Jane Goodall on conservation, climate change and COVID-19: “If we carry on with business as usual, we’re going to destroy ourselves”


BY JEFF BERARDELLI

JULY 2, 2020 / 6:57 PM / CBS NEWS

https://www.cbsnews.com/news/jane-goodall-climate-change-coronavirus-environment-interview/

While COVID-19 and protests for racial justice command the world’s collective attention, ecological destruction, species extinction and climate change continue unabated. While the world’s been focused on other crises, an alarming study was released warning that species extinction is now progressing so fast that the consequences of “biological annihilation” may soon be “unimaginable.”

Dr. Jane Goodall, the world-renowned conservationist, desperately wants the world to pay attention to what she sees as the greatest threat to humanity’s existence.

CBS News recently spoke to Goodall over a video conference call and asked her questions about the state of our planet. Her soft-spoken grace somehow helped cushion what was otherwise extremely sobering news: “I just know that if we carry on with business as usual, we’re going to destroy ourselves. It would be the end of us, as well as life on Earth as we know it,” warned Goodall.

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Dr. Jane Goodall at a reception in honor of Disney Conservation Funds 20th anniversary on April 18, 2016 in Orlando, Florida.GUSTAVO CABALLERO / GETTY IMAGES

What follows is a lightly edited transcript of our conversation.
 
Jeff Berardelli: Destruction of nature is causing some really big concerns around the world. One that comes to the forefront right now is emergent diseases like COVID-19. Can you describe how destruction of the environment contributes to this?

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Dr. Jane Goodall: Well, the thing is, we brought this on ourselves because the scientists that have been studying these so-called zoonotic diseases that jump from an animal to a human have been predicting something like this for so long. As we chop down at stake tropical rainforest, with its rich biodiversity, we are eating away the habitats of millions of animals, and many of them are being pushed into greater contact with humans. We’re driving deeper and deeper, making roads throughout the habitat, which again brings people and animals in contact with each other. People are hunting the animals and selling the meat, or trafficking the infants, and all of this is creating environments which are perfect for a virus or a bacteria to cross that species barrier and sometimes, like COVID-19, it becomes very contagious and we’re suffering from it. 

But we know if we don’t stop destroying the environment and disrespecting animals — we’re hunting them, killing them, eating them; killing and eating chimpanzees in Central Africa led to HIV/AIDS — there will be another one. It’s inevitable.

Do you fear that the next [pandemic] will be a lot worse than this one?

Climate Change 

Well, we’ve been lucky with this one because, although it’s incredibly infectious, the percentage of people who die is relatively low. Mostly they recover and hopefully then build up some immunity. But supposing the next one is just as contagious and has a percentage of deaths like Ebola, for example, this would have an even more devastating effect on humanity than this one.

I think people have a hard time connecting these, what may look like chance events, with our interactions and relationship with nature. Can you describe to people why the way that we treat the natural world is so important? 

Well, first of all, it’s not just leading to zoonotic diseases, and there are many of them. The destruction of the environment is also contributing to the climate crisis, which tends to be put in second place because of our panic about the pandemic. We will get through the pandemic like we got through World War II, World War I, and the horrors following the World Trade towers being destroyed. But climate change is a very real existential threat to humankind and we don’t have that long to slow it down. 

Intensive farming, where we’re destroying the land slowly with the chemical poisons, and the monocultures — which can be wiped out by a disease because there is no variation of crops being grown — is leading to habitat destruction. It’s leading to the creation of more CO2 through fossil fuels, methane gas and other greenhouse gas [released] by digestion from the billions of domestic animals.https://c08e3ca301573b8802c73c1c8cc0e9db.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

It’s pretty grim. We need to realize we’re part of the environment, that we need the natural world. We depend on it. We can’t go on destroying. We’ve got to somehow understand that we’re not separated from it, we are all intertwined. Harm nature, harm ourselves.

If we continue on with business as usual, what do you fear the outcome will be?

Well,if we continue with business as usual, we’re going to come to the point of no return.  At a certain point the ecosystems of the world will just give up and collapse and that’s the end of us eventually too. 

What about our children? We’re still bringing children into the world — what a grim future is theirs to look forward to. It’s pretty shocking but my hope is, during this pandemic, with people trapped inside, factories closed down temporarily, and people not driving, it has cleared up the atmosphere amazingly. The people in the big cities can look up at the night sky and sea stars are bright, not looking through a layer of pollution. So when people emerge [from the pandemic] they’re not going to want to go back to the old polluted

Now, in some countries there’s not much they can do about it. But if enough of them, a groundswell becomes bigger and bigger and bigger [and] people say: “No I don’t want to go down this road. We want to find a different, green economy. We don’t want to always put economic development ahead of protecting the environment. We care about the future. We care about the health of the planet. We need nature,” maybe in the end the big guys will have to listen.

I often think our economic future, which is always put at the forefront, is actually dependent upon our ecological future. Without an ecological future, there is not going to be any economic growth. Would you agree? 

Absolutely. I mean, it’s all been said again and again, but fossil fuels are not infinite, they will come to an end, leading to a lot more destruction of the environment for sure. Forests and natural resources are not infinite and yet we’re treating them as though they are, and in some places using them up more quickly than nature can replenish them. 

We have to have a different kind of economy, we need a different way of thinking about what is success.Is it just about having more and more money, more and more stuff, being able to show off to your friends, and the wasteful society we live in? We waste clothes, we waste food, we waste laptops and cellphones. That pollutes the environment. So we’ve got to think differently, haven’t we?

So what do we do? Right now our worldview is based on GDP. You suggest that we think of it in a different way. So do you have a suggestion of how we rate our success other than GDP?

I’m not an economist.I just know that if we carry on with business as usual, we’re going to destroy ourselves. It would be the end of us, as well as life on Earth as we know it.

So one thing we can do, those of us in affluent societies can almost all do with a bit less. We have a very unsustainable lifestyle. You can’t really blame people, they grew up into it. But if you went through World War II like I did, when you took nothing for granted, one square of chocolate for a week is what we had and everything was rationed. So, you appreciate it. We never wasted even an ounce of food; not like today. 

Then, we also have to alleviate poverty. Because if you’re really poor you destroy the environment, you cut down the last trees to make land to grow more food for your family, or fish the last fish. Or if you’re in an urban area you buy the cheapest junk food. You don’t have the luxury of asking: how is this made, did it harm the environment, did it lead to the suffering of animals like in the factory farms, is it cheap because of child slave labor? You just have to buy the cheapest in order to survive. 

Then the third thing, which nobody wants to talk about, but nevertheless … there are approximately 7.8 billion of us on the planet today and already in some places we’re using up natural resources faster than nature can replenish them. In 2050 it’s estimated that there will be 9.7 billion of us. What will happen? We can’t just go on burying it under the carpet. 

Population issues are politically sensitive so I talk about voluntary population optimization. So that’s OK, it’s voluntary, it is your choice. You optimize it for your financial situation. People are desperate to educate their children and they can’t educate eight anymore. So they love family planning, and women can space out their children so that they can have a child and look after it. https://c08e3ca301573b8802c73c1c8cc0e9db.safeframe.googlesyndication.com/safeframe/1-0-37/html/container.html

Let’s switch gears. I don’t eat animals. I have a dog. I love my dog. Let’s talk about the idea that animals have feelings and that pigs are as intelligent as dogs…

You know, animals are so much more intelligent than people used to think, and they have feelings and emotions and personalities, like your dog, any animal you share your life with. You know, birds now are making tools and octopus are incredibly intelligent. And when we think of all this trafficking of animals, selling them in meat markets or factory farms, when you think that each one one is an individual, can feel fear and pain, can suffer mentally as well as physically, isn’t it shocking? I’m glad you don’t eat them. I don’t either, of course. 

Jane Goodall, the world's foremost autho
Jane Goodall, the world’s foremost authority on chimpanzees, communicates with a chimp named Nana at the zoo in Magdeburg, Germany, on June 6, 2004.JENS SCHLUETER/DDP/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The shock and horror because in China and South Korea they eat dogs — well, the thought of eating a dog makes me feel particularly sick, but not more sick than eating a pig. They eat dogs and we don’t like it, but we eat pigs, and they are as intelligent as dogs. 

Isn’t the point, if you must eat an animal shouldn’t you treat it really well, like the Native Americans, respect the animal and give thanks that it’s sacrificed itself for you?

This is a bit more of a thought-provoking question: What has led us to this over-consumption in society? There is an idea that perhaps there is a Biblical basis, that we have dominion, that we’re in charge, and because we’re in charge we’re able to do what we want. Can you give me an idea of why we are where we are, as a world right now, and what led us here? 

[Laughing]You think I’m going to be able to answer all these questions?

I know it’s a lot, but I know that you must have some thoughts on this. 

Well, first of all, I do think that religion has played a role. I was told by a Hebrew scholar the original translation of that word that you just mentioned, “dominion,” is wrong. It’s actually something more like “stewardship.” That’s very different. If God gave us stewardship that’s different from saying we have dominion. So I think religion started this thinking that we’re so different from all the other animals and I was taught there was a difference in kind, not degree. Thank goodness the chimpanzees are so like us biologically, as well as behaviorally, that science had to start thinking differently. 

So how did we get there? It’s sort of been like this all throughout human history. There were so many fewer of us back then that we could have these unsustainable lifestyles and it didn’t really matter; they were sustainable. Think of how people have always exploited the natural world just because we can. And so there’s been a lag between developing new technologies [which enable us to] destroy whole forests. Whereas the indigenous people might take a week to cut down the big tree, we can do it in an hour. And the moral evolution and the sense of a spiritual awareness and connection to the natural world on which we depend, that’s lagged behind as well.

So how do we repair that? How do we rediscover our connection to the rest of the natural world?

As I think you know, I began a program for young people back in 1991 called Roots and Shoots because young people had lost hope in the future. I’ve met them all over the world. They were mostly apathetic and didn’t seem to care. Or they were angry or deeply depressed and they told me they felt like that because we compromised their future and there was nothing they could do about it. And we have compromised their future. We’ve been stealing it for years and years. And yes, we still are still stealing it today. But when they said there was nothing they could do I thought, no, that’s not right. We got this window of time. If we all get together, take action, we can start healing some of the harm, we can start slowing down climate change and we can work on educating people. 

Kids are really good at educating their parents and grandparents, some of whom may be in positions to make a huge difference, like CEOs of big companies or people in government. That program is now kindergarten to university and everything in between. It’s in 68 countries and growing. Every group has the message: Each one of us — and that means you as well as me — we make some impact every single day and we have the luxury of choosing the impact that we make. 

Here’s how COVID-19 creates food waste mountains that threaten the environment

A worker operates a front loader at a waste treatment facility that turns vegetable waste into fertilizers, in Zaozhuang, Shandong province, China December 25, 2018. Picture taken December 25, 2018. REUTERS/Stringer  ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE WAS PROVIDED BY A THIRD PARTY. CHINA OUT. - RC1D688F5E40
Coronavirus has caused mountains of food to go to waste.Image: REUTERS/Stringer

https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/06/covid-19-food-waste-mountains-environment/

30 Jun 2020

  1. Emma CharltonSenior Writer, Formative Content

 The World Economic Forum COVID Action PlatformLearn moreMost PopularLocusts are putting 5 million people at risk of starvation – and that’s without COVID-19Emma Charlton 26 Jun 2020An expert explains: Why it’s wrong to talk about a second wave of COVID-19 Jeremy Rossman · The Conversation 23 Jun 2020COVID-19: What you need to know about coronavirus on 26 JuneKate Whiting 26 Jun 2020More on the agendaForum in focusHere’s how we’re ensuring there’ll be enough sustainable and nutritious food for 9.8 billion people by 2050Read more about this projectExplore contextCOVID-19Explore the latest strategic trends, research and analysis

  • Mountains of food, including eggs, milk and onions, are going to waste.
  • Shuttered restaurants, cafés and canteens have led to a drop in demand.
  • Excess food rots to create methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
  • UN warns methane levels may rise sharply in the crisis and immediately after.
  • The excess food supply has also caused food prices to collapse.

Gluts of food left to rot as a consequence of coronavirus aren’t just wasteful – they’re also likely to damage the environment.

Have you read?

Mountains of produce, including eggs, milk and onions, are going to waste as the COVID-19 pandemic shutters restaurants, restricts transport, limits what workers are able to do and disrupts supply chains. And as that food decays, it releases methane, a powerful greenhouse gas.

Fresh milk and eggs have been dumped, and some ripe crops reploughed back into fields, according to reports in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. While consumer demand for some supermarket items has risen as a result of lockdowns, it’s unlikely to offset steep declines elsewhere, such in restaurants and school and workplace canteens.CORONAVIRUS, HEALTH, COVID19, PANDEMIC

What is the World Economic Forum doing to manage emerging risks from COVID-19?

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Methane on the rise

Not only is this a tragic waste of food at a time when many are going hungry, it is also an environmental hazard and could contribute to global warming. Landfill gas – roughly half methane and half carbon dioxide (CO2) – is a natural byproduct of the decomposition of organic material.

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Food decay leads to production of greenhouse gases, methane and carbon dioxide.Image: EPA

Methane is a potent greenhouse gas, 28 to 36 times more effective than CO2 at trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 100-year period, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

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“Many export-oriented producers produce volumes far too large for output to be absorbed in local markets, and thus organic waste levels have mounted substantially,” says Robert Hamwey, Economic Affairs Officer at UN agency UNCTAD . “Because this waste is left to decay, levels of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas, from decaying produce are expected to rise sharply in the crisis and immediate post-crisis months.”

food environment decompose decomposing gasses gas carbon co2 Coronavirus china virus health healthcare who world health organization disease deaths pandemic epidemic worries concerns Health virus contagious contagion viruses diseases disease
Food supply chains are easily disrupted.Image: UN FAO

Dumping food was already a problem before the crisis. In America alone, $218 billion is spent growing, processing, transporting and disposing of food that is never eaten, estimates ReFED, a collection of business, non-profit and government leaders committed to reducing food waste. That’s equivalent to around 1.3% of GDP.

Since the pandemic took hold, farmers are dumping 14 million litres of milk each day because of disrupted supply routes, estimates Dairy Farmers of America. A chicken processor was forced to destroy 750,000 unhatched eggs a week, according to the New York Times, which also cited an onion farmer letting most of his harvest decompose because he couldn’t distribute or store them.

Food prices collapsing

The excess has also seen prices collapse. The FAO Food Price Index (FFPI) averaged 162.5 points in May 2020, down 3.1 points from April and reaching the lowest monthly average since December 2018. The gauge has dropped for four consecutive months, and the latest decline reflects falling values of all the food commodities – dairy, meat, cereal, vegetable – except sugar, which rose for the first time in three months.

All this while the pandemic is exacerbating other global food trends.

“This year, some 49 million extra people may fall into extreme poverty due to the COVID-19 crisis,” said António Guterres, Secretary-General of the UN. “The number of people who are acutely food or nutrition insecure will rapidly expand. Even in countries with abundant food, we see risks of disruptions in the food supply chain.”https://platform.twitter.com/embed/index.html?dnt=false&embedId=twitter-widget-0&frame=false&hideCard=false&hideThread=false&id=1271747397002067968&lang=en&origin=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.weforum.org%2Fagenda%2F2020%2F06%2Fcovid-19-food-waste-mountains-environment%2F&theme=light&widgetsVersion=9066bb2%3A1593540614199&width=550px

The World Economic Forum has launched its Great Reset initiative, which urgently calls for global stakeholders to cooperate in managing the consequences of the COVID-19 crisis. It calls on policymakers to put the environment at the heart of plans to rebuild as we emerge from the pandemic.

Global Warming Is Melting Our Sense of Time

https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/global-warming-is-melting-our-sense-of-time.html 

JUNE 27, 2020

By David Wallace-WellsSatellite image of smoke from active fires burning near the Eastern Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, Russia, on June 23, 2020. Photo: Handout/NASA Earth Observatory

On June 20, in the small Siberian town of Verkhoyansk, north of the Arctic Circle, a heat wave baking the region peaked at 38 degrees Celsius — just over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. It was the highest temperature ever recorded in the Arctic. In a world without climate change, this anomaly, one Danish meteorologist calculated, would be a 1-in-100,000-year event. Thanks to climate change, that year is now.

If you saw this news, last weekend, it was probably only a glimpse (primetime network news didn’t even cover it). But the overwhelming coverage of perhaps more immediately pressing events — global protests, global pandemic, economic calamity — is only one reason for that climate occlusion. The extreme weather of the last few summers has already inured us to temperature anomalies like these, though we are only just at the beginning of the livable planet’s transformation by climate change — a transformation whose end is not yet visible, if it will ever be, and in which departures from the historical record will grow only more dramatic and more disorienting and more lethal, almost by the year. At just 1.1 degrees Celsius of warming, where the planet is today, we have already evicted ourselves from the “human climate niche,” and brought ourselves outside the range of global temperatures that enclose the entire history of human civilization. That history is roughly 10,000 years long, which means that in a stable climate you would only expect to encounter an anomaly like this one if you ran the full lifespan of all recorded human history ten times over — and even then would only encounter it once.

You may register temperature records like these merely as the sign of a new normal, in which record-breaking heat waves fade out of newsworthiness and into routine. But the fact of those records doesn’t mean only that change has arrived, because the records are not being set only once; in many cases, they are being set annually. The city of Houston, for instance, has been hit by five “500-year storms” in the last five years, and while the term has obviously lost some of its descriptive precision in a time of climate change, it’s worth remembering what it was originally meant to convey: a storm that had a one-in-500 chance of arriving in any given year, and could therefore be expected once in five centuries. How long is that timespan, the natural historical context for a storm like that? Five hundred years ago, Europeans had not yet arrived on American shores, so we are talking about a storm that we would expect to hit just once in that entire history — the history of European settlement and genocide, of the war for independence and the building of a slave empire, of the end of that empire through civil war, of industrialization and Jim Crow and World War I and World War II, the cold war and the age of American empire, civil rights and women’s rights and gay rights, the end of the cold war and the “end of history,” September 11 and 2008. One storm of this scale in all that time, is what meteorological history tells us to expect. Houston has been hit by five of them in the last five years, and may yet be hit with another this summer — which is already predicted to be a hurricane season of unusual intensity. Of course, that won’t be the end of the transformations. Climate change will continue, and those records — high temperatures, historic rainfall, drought, and wind speed and all the rest — will continue to fall. From here, literally everything that follows, climate-wise, will be literally unprecedented.$5 a month for unlimited access to Intelligencer and everything else New YorkLEARN MORE »

Land surface temperature anomalies from March 19 to June 20 in Eastern Siberia. The reds mark areas that were hotter than average for the same period from 2003-2018. The blues mark areas that were colder. From the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) on NASA’s Aqua satellite. Illustration: Handout/NASA Earth Observatory

The arctic numbers from June 20 are terrifying enough; with more context they become only more so. It was warmer there than it was that same day, in Miami, Florida. In fact, it was warmer north of the Arctic Circle than it has ever been, on any June day, in the entire recorded history of Miami, which has only once, in the whole tropical century for which temperatures there have been registered, reached 100. It was about 30 degrees Fahrenheit warmer, in Verkhonaysk, than the average high temperature in the region for June, which means the arctic record was the equivalent, in terms of temperature anomaly, of a 110-degree June day in New York or a 115-degree June day in Washington, D.C. According to preliminary satellite data, land surface temperature in parts of arctic Siberia reached that level last week, too — 45 Celsius, or 113 Fahrenheit. In terms of temperature anomaly, that’s the equivalent of a 130-degree day in D.C. On Capitol Hill, that would be, very comfortably, lethal heat.

Thankfully, for Americans at least, that isn’t how global warming works — its punishing effects are distributed unequally around the globe, and, at the moment, the Arctic is being punished most vindictively, warming at three times the rate of the rest of the planet. In Siberia, in May, temperatures averaged as much as 10 degrees Celsius higher than normal. The arrival of the arctic summer reignited “zombie fires” that had, improbably, burned through the arctic winter, smoldering in peat rather than burning out. Those fires, like all fires, released carbon, which is stored in trees as surely as it is in coal, in this case releasing as much CO2 in the last 18 months as had been produced by Siberian wildfires in the last 16 years. In early June, an industrial-scale oil-storage facility there collapsed when the melting permafrost on which it had been built finally destabilized, releasing about 21,000 tons of oil and turning local rivers red. That spill was about two-thirds the scale of the Exxon Valdez spill, which horrified an entire generation; this one, we’ve hardly read about, though it befell a far more ecologically degraded planet, with more than half of all carbon emissions ever produced by the burning of fossil fuels in the entire history of humanity coming since the Valdez spill. Perhaps though is a less precise word than because, the intervening generation of environmental calamity having quite thoroughly normalized horrors like these. Even Vladimir Putin — presiding over a petrostate which, so far north, actually stands to benefit from some amount of global warming — declared it an emergency. All told, the planet’s melting permafrost contains twice as much carbon as hangs in the planet’s atmosphere today, and it’s expected that over the course of the century, at least 100 billion tons of it will be released through melt, about three years worth of global emissions and functionally enough to close the window on the goals of the Paris accords.

A June 11 view of the site of a diesel fuel spill at Norilsk’s Combined Heat and Power Plant No 3 in Siberia. Photo: Denis Kozhevnikov/TASS via Getty Images

That window was not open very far to begin with. One recent study suggested that even the decarbonization targets of Britain and Sweden, often hailed as global climate leaders, would produce emissions between two and three times the carbon budget required to meet the Paris goals. (And those are just their decarbonization plans, which are probably optimistic.) Another analysis suggested that, for all the talk of halving our emissions by 2030 — as the IPCC says is necessary to safely avoid 2 degrees of warming — the planet has only a 0.3 percent chance of doing so. If Donald Trump won reelection, the analysis suggested, those chances would fall to 0.1 percent — one in a thousand.

If 2 degrees is now inevitable, that doesn’t make it comfortable. Indeed, it will be, for much of the world, a horror — and the space between those two things, inevitability and horror, is the one in which we will all be forced to learn to live. At 2 degrees, it’s expected that more than 150 million additional people would die from the effects of pollutionstorms that used to arrive once every century would hit every single yearand that lands that are today home to 1.5 billion people would become literally uninhabitable, at least by the standards of human history.

Those projections will invariably prove imprecise, or perhaps worse — that is both the nature of science, which proceeds by revision, and humanity, which will likely adapt to at least some measure of these impacts. But the Siberian heat wave reminds us just how large the scale of necessary adaptation will likely be — requiring us to respond not just by shoring up the proverbial shorelines of our civilizations but by preparing them in much more fundamental ways to endure conditions never seen before in the whole span of human history. It is also a reminder of just how much we miss when we regard the projections of any neat, linear model of future warming as a straightforward prediction of that future and of what level of adaptation will be require — especially when we reflexively discount the uncertainty warnings scientists invariably include, as any lay reader (including me) is likely to do. Perhaps the most important lesson of the freakish Siberian heatwave is: however terrifying you find projections of future warming, the actual experience of living on a heated planet will be considerably more unpredictable, and disorienting.

Just how freakish and unpredicted is this heatwave? Over the last few years, a growing chorus of critics have argued against one climate model built on predictions of high-end carbon emissions in particular, called RCP8.5 —arguing that, though it had been endorsed by the U.N.’s IPCC and formed the basis of much recent science since that organization’s last major report, its projections were simply implausible, relying as they did on the dramatic growth of coal use over the course if the century. As I’ve written before, that pathway does indeed look increasingly hard to credit as a model of our future, and is best understood, in terms of emissions, as an absolute worst-case scenario, which would require almost a global climate nihilism to achieve. But for those suggesting we should discard that model, or any other that charted a high-end course for warming, the arctic heatwave makes a very strong counterargument. Because even in that worst-case pathway, hundred-degree summer days in the Arctic do not become routine until the very end of the century. This heat wave is, today, an outlier, not a routine event. But that doesn’t make it irrelevant. Instead, it is giving us at least a brief preview of what the world would look like, more than a half-century from now, in a timeline we understand to be, at least in terms of emissions, impossibly pessimistic. But if our timeline could accommodate such extreme events from that worst-case one, and decades ahead of schedule, it is also a sign that “timeline” is probably a misguided way of thinking about the new swirling universe of extreme events we are plunging headlong into. Making sense of climate change requires more than trying to determine where on a particular linear plot we are and where on it we are likely to be in ten years, or in fifty. It may require more profoundly revising our sense of linearity itself. In this way, global warming isn’t just scrambling our sense of geography, with Verkhonaysk, at least briefly, playing the role of Miami. It is also scrambling our sense of time. You may feel, because of the pandemic, that you are living to some degree in 1918. The arctic temperatures of the past week suggest that at least part of the world is living, simultaneously, in 2098.

But climate change isn’t just a brutal form of time travel, it is discombobulating to our very sense of time. When looking at projections for future warming, an event like the Siberian heat wave appears as an acceleration of history, but when looking at the paleoclimate record, it seems like a trip deep into the prehuman past, toward eras like those, lasting millions of years, when palm trees dotted the Arctic and crocodiles walked in their shade there. Especially at extreme levels, warming threatens the apparent march of progress on which the modern, Western “timeline” model of history was built. But at least until the arrival of large-scale carbon removal technologies, it also illustrates the fact that time — in the form of carbon emissions, which hang in the atmosphere for centuries — is irreversible. Because we are doing so much damage so quickly, destabilizing the entire planet’s climate in the space of a few decades, warming can seem like a phenomena of the present. But its effects will unfurl for millennia, with the climate stabilizing perhaps only millions of years from now. Climate change unwinds history, melting ice frozen for many millennia and pushing rainforests like the Amazon closer to their long-overgrown savannah states. It also makes new history, drawing new borders and new riverbeds, turning breadbaskets like the Mediterranean into deserts and opening up arctic shipping routes to be contested by a new generation of great power military rivalries. It compresses history — those Houston storms, for instance, represent more than a millennia of extreme weather, concentrated in a period of just five years. And it scrambles and scatters it, too, disrupting the cycle of seasons and relocating rain belts and monsoons, among many other distortions. At the same time temperatures in Verkhoyansk reached 100 degrees, in other parts of Siberia it was snowing. Was it winter or summer, a Russian catching the national weather forecast could have been forgiven for asking. They may have wondered, is this our hellish climate future or the return of the Little Ice Age?

Contemplating the impacts of climate change from this perspective can seem naïvely abstract — and it is, when compared to the storms and the wildfires and the droughts. (Not to mention the literal plague of locusts, 360 billion of them, which have devastated agriculture in East Africa and South Asia this year, descending in clouds so thick you couldn’t see through the insects and leaving millions hungry.) But in addition to its humanitarian cruelties, for instance making pandemics like COVID-19 much more likely, warming is already recalibrating much more hard-headed models of time, too. This is a sign that warming is truly the meta-narrative of our century, touching every aspect of our lives. Beyond the catastrophes and crises, the surreal and disorienting aspects of climate change are showing up even in the most numbingly pragmatic places. Like, for instance, mortgages.

“Up and down the coastline, rising seas and climate change are transforming a fixture of American homeownership that dates back generations: the classic 30-year mortgage,” Christopher Flavelle of the New York Times reported June 19. (As it happens, the day before the record-setting temperatures in the Arctic.) As Kate Mackenzie has relentlessly chronicled for Bloomberg, mortgages aren’t the first or only financial instrument to feel the intrusion of a new climate reality much less forgiving, and less stable, than the one on which not just the financialization of the global economy but indeed all of human civilization has been erected. Insurance and reinsurance, municipal bonds and sovereign wealth funds, boutique hedge funds and massive asset-management operations are all beginning to reckon with a future made, at least, much rockier by climate change. How much rockier? Well, according to a Climate Central estimate, at least half a million American homes are on land expected, 30 years from now, to flood every single year. Altogether, those homes are today worth $241 billion. This is just homes, just in America, and annual flooding isn’t the only flood risk a homeowner or a bank might want to consider, which means, even looking only at flooding, many, many more homes are vulnerable than that. Of course, flooding is not, by any stretch, the only climate risk those homes and homeowners would face.

Residents with a dog sit in the back of a truck while waiting to be rescued from rising floodwaters due to Hurricane Harvey in Spring, Texas on August 28, 2017. Photo: Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Like many of those other financial instruments, a mortgage isn’t just an instrument but also a theory of time — a bet on future value built on the proposition that three decades is a long enough period to absorb the short-term turbulence of real-estate markets and a short-enough period that larger systemic shocks would not have time to develop and reverberate. That is, at least, how the mortgage looks from the bank side. From the consumer side, a mortgage represents a related, but slightly different, theory of time. For most of postwar American history, it has represented “adulthood,” as defined in mostly white and middle-class-and-up terms. For all those distortions and delusions embedded in it — ideas about housing and the real-estate market but also race and class and urbanization and family structure — the 30-year mortgage also embedded an idea about the stability of society through time, that one could expect to arrive at the end of adulthood in a world recognizable to the person who began it, and indeed that whatever changes had transpired would be, on net, of value to the homeowner, who by virtue of his or her property had become a small-scale stakeholder in the prospects of the community, the region, the nation and indeed the world as a whole. As the Times reports, both sides of that bargain are already, now, beginning to look very different.

More: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/06/global-warming-is-melting-our-sense-of-time.html

Planet of the Censoring Humans

The campaign to remove Michael Moore’s new documentary from the Internet – led by Moore’s erstwhile progressive “allies” – is a significant advance in the censorship revolution

Matt Taibbi May 29

On April 21st, 2020, just before the 50th anniversary of the first Earth Day, Oscar-winning director/producer Michael Moore released a new movie called Planet of the Humans. Directed by Jeff Gibbs, the film is a searing look at the ostensible failures of the environmentalist movement, to which Moore and Gibbs both belonged.

“Jeff and I were at the first Earth Day celebrations,” Moore laughs. “That’s how old we are.”

Distributed for free on YouTube, the film’s central argument is that the environmentalist movement, fattened by corporate donations, has become seduced by an industrialist delusion.

“The whole idea of the film was to ask a question – after fifty years of the environmentalist movement, how are we doing?” recounts Moore. “It looks like, not very well.”

Moore and Gibbs challenged the idea that both the planet and humankind’s current patterns of industrial production can be saved through the magic bullet of “renewable energy.” The film shows lurid examples of various deceptions, like the oft-used trick of replacing coal plants with new natural gas plants, which are then called “clean” or “green,” or the hideous trend of describing the burning of trees as a “renewable” energy source.

Environmentalists denounced the film as riddled with “lies” and “misinformation,” claiming among other things that Moore used old data to discredit green technology. A campaign to remove the film from circulation immediately took shape.

“Within 24 hours of it going out on YouTube, people got to work on trying to take the film down,” explains Moore. He immediately started hearing about emails denouncing the film that were being circulated to what seemed like “everyone on the left.”

An “action letter” composed by environmentalist Josh Fox was circulated, describing the film as “dangerous, misleading, and destructive” and demanding an “immediate retraction.” Films for Action, an online archive of progressive movies, initially bent to Fox’s demands by taking the film out of its library, only to put it back up a half-day later out of a desire to avoid a “messy debate about censorship.”

An intense campaign of editorials followed, and a roughly month later, YouTube actually removed the film. The platform cited a four-second piece of footage shot by filmmaker Toby Smith that supposedly was a copyright infringement. Moore, who says all his films are “heavily lawyered,” insists the footage was legal under Fair Use laws, which allow the use of portions of copyrighted work without the permission of the owner. (In one of many ironies, Fair Use laws have long been celebrated by progressives as an invaluable tool for journalists and artists).

The significance of the Moore incident is that it shows that a long-developing pattern of deletions and removals is expanding. The early purges were mainly of small/fringe voices on either the far right or far left, or infamously fact-challenged personalities like Alex Jones. The removal of a film by Moore – a heavily-credentialed figure long revered by the liberal mainstream – takes place amid a dramatic acceleration of such speech-suppression incidents, many connected to the coronavirus disaster.

A pair of California doctors were taken off YouTube for declaring stay-at-home measures unnecessary; right-wing British broadcaster and trumpeter of shape-shifting reptile theories David Icke was taken off YouTube; a video by Rockefeller University epidemiologist Knut Wittknowski was taken down, apparently for advocating a “herd immunity” approach to combating the virus. These moves all came after the popular libertarian site Zero Hedge was banned from Twitter, ostensibly for suggesting a Chinese scientist in Wuhan was responsible for coronavirus.

In late April, the World Socialist Web Site – which has been one of the few consistent critics of Internet censorship and algorithmic manipulation – was removed by Reddit from the r/coronavirus subreddit on the grounds that it was not “reliable.” The site was also removed from the whitelist for r/politics, the primary driver of traffic from Reddit to the site. Then in early May, at least 52 Palestinian activists and journalists were removed from Facebook for “not following community standards,” part of a years-long pattern of removals made in cooperation with the Israeli government.

On May 13, human rights activist Jennifer Zeng noted that YouTube was automatically deleting Chinese-language references to terms insulting to the Chinese government, like gongfeior “communist bandit.” Congressional candidate Shahid Buttar complained an interview with Walker Bragman about Democrats supporting surveillance powers was removed by YouTube. Evan Greer of the speech advocacy group Fight for the Future had a post flagged by Facebook’s “independent fact checkers”—in this case, that noted pillar of factuality, USA Today – dinging him for a “partly false” claim that the Senate had voted to allow warrantless searches of browsing history.

These and many other incidents came in addition to a slew of moves aimed at right-wing speakers accused of varying degrees of conspiratorial misinformation and/or hate speech, from a decision by Twitter to begin “fact-checks” of Donald Trump to wholesale removals from Facebook of “anti-immigrant” sites like VDare and the Unz Review.

One problem is the so-called “reputable” fact-checking authorities many platforms are relying upon have terrible factual histories themselves. There’s an implication that “misinformation” by foreign or independent actors is somehow more dangerous than broadly-disseminated official deceptions about U.S. misbehavior abroad, or manufactured scandals like Russiagate. We now expect libertarian or socialist pages to be zapped at any minute, but none of the outlets which amplified the bogus Steele dossier have been put in Internet timeout.

Moreover, despite widespread propaganda to the contrary, the new movement to regulate speech on platforms like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube is, actually, censorship. In the United States, high-ranking politicians in both parties have held congressional hearings and threatened these tech companies with tighter regulation and taxation if they do not develop policies for combating the “fomenting of discord.”

In response, these companies – which as recently as four or five years ago were disavowing editorial responsibilities, in the case of Facebook going so far as to deny being a media company at all – are now instituting vast new controls. It’s a clear symbiosis: governments permit mining of lucrative markets in exchange for access to the platforms’ monitoring powers.

“That’s censorship,” says Andre Damon of the World Socialist Web Site. “That’s a First Amendment issue.”

Throughout the last four years, it’s mainly been left to people affected by these new policies to point out the obvious, that relying on star-chambers of corporate gatekeepers to oversee information flow will have dramatic consequences. These voices seem to be the only ones interested in sticking up for the rights of political opponents.

“I don’t think anyone can confuse me for a supporter of Donald Trump, but I see the danger of celebration of Twitter fact-checking him, because that’s going to be the model for all of us,” says Ali Abuminah, author and co-founder of Electronic Intifada, which has extensively covered the suppression of speech in Palestine by Facebook, including the recent removals.

“It’s always presented as, ‘We’re going to crack down on white supremacists and anti-vaxxers,’” says Damon“But the practical impact of speech controls is always to advance the interests of the ruling class.”

The pseudonymous editor of Zero Hedge, Tyler Durden, points out that even when platform bans of sites like his are reported by mainstream press outlets, reporters rarely address the underlying rights issue. “Nobody really digs into the First Amendment angle,” he says. “They’re going after the far right, they’re going after the middle right. They’re going after the far left and the middle left. Where does it end?”

We already have a clear picture of what the endgame of public-private content regulation partnerships might look like, through the experience of other countries. In an extreme example, as far back as 2016, Israel’s Justice Minister boasted that Facebook was complying with “95 percent” of its requests for content regulation, deleting thousands of posts by Palestinians.

“Palestine is often the canary in the coal mine on speech issues,” laments Abunimah.

In Germany, which has strict hate speech laws, Facebook maintains an archipelago of ominously-named “deletion centers,” with as many as 1,200 employees at a single site, to sift through content in search of “community standards” violations. Under pressure from politicians and pundits alike, platforms began moving in this direction in the U.S. years ago, with Facebook announcing mass hires of employees with Orwellian titles like “community reviewers” and “news credibility specialists.”

The drive to step up “content control” isn’t all driven from the top down. A major additional factor has been the growth of a new intellectual movement geared toward delegitimizing speech and rationalizing censorship. The Moore incident provided a clear demonstration of how this new social reflex works.


In Planet of the Humans, Moore and Gibbs make a complex argument. In essence, they charge that people have become dependent upon the high-consumption lifestyles made possible by fossil fuels, and that it’s our addiction to that way of life, as much as to fossil fuels themselves, that is driving humanity off a “cliff.”

Their core criticism is aimed at big-name environmental leaders like Bill McKibben and Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., whom Gibbs and Moore argue have de-emphasized this truth to sell a fantasy – profitable equally to industry and environmental movements – that we can innovate our way to survival.

As is usually the case with Moore movies, Planet of the Humans across as a case for the prosecution. Whether he’s denouncing George W. Bush or the health care industry, Moore always sails close to the wind factually, and often leaves out mitigating information a traditional journalist would feel obligated to include. This movie is no different. For instance, audiences are not told until the credits that McKibben, who is depicted on film celebrating the “beauty” of burning wood chips, eventually came out against biomass plants.

It’s easy to see why McKibben would be upset at the portrayal of him in the center of an argument that the environmental movement has overstressed the possibilities of renewable energy at the expense of changing consumption patterns. After all, he’s written books and given talks addressing that problem. Then again, most of the “criticism” of McKibben comes in the form of footage of him talking, and liberal audiences never had a problem previously when Moore declined to add humanizing context to unflattering tape of the Don Rumsfelds and Charlton Hestons of the world.

Moore’s movies have always been designed to gut-punch audiences, and his M.O. is being unafraid to be accused of being “unfair” when he’s warning of disaster in Iraq, of a future of normalized mass shootings, of a failure to address working-class issues he (correctly) predicted would lead to electoral victory by Donald Trump, etc. He’s a provocateur who dares opponents to call him out on the facts (here he is musing about a $10,000 reward for anyone who can find errors in Fahrenheit 9/11). Planet of the Humans features all of these tactics that simultaneously made traditional journalists nervous but earned plaudits among committed liberals: one gets the sense that Moore, his skin leather-thick after years of media battles, is intentionally provoking a backlash in an effort to kick-start what he feels is a debate people are running out of time to have.

Still, it’s easy to understand why activists who’ve dedicated their lives to closing coal plants and developing cleaner energies would feel betrayed at the depiction of alternative energies as failed or even counterproductive exercises in self-deception. The footage that caused YouTube to yank the film came in the middle of a brutal montage showing all the different rare industrial materials that have been mined via earth-disfiguring methods in the making of solar panels — a sequence as painful to watch as the infamous “Wouldn’t it be Nice” montage of devastated Flint in Roger and Me.

Is it right, as multiple critics have wondered, to show such a punishing visual without noting advances that have made solar cleaner and more efficient since the early scenes in the film were shot?

If the criticisms of Moore’s film stopped with questions like these, they might have been more sympathetic. Moore and Gibbs seemed anxious to engage such questions.  “Maybe we’re wrong,” Moore says. “We’d have liked to have that discussion. That was a big reason we made the movie.”

Instead, critics rolled out a now-familiar playbook to depict the movie as too villainous to exist.

The Trump era has seen the unveiling of a range of nuclear arguments against unwelcome speech. Progressives who traditionally decried censorship now often embrace it with gusto in cases of “misinformation,” white supremacy and other forms of bigotry, and “conspiracy theory,” among other things.

The new take is that episodes like Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, the Charlottesville tragedy, a cascade of racially-motivated mass shootings and cases of police violence, and more recently the coronavirus disaster, have all proven that incorrect speech can no longer be tolerated. It’s now understood the consequences are simply too severe, especially for disadvantaged communities.

In the multitudinous critiques of Planet of the Humans, a creepy kind of rhetorical intersectionality is observed. Moore’s film is consistently depicted as not merely misinformation, conspiracy theory, or Trumpian hate speech, but somehow an interlocking combination of all of these things. Critics all seem to have gotten the same memo.

The biggest criticism comes in the film’s focus on overpopulation. In one much-derided scene, the director Gibbs notes it took modern humans “tens of thousands of years” to reach a world population of 700 million, but then tapped into millions of years of stored energy “increased by ten times in a mere two hundred years.” This fast-ascending population curve, Moore and Gibbs say, is also increasing consumption by as much as ten times per person.

Now, the environmentalist movement has been telling us for over half a century that rapid human growth and its insidious effects – sprawldeforestationhabitat lossoverfishing, etc. – are threatening species and warming the planet. It was not so long ago that deriding such concern was the exclusive preoccupation of right-wingers. Bush-era Republicans infamously thought liberal tree-huggers loved spotted owls more than people, and perhaps even nurtured plans for mass forced abortions to reduce world population (I wrote a book about an evangelical church that preached this idea).

With Planet of the Humans, we’ve come full circle. Now liberal critics are deriding all this tree-hugging as not just misanthropy, but supportive of racism and even genocide, using language that blows away Bush-era conservative rhetoric.

“Protecting the trees has almost always come with a judgment about which kind and color of humans they need protection from,” wrote Kate Aronoff at the New Republic. She added, “Gibbs does not appear to be a white nationalist himself, but his film echoes their approach.”

In The Nation, which lists Moore on its masthead as a contributing editor, Fox wrote a piece denouncing the film as not only “racist,” but, potentially, an “incitement to eco-fascist population controls.” He added:

We see old white male after old white male declaring there is no solution to climate change except reducing the population. (With this many white guys, we can only guess which groups of people are supposed to stop reproducing.)

Leah Stokes on Vox wrote the film’s takes on the dangers of overpopulation had “more in common with anti-immigration hate groups than the progressive movement” and expressed hope the film would be “buried.” Gizmodo argued the film has “more than a whiff of eugenics and ecofascism… Who are we going to knock off or control for?”

Given that the primary criticism of Moore’s film is that it unfairly depicts people like McKibben as sellouts, it’s more than a little odd that the apparently serious return criticism is that Michael Moore and Jeff Gibbs want to massacre nonwhite people. This would be laughable were it not for the fact that the campaign succeeded.

The director of Roger and Me and Bowling for Columbine has had plenty of prior experience with efforts to suppress his work. In 2001, HarperCollins blocked the release of his book Stupid White Men, on the grounds that a book critical of the U.S. government was inappropriate after 9/11. In 2004, Disney tried to block subsidiary Miramax from distributing Fahrenheit 9/11, a film that detailed links between the families of Bush and Osama bin Laden.

Both attempts failed. Stupid White Men was released after a group of librarians flooded the publisher with protest letters, and Fahrenheit 9/11 was ultimately distributed after Miramax and Disney reworked their deal.

The clear difference in this case was Moore and Gibbs are taking on Shibboleths on the left, instead of the right. Erstwhile liberal allies this time employed a tactic the right never used, describing the film as not merely wrong but “dangerous.” In conjunction with the new embrace of Internet control, this was enough to achieve something that Bush and Cheney never did: suppression of major motion picture.

In the past, a copyright dispute would have been a matter for courts. So, too, would questions of defamation that might have been raised by the likes of McKibben. Now critics can just run to Mommy and Daddy tech companies to settle disputes, and there’s no clear process for those removed to argue their cases.

This is a situation that carries serious ramifications, especially for people who have less reach and financial clout than Moore. “If they can do it to me, they can do it to anybody,” is how Moore puts it.

This is probably why, apart from a few brave institutional voices like PEN America, none of the traditional defenders of speech (ahem, ACLU) have spoken out. As was the case with Julian Assange and even Alex Jones, a fear factor is probably part of the equation. Who wants to be seen defending, even in the abstract, the rights of an ally of Putin? A race-baiting talk show host? An “eco-fascist”? Couldn’t such a defense itself invite reports of violating “community standards,” and bring a fresh threat of removal?

Maybe Moore is wrong about the environmental movement, but these new suppression tactics are infinitely more dangerous than one movie ever could be

, and progressives seem to have lost the ability to care.

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Making Veggie Burgers Doesn’t Help The Climate, Impossible CEO Say


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Impossible Foods has no interest in making a veggie burger that tastes like meat, its founder and CEO said Friday.

Veggie burgers don’t serve the company’s goal, said Patrick Brown—to solve “the catastrophic impact of the use of animals as a food technology”—because veggie burgers cater to vegetarians, not carnivores.

“All the plant-based foods that have been produced in the past—if you look at what was in the heads of the people who produced them—their target consumer was someone who is looking for an alternative, i.e. people who want to have a more vegetarian diet or something like that,” Brown said in a Zoom webinar. “If that’s your consumer, you’re not going to have any effect on the climate issues because that’s a very small population.”

When Marketing Professor Sanjog Misra asked Brown about making a veggie burger that tastes like meat, Brown interrupted him:

“That was not at all what we were trying to do,” Brown said. “It was to make the most delicious meat on earth directly from plants. What we think of ourselves as doing is making meat—a better way of making meat.”

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The Stanford University emeritus biochemistry professor took an 18-month sabbatical in 2009 to solve the most important problem he could think of, which he determined was the impact of animal agriculture on greenhouse gas emissions, water pollution, water consumption and land use.

“If you could vaporize that industry today, which I would do in a heartbeat,” he said, “and let the biomass on that land recover, it would outpace fossil-fuel emissions. It would literally begin to reduce the atmospheric CO2 concentrations, and you can do the math on that. We desperately need that.”

But Brown doesn’t expect carnivores to eat plant-based meat to mitigate climate change.

“It had been framed as we’ve got to get people to change their diets, or we have to compel that business to stop doing it and so forth, and that’s just like crazy. That is never going to work,” he said at the webinar hosted by the University of Chicago’s Rustandy Center for Social Sector Innovation.

“People are very wedded to the foods that they prefer. The pleasure that they get from eating the foods that they love is a huge part of the pleasure of life. It’s unreasonable to think you can ask them to give that up. And that defined the problem very crisply for me, which is that it’s a technology problem.”

Animal agricultural is a $1.5 trillion prehistoric technology, Brown said, that’s vastly inefficient and hasn’t significantly improved in millennia. So it’s a “sitting duck” for disruption.

He assembled a team of 80 research scientists to solve the technology problem, to make a plant-based meat that’s more affordable, more nutritious and more delicious than animal meat.

Plants already offer the advantage of nutrition and affordability, he added, so the challenge—what he called “the most important scientific question”—has been deliciousness.

“We’re not going to solve this problem by mushing a bunch of peas and carrots together and forming it into a patty,” he said. “We have to deliver for a committed meat eater, who is not looking for an alternative, they’re just looking for the most delicious, healthy, affordable meat they can buy given their taste.”

Brown doubts anyone can convince consumers to compromise what they want. The producer has to give them what they want. So the Impossible goal has been “to make the most delicious meat on earth directly from plants.”

Are Dairy Digesters the Renewable Energy Answer or a ‘False Solution’ to Climate Change?

Capturing the massive quantities of methane dairy farms emit could reduce overall carbon pollution. But critics say the effort is propping up Big Dairy.



 

logo for covering climate nowThis article is published in partnership with Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

At first, California dairy farmer Felix Echeverria was skeptical about installing a dairy digester on his 12,000-cow operation. The process, which involved covering a pit of liquid manure and capturing the methane emissions it releases before “digesting” it anaerobically, is expensive and complex, and not something he was qualified to run. But he saw the benefits neighboring farmers in the Bakersfield area reaped from their digesters and decided to get ahead of a state law that would require him to reduce emissions by 2030.

“I realized I could stay ahead of the curve on greenhouse gas emissions,” Echeverria told Civil Eats. “To know we’ve been able to comply [with the law], that was the motive.”

The other deciding factor: Echeverria learned that he didn’t have to invest in or build the digester, as farmers in years past have. Instead, he partnered with a developer, California Bioenergy LLC (CalBio), that applied for public funding to help pay for the project and now operates the equipment. And in exchange for his manure biogas, Echeverria earns a percentage of sales from the electricity generated by the digester.

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“There’s absolutely no drawbacks,” Echeverria said of the digester, which has operated on the farm since 2018.

Agriculture accounts for nearly a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions, and as its role in changing the climate has become increasingly clear, farmers like Echeverria are being asked to do their part. In recent years, much of the attention—and the bulk of public dollars—has focused on anaerobic digesters, which help meat and dairy production facilities convert animal waste into energy that fuels vehicles and power grids.

Farmers, researchers, and policymakers across the U.S. see methane digestion as cost-efficient, effective, and revenue-generating for farmers. Proponents also see biogas and its cleaned-up version, biomethane (also known as renewable natural gas, or RNG) as a renewable source of energy that has a huge potential to replace more harmful legacy fuels.

Over the past decade, more than 250 digester projects have been built across the country, most of them on dairy farms. California alone has funded more than 100 digester projects, spending nearly $200 million of its ambitious California Climate Investments dollars on them. The state is poised to spend an additional $20-$25 million this year, though it’s unclear how the COVID-19 pandemic will impact the funding process going forward.

“The primary beneficiaries of these projects are the citizens of California. By reducing greenhouse gases, we are contributing to reducing global warming,” said Joyce Mansfield with the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA), which runs a grant program for dairy digesters.

But digesters do have some drawbacks. They’re complex, expensive projects that farmers can’t afford on their own; they cost $3-5 million dollars each and typically require public subsidies to build—in the form of federal loans, state grants, tax credits, rebate programs, and myriad other incentives.

In the past, environmental advocates have supported digesters, but many have begun to see the technology in a new light. They say the emission reductions are not worth the massive public funding given that most manure-powered biogas comes from large-scale industrial dairy facilities known for their significant environmental impacts. (Straus Family Creamery in Northern California is one of a few exceptions.) As such, advocates say public financing of digesters amounts to supporting and helping to perpetuate large-scale factory farming—and in some cases, causing farms to grow in size—under the guise of mitigating climate change.

“Digesters are definitely reducing methane and generating fuel [and] electricity. It all sounds very good, but it’s not a clean fuel,” said Rebecca Spector, the West Coast director for the Center for Food Safety. “These enormous dairies are polluting the air and the water … and the state is promoting a false solution while propping them up.”

Ultimately, Spector said, portraying digesters as a panacea to dairies’ environmental woes is thwarting the move to a farming system that supports smaller-scale producers, reduced herd sizes, and cows on pastures. “We want dairies to move to more sustainable solutions and we support the state incentivizing that,” she said.

Pressure to Reduce Emissions

Large industrial dairies, also known as concentrated animal feeding operations, or CAFOs, clean manure out of their barns with water and store the liquid waste in large lagoons. As naturally occurring bacteria break down the manure, they release large quantities of methane, a greenhouse gas with a 25 times greater impact on global warming than carbon dioxide. In fact, more than half of California’s methane emissions come from dairies.

Manure management accounts for about 7 percent of agriculture emissions and in recent years, dairies across the U.S. have faced increased pressure to reduce that number. In California, the country’s largest dairy state, producers are required by 2030 to decrease their methane emissions by 40 percent from 2013 levels. And while much of the methane comes from cows belching, dairy manure lagoons account for approximately 25 percent of the state’s overall methane emissions.

Reducing those emissions is no small feat. In 2017, California housed 1.7 million cows—the vast majority of them residing in the Central Valley on approximately 1,300 dairies. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), an average dairy cow produces approximately 120 pounds of manure every day.

The digesters capture methane, convert the biogas to biomethane, and inject it into utility pipelines as renewable compressed natural gas (R-CNG) to power trucks, buses, and cars. In some cases, digesters also generate renewable electricity that’s used by the dairy, with the remainder sent into the grid. Dairy methane can also be turned into renewable electricity without combustion to power electric vehicles.

Because of the expense and scale of the projects, digesters are geared toward large dairies.

In the past, dairy producers built and operated their own digesters. But in recent years, as the projects have become more complex and their price tags have ballooned, big developers have largely taken over their funding, building, operating, and maintenance. Most of the digesters are now part of clusters, with the biogas sent to a centralized cleaning hub.

Because of the expense and scale of the projects, digesters are mainly geared toward large dairies—2,500 cows with support stock could support a standalone digester, according to digester developers. If a dairy is near a cluster project, it might work for it to be somewhat smaller.

While digesters may be expensive, data collected at the state level shows digester projects are cost-effective when it comes to reducing greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, the digester program is the second most cost-effective of the state’s 68 climate programs.

“Our projects are providing high value for the state in terms of return on their investment,” CalBio’s President Neil Black wrote in an email. “We are destroying methane, which has greater short-term warming impacts in initial years… [so] the climate benefits will be seen much sooner than projects that reduce carbon dioxide.”

Indeed, the greenhouse gas reductions can be substantial. Echeverria’s dairy digester was expected to cut its manure methane emissions by approximately 75 percent. It will also reduce energy costs and its use of fossil electricity from the grid. The digester delivers approximately 8 million kilowatt-hours of renewable electricity annually to state utility, Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E). And the dairy is part of the Kern County Dairy Biogas cluster, a group of 16 dairies with approximately 60,000 milk cows that collectively produce approximately 6 million diesel gallon equivalents per year.

For large dairies, digesters can be a godsend: they cut the cost of complying with environmental rules, and offer a new source of revenue to supplement volatile milk prices. Farmers can also use electricity-engine waste heat to refrigerate their milk, resulting in further savings.

Digesters also provide benefits beyond emission reductions, Echeverria said. “We don’t have as much solids to deal with in the waste stream because a lot more material gets digested and turned into gas. We can move it around easier, our lagoons stay cleaner, and we get a better fertilizer source,” he said, referring to the fact that nutrients are broken down more thoroughly in the digester and are more available to the plants when the manure is spread on fields. And because digester projects are required to double-line the lagoons, he says nitrates don’t leach into groundwater.

Digesters also reduce emissions of hydrogen sulfide and other gases, said Black, CalBio’s president, improving air quality and reducing odors. The company is working to help convert truck fleets from diesel to natural gas, he said, which will significantly reduce nitrogen oxides, a major component of smog, in the highly polluted Central Valley where residents live with some of the worst fine particle pollution in the nation.

But Spector with the Center for Food Safety contends that while digesters do provide some benefits, they don’t solve the issue of nitrates contaminating groundwater—a major issue in the Central Valley, where low-income residents are often forced to rely on bottled water. That’s because nitrates often leach from manure applied as fertilizer into groundwater. Spector says that when digesters burn biogas they also produce air pollution. In addition, the digesters don’t address the climate impacts of enteric emissions (from cows releasing gas) which account for about half of the methane emissions from dairies.

Subsidies for Developers, Revenue to Industrial Dairies

Critics also decry the fact that much of the public funding for dairy digesters has gone into the hands of just a few developers.

In California, the CDFA has created a research and development program that is funded with the state’s cap and trade dollars. From 2015 to 2019, the program has awarded over $180 million to 108 projects, the agency told Civil Eats. And yet the vast majority of that money has gone to just two developers (only 12 developers have ever applied, the agency said).

CalBio has receive the largest amount: $99 million to date. And Maas Energy Works has been awarded $82.5 million. The CDFA grants require a 50 percent financial match, though those funds can also come from other public sources. Both companies also say they have received other public funding for their projects. Additional capital for the projects comes from investors and lenders.

CalBio currently operates five projects in California and is developing, according to its officials, more than 60 additional digesters in seven clusters of existing dairies that will produce renewable compressed natural gas for use in vehicle fleets. Maas Energy Works has a total of 27 digester projects, including 22 in California, three in Washington state, and two in Oregon.

“California has required the dairy industry to reduce their methane emissions by 40 percent. The best way to achieve that reduction is with dairy digesters,” Maas Energy Works spokesman Doug Bryant told Civil Eats via email.

The digester projects are a financial boon to both the developers and farmers. While in previous years, their value was based around renewable electricity generation and the sale of carbon credits, it now comes from the production of low carbon fuel, through the sale of natural gas, as well as the generation and sale of “credits” that can be sold to polluting companies and other organizations that use them to comply with state and federal requirements or voluntary emissions goals.

Precisely who benefits from these income streams varies from project to project. But with the new generation of digesters, it is often the developers who bring in the capital and who then own the digesters while the dairy producers rent their lagoon and provide the manure in return for a cut of the power sold. “Our company helps bring in the capital from lenders and investors. The dairies… receive the payment for contributing their manure, and the better the project performs, the more they will make,” said CalBio’s Black.

He added that dairies have an opportunity to invest in their projects, but that is optional. In Maas Energy Works projects, on the other hand, over half of the projects are 100 percent owned by the dairy farmer and the developer simply operates the digester for a fee, the company told Civil Eats.

Fight Over Renewable Gas

In the coming years, digester developers and dairy farmers may tap into an even bigger source of income as the gas industry looks to replace some of the “fossil-based” natural gas it currently sells. Natural gas companies such as SoCalGas and PG&E have heavily promoted biogas as a cost-effective, reliable “renewable natural gas.” The private utilities say that mixing RNG with regular gas in their pipelines will reduce its carbon intensity. And it appears the gas industry may get its way, at least in the short term.

While in the past, digester projects generated electricity for export to the grid, the current focus is on using the dairy biomethane—in the form of CRNG—as an alternative vehicle fuel and energy source. Out of 108 projects funded by the CDFA since 2015, 102 produce or will produce CRNG. And in recent years, these are built in a cluster of digesters that pipe gas to a centralized hub.

Two years ago, a new California law essentially mandated that a certain amount of biogas from manure and other renewable sources be included in utilities’ energy mix and for it to be injected into the gas pipeline system. The California Public Utilities Commission is currently in the process of creating a procurement standard to make that possible.

Legislators recently extended the ability to tap into $40 million in subsidies through a program that connects manure digesters to utility pipelines. And the SoCalGas settlement for the Aliso Canyon gas leak is also channeling $26.5 million toward the construction of dairy digester projects.

While some have praised this move, critics say it has created a whole set of ethical issues. Jim Walsh, a senior energy policy analyst with Food & Water Watch, says that using California Climate Investment funds to produce renewable gas from biomethane that utilities want in their portfolio supports not only factory farming but also the legacy fossil fuel industry—and could ultimately allow it to continue its polluting ways.

“These cap and trade funds are huge subsidies that utilities and other large polluters pay for to avoid their own emission reductions…. It allows them to greenwash themselves while proceeding with their practices,” Walsh said. “This is really just a shallow attempt to extend the life of their industry in the face of a growing backlash against fossil fuel development.”

Using biogas from manure as part of utilities renewables portfolio isn’t cost effective either, Walsh added, and will significantly increase rates for consumers. Methane-derived RNG can also leak through pipelines when transported, just like natural gas. And the bet on biogas from dairies is happening just as cities around the country are focusing more on electricity and passing laws to stop the building of new gas infrastructure.

In California, state officials have also pushed electricity as a strategy for cutting emissions from homes and workplaces. Meanwhile, utilities like SoCalGas counter that using biogas as part of their energy mix can reduce greenhouse gas emissions faster and cheaper than electrifying buildings.

Ultimately, what could make utilities’ move to biogas problematic is simply a problem of supply. Studies show there likely won’t be enough RNG/biomethane to meet the state’s climate goals.

Alternatives Underfunded, Lag Behind

Dairy digesters aren’t the only way to manage manure’s methane impact, but environmentalists say that other, more cost effective and sustainable methods tend to be much harder to get funded.

The CDFA runs a second methane reduction grants program called the Alternative Manure Management Program (AMMP). Those include projects focus on different ways to handle manure, such as composting and conversion to something called dry scrape collection, as well as enhanced pasture-based management practices (though few producers have applied to move their cows to pasture).

The program’s funding makes up only 20-30 percent of the total available for methane reduction programs, records show. More producers apply for the AMMP funding than for digester dollars, but in 2019 about half were rejected due to lack of funding.

The CDFA told Civil Eats that the dairy digester program has greater reductions of greenhouse gases than the alternative program. But Jeanne Merrill, policy director of California Climate and Agriculture Network (CalCAN), said the agency’s comparison is flawed. The CDFA calculates emission reduction impacts from AMMP projects on a 5-year project basis, she said, while those from the digester projects are calculated on a 10-year basis. “That’s comparing apples to oranges,” Merrill said.

CDFA officials said they use those time spans because they represent the expected duration of the projects. But Merrill said when greenhouse gas reductions are compared across both programs using similar timeframes, the AMMP projects fare quite well and sometimes do a better job with emission reductions per dollar.

AMMP projects are also faster to implement. Of the 108 digester projects awarded grants since 2015, only 13 are now complete and operational. The remaining 95 are at different stages of implementation.

Alternative methane reduction projects can also help protect water and air quality, Merrill added. Because they’re less expensive, they’re accessible to smaller farms and have greater geographic impact. And while digester projects are only guaranteed for 10 years (although Maas Energy Works told Civil Eats its digesters are expected to survive for at least 20), alternative projects are not subject to changes in complex technologies so are easier to maintain long-term.

“The trouble with digesters is that they only work for a quarter of the state’s dairies,” Merrill said. “Small and middle-sized dairies don’t have enough manure or capital to justify building digesters.”

Given the benefits, Merrill added, the CDFA should allocate half the available funding to non-digester programs.

Coronavirus May Stem the Tide of Funding

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages through California and the rest of the country, it’s still unclear how it might impact dairy digester projects. The pandemic has battered many smaller dairy farmers, with demand for dairy dropping and milk prices at historic lows. But both California Bioenergy and Maas Energy Works told Civil Eats that beyond minor delays and a slow-down in financing, the virus has had a limited impact on their operations so far.

In the near term, the impact may be financial. Before the pandemic, California’s governor Gavin Newsom proposed a budget that included a new ambitious Climate Catalyst Fund of $1 billion over the next four years. Companies—including farms and digester developers—could apply to get low-interest loans to reduce their climate impacts. That budget proposal, Newsom now says, “is no longer operable” and will have to be revised.

But given the fact that CDFA set its budget for 2020 loans last year, even the pandemic isn’t likely to stop the state’s fledgeling dairy digester industry from progressing—at least for the foreseeable future.

 

Top photo: The Riverview Dairy Digester in Pixley, California. It receives manure from roughly 3,000 cows, plus replacement stock. (Photo courtesy of Maas Energy Works)

Air pollution falls as coronavirus slows travel, but scientists warn of longer-term threat to climate change progress

KEY POINTS
  • The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down countries across the world, causing a significant decline in air pollution in major cities as countries implement stricter quarantines and travel restrictions.
  • The unintended air pollution declines from the virus outbreak are just temporary, experts say.
  • But the pandemic’s unintended climate impact could offer up a glimpse into how countries and corporations are equipped to deal with destruction of the slower-moving climate change crisis.
H/O: NASA Coronavirus pollution China map
NASA’s Earth Observatory pollution satellites show “significant decreases” in air pollution over China since the coronavirus outbreak began.
Courtesy of NASA.

Canal water in Venice has cleared up without boat traffic. Air pollution in China has plunged amid unprecedented lockdowns. In Thailand and Japan, mobs of monkeys and deer are roaming streets now devoid of tourists.

The coronavirus pandemic is shutting down countries across the world, causing a significant decline in air pollution in major cities as countries implement stricter quarantines and travel restrictions.

The unintended air pollution declines from the virus outbreak are just temporary, experts say.

But the pandemic’s unintended climate impact offers a glimpse into how countries and corporations are equipped to handle the slower-moving but destructive climate change crisis. So far, researchers warn that the world is ill-prepared.

For years, scientists have urged world leaders to combat planet-warming emissions, which have only continued to soar upward.

“In the midst of this rapidly moving global pandemic, it’s natural that we also think about that other massive threat facing us — global climate change —  and what we might learn now to help us prepare for tomorrow,”  said Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley, California.

“The pandemic is fast, shining a spotlight on our ability or inability to respond to urgent threats. But like pandemics, climate change can be planned for in advance, if politicians pay attention to the warnings of scientists who are sounding the alarm,” Gleick said.

RT: Venice empty canal
Clear water is seen in Venice’s canals due to less tourists, motorboats and pollution, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Venice, Italy, March 18, 2020.
Manuel Silvestri | Reuters

The virus has infected more than 311,000 people globally and killed at least 13,407. Countries like China and Italy have closed their borders and locked down cities, while the U.S. has closed its northern border with Canada and banned entry of foreign nationals from a slew of affected countries.

Satellite images from NASA’s Earth Observatory show significant drops in pollution across China and Italy since the start of the outbreak, as travel restrictions in those countries halt air, train and road traffic.

Italy, which has become a center of the outbreak outside of China, has undergone some visual environmental changes without tourism. Venice’s typically murky waterways have turned clear since the sediment remains on the ground without boat traffic. The water quality in the canals is not necessarily changed, but the air quality has improved.

“As for the environmental benefits we see from the slowdown of day-to-day life and economic activity in terms of improving air quality and other slight benefits, it’s a good sign that our ecosystems are somewhat resilient if we don’t completely destroy them,” Gleick said.

“But it would be nice if we could improve our environment without having to cripple our economy,” he added.

Scientists argue that the long-term impact of the coronavirus pandemic on climate change will depend on how countries and corporations respond to an economic crisis.

NASA Earth

@NASAEarth

Nitrogen dioxide over has dropped with the coronavirus quarantine, Chinese New Year, and a related economic slowdown. https://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/images/146362/airborne-nitrogen-dioxide-plummets-over-china 

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The International Energy Agency, or IEA, has warned the virus will weaken global investments in clean energy and industry efforts to reduce emissions, and has called on governments to offer stimulus packages that consider climate change.

But an economic stimulus package that considers global warming will likely not be the response from many countries.

For example, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic recently urged the European Union to abandon its landmark green law focusing on carbon neutrality as it grapples with the virus outbreak. The Czech Republic depends largely on nuclear energy and coal.

Furthermore, major U.S. airlines are asking for billions of dollars in government aid as they face potential bankruptcy from travel decline, which President Donald Trump has endorsed. Air travel is expected to bounce back after the pandemic subsides, and the industry’s emissions are expected to triple by 2050.

Climate researchers warn that the virus will hinder climate change action from corporations and countries in the long-run.

Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University and chair of the Global Carbon Project, said companies that are hurting financially will likely delay or cancel climate-friendly projects that require investment up front.

Sarah Myhre, a climate scientist and environmental justice activist, said that the way in which the world recovers from the pandemic is vital in the fight against climate change.

“If the actions here continue to bail out fossil fuel companies and multinational corporations and banks, and invest in fossil fuel infrastructure, then we are digging a hole deeper into a more violent and dangerous place,” Myhre said.

“I think that there’s potential for this pandemic to become a moment of mass awaking of our ability to have compassion for each other,” she added.

GP: Coronavirus Times Square New York City streets getting empty day by day
New York’s famous Times Square is seen nearly empty due to coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic on March 16, 2020 in New York, United States.
Tayfun Coskun | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Our Endangered Species Need This Law to Survive.

By latest estimates, over 1 million species are in danger of disappearing globally. Much of this is due to biodiversity’s arch-enemy, climate change. But there is another culprit that is also picking off our earth’s beautiful animal species one by one – the lucrative and illegal wildlife trafficking trade. Many of these animals end up part of the tourism industry like the orcas and dolphins of SeaWorld to which Expedia still sells tickets. Other animals, on the other hand, are not so lucky.

Animals like lions, tigers, chimpanzees, gorillas, and many more are the targets of organized crime syndicates that trade in their flesh and bone, killing them in unsustainable numbers and selling them for souvenirs, trinkets, and “medicine.”

Passing this bill could help endangered animals. Sign to ask the U.S. Congress to do so.

It is paramount that governments like the United States create strong legislation that works against these organizations and the destruction they cause. One such remedy could be the Rescuing Animals With Rewards (RAWR) Act. The RAWR Act was introduced in May of 2019 and would empower the United States State Department to offer financial rewards in exchange for information that leads to the disruption of the multi-billion dollar wildlife trafficking trade. Since the bill’s introduction by U.S. Senators Susan Collins and Jeff Merkley, it has lingered in the Senate chamber. Meanwhile, the House acted swiftly and passed it in July.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t good enough to make it law. Now, in order to make it a reality, both the Senate and House will have to reintroduce the bill for the 2020 session. Last year’s delay in the Senate is worrying. This is a bill that could save millions of animal lives and help stem the global extinction crisis but it was allowed to fizzle out. Will there be movement this year?

It is more important than ever to strengthen our nation’s laws against trafficking and that’s why the RAWR Act is so crucial.

Tell Congress you support this important bill and that it must be reintroduced and passed this year without delay. Please sign the petition and tell them to do so today.

Sorry Mother Nature, you’ll have to come up with something better if you want to stop humans


Image may contain: bird, possible text that says 'Its not Corona, its Karma'

 

Coronovirus, climate change and anything else Nature has thrown at them, so far, has failed to put the species Homo sapiens in their place. The reasons for her (inadequate) efforts are clear to see for anyone willing to look: humans have taken over the entire planet and driven all her other special children to the brink of extinction. Humans simply don’t care about anything outside themselves and their own species to do what it takes to keep this diverse, once-thriving planet alive…

While most species are hovering at the precipice of existence, humans are increasing at the rate of 227,000 births per day! And that’s even with the perils of a warming planet and an emerging pandemic to put them in their place. No Mam, it’ll take more than that if you want to rid the world of and save the Earth from arguably the most successful and clearly the most destructive and in-grateful beings you’ve ever brought into this world. Just look at how they treated all the other species who dared to share their genus in centuries past. Bred them to extinction my eye—humans forced themselves on the others just as surely as Harvey Weinstein or Koby Bryant didn’t simply ‘bred’ with their unwilling victims.

 

Here’s some light reading on overpopulation, for those who want to take a look at the bigger and bigger picture: http://www.biologicaldiversity.org/programs/population_and_sustainability/

There are more than 7 billion people on the planet, and we’re adding 227,000 more every day. The toll on wildlife is impossible to miss: Species are disappearing 1,000 to 10,000 times faster than the natural rate. It’s clear that these issues need to be addressed before it’s too late…

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What’s tangling up the humpback whales? A food chain snarled by climate change

Humpback whale

A humpback whale breaches off the coast of Long Beach.
(Nick Ut / Associated Press)

Karin Forney still remembers when an unusual number of humpback whales started showing up in Monterey Bay a few winters ago. She could see them out her window — so close to the surf that kayakers could literally paddle up to them.

But with this delightful arrival came an alarming number of humpbacks getting entangled in fishing gear that cut into their flesh and often led to death. This sudden crisis confounded scientists, fishermen and animal rights groups.

“We went from virtually no humpback whale entanglements to one every other week — and then during peak, in the spring of 2016 … we were basically on call every single day,” said Forney, an applied marine ecologist at the NOAA Fisheries who scrambled to help the rescue efforts.

“The whales just kept coming.”

In a study published Monday, a team of scientists solved the mystery. They showed how one dramatic shift in the marine ecosystem, exacerbated by an ever-warming planet, could set off a domino effect across California.

An unprecedented heat wave in the Pacific Ocean, dubbed “the blob,” had pushed anchovies and other humpback food closer to shore — right where most Dungeness crab fishermen tend to set their gear. The crab season, in turn, had been unusually delayed by the blob, so fishing did not peak until the whales started coming into town.

“The timing of everything is so sensitive from an ecosystem perspective,” said Jarrod Santora, lead author of the study and an ecosystem oceanographer with NOAA Fisheries and UC Santa Cruz. “We could have prevented this perfect storm from happening in 2016 — if we had this ecosystem science and a communication system in place.”

Bay Area crab fishing

Crab fishermen load traps onto their boat at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.
(Justin Sullivan/ Getty Images)

The ocean is already a complicated place to live, and it’s not getting easier. Marine heat waves have doubled in frequency since 1982, and recent reports declared that global ocean temperatures in 2019 were the warmest on record — a trend that has continued for the last decade.

The chemistry of the water itself is acidifying at alarming rates — the cost of relying on our oceans to absorb so much of the world’s heat and carbon emissions.

Following the blob, which took hold in 2014 and overwhelmed marine life for three years, scientists documented the largest toxic algae bloom in the West Coast. Malnourished sea lions washed ashore, another study confirmed, and more than half a million seabirds starved to death — strewn across the coast from California to the Gulf of Alaska.

Monday’s study, published in the journal Nature Communications, brought together different scientists and data sources to piece together a bigger ecosystem picture in California.

Humpback whales eat both krill and anchovies, depending on what’s available. Krill tend to thrive in deeper and colder waters — and well up with the typical currents along the California coast.

But during the blob years, there was very little krill for the whales to eat, and what few anchovies were available were being squeezed into areas closer to shore in what scientists call a habitat compression. Humpbacks followed these clusters of anchovies to shallower and shallower waters, especially in Monterey, Point Reyes and Half Moon Bay.

Rescuers free entangled whale

A young humpback whale entangled in fishing gear is freed in Monterey Bay, days after it was first spotted by a fisherman.
(Marine Life Studies Whale Entanglement Team via Associated Press)

The entanglements with fishing gear soared starting in 2014 and 2015, but then in 2016, a domoic acid outbreak (also thanks to the blob) kept the crab fishery shut until the first week of April — instead of its usual start date in mid-November.

This amplified the co-occurrence, as Santora calls it, of the whales being forced to feed in smaller concentrations closer to shore — right where the prime crab fishing areas tend to be. By 2016, there were more than 50 recorded entanglements, he said, “and that is just astonishing.”

“Historically, we always said: ‘My, aren’t we lucky that the crab fishery operates mostly from November through February, maybe March, and the whales are here from only March to November,” said Forney, the NOAA researcher in Monterey Bay, who was also an author on the study.

But more and more fishermen, she said, are sticking with crab through June. Salmon fishing, which many used to switch to around February, has become less reliable in this changing world.

John Mellor, who fishes mostly for crab out of San Francisco, said he’s eager for more science and coordination to protect all the marine life that makes California special.

“I’ve been fishing for 40 years, and things changed so drastically starting about 2013, 2014 … it was profound,” he said. “Suddenly the water was 10 degrees hotter, the forage was disrupted and whale patterns were disrupted, and it caused this whole chain reaction.”

The industry — the most valuable fishery in California — has been taking this very seriously, he said. “People are using best practices, like not using a bunch of slack rope or extra buoys on the surface.”

Tension was high in light of a recent lawsuit by the Center for Biological Diversity, which threatened to restrict crab fishing. A conservation plan is now being developed to address these marine interconnections.

The crab fishermen are treading cautiously and decided to start this season a little later, Mellor said, because there were still whales popping up in San Francisco. If we entangled even one or two, it could’ve resulted in the season being closed all year.”

They lost the profitable Thanksgiving rush and the most productive time to fish for crabs — when they’re just coming out of their molt. But taking care of and minding the balance of the ocean, Mellor said, is in everyone’s best interest.

Humpback whale

Humpback whales, known for their energetic leaps out of water, are popular among whale watchers along the iconic California coast.
(National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)

Mellor is part of what he calls a dedicated “hotshot crew” of scientists, fishermen, environmentalists and wildlife officials who got together when the entanglements first increased. Santora and Forney’s study provided the scientific baseline needed for this working group, which has been developing tools to better anticipate and avoid entanglement.

Many say this group, which was urgently convened in 2015 by the state’s Ocean Protection Council and wildlife and fisheries officials, is the future of ocean management: Setting aside differences, sharing field notes, compiling all the different data streams and figuring out how these multiple issues overlap. Reported entanglements have since dropped off but still remain higher than before the spike.

The scientists are now developing a website that will use all this data to forecast the areas where whales are most likely to be feeding off the West Coast. Crab fishermen could then decide where — and where not — to set their traps. Regulators could make calls on when to open or close a fishery.

Using these new tools and thinking about the ecosystem as a whole — rather than the traditional approach of focusing on one type of fish or species at a time — will help everyone adjust to more rapid and frequent changes in the marine environment.

They’ve created a framework, said Paige Berube of the Ocean Protection Council, to assess and manage risk in a way that can protect both ecological and economic imperatives.

“We can protect biodiversity, protect whales and sea turtles,” she said, “and also ensure that we continue to have thriving commercial fisheries that are iconic to our coastal identity as Californians.”