More than 2 billion people lack safe drinking water. That number will only grow

Science News reports:

Freshwater is crucial for drinking, washing, growing food, producing energy and just about every other aspect of modern life. Yet more than 2 billion of Earth’s 7.6 billion inhabitants lack clean drinking water at home, available on demand.

A major United Nations report, released in June, shows that the world is not on track to meet a U.N. goal: to bring safe water and sanitation to everyone by 2030. And by 2050, half the world’s population may no longer have safe water.

Will people have enough water to live?

Two main factors are pushing the planet toward a thirstier future: population growth and climate change. For the first, the question is how to balance more people against the finite amount of water available.

India has improved water access in rural areas, but remains at the top of the list for sheer number of people (163 million) lacking water services. Ethiopia, second on the list with 61 million people lacking clean water, has improved substantially since the last measurement in 2000, but still has a high percentage of total residents without access.

Short of any major but unlikely breakthroughs, such as new techniques to desalinate immense amounts of seawater (SN: 8/20/16, p. 22), humankind will have to make do with whatever freshwater already exists.

Most of the world’s freshwater goes to agriculture, mainly to irrigating crops but also to raising livestock and farming aquatic organisms, such as fish and plants. As the global population rises, agricultural production rises to meet demand for more varied diets. In recent decades, the increase in water withdrawal from the ground or lakes and rivers has slowed, whether for agriculture, industries or municipalities, but it still outpaced the rate of population growth since 1940.

That means every drop is increasingly precious — and tough choices must be made. Plant your fields with sugarcane to make ethanol for fuel, and you can’t raise crops to feed your family. Dam a river to produce electricity, and people downstream can no longer fish. Pump groundwater out for yourself, and your neighbor might just want to fight over it. Researchers call this the food-water-energy nexus and say it is one of the biggest challenges facing our increasingly industrialized, globalized and thirsty world. [Continue reading…]

California burning

William Finnegan writes:

On the northwestern edge of Los Angeles, where I grew up, the wildfires came in late summer. We lived in a new subdivision, and behind our house were the hills, golden and parched. We would hose down the wood-shingled roof as fire crews bivouacked in our street. Our neighborhood never burned, but others did. In the Bel Air fire of 1961, nearly five hundred homes burned, including those of Burt Lancaster and Zsa Zsa Gabor. We were all living in the “wildland-urban interface,” as it is now called. More subdivisions were built, farther out, and for my family the wildfire threat receded.

Tens of millions of Americans live in that fire-prone interface today—the number keeps growing—and the wildfire threat has become, for a number of political and environmental reasons, immensely more serious. In LA, fire season now stretches into December, as grimly demonstrated by the wildfires that burned across Southern California in late 2017, including the Thomas Fire, in Santa Barbara County, the largest in the state’s modern history. Nationally, fire seasons are on average seventy-eight days longer than they were in 1970, according to the US Forest Service. Wildfires burn twice as many acres as they did thirty years ago. “Of the ten years with the largest amount of acreage burned in the United States,” Edward Struzik notes in Firestorm: How Wildfire Will Shape Our Future, nine have occurred since 2000. Individual fires, meanwhile, are bigger, hotter, faster, more expensive and difficult to fight, and more destructive than ever before. We have entered the era of the megafire—defined as a wildfire that burns more than 100,000 acres.

In early July 2018, there were twenty-nine large uncontained fires burning across the United States. “We shouldn’t be seeing this type of fire behavior this early in the year,” Chris Anthony, a division chief at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, told The New York Times. It has been an unusually dry winter and spring in much of the West, however, and by the end of June three times as much land had already burned in California as burned in the first half of 2017, which was the state’s worst fire year ever. On July 7, my childhood suburb, Woodland Hills, was 117 degrees. On the UCLA campus, it was 111 degrees. Wildfires broke out in San Diego and up near the Oregon border, where a major blaze closed Interstate 5 and killed one civilian. The governor, Jerry Brown, has declared yet another state of emergency in Santa Barbara County.

How did this happen? One part of the story begins with a 1910 wildfire, known as the Big Burn, that blackened three million acres in Idaho, Montana, and Washington and killed eighty-seven people, most of them firefighters. Horror stories from the Big Burn seized the national imagination, and Theodore Roosevelt, wearing his conservationist’s hat, used the catastrophe to promote the Forest Service, which was then new and already besieged by business interests opposed to public management of valuable woodlands. The Forest Service was suddenly, it seemed, a band of heroic firefighters. Its budget and mission required expansion to prevent another inferno.

The Forest Service, no longer just a land steward, became the federal fire department for the nation’s wildlands. Its policy was total suppression of fires—what became known as the 10 AM rule. Any reported fire would be put out by 10 AM the next day, if possible. Some experienced foresters saw problems with this policy. It spoke soothingly to public fears, but periodic lightning-strike fires are an important feature of many ecosystems, particularly in the American West. Some “light burning,” they suggested, would at least be needed to prevent major fires. William Greeley, the chief of the Forest Service in the 1920s, dismissed this idea as “Paiute forestry.”

But Native Americans had used seasonal burning for many purposes, including hunting, clearing trails, managing crops, stimulating new plant growth, and fireproofing areas around their settlements. [Continue reading…]

Bayer stock plunges after jury awards man $289 million in Roundup cancer trial

The Washington Post reports:

Bayer’s stock slumped more than 10 percent in trading Monday, three days after a California jury awarded $289 million to a former groundskeeper who said the popular weedkiller Roundup gave him terminal cancer.

The stock drop sent a cautionary signal to the company that acquired Monsanto, the maker of the weedkiller, in June for $63 billion. The merger created the world’s largest seed and agrochemical company, marrying Monsanto’s dominance in genetically modified crops with Bayer’s pesticide business. Bayer’s portfolio also includes pharmaceuticals with such household brands as Aleve to Alka-Seltzer.

The verdict poses a new challenge for Bayer in its quest to combat contempt swirling around Monsanto by consumer, health and environmental advocates. For years, the company has drawn sharp criticism and allegations about the health hazards caused by Roundup, and Monsanto faces thousands of lawsuits that assert its product is linked to cancer diagnoses.

Monsanto’s reputational problems are now Bayer’s problems, said Anthony Johndrow, a corporate reputation adviser. Lawsuits against Monsanto are nothing new, Johndrow said, adding that Bayer risks souring sales of its other products because of the public perceptions of Monsanto. [Continue reading…]

Carmakers speed toward electric future despite Trump rollback

Bloomberg reports:

The Trump administration wants to try to limit California’s special ability to require increasing purchase of electric vehicles in the state—but major automakers say they have no intention of reversing course on their electric vehicle plans.

The Environmental Protection Agency and the Transportation Department are targeting California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set stricter tailpipe emissions limits and zero emission vehicle requirements than the federal government.

The agencies, as part of a larger Aug. 2 proposal to relax Obama-era fuel economy standards for passenger cars, argued federal regulators’ authority preempts the Golden State’s ability to go beyond federal requirements.

“By 2020, more than 15 percent of our U.S. lineup will consist of hybrid, plug-in hybrid, and fuel cell electric vehicles. And that’s regardless of what regulation does,” Fred Turatti, general manager of environmental regulation for Toyota, told a July 23 event hosted by the Energy Consumer Market Alignment Project, a recently launched energy policy nonprofit group.

Toyota isn’t an outlier. Other major automakers told Bloomberg Environment, or have said publicly, they will stay on track toward their electric vehicle plans.

And analysts say that is because China—and the rapid growth in the country’s electric vehicle market—is a larger and more long-term driver for U.S. and foreign automakers’ focus on electric vehicles, more so than stringent federal fuel economy regulations or state zero emission vehicle mandates. [Continue reading…]

Trump administration unveils its plan to relax car pollution rules

The New York Times reports:

The Trump administration on Thursday put forth its long-awaited proposal to freeze antipollution and fuel-efficiency standards for cars, significantly weakening one of President Barack Obama’s signature policies to combat global warming.

The proposed new rules would also challenge the right of states, California in particular, to set their own, more stringent tailpipe pollution standards. That would set the stage for a legal clash that could ultimately split the nation’s auto market in two.

The administration’s plans immediately faced opposition from an unusual mix of critics — including not only environmentalists and consumer groups but auto-industry representatives as well as individual states — who are now launching efforts to change the plan before it is finalized. [Continue reading…]

Mexican president-elect vows to end use of fracking

The Associated Press reports:

Mexico’s president-elect said Tuesday that he will end fracking, the oil and gas extraction method that has just begun to take root in areas of the country’s north.

Asked about the potential risks of fracking at a news conference, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said, “We will no longer use that method to extract petroleum.”

Mexico has a huge potential shale formation in the Burgos basin, similar to the Texas Eagle Ford fields.

But while a few wells have been drilled, the Mexican government has only recently scheduled bidding on opening some blocks for commercial development through fracking. [Continue reading…]

Global greening’ sounds good. In the long run, it’s terrible

Carl Zimmer writes:

“Global greening” sounds lovely, doesn’t it?

Plants need carbon dioxide to grow, and we are now emitting 40 billion tons of it into the atmosphere each year. A number of small studies have suggested that humans actually are contributing to an increase in photosynthesis across the globe.

Elliott Campbell, an environmental scientist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his colleagues last year published a study that put a number to it. Their conclusion: plants are now converting 31 percent more carbon dioxide into organic matter than they were before the Industrial Revolution.

Climate change denialists were quick to jump on Dr. Campbell’s research as proof that increased carbon dioxide is making the world a better place.

“So-called carbon pollution has done much more to expand and invigorate the planet’s greenery than all the climate policies of all the world’s governments combined,” the Competitive Enterprise Institute declared shortly after the study came out.

“The best messages are positive: CO2 increases crop yields, the earth is greening,” wrote Joseph Bast, the chief executive officer of the Heartland Institute, in an October 2017 email obtained by EE News.

In June, Mr. Bast co-authored an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal in which he cited Dr. Campbell’s work as evidence of the benefits of fossil fuels. Our unleashing of carbon dioxide contributes “to the greening of the Earth,” he said.

Recently I talked Dr. Campbell, and as it turns out, he feels people like Mr. Bast are drawing the wrong lessons from his research. Here are four reasons he believes nobody should be celebrating “global greening.” [Continue reading…]

Humanity consumes Earth’s resources in ever greater destructive volumes

The Guardian reports:

Humanity is devouring our planet’s resources in increasingly destructive volumes, according to a new study that reveals we have consumed a year’s worth of carbon, food, water, fibre, land and timber in a record 212 days.

As a result, the Earth Overshoot Day – which marks the point at which consumption exceeds the capacity of nature to regenerate – has moved forward two days to 1 August, the earliest date ever recorded.

To maintain our current appetite for resources, we would need the equivalent of 1.7 Earths, according to Global Footprint Network, an international research organisation that makes an annual assessment of how far humankind is falling into ecological debt. [Continue reading…]

The Sierra Club declared war on Scott Pruitt — and won

Aaron Mak reports:

Of Scott Pruitt’s many bad weeks of press, the first week of June may have been his worst. Pruitt had been under scrutiny since his appointment as head of the Environmental Protection Agency for his close ties to the industries he was supposed to regulate. He had done little to quiet his skeptics. For the past few months, news stories had detailed his questionable interactions with energy lobbyists and exorbitant spending on air travel and security. By June, the stories had reached almost comical extremes. The heady week began when the Washington Post detailed his office’s purchase of a dozen fountain pens for $1,560. Three days later, the New York Times reported that he had directed an aide to acquire a used mattress from the Trump International Hotel. The next day, the Post revealed that Pruitt had used his position to try to land his wife a Chick-fil-A franchise.

Pruitt’s resignation on July 5 was the culmination of this relentless wave of scandals. (Chief of staff John Kelly reportedly called the agency to say it was time for Pruitt to go soon after a CNN story revealed that Pruitt had suggested to the president that he replace Jeff Sessions as attorney general.) Congressional investigators, whistleblowers, and reporters were all instrumental in unearthing the administrator’s ethical lapses and prompting his exit from office. But some of the wildest misconduct from the Pruitt era may never have made it into the public eye were it not for the Sierra Club, an advocacy organization that focuses on environmental policy.

Documents from the Sierra Club’s Freedom of Information Act requests led to stories about the used mattress and the Chick-fil-A franchise—likely violations of ethics rules stating that government officials cannot have staffers run personal errands for them or use their offices for personal gain. The club’s FOIA requests were what revealed that Pruitt’s top aide, Millan Hupp, had signed off on the purchase of the customized silver fountain pens and journals embossed with Pruitt’s signature, along with the total price of the order: $1,670. Hupp resigned on June 6, five days after the piece was published. [Continue reading…]

Support for the Endangered Species Act remains high as Trump administration and Congress try to gut it

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The endangered Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep.
USFWS

By Jeremy T. Bruskotter, The Ohio State University; John A Vucetich, Michigan Technological University, and Ramiro Berardo, The Ohio State University

The Endangered Species Act, or “the Act,” is arguably the most important law in the United States for conserving biodiversity and arresting the extinction of species.

Congress passed the ESA in 1973 with strong bipartisan support (the House voted 355-4 in favor of the law) at the behest of a Republican president, Richard Nixon. Nixon had come to believe existing protections for threatened and endangered species were insufficient.

Since its passage, the Act has helped reverse and stop declines in numerous species – from bald eagles to Lake Erie watersnakes – and served as a model for similar laws around the world.

Nevertheless, criticism of the law has been a persistent feature of debates about whether and how to protect imperiled species. That criticism often comes from business and agricultural interests, who argue that the Act’s provisions excessively limit their ability to develop and manage private property.

Such criticisms led to a proposal by the Trump Administration this week to severely curtail the scope of the Act. And they have prompted recent congressional hearings and raised concern that support for the law may be waning.

We are ecologists and social scientists whose work often intersects with the Endangered Species Act. We wanted to know: Is public support for the Act declining? And if so, why?

[Read more…]