The Trump Administration’s Attacks on Public Lands and Waters Will Cause Irreparable Harm

Thursday, January 18, 2018 By Curtis JohnsonTruthout | Interview

 Grand Staircase-Escalante, New Mexico. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)Grand Staircase-Escalante, New Mexico. (Photo: Bureau of Land Management)

In December, Trump announced that he would shrink Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in Utah by 85 percent and 46 percent respectively. The announcement came after Trump had ordered Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke in April to review 27 national monuments created since 1996 that were 100,000 acres or larger, and Zinke subsequently recommended that these and other monuments be reduced.

Trump’s move represents the largest delisting of protected federal lands in US history, removing 2 million acres from national monument status. It’s a clear break with practice of previous presidents, especially over the past several decades, who have largely expanded or created new monuments that set aside land for protection under authority of the 1906 Antiquities Act. The Act provides for presidents to establish national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest that are situated on land owned or controlled by the Federal Government.”

Trump’s move represents the largest delisting of protected federal lands in US history.

As a result of this decision by the Trump regime, tens of thousands of acres in both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante that contain magnificent Native cultural artifacts, archaeological sites precious to the cultural life of six tribes and rich deposits of dinosaur fossils have been removed from national monument protection. The move by Trump, despite claims from both Trump and Zinke, opens the possibility for fossil fuel and uranium extraction on these lands, and the building of new roads, off-road vehicle use, and expansion of grazing and other practices that threaten real harm to these natural wonders. The decision also completely rejected the public comments of more than 2 million people who overwhelmingly supported maintaining the monuments as they were. Zinke arrogantly rejected these expressed viewpoints, saying, “I don’t bow to public pressure,” while simultaneously justifying the review and ultimately the decision to shrink the monuments, claiming the original proclamations to establish them had been “made without public consultation.”

In his final report to Trump, Zinke also recommended slicing the size of the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument on the border of Oregon and California, as well as the Gold Butte National Monument in Nevada. Cascade-Siskiyou was established in 2000 and expanded in 2017 by Obama. In supporting a call for its expansion in 2015, ecologists and biologists who had studied the region described it as an “ecological wonder” that is “home to a spectacular variety of rare and beautiful species of plants and animals, whose survival in this region depends upon its continued ecological integrity” Scientists specifically cited the need to preserve the biodiversity in the face of increased threat from climate change.

Zinke also pushed for changing the management rules for six other national monuments, including three marine monuments that would remove protected status and very likely open them to exploitation by commercial fisheries at a critical time of decline of ocean life.

Five different lawsuits have been filed against Trump, et al over slashing Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. One of the lawsuits to defend Bears Ears was filed by the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and Zuni Tribe, all of whom have a deep connection to the land and history in the region. Shaun Chapoose of the Ute Indian Tribe Business Committee said in a statement announcing the lawsuit, “The Bears Ears region is a cultural landscape — a place to nurture our families in our traditions. It’s a sad state of affairs when the president of this great nation shows manifest disregard for our history and culture as a people, but we are prepared to fight for our rights and to protect Bears Ears.” Earthjustice has filed lawsuits on behalf of eight environmental, wildlife and public lands protection groups to protect Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Even the outdoor clothing company Patagonia has joined lawsuits.

Normal management of public lands [is] heavily skewed toward extractive industries and many other destructive uses.

Randi Spivak is public lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD), and spoke with Truthout about Trump’s decision, as well as the larger environmental stakes of the battle over public lands. CBD is one of the groups actively leading a movement to protect public lands, and a complainant in the lawsuits.

Curtis Johnson: Trump and Zinke have claimed the gutting of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments was done to allow local people to control their own land and to redress years of “overreach” by federal bureaucracy. They’ve claimed that the archaeological and artistic treasures of Bears Ears and fossils in Grand Staircase-Escalante would still be protected because the lands won’t be literally handed over to the states or private interests. How do you see that and how would you respond to that line of argument?

Randi Spivak: Let’s be clear: these are [the US’s] public lands; they belong to everyone from the citizens of Utah, to New Jersey to North Carolina. This has nothing to do with state’s rights. These lands have always been federal public lands. Read the law Congress enacted making Utah a state and Utah’s own Constitution — or that of any Western state. Each includes language forever disclaiming any interests in federal lands within state boundaries.

As far as claims that the lands are still protected, slashing protections from 2 million acres of land leaves a lot unprotected. In Bears Ears, 56,000 archaeological sites will no longer have protection. And the same goes for Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Each monument proclamation was carefully mapped and vetted, so cutting any amount — whether it’s an archaeological treasure or Native American sacred site — will now be at risk by stripping those protections.

So, following up on that, Zinke has said all these areas will still be federal lands, and so there are still laws against taking out Native art and so forth. Can you tell us a little about if these things are protected as national monuments versus just federal lands?

While these lands will still be publicly owned, the current laws don’t provide the kinds of protections that come with national monument status. Normal management of public lands [is] heavily skewed toward extractive industries and many other destructive uses. About 90 percent of Bureau of Land Management lands are open to oil and gas drilling; over 90 percent of all public lands are open to livestock grazing. And on most public lands, you can drive off-road vehicles.

Proclaiming a national monument usually means that the area is no longer open to new drilling, fracking and mining. We know that oil and gas companies have expressed interest in portions of Bears Ears that the president has stripped of protections, and that a uranium company, Energy Fuels Resources, urged the Trump administration to reduce Bears Ears and hired a team of lobbyists to press their interest.

Another aspect of the kinds of protections that national monuments provide for archeological sites, ancestral ruins or sensitive habitat is motorized vehicles that are limited to designated roads. Each monument has a management plan developed with public input that identifies the designated roads. Stripping protections will mean more people driving machines across sensitive streams and washes, through treasured architectural sites and despoiling sacred areas.

It was interesting that in the announcement, Zinke and Trump tried to stay away from talking about extraction but focused on hunting and fishing, which was clear were already allowed in the monuments. You know they kept talking about wanting to make sure hunting and fishing are going to continue to be allowed….

That’s an outright lie. None of the monuments Zinke wants to gut restrict hunting or sport fishing. All of them leave hunting and fishing regulations up to state wildlife agencies. National monuments are open for everyone in the world to explore, and the only way to “lock up” public land is to auction it off for drilling, fracking, mining and logging.

Trump is looking to boost fossil fuel extraction and reward his billionaire industry cronies.

But Zinke’s recommendations to Trump do call for stripping protections for three marine national monuments — Rose Atoll, Pacific Remote Islands and the Northeast Canyons and Seamounts. Marine monuments prohibit or phase out commercial fishing to protect a wide range of marine life — including fish, turtles, whales, dolphins and coral reefs — from overfishing [and] harmful practices such as bottom trawling. Studies have shown that protected areas are a boon to the fishing industry because the no-commercial-fishing monument protections enable healthy fish populations to swell and then swim outside of protected areas into commercial zones where they can be fished.

What do you think this monument decision indicates about what Trump and the rest are planning for public lands and waters in general? Zinke has already recommended in addition to Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante, two other national monuments should be shrunk and rules governing management of six others be changed. How do you see the stakes of this? Where are they going with this whole effort?

Unfortunately, Trump will probably follow Zinke’s recommendations that would shrink the boundaries for two other monuments in Oregon and Nevada, and reduce protections through management changes for national monuments in New Mexico, Maine and for three marine monuments. I think it’s about two things. First Trump continues play to his narrow political base. Bears Ears was all about Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) whispering in Trump’s ear to “do something,” and he did. And it’s the same thing with Greg Walden (R-Oregon) and the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument. Walden wants to reward the logging industry by opening up these lands to heavy logging.

Under the guise of “energy dominance,” Trump is looking to open up our public lands and oceans to the fossil fuel industry to get every drop of oil, gas and coal that they can and remove protective regulations for our air, climate, wildlife, waters and lands that stand in the way. Their road map is clear.

So, these decisions from Trump on the environment are coming in a roll. The same week they made this decision on the monuments, Trump announced he’s opening the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans for drilling. Then this new tax bill is passed, opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for drilling. So how does the monument decision connect to the whole picture of what the Trump regime is doing to the environment?

Trump is looking to boost fossil fuel extraction and reward his billionaire industry cronies. The battle over national monuments is no different, but is one of many battles to conserve [the US’s] public lands for this and future generations.

Trump is a climate denier. He’s withdrawing the US from the global climate change accord; overturning the Clean Power Plan’s attempt to make power plants more efficient; expanding offshore drilling into every ocean off [the US’s] coasts, even overturning offshore drilling safety regulations adopted after the Deepwater Horizon disaster; [he] has done away with Obama’s landmark ban on mining federal coal propping up the dying coal industry. The Trump administration even asked the fossil fuel industry what federal regulations they consider to be a burden to them, and increasingly we’ve seen the Trump administration attempt to hide fracking damage on public lands. The Bureau of Land Management, responsible for oil and gas drilling on public lands, is basically sidestepping the law and is increasingly not requiring any analysis or public disclosure of harm from fracking to communities, wildlife, climate, land and water. It’s a de facto reversal of Obama-era reforms, which increased transparency and environmental review before approving lease auctions.

The thing that really hits me, and I haven’t seen it talked about so much, is the impact and the stakes of everything you’re talking about at a time when we’re already in an escalating crisis of climate change and general environmental decline. For instance, a recent study showing  global populations of vertebrates on pace to decline by 67 percent from 1970 levels by 2020, and scientific study after study about the melting polar regions and so forth. I want to really convey, what would you say about the stakes? Some environmental groups say, “Well, he’s not going to get away with it,” or for instance, the necessities of the market will argue against developing a lot of these resources because sustainable energy is more profitable and oil prices are low. But I see a great danger, especially given this environmental crisis we’re facing as a whole.

Let me answer in two parts. People are somewhat right in saying a lot will depend, for example, on the price of oil. The recent oil and gas auction on the National Petroleum Reserve in Alaska — even though the government auctioned off millions of acres, very little was actually leased because of the vagaries of drilling in those areas and also the price of oil. But if oil prices rise again, there will be more interest from industry. And there’s still an export market for [US] coal, a significant amount [of which] is mined on public lands. In no way does the market completely protect us here, in no way.

If a company buys a lease at auction, and for virtually no money, they can sit on these leases for decades. Technically, it’s 10 years for a federal oil and gas lease, but they can renew them. Companies can speculate and sit on these leases ’til such time that the price may make it profitable. So, it may be that we don’t see wholesale drilling tomorrow in many places, but the danger is still there.

Trump is getting us in such a deep hole on the climate crisis. He’s locking us into a fossil fuel future. And the damage we’ll see to ecosystems, to the oceans, wildlife — it’s scary.

Certain things, like withdrawing the Grand Canyon uranium, that will take a while to do, they have to go through a process in which the public will get to weigh in. Maybe they won’t succeed. They can’t do everything with the snap of a finger. But make no mistake: They’re going to cause some irreparable harm here. Everything Trump and Zinke are doing will harm species, public lands, waters, and exacerbate climate change. They are dragging us into a deep hole, a bad future.

Thanks so much, that’s very helpful and I appreciate your time and your work which is so important.

Thank you. Even though these are dark times for our public lands, oceans, wildlife and our climate, it’s important that we all keep fighting. The Center for Biological Diversity is resisting Trump in every possible way — especially in the courts. So far, the Center has filed 46 lawsuits against Trump. This regime will not last forever. To get involved I would encourage readers to get connected with Ignite Change, a nationwide movement that’s standing up to save life on Earth.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

 Original Link

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.

Scientists Warning to Humanity: Second Notice

In 1992 Scientists issued an extremely prescient and  powerful warning to humanity about how human impacts due the environment threatened the future of life on earth. The statement was signed by 1700 scientists, including the majority of Nobel laureates in the sciences.

The statement’s introduction read, “Human beings and the natural world are on a collision course. Human activities inflict harsh and often irreversible damage on the environment and on critical resources. If not checked, many of our current practices put at serious risk the future that we wish for human society and the plant and animal kingdoms, and may so alter the living world that it will be unable to sustain life in the manner that we know. Fundamental changes are urgent if we are to avoid the collision our present course will bring about.”

Now, a new warning was issued, a second notice. The article was signed by over 15,000 of the worlds scientists. According to the authors, “ As far as we know, this is the most scientists to ever co-sign and formally support a published journal article.”

The statement reads in part:

“The authors of the 1992 declaration feared that humanity was pushing the Earth’s ecosystems beyond their capacities to support the web of life. They described how we are fast approaching many of the limits of what the planet can tolerate without substantial and irreversible harm. The scientists pleaded that we stabilize the human population, describing how our large numbers—swelled by another 2 billion people since 1992, a 35 percent increase—exert stresses on the Earth that can overwhelm other efforts to realize a sustainable future (Crist et al. 2017). They implored that we cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and phase out fossil fuels, reduce deforestation, and reverse the trend of collapsing biodiversity.

On the 25th anniversary of their call, we look back at their warning and evaluate the human response by exploring available time-series data. Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse.”

It then goes on to detail how, and to what degree, the degradation has continued and increased.

Please read these important statements. We must reflect on the scope of the problem, it’s source, and then act so we may preserve the remaining ecosystems and species of our planet, and even defend humanity’s existence itself, before it becomes too late to do so.

 

Our Summer of Fire and the Fires to Come

Thursday, October 19, 2017

By Curtis JohnsonTruthout | News Analysis

 

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)

 

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.

Copyright, Truthout. May not be reprinted without permission.

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.

The Floods in Houston, Trump the Abominable, and Climate Change

 

The flooding in Houston and suffering of the people is heartbreaking to watch. I fear things will get worse as the situation continues. Many people are coming together to help each other in a time when it’s becoming clearer that this system is utterly incapable of preparing for and taking care of people’s needs, especially when confronted with such a devastating “natural” disaster. It’s important that people do anything they can to help people and to demand their needs for food, safety, rescue, etc. are met.

One site I have come across (from 350.org) is environmental justice groups raising money to help people there.

The specter of the fascist Trump, fresh off of pardoning the racist oppressor Joe Arpaio and defending  neo-Nazis and white supremacists in Chalottsville, trying to cynically cash in by visiting Texas and acting like everything is ok while not even addressing those suffering, is stomach-churning and abominable.

Trump has gutted climate research and measures to confront it, proposed huge budget cuts for natural disaster preparedness and response, and gutted  an Obama era flood protection rule. Harvey is a storm climatologists are saying is likely fueled by climate change-both by warming of Gulf waters and also increasing amounts of water vapor in the atmosphere. For deeper understanding of this, see the following:

Piece in the Atlantic, including quotes from climatologist Kevin Trenberth.

This piece from Ecowatch.

And this piece in Truthout by Dahr Jamail.

More pieces making this link to climate change and warning about the future.

Rolling Stone-Houston, a Global Warning by Jeff Goodell

As I tweeted about Goodell’s  piece in retweet of Tim Ream

Good piece, looking underneath phenomena Goodell cites shows this isn’t simply man-made catastrophe, but one caused by capitalist system

Interview with James Hansen by Democracy Now

Harvey is What Climate Change Looks Like– by Eric Holthaus

There is also an increasing problem of toxic pollution from chemical plants, oil processing plants, etc. poisoning people in the wake of Harvey. And this will disproportionately impact poor people and oppressed nationality people.

Under Trump’s sacrificing of any rules and regulations protecting the environment to expand capitalist profitability,  and his fascist attacks against Black people, Latinos, women, the law, the media and the poor of the planet-these type of situations will continue and get dangerously worse- as climate change and environmental disaster worsen. Only the people, rising together, can put a stop to this fascist regime.

More deeply, as Goodell’s article points out without really naming the source of the problem, the problems with doing away with flood protections, zoning limiting growth in flood zones, wetlands, etc. predate Trump. Underneath all of these phenomena are the rules and functioning of a capitalist system that is driven by competition and profitability, and therefore incapable of taking account of either the safety of the environment or the people of the planet. We need a global uprising of people, and revolution.

The BC Wildfires and Smoke Choking the Northwest

A couple links and commentary featured here. The first link, on  situation in Seattle, puts its finger on how awful this has been. The air quality has been worse than Beijing. And as she says, it really “feels wrong”. The thing you love Seattle for in the summer, the generally clean air (at least outside the I5 corridor and downtown) , fresh feeling and natural beauty-has been choked off since Aug. 1st. You can’t really go outside for very long and any vigorous activities are not advised, if not downright unhealthy. I have heard, at least in one case, of an ER being full of people with respiratory problems. For those with these kinds of problems-the smoke is doing real harm. (I may write more on this coming up if I am able)

The bigger underlying point and question, is this the new normal? Wildfires have already  been increasing with global temperature rises (this year, worst ever in recorded history in  BC, two years ago-worst ever in Washington state, etc., etc.),  and are predicted to get much worse as climate change goes forward.

The Northwest today poses a smoggy, hazy, and disturbing picture of how quickly things can go from good to horrible. This should make people reflect on how this future of climate change and overall environmental degradation-and the refusal by the powers that be, and notably Trump, to do anything except make the situation worse-is completely untenable and illegitimate. And the consequences, needless to say, are and will be much worse for the majority of impoverished people all over the planet.

http://www.climatecentral.org/news/british-columbia-second-worst-wildfire-season-climate-21684

I’m posting for context,  a piece that I wrote in 2015- a previous, hot dry, wildfire-filled summer in the west:

CJ

9/10/2015

Wildfires in the West and the Threat of Climate Change’s “New Normal”

Wildfires this summer have swept the west . Massive amounts of forest, brush and grasslands and hundreds of homes and buildings have been burned.  Tens of thousands of people have been evacuated from towns and rural areas in the fire zones, and whole towns evacuated.  All over the west people have had to abandon homes and at some times even escape through active burn zones.

Smoke has at times blanketed large parts of the west, including major cities like Seattle, Portland and Vancouver, and has been detected as far away as the Atlantic Ocean. Health alerts have been issued in various areas because of the smoke. People with health issues have been warned to stay inside at certain times and areas, depending on wind direction.

The fires have been ferocious and widespread. Fires have raged from Northern Mexico to Alaska, from Washington State east to Montana. As of Sept 3rd there were still 58 large fires (more than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grassland/rangelands) burning in 6 western U.S. states. Dozens of fires continue to burn in British Columbia. More than 5 million acres burned in Alaska  (  http://www.nasa.gov/feature/the-alaska-fire-season-before-and-after )  alone- where over 700 fires were burning at one time earlier in the summer. Washington State ( http://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/goddard/pacific-northwest-wildfires-severe-in-intensity ) has seen its worst wildfires in recorded history, with the massive Okanogan complex fire now the largest in state history, surpassing the previous largest fire which was just last year.  This fire at one point covered more than 403 square miles, which “if it were a city, would be the 10th largest in the continental U.S. by area” according to NBC. Three firefighters were killed in this fire near Twisp Washington, when their vehicle crashed off an embankment and they were caught in the fire. Wildfires in Washington as a whole have burned an area larger than the state of Rhode Island.

This fire season is smashing all records.  8.4 million acres have burned. This is the largest acreage burned in any January-September period in history. It’s almost sure that by the end of the wildfire season- sometime this fall or early winter- the amount of land burned will easily surpass the previous record of 9.7million acres in 2006.

Causes of the Fires, the Changing Climate and Ecosystem Disruption

Forest fires have been a natural phenomenon for millions of years. But the extremity, frequency, and impact of what is going on now aren’t due just to natural causes, but also human activity. This year the west has been gripped by record-breaking hot temperatures and drought. In Seattle in June for example the average high temperature was 3 degrees Farenheit higher than the previous record highs. And the hot temperatures in the west are part of what has already been the warmest Jan-July in recorded history worldwide. A main cause of the increasingly hot temperatures this year, and the predominant cause of the trend of warming temperatures over the past couple decades, is human-induced global warming. Global warming is caused by the continual build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from the relentless burning of fossil fuels and other destructive practices of the system of capitalism-imperialism.

Record temperatures have interacted with a deep drought to cause tinder dry conditions in the west. California has been in extreme drought for 4 straight years. But now drought has enveloped the entire Pacific Northwest up to Alaska- and spread inland. This past winter saw snow-packs in the mountains way below normal, 16% of average in Washington and 5% in California. The summer has also been very dry, until August, when luckily there was some much-needed rainfall.

One apparent cause of the drought has been a blob of warm water that has stretched from California up to Alaska. Ocean temperatures in these waters have been 2 to 7 degrees F higher than normal.  The blob is connected to a very persistent ridge of high pressure that has repeatedly formed off the west coast. All the causes and features of this ridge and the blob are beyond what can be gone into here- but essentially this has caused storms being pushed to the north and warmer, dryer conditions in the west. The scientists who discovered the blob say it is a natural phenomena. Its full interactions with climate change are not totally understood yet. But the drought and warming temperatures in the west appear to be a combination of human caused climate change with these other natural phenomena. And the changes happening now are also an indication of what the future likely holds as climate change worsens.

The drought and warmer temperatures have caused huge and frightening disruptions in the ecosystem of the pacific coast. The lack of snow melting because of the very low snow pack has had many affects. Snowpack in the mountains allows a release of water into rivers, lakes, soils and forests even into the  summer months which are always drier than spring. So the melting snow normally allows things to stay somewhat more hydrated in summer. But not this year.

The lack of snow to melt this year has caused rivers to be extremely warm. Rivers warmed so much in July and early August that sockeye salmon trying to migrate upriver to spawn in the Columbia River were dying by the thousands. Fisheries officials predicted fully 80% of the over 500,000 sockeye running into the Columbia would die. This situation was spread up and down the coast, forcing shut downs of many fisheries. Luckily there has been some mitigating of the high temperatures with cooler temperatures and rain that has come in mid-August when other salmon began running.

A team of scientists who have studied glaciers in the North Cascades mountains in Washington for decades said this year as much of 5-10% of these glaciers melted this year alone, due to lack of insulating snow and record temperatures. They called the situation “disastrous”, and warned of a future when these beautiful and much needed glaciers may entirely melt away.

The warm waters along the coastal ocean have also caused a steep decline in nutrients in the water, causing starvation conditions for many species. This has led to the deaths of possibly tens of thousands of young sea lions in California and Oregon, and some sea birds. The warmer ocean has also been linked to a massive bloom of toxic algae, contaminating shellfish in large areas along the coast.

The coastal ecosystem has been shaken and disrupted. Many scientists are predicting that whether the current warm conditions in the eastern Pacific are naturally caused or not, they are a clear harbinger of what is to come with climate change. The great danger is that these changes may well represent a “new normal” that climate change is bringing.

Fires in the western forests and rangelands are a normal feature of these lands throughout history. And in many important ways fires can play a regenerating role, clearing away fuel and making room for new growth and diversity of species. Some trees even rely on fire in order to open up cones to spread new seeds. So in a general sense, fire is a needed and normal feature that can contribute to building healthy forests and lands. But what is being seen now are much more widespread fires that are beyond “normal”.

The National Wildlife Federation says when you look at the number of major wildfires and area burned in the Western U.S. from the period 1970-86 compared to 1986 to 2003,  the number of major wildfires has increased 4 fold, and the area of forest burned increased 6 fold. The fire season also lasts 78 days longer.  Nine out of the 10 worst fire seasons in history have occurred since the year 2000. So this increase in fires is clearly linked to the rising temperature, drying conditions, spreading infestation of pests like bark beetles, and more lightning being brought by climate change.

Another problem is the sprawl of new housing, cities and towns eating into natural areas driven by a system that sees the environment as a non-factor. This has led to fragmentation of forests and more susceptibility to fires being sparked.

 Climate Change Threatens the Northwest Temperate Rainforest

The rainforest on the Olympic peninsula in Washington is one of the richest remaining temperate rainforests on the planet. It’s a central part of Olympic national park which is nearly 1 million acres of preserved wilderness so rich in animal and plant life that it has been declared a world heritage site. The park is really a natural wonder, a place of immense beauty- huge conifer trees draped in moss and lichens, high mountains capped with snow and glaciers, alpine meadows filled with wildflowers in summer, stunning river valleys that are home to elk and bear and cascading rivers that provide habitat for many runs of salmon.

The rainforest here gets an average of about 200 inches of rain a year. But this year even the rainforest on the Olympic peninsula in Washington has caught on fire.  Because of low winter snowpack and an abnormally warm and dry spring and early summer, a fire was sparked in the Queets river valley rainforest that has burned all summer. The Queets valley is a place of indescribable richness. It’s magical- and now the upper regions are on fire. The fire up the Queets is the largest since Olympic national Park was established. Fire on this wet side of the Olympic mountains is exceedingly rare, happening only every several hundred years. But now predictions are that with climate change bringing higher temperatures, less snowfall and possibly more droughts in spring and summer, fire could become a more regular feature of the rainforest.

Climate change threatens the future of the Olympic rainforest as well as temperate rainforests up and down the west coast, particularly the magnificent redwoods Northern California.  A study by scientists from the Geos Institute in Feb. 2015 concluded, “International climate change and rainforest experts warned that without drastic and immediate cuts to greenhouse gas emissions and new forest protections, the world’s most expansive stretch of temperate rainforests from Alaska to the coast redwoods will experience irreparable losses.” This study also said that it is not too late to preserve these rainforest ecosystems-but what is needed are quick efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and protect vegetation.

The future is unwritten. Whether these wondrous lands, and the rest of our world and humanity is defended and protected, depends on what we do. And specifically whether we fight this system that is bringing immense destruction to the natural world, to save these lands and bring into being a new system through revolution that can protect the natural world.

Oppose Trump’s Threats of Nuclear War on North Korea

Trump has threatened  North Korea that any further “threats” to the U.S. would result in the U.S. unleashing “fire and fury” greater than “anything the world has ever seen”, on them. This threat from Trump is clearly evoking nuclear war, and was made on the anniversary of the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki by the U.S. and 3 days after the anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing. Now, Trump threatens destruction on a scale even worse than the dropping of those nuclear weapons which incinerated and killed by radiation poisoning, hundreds of thousands of people.

This is outrageous. It’s a very dangerous moment-a moment when it’s very important that people speak up and step out in broad numbers to oppose these threats,  and prevent this fascist regime and Trump, the fascist madman,  from escalating further.

See this article on “What everyone ‘knows’ about North Korea”- interview with professor Bruce Cumings.

 

http://www.revcom.us/a/498/what-everybody-knows-about-north-korea-en.html

Scott Pruitt’s Climate “Debates” Are Another Assault on Climate Research and the Scientific Method

CURTIS JOHNSON FOR BUZZFLASH AT TRUTHOUT

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Superstorms are additional evidence of climate change. (Photo: Mike Trenchard)

On June 30, Climatewire reported that Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) head Scott Pruitt had launched a government initiative “to challenge mainstream climate science” using military inspired “red-team, blue-team debates” on climate change.

According to a senior administration official,

The administrator (Pruitt) believes that we will be able to recruit the best in the fields which study climate and will organize a specific process in which these individuals … provide back-and-forth critique of specific new reports on climate science

We are in fact very excited about this initiative…. Climate science, like other fields of science, is constantly changing. A new, fresh and transparent evaluation is something everyone should support doing.

Pruitt said he was moved to call for such debates after reading published articles by physicist Steve Koonin in the Wall Street Journal and climate change “skeptic” Brett Stephens in The New York Times, advocating more debate on climate. In an interview with Breitbart, Pruitt said, “The American people need to have that type of honest, open discussion, and it’s something we hope to provide as part of our leadership.” Pruitt told Reuters that it would be good to hold the debate on TV so it’s “open to the world” and that the American people “deserve it.”

Well, let’s assess Pruitt’s call for “open debate and discussion” on climate science. First of all, what’s the context, and what has Pruitt been doing? Already, Trump — with Pruitt’s help — has pulled the US out of the Paris climate accords, moved against the Clean Power Plan, proposed huge slashes to climate change research, let go of EPA science advisers and proposed eliminating positions and departments carrying on crucial research, etc. If Pruitt is so interested in open and honest debate, why has he been the front man for an assault on climate science and scientists, and an attempt to eliminate information garnered by climatologists from reaching people via government websites?

Pruitt has built his whole career on attacking environmental regulations as a toady for large fossil fuel interests, and has “questioned” human-caused climate change, saying he doesn’t believe carbon dioxide is a prime contributor to it. Now we are supposed to believe he and his science-gutted EPA should be trusted to host hard-hitting scientific debates revealing climate truths.

But two things need to be said.

First, there is no actual scientific debate over the existence of climate change and the fact that human activity is a primary driver of it.

Thousands of scientific studies have been done over decades and have documented not just that climate change is occurring, but how it is occurring, and why greenhouse gas buildup in the atmosphere as a result of human activity is a main cause. Mountains of evidence have been accumulated on how climate is changing — from temperature records and measurements, to glacial and polar ice melt changes, to the rise in sea level and increase in incidence of powerful storms. Much remains to be learned about many aspects of how climate change is unfolding and affecting various natural systems, the pace of it and how it will develop as things go forward. There is uncertainty and great scientific debate over many topics related to this, but there is no actual scientific debate over whether it’s occurring or whether human activity is largely the cause of it. On this, there is scientific consensus. As has been stated many times, 97 percent of actual climate scientists who study and have published on the matter agree human activity is causing global warming.

Trying to sponsor debate over something that mountains of evidence, multiple lines of inquiry, and established scientific consensus has already settled the question on, is not real scientific debate. It’s an attempt to introduce doubt about cause into a situation where the cause has already been established.

Imagine if at the time of the 1918 global flu pandemic, some doctors had come forward to argue against the germ theory of disease, and said, “Whether germs cause disease is uncertain. We think there should be a grand debate over whether germs are the cause of this pandemic, or whether it is ‘miasma’” (bad air arising from rotting organic matter, the disproved and previously dominant view). And therefore, they argued, maybe it wasn’t necessary to take measures to keep people from interacting in large crowds or schools where the disease was present, only to keep them from sniffing air around rotting organic piles.

It’s not hard to see fostering “debate” over scientific truths already proven by experiment and evidence to be true, is not only bad science, it can do great harm, as well as undermining the process of getting at the truth. This is certainly no less true about climate change — which is impacting the entire future of life on Earth — than the 1918 flu.

To take the analogy further, one might argue, too, that in Pruitt’s case, given his subservience for years to fossil fuel interests, it would be like if these miasma doctors not only were quacks, but also had ties with business interests peddling chambers to put over organic matter to contain the “bad air.”

Secondly, Pruitt’s debate call just hides ulterior political motive seeking the cover of science. The actual political motive here is not about hosting honest scientific debate, but further attacking climate research and the scientific method. Pruitt’s actual purpose is an attempt to sow more confusion about whether climate change is dangerous and human-caused, and whether anything should be done about it. It is part of laying further justification for the Trumpian assault on Paris and rules limiting fossil fuel emissions. It’s also part of trying to establish a greater legal framework for destruction of limits on fossil fuel expansions — such as Trump’s opening the way for exploitation of the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, and a possible attack on the endangerment finding — an EPA ruling in 2009 that greenhouse gases are a pollutant and endanger public health, used under Obama to put certain modest limits on greenhouse emissions.

Even more, this initiative would try to undermine science’s peer-review process through which studies are examined and vetted by actual scientists with knowledge in the fields that are being researched. Pruitt would delegitimize the peer-review process in favor of a political process where the views of a few (frankly bone-headed climate deniers or “skeptics”) are made equivalent with the views of actual experts in climate — and subjected to a TV debate run by a fascist regime that is antithetical to protecting the environment, humans and science.

And as mentioned, this planned “debate” Pruitt hopes to sponsor is simultaneous and connected with real suppression by Trump’s government on climate research, as well as an attempt to gut environmental regulations of all kinds. Kind of like if the Inquisition had launched debates on an Earth-centric vs. heliocentric solar system to undermine Galileo, while sanctioning him for heresy.

There is a process here, too, that can get going with the Trump regime, where denying certain proven truths and attacking the scientific method and science on climate change opens the way for further absurdities and horrors.

The Pruitt “climate debate initiative” should be seen for what it is: an assault on truth and the scientific method. And it’s in sync with both an attempt to open up unparalleled plunder and assault on the natural world to expand gluttonous profit-making for big oil interests, and also to move to implementing a fascist shut-down of people’s ability to have a method to really learn about and understand reality.

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. His blog is https://forplanetandhumanity.com/author/forplanetandhumanity/