturbed. That includes natural gas, oil, things like that,” he said. “So the extraction of oil is a very unnatural act.”

Oil drilling within Big Cypress is the latest environmental issue the tribe has taken up. After the federal government sued the state in the 1980s over water pollution in Everglades National Park and the Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge, the Miccosukees got involved in the issue as defenders of the river of grass. The litigation led to a monumental state cleanup effort, which remains in progress today.

The tribe’s pending deal with the Colliers would halt all future drilling within Big Cypress, although existing production could continue at least for now. The agreement likely would upend a plan for two new sites in Big Cypress that Burnett Oil Co. Inc., an oil and gas company based in Fort Worth, Texas, is pursuing.

In 2017 and 2018, Burnett, under a lease with the Collier family, conducted an off-road seismic survey of 110 square miles of Big Cypress. The survey involved applying vibrating plates to the ground and sending seismic signals deep beneath the surface to map potential oil. To access the remote area, 33-ton vibroseis trucks were used. The hefty vehicles sank into the soft, water-soaked soils, leaving deep ruts, consequential in an ecosystem where the boundary between land and water is blurred and inches of elevation can mean vast differences in habitat. The effort also harmed slow-growing mature dwarf cypress trees. As many as 500 of the trees were cut down to allow the trucks to move through the area, according to a 2023 report by the National Parks Conservation Association.

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Six years later the landscape has not recovered, the report said. The survey left lasting scars including soil compaction and deep twisting furrows, and almost none of the felled cypress trees has shown signs of regrowth. The National Parks Conservation Association wants the National Park Service to compel Burnett to replant the trees and address the other problems. Burnett did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

The two new sites Burnett is proposing would be similar to the one at Raccoon Point, according to the company’s permit application to the National Park Service. The document says the project is designed to minimize environmental impacts and avoid historical, cultural, and archeological resources, including Miccosukee and Seminole areas.

If the National Park Service were to approve Burnett’s plan, that would contradict the Biden administration’s demonstrated commitment to confront climate change, said Christina Reichert, senior attorney in the Florida office of Earthjustice, a nonprofit litigating environmental issues.

“It doesn’t match up to the promises that we’re hearing and the focus that this administration should be having on fighting the climate crisis. This would be creating brand new fossil fuel infrastructure in a time where we need to be transitioning away from that,” she said. “Wetlands are carbon sinks. One of the things they do is absorb carbon from the atmosphere and store it. So it doesn’t make sense to destroy wetlands and then build fossil fuel infrastructure.”

Hjerpe of the Conservation Economics Institute said closing an oil well can be difficult and costly, sometimes making it more advantageous to continue operating the well even when the oil is not of the highest quality. He said it is possible Burnett’s lease agreement with the Collier family mandated exploration plans or focused on increasing new development.

“When you see the path forward, and there’s certainly potential for a buy-out of your minerals and buy-out of your operations, then it completely makes financial sense to make sure that you are heavily invested in the area and that you keep producing and illustrating the value and increasing the value of your operations,” he said.

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Climate change associated with fossil fuel emissions is poised to have a big impact on the Everglades. Rising temperatures will increase evaporation, stressing the watershed that already is pressured by explosive population growth and development. The hotter temperatures also will lead to precipitation changes, raising concerns about whether the water management infrastructure here, some of the most complex in the world, is up to future challenges.

The agreement involving the Miccosukees, Colliers, and WildLandscapes International includes three phases. Under the first phase, completed last year, the Collier family sold 11,141 acres, including the mineral rights, to the Florida Department of Environmental Protection and South Florida Water Management District. The second phase, focused on the mineral rights beneath Big Cypress, still faces several steps, said Houghton of WildLandscapes International.

“The way the deal is set up we have a floor value, and if the appraisal meets that or above then the Colliers are obligated to sell,” he said. “If the appraisal is below, the Colliers could get out.”

If the agreement moves forward, Congress would appropriate the funding, which could take a few more years. The money would come from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal program that puts earnings from offshore oil and gas leasing toward land conservation. The third phase involves land near Everglades City, a small town outside of Big Cypress.

Cypress, chairman of the Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida, said future plans go further. Eventually the tribe wants to stop all oil drilling within Big Cypress for good.

“Florida is going to need more freshwater, more drinking water, and we don’t have that without the Everglades,” he said. “It matters to everybody in Florida.”

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline How the Miccosukee Tribe plans to stop oil drilling in the Everglades once and for all on May 5, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Texas inmates are being ‘cooked to death’ in extreme heat, complaint alleges

Grist - Sat, 05/04/2024 - 06:00

This story was first published by The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan media organization that informs Texans — and engages with them — about public policy, politics, government and statewide issues.

April signaled the beginning of blistering heat for much of Texas. And while the summer heat is uncomfortable for many, it can be deadly for the people incarcerated in Texas’ prison system where temperatures regularly reach triple digits.

With another sweltering summer likely ahead, on April 22 prison rights advocates filed a complaint against Texas Department of Criminal Justice executive director Bryan Collier, arguing that the lack of air conditioning in the majority of Texas prisons amounts to cruel and unusual punishment.

The filing came from four nonprofit organizations who are joining a lawsuit originally filed last August by Bernie Tiede, an inmate who suffered a medical crisis after being housed in a Huntsville cell that reached temperatures exceeding 110 degrees. Tiede, a well-known offender whose 1996 murder of a wealthy widow inspired the film “Bernie,” was moved to an air-conditioned cell following a court order but he’s not guaranteed to stay there this year.

Last month’s filing expands the plaintiffs to include every inmate incarcerated in uncooled Texas prisons, which have led to the deaths of dozens of Texas inmates and cost the state millions of dollars as it fights wrongful death and civil rights lawsuits.

The plaintiffs ask that an Austin federal judge declare the state’s prison policy unconstitutional and require that prisons be kept under 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Texas jails are already required to keep facilities cooler than 85 degrees, and federal prisons in Texas have a 76 degree maximum.

Between June and August last year, the average temperature was 85.3 degrees — making it the second hottest summer on record behind 2011. And this year does not look to be much cooler. The most recent winter season ranked warmest on record for the contiguous U.S., according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Scientists have found that climate change has resulted in more severe and longer lasting heat waves. In the last decade, Texas has experienced over 1,000 days of record-breaking heat, compared to a normal decade.

In the hot summer months, those concrete and metal cells can reach over 130 degrees, formerly incarcerated Texans said during an April 22 press conference. Legal representatives hope to prove those conditions are unconstitutional.

“What is truly infuriating is the failure to acknowledge that everyone in the system — all 130,000 prisoners — are at direct risk of being impacted by something that has a simple solution that has been around since the 1930s, and that is air-conditioning,” attorney Jeff Edwards told reporters. Edwards was the lead attorney in a 2014 prison rights case that cited the nearly two dozen Texas prison inmates who died from heat stroke over the previous two decades. That case culminated in a settlement, where the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, or TDCJ, agreed to install air-conditioning at the Wallace Pack Unit near College Station.

About two thirds of the inmates housed across TDCJ’s facilities live in areas without air conditioning. Advocates and inmates’ families have long fought to cool prisons in a state where summer temperatures routinely exceed triple digits and pose dangerous conditions to inmates and correctional officers.

Although the state has not reported a heat-related death since 2012, researchers and inmates’ families dispute those statistics. A 2022 study found that 14 prison deaths per year were associated with heat. Last year, a Texas Tribune analysis found that at least 41 people had died in uncooled prisons during the state’s record-breaking heat wave.

Health problems that have been linked to excessive heat include renal diseases, cardiovascular mortality, respiratory illnesses, and suicides, Julie Skarha, an epidemiology researcher at Brown University who authored the 2022 study, told reporters on Monday.

Skarha said that while death certificates may not list heat strokes — a condition when the body can no longer control its temperature — as the official cause of death, her research indicates that many prisoners have died from heat-related causes.

“Heat deaths haven’t magically stopped,” the lawsuit states. “TDCJ has simply stopped reporting or admitting them after the multiple wrongful death lawsuits and national news coverage.”

TDCJ spokesperson Amanda Hernandez declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying the agency does not comment on pending litigation. But she emphasized that the department has been adding more air-conditioning units since 2018.

“Each year we’ve been working to add cool beds, and we’ll continue to do so,” she said.

She also pointed to the department’s “enhanced heating protocols,” which are activated from April to October and include providing ice water to inmates and allowing them to purchase fans and cooling towels from the commissary.

Lawyers argue that these mitigation tactics are insufficient to combat the state’s sweltering temperatures. To survive the heat, incarcerated people report having to flood their toilets or sinks and lie down in the water on the cell floor to try to cool their bodies, the lawsuit states.

“This isn’t an unpredictable event,” said attorney Erica Grossman, who is one of the lawyers representing the plaintiffs. “It gets hot every summer, and much like every other building in Texas — including buildings that have animals — we cool the building.”

TDCJ staff who work in the facilities are similarly impacted by the heat, said Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin’s School of Law and LBJ School. The excessive heat invades all aspects of life in prisons: Staff must do physical work in heavy uniforms in the heat; the heat results in more violence among those incarcerated; and it leads to more use of force against prisoners, she said.

The TDCJ states on its heat mitigation protocols that staff are “encouraged to increase their water intake” during the hot summer months and are allowed to wear cooling towels and dri-fit compression shirts.

New research Skarha has conducted found that the number of assaults that occur in prisons without air-conditioning increased as much as five times during summer months compared to that number in climate-controlled facilities.

Prison rights advocates say the state could easily fund air conditioning units across its prisons but has simply been unwilling to do so. During the last legislative session — when the state recorded a record surplus — the House proposed spending $545 million to install air-conditioning in most of the prison facilities lacking it. But the final budget did not include any money dedicated to air-conditioning.

The House also passed a bill requiring prisons to be kept between 65 and 85 degrees, which is required already in jails and most federal facilities. But the bill failed in the more conservative Senate.

“We have the resources. We just seem to not have the compassion to do it,” Representative Carl Sherman, a democrat from DeSoto, said during the press conference. Sherman was one of the authors of the bill that would have regulated prison temperatures.

The Legislature did allocate approximately $85 million for “additional deferred maintenance projects” in Texas prisons, and TDCJ is using that money to pay for air-conditioning units. Hernandez estimated that those dollars will provide air conditioning for an estimated 10,000 inmates.

Disclosure: University of Texas at Austin has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations, and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune’s journalism. Find a complete list of them here.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Texas inmates are being ‘cooked to death’ in extreme heat, complaint alleges on May 4, 2024.

Categories: H. Green News

Seismic shifts are underway to find finance for loss and damage

Climate Change News - Fri, 05/03/2024 - 07:40

Avinash Persaud is Special Advisor to the President of the Inter-American Development Bank on Climate Change. Previously he was a member of the negotiation committee to establish the Loss and Damage Fund and an architect of the original ‘Bridgetown Initiative’ on reform of the international financial architecture.  

After three decades of negotiations to establish the fund for climate loss and damage, its inaugural board meeting just concluded in Abu Dhabi. The establishment of this fund is a monumental milestone. We are still some way off, but equally historic are seismic shifts underway in how we may finance it.  

The first meeting was a modest success. The fourteen members chosen by developing country constituencies and twelve from developed countries demonstrated unity of purpose. Two impressive and committed co-chairs – Jean Christophe Donnellier of France and South African Richard Sherman – were elected. The new board agreed on processes to select an executive director and a host country.

Mistrust eased between some members of the board and the World Bank, which negotiators had previously chosen, with conditions, to be the secretariat of the fund. This unity and commitment are seeds of hope for the fund’s future.  

Loss and damage board speeds up work to allow countries direct access to funds

These seeds will need money to grow. The only long-run solution to the escalating climate crisis is accelerating the energy transition from fossil fuels. However, due to the lack of progress, we now face losses and damages that require financing of over $150bn per year – according to the IHLEG Report for COP26 and 27.

These losses disproportionately affect the most vulnerable, exacerbating poverty and inequality. Adding injustice to a bleak situation is that the wealthiest countries are most responsible for the stock of greenhouse gases that cause global warming.  

The OECD estimates that total development assistance is $200bn per year, and even though this is half of the commitments made five decades ago, the politics of the day suggest aid money is more likely to be re-channelled for domestic purposes than increased substantially. So where could $100bn plus come from?

Some developed countries promoted the idea that they would initially pay the insurance premiums for a small number of small countries. Twinning insurance to disaster seems natural –  especially if you want to minimise using tax-payers money. But with insurers pulling out of California, Louisiana and Florida because of climate risks, those living in other climate-vulnerable countries – 40% of the world’s population – felt this was at best not scalable and at worse disingenuous.

Climate, like a preexisting medical condition, has become uninsurable. It is now a risk of substantial loss that is growing – and increasingly certain, frequent, and correlated – and so insurance’s spreading and pooling qualities don’t work. If the annual known climate loss is $150bn and rising, yearly premiums cannot be much less without direct or cross-subsidies that no one is budgeting. It’s insurance, not magic. 

Time to test new taxes

For the climate-vulnerable today, the only real insurance against future loss and damage is investing massively in resilience which would generate future savings several times their cost.

One idea mooted by the Inter-American Development Bank is that the multilateral banks lend for a resilience project in a climate-vulnerable country at little more than the banks’ preferential borrowing rates, and donors separately contribute to a substantial reduction in the interest rate once an independent assessment has certified that the investment has achieved the intended resilience.

Countries can borrow for resilience if the repayment period is sufficiently long to capture the savings, but not for current loss and damage. Without grants to fund that, vulnerable countries will drown in debt long before sea levels rise. 

The global financial crisis and COVID showed the promise of long-dismissed ideas. Over the past twenty-four months, 140 countries have agreed an internationally minimum corporate income tax, and the EU has put on an extraterritorial carbon border adjustment tax. The International Maritime Organisation is debating an international levy to fund the shipping industry’s decarbonisation.

Southern Africa drought flags dilemma for loss and damage fund

The fund’s board will want to hear proposals from the new taskforce established by Barbados, France, and Kenya to consider international taxes to pay for global public goods.

They will also be interested in the just-published proposal for a Climate Damages Tax on the production of fossil fuels by an amount related to the damage they will cause. One dollar per barrel of oil produced, and its equivalent for coal and gas – an amount easily lost in the monthly volatility of prices – could finance both the loss and damage fund and rebates for the poorest consumers. There are enforcement mechanisms. Oil producers could be required to show they have paid the tax before their shipping insurance is legally enforceable. 

Knowledge that scalable solutions exist is vital because some use their absence to stall progress. However, what we do is not about the how, but how much it matters to us. G7 central bankers purchased $24 trillion of government bonds to stave off recession during COVID and the global financial crisis. It was unprecedented and heroic.

With hindsight, if they had bought bonds that financed climate mitigation, the recovery would have been stronger and quicker, and inflation – heavily driven by fossil fuels – would have been weaker. They would have saved the economy and progressed halfway to ending climate change and limiting loss and damage. Viable financing solutions exist. We have to decide to use them. 

The post Seismic shifts are underway to find finance for loss and damage appeared first on Climate Home News.

Categories: H. Green News

Smothered by Seaweed: Sargassum Wreaks Havoc on Caribbean Ecosystems

The Revelator - Fri, 05/03/2024 - 07:00

Originally published by Centro de Periodismo Investigativo with The BVI Beacon, The Virgin Islands Daily News, America Futura – El País América, Jamaica and the RCI Guadeloupe.

For more than 20 years, Mexican biologist María del Carmen García Rivas has led a crusade to protect the coral lining the Yucatan Peninsula in the Caribbean Sea.

As director of the Puerto Morelos Reefs National Park in México, she has advocated for reforms to reduce runoff and other pollution from coastal development.

She has spearheaded efforts to control lionfish, an introduced species that has put at risk the nearly 670 species of marine fauna that inhabit the park. And since 2018, she has organized brigades to restore reefs damaged by tissue-destroying coral diseases known as white syndromes. But now, yet another threat has been keeping her awake at night: massive blooms of sargassum seaweed reaching the coast of the park.

“When the sargassum, a macroalgae that usually floats, reaches the coasts, it begins to decompose, generating an environment without oxygen that kills different organisms,” she said. “It mainly affects species that cannot move or move very little, such as some starfish, sea urchins, the sea grasses themselves, and of course corals.”

Along the coast of Quintana Roo, the Mexican state where the Puerto Morelos Reefs National Park is based, the local government collected 70 tons of sargassum during 2023 alone, said Huguette Hernández Gómez, the state’s Secretary of Ecology and Environment. Added to what they collected during the last four years, the figure reaches 200 tons.

Regional Problem

This story is familiar across the Caribbean. Though modest amounts of sargassum benefit marine life in the region, massive influxes arriving since 2011 have upset the ecological balance in some areas in ways that could be irreversible. Scientists blame the explosive growth of the seaweed on global pollution, climate change, and other international problems that Caribbean islands did little to cause and lack the political power to resolve.

The seaweed has exacerbated existing stress on the region’s reefs, which last year faced a massive bleaching event linked also to warming waters associated with climate change. Exposure to extreme temperatures for extended periods breaks down the relationship between the corals and the algae living inside of them. Corals are left pale or white, and the lack of food from algae can lead them to die, according to the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Sargassum mats have also blocked sea turtle nesting sites and inundated mangroves, which serve as crucial nurseries for countless aquatic species.

Birds feed on small fish caught in seaweed mat along the South-Eastern coast of the Portmore Causeway in St. Catherine, Jamaica on May 2, 2023.
Photo by Kirk Wright | Television Jamaica

In some areas, beaches have been eroded by the seaweed and by the heavy machinery used to remove it. Many fishers complain that their catch has dwindled sharply.

But because of the magnitude of the relatively recent problem — which is affecting coastlines from West Africa to the Americas — the true extent of the environmental damage is poorly understood, according to Dr. Brian LaPointe, a biologist and sargassum expert at Florida Atlantic University.

“We haven’t gotten very far in the research to understand the causes or how to deal with it and manage and mitigate the impacts on the environment,” LaPointe said.

Second Largest Barrier Reef

The effects that García Rivas has seen in Mexico illustrate the implications for the entire region. The park she oversees is part of the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, which stretches along more than 600 miles of coastline in Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras.

As the second longest barrier reef in the world — only the Great Barrier Reef in Australia is longer, at about 1,400 miles — the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef is home to some 500 species of fish and 60 species of stony corals, according to the World Wildlife Fund. It also supports the livelihoods of one to two million people in the region, the WWF states.

Floating sargassum can provide a healthy habitat, but when it washes against the shore in mass quantities it often suffocates certain organisms, said James Foley, director of oceans for The Nature Conservancy.

“In coastal areas like Belize, the problem is further exacerbated by the fact that the sargassum also attracts a lot of marine rubbish: local garbage that runs off from the rivers that come into the Caribbean from Central America. So it ends up being a pretty toxic environment,” he said.

The sargassum also creates a barrier that blocks light and prevents organisms below it from photosynthesizing, according to Foley.

A 2021 study published in the scientific journal Climate Change Ecology, which analyzed the situation in three bays in Quintana Roo, Mexico, found that under the sargassum mats the light seepage decreased up to 73% and the water temperature could be as much as 5 degrees Celsius warmer.

Bacterial Diseases

In addition, García Rivas said, bacteria carried by the sargassum may be affecting the corals as well.

“Some of the diseases suffered by the corals could be related to all the bacteria brought in by the sargassum or that arise during its decomposition,” she said. “Although it becomes an environment without oxygen, there are bacteria that may be able to survive, affecting not only the corals but also generating fish mortality.”

Such effects exacerbate existing threats to the reef, she said, noting that the worst historical damage has come from coastal development and inadequate management of sewage and other waste.

“In general, contaminated seawater does not allow corals to live properly,” she said. “It weakens them. And when they present diseases or are stressed by heat, it is easier for them to die.”

A similar scenario has played out in Jamaica, according to Dr. Camilo Trench, a marine biologist at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica.

“The problem is that the seaweed grows fast and the corals grow slowly,” Trench said. “So if the sargassum is in the area with other macroalgae, it can overgrow the coral reef area quite quickly. So now it will not only reduce the space that the corals will have to grow: It will also reduce the settlement area of the coral nursery.”

Sargassum Smothers Other Species

Coral might be one of the most visible animals affected by sargassum, but is not the only one. A study published in the Marine Pollution Bulletin analyzed a massive sargassum influx that swamped the shores of the Mexican Caribbean in 2018, decomposing and turning the water cloudy. As a result, the researchers found, organisms from 78 wildlife species died. The worst affected were demersal neritic fish, which live at the bottom of shallow areas of the sea, and crustaceans.

Other scientists have raised concerns about sargassum’s effects on turtle nests. In 2017, Briggite Gavio, a professor of marine biology at the National University of Colombia, visited Cayo Serranilla, a tiny 600-by-400-meter island at the northernmost tip of the Colombian Caribbean. The island is only inhabited by military personnel and it’s a perfect place for sea turtles to nest.

 

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But when Gavio was there as part of a scientific expedition, sargassum had formed a mat up to 40 centimeters (16 inches) high on the beaches. “We were able to observe that some turtle hatchlings had trouble getting past the barrier posed by the sargassum mat, and were vulnerable to predation by ghost crabs, rats and other predators,” she wrote in a 2018 paper about her observations.

Similar observations about the effects of sargassum in sea turtles have been made by scientists on other islands such as Antigua and Barbuda.

Killing Mangroves, Too

Sargassum also appears to have a potentially lethal impact on Caribbean mangroves, an important natural barrier for extreme hurricanes.

“These are plants that live on the seashore and are tidal plants, but they depend on their aerial roots and their respiratory roots, which are underground, for oxygen,” said Trench, the biologist in Jamaica. “Now imagine a mat covering those roots and preventing oxygen from flowing through them. It can definitely cause death if it is long-term and similar to the impact of something like oil slicks on the mangrove or litter, such as solid waste.”

As with corals, mangroves sometimes end up smothered, sustaining damage themselves and putting at risk other species that depend on them.

No ‘Virtuous Circle’

For García Rivas, the biologist in Mexico, one fact is particularly alarming: Unlike many other problems facing the reefs she oversees, the sargassum influx has no clear solution.

“We haven’t come up with a virtuous circle as we have, for example, with lionfish,” she said. “Despite being an invasive species, [lionfish] can be fished and eaten, which mitigates the problem.”

Local Government Looks for Solutions

Faced with this problem, last year the state of Quintana Roo created a committee of 60 experts from different areas that worked for seven months to help create what is now known as the Integral Strategy for the Management and Use of Sargassum in Quintana Roo.

The strategy covers eight areas: health; research and monitoring; knowledge management, processes and logistics; utilization; legal framework; economic instruments and cross-cutting axes. Its key advances include designating the state of Quintana Roo as the authority in charge of granting permits to researchers and companies working to turn sargassum into a product.

“The state government is the one that gives all the permits for issues ranging from transportation, collection to final destination. With that we avoid that companies are going around in circles between whether to ask the federal or municipal government where to acquire the permits,” said Hernández Gómez, the ecology and environment secretary.

 

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The response is costly. Last year, she said, the Secretariat of the Navy was assigned about $3 million to collect sargassum at sea using its ships and anchorage barriers, while the Federal Maritime Terrestrial Zone was assigned about $7 million more to collect it from beaches. In Quintana Roo, through the Secretariat headed by Hernandez Gómez, another $1.7 million is coming in to address the problem.

“And this year that investment will be maintained,” she said.

This investigation is the result of a fellowship awarded by the Center for Investigative Journalism’s Training Institute and was made possible in part with the support of Open Society Foundations. Read the rest of the stories in this series.

Previously in The Revelator:

New Hope for Horseshoe Crabs — and the Shorebirds That Depend on Them

The post Smothered by Seaweed: Sargassum Wreaks Havoc on Caribbean Ecosystems appeared first on The Revelator.

Categories: H. Green News

Loss and damage board speeds up work to allow countries direct access to funds

Climate Change News - Fri, 05/03/2024 - 06:21

The board of the loss and damage fund is set to pick its host nation in July as it speeds up the process to ensure hard-hit countries can directly access money to help them recover from the unavoidable effects of climate change.

As the 26-member board held its first three-day meeting in Abu Dhabi this week, discussions centered on the administrative steps needed to get the fund up and running, and giving out money as soon as possible.

Selecting the host country for the board is a priority because only then will it be able to take up legal responsibility and enter into formal arrangements with the World Bank, which governments have asked to host the loss and damage fund “on an interim basis” despite the initial reluctance of developing countries.

The World Bank has until mid-June to confirm it is willing and able to take on this role. The decision rests largely on the bank’s ability to meet 11 conditions, including allowing developing-country governments and organisations working with vulnerable communities to receive money directly without going through intermediaries like multilateral development banks or UN agencies.

“Too many cooks”

Daniel Lund, a loss and damage board member from Fiji, said that overhead costs and management fees from multiple layers of middlemen swallow up a high proportion of development funding in general.

“For small island developing states, it is always too many cooks and not enough ingredients,” he told Climate Home. “A lack of direct access is a particularly unacceptable scenario when it comes to finance for addressing loss and damage because much of what we need to do is direct support [to] the individuals and communities that bear the burden [of climate change]”.

Southern Africa drought flags dilemma for loss and damage fund

Concerns have been fuelled by the World Bank’s lack of experience in working with direct access to communities in its other operations, climate finance experts said. But during the meeting in Abu Dhabi, the bank sought to provide reassurances, indicating its willingness to be flexible on this matter and find a solution.

Renaud Seligmann, the World Bank representative at the meeting, told board members the bank is looking into a model that would “break new ground” and that it is “prepared to innovate and design with you to make it work”.

Host selection fast-tracked

For the World Bank, a primary concern lies with the risks attached to giving money to hundreds of small entities that may have less strict compliance processes. For that reason, it wants the board of the loss and damage fund to take on legal responsibility in case funds are misused. And as that legal personality can only be obtained from the host country, the selection process is being fast-tracked.

Interested countries have until early June to submit their candidacy – Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, Bahamas and the Philippines have already thrown their hats in the ring. The board is expected to make a final decision at the next board meeting scheduled for July 9-12.

The board is picking up the pace of its work after its first meeting was delayed by three months as a result of developed countries’ failure to appoint their members on time.

A person moves their belongings at a flooded residential complex following heavy rainfall, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, April 18, 2024. REUTERS/Amr Alfiky

The board was forced to tackle logistical challenges on the final day when stormy weather in Abu Dhabi moved the deliberations online. Scientists have warned that the Arabian peninsula will suffer more heavy rain at 1.5C of global warming than it did in pre-industrial times, and recent floods in the neighbouring city of Dubai shut down the airport and caused major economic damage.

Lund said the progress made at the first meeting “in some respects was surprising”, but there is still a long way to go before money reaches climate-vulnerable communities. “We have clear instructions, but translating that blueprint into contracts, roles, policies, locations, jobs and structures is going to be a shared headache for all board members over the course of this year and beyond,” he added.

Civil society at the table

Civil society representatives argued there is a need to broaden the direct participation of frontline communities struggling with climate impacts in the fund’s operations. The first board meeting limited participation to two people per UN stakeholder group – some of which represent millions, even billions, of people – such as Indigenous Peoples, youth, and women and girls.

“This fund must be different to fulfill the expectation – people-centered, human rights-based, gender-responsive – from the start, with meaningful participation and engagement throughout,” said Liane Schalatek, associate director of the Heinrich Böll Foundation in Washington who attended the board meeting.

G7 offers tepid response to appeal for “bolder” climate action

“Board members all stressed the importance of civil society observer and communities engagement and welcomed it,” she added. “Now that verbal support needs to be operationalised, including through dedicated financial support.”

After sorting through all of its procedural matters, the board will start addressing thornier issues such as how to disburse money and how to fill its coffers with more cash. So far, it has garnered about $660 million in pledges.

While board members hope to have the fund’s structure in place by COP29 this November, it is not expected to start handing out money until 2025.

(Reporting by Matteo Civillini; editing by Joe Lo and Megan Rowling)

The post Loss and damage board speeds up work to allow countries direct access to funds appeared first on Climate Home News.

Categories: H. Green News

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