Meating In The Middle: The Challenge of Lowering Greenhouse Gas Emissions On Farms

Originally published on May 20, 2019 7:33 am

Cow guts are quite the factory. Grass goes in, microbes help break it down and make hydrogen, then other microbes start converting it to another gas. In the end, you get methane, manure and meat.

One of those things is not like the other. Methane emissions are considered the second-worst greenhouse gas after carbon dioxide, according to Stanford University professor Rob Jackson.

Agriculture is the leading producer of methane emissions in the U.S., with animal digestion producing almost as much as oil and gas operations. So, one way to reduce that is to just stop eating beef, right? That’s what researchers near and far believe, including Paul West at the University of Minnesota.

“As an individual, one of the biggest effects that we can have [to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture] is changing what we’re eating to eating a smaller amount of beef,” said West, who is co-director and lead scientist of the Global Landscapes Initiative, which aims to balance future food needs with ag sustainability.

However, West and Jackson also advocate for sustainable agriculture systems to mitigate climate change. Just don’t go getting rid of all those gassy ruminants. They’re likely a key part.

Various seedlings sprouted by the dozens in early May on PrairiErth Farm near Atlanta, Illinois.

Beefing up on sustainability

Molly is not one to be left behind.

The old Great Pyrenees followed Dave Bishop’s Gator as he drove around his 350-acre operation called PrairiErth Farm. Here, Oreo cows coexist with all kinds of crops and vegetables either coming up in the fields or in hoop houses. And the friendly relationship between his two chickens and the cat? “It’s just not right!” he said, smiling and chuckling.

Dave Bishop stands in one of his hoop houses, which was heating up in the sunshine.

In the mid-20th century, U.S. farms used to look a lot more like Bishop’s, but many were sold or consolidated as farmers looked to economies of scale to stay afloat.

Bishop bought this land in central Illinois as the ’80s farm crisis set in. But it was the 1988 drought that forced him to change his farm’s makeup.

“Everything burned up in the field and it became pretty apparent that we had to do something differently then,” he said. “So we just began looking for things to reduce costs. If I have livestock, I can generate some more fertility. If I have more than just corn and soybeans to sell, I have more diverse marketing opportunities.”

He’s turned to regenerative agriculture, which means creating a sustainable farming operation that isn’t too hard on the landscape and involves everything from cover crops to diverse crop rotations to drainage water management.

Climate change is a real concern of his, as is staying economically sound. That’s why he says any regenerative farm system needs to integrate animals and shift toward diversity in plants and livestock.

West also mentioned the need for crop diversity, saying that large-scale corn production is an issue in the Midwest — and not because farmers are seeing low prices on the billions of bushels grown each year.

“Even though we grow [corn] much more efficiently than a number of places around the world, because corn is a crop that is requiring a tremendous amount of fertilizer …it still affects our climate a lot,” he said.

Dave Bishop only has a few chickens, which roam about near the house and have a friendship with the cat.

Remember the cow methane? Agriculture generates two other problematic greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide and nitrous oxide. The latter is boosted by excess nitrogen fertilizer applications, and is about 300 times more potent than carbon emissions (though it doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon or methane emissions).

The future of agriculture

Researchers are making inroads to reducing the amount of methane individual cows produce, feeding them seaweed or other kinds of supplements. Some are even looking to breed cows that naturally make less methane.

However, the animal’s gut microbes that produce methane also help the animal — cut out too many, and that could be toxic. Because of that, Jackson said, “there is no way, that I can see, where we reduce methane emissions completely.”

There are also some perennial crops on the horizon, like wheat and miscanthus (a grass that could be grown for biofuel), that can sequester more carbon because the root-dense soil won’t need to be disturbed to replant every year. Those will likely take years to be adopted by the agriculture sector, though.

In the meantime, Colorado State University professor Keith Paustian said we know enough to start making a dent in ag emissions.

He helped create some of the first methods to calculate greenhouse gas emissions from country to country. He also helped create the COMET-farm tool, which allows farmers to calculate their own greenhouse gas emissions and recommends ways to reduce them.

While the prospect of land use changes could help farms sequester more carbon emissions than they put off, he said that’s not the only solution for climate change or even reducing agriculture’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Brussels sprout starter plants sit in the sunshine at PrairiErth Farm. Exposing them to wind outside encourages them to grow stronger root systems, according to farmer Dave Bishop.

Bishop at PrairiErth Farm said vilifying cows won’t help when it comes to finding more sustainable agriculture operations, which he said will need both plants and animals. Researchers need to listen to farmers, he said, and farmers need to listen to researchers, too.

Because at the end of the day, he said, it’s about making sure there’s food for the future, “so we’ve got to get this right.”

This story is part of a multi-newsroom collaborative project called “Middle America’s Low-Hanging Carbon: The Search for Greenhouse Gas Cuts from the Grid, Agriculture and Transportation.” The effort, led by nonprofit news organization InsideClimate News, includes 14 newsrooms in the Midwest, and aims to give readers local and regional perspectives on climate change. For more, go to the project page.

Follow Madelyn on Twitter @MadelynBeck8

Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert on the U.N. Extinction Report

While the political tide could be turning on climate change, both writers worry that it is too late.

After years of languishing far down the list of voters’ priorities—for Democrats and even more so for Republicans—the desire for action on climate change has brought this issue to the top of many voters’ concerns, according to a CNN poll. Now Presidential candidates are competing to establish themselves as leaders on the issue, while children are making headlines for striking from school.

Bill McKibben, whose book “The End of Nature” brought the idea of global warming to public consciousness thirty years ago, tells David Remnick that the accumulation of weather catastrophes—droughts, wildfires, floods—may have finally made an impact. McKibben joined Elizabeth Kolbert in a conversation about the U.N.’s new report on species extinction. It finds that a million species could become extinct within a few decades, and that human life itself may be imperilled. While the political tide could be turning, both worry that it is too late.

This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Listen: David Remnick interviews Bill McKibben and Elizabeth Kolbert on The New Yorker Radio Hour.

david remnick: Bill, you wrote “The End of Nature,” which was really the first popular book on climate change, thirty years ago. What are you seeing now in the current moment that’s different from what you’ve seen before? We’ve had so many missed opportunities.

bill mckibben: What’s different about now? Well, one of the things that’s different is it’s much easier to see precisely what’s going on. I mean, thirty years ago we were offering warnings, even ten years ago. It was still a little hard to make out the precise shape of climate change as it started to affect the planet. Now, I mean, you watch as a California city literally called Paradise literally turns into Hell inside half an hour. You know, once people have seen pictures like that, it’s no wonder that we begin to see a real uptick in the response. In the last six months we’ve seen this rise of the demand for a Green New Deal in the Democratic Party. We’ve seen the Extinction Rebellion shut down London, the center of London, for a week, and the Tory-led Parliament and the U.K. declare a climate emergency. And, you know, most poignantly, we’ve watched a few million schoolchildren following the lead of Greta Thunberg, in Sweden, and walking out of classes. It’s not a good sign that we‘re asking twelve-year-olds to solve the problem for us, but it’s good that they’re stepping up.

Do you think that this had to be the case? In other words, that we had to see, say, Guatemala so affected by climate change that thousands of, essentially, climate refugees come to our borders. Or Syria, in many ways, was a product not only of political rebellion but also climate rebellion, in a certain sense. Did this have to be?

mckibben: I don’t think it had to be. I think that we were capable of taking the warnings from science and doing the right thing. I mean, heck, in 1988, Republican President George H. W. Bush announced that he would, quote, “fight the greenhouse effect with the White House effect.” But what happened was a thirty-year, no-holds-barred campaign by the fossil-fuel industry, the richest industry on earth, to confuse and obfuscate and deny and delay, and it‘s been remarkably successful. I mean, thirty years later, the Republican President believes that climate change was a hoax manufactured by the Chinese. So, you know, it’s that thirty years that may turn out to have been the crucial thirty years.

So, just to be clear, you’re blaming the fossil-fuel industry as the singular culprit for these lost thirty years, above all other factors.


Why a Psychiatrist Collected Premonitions

mckibben: Well, you know, it obviously would have been hard to change, because it’s a big problem, but imagine the alternative-history version where—I mean, this is the kind of “Man in the High Castle” approach—where, in 1988, after Jim Hansen testifies before Congress, we now know from great investigative reporting that the big oil companies knew and understood and agreed with that assessment of climate change. If the C.E.O. of Exxon had gone on TV that night and said, “You know what? Our scientists are telling us the same thing.” And that, by the way, is pretty much the least that any moral or ethical system you could come up with would demand, or so it seems to me. If that had happened, no one was going to be running around saying, “Oh, Exxon’s a bunch of climate alarmists, you know, pay them no mind.” We would have gotten to work. And thirty years ago there actually were things that weren’t that hard to do. A modest price on carbon in 1988 or ’89 would have started steering the giant ocean liner that is our economy a few degrees differently, and, thirty years later, we’d be in a different ocean. We didn’t do that. Now all our choices are very tough, and it’s going to require extraordinary political maturity and will to move as quickly as we need to move.

Betsy, I think what Bill is saying is that we’re at a certain kind of tipping point now, a political tipping point, where climate change is concerned, that hadn’t existed before. How do you perceive the politics around climate change at this moment? Because, in many ways, the Trump Administration is proactively making the problem much worse.

elizabeth kolbert: Yes, I think it’s going to be, you know, if we have a history, if we have a future that will look back on this moment, it will be a very interesting moment, because we do have these two extraordinary trends happening simultaneously. As Bill says, there is a lot of energy on the street, and for the first time, you know, you have Democratic candidates competing to be the climate candidate with some very detailed and pretty significant programs to try to wean us off of fossil fuels. At the same time you have just the most remarkably retrograde Administration in Washington, which isn’t just not making progress on these issues but actively rolling back whatever modest progress was made under the Obama Administration. That will take, at a minimum, years to undo that—if we decide to undo it, you know, if you don’t decide to give them another term. And meanwhile, on the ground, just the facts in the air, as it were, are really bad. When Bill wrote “The End of Nature,” I just checked back, and the records, CO2 levels in the atmosphere were approximately three hundred and fifty parts per million. We just hit four hundred and fifteen. So things are going in the wrong direction, and very rapidly.

What does that difference mean, qualitatively, in terms of our lives and the environment?

kolbert: Well, every increment of CO2 that we put up there is a certain amount of warming that you get out at the end of this process, and this sort of general, very, very rough rule of thumb is, if we want to keep average global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius, which has been sort of defined as this threshold that you do not want to cross, this sort of general sense is we really can’t get above four hundred and fifty parts per million. Now we’re really—it’s very, very hard, if you think about how fast we’ve moved from three fifty to four fifteen. Meanwhile, CO2 emissions are increasing every year, they just increased pretty dramatically in 2018, we just got those figures. So it’s pretty hard to come up with a scenario in which we keep things under four hundred and fifty parts per million without, you know, sort of immediately ceasing globally—and this is not just in the U.S., you know—to burn fossil fuels.

Now, why would Donald Trump, who is not an executive in the oil industry, believe something like that global warming is a Chinese hoax? And why, correspondingly, why is a matter of science a matter of partisan politics? You say that the Democratic Party believes X, but a lot of Republicans believe otherwise.

kolbert: Well, this is, as Bill alluded to, this has been kind of a long history of a combination of moneyed interests and political interests colluding, as it were—the word of the hour—to make this issue seem to be one of belief. It has nothing to do with your belief. It has to do with geophysics, and geophysics that have been established for quite some time now. And so how we got into the situation here, the most technologically sophisticated society in history in the world where you still have a lot of people saying—and a lot of people in very high places, like the White House, and also at the head of the E.P.A.—and they’ve put in place, they‘ve taken people out of this, you know, denier complex, and put them into top offices in the federal government. And those guys know exactly what they want to undo, and they are pretty systematically going about doing it. I don’t know—to be honest, with all the noise there is around the Trump Administration, I’m not sure enough attention has been paid to what they’re doing to environmental regulations across the board.

Well, how sincere are they? In other words, those officials, those government officials in the Trump Administration have children and grandchildren, as well. And they have to see what the effects of climate change you’ve seen already—whether it‘s in Central America or Bangladesh, or the air quality in Delhi or Beijing. This is happening already. This is not something that we‘re projecting twenty years, thirty years, fifty years, a hundred years in the future. It is happening now.

kolbert: Well, I would think it would be extremely interesting if you could, in an unguarded moment—I don’t think any of the three of us are getting these guys in an unguarded moment—but to say, you know, how how do you sleep with yourself at night? How do you look at yourself in the mirror? I would love to be able to pose that question now. I think that one of the lessons of the last couple of years, unfortunately, is the capacity for human delusion and self-delusion is limitless. So, you know, it’s possible that you could administer truth serum to these guys and they would still be saying the same thing, because they actually, you know, quote-unquote “believe it.” I honestly don‘t know.

Bill, you made a decision in your life to become not only a writer but an activist. You wrote your book thirty years ago. It had a certain effect. And at a certain point you decided, That’s not enough, that, I have to get out from behind my desk, which is unusual for for most writers who enjoy the kind of solitude of being behind the desk—except when they’re not enjoying it, I guess. What propelled you to do this, and what complications does it cause in your own activity?

mckibben: Well, you know, I miss the solitude of my desk, too. Like most writers, I’m really an introvert. But at a certain point it became clear to me that I had made a mistake, that we were not really engaged in an argument. The argument about climate change was over by the early nineteen-nineties, when scientists had reached a very robust consensus. We’d won the argument. We were just losing the fight, because the fight was not about data and reason and evidence. It was about the thing that fights are always about: money and power. And, I mean, this goes directly to your previous question for Betsy. Look, the richest person in our society is the two Koch brothers taken together, our biggest oil-and-gas barons. They’ve purchased themselves a political party. So we knew we’d never have the money to stand up to that. But sometimes, in human history, organizing, movement-building, is enough to at least start to counterbalance that power. So that’s what we’ve been trying slowly to build over these last decade or so. And now, thank heaven, with those foundations laid, it’s an enormous number of people rushing in to do this work, which might even mean that I can get back to my desk a little more, we’ll see.

Well, what’s so striking about the movement in in large measure is that it’s led very often by kids, by teen-agers. In mid-March, nearly a million and a half kids worldwide went on a climate strike and refused to go to school. You saw this young woman, I think she’s sixteen or so, Greta Thunberg, speak in front of the E.U., in front of other political bodies. The most striking speaker one could ever imagine. Why is this generational shift happening, and what effect is it having?

mckibben: So, young people have been at the forefront of this for quite a while. When we started, it was myself and seven undergraduates here at Middlebury. And I think the reason that young people are so involved is because, well, because, you know, you and I are going to be dead before climate change hits its absolute worst pitch. But if you’re in high school right now, that absolute worst pitch comes right in the prime of your life. And if we’re not able to take hold of this, then those lives will be completely disrupted, and they’ve figured that out. That said, it’s not O.K. for the rest of us to leave it to fourth graders to solve the problem. There’s going to be—keep your eyes peeled, but I think soon there’ll be calls for adult strikes, as it were, to follow and back up the kids, beginning in the autumn. And that makes real sense. You know, it’s at some level business as usual that’s doing us in. The fact that we get up each day and do more or less the same thing that we did the day before. Even while the worst scenario that we’ve seen in our civilization is unfolding, you get a sense of that. I was just looking at the newspapers today. The U.N. just published a truly remarkable report saying that we’re going to lose a million species on the planet sometime over the next few decades. It completely backs up the work that Betsy did so brilliantly in “The Sixth Extinction.” And yet, you know, it’s in the newspapers, but it’s well below the new royal baby and the trade talks with China, and it’s that business as usual that’s literally doing us in. And we have to figure out how to disrupt it a little bit.

Betsy, I hate to be a competitive journalist, but when I read the report about “The Sixth Extinction” in the U.N. report, I said, The New Yorker had that ten years ago, when you published it, in 2009, the very same thing. What is the difference between 2009 and 2019 in terms of the extinction of hundreds of thousands of species on the planet Earth?

kolbert: Well, I think that it’s one of those cases where, as I’m sure Bill would say, you don’t like to see the news bearing out what you said. But, in this case, you know, the only difference is more documented destruction, really. And a lot more studies piled on the ones that were available to us five, ten years ago. But the general trend lines—an accelerating trend line, I do want to say, of human impacts—but the general trend line of biodiversity loss, which has been recognized for quite some time now, it’s all just playing out according to plan, unfortunately. And what this report does, I think, it’s really trying to, (a), raise the alarm, but, (b), really pointing to, there seems to be this strange disconnect, once again, out there. And it’s true that global G.D.P. is larger than ever. And at the same time species loss and destruction of the natural environment, natural world, other species is also greater than ever. And those two things are very intimately linked, and if you only pay attention to the G.D.P. part, you might say, “Oh, everything’s fine.” But I think what the point that this report is really trying to make is, those lines are going to cross. People are still dependent on the natural world—all the oxygen we breathe, all the food we eat, all the water—you know, these are biological and geochemical systems that we’re still dependent on, for better or worse, and we are mucking with them in the most profound ways. I think that that is the message, the take-home message of that report.

In other words, this so-called soaring economy that we’re enjoying now is the worst kind of illusion.

kolbert: Well, once again, it depends on how you measure it. If you measure it by stuff that we’re producing, I don’t want to say it’s an illusion. But if you look at the other side of that, the cost it’s taken on the natural world, everything from land use gobbling up habitat to plastic pollution in the oceans. The list goes on and on and on. And the question of, can you sustain that over time, we haven’t been at this project very long without really wreaking havoc with the systems that sustain us. I mean, there are two issues here. And I think they have to be separated to a certain extent, intellectually if not biologically. And one is, could humans go on like this for quite a long time, just letting the rest of the world decay around us? Is that O.K.? You know, for us as a species to just do in a million or more other species, just because we are enjoying a better and better standard of living, is that O.K.? That’s one question, and then the other question is, can that happen? You know, just physically, are we capable of sustaining this, with all of these other trends going around, or are we really threatening our own life-support systems? And I think this report is suggesting very significantly that we are threatening our own life-support systems. But I think that the other question of the ethical stance that we take toward this is also extremely important.

And yet, for years and years, if you betrayed the fact that you cared about this, you were described as a tree-hugger and mocked.

kolbert: Well, and that’s still true. I mean, we are arguing in this country right now. Even as I speak, and we speak, this goes back to the Trump Administration, and how they’re systematically trying to unravel a lot of very basic environmental protections in this country. We’re going to argue over the Endangered Species Act, which actually has been quite successful, in its own modest way. If you are a species, you get on the list, you have to have a recovery plan, and those species have tended to survive—not necessarily thrive, but survive. And now we’re going to argue about whether we should even be doing that. So these arguments are never-ending and, you know, pitting human welfare against the welfare of everything else, that doesn’t seem like a winning strategy over the long run.

Bill, I was really interested to read that you think that the great climate-change document of our time is by Pope Francis.

mckibben: Well, I think that the encyclical that he wrote three and a half years ago now, “Laudato Si,” it is amazing. Mostly because, though it takes off from climate change, it’s actually a fairly thorough and remarkable critique of modernity. And it talks really about precisely the things that Betsy has been talking about—understanding this as, yes, a problem of physics and of the need to put up a lot of solar panels and wind turbines, which we now can do because the engineers have made them affordable, but also understanding it as a problem of human beings and their relations with each other. As Francis points out, the last forty years, this period of time when we’ve worshipped markets and assumed they solved all problems has not only spiked the temperature through the roof, it’s spiked inequality through the roof. And the two are not unrelated.

How are they related? What is the essential relationship between the two?

mckibben: One of the things I spent some time doing in this new book is kind of teasing out the history that begins with Ayn Rand and kind of reaches a first zenith in the Reagan Administration, in 1980. The idea now in the air that we breathe, literally, that government is the problem, that if you leave corporations alone they’ll get done what needs doing, this reigning ideology came just at the wrong moment. It came at precisely the moment when we actually needed governments to be doing something very strong to deal with climate change. And that combination of ideology and interest has been enough to suppress our reactions in the crucial thirty years.

But have other governments that are less capitalist-oriented been any more successful in tamping down climate change than the United States?

mckibben: Sure. The first thing to be said is that same period was the period when the U.S. was ascendant over the rest of the world, so it held sway to some degree everywhere. But, go to Germany and look at what they did, beginning about 2000, with this law that made it easy for people to put up renewable energy. There will be days this month when Germany generates way more than half the power it uses from the sun, which is saying something, because no one ever went to Germany on a beach vacation, you know. Look at Northern Europe, at Scandinavia. I mean, they’re doing remarkable things. The engineers gave us an enormous gift. They dropped the price of renewable energy ninety per cent in the last decade. In China and India, thank God, that’s resulting now in very, very rapid expansion of renewable energy.

You wrote a wonderful piece for The New Yorker about solar panels in Africa. And yet you’re very—I think both of you are very wary of an excessive emphasis on technological transformation to solve all problems in climate change. Am I right?

mckibben: Well, technology is going to help enormously. We obviously have to produce a lot of electrons, and now we can, with renewable energy, but we can’t do that job—or the job of energy efficiency, or the job of starting to relocalize economies—we can’t do that without mustering political will. The reason that we build movements is not so much to pass particular pieces of legislation. It’s because one tries to change the Zeitgeist, the sense of what is natural and normal and obvious and coming next. And when you win that battle, then legislation follows. We’re getting closer. The polling last week showed that, for Democratic voters, anyway, climate change is now far and away the most important issue going into these primaries. That’s something that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. And it’s a sign that all the movement-building, all the science, all the writing, all the engineering are reaching some kind of head, one hopes not too late.

Betsy, is Silicon Valley on the side of the angels here?

kolbert: Well, I think to the question of, is technology going to save us, which is a very big question, perhaps the question right now, I think one of the things that’s important to think about is, there are a lot of steps that we could take that would potentially mitigate or alleviate climate change that would actually be terrible for other species. So, for example, one of the real tragedies of the last couple of decades has been the transformation of Indonesia into a series of palm-oil plantations, which has really just destroyed habitats for a lot of iconic and non-iconic species, like orangutans, for example. Now, one of the—only one of the drivers behind that, but a driver, was the Europeans deciding that biofuels were good for climate change, which, on some level, they are, but if the cost of that is mowing down the world’s remaining rain forests, then the cure can be as bad as the disease. So one of my fears is that we’re moving into a lot of territory where some of the answers to climate change involve land-use change are good on a climate balance sheet, but they’re terrible on a biodiversity balance sheet. And to make all of these things add up is extremely difficult. And that is why we’re in the situation we’re in, and that is why we got that new report.

Betsy, at the forefront of political conversation where this is concerned is the Green New Deal. What do you make of the proposals, and is it sufficiently specific for you?

kolbert: Well, I think there’s a tremendous amount of thought that went into the Green New Deal, and it’s sort of the very big-tent view of who should be interested in climate change. I think it was very smart in a lot of ways, because one of the things that always happens when you try to use, for example, pricing mechanisms to drive us off of fossil fuels and toward renewable energy is you can get this terrible coalition of polluters and poor people, or people who claim to be campaigning on behalf of low-income Americans, because there’s ways, for example, to do a carbon tax that is revenue-neutral and that’s cost-neutral to people. But there are also ways to play it so that it seems like it’s a regressive tax on the poor. So we need a really big tent to get some of these key pieces of legislation passed, and I think that that’s a very smart aspect of the Green New Deal, that it’s really trying to bring as many people together, a coalition of labor interests, of people working on behalf of income equality, all sorts of causes under the same tent. Now, that being said, to get from here to there, to get to the kind of society that is envisioned in the Green New Deal, which the three of us here might very much agree with, that’s not one political battle, that’s a zillion political battles. So that’s the question, you know, is it better to try to take on all these things at one point, or would it be better to have one single piece of legislation. There is no legislation associated with the Green New Deal. It is really just as a series of aspirational goals at this point.

Bill, how do you see the Green New Deal? Do you see it the same way?

mckibben: I think it’s the first time we’ve had legislation that’s on the same scale as the size of the problem. I mean, look. It’s one of these places where I have to be careful not to be a jerk and say, “Oh if only you listened to me when . . .” Because, as I said before, there were things we could have done at a certain point that were relatively small and easy, but those options are no longer available. Like a modest carbon tax, which still makes perfect sense but by itself is nowhere big enough to get the yield, the savings in carbon emissions that we now desperately need, because we’re talking six, seven per cent a year or more now to try and meet anything like these U.N. goals. Those are enormous, on the bleeding edge of technically possible. So I think it’s really important that the Green New Deal is out there, and I think it’s really important, most of all, that we just keep ramping up pressure on this system to produce something large.

Well that’s why the first reaction to the proposal of a Green New Deal from the President of the United States and people at cpac and the rest was, “They’re going to take away your hamburgers, they’re going to ban cows.” You’re dealing with an opposition that’s working not in the spirit of science or good faith.

mckibben: Right. Which is why it’s probably not worth trying to spend a whole lot of time coming up with a solution that the President’s going to love and enjoy. What we have to do is rally the three-quarters of this country that understands we’re facing a really serious problem. I think that this is going to become one of the issues in this Presidential campaign, because I think everyone’s begun to realize how out of touch Trump is with most voters. It’s a good thing, too, because, David, we’re basically out of Presidential cycles in order to deal with this problem.

How do you mean?

mckibben: Well the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change last November issued their most recent report, and it was by far their most pointed to date. It said if really fundamentally transformative work was not well under way by 2030 then we were not going to catch up with the math of climate change. Physics was going to just be too far ahead in this race. And you know enough about political life in this country or any other to know that a decade is a short period of time—if we want to have anything substantial happening in a decade then we have got to be doing it right away.

Now, there’s a recent CNN poll, Betsy, that shows that Democrats care more about climate change than any other issue in the upcoming election. More than health care, more than gun control, more than impeaching or not impeaching President Trump. Did that surprise you? And do you think that will hold up somehow when it comes time for the campaign to intensify in the debates to happen?

kolbert: I will confess that I was very surprised by that. I mean, you’ve always seen climate change rank, you know, nineteenth, or something like that. And so I think that’s an extraordinary development. And you could argue it’s a positive result, and you could argue, oh, my God, that’s the scariest thing I’ve ever heard, because it does suggest that people are really seeing changes in their own lives that they find very frightening. And I think that, to get back to your point of, do the Koch brothers have grandchildren, I mean, people look at their kids. You know, I certainly do, and all the kids who are out on the street and say, “What is the world going to look like?” You know, twenty or thirty years from now, when my kids are my age—it’s scary and it’s depressing and it makes you ashamed. I mean, how could we leave a world like this to our children? I think increasing numbers of people are feeling that.

I guess they don‘t have to look very far. If you were to visit Delhi and try to breathe, if you go to Beijing or Shanghai and try to breathe, or try to be a farmer in Central America, or exist in Bangladesh, it’s not that hard to figure out it’s no longer a speculative matter, is it?

kolbert: No. And I mean, you don’t have to go as far as Bangladesh. You can go to Miami or you can go to New Orleans, you can go to, to be honest, you can go to New York City. All of these major American cities that are going to be dealing and already are dealing with sea-level rise, and a lot of places are dealing with storms that they never saw. We’re seeing tremendous flooding right now in the Mississippi, which probably has a climate fingerprint on it. So almost everywhere you go in this country, farmers are grappling with it in the U.S., you know, what is the weather going to be like. It’s changing the crops you can grow. So all of these things do have a bearing on how people see the world, which, as I say, is fortunate in some ways, but very scary in another.

Bill, in the financial crisis of 2009, as discussed, very often people say, Well, why didn’t anybody go to jail? Why didn’t anybody from various offending institutions, banks, or the like go to jail? I never hear that when it comes to the fossil-fuel industries in the late eighties and nineties.

mckibben: Well, people are really beginning to talk at least about trying to hold those companies financially accountable. As you know, the New York state attorney general is suing Exxon on the grounds that it lied to investors. New York City is suing the oil companies on the grounds that their product produced a knowable and foreseeable harm in terms of the sea-level rise. The city is now spending billions to try and cope with it. This is happening now around the country and around the world. The clearest analogy probably is to the tobacco wars of the previous generation. In fact, the oil industry hired veterans of the tobacco wars and the DDT wars to try and pull the same trick here. And they did it with, sadly, great power. That’s what happens when you have the biggest industry in the world all in behind the most consequential lie in human history.

You know, for nearly twenty years that I’ve been working together with Betsy, the running joke between us is about Betsy’s pessimism, which is well-founded, but we managed to joke about it anyway. And Bill, early on in “Falter,” your new book, you write, “There is one sense in which I am less grim than in my younger days. This book ends with the conviction that resistance to these dangers is at least possible.” And I sense in both of you, each in your own way, and it might be different, but each in your own way, some sense of hope is informing your work now, in 2019, the way it might not have five years ago. Am I right, Betsy?

kolbert: I’ll play my usual role here: Eeyore. I do see glimmers of hope on a political front but it’s sort of like mountains after mountains after mountains. And I think, as they say, the facts on the ground, climate change, the thing that distinguishes it from a lot of other environmental problems is it’s cumulative. It’s not something where you can say, at the moment you don’t like things, let’s undo them and have a chance of undoing them. There’s a lot of time lag in the system, there’s a lot of inertia in the system.

The system, meaning science?

kolbert: No, in the climate system. So we have not yet experienced the full impact of the greenhouse gases we have already put up there. And once we do, you know, in whatever, a decade or so, there’s a sort of a long tail to that, we will have put up that much more. So we’re always chasing this problem, and you can’t decide— once we decide “Oh, we really don’t like this climate,” you don’t get the old climate back for, you know, many, many, many generations. So we are fighting a very very, very uphill battle. And I think the point that Bill has made, and I agree with it, is maybe we can avoid the worst possible future. But I don’t think at this point we can avoid a lot, a lot, a lot of damage.

And we’ve been seeing it already.

kolbert: And we’re seeing it, but it’s just beginning. And it’s not just beginning and then we can turn it around, it’s just beginning and a lot more is built in.

What can be held back, Bill, and what can’t be held back at this point?

mckibben: Well, look, Betsy’s right. The problem with climate change is that it’s a timed test, and if you don’t solve it, it’s really the first timed test like this we’ve ever had. And if you don’t solve it fast then you don’t solve it. No one’s got a plan for refreezing the Arctic once it’s melted, and we‘ve lost now seventy or eighty per cent of the summer sea ice in the Arctic. So that’s a tipping point more or less crossed. The oceans are thirty per cent more acidic than they used to. So we’re not playing for stopping climate change. We’re playing maybe for being able to slow it down to the point where it doesn’t make civilizations impossible. That’s an open question. There are scientists who tell you we’re already past that point. The consensus, at least for the moment, is that we’ve got a narrow and closing window, but that if we move with everything we have, then, perhaps, we’ll be able to squeeze a fair amount of our legacy through it. But Betsy is right, an already very difficult century is going to become a lot harder no matter what we do. It’s at this point trying to keep it from becoming not a difficult and even miserable century but a literally impossible one.

You’ve both expressed your admiration for some of the movements that are generated by younger people. Are there any politicians that are running for President at the moment with whom any hope can reside where this is concerned?

mckibben: Well, from my point of view, we need this time all the at least Democratic candidates to be climate candidates. And there’s some very good people who know a lot about climate running. Jay Inslee, say, and others who are doing a terrific job of talking about it in powerful ways. Elizabeth Warren’s plan on public lands is great. Bernie [Sanders] in many ways got this conversation started on a national level in the last Presidential election. I think it’s probably in the end maybe less important precisely who the President is than what the atmosphere is like, what the Zeitgeist is like. That will push them enormously in the right direction. That’s why people have got to be working on the Presidential campaign, but that can’t be all or even most of what we’re doing, at least for the next six months or so. There’s a lot of other organizing to get done. And you can tell, I mean, here’s the hopeful case, if you want it. Fifty years ago next spring, we had the first Earth Day, in 1970. Twenty million people, one in ten of the then American population, went into the street. Now Earth Day is kind of a nice day in the park, whatever. Then a lot of those people were angry, and that anger transformed the flavor of this issue in America over the next four years. Richard Nixon, who had not an environmental bone in his body, signed every piece of legislation on which we still depend, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act that Betsy described is now under siege. Those all came because of that outpouring of public energy that shifted the Zeitgeist. We’d better do it again. And in spades.

Now, Betsy, we’ve been talking for a while as if the only political force that’s involved here is the United States. And right-wing populism has swept not only the United States, the executive branch of United States and the Senate, but you see this all over the world. Is right-wing populism in concert with anti-environmentalism globally?

kolbert: Well, they they do tend to go hand in hand. They have tended to go hand in hand, and one of the strains to all of this, and it does get back to some of the points that Bill was making about this peculiar moment that we have lived through and live in, is climate change is a global problem. The atmosphere is the global commons. There’s just no getting around it. The atmosphere doesn’t care where the carbon was emitted, it just cares that it was emitted. And so you do need global coöperation and global action. And at precisely this moment where nothing could be more important we are seeing a resurgent nationalism. Coincidence? You know, possibly, but it is possibly also a lot of anxiety around how are we going to deal with this global problem.

And I don’t see when you look at all of the global politics involved, you know, putting even aside American politics for the moment, which are very hard to see beyond.

But that’s why I say it’s one of these problems where you scale one mountain and then you see, you know, another mountain chain ahead of you, unfortunately.

Elizabeth Kolbert, Bill McKibben—authors of really the essential works on climate change these last thirty years. Thank you so much.

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Grey whales free after beaching in Delta, B.C.’s, Boundary Bay

Fisheries and Oceans Canada, Vancouver Aquarium helped get animals free

A photo from the scene on Friday shows several people in the water of Boundary Bay, B.C., near the animals. (David Houston/Facebook)


It just might be the happiest whale tale since Free Willy: a pair of grey whales stranded on the low-tide mudflats of Boundary Bay in B.C.’s Lower Mainland have escaped.

A rescue effort sprang into action Friday afternoon after the two whales — a mother and a calf — became beached near Centennial Park in Boundary Bay in Delta about a 40 minute drive south of Vancouver.

Fisheries and Oceans Canada led the effort with refloatation devices — large, inflatable airbags to lift the animals up — and a vessel. The Vancouver Aquarium was also on scene to handle any medical setbacks the animals may have suffered.

“It’s absolutely fantastic,” said Martin Haulena, the Vancouver Aquarium’s head veterinarian. “A very, very good ending.”

Haulena said the animals got stuck at approximately 2 p.m. PT. They were freed by about 6:30 p.m.

Fortunately for them, the tide was coming in to help their escape. A cheer rose from about 100 assembled onlookers as the whales began to move freely, flapping their fins.

Watch as the whales begin to right themselves in the rising tide:

CBC News Vancouver at 6
Whales get free in Delta, B.C.

00:00 00:34

After being stranded for much of Friday afternoon, a grey whale and her calf start to right themselves in the rising tide of Boundary Bay. 0:34

Dangerous position

Haulena said Boundary Bay — a wide, shallow bay straddling the Canada-U.S. border — is a place where grey whales could easily get stranded.

He described the animals as bottom feeders: they skim along the ocean floor filtering organisms from the sandy bottom through their mouths. He thinks they were likely foraging when the tide went out and became stuck.

As the tide rolled in the whales began to flap their fins and get free. (CBC)

Once out of the water, he continued, their large bodies put them in danger.

“They were never designed to bear weight,” he explained. “That can compress their lungs. They can’t breathe right. Their circulation gets very altered … it’s a very big deal potentially.”

He added that the whales are not out of the woods yet.

If they were injured too severely by their ordeal, they may still die.

Rash of beachings

Friday’s dramatic scene is one that has been happening all over the west coast of North America this year as an unusual number of grey whales have become stranded and died on their migration from their southern calving waters in Mexico to their northern feeding waters.

Some researchers are pointing to a lack of food as the cause.

Haulena said beachings tend to happen cyclically, with some years being worse than others, but agreed the population may be exhausting its food sources.

Humans Are Speeding Extinction and Altering the Natural World at an ‘Unprecedented’ Pace

Fishing nets and ropes are a frequent hazard for olive ridley sea turtles, seen on a beach in India’s Kerala state in January. A new 1,500-page report by the United Nations is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe.CreditSoren Andersson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Fishing nets and ropes are a frequent hazard for olive ridley sea turtles, seen on a beach in India’s Kerala state in January. A new 1,500-page report by the United Nations is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe.CreditCreditSoren Andersson/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

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WASHINGTON — Humans are transforming Earth’s natural landscapes so dramatically that as many as one million plant and animal species are now at risk of extinction, posing a dire threat to ecosystems that people all over the world depend on for their survival, a sweeping new United Nations assessment has concluded.

The 1,500-page report, compiled by hundreds of international experts and based on thousands of scientific studies, is the most exhaustive look yet at the decline in biodiversity across the globe and the dangers that creates for human civilization. A summary of its findings, which was approved by representatives from the United States and 131 other countries, was released Monday in Paris. The full report is set to be published this year.

Its conclusions are stark. In most major land habitats, from the savannas of Africa to the rain forests of South America, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century. With the human population passing 7 billion, activities like farming, logging, poaching, fishing and mining are altering the natural world at a rate “unprecedented in human history.”

At the same time, a new threat has emerged: Global warming has become a major driver of wildlife decline, the assessment found, by shifting or shrinking the local climates that many mammals, birds, insects, fish and plants evolved to survive in.

Cattle grazing on a tract of illegally cleared Amazon forest in Pará State, Brazil. In most major land habitats, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Cattle grazing on a tract of illegally cleared Amazon forest in Pará State, Brazil. In most major land habitats, the average abundance of native plant and animal life has fallen by 20 percent or more, mainly over the past century.CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times

The report is not the first to paint a grim portrait of Earth’s ecosystems. But it goes further by detailing how closely human well-being is intertwined with the fate of other species.

“For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services,which conducted the assessment at the request of national governments. “But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.“

A previous report by the group had estimated that, in the Americas, nature provides some $24 trillion of non-monetized benefits to humans each year. The Amazon rain forest absorbs immense quantities of carbon dioxide and helps slow the pace of global warming. Wetlands purify drinking water. Coral reefs sustain tourism and fisheries in the Caribbean. Exotic tropical plants form the basis of a variety of medicines.

But as these natural landscapes wither and become less biologically rich, the services they can provide to humans have been dwindling.

Humans are producing more food than ever, but land degradation is already harming agricultural productivity on 23 percent of the planet’s land area, the new report said. The decline of wild bees and other insects that help pollinate fruits and vegetables is putting up to $577 billion in annual crop production at risk. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.

The authors note that the devastation of nature has become so severe that piecemeal efforts to protect individual species or to set up wildlife refuges will no longer be sufficient. Instead, they call for “transformative changes” that include curbing wasteful consumption, slimming down agriculture’s environmental footprint and cracking down on illegal logging and fishing.

“It’s no longer enough to focus just on environmental policy,” said Sandra M. Díaz, a lead author of the study and an ecologist at the National University of Córdoba in Argentina. “We need to build biodiversity considerations into trade and infrastructure decisions, the way that health or human rights are built into every aspect of social and economic decision-making.”

Scientists have cataloged only a fraction of living creatures, some 1.3 million; the report estimates there may be as many as 8 million plant and animal species on the planet, most of them insects. Since 1500, at least 680 species have blinked out of existence, including the Pinta giant tortoise of the Galápagos Islands and the Guam flying fox.

Though outside experts cautioned it could be difficult to make precise forecasts, the report warns of a looming extinction crisis, with extinction rates currently tens to hundreds of times higher than they have been in the past 10 million years.

“Human actions threaten more species with global extinction now than ever before,” the report concludes, estimating that “around 1 million species already face extinction, many within decades, unless action is taken.”

Unless nations step up their efforts to protect what natural habitats are left, they could witness the disappearance of 40 percent of amphibian species, one-third of marine mammals and one-third of reef-forming corals. More than 500,000 land species, the report said, do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.

Over the past 50 years, global biodiversity loss has primarily been driven by activities like the clearing of forests for farmland, the expansion of roads and cities, logging, hunting, overfishing, water pollution and the transport of invasive species around the globe.

In Indonesia, the replacement of rain forest with palm oil plantations has ravaged the habitat of critically endangered orangutans and Sumatran tigers. In Mozambique, ivory poachers helped kill off nearly 7,000 elephants between 2009 and 2011 alone. In Argentina and Chile, the introduction of the North American beaver in the 1940s has devastated native trees (though it has also helped other species thrive, including the Magellanic woodpecker).

All told, three-quarters of the world’s land area has been significantly altered by people, the report found, and 85 percent of the world’s wetlands have vanished since the 18th century.

And with humans continuing to burn fossil fuels for energy, global warming is expected to compound the damage. Roughly 5 percent of species worldwide are threatened with climate-related extinction if global average temperatures rise 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels, the report concluded. (The world has already warmed 1 degree.)

“If climate change were the only problem we were facing, a lot of species could probably move and adapt,” Richard Pearson, an ecologist at the University College of London, said. “But when populations are already small and losing genetic diversity, when natural landscapes are already fragmented, when plants and animals can’t move to find newly suitable habitats, then we have a real threat on our hands.”

Volunteers collected trash in March in a mangrove forest in Brazil. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.CreditAmanda Perobelli/Reuters

Volunteers collected trash in March in a mangrove forest in Brazil. The loss of mangrove forests and coral reefs along coasts could expose up to 300 million people to increased risk of flooding.CreditAmanda Perobelli/Reuters

Today, humans are relying on significantly fewer varieties of plants and animals to produce food. Of the 6,190 domesticated mammal breeds used in agriculture, more than 559 have gone extinct and 1,000 more are threatened. That means the food system is becoming less resilient against pests and diseases. And it could become harder in the future to breed new, hardier crops and livestock to cope with the extreme heat and drought that climate change will bring.

“Most of nature’s contributions are not fully replaceable,” the report said. Biodiversity loss “can permanently reduce future options, such as wild species that might be domesticated as new crops and be used for genetic improvement.”

The report does contain glimmers of hope. When governments have acted forcefully to protect threatened species, such as the Arabian oryx or the Seychelles magpie robin, they have managed to fend off extinction in many cases. And nations have protected more than 15 percent of the world’s land and 7 percent of its oceans by setting up nature reserves and wilderness areas.

Still, only a fraction of the most important areas for biodiversity have been protected, and many nature reserves poorly enforce prohibitions against poaching, logging or illegal fishing. Climate change could also undermine existing wildlife refuges by shifting the geographic ranges of species that currently live within them.

So, in addition to advocating the expansion of protected areas, the authors outline a vast array of changes aimed at limiting the drivers of biodiversity loss.

Farmers and ranchers would have to adopt new techniques to grow more food on less land. Consumers in wealthy countries would have to waste less food and become more efficient in their use of natural resources. Governments around the world would have to strengthen and enforce environmental laws, cracking down on illegal logging and fishing and reducing the flow of heavy metals and untreated wastewater into the environment.

The authors also note that efforts to limit global warming will be critical, although they caution that the development of biofuels to reduce emissions could end up harming biodiversity by further destroying forests.

An elephant in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya, outside Nairobi. More than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.CreditTony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

An elephant in the Lewa Wildlife Conservancy at the foot of Mount Kenya, outside Nairobi. More than 500,000 land species do not have enough natural habitat left to ensure their long-term survival.CreditTony Karumba/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

None of this will be easy, especially since many developing countries face pressure to exploit their natural resources as they try to lift themselves out of poverty.

But, by detailing the benefits that nature can provide to people, and by trying to quantify what is lost when biodiversity plummets, the scientists behind the assessment are hoping to help governments strike a more careful balance between economic development and conservation.

“You can’t just tell leaders in Africa that there can’t be any development and that we should turn the whole continent into a national park,” said Emma Archer, who led the group’s earlier assessment of biodiversity in Africa. “But we can show that there are trade-offs, that if you don’t take into account the value that nature provides, then ultimately human well-being will be compromised.”

In the next two years, diplomats from around the world will gather for several meetings under the Convention on Biological Diversity, a global treaty, to discuss how they can step up their efforts at conservation. Yet even in the new report’s most optimistic scenario, through 2050 the world’s nations would only slow the decline of biodiversity — not stop it.

“At this point,” said Jake Rice, a fisheries scientist who led an earlier report on biodiversity in the Americas, “our options are all about damage control.”

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

Brad Plumer is a reporter covering climate change, energy policy and other environmental issues for The Times’s climate team. @bradplumer

Gray whales washing up dead on Northwest beaches

Whale strandings
Responders examine a malnourished adult gray whale in April after it was towed to a remote beach after initially being found floating near downtown Seattle.

An unusually large number of gray whales are washing up dead on their northbound migration past the Oregon and Washington state coasts this year.

The peak stranding time for gray whales in the Pacific Northwest is normally April, May and June. But the federal agency NOAA Fisheries has already logged nine dead whales washed ashore in Washington state and one in Oregon. That’s on top of 21 strandings on California beaches since the beginning of the year.

There were 25 dead gray whale strandings on the entire West Coast in all of 2018.

One 39-foot-long dead adult whale was found floating in Elliott Bay this month, right in front of downtown Seattle.

“This is looking like it is going to be a big year for gray whale strandings,” said Jessie Huggins, stranding coordinator for the Olympia-based Cascadia Research Collective.

Since February, Huggins has participated in necropsies of malnourished, mostly adult, gray whales on Whidbey Island and the Key Peninsula to Ocean Shores and Long Beach, Washington.

“We’re seeing very thin whales with little to no food in their stomachs,” Huggins said. “This is kind of leading us to believe that this is an issue of nutritional stress with a few normal-type strandings mixed in.”

Huggins said these whales probably didn’t get fat enough on their summer feeding grounds in Alaskan waters last year.

Responders in rain gear and elbow-high rubber gloves cut into the massive carcasses to examine the animals’ fat reserves and internal organs. Multiple whales exhibited dry fibrous blubber. The responders noted ribcages and vertebra sticking out, measured healed scars and took tissue samples for later analysis for contaminants.

Despite the unusual number of dead whales found, NOAA Fisheries spokesman Michael Milstein said the overall population of gray whales is fine, “probably as big as it’s ever been” in modern times.

Eastern Pacific gray whales were taken off the endangered species list in 1994. The population is now estimated at 27,000, which may be around the carrying capacity of their ocean territory.

“They’ve been coming back strong,” Milstein said.

Gray whale and humpback whale casualties from entanglement in commercial and tribal fishing gear have been a growing concern for federal officials, certain environmental groups and the fishing industry lately. None of dead gray whales found this spring on Oregon and Washington state beaches were entangled in fishing or crabbing lines, however.

Crabbers and fishing boat owners are scheduled to meet with researchers and government representatives when two separate work groups convene next month along the Oregon and Washington state coasts to hear updates about entanglement risk reduction strategies.

Sometimes it takes a village to examine and pull samples from a decomposing whale. Huggins said she has worked alongside colleagues this winter and spring from Portland State University, Seattle Pacific University, the nonprofit SR3, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and World Vets.

Dozens of grey whales washing up dead along migration route — and B.C. is their next stop

The whales appear emaciated but whether from decline of food supply or overpopulation is unclear

Every spring, the grey whales migrate from Mexico to the North Pacific. (Craig Hayslip/Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute)


An unusually high number of grey whales are washing up dead on West Coast shorelines on their annual migration north and B.C. is the next stop, warns a U.S.-based marine biologist.

More than 20 grey whales were stranded ashore in California this spring, and, further north along the coast in Oregon, several more have washed up recently.

Eleven whales were recently stranded in Washington state. Only one survived.

“We’re already beyond what we would typically consider high numbers and this is still early in our stranding season,” said Jessie Huggins, stranding co-ordinator for the Cascadia Research Collective.

in one of the longest migrations of any mammal, grey whales migrate from their wintering areas near Mexico to their summer feeding grounds in the North Pacific every year.

“They’re heading towards Canada,” Huggins told CBC’s On The Island. The whales are expected to pass by Vancouver Island.

Young grey whale pictured washed up on Ucluelet beach on Vancouver Island in 2016. (Les Doiron)

Food shortage

From necropsies on the animals, Huggins said it appears that food shortage is an underlying cause of the deaths.

“We’ve been seeing a lot of emaciated animals,” she said.

Grey whales feed on sediment along the ocean floor, which brings them closer to shore than other types of whales. Their proximity to land means they are more likely to wash ashore and for their deaths to be noted.

“Many other whales, when they die further off-shore, we never see them,” Huggins said.

“Especially skinny ones because they tend to sink first.”

Thanks to wildlife protection measures like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, grey whales became a “success story” and their numbers increased over the last decades.

The research hasn’t concluded whether the recent deaths are due to a decline in food sources or an overpopulation of grey whales or some combination of both.

“It’s difficult for us to tell at the moment, but we do know that, for the last year or two, there have been a number of very skinny whales,” Huggins said.

“They didn’t get enough food last summer and, along their normal migration patterns, are just not able to make it all the way to Alaska.”

On The Island
Dozens of grey whales washing up dead along migration route – and B.C. is their next stop

00:00 06:53

An unusually high number of grey whales are washing up dead on West Coast shorelines on their annual migration north and B.C. is the next stop, warns a U.S.-based marine biologist. 6:53

Beyond Meat is going public. Investors are betting on a new future for food.

Plant-based meat products might fix our food system.

Beyond Meat breakfast sausage.
 Beyond Meat

Beyond Meat, the plant-based meat company, is going public next week.

The company sells burgers that contain no meat, but taste like they do. Its stated goal is to fix our food system. Its initial public offering (IPO) is the latest sign that alt-meat is going mainstream — and that’s a big deal.

It’s been a good few years for Beyond Meat. National chains including Del Taco, Carl’s Jr., and T.G.I. Friday’s have started carrying their products. They’ve also found their way onto grocery store shelves at Whole Foods, Kroger, and Target. In total, Beyond Meat says its products are available in more than 35,000 outlets, from hotels and college campuses to grocery stores and sports stadiums. Sales have been growing fast — last year the company reported revenues of $87.9 million, up from $32.6 million in 2017.

Now, the company has filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO, scheduled for next week. They’ll sell shares in the company for between $19 and $21 per share, allowing them to raise $183 million for additional manufacturing facilities, research and development, and sales. If their stock sells at the high end of that, the company would be valued at $1.2 billion. They’ll be listed on NASDAQ as BYND.

Founded in 2009 by CEO Ethan Brown, the Los Angeles-based company’s products first hit supermarket shelves in 2013. Its rapid rise — food is not an easy industry to break into — reflects intense consumer demand and investor interest in meat alternatives. The company has never been profitable, and lost $29 million in 2018, but its rapidly growing revenues made it a good bet to many investors — as did its positioning on the frontier of a transformation of our food system.

“Beyond Meat was the first company to really set its sights on creating meat from plants that could compete on the basis of the things that meat eaters like about meat,” Bruce Friedrich of the Good Food Institute, which works on policy and investment surrounding meat alternatives, told me. “Before Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods, there was really this sense that plant-based foods was for vegetarians. People like Ethan Brown said, ‘No, we can make plant-based foods that meat eaters like just as much.’”

Plant-based meat alternatives are getting big

There’s a lot wrong with our food system. Producing meat by raising animals on factory farms produces tons of greenhouse gases, and many analysts think we can’t tackle climate change without tackling the enormous emissions that go into agriculture. Animals in close quarters are fed low-dose antibiotics constantly so they don’t make one another sick, which contributes to antibiotic resistance, a huge threat on the horizon for public health. And animals on factory farms are routinely subjected to intense cruelty and conditions that disgust the average American consumer.

That’s what inspired people to start working on meat alternatives — and it may be what’s inspiring the consumer enthusiasm that has buoyed them in recent years. Products like veggie burgers, fake chicken, and soy and almond milk are growing in popularity and market share — and even better, they’re getting tastier and harder to distinguish from animal products.

New breakthroughs in food science have made it easier to imitate the flavor and texture of real meat. While early veggie burgers were almost exclusively purchased by vegetarians, Brown says that 93 percent of Beyond Meat customers buy regular meat too — suggesting the company has succeeded at making something that appeals to meat eaters.

Beyond Meat was among the pioneers of this new generation of plant-based meat, which aimed to replace bean-based veggie burgers marketed mostly to vegans. Now, they’ll be the first plant-based meat company to have an IPO. It’s a remarkable success for the company. It’s also remarkable because food companies rarely go public, Friedrich told me: “The food industry is highly centralized, and most exits are mergers or acquisitions by large food conglomerates.”

Last year, there were rumors that industry giant (and Beyond Meat investor) Tyson Foods was considering buying the company. Beyond Meat stayed independent, though. A few months later, the company added the chief financial officers of Coca-Cola and of Twitter to their board, signaling that it was getting the expertise on-board that it needed to become a huge public company.

The rest of the plant-based meat industry has been thriving too. Qdoba announced last week that it would be serving Beyond Meat competitor Impossible Foods. Earlier in April, Burger King launched the Impossible Whopper. Industry giants Tyson and Purdue are pursuing their own plant-based product lines. A few years ago, the Impossible Burger was available in a handful of restaurants — now it can be found in more than 5,000.

“There’s a sense that there’s a movement going on that’s much bigger than any one company,” Brown told Vox two weeks ago.

The interesting thing about that movement is that plant-based meats don’t have to displace all animal meats in order to make a big difference. Every burger replaced with a Beyond Burger has an impact on CO2 emissions, demand for factory farming, and demand for antibiotics. The more the plant-based meat industry grows, the more those impacts will be visible — and that might, in turn, itself fuel more interest in plant-based meats. Beyond Burger’s team doesn’t just believe they’ve found a niche — they say they’ve figured out the “Future of Protein.” Here’s hoping they’re right.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez wonders whether people should have kids in a climate-ravaged world. So does this movement of ‘BirthStrikers.’

Blythe Pepino, age 33, is the founder of the BirthStrike movement with spokeswoman Alice Brown.
 Tom Jacobs/Courtesy of Birth Strike

  • A recent trend of environmental bad news — warming oceans,melting ice sheets, and more intense tornadoes— prompted New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to pose the question of whether it’s right to still have children in a world threatened by climate change.
  • A growing group of women concerned about climate change agree with AOC. And they’re wielding a new weapon in the war against“business as usual.” They’re choosing not to reproduce.
  • These women, called BirthStrikersall agree to not bear children “due to the severity of the ecological crisis and the current inaction of governing forces in the face of this existential threat.”

Blythe Pepino grew up walking with her parents on blustery, cold English beaches and in the Welsh mountains.

She remembers fondly sitting in the freezing cold with hot chocolate, aware of her environment and its fragility. As she grew older, the singer-songwriter watched a lot of news, and read books like Naomi Klein’s “This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate,” with growing dismay.

While she wanted to hold politicians and governments accountable for their inaction on climate change, she found herself “anxious to the point where I had to switch off,” she told Business Insider.

Extinction Rebellion is a group of activists that seek to stop climate breakdown, halt biodiversity loss, and minimize the risk of human extinction and ecological collapse by means of education and nonviolent protest. Their lecture changed Pepino’s outlook on the climate change crisis.

“I knew I couldn’t go back,” she said. “I knew stuff I couldn’t un-know.”

extinction rebellion
The Extinction Rebellion activist group protested on November 23, 2018 in Tower Hill, London.
David Holt/Wikimedia Commons

That was the genesis for Pepino’s controversial and growing BirthStrike movement, created for people who have decided not to have children in response to the threat of a warming planet. While the movement is small, it’s part of a growing group of activists, politicians, and scientists attempting to communicate that our warming planet has passed multiple irreversible tipping points.

BirthStrike began with a modest membership of 60 men and women. Now, global membership is around 200, according to the Guardian.

‘We’re too afraid to bring children into world with the future that’s forecast’

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez made headlines in February when she brought up the idea that having children was no longer a given in today’s environment. “It is basically a scientific consensus that the lives of our children are going to be very difficult, and it does lead young people to have a legitimate question: is it OK to still have children?” she said on Instagram Live.

This vocalization of a core BirthStriker message may have helped pave the way for the media attention that Pepino’s new movement is getting. She publicly announced the BirthStrike movement two weeks ago.

“We’re too afraid to bring children into the world with future that’s forecast,” Pepino, age 33, said. “This is a really powerful way of communicating the severity of what’s going on.”

The UK-based Birthstriker movement started with Pepino — freshly grieving from her decision to not have children — reaching out on Facebook to friends and others who she thought might feel the same way.

“I know that sounds calculated, but I made this decision [to not have children] personally first and then realized it was a great way to get more people, especially the right wing media, on board with the climate change crisis,” she said.

While BirthStrike is new, the idea of not having children because of climate change has been percolating for years.

Conceiving one fewer child is equal to a savings of 64 tons of carbon dioxide annually over the course of a parent’s life. 
Chip Somodevilla / Stringer / Getty Images

‘Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them’

“I think it’s seen as such a massive decision to make, especially for the younger women like myself,” Lydia Dibben, a BirthStriker from West Sussex, told Business Insider. “Children are seen to be the ultimate goal in life, something that everyone wants, and so promising never to have them seems extreme to a lot of people.”

“Here’s a provocative thought: Maybe we should protect our kids by not having them,” Rieder told NPR.

Another organization, a non-profit called Conceivable Future, was started on the notion that “the climate crisis is a reproductive crisis.” The US-based group, founded in 2015, demands an end to US fossil fuel subsidies by “telling the stories of climate change’s impact on our reproductive lives.”

In 2018, the New York Times reported on more than a dozen people ages 18 to 43 — most of them American women — voicing concerns over bringing a child into a world saddled with increasing climate-change driven natural disasters.

Conduit doesn’t own a car, walks to work, and eats vegetarian. Pepino said she doesn’t fly anymore. But a 2017 study found that having even one less child is a more effective way of cutting down a person’s carbon footprint than recycling, driving an electric car, being vegetarian, or using renewable energy.

That said, the BirthStrikers — and many scientists— argue the scale of the climate change problem has become so severe that collective action is more important than individual actions.

The movement is not about population control

One of those suggested collective actions is controlling how fast the number of humans living on Earth grows. Though the world population currently hovers around 7.7 billionthe United Nations expects that number to grow to 9.8 billion in just 30 years, and reach 11.2 billion by 2100.

But the BirthStrike movement isn’t founded on notions of a “child ban” or population control. In fact, Pepino’s biggest concern is that the BirthStrike movement “will continue to be re-edited as a population argument.”

Hannah Conduit, a 27-year-old Birthstriker from Bristol, UK, pointed out that “nothing in the movement demonizes having children.”

“The idea of a sort of mass movement against having children is damaging to society,” Conduit told Business Insider. “But BirthStrike highlights that some women see [having children] as a choice that they might not be able to make in good conscience.”

She doesn’t have a significant other in her life right now. Pepino does.

“We still talk about how we want kids, and it’s hard to come to terms that this is the end,” Pepino said of her and her partner’s conversations about starting a family.

Alice Brown, a 24-year-old from Bristol who works on the BirthStrike movement with Pepino, said on the BirthStrike website that “instead of dreaming about my career and family, I’m burdened with the disease we’ve created.”

birth strike
Alice Brown, age 24, is “gutted” not to be able to start her family.
 Thomas Jacob

“My decision not to have a child I truly feel is a necessity not a choice,”Brown said. “I cannot imagine how scared our kids are going to be.”

“People doing extreme things for what they believe in always gets attention. It’s worked in past social movements, like the suffragettes chaining themselves to railings, and it really needs to work if we have any hope of surviving the years that are coming,” 22-year-old Dibben said.

‘It would break my heart to bring children into the world and have it collapse around them’

The BirthStrike movement has dealt with plenty of conservative backlash and social media vitriol in the two weeks since the organization’s formal announcement. But that doesn’t deter BirthStrike followers.

To these women, their power of reproduction is the hammer with which they strike at a world that seems indifferent to its impending demise. “We’re going to have to take a hit on our arrogance as a species,” Pepino said. “We are becoming less than we are as our babies, our future, and our natural world are disappearing.”

“It would break my heart to bring children into the world and have it collapse around them,” Conduit said.

SEE ALSO: People are using the viral ’10-year challenge’ as a stark warning about what’s happening to our planet

The Midwest flooding has killed livestock, ruined harvests and has farmers worried for their future

This photo taken by the South Dakota Civil Air Patrol shows flooding in western Iowa, along the Missouri River, on Monday.

(CNN)Farmers in parts of Nebraska and Iowa had precious little time to move themselves from the floodwaters that rushed over their lands last week, so many left their livestock and last year’s harvest behind.

Now as they watch the new lakes that overtook their property slowly recede, some have a painfully long time to reflect: They lost so much, staying in business will be a mighty struggle.
Across parts of the Midwest, hundreds of livestock are drowned or stranded; valuable unsold, stored grain is ruined in submerged storage bins; and fields are like lakes, casting doubt on whether they can be planted this year.
These are especially cruel times for Nebraska and Iowa farmers who had to scrape money to keep going just eight years ago, when floods overtook their lands in 2011.
“I would say 50% of the farmers in our area will not recover from this,” Dustin Sheldon, a farmer in southwestern Iowa’s flood-devastated Fremont County near the swollen Missouri River, said this week.
Grain silos destroyed by the flooding in Hamburg, Iowa, on Wednesday.

700 hogs drowned at one farm

Floodwaters washed over the Plains and Upper Midwest as a bomb cyclone dropped heavy rain and snow last week, and as previous snow and ice melted.
Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts called this the “most widespread disaster we have had in our state’s history.” Officials expect their initial farm damage estimates — $400 million in damages to crops, and $400 million in lost livestock, will be exceeded, Nebraska Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Christin Kamm said.
In Iowa, after Gov. Kim Reynolds flew over flooded farms in a helicopter, she said she could see only the tops of grain bins sticking out of what looked like an ocean.
Farmers and ranchers have been especially hard hit. In rural eastern Nebraska outside of Omaha, farmer Eric Alberts told CNN affiliate WOWT that about 700 of his hogs drowned, many in his barn.
He was trying to move his animals when the waters started rising last week.
“Within 30 minutes, we had over 2 feet of water come through the front barn, and just swells were coming, and we barely made it out of here,” leaving most of the animals behind, he told WOWT.
Eric Alberts said many hogs drowned in this barn.

The fate of other animals is a mystery. Sheldon, the Iowa farmer, said Wednesday he knows of six facilities holding about 3,000 pigs each — and no one was immediately able to reach the flooded buildings to see how the livestock fared.
Rescue groups have tried to help in some cases.
Over the weekend, Iowan Scott Shehan crossed state lines to help ferry donkeys and ponies to dry land. In one of his Facebook videos, rescuers used a makeshift floating platform — pushed by an airboat — to get a pony out of a stranded portion of Sycamore Farms in Waterloo, Nebraska, on Sunday.
At least one donkey was found dead there, he said.
“Nobody could plan for this,” Shehan, co-owner of Lusco Farms Rescue, told CNN. “It’s flooded in places it’s never flooded before.”

A farmer says he lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in ruined harvest

Beyond livestock, crop loss — both harvested and not yet planted — will weigh heavily on farmers.
In Iowa’s Fremont County, Sheldon’s farm supports three families. Floodwaters got into their bins, ruining about 75% to 80% of their stored crop.
He estimates that’s hundreds of thousands of dollars of revenue lost — money that now can’t support the families or pay the farm’s expenses.
Farmers commonly store the harvest and sell portions throughout the year, sometimes to wait for better prices in the spring. Losing it is devastating.
“In 2011, we thought we had the 500-year flood — the Noah’s Ark of all floods,” Sheldon, who also is the Fremont County supervisor, told CNN. “We didn’t file bankruptcy, but we went though some really tough times on the money side.
“It took every dime of money our family had to put the land back into production at the level it was. Here, eight years later, we are right back to square one.”
Grain silos destroyed by the flooding in Hamburg, Iowa, on Wednesday.

Salt-Water Fish Extinction Seen By 2048

The apocalypse has a new date: 2048.That’s when the world’s oceans will be empty of fish, predicts an international team of ecologists and economists. The cause: the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.

The study by Boris Worm, PhD, of Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, — with colleagues in the U.K., U.S., Sweden, and Panama — was an effort to understand what this loss of ocean species might mean to the world.

The researchers analyzed several different kinds of data. Even to these ecology-minded scientists, the results were an unpleasant surprise.

“I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are — beyond anything we suspected,” Worm says in a news release.

“This isn’t predicted to happen. This is happening now,” study researcher Nicola Beaumont, PhD, of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory, U.K., says in a news release.

“If biodiversity continues to decline, the marine environment will not be able to sustain our way of life. Indeed, it may not be able to sustain our lives at all,” Beaumont adds.

Already, 29% of edible fish and seafood species have declined by 90% — a drop that means the collapse of these fisheries.

But the issue isn’t just having seafood on our plates. Ocean species filter toxins from the water. They protect shorelines. And they reduce the risks of algae blooms such as the red tide.

“A large and increasing proportion of our population lives close to the coast; thus the loss of services such as flood control and waste detoxification can have disastrous consequences,” Worm and colleagues say.

The researchers analyzed data from 32 experiments on different marine environments.

They then analyzed the 1,000-year history of 12 coastal regions around the world, including San Francisco and Chesapeake bays in the U.S., and the Adriatic, Baltic, and North seas in Europe.

Next, they analyzed fishery data from 64 large marine ecosystems.

And finally, they looked at the recovery of 48 protected ocean areas.

Their bottom line: Everything that lives in the ocean is important. The diversity of ocean life is the key to its survival. The areas of the ocean with the most different kinds of life are the healthiest.

But the loss of species isn’t gradual. It’s happening fast — and getting faster, the researchers say.

Worm and colleagues call for sustainable fisheries management, pollution control, habitat maintenance, and the creation of more ocean reserves.

This, they say, isn’t a cost; it’s an investment that will pay off in lower insurance costs, a sustainable fish industry, fewer natural disasters, human health, and more.

“It’s not too late. We can turn this around,” Worm says. “But less than 1% of the global ocean is effectively protected right now.”

Worm and colleagues report their findings in the Nov. 3 issue of Science.

SOURCES: Worm, B. Science, Nov. 3, 2006; vol 314: pp 787-790. News release, SeaWeb. News release, American Association for the Advancement of Science.