With Food Source Endangered, Southern Resident Killer Whales Face Extinction

If the orcas are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken.

If the orcas are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken.  MONIKA WIELAND SHIELDS / SHUTTERSTOCK

Truthout

 

Orca whales are iconic natural wonders of the Pacific Northwest. Powerful and joyful, they are honored and cherished by coastal Indigenous peoples and many others. People travel from around the world to see them, particularly the Southern Resident Killer Whales. Typically each summer, the J, K and L pods that comprise the population gathers in the waters of the Salish Sea near the San Juan Islands in Washington State. The pods reunite here in the summertime after a winter of ocean foraging, to gorge on Chinook salmon as the fish congregate to run into area rivers to spawn.

The orcas are intelligent and unique. Their society is matrilineal, grouped around older females, often grandmothers and great grandmothers that male and female offspring stay with throughout their lives. The Southern Residents have their own distinct dialect, a language particular to them. They communicate through calls and sounds that can travel 10 miles under water.

To see the whales is unforgettable. Once, when I stood with others on San Juan Island watching an orca pod very close to shore, a large whale came out of the water and looked directly at us, then vigorously slapped its tail twice as if to say, “Have you ever seen anything like this?”

Now this wondrous species is facing an emergency threat to its survival. From 98 whales in 1995, they have declined to only 75 today. The Southern Residents are apex predators, a keystone species of the region’s marine ecosystem. They’re fish-eaters, distinguishing them from the transient orcas that eat marine mammals, and the offshore orca populations with a more generalist diet that includes sharks, fish, etc. For tens of thousands of years, these whales have lived by preferentially eating the biggest and fattest salmon, the Chinook, which historically filled the nearby seas and rivers. Supporting a body weight of anywhere from 3,000-12,000 pounds requires eating a lot of salmon.

But the workings of the capitalist system has now decimated the great natural bounty of salmon. The orcas are suffering food stress, even being starved to death. They are not reliably reproducing. And the Chinook salmon, like the orca, has become an endangered species.

Tahlequah’s Story

Whale scientists were thrilled in July when the female orca Tahlequah, also known as “J-35,” gave birth to a calf in waters near Victoria, British Columbia. They rushed to document the new baby whale, which, if it survived and thrived, would have been the first for the endangered Southern Resident population in three years. But by the time they got there, the little calf was already dead. Over the past two decades, 75 percent of newborns have not survived.

For the next 17 days, Tahlequah carried and pushed her dead baby on her rostrum in a heartbreaking act of public mourning. For hundreds of miles around the Salish Sea in waters between Washington and British Columbia, even out to the ocean and back, Tahlequah pushed the calf while traveling with her pod.

“It was like a tour of grief,” Ken Balcomb, founder of the Center for Whale Research, told Truthout. One resident of San Juan Island reported to the Center that at sunset on the night of the new calf’s death, “a group of five or six female whales gathered at the mouth of the cove … in a close, tight-knit circle, staying at the surface in a harmonious circular motion for nearly two hours” in moonlight, as if in ceremonial ritual.

Scientists say displays of grief and mourning are common among many different whale species worldwide. Given the intelligence and social bonds among various whale populations, it’s not surprising.

Yet in no other known case has such a display continued for as long as Tahlequah’s.Whether by design or not, Tahlequah was sending a message to humanity.

As Tahlequah grieved, a young female whale in her pod, J-50, was also in trouble. J-50 was having problems keeping up with her pod, especially falling back when swimming against strong currents. She appeared to be starving and sick, possibly close to death. The loss of another whale, particularly a female, to an endangered population with only 27 females of breeding age and another seven juvenile females, would be devastating.

Scientists from the University of Washington, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and others went out to try to determine J-50’s condition. Deborah Giles, a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Center for Conservation Biology, said that despite being almost four years old, J-50 was the size of a typical 1-year old whale. After collecting and analyzing breath samples and scat, the researchers decided to try to treat J-50 with an antibiotic and also a de-wormer to counter parasites.

In August, the NOAA and the Lummi Nation teamed up to try to feed J-50, releasing Chinook salmon in her path. It wasn’t clear if their efforts were successful. Hereditary Chief Bill James told the The Seattle Times the Lummi felt they couldn’t just let J-50 die.

“We are both fishing creatures; we both live for the salmon. And in our community, we come together when someone is hurting. We come together when someone needs help,” James said. “It is the same with the Salish Sea, and with the orcas. She is part of the web that connects us all … We each belong to the Salish Sea.”

As of August 20, the NOAA reports that J-50 was seen socializing with the rest of her pod and may be improving slightly, yet her condition is still very serious. Tahlequah, meanwhile, is no longer carrying her baby. The Center for Whale Research says she seems in good physical condition, and was seen vigorously chasing a school of salmon with her pod-mates. While this is slightly encouraging news, it doesn’t address the deeper extinction threat to the Southern Residents.

Threats to Orca Survival

In the 1960s and ’70s, 50 Southern Resident orcas were cruelly captured for aquarium and marine park displays. Historically around 140 individuals, the population was reduced to 71 by the year 1976.

At the same time, Chinook salmon numbers have plummeted and some runs have been eliminated entirely, and the orcas are suffering other threats caused by a human society that puts profit before all else. They’re being poisoned by toxic chemicals that accumulate in their blubber and are released when the whales are food stressed. Noise from vessels interferes with the fine-tuned echolocation the orcas use to locate prey. And now, escalating climate change is disrupting and killing off salmon and ocean life.

The orcas are also threatened by plans by the Canadian government to vastly increase oil tanker traffic through the Salish Sea. Importantly, a Canadian court recently ruled that the Canadian government did not properly assess the impact that the Trans Mountain Pipeline Expansion Project, a controversial fossil fuel pipeline extending across Canada to the Pacific Coast, could have on the survival of the endangered Southern Resident orcas, including the threat posed by a seven-fold increase in oil tanker ship traffic through whale habitat. The court also ruled that Indigenous people in British Columbia were not properly consulted before the project was approved. This represents a significant setback for the embattled pipeline project.

In 2005, as a result of a petition and then a suit filed by the Center for Biological Diversity, the Southern Resident orcas were listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) by the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), and 2,500 miles of critical habitat essential for protecting the whales was designated in the Salish Sea waters. But since the ESA protections were established, the orca population has continued to decline.

Catherine Kilduff, who is a senior attorney at the Center for Biological Diversity and works in the Center’s Oceans Program, told Truthout that whales are dying more often in the winter and early spring, when they’re dependent on salmon in Pacific coastal waters. Photographs show the whales in a more emaciated state at this time, indicating the need for more salmon and protecting the ability of orcas to forage successfully. In 2014, the Center filed a petition to expand critical habitat along the Pacific coast. Kilduff says this would require the federal government to consult experts about management rules to protect whales before permitting commercial and military activities, which can disrupt foraging.

Despite the NMFS agreeing in 2015 to expand critical habitat, the Trump administration has failed to implement protections for the whales. Instead, the administration is pushing for expanding drilling offshore, which could prove devastating for marine life, including orcas. So this August, the Center filed suit against the federal government to expand habitat protections their own agency agreed are needed. The Center’s lawsuit says better habitat protections would reduce “the principal threats” to the whales of “starvation, contamination from toxic pollution and harassment from noise and vessels.”

A 2017 study in the journal PLOS One found that the main factor limiting population growth and reproductive success among the Southern Residents was lack of proper nutrition, especially lack of Chinook salmon. Ken Balcomb documented that in the first decade of the Center for Whale Research’s orca survey, from 1976-1986, the interval for viable calf births for a female in the population was a little over one every five years. Now it is more than every nine years. Females are still getting pregnant, but at least two-thirds of pregnancies seem to result in miscarriages. And the calves that are born often die.

Restoring Wild Salmon and Removing the Snake River Dams

If the whales are to be saved, immediate large-scale efforts must be taken to increase salmon for the orcas to eat. While evidence shows the orcas depend on many different Chinook runs, especially important to restoring wild salmon are the historically massive runs in the Fraser River in British Columbia, and the Columbia River and its largest tributary, the Snake. Fraser River Chinook are depleted and in serious trouble.

Historically, the mighty Columbia River was host to 10 to 16 million wild salmon every year, with 4 million headed for the Snake River watershed. Wild spring-summer Chinook salmon returns in the Snake River alone were 2 million.

Rick Williams, fisheries ecologist at the College of Idaho, told Truthout that the number of salmon in the Columbia system today is only about 10 percent of historical levels, an about 85 percent are hatchery fish. So the wild fish numbers today are only about 1.5 percent of what existed before Europeans arrived. Williams said wild fish are much more genetically fit than fish produced by hatcheries, as they are “evolutionarily adapted to do well in the environments where they live.” Fisheries scientists measure that fitness with what they call the “Smolt to Adult Return Rate,” or SAR. Williams says Chinook SARs measured over the last 15 years in the Snake River are around 1 percent, meaning for every 100 smolts traveling to the ocean, 1 adult returns to spawn. This compares to historic SAR estimates of 8-15 percent for wild fish in the Pacific Rim.

Human activity has decimated the wild salmon throughout their range, including deforestation, overfishing and now climate change. In 2015, 475,000 mostly wild sockeye salmon passed the Bonneville Dam in the Columbia River headed for the Okanogan River system. The fish were coming back not due to hatcheries, but because of restoration measures enhancing oxygenation and flow in Osoyoos Lake where the fish spawn. But of these huge numbers of fish, only about 10,000 made it back. They were killed off by extremely warm waters they encountered in the Columbia River due to its lack of flow and the drought that year, fueled by climate change.

In the Columbia system, the building of hydroelectric dams has devastated the runs. Dams kill many juvenile fish in their journey to the ocean and are a significant barrier for adult fish to pass on their spawning runs. They vastly reduce flow, causing waters to warm. The Snake River has eight dams on it, which form a serious block to thousands of miles of prime spawning habitat upriver in Idaho.

Whale researchers, fisheries biologists and environmental groups are pushing for the removal of the lower four Snake River dams and restoring the river. This could help in increasing wild salmon runs, and in saving the orcas from extinction. Proponents of these dams argue they produce enough green energy to sustain Seattle for a year. But studies show these old, inefficient dams could be replaced by other forms of sustainable energy, and combined with conservation, would cost customers essentially the same they are currently paying.

Williams argues that other dam removals have shown the ability of fish to rebound faster than scientists often expect.

“The salmon evolved in a large Pacific Northwest landscape that was dominated by ice sheets and glaciers, so they’re readily adapted to move into newly opened habitat, even when that habitat is still in flux … and make a go of it,” Williams said.

Removing the Snake River dams would help orcas. Still, this would take some years, and more must be done immediately. The Wild Fish Conservancy in the US and the David Suzuki foundation in Canada have proposed a closure of Chinook salmon fishing and whale watching, at least short-term, as the best emergency, scientifically supported actions to save the orcas.

Clearly, the existing framework is not working in the interests of wild fish or orcas. For many decades, fisheries managers have tried to restore salmon runs by pumping out more hatchery fish through what amounts to an industrial production system, spending billions and repeatedly failing. Williams is a co-author of an important article titled, “Wild Pacific Salmon: a Threatened Legacy.” It details this history of failure, and faults a conceptual approach where salmon are privatized as a commodity, and technology—especially hatcheries—are seen as the solution. The result has been a continuing decline in the abundance of salmon, extinction of many populations and a deteriorating fitness of the salmon population as a whole, as the wild salmon are pushed to the brink.

What is needed, the article argues, is a completely different approach and methods flowing from it. This starts with “a new conceptual foundation that links the salmon to their habitat and key ecological processes, and includes recognition of the value of wild salmon as a public trust and a legacy for future generations.”

Williams and his co-authors advocate developing a salmon national park as an important step to protecting wild salmon and treating them as a public trust instead of as a commodity.

Saving the Southern Resident Orcas at a Time of Mass Extinction

Balcomb described how, when the fish were plentiful around the San Juan Islands in summer, the Southern Resident pods would come together in one super-pod “like big extended families coming to an annual picnic reunion … Everybody with food and reproduction on their mind, touching and rolling around each other … Now, you don’t see much of that.” Instead, the orcas are searching everywhere for food, using up more energy. Even their society is being devastated.

Orcas are in a crisis. Saving them requires emergency action. Many measures are needed: removing the Snake River dams, enhancing wild salmon habitat, expanding critical habitat for orca foraging, shutting down or curtailing commercial fishing, an emergency moratorium on all new fossil fuel tanker traffic, and other measures. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has launched a task force to address orca survival, but the orcas can’t wait for more years of discussion and pledges.

The paradigm of making small, ineffective changes guided by “business as usual” and commodity relations must end if orcas and wild salmon are to survive and recover. This is a moment of widespread species extinction worldwide and impending climate catastrophe brought to us by a destructive, profit-driven system. We must mobilize people to resist, to bring forward change before it’s too late and we lose so much of the planet’s natural heritage.

Curtis Johnson is a research scientist and freelance writer who has reported on the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the extinction crisis and the climate crisis, as well as other environmental topics. Follow him on Twitter: @curtisjohnson70.

 

Summer of Environmental Disasters Driven by Capitalism

The environmental situation is getting worse and worse. This summer has been a full court press: heat waves/wildfires fueled by climate change; threats of  species extinction, such as that facing the magnificent Southern Resident orca whales in the Pacific Northwest due primarily to lack of chinook salmon;  killing algal growths, caused by pollution and disregard by officials in Florida. This system keeps demonstrating that it’s incapable of sustaining life. And Trump’s anti-scientific and criminal approach is taking all this to a catastrophic level.

The situation demands emergency action from people, all over the world, to transform the situation, and get rid of the systems of capitalism causing this escalating catastrophe. Here in the U.S., the immediate challenge lies in driving out Trump and his fascist regime, that are a concentration and pinnacle of this destructive system-and a criminal obstacle standing in the way of addressing climate change. Beyond this, the regime is an existential threat to humanity and the planet.

Given the spread of wildfires throughout the western U.S. and around the world, and monster heatwaves across the Northern hemisphere, I’m reposting below  an article I wrote about last summer’s fires, which are becoming more and more a yearly norm as the planet warms to dangerous levels.

In particular, I want to point to comments from Jennifer Francis below, and from Michael Mann in this piece, on how climate change is altering the jet stream and causing more persistent extreme weather events.

 

Our Summer of Fire and the Fires to Come

A helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatens the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa on October 13, 2017. Early morning mandatory evacuations happened on Adobe Canyon Road and Calistoga Rd. (Photo:Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)A

Helicopter prepares to drop water on a fire that threatened the Oakmont community along Highway 12 in Santa Rosa, California, on October 13, 2017. (Photo: Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Explosive wildfires have raged in Northern California over the last two weeks. Forty-one people are dead, and at least 6,700 structures have been destroyed, making these the most destructive fires in the state’s history. Parts of the city of Santa Rosa have burned to the ground. Extremely hot and dry conditions, continuing impacts of the state’s drought, and high winds combined to create fires so fast-moving, many residents were forced to flee for their lives with only minutes notice. Tens of thousands have been forced to evacuate. In the last several days, better weather has been helping firefighters fight the blazes, though many are still continuing. Air quality in the region has been called the worst in recorded history due to wildfire smoke.

The fires in Northern California come after a summer of infernos and smoke spanning the West.

It began in Seattle on August 1, 2017. Coming out of work that day, I looked around to try to fathom why the entire atmosphere was thick with haze. Maybe the city’s smog had suddenly become abominably worse for unexplainable reasons? Looking around, I noticed it was smoke that lay everywhere. It filled my throat and lungs. The world seemed suddenly wrong, without sense.

These days, and especially this summer, living on Earth feels like existing in dread of the next environmental apocalypse. That day, it felt like it had arrived.

That night, I heard the news. Smoke from wildfires in British Columbia was blanketing the area.

For the next two weeks, it was hard to take a breath outside. The air was acrid, lung-burning. The blue, fresh summer skies Seattle is known for were extinguished. Being outside felt like walking in a stagnant, dead, smoky bubble. The sun and moon eerily appeared through a deep haze, orange or blood red. It was like living in an alternate universe. The smoke returned throughout August and early September.

The Seattle Times said that the region’s “natural air conditioning,” marine air blown by winds from the west, had broken down. Air quality levels in August plunged so severely, at times Seattle and Portland had air quality worse than Beijing. Elderly people, children and those with compromised respiratory systems were warned to avoid going outside. The general population was told to avoid strenuous outdoor exercise.

I was happy to get out of town on August 11 to head for the Oregon coast and hiking in the Redwoods in Northern California. I looked forward to being able to breathe fresh air again. But it became clear the smoke went way beyond Washington State. As we drove into Eugene, giant plumes of white smoke billowed out of the Willamette National Forest to the east. Further south, more clouds filled the sky from the North Umpqua complex fire. Driving down Highway 101, we came to Brookings on the Pacific coast at the southern tip of Oregon. Smoke choked the town. A fire up the Chetco River had just “blown up” and was spreading in all directions. A few days later, we heard that people were being evacuated immediately due to the fires’ rapid spread, in certain spots all the way down to the ocean.

Arriving in Redwood National Park, we were amazed to see the skies there clouded with smoke. In the late afternoon in the Tall Trees Redwood Grove, rays of sunlight angling through smoke and off the trees turned the grove a beautiful but surreal red. Coming home in late August, Oregon was smothered in smoke far thicker than it had been in Seattle, from the southern border almost to the northern. It was hard to imagine people having to try to live and function every day in this.

Summer of Heat and Western Fire

This summer, Seattle broke records for the driest in recorded history, the most consecutive days without rain — 55 — and also tied for the warmest summer on record.

Similar conditions were present throughout the West. High-pressure systems repeatedly set up and refused to budge along the north Pacific coast or slightly onshore, and blocked any developing weather systems from the west. After weeks without rain, forest brush and understory that had grown thick after an unusually wet winter withered and dried to a crisp. It was like jet fuel awaiting a match. It was only a matter of time until lightning strikes from dry storms, as well as humans, set things alight.

Scorched by record temperatures, British Columbia (BC) went up in flames in July. Fires raged all summer and 1.2 million hectares burned — the equivalent of 4,680 square miles — an area almost as large as the state of Connecticut. The area burned exceeded the yearly average of area burned in BC from 2006-16 by almost 10 times.

In Oregon this summer, a Rhode Island-sized area went up in flames. The Chetco Bar Fire scorched old-growth redwoods in a protected grove at the northern edge of the Redwoods range, severely burning 25 percent of the trees. Another major fire was one along the Columbia River Gorge in northeast Oregon. Started by fireworks on September 2, the fire was fanned by extreme heat and easterly winds. It exploded. Dozens of hikers were forced to hike for their lives to escape. Embers crossed the Columbia River and set off new fires in Washington.

In late August and September, offshore winds created by high pressure inland pulled in more smoke to the Seattle area, now from Washington’s own wildfires. Ash fell from the sky, reminding people of the volcanic explosions from Mt. St. Helens in 1980.

Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke

The smoke didn’t just make life miserable at times this summer for the millions of people throughout the West; it was downright unhealthy.

Joshua Benditt, a pulmonologist with the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, said he was getting many calls from his patients with lung problems due to the wildfire smoke. Benditt said the poor quality of air from the smoke meant, “It’s very difficult for patients with asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), and even some other kinds of lung diseases. It’s quite irritating to them and it can cause coughing and wheezing and actually even respiratory failure.”

Bonnie Henry, a deputy provincial health officer in BC, told the Vancouver Sun in August that emergency calls and hospital visits had increased 20 to 50 percent among people with respiratory and other health conditions.

In the inland regions closer to the fires, the air was worse than on the coast. Sarah Coefield, an air quality specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department, described how desperate the situation was becoming for people in Seeley Lake, Montana where elderly, children and sick people were choking on smoke.

These types of conditions existed to varying degrees for weeks throughout the West. Air quality values ranged from “unhealthy for sensitive groups” to “very unhealthy” and worse. In early September in Spokane, Washington, air quality reached hazardous levels for several days.

satellite image from NASA on September 5 showed smoke being blown across the US by the jet stream. NASA said, “Smoke from wildfires can be very dangerous. A 2017 Georgia Tech study showed the smoke from wildfires spew methanol, benzene, ozone and other noxious chemicals into the atmosphere.” This study directly measured the amount of emissions from several Western wildfires of some of these potentially dangerous gases, as well as particulate matter pollution that is a mix of microscopic solids and liquid droplets. The study found that the particulate pollution from wildfires, already known to be a large source of particulate pollution in the West, was actually three times worse than previously thought.

A 2016 study, called a “Critical Review of Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure” found that globally, the estimated premature mortality caused by wildfire smoke is 339,000 people yearly. High levels of particulate matter in the air from wildfire smoke have led to increases in deaths in Malaysia, Russia and Australia. The study drew a clear connection between wildfire smoke exposure and increased morbidity for people with asthma, COPD and general respiratory problems.

The Georgia Tech study cites other scientific studies that have linked particulate matter (PM) from wildfires to increased respiratory and cardiovascular diseases. While more research is required to fully resolve the whole picture of health impacts of PM in humans, the health impacts from fire smoke is clearly cause for real concern, when literally millions of people are living for weeks at a time in regions choked with wildfire smoke.

Climate Change and Increasing Forest Fires

Wildfires have been a natural occurrence in the history of forests over many, many millennia. In many ways, fires have played a crucial role in helping regulate and regenerate the health of the forest. Natural variation in weather patterns is one factor in creating conditions for wildfires. But what has been happening over the last several decades is far from normal.

Mike Flannigan, director of the Western Partnership for Wildland Fire Service at the University of Alberta, says the “evidence is becoming more and more overwhelming” of the link between climate change and increasing fires globally. The length of fire seasons worldwide increased by 19 percent from 1978 to 2013, due to longer periods of warm and dry weather in a quarter of the world’s forests. While the pattern is not uniform, various parts of the world are seeing clear changes over the last decades, according to Flannigan, including Alaska, Siberia, the boreal forests of Canada and elsewhere.

In the Western US, the length of the wildfire season has increased from five months long in the 1970s, to seven months today with 2015 being the worst wildfire season in the West on record as tracked by the National Interagency Fire Center, with over 10 million acres burned. As of October 15, the amount of land burned in 2017 would rank third highest. According to the EPA, of the 10 years with the largest acreage burned, nine have occurred since 2000.

In the Pacific Northwest as a whole, temperatures have risen 1.5°F since 1920. Extremely warm temperatures and drought mix with historically low amounts of winter snowpack to create conditions setting the table for fire.

The connection of climate change and a warming planet to increasing forest fires isn’t just confirmed by observational statistics. Scientific studies have started quantifying the contributions of a warmer planet to increasing fires. A 2016 study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrated that over half of the increases in “fuel aridity” (metrics that measure the degree of lack of moisture in fuels) since the 1970s, and a doubling of the amount of forest area burned since 1984 were due to human-caused climate change. A 2017 study in the same journal concluded global warming was responsible for increasing the severity and probability of the hottest monthly and daily events in 80 percent of the globe that they were able to study.

In a sense, the relationship isn’t rocket science, but it is basic science. Warming temperatures means warmer air, and warmer air holds more moisture, sucking it out of plants and trees making them drier and more likely to ignite and readily burn. When this happens over whole regions of millions of acres, these conditions predispose regions to burn more readily. When the warmth and dryness lasts for longer periods of time, the time when wildfires happen also lengthens.

There are other ways in which climate change is contributing to increasing fires in the West. Lightning strikes are increased by warmer temperatures. It’s estimated that for every degree Celsius of warming, strikes increase by about 12 percent.

Furthermore, bark beetle infestation of forests is spreading northward and to higher elevations throughout the West as the planet warms. As winters become warmer and spring comes earlier, conditions for beetle survival increases. Drought-induced stress severely weakens trees’ ability to fend off beetles. Beetles interfere with a tree’s nutrient delivery and this can kill trees, providing more raw fuel for fires. The beetle infestation has killed tens of millions of acres of forest in North America, and is the largest known insect infestation in North American history.

Human-caused activity is contributing in other ways to forest changes and fire increases.

Forest and other natural habitat continues to be eaten up by new housing and sprawl, driven by the inability of capitalism to restrict development and protect natural areas. Forest Service policy over many years has been to suppress fires, and this has contributed to a build-up of large amounts of fuel on public lands. As human habitation continues to encroach on forests, more fires are sparked. The US Forest Service is also increasingly pushed to try to fight fires to protect houses and towns, in some cases further adding to build-up of fuel. Many foresters are advocating that more scientific criteria be used to differentiate when and which fires should be fought, and which should be allowed to burn up accumulated fuel and return the forests to a more natural fire cycle.

The 2017 Fires and the Larger Picture of a Changing Climate

The smoke and fires this summer were a wake-up call about how quickly things can change in the natural environment and how large the stakes are. But is this devastating summer just the beginning of much worse things to come? And if this is the harbinger of the future, what will this mean for the health of humans and ecosystems?

This summer has been one of truly devastating “natural” disasters overall. Intriguing and important scientific debates emerged from this hurricane season, including over whether global warming was causing more extreme and long-lasting weather events, such as Hurricane Harvey’s stall over Houston that caused record rainfalls.

Jennifer Francis, a research professor at Rutgers University, has been studying the relation between the warming of the Arctic, the loss of sea ice and changes that are being observed in weather patterns in the Northern hemisphere, particularly at certain times of the year.

She has advanced a theory that the warming of the Arctic is causing the jet stream to wobble at certain times, creating big waves that draw warmer air up into the Arctic from the southern latitudes. Francis believes that with these big waves, which have been observed, the jet stream is also weakened in its flow from west to east. The jet stream then becomes more susceptible to any obstacles in its path — physical ones, such as mountain ranges, but also areas of warm temperature, for example. The weakened, wavy jet stream leads to weather patterns that are more persistent. The main cause of this phenomenon is the way in which global warming is occurring more rapidly in the Arctic, lessening the temperature difference between the Artic, and the mid-latitudes.

These phenomena are also further warming the Arctic and melting more sea ice via a number of feedback loops.

Truthout asked Francis via email if this Arctic warming may also be responsible for hot, dry weather patterns that have occurred more frequently in the West over the last several years in summer, contributing to such massive wildfires.

She replied, “There are several new papers that connect Arctic warming and sea-ice loss in the Pacific sector of the Arctic with a strengthened Pacific ridge in the jet stream (large northward bulge), but the mechanism is not simple.”

“It appears that there are two factors that need to happen simultaneously to create the strong, persistent ridge that has been so prevalent in recent years along the western coast of North America. One factor is the natural occurrence of a ridge in this location, owing usually to warmer-than-normal ocean temperatures along the west coast — e.g., a pattern known as a positive Pacific Decadal Oscillation. If there is also substantial ice loss/warming in the Pacific Arctic sector, that ridge tends to be strengthened, which makes it more persistent. This favors the conditions conducive to wild fires: dry and hot.”

This link is alluring, if not yet definitively proven. Truthout also spoke with Nick Bond, research meteorologist with the Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean at the University of Washington. He said that the weather pattern we saw on the west coast this summer with the persistent ridge of high pressure was very unusual, but, “There’s plenty of internal variability in the system — I’m kind of reluctant, one particular weird year, to ascribe too much to that, but on the other hand, this weather we’re having, is the kind of weather we expect to be more common in future decades … in the long term maybe this is something we better get used to.”

So, whether this summer’s pattern of persistent high-pressure ridges and abnormally hot, dry weather is already a result of climate change enhancing natural variation, or if it’s a harbinger of what’s to come, these are important things to watch. Regardless, it’s clear that the West, along with the planet, is warming overall, and that this is contributing to the conditions leading to larger wildfires right now. The impact of increasing wildfires on people’s health and ecosystems will keep rising, unless serious and emergency measures are taken to counter climate change and its effects.

Pruitt Resigns: Good Riddance! The Trump Destruction of Nature and People Must Stop!

Scott Pruitt Must Go, and the Trump Destruction of Nature and People Must Stop!

We’ve seen over the past year and more that Pruitt’s reason d’etre at EPA is to take down environmental rules and regulations that are deemed a limit to the “freedom” of capitalist businesses to gut nature to maximize profitability. Pruitt was appointed by Trump for this despicable work because of his resume as Oklahoma Attorney General  attacking the very things the EPA is supposed to protect-clean air, water, soil, wildlife, people’s health and ecosystems, etc.

Now, Pruitt is mired in a deep scandal, facing 12 different investigations arising from his outrageous hubris. Pruitt has his staff investigating places around the world he wants to visit, while fake “reasons” for the trips are made up to justify them. And any business Pruitt does on such trips, is dirty business. On one essentially tourist trip to Italy, he dined with the Vatican’s Cardinal Pell, the highest ranking Vatican official to be charged with child abuse. Also present was Leonard Leo, a Federalist Society lawyer who essentially is a head architect of Trump’s efforts to fill the country’s judiciary with right wing racists, bigots and extremists. (This piece on Leo’s judicial picks for Trump will set your hair on fire.)

Pruitt for his part tours the country and world, going to first-class restaurants, flying first class, and spending literally millions of dollars while he directs the deconstruction of environmental protection. Overwhelmingly, his meetings are with industry officials, essentially for planning how to go forward with eliminating any barriers to their exploitation of natural resources, which he deems ordained by God. Meanwhile, his EPA staffers carefully guard his schedule, appearances and security- eliminating any chance for the people to actually question him or protest him, because of fear of how hated he, and what he’s doing, is. So we need to find ways! One idea, how about protests at EPA offices or federal buildings?

Read or listen to this important and interesting interview with Eric Lipton, NYT Washington Bureau reporter on Fresh Air. It’ll burn you up and give impetus to demanding this guy resign now!

As Pruitt testifies today at another Congressional hearing, it’s important to push for his ouster, but at the same time connect the resistance to demand an end to  all the ways the EPA has been made into a vehicle for destruction of the environment under Trump.

Getting rid of Pruitt can be a step forward but it won’t stop this regime from continuing it’s assault on nature. As one sign of this, the New York Times has reported that senior White House officials are calling for Pruitt to be replaced by the new #2 at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who has built his career defending the coal industry’s “right” to destroy the climate.

According to this report,

“Some Republicans have said that Mr. Wheeler, a former Capitol Hill and E.P.A. staff member — known as a low-key but highly experienced Washington insider — would quite likely be as effective, and possibly more so, than Mr. Pruitt at undoing regulations, without drawing the embarrassing headlines of his boss.”

So efforts to push out Pruitt need to be linked to condemning the whole assault on nature being carried out by Trump and his cronies.

Further, Trump and Pence  need to be  not just resisted, but forced out of power and the direction of things reversed not just because of the threat they represent to the environment, but because of everything else this regime is doing. I’m speaking of the dangerous moves toward war,  including nuclear war, most represented by Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal; the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the sickening backing of open mass shooting of non-violent protesters by Israel in Gaza;  the vicious attacks on immigrants, including the heartless plan to separate children from parents at the border and incarcerate both; the moves to undermine and do away with the rule of law and stock the  judiciary with racists, bigots and religious lunatics; and the overall implementation of an essentially fascist order.

The Momentum of Trumpian Fascism Is Building: Stopping It Is Up to Us

A national crisis has engulfed the Trump regime since escalating its fascist assault on immigrants by separating children from their parents at the Southern border. The pictures and stories of children being ripped from the arms of their parents, locked in cages, infants incarcerated in “tender age” facilities, kids screaming in terror for their parents and separated across the country without hope of finding each other — has shaken the country. Millions have been shocked into a state of revulsion and outrage at the cruel inhumanity of this regime.

Immigrant mothers held under charges of “illegal entry” to the US at a federal detention center near Seattle reported to US Rep. Pramila Jayapal that after their children were forcibly taken away without even being able to say goodbye, they could hear their children screaming for them in the next room. One mother reported to Jayapal that a Border Patrol agent told her, “You will never see your children again. Families don’t exist here. You won’t have a family anymore.” After kidnapping their kids, these officials wouldn’t even tell the parents where their kids were. Mothers who cried were mocked by agents. Federal defenders said authorities separated parents from kids by lying that the kids were just being taken out to be given a bath.

For days, various Trump officials spun out a web of deception and completely conflicting story lines to cover-up, justify and continue this horror. Then, in the face of massive outrage from all corners forcing even prominent Republican Trump backers to worry things were going to unravel, Trump signed an executive order supposedly ending separation of parents and kids.

While Trump was forced to back up and blink, more deeply, this is a maneuver to dampen the outrage while continuing the fascist terrorizing of immigrants in new ways. This order, which could fall apart under court challenges, proposes to end separating children from parents by incarcerating both together in detention facilities indefinitely. It continues the “zero tolerance policy” of locking up and charging all immigrants who cross into the US without going through a port of entry. It instructs the Defense Department to begin building detention camps to incarcerate immigrant families. Justice Department lawyers are expected to challenge a previous court ruling that established basic minimal humanitarian guarantees for immigrant children, meaning they want to be able to hold immigrant kids in detention in conditions that violate this standard.

The horror and trauma of all this continues. After separating more than 2,000 children, the government has established no means for parents to find their kids or for them to be reunited. This executive order does nothing about that. Still, after all this, the government has refused to divulge where female children are being held or allow unfettered access to these facilities. This vicious regime has disappeared children from parents fleeing horrific violence in countries devastated by US policies. It has locked up, kidnapped and shipped kids around the country with no accounting, no plans for reuniting them with parents and no measures for ensuring their safety. And they persevered in doing so, only changing course when forced to, and then continued this assault in new forms while admitting no wrong,

If all of this doesn’t justly remind people of the Nazi treatment of Jewish children and families, then they’re either historically unaware or willfully oblivious. This crisis continues. If Trump and his bullies are not made to fully back down, to release immigrant parents and kids, stop deporting them, provide for their safety and adjudicate asylum claims, this will be an ominous consolidation of fascism.

Echoes of Fascism From History

At the same moment this crisis was beginning, Trump’s assertion of other dictatorial powers was also gaining momentum. In a memo to Robert Mueller, Trump’s lawyers argued he was in effect above the lawand couldn’t commit obstruction of justice. Then Trump claimed the right to pardon himself. Trump’s ghoulish consigliere Rudy Giuliani proclaimed that Trump could shoot James Comey in the Oval Office and not be indicted. This is a not so subtle threat of Trump’s capability of eliminating a rival who Trump deems an existential threat to his power.

These, of course, are just the latest of the mounting outrages. In the book, Fire and Fury, author Michael Wolff says part of the logic of Trump’s seeming illogic is to follow each outrage with another, so that the previous one is forgotten. This also serves the purpose of wearing down or numbing those who have a sense of right and wrong; to cause them to accept the unacceptable.

For a long time, many said that Trump was “accomplishing nothing.” Some still talk about the turnover in the Trump White House as a completely ineffectual chaos of a political amateur. But what this misses is the very dangerous way Trump is normalizing vicious assaults on immigrant families; legitimizing open white supremacy and racism, including propelling the most hateful elements into the public square; consolidating an unthinking, compassionless base unable or unwilling to tell the difference between truth and fiction; undermining the rule of law; delegitimizing the mainstream press; and expanding the plunder of the natural world.

Trump has been called a buffoon or unfit. To be sure, Trump’s case is in some ways a unique and peculiar one. He has an obsessive need for fawning adulation; his decision-making is based on “gut instinct” that eschews evidence and reason; and his worldview is embedded in the deep history of American chauvinism, white supremacy, genocide and brutal repression. When all this is sorted through however, you have a man not substantially different from other fascist leaders seeking dictatorial powers.

After Trump was elected, Ron Rosenbaum, author of Explaining Hitler,wrote the piece “Against Normalization,” in the Los Angeles Review of Books, looking at Trump in light of the history of Hitler’s Germany and its attacks on the press. Rosenbaum’s description of Hitler’s maneuvering for power is chillingly reminiscent of Trump: “Hitler used the tactics of bluff masterfully, at times giving the impression of being a feckless Chaplinesque clown, at other times a sleeping serpent, at others yet a trustworthy statesman. The Weimar establishment didn’t know what to do, so they pretended this was normal. They ‘normalized’ him.”

By many accounts, Hitler was given to fits of extreme rage and unable to confront reality, especially as his armies were being wiped out. At the same time, he was a virulent racist guided by fascist aims to conquer Europe, expand Germany’s “lebensraum” (living room), wipe out the Soviet “threat” and “Aryanize” the populace, eventually through genocide. The Hitler/Trump comparison is not a perfect fit. However, the basic tenets of extreme nationalism, racism, misogyny, and disgust with democracy and the rule of law are essentially the same.

In reading Robert Paxton’s book, The Anatomy of Fascism, which focuses particularly on Nazism and Mussolini’s Italy, the parallels between those experiences and Trump’s America come further into relief. People ask, How can this presidency be fascist when there are so many incongruities, whipsawing public statements, such seeming incoherence and ludicrous claims? This book, and others written on the history of fascism, help make sense of much of this.

Paxton quotes from the German writer Thomas Mann who commented that the Nazi “revolution” was “without underlying ideas, against ideas, against everything nobler, better, decent, against freedom, truth, and justice.”

German lawyer and political scientist Franz Leopold Neumann wrote in Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism 1933-1944,

National Socialism has no theory of society as we understand it, no consistent picture of its operation, structure and development. It has certain aims to carry through and adjusts its ideological pronouncements to a series of ever-changing goals…. It has certain magical beliefs — leadership adoration, the supremacy of the master race — but its ideology is not laid down in a series of categorical and dogmatic pronouncements.

Paxton says fascism is more plausibly linked to a set of “‘mobilizing passions’ that shape fascist action than to a consistent and fully articulated philosophy. At bottom is a passionate nationalism …” and a conspiratorial view of history as a fight between good and evil “… in which one’s own community or nation has been the victim.” Does this sound familiar?

I’ve had Trump supporters tweet at me that it’s ridiculous to compare Trump to Hitler because Trump hasn’t murdered 6 million Jews. Well, Hitler hadn’t murdered 6 million Jews by the time he came to power, either. The point isn’t that Trump is exactly like Hitler or that a certain trajectory is guaranteed. There are also many large differences between the United States in 2018 and Germany of 1933. On the other hand, much of the logic and essential character of the two projects is quite a bit the same. As author Richard Evans, a leading scholar on the history of Nazi Germany put it, in Trump, you see echoes of Hitler that are “very alarming.”

There was an underlying logic and process of development in Nazi Germany. The initial Nazi program in power in 1933 was to brutally suppress Communists and expel Jews, not to eliminate them through mass murder. Communists, and then Jews, were the Nazi spear points of attack. Succeeding in targeting these sections of people without being stopped allowed them to go forward suppressing all other opposition. They proceeded to Nazify society, laying the basis for fascist war. Over the next years, the Nazis step by step stripped rights, livelihood and citizenship from Jewish people, and as necessity confronting the Nazis sharpened with war, the “mobilizing passion” of “Aryanization” and considering Jews to be subhuman developed into an active policy of genocide.

Trump called immigrants “animals” and non-white countries “shitholes” while considering people from these countries disposable. These are not just words. They are dangerous affirmations of an outlook capable of horrors we can barely imagine right now. And now these words are being acted on.

We Can’t Count on Political Parties — We Must Act

As Paxton says, “Fascists need a demonized enemy against which to mobilize followers, but of course the enemy does not have to be Jewish. Each culture specifies the national enemy.” To the US, this has always meant Black people and Native Americans at home and other oppressed peoples internationally. Now, Muslims and Latino immigrants have been added, with the Trumpian spear point aimed at immigrants and their children. If this is not stopped and reversed, more horrors are to come. If they succeed on this, they will come for others, one by one, until opposition is silenced or wiped out.

Trump and his regime, along with the national Republican Party, are transforming a capitalist democracy, already living off of the brutal oppression of people worldwide and at home, into an openly fascist form of capitalism, where the grinding down of the oppressed is raised to an even more horrifying level, even possibly a genocidal one. Fascism means the essential elimination of basic norms and rights present under ordinary capitalist rule; stifling and even eliminating the rule of law, freedom of the press, the rights to free speech; and the violent suppression of opposition.

As this tyranny builds up, more people are recognizing that Trump is moving to fascism. Many are seeing the danger, recognizing that fascism is being normalized, and the reality that, Yes, we are like a frog being slowly boiled in that warming pot.

Others still write off Trump and the danger of what is happening now. Talk focuses on how many years it will take to reverse the damage, as if this is guaranteed. The Democratic Party claims that this will be somehow reversed by a “blue wave” of midterm voters or a combination of this and the Mueller probe.

This is a tremendous mistake for a number of reasons. While it is true the deep differences between the Democrats and Republicans, or the strains within the Trump coalition, for example, could intensify and the Mueller probe can be one factor here, it is unlikely that this alone would lead to Trump being impeached or forced to resign. For one, Trump and his current grouping are not like Richard Nixon. Confronted with impeachment, Nixon resigned. To the Trumpers, it’s keep power or die. Even faced with a finding that Trump obstructed justice, who believes that Trump — who reviles and is seeking to destroy the rule of law and is incapable of following previous norms — would step aside instead of doubling down on power? There is also no reason to think that the Republican Party, now essentially Trump’s party, would impeach him.

With many Democrats still refusing to even put impeachment on the table, why believe that the 2018 midterms would lead to Trump’s ouster? Who can guarantee that elections would be fair, with the continual scrubbing of Black people and others from voter rolls and other methods of voter suppression already in play and recently given new support by the Supreme Court? Further, even if Trump goes down somehow, Pence is then president, and if there has not been significant and massive mobilization in the streets, this regime would recoup and roll on.

The Democrats — who refuse to call out the fascist threat and mainly still advise people to channel their outrage into voting in the midterms — have neither the will nor the audacity to lead people to stop the direction the US is headed in. They are a ruling-class party more fearful of upheaval by millions of people than of fascism, despite the fact that fascism could mean their own elimination.

Time is short and fascism is gaining ground. Millions deeply hate what is going on. Many more could be swung to more active opposition if those who do recognize the dangers and refuse to accept them join with each other and generate a movement to force Trump and Pence from power.

This would have to be sustained and developed into a concerted effort. It would have to unite many of the different strains and elements of what has been the active opposition and powerful resistance to Trump, but reach far more broadly into the deep opposition among millions to everything this regime is going for.

It’s time for all to realize we have a common goal of stopping the consolidation of fascism. We have to organize ourselves, form networks, build structures, speak out publicly and get into the streets and not stop until fascism is stopped. Forcing out a regime that threatens life while bringing forward many contending visions and programs of a much better future can open the way to this world. If we don’t move soon, it will be too late, and we will have allowed unspeakable horrors to come.

Marine Heat Waves, Changing Ocean Currents and Capitalism’s Threat to Life

The Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland, Australia. Extreme marine heatwaves in 2016 and 2017 have killed one-half of the reef.ROBERT LINSDELL / FLICKR; EDITED: LW / TO

Reprinted from truthout.org

https://truthout.org/articles/marine-heatwaves-changing-ocean-currents-and-capitalisms-threat-to-life/

 

It would have been unthinkable not many years ago to imagine the impending death of the Great Barrier Reef. The world’s largest living structure and a world heritage site unsurpassed for its tremendous beauty, the Great Barrier Reef has been one of the planet’s most important ecosystems. Now, after consecutive years of prolonged, extreme marine heat waves in 2016 and 2017, one-half of the reef is dead.

Yet the reef, which has gone through immense challenges over millions of years of changing climates, is not entirely gone yet. Leading coral reef scientist Terry Hughes recently told the Guardian that, “The Great Barrier Reef is certainly threatened by climate change, but it is not doomed if we deal very quickly with greenhouse gas emissions. Our study shows that coral reefs are already shifting radically in response to unprecedented heatwaves.”

Further work from other research teams documented in April that globally, marine heat waves have increased in frequency and are of longer duration. Scientists from the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes and the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies published a study finding that between 1925 and 2016, marine heat waves occurred 34 percent more often, and lasted 17 percent longer. The result has been a 54 percent increase in the number of marine heat wave days happening each year globally.

The study brought together a range of ocean temperature data over the time period studied. Controlling for climate variability, the authors were able to determine that the increase in marine heat waves was related to an increase in sea surface temperature. “With more than 90 percent of the heat from human-caused global warming going into our oceans, it is likely marine heat waves will continue to increase,” said study co-author Neil Holbrook from the University of Tasmania.

The paper cites the impact of recent marine heat waves in a number of the world’s oceans, concluding that, “These events resulted in substantial ecological and economic impacts, including sustained loss of kelp forests, coral bleaching, reduced surface chlorophyll levels due to increased surface layer stratification, mass mortality of marine invertebrates due to heat stress, rapid long-distance species’ range shifts and associated reshaping of community structure, fishery closures or quota changes, and even intensified economic tensions between nations.”

The news of increasing ocean heat waves and their devastating impact is truly alarming, especially in connection with the many other signs of accelerating climate change and general ecological crisis, including in just the past several months.

Arctic, Antarctic Melt and the Ocean Conveyor Belt

After another abnormally warm year in large parts of the Arctic region, including mid-winter temperatures that went above freezing at the North pole, the National Snow and Ice Data Center reported April 2018 essentially tied for the lowest Arctic sea ice extent on record with April 2016. More worrying, not only was the sea ice coverage at a historic April low, but the amount of thicker, multi-year ice cover “has declined from 61 percent in 1984 to 34 percent in 2018. In addition, only 2 percent of the ice age cover is categorized as five-plus years, the least amount recorded during the winter period,” according to the Center.

With the Arctic warming at twice the global average, less ice is forming and more is melting in summer so less of the ice lasts through the warmer months to become multi-year ice. New ice forms in fall and winter, but this ice is now increasingly new, younger ice, instead of building on the thicker and more stable multi-year ice. As ice melts and ice coverage is increasingly younger, less thick and less stable, sea ice is being lost, and the Arctic Ocean is becoming more open in summer. The increasingly ice-free open ocean absorbs the sun’s energy much more readily than the ice-covered ocean, accelerating warming. This dangerous positive feedback loop underway in the Arctic is already impacting climate worldwide.

For the Arctic itself, the disappearing ice threatens to devastate the species and ecosystems that have evolved in connection with it. The decline of Arctic ice and ecosystems, forced by greenhouse gas emissions from the predominant capitalist economies of the planet, also threatens genocide for the culture and way of life of Indigenous peoples throughout the region who have lived for millennia in an ice-covered world.

Another recently published study has shown that melting glaciers in East and West Antarctica are freshening the surrounding ocean and slowing the formation of ocean “bottom water.” Normally, Antarctic bottom water is formed by the sinking of cold, salty water that results as sea ice forms and pushes out salt into surrounding waters. This cold, dense water sinks, mixes with and cools warmer salty water brought by deep ocean currents to Antarctica. But this process is now slowing because of increased glacial freshwater melt. The warm water is stratified, trapped at the bottom, where it is further speeding the melt of Antarctic glaciers from below in these regions. It’s another feedback loop that will likely accelerate sea level rise.

In the Southern Ocean around Antarctica, as well as in the Arctic regions off Norway and Greenland, the process of very dense, cold, salty water sinking is a major factor in causing overturning circulation in the world’s oceans. This is called thermohaline circulation, the process whereby deep-ocean currents are generated by differences in the water’s density, which is controlled by temperature (thermo) and salinity (haline). This is also known as the “ocean conveyor belt.” Ocean currents are very complex and dynamic processes with many factors involved. Essentially though, the ocean conveyor belt drives deep ocean currents that course powerfully around the globe, overturning and mixing enormous quantities of water. In certain regions, this creates upwelling — bringing nutrient-rich water from the ocean’s bottom back to the surface, fueling life. The conveyor belt currents are also a central factor in distributing heat around the planet and stabilizing the Earth’s climate.

Melting sea ice and glaciers are now pouring more fresh water into the ocean, making the waters where this occurs less salty and dense, so less likely to sink. The effects of freshening waters on thermohaline circulation and ocean currents in the Southern Ocean are not yet known, but studies on the North Atlantic this year found that increasing fresh water melt in the Arctic has caused a slowdown in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current (AMOC). One of the studies suggested the slowdown has been around 15 percent since 1950. Climatologist Michael Mann said the AMOC slowdown is “happening about a century ahead of schedule relative to what the models predict” and, “I think we’re close to a tipping point.”

What acceleration of ice melt and changing ocean currents will mean for sea level rise that threatens the world coastlines, islands and huge swaths of humanity; for the impact on world climate; and for ocean life and ecosystems that humans also rely on to eat and breathe, is difficult to exactly predict. Nonetheless, it’s clear the climate crisis is already extreme and accelerating. Much depends on whether human society acts quickly to dramatically cut greenhouse gas emissions currently warming the planet, and takes other urgent steps to prevent ecological disaster.

Instead of being reduced, however, carbon emissions continue to grow, recently measured at 410 parts per million, a level not seen in millions of years. In May, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration reported that April 2018 was the 400th straight month that global temperatures were warmer than average.

The Problems of Trump and Capitalism

Faced with this situation of potential ecological catastrophe, Trump and his allies who wield power in the US, lie that global warming is a fabrication, a hoax, or impossible to confirm. They deny the overwhelming evidence and cover over clearly demonstrated science. But this isn’t just a denial of reality, as bad as that is. This is, as The New York Times journalist Justin Gillis said of Scott Pruitt’s denial of climate change, a “civilization-threatening lie.” This is a conscious act that sows confusion, denies people knowledge and prevents them from being able to respond to the existential danger climate change represents. Trump, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Interior Department and other agencies are moving as fully and as quickly as they can to overturn or eliminate every rule, regulation and barrier that stands in the way of fossil fuel development and use. Their goal is to protect the “freedom” of giant corporations to plunder the natural world to maximize their profitability, and to enhance US “energy dominance,” no matter the destruction it brings.

At the end of May, the EPA announced its official proposal to rollback Obama-era regulations requiring automakers to make cars with higher fuel efficiency standards. If adopted, the likely result is a large increase of greenhouse emissions by the US, already by far the leading contributor to global warming historically. In January, Interior Department head Ryan Zinke announced plans to open up 90 percent of the country’s offshore coastal regions to oil drilling.

Companies have already applied for permits to begin work to develop new oil and gas projects in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) in Alaska, the largest and most pristine wildlife refuge in the country. Moreover, according to a piece in the Hill, “drilling into the refuge is just the tip of the iceberg. Trump is aggressively pushing Arctic drilling projects on water and land, selling off vast tracts of public lands and oceans, and rolling back drilling safety regulations meant to prevent catastrophic oil spills.”

In May, the White House canceled the vital NASA Carbon Monitoring System that uses satellite and aircraft instruments to track carbon and methane emissions and monitors country’s commitments to greenhouse gas cuts.

Bigger Than Trump

What the Trump regime is doing environmentally (and otherwise) is a threat to planetary life that must be stopped. This crisis, however, didn’t begin with Trump. The operation of the entire world capitalist system has raised greenhouse gases to the level they are and brought us to this juncture. Trump is just the latest and most destructive manifestation of an omnicidal system. The problem we face is that power rests in the hands of a capitalist class that is incapable of confronting our current ecological unraveling as the emergency it is.

The result is a crisis that is inexorably accelerating, with essentially nothing on the level actually needed being done to stop it. Instead of being able to respond from the need to protect life on Earth and world humanity, the capitalist rulers are constrained by the interests and needs of their system for profitability to contend with and beat out rivals.

Karl Marx said presciently of capitalist economic relations, “Modern bourgeois society with its relations of production, of exchange, and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells.”

The capitalist competitive drive for accumulation is why, despite moves by Obama to limit drilling in some places and make modest cuts to greenhouse emissions, fracking and oil and gas production skyrocketed under his administration. It’s also why Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who campaigned as a climate change fighter and protector of First Nations rights, has now promised to sink billions of Canadian government dollars into buying the Trans Mountain pipeline that investors were just about to pull out of. Trudeau said of the huge reserves of tar sands oil, the production of which is poisoning Indigenous people and lands in Alberta and the full burning of which would mean climate catastrophe, “No country would find 173 billion barrels of oil in the ground and leave them there.”

Exactly. No capitalist country would. That’s exactly why capitalism cannot be allowed to continue to rule and destroy our planet. Winning a better world, is up to us. What better day to begin, than World Ocean’s Day.

Scott Pruitt Must Go, and the Trump Destruction of Nature and People Must Stop!

We’ve seen over the past year and more that Pruitt’s reason d’etre at EPA is to take down environmental rules and regulations that are deemed a limit to the “freedom” of capitalist businesses to gut nature to maximize profitability. Pruitt was appointed by Trump for this despicable work because of his resume as Oklahoma Attorney General  attacking the very things the EPA is supposed to protect-clean air, water, soil, wildlife, people’s health and ecosystems, etc.

Now, Pruitt is mired in a deep scandal, facing 12 different investigations arising from his outrageous hubris. Pruitt has his staff investigating places around the world he wants to visit, while fake “reasons” for the trips are made up to justify them. And any business Pruitt does on such trips, is dirty business. On one essentially tourist trip to Italy, he dined with the Vatican’s Cardinal Pell, the highest ranking Vatican official to be charged with child abuse. Also present was Leonard Leo, a Federalist Society lawyer who essentially is a head architect of Trump’s efforts to fill the country’s judiciary with right wing racists, bigots and extremists. (This piece on Leo’s judicial picks for Trump will set your hair on fire.)

Pruitt for his part tours the country and world, going to first-class restaurants, flying first class, and spending literally millions of dollars while he directs the deconstruction of environmental protection. Overwhelmingly, his meetings are with industry officials, essentially for planning how to go forward with eliminating any barriers to their exploitation of natural resources, which he deems ordained by God. Meanwhile, his EPA staffers carefully guard his schedule, appearances and security- eliminating any chance for the people to actually question him or protest him, because of fear of how hated he, and what he’s doing, is. So we need to find ways! One idea, how about protests at EPA offices or federal buildings?

Read or listen to this important and interesting interview with Eric Lipton, NYT Washington Bureau reporter on Fresh Air. It’ll burn you up and give impetus to demanding this guy resign now!

As Pruitt testifies today at another Congressional hearing, it’s important to push for his ouster, but at the same time connect the resistance to demand an end to  all the ways the EPA has been made into a vehicle for destruction of the environment under Trump.

Getting rid of Pruitt can be a step forward but it won’t stop this regime from continuing it’s assault on nature. As one sign of this, the New York Times has reported that senior White House officials are calling for Pruitt to be replaced by the new #2 at the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, a former coal lobbyist who has built his career defending the coal industry’s “right” to destroy the climate.

According to this report,

“Some Republicans have said that Mr. Wheeler, a former Capitol Hill and E.P.A. staff member — known as a low-key but highly experienced Washington insider — would quite likely be as effective, and possibly more so, than Mr. Pruitt at undoing regulations, without drawing the embarrassing headlines of his boss.”

So efforts to push out Pruitt need to be linked to condemning the whole assault on nature being carried out by Trump and his cronies.

Further, Trump and Pence  need to be  not just resisted, but forced out of power and the direction of things reversed not just because of the threat they represent to the environment, but because of everything else this regime is doing. I’m speaking of the dangerous moves toward war,  including nuclear war, most represented by Trump pulling the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear deal; the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and the sickening backing of open mass shooting of non-violent protesters by Israel in Gaza;  the vicious attacks on immigrants, including the heartless plan to separate children from parents at the border and incarcerate both; the moves to undermine and do away with the rule of law and stock the  judiciary with racists, bigots and religious lunatics; and the overall implementation of an essentially fascist order.

 

The Growing Danger of Ecosystem Collapse and Trump’s War on Nature

Thursday, February 08, 2018

By Curtis JohnsonTruthout | News Analysis

(Photo: Chris)(Photo: Chris)

In 1992, 1,700 world scientists issued a prescient Warning to Humanity that “human beings and the natural world are on a collision course.” They warned that human practices, if not checked, “may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know.” The statement argued saving life as we know it meant transforming our species’ interaction with nature; lowering greenhouse gas emissions and eliminating fossil fuel use, reducing deforestation, preserving biodiversity and lowering the human footprint on natural ecosystems.

Last November, 15,000 scientists, the largest scientific grouping to ever co-sign and support a journal article, issued a Second Notice warning humanity. They wrote, “The authors of the 1992 declaration feared that humanity was pushing the Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life.” And that since then, we not only haven’t made sufficient progress to address these issues, but, “alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”

These warnings, and the new conclusion that things are only getting “far worse,” should shock the collective soul, and rouse people to radical action. These are not rantings by doomsayers searching for a “worst-case scenario” to drum up change. What thousands of the world’s leading scientists are telling us is that human society (as it is presently constituted) threatens the existence of life on Earth. What we must confront is whether we care enough about the continued existence of the natural world — its myriad wonders, including the human species itself — to act powerfully and quickly to save it.

Scientists are now fairly confident that Arctic warming is creating conditions for more extreme weather events in North America.

The dangers the scientists warned of are now pouring down with increasing force. Last year was the second-warmest year in recorded history, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, surpassed only by 2016. Seventeen of the 18 warmest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001. Last year was also a record year of warmth in the world’s oceans, contributing to the most destructive storms in US history, including a series of unprecedented Atlantic hurricanes ravaging Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands, Houston and Florida. One, Hurricane Harvey, dumped rainfall amounts never seen in recorded history, amounts now linked by scientific study with climate change. This was followed by climate change-fueled drought throughout the Western US that led to massive wildfires causing dozens of deaths, destruction of forests, homes and businesses, and episodes of choking smoke impacting millions of people. Following this came more record-breaking fires in Southern California, including the largest in state history.

As bad and destructive as all this was, these were only the latest pieces of an overall puzzle, signs of a profound transformation of life on Earth. A brief look at just a few of the scientific reports from the past two years give evidence of a growing danger of ecosystem collapse.

Unravelling of Ecosystems on Land and Sea

Even with dramatic retreat and advance over millennia, polar ice has maintained and characterized Earth for millions of years, including the entire life of human existence. But that may be ending.

Coming after years of studies documenting the decline of Arctic sea ice, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) annual Arctic Report Card for 2017 found that “the Arctic shows no signs of returning to the reliably frozen region of past decades.” Jeremy Mathis, director of the Arctic Research Program at NOAA, who co-authored the report, said the Arctic is “going through the most unprecedented transition in human history.” The loss of sea ice means more heat from sunlight being retained by darkly colored open water instead of reflected back into the atmosphere, leading to a “runaway effect.” More Arctic tundra is also thawing, further releasing greenhouse gases that warm the planet. The changes are causing disruptions in the Arctic ecosystem, more widespread wildfires and undermining the ability of Indigenous people to sustain their mode of life.

The transformation of the Arctic has stunning consequences for an essential part of the planet’s ecosystem and for causing climate impacts far beyond the Arctic. As one example, Mathis said scientists are now fairly confident that Arctic warming is creating conditions for more extreme weather events in North America. A December 2017 study also linked Arctic warming to increasing the risk of drought in California. More remains to be learned, but the end of the Arctic as we know it marks a frightening tumble into unknown territory.

Arctic melt is only one part of the disappearance of ice at the poles. A recent study in Greenland, which mapped coastal glaciers and the bedrock on which they lie as they flow into the sea, found two to four times as many glaciers as previously thought are exposed to warm salt water at depth — meaning they are more exposed to melt from warming oceans. If all of Greenland were to melt, it would contribute to more than 20 feet of sea level rise.

At the other end of the planet, scientists have been tracking the breaking up of ice sheets in West Antarctica. In December, a team studying ice sheet disintegration and collapse of ice cliffs concluded that taking into account these mechanisms, estimates of median sea level rise by 2100 should be increased from two-and-a-half feet to almost five feet. This would inundate land that 153 million people currently live on. The scientists emphasized there is uncertainty in these predictions, and that these estimates and final outcomes depend on whether global carbon emissions continue to increase or are cut.

As ocean warming increases, ocean ecosystems are being damaged and transformed in frightening ways.

The death of coral reefs would mean the death of some of the ocean’s most important ecosystems.

Scientists warn that kelp forests — coastal ecosystems rich in biodiversity — are disappearing from Tasmania to California. They’re wilting and dying due to the nearly 3 degrees Fahrenheit ocean temperature rise. Kelp ecosystems are being replaced by regions dominated by voracious sea urchins that are barren of other forms of life.

In early January, a National Geographic story titled, “Climate Change is Suffocating Large Parts of the Ocean,” warns, “A new study says warming has reduced oxygen levels in large swaths of the deep ocean, threatening marine life around the world.” In summarizing this study, Science Daily wrote, “the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold.” Lead author of the study Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Research Center, wrote that “loss of oxygen in many ways is the destruction of an ecosystem,” and “This is a global problem…. It requires global solutions.”

As if this isn’t bad enough, large sections of the Great Barrier Reef off the Australian coast have been killed by two straight years of coral bleaching caused by ocean warming. In January 2018, Coral reef expert Terry Hughes and colleagues released a new paper that found tropical sea surface temperatures occurring under today’s La Niña (colder ocean cycle) temperatures are warmer than El Niño (warmer ocean cycle) temperatures of three decades ago. Hughes’s paper studied bleaching histories of 100 reefs globally and concluded, “Tropical reef systems are transitioning to a new era in which the interval between recurrent bouts of coral bleaching is too short for a full recovery of mature assemblages.”

Without insects, we could see a collapse of whole ecosystems.

The consequences of coral bleaching, combined with overfishing, destructive storms and pollution in reef systems worldwide are enormous. The death of coral reefs would mean the death of some of the ocean’s most important ecosystems, home to 25 percent of the world’s marine life and nurseries to a fourth of the world’s fish. Not only are we facing the wiping out of enormous natural beauty and diversity, this would mean disappearance of a good portion of the food supply literally hundreds of millions of people rely on to live. The ending of coral reefs that is already underway means destruction of a key world ecosystem that must be prevented.

The extinction of species — what many scientists have called a “sixth extinction” — is underway on land as well as in the oceans and waterways. In October 2016, a landmark study conducted by the World Wildlife Fund and the ZSL Institute of Zoology released data revealing “overall global vertebrate populations are on course to decline by an average of 67 percent from 1970 levels by the end of this decade, unless urgent action is taken to reduce humanity’s impact on species and ecosystems.” This precipitous decline is being caused by deforestation, pollution, overfishing, the illegal wildlife trade and climate change.

There is also growing concern about declines in populations of insects. North American honeybee colonies have declined by 59 percent since World War II. A recent report of a study at 63 nature reserves across Germany found flying insects declined 77 percent in the last 25 years. One of the study’s authors, Dave Goulson from Sussex University in the UK, wrote, “We appear to be making vast tracts of land inhospitable to most forms of life, and are currently on course for ecological Armageddon. If we lose the insects, then everything is going to collapse.” There are still remaining questions about if these results were particular to this region, but this is another worrying wake-up call. Insects are the most populous group of animals on the planet. Human agriculture relies on them for pollination of crops. And they are the base of ecosystems worldwide. Without insects, we could see a collapse of whole ecosystems.

Capitalism is incapable of interacting with nature in a sustainable way.

Humanity is on a path of ushering in the rapid disintegration of the natural world as we know it. Given the lateness of the hour, what is called for is an emergency effort to mobilize humanity to save the planet. We are confronted by the necessity to quickly act on all the scientific warnings issued over many years: to end fossil fuel use and transition to sustainable energy development; to create planetary reserves, especially for key ecosystems and areas of biodiversity on land and in the oceans; to restrict and walk back grazing and animal agriculture while reforesting and rewilding large areas on the planet; to stop the endless expansion of human development eating up green space and natural habitat; to move against pollution, stop use of destructive pesticides, and overharvesting in the oceans and land.

All this and more could be done, and would give us at least a fighting chance of preventing some of the worst destruction to come, including the possibility of an overall collapse of living ecosystems that threaten human survival. Standing in the way are not people per se, but the pattern of organized economic life under capitalism. Capitalism, driven by competition, profitability and national economic/political interests, is incapable of interacting with nature in a sustainable way. It is incapable of meeting the challenge of these times to prevent life on Earth from slipping away.

This is true to greater or lesser extent in the entire capitalist world, but especially so in Trump’s United States. At the very moment of frightening decline of planetary ecosystems and accelerating climate change, Trump, his regime and cohorts in Congress, have launched a scorched-earth campaign against the environment — a war on nature. Trump and his ilk aren’t like Nero fiddling as Rome burned; they’re stoking the inferno with whole forests.

They have purged climate change from government websites, while denying its existence. They’ve chastised scientists for raising the connections of last summer’s hurricanes to warming oceans. Trump has ordered the Clean Power Plan scrapped, is moving to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement and has called for drastic cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) budget, especially targeting programs to deal with climate change. This administration loves fossil fuels and hates renewable energy so much it announced a plan on February 1 to cut research on renewables 72 percent.

The EPA and Interior Department have been turned into shameless instruments of environmental destruction. Scientists and officials in the EPA, the Interior Department and the National Park Service have been forced outlet goblocked from advising or have resigned in protest. The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, one of the last remaining truly pristine wilderness areas left on the planet, is now open for drilling, a provision snuck through in the Republican tax bill. Bears Ears and Grand-Escalante National Monuments — with all their archaeological and cultural treasures, and particularly precious to Indigenous people — have been gutted and eviscerated. Now Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, Trump and Republicans in Congress have their sights set on more monuments and national lands to pry open for extractive interests. In January, the regime declared almost all US coastal regions open for drilling. There is no regulation to protect land, water, air, wildlife or people’s health that these eco-destroyers are bound to respect.

Many factors are involved in these decisions being fully implemented, including whether drilling in many regions is profitable. Dozens of court cases have also been filed to stop many of these actions, and opposition is widespread. So, all of this is not yet decided. Much could be stopped. But that’s up to us.

Trump isn’t just the most environmentally unfriendly, pro-business president ever. As Noam Chomsky recently put it, “There has never been an administration, here or for that matter anywhere, which is committed openly to trying to undermine the prospects for organized human life in the not very distant future.”

This is a man with a disdain for (and complete lack of acquaintance with) reason, science, compassion and evidence-based thinking. What this war on nature is about: feasting, plundering and unmitigated profit-making for capital. It’s also about fascist nationalism; harnessing nature and all its bounty like a set of draft horses to the goal of US “energy dominance,” as part of dominating the globe by whatever means necessary, including nuclear war. The war on nature links up to, and is part of, the Trump regime’s overall efforts to remake the country in a fascist way.

 

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CURTIS JOHNSON

Curtis Johnson is a research scientist and freelance writer who has reported on the Gulf oil spill, the Fukushima nuclear disaster, the extinction crisis and the climate crisis, as well as other environmental topics. Follow him on Twitter: @curtisjohnson70.