Over the last few months, we have been forced to suffer through countless reports about e-mail servers, "locker room banter", "a basket of deplorables", rigged elections, groping, presidential temperament, xenophobia and a host of other things that really weren't presidential. The campaign that almost everyone couldn't wait to be over, finally is. So it's time we caught up on some notable environmental developments that slid off the slippery slope of perceived unimportance. While we bickered over the inane, serious topics were ignored, leaving us with unanswered questions.
As the Syrian refugee crisis continues, a host of other tragic immigration stories drag on throughout the Eastern Hemisphere. In many ways, the refugee crisis in Northern Africa may be worse than one playing out in Syria and environmental troubles are one reason why. Persisting for the last several years, a recent spike in refugees from Eritrea, Nigeria, Gambia, Somalia, Côte d'Ivoire and several neighboring countries has taken the nightmare to a new level. Greek photographer Aris Messinis has captured numerous images of the overloaded migrant boats in the Mediterranean Sea over the last several months. His photos have put faces on the catastrophic series of events.
While the Syrian emigration has taken place over dry land, the exodus from Africa has required passage across the Mediterranean. The journey, however, has not been made in sea-worthy vessels but in a collection of boats that often times really don't even deserve to be called boats. An October account in the New York Times described one wooden boat designed to hold perhaps 200 people carrying five times that number. More than three dozen dead bodies were found in the hold of another boat. Passengers were jammed into another vessel to the point that an additional two dozen died from asphyxiation. Laura Lanuza, from Spanish aid group Proactiva Open Arms, to describe the conditions to be "just like a slavery boat" we might have seen in the 19th century.
As if things were not bad enough for the refugees, survey work by the UN's International Organisation for Migration (IOM) shows that nearly three-quarters of migrants arriving in Europe by boat had been trafficked or exploited for profit by criminals at some point on their journey. Half were forced to work without pay, a notable portion of them being threatened with weapons. Kevin Hyland, the United Kingdom's independent anti-slavery commissioner, said that the research provides further evidence that "the migration crisis is being used by human trafficking networks to target and exploit the most vulnerable" and not just for the journey across the Mediterranean.
Much of this horrid state of affairs has been brought about by civil wars and the unstable political situations in the region. But environmental issues, the destruction or seizure of farm or grazing land and other battles over resources and land are often underlying causes. The stresses of climate change have magnified these struggles further. Those driven from their homeland for these reasons have become known as "environmental refugees." Most are from are from the Sahel region, just south of the Sahara Desert, and have traditionally relied on subsistence farming and herding. As the region becomes more stressed by temperature increases and more frequent drought, overgrazing exacerbates the already difficult situation. This has contributed to the spreading of the desert, or desertification, marked by the spread of the Sahara sands sixty miles into the Sahel.
Despite the heroic efforts of several European countries, especially Italy, the death toll for 2016 is approaching 4,000, surpassing last year's total before the month of October ended. The forces driving refugees from their home countries are many and intertwined but it's clear that building economic, political and environmental stability in the Sahel is the key to turning the tide.
Readers can check out Aris Messinis' poignant images of the African refugee crisis.
In the midst of the partisan bickering and mud-slinging of the 2012 election, conversations about many important issues seldom took place. At the time, most of us likely thought it couldn't get any worse. And then came 2016. During the second presidential debate, not one substantive issue had been discussed 25 minutes into the debate. Nary a word is mentioned about safe drinking water, climate change, toxins in the workplace, a myriad of energy issues, transportation policy, urban decay and suburban sprawl. Those that understand how many of these environmental issues affect our quality of life and contribute to instability around the world are still waiting for the first question to be asked on any of those topics. To cite the often used historic metaphor, the Titanic is sinking and we're arguing over the arrangement of the deckchairs.
This is not a partisan political editorial. (Heaven knows we've had enough of those!) Rather, it is a plea to start talking about these issues again. Folks of varied political persuasions have very different views on these problems and how we should solve them. While we may not agree on all the details, I think we can all agree these issues need to be part of our civil political dialog. At this point, they are not.
Though our news reports are often filled with stories that have environmental connections, our political discussions seldom encompass these topics. Did you hear a candidate talk about the lead in Flint, Michigan's drinking water? Did anyone talk about the effect of rising sea level on flooding here in the US or the obliteration of island nations beyond our borders? What about concerns over energy extraction and transportation (related to fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining and unwanted oil and gas pipelines)? How will we meet the growing funding need for environmental infrastructure to update aging water and sewage systems?
While we might notice it more now, paralysis over the environment isn't just a presidential election season phenomenon. Congress has passed only one notable piece of environmental legislation in the last nine years, the Chemical Safety for the 21st Century Act that provided for much needed updates to the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA). The last environmental law passed by Congress prior to the TSCA update was the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007. Despite a host of environmental problems, Democrats and Republicans have been able to come to agreement on only two major environmental issues in a decade.
Many tough environmental issues have traditionally been addressed by state legislatures over the last few decades. Even though some of these might be best addressed at the national level, states have passed laws on water resources, energy efficiency and conservation, climate change, alternative energy and recycling. The laws that established widespread recycling and alternative energy standards were widely supported by both parties when they were passed in 1988 and 2004. But partisan divides have slowed even those worthwhile actions in divided states like Pennsylvania. Despite a clear need, not one notable environmental protection measures was even voted on this past year.
If want to see the environment return to the stature it deserves, we all need to start a conversation to make it happen.
Conflicts over land and resources all too often turn violent in Latin America. The murder of Berta Caceres, the co-founder of the Council of Indigenous Peoples of Honduras (COPINH), this past week was the latest bit of sad news from that part of the world. The murder did not garner much in the way of headlines in most news outlets, seemingly being yet another victim of the internal strife that curses much of Latin America and Africa. Though the region has been less war-torn in recent years, Latin America has experienced fourteen civil wars since the end of World War II.
Much of the conflict has been connected to the distribution of land and exploitation of resources. Military take-overs have been common and added instability to an already crazed political environment. The United States has often been tied up in the complicated political messes that have ensued. In an effort to assist Latin American countries struggling with unrest, the United States has long provided military training through the School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia. While perhaps initially well-intentioned when established in 1946, the SOA became a breeding ground for military leaders responsible for human rights violations and murders. The most infamous of these was the assassination of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador in 1989.
Though Caceres' murder remains clouded in uncertainty, she had received numerous death threats during her time with the COIPOH. Most recently, the activist had been fighting against the Agua Zarca Dam near Rio Blanco, Honduras that would have flooded sacred indigenous lands (that were also important agriculturally). Though the Honduran constitution required consent of local indigenous groups for projects on such lands, the project was pushed forward. With overwhelming public opposition, a group of protesters blocked the road to the dam in 2013, ultimately forcing a Chinese construction company to pull out of the project. Tomas Garcia, one of the community leaders was shot and killed during one of the peaceful protests.
Caceres would be named the Goldman Environmental Prize winner in 2015 for her work to defend the Lenca community's land. The 2013 fireworks had brought the project to a halt but a recent return to the construction work by a Dutch contractor for the Honduran government brought a new round of protest.
Altoona native Jeff Colledge, who has done extensive volunteer work in the region, spent three weeks with Caceres and her organization in 2014. Even though his time with Berta was short, he found her to be "a good person" and "extremely committed." He was also struck by the incredible beauty of the river and the surrounding countryside.
Colledge met Caceres through Beverly Bell, coordinator of Other Worlds, a social and economic justice organization. Bell has spoken out extensively since Caceres' murder, making the case that she was a game changer in a region that desperately needed change. Bell recently reflected about Berta on PBS' Democracy Now. "She was working for a wholly new form of governance in Honduras, not just a new government, but a new system whereby people had the say and the riches of the country went to benefit them instead of the tiny elite."
The environment was often in the past been a unifying issue in politics. Many notable environmental laws have grown from bipartisan efforts. Disagreements still arose, especially on the details or the methods by which a goal would be met, yet compromise occurred. Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon came from the opposite ends of the political spectrum, Johnson a loyal Democrat and Nixon a staunch Republican. Both struggled near the end of their terms and left office as unpopular presidents. Despite those difficulties, their environmental achievements were notable.
This week marked the 50th anniversary of one of the most ambitious presidential speeches on the environment given to that point in time. Johnson gave a 4,000 word address to Congress entitled "Proposing Measures to Preserve America's Natural Heritage." The speech was wide ranging and began philosophically, with a quote from Albert Schweitzer: "Man has lost the capacity to foresee and to forestall. He will end by destroying the earth." Johnson continued, "The most affluent nation on earth may feel that it is immune from this indictment. A nation that offered its people - a century ago - uncharted forests, broad sparkling rivers, and prairies ripe for planting, may have expected that bounty to endure forever." Somewhat ahead of his time, Johnson recognized that environmental damage had a cost, not just to the planet but to the economy. "Economists estimate that this generation has already suffered losses from pollution that run into billions of dollars each year. But the ultimate cost of pollution is incalculable."
He emphasized that better understanding was a key to addressing the problems and called for more research into pollution control technology and demonstration projects to explore related initiatives. Johnson asked for federal funding and enforcement actions for pollution problems detailed in the Water Pollution Control and Clean Air Acts passed earlier in his term. In the midst of some of the worst urban environmental struggles of our time, he also talked about efforts to improve air and water quality in the nation's largest cities. He stressed the importance of preserving historically significant buildings and sites long before many recognized the value of such measures. He also called for forest preservation, expansion of the National Park system and support of the Appalachian Trail.
While Johnson led the way early on, the next generation of federal environmental laws were signed by Nixon. The Republican president signed the National Environmental Policy Act on New Year's Day 1970, stressing the importance of broad support for environmental protection, across the country and the political aisle. "This has to be done on a bipartisan basis and it also has to be on a bigger than Federal Government basis." Nixon would go onto to sign four other major environmental laws passed by the Democratic Congress – the Clean Air Act extension in 1970, the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 and the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974.
In these days of divisive political rhetoric, such bipartisan consensus or compromise is uncommon. Here's to the hope that Johnson and Nixon's environmental successes might inspire today's decision makers to once again see the benefits of working together for the greater good.
Lyndon Johnson's 1966 speech can be read at The American Presidency Project.
If the Presidential debates haven't given you your fix of vitriol, mean-spiritedness and twisted facts, take some time to read about the armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Eastern Oregon. Gun-toting insurgents lay claim to land to which they have no legal right. At first glance, it looks like a headline from Iraq or Syria, not Oregon. But like so many battles over resources, the story is complicated.
To better understand the nature of the dispute, we need to understand a few things about public lands in the Western United States. Harney County, Oregon, like many regions of the West, has a great deal of land owned and controlled by the federal government. A great many national parks and national forests are included among these federal lands, but Malheur is part of the wildlife refuge system overseen by the US Fish and Wildlife Service. National forests, under the jurisdiction of the US Department of Agriculture, and rangeland overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are also found in this part of Oregon and neighboring states.
The rangelands of this region are semi-arid environments and their carry capacity for grazing is limited. It is much easier to overgraze pasture land in such dry places because the grasses grow slowly. Congress recognized the challenges connected of preserving this arid range land and passed several laws to facilitate their management going as far back as 1934. The laws charged the BLM with figuring out how much grazing should be permitted on these lands while preserving the long-term health of the soil and grasslands. Not surprisingly, as a referee and landlord, the BLM has managed to perturb both ranchers and environmentalists, sometimes at the same time.
Two families have been at center of the firestorms (both literal and figurative) in Harney County. Locals Dwight and Steve Hammond were convicted on arson charges in connection with the setting of wildfires after disagreeing with the BLM over rangeland management and related controlled burning practices. Those convictions prompted three sons of embattled anti-government Nevada rancher, Cliven Bundy, to mount a protest, ultimately taking control of the wildlife refuge shortly after New Year's. The Bundys had gotten in trouble with the BLM over back payments due on grazing permits totaling upwards of a million dollars after refusing to sign agreements. Those politically sympathetic to the Bundys thought these actions were part of a long term trend to tell ranchers how they should use the land.
It turned out that a large portion of those living near the refuge didn't share the occupiers' extremist positions. Most interviewed about the siege just wanted the protesters to leave so the community and wildlife refuge could get back to normal. Two weeks ago, one of the protesters was killed in a confrontation when agents attempted to arrest occupiers who had left the refuge. The protesters felt strongly that control of these federal lands should be "returned" to the people, despite that fact that nearly all BLM lands had never been privately owned. In a tale of contradictions and ironies, this stance might have been the most ironic. For the original owners were the Paiute Indians.
I was again reminded (from several unrelated sources) in recent weeks that many environmental issues are complex. In a world where the "dumbed-down" version of everything seems to be the standard, public awareness and understanding of complicated issues is hard to come by. It's difficult to separate fact from fiction when we get information from short sound bites, instant updates from electronic devices, and misinformation from interests poised to make money from their deceptions.
Local professional forester Andrew Blazewicz recently responded to a November Earth Matters column, noting that well planned and careful timbering did not have to result in severe soil erosion. Andy reminded me that forest management is like many other resource extraction and management activities; they don't have to produce serious environmental damage. They usually don't when we understand and pay attention to the complexities of dealing with them. This means that the science behind these issues must be understood. Harvard Science Historian Naomi Oreskes emphasized the importance of this concept during a recent speech and television interview at Penn State University. Co-author of the book, Merchants of Doubt, Oreskes believes one of our problems is that we don't always appreciate or understand that scientific research is a process.
Individual scientists can make mistakes or incorrect assumptions but the collective thoughts, research and reviews of a body of scientists are generally very dependable. "We shouldn't be trusting scientists as individuals because individuals are fallible. But science as a process is designed to ferret out errors, to give people the opportunity to study things in detail and then sort out competing claims." Oreskes believes that we must "trust science as a process that, most of the time, is pretty reliable."
Work on the book was prompted by criticism directed at Oreskes at a conference discussing global warming and its impacts. Soundly criticized by one attendee, she found out that he was part of a group of detractors that had earlier tried to discredit the research on CFCs depleting ozone, raised doubts about the health impacts of second-hand cigarette smoke, and discounted acid rain and its effects on plants and aquatic life.
The book gave rise to a documentary and Oreskes was subsequently asked to be part of a conference with Pope Francis that focused on climate change. She ended up writing the introduction to the encyclical that was generated by the discussions. Forty natural and social scientists from around the world were part of the event organized by the Pontifical Academies of Sciences and Social Sciences. "The conference was intended to recognize climate change is not just a scientific problem. It's a problem that involves science and relies upon scientific knowledge for our understanding. But the consequences of climate change are economic, they're social, they're political, and they're moral," the Harvard professor explained in an interview on WPSU television.
"There are large profound questions about justice that develop when one thinks about the repercussions and implications of climate change." Oreskes points out that science is not always perfect but is constantly evolving to better understand the complex world we live in. It continues to be in our collective best interests to address the problems we come to understand, even if we have more to learn.
Would Aristotle, Lincoln or Gandhi, three of the most renowned debaters in history, have resorted to making stuff up to win an argument? Lacking the knowledge of Aristotle, the honor of Lincoln or the altruistic goodness of Gandhi, far too many debates in America are drug through the muds of deceit, half-truths and outright fabrication. Environmental issues are not immune from this. Though talented debaters emphasize the points that support their argument and downplay those that do not, we hope that they aren't making things up. Yet dishonorable as it may seem to fabricate things or twist the facts, it seems to happen frequently. With that in mind, let's examine a few such issues.
Want to hear more on this topic? Naomi Oreskes, professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, spoke at Penn State's Colloquium on the Environment in October 2015 and has presented the speech a number of times over the last few years. Watch the video, Why We Should Trust Science (Most of the Time), for more.