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A weekly reckoning with our heated planet—and the fight to save it

Companies Legally Use Poison to Make Your Decaf Coffee

And they are fighting every effort to ban it.

A cup of coffee with a heart design in foam
Beata Zawrzel/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Do you drink decaffeinated coffee? Are you aware that it’s often made by applying a chemical so dangerous it was banned for use in paint stripper five years ago? And are you aware that companies think banning this chemical is really, really unfair?

This week the Environmental Protection Agency finalized a rule prohibiting all but “critical” uses of methylene chloride, a highly toxic liquid that is believed to have killed at least 88 people since 1980—mostly workers refinishing bathtubs or doing other home renovations. Methylene chloride can cause liver damage and is linked to multiple cancers, among other health effects. Amazingly, while the EPA banned its sale for paint stripping in 2019 for this reason, it continues to be used for a lot of other purposes. And one of those is decaffeinating coffee, because the Food and Drug Administration decided in the 1980s that the risk to coffee drinkers was low given how the coffee was processed.

The EPA’s ban on noncritical use of methylene chloride is one of many rules the Biden administration has announced or finalized ahead of the Congressional Review Act deadline. (The CRA, essentially, makes it easier for an unfriendly Congress to nix any administrative regulations finalized in the last 60 days of a legislative session.) A lot of the recently announced rules ban or curtail toxic substances that have made their way into everyday life and are poisoning people. The EPA has limited long-lasting chemicals called PFAS in drinking water, requiring water utilities within five years to build treatment systems that remove it. The agency has categorized two types of PFAS as hazardous substances under the Superfund law, requiring manufacturers to monitor whether they’ve been released into the environment and, if so, clean them up. It has also—finally—fully banned asbestos. It’s finalized a rule to further restrict fine particulate pollution in the air, which has been linked to heart disease, heart attacks, asthma, low birth weight, Alzheimer’s, and other forms of dementia. It’s in the process of finalizing a rule reducing lead in drinking water, which would require the replacement of lead pipes throughout the nation.

Banning poison is good politics. As mentioned in last week’s newsletter, while only 47 percent of respondents in a recent CBS News poll supported reentering the Paris climate agreement, 70 percent said they supported reducing toxic chemicals in drinking water. That’s consistent with other polls showing that a majority of people think the federal government is doing too little to protect “lakes, rivers and streams,” and that an overwhelming majority of people—even 68 percent of Republicans—believe the federal government should play some role in “addressing differences across communities in their health risks from pollution and other environmental problems.”

But every single time one of these rules is announced, companies and industry groups respond with the most ridiculous statements. Let’s look at just a few recent examples.

“A group of coffee makers against banning methylene chloride,” Boston radio station WBUR reported in early April, “recently wrote the FDA saying, ‘True coffee aficionados in blind tastings’ prefer coffee decaffeinated with the chemical.” Who knows how this study was done—“True coffee aficionados” are not known for preferring decaf, period, hence a recent P.R. push to improve decaf’s image. Nick Florko, a reporter for health news website Stat, told WBUR that the coffee makers’ letter to the FDA was a “pretty funny claim if you consider the fact that we’re talking about coffee here that’s essentially rinsed in paint thinner.” And this says nothing at all about what happens to workers involved in the decaffeination process. (Methylene chloride has previously been shown to poison even trained workers wearing protective gear.)

National Coffee Association president William Murray said something even weirder, telling CNN via email that banning methylene chloride “would defy science and harm American[s’] health.” His logic appeared to be that since all coffee consumption, including decaf, shows signs of reducing cancer risk overall, it’s not really a problem to decaffeinate coffee using a known carcinogen. That’s loopy even for industry pushback. For one thing, it’s easy to imagine that coffee could be good in general, and less good if you add poison to it. For another, coffee can also be decaffeinated without methylene chloride, using only water.

Now let’s look at PFAS pushback. Knowing the EPA rules were in progress, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in March launched the “Essential Chemistry for America” initiative, with the goal of “protecting ‘forever chemicals’ it deems ‘critical,’” according to E&E News. “We’re increasingly concerned that overly broad regulatory approaches threaten access to modern fluorochemistries, so we’re taking action to ensure their availability,” chamber vice president Marty Durbin said. Given that “access” language is typically used in a social and environmental justice context, restyling the regulation of poisons as threatening “access to modern fluorochemistries” is gutsy, to say the least.

The private water industry is meanwhile throwing a fit about being asked to filter out PFAS. The rule will “throw public confidence in drinking water into chaos,” Mike McGill, president of water industry communications firm WaterPIO, told the AP. (You’d think the existence of PFAS in the water is what would tank public confidence, not the requirement that it be removed.) Then there’s the common threat from private water utilities—which, remember, turn a profit off providing a substance people can’t live without—that removing PFAS will increase people’s water bills. Robert Powelson, the head of the National Association of Water Companies, said that the costs of the federal regulation “will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers,” according to The Washington Post. “Water utilities do not create or produce PFAS chemicals,” Powelson added. “Yet water systems and their customers are on the front lines of paying for the cleanup of this contamination.”

It’s true enough that water utilities are not the ones creating PFAS chemicals. On the other hand, there are lots of water contaminants that water utilities are responsible for filtering out if they want to keep making money from providing people with drinking water. Is there really any reason PFAS shouldn’t be among them?

Saying that the cost of this regulation “will disproportionately fall on water and wastewater customers” shouldn’t be read as an expression of sympathy for disadvantaged households. The burden will fall on customers because the utilities will make sure of it. It’s a threat, and one that doesn’t mention the federal money from the Inflation Reduction Act that is being made available to help shoulder that burden. Those funds may well fall short, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re paying for-profit entities to transition to removing something they ought to have been filtering out long ago. And even if this federal rule hadn’t been made, companies would probably have to start removing PFAS anyway, because they are facing increasingly expensive lawsuits over not doing so. (The water utilities, in turn, are suing polluters to cover remediation costs—another source of funding.)

It’s worth emphasizing what PFAS chemicals actually do to people, particularly in light of the American Water Works Association’s assertion to the AP that the cost of removing the chemicals “can’t be justified for communities with low levels of PFAS.” Researchers are now pretty sure that PFAS exposure increases the risk of dying from cardiovascular disease. Studying people in northern Italy who drank PFAS-contaminated water, researchers also saw increased rates of kidney and testicular cancer. The Guardian report on this contained this disturbing finding too: Women with multiple children had lower levels of PFAS only because pregnancy transferred PFAS into their children’s bodies instead.

Don’t let that get in the way of a good comms statement from industry groups, though. Remember: Forcing companies even to report their PFAS pollution, or remove PFAS from the water, is unfair.

Good News/Bad News

Twenty-nine-year-old Andrea Vidaurre has won the Goldman Environmental Prize for her work in environmental justice, pushing California to adopt new standards for truck and rail emissions that will curtail the air pollution harming working-class Latino communities in California’s Inland Empire.

The United States has sided with petrostates in opposing production controls on plastic at the negotiations in Ottawa for a U.N. treaty to reduce plastic pollution. (Two weeks ago, I wrote about these negotiations, noting that the number of plastics industry lobbyists attending this session was not yet known. Now it is: 196 lobbyists from the fossil fuel and chemical industries registered for this round, according to the Center for International Environmental Law—a 37 percent increase from the number at the last session.)

Stat of the Week

That’s the percentage of the 250 most popular fictional films released between 2013 and 2022 in which climate change exists and a character depicted on screen knows it, according to a new “Climate Reality Check” analysis from Colby University and Good Energy. Read Sammy Roth’s newsletter about why climate change in movies is so important here.

What I’m Reading

Big Oil privately acknowledged efforts to downplay climate crisis, joint committee investigation finds

Congressional Democrats this week released a report confirming what news outlets have previously reported: Companies like Exxon knew about climate change very early on and covered it up. They also found in subpoenaed emails that Exxon tried to discredit reporting of its duplicity, while privately acknowledging that it was true:

The new revelations build on 2015 reporting from Inside Climate News and the Los Angeles Times, which found that Exxon was for decades aware of the dangers of the climate crisis, yet hid that from the public.

At the time, Exxon publicly rejected the journalists’ findings outright, calling them “inaccurate and deliberately misleading.” … But in internal communications, Exxon confirmed the validity of the reporting. In a December 2015 email about a potential public response to the investigative reporting, Exxon communications advisor Pamela Kevelson admitted the company did not “dispute much of what these stories report.” … “It’s true that Inside Climate News originally accused us of working against science but ultimately modified their accusation to working against policies meant to stop climate change,” Alan Jeffers, then a spokesperson for Exxon, wrote in a 2016 email to Kevelson. “I’m OK either way, since they were both true at one time or another.”

Read Dharna Noor’s report in 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 Wrong Question to Ask About Climate Change

Saying people support “steps” to address climate change is meaningless unless we specify what those steps are.

An aerial photo shows trees growing in a wetland in a manmade pattern.
VCG/Getty Images
A man-made metasequoia forest at Sihong Hongze Lake Wetland Scenic Area in China

Remember when people weren’t even sure climate change was real?

According to a new CBS News poll, 70 percent of Americans support the “U.S. taking steps to reduce climate change.” That’s a big number—so big, in fact, that you’d think political action would be guaranteed, and that we’d be well on our way to halting global warming altogether.

Then how come Congress isn’t passing bills to do that right now? There are a lot of possible answers. That 70 percent finding doesn’t say anything about where climate action lies on respondents’ priorities list. It doesn’t shed light on what sort of actions and policies respondents would support. And perhaps most fundamentally, it doesn’t even define what climate change is.

This last part is particularly important, because it’s the only way to make sense of the CBS poll against others in the past year. Last August, Pew Research Center reported that only 46 percent of Americans believe the “Earth’s temperature is getting warmer mostly due to human activity.” Another 26 percent said it was “mostly due to natural patterns,” with “not sure” and “no solid evidence” receiving 14 percent each. That paints a very different picture of political support for climate policy, because if you think global warming is mostly due to natural patterns, you’re probably not going to support immediate curtailment of fossil fuels.

Pew also asked about prioritization. Only 37 percent said that “the president and Congress dealing with climate change should be a top priority.” Another 34 percent said it should “be an important but lower priority”—which roughly adds up to that 70 percent support for climate action in CBS’s poll.

So why isn’t Congress putting the finishing touches on energy efficiency legislation as you read this? Instead, House Republicans seem inclined to declare war on home appliances that use too little energy.

Much like “do you believe in climate change?” before it, “do you support steps to reduce climate change?” or “do you think addressing climate change should be a priority?” may today be questions that have outlived their usefulness, obscuring more than they inform. Without identifying what those steps are, the questions are nearly meaningless. For while there are many policies that could be construed as “addressing climate change,” those that don’t actually result in reduced emissions don’t fix the fundamental problem.

This conundrum is on full display in the conflicting assessments of the U.S.’s biggest climate legislation yet: the Inflation Reduction Act. By many measures, the IRA has been a smashing success, its tax incentives stimulating green investment all over the nation. Yet the law was tremendously difficult to pass, and probably only did so because the final text didn’t include any policies directly reducing, say, the combustion of fossil fuels. Oil and gas production has actually gone up dramatically since then. As TNR’s Kate Aronoff put it:

As a piece of green industrial policy, the principal aim of the IRA is to foster the development of strategic economic sectors so as to make the U.S. economy more competitive. Any emissions reductions it generates en route to that goal are largely incidental… businesses that take advantage of [the tax incentives]—including fossil fuel companies—are largely free to simply add lower-carbon lines of business onto their core, polluting business models.

You can see a similar problem in some “bipartisan” climate solutions being proposed, like one Time magazine published earlier this week for Earth Day: planting trees. It’s not that planting trees is bad. It’s often very good! But “planting a trillion trees,” as former Speaker Kevin McCarthy proposed last year, would only prevent 0.15 degrees Celsius of warming while requiring 900 million hectares of land (land that may already be already storing carbon and supporting diversity in the form of prairies and wetlands, or that may be needed to produce food or renewable energy). And planting trees doesn’t actually transition the economy to more sustainable forms of energy. So it starts to look like a political sleight of hand to avoid the real need: reducing fossil fuel consumption and production (which McCarthy absolutely does not support).

While the CBS report didn’t mention it, its poll did ask people about specific policies: While 63 percent said they supported the Biden administration’s rebates and tax credits for energy efficiency, and 70 percent supported the reduction of toxic chemicals in drinking water, only 47 percent said they supported the administration reentering the U.S. into the Paris Climate Agreement, and 49 percent supported “spending on projects to reduce climate change.” Tellingly, only 14 percent of respondents overall said they’d heard “a lot” about these policies, while 28 percent said “not much” and 22 percent said “nothing at all.”

Climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has famously argued over the past decade that “the most important thing you can do to fight climate change” is to “talk about it,” which spreads awareness and may build political will for addressing it. But as awareness of climate change spreads, perhaps it’s time to tweak that prescription. The most important thing you can do to fight climate change may be to talk, specifically, about what policies and steps you support.

Good News/Bad News

Tribal leaders are celebrating the release of juvenile salmon by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife into the Klamath River, following dam removals that are expected to increase the salmon’s chances of survival and spawning.

Three offshore wind projects in New York have been canceled, one of a string of developments complicating the state’s progress toward 70 percent renewable energy by 2030. Read TNR’s coverage of this goal here and here, and coverage about the challenges facing offshore wind here.

Stat of the Week
1,700 coal plants

That’s how many coal plants it would take to equal the emissions produced by plastic production if industry growth continues on its current trajectory, according to a new report covered by The Guardian. Read more of TNR’s coverage of the plastics industry here and the UN negotiations for a plastics treaty here.

What I’m Reading

As the climate changes, cities will scramble to find trees that will survive

Trees are struggling to keep up with the warming world, Laura Hautala writes. Varieties that used to do well in certain areas aren’t doing well anymore, and that challenge will only increase with time. That may seem like a problem for forest conservationists, but it also presents a challenge for cities:

Urban arborists say planting for the future is urgently needed and could prevent a decline in leafy cover just when the world needs it most. Trees play a crucial role in keeping cities cool. A study published in 2022 found that a roughly 30 percent increase in the metropolitan canopy could prevent nearly 40 percent of heat-related deaths in Europe. The need is particularly acute in marginalized communities, where residents—often people of color—live among treeless expanses where temperatures can go much higher than in more affluent neighborhoods.… Urban botanists and other experts warn that cities are well behind where they should be to avoid overall tree loss. The full impact of climate change may be decades away, but oaks, maples, and other popular species can take 10 or more years to mature (and show they can tolerate a new climate), making the search for the right varieties for each region a frantic race against time.

Grist | Lauren Hautala

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 U.N. Is Running Out of Time to Draft This Plastics Treaty

Meanwhile, it has yet to ban plastics industry lobbyists from the talks.

A cow stands in a field of discarded plastic.
Chaideer Mahyuddin/Getty Images
A cow forages amid plastic garbage in Indonesia’s Lhoknga, Aceh province.

In March 2022, U.N. delegates met in Ottawa and struck a historic agreement to produce, by the end of 2024, a legally binding treaty to “end plastic pollution.” “Plastic pollution has grown into an epidemic. With today’s resolution we are officially on track for a cure,” Espen Barth Eide, then Norway’s minister for climate and the environment, said at the time. Now, more than two years later, the mission looks dangerously close to derailing.

Next week, when delegates reconvene in Ottawa, it will be their penultimate chance to achieve their stated goal (the final meeting is in November). “This meeting is, to a degree, make or break,” the International Pollutants Elimination Network’s Björn Beeler told Inside Climate News.

Given the proliferation of plastics alternatives these days, you might think this treaty would be in the shrimp shell–derived sustainable bag, so to speak. Nope. A meeting in Nairobi in November 2023 ended with very little progress. Perhaps relatedly, as this newsletter noted at the time, the Center for International and Environmental Law tallied 143 fossil fuel and petrochemical industry lobbyists registered to attend that meeting. It’s not known yet how many have registered to attend next week’s.

Since last November, several new reports have shed further light on the deception of the plastics industry. In February, the Center for Climate Integrity released a report on what it called a “decades-long campaign of fraud and deception about the recyclability of plastics,” as newly uncovered documents from trade group the Vinyl Institute explicitly acknowledged in the 1980s that “recycling cannot go on indefinitely, and does not solve the solid waste problem.”

Last month, the Environmental Integrity Project announced another finding: that some $9 billion in U.S. taxpayer money has been used, via tax breaks and subsidies, to build plastics manufacturing facilities. Many of those facilities, in turn, have “repeatedly exceeded legal limits on the air pollution they release into surrounding communities, disproportionately affecting people of color,” DeSmog’s Sara Sneath wrote. Volatile organic compounds of the sort released by these plants have been “tied to a broad range of potential health impacts, from nosebleeds to cancer.”

These two reports aren’t the first and won’t be the last to showcase the plastics industry’s bad faith or the catastrophic consequences of public credulity. But taken together, they’re a striking indictment of the position that reportedly tanked the talks in Nairobi in November. The basic problem then was that countries with big petrochemical industries, like the United States, Saudi Arabia, Russia, and China, opposed the idea of “binding provisions” for reducing plastic production, and in some cases explicitly advocated focusing on recycling instead.

In light of these two reports, at least two things may be said about this position. First: Given that the plastics industry has admitted internally for decades that recycling doesn’t work, a recycling-first approach to plastic pollution is basically a pro-pollution stance. And second: While countries may value the wealth produced by their large fossil fuel industries, they also have ample evidence that these industries will not hesitate to take taxpayer money and, in return, poison taxpayers.

Meanwhile, the political systems for addressing this problem are deeply dysfunctional. It’s not uncommon, in U.N. climate talks, for oil industry execs to actually be part of official governmental delegations for some countries. And in the U.S., even if a useful treaty does get drafted this year, a Trump victory in November “would likely impact how such an agreement gets implemented in the U.S. and ratchet up the already long odds that any final accord would be approved by the U.S. Senate,” E&E News reports.

Still, kicking straight-up lobbyists out of the talks shouldn’t be too much to ask. U.N. member nations are well overdue in acknowledging what many credible news outlets have now reported, and what ought to be common sense: that plastics industry representatives are not disinterested parties here. Any sincere attempt to curb the global disaster of plastic pollution isn’t going to come from them.

Good News/Bad News

As experts warn about plummeting biodiversity and California bans salmon fishing for a second year due to dwindling populations, The Guardian reports one small, potentially positive development in Europe: Around 500 barriers (think dams, fords, etc.) were removed from European waterways last year, helping to restore riparian ecosystems and allowing fish to travel upstream to breed.

Researchers are expecting “the most spatially extensive global bleaching event on record” for the world’s coral, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coal expert Derek Manzello tells The New York Times.

Stat of the Week

$150,000 per lease

That’s the new price for drilling on federal lands, up from $10,000. The rule was finalized by the Bureau of Land Management on Friday, part of a big push to finalize environmental rules before President Biden’s term runs out.

What I’m Reading

How Fast Fashion Is Driving Land Grabs and Violence in Brazil

While brands like H&M promote their cotton clothes as particularly sustainable, courtesy of the Better Cotton Initiative, environmental nonprofit Earthsight has cast doubt on that, Sophie Benson reports for Atmos. Earthsight examined two major cotton producers who export to manufacturers that make clothes for H&M and Zara:

SLC and Horita Group stand accused of deforestation on a grand scale.

In 2014, Bahia’s environmental agency Ibama found 25,153 hectares of illegal deforestation on Horita farms at Agronegócio Condomínio Cachoeira do Estrondo, a vast agribusiness estate, the report outlines. In 2020, the same agency stated it could find no permits for 11,700 hectares of deforestation carried out by the company between 2010 and 2018. Between 2002 and 2019, Horita Group’s owners were fined over 20 times for environmental violations, totalling $4.5 million.

Meanwhile, three of SLC’s cotton farms lost at least 40,000 hectares of native Cerrado wilderness in the last 12 years, per Earthsight’s reporting. SLC has also been fined around $250,000 by Ibama since 2008 for environmental infractions in Bahia. Both companies are further alleged to have cleared land which has been legally earmarked for regeneration or preservation.

Read Sophie Benson’s full report at Atmos.Earth.

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

Fish Are Behaving Erratically and Dying. No One Knows Why.

Endangered smalltooth sawfish are one of many species that have been seen spinning around and beaching themselves off the Florida Keys.

A smalltooth sawfish
Houston Chronicle/Hearst Newspapers/Getty Images
A sawfish in an aquarium

Something strange is happening in the waters off the Florida Keys. For months now, thousand-pound fish with three-foot serrated beaks have been spinning around in seeming distress, beaching themselves, and dying. The news largely escaped national attention until the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration announced last week that it would be coordinating an “emergency response effort” to rescue these fish, prompting a string of pieces in major outlets.

It’s not a story that gets less disturbing or strange the more you learn about it. Quite the opposite.

NOAA is mobilizing because the fish in question, the smalltooth sawfish, is an endangered species—one of only five sawfish species in the world, all of which are threatened. “It’s a big ray with a big crazy hedge trimmer on the edge of its head,” says Florida State University marine biologist Dean Grubbs, who’s been on NOAA’s Smalltooth Sawfish Recovery and Implementation Team since 2009. The fish, “which are close to bull sharks in terms of where they are on the food chain,” Grubbs added, have been hit hard by commercial fishing bycatch, trophy hunting, and habitat loss—particularly of the mangroves where young sawfish hide from predators while they grow. They’ve been protected in Florida since 1992 and listed under the Endangered Species Act since 2003. “We were sort of celebrating the twentieth anniversary of the listing,” Grubbs said, because “we were actually seeing some positive signs of recovery”—until this happened.

But sawfish aren’t the only ones behaving strangely. “There have been I think over 40 species of fishes that have been seen doing this weird spinning behavior,” Grubbs said, and it started months ago, as early as November of last year. People simply started noticing it more when they saw the sawfish with their giant rostrums—that’s the big serrated beak-like apparatus—in the shallow water starting in January. “Most residents of the Florida Keys have never seen a sawfish, and that’s why it caught everybody’s eye.”

Fish losing their minds en masse is alarming, although it seems confined to the Keys. “The theory is that it’s something that seems neurotoxicological,” Grubbs said, but the routine water testing isn’t showing anything suspicious. The head of Mote Marine Laboratory, involved in the response, told CBS News, “This seems to be some kind of an agent that is in the water that is negatively impacting just the fish species.”

While many fish may die while awaiting an answer, the sawtooth population is particularly vulnerable. Given that genetic analysis of the smalltooth sawfish population estimates that there could be only around 400 breeding females left, Grubbs said, this sort of unexplained phenomenon is pretty worrisome. Nearly 30 adult sawfish have been confirmed dead, with possibly many more whose carcasses simply haven’t been found, and over 100 live sawfish have been observed exhibiting this odd spinning behavior. That’s a sizable portion of the total population, which doesn’t have a great capacity to bounce back. Researchers think it may take sawfish a decade or more to reach sexual maturity.

The plan to buy the sawtooths time while researchers figure out what’s going on is pretty wild: to capture live sawtooths, take them out of the ocean (so they can’t beach themselves or get any sicker if the problem is being caused by the water), and quarantine them until they recover and researchers have answers. This is not a minor task when talking about an animal 10 to 15 feet long that weighs about as much as a horse and needs to remain submerged. NOAA’s statement last Wednesday listed Ripley’s Aquariums, the research nonprofit Mote Marine Laboratory, and aquarium and pet store supplier Dynasty Marine Associates as three locations where sawfish might be taken for quarantine. To make this work, NOAA also has to find “transport routes,” Grubbs noted. Meanwhile, the testing will continue—of water, of samples from dead sawtooths and other fish, and of samples from healthy fish, which Grubbs and his team helped provide from a recent research trip.

These sorts of mass mortality events, as Marion Renault wrote for TNR last year, are becoming more common. “We’re nowhere close to grasping the repercussions these cascades of death have on ecosystems,” Marion wrote. “One catastrophe makes it more likely that you’ll suffer a second or third,” one zoologist told her. “And every devastation,” Marion wrote, “leaves an ecosystem more vulnerable for the next.”

The mystery of the spinning fish is strange enough, hopefully, to seize the nation’s attention. But it’s just one part of a larger onslaught on Florida’s coastal ecosystems, degraded by runoff and sewage, toxic algal blooms, and soaring temperatures that reduce the amount of oxygen in the water. Those studying sawfish may be particularly anxious, unsure whether the population can rebound. But, said Grubbs, “I think it’s a big environmental concern for all of us.”

Good News/Bad News

There are a growing number of alternatives to plastic when it comes to food packaging, The New York Times reports. But current systems for distributing food, and patterns people have when it comes to buying and consuming food, aren’t going to make eliminating plastic easy.

Landfills are emitting way more methane than previously thought.

Stat of the Week


That’s the increase in incidence of dengue fever in Puerto Rico so far this year compared to this time last year. Read Zoya Teirstein’s report at Grist about the disease’s alarming spread.

What I’m Reading

HOAs are blocking solar panels and native lawns. Here’s how to fight back.

This column from The Washington Post’s “climate coach” tells the story of two people—a software engineer near D.C. and a climate journalist in Lockhart, Texas—who have defied homeowners associations to transform their front lawns into a vegetable garden and a miniature prairie landscape, respectively. It also contains advice for those who want to follow in their footsteps.

Power is shifting back into the hands of property owners after state legislators have begun rolling back decades of escalating HOA restrictions. But many members of HOA boards don’t know these provisions, or ignore them.

“Unfortunately, it sounds cliché, but there are association board members who are on a power trip,” says Luke Carlson, an attorney and founder of LS Carlson Law specializing in HOA disputes. “They will not listen to reason until you notify someone in their camp that what is happening is wrong, and it’s violating the owners’ rights and well-established law. But it takes a little bit of fight to get some traction.”

Read Michael J. Coren’s column at The Washington Post.

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 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.