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How to Avoid Food System Collapse

If Atlantic Ocean currents break down, the Northern Hemisphere could face crop failures. So why isn’t there a plan for that?

A truck drives past a field of wheat.
Ken Cedeno/Corbis/Getty Images
A wheat field in North Dakota

Spring is here, and seeds are in the ground. But what if, a year from now, all the weather patterns our food system takes for granted were suddenly different? Not just the worsening summers, droughts, and floods of climate change but something faster and more dramatic, and much harder to adapt to?

Last month, researchers from Utrecht University in the Netherlands published a disturbing paper suggesting this might actually happen. Scientists have previously speculated that melting ice sheets dumping vast quantities of freshwater into the ocean could change the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. The new modeling suggested, though, that complete collapse of the Atlantic Ocean’s current system is no longer “theoretical” and could occur much faster and more completely than anticipated. Europe would abruptly get much colder, seasons could fully flip in the Amazon rainforest, and many other places could see big changes in weather patterns.

Can our food systems survive this kind of shock? Food systems are dizzyingly complex, encompassing crops grown in fields and greenhouses, meat and dairy animals elsewhere that consume some of those field crops, wild and farmed fisheries, refrigerated supply chains transporting plant and animal products to processing sites or warehouses, the grocery and restaurant industries, and international trade. When I asked experts about how U.S. food supply might be affected by weather shifts like the one outlined in the new paper, their responses weren’t reassuring. In essence: Both domestic and international food systems are quite vulnerable. But figuring out how vulnerable is hard. Not only is the United States failing to make its food system more resilient, it’s not even gathering enough data to know how to make the food system more resilient.

“We’ve done surprisingly little preparing for these kinds of shocks,” said Roni Neff, a professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health and Center for a Livable Future. When Neff and her colleagues surveyed local governments on food system resilience, “the people that responded were those that were already thinking about this, and of those that responded only 10 percent considered their local jurisdiction to be prepared.”

Nor can local governments rely on the feds. The concern with a large-scale shock is that it could trigger what researchers call “multiple bread basket failures,” according to Michael Puma, director of the Center for Climate Systems Research at Columbia University. “As far as I know there is no very clear governmental strategy—at least that’s unclassified—that clarifies how the U.S. would deal with a major disruption in production.”

While the U.S. Department of Agriculture does have grants and loans for building a more resilient food system, that’s far from being a comprehensive plan for responding to giant climate shocks. “Some of us in academia have been trying to push the governmental agencies to take notice of this,” Puma said, “with little success to date.” Because food system resilience in response to crisis involves a mix of domestic agriculture, international trade, disaster response, and more, there’s no one agency that would be able to address this. “In the 1970s the U.S. government had prepared a report on potential strategies for managing U.S. food reserves, and this was in response to the Soviet grain crisis,” Puma added. “But then it was somewhat abandoned and ignored and not really used moving forward.”

A comprehensive strategy would have to start with good data. “We know what to do in general” when it comes to food system resilience, Neff said, but “there’s really quite scant research on confirming what works and what to prioritize.” Changing that would involve a combination of funding and coordination. “We haven’t seen a major amount of funding available for this type of question and specifically to develop policies or new institutional responses to this type of threat,” said Puma.

“When we’ve been trying to do various projects with modeling, like where is the food, who’s got it, how much food is in the Baltimore area right now if all the roads got cut off,” Neff said, “we don’t know, because a lot of it is in various individual businesses and storehouses and they’re each keeping their own data.” (One such study of New York City in 2016 estimated “the New York City food system holds roughly 4 to 5 days of regular consumption of food stock on average”—not an encouraging figure if one were to imagine incoming supply chains being disrupted.)

Even without better data, though, it’s possible to identify specific vulnerabilities in the U.S. food system and changes that should probably be made. The high efficiency of the current food system has often come at the cost of redundancy—meaning backup plans. “We need to have more diverse places where food is coming from; we need multiple routes, roads, where it’s coming from, multiple storage facilities,” Neff said. And while sudden systemic agricultural reform would both be hard and come with its own risks, Puma argued, there’s “low-hanging fruit” like fighting the increasing “consolidation of farmland,” reducing overreliance on fertilizer and pesticides, and being a little more skeptical of so-called smart agriculture: “If you’re introducing the use of drones into the agricultural system, that’s a new type of risk to take into account.”

Then there are things that can be done quickly, and locally. Communities that “had been doing some of this work before the pandemic hit were better able to adapt” to the 2020 disruptions, Neff said. And “one of the key things was having people in the local food system connected to each other and knowing each other and having those relationships in the first place so people knew who to call and contact and help develop responses.”

You’ll be reading more about food system resilience and agriculture reform at TNR shortly. But in the meantime, if you’re not feeling exactly reassured as you read this, you’re not alone. At the end of these calls, given the lack of preparedness at the governmental level, I asked whether the people who have been socking away hundreds of pounds of rice and beans in their basements might have the right idea, if not exactly an equitable one.

“The preppers definitely do have a point,” Puma said. “I think it’s a multiscale solution, and I think low-hanging fruit is to encourage people to have more food stored at home so that they’re not as vulnerable. You want to have a little buffer capacity as individuals so if there’s no food for a week you’re not scrambling.”

Good News/Bad News

Competition among states for the Climate Pollution Reduction Grants instituted by the Inflation Reduction Act have resulted in a new crop of ambitious climate proposals from Democratic governors, Politico reports.

A new report has officially confirmed that air quality last year in the U.S. was dreadful.

Stat of the Week
0.92–3.23 percentage points

That’s how much climate change could be inflating food costs per year by 2035, according to a new study. By that point, climate change could also be contributing to overall inflation (“headline inflation”) by up to 1.18 percentage points per year. Read Axios’s summary here.

What I’m Reading

You may remember stunning photos circulating last year of Tulare Lake, long ago drained for agricultural use, reappearing in California’s Central Valley thanks to record precipitation. “Scientists and officials predicted the lake could remain for years to come, sparking consternation among the local farmers whose land was now underwater and excitement from others who saw the lake as a fertile nature sanctuary and sacred site,” writes The Guardian’s Dani Anguiano. Perhaps just as remarkable as the lake’s reappearance, however, is the fact that it’s almost entirely gone just a year later:

These days the crowds of eager tourists have waned, and the shoreline is getting harder to find. On a recent drive through the central valley, I decided to try my best to see what was left of it.

On a sunny afternoon in late February, almost a year after its arrival, the road closure signs still in place around the county served as the most visible reminder of the lake. They blocked long stretches of muddy roads leading to agricultural facilities.

The remnants of Tulare Lake are located entirely on private land, far from where the public can see it. It has reduced rapidly in size as local agencies moved water from the lake to nearby farmlands. Evaporation also played a “key role.”

Read Dani Anguiano’s report at The Guardian.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Bleak Backdrop to the Kate Middleton Frenzy

Much like “covfefe” in 2017, the internet is converging on a story that feels safer than everything else that’s going on.

Newspapers lie on top of one another showing front-page stories about Kate Middleton.
Ming Yeung/Getty Images
U.K. newspaper coverage of Catherine, Princess of Wales, being admitted to the hospital on January 18

Dozens of pieces in legacy media publications, including TNR, have looked for broader meaning in the social media frenzy over Kate Middleton’s “disappearance” since Christmas. (To recap: The princess was supposed to be recovering from planned surgery away from the public eye. But the internet was suspicious, and to quell rumors the palace released an image earlier this month that then proved to be heavily edited, for which Middleton claimed the blame. This did not help.) Some say the public relations mess signals a general crisis for the monarchy, some that it’s a sign of contemporary addiction to conspiracy theories. A professor of media ethics told The New York Times that it’s a symptom of “the darkness that is characterizing our politics.”

To me, the flurry of amateur Kate Middleton sleuthing, memes, and jokes on social media resembles nothing so much as the viral “covfefe” tweet by Donald Trump nearly seven years ago. Just after midnight on May 31, 2017, Trump typed the nonsensical, “Despite the constant negative press covfefe,” and seemingly logged off for the night. Because journalists and other political obsessives had learned to keep an eye on Trump’s account during the witching hour, Twitter promptly lit up with confusion and speculation about what Trump could have meant, or whether he’d been tackled while typing. Some created “covfefe” parody accounts. The entire internet, it seemed, had descended into giddy absurdity.

Like the “covfefe” episode, the Middleton frenzy has the feel of a massive online community blowing off steam. You can’t say it’s “good clean fun,” exactly—the speculation ranges from salacious to downright grim. But it has the classic “covfefe” mixture of jokes and theories edged with faint nervousness about such obvious incompetence in the P.R. apparatuses of powerful institutions. It’s the incredulous but gleeful vibe of kids realizing that the adults who were supposed to have everything under control are tripping over their own shoelaces. “I don’t think u understand how badly you’ve f***ed this,” read one tweet with over 36,000 likes, responding to alleged Kate Middleton photos. “There are now people on the internet who could SHAKE HER HAND and still claim she’s four cats in a wig.”

Also like “covfefe,” the Middleton moment has people nostalgic for a more innocent era: a time when the internet seemed like a place to clown around rather than a place for fascist paramilitary recruitment. A time when people could laugh at the grown-ups screwing up because we retained a shred of belief that the grown-ups basically had things under control the rest of the time.

None of these jokes and memes are actually fun when you zoom out. The “covfefe” episode proved to be a precursor for Trump threatening nuclear war on Twitter, getting banned for inciting an insurrectionist mob, then getting his account restored (along with many other accounts banned for hate speech) after Elon Musk bought the platform. The Middleton frenzy contains more than a hint of the macabre: Speculating wildly about the lives of people recovering from major surgery isn’t nice, and doing so as a distraction from other news stories, while understandable, is bleak.

The grown-ups—meaning the institutions that have inherited massive power in our society—quite evidently do not have things under control. The other stories people have the option of reading about are almost impossibly grim. A genocide is playing out in Gaza, and the nations who joined the “Never Again” refrain after Rwanda are actively supporting the genocidal regime. Trump, who many hoped would fade into chaotic obscurity after losing the 2020 election, seems quite likely to regain the presidency—and The New York Times is running stories about the resistance being tired.

Whether the world can withstand this turn of events is unclear. The earth may be warming even faster than anticipated, and rich nations still haven’t gotten it together to bring emissions down to safe levels. Environmental groups, who have been warning for years that the Biden administration, despite the Inflation Reduction Act, isn’t doing enough to avert catastrophe, find themselves with little choice but to hope that Biden will at least prevail over the alternative.

Of course people are going off about Kate Middleton. But it has nothing to do with Kate Middleton. This story is a fantasy about returning to the 1990s, when people could indulge in celebrity gossip without the feeling of laughing on the brink of the abyss. Almost every other story in the news is too much to take.

Good News/Bad News

The EPA has, at long last, fully banned asbestos.

The new and relatively weak Securities and Exchange Commission rule requiring companies in some situations to disclose their emissions and climate-related risks has already been halted by court order pending a suit from oil and gas companies. Meanwhile, 24 Republican state attorneys general are suing over the Environmental Protection Agency’s new rule to reduce methane emissions from oil and gas industry activities—for example, by monitoring leaks and limiting flaring. The Republican attorneys general say this is an “attack” on the oil and gas industry.

Stat of the Week
$9 billion

That’s how much taxpayer money since 2012 has gone to subsidizing plastic plants. “In the past three years, more than 80 percent of the facilities violated their air pollution control permits,” reports DeSmog.

What I’m Reading

FBI sent several informants to Standing Rock protests, court documents show

Alleen Brown’s report on the extent of federal law enforcement’s actions against the Indigenous demonstrators and their allies protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline beggars belief:

Up to 10 informants managed by the FBI were embedded in anti-pipeline resistance camps near the Standing Rock Sioux Indian Reservation at the height of mass protests against the Dakota Access pipeline in 2016…. The FBI also regularly sent agents wearing civilian clothing into the camps, one former agent told Grist in an interview. Meanwhile, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, or BIA, operated undercover narcotics officers out of the reservation’s Prairie Knights Casino, where many pipeline opponents rented rooms, according to one of the depositions.

The operations were part of a wider surveillance strategy that included drones, social media monitoring, and radio eavesdropping by an array of state, local, and federal agencies, according to attorneys’ interviews with law enforcement.

Read Alleen Brown’s full report at Grist.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Southern Europe Is in Serious Trouble

A new report suggests climate change will hit some countries in the EU much harder than others.

An aerial view shows olive trees and bare earth.
NurPhoto/Getty Images
A field of olive groves is plowed in July 2022 in Puglia, Italy.

The European Environment Agency this week released a meticulous 300-page report on climate risks facing the EU, and it can be summed up thus: Without immediate and significant action, Southern Europe is screwed. There are other takeaways from the report, for sure, about climate threats throughout Europe. But in each of the five main risk categories the report evaluates—ecosystems, food, health, infrastructure, and economy and finance—Southern Europe is going to be hit the hardest. Over the coming decades, the region will lose “biodiversity/carbon sinks due to wildfires,” the flames and smoke of which will also affect human health. Southern Europe will see crops fail at higher rates than in areas farther north. It will experience “energy disruption due to heat and drought.” Its economy will suffer “due to water scarcity,” and its public finances will struggle due to large debt-to-gross domestic product ratios.  

And action is urgently needed because Southern Europe is already seeing dramatic damage from climate change. In agriculture, all of Europe is going to see big shifts, such as reductions of up to 10–25 percent in corn and wheat yields; without policy intervention, the agricultural economic losses in the EU and the U.K. alone could top 65 billion euros (just over $71 billion) per year, per one study cited by the report. But Southern Europe is already seeing reductions that exceed those figures, “with wheat and maize yield reductions of over 60% in some … regions.” The report envisions risk to the European region in general as “substantial” in the current term, near term, and mid term, only rising to “critical” in the 2080s … except for Southern Europe, where the risk is rated as “critical” now, rising to “catastrophic” by the 2080s.

Climate change is already affecting precipitation patterns across the globe. In the United States, it’s predicted that parts of the East Coast will see larger numbers of torrential downpours in the coming decades while parts of the West suffer from extreme drought. And in Europe, the new report says, there may be a similar pattern, with Northern Europe prone to periodic flooding. Yet even here, Southern Europe is in a tougher spot. For while “northern and central Europe experience both beneficial and adverse impacts on water-dependent energy systems … southern Europe faces predominantly adverse impacts as availability of water to support hydropower production or cooling [e.g., for nuclear power plants] is less reliable.” And access to fresh water for drinking and irrigation will face other threats, not limited to drought: Rising seas mean “saltwater intrusion is also affecting water supplies in many coastal regions in Southern Europe.” 

The devastating list of predictions goes on. Wildfires will reduce air quality particularly in Southern Europe, which is “expected to increase respiratory illnesses, morbidity and mortality.” Heat waves in Southern Europe will reach “catastrophic” levels by the 2040s, but are already dangerous for the outdoor workforce. 

Nor can tourism save the day. Thanks to wildfires and heat waves in the summer, “projections of future tourism demand show a clear pattern, with northern regions benefiting from milder conditions while southern regions face significant reductions in tourism demand, especially in a high-emission scenario.” Meanwhile, “European beaches may experience reduced amenity due to sea level rise amplifying coastal erosion and inundation risks, particularly in southern Europe.” The report also states that while there are “substantial current/near-term risks” for public finances at present, these risks are closer to “critical” for countries with high debt-to-GDP ratios. Those too are concentrated in Southern Europe. The highest debt-to-GDP ratios are in Greece and Italy, with Portugal, France, and Spain exchanging third, fourth, and fifth rankings over the past few years.  

The report isn’t solely doom and gloom. One of the reassuring parts is just how many policy interventions have been identified that could make things better. If you’re looking for climate “solutions”—specifically, evidence that societies have tools for addressing the amount of warming that’s already locked in—this report is full of them. Take the water topic, where the report proposes reusing wastewater; investing in desalination infrastructure, sand dams, and other techniques for water harvesting; “creating or improving early warning and alert systems”; switching to “more drought-resistant crops”; building water-retaining soil on farms; and restoring rivers and wetlands to “increase water retention in river catchments.” That represents just a tiny fraction of the report’s proposals. 

Reducing emissions to keep climate change from spiraling out of control isn’t the focus of this report. But the urgent need to limit climate change, rather than just adapt to it, haunts the document. Lots of places in the world, and even in the U.S., are going to be in a position similar to Southern Europe. Quite a few places are in even worse shape. At this point, it’s hard to think of a regional climate risk assessment that wouldn’t have lessons for the entire globe.

Good News/Bad News

Colorado lawmakers, increasingly metal in their conservation policies, have proposed reintroducing wolverines. (Predators, many studies show, are crucial for maintaining the overall health of ecosystems.)

This Washington Post piece on the potential health effects—particularly for kids—of playing sports on artificial turf is careful and balanced. But I wouldn’t exactly call it reassuring.

Stat of the Week

$5.47 for every $1

“For every dollar the government has contributed” to the energy transition via the Inflation Reduction Act, Grist’s Syris Valentine reports, “the private sector has kicked in $5.47, leading to nearly a quarter-trillion dollars flowing into the clean economy in just one year.” Those numbers come from a new analysis by the Rhodium Group, and are likely to be interpreted as a success story. But given abundant evidence that the energy transition still isn’t happening fast enough, Valentine points out, perhaps they should be treated more like proof of concept.

What I’m Reading

Old power lines plus climate change mean a growing risk of utilities starting fires

Texas’s devastating, record-breaking Smokehouse Creek fire, which began in late February and killed two people while burning over a million acres, seems to have been started by a poorly maintained utility power pole, which fell and sparked the blaze. Such aging electrical infrastructure is an increasing problem all over the United States, reports Julia Simon for NPR. But it’s not getting fixed. Even the small improvements that could make things safer aren’t being made:

There are some basic—and relatively cheap—things that utilities with even a small wildfire risk should be employing, [Michael Wara, director of the Climate and Energy Policy Program at the Woods Institute,] says. Things like weather sensors on power poles. They can give power companies a much clearer sense of dangerous conditions like strong winds or dry, hot weather.

“It’s not expensive, right? It’s those little weather stations you’d buy and maybe put on your house if you were a weather nerd,” Wara says.

Also utilities can change settings to automatically turn power lines off when conditions are unsafe, he says. “The utilities have the tools. This is not a mystery,” Wara says.

Part of the problem may be that many utility companies aren’t always incentivized to make the fixes and operational changes that are key to reduce wildfire risk, says David Pomerantz of the Energy and Policy Institute, a utility watchdog. Instead he says many power companies are biased towards building expensive things which can guarantee a profit.

Read Julia Simon’s full report at NPR.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Exxon Wants You to Feel Guilty About Climate Change

CEO Darren Woods says consumers don’t want greener products. If that’s true, why are heat pumps so popular?

Darren Woods sits with his hands clasped.
Bloomberg/Getty Images
Darren Woods, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.

Exxon Mobil CEO Darren Woods has found someone new to blame for the climate crisis: you. “We have opportunities to make fuels with lower carbon in it, but people aren’t willing to spend the money to do that,” Woods told Fortune. “The people who are generating those emissions need to be aware of and pay the price for generating those emissions. That is ultimately how you solve the problem.” He also said it was too late now to develop greener technologies.

There’s a lot to unpack in there. As experts surveyed by Guardian reporters Dharna Noor and Oliver Milman pointed out, Exxon has played a big role in delaying policies fostering greener technologies, due to decades of misinformation campaigns attempting to deny the reality of the climate crisis. The notion that big emitters “need to be aware of and pay the price for generating those emissions” is likewise an interesting argument to hear coming from Exxon, given that the oil and gas industry has gone all out to block a new Securities and Exchange Commision rule requiring emissions disclosures, as TNR’s Kate Aronoff details in a new piece.

But the most complicated claim here is that ordinary consumers are to blame for the climate crisis. “It’s like a drug lord blaming everyone but himself for drug problems,” climate economist Gernot Wagner told The Guardian. It’s an apt comparison. Purdue Pharma did exactly this, blaming users for getting hooked on highly addictive painkillers that Purdue developed and pushed hard on the medical industry despite evidence that this would cause widespread addiction and overdoses. And as with the victim-blaming over drugs, a lot of people find Woods’s individual climate–blame logic compelling.

Getting consumers to focus on their own actions, rather than what politicians can do to curtail fossil fuels, was the whole idea behind the original “carbon footprint calculator” on oil giant BP’s website, which encouraged consumers to “go carbon neutral” by offsetting their own personal emissions while the company continued to profit from high-emissions products. The idea has spread, including among environmentally conscious people, resulting in both defeatist and obstructionist attitudes toward actual climate policy: A lot of people feel guilty about their “green sins,” as climate writer Mary Annaïse Heglar has written, and conclude that if they can’t get to a net-zero lifestyle on their own there’s not much hope for the climate as a whole. This is the defeatist side of the “personal responsibility” belief. A lot of people also think (urged on by corporate and political messaging, of course) that tackling the climate crisis means they will have to pay a lot of money and make a lot of sacrifices, leading them to oppose climate policy. This is the obstructionist side of the “personal responsibility” belief.

But do consumers actually prefer high-emissions products? Are they actually cheaper? The New York Times reported this week that households in Maine are “falling hard” for heat pumps, adopting the energy-saving devices faster than any other state as heat pumps outpaced gas furnace sales for a second year in 2023.

The state rebates and federal tax credits from the Inflation Reduction Act are helping, but the main reason heat pumps are being adopted so quickly, this story suggests, is that once one household installs a heat pump as proof of concept—often despite strong initial skepticism—everyone else wants one. From the Times:

“Ten years ago, they weren’t really popular,” said Josh Tucker, of Valley Home Services, a family-owned heating company outside of Bangor. “No one really knew what they were.” He first installed heat pumps in his sister’s new home in 2014, over the objections of her building contractor who, Mr. Tucker said, “was against it big time.”

“He thought she was going to freeze to death unless she had a furnace or boiler,” he said. She didn’t, and uses the same heat pumps today.

The new technology was embraced especially quickly in one northern Maine community after Mr. Tucker’s father installed heat pumps at a Methodist church there. The Tucker family still sells heating oil and propane, but less and less. Its heat pump business, meanwhile, grew from installing two to three units a week to 3,000 last year, a nearly 20-fold increase.

“We’ve done TV ads, advertising on social media, but the big one’s always been word of mouth and that’s how it exploded,” Mr. Tucker said.

What does this have to do with Darren Woods? Well, recall what the CEO said about consumer choice. One reason it’s interesting to see Maine “falling hard” for heat pumps is that the heating oil and gas industry spent lots of time and money convincing people that heat pumps wouldn’t work in places like Maine, claiming the devices wouldn’t work in cold weather. “Internal documents show that the National Oilheat Research Alliance, a trade association representing heating oil sellers, has funded campaigns fighting electrification that target New England homeowners and real estate agents,” The Washington Post reported almost a year ago. The Propane Education and Research Council, similarly, “has put out training material coaching installers how to dissuade customers from switching to electrical appliances.”

Consumers don’t make their choices in a vacuum. No one does. The options available to them right now are the result of decades of corporate profits on high-emissions products leading to further investments in these products and entrenching economies of scale. Those profits in turn were guided by over a century of government subsidy. The government’s tools for boosting greener products are severely hampered by a tremendous amount of corporate lobbying on Capitol Hill, consumer marketing, and the rulings of judges that these corporations helped put on the bench. And this full-court press works: The Biden administration, for instance, is pulling back from several Environmental Protection Agency rules intended to nudge the market toward more climate-friendly products, due to concerns about court challenges and election-year pushback.

When the playing field is made less uneven, consumers often respond with striking alacrity, as we’re seeing with heat pumps. How many other commonsense solutions would consumers willingly adopt if they weren’t being lied to and constrained by a largely rigged energy market? CEOs like Woods and the politicians in their pockets have created the world that Woods now blames consumers for trying to navigate. CEOs like Woods continue to profit from consumers’ limited options. Consumers will vote with their dollars, yes—but they need genuine choices.

Good News/Bad News

Researchers think they’ve found a nontoxic way to get an organic polymer out of crustacean shells—a possible plastic replacement for packaging, and one that could theoretically make use of shells currently ending up in landfills.

The Republican candidate for North Carolina governor, who won the primary on Super Tuesday, is a climate denier.

Stat of the Week

That’s the number of “chemical features” detected by researchers in a single plastic packaging sample, in a new study attempting to figure out what plastic food packaging is actually made of and how it might be affecting human health. (Feature detection is a way of determining what chemicals are present.) The authors concluded that “most plastic food packaging contains endocrine- and metabolism-disrupting chemicals” and that “samples with fewer chemical features” were less toxic.

What I’m Reading

Want clean electricity? These are the overlooked elected officials who get to decide.

This excellent piece about the little-known institutions that can speed or impede the energy transition focuses primarily on the Georgia Public Service Commission, “the only government body with direct authority to regulate whatever Georgia Power [the state’s largest utility] does.” But reporter Emily Jones also looks at similar bodies in other states, which climate-concerned voters might want to learn about:

Every state has a public service or public utility commission that controls electricity. In 10 states, utility regulators are elected directly by ballot. In the remaining 40, they’re appointed by other elected officials, like the governor or state legislature. Many, though not all, states require their utilities to file IRPs that predict future demand for power and map out how the utility will meet that need.

What’s common nationwide is that the future of clean energy hinges on the decisions of these public utility commissions. Cities, states, and companies can resolve to cut emissions, but if they buy power from a regulated utility they don’t ultimately control how their power is made; the regulators do. Even the Department of Defense, with its $800 billion budget, is subject to the decisions of these commissions.

Grist | Emily Jones

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Politicians Need to Talk About Air Pollution and Alzheimer’s

A new study links fine particulate matter pollution to the incurable disease. But American industry will fight any attempt at regulation.

Gas pours into the sky from a smokestack, with the sun in the background.
Gary Hershorn/Getty Images
Emissions from New Jersey's Essex County Resource Recovery Waste-to-Energy Facility

Last week, researchers at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health published a disturbing study linking air pollution to Alzheimer’s disease. Examining brains donated to research, they found that people who’d lived in areas with a lot of a certain type of air pollution had higher amounts of the plaque associated with Alzheimer’s disease than those who’d been exposed to less pollution. And the association between air pollution and plaque was particularly strong for people who lacked the genetic markers indicating a predisposition to Alzheimer’s disease.

You might be relieved, therefore, to learn that the Environmental Protection Agency just finalized its new, tougher standard for precisely this type of air pollution. But considering the problem solved would be a mistake: Business groups are fighting the regulation tooth and nail, preparing to challenge it in the courts as well as via lobbying and, presumably, political donations. “The new pollution limits could cause election-year complications for President Biden,” The New York Times’ Lisa Friedman wrote.

The air pollution the Emory researchers were studying is called fine particulate matter, which is produced by cars, cigarettes, industrial emissions, and wildfires, to name a few sources. This is not the first time fine particulate matter pollution has been linked to Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Analysis using data from the Medicare Chronic Conditions Warehouse found a similar association, with “traffic and fossil fuel combustion sources” being “particularly” associated with higher levels of dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Nor is it the first evidence that fine particulate matter can cause serious health problems. This kind of pollution has been linked to heart disease, heart attacks, asthma, premature deaths, and low birth weight. The EPA therefore estimates that its new standard would prevent 4,500 premature deaths per year.

Industry groups insist that the EPA’s rule would impede American manufacturing; cement industry representatives, for example, reportedly have threatened that the rule would lead to layoffs. (That’s despite the fact that the EPA’s rule, lowering the permissible amount of annual fine particulate matter exposure from 12 micrograms per cubic meter of air to nine, isn’t even as stringent as public health experts recommended.)

Findings like those in this new Alzheimer’s study theoretically offer a way to counter political opposition to tougher air quality standards. Alzheimer’s consistently ranks as one of the most feared diseases in the United States, in some polls beating cancer. Poll after poll, both in the U.S. and abroad, suggests that people fear dementia way more than they fear heart attacks or asthma, which are the risks typically invoked when we’re talking about air quality. While it’s worth emphasizing that there’s still a lot researchers don’t know about the association between pollution and Alzheimer’s—it’s going to be hard to definitively establish a causal relationship—it’s conceivable that a lot more people would support tougher air quality standards if elected officials put these kinds of studies on the table and said, “Look, do you really want to err on the side of industry on this one?”

And yet, you probably aren’t going to see politicians talking about this study and using it to defend the EPA rule on the campaign trail this year. The presidential front-runners in both parties have been accused of being old and disoriented, and there is zero chance that President Biden will defend his EPA’s new rule by mentioning the word “Alzheimer’s.”

But particularly because air pollution is very hard for people to wrap their minds around—very hard to turn into a sound bite—it’s important for voters to understand how rapidly scientific evidence is accumulating around its health risks: Two new studies recently reported by The Guardian found that “there is no safe amount” of fine particulate matter air pollution. Every additional amount in the air increases the risk for human hearts and lungs. The preliminary research on the Alzheimer’s link is completely consistent on this score: One study published in 2023 found “largely linear concentration-response relationships at low concentrations” of fine particulate matter pollution, with the authors emphasizing that this suggests there is “no safe level of air pollution for brain health.”

Fossil fuel combustion isn’t the only source of fine particulate matter pollution, of course. Wildfires are now a huge factor in poor air quality as well. And some industry groups have already used this to argue that the EPA’s new rule is unfair and will be ineffective.

But wildfires are, in turn, exacerbated by the climate change that fossil fuel combustion is driving. There’s more than enough evidence, at this point, for policymakers to pull the levers available to them to reduce air pollution and the processes that cause it, regardless of what the businesses that profit off that pollution have to say about it. Because it’s no longer acceptable to claim ignorance.

Good News/Bad News

Swarthmore College joins the list of institutions of higher education building ambitious geoexchange systems for campus heating and cooling.

South Korea’s carbon cap-and-trade system isn’t working. Not only has it failed to reduce industrial pollution, but polluting companies are actually profiting from the program.

Stat of the Week
2.5 million

That’s how many people in the United States were displaced from their homes by extreme weather disasters last year, according to new data.

What I’m Reading

Don’t Panic Over EV Slowdown

Recent reports suggest the electric vehicle transition is stalling, writes Sammy Roth in the excellent Boiling Point newsletter at the Los Angeles Times. But “I’m more concerned,” he writes, “by our seeming inability in modern society—or at least in modern California—to transition quickly away from the personal automobile as the One True Mode of transportation.” Roth points to the example of New York City road building, narrated in Robert Caro’s biography of urban planner Robert Moses:

Three major roadways connecting New York City and Long Island opened in 1936, Caro writes, “bringing to an even one hundred the number of miles of parkway constructed by Moses.” A newspaper editorial “opined that the new parkways would, by relieving the traffic load on [existing parkways], solve the problems of access to Moses’ Long Island parks ‘for generations.’”

Alas, Caro writes, “the new parkways solved the problem for about three weeks.” There were terrible traffic jams almost immediately—not only on the new roads, but also on existing roads.

Moses’ solution? Build more roads. Which he did, again and again, even as the problem repeated itself.… And yet here we are nearly a century later in the nation’s most forward-looking state, still debating whether “induced traffic” is a real thing. It most definitely is, as L.A. Times transportation reporter Rachel Uranga has made extremely clear in her stories. But that hasn’t stopped California from continuing to approve freeway-widening projects that promise to spew air pollution into low-income communities of color—and carbon into the atmosphere—while doing little or nothing to reduce traffic.

Read Sammy Roth’s full newsletter at Boiling Point.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The War on Wolves Will Hurt Humans Too

Republicans are ramping up their rhetoric on gray wolves while research is showing how useful these predators can be.

One wolf leaps upward as another faces her.
Montana VW Pics/Getty Images
Two wolves play in the snow in Montana.

Republican Representative Pete Stauber offered a striking case study last week in the reinvigorated war on wolves. “A logger from northern St. Louis County just sent me this video of a wolf running through his job site and taking down a whitetail deer,” the Minnesota congressman tweeted, alongside footage of a wolf bounding over stumps in a clear-cut former forest. “As you can see, wolves lost any fear of humans and are increasingly dangerous to livestock & pets and decimating our deer herd. Delist!”

Stauber’s tweet drew an avalanche of criticism from what remains of liberal Twitter on the site now known as X. “You’re out there cutting down their home and have the audacity to talk about where the wildlife is,” reads the top reply. Others made use of the platform’s new “Community Notes” to post a 1999 ecology paper beneath the congressman’s tweet, focusing on the role wolves play in maintaining stable deer populations. But here’s what stood out to me:

First, Stauber’s call to “delist” gray wolves—that is, to remove them from protection under the Endangered Species Act—comes as the 2024 election heats up. And four years ago, as the 2020 election loomed, the Trump administration did exactly what Stauber desires. “It’s the latest in a series of administration actions on the environment that appeal to key blocs of rural voters in the race’s final day,” the AP reported at the time, noting that wolf hunts could resume in “Michigan, Minnesota and Wisconsin—a crucial battleground in the campaign between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.” The decision was later reversed by court order: U.S. District Judge Jeffrey White, a Bush appointee, ruled in 2022 that the delisting qualified as “arbitrary and capricious” under the Administrative Procedure Act, and was therefore unlawful.

Of course, the extent to which gray wolves are actually “listed” in any meaningful sense is debatable. Despite the 2022 court order, gray wolves are not, in fact, federally protected in many states, including Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, and parts of three other states. This has to do with a random rider inserted in a 2011 budget bill by Montana Democratic Senator Jon Tester and Idaho Republican Representative Mike Simpson, who also stipulated that the rider would be exempt from judicial review.

2011 was the first time Congress had ever removed a species’ protections under the Endangered Species Act. The rider was widely perceived to be Tester’s attempt to gain ground over Republican challenger Denny Rehberg, a former cashmere goat and cattle rancher who kept a stuffed wolf’s head on a wall in his office. Tester won that election despite Rehberg’s attempt to claim credit for the wolf delisting, and is up again for reelection this year. Rehberg, incidentally, may also be on the ballot: Politico reported his intention to run for the congressional seat in Montana’s 2nd district only an hour after Stauber tweeted the logger’s video.

Second, the full delisting of the gray wolf actually looks increasingly likely right now. On February 2, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the results of a recent review of gray wolves’ status, finding that protections were “not warranted” for either the gray wolf population in the Northern Rocky Mountains or the population in the Western United States. This on its own doesn’t change the wolves’ status, but it makes it a lot more likely that they will eventually be delisted—sooner rather than later if Trump is elected in November. (Stauber, incidentally, signed the amicus brief asking the Supreme Court to overturn the results of the 2020 election in favor of Trump.)

And third, the renewed focus on delisting comes as more research suggests gray wolves—and many other predators—should be protected not because of whether or not they meet the current definition of “endangered” but because they are extremely helpful. Not only do they control the populations they prey on, often improving the health of those populations, but the knock-on effects of that predation can be remarkable.

In boreal forests, one study has estimated that by limiting the number of moose, which eat trees and shrubs, wolves could lead to vastly more carbon being sequestered per year than would otherwise occur—roughly the amount emitted by 33–71 million cars. While that finding may not hold for all ecosystems, researchers have modeled a similar effect for sea otters in kelp forests. Another study in 2021 found that predators help “buffer” the effects of heat waves on ecosystems. Lack of predators is believed to be a key factor in deer overpopulation in some areas of the country, driving a dangerous increase in tick-borne diseases that can infect humans. Not just Lyme disease but babesiosis is now spreading rapidly via deer ticks, The New York Times reported last year. Large white-tailed deer populations may also be contributing to the spread of the lone star tick, which can transmit ehrlichiosis, alpha-gal syndrome, and Bourbon virus, according to Undark magazine.

As Eleanor Cummins wrote for The New Republic in 2021, arguments against wolves usually fall apart under scrutiny, even when it comes to ranching:

In a 2015 study, the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that less than 5 percent of cattle and calves die from predation combined, and the single biggest cause of those deaths is coyotes. Of the 3.9 million cattle and calf losses reported that year, just 2,040 deaths could be attributed to wolves.…

Arguments about protecting elk and deer prove equally flimsy. Wolves tend to pick off the old and the weak of a herd, which benefits the health of the overall hunting stock. If wolves were to kill too aggressively, they’d be the first to suffer, as predator populations dip when they don’t have enough prey to eat.

All signs point to wolves’ growing status in humans’ culture wars this year. In order to fit a neat narrative, politicians will likely focus on the yes-or-no question of “listing” versus “delisting.” But as research is increasingly showing, the best arguments for protecting wolves have little to do with whether they’re currently on the “endangered” list.

Good News/Bad News

Heat pump sales outpaced gas furnace sales by 21 percent last year, climate publication Heatmap reports.

Last month was the hottest January ever recorded on the planet—the eighth month in a row featuring highest-ever temperature averages.

Stat of the Week
33,774 sq. miles

That’s the increase in the area of land in Greenland now sporting plant life rather than ice, relative to when monitoring of the massive ice sheet began in the 1980s.

What I’m Reading

Cement Is a Big Part of the Carbon Problem. Here’s How to Make It Part of the Solution

Jeffrey Rissman imagines a world where we don’t just reduce the massive emissions from cement and concrete but actually reverse them:

By combining clean heat with carbon-free minerals or equipment to capture the carbon emissions from breaking down limestone, cement-making could become carbon neutral by 2045. That’s an excellent first step, but the innovations happening today could take us beyond carbon neutral.

After concrete is made, it gradually absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a process called carbonation. With the ingredients and techniques common today, making cement produces more emissions than the material can later absorb, so every new ton of cement worsens climate change. But if cement kilns are heated with clean electricity and the emissions from breaking down minerals are avoided or stored underground, then the simple act of pouring concrete would remove carbon pollution from the air. New construction would help repair our climate.

Read Jeffrey Rissman’s op-ed at The Los Angeles Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

When Rain Costs $11 Billion

Massively expensive weather events are getting more common.

Robyn Beck/Getty Images
Water rages along the Los Angeles River amid record rainfall on February 5.

$11 billion is a lot of money. It’s more than the annual budget of Montana, among other states. It’s more than the loan the International Monetary Fund is considering giving to Egypt to stave off economic collapse. It is 14 times the size of the latest funding gap for the public transit system here in the District of Columbia, described as an “existential crisis” forcing service cuts.

That enormous sum is the estimated cost of the damage from the atmospheric river that’s been pummeling California since Sunday—after a previous atmospheric river deluged the state last week. While AccuWeather released its $9 billion–$11 billion estimate on Monday, rains continued Tuesday and even into Wednesday, with the death toll rising from three as of Sunday to nine by Tuesday morning (mainly caused by falling trees or car accidents). Sunday alone was Los Angeles’s “wettest February calendar day in 110 years, and the third overall wettest day since records began being kept in 1877,” according to local news service KTLA. Several areas of Los Angeles County got a foot of rain in around 48 hours, causing some 475 mudslides, while winds and fallen trees left over 850,000 homes and businesses without power further north.

We know that climate change is increasing the severity of many types of weather events. Category 5 hurricanes, for instance, are becoming so common that scientists, in a paper published Monday, now say we need a Category 6 to account for hurricanes with wind speeds well above Category 5’s threshold of 157 mph. So it’s no surprise that multiple studies have found that atmospheric rivers, which are bands of moisture in the air, are also getting worse. As Dave Levitan wrote for The New Republic this week, “The warming atmosphere can hold more water, meaning it can drop more of it on us all at once.”

And all of this increasingly destructive weather has a cost. For more than 40 years, from 1980 to 2023, the average number of annual weather disasters in the United States each year “with losses exceeding $1 billion” was 8.5. In 2023, there were 28. And California, along with pretty much everywhere else, remains dangerously underprepared.

As Dave observed, some of the most important measures cities could take to mitigate extreme precipitation are strikingly “mundane”: not massive seawalls, but stuff like bigger sewers, green roofs, strategic landscaping. Not that this necessarily comes cheap, though. “The reason the sewers and storm drains aren’t built for anything even close to the catastrophe unfolding in California is largely thanks to cost,” Dave wrote.

Which brings us back to $11 billion. Granted, one of the reasons the costs of this storm could be so high, AccuWeather noted, is that it has hit “some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the state.” And you might see numbers like this and think, Well, insurance companies and wealthy real estate owners will bear the brunt of it. In some cases, sure. But storms can financially wreck the people, businesses, and municipalities that don’t fall into that category. And don’t forget: The insurance industry is slowly abandoning California, while similarly retreating from Florida, Louisiana, and other disaster-prone states.

Our safety nets for extreme weather, which were always inadequate, are getting even more threadbare. $11 billion—and, let’s not forget, nine lives—is a reminder that not preparing for climate change, and not cutting emissions fast enough, costs a heck of a lot, as well.

Good News/Bad News

The EPA estimates that its tougher air quality standard—specifically regulating fine particulates, commonly called soot—could prevent “up to 4,500 premature deaths and 290,000 lost workdays, yielding up to $46 billion in net health benefits in 2032,” according to the agency’s press release. The standard is also predicted to result in 800,000 fewer “asthma-related emergency visits” per year, reports NPR.

Researchers studying sea sponges think they’ve discovered evidence that the world has already warmed 1.7 degrees Celsius (that’s over three degrees Fahrenheit) relative to preindustrial levels. That’s way more than previously estimated. Other scientists dispute the finding.

Stat of the Week

$57.4 billion

That’s the combined profits of ExxonMobil and Chevron last year. While it’s down from the obscene profitability of 2022, The New York Times’ Stanley Reed reports, it would “otherwise” be both giants’ “biggest annual profit in a decade.”

What I’m Reading

Rise of the Lone Star Tick Brings New Disease Threats

A lot of people in the Northeastern United States hear “ticks” and think “Lyme disease.” That’s outdated, reports Rene Ebersole:

Environmental conditions have tilted toward the lone star [tick]’s advantage, said Monmouth County tick researcher Andrea Egizi. The forests are recovering from decades of logging, white-tailed deer populations have rebounded, and winters are getting warmer due to climate change. “It’s kind of this perfect storm for them to be taking over,” Egizi said. Citizens in New Jersey encountered mostly blacklegged ticks until roughly 10 years ago, when the counts “switched over to being dominated by lone stars,” she added.

Research shows the lone star tick’s expansion has been progressing for a few decades; it’s now established from Florida to Maine and as far west as Nebraska.

The rise of the lone star tick is alarming, say public health officials, because it carries novel maladies. These include a Lyme-like bacterial disease called ehrlichiosis, which first appeared in humans [in] the mid-1980s; a meat allergy that sounds like a female superhero, alpha-gal syndrome; and the emerging Bourbon virus, first identified in humans around 10 years ago when a Bourbon County, Kansas man died after being bitten.

Read Rene Ebersole’s report at Undark.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

Fixing American Farming Shouldn’t Be a Tough Sell

A sustainable food system could be worth up to $10 trillion a year. Meanwhile, Congress can’t even pass a new version of the farm bill.

An aerial view of grape vines surrounded by parched soil
Drip irrigation at a farm in Fresno, California, where ongoing drought presents a serious challenge, in July 2021.

As The Guardian reported this week, the benefits of switching to a more sustainable food system could be astronomical: worth up to $10 trillion per year. Currently, the “unaccounted costs” of our global food systems come to about $15 trillion a year, meaning “our food systems are destroying more value than they create,” according to the Food System Economic Commission’s Global Policy report, which released its economic modeling on Monday. This is a fixable problem: We could move toward greater food security while reducing emissions and promoting biodiversity, and it would cost only a fraction ($200–$500 billion, i.e., around 5 percent) of the benefits that reform would generate. But the policy proposals that are currently on the table won’t get us there.

Sustainable agriculture experts may disagree on the precise proposals modeled by this report, which pairs relatively uncontroversial ideas (like conserving water, forests, and peatlands) with more hotly debated ones (like intensifying animal agriculture in some locations and getting comfortable with higher food prices). But few people really dispute that our current food systems need reform, whether globally or closer to home: From the multitudinous environmental, epidemiological, and ethical problems of meat production to toxic runoff and poor land use, to suicidal farmers and systematically exploited agricultural workers, to imminent water crises, American agriculture is way past the point where a rational observer would fail to see the glaring need for reform.

The Guardian’s report on the new economic modeling isn’t the only recent headline pointing to the crisis. Avian flu is also back in the news, spreading among poultry farms in California and leading to over a million birds being euthanized—all while the virus also makes devastating inroads into vulnerable wildlife populations in Antarctica. The virus was found in Antarctic seal populations earlier this month, and this week testing confirmed that the strain has moved to gentoo penguins, leaving over 200 penguin chicks dead, according to Reuters. Recent research has shown that while wild birds can and do spread the disease, it originated in an agricultural setting and spreads rapidly in poultry farms. And while some policymakers are apt to blame bird flu on Chinese agricultural practices, since the first cases were found in Southern China, it bears repeating that the United States has historically been and remains a conspicuous hot spot for swine flu.

Meanwhile, states relying on water from the rapidly drying Colorado River are “racing,” per The New York Times’ Christopher Flavelle, to agree on new water cuts before a possible change in presidential administrations leads to more bureaucratic delays. The vast majority of Colorado River water currently goes to agriculture, and, as E&E News’s Jennifer Yachnin observed this week, “ninety percent of this country’s winter vegetables are grown on farms in the sunny, arid corners of California and Arizona dependent on the river”—a figure that should trouble people worried about food security.

The recent Iowa caucus also offered a reminder, Tom Philpott recently wrote here at TNR, that absolutely all of the 2024 Republican and Democratic candidates support ethanol subsidies—despite the fact that ethanol is a wildly inefficient use of land. “We devote about 30 million acres of pristine farmland—an area the size of Virginia—to growing fuel for our cars,” Tom wrote, when solar panels could accomplish the same in vastly less space. Corn farming also leads to both erosion and rampant water pollution from fertilizers and pesticides.

All of which is to say that it’s a heck of a time for Congress to remain stuck in gridlock, unable to pass a new version of the farm bill—which, in case you’ve forgotten, also controls access to the country’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food stamps. Lawmakers were supposed to figure something out by October 1, and now negotiations are taking place in an election year. Naturally, a new version of the farm bill won’t be enough to fix American agriculture’s problems. But those concerned about the environment, food security, and inequality in this country will be watching these negotiations closely. Tweaks at the margins could affect a huge number of people and ecosystems—both in the U.S. and far beyond.

Good News/Bad News

The United Kingdom’s National Trust has launched a tree-planting program in an attempt to extend one of the last remaining patches of the country’s ancient temperate rainforest and resurrect some of its historic range.

Investigative outfit DeSmog has found yet more evidence that oil companies knew about climate change as early as the 1950s.

Stat of the Week
> 200

That’s how many rail cars filled with vinyl chloride—the carcinogenic chemical that spilled during the catastrophic train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio, last year—continue to move across the country and through densely populated areas each day, according to a new report. The Washington Post notes in its write-up that Republican senators are resisting the Environmental Protection Agency’s attempt even to study the risks of vinyl chloride, denouncing it as a “war on plastic.”

What I’m Reading

Democrats Say Biden Hasn’t “Made the Case” on Climate Despite Achievements

Buried under the election-year analysis in the first half of this piece is a beautiful and important insight about what actually motivates people to care about climate policy:

“Like I said: When I hear climate, I think jobs,” Mr. Biden said. It is a line he has repeated in multiple settings.

Some data suggests that might not be the winning message.

One of the biggest climate marketing studies of its kind, a public opinion poll across the United States and 18 other countries that was conducted last summer, found that “protecting the planet for the next generation” overwhelmingly beats out other arguments for taking climate action. Researchers found the so-called “urgent generational message” was 12 times more popular than the promise of creating jobs.

“At the heart of this is love,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, which conducted the study with other nonprofit groups including Potential Energy Coalition, the Meliore Foundation and Zero Ideas.

“People love particular people, places and things,” Mr. Leiserowitz said. “And those people, places and things are being threatened.”

Read Lisa Friedman’s full report at The New York Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

How Fishing Releases Huge Amounts of Carbon Dioxide

A new study shows bottom trawling isn’t just destructive to wildlife along the ocean floor.

A person stands on a boat in the middle of the water holding onto a net that is hoisted above him.
NurPhoto/Getty Images
A fisherman repairing nets after trawling in the Port of Molfetta, Italy

Coal, steaks, gas stoves, and … halibut? You have to wonder how far off we are from a new climate culture war breaking out over the fishing industry. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in Loper Bright Enterprises v. Raimondo, a suit from a herring fishing company challenging the government’s authority to force the industry to pay for federal monitors on boats. The case is widely expected to end with the justices gutting the power of federal agencies to interpret congressional statutes—and to set and enforce regulations accordingly—by overturning Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council, a landmark 1984 decision that affirmed that power.

Also last week, a new study showed that the fishing industry—and bottom trawling in particular—is a strikingly overlooked source of greenhouse gas emissions. We already knew this was a possibility: In 2021, an international team of researchers published a study finding that trawling—in which fishing ships drag nets outfitted with metal panels across the ocean floor to catch seafood like flounder, shrimp, and haddock—releases about a gigaton of carbon dioxide previously stored in the seabed into the water each year. That’s “as much carbon dioxide as the entire aviation industry,” The Guardian pointed out at the time. Carbon dioxide released into the ocean acidifies the water, which can threaten sea life—not just coral and shellfish but also the overall balance of the ecosystem.

Last week, a team that included four of the same researchers published a follow-up: In addition to the acidification effect, over half of that carbon dioxide is then released into the atmosphere “over 7-9 years.” While Enric Sala, one of the authors, acknowledged in National Geographic that this is “small compared to the emissions produced by burning fossil fuels on the land,” the same article noted that this means the effect from bottom trawling “is nearly double the annual emissions from fuel combustion for the entire global fishing fleet.”

That’s for a practice that everyone knew was environmentally catastrophic to begin with. To quote the U.S. Geological Survey: “Trawling destroys the natural seafloor habitat by essentially rototilling the seabed,” destroying an astonishing array of plants and animals as it does so, from coral and other inhabitants of the seafloor to pilot whales and dolphins.

Bottom trawling is restricted in a lot of U.S. waters. But it’s not banned entirely. And while the United States, according to a 2021 report from Flora and Fauna International, accounts for just 4 percent of trawl catch worldwide—well behind China, at nearly 15 percent, and Vietnam, at a little over 8 percent—it’s also a country whose fishing industry shouldn’t, in theory, be particularly dependent on the practice, since bottom trawling accounts for a relatively low percentage of its total fishing haul.

That raises the question of whether policymakers might consider further protections, or even an outright ban. These studies aren’t undisputed, of course—few early studies are. And if Loper Bright v. Raimondo winds up destroying the administrative state, all kinds of environmental protections could get a lot harder. But this finding may prompt policymakers to reexamine the topic, which will doubtless provoke the ire of the fishing industry.

This time last year, a stray comment about regulating gas stoves, which emit greenhouse gases in addition to lung irritants and carcinogens, sparked a bizarre frenzy among right-wingers eager to defend the asthma-linked devices from liberal interference. Panicked posturing over red meat is practically a seasonal sport in American politics. And almost anything can happen in a campaign year. If a candidate brandishes a flounder during a stump speech in a few months, well … that would be about par for the course.

Good News/Bad News

Recycling rare earth metals could go a long way toward meeting the increasing demand for them for clean energy technology, a new study suggests.

The American Petroleum Institute has launched an eight-figure ad campaign, The Guardian’s Dharna Noor reports, to convince Americans that the fossil fuel industry is decarbonizing on its own and that fossil fuels are crucial for the nation’s security and way of life.

Stat of the Week

3 percentage points

That’s the margin by which Donald Trump might have won the 2020 election, if voters’ feelings on climate change had stayed as they were in 2016, according to new statistical modeling. Instead, the number of people rating climate change as “very important” grew, and Joe Biden won climate-concerned voters across the political spectrum by 75 points. Read Anthropocene magazine’s story on this study.

What I’m Reading

The dubious climate gains of turning soil into a carbon sink

Regenerative agriculture techniques, including less tilling and increased use of cover crops, are a good idea for many reasons, Susannah Savage reports. “But the carbon angle has been oversold,” according to Pete Smith, a soil expert at the University of Aberdeen:

There are more serious flaws with soil sequestration than the lack of a clear definition. One is its capacity; research by Smith, working with other academics at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, recently looked at carbon captured in grassland soils and calculated that some 135 gigatonnes of carbon would be required to offset emissions of methane and nitrous oxide from the grazing livestock sector. That is almost twice the carbon currently contained in managed grasslands. In some regions, carbon stocks would need to increase by 2,000 per cent to offset emissions from livestock farming.

Carbon capture in soils has been promoted by the livestock industry as “a get out of jail free card”, says Smith. “‘Yes, we’re producing methane emissions … but no need to worry about it, the soils will offset all the emissions’. This [study] is the nail in the coffin of that argument.”

Read Susannah Strange’s report at Financial Times.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.

The Optimistic Climate Report That Might Be Too Good to Be True

Journalists hailed it as proof that we can grow the economy while cutting emissions. But between the lines, there’s a different story.

A cow standing among other cows looks at the camera.
Bloomberg/Getty Images
A dairy farm in Porterville, California

A funny thing happened last week. A climate report revealed genuinely good news about U.S. emissions. Or did it?

“U.S. Carbon Emissions Fell in 2023 as Coal Use Tumbled to New Lows,” The New York Times reported. “The falling emissions, driven largely by retirements of dirty, coal-fired power plants, put U.S. climate pollution at its lowest level since 1991,” CNN added. NBC’s headline was cautious—“Good news, bad news: U.S. emissions shrank last year, but very slowly”—but the lede was more optimistic: “Carbon emissions shrank in 2023 even as the economy grew, a sign the U.S. is plodding toward a more sustainable future.”

That was the takeaway of a lot of the coverage. As Robinson Meyer of Heatmap wrote, “It’s the first time since the pandemic began that the American economy has, as the phrase goes, ‘decoupled’—experienced an expanding economy and falling emissions at the same time.” These articles acknowledged that progress remains troublingly slow—the pace isn’t enough to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement—but characterized the report as proof that we can grow the economy while reducing emissions.

Not so fast. It really depends on what part of the Rhodium report you look at. To quote the summary itself: “This decline in emissions was driven by an 8% drop in emissions in the power sector and a 4% drop from residential and commercial buildings.… In the transportation sector, the highest-emitting sector, emissions rose by 1.6% from 2022 levels, and in the industrial sector, the second highest-emitting sector, there was a 1% increase in emissions.” That’s a little less encouraging.

Consider the 4 percent decrease from buildings. How’d that happen? “In the buildings sector, a milder-than-average winter reduced fuel demand and led to lower overall emissions, since the majority of homes still rely on natural gas, fuel oil, and propane for space heating.” This is a tough one to know how to evaluate. On the one hand, any drop in emissions is good, in that it strictly adds less to the total emissions budget. On the other hand, another way of phrasing this would be to say we reduced emissions by warming the world enough that it was a mild winter, which, given that our buildings still rely on fossil fuels, reduced emissions. That is not a pattern we want to repeat ad infinitum, expecting further success; there are, after all, some knock-on effects from warmer winters, including water crises, ecosystem and agricultural instability, and hotter summers (which can also lead to increased fuel consumption).

Then there’s the power sector. Coal declining is doubtless good news, not just for greenhouse gas emissions but also for human health. But the report also says that “natural gas generation grew more than twice as fast as renewable generation did, year-on-year.” And wind turbine installation rates actually seem to be declining relative to 2021 levels. Meanwhile, the report continues, “the U.S. is on track for record dry gas production in 2023, and crude oil production looks to rival if not exceed 2019 record levels as well.”

And then there’s the other big asterisk. “The researchers looked at planet-warming emissions generated by transportation, electricity, industry and buildings,” The New York Times noted, “but did not include pollution from agriculture, which accounts for roughly 10 percent of the nation’s greenhouse gases.”

There’s little reason to think that U.S. agricultural emissions have gone down. In fact, we already know that agricultural emissions can rise while others fall, because that seems to be what happened in 2020, when Covid hit. Between 1990 and 2021, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s annual Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks, carbon dioxide emissions from agriculture increased by 16.2 percent, methane emissions increased by 15.7 percent, and nitrous oxide emissions increased by 3.7 percent. And emissions specifically from enteric fermentation—i.e., from the guts of the animals producing red meat and dairy—have increased 7.2 percent over roughly the same period.

None of this is to say that the way the Rhodium findings are being reported is wrong. The top-line summaries, however, emphasize the progress rather than the more troubling signs. Even with all the caveats, Meyer writes, “the analysis nonetheless shows that climate progress in the U.S. is holding its own, just as the Inflation Reduction Act and new Environmental Protection Agency rules are set to kick in in years to come.”

I struggle to match that optimism. None of the sectors where emissions have likely increased are easy to reform, from a political perspective. The sectors where emissions did decrease may not maintain those reductions. Then too, it’s hard to ignore other headlines coming out this week that may have a significant effect on these trends going forward. Hot (so to speak) on the heels of former President Donald Trump’s victory in the Iowa caucus, a poll released Tuesday showed Trump leading Biden 45–37 percent in the key state of Georgia. That same day, Politico reported that team Trump may “show less restraint” in a second term than in his first when it comes to gutting environmental protections and climate policy. That’s in part due to the influence of Project 2025, a policy draft put together by conservative groups for “Day One.” (You can read about Project 2025 and its implications for climate, trans rights, schools, and more in TNR’s extensive coverage of the plan.)

Time will tell how this report from the Rhodium Group ages. It’s a frustrating feature of climate coverage that one of the most important factors in evaluating the meaning of emissions reports often isn’t the climate or emissions data itself but rather the crystal-ball vagaries of American politics. The climate-funding progress of the past few years is real. But the IRA is a law—and an imperfect one, at that. It’s not destiny.

Good News/Bad News

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports a “remarkable number” of juvenile oysters in the Chesapeake Bay—more than they’ve seen “in a generation.” Oysters not only contribute to the seafood industry but also filter water, making their populations crucial to waterway restoration.

Wildlife groups have long warned that further construction of barriers between the United States and Mexico would have dire effects, not just for humans but for other species as well. The Guardian now reports that “more than 100 wild animals … were killed in a wildfire in Texas last summer, after becoming trapped behind the concrete border wall.”

Stat of the Week
11,000 pieces

That’s possibly the average microplastic ingestion of an American adult each year, according to a profoundly disturbing piece from The Washington Post on microplastics in food.

What I’m Reading

Fossil Fuel Corporations Are Faking Grassroots Support

Fossil fuel companies have used insights on consumer trust from P.R. firm Edelman to “turn workers into a positive public face for fossil fuels, obscuring the role of the profit-hungry executives who actually pull the strings,” Adam M. Lowenstein reports. The strategy has proven politically profitable.

“Energy Citizens,” an ultimately successful astroturf campaign launched by the American Petroleum Institute while Edelman was the organization’s single largest contractor, hewed closely to Edelman’s proprietary insights about trust. The effectiveness of Energy Citizens, which involved making oil and gas workers the “human face” of the fossil fuel industry to create the impression of widespread grassroots support, contributed to the defeat of US climate legislation in 2010.…

According to Duncan Meisel, executive director of Clean Creatives, such examples illustrate how Edelman has used its insights—under the guise of studying public trust—to help the fossil fuel industry fight climate action. “When Edelman finds that engagement from employees and ‘people like me’ is an important part of developing trust in corporations, you immediately see those tactics being deployed on behalf of the American Petroleum Institute and companies like TransCanada,” said Meisel.

Read Adam M. Lowenstein’s report at Jacobin.

This article first appeared in Life in a Warming World, a weekly TNR newsletter authored by deputy editor Heather Souvaine Horn. Sign up here.