7 Billion, Here We Come

This Halloween, get ready to experience something scarier than ghosts, witches, horror movies, and haunted houses: a human population totaling 7 billion. 

According to the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the world’s population will hit 7 billion on October 31, 2011, after doubling in the second half of the 20th century to reach six billion in 1999.  A little more than a decade later, we have already tacked on another billion to that figure.

What explains this rapid growth?  What do future population trends look like?  How is the proliferation of the human population affecting our world?

“Lower mortality rates, longer life expectancy and large youth populations in countries where fertility remains high all contributed to the rapid population growth of recent decades,”  reports the UNFPA.

In developing countries where reproductive health education programs are lacking, fertility rates have continued to climb.  The combined population of the world’s 48 least developed countries alone is projected to double by 2050, totaling 1.7 billion people.

“The countries in which poverty levels are the highest are generally those that have the most rapid increases in population and the highest fertility levels,” according to the UNFPA.  Extreme poverty, food insecurity, inequality and high birth and death rates all contribute to a vicious cycle.

“The ICPD realized that investing in people — and empowering individual women and men with education, equal opportunities and the means to determine the number, timing and spacing of their children –could create the conditions to allow the poor to break out of the poverty trap.”  

Currently, women in developed countries average half the number of births that women in developing countries experience.  Countries that have invested in universal health care and reproductive health, education and gender equality, have witnessed economic gains and reduced fertility and mortality.  

Yet, regardless of individual country population growth rates, the world population is steadily rising; projections indicate we will reach 9.3 billion people by the middle of the 21st century and 10.1 billion by 2100.

So, what does this mean for the welfare of our planet?  Can Earth feasibly sustain this many people? 

The Earth does not have the resources to sustain the rate of population growth we are currently witnessing.  “While world food production is projected to meet consumption demands for the next two decades, long-term forecasts indicate persistent and possibly worsening food insecurity in many countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa.”  To meet the needs of the 2020 world population, the UN expects food production will have to double.   Land, water, and other natural resources will be further depleted and degraded, and waste production will compound humans’ toll on the environment.

Interestingly, in many developing countries, more attention is being paid to women’s roles in achieving sustainable development.  As the primary providers of food and water, caretakers of families, safeguards of land and resources, women play a “vital” part in resource management.  Thus, they hold tremendous potential to help mitigate the effects of human consumption on the environment.  The UNFPA concludes that: “Appropriate and integrated social, population and sustainable development policies and programs that empower the poor, especially women, are needed to support a sustainable future.”

In efforts to inspire action for social good, the UNFPA has launched a global initiative, “7 Billion Actions” under the banner, “7 Billion People – Counting on Each Other.”  Partnered with National Geographic, UNFPA hosted an event in Washington, DC today: “Women as Agents of Change in a World at 7 Billion”.

You can educate yourself on the benefits of reproductive health education and services to better understand the threat these issues pose to our environment by visiting the UNFPA’s website.

While links between the quality of our environment – including the degradation of natural resources and creation of waste – and the human population remain extremely complex, one thing is clear: if action is not taken to curtail the growth of our population, the planet and humans both will suffer invariably.  The planet cannot sustain us all. 

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Majority of Wyoming’s Wild Horses to be Culled

Last week, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) launched roundup plans for 700 wild horses from two of Wyoming’s free-ranging herds.  

Backing ranching and business interests, the BLM intends to cull nearly 70% of Sweetwater County’s herds to support what advocates are calling an ecologically responsible management of Wyoming’s land and natural resources. 

Conservationists, equine enthusiasts, and Westerners, who value the roaming horses as symbols of American heritage, are leading the opposition, citing mismanagement and animal cruelty among other BLM offenses. 

Since the passage of the Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act by Congress in 1971, wild horses and burros have been protected by law to roam freely through designated areas of the American West. 

The law states: “Congress finds and declares that wild free-roaming horses and burros are living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West; that they contribute to the diversity of life forms within the Nation and enrich the lives of the American people; and that these horses and burros are fast disappearing from the American scene.”

The law charges the Secretary of the Interior with protecting these animals and their range lands as “sanctuaries for their protection and preservation.”  To that end, it affords the BLM the authority to determine the amount of land necessary to sustain free-roaming herds, with the goal of maintaining the land’s “thriving natural ecological balance.” 

The legislation also advises authorities to respect the government’s multiple-use mission of accommodating various uses of public land while preserving the integrity of its resources.

In so stipulating overpopulation as just cause for the removal of horses and burros from their natural habitats, the legislation has allowed ranchers to capitalize upon an ecological imbalance that they disingenuously attribute to horses in order to lobby the BLM to cull the herds.  

Cattle and sheep overgrazing have degenerated the quality of public range lands to the detriment of the very ranchers who are responsible for its condition.  By blaming relatively small, free-roaming horse herds for overgrazing and ecological imbalances, the ranchers have managed to persuade the government to remove the horses, securing even more land for their livestock to use exclusively. 

In efforts to thwart the round ups, opposition groups have stressed that horse herds are allocated only two to three percent of forage in these herd management areas, while the remaining majority is already reserved for livestock. 

Revered legal analyst Andrew Cohen makes the compelling point that, “even though cattle and sheep outnumber wild horses on public lands by at least a ten-to-one margin, the BLM largely blames the horses for roiling the resources of the range…The BLM grades the wild horses harshly for their impact on the range. But it does not appear to grade the cattle and sheep for the impact they bear upon it…The BLM is focusing upon the two percent that is relatively easy to fix rather than upon the 98 percent which is not. The reason is not hard to fathom. The ranchers have a powerful lobby. The horses do not.”

Further, a new, independent field review conducted by range scientist Robert Edwards, formerly of the BLM, presents scientific evidence the horses are not to blame for the degeneration of the land and shrubbery. 

He concluded that “the wild horses do not need to be removed in order to achieve the goal of a thriving natural ecological balance,” and further, that “removing the wild horses will not achieve that goal.” 

While the lands observed in his study were reported to be in only fair grazing condition, Edwards found that “removing a large percentage of the wild horses is not likely to result in an improvement of range condition since the percentage of forage allocated to wild horses is very small compared to the amount of forage allocated to livestock.” 

His findings indicate that better management of livestock grazing patterns will help to restore ecological balance in those areas. 

As Suzanne Roy of the American Wild Horse Preservation Campaign reminds us: “Congress deemed wild horses to be worthy of protection as national symbols of freedom whose presence on Western public lands is an important part of our history and heritage. The Wild Free Roaming Horses and Burros Act designated the lands where wild horses were found in 1971 as habitat to be managed principally but not exclusively for wild horses.

“The BLM has turned this mandate on it head by allocating the majority of resources in federally designated wild horse areas to private livestock and not wild horses. The multiple use mandate does not require livestock grazing and it certainly does not require the imbalance of resource allocation that exists today.

“If the BLM wants to live up to its mandate to protect and preserve America’s wild horses then it will begin to address the inequities of resource allocation on the small amount of BLM lands on which wild horses reside. It will also shift resources away from the current costly and cruel roundup, remove and stockpile strategy toward on-the-range management of wild horses, utilizing cost-effective and humane fertility control strategies where necessary.” 

With compelling arguments such as Roy’s and scientific refutations like Edwards’s, wild horse enthusiasts still have some leverage in their fight against their powerful ranching adversaries.  Yet, with the round up already underway, hundreds of horses are already at risk of slaughter if procured by the wrong people in the adoption process. 

The wild horses of the West are quickly vanishing, despite laws in place to protect them.  Help force the necessary policy changes by signing the petition, “Save Wyoming’s Wild Horses from Slaughter.”

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EPA Targeted by Republican Primary Candidates

As the 2012 presidential campaign kicks off with the run up to the Republican primaries, it is becoming clear that red and green interests are anything but complementary. 

Candidates from the red states vying for a spot on the Republican ballot have taken opposition to green, environmental initiatives to a new extreme.  Bringing down the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is quickly becoming a clear objective for those hoping to represent the G.O.P. in elections next year.  

Representative Michele Bachmann actually called the E.P.A. the “job-killing organization of America,” and other candidates like former Speaker Newt Gingrich have pledged to close the agency if elected. 

In an effort to win the favoritism of their core constituency for the primary elections, Republican candidates are feeding into the anti-environmental tide stemming from a poor economy and rising fuel costs. 

As John Broder of the New York Times explained: “Opposition to regulation and skepticism about climate change have become tenets of Republican orthodoxy, but they are embraced with extraordinary intensity this year because of the faltering economy, high fuel prices, the Tea Party passion for smaller government and an activist Republican base that insists on strict adherence to the party’s central agenda.”

Candidates are incorporating environmental deregulation of industry as integral parts of their platforms because they say it will create jobs and bolster corporate profits – alluring notions to the millions of Americans suffering from unemployment, a volatile stock market, and conservative consumer spending. 

Gov. Rick Perry, a leading candidate in the primary race, advocates an immediate moratorium on environmental regulation.  Rep. Ron Paul wants states or courts to rule on environmental disputes, while still others have proposed independent commissions to oversee regulations. 

With the E.P.A.’s active track record under the Obama administration, the agency is a popular target among conservatives advocating for smaller government.

“Right now for House Republicans one of their important rally cries is that EPA regulations are excessive and even abusive,” said Robert Stavins, director of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program. 

Fortunately, polls indicate that such extreme political tenets are not viable through the general elections, as they do not appease the broader, moderate American constituency. 

Broder reported that national surveys show the majority of Americans are significantly concerned about air and water pollution, and thus, would be unlikely to support a candidate seeking to backtrack environmental policy in a significant way. 

He quoted David Jenkins of the Republicans for Environmental Protection, saying: “Not only are these positions irresponsible, they’re politically problematic.  The whole idea that you have to bash the E.P.A. and run away from climate change to win a Republican primary has never been borne out. Where’s the evidence?”

Such ideas may prove to be unpopular down the road, however, in the race to the primaries, anti-environmental rhetoric has come to be expected from candidates financed by oil and gas industry representatives. 

Most of these candidates are public skeptics of climate change theory.  Mrs. Bachmann has called the science a hoax.  Mr. Perry wrote in his book that global warming is “one contrived phony mess that is falling apart under its own weight.” 

One libertarian researcher from the Competitive Enterprise Institute told Broder of the NYT that “Mr. Romney, Mr. Gingrich and Mr. Huntsman, who have all said that global warming is real and at least tentatively attributed it to human actions, would suffer for it in the Republican primaries.”

While the espousal of environmental deregulation and climate change skepticism may be partly attributed to early efforts to secure the right-wing base, the weight of high gas prices and a suffering economy are conspiring to lend support to conservatives’ calls. 

Moderate America will have to hold fast to its green values in order to preserve the integrity of its air and water.  To be an informed voter on election day, you can stay abreast of campaign developments through the 2012 Presidential Candidates website.  

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Invasive Brown Tree Snake Threatening Hawaii

Activists are advocating for increased funding and broader authority for the Hawaiian Department of Agriculture to act swiftly and decisively to address the invasion of Hawaii’s island habitats by the brown tree snake. 

The non-native species is considered a threat to the state’s fragile ecosystems and to human health, as its venom is poisonous and it has previously decimated populations of native birds and lizards in neighboring Guam. 

The Department of the Interior recently allocated more than $1.2 million to the U.S. Geological Survey to “continue developing and testing tools aimed at further increasing efforts to capture and control the invasive brown tree snake in Guam.”

Conservationists are hoping the developments will be useful in launching an early strike on the snake in Hawaii.  Because the snake reproduces often and has no natural predators, its population is expected to proliferate if swift action is not taken. 

The snake’s populations are naturally limited in their native habitats by the scarcity of their food source: lizards and birds.  On islands like Guam and Hawaii, the food is plentiful.  The snake colonized the entire island of Guam in 18 years, and “is directly responsible for the extinction or local extirpation of nine of 13 native forest birds and three of 12 native lizards.” 

Firsthand accounts of walks through Guam’s forests often mention the absence of bird song and the nuisance of insects, whose populations are uncontrolled without their natural predators. 

“At present, even small mammals are extremely rare in most forested habitats of Guam,” reported the USGS, and the snake “remains the leading cause of endangerment for the few remaining native vertebrates,” according to the state of Hawaii

Christy Martin of the Coordinating Group on Alien Pest Species characterized the 1950s brown tree snake invasion of Guam an “environmental catastrophe,” particularly with regards to its detrimental effects on agriculture. 

The proliferation of insect pest populations from the loss of most insectivorous birds and many lizards threatens agricultural crops, public health, and the island’s ecology. 

“Examples of such problems caused by insect pests include potential outbreaks of dengue fever carried by mosquitoes, defoliation of extensive stands of the tangan tangan tree by an insect arriving from Hawaii, and a host of insects that reduce yields of fruits and vegetables grown by Guam’s farmers and rural residents.”

While nearly 200 humans have suffered from brown tree snake bites, the arboreal snake has proven to be a further nuisance by climbing power lines and shorting circuits in the process.  The snakes have caused an average of one power outage every three days in Guam since 1980. 

Because many Pacific Island ecosystems are similar to Guam’s and they are directly linked  through commerce, the introduction and establishment of brown tree snake populations on other oceanic islands is likely to have repercussions as those in Guam, according to the USGS. 

“This is particularly relevant to islands that support unique species, have less complex power supply systems, and whose economies are largely based on tourism.”

The devastation this invasive species has caused is clear, and for that reason, a dire issue facing Hawaii and other Pacific islands.  While self-sustaining populations of the snake are not thought to have been established in Hawaii yet, “constant vigilance is required to avert this disaster,” said state officials.   

To support the federal and state initiatives to control invasive species introduction, you can sign ForceChange’s petition to stop the brown tree snake’s invasion of Hawaii

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Agricultural Pesticides Threatening Great Barrier Reef

A new water quality survey conducted by the Australian government shows that agricultural pesticides are harming the Great Barrier Reef in a significant way. 

Pesticides were found as far as 38 miles into the reef at levels deemed toxic for coral. 

Although coral bleaching has been touted as the biggest threat to the reef in recent years, this is the first government report conducted on water quality in the area and it indicates significant risks to the health of coral in the region as a result of agricultural runoff. 

While the reef is “in moderate condition overall,” the study found that nearly 25 percent of horticulture producers and 12 percent of pastoral farmers were “using practices deemed unacceptable by the industry,” reported the BBC. 

The Herald Sun explained that 14 million tons of sediment from human activities wash into the coral reef annually, originating primarily from cattle farms in the northeast regions of Australia. 

Cyclone Yasi, which swept through the region earlier this year, is thought to have exacerbated the dissemination of sediment and toxins when it churned up waters off the coast of Australia.  Environmental groups, however, point out that the study’s findings are not based upon data from this year, so severe weather cannot fully explain the breadth of the pollutants’ dispersal. 

Similarly, the agriculture industry claimed the dated nature of the information, collected from 2008 to 2009, renders it an inaccurate reflection of current practices they claim are now more eco-friendly.  The data does not show what Steve Greenwood of Canegrowers called, “signs of very, very significant change” in the reef. 

The sugar cane industry has been particularly targeted by environmentalists as one of the primary sources of agricultural runoff and pollution in Australia’s waters. 

“The majority of the 28,000 kilograms of pesticide runoff comes from the Mackay and Whitsunday sugarcane farming region in north Queensland,” reported The Herald Sun. 

Sugar cane farmers claim that no real alternatives to pesticides and weed killers exist to protect their crops, and that banning such chemicals would cause a “major setback” to their industry. 

In particularly hot contention is the chemical Diuron, a weed-killing pesticide currently suspended from use by farmers while the Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority decide whether its harm to waterways is significant enough to justify a ban on its usage. 

The decision will be made by September 30, giving sugar cane growers and other industry representatives just over a month to present a compelling case for its continued application. 

“The Queensland government is investing $175 million over five years to implement a reef plan, including $50 million to implement reef protection laws and research.”

The World Wildlife Fund and other conservation groups are advocating for the ban to protect what is considered the world’s largest collection of barrier reefs, housing 1,500 species of fish and 4,000 species of mollusk. 

In recent years, conservation efforts to protect this prized natural wonder have concentrated upon mitigating the threat of coral bleaching caused by climate change.  Coral bleaching occurs when corals expel colorful algal cells from their tissue as a result of stress.  Their white skeletons are then visible through their transparent outer tissue. 

Sources of stress include changes in water temperature, salinity, extreme light, toxic exposure, and more factors associated with climate change.  Although coral can recover from bleaching if a healthy environment is restored, many also are unable to recuperate and eventually die. 

Conservation efforts are, thus, crucial to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, which is listed as a World Heritage Site and is considered one of the great natural wonders of the world.

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New Oil Pipeline Invading Canadian Rainforest

Environmental advocates are gearing up for an epic battle against their Canadian oil adversary, Enbridge, in an effort to thwart the construction of a pipeline set to run through British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest. 

National Geographic published the expose, “Pipeline Through Paradise,” detailing the controversy surrounding the proposed Northern Gateway project.  Enbridge contested the article’s biased presentation of facts, arguing they have devised a comprehensive safety plan to ensure the environmental integrity of the pipeline project. 

Fortunately for green enthusiasts, Enbridge’s credibility has been compromised by recent reports of leaks and spills along other oil pipelines it maintains.  Rumors have begun to circulate that the pipeline, having failed to gain popular support, may not be built. 

“Rumours and hypotheses implying the pipeline is in real trouble (or should be) [have begun] to spread.  Their image woes now extend to major international press, including National Geographic, ABC News and the New York Times,” wrote blogger Damien Gillis in The Rossland Telegraph.

At stake is the health of the Great Bear Rainforest, which coats 250 miles of western Canada’s coastline with red hemlock, cedar, and spruce trees, and is home to bears, wolves, and whales among other wildlife.  On the table is a proposal for a $5.8 billion, 731-mile long, double-barrelled pipeline to transport crude oil from the Alberta oil sands in central Canada to Kitimat on the west coast. 

Furthermore, in addition to jeopardizing habitats and wildlife health in the Great Bear, the pipeline’s end point – an oil port in Kitimat – will virtually turn Hartley Bay of British Columbia into a “supertanker expressway,” attracting some 220 mega-vessels a year to ferry oil east from Canada’s west coast. 

“This is one of the biggest environmental threats we’ve ever seen,” Ian McAllister, co-founder of Pacific Wild, told Bruce Barcott of National Geographic.  “And it will become one of the biggest environmental battles Canada has ever witnessed. It’s going to be a bare-knuckle fight.”

Second only to the Saudi Arabian oil fields in proven reserves, the abundance of crude oil sands in Alberta puts Canada in contention to be a top supplier in the global arena, if it can successfully access other export markets.  A west coast oil port at Kitimat would open export opportunities in Asia.  Barcott explains: “The Northern Gateway isn’t just a pipeline. It’s Canada’s bid to become a global player in the petroleum market.” 

The pipeline’s eastbound barrel will carry condensate from Kitimat to dilute the crude sands for transport; crude oil will be sent back westward from Alberta in the other barrel.  From Kitimat, fleets of oil tankers will sail through narrow waterways to the Pacific, delivering up to 2.15 million barrels of crude oil per vessel to foreign export markets. 

Several Asian oil refineries, including Sinopec, China’s government-operated oil company, have invested over $100 million along with Canadian oil companies into the pipeline’s permitting and planning processes. 

Conservationists and Canadian First Nations, communities indigenous to the region, are leading the fight to protect the threatened lands and waterways.  

“Last year 61 Canadian First Nations announced they would not allow the proposed pipeline to cross their traditional territory. Whether they have the legal authority to stop the pipeline is hard to say; aboriginal rights remain largely unsettled in British Columbia,” wrote Barcott. 

Memories of the tragic sinking of the Queen of the North ferry in Hartley Bay in 2006, coupled with nightmares from Alaska’s Exxon Valdez spill in 1989, leave many wary of such tanker traffic.  Given the history, Hartley Bay natives know that any human error can be catastrophic, and that the aftermath of such a disaster will be left in their backyards. 

“We don’t want another Exxon Valdez on our shores,” a Kitasoo/Xai’xais wildlife guide and marine planner, Doug Neasloss, told Barcott. 

Enbridge has answered such concerns with public statements of assurance that comprehensive safety measures will be followed at all times, while also stressing the project’s economic incentives for all Canadians. 

Per the company website, “Enbridge is committed to using the best international safety practices…to ensure we avoid accidents and have minimal impact on the environment.”  Only ships that comply with certain safety regulations will be permitted access to the Northern Gateway Terminal. 

Patrick Daniel, Enbridge CEO, stressed: “It is hugely in Canada’s national best interest to have a second outlet for our crude oil,” aside from the United States.  Enbridge expects thousands of jobs to be created for the construction and operation of the pipeline and for northern businesses to profit from the sale of services and supplies during the pipeline’s three year construction period. 

The company has formally offered aboriginals living in areas surrounding the proposed pipeline route equity in the pipeline for their own economic benefit. 

To this proposal Gitga’at council member Cameron Hill told Barcott: “Buy in?  Buy in to what—to selling our way of life? We live off food from the land and sea here. We’ve been taught to respect what we take. That’s sustained us from time immemorial. No amount of money can make us change our position.”

An extensive and robust public review has been set up by the Canadian government to conduct a thorough environmental and safety assessment of the proposed pipeline.  Until conclusions are reached in 2012, conservationists’ and First Nations groups’ will likely remain at odds – whether the rumors of pipeline project abandonment gain momentum or not. 

Photo credit: Ryan McFarland, farm3.static.flickr.com/2212/2265541510_8ae8c0269e.jpg

Increases in Rhino, Elephant Poaching Linked to China’s Economic Boom

A new study tying China’s economic boom to the proliferation of elephant and rhino poaching in Africa was published this week, just as global leaders convened on Monday in Geneva to discuss endangered wildlife species. 

Researchers found that a growing demand for ivory in southern China, primarily for “medicinal” applications, correlates to a significant rise in poaching incidents across Africa over the past few years. 

Conservationists are encouraging the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) at its annual meeting this week to endorse a “more robust approach” to protecting elephants and rhinos through stricter regulations of the ivory trade and more severe penalties for lawbreakers. 

According to an article in The Observer, surveys of ivory carving factories and shops in southern China showed the number of ivory items for sale has doubled since 2004.  Nearly two thirds of the 6,437 items for sale in one southern province were illegally traded.  Furthermore, researchers found that most items legally for sale lacked the required documentation and many of the traders were unregistered. 

The study concluded that the broad scope of the infringements indicates the Chinese government has not been enforcing regulations on the trade and sale of ivory.  The findings “suggest official inspections and confiscations have not taken place in most shops,” wrote the authors.   

Lead researcher Esmond Martin, an expert on the ivory trade, explained: “It is shocking that the retail ivory trade is not better controlled in southern China. China continues to be the largest importer of illegal ivory in the world, mostly from Africa, but also from endangered Asian elephants. Inspections of shops would not take much money nor manpower and would cut down this illegal trade significantly if carried out effectively. Such law enforcement is urgent to reduce elephant poaching.”

The rising demand for ivory in China stems from the country’s burgeoning middle class, whose economic liberation has led to increased consumption of ivory.  Many Chinese believe ivory has remedial benefits, as it was traditionally used in eastern medicine as a cure for numerous ailments.

Although its medicinal value has been discredited by the scientific community, including Chinese doctors and researchers, traditional belief in ivory’s healing powers remains deeply rooted socially.  China and Thailand remain the two largest markets for raw ivory consumption in the world, according to a UN report

The supply response to the increasing demand is evident in the escalation of rhino slaughters.  The watch group “Traffic” reported that 330 rhinos were poached last year – a stark contrast to the 13 reportedly poached in 2007.  In 2011 thus far, the UN reported nearly 200 rhinos have been killed for their horns. 

Further, changes in European law that have made legitimate sales of rhino horn much more difficult have conspired to hike the price of ivory on the global market.  In South Africa, the price per gram of ivory surpasses even that of cocaine.  With such a profit margin in store, incentives for poachers to supply the ivory is growing. 

The dramatic surge in poaching coincides with a series of thefts of rhino horns from auction houses and museums across Europe in the past year.  The Observer explained that more than 20 thefts across the European continent have prompted many museums to replace their rhino displays with fake replicas. 

CITES is said to be considering “targeted measures for tightening ivory trade controls all along the illegal trade chain in key African and Asian countries, and for raising awareness in Asian markets and transit countries.”

While conservationists stress the need to more strictly regulate the ivory trade, others argue that increased restrictions on legal trade will encourage illegal poaching, theft, and black market trade.  

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New Oil and Gas Industry Regulations in the Pipeline

Overshadowed by the national debt debate, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced proposed regulations on the oil and gas industry, targeting air pollution emitted during the production of natural gas and oil. 

The rules are intended to reduce emissions of air pollutants in order to improve outdoor air quality, reduce the risk of cancer to humans from air toxic emissions and health effects from ozone exposure. 

The agency also championed the “climate co-benefit” accompanying the changes: a reduction in methane emissions valued at $1.6 billion in annual savings by 2015 from avoided damage to crops, coastal properties, and health impacts. 

In a public statement, the EPA stressed the economic viability of such measures, asserting that the new rules rely upon proven technologies, rather than developing ones, that will reduce emissions of smog-forming volatile organic compounds (VOCs). 

The “suite of highly cost-effective regulations [will] reduce harmful air pollution from the oil and natural gas industry while allowing continued, responsible growth in U.S. oil and natural gas production.” 

The announcement was laden with fiscal reassurances, presumably to attract bipartisan support during economically turbulent times.  With the nation’s debt and future credit standing up in the air, further restrictions on domestic industry are expected to ignite more controversy between already polarized political camps. 

The EPA, however, stressed that the technologies employed to reduce harmful VOC emissions would actually result in net savings to the industry.  By capturing gas that currently escapes to the air during the drilling process, companies can profit from the sale of the saved product on the energy market. 

“The estimated revenues from selling the gas that currently goes to waste are significant – so much so that today’s proposed rule is anticipated to quickly result in a net savings of nearly $30 million annually, while significantly reducing pollution from this expanding industry.”

The oil and natural gas industry currently represents the largest domestic source of air toxics (such as benzene), VOCs and methane emissions. 

VOCs contribute to the formation of ground-level ozone (or smog), which has been linked to premature death, respiratory illnesses, and other health problems.  Methane, the primary component of natural gas, is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide. 

If instituted, the regulations would cut VOC emissions by nearly 25% across the industry, further resulting in a 95% reduction in VOCs emitted from new and modified hydraulically fractured gas wells that are currently unregulated.  Methane emissions would be cut by three and a half million tons annually, and air toxics by 38,000 tons. 

Capturing these gases in order to reduce emissions entails containment of the “flowback” from hydraulically fractured gas wells. 

In the “fracking” process, water, chemicals, and sand are streamed into the at well at extremely high pressures to fracture the rock below and allow natural gas to escape.  Before the gas is pumped out of the well, the fracking chemicals and reservoir gases gush back to the surface in the stage of well completion known as “flowback”. 

Spewing from the ground in this mixture are methane, VOCs, and air toxics that can be – if more responsible practices are administered – isolated and saved to reduce air pollution emissions, and then sold. 

The new rules would apply to 25,000 new gas wells, storage tanks, and other equipment that presently are not subject to regulation.  The existing standards for VOC emissions were created in 1985 and address only leak detection and repair. 

The EPA is currently seeking public comment on more ways “to reduce the compliance burdens” on the industry. 

Photo credit: epa.gov/sciencematters/june2010/scinews_fracking.htm

Flaws Found in Global Warming Hoax Hypothesis

The majority of the scientific community along with several respected media outlets have managed to discredit recently publicized conclusions by a NASA scientist that global warming theory is a hoax.

Dr. Roy Spencer, climate change scientist and a team leader for NASA’s Aqua satellite, recently publicized his findings, which indicate that the earth is releasing more heat into space than it is retaining.

His conclusions prompted headlines such as, “Global Warming a Hoax? NASA Reveals Earth Releasing Heat into Space,” which ran in the San Fransisco International Business Times.  Forbes Magazine ran the Op/Ed headline, “New NASA Data Blow Gaping Hole in Global Warming Alarmism.”

The study’s results would point to a fundamental flaw in the UN model for global warming and lend public credence to the idea that climate change theory is overly “alarmist.”

Spencer reportedly studied a decade’s worth of data collected from NASA’s Terra satellite.  He claims that new satellite findings indicate a higher efficiency of releasing heat from the atmosphere than previously thought.

Spencer explained, “The satellite observations suggest there is much more energy lost to space during and after warming than the climate models show…There is a huge discrepancy between the data and the forecasts that is especially big over the oceans.”

Published in the journal Remote Sensing, his hypothesis further “indicates far less future global warming will occur than United Nations computer models have predicted, and supports prior studies indicating increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide trap far less heat than alarmists have claimed.”

Spencer’s cross-examination of data allowed him to conclude that carbon dioxide emissions account for only a small portion of atmospheric warming.

Fortunately for environmental advocates, Spencer has been discredited by his peers in the scientific community.  According to an article in Discover Magazine, “they say Spencer’s model is ‘unrealistic’, ‘flawed’, and ‘incorrect’…A geochemist has shown that Spencer’s models are irretrievably flawed, ‘don’t make any physical sense,’ and that Spencer has a track record in using such flawed analysis to draw any conclusion he wants.”

Reportedly, Spencer did not account for statistical fluctuations or other variables while collecting data for his study.  Dr. Andrew Tessler, a professor of atmospheric science at Texas A&M University, maintained: “He’s taken an incorrect model, he’s tweaked it to match observations, but the conclusions you get from that are not correct.”

According to a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, Kevin Trenberth, “the paper has been published in a journal called Remote Sensing which is a fine journal for geographers, but it does not deal with atmospheric and climate science, and it is evident that this paper did not get an adequate peer review. It should not have been published.”

Stephanie Pappas, senior writer for LiveScience, distinguishes Spencer’s radical and “politically motivated” opinions from the mainstream scientific community and points to his past promotion of climate change skepticism.

Although largely discredited, the notions of conspiracy surrounding global warming clearly still manage to garner media and public attention.  Moreover, this could prove to be a particularly significant threat to green enthusiasts, given the current conservative political tide that is seeking to deregulate domestic industry at the expense of the environment.  For more on this, see appropriations bill HR 2584.

Photo credit: maine.gov/dep/air/emissions/ghg-equiv.htm

Top Predators More Crucial to Ecosystems, Threatened by Humans

A new study published in the journal Science highlights the critical role that apex predators play in food chains and suggests that their general decline is disrupting ecosystems worldwide. 

The implications are ubiquitous and grave, explains lead author of the the study, James Estes, a marine ecologist and evolutionary biologist at the University of California Santa Cruz.  “The loss of apex consumers is arguably humankind’s most pervasive influence on the natural world.”

Funded by the National Science Foundation, an international team of scientists brought together data collected from various terrestrial, freshwater, and marine ecosystems to study the impact of top predators on food chains. 

Their findings stress the significance of humans’ detrimental impact on the environment.  Hunting, overfishing, and the fragmentation of natural habitats has decimated populations of top predators, triggering “trophic cascades” in various ecosystems. 

Trophic cascades are ecological phenomenons catalyzed by the loss of apex consumers, causing a top-down effect that magnifies consequences at lower levels of the food chain. 

Such effects are, “far-reaching and often [have] surprising consequences, including changes in vegetation, wildfire frequency, infectious diseases, invasive species, water quality and nutrient cycles.” 

DiscoveryNews writer Jessica Marshall noted in her report that, “large top predators (and some top plant-eaters) keep systems in balance in ways that control human disease, wildfires, carbon emissions and more, while benefiting agriculture, water resources and forestry, among others.

“We deplete them at our peril,” she added, a poignant admonition, given the significance of the consequences in examples cited by the study’s authors. 

For example, the collapse of sea otter populations in coastal ecosystems witnessed a corollary demise of populations of mussels and other fish.  Indirectly, these marine lifeforms were affected by the sea otters, as this apex consumer kept sea urchin populations in check.  Sea urchin numbers – in the absence of their natural predators – proliferated, and consequently overgrazed kelp forests, which are essential to providing a habitat for mussels and other fish.  These ecosystems have since recovered, but serve as a illustration of the significance of apex predators to food chains and entire ecosystems. 

In Yellowstone National Park, the elimination of the wolf population allowed for the explosion of the elk population.  Grazing freely in the absence of their predators, the abundance of elk hampered the growth of aspen and willow along the beds of rivers and streams.  These shaded streams were home to beavers, songbirds, and fish, whose numbers dwindled in the absence of the trees.  Although these ecosystems were ubiquitously disrupted, they have since recovered with the reintroduction of the wolf population to Yellowstone. 

In estuarine ecosystems, the collapse of shark populations allowed for the outbreak of cow-nosed rays and the subsequent demise of their natural prey: shellfish. 

Marshall highlights yet another compelling case: “In…Africa, the researchers point to rinderpest, a viral disease also known as ‘cattle plague,’ which decimated populations of wildebeest and buffalo. Without these large herbivores, vegetation overgrew the area, turning grasslands into shrublands and leading to more frequent, more intense wildfires.”

Rinderpest has since been eradicated, wildebeest levels were subsequently stabilized, and the natural landscape has been restored. 

Some such examples suggest that remedial solutions may be effective.  “The world can be fixed in many cases. I think that’s the good news,” said Estes.  One caveat: a remedy is not always available. 

The study suggests that more attention should be paid instead to conserving big predator populations – wolves, bears, sharks, sea otters – particularly as their decline is the most pronounced of the world’s apex consumers. 

Estes explained, “To the extent that conservation aims to restore functional ecosystems, the reestablishment of large animals and their ecological effects is fundamental.” 

Photo credit:  flickr.com/photos/tambako/3559257456/