Trump signs executive order to drastically cut climate regulation

Former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan had already been sidelined by the U.S. Supreme Court while its provisions were being legally challenged. But today, President Donald Trump has signed an executive order to begin to undo the act altogether. The order will also substantially reduce the federal government’s role in climate regulation by eliminating six other Obama-era executive orders aimed at curbing climate change. According to the Trump administration, the changes are all in the interest of helping the American economy.

“It is an issue that deserves attention,” a White House official told CNN regarding climate change. “But I think the President has been very clear that he is not going to pursue climate change policies that put the US economy at risk. It is very simple.”

The sidelined Obama plan established metrics for individual states to meet to reduce carbon pollution from coal-fired and natural gas power plants and encouraged faster transitions to renewable energy sources. In his former position, as Oklahoma attorney general, Pruitt was one of many states attorney general suing the Obama administration to block the initiative from going into effect.

The idea behind the Clean Power Plan was to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil-fuel power plants by as much as 32 percent by the year 2030. By doing so, it signified the U.S. commitment to meeting carbon dioxide reduction standards established as part of the Paris Accord of 2015.

“We’ve made tremendous progress on our environment, and we can be both pro-jobs and pro-environment,” Pruitt told ABC News’s This Week host George Stephanopoulos on Sunday. “And the executive order’s going to address the past administration’s effort to kill jobs across this country through the Clean Power Plan.”

Among other objections, environmental groups say that by backing out of Paris Accord commitments, the U.S. will set a bad example in front of other nations in compliance.

Pruitt said that rejection of the Clean Power Plan is not a violation of the Accord and that the administration isn’t worried about legal obstructions.

By Staff Writer David Searls

Source: This Week, CNN Vacations to Hell: Sakha Republic

Our planet contains countless breathtaking and unforgettable places to explore. This is not among them. Presenting Vacations To Hell: Sakha Republic.

For your east Siberian vacation to be called “hellish,” you’ll first have to give up your certainty that the undesired final destination of lost souls is kept at high thermostat levels. Instead, picture a frozen tundra, unburied winter corpses and a rampaging super-pack of hungry wolves. At least until the brief, sixty degree summers hit.

The Sakha Republic is a Russian Federation member whose capital is located just 280 miles south of the Arctic Circle. The republic is larger than Argentina and just smaller than India. Its capital is Yakutsk, the world’s coldest city, but a surprisingly metropolitan one with a population of over 280,000 that’s got a university and museums and restaurants and the like. TripAdvisor says you could rent a room in a dozen or more hotels and motels here, at prices generally starting in the thirties and heading north of a hundred dollars a night.

With its record low temp of -83 Fahrenheit, Yakutsk is, perhaps to no one’s surprise, also home to the Mammoth Museum. And to the Melnikov Permafrost Institute Underground Laboratory. Anything with the word “permafrost” in it just seems to fit here. One might imagine wearing sweaters year-round when working at this underground lab.

Correction: you should pack shorts and swimsuit if you come in July. Yakutsk hits summer highs (very briefly) that can go about 86 F, for the wildest annual temperature swing in the world.

Nyet to indoor plumbing

One small town in the Republic, Oymyakon, has almost no indoor plumbing because the buried pipes would constantly freeze. That’s to be expected with temperatures that set a non-polar record low of -96.2 F in 1924. So, if you visit during winter months be careful not to sample too much of the local brew before bedtime. If you get up with a full bladder and it’s 50 below, you won’t want to expose much of anything in the outhouse.

Truckers always travel in pairs and don’t turn off their engines for the entirety of their two-week supply runs, according to The Independent. And you can’t bury gramma in the winter until a roaring bonfire has been lit to melt some of the frost from the ground. They don’t call it permafrost for nothin’.

Wolves on the prowl

Then there’s Verkhoyansk, located 400 miles north of Yakutsk. Its 1,311 hardy citizens, at last count, boast the Pole of Cold Museum. One might imagine that the name says it all. But here’s another way of looking at the chill factor: Verkhoyansk has an average year-round temperature of 5.9 degrees Fahrenheit, and that’s even after tallying summer temps. The town’s record for warmest month was in July 2010, when the reading hit a sweltering 69.4 F.

The main course of business around here in 2011 and 2012 was fighting off a roving super-pack of some 400 hungry wolves encircling the town when their usual diet of blue hare ran low on the tundra. Wolves generally run in pack of seven to ten, so 400 was a bit of an overkill to the town’s and region’s animal population. The final tally was the loss of 313 horses and 16,000 reindeer, but no humans.

All in all, a summer-months booking to the Sakha Republic could make for a culturally enriching and memorable vacation. As for a winter visit, not so much.

Feature by David Searls, Staff Writer

Gobi Desert dust provides key nutrients for the Sierra Nevadas

Researchers from the University of California Riverside have discovered that California’s Sierra Nevada mountains have been benefiting from nutrients that blow in on dust from as far away as Asia. The scientists found that dust from the Central Valley of California and the Gobi Desert in Asia contribute more phosphorus for plants in the Sierra Nevadas than bedrock weathering – which is the breaking down of rock beneath the soil.

This is an important finding for the ecosystem, as the soil in Sierra Nevadas tends to be phosphorus-limited. Phosphorus – one of the key elements plants need to survive – is extremely necessary for the famous giant sequoias of this region to grow up to heights of almost 100 meters.

Emma Aronson, an assistant professor of plant pathology and microbiology at UC Riverside, explains: “In recent years it has been a bit of mystery how all these big trees have been sustained in this ecosystem without a lot of phosphorus in the bedrock. This work begins to unravel that mystery and show that dust may be shaping this iconic California ecosystem.”

Aronson, along with co-authors Chelsea Carey and Jon Botthoff, believe that this study may help predict the impacts of climate change. The expected changes to our planet’s climate are anticipated to increase drought and desert conditions around the world. This would likely include California.

If droughts continue to worsen, the researchers anticipate that a lot of dust will be moving in the atmosphere, and would likely bring phosphorus and other essential nutrients to these isolated mountain ecosystems.

By using non-stick bundt pans filled with glass marbles connected to 6-foot poles, the scientists collected blowing dust at various elevations along the mountains. There was no indication of whether the cake pans were used for their intended purpose at any point during the study.

Upon analyzing the isotopic signatures of elements in the dust, the team found that at the lowest elevation roughly 20 percent of the dust originated from the Gobi Desert in Asia. At the highest elevation, the average was closer to 45 percent of dust from Asian origin. The percentages were higher at the more elevated sites as dust usually travels high in the air stream until it hits a large object, such as a mountain.

Given the number of mountainous ecosystems around the world, this study could have global implications. The researchers believe that these findings will be consistent throughout many similar regions, and could help predict forest response to climate change and land use.

More information on this study can be found in the journal Nature Communications.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Source: University of California – Riverside

Exposure to leaded gasoline fumes in childhood linked to lower IQ

Starting in the 1920s, a chemical compound known as tetra-ethyl-lead began being added to gasoline in order to boost octane rating and increase engine power. Despite the boost in car performance, this compound had the unintended effect of exposing the public and the environment to the powerful neurotoxin known as lead.

Unfortunately, the lead itself did not burn in the combustion process. Instead, it was expelled from tailpipes as elemental lead and lead oxides, which then settled as a particulate in soils around areas where cars constantly drove. Children playing near these areas were likely to breathe in lead-filled dust or swallow small amounts of the hazardous soil.

This exposure would lead to accumulation of lead in the child’s bloodstream. Over time, the lead settled into bones, teeth, and soft tissue.

Leaded gasoline was phased out in the U.S. between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. During the time where leaded gasoline was commonplace, Duke University began a long-term study of more than 500 children who grew up in the small town of Dunedin, New Zealand.

The study began at a time when New Zealand had some of the highest gasoline lead levels in the world. Researchers studied participants who were born between 1972 and 1973, assessing them for cognitive skills such as perceptual reasoning and working memory.

These assessments took place from the individual’s birth through adulthood, including a collection of blood samples at the age of 11.  

Researchers found that the exposure to lead may have caused a loss of intelligence and occupational standing by the time the participants reached age 38. These effects are small, but significant, and found that the higher the blood lead level in childhood, the greater the loss of IQ points and occupational status in adulthood.

Individuals who were found to have more than 10 micrograms of lead per deciliter of blood at age 11 had IQs at age 38 that were 4.25 points lower than those with less lead exposure. They also tended to lose IQ points relative to their own childhood scores, showing a cumulative effect of the neurotoxin over time.

The study also looked at changes in social standing, using a device from the New Zealand government that plotted families on a 6-point scale. The social status of each child’s family was compared to their own adult status at age 38. It was found that children who had over 10 micrograms of lead in their blood attained occupations with socioeconomic status levels four-tenths lower than their less-exposed peers.

Aaron Reuben, a Duke University psychology graduate student and first author of the study, explains: “The downward social mobility we see mirrors the trend in IQ… the decline in occupational status is partially but significantly explained by the loss of IQ. If you’re above the historic level of concern [for lead exposure], you’re doing worse on both.”

What makes this study unique is that lead exposure was not something that was confined to just the lower social classes. In New Zealand – like many places – automobile traffic occurs just about everywhere. Thus, exposure to leaded gasoline fumes occurred relatively evenly across all social classes.

“Regardless of where you start in life, lead is going to exert a downward pull,” explained Avshalom Caspi, Professor of psychology & neuroscience and psychiatry & behavioral sciences at Duke University and co-author on the paper. Because this method of lead exposure affects all parts of society relatively equally, its negative effects could move the entire curve of IQ and social status downward. In other words, “If everyone takes a hit from environmental pollutants, society as a whole suffers.”

Reuben and his colleagues believe that the effects of lead exposure are likely to be long lasting. Given that some Asian and middle eastern countries still use leaded gasoline, this research is important and incredibly pertinent around the world.

The study appears Wednesday in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Source: Duke University Film Review: Sustainable

Sustainable, a documentary film by Matt Wechsler and Annie Speicher, lays out the case for organic farming through the eyes of farmers practicing sustainable operations and their nutritionally committed food operations customers.

The star of the film is central Illinois farmers Marty and Kris Travis and their grown son, Will. The family couldn’t be more passionate about the way they work Spence Farm, the small plot of land they repurchased in 1999 after a prior generation had to sell it the decade before. The Travises only started turning a profit after attending a meeting of Chicago restaurant chefs looking for a locally grown organic produce supply chain. The chefs would place an order for whatever underserved produce they needed the next season and the Travises would figure out how to organically grow it.

When Will points out how his neighbors, traditional farmers farming a thousand acres or more, are making $400 an acre while Spence Farm is pulling in $2,200 on each of their 160 acres, the film certainly makes the case for the economics of

farming without the high chemical input costs and other bad practices that have become the unwritten rules of agribusiness.

The Travises eventually recruit other small, struggling farmers, some of whom give on-screen credit to the family for saving their own operations.

We learn that most of the farming land in Iowa is devoted to corn and oats, and that the commodity nature of those crops means that the farmers are entirely at the mercy of markets. Their crop prices have nothing to do with the quality of their output in a given year. The sustainable farmers in the film, on the other hand, have more control over what they choose to grow and charge for their yield.

As in many similar stories, big agribusiness is the enemy. One University of Missouri agriculture professor even admits to having trusted the corporate farms to more efficiently feed more people on less acreage. Sure, it would push family farmers out of the business, but that would, in turn, enable those former people of the land to find more profitable careers elsewhere. What he didn’t count on, he says, was the spike of farmer suicides in the 1980s when they couldn’t keep their multi-generation family farms. That’s the point at which he sees that farming isn’t just a business – it’s a culture.

There are a lot of farming cultural heroes in this film, including an Amish agricultural consultant from Middlefield, Ohio whose face is never shown on-camera because of the prohibitions of his religion, but whose knowledge of the old ways are entirely new again.  The sustainability farming experts preach that a diseased plant is one whose health has been permitted to decline and that nutrition programs for the crops can save the fields without pesticides.

Interestingly, cattle ranching is put in a favorable light, as long as the meat producers act in environmentally sensitive and non-cruel ways. Vegetarian, animal welfare activist and environmental lawyer Nicolette Hahn meets, falls in love with and marries Bill Niman, a cattle rancher – much to her own surprise. The family’s farm raises grass-fed, grazing beef cattle. The former lawyer states the many ways their herd contribute to responsible land management.

“When you have good grazing, it stimulates vegetation growth and keeps soil moister,” she says. “Hooves tramp organic matter back into the soil.”

The film does an admirable job of extolling the benefits of organic farming over the current agribusiness model. But by presenting mostly small-scale farmers whose main customers are big-city fine dining restaurant chefs, the filmmakers and passionate food activists inadvertently highlight their argument’s weaknesses. These are mostly boutique farmers selling to boutique markets. One might conclude that the higher prices of organic produce is the “real” price of food, and that the corporate mass producers have found ways to cheat costs down that are detrimental to the land and to the health of the American customer.

But until organic farming finds its way into Walmart and Kroger as prime suppliers – not just a small dedicated sub-section of the produce aisle – they aren’t making the mass-market sell they need to be taken seriously by mass markets. Instead, they’re serving only a more elitist audience of fine diners at trendy metropolitan restaurants, and for upscale outdoor market aficionados and those willing to pay extra for their nutritional savvy at Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s.

At one point the filmmakers point out that 20 percent of American children are food-insecure. But are the parents of those kids going to solve the challenge by taking the family to a four-star Chicago eatery or by rolling a grocery cart through the organic aisle at a trendy big-city supermarket?

One foodie and customer of Spence Farm is a baker for Publican Artisan Bread in Chicago who boasts that, while supermarket loaves takes four hours to make, theirs take 60 hours. One can guess that a 60-hour bread costs much more than a mass-produced loaf baked in a fraction of the time – and that it’s well worth it in terms of both flavor and nutritional value. The average family might buy an artisan loaf to thank Aunt Martha for watering the houseplants while they’re on vacation, but will they put it in the kids’ school lunch boxes five days a week?

Until organic farming can be done on a much larger scale at prices that don’t induce sticker shock, sustainable farming might continue to serve a small, but dedicated upscale and urban market.

Sustainable is currently playing on Netflix.

By David Searls, Staff Writer

Source: Sustainable Official Site

Millions of gallons of raw human waste spill into Puget Sound

Imagine 30 million gallons of raw sewage dumped into the nation’s second-largest estuary, just off the shores of a major U.S. city and its largest park. That’s the situation in Seattle since an electrical failure resulted in the catastrophic spill of human waste into Puget Sound that occurred February 9-16, according to the Associated Press.

Local authorities say that the accident damaging the underground network of pumps, motors, electric panels and other system components has been fixed and that no raw sewage has escaped since mid-February. They also say that they’ve been working 24 hours a day to effect repairs and clean up the damage.

However, the facility is currently only partially treating waste at this point before dumping it into the Sound.

“It has been a disaster, and we’re not out of it yet,” said Jeanne Kohl-Welles, a King County councilwoman, in an Associated Press interview. “We still don’t know really what went wrong. We’ve got to get a handle on it. I’m very concerned about the environment, the effects on marine life in the sound, (and) public health.”

Kohl-Welles’s district includes the hobbled West Point Treatment Plant, which is located next to the city’s largest public park.

So far, damage and cleanup costs have exceeded $25 million and the treatment plant expects to not be finished until the end of April.

As for the long-term damage, untreated waste can adversely affect the health of humans and marine life through the release of chemicals and germs. It could also make the region’s popular shellfish risky to eat.

“Anytime pollution goes into the sound, it’s a concern,” Sheida Sahandy, who directs the Puget Sound Partnership, told the Associated Press. PSS is the state agency responsible for cleaning up the sound.

The spill also gives a bloody nose to the reputation of the region for its clean waterways and environmental concerns.

Written by David Searls, Staff Writer

Source: Associated Press