A Grim Prediction Gave These Ice Caps 5 Years. They Didn’t Even Last That Long


4 AUGUST 2020

Scientists don’t always like being right: take the team that warned in a paper published in 2017 that the St. Patrick Bay ice caps in Canada would soon disappear, for example. The latest NASA satellite imagery shows that their prediction has sadly come true, and even faster than they expected.

Scientists from the National Snow and Ice Data Centre (NSIDC) at the University of Colorado Boulder initially predicted the disappearance of the St. Patrick Bay ice caps would take place over five years, but it’s actually only taken three.

The frozen sheets, probably in place for several centuries, measured more than 10 square kilometres (3.86 square miles) combined at the end of the 1950s, and have now shrunk down to nothing. It’s a sign of the climate change that’s gaining momentum all around the world, and showing no signs of stopping.

“When I first visited those ice caps, they seemed like such a permanent fixture of the landscape,” says geographer and NSIDC director Mark Serreze. “To watch them die in less than 40 years just blows me away.”

canada 2Ice cover in 2015 (left) and 2020 (right). (Bruce Raup/NSIDC)

Serreze was a young graduate student when he first set foot on the ice caps in 1982, and he was the lead author of the 2017 paper alerting the world to their drastic demise. By 2015, the ice caps were only five percent the size of what they were in 1959.

Recent imagery from the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) instrument on the NASA Terra satellite shows no trace of the St. Patrick Bay ice at all. The ice in this region is unlikely to return any time soon.

The two ice caps that have vanished are part of a group on the Hazen Plateau, in the north of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, way up in the Arctic Archipelago – one of the most northerly points of Canada.

Two ice caps often linked with the St. Patrick Bay pair, the Murray and Simmons ice caps, are faring better due to their higher elevation – in 2015 their ice cover was at 39 percent and 25 percent respectively, compared with the 1959 figure. However, scientists think they too could soon be gone.

When Serreze and his colleagues first started surveying the Hazen Plateau ice at the start of the 1980s, scientific consensus on global warming was still forming, and some researchers had suggested the planet was actually in a period of global cooling. The studies started back then were partly an attempt to find out one way or the other.

canada 3Ice cover tracked over time. (NSIDC)

Now there’s no doubt what’s happening. While the St. Patrick Bay ice caps may not be two of the most famous or significant points of geological interest in the world, they represent a small microcosm that reflects what’s happening to our planet as a whole.

They’re also a reminder that while scientists aren’t infallible, they very often do know what they’re talking about – and that when we get warnings about what’s coming our way in the future, we’d do well to take heed and to take action.

“We’ve long known that as climate change takes hold, the effects would be especially pronounced in the Arctic,” says Serreze.

“But the death of those two little caps that I once knew so well has made climate change very personal. All that’s left are some photographs and a lot of memories.”

The original 2017 research was first published in The Cryosphere.

Animal Agriculture and Its Negative Impact on Climate Change


One of the most overlooked factors of accelerated climate change is animal agriculture. Could changes to the human diet help us slow down the climate crisis?Reading Time: 6 minutes

Animal agriculture has long left its mark upon the earth. Forests have fallen and grasslands trampled in favor of crops and pastureland. Now, however, this sector’s impacts are being felt in the atmosphere – carrying troubling implications for every living thing on the planet.

The agriculture sector is one of the biggest drivers of anthropogenic – meaning human-caused – climate change. Animal agriculture, which sees the raising and processing of ruminants, poultry, and marine life, accounts for some of the biggest sources of greenhouse gasses. Global temperatures rise as forest cover decreases, and oceans warm as they absorb ever-more carbon dioxide. 

Yet there are solutions to these problems – among which is the adoption of plant-based diets. It is not too late for the world to take action against the perils of a changing climate, but time for action is now. 

How Does Animal Agriculture Affect The Environment

Practicing agriculture does not necessarily come naturally to us as a species. For much of human prehistory, people lived in societies oriented around hunting and gathering. The earliest signs of agriculture can be dated at around 12,000 years ago, yet since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, agriculture has taken on an entirely new face, adopting intensive practices such as concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs) which foster truly heartbreaking conditions for farmworkers, animals, and surrounding communities alike. 

Called humanity’s greatest mistake by some due to the resulting hard labor, diminished nutrition, and social inequality brought by agriculture, this system of food production now presents the world with a new quandary: environmental destruction on scales that can no longer be ignored. 

CAFOs produce enormous amounts of waste, which collect in vast open-air lagoons that can be breached by extreme weather events or gradually seep into groundwater. Water pollution from CAFOs can cause algal blooms which can devastate entire marine ecosystems. Air pollution is generated from CAFOs as manure is vaporized, sending toxic wafts through the air to surrounding communities. 

Vast fields of monocrops also cause a host of environmental effects, including air pollution. Pesticides and herbicides are sprayed in liberal amounts, which can cause a host of debilitating illnesses, including cancers, for farmworkers and surrounding communities. Soil depletion is also a serious looming issue. Monocropping, along with the overuse of agrochemicals including synthetic fertilizers like nitrogen and phosphorus, are denying fields a fallow period or crop rotation has the effect of leeching soils of their nutrients. These practices render soils far less productive over time. It takes hundreds, if not thousands, of years for soils to become abundantly fertile again. 

Impact Of Animal Agriculture On Climate Change

Out of all the human activities that cause climate change, agriculture is one of the biggest contributors. Estimates as of 2020 put the sector’s global contributions at 37 percent. Below are a few key factors accounting for climate change emissions resulting from human-cased agriculture. 

Land Use

A full 50 percent of the world’s livable land – meaning land that is ice-free and fertile – is being used for agriculture. No other human activity takes up more space. In contrast, all urban areas account for around one percent of livable land use. A whopping 77 percent of agricultural land is dedicated to raising animals, including grazing and the land used to grow their feed, including vast monocrops of species like corn and soy. Surprisingly, this huge expenditure of resources and land use provides only 18 percent of the world’s calories. 

Land used for any type of agriculture – be it livestock or crops meant for people or animals – is brought under cultivation by clearing forests and grasslands, which are carbon sinks due to their abilities to absorb carbon. Currently, forests consume roughly a quarter of all anthropogenic CO2, yet the more forests are slashed and burned to make way for pastureland or monocrops, the less carbon will be absorbed, resulting in accelerated climate change.


Farmed animals – referred to as livestock – generate over 14 percent of all anthropogenic emissions, with estimated totals hovering around seven gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emitted every year. The bulk of these emissions are due to raising cattle for meat and dairy, contributing 60 percent of total livestock emissions.  These emissions are thanks to the vast amounts of resources cows consume, the land they require for pasture (in the case of beef cattle), and other manure they produce. Cow manure contains nitrous oxide and methane, the latter being one of the most potent greenhouse gasses due to its outsized ability to absorb heat. 


Marine life, including fish, shellfish, shrimp, and other animals are taken from the seas in astronomical numbers. Nets, some of which are large enough to contain 12 jumbo jet airplanes, are dragged through the water or across the bottom of the seafloor, capturing everything in their path. Direct fishing activity, plus the energy expended to transport, process, and refrigerate carcasses amounted to an estimated total of 179 million tonnes of greenhouse gasses in 2011 – and this number likely will continue to grow as demand for seafood increases. 

How Do Greenhouse Gases Affect the Climate?

In greenhouses designed to grow plants, the transparent glass structure allows sunlight into the greenhouse while preventing heat from escaping. The earth’s atmosphere functions in a similar way, with gas molecules acting like the glass. Certain gases are more effective at absorbing heat than others; these include methane, nitrous oxide, and perhaps the most infamous, carbon dioxide. These three gasses are among the main culprits of climatic warming and change caused by human activities. 

One of the biggest drivers of global warming has been the release of carbon into the atmosphere due to the burning of fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil, and coal, which power many aspects of modern life. Even electric cars, which run on batteries and do not themselves generate carbon emissions, draw electricity from grids still run on fossil fuels (although the goal of using 100% renewable energy for electric grids is more achievable than ever). When carbon released from fossil fuel burning is released into the atmosphere, it binds with oxygen and forms carbon dioxide and begins trapping heat in the atmosphere. Because carbon emissions make up the vast majority (81 percent, as of 2018) of total greenhouse gases, they pose one of the gravest threats to climate stability. 

Although carbon is the greatest emitted by volume, other greenhouse gases can be much more potent. For example, one ton of nitrous oxide – emitted by agricultural processes including the use of nitrogen fertilizers in crop production – is equivalent to nearly 300 tons of carbon dioxide.

Methane is approximately 30 times more potent in its ability to absorb and trap heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Can Greenhouse Gas Emissions From Animal Agriculture Be Reduced?

By far, the most effective way to reduce the animal agriculture sector’s greenhouse gas footprint is to significantly reduce, and eventually eliminate animal agriculture. While this might sound “extreme”, it is the state of industrial animal agriculture – characterized by inhumane CAFOs, waste lagoons teeming with pathogens and antibiotics, and requiring enormous land and feed inputs – which is even more extreme

This is not to say that eliminating animal agriculture is something easily accomplished. Demand will have to decrease, thanks to people turning to plant-based diets. The ease of adopting these diets is not the same for everyone, however. Many lower-income neighborhoods in the United States are classified as food deserts, where a lack of grocery stores forces people to endure extremely limited options, such as gas stations or fast-food restaurants. 

People in nations like the United States who do not live in food deserts bear much of the responsibility for reducing demand for animal products. Fortunately, plant-based options abound to replace animals in a wide range of products, from cheese to milk to burgers and sausages. Beyond Meat and Impossible Foods are two of the leading companies in the plant-based meat sector, helping the idea of plant-based meats go mainstream and helping people understand that it’s possible to achieve the BBQ-worthy tastes without the climate side-effects. Plant-based meats use up to 99 percent less land and emit up to 90 percent fewer greenhouse gas emissions.

Animal Agriculture And Global Warming

Flying in planes or driving SUVs have long been understood as having negative impacts on the global climate. While these are certainly deserving of critique and change, the agriculture sector deserves time in the spotlight. If industrial agriculture continues to grow unchecked, global warming will increase – with potentially disastrous impacts, the beginnings of which are being felt today. Methane, produced by livestock including sheep, goats, and cows, is a greenhouse gas with a terrific ability to trap heat in the atmosphere. The agriculture industry is responsible for fully 40 percent of the total anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

In order to curb global warming, and keep the global temperature increase below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says that global emissions will need to be reduced by around 40 to 50 percent. According to the U.N., the only way to achieve these reductions is to drastically increase forested land – which means reclaiming land currently under cultivation and to stop intrusions into existing forests.  


Due to its profound impacts on the climate and environment around the world, agriculture may well be humanity’s gravest mistake – because it may be our undoing. Unless greenhouse gas emissions are seriously curbed, the world is going to be a far more difficult place to endure. Reducing demand for animal agriculture and adopting a plant-based diet is among the most important actions any individual can make. 

Burger King’s New Low-Methane Burgers Aren’t Going to Save Us


The meat industry is under intense scrutiny for its climate impact, with beef singled out as the biggest culprit. But if you want to save the planet, opt for the salad. It’s that simple.Reading Time: 5 minutes

July is over and with it Burger King’s short-lived but much-touted experiment with low-methane burgers. Two weeks ago, an ad for burgers made from cows fed with lemongrass to reduce the climate impact of their burps went viral, garnering the company free advertising by virtually all major media networks as well as some well-deserved criticism. Now the ad, like all things viral, is on its way to being forgotten, and the allegedly low-methane burger will fade off menus. But the whole episode can tell us a lot about how meat producers are greenwashing their products.

Burger King, like other companies that sell beef, is beginning to feel the heat from global climate change, and they are responding to the climate crisis by presenting unsustainable products as environmentally friendly. Don’t be fooled. Any way you slice it, beef’s climate cost can’t be reduced with marginal fixes like lemongrass.

The viral ad announcing Burger King’s new “low emissions” burger is a joke—and a fart joke at that. It opens with a boy styled in a white cowboy suit with a guitar in hand. He kicks open a saloon door embedded in a gassy bovine rectum (yes, really!) and, backed by a chorus of two-stepping tykes, he honky-tonks his way through psychedelic pastures and rolling hills among farting woodcut cows. The kids dance past melting icebergs and above billowing methane clouds, before donning hats decorated with lemongrass tufts. “Since we are part of the problem, we’re working to be part of the solution,” Burger King concludes. But they’re only half right!

The scene sure is something, but the science is dubious. Cows mostly burp, not fart methane. That Burger King is sniffing the wrong end of the cow is, at best, a joke and, regardless, a reminder that the company is in the burger business and not science business. The 33 percent methane reduction the company promises by switching to “low emissions” beef is also misleading. The claim is not based on peer-reviewed science, and the alleged reduction only accounts for emissions in the final “fattening” stage of production—as opposed to a cow’s entire life—meaning its total contribution to reducing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) is probably closer to 3-4 percent. Tellingly, Burger King released the ad on the same day that scientists announced that global methane emissions have grown dramatically in the past two decades.

Burger King’s ad is just the latest example of a growing trend of greenwashing in beef marketing. Beef industry organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the Beef Checkoff Program regularly issue press releases and factsheets touting the “sustainability” of beef, while major beef producers publicly swear they’re cutting GHG emissions. And it seems to be working, with some major media organizations lapping up the message that “Low-methane meat is a thing now.”

It’s easy to see why Big Beef is working hard to cast their product as climate-friendly. Over the past two decades, the meat industry has come under intense scrutiny for its climate impact, with beef singled out as the biggest culprit. Livestock—between methane emissions, the production of feed, and other production costs—contribute about 15 percent of total global GHGs and, since cattle make up 40 percent of that, cattle alone make up about 6 percent of humanity’s GHG footprint. In the U.S., cattle represent 3.7 percent, or about 240,500,000 metric tons, of GHGs per year.

The average American eats about 57 pounds of beef per year, and between the domestic and export market, the U.S. produces around 27 billion pounds annually. That’s 33.6 million head of cattle, with just four enormous producers—Cargill, Tyson Foods, JBS USA, and National Beef—accounting for 85 percent of the supply. These cattle have a massive environmental footprint and require an enormous amount of land.

Beef advocates are mustering a defense of their climate impact under the slogan, “It’s not the Cow. It’s the How.” Some acknowledge the impact of large-scale, feedlot-fed beef, but encourage smaller-scale “regenerative” agriculture. These advocates contend that cattle grazing stimulates carbon sequestration in soils and that cows’ manure can substitute for carbon-intensive synthetic fertilizers, thereby offsetting methane emissions and making cattle GHG-neutral. Evangelists of regenerative agriculture argue that it could become the dominant form of cattle production. This is unlikely. Not only is the scientific community not sold on its climate benefits, but the system cannot be scaled up to supply low-cost beef to low-cost retailers and restaurants like Burger King. According to Matthew Hayek, Ph.D., who studies the environmental impacts of our food system at New York University, there simply isn’t enough land in the U.S. to graze all those cows.

For the commodity beef producers, meanwhile, their only option is to find ways of cutting emissions within existing production chains. Increasingly, they have resorted to changing cows’ diets to try and reduce their carbon footprint. Studies have shown, for instance, that feeding cows seaweed can potentially reduce methane emissions by upwards of 60 percent. The industry has been quick to use these studies to boast that they are part of the solution to global climate change.

But these methane reductions are theoretical, marginal, and impractical. Globally, most cows eat a standard diet. It is unclear that feed additives can be produced affordably at scale. Enormous monocultures of algae required for cattle feed may also have serious ecological costs. And, like Burger King’s sustainability claims, these solutions focus primarily on the “finishing” stage of production. To put it simply, there’s no such thing as a zero-emissions cow, and even a reduced-emissions cow produces far more GHGs than other protein sources. And none of this addresses the cattle industry’s other ecological impacts, like deforestation and contamination of waterways. This solution is also incompatible with regenerative agriculture: feed additives require standardization and scaled mass confinement, exactly the thing regenerative grazing is supposed to eliminate.

Big Beef is trying to put lipstick on the, er, cow. The emerging scientific consensus is that beef production needs to be massively reduced globally, and diets need to adapt if we’re to keep food production within planetary limits.

Meanwhile, the entire meat industry now faces heightened criticism unrelated to GHGs. Recently, we’ve seen packers strong-arm vulnerable workers into COVID-19 “superspreader” slaughterhouses. We’ve seen the industry respond to production bottlenecks by “depopulating” (industry-speak for killing) millions of farm animals. We’ve seen hurricanes dump millions of gallons of livestock manure into drinking water. Now add this to the butcher’s bill: agriculture is responsible for half of all zoonotic disease and a full quarter of all infectious diseases since 1940.

This moment of crisis should be a moment of transformation, not greenwashing. Whatever consumers choose to order at Burger King (we recommend the meat-free, actually low-impact Impossible Burger), we should not applaud solutions that trivialize the scale and nature of the problem. Big Beef must be regulated to ensure that its workers are safe and that the price of its product reflects its true cost to the public, workers, future generations, and animals. It should be taxed, and those monies should be invested in public projects aimed at environmental sustainability, GHG reduction, and the development of cellular agriculture that would allow consumers to eat beef without the cows and their burps. And, ultimately, industrial animal agriculture should be eliminated.

In the meantime, being a conscientious consumer is hard. We all make compromises. But if you think that eating Burger King’s “low emissions” burger is a real solution, you’re the sucker. Want to save the planet? Opt for the salad. It’s that simple.

The Trump administration cooks the climate change numbers once again



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The Trump administration cooks the climate change numbers once again

© iStock

In its campaign against action on greenhouse gas emissions, one of the more subtle moves by the Trump administration is its manipulation of the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC). This number is used to represent the damage resulting from emitting an additional ton of carbon. Climate economists sometimes refer to it as the most important number you’ve never heard of. Undermine the SCC and you can discredit action to fight climate change, boost support for the fossil fuel industry, tip the scales away from renewable energy and counter other important policy initiatives. Fortunately, in a detailed report on the estimation of the SCC, the congressional watchdog General Accounting Office has called out this latest affront to reliable assessment of the science and risks of climate change.

The SCC is a key input to the benefit-cost analyses required of all federal regulatory actions, and thus is an important factor in their justification. The federal SCC estimate has also been adopted by several states. Examples of the SCC’s use are abundant, including the setting of reasonable federal standards for the performance of private automobiles and appliances.

Estimating the SCC requires joint consideration of natural and social science aspects of the climate change problem. A federal working group spent nearly a decade on this process. Recognizing that the underlying methodology needed rigorous and impartial review, the interagency group commissioned a comprehensive update by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (NAS). The 2017 NAS report supported the previous approach to valuing the SCC, recommending a program of research and analysis to improve the estimate.

The Trump administration did not follow this recommendation. Instead, it imposed measures to hobble reliable estimation of the SCC. The earlier working group was disbanded, associated documents were withdrawn and the NAS study was ignored. Instead, changes were made to limit the SCC’s scope and the weight it gave to future generations. These changes cannot be justified by either the science or the standards deemed acceptable for benefit-cost studies.

As a result of the administration’s changes, the previous central value for the SCC – roughly $50 per ton of CO2 – was reduced by nearly 90 percent.  

These changes are misguided and pernicious. They limit damages to those occurring within U.S. borders, and thus reflect a tragic misunderstanding about climate change and the U.S. national interest. CO2 emissions, primarily from the burning of fossil fuels, impact every person on the planet, regardless of the geographical location of the source. To limit current and future climate change damages, it is in the U.S. national interest not only to reduce its own emissions, but also to encourage other countries to do the same. The administration’s near-zero SCC does just the opposite, offering other countries a pretense for adopting positions that mimic those of the world’s second-largest emitter. 

There are many other causes for concern. The impacts of our emissions will be felt most cruelly by the most vulnerable Americans, and by those countries least able to cope with the ensuing damages. Ignoring the needs of these individuals and countries threatens to exacerbate societal inequities at home and to create millions of environmental refugees abroad. Humanitarian crises that would burden rich and poor nations alike are the obvious consequences. Preventing these crises is both the right thing to do and in our own self-interest.

Another critical aspect of the SCC calculation is the value placed on future generations. Intergenerational equity is a contentious topic. There are reasonable debates among social scientists about what constitutes fairness in the treatment of unborn generations. Despite these disagreements, there is convergence among scholars as to what represents a plausible range of discount factors. The administration, ignoring the prudent advice of the NAS authors and other knowledgeable experts, provides no analysis of its own. It simply mandates a set of discount rates at the higher end of the spectrum, to the disadvantage of future generations. 

In its assessment of the administration’s SCC procedure, the GAO uses careful diplomatic language. It writes that, “. . . the federal government may not be well positioned to ensure agencies’ future regulatory analyses are using the best available science.” Our interpretation is more direct: Ignoring the science to cook the numbers discredits the federal process for public decision-making.

The GAO recommends that a federal agency should be made responsible for addressing the NAS report, and for ensuring that the best-available science is used in calculating the SCC. Sadly, there is little expectation that this recommendation will be heeded by an administration that denies the reality and seriousness of the climate threat.

Richard Richels directed climate change research at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). He served on the National Assessment Synthesis Team for the first U.S. National Climate Assessment.

Henry D. Jacoby is the William F. Pounds Professor of Management, Emeritus in the M.I.T. Sloan School of Management and former co-director of the M.I.T. Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change.

Gary Yohe is the Huffington Foundation Professor of Economics and Environmental Studies, Emeritus, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. He served as convening lead author for multiple chapters and the Synthesis Report for the IPCC from 1990 through 2014 and was vice-chair of the Third US National Climate Assessment.

Ben Santer is a climate scientist and member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. He served as convening lead author of the climate change detection and attribution chapter of the IPCC’s Second Assessment Report and has contributed to all five IPCC assessments. 

Soaring methane emissions threaten to put climate change goals out of reach


Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have soared over the past decade, according to two new studies that tracked growing sources of the odorless, colorless gas.


Environmentalists say that agriculture and transportation activities have boosted the amount of Methane in Earth’s atmosphere.Dago Galdieri / Bloomberg via Getty ImagesJuly 14, 2020, 4:17 PM PDTBy Denise Chow

Earth’s climate crisis is starting to look even worse than scientists had feared — in part because of just how much meat we eat and how we get around.

Global emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas, have soared over the past decade, according to two new studies that tracked growing sources of the odorless, colorless gas. The increased methane, combined with carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, could warm Earth’s atmosphere by 3 to 4 degrees Celsius before the end of this century — significantly above the levels that scientists have warned could be catastrophic for millions of people around the world.

“This completely overshoots our budget to stay below 1.5 to 2 degrees of warming,” said Benjamin Poulter, a research scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. Poulter is an author on both studies published Tuesday, one in the journal Earth System Science Data and the other in the journal Environmental Research Letters.

Poulter and his colleagues found that since 2000, the biggest increases in methane emissions came from agricultural activities — particularly from livestock, such as cattle and sheep — and the fossil fuel industry, which includes coal mining as well as oil and gas production.

Human activities account for about 60 percent of global methane emissions, according to the researchers. Agriculture makes up roughly two-thirds of that, with fossil fuel production and use contributing most of the rest.

JULY 14, 202002:01

In the new studies, researchers analyzed methane emissions from 2000 through 2017 — the latest year for which complete global methane figures are available — and found that a record 600 million tons of methane were released into the atmosphere in 2017. Annual emissions of methane have also increased by 9 percent since the early 2000s, a pace that could contribute to more than 2 degrees Celsius of global warming by 2100.

report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October 2018 highlighted that the planet has already warmed by 1 degree Celsius since the 19th century; it used 1.5 degrees of warming above pre-industrial levels as a threshold beyond which the effects of climate change, including extreme heat and sea-level rise, become life-threatening for tens of millions of people around the world.

Another author on both studies, Rob Jackson, a professor of Earth system science at Stanford University, said the amount of methane released into the atmosphere since 2000 is roughly equivalent to adding 350 million more cars on the road.

In 2017, methane emissions from agriculture rose by nearly 11 percent from the 2000-06 average, while methane from fossil fuels jumped by nearly 15 percent compared to the early 2000s.

Methane is released into the atmosphere when coal, oil and natural gas are mined and transported, but microbes also emit it in low-oxygen environments.

“Any place where there is little to no oxygen — wetlands, rice paddies, landfills, the gut of a cow — are all sources of methane,” Jackson said.


DATA GRAPHICSCoronavirus deaths: U.S map shows number of fatalities compared to confirmed cases

DATA GRAPHICSGraphic: Coronavirus deaths in the U.S., per day

Overall, methane makes up a much smaller percentage of global greenhouse gas emissions than carbon dioxide does, but it’s of particular concern to scientists because methane’s molecular structure makes it more readily able to absorb thermal radiation.

“Methane doesn’t last as long in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, but it’s much more efficient at trapping heat than carbon dioxide,” Poulter said, which makes the gas a key factor in global warming.

To curb methane emissions, countries need to reduce their reliance on fossil fuels, in addition to reducing the number of harmful leaks from pipelines and wells, Jackson said.

Scientists are also studying how to minimize methane emissions in agricultural practices, such as altering water levels in rice paddies and experimenting with changes in the diets of cattle and sheep to reduce the amount of methane belched from their digestive systems. Burger King recently announced that it is adding lemongrass to the diet of its cows to reduce methane emissions with a lower-carb feeding regimen.

But slowing greenhouse gas emissions will also require bigger changes in human behavior, Jackson said.

“Diet matters,” Jackson said. “Here in the U.S., we have one of the highest rates of red meat consumption in the world. We don’t have to stop eating red meat necessarily, but eating less meat or eating more fish and chicken instead of beef will reduce emissions, too.”

And while the coronavirus pandemic is expected to result in significant decreases in carbon dioxide emissions in 2020 — primarily from economic slowdowns and lockdowns that sharply reduced air travel and other transportation — similar declines are not anticipated with methane.

“Our farmers are still producing food, oil and gas production hasn’t fallen much yet, and methane plays only a tiny part in the transportation sector,” Jackson said. “So while we may see a small decrease this year because of the coronavirus, methane emissions over the last decade are marching upward. And at this rate, we won’t see peak methane emissions any time soon.”

The Impacts of Climate Change and the Trump Administration’s Anti-Environmental Agenda in North Dakota

June 26, 2020, 9:00 am

Getty/Scott Olson

Download the PDF here.

Just in the past three years, the Trump administration has attempted to roll back at least 95 environmental rules and regulations to the detriment of the environment and Americans’ public health. Moreover, the administration refuses to act to mitigate the effects of climate change—instead loosening requirements for polluters emitting the greenhouse gases that fuel the climate crisis. This dangerous agenda is affecting the lives of Americans across all 50 states.

Between 2017 and 2019, North Dakota experienced one severe flood and one intense drought. The damages of these events led to losses of at least $1 billion.

Impacts of climate change

Extreme weather


  • North Dakota currently averages 10 heat wave days per year, but projections indicate that number will increase fivefold to nearly 50 days per year by 2050. This endangers the lives of the approximately 20,000 people living in North Dakota who are especially vulnerable to extreme heat.
  • Fargo, North Dakota, is the 10th fastest-warming city in the United States.

Impacts of the Trump administration’s anti-environmental policies


  • In March 2020, the Trump administration announced its final rule to overturn Obama-era fuel efficiency standards for cars. These weakened fuel standards will lead to higher greenhouse gas and particulate matter emissions and will cost North Dakota residents $74.8 million
  • In August 2019, the Trump administration proposed eliminating federal requirements for oil and gas companies to control leaks of methane from new wells, storage facilities, and pipelines. In 2016, researchers found that the Bakken region in Montana and North Dakota, a significant oil and gas producing area, emits 275,000 tons of methane per year. Methane, a potent greenhouse gas, is responsible for one-quarter of greenhouse gas-driven global warming.
  • The Trump administration is attempting to gut climate considerations from major infrastructure projects by eliminating the “cumulative impact” requirement of the National Environmental Policy Act. This is concerning because North Dakota’s economy relies heavily on its agriculture, tourism, and outdoor recreation industries—all of which are highly dependent on climate and weather conditions.

Air quality

  • Mercury emissions in North Dakota decreased by nearly 55 percent from 2011 to 2017, yet the Trump administration just undermined limits on the amount of mercury and other toxic emissions that are allowed from power plants.

Water quality

  • On the fourth day of Trump’s presidency, the administration issued an executive order advancing the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. In June 2017, the pipelines were fully functional and over the next year saw more than one dozen small spills. In March 2019, more than 9,000 barrels of crude oil had spilled in North Dakota alone, which caused immediate impacts on nearby wetlands.

COVID-19’s Long-Term Effects on Climate Change—For Better or Worse

BY RENEE CHO |JUNE 25, 20206014


Washington D.C. Photo: dmbosstone

As a result of the lockdowns around the world to control COVID-19, huge decreases in transportation and industrial activity resulted in a drop in daily global carbon emissions of 17 percent in April. Nonetheless, CO2 levels in the atmosphere reached their highest monthly average ever recorded in May — 417.1 parts per million. This is because the carbon dioxide humans have already emitted can remain in the atmosphere for a hundred years; some of it could last tens of thousands of years.

Beyond carbon emissions, however, COVID-19 is resulting in changes in individual behavior and social attitudes, and in responses by governments that will have impacts on the environment and on our ability to combat climate change. Many of these will make matters worse, while others could make them better. While it’s unclear how these factors will balance out in the end, one thing is certain: more large-scale actions will be essential to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

For worse

Delay of COP26

The Paris climate accord of 2015, adopted by every country, all of which pledged to take action to keep global average temperatures from rising more than 2° C beyond preindustrial levels, was set to reconvene in November this year at COP26. The countries were to announce plans to ratchet up climate actions, since the plans they submitted in 2015 could still allow global temperatures to rise by a potentially catastrophic 3°C. Now COP26 has been delayed a year. If the conference occurred this fall, countries would likely be more compelled to introduce economic recovery plans for COVID-19 that also further their climate change goals. The delay, however, could enable countries to enact stimulus plans that do not incorporate climate change strategies.

International negotiations delayed

A variety of international negotiations to protect the environment have also been delayed. The World Conservation Congress to evaluate global conservation measures has been postponed to January 2021. The Convention on Biological Diversity, which would have established new global rules to protect wildlife and plants from climate change and other threats, has been postponed until next year. The 2020 U.N. Ocean Conference scheduled for June to plan for sustainable solutions to manage the oceans has been delayed but no new date has been set. And a meeting to finalize the High Seas Treaty to establish agreements for conservation and sustainable development for ocean biodiversity in international waters — a meeting that took years of negotiations to arrange— has been pushed to 2021. These delays could allow some countries to shift their priorities away from the environment.

Deforestation in the Amazon

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro has been calling for more commercial development in the Amazon rainforest, which absorbs two billion tons of CO2 from the atmosphere a year.

Illegal logging in the Amazon. Photo: quapan

Now as Brazil, hard hit by COVID-19, is focused on controlling the virus, illegal loggers and miners are taking advantage of the situation to cut down large swaths of the Amazon. Between January and April, 464 square miles of the rainforest were razed, 55 percent more area than was destroyed in the same period in 2019. The cleared area will be burned to make it suitable for cattle grazing, which could increase the chance of wildfires; wildfires burning out of control in 2019 destroyed an estimated 3,500 square miles of rainforest.

Weakening of climate policies

Some countries and private companies may delay or cancel investments in renewable energy or climate action policies if their finances have been impacted by the pandemic. For example, airlines, responsible for two to three percent of global carbon emissions, have been hard hit financially by the cessation of travel. They are clamoring to defer impending carbon taxes for flights within Europe. And after years of negotiation, a global plan to reduce aviation emissions, set to go into effect in 2021, would compel airlines to improve their international flights’ fuel economy by capping emissions at a 2020 baseline; any increase in future emissions would need to be offset by carbon reduction projects. But because a 2020 baseline would be relatively low, if air travel returns to its “normal” levels, they would be counted as growth and increase the burden on airlines; the United Nations’ International Civil Aviation Organization is considering making 2019 the baseline.

Rollback of U.S. environmental measures

President Trump signed an executive order that enables federal agencies to waive environmental review for infrastructure projects such as highways and pipelines to speed the economic recovery. It weakens the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that requires government agencies to conduct a review of potential environmental and public health impacts before a project is approved and enables local communities to weigh in. The executive order gives NEPA “flexibility” in emergency situations, and allows agencies to put aside normal environmental reviews and make alternative plans.

The EPA has announced that it will temporarily “exercise enforcement discretion” with regard to violations of environmental laws as a result of COVID-19. New guidelines enable companies to monitor themselves to determine if they are violating air and water quality regulations. In other words, entities unable to comply with regulations due to social distancing or shortage of workers will not be penalized. States and environmental groups are suing the EPA for abdicating its duty. Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA under the Obama administration, now president of the Natural Resources Defense Council, called it “an open license to pollute.”

One result of the EPA’s action is that manufacturing or energy production facilities, coal mines, industrial waste landfills and others can delay reporting of their greenhouse gas emissions. This emissions data is necessary to help the EPA assess its existing greenhouse gas regulations and determine if additional ones are necessary.

Using the pandemic as cover, President Trump is continuing his efforts to weaken environmental regulations. The EPA has proposed a new rule that would alter the cost-benefit formulas used in Clean Air Act regulations. “Co-benefits” such as improvements in public health from reducing pollution, will no longer be given as much weight in justifying regulations.

Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument. Photo: NOAA

In addition, Trump signed another executive order opening up a marine conservation area off New England to commercial fishing. The Northeast Canyons and Seamounts Marine National Monument established by President Obama is a haven for endangered right whales and other vulnerable marine creatures.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration declared that it would exercise discretion in enforcing natural gas pipeline safety regulations during the pandemic. This could result in more methane (a greenhouse gas with 80 times more global warming potential than CO2 over a 20-year span) being emitted from leaking pipelines. The EPA estimates that the natural gas pipeline system was responsible for almost 13 percent of national methane emissions in 2018.

Less money for climate resilience and renewable energy

The need for more emergency services coupled with a reduction in tax revenue has taken an economic toll on cities and states. As a result, some have had to delay and divert funding away from climate resilience projects and renewable energy. Miami, which began elevating its flood-prone roads in 2015, had only completed about 20 percent of the work when COVID-19 struck and cut tourism income. The city has lost about one quarter of its total revenue, which will make finishing the job more challenging.

The Obama administration’s $1 billion National Disaster Resilience Competition set aside $1 billion in funding for innovative projects that make cities and states more resilient to climate change, but the funds must be spent by fall 2022. Many projects will need an extension.

Flooding in Norfolk, VA. Photo: Will Parson/Chesapeake Bay Program

For instance, Virginia, which won $121 million to build a flood wall, raise roads and incorporate green infrastructure and pumps to curb flooding in Norfolk, has broken ground on the project, but needs more time to spend all the funds. If Congress does not extend the deadline, most of the 13 projects will not be completed.

While U.S. renewable energy generation doubled over the past 10 years, COVID-19 may undo much of this progress—600,000 jobs in renewable energy, energy efficiency, green vehicles and energy storage have been lost since March. The wind industry estimates it could lose 35,000 jobs, and the Solar Energy Industries Association predicts half its workforce will be out of work by the end of 2020. For example, sales and installations in Illinois, a once booming solar market due to its Future Energy Jobs Act enacted in 2016 to move the state to a clean energy future, have slowed due to COVID-19. Many workers have already been laid off or furloughed with more job losses expected; smaller companies may not survive.

Scientific research disrupted

Due to lockdowns and travel bans, scientists have been unable to travel to do their fieldwork, and there’s a limit to how much some can accomplish with data and computers alone. Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO) closed its labs in March, affecting its researchers. Jacqueline Austermann, an LDEO earth scientist, had a National Science Foundation grant to collect coral fossil samples in the Bahamas this spring; the samples would have helped researchers better understand historical sea levels and how climate change might affect future sea level. The project was put on hold.

Galen McKinley, a professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Columbia University and LDEO, studies the ocean and the carbon cycle, working mostly on the computer, running models and simulations. She depends on data collected by investigators who collect surface ocean carbon data, but many research cruises have been cancelled due to COVID-19.

McKinley explained that in some parts of the ocean, carbon uptake is only measured once every decade or so. “These sections [of ocean research] are very expensive to do. You have to have a ship out there for a couple months to accomplish it with people and equipment. If these sections get cancelled midstream, as one was in the Pacific, those data won’t be taken. So we’ll have a hole in our ability to observe the change in the total uptake of carbon and heat by the ocean. There will be a 10-year gap in our ability to monitor that and understand how the ocean is responding to climate change.”

The cancellation of research cruises not only means a gap in the data, it also means the loss of an unprecedented opportunity. COVID-19 may result in an approximately five to eight percent reduction in average global emissions for the year, and while this is a small amount in the context of the whole system, it offers a rare opportunity to see how Earth responds to cuts on carbon emissions. “All of our observations of the Earth system have been made under a situation where atmospheric CO2 is going up exponentially every year,” said McKinley. “We don’t really know what the Earth will do when we start cutting our emissions, but this is what we want and need to do under the Paris accord. That is one reason why this is a valuable opportunity to tease out any signals of what we can expect the Earth system to do in response to cutting emissions.”

McKinley and colleagues recently found that the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere depends on the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere; in other words, as CO2 emissions decrease, the ocean’s absorption of CO2 will slow. As we cut our emissions, the ocean will eventually begin to release carbon back into the atmosphere. But we don’t know whether this will happen in a few years or a few decades, and the current dip in emissions could provide some clues if researchers could go out in the field to take measurements. Understanding how the ocean circulation and carbon cycle work is key to making more accurate predictions about future conditions.

More plastic

COVID-19 has vastly increased our use of plastic: gloves and masks, plexiglass dividers in stores and offices, and disposable shopping bags.

Litter in Brooklyn. Photo courtesy Kim Mesches

Discarded gloves and masks are littering streets and parks, and personal protective gear is already washing up on beaches around the world. The use of plastic packaging and bags has soared because restaurants rely on take-out and delivery food. Ordering all sorts of other items online has also resulted in more packaging materials, increasing the carbon footprint of e-commerce. Some cities and states have temporarily banned reusable shopping bags, and delayed or rolled back plastic-bag bans. Most large cities are continuing with recycling, but some smaller communities such as Fayetteville, AK and Dalton, GA, have curtailed it altogether.

More cars

The CDC has recommended that people returning to work minimize contact with others, and urged companies to offer incentives to encourage people to ride or drive alone. These guidelines are prompting more individual car use, which will cause traffic congestion and air pollution, and increase greenhouse gas emissions. Apple Maps data have detected many more requests for directions from people driving cars. The CDC advice will also increase the fear many have of taking public transportation.

According to a recent poll, about one third of Americans are considering moving out of cities to less dense areas in the wake of COVID-19. Real estate agents have reported a boom in demand from New York City residents for suburban homes in New Jersey and Connecticut. But suburban living means more driving. A 2014 reportfound that half the household carbon footprint of the U.S. comes from suburban living, as a result of transportation, household energy use and consumption of food and services.

For better

Green recovery in other countries

The European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, has put forth the world’s greenest stimulus plan — a 750 billion euro ($825 billion) economic recovery plan with the goal for the EU to be carbon neutral by 2050. It includes financing for renewable energy, electric vehicle charging and other emissions-friendly projects, including retrofitting old buildings and developing no-carbon fuels like hydrogen. The stimulus plan still needs to be approved by the EU’s 27 member states.

“To the extent that Europe takes moves, that will make it more attractive for other countries to act,” said Scott Barrett, vice dean at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. “But I don’t think example is enough. I think what’s more powerful would be not only their demonstration that it can be done, but a change in the economic calculus—because technology’s changed, because systems are interconnected, and because when Europe did it, it actually became more economic and easier, and possibly necessary for others to do it. If they [EU] are able to lower the cost of alternative energy sources, then those actions would actually make other countries be more inclined to use those alternatives. That leverage creates a positive feedback so that when more countries do more, others want to do more.”

Some countries are also using the pandemic as an opportunity to make their societies more resilient to the looming climate crisis. Germany’s $145 billion stimulus plan devotes about one third of its funds to public transportation, electric vehicles and renewable energy, with no money provided for combustion engine vehicles. The government is also driving down the cost of clean energy, increasing research and development of green hydrogen, and investing in more sustainable agriculture and forest management as well as initiatives to decrease shipping and airlines emissions.

France is investing $8.8 billion to help its car industry, with the aim of becoming the main producer of electric vehicles in Europe. Its plan includes financial incentives to encourage people to exchange their old cars for lower-emissions vehicles and to buy electric cars.

South Korea has introduced a Green New Deal that would make it the first East Asian country to commit to a goal of net-zero emissions by 2050. The plan, which still needs to be signed into law, would include a carbon tax, more investment in renewable energy, training for workers displaced by the transition to clean energy, and an end to public financing of fossil fuel projects.

While the U.S.’s relief plans have so far lacked policies that help combat climate change, House Democrats have proposed a $1.5 green infrastructure plan with much of it focused on green initiatives, resiliency, and reducing the emissions of the transportation sector. It allots $300 billion to fixing and building bridges and roads. The plan also includes funding for education, broadband, clean water and housing. The Republican-led Senate, however, is likely to oppose the plan.

A renewable energy extension

The U.S. Treasury Department has given renewable energy projects more time to take advantage of the production tax credit and the investment tax credit. Renewable energy facilities will now have five years (instead of four) to complete projects that commenced in 2016 and 2017 and still be eligible for the tax credits.

More biking and walking

To help residents trying to avoid public transportation, many cities have closed off streets for pedestrians and increased bike lanes.

Biking in Paris. Photo: Andrew Nash

Oakland, CA introduced Slow Streets, which banned cars on 74 miles of streets, encouraged slower driving, and promoted biking and walking. New York, San Francisco, Minneapolis and Seattle have followed suit. Brookline, MA, a Boston suburb, used temporary structures to widen sidewalks and increase bike lanes.

European cities have also expanded biking. Barcelona added 13 miles of city streets for biking; Berlin has 14 new miles of bike lanes and Rome is building 93 miles for biking. Paris opened almost 400 miles of bikeways as of May.

Less international travel

Transportation is responsible for 23 percent of global carbon emissions, with 11 percent of the sector’s greenhouse gas emissions attributable to aviation. The enormous decrease in international air travel due to COVID-19 has reduced CO2 and nitrogen oxide emissions as well as ozone creation and particulate matter.

Vancouver International Airport. Photo: GoToVan

As people realize they can be equally or more productive at home, remote working will likely become much more common in the future. This may mean more teleconferencing and less international business travel. International trade may also decrease as countries recognize the need to produce more goods domestically.

McKinley said that oceanography research has a particularly large carbon footprint; because collaborators are all over the world, the work entails a lot of long trips. She has been heartened by the success of COVID-19-induced virtual meetings because they actually enable more international colleagues to attend and participate.

Working remotely will likely increase. Photo: Kai Hendry

She cited the example of a virtual meeting in May at Lamont studying the ocean carbon cycle. The working group was only 15 people, but because the meeting was virtual, they ended up with 150 people around the world listening in. Not only did the virtual meeting make for a smaller carbon footprint than an in-person meeting, “I think it really opened up the ideas to a much broader community,” said McKinley. She would still want some scientific meetings be in person, however, because she feels it’s important for young scientists to get to know others face-to-face. “So much of the educational experience of becoming a scientist, particularly for graduate students, is the experience of being part of a scientific community,” she said.

Living more simply

Lockdowns and quarantines have compelled people to stay at home and cook, which benefits the environment because it requires fewer resources than ordering in or eating out—processing, packaging and transporting food add to its carbon footprint. And because COVID-19 has hit people with preexisting conditions harder and meat prices rose, more people may be trying to eat less meat and instead opt for more organic, vegetarian or vegan foods. Having experienced the sight of empty shelves in grocery stores during the pandemic, they may also be inclined to waste less food. People who want to know where their food comes from may move away from processed foods, and eat more locally or grow a garden.

Photo: prodigy130

Living simply within our homes has encouraged many people to reexamine their pre-pandemic more materialistic and consumerist lives. Do we really need the latest fashion or the newest gadget? Consumer goods contribute to climate change throughout their life cycles: raw materials extraction, processing, logistics, retail and storage, consumer use and disposal all result in carbon emissions. Perhaps we will no longer be as susceptible to the planned obsolescence inherent in fashion and many other consumer products.

With stores, restaurants and movie theaters shuttered, people have sought relief by walking outside in parks and in nature. This experience could foster a new appreciation for nature, and more understanding about the impacts humans have on the environment. Hopefully it will translate into an impetus to protect and care for the environment.

Renewed faith in science and expertise

Our experience with COVID-19 should help people realize the importance of science and of preparing for what is to come, whether that’s a pandemic or climate change, as both are phenomena that scientists have foreseen.

“Scientists have been waiting for a pandemic like this for a very long time, so for the infectious disease experts and historians who understand pathogens and interactions between humans and their environment, this is not an unusual thing,” said Barrett. “I think what’s been interesting has been how the public and some policy makers have been paying attention to what the infectious disease community, especially the modelers, are telling them. Also, we’re now very aware of the delay between the time you act and the time you start to see results. It’s pretty clear that if we had acted when we should have acted in the U.S., we would have saved a lot of people. This is a reminder that expertise matters. Nature is real. Scientists do understand how it works. We need to heed what they tell us and the warnings that they’ve given us.”


Barrett believes that problems like COVID-19 and climate are collective problems that have to be addressed collectively. “Ultimately, we’re only going to address these problems if countries work together,” he said. He feels this is a real opportunity. If countries can work collaboratively to develop a vaccine and ultimately eliminate COVID-19, “I think people would say, ‘Wow,’ we can really do something together. Let’s go back to this climate problem.”

There’s no quick fix for climate change

Scientists looked for a ‘shortcut’ and didn’t find oneBy Justine Calma@justcalma  Jul 7, 2020, 11:00am EDT

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It could take decades before cuts to greenhouse gases actually affect global temperatures, according to a new study. 2035 is probably the earliest that scientists could see a statistically significant change in temperature — and that’s only if humans take dramatic action to combat climate change.BE READY FOR THE LONG HAUL

Specifically, 2035 is the year we might expect to see results if we switch from business-as-usual pollution to an ambitious path that limits global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius — the target laid out in the Paris climate agreement. The world isn’t on track to meet that goal, so we might not see the fruits of our labor until even later. That means policymakers need to be ready for the long haul, and we’re all going to need to be patient while we wait for the changes we make now to take effect.

“I foresee this kind of train wreck coming where we make all this effort, and we have nothing to show for it,” says lead author of the study, Bjørn Samset. “This will take time.”

It will be time well spent if we manage to cut emissions — even if we have to wait to see results. Humans have so far warmed up the planet by about 1 degree Celsius. That’s already come with more devastating superstorms and wildfires and has forced people from Louisiana to Papua New Guinea to abandon their homes as rising sea levels flood their lands. Even keeping the planet to the 2 degree goal would result in the near annihilation of the world’s coral reefs. Taking into consideration all of the commitments from world leaders to work together on climate change, we’re currently careening toward global warming of about 3 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels.

To avoid burnout and keep aspirations high when it comes to tackling climate change, scientists and policymakers will need to be realistic about what’s ahead. The first line of the new study, published today in the journal Nature Communications, reads: “This paper is about managing our expectations.”

The study looks at the effects of cutting down on carbon dioxide, black carbon, and methane emissions. Carbon dioxide is the toughest greenhouse gas to tackle because so much of the world economy still relies on burning fossil fuels.

Methane (a more potent greenhouse that comes from agriculture and natural gas production) and black carbon (a big component of soot) are, in theory, easier to cut back. Using climate models and statistical analysis,Samset and his colleagues wanted to know whether addressing these other pollutants might lead to faster results. Their analysis isolated the effects that reducing methane and black carbon might have. They found that temperatures might respond quicker to axing these pollutants, but it wouldn’t have as big of an effect in the long term as pushing down our carbon emissions. The best bet is to tackle all three at once.“IS THERE A SHORTCUT?”

“We kind of break this apart and try to see, is there a shortcut? Is there anything we can do to give people the impression that things are having an effect? And unfortunately, the answer is no,” says Samset. “There’s no quick fix to this.”

Part of the problem is that carbon dioxide can persist in the atmosphere for hundreds of years after being released by burning coal, oil, and gas. Natural variations in climate can also delay the impact that cutting down greenhouse gases has on global temperatures.

“There is this fundamental misunderstanding of the climate system by non climate scientists trying to use trends on a 10 year time scale for climate change, when [with] climate change a 100 or 200-year timescale is relevant,” explains Natalie Mahowald, a climate scientist at Cornell University who was not involved in the study.

“All our hard work today, we will not be able to see for 20 or 30 years — this is the crux of the problem,” Mahowald says. “Humans have a really hard time doing something for future generations.”

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


JULY 2, 2020 / 6:57 PM / CBS NEWS


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.

Walt Disney World Awaken Summer - Media Preview
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.