Environment

The climate crisis is worse than even scientists can imagine. Here’s what happened when one tried

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Peter Kalmus, out of his mind, stumbled back toward the car. It was all happening. All the stuff he'd been trying to get others to see, and failing to get others to see — it was all here. The day before, when his family started their Labor Day backpacking trip along the oak-lined dry creek bed in Romero Canyon, in the mountains east of Santa Barbara, the temperature had been 105 degrees. Now it was 110 degrees, and under his backpack, his “large mammalian self," as Peter called his body, was more than just overheating. He was melting down. Everything felt wrong. His brain felt wrong and the planet felt wrong, and everything that lived on the planet felt wrong, off-kilter, in the wrong place.

Nearing the trailhead, Peter's mind death-spiralled: What's next summer going to bring? How hot will it be in 10 years? Yes, the data showed that the temperature would only rise annually by a few tenths of a degree Celsius. But those tenths would add up and the extreme temperatures would rise even faster, and while Peter's big mammal body could handle 100 degrees, sort of, 110 drove him crazy. That was just not a friendly climate for a human. 110 degrees was hostile, an alien planet.

Lizards fried, right there on the rocks. Elsewhere, songbirds fell out of the sky. There was more human conflict, just as the researchers promised. Not outright violence, not here, not yet. But Peter's kids were pissed and his wife was pissed and the salience that he'd so desperately wanted others to feel — “salience" being the term of choice in the climate community for the gut-level understanding that climate change isn't going to be a problem in the future, it is a crisis now — that salience was here. The full catastrophe was here (both in the planetary and the Zorba the Greek sense: “Wife. Children. House. Everything. The full catastrophe"). To cool down, Peter, a climate scientist who studied coral reefs, had stood in a stream for an hour, like a man might stand at a morgue waiting to identify a loved one's body, irritated by his powerlessness, massively depressed. He found no thrill in the fact that he'd been right.

Sharon Kunde, Peter's wife, found no thrill in the situation either, though her body felt fine. It was just hot … OK, very hot. Her husband was decompensating. The trip sucked.

“I was losing it," Peter later recalled as we sat on their front porch on a far-too-warm November afternoon in Altadena, California, just below the San Gabriel Mountains.

“Yeah," Sharon said.

“Losing my grip."

“Yeah."

“Poor Sharon is the closest person to me, and I share everything with her."

Sometimes everything is both too much and not enough. George Marshall opened his book, “Don't Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Ignore Climate Change," with the parable of Jan Karski, a young Polish resistance fighter who, in 1943, met in person with Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, who was both a Jew and widely regarded as one of the great minds of his generation. Karski briefed the justice on what he'd seen firsthand: the pillage of the Warsaw Ghetto, the Belzec death camp. Afterward, Frankfurter said, “I do not believe you."

The Polish ambassador, who had arranged the meeting on the recommendation of President Franklin Roosevelt, interrupted to defend Karski's account.

“I did not say that he is lying," Frankfurter explained. “I said that I didn't believe him. It's a different thing. My mind, my heart— they are made in such a way that I cannot accept. No no no."

Sharon, too, possessed a self-protective mind and heart. A high school English teacher and practiced stoic from her Midwestern German Lutheran childhood, she didn't believe in saying things you were not yet prepared to act upon. “We find it difficult to understand each other on this topic," Sharon, 46, said of her husband's climate fixation.

Yet while Sharon was preternaturally contained, Peter was a yard sale, whole self out in the open. At 47, he worked at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab, studying which reefs might survive the longest as the oceans warm. He had more twinkle in his eye that one might expect for a man possessed by planetary demise. But he often held his head in his hands like a 50-pound kettlebell. Every time he heard a plane fly overhead, he muttered, “Fossil fuel noise."

For years, in articles in Yes! magazine, in op-eds in the Los Angeles Times, in his book Being the Change: Live Well and Spark a Climate Revolution, on social media, Peter had been pleading, begging for people to pay attention to the global emergency. “Is this my personal hell?" he tweeted this past fall. “That I have to spend my entire life desperately trying to convince everyone NOT TO DESTROY THE FUCKING EARTH?"

His pain was transfixing, a case study in a fundamental climate riddle: How do you confront the truth of climate change when the very act of letting it in risked toppling your sanity? There is too much grief, too much suffering to bear. So we intellectualize. We rationalize. And too often, without even allowing ourselves to know we're doing it, we turn away. At virtually every level — personal, political, policy, corporate — we repeat this pattern. We fail, or don't even try, to rise to the challenge. Yes, there are the behemoth forces of power and money reinforcing the status quo. But even those of us who firmly believe we care very often fail to translate that caring into much action. We make polite, perhaps even impassioned conversation. We say smart climate things in the boardroom or classroom or kitchen or on the campaign trail. And then … there's a gap, a great nothingness and inertia. What happens if a human — or to be precise, a climate scientist, both privileged and cursed to understand the depth of the problem — lets the full catastrophe in?

Once Peter, Sharon and their 12- and 14-year-old sons set their packs down at the car on that infernal Labor Day weekend, they blasted the air conditioning, then stopped for Gatorade and Flamin' Hot Doritos to try to recover from their trip. But the heat had descended not just on Peter's big mammal body but on millions of acres of dry cheatgrass and oak chaparral.

That same afternoon, around 1 p.m., the Bobcat fire started five miles from their house in the Los Angeles hills.

Peter's climate obsession started, as many obsessions do, with the cross-wiring of exuberance and fear. In late 2005, Sharon got pregnant with their first child, and in the throes of joy and panic that accompanied impending fatherhood, Peter attended the weekly physics colloquium at Columbia University, where he was working on an astrophysics Ph.D. The topic that day was the energy imbalance in the planet — how more energy was coming into earth's atmosphere from the sun than our atmosphere was radiating back out into space. Peter was rapt. He'd grown up a nerdy Catholic Boy Scout in suburban Chicago, and had always been, as his sister Audrey Kalmus said, someone who “jumped into things he believed in with three feet." He'd met Sharon at Harvard. They'd moved to New York so she could earn a teaching degree. For a while, before returning to school, Peter had made good money on Wall Street writing code. Now here he was hearing, really hearing for the first time, that the planet, his son's future home, was going to roast. Full stop.

This was a catastrophe — a physical, physics catastrophe, and here he was, a physicist about to have a son. He exited the lecture hall in a daze. “I was kind of like, 'Are we just going to pretend this is like a normal scientific talk?'" he told me, recalling his thoughts. “We're talking about the end of life on Earth as we know it."

For the next eight months, Peter walked around Manhattan, “freaking out in my brain," he said, like “one of those end-is-near people with the sandwich boards." He tried converting Columbia's undergraduate green groups to his cause. Did they care about the environment? Yes. Did they care about the planetary catastrophe? Well, yes, of course they did, but they were going to stick with their project of getting plastic bags out of dining halls, OK? He tried lobbying the university administrators to switch to wind power. Couldn't even get a meeting. Nothing made sense. Why was Al Gore spending a fortune to make a climate movie only to flinch at the end of “An Inconvenient Truth" and say, essentially, Just buy more efficient light bulbs? Almost nobody saw it — really saw it. WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY. There was only one possible endgame here if humans didn't stop burning fossil fuels, fast: global chaos, mass violence, miserable deaths.

Peter and Sharon's friends came over to meet and bless their baby, Braird, shortly after he was born in June 2006. All the guests went around the room offering wishes for the unborn child. When Peter's turn came, he said he hoped that his son didn't get shot at in climate-induced barbarity and that he did not starve.

Peter and Sharon rented a house with a big avocado tree when they moved to California, in 2008, for Peter's dream postdoc studying gravitational waves at CalTech. Braird was 2 and Sharon was nursing newborn Zane. Peter and Sharon had both come from families with four kids, and they didn't want Braird to be an only child — and having a child when you want one is also immeasurably wonderful, too wonderful, in this case, to give up. (They did later decide to forgo a third.) In Peter's first run at grassroots activism, he organized a climate protest with a friend. Only two people showed up. Peter joined Transition Pasadena, a community group dedicated to producing “a more resilient city and for living lighter on our Earth." He also said he tried pushing “to focus the group around global heating and climate breakdown," but the members, he said, wanted to talk about “gardening and city council meetings," not the apocalypse, so Peter and Transition Pasadena parted ways.

Four years into climate awakening and action, Peter felt he had accomplished nearly zero. One night, frustrated with inaction and disgusted with fossil fuel use, he sat at his computer and calculated the sources of all his own emissions so he could go about reducing them.

In the morning he presented Sharon with a pie chart.

This was one of those moments that both distorted and crystalized the scale problems inherent in addressing climate change, the personal and the planetary, the insignificant and the enormous, warping and reverberating as if modulated by a wah-wah pedal. Peter himself believed that you can't fix climate change with individual virtue any more than you can fix systemic racism that way. But he also knew, at some point, “You have to burn your ships on the beach," as Richard Reiss, a climate educator and fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Cities at Hunter College, put it. You need to commit, perhaps even create drama, and make real changes in your life.

By far the biggest wedge of the pie chart was Peter flying to scientific meetings and conferences. For the family, if Peter quit flying, it meant he'd be home more to help with the kids. Sharon reserved the right to keep flying if she wanted. Win-win.

Peter's second-largest source of emissions was food. So he started growing artichokes, eggplant, kale and squash, plus tending fruit trees, and that was great. Then he started composting — OK, that's great, too. He also started keeping bees and raising chickens, and soon raccoons and possums discovered the chickens and Peter began running outside in his underwear in the middle of the night when he heard the chickens scream. Baby chicks lived in the house, which the boys loved. Braird got stung by bees while Sharon was at a meditation retreat and it turned out Braird was allergic and he went into shock.

Next came dumpster diving (which eventually — and thankfully — morphed into an arrangement with Trader Joe's to pick up their unsellable food every other Sunday night). Peter's haul — “seven or eight boxes," according to Sharon; “three boxes," according to Peter — included dozens of eggs with only one broken. Flats of (mostly not moldy) strawberries. Bread past its sell-by date. Peter did his best to put things away before he fell asleep because waking up to the mess drove Sharon nuts. But … it was a lot. Low-carbon living was a lot.

They stopped using the gas dryer. They stopped shitting in the flush toilet and started practicing “humanure," composting their own crap. Sharon had lived with an outhouse in Mongolia, “so that was something I was used to," she said. Plus, to be honest, she liked the local, organic anti-capitalist politics of it. “Marx writes about this in 'Capital, Volume 1' that one of the reasons Europeans started to use chemical fertilizers is because people started to move into the cities and off of the land, … and people stopped pooping out in the countryside, so it became less fertile." The main problem, for Sharon, was that their bathroom was small and the composting toilet was inside. They used eucalyptus leaves to try to cover up the smell, but then little bits of leaves got all over the bathroom, too. After a while Peter moved the composting toilet outdoors. He also built an outdoor shower that Sharon found quite lovely, “rustic and California."

Sharon commiserated with a friend who was married to a priest. How do you have an equal marriage with a man who's trying to save the world? The priest's wife, too, found “it impossible for her to have any space for herself," Sharon said. “Because he was called by God to minister to people. When she tried to do her own thing, it wasn't as important as his." Motherhood was hard enough. Sharon wanted to write a novel. She wanted to write poetry. She wanted to go for a run, or even a walk, in peace. “His dreams were so much more heroic and important that I had to sort of, I don't know," she said. “I had to go along with it."

The most trying component of the low-carbon experiment for Sharon was the 1985 Mercedes that Peter converted to biodiesel. Maeby, as Sharon hate-named the car — as in Maeby we'll get there, Maeby we won't — arrived in their lives in 2011, just as Sharon was starting an English Ph.D. at UC Irvine and commuting 50 miles each way. Yes, they took family summer road trips to go camping and visit friends. But on the winter trips to visit their families in the Midwest, the grease coagulated in the cold, which made Maeby break down more. Some nights Sharon cried in the motel room, but “when it's daytime it all seemed better," she said. She talked about renting a car or even flying home but never did. Still, late one night on a very cold, dark and lonely Utah highway when Peter was under the broken-down car, and Braird and Zane were in the back seat, screaming, and Sharon was revving the engine at Peter's request — she started to wonder if she had Stockholm syndrome.

Sometimes, Sharon thought of Peter as being like “John the Baptist, a voice in the wilderness, crying out, 'Repent, repent!'" This was said with love but also annoyance. As Larissa MacFarquhar explored in her book “Strangers Drowning," extreme do-gooders often provoke us. We find them ridiculous, self-righteous, sometimes even perverse or narcissistic moralists for whom, MacFarquhar writes, “It is always wartime." Just figuring out how to raise children on the Earth, right now, presented so many existential questions. Peter often indulged in a half-joking zombie apocalypse mentality. He wanted to teach his boys to grow crops, to defend themselves, to fix things. “I do think we need to be talking about the collapse of civilization and the deaths of billions of people," he said.

When she was at her gloomiest, Sharon, too, felt scared to leave her sons on this planet, but she also called on her tight-lipped German upbringing to create a bubble of denialist peace. “Things you don't want to confront, just ignore it. Pretend it's not there," she said. Her “ethics of care," as she called it, involved encouraging the boys to take music lessons, read books and even meditate when she could persuade them to join her. She wanted to prepare her sons to be creative and resilient. If the planet was crumbling, they'd need rich interior lives.

Did Sharon want the boys to worry? “I don't know, I don't know," she said. That was the never-ending, urgent, timeless question. How much do we want our children to understand about the horrors of the world?

In 2012, Peter switched fields, from astrophysics to earth science, because he just couldn't stop obsessing. This meant backpedaling in his career, quitting the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) experiment, three founding members of which would go on to win the 2017 Nobel Prize in physics. Still, even his new job was a strange fit. Science itself — with its cultural terror of appearing biased — was a strange fit.

Peter had given up expecting emotional comfort. He'd given up on decorum. He had nightmares about being on planes. “The emissions, you know," he said. “It feels like the plane is flying on ground-up babies to me." Even the simplest decisions led him into deep philosophical rifts. The boys' music lessons, to Peter, seemed woefully, almost willfully anachronistic, a literal fiddling while Rome or Los Angeles burned.

Peter kept trying to figure out ways to make his voice heard. He organized climate cafes, modeled on death cafes, places for people to gather to share grief (Sharon did not attend). He started No Fly Climate Sci, a grassroots group of academic institutions and individual scientists committed to flying less. He kept writing, posting, organizing, talking. This was not always well received. Before the pandemic, Peter stood on the sidelines of Braird's soccer games when it was 113 degrees. “And I'd be telling the other parents: This is climate change," he said. “And, you know, they don't want to hear that during a soccer game. But I can't not do it. I can't."

WE ARE HAVING AN EMERGENCY — Peter thought that all day, every day. “Here I am with a retirement account," Peter said. Did he need a retirement account? What was the world going to be like in 2060, when he was an old man? He'd been careful with himself not to become a doomer. Doomers, in his mind, were selfish. They'd given up on the greater good and retreated to their own bunkers, leaving the rest of us to burn. Still, despite Peter's commitment to keep working toward global change, Sharon found Peter's florid negativity distasteful at times. “There's almost like a pornographic fascination with 'Oh, I'm going to imagine just how bad everything is going to be,'" she said.

Sharon staged minor rebellions to maintain a sense of self — little stuff, like using lots of hot water when she did the dishes, and bigger stuff, like she stopped talking sometimes. Braird and Zane, too, each absorbed and reacted to Peter's passionate cri de coeur in their own ways. Zane, the younger one, started doing his own regular, Greta Thunberg-style climate strikes in front of city hall. Braird, the older, meanwhile, was entering his teens, differentiating and waxing nihilistic. When asked what he wanted to do with his future, Braird said, “What future?" When asked what he thought about climate change, he sunk a dagger into his father's heart like only a child can. Braird said, “I don't really think about it."

On the Tuesday evening after Labor Day, two days after the family returned from their infernal backpacking, Peter, still recovering from heat exhaustion, stood at the sink doing dishes. Braird played League of Legends on his bed. Sharon sat meditating, as she did from 7-8 p.m. each night. Then the emergency alerts blew up their phones. An evacuation warning, the Bobcat fire. The day before, in the ongoing horrible heat, they'd taped their windows shut against the smoke but they hadn't packed go bags. They never really believed their house would burn. The state was a climate warzone. Military helicopters had rescued 200 people trapped in a Sierra lake by the Creek fire, which had thrown up a plume of flames 50,000 feet. Cal Fire was predicting the Bobcat fire would not be contained for six weeks.

Sharon finished meditating. Then she started photographing all their stuff, including the insides of closets and drawers, because that's what insurance adjusters tell you to do: Document your property so you can make a stronger claim. Peter snapped. He didn't care about the pictures or the insurance. He just wanted to let the house incinerate. He felt done pretending that anything was normal, and he decided that now would be a good time to tell Sharon that he'd felt frustrated and gaslit by her all these years.

“WE NEVER EVEN TALK ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE! DO YOU EVEN CARE ABOUT CLIMATE CHANGE?" he said. This did not go well.

She threw a laundry basket. “YOU HAVE GOT TO BE FUCKING KIDDING ME," she shouted. “Our entire lives are about climate change."

There it was, that gap we build around knowing and integrating, to protect our own lives and minds. Yet after the fight, after finally saying aloud what he'd been thinking for almost 15 years, Peter felt better. Not because anything was different. Nothing was different. The situation remained unshakably, cosmically wrong. The only reason to care about insurance, books, paintings, the house, was if you believed that there would be a stable planet on which to enjoy those things in 20 or 40 or 80 years. If you believe there'd be a “planet with seasons, where you can grow food and have water, and you can go outside without dying from heatstroke," Peter said. “I don't have that anymore, that sense of stability."

But he also knew, deep down, that Sharon could not, and should not, give that up. She was a more anxious person than he was. They both knew that. “For me to stay sane, there's only so much I can take," Sharon said. Earlier on the night of their big fight they'd watched “The Handmaid's Tale," as they did each Tuesday. Sharon often thought about the main character, June. “You have to moderate how you think. You have to think in little chunks, so you can endure, just like June does," she told me. “You have to make sacrifices so you can survive. If you can survive to fight another day, then maybe the right opportunity will present itself. You can't kill yourself well, you can. But that's not the option I want to take."

Maeby is now gone. Peter drives an electric car. The composting toilet remains outside, though Peter admits, “The other three family members are not interested in contributing at all." Peter's current project is making climate ads. Is this how he can tell the story of what is happening to the world in a way that will make people not just hear and retreat but act? He thinks about this all the time. How do you describe an intolerable problem in a way that listeners — even you, dear reader will truly let in?

All through October and November, the Bobcat fire continued to burn. It grew to 115,000 acres. Its 300-foot-high flames licked up against Mount Wilson Observatory, where scientists first proved the existence of a universe outside the Milky Way. The fire continued to burn well into December, when UN Secretary-General Ant nio Guterres urged, with middling effect, the nations of the world to declare a climate emergency. So far, 38 have done so. The United States is not one of them. In January, a team of 19 climate scientists published a paper, “Understanding the Challenges of Avoiding a Ghastly Future," that said, “The scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its life forms — including humanity — is in fact so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts." The language of this sentence could not be more dire. It makes the mind go numb.

So how, with our limited human minds, do we attend enough to make real progress? How do we not flinch and look away? The truth of what is happening shakes the foundations of our sense of self. It asserts a distorting gravity, bending our priorities and warping our whole lives. The overt denialists are easy villains, the monsters who look like monsters. But the rest of us, much of the time, wear pretty green masks over our self-interest and denial, and then go about our days. Then each morning we wake to a new headline like: The planet is dying faster than we thought."

While I was trying (and failing) to process it all, Peter called to make sure I understood the importance of a comment he'd made: He's no longer embarrassed to tell people he would die to keep the planet from overheating. He's left behind the solace of denial. He's well aware of the cost. What a luxury to feel that the ground we walk on and this planet that is rotating around the sun is in some sense OK."

'Keep your nose out of our business': Ted Cruz's attack on the Paris climate deal backfires spectacularly

When President Joe Biden announced his intent to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) was one of the first Republican lawmakers to publicly slam the newly-elected president's decision. Echoing a line from former President Donald Trump, Cruz claimed to be protecting the interests of Pittsburgh over Paris. Almost immediately after he shared his statement via Twitter, critics began firing back.

Now, according to CBS-Pittsburgh, local official Rich Fitzgerald has a message for the embattled Texas senator. When asked about Cruz's remarks, Fitzgerald did not mince words when he expressed his level of disdain for the Republican lawmaker. He also offered a clear message to Cruz: stay out of Pittsburgh business.

"Outrageous. He doesn't know what he's talking about. He's been a climate denier. He was a COVID denier. We believe in science around here," Fitzgerald told KDKA. "We'll run what we need to do here, Senator, and keep your nose out of our business."

Fitzgerald's remarks come just one day after Cruz released a full statement about Biden rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Cruz tweeted, "By rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, President Biden indicates he's more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh. This agreement will do little to affect the climate and will harm the livelihoods of Americans."

On Thursday, Cruz tweeted another message that suggested he was standing by his previous remarks.

However, Fitzgerald argued that Biden made the right decision by rejoining the accord as he explained the benefits of addressing environmental issues.

Fitzgerald added, "We have green initiatives that have happened around here, not just with our governmental side of things, but our private sector."

He continued, "It is also improving our quality of life here. So companies continue to grow here."

"Extremists who don't want to do anything, Senator Cruz, who have their head in the sand. The flat-earth society that basically doesn't believe in science," Fitzgerald said, adding, "You have other people who want to shut everything down tomorrow."

'Ecological Ponzi scheme': Dire scientific assessment warns humanity in denial of looming 'collapse of civilization'

In an example to the rest of the scientific community and an effort to wake up people—particularly policymakers—worldwide, 17 scientists penned a comprehensive assessment of the current state of the planet and what the future could hold due to biodiversity loss, climate disruption, human consumption, and population growth.

"Ours is not a call to surrender—we aim to provide leaders with a realistic 'cold shower' of the state of the planet that is essential for planning to avoid a ghastly future," according to the perspective paper, co-authored by experts across Australia, Mexico, and the United States, and published in the journal Frontiers in Conservation Science.

Co-author Paul R. Ehrlich of Stanford University's Center for Conservation Biology—who has raised alarm about overpopulation for decades—told Common Dreams his colleagues "are all scared" about what's to come.

"Scientists have to learn to be communicators," said Ehrlich, citing James Hansen's warning about the consequences of "scientific reticence." Hansen, a professor at Columbia University's Earth Institute and former director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified to Congress about the climate crisis in 1988.

Ehrlich was straightforward about how "extremely dangerous things are" now and the necessity of a "World War II-type mobilization" to prevent predictions detailed in the paper: "a ghastly future of mass extinction, declining health, and climate-disruption upheavals (including looming massive migrations), and resource conflicts."

"What we are saying might not be popular, and indeed is frightening. But we need to be candid, accurate, and honest if humanity is to understand the enormity of the challenges we face in creating a sustainable future," said co-author Daniel T. Blumstein of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at the University of California, Los Angeles, in a statement about the paper.

"By scientists' telling it like it is, we hope to empower politicians to work to represent their citizen, not corporate, constituents," he said in an email to Common Dreams.

The paper, Ehrlich and Blumstein pointed out, comes in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic—which, according to Johns Hopkins University, has killed nearly two million people. Over the past year, the Covid-19 crisis has provoked calls for humanity to end its destruction of the natural world to prevent future public health catastrophes.

"We're all seeing the shocks to our global systems now from Covid and the rise of authoritarian leaders," Blumstein said. "Because our current ways of life are ecologically unsustainable (we're living in an ecological Ponzi scheme), we fully anticipate more—and more deadly—pandemics in the future. We expect civil unrest, wars, and famines. We are all shaken by the likelihood of the collapse of civilization as we know it."


The new warning from scientists, Blumstein noted, cites over 150 other papers "documenting the diverse and shocking decline in biodiversity and planetary 'health' and their consequences." Among the cited sources is a World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) report that in September revealed an "average 68% decrease in population sizes of mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles, and fish between 1970 and 2016."

"In the midst of a global pandemic, it is now more important than ever to take unprecedented and coordinated global action to halt and start to reverse the loss of biodiversity and wildlife populations across the globe by the end of the decade, and protect our future health and livelihoods," WWF International director general Marco Lambertini said at the time.

The co-authors—including William J. Ripple of Oregon State University, who last year led thousands of scientists in declaring a climate emergency and earlier this month led a call for "a massive-scale mobilization to address the climate crisis"—echoed Lambertini's message while also underscoring the importance of increasing awareness about what's actually needed.

"Humanity is causing a rapid loss of biodiversity and, with it, Earth's ability to support complex life. But the mainstream is having difficulty grasping the magnitude of this loss, despite the steady erosion of the fabric of human civilization," the paper says.


"In fact, the scale of the threats to the biosphere and all its lifeforms is so great that it is difficult to grasp for even well-informed experts," said lead author Corey Bradshaw of Australia's Flinders University in a statement. "The problem is compounded by ignorance and short-term self-interest, with the pursuit of wealth and political interests stymieing the action that is crucial for survival."

The paper explains that "while suggested solutions abound, the current scale of their implementation does not match the relentless progression of biodiversity loss and other existential threats tied to the continuous expansion of the human enterprise." According to its authors, "That we are already on the path of a sixth major extinction is now scientifically undeniable."

"With such a rapid, catastrophic loss of biodiversity, the ecosystem services it provides have also declined," the paper explains. Consequences include "reduced carbon sequestration, reduced pollination, soil degradation, poorer water and air quality, more frequent and intense flooding and fires, and compromised human health."

Highlighting estimates that the human population will near 10 billion by 2050, the scientists lay out how "large population size and continued growth are implicated in many societal problems," from food insecurity, soil degradation, biodiversity loss, and an increased chance of pandemics, to crowding, joblessness, deteriorating infrastructure, and bad governance.

The paper also details the planetary impacts of dirty energy and carbon-intensive food production, and says that "while climate change demands a full exit from fossil fuel use well before 2050, pressures on the biosphere are likely to mount prior to decarbonization as humanity brings energy alternatives online."

A section on failed international goals declares that "stopping biodiversity loss is nowhere close to the top of any country's priorities, trailing far behind other concerns such as employment, healthcare, economic growth, or currency stability."

"The dangerous effects of climate change are much more evident to people than those of biodiversity loss, but society is still finding it difficult to deal with them effectively," the scientists note, while decrying "utterly inadequate" efforts by governments to even try to meet the targets of the landmark Paris climate agreement.

They further decry the recent rise of right-wing, anti-environment agendas in countries including Australia, Brazil, and the United States—which recently denied President Donald Trump a second term. Ehrlich expressed hope that President-elect Joe Biden will work to deliver on the climate promises he made as a candidate.

Biden's vow to rejoin the Paris agreement "is positive news," but "it is a minuscule gesture given the scale of the challenge," Ehrlich said in a statement.

The president-elect "is moving in the right direction," Ehrlich told Common Dreams, pointing to the selection of former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate envoy. However, "the Paris goals are increasingly looking inadequate," and "Biden's political opportunities to do anything major may be greatly constrained," he added.



Blumstein stressed that "recycling, using less plastic, eating less meat, taking public transportation, and flying less, while all important, will simply not create the rapid change we need now to save much of the Earth's biodiversity and our lives."

According to Blumstein, "We need rapid political change."

He urged voters to elect leaders who will end fossil fuel use as well as "eliminate perpetual economic growth and properly price externalities so that the environmental costs are built into the price of a product." He also emphasized the importance of access to education and reproductive control, and the need to rein in corporate lobbying and enact campaign finance reform so politicians serve citizens' needs.

"Ultimately," Blumstein added, "we must focus on making equity and well-being society's goals—not the constant accumulation of more junk."

In their paper, the UCLA scientist and his 16 co-authors "contend that only a realistic appreciation of the colossal challenges facing the international community might allow it to chart a less-ravaged future."

It is "incumbent on experts in any discipline that deals with the future of the biosphere and human well-being to eschew reticence, avoid sugar-coating the overwhelming challenges, ahead and 'tell it like it is,'" they conclude. "Anything else is misleading at best, or negligent and potentially lethal for the human enterprise at worst."

UN chief at climate summit: 'Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?'

World leaders aren't doing enough to address the human-caused climate crisis.

That seemed to be the main message of United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres' speech on Saturday at the Climate Ambition Summit 2020, hosted by the U.N., the United Kingdom, and France in partnership with Chile and Italy to mark the fifth anniversary of the Paris agreement.

"Paris promised to limit temperature rise to as close to 1.5 degrees as possible. But the commitments made in Paris were far from enough to get there. And even those commitments are not being met," Guterres said. "Carbon dioxide levels are at record highs. Today, we are 1.2 degrees hotter than before the industrial revolution. If we don't change course, we may be headed for a catastrophic temperature rise of more than 3 degrees this century."

"Can anybody still deny that we are facing a dramatic emergency?" he asked. "That is why today, I call on all leaders worldwide to declare a State of Climate Emergency in their countries until carbon neutrality is reached. Some 38 countries have already done so, recognizing the urgency and the stakes. I urge all others to follow."



Scores of government and business leaders from across the globe joined Saturday's virtual event, which followed the recent release of a series of alarming U.N. climate reports and came ahead of the U.K.-hosted COP26 in Glasgow—postponed until next November because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the need for urgent, ambitious action, "the dozens of leaders who spoke mostly offered tweaks to existing commitments or promises of bolder moves before crucial talks in Glasgow in late 2021, rather than breakthrough new policies to hasten the end of fossil fuels," Reuters reported.

Echoing a key takeaway from The Emissions Gap Report 2020, the latest edition of an annual publication from the U.N. Environment Program published Wednesday, Guterres said it is "unacceptable" that governments are giving Covid-19 relief and recovery money to polluters rather than fully committing to setting "our economies and societies on a green path in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development."

"This is a moral test," he said. "Every country, city, financial institution, and company needs to adopt plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050—and start executing them now, including by providing clear short-term targets. Key emitting sectors such as shipping, aviation, and industry must also present and implement new, transformational roadmaps in line with this goal."

"Technology is on our side. Sound economic analysis is our ally. Renewable energy is getting less expensive with every passing day," the U.N. chief continued. "Climate action can be the catalyst for millions of new jobs, better health, and resilient infrastructure. But let us remember that this transition must be just."

At the summit, "a total of 75 leaders announced 45 renewed pledges to cut emissions, 24 net zero commitments, and 20 adaptation and resilience plans," according to Bloomberg Green. "It is not enough and the clock continues to tick," warned COP26 president Alok Sharma. "The choices we make in the year ahead will determine whether we unleash a tidal wave of climate catastrophe on generations to come."


While some of the climate action plans put forth by the summit's participants were criticized as not bold enough, the Associated Press noted that some major economies were totally absent from the event. Australia, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Russia, and Saudi Arabia were not at the summit.

The Trump administration also declined to participate, but "American representatives at the virtual meeting included Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, and U.S. business leaders, such as Apple chief executive Tim Cook," according to the AP.

Although President Donald Trump formally withdrew the United States from the Paris agreement the day after the November election, President-elect Joe Biden—who won support from climate action advocates leading up to his defeat of Trump—on Saturday reiterated his commitment to returning to the accord.


"The United States will rejoin the Paris agreement on day one of my presidency," Biden said. "I'll immediately start working with my counterparts around the world to do all that we possibly can, including by convening the leaders of major economies for a climate summit within my first 100 days in office."

"We have before us an enormous economic opportunity to create jobs and prosperity at home and export clean American-made products around the world, harnessing our climate ambition in a way that is good for American workers and the U.S. economy," added Biden, who served as vice president to President Barack Obama.

Biden recently appointed John Kerry, the former secretary of state under Obama who helped craft the Paris agreement, as his climate envoy—a move welcomed by Guterres but met with mixed reactions from climate campaigners in the United States.

In the midst of the summit, U.S. advocacy groups and progressive politicians issued renewed demands for bold action to address the planetary emergency, with some calling for a Green New Deal:



Writing for his newsletter The Phoenix on Friday, journalist and meterologist Eric Holthaus declared that "limiting warming to less than 1.5°C is an existential necessity. Joe Biden won't get us there on his own, but he could make a transformative leap in the right direction."

"The Covid pandemic turned back the clock on emissions worldwide. But it's changed nothing—yet—about the problem that got us here: Extractive capitalism working in partnership with white supremacy, patriarchy, and imperialism," Holthaus wrote. "To change everything, we need everyone healthy, valued, and loved."

"That means NOW IS A SUPER IMPORTANT TIME," he added. "If we return to business as usual post-Covid, it will be a disaster that may be unrecoverable. Climate change needs to be at the heart of every country's recovery plans in 2021."






Court rejects Trump approval of offshore drilling project in Arctic

Climate action advocates and wildlife defenders celebrated Monday after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit rejected the Trump administration's approval of Liberty, a proposed offshore oil-drilling project in federal Arctic waters that opponents warned would endanger local communities, animals, and the environment.

"This is a huge victory for polar bears and our climate," declared Kristen Monsell, oceans legal director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a statement. "This project was a disaster waiting to happen that should never have been approved. I'm thrilled the court saw through the Trump administration's attempt to push this project through without carefully studying its risks."

Marcie Keever, legal director at Friends of the Earth, similarly applauded the ruling (pdf), saying that "thankfully, the court put the health of our children and our planet over oil company profits."

Both groups joined with fellow advocacy organizations Defenders of Wildlife, Greenpeace, and Pacific Environment for a lawsuit challenging the Hilcorp Alaska project, which was approved in 2018. The energy company planned to construct an artificial island, wells, and a pipeline along the Alaska coast in the Beaufort Sea.


Jeremy Lieb, an attorney at the nonprofit law organization Earthjustice, which represented the advocacy groups, praised the court for rejecting the administration's "inaccurate and misleading analysis of this project's impact to the climate." The court determined that the administration hadn't properly considered Liberty's climate impacts as required by the National Environmental Policy Act, specifically taking issue with an economic model claiming the project would benefit the climate.

"In the face of a worsening climate crisis, the federal government should not be in the business of approving irresponsible offshore oil development in the Arctic," Lieb said. "The world cannot afford to develop new oil prospects anywhere, but especially in the Arctic where warming is already taking such a significant toll."

Research has shown that the Arctic is warming faster than the rest of the world, which has devastating effects on its human and animal inhabitants—including caribou, polar bears, reindeer, and walruses—and the planet more broadly. As one expert put it last year: "What happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic."

Calling the court ruling "a victory for the planet and its people," Greenpeace senior research specialist Tim Donaghy said that it "affirms that the U.S. must take steps to transition off of oil and gas if we are to have any hope of halting the climate crisis."

"If we are going to create a just, green, and peaceful future, it must start with rejecting destructive projects like Liberty," he explained, before referencing President-elect Joe Biden's win over President Donald Trump. Ahead of the November election, climate advocates had rallied around Biden while pushing him to embrace bolder policies.

"Climate action must happen now and the Biden administration needs to keep its promise to halt any new oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters," Donaghy said.


In addition to the climate finding, the court also determined that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service failed to sufficiently analyze Liberty's impact on polar bears, in violation of the Endangered Species Act—a decision that was welcomed by Nicole Whittington-Evans, Alaska program director at Defenders of Wildlife.

"Today's news is a victory for Alaska's imperiled polar bears that are threatened by oil and gas development throughout virtually all of their terrestrial denning critical habitat—in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, and in the nearshore marine environment as well," she said, vowing to "continue our fight against destructive oil and gas drilling and for the survival of polar bears in the Arctic."

Despite the win for the region's polar bears in terms of offshore drilling, the animals are still threatened by the Trump administration's ongoing effort to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil and gas extraction—despite opposition from local Indigenous people as well as environmentalists.

The administration on Monday proposed an "incidental harassment authorization" that would allow energy companies to disrupt polar bears while looking for oil and gas deposits. According to Reuters:

The Fish and Wildlife Service said that no polar bears are expected to be injured or killed during seismic operations, some of which are scheduled to take place next month, and expects disturbances to impact only a few bears.
But several veteran Arctic scientists and environmentalists in Alaska have warned against seismic operations—which can involve blasting to produce sonic images of underground formations. They argue the testing will upset wildlife and that the heavy machinery and activity involved in the work will damage tundra and speed up the thaw of permafrost.

As Monsell concluded: "The Trump administration seems determined to push polar bears further down the path to extinction before leaving office."


The world's 1.5 billion cattle are a huge problem. This could be part of the solution

While Republicans, including Donald Trump, have falsely claimed that the Green New Deal would require eliminating raising cattle for meat, the truth is there is no such requirement in the proposed legislation, or in Joe Biden's proposed environmental policy. Still, there's no doubt that the over 1 billion domestic cows on planet Earth are a genuine monster when it comes to resources. Raising all that meat-on-the-hoof requires enormous tracts of land as well as tremendous amounts of water. In the United States alone, the grain that goes to cattle each year could potentially feed the entire population of the country more than three times over.

Then there's the methane. It may seem embarrassing, disgusting, or simply ridiculous, but as ruminant animals whose multiple stomachs use bacteria to help break down tough plant material, cows … fart. A lot. A single cow can put out over 200 pounds of methane in a year and as a whole, domestic cattle account for more than a third of all methane emissions from human activity. And yes, this counts as human activity, even when it's being propelled out the backside of cows. The simplest way to reduce this assault on the environment is to reduce the number of cows. However, there are ways to preserve the burger supply while still reducing greenhouse gases. And a new one involves feeding those cows something they're unlikely to run into in the average field: seaweed.

As The Washington Post reports, research published in 2016 showed that feeding cattle the a common red macroalgae with the scientific name Asparagopsis taxiformis could significantly reduce greenhouse gas production. Very significantly.

While it may seem impractical to either graze cattle in coastal bays or send train-loads of red seaweed across the country to cattle feedlots, the good news here is that the seaweed doesn't have to completely replace grass or grain to have the beneficial effect. In tests performed at Australia's national science agency CSIRO, feeding cows a diet that included just 0.2% red seaweed reduced methane production by 98%. Since the average cow eats about 55 pounds of food per day on a dry basis, this means their intake of the red macroalgae would be only about a tenth of a pound, making the amount of the red seaweed required seem remarkably possible.

It does this while actually helping cattle to use their other food more efficiently because it helps to optimize the process by which bacteria ferment grain and grass. So the cattle gain weight faster while producing less gas.

And there's a secondary benefit: Raising the seaweed itself might also be good for both the air and the water. CSIRO has worked out methods where, done properly, growing red seaweed can itself help to sequester additional carbon and help reduce ocean acidification.

All of this makes red seaweed a big improvement over other proposed supplements, which reduce methane by only 20-40% while requiring that the supplement be a much higher percentage of the cattle's diet. Or, in the case of Pennsylvania State research, requires feeding cattle a chemical supplement.

Previous research has also demonstrated success in growing related red algae in brackish ponds in areas as far north as Sweden. This opens the possibility that the necessary amounts of the supplemental plant might be not require shipment from coastal areas into cattle-raising regions of the interior—which would itself be a source of greenhouse gases. Instead, the relatively small amounts of the seaweed required might be raised in pools or ponds close to the necessary locations.

Asparagopsis taxiformis will definitely not solve the way that cattle take up almost a quarter of all ice-free land. It won't address the trillions of gallons of water they consume each year. It won't do much to make the grain that now goes to cattle available to hungry human beings. But if the data from field research holds up, it might reduce the greenhouse gas output from cattle by a genuinely significant amount while opening up a new industry that itself could help to sequester additional carbon. And that's something.

This is early research. The benefits might be much less dramatic on a large scale and, just as we've seen with recent vaccine trials, expansion of this research on a large scale means taking careful steps to make sure that this application is safe for the areas of sea where the red macroalgae is grown, the cattle that eat that macroalgae, and the humans who eat the cattle (or consume their dairy products).

What is in the actual Green New Deal is a drive toward agriculture that's genuinely sustainable and compatible with maintaining a low-carbon footprint. That call for sustainability is repeated in Joe Biden's policies. Exactly what shape a sustainable system ultimately takes is something that will be worked out by farmers, by regulators, by researchers—and perhaps most of all, by consumers. That red macroalgae from the sea might turn out to be a part of the solution for cattle raised on Midwest farms might seem like a reach, but it could also turn out to be part of how understanding the planet as a whole helps us deal with one of the many moving parts of the overall picture.

'Dead-end for climate': Environmental coalition denounces Senate bill to fund nuclear industry bailout

A coalition of over 100 groups on Tuesday told U.S. senators that nuclear power is a false solution to the climate crisis as they urged lawmakers to reject proposed legislation that would "put short-sighted economic interests ahead of human lives, racial justice, the health of our environment, and safe drinking water."

"This bill misdirects our investment away from technologies that will speed the deployment of renewables and into an industry that is already being propped up by rate-payer subsidies."
—Mitch Jones, Food & Water WatchThe measure in question is the American Nuclear Infrastructure Act of 2020. Introduced in November by Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) along with Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), and Cory Booker (D-N.J.), the legislation seeks to "eestablish United States global leadership in nuclear energy, revitalize domestic nuclear energy supply chain infrastructure, support the licensing of advanced nuclear technologies, and improve the regulation of nuclear energy, and for other purposes."

The proposed legislation, S. 4897, advanced at a Senate Environment and Public Works hearing Wednesday.

According to Mitch Jones, policy director at Food & Water Watch, "This bill misdirects our investment away from technologies that will speed the deployment of renewables and into an industry that is already being propped up by rate-payer subsidies"

"Instead of propping up the nuclear energy industry," Jones continued, "Congress should be driving the transition to truly renewable energy."

Food & Water Watch is among the signatories to the new letter that outlines the groups' opposition to S. 4897, including that it fails to address multiple long-standing problems with nuclear technology and stands to worsen already existing crises.

The letter cites as one example the mandate for the establishment of a national uranium reserve, which means more uranium mining. But the groups say the legislation would not require mitigation of the environmental harms of uranium mining, and, while "the bill does restrict procurement of uranium for the reserve from mines that are not located on Indigenous peoples' lands, it does not prohibit mining on those lands entirely."

"Neither does the bill prohibit procurement of uranium for the reserve quota from mines and mills that impact other environmental justice communities," the letter says.

The letter further notes that there are already 15,000 abandoned uranium mines—a situation the groups declare a "national crisis"—and while legislation includes $1 billion for cleanup on Indigenous land, that amount doesn't adequately match the scale of the problem.

"We need to invest in a transition to efficient, renewable, clean energy technologies that can scale up as rapidly as possible, as affordably as possible, to reduce emissions as aggressively as possible. Nuclear energy does not meet any of these criteria," the letter adds, pointing to the fact that there have been dozens of canceled or shelved new nuclear reactors over the past several decades.

The groups also said the legislation's "provisions to curtail environmental and licensing reviews are short-sighted, reducing up-front costs while short-circuiting democratic protections against nuclear safety and environmental impacts. "

The directive for the Treasury to give an economic lifeline to reactors also came in for criticism, as taxpayers could be "fleeced to pay uneconomical subsidies when cheaper alternatives and more strategic investments are available."


Additional problems are that S. 4897 would contribute to nuclear weapons proliferation "by commercializing technologies for higher-grade enrichment and plutonium processing" and amplify nuclear disaster risks.

The "Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has adopted regulations making it optional—not required—to address verified vulnerabilities to flooding and earthquakes," the groups wrote, and accused the commission of having "canceled hundreds of required, scheduled safety inspections, security drills, and emergency preparedness exercises, for up to two years."

"We cannot perpetuate false solutions to the climate crisis that perpetuate our reliance on dirty energy industries, and have any hope of ending the climate and environmental justice crises those industries bring about," the groups said.

Tim Judson, executive director of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service—an original signatory to the letter with Friends of the Earth (FOE)—said reasons for senators to reject the proposed measure are clear.

"Nuclear power is a dead-end for climate and environmental justice," Judson said in a statement.

"The last thing we need is for Congress to waste time and money to make those problems worse, as this bill would do," he added. "Clean, safe, affordable renewable energy solutions are here, now."

At Wednesday's committee hearing, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) said S. 4897 would be "a bad deal for the country, the climate, and our environmental injustice communities," ignores the fact that renewable sources are "supercharging our electric grid," and would enable "selling off a clean energy future."

The Democratic senator's remarks were welcomed by FOE program manager Lukas Ross, who said in a statement to Common Dreams, "We are immensely grateful to Senator Markey for standing firm against the nuclear industry's bailout demands."

Though the legislation moved forward Wednesday, Ross said that "the fight isn't over and we fully intend to keep this proposal from finding its way into future energy and infrastructure bills."

"If President-elect Biden wants to build back better," Ross added, "he needs to take a bailout for the decrepit nuclear industry off the table."

The Big 6 banks in the US have now all ruled out funding for drilling in the Arctic

Climate campaigners and Indigenous rights supporters are welcoming news that Bank of America has ruled out financing fossil fuel extraction in the Arctic, including in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Bank of America on Monday became the last holdout of the major U.S. banks to make such a pledge after facing sustained pressure from activists to renounce drilling in the region.

"It has long been clear that drilling in the Arctic Refuge would trample Indigenous rights, threaten vulnerable wildlife, and worsen the climate crisis," said Sierra Club senior campaign representative Ben Cushing.

"Now that every major American bank has stated unequivocally that they will not finance this destructive activity," Cushing continued, "it should be clearer than ever that any oil company considering participating in Trump's ill-advised lease sale should stay away."

Bloomberg first reported the announcement Monday.


The news follows similar announcements over the past year from the five other U.S. banking giants—JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, and Wells Fargo—and comes as the pro-fossil fuel Trump administration continues its fervent push for oil and gas extraction in the Arctic, "irreversible harm" to the local ecoystem and communities be damned.

Just last month the Trump administration was accused of trying to bully financial institutions into backing oil and gas projects, including in the Arctic, with a proposal from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency preventing banks from categorically excluding certain customers. Also last month, the administration asked fossil fuel companies to bid on leases in ANWR's Coastal Plain—an area the Gwich'in call "the sacred place where life begins."

"The Trump administration has never even pretended to care about the Indigenous communities whose human rights would be threatened by the destruction of the coastal plain, but major financial institutions are listening to us," said Gwich'in Steering Committee executive director Bernadette Demientieff in a statement Monday. She pointed to long-standing Indigenous resistance to extraction in the area that is crucial to the Porcupine Caribou Herd.

"Although it took over two years it was well worth it. We will never stop fighting to protect the sacred calving grounds from destructive drilling, and we will prevail," added Demientieff.

While the Trump administration is still plowing ahead with its plan for extraction in the Arctic, Emily Atkin, writing in her latest HEATED newsletter Tuesday, said that it's "unclear... to what degree oil companies are actually going to show up to Trump's sale," given the financial risk of such drilling and the harm to public image banks would face given the massive public opposition to such plans.

"Still," Atkin wrote, "it's unlikely the Trump administration would go through all the last-minute work of selling off the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge if there weren't some interest from oil companies. When bids are unsealed on lease sale day, we'll know which companies those are—and they'll have to a lot to answer for."

With an eye on that possibility, Gwich'in Youth Council member Isaiah Horace, a Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in from Fort Yukon Alaska, said much more work remains.

"This is not the end of the fight," Horace said, "and we must continue to stand united for our lands, our caribou, our ways of life, and for our future generations. No one has the right to destroy sacred lands with or without permission. We still have a lot of work to do."

International lawyers drafting plan to hold governments, corps accountable for 'widespread destruction' of ecosystems

An expert panel of top international and environmental lawyers have begun working this month on a legal definition of "ecocide" with the goal of making mass ecological damage an enforceable international crime on par with war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Assembled by the Stop Ecocide Foundation at the request of several Swedish parliamentarians, the initiative to criminalize the destruction of ecosystems at the global level has already garnered support from European countries as well as small island nations highly vulnerable to rising sea levels.

The drafting panel is co-chaired by Philippe Sands QC, a professor at University College London, and Justice Florence Mumba, a former judge at the International Criminal Court (ICC).

The November 20 launch date of the project coincided with the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, where the terms "crimes against humanity" and "genocide" were coined.

"The time is right," Sands said recently at an event commemorating the Nuremberg trials, "to harness the power of international criminal law to protect our global environment."

"Seventy five years ago, 'crimes against humanity' and 'genocide' were spoken for the first time, in Nuremberg's Courtroom 600," Sands added, "and my hope is that this group will be able to draw on experience since that day to forge a definition that is practical, effective, and sustainable, and that might attract support to allow an amendment to the ICC Statute to be made."

Charles Jalloh, a professor at Florida International University and member of the United Nations International Law Commission who is on the panel drafting a legally robust definition of ecocide, said that "states should use all tools at their disposal, including their criminal law power at the national and international levels, to protect our shared global environment and to bring the most responsible perpetrators to justice."


The Stop Ecocide Foundation noted that the concept of criminalizing ecocide "has been steadily gaining traction in recent months since small island states Vanuatu and the Maldives called for 'serious consideration' of it at the ICC's annual assembly" in December 2019. According to the group, French President Emmanuel Macron "has actively promised to champion the idea," and the Belgian government has also "pledged diplomatic action to support it."

As The Guardian reported Monday, the ICC "has previously promised to prioritize crimes that result in the 'destruction of the environment,' 'exploitation of natural resources,' and the 'illegal dispossession' of land."

"An ICC policy paper in 2016 said it was not formally extending its jurisdiction but would assess existing offenses, such as crimes against humanity, in a broader context," The Guardian continued. Yet "there have been no formal investigations or charges of this type so far."

Panel member Pablo Fajardo, the Goldman prize-winning Ecuadorian lawyer who challenged Chevron for polluting the Amazon rainforest, said that this "great legal vaccum that exists globally" results in "crimes... committed against nature, against life... go[ing] unpunished," even though "these crimes take their toll on humanity."

"We see... systemic, widespread, and deliberate destruction of the environment without any obvious consequences," said panelist Christina Voigt, a professor at the University of Oslo and expert in climate change law. A newly defined crime of ecocide, she added, "could not only bring those responsible to justice, but also more importantly prevent further destruction."

As The Guardian pointed out, "one challenge for the drafting panel would be to define at what point an ecocide offense would come into force. Chopping down a single tree on a village green would not be sufficient."

Jojo Mehta, chair of the Stop Ecocide Foundation, told The Guardian that "it would have to involve mass, systematic, or widespread destruction" of the world's ecosystems.

"We are probably talking about Amazon deforestation on a huge scale, deep sea bottom trawling, or oil spills," she said. "We want to place it at the same level as atrocities investigated by the ICC."

Mehta explained that "in most cases ecocide is likely to be a corporate crime."

"Criminalizing something at the ICC means that nations that have ratified it have to incorporate it into their own national legislation," she added. "That means there would be lots of options for prosecuting [offending corporations] around the world."

Preparatory work is now underway, and the panel plans to deliver a draft of a legally enforceable definition of ecocide in early 2021.

European Court of Human Rights green-lights youth climate lawsuit

What has been described as possibly "the most important case ever tried by the European Court of Human Rights" cleared a significant hurdle Monday when the international body ordered more than 30 European governments to respond to a historic youth-led lawsuit seeking to force political leaders to take ambitious action against the existential climate emergency.

"The states—the EU27 plus Norway, Russia, Switzerland, the U.K., Turkey, and Ukraine—are obliged to respond by February 23 to the complaints of the plaintiffs, who say governments are moving too slowly to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that are destabilizing the climate," The Guardian reported Monday morning.

Twelve-year-old André Oliveira, one of six plaintiffs in the landmark case, said in a statement that "it gives me lots of hope to know that the judges in the European Court of Human Rights recognize the urgency of our case."

"But what I'd like the most would be for European governments to immediately do what the scientists say is necessary to protect our future," said Oliviera. "Until they do this, we will keep on fighting with more determination than ever."

Filed by four children and two young adults from Portugal in early September—just weeks after the country recorded its hottest July in nine decades—the first-of-its-kind lawsuit alleges that European nations are committing human rights violations by refusing to take sufficient action against the climate crisis.


Citing the "importance and urgency of the issues raised," the European Court of Human Rights granted the youth-led case priority status, a move the plaintiffs and their supporters celebrated as a crucial victory.

"As only a tiny minority of cases filed with the European Court of Human Rights are fast-tracked and communicated this development is highly significant," said Dr. Gearóid Ó Cuinn, director of Global Legal Action Network (GLAN), an advocacy group backing the plaintiffs. "This is an appropriate response from the court given the scale and imminence of the threat these young people face from the climate emergency."

The 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was a record-smasher. Will climate change make it worse?

Hurricanes Sally and Paulette, Tropical Depression Rene, and Tropical Storms Teddy and Vicky were all active on Sept. 14, 2020.

NOAA

James H. Ruppert Jr., Penn State and Allison Wing, Florida State University

It was clear before the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season started that it was going to be busy. Six months later, we're looking back at a trail of broken records, and the storms may still not be over even with the season's official end on Nov. 30.

This season had the most named storms, with 30, taking the record from the calamitous 2005 season that brought Hurricane Katrina to New Orleans. It was only the second time the list of storm names was exhausted since naming began in the 1950s.

Ten storms underwent rapid intensification, a number not seen since 1995. Twelve made landfall in the U.S., also setting a new record. Six of those landfalling storms were hurricane strength, tying yet another record.

2020 Atlantic tropical storm tracks

Tropical storm tracks show how busy the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season was.

Brian McNoldy, CC BY-ND

As atmospheric scientists, we target our research at better understanding both what drives the formation of tropical cyclones and how climate change is affecting them on longer time scales. Here's what research tells us about the 2020 season and what may be ahead.

Why did 2020 have so many storms?

An unfortunate combination of two key factors made this season ripe for tropical storms.

First, a La Niña pattern of cool surface waters developed in the equatorial Pacific, and it was stronger than anticipated.

Ironically, cooling in the equatorial Pacific makes it easier for tropical storms to form and gain strength in the Atlantic. That's because La Niña weakens the vertical wind shear over the tropical Atlantic. Vertical wind shear – a change in wind speeds with altitude – is highly disruptive to storm development.

As the La Niña pattern became established this season, it made the tropical Atlantic much more hospitable for storms to form and intensify.

Sea surface temperature map

Atlantic sea surface temperatures in September 2020 were warmer than the 1981-2010 average.

NOAA

The second critical factor was the extremely warm temperatures in the Atlantic, including the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean.

Hurricanes are powered by the transfer of heat from the ocean to the atmosphere. The sea surface temperature therefore dictates the maximum potential intensity a storm can attain under perfect conditions – it's like a thermodynamic “speed limit" on hurricane intensity.

The sea surface temperature approached record levels in the Atlantic hurricane basin this season, including in September, the most active Atlantic storm month on record.

What does climate change have to do with it?

An important part of this season's story is the Atlantic warming trend we're witnessing, which is unprecedented going back at least several millennia.

The oceans store much of the excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases. With greenhouse gas concentrations still increasing due to human activities, such as the burning of fossil fuels, average sea surface temperatures are likely to continue rising over the coming decades.

Whether climate change caused the extremely high number of storms this season is unclear. There is no detectable trend in global hurricane frequency, and computer modeling studies have had conflicting results.

However, the warming climate is increasing the threat posed by hurricanes in other ways.

A growing proportion of high-intensity storms, Category 3, 4 and 5, is being observed around the world, including in the Atlantic. Since ocean temperature controls the potential intensity of tropical cyclones, climate change is likely behind this trend, which is expected to continue.

The U.S. is also seeing more storms with extreme rainfall. Think about Hurricane Harvey's 50 inches of rain in the Houston area in 2017 and Florence's 30-plus inches in North Carolina in 2018. The warming climate plays a key role here, too. With warmer temperatures, more water is able to evaporate into the atmosphere, resulting in greater moisture in the air.

Implications of the 2020 season

Ten storms this season underwent rapid intensification – a 35 mph increase in maximum winds within 24 hours. Rapidly intensifying storms are especially dangerous because 1) they are challenging to accurately predict, and 2) they provide minimal time for evacuations when they intensify just before making landfall.

Data to make plot retrieved from NOAA

Satellite instruments capture Hurricane Iota making landfall in Nicaragua on Nov. 16. The image shows the temperature of cloud tops, which tells scientists how tall the clouds are.

NOAA; James H. Ruppert Jr.

Hurricanes Laura and Sally both rapidly intensified just before making landfall on the Gulf Coast this season. Eta rapidly intensified to a Category 4 just before hitting Nicaragua, and just two weeks later, Iota essentially repeated the act in the same location.

Forecasts for the tracks or paths of tropical cyclones have dramatically improved in recent decades, as much as five days in advance. However, forecasts of storm formation and intensification have improved very little by comparison.

The forecasts for hurricane rapid intensification are especially poor.

While the official forecasts issued by the National Hurricane Center are issued by human forecasters, they greatly depend on the guidance of numerical prediction models, which are very inaccurate when it comes to rapid intensification. Addressing this issue therefore hinges on researchers' ability to improve the accuracy of numerical prediction models.

The complexity of weather models makes this a daunting challenge. However, it becomes more tractable as researchers learn more about how hurricanes form and intensify and identify the root causes for errors in computer model predictions.

[Deep knowledge, daily. Sign up for The Conversation's newsletter.]

Our latest research explores how clouds create their own greenhouse effect, trapping heat that causes hurricanes to form and intensify more quickly. Improving how numerical models account for this cloud feedback may ultimately hold promise for more accurate forecasts. Innovative ways of collecting new measurements in developing storms, down to their smallest scales, will also be necessary for guiding these improvements.

Given the upward trend in high-intensity storms, the risks from these storms will only grow. The ability to accurately predict how and when they will form, intensify and threaten coastal populations is crucial.The Conversation

James H. Ruppert Jr., Assistant Research Professor, Penn State and Allison Wing, Assistant Professor of Meteorology, Florida State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.