Pull on the seat-belt in your gas-guzzling car, folks, and strap in for the worst ride of our lives.

This fall, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a critical report warning that humans have about 12 years — until 2030 — before global warming reaches a catastrophic level.

The report concludes, frighteningly, that the world can’t allow global temperatures to warm past 1.5 degrees Celsius, or there will quite literally be hell to pay. And unless we take drastic action, we’re already all set to get there.

Consider this your all-hands-on-deck, siren-blaring warning that we need to act comprehensively to mitigate climate change now — or forever hold our peace.

The IPCC predicts an increased risk of devastating climate-related risks to health, livelihoods, food, water, security, and economic growth.

As sea levels and global temperatures rise, low-lying communities will disappear and heat-related deaths will increase, along with diseases like dengue fever and malaria. Areas that cease to be inhabitable by humans will fuel an accelerated refugee crisis, while resources like agriculture and crops will be decimated in key areas impacted by climate change.

That’s just a few of the highlights of the Ten Plagues-like punishment we’ll get for endangering our planet. We’re facing a pretty grim future — and that’s even if we manage to cap the rise at 1.5 degrees, which we’re not on track to do.

For those of us who are pretty young like me, our golden years may be anything but.

Before you slip quietly into your doomsday bunker or start praying that someone invents interstellar space travel, there’s an urgent message of hope: We’ve got a little bit of time to save the only home planet we’ve got. And it’s going to take all of us to do it.

While dire, the report also contains some critically useful recommendations.

Governments, companies, indigenous peoples, local communities, and individuals all have a critical role to play to solve this crisis. We can and must act quickly and collaboratively on a local and global scale before it’s too late. Acting alone or failing to cooperate, the IPCC report emphasizes, will fall short.

The Paris Climate Agreement isn’t going to be enough — we need massive, World War Two-level mobilization. The victory will be that we get a living, healthy planet.

The report also highlights the need to consider justice and equity as we consider solutions.

Some nations, like the United States, are leading contributors to greenhouse gas emissions and other accelerants of climate change. Others contribute less to emissions but are more vulnerable to catastrophic damage. A number of low-lying nations (on whose approval the Paris Agreement depended) will literally be underwater if temperatures rise beyond the IPCC’s limit.

The point being: The countries that have contributed the most to climate change need to contribute the most to fixing it — and to helping those who suffer most to adapt.

What can you do, right here, right now, besides giving up meat, your car, or plastic bags and straws?

Urge your local or state government to commit to 100 percent renewable energy in the next decade. Get your community and your state to ban the use of fracking and other fossil fuel production that will drive us to doomsday that much quicker, not to mention the other dangerous risks to people’s health.

Call on the federal government to implement the recommendations of the IPCC report, and commit to working with the rest of the world to act swiftly.

And if you vote, remember the planet when you do.

Five Midterm Votes That Could Have an Outsize Impact on Climate Change

A rally in support of Initiative 1631, which would establish a carbon tax in Washington State, in Lacey, Wash., this month.CreditCreditTed S. Warren/Associated Press

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WASHINGTON — This is the era of deregulation in the nation’s capital: President Trump is rolling back Obama-era climate change regulations that would have cut planet-warming pollution from smokestacks and tailpipes, and he has vowed to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement, the 2015 accord under which nearly every nation pledged to limit greenhouse gas pollution.

At the state level, though, advocates and lawmakers around the country are fighting back.

In some states, questions of climate change policy are on the ballot. While advocates generally agree that national programs, rather than state and local efforts, will be required to tackle global warming, there are a handful of policies on five midterm ballots that could have an outsize impact on the nation’s greenhouse gas pollution, and the direction of national policy.

Gov. Jay Inslee, left, gathered signatures for a carbon tax proposal in Seattle in June.CreditPhuong Le/Associated Press

Voters in Washington State will decide next week whether to pass the country’s first tax on carbon dioxide pollution.

Passage of the measure, known as Initiative 1631, would be seen as a bellwether that could resonate around the country and even the world, as climate scientists and economists push a carbon tax as the central solution to climate change.

Its rejection would most likely be seen as a sign that carbon taxes are not politically viable in the United States.

“If it passed, it would be the first time voters in the U.S. approve a price on carbon,” said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters. “That would be unprecedented, and it would be huge.”

The Washington governor, Jay Inslee, has already tried and failed twice to pass the nation’s first tax on planet-warming carbon dioxide emissions. But both backers and opponents of the idea see his current push as more likely to gain traction, partly because, this time, the plan includes specific guidelines on what to do with the revenue. Funds from the tax would go toward programs to reduce global warming, like the development of wind and solar energy.

“It’s definitely got momentum,” said Thomas J. Pyle, president of the Institute for Energy Research, a pro-fossil-fuel think tank that opposes carbon taxes and that supplied the Trump administration with its energy policy blueprint. “If it passes, it will give advocates a glimmer of hope that they can replicate it.”

The measure would impose a tax of $15 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution in Washington starting in 2020, with the cost increasing $2 a year after that, until the state meets certain emissions targets.

Opponents of the measure, including oil companies like BP and the industrial conglomerate Koch Industries, have poured $28 million into the fight, the most money that has ever been spent to campaign on a ballot initiative in the state, according to data compiled by the state’s Public Disclosure Commission.


Aubrey Dunn, the departing New Mexico land commissioner. His successor will regulate methane leaks from oil and gas operations. CreditKris McNeil/New Mexico State Land Office, via Associated Press

In New Mexico, a race to become the state’s next public lands commissioner is drawing attention from national environmental groups and one of the country’s largest oil companies.

At stake is a job with the authority to regulate the emissions of methane, a powerful planet-warming greenhouse gas that leaks from oil and gas operations and is more than 25 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere.

In New Mexico, methane leaks are a big deal. Leaks from oil and gas operations in and around the state have created the nation’s largest methane cloud, about the size of Delaware, over the state’s Four Corners region.

Voters will choose between Stephanie Garcia Richard, a Democrat who has vowed to crack down on leaks of methane, and Patrick Lyons, a Republican who was commissioner of public lands from 2003 until 2010. He has the backing of the oil industry, including a $2 million contribution by Chevron to the political action committee supporting his campaign.

The winner will oversee the use of New Mexico’s nine million acres of public land that have been designated for generating revenue for the state, largely through the leasing to oil and gas companies.

“The New Mexico land commissioner is the most powerful land manager in the country,” said Demis Foster, executive director of Conservation Voters New Mexico. “They oversee more lands like this than anywhere else and we have the largest methane cloud possibly on Earth.”

“And the oil companies that leak that methane want Pat Lyons to be their landlord,” Ms. Foster added.

Mr. Lyons’ campaign manager, Deborah Bransford, pushed back on that criticism. Mr. Lyons has pledged to rein in methane leaks on oil and gas wells, she noted. He has not endorsed the tougher measures, notably fines for methane leaks, proposed by Ms. Garcia Richard.

Regarding donations to Mr. Lyons’ campaign from national oil companies that oppose methane regulations, Ms. Bransford said: “We can’t control where they donate the money. But they certainly understand that Commissioner Lyons is supportive of the industry and is willing to work with them.”


The Boulder Solar project in Boulder City, Nev.CreditDavid Walter Banks for The New York Times

Voters in two of the nation’s sunniest states will vote on whether to ramp up the use of renewable electricity sources, particularly solar power. In both states, the ballot initiative would require electric utilities to produce 50 percent of their electricity from wind and solar by 2030, up from current requirements of 25 percent by 2025 in Nevada, and 15 percent by 2025 in Arizona.

Twenty-nine states and Washington, D.C., already have such programs, known as Renewable Portfolio Standards, although only a handful — those in California, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey and Vermont — are as ambitious as those proposed in Nevada and Arizona.

Passage of the initiatives is far from certain. Last year, Gov. Brian Sandoval of Nevada vetoed a bill that would have increased the state’s renewable energy mandate to a less-ambitious 40 percent by 2050. And in Arizona, electric utilities have campaigned against the measure, citing the cost.

Some policy experts say the mandates for more renewable power will drive down the cost, leading to a market-driven spread of cleaner energy.

“When you get this kind of ambitious investment from states, it drives down costs across the country,” said Dallas Burtraw, an expert in electricity policy at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington research organization focused on energy and environment economics. “We’re already seeing this as a result of the state programs in place, and growing the club of states with these very ambitious mandates will take this further.”

In Colorado, the boom in fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, has led to a surge in oil and natural gas production and millions of dollars in new tax revenue. It has also raised fears that the process has poisoned residents’ water.

Next week, Coloradans will vote on a regulation designed to scale back how much fracking would be permitted. While the proposed rule would not go as far as the outright bans on fracking in Maryland, New York and Vermont, oil and gas companies fear that, if enacted, the Colorado proposal could spread to other states, curtailing the national oil and gas boom that was precipitated a decade ago by breakthroughs in fracking.

For more news on climate and the environment, follow @NYTClimate on Twitter.

Coral Davenport covers energy and environmental policy, with a focus on climate

Puffins: Harbingers of Climate Change


These small ocean birds are the proverbial canary in the coal mine as the ecology of their habitat worsens.

November 5, 2018

This article appears in the Fall 2018 issue of The American Prospect magazine. Subscribe here

Audrey Holstead watched a puffin rocket in from the ocean with a beak dripping with fish. It zoomed over boulders in front of her bird blind and dropped with pinpoint accuracy into a narrow, dark crevice.

Holstead’s skin crawled with electricity. Puffins come ashore with fish for only one reason: to feed a chick. This was the first feeding of the season observed at this particular hole. It belonged to the 173rd breeding pair of Atlantic puffins on Eastern Egg Rock, an island six miles off Pemaquid Point on Maine’s midcoast. That set a new record for the National Audubon Society’s Project Puffin, one of the world’s most famous bird restoration efforts. The season finished with 178 breeding pairs.

“I just wanted to jump up and down and scream to the world,” Holstead says. “I did a little wiggly dance.”

Holstead’s victory jig was one of several in the 45th summer of the project founded by Steve Kress, National Audubon Society’s executive director of seabird restoration and vice president for bird conservation. I was his co-author and photographer on the 2015 book Project Puffin: The Improbable Quest to Bring a Beloved Seabird Back to Egg Rock.

For nearly a century, the island went without puffins, eliminated by the 1880s by coastal dwellers hungry for the birds’ meat and eggs. Kress dreamed of bringing them back while teaching about birds at Audubon’s Hog Island summer camp up the Muscongus Bay coast from Pemaquid Point.

The only problem was that no seabird had ever been restored to an island where people killed it off.

In 1973, Kress convinced the Canadian government to let him translocate puffin chicks from 800 miles away in Newfoundland. Kress and colleagues fed fish to chicks in handmade sod burrows on Egg Rock until they fledged. The team then set up decoys and mirrors to make the birds perceive abundance when they returned as adults to breed.

Kress hoped the chicks would return to Egg Rock rather than Newfoundland. He guessed right. The first puffins returned in 1977 and began breeding in 1981. Today, 1,300 pairs of puffins breed on five islands in the state, most of the birds being managed in a partnership between Project Puffin and the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The bird now fuels the local economy with boat tours all along the coast.

Derrick Z. Jackson

As warming waters move their ranges northward, butterfish (above) have begun to replace herring and other more appropriate fish as food sources. Unfortunately, the butterfish’s oval shape makes it difficult for puffin chicks to swallow, causing many to starve.

The techniques used to bring back puffins have been used to re-establish or relocate 65 species of seabirds in 17 countries. A spectacular example is the 1996 return of the common murre, an auk cousin of the puffin, to Devil’s Slide rock, a 900-feet-high coastal sea stack south of San Francisco. The rock’s colony of 3,000 murre was wiped out by a massive oil spill in 1986.

After a barren decade, a team of climbers advised by Kress and now-longtime Project Puffin colleague Sue “Seabird Sue” Schubel, scaled the rock to install decoys, mirrors, and solar-powered soundtracks. A murre landed the very next day. Breeding occurred that year and the colony today is again 3,000 birds.

The murre success came back full circle this year to Maine. That bird was also wiped out in the state in the late 19th century. Inspired by Devil’s Slide, Project Puffin started trying to bring murres back to the island of Matinicus Rock. This summer, researchers discovered four healthy murre chicks under boulders.

For Kress, 72, seeing this bird was as close as he could come to welcoming back the similar-looking, twice-as-tall great auk, which was driven to extinction in the mid-1800s.

“When the murres came back to Devil’s Slide, the lead person of that project, Harry Carter, gave me a cigar and said, ‘Keep this until murres return to Maine,’” Kress says. “I still have that cigar. Now I’ll have to light it up with Seabird Sue.”

Kress says the murre chicks are proof that his project is still “reaping rewards of work done over long decades. We can bring back whole communities. It’s wild and exciting to be on the forefront of restoration. The murres show us that momentum is still rolling in the right direction.”


EVEN AS MAINE’S PUFFINS and murres make history, a malicious momentum is rolling in from the wrong direction to fog the future. Project Puffin is in the giant Gulf of Maine, which extends up from Cape Cod to Nova Scotia. The gulf is unique for its swirl of the cold Labrador Current and the warm Gulf Stream. The diversity of water has allowed for a wide range both of birds at the southern end of their North American breeding limits, like puffins and Arctic terns, and birds at the northern end of their nesting range, such as species of herons, ibises, and oystercatchers.

But climate change is making those currents go haywire, warming the Gulf of Maine faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. The Labrador Current is being disrupted by freshwater runoff from warming and melting Greenland ice sheets, the Gulf Stream is pushing northward, and warmer air in the jet stream is transferring more heat into the ocean as it flows off the East Coast.

To understand how fast that change is occurring, Andrew Thomas, professor of oceanography at the University of Maine, puts it like this: The duration of summer-like sea surface temperatures in the Gulf of Maine is extending by about two days every year.

Today, the duration of summer temperatures is two months longer than it was 35 years ago.

“It is a head-scratching number,” Thomas says. “It’s a perfect storm of perfect impacts. When I first saw the numbers, I couldn’t believe it. I did the calculation three more times. I got the same numbers no matter how I plotted it. This is something I never expected.”

Nor did Kress when he started his project. His puffins are now sentinels warning us of what we are doing to our oceans. They tell us via the fish they bring to their chicks.

Take herring, a workhorse forage fish. Whales, sharks, seals, and porpoises eat them underwater. Humans eat them out of cans, grind them into nutritional supplements and pet food, and throw them back in the water for lobster bait.

Young herring are an ideal fish for many seabird species because of their high fat content and streamlined bodies that are easy for chicks to eat. When the first breeding puffin was spotted flying into an Eastern Egg Rock burrow in 1981, the project’s newsletter proudly proclaimed that its beak was “packed full of glistening herring!” A 1985 newsletter said, “This is the puffin’s principal and most nutritious food.”

No more. Herring have virtually disappeared from the puffin diet. Overfishing crashed their commercial population in the late 1970s. Despite federally managed rebuilding of stocks to “robust” status in 2015, the fisheries division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration still cut the allowable 2018 catch in half over fears of record low numbers of young herring.

The herring that do exist are being driven farther out and deeper into the ocean by warmer water. According to Rutgers University marine biologist Malin Pinsky, the “center of abundance” for Atlantic herring has slipped from 200 feet of ocean depth in the late 1960s to 250 feet today.

“We have to start facing the fact that some fish may not be coming back in range of the birds.”

That begins to fall out of range of a bird whose record diving depth is 200 feet. A 2012 study on Petit Manan Island found that most puffin dives were above 50 feet. “The fish might still be there, but it’s not going to help the birds if the fish go down too deep,” says Linda Welch, who has worked as a biologist for two decades at the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, which manages Petit Manan. “We have to start facing the fact that some fish may not be coming back in range of the birds.”

Other iconic New England species show similar trends. Pinsky says the core abundance of lobster has moved north 155 miles since the early 1970s and yellowtail flounder have moved north 145 miles since the 1960s.

Fish more associated with mid-Atlantic waters, such as black sea bass, are showing up in bigger numbers in the Gulf of Maine as their core population has moved up from the latitude of Virginia Beach to that of Trenton, New Jersey. Red hake have moved up from the latitude of Trenton to that of Boston.

“It’s like shaking a snow globe and waiting to see how things settle down,” says Pinsky. “And it may not settle down unless we get our greenhouse gases down.”

To view these shifts in another way with another animal, it’s as if in just one human lifetime, the northern range of the American alligator had moved up from the swamps of northernmost North Carolina to hailing distance of the Washington, D.C., suburbs (this might be a particularly appropriate analogy, given how America is mired in the swamp of political inaction on climate change).

“We’ve flipped into a new, disturbing phase, an alarming new normal,” says Janet Nye, a professor of marine and atmospheric sciences at Stony Brook University. She was a member of a groundbreaking 2015 study that determined that the continued collapse of New England’s iconic cod fishery was significantly due to overfishing and the failure of commercial catch limits to account for the effect of ocean warming on cod.

“What’s really interesting is that no one yet has taken a hard look at the interactions between different species,” she adds. “We’ve typically taken a look at one species at a time to see how temperature change alters their range and distribution. The next step is trying to understand how that affects how species interact with each other.”


SEABIRDS AND FISH ARE rapidly helping us to understand that interaction, and sometimes tell us stories of government success. In recent years, puffins on some islands have brought to their chicks large numbers of small haddock and Acadian redfish, species that rebounded with federal regulation. A 2017 NOAA report said haddock, a cousin of cod, “is currently at an all-time high.”

Derrick Z. Jackson

Solar-powered soundtracks, mirrors, and decoys (shown above) have been used over the years by Steve Kress and his team to lure puffins to nest on Eastern Egg Rock.

But with water temperatures soaring to all-time highs, redfish and haddock are two of the fish projected to decline in the Gulf of Maine, according to a study last year led by Kristin Kleisner, a former NOAA researcher who is now a senior ocean scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund. That study also found that white hake, the top replacement of herring for Maine puffins, will also decline in abundance as the gulf’s surface waters may warm by another six or seven degrees this century.

“A huge question is which species can co-exist with each other in a new area,” Kleisner says. “There are definitely fish that will leave the Gulf of Maine or not recover. It may not be all doom and gloom if there are other fish that move in that are still nutritious. But puffins are in a hot spot. They may or may not adapt.”

How hot is this spot for puffins? In 2012, the Gulf of Maine had its warmest waters on record. The 2012 summer temperature was 3.7 degrees Fahrenheit above historical averages. Less than a four-degree difference means little to humans who can shed clothes. For fish, four degrees is like being forced to wear a parka on Miami Beach.

As the puffins’ familiar fish “shed clothes” by fleeing for colder water, fish are showing up in their diet that are “shedding” the waters to the south. One is the butterfish, whose core population has moved just since 2004 from the latitude of central Virginia to the latitude of central New Jersey.

Large butterfish are a plague to puffins, especially if they arrive early in the season when their oval shape makes it difficult for newly hatched chicks to eat, causing many to starve. The upward push of butterfish coincided with the 2012 heat and was a major challenge for puffins. Petit Manan saw its breeding puffin count crash from 104 pairs in 2009 to 47 pairs by 2013. Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge and Matinicus Rock, each of which is home to more than 500 pairs of puffins, fledged only one out of every ten chicks in 2013, a record low.

Since then, there have been years of slightly cooler water and breeding success for puffins. Last year, Egg Rock hit 172 pairs of puffins. Seal and Matinicus fledged four out of every five chicks.

But the summer of 2018 was a maddening rollercoaster of the best and the worst things that could happen for puffins. The season started fine with ample haddock and white hake. Puffins began breeding in their record numbers.

Then, a July ocean heat wave sent the water to near-2012 levels. Haddock and hake largely disappeared at Eastern Egg Rock. Butterfish started showing up. On Matinicus Rock, supervisor Frank Mayer said he saw 25 to 30 chicks dead of starvation in an 85-nest study area. On Seal Island, supervisor Keenan Yakola found seven dead chicks in 60 study burrows, surrounded by rotting whole butterfish. Surviving chicks were dramatically underweight.

“What scares me is what we don’t know,” said Yakola, a graduate fellow at the Interior Department’s Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, housed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. This was his fourth year as Seal supervisor. “Are water temperatures causing mismatches in spawning and [in] when the fish are available to seabirds?

If herring are gone and hake decline, what comes next?

If herring are gone and hake decline, what comes next? We’ve had big butterfish years in the past but now the frequency of butterfish years when little else is present is concerning. In 2016 and 2018, we saw the number of feedings declining, some days we saw no feeding, possibly because the adults have to spend hours looking for food.”

Yakola’s graduate adviser and climate coordinator at the climate center, Michelle Staudinger, says she saw on Seal Island the surreal sight of puffins and terns bringing in goosefish. Otherwise known as monkfish, the fish is often considered one of the ugliest in the sea, with a body that is almost all head and mouth. “That was shocking,” Staudinger says. “What is a bird doing eating that? Why is a bird bringing that in? Seabirds like fish they can slurp down like spaghetti. This is like trying to eat a hamburger in one bite.”

Puffin chicks were in such poor condition by late July that Eastern Egg Rock intern Kay Garlick-Ott, a 22-year-old graduate of Pomona College, said, “You can actually feel the lack of food in the bird. You expect your fingers to hit something like bones, but it was just a puffball. When I pulled it out of its burrow, I knew it wasn’t right. It was so sad.”

But in yet one more twist, there was a last-minute reprieve for puffin chicks that clung to life in Maine. By the second week in August, a time when most chicks normally would have fledged, parents found a surprise final wave of hake and haddock to feed offspring, bringing home as many as 18 feedings a day. The chicks, sensing they needed the food to survive their first winter, stayed in their burrows an unprecedented full month longer than normal to fatten up. Just before Labor Day, there were at least 20 chicks still in burrows on Seal Island. On Eastern Egg Rock, Kress observed a puffin feeding on September 6, a date by which the birds have usually vacated for the winter.

“I’ve never seen a year that started out promising, then turned troubling with butterfish and very few feedings per day, and then reversed with many feedings per day,” Kress says. “It’s kind of symbolic for the last several years. It adds to the idea that it’s a roll of the dice as to how this unfolds. I was very impressed with the puffins’ ability to come up with the strategy of slow development. But we’ve never seen such slow development that then reversed itself to faster development.”

Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which found that the 2018 waters reached their second-highest recorded temperature of nearly 69 degrees Fahrenheit on August 8, says Americans are further gambling with the future with the deterioration of data. He says prior and proposed federal research cutbacks are curtailing or ending studies of plankton abundance, the foundation of marine life, and letting aging weather buoys fall into disrepair.

“Thank goodness we can observe what’s happening to seabirds,” Pershing says. “But it’s getting harder and harder to study what drives those changes. Without hard data, it’s hard to get ahead of what the gulf will look like.”

Tony Diamond, emeritus professor of wildlife ecology at the University of New Brunswick and one of Kress’s longtime colleagues, is not sure how much stress the puffins can take before they take some sort of leave. When Kress first asked the Canadian government for chicks, top wildlife officials at first refused, postulating that at the first sign of ecosystem stress, the birds would retreat back over the border and make the experiment a waste of time.

Nearly a half-century later, the fear of retreat or worse is not just in Maine but also in the Atlantic puffin’s strongholds of Iceland, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Similar environmental scenarios are so worrisome that the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List changed the bird’s status from one of “least concern” to “vulnerable” in 2015.

Canada’s top home for puffins in the Gulf of Maine, Machias Seal Island, has 5,500 pairs, and Diamond fears for them as well. Its own roulette of fish crashes has resulted in puffins going from fledging two out of every three chicks from 1995 to 2005 to only every other one ever since.

“The puffins are a hardy bird [capable of living into their 30s], and they can handle a few bad years,” Diamond says. “But now things are hitting us at a time scale we’ve never known. We used to kill birds for feathers and meat. We stopped that a century ago with management, and the birds came back. Now we’re causing them to die again to support our lifestyles in a new way. They’ve become collateral damage for our consumption.

“Unless we do something drastic for the fish, I fear there won’t be much work for a puffin researcher in the Gulf of Maine 50 years from now.”

That’s not what today’s puffin researchers want to hear. Kress has long entrusted his islands to members of the next generation, for them to spend hours observing in the blinds, to contort themselves upside down to reach down into boulders to band chicks, and occasionally rush outside to get rid of puffin and tern predators such as gulls, eagles, and falcons overhead or mink and otter that swim from island to island.

Besides Holstead and Garlick-Ott, the Egg Rock crew when I visited in July included Laura Brazier, a 27-year-old graduate of Loyola University in Maryland with a wildlife conservation master’s degree from University College Dublin; Nicole Faber, 24, a graduate of Bowdoin College; and Blanca Gonzalez, 29, a graduate of the Autonomous University of Madrid with a master’s in animal behavior from Cordoba University.

They contrasted the struggle for the puffins and terns to find the right fish with all the concern people show for pandas, whales, the 2015 killing of Cecil the lion, and even conservation efforts for lobsters. The Gulf of Maine Research Institute, the University of Maine, and NOAA found that conservation efforts established by the lobster industry can maintain a stable industry in the face of climate change, averting the collapse that hit southeastern New England.

Derrick Z. Jackson

Steve Kress and his team on the coast of Maine

“It was devastating when the switch to butterfish occurred,” Faber says. “The worst is watching a tern chick trying to stretch its mouth, get the fish halfway down. You see this great lump in their neck. Then when they realize they can’t get it down, they hack it out on the ground. Then they try it over and over and the fish just gets covered in sticks and dirt. It’s horrible. It’s something I didn’t expect when I was told I’d be studying fish.”

Holstead recalled another tern chick that kept rejecting a butterfish and its parent picking it up over and over again to keep trying to feed it. “I’m sitting in the blind mentally screaming to myself, ‘Drop the stupid thing! Go find something else! You want your chick to die!?’ I wince every time I see it.”

Brazier was spending her fourth summer on Project Puffin and her second as Egg Rock supervisor. She has traveled the world to assist the conservation of penguins in South Africa, turtles in Greece, hares in the Yukon, and albatrosses on Midway Atoll. This winter, she is headed to Antarctica for penguin research.

For all that travel for creatures that inspire movies like March of the Penguins or books like Carl Safina’s Voyage of the Turtle and Eye of the Albatross, Brazier has spent the last four summers realizing that a puffin is only as beautiful as the oily fish it eats.

“When I see puffins fly into the burrow with butterfish, I think, ‘Puffin, stop!’” Brazier says. “But we can’t make them stop and they don’t seem to have the ability to realize what they’re catching. Last year was so insanely good. This year, as the summer deteriorated, puffins were loafing less, probably because they had less time to hang around and needed more time to find fish. You just wonder sometimes when their energy is going to run out.”


ONE THING THAT WILL NOT run out is the energy of the interns. Just as Kress returned the puffin to Maine against many odds to heal an environmental wound of the 19th century, the interns say this summer’s difficulties make them that much more dedicated not to let 21st-century problems reopen those wounds. They are quite clear that Project Puffin’s efforts are being hurt by President Trump’s and the Republican Congress’s attempted gutting of environmental protections. Many of those protections, including the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, were enacted in the 1970s, just as Kress began bringing puffins back.

The administration is also trying to allow commercial fishing in the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument, 130 miles off Cape Cod. President Obama gave this region permanent protection because it has canyons deeper than the Grand Canyon and many previously unknown species of deep-sea corals. It also is a prime feeding area for whales, turtles, and late-winter puffins that fatten up here before migrating to Maine to breed.

From this seven-acre rock, the interns are fighting back by giving people a more vivid picture of what the puffin faces.

“We can transfer anger against Trump into something positive,” Gonzalez says. “We know conservation science is not a field to get rich and famous. But we have passion.”

The question, of course, is when society will feel and honor this passion with a movement to prevent rollbacks of existing environmental laws and reverse the long-term threat to puffins, fish, and humans—climate change.

“The political environment makes me really appreciate everyone who is working out here,” Faber says. “It’s so easy to feel totally devastated and crushed by a government that wants to pollute everything again. We have to keep the resolve to not let it happen.”

Brazier, the veteran of the group, says: “Sometimes I wonder what we’re doing out here in the grand scheme of things. What is the part that five people on this tiny island do to save the planet? So many people out there are complacent and I know not everybody is going to care about the fish.

“But I have to remember that none of what we’re seeing out here was here when the project started. That’s how I stay hopeful.”

As long as they have hope, so do the puffins.

Ten simple changes to help save the planet

We know that climate change is happening – but there are plenty of things individuals can do to help mitigate it. Here’s your handy guide to the most effective strategies.

In a new report published in September 2018, the world’s leading climate scientists made their starkest warning so far: our current actions are not enough for us to meet our target of 1.5C of warming. We need to do more.

It’s settled science that climate change is real, and we’re starting to see some of the ways that it affects us. It increases the likelihood of flooding in Miami and elsewhere, threatens the millions of people living along the Brahmaputra Riverin north-eastern India and disrupts the sex life of plants and animals.

So we don’t need to ask whether climate change is happening – or whether humans are causing it. Instead, we need to ask: “what can we do?”

What can you do that will have the biggest impact? Here’s our guide.

1. What is the single most important thing humanity has to do in the coming years – and what does that mean for me?

The number one goal? Limiting the use of fossil fuels such as oil, carbon and natural gas and replacing them with renewable and cleaner sources of energy, all while increasing energy efficiency. “We need to cut CO2 emissions almost in half (45%) by the end of the next decade,” says Kimberly Nicholas, associate professor of sustainability science at the Lund University Centre for Sustainability Studies (LUCSUS), in Sweden.

The number one goal is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources

To mitigate climate change, the number one goal is to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy sources (Credit: Getty)

The road towards that transition includes daily decisions within your reach – like driving and flying less, switching to a ‘green’ energy provider and changing what you eat and buy.

Of course, it’s true that climate change won’t be solved by your buying or driving habits alone – although many experts agree these are important, and can influence others to make changes too (more on that later). Other changes are needed that can only be made on a bigger, system-wide basis – like revamping our subsidy system for the energy and food industries, which continue to reward fossil fuels, or setting new rules and incentives for sectors like farming, deforestation and waste management.

One good example of the importance of this regards refrigerants. An advocacy group of researchers, business-people and NGOs called Drawdown found that getting rid of HFCs (chemicals used in fridges and air conditioning)  was the number-one most effective policy to reduce emissions. That’s because they are up to 9,000 more warming for the atmosphere than CO2. The good news is that we have made global progress on this, and two years ago 170 countries agreed to start phasing out HFCs in 2019.

This is important because we need “unprecedented changes in all aspects of society to deal with climate change, says the IPCC report. “Everyone is going to have to be involved,” says Debra Robert, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the group tasked with the report.

2. Changing how industries are run or subsidised doesn’t sound like anything I can influence… can I?

You can. Individuals need to exercise their rights both as citizens and as consumers, Robert and other experts say, putting pressure on their governments and on companies to make the system-wide changes that are needed.

Another way, increasingly undertaken by universities, faith groups and recently even at a countrywide level, is to ‘divest’ funds out of polluting activities – such as avoiding stocks in fossil fuels, or banks that invest in high-emission industries. By getting rid of financial instruments related to the fossil fuel industry, organisations can both take climate action and reap economic benefits.

3. Other than that, what’s the best daily action I can take?

One 2017 study co-authored by Lund University’s Nicholas ranked 148 individual actions on climate change according to their impact. Going car-free was the number-one most effective action an individual could take (except not having kids – but more on that on that later). Cars are more polluting compared to other means of transportation like walking, biking or using public transport.

One ranking found that going car-free is the most effective action one person can take

One ranking found that going car-free is the most effective action one person can take (Credit: Getty)

In industrialised countries such as European nations, getting rid of your car can reduce 2.5 tonnes of CO2 – about one-fourth of the average yearly emissions (9.2 tonnes) contributed by each person in developed countries of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

“We should choose more efficient vehicles and, whenever possible, switch directly to electric vehicles,” says Maria Virginia Vilarino, co-author of the mitigation chapter in the IPCC’s latest report.

4. But isn’t renewable energy extremely expensive?

Actually, renewables like wind and solar are becoming increasingly cheap across the world (although final costs are subject to local circumstances). The latest report from the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena) found that several of the most commonly used renewables, like solar, geothermal, bioenergy, hydropower and onshore wind, will be on par with or cheaper than fossil fuels by 2020. Some are already more cost-effective.

Solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity for many households

Solar energy is now the cheapest source of electricity for many households in Latin America, Asia and Africa (Credit: Getty)

The cost of utility-scale solar panels has fallen 73% since 2010, for example, making solar energy the cheapest source of electricity for many households in Latin America, Asia and Africa.  In the UK, onshore wind and solar are competitive with gas and by 2025 will be the cheapest source of electricity generation.

Some critics argue that these prices disregard the price of integrating renewables on the electricity system – but recent evidence suggests these costs are ‘modest’ and manageable for the grid.

5. Could I make a difference by changing my diet?

That’s a big one, too. In fact, after fossil fuels, the food industry – and in particular the meat and dairy sector – is one of the most important contributors to climate change. If cattle were their own nation, they would be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases, after China and the US.

If cattle were their own nation, they’d be the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases

If cattle were their own nation, they’d be the world’s third largest emitter of greenhouse gases (Credit: Getty)

The meat industry contributes to global warming in three major ways. Firstly, cows’ burping from processing food releases lots of methane, a greenhouse gas. Secondly, we feed them with other potential sources of food, like maize and soy, which makes for a very inefficient process. And finally, they also require lots of water, fertilisers that can release greenhouse gases, and plenty of land – some of which come from cleared forests, another source of carbon emissions.

By reducing your consumption of animal protein by half, you can cut your diet’s carbon footprint by more than 40%

You don’t have to go vegetarian or vegan to make a difference: cut down gradually and become a ‘flexitarian’. By reducing your consumption of animal protein by half, you can cut your diet’s carbon footprint by more than 40%. A larger-scale approach could be something like banning meat across an organisation, as office-sharing company WeWork did in 2018.

This explainer of sustainable diets by the World Resources Institute (WIR) and its longer associated reportprovides more answers to questions about food and carbon emissions.

6. How harmful are my flying habits?

Planes run on fossil fuels, and we haven’t figured out a scaleable alternative. Although some early efforts to use solar panels to fly around the world have had success, we are still decades away from commercial flights running on solar energy.

A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2 – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India.

A normal transatlantic round-trip flight can release around 1.6 tonnes of CO2, according to Nicholas’s study – almost as much as the average yearly emissions of one person in India. This also highlights the inequality of climate change: while everyone will be affected, only a minority of humans fly and even fewer people take planes often.

There are groups of scientists and members of the public who have decided to give up flying or who fly less. Virtual meetings, holidaying in local destinations or using trains instead of planes all are ways to cut down.

Wondering how much your travel contributes to climate change? Measure your carbon emissions in this calculator by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

7. Should I be shopping differently?

Most likely. That’s because everything we buy has a carbon footprint, either in the way it is produced or in how it is transported.

For instance, the clothing sector represents around 3% of the world’s global production emissions of CO2, mostly because of the use of energy to produce attire. The hectic pace of fast fashion contributes to this figure as clothes are discarded or fall apart after short periods.

The clothing sector makes up about 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions

The clothing sector makes up about 3% of the world’s CO2 emissions (Credit: Getty)

International transport, including maritime and air shipping, also has an impact. Groceries shipped from Chile and Australia to Europe, or the other way around, have more ‘food miles’ and usually a higher footprint than local produce. But this is not always the case, as some countries grow out-of-season crops in energy-intensive greenhouses – so the best approach is to eat food that is both locally grown and seasonal. Even so, eating vegetarian still beats only purchasing local.

8. Should I think about how many children I have (or don’t have)?

Nicholas’s study concluded that having fewer children is the best way to reduce your contribution to climate change, with almost 60 tonnes of CO2 avoided per year. But this result has been contentious – and it leads to other questions.

One is whether you are responsible for children’s climate emissions, and the other is where are these babies born.

If you are responsible for your kids’ emissions, are your parents responsible for yours? And if you are not, how should we consider the fact that more people will likely have more carbon emissions? We also could ask whether having offspring is a human right beyond questioning. And we could ask if having children is necessarily a bad thing for solving climate change: our challenges may mean we will need more problem-solvers in future generations, not fewer.

Those are hard, philosophical questions – and we’re not going to try to answer them here.

Children lead to more CO2 emissions – but they may also be future problem-solvers

Children lead to more CO2 emissions – but they may also be future environmentally-minded problem-solvers (Credit: Getty)

What we do know is that no two people have the same emissions. Although the average human releases around 5 tonnes of CO2 per year, each country has very different circumstances: developed nations like the US and South Korea have higher national averages (16.5 tonnes and 11.5 tonnes per person, respectively) than developing countries like Pakistan and Philippines (around 1 tonne each). Even within national borders, richer people have higher emissions than people with less access to goods and services. So if you choose to take this question into account, you have to remember that it’s not just about how many children you have – it’s where (and who) you are.

9. But if I eat less meat or take fewer flights, that’s just me – how much of a difference can that really make?

Actually, it’s not just you. Social scientists have found that when one person makes a sustainability-oriented decision, other people do too.

Here are four examples:

Social scientists believe this occurs because we constantly evaluate what our peers are doing and we adjust our beliefs and actions accordingly. When people see their neighbours taking environmental action, like conserving energy, they infer that people like them also value sustainability and feel more compelled to act.

10. What if I just can’t avoid that flight, or cut down on driving?

If you simply can’t make every change that’s needed, consider offsetting your emissions with a trusted green project – not a ‘get out of jail free card’, but another resource in your toolbox to compensate that unavoidable flight or car trip. The UN Climate Convention keeps a portfolio of dozens of projects around the world you can contribute to. To find out how many emissions you need to ‘buy’ back, you can use its handy carbon footprint calculator.

Whether you are a coffee farmer in Colombia or a homeowner in California, climate change will have an impact on your life. But the opposite is also true: your actions will influence the planet for the coming decades – for better or for worse.


Diego Arguedas Ortiz is a science and climate change reporter for BBC Future.

5 Women on Deciding Not to Have Children Because of Climate Change

Empty Cot


Climate change is real, and it will start damaging the planet in irreversible ways very, very soon. An October 2018 report from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that we have 12 years to keep the globe’s average temperature at 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels; even half a degree higher would greatly increase the risks for drought, poverty, and extreme weather.

David Roberts


The new IPCC report is out. The top line is familiar: we can still limit climate change to non-catastrophic levels if we act quickly. But underneath that, what counts as “quickly” has grown ever more ludicrous. https://www.vox.com/2018/10/5/17934174/climate-change-global-warming-un-ipcc-report-1-5-degrees 

A major new climate report slams the door on wishful thinking

The IPCC says that even the most optimistic scenario for climate change is dire.


David Roberts


Basically, stopping warming at 1.5C would involve an immediate, coordinated crash program of re-industrialization, involving every major country in the world. It would be like the US mobilizing for WWII, only across the globe, sustained for the rest of the century.

If you’ve heard about the report, chances are it caused you to do one of two things: 1. Internally freak out about our impending doom and become so overwhelmed that you decided to not think about it and leave the unprecedented changes up to those in laboratories and the White House. 2. Internally freak out about our impending doom and then wonder what you can do to help.

For many women, that goes beyond recycling, switching to an electric car, or avoiding fast fashion. It also extends to the choices we make about family. According to a 2017 study, the number one thing people in industrialized countries can do to limit climate change is have fewer children; not having a baby could save as much carbon per year as 73 people going vegetarian. However, Kimberly Nicholas, who co-authored the report, told ELLE that the report wasn’t meant to make people feel guilty for having children. “If I had a burning hole in my heart to have a child and I knew that it would also be the biggest contribution to climate change that I would make, I think that I would do it anyway,” she said. Nicholas also said she believes lowering your own energy consumption is more important than deciding not to have children: “It’s not so much about whether you choose to have a child. It’s about what kind of lifestyle you choose to raise that child in.”

But still, other women are choosing not to have biological children for the sake of the planet. Below, five women sound off on their reasoning.

Maria, 32

“If my hypothetical children were to ask me one day, ‘Why did you bring me onto the planet knowing what a dire situation it was in?’ there’s no reasonable answer I could give to justify my actions. There’s not much I can do as an individual to stop climate change, but I can do my part to not leave a future generation to suffer through global catastrophe.

I’ve never really wanted kids, but the recent announcement from scientists that we (humanity) have 12 years to stem the tide of catastrophic climate change validates and solidifies my decision.

It sounds defeatist, but when we have a White House administrations that’s unwilling to admit climate change is a problem, and the U.S., along with China, India, and Russia, producing astronomical amounts of greenhouse emissions, individual effort is a drop in the bucket without policy change.”

Sarah, 29

“Up until I was in my mid-twenties I had always viewed having kids not so much as something I really wanted, but something that was inevitable. It seemed like a natural path everyone around me took, and I assumed that at some point it would appeal to me. I’ve been with my partner for six years, and my biological clock never kicked in. Ultimately, we both agree that the environmental stakes are too high for something we feel ambivalent about at best.


Besides being vegetarian, I also try to make energy conscious choices when I can, like riding my bike to work instead of driving. My job at the Center for Biological Diversity is to help people make the connection between unsustainable population growth and its effects on endangered species and their habitat. As our population grows, we’re increasingly beating out wildlife for resources and space and none of the eco-conscious choices we make will matter if our population keeps growing at the current rate.

Population needs to become a bigger part of the environmental conversation, and we use our Endangered Species Condoms as a way to start that conversation and educate people about how safe sex can save the planet.

Many people don’t know that having one less child saves nearly 60 tons of carbon dioxide emissions per year. This is more than the emission savings from more commonly advertised ‘green’ actions like recycling, eating a plant-based diet, and living car-free combined. Educating people about this could help them rethink their family planning choices and what kind of world they want to leave their kids if they decide to have them.”

Asya Shein, 39, CEO of Fusicology

“I grew up in Toronto, and Canada was always quite progressive in discussing pollution [and] environmental issues like animal extinction.

When I was younger I thought I might want kids, but now that it seems like climate change is coming stronger and faster than previously assumed. I just don’t feel like it’s right to bring people who could have a much more difficult life onto this already very stressed-out planet.

Jenn, 30

“My fourth grade teacher was and is a climate change activist and she drilled the importance of respecting the earth into us pretty early. So I always had that sense of environmental responsibility, but I’d say the real thrust of it hit me over the last few years.

I’ve always waffled about whether or not to have kids. I’ll go through phases where I’m convinced I want them and then phases when I’m convinced I don’t. I never really considered adopting until I started thinking seriously about climate change, but now when I think about having kids it makes more sense to me to adopt, because it’s like a win-win: Better for the environment by not contributing to overpopulation, and it helps a kid in need.

I do the usual [to combat climate change]: I’m a vegetarian, and I recycle and attend protests, etc. But honestly I’m doing what most of us with very little power to change things beyond an individual level are doing: the bare minimum.”

Tiffany, 27

“I think I started to understand climate change after I graduated from college. I stopped eating meat for a while and even when I started eating meat again, I drastically cut back my consumption. I recycled everything that was recyclable and stopped drinking bottled water.

Growing up, I had always envisioned a family and having children, but as I have gotten older my views have changed. I believe that climate change is going to have a strong negative impact on future generations, and they are inheriting a bad situation.

Climate change is also going to have a huge impact on food production and the world is already becoming over-populated—another reason why I do not want to have children.

If [the effects of climate change] were really a priority, we would see change being made like no more coal and more solar power and renewable resources.”

Remote Hawaiian Island Wiped Off The Map

“This event is confronting us with what the future could look like,” one federal scientist said about the loss of East Island, caused by Hurricane Walaka.
East Island was the second-largest islet in the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

East Island was the second-largest islet in the French Frigate Shoals, an atoll in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

A powerful hurricane in the eastern Pacific washed away an 11-acre island in the French Frigate Shoals, part of a national monument in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

Approximately a half mile long and 400 feet wide, East Island was the second-largest islet in French Frigate Shoals ― an atoll some 550 miles northwest of Honolulu ― and a key habitat for the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal, the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle and several species of seabirds.

The island’s dramatic vanishing act was first reported by Honolulu Civil Beat and confirmed by HuffPost. Satellite images distributed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service show the spit of white sand almost entirely erased, scattered out onto the reef to the north. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service did not immediately respond to a request for comment.


East Island was destroyed by storm surge from Hurricane Walaka, which roared through the northwestern Hawaiian Islands as a powerful Category 3 storm this month. Seven researchers, including three studying green sea turtles on East Island, were forced to evacuate from French Frigate Shoals before the storm.

Charles Littnan, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s protected species division, told HuffPost it will likely take years to understand what the island’s loss means for these imperiled species.

The biggest concern, he said, is the persistent loss of habitat, which has been identified as a significant threat to monk seals and green sea turtles. Nearby Trig Island was also lost beneath the surface this year, not because of a storm but from high wave activity.

“These small, sandy islets are going to really struggle to persist” in a warming world with rising seas, Littnan said. “This event is confronting us with what the future could look like.”

French Frigate Shoals is the nesting ground for 96 percent of the Hawaiian green sea turtle population, and approximately half lay their eggs at East Island. Historically, it has been the “single most important” nesting site for the turtles, he said.

All nesting females had left by the time Walaka hit, so the storm likely had little if any impact on the adult population. But NOAA scientists estimate that 19 percent of this year’s nests on East Island had not yet hatched and were swept away by the storm. And 20 percent of the turtle nests on nearby Tern Island, the largest island in the French Frigate Shoals, were lost.

The island was also a critical habitat for the federally protected Hawaii monk seal, one of the most endangered marine mammals on the planet. Roughly 80 percent of the population of just over 1,400 seals live in the northwestern Hawaiian Islands, a remote archipelago that is surrounded by the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument.

In a typical year, 30 percent of monk seal pups are born at East Island. In 2018, 12 pups were born there, and NOAA said it believes that all but maybe one had been weaned before the storm hit.

Littnan said that monk seals are known to move into the water to ride out storms but that scientists won’t know if there was significant mortality until they are able to return to the area to survey the population next year.

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Athline Clark, NOAA’s superintendent of Papahanaumokuakea, described the satellite images as “startling” and said that while the long-term implications are not clear, the island’s loss will have significant effects on future nesting and pupping cycles.

Before disappearing, East and Trig islands accounted for 60 percent of the monk seal pups born at French Frigate Shoals, according to NOAA.

Chip Fletcher, an associate dean at the University of Hawaii’s School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology, told HuffPost that after an initial “holy shit” moment, he realized the island’s disappearance makes sense.

“This is not surprising when you consider the bad luck of a hurricane going into that vicinity and sea level rise already sort of deemed the stressor in the background for these ecosystems,” he said. “The probability of occurrences like this goes up with climate change.”

This month the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the leading United Nations consortium of researchers studying human-caused climate change, issued a dire warning about the threats the world now faces. Failing to overhaul the global economy and rein in carbon emissions would come with devastating, perhaps irreversible effects, the IPCC found.

The scientific community — including experts at NOAA — has long warned that anthropogenic climate change influences extreme weather events. The 2015 National Climate Assessment concluded that “hurricane intensity and rainfall are projected to increase as the climate continues to warm.”

Phil Klotzbach, a hurricane expert at Colorado State University, said the central Pacific is one area where a lot of models forecast that climate change will trigger more frequent and stronger hurricanes. He said Walaka rapidly intensified at an “impressive rate,” from a tropical storm with 40 mph winds to a major hurricane with winds of 120 mph in just 30 hours.

After reaching Category 5 strength, it weakened as it made its way north toward the national monument.

“The complete loss of the island is very impressive,” Klotzbach said after viewing the photos.

From satellite imagery and observations during a flyover of East Island and Tern Island, Littnan said, NOAA scientists expect that all the islets in French Frigate Shoals were completely washed over by the storm surge. It’s unclear if any others experienced significant damage.

There’s no telling if East Island will return. An islet named Whale-Skate Island, also once an important habitat for Hawaiian monk seals, vanished from French Frigate Shoals in the 1990s and has not reappeared.

Clark, Fletcher and Littnan said scientists are already exploring what, if anything, can be done to intervene to protect these vulnerable habitats and increase the resilience of the affected species. Those efforts could include pumping sand back above the ocean’s surface to restore islets.

“We’re going to have to look at really creative ways to help support these species to persist into the future,” Littnan said.




22.10.2018 | 12:01am

WILDLIFEIn-depth: Could ‘rewilding’ help to tackle climate change?

As little as 14,000 years ago, lions roamed across most of Earth’s continents, including Europe, Asia and the Americas.

Though it is not possible to tell what caused the lions to go extinct, evidence taken from fossils and ancient cave paintings suggests that human hunting could have played a role in their downfall.

Now, some researchers say that large animals, ranging from lions and elephants to giant tortoises and donkeys, should be reintroduced to areas where they once thrived.

It is argued that this type of conservation, which is known as “rewilding”, could help to restore ecosystems to what they could have looked like before major human interference.

special issue published today by the Royal Society explores how rewilding could help to tackle climate change and its impacts, as well as how future warming could affect the success of rewilding schemes.

Could elephants tackle emissions?

One of the 16 research papers in the special issue, which is published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, looks at how “trophic rewilding” could be used to lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Trophic rewilding refers to the restoration of dwindling or recently lost animal populations. (This is opposed to “Pleistocene rewilding”, which is concerned with reintroducing animals that have long been extinct in an area, such as the idea of returning mammoths to Siberia.)

The paper argues that reintroducing large herbivores, such as elephants, sloths and tapirs, could help countries to lower their emissions for several reasons.

Large herbivores were once a common sight in all of Earth’s habitable continents. However, hundreds of years of intensive livestock farming has contributed to steep declines in native herbivores and large increases in cattle. Today, there are around 1.5bn cows on Earth.

The replacement of native animals with cattle has caused steep rises in emissions of methane – a greenhouse gas that is 34 times more potent than CO2 over a 100-year period.

This is because cows are “ruminants” – meaning that they have specialised stomachs capable of digesting tough and fibrous material, such as grass through fermentation. The digestive process causes cows to belch out high amounts of methane.

Native herbivores, on the other hand, can have much smaller methane footprints. Many large herbivores, including rhinos, elephants and camels, are “hindgut fermenters” – meaning that they have a simple stomach and carry out fermentation of food in the large intestine.

This type of digestion produces much smaller amounts of methane, says study lead author Prof Joris Cromsigt, a researcher of megafauna (large animals) from the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences.

However, to date, there has been no research comparing the methane footprints of different large herbivores and cattle, he tells Carbon Brief:

“Little empirical data is out there for wildlife. The largest emissions, per individual animal, come from large ruminants, such as cattle, and similar wild species, such as African buffalo or American bison. The least methane is, in principle, produced by the large non-ruminants, such as rhino, elephant and equid [horse] species.”

The figure below, taken from Cromsigt’s paper, gives a rough comparison of the methane emissions of different groups of animals.

Infographic of a Comparison of the methane emissions of different groups of large herbivores. On the chart, a larger symbol represents larger overall methane emissions for that group. Source: Adapted from Cromsigt et al. (2018)

Comparison of the methane emissions of different groups of large herbivores. On the chart, a larger symbol represents larger overall methane emissions for that group. Source: Adapted from Cromsigt et al. (2018)

Research released in 2017 estimated that, over the past 1,000 years, the replacement of wildlife with cattle in Africa has caused methane emissions to more than double from 3.4m tonnes a year to 8.9m tonnes a year.

The reintroduction of large herbivores could also boost the carbon storage of forests, Cromsigt says.

This is because large herbivores act as long-distance seed dispersers for large fruit trees. In fact, research suggests that many large tree species in South America (such as the jicaro tree, shown below) may have evolved giant fruit in order to entice now-extinct large herbivores, such as the giant ground sloth.

C01137 Calabash tree or gourd tree on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico.

Calabash tree or Jícaro tree on Vieques Island, Puerto Rico. Credit: Planetpix/Alamy Stock Photo.

Without large herbivores, numbers of the tallest and woodiest trees – which also store the most carbon – have declined. Additionally, research shows that the loss of living herbivores, such as American tapirs and African and Asian forest elephants, could cause the world’s tropical forests to lose between 2% and 12% of their stored carbon.

Costly conservation

It can be reasoned then, Cromsigt argues, that replacing cattle with wildlife could lower methane emissions, while boosting carbon stores in forests.

However, at present, many of the world’s large herbivores are critically endangered and face threats from poaching, habitat loss and conflict with humansResearch released this month found that humans have caused more than 300 mammal species to go extinct, undoing the work of millions of years of evolution.

One way to incentivise people to protect and try to restore wildlife numbers could be “to make it pay for itself”, Cromsigt says.

He points to an example of South Africa, where legislation introduced in 1991 gave people ownership over wildlife on their land. The new rules saw a massive rise in wildlife farms for game hunting, which led to the total estimated number of wild animals in the country rising from around 500,000 in the 1960s to close to 18m in 2010.

Cromsigt suggests that, if people switched from eating farmed beef to wild game, cattle ranchers could be incentivised to protect wildlife instead of cattle. He admits, however, that such a change would require “a radical cultural shift”.

Another way rewilding could be funded is through climate mitigation financing offered under the Paris Agreement. This money is being heavily invested in tree-planting schemes, but investing in wildlife could also help to boost tree numbers, Cromsigt argues:

“Why are these programmes not investing in fighting the bushmeat crisis and restocking our empty forests with megafauna frugivores [fruit eaters]…or stopping the current onslaught on African and Asia megafauna, such as elephants and rhinoceros?”

White rhinos and wildfires

As well as tackling the root cause of climate change, rewilding could be used to help humans and ecosystems adapt to some of its impacts, according to the special issue.

In many parts of the world, climate change is likely to be making wildfires more severe. This is because warming has led to higher summer temperatures and, in some regions, less summer rainfall – creating the dry, tinderbox conditions that enable fires to quickly spread.

Some large herbivores are thought to play a role in suppressing wildfires, according to a second paper in the special issue.

One reason for this is because large herbivores eat fallen leaves and vegetation, which would otherwise act as fuel in a fire.

Second, herbivores eat some plants, but leave others, which can change the makeup of plants in a forest. “This can mean that zones of low and high flammability are interspersed in arrangements that could impede the spread of landscape fires,” the authors say.

Third, some animals alter their forest landscapes by leaving trails or digging holes. The bare patches of land left behind from these activities can act as fire breaks, the researchers say:

“The physical scale of these features can be substantial. For example, in a montane vegetation complex in Tasmania, 10% or more of the ground surface was covered by animal paths, mostly created by medium-sized macropods [kangaroos and wallabies] and wombats.”

C767C8 Bridled Nailtail Wallaby Onychogalea fraenata Endangered species Photographed in Queensland Australia.

Bridled nailtail wallaby (Onychogalea fraenata), in Queensland, Australia. Credit: Dave Watts/Alamy Stock Photo.

Evidence suggests that, in some parts of the world, the reintroduction of large herbivores appears to have had an impact on wildfire intensity, the researchers say.

For example, earlier research shows that the reintroduction of white rhino to Hluhluwe iMfolozi National Park in South Africa could have impacted the severity of wildfires. White rhinos are thought to be efficient fire suppressors because they graze on tall grass, which can help fires spread between trees.

During an experiment, researchers removed white rhinos from some parts of the park and measured changes to grass height and wildfire size in areas both with and without rhinos.

The research found that fires were significantly larger in sites where rhinos were removed. This is shown in the chart below, where the total area covered by fire during the experiment is shown for areas with (black) and without (white) rhinos in the Hluhluwe and iMfolozi areas of the park.

Line graph showing Impacts of rhino removals on fire size at Hluhluwe and iMfolozi locations. Black represents mean area of each fire with rhinos, and grey the area when rhinos were removed. Source: Waldram et al. (2008)

Impacts of rhino removals on fire size at Hluhluwe and iMfolozi locations. Black represents mean area of each fire with rhinos, and grey the area when rhinos were removed. Source: Waldram et al. (2008)

The research found that, in Hluhluwe, the removal of rhinos from test areas caused fires to increase 50-fold, from 10ha to 500ha, on average. In contrast, the removal of rhinos from test sites in iMfolozi caused fire area to become four times larger. (This could be because, in Hluhluwe, other herbivores were available to graze on tall grass, the authors say.)

These results suggest that reintroducing large herbivores could help to suppress wildfires in other parts of the world, such as in California, says study lead author Prof Christopher Johnson, an ecologist from the University of Tasmania. He tells Carbon Brief:

“There is evidence that climate change is increasing the risk of destructive fires in many parts of the world. Those same changes mean that traditional strategies of fire suppression and prevention work less well. Large herbivores – and some other animals – can stabilise fire regimes, and potentially make fire control more tractable and effective.”

Warming woes

While several papers in the special issue focus on how rewilding could help to address climate change, others explore how global warming could impact the success of existing rewilding projects.

In an opinion article, two scientists from the University of Zurich argue that climate change is likely to impact the success of rewilding projects involving giant tortoises on islands in the Indian Ocean.

Many different species of giant tortoise were once widespread across islands worldwide, including in Mauritius, the Galapagos and the Canary Islands. However, the arrival of humans to these islands saw many giant tortoises hunted to extinction.

The disappearance of giant tortoises is thought to have had detrimental impacts on islands, including the conversion of freshwater wetlands into bogs. This is because, like other large herbivores, giant tortoises act as long-distance seed dispersers.

To combat these changes, a rewilding programme was started in 2000 on Ile aux Aigrettes, a 25-hectare island off the coast of Mauritius. The programme introduced dozens of Aldabra giant tortoises, a close living relative to the extinct Mauritius giant tortoise.

HNNJ6J An Aldabra giant tortoise in a grazing area on Grand Terre Island.

An Aldabra giant tortoise in a grazing area on Grand Terre Island. Credit: National Geographic Image Collection/Alamy Stock Photo.

Research shows that the reintroduction brought benefits to the island, including by boosting numbers of endangered ebony trees, which rely on the animals for seed dispersal.

However, climate change could impact the success of projects using tortoises, the researchers say. This is because tortoises are “ectothermic” reptiles – meaning they rely on their external environment to regulate their body temperature.

The reliance of tortoises on their external climate means that even small increases in temperature could threaten their survival, the researchers say:

“They are often rewilded to habitats that are at least seasonally dry, where the ability to successfully maintain their water balance can depend on very small margins.”

Tigers, lions and donkeys

fourth paper in the special issue takes a look at how future climate change could impact where rewilding could be carried out across the globe for 17 different species.


RCP2.6: The RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways) are scenarios of future concentrations of greenhouse gases and other forcings. RCP2.6 (also sometimes referred to as “RCP3-PD”) is a “peak and decline” scenario where stringent mitigation… Read More

Using current species distribution models and future climate projections, the researchers created maps showing where the climate could be suitable for each species at present (1950-2000) and in 2070.

The researchers use two scenarios for their projections, including a scenario with relatively low global emissions (“RCP2.6”) and a scenario with relatively high emissions (“RCP8.5”).

All of the species chosen for the analysis are suggested candidates for rewilding projects, the researchers say.

RCP8.5: The RCPs (Representative Concentration Pathways) are scenarios of future concentrations of greenhouse gases and other forcings. RCP8.5 is a scenario of “comparatively high greenhouse gas emissions“ brought about by rapid population growth,… Read More

These include tigers, lions, leopards and cheetahs. These apex predators could have a positive impact on habitats by regulating numbers of their prey, researchsuggests.

Other animals on the list include several large herbivores, including muskox and red deer – which could play a role in maintaining Arctic tundra – and donkeys, which are known to dig wells that are used by other species.

The maps below show the current distribution of land that would provide a suitable habitat for the 17 different species. On the maps, white shows no suitability, warm colours show high suitability, while dark colours show a low, but present, suitability.

17 maps showing Global distribution of suitable habitat for 17 rewilding candidates at present day. White shows no suitability, warm colours show high suitability, while dark colours show a low, but present, suitability. Click on image to expand. Source: Jarvie and Svenning (2018)

Global distribution of suitable habitat for 17 rewilding candidates at present day. White shows no suitability, warm colours show high suitability, while dark colours show a low, but present, suitability. Click on image to expand. Source: Jarvie and Svenning (2018)

The results show that, for many of the chosen species, the current range of suitable habitat across the world is much larger than the range in which they actually live. The results are instead more reflective of the animals’ prehistoric ranges, the researchers say.

The maps also show that, at present, many of parts of Australia could offer a suitable habitat for elephants and rhinos, the authors say:

“For suggested conservation introductions, regions of climatic suitability were predicted for both elephant species in most of Australia, parts of southern Europe and the Americas.”

The map below shows the distribution of suitable habitat for each species in 2070 under a high emissions scenario.

Global distribution of suitable habitat for 17 rewilding candidates at 2070 under a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5). White shows no suitability, warm colours show high suitability, while dark colours show a low, but present, suitability. Click on image to expand. Source: Jarvie and Svenning (2018)

Global distribution of suitable habitat for 17 rewilding candidates at 2070 under a high emissions scenario (RCP8.5). White shows no suitability, warm colours show high suitability, while dark colours show a low, but present, suitability. Click on image to expand. Source: Jarvie and Svenning (2018)

The results show that, for many species, the total amount of area with a suitable climate remains relatively similar from present to 2070 under both the low and high emissions scenario.

However, the total amount of land suitable fell for other species, including African and Asian elephants, white and black rhinos and muskox and tapirs. For tigers, climate suitability fell in the Indian subcontinent – which has been earmarked as a key area for tiger conservation.

Multiple authors (2018) Trophic rewilding: consequences for ecosystems under global change, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/373/1761

Sharelines from this story
  • In-depth: Could ‘rewilding’ help to tackle climate change?
  • In-depth: How reintroducing large animals to ecosystems could tackle global warming


Is meat’s climate impact too hot for politicians?

  • 14 October 2018

Media captionFive things we can do to help prevent global temperatures rising more than 1.5C

Just a week after scientists said huge cuts in carbon emissions were needed to protect the climate, a UK minister has shown just how hard that will be.

Scientists say we ought to eat much less meat because the meat industry causes so many carbon emissions.

But the climate minister Claire Perry has told BBC News it is not the government’s job to advise people on a climate-friendly diet.

She would not even say whether she herself would eat less meat.

Ms Perry has been accused by Friends of the Earth of a dereliction of duty. They say ministers must show leadership on this difficult issue.

But the minister – who is personally convinced about the need to tackle climate change – is anxious to avoid accusations of finger-wagging.

Why Ms Perry wants to protect steak and chips

She said: “I like lots of local meat. I don’t think we should be in the business of prescribing to people how they should run their diets.”

When asked whether the Cabinet should set an example by eating less beef (which has most climate impact), she said: “I think you’re describing the worst sort of Nanny State ever.

“Who would I be to sit there advising people in the country coming home after a hard day of work to not have steak and chips?… Please…”

Ms Perry refused even to say whether she agreed with scientists’ conclusions that meat consumption needed to fall.

A dereliction of duty?

Craig Bennett from Friends of the Earth responded: “The evidence is now very clear that eating less meat could be one of the quickest ways to reduce climate pollution.

“Reducing meat consumption will also be good for people’s health and will free up agricultural land to make space for nature.

SteakImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES

“It’s a complete no-brainer, and it’s a dereliction of duty for government to leave the job of persuading people to eat less meat to the green groups.”

He said the government could launch information campaigns, change diets in schools and hospitals, or offer financial incentives.

Ms Perry said: “What I do think we need to do is look at the whole issue of agricultural emissions and do a lot more tree planting.

“But if you and I eat less meat, with all the flatulent sheep in Switzerland and flatulent cows in the Netherlands – that will just be wiped out in a moment. Let’s work on the technology to solve these problems at scale.”

She said instead of cutting down on meat, we could use (hugely expensive) equipment that sucks CO2 out of the atmosphere.

Supper with the Perry family

Ms Perry said later that her own typical family meal is not steak and chips, but a stir-fry, which brings the taste and texture of meat into a dish dominated by vegetables. But she did not want to say this on camera.

She agreed it was appropriate for the government to advise people on healthy diets because the obesity epidemic is costing taxpayers more in health bills, but implied that this principle did not apply when considering the health of the planet.

Her fear of being condemned in the media as a bossy politician highlights the difficulty of the next phase of climate change reductions.

Until now, 75% of CO2 reductions in the UK have come from cleaning up the electricity sector. Many people have barely noticed the change.

Will the climate battle get personal?

Experts generally agree that for healthy lives and a healthy planet, the battle over climate change will have to get personal.

That could mean people driving smaller cars, walking and cycling more, flying less, buying less fast fashion, wearing a sweater in winter… and eating less meat.

People will still live good lives, they say, but they’ll have to make a cultural shift.

If governments do not feel able to back those messages, they say, the near impossible task of holding global temperature rise to 1.5C will become even more difficult.

Ms Perry’s comments came as she launched Green GB week, which aims to show how the UK can increase the economy while also cutting emissions.

She will formally ask advisers how Britain can cut emissions to zero.

Trump’s failure to fight climate change is a crime against humanity

Trump administration dismisses EPA scientists 02:35

Jeffrey Sachs is a professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.

(CNN)President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Rick Scott, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, and others who oppose action to address human-induced climate change should be held accountable for climate crimes against humanity. They are the authors and agents of systematic policies that deny basic human rights to their own citizens and people around the world, including the rights to life, health, and property. These politicians have blood on their hands, and the death toll continues to rise.

Trump remains in willful denial of the thousands of deaths caused by his government’s inept, under-funded, and under-motivated response to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico last year. The image that will remain in history is of the President gleefully throwing paper towels for a photo op as the people of Puerto Rico around him suffered and died of neglect. Last month, Hurricane Florence claimed at least 48 deaths, with more likely to come in its aftermath. This past week Hurricane Michael has claimed at least 32 lives, with more than a thousand people reportedly still missing. The final death toll will likely soar in the months ahead as the residual consequences of the storm become more clear.
As the Earth warms due to the continued burning of coal, oil, and gas, climate-related disasters that include high-intensity hurricanes, floods, droughts, extreme precipitation, forest fires, and heat waves, pose rising dangers to life and property. Hurricanes become more destructive as warmer ocean waters feed more energy to the storms. Warmer air also carries more moisture for devastating rainfalls, while rising sea levels lead to more flooding.
Yet Trump and his minions are the loyal servants of the fossil-fuel industry, which fill Republican partycampaign coffers. Trump has also stalled the fight against climate change by pulling out of the Paris Agreement. The politicians thereby deprive the people of their lives and property out of profound cynicism, greed, and willful scientific ignorance.
The first job of government is to protect the public. Real protection requires climate action on several fronts: educating the public about the growing dire risks of human-induced climate change; enacting legislation and regulations to ensure that families and businesses are kept out of harm’s way, for example by stopping construction in flood plains, and investing in sustainable infrastructure to counteract rising sea levels; anticipating the rising frequency of high-intensity climate-related disasters through science-based preparedness following through on properly scaled disaster-response during and after storm events; and most importantly for the future, spearheading the rapid transition to zero-carbon energy to prevent much greater calamities in the years ahead.
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This straightforward to-do list is the opposite of what Trump and his cronies are doing. Trump blithely disregards scientific findings about climate change and thereby exposes the nation to unprecedented risks. The officials he has appointed to the Environmental Protection Agency and other relevant parts of government are industry cronies and lobbyists far more interested in self-enrichment, padding their accounts, and helping their once-and-future employers than in doing their current jobs.
Trump’s mishandling of last year’s Puerto Rico disaster in the wake of Hurricane Maria is grounds itself for impeachment and trial. Thousands of citizens died unnecessarily on Trump’s watch because the administration could not be stirred to proper action before, during, and after the hurricane.
Two independent, detailed epidemiological studies, using different methodologies — one led by researchers at Harvard University and the other by researchers at George Washington University— have estimated that thousands died in the aftermath of Maria.
While dozens died during the storm, thousands more died as a result of the residual effects of the storm. Maria downed electricity and wreaked havoc on the ability of Puerto Ricans to meet their life-sustaining needs by disrupting access to health services, safe water, and transportation. They died, in short, from the storm, and ultimately from inadequate disaster prevention, preparedness and response.
Yet when the George Washington University study was released in September, the President responded by saying, “I think we did a fantastic job” in Puerto Rico. He brazenly denied the death count, without any attempt whatsoever to understand or learn from the findings.
Recent scientific studies underscore the dire emergency ahead. Professor James Hansen, one of the world’s leading climatologists, has demonstrated that the Earth’s climate has moved above the temperature range that supported the entire 10,000 years of civilization. The risks of catastrophic sea level rise are upon us. A group of world-leading ecologists recently highlighted that critical Earth systems could spiral out of control. The Nobel-prize winning Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has also just released a harrowing report showing that the world has just a few years left to move decisively towards renewable energy if it hopes to achieve the globally agreed target to limit warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average temperature of the planet.
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The huge bills for Hurricanes Florence and Michael will now start rolling in: funerals, suffering, sorting through debris, and perhaps $30 billion in losses that could have been reduced dramatically through science-based planning and foresight. The American people are paying a heavy cost for the cynicism and cruelty of politicians in the pocket of the fossil-fuel industry. It is time to hold these reckless politicians to account.

The ideal diet to combat climate change: Plant-based diets better for planet, study says


Sean Gallup/Getty Images
Fresh fruits and vegetables lie on display at a Spanish producer’s stand at the Fruit Logistica agricultural trade fair on Feb. 8, 2017, in Berlin, Germany.

(CNN) – You may be aware that a plant-based diet can make you healthier by lowering your risk for obesity, heart disease and Type 2 diabetes. Now, a study suggests there’s another good reason to regularly eat meatless meals. By filling your plate with plant foods instead of animal foods, you can help save the planet.

The study, published last week in the journal Nature, found that as a result of population growth and the continued consumption of Western diets high in red meats and processed foods, the environmental pressures of the food system could increase by up to 90% by 2050, “exceeding key planetary boundaries that define a safe operating space for humanity beyond which Earth’s vital ecosystems could become unstable,” according to study author Marco Springmann of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food at the University of Oxford.

“It could lead to dangerous levels of climate change with higher occurrences of extreme weather events, affect the regulatory function of forest ecosystems and biodiversity … and pollute water bodies such that it would lead to more oxygen-depleted dead zones in oceans,” Springmann said.

“If the whole world, which continues to grow, eats more like us, the impacts are staggering, and the planet simply can’t withstand it,” said Sharon Palmer, a registered dietitian nutritionist and plant-based food and sustainability expert in Los Angeles who was not involved in the new research.

Sustaining a healthier planet will require halving the amount of food loss and waste, and improving farming practices and technologies. But it will also require a shift toward more plant-based diets, according to Springmann.

As Palmer noted, “research consistently shows that drastically reducing animal food intake and mostly eating plant foods is one of the most powerful things you can do to reduce your impact on the planet over your lifetime, in terms of energy required, land used, greenhouse gas emissions, water used and pollutants produced.”

How a meat-based diet negatively affects the environment

It might come as a surprise, but Springmann’s study found that the production of animal products generates the majority of food-related greenhouse-gas emissions — specifically, up to 78% of total agricultural emissions.

This, he explained, is due to manure-related emissions, to their “low feed-conversion efficiencies” (meaning cows and other animals are not efficient in converting what they eat into body weight) and to enteric fermentation in ruminants, a process that takes place in a cow’s stomach when it digests food that leads to methane emissions.

The feed-related impacts of animal products also contribute to freshwater use and pressures on cropland, as well as nitrogen and phosphorus application, which over time could lead to dead zones in oceans, low-oxygen areas where few organisms can survive, according to Springmann.

For an example of how animal foods compare with plant-based foods in terms of environmental effects, consider that “beef is more than 100 times as emissions-intensive as legumes,” Springmann said. “This is because a cow needs, on average, 10 kilograms of feed, often from grains, to grow 1 kilogram of body weight, and that feed will have required water, land and fertilizer inputs to grow.”

In addition, cows emit the potent greenhouse gas methane during digestion, which makes cows and other ruminants such as sheep especially high-emitting.

Other animal foods have lower impacts because they don’t produce methane in their stomachs and require less feed than cows, Springmann explained. For example, cows emit about 10 times more greenhouse gases per kilogram of meat than pigs and chickens, which themselves emit about 10 times more than legumes.

Like animals, plants also require inputs from the environment in order to grow, but the magnitude is significantly less, Springmann explained.

“In today’s agricultural system, we grow plants to feed animals, which require all of those resources and inputs: land, water, fossil fuels, pesticides, herbicides and fertilizer to grow. And then we feed plants to animals and care for them over their lifetime, while they produce methane and manure,” Palmer said.

Adopting more plant-based diets for ourselves could reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of the food system by more than half, according to the Nature study. A mainly plant-based diet could also reduce other environmental impacts, such as those from fertilizers, and save up to quarter use of both farmland and fresh water, according to Springmann.

Palmer explained that “legumes [or pulses], such as beans, lentils and peas are the most sustainable protein source on the planet. They require very small amounts of water to grow, they can grow in harsh, dry climates, they grow in poor nations, providing food security, and they act like a natural fertilizer, capturing nitrogen from the air and fixing it in the soil. Thus, there is less need for synthetic fertilizers. These are the types of protein sources we need to rely upon more often.”

Flexitarian: The healthy compromise for you and the planet

Experts agree that if you are not ready to give up meat entirely, a flexitarian diet, which is predominantly plant-based, can help. This diet includes plenty of fruits, vegetables and plant-based protein sources including legumes, soybeans and nuts, along with modest amounts of poultry, fish, milk and eggs, and small amounts of red meat.

Vegetarian and vegan diets would result in even lower greenhouse gas emissions, but a flexitarian diet “is the least stringent that is both healthy and would reduce greenhouse gas emissions enough for us to stay within environmental limits,” according to Springmann.

Palmer said that “although vegan diets, followed by vegetarian diets, are linked with the lowest environmental impacts, not everyone is interested in taking on those lifestyles. But everyone can eat more of a flexitarian diet. It doesn’t mean that you have to give up meat completely, but you significantly reduce your intake of it.”

Registered dietitian nutritionist Dawn Jackson Blatner described it this way: “A flexitarian is really someone who wakes up with the intention of being more vegetarian. It’s different from vegetarian in that there is some flexibility.”

More: https://www.wsls.com/health/the-ideal-diet-to-combat-climate-change